Well, here it is, the final chapter of Turning Back, and just in time for Christmas as well! I want to say a huge huge thank you for all of you who have followed this through, and especially those of you who have been reviewing and letting me know what you thought of this, even if all of them weren't positive! I cannot say how much it means to me! To be honest, I'm surprised I managed to write this at all, never having written and posted at the same time before, not to mention I've just survived my first term at university as well!
An extra big hug to MerlinStar, whose name is SO appropriate because she has been a complete star with taking over the beta-ing for this, thank you so so much!
Happy Christmas, everyone!
Merlin slowly opened his eyes, shifting contentedly under the warmth of the covers. Only 24 hours ago, he had been waking up in the exact same position, but with no idea who he was. It scared him now quite what he could have done whilst being under the influence of the spell. It may have been a shock when Arthur had turned up, but Merlin couldn't help but wonder whether that had saved him. Not only from Morgause, but stopped him from using his magic in a way he normally refused. After all, he wouldn't have necessarily realised the damage he could have done with the magic feeling that alien to him.
Thinking about the prince, Merlin was unable to stop the smile spreading over his face when he caught sight of Arthur. Slouched in a chair, Arthur's feet were propped up on the bed, a goblet held loosely in his hands, yet his head was resting on his chest, rising and falling with his even breathing. Judging by the way he had changed his attire, Merlin knew he could not have been there for long, yet it was obviously enough for the prince to succumb to the lack of sleep he had put himself through over the last few days.
Wriggling his feet around a little more, Merlin had to bite back his laughter as Arthur jerked awake, feeling the sudden movement. The goblet clattered to the floor with a loud crash, causing the prince to jump to his feet with a yelp, only for his foot to catch on the leg of the chair and send him sprawling across the bed.
"Graceful," Merlin remarked dryly, causing Arthur to quickly stand again, attempting to look dignified but, in Merlin's eyes at least, failing spectacularly.
"Look who's decided to join us in the land of the living then."
"You can talk," Merlin muttered, pushing himself upright and leaning back against the wall, watching his master critically. Arthur looked awful; there could be no other word for it. Huge black circles shadowed his eyes and his skin was unnaturally pale. Yet his servant was not too concerned, for the spark was once more alight in Arthur's eyes, and when he grinned at his servant, Merlin found himself automatically grinning back.
"How are you feeling?" Arthur asked somewhat hesitantly, his tone clearly indicating that he was attempting to mask his worry, but, as with his attempt to look dignified, was failing.
"Oh wonderful," Merlin muttered wearily. "How long was I asleep for?"
"Long enough," Arthur responded cheerfully, rolling his shoulders to ease out the muscles. He hadn't been in the chair for that long, having only risen earlier that morning himself. Yet the trials and tolls of this never ending quest had clearly taken more out of him than he was prepared to admit, perhaps even realise. Besides, the chair had just been so comfortable and Merlin hadn't shown any signs of waking.
"Where is everyone?" Merlin suddenly asked anxiously, sitting upright, his eyes roaming the empty room anxiously. Watching him, Arthur sighed. Whilst he had a strong feeling that this was over, that Morgause would leave Merlin be at least for now, the way his eyes had widened in alarm at the room's emptiness suggested otherwise. It meant the prince was more than aware it would take some time before his servant would be ready to put this behind him. Arthur didn't expect him to; he had been through too much to simply shrug it off. Yet, despite his hopes that Merlin would come to terms with everything, he had a horrible feeling the boy would simply bottle it up. He had never truly known Merlin to be completely open when it came to his own feelings.
"Relax, you idiot, Nancy will have my hide if you get worked up. Endred is resting, Nancy is in the kitchens, probably terrifying someone, and Owain has left."
"Left?" Merlin yelped, wondering what could have happened to cause the loyal knight to desert them. After all, he had been asleep for the conversation the night before.
"Will you please relax?" Arthur barked, pressing a firm hand against Merlin's shoulder as the boy attempted to jump out of bed. Honestly, after everything, he still hadn't developed the ability to tell when there was something to worry about and when he was over-reacting.
"I needed him to take a message to my father," Arthur supplied, turning back around as he did so in order to prevent Merlin seeing the lie in his eyes. He wanted this to be a surprise, and it would do no good for the servant to start getting suspicious. Any further awkwardness was saved, however, as Nancy came bustling through the door, somehow managing to juggle two trays in a way that had Merlin raising his eyebrows. He never managed to carry one tray that gracefully, let alone two.
"Good morning my duckys," the maid announced cheerfully, flicking her gaze pointedly between Arthur and the chair, the look on her face making Merlin smirk. It appeared that the prince had not been given the choice initially about whether he wanted to sit down or not. With a slightly sulky look upon his face, Arthur did indeed sit, but soon smiled when one of the fully laden trays dumped itself in his lap.
"Nancy, you are the most wonderful person I have ever met." Looking astonished at the sincerity in Arthur's words, Nancy smiled over her shoulder at the sight of the prince already tucking in as she delivered an equally laden tray onto the bed next to Merlin.
"And as for you, young man, you are not leaving this bed until that is empty, am I understood?" Merlin, however, already had his mouth too full in order to coherently answer, instead tucking heartily in. He couldn't remember the last time he had tasted food this good; even the last meal at the manor had been somewhat tainted by the realisation that he may never discover who he was. Now, however, there was nothing between him and his appetite and, digging in, Merlin didn't notice Arthur stop his own attack against the food as both he and Nancy watched the servant in astonishment.
"Wha-?" Merlin half said, his mouth again being too full in order to form a proper sentence.
"Are you inhaling that?"
"You sound like Gaius."
"I guess this explains why you always get the hiccups then." Rolling his eyes, Arthur turned back to his own battle, not realising that his own speed was bordering on matching his servant's. After all, there was no way a prince could let his own manservant beat him.
After a few moments of silence, only filled by the sound of the meals disappearing at an astonishing rate, Merlin sat back with an explosive breath.
"Don't tell me I have to finish it all, I'll explode!" he moaned, his desperate gaze directed at Nancy as his eyes pleaded with her to let him out of bed. Tipping Arthur a wink, the maid pretended to deliberate.
"I'm not sure. You're his master, sire, what do you think?"
"I'm not sure either," Arthur responded slowly, pretending to peer critically at his servant.
"He does still look a bit peaky, maybe he should stay there for another day." Unable to keep the laughter out of his voice as Merlin gazed at him in horror, Arthur stood up, stretching his arms above his head as he did so. He knew how much Merlin hated being stuck in bed, regardless of the state he was currently in.
"I'll… I'll polish your armour!" Merlin gabbled suddenly, trying to swing his legs out from under the covers, but was stopped by Arthur suddenly sitting down on the bed. Keeping the blankets trapped around his limbs, Merlin couldn't wiggle his way free.
"You're my servant, Merlin; you have to do that anyway."
"Then I'll do it really badly if you don't let me up."
"Then I'll have you thrown in the stocks."
"Arthur, please!"Laughing openly at how frantic Merlin's pleads were becoming and the fact that he was fast realising he wouldn't be able to bribe Arthur into letting him up, the prince stood back up again.
"Alright. Meet me in the stables in an hour, we need to go."
"Yes, Merlin, already. And hurry up." And so saying, Arthur strode from the chambers, feeling the comforting weight of familiarity press back down on him. Not that long ago, he had been seriously wondering whether he was ever going to order Merlin to hurry up again, whether he would even see the servant again. As much as he would like to stay, he knew they had to get a move on if they were going to get there in time before Owain got back. Wandering down to the stable, Arthur decided to kill the time in choosing horses for himself and Merlin. Endred had immediately offered them to the prince when he found out they were missing their own, and Arthur prided himself in being able to pick good animals.
He had just chosen and generously tipped the stable boy to have them saddled up when Merlin came meandering in, his hair still wet and stuck up at odd angles from where he had obviously just bathed. He was in fresh clothes, and from what he could see of them, Arthur knew the bandages had been changed. Black circles still hung heavily around his eyes, but Merlin's colour had returned and his eyes were brighter than before. Nodding in approval, Arthur swung up onto the horse he had chosen for himself, motioning for Merlin to mount as well. Smiling gratefully as the stable boy handed him up the fresh packs Endred had ordered to have made up, Arthur took in a deep breath before nudging his horse into a trot. It was time to go home.
For a while, the two friends rode companionably side by side, neither knowing what to say, nor wanting to be the first to break the silence. Arthur was watching Merlin carefully out of the corner of his eye, knowing the servant wouldn't be able to keep the pace up for too long, yet knowing Merlin the way he did, knew full well he would not say anything. For his own part, Merlin was lost in his thoughts, trying to make sense of everything that had happened to them since they had last set off from Camelot. One thing he was sure about, however, was that it was going to be hard telling Gaius. In fact, providing he could keep his injuries hidden, Merlin was in half a mind not to let the physician know what had befallen them. He was not sure his mentor would take it too well, and the last thing Merlin wanted was to be forced into bed again.
Just when Arthur was beginning to relax, thinking that perhaps they might make it to their destination without having to stop, he suddenly caught sight of Merlin lolling somewhat precariously over his horse's neck. Frowning, the prince reined his own steed in, dropping back so that he was level with his servant. Watching him carefully, Arthur couldn't help but feel relieved when he realised Merlin had just fallen asleep. He had been worried that there would be something far more serious wrong with the boy. Reaching out a hand, Arthur grabbed hold of the reins, bringing the animal under his control before it took off with Merlin still on his back. As they both came to a stop, Arthur bit his lip, thinking furiously. They were so close, it would seem silly to stop, and it would only take them another hour to get there even with going at a walk. At the same time, he knew that he couldn't just leave Merlin like that; the boy was clumsy enough on a horse at the best of times, let alone when he was asleep.
Slipping down from his own horse, Arthur somehow managed to juggle both sets of reins in his hand before swinging himself up behind Merlin. Reaching around, he tied his own steed's reins to the back of the saddle, knowing the animal was well enough trained to follow without a fuss. Shifting Merlin further forward, Arthur slipped into the saddle himself, Merlin leaning back on him, his head resting against Arthur's chest as he slept on. Awkwardly reaching around and grabbing the reins once more, Arthur slowly nudged the horses into a slow walk, trying to keep them both under control whilst stopping Merlin falling off. Sometimes, the servant really didn't realise quite how far he pushed the master/servant boundary.
For his part, Merlin was remarkably comfortable. He didn't notice that he had fallen asleep, didn't feel Arthur navigate him into a comfier position, instead just giving in to his body's demand for respite.
"-rlin. Merlin. " Hearing a voice manage to make its way through his subconscious, Merlin shifted position slightly, but showed no signs of wanting to wake up.
"Merlin!" The voice was slightly more persistent this time, and groaning, Merlin tried to force his eyes open.
"Few min'ts more," he slurred, drowsiness not allowing his voice to work properly. Breathing in deeply, Merlin shifted again, and with a sudden yelp, found himself waking up rather abruptly as he began to fall. He had just managed to get his eyes open when an arm caught him around the chest. Glancing up over his shoulder, Merlin caught sight of the strained expression on Arthur's face as the prince desperately tried to stop Merlin falling off the horse. Frowning in confusion, Merlin unhooked his feet and dropped to the ground gently. Since when had Arthur been on the same horse as him?
"Wha-? Where are we? This isn't Camelot."
"Nope," Arthur responded cheerfully, leaping down from the horse himself before stretching his aching body out, grateful for the chance to move again. That had certainly not been one of the most comfortable rides in his life.
"Where are we?"
"Don't you know?" Arthur asked, eyebrows raised in amusement as Merlin merely frowned at him.
"Merlin!" His head turning towards the voice, Merlin gaped in astonishment at the sight of his mother rushing towards him. His mouth hanging open, he turned back towards the prince, who grinned.
"How?" Merlin practically yelped, turning just in time to see his mother pull up short, her hand flying to her mouth in horror as tears glistened in her eyes. Cursing himself for not having warned the woman quite about the state of her son, Arthur realised that he had become used to the bruises that littered Merlin's face. He could still make out the faint marks around his throat from the first bandit attack, not to mention the bandages that were clearly visible. He had been so grateful for the fact that Merlin was alive; it had slipped his mind quite how things may appear to the boy's mother.
"Mother!" yelling out joyfully, Merlin had correctly interpreted his mother's sudden stop, and not wanting her to worry he sprinted forwards, enveloping her in a fierce hug. For a moment, Hunith seemed too stunned to react, but then wrapped her arms firmly around her son, and, despite the fact he towered over her, used one hand to stroke the back of Merlin's head lovingly. Averting his eyes from the open display of affection, Arthur set about leading the horses towards Merlin's old home. It seemed a lifetime ago since they had last been here. So much had changed since then.
Just as he drew level with mother and son, Hunith unwrapped herself from Merlin, whose smile was so wide it looked like his face would split in two. An understanding look passed between them, and Arthur didn't have time to react as his servant took the reins. Before Arthur could question what Merlin was doing, he too found himself swept into an embrace. If he was honest, the prince surprised himself by how quickly he relaxed into it, not being able to think of a single time he had been hugged like that.
"Thank you, sire," Hunith whispered into his ear, before pulling away, smiling somewhat shyly at him. Hearing Merlin begin to laugh behind him, Arthur snatched the reins back from his servant and began to walk off, knowing the back of his neck was burning. He hadn't managed to go more than a couple of steps before he felt Merlin jog up beside him, taking his own horse back from the prince. Side by side, the two led the horses around to the back of the house, Merlin tying them to a tree whilst nudging the beasts closer to the water trough at the same time.
Watching them drink in silence, Merlin spared his master a look.
"Thank you, sire."
"Ah, I just didn't fancy heading back to Camelot just yet," Arthur responded flippantly, not wanting to show how worried he had been about his servant. The idea had struck him during Morgause's second attack. Merlin could have easily died so many times on this quest, they all could have done. And whilst Uther, Gaius and the knights' families knew where they were, Merlin's mother had no idea what her son was sacrificing in order to be by Arthur's side. The fact that they had emerged still alive had meant Arthur thought it was about time Merlin visited Ealdor, but knowing how stubborn the boy was, knew he wouldn't simply leave Arthur to go.
"Merlin!" Frowning in confusion, Merlin glanced at Arthur, who once again had a smug grin on his face. He knew that voice.
Slowly turning around, Merlin felt his grin return full force as he took sight of the group of people standing in front of him.
"Gaius!" With a joyful yell, Merlin practically threw himself forward, being rewarded with one of the physician's rare hugs before the old man drew back and ran his eyes over him critically.
"Sire?" he asked, one gnarled hand firmly resting on Merlin's shoulder, his voice a tone Arthur knew only too well. "With your permission, I'd like to remove your servant and check him over properly."
"Of course, Gaius," Arthur responded, trying not to laugh at the look on Merlin's face. He knew full well why Gaius had approached the situation so formally – if he had tried to ask Merlin, the boy would have flatly refused. But by going through Arthur, Merlin found he had just been ordered to submit to an examination, and before he had time to protest, found himself quickly steered inside.
"You're looking better, Leon," striding forward, Arthur found himself surrounded by all of his knights.
"I met them on the way," Owain commented as a form of explanation, he himself looking far more refreshed than when Arthur had seen him off that morning. It wasn't anything physical, just the sparkle back in the man's eye, the relaxed posture of his shoulders showing how the tension had finally left him.
"It was remarkable, sire," Leon said quietly, unable to express his relief at seeing Arthur alive and well. "One minute I was unconscious, the next, absolutely fine."
Before Arthur could comment on the man's miraculous recovery, Owain once more cut in.
"Judging by their timing of events, I think it was when Pulchra died that Leon recovered."
"It would make sense," Arthur muttered, running a hand distractedly through his hair. He didn't realise how much he had missed the company of his men, how worried about them he had been until feeling the rush of relief hit him at seeing them all well again. It was indeed good to be back in their company as it had been too long considering everything they had been through together.
"Sire, my lords…" Hearing Hunith's hesitant voice as she appeared in the doorway, her posture clearly showing how uncomfortable she was at having the knights of Camelot in her garden.
"Supper is ready if any of you gentlemen are hungry?"
"We'd be delighted," Arthur responded, speaking for all of them. Giving his men a meaningful look, Arthur led the way in, knowing by the way they had squared their shoulders that they would be prepared to eat anything in their duty to Camelot.
Entering the house, Arthur realised immediately that it was going to be a slight squeeze to get them all in, but somehow they managed it. As Arthur entered the sleeping area of the house, he couldn't help but grin at Merlin's expression. Gaius had clearly finished examining his ward, and was in the process of giving Merlin a lecture on the importance of looking after himself. It was one that Arthur had been subjected to himself and he knew that Merlin received it on a regular basis.
"Sire!" Merlin yelled, seeing Arthur enter. Immediately jumping up, he scurried past Gaius, coming to stand next to the prince.
"Don't ever do that to me again," he hissed under his breath, thankfully cutting the physician off mid-sentence. It wasn't exactly his own fault that he had ended up in such a state. And that was without telling him how he had lost his memory for a few days. Giving Merlin a mock shove, Arthur moved him out of the way as the knights filed in, Tristam immediately jumping up to help Hunith, who smiled gratefully at him.
Finally, as all the men took their places around the small table, they were ready. Merlin, however, was hovering somewhat uncertainly behind Arthur, clearly unsure of his position at the moment. How was he supposed to act? He was used to serving these men and even with their closer bonds on this quest, he was still the servant. Arthur, however, answered the question for him. Reaching with one arm, he didn't even look around. Instead, he just grabbed Merlin by the arm and pulled him over, shoving the boy down next to him without a word.
"It's your own house, Merlin," Owain commented with a smile, his spoon halfway to his mouth. Merlin smiled back, if a little hesitantly, but when the bowl got passed around to him, he soon forgot his discomfort.
"This, my lady," Percival commented with a small nod of his head, "is honestly the best meal I have had in days." To Merlin's amusement, his mother didn't say anything, but instead went an interesting shade of red he had never seen on her before.
"Merlin obviously didn't get his cooking skill from you then. He is hopeless..."
"Oh thanks," Merlin shot back, giving Arthur a wounded look as the rest of the knights began to laugh. "Besides, I'm better than you lot, at least I can cook."
Hunith let out a small gasp at the casual way Merlin was addressing the knights and Gaius shot him a look in warning, but Merlin didn't care. He had not been tortured, lost his memory and battled against a powerful witch in order to be subservient in his own home.
"You set the rabbit on fire last time!"
"I was distracted!" Merlin responded heartily, remembering their argument in the clearing before the second bandit attack. "I was having an attack of sneezes in case you don't remember."
"What about the time before that? You forgot you were supposed to be cooking." This time, the insult was coming across the table from Gawain, but when Merlin glanced towards him, found that the man's eyes were sparkling with amusement. Desperately trying to remember the time he had forgotten to cook, Merlin suddenly remembered his missed night.
"That wasn't my fault either, I was supposed to be delirious, remember?" His words were light as the group tried to shrug off the nightmare that had been their lives for the last few months, but Merlin didn't notice his mother stiffening at his words.
"You were delirious, you had almost just drowned! You should have heard the nonsense you were spouting that night."
"No change there then," Arthur butted in, rolling his eyes at his servant, although a smile danced teasingly across his mouth. Silence fell for a moment, but finally Merlin was able to pluck up the courage to say what he wanted to.
"Leon?" As the knight looked up, Merlin gently smiled. "Thank you. All of you. For getting me out of that place. She… they…."
"You're welcome," Leon stated simply as Arthur gently squeezed Merlin's shoulder at seeing his servant drop his gaze to the table, slight trembles wracking his form. He knew the men knew better than him what Morgause had put Merlin through, but he had seen enough of the result to know it was a miracle Merlin had come through this alive. It would have been a blessing if Merlin hadn't remembered that part.
"Great job we did," Gawain muttered sullenly, remembering all too well the ashen look on Leon's face as he collapsed. "She only went and caught you again."
"She?" Gaius butted in, wondering who the young men were talking about. Merlin had refused to tell him how he had managed to gain all of those injuries, but judging by how some were still fresh, yet others were at least a few weeks old, the group had obviously met numerous troubles since they had set out from Camelot. A dark look shot around the table, yet none of the men seemed to want to name her. Eventually though, Merlin said it.
"Morgause. She came after us."
"Does she-?" Gaius' question hung unanswered in the air, his eyes locked with intensity on his ward. He knew he couldn't very well ask this in the middle of the knights, not to mention the prince, but had to know the answer.
"No," Merlin responded quietly, his eyes meeting Gaius'. Despite the horror she was feeling penetrate her at the way the men were joking about precisely what her son had gone through, Hunith couldn't help but smile gently. The bond between physician and warlock was stronger than she had ever hoped was possibly when she sent her son to stay in Camelot all those years ago. Watching him now, she knew precisely where he considered home, and part of that was in the company of the men surrounding him now. And that was regardless of the fact that they were all of noble birth.
"Nothing, sire," Gaius responded evasively, avoiding eye contact with the prince. Silence fell again over the men, but before anyone could break it, Hunith shakily stood up.
"If you will excuse me, my lords," bobbing a quick curtsey, she all but fled the room. Catching Gaius' eye again, Merlin leant back where he was sitting to see her exit. To his utmost surprise, he hadn't even had the chance to move before Arthur had stood up, moving out towards where she had disappeared.
Ducking out through the doorway, Arthur soon found Hunith, her eyes locked on the forest they had emerged from only a few hours ago. As he approached, he soon noticed that her shoulders were shaking somewhat, and laying a comforting hand on one, Arthur silently joined her.
"I'll make you the same promise I made Gaius. I'll look after him."
"You can't always protect him, sire." Hunith whispered, making no attempt to disguise the tears slipping down her face. Every time there was news of an attack on Camelot, she knew Merlin was right in the thick of it, side by side with Arthur, fulfilling his destiny.
"The fool is pretty good at protecting himself, I've got to admit. Only Merlin would stubbornly refuse to wait behind whilst we went to confront a bloody dragon, of all things. And he came out of it unscathed. I swear he has more luck than anyone I know."
"He confronted the dragon?" Hunith asked, her voice shaking even further. She knew there was only one way Merlin could return from that unscathed, but that meant he would have had to meet the man she had kept hidden from him all these years…
"Among other things. I can't promise he will always be safe, Merlin is a magnet for trouble. But I can promise you I will do my best to keep him safe."
"Can you send him out?" Hunith asked hesitantly, not wanting to sound as if she was ordering the Crown Prince of Camelot to do something. Arthur nodded softly and gave her shoulder another squeeze before heading back in. He had matured so much in the last few years since he had come with Merlin to help save the village. Yet the bond he had with Merlin was clearly even stronger than then. She had sensed the words unspoken darting between them. And as much as she wouldn't tell Merlin, she had seen them approach the village. She had seen the way Merlin was leaning against Arthur, fast asleep, the prince guiding the animals as he let his servant rest. There was no way they were merely master and servant.
She didn't have long to wait until the soft footsteps behind her signaled her son's arrival seconds before his long arms wrapped themselves around her.
"I could have lost you," she whispered, twisting around in his embrace to cup his cheek with her hand, gazing intently into his eyes. His eyes that were so much like his father's. The man she was so desperate to tell Merlin about, who from Gaius and Arthur's accounts knew he had met, only to lose him again just as abruptly. Gaius had told her of how the man had died in her son's arms, yet she refused to fully comprehend what had happened to him.
"You'll never lose me," Merlin whispered gently, cupping her hand in his own. "Arthur may just think that I'm his clumsy servant, he has no idea what I can really do, who I really am."
"And he can't ever find out. But Merlin, look at the state of you. And that was with your gifts. They can't always protect you."
"I know," Merlin responded quietly, dropping his gaze. He had always thought that his magic meant he possessed some sort of invulnerability, but the case with the lake and what he had thought had been Freya had changed his mind. His magic hadn't worked against them and if it wasn't for Arthur's timely arrival – though he now believed Pulchra may have been behind that – then he would have drowned.
"But they will always be here to try," another voice suddenly cut into the conversation, and mother and son drew apart to see Gaius standing next to them. Placing his hand on Merlin's shoulder and draping his other around Hunith, the three family members stood together, side by side, watching the stars begin to come out. They didn't notice the rest of the group join them, a bond stronger than anything time had ever known before being formed in their midst.
"What happens now?" Merlin eventually asked, his voice searching out for Arthur in the dark.
"We go home. And then we tackle whatever the future throws at us. Together."
And that was precisely what they did. Uttering those words, Arthur Pendragon had no idea what the future held in store for them, didn't know how his life was about to be turned upside down. But what he did know, at that moment in time as he watched the moon glistening down on the small party taking refuge in a simple village, was that he would never have to face it all on his own.
And that, folks, is it! Until next time then, don't forget to review and let me know what you think and I hope that you all have wonderful Christmas' and that all your wishes come true!