Merlin didn't mean to come back from the forest with a baby. I mean who does? But he couldn't just leave them there. The child was maybe only about two and extremely small and more importantly, left on its own. Not on purpose though.
There was upturned cart, the horses long gone, their tracks fading into the forest floor. Bodies lingered around the scene, some drenched in blood. Some in a lot worse. He felt ill as he looked around at the condition the women in the group were discarded in. He would have left immediately after that, reported back to Arthur and tell him about bandits latest attack. But then he heard it.
A faint whimpering from a wicker basket, partially hidden from view by a fallen woman's cloak. Merlin didn't have to guess to know what was in the basket. He shed a few tears as untangled the woman's fingers from the handle, her dying wish to be with the child and even more when he opened the lid and saw a small smattering of red on the child's tanned cheek.
He ripped off his neckerchief and used to soft material to wipe away the still wet blood. He tucked the child more securely in the basket, unhooking the woman's cloak from around her shoulders to use to keep the child warm on the walk back to the castle. He prayed for her spirit and spent a moment rearranging her body into a more respectable position, and plucked some wild flowers from nearby as a token of respect, in which he placed the small bouquet into her clasped hands on her chest.
He placed Gaius' pouch of herbs at the child's feet and began to walk back to Camelot, far faster than he would on a regular day, spurred on not only by empathic grief but also the threat of bandits who could still be in the area.
He met Leon and Elyan as he swooped into Castle gates as the town's bell signaled three o'clock, making sure the baby was discreetly hidden from sight from prying townspeople' eyes.
The two were followed by a smaller group of knights, obviously just coming back from a training session, as they were sweating profusely in the mild day.
"Hey, Merlin!" Elyan greeted as Merlin came towards them, basket in hand, not noticing the sombre expression on his friend's face.
"Is that blood?" Leon asked in concern, looking at the cracked blood trails on Merlin's hands and the dry patches on his trousers legs,
"What happened? Are you alright?"
Merlin bit his lip before he shakily recounted what he'd seen, the blood, gagging as he told them of the shredded clothes on the women in the group, becoming cold as he explained the absence of any wealth.
"No one was alive, I checked. Well except..."
They had moved into a corner of the entrance, lest they cause a scene with what Merlin was currently telling them about in a loud whisper.
"Someone was alive after that?" Elyan asked as the basket in Merlin's arms rocked gently and babe inside let out a whimper, a need for attention, their chubby fingers pushing past the fabric that served as a protection from the sun's beams.
"Is that-" Leon mumbled, shocked, as Merlin pushed back the cloak to expose the baby to the two knights, and he watched as his friends already heavy hearts broke before him,
"Good lord...A baby."
"I couldn't leave..." Merlin explained to which his friends gave him looks of understanding and compassion,
"I was going to bring the baby to Gaius first to see if they were well before telling Arthur about the bandits."
"No need for that, I'll tell the King right now," Elyan couldn't quite drag his eyes away from the child's eyes, which observed him him curiously,
"Leon, go ready a group to ride out as soon as possible. I'll join you as quick as I can. Merlin, go to Gaius. We'll be back before night fall."
Merlin nodded and the three departed in different directions, Leon, hurriedly, to the stables and the guardhouse, Elyan to Arthur's Chambers and Merlin, who snuck through alleyways to get to the castle without attracting too much attention.
Merlin opened the heavy wooden door to Gaius chambers and spotted his guardian leaned over a piece of parchment, writing words hurriedly with a feather quill.
"I've got someone for you to meet Gaius," Merlin tried to butter the older man up for what was to come.
"Let me guess, another man you found in the woods that's destined to be a knight of Camelot?" Gaius scoffed, not looking up as Merlin closed the door softly behind him for once.
"Not quite," he replied mutely as he placed the wicker basket on the work bench and carefully removed the baby from its covers, cradling the small form against his chest.
Gaius knocked over his inkwell in surprise and quickly rose to his feet once he noticed the blood on the baby's clothes and Merlin's alike.
The old man quickly assessed there was nothing wrong with the child, none of the blood was his own. They also confirmed the child was a boy, a little boy around a year and a half old, Gaius estimated. The only ailment the child seemed to suffer from was hunger, as there was a possibility the child hadn't eaten for upwards of six or so hours and so Gaius sent a passing maid for warm milk from the kitchens.
Merlin washed the blood from his hands and forearms before he picked the boy up again, who was now swaddled in the softest shirt Merlin owned. He cradled the child in his arms as he slowly offered the starving baby milk from a small glass bottle Gaius had pored the milk into, as to make sure the child didn't choke on the drink.
He told Gaius the story of how he found the child and by the end of his tale, the old man had shed a few tears more than Merlin had.
"You did a good thing, Merlin. By staying. If you'd just come straight back..." Gaius didn't need to finish his sentence for Merlin to know what he was going to say.
If he hadn't stayed, the baby wouldn't have lived.
"I wish I had found them sooner. I could have maybe saved some of the adults. Or at least the boy's mother. She was sheltering him from danger...even in death."
Gaius placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, as Merlin tugged the baby even closer to his chest, as if scared he'd blink and the boy would be gone.
"And she would be thankful you're sheltering him now, I'm sure of it, Merlin."
The sun began to slip from the sky as evening drew fast in quickly colding January day. Merlin felt sick at the thought of the baby possibly having to face the freezing tempatures if he had not found him.
Gaius tucked the cloak from the baby's wicker basket into an empty apple crate he used to store aromatic herbs like lavender in, along with a pillow from the bed he used for patients. Merlin was hesitant to lower the snoozing baby into the crate and out of his arms, but when he heard the clack of the returning knights' horses' hooves, he knew he had to meet them in the courtyard to learn what happened.
He raced down the front steps as Arthur dismounted from his horse, along with Elyan, Leon, Percival and two other knights Merlin was sure were called Ghedred and Konnor. As he stuttered to a stop in front of them, Leon swooped forward and wrapped his arms around his neck, letting them both shed a few tears in the cover of them embrace before the Knight pulled back to compose himself.
Seeing what he'd seen had obviously affected the Knight to his very core, so Merlin didn't remove his hand from Leon's shoulder, an offer of comfort. As he glanced past the taller Knight, he saw the other knights weren't in any different a state, just better at hiding it than Leon.
"Is the baby....?" Leon asked finally, wiping away the stray tear that leaked down his pale cheek.
"He's fine. Perfect health, Gaius says. Healthy appetite too, but I would also have one if I was where he was."
"A boy?" Leon asks with a small smile, and Merlin nods.
"Wow," he says proudly in a daze, like he had fathered the child himself. He shook himself out of his trance as Arthur decided to finally approach the two.
"Come on," Arthur spoke sombrely, looking at Merlin with an unreadable expression,
"We have much to discuss."