It is not a day for tragedies. The ground holds a settled warmth, and the sun is currently turning the forest line to burnished orange. Arthur jogs backward, his shirt tails loose and flying in the evening-sweetened air. Even Lucan feels the right to antagonize his prince; Merlin can hear the chuckles from the others as the knight flings the daisies he has linked together. The circlet comes apart in mid-toss, showering petals into Arthur's hair and down the back of his collar.
"Perhaps you'll give Old Mag a token next time, your Majesty!" Lucan shouts, and they all laugh, because Arthur has never been difficult to feel comfortable around, even when speaking of trysts with ancient lady herbalists like Old Mag. "A pretty posy?"
"And tell her you spent all day fashioning it with the sweat of your brow?" Arthur replies, to even greater uproar. Lucan has to stop and clasp his knees. His blond curls dance as he laughs.
They look smaller, all of them, without their usual armour. Slim and lithe, and perfectly capable of running for fun, telling jokes a child would clap for, acting out the youth their elite lives forced away from them early. Merlin knows Arthur has aged beyond what he should. They are mid-twenties, now, but Arthur will be king before he knows it, his knights will be his court, and whatever boy still lingers inside the prince's sun-bronzed body will gather its toys and slip away into the darkness.
Today, this evening, it is time for childhood again: daisies linked by the hands of warriors and fisticuffs with a prince who is still just as much a boy as the rest of them.
Everything is perfect. And yet Morgana's face is marred with a frown where she reclines under Uther's canopy across the field. She looks away, up toward the hills and the treetops, the rose-coloured clouds and the turrets of the castle. She had paced until Uther, wine goblet in hand, told her to "sit down, Morgana, for the love of all saints, will you enjoy yourself? It's finally summer!"
"Do you know what Old Mag told me, Lucan?" Merlin turns back to Arthur and finds his lord's smile bright and devilish. "She misses your visits in the evenings, but she likes Gawain's smile best in the morning!"
Gawain's mouth falls open, and he yanks his hat off to fling it at Arthur, chases him several yards and ends locked in a spirited shoving match, shoulder to shoulder as Arthur turns neatly out of each push. Eventually, grins are all that is left of the taunting, and Gawain and Arthur clasp hands. Arthur claps his back, but it is only when Gawain turns around that Merlin can see the daisy chain hung slyly from the knight's collar.
Arthur wiggles his eyebrows at Merlin, and it is even rarer a moment, kinship all over them and between everyone while the warm night sweeps in. Merlin grins back and makes a gesture at his side that has Arthur glaring in mock anger.
"Surely you ought not make such a fool of yourself, Arthur," Morgana calls across the grass. She sounds irritated, the words thrumming with something more troubling. But Merlin can see Gwen hiding a smile where she stands behind her lady, plaiting Morgana's luxurious hair. There must be something in the air tonight; even the king has relaxed.
Arthur steps back, away from his knights, away from Merlin, and raises his hands. "What can I say? You always tell me I'm so good at it."
Spoken in that ridiculously pompous tone of his, that is enough to send a swift grin over Morgana's lips, and then the others can laugh without regret. Arthur turns, faces the forest with his hands cocked at his hips, ever the fool when the air is right, and smiles. His contentment is infectious; Merlin approaches, feeling genial and friendly, bound even more firmly to his prince. Arthur watches him come, lifting a severe eyebrow, likely planning something to make Merlin into the idiot of the evening—it's all over his face—and then jerks, hard, exhaling sharply, shoulders arching forward as he stumbles back.
Merlin takes an entire step, dreading what evil is in store for him, before he sees the shaft protruding from Arthur's chest.
For the tiniest of seconds, Arthur wavers, hands half raised. The angle of the arrow is square, stabbing outward to a cruelly feathered end. It has come from straight on, from the forest, the only thought Merlin manages before a second shaft joins the first, and Arthur completes his fall. Merlin is already running for him when he hits the ground, head smacking down and hands curling around the first jutting shaft.
There is quiet no longer. Yelling; the sound of a bow twanging rapidly, the rasp of swords drawn. Arthur gasps on his back, heels digging into the earth. A knight sprints by, Tyrell in fiery red, sword flashing the orange sunlight into shards over the grass. Another knight follows with a vociferous curse, and then they are gone, heading for the trees and the echo of the arrows' path.
Merlin's knees burn where they've struck the earth. He grabs for Arthur's shoulders, holds him as still as he can even as Arthur writhes. The first shaft quivers from just inside the vee of Arthur's collar. The second arrow is below the first, and has plunged more deeply, right through his tunic. Arthur's head heaves convulsively from the ground. Red spittle flicks over his lips, staining, and Merlin snatches his hand, wraps his fingers as tightly as he can.
He feels Arthur's body, a tremble of faltering rhythm. Merlin scrabbles for Arthur's shirt, rips the collar away with a sharp tug. Arthur cries out, neck arching. Merlin sees tears slipping out as he works his fingers under the fabric until they meet and press to firm, warm flesh, heaving for want of breath. Arthur struggles, teeth clacking together, fingers clenching hard enough for his nails to pierce Merlin's skin. Merlin has practiced this spell over and over, but never with the desire to use it like this, to feel its doomsday beat striking from Arthur's body. It sends sickness into Merlin's belly like he's never felt. He does not want to see inside this body, see the way in which it is falling to ruin, as the spell will allow him to. Arthur is… Arthur.
They will send for Gaius. Probably already have. And Gaius will come, and it will be too late. Arthur stares up at Merlin. His teeth grind and he coughs; blood trickles from the corner of his mouth, down his chin. Merlin wipes it away with his thumb. And knows.
This is the end of it.
He feels Arthur's heart slowing, a thumping, wrenching fight that is quickly being lost, for there is the taste of iron in heart's blood, the razor edge of metal curving through the tissue of Arthur's heart. The first arrow is lodged there, an imperfect shot, but perfect enough to drag Arthur's life from him in the next few seconds. And Merlin has wasted too many.
Sound breaks, footsteps thump down; Gawain is at his side, holding Arthur's jaw open to keep his teeth from breaking against each other. He pushes his leather glove into Arthur's mouth, hands shaking, flecked with blood. Merlin hears the sound of others pounding the earth toward them. Arthur's eyes lose a sliver of colour, glazing even as Merlin watches, as he feels the slowing thud-thud. He must act, and it must be now.
Merlin concentrates, shuts his eyes, and plants his hand on Gawain's chest. The knight's question is lost in the clap of magic, the whistle and ring: Gawain flies headlong over the earth, shooting away from Arthur to land in a tumble on the lush grass. Lucan shouts, draws his sword with a painful shear of sound. But Arthur's hand is clenched to Merlin's wrist now, and Merlin draws all the energy he can up around Arthur's body from the earth and molds it, an iron shell between them and the rest.
He only needs a few minutes. What comes after will not matter if he doesn't succeed. He will not care anymore, not with Arthur's body on the ground and his blood drying forever on Merlin's hands.
Arthur is covered in warm blood, spilling from the fine wounds in his chest, each pulse echoed in a sickening twitch of the arrow shafts. The smile he wore moments ago is nothing but a ghost on his face, the knowledge and the child's fear etched in his eyes. Pain rocks through Merlin with a viciousness he is not prepared for. He crumples, cupping Arthur's face, smoothing his bloodied hair with both hands and saying ragged things, running fingers over Arthur's throat and chin and forehead, unable to keep still—
Arthur swallows with a rattle. The sheen of red on his throat ripples. Even in his agony, he stares at Merlin, awed and terrified, and… oh god, desperate and dying.
Some part of Merlin's mind reminds him that the outside world is now chaos. Those who are not running are standing. Gaping. The knights are another matter. They've been trained by the best, by the man bleeding to death on the ground before them. They've been trained to go to him, to get between him and death; they've already pulled blades and are beating upon Merlin's shield, but there is no time, no concentration to waste. It will be the last thing he does, but Merlin is going to do it because the alternative is only a numb wish for death.
He knows the bubble will hold them all out, at least until he has given everything he has to give. It will collapse when his strength does. Until then, the arrows jerk with each of Arthur's breaths, taunting Merlin until he grips the first one with one hand, clasps Arthur's jaw between his fingers, and snaps the shaft off with a twist of his wrist. Arthur chokes, gags. Merlin breaks the second shaft, and Arthur coughs blood; it is then that Merlin senses where the second arrow has got to, filling one of Arthur's lungs with raw fluid. Arthur's fingers dig deeper into Merlin's skin, and Merlin panics, stabbing his power downward, wrapping it round the heads of the arrows and clenching and clenching until the metal is suddenly gone, melted clean away.
The magic slips, ebbing and sweeping in again. Merlin wrenches it furiously from the air and wraps it into a hard, throbbing ball inside his chest, because Arthur is the one beneath him on the ground, it is Arthur's heart and lung that are punctured and leaking, and Merlin will not have it. Not while he is still able to bend what should be into what he needs most instead.
It is less of a spell than an intent, a willfulness to mend the broken threads in Arthur's body. Merlin shudders as the first waves rock him. The magic rampages, more volatile than any he's ever felt. The panicked noise from beyond their sphere is swallowed in a frail ringing. Arthur's eyes fix on him; his breath whistles in and out, in and out, the rush to the finish. Merlin grips Arthur's hand, presses down on Arthur's chest. Presses it back as it comes to take him.
This is unnatural, appallingly so. It sucks its toll away from Merlin in thick, bludgeoning wrenches. Merlin sways, dizzy and sick, as the natural order fights back. Arthur should be dying, and if nature has its way, he will. Only, Merlin twists the order of things, yanks strands free and twines them together inside Arthur's chest. He pushes, nature pulls; Merlin sags and hears Arthur's heart slip, and forgets how to breathe. He is losing the battle.
The sound Arthur makes is weak, forced from his lips in a whoosh. It jettisons Merlin back into equilibrium, and he stares down as Arthur stares up. Arthur's lips are bluish now, pale-edged where they are not bloody. Merlin can feel the power building, the last flood he will need—he knows it, he can feel it—but he needs… oh god, he needs…
Arthur gives it to him silently. A hand wavers and clasps around Merlin's, locking his grip on Arthur's other hand. Arthur sees the gold fire in his eyes, sees and understands, and grasps his hand anyway. Arthur nods, a quick little jerk, and opens his mouth. Breathes, "Merlin."
It races faster than blood through Merlin's veins, dragging the magic with it. Merlin sends it into Arthur's body, right through their linked hands, the power of it driving Arthur's muscles taut. Merlin can see the thready mess in Arthur's chest; he guides it back together, the strongest need he's ever felt, splicing what has been shredded, repairing what has been cut, and pulling Arthur's heartbeat up from the deep, hollow thud…thud…thud.
"Arthur," Merlin whispers, out of breath, full of vertigo and the heady taste of Arthur's blood mixing with his magic. The light is too bright, too blue. He knows he is doing it, surrounding Arthur with this otherworldly aura, barely containing the magic he has called up. He knows he has given himself up completely, that his secret has been unleashed along with his power in front of everyone. He knows that he literally holds Arthur's life in his hands. The energy flowing over his palms bears Arthur's scent, caressing his skin with the familiar brush of Arthur's fingers on his shoulder, Arthur's hand as it once ruffled through his hair, Arthur's rapid breathing as he shoved Merlin into the ground and divested him of his training sword. Arthur's eyes alighting on him in firelight. Arthur's smile, sliding into stunning existence because of something Merlin has said.
He will be glad to die if Arthur takes that energy with him into the dark.
The blue of Arthur's eyes fades, even as his tattered gaze remains fixed on Merlin. The salt of tears and blood stings Merlin's nostrils. He presses his palm to Arthur's chest, nearly digging his fingers beneath the skin, reaching for what is still loose, still ripped. Arthur's breath stutters, hitches, and finally freezes. His fingers go slack on Merlin's wrist, trembling for just an instant and then falling still. Merlin is caught in a terrible void of silence, feeling the last torn tissue inside mend together so… so slowly.
And then Arthur's eyes shoot wide. He heaves a rich gasp, his chest arcing as he sucks air into his lungs. Merlin catches him before he hits the earth again and eases him down. His hands slip in Arthur's blood, and he grips harder, feeling the too-fast rise and fall of ribs beneath skin that suddenly feels and looks too thin. Arthur chokes, a wet cough that reddens his mouth again. But he is breathing. Merlin presses a hand back to Arthur's chest and feels the blessedly steady thump-thump-thump that he thought he'd lost. He can't help himself; he bends, puts his ear to Arthur's chest and listens, lets the throbbing pulse fill his ears and head and limbs, and finds that he is clenching his teeth so hard they hurt. For a long, long moment, he can't get himself to release Arthur, can't get himself to rise, or do anything except listen and listen, and beat the sound into his memory because he needs it. He'll want it even more desperately in a minute.
He feels a hand at his nape, and fingers lacing sluggishly around one wrist. Merlin finally relinquishes the sound of Arthur's heart, feeling like he is made of stone, unable to move, unable to see and not feel ill. He's never felt so worn through, as though his skin is trying to drop off his bones. It's a colossal effort to lift his head.
When he does, he finds Arthur gazing at him with darkly smudged eyes. His face is pale, lips white. The blood on them is so dark in comparison that it looks unreal. Merlin's mind whirls—a dream, all of it?—but then Arthur swallows, a laborious, broken sound. His hand squeezes Merlin's as he struggles to breathe normally again. Merlin raises his free hand and smooths dampened fringe from Arthur's forehead.
The sphere shivers and cracks, splintering in every conceivable direction. Merlin can feel it giving way, can hear the yelling beyond growing louder and louder. Another struggle to let go of Arthur completely, and then he has done it, and he's gone numb, but he's standing and looking out, waiting for the shield to fall away.
It does, with a snap. The air vibrates, the leftover hum of lingering power. His ears still ring and he looks dully out at the rest of them.
They all stare at him. The knights' swords have gone slack at their sides, and they are open-mouthed and staring. Morgana is on her feet, clutching Gwen and staring. Uther is up, his hunting dagger clenched in one hand, and staring. The fury, the ruthlessness, is bitter in the king's features. The last magic slips away with a low hum, and the field goes silent.
Then everyone moves at once.
The closest is Gawain, a tower raising a glinting sword over one shoulder. He dashes for Merlin, reaching a hand out as well, because Gawain is not a killer, not a murderer, but Merlin knows the feeling of one's prince dying on the ground at his feet, knows what it does to a person. He does not move. He hears the stretch of bowstrings farther back, the nock of arrows, and his mind will only tell him, it's over.
Gawain stops short just beyond Merlin's reach, backtracking a step, as though he's just remembered what happened moments ago, and that Merlin was the cause. Merlin watches him numbly, hearing Arthur's shuddery breathing below. But he must look at Uther, he can't keep himself from turning his head. The hatred on Uther's face is horrifically familiar, seething, the fear and knowledge of what that level of magic can do. The king's judgment is clear in his eyes. Gwen cries out, struggling against Morgana's arms, and Merlin knows she can see it too, that she will try to get to him, to put herself between him and the arrows if only to halt their passage for a moment.
He's so, so weak. He can barely stand.
Movement, again. Merlin flinches. But it is not coming from in front of him. Arthur drags himself to his knees, spitting blood into the trampled grass. His hand rises and twists itself in Merlin's tunic, and then somehow, Merlin has no idea how, Arthur gains his feet. He sags into Merlin, turns so his back is pressed to Merlin's front. Merlin can't think. He knows he has not healed Arthur, only staved off the razor claws of death. And yet Arthur is up, breathing and alive against him, his blood-soaked tunic plastered to Merlin's front. Merlin clasps Arthur around the chest instinctively, holding onto him. Arthur's arms slide back and lock on either side of Merlin's hips, bracketing, guarding, but Arthur's fingers clench into the fabric of Merlin's jacket, shaking as he sways and finally, finally slumps against Merlin fully. Merlin is all that is holding him up.
"Arthur," Merlin breathes, a miserable plea, "what are you doing?" All he can do is clutch Arthur to him and remember how fragile the man's insides are, how easy it was to rip them apart. How they are barely back together again.
Arthur does not answer. He just faces forward, glowering, shaking like a leaf about to fall, there between Merlin and the rest of the party, with no mail or armour, nothing but thin fabric shielding his body. Gawain's sword thumps to the ground, and Uther's face sags, utter horror replacing the fury. The king lunges for the nearest knight, yanking the man's bow down. "Put them down, for god's sake, you're aiming your arrows at my son!"
The knights lower their weapons slowly, as though they can't quite agree with the order. Merlin sees amazement in their faces, sorrow in some, fear in all. Gwen still struggles to break Morgana's grasp, but even she is looking at him as if she no longer knows who he is. Her eyes are wide; they glimmer with unshed tears.
Morgana is the only one who looks like she understands. The person she sees is still Merlin.
It's become a stalemate, and Merlin has no idea what to do anymore. His brain is washed through with nothingness; only the knowledge that Arthur still breathes resonates. He's lost his energy, his magic, and does not know where to begin looking for it.
"Arthur," Uther hisses, a wretched anxiety lilting the name. "Get out of the way!"
Arthur's jaw clenches. Merlin can see the stain on his tunic widening, feel it soaking through to his palms where he holds Arthur around the chest. He remembers that he's the one keeping Arthur in place and shifts his grip to let him slide down, when—
"Any…" Arthur's voice fails; he swallows, and the sound holds an ugly rasp. "Any blade that reaches Merlin…" —he sags further, fingers clamping tighter to Merlin's hips— "goes through m… me first."
The tear slides hot and heavy down Merlin's cheek; he can't speak. Magic prickles to life in his chest, a trill of energy he'd thought long gone. For a second, the only things he is aware of are the sound of Arthur trying to breathe and the dampness between their bodies that he knows is Arthur's blood. A lot of it. Grief tightens his fingers, pulling Arthur closer, supporting more of his weight.
Gwen cries openly now; Morgana's eyes are very bright. And Uther… Uther stares at them both, indecision all over his face. But alongside it is pure anguish, a parent on the verge of losing his child. Merlin's hands go numb; he loosens his grip on Arthur.
"Merlin." It's just a wisp of sound. Merlin bends his head to Arthur's shoulder. "Mer…"
He nods, presses his fingers against Arthur's arm to show him he hears. Arthur's hand crawls up Merlin's side and gains a better hold, but Merlin can feel him trembling.
"Merlin, can you… leave?" Arthur rasps, very quietly.
At first, Merlin has no idea what he's talking about. Then it hits him, that vibrant energy in his chest flutters again, and suddenly he's hanging onto Arthur as though the man is about to slip away from him. "Don't do this," he pleads, "Arthur—"
"Merlin," Arthur cuts him off—then coughs violently. He nearly keels over, and Merlin lets him, desperate to have him out of the way of the arrows. But Arthur keeps himself upright by sheer will, holding fast to Merlin's body.
"Arthur, you can't," Merlin manages. Arthur turns his head, an unsteady twist that reveals a profile etched with pain.
"Merlin, please… help me save you." Arthur's voice cracks on the word 'save.' He cranes his head further and meets Merlin's gaze. His chin and cheeks are streaked with blood. The look in his eyes forces Merlin's breath from him. Arthur's gaze flickers over his face, and then he wipes the moisture from Merlin's cheek with his thumb. "Now," he wheezes, "can you go?"
Merlin is locked in Arthur's gaze. He nods. It will take everything he has left, probably more, and he's only done it twice before, short distances between places he knows as well as he knows Ealdor: his room, and Gaius' workroom.
Arthur nods in return, then erupts into coughing that wracks right through him. Merlin grabs him up and holds on until it is finished. He can see the knights' hands twitching on their bows, their weight shifting back and forth uneasily. Uther's expression has let anger back into play; Merlin knows that as soon as Arthur is safe on the ground—which is where he will be in moments, regardless of what else happens—his own life is forfeit. Arthur grasps hold of him hard. Merlin can feel him summoning energy. He doesn't know what for until Arthur heaves himself around and threads a bloody hand into Merlin's hair. His lips press at the corner of Merlin's mouth, an exhalation skating across his chin. Merlin gasps, hears startled exclamations from those watching. "For me," Arthur hisses, and then his grip tightens unbearably.
Merlin's heart hammers to a frenzy as Arthur shoves himself away and staggers back. Uther yells something, but Merlin can only hear ringing as he scrambles for the last flecks of energy still trapped in his breast, balls them together and flings them outward, picturing… picturing trees, darkness, silence. The air blurs; Arthur is a swaying fog of red blood, white tunic, and ashen skin. Merlin's vision quakes; he hears screaming, or perhaps it is the magic. The last thing he sees before the field disappears is Arthur, tumbling to the earth.
* * *
He does see towering trees and blue darkness—he feels the cold rush of night air—before he passes out completely. And then everything is indeed silent.