Merlin hazily blinks into consciousness. He doesn’t notice the rough ground underneath him or the pounding in his head that matches his earlier heartbeat.
The only thing he is aware of is the stranger crouched over him with his hand under his dress, caressing his body with wide strokes, the blisters and rough scars alighting Merlin’s sensitive skin.
“No…” he groans thickly and manages to bind still the offending hand long enough to shove it away from his now trembling belly and stop the intrusive fondling.
“Don’t flatter yourself, sweetheart,” the stranger assures cockily, sitting back on his haunches, “I’m just trying to figure out what you got under there.”
Merlin struggles to sit up and cast something more damaging than a stun spell.
His half-concentrated energy shockwave is blocked, but only just barely so. It takes a lot out of the stranger to avoid being disintegrated and he shouts at Merlin to cut it out as if they are children playing a game and Merlin is breaking the rules.
And that’s when he realizes.
It’s not that the stranger is stronger than him.
It’s that his magic has weakened.
First the baby wouldn’t let him leave Albion. Now it’s draining him, body and magic.
Merlin wants to scream in frustration.
“Look,” the stranger says, moving off of Merlin with his hands up in surrender, “I’m backing off.”
Merlin, feeling like a turtle turned on its shell, has to humiliatingly roll onto his stomach and push up on his hands in order to get into quadruped. From here, it’s another awkward struggle to gain his feet.
He jerks his arm out of the stranger’s grasp when he tries to help.
“Don’t touch me!”
The stranger takes a few steps back and stares at Merlin with wide, guileless eyes.
Merlin leans over, hands on his thighs, and tries to catch his breath for a few seconds. He forces his head to stay up so he can keep an eye on the other man.
The stranger is in his middle ages, but it appears to have been a rough 30 years if the new and fading scars are any indication. He is tall, broad-shouldered and muscular. He wears the undecorated, but well-made clothes of a ruffian who has done well for himself. A decent-looking steel longsword hangs on his belt.
“Who are you and why are you following me?” Merlin asks coldly when he can get enough air in his lungs.
The thug has the nerve to smile at him and bow slightly.
“Mercenary. Sword-for-hire. Marauder. All the things you feared I was.”
“And I’m one of your jobs?”
The merc nods, that infuriating smile a permanent fixture on his expression.
“I don’t usually travel this far south, but my employer is paying quite handsomely for your return. He wore plain clothes, but there was something about him. I can tell he is one who commands others. He has power. And lots of it.”
“Your employer,” Merlin’s heart trips, “Let me guess. Blond and blue-eyed. Clean smell, fair skin, good teeth. Pratitude of astronomical proportions.”
“Sounds about right.”
“I’m sorry you wasted your time and I hope you took half your payment upfront-”
“I always take half upfront.”
“- but I am not going back with you.”
“You don’t know me around these parts, so let me fill you in on a well-known fact. I always bring in my marks. Always.”
“Not this mark.”
“I’ll admit that you’ve already made this more difficult than I had first anticipated. We’re more evenly matched than I’m used to.”
Merlin spits, “I’m a thousand times more powerful than you can imagine.”
“Really now? And which one of us is the one with the concussion?”
Merlin frowns at this, but keeps his head held high.
“I’m just not in my top form.”
At this, the stranger’s gaze flickers down to the swell under Merlin’s dress.
“What’s wrong with your stomach?”
“What’s wrong with your face?” Merlin bites back, almost immediately regretting the childish retort.
The stranger just laughs.
“He warned me you’d be feisty.”
Merlin just sneers and wonders if he has enough energy to go on the offensive again.
“I don’t know what you’ve done to this man, but he’s determined to find you,” the merc starts again, smirking slightly when the other sorcerer’s face goes even whiter, “As I said, you wouldn’t believe what he’s paying me. And the look in his eyes. As if he’d lost something more precious than his own life.”
Merlin swallows slowly and his glassy stare lowers to the ground.
The bounty hunter just continues, knowing full well what his words do to the dark-haired boy.
“What did you steal from him anyway? I noticed quite a stash of coins in your bag, but not enough to warrant this desperate search.”
Not expecting to be answered, the man changes tactics.
“I know you must be tired and hungry after coming here all the way from Ealdor.”
Damn it. He knew it was a mistake to go there.
Noticing the regretful look on the boy’s face, the merc confirms, “Yes, that was how I found you. I’ve basically been staking out the village ever since I was hired. Your pursuer knew you would pass through there eventually.”
Damn Arthur. Knowing him so well.
“As I was saying, you have to be starving. Let’s call a temporary truce and have lunch. Then,” he sighs, “We can begin our little game again. What do you say?”
Merlin is about to answer with an energy bolt to the face when the baby starts fretting uneasily.
He gives in with a curt nod.
“Okay. Truce starts… now,” the merc makes a sign with his hands and starts digging through his own bag, sitting up against the same birch Merlin had tried to hide behind.
Merlin struggles back down to ground, not missing the irony of the effort it took to get up from it not five minutes ago, and retrieves the bread and cheese his mother packed for him. He makes sure there’s a comfortable distance between himself and the mercenary.
“There’s no reason for this to get ugly,” the man says, ripping into a piece of what appears to be pork rump, “It can be our own little paradox. Friendly enemies.”
Merlin ignores him.
“My name is Martigan. My employer didn’t tell me yours.”
Merlin pointedly studies the food in his hands, not looking at the merc.
Martigan nods, accepting the boy’s rebuff. Not angry, but not pleased either.
They continue eating in silence for a few minutes, but Martigan just cannot help himself.
“Why don’t I give you a nickname then? Like I did the man you so ruthlessly betrayed.”
Merlin shoots him a sharp glare, but refuses to be roused into speaking.
“Let’s see,” the merc gives him an appraising look, “What should we call you?”
Merlin adjusts his expression back to practiced indifference.
“How about… Sparrow. It’ll be ironic. For although you are both plump and round, the sparrow manages to move with a grace you could never possess-”
The small piece of bread Merlin had been bringing to his mouth suddenly turns to dust in his crackling fingertips.
“Ah, ah, ah!” Martigan wags his finger, “Truce, remember?”
The mercenary waits until Merlin repacks his gear and gets back up from the ground (this takes a while and Martigan longs to be allowed to help him).
With both standing again, facing each other, Martigan gives Merlin a tired look.
“All right,” he sighs, “Truce is off.”
Merlin had spent most of the time during lunch planning his move.
He slows time, which he knows Martigan wasn’t expecting, and blasts him with a stun spell.
With his magic in its weakened state, he knows it won’t last long. He doesn’t waste a single second in gathering his bag and running full on into the western woods, away from Fairfax.
It’s only about a half hour before Martigan catches up with him.
Thus begins their circular dance.
Martigan will bind or stun Merlin temporarily. Merlin will recover and bind or stun him temporarily back.
Then Merlin will run.
And Martigan will catch him.
Because Merlin has been dragged kicking and screaming to only slightly above the mercenary’s magic level, their attacks are too similar in strength.
This annoys Merlin to no end.
This farce goes on for two weeks. Merlin will make some headway; Martigan will bring him back. Merlin will gain a few meters; Martigan will take some away.
It serves its purpose. Merlin is still widening the gap between himself and Camelot and continuing to stall his return until he can deliver the baby.
The chase takes them all the way to the edges of Albion where Merlin is again brought to his knees by the baby’s agonizing insistence that they stay within Arthur’s realm.
Merlin curls up on his side in a fetal position as the pain seizes his entire body.
“I want to be with him, too” his whimpers to his belly where the tantrum rages, “But, we can’t. For his sake and ours. Why don’t you understand that?”
Martigan finds him still lying there minutes later.
Merlin doesn’t even resist when the bounty hunter hooks his arms under his back and legs and carries him back the way they had come.
“Of all the places to get stuck in after dark,” Martigan grouses, “You take us through the woods of Westcliff.”
They had been marching through the marsh lands for a little over an hour when the sun starts to dip low in the sky.
Ever since the mercenary started following him, Merlin hasn’t been as mindful about where he travels and when. He’s just been focusing on getting away.
He doesn’t know much about this area, but the tone in Martigan’s voice suggests it’s one of those he typically tries to avoid, especially at nightfall.
Even though it is spring in Albion, the trees in Westcliff woods are skeletal and gray. They hunch over the forest floor, their spider-like branches reaching for those who dare to pass underneath.
The air is still and the silence and lack of any living creature is… not normal. These woods are definitely magic.
Merlin refuses to show his fear.
“I’m sure with you being this great tracker and all-”
Martigan suddenly collides into his back and clamps a large hand over his mouth.
Merlin is about to return what he thinks is an assault when Martigan whispers low and harsh into his ear.
“Look. On the ground. To the right.”
Breathing forcefully through his nose, Merlin’s wide blue eyes slant down to where Martigan indicated.
Jagged-nailed paw prints, half a meter in length, are imprinted deep in the thick mud.
“Balverines,” Martigan growls with disgust.
“Truce?” the merc asks quietly, already stepping back from Merlin and unsheathing his sword with that familiar shhink sound.
“Truce,” Merlin replies, sparks gathering at his fingertips.
Merlin has not had the privilege of encountering a balverine before, but he knows them all too well from legend. They began as the bastard sons of wolves and wicked elves, treated like excrement by their own people until their hatred was pure and their minds savage. Seven to nine feet tall with claws sharper than any sword, their bodies heavily muscled but agile, they boasted a raw power that could reduce a grown man into entrails and tattered skin within minutes. These creatures were unleashed upon the unsuspecting world to curse others to their vile existence with a single bite.
Knowing his power is at a disadvantage and that he is now fighting for two lives, Merlin trembles in his dress with both fear and fortitude.
He would never admit it later but he is glad to have Martigan at his back.
Merlin sends up several glowing balls into the trees over them, trying to even out their disadvantage because, of course, balverines can see in the dark.
The first one steps into view five meters from the two sorcerers, glaring at the them with piercing yellow eyes.
Merlin is wondering why it shows itself so soon, when the beast rears back its shaggy head and calls forth a menacing howl deep from its heaving chest. The sound of crunching leaves and heavy panting fills in the silence all around them.
“Don’t you worry, little Sparrow,” Martigan says, flourishing his sword and stepping forward slightly, “I promised Blondie I’d bring you back in one piece.”
The balverines hold their position for a minute longer and then, with some silent signal, they attack.
Merlin and Martigan fight like they have been trained together. They move as if they are one weapon, attacking and defending, fighting face to face and back to back, protecting themselves and landing blows in defense of the other.
Merlin desperately uses every spell he knows and even ones he had never conceived of before.
Balverines are set aflame, cleaved by an invisible steel, and force-pushed through brittle trees. A few merely explode in a thick burst of blood.
Merlin despises the knowledge that, had his magic not been tampered with, he probably would have been able to discharge a balverine backwards through time itself.
Martigan leaves most of the magic to Merlin, although he does display his own light show now and again amidst his skillful thrusts and parries.
Time perception is altered in battle and it seems as if one second they’re being attacked by a dozen blood-crazy balverines and the next, they’re standing knee-deep in a mass of stinking, mangled bodies. It’s a scene straight out of a nightmare.
Every muscle in Merlin’s body aches pitifully, but his adrenaline is still running too high for him to fall down into satisfying oblivion. It won’t be very long, though, before face meets ground.
Only after he is positive this pack of balverines has been completely felled does Martigan turn to Merlin.
“Have you been bitten?” he asks, looking over Merlin intently and sliding his hands through the slick blood staining the other sorcerer’s neck and arms.
“No,” Merlin half-heartedly pushes him away, almost (but not quite) too tired to care about the unwanted touch, “Stop it. Why don’t you check yourself?”
Martigan steps away, but laughs haughtily despite not yet breathing at a normal rate.
“I’ve probably faced a hundred balverines before you were old enough to dress yourself. Which, by the way, looks like a skill you still haven’t quite mastered.”
“Piss off,” Merlin grumbles, finally feeling his heart slowing.
“I know,” Martigan says as if Merlin is just a temperamental little brat. “I’m tired, too. Let’s get going. Bowerstone is a couple of hours from here. Its forests are safe enough to retire for the night.”
By the time they reach an area where the trees are actually green and the only animal sounds that can be heard are from a few harmless nocturnal birds, Merlin is half dead on feet.
He cannot even spend enough energy to care that he is still covered in balverine gore.
Martigan quickly assembles a fire while Merlin spreads out his bedroll and collapses upon it.
“Truce still on?” he mumbles sleepily, his eyelids fluttering closed.
“Yeah,” Martigan agrees, lying close next to Merlin who would have protested had he not already fallen asleep, “Truce is still on.”
Continue to Part IV
Return to Part II