Chap. 4, Departure
I could say I was confused that Arthur had come to help me and was continuing to aid in my escape- but I was more grateful than anything else, and I didn't want to question it. Anyway, I'm not sure even Arthur knew why he was helping me.
After bandaging my shoulder, he decided to take his horse along a road heading east- then ride back to me through the stream so the knights would follow those tracks to one end. I said nothing while he explained his plan, and when he returned a while later, he began picking up the supplies he'd brought and told me the rest.
"I'll pack the rest of these things on my horse," he said. When I frowned in question, he went on with worry; "You can ride, can't you?" It was clear that he'd not considered the possibility.
I nodded in reply, though I doubted I would get far. I was careful not to show it, but my wound still throbbed in a way that I knew could only be remedied by a physician's work.
"You'll take my horse upstream, then," Arthur told me in a clear voice. "When you come to the village of Dipbend, have a physician to see to that injury."
I smiled a bit at that, raising an eyebrow.
Arthur ignored me. "And you may not want to mention that the king's men were after you," he pointed out in an obvious tone, and I nodded. "I'll keep them busy in the east for as long as I can, but- Merlin, I can't guarantee you'll be safe in Dipbend for very long. Move on as soon as you can, and lie low."
At those words, it became painfully clear to me that I was a wanted man. If anyone found out who I was, they wouldn't hesitate to turn me in, or kill me themselves, for surely Uther would reward them. And they would have all the proof they needed that I was a sorcerer- now they needed only to recognize my name or face. Not only could I never return to Camelot or anyplace where I would be known- but I had failed in my destiny. I'd never have the chance to convince Arthur of magic's potential for good if I were not to see him again.
"Time to go, Merlin," the prince said, slinging the pack over his shoulder and offering me a hand. I reluctantly accepted his help to the horse outside our cave and held onto the front of the saddle as he strapped the pack behind it.
"Gaius asked me to give you something," Arthur said. "It's in here. He also told me to ask that you take care of yourself."
"Tell him I'm doing my best," I replied with a wan smile. "And please don't tell him about this, Arthur. I wouldn't want him to worry."
Arthur nodded. "Okay," he answered quietly, almost respectful of my request. "Get up," he said, and proceeded to secure the foot I raised into the stirrup, then helped me swing my other leg up over the saddle. The abrupt height was dizzying for a moment, but I don't think Arthur noticed as he went around to make certain that my right foot was well in place on the other side.
A thought occurred to me. "Won't the men know you've helped me when they notice your horse missing?"
"Not if I'm careful," Arthur replied stiffly. When he was satisfied that I was well in the saddle, he looked away from my foot, but not to my face. His gaze wandered over the stream beside us, and he appeared lost in thought.
"Arthur?" I said in a low voice, afraid to interrupt his thoughts.
The prince shook his head. "I shouldn't be doing this." His words were almost too soft to be heard; he was so unsure of himself. "It's… wrong. But you are my friend, Merlin," he went on with an anguished conscience, finding the courage to look up at me. "And if I were to send you to your death, what would that make me?"
I was hesitant to speak. Arthur viewed everything about me differently now, and a single word might mislead him. "There is no simple solution, Arthur," I said carefully. "Listen, I…" A crooked smile worked its way to my face. "I really don't want to go through this again, so just… goodbye. Arthur. I'll miss you."
Slowly nodding, Arthur whispered, "Yeah. I'll miss you too, Merlin."
He handed me the horse's reins, and I prepared to lead it into the river, but that just wasn't enough. There was so much more I wanted him to know. "I don't expect you to believe me, Arthur," I said in a voice stronger than I'd used in days, "but I wouldn't betray you. I couldn't, and I won't. For whatever it's worth to you, you do have my word."
I felt a good deal better for getting that out, but my heart grew twice as heavy to hear Arthur's reply.
"I've heard these words before, Merlin," he told me, "and I can't say I'm glad for having believed them."
The worst part was that he looked as if he knew exactly what he was talking about- as if he thought he was seeing right through me. "I've helped you, Merlin," he continued. "It doesn't mean I believe you'll do the same for me one day. Now, maybe, but- not in the future. I'm sorry, too, Merlin. Very sorry. But I can never trust you again."
Though the moments are difficult to remember, I'm sure that my face was blank with shock as Arthur looked away from me, giving the horse's rump a slap and spurring my mount into motion before I steered it into the stream, heading west. Perhaps, I thought, I should have left it at goodbye.
There were so many things I would have wanted to say to Arthur once I'd overcome my numbness from what he'd just told me- But what would be the use? I wondered. For all the good I saw in the prince, Arthur could be ultimately hardheaded when it came to what he'd been trained to believe. And how was I in any position to prove my point to him?
After returning to the camp, I woke one of the knights to take over the watch. It would be less suspicious if two different people had stood guard in the time that a horse and supplies had disappeared.
Hard as I tried, I barely slept that night. I still felt terrible for having to abandon my wounded friend, despite that I'd no other choice. And if I might have been able to remain to help him, my decision not to would only have been more difficult.
By morning I'd accepted that he and I were on two entirely different paths. He'd made the wrong choice and things would never be the same between us. He was too far-gone for any of my efforts to help him change his ways. But I had been indebted to him; therefore, surely it was the right thing to help him survive. I was paying my debt by ensuring his safety for as long as I could, and once the search was called off, things would be as before. Life would be as it was.
…Except that now, there would be an empty space where Merlin had once been. I felt almost angry with him for having done this to me, while I did believe that he'd never wanted to see me hurt. Again I was unsure about how honestly I meant everything I'd told him, but I would miss him- sorcerer or not. Of that, I was certain.
My gratitude toward Arthur for letting me escape clashed with my sense of betrayal, for the fact remained that he'd sentenced me to an entirely different life from the one I knew- for the sake of his reputation. I didn't want to be angry- it hurt to be angry, and my injury caused me enough pain.
I couldn't help but wonder if he had qualms about leaving me now, or if he thought he'd made the right choice.
When I'd reached a part of the stream close to a road, I directed my horse to follow it, for Dipbend wasn't far now. It occurred to me that for a physician I'd need money, and untying the pack from behind me, I brought it where I could search through it. Sure enough, there was a small sack of coins, a few of which I put into my pocket. I remembered then what Arthur had told me before- that Gaius had given me something that was in here. I searched harder, and feeling a shape I recognized, unfolded the cloth protecting it.
I fingered my wooden dragon carefully, smiling to think that Gaius had known I'd want it with me. I noticed something else weighing down the cloth, and picked it up, holding it where the moonlight could hit it.
It took me a moment to understand, but the feel of rabbit's fur was unmistakable. I'd held onto it on one of the worst nights of my life, becoming very familiar with the object. At the time, I believed it would bring me good fortune, as was the superstition. I'd always kept it in a cupboard since then, believing it to have done some good.
My smile became grim. Now of all times, I thought, I could really use some good fortune.