Characters: Percival, Merlin, mysterious and grumpy old OC
Summary: Percival realizes something important about Merlin. Friendship. Hurt/comfort. My first reveal fic. Gen
A/N: Important! Please read author's note at the end. It's nothing dire. In fact I think you might like it.
Neither Here nor There
"He wasn't no sorc'r, I tells you. He was a demon... of magic! A beast born o'the storms an' the winds an' the very fires o'hell. He weren't human. Not at all!"
Percival had to give the brigand credit for his poetic turn of garbled phrase, because in Camelot even such little spiels could have consequences of war-like proportions. You didn't take the tale of sorcerers lightly, not even when babbled about in a chaotic form of prose.
"I'm tellin' ya. Ya need to run!"
And were Percival of the masses taught to fear sorcery with a sword in one hand and vengeance in another, he would have run – right toward the source of the brigand's terror to peirce his sword through its heart, as a good knight of Camelot was commanded to do.
Percival increased his weight on the foot currently on the man's throat instead.
"Do I look like I care?" he said calmly, nuetrally. "So for the last time. Which. Way?"
The man finally pointed. Percival gave his thanks by removing his foot from the man's throat and letting him tear off on his merry, horrified way. Percival had more important things to worry about than a mad brigand with tales of sorcerers. He had a friend to find.
Percival trudged his way through the woods thinking of that friend. He'd always considered Merlin a bit of an odd duck but in a very endearing way, because for all the man's complaints and sarcasm and general air of wanting very much to avoid trouble, he wasn't one to hesitate when an opportunity arose to lead half a band of brigands away from the fray. Brigands and bandits weren't the smartest lot, not when it came to the heat of battle. Too willing to chase after anything they thought easy pickings, and nothing said easy pickings like a skinny, unarmed man-servant in clothes that seemed to barely fit him. But Merlin was a spry lad, and Percival had no doubts he would have stayed well ahead of their attackers, even given them the slip...
Percival ihoped/i Merlin had given them the slip. That had been a terribly large number of brigands chasing Merlin, armed to the teeth and hell-bent on spilling blood – any blood.
Percival increased his pace.
And if what the one brigand had prattled on about was true, if there was a sorcerer...
Percival ran, slapping branches aside like they were nothing more than insects.
Merlin was a brave man, despite Arthur's ribbing on the contrary, but he wasn't much of a fighter and mostly just managed with a sword. His gangly limbs often made him about as graceful as a newborn colt, and it was becoming painfully obvious the further Percival went that Merlin had run a long way. If all this charging through the woods was starting to exhaust Percival – which it was, and that was quite a feat - then there was no doubt that Merlin must have felt as those his lungs and every limb were on fire. He would have been exhausted.
Percival tore through the forest, ignoring the burning in his own lungs and the images of Merlin on the ground, bleeding out. Nothing else mattered other than finding Merlin.
As a result, Percival nearly stumbled when he broke from the woodland onto the pebbled shore of a shallow river trickling through heaps of boulders. But it wasn't the change of scene that staggered him to a halt.
It was the bodies. Dozens of them scattered throughout the boulders, in the water, gauzy wisps of red riding the shallow currents. Percival was frozen, staring at the scene stretched out before him in all its gory detail, his thoughts going to sorcerers and his hand going to his sword. He picked his way through the bodies and around boulders, and as he did so he came to realize that what he was seeing wasn't a massacre, it was mass unconsciousness. At least he assumed it was what with so many of the bodies groaning in pain.
But other bodies... other bodies made no noise, their chests still, their eyes half-open and empty. Percival followed the bodies up stream. He found no great sorcerer alight with power, the wind whipping around his great cloaked figure at his command.
He found a skinny little servant boy huddled on a rock, knees to his chest and arms wrapped around them, staring at nothing like a frightened child wanting to go home. Percival approached him with the sure-footed silence of a deer, keeping his movements slow, gentle, like one will when approaching a spooked horse.
"Merlin?" Percival said when he was three steps away.
Merlin didn't react. Up close, Percival could see his shivers – tiny vibrations rippling across his shoulders and down his back.
"Merlin, it's me, Percival. You all right?"
Of course he wasn't all right. He was shaking, and only two steps away Percival could see dirt and blood caking Merlin's face, turning those small patches of clear skin pure white and his eyes pale blue. Merlin maintained his stare with something akin to desperation, wide eyed and so full of shock Percival was loathe to touch him. Do it wrong – too fast, too slow, grip too hard or too light - and Merlin might take it as a good reason to bolt.
But with the bodies groaning and some of them stirring, neither did Percival have the luxury of time. He reached out tentatively, first brushing the bony knot of Merlin's shoulder with his finger-tips then, when nothing happened, resting his large, calloused palm over that same fragile knot.
"Merlin, it's all right. I'm here. I'll take you back. Are you able to move?"
Merlin answered by slowly, almost painfully it seemed, unfolding himself. He started to tip to one side, dizzy or dazed Percival couldn't tell. Percival caught him, holding Merlin against him as Merlin found his feet. But even upright and as steady as he was going to get, Merlin clung to Percival and shook from head to foot.
"I've got you Merlin," Percival said, patting his back softly. "I've got you. Let's go."
Merlin walked like a man drunk, or more likely a man injured. He was half-bent with one wrist cradled to his chest, and some of the dirt on his face bore a remarkable resemblance to bruises. Whatever happened, whoever had laid waste to so many brigands, had not been kind. But why leave Merlin alive? Out if clemency? Pity? If so, why not help him when he was clearly hurt? Why leave him? Because the sorcerer had known Percival was coming?
Or something else, and it was the something else Percival considered with trepidation. Because skinny, gangly, rubbish-with-a-sword servant that he was, Merlin had always seemed blessed with a never ending fountain of luck, luck that seemed to spread like a much wanted contagion to whoever he happened to be around.
Because as much as Percival hated to think it, in point of fact, he had lost count of how many times Merlin – Arthur, all of them – should be dead. And Percival had to wonder...
But here that same luck was now, shining forth in the form of sunlight filtering through the trees onto a little cottage, its walls covered in moss and lichens hiding it well in the shady woodland. Percival dragged an increasingly staggering Merlin to the door, and politely knocked.
An old woman, bent and scraggly as the tree branches arching over her cottage, answered the rickety door with a high-croaked, "Eh? Who is it? Who're you? What'd you do to that there boy? Pickin' on the weak, oh, I hope not, surnny. I'll have yer hide!" She emphasized this threat with a wave of her gnarled, tree-branch cane.
"He was attacked by brigands, I'm afraid, my lady," Percival said gently. "As you can see, he's not in a good way. If you'd be so kind, would you offer sanctuary long enough for him to rest and for me to tend to him?"
The woman's bushy eyebrows climbed up high to her bushy gray hair. After a smack of her mostly toothless gums she said, "Oh. Well. That changes things. You come in, then. I've got some herbs you can use. No funny business, though, or yer hide!" She waved her cane again.
Percival decided he rather liked her.
She ushered them into a modest interior, a door on the right, another the left, and the rest the kitchens. It smelled not unlike Gaius' chambers, all herbs and potions and potent things boiling. Plants hung drying from the ceiling like an upside down meadow, and more plants littered the rather large table in the center of the room across from the hearth.
The woman cleared enough space for Merlin to sit with a sweep of her cane. She then hobbled to the door on the right – a pantry, as it turned out, full of pickled foodstuffs, barrels, iron pots and clay bowls.
"Yer a knight of Camelot, eh?" she said, bringing Percival a large clay bowl and several rags. "Where're yer knights, dear knight? On a quest, are ya?"
"We were escorting the king back from meetings with the neighboring kingdom when we were attacked," Percival said. He watched, steeling himself against the need to intervene, as the woman's palsied hands barely managed to pour water from the kettle into the bowl. "The boy got half the brigands to chase him. I chased the brigands."
"Mm," the woman grunted. She crushed herbs and added them to the water. "You take care of the lad, then. I'm getting' water." She grabbed the bucket by the table and tottered toward the door.
Percrival grimaced. "I can do that, my lady."
"The pits you will, boy! I've been doing this since before you were born, surnny, I don't be needin' charity now. You focus on yer friend, not a woman who blasted well can care for herself, or I'll have yer hide!"
She slammed the door behind her on the way out, ending the matter.
Percival chuckled softly. But stopped when his attention returned to Merlin. The boy was still staring, still shivering. Percival pulled the bowl of water to him and wetted a rag.
Life on your own, with no home and no family to turn to, didn't make one an expert healer but it did provide one ample enough knowledge to get by. Percival knew he would need to check for broken bones, seek out cuts to clean them, bind whatever needed binding. But it was Merlin's face that occupied the majority of Percival's attention, all that blood and dirt and bruises like a mask of violence that had no place on what was supposed to be a happy, amiable face. Between the gore, the filth, and Merlin's hollow staring, Merlin seemed sick, like one near death, and it was making Percival a little ill to see it.
Percival knew well a life alone, but once upon a time he'd had a home, he'd had a family, and he had cared for that family's injuries – scrapes from working in the fields, bruises from falling out of trees, cuts from slipping on the rocks of the river near their home, and a mother whose gentle hands had taught the hands of her children how to take the pain away. It was with the same gentle ministrations his mother had shown him that Percival wiped the filth from Merlin's face, clearing patches of pale skin and sharp cheekbones a little at a time. And Merlin sat there, silent, staring, but no longer shaking fit to fly apart.
It took two rags to clean Merlin's face. Only when there was no dirt and blood left, only the bruises and a few nicks, did Percival move on to the rest of Merlin. The wrist was swollen and Percival didn't dare move it, not wanting to cause Merlin unnecessary pain when the outcome would still be a sling no matter what the limb's condition. He lifted Merlin's shirt as best he could, unable to help probing the ribs for any breaks. Merlin flinched but made no sound.
The woman returned with a bucket sloshing water. She set it by the table.
"So. Will the boy live?" She asked. She busied herself filling two wooden cups of water from a clay pitcher. She sprinkled herbs into one of the cups and handed it to Percival. "Fer the pain we both know he's in."
Percival took it, and with gentle words coaxed Merlin to drink. Merlin did, and Percival was glad to see him swallow it to the last drop.
"You can rest here, surnny," the woman said, handing him the herb-free cup. "Till yer boy is more himself." She then shuffled to the door on the left, returning with some rather frayed gray blankets moments later.
"Thank you," Percival said. "Your kindness will be rewarded."
But the woman swatted her hand as though swatting away a fly and snorted. She shuffled back to the door on the left.
"May I ask your name?" Percival asked.
"No, you may not, Camelot knight," she said testily, and slammed the door behind her.
Percival shook his head, grinning. "We had a woman in our village like her. Angry at the world. Yet she always had a treat for the children." He ducked his head trying to catch Merlin's eye. "Merlin? You're safe, now, you do realize it."
It was to Percival's relief that Merlin nodded. But still he wouldn't speak.
"Merlin, what's wrong? Did they do something to you? Was there a sorcerer? Did they do something?"
Merlin's throat tightened when he swallowed. He shook his head, but Percival was quite sure Merlin had gone another shade paler.
"Did you-" Percival began, but cut himself off. Now wasn't the time. He had Merlin move to the rickety old chair of woven branches by the hearth then wrapped a blanket around him. "Rest, Merlin. We'll need to find the others, soon."
He felt Merlin tense up, but Percival decided that it, too, could wait. He went to the window, giving Merlin space to warm up and recover. He thought of magic.
Percival had never really been here or there about magic, having never been in any way affected by it himself. He had seen a traveling magician once with enough power to make the children of his village squeal with delight, and had wondered why, of all the kingdoms in all the land, Camelot was the only one to loathe magic so much.
But since casting his lot in with Lancelot, then the knights of Camelot, there had been monsters, and dark magic, and a friend lost to a vicious evil, and he understood, or thought he understood. Except magic had never been any different than a weapon or tool to Percival. And like any tool or weapon you could use it to kill or use it to turn flowers into butterflies and bring wonder to village children. Magic was magic, and magic was only what the one using it intended it to be.
If someone intended it for good, they would use it for good. Use it to defend and rescue those they cared about. And they would keep it secret in a place where it was forbidden, so they wouldn't be banished to where they couldn't use it to protect the ones they cared about.
Percival glanced at Merlin, huddled in the chair, looking so small and bruised and uncertain - as though he had done something terrible and knew he was going to be punished for it. Percival moved to his side and crouched next to him, placing his hand on the bony shoulder.
"Merlin? Merlin, it's okay. I know what you did but it's okay."
Merlin exhaled an abrupt, shuddering breath, like the precursor to a sob.
"They kept coming," he said in a small, tight voice. "They were on top of me, pulling me down and I..." He took another breath, but when he released it, it was slowly, as though releasing whatever it was that had left him wound so tightly.
"You did what you needed to," Percival said.
"They wouldn't stop coming. I didn't know when they finally did." He looked at Percival, terrified. "I could have killed you. I could have thought you were one of them. I don't know how it didn't happen."
Percival smiled. "Even a battle-addled mind still has room to see sense. And I knew what I was doing, Merlin. You don't fight battles without picking up a trick or two on how to deal with the aftermath."
Merlin nodded numbly, looking away, his eyes glazing back to that hollow stare. Percival squeezed his shoulder gently until Merlin was looking back at him.
"Your secret's safe with me, Merlin," he said.
Merlin's body seemed to melt, the last of the tension fading away, riding out on the last, long exhale. It was not Percival's place to tell anyone anything, be they king or fellow knight. This was Merlin's secret, Merlin's burden, Merlin's business, and Percival was neither here nor there about magic.
They remained in the cottage long enough for Merlin to feel more steady on his feet. The old woman did not see them off, but Percival supposed she had right enough not to, having sheltered them to begin with. Even as far as they had run, it still did not take them long to find the others and finish the journey home.
Percival and Merlin tried to find the cottage again when Merlin was strong enough and his body healed enough. Percival had always considered himself gifted with a sense of direction, but the spot where he could have sworn the cottage to be was empty, as if no cottage had ever been there.
"Percival, look," Merlin said. He tugged something off the branch of a tree, a piece of parchment. Written on it was one word – Maab.
Percival chuckled, looking at a perplexed Merlin. He lifted the parchment.
"I suppose she liked me, too."
A/N: Announcement! If you haven't noticed, has forums, and I have just created a forum - a Merlin Gen prompt forum to make story requests or, if you're a writer in need of ideas, to get some inspiration. Please check it out, make some requests and answer some prompts. It's called Merlin Gen Request. Just look for my avatar to find it. And please make sure to read the rules before participating. Spreading the word among fellow Merlin fans would be much appreciated.