Author's note. I finally finished the last chapter. Thanks to all of you for reading this far. Hope you enjoy. Please let me know what you think now it's finished. Constructive criticism is always welcome, as are people just being nice to me. :D I haven't used a beta on this or anything else I've written, so you know where the blame for the hordes of grammatical errors and typos rests. ;-)
Arthur looked down at the shivering figure of his friend, then across at Gaius, who was preparing to attempt the healing spell.
'This is going to work,' he assured the physician confidently. 'You can do this, Gaius.'
'I appreciate the confidence,' Gaius replied, 'but you need to understand that this is very powerful magic. Merlin may make this look easy, but for him spellcasting is as natural as breathing. I'll do my best, but he's not going to recover overnight. This will give him a chance, nothing more.' The prince tightened his grip on his friend's hand.
'It's going to work,' he replied defiantly. 'It has to. Do you hear me, Merlin?' he demanded, addressing the younger man. 'You have to get better, understand?'
'Mmmm,' Merlin murmured, turning towards the sound of the voice. 'Put the kettle on, we have to feed the dragons,' he continued. Arthur raised his eyebrows, looking up at Gaius, who shook his head.
'It's no good, his fever's too high,' the physician explained. 'He doesn't understand anything we're saying to him. I doubt he recognises us at all.'
There was no response from the warlock, who continued to lie on his side, shaking violently. As the two continued to watch, Merlin's shivering stopped.
'We don't have much time,' Gaius informed the prince. 'Hold him still.' As Arthur took hold of his friend's arms, he came to a chilling realisation.
'Gaius, he's not breathing.' The physician looked up in shock then reached for his patient's wrist. After a few moments he confirmed the prince's deduction.
'He has no pulse,' he answered, stunned. 'We were too late. He's dead.'
'He can't be,' Arthur argued desperately. 'Come on Merlin, breathe! Wake up damn you!' He took hold of his friend's shoulders and shook him roughly. 'Merlin, come on.' He felt strong hands restraining him from behind.
'Leave him Arthur, it's too late, he's gone.'
'He's not!' the prince insisted, repeatedly slapping the warlock's face. 'Come on Merlin, breathe. Don't make me a murderer!'
'Arthur, you're not…' Gaius began, but he was interrupted by the prince.
'Gaius, try the spell.'
'Even Merlin couldn't raise people from the dead,' the physician argued. 'Merlin was like a son to me, but we have to accept that he's dead. There's nothing we can do.'
'He's not dead,' Arthur was adamant. 'He's only just stopped breathing. You can still save him. Try the spell, Gaius, please?' The physician nodded in surrender.
'Very well,' he agreed. He took a deep breath and recited the spell. 'Anrhega 'm 'r allu chan yn iacháu.' Nothing happened. 'It isn't working,' he admitted after a moment.
'Try it again,' the prince demanded desperately, punching Merlin in the chest in a last-ditch attempt to make him breathe. The warlock remained unresponsive.
'Please?' Gaius sighed.
'anrhega 'm 'r allu chan yn iacháu,' he chanted. Still, there was no visible response from Merlin.
'Again!' the prince demanded.
'Arthur, it's no use,' the physician tried to argue.
'If you won't do it, I will,' the prince informed him.
'Arthur, you no more have magical powers than I have wings,' Gaius tried to make the prince understand.
'I don't care!' Arthur yelled back. Wrapping his tongue around the unfamiliar words, he attempted to cast the spell. 'omega mr alloo chanin iachow,' he shouted.
'anrhega,' a voice corrected him. 'anrhega 'm 'r allu chan yn iacháu.' The prince did a double-take. The sound had not come from Gaius. He glanced down to see a pair of fevered green eyes staring back at him. The physician's spell had worked. As he continued to gape, the warlock's lips turned up into a smile.
'Merlin!' Arthur gasped, laughing hysterically and taking hold of both of his friend's shoulders. 'I thought I'd killed you!' A huge grin broke out on his face.
'Can't get rid of me that easily,' the warlock rasped, his eyes slipping closed. 'Fraid you're stuck with me.'
As Merlin fell into a deep sleep, both Gaius and Arthur heaved a huge sigh of relief.
'It's no good, he's dead.' The words echoed in Arthur's mind as he opened his eyes to once again find himself sitting up in bed, shaking and gasping for breath. He shook his head, attempting to clear the image of Merlin's lifeless body from his mind. Merlin was alive, he reminded himself yet again as he rubbed a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. Exhausted though he was, the prince had been unable to remain asleep for more than a few minutes at a time since the warlock had regained consciousness. Knowing that his guilt would continue to prevent him from getting the rest Gaius had prescribed, he threw on some clothes and made his way up to the roof, where he stood and watched the sun rise over the kingdom.
'Couldn't sleep?' Uther's voice sounded from behind him. Without turning round, Arthur shook his head, his eyes fixated by the kingdom he would one day inherit. 'How's the boy?', the king asked, moving forward to stand beside his son.
'Better,' the prince responded. 'He's not in the clear yet, but Gaius says he has a good chance.'
'It's a big responsibility, all this,' the king imparted. 'Thousands of people relying on you for guidance, for leadership, for protection. These people don't want a king to be like them – they want somebody strong, somebody confident, somebody who can make the tough decisions that they can't. They don't want to see a man, don't want to see human weaknesses. They want somebody untouchable, and we owe it to them to live up to their expectations.' Arthur sighed.
'What is it that you're trying to tell me?'
'I know I'm tough on you,' Uther continued, 'but I do it for good reason. I know I expect a lot of you, maybe too much sometimes, but I don't expect perfection. You made a decision to fight the other day, and that decision saved Morgana's life, but it also nearly cost the life of your friend. As king, you will have to make many such choices, and sometimes people will die. Whether you think your choices are right or wrong, you can't spend the rest of your life second guessing yourself. I'm sure your young friend would agree.'
'So you're saying I should learn to live without emotion?' the prince asked incredulously as he turned to look at his father. The king put a hand on the nape of his son's neck and their eyes met as he responded.
'Of course not. The empathy you have for our people is what will make you a better king than I ever was,' he admitted, 'but even you can't save everyone. If you remain as you are, the guilt you carry will eventually drive you mad. What I'm telling you is that you need to learn to forgive yourself, as Merlin has no doubt already forgiven you. Think about it.' With that he patted his son on the shoulder and left, leaving Arthur wishing for the first time in a long while that he had chosen to stay.
'What if I can't?' he asked the empty air.
Merlin opened his eyes, surprised to see Gaius watching him closely, not even attempting to conceal the worry etched across his features. 'This must have been bad,' he told himself. He tried to lift his head, surprised at how weak he had become over such a short time. He felt a paternal hand rest across his forehead and tried to smile reassuringly.
'Your fever's gone,' the physician's voice was gentle, almost fearful. 'You're going to be fine; just rest.' As Gaius ran his hand rhythmically through the warlock's hair, Merlin felt himself drifting back to sleep.
The next time Merlin opened his eyes, he found Arthur sitting beside him. For a moment the young prince looked haggard beyond his years, but as he noticed Merlin looking at him, he brightened, a warm smile spreading across his face.
'Hey,' he smiled. 'Feeling better?'
Merlin nodded and attempted to speak, but found that his mouth was so dry that he was unable to form the words he needed. Within moments Arthur had brought a cup of water to his lips, and he drank thirstily. Unable to swallow quickly enough, he accidentally inhaled a few drops of the water and began to choke. As he coughed, a wave of agony swept across his stomach, reminding him only too painfully of the events that had led to this moment. He curled into a ball, breathing slowly and willing the pain to go away. Even so, he did not miss the mortified look that passed across the prince's features.
'Arthur?' he asked, concerned, as soon as he could spare the energy to speak. 'You ok?' The prince inhaled slowly.
'I'm fine. You should rest.' The warlock screwed up his face in puzzlement.
'Go to sleep, Merlin,' the prince responded more firmly, effectively ending the conversation. Not having the energy to do much else, Merlin complied. As soon as he was sure the warlock was asleep, Arthur bolted for the door.
'Forgive myself? What the hell was I thinking?' Arthur muttered to himself as he leaned on the wall outside Gaius' chambers. 'Look at him! I've never seen anyone alive look so much like a corpse, and I did that to him. How can he have forgiven me?' He sighed, leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes. He had to make sure nothing like this ever happened again, and to do that, he must correct his original error. If he'd been stronger, or if he'd been faster, he reasoned, he would not have been struck with the poisoned blade. He would have ridden home from Calderania in good shape ready to face the invading army. Training was the answer, he decided. If he trained harder and longer than ever before, he might eventually be able to overcome the guilt that was eating away at him, and, more importantly, he could make sure nothing like this ever happened again.
As the days passed, Arthur fell into a routine. Every morning he would rise before dawn, training so hard and for so long that his knights had to train in shifts just to keep up with him. Every evening, he would eat a quick supper then make his way to Gaius' chambers, where he usually arrived just as Merlin was falling asleep. There would be a few minutes of conversation, never long enough for the warlock to ask any awkward questions, then he would sit and watch his friend sleep until the early hours of the morning. Finally, exhausted, he would fall into bed, only to be woken minutes later by his recurring nightmare of Merlin's death. Finally, giving up on sleep, he would rise and begin the cycle again.
He began to avoid his father and Morgana, aware that they could not be stopped from asking pointed questions. Everyone else was either ignored or ordered to remain silent. By the ninth day, the prince was so exhausted he could barely stand. Nonetheless, he ordered his knights to report to the training ground as usual.
As he faced his first opponent of the morning, Arthur's vision began to blur. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it, an action that was not lost on the young knight he was fighting.
'Sire?' the boy hesitated, 'are you all right?'
'On guard,' the prince growled, lunging forwards. The knight easily parried the thrust and followed immediately with a counter. By now, Arthur's vision was swimming. The sword fell from his hand and he raised his arm to protect his head. The young man checked the blow, but he was not fast enough to prevent his sword making contact with the prince's forearm. As blood began to drip from the prince's elbow, the young knight rushed forward. He could not help but notice the lack of focus in the prince's eyes as he looked up.
'Sire, I am so sorry,' he began fearfully, 'I didn't realise…' he was stopped short by Arthur.
'It's fine,' the prince hissed in pain. 'It was my fault. Just…take the day off or something. All of you.' He turned and stumbled away in search of Gaius.
Merlin sat on the edge of his bed and flicked idly through one of Gaius' medical textbooks. He was tired and frustrated. He had recovered to the point where he could remain awake for most of the day, but he was still waiting for his strength to return. The effort it cost him to stagger across the room left him completely exhausted and his last attempt to cast even a small spell had left him so physically drained he had slept for ten hours straight. Unable to wander very far or use his magic, he had resorted to reading. Since Gaius had left on his rounds thirty minutes earlier, he had also become bored. Without the physician to explain what he was reading, it might as well be written in a foreign language. Gwen had already visited, and Arthur wasn't due to appear for several hours. He sighed and tossed the book to one side. He hoped Gaius would be back soon. As he continued to stare into space, he heard the door to the outer chamber open, and somebody stepped inside. Standing carefully, he made his way to the door, surprised to see the prince on the other side, his arm dripping with blood.
'Arthur?' he called out, slowly negotiating the steps, 'What happened?'
The prince lifted his head and gazed blankly at Merlin, causing the warlock to gasp in horror. Arthur was a mess. His face was pale except for his eyes, which were surrounded by huge black circles. His clothes, normally a perfect fit, were hanging from the prince's thin frame, a clear indication that he had regained none of the weight lost when he had been poisoned. If anything, the excessive training had caused him to become even thinner. His eyes themselves were unfocused, betraying his lack of sleep. Merlin swore. 'Why didn't I see this before?' he asked himself.
'So, this is what happens when I'm not around to look after you?' he asked lightly, afraid that he would be unable to pursue the prince if he chose to leave. 'Let me take a look at that arm,' he suggested, guiding his friend to the nearby bed. Grabbing some alcohol, a cloth, some needle and thread, he took a seat beside the prince and began to clean and stitch his wound. When his task was completed, he sat next to Arthur in silence, waiting for some kind of explanation. Finally realising that none was forthcoming, he attempted to start a conversation. 'So…this whole 'not eating not sleeping not resting' thing… Want to talk about it?' Arthur sighed. To be honest, now Merlin put it like that, he wasn't sure he saw the logic himself.
'I have to…protect people,' he stammered. 'If I'm not strong enough, or fast enough I fail. People get hurt and it's my fault. I have to train harder.'
'You do what you can,' Merlin explained patiently. 'Nobody expects more of you than that. If you don't sleep or eat, you get hurt, others get hurt and that really is your fault. Gaius told you to rest. I think it's time to start listening.' He stood and pushed the unresisting prince gently downwards onto the bed. 'Get some sleep, Arthur,' he ordered firmly. The prince shook his head vehemently.
'I can't,' he looked beseechingly at Merlin. 'Every time I fall asleep, you die. I have to stay awake. I have to fix it.' Merlin let out a breath. He hadn't realised ho badly this had affected his friend.
'Arthur, there's nothing to fix,' he placated his friend. 'It was an accident. It wasn't your fault – if anything, it was mine. I should have paid more attention. I should have looked before I rushed in. Blame me if you have to.'
'Liar,' the prince responded. 'I nearly killed you.'
'But you didn't. I'm here, I'm alive and I'm ok,' the warlock countered. 'Arthur, let it go. Please?' Arthur looked up at his friend for several long moments, as though gauging his sincerity. Finally, he relaxed. As Merlin pulled up a chair and watched over his friend, Arthur finally fell into a much needed sleep.
Author's Note 2: Thanks very much to all my reviewers (in order of appearance): Hogaboom, Lady Clark-Weasley of Books, Jenihenpen, Ikchen, Inicol1990, Morena Evensong, Daughter of Thranduil, Caelia Pendragon, Lozrii, XsuicideXkittyX, Miss Unspeakable, RixxiSpooks, Aqua Mage, buttonbit, Foxie Roxie, rhododendron, CB93, arsilverangel, WhiteOwl05, Dragonrider2203 and anyone I've missed out through being a moron. Thanks also to everyone who's read the story or added it to their alerts or favourites. You guys have provided me with the motivation I needed to keep going and get this finished as well as a few ideas along the way. I think this is my longest story ever, so thanks for the help.
Love and hugs,