A/N: Sorry about being so cruel with the last chapter's cliffy, so here is the last chapter a little earlier than I anticipated. I hope this makes up for it a little.
I'd also like to thank you for reading and supporting this, you all rock! :)
-O-O-O- Part Four -O-O-O-
When he was awake, Merlin's stomach was in a heated competition with his head and legs for which body part could give him the most grief. He hadn't eaten since … well … he couldn't really remember and his gut was very loud and vocal about its disuse. He'd give anything for a nice juicy cut of venison or even one of Gaius' virtually unpalatable bowls of porridge – anything to ease his hunger pangs.
A drink of water would be great too … oh yes … he really, really wanted some water. Maybe his head wouldn't hurt so much if he could only have a drop or two to wet his mouth.
He knew it was coming close to do or die time and if Arthur didn't return soon, he was going to have to take measures into his own hands and find a way to get some water. He still couldn't think straight and since that made his magic act wonky, he would have to find a way out of the cave without it. There had to be a stream nearby since Arthur had to have filled the waterskin from somewhere before he left, he just hoped it wouldn't be too far since he would have to crawl there.
But he was so tired and he hadn't even moved yet. How was he supposed to find the strength to move let alone pull himself across the forest floor? And then there was the pain factor. If he could only remember the words to the numbing spell from his book, he had only practiced it once and his brain was too scrambled to recall them all.
Merlin groaned, realizing just how useless the supposedly mighty Emrys was at saving himself. So much for being the world's greatest warlock … he couldn't even magic himself a drink of water.
His stomach gave another empty rumble and his thoughts about water and how to go about getting to it only made him that much thirstier. He closed his eyes, too tired to think anymore. Arthur would be back; he had promised and though the prince was often a giant pain in the rump, he always kept his word. Merlin just needed to be a little more patient.
Tired and exhausted from all of the nothing he was doing, Merlin started drift off and was soon carried away along the currents of his imagination.
Merlin was seated at a great round table with a feast set out before him and his mouth watered the sight of the multitude of meats, breads, and desserts. Knights, lords, ladies, and common folk alike shared in the company of their king and joyous laughter and voices rang out, echoing within vast hall. Gaius sat near him smiling proudly whilst Gwen, dressed regally in purple silk and a jeweled tiara looked up at Arthur in adoration. With a golden, dazzling crown circling his head and dressed in his finest clothes, Arthur raised a goblet and then toasted to everyone's health. Turning to Merlin with a knowing nod and warm smile before he drank, he gestured for the young man to take up his own cup. "Drink up, Merlin!"
Merlin smiled back and upended his goblet. The cool liquid touched his tongue and he savored it appreciatively as it slid down his throat and warmed him from the inside. It was the most wonderful thing he thought he had ever tasted and he drank some more, practically guzzling it without any thought to manners. Across the table Gwaine and some of the other knights cheered while Arthur looked at him rather aghast.
"Slow down, Merlin." Arthur admonished, "You're going to –"
Merlin should have listened as he started to choke on his drink. Sputtering and coughing, it spilled down the front of his shirt. He couldn't draw in a breath and it felt like he was drowning.
One by one the knights vanished, as did Gwen and the festive feast. The banquet hall went dark and the walls and ceiling turned to stone, coming in closer, almost on top of him. Arthur's face blurred as his crown and formal attire disappeared.
Merlin realized then that he was no longer standing, but was lying on the cold, rocky ground, surrounded by darkness as he continued to choke and cough harshly, pain stabbing him in the head under the strain.
"Slowly, Merlin …" someone spoke. "Take it easy. Just breathe."
He coughed a few more times until he had finally cleared his throat enough to breathe easily. His head fell back down onto the ground, but a gentle hand behind it cushioned it from the rock. He didn't even realize his eyes were still closed until he peeled them open and looked about in confusion and saw the company that was suddenly beside him. Arthur and Gaius were looking down on him with concerned faces, but relieved faces. Merlin's focus centered on the waterskin Arthur was holding and his thirst overrode his confusion.
"More?" He asked, voice horse and throat sore from coughing.
Arthur looked at Gaius as if asking for permission.
Gaius nodded. "Alright … just a little bit more for now. Don't want you choking on it again."
It must have been Arthur's hand under his head for he helped Merlin raise it again and lifted the water up to his lips. Merlin drank greedily and soon, to his disappointment, the water was taken away.
"That's enough for the moment, Merlin. I know you must still be thirsty, but if you drink too much at once you'll upset your stomach and it will all just come back up." Gaius stated, patting his shoulder fondly.
It was that touch from his mentor that truly woke Merlin and snapped him back into full alertness. Arthur and Gaius were here! He was so relieved, happy, and gobsmacked to see them in the flesh that he wasn't sure if he should laugh or cry.
So he did both.
"You're here …" He sobbed while giggling. Arthur and Gaius probably thought he was losing his grip on sanity as tears dripped down his face, but he just didn't care.
"Yes, Merlin." Arthur reassured him, his hand still cupping the back of his head gently as he smiled, "I promised I would be back, didn't I?"
"Took you long enough." He lobbed back at Arthur weakly, smiling as his tears dried up.
"Everything okay in there?" Merlin turned at the sound of the voice coming from just outside the cave entrance and saw Gwaine's face peeking inside anxiously. The tiny cave was barely large enough for the three people already inside and clearly the roguish knight was unhappy about being left outside.
Merlin gave his friend a small wave to let him know he was okay. Gwaine smiled broadly, relieved. "Thank goodness, Mate! For a second there I was worried that you wouldn't be awake enough to remember those drinks you owe me."
"Since when do I owe you?" Merlin questioned.
"Since you went and made me worry about you, that's when. I think I'll need at least three or four pints of ale before nerves are back to normal."
"Only your nerves would function normally with three or four pints of ale, Gwaine." Arthur quipped, pretending to be irritated with Merlin and the knight's exchange. "Let's save the discussion about getting sloshed for after we get back to Camelot, shall we?"
"Camelot … That sounds really good." Merlin sighed wistfully, closing his eyes and thinking about the warm bed, food, and pain tonics waiting for him there. "I think I'm ready to go home now."
Arthur stood by his window, gazing down sightlessly at the courtyard below. His thoughts should have been on the tax resolutions and trade agreements sitting on his desk, but instead, his mind was wandering over to his servant once again.
It was profoundly silent in his room. Already, he knew that the next few weeks were going to be extremely boring. There was no bubbly, goofy, stumbling Merlin to fill the chambers and it felt empty without him. Sometimes Merlin could be annoying and irritating, especially first thing in the morning when he woke him up with far more cheerfulness than was called for at such early hours. But Arthur found himself actually missing even those abrupt, rude wake-ups. He missed his constant rambling and the volleys of insults and barbs they exchanged frequently during the day. Merlin was like Arthur's shadow, always following him around and not having him by his side left him with an odd, vacant feeling.
Three days had passed since he, Gaius and Gwaine brought Merlin back to Camelot. Gaius had explained that he needed several days' worth of rest without visitors and Arthur hadn't seen him since getting him settled within the physician's chambers. Gaius had praised his efforts to treat Merlin and said that he was probably the main reason that his servant would walk again and while his legs would take weeks to heal, he should be back on his feet and serving the prince once again.
Arthur was grateful for that news, but had found waiting to see Merlin again to be a constant distraction. He really hadn't a chance to talk to Merlin since he left him in the old physician's care, but Gaius had finally informed him that morning that his ward was well enough to start seeing visitors. He knew Gwaine, Gwen and most of the knights had already been by to see him, yet Arthur had hesitated in making the trip to Merlin's bedside just yet. He just wasn't sure what he was going to say to Merlin when he saw him, but when he did, he wanted a little privacy so he could speak candidly with him and explain himself without an audience.
There was a lot for Arthur and Merlin to discuss and he knew that he couldn't put it off for much longer. For three days, Merlin had languished within that cave. How was Arthur ever going to apologize for taking so long to come back for him? Whilst he knew intellectually that he hadn't abandoned Merlin for so long on purpose, would Merlin see it that way? Sure … during one of his more lucid times on the journey back to Camelot from the cave, he had told Arthur that he never doubted that the prince would return, but Arthur couldn't help but wonder if that was the truth. If he had been in Merlin's place, he probably would have felt as if the world had forgotten him. So, was Merlin's apparent forgiveness true or was it just something he told Arthur in order to placate the royal?
Arthur knew he would never find out if he didn't physically go down to the physician's chambers and talk with his servant and yet, he was reluctant to go; worried that Merlin had had time to think over his ordeal and had decided to rescind his words of forgiveness.
He and Merlin had an odd friendship to say the least, but Arthur valued it above any other that he had had before. He had come to realize in just the span of a week how much he didn't want to lose it. Of course, he would never say any of this outright to Merlin; he was a prince after all and saving face and protecting his image was almost as important as defending his kingdom. Yet still, he needed to do this right and find a way to
At last, Arthur decided that it was time to go and speak with Merlin and he left his rooms. He navigated the halls of the castle with little conscious thought, but as he approached the door to the physician's quarters he once again ran into some resistance. He told himself to quit being such a baby – he was prince and regent and shouldn't feel such reluctance to speak with any of his subjects, much less his own manservant.
Squaring his shoulders, Arthur knocked on the door.
"Come in." Gaius called from the other side of the door. As Arthur entered, the older man gave the prince a polite greeting, but his one raised eyebrow spoke louder, as if to say 'it's about time'.
"How' Merlin?" Arthur asked.
"He's doing well, considering." Gaius turned towards the steps leading up to Merlin's room. "He was awake last time I checked on him, Sire."
"Is he up for seeing another visitor?"
Gaius nodded, "He's been asking about you."
"Good." Arthur said, trying not to sound as awkward as he felt as he climbed the stairs to Merlin's room. He stopped almost immediately as a powerful stench hit him. He plugged his nose as Merlin looked up from a book he was reading and laughed at him.
Merlin looked much improved since the last time he saw him. He had a little color to his cheeks and his face was no longer sunken in from dehydration and exposure. He also had several pillows behind his back, propping his up whilst a few more pillows at his feet kept his legs elevated. Merlin's legs were tightly bound and supported by much sturdier splints than the ones Arthur had improvised for him in the cave. Smeared over the linen wrappings and soaking through them was a slightly greenish paste that Arthur suspected was the source of the foul aroma.
"Ahhh – what is that smell?" Arthur asked.
"Sorry about that. Gaius used comfrey over the bindings, it's supposed to harden like clay when it dries and help the bones heal, but it's taking forever. It smells like a dung heap, but you get used to it after a while."
Arthur wasn't too sure about ever getting used to that smell, but he made an effort to ignore it as he unplugged his nose and sat down in the chair next to his bed. Arthur spied a pitcher of wild flowers sitting on the bedside table where Merlin placed his book and he grinned, knowing that Gwen must have brought those. He imagined that she was also the one that fluffed all of those pillows surrounding him and tidied his room since it was far cleaner than he ever recalled.
Also, he had never known either Gaius or Merlin to own so many pillows, but he wouldn't have been surprised if Gwaine, Lancelot and the other knights hadn't given them the cushions from their own beds in order to make the young, injured man more comfortable. The love of Merlin's friends showed through all of those little touches around the room and Arthur felt a little bit like the clot-pole his servant often accused him of being. Sure, he wasn't about to pick flowers for his servant, but he could have at least thought of bringing him something to make his recovery easier. What could bring, however, he didn't know.
"So …" Arthur began somewhat awkwardly, unsure of where to start.
"So …" Merlin replied as well, rubbing the back of his neck as though he too were feeling somewhat nervous.
"Um … are you comfortable enough?" Arthur probed.
Merlin nodded, and smiled, gesturing at all of the pillows. "I think you can guess the answer to that question. I feel like I'm lying on a cloud."
It was Arthur turn to grin as he felt some of the tension melt, "Let me guess. The pillows are Gwaine's doing, aren't they?"
"Got it in one." Merlin confirmed, "I'm definitely going to have to owe him those drinks now."
"How are feeling otherwise?" Arthur asked.
"A little sore, but fine. What about you?"
There was silence again for a few moments and Arthur again felt uneasy. There were things he needed to get off his chest, but saying them out loud was proving to be harder than he thought they would be. Being royalty meant he never had to say he was sorry, especially to someone who was supposed to be in service to him, but he wouldn't feel any better if he didn't.
"Merlin … I just wanted to say that I'm sor–"
"Don't." Merlin cut him off, his grin long gone, replaced with a serious expression, "Don't say you're sorry, Arthur. You took care of me and kept me safe. Then you ran more than ten miles all the way back to Camelot, injured and bleeding. Gaius told me how you collapsed as soon as you made it to the gates, so how can you blame yourself for that?"
Arthur looked at down at his lap where he rested his clenched fists, his knuckles whitening. "That's no excuse, Merlin. You were out there alone for days. You must have thought I had abandoned you."
Merlin shook his head, "Nah … I knew you would come back and you did. That's all that really matters. The only thing you should be sorry about is for being so stupid about pushing so hard that you injured yourself worse. If you had managed to kill yourself trying to help me, then that, I would have a hard time forgiving you for."
Arthur looked up and met his servant's sincere gaze, seeing no sign of blame. Swallowing, and forcing the stinging in his eyes to abate, Arthur let his hands relax as the tension in his body was released and the weight that had been oppressing him disappeared.
Sighing, Merlin leaned back into his pillows then pulled a slightly pained expression when he moved a little too much.
"You okay?" Arthur asked.
"Yeah … just bored to death." Merlin complained. "I'm stuck here for the next six weeks at least. I think I'm going to go completely bonkers well before then. I think I'd rather clean out the stables and wash your smelly, dirty underwear than sit around doing nothing." He lamented with a pout.
"Hey … my underwear does not stink!" Arthur shot back, poking his servant in the shoulder.
Merlin just pursed his lips, trying to hold back a grin, "Oh no … of course not, Sire. No royal arse, no matter how sweaty after a day of training in full armour, could ever stink."
Giving back as good as Merlin dished out, Arthur pointed to the foul paste coating his legs and came back with a, "It's not like you're smelling all that rosy right now either."
Merlin laughed, "Okay … I'll give you that. But look on the bright side, sire. You get to leave this room, while I, on the other hand, am stuck here with my stinky legs for weeks. You should show a little sympathy."
Though he tried not to show it, Arthur truly did sympathize with Merlin. He could completely understand his restlessness. As an active, young man he had been sidelined by injury before and lying around waiting to heal was never entertaining. It was about as much fun as doing paperwork …
And that's when Arthur came up with what he thought an ingenious plan to not only give him an excuse to visit his servant on a regular basis, but also help alleviate Merlin's boredom (and some of his own as well).
"Alright … I suppose that if you're bored, then I'll just have to put you to work."
Merlin looked at him as if Arthur was the idiot now. "How? I can't exactly go anywhere."
"You don't need to. Your head and hands still work, don't they?" Posited Arthur with a sly bit of cheekiness, "Though, I wonder if your head ever worked in the first place."
"What are you suggesting?" Merlin asked, a little warily.
"Well … I still have tons of work that needs to be done. As regent, I hardly have time to train with the knights as often as I would like because of all of the letters, missives, speeches, and other papers I have to go over. I'm afraid my battle skills will get rusty, so it would help if I had someone who can read and write to help me out with it all the everyday administration stuff."
"You want me to do your paperwork?"
"Just the simple things …" Arthur shrugged, "like replying to letters, signing off on supplies, or writing speeches…"
"Yeah … easy stuff."
"The last time I wrote a speech for you it took me all night. It's hardly what I would call 'easy'."
"Good. Then you certainly won't be bored, now will you? I'll just come by every morning and drop off whatever work I need you to complete and then pick it up in the evening."
Merlin looked like he wished he hadn't opened his big mouth and complained about having nothing to do. The prince laughed. Though his manservant was already grumbling even before Arthur had given him any assignments, he could sense Merlin's gratitude at being given what he needed most: a reason to get better as soon as possible.
Thanks so much for reading!