A/N: One person expressed concerns about me having multiple ongoing stories at once. Don't worry. CF has been written in little pieces now and then during my writer block moments for my others, it's actually complete. So I really only have IG and OWS ongoing right now. And I'm just having some issues with them…I'm hoping to get back on those fairly pronto.
It was not long after Gwaine left that Arthur realized what he had to do. He gathered his trusted knights—Leon, Elyan, Percival, and Tristan—and followed Gwaine into the west, looking for any sign of the black-haired secret warlock—though that last part Arthur had kept to himself, for now.
It took a much longer time than Arthur had anticipated to find the place he had last seen Merlin, but when they came to the gorge, Arthur's draw dropped in shock.
Tying his horse to a nearby tree, Arthur took a running leap and landed on the opposite side, soon followed by the others. Dumbfounded, he leaned down in one of the craters and fingered the black, scorched earth. The others searched the surrounding area. When Arthur looked up again, Percival was inspecting the broken remains of a battleaxe, Elyan was in a similar position to Arthur—inspecting another blackened crater—and Leon and Tristan merely stood there, taking in the scene as a whole.
Despite the obvious signs of a rather violent—and magical—struggle, there were no bodies to be seen.
There were also no signs of Merlin.
Had Merlin done this? Arthur had to wonder. But he'd drunk that potion, wasn't it supposed to suppress his magic? Had Merlin managed to fight despite of it?
Well…Gaius had said he was more powerful than Arthur could possibly imagine…Seeing the evidence, however, was more than a bit unnerving. Arthur swallowed hard.
But if this was his work…if he had fought? Then maybe…just maybe he was still alive. Somehow, the magic seemed so insignificant in comparison.
A rustle in the brush made all five of them spin towards the sound and unsheathe their swords in an instant. But a moment later they resheathed their weapons as Gwaine came into view.
Gwaine did not seem all that surprised to see them there, but even so, he refused to look at Arthur. "No sign of him," he told the group in general. "There are several pairs of footprints that lead off in that direction," he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, "but they vanish. Nothing to follow."
They combed the area, anyways. Gwaine was right—the only set of footprints that led away from the scene vanished some fifty feet into the trees, and nothing else gave any indication that anyone had walked away from whatever battle had taken place. The longer they stayed, it became increasingly obvious they would find nothing, and Arthur's heart sank further into the depths of his own despair.
When the sun began to set, Leon made the mistake of suggesting they return to the castle. Both Arthur and Gwaine instantly snapped at him, and Arthur declared that they would not return until they had found Merlin.
After two days of searching and eating off the land, Arthur finally had to admit that they should return home—if only to gather supplies for a more extended search.
After three weeks of said extended search, Arthur at last admitted—if only to himself—the futility of this search. If Merlin was dead, there was nothing they could do. If he was alive…he obviously did not want to be found. And so they returned home after all—just as Merlin-less as they had been upon departure.
Gwaine didn't speak to Arthur throughout the entirety of their search.
It came as little surprise to Arthur when Gwaine at last came to speak to him, only to formally announce his leaving Camelot. Arthur could not blame him. It was clear that Gwaine still held Arthur responsible for Merlin's disappearance, and the knight simply could not bear to be in service to such a king any longer.
That very evening, Gwaine was gone.
Gaius did not know how to contact Merlin. Or at least, he claimed he didn't. Arthur wasn't entirely sure if that was true or not, as he could sense that he had also lost a part of Gaius's trust. The physician however, unlike Gwaine, never so much as hinted of leaving, or of blame. Neither, however, did he hint of forgiveness.
Arthur did his best to continue life as normally as he could. He refused to get another servant, but the castle staff seemed to know that was just stubbornness. So somehow he still had hot meals delivered, clean armor, clean stables, and everything else that Merlin used to accomplish. He just never saw who did it. More than likely it was a series of different servants.
Gwen was, of course, devastated at Merlin's disappearance. It was a long time before Arthur was finally able to confess to her the horrible betrayal he had committed. For days, Guinevere couldn't look at him without bursting in to tears. But then she was back. She claimed she never really blamed Arthur, that she had just been processing.
Again, Arthur wasn't sure if he believed her.
Arthur tried to keep himself busy. He certainly had plenty of duties to attend to. But he could never keep himself busy enough to block out the painful memories. Eventually, he quit trying to altogether. When that happened, he found himself at Gaius's door.
He knocked softly before opening the door. "Gaius?"
The physician was sitting by the window, reading a book by the light of the setting sun. "Sire," he greeted shortly. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Arthur hesitated. Maybe this was a bad idea. But he wanted to know. It had been over a month since Merlin's disappearance, and he still knew nothing. Why magic? Why Camelot? So many questions spun through the king's head.
"I was...hoping you could help me understand," he said at last. Gaius's eyebrow rose in confusion, but when it became clear that Arthur was not going to elaborate he bowed his head in sudden understanding, and he nodded.
So that was how Arthur came to be sitting cross legged in front of the physician—much as he had done when he was a child begging Gaius for another story, as his own father never read to him—hearing stories about all Merlin had done since coming to Camelot.
The stories sobered him, and crushed the guilt even deeper into his soul.
Night after night he kept returning, each night hearing another story. Some nights the stories truly amazed and humbled him—like the story of the Questing Beast, and any of the stories where Merlin fought silently against Morgana. Other nights the stories were much more in line with the Merlin he knew, albeit a magical one, such as how he managed to let the goblin loose in the castle, or how he cheated on his chores with magic despite all of Gaius's warnings.
He thought Gaius would run out of stories after a week or so. Yet a month later, the stories kept coming.
It was at the end of the second month that Gwaine returned. If anyone asked him why, he just said that he missed Camelot and came back. But to Arthur he gave the real reason.
"Merlin gave everything to protect you," he told Arthur the night of his return. "As little as you deserve it, he'd want me here, protecting you while he can't. So I came back."
A cold civility remained between them from that moment on, but it was a step forward from the silence.
Not long after Gwaine returned, Arthur got his first hint that something strange was going on.
In a none-too-rare moment of frustration with himself, Arthur abandoned his kingly duties for an afternoon, snuck out of the castle, and went into the woods with nothing but his crossbow in hand and sword on his hip to work out his frustration with some hunting. Alone.
It was not the first time he snuck out for a solitary hunt. Oddly enough, these hunts only ever managed to aggravate him further. Far from calming him and helping him forget, every snapped tree twig, soft "twang" of the bow string, or thud of a bird or a hare hitting the ground made him remember all the more vividly.
Snapped twig. Merlin would have stepped on at least twelve by now.
Bow string. Merlin would avert his eyes from the kill, and Arthur would pretend not to notice.
Thud of the body. Merlin would comment about the "noble tradition" of killing defenseless animals for sport, and Arthur would call him a girl.
It hurt. But for some reason, Arthur kept returning for that ache.
This time, however, something went wrong.
It was nothing magical, or even all that extraordinary. But even the ordinary can be dangerous.
The boar he was hunting spooked, and Arthur was immediately the target of an angry charge. Knowing there was no way to outrun the boar, Arthur stayed calm, quickly aimed the crossbow, and pulled the trigger.
Only there was no soft twang, merely a jerk of the weapon as the arrow attempted to discharge and failed. The bow had jammed. The force meant to send the arrow flying forward instead radiated up Arthur's arms. And there was no time to dodge the rampaging boar or to draw his sword.
Arthur barely had time to register that this was a really stupid way for him to die and to close his eyes against his imminent death before the strange thing happened.
A skidding sound followed by some rather impressive squealing prompted Arthur to open his eyes again, only to see the same boar running full speed in the opposite direction.
Arthur, having fallen over, picked himself back up and looked around uncertainly, expecting to see an even bigger predator that had caused the boar to flee. But he saw nothing.
Confused, rubbing life back into his numb arm, Arthur picked up his dropped crossbow and slowly made his way back to the castle—eyes glancing uncertainly around him the entire time.
That was not the only strange instance, either.
It was a good half dozen odd occurrences later—each time Arthur coming out miraculously safe from a seemingly damning situation—that at last drew the king's suspicion. But it wasn't until two full weeks after the boar incident that his suspicions were confirmed.
This time, at least, the near-death experience had been slightly more befitting of a king—or so Arthur liked to tell himself. Rather than ducking his kingly duties for a solitary hunt and nearly getting mauled by a boar, he rode out with his trusted company of knights—including Gwiane, who had practically become Arthur's body guard, albeit a rather quiet body guard—to deal with a group of smugglers.
Their leader ran, of course. Making his move before the others could even realize what he was doing, Arthur kicked his horse forward and chased after him. What he didn't realize, however, was that this group had taken precautions as they traveled. Not long into the chase, Arthur's horse went down with a painful whinny. His boot caught in his stirrup as the animal fell. Unable to kick himself free in time, Arthur found his leg crushed underneath the great body.
The leader must have been expecting that, for barely moments later he reappeared in Arthur's blurry vision, knife in hand.
But the intended murderer did not even have time to raise his knife before he was flying through the air with a cry of alarm, smashed into a tree trunk, and slumped unconscious at the tree's base. Arthur, dizzy from pain, tried desperately to free himself from the horse who's complete lack of movement suggested she was probably dead.
And then the weight was gone, the horse's corpse pulled by some invisible force off of the king. The sudden release of pressure sent a new wave of pain through Arthur's leg, and he grit his teeth, closing his eyes tightly and hissing sharp intakes of breath.
Suddenly, he felt like his leg was plunged into an icy barrel of water, tiny prickles of pain like stabbing needles laced their way up clear into his waste. But then the needles faded and the ice dulled to a soothing coolness. It took him a moment to realize there was a hand on his leg.
Opening his eyes slowly, Arthur's blurry eyes took in the top of a bowed head of dark hair, as whoever it was traced a glowing hand along the injury.
Arthur gulped, his throat suddenly much tighter than his leg. All he could do was lay there in silence until at last the man finished his work. His head raised, and Arthur met a pair of hauntingly familiar blue eyes.
And just as soon, he was gone.
The knights found him not long after that, lying in the same position, leg fully healed.
When the numbness at last wore off, it was all Arthur could do to contain his joy. Merlin was alive! Oh how he had wanted to hope, but feared to hope. But Arthur had seen him. It had only been a glimpse, but it had been enough.
And then, gradually, a plan began to form.
He dare not tell his knights—especially Leon. They'd only try to stop him. And he dare not tell his councilors—that would be even more foolish. And he would never even dream of telling Guinevere. But for his plan to work, Arthur needed someone.
And ironically enough, the one person Arthur was most reluctant to go to for a favor was the only one he thought might just listen to him.
"Gwaine," he said, when he finally got up the courage to approach his self-appointed body guard. "I need your help."
A/N: What's Arthur's plan? Will Gwaine help him? Stay tuned to find out! Muahaha! Although…in terms of my infamous cliffhangers, this is nowhere near the worst I've ever left you with.
In the meantime…Anyone still wondering what the heck happened to Merlin? Don't worry. All shall be revealed in due time. :)
TWO MORE DAYS UNTIL SEASON 5! EXCITEMENT!