The bandit threw an arm around Merlin's neck, drawing him back against his chest. Pulling him so close he could feel the stubble on the man's chin, smell the stink of his breath. His hands went up to the man's arm instinctively, prying at it, the rough homespun cloth rippling under his finger tips. Then the feeling of a sharp point pressed against the small of his back stopped his struggles.
"Surrender," the bandit yelled, "or you'll be finding yourself a new manservant, your majesty." Merlin could feel the man's face against his own as it twisted into a sneer.
And there was Arthur, frozen in front of him, just staring at him in an unfamiliar moment of indecision.
"Arthur, don't-" Merlin began before the bandits cut him off with a tightening of his arm about the young warlock's neck. Merlin tried to impress with his eyes his meaning. Don't do this. Don't submit for me.
"Let him go," Arthur said, his voice low and dangerous.
"Drop your sword."
Merlin's eyes widened as Arthur made a move to do just that. This wasn't going to happen. Arthur was not going to allow himself to be captured or killed just because he wanted to save Merlin. In the moment that Arthur's hand loosened on the pommel of his sword time seemed to slow. The bandit's arm clenching tighter around Merlin's throat in anticipation and Merlin's mind raced. He had two choices. Magic, which would most likely end with a dagger in his back anyway. The man was too close. The blade was already piercing his skin, a thin trickle of blood dripping from it and soaking into his blue shirt. Any movement, even the heating of pommel was likely to cause the man to move suddenly, thrust the blade further. He'd end up dead or dying and Arthur would know. He'd know and he'd hate him.
Or...there was his other choice. Merlin took a deep breath. Time seemed to resume its normal progression as he met Arthur's eyes and took away the bandit's leverage. At least this way Arthur wouldn't hate him.
Arthur felt his heart thud out of rhythm. His breath hitched, watching as Merlin met his gaze and then threw himself back against the bandit-against the dagger. Everything froze fro a brief moment as Arthur stood gaping. The bandit drew back the dagger in shock, puling it free from Merlin's back. Realizing the only thing guaranteeing him safety was gone, he released Merlin's neck, turned and ran.
Suddenly unsupported Merlin's knees gave way. he hit the ground hard, back unnaturally straight as he unconsciously sought not to stretch the wound. A small noise, like a whimper, made its way past his lips, spurning Arthur into motion. The young king ran forward, catching his man servant before he could fall forward.
Carefully Arthur helped the younger man to lie back, on hand supporting his head, the other putting pressure on the hole in his back. The wound felt unnaturally hot beneath his palm. Merlin was blinking rapidly. His eyes opening too wide. His breathing coming in staggered gasps.
"You idiot." Arthur clenched his jaw as he tried to determine what should be done first.
Merlin let out a half strangled laugh, a pained smile stretching across his face. "Prat," he said, "you were going to let him have you."
Arthur's jaw tightened further. He nodded and swallowed hard. "Well," he said, "I certainly wasn't going to let him kill you. Good servants are hard to come by."
Merlin huffed another laugh that was cut off by a grimace of pain.
"Let's have a look then," Arthur said, carefully rolling Merlin on his side while still keeping pressure on the wound. It wasn't particularly deep, but the blood was a dark, worrying red. He swallowed again, biting the inside of his lip hard. "Not too bad," he said. "We'll get you to Gaius, let him patch you up." He lowered Merlin back down on to his back. The younger man winced and drew in a stuttering breath. "Maybe I'll even give you tomorrow off."
"I'm done for then," Merlin worked up a mischievous grin, "you'd only ever give me the day off it I was dead." Then he was grimacing again, obviously holding back another whimper.
"Don't be an idiot. You're not dying." Arthur pulled his hand away. Working to quickly shrug off his tunic to shred into bandages.
"I'd do it again." Merlin said quietly.
Arthur paused for a brief moment before hastening back to the task at hand. "You shouldn't have done it in the first place," he said.
"I couldn't let you do it," Merlin said. "I couldn't let you, not for me."
"It wasn't your choice." He finished shredding the last bit of shirt and carefully folded it into a square. He pressed it against the wound, causing Merlin to let out the cry he'd been forcing himself to hold, before wrapping the rest of the shirt about his manservant's waist to hold the wad of clothe in place.
"It was," the younger man replied. "And I'll always choose you."