Character/s: Arthur, Merlin
Summary: The day Arthur realizes there's more to Merlin's courage than he had originally assumed.
Warnings: Some necromantic gore.
Word Count: 660
Prompt: #26 Assumption
When dawn broke over the mist-shrouded hills, it fell on a field littered with the bodies of the slain. The recently dead lay mingled with corpses that had long ago rotted to the bone, casting a macabre tint over an already grim picture. Arthur had never missed a hot bath as much as he did just then; he smelled of blood and death. The damp air somehow made it worse, steeping the stench like a hellish herb.
He wanted nothing more than to gather his knights and leave the whole distasteful business behind, and he would have been well within the bounds of law and tradition. Knights (and even less so kings) did not collect the remains of the fallen, except to honor one of their own. That was the province of women, healers, and ditch-diggers.
But there were no families searching the field for their dead, no healers tending to the grievously wounded. If Arthur wanted a pit dug (and he did - the site of the battle was too near the town for his liking), he would have to order it himself. The people of Willowmere were hovering on the outskirts of their home, looking as shocked and drained as Arthur felt. They'd been attacked by the gruesome remains of their own ancestors and relatives; reburying the bodies was probably more than they could bear.
So the king set about the task of clearing away the remnants of battle. To his great relief, his knights obeyed the unusual orders without question or hesitation. Even Merlin was uncharacteristically silent, and Arthur couldn't even muster his customary ridicule. It was hard to be jovial when you'd just lost good men to a sorcerer who could call the dead from their graves.
Maybe that bleak atmosphere was the reason he noticed the look on Merlin's face and did not, for once, dismiss it. He'd learned long ago that his servant was not nearly as cowardly as he appeared, and had begun to assume that Merlin simply exposed his fear more readily than others. In truth, it made Arthur admire his courage all the more, though he would admit it under no circumstances short of impending death. As he watched Merlin assisting the knights, he realized that there was something more at work, though he couldn't put his finger on it until the man in question approached him.
"These bodies must be burnt, Arthur." His sharp features were pale and ghostly in the rising light, accentuating the urgent dread in his eyes.
"There are too many. We couldn't possibly give all of them the proper rites. I promise we'll be as respectful-"
"No, I mean these bodies must be burnt. Set them on fire. All at once, if you have to."
"I have to do what, now?" Arthur allowed his typical disdain to creep into his tone. He'd thought Merlin was being softhearted, but now he was commanding his king to desecrate the bodies of the dead?
"These people were raised by dark magic. Destroying the bodies isn't enough. They must be cleansed. Or these poor souls will never be at rest." His eyes were drawn away reluctantly as he spoke, staring with naked horror at a particularly gruesome corpse as it was dragged past by a red-cloaked knight.
But Merlin wasn't staring at the corpse. He wasn't seeing the gaping eyesockets where the jelly had rotted away or the leathery remains of skin painted across bone. He was looking past that, to a vision more repugnant than anything the king or his knights could see.
Arthur got it right then, in that moment as he watched the dread and revulsion twist his friend's expression. Merlin knew. He saw things hidden to others, like a sighted man in a land of the blind. While the rest of them marched blindly into battle like blinkered horses, Merlin's eyes were on the true, hidden perils.
For Arthur, it was the beginning of the end.