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To stay or to go, that is the question

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"Merlin!"

Groaning, Merlin ran out into the courtyard to see all the knights saddled and ready to leave. It was early in the morning, the sun only just having risen, but he had been awake far longer than any of the knights, or his king. Patrol was going to go ahead regardless of how tired he was, so sucking in a deep breath, he swung himself onto his horse and prepared for a long, cold day.

The sky was bright and clear for now, but dark grey clouds loomed in the distance promising a miserable day. The knights didn't seem to care though, used to being out in all.kinds of weather.

"Seriously Merlin, we could die of old age waiting for you to be ready." Arthur teased as he watched Merlin fit his bag onto his horses sadle.

Merlin rolled his eyes in response, and stifled a yawn. "Come on then, sire. Let's get going."

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They spent the entire day on their horses, trudging through Camelot territory inspecting the border, and looking for trouble. Autumn was in full swing, and with that came the awful weather. Just as they stopped for lunch, the heavens had opened, soaking them all to the bone. Teeth chattering, Merlin often found himself dreaming of a roaring fire, and his favourite food, a blanket thrown around his shoulders. Alas, they still had several hours before they were to begin heading back.

"Would you cheer up Merlin!" Arthur groaned, as Merlin complained about the cold for the fiftieth time in an hour.

"What's there to be cheery about?" Merlin challenged.

"It could be worse."

"How could it be worse?" Merlin whined.

"We could have brought gwaine." Leon pointed out from behind the pair.

"True." Merlin admitted, annoyance building within him. Gwaine had been kept behind suffering from a case of the sweating sickness that had been going around. Merlin envied him, and that was something he never thought he'd say. Gwaine was a great guy and a good friend, but goodness did he know how to talk!

"See, could have been..."

Whatever Arthur was about to say was cut off by a scream that echoed through the woods. It came from the east, a little way ahead of them. Kicking their horses into action, they hurried towards the sound.

What they found chilled Merlin to the bone (even more so than he already was). A young woman, who couldn't have been more than 20, although she looked very petit for her age, was surrounded by a gang of ten men. One man had pressed her up against a tree, his hands around her waist, the other men leering at her.

She tried to fight them off, but she was much too small to do anything to harm them. They merely laughed at her resistance.

"Get off me you pig!" She screamed, kneeing the man in the balls. He groaned, falling back, but another man grabbed her, groping her chest, and ripping her corset off her dress. Thankfully her undershirt remained in place, maintaining her decency, but it was one less layer protecting her now. Too vulnerable, that's all she could think about. She was too vulnerable. The rain soaked her clothes, threatening to become see through and reveal all anyway.

The men laughed again, as one of the man's hands started forcing its way under her skirts and up her leg.

Unable to bare watching anymore, Arthur drew his sword, jumping off his horse and charging forwards, throwing his cloak to the side.

Caught unaware, three bandits were struck down by various members of the Camelot patrol before they started putting up a fight. Arthur's main concern was the girl, but he was too preoccupied fighting the bandits to be able to get to her. Merlin on the other hand, managed to sneak around the outside. He did his best not to slip in the muddy ground.

The man who had been doing the groping the moment the Camelot knights had attacked, pulled the girl by the throat, and away from the battle, trying to take his prize as far away as possible. She clawed at his hands, but with him squeezing her airways, she was quickly running out of air. Black spots swam at the edges of her vision. She fought harder, aiming kicks at his groin and knees. But it did no good.

Suddenly, the hand holding her let her go. Coughing, she dropped to the floor, hand caressing the now bruised skin of her neck. Looking up, she saw a man, not much older than herself, in a scruffy blue shirt and red neckerchief, holding a large stick. It wasn't difficult to realise what had happened; he'd used the stick to knock the bandit out.

"Are you alright?" He asked, bending down.

She nodded, wary of this new man. He had saved her from the bandit, but what proof did she have that these men were any better than the last?

"I'm Merlin." He said, offering a hand out, and helping her to her feet. She stumbled slightly, black spots still swimming at the edges of her vision, and her body feeling more sluggish than normal. She had a feeling it was adrenaline keeping her going.

She didn't give him her name, she didn't want him to use it against her. She bent down, briefly, grabbing the bandits sword. At Merlin's puzzled look she shrugged, croaking out, "well, you don't have a weapon."

Merlin nodded, and then taking her hand, started leading her towards the horses. But a bandit intercepted them, sword raised in an attack.

She pushed Merlin out the way, blocking the man's blow. This only angered him, and he went for another attack, but she blocked that too. With a weapon in her hand she was able to take the man on far more easily than she could have unarmed. Slightness and speed were her weapons as much as the sword in her hands. Catching her attacker off guard, she managed to trip him, and sent the sword through his stomach.

He fell to the floor dead.

It had gone silent.

Looking up, she noticed all the other bandits dead or unconscious on the floor, the Camelot knights staring at her in shock. Not surprising really considering a tiny woman had just taken down a man twice her size in ten seconds flat.

"That was..."

"Who are you?" She demanded, raising her sword at the man who seemed to be the leader of the pack. But her voice came out croaking, her voice protesting against the abuse it had taken earlier. Her head swam from the adrenaline and the oxygen loss.

"I'm Arthur Pendragon, king of Camelot." Arthur said, approaching the young woman with his arm outstretched gently. With his clothes sodden, his hair plastered to his face by both sweat and the rain, he didn't look much like the mighty king he was meant to be.

The woman's face paled, and she could almost feel the tattoo on her shoulder burn through her. She had to get away from this man. Her grip on the sword faltered for a second. But she quickly regained her composure, straightening her back and holding the sword tighter. The Knights, trained by the king of Camelot himself, could see her wariness of them growing.

"I don't want to harm you. Just out the sword down." Arthur said.

"Please. We just want to make sure you're okay, and then you can be on your way." Merlin assured her, stepping up beside his master.

She nodded, putting the sword down. Even if she wanted to, she wouldn't be able to outrun these men, or fight them off.

"What's your name?" Merlin asked, approaching her slowly. He was scared to startle her again. She seemed flightly, like a deer.

"Kara." She replied.

He took the sword from her, and handed it to Arthur. "Are you hurt anywhere else Kara?"

She shook her head, wincing as her neck protested to the movement. Suddenly she began to feel very lightheaded. Swaying on her feet, she watched as the king of Camelot and his servant rushed forward to help her. But they weren't fast enough, and she blacked out as she hit the ground.

 

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"Merlin!" Arthur called, rushing for the young woman as she hit the ground. Merlin was at her side in an instant, checking her over.

Kara's face was flushed and warm, but her lips had the slightest hint of blue to them. Hovering his cheek above her mouth he monitored her breathing for a few seconds. Her breathing was normal, but her heart was slightly elevated.

"Merlin?"

"She'll be fine. The strangulation caused slight hypoxia, and the adrenaline didn't help. That's why she passed out?" Merlin answered. But since Kara was now breathing normally, her heart rate would soon return to normal levels and she would wake up and be fine.

"And for those of us who don't know what hypoxia means?" Percival asked.

"She wasn't getting enough air into her lungs. But her breathing is fine now. She should wake up soon." Merlin replied.

Elyan collected a cloak from where it had been abandoned on the ground earlier. It was damp with the rain, but would provide her with some of the decency she had lost when her dress had been ripped. He draped it over her chest, being careful not to jostle her too much.

Arthur looked around, staring despairingly at the lack of canopy above him. That's what he hates about autumn. The trees lost their leaves, providing them with less shelter on patrols. "we can't stay here. We need to get her somewhere dry."

"Where's dry around here?" Merlin questioned. They were essentially in the middle of nowhere.

"Camelot isn't more than an hour away?" Leon suggested.

Arthur frowned. He highly doubted Kara would be very appreciative if she woke up halfway to Camelot in the arms of some random knight, but they didn't really have much of an option.

"Camelot it is."

 

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"Arthur?" Gaius questioned as the king walked through his door, sodden to the bone and followed by a number of his equally sodden knights. "what's going on? Are you harmed?"

Percival entered then, an unconscious girl in his arms, wrapped in one of their cloaks. Immediately Gaius's mind snapped into motion. Whatever was wrong with her was only going to worsen with the cold and dampness. He needed to get her out of that dry before hypothermia began to set in.

"Place her on the bed. Merlin, light a fire."

As soon as Percival placed her on the bed, Gaius set about unwrapping her from the cold and wet blanket, and removing as much of her damp dress as he could without leaving her indecent. Then he wrapped her up in a warm thick blanket, checking her over just as Merlin had done.

Arthur felt his eyes getting drawn over to his manservant. He often forgot that he had relatively extensive medical knowledge. If he wanted to, he could easily become court physician once Gaius passed (although hopefully Gaius would be around for a long time to come). But Merlin was loyal to Arthur, and would never leave the king without a manservant. And Arthur could never push Merlin away.

"She's oxygen deprived, and on the edge of hypothermia, but once she warms up she should be perfectly all right." Gaius told the king after inspecting the girl for a few minutes.

Arthur nodded, relieved. He barely knew the girl, but after seeing her attacked, and then the way she could handle a sword, he had found himself getting drawn to her. His curiosity needed to know how someone like her had learnt to handle a sword as well as she could.

"Tell me when she wakes." Arthur ordered, before leaving the room and heading to his own chambers.

Gwaine stayed behind in Gaius's chamber, as did Merlin, but the rest of the knights followed Arthur's lead and left. It was only when Arthur arrived at his rooms that he felt a presence behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Leon following dutifully behind.

"What is it Leon?" Arthur asked, entering his chambers and dumping his sword and scabbard on the table.

Leon looked almost reluctant to speak. "Why are you doing this?"

Arthur frowned. "Doing what?"

"The girl. Why did you bring her back to Camelot with us. We don't know her, she doesn't know us, and she seemed very jumpy when we rescued her from those men."

Arthur shrugged. "I just wanted to make sure she was okay. Once she wakes, and Gaius gives the all clear, she is free to go on her way."

Leon nodded. "Okay, sire. I just wanted to make sure. I know you often have good intentions, but sometimes intentions can get swayed in even the purest of hearts."

Arthur smiled, clapping a hand on Leon's shoulder. "And I thank you for it. I would be a worse king if it weren't for my knights challenging my actions."

Leon nodded, and left the room. It was true. Ever since Arthur had become king, his knights, and Merlin especially, had always challenged his actions when they either didn't agree with Arthur's decision, or doubted his motives. Uther had never done that. His advisors had always been men who shared the same views as him, and the knights had been far less loyal to Uther than they are to Arthur.

When Merlin entered the room, he made a beeline for the fireplace, lighting the logs and filling the room with warm air.

"How's Kara?" Arthur asked, as Merlin began fiddling with the straps to Arthur's armour.

"She's warming up, and is out of danger now, but still hasn't woken up. But after the ordeal she suffered with those bandits, it's probably her brains self defence mechanism saying if she sleeps, she won't know the bad things that happened to her." Merlin shrugged. He'd seen it plenty of times before in women, children, and men who had suffered the same kind of abuse as Kara had. Their brains switched off and they became a shell of who they once we're. They'd bounce back, become themselves again, but only after seeking help.

Arthur nods, but his lips are pinched in worry. He hoped Kara would be alright.

"I just wanted to make sure you could get your armour off. Don't want you catching a chill." Merlin said.

Arthur shot his servant with a teasing smile. "Are you sure that's the only reason you wanted to get me undressed?"

Merlin blushed, but didn't deny it. They'd been together for a few months now, only discovering their feelings after Gwen had been banished. Arthur's heart had been so broken, that he became almost a shell of himself. Merlin had put him back together, and in doing so, they had come to realise the full extent of their feelings for one another.

"I'm sure we can think of other ways to keep me warm." Arthur said, nudging Merlin lightly.

Merlin blushed even further. "I'm sure we can, my Lord." He teased.

As soon as Arthur armour and chainmail came off, their mouths connected, and it became almost a race to see who could get the other ones clothing off first. They didn't even move to the bed, doing it right there on the rug next to the fire.

It was only as night fell that they moved to the bed, cuddling under the sheets until they both fell into a sound sleep.