This was written for Glomp Fest 2.0 on LJ for bohemiabythesea.
You Drained My Heart (And Made a Spade)
Two months before he and Arthur finally got their shit together and stopped pansy-footing around each other. One month before winter decided to rear her ugly head and cover Camelot in a thick blanket of snow. One week before he stopped cursing Arthur to the seventh circle of Hell and back. Today just happened to be the day that all of Merlin's life went to shit. And it was his own damned fault.
Everything started on your average, run-of-the-mill autumn day in Camelot. The sun was peeking through the clouds, the low hum of servants, knights, and townspeople filled the air of the city. A few birds flitted here and there hoping to snatch a small mouse or two to take back their nests. An angry sorceress was striding into the courtyard, knights and townspeople flying backward at a flick of her wrist. Unimpeded, she strode right up to the steps of the castle and addressed Arthur, who stood strong at the apparent threat and didn't even flinch when she brandished a hand before him.
"I will not rest until every last Pendragon is dead! The tyrannical reign of Uther is at an end. And you, Arthur Pendragon, will fall."
Meanwhile the Knights of Camelot vainly tried to stop her, but it was as if she was shielded from their insignificant weapons. They, and Arthur, could only watch as her eyes flashed yellow and power crackled around her like a storm.
A blue ball of fire erupted from the sorceress's hands and flew straight for Arthur. Merlin didn't even think, his hand coming up automatically, words from the Old Tongue falling from his lips and him not able to stop them. The fire ball slowed its course mere inches from the shocked face of the Prince Regent and flew back at the sorceress. In a matter of seconds, she was engulfed by the flames and rendered nothing more than a pile of soot.
The entire court stood in shock, the quiet of the courtyard hanging heavy in the air. Merlin swallowed thickly. There was no way he could hide what he'd done, no way could his actions have gone unnoticed. The Prince, followed by everyone else, turned towards him. Their piercing eyes landing upon him like needles. The Prince took a step toward him. Merlin stumbled back, all too aware of the cold stone wall behind him and the unreadable expression taking over Arthur's face.
"Magic. Merlin, you –"
It felt like a hammer to the chest. Merlin opened his mouth, but couldn't say anything. In the end, he resorted to the only thing he could think of. He ran.
Merlin wastes no time; he packs the few clothes he owns, his magic book, and a blanket. He sneaks through the castle, avoiding anyone and everyone. He can't even say goodbye to Gaius. Within the hour Merlin has escaped from Camelot and starts on his way for the Forest of Balor. It's too much of a risk to head for Ealdor. Merlin worries for his mother, since it's likely that will be the first place Arthur will send his knights.
But the nights are growing colder and Merlin's mind turns away from thoughts of his mother and his old home. The first few nights he spends away from Camelot are probably the hardest. Being so close to winter, the wood is waterlogged and in some cases covered with a layer of frost. With every attempt at drying the wood to light it, Merlin only ends up with soggy ash. He soon becomes frustrated and gives up entirely; resorting to huddling under the little clothing he took with him.
With little in the way of food and almost nothing to shelter him from the cold of the near winter night, Merlin huddles up in a small cave he's found. Not that it deserves to be called a cave; it's barely larger than him and little more than an overhang of large rocks. But it's the best he could find for the time being. And besides, he'll have to move on in the morning. He can't risk staying so near Camelot.
Merlin shivers as he tries unsuccessfully to find a comfortable position. The thin blanket and both of his jackets are little protection from the elements. He curses. Why did he have to go and be so stupid? Why couldn't he have stayed in the shadows and saved Arthur's life as he always had? Merlin couldn't honestly say what had come over him. Only that the fire ball had been heading straight for Arthur and Merlin was too far away to really doanything about it.
"This is ridiculous," Merlin mumbles, rolling his eyes at his own mental blathering.
"It's no use blathering on about it. You saved the Prat's life, again. So what if you're on the run. It's not like the clotpole will reallysend knights after you, right? I mean Gaius surely wouldn't let him." But Merlin isn't really sure what to think any more. Maybe Arthur will send his Knights after him after all.
Merlin pauses and blinks before running a hand over his face. "And now you're talking to yourself. That's greatMerlin, just brilliant."
He doesn't know how, but he finally manages to fall into a fitful sleep in the wee hours of the morning only to be woken by the dawn sun peaking through the trees and the startling event of a rabbit hopping through the bushes. As he gathers his things and sets off again he is momentarily grateful no one had been around to hear him screech like a girl.
"We must send out knights at once! The criminal Merlin must be captured!"
Arthur braced himself against his father's old throne—he just can't bring himself to call it his just yet— jaw clenched. "What would you have me do, Uncle? Merlin," and damn, was it difficult to even think the boy's name now, "Is probably far from Camelot by now."
"So we send our best trackers. We cannot allow one simple boy to overthrow years of hard work dedicated to the banishment of sorcerery. Arthur you must see reason in this."
Arthur's eyes narrowed and cut across to Agravaine. "Reason, Uncle? Let us not forget that it is by that sorcerer's hand that I am alive right now. What reason is there in condemning a man for saving the life of his Prince? No, we cannot hunt him down for that."
"You would let him become like Morgana then?"
Arthur tensed. "Do not mention Morgana to me. Whatever Merlin may be, he wouldn't – No. Morgana has nothing to do with this."
Then, left with no other alternative, Agravaine pulls his trump card, his hidden weapon. "Arthur, it's what your father would want. Would you dishonor him? And for what? The sake of some servant boy? A sorcerer, no less. What would your father think Arthur?"
There was a sick sense of satisfaction in Agravaine as he saw the moment Arthur's shoulders slump in defeat. "Of course, Uncle. Of course you're right. I'll lead a team of knights first thing in the morning."
Agravaine chose to ignore the stiff, bitter tone of his nephew's voice, pasted on a smile and grasped his shoulder instead. "Good man. Your father would be proud."
And all the while Arthur couldn't help but think that he could never be less proud of himself in all his life.
"Sire, he's just a boy. Please, I…"
"I'm sorry Gaius. You know the laws as well as I do. Agravaine was right. I have to find him." The last statement is said more to himself than anything, but Gaius ignores it.
"He's the closest thing I have to a son."
Arthur can't reply. He remains turned towards his window, staring out into the courtyard below. The silence between the two of them stretches until Arthur hears the creak of the door. He breathes in and out slowly, shakily. Adamantly, he ignores the dampness of his eyes.
"You know I can't agree with this, Sire."
"Nor I. I'm sorry Arthur, but… he's our friend."
Arthur looks back at his, well his friends. Lancelot, standing with an air of reluctance and a small amount of guilt. Gwen, sweet Guinevere, unconsciously mirroring his stance. The two of them, side by side, make a picture. Of what, he's not quite sure but he does know that for the longest time, he's been fooling himself. The combined weight of their gazes almost makes him hang his head in shame.
"He's my friend too." Arthur doesn't say that he wants nothing more than to let Merlin go, that Merlin is more than friend to him than anyone, that he has no choice, that if it were up to him, Merlin would be awarded for saving his life—again—not punished. He doesn't say these things. They already know.
So he doesn't say these things. He just steps up to Lancelot and grasps his shoulder to look him straight in the eye. "You stay in Camelot. Look after her," he says after a pause. He turns to Gwen and blithely looks past the glassy shine in her eyes to embrace her for what feels may be the last time.
He says "I'm sorry" because that's the only thing he knows to say to her. Then he grits his teeth and walks away.
The night passes quickly, though Arthur gets little sleep. He heaves himself from his bed at dawn and systematically dresses himself. He tries not to think of Merlin, but there's so much of Merlin engrained into his life that it's impossible. Little bits of memories crop up here and there no matter how hard he tries to stop them.
His fingers stumble over the ties to his shirt, recalling how nimble Merlin's long fingers were at the same task, after the first few weeks at least. Merlin really had been the worst servant Arthur had ever had. And the best. He had to close his eyes as images of Merlin's smiling, unassuming face flashed before his eyes.
Whether he'd been polishing Arthur's armor or stoking the fire or simply standing there, Merlin's smile was the one thing he could count on to always be there. Merlin, the servant. Merlin, the friend. Merlin, the sorcerer. Arthur can't integrate them in his mind. So he doesn't try. He pushes thoughts of Merlin away and focuses on his duty. To Camelot. Agravaine was right about one thing last night: he can't overthrow twenty years worth of laws for one servant. No matter how much he wants to.
Gathering his team of Knights goes easily enough, though they do so reluctantly. He understands their resistance. Especially Gwaine. Merlin was their friend too. Like a little brother to all of them. And now they are forced to hunt him down like a criminal.
"I know this is a difficult thing to face, but as knights we made an oath to protect the people of Camelot and uphold the laws that the King has set forth. Merlin was a dear friend to all of you and I realize that you won't agree with our mission to find him," Arthur steadfastly ignores Gwaine's snort and continues. "But the law demands he pay for his crimes."
Arthur pauses and looks around at his small band of knights. From Gwaine's unusually sour face, to Leon's vaguely disproving one. None of them wanted to do this. None of them. Not even Arthur. He mentally shakes himself. Duty to Camelot, he reminded himself.
"We'll start with the surrounding woods; look for any trace of him, find a trail, something. Your orders are to keep searching until the sorcerer Merlin is found and brought back to Camelot."
And with those final words Arthur strides out of the castle, his reluctant knights on his heel and a heavy feeling in his heart.
Merlin stays at his small outcropping of rocks for a few days, paranoid and jittery to the last minute. He soon enough shoulders his pack and starts stalking through the forest again. The ground is frosted over from last night's cold snap.
Merlin shivers and bundles his thin coats tighter around himself. Fortunately, he's tamped down any more conversations-with-himself incidents and his mind stays rather blissfully blank and he makes his way through the mountains to Balor Forest.
He knows there's a trail close by, but he hesitates to go too near it. Surely if the Knights of Camelot are on his tail, taking the road would be obvious, right? So for the most part he sticks a good distance away; close enough that he can hear someone coming, far enough that his presence is not known. At least something from his and Arthur's many stealthy quests has stuck with him.
He walks for hours, alert to every sound. He jumps at the sudden cries of falcons, the shift of bushes behind him. At some point, he gets hungry and reluctantly uses his magic to hunt a skinny rabbit. He can't help but mutter a small apology as he skins and cooks it.
When the light grows dim and he can hear nothing but the wind in the trees and the distant din of the forest he curls himself up next to a tree. He curses Arthur and the dragon for a few good measures. If this is what destiny is like, he's not so sure he wants to be a part of it.
Gaius, for all his years and wisdom, isn't sure what to do in the aftermath of Merlin's fleeing. He briefly wonders if he should go after the boy. But he is too old and his bones are not as strong as they used to be. Merlin is like a son to him, but he just cannot take the strain of gallivanting into the forest after him.
In the end, he sends a letter to Hunith, secreted away in the pocket of a young farmer on the road to Cenred's kingdom. He tells her of the events that have unfolded these past several days. He tries to convince her that Merlin will be alright, that he has faith in the boy—no, in the young man. He warns of the possibility of Camelot knights coming to Ealdor. It is all he can do, in the end. All he can do… except wait.
"Don't you have a duty to perform, Sir Gwaine?"
They'd been searching the woods surrounding Camelot for a few days now, scouts already sent to Ealdor and back. Merlin was too smart to go back to his childhood home, as Arthur knew he would be. Agravaine had been hammering down on Arthur hard about Merlin. It was of the utmost importance to find him and continue upholding the laws put forth by King Uther, or so he said. Arthur wasn't really so sure. But first and foremost he was a Knight of Camelot and Prince Regent. He would do his duty.
"Aye. I s'pose I do." Gwaine doesn't make a move to get up from the log he'd been lounging against. Arthur stares at him, incredulous.
"And don't you think you should be, oh I don't know, performing it?" Arthur gestures with his arms, obviously trying to imply that Gwaine should be doing something rather than staring back at him with that cheeky smirk.
"I should shouldn't I?"
Arthur barely resists pinching his brow, already feeling the headache coming on. Being around Gwaine for an extended amount of time will do that to a person. He levels a glare at his recalcitrant knight instead.
"As a knight you swore an oath to King and country. You're treading very closely to breaking that oath right now Gwaine." He starts off sternly, trying to be the Prince everyone—including himself—expects him to be. But in the end, his voice softens and he sounds more strained than a stone-face Prince at the moment. It makes Gwaine's smirk fall, a more serious expression on his face than Arthur thinks he's ever seen.
"I did swear an oath, yes. But I also make a promise to Merlin. My friendMerlin. And I don't intend to break that."
"So you intend to betray your King then? For Merlin?" Arthur can't believe what he's hearing. That Gwaine has the strength to do what he cannot… it makes him cringe.
"Absolutely not, Princess. But I certainly won't be responsible for helping to betray him." And it's very clear which 'him' Gwaine is referring too. Clearly satisfied with getting his point across, Gwaine leans back against his stump and crosses his arms defiantly.
Arthur opens his mouth to say something—possibly to scold his knight or protest that he won't betray anybody if he can help it, he's not sure—but suddenly Sir Leon is bursting through the trees.
"Sire! We've found a small cave with recently burnt wood. There are tracks leading south." Leon delivers the report in a stiff manner. Arthur had been ignoring the increasingly disproving—he refuses to think disappointed, though that's what they are—looks he's been sending his way ever since that day Merlin hightailed from the courtyard and run out of Camelot.
Arthur slowly nods. Putting the previous conversation with Gwaine from his mind and looking away from his sharp gaze, Arthur pulls up straight and clenches his jaw momentarily. "Then we head south."
Merlin's not sure how long he'd been running for, perhaps a week by now. All he knows is that one minute, he was laying his head down into a makeshift pillow of his gangly arms and one of his jackets, and the next thing he knows the high noon sun is waking him up. He bolts to his feet and strains his ears as he searches the trees for a spot of red.
Damn his laziness, and damn his weakness. He's lost half a day already and who knows how close the Knights might be. Hell, they could be upon him any moment. With that thought ironed into his thick skull, Merlin grabs up his jacket and pack and continues his trudging through the mountains.
He passes a small stream about an hour later and wonders if it would be worth it. Just a few minutes to wash off the dirt and grime and sweat. He hasn't gone this long without washing since that time he and Will had decided to run away and live together. Sadly, Merlin's control hadn't been stellar at the time and when they tried cut down a tree for some wood to actually build a house, it ended up falling on Old Man Simmons instead. Then again, he had been only eight.
Shaking his head to shed himself of the memories, Merlin stopped briefly to gather some more water in his waterskin and continued on. He couldn't risk stopping—as much as he wanted to—but already he'd lost time and surely the Knights weren't far behind by now.
"The tracks have stopped, Sire."
Arthur pulls up short, bringing his eyes up from the ground to stare blankly at Sir Leon. To his credit, Leon doesn't shuffle or fidget as any lesser man would do. He only stares back, a vaguely disapproving expression in place.
"Sire. The other Knights and I believe that the trail is lost. Perhaps it would be best to return to Camelot. Clearly Merlin has escaped us."
"We are under orders to apprehend the sorcerer at all costs, Sir Leon. We keep going." Arthur makes a move to continue on, maybe they'd find some new tracks or a clue or somethingto indicate where Merlin might've gone next, but a discontent sound from his knight makes him pause.
Arthur turns back to Leon and rests a hand on his shoulder. For a brief moment he allows his emotions to come through; all the guilt, the anxiety, the worry. He lets it paint his face for just that brief amount of time. "I'm sorry, Leon. You know there's nothing I can do. We have to find Merlin."
Leon looks back at him, expression hardening. "No, Sire. You can do something, you just choose not to."
And with that he shrugs off Arthur's hand and stalks back to the other knights. Arthur swallows thickly. Merlin probably didn't know it, but he had most of Camelot wrapped around his pinky finger. With a sigh he trudges after Leon to rejoin the others. He walks over to Llamrei, and hauls his tent pack off her.
"We'll camp here for tonight then. There should be a stream not far from here, so refill your waterskins. Percival, Gwaine, see if you can find us something to eat."
Arthur set himself to putting up his tent, ignoring the unsure shuffle of Percival and the mocking bow from Gwaine. He really isn't in the mood to deal with Gwaine right now.
Turns out there are a few hares hanging about, and the smell of them as they cook on the fire, what little fat they have dripping off and sizzling on the hot logs, has Arthur's mouth watering. He takes his share and removes himself from the group, trying not to feel as isolated as he is as he hears their joking and carousing in the background.
Merlin used to join in with them, telling stories and singing songs in a low tone—bawdy tales that he didn't even know Merlin could fathom. Before Merlin came along, Arthur had been just as he is now, away from them all, on his own. It was really because of Merlin that Arthur had started getting to know his knights better in the first place. All down to Merlin.
Arthur gives a few last half-hearted stabs at his food and stalks into his tent, shrugging off the way the sudden quietness of the group follows him like a dark cloud. They start back up again soon enough, probably assuming he's retired to sleep. But for a good deal of time he mostly lay awake, hands behind his head as he stares up at nothing, thoughts of Merlin this and Merlin that plaguing him. It's hours before he can get any sort of sleep at all.
The smell of it almost makes him topple over at its suddenness. For days, he's been living off berries and the stale bread he'd managed to find in his pack. He hadn't quite been able to stomach hunting down another animal after that first rabbit, and soon relegated himself to eating whatever fruits and vegetation his magic could come up with (it only took him four years to perfect that strawberry making charm, though they still somehow managed to smelllike roses).
Merlin stands stock still against a tree for a few minutes, deliberating with himself on whether he should… but the rumbling in his stomach makes that decision for him and he shoulders his pack tighter and heads in the direction of the wonderful smell of roasting hare. He sneaks slowly as he comes upon them, the red of their cloaks advertising their Camelot Knight status.
Merlin resists the urge to stomp his foot in frustration. He can see Leon, Elyan, Percival, and Gwaine all huddled around the fire, laughing and joking with each other. There's no way he'd be able to sneak by them and get some of their food, even with his magic. Merlin bites his lip and surveys the rest of their campsite. He can't see Arthur.
A foolish thought invades his mind, maybe Arthur hadn't come with them. Maybe Arthur was being held back at Camelot, in the dungeon for treason because he'd defended Merlin or refused to come after him. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Merlin bites the inside of his cheek until he can taste iron on his tongue. No use in getting caught up in a world of maybes.
Merlin spots the large tent a moment later. It's removed from the rest of the tents and slightly larger and infinitely more prattish Merlin would wager. He sneaks along until he can pull back one flap of the tent and peer inside. A breath of relief almost escapes him as he feels the warmth filter out of the tent. Days living in the cold of the pre-winter forest has given him an almost permanent chill, but all it takes to thaw him out is the warmth of the Prince's tent ghosting over his skin.
Movement from further into the darkness makes him freeze, fear and guilt and a cloying sense of foreboding crash over him, but as his eyes adjusts he sees it's only Arthur adjusting in his sleep. Merlin swallows and moves cautiously into the tent, flap falling limply closed behind him. He stands there, staring at Arthur. A million questions run through his head. He wants to shake him awake, make him answer them. But he fears that to do so would guarantee his capture and transport back to Camelot, back to the pyre.
He shivers, rooted to his spot right inside the entrance, skin slowly warming up in the small space. Looking around he can see that Arthur, the prat, has brought more comforts of home with him than necessary. It's with no amount of guilt that Merlin snatches up one (Yes, one, just one. He can tell there are more, the arse) of Arthur's winter coats. He thinks that it's only fair. It is after all, all Arthur's fault he's out here in the first place. At least, that's how he's going to rationalize it. At least until it starts sounding true.
Shrugging the thick fabric around his shoulders and giving a small shiver of delight at the cozy feel of it, Merlin gives one last look at Arthur's sleeping form. He muses regretfully at the past week.
He keeps his voice low and to himself, but luckily Arthur stays asleep, even when Merlin's fingers brush over his forehead and down the side of his cheek. "How can I believe anything the dragon said, when now it's obvious you hate me for what I am. How can this possibly be our destiny?"
It would be so easy just to huddle in the corner and curl up for a few hours of sleep in this blessed warmth, with Arthur just like old times, but he can't risk it. With a sniff that is not him crying, thank you very much, Merlin stands and makes his way swiftly out of the camp. Camelot has caught up with him and now he needs to get a move on if he wants to be far enough away by morning.
It's only with years of training that Arthur is able to keep perfectly still when the flap to his tent opens. He knows that the knights are still around the fire and even then, none of them would enter his tent without permission.
There are only two (okay, maybe three, but the third is so ridiculous it doesn't bear thinking about) possibilities. Either it's some bandit who's managed to slip past four Knights of Camelot and locate his tent with such stealth as to be commended, or it's Merlin. Stupid, idiot, wonderful Merlin who would sneak into the tent of the very man trying to hunt him down.
For long moments, Arthur's not sure what to make of Merlin. He doesn't dare open his eyes, even at a squint, to look upon his ex-manservant. But it doesn't even seem like he's doing anything other than stand there. He hears a few shuffles, possibly Merlin sighing to himself and then his presence comes closer. Arthur goes stiff at the feel of Merlin crouching next to him. He's not sure at all what Merlin was going to do, but the soft touch to his face isn't what he'd been expecting.
Arthur has to bite the inside of his lip when he hears the soft, confusing words from Merlin before he slips out. Words of dragons and destiny and hate. So few words, but Arthur can't comprehend them. When Merlin is long gone, he opens his eyes and stares into nothing, mind racing.
One thing is clear to him. Merlin thinks Arthur hates him. It's a sad thought really. Sure Arthur was surprised, confused even, that Merlin hadn't told him. He had thought there was trust there, between them. But to hate Merlin? Impossible. Surely, Merlin would see that he did what he had to.
But, his mind supplies, flashing back to Leon's face earlier, perhaps, I have been about as clear as mud when it comes to reassuring my friends of my true feelings. Merlin never had understood the meaning of subtle.