“O drakon! E male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!”
Merlin looked back at Arthur, barely holding on, and hoped that the dragon had enough breath left in him to carry his king to the Isle of Avalon. He tried to hold back his sobs as he waited, every moment feeling like eternity, the urgency making his magic surge in his blood.
Arthur opened his eyes. “Merlin,” he rasped.
Immediately, Merlin was on his knees next to him, Excalibur clattering to the ground. “Yes, what?”
“You are talking gibberish,” said Arthur with great difficulty.
Merlin opened his mouth, but heard the flapping of giant wings before he could say anything. “Don’t panic,” he said shortly.
Arthur looked up and saw a dragon. The dragon. Of course Merlin was chummy with a dragon. That made complete sense in this new, weird world of his. His incompetent, foolish, clotpole of a servant was friends with a dragon. That, or Arthur had died and was now a wispy soul in the sky having strange hallucinations.
“Merlin,” said the dragon as Arthur gaped at him. “The young king barely clings to life.”
“Kilgharrah. I would not have summoned you, if there was any other choice. I have one last favor to ask,” said Merlin. “Help me save him. Can you carry us to the isle of Avalon?”
The great dragon bowed his head. “Yes. But we must hurry, young warlock. Come, you must carry the king.”
Arthur had no idea which part of the dragon’s booming speech he found most outrageous, but he suddenly felt the urge to snort. Carry him? Young warlock? Merlin? It took him a second to realize that the dragon was right, after all. He still forgot easily that the old sorcerer and Merlin were the same person. It struck him at odd moments, and then he had to go through agonizing, confusing emotions once again. He tried to help Merlin as he bodily carried him on to the dragon’s back. All he ended up achieving was a sort of lethargic swatting at imaginary bees, and even that caused him to sweat.
And so they flew, Merlin keeping Arthur more or less upright, constantly worrying about his weakening pulse. Arthur wanted to tell him to stop crying, that his time perhaps was done, but with Merlin’s cold fingers checking his pulse, he couldn’t find the words to stop him. Besides, he was scared shitless of toppling over into the water. Arthur finally closed his eyes.
“Arthur! No, don’t you dare!”
Even though it felt like too much effort, Arthur opened his sluggish eyes. They were descending back onto solid ground. Loathing how weak he was, how terribly dependent on Merlin’s wiry strength, he nonetheless let Merlin drag him away from the dragon. “I shall wait here,” it said.
“What brings you here?” said a guttural voice behind Arthur, but he was too weak to look. Considering the things he had seen this whole day, it was probably for the best. The voice barely seemed human. But then Merlin turned him around, so that they were facing the same way, and Arthur saw a… creature. He had no means to name it, and no energy to try to think of what it might be. All he knew was that it was blue, small, and hideous. Oh, and it had wings.
It never even looked at him.
“What does the mighty Merlin want? Is he not happy to have finally embraced his destiny? Is he greedy for more?” The thing was mocking, disrespectful. It tellingly never mentioned the dying king in Merlin’s backward embrace.
Merlin hefted Arthur in order to speak over his shoulder. “I will give all I have recently learned, and more besides. Please, you have to help him. I cannot lose him. He is my friend.” Merlin’s voice cracked, his voice going nasal.
“And what will the sidhe obtain from helping a king live beyond his time?”
Merlin hesitated. Arthur waited for him to speak, realized he didn’t exactly have a plan here, and promptly fainted.
Merlin grew desperate when Arthur slumped in his arms. He panicked, checking Arthur’s pulse for the hundredth time that day, and gulped down sobs at the thready, barely-there pulse.
“Please!” he yelled, not caring about anything anymore. “Save him and you will have… anything you want. Kill me instead.”
The sidhe elder laughed in his face. “Kill you? End such powerful magic for the life of a king who has served his purpose?”
“If he dies, you will rue this day till the world falls apart,” said Merlin hotly. “My magic will be your greatest nemesis.” He thought furiously. The sidhe didn’t want to kill him. Could he bully them into saving Arthur? “You talk as if you know my strengths. Then you know what I am capable of. You know what Arthur means to me. Think, and you will know what I will do if he dies while you just stand there.” Merlin didn’t know the full extent of his new powers, he didn’t know whether or not he was bluffing. All he knew was that he would save Arthur or die trying. If he had to intimidate a being of powerful magic to do so, so be it.
The sidhe looked at him shrewdly, as if gauging his resolve. Then he grinned, his feral teeth on display. He turned and flitted away.
“Come then, Emrys, and bring your pale king.”
Arthur was fairly certain he was not dead.
He was too uncomfortable, too cold to be dead. If this was death, no matter his father’s soul had murder on it’s mind.
“Arthur? Arthur, come on. Get up, you insufferable prat!”
Arthur wanted to yell at Merlin. He was trying, he really was, to open his eyes, to move. His body felt too lethargic, every muscle protesting movement. He felt quite drunk.
When Merlin started to sob, Arthur’s eyes opened sluggishly. He tried to speak, then winced internally when he heard the resulting gurgle.
“Arthur,” Merlin sounded exceptionally happy to witness Arthur’s agony. What had happened? Had he been drugged? Where were they?
“You are safe,” said Merlin, his out-of-focus face suddenly looming in Arthur’s view. “You are alive. You are alive,” he was still sobbing.
“Merlin,” Arthur said. “Wha–?”
“You are still weak,” interrupted Merlin. “Don’t talk. Let me just…” Arthur felt Merlin’s hands on him. “Let me help you get up.”
Arthur realized later that he had been on the bank of the lake of Avalon. He was drenched in the water of the lake, and the water felt warm on his skin, strangely so. The day was cold.
He didn’t even know how his side had stopped hurting. He had been absolutely certain he was going to die. But Merlin had… well, he didn’t really know. With a sigh, he trusted his manservant once more, and allowed Merlin to help him back to the bored dragon waiting to take them back to civilization.
“And they just agreed to cure me?”
“Just like that?”
“What?” Merlin sounded exasperated. His horse wanted to speed up in response to Merlin’s terseness.
“Why did the… thing cure me? What did you bargain?”
“Sidhe. They are called the sidhe.”
Merlin sped up and didn’t answer. Arthur didn’t even know how Merlin had found their horses again. He had just sat on the bank once the dragon flew away, insisting he needed to focus. Within ten minutes, the horses had come up to him and nudged his face. They had always liked Merlin better.
They rode hard and fast to Camelot. It was a full day’s ride, and with Merlin being cryptic about his new friendship with little blue fairies, Arthur put all his attention into rushing back to his kingdom.
They barely stopped for food and water. The Saxons were running away, someone must have found Morgana and spread the word. Nonetheless, a fire was still risky, it could reveal their location. Arthur felt fighting fit, but Merlin voted against the fire.
“A fight will just be a waste of time,” he said, handing Arthur two apples that had fallen from a tree. He looked around for more. “I want you safe in Camelot as soon as possible.”
Arthur wondered when Merlin had gotten so nonchalant about fighting. This new Merlin was very difficult to reconcile with the man he had known, the one who had stuttered and trembled at the mention of a tournament.
And yet he insisted he was the same man.
Arthur kept his eyes on Merlin’s back as they started riding once again, his mind wandering over the many weird moments of the past years. Why hadn’t he noticed? There could only be so many conveniently falling branches, or rockfalls, or a really long pee… Had Merlin really pulled that story about Bruta’s sword out of his ass? He opened his mouth to ask Merlin, saw Merlin’s rigid posture and hasty riding, and decided he could wait to sit his manservant down and ask him about his version of the past few years. Merlin was obviously in a hurry to get him home.
They were soon in familiar territory, and they gave the horses their head through the familiar jungle. Arthur expected to see a knight at any moment, but even though they were not being stealthy at all, they didn’t encounter any. In the end, Merlin and Arthur simply rode into the castle as they had a thousand times before, like they hadn’t just had the biggest adventure of their life. Arthur still wasn’t entirely certain he hadn’t died.
The entire courtyard stopped moving, as if someone had cast a spell. Everyone turned and stared, and all movement was suspended for a second of disbelief. Then, almost as one, the citizens of Camelot erupted into a great cheer that shook the heavens themselves.
Merlin chose that moment to fall off his horse in a dead faint.