Word Count: 1110 words
Prompt: 304: Obisidantserpent’s art
Summary: After a witch's attack Merlin vanishes. It's up to Arthur to rescue him.
Notes: Writing for a piece of art is always more fun.
His knights around him, Arthur scanned the forest. He saw green clusters of grass, thick trunks that expanded into large frond canopies and soft beds of moss that squelched underfoot. Small animals scuttled to and fro to go hide in their lairs. A little brooklet cascaded down an assembly of shiny slippery rocks. But of Merlin there was no trace.
“He can't have disappeared, sire,” one of his knights, sword out, cloak flapping in the wind, said.
“There was a witch afoot.” Arthur hated those. Like Morgana, they had no respect for the life of ordinary mortals. They rather killed without compunction, likely to sate their own bloody urges. “She must have abducted him.” The gods alone knew for what reason, considering that Merlin was no wealthy nobleman who could be ransomed for a fat sum by loyal family members. “Or he must have fallen foul of her.”
“In that case sire.” The knight made a face, hesitating on his next words. “Maybe he's, er, dead sire.”
Arthur wouldn't countenance such a proposition. He would search till he found Merlin. Or until he had proof positive Merlin was no longer to be rescued. He wouldn't allow himself to mourn him now, for with mourning came grief, crippling grief, which led to inaction. Till there was the remotest hope, Arthur would keep busy.
He was fighting the unease the thought of Merlin's passing gave him, the profound sense of bitterness against reality, when he saw the white stag. It was a proud beast, with a powerful body, and tall antlers. It sniffed the air, its ears twitched, and then it turned around.
“I think--” and Arthur realised how silly the thought was, “it's telling us to follow it.”
It was only a hunch, but Arthur had often entrusted his life to such wild guesses. Without waiting for the opinions of his fellow knights, Arthur followed the beast.
It led him across the thickest parts of the forest where trees crowded close, and the terrain became rougher. It got him to a path cut under an arch made of flowering briars. The knights fell behind and Arthur didn't wait for them. He trudged on, blade at the ready, cutting into the viridian undergrowth like a scythe.
It was Merlin's foot he spotted first, pocking out of the scrub. Once he'd hurried to him he found Merlin was sprawling at the base of a laurel. His face was dirty, his clothes were torn, and he was barefoot, one of his feet bandaged with a dirty strip of linen. His temple was grazed by a series of cuts that bordered on his hairline whilst a trickle of blood stained the corner of his mouth. His eyes were closed.
At sight of him, Arthur's heart skipped a beat. Might Merlin be dead? Though he didn't know what danger was lurking here, Arthur dropped his sword and went on his haunches, feeling for Merlin's pulse, dreading he wouldn't find it, his fingers hesitant on Merlin's skin. But it was there, strong and steady. Thank the Gods. The boulder that had sat on Arthur's chest lifted, and with it, he found himself once again able to breathe.
As though Arthur's touch had called him back, Merlin opened his eyes. “What, where?” He looked around and understanding seemed to trickle back into him.
“The witch attacked Camelot,” Arthur said, though now wasn't time for explanations. “And you vanished.”
“Right.” Merlin scratched at his temples and his nostrils flared with an inhale.
“Come on.” Arthur eased a little back to allow Merlin space to breathe. “The witch must still be around.” If Merlin hadn't been lost, Arthur wouldn't honestly have wandered into the forest. He was so vulnerable here, without Camelot's defences. “We need to get back to the citadel and regroup.”
Holding his head with his hands, Merlin groaned. “There's no need to hurry. The witch is dead.”
“The witch is what?” Arthur couldn't believe his own ears. If she really was that would be fine for Camelot, less of an expenditure of men and means. His knights would live to see another day at the very least.
“Dead.” Merlin mumbled the words, either because he was still mostly out of it or because he wanted the communication to be quickly over. What reason he might have had for that was a mystery.
“Dead?” Arthur pulled a wide-eyed face. “Are you sure?”
“Positive.” Looking green about the gills, Merlin laboriously sat up. “I saw her die.”
Arthur hoped this was true. It wasn't that he didn't trust Merlin's word. He did. Above anyone's. But he might be mistaken. Surely, if he had come across the witch, he would be dead by now. Maybe he had witnessed someone else's demise.
“How come you did?” Arthur really wanted to know that. “How can you be sure she's gone?”
Merlin looked Arthur in the eye. “I saw her battling a questing warlock. She died. The warlock left.”
Arthur needed to question Merlin more thoroughly; Camelot's safety depended on it. But Merlin reclined his head, gave a little sigh, and closed his eyes.
Now, it seemed, was not the time for Arthur to analyse the events. He could do that later, once Merlin was safe in Camelot. He could face a horde of witches as long as he knew Merlin was fine. It seemed strange, but it was pivotal. Casting aside his niggling doubts, he shifted his hands, keeping one hand on Merlin's back and sliding the other downwards till it was wrapped around his legs. With a heave he lifted him up.
In his laxness, Merlin was far heavier than he looked. But that was all right. Arthur would gladly bear this burden. As a king, it behove him to look after his subjects. As a man, it was his responsibility to care for his friend. As a friend, he could do nothing less than protect Merlin from all danger. Because that was what Merlin was, right? As much as he denied it, the trust he daily put in him had to mean they had grown that close, that his father had been wrong. A royal scion and a commoner could grow some kind of connection, one as deep and true as any other.
Arthur didn't wish to review the thought. It was too thorny a one to be comfortably examined. In fact he banished all considerations in his need for action.
Facing the way he'd come, Merlin in his arms, Arthur prepared to walk back to civilisation.