*tentatively waves white flag*
H-hi. Remember me? The author promised to update two weeks ago? Well, she's finally back!
I'm so terribly sorry about the delay. There was a sudden influx of can't-be-botheredness that unfortunately affected my written creativity AND my ability to research references for my university paper. So when push came to shove, I had to cram for my essay and ditch FF for a while. Good news is, the essay is in two days ahead of schedule and I've finally managed to complete the story! Again, my sincerest apologies for keeping people waiting.
And I'm sad to say that I wasn't able to reply to everyone's comments this time around. I read them all, and loved them, but I soon lost track of whose I had replied to and whose I hadn't. I assure you that they were still as much appreciated as the last batch. Cookies go to all of you this time! (And none to me.)
Here's the epilogue. :)
Five days later...
"You're still alive, then?"
Merlin stumbled to a halt, his heart hammering, and spun around quickly to face the speaker. Sir Gildor stood in the shadow of an alcove, arms crossed over his chest as he slouched with comfortable ease against the sandy stone. Despite the fading daylight, his blond hair and gentle features appeared illuminated in the gloom. Merlin clasped his arms by his sides and gave a stiff bow, conscious of the fact that he needed to appear only partially recovered from what Gildor would perceive as a knife wound.
"Gaius is a skilled physician, my lord," he replied, keeping his gaze averted. "I am well rested and ready to return to duty."
The knight's youthful face broke into a grin. Pushing himself away from the wall, he clasped Merlin by the shoulder. "Thank the stars. I have heard that Prince Arthur does not find the kitchen lad an adequate...replacement." His azure eyes shone with amusement. "For both Arthur's sake and the boy's, it's a good thing you were not laid abed longer than these five days. Neither would have survived the ordeal, I fear."
Calmed by the knight's openness, Merlin cracked a smile. "In that case, I'd best report to him first thing in the morning. I wouldn't want the death of Camelot's future king hanging over me - my reputation would be sullied."
Gildor's eyes widened and for one awful moment Merlin feared he had gone too far. But then the knight threw his head back and laughed - a loud, warming sound that echoed down the chilly castle corridor – and the sense of unease in his stomach dissipated as quickly as it had come. It took a few seconds for the bearded man to regain his composure, wiping the tears from his rosy cheeks as he glanced around to make sure none had heard. When he finally turned to grin at Merlin, there was an identifiable change in the way he looked upon his Sire's manservant; a certain something in his twinkling gaze. Respect, perhaps? Merlin couldn't be sure. But it warmed his heart.
"I must attend to my own duties," the knight said at last, his shoulders drooping in a sigh as he stared off into the distance. "Sir Leon and I are assessing the perimeter guards. It's a bitter night for it, though." He rubbed his gloved fingers together at the thought, the smooth leather squeaking softly. Then he returned his gaze to the manservant and smiled, clapping him on the shoulder one last time. "It gladdens me to see you so fully recovered, Merlin. No doubt we will run into each other soon enough."
Merlin nodded and smiled, bowing again. "Goodnight, my lord."
He watched the knight's retreating form until it disappeared around the corner. With a grin, Merlin spun on the spot and strode off in the opposite direction, his mood lighter than it had been all week. He was glad he had managed to persuade himself out of Gaius' chambers; the short stroll had done him the world of good. And, for the first time since the night he had left the castle in pursuit of Morgana, he felt hungry. Starving, in fact. Yet it was unlikely that Gaius would have yet returned from his rounds in the lower town, and dinner would not be ready until at least an hour after that. He couldn't possibly last that long. Perhaps he could make a short stop at the kitchens before he returned home? Maerwynn was very fond of him. The motherly cook always had a small treat to spare for the "poor dear" who had to live with Gaius as a mentor. She and the physician were old friends, so Gaius' lack of talent in the kitchen was no secret.
The old cook was a formidable woman, rotund and sharp-witted with the strength of ten men, but her heart was kind. She would no doubt scold him for having gotten himself injured during the battle, for news spread fast amongst the castle servants and his absence had been the primary topic of conversation this week, or so Gwen had informed him. The plate of honey cakes a kitchen servant had brought to him four days past had served as both a token of affection and a warning from Maerwynn that she knew of his plight and expected a visit as soon as his strength had sufficiently returned. No doubt she would call him a foolish and impulsive boy, give his ear a sharp tweak as if he were a lad of twelve, and then sit him down in front of a steaming plate of whatever she was cooking for the lords and ladies of Camelot, clicking her tongue disaprovingly at his malnourished state of appearance. Oh yes, a trip to the kitchens was definitely in order.
And while he was there, he would enquire about this kitchen boy whose actions had tormented his master so. Whoever he was, Merlin needed to thank him profusely.
Arthur closed his eyes, using the tips of his fingers to slowly massage his temples. It did little to lessen the pounding ache in his skull, which radiated from a central point at the back of his head and pulsed painfully with every heartbeat. Reaching back, he tentatively probed the sizeable lump that had begun to form there.
"Forgive me, sire. I'll just...yes...there. Are you alright? Of course you're not, that was a stupid question. I'm so sorry."
Oh, how he yearned for quiet. The loud sloshing of the water in his servant's pail seemed deafening as the boy scurried about the room, mop in hand, mumbling a constant litany of apologies. He shot a one-eyes glare in the direction of the sound. "For gods' sakes, Cyrus, calm down."
The mop slid from the startled lad's fumbling grasp, clattering loudly to the floor. With a pained groan, the prince shot a despairing glance heavenwards.
"Uh, s-sire?" the younger man stammered hesitantly. He visibly paled when Arthur looked his way, wringing his hands together as he shifted nervously from foot to foot. "Perhaps I should fetch Gaius?"
Arthur waved away the suggestion. "It's all right, the damage isn't permanent." The mere thought of taking one of the physician's bitter tonics conjured a foul taste in his mouth, and he reached automatically for the nearby goblet. Finding it empty, he slammed it down on the table in frustration. When this only served to worsen the ache in his skull, he dropped his head into both hands, leaning his elbows against the edge of the table. "Pour me some wine, will you? If there's any left."
Perhaps he should have omitted that last remark. Fie, now he'd done it.
Further upset by the reminder of his earlier gaucherie, Cyrus looked close to fainting. His hands trembled as he took up the near-empty pitcher, which clattered loudly against the rim of the goblet as he shakily poured his master a drink. It was a miracle that the remaining liquid didn't end up all over floor like the last time. Worried at the mental image of another drenched pair of boots, Arthur snatched up the goblet before Cyrus had a chance to knock is over.
The sudden movement startled him and the younger man lurched away from the table. Then time itself seemed to slow and Arthur watched with a sense of impending doom as Cyrus' back foot collided with the heavy wooden pail. His servant teetered upright for a moment, upper body swaying as he sought equilibrium, but it was a lost cause. He hit the ground with an almighty 'thunk', water pooling around him from the overturned pail, the metal pitcher flying from his hands and skittering across the floor, bouncing off the opposite wall.
Arthur pushed the goblet aside and dropped his ferociously aching head back into his hands. There was silence for one beat, two, three. Then the babbling litany of apologies began again and he growled low in his throat, gripping his fringe in both fists.
Dripping wet and near frantic with remorse, the inept servant crawled towards the mop. "I'll clean it up immediately, sire."
"No, just-" Arthur waved a hand towards the door, squeezing his eyes closed. "Just leave. I'll have someone else do it."
The boy's face paled and he stared up at the prince in obvious terror, hands shaking.
"Oh, get up, you fool," Arthur groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm not sentencing you to death for tipping over a bucket. Although if you linger in my sight another second, I might just throw you in the stocks for plain idiocy."
A moment later, and Cyrus had managed to obey without causing any more accidents. Arthur glowered at the closed door, rubbing the lump on the back of his head and wondering why on earth he had taken Leon's advice and employed a kitchen boy as his manservant. Gods, how did Maerwynn cope with the lumbering idiot? He was nearly Merlin's age, younger by a few summers at most, but his clumsy hands and stumbling gait made the older servant look almost graceful. Merlin! Graceful! What was the kingdom coming to?
And now look at his chambers? There was water and wine and heaven knows what else pooled all over the floor. His last clean pair of breeches were damp from the knee down on one side and the inventory list he had spent the last three days studiously compiling was now an illegible blur of ink and sodden parchment. Oh, he knew who's fault this was. The idiot just had to have gotten himself stabbed during the battle, hadn't he? The promised five days were surely over by now. It had felt like months since he'd last seen some semblance of order about his chambers. Fie, he was sick and tired of it all!
He thumped wooden surface before him with a clenched fist, brow furrowed. The wine goblet, which had been perched precariously on the very edge of the table, toppled sideways and fell to the floor with a loud clatter. Liquid splashed against the toes of his boots.
Standing up suddenly and kicking his chair back, Arthur clenched both hands into fists and marched towards the door. Enough was enough. Merlin's leave of absence was over.
He poked at his dinner, trying to bring himself to take a bite despite the almost painful pressure of the food already in his stomach. Maerwynn had forced two servings of beef stew down him, followed by a warm, sweet pastry that was sticky with honey and sprinkled with pine nuts. It had tasted so good, he hadn't realised just how full he was feeling until he'd licked the last of the crumbs from his fingers. And now...heavens, he couldn't manage another bite. He had spent the last few minutes breathing slowly and deeply to try to lessen the tight pressure in his stomach, but if he continued to ignore his meal Gaius would be sure to notice that something was amiss. In the physician's eyes, Merlin with no appetite was a worrying thing indeed. The elderly man would force a vile potion down his throat before he could think up a suitable excuse.
And yet, even if he hadn't already eaten, he doubted his apetite would still be at its best. On his way back from the kitchens, he had run into Morgana. She had said nothing, done nothing, but the fiery animosity in her eyes had made his blood run cold. There was nothing left of the woman he had once respected; he had once cared deeply for. Even her beauty seemed tainted by her hatred. Her face angular and unbecomingly pale, her once melodious voice over-sweet and mocking. It was as though the truth had removed a veil from his eyes. He had gazed upon her anew and seen her for what she truly was; evil.
"What are you thinking about?"
Merlin stirred his stew slowly, watching as a floating lump of something tossed and turned in the dark whirlpool. "Morgana." The word stuck in his throat, thick and painful. He swallowed forcefully. "If I had told her about magic instead of sending her into the forest of the Druids, if from the very beginning I had explained to her how magic could be used for good...do you think she'd still be the person she once was?"
Gaius squeezed the wrist that was resting on the tabletop, his eyes kind and understanding. "You couldn't have done anything to prevent this, Merlin. I fear the poisoning of her spirit began long ago, when she was but a child. Her father was such a kind and generous man. When he died and Uther took her in, Morgana was starved of that love. The king cared for her deeply, gave her everything she might desire, save the open affection she truly needed. A child unloved cannot flourish. I offered what care I could, but I believe she learned to harden her heart against the world at a very young age."
Staring at his stew glumly, Merlin mumbled, "Why is Uther so blind to her true nature?"
Gaius shook his head. "I don't know. It's a mystery." He studied his ward for a long moment, his expression serious. "You must be wary of her, my boy. She will try again."
"I'm not afraid of her," Merlin protested softly, determinedly squashing a piece of carrot beneath his spoon as though the very act would thwart Morgana's plans.
"You should be."
He set the spoon down, defeated by the weight of his own disappointment. "No. No, all I feel for her is...sad. She's become so bitter, so full of...hate."
Gaius leaned forwards, squeezing his wrist again emphatically. "Don't let that happen to you, Merlin."
He managed a half-smile as the physician released him, and dropped his gaze to his untouched meal. "Nothing could ever make me that angry."
The door swung open and a scowling Arthur leaned around the frame. He spotted Merlin and glowered. "Get your lazy backside out here."
Merlin looked and Gaius and raised an eyebrow, his lips twitching. "Although on second thoughts..."
Sliding off his chair, he hurried after the prince, closing the chamber door behind him. As he reached the top of the spiralling stairs that lead down into the main courtyard, Arthur glanced back up at him. "Be careful, some idiot's left a basket half way down."
"Didn't know you cared so much about my safety, sire."
"Shut up, Merlin."
He smiled, warmth filling his chest. Now that was more like it. Ah, blessed normality; all would be well.
And thus ends the story!
Again, a HUGE thank you to all readers, especially to the reviewers who delivered such kind and generous feedback. I've been completely overwhelmed by this story's popularity. 240 story reviews! I'd never dreamed of reaching such a figure. This has been such a confidence booster for me, and I can't begin to tell you how much I've enjoyed sharing my story with you. You've all been wonderful.
I hope to have another story out soon, but at the moment I'm caught between a 'Merlin' fanfic and a 'Chronicles of Narnia' fanfic. Either way, a new story will emerge sometime within the next few weeks.