Title: lions and men
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: After the world ends, Arthur and Merlin go hunting.
Warnings: Death of an animal.
Word Count: 1000 words.
Prompt: #229 Learning and my trope_bingo square "AU: Apocalypse."
Author's Note: Title from Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles: "There are no bargains between lions and men. I will kill you and eat you raw."
On their third day out of Camelot, Arthur shakes Merlin awake and drags him out of their makeshift camp just before dawn. Even this far from the city, Merlin can make out the distant silhouette of buildings smouldering on the horizon, and the crisp morning breeze still carries with it a hint of ash and burning flesh.
“Arthur,” Merlin hisses, stumbling half-asleep in Arthur’s wake as he marches ahead over the uneven ground. “What’re we doing?”
Arthur turns and shoves a bow into his hand. He’s wearing a quiver full of arrows and a fierce expression, his mouth set into a determined line.
“We’re going hunting,” he says, stating the obvious. “If we’re going to survive this, everyone needs to do their part, even you. So no excuses.”
Ordinarily, Merlin might’ve balked at the implication that he hasn’t been pulling his weight like everybody else — certainly better than Cenred, who insists on babying his ankle even though the swelling has already gone down — but he can tell from the angle of Arthur’s jaw that refusal will not be tolerated. Responsibility has always sat heavily on Arthur’s shoulders, and it occurs to Merlin that this little excursion may have less to do with him than it does with the frown that hasn’t left Arthur’s face since the Rising.
“All right,” he says, capitulating. He slings the bow over his shoulder and gestures for Arthur to carry on, an exaggerated flourish that doesn’t bring so much as the twitch of a smile to Arthur’s lips. To the east, the sky is just beginning to lighten, chasing their shadows ahead of them over the dew-damp grass like ghosts, and a flock of birds rises from the trees and circles overhead in a chattering chorus. Around half a mile on, just when Merlin is about ready to break his self-imposed silence to complain, Arthur raises his hand to signal stop and points towards the stump of an oak tree in the middle distance, his other hand on Merlin’s arm.
“There,” he breathes. He motions for Merlin to advance, unslinging the arrows from his back and setting the quiver in the grass at his feet. “You see them?”
Merlin squints, and at last makes out a pair of rabbits, browsing in the shadow of the trees. “I see them,” he says. He looks at Arthur sidelong, biting his lip. “Arthur — can’t I just — ?”
“No, Merlin.” Arthur cuts him off. “You can’t. This isn’t the time to be squeamish.”
Merlin sighs, but hefts the bow from his back and nocks the arrow Arthur hands him. It’s not as if he hasn’t done this before, it’s only that he finds it difficult. The thought of inflicting pain on another living creature is not something he relishes, and even the practicalities of the half dozen hungry refugees waiting back at camp can do little to motivate him. He doesn’t have the same killer instincts Arthur does, and he doesn’t want them. But Arthur is right — squeamishness will not help them now.
“Raise your elbow,” Arthur says, positioning himself behind Merlin and touching a hand to his arm. “No — yes, like that. Draw the bow as smoothly as you can, and keep your breathing steady. That’s it.”
Merlin does his best to do as he is instructed, his heart caught like a fist at the base of his throat as Arthur’s body presses up against him. Arthur’s arms are around him, positioning him, his breath soft against Merlin’s neck as he whispers unnecessary instructions — how to aim, how to settle the bow and loose the arrow into the air. His hands drop back to Merlin’s waist and he murmurs, “Focus, Merlin,” but Merlin’s thoughts are scattered and diffuse, floating away into the pale sky like dandelion seeds. He closes his eyes and inhales; waits; opens his eyes and without hesitating breaks the shot.
The arrow hits the rabbit in the centre of the chest; it falls without a sound, while the other lopes away in sudden panic, disappearing into the trees in a flash of grey fur and wide, terrified eyes. At the sight of the dead animal Merlin flinches involuntarily, and Arthur’s hands tighten at his hips.
“A good, clean kill,” he says in Merlin’s ear. “Nicely done.”
Merlin purses his lips and doesn’t reply, glancing off over the field and away towards the camp. He knows Arthur is trying to be encouraging, but they are both of them aware that the only reason he made the shot was because Arthur was right there, guiding him. Left alone, there is no doubt he would have missed; probably on purpose. “I hate doing this,” he says, voice low. “You know I do.”
“I know," Arthur agrees quietly. He leans back a little and shifts his hands to Merlin’s shoulders, squeezing gently. “I know you hate it, Merlin, but I need to know you can defend yourself, and help provide for the camp if necessary. I can’t do it all myself, you know.”
Necessary is if something happens to Arthur, something Merlin doesn’t let himself think about. He shakes off the other man’s touch and marches forward to pick up the dead rabbit by its hind legs, muttering apologies. Arthur watches without comment, picks up the abandoned bow and quiver and slings them both over his shoulder.
“It will get easier,” he says, and it’s as much of a concession as Merlin is going to get, so he just shrugs. If he closes his eyes, he can still feel the imprint of Arthur’s body against him, a faint warm ghost in the cold morning air. Like the flames devouring Camelot, this thing between them burns unchecked, consuming the oxygen from the air, and Merlin has yet to learn how to ignore it — it’s going to get him killed one day, most likely, this compulsion to be whatever it is that Arthur requires of him, but he could sooner drive all the darkness from the earth than fail him now.