Here's another long one-shot for you. I hadn't intended it to be this long, but I kinda got carried away and whumped Merlin hard in this. I'm going to warn you right off the bat that this story has a lot of ... well ... gastro-related illness in it and it ain't gonna be pretty. Also, all of the medical stuff in this is pretty much coming straight out of my head and probably had no historical or medical truth to it, so you may need to suspend a little belief as you read this. Again - this is not beta'd so if you come across a mistake or a plot-hole just let me know. Thanks for reading! :)
Set shortly after Arthur becomes regent ... Merlin cooks a meal for Gaius' birthday and things end disastrously. sick!Merlin, friendship.
Merlin strolled down the marketplace cheerfully. He had a plan – a great plan actually, and he couldn't wait to set it into motion.
That day was Gaius' birthday. Though the old physician didn't care for parties or presents to mark the day and never wanted a fuss made over him, Merlin nonetheless, was going to do something special for him anyway. And he had just the perfect idea how to celebrate it.
He was going to make dinner.
Not just any dinner … no. It was going to be special. He was going make Gaius' favorite – spring lamb chops, pan-seared in some Rosemary he picked that morning, a loaf of fresh baked, white bread and vegetables. Normally, he and Gaius dined on cheaper cuts of meat like chicken or rabbit, usually in the form of some kind of pottage. Only once had he ever had lamb with his mentor and that had been nearly two years ago when Merlin had turned 18. But Merlin had remembered how much the older man had enjoyed the meat and he hoped to recreate it that evening.
The bread was also something of a special treat and the loaf of it wrapped up and stashed away in his pack was something he guarded especially. Usually, they could only afford the half-stale black bread that the baker sold to the local populace, but Merlin had saved up his meager wages as the prince -regent's manservant and made a deal with the palace baker to prepare a loaf of the white bread made from the more refined flour that the nobles were more accustomed to. Where the black bread was tough and crusty, the white seemed to melt in the mouth and would make a much better pairing with the lamb he was hoping to buy.
Whistling softly to himself, Merlin reached into his purse and counted what remained of his money. The bread had been rather expensive and he didn't have much left. He could only hope that he still had enough to purchase some lamb chops for Gaius and himself as he walked up to the butcher's stall.
Ian the butcher and his wife Mary were rather new to Camelot, but their prices tended to be much cheaper than Owen, their competitor in the stall across from them, which irked the formerly popular butcher to no end. Merlin knew that if he needed to stretch his coins, theirs was the stall to come to and as he inquired after the price of their lamb chops, he was surprised and delighted to find out that he could not only afford two chops, but four as they currently had an overstock in lamb.
His plan was already coming together rather brilliantly, if he did say so himself. He had begged Arthur for the evening off, explaining what he had wanted to do for his mentor and to his amazement, Arthur had not only granted him the time off, but had even given him a small tankard of his best wine as a gift to the physician (In truth, Arthur may have acted a little out of guilt since the prat had completely forgotten that it was the physician's birthday until Merlin mentioned it.).
Merlin gladly handed his coins to Mary to pay for the cuts of meat and quickly headed back to the physician's chambers. He had the bread, the meat, and the wine and now all he needed to do now was cook and wait for Gaius to return home from his evening rounds.
He could hardly wait – Gaius was going to be so surprised and that night was going to be one to remember.
Gaius was indeed surprised as he walked into his chambers and was greeted by the delicious smell of seared meat wafting about.
Merlin looked up from the table where he had just placed two plates and smiled broadly, his eyes alight with glee. "Surprise!"
"Merlin … what is this?" Gaius asked, approaching the table and viewing the spread his ward had laid out.
"Your favorite – lamb chops."
"Oh my boy, you didn't have to do all of this." Gaius protested humbly.
"But I wanted to. It's your birthday and you deserve a nice meal for once."
Gaius had to admit that it was a really nice gesture, even if over the many years of his life, he had come to view birthdays as just any other, ordinary day. The meat alone must have cost Merlin a good portion of his money and the obvious care he had taken to prepare the meal left Gaius feeling a swell of pride and gratitude for the boy who was his son in all ways but blood. Merlin might act the fool at times, but his heart was always filled with thoughtfulness and kindness towards everyone, especially those whom he cared about.
Smiling, he patted Merlin on the shoulder to show his thanks as his ward escorted him over to his chair and bade him to sit. "It looks absolutely delicious."
"Thank you. I hope you enjoy it." Merlin beamed as he grabbed a bottle of what looked to be some very fine wine and poured his mentor's goblet. "I'm not exactly a chef, but hopefully it's not complete rubbish."
"If the smell is anything to go, then this should be a delight." Gaius said honestly. He hadn't had lamb in a very long time and aroma it gave off was tantalizing.
Merlin and began to tuck into his meal with gusto, happily chewing the lamb while Gaius had just begun to cut his meat. Gaius had only just lifted his fork and hadn't gotten so much as a bite in when a series of loud knocks sounded at the door with urgency.
Dropping his fork, the physician knew that whoever was coming by at this hour was most likely not making a social call. Merlin made eye contact with Gaius and frowned, sensing as well that he was undoubtedly going to be called away from the special dinner he had prepared. Gaius gave his ward a sympathetic look before he stood up from the table and headed for the door.
Gaius opened the door to a young man in his twenties that he recognized as one of the castle's guards. He couldn't recall his name, but from the desperate look on his face, he knew that whatever emergency he was calling on Gaius for, it was indeed grim.
"I'm sorry to intrude, Master Gaius."
"No, don't be. How can I help you?"
"My name's Merrick, sir … " he dipped his head, "and my daughter … she's only three. She fell ill yesterday afternoon and hasn't been able to keep anything down since. She burns with fever and has grown listless. I fear the worst for her and there is nothing else we can think to do for her … I don't have much, but I will pay whatever you ask, but please … just help her." Tears sparkled in the worried man's eyes. Gaius placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"Don't worry about the payment, Merrick. Just take me to her, and I will see what I can do."
Merrick nodded with clear relief evident on his face, "Thank you so much."
"Just give me a few minutes to collect my things." Gaius said as he turned and headed for his work table.
Merlin had already risen from the dinner table and must have heard the conversation for he had already gathered Gaius' medicine bag and checked that it was stocked. He looked a little disappointed that his surprise for Gaius had come to such a quick end before it really began, but he also understood the need for his mentor to go.
Merlin handed off the bag to Gaius, "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not as of yet. Hopefully, this will turn out to be simple to treat." Gaius sighed and looked at the surprise meal Merlin had made for him, "I'm sorry about dinner."
"It's fine. I'll just save our plates until you get back."
"Alright. Just don't wait up for me. I may be rather late in getting back and you still have Arthur to tend to in the morning."
Merlin nodded and Gaius patted his back before turning and following the young father out into the night.
Merlin looked down at the dinner he had prepared and sighed. Everything had been going so well until Gaius was called away. While he understood that the physician's work meant he could be called to duty at any time, and he felt sorry for the young man whose daughter was sick, he just wished that it hadn't been tonight of all nights.
Oh well … he resigned to himself, the little girl's health was what was more important than the meal. Carefully, Merlin draped a napkin over Gaius' food and then looked at his own. He was still really hungry, and the smell of the meat was tantalizing. He wanted to wait for Gaius to get back before he ate anymore of his food, but who couldn't be sure of when that would be. Maybe if he just ate one of his lamb chops that would be enough to satisfy his appetite until then and he could finish the rest when his mentor returned. That way they could still eat together and perhaps salvage some of the evening.
Sitting, Merlin sat and ate the lamb chop he had already started eating and finished it quickly. After that, he placed his napkin over his food as well and then decided to head to his room and do a little reading from his magic book and enjoy the little time off from serving Arthur that he had been given.
It was about two hours later that Merlin felt the first rumblings in his stomach. It gurgled and bubbled unhappily, making him feel slightly nauseous, but he tried to ignore and focus on his book. He was cold as well even though it had been a warm spring day and as he sat on his bed reading, he wrapped a blanket around his shoulders in order to abate some of the shivers.
After a while though, reading his book started to become difficult. The words bled together and he found himself reading the same passage over and over again and not getting much out of it. His eyes began to slowly blink and eventually, they closed all of the way as he slipped off into sleep.
Gaius did what he could, but he feared it would not be enough. The little girl he had been called to treat was severely dehydrated and fading fast. He had tried several draughts and potions to ease her fever and vomiting, but each one only caused the poor thing to heave violently and lose what little had been swallowed.
It wasn't until very late in the evening when Gaius began to see her turn around and make some slight improvements. He finally got the little girl to keep some water and medicine down, but by that time, her parents had also shown signs of coming down with the same malady, both of them developing a fever and becoming sick to their stomachs.
From then on out, things only got worse.
Soon, it was not only the guard and his family that were ill, but more and more people kept coming to the little house after hearing he was in the lower town. It seemed that whole families were being affected, their loved one's suffering from the same gastric illness, many of them sick themselves as they sought help.
It turned out to be a very, very long night.
Morning's first light came and Gaius had not slept a wink as he went from house to house, administering his dwindling supplies on hand to those in need of care. While the illness itself did not appear to be fatal in nature to those with strong constitutions if they kept properly hydrated, it was the weak, the elderly and the very young he was most concerned about. While the stronger, healthier people would be miserable for a few days at least, their bodies tormented by fatigue, fever, aches, vomiting, and diarrhea, those who hadn't been in good health before falling ill might not recover -they simply didn't have the reserves or the strength to withstand such an attack on their bodies. Already, Gaius had lost one patient – an old woman well into her 70's after only being ill a few hours, and he feared there would be more.
Knowing that he now had an epidemic on his hands that he was woefully unprepared to handle alone, Gaius decided he needed to send for help. Stepping out of a cottage where yet another entire family lay ill, he grabbed the first healthy person that walked by; a young boy a little bit younger than Merlin who readily agreed to help. Handing the boy a list of supplies he needed, he instructed the boy to run to his chambers and inform his ward of the illness and have him come straight away with as many of the items on his list as he could carry. He was to then go to Arthur and inform him that the lower town would need to be quarantined before the rest of Camelot was infected. Until the disease was under control, the best he could do was limit its spread.
After Gaius made sure that the boy understood what he needed to do, he ran off towards the castle at full speed.
Merlin had only slept for about an hour when he was awoken by an intense tumult rolling around in his gut. He moaned, nausea hitting him full-force even before he could open his eyes. His head and limbs heavy as lead, it took an almost herculean effort to simply roll onto his side and grab the chamber pot under his bed. What came next was predictable, but still took Merlin by surprise over how powerfully and painfully his stomach expelled its contents. The contraction of his stomach hurt almost as much as the burning of the bile and acids in his throat and nose as it all came up through every open cavity in his head.
By the time his stomach was finally finished torturing him, Merlin was shaking and trembling all over. He felt weak and drained, hot and cold, and sweat dripped down his face. Though he did feel slightly better now that his bout of sickness was over – he was still nauseas and who couldn't be sure how long it would be before the vomiting came back for another round.
The smell of the mess he had made into his chamber pot wasn't helping things either, so using what little energy he could muster, he took the pot and carried it outside to clean it, nearly throwing up again as he gagged over the disgusting and putrid smell.
Exhausted, but now fully awake, Merlin realized that dawn was breaking and he needed to get dressed for work. Wearily, Merlin headed back to his room, his bare feet shuffling along the cold floor, but he had no strength left to pick them up completely. As he climbed the short flight of stairs to his room, he had to hold on to the wall to keep himself from tipping over as his vision spun in circles.
Arthur was expecting him to return to serving him that morning and even though he felt like passing out at any moment, he knew he would feel even worse if Arthur put him in the stocks for being late again. He needed to at least make an appearance in the prince's chambers and get him his breakfast. Maybe after that, Arthur would take a little pity on him and let him go back to bed so he could shake off whatever this illness was that he had picked up overnight.
Then again – he could always try to magic himself better.
Thinking that magic might be his best option, Merlin plunked himself on his bed and closed his eyes, bringing to memory the best spell he knew for illnesses.
Whispering the words of the spell with a voice that was rough from the abuse his stomach acids had influcted on his throat, Merlin let his magic flow from his core and out to where he could command it.
The magic flowed and tingled, wrapping around Merlin like a warm blanket, but as soon as the last word of the spell out of his mouth, that blanket as ripped away and he was hit by an icy wave of pain lancing through his head. The pounding in his head only made his stomach feel worse and soon he was reaching for the chamber pot once again.
Perhaps magic wasn't the answer he was looking for. Merlin had never been all that good at those kind of spells anyway and it usually took many, many tries for him to get it right. And at that point in time, Merlin really didn't want what just happened to happen again when he was already feeling so miserable. He'd just have to deal with being sick the way other people without magic dealt with it – by sucking it up and plodding on.
Realizing that the time for Merlin wake Arthur up was quickly approaching, he resigned himself to getting dressed and making it through the day. Shivering, Merlin didn't really want to take off his night clothes in order to put on his regular clothes, but showing up in his pajamas to work probably wouldn't fly with the prince, so he dressed as fast as his tired body would allow, bundling himself up in his warmest shirt and jacket and tying his neckerchief a little tighter to his skin. Unfortunately, the clothes did little to chase off the chills and his teeth chattered despite his best efforts to get warm.
Merlin's vision started to blacken around the edges as he bent over to pull on his boots, but somehow, by some miracle, he didn't end up with his face kissing the floor and with a groan, he pushed himself to his feet and made his way out of the physician's chambers.
As he passed though the main room, Merlin dully noted for the first time that Gaius' bed had not been slept in. The patient he had gone to the other night must have been pretty bad off if his mentor had stayed the night, but if he still wasn't back yet, at least that meant that the little girl was still alive and for that, Merlin was grateful.
Head pounding and cloudy, body aching all over, Merlin walked out of the chambers and made his way to the kitchens where his nausea made a surprise resurgence due to the combination of smells wafting through the air from the cooking food.
Don't throw up … don't throw up … don't throw up … Merlin repeated in his head as he filled a plate of food for Arthur as quickly as he could, trying not to breathe through his nose and cause what little as left in his stomach to come back up why he was surrounded by cooks. They were a testy lot on the best of days and vomiting all over the food they were preparing would be one sure-fire way to end up getting beaten by a spoon.
Once he had Arthur's plate filled, Merlin nearly ran out of the kitchen and out of the castle, down the stairs to the courtyard into the fresh, morning air, hoping that it would help the rumbling in his stomach to calm down. His hopes were dashed though as his stomach lurched and he had to drop Arthur's plate on the ground and rush for the nearest bush to get sick behind.
Although there was little to bring up, the dry heaves continued for several minutes. Tears streamed down his face in rivers and he wouldn't have been surprised if his stomach had turned itself inside out it hurt so much. When he finally felt like the worst had passed and he could breathe again without his gut spasming, Merlin felt onto his backside, shivering and shaking, hugging his knees to his chest.
He groaned, looking over at the upturned plate of food on the ground. Arthur's breakfast was ruined and he would have to get another one. Dreading getting up off of the ground, let alone another trip to the kitchens, Merlin hugged his waist, praying for the strength to just make it through the morning.
Startled by the sudden voice, he looked up blearily and then felt his face flush with embarrassment at being caught getting sick in the bushes. Standing above him on the stairs, Merlin was surprised to see Arthur glaring down at him.
"What the hell are you doing … and … is that my breakfast?"
Merlin pushed himself onto shaky legs, the world tilting slightly as his sight darkened for a moment. Suddenly Arthur was at his side and gripping his arm. He was confused – how had the prince gotten there so quickly? He must have blacked out there for a second.
"What is wrong with you? I heard you throwing your guts up and you look like you're about to swoon."
"Was not." Merlin protested weakly, rubbing his throbbing head.
"What did you do … drink that whole bottle of wine I gave you?"
Now Merlin was even more confused, "Wha? No … I just -"
"Showed up to work hungover?" Arthur finished for him and let go of Merlin's arm, pointing an accusing finger at him, "I swear to God, Merlin … I give you one night off and go and get drunk!"
Merlin was too tired and nauseas to tell Arthur off for jumping to conclusions and just stood there, wavering.
"Perhaps some time cleaning all of the castle's chamber pots will teach you a lesson in the importance of sobriety."
Merlin sighed and let his shoulders slump, hanging his sore head, uncertain if he would have the strength to ever lift it again. He didn't think he would be able to explain to Arthur that he wasn't, in fact, hungover, that he was simply ill. When Arthur got notions into his head that he believed were right, it could be nearly impossible to change them and Merlin just didn't have it in him to argue.
"Fine … I'll get right on that, Sire." Merlin mumbled.
"No … you'll get me a new breakfast first, then clean my room, then –" Arthur was abruptly cut off by the sounds of footsteps running towards them.
Merlin raised his head to see a teenaged boy come to a sudden stop before the prince and hastily give a reverent bow. He immediately wished he hadn't as a fresh jolt of pain passed its way through his skull.
"You're majesty!" The boy exclaimed, out of breath and his face flushed from running. He clearly had something of urgency that he needed to speak to the prince about.
"What is it?" Arthur asked.
"I have a message from Gaius …" The boy began, a little nervously. At the mention of Gaius' name, Merlin momentarily forgot his misery and became more alert. "There's been an outbreak of illness in the lower town. He says the area needs to be quart-quar—something."
"Quarantined?" Merlin asked as the boy stumbled for the right word. The lad nodded quickly and Merlin started to feel a new pit open up in his stomach. If Gaius thought the lower town needed to be quarantined, then things must truly be bad. That must be why he hadn't come home last night.
"He also asks that Merlin come help and bring him supplies. I don't know who he is though. He wasn't in the physician's quarters and I'm not sure where to find him, Sire."
"There's no need to look any further," Arthur stated smugly. "He's right here and will leave right away, won't you, Merlin?" Slapping Merlin on the back, Arthur pushed him forward. Merlin knew the small prod was meant to spur him into action, but Merlin was quickly unbalanced. Being unsteady on his feet to begin with, he pitched forward and was unable to catch himself, landing face first onto the ground in a rather undignified heap.
Merlin's stomach chose that time to remind him of just how much it resented anything he did and he was soon curled up into a small ball, dry heaving and panting whenever he could get a breath in. An overwhelming explosion went off in his head at the same time and even with his eyes tightly screwed shut, he saw spots and blobs of colors floating in his vision until finally … finally, everything went black and he didn't feel much of anything anymore.
Arthur's day had started out so well. He had woken before dawn feeling well rested and refreshed. He then dressed himself (yes … Arthur was well versed in the art of clothing his body, despite what his manservant said. After that, he had gone for a walk, taking in the early morning glow as the sun began to rise.
Yes … all in all, it had been a very nice start to what he hoped would be a great day.
But he had been oh, so wrong.
As he began to climb the steps up to the castle and heard the unmistakable sounds of someone vomiting into the bushes. At first, Arthur was going to ignore it and continue on, saving whomever it was getting violently ill the embarrassment of having their prince-regent discovering them. From the sounds of things, that person's day was going to be bad enough without him making it worse.
He took a few more steps up when out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a familiar pair of brown boots sticking out of the shrubbery. Knowing the owner of said boots, all thoughts of saving that person any humiliation went careening out the window and crashed into the ground in a fiery explosion.
Arthur walked down the stairs and towards the bush where Merlin sat of the ground, pale and miserable looking. The younger man didn't seem to even realize that he was standing only a few feet away from him.
"Merlin?" Arthur barked, causing his servant to jerk in surprise and finally notice his master's presence.
It was then that Arthur noticed the plate on the ground and food scattered all over, including what looked like had been some perfectly good sausages before they fell into the dirt.
Arthur felt his face begin to heat up with anger as he put things together in his head. Arthur had not only given Merlin the night off yesterday, but had also given his a bottle of some very fine wine for Gaius' birthday, but from the noises Merlin had been making only a few moments ago, he must have had the entire bottle to himself and gotten himself blindingly drunk.
Arthur, wanting Merlin to know just how incensed he was, raised his voice, "What the hell are you doing? And … is that my breakfast?"
Merlin grunted as he pushed himself up from the ground and wobbled precariously. What little color had been on his servant's face had vanished by the time he was fully upright and he seem to wilt where he stood. For a moment, Arthur was certain Merlin was going to faint – which would have served him right for being such an idiot and drinking so much. All the same, Arthur hurried over to his glassy-eyed servant and grabbed his arm with probably more force than was strictly necessary.
And that's when Arthur began to lay into Merlin, berating him for his stupidity and for coming to work hungover. Merlin weakly denied being drunk, but Arthur wasn't having any of it and ignored his protests, after all – his idiot servant had taken a perfectly nice morning and turned it upside down.
Merlin winced as the prince raised his voice and Arthur was secretly glad that he was having that kind of effect on the younger man. Arthur began to compile a very long list of chores for Merlin to suffer through and teach him a lesson in responsibility and if Merlin had a little headache while he completed them, it would only serve to drive home the point. Perhaps then he would think twice about imbibing to excess.
Arthur was only at the start of his chore list for his servant when a young teenaged boy ran up to him at full pelt. Merlin seemed to perk up a little as the boy told them about the illness in the lower town, so when they kid asked for Merlin's help, Arthur didn't think that giving his manservant a little nudge to send him off to work would lead to such disastrous consequences.
That one, little push was all the prompting Merlin apparently needed to send him falling spectacularly to the ground face first. Arthur had a number of choice curses he was about to send hurtling towards Merlin, but when his servant began to curl-up, writhing on the ground and make some terrible gagging noises, he held off, waiting for Merlin to finish being such a drama-queen so he could properly hear just how annoyed the prince was at him.
But when Merlin suddenly went limp and boneless, Arthur began to get a little worried. The prince had seen many a man hungover before, but he had never seen it this bad in anyone before. Sure … Merlin was a lightweight when it came to alcohol, but even he wouldn't pass out if this was just a simple hangover.
Arthur crouched by his unconscious servant's side and rolled him over. Merlin was a dead weight as he was moved and moaned weakly until Arthur had him on his back. He was then able to really get a good look at Merlin's face. He was even paler than he had been before and there was a fine sheen of sweat wetting his brow. Arthur raised his hand and touched Merlin's clammy forehead and then cursed out loud at how hot his skin was, causing the boy hovering behind him to jump a little.
Okay … Maybe … just maybe … Arthur had misjudged the situation with Merlin a little. And maybe … just maybe … he was feeling a little guilty now that he could see just how sick the other man really was.
Arthur turned to the boy behind him, "Boy – " He addressed him, wishing he knew the kid's name.
Thankfully, the boy was smarter than he looked and filled the prince in, "Roger, sire. What can I do to help?"
"I want you run back to the Physician's chambers and gather the supplies Gaius needs and take them to him. You are to then assist him with whatever he needs. Tell him that I have sent Merlin off on an errand and that he will not be able to help him with the outbreak, but do not, under any circumstances, tell him that Merlin is ill, is that understood?"
"Yes, Sire … but if I may ask, why can't I tell Gaius that Merlin is sick?"
"Because … it would only distract Gaius. If he knew, he would want to break quarantine to see Merlin and I can't allow that, no matter how much I might want him to come back. We can't let this spread."
"I understand, Sire." Roger replied with a nod and a moment later, he was sprinting away, back to the lower town where he too would end up quarantined. Arthur made a quick mental note to see that the boy was compensated for his efforts.
Arthur then turned back to Merlin who was stirring a bit and groaning, his head flopping listlessly from side to side.
"Alright, Merlin." Arthur began, scooping Merlin up into his arms and standing, "Let's get you inside."
Arthur grunted a little as he climbed the stairs up to the castle, ignoring passersby's questioning looks until he reached the physician's chambers and laid Merlin down on the patient cot.
Honestly, Arthur didn't have the first clue as to what he was supposed to do, but he did know that if Merlin had the same sickness as the people in the lower town, then he would have to be kept isolated from the rest of the castle to keep them from catching it. And since Arthur had been in physical contact with Merlin, he too would need to keep himself quarantined from everyone as well. Who could say how virulent or deadly this disease was and he wasn't about to expose his people to it if he could help it.
So, that left Arthur as the only person who could help Merlin.
Damn … his day just kept getting worse and worse.
By accident, Gaius stumbled upon the answer to the one burning question he had had since this epidemic had begun. That question being what had caused this illness. Unlike a contagious illness like the stomach flu he thought it as at first, those effected were incapacitated quickly and since the initial outbreak, there had been no new cases, so whatever had caused this was most likely not something spread from person to person, otherwise, he would have far more patients.
No … this looked like something more sinister and possibly poison. But he couldn't be certain of that – all he had were suspicions.
It wasn't until he entered the cottage of his first patient and stumbled, quite literally into the table and knocked over a plate of unfinished food that he saw it. There on the floor, a piece of half-eaten meat had fallen from the plate.
It was lamb.
Gaius questioned the young family and found that all of them had eaten the meat before falling ill. He went out from there and asked all of the others who had fallen ill what they had eaten and same answer came back to him each time: lamb.
And all of them had purchased their lamb from the same butcher: Ian and his wife Mary. Almost all had said that his price for the lamb had been the cheapest they had ever seen and could hardly believe their luck that they could afford such nice cuts of meat. Unfortunately for them, their bargain turned out to not be such a deal after all.
It seemed the mystery of the illness had been solved – it was a simple case of food poisoning. True – it had had some terrible consequences, but now that Gaius knew the source, he also knew that the disease was not contagious unless the bad meat had been consumed.
Gaius was on his way to see the butcher and give him a piece of his mind for selling bad meat to an unsuspecting populace when he remembered the dinner Merlin had cooked for him and the lamb chops that had been the centerpiece of the meal. Gaius hadn't had a chance to even taste his lamb, but had dug into his.
Gaius felt his stomach twist a little at the implication, but all he could do for now was hope that the boy hadn't bought his meat from Ian's stall or that he had somehow escaped getting ill.
Unfortunately, when Gaius questioned the butcher and the guilty man confessed to selling lamb that should have been thrown out the day before so he could undercut his competitor; he also confessed to the physician that Merlin had indeed purchased lamb from him.
"You don't understand. I need the money and no one got sick when I did it before." Ian had said. "Your boy seemed pretty happy to be getting the meat at such a bargain – it's not my fault he couldn't cook it right."
Gaius was incensed and wished he was a younger, stronger man for he would have enjoyed socking the butcher in the nose for the misery and death he had caused. All he could do, however, was call for the guards and order them to send Ian and his wife to the castle where Arthur could decide their punishment.
As the butcher and his wife were taken away, Gaius sent word along with the guards that the quarantine of the lower town should be lifted and that all of the meat from Ian's stall should be destroyed at once. The guards complied easily and once they were gone, Gaius returned to check on his patients, quickly making sure that none of them were in danger of succumbing to their illness before he headed back to the castle as fast as his arthritic knees would allow – he had a ward he need to see at once.
Given Merlin's luck, and knowing that the boy had eaten some of the lamb, sent his blood pressure skyrocketing. As he hurried, Gaius' mind worked and turned over the possibilities and came up with only questions. Why hadn't Merlin come to help out? Why did Arthur send someone else in his stead, saying that he had sent Merlin on some unexplained errand?
Gaius had been too busy with the sick to question it earlier, but now that he thought about it, the excuse as to where his ward was looked horribly flimsy. What if Arthur had made an excuse for Merlin's whereabouts just so Gaius wouldn't come back and possibly infect the entire castle if the disease had been contagious? What if Merlin had been just as sick as all of the others Gaius had been treating but without the aid of a physician? Even though for most people, the disease wasn't fatal, if Merlin had been taking care of himself this whole time, who knows how bad it could be. He may be dehydrated to the point where even Gaius or magic couldn't save him. Then again – Merlin did have magic which was a positive point, but on the negative side, the boy was terrible at healing spells and even worse at ones to heal himself.
Arthur had been trained to be a fighter, a warrior, a knight and to one day become king. He had not, however, ever thought that he would have to act as nursemaid to his own servant.
Yet there he was, wiping down Merlin's brow as his fever soared and pulling out a bucket whenever the younger man awoke and turned green in the face. Arthur knew now the tell-tale signs of when Merlin was going start heaving again and when this was all over, he vowed to never touch another bucket again in his life.
All grumbling aside, Arthur was worried. Merlin was in and out of lucidity and most of his waking moments were spent folded over a bucket. His fever hadn't come down in the slightest and whenever Arthur did manage to coax some water into his servant, it usually came right back up again within a few minutes. And Merlin was working worse – his eyes had begun to sink into their sockets and his already prominent cheekbones stood out sharp enough to cut paper.
He didn't know what else to do. If Gaius had been there, he would have whipped up some kind of foul potion by then and Merlin probably would have been much better by now. But with only Arthur to tend to him, he was wasting away rapidly. Arthur always chided Merlin for his incompetence, but really, it was Arthur's own skills that were lacking in this situation.
A knock at the door broke Arthur from his musings. Tired, but still not showing any signs of illness despite the many hours he had spent with Merlin locked in this room, Arthur strode to the door.
"Who is it?" He called through the locked door.
"Agravaine, Arthur. A guard just arrived with news from Gaius. He says that the number of cases in the lower town has not grown since last night and he says that many people are now beginning to recover. It seems as though the cause of the illness was some spoiled lamb sold by a butcher in the lower town. Gaius says that the quarantine can lifted. However, there have been three deaths - all of them elderly."
Arthur hung his head a little hearing that any of his people had died.
"May I come in now, my lord? Since the crisis has passed, it would seem that your self-imposed isolation is no longer needed."
"Of course." Arthur said as he unlocked the door.
His uncle gave him a quick once-over, "You look exhausted. Perhaps you should retire to your chambers and get some sleep."
Arthur glanced over his shoulder to the cot where Merlin lay fast asleep. His complexion hadn't improved much and his fever was still too high for Arthur's liking. "I can't leave Merlin like this."
Agravaine raised his eyebrows contemptuously, "Have you been nursing your servant this entire time, Arthur?"
"There was no one else – I didn't have a choice." Arthur kept the fact that watching over Merlin as he suffered through his illness hadn't felt like so much a duty – it was something he had done because he was Merlin's friend and he wanted him to get recover. If Merlin had died … No … Arthur wasn't even going to think about that.
"All the same, Arthur. You are Prince and Regent of Camelot and now that the quarantine is over, you should return to your duties and patting the brow of a servant is not one of them. Another servant can see to his needs."
Sometimes Arthur appreciated the advice his uncle gave him and then there were times such as these where it was just plain annoying and condescending. However, he really didn't have a good argument to state against Agravaine's suggestion. He simply didn't want to leave. What his uncle said made sense from a logical stand-point, yet … it just wasn't something he wanted to do – he didn't want to retire to his nice, warm bed while Merlin was still in the throes of illness. He wanted to be there until Gaius returned and he could be personally certain that his servant was going to recover and return to work as his idiotic, buffoonish manservant.
Arthur was saved from arguing with his uncle, however, as the door was flung open and a wild-hair and panting Gaius bustled in, coming to a screeching halt upon seeing Arthur and Agravaine standing in the middle of his chambers.
"Oh! … Sire …" Gaius spoke between heavy breaths. "I … didn't … expect you … here."
"I'm sorry to have startled you Gaius, I was keeping an eye on Merlin –"
Arthur was cut off as Gaius was already at Merlin's bedside and started examining him, muttering, "Oh … you stupid boy … never buy meat at half price …"
Agravaine turned to Arthur with a forced smile, "I suppose that our good physician has things well in hand now, Arthur. I shall take my leave and hopefully you shall do the same soon so Gaius may work."
Arthur's uncles swept out of the room with an air of superiority while Gaius went to his worktable and began throwing various herbs together in a mortar and started to grind them together.
"Have you been giving him water, Sire?" Gaius asked Arthur as he took the paste he had made and added it to a cup of water.
"Yes … as much as I could, but he couldn't keep much of it down."
Gaius nodded, "Yes … I'll give him something to settle his stomach. The important thing is to make sure he stays hydrated and the longer he can keep something in his stomach the faster he will recover."
"So you think he will get better?"
"Yes … I don't think he's any worse than the others that came down with this and he's young and strong. He'll need several days of rest, but he should be back to his old self in good time."
Arthur let go a sigh, suddenly feeling as tired as he looked. Gaius paused in his mixing and took in the sight of the prince.
"You should go, Sire. I assure you that Merlin will be fine."
Arthur nodded, satisfied that Gaius had things under control. "I think I shall." He said as he turned to head for the door.
Before his hand touched the doorknob, Gaius called after him, "Thank you, Sire … for taking care of Merlin."
Arthur smirked and snorted a little, "I won't say that it was my pleasure, Gaius, especially after Merlin's fifth bout of vomiting, but I'm glad I could help."
Merlin woke feeling clear headed and mostly pain free.
It felt like ages since he last felt like this and he was grateful to be able to think without his mind veering off into weird directions or his stomach turning twisting into knots even a sailor would have a tough time tying.
He reached his hands over his head and stretched languidly, opening his mouth wide enough to crack his jaw as he yawned.
"Open that thing any wider and flies with not only gather, but take up permanent residence in there."
Merlin was a little startled to see Arthur leaning casually against his doorjamb, but grinned, seeing that the prince had apparently dressed himself that morning and his shirt was on inside-out. Merlin decided against mentioning it to him though and would just have to enjoy wondering how long it would be before he finally figured it out or someone had the guts to tell him.
"Good to see that you still know my name and that the fever didn't render you an even bigger idiot than you were before."
Merlin rolled his eyes, "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Don't you have anything better to do than watch me sleep, like … I don't know … run the kingdom?"
Arthur feigned a scowl, "I'll have you know that it is on behalf of the kingdom that I'm here. I was just speaking to Gaius about what should be done with the butcher and his wife that caused this whole mess."
Arthur took a step into the room and sat on the end of Merlin's bed, his demeanor now heavy with the burden of leadership on his shoulders.
"Oh?" Merlin frowned, picking up on Arthur's tension. "What are you going to do?"
"I've decided to imprison them for a period of 30 days and after that, they are to never own or operate another business of any nature within Camelot and neither of them will be allowed to leave our borders to set up shop in other kingdoms either." Arthur sighed, unsure, "I just hope that will be enough. There are plenty of people out there that want to see them hanged for this, but … "
"That's rather excessive." Merlin finished for his master.
"That's what Gaius said."
Merlin smiled and folded his hands under his head, "Great minds do think alike."
Arthur scoffed, "The only great things about you, Merlin, are your great, big ears."
"At least they're not as big as your ego." Merlin countered.
"Shut up." Merlin did … for all of two seconds.
"My memory of the last couple of days is kind of fuzzy. But … I could have sworn that at one point, you were rubbing my back whenever I got sick into the bucket."
Arthur turned and faced Merlin, his eyes narrowing with deadly intent, "It never happened. And if you mention it ever I again, I will end you."
Merlin tried very hard to hold back the giggles erupting from his throat but ultimately failed. Arthur just threw his hands up in the air and walked out of the room, demanding that his servant return to work as soon as Gaius said it was okay.
In the mean time, Merlin's giggles turned into a beaming smile. He knew Arthur cared and the crowned-prince regent of Camelot had put his ego aside to help him when he had needed it the most. Sure, Arthur would never admit that he was Merlin's friend, but his actions were better than words ever could be.