A/N - thank you all my faithful readers for hanging in there while I finished this story! I hope I've brought you a satisfying tale. I know I had a lot of fun writing it!
Exploding rock, boulders, fist-sized stones and dust peppered the air, rising up high and then down, down, down toward them. Death plummeting in a rush of crumbling cliff. In the distance, he could hear her laughing but it didn't matter. He was too busy trying to keep Arthur alive to retaliate.
Wild magic took over, instinctual, a shield that wavered then held, clear-bright in the dirty blast, keeping the largest rocks from crushing them.
But some things still got through. A sharp pain at his temple and a dozen hits pocked his skin, one opening again the wound on his face, sending agony across his cheek. Sweat and blood soured his mouth. Coughing from the dust and his chest spasming uncontrollably, he could hardly breathe.
Beside him, when he was finally able to shove aside the pain, he could see Arthur's face bloodied, his armour dented and he was staggering a bit. Not good.
"Merlin?" Arthur's voice was roaring sharp. Worry, confusion, rage in a single word.
Starting to turn, he could hear Nimueh chanting again, see her standing there power-mad and smirking satisfaction as she sent another wave of magic toward the cliff face. "Ábríeteaþ cleofu!"
There was a sickening crack and a wall of stones came down, faster, larger, more deadly. An avalanche and Merlin scrambled out of the way, pulling Arthur with him but he caught the tail end of it, rocks thudding against his back, against his legs. Pain blossomed in his chest, a sea of agony, bruises and if his ribs weren't broken before, he was sure they were now. There was a line of fire down one calf but he ignored it. He blinked back tears, tried to stifle a cry and Arthur was yelling at him.
Things began to grey, black tingeing the corners of his eyes but he shook it off. He knew if he failed now, they would both die and he'd be damned before he'd let that happen.
A trickle of something slid down his face and he swiped at it, his hand coming away bloody. A moment to look at it, stunned and unbelieving and then movement caught his eye. Arthur stalking forward, swinging his sword like a crazed man. The idiot. Taking on Nimueh by himself and Merlin knew he'd only get killed in the process. Nimueh knew it, too.
Amused, toying with them both, she just backed up, all the while gesturing Arthur to attack, leading him into a trap.
But Merlin couldn't allow that to happen. Gathering power, funnelling the pain into a place he'd ignore for now and pay the price later, using his body as a vessel, he shoved magic outward. The boulders were rising, hovering just out of reach and then he thrust the rough stones toward her, shouted words of power. "Bregdan snyringas!"
She must have realized what he was about to do. "Onswífaþ!" Hand flung up, she pushed the rocks up and over, let them explode onto the cliff face behind her.
As the dust parted around her, her hair wild about her face, she seemed almost eager to play.
But as Nimueh turned toward Merlin, getting ready for another onslaught, there was a flash of metal streaking toward her. She ducked, suddenly furious, as the knife embedded itself in the cliff wall. Arthur had tried to kill her while her focus was on Merlin.
She wouldn't let it pass. Shoving her hand forward, Arthur was flying high into the air, tumbling head over heel, armour clanging against the wreckage of rock and dust and falling back toward the bodies of his dead knights. Unmoving as the corpses around him, one arm flung out still holding his sword.
"Arthur!" Merlin was shrieking his name, started to turn but Nimueh was there again.
A sudden blossom of fire gathered in her hand and she flung it toward him. Agony flaring in his chest as he jerked out of the way, he barely managed to avoid the fireball as it tumbled past. It blasted against the rock face, sending sparks and half-molten rock outward; above, a lone bush, perched on the edge of the cliff, burst into flame.
Merlin twisted around, began to stagger left, away from Arthur's still unmoving body. If he was alive, he gave no sign. Merlin didn't want to think about what that meant but he wasn't willing to have the king buried under shattered stone in a battle with Nimueh. He needed to draw her attention, away from Arthur.
"Nimueh, stop this. You know you can't win." It took all his strength not to look in Arthur's direction.
"Oh, Emrys, how foolish you are. This isn't about winning… but losing." She glanced down past him, taking in the way the king sprawled and the desperation that must have shown on Merlin's face. It would appear that she was far too aware of just where his loyalties lay. Her eyes glittered in satisfaction as she said, "The loss of Arthur Pendragon."
Swallowing against the fury rising in his throat, he snarled, "I'll never let that happen."
"Look at you. Barely able to stand and yet still you utter your empty threats." Fire was forming again in her hands and she glanced down at it, smirking. "So brave, so foolish."
Throwing the flames up into the air, she shouted, "Wælfýr, tóbræde!"
And impossibly, the deadly fireballs began to split apart, becoming two then ten, then a hundred. The cliffs surrounding them were ablaze with light, the smell of sulphur and ash and death overwhelming in the heat. Air full of sound, raging fires and her laughter echoing on the stone. Merlin's stunned denial.
As he watched helplessly, frozen in shock, they began to speed toward him. An impossible wall of flame.
For a split second, Merlin couldn't remember what to do and then instinct took over. Magic, as fierce and untamed as he'd ever known, pulling from the earth and the sky and his own desperate longings, he threw up a barricade of rock around Arthur, protecting him.
It held against the onslaught.
Merlin huddled behind it but he'd focused so much on protecting Arthur, he'd not realized that the barrier wasn't enough for them both. As the fireballs stuck, those not destroyed on impact flowed past, rolling around the edges and up the cliff face. But one errant blaze got past his defences, striking him on the shoulder.
Skin sizzling with unimaginable pain, tunic smouldering, Merlin fell to his knees. His hands spread wide on the ground kept him from sprawling on the ground and into unconsciousness. A breath, impossible to take but he took it anyway. He didn't dare let go. Couldn't let go.
He was in so much pain there were no words but he refused to let the barrier fall. He refused and somehow his magic answered and it held.
Darkness barely kept at bay, his energy depleted, as the fireballs finally sputtered out, the wall of rock Merlin had created to protect Arthur fell back to earth. Stones rolled away, scattering dust and ash into the air. Above on the cliff face, the trees began to burn, thick smoke rising into the sky.
There was agony and black spots behind his eyes but still he could hear her picking her way slowly toward him, walking carefully past the scatter of stones and burnt leaves and black ash, stopping a few feet from his shaking hands, waiting.
Crouched there, trying and failing to find the power or magic or something else too instinctive to name, he looked around for a weapon, anything that would stop her this one last time. Out of reach, too far away, Arthur's sword lay in the king's slack grasp. It could have as well been across the world for all the good it would do him.
But Merlin refused to give up. Frantic, searching the ground for a knife or a sword, something, his fingers found what he was looking for, one of the dead knight's blades buried under the man's body.
It took a single fierce tug and the hilt moulded itself into his palm. The sword almost too heavy, the tip dragging in the dirt, but it would be enough. It would have to be.
He didn't know where he found the strength, didn't know how he could rise to meet her gaze, didn't know how he was keeping the darkness at bay as he stood. Swaying, beyond exhaustion, using the sword to push himself up with sheer will, he faced her.
"Pendragon isn't worthy of you, Emrys." She was shaking her head, looking at him with astonishment and not a little respect. "Not nearly worthy enough."
Then shrugging, dismissing him, her gaze turned skyward, hands reaching for the heavens. Black clouds began to gather, roiling heavy and thick. There was lightning and the growl of thunder growing closer with every heartbeat and Merlin wasn't sure if it was his own head pounding or the sky about to burst forth with devastation.
There was a moan in the wind.
Or was it something else? Merlin glanced over to where Arthur lay, until now unmoving but there was something, the tilt of a head or the way the king's hand was gripping his sword just beyond. Another sound, whispering, too low to hear clearly but Merlin could tell that Arthur was regaining consciousness. At long last, Merlin knew for certain that he had survived.
For a moment, his world was incandescent. His friend, his king, his Arthur was alive.
He must have made some sound, shown relief in the way he turned toward Arthur, using the sword to keep him from falling over, stumbling toward him. Nimueh's head turned sharply, frowning down at the prone figure of the king. "So Pendragon lives. For now."
Merlin froze, looking at Arthur struggling to rise, whispered desperately, "Stay down. Stay down, you idiot. I can't…."
There was another blast of sound, thunder coming closer and Nimueh was smiling again, satisfied. "His end comes, Emrys. And yours." And she began to chant, "Stormas,onge. Líeg, tóbræde! Ábíete híe. Ábríeteaþ hie. Forþádilge hira feorhgiefa."
But it didn't matter, not the storm coming their way or the fires burning brightly behind him or the danger that he might yet trip over his own feet and collapse, obliterate whatever strength he had left to defeat her. Merlin staggered toward Nimueh, brandishing the blade like some kind of crazed peasant wielding a sickle, all clumsiness and exhaustion.
He could feel the last of his strength giving out, pain blossoming across his skin like a thousand daggers turning him into meat. The smell of ash and burned flesh and the pine of trees aflame clogged his throat; an annoying trickle of blood or sweat or something else burned his cheek.
Nimueh ignored him, kept shouting into the wind. "Stormas,onge. Líeg, tóbræde!"
The smell of ozone in the air and there was a gathering of storm clouds; he could feel the dark magic pulling, pulling at him, death coming toward them. But he kept moving, one foot in front of another, sword impossibly heavy in his hand and he pushed it up, feeling the muscles in his arm screaming outrage. Lunged toward her and she looked surprised when cloth fluttered down, red across the dead leaves and then furious as she stumbled back.
She wasn't laughing any more.
He knew she'd not let him get close again, not close enough to kill, not with a blade. Knowing he had only moments, hoping to divert her attention, he flung the sword at her, using all of his will to keep it from tumbling into the dirt. His aim had never been sure; Arthur had despaired of him ever using a sword and it proved so now. Nimueh turned aside, the blade skidding past. But he'd planned on that and distracted, suddenly, he was on her, hands grabbing at her neck, his weight pushing her down into the muddy earth.
Rolling, scrambling to crush her throat under his hands, for an instant, it looked like he'd succeed.
But Nimueh was a wild animal, teeth and claws, hair untamed in the struggle. She tried for a moment to pull off his hands, his fingers squeezing her throat, throttling her, her eyes bulging in pain. And then she hissed, kicking upward, her hands punching at his shoulder and into his chest, waves of agony pouring into him as she scrambled back to her feet.
Nimueh stood over him, a dark Fury ready to tear him apart. Merlin looked up, watching her, ferocity and a longing to destroy him clear in her eyes. One hand wrapped around her bruised throat.
Haloed above her, the storm was swirling, blacks and greys and a profane green. Wind howling and there was a gathering of ozone and danger. Another sound, too, of Arthur staggering up, grunting as he gathered his strength. And with a final effort, he threw his sword toward the witch.
The sound of metal cutting the air, Nimueh jerked away, almost won against Arthur's aim but there was a sudden blossom of blood in her gut and his sword was buried there. She screamed, curling inward, looking down at the blade and then back up at Arthur. She must have known that she'd lost, only a few minutes of life remaining as she stumbled back, pulling out the blade, blood already darkening her red dress, but it would be enough time to destroy them both. Merlin knew that there would be no reprieve, if ever there had been a chance for one.
One last moment.
Merlin's magic began to soar again, instinct pulling energy from the earth under his back, the wind that howled danger, the smell of death, of burning and meat cooking, bright red soaking the dead leaves. Pulling the last of his strength from his own body, down to the very blood in his veins and the beat of his heart, and he funnelled it skyward toward the gathering black above their heads.
Bloodied sword in her hand, Nimueh shook her head, shuddered under the weight of his magic, staring down at him in wonderment or terror and then up towards the heavens as the flash of lightning hit the ground next to her. Too close to Arthur but still Merlin pulled it down, taking up her chant and making it his own.
"Líeg, tóbræde!" he whispered, "Lieg, ábíete híe. Ábríeteaþ hie!"
And it answered him. It answered in blood and death and Nimueh lighting up like a torch as the lightning bolts hit her again and again. Nimueh staggered back, jerked back, arms raised to fend off the attack but it was too late. With a great scream, she burst into a thousand fragments of bone and blood and flesh blackened into nightmare that rained down on them both.
There was another flash of lightning and impossible sound and then it began to rain.
But Merlin didn't notice, didn't even recognize what it was. He'd used the last of his magic to kill her, torn her apart and now he was also sinking into the earth, exhausted beyond anything he'd ever experienced, letting the cool water wash away his pain.
He wanted to sleep, perhaps forever but a rough hand was against his cheek and in one corner of his mind, he recognized the sounds of insults and Arthur begging him not to leave him, that he needed him to stay. That he wanted….
It wasn't enough. Falling, falling into darkness.
H woke by stages or at least he thought it was stages. In his mind, there was pain and a foggy confusion, hiding in the corners and crevasses and deep cracks, muddied, black and red and sometimes a golden shade, the colour of ripened wheat or sunshine. And there were smells: comfrey and honey, burnt pine and putrid flesh, ash clogging his throat and grief, too. Although he didn't think grief could smell but his mind was… not exactly aware. The black would sweep in, a thought broken in half and he'd never get to the end of it.
Sometimes he'd dream, of pain and fire, his body writhing at the flames swept over him, screaming until his voice was raw. Ghosts of things he'd done, Nimueh falling to bits, the sound of a sword cutting through flesh, and Arthur looking at him and walking away and it would grow and grow, the heat until he'd thought he'd die of it. A cool hand was all that kept him there, sword-roughened fingers soothing his face, the glint of golden hair and a sigh like sorrow.
And then he'd wake again, each time his mind a little clearer perhaps, although the smells didn't change or the grief.
It was confusing.
When he finally regained consciousness enough to be aware, this time more clear-headed than the last, a thousand questions pressed in and none that made any sense. For one thing, he wasn't even sure he was alive. He hadn't expected to be, not after… well, he hadn't expected it. But an afterlife wouldn't include pain clawing behind his eyes, or a bladder that needed emptying, would it? Then again, he'd never been dead before. Perhaps this was part of his punishment.
Or it could be that he'd survived after all.
Twisting around, he looked to see if he could figure out just where he was and maybe get some of those questions answered and a chamber pot, too. But he found out – very quickly - that twisting or doing anything but lying there wasn't a good idea. His head felt like it was about to explode, his chest, wrapped in bandages, was slowly edging into agony and it hurt to breathe.
He sank back down into the cot, groaning out the pain. It took a while, red agony seeping back into white ache and then a buzz of something behind his head, going muzzy again as he started to drift off. He was almost willing to think about the curious numbness on his cheek and he couldn't feel his shoulder at all but then again he was edging into sleep. His eyelids were so incredibly heavy and he wouldn't have to deal with pain or thinking or….
The next time he woke, there was movement just beyond the tent and he was blinking sleepily toward it. Behind him, out of his line of sight, someone was mumbling about poultices and idiot sorcerers and it sounded like Gaius. Which didn't make sense since Gaius should be at the Isle and not in a red tent.
A red tent. His mind still muzzy, it looked like he was in some kind of alcove, the hangings beside him drawn back slightly. Beyond there was a table, covered with parchments and books, and more cots lining the far wall. A banner, hanging near the doorway, large with the Pendragon crest stitched in gold. Fine linens covering him and a warm woven blanket, far softer than he'd ever owned.
A royal tent. Arthur's.
That jerked him out of the disconcerting haze that befuddled his mind. He needed to know what happened, whether Arthur had survived.
Croaking out sound, his mouth full of ash, he managed to say, "Ar…thur…."
Gaius's beloved face swam into view and he looked furious and as displeased as Merlin has ever seen him. There was suddenly a flask of cool water splashing against his mouth and Merlin licked at it, let some dribble in, focusing on swallowing and not on the daggers his old mentor was sending him.
"You are a complete idiot going off with injuries like that."
Gaius's frown deepened but instead of letting Merlin say anything else, he lifted the flask again, urging him to drink a little bit deeper this time. The old man was watching him, too, professional hands holding him up enough so that he wouldn't choke, but his mouth was crabbed with annoyance. It didn't look good.
When Merlin finally finished, he waved away the flask, leaned back into the pillows, took in a careful breath. He tried to send Gaius a smile, hoping to placate him, but it didn't work. The physician just stood there, scowling down at him.
Knowing it wouldn't do any good but feeling as though he needed to defend his actions anyway, he croaked out, "You know I had to."
A moment passed, two and Merlin was beginning to wonder if Gaius would ever talk to him again. Finally, the man let out a long, resigned sigh and his frown melted into concern. "I suppose you did. Not that I approve. Another could have gone in your stead." Reaching out, he pulled a stool over and sat down, hands clasped before him, still looking worried but at least Merlin thought Gaius looked like he might forgive him at some point. "How do you feel?"
"Like a cliff fell on me." He'd meant it to sound off-handed, wry, hoping to get Gaius to smile without pushing his luck, but instead grief came into the old man's eyes.
"We almost lost you."
Merlin could never stand to see him upset. He reached out, laid one tentative hand – the unbandaged one - on the physician's knee, patted it, trying to show in touch just how much he regretted worrying him. "I'm sorry, Gaius. You know if there were any other way…."
"I know but it was a very near thing." Gaius's own warm hands covered Merlin's. "Try not to do it again for at least another week or so."
"I'll try." Careful of the stitches on his face and the poultice covering it, Merlin sent him a half-smile, hoping to lighten Gaius's worry. He knew that the physician was not saying just how damaged he was, not that he couldn't figure it out with the amount of bandages on his body, at least those he could see or feel. It looked to him like they'd torn up a bed sheet or two or ten. Plus there was the pull of skin as he moved and the flares of pain skittering along his arms and leg, never mind his chest which still ached more than a little bit when he breathed that didn't speak well of his injuries. At least the need for a chamber pot had gone. Likely they'd taken care of him while he was still unconscious.
Thankfully, his mind was clear, although sleep was trying to drag him back down into the dark. He fought it. He needed to know what had happened, if everything he'd done for Arthur and for his people had been enough. "Is Arthur alive? Where am I? What are you doing here?"
"The king is well enough. A few injuries although nothing like your own." Shaking his head, Gaius sent him a fond, exasperated look. "Arthur sent for me. One of his men came to the Isle asking for help. Said some idiotic sorcerer - although he didn't exactly use those terms, had got himself injured. It was a brave thing to do considering the circumstances."
He gave Merlin's hand a little squeeze and let go. Reaching over past the top of the cot, he placed a bowl of mushy something, it smelled like gruel laced with honey and a few things Merlin couldn't identify, onto his lap and began spoon-feeding it to him. The texture was awful and the honey barely masked the bitter taste of the medicine but Merlin knew better than to protest.
"Only you, Merlin." As he swallowed it down, trying not to grimace at the taste, Gaius said, "We are at Arthur's camp. I didn't want to move you until it was safe."
Cooperation, Gaius at Arthur's camp and no sound of battle. It would seem that they were talking at last. Swallowing another mouthful, Merlin said, "Is there a truce?"
"Yes, because of you, we have a truce and in time there will be a treaty." A genuine smile this time, full of jubilation and fond pride and underneath it all, the elation of profound relief. "You are a wonder, Merlin."
So it had been worth it after all. Joy, euphoria, a thousand other emotions bubbled under his chest; he wanted to shout for the brilliance of it. It made him giddy. He sent Gaius an exultant grin, one pulling at his wound but he was so full of high spirits he didn't care. "I thought I was an idiot."
Gaius matched him, joy for joy. Laughing, he said, "Yes, there is that, too."
And then he shoved another spoonful of gruel into Merlin's mouth.
Merlin had slept and woke and slept again, the medication keeping him drowsy but he was feeling better than he had in ages when Arthur appeared.
In the days since everything had gone to hell and back again, Gaius kept him company, fussing about, trying to fatten him up with that disgusting gruel and in general keeping him up to date on what was going on with the peace talks. He'd had major injuries: broken ribs, the cut on his face opened and festering for a while, others on his head and legs, deep burns on his shoulder, arms and hand, a concussion. For a while, Gaius despaired of the fever that had raged for a day and a night but Merlin was stronger than he looked and he was getting better, if slower than he'd like. The ribs were the most dangerous and it would be unlikely that he'd be moving about much before six or more weeks would pass and they healed properly.
He'd had a few visitors, Brene and Dryas from the Isle. Talisen came once, too, although he didn't stay long; his eyes were still too full of grief. Even Geraint had come to see him, thanking him for saving Arthur's life.
But there was only one person he really wanted. Arthur had been in and out of the tent - it was his after all, but he'd done nothing more than stand there by the alcove's entrance, an unreadable look on his face, not saying anything but nodding when he realized Merlin was awake. Then he'd mutter something about treaties and Merlin getting better and he'd turn away and disappear out the door.
Merlin knew that the truce was going well and they were hard at work with a treaty but he'd have liked Arthur's company, selfish though it was. He could hear the man sometimes, talking softly with someone just beyond the cloth wall or groaning in his sleep, an unhappy, pained sound that made Merlin want to comfort him somehow.
Not sure if Arthur was just busy or actively avoiding him, he had to admit that it was a relief to see him again.
The king looked tired, a bruise marring his cheek and there was a limp there, not that Merlin had been awake enough to notice before. Arthur stood by the entrance a moment, that unreadable expression back on his face and then he seemed to gather himself together and smiling, walked over to Merlin's cot.
"You've looked better." Once long ago when they were both young and foolish, that might have been the opening salvo of an argument between master and manservant. So long ago.
"So have you, my lord." He started to get up, elbowing himself higher, wincing as he did so but Arthur just motioned him down again. With a grateful sigh, he fell back into the pillows. There was a fleeting look of worry in the king's eyes but it was gone so quickly that Merlin thought he might have imagined it. "I want to thank you for saving me. If you hadn't thrown that sword, we'd both be dead right now."
Arthur shrugged off the praise. "Yes, well, anyone else would have done the same."
They both knew that wasn't true but Merlin wasn't willing to challenge him on it. Arthur had always downplayed his role in doing what was right, even when the cost had been high. Apparently that had not changed over the years. Merlin found the thought oddly comforting.
But Arthur must have had something else on his mind. He seemed troubled, kept looking at all of Merlin's bandages, at the blistered skin peeking out from the loose robe Gaius had given him, at the stitches on his face. Then when the king realized he was being watched, he flushed and looked away. "Your skills in magic… I've never seen the like."
Whatever was upsetting Arthur, it was clear they wouldn't be discussing it any time soon. So Merlin let it go. Instead, wanting the king to understand what had happened, wanting him to know the price for such power, he said, "What I did to Nimueh, yeah, it's dangerous. It can kill the one casting the spell if they aren't careful."
Sharp, angry, at what Merlin couldn't tell but Arthur was having none of it. "And yet you used it against her."
"I thought I was going to die and at least that way you would live even if I didn't." It wasn't as if he had a choice, not a choice that he could accept anyway.
"So my life is worth more than yours, then?" Frowning, his mouth flattening as if the concept had left a bitter taste, Arthur folded his arms across his chest. Emphatic and more than a little angry, he said, "My father would have agreed with you but I do not. I don't want your sacrifice, Merlin."
"Sometimes, my lord, sacrifices are made without your permission. Sometimes, they are even worth it."
Merlin knew that he'd do it again, a hundred times, a thousand times if necessary, no matter what the king said. Perhaps, though, Arthur needed to be reminded of just who had been willing to sacrifice himself for a mere servant, all those years ago.
"Someone I admire very much taught me about sacrifice." Tilting his head, looking at Arthur defiantly, daring him to disagree, Merlin said, "At Gedref."
Arthur seemed taken aback at that, blinking down at Merlin for a moment and then conceding the point, his mouth twisted as he tried and failed to hide an amused smile. "Sometime the people you admire are fools."
"Sometimes." Merlin's face serious as he said it and then he sent Arthur a pleased grin.
Arthur choked back a laugh, shaking his head, smiling down at him. "Idiot."
His eyes were full of such warmth and it was almost as if Merlin had never left. This was what he had missed. So long since he and Arthur had talked like this, playing with words and ideas, insults and easy affection. He never wanted it to stop.
"Perhaps, sire, but it takes one to know one." He sent Arthur another grin, and a lift of eyebrows he'd learned from Gaius.
This time, Arthur did laugh, short and sharp. "Merlin, you are really a total buffoon, you know." He shook his head, still amused, still smiling, still staring down into Merlin's eyes, looking as if his life had suddenly turned around and he'd found something he thought he'd lost forever, and then he shook himself free of it and the smile slid away. His gaze, too, faltered and he looked off into some unknowing distance, shutting Merlin out.
"The witch, Nimueh, she… she lied about so many things." Arthur's voice seemed as far away as his thoughts and it was harder somehow, Uther's voice.
"Yes, she did but not in the end." Merlin said carefully. He had to wonder if Arthur would ever forgive him for that: for running away, for letting him think he was with Nimueh for all those years, for lying to him so many times, for hiding all that he was. "I was never her accomplice, no matter what she'd said."
Flinching, Arthur turned his gaze back to Merlin's, a look of shame on his face. "I know that now." He turned away again, just for a second, let out a long breath and then seemed to shake himself, faced him squarely, resolute. "I am sorry for ever doubting you."
"You had reason to doubt. I'd lied to you from the very beginning."
All the uncertainty, all the pain and loneliness over the years of exile, the regret, the anger at himself for being such a coward and letting whatever they had between them be destroyed by Nimueh's lies, the desperation for Arthur to understand came spilling out.
"I hated it. Every day I thought about telling you but I was so scared. You hated magic and I thought if you knew you'd hate me, too. If I had just trusted you a little more, this might never have happened."
Arthur leaned down, instinctively reaching out to him and then he must have realized what he was doing because he pulled back and stood there, looking as uncertain as Merlin had ever seen him. "Merlin, we both have regrets."
"I lied to you." He shook his head, trying to put into words the destiny he'd always felt, from that first moment they'd met, much as he'd fought it in the beginning, much as he denied it. All the trials and horrors they'd faced together and apart and underneath it was a bond as strong as time itself.
"I've always been yours, Arthur, whether you knew it or not. Your servant, your friend or anything else you needed me to be. I will be until the day I die."
Arthur looked stunned. Obviously, he hadn't expected such a vow or the emotion behind it. For a moment, he just stood there, gaping down at Merlin. Then he seemed to shake himself clear of whatever he was thinking and typical Arthur, ignored the sentiment and went for the insult. "You were a terrible manservant. One of the worst ever."
He had been around Arthur long enough to know what was being conveyed underneath the words. No matter how much the king might want to say, it was almost impossible for him to say it, especially something from the heart. Arthur sounded serious but his eyes were daring Merlin to fight back.
So, of course, he did. "Prat."
Fleeting, a snicker, quick laughter and then the amusement faded away. Arthur was serious, seemed resigned to it when he said, "A king can't have friends."
That was Uther talking. Merlin refused to accept it; he would not let Arthur be such an idiot. "But a peasant from Ealdor can have one, even if he is a royal pain in the arse."
The insult hit and Arthur's eyes flashed, seeming to enjoy the first strike of another battle of wits. "You know you can't talk to me like that."
Looking thoroughly innocent, his face mock-stupid, Merlin didn't have to say a word, just lay there, waiting for Arthur to concede the point.
He didn't have to wait long. Arthur would never say it but that noisy exhale, surrender in the way his eyes narrowed and the twist of his mouth, was all that was needed. Merlin grinned back, so widely that the stitches in his cheek pulled against him and he winced at the pain but it didn't matter. It had been worth it.
Folding his arms across his chest, trying to look stern and failing miserably, Arthur said, "You are a very stubborn man, Merlin. But if you hadn't been, we'd be at war right now."
"The truce will hold?" It sounded like everything they had fought for would end in peace after all.
"Yes, I believe it will." Arthur nodded, then looked around and pulling up a stool, sat down next to Merlin. No insults now, the king looked determined, ever inch a ruler of Camelot. He came right to the point. "When we finally have a treaty, I'll be needing a magical advisor to the court. Do you have any suggestions as to who that might be?"
The sharp disappointment that Arthur hadn't asked for him stung - brutally if he'd admit such things to himself but he shoved it aside. It was a ridiculous thought, anyway. Merlin knew that he'd had no experience at such things. It was a wonder they had sent him at all to Camelot, although in hindsight, Nimueh's manipulations stood out clearly. But if Arthur was asking him for names, he would be glad to help.
"Oh, okay, yeah." He glanced down at his bandaged arm, at the fine linens clutched in his hands, tried to appear as if he were thinking seriously about Arthur's request when all he was trying to do was hide his misery. "You've already met the best of them. Talisen would be the most logical choice but I don't think he'd agree to go. Dryes is a peacemaker and intelligent but Brene is more practical so I'd say she should be the one to ask."
Finally, he looked up, sent Arthur a little smile and a shrug as if to say that he'd given him the best advice he could and others would give him better.
But Arthur just stared at him, apparently waiting for more names and when none came, he said, "Your name isn't on that list."
Hope blossomed in his chest, overtaking even the still-rattling pain there. Arthur wanted him after all. Trying not to laugh for the sheer joy of it, trying to remember that he'd be a very bad choice, especially considering the others and that it would only make things so much worse, he said, "I'd be terrible." When Arthur opened his mouth, looking like he was about to argue with Merlin, he just shook his head. "Remember – the worst manservant ever. We'd argue and I'd be stubborn and you'd be pig-headed and it would be a disaster."
Arthur seemed to consider all he said, nodding as Merlin stumbled on and on about how terrible he'd be. "I agree. That's why I've asked your council to appoint you as their representative."
Obviously, the man must have had quite a knock on his head during the fight with Nimueh. He couldn't be serious.
"But Arthur, I'd…." Merlin was honoured but he knew it wouldn't work. The sorcerer's council alone would raise so many objections that it made him dizzy just thinking about it.
"If I listened to you all those years ago instead of believing the worst, none of this would have happened." His hand rested on Merlin's shoulder, squeezing a bit, wordlessly urging him on for a moment and then let go. "I should have listened, Merlin."
"I'll be a terrible advisor. I'll be clumsy and stupid and…." He wanted to say yes, oh, so much but it was ludicrous.
"Nothing new there, then." Another insult, quick and warm. Arthur seemed to be enjoying his discomfort.
He should have known better than to argue when the king was being stubborn. But he gave it one last try to make him see reason. "I'll muck things up."
"Merlin, I want you to come. I'll need someone who will argue with me and fuss and be a pain in the arse, as you so delicately put it." He tried to look offended but it was pretty much impossible when Arthur was smiling down him like that. "Who better than you?"
"It's a terrible idea. Your councillors will object. The sorcerer's council will object." Merlin's protest sounded weak, even to him but it seemed to take Arthur aback.
Frowning, looking as if it suddenly occurred to him that Merlin might be serious, he seemed almost hurt by the idea. He said flatly, "Don't you want to come back to Camelot?"
A long, long sigh and Merlin gave up. He could never really deny Arthur anything anyway. "I want nothing else."
That annoying smirk, the one he'd seen all too often when Arthur was about to get him into trouble, the one to which he'd never been able to say no, appeared. "Then say yes."
He'd missed that smirk. But he didn't want to surrender too fast. It might give the prat ideas. "If I do, I'm not mucking out the stables or doing your laundry or cleaning your room or…."
The man snorted, actually snorted at him, talked to him as if he were an idiot. "The title is advisor, not manservant. Which you were terrible at, by the way."
Merlin ignored him. He knew if he didn't get everything out into the open now, Arthur would push and push and be a royal pain in his backside. "And I'll wear my own clothes, not some horrible outfit you think up just to make me look like a fool and a hat out of some kind of fiendish nightmare. You've done that one too many times and I won't have it."
"The hat was perfect." Arthur had the nerve to be affronted.
Merlin just glared back at him. "That hat should be torn into a million pieces and burnt."
Hot glares blistered between them, both staring at each other, refusing to give way and then it was Arthur that surrendered. Throwing his hands into the air, looking at Merlin as if he were some kind of a crazed idiot and Arthur a wise and noble king for putting up with him, he said shortly, "Fine, we'll just put in the treaty that the great and wise Merlin doesn't have to wear a hat, all right?" His eyes narrowed, staring straight into Merlin's eyes, pushing like he always did. "Say yes."
Merlin couldn't help it. He laughed, feeling such a rush of warmth for the prat that there were no words to describe it. Brilliance, a radiance that transcended even the euphoria that magic could bring.
Arthur's face lit up. "Good, because I've already told them that you'd agree."
Leaning forward, he put his hands gently behind Merlin's back, supporting him, lifting him up slightly, and began to stuff pillows behind him, fluffing them expertly as he talked. "Come on, then. You've lazed about long enough. Gaius said that it was time for you to start moving anyway. We'll sit you up – carefully so that you can see what is going on and I'll get the rest of them. They can sit around the table over there and you can watch and listen this time and when you feel better, I'm sure you will be driving them crazy with your usual nonsense. Besides, it's time to show them you aren't a good-for-nothing slugabed, and the worst manservant ever in the history of manservanting."
Finished, looking down at his handiwork, Arthur nodded satisfaction. "We can't have treaty negotiations without my new court advisor to advise me, now can we?"
"Wouldn't dream of it." Merlin was surprisingly comfortable but he couldn't let all that fussing pass. "Prat."
"Idiot." Arthur was smiling, so relaxed, his eyes full of warmth, all bustle and relief, as joyous as Merlin had ever seen him. With one final glance toward him, the king walked out the door, already calling for the council to reconvene.
Shaking his head, Merlin leaned back into the pillows, exhausted but content.
It finally sunk in. Destiny or fate or a dragon's mad ravings, it didn't matter. After years and heartache and bone-deep loneliness, he was finally going back to Camelot.
He was going home.
"Ábríeteaþ cleofu." = Destroy the cliff.
"Bregdan snyringas!" Move sharp rock.
"Onswífaþ!" = Push away.
"Wælfýr, tóbræde!" = Deadly fire, multiply.
"Stormas,onge. Líeg, tóbræde! Ábíete híe. Ábríeteaþ hie. Forþádilge hira feorhgiefa." = Storm approach. Lightning, multiply. Strike them, destroy them. Bring to nothing their life-gift.