The forest was quiet in the early morning hour. A delicate layer of frost had frozen the world overnight, leaving a silver sheen across every fallen leaf and twig. The pale glow of the rising sun sparkled off each tiny ice crystal but they would all soon be melted away by the warming light.
From around the broad trunk of an ancient oak, Arthur Pendragon peered to see his prey. He could just make out the deer sipping peacefully from a stream, unaware of the hunter's presence. The King stepped quietly between the stiff branches and crept forward for a closer shot.
Drawing from his quiver, he nocked an arrow on his crossbow and drew the string back with both hands, stepping on the front until it locked into place. The click echoed loudly around the trees, causing Arthur to freeze when the deer looked up.
A tense moment passed before the timid creature relaxed and bent to drink again. With a silent sigh that puffed white in the frigid air, Arthur raised the weapon and took careful aim, his blue eyes locking the arrowhead just behind one shoulder. One shot to the heart and it would be over but it needed to be perfect. Not one mistake…
"Arthur! Where'd you go? Did you get it yet?" a voice called, shattering the tranquility. Startled, the King pulled the trigger with a crooked aim. The arrow flew through the air and embedded itself in the ground far from its target. Thoroughly spooked, the deer leaped across the water and disappeared into the forest.
Seconds later, a dark haired figure stumbled into the clearing and promptly tripped over a root, diving face first into the dirt. Arthur rolled his eyes irritably and stomped over to his manservant.
"You really are a bumbling idiot, you know that Merlin?" the King asked heatedly, nudging the other man's arm with his boot.
Merlin staggered back to his feet, brushing the leaves and frost from his clothes. "What? You didn't get it?" he asked, his cheeky grin the face of innocence.
"No thanks to you!" Arthur barked as he went to retrieve his grounded arrow. "I thought I told you to stay with the horses,"
"Well I couldn't let a prat like you go wandering around the forest on your own," he joked, returning the King's glower with a shrug.
"Why? Think I might actually catch something?" Merlin's answering frown made Arthur smile good-heartedly.
"Come on," he laughed, brushing a stray leaf of the servant's shoulder. "Let's head back to the castle before you scare all the animals off,"
The blond man led the way through the trees, his companion shadowing his every step as he chattered to the crisp morning air.
"I still don't see why you insist on hunting this early in the morning. I mean, I don't think half the animals are even awake yet."
"Merlin, with all the noise you make, I'd be surprise if there's anything still asleep in all of Camelot," he answered bluntly. "Besides, what's wrong with an early start on the day?"
"Nothing other than getting up before the sun," Merlin yawned. "You couldn't wait until this afternoon?"
"After my morning patrol, I have a training session with the knights and a council meeting to attend so this was the only free time I had, Merlin, but you seem dead set on ruining that for me as well. Which reminds me," Arthur stopped suddenly, turning to face his servant.
"You will need to have my nice shirt freshly washed and pressed, clean my armor and sharpen my sword." He smiled smugly as he turned around again, pausing only to add, "And because of your incompetence, you can also muck out the stables and polish my boots."
Merlin sighed and started to follow his master's shadow but hesitated when he noticed the sandy ground Arthur was walking on giving way.
"Arthur, wait!" Merlin called, but too late.
"What now?" the King demanded just as the dirt under his feet crumbled.
Instinctively, Merlin's magic kicked in. His dark blue eyes flashed a burning gold and everything around him seemed to move at half its speed. Diving forward, he managed to shove the still falling Arthur from above the sudden hole and into the safety of the solid grass.
Relief hit him seconds before gravity did. The spell shattered and time sped forward, dragging Merlin into the dark gap meant for his friend.