Sneaking up was rude. Merlin decided that the moment that something hard and heavy connected with the back of his head. He had been trying to fight, and wasn't doing that badly, even if you counted the logs and rocks that somehow got in the way. At least he was managing to hold onto his sword. Until of course that rude person had hit him. That sent him sprawling face first onto the floor, his sword skittering off and the two men he had been fending off, plus the one that had snuck up on him, prodded him with their swords.
Merlin debated using magic, one blast would knock them all over. But he didn't know where Arthur was, and he couldn't risk it, he lay still, but his head rose a little until the point of one of the swords was pressed into the scruff of his neck, easing him back down again. Merlin obligingly dropped his face into the damp grass and hoped there wasn't anything disgusting lurking in there.
"Hands on your head, and lace your fingers together," someone ordered him. Merlin blinked and the sword jabbed at him when he hesitated, so he did as he was told, resting his hands on the back of his head as he lay there. He wanted to get up, he needed to find Arthur. Where the hell was he? They had not been that far apart when the attack had happened, although they had been on top of an incline. Arthur was quite possibly on the other side. Merlin couldn't do anything until he knew what was going on.
Someone whistled and there was a reply from a short distance away. Merlin felt the base of his neck prodded again.
"Get up," a voice ordered.
Merlin started to unlace his fingers to use his hands to push himself up and he was prodded again.
"How am I expected to get up then?" Merlin asked, lying still, hands on his head and sword point at his neck. "Levitate?"
A foot dug into his ribs and a hand took the back of his neckerchief. He gagged as the material was used to pull him up, cutting into his throat as his bodyweight pressed on it. Merlin struggled to breath for a moment, darkness pressing on the edge of his vision. Once he was kneeling the tension slackened but the material wasn't released. Merlin looked around, he couldn't see Arthur, and he needed to find him before he did anything.
"Don't move," one man snarled. Merlin looked up at him. He had dark hair, a thick beard and clothes had had seen better days. Honestly, if Arthur thought Merlin was messy, he hoped the prince would get a good look at this. At least Merlin made an effort.
"Not planning on it," Merlin said, looking up with wide eyes. There was another whistle from somewhere deeper in the forest.
"Get up!" the man snapped at Merlin.
"You just told me not to move," Merlin said. He tried to rear back but the hand tightened on the material of his neckerchief, forcing him to keep still. He almost moved his hands but stopped at the last minute, keeping them clamped to the back of his head.
"And that sneaking up thing isn't fair, you do know that. I'm sure it must violate the knight's code and all sorts."
The dark-haired man grabbed his chin and he brought his sword close to Merlin's face, resting the tip on his lower lip.
"Do you have any particular desire to have your tongue ripped out of your mouth?"
"No," Merlin said, and then he shook his head. He bit down on his lip to prevent himself from saying anything further. Merlin's eyes followed the man as he stepped a semi-circle in front of him. He backed away and headed up the slope. Merlin watched him go, eyes shuttling to follow him. Whoever was holding his neckerchief tightened their grip again. Merlin tried not to move but he guessed that Arthur was over the hill and Merlin was not about to object when he was hauled onto his feet by the man holding his scarf. They propelled him forward with the same grip and then added the flat of a sword blade against his backside pushing him along.
Merlin let it happen, keeping his hands on the back of his head as he was forced up the incline. As he scrambled to the top he sighed in relief as it brought Arthur into view.
He wasn't in a better position. He was on his knees, hands on his head, surrounded by eight men.
Typical, Merlin thought. There were two men who had dealt with him, really three, actually one really since it just took walking up behind him and hitting his head. Arthur needed eight of them; no doubt he had been fighting to the end. He looked sweaty and angry and injured. Merlin gasped as he saw the gash on Arthur's right hip. Without even thinking about it he ran forward, only to be pulled up by the grip on the material around his neck.
"Arthur?" Merlin coughed as he was hauled back and he was forced to make the effort to stop wriggling. Then he was shoved down the slope, feet sliding until he reached level ground and he was dragged close to Arthur. Although his head stayed angled forward, Arthur's eyes followed him, fixed and angry and moving as if he was checking every inch of Merlin over, just to make sure he was all right. Merlin tried not to feel offended. He was the one that secretly looked after Arthur, not some other way round thing.
Merlin yelped as he was pushed down onto his knees a short distance away from Arthur, and still only three men surrounded him, compared to Arthur's eight. Merlin wondered how offended he should be by the difference. He was probably more dangerous than Arthur, not that he could tell anyone.
"Well, well, the prince of Camelot," one of the men drawled, slowly sheathing his sword. He walked around Arthur in a large circle, the men with their swords drawn, keeping Arthur pinned down, shifted as the man walked. Merlin guessed he was the leader of the troop. Arthur tried to turn his head to keep the man in view for as long as possible, until a sword point jabbed into his shoulder, turning him to the front. Arthur's jaw tensed and his eyes blazed, he was not the least bit happy. Merlin watched carefully as the man walked full circle and came to stand in front of Arthur. The men holding Arthur at sword point shuffled aside to let him step closer. Arthur gazed up at him, eyes locked with his. The prince tried to flinch back as the man grabbed his chin but the swords jabbed into him on various points of his body and Arthur stilled down.
"I expect you will be worth a good ransom," he commented. Arthur gave a low growl of anger but said nothing. He wasn't in much of a position to put up a fight. Not only with him surrounded by the cluster of men, but there was the three around Merlin to consider as well. The man released him, chuckling as he stepped back. Arthur's eyes followed him as he strolled towards Merlin. Merlin looked him up and down. He was as dark-haired as the bearded man, with similar cheekbones, however there was only a light stubble along his jaw. He was a little shorter, and lighter of build, but Merlin guessed they were related in some way.
The bearded man stepped forward to join his relative, showing the similarities even more as they looked at each other. Then the one who was clearly the leader stepped towards Merlin, grabbing his chin in the same way he had Arthur's forcing his head up.
"And what about you? What are you worth?"
"He's just a servant," Arthur announced dismissively. Merlin frowned a little, he couldn't really glare in Arthur's direction since the man still held him, regarding him speculatively. After a few seconds he let Merlin go and Merlin tilted his head just a fraction to glare at Arthur. The prince was watching the interaction carefully. The leader and his comrade looked at each other for a long moment, before the leader shrugged.
"In that case, he's probably no use," the leader announced. He turned to look at one of the men behind Merlin. "Stick your sword through him."
Merlin gasped, his breath then hitched as the material around his neck pressed into his throat. The man behind him used the grip to keep him still and the point of a sword pressed into Merlin's back, as if assessing the best place to stab him. Merlin debated the magic he could use in this situation. Now and again he had come close to revealing himself to Arthur, simply because in the choice of protecting himself and the prince or keeping his magic secret, there was one day when he would have to choose one option or the other.
Before he could do anything, Arthur's voice rang out.
He had clearly tried to get up, the men were pressing tighter to him, and one had grabbed his shoulder to keep him down on his knees. The leader raised a hand. The sword stayed on Merlin's back, digging into him, and he rolled his eyes upwards to try and see what was going on. He could just about keep the leader of the bandits in view, but Arthur was out of his line of vision.
"He's my servant," Arthur said, with a touch of protectiveness. "Leave him alone, he's got nothing to do with this."
Arthur wasn't sure if they were bluffing just to test him, or they really meant to hurt Merlin. Either way, he couldn't take the risk; he didn't want Merlin getting hurt. He didn't deserve it really, however often he drove Arthur mad. Arthur turned his head enough to look at Merlin and the man who was holding him, ready to drive the sword through Merlin's vulnerable back. Arthur's jaw tensed and he looked up at the leader.
"Oh, but I think he now has," the leader drawled, a smug smirk developing across his features. He moved back towards Arthur. Arthur kept his gaze moving between him and Merlin, whose fate was still, it would seem, undecided.
Merlin panted as he tried to keep himself calm and see what was happening close by. The man held his head down and the sword pressed in harder as Merlin squirmed. Instead of seeing it, Merlin had to content himself with listening to the conversation, as his fate was negotiated.
"Just leave him alone," Arthur repeated.
"Well, my young prince," the leader drawled. "If you agree to our rules, then your servant will remain alive."
"And unhurt," Arthur insisted. The dark haired man eyed him steadily and Arthur kept the eye contact. After several seconds of them doing nothing but silently gazing at each other the leader nodded.
"Very well, although his safety will remain dependant on your cooperation, while you remain captive."
Arthur looked a little chagrined at the situation but he nodded. "You have my word."
The leader gave a slight signal and Arthur relaxed, watching carefully as the man removed the sword from Merlin's back. Merlin glanced in Arthur's direction, Arthur was looking at him just as intently.
"Are you all right, Merlin?"
"How touching," the bearded man drawled. The leader glanced in his direction before looking back to Merlin. Merlin's eyes moved from him to Arthur and back again.
"And I presume you will obey your master's orders."
"You can presume all you like," Merlin said.
"Just what are you saying, boy," the leader growled. Arthur watched carefully.
"Merlin," he warned him. Arthur tensed as the three men guarding Merlin closed in on him. "You vowed you wouldn't hurt him!"
The leader stepped back and looked at Arthur, almost apologetically. Arthur's eyes flickered warily.
"I did, didn't I? If you cooperated, but if he doesn't, well…" the leader shrugged. Arthur braced himself, and Merlin yelped as four of the men around Arthur, grabbed him. One held his shoulders, while one grabbed his right arm, keeping it in position with his hand clamped to the back of his head. The two other men yanked his left arm out, pulling it straight. One held it steady while the second man took a firm grip of two of his fingers. Arthur could guess from that what was coming, he clenched his jaw and braced himself.
"Arthur!" Merlin yelped but the three men held him down, and he struggled against them in a futile fashion. "Don't hurt him!"
The leader shrugged and there was a sickening crack. Arthur grunted through his gritted teeth, eyes rolling in his head and nostrils flaring as he breathed heavily. Next to him he could hear Merlin struggling but he couldn't free himself. Arthur didn't flicker knowing that if he didn't put up a fight then Merlin would probably end up relatively unscathed. His hand throbbed, both fingers expertly broken, but he had been prepared for it, so his reaction was limited. He wanted to tell Merlin to stop fighting but for the moment Arthur didn't think he could trust himself to speak. He didn't hold Merlin responsible for what just happened, there was bound to be something, a small show of power so the men could prove their point. Arthur hadn't wanted it to be Merlin who suffered for it, and he had received worse than a couple of broken fingers before now.
"I'll continue if you do," the leader said to Merlin. There was a sudden stillness as Merlin stopped immediately, staying still and looking over at Arthur tentatively.
The prince took several deep breaths, still keeping his jaw clamped, muscles tensing as he dealt with the pain washing through his system. They released him and Arthur shifted, very carefully moving so he could gently pull off his glove to assess the damage. The two fingers were already starting to swell, but the breaks felt clean and expertly done. Merlin shifted, trying to get up, but he was forced down again.
"I'm fine, Merlin," Arthur said calmly, although his voice was a little strained. He eased his glove back on, figuring that the thick leather would probably help support the broken bones for the time being.
"My apologies, My Lord," the leader said, sounding genuinely contrite. "I'm unsure if your servant is ill-trained or over-protective."
"A little of both," Arthur said, wincing as he settled his gauntlet back onto his hand. Merlin wondered if he should be offended by that.
"As soon as we have reached the camp, I can arrange for your injuries to be dealt with," the leader said. Arthur nodded, he didn't want to talk too much. The leader watched for a moment before adding. "But for the time being, if you wouldn't mind..."
Arthur obligingly took the hint and put his hands on his head again, although his didn't lace his fingers together. That would have just been too much. Merlin had gone still, watching Arthur in concern as he got to his feet. The leader turned to the bearded man.
"Keep the prince's servant at least thirty paces behind, just in case."
Arthur gave Merlin a level glace before one of his guards pushed him in the right direction. Merlin could read the concern in Arthur's eyes as well as the warning for Merlin to do as he was told. Merlin stared after him, keeping his eyes fixed on the group. There wasn't anything he could do now except allow the bearded man to haul him to his feet and set off walking behind Arthur.
For the time being their safety depended on each other.