"And then!" Gwaine says, continuing his story, "We see Merlin's backside, sticking out from behind a stump".
The knights laugh, drunk of Merlin's stew, and a few goatskins of wine. Shadows dance across their face as their campfire crackles. Merlin can't help but laugh at his own embarrassment. If only they knew that it was the spell he cast that knocked him out, and saved their own backsides.
Of course, Gwaine did, but nothing ever stopped him from telling a story.
Merlin and the knights were returning from a village in the far east lands of Camelot. The village was plagued with illness, and looters. Merlin had successfully cured the ill, and the knights had rid the town of the stealing menaces. Tomorrow they would be back in Camelot, but tonight, they would rest.
"Well then" Sir Leon said, "I think it's about time we got some rest. Merlin! Would you kindly take first watch? Try to keep awake"
Merlin smiled and nodded as he rolled his eyes, and the knights had another good hearty laugh.
Slowly they reclined onto the ground, wrapped in their capes. And soon each one was snoring.
Merlin sat listening to the fire, and using little spells to make the evening fog dance around the trees. He thought of the fun the knights had with him, and he was thankful for their friendship. They may mock him, but each of them valued Merlin.
He knew deep down, that maybe even Arthur did as well. He thought of Arthur and Gwen, and smiled, knowing that they were finally together made him happy.
He lost track of time just sitting there, and soon Percival tapped him on the shoulder. "You've done well Merlin. Now go and get some sleep".
Merlin smiled at the large man as he got up from where he was leaning against the tree, Thanks". Percival answered him with a smack on the back, which nearly knocked the wind out of him.
Merlin went over by the glowing embers of the fire, and lying down with his saddle blanket, drifted off to sleep.
They set out early the next morning, mounted and riding silently towards home. As the day grew older, the men grew louder. They began to sing, and tell stories. Gwain talked himself for about two hours.
Merlin shouted in a few comments, all which received a good laugh. The day was beautiful, the sky clear, and the sun warm.
Sir Leon, at the head of the pack, stopped and signaled for the rest of them to do so. Each listened intently and scanned the trees for danger. Tense seconds passed, and the knights heard the crack of branches. They reached for their weapons, and as they were about to dismount, several deer passed the path in front of them.
Each knight let out a sigh and a chuckle.
"What's the matter Leon? Afraid of dinner?" Gwain asked. This got a good laugh from the others. But it was short lived, because in the middle of their laughter, a crossbow bolt narrowly missed Elian's head.
All hell broke loose as a group of bandits came from the forest, screaming, brandishing swords, and firing crossbows. The knights scattered, each taking on several of the attackers. Merlin found a tree as normal, and watching, used his magic to trip a few bandits with a tree root, re route a few bolts, and send a few swords flying.
Percival had lost his sword somewhere, but he was having no problem without it. Gwain and Elian were back-to-back, taking out one bandit after the other.
The battle lasted a few intense minutes, and soon, those bandits who weren't dead on the ground, were running for cover.
Sir Leon, once he had caught his breath turned to Gwain and asked, "What is it you were saying?"
"Hold on" Elian said, "Where's Percival?" They looked around, and there was no sign of the man.
"PERSIVAL?" Leon yelled.
"I'm here! Help!"
The knights ran toward his voice, finding him behind a large tree. He seemed un injured, but as they grew closer they saw why he was calling for help. He was kneeling next to Merlin, who was slumped against the tree, with a bolt lodged deep into his chest.
"Merlin!" Gwain dropped to his knees next to Percival.
The boy was having trouble breathing, and a growing flow of blood was coming out of his nose, and he was coughing blood out of his mouth. He was going to drown in his own blood and there was nothing they could do to help him.
He was struggling and sputtering, gasping for breath. Percival was gripping his hand tightly and had a hand on his head.
"Take it easy Merlin. Just try to breathe! You're going to be ok".
But Merlin looked at Percival with knowing eyes, as much as each of them wanted to believe that it would be ok, they knew otherwise. The stood helpless as they watched and listened as his lungs filled. Moor blood coming from his mouth, and his breaths growing shorter and shorter. They watched as his eyes filled with fear, looking at them, pleading them to make the pain stop, to help him, but they could not.
Merlin gripped Percival's hand tight, and looked him in the eyes. "Gaius" He sputtered, "Arthur".
"Shh," Percival moved the hand that was on Merlin's hand to his face, "It's all right Merlin, they'll be all right. You don't have to worry".
Merlin tried to nod. "My…. Mother.."
This time it was Gwain who answered, "We'll take care of her Merlin. You have nothing to fear".
With that, Merlin's lungs had filled with his own blood, and he began to gasp and blood pored from his mouth. But each time he tried to take a breath, no air entered, only more blood. It was horrid to watch, and even worse to hear. He sputtered and gagged, fighting for air, fighting to stay alive.
Percival wanted nothing more than to look away, he didn't want to watch his friend die like this. The sound of Merlin's gags and sputters were something they would all hear in their nightmares, the look in his fear filled eyes would haunt them for years to come. Percival wanted to run, he didn't want to watch this. But he wouldn't do that, so he looked Merlin in the eye, gripped his hand tightly, "Let go Merlin. You can stop fighting now. You've done so well. You're worthy enough to be a knight of Camelot. Stop fighting".
And with those words in his mind, and several last horrid gags, Merlin's body finally went still, and his eyes drifted towards the back of his head.
The knights stayed where they were for sometime. Almost waiting to see if it was one of Merlin's pranks. That maybe he would spring to life any second, and yell 'gotcha'. But he never did.
They rode into Camelot, and what would normally be a triumphant return, was a morose funeral procession.
The king stood on the front steps of the palace, waiting to welcome home his men, and as they strode into the square, he counted all his knights, but there was one missing.
Strewn over the saddle of Merlin's horse was a body, wrapped in a cloak. Arthur ran down the stairs, as the knights dismounted. Percival stopped him before he reached the body.
"Sire" he shook his head, "I'm sorry".
Arthur pushed passed him, and went to Gwain who had taken the wrapped body of the horse. Arthur picked up the corner of the cloak to reveal the face of the fallen soldier, although, he already knew. When he saw, he had to look away for a moment. Praying that the face would be different when he looked back, but it wasn't. There was the unruly black hair skinny face of his servant. His friend. The face that once smiled, no longer did, and blood from his mouth had covered his face.
Arthur took him from Gwain, and carrying him, made his way up the palace front steps, followed by his knights. Gwen was doing the best to console a broken Gaius through her own tears. With every step towards the palace, Arthur felt Merlin's dead weight seem to grow heavier, and heavier.
And as he reached the final step, he fell to his knees. Jaw clenched and tears running down his face. His only thought is that his last words to his friend were "You truly are good for nothing Merlin".
His sobs came more freely now, as he could not hide them no matter how he tried. He held the body close to himself. And he yelled the boy's name one more time. It echoed through the square, and in the hearts of everyone who heard it.