Deep In The Diamond of The Day
If you leave, leave as though fire burns under your feet,
If you must speak, speak every word as though it were unique,
If you must die, sweetheart,
Die knowing you life was my life's best part.
~"You", Keaton Henson
Arthur has seen many battle wounds in his day. Obviously some more severe than others. He's had brothers in arms fall around him, had them die in his arms. He's lost many people in his life, many important people. Maybe that's why, as he carries Merlin's limp body from the battlefield, he doesn't feel as panicked as he logically should. He, instead, feels...blank. Detached.
His mind is telling him that Merlin is dying, that the wound from Mordred's blade -a strike that was intended for Arthur, not his overly loyal fool of a manservant- very well may have pierced his heart. That the warm feeling running down his arms is Merlin's blood. But even so, there's only one thing he can truly focus on in the flurry of numbness surging through brain. Get to safety.
So he does.
The king escapes to the nearby forest just as the sun is beginning to rise. The grayness of night is being washed out of the sky, leaving the horizon a crimson shade of red that matches the color soaking through Merlin's tunic almost perfectly.
After a while, the crashing of swords and shouting of warriors fades into the background and then disappears altogether. The sounds of war are replaced by the soft crunching of grass and twigs under his heavy boots, the trickle of a nearby creek, and the distant hoots of an owl. And Merlin's soft, pained moans.
Despite his obvious suffering, the younger man has a tight smirk on his lips as he struggles to hang onto his consciousness. If his eyes weren't scrunched in misery and there wasn't an agonized pinch between his eyebrows, he would almost look pleased. Triumphant. As if he has accomplished something great this day.
Maybe he has. Arthur muses dryly as he sets Merlin down against the trunk of a fallen tree, satisfied that the distance between them and the battle is enough to ensure their safety, at least for now. He saved my life. Although it's little consolation. Now that they're away from the fighting and the screaming and smoke and death, now that they're alone, Arthur's mind begins to catch up to him.
This situation does feel awfully familiar. Like they're just out on a patrol or a hunt, not a handful of miles from a losing battle. And Merlin -stupid, idiotic, clotpole Merlin- has been injured. Again. The steadily paling boy is leaning heavily of the fallen tree, head bowed against his chest, eyes tight but not closed, one trembling hand pressed against his stomach, where a startling amount of red has seeped through his blue tunic, staining it nearly black.
Arthur sits back for a moment, staring thoughtlessly at the wound. It's strange how things can simultaneously feel like they're going in slow motion and yet like they're completely and totally out of control, he decides. His mind is reeling and he finds himself wondering if this is what going into shock feels like. Everything just sort of feels...blurred and surreal. If not for the overwhelming smell of blood in his nose and the stiff pain in his arms from having carried Merlin all this time, he would wonder if he was dreaming. But no, he knows this is real.
Scooting forward, Arthur gently removes Merlin's hand from the wound, earning a hiss of pain from his servant. With a quiet apology, he presses his own hands over the oozing gash, trying to stunt the bleeding. His expression grows stony as it begins to seep through his fingers and Merlin starts to squirm under his touch.
"Dammit, Merlin, keep still." Arthur growls. "The more you move around, the worse it's going to get." A moment of silence follows and he looks up, vaugely wondering where his friend's usual cheeky retort is, only to be reminded that this really isn't just a dream or the usual cut or scrape from a hunt. Merlin's eyes are closed but he clearly hasn't lost consciousness yet. His breathing is ragged and his hands are in fists, clawing into the dirt. Arthur grimaces and returns his attention to the wound. "Sorry." He mutters. "Just try not to move so much."
"Arthur..." Merlin grinds out, voice raw with torment. "There's something I need to tell you..."
But the king only scoffs and continues pressing on the wound. "Don't be so dramatic, Merlin, you're not saying goodbye." He feels his friend shaking his head and looks up again, surprised at the alertness in his gaze. Arthur would have thought Merlin would be more out of it by now...
"Shut up, Arthur." He snaps gruffly. "That's not what I was going to say."
Arthur frowns at him. What else would Merlin want to tell him while on the verge of death? Shaking his head, he looks back down at the injury, feeling a little pang of hope when he notices that most of the blood on his fingers is now tacky with age, none of it new. Has the bleeding stopped? "Then tell me." He grumbles as he turns to lifts his chain mail to reveal his tunic, ripping off a strip to use as a bandage.
As Arthur helps Merlin sit forward, he feels a stiffness in the younger man that isn't just the pain. He isn't sure how, but he can tell that whatever it is Merlin wants to tell him must be important. Especially since his chatterbox servant hasn't said it yet. Merlin is now chewing his lip thoughtfully, as if still torn on whether or not he really does want to say it. As Arthur wraps the makeshift bandage around his friend's waist, Merlin takes a deep breath in preparation.
Already, he can feel the strength ebbing out of his limbs. It's gradual but -despite popular belief- Merlin isn't stupid. Mordred's blade was forged in a dragon's fire, it holds powerful magic. Being pierced by such a weapon doesn't bode well, even for a sorcerer as powerful as he is. Besides, he did it. He beat the prophecy. He made it in time to save Arthur from his fate at Mordred's hand, regardless of the fact that the strike meant for the king hit him instead. He fulfilled his destiny. Now, the traitor Mordred is dead by Arthur's blade and Morgana is lacking her most important ally. Camelot will win the battle and Arthur will be able to return home to his kingdom. Peace will reign and Albion will be united.
With his destiny realized and his fate sealed, there's only one more thing he wants out of life, regardless of how short it might be now.
"Arthur," He begins, determined not to chicken out now. "Arthur, I'm--" Merlin winces as he is set back against the tree again, head rocking forward in pain as his eyes squeeze shut. "I'm sorry." He breathes. "I'm sorry it's taken me so long to tell you this..." He pries open his eyes again to find Arthur watching him closely, blue eyes roaming his face as he listens. In the steadily lightening forest, Merlin can only barely make out the king's worried expression, but it's there nonetheless.
"Tell me what?" Arthur asks carefully, suspiciously. One hand is still lingering over his friend's wound, as if trying to shield it from further harm. Surely, though, he must know. As a seasoned warrior, he must know a wound like that -even if it hadn't been inflicted by a magical sword- is certainly a fatal one.
Merlin allows himself a short moment to simply take in Arthur's face now. The concern, the tenderness, the determination... Right now, Arthur looks younger than he has in years. More like the prattish prince Merlin met on his first day in Camelot. Young and inexperienced and even a little frightened.
Merlin closes his eyes. He knows that expression is going to change in a few seconds. Probably to one of betrayal and confusion and maybe hatred. But he doesn't let that change his mind. After all, what's there really to be scared of at this point? Death? He's already got one foot in the grave as it is. He can only hope that, in time, Arthur will come to understand why he kept it from him for so long. And maybe even all the things Merlin has done to protect him. So with a small, shuddering breath, he says the words he's been waiting almost ten years to say. "Arthur...I'm...I'm sorry." He breathes. "It was I who defeated the Saxons...the dragon..." It was all me. "I'm sorry."
He doesn't open his eyes, which are suddenly burning with desperate, near-panicked tears. The wounded sorcerer can't bring himself to see Arthur face, despite being so sure this is the right thing to do. He nearly jumps out of his skin at the feeling of a hand closing firmly around his shoulder and offering a few supportive pats.
"You'd better get some rest, Merlin. You're starting not to make sense." Arthur says, a small, worried smirk on his lips. But he doesn't move, doesn't take his hand away. His eyes are still searching Merlin's and his servant knows that, despite not wanting to believe his words, Arthur has doubts... When Merlin doesn't say anything to take back his confession, Arthur shakes his head, confusion tugging down the corners of his mouth. "The one who defeated them was a sorcerer..." He mutters darkly.
Merlin nods, his breath hitching with a broken sob of pain, guilt, and dread over the flatness of his friend's voice. "It was me..." He chokes out, grimacing when Arthur sits back slightly, eyes turning to stone. "I'm..." He dips his head, voice trembling. "I'm a sorcerer." He whispers. "I have magic. And I use it for you, Arthur, only for you..."
There's a beat of tense silence before Arthur speaks again. But his voice isn't angry, like Merlin thought it would be. He only sounds confused and a little desperate. "This is stupid. What are you...why would you say that?" He demands, and as Merlin opens his mouth to explain, Arthur cuts him off with a shake of his head. "You're not a sorcerer, Merlin, I would know!" He insists, but even so, Merlin only shakes his head.
"Arthur..." He whispers, but the king has turned his back on him. "Arthur, listen to me..." Merlin tries to sit up, but fails as a shock of pain stabs through his stomach. "Look. Just...look." He pleads, grimacing at the hardness of Arthur's expression when he slowly turns back. The king looks at him with nothing but confusion and betrayal, but even so, Merlin offers a shaky smile and nods toward a small pile of twigs and leaves a few feet away. Shifting his aching body, he lifts his hand. "Baerne." He breathes, eyes flashing gold for just a split second.
As Merlin lowers his hand, the pile of twigs begins to smoke and a small fire crackles to life within it. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Arthur go very still but the king says nothing as he slowly rises to his feet. Merlin braces for the worst, prepares for him to draw Excalibur and drive it through his chest... But Arthur doesn't do that. He doesn't yell or scream or accuse him of treachery.
In fact, he doesn't say anything.
In a very un-Arthur-like manner, he simply turns and walks away without a word, disappearing from view within a matter of seconds.
And Merlin watches him go, expression twisted in sorrow and regret. Not for telling Arthur his secret, no he doesn't regret that. He only wishes it hadn't been under these circumstances. He isn't sure what circumstances would have been better, only that these are not the right ones.
Releasing a tense breath, Merlin sinks back against the tree trunk and stares at the spot where Arthur disappeared as his vision starts to fade. He know he probably won't make it through the night but for some reason he doesn't really mind. His entire body feels numb, as well as his brain. He's too tired to be frightened and so he allows himself to sink into darkness, his last thought being of Arthur's disappointed scowl as he stood and turned away, leaving him here to die instead of killing him himself.
Before Merlin gets the chance to contemplate what the significance of that could mean, he slips away into a deep, black sleep. Quite possibly the last he'll ever fall into.
In truth, Arthur doesn't go very far. Just far enough to put some distance between him and Merlin. ...him and the sorcerer. The liar. The traitor. His friend. The man who put himself between him and a vengeful knight's blade. The man who has lied to him every waking moment for nearly ten years but, in all honesty, had every reason to. Arthur doesn't know if he would have killed Merlin had he found out under different circumstances. He simply doesn't know. Magic is outlawed. It's evil. Why would Merlin, of all people, practice it? Merlin, who is so good natured and humorful. Merlin, who has stood by his side from the day they met and helped guide him in the right direction. Merlin, who has been the truest friend anyone could ever ask for.
Could Merlin really be evil?
Somehow, he really doubts it. But then, magic would explain so much. How so many supposedly unkillable monsters fell to his sword, how so many mortal injuries were suddenly healed, how trees fell right when they needed to and rocks caved in just in time to save their lives... At the time, Arthur hadn't questioned it. It hadn't felt right to tempt fate by questioning how they were all still alive.
But now, he's questioning it. Just how many of his heroic deeds were even his? How many times has Merlin used magic to tip the scales back into his favor? Just how long has Merlin even had magic?! For a year? Two? Ten?!
Arthur paces the small clearing only five feet from where he left Merlin. He suddenly feels angry. Angrier than he's ever felt in his entire life. Anger at Merlin, anger at himself, at magic, at all the lies and deceit... How dare Merlin be so stupid as to have magic in Camelot!? Is he a moron?! What if he had found out by accident?! What if he had witnessed his servant using the forbidden practices back before they were friends?! He would have chopped his head off! He would have--
He would have executed Merlin. Back then, he would have. Even now, he isn't sure the traitor should live... But then again, he won't with an injury like that. He simply won't. And yet, knowing what he would have done...knowing what will absolutely happen within a matter of days...still sends a pang of sorrow through him.
Merlin is going to die. Merlin is dying...because he put himself in front of Mordred's blade to save Arthur's life. He didn't use magic to save himself, he didn't throw Mordred with his mind, like Arthur has seen so many sorcerers do. No, he allowed himself to be stabbed through the stomach. He allowed himself to sustain mortal injuries to save Arthur.
Slowly, the king turns back toward the spot where Merlin is laying. He can't see him from here but he doesn't need to. The image of his friend, pale and trembling and bleeding will forever be burned into his mind. He sees Merlin's fearful, desperate eyes every time he blinks. But Merlin has never been afraid of death. He's put himself in the line of fire more times than Arthur can count, just so he could be beside Arthur, supporting and apparently protecting him.
The fear in Merlin's eyes wasn't because he was afraid to die, it was because he was afraid of Arthur. Of what he would do when he finally discovered his secret. Of what he would think. What he is thinking.
Merlin knew Arthur would be angry, knew he would probably kill him or leave him to die. That's why he didn't use magic to protect himself from Mordred's blade, because he was afraid Arthur would hate him or fear him. So instead of risking their friendship, he allowed himself to be wounded. As it would appear, Merlin wound rather die than have Arthur lose faith in him.
So why? Why tell him now?
Why reveal his magic when he was going to die a hero?! Why uncover all the lies and treachery and deceit just in time to be die alone and hated!?
The sun has risen by the time Arthur returns to where he left Merlin. The king's expression is hard as stone, even his eyes betray no emotion as he steps into the small clearing to find the sorcerer laying exactly where he left him, one hand limply covering his bandaged wound, his eyes closed.
He's unconscious, Arthur decides. But even so, he's cautious as he approaches him, gently nudging Merlin's hip a few times, just to make sure he really is out before kneeling down beside him to check his pulse. It's weak but still there. He feels both relief and disappointment knowing he's still alive but then a wave of reluctant guilt over the latter emotion. Back in the other clearing, after hours of pacing and thinking, he's come to the conclusion that Merlin is a traitor. A liar, a deceiver. But he did save Arthur's life. And by the knight's code, that means Arthur owes him. So he can't abandon him here, alone in the forest. At the very least, he'll take him back to Ealdor, to his mother so he can receive a proper burial.
With a gentleness that is not all caution, he folds Merlin's arms over his stomach and slips an arm under his neck and knees, preparing to lift him up. But the distant snap of a twig breaking stops him. Arthur jumps to his feet, sliding Excalibur from its sheathe.
"Who's there?" He demands. And the young king almost falls over at the sight of the familiar, grey-haired physician as he trudges into view. "Gaius?!"
Ten minutes later, the clearing smells of herbs and smoke from Gaius's medicines but Arthur isn't surprised at all when the physician leans back from Merlin's motionless body, only to silently shake his head.
The king tries not to notice the sorrow on the old man's face. Merlin is like Gaius's son, this must be incredibly hard for him. "So there's truly nothing that can be done for him." It's not a question. Arthur sighs lightly and turns away, still reluctant to feel sadness over the fate of a traitor. No. He won't grieve Merlin's death. He won't.
When Gaius speaks, his voice is gravelly and raw with emotion. Not at all the professional Arthur has become accustomed to. Right now, this isn't the court physician, this is Merlin's mentor. His friend. "There is a shard of Mordred's blade embedded in his chest." He explains sadly, a wrinkled hand moving to brush Merlin's dark bangs from his eyes. "I'm afraid he hasn't got much time."
Arthur nods, lips pursing thoughtfully but he doesn't say anymore.
"I mean no offense, Sire, but you don't seem very...upset by any of this." Gaius mumbles suspiciously, maybe even a little irritated. After all, Arthur is Merlin's closest friend. Why isn't he mourning?
"I can't grieve the loss of a man who never existed, Gaius." Arthur explains coldly. And the old man's eyebrows arc up in shock. Has Arthur lost his mind? Could the grief have gotten to him?
"Sire...what are you...talking about?" He asks carefully.
Arthur squares his jaw, still refusing to turn and look at Merlin. He knows if he sees him now, he'll only see the body of his friend and he doesn't want that. He wants to hold onto the knowledge that that man, the Merlin he knew, never really existed. It was all lies. Lies meant to protect a sorcerer. "I know, Gaius." He replies. "He told me everything."
The silence that follows is heavy and full of uncertainty and finally, Arthur turns back. He doesn't allow himself to look at the body of the traitor but instead focuses on Gaius.
"He's a sorcerer." Arthur finally clarifies, jabbing an accusing finger in Merlin's direction. The look on Gaius's face confirms what Arthur had already assumed. He lowers his hand and squares his jaw. "You knew." With a humorless snort, he shakes his head and turns away again. "Of course you knew."
"Can the shard not be removed using magic?" Arthur interrupts, cutting off the excuses he's so tired of hearing.
Gaius hesitates for a moment before sighing heavily. "I'm afraid not, Sire. Mordred's blade was forged in a dragon's breath, it is ingrained with powerful magic. Too powerful even for Merlin."
Arthur nods. "Then there is no way to save him? He will die?"
The physician frowns. He isn't sure he likes the coldness in Arthur's voice, the lack of care. He sounds like he's talking about the death of some trivial farm animal, not his loyal friend! But before Gaius gets the chance to get too angry, a thought occurs to him. "There might be...one way." He admits. "But it is a dangerous."
Arthur pauses, frowning. "What way is that?"
"Only the Sidhe possess magic powerful enough to save him."
"The Sidhe?" Arthur echoes, turning to face him. There's a newfound interest sparked in his eyes, which is curious. Giaus finds himself wondering that if Arthur truly has accepted Merlin as nothing more than a traitor, why would be interested in saving him? Why not just let him die?
Gaius nods and then looks down at Merlin. The poor boy is trembling, the fresh bandages around his waist already soaked through with blood. "In the midst of the Lake of Avalon, there is an isle. That is the source of their power. If is he to be saved, he must be taken there." The physician steals a glance at the king, who is staring at the ground between his feet, a look of surprise on his face. Arthur truly believed there was no way to save him. He was ready to dismiss Merlin's death as the proper punishment for all those years of deceit...
But if he can be saved...if this is his only chance...can he really turn this opportunity down? Merlin may be a traitor but he did save his life. Arthur owes him, probably many times over...
"So...if I take Merlin to this isle, he will be saved?" Arthur rehashes, earning a nod from Gaius. After hesitating for a moment, he motions to Merlin and asks, "How long has he got?" This time, the king is unable to look away before seeing the pain that flashes over the old man's face.
"No more than two days, Sire." Gaius replies softly, returning his gaze to Merlin's pale face. And this time, Arthur follows his example, finally allowing himself to look at the sorcerer. At Merlin. He immediately regrets it as a wave of guilt crashes over him and he has to consciously remind himself that Merlin doesn't deserve his remorse. The clumsy, stupid, defenseless Merlin who was his friend never existed. But even as he's telling himself this, he feels his resolve crumbling again.
"Alright." Arthur whispers, tearing his eyes away again. "I'll take him to the isle in the midst of the Lake of Avalon if that's what it takes to repay my debt to him."
"And afterwards, Sire?" Gaius asks him.
Arthur doesn't even hesitate. He already knows the answer. "I will spare his life in memory of the man I thought he was. But he will be banished from Camleot, his return there will mean his immediately execution." Seeing the sadness on the old man's face and hearing the iciness in his own voice, Arthur sighs. "I'm sorry, Gaius." He says, gentler this time. "I know you care a great deal for him but magic is outlawed in Camelot and I do not intend on changing that. He may return to Ealdor and live there in peace so long as he does not cross the boarder and, of course, I will grant you passage to see him as often as you'd like."
Gaius bows his head in defeat, the look on his face like he wants to say something but is holding his tongue for fear of what may come out if he doesn't. But Arthur knows that once Merlin is exiled, Gaius will never be the same. This might be the last chance he ever gets to hear the well-mannered physician speak his mind. And so he allows it.
"Speak, Gaius. I can tell you want to say something."
But the old man simply shakes his head and reaches out, grasping one of Merlin's hands in his own. "I only wish you knew how much this boy has sacrificed for your sake. Maybe then you wouldn't treat him like a common criminal."
Not long after, Arthur and Gaius are helping Merlin onto one of the two horses tied to a tree near the clearing. Mostly, he manages to bite his tongue and not complain about the immense pain in his abdomen but a few times groans of agony do manage to escape and each time, Arthur's face goes hard as rock and Gaius apologizes softly.
Once he's mounted, Gaius tells him to lean forward and rest and the young sorcerer does so wholeheartedly. He leans his forehead against the back of the horse's neck and closes his eyes, waiting for Arthur to saddle up. He only woke up about five minutes ago and is still incredibly tired but Gaius managed to explain the plan to him. Although Merlin isn't sure how he feels about this.
When he passed out, he was sure Arthur hated him. Now, he's going to lead him through enemy-infested lands, through dangerous terrain to one of the most powerful sources of the Old Religion...to save him?
"Merlin," The old physician mutters, reaching up to squeeze the boy's hand. His expression is affectionate but deeply saddened. "I'll have your favorite meal waiting for you." He says gently, offering a half-hearted smile and Merlin smirks weakly and nods his head.
"See you soon, Gaius." He replies and then Arthur rides up beside him on his horse, expression stern. The king considers the two of them for a moment before turning his horse in the right direction.
"If we're going to reach the Lake of Avalon in two days time, we haven't got any time to waste." Arthur says matter-of-factly. "Let's go."
Merlin doesn't say anything in response but manages one more departing smile in Gaius's direction before tugging on the horse's reigns and riding after his companion. A few seconds later, he glances over his shoulder at Gaius, who waves and then the horses break through the trees and Merlin can no longer see his mentor. So he turns forward again, gasping in pain at the movement and leans forward to rest against the animal's beck again.
Lifting his tired, blue eyes, he watches Arthur ride on without looking back. Merlin sighs and closes them again. He remembers a time when he was wounded during a fight and Arthur refused to leave him behind. He remembers being too weak to stand and Arthur carrying him, even after he practically begged him to leave him behind. Now, he wonders that if he died right here and now, if Arthur would even care...
He's risking his life to save you. His mind tries to tell him. Of course he cares. But somehow, he still isn't convinced.
After a while, the silence stops being awkward. Merlin is still awake but his mind is a bit fuzzy and he finds it hard to focus on one thing for too long, so he stops trying. Arthur, on the other hand, has never looked more alert in his life. His eyes are piercing and fixated on the hills ahead, jaw set firmly, shoulders squared. Not once has he looked back to see if Merlin is still awake or still breathing or even following him at all...
In fact, he hasn't said a single word since they departed and it's only when he catches a glimpse of a pair of far-off horses that he swears under his breath and motions for them to stop. "Saxons." He grumbles, swinging a leg around the saddle and dropping to the ground.
"What are you going to do?" Merlin asks quietly.
Arthur pauses for a moment, contemplating whether or not to dignify his question with a response. "Just stay quiet and let me handle this." He breathes, tugging a blanket from the back of his horse and draping it around his shoulders, hoping to conceal his armor. Arthur takes a hold of the reigns of both horses, ducking his head as he leads them side by side.
Merlin frowns but obediently doesn't say a word. His entire body goes rigid as the Saxons ride over the hill, their eyes instantly locking on them. The enemy soldiers glance at each other before riding toward them and Merlin grimaces.
"Need some help?" One of them asks and Arthur shakes his head.
"No, we're just passing through." He replies with a forced smile. But clearly, that isn't enough for the Saxons. The who spoke, clearly the leader of the two, hops down from his mount and moves closer, inspecting Merlin for a moment before returning his attention to Arthur.
"What happened to your friend? He looks to be in a bad way..."
Arthur feigns a glance over his shoulder and shrugs. "His own clumsiness. Tripped and hurt his ankle."
"Is that so?" The second man jumps down and places a hand on his sword as the first draws nearer to Arthur, dark eyes locking with the king's as he reaches out...and pulls the blanket aside.
Arthur is reaching for Excalibur before the men know what's happened but even then, it's a two on one fight. The king squares off with them, preparing to fight and then one of the soldiers surges forward, shouting furiously as he strikes out with his sword. But before the blade can even get anywhere near Arthur--
"AGHHH!" The Saxons are sent flying backwards by an invisible force and Arthur goes rigid for a second. When he turns, he finds Merlin's eyes fading from gold to blue and one of his hands outstretched.
Once the Saxons are down and no longer a threat, Merlin allows his magic to fizzle down and he lowers his hand, refusing to look at the expression on Arthur's face. He doesn't want to see the fear or disgust or hatred that is surely residing there. Instead, he wraps a hand over his wound and drops his gaze to the back of the horses neck.
"You've lied to me all this time." Arthur doesn't sound surprised and Merlin doesn't expect him to be. The sorcerer doesn't reply and Arthur doesn't say anymore. He simply climbs back onto his horse and starts riding again.
There's a lump in Merlin's throat that nearly chokes him and his eyes burn with a threat of tears. It shouldn't be this way. It was never meant to be this way.
Night has fallen again over the land and once more, the king and the wounded sorcerer have sought shelter under the cover of trees. Now, Merlin is laying on his back, his head inclined by a rolled up blanket. He watches with mild interest as Arthur easily starts a fire in a pit of twigs and leaves and a small part of him has the urge to make a snappy remark about Arthur shockingly knowing how to take of himself without Merlin's help but he holds his tongue. He remains silent as Arthur tugs his boots off and sets them by the fire, leaning his back against a tree on the opposite side of their small camp.
The king stares expressionless into the crackling flames, looking contemplative for a moment. "I thought I knew you." He says quietly without looking up.
Merlin frowns and closes his eyes, tired to the bone. "I'm still the same person." He grumbles.
"I trusted you." Arthur continues in a factual tone and Merlin sighs.
"I'm sorry too."
The next morning comes quicker than either of them would have liked. Arthur only managed about an hour of sleep the whole night before he's up and putting his boots back on again, stamping out the fire, and telling Merlin to wake up so they can keep moving.
The injured boy complies with a half-conscious moan and squirms of pain. Watching him, Arthur muses that if this were the same Merlin he knew and had been friends with, he would feel guilty for his misery. He would feel pity and want to help him. As Arthur stands there and watches Merlin claw himself back into consciousness, those feelings do manage to surface for a split second before he's snuffing them out again, reminding himself that he never knew Merlin. And even if it hadn't all been lies, that parts had been truth, that it doesn't matter anyway. He's made up his mind. After Merlin's life is saved, he will be exiled. Arthur will never see him again.
Why doesn't that sound as appealing as it probably should...?
"Come on, get up. If we want to make it to the Lake of Avalon by tomorrow morning, we need to get going." He doesn't look at Merlin as he says this and instead crosses their small clearing to where he left the horses, untying their reigns from the tree branch and leading them a bit closer so they can mount up faster.
However, as soon as he returns to the camp, Arthur finds himself faltering as a reulctant pang of worry spikes through his heart. Merlin is sitting up now but his head is lulled against his chest and he's wavering dangerously. As he starts to pitch forward, Arthur drops the reigns without a second thought and hurries over, grabbing Merlin's shoulders to steady him.
"Hey," The king growls, gently slapping the boy's cheeks. "Stay with me." He feels Merlin nod and loops an arm around his waist and under his arms, helping him to his feet. Every time they move, Merlin moans in pain and the sound of his pitiful whimpers is almost enough to crack even Arthur's tough exterior. The king is just about to try to say something to maybe comfort him a little when Merlin speaks instead.
"Why are you...doing this...?" He asks in a hoarse, pained voice. "Why are you still...acting like you give a damn what happens to me...?"
Arthur frowns and rebuilds his composure, being a little less than gentle as he guides them to the horses. "Because you saved my life. Sorcerer or not, according to the knight's code, I owe you a debt."
He feels, rather than hears, the weak snort of amusement Merlin gives in response to that answer. "I've saved your sorry hide more times than I can count...have been since the day we met..."
The day they met...
Images of an infinitely younger Merlin fill his mind. A Merlin with a cocky smile and an outstretched hand. Calling him 'friend' and politely telling him to back off. Memories of maces and fighting in the marketplace, inexplicably almost losing to a country boy and utter bewilderment as the market stall seems to rearrange itself just to thwart his attacks.
Somehow, Arthur finds himself smiling slightly. His voice is bubbling with nostalgia when he mutters, "I tried to take your head off with a mace." And Merlin is smiling too, although it's weak.
"And I stopped you...using magic." He admits, stealing a sheepish glance up at Arthur to see his reaction. For a split second, it's like nothing ever happened because Arthur isn't glaring at him or stony faced. Instead, his eyes are comically wide with understanding.
"You cheated!" He exclaims, almost dropping Merlin to the forest floor.
Merlin suppresses his smile because he knows this won't last. "You were going to kill me." He says and, of course, that's when Arthur's amusement fades away. Leaving a blank face again.
"I should have." He grumbles and Merlin winces at his friend's cruel words.
"I'm glad you didn't." He says quietly and Arthur looks away.
It's been several hours now and the sun has reached its highest point in the sky, but even so everything is cast in a heavy shadow under the canopy of trees overhead. Arthur is in the lead even though he's certain Merlin must recognize these woods by now. They're actually not too far from Camelot, after all, and many hunting trips have taken them through this forest. Unlike the previous day, the young king occasionally glances over his shoulder at his frien--the sorcerer.
Merlin's skin is considerably paler than the day before and Arthur can tell he's weak and sick, but even so, he's still clinging stubbornly onto consciousness, refusing to slip back into the darkness when it's very possible these might be his last few hours.
Although it's clear he's struggling. The young man's tired blue eyes flutter in exhaustion and many times his head dips forward for a moment just so it can snap up again and Merlin can shift in the saddle, forcing himself to stay awake.
With an irritated sigh, Arthur motions for his horse to slow down and he falls into step beside his former servant, expression still unreadable as the dark haired man glances over at him questioningly. Arthur opens his mouth to say something, anything to distract Merlin and keep him awake, but closes it again when he realizes he has no idea what to say. Usually, it's Merlin who comes up with the idle prattle, not him. And now, things are tense between the two. Light conversation would only feel forced and awkward. So with a frown, the king says the first thing that comes to his mind. It's been bothering him anyway...
"Why did you never tell me?" He asks, trying to sound casual. When Merlin doesn't immediately answer, he allows himself a quick look to his left, where the warlock rides in silence, his eyes staring thoughtfully at the saddle in front of him.
"I wanted to." Merlin tells him. "But you'd have chopped my head off."
This time, it's Arthur's turn to flinch. It's not that the statement isn't true, it very well might be... It's only the complete confidence with which that Merlin said it. He has no doubt that Arthur would have simply had him executed had he found out. No doubt. None at all. Especially with how he has been acting these past couple of days. Like, if he didn't owe him his life, he would run him through here and now.
Arthur is quiet for a long time after that. He knew Merlin would give him that answer, some variation of the excuse that he was afraid for his life. That he hadn't trusted Arthur enough to share his secret with him. But, even though the king wants to be angry with Merlin, wants to hate him and think him a traitor...all he can muster in this moment is understanding. He doesn't want to, but he understands why Merlin kept his powers a secret from him. And, in all honesty, it was probably...the wise thing to do.
Arthur hates to admit it but...Merlin has become a huge factor in his role as king. He'd never say it out loud but the clumsy, idiotic country boy has always been more to him than a simple servant. He's been an adviser, a beam of support, a friend. But if he'd known Merlin had magic...would that have been different? Would he have held some quiet distrust of him?
Just how different would Camelot be had Merlin opened up and shared his secret with Arthur? Would they both even still be alive?
Before he realizes he's speaking, Arthur has already said it. "I don't know what I would have done." His prideful half wants him to amend his statement, to say he isn't sure whether he would have executed him or banished him...but knows it isn't true. Is there a possibility that, in some other life, in some other time, maybe...maybe he would have accepted Merlin's magic and helped him keep it a secret? Arthur isn't immature enough to dismiss the possibility. In a strange way, the idea of Merlin not being so defenseless and the two of them having such a powerful secret is even a little... It's not enticing. But...yes, that's what it is.
"Well I didn't want to put you in that position." Merlin replies softly and Arthur sets his jaw against all the confusing thoughts going through his mind and turns away, clicking his tongue to tell his horse to ride ahead again.
They'll be at the lake by morning. Once Merlin is healed, then Arthur will decide what to do with him. As it stands now, he is still banished. But...maybe...just maybe...he'll be able to think of another solution. Maybe.
They've been riding all day. From first light to sunset. Even Arthur is tired so it's not surprising to him when, just as he's about to start looking for a place to set up camp, he hears a distinct thump and turns around to find Merlin's horse trotting astray and its rider collapsed on the ground, eyes closed and mouth slightly ajar in unconsciousness.
Frowning, he hops down from his mount and strides over to where Merlin is laying. In the dark, the young man's pale skin almost seems to glow and it's difficult to see the subtle movements of his chest. For a split-second, Arthur's heart begins to thrum because he's certain Merlin isn't breathing...but then, he sighs in relief when he the boy moans quietly and his head lulls to the side as if to say, Still here.
"Merlin," Arthur grumbles, gently nudging the sorcerer's hip with the toe of his boot. "Wake up, we need to cover a bit more ground if we're going to reach the lake by morning."
He gets no reaction.
Rolling his eyes in exasperation, Arthur kneels down and jostles Merlin's shoulder, mindful of the wound on his abdomen. "Come on, idiot, we haven't got time for this."
Only now do Arthur's eyebrows knit together in concern. "Merlin?" He asks, shaking him again. "Can you hear me? Merlin?"
"Ughh..." The injured boy moans in pain again and finally, his eyes flicker open. "Arthur...?" He asks, glancing around in confusion. "What happened?"
The king sits back, removing his hand from Merlin's shoulder and making a real effort to steady the thundering of his heart. He shouldn't be worried like this. "You passed out and fell off your horse." He explains as calmly as possible. As he stands, he claps his hands over his knees, dusting the dirt off of them. "You ready? Because we need to keep moving for a little while longer if we're going to get to the Lake of Avalon by tomorrow." Without his companion's consent, he leans down and grabs Merlin's arm, trying to help him to his feet. But the king's actions are slammed to a halt at the sharp cry of agony Merlin gives in response.
The sorcerer grinds his teeth together in pain and clamps a hand over his stomach, eyes squeezing shut. "No." He chokes out, shaking his head. "We need to...stop for a while..."
"Merlin, come on, don't be such a girl--" Arthur begins to protest, only to stop himself when he notices that, as Merlin lifts his hand to inspect his wound, it comes away red. He's started to bleed again...
Ashen and weak, Merlin shakes his head again. "I'm sorry...I can't..." He breathes, head falling back against the ground again, eyes fluttering shut. "Just for a while..."
Startled by the sight of his frien--the sorcerer's reopened wound, Arthur nods his head. "Alright. We rest for an hour, no longer. There's still a lot of distance we need to cover before we can stop for the night."
Merlin nods his head weakly before dropping off into a shallow, fitful sleep. And for the first time in almost two days, Arthur sinks down beside him, so close his hip brushes his servant's shoulder. The king almost shivers at how stark the boy's face is compared to his black hair, how sunken his cheeks look... At this rate, he might not make it to the Lake of Avalon. Arthur finds himself thinking but automatically shoves that idea away. No, he'll make it. Even if I have to carry him there myself.
As Arthur sits back against a tree to rest his eyes, he finds himself scowling. Since when was he so protective? Merlin is a sorcerer! Cracking open an eye again, he looks down at the young man laying motionless beside him and sighs. But what good is being angry with him if he's just going to die...?
For a while, the young king merely sits there beside Merlin, watching him twist and turn in his sleep, face scrunched in pain and nightmares. He vaguely wonders how many of those bad dreams are about him. About being executed by his friend. The man who's life he saved. And Arthur groans quietly and sits back again, feeling guilty despite his own reassurances that he shouldn't be.
I suppose it wouldn't hurt to lighten up a bit...just until I know he isn't going to keel over at any second.
Merlin doesn't stay asleep long. In fact, only ten minutes later, he's rousing from his erratic slumber, blinking heavily and squinting as if against a bright light even though it's pitch black in the woods and the fire Arthur has managed to scrape together is pitiful at best.
Said king glances over his shoulder, hearing the slight rustle of motion behind him. His smile isn't entirely forced when he says, "Gotten enough beauty rest?"
Merlin only stares at him for a moment, as if unsure if this is just another dream. But if it is, he muses, it's much better than the others. He wouldn't mind a dream where Arthur doesn't hate him... "Barely." He replies carefully, eyeing his master with a skeptical eye. "What're you doing?"
Arthur looks back at the fire, which is no more than a pile of smoldering twigs at this point and snorts. "Merlin, I know you're a rubbish servant but even you must know what building a fire looks like."
Again, the injured sorcerer freezes. What's this? Banter? Suddenly, Merlin isn't sure whether to be relieved or terrified. Relieved because Arthur is finally acting like himself again...and terrified because, if the king has decided to lighten up, he must be closer to death that he thought. Then again, if this is his destiny, and he's meant to die for Arthur, then why not? Closing his heavy eyelids and leaning his head back again, he mumbles cheekily, "I know what it looks like when it's done right." A twinge of giddiness bubbles up inside his chest at the sheer familiarity of this. Of sitting by a campfire with his friend, surrounded by potential danger, and yet negating all of it with stupid, pretend arguments. He hears an irritated sigh from Arthur and opens one, blurry eye to see him sitting back in annoyance.
"This wood is too damp." He grumbles. "It simply won't light."
Merlin nods in understanding but shivers nonetheless. It's a particularly cold night, maybe because of all the blood he's lost, but regardless, he's freezing. "Normally, I would try to help but...I don't think getting up would be a good idea at the moment." He mutters sleepily, not expecting Arthur to say much in response. Maybe a snarky comeback...but certainly not what he does say.
"Come now, Merlin," He says, slowly, obviously testing the waters with something. "We both know you don't have to get up to start a fire..." The king purses his lips in discomfort. He'd only meant to show Merlin that he doesn't have to be frightened anymore...but using magic freely? To do something so simple as to start a fire? He actually isn't sure how he feels about that, on second thought. Still, he glances over his shoulder to see the other man's reaction, which is just about what he thought it would be.
Merlin is laying perfectly still behind him, staring at Arthur as if he's just suggested kicking a puppy or some other cruel, pointless evil. "Arthur...?" He asks quietly, obviously needing clarification.
"I--I just meant...you don't have to, if you're too tired or in too much pain or...whatever. Just..." He trails off for a moment, unsure of where he's going with this. And he's just about to tell Merlin to forget about it when he hears the boy snicker behind him.
"See? I told you you couldn't last a day without me..." The joke sounds flat in his exhausted tone but Arthur finds himself smirking slightly regardless.
"Yeah, yeah, just light the damned fire, Merlin." He grumbles, moving aside. Although he suddenly feels tense at the thought of sorcery being used so nearby...and by Merlin, of all people. Even after two days, he still isn't used to the idea and has to physically hold himself still as his servant lifts a pale hand, outstretching it toward the damp pile of twigs.
Merlin bows his head slightly and his blue eyes flash gold. He utters the same word as before, "Baerne." and suddenly, the sticks are burning with all the force of a perfectly crafted campfire. As he relaxes again and the amber fades from his eyes, there's a strange mix of amusement and discomfort on his face. "Feels strange." He says, probably referring to the use of magic in front of Arthur, who nods in agreement.
"Yeah." He agrees dully, staring at the fire flickering innocently, warmly in front of him. He feels no evil from it, it hasn't burned out of control or even singed any of the gnats fluttering above it. In every way, it's just a fire... Nothing menacing about it. And yet it was lit by magic. Chewing his lip, Arthur finds himself beginning to truly question his beliefs about the forbidden arts for the first time in many years. If magic can do something so innocent and useful as starting a campfire...then what other things can be done with it? Heal the injured? Cure illnesses? Slay monsters? All of these things Merlin has done for him without seeking any kind of recognition or reward. In all sense of the word, Merlin has never been anything but loyal to him. Loyal and brave and noble.
And yet he has magic.
If someone so kind and true-hearted and compassionate, someone like Merlin, can use magic...then...has he been wrong all these years? Could magic truly be nothing more than a tool? Not good nor evil, just something to be manipulated according to the hearts of the wielder?
Sitting back, Arthur leans his forehead in his hand. He doesn't want to admit it. He can't admit that he was wrong all this time, that so many people --thousands of innocent people-- have been put to death because of his family. People like Merlin.
Turning his head, Arthur finds the dark haired boy eyeing him curiously. Merlin's always been very good at reading him, at telling him exactly what he needs to hear --not always what he wants to hear-- but the truth all the same.
"Arthur," He says softly, meeting the king's weary, confused gaze. "Whatever happens at the Lake of Avalon--"
"Shut up, Merlin." He cuts in dryly.
"No. I never listen to you and I'm certainly not about to start now." The young sorcerer retorts, sporting a thin smile on his pale lips. "I just...want you to know that I'm sorry...for not telling you before. About my magic, I mean... I guess I was just...frightened...of how you would react..."
"Merlin--" Arthur begins to protest. He knows this is his friend's way of trying to say goodbye in case something should happen and he doesn't want to hear it. He is going to save Merlin. But his objection trails off when he noticed the oddly...proud look on Merlin's face.
"You're a great king, Arthur. The best Camelot has ever known, as I knew you would be." His proud smile turns soft when he says, "Never change. For anything."
Not that he would ever admit it, but a lump forms in Arthur's throat at Merlin's words. It never ceases to amaze him how someone who behaves like such an idiot can be so wise at the same time. But that isn't what causes Arthur's eyes to sting enough to make him look away and pretend to cough. No, it's the shine of respect and fondness on Merlin's face that's almost too much for him to bear. Respect for a man who was thinking about killing him because of who he is. Over some ridiculous predjudice! It's incredibly humbling to realize he doesn't deserve his respect. Or even his friendship.
"Merlin..." He begins gently. "I'm sorry. You've always been loyal to me and I've treated you like a criminal. You claim I'm this great king but I've still much to learn, especially if I don't have the wisdom to see a true friend when it's right in front of me." At the rather girly look on Merlin's face, Arthur sobers a bit. "So I suppose you can keep your head when we return to Camelot."
Merlin chuckles, wincing in pain, but even that doesn't make his goofy smile fade. "Does this mean I get a day off?" He asks in amusement and Arthur snickers.
"Two." He replies, making Merlin raise his eyebrows.
"It's because I'm such an amazing king."
"Well don't let it get to your head."
After that, the two settle into a comfortable silence, pleased smiles on both their faces. And when Merlin eventually drifts off again, his rest is much more peaceful this time.
The next hour comes and goes in what feels like a blink of an eye. And as much as Arthur hates to disturb the peace of their camp and Merlin's much needed rest, he has no choice. They've wasted too much time as it is and if there's any hope of saving Merlin's life, they need to reach the lake soon. Very soon, if the shallowness of his friend's breaths are any indication...
He reaches over and gently shakes Merlin awake, telling him they need to get moving again and the boy nods obediently, although he remains where he is for the time being, clearly not wanting to waste energy while Arthur stamps out the fire and goes to get the horses.
"WOAH!" Arthur barks, startled at the horses suddenly rear back, whinnying loudly. He fights with them for a moment, struggling to get them back under control, but their fear was too sudden and he doesn't have a grip on the reigns and soon, the animals are sprinting away, disappearing from view in seconds. Arthur swears loudly and rakes a hand through his hair. What are they supposed to do now?! He's just about to ask Merlin if he has a horse-summoning spell when he catches a glimpse of a dark figure out of the corner of his eye. Whirling around, he reluctantly discovers what caused the horses such a fright.
"Morgana." He growls, drawing Excalibur in an instant.
"What a joy it is to see you again, Brother." The witch nearly purrs. Looking down at Merlin, she grins cruelly. "Emrys." While she isn't looking, Arthur attempts a stab at her with his sword, but the blade is thrust from his hands with a flick of his half-sister's wrist. The weapon clatters to the ground a good twenty feet away, useless, and Morgana only continues to smile as if nothing has happened. "Not so tall and mighty now, are you, Emrys?" She quips, gleefully. "Someone once called you my doom. Now I see that they were wrong and my fears were for naught. You may have won the battle, Merlin, but you've lost the war." Turning back to Arthur, she hisses, "You're going to die by my hand, Dear Brother. But don't worry, you won't be alone. I'll stay and watch over you --both of you-- as the wolves feast on your flesh and bathe in your blood!"
As Morgana speaks, Arthur fights to keep a blank face at the sight of his sword steadily rising into the air behind her. He can see it's a struggle for Merlin to use his magic, that it's draining him at a tremendous rate...but there's nothing he can do to stop him. And soon, it's hovering at her chest-level and Merlin's arm is shaking with the effort of keeping it suspended.
"No, Morgana, the time for bloodshed is over." The sorcerer growls, eyes blazing amber. The witch spins around, having sensed his magic now and freezes momentarily at the sight of the blade pointed at her. "I blame myself for what you've become...but this has to...end..." He pants, earning an almost sympathetic smile from Morgana.
"I am a high priestess of the Old Religion. No mortal blade can kill me." She almost laughs. But her glee is short lived. With a single motion of his hand, Excalibur sinks into the witch's chest and she jerks forward in pain, eyes wide, mouth agape.
"This is no mortal blade." Merlin tells her. "Like yours, it was forged in a dragon's breath." He watches with an unreadable expression as Morgana sinks to her knees and then collapses onto her back, green eyes shining with pain. There's a short moment where she struggles for breath...but death takes her after a few seconds and she finally goes still.
The gold drains from Merlin's eyes along with the last of his strengh and his head falls back to the ground, eyelids fluttering dangerously. "Goodbye, Morgana..." He whispers as Arthur hurries to his side, slinging his arm over his shoulder and tugging him to his feet.
With their horses gone, it takes hours to cross what would have only taken minutes and with each step, Arthur can feel Merlin becoming heavier and heavier on his shoulder. The wounded boy's breaths wheeze in his chest and he hasn't opened his eye in a worrying long time. More than that, they're now leaving a thin trail of blood behind, Merlin's wound having not only reopened but gotten worse...
But as the sparkling surface of the lake grows closer, Arthur allows himself to hope that they're not too late. Eager to reach their destination and have his friend healed, the king scoops Merlin into his arms and jogs the final stretch to the lakeside, where he lowers his wounded servant into the grass, using a trembling hand to shake him awake.
"Merlin? Merlin, we're here, wake up! Come on!" He urges, swearing when he gets no response. "Merlin! Come on, snap out of it!" When he still gets no answer, Arthur grinds his teeth together, eyes watering. "Merlin!"
The king goes rigid at the sound of the groan. "That's right, idiot, wake up. We're here, I need you to wake up!"
"Ar...thur..." Merlin moans, not opening his eyes.
"Yeah, it's me. It's Arthur." He assures him, softer than before. "Merlin, I need you to wake up. Come on."
Slowly, his friend shakes his head. "Just...just stop, Arthur..." He whispers tiredly. "Just stop..."
"What do you mean stop?!" Arthur nearly shouts. "We're here! We're at the lake now, dammit, Merlin, tell me what I need to do! We're not too late!"
But even as he denies it, Merlin's arm, which had been covering his wound, falls to his side, no longer enough strength in his body to keep it there. The skin of his hand is red, stained with his blood, which soaks through his tunic so fully Arthur can smell it...
No man is worth your tears... But despite his own advice, Arthur bows his head, squeezing his eyes shut as a tear rolls down his cheek. His breath comes in short, quivering gasps when he next speaks. "Merlin, I want to tell you something." He whispers shakily.
"I don't...really want to...say goodbye..." Merlin replies weakly, his words broken.
"No. Not goodbye. Just..." Arthur sits up again, scrubbing his palm over his eyes as he stares helplessly across the Lake of Avalon. This place was supposed to save him... "Just...everything you've done. I know now." He tells him. "For me, for Camelot. For the kingdom you helped me build..." Arthur can't bring himself to look down and see Merlin's pale, sickly face so he misses the grin that momentarily flickers across it.
"You could've...done it...without me." He says and Arthur smiles despite himself, eyes red and bloodshot.
"Maybe." Finally looking back down, Arthur takes Merlin's wrist, grasping his forearm like he's done so many times. "I want to say something I've never said to you before." A beat of silence. "Thank you."
The smile on Merlin's face, hearing that, echoes so many others from the past. That goofy, lop-sided, pleased smirk that Arthur usually rolls his eyes over. But this one time, he refrains himself.
The king's eyes blur with tears as his friend's smile relaxes and his eyes fall shut. Merlin's cold hand goes limp in his grasp but Arthur doesn't release it. With a heartbroken, gut-wrenching sob, he doubles over, hugging Merlin's body to his chest. He's gone. The king realizes, more broken cries shaking his body.
The guardian of the lake watches the events in front of her with a sorrowful expression on her pale, bluish face. From where she stands on the surface of the water, she can't make out her love's face, only his lifeless body, partially concealed by the king's embrace.
Oh, Merlin. She closes her eyes against the terrible tragedy before her and is about to call out the young warlock's name to guide him to Avalon...but stops when something occurs to her. With a small, contemplative frown, the guardian decides it's worth a shot.
Why else would Merlin be brought here on the verge of death?
It's not yet been a minute since Merlin drew his last breath and yet, to Arthur, it already feels like hours. Clutching his friend's body in his shaking arms, he cries harder than he has since his father passed away. Maybe harder than he ever has. No man is worth your tears. He hears his younger, more inexperienced self saying to his knights. And he wonders how he could ever be so naive. All magic is evil. Yet another thing he was sorely wrong about. Because Merlin had magic. And Merlin was not evil. Arthur refuses to believe it.
If only he had one more chance, one more opportunity to have Merlin back...he would make it up to him, somehow. Someway. If only Merlin hadn't given his life for him. Gods, he didn't deserve it. It should be Arthur laying there, lifeless and cold. Not Merlin!
It's only then that Arthur opens his eyes again, tears streaming down his cheeks. The breath hitches in his throat again at the sight of Merlin's pale, peaceful face. No longer contorted in pain but not smiling either. Empty, void of emotion. And so very, very un-Merlin. The sight of his friend looking like that is almost too much for Arthur and maybe he would have just gone back to sobbing against the boy's chest if not for the presence of something rather...odd in this picture.
A hand. With long, slender fingers, nearly transparent, and the most unusual shade of blue...caressing Merlin's cheek almost affectionately. The king snaps his head up, eyes wide as he takes in the figure of the young woman kneeling on the edge of the water, which is not at all disturbed by her presence.
Her hair is long and, despite the bluish hue, is obviously brown or maybe black and falls in waves over her gentle, kind face. Her eyes are sad, but loving as she stares down at Merlin and Arthur gets the distinct impression that, whoever she is, she knows his friend.
Apparently having sensed she's being watched, the strange girl looks up, meeting Arthur's gaze with a pair of eyes the exact color of the lake behind them. Noticing the alarm in his expression, she offers a thin smile.
"Arthur Pendragon," She greets in an echoing, ghostly voice. "The Once and Future King. I've known for some time that we would someday meet but...I had not anticipated it would be under such terrible circumstances."
Arthur only stares for another moment before swallowing the lump in his throat and speaking. "Who are you?" He asks in a shaky, tear-stricken voice.
"I am the guardian of the Lake of Avalon. But to Merlin, my name is Freya." The guardian --Freya-- runs her thumb over Merlin's cheek again and her smile fades. "How did this happen?" She asks softly.
Arthur pauses for a moment, still a bit confused about her sudden appearance but decides he doesn't exactly care at the moment. Not with his best friend's body laying in his arms... "He was stabbed." He mutters. "The blow was meant for me but Merlin got in the way to save me."
Freya's expression turns almost wistful, hearing that. "He always was the sort to put himself in harm's way for others..." And Arthur nods in agreement, wondering just how this spirit knows his friend. In his sullen musings, Arthur almost misses the flicker of determination that crosses the guardian's face at that moment. Almost. "Arthur Pendragon, why did you bring him to my lake in this state? Why not take him to a physician?"
"The sword he was wounded with held powerful magic. Gaius --the physician-- told me only the Sidhe's power could save him..." The king explains, heart beginning to race. Is this woman going to help Merlin somehow? Can she do that?
Hearing his words, Freya nods her head. "It is true that this lake houses the Sidhe and that their magic is strong... But they are also a cunning species, a cruel one. They would not willingly help him unless it would benefit them in some way."
"So there's truly nothing we can do..." Arthur mutters, deflating.
"However, the Sidhe are not the only magical being that exists in this place. My magic may not be as potent as that of their chief's but I am willing to help Merlin without some sort of insentive." She tells him, a bit sternly. Her tone softening once more when she looks down at her fallen love. "Merlin once saved my life, risking his own to show me kindness, and compassion...he made me feel loved. And although not even his great magic could heal me in the end, the days I spent with him made it worth while." She explains in a whisper, her hand gently going through Merlin's hair. "I told him that one day I would repay him...and I believe that day is today, Arthur Pendragon."
Hearing everything she's told him, Arthur is already leaning forward, heart pounding. "So...you're going to help him?" He urges, eyes wide. "You can bring him back?!"
Freya glances up and smiles. "As guardian of the Lake of Avalon, I am one the gatekeepers to the afterlife. No soul passes by without me knowing about it so I can tell you that Merlin's spirit has not yet departed from this world. His body may have given up but somewhere in there, Merlin is still fighting."
"So there's hope...!" Arthur breathes, smiling broadly.
"Had his soul left his body, there would be no way for even the Sidhe to help him...but since he's still not given up..." Placing a pale hand in the center of Merlin's motionless chest, Freya closes her eyes. "Imo ex tenebris in lucem voco . Tempus tuum nondum in mundo est. Ego curare vulnera corpus frigus et superextendam in vobis. Age vero, Merlin, aperi oculos."
Arthur watches with a thundering heart as the spirit of the lake speaks in the foriegn language of the Old Religion, her hand beginning to glow as the spell takes form. As more of the strange words come together, it's like the air begins to vibrate with energy. With life. Arthur has no clue what those words mean but, somehow, in some primal, instinctive way, he begins to understand. Espcially when Freya tilts her head up, eyes still closed, and a swirling tendril of blue light lifts from the Lake of Avalon. It hangs in the air for a moment, glimmering in the early morning light, before slowly descending to the spirit's other hand, where its radiance increases and turns almost white, hot and vibrant like fire.
Freya lowers the glowing ball of light to Merlin's chest and muttering one last word, "Respirant." the sphere disappears into the warlock's body, leaving no trace behind. Slowly, the guardian of the lake sits back and opens her eyes again. She removes her hands from Merlin's body and looks up at Arthur. "The rest is up to Merlin. Soon, we shall see if he decides to return to this world or move onto the next. In which case, I cannot stop him."
Arthur swallows nervously. Reaching out, he grasps Merlin's wrist again and squeezes it. Come on, Merlin. Come back. You can't leave like this...you can't. "Merlin," He whispers, unsure of whether or not the boy can hear him.
You're my friend, you can't die...
I need you...
Open your eyes...
Don't do this to me again...
Nothing would be the same without you...
"Those two days off still stand. I'm even willing to add a third if you wake up now. Come on, wouldn't want to miss out on that opportunity of a lifetime, would you?" Despite the joke, Arthur's tone is dead serious as he squeezes Merlin's hand again, willing him to open his eyes. "Come on, idiot, don't keep your king waiting..."
But wait Arthur does. He and Freya remain by Merlin's side as time creeps on. Eventually, the seconds turn into minutes and with each passing instant, Arthur feels his hope beginning to fade. After nearly ten minutes of nothing but silence and stillness, Freya bows her head in defeat, water-blue eyes closing in sorrow.
"His spirit still has not passed on but..." She shakes her head, indicating to Arthur that it's hopeless. They've done all they can. But the cruel reality is...Merlin is gone.
Arthur is just releasing a trembling sigh of defeat when something seems to change in the air around them. Both Freya and the king lift their heads, staring into the empty space, puzzled. Arthur isn't sure what the spirit feels since her body hardly seems solid but, to him, it's like an electric current is passing over his skin. Although it in't painful. In fact, it's almost pleasant. Cool, refreshing, gentle, and...familiar.
It takes a moment to place the sensation but he remembers it soon enough. It's the same thing he felt all those years ago, in the cave when the sorceress Nimueh left him dangling on the edge of a cliff, about to be attacked by monstrous spiders. The feeling had alerted him that he wasn't alone in the darkness, like he thought, and when he turned...he found that glowing sphere illuminating his path. It led him to safety, protected him...but it had been magic.
Why would he be feeling that now...unless...
Looking down, the king's eyes widen slightly. Merlin is still the picture of death, but now, in the place where he was stabbed, there's a distinct golden light penetrating through his tunic. Through the hole in the blue fabric, he can see his friend's wound sizzling with heat, the blood burning away, the skin slowly restoring itself.
Before his eyes, Arthur sees the stab wound disappear entirely, leaving nothing but a pale, pink line behind. A faint scar that will most likely vanish with time. Heart pounding in his ribs, the king extends a hand toward Merlin, about to try and wake him again...when the sorcerer's back arcs off the ground, his eyes squeezing closed as he sucks in a ragged, desperate lungful of air.
Coughing and sputtering as if he'd been drowning, Merlin lulls his head to the side...and opens his fiery, golden eyes. Eyes Arthur never thought he'd be so ecstatic to see in his entire life. As the amber color washes away, leaving Merlin's irises pale blue and very tired, the king breaks out in a huge, relieved smile, and he finds himself laughing in sheer bliss.
"Merlin!" He cries out freely, suddenly not caring how he appears to the other man. In this moment, he's just elated to see his friend conscious and breathing again.
"Freya..." Merlin whispers, his voice hoarse, eyes slightly unfocused. He's staring into the distance behind Arthur, who turns, suddenly remembering the spirit and meaning to thank her. But by the time he looks over his shoulder, she's gone and Merlin's eyes have finally become more focused and are hanging on the blonde man in front of him.
"Merlin?" Arthur asks slowly, fighting to keep his composure even though all he wants to do is jump for joy and bring Merlin home. "Merlin, can you hear me?"
There's a beat where the sorcerer simply continues to stare at his friend but then he nods his head and Arthur smiles thinly. Why hasn't he spoken yet?
"Good." He says a little suspiciously. "Merlin, are you alright? How do you feel?"
The weak, pale boy hesitates for a moment, obviously giving his answer a bit of thought. But after a second, he replies. "Better than you, I think. Honestly, Arthur, can't you even manage to wash your face if I'm not there to wet the cloth for you?"
Baffled, Arthur sits back and gapes as his friend slowly sits up, testing his limbs experimentally but finding nothing wrong with himself other than feeling weaker than a baby deer and slightly dizzy. He only stares in perplexed silence as Merlin rolls his stiff neck and rubs his side, where the pink scare remains. After a few seconds, Merlin looks back at his friend...and smirks.
Arthur isn't really sure what he expected. Maybe he thought Merlin would be too tired to speak, or maybe too weak to move... What he hadn't expected, however, was for Merlin's first words upon reawakening after being all but dead to be his usual saucy remarks about 'his royal pratness'. A part of the young king is almost a little angry. After all, he's been put through hell thinking his friend had died and going through all this misery and emotional turmoil. Doesn't he deserve some kind of solace for all that?
But the other half is the half that wins his internal argument. The half that suddenly feels whole again, hearing his idiot of a manservant's voice again and he can't fight the smile that touches his lips at the sheer familiarity, the normalcy of it all.
"Shut up, Merlin." Is all he can think to reply with but clearly it's enough for Merlin, who chuckles tiredly and lifts a hand, reaching out to Arthur's shoulder and offering a grateful squeeze.
"Thank you, Arthur." He says, sobering up. "I don't know what you did but...I was certain I was dead. You saved my life. So...thank you."
"It wasn't me." The king says. "The spirit of this lake saved you. Don't you remember? You said her name as you came to..."
"The spirit of the lake...?" Merlin echoes softly, a sadness touching his eyes, then understanding. "Freya." And Arthur nods.
"She healed you with some kind of spell. Saved you life."
For a long moment after that, Merlin is silent. His expression distant and thoughtful, however, his contemplating is cut short as Arthur stands up and plants his hands on his hips, gazing out into the forest.
"If we leave now, we can return to Camelot within the hour on foot." He estimates. "Can you walk?"
Merlin pauses, only to frown in embarrassment when he finds he hardly has enough strength to lift his arm, let alone walk all the way back to Camelot. "I...don't think so, Sire." He admits sheepishly, expecting Arthur to call him a girl or a coward. But the king doesn't. Instead, he simply nods and extends a hand for Merlin to grab, which he does gratefully.
As he's tugged onto his shaky legs, Arthur wraps a supportive arm around his waist and the other around his shoulders, being his crutch as they make their way toward the woods, smiling in relief at the thought of home.
Somewhere along the line, Merlin must have fallen asleep or passed out because the next thing he knows, he's blinking awake again, laying on his back in a very familiar cot, staring at the wooden ceiling of his room in Gaius's chambers.
With an exhausted, yet relieved smile, Merlin opens his mouth to call out for his mentor, certain that the old physician must be worried. But as he tries to speak, his throat betrays him with a stab of dry pain and he winces, the only noise that escapes is a slight wheeze.
What I wouldn't give for a drink of water... Merlin sighs, letting his half-lidded eyes drift around his room. He's just about to give up and go back to sleep for a while when he spots a wooden cup sitting on his night table and another smirk touches his lips. Bless you and foresight, Gaius. He thinks as he reaches out for the mug with his mind, feeling the buzz of his magic flaring to life in his veins. If there's one thing that isn't feeling weak right now, it's his magic. And a second later, the mug is lifting into the air and floating over to him, tipping itself against his lips just enough for him to get a few good swallows to heal his dry throat.
The cup is on its way back to the night table when the door creaks open, Gaius's head peeking in. And the delighted look on the old man's face is enough to ensure Merlin he was right, Gaius had been very worried for his health. Then again, it's not everyday his ward is carried into his chambers on the shoulders of five knights, his face ashen, and body limp.
So seeing him awake and, by the look of the sheepish grin on the boy's face, in decent spirits as well, Gaius rushes into the room to greet him. "My boy!" He exclaims in relief, offering as much of a hug as he can with Merlin too weak to sit up.
Merlin smiles softly into his guardian's shoulder, comforted by his familiar, warm presence. "Sorry I'm late." He whispers, a bit teasingly. "I hope you weren't too worried."
As Gaius pulls away, there's a wrinkled grin on his face. A happy light shining in his aged eyes. "I knew you'd be alright." He says gently, squeezing Merlin's shoulder. "I had faith in you, and in Arthur."
Only then, hearing his master's name, does Merlin recall all that's happened in the last two days. Merlin revealing he has magic, Arthur being furious, his own steady decline into weakness and eventually death... Arthur's last words to him before the darkness had consumed his entire being, leaving him certain he was dead. But then, the light, Arthur hovering over him... Freya...
"Where is...Arthur?" He asks, a bit nervously. Arthur seemed to have accepted Merlin's magic but at the same time, the king probably thought that was the last time they'd ever speak. Would things be different now?
And by the way Gaius slowly sits up, looking a bit troubled, Merlin's fear only increases. "He left for a council meeting about two hours ago." He says. "He should be back any minute."
"Is he angry with me...?" Merlin whispers fearfully.
But before Gaius gets the chance to respond--
Speak of the devil.
Merlin cringes at the sound of his friend's voice. He looks nervously in Gaius's direction but the physician is now moving toward the door, about to greet his king. The young sorcerer braces himself for what might come next... And a moment later, his door is thrown open again to reveal Arthur, expression stoic and unreadable. He's no longer wearing his chain mail and Merlin vaguely wonders how long it's been since they returned to Camelot.
As the king steps into the room, someone else follows him. Someone who isn't Gaius or one of the knights. He's a young man, probably a few years older than Merlin, wearing simple, peasant's clothing. George. In his arms is a stack of papers, Arthur's training gloves, and...Excalibur...?
Although Merlin doesn't have time to question how it is that sword has been returned to his owner because a second after Arthur steps into the room, the king folds his hands behind his back in very formal manner. "Merlin," He says rather stiffly, causing a pulse of fear to go through the warlock. "I'll need you to come with me."
"Sire, I don't think--" But Gaius is interrupted by a wave of Arthur's hand.
"George, put those things down and help him up." The king commands, causing the servant to nod his head obediently and set his burden down on the nearest flat surface with a quick, 'Of course, Sire.'
Merlin can only stare in confusion as George helps him to his feet, wavering a bit feebly as the older man takes a tentative step back, unsure of how much aid he needs in moving. "Arthur...?" He asks quietly, the fear obvious on his face. Although his friend's expression it totally unreadable and he's left with no clue as to what's going on.
"Sire, Merlin is still weak, he shouldn't be--"
"Enough, Gaius." Arthur cuts in, yet again. "I'm perfectly aware of his condition but you must understand this is of the utmost importance." Turning his head and giving the physician a rather commanding look, he says, "We talked about this." And with that, the blonde steps aside, ushering Merlin and George through the door and out into the rest of the physicians quarters.
But it doesn't stop there. Hear thundering, Merlin is led straight out into the hallway. The young warlock is so anxious, he hardly even feels the ache in his side where his wound used to be, nor the weakness in his limbs as he's guided down the short staircase and to the doors of the castle.
So this is it. Merlin muses numbly. He's still angry with me...he's going to kill me. Or banish me.
When the guards posted there see them coming, they open the doors, allowing the bright midday light to spill into the corridor. Wincing at the searing brightness, Merlin --aided by George-- limps out onto the stone stairs...and his eyes go wide with shock.
Scratch that. I must already be dead.
Because in no form of reality could Merlin have predicted what he sees as he stumbles out into the castle courtyard. In fact, he's so startled by the sight of it that he very well might have toppled over backwards had it not been for George's assistance.
Magic. Magic is being used freely in the streets of Camelot. Baskets of market goods float alongside a sea of people Merlin has never seen before. Buckets of water from the pump fill themselves as sorcerers stand talking in small groups, laughing and smiling without a care in the world. A few new stalls have been hastily built and men and women in dark hoods are selling potions and magical remedies. There are only three conclusions Merlin can come to in order to explain this.
One, he's dead.
Two, he's dying and this is some kind of fever dream.
Three...he's alive. This is all real. And Arthur has lifted the ban on magic.
"So? What do you think?" Merlin turns in surprise when Arthur slings an arm around his shoulder, smiling proudly out at the kingdom they built together.
"What...is this?" Merlin asks, still a bit turned around and confused. Despite the sympthetic look that flashes in the king's face for a moment, Arthur rolls his eyes and scoffs at his friend's words.
"It's magic. Really, Merlin, you of all people should know what sorcery looks like. You've only had it your entire life."
But despite his reassurances, Merlin is still baffled as he turns and looks out across the streets. "So this is real...?" He breathes, finally allowing a small smile to touch his lips.
"Of course it is." Arthur snorts. "What did you think?"
"That I was dead." Merlin admits before thinking. He realizes what he said a second later and looks up to find Arthur watching him closely.
"No, you're not dead, Merlin." He says seriously. "Although you definitely tried, that's for sure." Grinning, Arthur squeezes his friend's shoulder and Merlin smiles back at him. The young warlock is about to comment on his friend's almost tender behavior when he hears a familiar voice.
"Welcome back to the land of the livin', mate!" Gwaine cheers happily as he trots up the steps to greet Merlin, Elyan, Percival, and Leon right on his heels. The knights are all smiles of relief as they smack Merlin's back and ruffle his shaggy hair.
"Good to see you, Merlin."
"You gave us all a bit of a fright, glad you're feeling better."
"I hope Arthur's little prank didn't scare you too badly."
Merlin laughs at the guilty look on Arthur's face, hearing that and Merlin pretends to scowl at him. So that's why he'd been so serious and stoic when he came into Merlin's room. Trying to scare him! What a prat!
However, the knights sober up a little at the sight of something behind the king and his friend and Merlin turns to find Gwen striding out of the castle, her lovely face beaming with joy at the sight of him.
"Merlin!" The queen doesn't even pause before enveloping him in a warm embrace, pulling back a few seconds later only to plant a kiss on his cheek, making him blush deeply and laugh at the way Arthur clears his throat a bit in irritation.
"By the way, Merlin." Arthur says, his smile a bit evil as he regards his friend. "You're fired."
"What?!" Merlin sputters. This time, even the knights look surprised.
"It's just that these past days have gone flawlessly as George for my manservant so I've decided to give him the job." The king says easily, as if he were talking about the weather or another piece of trivial information. "Besides, magic may be permitted now but I can't rightly have a sorcerer trapsing about doing my chores for me."
"Arthur...!" Merlin begins to protest, only to be waved into silence by the king's hand. That evil grin returns when he says,
"Oh, don't worry...I've got a much better job for you..."
The throne room is crowded with a sea of nobles, dignitaries, knights, and other official members of court, all dressed in their finest clothing as they regard their king standing before his throne, wearing his golden crown and floor length, crimson cape. Their expressions range from skeptical to extremely pleased as the large, wooden doors open behind them and a young man strides up the central aisle. His black hair is still as shaggy as ever but his clothes are clean and made of some of the finest fabrics in Camelot. Despite that fact that he's still wearing those ridiculous neckerchiefs.
Merlin takes a moment to regard Arthur with a knowing smirk before kneeling at his king's feet and bowing his head as Arthur unsheaths his ceremonial sword.
Lifting the blunt weapon above his head for a moment, he lowers it slowly, touching the blade to both of Merlin's shoulders, allowing it to linger for a second as he fights to keep his smile at bay.
As the warlock lifts his head again and prepares to rise to his feet, Arthur allows himself to squeeze his friend's shoulder and nod, an earnest pride in his eyes as he considers the crowd before him. Gaius, Hunith, and the knights being among those in the front row.
"Rise, Merlin, Court Sorcerer of Camelot!"