In the time before the war, during what many hailed as the Golden Age of Camelot, King Arthur and his Court Sorcerer Merlin were walking in the forest just beyond the city, one in Pendragon red, the other in flowing midnight blue robes, hands clasped and heads bowed together as they whispered to each other. Soon, the two came upon a wide river, the water rushing cool and fresh over large stones that shone obsidian in the early afternoon sunlight. Always the more daring of the two, King Arthur quickly shed his boots and began to cross the river, using the stones as steps. Halfway across, he turned to see Merlin still standing on the bank of the river, boots in hand, his brow pinched in a frown as he looked from the rushing water to his long robes.
"Afraid to get wet, Merlin?" Arthur turned around fully and planted his feet on two adjacent stones. "If you didn't want to get your robes ruined then you shouldn't have worn them, "he teased, loving the indignation in his lover's response.
"You're the one who insisted I wear them, Your Majesty," Merlin replied. "Something about them being easy to take off but I don't see how you came up with that idea since it always takes me fifteen whole minutes to get them off after all of those feasts you're so adamant upon throwing every month. I hate these things," he moaned, fidgeting with a billowy sleeve.
Arthur chuckled to himself. Whenever he fussed, Merlin always managed to look like the same young man he hadn't been for almost ten years.
"First off, you'll note that you always drink too much at the feasts, even though I always warn you to stay away from the wine. Second, it always takes you so long because, as a result of the aforementioned wine, you always end up drunk and always insist that you can take the robes off on your own. Thirdly, it doesn't matter if you hate them because I'm the king and I say you have to wear them, so there," Arthur pointed out, ignoring Merlin when he stuck out his tongue.
"And lastly, I have no intention of making you take them off yourself. Now if you will kindly float your magical backside over here, I will remove them myself and I can guarantee it won't take me fifteen minutes." At Merlin's confused expression, Arthur just sighed. "You don't haveto walk across, you idiot. You're a sorcerer," the King said, rolling his eyes at the expression on Merlin's face, as if he suddenly remembered he had magic.
"Honestly, Merlin, you are hopeless. What would you do without me," Arthur asked, grinning as Merlin bent to put back on his boots.
Arthur watched as Merlin, face flushed from bending down, made a rude gesture and opened his mouth to begin reciting the spell they both knew well; cold winter mornings left them both unwilling to leave the comfort of their bed to fetch anything and Arthur had asked Merlin to learn the spell for the sake of their often-bare bodies.
Merlin's eyes blazed a familiar gold before his whole face suddenly drained of color and the spell became a shout of warning. Drawing his sword as he whipped around, Arthur had enough time to glimpse the large grey wolf bounding out of the brush towards him before he lost his footing and began to fall.
And then he was floating, moving slowly towards the bank where Merlin stood, eyes blazing. The wolf was frozen in midair, hanging there by Merlin's power, and Arthur could see the raggedness of its fur and the hint of its ribs showing through. No wonder it had attacked him; it was starving, till winter-hungry in the newness of spring.
When he feet were back on solid ground, Arthur watched as Merlin set the wolf back down on the opposite riverbank and they watched it rush off back into the forest.
"Well," Arthur said, sheathing his sword and turning to face Merlin.
"That's what you get for being a prat and making me wear these robes," Merlin replied cheekily, as the last of the gold faded from his eyes.
"As your benevolent lord, I will ignore that slight upon my character and focus instead on repaying you for saving me," Arthur said playfully, drawing Merlin into his arms and dropping a kiss on the other man's lips. Just as the kiss began to deepen and Arthur's fingers fumbled for the clasp of Merlin's robes, a strong cold wind picked up, chilling them both and drawing them out of the moment.
Merlin was the first to spot the cloaked figure standing on the opposite side of the river. The figure began to move towards them, its dark cloak barely brushing the stones as it glided across the river to come to a rest in front of Arthur. Lifting two slight pale hands, the figure drew back its hood to reveal two silvery-grey eyes set in a startlingly beautiful face, neither feminine nor masculine, simply enchanting.
"Hello, Arthur Pendragon," the figure spoke, with a voice that seemed to be buried under a layer of ice and made Arthur tense, his hand moving to the hilt of his sword.
"Do I know you," he asked, "I can't say I've ever met you before."
The figure seemed amused at this, a small smile flitting across its pale face. "Many who meet me only ever do so one time. They never have an opportunity to do so again in this life as I am the first person they meet in the next."
"I can assure you that he is not dead," Merlin said, shifting his weight defensively and eying the figure, Death, Arthur thought to himself, suspiciously. "So to what do we owe this pleasure?"
At Merlin's sharp tone, Death's features darken momentarily before brightening.
"No need for such distrust, Emrys," Death said calmly, before turning to Arthur and dropping into a deep bow. "I have merely come to congratulate King Arthur on having such friends that he manages to escape me. The wolf failed to take him and the river failed again to claim his life. He must be special indeed to have been blessed with such good fortune. Now King Arthur, there are not many who have managed to elude me once, and yet you have done so an innumerable about of times over the years. This warrants something special. The gods have their blessings upon you and so I will honor that blessing and grant you one wish. Tell me, Arthur. What do you desire?"
Arthur felt Merlin's hand brush his arm and turned to see the distrust in his friend's eyes, the almost imperceptible shake of his head. Removing his hand from his sword and drawing himself up tall, Arthur turned back to Death.
"I am deeply honored by your offer but I will have to respectfully decline. I have all that my heart desires," his eyes flicking to Merlin beside him, "and I wish for nothing more."
Death, not appearing disheartened by Arthur's refusal, simply smiled and spoke again.
"Surely there is something you want. You are a warrior and one as skilled as yourself requires powerful weapons. Perhaps you would take pleasure in a new blade. I can fashion you a blade with such power that no enemy will be able to stand against it."
Drawing Excalibur from its sheath, Arthur held it up for Death to see. "This blade was forged for me in the Great Dragon's breath and is powerful beyond measure. I already possess a weapon beyond any you can endeavor to fashion for me and have no need for another." Returning Excalibur to its sheath and clasping Merlin's hand in his, Arthur made to turn away, only to stop when Death began to speak again.
"The blade that you possess is powerful indeed. A weapon such as that can slay any foe, this is true. It is obvious that you are content with it and I know that I cannot tempt you with such a gift. But I have seen your losses, Arthur Pendragon. There have been many whom you have loved that have come to me. I can grant you the power to return them to this world."
At Death's words, Arthur felt his resolve begin to crack. He had lost so many. His father, Leon, so many good men…
"Your mother. You have seen her once. Do you not wish to see her again? I have such power. Ask and it will be made yours."
His mother. He could still remember her face, her smile, her hair. Bright and flaxen like his own. Those moments with her had been precious. To hear her speak of how proud she was to have him for a son. To feel her arms around him as he had not been able to feel them as a child. And when she was gone, how he'd begged Morgause to bring her back.
At the very thought of her name, Arthur felt his resolve harden once more. With determined eyes, he addressed Death.
"Yes, I have seen my mother. And she was beautiful. Those moments spent with her were the most meaningful of my young life then and I would not give them up. Still, I have seen the grief and rage that communion with the dead can cause. Those who have passed must remain so and can only live on in our hearts. If you hoped to tempt me with this gift, then you have failed, for I can see the disaster that such a gift would bring and it far outweighs the good."
"Come, Arthur," Merlin said, grasping Arthur's hand more firmly in his and squeezing gently to get his attention. But Arthur did not move. He expected Death to try again, he's heard that all things come in threes, and he was not shocked when Death began to speak again. However, he was surprised to find that Death was addressing Merlin.
"Forgive me, Emrys. I have now realized that I have been addressing the wrong member of your party. For as much as King Arthur is noble and deserving of many gifts, it is you who protects him. You have done a great many things to keep him from me and, rather than be upset at the loss, I am deeply impressed. You wield the power over Life and Death with such mastery and I must commend you. You are truly a great sorcerer," Death said, dropping to bow in front of Merlin, who looked on warily.
"And yet I wonder…" Death said airily, "who will protect you, Great Emrys? The blade that the king wields is powerful indeed but it can hardly protect you both from your many enemies. Who will keep you safe if the blade Excalibur should fail?"
"My own safety does not worry me; keeping Arthur safe is what I am destined for," Merlin spoke firmly.
At this, Death simply smiled slyly and continued speaking. "But if you should fall in battle, who will be there to protect your king? The Knights of Camelot are a mighty force but you, Emrys, are King Arthur's greatest protector. Surely you must consider this."
Arthur noticed Merlin's brow creasing as Death's words penetrated his reasoning. Death was making a strong argument and Arthur had no doubt that Merlin would strike a bargain Death if it meant keeping Arthur safe.
"Merlin is vastly powerful and I do not doubt his ability to protect us both. We desire nothing from you. We will be on our way," Arthur said resolutely, beginning to walk away only to be jerked back when Merlin did not follow.
"Come, Merlin. Let's go."
But Merlin was still staring at Death with the same contemplative expression on his face, and Death met his gaze with a secretive smile.
"I am Death. While you may have the power to create life by taking life, you do not have the power to keep yourself from me. But I can give you that. I can release you from fear of me and leave you free to watch over your king without concern for your own life. You will always be able to keep him safe. Do you desire this power, Emrys?"
Arthur could see that Merlin's resolve was quickly slipping away and he knew he had to do something quickly.
"No, he does not," he shouted, "leave us! He wants nothing from you."
"Yes, I do."
Aghast, Arthur turned to Merlin and gripped his head in both hands, forcing their gazes together. "No, Merlin. There are many things I allow you to play with, but this is not one of them. You know better than to meddle with Life and Death, Merlin."
"I want you safe always, Arthur. I need you safe," Merlin said vehemently, gripping Arthur's wrists. "And you need me there to protect you. I never want to have to choose between you and me because I know that I would never choose me and you would hate me for always choosing you. This way, I won't have to choose."
Stepping back from Arthur's grasp and turning to Death, Merlin extended his hand. Death grinned this time and took his hand. Dark wisps snaked off of Death's cloak and bound the two arms together before fading away.
"It is done. I hope you are happy with your gift, Emrys. I will not see you again. Farewell."
And then Death faded into the air, leaving behind chilled air and the faint sound of icy laughter.
Months later, Camelot is threatened and the time for great battles begins, Merlin is at Arthur's side, watching over him always, Death's promise clear in his mind.
But, through Morgana's deception, Merlin is not there when Arthur battles with Mordred at Camlann. He arrives as Arthur is breathing his last breaths and whisks him away to Avalon, where he forces Morgana to help him bind Arthur's soul to the earth. He refuses to relinquish Arthur to Death and he and Morgana weave the most powerful magic they possess to ensure that Arthur is returned to him.
But Death has been cheated of Arthur Pendragon too many times and it will not happen again. The spells cast over Arthur are powerful but they do not stop him from dying. The Once and Future King is destined to be reincarnated but he is also destined to grow old and die.
And Merlin is destined to watch. With his power, he angered Death and he must pay the price. To wield power over Life and Death is to live as Death lives; to walk the earth unchangingly, never growing old and never dying, doomed to watch all things pass away.
Over the centuries, Death and Merlin struggle back and forth over Arthur. Arthur is reincarnated, finding love again with Merlin in large cities and tiny countrysides and many places in between. But the time always comes. Death always arrives to claim Arthur Pendragon, sometimes when he is tragically young and sometimes allowing him to grow old.
And Merlin suffers. He lives on and on and does not die and curses Death for not taking him as well.