Warnings: Illusions to suicide and discussion of depression
Heat rose up from the Magma around them.
Arthur's hand shot out as Merlin moved toward the ledge, and he caught his arm.
"Merlin" He hissed. "You can't just swim through fire! We can't get over there."
Merlin gave him an annoyed expression and huffed. "Seriously? Arthur, I am Magic. I think I can swim through a little magma to get to my brothers."
Arthur tightened his grip on his arm.
"No!" He shouted, and Merlin stilled. "You can't"
"Arthur," He said softly, but Arthur refused to look at him and focused his gaze on the eggs behind them. Arthur was hesitant again, doubting. But to Merlin, everything he had experienced over the long winter days, the longing for the sky, the dreams of flying, the voices calling to him from beyond his dreams, every single moment finally made sense. "Arthur."
Even when he called to him, Arthur refused to turn his gaze. An internal battle started to rage within him once more, and he visibly struggled with the realization that many new beasts would soon roam the earth.
"They could cause more harm than good. If you hatch those things, how do I know they would help us." He spoke calmly, but Merlin could see that all the cares and worries of Camelot were back at the forefront of his mind when before it hung as a familiar burden on his back.
"Arthur, you wanted to restore magic to Camelot, to restore peace. You said that. I have my magic back, but I cannot restore balance to the world on my own. I need help to break the curse completely."
"And you're going to do that by hatching those things? It was supposed to be a spell or something else! Not a horde of dragons! I can help you somehow. We can—"
"Arthur, you can't help me. The only way you can help me is by trusting me that hatching those eggs will be the best thing for Albion that you could ever do. You gave me your word."
"Albion…" Arthur muttered.
"Yes, Albion. Peace."
"And if they grow into monsters? What then?"
"We just have to trust that they will find the right path. They will be good."
"And if my people should find out that I orchestrated the return of dragons? Merlin, they would throw me off my throne! They would revolt! I can't believe that you would— "
"Arthur, I will be with them every step of the way. They have my magic. They are tied to me. We need fire to end the winter. They will help bring peace again. Trust me. It will not be all at once. It will be some time before they are fully grown so the people will adjust to the idea of dragons in the world again."
He glanced at Merlin for a moment before he looked away.
"Your dragon slaughtered many of my people who were innocent. And before them, how many stories have we heard of our villages burning from Dragonfire? How do I know it would truly be for the good of Camelot? The people will never accept them. They would slaughter them before they even had a chance to grow."
The fire crackled around him as silence fell, and he looked to Merlin for an answer.
He said nothing.
He watched and waited.
Arthur looked between the nest of bones and the melancholy smile on Merlin's face trying to make sense of it all.
"I don't understand." He muttered to Merlin who watched him with what he now recognized as gentle patience. And then, a thought occurred to him.
"Merlin, you can't bring those beasts into Camelot. They would terrify the people."
His friend barked out a forced laughed. A single tear fell from his cheek.
Now. Merlin thought. He is finally starting to understand.
"No." Merlin said. "Arthur there is no way I could raise all these dragons in Camelot. There would not be enough space for them to grow."
Arthur dropped his grip on Merlin's arm and took a step back.
"You aren't coming back with me to Camelot. You're going to stay here with them."
Another tear fell from Merlin's eyes, but he smiled. "No. No, I'm not coming back. Not now." A soft sob rippled on his breath. "I'm sorry, Arthur."
"That isn't possible," Arthur muttered.
Merlin just shook his head and resisted the urge to cry. His heart hurt, but even under the pain he knew it was what he wanted, to be with his brothers, to watch them grow as a true Dragonlord, to soar with them through the sky and dwell in his own kingdom.
"You know it is"
"No. I don't believe you."
Merlin took a step towards him as if to break the trance upon Arthur, but he stepped back.
"What about all that talk of destiny?" Arthur started to beg. "You made me swear to restore magic with you at my side. You can't leave now."
Merlin let out a withering breath.
Knowing his inclination to speak without thinking especially when he was upset, Arthur looked away to let his thoughts settle in his mind. He took a deep breath as he let the air settle between them.
Merlin must have sensed his struggle, for he silenced his own distress and focused off to his left.
Nothing was what Arthur expected. He had struggled to understand Merlin, sought to correct the wrongs he had done, made every effort to make things right, and things were still not turning out how he had hoped. As he gazed at the eggs hidden within the nest of bones, it occurred to him that even though he had worked to win Merlin's forgiveness and had attained it, he did not fully understand everything that had happened in the past winter.
But now, he was starting to believe he did.
At the beginning of autumn and during the first year of his reign as King, he remembered coming back from a training session with his new knights. On his way to the castle doors, he had caught sight of Merlin brushing through the long mane of his horse. He worked quickly and paid little attention to the animal as he tended to it. It was a strange sight because Merlin always possessed a tender, attentive touch when caring for the animals in his charge.
His thoughts wandered, and he realized that his last hunting trips had been a complete success. Merlin had been silent on each one when before he would have kicked up enough noise to scare away every single beast. Merlin rushed the horse back into its stall all without a word to the animal, although it nipped at his hair in an attempt to stir Merlin's affection.
Arthur watched from his place in the open courtyard as Merlin locked in the horse and then darted into the castle—presumably to prepare Arthur's bath for him as he had instructed—all without taking a single notice of Arthur standing in the center of the courtyard watching him. But then, perhaps he had noticed him and had chosen not to say anything.
It was an odd thing to note, and at the time it had annoyed him that he was even troubled to think about such a simple thing involving Merlin. After all, what did he care if his servant suddenly started not to care so much about animals compared to when he was younger. Was it not just a sign that his servant was finally starting to grow up and had become more invested in other things?
But that was not the only strange behavior that Arthur noticed. It was little things. Small habits Merlin had picked up which showed themselves here and there. It was so gradual that Arthur started to wonder when it all began or if Merlin had always acted that way.
Like, when Merlin took a deep breath as if to speak, but would instead gaze upon the floor holding his breath for several moments before his eyes darted away to the side. Or when Arthur would become cross, instead of challenging him as he had before, Merlin would become quiet. But most of all, it had been in the way he carried himself as if a heavyweight had rested upon his shoulders which he was never allowed to put down. He never seemed to rest nor relax even with the knights or when they specifically took time in the late autumn to spend together as they did every year. Picnics in the fall were met with Merlin finding work that would otherwise never have been completed and listening to stories without saying a word. He had become a ghost of himself, and the world had allowed him to float through rooms and open halls without a single thought to who he had been before the darkness took him.
And then the winter came.
And the guests came with it.
And the small remnants of whatever friendship they had left crumbled into ashes, and Merlin sunk into a depression so vast and so wide that they had thought it was the new color of his soul.
But, even before the harsh words, before the guests and before the cold of winter, it had still been threading through his veins and growing more apparent as the days rolled by.
No one had called attention to it.
No one had dared name it.
Perhaps Gaius had—he had tried to coax Merlin to leave Camelot at the start of the winter—but it had not been enough. It remained. And when Arthur, the Knights and even Gwen ignored it, did not dare to name it in the hope it would vanish, it flourished into something even more ugly and mean.
"Merlin, if you had been given a choice to go anywhere in the world before the winter, where would you have gone?"
He glanced back at Arthur, surprised at the question but gave it little thought before answering.
"Nowhere. I would have stayed by your side."
Arthur shook his head.
"Knowing everything that was going to happen, you would have stayed? I doubt it."
"Knowing what I believed then, even if I knew all this was going to pass, I would have stayed."
Arthur's head was pounding. There was a buzzing on his lips, and the last piece of the puzzle started to shift into place.
"Merlin, are you mad? Look at everything that happened! All the pain you were in! The vial, and before that all the humiliation from my knights, from me. Who on earth would willingly endure that? Why would you want to face that?"
"I did," Merlin whispered.
"Why?" Arthur blurted out. "Are you mad?"
He was finally started to understand.
"You didn't have to drink that vial. With your power, you could have cast it aside and ran. We would have been powerless to stop you."
It was a funny thing to realize now at the end of everything, and yet, it seemed as if there was nothing more important in the world.
"Arthur…" Merlin muttered as he looked away from him.
"No," Arthur affirmed, eyes fixed on Merlin as if seeing him for the first time. "I may have put that vial in your hands, but you knew it was evil. You knew it would only cause you harm. And as for magic incarnate, I can see that even with my power as a King there is no way my knights and I could have physically forced you to do anything. So I'm asking you, why the hell would you do something I told you when you knew it was evil? You KNEW and you drank it anyway! Why the hell would you do that to yourself?"
Merlin looked up into his angry eyes. Everything around them seemed to have melted away. Merlin thought back to when he had been caught, the fear of discovery that had overwhelmed him and saw the truth in Arthur's words. It rocked him back onto his heels and sent his mind reeling. He had reflected little on the events of that night. It was a painful memory and admits all the anger at Arthur and the acid he spewed at the knights, he had overlooked his own hand in the destruction of Camelot.
Arthur was right.
He had known the vial was evil, but he had let himself be deceived. He had accepted it, no matter how evil it might have been so that he might be accepted by his King. It was an ugly truth, that he had put his own need to be accepted over that which is pure and good. And while he knew that there was more to the vial than just that simple choice, the fact remained that he had ignored the begging of his soul to protect itself. His heart constricted at the memory, and he let out a long slow breath as if to ask for strength. He chose his words carefully, wanting to give Arthur the truth but not wanting him to misunderstand.
"Arthur, I had done a lot of things that I believed made me a monster to keep you safe. To me, what was accepting the evil you offered when I already believed myself to be so."
There was a beat of silence as Arthur's face stretched and deepened in color before he shouted. "DAMN YOU." Arthur bellowed. "SON OF A—"
Merlin's head leaned back, shocked at the outburst but not surprised. It occurred to him, that Arthur had never truly believed him to be lacking confidence in any degree. And while Merlin had taken years to get to know the darkness inside his friend, Arthur was very much seeing his all at once.
"How dare you, Merlin. How dare you. My men fought for you! We would have died for you! And for what? The shame of a man who doesn't know his worth? DAMN IT, MERLIN. HOW THE HELL did you not know?"
His gut started to stir. He did not believe that his struggle for self-worth was shameful. He did not believe Arthur believe that either, but his cheeks burned from Arthur's speech. Familiar anger rushed through him to hear the stigma which had haunted him since the first stab of sorrow had stolen his breath.
"You're such a Prat, Arthur! From the moment I was able to speak, I learned that people of magic were evil from those around me. That we were murderers, monsters, freaks! People to be avoided and killed! And you have the gall to act surprised, to mock me for my struggled wi—"
Arthur stepped back as if he had been slapped.
"Damn it, I'm not mocking you! I would kill anyone who meant to hurt you and now I find out that—How the hell am I supposed to react? Merlin, the twisted value you placed on your own life cost Camelot—"
"—almost everything, yes I know." Merlin laughed. "It's stupid, isn't it. Something I regarded with so little importance should have been protected all along and in doing so I would have kept everyone we love safe. Yes, I know. But I didn't know then. I didn't know! I just wanted you to accept me for who I am. How could I know I was asking you to do something that not even I had done."
Arthur let out a breath, ran a hand over his face, gripped Merlin's shoulder and held on.
"So you drank the vial."
"Yes, I drank it. And yet, I'm not sorry that I did."
"How can you—"
"I wouldn't drink it again. I know I should never drink it again." He paused for half a breath. "But, I did. And here we are. And it is almost as if, somehow, it all worked for our good. At the start of the winter, I wanted nothing more than to live a normal life, have a family. But I couldn't do that, so I at least wanted to be able to come and go when I pleased, help Aithusa, visit my mother. I wanted to live life instead of watch you live yours. "
Arthur searched through Merlin's face as if to better understand. It was hard for him to grasp the idea of struggling with his own sense of self, but then he had hardly experienced it. He was raised rooted in his importance.
Arthur thought about Gwaine yelling at Merlin around the campfire in the druid camp, and suddenly it all started to make more sense. While he had long fought internal battles with his father's teachings, what he knew to be right and his pride in serving his people, Merlin had been fighting battles of a different kind. The teachings of Camelot on his existence, his status in the country and his feelings of worthlessness without his magic.
"I think…" Arthur muttered with a small smile. "I understand, now. I want that for you too. I'm not sure it was worth all that chaos in the city though," Arthur said with a raised brow. "I think there are a lot more peaceful ways to go about change." He joked, and Merlin rolled his eyes. He became pensive and reached out his hand to rest it on Merlin's shoulder. "But I need to know that you realize how priceless you are. No one could replace you, Merlin. Not ever."
Instead of blushing and looking away like he might have done in the past, Merlin glowed.
"I do." Merlin muttered with a quiet voice "I know." And Arthur smiled.
"But" Arthur mentioned "a lot of people did get hurt because we were at odds with one another. Knowing this, we should resolve to never fight for long and to always listen to one another when we do. And I think, for your part, to not stray away from speaking to me because I am the King. I will not threaten to banish you again, nor will I treat you differently because of who I am with. But I know my own weaknesses too now, so if I do, then I give you permission to remind me in any way you can of the promise we are making to one another now. "
"Let it be so."
They smiled at one another, and Arthur let out a sigh as he looked back to the eggs.
Each man had grown, but not in the way he had thought. Instead of facing their demons together, their paths had drawn them away from one another. And somehow, with the new relationships they had forged, they had both come out stronger. But still, he wished they could stay together somehow. Or at least, not be separated for too long.
"What am I supposed to do when you're gone?" Arthur mused.
"Have kids of your own?" Merlin joked as he followed Arthur's gaze towards the eggs, and Arthur let out a barking laugh.
"Merlin. This is serious."
"I know." He said, face settling into a soft gaze. "I will bless them when you do."
Arthur felt a sob building up in his throat and shook his head.
"After all this, you still have to leave."
Merlin smiled. "I will be around."
Arthur kicked the dirt below him, turned to Merlin with his hands resting on his hips and looked him dead in the eye.
"You know, if you're not there for Gwen's birthday this spring, I will break my promise."
Merlin's face wrinkled in an obscure smile.
"If I don't show up for her birthday, you will…start another purge?" He asked with a raised brow.
Arthur blinked. "Uh, Yes. She would be UPset." He said as if Merlin was stupid.
Merlin grimaced, but still shook his head.
"Arthur, I don't think anyone would rea—"
"I said with you by my side I would fulfill my destiny to restore magic to Camelot. If you're not there, then I'm not bound by my oath."
"What?" Merlin said, aghast.
"Do you think I'm an idiot, Merlin? I worded it that way for a reason. I'm not going to let you skulk for years in some mountain just because you still think in that idiotic brain of yours that no one cares to have you around. If you don't show up at least several times every year in between all your magic restoring and dragon raising, I'm not doing it."
"You can't just—"Merlin floundered, but a large grin started to stretch across his face as the true meaning of Arthur's words sunk in. He had not just saved Merlin to save his people. He truly wanted him around him and wanted his help. He had saved Merlin, because that was what they did, looked after one another. He shook his head, grin wide on his face and laughed.
"I still need to look after the hatchlings."
"Great," Arthur said. "I'm sure Gwaine will be overjoyed to meet them. I can't speak for anyone else though. I don't even know what I think of them."
He laughed again and shook his head.
"I'll come. To her birthday I mean. And you know, whenever else you'll have me."
"Good! Because don't think you're getting out of my birthday? Or the holidays? And if I have to sit through those boring state of affair dinners so do you"
"I didn't think you would want me around."
"Well someone needs to help me change the laws, and I don't think anyone else is going to be jumping at the chance."
"I don't know the first thing about politics. I think Gaius and the druids would be more helpful with that."
"Doesn't matter. I want your opinion on it all. Besides, you're better at it all than you think. You didn't spend years at my side learning nothing. "
"This is bigger than that, Arthur! You need to do this."
"I won't do it alone."
"You won't have to. You'll still have me."
"You always say that as if it's supposed to make me feel better."
Merlin gave him an incredulous look, his eyes twisting up until they both broke eye contact to laugh and look around the fiery cave around them. It felt surreal, but perfect as if he had finally filled the hole in his heart.
"It does and you know it," Merlin said with a cheeky grin as he glanced back at Arthur to see his expression sobered.
"Your right, it does. I don't know why I never said it before. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for you. I'm sorry. I saw it and had not the humility to act accordingly."
"No more apologies, Arthur. It doesn't suit you."
"You're wrong. It needs to suit me. If there is a man who cannot apologize to those he loves, then he never became a man at all. You would do me a disservice to lead me to believe otherwise."
Merlin smiled in that melancholy way of his again. "So it would be."
They stood watching one another, the King and the Dragonlord. Amid their sorrow, they felt love which was stronger than all their pain.
"Thank you, Merlin." He whispered and looked back towards the nest of bone. "So what now, you hatch the eggs?"
"Their birth must be the final thing to restore balance and end the winter. I just need to call them by name. "
Merlin hopped down until his feet dangled just above the pool of magma.
"Merlin" Arthur called with a warning clear in his voice. He looked up.
"I don't think you're supposed to follow. This is already a very sacred place. You must need to bear witness to their birth. "
Without another word, he let go from the rocky cliff and splashed into the magma below. He felt the liquid pull him under. It rushed through his ears and roared voices that edged him forward. He swam through the fire blindly, hands outstretched until they collided with the large bone that once made up a dragon's wing. He followed it up, broke the surface of the magma with a gasp and pulled himself up on top of the nest of bones.
He glanced back to Arthur for just a moment and watched him with rapt attention from his ledge built into the side of the wall like a pedestal. A humming vibration rushed through Merlin. He turned, trapped in slow motion, hands outstretched to rest upon one large golden egg. Other eggs lay beside it in purples and greens and blues. He could feel magic, bright and new awakening inside each one that sang to him now that he was so close to their shells.
He focused on the eggs, let the magic rush through him like it had before and his eyes glowed.
"Wawel." He called, and immediately a crack spiraled across the egg. A large chunk of the shell went flying into the air, and with a concealed breath Merlin beheld a green-scaled hatchling with nine heads and wings like a bird. A burst of joy rushed through him as the little one caught his eye and called to him in the dragon tongue. He reached a hand forward to touch it, and it curled into his palm. He turned to another egg, purple and dull shinned and focused once more. "Dewi" he called. The dragon cracked lazily from its shell, and he found himself laughing as he pulled the pieces of shell from Dewi's head as Wawel stumbled from its shell to reach him.
He held out a hand, and let the small dragon curl up his arm. He turned to the next egg, red glossed and speckled with white.
"Leviath." He called.
And again to a deep blue egg with rough bumpy shell.
Then again to an egg which blended into the bone-white around them and a bronze and green egg beside it.
"Gorynych, Nabia, Hwestala."
He called until all around him small creatures of scales and fire were clobbering from their shell and looked up at him lazily.
He laughed as they surrounded him with the light of their souls, new and beautiful. They scrambled over his limbs and curled talons in his hair. He could feel his eyes start to glow, magic flowed through him into the hatchlings as they circled around his body. He looked up and caught Arthur's eye who beheld the Dragonlord with a large smile.
"I give you my blessing," Arthur called across the fire between them, for it seemed appropriate at the start of a new birth. Merlin smiled wide before he turned his attention back to the hatchlings surrounding him and mumbled words to them in the dragon tongue. They cried back to him, and he could hear their hunger.
"uh oh", he mumbled to himself as he aimlessly glanced around the stone cavern and back to the little beasts surrounding him. They yawned, as he lowered himself to his knees to be closer to them.
"I'm sorry. I don't have any food." He mumbled as they clobbered over one another to settle near him. He took a step back towards Arthur, and they followed. When he was by the banks of the magma, one of them, a bright red beast named Leviath lowered his head to take large gulps of magma. The others followed tentatively and drank from the flowing stream hungrily. He watched as they grew in strength, stretched their wings and called to one another.
Emrys! He heard one of them call into his mind before their voices chorused together. As if bewitched, he dipped his hand into the magma and drank alongside his brothers. It tasted sweet and filled his stomach with soothing warmth. Whatever poison that had been left in his blood from the curse faded away to scars. His body groaned, and his shoulders shifted back. They stretched and pulled. He growled low and deep as wings as black as the night unfurled around him in miniature to the ones of his dragon form. He looked across the fire surrounded by his kin, unblinkingly at the once and future king.
"We accept your oath. The hatchlings will bring balance to the earth through fire, and spring will come once more. You were lucky to have been here, to the place of our birth."
And Arthur knew once again he was speaking to the Dragonlord. For although they were the same, they were different. One man of two destinies. Merlin stretched out his hands, eyes glowing gold and the mountain started to rumble. The magma hissed and cracked and a great rushing as if from underneath the earth groaned around him. A golden mist swirled up from the ground around Arthur. He took a step to walk towards Merlin, but when his foot came down to collide with the stone floor of the cave, he was outside the mountain on the banks of the sea.
The black smoke rising into the air was heavy, and he watched lava rush down the mountain like a bursting stream. A blast erupted from the side. It pooled out in the west and sizzled into the water. He looked back across the expanse of the sea and saw Kilgharrah with Aithusa resting behind him on a large grey stone protruding from the waves. They were watching him silently, and when they saw that his gaze landed on him, Kilgharrah lowered his head in greeting.
"We meet again, young King. Well done."
He looked from the erupting volcano and back again.
"You have to get him out?"
He called, half from habit and half as a question. The Great Dragon laughed.
"It is time you returned to your own lands. These shores belong to us. I doubt man will ever have the need to come here again. He will return to you when he is ready."
Arthur looked back towards the mountain and nodded.
"How do I get back?" He asked, already dreading the answer.
Aithusa laughed next to him and took flight. He hovered in the air and moved towards Arthur. The dragon's talons wrapped around him, swiping him off his feet to take him forever away from the mountain of fire.
As Aithusa flew over oceans and trees, Arthur emptied his stomach of every possible substance as his body was overtaken by vertigo. The time passed in a daze until his stomach lurched as the ground rushed closer to meet him. He felt something hard and solid collide with his skin. The pressure of Aithusa's talons left his body, and he laid with his face pressed into the cold stone of Camelot.
He heard the dragon settle next to him, chuckling.
"You couldn't have flown me back to Camelot some other way?" He groaned into the stone.
"Even if I do like you, only Merlin could ever ride on my back." The dragon replied as he used his snout to turn Arthur over so his back fell against the stone and he was looking up at the sky. He laid there panting as nausea lessened but remained in the pit of his stomach. It will be like this well into tomorrow, He thought with a groan.
"Not like he needs to" He groaned. "That sorcerer has wings of his own."
Aithusa rolled his eyes.
He squinted and let his head fall back against the stone. He could hear the shouts of his knights as they raced through the tower stairs to reach where he had fallen. Someone must have seen the dragon bring him in, he realized. Then relief rushed through him. His people were safe. He reached out a hand and curled it around Aithusa's talons that rested nearby.
"Thank you," He said. "For everything."
Aithusa nodded and leaned forward to nuzzle the side of his face.
"Without your guidance, surely Merlin would be dead." Arthur mused as he rested a hand lightly on the side of its white scales. He could hear his knights calling and pounding at the locked door to reach him, but he ignored them.
"My brother and I have a lot in common. We both were abandoned by someone we loved. Because I forgave him, the warmth of the sun for the first time in years reached my skin and cleared the darkness in my heart. That is why I helped you, because although you are wise, in matters of the heart you are weak and need council. You will be a good king, but you cannot be a great one without Emrys. Like me, without him, it would be to easy to become a monster, Arthur. Do not forget it, son of Pendragon, that for all his faults, it is Merlin who keeps us here on the right path."
The door burst open, and his knights poured onto the tower. He caught sight of Leon and Percival among a band of men. They made to charge at the dragon, but he stopped them with an outstretched hand.
"At ease men." He called and Leon held them back, although hesitant and with swords raised. He turned back to the dragon and forced himself to sit up. He struggled, and Aithusa pushed his back with his snot so that he rested with his hands holding onto his knees, sitting up before them. Aithusa moved his head back to gaze at the King and uncurled his tail from around him as he readied to take flight.
"I have returned you safely, as was Merlin's wish. But now, I believe he calls me home. You will see me again, red dragon. I look forward to when you meet the rest of our kin. Young hatchlings, so Kilgharrah tells me, are very mischievous. I would keep a close eye on your cattle if I were you. And some of them, have been known in the past to have a human form. Be careful who you invite into your halls." He said it with a mischievous grin and as he took off to hover in the air, Arthur climbed to his feet so that he might send him on his way.
"You tell Merlin I expect to see him come first spring. No getting out of it if I am to keep my oath."
"Arthur, if he never showed his face around you again, you would keep your oath. I have seen your heart. You cannot lie to me." He called as he gave a mighty thrust of his wing and ascended above the castle before he flew towards the sea. Arthur watched him go, gazing out at the snowy hills and the ice glimmering from the roofs of his people's houses as the sun broke over the horizon and bled pinks and blues into the sky.
A new day.
"My lord?" He heard Leon call from his right side. He turned to Leon, eyes raised with a smile.
"Yes, Sir Leon."
The knights looked back to the sky and the king before shuffling on his feet, mouth open for several seconds before shutting it.
Arthur smiled wide and true. It would be spring soon. Already, he could feel the warm sun breaking through the cold air. He thought of the first King of Camelot from his vision. The festival of the new spring had been vast. He remembered the golden sparkles that rained from the ceiling of the great hall. The children had shrieked with laughter as the men twirled their women in delight.
He thought back to when he first saw Merlin's magic, the abhorrence he felt at casting a spell even when he had claimed to accept magic and laughed. If he was going to accept magic, he was going to have to do it right.
He grinned mischievously and glanced at the knight out of the corner of his eye. There was a manic happiness running through his veins, the kind that only comes after avoiding near death.
"Yes, my lord?"
"There is a spell, I want to use it at the upcoming spring festival. You are friends with the druids. Do you know which of them I may speak too?"
Their grip on their swords tightened, no doubt questioning if he was their King or a being created from the dragon through magic. Leon took a half step back. And he started to raise his sword. Gwen, Gaius and Elyan rushed through the door.
"Thank God!" Gwen called as she clapped her slender hands together, eyes closed for a fraction a second. "Arthur, what happened? Where are Merlin and Gwaine? Are they with you?" Before she could reach him, Percival shot out a hand and stopped her from advancing. The other knights stood to the side, waiting for orders from Leon on how to proceed.
"When I last spoke with King Arthur, although he tolerated it from Merlin, he still called magic treason. Prove to me that you are the King, Sire, and I will lower my guard."
Arthur glanced at Gwen. His eyes roamed over every inch of her body. She looked tired but unharmed. They all looked fatigued, and he wondered how long they had been trapped as statues of ice. He reached for the chain around his neck and pulled out his ring to drop into Leon's hands. Leon examined it but did not lower his guard.
"The curse on the castle is broken. You know I planned to introduce Aithusa to the council, Leon. It should have been no surprise for you to see me speaking with him. Merlin isn't with me, because he chose to stay behind. He has other duties he must attend. " The knight slowly lowered his sword, kneeled and bowed his head.
"Forgive me, my lord. I had to be sure. The events of the past few days have been…strange."
Arthur nodded. "And that is why you are my main guard," Arthur said with a grin as he patted Leon's shoulder and raised him to his feet.
He held an arm out for Gwen who came forward. His other knights surrounded him and spoke of the wave of ice that had covered them and left them frozen. It was like falling asleep where they stood. When their awareness returned, they had come alive with glowing eyes, shivering and frightened. Panic had broken out among the people until Gwen released a public statement and nailed it to every door that no trials would be conducted for magic at the present time. It stopped the rioting, but the nervous energy lingered in the city. No one knew what would happen when the King returned.
Although several people were still feeling the lingering effects of winter sickness, the cold no longer bit through the coats and boots of the people. As if the wind had swept in a cure, no new cases arose in the lands.
Gwaine was still missing. Gwen had sent ten knights to travel with two extra horses through the woods to search for Arthur, Gwaine and Merin, but no word had returned.
Camelot's provisions were running low, especially with the druids present in Camelot. Yet, after Arthur ordered each man to receive the same ration no matter what class, he knew they would make it through the winter with food to spare.
Several days after his return, a messenger from Lot's kingdom arrived at his court. They were unprepared for the extended winter and after the servant read the message from King Lot requesting for aid, he tossed the letter to the ground and begged him to help their people with his forehead pushed down into the floor. He knew it would be a risk to aide them, but he thought of his own people who begged in the same halls for aide with boney arms and desperate faces. His heart had been moved with compassion for them. He had no responsibility to Lot's people. They were not from his kingdom. But it occurred to him that it did not matter if they were not his people because they were still just that, people.
The man left in tears with bags of grain he did not expect to receive.
Arthur felt bright and alert, more alive than he had in a long time. His decision to repeal the ban on magic was met with a fury of resistance and support from his council. Arguments broke out among the round table. His most trusted knights and his wife fought passionately at his side and they soon swayed the majority of the nobles. Despite the resistance, the people responded quickly to the proposed change. The purge had left many families dizzy with fear and confusion. More families remembered a time when magic was legal than they realized and had filled their children's ears with hushed stories of a different time.
To Arthur's surprise, many of the older nobles already knew the druid leaders from before the beginning of the purge. As they argued against restoring the practice of magic to Camelot, Arthur wondered if it was their hatred of magic or their growing guilt for supporting his father's cause that lite the fire of their resistance.
When it remained clear Arthur would not back down on repealing the ban, their frustration started to transform to rage. This is because of that bastard, devil servant! One of them had spat with white lips and wide eyes. Then, Arthur snapped.
He did not need their corporation nor their approval. He was the King.
How many other people like Merlin were there in his Kingdom? How many stared down mirrors in the shifting light of twilight wondering if today would be the day they lose the battle with themselves and embrace death. How many sorcerers had been put on trial, not fighting to break away from the solders as they approached the pyre, but wrapped their arms around the stake which would burn away their life and wept for joy that their pain would soon be over. How many of his people believed they were worthless, believed there was something wrong in their blood, their mind and soul, believed the world might be better off without them in it.
The thought made him rage at his people who would ever dare to think that way of themselves, but rage even more at the people who encouraged it. At himself, who drove Merlin toward drinking a vial which might have stolen his life away forever, at his father who created a stigma and fear of something as neutral as magic which caused people to hate their own skin, at his solders who trampled through the cities spreading hate and fear with their swords and torches, at the mothers and fathers who valued themselves above their own children and drowned them in wells or tossed them at the castle gates for a trial to save their own skins so everyone would know not even your own family could ever love you if you had magic . How many people had died at their own hand, all because they were alone, there was no one to tell them that they would be missed, that they were already loved, that they did not need to do anything different. Their blood was not a poison and there was nothing wrong with the soul under their skin. It was bright and beautiful and no amount of hated or agony or loneliness or humiliation would ever change what it was.
Beautiful, unique, one of a kind in a way that would never be repeated again, in a way that no one would ever be able to imagine again.
That even if there was no one with them now, they could not give into the darkness because then that one incandescent light which would never exist again would vanish from the world and every single soul they had not met yet would be mourning the loss even if they did not know why. That if they faded into the black, that their radiant light would not be there to light the way of the lovers and friends or strangers in market halls who would never be the same without them. That even if they were alone until the light under their skin was called to return to the blazing sun, that their flickering light which remained on the earth had melded with the people around them and brought beauty and life, had melted into an eternal work of art which would forever leave a glorious mark upon the souls around them.
That even if none of that mattered, if they did not care about any of it, they could not vanish into the void reaching out for their heart because they were alive, because they were here and they were not made to give into the darkness but to live in the light. That if for nothing else, they owed it to themselves, to the light, to flicker on. A wavering candle, a fluttering spark in the darkness, a burning ember shooting up grey smoke heavy and thick but alive.
- It will take years anyhow. Plenty of time to adjust. One of his council members muttered around him as his eyes drifted into focus.
"Just a week, if we rush it." Geoffrey replied and fixed Arthur with a piercing gaze. Something in his eyes caused Arthur to give the Man his undivided attention.
"I often wondered at my keeping it, but when your father ordered the destruction of Camelot's magic archives and history, I kept as many of the books and scrolls detailing the history of Camelot as I could hide. It happens that one of the scrolls recorded the codex of law from before your father's reign. If you were to read it over, amend what it is you wish as each king did at the start of his new reign, we might have it posted to the citadel before the week is up. Many of the elderly of the city will remember the laws, may have even spoken of them to others, so it will not be unfamiliar to them. The younger men might have a more difficult time, but I think it will be good in time."
Arthur nodded slowly.
He could not battle the enemy of despair, nor present a cure for the darkness. He could not chase away memories of crippling loneliness or shield his people from the cold touch of hatred that might have even been received from his own gaze. He could not even force them to gaze into the mirror to see how perfectly the light from their soul mixed with the light of the dawn and cast rainbows of colors across the clouds in the sky.
Half the time, he could hardly even control his own temper.
But just like them, he had his own light inside of him. A burning fire which had raged and burned but now swept like a searchlight in the midnight hour longing to share the light of the sun. He could not make up for the past. He could not force a change. But, he could give his people a better chance for the future.
He could place a lamp outside the castle of his city as if to say:
Here, there is light.
Here, you may shine.
Here, I do not wish to add to the darkness but to the light.
Here, we will remember all of those who have gone before, and we will not ignore the darkness.
"Place them in my chambers when we finish, and it will be done if I find the laws sufficient. "He said with a nod, and the council was amazed he made no comment on Geoffrey's betrayal of his father.
Arthur leaned back in his chair with a hand rested on the armrest as he listened to Lord Byron adamantly speak in favor of the new Laws of magic. He knew Merlin had helped the Nobel's daughter recover from sickness and wondered if Lord Byron believed the cure was magical.
He looked out from the open chamber door and caught sight of a small ray of sun that illuminated the dust swirling through the air. It occurred to him as his men discussed the old laws around him that he did not know if he should look to the sky or the ground for Merlin's return. Or perhaps, he might appear at any time out of thin air as the golden mist had transported Arthur out of the mountain. He left out a soft groan of frustration and massaged his temples lightly. He wanted Merlin with him. Merlin who might know exactly what his people needed but was unable to return to Camelot because of the world which had tried to snuff out his light. Merlin, who had lived through the blackest day and survived.
Merlin, He thought. Don't keep me waiting long. I need you here.
He looked up as he felt a soft breeze rustle through the room and glanced towards the beam of light dancing across the stone floor in the hall.
I never do. And, you already have everything you need.
Merlin whispered back as the sunbeams rippled before settling. The warmth in his chest grew, and Arthur did not wonder anymore if nothing he was doing would help his people heal. He might not have lived through the same darkness, but he had lived in the same world. He had seen the same evil, and he had pierced his own heart to make a home for it there. He knew its voice, and he knew the shapes it would twist from people's mouths as they breathed ignorance and misguided beliefs of goodness.
He knew it better than anyone.
He realized he did not have to suffer what Merlin suffered to know how to help his people. He only needed to love with a true, selfless love that did not discriminate nor work to undermine those around him. He only needed to listen to the burning fire surrounding him from his people and within him to allow it to shine.
As he listened to the blood boiling comments from his more prejudiced and egocentric council members, he caught the faint traces of truth and goodness which had been twisted in their words. What might have sounded righteous to his ears and swayed him to their side before, he now recognized as words grounded and twisted up in half-truths.
Arthur laughed that he ever believed their lies.
As they discussed the class system in Camelot and how it might be threatened with the new addition of magic Arthur jolted in surprise, shook his head in disbelief, and leaned forward towards the table to tell Lord Jeffrey exactly what he thought about his idea to allow the practice of magic only for those of noble blood in Camelot.
None of it was good.
Thank you to everyone who finished this story! For me, this is the natural end of Castle in the Sky. I had woven the plot of a sequel into this story, but as it took me years to finish I am unsure if I will ever get around to writing the sequel. Because I know that without a sequel several of the plot elements would remain unfinished, let me know if you would be interested in reading an epilogue. If so, I'll go ahead and start working on that to tie up a few loose ends. It likely would not resolve everything, because I may yet start working on a sequel, but it would tie up a few that I think might be a sore spot (like the story ending with Arthur and us not really seeing what happens with Merlin and Gwaine after the quest into the mountain.)
Thank you again for everyone who reviewed, favorited and added this story to their alerts! You are the reason this story was finished!