They leave at sunset with saddlebags filled to the bursting point. Gwaine is oddly quiet and Merlin takes it as a blessing because he can't afford to be distracted when so much is riding on him not mucking this one up.
The problem with tracking auras, Merlin thinks, is that the aura is always stronger at the source of the magic - the sorcerer or sorceress - and the recipient of the magic, like a magically lit fire or in this case Arthur. Ordinarily it's not hard to trace the path between, but when it's spread out over a larger distance - then it becomes hard.
Merlin runs a hand along the flank of his horse and squints, his eyes hurting from the strain of the magic he's pumping into them to enhance his sight, he can feel the foreign magic and he gently rubs his own magic up against it until finally, in his mind's eye, he sees it.
He sighs in relief as he stares into the blue and red cord that was stretched thin. He'd thought he'd lost it in the brief distance they'd traveled from the castle it'd thinned dramatically and Merlin came to the conclusion that this was not going to be a quick trip.
He estimated the source was at least three weeks travel time away and that was if they didn't run into any trouble along the way, and they never didn't run into some kind of trouble along the way.
"I found it again."
Gwaine nods and falls into step behind Merlin's horse his own neighing softly. The woods are quiet, almost unnaturally so, with only the sounds of a morning lark to accompany them on their journey.
Merlin frowned and tried not to think anything of it when the lark fell silent as well leaving nothing but the sounds of the horse's hooves beating against the mulch and the distant sound of running water behind.
Merlin leaned his head into his hand, eyes trained on the bright flames, orange around the edges but white in the center, they'd set up camp only when it became too dark to travel, Gwaine volunteering to take first watch. Merlin hadn't argued, and had instead taken care of the horses and their dinner - some dried vegetables and meat (1) - after starting a fire.
He knew he should be using this time to sleep but his mind was far too active for that. Thoughts going a mile a minute and making him even more concerned about the situation he'd found himself in.
Arthur was unconscious and unable to rule and while Gwen was a good queen. A fair and just queen, she wasn't royal by birth and many nobles were uncomfortable with her at the mantle, it was something that Arthur himself had tried to eradicate from his council but -
But Merlin was worried about her, probably more than was necessary actually, she was Gwen, one of the strongest people he knew, but she was also stressed and she had Arthur to care for.
Merlin's brow furrowed and he absentmindedly flicked his wrist at the fire as a bird, his namesake, rose from the flames before diving back down again amongst the burning embers and pieces of wood.
Gwaine's eyes widened from his spot against a nearby tree but Merlin didn't notice. His mind to busy working though what he was beginning to call the Arthur problem.
Arthur. Merlin didn't know who he'd find at the end of this journey but he knew he had to get there. Failure wasn't an option not in this; he was the only one who could do this. Arthur's life was literally in the palm of his hand, and it was up to Merlin to keep the flickering flame that was Arthur from going out.
Merlin wouldn't let it go out.
And yet Arthur had sentenced him to death, hadn't cared that the flame that was Merlin would flicker and die. Somewhere there was irony in that but Merlin didn't care to find it. When it came down to it, if Arthur died then there was a possibility that Merlin could live. He could escape, start over somewhere new and safe where no one knew his name.
But if Arthur lived - Merlin would die.
And yet, here he was going off into who knows where for him.
He sighed. Sometimes he questioned if he was still sane after the last nine years. Sometimes he questioned if he should have ever even come to Camelot. It been hell, so much pain, so many people lost - his father, Freya, Lancelot, Elyan, and so many more, their ghosts haunting his dreams - so much blood on his hands. He'd done things he would regret 'til the end of his days.
But there'd been good times too, times when he was so thankful that he'd been sent to Camelot, times when Arthur was less of a prince and more of a friend, sunlit mornings spent picking flowers with Gwen and talking to Gwaine, times spent laughing with Gaius and times when he learned more about himself because he had to, and came out a better person.
He was who he was today because of Camelot and her people and - because of Arthur and Merlin had never been the kind of person who could turn away, he wasn't capable of ignoring someone else's pain - except when he had, and look where that had got them? Look at Morgana now - so he thinks, really there was never any doubt he'd do this. If this was to be his last act well -
Well death was supposed to be restful at the very least.
Gwaine sighed and ran a hand through his hair. It only took one week for things to go to hell. Literally one week. Now the king was under some kind of spell - again - Merlin had been accused of sorcery - again, although admittedly this time there was truth to it - and they were off on some hair brained adventure to try and fix things. Again.
So really he mused, it was a normal week in Camelot.
But Merlin, Merlin was worrying him. The man was quiet and withdrawn and Gwaine could almost see the wheels turning in Merlin's head and regardless of the magic, Merlin was still Merlin.
And Gwaine knew Merlin, or at least he'd thought he did.
Why hadn't Merlin told him? Gwaine wasn't like Arthur, he wouldn't have jumped and yelled threats of execution the first chance he got, he wouldn't have sent Merlin to the dungeons because Merlin is still Merlin, the clumsy kind man that had earned Gwaine's loyalty and refused to abuse it.
The man in question was leaning his head into his hands that sat on top of his knees until he was half curled up, while maintaining an upwards position.
And then Gwaine watched as the man flicked his wrist and a bird - of what kind he had no clue - burst from the flames, spring upwards until it suddenly did a turn and dove back into the flames, the fire rising slightly higher before settling back down.
Finally he could take the silence no longer.
"You should be trying to sleep."
Merlin looked up, blinking owlishly up at him before his head settled back into his palms and he resumed staring into the flames.
"Probably, but I can't sleep. Do you want me to take over?"
Gwaine shook his head, and then: "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I couldn't, it's not safe."
"I wouldn't have hurt you. Your Merlin, I couldn't -"
Merlin looked up again and even in the poor light of the fire Gwaine could see the small and utterly thankful smile on Merlin's lips.
"I know. But what I meant - is it wouldn't have been safe for you," and then, quieter. "Excluding Gaius and my mum, everyone who knows about my magic - they've died, it - people have died and I just - why would I want to endanger people when I'm used - "
Gwaine's stomach dropped.
"Your used to what, Merlin?"
"I'm used to it. I've hidden all my life."
"All your life?"
And Merlin looked at him his eyes more intense then Gwaine had ever seen them. Like twin lapis lazuli's glinting in the fire light.
"I never chose this. I was born this way. Why would I choose to be hunted like - like an animal?"
Nothing more is said, because, what else could be said?
They'd been traveling for a week when it finally happens. The danger that had been lurking all week finally swooped down on them in the form of a griffin.
The problem with the griffin is not actually the griffin though, he knows the spell to use, and with Gwaine's help it goes down easily the problem is what happens afterwards. They'd lost the horses in the scuffle and they were stranded a week journey on horse from the castle.
Which is why Merlin frowns and poses the question he does.
"Gwaine, how do you feel about dragons?"
A/n: so yeah not much happens...anyway sorry for being gone for so long but there's this hell hole thats filled with sickness and disease (because you know i have a crap immune system ) - it's called school. And theres this thing called a term paper and it takes over lives. But im back...and also have practice in five minutes so i'll double up on review responses next time okay?