It must be the ongoing bad weather...
"How long has Merlin been gone?" Arthur suddenly lifted his head and asked. The snow was still out there, thick on the ground but the wind had stopped swirling it about. Even the sun was daring to show its face. The rest of them looked up at the question. Jonas paused sharpening his sword looking at its gleaming surface.
"Longer than he should have been."
"We'd better search," Gwaine said. They all nodded and got up, heading to the mouth of the cave, looking at Merlin's prints, headed north.
"Gwaine and Robert go east and circle round, Jonas and I will head west. He wasn't planning to go far, so keep it tight, within a quarter mile. You know the calls. Gareth, Rupert, stay here, if he gets back deal with him, let us know if he returns."
"Sire," they all mumbled to a degree and they headed out, tracking north together and then splitting off, following the directions Arthur had given them. They only had one set of prints but they knew, that could get worse, even if they were in the depths of the forest where no sane person would go. They all looked down at the snow, there were animal tracks, bird prints and Robert picked up the end of Merlin's trail.
He ran over, to where a huge snowdrift had built and where there was now a rather big hole.
"Oh hell!" Gwaine said. "Call, now."
The sound of a fox during the day was the ok call, and an owl was the sound of distress. Robert called while Gwaine waded into the snow drift. As Robert called there was a reply and he gave a long low whistle, so they could follow the sound.
"Help me!" Gwaine shouted. Robert waded after him, stumbling in the thick snow. It was frozen hard but gave under their weight, but had not for Merlin who was lighter, until he was too far up. Gwaine lifted him and Robert helped. Merlin was wet, cold and bleeding from a gash in his temple.
"Oh, he's so cold," Robert said. Merlin was damp, his skin white and his lips a worrying blue colour. Gwaine lifted him, dropping Merlin over his shoulder.
"Call again, we can't wait, let's get him back."
Arthur and Jonas had followed the call and met them before they reached the cave. They got Merlin back and Gwaine gently put him down. Arthur took one of Merlin's hands in both of his own, it was ice cold. He was breathing shallowly and quickly.
"Merlin! Merlin!" Arthur shook him a little, trying to get a reaction.
"I think we need to get him warm if nothing else," Rupert said.
"Right, we need him out of his clothes, and dried off, get something to rub him down with, and then we need to wrap him up, and build up the fire."
"We're short of firewood, that was why he went out," Gareth said. Arthur glared at him, ready to bellow until Merlin's hand rose, distracting them all. He muttered and the fire flared.
"Merlin, you need to conserve what you have," Arthur said. "Stop it."
Since Merlin had already sagged down Arthur didn't know if he had been heard or not.
"Someone should try and keep him warm by body heat," Jonas said. Arthur started to pull at his wet clothes.
"I'll do it, get something to rub him down with."
They pulled Merlin out of his clothes and one blanket was dedicated to the task of rubbing him down. The knights spread it over him and took a limb each, and then they turned him over and did the same again. Arthur gathered his and Merlin's bedrolls and wadding them together got Merlin into them and Arthur clambered in with him. As he pressed against him Arthur could still feel how cold he was. The fire burned and Gareth added more firewood to it. They had almost nothing left but they had to warm Merlin up.
"You idiot," Arthur said. "Don't ever say you'll be fine, because you never are!"
Merlin blinked and stirred, he felt hot and something heavy lay on him. He was used to being curled up with people so that bothered him less than his headache. He tried to push the body away and sit up.
"Oi!" Arthur snapped and pulled him back down.
"Ow! Don't do that, what happened to my head? I only went out for firewood."
"You mistook a snowdrift for an incline, it gave way and you bashed your head," Gwaine said. "You had been out for a little while when we found you, you were really cold, since you were sprawled in the snow."
"I'm not now," Merlin said.
"I don't care, and it's your turn Gwaine," Arthur said.
"Oh yeah, give him to me when he's going to complain," Gwaine said. Arthur came out of the bed roll, giving Merlin a horrible cold blast to his back. Arthur pulled on his clothes that were being warmed by the fire and Gwaine pulled his off, wriggling into the bed with Merlin.
"I'm fine, I'm warm, I'm fine," Merlin said, trying to struggle out. Gwaine grabbed him and held him down.
"I don't care Merlin, and if needs be, we can pin you down on the other side. How's your head?" Arthur asked, probing the wound.
"Ow! Better when it's not being prodded. Don't fuss, I'm fine."
"You are not fine Merlin, you were damn cold, give me your hand."
Merlin obliged and Arthur put it between his own, assessing Merlin's skin. He then put a hand to Merlin's forehead.
"Temperature is fine and he's lucid."
"So I can get up," Merlin said.
"No you can't!" they all shouted at him. Gwaine backed that up by holding onto him tightly.
"You're staying there, and we are taking turns keeping you warm. We can manage," Arthur said.
"Oh, you can cook, tidy up, clean clothes, brush off boots, make up the fire and all those things, and you'll burn that ham if you are going to do that. Take the pan off, and leave it to cool for a minute, don't burn it!"
"I can do it," Gareth said, putting the ham down, it sizzled and smoke surged up through the edges. Merlin coughed and turned away, hiding his face into the pillow. He felt Gwaine running his fingers through his hair and Merlin settled down again by Gwaine's direction.
"Sorry," Gareth said, starting to follow Merlin's advice.
"See. I'm not incompetent," Merlin said.
"Yes, you are," Arthur said. Merlin huffed.
"I could turn you into a toad, I could do that to all of you."
"And we'll all seek refuge in your bedroll," Robert said.
"Ew!" Merlin said. "Okay, not toads, maybe little bunnies."
"You turn me into a bunny and I will gnaw at your ears," Jonas said. "Just stay put and stop whinging."
He pulled at Merlin's ear a little, until Merlin shook him off, huffing in irritation. Gwaine held onto him, tucking Merlin tightly against him. Merlin huffed again.
"Merlin, we were all worried, Arthur especially," Gwaine said. "Leave them be and stop sulking."
"Why not, they are only going to insult me and laugh at me."
"They don't. They don't do anything like that, Merlin, at least not just to you. They do the same thing to each other, of course they pick on you, they pick on each other."
"Why are you defending them?" Merlin snapped. "You don't even like nobles."
"I never said that, I said nobility is defined by what you do, not by what you are. They gave up everything for you Merlin. Even Arthur was willing to do that. So stop sulking, deal with it and let them fuss."
Merlin couldn't really argue with that. He felt Gwaine relax behind him and he sighed.
"Just promise me one thing Gwaine."
"Please tell me you are not about to go to sleep."