Rating: PG-13, Gen
Warning: Scene of non-explicit torture.
Characters: Merlin, Arthur, Gwaine
Summary: Merlin saves the day - yet again - when he manages to get an injured Arthur and knights to safety. But Merlin's troubles are far from over when an investigation into what had happened to the king and knights leaves him in a bad way, and now it's Arthur and Gwaine's turn to be there for him.
A/N: Written for the Bromance big Bang over on LJ. Also, this story's a long one for a one-shot. Please don't complain. I also apologize for any html tags I may have missed. The little suckers are sneaky.
Merlin decided that he hated the rain, which wasn't particularly fair since the rain hadn't actually done anything except prove its penchant for inconsiderate timing. But it was heavy, cold, soaking Merlin through his clothes all the way to the bone and exacerbating an already precarious situation, and that made it a convenient target for his mounting frustration.
Merlin looked back, blinking through curtains of water at the line of barely conscious knights and one unconscious king on horseback. Those not draped without dignity over their saddles were slumped dangerously with the promise of sliding in an ungainly heap to the ground at any moment, and would have done so if Merlin hadn't spelled them to stay put. Merlin looked ahead to the pinprick of lights pouring warmly from distant windows, promising salvation. He had been doing this every ten minutes, making sure his charges were breathing and that those distant lights weren't some trick of a desperate mind.
Merlin's horse plodded forward through mud and muck, and the rest of the horses followed, banded together against their will by rope tied to their reins. It was a vicious temptation to want to nudge the horse into a run, to reach those far away windows in less time, but Merlin could feel his spell going weak, and the last thing any of them needed was for him to get jostled and jarred into unconsciousness.
Merlin needed to lay the blame where the blame was due - on bandits, secret paths and treacherous guides who cared only for lining their own pockets with gold. But the rain was there, relentless, biting and numbing bodies already too weak, and it made time feel as though it were sluicing quickly away. Any longer out in this wet chill and one of the men behind him would soon succumb. It would be Arthur, Merlin knew it, because Arthur would make Merlin's life miserable like that. He'd also lost the most blood.
Neither had he moved, let alone groaned, since Merlin had begun this desperate trek.
Although spurring the horse into a run was out of the question, Merlin dared at least to nudge it into a trot. The bouncing aggravated Merlin's ribs but he clutched them and endured with gritted teeth and his heart in his throat. It was worth the pain. Finally the house itself loomed into view, tall, dark, condescending and the most glorious mansion Merlin had ever seen.
"Hello!" he called, and felt more than heard his voice break from the pain in his chest. He coughed wetly and tried again. "Hello! We need help! King Arthur and his men have been attacked. There are injuries. We need shelter and a physician, please!"
It was to Merlin's great relief that his call was answered immediately. Great wooden doors moaned open, spilling light across the sopping ground. Merlin could just see, through the rain and fading daylight, someone step out carrying a lantern. Merlin made sure to approach at an angle that revealed to whoever was standing there the red livery of Camelot.
A shout of alarm immediately went up. Merlin's newest sense of relief made his last bout premature. People poured through the doors like the rain water through the mouths of the gargoyles. Some grabbed the reins of the horses while the rest gently eased each body from the saddle (seconds before Merlin nearly forgot to release the spell) and carried them into the house.
"What happened, boy?" someone demanded. Merlin dismounted without help although it would have been greatly appreciated. He gripped his ribs – fat lot of good it did – and took a moment to let the pain ebb before following the men into the house and speaking.
"Bandits. We were returning from peace talks in Mercia but our usual path home was washed away by floods. A man from a Camelot village offered to show us another way but betrayed us instead. We've all sustained damage but King Arthur's is the worst."
As was the protocol when it came to kings, Arthur was taken to one chamber and the knights another, but it was the king that Merlin followed. They were guest chambers, near-bare and in need of a good airing-out but a far cry from the muddy earth, with only the trees keeping the rain off and barely. The household staff hadn't wasted time fetching the physician. Arthur had only been stretched out on the naked bed for less than a minute when a tall, gangly and balding man in maroon robes bustled through, pushing staff and guards aside to get to his patient. Another man followed close on his heels, also in robes, but broadly built and his robes resplendent green and trimmed with fur.
"What is his state, Miles?" Lord Aldon demanded. It had taken Merlin a moment to place his face – the older lords had a bad habit of being doppelgangers of each other with their graying hair and long but neatly trimmed beards. Aldon, Merlin recalled, was not Arthur's biggest supporter where land distribution was concerned, but when it came to bandits within the borders there was no one better to deal with the matter. No lord took attacks on Camelot lightly, but lord Aldon could be like a hound on the scent if he so much as heard a whisper of potential hostility.
"It is too soon to say, my lord," Miles said. "His highness has taken a cut to the abdomen, but it does not look deep and the wound has been well cared for. I assume your work, boy?" he asked without looking up.
Merlin, dripping, shivering and still clutching his flank, nodded since his chattering teeth wouldn't let him speak. He'd seen how Arthur had received his wound first hand. He remembered it as clearly as though it had happened only moments ago; recalled, with a nauseas stomach, turning right when the sword was in the middle of slicing through Arthur's upper gut and Merlin too late to fling the attacker away with magic.
He'd been too slow, and Arthur had fallen.
Sometimes, Merlin felt Arthur was right about him. He was a clumsy idiot. Merlin had tripped, of all things - over a body ihe/i had brought down - followed by a clip to the ribs from the hoof of a runaway horse. Some bloody magical protector he was.
"Excellent work," Miles went on, pulling Merlin from his self-deprecation. "You must have taken lessons from Gaius. A great deal of blood was lost but his circulation is promising."
"Details, boy, what happened?" Lord Aldon cut in gruffly.
Merlin gave him as much of those details as he could (specifically as much as he could about the location, knowing enough about Lord Aldon to know he would want what remained of these bandits dealt with immediately). The attack had taken place about five miles from the village, the bandits swarming from the woods like wasps, and the "guide" attempting to break away from the group and the fighting. And he would have if Merlin hadn't pulled him off his horse with a spell. Confused and disoriented, the man had stumbled around until finally being run through by Percival.
"Who were these men? Mercians? Those in league with Morgana?" Aldon demanded.
Merlin could only shrug one shoulder helplessly. "I'm sorry, my lord. Nothing about their dress spoke of any specific allegiance. Those not killed escaped."
Lord Aldon nodded sharply. "But there will be bodies. I want them found. Valson!"
At Lord Aldon's gruff call a new man entered the chamber, a man Merlin took an instant disliking too. It wasn't fair, or right, to judge so quickly but the man was so remarkably similar to the witch finder that Merlin was glad he was already shivering since he couldn't repress a shudder. The man was tall, lean, more broad-chested than the witch-finder as well as bald, but his face just as aquiline and cold.
"My lord?" Valson said with a voice like sickly sweet honey.
"There's been treachery within our borders, I want you to look into it, starting with the attack on our king." Aldon reiterated all that Merlin had said, then swept a hand vaguely in Merlin's direction. "The boy was there when the attack occurred should you need more information. But I want those bandits found!"
Valson bowed. "My lord." He cast a brief glance Merlin's way, short enough to get a generally sense of what he looked like, long enough to send another shiver down Merlin's spine. It was like being assessed by a bloody snake.
But then Valson was gone, as though Merlin's testimony of the event was of no importance. The man slid from the room, long-coat billowing out behind him. Lord Aldon lingered near the bed, his face thunderous as he watched Miles work. Then, after a moment, he, too, swept from the room leaving only Miles, Arthur, a servant to fetch whatever Miles needed, and Merlin.
Merlin sidled closer to the bed despite his body's plea to move closer to the fire the servant was currently stoking. Merlin was freezing, aching, his ribs throbbing and his lungs feeling heavy but the need to know that Arthur was going to be all right buried them all. The wound had already been cleansed, more honey added, and Miles was now readying a needle and thread to close the gash. The cut might not have been deep, but it was long. Had it been deeper, had it cut through the intestines...
Merlin swallowed thickly and looked away. He hated Arthur's mail and armor on the best of days when he was forced to polish the blasted stuff until it was shining. On the worst days, he loved every hard-to-scrub nook, cranny and dent of it. Had it not been for that mail, Arthur would be dead.
Merlin's heavy lungs decided they'd had enough. Merlin coughed into his fist, nothing excessive but still hell on his ribs. He groaned between coughs. Miles glanced up from his work long enough to glare at him.
"If you are ill then I would suggest distancing yourself from the king. He is too weak to battle a fever on top of his injuries. Geth?"
"Sir?" the young mouse-haired man tending the fire said, straightening.
"Take this boy to the servants' quarters. I will see to him when I have finished with the king and his knights."
"Oh," said the boy dejectedly. "I'm... I'm sorry, master Miles, but the servant rooms are filled. Eskgrove was flooded, master, remember? The villagers are taking shelter here."
Miles rolled his eyes with a heavy sigh. "Find the boy someplace where he'll be out of the way, then, and be quick about it."
Geth bowed, then waved Merlin to follow. "This way."
The manor, from the outside, was impressive but nothing compared to Camelot. The inside was another matter, big and imposing and nearly as labyrinthine as Camelot itself. Geth said nothing as he led Merlin through carpeted halls, past marble statues and massive tapestries. He eventually brought Merlin through a small door, up a narrow flight of stairs and into what appeared to be a storage room with a roof in desperate need of repair. Sacks had been piled against the wall like animals huddling as far as possible from the water dripping from various holes in the tile, and the single window had been patched by stuffing cloths through the broken spots of glass.
"Sorry about this," said Geth with a mild cringe and a sympathetic look. "It's the only bit of this place I know of that isn't packed to bursting. You can sleep on the sacks if you wish, though. I'd bring up a cot but they've all been taken for the villagers." He winced again.
Merlin gave him a reassuring smile. "It's fine. I've slept in worse places, believe me."
Geth smiled weakly back. "I'll make sure Master Miles pays you a visit. He can be a bit forgetful when focused." He then hurried off as though anxious to make sure that visit happened.
Merlin would have preferred it if Geth had offered to bring his things. He had no idea where the stables were, let alone the front door – he'd been more focused on Arthur at the time than where he was going. Speaking of, neither did he know how to find Arthur's chambers again, or knew where the knights had been taken.
Merlin sat down stiffly on the sacks, his hand glued to his side. The sack beneath him was solid and rounded. Not grain – no one in their right mind would store sacks of grain in a place so leaky. Sand, then, to line the banks of rivers during flood time, and that there were so few of them meant that they had been used, most likely for the village.
Good. A lord willing to do so much for his vassals would not hesitate in doing everything he could for his king and his men. Arthur and the knights were in good hands. They would be fine, perfectly fine. No reason for Merlin to be there, risking their lives unnecessarily with his coughing.
As if provoking his lungs with the mere thought of coughs, Merlin hacked wetly into his arms. His ribs cramped as though grinding into each other, making it difficult to take deep enough breaths. Moaning, Merlin curled into himself on his good side, taking as much pressure off his flank as he could. He reminded himself, as he had done more than once, that at least he wasn't as bad off as the others, with their cuts and blood loss: Gwaine with his broken arm, Percival with a slice to the thigh and arm, Leon who'd been clocked on the head and Elyan with a stab to the shoulder that a quick dodge had kept from ending up dangerously deep. They were all in a bad way, but they were in good hands, now – warm, safe, their wounds being more thoroughly tended. Merlin had kept them alive, had brought them to safety, they had to be all right.
Merlin didn't realize he had fallen asleep, or even could fall asleep with how freezing he was, when he woke to a rather exhausted and impatient Miles standing over him.
"Up, boy. I've no inclination to waste time waiting on you to clear the cobwebs in your head," Miles said airily. He was just as impatient checking Merlin over, snapping at him to lift his shirt and only just remembering to be gentle as he fingered the bruises on Merlin's side. Two broken ribs was the verdict, and Miles bandaged them with clipped orders for Merlin not to do anything strenuous and ruin the physician's work. But at least he had Geth get him a blanket, not wanting that cough to get any worse.
Which meant having to sleep in his undershorts while his shirt and trousers dried. The bags beneath him were hard and lumpy, the chamber chilled, but the blanket at least was thick. Then his stomach growled reminding him of something else he'd had to do without. He couldn't remember the last time he ate – last night, at dinner. The bandits had attacked in the morning, and there had been no time to spare to so much as nibble a bit of cheese while Merlin had brought Arthur and the knights to safety.
But that's what tomorrows were for, when everything would be bright and shiny and Arthur awake to give Merlin grief. And if Merlin could survive trudging through the rain with five injured men, with broken ribs and an empty stomach, he could survive a night resting in a leaky old storage room.
Merlin woke stiff, cold and coughing without mercy, which then made his ribcage lock up. His clothes were still damp, it was still raining, and after wandering shivering through the manor until he ran into Geth, he learned that neither Arthur nor the knights were awake.
"Miles gave them something to sleep and heal," Geth said contritely, though Merlin wasn't sure why. It wasn't like it was Geth's fault that everyone was under, and being asleep iwould/i do them good. "And... and that you were not to see them, if you were sick," he added, even more contrite.
Ah, that was why.
But the king and his knights were showing signs of improved health, Geth promised. They had survived the night, and when an injured body survives a night of hardship and uncertainty it could only go up from there, and none of their wounds were infected.
Merlin had Geth show him to the stables to fetch the various supplies and the saddlebags containing the Mercian treaty. He cursed himself for not asking Geth where the kitchens were, but the servant had to leave, chores to do and lords to attend to and all that. Merlin understood all too well.
Merlin carried the bags and supplies to his leaky chamber, wishing that the place at least had a bloody hearth so he could dry everything (and, yes, warm up so that he would stop shivering, already). Lords, he'd never thought there'd come a day when he'd miss cleaning Arthur's chambers. At least tidying them up would have put him close to a fire.
Merlin's stomach gargled. He glared at it. "Oh will you Shut up, already? I'll get something when I can."
"Am I interrupting?"
Merlin jumped, spun around, and jumped again.
Valson was standing in the doorway. Tall, dark, and wearing a black long coat, Merlin had nearly taken him for the witch hunter. But knowing he wasn't the hunter didn't make a lick of difference, the man still chilled Merlin's blood.
"No, my lord, of course not," Merlin said quickly with a polite (if shaky) smile.
Valson smiled ever so slightly in return. "Please, young man, I am no more a lord than you are. In fact, I believe I should be paying deference to you, being the personal man servant to the king."
Merlin shrugged sheepishly. "It's a station that's never made much difference in my lot in life, believe me. Did you need something, er... master…?"
"Valson will do, I suppose," Valson said as he made his way further into the room. His smile grew. "Merlin, is it?"
"Yes," Merlin said.
"I do apologize, Merlin, but I am afraid I need to steal you away for a moment if you are not too busy. Although his lordship has told me all you have told him, I find myself in need of your testimony of the events one more time." He glanced around in mild displeasure. "Although I can think of far more comfortable places in which we could talk. Come with me."
Merlin followed Valson, it seemed, in a direction the complete opposite of when Geth had brought Merlin to the storage room. Rather than up, they went down, following winding flights of stairs and halls that seemed to narrow the further they went. Where ever their destination, Merlin could not fathom how it could be any more comfortable than the storage room. The walls were smoke-stained and slick with moisture, and the air foul smelling and moldering.
They passed through a thick wooden door warped and graying with age. Inside was a plain square room devoid of windows, molding straw littering the floor, and the only furnishings – if it could even be called that – a single hook hanging from the ceiling.
Valson said nothing. He turned to Merlin, and with a snap of Valson's fingers the door slammed shut, then large hands gripped both of Merlin's arms like a vice. Confusion made Merlin struggle but the two previously unnoticed guards holding him barely twitched in effort to keep him in place.
"What is this, what's going on?" Merlin demanded, squirming like a worm in a bird's claw.
"A quest to obtain all the facts, Master Merlin," Valson said casually as he took a coil of rope from within his coat and tossed it over the hook. "More accurately, to eliminate possibilities." Another snap of Valson's fingers, and the two guards forced Merlin's hands together. Valson wrapped the other end of the rope tight around Merlin's wrists.
"As manservant to the king, you've been witness to the betrayals our king has had to suffer," Valson said. "You've seen those loyal to him, those he was certain he could trust, turn and stab him in the back. The King Uther's ward was the first, I believe. And recently lord Agravaine. Even the smallest child is painfully aware of Agravaine's treachery. Both were close to the king, were they not? And now an attack, and by a man who had volunteered as guide, you say? It seems anyone can be bought for the right price these days."
A nod of Valson's head and Merlin's arms were released. Merlin glanced back in wide-eyed horror to see the two guards take up the other end of the rope and pull. Merlin's arms were yanked up over his head. He yelped in alarm.
"What are you doing!"
"Merlin," Valson said calmly. "How long have you been manservant to the king?"
"Five years! Why! What are you doing?"
"Five years," said Valson, pacing like a man with all the time in the world. "You've been at the king's side for five years. The Lady Morgana was the king's ward for much longer."
"So? What's she got to do with this? What is this!"
Valson paused, looked at Merlin, and arched his eyebrow in a way similar to when Gaius was contemplating if Merlin was really that obtuse. "I told you, Master Merlin, an elimination of possibilities. Being in the service to a king for five years does not necessarily equate a solid foundation of loyalty. As I said, anyone can be bought for the right price. I am merely making sure you are not anyone."
Merlin breaths came rapidly, his heart racing too fast for his lungs to keep up. "I'm not! Did you think I did this, that I betrayed the king? Is that it?"
"That is what I am here to find out. Did you betray him?"
Valson stared at him, studying him with unnerving, unflappable calm. Then, a nod of his head, and the ropes pulled at Merlin's wrist, lifting his body off the ground. Merlin's arms stretched, his body stretched, spreading his broken ribs and making him cry out.
"Why are you doing this, I would never betray Arthur!"
"And I am sure Lord Agravaine said much the same thing," Valson said.
"I'm not Agravaine. Gods, please!" He coughed. "I can't breathe!"
"No, I imagine breathing is difficult. The body does not take to being suspended by the arms well. But I find immense discomfort to be a wonderful motivator when it comes to seeking the truth."
Merlin panted as his compressed and congested lungs fought to take in as much air as they could, each attempt like a sword to his side, the pain ripping through his chest and robbing him of more air.
"Please. I would never betray Arthur. I would die before I betrayed him. You – you don't b-betray a man then... then save his life. You don't – don't work for someone for five bloody years... have all that time to do something... and do it five years later..."
"Depends on what it is you are trying to accomplish, as well as how patient you are," Valson said. He began circling Merlin, and on the fourth pass paused by his side, regarding it curiously. "I recall it being said that the entire party was injured. You're reacting to being suspended rather poorly far too quickly." He lifted Merlin's shirt. "Ah. I see." Then pressed his hand to Merlin's flank and squeezed.
Merlin screamed. "Stoooop! Stop, stop, stop, please stop..." he bellowed and sobbed.
Valson smiled sweetly. "Feeling motivated?"
"I didn't do anything!" Merlin gasped. Tears raced each other down his face.
"Oh, I'm quite sure you didn't. But to be safe, I'm going to leave you here to let the discomfort sink in, to keep you honest. I will return, although I cannot say when. But there will be a guard stationed outside the door, so should you feel the need to confess anything. Just say so and he will fetch me."
Valson vanished behind Merlin. The door moaned opened. Merlin's body was jarred when the rope was tugged, no doubt being tied to something. Then the door moaned shut leaving Merlin to hang like curing meat in the oily light of a single torch.
Minutes turned into hours that turned into an eternity as Merlin fought both the pain and his panicked lungs' need to breathe. But it was as though each breath was shrinking his chest cavity, crushing his lungs. He felt his body buck in demand for more oxygen, then buck again with the next breath and the blade of pain tearing hot down his side.
He needed air. He needed air right now. Breathe, breathe. Breathe, lords, he just wanted to be able to breathe and stop hurting and shaking. It was so cold in this chamber, like a room full of ice soaking through his clothes and sinking deep into his bones and he couldn't breathe, he just wanted to breathe. Why was this happening? Where was Arthur? The knights? Anyone?
Asleep, that's where they were. Wounded, unconscious, helpless while Merlin hung there, suffocating.
Arthur, please, wake up.
Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, lords, it hurt so much.
Arthur, please, help me!
Breathe, breathe, can't breathe anymore. Can't breathe!
Magic tore through Merlin, flashing bright in his eyes. The rope snapped. Merlin crumpled to the ground in a broken heap. He sucked in a breath but congested lungs forced it back out in a riptide of violent coughing that seared through his ribs. He couldn't breathe. He was free and he was still suffocating.
"Arthur… p-please..." Merlin whimpered.
He passed out.
"Merlin," Arthur groaned, wondering where the hell that manservant of his had wandered off to. He'd picked a fine time to make himself scarce. Which was odd – Merlin was normally a mother hen whenever Arthur was under the weather, and Arthur was feeling like trampled horse dung right now. His head hurt, his stomach was on fire, his mouth was as parched as a field in a drought and his tongue was trying to glue itself to the roof of his mouth. He was also nauseas and hungry at the same time which made no blasted sense what so ever, and Arthur wanted some answers, now.
"Merlin!" Arthur called as loud as he was able, which still resulted in little more than an incoherent croak. But someone had heard, because suddenly there was a hand on his forehead. Not Merlin's hand, which was usually cool and bony, nor Gaius' hand which was calloused and dry. This one seemed to be all three.
"Easy, sire," said a voice that was neither Merlin nor Giaus. "Easy. I have a sleeping draught I need you to take." Whoever this person was assaulted Arthur's lips by prodding it with a vial, but like hell Arthur was taking it, not until he got some blasted answers.
Arthur swatted at the vial with a fish-limp hand. "No. Merlin. Where... Need to speak with my idiot... manservant." It was with some difficulty that he finally got his eyes opened, blinking up not at a canopy but a ceiling of dark gray stone. He turned his head, blinked, and stared at the tall, thin man that was most definitely not his man servant.
Recollection hit him with the force of a lance blow – the journey from Mercia, the flooded pass, the villager promising to take them down a safe road.
Arthur's body attempted to snap upright in alarm. A sharp pain in his gut stopped it prematurely. He groaned, clutching his stomach which only made the pain worse.
Sword cut to the gut. Right. That part he clearly remembered, now.
"Sire, please," the Not-Merlin-or-Gaius said anxiously, patting the air as though certain a light breeze would keep Arthur down. "You must not exert yourself. You have suffered a serious injury and lost much blood. You do not have the strength to excite yourself."
"I'm already excited," Arthur forced through gritted teeth as he panted through the pain. "My knights, my manservant. Their conditions, now!"
"Your knights were injured but are doing well. You manservant was the least injured and-"
"Where is he?" Arthur demanded, finally able to catch a more steady breath. "I want to see him, talk to him. Bring him here."
The man balked, rearing back. "Sire, I'm sorry, I can't. He was showing signs of illness and you are not strong enough should you catch the same-"
"Then have him cover his mouth with a bloody cloth! I don't care! Just bring him or to hell with your damn draughts! As your king I order it!"
The man swallowed convulsively, bowed stiffly, and then hurried from the room. Only then did Arthur allow himself to go limp with exhaustion.
Arthur remembered the attack. What he didn't remember was how he got here, but if Merlin was the most mobile of them then that meant it was his story for the telling.
His men fine or not, Arthur knew good and well that there would be no rest for him until all the blanks had been filled. Neither was he going to rest until he saw at least one of his people alive, in the flesh and in a position to relay to Arthur whether or not he needed to be worried. Merlin may have been complete rubbish at quite a lot but the idiot did have a knack for saying in various facial expressions and stances what couldn't be said out loud. The man was a terrible liar, all the more so when he was being forced to lie. If something was amiss, Arthur would know the moment Merlin came bumbling through that door.
Time wandered by methodical as a muddy, half-dried river. Arthur drifted with it, rolling like lazy currents in and out of consciousness. It was taking far too long for Merlin to get here...
Arthur's heart kicked hard in his chest. Any other time, any other place, a late Merlin would be part and parcel for having an oaf for a manservant. Here, after all that had happened, he and his men wounded and Merlin apparently not at the peak of health himself, in a castle that belonged to a nameless, faceless entity – it was quite the cause for worry.
Then the door burst open. Arthur prepared his best insults for his punctually challenged manservant. Except the man who strode regally in wasn't his manservant.
"Lord Aldon," Arthur croaked.
Lord Aldon bowed. "Sire. It is good to see you awake."
"It is good to know I am in the hands of one of my lords," Arthur said, relaxing. Until he looked beyond Aldon, the servants and guards who had followed him, and saw no Merlin. "My manservant. I know he is ill but that does not change the fact that I wish to speak with him. Where is he?"
Aldon straightened. He swallowed. The man might have been a lord and member of the council but no amount of high and mighty stoicism could hide the unease pouring off of him in waves. When a man who did not so much as blink in the face of monsters and great armies was uneasy, you knew it and knew it well.
"Lord Aldon?" Arthur said, not a question, but a demand.
"He is coming, sire," Aldon said tightly. He shifted ever so slightly, throat bobbing in another swallow. "A mistake was made, sire. One I am rectifying even as we speak. Be assured that what happened should not have happened at all. I did not order it nor was there any reason for it to occur. Valson has been a trusted ally to me in keeping the borders of my land safe but in light of... of recent events I fear he has taken to harsh measures without my knowing. There was no reason for him to speak to your manservant beyond confirming what was already known."
Arthur pushed himself up, slowly this time, until his upper back was propped against the headboard, allowing him to face Aldon... not completely upright, but in a position that made him feel more in control, reminding Aldon that even injured, Arthur was still the king.
"Aldon, where is my manservant?" he asked slowly, firmly, verging on coolly.
There was a commotion beyond the door – clattering feet and harsh coughing. Two guards hurried in, and between them...
Arthur sat straighter. Lords, Merlin looked horrible, so pale he was almost white and barely able to stand, relying mostly on the guards holding him up. He was shivering, kept coughing and with each cough would wince or gasp as if in pain. He was looking around in dazed yet terrified confusion. Then there were his wrists, wrapped in bandages that were spotted in blood.
Then Merlin looked Arthur's way, and said in a voice so small and lost, "Arthur?" that it cut straight to Arthur's heart like a knife.
A servant had grabbed a chair and positioned it near the fire but well away from Arthur. Merlin was lowered gently into it. The moment he was down, he curled into himself wrapping his arms around his chest as if holding himself together. His eyes kept wandering from Arthur to the people in the room, like an animal unable to realize that it was safe, now.
Arthur had experienced quite a bit of rage in his life. Stampeding rage that that consumed him until he was like a runaway horse, mindless and reckless. Cold rage that cleared his mind, sharpened his senses, and turning him, during that brief moment of anger, as heartless as the one he was raging against. And the rage that sometimes accompanied grief, leaving him empty and bereft.
The rage he felt now was both boiling and sour in his gut. It curled his fingers into shaking fists and clenched every muscle in his body. It made him want to hit something, and someone, to smash the face of whoever had done this to Merlin until all that remained was a bloody pulp.
Merlin had been tortured. Stupid, skinny, clumsy and ridiculously loyal Merlin.
Merlin, who would have been the only one able to bring them all to safety. Who would have tended to their wounds in the aftermath of the battle. Who had kept them alive. Who had saved them.
"Sire," Lord Aldon said, but his voice did nothing to cut through the anger. "I deeply and humbly apologize for this, my king. This was not supposed to happen. The man responsible has been taken to the dungeons..."
"I want whatever was done to my manservant done to him," Arthur forced out through his clenched jaw.
Merlin coughed softly, which meant he was trying not to cough at all and bring attention to himself. His gaze continued to skitter wildly around the room but landed more and more often on Arthur.
He was begging without words. He'd always been good at saying what he couldn't say out loud.
"I want a blanket," Arthur said. "For Merlin. And food. Something warm for him. I want him housed in a chamber as near to mine as possible. I want him cared for and healed."
"To the best of our abilities, sire," Aldon said.
"Better," Arthur growled. "I do not know what madness afflicts your 'ally' but he is clearly mentally deficient to so much as ponder the man who saved our lives as being someone in need of torment. He is my manservant, he has and always had loyalty equal to that of any knight. You will care for him as though he were a lord and anything less I will not tolerate."
Aldon bowed. "Yes, sire. Right away." He turned to those gathered in the room. "You heard your king. Geth, fetch a blanket. Marie, broth from the kitchen. The rest of you prepare the neighboring room..."
There were more orders, of course, but lost to incoherency as Aldon led his servants and guards from the room. But Arthur could have sworn he heard something about "stringing Valson by his wrists" and if Arthur had heard right, if that was how this man Valson had tortured Merlin... he deserved so much worse.
Only Miles remained as he looked Merlin over more thoroughly, feeling along his throat, checking his breathing and all that medical busy-work. Merlin took it, made the ever obedient patient by overwhelming dread and flinching each time Miles touched him.
"Merlin," Arthur rasped, feeling the weight of growing fatigue. Fury wasn't kind to an injured body and Arthur had the unpleasant feeling he wasn't long for consciousness. "Merlin, look at me."
Merlin did, still that wide-eyed animal thinking himself cornered. It hurt to see it, from Merlin of all people who most of the time didn't seem to need a reason to smile.
"Merlin, you're safe now," Arthur said. "I'm going to make sure of it."
"I know," Merlin said timidly and, lords, if the cornered look wasn't bad enough a timid Merlin was bordering on the unnatural. Damn Valson, whoever he was. Damn him to hell.
"Just... a bit shaken, I guess. That's all," Merlin went on.
"Yes, well, you do have every right to be. Are you all right? I mean, I know you're not all right but... how – how do you feel? Do you need to lie down or... something?"
"Think I can wait a bit," Merlin said even as he swayed ever so slightly to the right, only to quickly right himself. "I can breathe better. That's a definite improvement." He chuffed weakly, trying so hard to be his old self, as though what happened to him didn't really matter. But then he shuddered, and his attempted smile cracked and fell apart. "I couldn't breathe..."
It made Arthur's fists clench until his palms stung.
"But I'll be fine, now," Merlin pushed on. "I can breathe so..." He coughed into his fist and it sounded heavy and wet.
The man named Geth hurried in carrying a thick blanket. He bowed messily but it was with great care that he wrapped the blanket around Merlin. The maid Marie followed not long after with a cup of something steaming, which she held while Merlin sipped.
It wasn't enough, not even a start to Arthur. The rooms were prepared, servants sent to escort Merlin to the chamber and support him along the way. They were gentle with Merlin, talking calmly to him, gripping him like the injured man he was and not a prisoner off to the dungeons. Yet despite Merlin's earlier show of coherency he flinched, cringed, shook and whimpered like a man not knowing what the hell was going on. Arthur tried to assure him, telling him over and over again as Merlin was taken from the room that he was going to be fine, he was just being taken to a bed chamber. Had Arthur the strength to get up and escort Merlin himself he would have, but fatigue would have its way, sapping him of the little strength still left to him.
Arthur fought it, shaking his head free of what cobwebs he could. He pointed a shaking finger at Geth. "You. I have... one more request..."
Merlin hadn't passed out, even though he was sure he should have. He was certain he'd been on his way to passing out: sparks in his eyes, darkness creeping over his vision and everything else one would associate with fainting. But his fear had forced him to waver between awake and unconscious, putting him in that in-between place that was a tangible dream, and Merlin had been so certain he was going back to the dungeons and was wondering why Arthur was shouting placations rather than ordering a halt. He was so certain he was going to be strung up again, so he could not understand why he'd been lowered on a soft surface and covered with something warm instead.
Not being strung up, then? Okay. Maybe not a dream. Maybe real. Please let it be real. Merlin recalled having spoken to Arthur, having seen Arthur upright – which he shouldn't be, he was injured. But Arthur had been pale, exhausted, sickly. Injured but conscious. Yes. Injured but conscious and worried, so very worried but also angry, yelling but telling Merlin everything would be all right, and now there was softness and warmth and his hunger no longer a sharp pain in his stomach.
Merlin took a breath but the oxygen hit a wall and flew from his body in a harsh fit of coughing. It hurt, it hurt so much, like a firebrand being shoved into his chest and he couldn't inhale. He couldn't breathe. He was suffocating!
Merlin was only distantly aware of being lifted, shouted at, then being beaten between the shoulder blades over and over and over...
Until whatever it was lodged in his chest slapped against his throat. He sucked in as much air as his packed lungs would allow, ignoring the pain it caused him. After that first desperate breath came another, then another, and on the fourth breath he let it go with a sob.
Someone pulled Merlin against their chest and let him wet it with his tears.
"Easy, Merlin. I've got you. Nice, steady breaths, now."
"Gwaine?" Merlin croaked, forcing his eyes open though he could only manage slits.
"That's right," Gwaine said with a smile in his voice. "Seems we're to be roommates for the time being. His pratness' orders."
Merlin rolled his heavy eyes upward. It was Gwaine, pale, tired and dressed in a sleep shirt with a cloth sling slanting across his chest, but his face smiling sadly down at Merlin.
"You're hurt," Merlin said, and had he the strength he would have pulled away.
"Guess what?" Gwaine said. "So are you."
Gwaine eased Merlin down as best he could with one arm onto the softness. Confusion cleared Merlin's head, giving his eyes better incentive to open wider. He looked down first at the white coverlet of a feather-mattress, then at his arm covered by the less-white sleeve of his own nightshirt.
"When did that happen?" he asked, then looked up at a troubled Gwaine perched on the edge of the bed.
"Lords, Merlin, I thought you were a bit out of your head but not that bad. You've been in this room for a bloody hour. You kept going in and out of consciousness."
Merlin stared, gaping, at Gwaine. He'd been thinking, trying to make sense of everything, for an hour. Lords, Arthur was going to love that one if he ever found out… which he wouldn't.
"Arthur had me relocated here to keep you company. Thought a familiar face would help," Gwaine said, smiling. Then his smile turned cheeky and he shrugged. "Well, not me specifically. Some servant lad came in, said he needed one of us, said it was about Merlin, we drew straws and here I am. But don't believe what the others tell you – I was perfectly sportsman-like, didn't cheat one bit, honest." He winked.
Merlin definitely knew this wasn't a dream. He wasn't about to be strung up. Arthur had spoken to him, reassured him and now everything was going to be all right. Merlin was safe.
"I couldn't breathe," he said, and was both surprised and appalled to realize he was crying again, silent tears making their slow way down his face.
Gwaine gripped his shoulder and squeezed.
Merlin might have been premature in his belief that everything would be all right, because his lungs hadn't gotten the message. Sometimes they tormented him with coughs that seemed to break his ribs all over again, and other times they seemed to shrink down to nothing until each breath was like sucking air through a thin, hollow reed. He choked, gasped, wheezed and would forget where he was, certain that his wrists were hurting not because the bandages were being changed, but because he was still tied up.
But then Gwaine would be there clapping him on the back and plying him with gentle pleas to breathe slow and steady. He slept on a cot close to Merlin's bed, always near whenever the dreams became too vivid or his lungs too small.
Then, sometimes, it was Arthur telling him how to breathe, or one of the knights. In between were efforts to make him eat a little, drink a lot or to keep his face close to the bowl of steaming water full of potent smelling herbs that cut through the clog in his lungs like a blade. And when the water didn't work, and Merlin was sure he was alone, he would press his hand to his chest and mutter spells. His healing skills might not have been anything to brag about (mostly the opposite, actually) but he had at least managed to find the right balance between loosening the wet in his chest without drying himself out to the point that he was hacking up dry air instead of phlegm. The only real problem was the fever that sent him spiraling into delirium, blurring the line between reality and memory, and making him sure at times that him lying in a bed was the dream, and him hanging by his wrists was the reality.
But someone would always be there, talking him through it with gentle words and just as gentle admonishments to get better or else a way would be found to make him polish armor from beyond the grave.
Then the fever broke. Merlin slept, but that meant dreaming of what had been, and even knowing it was a dream didn't stop Merlin from gasping awake and shivering uncontrollably.
But someone would say his name, gather him to them in a comforting embrace as he worked through the shakes and the cold, or rub his back as he regained control of his breathing. He would work his way back to sleep, calmed by the knowledge that he wasn't alone.
A body did like to take its sweet time when recovering. Merlin's illness might have run its course, but it had been a mostly uphill battle leaving him weak as a new born kitten. The fever had lasted for a week, according to Gwaine – rising and falling like a wave until finally running itself dry. Then Merlin had slept for half a week, barely eating because most of his energy was spent on everyone ensuring he remained hydrated.
"It's amazing how much drinking a cup of water took out of you," Gwaine had joked, but while his voice had been jovial, his expression had betrayed a shadow of melancholy.
Merlin was awake, now. He was able to eat more, drink more, but damn it all if he didn't need help just to sit up to do both. And of course Gwaine had to mention that he'd gotten even bonier.
But, if Merlin were to be honest, he didn't care. He would happily take the weakness, the boniness, hell even the congestion, over being tied to a hook and left to suffocate. He still dreamed of it, sometimes; the rope rubbing against his wrists, pulling on them until they bled. Of his ribs broken and spread, unable to expand, shrinking his lungs. The air refusing to go down his throat. The pain of it. The agony. Like burning...
Merlin woke, as he often did when he dreamed and remembered, gasping then sucking in air more delicious than any food. It hurt his aching chest something fierce, sometimes, but he didn't care. Nothing else mattered as long as he could breathe.
A voice called Merlin's name. A hand settled on his shoulder and squeezed, and Merlin jumped with a yelp and a frantic, "No, please, no more! Please!"
"Merlin. Merlin! It's all right, you're safe. Do you hear me? Safe."
Merlin, breaths shuddering as badly as his body and his heart racing in his chest, looked up and gaped.
Where Gwaine normally was, there was Arthur, shirtless and with bandages wrapped around his gut. He was pale, seemed exhausted, but he was upright. Alive.
What he didn't look was happy.
"Arthur," Merlin whimpered, much to his embarrassment.
Arthur smiled a flat smile. "Good to see that fever managed to leave some of your brain intact."
Merlin attempted to struggle upright on shaky arms, but weakness and broken ribs, even numbed by elixirs, wouldn't let him. He dropped back to the bed, panting and shaking from the exertion.
"Sh-should you be up?" Merlin asked.
Arthur looked at him imperiously, opened his mouth about to respond, when Gwaine wandered by behind him, munching on an apple.
"No he shouldn't," Gwaine said.
"Thus why I'm sitting instead of standing," Arthur said irritably. He rolled his eyes at Merlin, encouraging a smile from him.
"I'm fine," Arthur said. "Ironically enough I'm now better off than you." For a moment, Merlin thought he actually looked a little affronted by this. It coaxed an even better smile from Merlin.
"Are you jealous?" Merlin asked.
Arthur frowned. "Why the bloody hell would I be jealous of-?" He trailed off, looking away, his expression bordering on something thunderous.
Merlin had been wrong. That wasn't jealousy he'd been seeing.
"Arthur-" Merlin began, wanting to head-off whatever it was Arthur might be thinking, to assure him that it didn't matter – what was done was done and Merlin had survived; and to apologize for it happening and making such a mess of things.
"Don't," Arthur said, soft but with authority. "Merlin, don't. What happened..." He rubbed his hand across his lips, sitting stiffly, fidgeting it agitation. For a moment, he looked like he was going to be sick.
"Arthur, are you all right?" Merlin asked, worried.
Arthur laughed without any humor. "Am I all right," he said. "We're attacked by bandits because we put our trust in the wrong man. Every one of us is injured and I wake to discover that my manservant – the reason why we're still alive – was tortured. No, Merlin. I do believe I'm having a rather terrible few weeks."
Merlin chuffed. "Try being the one who was tortured." But at Arthur's pained expression, hastily tacked on a heavily contrite, "Sorry."
But Arthur shook his head. "Don't be. Right now, Merlin, I don't think there's anything you should be apologizing for. In fact, are iyou/i all right? Because don't think I haven't noticed the way you've been waking up. I've also seen you in your sleep."
Now it was Merlin's turn to look away when the hot flush of humiliation crept up his cheeks. But when a warm hand settled once again on his shoulder, this time he didn't even so much as flinch.
"Merlin, listen to me. It's all right. There's nothing to be ashamed of. What happened to you was... it was wrong. And sick. It shouldn't... lords, to say it shouldn't have happened isn't enough. It shouldn't have been contemplated. And you can be sure the man who did this was dealt with as befitting the crime."
Which, at any other time, might have bothered Merlin. He'd never been one for acts of revenge, and he could truly say that what he went through he would never wish on even his worst enemy. But he didn't have the energy to care, and thought vaguely that Valson wouldn't be going through what he went through, not without broken ribs and terrible congestion.
But a small, less forgiving part of him hoped that Valson still learned what it meant not to be able to breathe. The memory alone made Merlin shiver.
Arthur's hand tightened on his shoulder, and Merlin was grateful for its grounding presence.
"Merlin, really, how are you?" Arthur asked.
"Tired," Merlin said honestly. Then he looked at Arthur, Gwaine standing a few feet behind him, both men looking anxious as they waited for Merlin to say more, and Merlin couldn't help another smile. "But better." But then he looked around at the cold manor walls, far darker and more imposing than Camelot's warm walls, and shuddered. "But... I will say I look forward to getting home," he said with a weak chuckle. It was belied by the discomfort that must have been revealed on his face, if Arthur's softening expression was anything to go by.
"As soon as we are all deemed fit enough, Aldon will have carriages prepared to carry us back, along with an escort."
Merlin nodded. "And... um... when will that be, exactly?" Lords, he was being pathetic.
But Arthur said kindly. "Soon, I promise."
Merlin was trying to be stoic, the idiot, but mostly failing at it. But the thing about Merlin was that he was far more resilient than Arthur would ever admit to, and that Merlin would wake gasping and shaking, or jump whenever someone opened the door a bit roughly, made what happened to him all the more disgusting.
It also gave Arthur his own nightmares, ones in which Merlin, or one of his knights, would be dragged away and there would be nothing Arthur could do about it. He didn't jump whenever doors opened, but he did watch like a hawk any and all who entered. He was feeling on guard, protective, and indifferent to how it might come across to others. He had beds brought into the chamber where Merlin was resting to have all his knights in one place, ensuring that not one of them was ever alone. It did wonders for Merlin, whose wakings were far less dramatic.
But Aldon was nothing but understanding, recognizing Arthur's actions for what they were – a king wanting his people as safe as possible after nearly losing them. Aldon had said as much, seemed to even admire Arthur's consideration for his men and knights, and Arthur didn't think this understanding the result of guilt. It made it easy for Arthur to direct his anger at the man who deserved it, not at Aldon himself.
It was when Merlin was able to stand for longer periods of time and walk a little that Miles deemed them fit for carriage travel.
"I could get used to this," Merlin said with his customary cheeky grin, burrowing deeper into the padded red-velvet seats. He'd been cocooned in blankets, and despite being able to walk, he had been carried out, Miles not wanting him exposed to the chill air for too long. He'd lost weight during his illness, unable to handle any more than bowls of porridge and broth. It amazed Arthur that Merlin was actually capable of getting even more skinny – amazed and frightened. Merlin had looked like a shriveled corpse when the guard had carried him out.
"I mean it, you should invest in some," Merlin went on. "Do you know how much easier getting you ready for banquets on the other side of the kingdom would be if you didn't show up smelling like horse?"
Arthur snorted. "Enjoy it while you can, Merlin. I've never liked carriages. They make me feel pompous."
"Oh, yes, because you're not pompous at all."
Arthur chuffed, then leaned forwards and ruffled Merlin's hair into even more of a mess. Merlin squawked, untangling one of his arms from the blanket to swat Arthur's hand away. Arthur's moment of revenge was inconveniently interrupted by the arrival of Gwaine.
"Queenie giving you trouble?" Gwaine asked, hopping into the carriage with his usual rakish bravado as if he'd never been injured, the bastard. He plopped himself down beside Merlin and gave Arthur a dung-eating grin.
"Arthur won't invest in any carriages," Merlin said.
Gwaine chuffed and said, "What, not fancy enough for you, princess?"
Arthur kicked his foot out and caught Gwaine in the ankle. Gwaine protested with an "ow!" that was ruined by his inability to contain his laughter, and Merlin was breathless from chuckling. It made Arthur feel better, lighter, full of certain hope that things would be able to find their way back to being how they were. Arthur also marveled, and not for the first time, how so much resilience could be had in such a skinny, bumbling man like Merlin. How he could go through something as horrible as torture and still find his way out the other side with a smile on his face.
Arthur would never admit it out loud – not to anyone and especially not to Merlin – but that skinny, bumbling man did impress him, sometimes. Arthur might call him a coward, but he wasn't. He really, really wasn't.
The carriages rattled to life, moving forward. Arthur stuck his head through the little window to see the second carriage with the rest of his knights following closely behind, and both carriages surrounded by a contingent of Aldon's finest soldiers. When Arthur pulled his head back in, he closed the curtains to keep out the mildly cool air that would be more like a chill to Merlin. Merlin and Gwaine prattled on and on over the advantages of carriages. For once, Arthur was more than happy to let them prattle. It meant everything – though not as it had once been – was still right, still better than they had been, and that things would keep getting better the closer they got to home.
It meant they were safe, still breathing, still alive, all of them, especially one skinny, bumbling manservant who was as loyal as any knight. And Arthur let himself bask in that.