Man, am I efficient or what? You have to admit, this was a pretty fast update for me. I guess I've been feeling more inspired lately.
That being said, I'm a bit unsure about this chapter, so constructive criticism, as always, is welcomed. I hope you do still enjoy.
Arthur flung his arms out in a desperate bid to keep balance as the earth suddenly shook under their feet. The crude fighter he had been facing had no such luck and shouted in surprise as he was knocked backwards. The sudden earthquake could barely be more than a tremor, but all around him their adversaries were falling gracelessly, while the Camelot knights all managed to remain relatively on balance. It was obviously a sign of lack of training and discipline on the enemy's part - mercenaries, by the look of it.
Taking down one you fight when he is already on the ground has never been the most honourable way of fighting, but to Arthur, neither is taking your enemy by surprise and greatly outnumbering him. So he made quick work of the man that had fallen before him and moved to the next to do the same. They were just beginning to struggle to their feet but his knights had had the same idea as him, and there weren't a whole lot of mercenaries left. Arthur's eyes landed on Gwaine, his sword at a stocky man's throat.
"Gwaine! Stop!" Gwaine looked at him in surprise. "We need one alive!"
Gwaine rolled his eyes but as instructed dropped the sword, instead quickly bringing a fist back and punching the relieved looking man in the face. He fell and Percival quickly stepped forward to pull his arms behind his back until they could get rope.
Rope was Merlin's responsibility to pack… where was that useless servant anyway?
It seemed the others had the same idea as they began to look around them, but it was Elyan who spotted him first. His eyes widened and he ran forwards, calling Arthur as he did so. Arthur turned and for a moment, his heart stopped.
There was a body lying facedown on the ground with an all too familiar tattered brown jacket and nest of black hair. And it had a crude dagger sticking out of its lower back.
Arthur raced towards his friend and crashed to his knees beside him. Oh, god, there was so much blood. Tentatively, the king brought two fingers to Merlin's throat, just under his chin, and waited. While Percival hung back slightly to keep a hold of their prisoner, Gwaine joined them, and in a gruff voice said "well?"
Arthur was silent a second longer before nodding. "He's alive. Just." Arthur looked down at the man lying unmoving before him. The blood that covered him and the ground around him. How is he alive?
His manservant was a mess. Arthur reached for the younger man's bag, fallen beside him, and pulled out the clumps of bandages that had been unceremoniously shoved in, getting ready to treat Merlin as best he could before they could get proper help.
Gwaine watched, his hands hovering uselessly in front of him, at a loss of what to do. "We have to get him back to Gaius," he muttered as Arthur worked.
Arthur was inclined to agree, but Elyan spoke up. "What of the sorcerer?"
Gwaine turned on him, his tone threatening when he shot back "What of him?"
Elyan looked uncomfortable but pressed on anyway. "Obviously Merlin needs help, but we can't just leave a sorcerer roaming free - "
They were interrupted by a barking laugh and Arthur glared at the mercenary Percival still had a hold of. "You still think there's a sorcerer? I thought you nobles were supposed to be smart."
Arthur ignored them all and braced himself for what he had to do next. The dagger had to come out. He wrapped both hands around the handle and with a deep breath and whispered apology, pulled. Merlin arched in pain, a stunted cry escaping his lips, his eyes scrunched up tight, but collapsed back into unconsciousness as soon as the dagger was free. Arthur quickly began wrapping the bandages around Merlin's torso, covering the wound with as many layers as he could, but it wasn't fast enough to stop more blood escaping. It was sickening. Arthur just knew this moment was going to haunt his nightmares for some time.
Only when the bandages were firmly in place and Gwaine had taken his place at Merlin's side did Arthur turn his attention to their captive. "Now," he said, his voice cold, "you had something to say?"
The mercenary grinned. Uneven stubble littered his face and his lips were cracked and dry. "I'm just surprised his plan actually worked." He took a moment to look around at his fallen comrades, not appearing overly bothered by the bloodshed. "Well. Perhaps 'worked' is a strong word."
Arthur took another step forward. "What the hell are you talking about?"
The man rolled his eyes but remained silent, and Percival shook him roughly. "The king asked you a question."
The man looked up at Arthur calculatingly. He was a full head shorter. "Well, a bit coincidental that so many of us just happened to get the drop on you, isn't it? Lucky you came through this exact route so that we stumbled across you."
Arthur's eyes narrowed. "This was a trap?"
The man threw his head back and laughed again, receiving a cuff around the ear from Percival for his trouble. "Hey, the king's got it!"
"But then…" Arthur thought back to who had sent them on this wild goose chase in the first place. He thought of the suspicions he had had about the man from the start, the way Merlin tried to warn him not to go. Merlin. Merlin who now lay, quite possibly dying. Thanks to his own damned uncle.
Rage boiled through Arthur's blood and bubbled in his stomach. At Daell, at Merlin, at himself, at the man in front of him who dared to laugh and grin and mock like nothing was wrong. "Release him, Percival."
"Sire - "
Percival let go and stepped back. The nameless mercenary eyed Arthur warily and began to back away, but he stood no chance. Arthur had cut him down before the man could yell in protest. He only wished it had been Daell at the end of his blade.
The journey back to Camelot was fast and tense. They ran out of fresh bandages by the first night. The bleeding stopped soon after, but Arthur couldn't imagine Merlin had a whole lot of blood left. There was still a small part of him that continued to wonder how, in fact, his servant was still alive, but he studiously ignored it. It didn't feel safe to tempt fate with such questions.
The second day Merlin's breathing was becoming more and more erratic, and by the time they could see the city walls he had broken out into an unnatural sweat. He hadn't once opened his eyes but they darted about under his lids frantically and the silence that had fallen over the patrol was constantly broken by whimpering and gasping as he twitched from Arthur's horse.
It was one of the worst rides of Arthur's life.
Gaius stood up from his stool, wiping his hands with a cloth but sure he could still see red on them. With one last glance to his ward, now breathing slightly more steadily as he slept, Gaius turned to the cluster of knights. Elyan was leaning against the wall and Gwaine sat at the table in front of him, his leg bouncing up and down restlessly. Percival sat on the other side, glancing between his clasped hands and Merlin. Arthur stood in front slightly, leaning against the table, his arms folded and his face dark.
"Well?" the king asked finally.
Gaius took a deep breath, his hands held together in front of him. "Merlin's fever is high. He lost a great deal of blood. I can only be grateful you treated it with what you had…" Gaius turned slightly to glance fondly down at his patient and continued, "and that Merlin actually remembered to pack his medical supplies."
Arthur nodded and Gwaine asked "so will he be okay?"
"I'm afraid that is going to depend on Merlin, now."
Arthur allowed a slight smile. "Merlin's an idiot, but he's a stubborn idiot. He'll be alright." The smile dropped. "As for Daell…"
"Is it true that he cannot be found, sire?" Gaius asked.
"For now. Leon says he disappeared during a commotion in the markets about the time we arrived back," he replied. "He must have heard that his plan had failed." Arthur clenched his fists. "We will find him, Gaius. He will answer for this."
"Do we know why he set the trap?" Elyan spoke up curiously. "I can't figure it out. His own nephew works for the crown, why would he be against it?"
Arthur stared at the prone, too-pale figure lying on the cot. He thought back over the past few days, over Merlin's fear of his uncle and his refusal to talk about it. Guilt and frustration washed over him, hand-in-hand. "If Merlin wakes up, he might be able to tell us."
Arthur glanced in surprise at Gwaine, who was staring at the ground angrily. "What?"
"You said 'if' Merlin wakes up. I think you meant 'when'."
Arthur nodded. "Yes, of course." There was a beat of tense silence before he announced "we need to help with the search. The sooner we find Daell, the better." Elyan nodded and Percival stood, Gwaine doing so a moment later. Arthur nodded to the physician as the others began to leave and said "thank you, Gaius."
Gaius inclined his head. "Just make sure it was not for nothing, sire. Please."
Being left alone with his ward once more, Gaius returned to his seat at Merlin's side. He reached out for a damp cloth that lay to the side and brought it back to Merlin's forehead, dabbing gently. Merlin was looking more at peace than he had when the knights had crashed through his door with the young man in their arms, but he was still far from comfortable or even safe. As Gaius watched the boy he had come to think of as his own, he couldn't help but wonder how someone of his own blood could be so cruel. Merlin was a kind, noble and gentle soul. How was it that his own flesh and blood uncle could be so cruel?
Gaius had seen the bruises that were slowly healing under Merlin's tunic when treating the wound. There was no doubt who had left them there now. And Gaius just didn't understand how someone, related by blood to this boy in front of him, could stoop to such lengths.
Later that night, Gaius allowed himself to give in to exhaustion and, unwilling to move Merlin as of yet, headed up the stairs to get some sleep in his ward's room. It was a bright, clear night and the moon had found its way through the physician's chamber window. It lit up the room in pale light, showing in detail the way Merlin still twitched and flinched in his sleep. His fever had broken but nightmares still plagued him and as the night wore on they only got more intense. Perhaps it was because some part of him sensed the danger still looming over him.
The door creaked open and a hulking figure stepped inside, bringing it shut behind them. They slowly walked further into the room and eventually found themselves standing over the distressed warlock, their own face now awash in the moonlight.
Daell stood over his nephew for a moment in pure silence, and felt the anger, the rage and revulsion build up within him.
Pretty sure the next chapter will be the last. Thanks for reading :)