The day had started off marvelously. Arthur had been planning the hunt for weeks and was excited; he and Merlin were to leave and not return for several days. He would be able to shuck off his duties, if only for the short time, drop his court manners and just focus on the joys of riding, hunting, and sleeping beneath a star-lit sky.
Merlin found that he too was excited. He would escape his own duties as well. He wouldn't have to do any of the court's laundry or clean Gaius's leach tank. True, some time off with Arthur could possibly get rough if the prince got testy, but overall the journey would be am entertaining change of pace.
As they set off the sun was just rising, warming both men. The horses trotted steadily and Merlin smiled. It was a beautiful morning.
As morning turned to afternoon, the two continued to ride, keeping an on-going stream of banter flowing.
"Merlin," Arthur began with a smile, "How long can such a stick ride without getting sore? We need to put some meat on your bones!"
Merlin, playing along, replied, "Oh don't you worry, I can ride long enough. I'm sure your horse will collapse from the exhaustion of baring such a heavy load long before mine bones ache!"
The price rolled his eyes but smiled, spurring his steed into a canter and passing Merlin, who saw the action as the invitation to race and spurred his horse as well. The two raced on, side by side at first, but Merlin knew Arthur was holding back.
"Is that all you got?" he yelled at the prince.
"Nope," Arthur replied, a look of childish glee on his face as he sped forward, passing Merlin and flying off down the trail.
Merlin laughed and pulled his horse to a stop. He would never be able to beat Arthur at this race, no point in trying. Minutes later the prince returned, however, he did not seem delighted with his victory, rather, he was contemplative.
"What's wrong?" Merlin asked.
"Nothing is 'wrong'… it's just that I came to the pass that we are to cross and there is no way we can get over it. The late spring run off has created a huge mess and the trail is littered with boulders where it isn't turned to a muddy bog. It's okay though, we could probably save some time by going through the Caves of Allendia anyway, I just thought a trip through the mountains wound be nicer than riding through those dark caverns… no matter, we shall go through the caves," and with that Arthur motioned Merlin forward.
As dusk set, they came to the Caves of Allendia. Arthur was still happy and excited but Merlin felt a sense of foreboding. He just didn't like the looks of the cave.
"Shouldn't we make camp?" he asked, hoping that the prince would agree so that they didn't have to venture into the cave in complete darkness.
Arthur laughed, "Why Merlin, any of the scary things in there have gone out to hunt in the night. If we wait for day they will have returned, much better to pass through while they are out!" he joked, but then in a more serious tone he added, "Don't worry, I'll protect us,"
Merlin sighed, but fallowed the prince through the small mouth of the cave. Once inside they dismounted and light torches, leading their horses over the rough ground. The darkness frightened the animals and occasionally they would whinny and paw the ground. Merlin sympathized with them, he was no longer having fun and the caves scared him as well.
All went well for a while but during the third hour of being beneath the ground something began to rumble from deeper within. Merlin jumped and stumbled towards Arthur who laughed at him once again.
"Merlin, do calm down, it's just the rocks settling as they adjust to the change in temperature,"
Despite Arthur's reassurances, Merlin could feel disaster looming in the air. It was almost as though he were having a premonition.
"Sire, perhaps we should head back…"
"Nonsense!" Arthur cut him off, "There is nothing to be afraid of. We will be out of the caves within the hour if we hold this pace,"
Just as he finished saying this the rumbling grew louder until it was nearly deafening and the walls began to shake.
Arthur realized his mistake at once; there was nothing normal about this! They were about to be caught in a cave-in!
"Run Merlin!" he screamed, praying that his servant would be obedient for once in his life. Both men about faced and ran as fast as they could, releasing the horses and watching helplessly as the panicked and fled into the darkness. Then Merlin tripped and fell. He looked up to see Arthur turn to help him and screamed, "Leave me!" just as the rocks began to fall, obliterating everything.
Merlin awoke to an immense pain that seemed to be coming from everywhere. He looked up to see tiny patches of light and couldn't help but sigh, Arthur was an idiot, the caves were much nicer in the light of day and had multiple small openings that let in light, they should have waited to pass through and… Oh my god! Arthur! The memories of the previous night flooded through his head. He desperately tried to get up but pain flared through his chest and abdomen and when he tried to stand his ankle gave way, sending agony through his entire body. Broken, he thought, Broken at least a couple ribs and my ankle if defiantly broken…he carefully assessed his entire body, finding no other injuries except a small lump on his head that must have gotten there from rocks falling from the ceiling.
Then he saw the blonde hair of the prince sticking out from behind some rocks and everything else melted away. He didn't care about his own injuries anymore, he just had to get to Arthur. Arthur came first; Arthur would always come first! He painfully crawled towards his fallen prince, gritting his teeth.
He arrived beside Arthur, glad to see that the prince looked relatively unharmed. Merlin could see no broken bones or open wounds but the prince had an injury on his head, practically identical to the one that Merlin sported himself. Merlin gently pulled Arthur's head and torso into is lap, checking the prince's heart rate and breathing.
"Arthur?" he whispered, placing a hand on Arthur's cheek, "Can you hear me?" then after pausing, "Arthur, wake up… I need you to look at me… wake up… please?" then when there was still no response he decided to try more drastic measures. He placed his lips beside the prince's ear and screamed as loud as he could, "Arthur! Wake up! The castle is on fire!"
"What?" Arthur gasped as he awakened but Merlin just leaned back, smiling slightly, and looked at the prince in mock confusion.
"Ah, sire, you're awake! Are you alright? You're not hurt are you?"
"No," Arthur answered, shaking his head and wincing slightly, "I think I just hit my head," then he realized where he was and remembered the previous night. "Well, I think we have had quite enough of an adventure, we best go and find the horses, then return to Camelot. And I'm starving! I'll ring my horse's neck once I find the bugger!" with that he stood and started to walk back, motioning for Merlin to fallow and still ranting.
Merlin frowned but tried once again to stand. Immediately the pain made him dizzy and sick and he sat back down. "Arthur?" he tried, but the prince continued his monologue and didn't look back.
"… Have to get Gaius to give me something for this headache. Oh, we may have some herbs or something in the saddle bags. And water…"
Merlin struggled to stand again but the fire in his ankle blinded him and his ribs made it nearly impossible to breathe through the pain as even breathing was agony, "Arthur!" he tried again but once again he was ignored.
"I knew we should have waited till morning, did I forget to mention that last night? Perhaps so…"
Merlin was in so much pain. The adrenaline had left him once he realized Arthur was okay and now he could feel the full extent of his injuries. He wrapped his arms around his abdomen and doubled over in pain, "Arthur… please… it hurts…" and finally Arthur stopped.
The prince had been ignoring Merlin but when he hear the desperation in his servant's voice he stopped and turned back to face him. Only then did he remember that he hadn't even asked Merlin if he was okay. And clearly he wasn't.
Arthur hurried back to him, dropping to his knees beside Merlin. Merlin was gasping, flinching after each gasp, breathing raggedly and trying to force down the pain.
Arthur drew his servant in to his chest and spoke softly, "Easy, easy. Breathe with me. In… out… in… out. That's it, just take it easy," and slowly Merlin's breathing became more regular. He looked up at Arthur and the prince could see unshed tears in his friend's blue eyes.
"I'm sorry," Arthur apologized, still holding Merlin against his chest "I didn't even think about you being injured… you were taking care of me, I assumed that meant you were alright. Why didn't you tell me?"
Merlin smiled sadly, "Had to make sure you were okay… you come first… always,"
Arthur shook his head, "No. Stop being so self-sacrificing," then he added gently "Where does it hurt?"
"R-ribs, ankle, head," Merlin replied, half closing his eyes.
The prince reluctantly laid Merlin on the cave floor and set about checking the injuries. He moved Merlin's arms away from his chest and abdomen and ghosted his hands over the area, pulling back quickly when Merlin gasped in pain. He looked at Merlin's ankle and felt sick, the foot just kind of dangled; the ankle was obviously broken. He removed his glove and put it in front of Merlin's mouth. Merlin looked confused.
"Put it in your mouth and bite down," Arthur said, he felt awful but he had to bind Merlin's foot and ankle to prevent any further damage. Arthur untied Merlin's neckerchief but paused seeing the fear that welled up in his friend's eyes.
"Hey, it will be alright, this is gonna hurt but I will be fast, I promise," But Merlin still didn't look too reassured. Instead he just bit down harder on the glove.
Arthur started tying the fabric around the injured limb and Merlin began to scream immediately. The sounds emitting from Merlin practically broke Arthur's heart but he told himself that it was very necessary.
When at last he had finished, he rushed to Merlin's head and removed the glove from his mouth. Merlin sobbed then gritted his teeth, "R-ribs h-hurt when I-I s-s-screamed…"
"Shhh," Arthur soothed, "I know. But it's over now. I've got you, it's over,"
Merlin leaned into the prince's shoulder, arms still wrapped protectively over his middle. He was exhausted and in agony. Arthur put an arm around him and together they sat for hours, both dozing occasionally.
As the day wore on it became apparent to both men that they would have to begin the journey back to the mouth of the cave. They had no food or water with them and couldn't stay much longer.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked, turning to his friend.
"Hmmm?" Merlin answer, groggy from pain and dehydration, trying to return Arthur's gaze.
"We need to get back to the mouth of the cave. We have to get out of here,"
Merlin sighed but nodded, yes of course, they couldn't stay there all day. They both needed water and Gaius's care. Arthur stood and then helped Merlin up as gently as he could. He then pulled Merlin's arm around his shoulder and put his own around Merlin's waist, supporting his friend.
They had only gone a few paces when Merlin went limp beside him and then stared up at him with tear filled eyes.
"Merlin, what's wrong?"
"It hurts. I just can't do it and…" Merlin's explanation was cut off by a gasp and Arthur suddenly realized that he had tightened his grip on his friend's waist in order to keep him up right.
"God, I'm sorry!" Arthur apologized quickly.
" 's 'kay…" Merlin panted in response, grateful when Arthur released his grip and lower him to the floor. After several minutes of resting Arthur decided to try a different approach.
"Merlin, I swear I will be as careful and as gentle as I possibly can be but we have to get out of here. Just bare with me okay?"
Merlin nodded and braced himself as Arthur looped one arm beneath his knees and another behind his back, swinging him up into a bridal carry. Merlin bit back a cry as the movement jarred his injuries but was able to keep quiet, biting his lip viciously.
The journey out seemed to take forever. Only a few minutes into it Merlin was reduced to whimpering, pressing his face into Arthur's neck and desperately trying to ride out the pain. Arthur attempted to ignore Merlin's agony, knowing that the only way to help him would be to get him out of the cave first. Still, hurting Merlin made his heart ache and he began to mumble soothingly, unsure whether he was reassuring Merlin or himself.
At last they reached the mouth of the cave and Arthur was relieved to see both horses grazing in the tall grass there. Stepping out into the sun made him feel much better, much more hopeful. He placed Merlin gently on the grass and ran to get the water skin from his saddle bags.
"Merlin," Arthur prompted softly, nudging his shoulder, "Merlin, we made it!" then he lifted the water skin to his friend's lips. Merlin raised his blue eyes, now clouded with confusion and exhaustion, and locked the prince in a stare before shaking his head.
"No Arthur… you drink first…" Merlin whispered, hi voice hoarse and dry.
Arthur rolled his eyes, "You have every right to drink, you're the one that is hurt and you're the one that needs it most. Merlin, for once you get to be first, okay? Now drink!" and he pressed the skin to Merlin's lips.
Merlin gulped the water at first but then took slow, smaller swigs, making sure to leave plenty of water for Arthur. He then handed the skin to the prince.
"You're drinking second," he stated, and Arthur nodded, thinking it was confusion that made his servant speak the obvious. Merlin smiled tiredly, "But Arthur, you said you were second to none!"
Arthur sighed, ruffled the hair on Merlin's head and with a smile said, "Merlin, shut up!"
So what did you think? Did you like it? It was going to be a one shot but I could be convinced to continue if asked to. Please read and review and, as always, thank you guys so much!