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Nightmare from the past

Chapter Text

Merlin runs through the castle halls. He has overslept, again. On a normal day, he wouldn’t mind it very much but Arthur wanted to go hunting early that morning. The manservant rushes to the kitchens, picking up the king’s breakfast and makes his way quickly to Arthur’s room. He reaches the royal chambers right on time and barges trough the doors, places the food on the table and goes straight to the window. With a quick pull on the curtains he lets morning light fill the bedchamber.
“Rise and shine!” he shouts and without a moment’s pause he strides towards the bed, pulling the blankets away from the awakening form of his master.
Merlin!” Arthur grunts and tries to push the young man away.
“No time to waste, sire! You’re the one who ordered a hunting trip for this morning. Get up!” the raven haired boy says while pulling his King out of his bed in an ungraceful way.
The royal hits the ground with a soft ‘thud’ and groans.
“I could put you in the stocks for that!” the blonde threatens.
Merlin ignores him completely and starts picking out some suitable clothes, hanging them over the changing screen. When he turns around he sees the King pushing himself up and wipe his still tired eyes while yawning loudly. The manservant shakes his head and rolls his eyes.
“Didn’t get much sleep, did you?” he asks, making the royal answer with a low growl.
Merlin chuckles and ducks away from the flying pillow that was aimed for his head.
“Ooh, I see how you have all the makings of a great king!” he says, a cheeky grin plastered on his face.
“I am already a great king!” the royal shouts angrily, not wanting to deal with his servant’s insolence this early in the morning.
“Right…” is the boys only reply while he raises his brows in a disbelieving manner.
Arthur fumes and stomps behind his changing screen. He would make Merlin pay for irritating him this early, he thinks, mischievous plans already forming in his head.

When Arthur is fully dressed, he sits himself at the table and eats his breakfast quickly while his servant makes the royal’s bed. None of them saying anything. The king suddenly stands and turns to his manservant.
“Did you pack everything?”
“Yes, everything is ready.”
“Well, take this to the kitchens and saddle the horses.” he says, making a gesture towards the dirty dishes.
“Right away, sire.” Merlin replies.
He collects the empty plates, goblet and pitcher and leaves the room without another word. Arthur turns to his window to see how his knights are already gathering on the courtyard. ‘I’m late!’ he curses softly and makes his way rapidly towards his men.

“Good morning, your highness!” the knights greet him in unison.
They make a small bow and Arthur nods his head. Looking around he notices that his servant isn’t there yet. Just when he wants to say something about it, the boy in question runs down the stairs.
“What took you so long?” the King questions the panting youth.
“Really? Do you know how big this castle is?” he retorts.
Arthur rolls his eyes.
“Just get the horses.” he orders.
Merlin huffs and leaves towards the stables, only to return a few minutes later with two saddled steeds.
“Merlin!?” someone shouts just when they were about to get on the horses.
They all turn around to see who had been calling out. A large, muscular man, though not as large and muscular as Percival, runs towards them. He has short, red hair and a little stubble, dark green eyes and a crooked nose that seemed to have been broken in the past.
“Merlin, is that really you?” the stranger asks, eyeing the young man up and down.
Arthur and the knights turn their gazes from the stranger towards their friend who had become pale.
“Ronald.” he says emotionless.
“So it is you!” the large man exclaims. “Good to see you, old friend!”
“Yeah, good to see you too, old friend.” the secret warlock mumbles.
“You have friends?” Arthur asks a little stunned.
Merlin turns towards the King, disbelief in his eyes.
“Of course I have friends, prat.”
“Yes! We are your friends!” Gwaine suddenly says while making a show of walking towards the raven haired boy and laying his arms around his shoulders.
“I meant, outside of the castle.” the royal explains.
“You didn’t tell them about me?” Ronald asks, faked disappointment in his voice.
Merlin stares at the man for a while before answering.
“What are you doing here, Ronald?” His voice sounds cold and distant, nothing like they’re used from their usually cheerful friend.
“I heard you were working for the King now and wanted to check those rumors for myself. Guess they were true.” the red haired man answers. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
The servant sighs and turns towards his friends. “Everyone, this is Ronald, Ronald, meet everyone.”
The newcomer turns towards the six men and makes a deep bow.
“It’s an honor to meet you all.” he says.
“From where do you know Merlin?” Lancelot asks, a little suspicion in his voice.
“Ooh, we go way back. Don’t we, Merlin?”
All heads turn back towards the raven haired boy who just keeps looking at the man.
“We grew up together.” Ronald continues when the secret warlock doesn’t say a thing.
“Really?” Arthur asks. “I didn’t see you in Ealdor when we visited.”
“I must have moved before your visit.” the visitor replies.
“I’m sorry, Ronald” Merlin suddenly interrupts, “but we were actually just about to leave.”
“That’s alright.” the red haired man says. “I’ll see you when you get back.”
“How good are you at hunting?” Arthur asks the newcomer.
“I’ve been hunting for my own food my whole life, sire.” the man replies.
The King nods in agreement. “Go saddle another horse, Merlin, so Ronald can join us.”
The servant turns to his master with a disappointed look in his eyes. Did he really not see how much he dislikes the man? Was he that oblivious?
“It would be an honor, your Majesty.” Ronald says with a deep bow. When he gets up he looks at Merlin who glares at him before walking towards the stables. No one noticed the soft, satisfied spark gleaming in the rogue man’s eyes.

A few minutes later, they are all riding through the gate, towards the forest. Merlin is riding on Arthur’s right, at the front of the group. He tries to ignore Ronald, who is riding directly behind him. ‘Why did that poor excuse of a man really come to Camelot?’ he wonders.
Merlin hates the man, to say the least. It was true that they grew up together, but they weren’t friends. In fact, they never had been and surely never will be. The red haired man had been bullying Merlin when they were little. One time it got completely out of hand and the village elders decided to send Ronald away. He was no longer welcome in Ealdor. Ronald, as a teenager at that time, swore he would make him pay for ruining his life.
A shiver runs over the young warlock’s back. ‘I do hope he’s not here for revenge.’ he thinks silently.

“I had a wonderful dream!” Gwaine interrupts the servant’s train of thoughts.
“I have been dreaming about…! Hold on… apple pie!” The knight sounds so excited that the others can’t help but laugh.
“You always dream of apple pie.” Percival comments while looking at his friend with amusement.
“I don’t.” the brave knight says with a pout on his face that makes him look like a petulant child.
“I wish I did though, those dreams are the best!”
The knights roll their eyes and some of them chuckle softly.
“Did I tell you about that time when I kissed the daughter of the owner of the tavern?” the silence hating knight tries again.
“That time when the owner tried to get you two married after that ‘one kiss’?” Lancelot asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Hmmm, apparently I did tell you. Now you’ve spoiled it for the others.” Gwaine pouts again.
“Don’t worry, we all heard it many times before.” Merlin shouts while turning around to grin at his friend.
“Well then, I’ll tell you about…”
“Not now, Gwaine. We’re here.” Arthur interrupts the talkative man. They all pull their horses to a stop and tie them to the trees.
“Get your weapons and beaters. We’re going to fan out.” the King instructs.
Merlin quickly gets Arthur’s gear and arms himself with a beater. Without a word he gives a spear and beater to Ronald, before getting back to his master. They start to go deeper into the forest. All men are using their beaters to make as much noise as possible. Ronald stays close to the King, much to Merlin’s dismay. He keeps a close eye on the man but forgets to look at where he steps. With the servant’s luck he stumbles over a rock and falls flat on his belly. He groans but pushes himself up. The knights, seeing that he didn’t hurt himself, start to laugh. Arthur who had turned around to look at the commotion, rolls his eyes.
“Lucky for you we are supposed to make noise.” the royal says. “Is there something you are capable of doing?”
“Putting up with you.” was the short, whispered response from the young man.
Ronald grins, his plan was going to be easier than he thought. Gwaine claps his young friend on his back.
“You alright, mate?” he asks.
“Yeah.” the secret warlock answers with a soft smile towards his friend.
The King shakes his head and motions for them to go on. A few branches, that fly towards his face deliberately at the hands of the red haired man, later, Merlin is convinced that whatever the bully is here for, it is not to ask forgiveness for what he did all those years ago. He doesn’t get much time to ponder about it though because suddenly they hear a grunting sound coming from the bushes. Arthur gestures to his knights to fan out a little more. They immediately do as they’re told, knowing the drill after so many hunts. The grunting noise becomes louder, making the knights get their weapons at the ready. They stalk a little closer until the beast, that seems to be a large boar, jumps out of the bushes with a loud growl. Arthur throws his spear but it bounces off the enraged animal. They all stumble back. Even Ronald, who claimed he was a good hunter, let his spear fall and tumbles over a root. The boar is running at top speed towards the royal. Merlin acts fast and with a quickly muttered spell, his eyes flash gold and the fallen spear flies towards the large animal, piercing it’s heart. It falls down, right in front of Arthur’s feet. Relieved breaths fill the sudden silence.
“That was close.” Elyan says, his voice slightly shaken.
“Who threw that?” Arthur asks, looking around.
No one answers. Lancelot meets Merlin’s eyes for a second before Ronald clears his throat.
“Was it you?” the King asks a little surprised.
The red haired man shrugs and nods.
“You just saved my life.” Arthur says with a bright smile.
“Honestly, sire, it was nothing.” the rogue answers with a fake smile on his face. Merlin raises an eyebrow. He can’t believe what he’s hearing. It was him who saved the King, not Ronald. But of course he can’t tell them that.
“I shall be forever in debt to you. You must be rewarded.” The royal says, gripping the man’s shoulder.
“There’s no need, sire.”
“Come on,” Arthur tries, “what do you wish for?”
“I desire only one thing, sire.”
“A position in the royal household.”
“Good, consider it done.” the royal says. He doesn’t really want to get the man as a servant but he did want to get back at Merlin for his insolence of that morning.
“Arthur! You can’t…” the boy in question says with both disbelief and disappointment in his voice.
“This doesn’t mean you’ll be getting more time off though, Merlin.” the King interrupts him, completely ignorant to the hurt feelings on his friend’s face.
The knights of the round table don’t notice it either. They are too occupied by the heroic act of the red haired man to pay any attention to their friend. Ronald, on the other hand, sees it clearly and a satisfied grin appears on his face.

The knights work together to get the large beast cut in pieces so they can transport it back to the castle. A few hours later they are all back on the road. Ronald has now taken Merlin’s place, next to the King. The young warlock rides directly behind them. He can hear Gwaine talking about another silly tavern adventure but tunes him out. He’s not in the mood to listen to him babbling. He feels hurt and betrayed. Not only did his childhood bully show up to make his life miserable again, but his friends didn’t seem to have a clue about who that man really was. His thoughts get interrupted by Lancelot who comes to ride next to him.
“It was you who killed that boar, wasn’t it?” he asks in a soft voice.
“No, why do you think that?” Merlin asks, without looking up.
“Merlin, I know you better than that.” the black haired knight says.
“Alright, yes, it was me. But it’s not like I can tell him, is it?”
“I suppose not. Still, that Ronald guy doesn’t deserve the credit.”
The young warlock shrugs. “It’s too late for that now anyway.”
“Who is he?” Lancelot asks.
“Just someone from my past.”
The noble knight raises his eyebrows. “Just someone? Are you sure?”
“It doesn’t matter.” the servant says with a sigh. He taps his horse to go a bit faster, telling his friend that he didn’t want to talk about it. The black haired knight falls back a bit and joins the others again, listening to a new story from Gwaine.

“Bring the meat to the cook. Tell her to prepare if for the banquet tonight.” Arthur orders his two menservants.
They are back at the castle now, dismounting their horses.
“A banquet?” Gwaine asks, suddenly interested.
“To celebrate the good hunt.” the King proclaims.
Merlin quickly gets everything out of the saddlebags. He wants to show Arthur that he doesn’t need Ronald. But the man is eager to prove the same and takes a lot of the meat with him. Unseen to the others, he pushes the raven haired boy to the side and rushes up the steps. Merlin trips and drops the few bags he was carrying.
Merlin! Could you, please, for once stop acting like a complete idiot and do what I ask you to do!” the King shouts.
“Prat” the servant huffs while picking up the fallen bags.
“I heard that!”
Merlin rolls his eyes and goes inside the castle, towards the kitchens. Once he dropped everything off and told the cook about Arthur’s wish, he goes to the physicians chambers to change.
‘This is going to be terrible.’ he thinks with a sigh while entering Gaius’ rooms.

The old physician had been reading in a book but looks up from the moment he hears the door opening.
“What’s wrong?” the old man asks, noticing the gloomy face of his ward.
“I saved Arthur’s life, someone else got the credit. Just the usual.” he answers sarcastically.
Gaius gives him a sad smile. “One day he’ll know what you’ve done for him.” he says, hoping to change the boy’s mood.
“Yeah.” the young warlock answers and goes to his room.

Chapter Text

At the banquet, Merlin is standing behind the King, a pitcher firmly placed in his hands. Ronald is standing a bit further, observing the servants. When the red haired man notices that Merlin is looking at him, he grins and winks. The secret warlock feels all the blood drain from his cheeks and a shiver runs down his spine. Memories of the past come flooding back with just that little gesture. His bully used to wink at him when he was up to something. He knew that, when this happened, he had to try and stay away from him. But most of the time, faith had other ideas, and he would run into the larger boy.
Merlin!” Arthur suddenly shouts at him.
He quickly gets forward to refill the King’s goblet, careful not to spill anything.
“Didn’t you see me motioning? Or are you blind as well as dumb?”
“I’m sorry, sire.” Merlin apologizes before stepping back.
Arthur arches a brow and shares a confused look with Leon, who’s sitting on his right side. They had expected a witty retort from the servant but even the sarcastic tone to the word ‘sire’ was completely lost. The royal shrugs it off and tries to enjoy the banquet but he can’t help himself to look back at his manservant a few times. The boy seems lost in his own thoughts and glances nervously towards Ronald.
‘So that’s what’s bothering him.’ the King thinks silently and he wonders if it was a good idea to hire the man. ‘On the other hand, he did safe my life.’
Later that evening, Arthur sends Merlin away.
“Ronald can look after me this evening. Go and get some sleep, you look like you need it.”
“But Arthur…”
“No Merlin. Do as I say. You should be happy that you’re getting some time off.”
“Yes, sire.” the servant answers with a sigh and he bows before retreating to his chambers.
The King follows him with his eyes until he’s out of sight. A feeling of regret forming in his stomach.

Merlin walks into the physicians chambers and goes straight to his bedroom.
“What’s wrong, my boy?” Gaius asks.
“Nothing.” the young boy replies without looking at his surrogate father. He goes up the steps towards his room and closes the door behind him. He lets himself fall on his bed and sighs. Although he would never admit it, being dismissed by Arthur like that did hurt. And it was all because of Ronald. The mere thought of the man sends shivers down his spine again. He curls himself up into a ball and lets darkness take over.

Merlin is running through the forest. He’s already running pretty fast but he isn’t fast enough. He can hear the footsteps behind him. The one who’s chasing him is gaining in on him. He wills his feet to go faster but to no avail. His breathing is becoming labored and his side begins to sting. He looks behind him but realizes soon that he shouldn’t have done that. He trips over a root and falls to the ground. His chaser is on him in a second, pinning him to the ground. Merlin squeals and tries to fight his attacker off, to no avail. His attacker is much stronger than him.
“I win!” Will shouts happily.
“It’s not fair!” Merlin complains. “You’re so much faster than I am.”
“Not fair? Merlin if you use your magic, no one will be able to win from you.”
“You know I can’t. You know what they’ll do to me if they ever find out.”
“So, they’re hurting you already, aren’t they?”
“They will kill me if they know, Will.”
Both boys become quiet and Will gets off his friend.
“Look what we have here!” a voice suddenly shouts.
Merlin and Will look up and quickly scramble to their feet.
“It’s the little runt and his friend.” another voice says. Five older boys are walking into the clearing, flexing their muscles as to intimidate the two younger boys.
The raven haired boy narrows his eyes at the biggest of the five, the one with red hair and dark green eyes. He’s not going to show them that he’s afraid, not this time. The boys get closer to them and Will tries to pull Merlin back but to no avail.
“Leave us alone, Ronald!” Merlin says. To his surprise he sounds much braver than he feels.
“What do you say!” the red haired teenager shouts angrily. He grabs the young boy by his collar and lifts him off the ground.
“Let him go!” Will shouts in an attempt to help his friend.
“As you wish.” Ronald answers dryly and he drops the helpless boy to the ground. A loud ‘crack’ echoes through the forest, followed by an ear piercing scream.
“Merlin!” Will shouts and he kneels down by his friends side, only to be pulled back up again. Someone is forcing his arms on his back and is pulling him away from the raven haired boy.
“How dare you speak to me!” the red haired boy shouts while kicking at the boy on the ground.
“You are nothing but a worthless bastard!” he kicks when he says the word ‘bastard’ to give it a little more force. Merlin grits his teeth together. He’s not going to scream again. He won’t give them that satisfaction. He tries to curl in on himself in order to protect his ribs but someone kicks his back, making him unfold again. It’s raining punches and kicks now but he doesn’t know who’s doing what to him. He can hear Will calling out to him and than suddenly he can hear his own voice. He shouts and screams to let them stop, until Ronald grabs him by his throat. He tries to fight off the tight grip and gasps for the much needed air but nothing works. He’s slowly tumbling into the darkness but right before he closes his eyes he can hear other people calling out his name. Is that his mother he hears? Then, everything turns black.

Merlin wakes up, all sweaty and shaking. Tears are running down his face as the memory stirs up old emotions. That was the day Ronald had gone too far. The village elders had decided that the red haired teenager was out of control and should go and live elsewhere. Ronald was obviously seething about this decision. He blamed Merlin for everything and swore that one day, he would make him pay. It seems now that time has come.
It still is a bit too early to get out of bed so Merlin lets himself fall back into his pillow and sighs. Maybe he should tell Arthur about this part of his past. But than again, the prat thought that Ronald had saved his life. Telling on him now wouldn’t do much good.

Morning light wakes the young warlock up, telling him that he must have fallen asleep again. He quickly gets out of bed and dresses himself. If he can’t get rid of his childhood bully by telling on him, he must prove to Arthur that he’s a better servant, that he needs him. First thing on his list, breakfast. The raven haired boy hurries out of his chamber, shouts something like a ‘good morning’ at his mentor and rushes to the kitchens. He fills a plate with fruit, bread, meat and cheese, takes a pitcher with water and makes his way to the royal chambers. Smiling to himself because he managed to get on time for a change, he pushes the door open. His smile falls from his face the second he sees what’s happening. Ronald is already there, standing behind a fully dressed Arthur, who’s eating a luxurious breakfast. The table is covered with plates, filled with eggs, salads, meat, bread, fruit and cheese. There’s enough food for the whole army.
“Is that lunch?” Arthur asks as he spots Merlin at the door.
Ronald gives the King some more meat.
“This is lovely, Ronald.” the royal says, gesturing at his full plate.
The raven haired servant is at a loss for words, he simply stares at the scene in front of him. Ronald gives him a satisfied grin and winks again. The young boy frowns.
“Is there anything else you need doing, sire?” he asks quickly.
“No, I think that Ronald has got it all covered.” the royal replies without looking up.
“Ooh, I regret, sire,” the red haired man says, “there’s one thing I failed to do.” He glances towards Merlin who eyes him suspiciously. “Muck out your horses.”
The young warlock sighs. He could have guessed as much.
“Off you go.” Arthur says to his manservant, not noticing the evil smirk on Ronald’s face.
“I’ll get the door for you.” the red haired man says, walking over to Merlin who steps back involuntarily. He glances between the two men, sadness creeping into his heart. He rushes out of the door, biting back the tears. Being dismissed for the second time hurt more than he could say.
The raven haired boy drops the untouched food off at the kitchens and makes his way towards the stables. He hates mucking out the horses but if he wanted to stay in Arthur’s good grace he couldn’t do anything but obey.
He is filling his first wheelbarrow with dirty hay and dung when something comes flying through the window. The young warlock doesn’t notice it though, until it is too late. The smoke coming from the ball makes him sway on his feet, his head starts to pound and everything around him becomes fuzzy. His knees give out and he falls to the ground into sweet oblivion.
Ronald takes his chance and rushes into the stables. He frees all the horses and chases them outside. An evil grin is plastered on his face as he looks at the sleeping servant. ‘This is going to be good.’ he thinks silently. The red haired man sneaks out of the stables just in time to see Arthur himself rushing towards the building. The King had been on the marketplace when the horses came running by.
The royal kneels next to his sleeping servant. He had been worried to see his young friend lying on the ground like that but once he made sure that the man was simply asleep that worry quickly turned into annoyance.
Merlin stirs and slowly opens his eyes as if the presence of his master is enough to wake him. Still a bit dazed he looks around until he notices Arthur. He quickly pushes himself to his feet.
“Sire.” he says, confusion clear in his voice.
“What are you doing?” the royal asks.
“Nothing.” the dark haired boy replies, looking around in confusion.
“I can see that.”
“I wasn’t sleeping.” Merlin tries to ensure the King while he tries to wrap his mind around what had happened. “I was, I was just bending down.”
“Looking for something?” the blonde asks.
“Yes.” the secret warlock replies, hoping silently that his friend was buying his lame excuse.
“Perhaps we’re looking for the same thing?”
“Ooh, I don’t know.” the royal says, looking around the empty stable. “The horses!”
“The horses?” It’s only then that Merlin notices that all of Arthur’s steeds are gone.
“One mistake, I can understand. Everyone has a bad day now and then. But this is one thing after another!” Arthur rants.
The raven haired boy places his hands on top of his head and shakes it confused.
“I don’t know what happened.” he says. Arthur can see that the young man really has no idea but before he can say something more, Ronald interrupts him.
“Sire, don’t be too hard on him. He’s a good servant, he’s just tired.” he says while grabbing Merlin’s arm who flinches away from the touch.
“I am not tired!” he practically shouts.
“Maybe, if he had the evening off…” the red haired man starts.
“I don’t want the evening off!” the young warlock interrupts him.
“A good night’s rest.”
“I did not fall asleep!” Merlin tries again.
“I’m more than willing to take over his duties tonight.” Ronald concludes.
“Perhaps you’re right.” Arthur says.
“Shut up, Merlin.”
“Can’t you see what he’s trying to do? He’s trying to get rid of me and if you weren’t such a clotpole you’d see that!” the raven haired servant shouts, his hurt feelings clear in his voice.
“A what?” the royal asks, raising his eyebrows.
Merlin bites his lip. Yes, sure, Arthur is a clotpole. But now isn’t really the time to say that word out loud and in front of the King himself.
“Clotpole, he said clotpole.” Ronald says, sounding much like a little child.
“Ronald is right, he can look after me tonight. You can go home and think about whether you want to be my servant or not.” the offended royal says.
“Go!” Arthur hisses.
At that moment, the secret warlock looks so sad and lost that Arthur wants to take back his words, hug him and tell him he’s sorry. But he reprimands himself. ‘You’re the King. People should respect you as such.’
Merlin hurries out of the stables and runs. He doesn’t know where he’s going but he wants to get as far away from Ronald as possible. Of course he wants to stay Arthur’s servant. The King is his friend. Or at least he thought he was. But the nightmare from his past had come and made a fine job of messing with both his present and future.
His feet bring him to the training fields where the knights are practicing at the moment.
“Merlin!” Gwaine shouts happily when he sees his friend.
The boy doesn’t seem to notice him and places himself on a bench.
“Hey, what’s the matter, mate?” the long haired knight asks while wrapping his arm around the boy’s shoulders.
“Nothing.” he answers. He doesn’t want to talk about it.
Gwaine frowns but doesn’t ask anything more. They are soon joined by the others. Lancelot places himself on the other side of Merlin while Leon, Elyan and Percival keep standing.
“You seem happy.” the black haired knight says ironically.
The young servant forces a smile on his face. “I’m alright.” he says. But none of them belief it for a second. They know their friend though. ‘I’m alright’ was his way of cutting them off, of telling them he doesn’t want to talk about whatever was bothering him.
“What are you all doing?” a voice shouts from the other side of the field.
All men look up to see Arthur walking their way, followed by Ronald. Merlin quickly looks down and wishes he could disappear. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the knights who immediately connect the dots together.
“Princess!” Gwaine shouts. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Of course.” the royal answers with a nod.
They both walk a small distance away from the group. The sturdy knight glances over to his friends before he starts.
“What have you done?” he asks in a serious tone.
“What do you mean?” Arthur asks confused.
“Merlin.” the dark haired man says simply, gesturing over to his friend.
The royal looks over to his friend and notices how pale he is. It even seems like he’s shaking a little bit and he looks so sad.
“Nothing!” he tries but Gwaine isn’t buying it. “He fell asleep in the stables and I gave him the evening off. That’s all.”
“You dismissed him?” the knight asks. Arthur doesn’t answer but looks at the ground.
“Can’t you see what hiring that Ronald guy has done to him?”
“I thought it would be good for Merlin if he had a friend to share his job with.”
“Good for Merlin? And a friend? I don’t belief for a second that they are friends.” Gwaine almost growled.
“They said that they were!” the King tries to defend himself.
“No! Ronald said that they were. I have never seen Merlin act so cool and distant towards anyone.”
The blonde looks back to his friends and sees how the red haired man is standing a bit to the side while the others try to engage Merlin in a conversation.
“Look, whatever relationship those two have, I am certain it isn’t friendship. He may have saved your life yesterday, but I don’t trust that bloke.” the sturdy knight says, motioning towards Ronald.
“I say we force the truth out of Merlin. He has to tell us who Ronald really is.”
Arthur sighs but nods. He doesn’t like to see his friend upset and now, with Gwaine’s arguments, he can’t deny that something bigger is happening between the two servants.

Later that evening, Arthur dismisses Ronald and calls for his five trusted knights. They gather around in the royal’s room.
“What’s happening?” Elyan asks.
“I think we all noticed how Merlin is behaving strange since Ronald showed up.” Arthur starts and they all nod in agreement.
“Gwaine had the idea to force the truth out of Merlin.”
They all turn their gaze to the long haired man who grins and shrugs.
“We can also just ask him. But where’s the fun in that?” he says amused.
The men roll their eyes and shake their heads.
“Just go and get him here.” Arthur orders dryly.
Gwaine leaves the room and comes back a few minutes later, pushing a confused Merlin into the chamber.
“What’s going on?” the young warlock asks suspiciously.
“Sit!” the King commands and points to an empty chair.
Merlin looks from one man to the other, trying to figure out what they’re thinking. A reassuring smile from Lancelot makes him move over to the chair and sit down.
“Merlin,” Arthur starts, “who’s Ronald?”
“What?” he asks perplexed.
“Who. is. Ronald?” the royals asks again.
“I heard you the first time.” the dark haired servant says. “What I don’t get is why you want to know.”
“We noticed how you’re behaving nothing like yourself.” Lancelot explains.
“It started when Ronald arrived.” Percival follows.
“So, who is Ronald?” Gwaine asks.
“And don’t try lying about it!” the blonde King warns.
“Ronald is…” the secret warlock sighs and thinks for a moment. “He is my nightmare from the past.”
Arthur and the knights all look at him questionably.
“What do you mean?” Leon carefully asks.
“When we were kids, Ronald used to bully me.” the servant says with a sigh.
“He grouped together with a few other kids and… well, they called me names and such.”
Merlin studies his hands, not willing to meet his friend’s eyes.
“And such?” Arthur asks, secretly hoping that calling names was the only thing that had happened.
“They used to beat me.” the raven haired boy answers silently.
“What!” Gwaine shouts furious, making his friend look up in shock.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Lancelot asks.
The young servant shrugs. “I hoped he had grown out of it. But I should have guessed he had come here for his revenge.”
“Revenge?” the King asks, not really seeing where this was going.
“Are you going to repeat everything I say?” Merlin asks, tilting his head a bit.
The royal narrows his eyes at his servant. “What do you mean with ‘revenge’?”
The raven haired boy sighs and looks at his hands again.
“One time, it had gotten out of hand. Ronald almost killed me but my mother and a few other parents had come to search for us. They brought us back to the village. The village elders decided that Ronald was out of control. They forced him to leave Ealdor. He had to leave his family and friends behind. You can imagine how angry that made him. He blamed me and swore that he would one day make me pay for ruining his life.”
“You should have told us!” Arthur shouts angrily.
He isn’t angry with Merlin but more with himself. How could he not have seen something like that.
“I would have send him away, Merlin.” the royal says much calmer now.
“In fact, that’s what I’m going to do now! He’ll be banished from Camelot. You won’t have to see him ever again.” the King turns in order to leave his room and find the scumbag.
“Arthur, don’t!” the servant shouts as he gets out of the chair and pulls on the blonde’s arm.
“Why not, he deserves nothing less! He tried to get rid of you Merlin! Not that I would ever send you away like that. Merlin I’m so sorry, I didn’t see what was happening. I thought he only meant to do good.”
“It’s alright.” the dark haired boy tries to assure his friend. “I know you wouldn’t send me away. It’s all over now. I should have told you sooner.”
“I’m still going to make him leave the castle. He better doesn’t show his face here ever again.” Arthur growled.
“Right with you, mate.” Gwaine says in a voice that matches his angry face.
Both men leave the room. The others stay inside but none of them speaks a word. Only when they hear commotion coming from the courtyard, they walk over to the window. They can see how both Gwaine and Arthur make Ronald leave. The red haired man is angry, to say the least. He’s shouting at the apple loving knight while he’s holding his nose that seems to be bleeding. Percival chuckles and shakes his head.
“Trust Gwaine to hit the man.” he says. Merlin can’t help but smile a small smile.
“This isn’t over!” Ronald shouts, turning his head towards Arthur’s room. “You won’t get rid of me that easily, Merlin!” After that he runs away quickly before either Gwaine or the King decide to kill him on the spot.
The raven haired boy backs away from the window. He trembles and Lancelot has to help him get back into the chair.
“We won’t let him get to you, Merlin.” Leon says with a calm voice.
“Yeah, don’t worry.” Elyan tries to reassure him with a smile.
A few minutes later they are joined by Arthur and Gwaine again.
“Thank you.” Merlin says honestly, smiling at his two friends. “Thank you all.”

Chapter Text

Weeks had passed and the encounter with Ronald had gone to the background of their minds.
Merlin had soon returned to be his idiotic self.
Arthur had been almost nice for days but had fallen into his role of prat again and the knights were who they were,
Gwaine eating apples and flirting with maidens, or was it the other way around?
Lancelot was silently admiring Guinevere from a distant, ever the noble man he was.
Leon gave the others instructions on ‘how to be a proper knight’.
Elyan went through his daily duties without complaint.
And Percival observed them all without saying much.

Everyone is sitting in the council room around the round table, save for Leon and Elyan who are on patrol. They are going over crop prices and other uninteresting but important stuff. Suddenly the large doors fly open.
“Sire, there are rumors about bandit attacks, in the forest north from the city.” Leon says, interrupting the meeting.
He walks up to the table as he says this, followed closely by Elyan.
“Did you come there on your patrol?” the King asks.
“Yes, sire. There are signs of attacks all around that part of the forest. We didn’t see any bandits though.” the older knight replies.
“We’ll ride out immediately. Get yourselves ready.” the royal says to his men. “And Merlin, get the horses ready, will you.”
They all nod and rush out the room, happy to get out of the boring meeting.
“We’ll have to talk another time.” Arthur says to his council members while getting to his feet. “Please excuse me.”
He leaves the room immediately and goes to the armory to collect his sword and armor. The others are already there, putting on their own armor. Knowing that he had sent Merlin to take care of the horses he decides that it would be a good idea to put his armor on by himself for now.
Half an hour later they are all sitting on their horses and riding towards the forest. They only have to ride an hour before the first signs of an attack get visible.
“Dismount your horses, we’ll go further on foot.” the royal orders.
They all do as their King commands and tie their horses to some trees that are hidden behind a few bushes.
“Stay together and keep your eyes open.” Arthur instructs.
He knows he doesn’t need to tell them but he does it anyway. He’s still the King after all. As they inspect the forest they find arrows, most of them are broken, a lot of footsteps, but no bodies. It seems like there has been a fight but other than a few weapons, there’s nothing more that indicates an attack. The King motions to go further into the woods where they find even more signs of a struggle but again, no bodies or other evidence.
“Strange” Gwaine whispers.
“Sire, doesn’t it strike you as odd that we haven’t found any body?” Lancelot asks.
“Or blood for that matter.” Elyan says.
“It’s almost as if someone wants us to think that there has been an attack here.” Leon agrees.
By now they have stopped moving and are looking around.

They should have seen it coming. It had been too peaceful for a long time. The bandits that come running from behind the trees and bushes don’t surprise them really. They come from everywhere.
“We’re trapped!” Percival shouts.
They all make a circle, guarding each other’s backs. Arthur pushes Merlin behind him to make sure he can at least try and protect his unarmed friend. The young warlock doesn’t complain. At least from this spot he could use his magic without the chance they’d see him use it.
The bandits shout, trying to bring fear into the knight’s hearts. Quiet unnecessary actually because if they knew who they were attacking, they would have known that the knights in front of them aren’t easily scared by enraged shouting. Within seconds the sound of metal on metal can be heard throughout the forest. Arthur is quick to get the first attacker down while Gwaine fights off three culprits at once. Percival is using his fist as much as his sword, knocking out one man after the other. Leon and Elyan aren’t doing bad either, both having wounded their opponents. Lancelot tries to keep an eye on Merlin, making sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. And the young warlock himself is working miracles, letting branches fall just when one of the ruffians is standing under them, making swords glow with heat so their wielder needs to let go, makes swords become magnetic so they attract every piece of metal that’s close by,… Lancelot shakes his head. ‘The real miracle here is that no one ever finds out about that boy’s magic’ he thinks silently before getting engaged in yet another fight. The knights slowly expand their circle, having killed or knocked out many of their opponents already. Merlin steps back a little in order to get a better view over the battlefield. A bandit is running towards Arthur who is fighting two others and thus doesn’t notice the man who’s about to attack him from behind. Luckily Merlin did see him and he makes the rogue trip over an invisible branch. The raven haired man is so busy, protecting his friends that he doesn’t see the men stalking up on him before it’s too late. Someone twists his arm around his back and he manages to yelp loudly before a large hand covers his mouth. He becomes aware of a strange smell and immediately starts to feel lightheaded. He can hear someone shouting his name and it looks like someone is running towards him but then everything turns black.

When he opens his eyes again he notices that he’s in a dark room. There’s only a little bit of light that creeps through a window high above him, telling him that evening has settled in already. He groans and wants to rub the sleep out of his eyes but becomes quickly aware that his hands are tied behind his back.
‘What happened?’ he wonders. ‘Okay Merlin, think. You were out with the knights because there were rumors about bandit attacks. Those rumors had to be true because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten here. Arthur! Did they take him too? And where are the others?’
The raven haired boy tries to look around and finds that he is on his own. He slowly tries to sit up and shuffles to a wall for support. His head is pounding and it seems like his world is spinning but other than that he feels quiet well.
‘Where am I?’ he questions himself but he doesn’t seem to know the answer.
‘Well, wherever I am, I’m not going to just stay here.’
The young warlock tries to use his magic to untie the ropes but finds he can’t reach it. He tries again but still, nothing happens. Merlin begins to panic slightly.
‘What’s happening? Why can’t I use my magic? Ooh God! What if Arthur’s in trouble, I can’t help him now.’
His thoughts of doom are suddenly interrupted when a door opens and the light of a torch falls into the room. The young servant blinks with his eyes until they get adjusted to the harsh light.
“Awake, are we?” a voice asks.
Merlin doesn’t need to see who is speaking. He would recognize that voice anywhere. He begins shaking involuntarily and tries to disappear into the wall behind him. ‘Ronald! This can’t be good!’
Wherever he is or whatever happened, he can’t use his magic and he’s alone. Well, alone with a man who doesn’t shy back from physical abuse. Or mental for that matter.
“Did you lose your tongue, boy?” the red haired man sneers.
“What do you want from me?” Merlin asks. He knows it’s a stupid question but his foggy mind couldn’t come up with anything else.
Ronald laughs maniacally while stepping closer to the dark haired man.
“I think you are smart enough to answer that question yourself, aren’t you?” he asks while crouching down in front of his prisoner.
“Where are we?” the servant asks.
“We’re at the remains of castle Neodrach*. Not that this information is really important.” the rogue replies.
Little does the man know that this is in fact valuable information. Not only does Merlin know exactly where he is, he also knows what kind of place castle Neodrach is.
Gaius told him about this place. In the days of the old religion, the castle was meant to be neutral ground for magic users. Meaning that sorcerers, witches and warlocks would come together at that place for important talks, without the fear of getting attacked. His mentor had told him how a powerful, unbreakable spell was making sure that no magic could be used inside the castle.
Knowing this, the young warlock becomes even paler than he was before. He knows he’s helpless without his magic and he can only hope that Arthur and the knights are alright and maybe looking for him.
A strong hand that grips his upper arm painfully reminds him of the situation he’s in and he turns his attention back on his captor.
“Why are you doing this, Ronald?” the raven haired man asks.
“You know why! You ruined my life!” the rogue shouts.
“It was not my fault!” Merlin screams back. “You are the only one to blame!”
Ronald growls furiously and hits the young servant’s cheek, the force from the attack sending Merlin’s head against the wall.
“How dare you say that! If it wasn’t for you, I would have never been send away!” the red haired man yells.
Merlin bites his lip, not wanting to anger the man even further, though he fears that it won’t matter what he says or does, the bully was angry already and out for blood.
“It’s all because of you!” Ronald goes on. “You’re a bastard! A nobody! You shouldn’t even exist! And yet, people seem to like you! It’s against nature! You’re nothing but a freak! You don’t deserve any kindness!” the man rants. Somewhere during the shouting he had grabbed the young man’s arm and started shaking him harshly.
“Stop! Please, stop!” the servant begs and to his surprise he feels the tight grip slip away from his arm.
Ronald gets back to his feet and towers above the warlock.
“I’m going to make you wish you were never born!” he sneers and leaves the room, closing the door behind him with a loud ‘bang’.
Merlin shivers and pulls his legs up, trying to find a little bit of comfort. ‘They will come for me.’ he tells himself and he closes his eyes in order to calm himself down.

Merlin wakes the next morning thanks to a bucket of cold water that gets thrown over his body.
“Good morning” Ronald says with a taunting tone in his voice. “Did you sleep well?”
The young warlock narrows his eyes as he glares at his captor.
“No need to answer, I don’t care really.” the red haired man says with a mocking smile.
He pulls Merlin to his feet and drags him towards the door.
“Where are you taking me?” the servant asks and he tries to pull himself free from the painful grasp.
“You should not be so eager to find out.” the rogue answers with a malicious grin.
They pass through a few dark corridors, guarded by a few fully armed men. Ronald drags his prisoner along and pushes him inside a badly lit room. Only one torch is burning and creates haunting images on the walls. In the middle of the room stands a large wooden plank with manacles placed in the four corners. A table is standing against a wall. A few torture devices have been laid out on top of it. Merlin tries to pull himself free again but it makes no difference. Ronald is simply too strong. The rogue unties his hands, only to push him with his back against the plank. He forces his arms up and locks them securely inside the manacles. He then turns away and walks over to the table. His hands slide over the tools and a grin appears on his face. He decides to take the dagger and walks back to his captive.
“You don’t have to do this! Please!” Merlin pleads but Ronald only laughs in response.
He places the knife against the boy’s chest.
“This is going to be so much fun.” he says with an amused smile on his face. “Do try not to scream too loud.”
The rogue uses the dagger to rip open Merlin’s tunic. The young boy shivers when he feels cold air brush against his bare skin.
The raven haired boy bites his lip when the tip of the dagger cuts into his flesh. Immediately he feels warm blood running over his torso, down to his hips, soaking his pants. It seems like Ronald is carving something in his flesh but the pain is too overwhelming to take any notice. It doesn’t take long before Merlin screams out which makes the red haired man laugh.
“How easy that was” he says with a smirk. “I thought you were tougher than that. Breaking you will be easy!”
“You will never break me!” Merlin hisses.
“We’ll see about that.”
Ronald walks to the table again and picks another dagger. This one has barbs and the young servant can only guess how it will be used. The villain quickly steps closer and with one movement he slips the dagger inside the warlock’s side. The pain is terrible but not even close to the agony he feels when the weapon gets pulled out of him again. Merlin cries out at first but the pain becomes too much and he passes out.

As he wakes again, he finds that he is back in his cell. He tries to move but his wounds are screaming at him to stay still. The door to his prison suddenly opens and Ronald comes in. He walks over to the young servant and smiles down on him, happy about his handy work.
“Awake again? I must say, you’re no fun, passing out so soon.”
“You’re a coward, Ronald! Always were!” Merlin shouts as he tries to look brave.
The red haired man growls and kicks at his prisoner’s legs. The young man groans as the movement agrevates his wounds even more.
“Hold your tongue, boy!”
The secret warlock glares at his captor but decides it would be best if he did as he was told, for once. Ronald grins and kneels next to the man on the ground.
“I have a little something for you.” he says while showing a vial with a greenish liquid inside of it.
“What is that?”
“You’ll find out soon enough!” the rogue says while he grabs Merlin’s chin, forcing him to open his mouth. The young servant tries to fight him off but his injuries make it almost impossible for him to move. Ronald pours the liquid in the boy’s mouth and quickly uses his hands to close the servant’s nose and mouth.
“You better swallow it if you want to breathe again.” he says dryly.
From the moment he is sure that Merlin has swallowed it all, he lets him go.
“Enjoy your evening.” the man says with a malicious grin on his face as he leaves the room, locking the door behind him.

The drug immediately starts to do its work, Merlin can tell as much. His body is slowly getting numb and he can’t see clear anymore. Yet suddenly he can see a figure standing inside his small cell. He has blond hair and he could vaguely see the red color of a cape.
“Arthur?” he asks, not believing his eyes. This can’t be true, can it? The young warlock shakes his head. ‘No, this is just the drug, Arthur isn’t here.’
He blinks his eyes a few times and the vision of his King disappears. Only a minute later he can see yet another figure standing next to him. The person crouches down and his face becomes clear.
“Lancelot?” Merlin reaches out to the knight but his hand goes right through him, making him disappear as well.
“You won’t fool me!” he shouts into the empty room. “I know what’s happening! I will not fall for it!”
But as minutes pass by, the visions are becoming stronger and Merlin’s mind is getting weaker. He slowly starts to lose grip on reality.
“Merlin! Finally!” Arthur’s voice sounds through the darkness.
“Arthur?” he asks for the second time that evening. He knows it’s the potion’s work but somewhere inside his head is a small voice, telling him that this is real.
“What are you doing here, you lazy idiot!” the King shouts.
“I’m sorry, Arthur, I…” the young servant stops himself there. He’s imprisoned, the prat can’t punish him for that, can he?
“I don’t know why I keep you around! You’re worthless!” the blonde yells angrily.
“Go away!” Merlin yells back. “You’re not real!”
And just like that, the vision vanishes. The secret warlock curls himself into a ball, as much as his wounds allow him. He groans softly and closes his eyes.
“Don’t look, don’t look, you’ll be fine, don’t look.” he mutters to himself as he can hear heavy footsteps close to him.
“I never thought you were such a weakling.” Gwaine’s voice resounds in the small room.
“You get captured once and I find you, crying like a baby. Tell me, why did I become friends with you again? You’re certainly not worth it.”
“It’s not real, he isn’t here, he isn’t real.” the secret warlock mumbles.
“Keep telling yourself that!” Leon’s voice interrupts him.
“Look how pathetic he is!” Elyan mocks.
“Stop that, all of you!” Lancelot’s voice suddenly sounds right next to his ear. “It’s alright, Merlin. I’m here. Look at me.”
The raven haired boy can’t stop himself from opening his eyes and looking up. The voice of his friend had sounded so much different from the others. So much kinder, so much like himself. But from the moment he lays eyes on the men standing inside his prison, he realizes his mistake. They all start to laugh loudly. Their faces look horrible, like those of haunted men. Their laughter echoes through the dark and morphs into the taunting howls of wolfs, stalking upon their prey.
“You are not real! Leave me alone! They would never talk to me like that! They’re my friends!” Merlin shouts desperately, trying to convince the last decent working part of his brain that he was only seeing things.
“Ooh we are, Merlin! But don’t worry, we’ll leave you alone.”
“We don’t need you anyway.”
“You’re nothing but a worthless bastard.”
“We don’t care about you! Ronald can do as he wants.”
“Be thankful we don’t burn you at the stake, you filthy sorcerer!”
“Enjoy the rest of your meaningless, piteous life!”
Merlin covers his ears, squeezes his eyes and shakes his head as their laughter fills the room again. He can’t belief it. They abandon him. After all he did for them. How could they? By now his whole body is trembling and tears are streaming down his face. He slowly slips into a restless sleep, haunted by nightmares.

Merlin wakes when he hears the clinging of swords. The harsh sounds from metal on metal pierces his ears. He can’t wrap his mind around what’s happening. The potion is out of his system by now but the hurtful things he heard and saw are still swimming around in his mind.
As the noise becomes louder and the sounds of battle are accompanied by shouts, the young man crawls into the far corner of his cell and tries to make himself as small as possible. His injuries shout at him to stay still but his mind orders him to get away as far as he can. When he hears the sound of a key being turned in the lock, he stares at the door, eyes big with fear. The cell door flies open within a second and blinding light falls into the dark room. Merlin has to shut his eyes in order to protect them.
“Merlin! Thank God you’re still alive!”
The young warlock recognizes Arthur’s voice but he refuses to look up. He covers his ears and shakes his head like he did before.
“You’re not real, it’s not real. Don’t look.” he mumbles to himself.

Chapter Text

“Merlin!” Arthur shouts as he sees what’s happening.
Gwaine, alarmed by the sudden shout of his King, turns around to see how someone has grabbed his friend. He immediately starts running towards the raven haired boy and his attacker but is stopped when one of the bandits jumps in front of him. As he blocks the attack he can see to his horror that the man has started to drag an unconscious Merlin away from the battlefield. He also notices that his other friends are trying to get to the young servant but are all kept back by the bandits who keep coming at them.
The fight keeps on going and when the last ruffian is killed, Merlin is nowhere to be seen.
“No!” Arthur growls furiously.
“We have to go after them!” Gwaine shouts, already running in the direction he had last seen his friend.
“Gwaine, wait! We have to get the horses.” Lancelot stops the man.
They run towards where they left their steeds, bind Merlin’s mare to Arthur’s and ride back as fast as they can.
“The trail is going that way.” Leon points out, gesturing to the north.
“Let’s go.” Arthur says, urging his horse to go faster.
As time passes they are forced to move slower. The trail left behind by the kidnappers is less visible now and they can’t afford to lose it. None of them dares to speak. Even the normally chatty Gwaine is silent. The only time when someone says something is to point out where the trail is going. Nighttime begins to fall and darkness causes that they can hardly see where they are going.
“We have to make camp for the night.” Leon says with a heavy heart.
“No, we have to keep moving. They can’t be that far ahead.” Arthur says.
“Sire, we can’t see the tracks in this light. We have a better chance if we go on tomorrow.” Lancelot informs his King.
The royal looks like he’s going to argue but turns his head to the ground and nods. They all descent their horses and bind them to a fallen log. Elyan disappears to find some firewood while Percival starts to get everything out to cook. Lancelot and Gwaine take the bedrolls from the horses and lay them out in a circle. Leon is making a circle in stone, a place for the fire, while Arthur sits himself down, his head in his hands.
“We will find him.” Lancelot says softly.
The King nods but doesn’t reply. They spend the evening in silence. No one really feels like talking, or eating for that matter. Though Percival’s stew smells delicious.
“Do you think he was the target?” Gwaine suddenly asks.
Everyone looks at the sturdy knight, different emotions showing on their faces as they think about what he had said.
“It did seem like he was.” Elyan says.
“What would they want with him though? He’s just a servant.” Arthur asks, not sure if he wants to know the answer.
“He’s much more than that.” Lancelot says.
“To us he is, yes.” Leon agrees. “But to anyone else…”
They all fall silent after that, lost in their own thoughts. After a while they settle down for the night. Percival takes first watch.
“We will find him.” Lancelot whispers to anyone who wants to hear it. More to convince himself, he is worried and doesn’t get why Merlin hasn’t come back yet. There must be something terribly wrong if he can’t use his magic.

As Gwaine wakes Arthur in the morning, the King is a little confused about what he’s doing in the forest. He looks around for his friend but his memories about the day before quickly return. He gets to his feet as swiftly as possible, breaking up his part of the camp.
“Come on.” he says. “Let’s not waste more time.”
“Sire, we got to eat first. We’ll need our strength if we want to be of any help to Merlin.” Leon says while Percival gives everyone a plate filled with a grey looking mush. They all eat quickly and break up camp. They are back on their horses in no time and follow the trail that’s still clear to see. As the day goes on, they have to slow down. The tracks begin to disappear slowly. They even have to get off their horses at one point and fan out in order to find the right path again. Precious time slowly slips away like that and before they know it, the sun is high in the sky, telling them that it must be afternoon already.
“Sire, we need to rest for a while. Get something to eat and let the horses drink.” Leon says.
Arthur nods. He doesn’t want to stop searching yet but he knows they can’t keep going without a little rest. They settle down close to a river, fill their water skins and eat a piece of fruit. Gwaine is playing with the apple in his hand. As much as he likes to eat apples, he doesn’t feel like eating it now. He misses his friend. They all do. It’s easy to see on all the men’s faces. Losing Merlin felt like losing a part of themselves.
Half an hour later they are back on the road. The undergrowth becomes less and the tracks are easier to spot again so they can pick up the pace. But when darkness is falling over the forest again they slowly begin to lose hope.
“We should have found them by now. It can’t be that they are so far ahead.” Arthur says sadly.
“Sire, if I may. I know of the ruins of a castle. Neodrach, I think it’s called. It’s a few hours riding from here if I’m not mistaken. That may be where they are.” Lancelot says.
“Would you be able to find it?” the King asks hopeful.
“Not in the dark. But I can find the way in the morning.” the loyal knight replies.
The royal nods. “Let’s make camp for the night. We need to be rested when we rescue Merlin tomorrow.”
They all do as they are told and the evening goes much like the night before. Though the spirits are a bit higher now they have an idea of where they’re going. Gwaine even tells a story. It doesn’t sound as funny as it would be on a normal day but everyone listens anyway. They go to sleep early that night in order to build up as much strength as they can.

The next morning can’t come fast enough. From the second the first signs of morning begin to show, the knights are up and ready to leave.
“How far do you think it is?” Arthur asks Lancelot.
“About three hours riding from here.” the knight replies.
They mount their horses and start galloping through the forest. Lancelot at the front of the party. Although it is a guess that that’s where their friend is being held, they have to believe that they’re making the right choice. None of them wants to lose more precious time.
As soon as they see the remains of a castle, they know that their friend is inside.
“Why’s it always when something like this happens, the bandits are hiding in a ruin?” Elyan asks.
“It must be their thing.” Gwaine replies.
“Every castle has dungeons. My guess is that that’s where they are keeping him.” Arthur says.
The others nod in agreement.
“There are only two guards at the door. They’re not expecting us.” Leon points out.
“You may be right. Gwaine, Percival, take them out. We’ll follow once you’re ready.” the King instructs.
The two knights nod and sneak through the bushes towards the castle. Once they are close enough, they jump in front of the two guards and knock them out before they can shout for help. Percival waves with his arm as a signal for the others. They all come running towards the gate. No other mercenaries are in sight so they let themselves in and walk through the corridors, in search of the dungeons. Suddenly voices and heavy footsteps can be heard. Whoever it is, is coming their way. They quickly hide themselves in a dark alcove.
“Let’s see if that little runt has woken up yet.” a familiar voice says.
“What was that potion that you gave him, sir?” another man asked.
“I don’t pay you to ask questions, do I?”
“No, sir.”
“Then shut your mouth!”
The two men pass the knight’s hiding place. Upon seeing who they are, Lancelot has to force Gwaine back. Percival is doing the same with Arthur.
“That coward!” the King growls.
“If we follow them, we’ll be able to find Merlin.” Leon whispers.
Quietly they come out of their hiding place and follow Ronald towards the dungeons. As they see the red haired man stop in front of a door Arthur lets out an angry shout and charges towards the men. His knights follow him immediately, cutting one man down after the other. It is Gwaine who gets to Ronald first.
“Give me the key!” the sturdy knight growls.
“What key? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” the little rat answers with a smirk.
“If you harmed him in any way…!” Arthur shouts furious.
“He only got what he deserved!” the red haired man shouts back.
“What have you done to him?” Lancelot asks as he joins his friends.
All Ronald’s mercenaries are lying dead on the ground by now.
The rogue starts to laugh manically and before he knows what’s happening, Gwaine drives his sword into the man’s gut. The grin disappears from his face as he slides to the ground. The key he was holding falls out of his hand. Arthur picks it up and quickly unlocks the cell door. He hesitates a bit before opening it, scared of what he may find inside. The light from inside the corridor lights up the small cell and the King can make out the small form of his friend.

“Merlin! Thank God you’re still alive!” Arthur shouts relieved when he sees his manservant move.
The light of the torch falls on the small form of the boy, making the wounds look even worse. The King gets closer to his friend who’s curled up against the wall and shaking like a leaf.
“You’re not real, it’s not real. Don’t look.” the raven haired boy mumbles to himself.
“Merlin?” the royal asks uncertain.
He crouches down next to the young man and touches his shoulder to attract his attention. To his shock, the servant flinches away from the touch and backs up a little more.
“Merlin, it’s me, Arthur. Look at me Merlin!” The King’s voice sounds desperate which makes the boy look up.
“Ar…thur?” he asks uncertain.
“No, you can’t be real. You can’t be.” he shakes his head again and folds his arms around his legs.
“It’s just the potion. They’re not real, calm down. It’s not real.” Merlin mutters to himself.
“We are real.” Arthur assures his friend. “We’re all here. You’re save now. No one will harm you. I promise.”
The royal tries to touch his friend again in an attempt to reassure him.
“No!” the young warlock shouts in fear and pushes himself against the wall.
“It’s alright.” a second voice tries. “We’re only here to help.”
“Lance…” the raven haired boy whispers when he recognizes his friend.
“Yes, Merlin, I’m here.” the noble knight answers with a smile.
“We can’t stay. We have to get you out of here. Can you walk?” the King asks.
“Don’t know.” the servant answers softly.
“We can carry you, if you let us.”
Merlin’s gaze goes from one man to the other. They are all there. Leon and Elyan are at the door, guarding the corridor. Percival is standing right behind them, looking at him from a distance. Gwaine is standing behind Lancelot who is, just like Arthur, crouching down next to him. They look so different than the other visions he had. They are looking at him with concern and definitely look worried. The young servant reaches out to his King. If he can just touch him… He lays his hand against the royal’s cheek, the heat radiating from the man telling him that he is real. Without thinking and ignoring the pain emanating from his wounds he pushes himself away from the wall and wraps his arms around Arthur.
“You are real!” he sobs. “I’m sorry, I thought… they… he… I’m so sorry!”
“It’s alright, Merlin.” the royal says while rubbing his friend’s back in an attempt to comfort him.
“Let’s get you out of here.” Lancelot says as he helps the young servant to his feet.
They take a few steps towards the door but Merlin starts swaying dangerously. Percival dives forward and catches the boy right on time. He holds him firmly in his place as he tries to get away from the sudden touch.
“Calm down, Merlin. It’s alright. You’re safe.” the big knight whispers soothingly.
The young warlock relaxes a bit and lays his head against the man’s shoulder. His eyes close almost immediately.
“Let’s go!” Arthur orders and they all start running into the corridor.
They ignore the dead bodies of the mercenaries and Ronald. They only stop when they are back in the forest. Luckily it’s still light but they can’t travel yet. They have to treat Merlin’s wounds first and make sure he’s strong enough to make the trip back to the castle.
“Gather some firewood, we’re making a camp.”

Chapter Text

Percival keeps holding on to Merlin while the others get the camp ready. Elyan is gone to search firewood again, Gwaine is getting his bedroll for Merlin to lie on while Lancelot takes the bag with medical supplies. Arthur and Leon scan the forest around them to make sure they weren’t followed. As soon as everything is ready and Elyan has made a fire, Percival carefully lays the young servant down on the bedroll. The boy groans as the movement aggravates his wounds and his eyes flutter open.
“Merlin,” Lancelot says, trying to get his friend’s attention.” I’m going to clean those wounds and patch you up, alright?”
The raven haired boy nods and grits his teeth, but from the second the loyal knight touches him he hisses in pain.
“I’m sorry.” the man apologizes.
Arthur walks over to the duo and takes Merlin’s hand without thinking.
“It’s going to be alright.” the royal says with a comforting tone. “Just hold on to me.”
Merlin turns his gaze to his King and forces a small smile on his lips.
Lancelot goes on, cleaning the stab wound. He grimaces at the sight of the torn flesh but it is Gwaine who lets out a growl.
“If he wasn’t dead already, I would kill that bastard!” he shouts angry.
Merlin flinches at the word but it goes unnoticed.
“Ronald’s dead?” he asks through gritted teeth.
“Yes” Arthur answers. “He won’t harm you ever again.”
“You’ll have to sit up for a while so I can bind that wound.” Lancelot says with a sigh.
He doesn’t really want his friend to move but there’s no other choice. They help him get up and the fair knight binds the stab wound securely. After that, they help him lay down again so the man can clean the carvings in the boy’s chest. As he carefully washes away the dried blood it becomes clear that the cuts aren’t randomly placed. Soft gasps and another low growl escapes the men’s lips for on their friend’s torso stands an angry, red word. ‘BASTARD’…
“What is it?” Merlin asks carefully as he tries to read all the different emotions showing on his friend’s faces.
They all look at each other, not really sure if they should tell him.
“Nothing” Arthur says eventually and he nods at Lancelot who goes on cleaning the wounds.
The young warlock isn’t fooled though and narrows his eyes at his King.
“What?” he asks, a demanding tone in his voice.
No one answers, Lancelot concentrates on his work while the others avoid to look at him.
“Tell me.” the raven haired man says again.
“He…, Ronald, I mean…” the royal starts.
“He carved a word in your chest.” Lancelot says quietly.
“What word?” Merlin asks, not sure if he wants to know it.
“Bastard” the loyal knight answers with a sigh.
Merlin bites back the tears he feels burning in his eyes. Of all the scars he had… The boy closes his eyes tightly, trying to focus on something else. He can feel Arthur giving his hand a comforting squeeze and so he focuses on the warmth that his King is giving him. After a little while, they help him sit up again so Lancelot can bind the cuts.
Arthur walks over to his horse and takes his spare shirt out of his bag, happy that his servant always packs fresh clothes, no matter where they are going. He gets back to his friends and holds out the shirt.
“Here,” he says, “let me help you.”
“Sire, I can’t…” the boy starts.
“Shut up Merlin” the King interrupts him and he helps him into the shirt.
“Food is ready.” Percival suddenly says.
No one had noticed how the muscular knight had started cooking but now that he mentioned food, they can all smell it. They settle themselves down while the friendly giant distributes the bowls with stew. Everyone starts to eat immediately. None of them had eaten much the last few days so they were hungry, to say the least. Merlin stares at his food and draws circles in it with his spoon but doesn’t eat. He knows he should eat, it had been two days since his last meal. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His stomach was hurting due to the lack of nourishment and the thought about the meat in his bowl only makes him nauseous. He puts the bowl away and lays himself down, closing his eyes.
“Merlin, mate, you have to eat something.” Gwaine says softly but he doesn’t get a response.
“Let him sleep.” Lancelot says. “He’ll need it for the ride back.”
Merlin can hear the knights talking to each other but he doesn’t listen to what they are saying. His thoughts are going over the events of the last days and he slowly drifts away.

Merlin’s dream brings him back to that room. Ronald is grinning at him as he toys with the dagger in his hands. His grin becomes wider as he plants the blade in his side. The boy wants to scream but no sound passes his lips. The vision fades and Merlin looks around to see where he is. It’s dark around him, a little bit of moonlight is streaming through a window, high above him. The door to his cell opens. Merlin expects to see his captor coming inside but to his surprise, it is Arthur. The servant wants to say something but before he can do as much, the King starts to speak.
“You betrayed me! You lied to me all these years!”
“Arthur, I…”
“Silence sorcerer! You! Of all people! I trusted you!”
“You can trust me!”
“I find you guilty of treason. For that you shall burn at the stake.” The King’s eyes are stone cold as he turns his back on his servant.
“Arthur!” Merlin screams.

“Arthur!” the raven haired boy screams.
Within a second, the royal is at his side.
“It’s alright, Merlin. I’m here. It was only a dream.” he says soothingly.
He wants to lay a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder but the boy scrambles back.
“I’m sorry, Arthur.” he says, fear clear in his eyes.
“We’re not going to hurt you” the royal says softly, not really understanding why his servant is reacting that way.
“I know…” the boy whispers, calming down again.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Lancelot asks.
Merlin seems to think about this for a second but then he nods.
“He gave me a… potion of some sort.”
“What kind of potion?” the loyal knight asks softly.
“I don’t know. But it made me see things. And hear…”
“What things did you see?” Gwaine asks when his friend falls silent.
“You… All of you.” he answers as he looks at his friends. “I know it were only illusions. But it seemed so real…”
They all stay quiet as they remember how the young servant had reacted to them when they found him.
“Whatever you saw or heard back there, it wasn’t real.” Arthur says when he sees how uncertain Merlin looks, like he’s contemplating if there was any truth hiding behind those visions.
The secret warlock nods and gives them a small smile. “I know. You would never behave like that.”
‘Behave like what?’ the King almost asked but he swallowed his words, not wanting to make his friend relive that moment.
“We should start riding back to Camelot.” Leon announces. “We still have a few hours of light left.”
“Do you think you are strong enough to ride?” Lancelot asks the raven haired man.
He gets a nod in return and they help him up. Elyan packs the stuff they used while Percival extinguishes the fire. After a few steps, Merlin starts to sway dangerously. It’s only because Gwaine is holding him up that he doesn’t fall to the ground.
“You’ll ride with me.” Arthur says with a tone in his voice that doesn’t allow argument.
Knowing the bumbling idiot though he can see that he wants to argue about it anyway.
“Shut up, Merlin.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were going to.” Arthur says dryly, making the young man roll his eyes.
The King gets on his horse and both Gwaine and Lancelot help the servant sit in front of his master.
“Let’s go!” the royal orders. “I want to get back to Camelot as fast as possible.”
They ride off immediately, Arthur up front, holding his friend securely in the saddle. After a while he can feel Merlin’s head resting against his shoulder as the boy has fallen asleep.

They only stop when nighttime is slowly settling in, the sudden darkness making them unable to go any further. The knights make camp like they have been doing for the last few days, their jobs the same again. Elyan, firewood. Gwaine and Lancelot, bedrolls. Leon, building a fireplace. Percival, cooking and Arthur is attending to Merlin, making sure he’s comfortable. This time, they get some food into the stubborn servant before they let him rest.
“We should be back in Camelot tomorrow, before sundown.” the King announces. “Get some rest, I’ll be taking first watch.”
Everyone nods in agreement, placing themselves on their bedrolls.
“Good night, sire.” they say almost in unison.
“Good night.” the royal answers as he sits himself on a fallen log from where he can keep an eye on the camp and its surroundings, but mostly on his young friend who has drifted off to sleep a while ago.
The night goes on in peace but they say the darkest hour is just before the dawn, it must be true. Gwaine is on watch when a noise coming from the camp is drawing his attention. As he looks at his friends he can see how Merlin is fighting with the cape that’s used as a blanket. The servant is moaning in his sleep, shaking his head and moving some more. As the sturdy knight comes closer he can see the sweat pearling on the boy’s brow. He carefully places a hand on the man’s forehead but pulls away again as he feels the heat radiating from the small body. Not really knowing what to do he wakes Lancelot.
“What’s going on?” the sleepy knight asks confused.
“Merlin. I think he has a fever.” Gwaine answers, worry clear in his voice.
The loyal knight is up in a second, takes his water skin and a rips a rag from his tunic, soaking it with the cold water. He places it on Merlin’s head in an attempt to cool him down.
“Get the fire burning.” he orders, his loud voice waking the others.
“What are you two doing?” Elyan asks sleepy.
“Merlin has a fever. I think his wounds might be infected.” Lancelot explains.
Arthur is next to them within the second, taking his knight’s place who starts to remove the bandages around the servant’s torso.
“You were right,” Leon says, “that does look infected.”
“Now what?” Gwaine asks.
“I can only clean the wounds and bandage them again. We have to get him back to Gaius as quickly as possible.”
“Get ready.” Arthur orders without hesitation. “We’ll leave as soon as it gets light.”
They all nod and start to break up camp already while Lancelot tends to Merlin’s wounds.
A little hour later they are all back on their horses. Arthur is holding his unconscious friend in front of him as they gallop through the woods. They have to stop a few times to make sure the warlock is alright and to give the horses a little rest but they don’t lose much time.
They arrive at the castle late that afternoon.

“Someone, alert Gaius. Tell him to get everything ready. I’ll follow with Merlin.” Arthur says from the second they descent their horses. Lancelot rushes off immediately, followed by Percival. Leon goes to inform the court that their King has returned while Gwaine and Elyan make sure that the royal can pass through the halls with Merlin, without anyone holding them back.
When they arrive at the physician’s chambers it is obvious that the old man has been informed about his ward’s state. He is in full doctor mode, not showing any emotions.
“Lay him on the bed.” the physician instructs. “What happened?”
“Ronald stabbed him. His wounds are infected and he has a fever.” Arthur explains. “He hasn’t woken up since early this morning.”
Gaius nods and begins to examine his surrogate son. He starts to work immediately, treating the wounds carefully as to not give the boy extra pain. He makes an angry noise when he sees the word carved into the servant’s chest but doesn’t say a thing. It takes the old man an hour before he is ready.
“Will he be alright?” Gwaine asks concerned.
“He will make a full recovery.” the old physician says.
They all sigh with relief, happy smiles covering their faces for the first time that day.
“You should all get some rest now.” the doctor says while he looks at the men in his room. “You all look exhausted.”
For a second it looks like they are going to argue but Gaius gives them all his famous brow so they nod in agreement and turn to go.
“Thank you.” the old man says before they leave.
They turn around to look at the grey man and nod again.
“Everything for Merlin.” Gwaine says with a smile.
“I’ll come to check on him later.” Arthur says softly and then they all leave the room.

It’s only the next day when Merlin opens his eyes again. At first he is confused about where he is but he quickly recognizes his room. Looking around he finds a blonde haired man, sitting next to his bed, sleeping in a chair. He smiles fondly at his King and stays awake like that for a while before dozing off again.
When he opens his eyes later that day it isn’t Arthur but Lancelot that’s sitting next to him.
“Merlin!” the man exclaims. “Good to see you awake, my friend.”
The servant smiles brightly. “Good to see you too.”
“How do you feel?”
“Like death itself.” the boy responds but he keeps on smiling.
Lancelot looks around the room for a second and checks the door before talking again.
“How come you didn’t use your magic?” he asks quietly.
“I couldn’t.” the young warlock replies. “It’s not that I didn’t want to but the castle we were at, castle Neodrach, was neutral ground for magic users in the days of the old religion. Gaius told me once how a powerful spell makes sure that no one inside the castle can use magic.”
“Ooh…” Lancelot says as realization dawns upon him. “Did he know about…”
“No.” Merlin interrupts him before he can complete his question. “It was just my luck that we ended up there.”
The knight nods and gives his friend a small smile. Just then, the door to the room flies open and the others come barging in.
“Mate! You’re awake!” Gwaine shouts happily.
“Obviously” Merlin replies with a grin on his face.
“Good, now you can polish my armor again, it sure needs that after our little trip.” Arthur says dryly but the emotions showing on his face are betraying him.
“Prat” the raven haired boy says with a chuckle.
“It’s good to have you back.” the blonde man tells his friend.
“It’s good to be back.” he answers with a smile. “Thank you all for not giving up on me.”
“We would never give up on you, Merlin. You’re our friend.” the King confesses.
“The princess has spoken.” Gwaine chuckles and they all laugh.
Everything would get back to normal in no time. Merlin knows he can count on his friends and no one, not even a stuck up bully, could take that away from him.