This was originally written for the Merlin Horror fest on LJ a few months ago. Posting here to keep ffn up to date with A03 and LJ. There's Original Character death and violence, and maybe a little gore. But also love, a little fluff and sexy times. Enjoy :)
Huge thanks to Fr333bird for all her help with this – and for putting up with all my neediness! And also thanks to MssDare for pre-reading this and helping me fine-tune it. You girls are the best!
The Maze of Malus
"This way!" Arthur yells, drawing his sword and giving chase.
They've been hearing reports of men attacking villages all along the western border and it's taken them over a month to finally track them down.
"Did you know they had a sorcerer?" Arthur grumbles, struggling to his feet after being thrown back by the sorcerer's spell.
"No, of course not!" Merlin snips back, taking Gwaine's hand as he offers to help him up. "How could I? He only just appeared! I'm not even sure he's anything to do with them."
"Well," Leon adds, retrieving his sword from the bushes next to them. "Whatever his reasons, he's helped them escape and now we need to catch them before they make it to Willowdale."
"Well what are we waiting for?" Arthur huffs out and sets off at a run into the forest.
"Arthur, wait!" Merlin calls after him, as the rest of the knights hurry to catch up. They're currently disguised as band of mercenaries looking for work, and so none of them are equipment with their usual protection of chainmail. Merlin curses under his breath as Arthur ignores him and forges on ahead, regardless.
They race after the group of men as they flee through the forest, Merlin keeping a watchful eye for any spells the sorcerer might send their way. They're almost upon them when Arthur and the knights come to a sudden halt. Merlin's senses tingle and he sees the trees in front of them have given way to a large open space; an old abandoned looking cottage sitting in the middle of the clearing.
The bandits and the sorcerer are nowhere to be seen.
"Where did they go?" Gwaine asks, turning around and raising his arms out. "I mean, there's no way they'd all squeeze in there." He points over to the cottage and Merlin has to agree; it's far too small to accommodate the fifteen or so men they were just chasing.
There's a steady hum of magic in the air, but Merlin can't pinpoint where it's coming from. The cottage seems real enough, there's no glamour hiding anything, it's just an old building in need of repair. "Be careful," Merlin warns as they approach the cottage and Arthur gives him a withering look.
"Do welook stupid, Merlin?" Arthur replies, rolling his eyes and Merlin bites his tongue. There are so many responses he could give to that statement.
They circle around the outside, but there's no sign of the other men, so Arthur finally pushes open the door with the tip of his sword and Merlin follows him inside. It's dusty and dark; one large room filled with a table, three broken chairs and assortment of broken plates and other items that Merlin can't quite identify in their current state.
The room gets a whole lot smaller when the rest of the knights join them; Gwaine tripping over one of the chair legs and sending Merlin tumbling back to land on his arse.
"Thanks for that," he mutters, getting back on his feet and dusting the dirt and cobwebs off his breeches.
Gwaine laughs and Merlin is about to wave his fingers about and threaten Gwaine with magic when he sees Arthur reaching for a shiny, silver goblet lying in the middle of the table. It's so out of place in the ruins of the cottage that it just screamsmagic.
"Arthur, no!" he shouts, just as Arthur's hand closes around the stem.
Merlin starts to panic as a hazy grey mist appears down at their feet, swirling up around them, and he instinctively grabs onto to Arthur and Gwaine. He yells for the rest of them to hang on to each other as the mist starts swirling faster and faster, blocking everything out, and Merlin feels the world tilt and sway.
When the mist eventually clears, they find themselves in a tangled heap on the ground, at the entrance of what looks to be a huge maze. Merlin looks up and groans - they're surrounded on three sides by a huge wall, so there's no apparent means of escape.
"Is everyone alright?" Arthur asks, picking himself up off the floor. The resulting grumbling and cursing assures him that his men are all relatively unharmed.
"Honestly, Arthur," Merlin says, brushing pieces of grass and twigs off of him and glaring over at Arthur. "Do you have to pick up every shiny thing that catches your eye?"
"Why didn't you warn me it was magic, Merlin?" Arthur replies, cuffing him none too gently round the back of his head. "Isn't that why we bring you along on these things?"
Merlin chooses to ignore Arthur's last remark; he has an odd feeling under his skin making him restless and uneasy. He flexes his fingers and toes, stretches out his arms and twists his back. He has no injuries that he can detect, but he just feels wrong somehow. He half listens to the knights discussing their current options as he struggles to pinpoint the cause for his unease...and then it hits him. The cold realisation washing over him and he can't believe he didn't notice it immediately.
Before he has chance to share his revelation with Arthur, the loud, booming voice of the sorcerer, who'd they'd been following only minutes before, sounds overhead. "Welcome to the Maze of Melus," he pauses, no doubt for dramatic effect. Merlin looks expectantly at Arthur to see if he's ever heard of this place, but the answering shrug of his shoulders tells him he hasn't. "There is no escape," the voice carries on. "Other than through the maze itself. If you want to return to your own lands, you need only find your way through the maze to the end."
Merlin visibly relaxes at that, because surely they can find their way out of a bloody maze. Arthur notices and rolls his eyes, shaking his head in disbelief. "Really, Merlin. As if it's going to be that easy."
"Of course," the voice booms again. "They may be some obstacles in your path." Arthur turns to look at Merlin with his 'I told you so'expression."You may enter as you wish." The sorcerer finishes and everything is quiet for a few seconds before sounds of other voices echo eerily from all around them, muted slightly by the tall, thick hedges of the maze.
"Anyone know where we are, exactly?" Percival asks, peering up at the wall behind them.
"Nope," Gwaine answers and everyone else just shakes their heads.
"Well?" Arthur says turning to look at Merlin. "What are you waiting for? Do your..." Arthur waggles his fingers and pulls a face. "...thing and get us out of here."
"Um..." Merlin shifts uncomfortably. "I don't think I can."
"Why not?" Arthur demands, stalking forward until he's standing in front of Merlin, crowding him. "I like a good fight as much as the next person," he hisses. "But we have no idea what's in there." A low growl followed by three sharp cries drifts out of the maze. Merlin shivers and Arthur's hand goes instinctively to his sword hilt. "I don't know about you, Merlin, but I have absolutely no desire to find out what that was."
All the knights are looking at him expectantly. He takes a small step back. "I can't use my magic."
"What?" Five voices ask at once.
"It won't work here. I don't know why, but I can feel something stopping it and...there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it."
Merlin waits as they all fall silent. Waits for Arthur to take charge like he always does and get them out of this mess.
"Fuck," Arthur curses softly, kicking at the ground. Merlin has never felt so helpless, without his magic he can't protect Arthur or the rest of the knights and for the first time in years he's terrified of not being able to save them if things go wrong. Arthur looks up and catches his eye, he must see Merlin's fear written all over his face, because he straightens up and offers Merlin a soft, private smile. The sort of smile that's reserved just for Merlin, and usually only appears when they're alone. "I guess this means you'll be even more useless than usual, then," he says, nudging Merlin with his shoulder, hard enough to make him stumble.
"Prat," Merlin mutters, but he doesn't feel quite so desperately terrified anymore. "Thank you," he adds, quiet enough for only Arthur to hear and he acknowledges it with a slight nod of his head.
"So," Gwaine says, grinning and drawing his sword with a flourish. He waves it in the general direction of the entrance to the maze. "Shall we, ladies?"
The rest of the knights and Merlin all turn to face Arthur, waiting for his command. They all know this way appears to be their only hope of getting back to Camelot, but still they wait for Arthur to make the final decision.
"Since it appears we have no choice in the matter, I guess we'd better get on with it." Arthur draws his own sword and steps forward, leading his men as always. He pauses at the threshold. "Be on your guard and stay close to each other. We have no idea what we might be facing, so be prepared for anything."
They all nod.
"Merlin," Arthur says, turning to look at him. "Come up here where I can keep an eye on you."
Merlin huffs and opens his mouth to complain, but the look in Arthur's eyes stops him. It's a mixture of worry and pleading and Merlin knows that look all too well. Without his magic to protect him Merlin is more vulnerable than ever, and Arthur wants him close so he can protect Merlin instead. For once Merlin obeys without a fight.
One by one, they enter the maze.
Nothing happens as they cross the threshold - Merlin was expecting all manner of unpleasant things to jump out at them, but there's just... nothing.
"Bit of an anti-climax," Percival mutters from behind them and Merlin is inclined to agree. He's relieved - of course he is - that they haven't encountered anything life threatening so far, but he also feels strangely disappointed. He should have known better.
They round a corner in the maze and the area opens up a little into a sort of small clearing. There are two exits at the back, heading in opposite directions and Merlin starts to head towards them but Arthur's hand on his arm stops him.
"Wait," he says, walking out into the middle and turning in a circle. Leon and Percival join him, all with swords drawn as they form a loose triangle, searching for some unseen foe lurking in wait for them. Gwaine comes to stand next to Merlin, watching back the way they've just come from in case of an attack from behind.
A piercing scream breaks the silence and Merlin just about resists the urge to cover his ears. They've been hearing strangled screams and shouting since they first entered the maze, but it seems to be getting less and less frequent, and is now silent once again. Merlin tries not to think about what that means and what horror may be waiting for them somewhere up ahead.
"Arthur!" Elyan's startled cry has everyone turning to face him as he hacks at a vine wrapping itself tightly around his ankle. The whole length of the maze on the right side of the clearing is moving; undulating with serpent like movements as barb-tipped vines snake out towards the knights.
"I thought magic didn't work in here?" Arthur says quickly, looking over at Merlin, and yes...that's exactly what Merlin had thought too.
"Only my magic, apparently," Merlin replies, cringing as they see Elyan sever one vine only to have two more attach themselves to him.
"Percival, Leon, with me!" Arthur shouts as he rushes over to help Elyan. "Gwaine, take Merlin and head to the right."
"What? No, I'm not -"Merlin starts to object, because there's no way that he's leaving Arthur, but Gwaine is already dragging him towards the path leading off to the right. He looks back over his shoulder to see that Percival is tearing the vines off Elyan by hand as Arthur hacks at the rest when they try to attack them. He wants to shout for Arthur, tell them all to hurry, but Gwaine pulls him further into the maze until the rest of the knights are out of sight, only then stopping so they can catch their breath.
"We'll wait for them here," Gwaine says, reaching out to grip Merlin's arm. "They'll be okay, Merlin." He looks at Merlin and there's a knowing glint in his eyes. "Arthur will be okay."
Merlin wants to ask Gwaine what he means by that; he and Arthur are always so careful around each other when in public, but it wouldn't surprise Merlin in the least if Gwaine somehow knows about them. Gwaine always knows things.
Unfortunately he never gets the chance. Merlin's eyes go wide with terror as he stares over Gwaine's shoulder at the huge troll-like creature that's ambling their way. It's not its size or the nasty looking axe its holding that scare Merlin. No, it's the thing that's hanging out of its mouth that's making him grab Gwaine and yell at him to run; because the troll is chewing on an arm - an arm clad in what looks to be chainmail, or used to be anyway - and there's blood and bits of torn flesh falling to the ground as it walks. Merlin feels sick, but he has no time to stop and empty the contents of his stomach, like he really wants to, because the priority right now is not becoming its next meal.
Gwaine turns to look over his shoulder, and almost stumbles as the troll swings its arm in a wide arc above its head. The huge axe in its left hand slams down into the ground next to Gwaine, only missing its mark when Gwaine throws himself to the side and rolls out of the way. The troll roars, the severed arm falling to the ground with a dull thud and splattering blood all over the grass.
"Come on, Gwaine," Merlin shouts, hauling him up before the troll can take another swing.
"What the fuck was that?" Gwaine hisses as he races after Merlin.
"Giant troll, I think." Merlin's seen something similar in one of Gaius' books, but can't be sure. Either way it isn't something he's desperate enough to stay and find out.
They pass the entrance to the clearing just as Elyan comes hurtling through it, with Arthur, Leon and Percival at his heels. "Not that way!" Gwaine yells, pushing Elyan in front of him in the other direction and telling him to run. Arthur and the other two knights follow suit, not bothering to ask why, just trusting that they need to move and fast.
They run through the maze, turning right then left before Merlin is so out of breath that he can't run any further. "Stop...Arthur..." He bends over, hands on his knees, pulling in great lungfuls of air. Merlin feels a hand on his shoulder and a waterskin is suddenly thrust under his nose.
"Here," Arthur says, tightening his grip on Merlin. "Drink this." Merlin accepts it gratefully and takes a long swallow, sighing as the cool water slides down his throat, before handing it back to Arthur.
"You're welcome," he whispers back, then adds a little louder. "How have you survived this long, being so unfit, Merlin?"
"It's a skill," Merlin replies, managing a small grin in spite of the circumstances.
"So," Leon interrupts, walking up to stand next to Arthur and resting on his sword. "Which way next?"
Merlin straightens up, looking around them. The walls of the maze are at least eight feet high, so there's no way to see over them. As far as Merlin can tell, if they want to find the way out - they'll just have to carry on going and hope that they eventually stumble across it before either starving to death or coming up against something even worse than the giant troll. He can tell from the look on Arthur's face that he's thinking along those lines, too.
He glances around at the rest of the knights and they all have matching, sombre expressions. They are lost; with no idea how to find their way, no food, little water and worst of all...Merlin has no magic. If they've been in a worse situation, Merlin can't remember when.
"Let's keep going right for now, see where that takes us." They all nod in agreement and Merlin takes his place behind Arthur with Percival bringing up the rear of their group.
They walk for about another hour, having to turn back twice when they reach dead ends. They haven't heard any signs of life for quite some time and Merlin wonders if they're the only ones left alive or if the others in here are just subdued, like Arthur and his knights. Conversation within the group has dwindled to nothing; no-one being in a talkative mood as they get further and further into the maze.
Arthur stops suddenly and raises his hand, the others halting immediately. "Can you hear that?" he turns to whisper in Merlin's ear and the wash of hot breath over his sensitive skin makes Merlin shiver. He pushes the feeling down, because now is really not the time. He tilts his head instead, straining to hear what Arthur obviously hears.
He listens hard, but for the first few seconds, all he can detect is the rustle of the wind through the walls of the maze. Then he hears it - hushed voices, talking too fast and too quietly for Merlin to make out the words, but voices nonetheless. Arthur motions for the knights to move forward, but with care - there's no way of telling who the voices belong to.
They walk towards the chatter and Merlin can begin to make out the odd word as they get closer. They're arguing, and Merlin realises with a sinking feeling that he recognises some of the voices. "Arthur, that's the -"
"I know," Arthur mouths back. It's the bandits they were chasing earlier, the ones who got them into this mess in the first place. There's no way this reunion is going to end well. No way at all.
Merlin keeps as close to Arthur as possible, without actually clinging to him, as they creep along the side of the maze to try and get a closer look.
Arthur glances back at Merlin over his shoulder, shaking his head at Merlin's proximity. "You know," he whispers. "I might need to use that arm in the very near future." He looks pointedly at his sword arm, that Merlin is virtually draped all over the back of, and Merlin flushes with embarrassment.
"Oh, sorry," Merlin says, a tad sheepishly, and takes a step back. He doesn't know what to do with himself now that he's little more than a liability.
He's getting scared, if he's honest with himself. He doesn't mind admitting it, because with the loss of his magic he'd be foolish to be anything other than terrified. Arthur is Merlin's usual source of comfort when he feels like this, and Merlin wants nothing more than to be near him. To wrap himself up in Arthur's embrace and let his touch ground him and make him feel safe; but he's unsure how to behave with Arthur in front of his men.
Merlin's almost certain that they know - or at least some of them do, if not all - but Arthur gives no outward indication that Merlin is anything more than his manservant. It may be a life or death situation that they've suddenly found themselves in, but Merlin doesn't want to force Arthur's hand where there relationship is concerned. Even so, he's finding it increasingly difficult to hide his feelings.
So he takes another step away from Arthur.
Before he can move too far though, Arthur reaches out with his free hand and grabs Merlin's wrist. "That's far enough," he says quietly, looking back at Merlin with eyes full of worry and all the concern that he wants to show, but can't.
They can see the group of men now - well what's left of them - and they look like they've seen more action than Arthur and his knights. From their vantage point, Merlin can make out several deep cuts and scratches on some of the men; one of them is sitting slumped over on the ground with his arm hanging limply by his side. Merlin thinks he can see a strip of white poking through the skin, but he's trying not to look too hard.
"I think we lost it," one of the men says. He's talking to the tall, dark haired one who Merlin remembers as being their leader. "Feeding Jaren to it sure kept the thing busy."
Merlin pulls a face as he realises what they just implied and, from the expression on Arthur's face, he just realised it too. They need to get out of here. Whatever did this to them is obviously still around and Merlin has absolutely no wish to meet it or be fed to it as a diversion. He's about to suggest a tactical retreat to Arthur, when he sees Arthur's hand come up, signalling for his knights to attack.
"No!" Merlin whisper shouts, but it's too late. Arthur motions for Merlin to stay put and leads his men into the middle of the group of bandits; Gwaine and Percival grin as they rush past, swords drawn and ready for action. He watches as the five knights battle against the eight remaining men, forcing them back against the far side of the tall, unforgiving hedge.
Elyan pushes one of the men back and when he stumbles into the greenery behind him, four barbed vines shoot out and wrap around him. His struggles only make the vines grip tighter and Merlin has to close his eyes as the barbs slice into his flesh, ripping it open down to the bone and the man disappears, screaming and thrashing into the foliage.
It's only when Merlin feels the cold metal at his throat and sour breath against his cheek, that he realises perhaps closing his eyes during a battle wasn't the smartest thing he's ever done.
"Well, well, well," the man breathes, and Merlin tries not to gag. "What do we have here?" Merlin struggles against the arm across his chest and the one holding tight to his wrist, but the blade presses deeper into his skin and he has to stop before his throat is cut. "Marek?" the man shouts. "I got us some more bait." He pushes Merlin forward, keeping the knife hard against his throat as he forces Merlin to shuffle in front of him.
Arthur and his men have killed at least two of the group and have the others pinned off to one side. When Arthur sees Merlin, his sword falters for a second, letting his opponent get a good swipe at him and Merlin curses as he sees him nearly take Arthur's arm off. Arthur manages to shift sideways so it's just a glancing blow in the end, but there's still a nasty gash across the top of his shoulder.
"Let him go!" Arthur shouts, smashing the hilt of his sword hard into the face of the man attacking him - knocking him out cold.
"What's he to you?" the man sneers, pulling Merlin tight against his chest. The rest of the knights are still fighting, but Arthur is making his way carefully towards them. "Looks like a serving boy to me...unless he hasother talents." The man runs his nose along the side Merlin's neck.
"I said...let him go!" Arthur almost growls as he rushes forward, sword raised and ready to strike.
A low, deep snarl to the left of them has everyone freezing and turning to look at what's coming their way. The noise sounds again and Merlin's positive that it's nothing friendly.
"Marek!" the man hisses again. The edge of the blade cuts into Merlin's flesh as the man's fingers twitch and Merlin can feel the trickle of blood start to run down the side of his throat.
The tall, dark haired man, who Merlin assumes is Marek, takes advantage of the momentary lull in fighting and slips between Leon and Percival. "Kail, go!" Marek shouts, running past them and hauling Merlin's attacker with him as he darts past.
"What about the rest of them?" Kail asks, pushing Merlin roughly towards Arthur and following closely behind his boss.
"Leave them - all the more to keep it busy."
They disappear around the corner as Merlin crashes into Arthur, sending them both tumbling backwards onto the ground. He lands on top of Arthur with an oomph,coming to rest with his hands either side of Arthur's head and his mouth dangerously close to Arthur's. For one tempting moment Merlin thinks about closing the distance between them and just kissing him. Arthur's eyes flick down to Merlin's lips and yeah...he's going to do it. For once he's going to -
"Arthur!" Leon's voice breaks the moment and Arthur is rolling out from under Merlin and jumping to his feet, leaving Merlin sprawled out in a heap of limbs.
The snarling is louder now, almost upon them, and when Merlin looks up he can see a big, black shape looming closer. It looks to Merlin, even from his odd angle on the floor, to be a very large and very angry wolf.
"Well at least a bloody dog is harmless enough," Arthur says, reaching down to haul Merlin to his feet. Then the dog grows two more heads with large, dripping fangs and swishes a long barbed tail. "Or not," he adds as they retreat rather quickly as far back as they can go without touching the wall of green behind them.
"What now?" Gwaine asks. The rest of the knights have abandoned the bandits they were fighting and have come to stand with Arthur and Merlin. The three remaining men look back and forth between Arthur and his men and the not-so-dog-like creature, as if gauging which is the lesser of two evils. Merlin can only gasp in horror as they make the most stupid decision he's ever seen and try to make a run for it past the snarling beast.
"Stop!" he cries, stepping forward to try and stop them, but the three heads of the wolf-like-thing dart off in different directions, jaws snapping as each mouth clamps down around the throat of a bandit. It shakes the men, lifting them off their feet like rag dolls and backs away slowly with its prey. The gurgling cries as the long, sharp fangs sink into soft flesh will haunt Merlin's dreams for weeks, he's sure of it.
"Come on," Arthur whispers as he and Percival pull Merlin back and drag him past while the animal is occupied. "There's nothing we can do." They break into a run and keep going until they can no longer hear the crunching of flesh and bone.
Merlin looks up at the sky; the sun is getting lower and he figures they have about two hours left before it starts to get dark. The thought of being trapped in here when they can't see anything, makes Merlin shudder with dread.
"Arthur," Merlin whispers. "It's going to be dark soon."
"I'm well aware of that, thanks Merlin," Arthur answers, but his voice lacks the usual bite it has when Merlin says things that Arthur thinks are obvious. Merlin can hear the slight edge of panic and desperation and that scares him more than the prospect of the maze at night. Arthur doesn't add anything else and they continue on in silence again.
Leon catches up to them and falls in stride with Arthur. Merlin can tell he has something on his mind and probably wants to talk to Arthur in private so he drops back a little to walk with Gwaine.
"You do realise that everyone knows about you two, right?" Gwaine starts and Merlin stumbles a little, not expecting Gwaine to be so blunt. He's not sure why he's so shocked though - Gwaine's never been one to mince words. "No one says anything because of Arthur - but we're not blind."
Merlin looks up in surprise. "But we don't do anything in public. Ever," he says. "I mean... we're always careful." It's not that he minds being Arthur's secret - he's well aware of all the problems it would cause if it were to become general knowledge - but sometimes it's hard to keep his feelings reined in and tucked away. Now being a prime example of that.
"That's true," Gwaine answers, and Merlin turns to face him and finds him smiling softly - not an expression that Gwaine wears very often. "But anyone with eyes can see the way he feels about you, if they take the time to look." Merlin blushes, his body heating up all over as he thinks about what that might mean.
He and Arthur don't talk about their feelings and Merlin's not exactly sure he wants to - because that way awkwardness lies - they just...are. But it doesn't stop him from smiling when Gwaine implies that Arthur cares about him a great deal.
Arthur and Leon stop walking and turn back to address the rest of them - saving Merlin from saying something embarrassing for which Gwaine would tease him mercilessly for days after.
"It's probably going to be dark in less than an hour," Leon starts.
"And you don't need me to tell you that being out here, and not being able to see, is a very bad idea," Arthur adds, looking directly at Merlin as he speaks. "If possible, and I know how unlikely that is, we need to find some sort of shelter."
Percival spins around slowly with his arms out - they are surrounded by the tall and menacing maze in all directions. "Where exactly do you suggest we look?" he asks.
"I don't know," Arthur sounds almost defeated, and he must realise this because he stands a little straighter and when he speaks again his voice is firm and commanding, just like they need him to be. "But we have to try."
Merlin thinks back, trying to remember if they've come across anything that could be used as a possible place to spend the night, but it's useless. Besides, even if he could remember somewhere, there's no guarantee they could find it again. He's just about to sigh in defeat, when an idea suddenly occurs to him. "What about the entrances?"
"What do you mean?" Leon asks, stepping closer to him.
"The entrances to the maze," Merlin starts, getting a little excited because if they can find one, they might just survive the night. "When we got here, there was a huge wall behind us and only one way out into the maze."
"Go on," Arthur encourages, looking like he might know where Merlin's going with this.
"Well, there must be more of them around and if we can find one, surely it'll be easier to defend than being sat out in the open like this?" He gestures around them to prove a point. Out in the middle of the maze, things can come at them from all sides - at least at the entrances they'd be able to see it coming.
"That's not a half bad idea," Arthur says, grudgingly - a smirk hovering about his lips.
"I do have them occasionally," Merlin replies and rolls his eyes.
"Any thoughts where the nearest one might be?" Leon asks and Merlin deflates just a little.
Although it's a good plan, they still have no clue where to find one - and that depressing thought has Merlin sighing in defeat all over again. "Er...no."
"Look," Arthur says, coming and clamping a strong hand on Merlin's shoulder and squeezing in encouragement. "It's the best idea we've got, and more than what we had ten minutes ago - so let's just focus on finding another entrance point. We haven't come across one yet today, so the odds are that we will soon." He gives Merlin's shoulder one last squeeze and then leads them off in what Merlin prays is the right direction.
The light is disappearing fast and they still haven't reached any of the other entrances to the maze. They have enough water between them for at least another day, but they have no food and they're all tired and in need of rest. They need to find somewhere soon.
"Hey," Percival shouts, making everyone wince as his voice carries through the quiet around them. "Sorry," he whispers this time, earning a glare from Leon and Arthur. "But look over there." He points off to the left, up above the height of the maze. "I think it's a wall, like the one where we came in. Merlin, come here."
Before Merlin has chance to protest, Percival has him up on his shoulders and clinging to his hair for dear life. Percival is huge and from this height, Merlin can clearly make out a stone wall, or something, about a hundred yards to the left. "Yes!" he whisper-shouts, pointing in the same direction as Percival did. "I can see it." He wriggles around in his excitement, almost falling backwards.
"For God's sake put him down, Percival, before you drop him." Arthur looks like he wants to come over and pull Merlin down himself, he's all tense with his hands clenched into fists, but he stays where he is.
With absolutely no grace whatsoever, Merlin manages to get down from Percival's shoulders and straightens out his clothes.
"How far do you think?" Arthur asks, running his eyes over Merlin's body as if to check he's really okay.
"About a half hour's walk, if that," Merlin replies, grinning. The thought of actually sitting down and relaxing in relative safety making him ridiculously happy. He's so tired; he could almost sleep where he's standing.
"Let's go," Arthur says, heading towards the wall and everyone follows with an air of hopefulness that wasn't there five minutes before.
They only make one wrong turn before the wall comes into view; it's more of a rock face by the looks of things and goes in a bit at the bottom making a small cave-like shelter. It's about a hundred yards away and Merlin marches towards it, eager to collapse and not move for at least eight hours, but then everything goes dark and it's all he can do not to trip over.
It's not just dark, though - it's a cold, inky blackness wrapping around him, totally devoid of any light whatsoever. No moon, no stars, no nothing. It's as though something has just sucked all the light right out.
It's the only explanation. Merlin listens hard, trying to hear where the others are, and it suddenly hits him that there's no sound either. He opens his mouth and tries to shout Arthur's name.
He can't even hear his own breathing or the beat of his heart - which Merlin is sure is going a mile a minute at this point. He's never felt so cut off and totally alone and it's one of the most awful things he's ever experienced - and that's saying something.
He stands perfectly still. He has no idea if it's just him in the blackness, or if the others are in here too but he just can't see or hear them. In all likelihood they're in the same predicament as Merlin and that will most likely mean sharp, pointy swords are being waved about all around him and he has no wish to find himself on the end of one.
Merlin waits, and waits, trying not to panic but the blackness is threatening to overwhelm him and he shivers against the cold seeping into his body. He's going to have to move, he doesn't want to but the darkness isn't clearing or going away and he needs to get out. He takes a tentative step forward, reaching out with his hands to feel if anything is in front of him. If the knights are in here with him, they shouldn't be too far away because they were all relatively close together when it happened; but his fingers just drift through empty air as he slowly takes another step.
Merlin's hands brush against something solid and he nearly jumps out of his skin as strong hands grip his arms, feeling their way up over his shoulders and up towards his throat. They linger on the scarf around Merlin's neck, fingers running over the cloth, and then he's being pulled forward against a solid chest. The breath is pushed from his lungs as those same, now familiar, hands wrap around his body and hold him close.
Fuck. Merlin's so happy not to be alone in the darkness, he could cry. He still can't see or hear, but he can feel; he can feel the warmth of Arthur's body surrounding him and the panic threatening to take hold before, has finally receded. He slides his hands up along Arthur's back, pulling away slightly so he can feel his way along Arthur's neck and further up until he's cupping Arthur's face in his hands and urging him forward.
Merlin wants to kiss Arthur so badly, needs it, and as he mouths along his jaw, searching for Arthur's lips in the dark, he silently begs Arthur not to shy away. His mouth covers Arthur's and he pours everything he's got into the kiss - all the hope and despair and sheer terror of what's happened to them, and Arthur grips him tight and kisses him back. It's not gentle - which is fine with Merlin, he doesn't want gentle - it's hard and rough and Arthur let's all his strength flood out and curl around Merlin like a blanket.
They stay like that; wrapped up in each other and shielded from the world around them.
It's not the soft breeze, the lightening of the sky or even the sound of their kissing that alerts Merlin to the fact that the veil of darkness has lifted - it's the loud wolf whistle from Gwaine that startles him into pulling back hastily and looking at Arthur with wide eyes.
"It's okay," Arthur whispers, giving him a small, but reassuring smile before turning to glare at Gwaine.
"What?" Gwaine says, shrugging his shoulders. "It's about time, that's all I'm saying." Merlin sees Arthur roll his eyes before looking around to see where the rest of his knights are.
"Is everyone ok?" Arthur shouts, concern clear on his face as he waits for them to answer. They all seem to be fine, much to Merlin's relief, except...
"Where's Elyan?" Merlin asks, turning around in a circle as he searches for him. There's really nowhere for him to hide; they're in a long straight part of the maze with the entrance and the wall at the far end. If they can't see him, then that must mean something to-
"Over here!" Leon shouts from the mouth of the small opening beneath the rocks.
Arthur runs over to them, with Merlin and the rest of the knights hot on his heels. Elyan is slumped against the rock, a long, deep gash cut from his shoulder and down across his chest. He's unconscious and Merlin wonders if he knocked his head as well.
The cut across his chest is bleeding badly and Merlin pushes his way in front of Arthur and Leon to treat him. He kneels down and tears open the front of Elyan's shirt to inspect the wound. It's not as deep as Merlin first thought, but he needs to stop the bleeding. He shrugs his bag off his shoulder and turns to reach inside for supplies. That's when he sees it.
"Percival," he whispers, causing everyone to look down at him. "Your sword..." All eyes are drawn to the dark red blood clinging to the edge of Percival's sword.
"Oh God..." Percival breathes, dropping his sword as if it's burned him. "Arthur, I didn't...I would never..." He steps back away from Elyan with a stricken expression.
"Percival," Arthur says softly. "It's okay." He picks up Percival's sword, wipes it off and then hands it back to him. "I know you'd never knowingly hurt Elyan."
"No." Arthur cuts Percival off and grips his shoulder. "It's this place, Percival. Not you."
Percival nods and takes his sword, sheathing it carefully before kneeling down next to Merlin. "Can I help?" he asks and Merlin smiles, handing him a wad of cloth.
"Hold this against the wound, while I strap it up."
They bind Elyan's body, working in silence while the others keep watch on the entrance to the maze. "We really need to wake him up," Merlin says, remembering how Gaius treated patients with head injuries. He looks up at Percival and nods towards Elyan.
Merlin watches curiously as Percival shuffles a little closer and lifts a hand to Elyan's cheek.
"Elyan..." Percival whispers. "Elyan...wake up." He strokes his thumb down the side of Elyan's face, hastily pulling it back when his eyes start to flutter open. Elyan focuses on Percival and Merlin suddenly feels like he's intruding.
He packs the supplies back in his bag and leaves them alone, wandering over to where Gwaine is sitting with his head resting against the wall. Gwaine looks over at Merlin as he slides down next to him. "Looks like you and Arthur weren't the only ones with a secret," Gwaine says, gesturing over to where Percival and Elyan are still huddled together, talking quietly.
"Yeah." Merlin huffs out a laugh. "I never saw that coming."
"That's because you're always watching Arthur," Gwaine replies, grinning.
"So, you're saying that you knew?"
"Let's just say I had an idea."
Merlin rolls his eyes and laughs. Of course Gwaine knew; he doesn't miss a thing.
Arthur takes first watch. Elyan and Percival are asleep next to each other, tucked back into the opening and Leon is curled up on the opposite side. The night has been quiet so far and Merlin hopes that everything else in the Maze is sleeping too. He doesn't think they'll be that lucky, but he can hope.
The night air is cool and Merlin huddles a little closer to Gwaine. They sit talking quietly, lapsing into silence as they eventually doze off too.
He doesn't know how long he's been asleep when he's jostled awake as someone lifts his head. He must've been leaning on Gwaine's shoulder, and he tries to sit up but a firm hand gently guides his head back down.
An arm slides around Merlin's shoulders, drawing him into a warm, solid body. "Go back to sleep." That's not Gwaine's voice.
"Arthur?" Merlin tilts his head so he can look up into Arthur's face, but it's pitch black now and he can barely see anything. "Where's Gwaine?"
Merlin smiles sleepily, his eyes dropping closed again as he lets his head fall back onto Arthur's shoulder. "Good. You're much...comfier." He can feel Arthur's laugh rather than hear it and his smile gets even wider.
A cool hand slips under Merlin's chin turning his mouth towards Arthur, and then he's being kissed. It's slow and soft now, a gentle brush of lips as Arthur takes his time. He sweeps his tongue inside Merlin mouth, pulling him closer and deepening the kiss until Merlin can feel it everywhere. He moans, low and needy, unable to keep it inside.
"Shh..." Arthur mumbles against his mouth. He manoeuvres their bodies until Merlin is lying flat on his back with Arthur half on top of him.
"What about Gwaine?" Merlin whispers, shifting a little as Arthur mouths over the side of his neck. "And the others?"
"Gwaine can't see us from over there, and the rest of them are asleep." Arthur nips at Merlin's skin, licking over it afterward to soothe where his teeth have been. "We just need to be quiet."
Merlin bites his lip as Arthur moves down his body. He doesn't linger like he would if they were alone in his room. He doesn't peel off Merlin's clothes and kiss every inch of his skin, but that's okay because they're not at Camelot now. They're outside under the stars, and surrounded by Arthur's knights, but Merlin wants him. He wants Arthur's hands and Arthur's mouth and if he has to keep quiet and not scream out his pleasure, like he usually does when Arthur takes him in his mouth, then that's what he'll do.
Arthur makes quick work of the laces on Merlin's breeches, tugging them open and releasing Merlin's cock into the cool night air. Merlin sucks in a breath as Arthur's hot mouth engulfs him, taking him all the way in and holding him there. It's all Merlin can do not to cry out; he clenches his fists and clamps his mouth shut and swears he can feel Arthur smile around his cock.
Merlin shoves his fist in his mouth to stifle his sounds as Arthur pulls off and sinks back down, sucking him in, over and over again. Arthur swirls his tongue around the head of Merlin's cock, licking at the pre-come that Merlin knows is leaking out. He's getting close and Arthur seems to sense it because the next thing Merlin knows, Arthur is sliding his hand down between Merlin's arse cheeks, rubbing the pads of his fingers over Merlin's hole and Merlin's coming - hot and hard down the back of Arthur's throat. He grits his teeth as Arthur swallows around him, riding out his orgasm in virtual silence.
Arthur tucks Merlin back inside his breeches and works his way back up to lie beside him. Merlin's relaxed and sleepy, but not too far gone that he doesn't reach for Arthur and start to undo his laces as soon Arthur lies down. He frees Arthur's cock; it's thick and heavy in his hands and Arthur hisses as Merlin wraps his long, cool fingers around it - stroking him with long, sure pulls of his wrist and it's not long before Arthur is kissing him hard and spilling over Merlin's fingers.
They lie there, breathing quietly in the night; Arthur laughing softly as Merlin wipes his hands off on the grass.
"Sleep," Arthur whispers, eyes already closing as he drapes an arm over Merlin's chest. So Merlin does; truly relaxing, for the first time all day, with Arthur by his side.
Arthur's gone when Merlin opens his eyes. It's still early - the sky only just beginning to get light - but Merlin can see that he's the last one to wake up. Elyan and Percival are sitting with Leon by the wall and Gwaine is stood, leaning on his sword over by the entrance. There's no sign of Arthur, but since no-one else appears to be panicking, Merlin assumes there must be a good reason for his absence.
Merlin gets up, yawns and stretches and makes his way over to talk to Gwaine. "Hey," Merlin says when he reaches him.
"Morning, sunshine," Gwaine greets him, grinning and looking far too knowing for Merlin's liking. "Sleep well?"
Gwaine doesn't say anything else, but Merlin just knows.He knows that Gwaine is well aware of what he and Arthur got up to last night and Merlin can feel himself blush - all the way to the tips of his ears. He does the only thing he can and pretends that Gwaine knows nothing.
"Yes, thanks," he replies, ignoring the fact the Gwaine is now laughing. "Where's Arthur?"
"Here," Arthur answers as he appears, striding down the path towards them.
"Arthur," Merlin says, frowning. You shouldn't be wandering off alone, it's not -"
"Relax, Merlin," Arthur interrupts, rolling his eyes. "I'm perfectly capable of looking after myself for five minutes."
"Merlin." Arthur's tone is a little more forceful this time, and Merlin huffs but let's the subject drop. "Did you sleep well?" Arthur asks, his voice much softer this time. He turns to glare over at Gwaine when Gwaine chokes out a laugh, raising his eyebrows in a kingly fashion until Gwaine retreats with an "I'm going, I'm going."
"I slept fine, thanks," Merlin says, trying not to flush again when Arthur smirks at him. "What were you looking for?" Merlin asks, gesturing back behind Arthur.
"The way out," he replies, and takes a moment to sheath his sword before carrying on. "We're just about out of water, we have no food and Elyan needs that wound looking at." Merlin nods in agreement. "We need to get out of here soon, or..."
He doesn't need to finish that sentence; Merlin knows how dire the situation is. "Did you find anything?" he asks, hopefully.
"Maybe," Arthur hedges. "It looks promising, but there's only one way to find out."
He orders the knights to get ready; Percival half carrying Elyan, despite his protests, and Merlin swallows down his nerves as one by one, they enter the maze again.
Either they've killed everything, or managed to avoid anything nasty because apart from a near miss with more creeping vines, they don't encounter any more trouble. Unease ripples throughout the group as they follow Arthur through the maze.
The knights are constantly on guard - expecting something to jump out at them around every turn - and the lack of action is making them jumpy. Merlin understands completely; the hairs on the back of his neck tingle with anticipation as he gets the distinct feeling something is about to happen. He may not have any magic of his own at the minute, but he can feel its presence and right now it's so thick in the air around them that he can almost taste it.
"Arthur," he warns, stepping closer to his king. "I can feel..."
"Magic," Arthur supplies.
"Yeah. It's all around us now, so just... just be careful."
Arthur nods, and motions for his knights to do the same. They follow the maze left, then right and Merlin is just about to shout for Arthur to stop - the surrounding magic so strong now that it's sticking to Merlin's skin, thick and heavy - but Arthur has already stopped. He draws his sword and his knights all do the same. Merlin's heart pounds in his chest because right there in front of them is the way out.
The sides of the maze open out into a wide opening in front of them, with six large, evenly spaced rocks separating the maze from the land beyond. All they have to do is walk past the rocks and they'll be out. It looks easy; too easy. Merlin knows Arthur isn't naive enough to think they can just walk out of here, so he's not surprised when they don't move any closer. They wait.
"What do we do, Arthur?" Leon asks, breaking the silence. "We can't wait here forever."
"I know," Arthur replies, staring at the rocks as if he's willing them to do something. He draws his sword and Merlin immediately steps forward.
"Arthur?" Merlin questions, putting his hand on Arthur's sword arm because he can tell he's about to do something reckless. Arthur pauses, turning to look at Merlin with a grim expression, before shrugging off his hand and walking towards the rocks. "You don't know what'll happen if you walk through there!" Merlin shouts.
"We have to do something, Merlin."
The constant weight of the dark magic around them is making Merlin desperate and edgy, and as Arthur walks to towards the rocks it all feels wrong. Merlin goes to follow him, but Arthur's almost reached the rocks and before he can even get close there's a loud crack; the air sizzles around them and Arthur is thrown violently backwards, landing in a crumpled heap at Merlin's feet.
"Arthur!" Merlin cries, dropping to his knees beside him. He can hear the others running up to join them, shouting for Merlin and Arthur to hurry and move because "It's on fire!"
Merlin's head snaps up as Gwaine appears alongside him and he looks to where he's pointing; there's a wall of fire flaring up between the stones. There are five spaces between the stones; five ways to get out, and the fire has already blocked off two of them and is quickly spreading to the third.
"Arthur!" Merlin tries again, slapping his face to get him to wake up. "Come on, we need to go!" Merlin almost cries with relief as Arthur's eyes flutter open and he struggles to his feet with the help of Merlin and Gwaine. They half pull, half drag him towards the stones, and Merlin curses when he sees the fire has engulfed three of the gaps now. "Hurry," he urges, trying to get Arthur to go quicker.
"Where are the others?" Arthur says, twisting in their grasp to look for the rest of his men. He shrugs them off, able to stand on his own as they rush to escape.
"Leon's already gone through," Merlin answers, "Percival and Elyan are just in front, look." The two knights struggle through the space between the fourth and fifth stones, the fire chasing after them and cutting that route off as well. There's only one way through now and the fire is closing it off fast. "Come on!"
Gwaine runs between the rocks but as Merlin follows after him the flames flare up and he stumbles backwards, losing his footing and falling onto the ground. The flames have almost reached the final rock and Merlin screams for Arthur to go through, but of course he doesn't listen. He runs back to get Merlin, grabbing his arm and hauling him to his feet before roughly shoving him past the wall of flames second before it reaches the final rock.
Merlin's skin is hot, his hair singed and he's almost sure he'll be covered in bruises, but he feels none of that now as he scrambles over to where Arthur is lying; cradling his right arm and shoulder, with his face screwed up in agony.
"Let me see," Merlin whispers, gently taking hold of Arthur's hand and peeling it away from his damaged arm. The fabric of his shirt has been burnt away, along with the skin of Arthur's arm - from just below his elbow to the top of his shoulder. "Oh, Arthur..."
The flesh underneath is raw and angry looking and Merlin curses under his breath; he knows he could heal it if he only has his ma-
And that's when he feels it - pulsing through his body from the base of his spine and out to his fingertips.
It's desperate to escape, to wrap itself around Arthur's damaged arm and heal his burns; so Merlin closes his eyes and lets it flow. Arthur moans beside him, and someone is tugging on Merlin's shoulder and calling his name - he thinks it's Leon, but he's too focused on Arthur to pay it much attention.
It's not until he's physically pulled away from Arthur that the connection breaks and the surrounding noises flood back in. "Merlin!" Leon hisses in his ear, forcibly turning him around. "Look."
It's the sorcerer. The one who put them here and took Merlin's magic. The one responsible for hurting Elyan - for hurting Arthur. Merlin slowly gets to his feet and the sorcerer smiles.
"Who are you?" Merlin hisses, taking a step closer so that he's now in front of the knights. This is what he's here for - magic is his strength and with it once again flowing thickly through his veins - it's his turn to protect them.
"That's not important."
"Not important?" Merlin snaps, struggling to contain his anger. "Not important? You lured us, and countless others, into your maze of death and tried to kill us -"
"Not you," the sorcerer replies calmly.
"I wasn't trying to kill you, or them." He sweeps a hand over to where Gwaine and Leon are standing, with Percival and Elyan behind. "You were just unfortunate enough to come along for the ride."
"You wanted to kill Arthur?" Merlin asks. "Why?"
"Why?" the sorcerer spits back. "Uther Pendragon murderedmy family and my friends, or have you forgotten the atrocities he committed?"
"No, of course not. But Uther has been dead a long time," Merlin yells, tired of Arthur having to constantly pay for his father's mistakes.
"And so his son must answer in his stead. Uther decided who lived and who died like it was some sort of game." The sorcerer's hands start to shake and his eyes flash gold. "So I planned my own games for his son, and he should have died - you all should have died!" He raises his hand and Merlin catches the soft words of a spell being cast.
But Merlin is quick to react. He doesn't need words to cast his magic and with a flick of his wrist the sorcerer flies backwards through the air falling to the ground in a tangled mess. Merlin approaches with caution - the sorcerer looks to be unconscious but Merlin's fallen for that before - even though he's looking for it this time, the sorcerer still takes him by surprise when a jet of fire shoots over the grass between them and circles around Arthur like a cage.
The sorcerer laughs, twisting his wrist and making the circle smaller. The fire is getting closer and closer to Arthur but Merlin will not let him get burned again. He doesn't hesitate; he stretches his arm out behind him, calling for Arthur's sword and sends it hurtling forwards through the air towards the sorcerer. Merlin refuses to look away as the blade slices the sorcerer in two. He stares at the body lying on the ground and doesn't feel an ounce of regret.
The fire surrounding Arthur is extinguished with the sorcerer's death and Merlin runs over to check that Arthur is okay.
"I'm fine," Arthur insists as Merlin's hands hover over him, inspecting him for damage. The arm that Merlin healed is still a little pink, but otherwise ok and Arthur is looking a much better colour. Merlin grabs him and kisses him hard, ignoring the cheers and laughter from behind them and sinks into his warmth - the shock of killing someone finally beginning to hit him.
"I had no choice," he whispers, not needing to explain further.
"I know," Arthur replies, glancing over to where the dead sorcerer's body is. "I know." He reaches up to stroke Merlin cheek and smiles softly at him. "But did you have to make such a mess?"
Merlin's mouth falls open and before he has chance to find some suitable reply to that, Arthur is kissing him again.
"When you've quite finished," Gwaine shouts over to them. "I'd like to leave here, if that's alright?"
Arthur laughs against Merlin's mouth and Merlin reluctantly pulls back from the kiss and stands up. "Come on, then," he says, offering Arthur a hand and helping him up. "Let's go home."