Title: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin,
Summary: Looking back helped Arthur to focus.
Word Count: 1000
Prompt: Looking Back
Author's Notes: Stupid dodgy internet meant I thought I was going to miss this!
Arthur hurried back into the cave. He dropped to his knees, putting a hand on Merlin’s shoulder.
“We need to go,” he said. But his expression softened when Merlin started coughing the instant he woke up. There was nothing Arthur could do than rub his back and wait for the coughing to stop. Merlin sat up, then wobbled to his feet without a word of complaint.
Arthur winced. His lover looked dreadful and Arthur knew they needed to find somewhere better to hide. What was the point of avoiding Cendred’s army if Merlin died from a common cold? Gaius would be ashamed of them both; he had taught Arthur to always put his men’s needs first.
They didn’t speak as they gathered the few belongings they had with them. Arthur didn’t sheath his sword, but kept it ready in his hand. They were still within Camelot’s borders and the prince knew that while that was the case, they were in grave danger.
No one knew Cendred had been mustering an army, let alone mounting an attack. Arthur knew sorcery must be at stake – nothing else would fool the scouts. But he was careful not to let his anger cloud his tone when he spoke with Merlin. His servant had spent so long convincing him that not all magic was evil and Arthur had no intention of reliving those arguments now.
“East,” Arthur muttered as they left the cave. The forest instantly offered them protection and they moved steadily as the day wore on. Merlin told him that they weren’t running away but going for help. They had friends in outlying villages; fighters like Lancelot who would rally to their side.
But every step that Arthur took felt like a betrayal.
Unable to stop himself, Arthur stopped when they crested a ridge. It was dangerous standing here; he could see out across the forest, meaning that he could potentially be seen. Merlin stopped as well.
“We can’t stop,” he muttered, his voice hoarse. Arthur knew he wouldn’t be able to keep going much longer and they needed to find a safe place to camp before Merlin collapsed from exhaustion. Much as Arthur didn’t want to admit it, they needed his concealing charms to ensure they lived through the night.
“I know,” Arthur said. But he couldn’t help it. He turned and looked back, gazing across the lands he was supposed to one day call his own. In the distance, he could just about make out the castle. The only home he had ever known, and now his father was a prisoner and Cendred sat on the throne.
The thought made his hand tighten in anger on his sword.
Merlin’s voice was soft and his touch gentle as he rested his fingers against the back of Arthur’s hand.
“We need to go. It’s not safe here.”
Arthur nodded and eventually tore his gaze away from the sight. He plunged into the trees, blundering ahead, but Merlin let him. He clearly understood that Arthur needed to rid himself of his emotions.
Once Arthur knew the ridge shielded them from unwanted eyes, he found a small clearing and stopped, throwing down his bundle of belongings and starting to gather firewood.
“We can’t stop,” Merlin repeated but Arthur merely looked at him.
“And you can’t keep going,” he said, “so don’t moan and help me set up camp.”
Merlin looked as if he was about to retort but a fit of coughing overtook him and stole his argument. It took longer than normal to set up the camp, but Arthur was satisfied with their defences before night fell.
They sat on either side of a crackling fire.
“Looking back won’t help,” Merlin eventually said. Arthur had seen him churning this over for the last hour and was glad that Merlin was finally speaking. “You need to look forward. We will find our friends, retake Camelot and this will be just another bad dream.”
“You’re wrong,” Arthur said. He lent forward, pushing another twig into the fire. For a moment, he could only watch it burn, reminded once again of his home. “Looking back reminds me what I’ve lost, what I’m fighting for.”
“You don’t need to look to see that.”
“Maybe not.” Arthur shrugged, his fingers casually wrapped around the hilt of his sword. “But it helps.”
Merlin’s gaze also strayed towards his hand. “Looking back makes you angry.”
“And anger keeps me motivated.”
“Arthur.” Merlin stopped, then sighed and shook his head. “You know anger isn’t the best course of action.”
“I know,” Arthur said with deliberate control. “But it sure as hell helps cutting down enemy soldiers if you let fury take over. Don’t tell me you’ve never let the hatred fuel you.”
Merlin flushed in the dim light and although Arthur felt bad reminding his lover of the times he had lost control, he didn’t regret saying it. Remaining driven and focused was the only way he was going to retake his home.
“That hatred is why I can’t look back,” Merlin eventually muttered. “If I think about everything you have fought so hard for and lost, I don’t know what I would do.”
Arthur rose to his feet and moved around the fire until he could take Merlin’s hand. “Everything we fought for,” he said. “Now lie down, you need to get some rest.”
“Yes, Sire,” Merlin grumbled, but did as he was told for once. Arthur waited until the warlock’s breathing had evened out and he knew Merlin was asleep.
He rose to his feet and once again stared back the way they had come. Part of him, deep down, liked the idea to just keep going, forget his responsibilities and live with the man he loved.
But looking back meant he could never forget who he was, what he owed the people he had left behind. He would not abandon them, no matter what.
When, and only when, Camelot was retaken would he be able to look forward.