A/N: Just a thought that I have always wondered about and kept pestering me at 2am last night (well this morning I guess). "What would happen if..." So of course, I made it Merlin and wrote it down. Enjoy
"Let's check it out, just in case."
"In case of what, sire?" Gwaine asked grumpily, shifting from foot to foot anxiously. "It's nothing but an abandoned building." Behind him, Leon looked ready to agree but respectfully held his tongue.
The three of them were out on patrol, checking the area for any more signs of bandits. A week ago, Arthur's patrol had come across four bandits assaulting and robbing some travelers just off the main road. The men had put up a fight but in the end, did not posses the skill to match that of the King of Camelot and his knights. The travelers had thanked them profusely before heading on their way. But Arthur didn't think that those were the only bandits in the area, and so, had led a small patrol through the surrounding area every day since, just to be sure.
"I—I don't know. Just a feeling I guess," Arthur said, then chuckled to himself. "Merlin must be getting to me."
He swore he heard a "he gets to us all", but dismissed it as he led the way toward the crumbling stonework that made up the abandoned building. It was in a sorry state, that's for sure. Roof all but caved in and walls looking as though one touch and they would turn to dust. But something told Arthur to check it out nonetheless. So, without waiting for anyone, Arthur drew his sword and opened the door—surprised at the sturdiness of it despite the rotted look—and stepped inside.
And stopped dead in his tracks.
The inside was hollow, completely, with nothing but sturdy planks of wood holding up a fake roof and walls—whose stones seemed well cared for and whole on the inside—together. Almost as if someone wanted the place to be mistaken as nothing more than an abandoned building. But the lack of any fungal growth and footprints marked through the dust on the floor told him a different story. Someone had been here, in the last week or so he assumed.
"Fan out, search the place," he ordered to two men now walking curiously through the door behind their king.
"And what, may I ask, are we looking for exactly?" Gwaine, again. Surprise surprise.
"Just, search the place for, I don't know, something out of the ordinary. There's got to be something someone wanted to hide here." He gestured to the buildings interior. "Why else stage all this?"
Gwaine grumbled about something, most likely insulting, but roamed around the place with eyes scanning.
Arthur looked back to the floor, noticing that the footprints he had noted earlier were coming from the far side of the room. A rotted bookshelf that Arthur had failed to notice earlier, stood precariously upon the far wall, the footprints disappearing underneath it. But Arthur swore that side of the building backed up to the rock face. Odd.
Without wasting another second though, Arthur strode over to the bookshelf and began looking for a handle or a lever or...anything to get the damn thing open. Why he was so anxious to figure out where it led, he didn't know. There was something that was telling him he had to find out what was in this building, what was behind this shelf.
He found a handle immediately, huffing at the stupidity of whoever designed this. They had gone through all this elaborate planning to create a fake abandoned building and fake bookshelf only to make the damn thing stupidly easily to open. Pointless really.
"Here," he called to the room as he pulled on the handle and the shelf swung open on well oiled hinges.
Arthur shot Gwaine an exasperated look. "And what part of this whole place isn't odd?"
Gwaine shrugged before launching himself down the recently opened passageway without so much as a by your leave. Arthur huffed in annoyance before following.
The passageway was nothing more than a tunnel crudely cut directly into solid stone that the building backed up into. And it was pitch dark.
Gwaine stood half a yard from the entrance now with an unlit torch in hand, fumbling for some flint somewhere on his person. After a minute or two, the tunnel burst into life as Gwaine lit the torch, a big cocky grin smeared upon his face.
"Ready to go on an adventure, princess?"
Arthur just rolled his eyes and strode past Gwaine, snatching the torch along the way. The tunnel was short, wasting no time getting to the heart of it. Probably because of the effort it took to crave the damn thing. Must hold something important if the owner went to such great lengths to build and conceal it.
The passageway broke off into what seemed to be a small cave with a couple smaller caves leading off of the larger one. No, not caves. Cells. There were bars set into the stone, blocking off several of the smaller caves. After a quick glance, they Arthur noted that they were empty but had been used at one point if the bloody manacles pounded into their walls were anything to go by. But the cells were not what caught Arthur's attention as he entered the cave. On the far side, upon the grey of the stone, was a heavy wooden door with two bars set into a tiny window at eye level. It seemed out of place in a room made of nothing but stone and metal.
Arthur hefted his sword as he approached the door. Obviously this place was meant to house prisoners, but why keep it hidden? Unless these prisoners were not supposed to be prisoners at all and held here against their will. But then that led to the question of why were they here?
Arthur shifted his body and peeked into the room beyond.
He didn't know what he expected to find—a skeleton, a dirty filthy prisoner, a raving lunatic—but it was not this. For there, bloody wrists suspended above him and hanging limply in cuffs etched in runes, was a man made of nothing but heavily bruised skin and bones, looking to be no better than a corpse. A man with a familiar mop of black hair, matted with dirt and blood, much like the rest of him. A man, who Arthur could recognize anywhere but would have rather not recognized him here, in this cell.
Air refused to make its way into Arthur's lungs as he stared at his manservant. How the hell had Merlin gotten here?! The bumbling idiot had told him that he was going to visit his mother and would be gone for a week and a half at most. That was the completely other direction to where they were now. Not that Arthur thought Merlin was here by choice—it was clear he wasn't—but he didn't understand how he had come to be here. Unless he had been ambushed along the way to Ealdor and brought here. But why here? It was so far away from the route the manservant would have taken.
Arthur shook himself from his musings and whirled around in a panic—no, not a panic, king's don't panic. It was more of dignified concern—and began searching the cave.
"Find the keys," Arthur ordered, his voice nearly breaking. "Now!"
It took only half a minute for Leon to locate the keys but that was half a minute too long in Arthur's opinion. Merlin was injured—he refused to think that he could be dead—and they needed to get him out of there now.
Leon fumbled with the keys in the lock for a second before dragging the door open. Arthur flew in, ignoring the overwhelming stench of filth and decay the permeated the cell as he fell to his knees before his servant and grasped the young man's face in his hands.
"Merlin? Merlin, can you hear me? Merlin!" Arthur all but shouted, trying in vain to get a response out of the man before him. But Merlin seemed to be out cold, not even flinching when Gwaine and Leon went to work on the cuffs that were digging into his wrists. Up close, Merlin didn't look any better. His clothes were in tatters, barely hanging upon his emaciated frame and completely soiled with dirt and filth. Arthur could see every one of his ribs through the tears in his shirt and even in the meager light that the torch put out, the king could make out deep bruising that was a stark contrast to the servant's pale skin. No, not pale. White, almost translucent. Like a corpse.
Arthur reached out a shaking hand to the man's neck, dreading what he would discover, or likely not discover.
Nothing. Not a single beat-
Arthur held his breath as he waited another few second before-yes that was definitely a pulse. Faint and way too far apart to be considered anywhere close to healthy, but there nonetheless. And that's all that mattered now. Merlin was alive.
"Sire, wha—," Leon began before Arthur held up a hand to cut him off.
"Not now. We need to get him out of here. He needs Gaius, badly." Arthur stated, pulling his mask of authority over the almost overwhelming concern and fear that threatened to pour out. Merlin was barely clinging to life. They needed to get him help, now! Preferably before whoever owned this place came back to find their prisoner escaping. Even though Arthur would love nothing more than to find and kill whoever had done this to his servant—friend—he knew they couldn't afford to waste any more time. Merlin didn't have that kind of time.
They had no problems getting back out of the once-thought-to-be-abandoned building even with Gwaine carrying the unconscious Merlin in his arms
("He weighs next to nothing," Gwaine stated as Arthur made to confirm that his knight could indeed handle the weight of his servant. "I don't think they fed him at all."
"But he's been gone for almost the full week and a half now," Arthur stated before glancing back at Merlin.
Arthur cursed loudly.)
Leon led the way back to the horses, head swiveling from side to side scanning the surrounding area for any signs of danger. But Arthur had eyes only for his servant.
He didn't think it was possible for the man to look any worse but then he shouldn't have been surprised to be proved wrong. The light of day didn't do any good to Merlin's pallor, if anything it made it worse and only highlighted the deep colors of the bruising causing them to stand out in even greater contrast. And every bone in the man's body seemed to be trying to work its way out, the skin stretched tight around the jutting bones. It was a sight that almost caused Arthur to lose the last of his breakfast.
The next hour passed Arthur in a blur but soon he found himself galloping hard through the gates of Camelot, his servant seated in front of him, protectively encircled in his arms.
"Leon, go warn Gaius," Arthur ordered, though it was unnecessary as the man had leapt off his horse the second it had come to a stop and was now racing off in the direction of the physician's chambers. Gwaine came up beside Arthur and carefully lowered Merlin from atop the horse before he too set off toward the physicians chambers in a haste, Arthur not a step behind.
"Arthur, what's going on?" Gwen asked as she hurried down the courtyard steps, her voice peppered with concern as she took in the faces and haste at which the men moved. But then her eyes fell upon Merlin, cradled in Gwaine's arms and her steps faltered with a gasp, eyes locked on the servant's broken body as the king and his knight hurried past her. Arthur didn't need to give her an answer, her eyes saying that she understood completely. He could hear her footsteps following along behind not a second later.
They burst into the Gaius' chambers, the old man already in a frenzy, having set Leon to work preparing tinctures and ordering fresh water from a nervous looking servant who bowed to Arthur as he entered the chambers in a whirlwind of limbs and orders.
"Put him here," Gaius motioned toward the empty cot by the fire, his face already set in his stoic mask of physician mode. But it didn't fool Arthur one bit. He knew under that mask, the man was a bundle of emotions, all of them concerning his young ward now being laid out on the cot. "What happened?"
"I have no idea Gaius. We were scouting out an abandoned building only to find that the place wasn't abandoned and was in fact housing several cells hidden behind a secret door. Merlin was the only prisoner being held there. We hurried straight back the second we freed him." Arthur paused, watching as Gaius set about cleaning up his ward, discarding the rags he wore to get a better look at the injuries beneath. The king averted his eyes as the physician bathed and examined the young man before slipping him into a pair of worn sleeping pants. The only response from Merlin during the process was a hitch in his increasingly shallow breathing as Gaius prodded the dark bruises on his chest, looking for broken ribs.
Another few minutes passed as Gaius continued to work, his brow creasing ever more and the only sounds being the orders the old man made for various medical supplies housed around the chambers. The servant came back with fresh water and was sent out again at once for broth from the kitchens. It wasn't long before Arthur couldn't take it much longer.
"Will he be alright, Gaius?"
The old physician didn't pause in his work, but waited a couple of seconds before answering. "It's hard to say to be honest. Besides the obvious bruising, he has a dislocated shoulder and a couple of broken fingers. But what worries me most is the extreme malnourishment and dehydration. I'd say he hasn't eaten in about a week give or take a day and drank very little and his body has had enough and shut down. That would explain the lack of response and slow heart rate. I need to get some fluids and nutrients in him immediately."
Arthur furrowed his brow, trying his best not to react to the list of abuses his servant had undergone.
"Perhaps, sire, it would be best if you went and returned to your duties. I will alert you to any changes or discoveries should they arise."
Arthur didn't want to leave Merlin's side but he knew that Gaius was right. He had a kingdom to run and he couldn't do that effectively from the physician's chambers. "Thank you, Gaius. Anything and everything you may require is at your disposal," he said before turning to the cot and resting a hand upon his servant's uninjured shoulder. "Get well, my friend." And with a nod to his knights, the king strode from the room.
It began with a heart wrenching knock on Arthur's door in the middle of the night by a guard, telling him that Merlin may not make it through the night and if he wished to see him, to come now. The rest of the night had been spent by the young man's side, begging him to just make it through, to not give up, then openly panicking and not caring in the slightest who saw their king in this state as Merlin's breathing stopped and heart failed and Gaius was forced to break a rib just to get his ward breathing once more. It was a long and sleepless night for all involved but by morning, Merlin was still alive.
Then followed three days and nights of fever, in and out of consciousness. Another sleepless night was spent by the young man's bed as his fever spiked dangerously high and Arthur wasn't sure how much of this he could take before his heart gave out. It was a miracle that Gaius' hadn't. Arthur made sure to keep a close eye on the old physician after that thought. However, Merlin's fever finally broke and he slept for another three days. Three days where they all were able to catch up on their sleep, even Gaius, as he had no shortage of volunteers to help him care for the clumsy but lovable servant. Merlin had awoken several times but only long enough to choke down some broth and various potions before succumbing to sleep once more.
It wasn't until a full week after they had come barreling through the physician's chambers with the beaten and starved servant, that Merlin finally awoke for more than a few minutes. And Arthur wasted no time in going to see him.
The young man was still too terribly thin to be considered anywhere near healthy, but Gaius assured him he was well on his way. The bruises were still slightly visible, though healing quite well despite the malnourishment.
("The bruises and injuries had trouble healing when his body had very little nutrients with which to sustain itself let alone aid in the healing process," Gaius had said, as though he were reading Arthur's thoughts.)
Smiles were shared and "I'm glad you're alright", "you gave us quite a scare", and "didn't know you cared" were spoken in more ways than one before Arthur sighed and took a seat by his servant's beside, resigned to what he had to do.
"Merlin, I'm sorry but I have to know what happened." He hadn't wanted to disturb Merlin's healing process but the kingdom might be at danger. Whoever had held Merlin might still be out there, a threat to the kingdom and even a future threat to Merlin. He needed answers.
Merlin opened his mouth to answer but a cough took its place, racking painfully through Merlin's body before Arthur grabbed the cup of water on the table by the bed and helped his servant—friend—drink.
"What do you want...to know," Merlin asked, pausing to take a breath as though he might not be able to again.
"I assume you were taken on your way to Ealdor?"
Merlin nodded in affirmative.
Arthur nodded, troubled. He had expected as much but still it was one thing to think it and another to have it confirmed.
"What did you tell them?" He asked hesitantly, fearing the answer. An army could be marching toward Camelot as they speak.
Shock overwhelmed Arthur before his heart lodged in his throat. Merlin, stupid, clumsy, idiotic Merlin had been beaten and starved for almost a week and a half without ever breaking, without betraying his king. The man was loyal to a fault. To a fault that could have led to his death. He was not a knight, not trained to withhold information no matter the consequences. He was just a servant, nothing more. But he was, he was so much more. At least, to Arthur he was. And it had taken this long and a near death experience for Merlin for him to realize it. That Merlin wasn't just his servant, he was his most loyal subject, his friend. His brother.
"You were starved, given little water, beaten, and abused for 10 days and you didn't tell them anything." Arthur didn't know why he felt he needed to voice it all out loud. Maybe only then he could come to complete grips with it all.
Merlin shook his head, stopping as his eyes scrunched with pain the motion. Headache. Arthur would have to remember to tell Gaius before he left.
"For three days. I was given both water and food though, very little. Then they just...didn't come back," Merlin said, his eyes dropping to where his hands twiddled with a loose thread in the blanket covering him.
What? That couldn't be right. Why would they just leave their captive if they hadn't gotten any information. Something wasn't matching up.
"But you hadn't told them anything? They just...never returned?" Merlin nodded.
"So you were left there, with no food or water for a week?! How...?"
"The ceiling dripped water as well as the walls. It was...hard, but I made do...sort of."
"I don't think I would call that making do, Merlin. I would call that delaying the inevitable."
"Clearly, it wasn't inevitable," Merlin pointed out with a huff and a small smile.
"Yes, clearly." Arthur paused, thinking for a second. If Merlin had been paying attention, he most likely would have made a comment about the prince not hurting himself. "Did you know your captors? Is that why they took you?"
Merlin shook his head, eyes still boring into the blanket. "No, never seen them before in my life, though if I was to place money I would say they were nothing but a bunch of bandits looking to make some extra money on information." Merlin glanced up then and seeing Arthur open his mouth the respond quickly held up his hand to stave off the king's next question. "No, I don't know their names. It umm, never came up." The servant looked down again as though embarrassed as a sheepish look spread across his face.
Arthur stared at the young man, trying and failing to understand how Merlin still remained...Merlin after everything he had undergone. It was truly remarkable. "How many of them were there?"
Arthur's brow furrowed and he remained silent for a few seconds, thinking. The pieces were slowly clicking together as he filed all the information. With a gasp, it all fell into place and Arthur reeled back.
Four bandits, a week of absence. In the same area where his patrol had engaged and killed four bandits a week before they had found Merlin. It couldn't have been a coincidence. Arthur paled at the thought.
Merlin had been captured on his way to Ealdor and taken to the cave dungeon, where he was questioned and beaten for three days. After that his captors just hadn't appeared again, seeming to have abandoned their prisoner in his cell with no food and only the water dripping from the ceiling and walls for water. But Arthur understood the truth now. In reality it had been Arthur who had sentenced Merlin to that torture by killing the captors that, yes, would have abused him further but would have at least fed him and given him water. It was because of Arthur that Merlin had had to endure the hunger and the pain alone, in the dark, with no hope of escape because no one had any clue he was even there in the first place. The only ones who had known were dead, cut down by Arthur's own sword. The physical and mental torture that Merlin had endured was enough to have Arthur practically groveling at his servant's feet. It was all his fault.
"No." The word was firm, barely more than a whisper, but Arthur heard it as though it had been a shout. He looked up warily, confusion beginning to set in until he saw the determined and hard set of his servant's weary face as he gazed back at his king.
"It wasn't your fault," the young man scolded, his eyes bright but piercing, telling Arthur that even though he may not know the full details of it all he knew where the king's thoughts had turned and he refused to let the man wallow in guilt. It astounded Arthur how much this bumbling idiot of a manservant could be so understanding and forgiving even after all he had been through. All Arthur had put him through, whether inadvertently or not.
And the man had held his tongue.
"You're a brave and loyal friend, Merlin."
Merlin's eyebrows rose and a cocky smile broke out across his face breaking the seriousness of the moment. He shot Arthur a knowing look.
"Oh, don't let it go to your head now," Arthur warned with an authoritative tone that poorly masked his amusement. "I am not above sending you to the stocks just to keep that ego of yours in place."
"I don't think its my ego we have to worry about."
With a light smack to the head, everything was back to the way it should be.