There's a battle, because of course there is, this close to the border where the patrols are not always seen. Bandits, or maybe Bayard's men in disguise, it makes no matter. There is a battle, it was an ambush, and Arthur is in the thick of it, cut off from his men and trying to get closer to even one of them, to get back-to-back to someone so he can improve his odds of surviving.
Someone in Camelot red is down, unmoving, along with three or four of the bandits, their bodies littering the clearing and making it difficult to maneuver without tripping over someone. There are grunts and cries of pain, a scream of agony, the clash of weapons and bodies in armor.
One of the bandits stumbles and falls right onto Arthur's blade, and he is only barely able to tug free again before the next man is on him. Arthur has no shield with him, so he pulls his dagger to have something in his off hand, stabbing the man in the neck while he is occupied with fending off Arthur's sword.
He manages to clear a swath around him and take two steps toward Gwaine and Percival, when a heavy blow from behind drops him to his knees. It feels like someone has punched him in the kidneys, even through his armor, and it's suddenly hard to breathe. He whirls, sees a crossbow bolt headed right for him, miraculously bats it out of the sky before it can kill him. He hears a cry, rises and turns to his right, grimacing from the pain, cuts down another man, spins back toward Gwaine, and right in front of him he sees golden eyes, sorcerer, and stabs just as the man lunges, hand outstretched.
An instant later, recognition: golden eyes, sorcerer, Merlin, and Merlin is collapsing off his dagger and onto him before sliding to the ground, eyes wide, gold fading to blue… hand still outstretched.
The world stops.
Around him, the battle continues, but Arthur can't move, frozen in horror for the first time in over ten years; his mind hasn't gone blank like this since his first battle, since he was little more than a child. All he can do is stare at Merlin, bleeding on the ground, curling up, his breath coming in little pants and gasps.
He's stabbed Merlin.
Merlin is a sorcerer, and… and Arthur stabbed him.
"Merlin!" It's Lancelot, running over and sliding on his knees to a stop by the other man's side, his hands frantic as he tries to check for a pulse and turn Merlin over, both at the same time. Merlin gives a choked-off little cry that makes Arthur flinch. "All right, all right, Merlin. It's all right. Be still. Be still." Lancelot swiftly tugs off Merlin's neckerchief and balls it up, pressing it to the wound, and Merlin shudders all over, mouth gaping as though he can't get any air. "I know. I know. It'll be all right."
Then Percival is there, on Merlin's other side, holding him steady for Lancelot, whose hands have begun to shake. Elyan, Gwaine, and Leon step up to either side, all of them staring at the scene before them. In another minute, Lucan, Ector, and Bors join them.
"Sire?" Arthur's not sure which of them speaks.
He has to swallow twice before he can reply. "He's a sorce—" It starts to sound like a question, so he clears his throat and tries again. "He's a sorcerer."
"Sire…" it's Leon, this time, he's the only one of them to ever be so diffident toward Arthur. "Sire, are you sure?"
"He—his eyes glowed. His eyes were glowing, and I—" Stabbed him. But Arthur can't say that aloud.
Merlin bends his arm, the one that was outstretched, the one that was performing magic, and grasps at Arthur's ankle. He makes a noise like a wounded animal, and Arthur can't bear it, can't bear whatever it is that Merlin wants from him right now.
He's a sorcerer, and Arthur has stabbed him.
He takes a step backward, and Merlin's hand falls away from his foot. He whimpers again, and Lancelot hushes him.
Arthur is still staring at Merlin, and doesn't even see the punch coming. It knocks him to the ground, but also knocks the shock right out of him, and he leaps to his feet to see Lucan and Ector holding Gwaine back, a look of rage on Gwaine's face like Arthur has never seen.
"You miserable bastard," the other man spits. "Is this how you repay Merlin's loyalty and devotion?"
"Shut up," says Ector, "and remember how to address your betters."
"No man is my better who would betray a friend," says Gwaine.
"He attacked me." Arthur will never forget. "His eyes glowed gold, and then he lunged for me. I saw it."
"Look behind you, Sire," Gwaine sneers. Arthur does not want to turn his back on the man, but the others are looking past Arthur, and Elyan's eyebrows are raised in surprise, while Percival only looks stricken.
About ten paces away from him are two men with crossbows, lying in the bracken. Arthur approaches them cautiously, but soon sees that they are dead, their own bolts sticking out of their chests. That shouldn't be possible, unless they were shot by their own men, but there weren't any bowmen on the other side of the battle.
Or rather… it shouldn't be possible, unless magic turned their bolts back on them.
Arthur turns, and pain shoots through his kidney again, pain that he'd forgotten about in the heat of the battle. Reaching behind him, he feels a dent in his armor, as if someone had punched him hard enough to reach his kidney even through layers of metal and padding. Looking down, just where he'd been standing in front of Merlin, he sees another crossbow bolt, and with a wince, he sheathes his sword and bends down to pick it up.
"Sire?" asks Bors, and Arthur passes him the bolt. Its head is curled up, as if it had been shot into a stone. Bors turns the thing over, studying it as if it will give him answers Arthur does not have.
Another impossibility. Arrows may strike a man in the weak gaps or joints in armor, but will otherwise bounce off a sturdy breastplate; bolts, though, will go right through a man's leg and pin him to his horse, ignoring armor completely. If Arthur had really been shot in the kidney, this bolt should be sticking out of his stomach.
Merlin is a sorcerer, and Arthur has stabbed him.
Merlin's sorcery may have saved Arthur's life.
And Arthur has stabbed him.
"Sire," says Lancelot, "the wound is serious. What are your orders?"
"We're too far from Camelot," says Leon. "He'd never—" He breaks off, glances uneasily at Arthur, but they both know what he was about to say. Merlin won't survive the journey back to Gaius.
"He is a sorcerer," says Ector; he is an older knight, one of Uther's. "Why would you want to save him?"
Lucan does not answer, as Gwaine begins to struggle against their hold again, but Arthur is unsure what he would say. He's an older knight as well, one of the oldest. He's been serving Camelot since before Arthur was born—before the Purge began.
"There is another option," says Lancelot quietly. "It's rumored that there are druids somewhere nearby. If we could find them…"
"You speak treason," says Ector.
"Technically, Merlin's already committed it," Gwaine shoots back. "Even if it was to save Arthur's sorry hide."
"We can't seek them out!" says Leon. "His Majesty would never—"
"Uther isn't here."
"Now you're the one speaking treason!" Leon gestures helplessly, as Ector shakes him. "Have a care, Sir Gwaine."
"He'll die without help," says Bors slowly. "It… may be better for him, if he dies here." The younger knights, Arthur's men, all turn to glare at him. Bors's expression hardens. "Better that he die here, than by the pyre or the headsman, don't you think?"
They fall silent, and look to Arthur; when he says nothing, Bors continues. "If you wish it, sire, I will deliver the mercy blow. He is suffering now."
"He deserves to suffer," says Ector. "He used magic in front of the prince. Has been close to His Highness for years. Who's to say what secrets he has learned?"
"If you know what's good for you," says Percival, rising from his crouch at Merlin's side, "you'll be quiet now."
Arthur can see the schism forming among his men, and knows that he cannot allow it to progress. "Enough," he says, and the budding fight stops. "Merlin cannot return to Camelot with us." It's the simple truth; Leon was right, Merlin would not survive the journey. "But I will not see him killed, either."
"You mean to seek out the druids?" asks Bors.
Ector snorts, incredulous. "More likely he means to leave him here to die alone, as he deserves."
Gwaine finally gets one arm free, and uses his elbow to smash Ector's nose in. Ector and Lucan both let go of him, Ector bent over his broken nose as it drips blood onto the ground, and Lucan reaching for his sword. Instead of a fight, though, Gwaine only reaches up and unclasps his red cloak, flinging it to the ground at Arthur's feet.
"Your knights can't seek out the druids without committing treason? Fine. Then I'm no longer your knight. I'll seek them out myself."
"Gwaine." It's Percival, trying to get him to see reason.
"No. This way Arthur gets to follow his daddy's rules, and I don't have to serve a man who would betray a friend like this."
Several men begin talking at once, mostly defending Arthur. He wishes they would stop.
He'd been about to ask for volunteers to aid in the search for the druids, anyway.
"Enough," he says again, but his voice is hoarse and they don't hear him at first. "Enough!" Once again, they quiet. "Gwaine, is this truly your wish?"
"Banish me, if it'll make you feel better," he replies. "Wouldn't be the first time."
"No," says Arthur. "I won't banish you. I… wish you luck. On your quest."
"Sire?" Ector's hand is still cupped over his broken nose. Lucan and Bors are both watching him in confusion.
"Merlin—" God, how it hurts to say his name— "used sorcery. But he also saved my life. The two deeds balance. I can neither reward nor punish him. Let… let the gods decide his fate." The words taste like ashes in his mouth, and Arthur swallows back the urge to vomit.
"You would leave him here to die?" asks Lancelot. He still kneels at Merlin's side, his hands covered with Merlin's blood, and he looks honestly confused that Arthur could even consider such a thing.
"He has a champion in S—in Gwaine," says Arthur. "And even if he could survive the trip back to Camelot, my father would only see him executed. Leaving him here is his best chance to survive."
That's what Arthur tells himself, anyway. It's just as likely that Merlin will endure a slow, agonizing death, which Arthur will be attempt to absolve himself of by saying he had nothing to do with it.
But he does, because he stabbed him.
He stabbed Merlin.
"We need to return," he says. "These bandits were too well-equipped. I suspect that Bayard is paying them not to attack Mercia, and convincing them to turn their attentions to Camelot instead. My father must hear of this."
He begins issuing orders, to fetch the horses, to prepare Gaheris's body for travel. One by one, slowly, reluctantly, the other knights move away from the scene. Arthur can feel the men watching him, especially the men he knighted personally, and it makes him want to scream. Lancelot and Gwaine, in particular, stare at Arthur as he issues his commands, neither man moving from Merlin's side.
Arthur cannot bring himself to look at Merlin as he steps away.
"Gwaine." He beckons the other man over, but the knight—former knight?—only snorts.
"Save it, Arthur. Whatever you have to say, I don't want to hear it."
"Yes, you do."
Gwaine sets his jaw and narrows his eyes, but comes over anyway. "If you think anything you say will make me forgive you for this—"
"Head west," Arthur interrupts. "You'll come to a lake between three hills, and if you turn north, you'll find the place the druids were last seen."
Gwaine is silent.
"I had been about to ask for volunteers to find them. For Merlin. But Ector would surely have reported that." And he would have, to the other knights, if not to Uther. Until Arthur is king, his hold over the knights is not absolute, and Ector could easily turn over half of them against him with one wrong word. "Plus I cannot trust that he, or Bors or Lucan, would have gone to seek them with peaceful intentions. But I know that you are Merlin's friend. You'll do everything you can for him."
Gwaine studies Arthur for a long moment, then says, "Aye. I will."
"That is all I can ask."
"He might still die."
Arthur has to take a deep breath before he can speak again. "I know."
Gwaine nods, then glances down. "You ever going to let go of that?" he asks, and Arthur frowns.
In his hand, he's still holding the bloody dagger. His hand is covered in drying blood—Merlin's blood—and his grip is so tight that it's starting to hurt, now that he's aware of it.
His old weapons instructors would have beaten him for dropping a weapon rather than cleaning it and putting it away properly, but Arthur's not sure he'll ever be able to bear looking at this one again, never mind using it. One by one, he pries sticky fingers away from the hilt, and casts it at Gwaine's feet. Gwaine, for his part, raises an eyebrow, but before he can say anything, Arthur turns away.
The knights, minus Gwaine and Merlin, and with Gaheris's corpse slung over his saddle, mount up and leave that place, and Arthur never once allows himself to look back.