"It's a bloody ghost," said Owain with a gasp, and Percival rolled his eyes.
"What did I tell you?" He still looked around nervously though, before blowing into his hands. It was bloody freezing up on the Camelot battlements. "I'm expecting his High-and-Mightiness any minute. He was pretty interested."
Owain looked horrified. "You told King Tristan?"
"What am I? Insane? Suicidal?" Percival stuck his hands in his pockets. "Did I say his Majesty? Do you think Tristan would forgive anyone who told him the ghost of his dead brother was haunting the roof? Not bleeding likely." He sucked his teeth. "Nope, I told Merlin."
There was a pause as they both thought about his choice. It was well known that telling Merlin, who was more like a best friend than a servant to Prince Arthur, was tantamount to telling Arthur himself.
"What do you think it wants?" asked Owain, at last, and Percival huffed a laugh.
"Not our place, mate," he said, and then stiffened, and came to attention, as a proper guard should in the presence of anyone who might report him, before relaxing once more when he realised it was only Merlin.
They had to explain about the apparition yet again, while Merlin expressed disbelief in sincere terms, and hinted they should lay off the drink even if it did keep them warm. Percival bit his tongue enough that it actually stung, before deciding it was going to be a very long night.
But Merlin did bring them pastries from the banquet, so it wasn't all bad.
Merlin couldn't quite believe his eyes. There was King Uther, just as he was in life, resplendant in his ceremonial armour and helmet, although the visor was up, which made it easy to recognise him.
The previous night, when Percival had shown him where the ghost had walked, the apparition hadn't wanted to speak, although it looked like it may have wanted to, if only the cock hadn't crowed just then. Merlin had wanted to ring the stupid bird's neck.
Before involving Arthur, Merlin had wanted to check things out more fully, possibly even involving his own special powers. After all, this could be a trap set by some vengeful sorcerer or other still keen on that revenge despite Uther's passing some two months before. Because if this was actually Uther, it seemed quite unlike him to come back as something so obviously supernatural as a ghost. Unfortunately however, Owain had opened his big mouth, so here was Merlin accompanying Arthur on a trip to talk to his dead father. That was a sentence he had never expected to hear himself say.
"Father! Royal Briton!"
Good god, Arthur was pulling out all the stops. He'd never been this flowery when Uther had been alive. Which, Merlin supposed, was the point. He tried not to see the agonised, yearning look on Arthur's face. That was a private thing.
"My son," said the ghost, and Merlin swallowed, and tried to look inconspicuous, ready to magically blast it, if he could.
"My son, I was murdered, most foully, and you must avenge me. Your uncle, my brother Tristan, has taken the throne and has married my beautiful queen, Ygraine. But know you that it was most foul murder. I was not stung by a snake while sleeping in the orchard – the snake that stole my life now wears my crown!"
Uther paused for a dramatic second or two. Arthur was looking heart-broken, and Merlin was unimpressed. Really? Poison? Surely Gaius would have caught the signs? But then, Merlin recalled, Gaius had immediately been promoted to Court Chamberlain, and a new fellow of Tristan's choosing had pronounced upon the dead body. So it was possible.
And here was Arthur promising the world to this dubious ghost – who, even if it was Uther, and even if he really had been murdered, still shouldn't have been bothering Arthur with such things. The problems of the living were for the living, and the problems of the dead were… Well, it was obvious.
Merlin folded his arms.
"Yes, the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables," said Arthur, who was still smarting over the speed and eagerness with which his mother had embraced her new husband. Merlin tried not to wince, and attempted to look vaguely sympathetic instead. It was hardly as though he could blame Ygraine, not really. If he'd been married to Uther for more than twenty years, Merlin rather supposed he might celebrate as well. Although, perhaps not by marrying his brother…
And all this incestuous sheets business seemed somewhat dubious to him too – it wasn't as though Ygraine was related to Tristan or Uther, except by marriage. Merlin thought this might be another thing that bothered royalty a lot more than it bothered commoners like him.
He lurked and watched as Arthur greeted the Royal Couple. Ygraine wanted Arthur to wear something other than black, and Merlin was in fervent agreement. He'd never thought he'd see the day when he missed Arthur's endless parade of red jackets and shirts, but really, black got old even more quickly.
"I greet Arthur, our much beloved, and our son," declared Tristan, and Merlin winced after all. Even he could tell that Tristan was lying, and Arthur's hands were bunched into fists, under the long line of his sleeves. Merlin braced himself for some kind of magical interference, in case Arthur got some sort of stupid idea to do with sorting out his father's revenge right then and there. It would be just like him.
Fortunately, even Arthur seemed beyond regicide in front of the whole Court, for which Merlin was duly grateful. But he wasn't holding his breath, Arthur's impatience was legendary.
"So, Merlin, have you heard?" Freya the cook always seemed to be happy to pause for a chat while Merlin ate more of her delicious pies. Merlin wondered if she was trying to fatten him up. He liked it though, Freya knew all the gossip, everything that was going on. It certainly made his job easier, at any rate.
"What?" he asked, "Although if it's the one about the under-housemaid and the ostler in the garderobe, than I warn you, I know far more about it than I really need to." He shuddered.
"No," Freya beamed, "The players are coming. That will make a nice change, don't you think?"
"Well, it might keep Arthur entertained," Merlin agreed, tentatively. "This antic disposition he's putting on right now gets wearing, you know."
She giggled. "Typical. The Quality's idea of what's a right good laugh is always strange, isn't it?" Merlin had to agree.
When he left the kitchen, he wasn't thinking about much beyond his full stomach, which made it even more of a shock when Uther's ghost popped his head out of the wall, complete with helmet, and beckoned to him.
"You have demonstrated surprising amounts of loyalty to my son," it intoned, "And so I shall show to you, what I could not reveal to Arthur. Meet me in the Crypt." And withdrew its head back into the wall.
Merlin was feeling queasy, no doubt about that. It might be the pies, but Uther had managed to make him feel that way often enough when he was still alive, never mind now, so Merlin doubted it. However, he also didn't even think about refusing. This was Uther, after all.
The Crypt was dark and gloomy, but Merlin didn't have to be frightened of ghosts jumping out at him – because it had already happened. He did worry about what Uther wanted - whether he'd discovered Merlin was a sorcerer, for example, because Merlin didn't believe that even death would have mellowed Uther's stance on such things all that much, even if he had shuffled off this mortal coil.
So he still jumped when Uther wafted out of the wall and stood pointing imperiously.
"There lies the grave of Tristan Pendragon, my own brother, who is even now wearing my crown and stealing my queen."
Merlin looked at the tomb, which was broken and caved in, the marble shattered – in an outwards direction.
"Do you mean… that Tristan is actually dead too?" he asked.
Merlin looked inside the tomb, and noted the remains of burial clothes. "Are you trying to tell me that King Tristan not only poisoned you, and usurped Arthur, but is also walking around as some sort of…zombie?"
Merlin thought about it, weighed up the facts, and considered poor Ygraine.
"Eww," said Merlin, at last.
Uther raised his eyes to heaven. His thoughts probably remained below.
Merlin was thinking furiously as he walked down the corridor. The zombie obviously had some powerful magic on its side to allow the whole Court to be fooled, although Uther had at last deigned to explain that Tristan had died abroad, in Denmark, under a cloud, and his body had been smuggled home. "Because he was mad, and it's no great matter there," Uther had declared loftily, "There the men are as mad as he." Apparently, very few people knew that Tristan was dead, which had probably helped the magic, Merlin supposed. He really needed to consult with Gaius.
"Ah, Merlin, there you are," said Gaius, helpfully. He looked a little hot and bothered in his fancy new Chamberlain's robes. It turned out that ermine itched abominably - who knew? "I need your help. The King has demanded that I discover the cause of Arthur's madness, and if I don't, then I fear for the consequences. Lately, he has lost all his mirth."
"Did he ever have any?" Merlin asked, and flinched as Gaius raised The Eyebrow.
Quickly, he explained what Uther had told him and waited, full of trepidation. Gaius merely sighed. "Well, it certainly explains a few things. Merlin, you do realise that zombies can't be killed with an ordinary knife or sword? They are creatures of magic, and therefore can only be killed by magic."
It occurred to Merlin that he couldn't easily explain that to Arthur, fond as he was of sharpening his daggers and then declaring "Might a man his quietus make with a bare bodkin?" It was even worse when it was a sword, or gods forbid, a halberd. He wasn't the most subtle bloke, was Arthur.
"I'll think of something," he promised, as he cast his mind around.
Just then Morgana, Gaius' step-daughter, came sweeping up. She was looking gorgeous as always, but also tired, Merlin thought, and wondered if she was having nightmares again – for in that sleep of death what dreams might come? Bad ones, apparently.
Arthur and Morgana had almost had a thing once, when she'd been Uther's ward, before Gaius adopted her. Uther had put a stop to it – he'd wanted Arthur to marry someone with money, or power, or preferably both. Funny, really – it was around that time that Gaius had suddenly adopted Morgana. Luckily, they were honestly fond of one another, or Morgana might have been sharpening her knitting needles. It occurred to Merlin that if the poisoning had been discovered when Uther actually died, there might have been a whole chorus of suspects…
"I've got it!" said Merlin, "Why don't you tell Tristan that Arthur is still in love with Morgana? That love hath made him mad. That'll distract him."
"What?" asked Morgana, confused, but Gaius was nodding.
"I'll loose my daughter to him."
"I'll loose you," said Morgana, her eyes glinting dangerously, "If you don't tell me precisely what is going on."
"Ah, welcome Lancelot and gentle Guildenstern," declared King Tristan, and the Court tittered in appreciation while Merlin tried not to be ill. Now he knew where to look, he could see beneath the corpse's illusion. It wasn't pretty.
"Something you have heard of Arthur's transformation? Sort it out will you," continued Tristan, "Or I'll know the reason why."
Lancelot exchanged a look with Guildenstern (whose real name was Will, but thought it wasn't posh enough. He had a real chip on his shoulder about it, and as he was fond of saying to his partner, who's going to do anything but laugh at Lancelot and Will?)
"The players have arrived, and marry, they will entertain him," Lancelot offered quickly, and backed the pair of them out of the room.
"Bloody hell, Merlin," said Lancelot, later, wiping his brow, "You could have warned us. It was like stepping into the lion's den! It was lucky we made it out alive!"
"Just keep Arthur talking," Merlin begged, "While we get Morgana to distract Tristan. Gaius needs the time to research magical swords."
"We trust you," said Guildenstern, "You know that. But I hope you've got something better planned than just stabbing him up. None of us will get within ten feet of Tristan with a naked blade."
"I'll think of something," said Merlin, grimly.
He was saying things like that far too often for his comfort.
"Well, that didn't go as well as I'd hoped," said Merlin thoughtfully, later.
"You think?" spat Morgana, rubbing her wrists and quietly fuming. "To a nunnery indeed. How dare he! After the things he wanted to do when we were growing up…"
Merlin began humming lightly in order not to hear details – he had enough mental images of one sort or another to already scar him for life.
Morgana was continuing, "And the players only distracted him for a short while longer. Since when did Arthur give a damn about amateur dramatics anyway? He's gone funny in the head, Merlin, and that's the truth. It hath made him mad."
He passed her a cup of mead and she tossed it off with a glance of thanks. Merlin already knew Arthur had lost the plot, but didn't really want to point out to Morgana that Daddy issues ran in the family, and were hardly confined to Arthur alone.
"Well, Gaius says he's getting there with the sword research," he offered, "And he's even managed to figure out where a convenient magic sword may be lying - apparently it got chucked in the Weeping Brook years ago. Funny name for a river. And don't ask me why that sort of thing always happens to magical swords, but Gaius assures me that it's normal."
Morgana grinned at him fiercely then, her eyes glittering, and a high spot of colour on each cheek. Merlin wondered if maybe he'd fed her too much mead.
"Well, that can be my job then - I'm an excellent swimmer. While you sort out Arthur, I'll retrieve the sword."
Merlin swallowed and took the cup away from her. He didn't precisely want to go looking for ironmongery in a muddy stream, but he had a bad feeling about this...
"You'll be careful, right? No funny business? No trusting envious slivers of that dodgy willow?"
"Trust me, I'm a mermaid."
That kind of statement was exactly why he was worried, actually.
Things were going suspiciously well, Merlin thought. Despite Arthur's erratic behaviour, Merlin got the feeling that he didn't really want to kill his uncle, which given he couldn't actually be killed, Merlin was rather glad about. Although naturally, it was at this point that Lancelot arrived, out of breath and looking scared. Merlin's heart sank to his boots.
"He's gone to see the Queen, and he's wearing his sword! I don't like the look in his eye, Merlin - Arthur's not been right since the play. The lady did protest too much."
"Of course, she bloody well protested, she doesn't know there's anything wrong!" Merlin ran his fingers through his hair in frustration.
"And Tristan ordered Gaius to spy on them," Lancelot added, just to make Merlin's day complete.
"Go on then," he shooed him out, "Go and find Will, I mean Guildenstern, and find out what's keeping Morgana at the Weeping Brook. I'll sort out Arthur."
Lancelot looked suitably reassured, and Merlin only wished he could give himself a pep-talk anywhere near as good. Despite his assumed confidence, Merlin knew he was only keeping control of the situation by the skin of his teeth, and it had all the hallmarks of turning into a horrible tragedy. Merlin just refused to let it, that's all.
As he hurried along the corridor Merlin contemplated the space behind the arras. It was about the only place big enough for Gaius to spy from without his lumbago plaguing his back, so Merlin assumed that was where he was. He hoped there'd be room for both of them. Cosy.
As he began squeezing into place, Merlin could hear Arthur shouting - something he had always been rather good at.
"You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife," shouted Arthur, "And - would it were not so! - you are my mother."
Merlin winced. Ooh, that was a bit harsh. He found Gaius and they shuffled around trying to find space behind the heavy velvet folds of the arras - who dusted behind here anyway? And Arthur claimed that Merlin was a rubbish servant.
"A rat," screamed Arthur, "Dead for a ducat, dead!"
There was the harsh metallic sound of a sword being drawn and then Arthur was slashing and stabbing at the space behind the curtain.
"Oi!" shouted Merlin, because however upset Arthur was, this was a bit much. Then he gasped once, lifted his hand, and stopped time. Not too late - just. The sword was just grazing the embroidery of Gaius' robe, and starting to scratch the skin. There was a tiny trickle of blood. Merlin pushed the blade aside and then let time pass on in the usual way, just managing to stay upright while clutching the wall and heaving for breath, because he'd had to hold the whole weight of history for several instants longer than his usual split second.
Gaius looked down and saw the blood. "I am slain…" he murmured, his cheeks paling.
Then his eyes rolled up in his head, and he fainted.
"Oh, that's just brilliant, " said Merlin, incredulously.
Seriously, was there anything left that could go wrong?
There was the distant shouting of 'Guinevere for Queen, Guinevere for Queen!'
"Where is he?" demanded Gwen, her eyes flashing, her bosom heaving. Merlin looked away, a blush heating his cheek. "I've ridden non-stop from Wittenberg, once I heard. How dare he, the arrogant prat! He's murdered Gaius, and sent Morgana mad! I'll have satisfaction, or his head on a pike, just see if I don't! Or, well, not actually on a pike. Not a pike. Any sharp pointy object would do..."
Merlin handed Gwen a nice cup of tea, just the way she liked it. He'd given up on feeding high-strung women mead. "It's not that bad, Gwen, I promise you. Arthur hasn't murdered Gaius, and Morgana's bad dreams have been getting worse, that's all. You know how she suffers…"
"Oh, well, if that's all," said Gwen mildly, and added milk and sugar. "I wish you'd send me proper news, Merlin, instead of letting me come charging over here on a rumour. I'm on a scholarship, you know - I can't rest on my laurels. And it's the W.F.C.C. next week, I've been practicing for it."
"The Wittenberg Fencing Challenge Cup."
"Of course, it is," said Merlin, mildly regretting asking. Ever since Gwen had given up on Arthur (who she'd had a bit of thing with as well, it was a miracle she and Morgana were still talking, really) and thrown herself into her studies, she'd been all 'Wittenberg this, and Wittenberg that'. Then he had an idea. "I don't suppose you feel like helping Arthur regain his throne from his usurping zombie uncle, do you?"
The door slammed open and Merlin winced. That could have been better timed, but at least it wasn't Tristan posed dramatically in the doorway. Instead, Ygraine, all pale and ethereal - and how did she manage to stay looking so young, anyway? - threw one delicate hand over her eyes and declaimed, "Your friend is drown'd, Guinevere!"
Gwen started up, her hand going to her sword. Merlin had a panicked second, and allowed himself one swooping surge of regret and remorse, before pulling himself together - if only he'd been honest with Morgana. If only he hadn't sent her to do his dirty work...
Then he rushed forward and helped a fainting Ygraine to a chair. He dumped three more spoons of sugar into Gwen's tea and hurriedly pushed it into Ygraine's hands.
"Sweets to the sweet," said Merlin, and awkwardly patted her on the shoulder.
"Morgana's not drowned, Merlin," said Gaius, laying a comforting hand on Merlin's arm, "Ygraine saw her diving for the sword in the Weeping Brook and jumped to conclusions - you know how impressionable she is."
Merlin let loose a breath he hadn't even realised he was holding. "Oh, thank goodness. I better let Gwen know straight away. She was distraught and we need her help. I've thought of a way to get the sword near enough to Tristan for Arthur to dispatch him. We can have a demonstration of prowess, of swordsmanship - basically Arthur and Gwen can wave their weapons around, until Arthur gets fired up enough to do the deed."
"Really? Do you think Tristan will fall for such a simple trick?" asked Gaius, absently, "By the way, the sword is called Excalibur apparently - it has a fascinating history…"
Merlin stared at him. "This is hardly the time! We're trying to save Camelot here!"
Gaius looked mildly ashamed, "Yes, of course, no time for wool-gathering. Don't worry about me, Merlin, I know a hawk from a handsaw."
"Really? What does it mean then?"
The tips of Gaius' ears went pink, which was interesting. "Well, never mind that - Arthur's been calling for you, so you'd better find him. He's in the graveyard."
Merlin sighed. "Of course, he is - he's never anywhere nice or pleasant, is he? 'Merlin, meet me in the Rising Sun and have a pint while you're waiting, would you?', 'Merlin, find me in Mrs Miggin's pie shop, and have one on me...' These are not the kinds of places I am ever asked to meet Arthur. Oh no - I get graveyards."
He could have sworn there was a twinkle in Gaius' eye, as Merlin stomped off.
It turned out to be the worst kind of graveyard too, once Merlin had tracked Arthur down. It was a fascinating one. Arthur was peering interestedly into a half dug grave and watching the sexton work. Well, that was par for the course anyway, Arthur seemed to like to watch servants work.
"What ho! Merlin!" shouted Arthur, cheerily, as he caught sight of him.
"Here, sweet lord, at your service," said Merlin, rolling his eyes.
He got an odd look for his trouble, apparently sarcasm hadn't yet made it up to the rarefied heights that nobles saw fit to inhabit.
"Look at this," said Arthur, all enthusiasm, "This was Gorlois' skull, e'en he. Alas, poor Gorlois, I knew him, Merlin."
"I should bloody well hope so, you've lived here all your life. Are you sure it's sanitary holding up a skull like that?"
Arthur smiled, with a touch more melancholy than Merlin cared to see on Arthur's usually arrogantly cheerful face. "Everything that lives, must die: passing into eternity. That includes us, you know."
Merlin made a face, sort of scrunched it up. Not if he could help it, and not today. He bumped Arthur's shoulder with his own as they stood on the brink of the grave, and Arthur sort of bumped it back. Then he threw his arm around Merlin and steered him away.
"I've been trying to work out a way to put this, Merlin, but I'm just going to have to come out and say it. I have something... I must do. And it isn't an easy thing, or a thing to do on a whim, and so I've been cogitating, possibly for longer than I should have done, and... Well. I just wanted to say, that you're the..."
"Best servant you've ever had?" said Merlin, desperate to lighten the mood.
Arthur smiled again. "I wouldn't quite go that far. But I'll definitely miss... There's just something about you, Merlin."
Merlin felt the heavy weight of Arthur's arm around his shoulder, and his breath upon his cheek. He might have had a lump in his throat, although only a small one, mind. He wanted to turn and throw himself into Arthur's arms, like Morgana had, like Gwen had, at different times, but he couldn't. They had a different kind of relationship, he and Arthur, and Merlin didn't want to spoil it.
"Come on," he said, "I've been sent to bring you to the lists - there's a practice bout, and a challenge. Gwen's learnt the Danish Pastry technique, or something. You have to test her mettle - and King Tristan is to watch the match."
Merlin felt Arthur become alert and tense beside him, and he swallowed from a suddenly dry throat.
"If it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all," said Arthur, his countenance still serene.
"Look," said Gwen, "I don't want to hurt you, Arthur."
"It's all right," he said, smiling and showing teeth, "I've been in constant practice since you went away. The odds are with me."
"Oh, well, in that case…" She blinked her eyes prettily and then lunged at his groin with her steel. Merlin winced but Arthur managed to wheel away with only cut laces for his trouble. It meant the fight was on though. There was the clash of metal and the crowd went wild.
Merlin decided there was no way he was going to ever court a woman, it was far too dangerous when things inevitably went wrong.
"A hit!" cried Valiant, "A most palpable hit!"
"I drink to Arthur's better breath," said King Tristan, insincerely, "This pearl is thine." He dropped it in a goblet and swirled it around. The wine began to gently steam. "Give him the cup."
Arthur eyed it askance and said, "I'll drink after this bout - after it stops smoking. Maybe."
Merlin agreed. It didn't look entirely healthy, but then, Arthur did enjoy mulled wine and that steamed too, so what did Merlin know?
The combatants took their places and began another bout.
"Swap the swords!" Merlin hissed, as Gwen came dancing past. If she didn't manage that then all their work would come to nothing, because Arthur would stab Tristan, and nothing would happen, other than Arthur's head leaving his shoulders a short period of time later. Gwen swept her hair out of her eyes and quickly nodded. She attacked with renewed fury, eventually managing to disarm Arthur, and swapping the weapons under the guise of picking his up.
Morgana sidled up to Merlin and whispered, "Isn't she magnificent? And Arthur's ok, I suppose."
Merlin raised an eyebrow (he'd been practicing with Gaius) but he didn't think Morgana had noticed. Her eyes were glittering and black once more, with a predatory gleam. Merlin wondered if she'd already been on the mead, which seemed to be about the only thing that curbed her nightmares, but had other, less good, side-effects.
"Morgana carouses to thy fortune, Guenivere!" she called out, and strode forward to toss off the special pearly wine, even as Tristan rose to his feet and cried, "Morgana do not drink!"
It was too late. Guenivere started forward with a cry, and accidentally caught Arthur's hand with her sword. He swore a little and lifted a bleeding digit to his mouth.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Gwen was mortified, but that made no difference to Arthur.
Bugger, thought Merlin, he's angry now.
The fighting resumed but in more deadly earnest. Gwen got a crease between her brows as she held Arthur off, and Morgana clapped her hands in drunken glee. Until she hissed, in something more like pain, and sank to her knees.
"The drink, the drink! Oh, I am poisoned!" Morgana gasped, and fell sideways onto the ground.
Arthur stopped, heaving for breath, and stared at the scene. "It's too late," said Tristan, almost sadly, "I would not have had Morgana suffer a poison temper'd for thyself, Arthur, but I suppose the poison on the blade itself will have to do. There's not half an hour of life left in you - and here was I thinking you'd kill Gwen with a blade unbated and envenom'd, and I could have had you executed. Life's funny that way, isn't it?"
Arthur growled, there was no other word for it, and charged. Tristan watched him come impassively, not even trying to avoid the blow. Merlin realised he'd crossed everything that could be crossed, and was bouncing up and down, in an agony of uncertainty. What if Gaius' research was flawed? What if this wasn't Excalibur? What if it didn't work?
"Die, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Briton!"
With a blow that could have felled an ox, never mind a zombie, Arthur thrust his blade deep into Tristan's chest. Merlin didn't know if zombie's could feel surprise but Tristan certainly looked taken aback as he sort of exploded and imploded all at the same time. Arthur looked even more surprised, but Merlin couldn't blame him for that.
Then Arthur staggered back, dropping the sword with a clatter, before falling slowly to his knees. Horror struck Merlin's limbs to water, as the implications of the last few seconds finally began to hit home. Merlin wondered if he'd used a touch of magic without even realising it, in order to arrive at Arthur's side in time to catch him and lower him to the ground.
"I am dead, Merlin," said Arthur, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
His sweaty hair was soft against Merlin's palm, his chain-mail cold and unforgiving, digging into his body. Always there was a barrier between them. Merlin looked up, panicked, to see Gaius slowly shaking his head over Morgana, seeming distraught. Merlin looked down again, to see that Arthur had taken one of his leather gloves off, and was reaching up, his hand beginning to shake. Wonderingly, he traced Merlin's lips with his finger, his touch so delicate, so intimate. Merlin shut his eyes, it was unbearable to see what might have been, what they might have wrought, all shining from Arthur's cloudy gaze.
He put out his hand, the one not wrapped round the bones of Arthur's skull, and found the poisoned goblet. How appropriate, almost ironic, that he might prove himself to Arthur like this just one more time.
"I am more an antique Roman than a Briton - here's yet some liquor left."
He went to drink it, the bitter dregs, but the cup was dashed from his hand.
"Oh no, you don't," whispered Arthur, smiling a little. He wagged his finger. "The rest is silence."
Hot tears were sliding down Merlin's nose and plopping flatly onto Arthur's chain-mail. It'd get rusty, Merlin thought, numbly, he couldn't let…
"Now cracks a noble heart," Merlin whispered, "Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy... Oh, bugger this! I won't let you die, Arthur, I can't!"
He threw caution, and possibly his life, to the winds, and cast a spell. The call went out, deep and booming, a double echo in time with his heartbeat. Kilgharrah would hear it and understand. He would bring Morgause with him, to heal Morgana.
And then Merlin bent his head over Arthur's and murmured words of power into his ear, sibilant and beautiful, his hand splayed like a pale star upon his chest. Until he lived.
Until everybody lived.
"A dragon, Merlin? Really?"
"Umm - yes?"
Merlin blinked up from his position on Arthur's bedroom floor, a pile of dirty armour at his feet. The rag in his hand was shaking though, he noticed, distantly.
"And magic, Merlin? How long have you had magic?"
"All... All my life?"
Arthur had just woken and was sat up in bed, his hair askew, actually in a night shirt for once. But he looked better. There was colour in his cheeks.
"My father is not going to be happy about this, Merlin."
"Well - no. I don't suppose he would be."
Merlin's heart was thumping in his chest. He could feel it. There was a tingling sensation in his fingers. He clenched his hands around his cleaning rags and tried to keep his magic inside, not fizzing over his skin, protecting him, like it wanted to do.
"But as my father is dead, and has had his revenge, I am hopeful that he will not be haunting Camelot's battlements any more."
Arthur was looking at him steadily. Merlin wanted to squirm under it.
"Come here, Merlin."
Merlin thought about disobeying. He really did. But it seemed like this was the moment that mattered, not the terrible seconds when he burned out the poison from Arthur's veins. No - this was it, the instant that would make or break them. He couldn't run away.
His steps were slow but steady as he made his way over to the bed. He even remembered to put down the rag first, to wipe his hands quickly before he put it away. His palms were still sweaty.
Arthur was glaring from under his brows, and Merlin bumped into the edge of the bed because he couldn't look away. Then Arthur reached out to grip Merlin's shoulder, and Merlin couldn't help it, he shut his eyes. He even held his breath.
But he didn't back away, even when Arthur pulled him half on the bed, and wrapped his arms around Merlin, which was enough to frighten the hardiest soul. Arthur didn't do hugs - everyone knew that.
"I am not my father," Arthur whispered into Merlin's ear, and then pressed his lips, soft and dry, to his temple, the promise of things to come.
Hamlet – Arthur
Horatio – Merlin
Gertrude – Ygraine
Claudius – Tristan
Ghost – Uthur
Ophelia – Morgana
Laertes – Gwen
Polonius – Gaius
Rosencrantz – Lancelot
Guildenstern – Will