Can't Get Rid of Me
"Run," Arthur growled.
Merlin stared at him, eyes that had so recently flashed a traitorous gold now returned to an innocent blue and awash with unshed tears. "Arthur-"
The simple word pierced him, a cruel reminder that he had offered friendship to this boy he thought he knew but who had been deceiving him from the moment they met. Arthur did not trust easily, and yet time and again his trust had been betrayed. Despite Morgana, and despite Agravaine, Arthur had never even considered the possibility that his servant could ever be disloyal. But now he knew the truth.
Merlin was a sorcerer.
"Run." His voice was cold, his eyes hard. His arm was steady as he held his sword aloft, the point sharpened to a deadly edge by the same servant whose throat it now threatened.
"No, Arthur, please-"
"I said," he stepped closer, every inch of his being exuding the power of a king and a battle-hardened warrior, combined with dangerous fury that was barely contained, "Run."
"I don't want to leave you, Arthur. I have to protect you. Please, let me-"
"If you do not run, I will have you arrested immediately, and you will be executed at dawn."
"You don't mean that. You can't mean that. Arthur, I'm your friend-"
"I have no friends," Arthur snapped. No more, never again. It hurt too much. He refused to ever open his heart to another, only to have it brutally ripped from him. "In remembrance of what once was, I am giving you this one chance to run. Leave Camelot, and never return. You are hereby banished from my kingdom, upon pain of death."
"I will give you two hours head start before I send riders out after you! If you are found, you will be slaughtered like the treasonous coward you are."
"Is it treason, sire, to do everything within my power to keep you from harm? That is all I have ever used my magic-"
"Do not try my patience, sorcerer!" Arthur thundered. "With every second that passes my sanity returns, demanding that I strike you down right here and now. I order you to run."
Merlin dared to try for humour. "You know I never listen to you."
"If you value your life," Arthur snarled, "this order you will obey. I tell you one last time. Run."
It seemed that Merlin's idiocy and stubbornness were two characteristics of his that had not been fabricated, because still he refused to move.
Arthur withdrew his sword, and Merlin smiled tremulously until Arthur suddenly swung the blade in an arc aiming straight for his neck.
Merlin yelped and stumbled backwards. "Arthur!" he squeaked indignantly, as though this were a training session and Arthur hadn't given him enough time to raise his shield.
Arthur's sword bore down on him again, and Merlin barely dodged the heavy blow. He gasped, sweat beading on his brow. "Arthur, stop!"
The blade whistled through the air, narrowly missing slicing across Merlin's chest. He didn't relent, thrusting forward to stab him straight through the heart – except Merlin tripped on a tree root and crashed to the ground, his clumsiness saving his life.
Arthur finally saw fear in the gaze of his ex-servant as he stared up at him.
"Run," Arthur said.
Merlin scrambled to his feet and backed away, eyes that were filled with both terror and hurt lingering on him for a few moments longer.
Then Merlin turned tail and ran.
Merlin was gone, and Arthur never expected to see him again.
Life went on, his world somewhat dulled without the constant presence of a certain cheerful, irreverent, bumbling servant. Not that Arthur missed him. Of course not. Camelot was better off, safer, without that evil sorcerer around. This was the way it had to be – no, the way he wanted it to be.
It wasn't even as though his life had changed all that much. He still attended to council matters, and there were no silly antics going on or faces being pulled behind the councillors' backs to distract him. He still attended grand feasts, and there was no one to spill wine all over him by tripping over nothing or to insult him about his girth. He still went on hunts, and there was no clumsy, noisy idiot accompanying him to complain loudly in his ear or chase off all the prey.
He still went on patrol with his knights and wound up getting into a great deal of trouble, but there was no Merlin to worry about getting underfoot… or to watch his back…
Half of his men had been cut down, and the bandits kept coming, ferocious and determined. Arthur's sword was a silver blur as he countered, parried and attacked, cutting down each enemy combatant that approached him. But he was tiring. The sword grew heavier in his arms, his moves grew sluggish, his reactions slowed. A sword nicked his arm, an axe deflected off his breastplate.
Men surrounded him on all sides.
His eyes were wide with sudden fear, his hands slick with sweat and struggling to hold fast to his sword hilt, his breath coming in searing gasps.
He was going to die here.
A loud crack sounded in the forest, as though a large tree had spontaneously snapped in half, startling Arthur and the bandits alike. They spun – and Arthur froze in shock.
Steady blue eyes met his stunned gaze. A head topped with black hair dipped slightly in a respectful bow. A smile, part amusement, part sadness, curved his lips.
Then he turned his attention to the bandits, and his expression hardened. He stretched out a hand, and in that moment he appeared more threatening than any heavily armed man ever could. Everything in his bearing bespoke a dread power, and Arthur sensed the men around him begin to quake with fear.
A single word, and a flash of gold.
A blast of magic exploded out from him, and as it struck the first man, throwing him violently backwards, Arthur tensed, his eyes squeezing shut.
He felt nothing, though. He dared to look up.
Every bandit had been felled, but he stood unharmed in their midst.
Merlin lowered his hand slowly. He glanced around the clearing, viewing the carnage that had been wrought. His gaze fixed on Sir Leon and the fatal wound that had his chest barely rising and falling with the rattle of the dying. Merlin's hand lifted again.
"No-!" Arthur yelled, but it was too late.
Merlin's eyes flashed.
Leon suddenly sucked in a huge breath, lurching into a sitting position. His hand automatically flew to the deep slash across his abdomen, but then he fingered the unblemished skin with awe.
Merlin ignored the two sets of disbelieving eyes that stared at him, moving onto the next wounded knight. Within minutes, many of the patrol were once again standing protectively around their king, save for those few who had died instantly.
Arthur had been unable to move or speak, but now there was an expectant pause as knights faced off against the banished sorcerer who had healed them with forbidden magic.
Arthur didn't want to do it, but he had to uphold the law. He couldn't appear weak. He had to show the strength of will that his father had. He had already shown Merlin more leniency than he should have.
"Arrest him," he ordered quietly, hating himself.
He caught sight of the disappointment on Merlin's face before another crack shattered the silence and Merlin vanished.
Arthur was sure that he had seen the last of Merlin. The sorcerer might have thought that by swooping in and pretending to be the hero he could trick Arthur into accepting him back, but Arthur had clearly shown that he would not be fooled so easily. Merlin would have given up for good.
"May I have a word with you alone, Your Majesty?"
The woman who had requested an audience with the King was alluringly beautiful even wearing a simple peasant dress, and her deep eyes were oddly compelling.
"Of course, my lady." He gestured, and the hall emptied. "What is it you wished to discuss?"
"A grave crime, my lord, perpetrated against my family many years ago that went unpunished," she told him, and Arthur's passion for justice stirred. "My father, who had neither cheated nor harmed anyone in his life, was wrongfully murdered, and though his killer was known he was not made to pay. The grief it has caused me, sire, has torn me up inside, bringing me so much pain and heartache." Tears spilled down her cheeks. "I can bear it no longer!"
"Tell me, what can I do?" Arthur asked, longing to bring comfort or at least peace to this poor woman.
Her gaze snapped up to meet his, and suddenly she did not seem so gentle or broken. "You, King Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon and bearer of his legacy, can die where you stand," she hissed.
She stepped forward, foul words of magic beginning to pour from her lips.
"Guards!" Arthur yelled, but he knew they would be too late to save him from the witch. He drew his sword, knowing it to be a useless gesture, knowing he was about to die.
The witch whirled around. "No!" she screeched in horror. "You cannot be here! The word was that Emrys was betrayed and had forsaken his king!"
"I would never forsake him," Merlin answered with calm surety. "Leave now, and let others know that King Arthur is DEFENDED."
Her face twisted and she gave an inhuman howl, lurching forward with claw-like hands outstretched.
Blue eyes showed remorse for a second, but that did not prevent them from flashing gold and slamming the woman back against the wall. She did not rise.
The guards charged in through the large double doors, taking in the crumpled body of the woman, the shocked King, and the known fugitive. They swiftly surrounded Merlin, bristling with steel.
Merlin looked to him.
This man was dangerous. He could appear in Arthur's court at a whim. He could not be allowed to roam free.
"Take him," Arthur ordered, trying to ignore the guilt that squirmed in his gut.
Before they could, however, Merlin disappeared with a crack.
The mirth and good humour ran as freely as the wine at Camelot's midsummer feast. Arthur enjoyed watching the merriment of his knights and noblemen, even if he did not take as much pleasure in these events as he once had. Somehow he could not break the habit of flicking his gaze behind him every few minutes, looking for a servant who wasn't there.
He thought he heard a scuffle and a muffled thump from the balcony, but he looked up to see no disturbance; just one of the guards standing watch in a slightly ill-fitting uniform. He dismissed it from his mind, turning back to his conversation with Lord Freidan.
By the time he heard the twang of a bow and realised that an assassin must have taken the place of his guard on the balcony, it was too late to act.
Too late for someone with the reflexes of a mortal, anyway.
But before the sound of the twang had died in the air it was drowned out by a louder crack and a shouted word of magic that froze the arrow inches from Arthur's eye. The wooden shaft clattered to the table, but the metal arrowhead broke off and hurtled back toward the balcony, taking down the assassin in an instant.
Arthur gaped at Merlin, struck by the memory of the first time the boy had saved his life with reflexes that had seemed just a little too fast.
A noblewoman shrieked, "Sorcerer!" and the feast was suddenly in uproar, with noblemen yelling for arrests and beheadings and burnings at the stake, knights pulling out their swords and rushing forward, and women fainting.
Arthur didn't order anyone to take action, but neither did he call for them to stop. He just stood there, reeling from another near death experience that had once again been averted by a man he had labelled a traitor to the crown.
Merlin escaped, and although everyone else was expressing their rage at his audacity, Arthur realised that he didn't know what to feel anymore.
A magical beast had been terrorising his kingdom for days, and was heading straight for Camelot. Gauis informed the guard that watched him during the morning shift that only magic could destroy the creature, and the guard reluctantly passed on the warning to his King.
Arthur chose not to heed the words of the Court Physician, just as his father had before him. After all, he had even less reason to trust him, since he knew that Gaius had been harbouring a magic-user even if Merlin himself had denied that his guardian had any knowledge of his true nature.
But swords and spears and arrows were useless against the beast, and men died.
Only magic, Arthur thought. Only Merlin.
But he could not call for the sorcerer, for he did not know how, and he would not even if he could.
It was his duty to protect his people, and he would do so until his dying breath. Even if it meant facing the creature alone.
Feeling fatalistic and despairing for the fate of his people once he fell, Arthur twirled his sword and brought it up into an attacking stance.
The creature bellowed at him, unafraid of the human it already knew from experience could do it no harm.
Fear tugged at him, but Arthur forced himself to ignore the feeling and still the tremble in his knees. He had to do this. For the love of Camelot.
He began what he knew would be a useless swing of his sword, suspecting it would be his last.
When he heard that tell-tale crack from behind him, he could not deny the rush of relief that swept through him. With a few words from Merlin, Arthur's sword lit up with crackling blue flame, and instead of hesitating at the clear display of magic Arthur hardened his resolve and plunged the sword straight into the creature's chest. It fell dead at his feet.
Arthur turned, and a part of him wanted to say thank you.
"I can't," he said sorrowfully.
Merlin nodded, and was gone.
"The odds are overwhelmingly against us, sire," Sir Leon said.
They stood with a band of two hundred knights, cut off from Camelot and surrounded by a vast army that numbered in the thousands. Reinforcements could not possibly arrive in time, even if the messengers he had sent somehow managed to break through without being slaughtered by the enemy.
Any attempt at negotiation had been scorned. It seemed they were determined to wipe out Arthur and his soldiers to the last man, and though Arthur had no doubt that they would fight well to the end, their end it would surely be.
He could think of only one hope of redemption. A hope he had rejected time and time again, a hope he should not count on, a hope he did not deserve.
But he waited, and he hoped.
The enemy began their preparations, and Arthur waited. They began their charge, and still Arthur waited.
"Sire," Leon said urgently when the enemy was almost upon them and Arthur had not moved.
Irrationally disappointed, Arthur finally ordered his men to attack, essentially telling them to charge to their deaths for him in a useless endeavour.
He became immersed in the battle, taking down man after man yet barely making a dent in the massive force that opposed them. His men fought bravely, valiantly, with the passion of men who knew all hope was lost and yet were even more determined to put in their very best effort, to go out in such a manner that would allow the loved ones they had left behind to remember them with pride.
With all the clanging of metal against metal and screams of dying men, Arthur didn't hear the crack. The sudden flattening of every enemy soldier, however, was a little harder to miss. So, too, was the extremely odd sight of a man hurtling through the air towards them, who, Arthur realised once he landed on his knees before him, was the commander of the army.
"They're not dead," Merlin informed him. "Just unconscious. Deal with this man; I am sure he can be made to see reason." His tone was mild, but if the terrified shaking of the once smug commander was anything to go by, there was no mistaking the unspoken threat behind his words.
The commander ended up swearing fealty to Arthur and to Camelot, and led his army back to their lands, ready to be called upon if Arthur ever had need of them.
Again, Arthur had the urge to thank the sorcerer he had banished.
Instead, he said, "You're always late Merlin. First with my dinner, now with dire battles raging…"
Merlin cocked his head a little, surprised that Arthur had initiated the banter that had once passed so easily between them. His reply was flat, though. "I thought you might prefer it if I dealt with the other half of the army that had snuck around you to attack Camelot first."
Arthur's lips parted in an 'O', and concerned murmurs swelled among the ranks of his men.
"Camelot is safe," Merlin assured them, giving a small shrug when their expressions suggested that they didn't believe him. "Go back and see for yourself."
The men started making preparations at once, worried about their families. They all ignored the sorcerer still standing among them, and Arthur wondered whether it was because they knew now that he was too powerful to defeat, or because they were grateful that he had saved them all from certain death.
Arthur caught Merlin's arm, and blue eyes flashed a warning at him. He let go quickly, but didn't retreat.
"Merlin, I- Just… thanks."
Merlin's expression softened, but before Arthur could say anything else, or even decide what to say, he vanished.
Arthur's shoulders slumped with regret.
There were a few more instances where Merlin appeared in the nick of time to save Arthur, his men, and Camelot, but he never stayed long enough for Arthur to speak with him.
Arthur came to rely on his timely rescues, though. He realised that he had made a mistake by sending Merlin away. He had misjudged the younger man, accused him unfairly when he had done nothing wrong, and banished his most powerful and loyal ally. Not to mention that he had clearly hurt the feelings of his best friend, and did not know if it would ever be possible to heal their relationship. Merlin had been right all along; he really was a prat.
A day came when Arthur once again managed to stumble into a dangerous situation. He had been on a hunt, and when he caught sight of the white stag he got a little carried away, urging his horse on ahead to chase it down without waiting for his entourage. When the stag vanished in a puff of white smoke, Arthur realised too late that there was no sound of hoof beats behind him.
He was stranded, alone, in an unfamiliar part of the forest, all sense of direction gone and no trace of his tracks that could have guided him to been seen.
"Nothing can touch these woods," a soft, melodic voice told him. "Not the heavy footsteps of man or horse, nor the tempests of mother nature, nor magic itself."
She stepped out from behind a tree, a beautiful woman with black hair falling straight down her back like a dark waterfall.
"Who are you?" Arthur asked, dismounting out of inbred courtesy even though he sensed that she was not the innocent beauty she seemed.
"My name is Naya, and I am a sorceress," she told him, "not that it matters. Here I have no power."
Arthur smirked a little. "Then this is a poorly laid trap."
"You think so?" she asked sweetly, smiling in a way that suggested she knew something he didn't. Then she clicked two fingers, and one hundred men stepped into view, armed to the teeth.
Arthur calculated. He could not defeat them all, but he knew someone who could. And whenever Arthur was in danger such as this, Merlin always came to the rescue.
He twirled his sword, preparing for battle.
The sorceress laughed. "You foolish man. You think you can win?"
He said nothing, yet her smile broadened. "You think your saviour will come for you, is that it?"
"Oh, my poor Arthur, what must it be like to be cursed with such stupidity? Did I not tell you that magic has no affect here? Emrys cannot save you."
The men advanced, and Merlin did not magically appear. Arthur realised that this time, Merlin was not coming to the rescue. He really was alone.
He dropped his sword in surrender and was swiftly overrun.
The men dragged him into a dank cave and bound him tightly in chains, then dumped him carelessly on the ground as though he were an unwanted sack of potatoes.
"Hey," he protested, disgruntled, as he tried to wrangle himself into a more comfortable position.
"You don't like how you are being treated?" she asked him, her voice still sugar sweet. "Why, Arthur, I am simply returning the favour you and your father bestowed upon so many of my kin."
At this stage, Arthur began to believe that he would have far fewer enemies if his father had not started the purge of magic from his kingdom all those years ago. Even though assassination attempts were all a part of being King, it seemed to Arthur that most of the people who tried to kill him did so because they sought revenge for the death of one or more of their magical kinsmen. It also occurred to him that getting on the bad side of such powerful people wasn't a very wise idea.
He thought about Merlin, and remembered with a wince the number of times he had given the younger man reason to be angry with him. It was a mystery how he had avoided being turned into a toad or something worse on a regular basis over the years for the way he treated his servant. Merlin had to have extreme levels of tolerance, control and restraint. Especially after Arthur had banished him, Merlin had every right to be as bitter and vengeful as this sorceress and the others like her. But, somehow… he wasn't? They tried to kill him, and Merlin tried to protect him? It didn't make any sense.
"If you are so angry with me, why am I not dead already?" Arthur asked, realising that Naya was waiting for a response from him.
"Your time will come, Arthur Pendragon. However, there is one who is even greater a prize than yourself whom I wish to kill, and you are the perfect bait."
He knew who she was talking about, and didn't even think to be offended that she thought Merlin was greater than him; he had seen the enormous power that Merlin wielded. "You said he would not come here."
She smiled wickedly. "I said he could not save you. I did not say he would not try."
Arthur swallowed. It would be an act of insanity for Merlin to come for him. Without his powers he didn't stand a chance.
"It will just take him longer than usual to get here," she continued conversationally, "since he cannot teleport straight in. I am content to wait. "
She strolled away with a regal grace to her movements, leaving him with only brutish guards for company who did not seem particularly chatty.
Arthur spent the next couple of hours wriggling uncomfortably in his chains, and fretting about Merlin. Surely he wouldn't walk into a trap. He knew better than that, didn't he?
A commotion outside told him that no, Merlin did not know better. The sorceress could be heard laughing gleefully, and a few moments later a thoroughly trussed up Merlin was thrown down next to him.
Arthur groaned. "Merlin, you idiot."
"It's good to see you too," Merlin grumbled, and despite himself Arthur grinned. The expression clearly startled Merlin, but he smiled tentatively in return.
"Sickening," Naya sneered. "The two of you are enemies by birth, and yet you keep up this pretence of friendship."
"It's not a pretence," Arthur said firmly, and Merlin stared at him. Arthur shrugged a little self-consciously. "Or at least, not on my part. Not anymore. I know I've made some mistakes, but Merlin… I'm sorry. And I'm sorry I dragged you into this. You shouldn't have come."
"I haven't gone to all the effort of keeping you safe from Griffins and assassins and poison and armies and who knows what else to then let you die alone in a cave," Merlin stated frankly.
"So you've come to die with me?" Arthur asked, touched, upset and exasperated by the idea all at once.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "No, I came to rescue your royal butt and drag you back to Camelot where you belong."
"But your rescue mission has failed!" Naya cackled, and Arthur had to admit that she had a point. This was not much of a rescue. "Now I have you both, and take exquisite pleasure in killing you."
"I would not be so sure about that," Merlin said.
"You have no power here, warlock! You cannot stop me!"
"You can't!" she screeched, snapping her fingers. One of her men stepped forward obediently, and slammed a booted foot into Merlin's gut. The boy cried out, doubling over with pain, causing Naya to smile and Arthur's heart to lurch.
The man didn't stop there, seizing Merlin by the throat and dragging him up to pin him against the wall. Merlin's eyes boggled with the lack of air, and he tried to gasp something.
Naya smirked with amusement. "What was that?"
The man let up slightly, and Merlin leaned closer to him. "I said: Do you enjoy taking orders from a woman?"
The man snarled in fury and resumed his choke hold, shaking Merlin's frail body violently so his head knocked repeatedly against the wall.
"Now, now, Tyrone," Naya reprimanded, "we don't want to end this too quickly."
He let go, allowing Merlin to crumple into a heap on the floor.
"Do you see, Emrys? You have no power. You are doomed!"
"Did you notice that, big fella?" Merlin asked hoarsely, his focus still on Tyrone. "You probably joined up to have a bit of fun, but she won't let you go all out. Why do you listen to her?"
"She is no mere woman," Tyrone responded slowly. "She is a sorceress with great power. She will punish us if we do not obey."
Merlin smiled deviously, and Arthur started to realise that maybe the crazy idiot had a plan. "But she has no power here, just as I do not. That's why she needs you. She is weak, and yet you take orders from her? What does that make you?"
"Shut up!" Naya snapped. "Shut him up!"
The man slugged Merlin in the jaw hard enough to dislocate it. He spat blood onto the dirt floor, and glared up defiantly. "You even hit like a girl," he choked out. "You are not a real man at all!"
"How dare you!" Tyrone yelled, feet and fists flying.
"Tyrone, stop!" Naya ordered.
Please stop! Arthur begged silently, hating to see Merlin hurt, especially when he could do nothing about it. This was a terrible plan.
"He insulted my honour!" Tyrone retorted. "He must pay!"
"I'm sure you'll get over it," Naya said, waving a hand dismissively. "The grievances I have with him are far more important. He has defended the corrupt leaders of an immoral kingdom that has mercilessly slaughtered hundreds of my kind. But now I am the judge. I am the jury. And I am the executioner. And I decree that you, Emrys, are guilty of-"
"Enough talking," Tyrone snarled impatiently.
"That's all she does," Merlin said, "because that is all she can do. She is nothing, just a lot of fancy words and fancy dresses and waspish orders, and she is never even grateful for all that you do for her. What reason do you have to be loyal?"
The other men who stood around watching were beginning to shift and shuffle restlessly. Tyrone's anger seemed to be rapidly growing.
"Don't listen to him," Naya said, a slight note of desperation in her tone.
"Or what, my lady?" Arthur spoke up at last. "You will use your magic to chain and fetter them even more than you already have? You will strip away the freedom from these men?"
"If – if I have to."
Arthur leaned forward, his smile a challenge. "Why don't you show us your power, my lady? I think these good men need a reminder."
Her eyes widened slightly in panic, but she tried to remain haughty. "I have no need to prove myself."
"You see?" Merlin addressed the men. "She has lied to you. You follow a nothing but a woman with delusions of grandeur. If I were you, I would be feeling pretty embarrassed right now. Not to mention angry. She has made a fool of you."
"Kill them!" Naya screamed.
"Do it yourself!" a man yelled from the back of the cavern, and about half of the men broke off from the main group to leave.
"Come back here!" she yelled, but it was obvious to everyone that she could do nothing to stop them or she would have done so immediately.
Tyrone and a pack of his buddies advanced on her, menace in their every step.
Attention fixated on the drama unfolding before him, Arthur didn't realise that Merlin had escaped from his bonds until the sorcerer nudged him impatiently.
"Merlin!" Arthur whispered. "How on earth did you-"
"Hid a knife in the back of my belt," Merlin whispered back, beginning to pick at the lock on Arthur's chains. "I had to pick open the stitches with my fingernails, which wasn't easy at that angle let me tell you, and then once I had the knife in my hand I needed a distraction so-"
"Okay, okay," Arthur cut him off, "Good job, now let's get outta here."
The lock popped, and Arthur quickly shed the chains, then yanked Merlin to his feet and pulled him into a run.
There were cries of outrage from behind them as they realised what had happened, and recapturing the prisoners suddenly became more important for the moment than who was in charge. Within moments the men had seized their weapons and were in hot pursuit. Arthur forced Merlin to run faster.
"You are one crazy servant, you know that?" Arthur called out over the sound of pounding feet and furious war cries.
"You fired me," Merlin reminded him between breaths.
"Then I must be crazy as well," Arthur said, flashing his friend an apologetic smile, only to feel it slip from his face when he saw how grey and ashen Merlin's complexion was. He stumbled to a stop. "Merlin!"
"I'm fine," the boy lied. "Keep running you cabbage-head! They're catching up!"
"Arth-" His tone suddenly changed, "Arthur, look out!"
Merlin threw himself at Arthur, knocking him to the ground and landing square on top of him.
"Merlin," Arthur groaned, "Get off, you're dripping on me-"
Arthur touched a finger to the wetness on his cheek, and it came away bloody. But he wasn't wounded. Which meant-
Panicked, he lifted Merlin off him and bent over the frail figure, gaze snagging immediately on the wooden shaft sticking out from his back.
An arrow. Merlin had been hit by an arrow. And he wasn't even wearing any armour, oh god…
"Merlin! Merlin, please, Merlin-!"
Another arrow whistled past, barely missing them, and Arthur suddenly remembered that they were not out of danger yet. If they stayed here any longer they would both end up dead.
"Hold on, Merlin, please hold on."
Arthur picked up his friend and slung him over his shoulder as gently as he could, breaking into a sprint as soon as he was sure that he had a secure grip.
He ran as though his very life depended on it, in full awareness that it was not his life but Merlin's that hung in the balance. He dodged trees and leaped over fallen logs, running at a reckless pace, feeling the blood soaking through his clothes.
"Don't you dare die on me now," Arthur ordered, blinking furiously to keep his eyes clear – from dust, of course.
He didn't notice the subtle change in the forest around them, as the leaves began to stir in the wind and his feet began to leave prints in the soft earth. He didn't notice the charge building in the air behind them even as a powerful, shimmering shield of light and magic was woven into existence and started to emit a low hum.
He did notice, however, when shrieks of dying men suddenly ripped through the quiet of the forest, and he looked back to see that their pursuers had been caught in a magical trap.
Magic, he thought. Merlin!
The realisation startled him, and he nearly tripped over a root in his uncoordinated haste to stop and check on his friend.
The colour had returned to his cheeks, and his skin seemed abuzz with energy, but his wound was still bleeding. Arthur hesitated, then made up his mind, gritted his teeth and yanked out the arrow. Merlin screamed, but even as he did a golden light burst from his wound and in moments it was gone, leaving only a ragged hole in his tunic as evidence that he had ever been wounded.
Arthur lifted the shirt to check for bruises from the beating Tyrone had given him, but there did not seem to be any. Needing to be sure that his friend had healed completely, Arthur ran his fingers along Merlin's ribs.
"Ungh, no, that tickles!" Merlin protested, wriggling away from his touch.
Arthur grinned and clapped Merlin on the arm. "You're alive!"
Merlin gave him a look that said 'Obviously.'
"I thought you were dead," Arthur confessed, needing Merlin to know how much the idea of losing his best friend pained him.
Merlin sat up and looked him over, as though judging his sincerity. Then he offered the trade mark, beaming smile that Arthur had missed so much. "Nah. You should know by now, Arthur. You can't get rid of me that easily."
Arthur and Merlin strode through the gates of Camelot together. They were tired, dirty, and haggard, but they didn't care, and neither did anyone else.
A cheer rose from the townspeople as they walked down the streets toward the castle, Arthur with his arm slung casually around Merlin's shoulders, declaring him as a friend more clearly than any words ever could. The news spread swiftly that the King and his beloved servant had returned home at last.
No one thought to fear or shun the warlock who had been banished from here in disgrace, because they knew he had saved all of their lives more times than they could count. They knew they owed him everything, they knew they could trust him, and they knew that King Arthur Pendragon accepted him for who he was, magic and all.
A crowd gathered in the central courtyard. Where once this sorcerer may have been burned at the stake, now Arthur pulled him up a few of the castle steps so everyone could see him, then took his hand and thrust it into the air.
"The Warlock, Merlin Emrys, is welcomed home to Camelot with honour!" Arthur called.
The people screamed and clapped their approval.
"He is pardoned for all the crimes for which he was wrongly accused, and declared a valued citizen of fair Camelot. We thank him for his unwavering bravery and his unceasing loyalty. We rejoice to have him here with us again. His great deeds will be proclaimed in our city and extolled through the ages!"
The crowd cheered louder than ever.
"I hereby lift the ban on magic in my kingdom, and welcome those who will follow in Merlin's footsteps, using their magic for the good of all people. And I name you, Merlin, Court Sorcerer and Royal Advisor to the King."
The crowd roared, Arthur grinned, and tears welled up in Merlin's eyes.
Arthur quieted his tone. "Merlin, what is it? I thought you would be happy!"
Merlin grinned through his tears. "I am happy!"
"And yet you're crying," Arthur commented, and the idiot nodded. Arthur rolled his eyes. "Really, Merlin, sometimes you are such a girl!"
Merlin laughed, and after a moment Arthur joined in. When the hilarity settled, Arthur sighed. "Merlin, I've missed you. Can you ever forgive me for what I did?"
"That depends," Merlin mused. "Do you promise to never order me to muck out the stables again?"
"Okay, you're forgiven."
"I do, however, have an enormous pile of socks that need cleaning…" Arthur teased.
Merlin swatted him on the back of the head, and Arthur shoved him back playfully. It was a terribly childish display of affection, so Arthur figured he might as well take it one step further, and roughly pulled his best friend into a hug.
"Stick around," he said.
"Don't worry," Merlin replied. "I'm not going anywhere."