The woods were cold and humid and darkness slowly fell upon them as they trudged through the mud from last night's rain. Merlin was exhausted, for they had come a long way, but it wouldn't be long till their group returned to Camelot after the scouting trip. War was upon them and King Uther had sent out his son with his best knights to search for spies working for Cenred. It was a futile mission - a waste of time, Arthur had said - but they could not go against an order from the king. Not even Arthur could do that. Merlin, of course, couldn’t stay home even if he had wanted to. Arthur had called him an idiot when he said it would be useless for the prince to bring along his manservant. The prince never went far without his little idiot, as he so kindly called Merlin, and this mission would be no exception. So, needless to say, after three long weeks with only a small band of knights and the prince, Merlin was ready to get home to his own bed and to sleep off the cold that had seeped so deep into his bones that he didn’t think he'd ever be warm again.
When dusk finally came, Arthur decided they would stop for the night. He jumped from his horse and pulled out what little food they had remaining while he asked Merlin to make a fire. The other knights immediately started cracking jokes about how their maidservant couldn’t go off into the woods on her own to gather firewood. Merlin scowled, rolling his eyes as he walked into the dark forest alone, away from the clearing and his only protection (save his magic of course). He grumbled to himself about how the other men had all turned into prats on this journey, probably taking lessons from Arthur on how to get on the servant’s nerves.
Not three minutes after leaving the others, Merlin fell. He tripped over a root, or a fallen tree, and was flung roughly to the ground. As he tried to lift himself again, the tree branch he used for support broke and he toppled down a short ravine. Unfortunately, it was long enough for Merlin’s leg to buckle under his weight and the force of his fall; Merlin swore he heard a snap.
He lay there motionless for several minutes, gathering the courage and the strength to stand up again. After such a long journey in the first weeks of winter, he was tired, hungry, and cold. All he desired was to sleep on the muddy forest floor till spring came and warmed his chilled body. The pain in his leg spread hotly through him and it brought with it a bitter relief. He wouldn’t be able to stand even if he wasn't in pain. He was just too tired.
“Merlin?” Gwaine’s voice rang out, echoing through the night. “Did you get yourself kidnapped again?”
Merlin stared up at the trees overhead, trying to make out the stars. Not much moonlight broke through the branches above, but there was enough that Merlin was not left in utter darkness.
“Merlin!” This time Merlin was sure he was found, yet he still did not move or shout out a response. Gwaine was above him in an instant. “Are you hurt? What happened? Don't move. Is it your leg?”
The trees started to blur, as the pain in his leg went from dull to a sharp, shooting spike when Gwaine reached out and touched him.
The knight winced, almost as if he were the one with a broken leg. “Let me help you up, all right? Is it your leg, Merlin? Merlin? Talk to me!”
“Shut up,” Merlin whined. “I can't talk when you're yammering away like that.” Then Gwaine hoisted him into his arms, and Merlin was fairly certain that his leg was left behind on the ground. “Shit!” he exclaimed.
“Sorry,” Gwaine muttered, “But I have to get you back to camp. Arthur would not be happy if I left you here.”
“I wouldn't be too sure about that,” Merlin grumbled, thinking about how just yesterday Arthur had made him walk in the back for four hours just because Merlin had called him a clotpole when he was being a clotpole !
Gwaine shook his head, knowing Merlin was just being grumpy. He only got a few feet, carrying Merlin like a woman, when another very familiar voice rang out in the woods, followed by the murmurs of the knights behind him.
Merlin couldn't see it in the dark, but he could imagine Arthur's face when he yelled, “What are you doing? Put him down!”
“He's hurt, Arthur!”
“I don’t care! You were meant to find him only, and that's not what you are doing!”
Merlin rolled his eyes and stared back up at the stars. Gods give him strength, or he would not get through this.
“Oh come off it, Princess. I'm only helping a friend. ”
Arthur growled and soon was close by, hands all over Merlin. “Give me my manservant!”
Gwaine reluctantly relented, scoffing, and he passed Merlin over as if he weighed nothing at all. Another jolt of pain seared through him with the motion and an involuntary whine of pain escaped Merlin's lips.
“Careful!” Arthur shouted. “Go back to the camp and start a fire. Percival, take Elyan and look for some food. Lance, retrieve our bedrolls and set up the rest of camp. But first take Leon to fill up our water skins.”
Each knight began to protest, but Arthur was not in the mood to hear any back-talk and he shut them all up with his signature glare. Begrudgingly, they obeyed their prince, mumbling as they went to complete their tasks.
“What the fuck did you do, Merlin?” Arthur asked, voice heavy with anger, yet hardly masking his concern.
“I fell,” he answered grumpily, clinging embarrassingly tight to Arthur's soft red tunic. Silently, he was glad Arthur had removed his armor because his fine royal clothes were much more comfortable to lay against.
Merlin looked up at the prince. “Yes, I fell. Because I'm a clumsy, terrible manservant, and you should have me sacked.”
With Arthur’s arms securely around him, and a warm chest pressed against his side, Merlin finally began to relax. Things would be fine now that Arthur was here. It would all be all right.
Arthur sighed. “You're an idiot.”
“Merlin. You can't argue with me, I'm the crowned prince of Camelot.”
Merlin made a face and then he sighed himself. “You're a prat.”
Arthur started walking, slowly at first, grip so tight he might have thought Merlin would float away if he didn't hold on.
It was silent in the woods save for the rustling of leaves under the prince's feet.
“I'm sorry,” Merlin finally whispered.
“You should be. If I ever see Gwaine touch you like that again, I swear I will have both of your heads.”
“Both of us?” Merlin asked, feigning shock.
Arthur just chuckled. “Yeah, and then I would make sure you brought yourself back to life again with your magic, because I cannot clean up after myself.”
“Neither can I,” Merlin pointed out.
A smile played on Arthur’s lips briefly before Merlin grunted in pain as he was jostled slightly when Arthur stepped over a log (maybe the same one Merlin tripped upon).
They stopped moving. “Is it bad?” Arthur questioned, in the fragile voice he only used when he was really frightened.
“No,” Merlin assured, “I will survive.”
“Is there something you can do…” Arthur motioned uselessly, but Merlin understood.
“Not right now. I'm too tired for a healing spell. I just want to rest.”
Arthur frowned. “I shouldn't have made you walk so long yesterday, I'm sorry.”
Merlin scowled. “No, no, sire. It… it was just this trip. I'll be fine tomorrow, promise.”
Arthur still looked unconvinced, but he nodded nonetheless, and kept walking.
Before they reached the others, Arthur lifted Merlin just enough so his cheek was by Arthur’s face. “You know I was serious. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
Merlin’s insides fluttered at the thought of Arthur, his prince, needing him so badly. He knew he needed Arthur much in the same way.
“I know,” Merlin whispered. Then he leaned forward and kissed his prince gingerly on the cheek.
“Careful,” Arthur warned. “I don’t want to start anything we can’t finish.”
“Oh we can finish alright, just send the knights on more errands as thin excuses to get me alone.”
Arthur blushed. “That was not why -”
But he was cut off by Merlin’s lips.
“You really are the worst.”
“Best,” Merlin corrected.
They arrived back to the campsite before the others returned. Arthur set Merlin gently on a rock, and went to the horse next to him to pull out a bedroll.
“I thought that was Lance’s job?” Merlin asked with a smirk.
“Shut up, Merlin.”
Arthur then took out a thick, woolen blanket and some supplies Gaius had packed for injuries. “It's not much, but it will have to do till we get back to Gaius.”
Merlin nodded, gingerly moving his hurt leg for easier access.
Arthur stared at it, wide eyed. “Are you sure there is nothing you can do? I don't want to hurt you further.”
Arthur nodded again, determined, and got to work. Once Merlin’s ankle was properly wrapped, Arthur picked Merlin up again, and placed him on the bedroll he had arranged. Luckily, with Arthur's experience with battle wounds, and Merlin's knowledge he'd obtained from Gaius, they made an effective team and had the leg in a decent splint.
“If the others ask, you're sleeping in my bed to keep me warm, because I'm selfish.”
Merlin laughed. “Arthur, do you really think they don't yet know of our relationship?”
“Shut up, Merlin, and get some rest, I'll wake you when dinner's ready.”
Merlin giggled, rearranging himself on the mat. “Thank you, Arthur,” he whispered.
The prince paused, staring down at him momentarily before kneeling and giving his manservant a loving kiss. “If you don't heal quickly, I'm going to have to deal with George as a servant, and he doesn't kiss nearly as well as you do.”
That got Arthur a playful slap to his arm, and another forceful kiss. “I will bring down the castle itself if that man so much as looks at you too long,” Merlin retorts.
“Don't worry,” Arthur responds quietly, “I would never dream of having anyone but you.”
That shut Merlin up faster than any demand his prince had ever given him. With a knowing smirk, Arthur rose and started off toward the horses again. “Go to sleep, Merlin.”
Merlin wanted to say more, ask what he meant by that, but he was tired, and part of him knew anyway. Arthur loved him. He didn't have to say it, Merlin knew. So, for once, he did as he was told, and went right to sleep, dreaming of soft lips and a warm body pressed against him. He had never slept so well in all his life.