Okay done, finished, it's all over. Sorry it's so long, I hope it doesn't disappoint. Once again thank you so much to everyone whose reviewed, I massively appreciate every single review and am very grateful for no one flaming me (yet). You've all been very kind and patient, and I hope one day to write more stories. Thanks!
That's what Arthur first thinks. Before he even wonders what Merlin's doing there, he thinks he's dead. He's so shocked to see him, and so shocked to see him dead, that he can't even form a thought about what that means. Instead he just stands and stares down.
The body is on the ground, slumped against the table. His face is bruised, and there's a trickle of dried blood from his mouth. His clothes are filthy, and damp, his skin sallow in the blue light, eyelids lightly dropped. He doesn't look alive.
Arthur peers down, air leaving his lungs. He reaches out and touches Merlin's head. "Merlin?" he says with real sadness, as he realises that almost nothing in his life makes sense anymore. He's in a cave, and Merlin's dead, and he can't work out how either of those things could be.
Merlin stirs, Arthur yelps and falls backwards. Merlin opens his eyes a little sleepily and seems as surprised to see Arthur as Arthur is to see him.
"Merlin?" he's beginning to feel that he has to create sense and logic here, it isn't going to come naturally, especially if they keep chanting their names at each other. Suddenly he's cross. He's angry. He's just woken up in a cave. He doesn't understand why they are here, and most of all, he doesn't understand where Merlin's been. "I've been looking everywhere for you!" he shouts. "Where have you been? Have you been in here? Do you have any idea? My father's dead and..."
"Please stop shouting," whispers Merlin, passing a shaking hand across his face.
"The Mercians are on the rise..." continues Arthur, dropping his voice slightly but still somewhat irate. "And Morgana –" again, the memory won't quite come – "Morgana's somewhere around here in the clutches of that crazy Morgause and – have you been here all along? Why are you in a cave? What's going on? How did I get here? Did you bring that bloody sword? It burned me! Where's the way ou – are you all right?" he interrupts himself, re-entering orbit to note that, whereas he had woken up as right as rain, Merlin's face is a picture of awfulness.
"I think I'm going to be sick," says Merlin, glassy-eyed, before proving himself a true prophet.
Arthur stands, nonplussed. "What's wrong with you?" he asks, although with real concern piercing the pettiness. "You look awful." He looks around for water. There isn't any. He sighs, frustrated and not willing to give up the high horse yet.
Merlin, apparently incapable of maintaining even a sitting position mutters "it's the crystal", before saying something about Kay.
"Kay's still here? Good! What crystal, the table?" he looks at the table. It's beautiful, he can't see why it would be making anyone sick. Then his eyes trail a line of crystals to Merlin's wrist, where they are leaving a livid red mark.
"Morgause'll come back, with the boy," gasps Merlin, "and...no..." he winces, pushing the heel of his hand into his eyes, as though trying to eliminate images. Finally he just relaxes. "It must have been the sword," he says. "That broke the enchantment."
He is now lying on the floor, and looks up at Arthur's irritable face. He smiles, broadly. "It's so nice to see you." He says, and passes out again.
Merlin's heavy. By the time Arthur's dragged him to the exit of the tunnel, his arms are killing him. He brought the sword too, in case Merlin was right and Morgause is about. He had approached it with caution, but now, safely in the right hands, the sword is cool and still, with only a faint gleam to signify its hidden qualities. It had broken the chain of crystals around Merlin's wrist as though they were butter –he was faintly impressed. He's relieved when Merlin revives in the fresh air.
"Feeling better?" he asks, splashing water on Merlin's face with enthusiasm.
"Fine. Thank you, you can stop." Merlin straightens up. "It's the same as the crystal of Neahtid, it messes with my head. In those quantities..." He shook his head. "It hurts. I can see the future."
Arthur eyes him. "Well from what it looked like, you weren't enjoying what you were seeing."
"We need to cross, come on."
They begin to wade, reaching the other shore. Merlin's visibly better now. Arthur looks around. "Mist is still down," he observes. "Kay! Kay! K-!"
He's almost knocked down again by Merlin slamming a hand over his mouth "Will you be quiet?" hisses Merlin. "You just can't go five minutes without shouting your head off, can you? It's a different mist, you idiot! You've been in there a year. I think Royns is out there, Morgause is coming back to kill me, and you're yelling to let them know where we are! Just shut up!"
"All right, all right, settle down," says Arthur quietly, a little offended. If anyone has the right to be annoyed with anyone, he feels it isn't Merlin with him. Then he pauses. "Wait, a year?"
And so Merlin explains, as they recover their breath on the shore, about the enchantment that the sword had broken, the false Arthur in Camelot, the druid boy's rule...
Arthur begins by asking questions, details, before suddenly being unable to sit, pacing the shore. "I have to be there," he says in anguish, "I have to get there now. How can this have happened? How could I allow this to happen?"
"You didn't allow it, Arthur. You came to help Morgana and you were trapped. It could have happened to anyone. If you hadn't had your enchantment broken, I would have been trapped and killed there too."
"You brought the sword to break it," he says. "Thank you."
"We'll have time to thank later. It isn't really me you need to thank, anyway. Right now, we need to take it easy and stop and think and –" But he stops talking and gets up to follow the rapidly disappearing king.
Arthur is walking with purpose rather than direction: he has no idea where he is. The mist is impenetrable. Morgause, when she arrives, seems to appear in stages, in the swirling whiteness – at first he thinks he sees her, then he knows he catches a sight of her, and then she is standing in front of him.
"That's a clever trick," she says, not even looking at him, but over his shoulder at Merlin. "How on earth did you manage that?" Then she looks at Arthur as though he is an interesting scientific specimen. Irritated by the delay, he raises the sword, and sees her gaze at it in unveiled astonishment. Then her eyes flash orange, she raises a hand to him, opens her mouth, and a bolt passes his ear, hits her square in the chest and sends her scattering into a thousand pieces. It happens faster than he could have imagined. It happens so fast that at first Arthur stares at the piece of ground Morgause previously occupied as though thinking he had momentarily lost her in the undergrowth. Merlin walks from behind him to his shoulder, ash-grey, wiping the dried blood away from his chin and looking grim. They stand side by side for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts. Had she been a knight, and had Merlin's thunderbolt been a javelin, he would be applauding Merlin for his shot right now, he thinks. He's seen everything: limbs hacked off, men bleeding from the head, men running mad in the heat of battle, and he hasn't blinked. Except now, when there's no blood and no screaming, he feels a little faint, as though this were the first casualty he had ever witnessed.
"She was a soldier," says Merlin, looking at the empty air previously surrounding Morgause. "As much as any knight."
"Yes," agrees Arthur, flatly. They both stare in silence for a moment, not noticing the mist gradually rolling back, revealing the damp valley. "Yes, you're right, of course." He sheaths the sword again. Merlin, Arthur thinks, is very different to how he remembers him. But then, he remembers a different Merlin. Maybe Merlin was always like this and he just never noticed. He clears his throat. "It's just a bit of a different way of doing things ,you know?"
They find Kay, or rather Kay finds them, shouting Merlin's name and appearing slightly wild-haired from a hedgerow. He's dragging the body of Royns. The crystal, Merlin thinks, only shows one future, and he saw the worst one. Kay sees Merlin and beams with relief. Then he sees Arthur, and his smile vanishes.
It's painful to watch, Merlin finds. Even as he tries to explain to Kay that this is Arthur, he can see the look of delight on Arthur's face turn to confusion, to hurt and finally to dismay, as the enormity of the situation he finds himself in dawns on him.
Kay is looking at Arthur with total distrust. Even hate. When he sees him, his hand goes to the pummel of his sword, and stays there. Arthur is used to many things from his knights: largely love and devotion, but mild irritation, exasperation and weariness have also been known, especially after the Dragon debacle. But never, ever hate. And never anything more negative than concerned loyalty from Kay. He's quite floored. Kay is listening to Merlin, and watching Arthur through narrowed eyes. He doesn't believe a word Merlin is saying, Arthur can clearly tell, Kay thinks Merlin's been tricked. He's waiting for Arthur to make a move, steeling himself for the attack, and he will strike. Arthur stares at his most loyal knight, who is, without a thought, contemplating regicide. Only one thing could drive him to this, Arthur believes, and that would be if Camelot's cause would be better off. If Camelot would benefit from Arthur's death.
How could this have happened?
"Merlin, shut up," Arthur snaps, finally, putting his shoulders back and wrapping his bravado around him like a cloak. "Kay, let go of that sword or use it, will you, you're getting on my nerves" and he shoves them both out of the way, stalking over the heath without looking behind him to see if they are following. If he is going to get their trust they have to believe he is himself, and the only way he can convince them of that is to start acting like himself.
He hears them running after him.
They seem to have been discussing siege tactics for hours. Merlin crouches behind the wall irritably. It was tricky enough getting three people back into the castle without defenders or besiegers noticing, especially when two of them were trying to get panoramic views of both the sides.
"But that's obvious," Arthur is saying, pointing out some apparently obvious line of attack. "Ten knights could take out that entire flank."
"I know!" says Kay, eagerly, "that's what I've been saying!"
"Ten there..." muses Arthur, and proceeds to distribute his forces mentally across the plain below the castle. "But it's straightforward!" he concludes.
"I know," repeats Kay, forgetting to keep a low voice.
"Can you both be quiet, please?" asks Merlin, despondently and with no real hope of being listened to. He isn't.
"They've got lazy," says Kay, looking back down at the Mercians. "They've got lazy and they're sitting ducks."
"So what have you been waiting for?" exclaims Arthur, crossly.
"Y –" Kay stops. They both really are quiet for a moment.
Arthur is looking over the plain still, but colour has drained from his face and he is white with cold rage. "Me," he says. "You were waiting for me." His sets his jaw. "Come on."
The castle is quiet. It's morning, but not early. The hush is unnatural. Just as it gave Merlin the creeps, he can see Arthur bristling. As they walk the corridors, Merlin watches Arthur's face. It's clear there's going to be no quiet sitting down and thinking through. Arthur's determined. There are no more attempts at hiding. The king is now striding down the corridors. He discards the cloak that Merlin had given him, his royal armour glints in the sunlight as they cross corridors, the proud dragon glaring with displeasure at the still courtyards. They turn more corners and Arthur, increasing his pace all the time, reaches and rests his hand on the pummel of his sword. Kay, by his side, unconsciously reaches for his own. They both look grimly ahead, not sideways, not behind, where Merlin trails them. Servants slink away as he comes. Guards jump to attention and then watch the procession curiously. Kay and Arthur haven't been seen together for a long time. And those who have just left the grand hall do double-takes.
Arthur reaches the doors of the grand hall without a break in his momentum. He barely pauses at the door, as the guards stare at him in undisguised confusion. He doesn't even look at them, but reaches for the door, and swings it open. Even as he does it, both he and Kay pull their swords.
Merlin has seen Morgana in many moods over the years – grief, anger, hurt, betrayal – but throughout it all, even when facing death at his hands, she has maintained a certain quality of romantic poise. When Arthur storms into the hall, sword aflame and flanked by Kay and Merlin, Morgana's jaw drops. There's no other term for it – Morgana stares, slack-jawed, wide-eyed and completely pole-axed. Mordred reacts a little faster. He stands up, almost overturning the throne, but then seems unsure about his next course of action. The false Arthur sits unmoved, awaiting orders. The knights just goggle, looking from one king to the next.
If Arthur has noticed any of the stir, he certainly doesn't show it. He stands, sword glowing, face thunderous. He hasn't looked anywhere except at Morgana and Mordred. He looks at them, waiting, which is more dreadful than talking. They stare back, palely. Mordred's never seen this future, thinks Merlin.
"Kill the traitors," says Mordred, finally, voice cracking on a dry throat, keeping Arthur's eye, but only just. It's difficult to say for sure, but Merlin thinks he sees a flash of fear in the icy eyes. "This is a trick, this is evil magic."
"Will you believe this child?" asks Arthur, as the knights uncertainly rise. He hasn't stopped staring at the dais. "Will you believe this child and will you believe that is me?" He points to the oblivious false Arthur with his sword. "That, who will let entire armies camp outside their castle with twenty different clear routes of attack? Do you believe that is me? I haven't been here for a year! And look at what's happened. Locked in a cave underground and look at what's happened."
The knights are, as one man, dithering. On the one hand, they can see the points Arthur is making. On the other, the king's son is giving them an order. On a third hand, Kay is standing beside Arthur, looking like a man convinced.
Any fear or weakness has gone from Mordred's stare. He narrows his eyes, and waves an arm. It happens quickly. Even as the false king leaps into action against Arthur, Morgana is on her feet, a look of cold hatred on her face. He could kill her, Merlin realises. He could, physically, kill her and at that moment, at that particular moment, he feels enough anger and loathing for her to emotionally be able to kill her...again. But he owes Freya too much, he owes Freya Arthur's life and Camelot's existence. He raises a hand, and remembers from Avalon the channelling of strength, and somehow, holds her. As her eyelids drop, and her face relaxes, she looks like the old Morgana, before all the anger welled up inside her. But he can't move now, it takes all he has got to keep her there. He can hear the clash of swords, as the kings take each other on, and sees in the corner of his eye a flash of orange as Arthur wields the blade. He hears the knights drawing their own swords. They have decided where they stand. Arthur has convinced them. Merlin always knew he would.
Kay is advancing on Mordred. But the boy is standing in the middle of the madness, looking around him. He can see he is losing, Merlin notices, the boy definitely knows he's losing. But he doesn't care. He's assessing the situation, but his findings elicit no emotion. He turns, ignoring Kay's approach and stares at Merlin. Merlin hears him, in his head, for the first time. "Is she worth it?" the boy asks. And then he vanishes, in a whirlwind and in chaos, just as Morgause had once done. Merlin, focused on Morgana, is powerless to stop him. Arthur plunges the sword into his counterpart and, as the body flickers and throws at sparks, he pulls the sword out and looks around indifferently.
"Where's the boy?" he asks. Merlin can see the exhilaration in his eyes. He would never show his joy at his knights' unspoken trust, because he wants them to think it was expected, but Merlin can see it anyway.
"Gone," says Merlin, through gritted teeth. Although that isn't strictly true, so he adds, "for now."
"Fine. Next time I'll be ready," says Arthur, gung-ho still from his fight.
Merlin gently lowers Morgana to a sitting position. The girl rests as though in sleep.
Arthur looks at her. "She is as bad as him."
"I don't think so." Merlin says, softly. He relaxes his mental grip, keeping it on her, but relaxing it nonetheless. He can't feel her fighting back anymore. "Freya is coming for her," he adds, he knows she will be here soon. "She'll take her to Avalon and help her. We owe Freya," he continues, "and I made a promise." And God knows, thinks Merlin, I don't want to be an oath-breaker again.
Arthur sniffs with exaggerated disinterest and turns away. As he does so, he smacks Merlin on the shoulder in his old show of clumsy friendship.
"Come on!" he says to his eager knights. "It's Mercians next, let's get cracking." And he bounds out, with them following, clattering in their armour.
Merlin lets Morgana go completely, she seems to be sleeping, and he can feel Freya in the castle now, she's close. He walks to the door. The knights have created mayhem in the corridor, the entire castle is alive with noise and over-excited shouting. Refugees from the town, squirreled away in every corner of the castle, are suddenly poking out, having a look. He sees down the hall Gwen, drying her hands on an apron, looking back at him with tears in her eyes, shaking her head in disbelief He goes back into the deserted great hall, with Morgana silently sleeping, shuts the door on the noise and sits down to wait for Freya.
He feels tired to his bones. This is only the beginning of course. He hears Arthur giving one of his stirring speeches, indistinctly. There's a lot of hammering on shields and shouting of Camelot's name. There will be many more battles to come. Mordred will be back, eventually. He will have to talk to Freya about an alliance with the Ladies. And even before that, there are rumours of raiders from the east at the coast. There will be many more battles. But Arthur will be king and Albion will be formed, and he and Arthur will find a way to do it together, whatever needs to be done.
Merlin sits. And waits.