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What Infinite Heart's Ease - Part 3a



Arthur woke bound and gagged. His head throbbed, thoughts still sluggish from whatever he had breathed in the forest. It took him a moment to recall what had happened, how he had come to be here. Where exactly ‘here’ was remained as of yet unknown; he only knew Morgana was involved.

Morgana. He had almost given up hope of ever seeing her again. She was changed; that much was clear. Her beauty was still very much in evidence—the strong jaw was the same, the pale skin and dark hair. Her face, however, was sharper, more angled. Her pale eyes which had always discomfited him were even more unsettling, holding no trace of warmth. She had appeared out of the mist like some wraith from a dream, silent and mysterious. Even though he was obviously a prisoner, Arthur felt a tentative excitement that he’d see her again, speak to her, be able to ask where she had been all these years. Was she safe? Was she happy?

From the expression he could recall seeing on her face in the brief moment before he lost consciousness, Arthur felt he already knew the answer.

Tugging at his restraints, Arthur tested to see how secure they were. He instinctively tried to reach for his sword, but his hands were tied; his weapons, to no surprise, had been removed. His muscles ached as he twisted trying to free himself and he could feel bruises as he moved. He suspected he had been carried on horseback, and treated none too gently. He wondered how far they had come. Squinting, still lightheaded and a little dizzy, Arthur surveyed his confinement. He was in a small room with a dirt floor. The back wall was stone, and curved around like a cave. The opening had been built out to enlarge the room, and metal bars had been placed across the small window in the door.

Arthur looked around the room for any object he could scrape the ropes against, but other than the stone wall behind him, there was nothing; the room was empty. He started to scoot across the floor, eye searching out any jagged edges, but before he could get close, he heard the jangling of keys outside the door.

The door opened slowly and Morgana stepped into the room. She reached a hand out toward the wall and the torches burst into flame, illuminating the space. Arthur knew she had magic; he had surmised her secret long ago, yet it was still disconcerting to see her eyes glow with power as she used it so casually right before him. Her hand returned to her side and Arthur watched carefully as she stood there, giving him a dispassionate stare. He tried to speak, but his voice was muffled by his gag. Arthur jerked his head, trying to indicate he’d like it removed, but Morgana didn’t react; she continued to study him silently. Arthur stopped his movements and returned her gaze, searching her face for… anything at all, anything he could recognize of the girl he once knew.

As Arthur watched, her hand reached out again, this time toward him. Her eyes glowed brightly and then her arm crackled with energy as electricity shot from her fingers toward him. He braced himself, but nothing could prepare him for the shock that jolted through him as every nerve in his body was wracked with pain. Helpless, his body convulsed and he screamed against his gag in agony. He wasn’t sure how long the attack lasted; it seemed endless, but in reality it was probably only seconds. When it stopped, the relief was so abrupt Arthur went limp, sagging against the ground. He shook with after-tremours and he wasn’t sure he could get his body to obey him, even if he were free to try. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he breathed heavily through his nose as he tried to recover from the assault. When he was able, he turned his head to look at Morgana. She barely gave him time to meet her eyes before her hand was again extended, sparks shooting from her fingers.

Arthur was even more incapacitated after the second blast. It seemed to last longer than the first and the physical pain, combined with the realization that Morgana hated him to such an extent, was devastating. It took him longer to recover this time too. He could feel his muscles twitching, each movement sending new coils of pain over his skin, through his muscles, deep into the bone.

A third blast hit him before he could even open his eyes. Arthur had no energy left to scream. He’d never felt such pain, never felt so helpless. He wasn’t sure how much more he could take. This time it seemed to last forever and he prayed he’d lose consciousness or else he’d end up going mad. Finally, the assault abruptly ceased. Every nerve in his body was raw, flayed wide open. Arthur didn’t think he could even open his eyes without excruciating pain. He lay on the ground motionless, wondering if the ordeal was over or if there was more to come. Before he had barely formed the thought, he was hit with yet another blast. Mercifully, his body rebelled, mind shutting down as he succumbed to darkness.

When he awoke, the torches were burning low and the room was filled with a gloomy light. His gag had been removed, as had his bindings. Instead, he was restrained by both wrists and ankles to shackles, secured by chains bolted into the stone wall. Arthur struggled to a sitting position, wincing at the shoots of agonizing pain that went through him at each movement, and gave an experimental tug. He tugged harder, testing the strength of the chains. His efforts only succeeded in causing more pain to his ravaged body. A voice spoke into the silence, starling him.

“You won’t be successful,” Morgana said. “They’re secured by magic.”

Arthur stopped the attempts to get free and turned to look at Morgana. She was standing near the door, face unreadable.

All the questions he had carried over the years faded; there was only one he needed the answer to now: “Why are you doing this?” Arthur hardly recognized his voice; it was barely a croak, his throat raw from the screaming and bone dry from the cloth that had been used as a gag. He was thirsty, he noticed absently.

Morgana only stared back, eyes intense, then she turned and exited the room, locking the door behind her.

Once she had gone, Arthur tested his restraints again, almost rubbing his wrists raw in an effort to free himself. After assuring himself of the futility of his situation, he sagged back to the ground, the energy required to stay upright too much for his weakened body. He shut his eyes, cheek pressed to the cool dirt floor, and almost immediately drifted off to sleep.

When he woke next, he was unable to tell how much time has passed. Without any natural light entering the room, he didn’t know whether it was night or day. He moved experimentally and was happy to find that the pain was a little less than the last time he had awoken. Arthur pushed himself to a sitting position and took stock of his surroundings. His thirst was even greater than before. A metal pan had been placed in the corner, but other than that, the room remained empty. He wondered how long he’d be kept here, what Morgana’s reasoning was, what the purpose was to his capture. He assumed she didn’t want him dead, at least not yet. Otherwise, what would have stopped her from killing him when he had lain bound and gagged and at her mercy?

His knights would be looking for him, at least. Morgana’s magical assault had been excruciating, but he was strong; he’d be able to withstand whatever he needed until he was found. Arthur gave some thought to her motives, but without knowing anything about her life since she had left following her attack on Uther, he really had nothing to go on. Was it simply hatred that she had carried with her all these years? He supposed that could be the case. The thought disheartened him. He wished he could tell her how his sympathies had changed regarding magic, how he always wished he’d been able to help her, but he supposed he would hardly be believed; the entire kingdom knew he was on a manhunt to bring a sorcerer to justice. Maybe that was the reason, then—the magic users of the land didn’t want a second Uther on the throne.

Would she keep him here indefinitely, then? Was she involved with Cenred, helping him to invade Camelot and expand his own kingdom? It seemed possible; Arthur just didn’t know. If that was the case, though, it seemed unlikely he’d be kept alive. At least not for long.

The method of his capture now crossed his mind. Learning the voice he’d heard and followed into the night had been nothing more than a ruse was a grievous disappointment. The pain was of a different ilk than the physical trial he had just endured, but Arthur felt it no less intensely. He still wanted answers. Still wanted to be convinced Merlin’s words in the dungeon had been the truth. Still wanted Merlin to explain how he could have lied to Arthur all those years. Most of all, he still wanted Merlin. That was the crux of it. He wanted Merlin as much as he ever had, even with the lies, the betrayal, the secrets he’d kept. He tipped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. Who knew how long he’d be trapped here. Isolated and alone, he now had even more time to think. For once he indulged himself, focusing his memories on Merlin’s smile, the way his eyes lit up when Arthur returned it with one of his own. For a moment, it was enough to ease the pain.

As the hours passed—days, maybe? He didn’t know—Arthur’s thirst surpassed the residual pain from Morgana’s assault. His stomach was knotted with hunger as well, but that was bearable. The thirst was becoming an overriding need.

The door to his prison opened again, and Arthur looked up, hoping someone was bringing water. A man entered, his face masked with a hood. A feeling of dread crept over Arthur and he braced himself for more pain. The man held out his hand toward Arthur, much like Morgana had done, but instead of electricity, Arthur was immobilized. He struggled to move, but it was if he was bound by invisible restraints. The man moved closer and Arthur could only watch as his wrist was grasped in the man’s gloved hand and the fingers of his sword hand were bent and broken one by one. His throat was paralysed; he couldn’t even scream. He felt his vision greying, then mercifully lost consciousness from the pain.

Arthur groaned as he came to. His unbearable thirst had receded to a secondary concern as the pain from his mangled hand eclipsed everything. He struggled to a sitting position again, cradling it in his lap. He could barely look at his fingers without feeling sick—the knuckles were swollen, the fingers mutilated and useless. He was beginning to think that even if he escaped he may as well be dead. Who would follow a king who couldn’t wield a sword? He could use his other hand, of course, though not as adeptly, but his weakness would be apparent to anyone he faced; he was damaged, crippled. He vaguely wondered if he should try to set them, straighten them to see if he might still have some use when they healed, but at the first touch the pain was so severe he almost passed out. He leaned back against the wall again, closed his eyes and tried not to think about his parched throat, the throbbing ache in his fingers.

Instead he thought about Merlin, his long elegant fingers as he buckled Arthur’s armour. The way he’d smooth his hands over Arthur’s shoulders, down his back, straightening the fabric of his shirt, making him presentable for court. The way they’d massage the aches from his muscles, knead into his tight shoulders, loosening Arthur’s tension and bringing him relief. He didn’t want to think about those same fingers extending forward toward Uther, wielding tremendous power, instruments of death. He pushed that image aside and focused on the way they’d tremble, bury themselves in Arthur’s hair when they were pressed close together, joined intimately in their passion. If memories of Merlin were all he had left, he was glad to have these to ease his misery.

His torturer returned far too soon. This time Arthur watched helplessly as the man took a sharp blade and ran it down the side of his cheek. He could feel the blood dripping from the gash, sliding down his neck. Momentarily, he was reminded of Merlin and the way he had pressed his own blade against Merlin’s throat when he lay helpless in the great hall. The hooded man didn’t stop with the one cut, however. He slashed Arthur’s tunic open and made a series of shallow slices across his chest. Arthur could feel the blood seeping slowly from each cut; he knew he’d gradually become weaker as his life force drained from his body. He wondered if these wounds would be enough to kill him.

When he next opened his eyes, Morgana had returned. She was standing as she had that first time, silently by the door, watching him impassively.

Arthur was too weak to move. From his position prone on the floor, he asked, voice barely usable, throat parched and dry, “Why are you doing this?”

An ugly expression crossed her face. “How does it feel, Arthur, to be so helpless? To have no one come to your rescue, no matter how hard you hope?”

Arthur didn’t answer; he could barely keep his eyes open, trained on her face.

“I was just a girl, Arthur. You did nothing.” She reached out her hand and sent out a shock to his ravaged body that left him trembling long after she had whirled away from him and left the room, locking the door behind her.

The next time the man in the hooded mask came into the room he didn’t even bother with the magical restraints; Arthur was too weak from lack of water, food and now blood to move. The man’s booted foot nudged him, toeing him inquiringly. When Arthur’s only response was a stifled moan, the foot withdrew. Arthur thought he had been given a reprieve this time, but then the man pulled back his foot and delivered a kick to his face. Blood filled his mouth; Arthur swallowed it down, desperate for any liquid relief at all. His stomach immediately roiled and he gagged, the movement causing excruciating pain through his body, knives to his chest.

Arthur floated between dreams and wakefulness. He was hot. Too hot. He knew his wounds were likely fevered and, without treatment, would only get worse. If no one came soon, this prison would be his tomb. He thought of all the ideas he’d had, his plans for Camelot. He’d squandered the beginning of his reign, chasing ghosts, too focused on his personal injuries to do what was best for his kingdom. His father would surely be disappointed were he alive. Regrets weighted his heart; hope was fading. This was not how he wanted to die, not how he wanted to be remembered.

Morgana was there when he next awoke. “Why hasn’t he come?” she asked.

“Who?” Arthur croaked, the word barely recognizable. Morgana left without another word; she returned a short while later with a cup of water. Even the slightest movement was excruciating, but Arthur struggle to sit, thirst making him desperate. Morgana levitated the cup toward him and he grabbed it greedily with his non-injured hand. Bringing it to his lips he drank it down. There was barely enough to wet his throat, not enough to slake his thirst, just enough to tease. But he held the cup tilted upward until every last drop was gone.

“Where is he?” Morgana asked.

“Who?”

“Your sorcerer.”

“I have no sorcerer.”

“Merlin. Where is Merlin? Why hasn’t he come for you?”

Arthur shook his head. “Merlin will not be coming for me.”

“You lie. I’ve seen it.”

Arthur let out a bark of bitter laughter, delirium allowing him to appreciate the dark humour in the situation. He was being tortured to lure a sorcerer who would likely be happy to be doing the torturing himself.

“You’ve got it all wrong. Merlin isn’t coming. He hates me. Maybe even more than you do.”

“I doubt that, dear brother,” Morgana said before sweeping once more from the room.

Arthur stared at the closed door long after she had departed, stunned by her revelation.

When Arthur heard the door creaking open, he didn’t even bother to open his eyes. He was not expecting to survive much longer. He’d been without water, save for the small amount earlier, for what must be days now. His fever was worsening. And now that Morgana knew Merlin wasn’t coming; what need did they have to keep him alive? Whatever they planned to do to him, he only hoped it was quick.

The invisible bonds clutched at him and he was pulled to his feet, then slammed against the wall. His head sagged as he barely stayed conscious through the pain. The chains attached to his shackles tightened until he was spread, arms and legs akimbo. Arthur pried open his eyes and what he saw caused his heart to sink; his hooded adversary was holding a mace in his gloved fist, swinging it in slow circles.

Arthur watched through his delirium as if it were happening to someone else—the man walking closer, the mace swinging faster until the spiked metal ball was slammed into his leg. He heard the sharp crack of bone, an ear-piercing scream and then there was blackness.

Voices woke him. Arthur swam slowly toward consciousness, struggling for breath as his useless leg refused to hold him. He was hanging from his shackles, sagging by his arms and slowly suffocating. From the other room, he could hear Morgana arguing with… Merlin. He felt a surge of hope. Arthur tried to call out, but didn’t have the strength. Instead he could only listen to the altercation taking place beyond his cell door.

“…knew you’d come for him. There’s not much left of him, I’m afraid. That is, if you’re not already too late.”

“Where is he? You’ll tell me now.”

“Or you’ll what?”

Arthur heard the blast of a spell and waited to see if either was still alive.

“Impressive,” Morgana said, sounding slightly out of breath. “But it won’t be enough, I’m afraid. Not to get past me.”

“What quarrel have you with me? Why did you lure me here?” Merlin asked.

“What quarrel? You can ask that after you killed my Alvarr? I will have my vengeance.” Another spell blast crackled through the air.

“The sorcerer who attacked Uther.”

“The world is better off without a man like he.”

“And I suppose you’ll take the throne? Is that your plan, Morgana?”

“Why not? I’ve just as much claim by blood as Arthur.”

Another round of volleys transpired while Arthur struggled to listen, desperate to hold on for just a little longer.

“But no,” Morgana continued. “My son Mordred has an even larger claim. Cenred will conquer Camelot and when my son comes of age, he’ll take the throne. Magic will be restored to its rightful place.”

“Cenred? I may have killed Alvarr, but it could easily have been Cenred. Beware his treachery, Morgana. You’re a fool to join forces with one who kills our kind by deceit in order to win us over.”

“Camelot has always been the scourge of our people. Cenred will allow us to be free.”

“Yet it is Cenred who murders women and children, eradicating the druid camps to sow unrest.”

“You lie,” Morgana snarled, as another blast resounded.

“Enough,” Merlin yelled, his voice dangerous. “Arthur loved you, once upon a time. I have no idea of his feelings now, but I will spare your life for his sake. Do know this, Morgana, if you touch him again, you’ll wish I had ended you.”

A final blast ricocheted from beyond and then there was silence.

Moments later the door to his prison was blown off its hinges. Merlin burst through the door, followed by two of Morgana’s men. Merlin turned, held out his hand and the men went flying, their heads smashing against the stone. They slid lifeless to the ground, blood from their crushed skulls smearing a stripe down the wall.

Merlin rushed to his side and with another wave of his hand Arthur’s shackles snapped open. He slumped immediately, but Merlin caught him, lowering him to the ground, his voice frantic, saying, “Arthur, please, please. Don’t let me be too late. Arthur, please.” Arthur’s lungs were burning and he gasped, greedy for air. When he could catch his breath, he forced out a whisper: “Water.”

Through hazy eyes Arthur saw Merlin cup his hands and murmur strange and foreign words. His eyes glowed gold and then Arthur watched with amazement as droplets of water, like condensation on glass, started forming in Merlin’s hands, as if he were pulling the moisture straight from the air. When a small amount had pooled in his palms, Merlin tipped his hands to Arthur’s cracked lips and poured the water into his mouth. He repeated his actions again and again until Arthur gave a small nod and whispered, “Thank you.”

Exhausted and delirious, Arthur closed his eyes while Merlin’s hands roamed gently over his body, diagnostically cataloguing his injuries. He heard more of the strange words coming from Merlin’s mouth and then he felt as if he were floating, the pain suddenly gone. He sighed deeply and felt himself drifting off.

“I’m going to take you somewhere. Someplace safe where you can heal,” Merlin said. “I know you don’t believe me, Arthur, but…you can trust me. I’m going to take care of you.”

With his last ounce of strength, Arthur opened his eyes. Merlin was looking down at him, face anxious and sad and worried. A tear was sliding down his cheek. The expression was wrong on Merlin’s face. Out of place. He shouldn’t look like that, Arthur thought as a puzzled frown formed on his forehead. The Merlin he remembered had laughing blue eyes and a grin on his lips. He struggled to lift his hand, but it was too heavy in his depleted state. He wanted to wipe the tear from off his face, put the smile back in his eyes.

“Merlin,” he whispered before darkness overtook him.

-o-


Merlin wanted to get Arthur as far away as possible before Morgana regained consciousness, but Arthur was in such a weakened state he was almost afraid to move him. Chanting a spell under his breath, he did what he could to ease Arthur’s pain, helping him sink into oblivion. In the final seconds before Arthur fell unconscious, he whispered, “Merlin.” The tears that had begun when he first caught sight of Arthur, bound and broken, covered in blood—he hadn’t even been sure he was still alive at first—fell more freely when he heard his own name on Arthur’s lips. He had never expected to hear such a thing again.

Casting another spell to lighten Arthur’s weight, Merlin gathered him carefully in his arms and carried him out of Morgana’s prison. When they emerged from the darkened chambers, Merlin squinted at the afternoon sun, shining brightly in the clear blue sky. The contrast of the beautiful day and the battered wreck of a man he was holding felt perverse. He had always thought of Arthur as bright as the sun, radiating a glow that attracted everyone to him. Merlin swore he’d do everything in his power to return him to health; Arthur would shine again.

Merlin whistled and his horse emerged from the trees. He put his foot in the stirrup and used its leverage to hoist Arthur over its back. He worried, knowing his actions would likely reopen the crisscrossing wounds across his chest, but it couldn’t be helped; they had to leave. Pulling himself up behind Arthur on the horse, he then grabbed him under his armpits to move Arthur so that his back was to Merlin’s chest. He reached to tug Arthur’s leg over the horse’s back, apologizing, even though he knew Arthur couldn’t hear, when Arthur cried out in pain, even with the help of Merlin’s spells. The leg, Merlin thought grimly, looked bad; he wasn’t sure he could save it.

He couldn’t think about that right now; his immediate concern was putting some distance between Arthur and this terrible place. Before they started off, Merlin shifted to reach into the saddle bag, digging out a phial. He uncorked it and tipped it up to Arthur’s mouth, pouring it between his lips, waiting for him to swallow, hoping to help keep his fever down. He felt dangerously hot, but anything more would have to wait until they reached their destination. Merlin adjusted Arthur again so that his head was cradled against his shoulder, wrapping his arms around his waist. He took a brief moment, unable to resist, to bury his face in Arthur’s hair, breathing deeply. Over the past few weeks he had, far too many times to count, thought he’d do anything to hold Arthur in his arms again; he never imagined it would be like this. Never like this.

They rode all day, Merlin taking advantage of Arthur being unconscious to cover the ground. Finally, as dusk was falling, they arrived at their destination, a small cottage deep in the forest of Ascetir. Merlin shifted Arthur forward onto his horse’s neck then dismounted. He held his hand out to the door, eyes glowing, as he murmured a spell. The door swung open and Merlin slid Arthur from the horse into his arms again, carrying him into the cottage, laying him gently on a raised pallet.

Checking Arthur over briefly, Merlin took a bucket near the doorway and went out to the side yard, filling it with water from a stone well. Before going back inside he cast a series of protection spells, including ones to dissuade anyone from travelling near the cottage, and others to create an illusion if they did; anyone coming near would not see the structure itself, only the forest and endless trees. Satisfied with his efforts, he returned to Arthur’s side.

Merlin began to tend to Arthur by cutting away his torn and bloody clothing. He tried to retain a clinical stance when faced with the numerous wounds he uncovered, several of them an angry red, but couldn’t help the stinging in his eyes, the tightness in his throat. Using a damp cloth, Merlin gently cleaned every cut, one by one, then covered them generously with a medicinal salve.

He took Arthur’s hand next, swollen and mangled, closing his eyes to concentrate as he assessed the damage. Merlin reached out with his magic, letting it penetrate through the skin, skimming over sinew, muscle, tendon, bone. Though severe, the injuries were not irreparable; he could fix this, he was certain, Merlin felt with a moment of pure relief. Arthur would wield a sword once again.

The leg was the most troublesome; the bone had been literally shattered. Piecing it back together would be a task that would strain even his magical abilities. Despite Merlin’s years with Gaius, healing had never been his strength. But for Arthur, he would try. He would try almost anything. Arthur would need to be awake, however. Merlin wasn’t going to attempt such complicated healing without Arthur’s permission. If he failed, the alternative was amputation. He’d never take such an action without Arthur’s awareness. The trust that had once been between the two of them was shattered, much like the bone; it was likely just as beyond repair. Merlin would give Arthur no more reason to doubt him again.

Merlin lifted the spell that kept Arthur unconscious and Arthur breathed out a sigh, not awakening, but body shifting into a deep sleep. Merlin eyes roved over Arthur, making sure he had done what he could for now. He knelt next to the bed and stared at Arthur, his king. His love. Overcome with emotion, he picked up Arthur’s uninjured hand with both of his, pressing it to his lips, holding it against his cheek.

“You’re safe now,” he whispered. “You’re safe.”

While Arthur slept, Merlin used the time to prepare a meal, starting a fire and roasting a hare over a spit. He wrapped the meat in green leaves and placed it near the coals to keep it warm then placed the bones in a deep pot, filling it with water and seasoning it with herbs to make a broth. Arthur would be hungry, Merlin expected, but he wasn’t sure how his stomach would fare after being denied for several days. In addition, he was still feverish and in significant pain.

As if on cue, Arthur groaned from his bed. Merlin was at his side in an instant, hovering anxiously, waiting to see if Arthur would awaken. He did, blinking confusedly, but Merlin was relieved that he seemed to be lucid, at least for now. “Merlin?” he questioned. Arthur looked around the room as if trying to place his surroundings, then asked, “Where are we?”

“You’re safe. We’re in Ascetir. A cottage. No one can find you.”

Comprehension dawned on Arthur’s face; Merlin could see the memories flood back. He picked up his ravaged hand, checking to see if it was as he remembered and brought it into his line of sight. Wincing from the pain of movement, a shadow fell over his expression as the reality of the loss of his sword hand reasserted itself. He lay the hand back down by his side, as gently as he was able, and closed his eyes, resting his good arm across his face.

Merlin pulled a stool close and sat down, leaning in with his elbow resting on his knees. He paused, wondering how Arthur would take his next statement. “I believe I can fix it.”

Arthur removed his arm and his eyes flew open to stare at Merlin. “My hand?” he asked.

“Yes.” Merlin sat up straight and rubbed his hands nervously over his thighs. “I think I can repair it so that you’re able to wield a sword again.”

“With…” Arthur paused, clearing his throat. He seemed uncomfortable speaking the word aloud. Or maybe his discomfort stemmed from discussing it so directly with Merlin after having had Merlin’s abilities hidden from him for years. “With magic?”

“Yes.” He stopped his hand movements and held them still, waiting, anxious for Arthur’s reaction. “If you’ll allow me to try.”

There was a long pause while Arthur thought over his words. Then he asked, “My leg?”

Merlin hesitated. “I don’t know if I can save your leg,” he admitted.

Arthur frowned, looking grim.

Merlin hurried to clarify. “I’d like to try, if you’ll let me. But the damage is severe and healing was always more of Gaius’ skill than my own.”

“You always were pretty much rubbish at everything, weren’t you?” Arthur joked, cracking a wry smile. “Why should magic be any different?”

Merlin barked out a laugh, unbelievably moved that Arthur was here, next to him, joking about the very thing he thought had irreparably driven a wedge between them forever.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Merlin agreed, throat tightening. He blinked rapidly and turned away, not wanting to look at Arthur to find that the kernel of hope that flickered in his belly was unwarranted. Just for a moment he wanted to believe they could move past this, find forgiveness. Needing something to take his thoughts in a less dangerous direction, Merlin stood and went to the fire, using a rag to grasp the handles of the pot. He carried it to the table and ladled some of the broth into a bowl. Carrying it over to Arthur, he set it on the stool, saying, “Here, let me help you try and sit up.”

Propping up pillows behind Arthur’s back, Merlin helped pull Arthur to a sitting position. By the time he was situated, Arthur’s face had turned white from pain and sweat had broken out on his brow and upper lip. He leaned his head down, chin against his chest and took deep breaths. After a moment, he looked up at Merlin and gave him a small nod. Merlin picked the bowl up and sat down beside the bed. Arthur tried to take the bowl from him, but Merlin batted his hand away, noticing how it trembled with weakness.

Arthur rolled his eyes, but let Merlin tip the bowl up to his mouth. “If you can keep this down,” Merlin said, “I’ve got some meat and bread you can have in a little while.”

Arthur gave another small nod of acknowledgment and continued to drink the broth, taking small sips, giving his stomach time to adjust. Merlin continued to talk, deciding now was the time to clarify the issue with Arthur’s mangled leg.

“The bones in your leg have been shattered. The hand—those are all simple breaks—the tendons, bones, I can put them back in place. The leg, however…” Merlin paused, swallowing. “I’m not sure if I can repair all the damage; it’s extensive. If I can’t, the leg will have to come off.” He couldn’t look at Arthur to see his reaction to this news.

“If you didn’t try, the leg would have to come off anyway, would it not?” Arthur asked after a moment. Merlin braved a look. Arthur stared back steadily, already knowing the answer.

“Yes, it would have to come off.”

Arthur nodded at the confirmation. “Then the choice seems obvious.”

“You’ll allow me to perform magic on you?” Merlin asked, clarifying, making certain there was no misunderstanding about what he planned to do.

“Yes.”

“And you’ll allow me to put you under? Make you unconscious for it? You’ll have to go deep; I can’t risk you moving while I’m trying to piece your bones back together.”

“I’ll allow it.”

“And if I find it’s beyond my skills?” He couldn’t continue with the words. He wanted to ask if Arthur trusted him to make the decision about his leg. But with Arthur having little choice, his answer would be meaningless.

“Yes, you may take the leg. If the damage is too severe, you have my permission to amputate if necessary.”

Merlin let out a breath. He wasn’t sure what he would have done had Arthur said no. Fatigued from the emotional rescue and tense journey to the cottage, Merlin felt a wave of exhaustion wash over him. He knew it would be folly to attempt complicated healing while he was this tired.

“I need to rest before making the attempt. I’d like for you to rest as well.” Merlin stood up and retrieved another phial of medicine. “First, take this for the fever. I’ll do another spell for the pain if you’ll allow.”

Arthur nodded and took the phial and drank the bitter liquid, grimacing at the taste. Merlin helped him lie back on the bed then held his hands over Arthur, murmuring the spell. Arthur’s eyes were trained on his and Merlin wondered what was going through Arthur’s mind as he watched his eyes change colour and turn gold. Did he still hate him for what he was? Still hate him for lying? The crease in Arthur’s forehead smoothed out as the spell took effect and the pain released; his eyes drifted closed. Merlin slumped, dropping his hands to his sides, wondering if he had the energy to do anything other than curl up on the floor by the bed. He took a deep breath, bracing himself to complete a few more tasks before succumbing to sleep. He checked the fire, set a spell on the food he had prepared earlier so it would keep, then gratefully moved to the mat on the floor nearby. He felt a moment of melancholy, thinking how many times they had lain like this before—Arthur in the bed, Merlin curled up by the fire. He drifted off to sleep with sorrow in his heart, remembering a morning which had begun with Arthur shaking him awake and had ended in kisses. He’d give almost anything to have that again.

The sound of moaning woke Merlin. He cursed under his breath, eyes blinking blearily, trying to transition to alertness. He’d slept longer than he had intended; the spell protecting Arthur from pain must have worn off. Merlin rose from his mat and hurried to Arthur’s side, brow furrowing in concern when he noted the fever seemed to have returned. Quickly preparing a new draught of medicine, Merlin returned to the bedside and gently shook Arthur awake. His heart thudded and his stomach twisted when Arthur opened his eyes, glassy with delirium, and smiled, the uninjured hand reaching out for his own. Merlin knew Arthur’s mind was clouded by fever, but that didn’t stop him from memorizing the expression on Arthur’s face—one he thought he’d never again see directed at him. It didn’t stop him from grasping Arthur’s hand in his own, feeling the rough calluses against his skin. He savoured the connection even though he knew it wouldn’t exist were it not for the fever. He rubbed his thumb gently across the knuckles of Arthur’s hand, then squeezed it gently, wanting nothing more than to bring it to his mouth and press his lips against it. Instead, he moved it back to the bed, giving it another squeeze before reluctantly letting it go.

“Are you hungry?” Merlin asked.

“Thirsty,” Arthur answered.

Merlin nodded. “I’d like you to take some more medicine as well,” he said, moving to get a cup of water.

Before helping Arthur sit up again, Merlin cast a spell to ease Arthur’s pain. Then he propped up the pillows once more and helped Arthur drink. Arthur’s eyes were unfocused and his cheeks flushed. Merlin worried about attempting to repair his damaged bones while he was still sick with fever, but he feared waiting longer even more. He didn’t want to risk having the bones begin to knit or, even worse, have a chip of bone enter Arthur’s bloodstream. It had been risky enough jostling him on horseback all the way to the cottage, even with the spells he had cast.

Giving him at least enough time to have the medicine take effect, Merlin convinced Arthur to drink a little more broth. He fussed with the pillows, knowing he was procrastinating, nervous about the task ahead of him. This would be by far the most difficult healing he had ever attempted; Merlin wished Gaius were here.

Finally, he took a deep breath and asked, “Are you ready? I’m going to put you under now.”

Arthur looked at him, eyes momentarily focusing on his face, and said in a voice more steady than Merlin would have expected, “I’m ready.”

Merlin nodded and took another deep breath, steeling himself for what he must do. He raised his hands and held them palm down over Arthur’s chest. As he was about to speak, Arthur reached out and grabbed his wrist.

“Merlin,” he said, voice grave.

“Yes?”

“There’s something I need to say.”

Merlin’s heart started pounding, wondering what was going to come out of Arthur’s mouth next. “What is it?”

“If you need to amputate…”

“Yes?”

Arthur paused, long enough to cause Merlin to begin to wonder if he’d changed his mind. Then Arthur said, in that same serious tone, “It’s the right leg.”

Merlin snorted with laughter, slightly hysterical with relief.

Arthur’s expression cracked and a smile spread across his face. He reached up a hand and touched the corner of Merlin’s mouth with his finger.

“That’s better,” he said.

Merlin reached up and took Arthur’s hand, pulling it away from his face and placing it back down by his side.

“Very funny, sire. I see you’re still as big a prat as ever.” An ache formed in his chest; the teasing was bittersweet. For a moment he could almost believe they were back in Camelot, before everything had gone so wrong. He swallowed down the lump in his throat. He could not get caught up in the emotion of the moment; he needed to save all his concentration for healing.

Clearing his throat, he asked again, “If you’re ready?”

Arthur nodded and Merlin returned his hands to their previous position. He felt the power surge through him and knew his eyes were glowing gold as the words left his lips. As Arthur’s eyelids fluttered shut and his breathing deepened, Merlin heard Arthur murmur, “You called me sire.” And then Arthur drifted even deeper, heart slowing, mind quieting past the point of dreams.

Merlin stared at Arthur, almost deathlike in his stillness. He shivered, wanting to shake that image from his mind. “You’ll always be my king,” he said softly under his breath before setting to work.

Hours later Merlin opened his eyes and sunk onto the stool by Arthur’s bedside. He was exhausted, ready to collapse, but he felt triumphant. There were limits to what repairs he was able to effect, but with the proper rest and care, and ample time to let Arthur’s body continue to mend, Merlin felt certain he would both walk and wield a sword again. The hand, as expected, was a fairly straightforward task, even if every single finger had been mangled. The breaks were clean, the tendons easily reattached. It would take time to fully heal, but Merlin had few reservations about the success of his efforts.

The leg, on the other hand, was a complex, intricate repair, requiring every last bit of skill and concentration he could muster. The work had been like piecing together a puzzle, with tiny fragments and splintered slivers to fit into place. While he was working, Merlin had no idea how much time had passed. Several instances he had been on the verge of giving up, thinking he’d never get it put back together sufficiently for Arthur to use the limb again, but he persevered. The leg would still need weeks to knit back together, but after determinedly ploughing on in spite of his discouragement, all the tiny shards were in place and held in stasis with the help of a spell—a magical splint, in effect. Merlin was cautiously hopeful.

A wave of exhaustion swept over him and he gripped the edge of the bed, lightheaded. Blinking to try and keep himself awake, he got up and staggered to the table, ripping off a chunk of bread and chewing it ravenously, then washing it down with a long draught of water. Feeling a bit more stable, he went back to Arthur’s side and lifted the spell which had kept Arthur unconscious. Merlin watched carefully as Arthur’s breathing and heart rate returned to normal; he remained asleep throughout. Taking a clean cloth, Merlin dipped it into a cup of water, then squeezed it between Arthur’s lips, watching his throat swallow reflexively. Once he was assured that Arthur was doing well and sleeping peacefully, Merlin curled up in front of the fire and immediately sank into a dreamless sleep.

For the second time, Merlin was awakened by the sound of Arthur’s moans. Worried that his leg or hand was troubling him, Merlin scrambled to the bedside and was immediately filled with concern. Arthur was drenched in sweat, skin flushed. Merlin pressed his hand to Arthur’s forehead; he was raging with fever. The bedding was also soaked. Merlin cursed under his breath and hurriedly prepared another draught of medicine. After tilting Arthur’s head up and getting him to drink, he also tipped more water down Arthur’s throat. Then he took a damp cool cloth and wiped it over his face, his neck, his chest, doing what he could to lower Arthur’s temperature. He wasn’t sure if magic could help, not that he even knew what sort of spell he could perform under the circumstances; Arthur’s body was fighting the fever and Merlin didn’t know if interfering would do more harm than good; he didn’t want to risk inadvertently making things worse. Once again he wished Gaius was here. Keeping Arthur comfortable was one thing he knew he could do, at least. Eyes glowing, Merlin drew the moisture from the bedding, making it clean and fresh, hoping to help Arthur rest more easily.

All through the long night he sat at Arthur’s side, bathing him with cool water, gripping his hand and trying not to let worry take his mind to terrifying places. Nevertheless, he wondered more than once, as Arthur fought the fire raging through his body, if he was going to lose him like this, after everything.

Still exhausted from the demanding spellwork earlier and tending Arthur through the night, Merlin found himself nodding off again and again, head jerking up at each small noise. At some point, Arthur’s condition shifted and he began to shiver uncontrollably. Merlin stoked the fire and used his magic to assist keeping the temperature in the cottage elevated, but nothing seemed to help. Spasms wracked Arthur’s body and Merlin worried he’d do damage to his healing leg. At last, remembering some of Gaius’ teachings about hypothermia, Merlin slipped out of his trousers and shirt and slid into the bed alongside Arthur, taking care not to jostle his leg. Wrapping his arms around Arthur, Merlin held him tightly and pressed as much of their skin together as possible. He wasn’t sure his actions would help, but he knew they couldn’t hurt.

His primary goal was to get Arthur’s shivering under control so he could rest and heal properly. He hadn’t thought through the emotions he’d be bombarded with once he held Arthur in his arms. Merlin squeezed even tighter and pressed his face against his neck, letting his mouth rest on Arthur’s skin in an almost kiss, breathing in his scent, sour from fever, but still so familiar, so precious. So beloved.

Arthur’s shivering gradually eased, much to Merlin’s relief. At the same time, he was reluctant to let Arthur go. Lying with Arthur clasped tightly against his chest, ankle hooked around Arthur’s good leg, was more than he ever thought he’d know again. He wanted to hold on to the feeling, capture it for just a moment longer to carry with him into the lonely days ahead. He took another deep breath, one arm draped over Arthur’s waist, holding him close, the other snaking up to sink itself in his hair. Just one more minute, he told himself, memorizing the feel of him—the heat and the texture of his skin, his scent, the softness of his hair. Just one more minute, he thought as his eyes drifted closed and he breathed Arthur in.

-o-


Continue to Part 3b | Masterpost

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October 2015

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