"Ooow! That really hurt."
"Well, don't squirm so much and it will be over sooner," Gaius reprimanded, his experienced hands skimming deftly across his ward's damaged chest. Although, at first, he had been astounded and sickened by the mirage of bruises that blackened his nephew's torso, he had shifted seamlessly into his professional mode and was now treating the boy for the accumulation of injuries. The list was pretty lengthy.
"I wouldn't squirm if you didn't keep poking me!" Merlin whined before hissing through his teeth as Gaius caught another tender patch of skin. "Ow!"
"Merlin, considering how much of your body is covered in bruises, you can hardly blame me for catching one or two. I don't have an undamaged bit of skin to work with anywhere." The physician's tone was curt but at the same time sympathetic. He honestly did care about his ward's pain. "Let me just finish wrapping these ribs and then we'll be done."
"Does that mean I can go out?"
"No, that means you can go and lie in your bed and not get up until I say so. You've practically run your poor body into the ground and it will need a time to rest and recuperate."
"But I need to fulfil my new post," Merlin protested, mildly.
Gaius grumbled. "I don't give two hoots about that post until you're better."
"That post is the only thing keeping my neck on my shoulders, Gaius."
"Don't talk in that way," the physician said, sharply, his flinty blue eyes catching Merlin's, "You are lucky to be alive but I'd rather keep you that way if you don't mind. I'm not going to get you back only to lose you again." He harrumphed to himself and then busied himself tucking the loose end of the bandages around his nephew's chest in.
"I didn't know you felt that much for me, Gaius," Merlin grinned, only to have that grin knocked off his face by a cuff to his ear. "Hey, ow! What was that for? I thought I was an invalid?"
"You deserved it for your comments. Of course I care for you, you stupid boy." There was a sternness to Gaius' usually soft expression and Merlin sensed how much this all had affected him. It couldn't have been easy to have the closest person to you missing for months and then for them to return home and be sentenced to death – almost twice. Whereas Merlin was trying to laugh everything off because that was his way of coping, Gaius was becoming very protective. "Now, off to bed with you unless you want me to get Arthur in here. I'm sure he'll be more than happy to put you forcibly into your room."
Merlin nodded once, realising he shouldn't argue with his concerned uncle when he would undoubtedly know best. "All right," he sighed, slouching to his feet. He began plodding across the room before turning to look back over his shoulder. "It's good to see you again, Gaius." He paused and said, seriously, "I wasn't sure if I would get the chance. Oh, and thanks for this." Gesturing briefly at his patched up body, Merlin smiled and then carried on up the steps to his room.
Once the raven haired boy had vanished from sight, the old physician allowed the mask to slip and he felt his knees buckle as he collapsed into his worn chair; the hard wood dug into his back. Breathing out, heavily, he considered all that had happened in the past few days. It had certainly been a week to remember. He didn't think he'd ever been so scared in all his life as when he discovered that Uther knew about Merlin's magic and was sentencing him to death. That fear and distress was replaced with joy when the boy escaped and then a feeling of loss at the prospect that he may never see him again. And then he'd returned with the army and faced the king to fight for his survival. When Gaius had tried to enter, he hadn't been allowed in and therefore had to spend the entire meeting in his chambers fretting. He had attempted to distract himself but everything reminded him of Merlin and therefore he waited in limbo, hoping the outcome of the negotiations would be good.
And then Merlin had stepped through his door, battered and exhausted and partially supported by an assertive Arthur. It had been a miracle and Gaius had been ecstatic. However, the boy's physical state had brought the doctor down to earth with an unpleasant jolt.
Merlin was practically emaciated; his skin was stretched like an over-tightened drum and his cheekbones stood out like two snowy peeks on his face. His eyes, although bright themselves, were shadowed with inky circles and his hair didn't look like it had been washed in weeks. Then there were his actual injuries: the scar that slashed a pink line across the plane of his cheek, aging him merely by being there; the numerous bumps and swellings that littered the crown of his head; the badly broken ribs which had been jolted around and increased the bruising of his chest tenfold and the scars around his wrists which were the only clues that Gaius had to what hardship Merlin had experienced whilst on the quest. He could only guess at the exact cause.
It would take a lot to get the boy back to his former self but with time and effort, Gaius was sure that he and Merlin's friends could manage it.
There was a sudden knock on the door and it creaked open to allow a golden haired head to poke through the gap. Arthur's blue eyes met the physician's and he smiled before pushing the door open all the way and stepping into the room. "Is it all right….?" he asked just to check and received a nod in return.
"Of course, Arthur, when have I ever denied you access to my chambers?"
"Never." The prince ducked his head ruefully. "I just came to see how Merlin is?"
"Have you fed yourself, like I asked?" Gaius replied, sternly, evading to previous question.
"Yes, I don't think I've ever eaten so much in my life," Arthur admitted, unconsciously running a hand over his stomach and grinning. "I think I'll regret it though when I get indigestion."
Gaius smiled. "Well, I'm glad you did because you were looking terribly pale and were very weak. If I hadn't known better then I would have said you had the symptoms of blood loss." As he spoke, the old man stood up and began bumbling around his chambers, sorting out his desk by collecting the various strewn bottles and shuffling papers that were collecting dust. Therefore, he missed the expression of astonishment that passed over Arthur's face and by the time he looked up the prince had collected himself.
"Yes, I guess it was just hunger," Arthur shrugged, nonchalantly, "Battles tend to take a lot out of you."
"You don't have any injuries you're neglecting to tell me about do you, Arthur?" Gaius paused to scrutinise him. "Because if you don't tell me then…"
"I know, Gaius, 'its worse to keep it to myself', you've told me a hundred times," Arthur replied, sighing, "I'm just tired."
"Anyway, how's Merlin?"
"Oh," Arthur said, his eyes flickering over to the small wooden door that led to Merlin's poky and yet strangely cosy room. Gaius followed his lingering gaze and smiled softly at the look of concern etched as clearly as a manuscript on the prince's angular face. Surprisingly, the physician couldn't remember the youth ever being so readable – usually he kept everything possible to himself – and concluded it must be something to do with the fact it was Merlin; he seemed to make everyone go soft inside. Even the King.
"You can check on him if you want," Gaius encouraged, gently, his signature eyebrow raised.
Arthur flushed, obviously embarrassed at being caught in the act of caring too much for his friend. "I'll….er….just….go in for a minute." Scratching the back of his head in a very Merlin-esque manner, the tall man strode across the length of the room and lightly leapt up the steps into the manservant's room. Just as he was about to turn the door handle Gaius spoke.
"Oh, and Arthur," the old man began and the prince spun round, cobalt gaze trained on him, "I just want to thank you for standing by Merlin despite everything."
"It was nothing," Arthur said, a flush blossomed on his neck.
"I know you risked a lot. Not a lot of noblemen your age would stand up to their fathers for a peasant, especially not if their father was the king. You are a very brave and loyal friend for Merlin to have found and I thank the gods for that."
Arthur smiled, kindly. "I could say the same about him," he said before vanishing into the depths of the small room.
Merlin was sprawled out on his too small bed like an exhausted puppy, limbs lay where they had fallen, hanging over the sides and his face was buried in his pillow in a way that the prince couldn't believe was comfortable or safe. He looked like he was suffocating himself. Only a gentle snoring stopped Arthur's abrupt anxiety and he let a small smile grace his lips before tentatively walked over to the sleeping manservant and gently moving his head to one side. That was better. He moved onto the boy's gangly appendages, placing them one by one in comfortable, safe positions. It was like arranging one of Morgana's dolls – not that he'd ever done that.
Pleased with his handiwork and the fact that his friend was in a very, very deep sleep so that his body would get the rest it needed, Arthur ran a weary hand through his golden locks and then turned to leave, just sparing one last glance over his shoulder to check he wasn't imagining the peace with which Merlin now slept. He was like a little boy, shattered after a massive adventure which he probably shouldn't have come out of alive. The prince still couldn't believe that their argument with his father had actually happened. He would probably have to wait until tomorrow morning until he properly believed that was the truth as, right now, this felt like some crazy dream.
With all his bones suddenly feeling like lead weights, Arthur turned and left the room, saying a quick goodbye to Gaius on his way out. By the time he got back to his own chambers, he merely fell onto the welcoming arms of his bed and was immediately asleep, revelling in the comfort and warmth that his mattress and feathered pillows provided him with.
Three weeks later…
The sky was a beautiful cyan blue that reminded Merlin of the duck eggs that he used to look after by the pond near Ealdor, nestled among the ferns and rushes. Every day he would skip down to check on them and their mother, sometimes bringing scraps of food that he wouldn't eat for breakfast for her as she looked half starved. Of course, it didn't do much for his nutrition but when the ducklings were born it was all worth it. They were little, fluffy bundles with legs – absolutely adorable and each with amusing personalities of their own. His favourite he named 'Puddle' as he always managed to get the wettest. He supposed that's where his penchant for naming animals began.
It was summer now and that meant it was almost a year since they set out on that incredible quest. Looking back, he couldn't quite believe what they had been through. When he had begun the expedition he had been a servant, an irritating nobody that only Arthur put up with and at the end of it, well, he had three great new friends and a true best friend in Arthur – and everybody knew he was a warlock. It was quite a turnaround.
The pastures were covered in beautiful wildflowers, like the gods had decided to lay down a new brightly coloured rug for a few months to add some variety, and they were teeming with livestock from massive dairy cows to skinny, shorn sheep. Among the animals ran children, alive with the energy given to them by the endless sunny days, playing games and having fun. They had to make the most of the gorgeous weather before the hard work of harvest season came and then the cold harshness of winter. Summer was a time of reasonable rest and relaxation because, for quite a lot of the days, people couldn't work because of the heat. Sometimes the adults would even join the frolicking children, teaching them to climb trees and swim in the lake, before bringing them home to pass out at the end of the day; exhausted.
Such a joyful child was skipping among the large daisies now, her chestnut tresses flowing out behind her and her sun-browned skin glowing as she swung her slender arms. She was dressed in a simple green sundress and looked like one of the fairies that Merlin had read about in Gaius' old books: tiny and perfect. Behind her stood a tall, dark-haired figure with kind greyish-blue eyes. His beard was flecked silver. Erec and Olwyn; the perfect father and daughter. No one would ever guess that the nobleman was a former warrior considering the kindness which emanated off him and no one would ever notice his impediment unless they looked closely. His lack of a hand barely seemed to affect him at all – he could still pick his little girl up and swing her round like a dandelion head caught in the wind.
Leaving the Knights of Camelot had definitely been the right choice for Erec, especially as his wife stood a few paces behind, her stomach filled with the child they were expecting but only Merlin could sense this early. They truly were a beautiful family and Merlin couldn't help feel a pang of jealousy at their happiness. He hoped for that one day himself.
"Oi, blockhead, stop day-dreaming."
A familiar hand caught the side of Merlin's head. He winced instinctively and turned to face his assailant.
"Do you mind?" he said, mock-seriously, "I'm surprised I don't have permanent brain damage considering how many times you hit me."
"Merlin, your brain damage is permanent, but I'm afraid that has nothing to with me, it's how you were born. Either that or Hunith dropped you on your head as a child." Arthur grinned and ruffled his friend's raven hair roughly before lying back on the grassy knoll they were sitting on.
"If I have permanent brain-damage then you have permanent 'I'm a complete prat' disease," Merlin retorted. Arthur snorted, noisily, wriggling in the long grass to create himself a comfortable position.
"I didn't know that even existed, Merlin. Did you consult Gaius on that one?"
"It's in a book that you can't read so you'll never know, will you?"
"I guess not." Arthur paused and looked at the smaller man, thoughtfully. The warlock shifted uncomfortably under his scrutiny.
"What?" he asked, defensively.
"That scar really doesn't suit you," the prince replied, staring at the offending line across his friend's cheek. "It makes you look like a knight and like you actually know how to fight which, of course, you don't."
"Why would I need to fight when I've got magic?" Merlin shrugged, twisting a blade of grass between his fingers. The rest of his body had healed pretty well and he had put on a lot of weight thanks to both Gwen and Arthur plying him with various types of food at any given moment. It was only the scar on his cheek and the scars around his wrists that remained. "Besides, I don't think anyone could ever mistake me for a knight of Camelot, scar or not, because I don't look a thing like one."
"Yeah," Arthur smirked, "You're right. You look more like newly born colt with sunburn."
"Colts can't get sunburn," Merlin replied, abruptly before snapping his mouth shut as he realised what his master was implying. "Oh damn!"
"You have nicely reddened ears, if I do say so myself." The prince was now rolling around laughing as Merlin scrambled to his feet and feebly attempted to cover his large ears with his hands before realising that his hands too were looking raw.
"Bloody hell, Arthur!" he yelped, looking at his pink body, "You could have warned me sooner!"
"Sorry, I only just noticed," the prince lied, poorly, still guffawing loudly.
"You are a royal prat," Merlin exclaimed, kicking Arthur's exposed side with the toe of his boot, feeling a perverse pleasure when the other men let out an oomph of pain.
"Hey! What was that for? You're meant to be my bodyguard, not my attacker. What happened to my safety is priority?"
"That was for your safety," Merlin replied, smartly, "You see, if I'd not done that then I would have done something much, much worse. Trust me; it's the lesser of two evils."
With a malicious grin, the warlock set off at a run across the meadow, aware that the prince would be leaping to his feet in order to give chase. Fortunately, he had a little thing called magic on his side and he was certainly planning to use it to even up the odds. His laughter tailing behind his swiftly retreating body, Merlin sprinted down the hill into the woods and his eyes flashed ochre, increasing the gap.
"No magic, Merlin! That's cheating! You filthy swine!" Arthur's angry voice called from behind him but Merlin wasn't listening, he was too busy hurdling logs and bushes at high speed. He only came to a stop when he collided with something solid, like a tree trunk.
"I see your coordination and awareness skills haven't improved much, have they?" A voice rumbled above his head and the warlock looked up to see Alizarin staring down at him with bright, golden eyes. The dragon frowned. "Why are you so red, Merlin? Have you been bathing in a boiling pot?"
"Don't even start," Merlin groaned, running a bony hand over his ears, embarrassedly and turning his face away, "Its sunburn."
"Ah," Alizarin said, as if he knew what it was like to experience such a thing when he clearly didn't. "That is unfortunate."
"You don't say," the boy-warlock sighed and perched himself on a low slung tree branch. His legs dangled below him, brushing the dry earth. Casually, he tapped the thick, rough trunk beside him with long fingers and watched as tiny sparks flew onto the bark, engraving swirling patterns. He looked up at the dragon and saw that the beast had his luminous gaze trained on the careless spell.
Ali's leathery lip curled. "I guess things must have gone well then, considering you're still alive?"
Merlin grinned. "You could say that. Then again, I'm lumbered with the responsibility of being Arthur's personal bodyguard which means I have to spend practically every waking moment with him." He paused. "And, come to think of it, every other moment as well. Uther wants me by his side constantly as he fears retribution for destroying Vortigern's army of sorcerers."
"I thought you generally saved Arthur's live beforehand without any qualms?" the dragon stated, sagely, flicking his long tail.
"Well yes but…." Merlin frowned. "Now it's not by choice so it doesn't feel quite as satisfying."
"I thought you wanted the credit for your good deeds?"
"All right, all right, stop being so clever," Merlin grumbled, sourly, "Just because you're a dragon doesn't mean I can't kick your backside in a duel."
"Oh really? Bring it on, mighty magician."
Rearing up onto his hind legs, Alizarin extended his rich crimson wings and allowed a burst of fire to escape his furnace of a mouth. The flames curled in beautiful patterns in the air before dissolving into nothingness, only the merest trace of smoke to show they'd ever been there. Merlin watched, somewhat in awe, as he realised how much he'd missed the dragon.
"Hey, hey, hey!" Arthur's strained voice cut through their playful battle. "Careful Ali or you'll get half the castle guard down here. Father's being very wary of anything unusual."
"Your father is always wary," the dragon pointed out, wryly. "And everything counts as unusual to him."
The prince made a very un-princely face. "That may be so but I've already been through hell to keep Merlin's head on his shoulders; I don't want to have to do the same for yours. It's better to keep you secret."
"Oi, I did most of my own saving, thank you very much," Merlin interjected, indignantly.
"Trust me, Merlin, if you didn't have me on side then my father wouldn't have even have let you take one step in Camelot," Arthur rebuffed the boy easily, clapping a hand on his hanging leg. "Anyway, I don't want to see Alizarin locked under the castle like Kilgharrah was."
"Even if your father knew I was here, he wouldn't catch me. Trust me when I say that it takes a Dragonlord to capture a dragon and as your father doesn't have any of those to hand because he killed them all, I think I'll be just fine. Even so, I won't be coming back."
"Aw, why not?" Merlin frowned.
"I went away to do some thinking, as I told you, and ended up finding out more than I expected."
The dragon sat down on his haunches once more and looked levelly at the two of them. "I'm not the only dragon left in existence."
There was a moment's silence.
"Cor blimey, I think that title should be null by now. Do you keep reproducing with air or something?" Arthur exclaimed, "Or beyond the grave?" Seeing Merlin's reaction to that one, the prince flushed. "Sorry, that was insensitive."
"We know you can't help it," Merlin smiled with faux sympathy, patting his friend on the shoulder in a patronising manner. "It's 'how you were born'."
"Ha, ha. But seriously, how can there be more of you? My father assured me that he had wiped out all the dragons but the one in his cellar and then you turn up and then Zalmon turns up. How is that possible?"
"The king doesn't know everything. Besides, there's a whole undiscovered world out there, how on earth could he expect to destroy all dragons?" Alizarin asked, flippantly.
Arthur scowled, looking like a little boy who'd been told he was being silly. "I thought they might be native to Britain."
"And I thought Kilgharrah would have sensed other dragon's with that telepathy thing you have going on," Merlin interrupted. "How does that work?"
"Hang on, what telepathy thing?" Arthur looked bewildered.
Merlin waved him away. "Shh, Arthur." The prince did not look impressed.
"They're a slightly different species," Alizarin shrugged, "And they reside in the far, far east where they are worshipped by humans instead of hunted and destroyed by tyrants." He looked pointedly at Arthur. "I've decided to go there."
"What? You're leaving? But what about Arthur?" Merlin blurted out the last part and then his hand flew to his mouth and his blue eyes widened.
"What about me?" Arthur butted in, confused. Registering the look that passed between the huge scarlet dragon and the scrawny youth, he felt his heart thump a little faster in anticipation. His eyes flickered first to Alizarin who looked surprised and then to Merlin who looked very sheepish as he kicked the leaf litter uncomfortably. "What about me?" the prince repeated, forcefully.
"You didn't tell him?" the dragon said, directing his question at Merlin.
"Tell me what?" Arthur yelled, frustrated. He didn't like being left out of the loop at all and he certainly didn't like the fact that his friend was keeping more secrets from him. He couldn't handle that. They were meant to trust each other implicitly; that was the deal.
Offering the young warlock a quirked eyebrow of disbelief, Alizarin turned his attention to Arthur who was practically foaming at the mouth in annoyance. There was an unknown emotion flickering in the dragon's golden orbs and, as the prince scrutinised his eyes, Arthur realised for the first time that they were not just one colour but varying shades of gold, light amber and even ruby red near the centre, around the iris. Entrancing and yet wholly unreadable.
"Arthur, you must understand that I gave you part of my heart to save your life," Alizarin began.
"Yes, I got that. Thanks by the way."
The great red beast nodded, seemingly deciding on how best to word his next sentence. "But as part of me is now inside you, well, you have inherited some of my qualities."
Arthur stared at him for a moment and then shrugged. "Surely that's a good thing?"
"Arthur," the dragon sighed, heavily, "You've received my near immortality. As long as I live, you can't die."
"But you live for thousands of years," Arthur breathed.
"And you will too, I'm afraid. That was the price of your life and Merlin agreed to it."
"Oh, thanks," the boy muttered, darkly, staring deliberately at his feet, "Make it seem like I'm the bad person." Then he lifted his gaze to his friend and trained its intenseness on Arthur. "I couldn't let you die, Arthur, not after everything."
Arthur merely gaped at them both, his head rotating to one and then the other before he had to lean against a nearby tree for support. Raking fingers through his blond hair, the prince seemed to be deciding how to react to what he had been told. It wasn't everyday that you were told that you'd live for another thousand or two years. He couldn't believe it. That meant that he would outlive all the people he loved and cared about….well, just Merlin, Gwen and Morgana at the moment but potentially a family - children. He would be king for a very, very long time. Would he ever even need an heir? Such a thought seemed ridiculous; to not need an heir went against everything he'd ever been taught. It was his job to continue the Pendragon lineage.
All this was too much to take in and he burst out, abruptly, saying the first thing that popped into his brain. "Will I age?"
Both Alizarin and Merlin stared at him, somewhat astonished by his words.
"I'm sorry for sounding vain," Arthur declared, brandishing his arms wildly, "But a thousand years is a bloody long time and if I age normally then I'll end up looking like a prune – a tiny, shrivelled prune!"
"And your point is?" Merlin quipped, slyly, but received a glare for his trouble.
"I don't know," Alizarin answered, truthfully, "I would say probably not."
Arthur nodded and rubbed the side of his face thoughtfully. Then he said, slowly, "I suppose I should look on the bright side of this and not dwell on all the bad stuff because there is nothing that can be done after all." He glanced into the sky and traced the outlines of the wispy clouds with his eyes. Suddenly, he looked fiercely at Merlin. "We don't tell my father though, got it?"
"Trust me," Merlin spluttered, shaking his head and looking incredulous at the idea, "I wasn't planning on telling Uther Pendragon that I gave his son a dragon heart."
"That's all right then," Arthur said, decisively. Then he levelled his gaze on Alizarin. "I understand that you want to go but you must promise me that you'll come back and visit because I'll get lonely and probably-"
"Need a shoulder to cry on?" Merlin piped up.
Arthur blanched. "I do not cry!"
"Fine, I'm sorry!"
"Anyway, I'll need to talk to you and….well, yeah. We'll miss you, you know."
"Likewise," Alizarin smiled, showing familiar rows of gleaming white teeth. "But this is for the best, trust me."
"Thank you for everything, Ali," Merlin said, sincerely.
"Yes. Thank you again."
Allowing Merlin to give him one last hug around his enormous neck, the dragon offered them both his trademark wolfish grin and clambered to his feet. With a swish of his tail and a flex of his massive wings, the scarlet beast rose into the air as gracefully as a plume of smoke. Moments later, he was merely a black speck in the clear blue abyss of the sky.
For a while both Merlin and Arthur stood in the forest clearing in silence, both lost in thought. Then…
"I've just realised something," the golden haired prince stated, turning to look at his friend and cocking his head, "You knew that I would live for a very long time no matter what and yet you took the job as my bodyguard?"
Merlin offered him a hangdog grin.
"You lazy sod!"
And there we have it. Done. Perhaps not the best ending but meh, I've had enough and I just wanted closure. Lol. :-)
I really hope you have all enjoyed reading my story on this very, very long journey of ours and that perhaps you pop in again some time to read any future fics I may write. Which will not be for awhile, trust me.
Thank you all so much for the reviews and the support. I honestly couldn't have done it without you. I can't believe we reached over a thousand reviews. Is that a record on the Merlin fandom? I don't know. Anyway, it made me so proud and happy. Thank you AGAIN!
Could you review one last time with an overview or something like that?? Thanks!
Ps. Sorry I didn't mention Seg or Tristram.