The reckoning came around half past six.
A hunt had been planned months ago and while all the knights were armed and prepared to chase a stag through the woods or lure a rabbit into a knotted trap, there was one member of the royal party a little... Underprepared for lack of a better term. Arthur actually had several terms he thought would also be suitable such as 'lazy', 'forgetful', 'pain in the ass' - you know, just to name a few. Though, he doubted it would be well-received given the circumstances.
"I can’t even move, see?" Merlin pointed out as he let his hand flop to the side. Lancelot tilted his head at him, expression unreadable as the rest of the group all looked at one another. Merlin didn't get sick. Not really. Not ever. Sure, he had some light colds occasionally, but they never prevented him from doing anything. It made this whole situation a lot more concerning. Elyan was already considering how best to break the news to Gwen that he was on death's doorstep.
"You do look pathetic." Gwaine agreed. From the bed, Merlin made a slight noise of objection. In all fairness, he did look awful. His face was flushed and hair matted down by sweat that went down to stain the front of his shirt. Arthur pursed his lips, shifting a little uncomfortably. The scene reminded him a bit too much of when Merlin had been poisoned years ago. He pushed the thought to the side. Gaius wasn't worried... So they shouldn't worry. Merlin was probably playing it up anyhow.
"I’m sorry." Merlin sighed, putting a dramatic arm over his eyes before peering out at them "I’ll get another servant-"
"No." Arthur said immediately. At the same time, the rest of his knights immediately gave their opinions on the matter.
"Not going to happen, Merlin."
"I would honestly rather die."
"I think," Lancelot finally said, looking at his friends with a slight shake of his head "That we are all rather used to how you do things. Besides, the last time we tried to bring another servant on a hunt..." He trailed off and Arthur made a face. Listen. What happened to Leland was in the past. Forgotten. Never to be spoken of again.
Not that Merlin cared.
"Well you shouldn’t have assumed he knew what you lot liked to eat," Merlin objected immediately "It wasn’t poor Leland’s fault...And making him try to fetch honey last minute was unnecessary. He still can’t go into the woods without fear of the bees."
Gwaine snorted only to be immediately hit by Elyan.
"Don’t worry, Merlin. We got it covered." Percival smiled and patted his knee. "Just get better." He told him. The group all gave similar mumbled sentiments as they filed out of Gaius’ chambers. Arthur sighed.
"So...I suppose the hunt could be postponed, but next week there’s the duke coming by and-"
"Wait," Gwaine interrupted "We aren’t going?"
"Merlin is sick," Leon pointed out "And you just said you didn’t want a different servant."
"Well, yeah." Elyan snorted "But we don’t need a servant to hunt." He said. Leon and Arthur both tilted their heads as if this idea was completely novel to them.
"So...We would be responsible for carrying bags and cooking and setting up camp?" Leon asked, sounding a little mystified. Arthur made a face at the mere suggestion of such a thing. "It seems like much less work to simply wait until Merlin is better-"
Gwaine scoffed as he crossed his arms over his chest, chin jutted out as he resolutely shook his head.
"No way. We can handle ourselves without Merlin for two days...Well, some of us can." He clicked his tongue with a nod towards the other three. Leon frowned.
"What are you trying to say?"
"That we didn’t grow up with servants," Elyan chuckled as he shook his head in thinly veiled amusement "I know it’s a scary thought but...we can actually survive a hunt without Merlin’s stew." He said. Gwaine gasped in fake shock, putting a dramatic hand over his heart. Lancelot sighed.
"We don’t need a servant," Arthur piped up immediately, chest puffing out in defiance "Hell, with how Merlin is, I’ve pretty much been without a servant for years!"
"Great!" Percival said and jerked his head "Then let’s go."
Immediately, Leon and Arthur faltered.
"We should go." Lancelot said slowly, looking deep in thought "It’s only two days." He added and a small smile hinted at his lips as if something in his mind just clicked. The man’s shoulders relaxed a bit as he gave a firm nod.
A pause followed as everyone finally turned to look at the prince, brows raised expectantly.
"Yes," Arthur finally said, clearing a previously uncertain expression "Maybe this could finally get the bloody idiot to stop telling me how hard his job is if I do it myself."
"That’s the spirit!"
"Yeah, we got this!"
"How hard can it be? Most of us lived such lives before being knights anyways."
"I believe we can stay alive for two days." Lancelot snorted and clapped Leon on the shoulder "Come on, let’s pack."
"I hope you die a painful death."
"Gwaine, I’m sorry I forgot apples. Get over it." Elyan muttered for the hundredth time that morning. Gwaine mimicked him under his breath before taking a bitter bite of bread. "It isn’t that big of a deal-"
"Oh yeah? What about tonight, Elyan? Merlin always makes that delicious apple drink except we don’t get to drink it now because you decided not to prioritize food. Also, no sliced apples with honey for breakfast. What are we going to have for breakfast, Elyan?!" He shouted.
"A rabbit if you manage to shut up for ten minutes." Arthur suggested. Gwaine rolled his eyes before pressing his face into his mare’s neck. "Percival, hand me the crossbow."
"Leon packed the crossbows."
"No,” Leon frowned, looking up "Lancelot did."
"I was told Arthur was." Lancelot shrugged.
There was a pause.
"...so...did anyone bring the crossbows?" Arthur asked slowly. Silence followed. "Wonderful."
"I brought rope." Percival said "Perhaps we should lay some traps?" He tried. There was a weak mumble of agreement as the group stopped to get off of the horses.
"....Merlin would have remembered apples." Gwaine muttered.
Merlin kind of wished he really was sick. He could use the time off. The idea of lying in his bed surrounded by warmth and pillows seemed entirely worth a temporary fever or stuffy nose. If he was really lucky he could have maybe snuck into Arthur’s bed while he was gone... Oh, the dream...
"But, no." Merlin muttered to himself as he hopped over a fallen log "Merlin getting time to himself isn’t realistic." He grumbled and paused at the edge of the lake. A beat of silence followed.
"Are you going to try and kill me or what?" He asked warily. "Arthur and the others are gone. Have at it." He said.
For a moment, nothing happened. Merlin held his breath. Maybe... Maybe the man left. Maybe he realized Merlin was a sorcerer and didn’t dare attack. Maybe he could have some time alone and really lay in bed and -
The lake trembled and from somewhere within the depths there a gravelly scream that had birds scattering from trees.
"Every goddamn time."
"Arthur, you run this bloody kingdom. Why can’t you light a fire?"
"I’m working on it!" Arthur snapped as he attempted to rub the sticks more together "It can’t be that hard. Merlin does it in seconds."
"I think he uses a rock." Lancelot suggested, though he sounded vaguely amused.
"No, he just rubs harder." Percival said. "You have to create more friction." He told him and leaned down to join Arthur on the ground and rub two sticks together. Lancelot tilted his head.
"I’m not sure that’s right."
"Just rub harder." Leon interjected as he watched the other two work.
"I’m rubbing harder!"
"Obviously not, Arthur. If you were doing it right we would have a fire." Elyan jumped in. Arthur threw the sticks down.
"You do it then! You lot said you made it without servants before. Go on!" He growled, scowling at the sticks.
Lancelot sighed and looked around.
"Well, when I do it I usually use alcohol. I brought some mead just in case - has anyone seen it?" He asked, standing up. From behind him, Gwaine dropped a wine skin.
"....that wasn’t meant for us to drink?"
"Why are you still bloody here?!" Merlin growled as he rolled over on the bank, glaring back at the lake "I defeated your water monster! Come on!" He shouted. The monster in question was lying on the bank, a sickly yellow pus oozing from where Merlin has managed to strike it with a bolt of magic.
Not that the lack of response meant anything. Merlin couldn’t see his enemy but he was all too aware that the jerk was probably still there... Waiting to torture Merlin some more.
Sure enough. A buzzing followed a few seconds later. Merlin narrowed his eyes as he looked around, trying to identify the noise. It wasn't... They weren't bees, were they? He could make out some sort of shape gathering around him - a million tiny dots getting closer and closer as Merlin managed to make a vaguely humanoid shape with bright red fangs and wings. Almost like the sidhe but not nearly as blue.
"Don’t you - DAMNIT!" Merlin began when the buzzing only got louder and he found himself surrounded. "You know what? I almost would rather be hunting right now. At least they get a bloody break to eat!"
"Put more berries on it-"
"No! The berries are the problem!"
"Merlin puts more berries in, I’m certain." Elyan was saying as he scowled at the bubbling pot in front of them "Do we have anymore?"
"I don’t know. Leon was the one who picked them." Percival frowned and the group all turned to where the knight was staring down at a sack in his hands. Very slowly, he looked up with a sigh.
"So..." he began and bit his lip "I’m realizing the problem is that I might have gotten the wrong berries-"
"Are you freaking kidding me?!"
"What the Hell are we eating then?!"
"Oh my God, we’ve been poisoned. We’ve been poisoned!" Elyan choked and turned to where Lancelot was looking a bit alarmed as he stared at the abandoned stew "Tell me that someone here is a physician!"
"Calm down," Lancelot frowned "Merlin knows enough to...Ah." He interrupted himself. "Right. That’s unfortunate."
"I can’t wait to die." Arthur muttered.
"I can’t wait to just die," Merlin said, pushing mud out of his eyes "Or for you to die. I don’t care which comes first."
The sorcerer smiled. It appeared the man had tired of sending his lake creatures and buzzing fairies to do his dirty work.
"I see my ghouldonas have frustrated you." He said, drawling out the ridiculous name as if it was something Merlin should be impressed by. He wasn't. In fact, if anything, Merlin had never been more unimpressed with an enemy.
"You’re the one who sent the evil fairies?" Merlin asked, a little outraged. He had gotten rid of most of the buzzing demons, but there were still several roaming around - possibly off destroying parts of the damn castle. "Why would you do that?"
"During the Great Purge-"
"You want revenge on Uther," Merlin interrupted with a sigh. He wasn’t sure why anyone wanted revenge on the man anymore. It wouldn’t be very satisfying with how unresponsive the man was now. "Get in line."
The sorcerer blinked.
"...you don’t want to hear more?"
"Not really, no."
"This is what you get for not bringing apples, Elyan."
"I’m not doing it."
"Yes, you are!" Leon snapped. He looked tired. Possibly because it was the middle of the night - maybe early morning - and he still hadn’t gotten any sleep.
Because of horses. Bloody goddamn horses.
"Why are you making me do this?" Elyan whined as he kicked the ground "You lot just pick on me because I’m the best looking." He muttered and leaned down to tug off his shoes.
"No." Leon said shortly. Gwaine nodded.
"Yeah, Lancelot is right there." He said and the group turned to him. "Oh, come on. I’m not blind. Lance is goddamn beautiful."
"Thank you, Gwaine."
"Don’t let it go to your head, Sir Perfect."
"Can Sir Perfect go get the damn horses?" Elyan demanded and cupped his hands around his mouth "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU EVEN DOING OUT THERE?!" He shrieked.
From where the horses were calmly drinking water, they lifted their heads. It seemed innocent enough. Then again, most horses didn’t decided to get a drink by standing in the middle of a lake.
"Come on, El. The water only goes up to your knees. If they can stand than you can stand." Gwaine said, giving a slight shove forward. Elyan swore as he touched the water, scowling at them all.
"We probably should have taken out the bed rolls earlier." Percival sighed.
"We probably should have tied up the horses." Arthur pointed out, looking equally as annoyed as Leon at having to still be up. Elyan kicked water at them.
"WE PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE BROUGHT FUCKING MERLIN!"
"Wasn’t it you that said we didn’t need-"
"YEAH WELL THAT WAS BEFORE I KNEW THESE ASSHOLES WERE GOING TO RUN INTO A BLOODY LAKE, YOUR HIGHNESS!" Elyan screeched, sending a few animals scattering into the darkness as they tried to escape his yells. "Do they normally do that?! Does Merlin do something to keep them from doing that?!" He demanded as he waded further out. Lancelot hummed.
"Well, he does have a way with animals." The knight shrugged. Elyan tripped and fell face first into the water. When he got back up he turned to look back at the others.
"That’s fantastic. It would have been nice to know before we let the horses go into a lake!"
"Hurry up. I want to sleep." Gwaine complained.
"I hope you die horribly."
"I’m going to die horribly, aren’t I?" Merlin asked the sorcerer. He was covered in blood, though he couldn’t say for certain it was his own. The sorcerer seemed to be in a similar shape with his arm bleeding freely and nose very clearly broken.
"You," he spat, standing up with his eyes glittering gold "Are a foolish child who will pay-"
"Oh my God, you talk so much. I’m beginning to see why Arthur complains about me." He muttered and stood up with a wince. “You know, this doesn’t seem like a fair trade to me. I do all the hard work keeping gits like you from killing people and I still have to listen about how it isn’t that hard to feed the horses.”
“…I don’t understand. Horses eat oats.”
“Maybe she doesn’t like those oats.” Elyan suggested. Percival took a long breath and crossed his arms over his chest as he glared at the horses in front of them.
“It shouldn’t matter! Oats are oats! You eat them!” He objected and pushed the bucket closer “Why are you doing this?” He asked the mare who took one whiff of the offered oats and reared her head back with an indignant snort. Percival pursed his lips. He was about to try again when she lifted her front leg, kicking forward so that the oats spilled across the ground. Elyan looked down for a moment, staring at the scattered food before giving a slow nod and turning away.
“HAVE YOU FED THE HORSES YET?!” Leon shouted from where he was tending the fire... Or, well, sort of a fire. It was more of a low burning hearth. Percival put a hand over his mouth before shaking his head.
“I’M TRYING MY BLOODY BEST, OKAY?!”
“So,” Merlin said as he chained the sorcerer to a wall “You put a curse in a barrel?”
“Yes,” The sorcerer said, once again giving a slight smile of vindication “It will doom all of Camelot if not found by midday tomorrow. It holds the power of a thousand - where are you going? I wasn’t finished.”
“You don’t even know what it does.”
“I mean, my plan was just to use my magic to overpower it. It usually works.”
“This is unlike any power you’ve ever seen, boy! Do not think you are so strong that you can-“
“My magic overpowered Cornelius Sigan’s years ago when I still learning how to control my magic."
“…Oh. Um. Alright. Carry on, then.”
"I give up. Let’s go home." Leon said, throwing himself onto the ground. “You all said you could survive without a servant, but here we are with two hours of sleep, inedible strew, wet bedrolls, and cold because our fire went out and nobody knows how to restart it. Your survival skills are awful.”
“No,” Arthur shook his head. “We can do this. We’ve eaten. We’ve slept. We have to catch something if we head back early!”
“Consider this,” Gwaine frowned and sat up “I kill one of you…Let’s say Percival, for example-”
“Let’s not say Percival.” Percival frowned, propping himself up on his elbows. Gwaine waved him away.
“-and then we go home and tell everyone that we caught a magnificent beast and poor Percival died delivering the final blow. Then, nobody has to know the truth about this trip.” He reasoned. There was a few moments of silence before Elyan gave a low hum of consideration. Percival threw a stick at him.
“Have we tried fishing?” Lancelot asked reasonably “Perhaps we could say we got bored and went fishing instead. It shouldn’t be too hard to get something at the lake.”
Elyan immediately shook his head.
“I will not be returning to that lake until my socks dry, thank you.”
“What I want to know,” Leon said loudly, pointing an accusing finger at the group. “Is how you all bloody survived before being knighted!”
Lancelot wrinkled his nose.
“Well, I suppose I mainly relied on the kindness of others. I would often seek work when I needed things like food or warmth so I would offer favors-“
“Not you, Lancelot. We know you survived off of beauty alone.” Gwaine scoffed and narrowed his eyes “…Perhaps we all did.”
“No,” Elyan objected “I was a very good survivalist. I used the skills my father taught me as a blacksmith to teach others or learned other trades to get by. They paid me for it before I went to the next village.” He shrugged. Percival hummed.
“My family lived on a farm. My mother and wife always started the fires and did the cooking while my brothers and I would take care of the land beat up passing bandits for spare change.” He murmured as if this was common among the lower class. Leon tilted his head at that. He turned to look at Arthur who just shook his head in turn.
“I’m not really sure I did survive.” Gwaine frowned before anyone could comment “Honestly, from ages fourteen to nineteen life was kind of one big bar fight…Then another big bar fight with different men. Then I met Merlin. Now I’m here.” He said and sat up “…Did I actually die? Is this the afterlife or something?” He blinked, looking around. Arthur groaned.
“Well, since none of you can obviously keep your wits about you maybe we should head back,” The prince informed them all dryly as he stood up to dust himself off “I’ll be sure to add the simple things like starting fires and cooking stew to your training regimen.” He said. Percival scowled.
“You can’t start a fire or cook stew either.”
“For the record,” Elyan interrupted “I can cook stew…It was just bad. But I made it. It was technically stew and contained the proper foods to be stew, okay? It just didn’t taste good…And also, could have been poisoned…”
“I know how to do all of that,” Arthur nodded “But this was a test…And you failed.”
“I said you’re a liar, Princess Prat.”
“How dare you-”
“So we’re in agreement we should go back,” Lancelot said before the argument could continue, he looked around, “I’m glad we came to this conclusion because we should have returned yesterday.”
Merlin was tired.
He was covered in some sort of potion, his own blood, this random sorcerer’s blood, ash, and some kind of animal skin that he didn’t even want to identify. Around him was the smoldering remains of what was once a barrel, but was now simply a pile of burnt wood with smoke wisping around it.
And to top it all off…He needed to go find Arthur. The prat hadn’t returned yet from their bloody hunt. He knew he shouldn’t have let them go off alone, but he needed them gone while he cleared out the rogue sorcerer and his fun little friends.
…And now his dumbass friends were probably kidnapped.
Groaning, he rolled over on the cobbled street, praying that Arthur might actually give him a day off to ‘recover’ some more. It seemed like a distant dream.
Speaking of dumbass friends...
“Leon?” He frowned and sat up. Sure enough, the knights were in front of him, all sat upon their horses as they looked at him with a variety of bewildered expressions. “Oh. You’re alive. Welcome back.” He smiled, a little relieved they returned.
“Of course, we’re alive.” Arthur rolled his eyes “It was just a hunting trip.” He sniffed while everyone else gave a weak murmur of agreement. “You on the other hand…What happened?” He asked, looking around. Oh. Right. This probably wasn’t the best scenario to be in.
“…I…Fell down…” He said and looked at his bleeding arms. The others stared.
“You…Fell down?” Arthur repeated slowly and looked around “From where?”
“…the window.” He decided and immediately regretted it because as everyone looked up, he realized exactly how high that window really was. Percival’s jaw dropped.
“Bloody Hell, mate. How did you manage-”
“He was probably drunk at the tavern,” Arthur sighed and jerked his head towards Lancelot “Get him to Gaius. Honestly, Merlin. I don’t know how you’d survive without us.” He muttered as Lancelot jumped down to help him on his feet.
“Did you get rid the sorcerer?” He whispered and Merlin gave a slight nod as they began to walk. “Sorry, I couldn’t stay and help…They would have died out there alone.”
“I know. Thank you for going. Did you remember to pack Gwaine’s apples?”
“…did you get the right cross bows?”
“We didn’t bring any cross bows.”
“What? Well, you at least got the horses’ carrots to make sure they stayed put, right? Rosie likes to wander into water-“
“I did not do that, no.” Lancelot said, maneuvering him through a doorway to enter the castle “And before you ask - I also didn’t bring the instructions you left for the stew either.”
“Did you want them to die?”
“No!” Lancelot objected and made a face “I just…Thought they could stand to appreciate you more.” He said, giving a small shrug. Merlin rolled his eyes, but there was no hiding the smile that touched his lips. “Also, how do you start fires so easily?”
“Thought so.” Lancelot muttered and patted him on the back as they began to make the hefty climb to Gaius’ chambers. “Well, if Arthur suddenly gives you an extra bag of coin and let’s you sneak some of his wine, don’t be surprised.”
“You know, I’d be perfectly happy just to hear the words ‘thank you’ come from his mouth.” Merlin muttered and let Lancelot heave some stuff off of Gaius' bench so he could sit down and start dabbing at his wounds. Lancelot offered a wry smile. “So tell me about the trip. Was it bad enough that Arthur will never speak of it?” He asked.
Lancelot might have answered, but before he could say a word the door burst open. From the doorway, Gwaine, Percival, and Elyan stood. Behind them, Leon was shuffling forward, head hung low as he also entered the room.
Merlin blinked. Did they need something?
“Merlin, you’re never allowed to be sick again.”
“I think I poisoned Arthur by accident. Does that count as treason, you reckon?”
“Merlin, I love you. I tell you that a lot, right?”
“You have got to stop falling out of windows. If you die we might not ever get to go on a hunt again.”
Merlin loved his magic… But sometimes, he wondered if he even needed it to be special around this lot. Apparently it took a very specific type of person to remember to pack apples.
Maybe fighting demon-fairies and obnoxious sorcerers with cursed barrels was a fair price to pay after all.