I should have known... I'd leave alone...
Merlin had a bad feeling about this.
Admittedly, he got a bad feeling essentially every time Arthur went gallivanting in the forest. Usually, it was for some stupid errand or quest, but this time the King hadn't even bothered to provide his reasoning.
Also, there must be a less dangerous route away from Camelot! Bandits, sorcerers, monsters, and assassins always found Arthur like bees to a hive. At this point, it was rare that they didn't get chased, maimed, or attacked in one way or another! But did that deter 'His Royal Pratness'? No. No, it did not.
“Arthur,” Merlin whined as he shifted in his saddle and slouched forward, “I don’t approve of this! My arse hurts. I'm tired. I'm thirsty. I'm hungry... We’ve been riding for hours, and you haven’t even told me where we're going!”
“I understand your limited mental capacity makes it challenging, Merlin, but try to remember that I am the King. You can’t speak to me like that. And if you stopped sitting like a sulking child then maybe your scrawny little arse wouldn’t hurt!” Arthur replied jovially, running his gloved hand through his hair. It stuck up sporadically, wet from dewy fog surrounding them, “So do me a favour... and shut up, Merlin.”
“Oh, commenting on my capacity is brave, sire, seeing as your head is the size of a farmer's prize pumpkin! And yet, I swear I can hear the wind whistling through one ear and out the other!” Merlin smiled smugly at himself, “I bet you don't even know where we’re going. You’re just pretending to because you can’t admit we’re lost in the middle of nowhere! But, you know what, that's fine! Just fine! After all, this might be my one chance to get rid of you... dispose of your body somewhere under a log... where nobody would find you...'Here lies a ridiculous infuriating prat with no sense of direction.'”
"Now that's high treason, Merlin. Such a shame, I was just starting to like you!" Arthur chuckled brightly and made a show of stretching with a roll of his neck.
He seemed happier today, but Merlin wasn't sure why. It was business as usual back in the castle. However, it was hard to miss the blond's wide smiles and easy banter. He hadn't even brought the knights with them, something unheard of since his crowning. Unfortunately, instead of enjoying the alone time as he usually did, it only worried Merlin further.
“We're not lost, you idiot. I know exactly where we are going... not that I’ll be telling you, Merlin. And prat, honestly? That’s the best you’ve got?” Arthur quirked his brow and grinned secretively.
Merlin still saw it, of course. It wasn’t hard to look over and catch Arthur’s reactions as they now rode side by side. Not that Merlin was watching him. He simply had to make sure Arthur didn't smack into any low-hanging branches. It was impressive His Majesty hadn’t developed any permanent damage from the concussions he’d sustained already. No need for any more.
“Oh, do you need a definition for that, sire?”
“No, no I don’t -” Arthur protested.
“Prat. A noun. A prat is someone full of themselves and, almost invariably, stupid as well. With a hint of delusion. Also known as His Majesty, King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot. The Biggest Clotpole in the Land and Royal Pain in My Ass!”
Arthur mockingly mouthed “invariably” and looked over at Merlin, tilting his head as if about to say something mischievous then decided against it. Instead, he faltered for a second and froze. Merlin called to him jokingly but received no reply.
"Arthur...?" Merlin repeated, hushed with concern. Suddenly, Arthur kicked his horse’s sides hard - uncharacteristic of him, as he valued his mare Llamrei above almost everything. She bolted forward into a gallop and Merlin’s horse sped off after her, not wanting to be left behind. Merlin barely managed not to topple backward in his surprise, “ARTHUR?!”
Arthur didn’t even look back at him. He sat up on the saddle and maneuvered his horse around trees in a sporadic pattern. Merlin looked around, confused, and tried not to slip off in the process.
“What are you doing?! Couldn’t you have given me some warning for a race?” the servant shouted, still receiving no reply from the King.
Then an arrow whistled its way right past Merlin’s head, and he thought it best to actually shut up now. Of course. Bandits. In the heavy fog, it was impossible to see them. How on Earth Arthur had noticed them was a mystery. Merlin just held on for dear life and tried not to get shot. He couldn't risk using his magic to fight back without being able to see his enemy and while so close to Arthur.
Speaking of Arthur, he'd dropped the reins and somehow pulled a riding bow and quiver from his saddle pack. It had been suspiciously heavy, Merlin recalled distantly, and he'd most certainly not packed that himself. Wondering when Arthur developed the ability to shoot on horseback was probably not that important at the moment. Nevertheless, Merlin barely dodged another enemy missile as he pondered how Arthur snuck that past him. Or why he brought it at all.
“MERLIN!” Arthur suddenly yelled, interrupting the servant's train of thought, “Merlin, I’ll distract them. See that boulder up ahead? Go around it then turn back and ride to Camelot. I’ll keep going ahead.”
“I’M NOT LEAVING YOU, YOU IDIOT!”
“Well, you don't have a weapon, so what else do you propose? Asking them nicely? Go! I'll handle this the best that I can and then come find you!”
Was Arthur honestly that deluded? As if Merlin would ever abandon him. Ridiculous moron. Merlin almost laughed, “SHUT UP, ARTHUR!”
Arthur growled frustratedly and reached up for another arrow to find only one left. “Fine! GO LEFT!”
Then Arthur turned right. Of course, he did. And so did Merlin. Right towards a dead end. Arthur yelled out at his servant furiously, but notched his last arrow and charged straight towards the cave opening. His head touched Llmarei’s rump as he bent back and pointed the shot to the roof of the cave. The exact second Merlin had made it in, Arthur released the arrow. It hit its mark and the unstable rocks piled above them. The walls shook and then collapsed as a huge stone barely missed them and blocked the entrance completely. The horses skidded to a sharp stop to avoid colliding with a cave wall, their metal horseshoes screeching against the solid stone ground. It took minutes until the loud clamour finally dissipated.
Merlin stared at the huge wall of rock, panting and shaking as the adrenaline caught up to him. “What were you thinking, Arthur? That was our only exit! You could have killed us...”
When met with silence, Merlin slid off his mount to the cold stone floor. His body ached where a few stray pebbles had pelted him painfully. They could have been smashed to bits. Merlin hadn’t even had time to think about magic, let alone use it. That was way too close. It was completely reckless.
“You weren’t supposed to follow me…” Arthur said eventually. His annoyingly steady voice was barely discernible over the ringing in Merlin’s ears.
“That’s not the point, Arthur!” Merlin huffed incredulously.
He whipped around to look at the king. Maybe he’d expected a smirk or some other smug expression. Maybe even ‘Don’t be such a girl, Merlin. We’re alive, aren’t we?’ But instead, Arthur's face was tight with pain and his eyes were glassy and blank. Arthur shook his head stiffly and dismounted. When his feet hit the ground, Merlin was able to see an arrow piercing his thigh. It had gone through entirely, the arrowhead red with blood and completely visible. Seeming detached, Arthur walked forward without a limp and prodded at the rock wall he’d created. Merlin inhaled sharply and rushed forward.
“Oh, Gods, your leg… you have to stop moving, you have an arrow in your leg! Arthur, stop!”
Arthur nodded, wordlessly, and reached down to the offending bolt. Not even looking down, he snapped the head off in his fist and pulled it straight out of his leg.
“WHAT?! Why would you do that?!” Merlin snatched the arrow from Arthur’s hands and stared at it, “You don’t pull out arrows, you idiot!”
Merlin yanked on Arthur’s shoulder and pulled him around to face him. Arthur didn’t even blink. What was happening? Was it blood loss? Shock? Did he get hit too hard on the head again?
“We need to sit down, Arthur. Come on, talk to me? What’s wrong with you?!” Merlin lifted a hand to hold his jaw with his palm. As quickly as it had come, the glazed defensive look in Arthur’s eyes was replaced with warmth and then… pain.
“It’s fine, Arthur. But you have to sit down, ok? I need to see your leg.” There must have still been light coming from somewhere because Merlin could see the blood slowly pooling around Arthur’s foot.
Suddenly, though not surprisingly, the King’s knees buckled and he collapsed unconscious.
Just goes to show... That the blood you bleed is just the blood you owe...
Arthur woke to ringing in his ears and a blur of black and white clouding his vision. After blinking away the dizzying spots, he recognized Merlin’s face directly above his. The servant was unusually close, and as worried blue eyes blinked down at him, Arthur couldn’t help but mockingly mumble, “Let’s have you, Lazy Daisy…”
“What?” Merlin’s voice was too sharp and loud. Arthur’s leg was on fire. The blond bit back a groan and tried to stay as still as possible. He knew his servant was still watching him intently so Arthur smiled tightly to reassure him.
“Nothing, Merlin. Now, why are you looking at me like I just ate your berry tart?"
“Because you just collapsed on me after yanking an arrow out of your leg, you git!” Merlin tried to look angry, his face red and his hands clenched. It was the furrow in his brow and the waver in his voice that gave him away.
“Still can’t talk to me like that... by the way."
“And honestly," Merlin interrupted, "that’s not even comparable to being robbed of a berry tart. Which are my favourite, by the way!"
“Yes, I’m aware they're your favourite. Why else do you think I always get two? I'm not that fat!” Catching his admission too late, Arthur flushed and grumbled a silent curse to whatever had inspired him to say that.
“You get one for me?” Merlin grinned devilishly and playfully pawed at his chest, “So you do care for me then, sire?”
“I do not!" Arthur hadn't been aware his voice could even reach that octave anymore.
“Oh yes, you do!”
“No, no, I most definitely do not!”
“Yes, you do!” Merlin cackled giddily, “You even apologized to me!”
“I recall no such thing!"
“Well, I do! You were dramatic about it as well. You said something like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, dear Merlin. Oh, so very fantastic and talented, Merlin. My dearest companion and dashing savior, Merlin.'" The servant reenacted the moment exuberantly, lifting his wrist to his forehead and swooning to lie by Arthur. He laughed breathlessly at his own joke while Arthur tried his hardest to act offended. “You’d better have a new appreciation for my so-called 'excessive' packing skills, too! I brought enough of Gaius’s supplies to patch up your leg. Call me useless all you want but, without me, you’d be short a leg and arm by now! At the minimum!"
“I would be just fine! I survived 20 years before you, Merlin, believe it or not!” Arthur scoffed halfheartedly, tired and lacking any heat to his words.
“And how you managed to accomplish that is a mystery to us all. Were you some sort of homebody till I showed up? Then you decided that charging into danger at any available moment was entertaining? Do you enjoy giving me grey hairs?!”
Arthur twisted his head to look at Merlin, eyes wandering over his scalp to find evidence of such offensive strands. He found none. “Oh, stop whining, Merlin. Your hair is fine."
“I thought it was ridiculous.”
“It is ridiculous! You look like you tried to cut it yourself. But it's all one colour! Black. Now shut up!”
“Well, actually, I think it reflects brown in the sunlight.”
“And how would you know what you look like? Whoever told you that lied. Just shut up, Merlin-” It did, in fact, reflect bits of brown in the sunlight. Not that Arthur had noticed. This entire conversation was rather exhausting, and he realised that Merlin only talked this much when he was incredibly happy or incredibly nervous. And Arthur doubted it was the former. “Where are we?”
“Stuck in a cave. All thanks to you, you stupid clotpole!"
"In a cave… right… and the horses? Where is the light coming from? It’s not fire.”
“Horses are tied over there at the end. I don’t know about the light. I was too worried a fire would fill the cave with smoke.”
“Right, well, unless it was a bonfire, I’m sure we would have been fine, Merlin. It’s cold if you haven't noticed.” It wasn't cold, Arthur just needed something to complain about. He didn't actually care, he'd been bundled up in blankets while unconscious. He tried to swallow back a blush when he noticed Merlin had tucked him in like a small tot.
“Nothing ever pleases you, does it? Do you even know how to be grateful? Are you physically capable of being anything other than a complete and utter- Arthur? Are you even listening to me?!" Arthur was, in fact, not listening at all. Per usual. The warlock groaned and pinched his nose.
“I’ve been here before…” Arthur mumbled, staring intently at the wall past his servant’s head.
“What?” Merlin looked up confusedly.
Arthur had been here before. There was a beam of light shining through the darkness of the cavern, and it illuminated a small drawing on the walls. Merlin twisted to follow Arthur's gaze. Two little figures painted to hold hands, the first sporting some odd squiggly lines, hair supposedly, and the other a little crown. Arthur slipped out of his bedding carefully and limped towards it, mumbling to himself.
"Morgana drew this..."
"Are you sure it's safe, sire?"
"What? No, I mean - not recently. When we were kids. I've been here before with her, and I remember her drawing this. It's been years though. I can't believe it's still here."
Merlin rose too and hung back awkwardly, not quite sure what to do with himself. "Did you two often escape into the woods to paint self-portraits on cave walls? Seems like an odd hobby for a couple of royals."
Arthur didn't respond, but he jerked as if tugged on a line and spun wildly. He seemed to be searching for something, and he pushed his feet around oddly in the dirt. - despite Merlin's objections to the use of his injured leg. When his toe caught on something, he let out a laugh and started digging.
"Have you been possessed? I'm far too tired to deal with some sort of demon right now. Tell it to come back next week, I have some availability -"
"Shut up, Merlin. Look! It's still here."
Merlin crept hesitantly forward and knelt by Arthur's slumped form. He tucked his head out of the way to let the light beam through. It danced through the King's fingers down to the ground. Arthur was digging away at the outline of a box before gripping it at its lip and yanking it up. A puff of dust shot up, causing them to cough, and Merlin sneezed violently. He blinked the dirt out of his eyes and barely caught the carved label on the box before Arthur swung it open.
"What is that?!"
ARTHUR'S TREASURE CHEST
"When we were teenagers, Morgana and I ran away. She packed all sorts of useful things: food, water, weapons. She kept teasing me because all I brought was this..." Arthur poured out the box and laughed to himself with a childish glee Merlin didn't see often. "Gods, what kind of luck is it that we found the same cave again? I can't believe it!"
He sorted through the objects before landing on one to hold up into the light.
"This was my toy! I got it from a nobleman's son when I was tiny, perhaps four summers old? It was his least favorite, but I loved it, so I stole it. I went to bed that night terrified the King's guard was going to drag me to the dungeons. It was the first time I ever stole anything!" Arthur pushed the little figurine towards Merlin.
It was a black sculpture in the shape of a jousting knight and horse. It was simple and a little messily made, and the servant wondered why Arthur had liked this toy so much. A prince had surely owned better. And so he asked.
"I wasn't allowed many toys. Father wasn't much into useless games and silliness. I got some as presents, occasionally, from the staff or another child. Eventually, Father found all of those and destroyed them. It was usually a punishment, I was a naughty child - surprise, surprise! I can't believe this little thing is here, I thought it was lost forever!"
Merlin's eyes widened at the odd revelation Arthur had unintentionally provided him. Not allowed toys? Arthur said he was four when he stole the little knight. Why would Uther be so against his young son having toys that he'd take away any that he found? Did Arthur not realise this was unusual?
Hunith couldn't afford any of the traveling merchants' crafted toys for Merlin, but she'd made a collection of hand-woven little husk dolls and stitched tiny clothes for her son to dress them up with. She'd always bring home 'especially good sticks' for the young warlock so that he could use them for games or pretend magic wands. Hunith even carved little ducks and rabbits out of wood - a skill she'd learned from Balinor- and it was something that showed effort. That showed love.
Realistically, Uther was not particularly affectionate, and in no way comparable to Hunith's adoration. Arthur might not know any different. Before Merlin could voice his questions, Arthur gasped loudly. He fumbled with the ties on a small canvas wrap and rolled it out with impatience.
"So this is where this went?! I looked for this for weeks!"
"What is it? It just looks like charcoal sticks."
"Well, it is charcoal sticks, Merlin. Sybil gifted them to me after she caught me watching Thomas sketch out weapons designs..." Arthur trailed off after remembering the implications of his story.
Sybil and Thomas were dead now. Sybil must have been Gwen and Elyan's mother. Merlin had heard she worked for Leon's family household. It was news to him that Arthur knew her as well. And knew her well enough to be smuggled art supplies. Merlin wondered why Arthur hadn't mentioned it before.
Catching the blond's depleting mood, Merlin snorted a laugh and poked the king with his elbow, "Didn't peg you for an artistic soul, sire! Now you're telling me you can draw? Hopefully better than whatever Morgana doodled on the walls."
Arthur shot Merlin an unamused eyeroll but pushed a bound notebook to him all the same. Merlin pursed his lips and carefully opened it. The bindings were brittle, and some pages slid out, Merlin fumbling to catch them. When he did, he whistled quietly and looked up at Arthur and back at the page in rapid succession. Arthur could draw... incredibly well. He flipped through the pages and gazed at them with wonder. Some of the drawings he instantly recognized. A detailed sketch of a horse's head. A simple outline of a hut on a hill. But as Merlin got further into the book, the drawings became grander and grander.
One depicted Morgana, with her features sharp even as a child, gazing out of her window to the courtyard. Another of young Gwen's face, her eye's closed and smiling gently. An old man with a long beard with a cloak pulled over his head. A woman kissing a child's forehead. He flipped through the pages enthralled by their contents. When he got to the end, he found a paper ripped out and folded in half. He looked up at Arthur questioningly, who had averted his eyes to avoid Merlin's reaction to his work. Getting no response, he pulled the page out and opened it.
This drawing was different from the others. With the rest of his art, Arthur had painstakingly created tiny details and gentle shading. This one... the face of a young boy, was haphazard and roughly made from jagged lines and harsh shadows. Merlin ran his fingers over it and then raised it to the king.
"Who is this?"
Arthur slowly lifted his eyes from his fidgeting fingers, and his lips dropped apart when he saw the paper. He broke out of his shock quickly and pulled it gently out of Merlin's grasp, "I wasn't very good. Anyhow, now that you've had your merry way with the book, you have plenty of blackmail on me. You can run off and tell all of my knights how I scribble and scrawl roses and daisies in my spare time or something."
"Who is it?" Merlin asked again. He looked back down at the book as if it would somehow provide the answers.
"It was supposed to be me. Wasn't very good obviously, it's not like you could tell just by looking at it."
"All of your other drawings were so clear. I saw Gwen, Morgana, Geoffrey, horses, knights, servants. But that one doesn't look at all like you. How come? You spend enough time preening in the mirror, you ought to know your own face." It shouldn't bother him as much as it did, but something nagged in Merlin's chest.
Instead, Arthur just nudged Merlin with his foot and tried for a snotty quip, "Yes well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps I just perceive myself differently than you do."
Arthur's gaze suddenly blazed defensively as if daring him to continue his interrogation. So rather than step into treacherous waters, for once, Merlin reached for the piece of leather twisted in Arthur's fingers. "Alright, fine, you big baby! What's this then? It looks like a piece of an old boot..."
"It's a collar. It used to be for my dog when I was a boy. A hunting dog got bred with a stray accidentally. They drowned the other puppies, but I snuck off with one. I was young and naive, and I didn't understand why they would hurt something tiny and innocent. I thought it was barbaric."
"It is barbaric!" Merlin exclaimed hotly, "It's a waste of perfectly good lives. All because of some ridiculous need for pure bloodlines. As if the castle couldn't afford to feed a few more mouths. And they would have been just as good for hunting, anyway!"
Arthur shrugged but smiled at Merlin's passion. The servant always cared for animals in a way that used to annoy him, but now he found it rather endearing. He'd never met anyone who viewed other creatures as any more than food, weapons, or tools. But Merlin saw every living thing, even the spiders in the halls, as little beings - life to be cherished - and Arthur wished he could be as good and pure as Merlin.
"It's just the way it is, Merlin. They wanted to drown Veela, too. Tried to pry her from my hands when they found her under my bed. But my nursemaid shooed them away and told me she needed milk or she was going to die. We kept the mother dog in my antechamber. Poor thing had been crying horribly for her pups. I felt I'd done something right for once when I showed her I'd saved Veela."
"Oh..." Merlin imagined the poor mother's whimpers as she watched her babies drown. This cave seemed to have a spell of some sort on it, for Arthur had never been this candid before. Merlin couldn't think of a single childhood story Arthur had told before now. He felt trusted and hungry for more."Veela? That's what you named her? Like the magical women? That seems a bit -"
"Yes, I realise," Arthur cut in looking uncomfortable, "my nursemaid used to tell stories about them. I thought the puppy looked like one because I'd never seen a white dog before."
Merlin hadn't either, and he tended for Arthur's hunting dogs often. It was one of the chores he pretended to hate so Arthur would give it to him more often. There wasn't a white dog. But before Merlin could ask Arthur sighed, "It was a long time ago."
He started to pack the trinkets back into the box gingerly and smiled tiredly at Merlin. In the silence, Merlin realised a rather important piece of the story was missing. Why were these things, these precious belongings of Arthur's, buried in a cave in the middle of the woods?
"Why did you and Morgana run away?"
Arthur stilled but tried to seem aloof, "I don't know. I was young. I don't remember, honestly."
"So you remember everything you just told me, but not why the Prince and Ward of Camelot ran away from home? What happened? Were you being hidden for safety? Did you just get sick of three square meals a day and decided to live it rough for a vacation? How long were you gone? How old were you?-"
Overwhelmed by Merlin's questions and the stabbing pain from his leg, Arthur slammed the chest shut and snapped, "We were children, Merlin. We were stupid and ungrateful and unrealistic. You know how Morgana could be when she set her mind to something. After some fight with Father, she said that she was running away and never coming back. We stayed in the woods for a few weeks, months, maybe. We hid in this cave for a little while, but then they found us and brought us home. They rescued us from..."
"You ran away for months?! Morgana, I could understand, but you're so hellbent on duty, and... why would you go with her? Rescued you from what?"
"Merlin... there's a monster in the cave."
The room suddenly felt ice cold. The light beam had faded, and the room had become dark as they'd talked.
"And... it comes at night."
Merlin shot up to his feet and whirled around. His hip caught on Arthur's propped-up shield, and it crashed to the ground. A loud clanging echoed through the cavern.
Followed by a terrifying, shrieking roar.