A/N – There's a bit of everything in this story. The rating is really just for mentions of violence, but there's nothing particularly graphic.
Disclaimer – Merlin and all its lovely characters belong to the BBC. No infringement is intended, and certainly no financial benefit is being made.
Gauis grabbed whatever potions met the criteria of 'useful for first aid', and 'immediately to hand', before stuffing them into his curiously conical bag and fumbling hurriedly with the fastenings. His fingers worked clumsily, and he tutted in frustration as one of the straps refused to fit into its ornate buckle. Then he stopped himself, forcing his shaking hands to still for a minute, resting on the cool leather surface. He closed his eyes and took a breath.
Everything would be fine.
Opening his eyes again, he resolutely went back to the buckle, doing it up easily, and then slung the bag onto his shoulder before turning and making quickly for the door.
It was Sir Leon who had told him that Arthur's raiding party had been sighted returning to the castle, and that one of the younger knights, with eyes that only the young seemed blessed with, had spotted the familiar brown, red and blue apparel of Arthur's missing servant sitting among the burgundy and silver hues of Camelot's finest.
Three days Merlin had been missing now, three days since Alvarr's men had snatched him, practically from Arthur's side, as the prince had been out in the Western Woods investigating reports that King Alstor had been raising an army. Camelot was still seen as weak by its neighbours following Morgana's failed uprising. Alstor would not be the only monarch to test its borders and its resilience in those tempestuous days, but he had been the first.
Alvarr, on the other hand was likely to have more sinister motives than worrying about the weakness of Uther's reign. From what little Gauis knew of him, and from what he'd try to do last time he was in Camelot, he probably had a grander scheme than the kingdom's bickering neighbours. This had, after all been no accidental kidnapping.
Previously, Alvarr had used his natural charisma to bend both Mordred and Morgana to his will; using others' powers to do much of his work for him. With this attack, Merlin had been targeted, and for all that Arthur and his men supposed he'd been taken for ransom, or for information, Gauis knew it could be no coincidence that of them all, Alvarr had selected the only man with magic.
It had done little to soothe his worry when Arthur returned from his initial mission to bring back his servant with no Merlin, but Alvarr himself and five of his men in tow. The sorcerer had been heavily questioned for hours without success. It was one of his men who had eventually broken under the onslaught, and given the location that Merlin was being held. That had been the previous evening, and Arthur had ridden straight out with 10 of his best knights, oblivious to the words of dissent from his war council over the effort being taken to find one servant and the distraction it was causing, particularly when trouble was brewing on Camelot's borders. Had Uther been in his normal mind, it is likely that Arthur would have been forbidden from riding out at all.
But Uther was not in his right mind. He had been confined to his chambers for two weeks now, Morgana's betrayal leaving him a broken man showing little interest in the running of his once beloved kingdom. Gauis had prescribed him rest and dosed him with sedating brews to help him sleep, but he was not improving.
Not that Gauis' mind was on the king right at that moment. Now all he cared about was getting Merlin back, hopefully none the worse for his ordeal.
He came out into the bright courtyard, the light reflecting off the white stones and dazzling him briefly as he passed through the doors. The first of the knights were just trotting in under the main archway, and he was relieved to see that they appeared to be uninjured, though the horses looked tired. Gauis didn't know where Arthur had been sent, but clearly it was some distance away.
He looked around the faces coming in, eager to pick Merlin out and reassure himself that he had indeed been found. Then he saw him, and his face broke into a smile at the sight he'd been longing to see.
But the smile quickly faded. Something was wrong.
Merlin was on horseback with the others, but he was not riding on his own. One of the younger knights – Gaius thought his name was Sir Graham – was riding with him and holding him. Merlin stood out as being more dishevelled than the knights; his clothes and face were streaked with dirt. But it wasn't his appearance that Gauis was concentrating on; it was his manner. Merlin was staring at his horse's neck showing absolutely no interest in his surroundings, and even as they came closer, he never once looked up or around. He seemed wrong somehow, very changed from the alert young man Gauis had seen ride off only three days ago.
Gauis was about to call his name worriedly, when he heard his own name, and looked around to see Arthur trotting up towards him. The young prince was looking tired and weather beaten, mud splattering his armour, but he jumped from his horse with energy, leaving the reigns to a waiting servant.
"Gauis," he said again, coming up. "We need your help with Merlin."
Gauis watched with concern as Sir Graham slid the young warlock down into the waiting arms of two more knights. He staggered, but remained on his feet. His expression, however, didn't change.
"What's happened to him?" Gauis asked, going to Merlin and lifting up his chin so that he could look into his eyes. He stared back blankly, not showing any recognition. "Is he injured?"
"Only his hands," Arthur said firmly.
Gauis glanced down and noticed for the first time that Merlin's filthy hands were bound with rough strips of cloth, blood showing through in places. He noticed also that his fingernails were black and broken. Then the knights who were holding him began walking him slowly to a waiting stretcher.
"What happened to his hands?" Gauis asked, watching his nephew's numb steps with confusion.
"We found him in a cave," Arthur explained. "He'd cut his hands on the rock inside."
"What sort of cave?" Gauis asked sharply.
Arthur opened his mouth to respond, but then closed it as he heard his name called from the other side of the courtyard. He looked up to see Sir Leon striding towards him purposefully. Turning, Arthur clapped Gaius firmly on the back. "Do what you can for him," he said, looking to where his servant was already being carried away towards Gauis' chambers. "Anything you need shall be provided." Then he walked away.
"Thank you sire," Gauis said, clutching his still-closed bag tightly to his chest. Then he shook himself, and hurried off after the stretcher.