It wasn't anything Merlin hadn't done several times before: falling off his horse. But, generally, there was no rock for his head to hit. Unlike his time. Arthur looked back at the sound of the fall and shouted, "Merlin, you dolt, did you fall asleep on your horse again?” But there was no reply, not even a moan.
Arthur scrambled off his own horse and bent down beside Merlin. He was out cold. Arthur winced at the sight of blood on the rock. Surely Merlin hadn't cracked his skull on that infernal rock? Of course not. He'd wake up shortly and be mouthing off with nothing more than a headache for his ineptness. But he didn't wake.
The daylight was dimming, so Arthur pitched camp in the little clearing they had passed recently. Once he had the bedrolls laid out, he went back for Merlin. He hoisted the slender man's body easily over his shoulder to carry him back to the camp. He really was barely more than skin and bones. Arthur made a mental note to make sure Merlin had enough to eat, even if it meant sharing his meals with his servant.
Arthur laid Merlin's body down on his bedroll and examined Merlin's head. The cut on the back of his skull was still oozing blood and a lump was forming. Rummaging through Merlin's pack, he found the minimal first aid supplies they always took along on hunting trips like this. Using water from his water skin to wet the cloth, he washed away the blood and then bound Merlin's head with the linen bandages. That exhausted Arthur's skills at treating wounds--Merlin was the physician’s assistant, not Arthur. Only Merlin knew what use to make of the dried herbs from the pack or what fresh ones could be found and made useful.
Merlin still hadn’t moved or even stirred while Arthur treated his wound. Arthur knew this was serious. He recalled Gaius saying head injuries were tricky things, but surely Merlin would groan and open his eyes soon. He had to.
Arthur tried splashing water on Merlin's face. No response. He tried slapping his impossibly high cheekbones while urging, "You idiot, wake up! No more lazing around, clotpole." Nothing.
Arthur considered the situation. It was nearly dark and he needed to build a fire so they could keep warm all night. Camelot was a full day's hard ride from here.
After he gathered firewood and settled into a fireside vigil by Merlin, another idea came to him. There had been reports of a Druid encampment in this district. If he could find them, surely they would have a healer with them who could treat Merlin. With a plan for action when dawn broke, Arthur was able to get some rest, waking every few hours to tend the fire and check on Merlin. It looked like the bleeding had stopped, but there were no signs of Merlin awakening.
In dawn's clear light, Arthur reconsidered his plan. Why would Druids help Arthur Pendragon? His father had persecuted the Druids for over twenty years for their use of magic. He looked at Merlin’s pale face and knew he must do everything in his power to help his manservant, his...yes, his friend. Somehow he would convince the Druids to help Merlin, who'd never harmed a creature in his life.
Arthur held Merlin in front of him as they both rode Arthur's horse. Merlin's horse trailed behind on a lead rope tied to Arthur's saddle. Arthur spotted signs of recent travelers by the horseshoes in the mud and freshly broken branches along the trail. The morning was nearly gone when Arthur stopped for a brief rest by a stream. He carefully laid Merlin down on the grassy bank. Still no change, except, maybe his face was even paler than usual. Not a good sign.
After eating some dried meat and fruit and refilling the water skins in the stream, Arthur's lack of deep sleep the night before caught up with him. He rested his eyes for just a few minutes, when a rustle of robes and a feeling he wasn’t alone roused him.
There were four men dressed in green and brown robes surrounding Merlin and him.
"Arthur Pendragon, you have been seeking us," said the man with white hair and a thin face, who appeared to be the eldest.
"How do you know my name?" Arthur cast his eyes around for his sword, only to discover it was being held by one of the men who had not spoken.
The elder spoke again, "We know many things about the Once and Future King, Arthur Pendragon. You have no need for weapons against us. My name is Iseldir. Tell us why you have been seeking the Druids."
Arthur stood to address Iseldir. "My manservant, Merlin, here, has been injured. He has been unconscious since yesterday after falling and striking his head on a rock. Do you have a healer in your camp who can help him?"
Iseldir focused his startling blue eyes on Arthur's face. "Why should we do this for a Pendragon when Pendragons have chased and tortured us for decades?"
Arthur pleaded earnestly, "I ask not for myself, not for the Pendragons, but for my friend, for Merlin. Merlin is a gentle soul. A bit clumsy and stupid at times, but honest and kind to all. It’s for his sake I ask you for help. As his friend, I could not bear to lose him."
"Fear not, young Pendragon. None of us could bear to lose Emrys." With that, Iseldir withdrew a silver cup from his robe and knelt at Merlin's side. "Your water skin," he commanded Arthur.
Arthur handed the water skin over, still confused by Iseldir's words. "You called him Emrys, but his name is Merlin."
As Iseldir poured water into the silver cup, he responded. "There is much you do not know. Emrys is his Druid name." Iseldir lifted Merlin's head and poured some water from the cup down his throat.
Arthur's voice came out as a squeak, "Merlin..." He coughed and his voice returned to its normal register. "Merlin has a Druid name?"
Iseldir stood and declared. "He should waken in a few minutes."
Arthur knelt down to study Merlin's face more closely. There did seem to be a bit more colour in his cheeks now. He turned back toward Iseldir, but no one was there. All four men had disappeared, leaving Arthur's sword behind, still vibrating from the thrust that stabbed it into the ground.
Arthur shouted to the empty air, "Thank you for helping us! I won't forget this!"
From behind him, Arthur heard, "Won't forget what?"
He whirled and still shouting, declared, "Merlin, you're awake!"
Merlin, sitting upright, reached a hand to feel the bandage on his head. "Yes, I am. You don't need to shout. Why is this on my head?"
"You feel okay? No headache? You've been unconscious for the better part of a day."
"Yes, I'm feeling fine. What happened?" Merlin enquired.
Arthur didn't know what kind of magic Iseldir had used with his silver cup, but he felt it couldn't be wrong to use it to heal Merlin. His father must be wrong, not all magic was evil. "You, idiot that you are, fell off your horse and hit your thick head on a rock. And you, Mr. Emrys, have some explaining to do."
Merlin gulped. "Explain what?"
"Just exactly how do the Druids know you and why do they call you Emrys?" Arthur demanded.
"Oh, that." Merlin's mind was racing for what to say. "Druids, there were Druids here? Emrys is just my name in the Druidic language. My mum and I spent time with some Druids when I was little. That's all."
Arthur had a feeling there was more Merlin wasn't saying, but he wasn't going to press the issue. He was just happy to have Merlin awake and being his usual self.