When Merlin arrived Arthur’s skin was already paper white.
It shouldn’t have happened. There was no reason for Arthur to be lying there, on this makeshift bed of wet leaves; no reason for Camelot’s Prince to be barely breathing. They had just been gone on a checking patrol. Arthur had gone early in the morning with a few of his knights to visit some nearby villages, to make sure everything was alright. There had been no danger at all!
Who was he kidding? Safety was a luxury even Prince Arthur couldn’t afford. Danger was always hanging above crowned heads and always would be, like a terrible and grievous Sword of Damocles, especially for the Pendragon heir.
“What happened?” Merlin spat.
The men, Camelot’s knights, jumped when they heard his furious voice ring out in the deadly silence. It was so much easier for Merlin to be angry right now than scared.
“We don’t know…” One of the knights finally answered in a whisper, clearly uncomfortable. “We were riding together when suddenly some of our men turned against us.”
Merlin looked at him, stunned, as if the knight had grown a second head.
“They attacked Prince Arthur,” he finally admitted, still nervously looking Merlin in the eyes.
The man was telling the truth. Merlin was sure of it. But it still didn’t make any sense to him.
“I just can’t believe it!” said another knight in a heartbreaking and muffled cry.
The man seemed to be shattered. He was sitting next to Arthur, keeping careful watch over him. Cai, Merlin remembered, was one of Arthur’s best friends. He was one of the only knights Arthur had actually introduced him to; someone trustworthy.
“Those men are Camelot’s knights! They’re brothers in arms.” Cai was exasperated, incredulous. “They have always been faithful to the crown. They’d die for Camelot! They’d gladly die for Arthur, anytime. I know that!”
Merlin knew Cai was right.
Day after day he had seen those knights train with Arthur, serving Arthur. He had witnessed them working hard to make their prince proud of them, to be worthy of the noble armours they wore. They fought so many times alongside their prince, always loyally. Those men respected Arthur, the man, because they knew him. They certainly felt that he would be a great king one day, their king, the one who would lead them. They didn’t fear him, they loved him.
Merlin was no different.
He would have been the first one to sacrifice himself for Arthur’s sake, anytime. But today he hadn’t been there for Arthur; he wasn’t next to him when he needed him the most. Merlin felt an uncomfortable knot in his stomach. He had failed Arthur.
“What happened?” Gaius asked while he carefully examined Arthur.
Dirty clotted blood was all over Arthur’s powerful, but too still, chest. Merlin had to look away. He couldn’t stand to look at Arthur’s mauled body, to take in the bloody mess of his bared flesh.
Arthur would not die. The knights who took care of him told Merlin so. Gaius was reassuring, too, but Merlin couldn’t stand to see Arthur hurt, so weak and helpless. This wasn’t his Arthur. Merlin couldn’t bear the thought of even nearly losing him.
Cai was talking with Gaius, telling him what happened.
“When exactly did those knights turn against the prince?” The older man frowned.
“We were trotting toward Camelot when dark birds attacked some of the knights. We tried to help them but they fought against us too, then they turned on Prince Arthur,” another hurt knight answered bitterly, looking straight at the traitors.
Traitors. Dead bodies drowning in muddy patterns of blood, disgraced. Lost and dazed men, sized up, waiting for the king’s sentence: unavoidable death. The king would never forgive treachery. Arthur would stand against their execution, no matter what. His kind and generous heart would try to save them.
Merlin, though, wished them dead.
“Ravens.” Gaius finally whispered, gazing intensely at Merlin, shaking him from his morose thoughts.
All of a sudden, Merlin knew why Gaius suddenly looked older and scared, why he felt his skin tickle: dark magic. Dark powerful magic had been used against Arthur.
Arthur had survived and his manservant stayed at his bedside. He looked worse than Arthur himself.
Merlin continued to sleep at the foot of the royal bed curled up into a ball, keeping a constant eye on Arthur. Arthur could swear to the gods that his servant never actually slept because every time he opened his eyes those two worried and inquisitive blue eyes were gazing back at him.
“Gaius said I’d survive, you idiot,” Arthur sighed, when once again his disobedient manservant refused to go to sleep in his own room.
“I want to make sure that you do, for myself,” Merlin stubbornly answered him, lying once again on Arthur’s bed.
Arthur was still too weak to kick him out or to argue prattishly for hours, so he had no choice but to have that big, bony oaf curled around his legs at night. He was already having a hard enough time staying in bed and admitting he needed to convalesce. Having Merlin nursing him twenty four seven was even worse and he feared it would drive him to insanity soon enough.
God’s forbid he might attempt to die anytime soon! Or worse still, those around him should think him weak.
“Ravens are very smart creatures, Merlin,” Gaius patiently explained to him while he was tending to the sleeping prince. “They talk to Mother Nature, to humans: a bridge between two worlds. Some think they’re even the bridge between Death and Life. It is told that ravens are the souls of murdered men who had no proper burial; damned souls with no one to guide them to the light.”
Merlin was carefully listening to the physician, trying to understand.
“Do you know why people believe ravens are birds of ill omens?” Gaius asked while dressing the prince’s wounds.
Merlin shook his head impatiently waiting to have Gaius explain more to him.
“Because they are the ones that granted humans with the gift of prophecies.”
All Arthur’s injuries were almost healed in a few days. All but one.
One deep purple wound marbled Arthur’s golden hip; a black spot spreading its wings on the sunny sky of his skin. It was a deathblow stroke dealt by a powerful beak, by a magical hand.
The prophecy of the ravens was poisoning Arthur’s soul.
“What can we do, Gaius?” Merlin asked frantically. “Arthur’s wound isn’t healing.”
“I don’t know, my boy,” sighed Gaius. “I’ve done everything in my power.”
Merlin would not give up on Arthur, he never could. Prophecy of a black raven or not, he would not allow Arthur to die by the hand of dark magic. He knew even powerful dark magic could be countered. He had already fought against it, and he would fight it again and again if he had to in order to protect, to save or to serve Arthur.
“You did, Gaius,” whispered Merlin gently. “Now it’s my turn”
Gaius didn’t try to tell him otherwise.
“Mer-lin, I’m bored!”
Arthur was pouting.
Worse than an annoying Arthur was a pouting Arthur. Merlin could deal with an annoying prat any day but he couldn’t deal with a pouting Arthur. Why? Because when Arthur pouted Merlin was powerless to refuse his every wish. Arthur knew Merlin’s weakness for his pretty lips and his endearing pout. It was unbecoming of a prince, really, but it seemed his long stay in bed had got rid of all traces of his pride.
“And?” Merlin tried his best to avoid that adorable pout and look disinterested.
“And ... a good manservant would try his best to entertain me.” Arthur openly smirked.
“The good manservant is already spending all his time listening to an insufferable prince complaining.” Merlin smiled.
“The prince wouldn’t be insufferable if he was allowed to leave his chambers.” Arthur pouted again.
“That’s what you say.” Merlin was unconvinced.
“Mer-lin, ... I’m still bored,” Arthur added only a few minutes later.
Merlin pretended not to hear him.
“You haven’t touched me for days.” Arthur’s voiced dropped to almost a whisper. There was a sorrow in his face as he tenderly caught Merlin’s wrist, gently brushing his thumb against the soft and sensitive skin.
“You can’t be serious! You’re hurt!”
Merlin tried to free himself from Arthur’s grip. The prince might have been hurt but he was still stronger and evidently more determined than Merlin.
“Hurt but not impotent!” were Arthur’s final words before he pulled Merlin down on top of him and took his breath away.
Fresh blood stained the white sheets.
Merlin knew he shouldn’t have given in to Arthur but he was helpless to refuse to him, especially when Arthur was devouring him with hungry eyes. He had no choice but to submit to him whenever he felt him look at him in that way only lovers do; whenever he felt his burning hands on his tingling skin.
He couldn’t refuse Arthur because he loved him.
He couldn’t let the prophecy happen for the same reason.
He gently ran his hand over the burning wound, feeling the blood flow, feeling the raven’s wings brushing against his magic. He wouldn’t let it tighten its claws over Arthur’s heart; a heart that was all his to protect.
His eyes turned golden and for the very first time he unleashed his magic.
“Merlin!” Arthur whimpered burying his wet forehead in the crook of his lover’s neck.
“I’m here.” Merlin answered in an ancient tongue, then kissed Arthur’s blond head lovingly. “Fight with me, Arthur, don’t give up, never give up.”
“I’m with you.” Arthur moaned.
The prince’s wound healed leaving a white scar.
Merlin knew he could not undo the curse, the prophecy of the ravens, but he could tame it. Some day Arthur would be injured by a dark raven, but even the deathblow would not kill him. King Arthur would not die. He was the symbol of good and light, the white raven to the evil and darkness of the black raven.
There would be more black ravens to come but Arthur, King Arthur of Albion, the white raven, could not be dethroned by any of them. Arthur would be the one and only King of Albion.
It was Merlin’s destiny to be on the look out for the dark raven.
He would do it gladly at Arthur’s side.