No Better Assassin

A/N: This is basically an AU retelling of 4x06, "A Servant of Two Masters". As much as that episode is one of my favorites (BadAssassin!Merlin is hysterical, and I love the bromance moments), I cannot help but feel that things should not have gone the way it had.

I know Arthur is a dollop head, but how could he possibly not realize that the Merlin from two days before who was dying from a mace wound was suddenly and miraculously healed? Shouldn't that have set off massive warning bells in Arthur's mind?

And what about the fact that Merlin is a warlock? Granted, I know that Morgana didn't know that Merlin had magic, but that shouldn't matter. He certainly knew. Surely it would make more sense for the most powerful sorcerer to ever live to attempt to kill someone with, oh…I don't know… magic?

I wanted to give Arthur (and possibly Merlin's skills as an assassin) a little more credit. Plus, there should be more bromance. I think Merlin and Arthur have progressed far enough down the road of friendship for that…

Lastly, this is my first Merlin fic. I appreciate any and all feedback, but please try to be kind. Thank you!

Chapter 1: Self-Sacrificing Idiot

King Arthur Pendragon was known to be a rather stubborn young man by just about everyone who knew him. Perhaps it was this reason why, even after hours of scouring the forest surrounding the Valley of the Fallen Kings for any sign of his lost servant, he refused to turn back.

Merlin. Gwaine's voice droned on in the background as Arthur mind traveled back to that horrible moment, as it replayed on the back of his eyelids in sickening slow motion: the horseman's mace as it landed, full force, against the left side of Merlin's unprotected chest; as he stumbled sideways, clutching his wound in shock; sinking to his knees as if his legs could no longer hold his weight before pitching face-first into the dust.

Never had panic so overcome Arthur as it had then, seeing Merlin lying there on the ground, still as death and white as a ghost. Sheathing his sword, he ran to his fallen friend – manservant, he corrected mentally – scooped him up from the ground in a fluid movement and clambered up the slope and into the brush, out of the line of fire.

He slid down the other side of the steep hill gracelessly, a mass of tangled limbs, as Arthur tried to keep Merlin upright and sheltered during the fall. As his feet hit the bottom of the ravine, he pulled himself into a small crevice made between the rock face and the roots of an ancient oak tree and hunkered down. In the semi-darkness of their hiding place, Arthur studied Merlin's pale face for any sign of alertness (there was none) before peering down to the front of the young man's tunic. A finger of icy horror crackled down Arthur's spine as he saw how the shirt actually indented into Merlin's chest in places, and how dark spots of blood soaked through the already rust colored shirt, melding together, making the tunic stick to Merlin's skin unnaturally.

Arthur's stomach turned at the sight and fear brought other, equally terrifying memories to mind: Echoes of the inhuman screams of the Dorocha; Merlin's face covered in frost, his eyes open, unblinking…

Forcing the memory away physically with a shake of his head, Arthur drew back another half-step in the crevice until his backside was literally wedged between the angles of the rock wall, then pulled Merlin into a half-sitting position in his lap. The young man's head lolled against his shoulder, breathing shallow puffs of warmth against Arthur's neck. Despite the gravity of the situation, Arthur found the sensation calming. They were both safe for the moment, Merlin was alive and they would make it home again.

Arthur's thoughts were interrupted by a swift intake of breath and a low groan. Fighting an urge to cover his manservant's mouth with his hand (he was too wedged in place to manage it anyhow), he instead leaned toward him and hissed in Merlin's ear, "Shhhh!"

"Ahthrrr?" Merlin mumbled, barely coherent.

"Yes," Arthur answered, his voice not even loud enough to be considered a whisper. "Now, be quiet; we're hiding."

"Hiding from what?" came the immediate reply, softer and more lucid than before.

Exasperation tinged Arthur's retort. "Hiding from the men who did that to you…" He nodded toward Merlin's chest with his chin.

"Oh." Merlin breathed the word as he leaned his head back wearily against Arthur's shoulder.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent in apprehensive silence. Arthur's legs had long-since gone numb from both the awkward position they were in and Merlin's weight upon them. For his part, Merlin had barely moved, mostly alert, but occasionally slipping in and out of consciousness. All communication between them was non-verbal: Arthur would squeeze Merlin's thigh in warning whenever he heard movement nearby, alerting him to stay silent. And whenever his wound throbbed too painfully to bear, Merlin would grip Arthur's forearm hard, biting back the scream he wanted to let loose, his breath hissing in and out between clenched teeth until the feeling subsided.

As dusk settled in, the noise of their attackers drifted away. Perhaps they had made camp for the night, or had simply moved on further away from the ambush site to search for Camelot survivors.

Arthur carefully nudged Merlin awake, not wanting to jar his damaged left side.

"What?" Merlin breathed, his voice thick with pain.

"I haven't heard any noise around us for some time, Merlin. I think we should try to make a break for it, get you back to Camelot and let Gaius have a look at you."

Merlin was silent for several moments before he groaned and said, "All right, Arthur."

Gwaine's raised voice cut through Arthur's thoughts. "Hey Princess, that's the third time we've been down this path. Are you paying attention at all?"

"I…" Arthur spluttered, but his biting retort slipped from his mind before he could complete it. Merlin. Merlin would have laughed at him by now, called him a clot pole, told him he was thick, cackled that he'd taken one too many clouts to the head… Sighing, he replied, "Fine, how about you lead for a while, then."

Gwaine pulled up even with Arthur, and placed a commiserating hand on his shoulder. "It's all right, you know. We all miss him." Then, before Arthur could even answer, Gwaine spurred his horse to the front and began to lead.

The process of their movement was slow going, to say the least. Merlin was lightheaded and weak; he could not walk without leaning heavily onto Arthur's shoulder. His wound continued to seep blood with every step he took. Arthur couldn't proceed for more than five minutes at a time before Merlin would practically pass out from the pain and blood loss.

But it didn't matter, because Arthur wasn't going to leave Merlin behind because it was his fault this had happened. After all, what kind of thick-headed imbecile brings along his servant on all his hunting trips, reconnaissance patrols, and rescue missions? Worse yet, doesn't even give said servant a shred of protection: no armor, or sword, or even a bleeding knife?

They had been out on so many of these trips by now that Arthur guessed he simply took for granted that Merlin would be okay. His servant just seemed to be blessed with an uncanny luck for returning from these things unscathed, even though they had been attacked many, many times over the years.

Obviously, today was the day Merlin's luck ran out.

Arthur lowered Merlin down behind a stand of trees on the down slope of a hill just as they heard two of the mercenaries coming their way. Waiting until the voices subsided, Merlin tilted his head toward Arthur and wheezed, "They need to work through their anger…"

Leave it to Merlin to joke at a time like this, the idiot! "They just did… on you."

Merlin snickered, but to Arthur, it looked like a grimace and he knew that Merlin was in much more pain than he was letting on. It really did take a certain kind of bravery to withstand the agony of such a serious wound without complaint, bravery that he wasn't sure even half the knights in Camelot possessed.

After several long minutes, Arthur pushed himself to a stand, his tired muscles aching in protest as he used his body as ballast to pull Merlin up as well. "Come on," Arthur panted, taking one slow step, and then another, coaxing Merlin along, "We'll have you back home before you know it."

"Arthur?" Gwaine turned his head to look back at the king, his eyes glassy with unshed tears. "How much longer?"

"We're not leaving until we find him, Gwaine," Arthur answered stonily.

Gwaine recognized that tone and knew better than to say anything else.

Merlin was getting sicker, he knew. Arthur could tell, even in the moonlight, that his face was more pasty than usual and his eyes held that distinctive unnatural glow indicating a fever.

Trying to keep the mood light, despite his worry, Arthur teased, "A night's rest and you'll be polishing my armor. They could definitely do with a scrub."

Gently lowering Merlin down so that he could use the nearby fallen tree trunk as a pillow, Arthur nearly gasped at the heat emanating off of his friend. Merlin grimaced as he tried to brace himself against the tree. Carefully, Arthur moved aside Merlin's jacket and peeled back what he could of the blood-soaked tunic. Both men's eyes were drawn to the seeping holes in Merlin's chest. They were red and pussy and crusted with grime. Their eyes met and their faces sobered.

Arthur had to swallow back the tinny taste that usually preceded vomiting as he rubbed his hand against his mouth in an effort to dispel the image of the last place he'd seen a wound like this: it was a young knight on his first patrol with Arthur. They'd been ambushed and it was clear that the weapon used to injure the man had been poisoned. Poor Sir Archibald had not survived the night.

Not wanting Merlin to know his morbid thoughts, he said encouragingly, "I've seen worse; I've definitely seen worse."

He needn't have bothered. Merlin was Gaius' ward, after all. He'd witnessed more than his fair share of battle wounds and knew what he was seeing as surely as Arthur did. If he didn't receive treatment soon, this wound would be his death sentence.

Merlin's cheeky grin did not quite hide the terror in his eyes when he countered, "…On a dead man."

Arthur carefully wrapped Merlin's jacket back over the wound and brought Merlin's arm up to keep it in place. "You're not going to die, Merlin. Don't be such a coward." He knew it was a stupid and insensitive thing to say, but it was just how he and Merlin dealt with the tough stuff. Or at least, it was how he dealt with it, and even if he was loathe to admit it, he knew that Merlin was astute enough to read between the lines to what he was really saying.

Merlin gave Arthur a speculative look. "If I do die, will you call me a hero?"

Arthur sat back and pressed himself against the log behind them. "Probably," he admitted.

"Otherwise, while I'm still alive, I'm a coward."

Ah, there it was. The teasing banter was back in Merlin's voice, even through the pain. It almost made Arthur's heart ache with the bitter sweetness of it…almost. "That's the way these things work, I'm afraid," he responded with mock-seriousness. "You get the glory when you're not around to appreciate it."

Merlin tilted his head and scoffed. "Unless you're the king…"

"Come on, it's got to have some advantages…"

"You have a very good servant," came the lilting reply, a ghost of an impertinent smile on Merlin's lips before he hissed out a painful breath.

Arthur sobered at that. His voice was bare with naked emotion as he admitted, "You're right. I do: a servant who's extremely brave and incredibly loyal, to be honest, and not at all cowardly." Arthur's eyes slid away; embarrassed by this display even while he was glad he said it.

Merlin's response was just as solemn. "Thank you for saving my life."

Their eyes connected again for a moment before Arthur looked away. "You'd do the same for me."

Arthur jerked to a stop, pulled from his reverie by Gwaine reaching over and tugging on his reins. "What?" he said, more than a hint of annoyance in his voice.

Gwaine dismounted from his horse and walked it over to a stand of trees. "It's well past midday. We should eat something."

"I don't feel like eating, Gwaine," Arthur protested feebly, but he slid down from his horse just the same.

Gwaine threaded his fingers through his wavy hair in barely restrained grief, his eyes harboring a wild glint. "I don't either, but I don't think Gwen would take it too lightly if I let you starve yourself out here."

A grim smile graced Arthur's features. "You're probably right." He turned and reached into his saddlebags, retrieving some jerked meat and a block of hard cheese. Gwaine pulled out some fruit and bread from his and then removed his cloak and laid it upon the ground. They sat side by side on it, backs to a fallen tree trunk, and pooled their rations. Arthur grabbed the bread loaf and ripped off a piece, nodding to Gwaine to let him know he didn't have to stand on ceremony and wait for him. Gwaine grabbed the cheese and broke it in half, placing one piece in front of Arthur and taking a large bite out of the other.

"What are we doing out here, Arthur? Really…"

"Looking for Merlin, of course."

"We've been looking for him for two days, and there's been no sign of him." Gwaine refused to mention the bloodied piece of Merlin's jacket they'd found on patrol yesterday. There was no use belaboring the point.

"I haven't been looking for him."

"Well, you can hardly blame yourself for that!" Gwaine insisted. "You're the king! You've had no chance to get away since the attack."

That's where you're wrong, Arthur thought and shook his head. "I should have been out here with every patrol, Gwaine. It was my fault. I was the one who left him."

"What choice did you have? Besides, you didn't leave him; the rock fall separated you. There was nothing you could have done."

Arthur thought back to that morning, how pale and gaunt Merlin was, how he couldn't even so much as lift his own head. His voice was feeble as he protested Arthur's carrying him. "Leave me…please leave me…"

"I should never have put him down."

Gwaine rolled his eyes and shoved his shoulder into Arthur's. "Look Princess, I know you have a very high opinion of your fighting skills, but I believe even you would have had difficulty fighting off an entire horde of mercenaries with Merlin draped across your shoulders…"

Arthur blinked rapidly to force back the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. Still, his voice was full of them when he admitted the thing that had been gnawing at his insides since that moment. "He was dying, Gwaine. He was dying and I just left him there to die at the hands of those mercenaries!" Arthur swallowed around the painful lump in his throat and rasped, "If had been the other way around and I was the one dying, he never would have left me. I know he wouldn't."

The self-loathing that Gwaine heard in the king's voice was staggering. Arthur was taking Merlin's…disappearance way harder than he had suspected. He grabbed Arthur by both shoulders and shook him. "Don't tell me you didn't try and get back to him, Arthur. I know you. I saw the state of your hands when we found you."

It was true; he had. Arthur called out Merlin's name over and over while he struggled in vain to shift rocks aside to get back through the passage. He didn't care if it meant he had to fight every last one of those damned mercenaries to get to Merlin; he would do it.

He yanked and pulled until his fingertips were raw, but they just wouldn't budge…the rocks were too big. And the way the rock fall landed did not make it possible to scale them, though Gods knew he tried.

"Yes, I tried," Arthur spit out disgustedly. "I tried and failed."

"Merlin wouldn't want you to do this to yourself, Arthur." Gwaine's fingers squeezed Arthur's forearms, trying to lend him moral support. "If he could have chosen which one of you would be trapped and which one of you would be free, you know this is what he would have wanted."

Arthur shoved himself up from the ground and began to pace, throwing his hands into the air, punctuating his words, "I know that! Don't you think I know that? Self-sacrificing…idiot that he is."

"Reminds me a bit of that trip we made to the Perilous Lands that time…" Gwaine mused, his own memories of Merlin intruding upon the moment.

The randomness of the comment stopped Arthur in his tracks. Staring down at Gwaine, he demanded, "What are you talking about?"

"You honestly don't think he came after you just for a lark, do you?" Gwaine stared up at Arthur, confused for a moment until realization kicked in. "Ah, he never told you, then."

"Told me what?"

"That the armlet you were wearing was killing you."