Feeling groggy, Merlin painfully rolled onto his stomach and pulled himself up onto his knees. Now able to see better, he found the beach soon thinned away as it reached the foot of a densely packed forest. The trees towered over him as he gingerly climbed to his feet. Disorientated, he swayed with a sudden loss of balance. The world began to spin, and colours swam before him, merging into one. He blinked and closed his eyes tightly; listening to the sound of his heart throbbing in his ears before opening them again to find the wild blur had stopped. His head pounded and every muscle protested as he took a tentative step forwards. His vision began to darken again, but he refused to let it consume him.
The sun was beating down on his back, and he knew he would get heat stroke if he did not get into the shade. He staggered towards the trees, brushing invisible objects out of the way with an outstretched arm. Eventually, his hand came to rest on the cool trunk of a tree, and, leaning his back against it, he sunk to the floor. He ran his fingers in between the lush, green blades of grass; it was soft against his hands, and he stole a few moments to revel in the touch of the earth. He took several deep breaths of fresh, clean air. It was vastly different from the smoky kitchen on the ship, and it felt like ice slipping down his dry throat.
For a long time he sat there, slowly trying to regain his strength.
Bringing to his ears a beautiful sound, the waves folded out onto the golden sand. The tide came in, and then left again, and the sun began to creep across the sky.
When it was just before sunset, when the shadows were longest, Merlin stirred from where he had been sleeping. He had not slept like that in weeks, and he was grateful he had been allowed dreams that temporarily took away the pain in his body.
He still did not feel strong enough to stand, so he stayed there, leaning against the tree, unconsciously ghosting a finger over the gash on the palm of his hand.
But that’s when he saw him.
Some way off, appearing around the side of a tall oak, looking just the same as ever, a familiar figure, making no sound at all, came out and stood there, silent.
Merlin thought it was a dream. It had to be. He could not come. It was impossible. But yet there he was – Arthur – just standing there, his face half hidden in shadow but a smile Merlin had sorely missed still visible.
The young warlock tried to call out; call for help, but no sound other than a strangled croak escaped his lips.
The once motionless figure burst into life. Merlin just had time to stand up before Arthur reached him and pulled him into his arms, holding him tightly.
“You came,” Merlin whispered.
“Of course I came.”
He wasn’t sure whether it was emotion or exhaustion that did it, but Merlin suddenly felt overwhelmed and his legs buckled from beneath him. The last thing he saw was Arthur bending over him, still holding him close, concern written across his face.
Merlin’s eyes opened. It was night. A cool breeze was blowing across his face and stars sparkled in the sky.
He was alone.
He looked around.
Both cold and upset caused him to begin to shake. Had it all been some kind of dream? He felt miserable, wretched.
At that point, Merlin broke. He began to cry.
What happened next was something he really did not need. There was a shout, some kind of an alarm. Merlin was sobbing too hard to hear it, and he did not notice the men that emerged from the trees like liquid shadows until they were almost upon him.
“Is the little boy still crying?” a voice simpered from above, a voice the young warlock slumped against the tree knew only too well.
Slowly, he lifted his head. He was not surprised to see Sheridan and his men standing over him, leering. He was surprised, however, to learn that they were alive. He had thought they might have drowned when they had been thrown overboard. Unbeknownst to him, they had suffered a similar fate to himself; washed up on the same beach. But, unlike him, they had managed to group together again, and had constructed a makeshift camp in the forest. A lookout had spotted Merlin, heard him when he had begun to cry, and sounded the alarm.
Sheridan leant forward, sneering. Once upon a time he would have an expression full of mirth, but now it showed nothing but utter hatred. Instinct told Merlin to use his magic. He tried to conjure up a spell, but he was shocked to find he could not. It was like there was a wall in the way, letting nothing through. He was too exhausted. He had no protection as Sheridan ordered two men to pull him to his feet.
“So…” he said, walking back and forth in front of Merlin who was neither struggling nor trying to hold himself up, but instead just hanging limply, tears still falling down his face. “You were thrown overboard, too…I’m not going to ask any questions…but it’s rather fortunate you were, because now, you see, I can finally do what I couldn’t before…there’s no one here to save you…you’re all alone and at my mercy… ”
Merlin did not care that they were now probably going to kill him. As Sheridan continued to talk, the young warlock zoned out completely. He stared at the ground, his face blank, his eyes lifeless. Only one thought plagued him. If he died now, here, today, then he would never be able to fulfil his destiny. He was supposed to protect Arthur. He could not let anyone stop him from doing that. If he was killed, then Arthur would be venerable to attack, and he also would die, the king would have no heir, Camelot would collapse, anarchy would reign. It suddenly struck Merlin just how much the future relied on him, how much Arthur relied on him. He could not give up. Not now. Not ever.
In a split second, with no warning or indication, he sprung into action. Twisting his arm, he jerked himself free from the men and bobbed under a floundering hand that tried to seize him. With a newfound strength, he bolted from the trees and out onto the moonlit washed sand. Cries of outrage followed him as he pelted away. Every time a wave crashed onto the beach and crept up to him, the young warlock’s feet sent a shower of water up behind him.
He shot a look over his shoulder and was horrified to see Sheridan and his men only feet away. He sped up.
His lungs began to burn with a need for air and he gulped in more and more until he was gasping and causing his throat to sting. He was slowing down considerably now, and another glance over his shoulder showed him that Sheridan was almost within arms reach. Perhaps a change in tactic would throw them off. The forest was dark and almost a labyrinth it was so densely packed – he would be unseen in there.
He swerved hard off to the left, and for a moment, he believed he was going to make it to the trees, but suddenly someone grabbed his ankle. He fell to the floor with a thump, sand and blood mingling in his mouth as a hand crushed his skull to the ground.
Immediately, his pursuers were upon him, pinning him down. Sheridan did not hesitate to come forward and lean over Merlin.
“I’m going to kill you,” he said with scary frankness, venom dripping from his voice.
Everything went dark.