A/N: So here we are at the start of another fiction – I'm so excited!
Is it odd that I'm also excited about Merlin starting back up soon even though I probably won't get to watch it for a while? I think it probably is.
Please, no spoilers everybody.

I'm very glad the voters agreed with me since I got more and more attached to the idea of writing this story next with each day that passed and I've thought through most of it already – if only I could just copy and paste directly from my brain to my computer, that would make things go so much more quickly.
Well, the sooner you start the sooner you finish so let's do this thing :)

Setting the Scene: Takes place after "Patient Zero" (during season 3, post serket incident) and before Morgana's first take-over

Disclaimer: I own none of the characters, places, etc. of BBC Merlin; please support the show!

It wasn't that Jazar enjoyed crouching behind bushes, per se, it was more the results of said crouching that brought him to the forest of Ascetir with his small band of followers.
They had word that Prince Arthur of Camelot would be passing this way with only his manservant as company.
Even Jazar had heard of the prince's battle prowess- something that made him a very valuable quarry.

A mourning dove's call brought his attention to the road- one of his scouts had seen the pair approaching.
Preparing himself, he allowed a smile to stretch across his tanned face.
He and his people would be eating like kings after this.

As much as Merlin appreciated Arthur accompanying him to Ealdor, he really would've been happier if the prat had stayed in Camelot.
Sure, riding there on horseback was much better than walking, but he had been planning on trying out a teleportation spell or two on this particular trip- something made distinctly impossible by the prince's presence.
The man had been rather overprotective since his servant had recovered from his illness and resultant injuries – something that both touched Merlin and drove him mad.
The fact that he now had to look after Arthur even during his 'vacation' also didn't help his mood.

An out-of-place sound interrupted his ill-tempered thoughts.
I've never heard that bird call before – an owl? Not during the day, surely...

"Arthur, I think som-"

Then the sleeping spell hit and the only sound was that of two bodies crashing to the forest floor.

Waking up with his face smashed against a cold floor in places unknown really didn't surprise him anymore, but that doesn't mean he enjoyed it.

Groaning as much in exasperation as discomfort, Merlin struggled to sit against the bars of the cage surrounding him- having one's hands bound behind their back made such things more difficult than they ought to be.

Surveying his prison he discovered a small group of similarly restrained men scattered about the confines, a space probably about six foot square.
The cage seemed to be made of iron and was mounted on giant iron wheels, bordered on sides and back by men armed with swords and the occasional crossbow.

An alarming thought occurred to Merlin then and he quickly scanned his fellow captives.
All of them were small, thin, or otherwise weak-looking men; in short, none of them were Arthur.

Panicked, he rose to his knees and searched the space outside the cage.
Seeing no sign of his master, he took a breath to call him "Ar-"

A hand covered his mouth "Shh! They don't like it when we yell."
A young face, probably around 15 years old, gazed at him from beneath scraggly red hair.
Merlin nodded his understanding.

"I'm Jonathan, you can call me Jon" he said, withdrawing his hand and sitting in front of Merlin, whose eyes were drawn to the boy's wrists.

"I'm Merlin. Um, sorry but, why are you shackled?" Everyone else was simply tied with rope.

"Only one question? I'm surprised. You even skipped past the usual 'where am I' and 'who are these people'." Jon gave him a slight grin.

"Perhaps I'm becoming too used to these situations." Merlin grinned in return.

"Tough luck there, but then again you just may have great luck to still be alive to get stuck in this mess. Debatable. Now, returning to your question – I am a permanent slave of this merry little band here and so I have been graced with these bracelets to remind me of my standing. You and the other men here have also been chosen as slaves and will receive your own when we reach their stronghold."

He cocked his head in a pensive manner.
"More of a tumble-down old castle, really. I think it might have been some sort of outpost for Uther's men during the heyday of the Great Purge."

The warlock winced at this but returned to his main point of concern.
"Do you know what happened to the man I was with? Blond, wearing chain mail, looks supercilious even in sleep?"

The slave shrugged.
"I didn't see him, but he's probably in the other cage. That one's for the people going to the games so they keep them all in spelled sleep."

Merlin didn't like any part of that answer.
"What are these 'games' then?"

"Have you ever heard of the Key and Sword Tournament? No? Well, it's a huge event held once every five years. Basically a bunch of people get together and fight each other while other people bet on the outcome. Most of the events are like a regular tournament: big, burly men showing off their skills to win fame and prizes. Thing is, the audience doesn't always find it- entertaining enough to watch the willing participants fight each other. So then we come to the main attraction- the Gauntlet."

Jon paused to make sure the guards weren't going to make an issue of all his talking.
"The Gauntlet is a series of challenges, some of them intellectual in nature, some random, most physical – we're talking everything from riddles to gryphon-fighting."

The red-haired man seemed to expect some sort of reaction to that so Merlin nodded encouragingly.
Jon shrugged, clearly becoming used to the man's lackluster responses.
" A few people enter the Gauntlet willingly, the prize is always substantial, but most are entered against their will by 'sponsors' looking to claim the prize for themselves. Jazar and his men here, they collect people to force into these fights- 'offerings' they call them. The Gauntlet has to be faced as a pair, one melee fighter and one sorcerer."

Merlin's eyebrows rose, but Jon continued before he could comment.
"The tournament takes place in Cenred's Kingdom so it's not illegal or anything. Anyway, Jazar has magic but he never risks going after other sorcerers- he just collects strong guys and sells them to the highest bidder. Though I suppose that could just be because magic is so scarce in Camelot these days."

Merlin was rather gratified to see the boy seemed to see that as a bad thing.
"I was pretty young last time, but I remember them living pretty well for a while after the tournament was over. I'd just been captured back then..." he finished wistfully.

"You've been their slave for five years?" Merlin asked sadly.

Jon flashed him a wan smile "Oh yes, and my reward is to ride in the cage instead of walking behind it."

Merlin would have replied, but they had abruptly lurched to a stop, prompting him to look around and realize night was falling.

"All right you lot, time to settle down. I don't want to hear any more of your prattle" one of their captors announced arrogantly, striking the bars with his sword to emphasize his point.

As Jazar's men turned their attention toward setting up camp Merlin turned back to Jon.
"Five years is more than enough Jon. We're getting out of here tonight."