Merlin woke to the sound of birds chattering in the trees and the light of dawn shining on his face. As he opened his bleary eyes further, he took in the sight of the forest. It was early morning and the sun was peeking over the distant horizon, which could just be seen through the tall trees. The floor was carpeted in amber coloured leaves of all shapes and sizes, and it was springy under foot from all the rain that had soaked it the night before.
Merlin took a deep breath. The icy cold air was refreshing to his raw throat, and he took several more breaths, before looking behind him.
His eyes closed, fast asleep, Arthur lay on the scratchy woollen blanket, his chest rising and falling rhythmically. His shirt was still damp from the storm, but there was a dry patch, probably where Merlin had slept. The young warlock did not remember the previous night much, but he did recall being dimly awake while Arthur laid him down of the ground and huddled up next to him. As the moon had shone over them both, and Merlin had slept through the darkness, his dreams had never before been sweeter.
It was warm next to the prince as Merlin lay down again. Comfortable and content, the servant almost forgot about the pain his injuries were causing him. He was with Arthur, he was safe, and nothing could hurt him.
Staring up at the pale blue sky and listening to the prince’s gentle breathing, his eyelids began to droop and it was not long before he fell asleep again.
An hour or two later, Merlin felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently.
“Sorry to wake you,” Arthur’s voice said, “I know you need some sleep, but you should eat something before we leave.”
Merlin opened his eyes, reluctantly rolled over and sat up. His head was immediately consumed by a dull, thumping pain, the world began to spin, and before he knew it, he was slipping away into a black haze. Slithering away from consciousness once again, he was sure he was going to fall, hit the ground at any moment. Then, suddenly, someone caught him.
He opened his eyes.
Arthur was there, an arm around his shoulder, stopping him from falling. Concern was written across the prince’s face as he pulled Merlin into a sitting position and settled him back against the log.
“Are you okay?”
Even though ever part of his body was screaming otherwise, Merlin nodded his head. Arthur, although looking unsatisfied, returned to rummaging in his bag. It must have been what he was doing before waking his servant for there were several items already strew out across the floor, most of which were wet. It seemed that the rain had soaked his rucksack during the night, as it had done to the rest of the forest, for there was a certain smell around the place, the sort of smell that only occurred after rain. There was also a steady dripping, caused by the small beads of rain that still clung to the leaves high up in the trees, and which slid away every so often to land on the floor with a splash.
Turning his gaze from the forest, Merlin caught an item Arthur had just tossed unceremoniously over his shoulder. He looked around the camp for a moment, suddenly interested in all the stuff lying about the place. There were all kinds of things, ranging from clothes and armour, to daggers and empty water skins. But what caught Merlin’s attention was just how much stuff there was. It was quite evident that Arthur had been travelling for quite some time…
“How long have you been away?” Merlin asked, gathering the belongings closest to him into a pile.
“About as long as you have,” Arthur replied, not turning.
“How long was that?”
At this, the price swung around, surprised.
“You don’t know?”
“No…” Merlin said. He was being perfectly honest. The days on the ship had all merged into one big blur. It was impossible to tell how much time he had spent there.
“Merlin, you’ve been gone several weeks…” Arthur replied quietly.
Merlin took an extensive breath and looked away, up to the tops of the trees. Had it really been that long since the day by the lake, the day he had felt more at home than ever before? The young warlock briefly wondered why as soon as something good came into his life, things like Camelot and friends, had to be taken away almost immediately. It just did not seem fair. Was he, as a sorcerer and Arthur’s secret guardian angel, destined to never have a normal life? A future like that might have seemed rather miserable, but as Merlin thought it over, he realized he really would not have it any other way.
Another item having just been flung out of Arthur’s bag brought Merlin out of his thoughts. His attention was turned to the rucksack now, and with a start, he noticed the item Arthur was sliding out of it. His eyes widened. He had thought it was gone. How had Arthur found it? It was impossible…Arthur was not a mortal…
“Where did you get that?” he asked, unable to keep a definite hint of panic out of his voice.
“What? This?” Arthur held the golden hilted sword up into the light and expected it carefully.
After a confused moment, wondering why Merlin was so frightened by the sword, Arthur retold the night he had been given Excalibur by the mysterious stranger. As the prince ended his tale, Merlin suddenly found this latest piece of information slotting into place. Maybe the sword had been sent to Arthur to destroy the cube. It was possible, was it not? The Old Religion did work in strange ways, ways that would probably never be clear to either warlock or prince. It was not so unbelievable that they would know when there was evil to be fought.
Finding what he had been looking for, Arthur pulled the half eaten loaf of bread out of his bag and handed it to Merlin who took it ravenously.
“I’ve been thinking about the whole – you know – cube thing,” Arthur spoke up after a moment. Merlin looked up expectantly, tearing a chunk from the bread. “I’m going to the mountains to destroy it with this,” he held up Excalibur, and then turned to Merlin, a sober expression on his face as if about to divulge in something he knew Merlin would not like. “But you’re not coming with me.”
“What?” Merlin dropped the loaf, horrified. He had to go with Arthur. There was no way the prince could destroy The NightmareChild without him.
“You’re too injured, Merlin. If you came with me, you would die,” there was a definite indication of finality to his words as Arthur continued to pack his backpack, not sparing Merlin a glance.
“Arthur, I have to –”
“But you can’t –”
“I said no, Merlin!” the prince snapped, exasperated. “You are not coming with me! It would be a death sentence! You’re far too weak! Anyway, its not like I can’t manage without you.”
Merlin wished he could tell Arthur why he was wrong. But he could not blurt out that he had magic, the only way to destroy the cube. And at the same time, he could not let Arthur go solo. That would be sending him to his death.
Though unsure of what he would say if allowed, he was about to speak again when Arthur stopped him in his tracks.
“I’m leaving you in a inn at Stormwake docks. You’ll be safe there, someone can look after you, you can have a decent meal, and you can recover. I will go to the mountains, and you would do well to not follow me –”
“Arthur, I have to come with you!” Merlin cut in, panicking at the thought of being left in a nice, warm bed, while Arthur went to face his doom. He would never come back…Merlin would never get to say the things he needed to say…never get to tell him of his secret…never be truly honest with his friend…fail his destiny…
“Why?” Arthur’s angry voice pulled him out of his train of thought. “I can get along perfectly without you! You are not coming with me, and that is final!”
But it was not final. All the way down the beach, with Merlin forced onto the horse, Arthur sitting behind him, trying to ignore his venomous disagreement, Merlin argued…
When they eventually arrived at Stormwake docks, Arthur had been put through every disagreement, threat, plea and quarrel Merlin had within him. Even as Arthur half dragged, half carried, him into an inn, up a stairs and to a room, Merlin threw divergence at him.
“But I need to come! You don’t understand! I have to come! You’ll die if you don’t let me come! Please, Arthur! I’ll…I’ll…I’ll jump out the window if you don’t allow me to come! Okay, so I wont do that…BUT I MIGHT! You have to let me come! Arthur, listen to me! You can’t go alone! You need me!”
Having heard this several times since they had left the forest, Arthur completely ignored Merlin and shoved him down on the bed. As he was about to leave again, Merlin suddenly sprung up, seemingly discovering some new found energy, and attempted to scrabble past Arthur, who was in the doorway.
“MERLIN!” Arthur bellowed, loosing his temper with the servant, taking hold of Merlin’s shoulders and shaking him hard. The young warlock sobered up immediately, looking frightened by Arthur’s harsh tone. “I’m telling you, as your master, prince, future king and damn friend, just – stay – here! It’s for your own good. Please…you have to trust me.”
“No! Stay here! Don’t make me lock you in…”
“Well, you’ll have to, cause I’m coming!”
His anger levels now boiling over, Arthur locked the door and began to stride down the hallway.
“NO! LET ME OUT! ARTHUR!” Merlin began pounding his fists on the door furiously.
Sighing to himself, Arthur made his way up to the counter where he paid a member of staff to look after Merlin. He then went back to his horse.
Watching him from the window of the dusty little room, Merlin ground his teeth heatedly. Arthur’s arrogant nature was going to be the death of him this time…