Winking down at the sleeping earth, a lone star shone brightly in the inky black sky. The fire was crackling soothingly, and a sudden cold breeze was welcome to Arthur’s hot face. He had moved closer to the flames a few hours ago when Merlin, whose head was still cradled in his lap, had become dangerously cold, and now the heat from the fire was making the prince uncomfortably warm. He shifted slightly, careful not to move the unconscious form in his arms, and stoked the fire again on account of it dying down a little. As he blew on it to give it some life, a charred log lit up momentarily with red-hot embers, casting an orange glow upon Merlin’s face. Arthur swallowed a lump in his throat, concerned by his friend’s ghostly complexion and shallow breathing. The boy was all but dead, battling with the injuries for his life, and all the prince could do was sit there, keeping him warm by the fire and muttering to him, telling him it was going to be alright, probably to comfort himself more than anything.
He tucked his red jerkin further around Merlin’s shoulders as the servant began to tremble again, as he had done so at random for the past half hour. All he had was the coat – the only blanket he had brought, a scratchy woollen one, was under Merlin, keeping him dry from the damp forest floor – and it clearly was not enough for the boy, considering he was still quivering with cold.
Arthur decided to move into a more practical position, and shuffled closer to the trunk of a tree, where he leaned back and pulled Merlin toward him so his friend’s head was resting against his chest. He threw the jacket that had gone astray over them both and wrapped his arms around Merlin, holding him tight.
Come on, Merlin. You can’t stay like this forever! You’ve got to wake up sooner or later…please get up…please don’t die…not after all we’ve been through…
His silent pleading was for nothing, however, because Merlin did not move, but just lay there in his arms, his breathing becoming more and more vague. Arthur fought the sense of dread that Merlin was slowly slipping away from him, and instead tried to ease his anxiety by running a finger softly down the side of his friend’s face, careful not to touch any of the scrapes and cuts that were scattered across the delicate skin. At his touch, Merlin flinched a little and mumbled something in his sleep, before tilting his head to rest on Arthur’s shoulder, where, whether it had been intentional or not, he let it lie, relishing the warmth of his companion. Arthur’s eyes began to well up with tears again, which he quickly blinked away, telling himself it was nothing to get sensitive about. But, despite his efforts, a single tear rolled down his cheek. He refused to let more fall and bit his lip to stop himself.
There was a tangle of emotions raging around inside of Arthur. There was relief that he had found Merlin, horror at finding him in such a state and helplessness because he could do nothing to aid his recovery. The prince felt strange, like one moment he wanted to take hold of Merlin and shake him hard, ordering him to get better, and other times he just wanted to rock his friend back and forth in his arms, murmuring quiet words of comfort to him.
Mumbling something again, Merlin stirred a little. Arthur was surprised to see his eyes open a crack and look up at him, blinking. The servant seemed confused for a moment, and Arthur’s stomach flipped horribly when he saw no recognition in Merlin’s eyes. It soon past, however, and his friend’s gaze reverted back to the familiar blue. Arthur smiled warmly, and Merlin, after a short pause, returned the gesture. They looked at each other for a moment, words unnecessary. However, Merlin was clearly struggling to stay awake, and seemed to be falling unconscious again.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Arthur cried, springing up.
He grabbed his flask of water and quickly held it to Merlin’s lips, trying to keep him awake with the cool liquid that began to trickle down his servant’s throat. Merlin choked on it, and some went onto his bare chest, but most of it he managed to drink.
“There, that’s it…take it easy…” the prince hushed, moving the flask away as Merlin began to wake up a little more. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine…” Merlin managed, lying. “But…you – you came for me…”
“Well,” Arthur said, with a noncommittal wave of his hand, “I know how much trouble you get yourself into when I’m not around to watch your back.”
Merlin closed his eyes – Arthur thought he’d fallen asleep – but suddenly he opened them again, now looking at the sky. He saw the one star sparkling high up in the heavens and took a moment to gaze upon its splendour, before dragging his eyes back down to earth and the friend that was sitting before him. Merlin suddenly felt a sense of freedom that he had not felt for a long time. Arthur had found him; he was back with the other side of his coin, and at last he was safe.
Arthur was shifting uncomfortably, and Merlin wondered why, until he realized he was staring deeply into his friend’s eyes without even blinking. He lowered his gaze and looked at the floor, unable to find any words to say. Unintentionally, Arthur saved him from the slightly awkward moment. The prince pulled his shirt collar back, revealing a familiar red neckerchief. Merlin’s eyes widened with surprise as Arthur took off the scarf and pressed it into his hand, smiling.
“There, I even kept that old thing safe for you.”
Merlin stared at the scarf. It was still warm in his hand as he ran his fingers over the material, incapable of stopping a grin from sliding onto his face. When he tried to knot it up around his neck where it belonged, he found his muscles had seized up and he could not even reach. Arthur’s eyes softened, and he tied it up for him before sitting back on the leaf-carpeted ground, watching his friend contentedly. Merlin shot him a grateful glance and, being careful not to antagonize any of his injuries, made himself more comfortable against the tree.
“Did you bring a shirt along as well?” he asked, looking a little mischievous, and doing a remarkably good job considering a few hours ago he had been almost dead.
“No – sorry.”
There was a long silence, only broken by the occasional hoot of an owl or rustling of the trees and undergrowth where a badger was snuffling, apparently looking for any earthworms or small rodents that would be unfortunate enough to cross its path.
“I missed you, you know.”
Caught off guard by this sudden statement, Merlin looked up. It was a rare occurrence, but sometimes Arthur would say something so vastly different from his usual self, it would both surprise Merlin and make his insides glow with pleasure.
“Yes, I did.”
Not caring about the pain it caused him, Merlin smiled. Arthur, who had been gazing affectionately at his friend, looked away and began poking the fire again with a nearby stick; it seemed that being with his servant for even a few moments brought out the best of Arthur, and it frightened him.
Merlin, feeling an icy stream of air brush over the back of his neck, pulled the prince’s red jacket tighter around himself to retain the little amount of heat emanating from his body. He suddenly felt his right hand throb as though an invisible fist had just punched it hard. Bringing it into the light, he looked down at his palm and saw the long gash that Sheridan had made had opened up and was now drizzling a little blood. He gripped it tight in the other hand to stop the blood flowing, but long streaks of scarlet soon began to escape from between his fingers, dripping on the ground and staining the leaves.
He was trying not to object to the pain, but the servant could not prevent a small, distressed whimper escaping his lips. Arthur heard and turned around. A shadow fell over Merlin, and the young warlock started, surprised, as Arthur knelt down beside him and took his injured hand in his own before carefully rubbing a damp cloth over the cut. When it was clean, the prince softly tied another strip of material around the wound, but instead of letting go, still held Merlin’s hand tightly.
“Merlin…” he whispered, his eyes brimming with tears, “who did this to you?”
Merlin knew this question would have arisen sooner or later, and sighed, hanging his head. He would have preferred not to tell Arthur what had happened to him on The Emrys, fearing that the prince would not take it well. But he knew that it might be important, especially the part regarding the finding of the cube, which Merlin informed Arthur of first. The news that The NightmareChild had endured shocked the prince greatly, and Merlin had been made to swear it was true. Finally, Arthur accepted that it was not a lie or misunderstanding, and said he would think it over and try to come up with some kind of plan.
During the entire conversation, which was chiefly Merlin speaking and Arthur listening, the young wizard left out as much of Sheridan as possible. However, the prince then persisted to know how he had acquired so many injuries, and – though with extreme reluctance to relive the bad memories – Merlin echoed the past few weeks to Arthur, whose eyes, as his servant went into further detail, began to grow fiery hot, smouldering with fury.
“Merlin,” the prince said after Merlin had finished, and was now lying back on the tree, exhausted after the long elucidation of events, “I will not let this go unpunished.”
“Arthur, just leave –”
“No, Merlin, there is no way I’m leaving it! Look at what he did to you! Do you honestly think I’d let anyone get away with doing that to my best –?” Arthur suddenly stopped.
“What?” Merlin looked up, somewhat interested.
“Nothing,” Arthur mumbled, avoiding eye contact.
As the prince began poking the fire again, trying to act as if he was not aware of Merlin, who was now staring at him with fascination, the young warlock vaguely wondered how they had gone from mortal enemies to such good friends, perhaps even friends who would die for one another. He knew what Arthur had been about to say, and once upon a time, he would have thought the very notion that the prince saw him as a best friend ridiculous. Yet, Arthur had come so close to saying it…
Of course he never would say it – he wouldn’t be Arthur if he did – but if that’s what he thought…
Merlin suddenly felt warm inside, as if someone had just given him a hot drink. He tried to stand up, but his head immediately began to object, and his vision clouded, so instead he slipped down to the log on which Arthur was sitting, and settled himself beside the prince, who desperately tried to ignore him.
“Were you just about to call me your –?” Merlin began with extreme curiosity, quite interested.
“Don’t even think about it, Merlin! Of course I wasn’t! That would be absurd!” Arthur snapped, staring rigidly at the fire and beginning to stab it with such savage ferocity that several lumps of charred wood began to hurtle in Merlin’s direction.
Despite being peppered with burning hot sparks, the young wizard was unable to stop a smile from forming on his lips. Arthur’s feelings were so usually concealed, hidden and obscured by his arrogant nature, but in that one slip of the tounge, Merlin knew what he was to the prince.
“Well,” he said quietly, so quietly it was almost a whisper, “you might not be able to say it, but…” he had to pause and take a deep breath. Arthur turned and looked at him, waiting nervously for him to finish the sentence, “…you’re my best friend.”
This thoroughly shocked the prince; he’d not been expecting that. Merlin’s eyes harboured such trust and certainty, and Arthur found himself having trouble holding his gaze, like he was looking into a bright light. He felt so…bad as a friend. He could not even look Merlin in the eye, and turned away, back to the fire. He had absolutely no idea what to say, and an uncomfortable silence hung thickly in the air.
A rumble of thunder brought Arthur out of his reverie, in which he had been wondering what he should say to Merlin, and as both boys looked up at the dark sky, a lightning bolt tore across the heavens, leaving a long rip in the black expanse. It started off gently at first, but the rain was soon pelting down hard, little drops of water shattering off the leaves and pattering on the forest floor.
With a feeble hiss, the fire went out, leaving the two boys shivering on the damp log, both soaked to the skin. The rain continuing to fall, Arthur got up and tried to revive the fire, but any hope of warmth was gone with the weather, and he gave up with a frustrated growl before sitting down on the log again. Merlin had his coat, which he had pulled over his head to keep the rain off, so the prince was left with next to no cover, and he shortly found his rain-slicked hair dripping into his eyes and his boots squelching when he shuffled them on the ground.
He started when he felt Merlin edge closer, and turned to see his servant was holding the coat out for him while it was still over his head, inviting him to come under the makeshift shelter. The prince spared the dark sky a swift glance before accepting the offer and shifting under the coat with Merlin. He was glad he had done so, for the swollen clouds opened up only a few moments later, and the forest was soon alive with the sound of raindrops pelting down on the trees and bushes.
“You remember what you said earlier,” Merlin’s voice cut through the silence between them like a knife, “about missing me?”
“Yes…” Arthur replied carefully.
“Well – I sort of – kind of – might have missed you, too…”
Smiling, Arthur looked away. Merlin was an odd one.
Over by a tree, where Arthur had tethered it, the horse began to rear and buck on its hind legs, whinnying with fright as another flash filled the clearing with light for a split second, a roar of thunder soon following.
The storm was getting worse.
A cold shiver went up Arthur’s spine, and he pulled the coat further over his head, trying to stop the icy beads of water from dripping onto his face. He was anxious about Merlin, however, as his friend was still injured and probably not strong enough to last the night if the temperature dropped any more. In fact, even as he took a sideways glance at his servant to verify his concerns were all in his head, he saw Merlin adopt the appearance he had seen a few times before…
Arthur had only been in a proper battle once – Camelot had not suffered many conflicts in recent times; the neighbouring kingdoms were lying low – but a battle he had been in. He had not been very old, only about twelve, but he had been brought along nevertheless. Arthur never liked to relive the memories of the battle itself, although he did recall the time after. Knights from both sides had been strewn across the floor, either dead or dying, and he had walked among them, trying to find his father who had disappeared. In fact, that was the day he had got the scar on his shoulder.
While he walked amongst the brave soldiers, he had seen their faces, their expressions, as they lay helpless on the ground. It had been an icy night – the most injured had frozen to death. For a boy of twelve, this was an unearthly thing to witness, and some of the knights who remained, quickly took him away from the blood soaked field. He may not have endured all the horrors, but Arthur would never forget his first battle, the ones who lay dead, the pain in their eyes…
And now Merlin had that same appearance about him. The boy was trembling with the cold; his eyes were closed, scrunched up tightly, and he had clasped his hands together so he could blow into them. Even as Arthur watched, the servant suddenly began to cough again, great spasms tearing through his body. Horrified, the prince caught hold of Merlin’s shoulders to try and calm the servant’s choking. It seemed to work, and Merlin took a deep shuddering breath before slumping back on the log, still gasping for air.
“Don’t worry…you’re gonna be alright…” Arthur told him, taking the shivering body in his arms. “I’ve got you…you’re safe now…”
Merlin leant back against his shoulder, relaxing. He hurt so badly; the pain of all the injuries was almost unbearable. One thing was for certain: if Arthur was not there, had not found him, he would be dead by now.
The prince listened to Merlin’s breathing become more even, and stroked his friend’s hair as the servant slowly drifted off to sleep. After pulling the sopping wet coat over the both of them again, Arthur realized it was not going to help either of them much if they shared it, so he covered Merlin as much as he could and shuffled himself on the log to get into a more comfortable position.It was not long before he was drenched – if anyone had seen him now, they would have assumed he had jumped into a lake – but he was not bothered by it. All that mattered was keeping Merlin dry and making sure he got the rest he needed. The body curled up in his arms was growing steadily warmer, and it was somewhat comforting to Arthur as he too, fell asleep.