Arthur nudged the horse into a gentle trot as he reached the beach. The wind was definitely stronger here; he could feel it whipping through his hair. Although the ferocity of the blustery weather seemed to suggest an incoming storm, something that the colour of the clouds also seemed to concur, it was not unpleasant. The feeling of his hair blowing back from his face gave Arthur a sense of freedom, as well as reminding him of the life at sea that he had become so accustomed to over the last few weeks. Closing his eyes to help clear his mind, the prince did not see the motionless figure almost lying in his path. It was only when the horse sidestepped, nickering nervously, that he opened his eyes. Patting the horse on the side of her neck, Arthur spoke in low, soothing tones, before slipping from the saddle. He knew that if a horse was anxious, then there was something to be anxious about – years of hunting had taught him that much.
Walking slowly round to the horse’s head, Arthur let his eyes roam the beach, searching for the hidden danger. Frowning, he turned back to the horse, wondering what was going through the beast’s mind. He could see nothing wrong.
In fact, it was only until the prince suddenly found himself face down on the sand that he discovered what had spooked his mount. Spitting out the mouthful of grit that had somehow worked its way into his mouth, Arthur turned where he was sitting, curious to as what could have tripped him.
What he saw made his breath catch in his throat.
A boy was lying in the middle of the beach, unconscious, maybe even dead. His body showed the signs of obvious and serious abuse; his exposed torso made that much clear. His hair was dripping wet, black strands slicked to his forehead with salty rain, something that puzzled the prince momentarily when the thought flickered through his mind: the position that he was in surely would have meant the elements would have dried him. But even through all of that, there was still something else that caused Arthur’s heart to pound painfully in his chest, making it feel like it was about too jump straight through his throat and out of his mouth.
He had found Merlin.
But was he too late? His breath coming in short, almost frantic gasps, Arthur crawled across the ground until he was level with his servant. After all that searching, part of Arthur wished that he would wake up and that it would be another of his many dreams about finding his friend, for the reason that it would mean Merlin would not be lying on some beach, clearly fighting for his life. As Arthur stared, the full extent of Merlin’s injuries became apparent to him. The prince had seen injuries before; he had experienced some of the worst ones possible to live through himself, but the state that he had so suddenly found his best friend in took Arthur’s breath away. Merlin’s chest was littered with bruises, revealing that whomever had done this to him had almost certainly been trying to beat him to death; there were smatterings of grazes covering the delicate skin; and in addition to all this, Arthur spotted a long gash on his friend’s right hand. It looked infected and was also plastered in sand, which was slowly dwindling away with the wind that was blowing furiously at this point.
As the prince sat there and simply stared, too shocked to do anything else, Merlin began to stir. As much as he longed for the welcoming darkness to come and take him away from the pain, it would not oblige. His throat was burning from going so long without water; his body ached and hurt in every way that he could imagine and plenty of ways that he did not want to visualize; his eyes stung from where he had been held under the salty water for so long, when Sheridan had tried to drown him, laughing all the while. But yet, the darkness would still not let him lose himself. Opening his stinging eyes a fraction; Merlin could just about focus on the figure sitting over him. The golden hair was askew in odd angels, obviously from where the prince had run his hand through his hair distractedly. His face looked horrified, but also relieved at the same time. With a great effort, Merlin looked away. It was not real, just another of his dreams.
“Merlin?” a squashed voice whispered through the air, almost cracking with emotion. Un-hushed tears could be heard in the voice, making Merlin look back again. The Arthur he had imagined had sounded strong. Why did this one not?
“Come on, Merlin,” the voice continued, sounding like it was about to break. “Don’t you dare give up on me now! I need you…”
Even as Merlin slowly blinked, Arthur moved his position. Carefully lifting Merlin’s head, he rested it on his lap, cushioning it from the hard ground. Merlin had opened his eyes, he had moved, the prince was sure of that much, yet the servant did not seem to be acknowledging his presence, causing him greater cause for concern than before. The external injuries were obvious, but what if there was something wrong inside of Merlin. Arthur had not a clue about how to look after him – the boy was so badly hurt.
“Ar…Art…Arthur?” the cracked voice was barely audible over the wind, yet Arthur nearly jumped for joy. The voice betrayed how much Merlin had gone through since he had last heard it, but the fact that he could once again hear it made Arthur smile gently down at the head supported in his lap.
“It’s me, Merlin. I’m here. Everyth…everything is going to be all right,” Arthur swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. His eyes felt suspiciously watery, but he was sure that it was only the spray coming from the sea.
“Is that really you?” Merlin croaked, every word an agonising effort. It almost broke Arthur’s heart to see how weak he was.
“Of course. Who else would it be?” he replied lightly, trying desperately to hide the emotion in his voice. Merlin would see straight through it though. He always did.
To Arthur’s alarm, Merlin’s eyes were slowly drifting shut again; he was clearly losing the battle against consciousness.
“Stay with me, Merlin. Come on, stay with me!” Arthur told him, panicking. By now, he could no longer blame the sea for the hot tears that he found leaking out of his eyes of their own accord. He could not remember the last time that he had cried; yet his clumsy manservant had once again slipped through his defences. With one final effort, Merlin whispered something so faint that Arthur had to bend forwards to hear it.
“You came,” with those words, Merlin’s eye fully shut again and Arthur felt his body go limp as he fell back into the realm of unconsciousness.
Tears running down his cheeks, Arthur sat there in shock for a few moments. He had never imagined finding Merlin like this. He had always imagined some sort of light heartened ‘damsel in distress’ moment, something that they could joke about afterwards, not a situation where there may not be an afterwards.
The way the icy cold wind was whistling around Arthur made him realise that he needed to move Merlin. Although he was anxious not to cause him any more pain, it looked like a storm was on its way in, and lying on the exposed beach was not the best place to be.
Hooking his hands under Merlin’s arms, Arthur drew them both to their feet, trying to be as gentle as possible. What he saw made his blood boil; Merlin’s back was just as bad as his front. Swearing under his breath, Arthur vowed to get revenge on whoever had done this to his friend, no matter what it took.
Afterwards, Arthur could not have said how he did it, but somehow, he managed to get them both up onto the horse and used his knees to guide it into the forest, his arms too pre-occupied with stopping the unconscious form falling off. When he deemed that they were far enough into the trees, the prince slipped from the horse and carefully lowered Merlin to the ground. Shrugging off his jacket, he draped it over his friend, aware of quite how small and vulnerable he was. The poor boy seemed so fragile, and it struck the prince at just how…small he was.
With Merlin as comfy as the prince knew how to make him, he then turned to the problem of lighting a fire. Making do with what small branches and twigs that were lying around the immediate area, Arthur set about constructing them. He knew that they did not make ideal firewood, but he was not partial to the idea of leaving Merlin by his own while he went to get more wood, so made do. After a few failed attempts, he managed to get the fire burning.
Gently shuffling Merlin closer to the warmth, Arthur once more resumed his previous position, the crook of his knee a pillow for Merlin’s head. Almost automatically, he found himself running his fingers through the black hair, muttering soothingly to the unconscious boy. Arthur had no idea if Merlin could hear him, but it reassured the prince if nothing else. It at least made him feel like he was doing something to help, even if that was not the case.
Staring into the dancing flames, Arthur felt exhausted. The emotional shock of finding Merlin had started to settle in, yet the prince was not going to give into sleep. He was determined that he would sit there all night without moving if that was what it took. By all that he held dear, Arthur was going to make Merlin better. Then he was going to go after whoever had done this, and make them pay in the worst way that he could think of. Whatever it took.