When Gwaine returned with the queen, the expressions he saw on Arthur’s and Gaius’ faces were so despairing that his eyes flashed immediately to Merlin, lying on the bed. He held his breath until he saw the sleeping figure’s chest rise unsteadily. Once he was sure the man was still alive he turned his questioning eyes anxiously back to the red rimmed ones of Gaius.
Both men in the room looked like they had just lost something precious to them. Gaius, although composed, was clearly distraught, and Arthur looked like a broken man trying to hold himself together.
Arthur hadn't moved when Gwaine and Guinevere entered, but sat with his head down and his hands locked behind it, leaving Gwaine to wonder what had caused both men to be so shockingly distressed. Finally Gwaine could wait for the answer no longer.
"What happened, Gaius?" he asked worriedly.
Gaius took a deep breath but his voice still broke as he spoke. "It appears Merlin... tried to... take his own life."
Guinevere gasped loudly beside him, her hands flying up to cover her mouth. Emotions flew across Gwaine’s face too quickly for even him to register, however, disbelief and confusion seemed to be the most prominent.
"No..." he said, but his voice made it sound more like a question than a denial.
"We can only assume that Garlock did something to him while he was captured; something that scarred him deeply.” Gaius said sorrowfully.
Guinevere stepped forward to comfort her husband. Gwaine saw Arthur tense as her small hand touched his shoulder before his whole body relaxed. His hands came unclasped and he lifted his head to look at her. She wrapped her arms around him where he sat and stroked his hair.
Gwaine turned his head away from the intimate scene. It was beyond difficult seeing Arthur broken like this. He was their king, their leader. The people of Camelot looked up to him, and they needed his strength, and it had been Gwaine's job to protect him, a duty which he had failed. Because of that failure, two of Gwaine's closest friends were suffering.
Gwaine couldn’t look at Merlin lying there... weak and frail. Merlin was like a younger brother to him, one who knew secrets that Gwaine hadn't told anyone else. He had immediately trusted Merlin upon first meeting him. Never before had he felt such an instantaneous bond of friendship. While Gwaine did not feel the same duty to protect Merlin as he did Arthur, he felt just as responsible for Merlin's safety, even if it was in a different way.
Gaius moved to sit down on the other side of Merlin, leaving Gwaine standing by the door. He approached the foot of the bed slowly, watching the grieving people around it. The image was blurry and he knew he was closer to losing it than he wanted to admit. He blinked back the tears and the image became clear as he focused on the man lying on the bed.
Merlin’s skin was clammy and pale, his breathing coming in shaky gasps as he battled the poison in his system… the poison that he had willfully taken. Gwaine’s breaths were coming faster and closer together as the image flashed through his mind. It felt like an iron hand had wrapped around his chest, making it impossible to breathe right.
It was his fault Arthur and Merlin were the way they were. The realization was sudden, even with the guilt he had been feeling for several weeks. He had believed that everything would be alright if he could just find Merlin and Arthur and bring them home. Now knowing that that was not true, the guilt was eating him alive, suddenly and completely.
“Gwaine? Are you alright?” Guinevere asked gently. It was a stupid question of course, none of them were alright; but he knew she was just being kind. Gwaine took a step back towards the door, shaking his head more to clear it than to answer Gwen’s question.
“I need some air.” Gwaine choked out, turning towards the door. His vision was fuzzy again. There was a loud crashing as his hip clipped a table and something tumbled to the floor with a crash. He held a hand out to Gwen who was standing and beginning to move towards him.
“I’m fine… sorry Gaius.” he mumbled before continuing his almost drunken stagger out the door, leaving the broken jar on the floor. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so trapped.
Gwaine staggered down the hall, his breath coming fast. He needed air! How the heck did you get out of this stupid castle anyway?
Finally he found the outer door and burst through it, into the crisp clear night air, taking in deep gulps. He felt dizzy as he leaned against the cold stone wall and braced his hands on his knees. Gwaine’s mind was racing, guilt stalking him like a shadow in the night.
More than anything in the entire world Gwaine wished he could go back to that day and fix things. More than anything Gwaine wished he hadn’t screwed up…again.
Two weeks earlier:
Gwaine chuckled to himself as he heard Merlin grumbling under his breath. The king and his servant had just been exchanging the playful banter that those closest to them had grown so accustomed to. It had ended as it always did, with Arthur ordering Merlin to shut up and Merlin grumbling made-up obscenities under his breath.
He glanced behind him at the other knights who wore similar expressions of amusement. Arthur and Merlin’s friendship never got old. Gwaine groaned as he shifted on his horse. What did get old was sitting on a horse for too long with little relief.
Arthur glanced back at him and chuckled. “What’s the matter Gwaine?” he teased.
“What’s the matter is that we have been doing far too much riding and seen far too little action.” Gwaine grumbled.
“Are you saying you dislike peace, Sir Gwaine?” Elyan half joked.
Gwaine sent him an exasperated look. “I’m just saying that I would give anything for a damsel in distress at the moment.” Merlin groaned and shook his head at Gwaine.
Arthur, who had been listening, opened his mouth to respond but was cut off as a scream ripped through the air. The teasing look on his face quickly turned to one of alertness as he motioned for them to dismount their horses.
They moved silently through the forest, leaving the horses behind as they headed towards the sound of the scream. The clamor of a battle reached their ears, swords clanging together, men shouting, and the same scream again and again.
As they came stealthily over the hill, they finally saw the scene. There was a skirmish between a group of well dressed, uniformed men and a group of rag-tag looking bandits with crude weapons. Near the edge of the group, surrounded by bandits, was a woman in a white dress. Her gown was torn and hung off her shoulder as she tried to pull her arm free from a repulsive looking man. She was young and quite beautiful with golden hair and fair skin. Her dress was made of fine material, so she was either a noblewoman or wealthy. The men in uniform were obviously her guards, guessing by the way they fought against the bandits in their attempt to reach her.
“You were saying?” Merlin whispered into Gwaine’s ear exasperatedly. Gwaine sent him a cheeky grin and raised his eyebrows happily. Merlin just rolled his eyes before they turned their attention to Arthur who had finished assessing the situation and began sending his knights in different flanking directions.
Gwaine, Arthur, and Merlin snuck up behind the bandits that were currently surrounding the screaming girl. Percival, Leon, and Elyan moved in from the sides to help the guards fight off the bandits who, though inexperienced, seemed to be winning by sheer force. Once Arthur knew they were all in place, he let out a terrific battle cry, startling all the bandits close to them as they charged into the clearing.
Arthur and Gwaine cut down three bandits, breaking through the wall that separated them from the young woman. Merlin stayed closed behind them, though what he was doing Gwaine wasn’t really sure. He never really understood why Merlin hung around during the battles.
They reached the center of the melee and Arthur brought his sword down to slice through the arm of the man who was currently holding the damsel. The bandit saw him coming however and let go of her. She fell backwards towards the hard ground, but was met with Gwaine’s strong arms instead. He smiled at her as she tried to pull herself away from him.
“You’re safe now.” he assured her. She looked around at the knights who were beginning to overwhelm the bandits. She stopped struggling as he placed her on her feet. The bandit who had been holding her was running towards the tree line. Arthur was fighting two others. Merlin stood near Gwaine with his attention focused on Arthur.
The girl’s hand suddenly reached to her neck. There were scratches just below on her chest and a red ring around the base of her throat, as though someone had yanked something off with force.
“My necklace!” she cried in despair, turning towards the bandit who had run towards the trees. “It was my mother’s!” The young woman turned her pleading eyes towards Gwaine. “Please! It’s all I have left of her!” she begged.
Gwaine turned to look. Percival, Leon, and Elyan were fighting off the last few bandits with the aid of the guards. Arthur was now only fighting one bandit, and Gwaine knew the battle would be over soon. Arthur probably wouldn’t approve, but turning back and seeing her eyes brimming with tears, Gwaine made his decision. He patted Merlin on the shoulder.
“Watch her for me, will you?” he asked, starting after the bandit.
Merlin turned towards him, taking a step in his direction as he ran off.
“Gwaine!” he shouted in protest, but Gwaine ignored him. He never could say no to a damsel in distress.
It didn’t take Gwaine long to catch up to the man. He was limping, apparently having injured his leg either in the battle or in his mad dash to get away. Gwaine pounced on the fleeing bandit, tackling the man to the ground. Gwaine jumped to his feet as the thief arose a little more slowly. When he turned toward Gwaine, he had a knife in his hand.
Gwaine drew his sword and smiled at the bandit, challenging him. The man smirked back, eerily confident. Gwaine charged forward. It only took a few skilled blows before the man was lying on the ground bleeding out.
Gwaine looked down at him, his face somber. Killing was never something Gwaine enjoyed. He liked a challenge, but not always the end result. It was always hardest for him when the man he killed lay bleeding to death in front of him without a battle to distract him from what he had just done. He leaned down and grabbed the man by the collar.
“Where’s the necklace?” he demanded.
The man coughed and then began to laugh weakly before holding out a simple necklace with a single gem which dangled before Gwaine’s eyes. “You mean this?”
Gwaine snatched it out of his hand. The man began to look nervous as Gwaine began to walk away. He gathered his strength and spoke up urgently. “I think when you return you’ll find she doesn’t care for it as much as she let on.”
Gwaine paused, turning back and glaring at the man. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
The man shrugged weakly, but allowed himself to relax a little now that he had Gwaine’s attention. Gwaine noticed this and remained alert to his surroundings.
“I remember when she got it. Stupid little trinket; thought it was pretty. The vendor tried to swindle her, but she was too smart for that.”
Gwaine’s brow furrowed as he stalked over towards the man. “What the hell are you talking about?” he demanded grabbing him by the collar again and shaking him hard.
The man was dying but seemed quite relaxed now, his former nervousness gone. “It was pretty on her, she She wouldn’t let me buy it for her of course. Too independent for that. She was always strong willed.”
Gwaine was frantic now. He shook the man so hard that his head hit the ground with a thud. “I said, what the hell are you talking about?!”
The man grimaced but looked Gwaine straight in the eye, his gaze challenging. “It was a distraction, mate.” The man laughed. “Why don’t you go and see what’s happened to your precious king? If I’m not mistaken, he should be long gone by now.”
Gwaine’s heart raced as he threw the man to the ground, running back towards his king and fellow knights. The man had been trying to distract him for just a few more moments and it had worked. He should never have followed him in the first place. Gwaine ran over the hill and felt his breath catch in his throat.
The few bandits that had survived were now joined in their fight against the knights by the men in uniform. Percival, Elyan, and Leon were fighting with their backs pressed together, surrounded on all sides by the enemy.
Percival was fighting with his left hand, his right arm hanging limply at his side as blood oozed from a wound in his shoulder. Still, he was a force to be reckoned with. Leon’s left arm clutched his ribs while he fought with his right. Elyan was uninjured but still had his hands full trying to compensate for the injuries of the other two.
Gwaine’s eyes flashed towards Arthur and Merlin. The woman, who didn’t look as helpless as Gwaine had first believed, stood between Arthur and his knights. Merlin was being held by one of the guards a few feet away, struggling to free himself.
The woman raised a hand towards Arthur, holding some sort of object out towards him, and Gwaine watched helplessly as he fell to the ground unconscious while two more men suddenly appeared and began to tie him up. Just then, another fake guard appeared in front of Gwaine, and he barely managed to raise his sword in time to block a blow. The man had a scar on the right side of his face, and the way his expression was twisted in anger made him look properly menacing.
Merlin’s enraged shout rang through the clearing. When Gwaine looked back, he saw that Merlin had managed to escape his own captor, and the two men who had been tying Arthur up were on the ground a few feet away from him. Merlin was now standing between the sorceress and Arthur. The idiot was going to get himself killed! Gwaine tried to push the scarred man back, but he was more skilled than the bandit Gwaine had faced in the forest. Gwaine was struck with the horrific realization that he wouldn’t get to Merlin in time.
He should never have left them. He knew the procedure: knights were not to run off on their own; but Gwaine had never been one to follow procedure. The rule had always been in place to protect the knights from danger. He was not afraid of being alone, but now he realized he should have been afraid of leaving his friends alone. Gwaine had assumed that Arthur could handle himself, had seen the battle-proficient warrior take down more men than Gwaine and Percival put together. However, not even Arthur could take on a sorceress by himself. If Gwaine hadn’t been so blinded by the woman’s beauty, perhaps he could have seen through her act.
Something sliced through his arm, and he grunted in pain before blocking another blow. He heard the sorceress’ shrill laugh before she raised the magical device in her hand towards Merlin. Bone chilling words that Gwaine didn’t understand rang through the air as he fought with greater ferocity. With a shout, Gwaine swung his sword at the man’s neck, separating it cleanly from his shoulders. The scarred man’s eyes were wide, with a look of surprise and shock as his body and head were separated, but Gwaine did not give him a second thought. He stumbled towards Merlin and Arthur. The words ceased from the sorceress’ lips as Merlin cried out, and then joined his master, unconscious on the ground. The guards once again ran up to finish binding Arthur.
“Bring this one as well.” Gwaine heard the sorceress’ words over the clamor of the battle behind him. “He could prove useful.”
One of the guards stood up, drawing his sword and turning to meet Gwaine. The knight’s injured arm made fighting difficult, and by the time he had dealt a mortal blow to his opponent, the other man had finished tying Merlin up and was charging at Gwaine with his own sword. The woman walked around the prone figures on the ground, drawing a circular line in the dirt around them. She placed the amulet she had used on Merlin between them and then began to chant. The words sent a shiver of fear through Gwaine and gave him a renewed ferocity. A slice to the stomach killed the man in front of him, and Gwaine charged towards the woman and his friends.
The sorceress looked up, her cruel eyes meeting Gwaine’s desperate ones for just a moment. She chuckled at Gwaine before placing her palms on the ground, behind the two unconscious men. Gwaine was only a few feet away now. The sorceress’ eyes flashed gold, and the two men disappeared. Gwaine’s sword was already moving towards the sorceress, only a step away. He stumbled in shock when Arthur and Merlin vanished but couldn’t do anything to stop the sword as it sliced through her chest. She cried out in pain and fell backwards, blood pouring from the mortal wound.
Gwaine fell to his knees at the spot where he had last seen Merlin and Arthur, blood trickling from the wound in his arm. They were gone. There was no way to track them, and they had no clues to go on. They were just…gone, and Gwaine knew that it was all his fault.