Disclaimer: Despite my untold wealth and riches, I don't own Merlin.
A/N: so, I did it again. I went and wrote another Merlin story when I still have an unfinished story that needs my attention more. But I just couldn't help it ... I really wanted to write something that was angsty, whumpy, and had some good ol' BAMF! Merlin and Arthur. FYI: this is set while Arthur is regent and Lancelot is still alive. It doesn't have any slash, but there is some definite bromance between Merlin and Arthur. It is all written and clocks in at about 12,000 words in total. It will be posted in three parts, but I'm editing as I go along, so I won't be posting it all at once, but rather over the course of the next few days.
I hope you like it and don't be afraid to leave a review. Whether it be good or bad, I love hearing what you think.
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-0-0-0- Part One -0-0-0-
It was his only thought.
Left foot, right foot … keep going … keep breathing … ignore the pain.
His feet beat an unsteady rhythm, faltering when his burning lungs failed to give him enough air for his over-taxed heart and lead-filled legs. Sweat mixed with blood dripped and stung his eyes, but he paid neither any attention.
He stumbled over a root and fell headlong onto the ground, arms too slow to catch his body. Pain arced through his flank and head, causing his sight to explode into a burst of colors that blinded him. Rolling, he squeezed his eyes shut; tears leaking out from the corners as a strangled cry forced its way out, echoing through the darkened woods. He dug the heel of his hand to the wound that he had carried for miles, as if he could force the agony away the harder he pushed against it. Fresh blood seeped between his fingers and nothing he did could slow it down.
For several long seconds he laid on the ground, his breathing coming in short, uneven and wheezing gasps. He had to get up – had to move. He didn't have time to stop – even if he might already be too late for the injured man he had left behind.
No … no … no. He wouldn't believe that … he could't …
He refused to accept anything other than making it home and finding help for his friend.
There was no room for him to fail.
He needed to run.
Forcing his hand away from his wound, he gripped the forest floor, leaves sticking to the vital fluid coating his fingers as he pushed his upper body up. His arms shook, muscles nearing the limits of their endurance. The pain was nearly unbearable, but he didn't stop, he focused only getting off the ground.
With a growl of pure desperation and determination, he came to his knees and then grabbed the nearest tree, using it to hoist himself to his feet. He wavered, vision fuzzing in and out, nearly doubling over as his pierced side flared white-hot like a molten piece of iron being twisted into his flesh. He sucked in air greedily until the pain receded to bearable levels once again and he was able to stand without feeling like he was going to fall over.
He was so very tired and the path home that stretched out before him seemed to go on forever through the blackened woods. He had no idea how far he had come and how many miles he had left to go, but he knew there was only one way he would make it: one step at a time.
He set his eyes forwards with new determination and took a step, and then another.
With one hand attached to his side, he pressed on, striding faster with each footfall.
His pace was considerably slower since his fall and his exhausted muscles struggled to keep him upright, but eventually, the most blessed sight came into view as he left the cover of the forest. Just over the next hill stood Camelot, its gleaming towers and high walls clearly visible even in the dim light.
His relief at nearly being home and finding help for his friend was so strong that his vision momentarily blackened and he swayed dizzily. He ignored the warning signs that his body was at a breaking point and demanded it to keep moving. He would not allow the wheezing breaths, the shaking, the chills, the fuzzy vision, nor the roiling nausea and pain to stop him.
His thoughts, however, were becoming less and less coherent with each step he took and by the time he was noticed by the guards at the gate, he was barely aware of what he was doing anymore. Vaguely, he heard the sound of feet running, of clanging armour, and the shouts of men. He didn't even realize he had dropped to his knees until several pairs of hands hauled him up from under his shoulders.
He forced his heavy head up and looked into the eyes of the nearest man. "Gaius …" he panted, his tongue too thick to work correctly and his eyes threatening to close, "need him –"
"Of course, Sire." The guard responded immediately, "We're taking you to him right now."
He shook his head, the world dimming and becoming more distant. He was just so exhausted. "No … Merlin … he's – "
Arthur never finished his sentence, he had already been swept away into a deep well of nothingness.
Though he didn't show it externally, Gaius was a mess of tangled nerves and his gut with aching with anxiety.
It had been three days since Arthur went on patrol with Sirs Kay and Bors, taking Merlin along with them and two days since the prince-regent returned horseless, injured, and alone. And now, it had only been a few hours since Gaius had been informed that another patrol had discovered the bodies of the knights, but there was still no sign of Merlin or where he might have gone.
Arthur still had yet to wake up and explain what happened to him, his knights, and his manservant, though Gaius hadn't expected it of him yet. Arthur had survived quite an ordeal and the physician could plainly see from the dehydration and broken blisters on the soles of his feet that he must have run for many miles even injured as he was.
Thankfully, the prince would recover fully. The slash wound on Arthur's left side was a clean cut and was easy to sew back together and his blood loss, though substantial, was not as bad as he initially feared. The prince also had a raised lump and a cut on his scalp that spoke of a concussion, though it was probably rather mild given his pupil's reaction the light. All in all, Arthur was lucky to have made it back to the gates of Camelot before passing out. His continued unconsciousness was due more to the fact that he had pushed his body to the limits of endurance and was now making up for all of the trauma it had been put through.
But now, as the prince was resting comfortably in his chambers and the danger had passed, Gaius couldn't help but wish that the boy would wake up already. He needed to know what had become of Merlin. Was he still out there somewhere? Was he injured as well? Was he even alive?
Gaius could barely stand the thought of Merlin not coming home again. The man had never had any children, but since Merlin walked into his life, he couldn't think of him as anything but his own son. And he knew that the boy had come to find a father-figure in Gaius as well. He had never really realized just how empty and lonely his life had been before Merlin, but now - he couldn't imagine his life without him being worthwhile. They were a family in every way but blood and he was on pins and needles waiting to know what had happened to his adopted son.
To ease his restlessness and calm his anxiety, Gaius kept the prince within the physician's chambers so he could keep a close eye on him and be there for him the moment he woke up. In the meantime, as Arthur slept, Gaius produced enough batches of sleeping drafts, pain relievers, fever reducers, and stomach tonics to last the next few months. It didn't help. In fact, it only made things worse for when he ran out of valerian for his sleeping drafts, he had almost automatically thought to ask Merlin to collect more before he remembered his absence and possible fate.
Working on close to 48 hours with no sleep, Gaius sank into the chair beside Arthur's side and rubbed a hand down his wrinkled and weary face, sighing heavily with exhaustion. He closed his eyes, thinking that he would only rest his eyes and his troubled soul for just a moment when his head dipped and sleep claimed him almost instantly.
Gaius' mind slipped into a dream, but it soon became a terrible nightmare. He saw people living in fear. Neighbor turned on neighbor – sons and daughters accused their parents of using magic and it seemed the dungeons, the chopping block, the gallows, and the pyres were never empty. People were rounded up, whole families killed over even the slightest suggestion that one of their members had magic. Eventually, even Gaius stood on a pyre, Arthur glaring across the courtyard at him with cold, dark eyes as he gave the order to light the wood. He could smell the smoke searing into his nostrils, feel the heat climb up his legs …
He gasped, eyes flung open wide as a hand touched his knee. For several seconds he floundered, trying to come back to full consciousness and chase the remnants of the dream away and calm the erratic pounding of his heart.
"Gaius … are you alright?" Gaius' eyes landed on Arthur, who was awake and gazing at him with concern. His mind flashed for a moment to the image of Arthur's cold, angry eyes in his nightmare, but in the next breath, he relaxed, seeing the prince for who he was now – a man of compassion and integrity. He was so unlike the man in his dream that he was more than relieved to see him conscious once again.
Gaius nodded quickly and swallowed, "Yes, Sire … I'm afraid I was just dreaming."
"Looked like a nightmare to me. What was it about?" Arthur asked, his voice hoarse as he pulled his hand away from the old man's knee.
"Nothing important, sire. How are you feeling?" Gaius moved to quickly change the subject, not wanting to think about his dream any longer. He refused to believe that anything remotely like that nightmare would ever come to pass. Merlin was destined to never let that happen. He would be found and he would be there to see Arthur become the king he was meant to be.
Arthur closed his eyes briefly, groaning and rubbing his temples. Still weak and pale, Arthur's hands shook slightly as he mumbled a reply, "Honestly, Gaius … I feel awful. What happened?"
Seeing that the prince clearly had a headache and was no doubt feeling the effects of his injuries and blood loss, Gaius reached for a pain tonic, making sure to use the one that didn't cause added drowsiness. He needed to prince to stay awake a while longer and tell him what had become of Merlin, praying that the prince could remember and that he hadn't suffered any memory loss.
"I was hoping you could tell me, Sire." Gaius began, gently cupping the back of Arthur's head and lifting it enough for the prince to take the medicine. Arthur swallowed the liquid and pulled a disgusted face, reminding Gaius of the young boy he had once been and how vocal he had been about the taste of the physician's remedies. Again, he laid Arthur's head back on the pillow, "The guards brought you to me two nights ago, injured, bleeding and unconscious. You were also alone with no horse, and appeared to have run all the way to Camelot."
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut as if trying to remember, "Alone? No … I was with Bors and Kay and Mer-" The prince's eyes shot open, panic taking over his features.
"I've got to get out of here – he's hurt." Arthur babbled rapidly. Nearing hyperventilation, he tried to sit as if wanting to climb out of bed and leave at once.
Gaius pushed against the young man's shoulders, lowering him back into the bed. "Sire, calm down and lie back, you will only pull your stitches."
"No! Merlin needs help! He's still out there. I've got to go back for him."
"Merlin?" Gaius asked, his expression warring between hopefulness and fear. "You know where he is?"
Arthur nodded and looked at Gaius pleadingly with eyes reddening at the corners, on the verge of creating tears. Gaius wasn't sure he had ever seen the prince so rattled before and it was with unmistakable self-contempt and guilt that he confessed, "I'm so sorry, Gaius … I - I left him behind."
To be Continued ...