"Remind me again why we're riding Nemeth in this freezing weather?" Merlin groaned as he tried to pull his thick jacket closer to his body. Silently he thanked Gaius again for purchasing the warm clothing for him, his usual tunic would have him freeze in this weather.
"Man up Merlin," Arthur teased, "It's chilly is all."
"Sorry but I'm with Merlin on this one." Gwaine muttered flicking his icy hair out of his face, "If this snow starts coming down any harder we'll have a snow storm on our hands."
When they had set out on horseback this morning the snow had been falling lightly, simply adding an extra frosting of icy flakes to whatever they landed on. Now it was coming down more heavily and soaking into everything.
The knights were lucky, they had their armor which protected them from the wet snow melting into their clothes,as well as thick padding between it and their skin. Merlin was not so lucky. He was simply grateful that the jacket was thick and had not been soaked through yet. Though, judging by the coolness he was beginning to feel on his shoulder, it wouldn't last much longer.
"At least you're dry." Merlin muttered.
"I'm sure Mithian will have a nice warm blanket for you when we reach her castle." Arthur sighed, only half teasing.
To be honest the king was beginning to regret the visit himself, not that he'd even let Merlin win an argument. Gwaine was right, soon they'd have no choice but to stop lest they get stranded in a snow storm and lose their way. He knew of a small tunnel and cave system not far from their position, he'd lead the group there and they'd rest for a while. Hopefully the snow would clear up after a few hours.
"We're nearing the border." Percival smiled, obviously Merlin wasn't the only one eager to get out of the cold.
"Yes, we'll cross the bridge over the dividing river." Arthur informed them, "I know of some caves not too far from there where we can rest."
Merlin practically cheered.
Arthur had not made the commute to Nemeth in a long time, he'd been a boy the last time he'd taken these routes. His father had been with him then, despite his fathers cold demeanor Arthur still felt a pang go through him when his memory entered the kings mind. He'd loved his father and his father loved him, sometimes as prince he'd doubted that. But ever since he'd held the king as the life drained out of him he'd never once forgotten how much his father cared for him.
Arthur would never admit it, but when his father had died, he'd never been more grateful for Merlin's presence. He could still remember leaving the Great Hall in a haze and there was Merlin, sitting on the cold ground after spending the night there, ever loyally waiting for Arthur.
"I didn't want you to feel that you were alone."
The king couldn't admit ti at the time but it was exactly what he needed to hear. Because up until that point he had, the weight of the world was on his shoulders and just like that Merlin had come and taken some of the load.
The king had been so locked up in his own mind and memories he didn't even realize they'd arrived at the bridge until his horse rose up a fraction.
"Woah!" Arthur patted the horses neck to calm it.
Though he honestly didn't blame the beast for panicking. The wind and snow had not died down as the king had hoped, instead it had gotten stronger and below the now rickety wooden bridge the grey icy waters were churning. The bridge had been made from long lashed together with rope but Arthur could see that every surface of it was slick with ice and snow.
"That cannot be safe." Elyan spoke up taking in the bridge.
"We could ride to another." Merlin suggested but Arthur shook his head.
"The next one is too far, we need to get out of this weather now."
"We'll have to go one at a time." Leon yelled as the wind picked up once more.
"I agree," Arthur nodded, "I'll go first to make sure it can take the weight, then you all follow one by one."
"It's too dangerous, that thing doesn't look like it will take anything," Merlin argued, why couldn't he learn his place?
"It's this or stand here arguing." Gwaine cut in.
"I'll go then." Merlin yelled and before Arthur could stop him, urged his horse forward gingerly and onto the bridge.
The icy wood groaned in protest and Arthur found himself holding his breath. The horse nervously halted a few times but the servant gently urged it on until he was safely across the freezing waters and Arthur could breath again.
Slowly they all began to cross, Arthur was last. After the bridge had taken all the knights as well as Merlin Arthur no longer felt nervous. That was his first mistake.
He ignored the groaning of the wood, that was his second mistake.
The wood moaned once more between there was a cracking sound and the ropes that had been holding it together shifted and his horses foot became jammed. Naturally the beast panicked and began to buck throwing the unsuspecting prince off and onto the snow covered bridge. Hard.
The structure didn't like the extra weight at all and again the ropes began to snap and the wood began to crack under the pressure.
The king got to his feet unsteadily, the bridge was beginning to shift more frequently and in seconds it would be in the half frozen river. He took a few steps before the movement forced him to stumble, his foot going straight through a hole in the bridge and trapping itself there.
"I'm stuck!" He yelled, before tuning his attention to pulling at his boot, desperately trying to free it.
The horse whinnied and kicked trying to free itself also, unfortunately the movement was only doing more damage. Suddenly there were yells from the knights and Arthur saw two more hands working at the wood trapping his foot. Ungloved hands.
Only one person in their group didn't have gloves.
"Merlin!" He hissed, "What are you doing?!"
"Saving you, you prat." He replied finally shifting the wood enough to get the kings foot free.
Sadly that was all the bridge could take and with one more sudden shift the entire structure went tumbling into the water. Arthur had just enough time to grab onto Merlin before he was plunged into the raging icy current.
The water was beyond cold. How could water this cold not be icy already? The current was strong, tossing and turning the king around beneath the surface until he was so disoriented he wasn't even sure which was the surface was. He held fast to Merlin, hugging him to his chest. If they got separated now odds were they'd never see one another again.
Finally he broke the surface and found that some how the air felt colder than the frigid water. Merlin coughed up a lung full of water as they continued down the river, Arthur couldn't see any familiar land marks, the river had taken them far in only a few short seconds.
Finally, lady luck shinned on them and Arthur spotted a low hanging tree and reached for it managing to grab a branch.
"Merlin, grab on." He ordered and for once he did as he was told.
Struggling against the water the two men managed to pull themselves up and onto the snow covered ground. For a few moments they just panted, trying to catch their breaths, they would of stayed longer had Merlin not pulled himself up and gotten Arthur to do the same.
"W-we need shelter." He shivered, "A cave or s-something, before this w-wing freezes us."
Arthur just nodded, luckily after a few minutes of trudging through the thick snow they found a cave. It wasn't particularly deep but it did offer shelter from the wind that was slowly turning the moister in his cape to ice.
The two settled down at the back, as far from the mouth of the cave as possible. The temperature was barely a few degrees higher but it was better than nothing. The king shed his soaked cape and laid it down to dry, whether it would was a mystery. The king was upset to see blood slowly making it's way down the servan'ts face, he must of hit is head when they were tumbling through the water.
"Wh-why did you do that?" Arthur asked once they had gotten as comfortable as possible.
"You w-were stuck." Merlin shrugged.
"One of the other knights should of come out not you." He scolded, "We've got more protection against the cold."
It was true, though the thick padding between his skin and armor had been soaked when he'd fallen it was still better insulation than Merlin's coat. Being sandwiched between the two layers the water was begging to warm slightly. Not a great deal, the king was still shivering, but it was enough to stave off hypothermia for a few good hours longer than without.
Merlin on the other hand had no such luck. He was soaked to the bone, really he should take off his thicker coat to try but with only his thin tunic he'd freeze even faster.
"Well, i-it w-wasn't my idea t-to come out here." Merlin bit back with a small smile.
"Do you ever stop complaining?" Arthur chuckled.
The king couldn't help but worry, while he his shivering had reduced to small shakes thanks to his thick clothing and armor Merlin's whole body was trembling uncontrollably. The king bit his lip and glanced down at his cloak, it was thin, for dress rather than practicality but it was something, even if was still damp.
"Here." he held it out, Merlin shook his head.
"N-no you keep it." He smiled sincerely, "You're c-cold too."
"Not as cold as you." Arthur argued shoving it closer to servants face.
Merlin slowly reached out and took it, Arthur didn't like how slowly the boys muscles seemed to be moving. Sluggishly the servant wrapped the cloth around himself like a red cocoon, leaving only his face untouched.
He's too thin, Arthur thinks to himself.
Probably another reason why he was taking the cold so much worse, he was skin and bones.
"You should eat more." Arthur said before he could really think about it, the cold was effecting his thinking somewhat.
"Well, i-if my employer w-would give me the t-time..." Merlin grinned. His lips were blue.
"When we get to Nemeth, I'll give y-you the evening off." Arthur replied seriously.
"R-really?" Merlin's eyes widened slightly.
"You deserve it after what you did today." Arthur replied honestly.
"Thank you." Merlin replied hoarsely.
They lapsed in a semi-awkward silence after that. Broken only when Arthur noticed the servant's eyes drooping.
"Merlin!" He snapped.
The servant jolted awake.
"What?" he groaned.
"Don't go to sleep." Arthur snapped feeling a small amount of panic building in his chest. He probably had a concussion and the cold was no help either.
"R-right..." Merlin muttered.
If he went to sleep now he may never wake up and Arthur could never forgive himself if Merlin died on his watch. It was his job to protect him, though Merlin alway insisted it was the other way around.
"Tell me a story or something." Arthur tried, "Usually I can't get you to shut up."
Merlin laughed a little at that.
"I...told you this trip was a bad idea." He sighed finally.
"Are you trying to get me to admit I was wrong?" Arthur chuckled.
"It's not going to happen."
"But it's true." Merlin slurred, blinking rapidly.
He needed a way of keeping him warm, but he had nothing to start a fire with and in order to share body heat he'd have to shed his armor which would just put him in the same shape as his friend.
Merlin's eyes began to close again.
"Can't you do as you're told!" Arthur snapped.
"Mmhmmm." Merlin nodded, obviously not hearing what had been said.
"Hey!" Arthur grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him none to gently, forcing Merlin's eyes open again.
"You are not going to freeze to death." Arthur ordered, "You hear me? I forbid it."
"I'm not very g-good at doing what 'm told." Merlin muttered darkly. He'd stopped shivering now, which normally would be good, except for the fact that Merlin felt colder, meaning his body was giving up.
Merlin felt tired. Completely, bone achingly tired. He wanted nothing more than to snuggle further down into Arthur's cape and fall asleep though he knew he shouldn't. Earlier he considered using magic to warm himself and Arthur but now he didn't feel he had the strength to.
Even if he did, it would probably do more harm than good. But he had to try right? Sluggishly he managed to move his arm out of the cocoon he'd made himself and laid it's limply against his leg.
"For...F-for..." He murmured, trying to get the spell out but his mouth felt numb and the words wouldn't form.
"Merlin?" Arthur appeared in front of him again.
"Forbeæ..." Merlin tried again, not paying the king any heed, "Forbeæärn..."
A tiny spark of fire formed for a few seconds in his open palm, only to flicker out. Were he more aware he'd of seen the king's eyes widen in shock.
At first he'd taken Merlin's half formed words as delirium but when he saw the small flame form in his servants hand he knew it was something else. Something much worse.
"Magic." he breathed.
"Trying..." Merlin mumbled, "I c-could keep us warm but I...I don't have the energy...'m sorry..."
It was odd because right now Arthur should be feeling fury, he should be raging at Merlin for keeping such a secret, demanding to know why he'd dabbled in such a dark art. But he felt none of that. He knew Merlin, he was kind and brave, if he'd wanted to kill him, he'd of done it by now. Merlin had saved his life more times than Arthur cared to acknowledge.
"Merlin, what are you doing?" He asked, "Where did you...?"
"Born with it..." Merlin mumbled, "You're not angry?"
How could he be? Right now Merlin looked wrecked, pale and glassy eye'd, he wasn't a threat.
"Tell me about it." Arthur told him, "Everything."
This would keep Merlin busy, he'd stay awake until the knights found them.
Merlin slowly told various stories about how he'd save not only Arthur's life but countless others. The stories were disjointed at best, every now and then Arthur was forced to shake him to stop the mans head for falling onto his chest.
"Are...are you going...to kill me?" Merlin asked finally, looking at the king sleepily.
"No." Arthur shook his head, "I wont, ell you what, if you manage to stay awake I'll let you become court sorcerer."
"...I'd like that." Merlin smiled weakly.
Arthur's heart clenched when the servant's eyes closed once more. Quickly he sat down beside the younger man and reached around to grab his shoulder.
"Hey, Merlin...Merlin!" He shook him again but Merlin didn't open his eyes.
"Five minutes Ar'ter..." He murmured weakly, "Jus...five minutes."
"No!" Arthur snapped, "No you can't sleep now!"
"Just rest'n my eyes..." Merlin insisted slumping against the wall.
"No! Merlin you open your eyes right now!" Arthur yelled beginning to panic, "Don't you dare die on me! You're the best friend I've got. You can't just leave me here on my own!"
Merlin's eyes cracked open slightly, the king could see a tiny sliver of blue between the lids.
"That's it." Arthur smiled encouragingly and gripped his shoulders tighter.
"Yes you can. You're one of the strongest people I know." Arthur told him, it was true after all. He deserved to hear it once in a while.
"Was tha' a compliment?" Merlin slurred, he blinked slowly.
"Yeah." Arthur chuckled, "But for God's sakes Merlin don't close your eyes. The others will find us soon, they've got the horses and packs with them. A few blankets and some warm water and you'll be good as new."
Merlin continued to look at Arthur through half closed lids, the king could hear his heavy, wheezy breathing. It was much too slow and shallow.
"You're my best friend, I will not be responsible for your death too." Arthur whispered brokenly.
"S'not your faul' my...b'st friend too." Merlin muttered smilingly weakly. Of course he was smiling even though he was slowly dying, Merlin was always smiling.
"Just hang on a little longer." Arthur implored.
Arthur cursed himself for his pride, for being so cold to Merlin over the years. For not telling him how important his companionship had been and how much he needed him. Merlin's council had been irreplaceable over the last few years. He could remember, only a few months ago when he'd sat on his bed holding the ring he'd proposed to Gwen with telling the servant he had no idea what to do.
Merlin had known what to say, he always knew.
He wasn't sure why but the king began to talk about all the adventures they'd had over the years, Merlin's only reply was to hum to show he was listening. He felt a small weight on his side as Merlin leant against him in his exhaustion. Ordinarily he'd ever let Merlin rest on his shoulder but he'd allow it for now.
He told him about how they'd gone on the quest for the Cup of Life, about the time they'd buried the unicorn horn and seen it live again, about sneaking out of the castle together to go rescue Gwen. Little things to, the conversations they'd shared, all the strange names that Arthur was sure Merlin had just made up.
"Do you remember last year, after the Yuletide Ball?" Arthur muttered, "You'd been working none stop through the entire feast, so afterwards I got the kitchen to send a plate of food up to my room and we shared it but ended up throwing grapes at each other."
Merlin didn't reply.
"Merlin?" Arthur questioned feeling his heart beat faster suddenly. He looked down to see that the younger man was asleep. His breath was slow and shallow and the pause between each one was getting longer with each draw.
Even if the knights did find them soon, Merlin wouldn't be waking up.
"Merlin?" Arthur tried, feeling his eyes burn.
Still nothing. Merlin couldn't hear him.
Arthur gave a quiet sob and hugged the boy closer to him. It wouldn't be much longer.
"I'm sorry." Arthur gasped trying to stop himself crying like a child. Carefully he laid the servant down so he was no longer leaning against the kings armor awkwardly. Gently he laid Merlin's head in his lap and ran his fingers through his hair soothingly just to give his hands something to do. It was inappropriate of course, a servant laying in the kings lap, a servant known to practice magic of all things but Arthur couldn't bring himself to care.
He wanted Merlin to be at peace.
Arthur sat in silence for a little longer, just watching Merlin's breathing gradually reduce until he finally let out a breath and didn't drawn another in.
Arthur let out a shuddering breath. It was all his fault. It was his horse that had gotten stuck. it was he who had gotten caught between the logs of the bridge. It was his idea to go to Nemeth today and he was in charge of Merlin's pay. He should of given him more, so he could of bought gloves and thicker clothes, maybe then he'd of lived.
Hours later, or perhaps in was minutes the sound of yells began to echo through the air. He recognized Gwaine's voice, then the rest of the knights. They were drawing closer.
"Here!" He yelled, the word came out broken, he couldn't help but draw parallels between this and his father's stabbing. A body in his lap and calling desperately for help that was too little too late.
It was Leon, he was close Arthur could tell.
"Here." he called again, he didn't have the energy to yell anymore and for some reason he didn't want to get up.
"Princess!" Gwaine grinned when he appeared at the mouth of the cave, "We've been looking...everywhere."
He trailed off when he saw the very pale body of Merlin laying in the kings lap, still wrapped in the cloak. Arthur saw the blood drain from the knights face.
"He...He hit his head and the cold..." Arthur tried to explain, "I kept him awake as long as I could..."
"We need to take him back to Gaius." He said finally without any emotion, so serious, so unlike Gwaine.
The knight gently picked up the tiny servant and took him outside. By now Leon had arrived and helped the unsteady king to his feet.
"It's not your fault sire." He muttered as he placed a thick blanket around his shoulders but Arthur wasn't listening. He was watching as Merlin's small frame was placed gently on his horse.
"I'll ride with him." Arthur said finally, "My horse was lost to the river, I may as well take his."
Nobody questioned it. They all began to walk on, get on their horses ready for the ride.
Arthur remembered the last time he'd been in this situation, Merlin had begged to go with him and Arthur had seen him off, squeezing his shoulder reassuringly.
Then only days later Merlin had appeared, healthy, grinning like the idiot he was and Arthur had never felt so relieved.
But that wouldn't happen this time.
Never again would he get to yell at Merlin for not knocking.
Never again would they secretly spend hours talking and sharing food in Arthur's chambers.
Never again would Arthur be able to turn to him for advice.
Sighing and ignoring the burning behind his closed lids Arthur pressed his forehead to Merlin's cold temple.
"This is my fault. And I'm sorry."
So yeah that just happened...
I hope you liked, please review and tell me your thoughts.