It was the largest and strangest cave he had ever been in, but it was also the most beautiful. The cavern stretched so high that Arthur could stand on four of his knights’ shoulders and still not be able to reach the ceiling, and it stretched out into the distance so far it was hard to see the other side. But the part that really drew his attention was the crystals covering the walls, ceiling and even part of the floor. They were jagged and looked like they could be dangerous, but they emitted a beautiful light which danced across the walls and across Arthur himself like moonlight reflecting on a rippling lake. The light was beautiful and pure. It was. . . in a sense. . .innocence.
Arthur felt at ease here, despite the fact that he had never seen this place before, it felt familiar and safe. In the distance, at the other side of the large cavern, stood two figures… Arthur couldn’t make them out from where he stood, so he began to move closer. Before he could get very far however there was a shout. One figure stood with his arms stretched out, his whole body convulsing. Arthur’s pace quickened through the jagged crystals. Suddenly the person seemed to explode, but instead of the gore that Arthur expected, only a thick, red, smoky substance floated through the air.
He was close enough now and was surprised when he recognized the other person. It was Merlin; but who had been standing in front of him? The smoky substance bounced around frantically and seemed to become absorbed in the surrounding crystals. Then Merlin was screaming as the crystals turned from their beautiful blue to a deep angry red.
Arthur was full out running now, but he couldn’t seem to get close. In fact it seemed as though he was moving farther away. He reached a hand out to Merlin, screaming his name as his friend fell to his knees. Suddenly the red crystals exploded releasing the substance. A few moments later the force of the explosion hit Arthur, propelling him farther backwards. His last sight was of Merlin on his knees as the smoke surrounded him blocking him from Arthur’s view. Arthur reached out a desperate hand towards his manservant and friend as he felt himself dragged away from the once peaceful place.
Arthur started from his slumber as the sound of a heavy bolt was slid away from its prison, signaling the entrance of someone into Arthur’s own prison. His eyes flickered around anxiously, his mind still reeling from the incredibly vivid dream. It all came back in a rush: the patrol, the ambush, being separated from his knights but not from Merlin … not at first. Losing consciousness as he was bound and gagged. The panic he felt when he awoke without Merlin by his side, and the torture… the never ending torture of both mind and body that had been going on for what felt like weeks.
All of this came back to him before the door even began to creak open. Now, as he lay on the floor, he desperately wanted to crawl into a corner and curl up in a ball to protect his injured body, but he was too weak to do even that. He bit back a whimper, not wanting to give his captor, Garlock, the satisfaction.
He forced himself to watch as the door opened, the air left his lungs in a rush as the figure came to stand in front of him. “Merlin…” Arthur’s voice came out in a raspy whisper.
“I’m here,” Merlin said hesitating before kneeling at Arthur’s side. Arthur felt relief crash down on his shoulders as he looked his manservant over. The young man looked tired and pale but otherwise seemed unharmed. The dream still plagued his mind, the last image of his friend crumpling to the ground in pain.
“Did they hurt you? Did they torture you?” Arthur asked desperately. “I heard screams.” He wasn’t sure if he was referring to the screams he heard every night after Garlock left or the screams he had heard in his dream. Both were horrible, but the ones from the dream were worse by far. It was like Merlin’s very soul was being torn apart.
“No.” Just one simple answer, no elaboration. Merlin wasn’t looking at him. Arthur guessed that he was attending to the king’s many wounds by the way he moved and how certain parts of Arthur’s body flared with pain, but despite all the fog in his brain he couldn’t help but feel Merlin was hiding something.
“What did they do to you?” he asked, his voice barely a whisper but strong nonetheless.
Merlin looked up at him, surprised. “Nothing, sire,” he said. “Not a scratch on me. I guess they had bigger fish to fry.” His servant gave him that cheeky grin, but still Arthur felt like Merlin wasn’t telling him something. However, at the moment, it occurred to him that now might not be the best time to try and figure it out.
“How did you escape?” Arthur asked.
“I didn’t escape so much as was rescued, sire. The knights are here.” Merlin lifted Arthur’s head slightly and Arthur could see the men standing outside the doorway. “See?” Arthur felt even more relief at the sight of his four closest friends and most trusted knights. Merlin lay his head back gently and continued to bandage his more severe wounds. Arthur couldn’t even lift his head to see what they were, but he guessed from the intense pain that he had a serious injury to his right hand as well as one to his knee and left shoulder. The rest were superficial cuts and bruises meant to cause pain but not be life threatening. There were a lot of them however. “Garlock is gone.” Arthur looked back at Merlin trying to figure out what he meant by “gone.”
“He’s not here?” Arthur asked.
Merlin looked at him gravely. “He’s dead.” And by the haunted look in the young man’s eye, Arthur decided not to press the matter further. Good riddance! “He won’t be hurting you again,” Merlin added lastly. There was still something in his voice… something that was off, but Arthur only barely heard it and was in too much pain to really pay attention to it.
“Percival,” Merlin called, and the strong knight entered the cell. The man didn’t hesitate to pick up his king and gently place him across his shoulder, carrying Arthur out the door and through a number of twisting hallways. It was at this time, Arthur guessed, that he blacked out.
When Arthur came to he was in his own bed. There were many people surrounding him: Gaius, Gwen, his knights, and Merlin in the back corner. He had a feeling he had been asleep a long time because the room let out a collective sigh of relief.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You were captured by an evil sorcerer.” Gwaine stated a smile on the knight’s face. “And we rescued you.”
“How long have I been unconscious?” he asked, brushing off Gwaine’s explanations.
It was Gaius who answered. “A week, sire.”
A week. It was hard to believe that a whole week of his life was gone. “We were not sure you were going to make it. You’re injuries were extensive.”
“Can’t get rid of me that easily,” Arthur stated trying to smile, but he was sure the whole room could see the shudder that passed through his body as he was reminded briefly of the torture he had endured.
Arthur closed his eyes and rubbed them, then opened them once again and looked around the room. They were all still there; good, he wasn’t dreaming. But now someone was missing. Somewhere in the short conversation, Merlin had slipped out.
Arthur frowned, that wasn’t like his manservant.
“He needs his rest,” Gaius stated, and the knights all gave him their fond farewells and get well wishes before leaving.
Soon it was just Arthur and his beautiful wife. “How’s Merlin?” he asked. “Did they hurt him?”
His wife looked a little surprised by the question; not surprised that Arthur would ask but as though she hadn’t thought of it yet. That was strange for Guinevere. Arthur must have indeed been severely injured if she was too distracted to check on Merlin. “He seemed unharmed when you arrived. In all honesty I was so focused on you that I left his care to Gaius and Gwaine. You know if there was anything wrong, the two of them would discover it.”
Arthur nodded, and that helped him relax slightly. Still, he felt uneasy. “Could you send for him? He slipped out before I could talk to him.”
Gwen smiled proudly down at her husband before nodding and kissing his brow. She strode across the room giving him one parting look before talking to a guard outside the door and walking down to find Merlin. Arthur smiled; he knew part of her wanted to make sure Merlin was alright as well, now that she no longer had to worry about Arthur.
A little while later, Merlin came in. Arthur had managed to prop himself up in his bed and was feeling much better already. In the week that he had slept many of his injuries had healed, even if the mental ones would take a lot longer. When he looked at his hand he saw a puncture mark that seemed to go all the way through at one point, but it was just a scab on either side of his hand now. His knee hadn’t been as badly injured as he had thought, and Arthur had no doubt he would be up and about on it soon. His shoulder was the worst, but even that had healed tremendously, enough that he didn’t even need it in a sling.
Merlin walked in but not right up to the bed. He smiled at Arthur keeping his distance. If nothing else, this made Arthur more certain that something was wrong. “Merlin.” he greeted.
“Sire.” Merlin responded.
They stared at each other awhile. “It’s good to see you awake.” Merlin said softly.
Arthur stared at his friend, scrutinizing him. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Merlin’s head shot up. “Nothing.” He lied.
“Merlin, we’ve known each other for years. I think I can tell when you’re lying to me.” Merlin looked guilty, and Arthur almost smiled smugly, but instead turned a scolding but concerned look at his manservant. “He did something to you, didn’t he?”He didn’t have to explain who ‘he’ was.
“No.” Merlin insisted but didn’t look at Arthur now. “He didn’t do anything to me. He came in and… talked… to me, but that’s all he did, I swear.”
Arthur was glaring at his manservant now. “What did he say to you?” he asked.
Merlin stared at Arthur, thinking, as if trying to decide what to say. “Oh you know… ‘Your king’s a prat’ and ‘He deserves to die,’ and all that other vengeful stuff.”
Arthur blinked, suddenly feeling very tired. His mind felt foggy but he couldn’t imagine sleeping any longer. He watched Merlin standing there shifting from one foot to the other.
“If that’s all, sire…” He trailed off waiting for Arthur to dismiss him.
Arthur blinked again trying to remember why he had called Merlin there in the first place. The young man was obviously alright, not injured.
“Alright you can go.” he said.
Merlin smiled and walked to the door but stopped when he was halfway out.
“Arthur?” he asked.
Arthur looked at him still trying to clear his foggy brain.
Arthur frowned. If anything, he should be thanking Merlin for helping to save him. “For what?”
Merlin shrugged. “For… everything. You’re a good king.” he stated. Arthur just stared at him clarity returning. Something was definitely wrong, but before he could comment on it Merlin gave him one last look and left.
Arthur froze in his bed, paralyzed for a moment, because those words almost sounded like a goodbye.
It took Arthur a little while, but he managed to struggle out of bed. As he had noticed earlier, most of his wounds were well on their way to healing. He cursed Merlin for making him get out of bed. He had enough things to deal with right now without having to worry about a perplexing servant.
He knew if Gwen came back in at that moment she would be scolding him within an inch of his life, but he needed to check on Merlin, and no one else could convince him otherwise. Arthur staggered out the door after painfully dressing himself in something other than his nightclothes. He managed to pull himself together enough to fool his guards into thinking he was alright.
The walk to Gaius’ and Merlin’s chambers was a lot longer than he remembered, and he prayed that he didn’t come across anyone that would send him back to bed. His knights, he was fairly sure, he could talk his way around; Gaius or his wife, on the other hand, probably not.
Surprisingly, he didn’t run into Gaius; not even when he entered their chambers. The physician must have been out tending to someone, or perhaps he had gone to look in on Arthur and they had missed each other.
He looked around; everything was quiet. “Merlin?” He called towards the back room, but there was no response.
Arthur was just about to turn and leave when he heard a crash and a thump. He froze for a moment and then moved more quickly than he thought his injuries would allow. Racing up the steps, he burst into the rear chamber and felt like he was being tortured all over again at the sight that he saw.
There on the ground lay Merlin, pale as death and not breathing.