Title: I'll Carry You ('Til You Carry On)
Summary: By the time Arthur catches up, Merlin's been in enemy hands for three full days.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
AN – based off of this picture on tumblr (whimsycatcher dot tumblr dot com slash post slash 28884234033). A snippet presented with little backstory and no explanation why Arthur and Merlin are sans knights. Enjoy!
By the time Arthur catches up with them, Merlin's been in enemy hands for three full days.
He's heavy against Arthur's back, now, as he carries him west towards Camelot.
Merlin was awake, when Arthur snuck into the camp. He was awake while Arthur picked the locks of the heavy manacles. When the metal unclicked and fell free Merlin had let out a peculiar hiss and a strange pop had sounded in the air. When Arthur had given him a questioning look, he'd only shaken his head. He'd not been able to walk, and so Arthur carried him away while the men drank and talked by their fire.
Now, nearly two hours since they'd left the men's camp, Merlin is asleep, or maybe unconscious, but completely out either way. Arthur has him on his back, his arms are limp and hanging over Arthur's chest.
As he walks, all Arthur can see of Merlin are his hands and, if he looks down, his feet and his legs to his knees. The skin around Merlin's wrists is worn down and bloody from the chains, the soles of his feet are scratched and bleeding. They must have made him walk barefoot over the wet and muddy ground, with his arms tied behind his back. The thought makes Arthur tighten his grip on Merlin's legs, and he has to pause for a moment. Merlin's skin is fever hot against his neck, through the fabric of his trousers, and Arthur doesn't want to think about any of it at all, but now that he's started he can't not.
Merlin would've tried to escape. He would've made a run for it at the first chance he had. No doubt his hands were already bound. No doubt that, at that attempt, he was caught and mouthed off and, Arthur assumed, that was when they took his boots and marched on. Merlin would have gotten quieter as he grew colder – a low temperature was one of the few things Arthur could count on for a few moments quiet – and would've gritted his teeth and went on until he tipped over.
Arthur wonders if they dragged him. Merlin's clothes are ripped, and he has enough scratches covering him, it's all too possible.
He wants to turn around and go back and kill them all.
He realizes how hard he's gripping Merlin's legs when Merlin makes an odd snuffling noise, one of his legs jerking slightly. Arthur looks over to Merlin's face, covered with scratches and bruises and a line of blood that trickles down from his hair. He's pale, and the shadows under his eyes seem as dark as his hair.
The anger drains out of Arthur, leaving him feeling heavy and sad. They'd never even gone after Merlin if it wasn't for Arthur. They wouldn't have gotten Merlin if Arthur had fought harder and hadn't let his guard drop. Arthur forces himself to relax.
Merlin's eyelids flutter, and he makes the same snuffling noise, but he doesn't wake. Something in Arthur's chest breaks a little. He squares his shoulders, and adjusts Merlin a little, and then moves forward once more.
There's a particularly strong and cold blast of wind and Merlin shudders. Arthur's only taken a handful more steps, and he stops again. Merlin has no shoes. Merlin has no jacket. Merlin has no clothes with him that aren't torn and dirty and smeared with blood. It is cold out, now, and will be colder when the night comes.
They need to make camp.
Arthur settles Merlin at the base of a tree. They have no medical supplies – what little they'd brought along for the hunt had been in Merlin's bag, and Merlin's bag had been taken from him. There are cuts and scrapes all along Merlin's back – Arthur can see them through the tears in his shirt. Arthur lifts the threadbare fabric for a moment, and presses along Merlin's ribs. None of them feel broken, but Merlin's breathing hitches and he tries to squirm away from Arthur's hand. So Arthur lowers Merlin's shirt back down, and swings off his red cloak to wrap around his manservant.
"I'm sorry," Arthur says, briefly resting his hand on Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin's only answer is to curl his hands into the cloak and burrow down so only his forehead and tufts of hair are showing. As far as Arthur can tell, he hasn't woken.
Arthur doesn't venture far from the small clearing to collect some firewood, and every few moments glances over to where Merlin lays.
By the time he has enough for the night, Arthur builds up the fire. It's while he's trying unsuccessfully to light it that a tremor runs through Merlin and he jerks awake. "Arthur?" he says.
"Merlin," Arthur says. He shifts closer. "How're you feeling?"
Merlin considers for a moment. Arthur watches as his eyes sweep the clearing, empty only for himself and Arthur and a pile of wood. Arthur watches as Merlin shifts experimentally and as Merlin winces. "Fine," Merlin says, at last, and Arthur knows he's lying, but also knows that there's nothing he can really do about it. "Bit cold."
"I'm working on that," says Arthur. He goes back to trying to light a fire. Two more tries, and it bursts into flame. Arthur looks back to Merlin, and for a moment the flames make his eyes look gold. Arthur watches as Merlin stretches his legs a little, his hurt feet poking out from beneath the cloak. Almost immediately, Merlin draws them back under.
"They took my boots," Merlin mutters.
"I'm sure you did something to make them do it," Arthur says.
"I only kicked the one," Merlin says, forlorn, like he was caught trying to steal sweets from the kitchen. It startles a laugh out of Arthur. Merlin, delirious, idiotic Merlin, furrows his eyebrows. "I liked my boots."
"I'll get you new ones," Arthur answers. Then he reaches out and tugs lightly on Merlin's neckerchief. Like everything else, it's now tattered and stained with blood. "The real crime is that they let you keep this."
Merlin hums, but he's fighting to keep his eyes open, cuddling the cloak closer around his shoulders.
"Rest, Merlin," Arthur says. He reaches over and adjusts the cloak, so Merlin is more securely covered. By the time he rocks back on his heels, Merlin's eyes are closed and his breathing is even again.
Arthur doesn't sleep that night. He sits and watches the fire flicker and the shadows deepen and wonders if he'll ever be able to get Merlin's blood off of his armor.
When the sun rises, Arthur shakes Merlin awake and forces him into eating what little food is left, and pretends to drink from the last of their water so that Merlin will have more. Arthur tells himself it doesn't matter – they'll find more food, probably, and more water, definitely.
Arthur lets Merlin keep the cloak wrapped around him.
"Ready?" he asks.
"I don't think I can walk," Merlin says, whispering. He sounds ashamed. It makes Arthur want to punch someone in the throat.
"Arms over my shoulders, then," Arthur says. Merlin must be feeling truly awful, because he just does as Arthur asks, even if his cheeks flush. It makes him look even more sickly. But Arthur just hoists him up and turns away from the rising sun, plodding forward. He knows Merlin's awake now, unlike yesterday, because every three steps or so Merlin makes a small, aborted noise, like he's trying to hold back a whine of pain.
Arthur continues on, following the sun, heading west. Heading home.