I do not own Merlin, all rights belong to the BBC.

This is set after season 4 but before season 5. It is a multi-chapter story and the plot is all finished and written, the chapters just need to be tweaked and polished a fair bit before posting.

Once again, I would like to thank the very talented Caldera32 for being my Beta, providing support, and completing the wonderful cover art.

It has plenty of angst, bromance, whump and eventual BAMF Merlin. Feedback is always very welcome, please let me know what you think. I hope you will like it.

Prologue: Chapter 1: Fortis Vero:

Day 10

There was definitely something wrong with Merlin, of that he was certain. Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and let the sounds of the council meeting fade into the background. The royal and servant usually shared a private joke under these circumstances; sometimes it was the only thing that got Arthur through the dreary meetings. However, no sarcastic gestures or sympathetic smiles graced Merlin's features today, or in the many before it. His face was a stony mask, appearing alien on a man who was usually so irksomely cheery.

The monarch looked around the grand room trying to catch the eye of his servant. The lanky man was ignoring him completely, in a world of his own. Merlin was staring so intently that Arthur found himself following his gaze, though the king could find nothing to warrant such interest in an old wooden door. Arthur brought his mind back into the conversation going on around him – something about crop yields and provisions for the winter - but his concentration would not hold and he found his thoughts working their way back to the wan, waif-like figure of his friend. Has Merlin lost more weight? He looks terrible.

There was no denying his servant had always been a bit odd - an enigma of sorts - but over the last week or so he'd become surly, secretive, and downright distracted. The king had been watching closely and he'd not missed the slight stiffness and occasional tremor in Merlin's movements, the grimace when he rubbed at his temples or the way he furiously scratched at his skin when he thought no one was looking. Arthur had seen it all and he did not like it. The king was concerned but would never admit it, could never let it show. He needed Merlin, especially at times like these – a fact he was equally unlikely to confess.

The kingdom was in total turmoil with the curfews, midnight searches, and general suspicion hanging over the castle. A good night's sleep seemed a distant memory; he told Guinevere to keep a dagger on her person at all times (which she objected too) and the knights were restless. Usually, when faced with such challenges, his servant was optimistic and would be the one to rally the royal, providing inexplicable words of wisdom. This time, his servant's free flowing mouth had failed him and become stagnant. Arthur felt the loss too, both of his friendship and his council.

Arthur had ordered the knights to be on the defensive; the castle was searched repeatedly for the elusive sorcerer who'd attacked Merlin and disappeared. Crisis meetings were held and the kingdom put on high alert, ready and waiting for an attack that was yet to materialise. Ten days of waiting, taut as a bowstring - it was a state that could not be maintained indefinitely and the fatigue was starting to take its toll on everyone - especially Merlin. There was nothing else but to wait it out.

When that sorcerer tried to come back into the kingdom Arthur would know instantly; there would be no hiding, no escape. He had the means to detect sorcerers and the power to destroy them - it was just a matter of time. Ten days since the last sighting, seven since the last time magic was used; he knew it would not be long. He was a hunter and he would catch his prey.

Merlin just had to hold on a little longer and then everything would be alright. If he could only find the will to wait it out, then maybe things could go back to normal. Perhaps he should have just left, runaway as Gaius had originally suggested, yet he knew in his heart that he could have never turned his back on Arthur - no matter what the cost to himself. Granted, he'd done a foolish thing, but he'd seen no alternative. He was paying the price for that decision now and it was higher than he could have imagined. He wished he could discuss it with his mentor, but Gaius was gone. It was too late; he just had to keep going. Ten days he'd endured and no one had become suspicious.

Don't give in, you're almost there. The warlock focused on the large oak doors in front of him. With great effort he took in every detail; the grain, imperfections and scars in the timber, the hinges and handles, anything to take his mind off his pounding head and the relentless itching that made him want to claw at his flesh and rip it from his bones.

Moisture was beginning to build along Merlin's hairline; droplets of perspiration trickled down his face and clung to the high contours of his cheeks. Sweat pooled under Merlin's arms and in-between his shoulder blades, making the thin fabric of his shirt stick to his skin. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to focus, but could feel himself sway, so forced his eyes open and blinked furiously. He studied the door again, intending to pick out the damage caused by swords. Instead the warlock imagined himself blasting the damn thing off its hinges, sprinting down the corridor and away from the oppressive room, its occupants, and that malevolent thing.

Thinking about using his magic only brought it to the fore, to the extent the warlock wondered if the build-up of gold coursing through his body would now be visible in the same way his veins were. His magic flowed with such force it was like a river about to break its banks – the pressure was immense and he couldn't stand it any longer.

Merlin bit his lip, drawing blood, and dug his fingernails into his palms. What happens if I just give in, scratch and tear at the scabs on my arms? His gift was so close to the surface it felt like it would explode out of him, making its way through the gaps in his skin – the thought was absurd. Will I light up the room like a lantern? What a way to be discovered - for his king to see his secret. Dense as the royal could be at times, some things could not be ignored; if I became as bright as the sun, beams shooting from my body – Arthur would definitely notice that!

Merlin let out a hysterical snort and covered his mouth in the vain hope the faux pas would be missed. He failed to see the response the outburst caused: Gwen's obvious unease and look of concern, Gwaine's grimace, or the furious glare his king shot him. Tears formed in the warlock's eyes and he bit down hard on a knuckle to trying to stifle a snigger. A human torch – blazing bright and burning... burning like a sorcerer on a stake.

It wasn't funny anymore. He was too hot, could almost feel the flames and his breath became ragged as he tried to suck air that was too thin into needy lungs. The beads that clinged to and streaked his cheeks were no longer in mirth. Merlin scanned the room for an escape but the exit had morphed into a tall pyre stacked with logs and tinder - ready and waiting. Can't breathe; have to get out. He searched for another way to flee; even the high windows looked appealing. His gaze finally fell on his king; cool slate irises met deep blue and the air stilled between them - then Arthur pointedly ran two fingers across his throat.

Merlin stared, open-mouthed and terrified. Deep-seated fears sprang to the surface of his mind; Arthur's reaction signalled only one thing - his execution.

He ran, moved like his life depended on it, all obstacles pushed blindly out of the way in his frenzy to reach the door. It wasn't a conscious decision; his body just took charge of a situation his brain could not. Must get out. That thought carried him down the corridor and out the castle.

If the warlock expected to find sanctuary, he was mistaken. Only trouble and heartache lay ahead. Merlin was beyond caring, all caution and reason lost, his mind focused on one goal - escape.

So, what do you think?