Epilogue: Nothing Ever Changes
Phew, just made it up before Christmas! But now, I find myself at a loose end- my time is my own once again! It is most confusing, though gratifying, as this is the very first fanfic that I have posted on the Internet that I have actually completed! Yay me! 'Tis the magical influence of "Merlin"! ;) Here it is, the final instalment of "An Illusion of Magic"- it's not very long, just a short ending, but I hope you all like it anyway.
Lady-Miranda-Van-Tassel: Yes, they did indeed only just make it. And Mab, Merlin and Frik should be pitied for going all the way through the Labyrinth and then losing their friends anyway.
Disclaimer: "Merlin" owned by Hallmark Entertainment, Jareth owned by Jim Henson, and I'm not entirely sure who to credit Lord Idath to, but I'll say James Mallory, since whilst he appeared in the "Merlin" novelisation (penned by James Mallory, and a damn good trilogy for those people who haven't read it), he didn't appear in the actual film. BTW, for those of you who've read the book and know who Idath is, don't get overly excited, he gets one, very short, non-speaking appearance which is only included because I wanted to keep in canon with the Merlin film and books as much as possible.
Merlin blinked several times in the sudden daylight of the Mortal Realm. The ground underneath him felt unsteady, and Merlin realised as he looked down that it was because he was sitting on a horse- Sir Rupert, in fact.
"There's another face I haven't seen for years," Merlin thought fondly, looking down at the horse that had been his companion for more years than he could count. But something was wrong. Sir Rupert seemed agitated, worried.
"Merlin!" he heard the horse's voice echo inside his head, before he heard a mighty crashing and scraping noise in front of him. Looking up, Merlin saw what was making the sound- a rock-face towered in front of him, with a large crevice in the middle that was quickly sealing itself shut.
Such was the unexpectedness that Merlin felt at arriving back at this point in time, that it took him several moments before he realised exactly what this was- this was the moment that had haunted him for the last five years, the moment that Nimue had been trapped in the Enchanted Cave that lay behind this cliff.
He leapt from Sir Rupert's back, knowing it was futile, running towards the sealing crevice. Before he could reach it, however, it sealed itself shut, once more.
"Nimue," Merlin murmured painfully. To have come so close to being reunited with his lost love, only to have her torn away from him again was almost more than Merlin could bear. So this was what Jareth had sent him back to. A world at war, where he'd lost his dearest love, and Arthur, his closest friend was…
Another painful realisation flooded Merlin. If he'd been sent back to the point in time after he'd left the enchanted cave, then that must mean that Arthur was dying, again. Nothing else could have prompted him to leave. This was Jareth's final revenge on them all- and all the Goblin King had had to do was send them back to this past of their own making.
For a moment, Merlin considered staying where he was. He knew what would happen next- Arthur would die, and Nimue would remain trapped in this cave forever. He couldn't change that, and he didn't particularly want to revisit the past by doing exactly what he had done the first time around. But his conscience wouldn't allow him to leave Arthur to die alone. The King of Britain deserved more than that from his faithful advisor, and Arthur deserved more than that from his old friend.
Merlin walked back to Sir Rupert and climbed back on.
"You know where to go, I presume, old friend?" he asked the horse. Rupert snorted and nodded.
"Of course, Merlin," he said quietly. Without speaking again, they left the clearing, heading for Arthur, for what Merlin knew would be their one last meeting.
Mab knelt down beside Mordred. There was blood everywhere, so much blood she was amazed that she hadn't noticed it before. It dripped constantly from Mordred's wound, staining the forest floor around him a deep shade of crimson, soaking into her robes as she pulled him closer to her.
"Mordred!" she called urgently, worried for a moment that he would die even sooner than last time, before she could talk to him. He let out a gasping breath and turned towards her.
"Auntie Mab…" he said, attempting to sound as brave and casual as possible, an effect that was somewhat spoiled by the gasp of pain that followed it. Mab stared down at him. There had to be something she could do to save him, he couldn't die again. Reaching deep inside herself, she searched for any spell, any sacrifice, any ritual, anything that would save Mordred and bring him back to her, but there was nothing there. She had never been able to reverse the course of life and death- that power belonged exclusively to Idath, the Lord of Death, and she knew from past experience that he used it sparingly- and healing magic had never been a particularly potent element of her powers- over the centuries the little she had been able to do had been whittled down by the gradual hardening and darkening of her nature, until healing all but the most superficial wounds of others was beyond her capabilities. She knew that willpower alone could not stop Mordred's death.
Fury built up inside her. She was the Queen of Air and Darkness, the Mistress of Magic itself. She could command the winds and storms, could call up armies of magical creatures to do her bidding, could summon the very essence of magic itself to unmake anyone and anything, but what was the use of any of that if she couldn't even save her own child?
Desperately she pressed her hands over his chest, trying to physically staunch the flow of blood. Mordred gave a gasp of pain, and clutched at her hands, trying to move them.
"Mordred, if the bleeding doesn't stop, you'll…" Mab couldn't bring herself to say "die". Mordred's death was almost inevitable, and she knew it. Her voice shook with the effort it took to try and remain calm and vaguely in control, "There's nothing else I can do," she said instead, pleadingly. Mordred stared at her.
"I'm going to die, aren't I Auntie?" His voice was shaking too, though on his part it was because of the effort it took to speak at all. He actually seemed remarkably calm and unmoved by the thought of his death. Mab shook her head firmly, as though by denying it to Mordred, she could deny it to herself too, even though she knew what would happen now, had seen it with her own eyes.
"No," she told him, trying to sound matter-of-fact, "You're not. You're going to be fine, if you just hold still…"
"How am I going to be fine, if even you can't heal me?" Mordred asked, traces of mockery and scepticism still present in his voice. His eyes were beginning to close, Mab could see he was slipping away. Desperately she searched around for anything to say that would make him try harder to stay alive.
"Mordred, we've almost won," she whispered, "And all you have to do to win is stay awake. You can't let him win!" she said desperately, thinking of Jareth's face as he sent them back to this, wondering if he could still be watching them now. To her surprise, Mordred smiled then.
"Yes, I suppose I have won, haven't I? I stabbed Arthur, did you see?" he said, his voice weak, but the tone very self-satisfied and proud, as though he were a child awaiting praise. Mab realised that he had thought she was talking about his battle with Arthur. For Mordred, the last thirteen hours probably seemed like less than a half-forgotten dream, which was probably a good thing for him. She nodded.
"Yes, I saw."
"Did I make you proud, Auntie?" he asked. As well as the self-pride and constant mocking tone in his voice that had remained there so long that now it never left, was something else, almost like longing.
"Of course you did!" Mab told him, watching him desperately, hoping against hope that she could coax him into staying awake, though she had no idea what for. There were no beings nearby who could heal a wound of this severity, certainly no amount of herbs and medicines would cure it, but there had to be some way…
Mordred was smiling to himself again, "I won't make much of a king with a sword wound through the chest though…" Mab could feel him slipping away again.
"I don't care if you're king or not!" she hissed, partly in anger, "Just don't leave me alone again…!" But it was too late. Mordred might have heard her, but he was past being able to reply. He gave her a small smile, and Mab felt his breaths growing shorter as he slipped into unconsciousness.
"Mordred…" she called weakly, willing all this to stop "Not again, please not again…" Mordred didn't reply, made no indication of having even heard her. "Mordred, please…" Mordred's body went completely still, no more breathing, no more life. Mab shook her head, but she knew it was already too late for her to do anything, and there was certainly no point in denying it. She stood up and moved back away from Mordred's body. Her hands were sticky with half congealed blood, and her skirts were soaked in it, but at that moment, even simple magic to get rid of it seemed too much effort. Mab turned away, leaning against a tree for support. Behind her, she felt a rush of cold air, and knew that the Lord of Death, Idath, had appeared, waiting to take Mordred's spirit, just as he had the first time. Then, Mab had pleaded with him to save Mordred, to bring him back to life, but he had refused to help her, and had left her alone with nothing. Mab knew he would only do the same thing now, and she couldn't bear to look at him. Closing her eyes, she remained facing away from Idath and Mordred's body, unmoving and silent, until another rush of cold air indicated that Idath had departed.
Mab turned back, hoping against hope that maybe this time Idath had seen fit to save Mordred, for the sake of the Old Ways if not for her, but she didn't really expect it. Idath was as cold and unmoving as Mab had been, and sympathy and comfort were as far from his nature as they were from her own. Sure enough, when she had turned back, Mordred still lay where he had fallen, his eyes closed, his skin cold and his chest still. There was nothing left of who he had been. His spirit was gone, his life was gone. It was almost impossible to tell him apart from any of the other fallen soldiers who lay around the forest, all uniformly lifeless.
Mab could hear shouts in the distance- the survivors from Arthur's army, she presumed. She didn't want to have to face them now, wished that the whole world could stop for a few moments, to leave her alone with her grief, but that would never happen. Turning, she left the clearing, walking away from Mordred's body and the rest of the survivors.
Merlin reached Arthur in almost the same place that he had before- heading for the lake, clutching Excalibur. Kneeling down beside him, Merlin made the effort to smile at his old friend.
"Merlin," Arthur gasped out weakly, smiling back at him, "I needed to…to see you…" He trailed off, clutching at the wound in his side in pain. Merlin put a hand on his arm, wishing that he could help him.
"Easy now, Arthur," he said gently, "Don't try to move." But Arthur seemed determined to speak to him, just as determined as he had been the first time that all this had happened. Merlin expected to hear the same bequest from Arthur- to give the sword back to the Lady of the Lake, but when Arthur opened his mouth to speak this time, he said something different.
"You knew this would happen, didn't you, Merlin?" he asked weakly, "That's what you meant when you said it had been years…since you had seen me…"
"I didn't know that it would happen again, Arthur- I thought that winning that challenge would save you, not just send us all back to relive the past…" Merlin told him, suddenly filled with guilt that he hadn't thought to warn Arthur of the fate that Merlin thought he was helping him elude. But, he told himself, how could he possibly have known that this would happen again?
Arthur shook his head, "I wasn't accusing you, old friend. I need to know, what happens to the kingdom after I die?" Merlin paused. How could he tell Arthur what happened? That the noble dream of Camelot had turned into petty squabbles and civil war between power-crazed lords, and that people were turning away from their leaders and the New Religion.
"The Old Ways were destroyed. Queen Mab and I fought, and she disappeared…" Arthur looked confused, Merlin didn't blame him, after all, the man had seen the Queen of Air and Darkness standing right in front of him only a short time ago, but now was not the time to go into detail with Arthur, "…I haven't really been back to court since then." He stopped, wondering whether to go on.
"But?" asked Arthur in a weak but determined voice, "There's something else, Merlin, I can hear it in your voice." Merlin nodded.
"The nobles squabble amongst themselves over who gets your crown," he told Arthur, who looked surprised.
"I named my heir- Gawain- before I went into battle with Mordred."
"I know that," Merlin said patiently, "But a lot of the nobles won't accept your decision. Most of them think it should either have been them, or someone more closely related to them. The country isn't united any more; it's filled with different factions, all paying allegiance to different lords, who all claim to be fighting with the blessing of the same god. It seems to me that Christianity is all well and good in theory, but there seems to be an awful lot of pomp, circumstance and hypocrisy when it comes to the actual practice." Merlin remembered, belatedly, that Arthur was also a Christian, "I mean no insult to your God, of course, or you." Arthur smiled weakly.
"I'm sure He will forgive you that comment, seeing what you have already done to bring peace to this country." He paused, frowning, "Merlin, will you do something for me?" Merlin nodded.
"Yes, Arthur." Arthur went on, obviously struggling to speak even more now.
"I was going…to throw Excalibur back into the lake. I thought the world was no place for magic swords deciding how a kingdom rises and falls," he told Merlin, "But I'm not sure that it's the right thing to do any more. I don't know magic. But you do," He held the sword out to Merlin, "I need you to take this. Do what you will with it. You've done so much to bring peace to this country, and if I'm not there to keep the peace, then I need you to save this country. Use Excalibur if need be, get rid of it if that's the best thing to do, but please don't let this country turn into the country that my grandfather ruled over." Arthur's eyes were wide and pleading. Merlin stared at Arthur. He knew that bringing peace to Britain would be a long, arduous and thankless task, but he also knew that he couldn't deny Arthur this one last wish. He reached out and took the sword.
"I'll do all that I can, I promise." Arthur smiled, and, as if he'd placed all his energies into that one last act of trying to be truly loyal to his country, suddenly went limp, his eyes closing, and fell to the ground. Merlin stared down at him for a few moments. Surely this wasn't how it should have ended? They'd beaten Jareth's challenge, by all rights this should be a happy time. But no, the Goblin King had been so hell bent on revenge that he'd shot all of their lives to pieces for a second time.
Standing up, Merlin walked back to Sir Rupert. He had promised Arthur that he would do all that he could to try and bring peace back to Britain, but first he had to know what kind of war he had to fight, what he would have to do to make that peace, and at that point in time, he knew there was only one other person who could tell him that.
"Sir Rupert," he told the horse, climbing onto his back, "I need you to find Queen Mab." If the horse found these instructions strange, he didn't make a comment, just rode off back towards what Merlin knew to have been the site of the battle, just a small while previously.
As Mab walked slowly through the woods, her mind filled with fury. Fury at Mordred for dying and leaving her alone, fury at Idath for not saving him, fury at Merlin, Arthur, Frik, her sister, and especially Jareth. Jareth was the one who was making her relive this hellish nightmare a second time. After all she'd been through, all she'd had to put up with in the Labyrinth, surely she didn't deserve this. None of the three contestants of the Labyrinth had. All she wanted was to make Jareth pay for her loss, though she knew how futile that wish was. To go back to the Underground was to condemn herself for certain, and there was no immediate way of bringing Jareth to the Realms of Men if he didn't wish to be there.
The urge to lash out at anything and everything in her fury was immense. To create and recreate and heal was not something Mab could do anymore. Destruction was what she excelled at. She could bring it about in a second, she'd brought it about countless times- in some ways, she'd even brought about her own destruction. She could make this entire forest and all its remaining inhabitants burn in seconds, with flames large and powerful enough to be seen right across the British Isles. But even as she thought it she knew that she wouldn't do it. Not because she felt any particular compunction to spare the soldiers that had, in some way, contributed to Mordred's death, but because a spell that immense would weaken her considerably, and, for all she knew, if the past continued to repeat itself, then she might find herself facing extinction again, and if that happened, she was determined to fight back this time, not allow Merlin, or indeed any of her enemies, to catch her out.
Clenching her fists and closing her eyes she forced herself to hold back the furious, burning tide of magic that threatened to engulf her surroundings in her anger. Just as she succeeded, she heard a horse's hooves pounding across the forest floor behind her. She heard someone dismount, and begin to walk over to her. She turned round, but she knew it was Merlin long before she saw him.
"Hello Mab," said Merlin awkwardly. Mab nodded her head in acknowledgement.
"Merlin." Neither of them moved for a while, each one staring cautiously at the other, with wary expressions crossing each of their faces. Merlin stared at the blood on Mab's robes.
"Mordred, is he…?" he asked, trailing off, unsure of what to say. Mab nodded.
"And Arthur? I assume he's dead, too?" she stated, noticing that Merlin now carried the sword that his protégée had pulled out of the Mountain King's rock all those years ago. Merlin nodded.
"Yes. Arthur too." There was another silence.
"Well, what now?" Mab asked, "I assume there was a reason behind seeking me out, other than exchanging empty pleasantries and each of us pretending we care about the other's loss?" Her voice was cold and hard. Back in a world where they were enemies, Mab had no time to be patient or friendly towards Merlin. Merlin, for his part, seemed slightly cautious and unsure whether to attempt friendliness or not.
"I am sorry that Mordred's dead," he protested. Mab rolled her eyes.
"No you're not. You hated Mordred, just as much as I hated Arthur. When I said that you didn't care, it was an observation, not an accusation. I wasn't asking for your pity," she snapped.
"And I wasn't giving it," retorted Merlin, "I'm sorry that Mordred's dead, because I know you loved him, and I know how much it hurts to lose someone you love. The only pity I feel towards you is pity that here in a realm that's partly your own, you seem incapable of showing the slightest hint of any kind of emotion whatsoever, for some reason." Mab stared at him coolly.
"If you came here to insult me, and that's the best you can do, I suggest that you stop wasting your time and leave now. Run back to the rest of Arthur's idiotic troops and see if you can stop the little children from fighting over who gets to rule the country this time." Her voice took on a mocking tone on the last sentence, that sounded not unlike Mordred's.
"I didn't come here to fight with you, Mab," Merlin said tiredly.
"What a pity," muttered Mab, "It would be infinitely preferable if you had." Merlin continued, ignoring her last sentence.
"I came because I want to know what's going to happen now," he told her.
"Then I suggest you consult someone who can see the future," Mab suggested bluntly, "I'm not an oracle of wisdom." Merlin looked exasperated at her refusal to even attempt civility.
"Before he died, I promised Arthur that I'd try and bring peace to Britain," he said. When he said that, a glimpse of what looked like hurt passed over Mab's face, before being swiftly masked behind a veil of coldness.
"How very noble of you," Mab sneered, "And you expect what from me, exactly? A good luck card?" Merlin gritted his teeth.
"I want to know what you're going to do next," he told her, "I need to know what's changed between us, and what you plan to do in this war." Mab raised an eyebrow.
""What's changed between us"?" she repeated, "I wasn't aware anything had. Perhaps you and I are existing in two different dimensions, but in the one I'm currently residing in you just said that you promised Arthur, the great Christian king, that you would bring peace to Britain. Unless I'm much mistaken, that puts you and me on opposite sides of the war, just as we were before." Merlin stared at her.
"So, everything that happened in the last thirteen hours was what to you, exactly?" he asked, sounding slightly angry, "Nothing?"
"As far as it stands in relation to where we are now, then yes, it does mean nothing," Mab told him.
"You can't mean that," Merlin demanded, "You can't just pretend nothing happened." Mab rolled her eyes.
"Merlin, shut up!" she snapped, "You sound like some sort of scorned lover." That comment certainly shut Merlin up for a few seconds. After thinking the phrasing of his next sentence through carefully, he spoke again.
"What I meant was, I thought we agreed not to hate each other any more. Not to be enemies. Or had you forgotten?"
"Merlin, I haven't forgotten anything," Mab told him, "I never said that I hated you, merely that we were on opposite sides of the war, and we only agreed not to be enemies for the duration of the challenge." She turned away, but Merlin stepped in front of her, blocking her way.
"I really don't understand you, Mab. Are you really telling me that you want to be at war? That you want to go back to the two of us tearing Britain to pieces, just so that you can score points against me? You really are a self-centred, heartless creature, aren't you!" he demanded angrily. Mab glared at him, furiously.
"There is nothing I want less than to be at war with you, you idiot!" she snapped, "Perhaps you've forgotten, but the last time we fought, I ended up spending five years travelling through the Void. You've seen my memories, you know what that was like. I created you to help save the Old Ways, not to have to defend then against you!" Merlin stared at her.
"But we don't have to be enemies," he protested, "In the Labyrinth, we were allies, we helped each other. I stopped you from getting killed by griffins, you stopped that giant metal creature from killing us all. You told me your fears about Jareth, Mab, we saw inside each other's heads for crying out loud!"
"Your point being?" Mab asked coldly.
"My point being, we could still be allies, or at least not enemies, surely. I'd rather have you as my friend than as my enemy."
"Oh, would you?" Mab's eyes flashed furiously, "You've got a strange way of showing it."
"What do you mean?" Merlin asked, puzzled. Mab hissed in angry exasperation.
"What I mean, Merlin, is that you might be very good at setting aside your differences, and admitting you might be wrong when you're away from the battle, but when it comes down to it, you might want to be friends, but really, you just want to win a victory for your precious Arthur," she spat, "Your idea of you and I making peace is me agreeing to stop fighting against Christianity, to let things change, to not try and fight as my people and I are diminished by the Christians in power- in between them fighting each other, of course- until we all fade into nothing. Did you honestly think I would agree to that?" Merlin said nothing, but Mab could see in his face that he saw some truth in her words. She continued, "So unless you were willing to acknowledge your heritage, and help me fight to get my rightful powers back- which would be a welcome change, quite frankly- then you and I are on opposite sides in this war. Are you?" she snapped. Merlin hesitated a moment. He knew that it wasn't the Old Ways that were at the root of all Britain's troubles, and from what he had seen of the mess the nobles had made of the country after Arthur's death, quite frankly, he couldn't see how Mab could make it much worse. But then, he'd seen what Mab could do when she felt she'd been pushed into a corner, knew how terrifying the consequences could be for all involved, and knew he couldn't risk helping her to regain the kind of power that would allow her to do that again. Besides, he had made a promise to Arthur, and Merlin didn't think that even Arthur, despite his tolerance, would countenance him handing Britain away from Christianity and back to the Old Ways. He shook his head.
"I can't break my word to Arthur. I made him a promise. By the definition of your laws, words are binding, Mab," he said, sounding sorrowful. Mab didn't look surprised.
"Then you knew exactly what you were letting yourself in for when you made him that promise, and you can't complain that you've set yourself against me, again. That you've turned your back on the Old Ways, again. That you're helping anyone and everyone else before me, again. You knew all of that, so don't try and push the blame onto me." Merlin stared at her.
"And that's your final word?" Mab nodded.
"Yes." Her voice had lost some of its former coolness, now she sounded slightly sad. She regarded Merlin thoughtfully. For years they had loathed each other, but even then, Mab would have given an awful lot for Merlin to try and make peace with her. He was her son, he was part of her, part of the Old Ways, but she couldn't, and wouldn't, give up her fight on the terms that Merlin was offering. To sacrifice the Old Ways in their entirety, and quite possibly her own existence, too, was not something that she was willing to do, even if it meant making peace with Merlin. She'd always put the Old Ways and her subjects above and before everyone and everything else, and if Merlin was still willing to set himself on the side of Christianity, then he had to know that he was setting himself against her, too.
A noise from nearby caused both of them to look up. By the sounds of it, the rest of the soldiers from Arthur's army were heading towards them. Mab stepped backwards.
"I'll take that as my cue to depart, shall I?" she asked, "Tell your friends they haven't won yet." Her voice sounded cold again, as though the small amount of emotion she'd shown a moment ago had been forcibly crushed.
Merlin didn't reply to Mab's words, merely stood and watched as she vanished. There was nothing in the world he wanted less than to have to fight her, but he could see that there was no choice. Both of them had vowed to fight for opposite courses, and Merlin could see that, until they found a way for their aims to coexist in peace, then he and Mab would always be at war, he would always be fighting against the woman who had given him his life and his powers. Neither of them could alter that, both were as unshakeable and unchanging in their beliefs as stone, and neither would ever break the promises they had made to others for anyone else- Merlin had criticised Mab for being cold and heartless towards him, her son, but when it had come down to it, he hadn't even been able to abandon his duty for Nimue, the woman he had loved. Was everyone associated with him destined to be lonely and unhappy forever?
Sighing, he turned and walked back towards Sir Rupert. He had the rest of Arthur's nobles to contend with, years of trying to unite the country under one lord, and trying to force himself to care who eventually got it, then forcing himself to fight against Queen Mab and the Old Ways again. Years of loneliness, of fighting, of bitterness. It would be as bad, or worse than it had been before Jareth had even set him that ridiculous challenge.
He rode away, ready to go back to being Merlin-the-wizard, the loyal follower of Arthur, who lived to bring peace to Britain, but whom no-one really trusted. If he acted that way for long enough, then it would be as if nothing had ever changed.
Well, that's it folks. I have to say, I'm not terrifically happy with how I've written this chapter, I wouldn't say it's the best one so far, but endings are not really my forte, and so I hope you enjoyed it anyway! Thanks to everyone who's reviewed, I'd never have finished this without you! Happy Christmas!