“Arthur? Wh...what are you doing here?” the voice whispered at him.
The sound ricocheted off the wall and vibrated through each crevice and crack before bouncing back at Arthur. The words themselves were spoken quietly and weakly, but they attacked him with a ferociousness that nearly brought him to his knees.
“I...we came to break you out. I’m here now,” Arthur whispered back, his voice almost as quiet as the figure in front of him for an entirely different reason.
The boy just chuckled weakly. His head fell back against the wall that he remained pinned too. Any of the tension that had previously been in his body left as he gave up trying to hold himself up.
He panted and forced out a shaky response, “It doesn’t matter… I..it’s too late.”
The defeated tone and posture caused a rush of panic as Arthur took a few rushed steps towards the farthest wall of the cell.
Arthur tried to reassure him, “Merlin, you’re going to be okay. Everyone is here and we’re going to get you out,” when no response came Arthur closed the distance between them, “Did you hear that? You’re going to be just fine and back in Camelot in no time.”
The chuckle that rose from Merlin sounded wetter this time, and Arthur was close enough now to see tears slowly leaking from his eyes and running down his face. The tears left tracks down his face as they forced their way through the layers of dirt, grime, and blood that caked Merlin.
Merlin finally replied, “It doesn’t matter. It-it doesn’t matter”
Arthur’s gut twisted painfully as he stubbornly ignored Merlin, and instead focused on the manacles that encased his thin wrist tightly above his head. Blood encrusted the sensitive skin. Signs of twisting and wanking were clear; it was obvious that Merlin hadn’t given up without a fight. He shoved the key he’d stolen off of one of the guards into it as gently as possible.
I’ve never seen him give up. What happened?
A guilty voice in the back of his mind hissed at him, “ You know what happened.”
With a cry of victory Arthur finally heard the click of the lock and the last manacles fell away from Merlin’s wrist. Without the chains holding him up Merlin toppled forward and would’ve hit the ground if Arthur hadn’t stepped forward and steadied him. Well, steady him probably wasn’t correct since Arthur was now supporting Merlin’s dead weight.
There was a slight twinge in Arthur’s back as he grumbled, “Hey could you help me out a little bit Merlin? You may be all skin and bones right now, but you’re still heavy.”
The only reply he got was a pained gasp and a slight jerk as Merlin attempted to get his feet beneath him. It took a few minutes but Merlin continued to lean into Arthur as he slowly pulled himself up a little bit. Arthur still supported most of his weight, but could now maneuver them around.
The sound of footsteps pounding down the hallway caused Arthur to tense and Merlin to flinch harshly back.
Arthur would have been more concerned if a voice didn’t shout through the silence, “Arthur! Merlin! Are you guys there?”
Relief flooded Arthur and by the way Merlin had sagged slightly he must have recognized the voice as well.
“I found him! We’re over here!” Arthur shouted as he slowly dragged Merlin and himself towards the entrance to the room.
Just as Arthur was reaching the door Gwaine skidded to a stop in front of them. His armor was dented and covered in blood, but the look of pure relief and joy that crossed his face at Merlin breathing seemed to make it all disappear. There was a beat of silence as a smile began to stretch across Gwaine’s face. There was a long beat of silence where Gwaine seemed to be trying to decide whether to hug Merlin or cry,
Arthur snapped at him, “Are you going to help me or just stand there all day?”
Gwaine rolled his eyes, but quickly rushed to Merlin's other side and scooped under his other arm. Arthur wanted to be annoyed with Gwaine for his disrespect, but the way Merlin gasped in pain at any movement erased any snide comments. There were more important things to deal with at the moment.
“Did you clear a path?” Arthur asked instead as the three of them began forward out the door.
Gwaine’s mood sombered only slightly as he responded, “Don’t worry princess, Leon made sure he had things under control before he sent me after you. The line will hold long enough for us to get out.”
Without waiting for Arthur to respond Gwaine looked over to Merlin. At the bruises and cuts that littered his face Gwaine frowned before questioning, “How are you holding up there, mate?”
There is a tense beat of silence. Merlin doesn’t respond and the lines of concern on Gwaine’s face deepen. His gaze moves from Merlin over to Arthur with slight panic and even more worry. Arthur wanted to say something, anything really, but the words were stuck in his throat.
“It doesn’t matter… I-It’s too late.”
Merlin had always been fine. Even in the darkest of times, Merlin was the one to come out of things unscathed and mostly unharmed. No matter the fall or the scale Merlin had been the one thing Arthur hadn’t worried about too much, but this time something was different. Arthur had never heard Merlin so hopeless. The usual chatterbox had not said a word since he had been freed, and that in itself was worrying enough.
Gwaine must have seen the look on his face because he didn’t say anything further. Instead, he shrugged Merlin a little higher onto his shoulder before speeding his pace up slightly. At this point, Merlin had given up on walking and was mostly being dragged between the knight and his king.
The tension settling heavily around all of them would have continued to increase if the sound of fighting hadn’t begun to leak out from down the hall. Arthur signaled Gwaine to slow his pace as they stepped towards the door as quietly as they could with the dead weight being held between them. With a quick glance into the large throne room Arthur had run out of earlier he saw that the fight between his knights and the mercenaries was coming to a close. Only a few mercenaries remained standing, all the others were either dead or too injured to attempt attacking.
“Sire! We must leave now!” Leon shouted after killing the last standing mercenary, “We have dealt with them for now, but it is very likely that reinforcements could arrive any minute. There is no guarantee that the witch hunter will not return with them.”
There was a brief moment where Arthur wanted to stay. To attack the monster that harmed Merlin. To make that man pay. He almost said as much, but a stifled groan from Merlin brought him back to his senses.
Merlin was more important. Once Arthur knew he was safe he could begin making plans for revenge.
“Okay Leon, lead the way. Percival and Elyan, take our rear,” Arthur ordered before stepping forward and quickly following them out of the room.
No one spoke as their group made its way out of the half-destroyed castle. Since the last man had been killed an eerie quiet had fallen. It only made Arthur more tense.
Where was everyone? Why had Krean left with only a small skeleton crew to guard over his hideout?
Nothing made sense anymore. The only thing Arthur knew for sure was that Merlin was in his arms, and needed help. Everything else could be dealt with later. The trip out of the castle was strangely uneventful. No one spoke a word until they were mounted on horses and galloping away from the prison that housed Merlin for over a month.
Gwaine had steered his horse next to Merlin and Arthur’s and gently asked, “Merlin? You awake mate?”
Even though Merlin was pressed against him Arthur couldn’t tell if the man was conscious. Merlin’s eyes were closed, and he was completely limp against Arthur’s chest. If the situation was different Arthur would have made fun of him, but now the only thing he cared about was that he could faintly hear Merlin’s ragged breaths.
When his question wasn’t met with any response, Gwaine’s face tightened again, but he did not push any further and instead drifted away a little to again keep watch off to the side. They continued on in silence until the sun began to slide behind the horizon and Leon suggested making camp for the night to eat and tend to their wounds. Tending to Merlin’s wounds was left unsaid, but that was clearly the actual intent.
As soon as his horse came to a stop, Gwaine was leaping off his horse. He quickly handed the reins to Elyan before jogging over to Arthur’s horse. Without another word Arthur gently slid Merlin out of the saddle and down to Gwaine’s expectant hands. There was a small part that wanted to keep him close, but logic again won out.
Merlin was moved to the center of the now-forming campsite as the knights made quick work of setting up for the night. Through all the jostling and manhandling Merlin did not stir. He groaned in pain and a few pitiful whimpers but otherwise stayed completely dead to the world. His head lolled back exposing his pale neck that was filled with bruises.
Are those hand marks or rope burns?
Arthur had to turn away from Merlin as Percival came over and began treatment. He was later joined by Leon, and they worked quickly to wrap all the cuts and wounds that scattered over Merlin’s thin and pale body. The quick look that Arthur had taken was enough to make bile rise painfully into his throat. He had seen a fair share of grotesque and terrible injuries, but there was just something so wrong about seeing Merlin like this.
And whose fault was that?
The heavy silence that had fallen over the knights didn’t disperse until Leon and Percival pulled back from the pale form of Merlin.
Leon smiled grimly to Arthur before stating, “He’s in rough shape, but I think he’ll be okay as long as we get back to Camelot soon.”
Every knight in the clearing seemed to release a breath that they hadn’t realized they’d been holding. With a smile and a pat on Elyan’s back Gwaine rose from his place next to the fire before making his way to horse off to the side of the clearing. He approached his pack and dug through it before emerging with an extra blanket. He walked over to the prone form of Merlin and tucked the blanket around him before sitting against the tree next to him.
“You guys can head off to bed. I’ll take my first watch,” Gwaine informed them, “I’m not tired yet anyway.”
“I’ll help,” Arthur replied before taking a seat on the other side of Merlin.
I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway.
The rest of the knights seemed to hesitate; all of them sending glances at the prone figure laying between Arthur and Gwaine, but did not say anything more as they began opening their bed rolls for the night. It did not take long for them to lose the battle with exhaustion and the clearing quickly grew silent. Snores and the wind were the only sounds that filled the nights clearing for a while. Arthur and Gwaine sat in silence, both lost in their own thoughts.
“Did Merlin say anything to you before I got there or was he out of it the entire time?” Gwaine asked suddenly.
Arthur almost lied. He almost said no and ended the conversation there, but he hesitated. Enough lies have been told and Arthur was sick of it. He nodded, but did not elaborate.
After a few expectant seconds of Gwaine staring at him, Arthur stated, “ He didn’t seem to be in his right mind. I’ve never heard Merlin so…”
“It doesn’t matter… It’s too late.”
He didn’t know how to finish that sentence. He’d never heard Merlin so: dejected, lost, defeated, or hopeless. Gwaine didn’t seem to need Arthur to finish his sentence though because he let out a low growl.
“You better start thinking of a plan because I’m gonna kill those bastards,” Gwaine snarled, “I won’t forgive them for whatever they did.”
Arthur shook his head before stating, “I want vengeance as much as you do, but we need to get Merlin home first. That’s what really matters.”
Gwaine grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘Are you sure you actually want to get back at them?’ but didn’t fully reply.
“What was that?” Arthur asked angrily.
There was a moment of silence before Gwaine spoke with a hard edge to his voice, “What are you going to do once we get back?”
It wasn’t an answer but there was weight behind that question and it made Arthur freeze. Truthfully he had been avoiding thinking about it. There was so much that would need to be done and Arthur had no idea where to even start. The hesitation on Arthur’s face must have shown because Gwaine’s mood darkened considerably.
“You should know that I will not allow any further harm to come upon Merlin. I have failed to protect him before, but that is a mistake I will not make again,” Gwaine promised as he shifted slightly to face Arthur fully.
Gwaine looked ready to leap over Merlin if he had to and it made Arthur sick to his stomach. With that stab of guilt came a rush of indignant anger.
Arthur growled at him, “Why would I have risked my life in rescuing Merlin if I planned on hurting him? You may find this hard to believe, but I want to protect him just as much as you do.”
Gwaine did not look convinced. His face darkened as he glared at Arthur.
“Really?” Gwaine snarled, “You didn’t seem like you wanted to protect him when you left him behind in that god-forsaken cage two weeks back. You really didn’t seem to care when you told him that he was a traitor to the crown and left him to be tortured and killed!”
Gwaine’s voice had gradually increased in his tirade until he was only one step away from full-out screaming, “I became a knight because Merlin convinced me that you were a noble worth following. Merlin is the one person who I never questioned having a good heart or not! Since we’ve been on this trip you haven’t told us anything about what you plan to do. WIth your past action, how am I supposed to know that you want to protect him as much as I do? I don’t care that Merlin has magic! He is the most loyal subject you could ever dream of having, but you threw him away for something he couldn’t even control!”
Arthur was struck speechless for a moment, but he indignantly replied, “You forget your place Sir Gwaine. I am your king,” Gwaine looked ready to explode but Arthur continued before he could interrupt, “but you are right. I have not been forward with my thoughts, and what I did to Merlin was unforgivable. I have realized my mistakes though Gwaine, and am trying to fix them.”
If the situation wasn't as serious Arthur may have laughed at the dumbfounded look that captured Gwaine’s face. There was a beat of shocked silence from the rugged knight as he stared at his king. Arthur’s calm and unusual heartfelt response brought Gwaine back from the verge of a rampage, and his defensive position next to Merlin relaxed slightly. He collapsed back against the tree and squeezed his eyes shut.
When Gwaine spoke next his voice came out slightly wet, “That may be the first time I’ve ever heard you admit you were wrong about something. I can’t forgive you, but I know your true heart. I just fear it may be too late.”
Arthur flinched at the familiar phrase before snapping, “Have some more faith in Merlin. He is stronger than either of us realize,” Arthur took a breath before continuing, “I always wondered how Merlin was able to survive everything we all went through, but with his magic, I guess it kind of makes sense.”
It felt weird to talk about magic in such a normal way. Arthur was still trying to wrap his head around the idea that magic wasn’t always evil, but he was still trying at least.
A pained groan caused both Arthur and Gwaine to freeze. Gwaine’s eyes snapped open as he lunged forward to look down at Merlin, who was now tossing around. Arthur followed suit and placed a gentle hand on Merlin's shoulder to try and give a little comfort.
“Hey mate, Arthur and I are here. Don’t worry we got you out,” Gwaine pleaded quietly, “Do you think you could open your eyes for me? Just want to make sure you're alright.”
For a moment it didn’t seem as if Merlin had even heard Gwaine, but slowly his eyelids peeled back. Arthur gasped when Merlin's eyes pulsed gold for a brief moment before settling back to a faded blue. Merlin gasped and blinked rapidly a few times. The blank look on his face slowly melted away. Exhaustion and pain-filled his features, and slowly he made eye contact with Gwaine who still was hovering directly above him.
“G...Gwaine?” Merlin rasped weakly.
The smile that spread over Gwaine’s face seemed close to splitting it in half, “I’m right here mate! I would ask how you’re feeling, but I think I can make a pretty good guess that it’s not too good.”
Merlin blinked up at him. It was like the words took a few moments to sink in. He shifted restlessly and tried to sit up.
Merlin’s eyebrows knitted together before he asked, “I need… I need to t.. talk with Arthur. Whe...here’s Arthur?”
This prompted Arthur to lean forward before placing an arm on Merlin’s shoulder. He looked awful. For the first time since Arthur sat down he actually looked at Merlin. His face was nothing more than a mess of bruises and scrapes in different stages of healing; all of which made a mosaic of colors that splattered his face. One large cut ran from the bottom of his jaw to just below his right eye. For a sickening moment Arthur thought about how close Merlin had come to losing that eye. His face alone showed obvious signs of denutrition and lack of sleep. Merlin had bags like dark bruises under his eyes and his cheeks looked sunken. He had always been skinny, but this was so much worse than Arthur could have ever imagined.
Arthur stubbornly ignored Merlin’s flinch as he touched his shoulder and gently told him, “I’m right here Merlin.”
He went on to say more, but the words became stuck in his throat as Merlin finally looked at him. Merlin looked lost and confused, devastated and defeated, but mostly he looked scared. Merlin weakly reached up to him, and Arthur could do nothing more but grip his hand with the hand not placed on his shoulder.
“I’m s..sorry,” Merlin began as tears sprang from his eyes, “I wan...wanted to t-tell you, but I wa..was a c-coward. You we..were rig-.”
“I was not right!” Arthur interrupted, “Please stop apologizing, I was wrong. So wrong Merlin. I-I’m the one that’s sorry. You’ve been nothing but loyal for years now, and once I finally got my head out of my ass I realized that.”
His father would be rolling in his grave if he heard Arthur right now. Not only was he apologizing, but he was apologizing to a sorcerer. It didn't matter. Not anymore. Not after all that, his pride had already cost him.
Arthur gripped Merlin’s hand tighter before continuing, “I was a clot pole, a prat, and any other name you could think of to call me. I will never forgive myself for what happened. What I let happen. I was the coward in this situation, not you. We are going back to Camelot and you and I are going to have a long talk. I promise things are going to change.”
Merlin stared at him. Arthur began to wonder if he was even conscious enough to understand what he had just said, but Merlin’s eyes squeezed shut.
His voice came out in a whisper, “I’ve waited so long to hear that. T-to be able to t-tell you everything magic has done for your kingdom. I wanted to show you the truth.”
Arthur gave Merlin’s hand another squeeze, “And you will be able to. I want to hear it now.”
Dread pooled in Arthur’s stomach as Merlin shook his head saying, “It’s too late,”
There was a terrible finality in that statement that made Arthur sick. He opened his mouth to tell Merlin he was being ridiculous but was interrupted.
“Merlin, I know Arthur has been a great deal of a prat, but things are going to be okay,” Gwaine interjected, “I can promise you that I will do everything I can to keep you from harm.”
Arthur was shocked at the quick change of heart but realized that this was not Gwaine backing him up. Gwaine sounded like a knight promising loyalty to a king, and Arthur found relief in that. Arthur should have been concerned that his own knight seemed to be completely loyal to someone else, but this was Merlin. Even with magic, Arthur now knew Merlin would never turn against him.
Another sob spilled from Merlin. He surged forward weakly, seemingly trying to sit up, but only went a couple of inches off the ground before Arthur was pushing him gently back down. Merlin shook his head again and tried to shrug off Arthur’s hand.
“You don’t understand! It doesn’t matter where I am. It-,” Merlin stopped, the strength he seemed to have gathered during their conversation leaked away, “Something happened that you should know.”
Merlin stopped straining against Arthur and instead looked up at him. Merlin slowly looked between Gwaine and Arthur before letting out a deep breath that sounded wet with tears and exhaustion.
“Krean, he- he took-” Merlin’s voice broke and had to start again, “My magic is gone.”
The despair etched into Merlin’s voice caused cold dread to sink within Arthur’s stomach and his eyes widened in disbelief and shock.
Merlin continued as his head lolled back against Gwaine,”He is going t-to flatt-ten Camelot.”