After the third week ends and there has been no ransom, Merlin begins to fear the worst.
“Who kidnaps a prince and doesn’t take advantage of it?” he demands of Gaius, who looks back at him with a bleak expression that is answer enough in itself. “And don’t tell me it’s because Arthur’s already dead.”
Arthur cannot be dead, because just a short month prior he had been happy and alive, pinning Merlin to the bed and kissing him as though it were a matter of state, a question to which he had to devote his utmost attention. Arthur cannot be dead because he had promised Merlin before he left that it would be a boring journey, barely worth the trip, and Merlin had thought, let the knights handle it for once, they’ll keep him safe, it’s only Mercia. Arthur cannot be dead because if he were, it would be all Merlin’s fault.
“Merlin, you must prepare yourself,” Gaius says gently, and Merlin thinks of Arthur’s fingers in his hair, the warm curve of his smile, his mouth, his hands. How is he supposed to prepare for the end of the world? “No news is seldom good news in cases like this.”
Merlin has already traced and retraced the route that Arthur took without finding anything. The knights have looked, too, trampling through the mud and assorted debris until all sign of Arthur’s trail has been obliterated. The king has declared it must be sorcery, and a parade of hapless men and women have followed one another to the pyre and the axe, sacrificed one by one to satisfy his indiscriminate fury.
There is still no sign of Arthur.
He’ll come back, Merlin tells himself in the evening, straightening the un-rumpled covers of a bed that may never be slept in again. He has to come back.
That night, he tries the scrying spell again, the way he always does.
As he always does, he sees nothing in its depths but the bottom of the bowl.
In the middle of the fourth week, a messenger finally comes, his clothes ragged and torn and dusty from the road. It takes Merlin longer than it should have done to recognise Sir Bors, one of the knights who had ridden out at Arthur’s side, but no time at all to understand what this must mean.
“What news of Arthur?” the king demands, clutching the arms of his throne as he leans forward. “Is he alive?”
“The prince yet lives, my lord,” Bors tells him, sinking to the ground on one knee and bowing his head. “We were ambushed along the road on our way to Mercia, but his quick thinking ensured that none of us were killed. He has spent these past weeks negotiating for our release.”
It should be good news, except for the look on Uther’s face, and the way Bors had said negotiating like it was some grave disease. He puts a ring on the table and steps to one side, clasping his hands together behind his back, and Merlin realises that the prince’s seal is covered in blood.
“King Vortigern sends his regards,” Sir Bors says tonelessly, “and asks if you will honour the word of your son.”
“He’s going to be fine.” Merlin says, later. Lying to himself seems to be the only way to cope with what they know, to stave off the image of Arthur, tortured and alone. “We’ll deliver the ransom to King Vortigern, and that will be that.”
“Let us pray it is that simple,” Gaius agrees. He hands Merlin a tonic for burns, for blood-clotting, for fever. There’s no telling what has happened to Arthur in King Vortigern’s hands, only that it can’t be good. “In the meantime, you must take care not to be observed. If Uther or his men learn what you can do, there will be no one there who can protect you.”
He had sworn an oath, when Gaius agreed to let him go, that he would tend to the prince’s wounds with tinctures alone, but all of Merlin’s promises mean nothing when weighed against Arthur’s life. “I’ll be discreet,” he says. “But Gaius—if they’ve hurt him…”
What he means is, if he’s broken. What he means is, if they won’t let him go.
“I understand.” Gaius adds a jar of honey to the pack, forcing his lips upward into an uncertain smile. “For the prince. You know how Arthur hates the way my potions taste.”
Merlin doesn’t smile back, because he can’t, but he lets Gaius hug him one more time before he goes.
“You’ll bring him back, Merlin,” Gaius whispers, holding onto him tightly. “If anyone can, it’s you.”
“Of course,” Merlin assures him. If it’s the last thing I do.