Title: by the sword
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: To help Arthur, Merlin prises victory from the jaws of defeat, but loses a much more personal battle.
Word Count: 1115w
Prompt: 359 Defeat
Author's Notes: N/A
He found Arthur on the ramparts in the early morning, looking out over the advancing army with a grim set to his expression. The sky was still dark, and the enemy had not made a move since nightfall. Judging from the distant glow of their campfires, they were still resting and likely wouldn’t shift until daybreak, but still the king persisted in watching them.
“Arthur, you need to sleep.”
Arthur did not turn; he was braced against the battlements, shoulders taut, both hands splayed wide against the stone. “Go away, Merlin.”
“It’s not going to do anyone any good if you’re exhausted,” Merlin persisted stubbornly, folding his arms. “Your men need you to be clear-headed in the morning, if you’re going to have any hope of breaking the siege.”
Arthur gave a short laugh.
“And it’s my clear-headedness that’s going to carry the day, is it,” he said, too dry and sardonic for it to be a question. “Merlin, look around you. As soon as the sun comes up, we’re done for. No amount of clear thinking in the world is going to stop an army that size. It’s only a matter of time.”
Merlin swallowed hard. He had heard the talk, of course, on his way up here; the men usually held their tongues in front of him, for fear that anything they said might get back to Arthur, but he had ways and means of moving invisibly through the castle when he wanted to. He’d heard them talking about the army now camped on their front doorstep, sharing tales they had heard of the knights of Mercia and their ruthless ways. No one had actually come right out and said it, but it was obvious they were worried. Camelot had been built to withstand a siege, of course, but they had been caught by surprise—they had only so many men and not much by way of supplies, and the enemy had battering rams.
“We can fight them off,” Merlin said hopefully “The knights of Camelot—”
“—are only men,” Arthur said. “They’re as loyal as they come and will fight to their last breath, every one of them, but for what? It will only prolong the inevitable.”
Denial stung Merlin’s throat, and his eyes prickled. “You can’t just give up.”
Now, finally, Arthur turned to face him, his mouth creased with emotion. “What else can I do, Merlin? If we fight, we’ll be slaughtered. There are women and children here—innocent civilians who will be caught in the cross-fire. And my men deserve better than to throw away their lives in a hopeless battle. I have to think of what is best for my people.”
“What is best for your people is to have you as their king,” Merlin said sharply. “Surely you don’t deny that.”
Arthur didn’t respond directly, but Merlin caught the slight shake of his head in the dimness. “How can you still have faith in me after this?” he asked, gesturing to the encampment. “This is my fault, all of it. How—”
“Because I know you.” Stepping up beside him, Merlin rested a hand on Arthur’s arm, ducking his head to look into the king’s eyes. “If anyone can turn this into a victory, you can.” He paused, hesitating for a moment. Arthur lifted his head, searching Merlin's face, and he said, “Besides. You have a secret weapon.”
The timing was all wrong; Merlin already knew that. He had wanted to tell Arthur his secret when they were safe, when there was time to talk over the things Merlin had done and atone for them. Ideally, he would have liked to have done so when he wouldn’t be immediately forced to reveal himself as being every bit as dangerous a sorcerer as Uther had ever imagined. But there was no time for modesty now, and to Arthur’s credit, once Merlin explained to him what he could do all he said was, “Can you take them?”
Merlin nodded, throat dry. “I think so.”
Arthur nodded once in return, short and decisive.
“Then do it,” he said, and stood back to watch.
It was a gruelling spell, and it cost him; both in terms of energy and, he could see, in Arthur’s trust, which seemed to grow all the more precarious the longer Merlin’s casting went on. He did it anyway. Pushing himself on through to his last reserves of strength, he sent power down through the foundations of the castle and into the earth beneath, calling on Albion to defend her chosen king. He lit up the roots of the plants and trees, whispered to the animals, and shaped them gradually into the blunt head of an axe which he then swung, painfully and with indifferent strength, at the neck of the invaders.
They never even saw it coming.
Merlin remembered little of the actual battle. Once the Mercians realised they were under attack, they came for the castle walls en masse, but there were woods and fields between them, more than a bowshot’s length, and Merlin’s trees tangled with their legs and stopped them from advancing, the earth heaving beneath their feet and reaching up to devour them.
When dawn broke, the Mercians were gone. All that remained were a few scattered horses, untethered, various pieces of dislodged armour, and the tents, now faintly smouldering.
Arthur said, “That was very impressive.”
Merlin turned. The king was wan-faced, his eyes shadowed in the early morning light. He had a hand on the pommel of his sword, though he didn’t seem to be aware of it, and he was watching Merlin steadily with an unreadable face. “We won,” Merlin said, unnecessarily.
“You won.” Arthur’s expression didn’t change. “How long have you been practicing magic?”
“Since I was a child,” Merlin said. He didn’t have the energy to dissemble, or to make it sound like anything other than it was: the biggest secret he had ever kept. Well. The second biggest. “I was born with it.”
Arthur accepted this the way he had accepted everything else; with an unstudied calm that made Merlin’s skin crawl. He tried to take a step forward, but his wobbly legs gave way under him. Arthur remained where he was as Merlin caught himself on the battlements.
“Get some rest,” the king said, not unkindly. “We’ll talk about this later.”
Merlin nodded, slumping against the stone, turning his head to look out over the battlefield so that Arthur wouldn’t be able to see his face. He scrubbed the back of his sleeve across his eyes.
For Camelot, it had been a unquestionable victory—but for Merlin himself, it savoured bitterly of defeat.