Spoilers: 1x04, slightly
Notes: Beta'd (a while ago, because I am slow like a glacier) by the awesome tacittype , olivia_circe , and kageygirl . Any remaining moments of oops are entirely my own.
Summary courtesy of kageygirl : It might be good to be the king, but some days it sucks to be the prince.
It starts with dead goats. A dead goat morning never ends well.
If he’d known what awaited him, Arthur would have been much less accommodating of his father’s bland, “See to it.”
The farmers that come with the goats are obviously nervous, and keep bolstering their courage by trading the story between them. It makes for a fairly disjointed narrative, overall, but the main points that Arthur’s getting from all of this are that there are three stone-dead goats in Camelot’s courtyard and fifteen or so more like them in a field a few villages over.
Clearly, this is a job for the crown prince himself. Sometimes he wonders if his father just might have a sense of humor buried somewhere deep after all.
“What exactly do you see me doing about this?” Arthur asks with entirely reasonable confusion.
“Well, the goats are dead,” Grubby Farmer #1 answers.
Grubby Farmer #2 adds, “All of ‘em.”
The other two nod.
“I can see that. And?”
Grubby Farmer #1 stares at him wretchedly. “We don’t know what’ll be next, your highness.”
Sadly, he can pinpoint to the day exactly when he began caving to the whims of hopeless peasants with large, tragic eyes.
Arthur sighs and cancels the hope that his morning will involve anything remotely entertaining. “Right. Best get these to Gaius and let him have a look. Maybe he’ll find something useful.”
Two palace guards snap to it, and then stand there scratching their heads at the best way to distribute three average-sized goats between two average-sized men. Apparently the “Get a wheelbarrow, you idiots” test is not administered to palace guards. Arthur makes a note to fix that.
Grubby Farmer #2 is twisting his hat in his hands. “Ah. Sire?”
“Do you need ‘em all?” He looks pathetically hangdog, like Arthur’s proposing to take his firstborn rather than a goat carcass.
“I don’t imagine so, no, but what in God’s name are you going to do with them?”
Grubby Farmer #3 looks at him like Arthur’s the unwashed moron here. “Still make good stew. Sire.”
Gaius wastes no time in slicing into the single carcass Arthur manages to pry away for study. “Make sure they boil them thoroughly” is his answer to Arthur’s concerns about the advisability of mysteriously dead goat consumption, and then the carving and poking begins.
It’s frankly a bit disturbing, the excitement the man takes in the task. The one bright spot in the whole affair is Merlin, who’s pressed into assisting and looks prepared to throw up at any moment.
An hour of hmm-ing and aha-ing into the examination, Gaius purses his lips and quirks an eyebrow, and Arthur knows this is going to be unpleasant.
“What?” he asks warily.
“Well, sire, if I had to guess… You see these two puncture marks here, just along the backbone? I'm rather reminded of the feeding method used by spiders. The victim is likely paralyzed by the initial bite, and then the predator simply devours its meal – in this case, a liquid one, since this body appears to be somewhat spongy and bloodless – at leisure. Quite fascinating, actually.”
“So you’re saying we have a giant spider rampaging through the forests of Albion emerging to prey on unsuspecting livestock and very likely about to move on to the citizenry?”
Gaius shakes his head. “No, not necessarily. It may look nothing like a spider at all.”
That isn’t even remotely comforting. “But it’s definitely spider-like in that it enjoys poisoning and sucking the life from its victims?”
“Oh yes, certainly.” Gaius nods.
It’s some consolation that Merlin has the exact same look of resignation on his face that Arthur would be wearing if he were less disciplined. “I’ll just go pack our bags then, shall I?”
As it turns out, there are not fifteen dead goats waiting for them in a field a few villages over. There are nine dead goats and six miraculously not-dead goats waiting for them, along with an extremely cheerful shepherdess.
“Those goats aren’t dead,” Merlin points out completely unnecessarily the second they’re off their horses.
“Nope,” the shepherdess says, and beams at him. If the way she’s eyeing Merlin is any indication, they don’t get many fresh men through here.
Arthur waits a moment for more, but beaming seems to be all that’s on offer. Finally, he shakes his head and wearily asks, “Why are they not dead?”
“Don’t know.” That honestly is an unseemly number of teeth to show in a smile. Arthur angles just slightly between her and Merlin. “I’d have sworn they were, sire. Not a breath between ‘em, I tell you, but there they are.” She waves happily at the astonishingly undead goats. One of them bleats and falls over. “Damnedest thing.”
Merlin looks skeptical. “Er. They don’t seem… terribly well.”
“Nah.” She shakes her head. “Look like they’re drunk as skunks, to tell the truth, but this morning they weren’t livin’. I’ll take a tipsy goat over a dead one any day.”
Another goat flops onto its side and kicks pitifully for a minute before giving up and snagging a mouthful of grass. It chews contemplatively at its newly horizontal world.
Naturally, no one in the village has actually seen the creature in question. That would be too helpful.
There’s a suspicious pattern of flattened grass around the goat pen, though, not tracks so much as a collection of many individual points overlaying one another. If anything, it reminds Arthur of the surface of a roadway after an army has passed. It’s not a welcome thought.
“What makes a track like that?” Merlin asks, leaning over Arthur’s shoulder and completely blocking his light.
“Either many things moving around together, or one thing with many legs. And then there’s option three.”
“Many things with many legs.”
“Yeah. I don’t suppose you’d want to wait until morning to go after it, would you?” Even Merlin doesn’t sound hopeful.
The afternoon’s halfway gone, and Arthur would dearly love to give it a miss until the next day. There are twelve mangy little urchins in the village, though, most smaller than a goat, and he’d rather not have to explain to their parents why he took the night off instead of preventing their devouring-by-monster.
Merlin follows his eyes to where the children are assembled to watch the great adventure of a visiting prince. “Of course not.” He sighs. “Didn’t think so.”
The pattern leads away from the village and into the forest along what looks like a deer path. The horses take one look at it and plant themselves, no give at all in their stance.
“I don’t think we’re going in there on horseback,” Merlin says, and Arthur once again contemplates creating a post at court for Speaker of the Obvious.
He grits his teeth instead. “Lovely.”
The first thing he notices is that the forest is completely silent. It only gets more pronounced the farther they get into the woods.
Merlin’s eyes keep flitting to either side of the path. “So. This is… creepy.”
Arthur ends the life of an especially irritating fern. “Next time, I’m sending the knights. Why do I have knights, if not for this?”
Merlin snickers. “Don’t lie. You love this kind of thing.”
“Of course. I’m traipsing through the forest in the oncoming night so that I can get a good crack at this week’s magical calamity because it is the most fun activity I can possibly imagine.” He pauses. “Oh, joy.”
“You can’t really blame magic for this.” Merlin sounds preoccupied, like he’s arguing philosophy. Or possibly trying to untangle himself from some briars.
Arthur growls. “Watch me.”
“Oh, come on. This is more of a natural phenomenon. I mean, we don’t even know if there’s magic involved at all.” He says it like he honestly believes it, too.
Arthur tosses the incredulous look he saves specifically for Merlin back over his shoulder and keeps going. “Really. When was the last time it wasn’t magic, exactly?”
He has the satisfaction of Merlin’s thinking silence following him for at least a minute.
“I’ll concede you might have a point. This time,” Merlin says at last.
“I wish to hell the occult would find someone else to irritate, just once.” The anger is good. It gives Arthur inspiration to keep hacking away through the ever-present growth on this godforsaken lack of a path.
Merlin clears his throat. “But magic… it can’t be all bad, right?” There’s a hopeful, sickly lilt to his voice.
Arthur doesn’t bother to do more than grunt. They’re already blundering through treasonous territory, and he’s feeling just peevish enough to argue for argument’s sake.
“I mean,” and it’s not Arthur’s imagination that Merlin sounds a bit subdued now, a little tentative. “Not every magical thing is evil.”
“Name one that isn’t.”
Merlin’s answer is quick and slightly smug. “The unicorn.”
“The one that travels with its own kingdom-destroying guardian? Try again.”
The thinking silence returns. “You saved the druid boy,” he points out eventually.
Arthur rolls his eyes. “And I’m still waiting for that to come back and bite me. Little bastard will probably return with an army.” Another fern dies messily. “Really, that’s the best you can do?”
Merlin’s quiet again for a while. Arthur’s thinking he’s won, and wondering why he isn’t all that thrilled about it, when Merlin finally answers.
“Will wasn’t evil,” he says softly.
And that one’s a low, simmering weight, a little like guilt and a lot like something else, that’s been in Arthur’s belly too long. It’s his only excuse for saying, “Maybe he just hadn’t had the chance.”
Merlin stops dead. Arthur glances back to tell him to keep moving, and maybe to apologize slightly for the meanness of it, but the look of raw hurt on Merlin’s face stops him in place, too.
Which is, of course, when the giant spiders catch them.
Running for one’s life provides a surprisingly good opportunity to evaluate one’s current mindset.
Arthur decides he is rapidly developing a severe dislike of spiders. Given their tendency to appear unexpectedly in just the sorts of situations which can in no way be improved by the addition of arachnids, he feels justified.
These particular spiders are roughly the size of a large dog, numerous, and single-minded in their desire to get intimately acquainted with the contents of Arthur’s veins. Or Merlin’s. They don’t seem to be picky.
Also, the damned things can jump.
Arthur is incredibly relieved when they finally break into a clearing, spiders a whole three steps behind them. This at least means it’s only the monsters he’ll have to worry about, since there’s room to put more than a sword’s length between himself and Merlin’s frightening ineptitude with a blade.
The spiders stop chasing them at the clearing edge, and Arthur takes it all in at a glance. As far as battlegrounds go, it’s not a bad space. Roughly round, flat, with absolutely no cover for an ambush. No cover at all, come to think of it. Nothing to put his back against, and no easy exit save for the way they came, which is chock full of spiders, and –
The whole clearing is ringed in glittering eyes. Fuck.
“Merlin. Stay behind me. Try not to die.”
The first wave of spiders creeps toward them through the twilight like a malevolent carpet on legs. The prey is run to ground, and the monsters seem to know it. They freeze again just outside sword range and nothing in the whole world moves.
“Arthur?” Merlin whispers.
Arthur doesn’t get the time to answer, because the next breath is full of a wall of legs with too many joints and fangs in every direction. There’s no thought or strategy in it, just cutting down as many of them as he can before the next cluster can overrun the last.
It’s not going to be enough. He knows that before the first one slips past his guard and scrapes its fangs over his armor. There are too many of them, and Arthur’s losing ground with nowhere to go and any second now one of them is going to –
And the monster coming from Arthur’s left and leaping down on him far, far too fast bursts into sudden, catastrophic flames and goes spinning impressively away behind him.
Even the spiders seem a little thrown by that one.
Arthur gets exactly one glance of Merlin’s stubborn, terrified expression and outstretched hand before the spiders are recovered enough to get back to business.
“I know! I’m sorry!”
“You’re a fucking sorcerer!” He punctuates it with a spider’s head arcing gracefully across the clearing.
“Yes, alright! Yes! Nice of you to notice!” He twists his hand and a wave of force knocks the horde back ten feet.
“You’re a fucking sorcerer?”
“Can we postpone this discussion?” Merlin yells, hacking frantically at a severed and yet still persistently oncoming fuzzy limb with one hand, and flinging fireballs with the other. There’s a manic, desperate grin locked on his face.
Given that at this precise instant Merlin seems more concerned with preventing their immediate ugly death than usurping the kingdom, Arthur really can’t argue with those priorities.
“Right then. After,” he says, and decapitates another spider.
He spins and parries and continues slashing at anything dark and spiky that moves for what feels like an incredibly long time. He has to admit, the addition of targeted flame-throwing has granted rather a lot to their defense. At some point, the crowd seems to be thinning, and then there are just half a dozen of them around him, then five, then four. The last three break and scatter, and he tackles two before they make it back to the tree line and chops vigorously with his sword until there’s just a smear of crunchy skin and twitching legs.
And then the last of them is a merrily burning heap in the center of the clearing, and Merlin is in front of him with the fire and something else turning his eyes the wrong shade.
He stares at Arthur for the longest time, looking for something, and then closes his eyes and slumps back against a tree. After a moment, he slides all the way down to sprawl between its roots.
Arthur hauls himself painfully to his feet and prods him with the sword. “Get up.”
Merlin just smiles up at him oddly. “No. No, I don’t think I will.”
And then he looks away from Arthur and back at the crackling ball of spider and a deep, shuddering sigh runs through him. He looks… empty.
It’s an act. Arthur’s sure it’s an act, right up until he realizes Merlin’s staring straight into the flames and hasn’t blinked in far too long.
“Merlin. Merlin. Oh, sodding hell.”
He knows it’s a trap even as he lays the sword down and reaches out, and he’s wincing all the while because any minute now Merlin is going to spring something devious and sorcerous on him. Any minute now, Merlin will do something other than stare blankly ahead and breathe shallowly. Any minute now.
As it turns out, the something Merlin does is stop breathing entirely.
When he hauls him forward and into better light, the blood on the back of his neck is obvious. So are the two neat, perfect puncture marks just left of his spine.
“You insufferable git,” he growls as he drags Merlin next to the nearest smoldering carcass and rifles his pockets for something to clean the wound.
He builds up the fire with fallen branches and dead spiders and lays his treacherous, lying, evil manservant out on his cloak.
And then he waits.
Arthur far prefers to make camp with company. There is very little distraction to be had in the woods at night by oneself.
“So, you’re a sorcerer.” He pokes at the fire with a stick just for something to do. “What’s that like?”
Merlin continues to lie there being completely useless.
“You see, the thing is…” Arthur sighs, and pokes the coals a little more vehemently. “The thing is, I know better than to believe everything my father says. He lies outright to me half the time, and don’t think I don’t know it. He may be intimidating – and if you tell anyone I said that, I’ll deny it – but he’s a piss-poor liar. So believe me when I say I know he’s not always honest.”
He’s quiet for a minute, now that that’s out there. Merlin doesn't interrupt. “I know he’s not always right, either. Not about some things. Not… not about this.”
The rest comes out low, and someone would have to be listening very closely to catch it. “I know better than to let my temper rule me as his does. I do need time to come around, though, which I thought perhaps you knew. You seem to be irritatingly right about everything else.”
He frowns at the fire. “So you’ve really got to get over this laziness and wake up, because I haven’t had the chance to be properly furious with you yet. I insist.”
And then, quieter still, “I really do.”
A branch snaps as the coals settle. The sparks hiss loud in the silence.
It’s barely dawn when he wakes to the tingling sensation of eyes on him. He stares up at the early sky, watches gold creep across and give way to blue. Finally, he looks over the wet grass and straight into Merlin’s blank eyes.
After a moment, Arthur manages a rusty, “Hello,” and is mostly satisfied with the attempt.
Merlin licks his lips and whispers, “Hello,” right back.
“You’re not dead.”
Merlin shakes his head slightly. “Doesn’t look like it.”
There’s a question in his eyes, still, and suddenly Arthur very much hates that uncertainty. He takes his life in his own two hands and says, “I’m glad.”
Merlin’s eyes close, and he swallows hard, and his smile is worth it.
“So you’re not going to be difficult about this,” he says eventually, relief hiding badly in his voice.
Arthur snorts. “Oh, no. I plan to be incredibly difficult about this. Monumentally difficult, even.”
“Ah. Same as usual, then.” He watches Arthur silently for a minute. Arthur can see it out of the corner of his eye. “Thank you,” he says quietly.
There’s really nothing Arthur can say to that, so they both just lie there a while longer. Somewhere in the woods around them, a lone bird tests out its chances of getting eaten if it sings a few bars.
“You could express your undying gratitude by conjuring breakfast,” he suggests eventually without much hope.
Merlin appears to consider it. “I would, but I can’t seem to feel anything below my neck.”
That gets Arthur to stare at him quickly enough. “You could have said something.”
“We were having a moment.”
Arthur grits his teeth. “Have you tried moving at all?”
“I’d really rather not.”
Arthur just stares at him some more.
“Oh, fine.” Merlin sighs, and makes a flopping maneuver that Arthur’s guessing is meant to end in verticality.
Whatever color had been making a return to Merlin’s face beats an immediate retreat, and Arthur’s on his feet and looming over him with no conscious thought involved. “What? What’s wrong?”
“Yes, we’ve established that. Now elaborate.” He’s trying not to snap, he really is, but flitting around like a panicked squirrel makes him cranky.
Merlin blinks up at him. “You know how when you lie wrong, your arm goes asleep?”
Arthur would really like to kick him, if it were at all sporting. “You’re whining because your arm is asleep,” he says flatly instead.
“I’m whining because my everything is asleep,” Merlin says, eyes wide and pathetic.
He raises one arm half an inch and lets it drop with a tragic moan.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Arthur says, and grabs one of Merlin’s hands.
He refuses to look at Merlin outright while he does anything this awkward. He watches his own hands instead, rubbing his thumb in circles over one of Merlin’s palms, feeling the bones shift and muscles unknot. After a moment, he finds a seat on the ground and a rhythm.
Today, Merlin’s fingers just look long and dirty, impossibly ordinary. They wove fire last night.
Merlin’s hand closes lightly around his own. “Arthur.”
Arthur’s not sure at all what’s on his own face. The corner of Merlin’s lips just twitches up, though, even with his eyes gone sober. “I’m no different today than I was yesterday.”
“I know,” Arthur says, because it’s true. “But I am.”
The smile slips off Merlin’s face. His voice is full of sincere regret. “I never meant to make you choose.”
Arthur thinks about that for a moment, and decides that it is possibly the most obscenely stupid thing Merlin’s ever said.
It starts as a bark, surprised right out of him, and then Arthur laughs until he can’t breathe and has to wipe his eyes on his shirtsleeve.
“I’ve defied my father to bring you back a pretty flower. I’ve risked open war and marched myself straight into someone else’s kingdom so that you wouldn’t get your stupid self killed by warlords. I still get nervous every time I shoot a furry woodland creature in your presence because you just might burst into disappointed tears, and you think this is the point at which I choose?”
Merlin opens his mouth, closes it again, and stares.
“Comparatively, Merlin, this is nothing.”
He trades Merlin’s left hand for his right and keeps on massaging. That lone bird out in the trees inspires a few more to join him, and the woods begin to sound almost normal.
“Besides, if worse comes to worst, I’ll just insist I’ve been bewitched,” he lies casually as he rubs the pad of Merlin’s thumb.
Merlin snorts. “I’ve seen you bewitched. It ends in both of us having massive headaches and smelling like lake water for days. I think I’ll skip that one, if you don’t mind.”
Arthur hauls back to get in a properly askance expression, and that’s his undoing. Merlin’s suddenly laid out underneath him with his hair sticking up in every direction and his eyes shining with devilry, morning sun turning the wet grass around him into new constellations and his hand still in both of Arthur’s.
Merlin just lies there looking graceless and warm and his, and Arthur curses quietly and kisses him.
It isn’t desperate. It isn’t searching. It just is, like an answer. Merlin opens his mouth against Arthur’s, breathes Arthur’s name into the lack of space between them, tilts up to press his lips closer.
When Arthur finally pulls away, there’s color back in Merlin’s cheeks.
Later, horses reclaimed, their packs weighed down with roasted goat sandwiches that Arthur in no way trusts but can find no polite method to refuse, the road to Camelot stretching out in front of them and the sun high overhead, Merlin catches Arthur watching him.
“What?” he asks, brow furrowed.
You. This, Arthur thinks, and doesn’t say.
“Next time, would you mind reserving the scorching for the minions of evil? I believe you’ve singed my eyebrows,” he says instead.
Merlin’s face goes indignant. “It’s harder than it looks, you know. Try it sometime.”
Arthur lets his raised (singed) eyebrow speak for him.
“Or, well, not.” Merlin has the grace to look abashed for all of a minute, and then he blinks. “Next time?”
Arthur grins, and feels it threaten to take over his face.
“Next time,” he confirms with relish.
The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and Merlin looks torn between wide-eyed worry and amused speculation.
It’s going to be a good day. Arthur can tell.
1. For context, this is what happens when you lock me in a room for several hours and make me listen to all the nasty ways that venomous animals can and will kill you. Just in case you wondered, I would not take any of what happens in here as sound medical advice; it kind of owes a lot more to Tolkien than a textbook, is what I’m saying.
Or, put simply: Science. Heh.
2. There may, in fact, be a DVD commentary thing in the works for this, because olivia_circe said so. It may involve even more (and different!) fun with goats. (Not like that! Perverts.) They may possibly be undead in a totally other sense. Um. Yeah.
ETA: That'll teach me to post something. No sooner do I do that then I get brought down by the triple whammy of plague, family visitation travel, and intermitent internet deprivation. To everybody who's left comments: I swear I'll be much more entertaining and interactive as soon as I've slept like the dead for a few hours and stopped hacking up a lung. In the meantime, thank you!