Have No Fear
AN: Hope you enjoy! This starts out a bit slow, but I'm pretty damn proud of it.
Fear is the passion of slaves
It had been, what, two years since the lamia?
And Merlin couldn't even begin to grasp the thousands of little things that had changed.
Like when the knights were in a particularly bad mood, he would see them coming, a looming wall of anger and frustration, and he would freeze, and his blood would run cold.
Or if a knight called his name, or grabbed his arm, Merlin would flinch away from them.
However much he tried, he could never completely trust them again. He knew it was stupid, he knew they hadn't been in control of their actions, but he couldn't bring himself to fully believe it.
I mean, they had called him weak. Nothing more than a servant. The lamia could change their behaviour, but she couldn't plant words in their mouths. What if they had spoken the truth?
What if they all hated him, and held him in contempt, but refrained from saying anything because Arthur was always there?
Merlin didn't want to believe it, but over the course of time, he'd had to. He'd had to. Over the last few months, especially, he'd look up and find them all watching him.
"Come on, Merlin," came the expected drawl.
"Yes, sire," he replied, heart quickening as he struggled to pick up the armour strewn across the room. He was late. He was always late. The knights weren't going to be happy with him.
"Just…a…second," he continued, stooping to pick up the last quiver and somehow managing to cram it under an elbow. "There! Let's go!"
He ignored the raised eyebrow as the king followed his servant out of the armoury. They were going on another damned patrol. The king didn't even give a reason, he just announced it to the council yesterday and shouted down the protests. Well, Merlin's protests.
Normally, Merlin would be happy to leave the castle, but when going on patrol meant four days of being stuck with the knights, the knights who could attack him the second the king was distracted…
No. He could do this. He wasn't weak. He was strong. Stronger than they were. He could handle this.
His footsteps slowed as he was once again assailed by memories of that time. It had happened so gradually that he hadn't realised how bad it really was. He had been helpless, absolutely helpless against his own friends. He was being attacked, shoved around, treated like a slave.
How could you protect yourself from your friends? They know you, they know how to hurt you. They know the best way to make you hate yourself, the best way to make you want to hide. You can't just keep going, like nothing's happened.
When he had seen Arthur, the relief was so great it obliterated the other feelings, the betrayal, the hatred, the fear. It had taken a few days for the truth to filter through his light-headedness. And when it did, he couldn't believe them.
He couldn't believe the knights would just keep right on going, as if everything had been perfectly normal, as if it had all been a game, as if it had meant nothing. Merlin had always valued loyalty above all else, and the knights had thrown that into his face.
The question snapped him out of his head and back into his surroundings. He had stopped in the doorway of the castle, looking down at the courtyard, suddenly very unwilling to go and join the knights gathered at the stables.
Even as he was turning around and assuring Arthur he was all right, with a bright grin carved into his face, he was wondering. Was that worry in the king's voice? Was Arthur scared of him? If so, why? He allayed Arthur's fears – suspicions? – and forced himself to take the step, the step that would make him leave the safety of the shadows and enter the knights' line of sight.
Merlin reminded himself to take it easy as they approached the gang. It wouldn't do to start panicking right now. Better to not think, to forget, which was why he had sneaked a bit of Gaius' pain medecine before they left.
"Come on, Princess, what took you so long?"
Arthur chuckled as he slung his pack over the back of his saddle. The chuckle had an edge, but no, Merlin wouldn't think about that.
"We had a little delay, Sir Gwaine. Merlin had forgotten his head."
Wasn't that joke a bit pointed? Magic was still the only offence that required beheading as a punishment, besides treason of course. Why joke about something like that? Arthur couldn't know, he –
Calm down, Merlin. It could be nothing. The knights seemed to think it funny, anyway.
He hefted himself up into his saddle, feeling his body settle into the all-too-familiar dent in the leather. He felt the frayed rope of the reins between his fingers, and his horse shifted her weight underneath him slightly. He smoothed her neck, lifting a clump of her mane from where it could get caught in the halter.
This is what he had to believe in. Not guesses, or assumptions, or accusations. Things he could feel, and hear, and smell. Things like the widening of the horse's body between his knees as she exhaled deeply, things like the screech of the gate as it opened for them, things like the slate smell of the river as they passed it by. It was relaxing, mindless, as Merlin absorbed the world around him.
But all too soon Merlin was dragged back into his own, painful life. Arthur had struck up a conversation, aimed at the group as a whole.
"Gaius says everything is looking normal. The due date is near Samhain Festival."
The pride in his voice was obvious. He dipped his head, grinning quietly at his hands as the others grasped the significance of the statement.
"Congratulations, sire!" Leon looked genuinely happy for his king.
"Yeah, well done, mate!" put in Gwaine, pointedly. Merlin rolled his eyes at the double entendre, as Elyan leaned over and punched the knight on the shoulder.
"Thought of any names yet?" asked Percival, his eyes shining. Out of all of them, Percival was the only one who had had a family, before his village had been razed to the ground.
"Well, if it's going to be a girl, and I think it will be, we were thinking of Anne."
Here, Arthur paused and shot a glance at Merlin. Merlin sat up straighter, and said what was expected of him.
"Nah. Too boring. She's going to be a queen, remember? She needs something more special."
Arthur nodded in agreement, and the conversation resumed in gusto, suggestions being made, warnings, advice, and jokes flashing through the air as the horses clopped merrily along the road. It was a fine sight indeed; the royal and loyal knights, their red capes billowing; the leaves dappling the sunshine, the happy laughter echoing off the trees…
And it was killing Merlin inside.
Arthur had turned to Merlin for approval. To Merlin. To the man he trusted the most, more than his knights, more so than his own wife. To the man who had been lying to him from the start. To the man, who, should he relax, slip up, or in any way let down his guard, had the power to ruin the king's life with a glance.
Merlin snorted. Power? Was it power that made him able to swallow everything down, shut it off, smile and say he was happy?
Was it power? Or was it practice? Because Merlin had practice. He had experience in the art of lying to the king's face.
And yet, he had to grin and chortle and protest and complain.
They were all so happy. There was genuine joy in the air, authentic smiles being shared, belly-laughter and snorts and guffaws. Merlin was a stranger among them. A stranger with a pain-riddled body, a dead heart and a cold, cold mask.
The servant snapped to attention.
"Merlin, were you even listening?"
"Course I was, sire. At least until you started talking."
"And why is that?"
"Your voice – it puts people right to sleep."
"It does not!" protested the king as Gwaine laughed loudly.
"It does too! Why do you think Gwen wrangles her way out of every single council meeting?"
"Because she's the queen? And I can't help but notice that you accompany her each and every time!"
"That's because I like her. She can't talk you into a coma."
Behind Arthur, Gwaine silently cheered Merlin on. Merlin smiled, getting into his stride.
"And that's not the only–"
"All right, Merlin! Don't strain yourself! Fellas, we should set up camp here, let the horses rest for the night."
The servant looked around. It was nearly dusk already. Huh. The Grishna Woods were open and uncluttered, and a blood-orange sun filtered through the slim trunks and whacked him in the eyes. He could hear his mare's heavy, rolling breaths, louder and faster than before. Yes, it was time to rest the horses.
He slid his leg over the saddle and thudded to the ground, staggering slightly, one hand on the horse's reins and another on her shoulder. He guided the mare to a beech and tied her up, waiting for the inevitable —
"Gwaine and Elyan, you get the horses unsaddled and tied. Leon, I want you to find stones for the fire. Take Percival with you. And Merlin–"
"— fill the waterskins, pitch camp, collect the firewood, start the fire, cook the dinner, feed the horses and clean the tack. I know, Arthur, I know," he said, flashing a final grin at the king before turning and plunging into the forest. He headed away from the others, cutting a diagonal through the trees and feeling his face fall and his heart plummet the further he got.
He finally stopped, his hands pulling and twisting at his hair, as he tried to prepare himself for an entire week of total and all-encompassing terror. Who was he kidding? They hated him. He was a servant. He was nothing. What did he think he was doing, dancing on the brink of ignorant prejudice? His breath was coming faster, his palms were sweating; if any of them found out…
Here. This is where he was. This patch of forest, next to this stagnant pool, half a mile away from the others.
Away from them. They weren't anywhere near. So why was he still having trouble breathing properly?
Get it together. Keep it in. Lock it up. He managed to calm himself down, concentrating on the task at hand. This was admittedly a good plan. He should have been more grateful to Gaius for suggesting it.
"Asi mentia, uisce in uch san," he whispered, his palms flat against the ground. He felt the wave of cold power explode outwards from his centre, thundering silently against the landscape. He needn't go too far, this time.
He slowed his magic down, reigning it in. He focused now on the new senses that came pouring into his mind, the giddiness of sensing every single living organism in a focused space.
He felt in the general direction of the camp, his magic flexing and flowing outwards, like a toppled bucket of ice-cold water. He counted one, two, three, four, five bright spots of heat, solid rocks in the surface of the ocean. The knights were still a distance away. Good. There was no one else around for several miles. Also good.
He relaxed more, his mind calmer, and he turned his attention to a different matter.
Judging from their direction today, they were headed south-south-west, following the footpaths between the villages. Arthur would attend to business first, keeping the guards of the south border on their toes, but then he would probably veer away from them, into the less populated regions of the county. The king disliked the gawking, and since he was here to relax—
He would want to hunt.
Merlin's question was, where exactly could he find a flock of pheasants and convince them to die on their arrows?
It would be easier for him, he reasoned. If the knights found some game, they would be in higher spirits. Arthur, too, would be happy that his trip hadn't been fruitless. They would all be easier to deal with. And pheasants were much easier to transport, to clean and to cook, than, say, deer.
He gathered up his power and urged it forward, to the northeast, ignoring his immediate surroundings. His magic complied, and for an instant there was just the sheer thrill, the rush of speed, of fluidity, before it was back to business.
He chose carefully, selecting the weakest of the flock, the elderly, to be in the wrong place tomorrow. He pretended that he felt bad, and deposited a minor charm on the flock, to keep them safe and well-fed as a thank-you.
It had taken no more than two minutes to play god.
There was no reason to delay any longer. Merlin opened his eyes. He took in the minute difference in the light, and got up, stretching and cracking his knees. He hastily lopped a few branches off a resinous pine, to keep the insects away, and sawed at the branches of a young poplar.
Time to get back to his reality.
He broke back into the clearing, making sure to trip over a root as soon as he was visible, and ducked his head, as though embarrassed.
"That was quick," said Percy, flashing Merlin a smile as he took the bundle of firewood off him.
Merlin smiled noncommitally, struggling to believe that Percy didn't mean anything, couldn't have seen him, couldn't know—
The servant walked to where the saddles were piled, and riffled through the packs, pulling out the blankets and propping them behind him.
His movements became stiff as he sensed someone come up behind him, looming, and he forced his arms to keep on moving, as though he hadn't noticed.
He exhaled forcibly, as he waited for the knight to speak. Finally, he glanced up – and he hated that once again, he was weak, they were in a position of power over him – and tried to smile at Gwaine. At least he could trust that his fake smiles were damn convincing.
Gwaine was regarding him seriously, considering. Considering what? Was that suspicion in his eyes, the set of his shoulders, the tightened eyebrows? Was it accusation?
"You're awfully quiet today."
Merlin pushed away the knowledge that the knights had stopped and were looking at him.
"Just tired is all. The royal prat had me polishing boots until daybreak."
Gwaine grinned, and leaned in to examine his face.
"So is that why there's a smudge of polish on your chin? Did you fall asleep on the job?"
"Probably. Those boots are ridiculously comfortable."
Arthur's voice sounded from near the horses.
"I swear, if you've been trying on my boots, you can ruddy well keep them."
Merlin straightened, raising his chin challengingly at the king.
"You would give up your custom-made, hand-stitched, over-polished leather boots? What on earth would possess you to do that?"
"Well, if your filthy feet have been in them—"
Merlin flushed. Again, the assumption that he was dirtier, filthier than them. As if Merlin was nothing more than a rat, a small, flea-infested rat.
He noticed Gwaine looking at him expectantly, as if he thought Merlin would insult the king right back. Well, he had nothing.
He turned and picked up the pile of cloths, dumping them unceremoniously near the fire, before swiping the water bottles from the saddlebags and heading to where he'd felt a river.
He didn't want to think about the situation he had just left behind. He needed to get out, to clear his head, before all the lies and the injustice built up too high and –
Okay. Okay. The cold water was rushing and flowing over his fingers, numbing them. He squeezed the waterskin tighter, barely feeling the bag swell up. He pulled it up through the glittering surface of the water, capping it and putting it beside him. He picked up another.
Okay. He needed to think about this. Gwaine was suspicious. By now, the others would be suspicious too, for letting Arthur get one over him like that. If he was going to pretend it was lack of sleep, he'd have to try harder tomorrow.
He would have to fake a good night's sleep, and wake up fresh and excited. He would have to be his old, sparkly self. He would have to lie. Again.
But he had to. He had to. He had to keep his true self hidden. The king couldn't find out now, not on a patrol in the middle of nowhere. This was going to be a happy occasion. Merlin was going to make it a happy occasion. They were celebrating the king's oncoming heir, after all.
He blinked. On one side of him, a little pile of glistening waterskins. On the other, nothing. He'd finished. Time to go back and face his demons.
Come to think of it, he thought, picking up the skins and heading back, facing a demon wouldn't be so bad. He'd read about them in Gaius' books, and the things they made you feel would be nothing, nothing, compared to what he was feeling now.
Elyan looked up, relieved, as Merlin moved into the firelight. He chucked the waterskins at the knights, who were quick to catch them as they went flying in all directions.
He prepared to throw the last one, when inspiration struck. Quickly, nonchalantly, he twisted the cap until it was loose, and fired it into Arthur's waiting hands.
And Arthur was showered in tiny droplets, as a fine mist of ice-cold water sprayed from the lid. And Merlin was laughing, an evil smile on his face, and the knights were joining in as the king's eyes went wide and he sat frozen in shock, water dripping from his nose.
"Merlin," protested the king, stopping short at redoubled laughter. Grinning ruefully, he grabbed at his blanket and towelled himself off.
"Merlin," he continued "that was uncalled for."
Merlin just laughed all the harder. Finally, the king waved a hand in dismissal and sat back down.
After he had received Gwaine's customary clap on the back, an action reserved for when a prank was successfully pulled on Arthur, Merlin pulled out the saucepan and opened up the food reserve. Here, really, was the thing that outlined it the best. He was the servant, and at the end of the day, he would do the cooking, while they sat there and laughed.
You can't keep the truth away. You can't ignore it.
Keeping a careful smirk in place, Merlin concentrated on building up the fire to cooking heat. The dried venison would go all right with the onions, the leek, and the carrots. Soup was really the only warm-food option out here. And yay, here were some potatoes.
He dug a quick hole with the end of a spoon, and wrapped the spuds in cloth. He used a spade to shovel some of the white-hot ashes into it, and dropped in a few glowing branches. The potatos went in, and he covered them with some more ashes.
He looked up and caught Leon's eye. The knight was lounging on a tree trunk, cleaning his crossbow.
"Leon, could you fill this pot with some water? The stream's over there, through those trees."
Leon nodded, striding towards him – and Merlin didn't let his sudden panic show – to pick up the saucepan, and vanished from sight. Merlin almost instantly regretted his demand. There was no way Leon would enjoy being ordered around by a servant. Leon still scared him the most out of the knights.
When the soup was finally ready, it was met with growling stomachs. Even Merlin was hungry by that point, and he didn't hunger easily. He pulled out the potatoes and left them on a rock to cool, before handing out the dishes and retreating to a safe distance, his back against a tree, to watch the others.
Why did Leon scare him so much? Well, Leon had always been a noble, always high up in society, always the most distant to him emotionally. At least with the others, they had all been commoners, and he had bonded with them before the incident.
He shuddered as he remembered the silhouette of the abandoned castle, as sharp and as jagged as the memory. The gut-wrenching indecision. Should he pretend he was helpless, and sit and wait for the lamia to find them, or should he light a torch in front of Gwen, damn the consequences? Should he stay and protect her, or should he go and stop the knights from killing each other? The darkness. The torment. The yelling –
And he was back, and he was alert, surveying the camp for some sign of attack. He lifted an eyebrow innocently. Through the façade he was watching them, watching them stare at him concernedly, and he knew that there were cracks in his mask, his eyes were too dark, his smile was too strained –
There was a pause.
"Are you all right?"
He sat up, stretching his arms out, flopping back convincingly. His heart was beating too fast, there was a cold sweat on his skin, but they were far enough away not to notice that.
"Yes… is something wrong?"
"No. You just looked…"
"Tired," interjected Gwaine. "You looked like you were ready to fall asleep, mate."
"I can hang on a bit longer," he replied, and he beamed, and judging from their mollified expressions, it was a good one. He was trying to calm his breathing, because something was wrong, the mask must have slipped while he was remembering. And right now, everyone in the clearing was lying.
"Actually – I'm freezing," he said, standing and walking closer to the fire, legs stiff and protesting. He realised that he was cold, and that was the only advantage he could think of to getting closer to them.
Elyan budged up to make room for him, and Merlin sat gratefully – he took care to look grateful – on the warm blanket, feeling the heat wash over his skin.
He grinned lazily, eyes carefully heavy, and he yawned, a jaw-cracking, tear-jerking yawn. Arthur and Percival almost immediately started yawning too, and that was really the mark of a yawn well faked.
He blinked blearily, and Gwaine took this as an opportunity to suggest bedtime. Merlin agreed wholeheartedly, and he leaned over to pull his blanket closer to him, attempting to move into his bed with a minimum of effort, as around him the knights stood and stretched.
He rolled into his bed, feeling the temperature difference as he reached the cold blankets. He yawned again, and bundled up tight before falling still, infinitely aware of the many eyes watching him carefully.
And now he had managed to get into bed, close enough to the circle around the fire so as not to be suspicious, and yet further from the fire than anyone, and a good distance away from the others. He congratulated himself darkly.
He heaved out an audibly happy sigh and settled deeper, forcefully relaxing his shoulders, still aware of his audience. He waited another nine minutes before letting his mouth drop open and his snores start to roll through the clearing, starting quiet, and getting steadily louder.
He heard the almost inaudible footsteps as someone approached him to make sure he was really asleep. The backs of his eyelids darkened, and he clamped down on his body with an iron will, begging it not to give him away.
He felt a hand being waved in front of his face, and then the knight moved away. His breathing was deep and slow, his limbs were floppy and relaxed, and yet the relief he felt was almost overwhelming. He didn't change a breath as he heard the knight – probably Elyan, the man could move like a ghost – join the muttering knights on the other side of the fire.
Damn – he couldn't hear them. He knew how to work the spell, but could he? Should he? What if he was caught? His heart rate increased again, his breath revealing nothing, reminding himself that the only way they could catch him was by seeing his eyes – and his eyes were closed.
He had to do it, didn't he? Curiosity overwhelmed him, and he mentally intoned the spell, leaving his body behind as he moved over to them. He was a breath of wind, a floating ember, flying above the hushed tones.
"No. Did you see the look on his face? That was not the expression of someone who is okay."
"What could be wrong?"
Merlin eased closer, glancing behind him, and was pleased to discover that his body was unchanged, his snores still loud and unpleasant.
"He looked…terrified. Maybe someone's chasing him?"
"We would have found them by now. Gwaine, what did you find when you were tailing him?"
Merlin tensed, and they felt it, a sharp, sudden breeze, but they ignored it out of hand.
"Nothing. He just filled the bottles. I couldn't see his face."
"Before that, princess, he was too fast. He was only getting firewood."
"Knowing Merlin, it was a whole lot more complicated than that."
"He's being…" mused Leon.
"Careful," supplied Percival.
"Not careful enough," muttered Gwaine.
Merlin jolted in shock, and lost his grip. He hurtled back into his body, and his lungs let out a very long, very awake-sounding sigh. There was abrupt silence from the knights, and Merlin cursed himself inwardly.
Then came the sounds of various people getting into their beds. There went his chance.
He rolled over languidly, his hand flopping out and resting on the hard ground, his blanket getting tangled in his legs. His mind was reeling.
Gwaine knew? Gwaine knew?
His breathing was too fast, and he forced himself to calm down, take it easy. Maybe it wasn't that serious. What could Gwaine have meant?
Maybe he believed Percy's theory that someone was following him. Maybe he had just been cursing Merlin for being an idiot and making someone angry. But what if Gwaine knew? Had that been a threat? He couldn't – he couldn't know. No one could know.
Merlin bit his tongue and allowed himself to think the thought he had been avoiding all this time.
He had waited too long.
He had waited too long to tell Arthur. Before, when Uther was alive, there was a legitimate reason for Merlin to keep his secret. He didn't want to make Arthur choose between a servant and his father, especially when the odds were so against him. And when Uther was sick, he held his tongue because Agravaine had prowled into Camelot, sniffing in corners, looking for him.
And when Uther had died, and Arthur was crowned king, the excuse was that Arthur had too much on his plate, that he wouldn't be able to handle it if Merlin dumped this mountain on his head.
But now? Now, over a year since Arthur had become king?
There was no excuse.
Now, after everything, Arthur might choose to disregard his magic. But he would kill Merlin, literally kill him, or lock him up, or banish him, because of the years upon years of lies.
Merlin could picture it in his head. The king, banishing his servant for using magic, and coming down hard on magic users, starting up a war, persecuting the Druids; everything would be undone in one fell swoop. Merlin would have failed.
He couldn't tell Arthur. He wouldn't. He had waited too long, and now he had to wait forever. He would die before letting Arthur know his secret. Or he would die for letting Arthur know his secret.
The Great Dragon, feeling Merlin's agony, inquired anxiously if everything was all right. Merlin furiously ordered him away and locked his mind from him. He had to do this alone.
All alone. Like he had been, from the moment he was born.
The raw agony of his decision cut his breath ragged, but he smoothed it out. He ached to the bone with the pain, but he pushed through it.
He had waited too long. His chance was up. And now, he was going to spend the rest of his days obeying Arthur, being the servant of the king, being the smallest and the weakest of all of them. Until he died.
Because he would rather do that than hurt everyone, turn everyone against him, by showing himself for what he truly was.
What kind of monster was he, that he couldn't have a conversation with someone he loved without lying to their faces? What had he become?
He remembered his vow to be his old self tomorrow, and he broke. The thought of him, so happily walking into Camelot, into his first big chance, into his new life. How timidly he had knocked on Gaius' door! How full of wonder he'd been that first night, gazing at the city!
His eyes filled with tears, and he bit into his blanket as his breath hitched, and he was cracked to the core with his decision. It was over, it was all over, because no matter what destiny said, Merlin just could not live with more fear in his life.
Fear that at any moment, the door would smash open and a dozen guards would pour in, beating him to keep him quiet, tossing him into the dungeon, and later leading him up to the pyre, chatting merrily about the filth that is magic, exchanging bets as to how long it would take him to die, and then going home to play with their children. Fear that Gwaine would take matters into his own hands, and corner him in some dark alley, to punish him for all those lies. So many lies.
Slowly, agonisingly slowly, he collected himself from where he had exploded. He repeated the mantra, get it together, keep it in, lock it up. It thundered like a drum in his head.
Then he picked up his pieces, shoved them in a box, and put them away.
And when the dawn painted the horizon a delicate salmon pink, he was still awake, still hyperaware of the knights sleeping around him, all of them, sleeping happily, unaware of the shell he had become.
And when Leon woke up, sat up and looked around, Merlin remained motionless, arms loose, breaths deep and regular, as convincing as ever, and he wished to himself that he had never become so good of an actor.
And when Arthur cautiously approached his servant, and offhandedly woke him up, Merlin gave a truly brilliant performance of groggy, grumpy, bleary-eyed sleepiness, before slowly warming up and smiling properly. He skipped out of Gwaine's way, holding his breakfast tauntingly, he poked fun at Arthur for his slow mental pace in the mornings, and he laughed the most out of all of them, and it was natural, and it was perfect, and it reassured the knights, and they stopped watching him so anxiously.
And when they set off for the south line, he rode alongside Arthur, on his right side, his horse a shade behind the king's, and forged on as if he was never going to leave his side.
"Arthur, leave my horse alone! Can't you see, she doesn't like your face!"
"It's true! Nobody likes your face!"
"You're one to talk. Remind me again why there are no mirrors in your room?"
"Ah, you're just sore about the water bottle yesterday."
"That was an accident. A coincidental… coincidence."
"It was skill from my part, pure, mad skill. Talent. Cunning."
"Don't get too bigheaded, Merlin, I'm surprised you don't fall off the horse."
"Look who's talking! I'm surprised you can support your head at all, it's so swollen – and thick."
Merlin could see the knights on either side of him smiling. He swallowed the feeling of being boxed in and pushed on.
"Can't wait to get back to Camelot. Gwen and I are going shopping."
"Shopping? You? With my wife? Why on earth would you be doing that? Looking for a bigger girl's blouse than yourself?"
"You're just jealous, Chuckles."
Gwaine wasn't even trying to hide his laughter, clutching his belly and chuckling wickedly. Merlin spotted the southern boundary through the trees and cleared his throat.
Arthur urged his horse on, face turning businesslike, and the knights sped up, keeping on his heels. Merlin stayed behind. There was no room in the knights' impressive entrance for a skinny servant on a skinny horse, and Merlin could just about weep with relief.
He watched the knights gallop around the corner, capes streaming, hooves thundering on the cobblestone road. Then, and only then, did he allow himself to topple off the horse, fall to the ground and bury his head in his hands, body wracked with pain.
He couldn't do this.
He couldn't do one more minute of this, of these lies, when all of this hatred and fear and guilt were swirling around and around, like acid, and he was burning and blistering and bleeding.
He wasn't strong enough.
He had to get back to Camelot. In Camelot he could hide, he could escape. Out here, in the open, living, travelling with these men? He was like an exposed nerve.
And now that Gwaine knew about his magic, it was time for him to hide. Truly hide. Leave Camelot. Living in this constant state of paralysing terror – he couldn't handle it. And now, like the coward he truly was, he was running from everything. The lowest of the low.
But he would be hurting so many, by leaving them behind. Gwen – sweet Gwen, who had no idea what she was doing, yet had so many criticisms and expectations; Gaius – the man was ill, and didn't have much time left, how could he abandon his mentor? And his mother, who had so wanted this fresh start for him, this new hope—
But if he stayed, he would die himself. He curled himself up into a ball, trying to escape all these blows.
And he was locked in a never-ending hell, a spiral that got worse and worse and—
A hand grabbed him, and he shot up, twisted around, eyes wide, heart galloping, drenched in sweat, cowering—
And he saw that it was Gwaine, his brow furrowed, his eyes angry, about to hit him—
Oh god, after everything, Gwaine was going to catch him, to beat him, to kill him—
And with a thought, Gwaine was halfway across the road, wheezing—
And Merlin was in the forest in half a second, his mind screaming, his breath too short, flat-out, mindless panic making his feet weak as they thudded the ground, the blood thundering in his ears, and he couldn't hear them, he couldn't hear anything—
He tripped, crashing and sliding, his hands ripped, his clothes ragged, but he got up and ran on, hearing now the shouting, the hoofbeats, and oh god, they were gaining, they were gaining, and his heart was bashing against his ribcage, and he was going too fast and—
He broke through the bushes and he was out of the forest, the only figure on a silent hill, and this was so bad, this was so bad, there was nowhere for him to hide, and they were gaining on him, and he fell down a gulley, his legs bloodied—
He launched himself up and sprinted on, his lungs not working, because he was panting too hard, his breath rasping and ragged, and he could barely make his feet work, running nearly blind, his only need to get away, far away, where it was safe, and he was running downhill, stumbling across a dry river bed, and uphill again—
Up ahead – a line of trees. So he ran on, faster, faster, and his heart was a roar, and his lungs weren't working, and he could barely see, and his legs were dying on him, but behind him, much too close, the shouting started again, and oh god, oh god, Arthur was with them, Arthur was hunting Merlin, he could barely think, he was about to collapse—
And he was under the trees. It was almost level ground, and so he could keep going, and there was a cave up ahead, and he could hide in there – could he get there in time? It looked like he could, and he pushed himself, and he was in so much pain, but he was nearly there, a few more trees—
And a flock of pheasants exploded past him, and he yelled, fell, smashed into the ground—
Into a damn ravine. He staggered up, looking for an escape, his lungs heaving, in and out, in and out, much too quickly, his throat sawing, and he wasn't getting any air, why wasn't he getting any air, and his legs were screaming, and his heart was going much, much too fast, and they were coming, they were here—
They had stopped, they were—
One of them had dismounted, was walking towards him, where he was cornered, their hands raised, their eyes wide, their steps slow, their voice calm through their heavy breathing, what was he saying—
"—to help you, Merlin. Please, let me help you, please, I'm not going to hurt you—"
Arthur was trying to bargain with him, to get him to hand himself over quietly and lie down like a lamb, a happy little lamb that proudly and uncomprehendingly presented its neck for the axe—
"—we can figure this out—"
"Figure it out?" he rasped, painfully, his arms braced like vices against the wall behind him, his breath still too short, and god he was in so much pain.
"Figure it out?" he said again, "There is nothing to figure out!"
Arthur regarded him warily, arms still unthreateningly out in front of him, but how could Merlin miss the sharp sword at his hip?
His hand was up, the sword was out and floating towards him before Arthur knew what was happening, but Merlin's aim had been a little off, and it was flying at his head, but he could fix that easily—
And Arthur was suddenly looming towards him, looking horrified, and Merlin panicked, and the sword slit into the side of his neck, and the rock directly behind him was sprayed with red—
And with a flash, Arthur was knocked back several feet, and landed with a thump, arms struggling to push him back up, and the sword clattered to the ground, and Merlin pressed a hand to his neck, feeling the heat pour through his fingers, dripping down his frayed red sleeve, almost indistinguishable—
And there was a yell from the other knights, and they rushed forwards, and Merlin couldn't breathe, and there was another shout, and the knights stopped as the king staggered upright and held them back, and Merlin was starting to feel light-headed—
"I thought you were going to—" panted Arthur, his face ashen, and there was blood streaming down his face, and Merlin was starting to lose it again because he had hurt the king, he had hurt Arthur, and they weren't even going to bother bringing him back to Camelot, they were just going to kill him here, in this crumbling canyon, but Arthur started talking again.
"Merlin, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm sorry – I'm—"
"I can't—" Merlin tried to talk, but he couldn't breathe, and Arthur jumped in again—
"Merlin, I don't care about the magic, I don't care! Listen to me, please, Merlin! We can work this out, we can deal with this, together, but please, please come home with us, I won't, we won't—"
"I—" Merlin tried to speak again, tried to communicate, but his strength failed, and his world was growing dim.
Arthur saw something on his face, and must have taken it as something else, because he pressed closer, Gwaine right behind him, a hope on his face.
"I swear on my life I will not hurt you. Merlin, what my father thought about magic was wrong, I thought you knew. God, Merlin, you had me panicking. I thought we'd lost you…"
Merlin watched them coming closer, watched them be relieved as he didn't react, watched their expressions change as a similar hope shone on all their faces—
They hoped to take him alive.
Merlin lifted his head one last time, his hand falling away from his neck, and watched their faces fall as he spoke his last words.
"I don't believe you."
And he fell, and everything went dark, and he was finally, finally safe.