"Where is he?" Arthur snarled under his breath. It wasn't too much to ask that his servant could actually manage to do as he was told. He tried not to let his anger show, not in front of his knights, but his patience was starting to wear thin. Even so, he didn't need them knowing what he was thinking.
"Sire?" one of them said, talking in a low tone as he moved up next to the prince. Arthur glanced in his direction and then followed the other man's gaze. It settled on the deer calmly grazing. Arthur glanced as his companion and slowly reached for his crossbow. He was just carefully aiming, when the deer's head jerked up in shock and it bounded off into the forest. It happened at the same moment Arthur fired the crossbow. The bolt brushed the hindquarters of the deer before slamming into the tree beyond. Arthur stood up abruptly and looked around in irritation.
There was, he thought, only one thing crashing around the forest that could have spooked the animal. Arthur growled as he saw the flash of colour from Merlin's shirt. For a fleeting moment Arthur was tempted to let another bolt fly in Merlin's vague direction just to liven him up a little, but knowing Merlin, he was bound to accidentally step into its path.
As Merlin cleared the undergrowth, Arthur lowered the crossbow and just gaped in shock. Merlin's face was a mass of bruises and blood, his eyes half closed, badly swollen, and his lip was split. Merlin staggered to his right, cannoning off the tree where Arthur's arrow had landed; as he recoiled Arthur assumed that the rest of Merlin was just as battered.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked, too shocked to say anything else. Next to him the knight looked just as shocked at Merlin's appearance. Merlin wavered on his feet for a moment before gasping, in a raw and ragged voice.
"I think I got a bit lost."
Merlin ended that sentence by staggering again and then collapsing backwards. It was only another of the hunting party who had moved up alongside Merlin that stopped him from slamming to the ground, grabbing him to steady his collapse and gently lower him down.
The swift movement snapped Arthur out of his shock, running forward and discarding the crossbow he crouched down next to his servant and looked him up and down, trying to somehow start assessing the damage.
"Merlin, what happened?" the prince demanded. He didn't get any answer, Merlin mumbled something but it was too low for any of them to hear.
"Sire, we should get him to Gaius," someone announced, the words slowly penetrating into Arthur's mind. It jerked him to attention and he automatically snapped into action, and turned to the knight on his left who had clustered in with the rest of the group.
"Get the horses."
The ride back to the castle was painfully slow. Arthur didn't want to waste any time, he ordered one of the group to ride ahead and after mounting his own horse Arthur had some of the others help him lift Merlin up onto the saddle in front of him.
His gelding didn't need any help knowing where he was going as he was turned back towards home. Arthur just kept him to a docile walk and concentrated on keeping Merlin steady in front of him. Merlin's head dropped onto his shoulder and he remained utterly pliable, drifting in and out of consciousness as they rode back.
Arthur kept up a low stream of conversation as they travelled, although he wasn't sure who he was trying to reassure, Merlin or himself. Either way, it made him feel a little better as they made their way back. The rest of the group rode positioned around them, just in case whoever had attacked Merlin was still nearby, and one of them led Merlin's horse alongside their own.
As they came around one curve in the road Arthur realised the knight he had sent ahead must have ridden hell-for-leather on his way back, as there was a group of soldiers heading out to meet them carrying a stretcher. Gaius was with them, hurrying to keep up, concerned by what he had been told. As he saw the state Merlin was in Gaius faltered, shock hitting him like a wave, despite the very descriptive warnings he had been given.
Arthur, at least, didn't have to meet his gaze for too long as the stretcher bearers came forward and he helped them lower his precious burden down off his horse into their arms. Merlin gave a groan of pain as he was moved.
"Careful," Arthur said, quite unnecessarily, and feeling very reluctant to give Merlin up. As they laid him down on the stretcher Gaius rushed to Merlin's side.
"I don't think anything's broken," Arthur said. He wasn't entirely sure of that, he had felt too scared to examine Merlin, he had tensed with pain at even the lightest of touches. Gaius glanced up and then looked back down at Merlin.
"I'll look properly when we get back, take him to my chambers, quickly," Gaius said.
The soldiers lifted the stretcher, and they followed Gaius' orders, moving at a fast pace while keeping Merlin steady at the same time. The entourage silently made its way back to the castle.
Arthur followed as Merlin was taken off to Gaius' room. He even found himself helping to transfer Merlin to the cot bed, which made Merlin whimper in distress. Arthur gritted his teeth, trying not to react to every sound Merlin made.
"What happened?" Gaius asked, his voice sounding baffled, and hurt.
"I don't know," Arthur answered, hearing the strain of his own voice. He pondered the idea that Gaius thought he and the knights had done this, then he dismissed the thought as soon as it arrived. "We didn't see who attacked him, no one saw it happen."
The rest of them cleared the room, it was only Arthur who felt rooted to the spot as he looked Merlin up and down.
"Will he be all right?"
"I need to get him undressed and check the injuries first, and I'm going to need some hot water," Gaius said, moving off to gather what he needed. With nothing else to do Arthur stepped up to the cot bed and reaching down started to untie Merlin's neckerchief. Drawing it clear he winced. Merlin's neck was reddened, bruising in places and covered in friction burns in others. Whoever had attacked Merlin had, as far as Arthur could assess, used the material, pulling it tight around his neck to choke him. Arthur tried not to think about that and pulled Merlin's shirt up.
He noted the bruising on Merlin's torso, but tried not to pay too much attention as he lifted Merlin and tried to raise one of his arms to get the shirt over his head. Merlin gave a moan which rose in pitch as Arthur attempted to lift Merlin's left arm. Gaius came hurtling back, just as Arthur lay Merlin back down again.
"I was just trying to get his shirt off," Arthur stammered. Gaius nodded and putting the bowl and cloth he was carrying down probed the shoulder gently, pulling at the neck of Merlin's shirt to take a look.
"It looks dislocated, we may need to just cut his shirt off if the arm can't be raised," Gaius commented and then got the shock of his life as Arthur dealt with it, taking the material he ripped Merlin's shirt open from neckline to hem. Gaius blinked in mild shock, watching as Arthur slid an arm under Merlin's back to lift him and Gaius helped in pulling the material clear. Both of them looked at the shoulder. Merlin whined as Gaius probed the swollen, disjoined shoulder.
"I need to reset that," Gaius said. Arthur took the hint, taking hold of Merlin. He didn't bother trying to find an uninjured part of Merlin to grip, there wasn't one. Gaius took the arm, and Arthur tried not to wince as the physician popped the joint back together. Merlin screamed as it happened and he jerked in Arthur's grip, tensing for a moment before relaxing completely. Gaius looked at him in concern.
"He's unconscious, I need to get him cleaned up, then I need to make poultices for his injuries, and immobilise his arm. There isn't much I can do about the bruising; I think the worst thing might be shock."
Gaius was half talking to himself, reaching for what he needed. Again he was pre-empted as Arthur picked up the bowl and cloth and without taking his eyes off Merlin he dampened the cloth down and started to clean the dried blood off Merlin's face.
Gaius backed up, hurrying to get what he needed to treat Merlin's wounds, his mind running through exactly what he needed for the cuts, bruises, to perhaps bring down the swelling in his shoulder, and check him for anything else. As he did that, rooting through his stock he turned to look back at Arthur, who was carefully working, with an intensity that surprised Gaius.
He only really had Merlin's side of the story, but that was mainly antagonistic. Merlin didn't seem to really like Arthur, the way he spoke about him was proof enough, but he seemed oddly loyal to him.
Gaius had been around long enough to know Arthur; he was brash, arrogant, and a lot of the things that Merlin complained about. But he was a prince, and he was spoilt by his surroundings, and the adoration, and the simple fact that his father was the king. Gaius could, in fact, accept quite a bit of what Merlin said about Arthur.
Except now, Gaius watched something else. Arthur was unaware of being watched as he tenderly washed the blood off Merlin's face, and bathed the wounds. His work was calm and repetitive, rinsing the cloth, wringing it out and then wiping Merlin's skin. They'd have to watch for fever, Gaius thought to himself.
As he automatically gathered what he needed and watched the scene before him, he wondered what Arthur was really thinking. Did he care about Merlin particularly? Or was it simply that someone had attacked something belonging to the prince, and like any spoil brat, he didn't like other people touching his things.
That was, Gaius told himself, a thought for another day.