Summary: For one battle, at least, Arthur's sword is Merlin's to command.
Word Count: 1986
Author's Notes: One of the things I like about exchanges and challenges is the opportunity to write the kind of fic I don't normally write. I very rarely write romance and this is the first time in my entire life that I have written slash. I hope it lives up to expectations. Merry Christmas! Many thanks to tambear13 for betaing. Any remaining mistakes are of course my fault.
Disclaimer:Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
When the sun set on the blood-drenched field, the clash of steel faded with the light. Arthur never thought he would wish to hear the groans of the dying, but the unnatural silence that accompanied the darkness was worse than those heartbreaking cries. He pulled his forces back to the fortifications at the river, and forbade even the healers from crossing the hastily constructed walls. Camelot's army had managed to hold its own during daylight, but sorcery ruled the night.
That they had lasted this long was nothing short of miraculous. Anyone caught on the battlefield after dark was swallowed by the horrors Morgana had conjured: hungry shadows of blood and fear. Not even the bodies survived the night. It was as though her magic swept the earth clean so that the battle could begin fresh with the dawn. Arthur had a bleak suspicion that those terror-filled nights explained why her forces seemed to be inexhaustible, while Arthur's dwindled with each grueling battle.
Camelot's singular victory was holding the river. For whatever reason, the power that saturated the battlefield did not reach past the barricades. Time and again, Arthur's sorties failed to gain them any ground, but at least they lost none. It was not a state of affairs that could continue indefinitely, but it was all that was in his power to accomplish. The hopelessness of their situation weighed heavily on his heart, but he managed to dredge up some encouraging words for his lieutenants before he sought the refuge of his bedroll.
Arthur pushed back the flap to find Merlin leaning over the portable table that dominated the interior of the command tent. His stare was heavy-lidded, his skin so pale it looked like chiseled bone, but his eyes were burning with an intensity that momentarily stole Arthur's voice.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said without looking up. A tremor rocked his thin frame, and he grit his teeth as though setting himself for a charge. When he spoke again, the words had a breathless quality. "There's too much ground to cover. I tried, but I can't..."
He'd been angry at Merlin for being mysteriously absent these past few nights, for being distracted and distant, for not seeming to bloody care that men were dying all around them. It was hard to reconcile that anger now, justified though it might be. The most he could muster was exasperation. "Merlin, sit down before you fall down."
"Do you trust me?" Arthur wanted to make a sarcastic reply, but when Merlin raised his head to look at him, the desperation and weariness took Arthur's breath away. "Do you believe that everything I've done has been for you? That I have never served another?"
"I have never doubted your loyalty, you know that. Come, you need to rest." Arthur skirted the table and grasped Merlin's shoulder, prepared to drag him to the sleeping pallet in the corner, if that was what it took. But as soon as his fingers caught the rough wool of Merlin's shirt, the ground seemed to tilt beneath his feet. Arthur's vision tunneled until all he could see were Merlin's eyes boring into his, pleading for understanding.
When he'd been a boy, Arthur had sat through a boring lesson about men chained from birth to the wall of a cave, unable to see anything except the shadows of what passed before its mouth. The men thought the shadows were the whole of the truth, until they left the cave and saw what cast the shadows. When Merlin looked at him, it was like being dragged out of the cave. It was as though he could finally turn his head to see what had been just out of sight.
Blue eyes blazed to gold, and Arthur could feel power spiraling away from Merlin in steady, precise streams. It was suddenly and devastatingly clear why Morgana's dark creatures had not broken Camelot's defenses: the fortifications were ablaze with sorcery. His hapless manservant had been doing magic.
Arthur took a startled step back, one hand dropping to his sword in a deeply instinctual gesture. The vision slid away, and Merlin was himself again, thin and pale and shivering. Arthur stared at him, uncomprehending, because it was true what people said about the eyes: sorcerers always had a wild rage in them, something dark and untameable. But all he could see in Merlin was fear and devotion.
"I need your help, Arthur."
He was frozen for a long moment, trying to come to terms with this utterly strange world where Merlin (Merlin of all people) fought sorcery with sorcery. He tried to consider the political ramifications of his next actions, tried to consider his course as a king should, with justice and wisdom and a mindfulness of the well-being of his subjects. But in the end, the only thing that mattered was the naked need shattered across Merlin's features.
"What do you need me to do?"
Arthur chose the knights in his inner circle - literally. These were men who had stood around a table in an ancient ruin and pledged their swords to his service with no thought for the impossible odds. They were bonded in blood and, most importantly, they counted Merlin among their number. Arthur didn't know how to explain what he was asking them to do. He wasn't sure he understood himself. But he knew that if he told them to protect Merlin, they would do it without question and until their last breaths, no matter what they saw or heard.
They left during the night, so as to reach their destination by dawn. It was humbling to watch his knights march into the darkness that had swallowed so many of their number. Not a single voice was raised in protest or fear. Gwaine actually laughed, as though suicidal missions were a rare pleasure, and his sword brothers smiled grimly in response. They took up positions around Merlin, and cut a swath through the landscape of bloody terror that lay beyond the walls.
When they reached the standing stones, Merlin stumbled into their center, sliding to his knees as though he would never rise again. The knights formed a ring of steel about him, driving the deathless creatures from blade to blade until Arthur could cut them down with Excalibur. The chanting began as a breathless whisper and steadily grew to a ground-shaking roar. Leon was the first to glance behind him and see the golden light seeping from Merlin's eyes. The others followed suit as the heat grew at their backs, a furious furnace of power churning at the center of the circle.
"Keep them at bay!" Arthur screamed, his sword slicing at one of the shadows just as it slipped through to charge Merlin's unprotected back. "Protect him!"
It could only have lasted a matter of minutes, but it felt like an eternity. The dark magic of the creatures sapped Arthur's strength even as he destroyed them. His knights were pushed back, their ring tightening as the attacks became more frenzied and their sword arms slowed with exhaustion. Then the crashing chant reached a crescendo and everything went white.
It felt like the breath of God, driving him to the ground as it swept out from the standing stones in a flood of light and heat. Arthur's bones rattled and his lungs burned. For a few terrifying heartbeats, he couldn't see, but the world slowly came back into focus as the blinding afterimage began to fade. His knights were sprawled in the grass on their bellies. On the eastern horizon, the first tremulous light of the sun was pouring over the mountains and down into the valley.
He groped for his sword and climbed to his feet, wavering slightly as he walked to where Merlin lay in a perfect circle of flattened grasses. His eyes were closed, and thick streams of blood oozed from his nose and ears. Arthur planted his blade and knelt before his servant - his sorcerer - to listen for the beat of his heart.
"Fetch Gaius," Arthur said, and gathered Merlin in his arms.
The first thing he felt was the terrible emptiness, as though his insides had been scraped hollow. There was a curious numbness everywhere except his head, which was pounding like an anvil under a blacksmith's hammer. He felt as though he'd been in the middle of something important, but he was having trouble fitting the broken shards of his memory together. He breathed Arthur's name like a prayer, and when he finally opened his eyes, it was answered.
Arthur gave a small smile that transformed his weary features. He had a warm cloth in his hand, which he used to dab at Merlin's ear in an oddly tender gesture. They were in the command tent, daylight stabbing through the gap in the roof. There was a fire blazing, but Merlin couldn't feel its heat. He frowned, trying to remember what had been so important, and in an instant it crashed back on him: Morgana's summoning, the banishing spell, Arthur...
Had it worked? Was Morgana defeated? Or had he failed Arthur again, as he had so many times in the past? He wanted to ask, but he was terrified of the answer, and all he could push through his constricted throat was, "I'm sorry."
He felt Arthur's fingers on either side of his face, holding his jaw in a fierce but not ungentle grip. His king's eyes were blazing, lips open to speak, but he only bent down and submerged Merlin's mouth with his own. He tasted of blood and sweat and a desperate possessiveness that banished breath. Merlin felt the bright flame of his power kindling once more, sluicing back into the valleys of his soul and melting the exhausted stupor.
He didn't remember closing his eyes. When he opened them, Arthur was glaring at his ear and swiping away the crusted blood there. It was oddly soothing, and though there were a thousand questions he wanted to ask, he took a few moments to savor Arthur's undivided attention and apparent speechlessness. He'd often feared that Arthur would never speak to him again once he discovered Merlin's magic, but this wasn't quite what he'd been imagining.
Once the blood had been cleared away, Arthur dropped the cloth and picked up a bowl. Merlin managed to push himself halfway into a seated position before his limbs started trembling dangerously. A mail-clad arm encircled his shoulders, and he gratefully let it take his weight as he wrapped his cold fingers around the bowl. It was lukewarm lentil soup, and Arthur kept his hand under it so it wouldn't slip from Merlin's grasp as he slurped.
Gaius would have been warning him not to eat too quickly, but Arthur just watched patiently as Merlin sated his voracious appetite. He ate like a starving wyvern under the best of circumstances, but he supposed the banishing spell must have sapped the greater portion of his strength. He emptied the little wooden dish in short order and opened his mouth to demand another while Arthur was playing the servant. Somehow the words got twisted on the way out, replaced by a different kind of hunger.
"Arthur. Say something."
His king's only response was to lower him gently back onto the pallet. He didn't look angry, just...sad. Confused. Merlin immediately felt guilty without regretting his actions in the slightest.
"At least tell me if it worked. Have the hellecinnes been driven off?"
Arthur blinked at him. "You didn't even know if it would work?"
Merlin pursed his lips to explain, but it turned into a rueful grin as Arthur continued what was, for him, a perfectly normal and affectionate stream of invectives. He closed his eyes and relaxed into the soft bedding.
It wasn't long before Arthur brought another bowl of soup.