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Merlin - Shadows of Truth [Part 1 of 2]

Merlin - Still
Title: Shadows of Truth
Genre: Gen, Friendship, H/C, Angst
Rating: R
Length: ~ 17,800 words
Warnings: Violence, threat of non-con
Spoilers/Series: Originally written before 2.03, but ended up going a similar direction, so slight spoilers for that.
Synopsis: Captured and held for ransom, they must escape and try to find their way home. This would be far easier if Arthur wasn’t blind, Morgana half-blind, and Merlin did not have a head wound while trying to sneakily do magic.
Author’s Notes: Many thanks to the wonderful emeraldteal for beta duties. Any and all lingering errors are mine and mine alone.
Disclaimer: I do not own this interpretation of the myths and am making no profit from this.


~~~~~~~~~~

The first thing Merlin realized when he awoke was that his breakfast would greatly appreciate leaving his body, possibly with great force. The second thing he realized was that someone else’s already had.

He knew he was moaning as he rubbed at his eyes, but his head was pounding in such a way that he felt entirely justified by the action. His wrists itched where they were bound with rope, and his entire body was awash in an odd rocking sensation that reminded him vaguely of the time he was unlucky enough to ride in a punt on the river before Will tipped it and they all fell in.

He blinked his eyes open completely and tried to take stock of just where he was and why he was apparently bound. He was lying on a hard surface covered with dried grasses and hay, and the tiny light filtering in from the side showed him beneath that lay simple wood planks. He wrenched his head to the side, towards the light, and found it appeared to be coming in through a gap in heavy canvas curtains fitted over wooden bars.

He dragged himself closer to the light, arranging his hands in new and interesting ways to fit through the bars just enough to lift the edge of one of the flaps. The light blinded him after the darkness of wherever he was, so he only got a quick glimpse of the outside before something solid and heavy smacked against his fingers. He cursed and pulled them back to him as deep voice on the other side ordered, “Hey, you, back in there!” followed by, “Another one of them is awake!”

The glimpse was enough to tell him he was in a cart of some sort, which explained the rocking motion. The voice was enough to tell him he was not alone. He tried to make out the shapes in the shadows, but it proved entirely unnecessary when he heard a familiar voice, low and gruff, ask, “Merlin, is that you?”

“Sire?” he confirmed. He tried to edge a bit closer to the sound of the voice. The cart was not that large so he could not be far.

There was a rustling noise and then the face of his friend appeared in the tiny sliver of light still filtering in from the side. Unfortunately, that face did not seem to see him or much of anything at all if the blank stare in the wrong direction was anything to go by. “They got you as well then?” Arthur sighed.

A smart remark about the obviousness of his statement was lost on the tip of his tongue, changed instead to ask, “Are you injured?”

Arthur nodded and turned his head a bit more in his actual direction. “Morgana and I were caught in the blast of whatever that was,” he confirmed. “Mostly superficial; nothing serious as of yet.”

“Is Lady Morgana with us? Or did they put her in a separate cart?” he asked in an attempt to discover just how bad the situation was.

“I am here,” Morgana spoke up. Unfortunately, it was from the direction where he feared one of the two children of Camelot had recently vomited.

“And Gwen?” he asked next.

“Luckily, Guinevere appears to have escaped,” Morgana informed him.

“As did my father,” Arthur added dryly.

It was beginning to come back to him now. The ride to the edge of the Pendragon lands, the attack in the narrow passage. He and Gwen had been riding near the rear and had been spared the worst of the explosion. She had dropped from her horse and ran to the trees upon Morgana’s command; he had tried to get closer to help, possibly by discreet magical means, but ended up getting knocked upside the head for his troubles. He vaguely remembered the knights closing in around Uther, rushing him off away from his fallen children.

“Any of the knights? Did they survive?” he tried.

Morgana swallowed heavily. “I awoke before either of you,” she admitted. “I heard them discuss with pride how they had slain the knights of Camelot.”

“How many?” Arthur demanded.

“Three for certain, possibly four,” she replied. “I remember hearing Sir Edgar standing over me, urging me to get up. I felt his blood fall upon me.”

“And your eyes?” Merlin asked. His own eyes were adjusting to the gloom once more, and he could make them both out far more clearly. Aside from the edge of the cloth, the fabric itself was letting a faint haze through, more of a dingy brown than anything truly helpful.

He heard a soft sob, followed by a very unladylike sniff. “When they lifted whatever it is that’s holding us in here, I could see a brightness, but nothing more. I see shades of shadows, broken by a thin line of white through the centre of our cell.”

Arthur scoffed in self-depreciation. “And she still sees more than me,” he admitted. “How about you? You were further back; did your usual fair luck come into play?”

“I can see,” he confirmed. “I’ve also determined that we are in a barred cart travelling with the men who captured us.”

“I could have told you that much by the motion alone,” Arthur huffed. Merlin had the feeling he would have rolled his eyes if he were able to, or, possibly knew what way they were looking in the first place. “How big of a cart? How many men?” he demanded.

Merlin tried to estimate the size from where he still lay. He realized he was quite tired of being nearly laid out flat and that it probably was not helping with the nausea, and fumbled his way into a sitting position. He glanced at the ceiling, and what he now saw was a heavy lock upon a swinging door on the same side as Morgana.

“It’s nearly tall enough for me to stand in, though I have absolutely no idea about the men,” he eventually replied.

“Well, what good are you then?” Arthur asked with a sigh of dismissal.

“Arthur!” Morgana chided him. “He only just awoke, give him time.”

“Fine,” the prince grumbled. He started moving about, reaching with his bound hands towards the bars and pulling himself upright.

Merlin rolled his eyes, knowing there was no one who would call him on it. Only Arthur would try to stand in a moving cart while blind as a bat. “What are you doing?” he asked. He was torn between helping him and watching him stumble in his pride.

There was a grunt, then a pause, and then the sound of laboured breathing. “I believe I banged my knee in the fall and desperately need to stretch it out before it locks up completely,” Arthur reluctantly admitted.

Now it was Merlin’s turn to sigh. Knowing Arthur, that meant it was anywhere between lightly bruised to fully dislocated. He watched him grab at the bars to steady himself, dangerously close to the little sliver of light. “Mind the gap then, they’re a bit tetchy about that,” he warned.

“What gap?” Arthur asked. Merlin winced in sympathy as a club knocked against his fingers, nearly sending him flailing as he tried to catch his balance. “Never mind.”

They sat in relative silence for a bit, only the jostling of the cart and the sound of hooves and wheels on hard packed earth filtering in to them. Every once in a while, Merlin thought he could catch a word or two of their captors’ conversations, but it was mainly bragging and nothing useful as of yet.

He turned his attentions to Arthur, who showed no sign of regaining any sight if the way he kept banging into the bars was any indication. He still favoured his left side, randomly kicking out with what Merlin assumed was the injured leg to stretch it a bit more. Luckily, it did not appear dislocated, but if he were to guess, there was quite the bruise hidden beneath the nonchalance.

A glance to Morgana showed her waving her bound hands in front of her eyes, frowning intently a hairsbreadth off of where they actually were. “Any change?” he asked, though he feared he already knew the answer.

“The shadow is a bit more defined, but not by much,” she said dejectedly.

It was at least a slight improvement, so there was some hope. “Is there any pain?” he asked, falling back on Gaius’ training to calm himself as well as give him something to do.

She looked roughly in his direction and frowned slightly. It was the first time he saw her with any sort of clarity, and he noticed smears of mud and blood along her side, spattered over her hip and down the length of her gown. “It aches where I landed, but I do not believe anything is broken,” she dutifully reported. “My head is a bit dizzy, though I do not know if it is from the movement, the lack of sight, or the fall,” she added a bit quieter.

“Your head is always dizzy,” Arthur said, more out of rote than actual malice.

“Hush, you,” Morgana countered. She settled back against the bars and tried to brush some of her thoroughly mussed hair out of her eyes, cursing quietly when the bindings on her hands became even more of a hindrance.

“Has anyone even tried to get out of these things?” Merlin mused aloud. Arthur had been stripped of all his obvious weapons and, considering Merlin’s own small blade was taken, most likely the hidden ones as well. He had no idea if Morgana had been carrying anything as she was with the royal knights for protection, nor did he wish to bring up the idea of her being searched by the brigands who took them.

“Oh, what a wonderful idea! I wonder why I hadn’t thought of that!” Arthur mock enthused. He pretended to ponder for a moment, ignoring the looks he could not see anyway, and continued, “Could it be that I can’t see a bloody thing and wouldn’t be able to find the ropes even if I had a knife?”

Merlin ignored him from long practice, instead muttering, “I’ll just try then, right.” They were simple ropes, but they were bound tightly and knotted in an unfamiliar configuration. He gnawed at what he thought was a loose end, but made no real progress. A glance to check on the others, and he hunched down a bit more, using a touch of magic to get it started, finishing in a more traditional manner on the off chance his shadows betrayed him to Morgana. “Got it,” he announced, dropping the rope into his lap.

Arthur did not bother trying to hide his surprise. “What? Were they actually foolish enough to leave you with a blade?” Quieter now, he added, “Then again, we were foolish enough to trust you with one in the first place, so there’s that.”

Merlin ignored that as well, replying instead, “No, no weapons, just myself.”

“We’re doomed,” Arthur muttered, but there was a slight smile to his face that gave him away.

Morgana chose that moment to clear her throat a bit nervously. “They did not get all of mine,” she announced.

“What?” both Arthur and Merlin asked at the same time.

“They took my cloak and the blade in it, but did not check my boots nor my skirts,” she admitted. “I can feel at least one of them, though it may not be ladylike for me to grab it quite yet.”

“Forget impropriety,” Arthur told her. “I’m blind and Merlin’s too embarrassed to look. Get your weapons, get us free, and let’s get out of here.”

Morgana opened her mouth as if to utter some cutting reply, but Merlin took the chance to interrupt her. “My hands are free, why don’t I try to untie yours first and make it easier on all of us?” he offered.

“Why her first and not me?” Arthur objected.

“She’s down here, you’re up there, and I have a head wound,” Merlin replied, earning two matching responses of “Oh” followed by looks of sympathy to roughly his right shoulder.

He crawled closer, biting back the bile that rose from both the movement and the nearby stench. Morgana presented him her hands, and even managed to get them in the sliver of light so he could see what he was doing. “How bad?” she asked softly.

“We’re stuck in a cart, half blind and half injured with no idea where we are or if a rescue is forthcoming. I daresay it is not good, my lady,” he offered.

She smiled wanly and flexed her fingers as one of the knots loosened. “I meant your head, Merlin.”

“Oh, I’m trying to ignore that bit right now,” he smiled, knowing the action was lost on her. He worked another loop free and ignored her frown. He did, however, look up when she suddenly cocked her head to the side and tried to grab her hands back.

“They’re stopping,” she explained. “They will probably send someone to check on us.”

“All the more reason for you to be free and us to be armed, right?” he tried.

“Not until we have more information,” Arthur told him in a surprise bit of agreement with Morgana. He less than gracefully lowered himself to the floor and did a rather pitiful attempt at looking, well, pitiful. It helped that he was still covered in grime and what may or may not have been his own blood. “Grab your rope and pretend you’re still tied,” he whispered.

Merlin did not necessarily see the benefit in not only staying still but pretending to still be at their captors’ whims, but he did as told, looping the rope around and tucking the ends near his wrists to hide them. In theory, he would still be able to get out in a hurry if needed, but it should pass a quick glance of inspection as long as no one tried to drag him anywhere or do anything rash.

Sure enough, it was a matter of moments before the flaps lifted on either side of their cage, held in place by burly armed men. He blinked against the light once more and, when his eyes adjusted, noticed the sun was hanging low and orange in the sky. It was nearly nightfall, which meant he had been unconscious far longer than he had originally thought or desired.

“Pitiful,” one man commented. Given that his armour and leathers appeared to be in better condition than everyone else’s, not to mention the arrogance that rolled off of him or the way the others deferred to him, Merlin guessed he was the leader of the group. “This is Camelot’s favoured son? Even the servant is hardier than him.”

Merlin noticed the way Arthur tensed slightly at the words, nearly giving himself away, but thankfully the other man had not. His attention was drawn instead to the way the man strolled over to Morgana’s side of the cart. “And the king’s ward? Such a pretty little thing should fetch a fair price.” A gloved hand reached through the bars, pulled her back by her hair so that his mouth was next to her ear. Merlin could not quite hear what he said, but had a fair idea based on Morgana’s expression.

He released her and began to pace in front of the cart. Merlin had to wonder if he would be grandstanding this much if he knew two of his captives could not see him and the other did not care.

“Needless to say, you shall be ransomed,” the man told them. “If Uther himself does not pay the price, I am certain I can find another kingdom that will – if not for leverage, then for vengeance. I had a buyer lined up, but decided to go with the highest bidder instead. Uther has enough enemies who would love to get their hands on you lot. If my price is not met...” he paused and leered at Morgana, licking his lips lewdly. “I’m sure we can find something else to do with you.”

That was apparently the end of his show as he strode off and, after a moment, most of his men followed. The flaps on the side with the door were pinned up, but the others were flipped back down without a care. There were the sounds of men making camp, and it was obvious they were staying where they were, at least for the night.

Confident they were to be left alone, at least for a while, Merlin crawled over to Morgana, tried not to take it personally when she turned her head away from him when he asked, “Are you all right, my lady?”

“I’m fine,” she insisted. He might have believed her if not for the slight sniff at the end of her words.

“What did he do?” Arthur demanded. He pushed himself into a more upright position and was even turned mostly in their direction.

“Threats, nothing more,” she insisted. When she turned back towards Merlin, he wondered if she knew she still had the hints of tears in her eyes.

“We will get you out of here,” he promised. He was not quite certain how, yet, but they would find a way. It may involve outing himself and possibly a death sentence, one way or another, but if it meant she did not have to face whatever fate the sleazy leader of this group of brigands had in mind, it would be worth it. He could not and would not have that weigh on his conscience if there were anything he could do to stop it.

“We shall all escape,” Arthur corrected. “They will not have the pleasure of raffling us off, nor will they hold us as leverage for Camelot. Not while I am still fit to hold a sword in my hand.”

It was a nice speech, so Merlin restrained himself from pointing out a blind man holding a sword was possibly not the best defensive tactic they could come up with. Instead, he busied himself trying to figure out a way to finish untying her without the large man serving as their guard discovering his actions.

The sun had fully set by the time their watcher wandered off, but Merlin should have known it was not just a surprising turn of luck. He had hardly reached for Morgana’s wrists when he saw the man’s lumbering shadow return through the flickering firelight of the camp. He was dragging something, or someone, behind him and Merlin could not make out who it was until she was tossed up against the outside of their cage.

“Gwen!” he exclaimed, reaching towards her until he remembered his hands were supposed to be tied.

She opened her mouth as if to speak, but was never given the chance. Her hands were pulled from the bars by the men now on either side of her. They turned her around to face the leader who was approaching, a cross between a delighted smile and a demented grin upon his face.

“I thought as much,” he laughed. He grabbed Gwen by the chin and forced her to look at him. “Such a loyal little thing, aren’t you? Tell me little maid, are there any knights lurking in the dark with you, or were you foolish enough to come alone?”

She glared at him defiantly, only the slight twitch of her cheek giving away any sense of fear. She refused to respond, but Merlin feared that would be answer enough.

The man chuckled, leaning closer and letting his free hand roam over her bodice, down to her hips, not even trying to be subtle about his intentions. “That’s what I thought,” he said, grabbing a handful of her skirt and pulling upwards, exposing a calf, but nothing more. “She’s alone,” he informed the others. “Which means we are free to do with her as we wish.”

“Leave her alone!” Merlin yelled, pressing himself up against the bars, willing himself closer.

“Get your hands off of her,” Arthur ordered. Merlin had to give him credit; he appeared to be looking right at the man, glare firmly in place, no sign of weakness or blindness to be had.

The man turned, but did not release her. “Ah, so the prince does have a backbone after all,” he smirked. “What is she to you? A tryst? Someone to warm your bed at night? If she’s good enough for a prince, I might just have to keep her for myself, try out her talents, as it were.”

His men laughed and that must have been all the encouragement he needed. He leaned in and kissed her, pressing his body firmly against hers, the two men holding her in place and not giving her any room to resist as she tried to squirm away.

“Leave her alone!” Merlin hollered again. He could feel the magic in his veins, ready and waiting, and knew what he was willing to do if the man even pretended to take this a step further.

Finally, the man let her go, pushed her to his men and ordered, “Bind her and throw her in with the others.” He looked at Merlin and smiled, “If Uther won’t pay my price, I’ll take her in recompense.”

Merlin knew both Arthur and Morgana were cursing, swearing oaths to be writ in the man’s blood, but he could not hear the words over the pounding in his own ears. It was not until Gwen was literally tossed in, landing in a heap on top of him when he turned to face the door, that he could feel his breath steadying, feel the way she was still shaking, hear the slight hitch in her breathing as she tried not to sob. He forced himself to swallow his anger and focus instead on helping her calm down, cooing promises of rescue and retribution.

The men were laughing, rude comments becoming even more lewd as they wandered off towards the fires and what appeared to be their evening meal. They were close enough to see, but hopefully not to hear whispered conversations over the loudness of their own kind. A torch had been placed near the cart, close enough to provide a smidgen of light, but far enough away to not be used as a weapon on the off chance the captives were able to free themselves enough to reach it. A murmured word and it flared a bit brighter, hopefully blinding them to the actions in the cart behind it. Merlin used the glow to look at Gwen, to check for any obvious injuries as she buried her face in his jacket, breathing heavily as she attempted to compose herself once more.

“Are you unharmed?” Arthur asked. He had edged just a bit closer, but seemed reluctant to leave the security of place the barred wall provided just yet.

“I am fine, sire,” she insisted. It was almost believable, if not for the death grip she still had on his sleeve.

“Merlin, is she really?” Morgana asked.

“As well as to be expected,” he replied.

Gwen was as perceptive as always though, and could tell that something was off. She raised herself slowly, unconsciously wiping the back of one bound hand across her eyes and nose as she turned to face Morgana. “My lady, are you injured? Can... can you not see me yourself?” she asked hesitantly.

Morgana sighed and shook her head. “My vision is improving, but has not yet returned completely,” she admitted. “I can see the orange of the fire and the black of the shadows, but not much more.”

“You are tracking my movements better,” Merlin pointed out. He had his back turned to their captors and waved his hands, watching as Morgana was finally able to follow the gesture with relative accuracy. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Gwen turned her attention now to Arthur and must have used Morgana as a guide to see how far gone he was. “Sire?” she questioned.

Arthur turned his head in her direction, but Merlin feared it was more out of his finely honed sense of hearing than actual progress on the sight front. This was proven when he subtly shook his head. “I am now able to see greys amongst the blacks, but don’t ask me what colour your frock is or just how awful Merlin looks quite yet,” he grinned without humour.

“I told you I am fine,” Merlin insisted automatically. He rolled his eyes, but it only served to ignite the sharp pain in his temple once again.

This time Arthur’s smile was smug. “I wasn’t even talking about his injury, but now that he’s outed himself, why don’t you tell us just how bad off he truly is?” he suggested.

Merlin tried to glower at him, but found his face gripped between Gwen’s hands and turned rather gently towards the light. He winced at the brightness as it reminded him of the thrumming in the back of his skull he had been trying so hard to ignore up to this point.

“Oh, Merlin,” she said, somewhere between a gasp and a sigh. Her fingers prodded gently at the wound and he gritted his teeth against the intrusion.

“Ow,” he finally said, which appeared enough to make her let him go.

She lowered her hands to his own, smoothing her thumb across his knuckles as if he was the one who needed comforting and her very virtue had not been threatened just moments ago. The look she gave him warned she was going to be brutally honest, so he sighed and let her dutifully report, “He has a gash at the side of his head that is quite severe. It is still bleeding and should be bound, if not stitched, soon to prevent risk of infection.”

“Still?” Morgana asked in surprise. “It’s been...”

“Far too long,” Arthur cut her off. “How much blood have you lost, Merlin? Be honest because I need to know what you are capable of if we are to escape.”

Merlin was tempted to point out he was in no position to comment on injuries, but wisely held his tongue. “It’s not that bad,” he insisted. “Bit sticky, bit of a headache, that’s all.” Yes, it was an incredible understatement, but he was not going to be the one to stand in their way of getting out of here.

“Escape?” Gwen scoffed. She looked between the three of them and shook her head. “And just how do you plan to manage that? Two of you can barely see and one of you might barely stand. We are unarmed and in a locked cell surrounded by our captors; would it not be best to wait for rescue at this point?”

“They won’t come in time,” Morgana warned. Her voice was distant, and had the quality it took on the few times Merlin had heard her speak of her visions.

“What do you see?” Merlin asked. He leaned closer, as if that would somehow allow him to bear witness as well.

Now it was Arthur who scoffed. He leaned his head back against the bars and laughed, “She doesn’t see anything; didn’t she already cover that?”

Merlin shushed him first with a wave of his hands and then with his voice when he realized that was not going to be particularly effective. “My lady,” he tried again. “What do you see?”

She hesitated and bit her lip as if unsure.

“I believe in what you have seen and what you may have to tell us about what’s to come,” he promised. “If we are to get out of this, we need all the information we can get and you may be able to help us avoid something that stops us.”

Finally, her teeth released their grasp and she licked at the injured flesh. “It’s different than before,” she admitted. “Normally, I have a dream and I see one option, the only option, or I wake and know something is to be. This time, I see choices and I do not know which to believe.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows, but did not try to deter her. It was possible her visions were compensating for her injury at this point, aiding her when she was hobbled by something else. It was also possible her abilities were growing; something Gaius’ sleeping draughts would no longer be able to silence. “Tell us about all of them,” he bade.

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before she began, “The knights are too far away to be of assistance. If we stay here to wait for them, Boulet, the man who holds us, will have us killed before they get close enough to free us.”

It made sense, and would explain the barred cage with easy access from the outside, Merlin had to admit. “What else?” he tried, ignoring Arthur’s mutterings of it being less of a vision than common sense and guessing where she had heard the name before.

“I see us running from here, but not where we go to. There is another explosion, as if whatever they used against the guard was used against them, and we are able to escape to somewhere in the woods in the chaos that follows,” she told him.

“Anything else?” Arthur asked, seeming to at least agree with that option.

She licked her lips again and admitted, “If Uther pays the ransom, Boulet will only free the two of us. He will keep Merlin and Gwen and I see them in a life best described as slavery.” She paused before admitting, “I was not going to mention that one.”

“Why?” Merlin asked what he thought was reasonably. “You would be free with no risk to yourself.”

“Because she knows I would refuse to leave without you,” Arthur spoke up. “The knights would try, but we would fight and everything would end up just like it did in the first one and I truly cannot believe I am having this conversation,” he sighed.

Merlin shook his head and looked to Gwen, who simply looked resigned. “That’s very noble and everything, but if you were free, he could not hold Camelot hostage and you and your father would be able to rescind on the deal and defeat him, right?”

Arthur banged his head against the bars of the cart and appeared as if he wished to scream simply for the sake of screaming. It was a look Merlin was used to, and usually resulted in him being assigned some menial task or, occasionally, time in the stocks. “You don’t get it, do you?” he asked. “I will not leave unless I can ensure all of your safety; it’s as simple as that.”

“Nor will I,” Morgana chimed in. “We all leave, or we all stay, regardless of what Uther is willing to pay.”

“But...” Merlin tried.

Arthur, as usual, cut him off. “Which means that you had better figure out how to untie the rest of those knots in the dark while I figure out how to get us out of here.”

Merlin bit back any other response and did as told. He angled his body to prevent anyone from the camp to immediately know what he was doing, and set to work on the ropes around Gwen’s wrists. They had not been knotted nearly as intricately as his own, and it did not take long before he had her free, only to loosely loop them back around and hand her the ends. He backed away from her just in time before a guard came by to check on them, thankfully only glancing quickly at their wrists and moving on. Somehow, he was not surprised to find they were not to be fed that night.

He moved on to Morgana, and then to Arthur, trying to both pay attention to the camp behind him and ignore the way he knew Morgana was reaching for one of her knives to hide in her sleeve for easier access while Gwen provided a bit of cover. Instead, he pulled at the ropes on Arthur’s wrists and asked, “Have you thought up our grand escape then?”

Arthur was looking at his left ear, but most likely trying to look him in the eye as he asked, “Do either of them have a hair pin or slim blade? Something we can use against the lock on the door?”

Merlin shook his head, forgetting that Arthur probably had no idea that he did so. “The guards would definitely get suspicious if we ventured near it for too long,” he whispered back. Right on schedule, another passed by and Merlin tried to pretend that he was simply checking Arthur for injury, ignoring the less than pleasant comments that were offered for his attentions to the prince.

“Do you have a better idea?” Arthur challenged once the man had wandered away again. “We need to get out of here and that lock stands in the way of virtually any effective escape plan.”

Merlin’s hands stilled as he handed Arthur the ends of his rope. He could think of only one way. It would cost him, but save the others, and he kept telling himself that alone would make it worth it.

“What is it then?” Arthur asked, having one of his rare moments of perception.

“You’re not going to like it,” Merlin warned.

“Probably not,” the prince agreed with a frown. “But I won’t know for certain unless you tell me.”

Figuring it was now or never, Merlin decided to get it over with. “I think I can manage the lock,” he admitted.

“What’s not to like about that?” Arthur shrugged.

“How I’m going to manage it,” Merlin replied with a wince that was entirely not related to the pain in his head. “I, er, did a bit of magic as a child,” he said, betting on half-truths to see him through. “It’s been a while now,” he lied, “but I think I can unlock the door from far enough away to not draw suspicion.”

He nearly jumped when Arthur’s hands grabbed his own. “I don’t care if you are the most powerful warlock in all of Albion,” he swore. “I promise you, that if you can get us out of here, you are safe.”

“But... your father...” Merlin stuttered.

This time it felt as though Arthur was finally looking right at him, the firelight reflecting in his eyes as he said, “I am not my father. I swear to you that I will not give you away for what you did in your youth and what you do to save us now. I will do everything within my power to protect you; I swear this on my name and on my very blood.”

“It goes without saying that you have my promise as well,” Morgana told him from her place across the cage.

“You know I will never tell, but you have my word if you require it,” Gwen chimed in. “Not that it means as much as royal protection, but for what it’s worth,” she smiled with a shrug.

“It means everything,” he assured her. “From all of you, really.”

“Besides,” Arthur said loftily. “I will be able to look my father in the eye, well, you know, if my sight returns, and tell him that I have never once seen you practice a drop of magic.”

Merlin laughed despite himself, daring to feel the barest tendril of relief wash over him.

“Hey!” one of the guards called, edging closer. “You four aren’t getting too comfortable in there now, are you?”

“We wouldn’t dream of it,” Merlin told him, a hint of the tension returning as Arthur dropped his hands and pretended to glare again.

“Are you going to feed us, or just torment us some more?” Morgana challenged, drawing the attention away from the two men long enough for them to get situated once more.

“I believe the schedule calls for more torment in the morning, though you’re going to have to wait longer for food,” the man chuckled. He took a bite of the drumstick he held in his hand, chewing obnoxiously. “Unless you wish to earn a taste a bit sooner?” he added with an obvious leer.

Morgana ignored him, both from lack of sight and long years of practice. Merlin did not miss the way she twisted her wrists just so, the hilt of her knife now within easy access should it be necessary.

The man eventually wandered away, the round of laughter from the campfire shortly thereafter hinting at him retelling his tale. Merlin looked to Arthur, wondering just when they would be attempting to take their leave of this place. As if possessing a magical ability all of his own, he whispered, “We wait until most of them are asleep. Merlin, you handle the lock. Morgana, give me a blade and one to Gwen if you have a third.”

“There is no need,” Gwen spoke up. “I have one of my own and a spare for Merlin.”

Morgana smiled. “I taught her well.”

“Whatever,” Arthur waved it off. “We’re going to need help out there if we are not to fall on our arses. Each of you will need to keep close to each of us. Preferably, we will all stay together but, should we get separated, do try to pair off in a way that does not leave two of us blind and alone, please.”

“Which way do we go?” Gwen asked. “There are guards stationed the way you came.” She did not need to say how she knew, her capture being proof enough of the fact.

“There are also guards ahead of us,” Morgana said in the same far away tone that made Merlin afraid to ask how she knew.

Arthur raised his eyebrows, but simply nodded. “Away from whatever path they have us on then. Preferably back towards Camelot, but if we can even find a safe place to stay and send word, that will be enough.”

Plan settled, such as it was, they retreated to separate corners of their cage to wait and to prepare. Merlin watched as Morgana surreptitiously waved her hands in front of her, testing her eyesight for clarity and improvement, occasionally offering him either frowns or the quirk of her lips to notify him of her status. Arthur kept glaring at things, but the way he narrowed his eyes told Merlin he was doing the same thing, simply in a slightly less obvious way. Gwen fidgeted nervously, starting and aborting movements towards any of the three of them, once even having torn off a piece of her skirt and reaching towards his head until he took it from her and mopped at the blood himself.

For his part, he ran through every possible scenario he could. He debated trying a slumber spell he had found in his book, hoping to put the camp to sleep and ease their escape. The problem with that would be revealing himself to be a bit more than just someone who used to be able to do things, not to mention any major working with a head wound was probably not a good idea. If he screwed up spells and incantations on a good day, trying to remember something scribbled in an old book that he probably only really read once and then actually effecting the spell would most likely end up with him putting the four of them to sleep instead, completely voiding any escape attempt altogether.

He decided to stick to what he knew. What he knew was how to get the door open and them out of here. He also knew he was good enough with simple fire working to have the flames leap just a bit higher, possibly less-than-accidentally set a tent or two on fire, and provide enough of a distraction to give them cover to get to the woods. None of his companions would question that, and it would be easy enough to explain away as someone knocking something over in their attempt to recapture the prisoners.

Satisfied he had a plan, both royally approved and otherwise, he leaned back against the bars and waited. He let his eyes track the shadows moving in front of the fires, watching to see if any would waver with obvious drunkenness and offer them additional help by means of their incompetence. Unfortunately Boulet, as he knew enough not to doubt Morgana, had apparently trained his men well and it was not to be.

He turned instead to the others, watched the way they tensed with every sound and then tried to hide it each and every time. Arthur had moved on to what Merlin recognized as his pre-battle mental routine and he swore he could nearly physically see him checking and rechecking that the ropes were loose enough to escape from, that the blade would be steady in his hand, that his leg was strong enough to stay under him, and that he was in a position to lead the charge if necessary, despite his current difficulties.

Gwen had stopped clutching and unclutching her skirts. He saw her verify the security of her own blade more than once and check on Morgana and Arthur even more often than that. Her eyes also drifted out to the flames, but the way she shuddered whenever she looked in a certain direction told him she was not looking for drunks or aides to the cause.

He glanced over to Morgana, only to find her staring intently at him. She had not said anything about being able to see yet, but his own vision was less than prime due to the darkness and hazy smoke from the fires. She spared a look to Gwen, and then to Arthur before she focused on him once more and said simply, “Do what you need to do.”

He nodded shakily, wondering if it were another vision, or simple determination, but feeling she knew exactly what he was capable of and was willing him to use everything in his arsenal if needed. He had reached a similar resolution with himself when he watched Gwen, knowing what he would lose and knowing it would be worth it, but to hear her say it, to hear her accept it, was something all together different.

The noise from the camp had died down as people headed off to their various sleeping arrangements for the night. Merlin watched as men were dispersed along the treeline, some disappearing completely to be replaced by others appearing from the murk. It was time to change the guard, he supposed, watching as not one but two new men replaced their former caretaker.

One of the men slid a small wooden cup of water between the bars, motioning for them to stay quiet about the gift. Gwen reached for it, but Merlin stopped her, pretending to be grateful but sniffing it suspiciously. It was faint, but he caught a whiff of the herbs Gaius used for Morgana’s sleeping draughts. He shook his head as subtly as he could and whispered, “Drugged.”

He pretended to drink some and poured it out. He then passed it around to each of his fellow captives and they joined in the farce. One by one, they pretended to fall asleep, leaving one of the guards chuckling, “I told you they would be easier to take care of this way.”

Through half-lidded eyes, Merlin watched them wander off to just beyond where the other had stood previously. He could not quite make out what they were doing, it appeared to be something that looked suspiciously like a dice game one of the Camelot guards taught him the last time he ended up in a cell instead of the stocks, but it was enough that their attention was not focused solely on the cart, giving them a slight advantage whereas before they had nothing.

“Are they gone?” Arthur whispered. He, Morgana, and Gwen had all managed to edge closer with the farce. Their limbs were at odd angles, nearly tangled together, but they were now near enough to each other that they could speak just barely above a breath and still be heard.

“Wait for it,” Merlin countered. He had learned far too much about tactics during his time in Camelot to believe it would be this easy. Sure enough, the guards had a pattern. One would wander around one way while the other would wander around the other. They would nod at each other and go sit on their arses for a timeframe only they had any knowledge of, before repeating the process once more.

Merlin watched the process twice and was going to wait for the third pass to confirm his theory when he heard a muttered, “Much longer and I shall fall asleep for real.”

“Hush!” Gwen urged, pretending to roll slightly to her side to cover up the noise.

Three times and Merlin had the pattern. “We wait a count of one hundred after they start to walk away,” he ordered. “Give me a count of at least twenty to get the lock free.”

“Can you manage it that quickly?” Morgana asked.

“One way or another, though I’m hoping the silent option works first,” he replied. He knew he could blast it, but he also knew doing so would more than likely set the entire camp on their trail in a matter of moments, something he was hoping to avoid. “Even at a full run, we should have a count of fifty or more before they reach us and we should be to the treeline by then.”

“Can you manage a full run?” Morgana turned to ask Arthur.

He grunted slightly as he straightened his knee. “I’ll manage that and more if needed,” he replied with his usual bravado. “I’m more concerned with the men in the trees themselves; how many did you see?”

“Five forward, five back, and three to the side I can see, so I suspect three in the other direction as well,” Merlin replied.

“They are probably spread out in a perimeter around the camp. If we can break that, they will have to regroup to follow,” Arthur pointed out.

Merlin nodded, already trying to think up tricks he could use to help this happen. He would not place odds on the four of them against sixteen guards on a good day, even with Arthur’s training and Morgana and Gwen’s fortitude. Add in the injuries and the blindness, not to mention the lack of real weapons and the simply not knowing where they were in the first place, and it did not look good.

“When do we leave?” Gwen asked. He watched as she shifted again, the light from the torch reflecting in the blade she already held. Luckily, the men did not seem to notice, else they would have to scrap their already meagre plan and simply make a run for it now.

“After the next pass,” Arthur answered. “We are going to need the darkness on our side as much as possible. They already have the advantage of numbers, let’s not give them another.”

The pass came and went right on schedule. Merlin only half-listened to Gwen count, focusing instead on remembering the spell to unlock the door. He could feel the others tense beside him in preparation for the escape. By the time the last number was whispered, he was already on his knees, hand extended and words rolling off his tongue. The lock glowed, but did not budge. He tried again, but still no luck.

“Maybe it’s been too long since you used it?” Gwen offered. Her eyes darted between him, the lock, and where their captors were still playing their little game.

Merlin cocked his head to the side, knew his eyes were glowing gold with power as he said, “Right then, the silent approach is off, get ready to run.”

He could see the questions in her eyes, mixed with a fair bit of surprise, but thankfully no fear. She hitched up her skirts and got her feet beneath her, hand on Arthur’s elbow to guide him as he crouched beside her.

A single utterance later, and the door blasted outward, landing with a thud on the hard-packed earth. A second, and the flames of all the torches and fires leapt higher, though no tents appeared to light just yet. Gwen led Arthur out, stumbling only slightly as they took off at a run for the cover of the trees. He knew he needed to move, could hear the guards’ shouts of astonishment and the pounding of their feet, but his head felt like someone was beating about it anew and he did not know if he could keep the remnants of his morning’s meal in his stomach for much longer.

Morgana was pulling at him, dragging him out of the cart and then to his feet again when he collapsed in a heap on the ground. “We need to hurry,” she pleaded. “I can hear them coming.”

He steadied himself and swallowed the bile welling in his gullet. He tightened his grip on Gwen’s small knife that was somehow still in his hand, and led Morgana into the darkness of the forest where he had seen Arthur and Gwen disappear. Led might have been hopeful thinking on his part, as she seemed to support him as much as he directed her along the way.

“What took you so long?” Arthur demanded, appearing from behind a large tree.

“Apparently head wounds and sorcery do not mix,” Merlin replied. He rested his forehead against the rough bark and tried to will the spots dancing before him to disappear and the pain to subside to something more tolerable.

Arthur gave him a look that could only be described as sympathetic. This was, of course, followed by, “We can’t stay here; the entire camp will be after us momentarily. Do you have any more tricks up your sleeves?”

Both Morgana and Gwen protested, with Gwen pointing out, “He appears to be in a lot of pain, sire.”

“So will we all if we are captured again,” Arthur reminded her.

Merlin felt a soft hand on his shoulder and looked up to find Morgana watching him carefully and looking as if she could truly see him and not just the shadows. “Can you do it?” she asked.

He was not certain he would remain conscious in the process, but nodded anyway. “I should be able to distract them, maybe use the explosives they used against us.”

“They weren’t stupid enough to leave them next to the fire, were they?” Arthur asked. He looked over Merlin’s shoulder, though whether he saw anything other than the faint light of the camp filtered through the trees was anyone’s guess.

“Close enough,” Merlin grinned, knowing the action was lost on him. “It’s going to take a bit of concentration, so I’m going to need you to...”

“Take cover!” Morgana shouted, pushing him down and against the tree. Her blade was out and she was crouched protectively before him.

He turned to see one of the guards from the woods approaching, with at least one more behind him. “I was going to say keep an eye out, but that works too,” he muttered. He saw Arthur foolishly look like he was going to engage the man and shook his aching head. “Why is the blind man fighting for us?” he asked, attempting to stand.

Morgana pushed him back down. “Arthur has been trained to fight since birth and has been known to practice against his knights blindfolded; you have not,” she told him. She softened her words with a hint of a smile. “Besides, we need you to distract the rest of the camp.”

“Right,” he nodded. He could hear Gwen at Arthur’s side, whispering things like, “Three paces to your left, sire,” and “His right flank is open,” and figured the two of them most likely had it as well in hand as it could be at this point in time.

With the crush of the undergrowth and the slight ring of steel against steel echoing behind him, he focused on the camp itself. He kept one hand on the tree to balance himself, and raised the other outward, feeling more than hearing the words spill forth from his lips, guiding the canisters from their protective circle and dumping them into the flames of the central cooking fire.

The result was near instantaneous as the entire camp was lit up with golds and reds and smoke billowed forth, blinding those who had been lucky enough to be looking away from the explosions. There was screaming and voices and the sound of flames consuming the wood and fabric structures, and they were all dulled in comparison to the roaring in his ears.

He finally gave in to the inevitable and retched, the motion amplifying the pressure against his skull and causing black spots to dance across his vision. His arm was being tugged backward and somehow Morgana’s voice broke through the cacophony of noise and disorientation, urging him to run. He whipped around in time to see Arthur knock his opponent to the ground and replace his knife with the other man’s sword while Gwen reached down and took the dirk from the man’s belt and kicked him for good measure.

A bolt from a crossbow embedded itself in the bark above his head and he reacted without thinking, pushing Morgana behind him and tossing a ball of fire in the bowman’s direction. It knocked the man to the ground and set his tunic alight and he flailed and rolled and spread the fire as much as put it out.

Merlin lurched forward, not certain his feet would carry him at this point, and felt a steadying hand upon his shoulder. He had a sinking feeling his eyes were still glowing when he turned to Morgana and saw her knowing smirk. “Just a bit of magic then?” she asked wryly.

“Sorry about that,” he offered, not sure what else to say.

“About torching the man, or making a mess of my boots?” she asked lightly as she guided him towards the others.

He pressed a hand against his skull in an attempt to will the pain away and replied, “Uh, both?”

They had barely taken five more steps when two more men came at them from the trees. Arthur and Gwen took on the one closest to them, but Merlin’s aim was off when he tried the same technique with the one closest to Morgana and himself, and the fireball careened far to the right. He staggered as his strength seemed to leave him all together, not certain if he could conjure up a flying stone let alone another torched man. In the moment it took him to attempt to collect himself, the man was upon them, blade raised high in the air and ready to strike.

Merlin collapsed to the ground as his vision blurred and the dizziness overtook him. He felt Morgana at his side and tried to urge her away, call upon the last of his strength, anything to protect at least her if not them both. Instead, he saw a shield of golden light encircle them, the man’s blade bounce off of it and the man himself fly backward into a tree.

He blinked the pain from his eyes and he tried to focus on Morgana and the way her mouth moved as if speaking, though no sound came forward. When his vision righted itself to be only double, he turned to her and admitted, “I don’t think that was me.”

She pulled him upwards and offered a smile that was as knowing as it was secretive. “No, it was not,” she told him as she pushed him towards the others.

Arthur had just sliced his man down and Gwen collected yet another blade. She moved to slide her original smaller knife into its sheath in her boot, but her head snapped up suddenly and she tossed it instead. Merlin followed the arc and saw it embed itself soundly in another bowman’s chest, a handbreadth above where Morgana’s had done the same.

“My lady,” Gwen nodded and offered her the dirk, keeping the sword for herself.

Morgana took it readily. She wrapped one hand confidently around the hilt while the other wrapped around Merlin’s elbow. He was not sure if she still needed him to guide her, or if she was offering silent support, but he was grateful for the way she gave him a moment to steady himself, hip sliding against his own until he could get his feet beneath him once more.

“Good work,” Arthur told them as he adjusted his grip on his own stolen weapon. “I think that’s all of them until they regroup.” Merlin would have been more inclined to believe him if he had not been looking at the tree to his left.

“Let’s get out of here,” Gwen breathed, and there was no argument from any of the other three.

They paused only long enough to collect the two small blades as it seemed such a waste to leave them behind, and took off through the shadows and the trees, finding no further men in their way, though the shouts from the camp behind them told them that there soon may be others willing to take on that role.

Merlin felt nearly useless, his vision wavering and filled with spots both glowing and dark. He could tell from the way Morgana stumbled that he was still doing better than her and, when Gwen deftly guided Arthur away from a fallen log, he was certain he was not the worst off by a long shot. He focused on keeping one foot in front of the other, on following Gwen and helping Morgana stay on her feet even as she helped him stay on his own.

The lingering light from the camp died away soon enough, and the woods were lit solely by the meagre glow of the moon filtering through the leaves and branches above them. When the trees thinned to reveal a rocky incline, they climbed upward, hoping the solid ground would help hide their path. Finally, when Merlin was not certain he would be able to continue on much longer, Gwen motioned for them to stop.

“There’s a cave,” she whispered. Even this far from camp and they could not be certain they would not be overheard. She peeked into the darkness, but quickly returned and shook her head. “I don’t suppose we have a flint for a torch?” she asked.

The way she looked at Merlin he knew what she was asking. “Allow me,” he said, reluctantly letting go of Morgana’s arm. He grabbed a branch from a tree and hacked it free with the little knife he had tucked into his belt when they began their trek. A murmured word and it sparked to life, its glow just enough to see the outline of the grotto she had found but hopefully not enough to give them away.

She took it from him with a raised eyebrow, but no further comment. She handed Arthur off to Morgana as Merlin leaned up against the rock wall and tried to will the bile back in its place and not further embarrass himself by retching in front of royalty yet again.

A moment later, and she reappeared, an encouraging look upon her face. “This should do,” she confirmed with a nod. She took Arthur’s arm and led him forward. She placed one of his hands on the rock wall and then guided Morgana in as well. She returned a bit later, looking surprised to see that Merlin had not immediately followed.

“How are you doing?” she asked. Her fingertips brushed his temple were he knew his wound lay, chilled against the heat of his skin.

“Not well,” he confessed. He rolled his head to the side, thankful to see she had the torch held slightly behind her and not directly in his line of sight. He was not certain he could have taken the brightness at the moment.

“Come inside and lay down,” she bade. Her fingers stroked gently through his hair and he knew it would be so easy to give in and finally rest.

“Someone needs to keep watch,” he told her.

“And that someone will not be you,” she countered. Her hand drifted down to his shoulder and she squeezed lightly. “You’ve earned a chance to sit a bit, don’t you think?”

“But...” he tried. There was so much to do. He could put up a protection barrier, try to conceal the cave, figure out how far they were from Camelot and how to get back without being caught. Somewhere in there, he knew he would need to vomit again as well, but he was trying very hard not to think of that part. If he could just focus enough, stay conscious long enough, then, maybe, he could help make sure they truly were safe.

“But nothing,” she chided. “I’ll make sure you’re awake when you need to be,” she promised.

The touch on his shoulder became more defined, and he found himself pulled towards the entrance to the cave. He fought it just long enough to whisper one more spell, one last incantation to hopefully hide them and keep them protected. He saw the flare of gold for a brief moment before the shadows descended. The last thing he heard before he surrendered to the darkness was a gasped, “Merlin!”


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On to Part 2
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