Arthur felt his feet slam into the earth as he sprinted toward shelter.
There were fifty screaming bandits behind them. Normally, Arthur would not run away. But even he knew the odds of fifty berserker warriors, however crude their fighting skills were, would overrun five knights and two servants.
Actually, the two servants were the main reason they were running, even if Arthur would never admit that to anyone. Even himself. Losing Merlin or Guinevere was simply not an option.
So they ran. It was, in reality, the only logical option even if Merlin and Guinevere's safety wasn't an issue.
Damn it all, it was only supposed to be a hunting trip! Why didn't anything ever go right on hunting trips, or border patrols, or quests? Or, really, whenever he went outside of Camelot. Not that Camelot was exactly problem-free...
Arthur gasped in air as a tree branch whipped into his face. Not good. His vision was becoming blurry, and his body was failing, however conditioned he was to these situations. Why had they tied the horses?
He risked a glance to his left. Guinevere sprinted as best she could next to him. He refused to run faster than her, keeping pace and jerking her to her feet when she tripped over her dress. Now was not the time to be gentle.
Merlin ran to Arthur's right, somehow managing to negate his usual clumsiness. Arthur wasn't complaining. The knights ran spread out in a line twenty yards across, knowing that if they ran in a group archers could fire at a large, convenient target.
Despite that, the bandits were gaining. Perhaps they were lost in their bloodlust, or particularly determined that no quarry would escape them. It didn't really matter. They would be caught within a few minutes, and the bandits knew it.
Arthur saw the trees thinning. Faint hope kindled within him. If he and the knights could lure the bandits out into a clearing, they could engage in swordfight. It would be close, perilously so. Each exhausted knight would have around ten opponents, and they would have Merlin and Guinevere to watch out for.
Still, the alternative was much less appealing.
"Ahead!" Arthur called, the sheer effort of forcing the word out nearly causing him to lose his balance. The thought of merely raising his sword sent a wave of protestation through him. They had been running for nearly ten minutes now. Adrenaline was the only thing keeping Arthur moving.
Whether they understood Arthur or not, everyone dredged up one last iota of energy, increasing their speed. The thought that there was a plan, however flimsy, spurred them on.
They burst out of the trees, and Arthur realized they had arrived at the shore of a lake.
Arthur whirled around and drew his sword, as he saw the knights doing the same -
the instant an arrow blurred past him and thwacked into Merlin's chest.
That was Arthur's immediate reaction.
Merlin was immovable in Arthur's life. To himself, he had privately divided his life into pre-Merlin and post-Merlin. Merlin had brought a great deal of change with him, and only in looking back did Arthur realize the change was mostly in himself. To be perfectly honest, he knew Guinevere would never have looked twice at the arrogant prince he had been pre-Merlin. The knights, too, would not have respected that prince either. Actually, Arthur would have been dead several times over without him as well. Merlin was practically as important in Arthur's life as the ground under his feet, or the sky over his head.
But now, the ground seemed to fall away, and the sky was erased from existence.
A second after it entered his abdomen, Merlin reached up and grasped the shaft of the arrow.
He looked down at it in surprise, as if to say why is that there?, and fell over.
The loudest silence Arthur had ever experienced was ringing in his ears.
He wanted to scream, to tear his eyes out because what they were showing him was wrong, could not happen and never would.
But it is.
It was when he registered the blood spurting, gushing from his friend that Arthur lost control.
He turned to face the bandits.
They were just coming out from the trees, faces flushed with victory, eagerly eyeing their prey.
Kill them. All of them.
Arthur did not remember the other knights, or Guinevere, whose screaming as she knelt by Merlin could faintly be heard through the ringing silence. He did not remember his half-formed plan to divide up the bandits to have a greater chance of success. He just remembered Merlin, right behind him, bleeding and hurt, because of these cowards.
If they paid with their lives a thousand times over it would never be enough.
Suddenly, the bandit troop stumbled to a halt. Faces blanched, mouths opened, arms raised to point in terrified astonishment.
The change was sudden enough to jar Arthur into a moment of lucidity. He half turned to look behind him.
The lake had gone mad.
Water whipped frantically against the confines of gravity, the frenzied wind flinging clods of dirt and water into the air. Trees close to the shore snapped back and forth in a crazed dance, bending to brush the earth before violently jerking upward. Thick, rolling clouds bled into the previously clear sky, tinting it a sickly shade of red.
Arthur staggered backwards, shocked out of his berserker rage.
It took Arthur a moment to understand the silence from before was gone. There was an eerie, high-pitched sound, seeming to come from everywhere at once.
It was screaming.
A woman appeared at the edge of the beach, just fifteen feet away from Arthur. She wore an elegant dress that, for some reason, looked familiar to Arthur. Her hair was brown, and she had features that would normally be pleasant to look at.
Not now, though. Her face held a look of fury, along with something else Arthur couldn't identify, and her eyes were burning gold.
Arthur almost stepped backwards. Almost.
Then he saw Merlin laying on the ground, face twisted in pain, Guinevere putting herself between him and the woman on the beach.
Arthur stepped forward in front of them, facing the woman, sword held out. He sensed Percival, Gwaine, Elyan and Leon moving in closer, forming a solid barrier against the woman.
The sorceress would not get to the two people Arthur cared about most. He had lost too many others already.
Then the one thing Arthur was not prepared for happened.
The wind died down, the trees settled, the water returned to it's former placidity. Even the turbulent sky grew less bloodstained. Only a faint pink tinge on the heavy clouds betrayed the scene that had occurred.
The sorceress had not moved, though now her eyes were not gold but brown. Now that Arthur saw her properly, he realized she was around Merlin's age. She did not look enraged anymore. The other emotion he had glimpsed now filled her face.
The word was whispered so softly Arthur wasn't sure he heard it. Please? What kind of magic-user asked please?
"I can help him."
She wants Merlin.
Arthur's face hardened. He glanced behind him to see Guinevere staring at the sorceress. Merlin was limp, obviously unconscious. That was good. He would be in less pain.
The blood was still leaking through Guinevere's fingers, though. Arthur's brain catalogued the arrow's position, just under the center of Merlin's ribcage, and knew it was a fatal wound.
No. No. It wasn't going to be fatal. They would bring him to Camelot in time, Gaius would be able to save him, and he wouldn't be taken away by a sorceress.
Merlin would be fine, just like always.
Arthur returned his gaze to the sorceress. Her eyes were fixed on Merlin, another unidentifiable emotion on her face.
Leon and Elyan stiffened as well. Percival looked wary.
Gwaine, however, looked odd. Almost thoughtful, as if a thousand different thoughts were racing through his head and it was of upmost importance that he not miss a single one.
"You can't have him." Arthur made no effort to conceal his hostility. Who did this sorceress think she was, to try and steal one of the few people left he cared about? Magic had taken all the others, one way or another, but it would not claim Merlin. He wouldn't let it.
The sorceress moved her gaze from Merlin to him. Arthur found he was glad to have distracted her.
"I won't hurt him. I can heal him."
What if I said I know you want me to heal your father?
A shot of adrenalin jolted through Arthur's veins. He'd heard those words before, the blatant lies that magic was the answer, it was the only way, when in reality it was only death.
"I've heard that before." Arthur's tone was even colder. He clamped down on his instincts, shrieking at him to attack, the scene of the mad lake the only thing reminding him this woman was dangerous.
"Please." The woman's face twisted with something Arthur realized was close to panic. "He's dying."
The words hit Arthur as if they had corporeal weight, driving the breath from him.
Merlin is dying.
It came to Arthur, then, what he had been deliberately ignoring. The wound was fatal. They would not be able to bring him back to Camelot. Gaius would not be able to help him.
His father, waking, taking a deep breath of life. Looking at him, seeing him, smiling because his son was there and that was all that mattered at the moment.
Pausing, looking confused, lost, as the life that had been offered to him was cruelly snatched away. Asking with no words what was happening, because he didn't know why his son couldn't help him, just that he wasn't.
That one, lost look, asking Arthur why his new life had suddenly withered.
Arthur stared at the sorceress, feeling tears heating his eyelids.
False hope is crueler than no hope.
"I will not take such a chance with you. Leave now."
It was Gwaine who spoke. He was glaring at Arthur. Not his usual, I'll-get-you-for-this glare. This one was deadly serious. Gwaine's swordpoint was down, but he shifted so that it was facing Arthur.
"What?" Arthur felt as if the entire world was spiralling out of control while he desperately tried to slow it down with his bare hands.
"I said no, princess. She's offering to heal Merlin. To save him. It sounds like she's actually worried about him as well, unlike some royalty I could mention."
Arthur's sword moved so fast it was a blur. There was a CLANG, and the two men were inches apart, swords crossed and faces grim.
Arthur's voice was tightly clipped. "Do not say that again, Sir Gwaine."
Gwaine's eyes flared. "Then prove it's not true."
They looked over to the sorceress. She was standing tall and composed now, any trace of panic gone. The unidentifiable emotion remained, however.
"I will not hurt him. Merlin...saved me several years ago, in more ways than one. Now he is in need, and I can repay my debt to him."
Everyone blinked, even Guinevere as she tried to stem the flow of Merlin's blood.
Arthur felt the world spiralling faster.
"Ah." Gwaine recovered first, though his eyes were aflame with curiosity. "Well, then." He turned to Arthur "I'm giving her permission. You can step aside now."
Gwaine nodded for the woman to tend to Merlin. After a beat, Percival did the same. Elyan hesitated, and shuffled to one side.
Leon and Arthur exchanged uncertain glances.
"Arthur." Guinevere's voice made him turn.
Her face was drawn and anxious as her hands were washed over and over again in blood. "He needs help."
Arthur stared at her, then at his best friend, unconscious and bleeding and dying.
"Okay." The word felt indescribably heavy as it dropped from his mouth.
Then the woman shimmered into being next to Merlin, kneeling across from Guinevere, who sucked in her breath sharply.
Arthur lifted his sword instinctively, everything in him screaming magic, evil, attack, kill.
The sorceress paid no attention to him. Gently, she lifted Guinevere's hands from the wound. She grasped the arrow that was still sticking up with her left hand and put her other on Merlin's pale forehead.
Arthur nearly jumped as she began speaking in the language of magic, magic and death. He gripped his sword tighter. Her eyes burned gold again.
Still chanting, she pulled the arrow out with a sickening squelch. Arthur could not hide a wince, but Merlin didn't even stir.
Throwing the arrow aside, the sorceress put both hands on the wound, and her chanting increased its pace.
Thunder rumbled, and the wind picked up.
The sorceress kept chanting, voice clear and strong.
Finally, she stopped, and her eyes returned to brown. Her face looked worn, but triumphant.
"He'll sleep for awhile." Her voice was quieter now as well, but no less strong. "I helped all I could, and the rest will heal within two or three weeks if he's careful."
She removed her bloodsoaked hands from Merlin's abdomen. His breathing was audible, calm and steady.
"That's it?" Elyan was clearly surprised.
She raised her head and cocked an eyebrow. Arthur was forcefully reminded of Gaius.
Gracefully, she rose to her feet. Guinevere looked up from examining Merlin's healed wound. "Thank you," she breathed.
The sorceress smiled at her. "It was my pleasure. Merlin is not meant to die here."
Arthur felt goosebumps raise on his skin. What did that mean?
Guinevere gasped. "That's...that's Morgana's dress!"
The instant Arthur heard the name of his traitorous sister, his sword was raised. He heard a few others as well.
But the woman only smiled. "Really?" She looked down at the purple dress and ran a hand down the sleeve made of fine material. "I always wondered where he got it."
Something in Arthur's mind clicked. He remembered catching Merlin sneaking a dress out, being entertained and assuring him with barely concealed amusement that what he did on his own time was nobody's business.
"That was for you?" Guinevere asked.
"What?" Leon sounded as lost as the other knights looked.
"I caught Merlin looking through Morgana's dresses, and he took one with an odd explanation of moths..."
Arthur could well imagine Merlin's 'odd explanation'. He'd heard several of them over the years, and had finally just resigned himself to not searching deeper.
The woman brought her hands to her mouth as she let out a short laugh. It sounded full of mirth. "Oh, my."
The woman - Arthur found he had stopped automatically thinking of her as an evil sorceress - brought her hands down and cast a glance at Merlin's sleeping face. "As I said, he saved me...in more ways than one. I'm glad to finally have the chance to repay him."
Her gaze lingered on Merlin for a heartbeat more, then she turned and walked back toward the lake.
The words slipped out of Arthur before he could think. And, really, he didn't need to think about it. This woman - this sorceress - had taken Merlin from death.
That was all that truly mattered.
She stopped at the edge of the beach.
"You will not be hunted because of your magic. You may live in peace."
Arthur saw Leon's eyes widen, pause, then nod. It was no small matter what Arthur had promised. There were muted agreements all around.
The woman half-turned to look back at him. Arthur's breath caught in his throat.
Grief was painted on the woman's face, filling it so completely it seemed as if it might spill over to join the lapping waves.
She shook her head slowly, and put a still- bloodied hand to her abdomen. Her voice was hardly more than a whisper.
"I cannot live, Arthur Pendragon. You killed me. I have been dead for years."
Then, slowly, she faded away into the lake.
Merlin's voice sounded weak, shocked, and ecstatic at the same time.