Arthur was alive. And yet it felt as if he had died.
He stared blankly around his chambers, blinking wetness into dry eyes. He saw the cleanliness of the floor, the put-to-rights of his wardrobe, his bed turned down, the washbasin clean and dry with a pitcher right besides it. He saw the table before him, the plates and bowls with a plethora of food, spoiling him for choices; the cups with water and wine and their mother source in large jugs; the empty spot where there should be honeyed-sweets stolen from the kitchen.
"Are you sour with me?" Arthur asked the empty room, staring at that absent plate until he remembered that it was George who served him now, and not Merlin.
Arthur collapsed against the solid wood of his favoured chair, slumping, his strength gone. Days and nights had passed, but there were still signs of Merlin in his absence.
The ordered papers. Merlin never touched his papers. The fresh-cut roses in the bronze vase. Merlin only ever brought wildflowers and brambles and sweet lavender to soften the castle stone. The folded clothes hanging over the privacy screen that Merlin would simply pass to him one by one. The fireplace burned with embers, where Merlin would have an impossible, roaring flame.
Arthur covered his eyes with his hands, but he couldn't stop from seeing it again.
The force of the magical strike was enough to throw Arthur down the castle corridor, but the tapestry cushioned his crash against the wall. His sword clattered on the floor, falling within reach, and Arthur made a grab for it.
The sorcerer flicked his hand in the air, knocking the sword out of Arthur's fingertips. Arthur chased after it into an open chamber with some relief -- now, at least, he would have room to manoeuver, obstacles to put in the way.
One couldn't dodge what one couldn't see, couldn't retreat from what wasn't there. Arthur was picked up and tossed just as his fingers brushed the hilt of his sword. He tucked and rolled and crashed into a pillar. Everything went black for a dangerous instant.
He shook his head to clear it. His legs were unsteady. The sorcerer was bearing down, raising a metal staff with an eagle's claw grasping some sort of dark, crystal orb. The orb shone an unhealthy yellow from the amber core.
Movement blurred out of the corner of Arthur's eye just as the sorcerer raised the staff.
Stupid, idiotic, brave, selfless Merlin.
A fiery, sickly ball of dripping flame flung at Arthur.
Merlin moved to stand in front of Arthur.
"Merlin!" Arthur shouted.
Merlin raised an arm, palm out in a stopping gesture. The orb floated right in front of his hand. Merlin must have heard him, because Merlin whipped his head around and looked at Arthur.
All eternity stretched in that moment. Merlin's eyes were aflame, burning with a golden sheen, vibrant with pure magic. There was determination in his expression, a creeping fear, a touch of anguish in his eyes.
Time snapped back into motion. Merlin whirled around and flung the ball at the sorcerer. Arthur dove for his sword. When Arthur found his footing, when his vision stopped splitting in two, the sorcerer was motionless, flat on his back, the staff broken in pieces, the orb shattered.
And Merlin's eyes glowed gold.
"Merlin," Arthur growled, raising his sword, advancing.
Merlin stumbled back, turned, and ran. Arthur raced after him, but the sorcerer's men swarmed the corridors, blocking his path. The Knights arrived, and by the time they had cleared the way of enemy, Merlin had disappeared.
Arthur dropped his hand from his eyes.
Merlin was gone.
And yet, Merlin was everywhere.
Arthur stood abruptly, knocking his chair onto its side. With a shout of rage, he tossed every plate, every bowl, every cup, every pitcher onto the floor.
Every plate, every bowl, every cup, every pitcher, everything except the one thing that wasn't there, the thing he most wanted to see.
The plate with the honeyed sweets that Merlin always pilfered from the kitchens for him.
Merlin slumped heavily in the hollow of a cave, covering his face with his hands.
He had passed what have I done, had crossed beyond destiny makes no account for fools, and had reached what do I do now. He was stuck in the mire of the great swamp, lost in the dizzying fog, blinded by the brimstone-burn of will-o'-the-wisps, and was no closer to an answer to his questions.
However much he tried, it all came back to one person.
And, suddenly, Merlin was at the first question again, striking himself on the side of his head with the butt of his hand, trying to jar an answer to what have I done.
"I saved you. I saved you," Merlin whispered, wrapping his arms around knees tucked against his chest and rocking gently. "I had to. I needed to."
He screwed his eyes shut, haunted by that moment when he had lost sight of Arthur, when the attackers poured into the castle in a torrent of steel, filling every corner, blocking every escape. Arthur had gone one way, Merlin the other.
Arthur had his plans as always -- to lure the enemy into a pinched area where they would be trapped, and Merlin was to bring the Knights to that place for a quick finish.
Merlin had the same plan he always had -- to save Arthur from his own plans. Arthur could handle himself in combat against insurmountable odds, but not when those insurmountable odds included a sorcerer bearing down on Arthur, intent on revenge against the Pendragons.
A sorcerer. Why was there always a bloody sorcerer? Why was it always about revenge?
Merlin had panicked when the sorcerer didn't fall for his attempt to bait him, to instead headed down the corridor where Arthur had made good on the first stage of his plan. Merlin had nearly taken the edge of a mercenary's sword to his throat in his haste to get to Arthur. A whip of his hand; a guttural spell, and Merlin had made short work of the men after him.
He'd scrambled after Arthur, slipping on stone slick with blood.
Merlin emerged into the hall in time to see Arthur land hard after brutal contact with a pillar. He thought heard bone crack; he saw stone crumble. Arthur had taken hits like these before, had always been knocked out by them, was always vulnerable in this moment when he had nothing by way of defence.
It was always in this time that Merlin stepped out of the shadows to save Arthur, because no one else could save the prat from himself.
Merlin didn't think. He reacted. His vision was full of Arthur down on the ground, of the glowing orb on the sorcerer's staff, of the sorcerer intent on harming Arthur. Of killing him.
Merlin moved between them and raised his arm. He felt the magic tug in the air, dirty and filthy and sickly, and he bent his will against the sorcerer's, breaking his control and gaining command over the orb. He had only a moment to indulge in the self-satisfaction of seeing the enemy sorcerer's eyes widen, his pallor pale.
Then he heard his name from somewhere behind him, strangled and hollow and disbelieving.
Arthur stared at him with the splash of cold-water shock that sizzled and boiled under the rage that rose from beneath. There were questions, there were demands. There was confusion, there was anger. And worst of all was their friendship destroyed, smothered under Arthur's hatred.
The air bristled with gathering magic, but it wasn't Merlin's magic. Merlin twisted around and threw the sorcerer's own weapon at him. The sorcerer gasped in a whimpered sound, collapsed in a heap, and did not rise.
Arthur came at Merlin, his sword in his hand. "Merlin," he growled.
The sword didn't drift. It didn't waver. It came at Merlin.
He ran until he couldn't run. Out of the castles, away from the enemy, away from Arthur.
Somewhere, a dragon was laughing over the fine joke he'd played, setting a peasant boy to protect the future King. If only Merlin had been more careful. If only he'd trusted Arthur with his secret. If only Arthur could have understood in that instant why Merlin kept his magic hidden. If only he could have recognized his friend, instead of coming at Merlin with his sword.
Merlin dropped his hands from his face and looked around the cavern. The twilight was casting the fog outside in a mystical glow and there was a ghostly whistle just beyond the cave's mouth. There was water dripping through wind-and-water carved rock, keeping time in steady drips. A distant howl cut through the air, a lonely wolf seeking its pack.
All Merlin could hear were from fragmented memories of hunting trips with Arthur. Arthur ordering him to gather wood. To make a fire. To put the supplies where they wouldn't get wet. To tend to the horses. To bring his bedroll closer so that they could stay warm.
Merlin broke a piece of wood that had rolled into the cavern, a brittle piece of ancient elm that crumbled to dust when he broke it apart.
"Forbaernen," Merlin whispered, and a tiny flame caught on the pulverized wood.
King Uther ordered the hunt. The Knights obeyed. Arthur led them, following every sign, every trail, every whisper. His mood darkened as the days passed without finding Merlin.
There were days when he spoke to no one. When none dared speak to him.
Merlin found a tattered, dusty blue cloak tucked in the corner of a waystation deep in the woods but didn't have time to see if there was anything else that he could use. It didn't matter because he needed to move quickly, and that meant traveling light.
He could hear the Knights' horses crashing through the woods. He could hear the Knights shouting. It was almost as if they were warning him away.
When they weren't hunting him, Merlin found himself chasing after them. After Arthur.
Arthur made George build the fire as high as he could. It was still not high enough nor bright enough nor warm enough. He shouted at George until George scurried out of the room. Arthur doused the flames with the washbasin water, bowl and all.
He stood there in the empty room, in the dark, in the cold. He pressed a hand on his chest against an ache that didn't have a name. He shut his eyes against the memory of Merlin staring at him, trapped, caught --
And terrified of him.
Merlin was in Bayard's Kingdom, lost in a market crowd. He wandered without direction until he realized that he was following a man with dark blond hair, dressed in noble finery, shoulders broad enough to belong to Arthur. Merlin held himself back until he saw the men lurking in an alley, exchanging meaningful glances, unsheathing their knives.
He soothed his wounds by telling himself that the man he'd saved was Arthur, and that it was Arthur who had thanked him.
The Knights drifted from Arthur's company. They followed Arthur's orders, they obeyed his commands, they held him back when he was being reckless. But they did not seek him out, and sometimes, Arthur thought they had grown wary of him.
He had studied them. He had questioned them. Each and every one. He had already guessed that Gaius had known about Merlin's magic, but Uther had not been able to find any proof, and Arthur had not pursued the matter. But Arthur had been stunned to learn that of all his Knights, it had been Lancelot who could not meet Arthur's eyes when Arthur had ranted and raged.
Arthur did not blame his men for their distance.
Some nights, Arthur would stare at the fire -- in his chambers, at the dining hall, at feasts, during a hunt, on patrol. In the flames he would see the gold of Merlin's eyes and the melting orb of magic in his hand.
Sometimes he would see the wild, sheer power in his manservant's gaze, and the fury that filled him threatened to pull his screams from his throat. Only propriety kept him from shouting Traitor until the Gods themselves trembled and sought revenge for him.
Sometimes he would see nothing but Merlin's fear, deep and terrible, and Arthur suffered a suffocating sadness that Merlin had ever been -- that Merlin had been too afraid to trust him with the truth. Only propriety kept Arthur from weeping tears until the Gods themselves trembled and delivered Merlin to him.
There was a strange anonymity to having been a Prince's manservant. It had come with just enough prestige to be treated kindly, but not important enough that one would look upon his face or know his name. Everywhere Merlin went, he thought he would be recognized for all those times he had been to these places with Arthur, once, long ago, but no one paid him any mind.
He travelled North. No one spoke to him. They looked upon him in disdain -- just another homeless beggar drifting from place to place, trying to find someone who would take him in.
Mostly, he sat by himself in the woods, huddled in his threadbare cloak, letting the chill dig in deep, supported only by the solidity of the trees against his shoulder. He would stare off into the distance, tracking the movements of animals drifting through the forest, the delicate and frail step of wary prey, the sure prowl of stalking predators.
He would wonder about Arthur. Was he still angry with Merlin? Had he realized all the things that Merlin had ever done for him? To save him? To protect him? Had he -- would he ever -- forgive Merlin?
And then he would close his eyes and remember the point of Arthur's sword, its edge glinting in the light. He would remember Arthur's hatred, his fear, his rage. How Arthur had looked at Merlin as if he were a stranger. A traitor. An enemy.
"You will find him, Arthur," Uther whispered. He was pale and sickly on his deathbed, his hand cool and dry in Arthur's own.
"He's gone, Father," Arthur said, his throat thick with emotion. "He won't be back."
Uther's breathing was slow and shallow. It was some time before he spoke again. "Be certain."
Arthur didn't answer. He looked out the window, at the dark of night and the sparse scatter of stars in the sky, and wondered if Merlin was safe, wherever he had gone. A surge of hate crushed him in that instant and scorched away his grief.
He had to stop himself from crushing his father's fingers.
"I am proud of you, my son," Uther whispered. His hand slackened, and the King took one last breath.
There's nothing to be proud of, Arthur knew. He stayed at his father's bedside until the dawn.
"It will be all right," Hunith said, in the soothing way that mothers said things to calm an upset child. Hunith took Merlin's hand in her own, solid and strong, the dry skin and work calluses harsh against Merlin's palm, reminding him of hard work and persistence against unfathomable odds.
"I've lost him, mum," Merlin said, lowering his chin, staring at their entwined hands. The bench was hard and cold but he had gone numb a long time ago. "I'll never see him again."
Hunith's sigh was small and soft. She ran a hand through Merlin's ratty hair and left it there. "Are you certain?"
Merlin didn't answer. There were times that he thought he knew Arthur best of anyone, but all that had been destroyed in an instant. If he had known how fragile their relationship had been, he would have --
He didn't know what he would have.
"Give him time, Merlin," Hunith said. "Arthur is a good man. He will come around. He will forgive you."
Merlin wasn't so sure.
Arthur had heard it all. Gossip, rumours, speculation. From councillors, Lords, visiting Kings and Knights brave enough to whisper behind cupped hands. Arthur was aloof. Cold. Distant. And it was all because of that boy who had betrayed him.
Even Gwen had learned to hate Merlin.
"Arthur. I know he broke your heart --"
"Don't," Arthur said, turning away from her. He stared out the window, watching the city gates. Wagons with wares, plodding oxen, milling bodies. Camelot was growing day by day as it had never grown under Uther's rule, and he wondered how long it would be before the bustling city took advantage of the sufferance of a numb, shattered King.
"You can't keep on like this. You have to --"
"Enough. I don't want to hear it," Arthur snapped. He closed his eyes when the door to his chambers slammed shut, but he didn't move from the window. He should apologize for his tone, but it wouldn't matter what he said.
Gwen wasn't in love with him. He knew she ran to Lancelot every night, that he'd lost her a long time ago, that he should give them his blessing so they wouldn't feel the need to sneak around behind his back.
Oddly, this betrayal, this loss -- it didn't hurt even half as much as having lost Merlin.
A warm breeze caught his attention; he thought it was the sun shining through the thick clouds. He glanced down onto the crowd, watching the swirl of movement, searching.
He saw a flash of colour, a bit of faded red around someone's throat. He leaned forward, squinting, his heart pounding, but he didn't see it again.
Merlin stayed to help with the harvest, to use the bone-aching work to distract him from his damaged soul. It wasn't enough, because each and every night, he jerked awake from a cruel dream. Arthur in danger. Always Arthur in danger.
Each and every morning, Merlin would step out of the house and look to the South, unable to breathe.
"Mum," he said one day, over a small meal of boiled roots and puffed grains, fumbling for the words he wanted to say.
"You need to go," Hunith said kindly. She gave him a small, sad smile, an understanding nod.
"I think so," Merlin said, but he stayed for days more, hoping that the nightmares would go away, that this absurd, protective feeling would fade, that he would forget that he cared too much for a man who had had no faith in him. It wasn't until the merchant travelling over the King's Road, heading North to Cenred's castle, that they heard the news.
The King of Camelot was dead.
Merlin left that night, a small bag hanging from his shoulder, a quick peck on his mother's cheek, his running footfalls silent in the gloom. The moon chased him for nights to Camelot, waning her blinking eye, but it was the sunrise and the influx of travelers who ushered him up the road and through the gates and into the city proper.
Merlin saw the Knights with the guard. He pulled the cowl over his head, raised his kerchief over his mouth and nose, hoping that they would not look at him, and only see a tired man worn down by the dust of the road.
He looked up once, only once, to the windows that were Arthur's chambers.
He thought he saw his King.
He felt he could breathe again.
They were chasing a sorcerer through the lower town. The Knights fanned out through the alleys and streets to block his escape. The sorcerer knocked the Knights out of his path, and Arthur could follow the trail of groaning bodies after him.
Arthur was so close behind the sorcerer that he could almost reach out and catch him. Except for the red hair and the spindly body, this sorcerer could be Merlin.
The sorcerer turned around. Arthur tripped over the cart that suddenly rolled into his path. He looked up in time to see the sorcerer inexplicably fly into a house and collapse unconscious.
The assassin was whipcord-thin, dressed shoulders to toe in leathers dyed black, his face obscured by heavy cloth. His eyes were thickly lined in kohl, the whites darkened with some sort of drug, the irises as black as pitch.
Merlin felt no sympathy for the assassin when he tumbled from the ramparts.
The undead army burst through the line of defence. Arthur shouted, calling a retreat to the castle when the skeletons all crumpled lifeless to the ground.
By the time they reached the deep, deep catacombs winding their way beneath the castle, by the time they had cleared the debris of the doorway to find the cursed stone that had awakened Camelot's dead and twisted them to evil, by the time they found the body of the sorcerer who had been feeding the spell, but who had been rendered harmless and dead, they had seen every sign that someone had been there.
The servant was not a servant but one of Cenred's people. She couldn't have been more obvious in spiking the wine with a milky-white liquid from a palmed vial than if she'd announced it to the crowd.
It was simple enough to subdue her, to have her bound with ropes and left where the Knights would find her, to strategically place the poisoned pitcher and the vial in her lap.
It was even simpler to take care of Arthur's poisoned drink.
Merlin did not regret tipping the cup so that it spilled all down the front of Arthur tunic. Not at all.
The witch's curse for a long drought and a hungry winter broke when the last of the fires in the fields were quenched by days of heavy rain.
The resulting humidity was suffocating, and in the castle there was no respite in any place but one: in Arthur's chamber, which was so cool and comfortable that maids and Knights and councillors would find an excuse to visit.
The Knights and the King had stopped on their travels, setting camp by a stream. It was past a moonrise hidden behind a cloudy sky. They were outnumbered by the brigands sneaking up on them five to one.
The Knights' and the King's sleep remained undisturbed through the night, and when they woke, they blamed Owain for having eaten every scrap in the breakfast pot while he was supposed to be on watch.
A visiting King presented his daughter to the court. The Princess offered Arthur a box as a gift. The box caught fire, dropped to the floor, and out spilled mounds of deadly scorpions.
The room cleared in the blink of an eye. The Knights advanced on the King and the Princess. Someone screamed a high-pitched scream and jumped about two feet back.
Arthur swore he heard someone laugh.
There was a constant influx of visitors to the Kingdom, and the latest was a delegation from kingdom or another with a pompous noble whose name Merlin couldn't be bothered to remember. And Arthur, in true Arthur fashion, was showing his increasing aggravation by taking everyone on a hunt.
If one of the visiting Kings' men didn't return with the rest of the group because they attempted to shoot a poisoned bolt at Arthur, it was no one's fault but Merlin's.
Some days, Arthur could not ignore the gossip. It was hard not to overhear the servants' chatter. The stories they told and retold spread like wildfire through the castle, like the way the mercenaries attacking Camelot were waylaid by a wall of fire while Arthur secured the defences, the flames stopping them just long enough for everyone to get to safety.
The Knights talked about the way the frozen river collapsed into melted ice floes right after the last of them had crossed over, saving them from hungry dire wolves. They talked about the brigands' ambush and the way their arrows stopped in mid-air with something like frightened awe. They told of the day they came to the rescue of a village haunted by basilisk, only to find the monsters all turned to stone.
But the story that they told again and again was the one about the young girl who had twined their wits around her little finger and set the Knights against each other, stealing their strength and their lives. They had very nearly died, only to wake in the morning, healthy and alive, the lamia a warped corpse of serpent tail deep in the ruins of the old castle where they had come so close to their doom.
People spoke of a ghost watching over Camelot. Some believed it was Uther, returned from the dead to fight against the growing magic threat against the Kingdom. Others believed that it was an ancient wraith, guarding the land from evil.
Arthur thought about the cloaked man he sometimes saw milling among the crowd, the flash of red around his throat.
Merlin was slouched over a cheap brothy bowl of stew, clutching the too-hard cut of bread in case it was mouldy enough to walk away on its own. His hood was pushed back so that he could eat and keep an eye on the large crowd filling the tavern.
The patrons chattered about the King's mysterious protector, the thwarted assassination attempts, the aborted ambush and the Knight's rescue on the river. The minstrel talked about ghosts, of wraiths, of fairy guardians. The next table over huffed at mention of brigands, basilisks, and sorcerers.
Leon and Lancelot walked into the tavern, weaving through the scramble of bodies and wayward tables until they found one that was free, coming to sit feet away from Merlin, their backs to him.
Merlin pulled the cowl even more over his head. He kept his eyes fixed on his meal and slurped his stew slowly and deliberately, not wanting to attract attention. He finished his meal, sopping up every drop of the broth, and quietly left.
He bumped shoulders with a Knight who was on his way in.
"Sorry, mate," Gwaine said.
Merlin kept his chin down and waved a hand behind him in answer. He dropped his arm, huddled the ratty cloak close around him against the cold, and walked through Camelot, unseen, undisturbed, unknown. He knew the patrol routines; he knew which guards were most lax, which guards would see him right away if he didn't make them look away with a little magical distraction.
It didn't take him long to reach the courtyard, to look up into the flickering light of Arthur's window, to see Arthur's shadow in his usual thoughtful pose, one arm up on the window, hips tilted, head down in thought.
Merlin wondered if the cook had made any honeyed sweets today.
The depths of winter had exchanged variety for stewed cuts of meat and root vegetables and slabs of coarse grain bread. It had been months and weeks of the same simple fare of kingly portions, food that shouldn't be wasted, particularly when the Knights returned from the hunts empty-handed. Though Arthur's appetite was less and less each day, he choked down every crumb.
The Kingdom needed a strong King, not another one wasting away under the weight of an irreparable heart and a grief too deep for words.
Arthur sat down at his lonely table one icy-cold night, noticing that George had finally banked the fire to its proper height, remarking at the cozy warmth of the room.
He reached for the pitcher to pour himself a fresh goblet of wine, and froze.
There, right behind where the pitcher had been, right next to the bowl of plain stew, was a plate of honeyed sweets.
The pitcher slipped out of his hand, the edge catching on the table, and crashed to the floor.
Arthur's breath caught. His heart hurt. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
The mercenaries had delayed Merlin on the outskirts of the lower town. He spent far too long putting out fires and saving those who were trapped, keeping them from harm. He freed women and children, he rescued men, and he waited for the guards to arrive.
All the while, he looked up at the castle and knew he needed to be there. He was torn between saving the people and racing to help his King.
It was no contest in the end.
The castle was surrounded; they did not expect an attack to come from behind. Merlin swept them all aside with an angry wave of his hand and cleared the way.
"They're coming," Gwaine said breathlessly, chasing after Arthur. The two raced through the castle, descending the stairs three and four stumbling steps at a time, and were halted halfway by the surge of mercenaries coming toward them.
Blades crashed; bodies tumbled down. Arthur raised his sword in a feint; Gwaine slashed the attacker along his exposed side and stepped into a struggling block against a man twice his size. Arthur lent his strength to the struggle, throwing the brute into the men below.
It was easy, this fight, these movements. His trusted Knight at his side, the two of them instinctively aware of each other's tactics from long experience on the training grounds and years on the battlefields. Smooth strikes, solid blocks, judicious retreats, determined presses. Never a wasted step, never a missed hit.
Even in the heat of battle, Arthur could not help feeling that something was missing.
"We're overrun," Elyan said, coming up to them in a swirl of cut cloak and bleeding limbs. Leon and Percival rounded the corner; they all raised their arms in ready reaction, lowering them a heartbeat later.
"This way," Leon said, taking the lead. He knew these tunnels only by a matter of course; Leon's knowledge had been garnered from following Agravaine.
If not for Leon, they would not have sounded the alarm in time. If not for Leon, they would all be dead in their beds, throats slit. If not for Leon, they would have no proof of Agravaine's betrayal.
If not for Arthur's mistake, if not for Merlin's flight, they would not be fleeing for their lives in the hopes of returning one day to regain the Kingdom.
Lance ran at them. "The tunnels are blocked. We need another route."
Another way -- the only other way -- was through the open courtyard.
More Knights joined them, red cloaks fluttering in the smoke from the flames laid down by the enemy. Swords clanged, men grunted, enemy fell. The Knights of Camelot followed their King, but the advance was slow. Then there was no advance at all. Their escape was blocked.
The sorcerer collaborating with Agravaine was not a small man. Under the dirty pale robe, the sorcerer's wispy shoulders were rolled back, his concave chest puffed out, his rounded belly straining the fabric. The rope belt around his waist was made of gold; the jewels around his throat were worth ten kingdoms, and for all that this man was spoiled with goods and riches, his eyes were as black as pitch, full of bitter vengeance for a slight Arthur had not known to have done.
The sorcerer raised his staff -- a thing carved out of the long bone of some large creature, twisted in spirals and knots, decorated with a cluster of beads twined in dried sinew that clattered and glowed and howled. He brought it down in a shattering thump that cracked the cobblestone and knocked half of the Knights of Camelot from their feet. He raised it again as those remaining raced at him, weapons raised, and an unearthly crackle flashed down the staff's length, paralyzing them in a judder of lightning.
The sorcerer raised the staff a third time when the last group remaining -- Arthur and Gwaine and Leon -- dared step forward. They advanced slowly, sussing out the ground, splitting up to draw the sorcerer's attention to one so that the others could attack unhindered. It was a poor tactic, but the only one they had.
There was movement out of the corner of Arthur's eye. A swish of dirty, soiled fabric, blackened where it might have been blue, once. The edges were torn and frayed, the material time-thin and over-worn.
The man raised his hand in a too-familiar gesture that had played over and over in Arthur's head for years. In waking dreams. In nightmares. In misery.
The staff shattered in the sorcerer's hand, splintering into a glittering pile of transparent ivory, a blowback of magical force knocking the sorcerer into the air, through the air, into the wall.
Mercenaries closed the circle around them. The wind whistled and whipped in a maelstrom of smoke and flame, of dust and sand.
Arthur coughed, covering his eyes with his forearm. His clothing burned, the smoke charred the back of his throat, his eyes stung. He squinted, trying to see, struggling to brace against a wind that made his feet glide across the cobblestone as if it were ice. All he saw was the cloaked, hooded figure, arm outstretched.
The winds died in an abrupt drop of the man's hand. The fires were out, the smoke and sand hung in the air. The way was clear, the mercenaries scoured from the castle as if they had never been.
The sorcerer, their saviour, walked through the castle gates, leaving them. The moon framed him in ethereal light, a vision Arthur feared he would never see again.
"Merlin," Arthur said, his voice a whisper in the night.
The figure turned around.
Arthur could see nothing of his face. Only cowl and shadow and red handkerchief doubling as a mask.
Time stretched into an eternity of pain and grief and regret. "Merlin!" Arthur shouted. The smoke burned his eyes. Arthur blinked away the tears. When he could see again, Merlin was gone.
Merlin was gone.
Merlin skidded to a stop, nearly seeing the sorcerer and the mercenaries too late and revealing himself. He slipped into one of the side passageways, emerging on the other end, behind Arthur, behind the mercenaries. He disabled them, ducking around the Knights struggling to get to their feet, stalked past Arthur, and threw out his hand.
He squeezed his fingers tight into a white-knuckled grip and shattered the staff.
The mercenaries advanced.
Merlin pulled down a storm. He tore at the wind and guided it to his will, pushing away the mercenaries, muffling their screams, stealing their breath, shoving at their corpses, scrubbing them clean with stone and sand until not even bone remained.
He kept the Knights safe. He kept his King safe.
Merlin let the windstorm drift to a swirling stop. He dropped his arm, and the world was quiet except for the sound of sand drifting down.
He walked away as quickly as he could, every muscle in him tense, ready to break into a run.
It had been too long since he had heard his name. It had been too long since he had heard his name spoken by that voice. It had been too long since he had heard his name spoken in that tone.
With fondness and affection and joy.
Merlin turned around. The bright flame that was his King, his friend, his love -- it almost hurt to look upon him again. To see the hatred and the rage and the fury replaced by anguish and sadness and fear.
He looked away. He kept walking. The winds chased after him, stirring up the dust.
His eyes burned.
"Merlin!" Arthur howled. Merlin did not turn around. Arthur was blocked by a sandstorm that had risen too quickly to be natural, pushed back by hands he could feel but couldn't see.
He sank to his knees, his sword listless in his hand. His chest ached where his heart had stopped beating. His lungs burned to gasp for air.
His words were a whispered beg that he hoped Merlin would hear anyway.
"Please don't leave me."