"If we leave now, we can return to Camelot within the hour on foot." He estimates. "Can you walk?"
Merlin pauses, only to frown in embarrassment when he finds he hardly has enough strength to lift his arm, let alone walk all the way back to Camelot. "I...don't think so, Sire." He admits sheepishly, expecting Arthur to call him a girl or a coward. But the king doesn't. Instead, he simply nods and extends a hand for Merlin to grab, which he does gratefully.
As he's tugged onto his shaky legs, Arthur wraps a supportive arm around his waist and the other around his shoulders, being his crutch as they make their way toward the woods, smiling in relief at the thought of home.
Unfortunately, they don't get far before Merlin's body is slumping toward the ground. Arthur's steps falter at the increased weight on his shoulder and frowns at the way his friend's head is nearly dangling against his chest, his eyes half-lidded and struggling to stay open. Scanning the forest around them, he tightens the grip he holds around Merlin's waist and guides him to the nearest place to sit.
Merlin huffs out a breath of relief at being able to rest his aching body. He leans his head back against the tree behind him and closes his eyes. His head is spinning. He's never felt so exhausted in his entire life.
"Merlin," Arthur mutters as he stands over his nearly unconscious friend.
"Mm." He replies distantly.
"I'm going to the creek." The king says. "It's not far, I won't be gone long."
"Just...stay here. I'll be back soon."
And with that, Arthur trudges off into the woods, his waterskin in hand. Admittedly, he glances back once or twice, the uneasiness in his chest growing at the idea of leaving Merlin alone. Logically, he knows it's silly. There will be no mercenaries or bandits in these woods with a war going on. More than likely, those kinds of scavengers will be picking over the battle field, trying to steal anything of value from the corpses of the fallen. Not skulking the woods for injured servants. But there are still animals, who will always hunt, no matter if humans are waging war. Would Merlin be strong enough--or conscious enough--to defend himself should a wolf or wilderon come across him?
Arthur shivers at the thought and picks up his pace, purposefully planting his feet on twigs and dry leaves in hopes of drawing any attention away from Merlin. He wishes he could stay, that they could rest for a while and continue their trek. But they both need water. Neither of them have had anything substantial in terms of nourishment in two days, save a few sips here and there from their shared waterskin. But now it's empty and Merlin is weak enough as it is. No need to add dehydration to the list.
It seems even The Lady of the Lake could not heal him entirely.
So the king crashes through the brambles, his sword in one hand, the skin in the other, until he finally reaches the creek. It's a shallow one, the rocks and tree roots that lay at the bottom clearly visible through the running water, but it will be enough. He submerges the skin and swallows a mouthful of the cold water before dipping it back in to fill it the rest of the way. Satisfied, he returns to the makeshift camp.
Merlin is exactly where he left him, his shoulders propped against a gnarled mass of tree roots, his head lulled to the side and eyes closed. Arthur hesitates, frowning at how pale Merlin looks in the light of the awakening sun. Quietly, the king kneels down beside his friend and presses the back of his hand to Merlin's forehead. No fever. He doesn't rouse at the touch and Arthur's frowns deepens because of it. Moving his hand down, he touches two fingers to the boy's neck, checking his pulse. It's steady and much stronger than it was only an hour before, although still a bit faint.
"Merlin," The king says, lightly smacking his cheeks. "Come on, wake up."
Merlin moans tiredly and tries to swat his friend's hand away, muttering something about five more minutes, Gaius. Arthur sighs loudly and picks up the boy's hand, pressing the waterskin into it and guiding it to his mouth.
"Drink, idiot." He grumbles. "You need it."
Feeling the weight of the skin in his hand, Merlin's eyes flicker open. They're unfocused and distant and Arthur figures his friend probably won't remember any of this by the time he's fully recovered.
"Drink." He repeats, and then Merlin seems to realize what he's saying and nods slowly. He takes a small sip and then another and another until nearly the half the entire skin is empty. Arthur might need to make another trip to the creek but he doesn't mind. So long as Merlin stays healthy, he doesn't mind.
Once he's done drinking, Arthur takes the waterskin and places it on the ground beside him. Reaching up, he feels the boy's temperature again. He knows he only just checked it but you can never be too careful. Still cool.
"Mind if I check your wound?" The king asks.
Merlin hesitates for a moment, obviously not a huge fan of the idea, but shakes his head regardless. So Arthur scoots closer and gingerly lifts the cloth of his friend's tunic, peering at the faded, pink scar on his stomach. He glances up at Merlin for a split second before carefully brushing his fingers against it, making sure infection isn't brewing underneath. But there's no redness, no heat, and there doesn't seem to be much tenderness so Arthur concludes infection hasn't set in. Yet.
But that doesn't mean it can't. Or won't. He still needs to get his friend back to Camelot - to Gaius. He needs a physician's professional opinion and care. Not to be laying in the dirt...
"Are you up to walking?" Arthur asks him and Merlin grimaces.
"I'm tired..." He admits drearily, in a very un-Merlin way. His eyes are fluttering, his head lulling back against the tree and Arthur knows that if he doesn't do something, he'll fade away again.
"Oh no you don't." The king grumbles, slapping his friend's cheeks a couple times. "Come on, Merlin, I need you to stay awake. I can't hull your sorry hide all the way to Camelot."
But Merlin only groans and his eyes slip shut. Out cold.
Arthur rolls his eyes in exasperation and carefully lowers his friend's slumping body to the ground. Rising to his feet, the king swats the dirt from his trousers and plants his hands on his hips, glancing around the clearing they've settled in. He supposes they could make camp here, move on in the morning...but one more look at Merlin crosses that possibility off his list. So it's with a deep, annoyed sigh that Arthur leans down and takes Merlin's wrist, bending low as he lays the unconscious boy over his shoulder.
Weighed down, it will take a little longer to reach Camelot but he should be able to get them there before midday if he keeps pace.
They've just been through a war. God. It hits Arthur hard in the gut when that finally sinks in as he trudges through the Camelot gates, Merlin still dangling limply over his shoulder. It's not that he didn't know. Of course he knew. But Arthur has been in so many battles...he supposes it didn't register as war until he got home. Until he sees the sparkling, white stone of his beautiful castle and the red flags flapping in the wind and his people shuffling through the lower town. Their shoulders are slumped, their heads lower than usual...or maybe it's just Arthur's imagination because each and every one who sees him staggering toward the courtyard straightens up and gawks.
After a few motionless moments pass, a handful of peasants race to his side, offering to take Merlin off his hands but he shakes them away. He's fine, he tells them. But he urges them to go ahead of him and tell Gaius he's coming, tells others to find a guard or a knight and ask them to tell the queen he's returned safe and sound. The peasants hurry off in their various directions and Arthur continues on into the courtyard.
His arms are burning from the strain of carrying Merlin all this way. The slim servant is light as a feather usually but after so many hours, even a feather can weigh the same as much as a horse. But Arthur continues on, determined to get him the care he needs.
Stumbling tiredly into the castle, he passes a servant on the stairs and finally enlists some help in carrying Merlin. The young man agrees whole-heartedly and together they manage to get Merlin into the physician's quarters and layed out on the table Gaius has already prepared, thanks to the farmer who Arthur needs to remember to thank later.
"The worst of his injury is healed but there is still risk of infection...and by the bruising under his rib cage, I suspect there might be a bit of internal bleeding. Not much but enough to be dangerous if not dealt with immediately." Gaius says as he pokes and prods the area of Merlin's chest that is covered in angry, red bruises and a single, pink scar just the size of a sword... "And more than that, he's dehydrated and malnourished. How long has it been since he managed to drink anything, My Lord?"
"A few hours." Arthur replies immediately from where he's hovering in the corner, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. "But that was the first time he got anything substantial for quite a while."
Nodding, the physician returns to his patient. "We'll need to get something in him as soon as he wakes. Sire, would you please have the kitchens send up some broth, enough for both of you. And some clean water."
"Of course." The king stands and leaves the room to fetch a servant. While he's gone, Gaius takes his opportunity. Holding out a hand a few inches above the large bruise, he closes his eyes and begins the enchantment. Hopefully this will be enough to stop the bleeding...
"Gestepe hole! Þurhhæle." Eye flashing gold, Gaius breathes a sigh of relief when Merlin's shoulders jerk and he sucks in a sharp intake of breath. Immediately the bruising begins to fade. Not enough to be noticeable to the king, thankfully, but it assures Gaius that the spell worked. The most worrisome injury has been dealt with. And just in time.
The door creaks open as Arthur returns. He hesitates just inside the threshold, his eyes hanging heavily on Merlin's prone form. "The broth and water will be here momentarily." He says softly, returning to his corner and folding his arms again. "Any change?"
Gaius raises an eyebrow at him. "You've only been gone a short time, Sire."
"Right, right..." Arthur is staring again. His blue eyes tinged with some strong emotion Gaius can't readily identify. But it looks like guilt.
"This isn't your fault, My Lord." The physician mutters, although he doesn't particularly want to comfort him. Not when he was so cruel to Merlin before. But then...could everything have been amended between them? An expression like that isn't one a man such as Arthur shows easily. And especially not to someone he's preparing to banish... "You saved his life."
"I was a fool, Gaius." Arthur admits quietly. "He saved me at the expense of his own life and the only thing I could focus on was that he has magic. I...thought I hated him. It's Merlin! How could I ever..." He's shaking his head now, looking more angry than guilty. And he's pacing. "Well rest assured, Gaius, that I'm not planning to banish him. Or execute him or any such nonsense."
"I know, Sire."
"But I do have to do something. I can't pretend none of this happened."
"I agree, My Lord."
"Merlin has magic. He's been using it to protect me all these years. Me and all the people of Camelot. If anything shows that magic isn't all evil, it's that! Right?" Arthur huffs and sits down on a stool. "I have to do something, Gaius. I know it's not what my father would have wanted...and the council will not agree with me right away... and I will have to consult Guinevere before doing anything drastic but..." He lifts his blue eyes and suddenly he looks very young and very unsure of himself. Gaius hasn't seen him look so lost in many years. "Gaius, should I...lift the ban? On magic?"
The old man doesn't answer right away. Instead, he looks over his shoulder at Merlin laying on the table. So long his young ward has yearned for this moment. He wishes he could be awake to hear this. "Arthur, I deeply respected your father and cared for him as a friend. He was a good king. Strong, willful, decisive..."
Arthur is nodding thoughtfully.
"But you are much greater king than he ever was. Even in your short time. And that is because you do what you believe to be right. I know magic has hurt you personally, it was taken much from you...but you are right when you say it is not all evil. It has given you much as well."
"So you agree with me? You think I should lift the ban?"
"Yes, Sire, I do."
"Well that could have gone better..." Gwen says as she and Arthur leave the meeting room. The queen looks as exhausted as Arthur feels. Six hours of negotiating with the members of the council and still no compromise or agreement or anything useful. But who can blame them? It took Arthur two days and witnessing the death of his best friend to accept magic. It took Gwen just as many days and lots of reassuring from her husband to agree to attend the meeting and give him some backup...even if she is still a little unsure. And yet the council defies them. They refuse to believe that magic can be anything but pure evil.
What will it take to convince them?
"Arthur..." Looking over, Arthur finds his wife raising a questioning eyebrow at him. "I know that look...what are you planning?"
"Nothing." He says, grasping her hands in his. He needs to relax. The meeting is over for now and there's no need to continue stressing about it right this moment. "Yet."
Arthur lays awake in his bed that night. If he sleeps at all, it's only for seconds at a time. Between trying to figure out a way to convince the council, organizing parties to scour the battlefield for survivors, sending out condolences to first of kin for every man lost, and Merlin still laying unconscious in Gaius's chambers--albeit improving everyday according to the physician--the king has a lot on his mind.
Is he making the right decision? Gaius seems confident that lifting the ban will solve a lot of problems around the kingdom but Arthur still isn't sure... It goes against everything he was raised to believe. Goes against everything he's witnessed... How is it that Merlin is the only sorcerer he's ever met who hasn't wanted to fry him?
"I'm not. I'm just the only one you know of at the moment." That's what Merlin would say. Probably. Although he'd most likely punctuate it with a 'clotpole' or a 'dollophead'.
The simpleton. Arthur can't wait for him to open those stupid eyes so he can remind him of exactly what an idiot he is. Maybe he'll put him in the stocks for a few hours. Or weeks. Who does he think he is laying about this long? Doesn't he know that Arthur relies on his advise?! Oh...well...maybe not relies but...he could definitely use it now...
"You're doing the right thing, Arthur. Your father was blinded by hatred. It's time peace and equality reigned in Camelot once more."
"Thank you, Merlin..." Stiffening for a second, Arthur turns his head toward Guinevere sleeping soundly beside him. The Merlin in his head had seemed so real for a moment that he actually spoke out loud to him.
Must be the lack of sleep.
The king yawns decidedly at that and rolls over, nuzzling his chin into the crown of his wife's head. Closing his eyes, he endeavors for at least an hour of rest before he has to get up and attend more meetings... As he's drifting off, he almost hears that idiot's voice again.
"Good night, Sire."
"Sir Gwaine, what has been your experience with magic users?" Is it just Arthur or does Councilman Abram look even more pompous than usual this morning? The chunky, well-dressed man has his arms folded behind his back, his chin lifted arrogantly. Evidently, he thinks Sir Gwaine is just another knight who will speak freely of his disdain for magic. He thinks he will speak out against Arthur and Merlin. Evidently, he does not know Gwaine.
"The usual, I'd say." The gruff knight says with a smirk.
"Please elaborate." The councilman huffs, hopefully missing the quiet chuckle that Arthur tries to hide.
"Well, you know, got thrown into a few walls, spent a few miserable nights as Morgana's prisoner... But I've just recently heard that a good mate of mine has magic. So apparently they're not all as bad as some people would have you believe."
Abram looks stunned but he recovers quickly. A look of annoyance being thrown Gwaine's way as he moves on to the next knight who volunteered to give tribute to the meeting. "Sir Leon." He greets, more pleasantly. "You have served this kingdom for many years, is that correct?"
"It is, Councilman." Leon confirms, politely.
"So you must faced many magical opponents."
"Indeed I have."
"Would you care to give your opinion on the matter?"
"Of course." The innocent, well-mannered smile Leon flashes almost shatters Percival's composure. The bulking knight has to look away briefly to hide his laugh. Could the councilmen have possibly picked a worse group of knights to argue against lifting the ban? Gwaine, Percival, and Leon. Three of the king's most trusted men. Surely, if any of them were to speak out against his plan, the council member's choice would be obvious. Too bad for them none of them will ever betray their king. Or their friend. "It is true that I have faced more sorcerers in combat than I could possibly count. Each of them meaning to do harm to the king or the people of Camelot. Each of them bitter, hateful, scorned people..."
"So you see?" The councilman interrupts. "Sir Leon agrees that the ban should not be lifted!"
"Councilman Abram," Arthur says evenly. "Please allow Sir Leon to finish his tribute."
"Thank you, My Lord." Leon says. "It is true that the late king Uther once considered me one of his most trusted allies in the fight against magic. And while I myself cannot honestly vouch for the goodness in the majority of magic users, I have served alongside King Arthur since we were boys. I trust him with my life. And Merlin has been a trusted friend for many years now. I know that there is not an evil bone in his body. If Arthur believes it is time for the Old Religion to return to Camelot, I will not question him."
"Thank you, Sir Leon." Arthur says, squeezing his friend's shoulder. "Shall we move on, Councilman? I'm sure Sir Percival has a few things to add."
Abram doesn't give Arthur a dirty look. Absolutely not. Because who in their right mind who give a dirty look to the king? So Arthur brushes off what must have been a near-sneeze or something along those lines. He's about to tell Percival to go ahead when the councilman speaks up.
"Um, that's won't be necessary, My Lord." He mutters grumpily. "I believe the council is ready to make its decision."
"Very well then. Proceed."
The handful of council members convene quietly for a moment while Gwen supportively squeezes Arthur's hand. Never in his life has he wanted Gaius here more than right now. But he's too busy tending Merlin and the handful of wounded survivors from the war to attend a meeting like this. Even if it is hugely important.
A few minutes later, they return to their seats and a man who is thankfully not Abram stands up to address Arthur and Gwen. "My Lord and Lady," He greets, both of them nodding in turn. "The council has come to a decision regarding the ban."
"Speak then." Arthur says, trying not to sound too urgent.
"We have come to a compromise, if you majesties will hear it."
"Then the council will agree to an eradication of the ban if a trusted member of court is appointed to oversee and aid in the forming of the new laws regarding the use of magic."
Arthur's eyebrows raise up slightly. He knows they mean one of them. But they didn't say that so... "Very well. I will meet your condition." With that, he slides the document over the table and smiles to himself as each member takes an inked pen to it. Abram is the last to sign and is the one to pass the document over to Arthur. With the king and queen's seal of approval, it's official.
Magic is no longer banned in Camelot.
Oh God. What has he done?!
Arthur feels like throwing up. Everything his father worked for, destroyed. Every single sorcerer killed, meaningless. Magic is free to blossom once again in the streets of Camelot. Sorcerers will be taking up residence, running shops, working in the castle... Oh God...he's ruined everything, hasn't he?! What a fool he's been! What an arrogant imbecile! What a--
"Arthur?" A hand touches his shoulder, startling him.
"Oh...Guinevere..." He breathes, relaxing back into his pace on the balcony. "You startled me."
"I'm sorry." She says, leaning beside him. Standing side by side, they overlook the citadel of their kingdom. It's been three days since the ban was lifted and already sorcerers that were refugeed by his father are returning to homes they once owned, reuniting with long lost families and friends... It should make him proud to see all those beaming faces. Instead, he just feels like a traitor. "Are you alright, Arthur?" Gwen asks softly, placing a hand on his arm.
"I'm fine, Guinevere, just a lot on my mind." He assures her, offering a half-hearted smile.
Gwen frowns at him. "Is he still not awake?"
Arthur groans. Probably a little too dramatically but he hadn't even thought of that! "It's been weeks, Guinevere! Gaius said he'd be waking up days ago!"
"Then I'm sure it will be anytime." The queen says, leaning over to kiss Arthur's cheek. "We know he isn't getting any worse so it's only a matter of time before he's back among us."
"I hope you're right..." Arthur mutters, straightening up and rolling his stiff shoulders. "I should get back there...I told Gaius I'd drop by as soon as the meeting let out. Would you like to come with me?"
Guinevere smiles and squeezes his hands. "I'd love to but one of the Councilmen wishes to speak with me. I have a feeling he's going to ask me to convince you he's the best choice as the magical overseer."
"Really?" Arthur asks, raising an eyebrow. "Abram?"
"Of course." Gwen confirms, rolling her eyes. "But don't worry, I've no intention of encouraging the notion."
"Pleased to hear it." Arthur chuckles, shaking his head in amusement. "Abram as the magical overseer. Ridiculous. The man hates magic."
"Yes, he certainly does."
"Guinevere, who would you choose?"
"Me?" She asks.
"Yes, you are my queen, after all. You should have a say in the choice." Arthur says.
"Well, I wouldn't choose any of the current councilmen, that's for sure." Gwen assures him. Adding, "Well...except for Gaius." as a bit of an after-thought.
"Gaius...he would be the most sensible choice, I suppose. Plenty of courtly experience, trustworthy, knows much about magic..." Arthur mutters, thoughtfully. "Thank you, love, I'll ask him about it when I go to see him." Pressing a kiss to her forehead, Arthur turns and hurries toward the physician's quarters, stopping only briefly when he spots George coming down the hallway with an armload of things. One of which is his newly liberated sword Excalibur, freshly cleaned and polished after spending weeks in the forest, buried deep in the stomach of his dead half-sister...
Arthur doesn't bother to knock. Pushing open the heavy, oak door, he leans his head in, calling out "Gaius?" when he doesn't see the physician right away. He frowns to himself when he hears mutters from the back room suddenly go quiet at his voice. Stepping inside, he heads straight back to Merlin's room, heart pounding. Has something happened? Why is it so quiet in here?
Throwing open the door, Arthur steps inside but immediately freezes in the threshold. He's awake. "Merlin..."