Give To Gain
As the days began to become shorter and the nights bitterly cold, reports of a creature, (a real one this time), with the body of a horse and the head of an eagle stalking the northern boarders reached Camelot's castle. Nobody had been able to tell what it was yet, but so far it had taken some small livestock and slashed the leg of a farmer who had been brave enough to try stopping it.
That it had already licked human blood off its claws was worrying. That meant it the taste was upon its tongue and that meant it would probably start seeking out more.
As soon as the report had been read, Arthur was sent out with Sir Garaint, Sir Kay and Sir Percival to give the beast a taste of their steel blades, which was to be its last. Merlin was taken along as well because somebody needed to carry the weapons and supplies. It would take three days to reach where the creature was last spotted.
The journey back was far different compared to the journey towards the northern boarders and their mission. The first journey had been mostly full of tense silence as each knight mentally steeled themselves for the challenge which would be waiting for them. Merlin had tried to lighten things up, such as pointing out birdsong, but gave up quickly when Arthur snapped at him to be quiet. Arthur spent the journey in deep irritation and gave orders to Merlin with more harshness than usual.
On the way back, their spirits were lifted. The beast had been slain and Arthur and the knights smiled and laughed as they joshed each other and verbally relived their victory over and over again.
Merlin just smiled along and agreed when prompted to. While Arthur, Garaint, Kay and Percival had circled the beast and struck at its heart with their swords, Merlin had not been taking shelter with the rest of the villagers as he was told to do. Instead, he had been crouching in the undergrowth, enchanting Arthur's blade to make its aim true and its blow deadly.
Somebody else, (i.e: Arthur), unknowingly taking the credit for what Merlin had done was something he was used to. As long as Arthur remained safe, that was fine by him.
During the late afternoon on their second day of travelling back to Camelot, they were passing along a trail where the ground rose into steep slopes on either side. It was narrow and they had to go along in single file, with Arthur at the front and Merlin at the back. The closed in conditions caused them all to ride silently, hoping that the narrow trail wasn't long.
Then shouts suddenly rang through the air as the vegetation lining the tops of the steep slopes quivered before a group of men burst out from either side, weapons drawn, and raced down towards them. As the horses whinnied in startled surprise, Arthur shouted orders for attack.
Arthur and Kay both managed to strike down some of the attacking group as they ran down the slope but the narrow pathway made it difficult for the panicked horses to turn. As he tried in vain to control and calm his horse, Merlin was the first to cry out as he felt a pair of hands grab at his waist and pull him from the saddle.
Arthur shouting out his name reached Merlin's ears but he wasn't sure where it was coming from. As he found himself suddenly being pulled to the ground, the world spun in front of him and his mind couldn't figure out why he was seeing the sky in front of him when only a moment ago it had been the forest. There was the thundering noise of pounding footprints, scuffling hooves, loud cries and frightened neighs all around him in a confused swirl.
Then there was a thud, much louder than the others, right near his ear and somehow that made his senses catch up with his body. Blinking and sitting up, suddenly realising how he was panting and that his heart was racing, Merlin caught sight of Arthur perusing the attacker who had pulled him to the ground. The man had taken Merlin's horse, and the supplies upon it, and was riding away as fast as he could from the prince who gave chase.
He turned his head and saw that Kay was still upon his horse, striking the bandits down one at a time with his sword. Garaint and Percival were on foot and dodging round the confused horses, who were trying to escape up the steep slopes, as they traded blows with their attackers.
Scrambling to his feet, Merlin ran after Arthur, only just managing to catch a glimpse of blond hair before it vanished behind some undergrowth.
"Arthur!" Merlin tried to call after him but got no response, so had to make do with following the sound of racing hooves. He found he could also make good use of the very fresh hoof prints in the dirt and the trampled vegetation the horses had been made to crash through.
The trail quickly veered off the path they had taken, going into a part of the forest Merlin didn't know. But that detail remained only briefly in Merlin's mind, then he was back to following the trail of broken vegetation, hoof prints and the sound of galloping horses.
Although he hadn't been running for very long, Merlin's side soon began to burn and hurt and his lungs ached as he struggled to breathe. His legs felt heavy and his heart was beating so hard and fast Merlin was sure it would burst out of his chest at any second. But he forced himself on, afraid that if he should slow he may stop and then he wouldn't be able to get going again. Thoughts of Arthur and how he had to reach him were forced into the front of his mind and made to stay there.
Then the canvas of trees and bushes began to thin and Arthur came back into view. With relief flooding through his body, Merlin stumbled to a stop and leaned against the nearest tree, bending double as he tried to catch his breath.
When he looked back up, he took in what was before his eyes and the relief left his body to leave a cold, gaping hole. Before him was a wide river, its water swift and rough as it smashed against rocks on its way. Stretched over the river was the old fallen trunk of a tree, only just long enough to reach from one bank to the other.
Arthur, still on his horse, had come to a stop upon that trunk. The bandit he had been perusing, still on Merlin's horse, had also stopped and both were bearing their swords, silently daring each other to make the first move. A sickening, icy feeling plunged heavily down Merlin's throat and into the pit of his stomach. That tree wouldn't be able to hold all that weight for much longer.
"Ar-Arthur!" He tried to call to him, but his chest was still heaving and his voice came out as much more of a squeak rather than the shout he wanted.
Before his wide and horrified eyes, it happened. The trunks gave a few protesting creeks and then, as Arthur's horse stepped forward, it snapped in half. There was only time for a quick, surprised cry from both Arthur and the bandit before they disappeared underneath the water.
"Arthur! No, Arthur!"
Merlin pushed himself away from the tree and lurched on, half stumbling, half running. As he went, very almost falling to the ground with every other step, Merlin looked up and down what he could see of the river, searching for even the slightest sign of Arthur.
The first to appear were the two horses, soaking wet, with their manes plastered to their necks and their ears back flat against their heads. They managed to get to the bank and pull themselves up.
Merlin looked back at them only briefly as the horses retreated into the safe cover of the forest. The supplies which had been upon his horse were now lost. Then he was running along the riverbank, resuming his search. An arm shot out of the water and Merlin felt hope spring painfully into his chest.
Then it sank into disappointment when the bandit pulled himself up onto the bank on the far side, coughing and spluttering. Getting to his feet as fast as he could, he ran off into the forest without looking back, cursing as he went.
"Where's Arthur?" Merlin shouted angrily after him. "Where is he?"
But the man, whoever he was, was already gone.
Looking back to the river, Merlin felt his breath catch as he thought he saw a flash of blond. Then Arthur was suddenly thrust back into view, thrown by the water into one of the large rocks which were dotted beside either bank. He was coughing harshly and had his eyes squeezed shut, but managed to grab onto the rock and hold on tightly.
"Arthur!" Merlin called as he hurried towards him.
At his name, Arthur opened his eyes and then grimaced as he tried to hurl himself further up onto the rock and away from the grabbing water. Without much thought, Merlin waded into the river and was almost immediately swept away, for he hadn't expected for the water's pull to be so strong. But he managed to keep himself upright as he moved forward the few paces which took him to Arthur's side.
"Are you okay?" he asked, wrapping one arm around Arthur's shoulders and taking his elbow with his other hand.
"No," Arthur said through gritted teeth as he started to ease himself off the rock. "He got me. The rat stabbed me in the water."
Fighting against the pull of the river, Merlin helped Arthur back to the bank and felt a heavy relief sink into his body once more when he had Arthur safely back on dry ground. He wanted to flop down and let his body rest. But instead he remained standing and looked at the wound Arthur was now inspecting. The bandit had stabbed Arthur at the top of his right thigh and the blood was already running down his leg.
Without thinking, Merlin pulled his scarf from around his neck and started to press it against the wound. But it was only there for half a moment before Arthur slapped it away.
"No. No, Merlin," he said, breathing heavily. "We have to go back and help the others."
Merlin looked at Arthur. He was soaking wet and bleeding. His clothes were smeared with mud from where he had pulled himself from the water, his hair was flat against his head and his skin was pale.
"You're shivering," Merlin pointed out. The line of Arthur's jaw became grim. "We should build a fire or something. Get your clothes dry. You'll get sick."
"We need to find the others," Arthur insisted firmly. "As soon as we're all safe, then you can scratch around like a mother hen."
Without another word, Arthur strode into the forest. He didn't back-track along the path they had taken, but Merlin followed close behind him, assuming Arthur must know where they were going.
Sir Garait, Sir Kay and Sir Percival were successful in driving back the gang of bandits who had attacked them. Some were now lying dead on the forest floor and those who managed to slip away had swiftly retreated back into the forest. Once they knew there was no more lurking danger and had calmed the horses, the knights rode after where they had seen Prince Arthur give chase to one of the bandits.
They followed the trail of hoof prints and broken vegetation, just as Merlin had, until they came across the horses which had been ridden by Prince Arthur and his manservant. Both of the poor creatures were soaking wet and without their riders. While Sir Garait and Sir Percival dismounted from their own horses to look over the spooked and shivering beasts, Sir Kay rode on. Then he called back:
"The trail ends at the river. No sign of any of them."
Sir Percival frowned in both worry and thought.
"Get them dried off as quickly as possible," he said to Sir Garait, nodding towards the horses. "We need to find them."
"The river goes that way," Sir Kay said, pointing in the direction of the flowing water as he went back to them. "So if they fell into the water, that's where it would have carried them."
While the knights began to search, Arthur and Merlin walked out of the vegetation and onto a stony trail. They turned right, with no idea that they were heading in completely the wrong direction.
"I don't think this is the right way," Merlin said, turning and scanning the tree tops as he continued walking after Arthur. "I don't recognise any of this."
"Of course you wouldn't," Arthur snapped. "You never do."
"You tell me then," Merlin argued back, feeling the last of his patience starting to wither. "Where are we?"
Arthur stopped in his tracks and turned around to glare at Merlin. He looked tired, Merlin noticed. Then Arthur looked around him, squinting up at the tree tops and the surrounding forest. His eyebrows dropped into a frown and his lips thinned before he resumed glaring at Merlin.
"You wouldn't know even if I told you," he said before turning around and continuing to walk forward.
"You don't know do you?" Merlin said, following on behind him. "Because we're going the wrong way."
"With your skills of direction, you have absolutely no right to be making remarks like that."
"I just don't remember seeing any of this," Merlin said loudly, sweeping his arms out to gesture at their surroundings. "And, look, it's already starting to get dark." Indeed, the temperature was dropping, as was the daylight. "Perhaps we should just stop and get our bearing in the morning. Especially as you're shivering again."
Arthur was shivering much more than he had been a few moments ago. He was now walking hunched over a little, with his hands jammed up into armpits as he crossed his arms tightly over his chest.
"I feel fine," Arthur insisted. "I've dried off and I don't feel cold anymore, so it's okay."
"If you feel okay you shouldn't be shivering," Merlin shook his head and cast a worrying glance towards the wound on Arthur's leg. "Maybe you need something to eat."
"No." Arthur grimaced as though he found the thought rather sickening. "No need, I don't feel hungry."
"Will you stop being such a... woman about it, Merlin!" Arthur snapped again, whirling around once more to fix him with a glare. His breathing had become faster, Merlin noticed, and shallow. Even when he was angry, Arthur's breathing didn't become like that. "We'll find the knights, and with any luck the horses, then we can stop for the night." Arthur glanced up at the sky. "You're right on one thing, it is getting dark. An improvement on your usual standards, eh?"
Without another look at Merlin, Arthur turned back to continue along the path he took around the trees of the forest. Merlin stood for a moment, wanting to shout insults, try to demand that they stop again and threaten to just go and leave Arthur if that was what he really wanted.
But instead he just frowned darkly at Arthur's back and continued to follow him, knowing that something wasn't right.
It wasn't long until Arthur's shivering became worse. Whereas it hadn't been too bad before and seemed to come and go, it was now much more violent and wouldn't stop. Arthur kept stumbling into trees and leaning against them as he looked around, as though he were lost and didn't know where they were.
Which was true. But usually Arthur wouldn't show that. That he was became of great concern to Merlin.
That along with the laboured way Arthur would make himself continue on, shoving himself away from the trees and stumbling forwards. When Arthur started to sway on his feet and kept looking as though he might fall down, Merlin felt the fear that he might not get back up again bite hard at his chest.
"Arthur!" He called to get Arthur's attention as he went up and grabbed his arm, forcing him to stop. "We need to stop for the night." Darkness was still a little while away, but that didn't matter. "I don't care what you say, you can't keep going on like this, we're stopping."
Merlin had managed to get himself angry, expecting Arthur to argue back and insult him. A hot, sickening feeling flared up his throat when he saw the tints of blue on Arthur's lips. Without thinking, he reached out to touch against those blue tinges. Arthur didn't argue back or insult Merlin or anything of the sort. Instead his eyelids flickered a little and his hunched shoulders sagged just a bit.
"You're warm," he murmured.
It seemed that Arthur had near given up on what had been a very determined resolve to keep going until they found Kay, Garaint and Percival not so long ago. Just the slight thought of it made Merlin's chest and throat tighten with nerves because something was wrong.
Merlin knew of somebody dying after they fell into water. He had been a young boy and it had been winter, he remembered. He'd spent most of the day with Will trying to find where the squirrels hid their nuts but with no success. Suddenly his mother called them back and he remembered there being a large fuss around one of the small homes. Merlin couldn't quite pluck up the courage to ask about it, but Will did. The man who lived in that small home had gone fishing, Hunith told them. He fell through the ice. And it was too cold.
Those memories suddenly flooded Merlin's mind and he found himself shivering, though only momentarily. He went from touching tentatively against Arthur's lip to holding him by the shoulders and awkwardly steering him forwards. Arthur just leaned into him and stumbled along in accordance to Merlin's direction. He seemed to have lost all sense of where he was.
"You're warm, Merlin," Arthur murmured again. "Just stay there."
"I will," Merlin nodded, tightening the hold of his arm around Arthur's shoulders. "I'm not going anywhere."
He ended up not so much guiding Arthur as having to drag him along. Arthur's body seemed to be falling asleep where he stood. Leaning against Merlin's shoulder, he did indeed seem to be dozing. Then, every now and again, he would grunt and nuzzle against Merlin's neck.
Merlin went the short distance until he felt they were somewhere suitable for spending the night. They were somewhat sheltered, but if Merlin was to light a fire, the smoke would be seen. And that was what he did, still dragging Arthur around as he gathered up twigs and dead leaved from the forest floor, not wanting to think about what could happen if he were to leave him on his own for too long.
After he managed to get a small fire going, Merlin sat as close to it as possible. The heat of the flames felt as though it were searing through his trouser leg and burning his skin, but he didn't care. The warmer Arthur was, he figured, the better. So he shrugged his jacket off and wrapped it around Arthur's shoulders, then took off his scarf and tied it as best he could around Arthur's leg and over his wound. If it were to get infected, Merlin guessed, that would most likely have happened already. But now it at least wouldn't get aggravated.
Shifting Arthur's weight awkwardly for a moment, Merlin managed to lay him down on the ground. Facing Arthur's back to the fire, Merlin lay half on top of him, covering his body as best he could.
He glanced up towards what he could see of the sky above the trees. It still wasn't completely dark. But after everything which had happened during that afternoon, Merlin felt completely exhausted.
Yet he didn't dare let his body sleep. Arthur still shuddered against him and Merlin felt his short breath quick against his neck.
"Why didn't you listen to me, you idiot?" He uttered, knowing Arthur probably wouldn't be able to hear him. "Why didn't you let me help you?"
As expected, there was no reply from Arthur. So Merlin spent a long time gazing into the fire, allowing himself to become mesmerised by watching how the flames flickered and danced. Every now and again, he threw on some more twigs or leaves but otherwise his hands never left Arthur's body. He rubbed Arthur's arms and back, ran his fingers through his hair and stroked gently at his ears. Night fell and Merlin barely noticed. He was starving. His stomach tightened uncomfortably and rumbled loudly. But Merlin did nothing about it. He couldn't move now and leave Arthur.
Remembering with a jolt of pain to his chest how Arthur's lips had been tinted with blue, Merlin kissed him, drawing it out as long as he could before he had to pull away to take a breath. Arthur's lips were chilled and shuddered along with the rest of his body. So Merlin kissed him again and then kept doing so. There was still the same spark there, the one which tingled and prickled down his spine whenever he kissed Arthur. But the knowledge that Arthur's life may be slipping from his body with each breath was too heavy in his mind. Merlin's heart thudded painfully and he felt the back of his eyes start to sting.
"Don't die," he whispered between kisses which were becoming desperate. "Don't leave me."
Magic upon the human body was complicated, Merlin knew. There were rules you had to follow. If you wanted to gain something, you had to lose something. Merlin had come up against it more than once. The knowledge of it stirred in the back of his mind as he held Arthur close and kept kissing him. All he had to give at that moment was himself. He would remain by Arthur's side until his death, and if that were to happen it would be for him.
So take it, he thought, just before he felt his mind become hazy. Me for him.
Arthur's calls pierced into Merlin's dreamless sleep and his body started to wake up, slowly and reluctantly. His eyelids flickered for half a second and then he squeezed them shut, wanting to go back to where he had been in his sleep, even if it was nothing.
A sudden, sharp strike to Merlin's cheek tore him into the real world. He gasped in surprise and his chest started to hurt. Blinking, trying to make his eyes open properly, Merlin found himself starting to wonder when he had fallen asleep.
Merlin tried to sit up and then screwed his eyes shut again and lay back down. His head hurt and felt sluggish. He didn't feel quite sure where he was or how he had fallen asleep. And his arms felt heavy and awkward, as though he had been lying on them all night.
"Come on, Merlin," Arthur said as he took hold of Merlin's shoulders and pulled him up into a sitting position. "We need to find the others."
"Others?" Merlin mumbled his voice heavy and his words sluggish. He tried rubbing his eyes but his hands didn't seem to be doing exactly as he wanted.
"Yes, Kay, Garaint and Percival, remember?" Arthur clapped him heavily on the back of the shoulder twice, making Merlin feel ill. "They must've found our trail by now."
"Right," Merlin said. He tried shaking his head to wake himself up, but only succeeded in making himself feel even more ill. As he stood up, he stumbled into the pile of ash which had been the fire he made. With his arms folded over his chest, Arthur just sighed and rolled his eyes.
"Not much of a fire anyway," Arthur said. "It must've burnt itself out long before morning."
"How are you feeling?" Merlin asked, suddenly remembering how he'd had his arms around Arthur before falling asleep. During the late afternoon, Arthur hadn't been able to walk straight. Now it was as though it had never happened.
"Never better," Arthur said, giving Merlin a smile. "Whatever got to me yesterday must've passed on. Oh, speaking of that," Arthur held out his arm and that was when Merlin noticed that his jacket was slung over it. Clearing his throat, Arthur shifted on his feet and handed the jacket back to Merlin. "Thanks."
"S'okay," Merlin said, jerking out his arm to take his jacket from Arthur and pull it back on over his shoulders. But not only would his hands still not do quite what he wanted them to, they were starting to shake as well. The jacket ended up wonky and half hanging off one shoulder.
As Arthur lowered his arm, Merlin noticed that his hand brushed against the red scarf still tied around his leg.
"Let's get going then," Arthur said, hitting the palm of his hand against Merlin's shoulder once more to get him moving. "They'll have our trail by now. If we go back the way we came, we should meet back up before too long. Then we can get back to Camelot."
"Right," Merlin nodded, then shook his head again in an unsuccessful attempt to chase away the sluggish, tired feeling fogging up his mind. As Arthur started along the path Merlin assumed to be the one they had taken the previous afternoon, (he couldn't remember. He couldn't recognise where they were), he stumbled along after him. As a shudder shot up his spine and rattled his teeth a little, Merlin jammed his elbows into his armpits and hunched over as he hurried to keep up with Arthur and remain as close to him as possible.
Things confused Merlin as they went. While Arthur strolled on confidently, Merlin didn't recognise any of it. It was just all trees and stones to him, over and over again and he had no idea how Arthur could possibly know which direction to go in without hesitation. The sound of his teeth chattering drummed on in his ears and Merlin knew he was still shivering. But he wasn't feeling that cold. He just couldn't stop shivering. He was also hungry but the thought of food made him feel sick at the same time.
And he knew why. While still feeling dazed and confused, he could remember clinging to Arthur's body. His too cold body, he suddenly remembered and his gut clenched. Just like that man who fell through the ice in Ealdor. He remembered mauling over how the laws of the old religion and the ancient magic meant that if you wanted something, you had to give something first.
He had been lying on the forest floor as evening fell, holding Arthur close, rubbing his arms and back and kissing his lips, desperately trying to keep him warm. There had been a fear eating away at him that Arthur wouldn't wake up come morning and the only thing Merlin had to offer was himself.
The deal was done. The trade of Arthur's health for Merlin couldn't be taken back. And Merlin didn't want to. This was how Arthur needed to be, confident and with his head held high as he went forwards. While it sometimes ended with Merlin's patience severely thinning, he wouldn't have Arthur any other way. That was the man he knew, the one he wanted to remain at the side of. No matter how long or short that time may be.
Without track of time, Merlin stumbled on after Arthur, trying to walk with a straight back and without the shivering. But he must have been unable to do that, Merlin realised, when he suddenly noticed that Arthur had stopped and was looking at him with some concern.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Merlin lied, smiling and nodded his head. But Arthur frowned.
"No you're not," he said, stopping. Merlin stumbled to his side and started trying to insist that he was well enough to keep going. But Arthur was having none of it. "You're a horrible liar, Merlin, and you always have been," he said, taking hold of Merlin's arm and starting to steer him onwards. "Do you even know how much you're shaking right now?"
Remembering how Arthur had been only hours before, Merlin had a fairly good idea.
"We should find the others quickly," he said, trying to walk on ahead of Arthur. But he didn't seem to be making it. As though his legs weren't doing quite what he wanted now either. "Then get back."
"Merlin, you're going in the wrong direction," Arthur pulled on his arm again. "Come on, it's this way."
Merlin felt himself being held against something and for a moment he wasn't sure what it was. Then he felt Arthur's arm across his back and his grip tight at his shoulder.
"You're warm," Merlin told him and before he could stop himself his eyelids slid shut. All he wanted to do was rest. It would just be for a moment.
"Merlin, no, come on. We need to keep going."
Merlin tried to tell Arthur that it was okay, he only wanted to rest for a minute. But Arthur didn't seem to hear him and Merlin couldn't understand why. Wasn't his mouth moving? Wasn't he speaking?
"Merlin! Come- hey, it's them. I hear them."
Them. The knights. Was that it? Well, if that was the case, surely it was okay for Merlin to rest now.
"Over here! Merlin, stay with me! I'm over here! Merlin!"
Had Arthur left him? His voice seemed to be getting further away.
The next time Merlin woke up, he was still groggy. His head pounded and he was reluctant to come back into the real world.
Opening his eyes, he didn't see the green treetops and blue sky as he expected. Instead there was the muddy brown-grey of a stone ceiling. The background noise of birds singing and leaves rustling had been replaced by the sound of hooves clopping across cobblestones and people talking from somewhere outside. The warmth he felt didn't come from a fire, but from a blanket pulled over his body.
The blanket of his own bed.
Things started to slot into place. He was no longer on the ground, but on his bed. No longer in the forest but in his little back room of Gaius' quarters.
As Merlin turned his head towards the sound of his name being spoken, the pain which had been throbbing in the back of his head shot right to the front and felt as though it were trying to rip his skull open. He grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. When he blinked them back open, he saw Arthur sat on the chair beside his bed, with a small fur pulled over his lap and he was leaning forward. He looked tired, Merlin noticed, but otherwise in good health.
That thought made the last few memories of what had happened return and fit with everything else. Arthur had been ill, he remembered, after falling into the river and becoming too cold. He knew that probably wasn't the right term for it, but couldn't think of anything else. Merlin had given his own health in exchange because there had been nothing else he could think of to do. He didn't regret it either.
After that, he just remembered getting up and then falling asleep again.
"Back in the real world now?" Arthur said, rolling his shoulders back and stretching his arms above his head.
"Yeah," Merlin mumbled heavily. He tried to sit up, but had to lie back down when his skull tried to rip itself open again. "What happened?"
"You got sick," Arthur explained, leaning forward and resting his arms from the elbow down on his legs. "Must've got whatever I had somehow. Thought for a moment you weren't going to make it back to Camelot." Arthur's eyes flickered to the ground as he bit his bottom lip. "You're lucky we found the others in time."
"Others," Merlin repeated, blinking to try and get rid of the heavy groggy feeling inside his head without success. "Right. How far were we from Camelot?"
"Another day," Arthur said, looking back up at Merlin. "Gaius said it's amazing you made it, really. But you should be okay now. And I suppose I could see to giving you a day or so off to recover. You're a hopeless enough manservant as it is when you've got all your wits about you. Or what you call wits. I dread to think what you'd be like in this state."
"Thanks," Merlin found he was able to manage a smile. "How generous of you."
There was a flicker of Arthur returning the smile. "Oh, and I suppose you'll want this back as well." He reached down and pulled Merlin's red scarf from where it had been tucked underneath his leg. Following the movement, Merlin then realised that Arthur had since changed his clothes. His leg was probably bandaged underneath the trousers he wore. Arthur rested the scarf upon Merlin's chest, still with his fingers curled into the material to hold it. "And, well, thanks. For that."
"No problem," Merlin smiled again. It was only a small smile. His head hurt too much otherwise. He reached out from underneath his bed covers and instead of taking the scarf he settled his fingers over Arthur's hand and thought he felt his heart skip a beat.
Time seemed to freeze for a moment as they just watched the way Merlin's fingers overlapped Arthur's. Then Arthur pushed his fingers up to clasp at Merlin hand and leaned forward out of the chair. His kiss didn't quite hit Merlin on the lips, but on the corner of his mouth.
"Don't do that again," Arthur said as he pulled away. "Don't nearly die on me."
"Sorry," was all Merlin could think of to say. It was all he had the chance to say because Arthur kissed him again, this time on the lips. Merlin sighed into his mouth and clutched back at Arthur's hand. The scarf lay almost forgotten on Merlin's chest.
"I told Gaius I'd get him when you woke up," Arthur explained quietly as he broke away again.
Merlin nodded, his breathing a little heavier. "Okay."
Arthur kissed him once more, not so quickly this time and Merlin felt his chest squeeze and become warm at the same time. Then Arthur let go of his hand and left the room to fetch Gaius, as he had promised. He seemed to be moving fine, which meant the wound hadn't been badly infected.
Merlin closed his eyes and felt a tear of relief slip down his cheek.
"Arthur told me what he knows to have happened out in the forest," Gaius explained to Merlin a day later when he was feeling in better health and more alert. "That you were attacked on your way back from the northern boarders. One of them took your horse and the supplies and he gave chase, which ended with him falling into the river and becoming separated from the knights who went with you. He says he began to fall ill and then the next thing he remembers is waking up again in perfect health. Then you became ill. You collapsed just before the knights found you again."
Merlin nodded, poking a spoon around the broth he had been given, waiting for it to cool down. "That's pretty much it."
Gaius' eyebrow raised in that telling way. "Except that's not entirely it, is it?"
Making the mistake of looking up at Gaius, Merlin squirmed uncomfortably where he sat, bent over the table with a blanket slung over his shoulders. "Well, that's the most of it."
"Merlin," Gaius said, with that demanding tone in his voice. The one which meant he knew what had happened, but wanted to be told anyway. "There's no use lying to me, so I don't know why you keep trying. You used magic, didn't you?"
"Arthur wouldn't have made it through the night otherwise," Merlin insisted, talking to his broth. It seemed easier that way. "I just did what I had to."
"You could have died!"
"But Arthur would have lived," Merlin argued, taking his eyes off his food and facing Gaius, feeling himself shrink back a little under that piercing glare. "He's the heir to the throne, he's the one destined to do great things. He's the one who needs to live. What I did was what I had to."
"And he needs you to live," Gaius jabbed a finger towards Merlin. "He won't admit to this, Merlin, and he was trying to hide it, but Arthur was very upset when he brought you in. He carried you all the way back to Camelot on his horse and then refused to leave your side once he got you here. He sent somebody else with the report to Uther."
"He did?" Merlin's grip on his spoon loosened and it dropped into the broth, handle and all.
Gaius' shoulders slumped. "I don't know what we're going to do with the pair of you."
Merlin felt himself smile. "Camelot should watch out."
It took another day before Merlin regained enough strength to stay on his feet for most of the day. Between his duties, Arthur kept coming to check on his progress. Before he had to go again, he left Merlin with the warmth of his touch on the back of his neck and his lips against Merlin's mouth.
When Gwen came to see him, she hugged him tightly and didn't seem to want to let go. Merlin didn't make her and kept up his reassurance that he was fine now.
On the night of that second day, Merlin lay wide awake in bed, unable to sleep at all. Having to spend time resting left him surprisingly tired, but he couldn't just close his eyes and sleep. Winter was starting to come in fast now and the days were becoming noticeably shorter. More candles were being lit and Gaius was wearing his thicker robes. Merlin had been given another blanket.
Suddenly an idea jumped into his head and his mind was made up just as quickly. Merlin got up out of bed and slipped on his boots and a jacket. He crept quietly out of his door and through Gaius' workroom, listening to the gentle snores as the old man slept.
The castle was dark and quiet, with only a few guards here and there on night watch. To avoid being seen, Merlin kept to the shadows and hurried along until he was outside the door to Arthur's chambers. Slowly and carefully, he opened the door just enough to poke his head and shoulders through into the room.
"Arthur?" He said quietly. "You awake?"
Through the dark, he could see the lump of Arthur underneath his bed covers. But he didn't stir or answer, so Merlin guessed he must be asleep. Merlin opened the door enough to slip inside and then closed it behind him.
There was still no response. So Merlin crossed the room and leaned over Arthur's sleeping form, with one knee resting up upon his bed, before trying again, dipping his head down to speak close to Arthur's ear. This time Arthur stirred, dipping his eyebrows down as he woke up.
"What?" He peered up at Merlin, his eyes bleary. "Merlin, what is it?"
"It's cold," Merlin simply said.
There was a quick pause as Arthur seemed to take in what had been said to him. Then he sighed heavily and sunk back down into the pillow. "Okay then, get in."
Merlin had been preparing for Arthur telling him to go away. While he'd spent many nights in Arthur's bed, they had all been at the prince's word, never because he had asked himself.
Smiling and toeing off his boots, Merlin crawled into bed beside Arthur and pulled the covers up over his shoulders. Arthur rolled over and wrapped his arm around Merlin's shoulders and back, holding him against his chest.
He was warm, Merlin thought as he sank into Arthur's hold. He could quite happily spend the rest of his life where he was now.
"Honestly, Merlin," Arthur muttered. "What would you do without me?"
Merlin just smiled briefly, not really trusting himself to say anything. He was too tired anyway. So he let Arthur have the last word, (although he usually tended to get it).
At least Arthur wouldn't be able to complain about him being late in the morning.