Title: The Crimson Mask
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: The chains weighed heavy and chill against his bare skin, the bite of cold iron turned even icier by frost. Merlin cursed himself yet again for venturing too far out in his search for rowan berries and rosehips. There was never a good time to be caught by witch hunters, but the dead of winter was probably the worst.
Warnings: Bit of violence
Word Count: 1,000
Prompt: #292: Sleigh Ride
The chains weighed heavy and chill against his bare skin, the bite of cold iron turned even icier by frost. Merlin cursed himself yet again for venturing too far out in his search for rowan berries and rosehips. There was never a good time to be caught by witch hunters, but the dead of winter was probably the worst for being stripped down of anything that could carry an enchantment and then getting dragged naked through the snow.
There were two men in the sleigh with him - hunters, sitting clothed and comfortable on the wide bench seat instead of thrown on the floor - and one more driving the pair of horses. If not for the binding iron, he would’ve been able to manage them easily; but his magic was trapped and, unable to overpower them physically, so was he.
He’d be brought to Camelot, turned in for a reward, and burned alive in the public square. He didn’t bother begging for his life, not from those men; they were driven by either love of money or hatred of magic, but either way he had no better alternatives to convince them. And the chances of finding a sympathetic guard once he was in Camelot’s witch prison were even lower. So, that was that. He was going to die.
Hoofbeats crunched through the snow, fast-paced and gaining on them from behind, but Merlin paid them no mind, taking it for another hunter until a man’s voice called, “Hold there!”
The men in the sleigh with Merlin started cursing and the driver spurred on the horses, but to no avail. Even without sitting up from his protective curls Merlin could see the solitary horseman gaining ground. He wore a crimson cape over his chain armor, and a molded leather mask of the same color covering his eyes. Below that, he smirked dramatically as he said, “You’ll never outpace my stallion in that.”
Sure enough, he kept up with them easily and kept looking smug about it, so the men reached for their weapons - swords and maces they’d dropped carelessly close to Merlin’s head earlier. The man at the reins pulled the horses to a stop and took up a staff from beside him and jumped down into the snow. The masked man laughed, like it was nothing to be threatened by the brutes, and dismounted with a flourish.
“I’m giving you a chance to walk away unharmed,” he said. He had a sword at his hip, but left it there. “Leave this man and swear to go after no further bounties, and I’ll let you live.”
“Not on your life,” scoffed the largest of the hunters, the one who’d wrestled him into the chains after they’d hit him with the drugged dart. He swung out of the sleigh, considerably less graceful than the masked man, and whacked at him with the mace’s spiked head.
The masked man dodged easily and drew his sword in the same fluid movement. “It’s your lives you ought to be concerned with. But if that’s your choice, so be it.”
For all the masked man’s confidence bordered on obnoxious, it wasn’t misplaced. He dispatched the witch hunters with ease, barely breaking a sweat and definitely not letting any of them get a hit in despite being outnumbered three to one.
When the witch hunters lay bleeding in the snow, he turned and sketched something resembling a bow at Merlin. His eyebrows rose from behind his mask expectantly.
If he was waiting for gratitude, he would be waiting a long time. “Are you going to sell me to my death yourself, now?”
The man’s mouth dropped open beneath his mask, the epitome of righteously indignant offence. “No! Of course I’m not! Don’t you know who I am?”
Merlin frowned, looking the man over and coming away with nothing except, “You’re wearing a mask, how should I?”
“That’s the point! I’m the Crimson Mask. You really haven’t heard - well, it doesn’t matter. You can spread the word once you’re free, and hope will spread through the land for those hunted and oppressed.” He undid his cloak and offered it to Merlin to wrap around himself. “I’m a vigilante fighting for the magic users of the kingdom. I take issue with the king’s purge, so here I am to save you.”
As he went to hitch his horse to to lead in front of the pair of draught horses, Merlin sat up and settled the cloak around his shoulders as best he could with chains still hindering him. It seemed unbelievable, but maybe he really wasn’t going to die. He’d been saved by a brave, if ridiculous, masked crusader.
Then the Crimson Mask was by his side, helping him onto the bench and tucking the cloak around him.
“I have a blacksmith, a woman discreet and loyal to my cause,” he told Merlin. His horse started down the road without guidance, well-trained and knowing the way. “Once we’ve got those cold iron chains struck off, you can go as you please.”
Merlin considered this. It likely wasn’t safe to return to his hut; if those witch hunters had found him, others would as well. He was intrigued by this man and his mission, and if he was willing to oppose the king for Merlin’s sake, then Merlin was, too. “What if it pleases me to fight with you?”
The Crimson Mask laughed and slung his arm over Merlin’s shoulders. “Then you’re more than welcome.”
If Merlin leaned into him, it was only because the Crimson Mask was warm and strong against him. He didn’t mind the snowfall around them any longer, and even the chains didn’t weigh so heavily upon him.
“Do I get to know who you really are?” he asked after a few minutes’ ride.
“Once I know I can trust you,” answered the Crimson Mask. “I must be careful with it.”
Merlin nodded and settled closer to him as the sleigh carried them to freedom. He could wait.