Yes, it's been a month, I know. I'm sorry! But, Merlin ended and I cried and then ... well, I don't really have many excuses. But here's the next installment.
Enjoy, and review!
They'd managed to get him down the stairs, barely. It would have been much easier if Merlin hadn't decided halfway down that his legs just wouldn't work anymore, and lurched headfirst down the stone steps – if not for the reflexes of the two men that held him, reflexes that came with years of training, Merlin probably wouldn't have seen the morning.
Arthur pushed the thought away irritably, and concentrated on other, more important, things.
Like the fact Merlin had fallen silent, and his lips had a bluish tinge to them that Arthur did not trust in the slightest.
Gwaine was still chattering away, an almost hysterical edge to his voice. "And Merlin, honestly, you should have seen her – she had the most gorgeous figure, and she gave me free rounds of ale! You hear that? Free rounds, all night! And then, after –"
"Stop, Gwaine." Arthur couldn't think. "No one wants to hear about that." Gwaine shot him a sheepish grin, gently tugging Merlin's arm to check he was still with them. Merlin murmured something incoherent in agreement.
They managed the last few steps with relative ease. Elyan and Leon had been true to their word, a small fire blazing in the centre of the room, casting odd shadows on the dusty walls. Arthur didn't doubt that Percival had been the one that had been doing most of the work, judging by the state of what had, the last time he'd been here, been a fully functioning whole wardrobe.
"It was a good night though," Gwaine muttered. Arthur didn't deem that worthy of a response.
Gingerly, they lay Merlin down by the fire, as close as they dared. The flames highlighted his already pale face, illuminating the pain that seemed to be etched into his skin.
"Here." Arthur knelt down, wrapping his cloak around Merlin's shuddering body. "You'd better stay awake, you hear me? We can't be having you dropping off."
"'m tired," Merlin slurred, his voice barely more than a whisper.
"You're always tired, you lazy idiot," Arthur said fondly, putting a hand to his forehead. It was ice cold, much colder than any living being should be. Trying to ignore the panic that rose in his throat, he smiled thinly, as Merlin's eyes searched out his own. "It's why I spend more mornings waking you up than you do waking me. Sometimes I think I would make a better servant than you do."
"'s sleeping 'fore you came," Merlin mumbled, eyes sliding half closed, "You prat."
Arthur breathed in again and again in an effort to calm himself. "Gwaine," he commanded, his voice strained even to his own ears, "You have first watch."
He could see the conflict that flashed across the man's face, as Gwaine bristled at the idea of leaving Merlin's side.
"If you think I'm –"
"First watch, Gwaine." Of all the things Arthur needed right now, Gwaine's boiling frustration was not one of them – the knight needed to cool down, and if that meant keeping him away from Merlin for a while, then so be it. Gwaine, however, did not agree.
"Arthur –" he growled, narrowing his eyes. Arthur met his gaze coolly, his face impassive.
"I need you on watch. If Morgana returns, we need to know."
Gwaine glared, but he was a knight now, and there were limits to how far he could push Arthur when he was like this. He knelt beside Merlin, pointedly pulling Arthur's cloak just that little bit tighter around the man's shoulders.
"You take care of him Princess." It was an order, not a request.
After a moment, Arthur turned to Percival. He didn't even need to speak – the man just nodded, and followed in Gwaine's footsteps.
Mordred stood just outside the doorway, waiting. He was used to this – the hiding in the shadows, the blending in, but he hadn't had to do it in so long, it felt strange. He'd hoped he would never have to do it again. Perhaps not.
He walked past Arthur, but the man didn't so much as look at him. Mordred didn't expect anything less. Among other things, the druids had taught him how to remain unseen – a skill that they had perfected, through necessity rather than whim. Being a hunted race taught you things.
There was a groan, a sharp intake of breath from the corner of the room. Arthur murmured something that Mordred couldn't make out – that he didn't want to make out. Merlin's – Emrys' – whimpers followed him as he descended the stairs, ringing in his ears even when Mordred logically knew he was out of earshot.
Mordred couldn't shake the thought that he had done this. He was the one responsible for the magical community's only saviour laying in a cold, abandoned room, his lifeblood staining the stairs. Perhaps he and Morgana were more alike than he would have liked to think.
No. Mordred shook his head, trying to shake the thought from his head. He would never be like her – once she had a good heart, but now? Now she was twisted by hatred and a lust for revenge, killing in the name of the old religion. Mordred didn't want that. He yearned for a time when magic was accepted once more and he no longer had to hide his true identity, but what he didn't require was the rest of the kingdom to pay for Uther's sins, much less the men who had accepted him so readily into their brotherhood.
He had loved Emrys like a brother, more than willing to do anything he asked, yet the man had pushed him away time and again. Merlin didn't do that without good reason – Mordred was beginning to think that may be Merlin knew more than he was letting on. Things about Mordred that even Mordred himself didn't know.
That thought scared him.
He let out a scream of frustration. No one heard him.
Gently rolling Merlin towards him, Arthur swallowed thickly. His servant's tunic was crusty beneath his fingers, the rust-red blossoming outwards like a sickness that couldn't be cured. The fabric he'd used to try and staunch the wound had already become stained that dark colour that Arthur was beginning to hate so much, and was practically fused to Merlin's skin by dried blood. It was better to tear it off in one go than prolong the pain by removing it bit by bit, that much he knew.
"I need to have a look at it," Arthur said, almost apologetically.
Merlin inhaled sharply.
Arthur's fingers gingerly parted the fraying corners of Merlin's tunic, trying to get to the newly exposed skin. He could hear Leon behind him, rummaging through their packs to try and find the meagre supplies they had to treat something like this. Efficient as ever, he thought with a wry smile.
The wound itself was deep, but thankfully lacked the angry red colour that screamed infection. What concerned Arthur the most was the fact that it still seemed to be weeping, after all this time – if what Mordred had said was true, then the wound wouldn't stop bleeding any time soon, either. Merlin was already a deathly pale – there was only so much blood one man could lose.
"It's only blood loss," Leon commented softly, as he appeared at Arthur's side. "Nothing else. That, at least, is something to be thankful for."
Somehow, Arthur still couldn't bring himself to be thankful for that. Not when Merlin lay in front of him, struggling for breath.
"I don't know how we'll stop the bleeding, but it needs to be cleaned. Do you want me to –"
"No." Arthur's tone was much firmer than he felt. "I'll do it."
If Leon thought there was anything odd with this, he didn't voice his opinion. Once there was a time that Leon would have scoffed at the idea of the King attending to a mere servant, much more when that king was Arthur, but that time had passed. He knew by now that Merlin's life was equal to that of any knight of the realm, and although there was still a part of him that objected to this abandon of protocol, he also understood why it was so.
He nodded, withdrawing. "Sire."
Arthur picked up the rag Leon had left, turning over the flimsy material in his hand. He doubted this would be enough to ward off infection on its own. He sighed, lips drawn tight.
"I'll get it cleaned up," Arthur murmured, not quite sure whom he was addressing "and then you can tell us why you sneaked off in the first place." Drawing his blade, he began to rip through the tunic.
Merlin groaned half-heartedly. "'m already gonna have one scar, don't want 'nother."
"I'm glad you have such faith in my abilities," Arthur retorted, his voice strained. He studiously ignored the small whimpering noises that Merlin tried his best to hide when the rough material pulled at raw skin, slipping back into the insults that were so familiar to him. "I don't know what you're making such a fuss about."
"'d like to see you –"
His hands most certainly did not shake when Merlin's breath hitched, trailing off mid-sentence. Or when his servant suddenly became stiff and still. "Merlin?"
No. Not now.
Arthur swallowed down a curse. Grasping Merlin by the shoulders, he shook him carefully, looking for some sign of recognition. Nothing.
Arthur's breath caught in his throat. Merlin couldn't have –
"Merlin, don't you dare."
The pounding of his own heart was suddenly much too loud in his own hears. With trembling fingers, he searched Merlin's neck, trying to locate a pulse.
Merlin had always been there, even when he shouldn't have been. Merlin was the lucky one – he always got out alive, no matter what. They couldn't lose Merlin, not like this – it just didn't seem right. Merlin didn't deserve to die at a sorcerer's hand, left alone in the cold for far too long with a wound that refused to heal. Not only a slow and painful death, but a lonely one too.
Please, you idiot.
After what seemed like an eternity, Arthur managed to find a small, weak beat underneath the cool skin. It was much weaker than normal, and worryingly erratic, but it was there, and right now that was all that mattered.
"Gods Merlin, don't do that to me." He was using that commanding tone again, the one that Merlin hated. Arthur let out a shaky breath, feeling slightly sick with relief. He sat back on his heels, dragging a bloodied hand through his hair. "Don't ever do that again."
Merlin's head had fallen to the side, closed eyelids turned towards the flames of the fire. He looked at ease for the first time since they had found him, and Arthur simply didn't have the heart to try and wake him again. After all, there was nothing more he could do for him – they simply didn't have the supplies or the knowledge to treat a magical wound such as this. What they needed was Gaius, but he was back in Camelot, and Camelot was a day's ride away.
"Why must you always be so difficult?" Arthur murmured. He got no answer.
He looked around the deserted room, suddenly thankful that no one had been there to witness his … display of weakness. He sat for a moment, the dull thrum of conversation from the floor below mingling with Merlin's barely-there breaths. The man's lips were still tinted that worrying shade of blue.
After going to such lengths to find him, the least the ungrateful fool could do would be to last the night.
It hurt. Of course it did, it always hurt.
Merlin scrunched his eyes up against the pain, willed it to go away like it had before, but it didn't. It just mixed in with the bright light and the sudden warmth and Arthur's voice and he just wanted it to stop.
It hurt to breathe, and he was so tired. May be if he just didn't…
Then suddenly, nothing hurt quite so much anymore. It was almost like slipping underwater, except he was pretty sure there wasn't any water, and he could still hear Arthur grumbling faintly in the distance. He sounded rather angry. He was always angry.
But despite all that, Arthur came, Merlin thought contentedly, as he finally lost his grip on consciousness. Like he always does.
Gwaine and Percival were just as oblivious to Mordred's presence as Arthur had been.
" – if Arthur thinks that I'm just going to let Merlin die here, he's got another thing coming." Gwaine was still fuming, but the anger had given way to a quieter emotion – a desperate fear for Merlin's life, just as potent.
"He cares for Merlin just as you do," Percival pointed out, the voice of reason. "You know he would not let him die, not if there was anything that could be done to save him."
"We're a day's ride from Camelot," Gwaine groaned, his voice breaking. "There's not guarantee that he'll last the night."
There was a lull in the conversation, and Mordred could feel the despair that hung in the air around them. He had no idea why Merlin meant so much to Gwaine - a man who made friends easily, but never let them get too close. Unless they were female, or had a large supply of ale.
"I just … feel guilty." Gwaine's voice was hesitant, a rare moment when the bravado was dropped and the real man emerged. "After Arthur became King, we've all been busy with all those 'knightly duties' that he assigns us that I never see him any more. I brush him off. He's meant to be my friend, and I have … I've let him down." He sighed, kicking at the worn stone. "I never wanted to be a knight."
There was another pause.
"If Mordred hadn't let him go –"
"It wasn't Mordred's fault." Percival's voice was firm. "You know that Merlin knows how to twist people's arms if he's intent on getting a job done. Mordred just did what he thought was right."
And, suddenly, Mordred realised that there was a way he could fix this.
Not waiting to hear any more, he slipped off into the night, a single goal in mind. One that would regain the knight's trust and, perhaps, show Emrys once and for all that their intentions were one and the same. A chance at redemption.