Title: My Bond

Rating: T for whump

Characters: Merlin/Arthur/knights

No slash; multi-chapter

Spoilers: through Series 4, episode 5

An alternate direction for the episode "His Father's Son" What if Annis was not quite so noble? What if her suspicions must first be allayed?

Disclaimer: I am actually borrowing quite a bit of episode 5 here, using what the wonderful writers of Merlin have established as a jumping off point. I hope they don't mind me borrowing. I only mean to honor their work and not steal from it in any way.


"Halt!"

"I'm unarmed." The men closed in around Arthur. He kept his hands raised, his body still. "You know who I am. Take me to your queen." Queen Annis's men held the king at spear point for a moment longer, suspicious, before leading him away.

Merlin was beside himself. He'd seen the despair in Arthur's eyes earlier when he admitted what a horrid mistake he'd made in listening to Agravaine. There had been no way to make him feel better about it, though Merlin had given it his best shot. Maybe that's why he was still sleeping so lightly when Arthur crept by. But this—this was madness, to go to the enemy camp and offer himself up as…as what?

One day, Merlin told himself bitterly as he followed as close behind as he dared, one day the king will trust me and ask me to go with him. But for now, I have to spy, and I'll probably get caught. Arthur will be furious, and who knows what they'll do to me. But he's in an enemy camp without his sword; he's helpless!

He followed the soldiers leading Arthur, skirting the edges of the tents and keeping to the shadows. As other patrols made their way around camp, Merlin was forced to slow down and take shelter wherever he could. Thankfully, he'd gotten better at creeping around since the days when he'd followed Morgana to the Darkling Woods and been captured for his trouble. He was slow, yes, but practically invisible.

Merlin arrived at the queen's tent unobserved and knelt by the doorflap. Magic burned in him furiously at the sight of Arthur held by two guards. If one of them so much as moved a weapon in his direction…

Arthur was speaking, in a bleak tone Merlin had rarely heard. "I'm ashamed of what I did. It was cowardly. It was unjust and I'm deeply sorry." Emotions warred inside Merlin. He was so moved by Arthur's courage, by his noble heart, but fear for his friend rose up like a hunted bird stirred from its nest.

The queen facing Arthur was beautiful, in a savage way. She wore a cape of furs over her long dress. Her hair was reddish, long and swept back from her face with a circlet denoting royalty. Though she was older, it had not dimmed her piercing gaze. She took in Arthur's contrition and threw it back in his face.

"Sorry does not bring back my husband. Sorry does not give my people back their king."

"I realize that. I know there's nothing I can do to repair that loss."

"Then what are you doing here, Arthur Pendragon?" She made his name sound trivial, meaningless, as though his actions had sundered his name from the honor and glory it had previously stood for. It must have goaded Arthur, yet he remained focused.

"I want to call off the battle."

There was a pause. "It's a little too late for that."

"I don't propose a truce, but an alternative. I invoke the right of single combat. Two champions, to settle this matter between them."

She looked intrigued. "And why should I grant you this favor?"

"There has been bloodshed enough already, your highness. Many hundreds of lives will be saved this way."

Annis nodded to her soldiers and the released Arthur's arms. She appeared to be considering the idea. "And your terms?"

"If my man wins, you must withdraw your army."

"And if mine is the victor?"

Arthur paused, collecting himself. "Half of all Camelot is yours."

That had cost him something. Merlin was waiting breathlessly to hear Annis' response when rough hands grabbed him. He barely had time to get his feet up under him before he was pushed into the tent and thrown roughly to the ground to kneel beside Arthur.

"Sorry about this," he said to his king as the man blazed a look of surprise in his direction.

"You know him?" Annis asked, anger giving her voice a new edge.

Arthur threw Merlin a look that said he might never make this up, no matter how many chores he did. "He's my servant. He must have followed me here. I—I knew nothing about it."

"Kill him," the queen said.

"Wait—please, let him go. He's just…a simple-minded fool."

Merlin looked up at the queen, trying to look simple. He knew he already looked foolish enough. Arthur was having to protect him.

"That is…two favors you've asked of me this night, Arthur Pendragon." Arthur said nothing in return. The queen walked back over to her throne and sat, settling her furs around her sumptuously. Her gaze landed on Merlin, as if taking the measure of his worth, and then slid up to Arthur.

Though he was not really helpless, Merlin knew better than to allow his magic to be seen here. Only in greatest need and only in small ways could he bring his magic to bear on any situation. Surprising Arthur here and now would be only a few steps away from suicide. And it might get the King killed before he could do anything. And it might start a war. No. Merlin kept control of his magic and waited.

Annis finally spoke. "I remain unconvinced that you are a man of your word. You have done little that would persuade me otherwise."

"If you ask any man in Camelot they will tell you that my word is my bond."

"That may be so, but you are not in Camelot. Here, your word means very little. I might, however, accept another type of bond—your servant."

Arthur's face blanched. "No," he breathed, "The sin was mine alone and the punishment will be meted out between our champions. There is no need to keep Merlin hostage."

"I'm afraid I have no choice. His life is forfeit for spying on us. He should be put to death. By promising to deliver him to you tomorrow, should you keep your word, I am showing great leniency. You must realize this."

Arthur shifted uncomfortably, his face working. He said nothing.

"Also, I see in you apparent concern for your servant, that he might be harmed. I find this difficult to believe of one who so callously dispatched my husband. Is this feigned? Indeed, I feel moved to put that to the test before trusting that you are what you seem." She made a small gesture to her guards, who stepped forward to take Arthur's arms once again. Another gesture was given to the man holding Merlin.

Arthur's tense, "No!" was Merlin's first clue that this was not going to be good for him. The guard released him, only to grab Merlin's jacket at the shoulders and rip it back away from his body and halfway down his arms. Merlin only had time to realize that his arms were now trapped behind him in the fabric when he heard a small snick next to his face.

The man had unsheathed a long, thin blade like an ice pick. It was far too close for—

Merlin sucked in a breath to scream, but found that no air could escape the pain spearing his left shoulder. He looked down to see the sharp blade penetrating, two inches of its length visible where it pierced through his shoulder. Agony clamped down harder and Merlin began panting as the blade was pulled out. Blood welled up and spilt down his arm. Arthur was yelling, held back by two—no three guards. Merlin's magic was begging to come to their rescue, but the warlock pressed it down hard, fighting its release, somewhere among the agony.

And then he was on the ground, slumping, nearly unconscious, trying to focus on what Queen Annis was saying.

"…life of a servant would hardly be enough blood to pay for the loss of a king. You have passed the test; the boy is dear to you, as all can see. Thus it is a perfect bond. Your champion will fight for you tomorrow, and until then, my guarantee against treachery is the life of your servant. A perfect solution."

Arthur shook his head, determined to try one last time. "Please. I beg of you, if you wish to take someone hostage, let it be me and I can send Merlin back with a message. He is trustworthy."

"Yet you called him a fool earlier. No, I think I have his true measure now. No fool could withstand pain so stoically. Fear not for your servant. His treatment shall be exactly what he deserves, no more or less. Announce your champion by noon tomorrow and your servant will be there, awaiting the contest. He will be released as soon as the winner is declared."

Arthur bowed his head. So Merlin would get what he deserves, no more or less. That could mean anything; Annis had already said Merlin's life was forfeit. Why had the idiot followed him and messed up everything? Arthur took in a deep breath. Oh, no sense in ignoring it, he knew why: Merlin was trying to protect Arthur, as always, without weapon and without thought for himself. Now he was going to pay for his foolishness dearly and there was nothing Arthur could do to stop it. "May I speak with him, your highness?"

"Of course."

The guards released Arthur. He moved quickly to Merlin's side, pausing as the other guard positioned his blade at Merlin's back. Arthur glared at him until the man pulled the blade back a comfortable distance. Arthur turned his attention on Merlin. The boy lay on his side, his face crumpled in pain. Thick blood was trickling out from between his fingers where he clutched his left shoulder. Arthur leaned him forward a bit to see that the hole in the back of his shoulder was somewhat larger. Blood was making a red stream down his back.

"Bandages, please!" he called out.

No one moved. Arthur gritted his teeth. Merlin's jacket was still pulled down low on his back, the sleeves interfering with his movement. Slowly, Arthur pulled Merlin's hand away from the wound and gently maneuvered the jacket off the left side of his body. Merlin gasped as he shifted; straightening his arm was agony. His breath went back to gasps and he closed his eyes.

"Sorry, Merlin."

Arthur pulled off his gloves hastily and untied Merlin's neckerchief. He ripped the boy's shirt open above the stab wound. "Can I have some bandages, please?" Again, no one moved. Arthur shook his head and ripped the red fabric into strips. He pressed a few as padding on each side of the wound to block the blood flow, then tied two around Merlin's shoulder to hold them in place. Finally, he took Merlin's belt off and used it as a sling to hold Merlin's left arm bent in close to his body. Arthur had once had a similar wound and knew what agony movement could be.

By this point, Merlin looked unconscious and his breathing was faint. Arthur wiped the blood off on his pants and took the opportunity to gently lift Merlin, sliding his jacket the rest of the way off. He bundled it up and placed it under Merlin's head. That looked slightly more comfortable. Arthur steeled himself.

"Merlin." He put a hand on his back, trying to wake him gently. Merlin's eyes fluttered open. "I have to leave you now." For a long moment, words deserted him. "I don't think the wound will bleed long. You must deal with the pain the best you can. I need you to be a warrior for me, Merlin," he said in a low voice. "Be brave. I will return for you tomorrow. Do you understand?"

Merlin's lips quirked upward and he blinked several times. "Not my first wound. And. Not a coward."

"I know that, Merlin. You're one of the bravest men I know. Even coming after me tonight…that was a brave thing to do, even if it was..." Arthur pulled Merlin's right hand up and gripped his forearm in a knight's salute. "But, you're going to be fine, and I promise…I will not leave you here."

Merlin's eyes cleared of pain and fear. Once again, Arthur saw that calm, focused gaze that always astounded him. "I know you will, Arthur." Strength flowed from one to the other as their gazes held and reassurances were given. Arthur would return; Merlin would still be here.

When Merlin's grip weakened, Arthur forced himself to let go. He placed his right hand on Merlin's head, letting the action speak all the words he couldn't. Then he forced himself to stand and face the queen again. "As my servant, he is under my protection. Can you swear that you will not harm him further?"

"I will swear no such thing. He is at my mercy, such as it is. Tomorrow, he will be there waiting for you. If you pass a restless night of worry and anxiety before then, then I will have returned to you a portion of the misery you inflicted upon me at the disappearance and death of my husband."

"It is as you say. I, as well as my servant, am at your mercy." Arthur inclined his head. "Until tomorrow."

"Until tomorrow, Arthur Pendragon."

Arthur forced himself to move forward, but could not prevent one last look back as he exited the tent. Merlin was curled up on the floor, pale as death, one pale shoulder bandaged a bloody red. If he were not shivering so badly, he might look dead already. Arthur could do no more. He gave the guards one last warning look, committing their faces to memory, and then, with a whip of the tent's door, he was gone.


AN: Thanks for reviewing! This is a short beginning to set up the fic. What do you think of my Annis?