AN: Hello all, Kathson here with an update for you. Thank you all for your lovely reviews and I hope you enjoy this chapter!
Arthur's mind drifts in and out of darkness. There are flashes of clarity, brief snatches of awareness in which he knows he's tied and drugged somewhere. He must escape.
Merlin, he wants to see Merlin. No, he needs to see Merlin. He needs to feel him, to map the contours of his skin with his fingers. He needs to hear his ragged breath. He has to tell him he loves him. He has to hear Merlin repeat is back. Merlin. He needs Merlin.
"Mm'rln." he tries to call for him but the weight of the drugs is unrelenting. He can't give up though. The inferno burning within will consume him if he can't have Merlin's soothing touch.
"M'rlnn!" he tries again, feeling his mouth finally comply with a mumble akin to Merlin's name.
And it must've worked because suddenly he can feel warm gentle fingers on his face. They're Merlin's; of this he has no doubt. Gentle, caressing and he struggles with his bound arms to reach for him. More, he needs more than these tantalizing feather light touches.
It's to no avail though and he can hear a whisper from somewhere within his delirium that sounds like Merlin's voice. In the softest of murmurs it says "Shh... Arthur. Just calm down. Here take this, then everything will be all right."
Arthur struggles against the cool glass bottle being pressed to his lips, knowing darkness with follow it. Be he can't fight Merlin's firm, skilled delivery of the herbs and soon a bitter liquid is washing into his mouth. A blissful fall into the abyss follows and all he can hear as he fades is someone asking why he's tied to a bed. All fades to black.
Gaius starts around at the knight's entrance and waves his hand for silence. Percival clenches a fist to control himself and inquires again in a whisper "Why is the king tied down like a common prisoner?"
Gwaine casts a worried glance at Arthur's now relaxed from and catches Merlin's eye as he comes to stand by Gaius. He looks worn and years older than he had yesterday. His eyes are heavy with worry, but he tries for a weak smile when he sees Gwaine.
"The king has been driven to madness." Gaius starts and is interrupted by a loud uproar from both knights.
"How dare you speak so of your king!" Percival growls.
"Madness!? What sort of madness? He was sound yesterday. Is it an illness?" Gwaine demands, looking frantically towards Arthur the back to Merlin and Gaius.
"If you would be so kind as to be silent for a moment then I will happily explain what's going on." Gaius snaps and they all fall quiet.
Merlin glances over his shoulder to check that Arthur is still silent of the noise. He doesn't stir.
"The king appears to be under some sort of spell. It causes him to..." Gaius trails off here, casting a brief glance towards Merlin, obviously trying to decide how much he should reveal. Telling the knights that their king has been lusting after and trying to tackle a servant boy won't do.
In the end he simply says "It causes him to act out of character. He is a danger to himself and others so we had to secure him until we find a cure."
Gwaine and Percival absorb the information in silence, and then nod.
"Well, right then. Can we be of any service?" Gwaine asks after a moment of silence, looking back towards his king worriedly.
Gaius shakes his head. "I'm afraid not. Merlin and I are looking for a cure. When we find something I'll let you know... Maybe you can be of service to us then."
Percival nods and glances at Arthur, "Saying I shall inform the other knights that the king is... Indisposed." Gaius thanks Percival as he leaves.
Gwaine lingers for a few moments, reluctant to leave his king in such a state. Merlin has moved back towards Arthur and is sitting on a stool, watching him with a worried furrow of his brows.
"Well I suppose so long as Merlin's around he's okay, right?" Gwaine says with a smile, turning his gaze from the two of them back to Gaius.
Gaius looks up from the large tome he was reading and questions "What do you mean?"
Gwaine shakes his head, looking suddenly reluctant to say anything more. He fidgets with the sword hanging at his side.
"Gwaine, you already started it so you'd best finish it. What did you mean by that?" Gaius questions firmly. Does Gwaine suspect Merlin's magic? Merlin trust Gwaine as a friend, perhaps he's gotten carless around him.
Gwaine lets out a nervous laugh before saying "Well it's just, I mean all the knights have noticed how..." he trailed off, unsure of how much he should say.
"How fond he is of Merlin." he finally finishes, with an agitated shuffle of his boot.
After all it is hardly a knights' business who his king bestowed affections on. And if it happened to be upon a skinny dark-haired servant boy rather than a wholesome blond maiden, then it was to be ignored. Snickered at between the knights perhaps, but only in the quietest whispers and never to another member of the court.
Gaius spears him with a searching glance and says "Gwaine speak plainly. None of this conversation will leave the room, of that you may rest assured."
Gwaine casts a glance, to ensure he wasn't overheard by Merlin and his sleeping king then draws a deep breath before saying "Arthur often smiles at Merlin when he isn't looking. He treats him as a dear friend and trusted advisor. But the way his eyes linger on Merlin's form and the terror in his cries when we found Merlin missing aren't the sort that reflect a feeling of simple friendship."
A light of understanding dawned in Gaius' eyes. He'd long suspected that Merlin fancied Arthur and the idea that the sentiment was returned wasn't a far-fetched one.
"That's all I will say on the matter." Gwaine finishes firmly, and then departs with a friendly nod towards Merlin.
Gaius casts a curious glance at Merlin. He has an open book in his hand, but he's paying more attention to Arthur than it. His eyes trail Arthur's face with concern.
Gaius had seen the look on Merlin's face when Arthur claimed to love him. The flinch that shook his body for a brief moment and the iron strength of his mind fighting against Arthur's ravings.
But he'd also seen Arthur's face when he'd said it. There was such purity in his expression; a yearning desire for Merlin. It looked too genuine to be just a spell. A sudden thought pierced Gaius' mind and he dropped the book in his hand, in favour of one atop the shelf.
He quickly leafed through it, a half-formed memory of an ancient spell urging him onward.
The words printed in fading grey ink leaped out at him from its place on the page. That was it. Known as the Spell of Hundreds it was ancient druid magic.
By the name many assumed it was meant to clone something, perhaps develop an army or large trove of gold. But it wasn't that simple and was far more devious.
Quite simply the spell takes a single emotion and magnifies it as if it's being felt by a hundred men, towards one person. However all the emotion is felt within a single individual. In this case, it's Arthur.
He began to read the ancient prose in quiet whispers. "The Méadaigh Céad is a mighty spell, meant to weaken your enemy by turning their own desires against them. No weapon is so potent as that which is born of our own humanity." Gaius snorts in agreement, knowing that if Arthur had been allowed to continue on he would've made a colossal fool of himself and very likely lost the kingdom in his madness.
He continues reading from the yellowed pages, after all the more they know about the spell the better equipped they are to deal with it. "Take care in choosing your victims, for the spell has two. The first must already harbor a strong passion towards the second. Whether it be a passion of hate or of love does not matter. You must take a clipping of hair or clothing from the second victim, for the magic must be directed." It all clicks together. The reason for Merlin's capture and convenient rescue. Morgana only needed a bit of hair from him.
He flips to the next page, hoping there will be something about how the spell might be broken. There is a fading illustration of a thick, knotted circle upon a plank of wood. Below is scrawled. "Carve a circle with fire upon a plan of sacred wood. Holly or oak from an ancient grove are the most powerful, but common birch may work if the caster has sufficient power.
The circle will become the Méadaigh and will create a never ending cycle of desire. The desires will slake within the circle over and over, round and round so that the victim's urges build stronger and stronger with every passing day. Take care that the circle is never damaged, for once broken the magic of the spell will be no more."
Gaius lets out a sigh of relief and allows himself a smile. They've found it at last. But now that he knows the answer what is he to do about it?
Merlin must destroy the circle, before Arthur is driven permanently mad by his desire. It must've been in the caravan, somewhere Arthur's would've come in contact with it. Once found it wouldn't be too difficult to break. Locating it would be the problem though.
And what is he to tell Merlin? Merlin believes Arthur's affection towards him are all rooted in the spell. He has no notion that they're genuine.
A small smile quirks the corner of Gaius' mouth when he thinks of telling Merlin. He can only imagine the shining grin it will bring forth. The relief and bright laugh when Merlin realizes that perhaps they can be more than friends as he's long hoped.
But a shadow of doubt crosses his mind. Arthur is the most bull-headed man Gaius has ever met and if he's been denying his feelings for Merlin this long who's to say it will change? After all Arthur has the convenient excuse of sorcery and it's very likely he will use it. Then Merlin would stand by, broken; knowing Arthur's feelings but also knowing he won't act on them.
No, that would be far too cruel. Better to let them both believe that the past days were all a product of the spell and best forgotten.
Perhaps he can tell Merlin about how to break the spell, while avoiding telling him how it actually works. Surely that would be the kindest way...
Arthur feels a sharp, white hot sensation against his eyelids. They flutter open against the pain and he realizes it's simply sunlight streaming through. The residual effect of the potent sedatives reminds him of morning after a feast. His blood pulses like a raging river through his head and his body aches all over. Though that could also be from being tied down for hours.
His mind is full of foggy memories, soft hands and a gentle voice. A sharp, tangy liquid. Merlin calming him. Wait – Merlin? Where is he? He forces his eyes open against the agonizing light.
"Merlin?" he manages to call out, trying to turn his head and look around. The quarters appear empty and he calls out louder "Merlin!"
Straining against his bonds only one thought possess his mind. "Merlin. I've got to find Merlin."
"MERLIN! Please, where are you?!" he calls out again, the ropes rub painfully against his wrists and suddenly he hear footsteps.
But they aren't Merlin's. It's Gaius who finally comes into view. "Merlin!" he gasps. "Where's Merlin? What've you done with him?" he demands
Gaius raises an eyebrow. "I have done nothing with him, sire." he answers in an even tone, fetching a phial of sedative. He can't remain awake.
"No!" Arthur protests "I want to see him! I need to see him. Merlin, please, let me have him. I want him. I know he wants me to. Just release me!" he shouts, still kicking and squirming.
Gaius replies calmly "Merlin has gone sire. He's going after Morgana to force her to release the spell. Now sit still." he says, trying to pour the sedative into Arthur's mouth.
Arthur stares at him with wild fear in his eyes and shrinks away, spilling the herbs "You mad old man! How could you send him after her? He'll be killed! I must go after him! I must save him! Merlin! Merlin I'm coming -"
A sudden sharp pain echoed through his head. Through the dizzying pain he hears Gaius murmur. "Sorry, sire."
The world goes black again.
Merlin has no idea what to expect, but then again, Gaius couldn't provide him with much information anyway. All he knows is that he's supposed to find the caravan, find out where that circle is and destroy it. He pulls his cloak around him and quickens his pace. The sooner he's deep enough into the woods to use magic, the better. He wants to get this over with.
While he walks on, he tries to tell himself that it's his duty both to the kingdom and to Arthur to locate and destroy that damn circle – however he's supposed to do that anyway – but he can't find himself to care much. So instead, the warlock proceeds on telling himself that it's all for the best; he will destroy the circle, the spell will be broken, Arthur will turn back to normal and life will continue.
He smiles into the darkness, but it's a bitter smile. He knew it was too good to be true, that Arthur would never return his feelings. Besides, even if he did, Merlin would still be a servant and Arthur a king – it would end in tears. And there's the bit about Merlin's magic and Arthur not knowing and all that. No good, no good at all.
That does not mean it doesn't hurt, though. Merlin scowls and focuses on the road ahead, but the dull ache in his chest does not let itself be ignore that easily. He can't help but think of the aftermath, of returning to Camelot and telling Arthur that the spell's been destroyed, that he's safe.
Arthur will thank him, reward him maybe, before deciding that it would be best if no one ever spoke of it again and the incident would be forgotten. Merlin would be Arthur's servant, would do his laundry, polish his armor, wait on him, serve him and, occasionally, throw a jealous glance in the direction of the fair ladies the king courted.
The ache surges and turns into a sharp jabbing pain when Merlin realizes that one day, Arthur will have to choose one of said ladies to be his queen. The thought of serving not only Arthur but some beautiful, wellborn maiden as well, of having to look at everything he desires without any chance of ever achieving it-
Merlin growls into the night, as if the sound can actually chase away the pain. He focuses on the road in front of him, which proves to be a more difficult task than he imagined. Even though he's on foot, it's so dark he can barely see anything and he trips over roots, rocks or bumps in the road more than once.
Finally, he turns around to find that he can't even see the towers of Arthur's castle anymore and he allows himself some slack. With a quick movement of his hand and a whispered "Leohtbora,"
The young warlock summons a small orb of light, enough to light up the path in front of him, yet small enough to go unseen from a distance. "Guide me to what I'm looking for," he commands.
The light hovers in front of him for a moment, before darting off to the right and Merlin hurries after it.
He walks all night. His legs ache, his eyes itch with sleepiness and his stomach growls angrily at him, but he forces himself to keep on walking – although he does summon a thick slice of bread from his backpack to munch on.
As the sun rises slowly, making the magical light unnecessary, Merlin marches on, until he finally has to admit he can't go another yard without some sort of rest and he slumps against the nearest tree-stump. He'll only close his eyes for a moment, really, just a moment-
Merlin has no idea how much time has passed when he jerks awake, but the sun has risen and he swears under his breath as he leaps onto his feet. It's been hours, no doubt, and those hours must have taken its' toll on Arthur and whatever is left of his mind.
The warlock adjusts the straps of his rucksack, still angry with himself for being so careless. Arthur is counting on him – well, if Arthur were in his right mind, he would count on Merlin – to destroy that damn circle; sleeping is not an option until that has happened.
He set a quick pace this time, so fast he's almost running, and his sides start to hurt, but he wills himself on, pushing all thoughts aside until the only thing he can think of is putting one foot in front of the other.
This time, however, he is in luck. After a couple of miles, he spots smoke spiraling up from between the trees. The warlock has to remind himself of the fact that if he has found the caravan, he should not make himself be known. Running towards the place is not an option.
So he makes his way towards the caravan slowly, hiding behind trees and bushes, until he is close enough to observe his target. A quick scan of the convoy confirms his suspicions that, indeed, it is the one he's looking for. Now for how to destroy the circle.
Merlin bites his lip and surveys his options. He could, of course, set the whole convoy on fire and hope it would be enough. However, he has no idea of the involvement of the owners; they may be tricked or threatened and Merlin wishes no part in their (possible) suffering. Besides, the fire might be put out before it could distort the spell properly and he cannot risk that chance.
He contemplates trying to sneak into the right carriage unnoticed, but realizes he stands no chance. He's rubbish at sneaking, the many failed attempts at hunting with Arthur being proof of that. Besides, even if he manages to sneak into the carriage, he would never get out of it unnoticed.
A distraction then. The warlock surveys the campsite again, spotting as many as four tall, bulky men, sitting at their fire or strolling between their carriages. They're all carrying swords, but not swords like the ones in Arthur's weaponry. These swords are damaged, with small chips missing and stained with— On second thought, Merlin doesn't want to come into close contact with those swords and find out.
The warlock allows himself some more time to decide before nodding to himself and lifting his hand. A soft whisper carries his power across the campsite, unnoticed by the men, until it reaches its' destination. No sound is made as the rope tied between the horses is cut and it slips onto the ground, freeing the animals without their masters noticing.
And then there's a shout and the horses are running, followed by the men who yell profanities and threats at the escaping animals. Merlin grins to himself as he watches the horses run away – followed by their masters –, before getting up slowly and making his way towards the carriages.
There's three of them, all identical, save for some cracks in the wood or stains on the wheels, and Merlin quickly opens the door of the first one. As soon as he steps inside, he feels there's nothing in here. There's not even the faintest trace of magic, no glowing, no vibration, nothing.
The same goes for the second car and he passes it quickly, but when he opens the door of the third and last carriage, the warlock is nearly blown off his feet. The magic – the feel of magic – is so strong he can't believe he missed it the first time. He hops inside quickly, looking around for a circle of symbols, trying to recall what Gaius said it would be like.
And then he glances at the doorway. And he sees it.
The circle is glowing softly, a greenish blue he has never seen before, and it seems to pulse gently, like a heartbeat. The symbols are carved into the wood around the doorway – the perfect way to make Arthur step through it and activate the spell without him noticing.
Merlin licks his lips and approaches the circle. Up close, he sees that the symbols are moving, spinning around the doorway slowly but steadily.
The warlock is entranced. Not only does the circle look beautiful, the energy and power radiating off of it render him unable to move, unable to think, until he remembers what he's here for and shakes it off. He takes off his backpack and opens it.
Before he left, Gaius gave Merlin a small satchel and very clear instruction on how to break the circle. It should be easy, child's play, save for one detail – it takes time, something of which Merlin is not sure. He'll have to hurry.
He grabs hold of the satchel and stands up, ready to break the spell and free Arthur.