Arc I: Lost and Found
“I’m telling you, Arthur. That isn’t how it works.”
“Because that’s not how it works!”
“Yes.” Arthur said slowly, quickening his pace down the hall. “You said that already. That doesn’t explain why it doesn’t work.”
“Why it doesn’t…” Merlin let out a short huff, struggling to keep up with the King. “It just doesn’t. Why is the sky blue? I can’t give you an explanation for that. It just is!”
“Yes, but this isn’t the sky. This is my son.”
“The laws of magic don’t care about personal connections.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Arthur shook his head, turning to Mordred, who was walking beside Merlin. “Back me up here.”
“That isn’t how it works.” Mordred said, parroting Merlin’s earlier words back to the King.
Arthur let out a frustrated sigh. “Surely if anyone could do it, it would be you, Merlin.”
“I can’t put a tracking spell on your son.”
“You’re telling me in all your books of magic, there are no tracking spells at all?” Arthur asked incredulously.
“Of course they exist .” Merlin had to stop himself from rolling his eyes at the King’s insistence. “But in order to place a tracking spell on your son, I would need one very important thing: your son. Even then, the spell would fade within a few days.”
“What’s the point in a tracking spell if you already have the person you want to track?!”
“Traitors, for example.” Mordred pipped in. “If you want to follow someone without getting too close, you can place a tracking spell on them first.”
“What about scrying?” Arthur questioned after a moment, conceding to Mordred’s point. “Can’t you scry for him?”
“Your son has been ‘missing’ for less than ten minutes, we know for a fact he hasn’t even left the front gates, and you’re already resorting to tracking spells and scrying?”
“Well, I wouldn’t have to if he didn’t go running off every chance he gets!”
It was true that Thomas had a nasty habit of disappearing, but he had never been missing for too long. Sometimes he went to the caves. Sometimes he went to the physician’s chambers. When those two locations had been checked without luck, that was when Arthur’s panic would begin to set in.
“He gets bored, sire.” Mordred said. “Did you not explore the castle at his age?”
Thomas, despite being Arthur’s son, had always been a rather well behaved boy. Merlin had always claimed his more favorable traits to have come from his mother. He knew he wasn’t supposed to run around unattended, but Mordred was right. He did get bored. He was still a child, first and foremost. Sometimes the knights were too busy to escort him wherever it was he wanted to go. Sometimes he just wanted to go off by himself. If it was any consolation, he did always seem to regret the stress his disappearance had put on his father (and his mother, on the few occasions where she was made aware). It didn’t stop him from doing it again the next day, though.
“It’s not the same.” Arthur retorted.
The threats that had come in when Thomas was first born had caused Arthur more anxiety then he was likely to ever admit to. Just because Arthur had repealed the ban on magic didn’t erase the horrors of the past. People would still want revenge, and if they took it through the life of an innocent child, then so be it.
Nothing ever came of the threats, however. There were never any attempts to maim him. Whether this was because no one was actually willing to do it or because of the protective measures Arthur had put in place, no one would know for sure. It didn’t matter. It did, however, make Arthur incredibly worried each and every time his son escaped from his protection.
It wasn’t uncommon for Arthur to drag Merlin along on these searches. As Merlin’s quarters were one of the places he naturally checked, it wasn’t as if Arthur had to go out of his way to get the man. It just so happened that Mordred was with Merlin at the time, forcing the druid to come along with them.
Merlin turned his head to the courtyard as they passed by an open window, letting out a short breath. “Found him.”
Arthur stopped in his tracks, backing up towards the window until he, too, saw the small child sat on the steps that led to the castle. “I checked there.”
“Perhaps he moved around?” Mordred suggested.
At this point, it would have been acceptable for Mordred and Merlin to leave, but neither had any desire to leave the boy to Arthur’s rage alone.
“Thomas!” Arthur called out.
The boy turned to look at the King, his eyes appropriately wide. “Father-”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Arthur asked, walking down the stairs. “You cannot go wandering around without telling someone first. Especially by yourself!”
Thomas looked down guiltily. “I was just waiting for Aithusa. I wanted to go down to the field, but the guards wouldn’t let me leave.”
And if they had, Arthur would have had them executed. Or not. At the very least, they would have lost their jobs.
“So you wanted to go down to the fields by yourself?” Arthur closed his eyes, forcing the frustration bubbling inside him to settle. “Thomas. You cannot keep doing this. If you wanted to go to the fields, all you had to do was ask someone to take you.”
“But you and mother have to go to the council meeting.” Thomas mumbled. “And the knights are all busy.”
“Yes, and now I’m going to be late for said council meeting.” Arthur ran a hand over his face. “Just go inside.”
The disappointment on Thomas’s face was enough to break Merlin’s heart. “I’ll take him out there.” He offered.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “You’re supposed to be at the council meeting, too, you know.”
“Yes, because the Court Physician is such a vital role in the new tax agreement.” Merlin clamped a hand on Mordred’s shoulder. “If you want someone there so bad, just take Mordred in my place.”
“What?” Mordred turned towards him. “I don’t want to listen to the tax agreement anymore than you do.”
“Please, father.” Thomas made his way to his feet. “Aithusa said she’d come back early today, and I want to wait for her. I promise I won’t leave without asking again.”
That was most certainly a lie, even if Thomas was able to convince himself it was the truth in the moment.
Arthur sighed. “Very well.” He looked to Merlin. “Don’t go past the treeline.”
“I won’t.” Merlin promised, taking Thomas by the hand and leading him towards the gate. With Merlin at his side, the guards allowed them to pass without issue. Thomas probably thought the guards hated him, but the truth of the matter was, if they hated him, they would have let him leave.
“Thomas.” Merlin called out as they approached the field, the boy running ahead of him. “Don’t enter the forest.”
“But there’s another field just a bit that way that-”
“Nope.” Merlin grabbed at his arm, not ungently, and tugged him away from the trees. “You heard your father.”
“But why not?”
“Because there were bandits sighted on the last patrol through this area.”
Thomas crossed his arms. “You can defeat bandits. I’ve seen you.”
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows in incredulous confusion. “What? When?”
“Two years ago.” Thomas answered. “When we went riding.”
“Ah.” Merlin nodded. He could vaguely remember such an event. “You have a better memory than me.”
Despite his protests, Thomas made no move to reenter the forest. Yes, Merlin could protect Thomas from bandits, but he’d rather not take any chances. Accidents happened. Plus, if Arthur found out, he’d be skinned alive.
After a few minutes of silence, the sound of a twig snapping in half made Merlin’s head swivel back to the trees. The origin of the noise wasn’t immediately apparent. Bandits wouldn’t come this close to the castle. It could be a deer, but they didn’t usually come that close either.
It was probably nothing, but something didn’t feel right, and Merlin had learned a long time ago to trust his instincts when things didn’t feel right.
“Thomas, head back to the castle.”
The boy turned towards him. “What?”
“I said go!” Merlin didn’t raise his voice often to Thomas, and it was enough to make the child reluctantly begin walking towards the castle. He’d have to make it up to him eventually, but right now, his safety was far more important.
Merlin himself didn’t move, instead continuing to stare into the woods. Nothing was there. No one. It was a deer, probably. He still wasn’t taking any chances.
Then there was a sharp prick to his neck. He barely had enough time to register it as a blow dart before falling into unconsciousness.
Thomas turned at the sound of the body hitting the ground, his eyes widening upon seeing the three men walk out from within the forest. He turned back towards the castle, his walk turning into a sprint. It wasn’t fast enough, however, as soon a large, bearded man had an arm hooked around his waist dragging him back towards the forest. Thomas cried out, trying to wiggle his way out of the man’s grip. It was no use, and a hand clasped over his mouth, silencing him.
“What do we do about this one?” One of the other men asked, prodding Merlin’s limp form with his boot. He had a long scar across his cheek, and Thomas couldn’t help but wonder where he got it.
Thomas bit down on the hand covering his mouth, and it pulled away in shock. “Merlin!” He tried to wriggle away once again, but the grip on him only tightened. “Merlin!”
“Merlin?” The scarred man repeated, looking back down to the man. “I’ve heard that name before. This is the King’s pet sorcerer, ain’t it?”
“It would seem so.” The third man said, his eyes narrowing. “In that case, we’ll take him with us. Might as well get some extra profit.”
“Merlin!” Thomas cried out once more, desperate for him to awaken, but the man didn’t even twitch.
A sharp pain began on the right side of his face, and it took Thomas a moment to realize he had been hit. Moments later, a cloth was shoved between his teeth and tied behind his head. The bearded man pinned him to the ground, shoving his face into the dirt. The scarred man approached with a length of rope, and bound his hands behind his back. Again, Thomas tried to struggle, but his strength was nothing compared to that of the men.
Finally, the grip on him loosened slightly, and he glanced up. The third man, who was clearly the leader of the group, held a collar of some kind in his hands and made his way towards Merlin.
“We’d been warned about sorcerer’s running around in these parts.” The leader said, mostly to himself. “It’s fortunate, too, that we came prepared for such a thing.”
The man placed the collar around Merlin’s neck, locking it shut. Merlin gasped, giving Thomas hope that perhaps he was waking up, but he made no other movements.
A group of horses were brought out of the forest, and Merlin was thrown across one- his arms and feet tied down to prevent him from falling off. Thomas was lifted onto another one of the horses, and the bearded man, already sitting in the saddle, wrapped an arm around him. Thomas tried to move away, but his grip was too tight.
“As a fair warning, you won’t always be getting the luxury of a horse.” The leader said, hopping onto his own steed. “But we need to get some distance, and we aren’t going to let you slow us down by having you walk.” He turned towards the scarred man. “Get that false trail started.”
Thomas let out a choked sob, trying to get a better look at Merlin who was, to Thomas’s anguish, still asleep. The horses started into a gallop, and he couldn’t help but turn and watch the castle slowly disappear as they got further and further away.
“Take a good, long look.” The bearded man said. “Because you won’t be seeing it ever again.”
Thomas hoped more than anything that it was not true, but he feared it was quite the opposite.