Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin. Surprise!
It has become a revel, a chance for the court to act frivolous and pretend that their whole world isn't changing before their eyes.
One by one, men and boys step up to the stone and try to draw the sword from it.
Across the circle of courtiers and servants, Arthur watches Merlin. He is frowning, staring at the stone with something like grief darkening his face.
Behind them, the children chant the myth that has developed since the discovery of the sword in the stone.
"Whoso pulleth the sword from this stone shall the rightful king of all Albion," they say again and again, their words losing meaning in the repetition.
Across the circle, Merlin meets Arthur's eyes and then glances quickly away. Arthur doesn't know what words could make their relationship right, which words could fix them, could mend the tear between them until it is barely noticeable (ignored, like the rip in the land).
Merlin finds him, of course. Arthur had known he would, but does not acknowledge his presence and merely continues to gaze at the stone in front of him, the ditty running through his head. "Whoso pulleth the sword..."
"How's your father?" Merlin asks finally, his voice a shocking break to the silence.
Arthur voice is flat, emotionless. "Nearly catatonic."
Merlin is silent for several minutes, just long enough for Arthur to continue focusing his attention on the stone, before he says "You're doing a good job, you know. Everyone's pleased. I go down into the lower town and everyone wants to tell me how well they think you're doing, in spite of, well, everything."
Arthur doesn't answer.
"They love you, Arthur," Merlin says. "Did you know that?"
"And will that be enough?"Arthur asks. He thinks he could draw an exact representation of the stone and the sword effortlessly, that his hand would be able to draw the memorized lines flawlessly.
Merlin is silent for too long before he says, "Of course it will be!"
Merlin is different, on Stone nights. More introspective, with a greater presence. More like the man Arthur sees in Merlin's potential.
The courtiers have been joined by peasants, and they form a line before and around the stone, each male attempting to remove the sword and, somehow, gain the title of king. They talk amongst themselves, excited exclamations of what they would do, were they king. Arthur watches and listens, and cannot find it within himself to be amused by their excitement, hope.
"Whoso pulleth the sword from the stone, shall be the..." the people chant, like Arthur's thoughts reenacted.
"It's ridiculous," Merlin says from beside him. "Everyone knows that you're king in all but name."
Arthur doesn't answer, because he is afraid of what truth would be revealed by Merlin's answer to Arthur's question. But should I be?
The procession is long, but not many bother to pretend to be grieving their late king. Merlin stands besides Arthur, because he is unable to care about propriety, not now. Uther is laid to rest beside his forefathers, and Arthur is hailed as king.
Merlin is smiling as he hasn't in months, wide and guileless, darkness free.
"Whoso pulleth the sword from the stone shall be the rightful king of all Albion," children chant, and Arthur has no problem containing the smile he was going to give in response to Merlin's.
Arthur watches from the trees as his people circle the Stone. One by one they go, chanting all the time, as if someone has cursed them to do this, an eternity of endless words.
Arthur shouldn't be here.
He can't pull himself away.
Merlin looks at him, face tearful, and Arthur can't think, can't breathe.
"Merlin..." he gasps out. "You..."
Merlin speaks then, as though Arthur's words were a question, but Arthur can't hear, feels like he's drowning, as though the sky is falling down on him, weighing on his chest, crushing, filling his senses.
"Arthur..." Merlin says, desperate, and somehow Arthur manages to hear that one word through the knowledge cluttering his mind, the endless cycle of images (Merlin, eyes golden, killing an bandit. Merlin, eyes golden, felling a tree so that it lands on another bandit. Merlin, eyes golden, turning to Arthur, terrified).
"Get...get out of my sight," Arthur says, but the images stay locked in his mind and only the real Merlin leaves.
Round and round his people go, their feet walking well-worn paths. A few females have joined the procession now, as though the failure of the men have made them brave enough to challenge normality. Children weave in and out of the the line, running and shrieking.
Arthur looks around the clearing, and doesn't realize that he's looking for a particular face until he doesn't find it.
When Arthur can't sleep, he walks through the echoing corridors of the castle.
He walks and walks, and when he notices the dawn peeping in through the windows, he finds himself in front of Gaius' quarters. Hesitantly, he opens the door and steps inside.
The rooms are silent—Gaius dead almost as long as Uther—and dust has settled to drape the room in a shroud of grey. Arthur closes the door (the sound breaking the silence only for a moment) and walks silently past the familiar objects until he can push open the door to Merlin's room. He stands in the doorway, peering into the room and suddenly it hurts. This room too is undisturbed, silent, and Merlin's absence is suddenly an undeniable crater in Arthur's chest, a hole filled with need and guilt and sorrow.
He collapses onto Merlin's bed ( layers of dust rising only to settle once more when Arthur goes still, coating him as it has the rest of the room), knees curled tight to his chest, and cannot bring himself to move until the sounds of the city rising for the day alert him once more to reality.
The clearing is empty once more, the people of Camelot busying themselves until darkness falls, as Arthur should be. Instead, he stands looking at the sword. It seems...innocuous, simple. Magical.
"Whoso pulleth the sword from the stone shall be the rightful King of all Albion," he murmurs, and then says it again, louder. "Whoso pulleth the sword from the stone shall be the rightful King of all Albion."
It sounds even more ridiculous when his volume is high enough to startle birds from branches, but, regardless, Arthur walks forward.
"Whoso pulleth the sword from the stone shall be the rightful King of all Albion," he mutters, as though he believes it.
He is standing directly in front of the sword now, and he takes a deep breath.
"Whoso pulleth the sword from the stone shall be the rightful King of all Albion." he says firmly, and then grabs the sword and pulls upward.
For a moment, nothing happens, and Arthur has time to be extremely glad he is alone before the sword slides from the stone with a soft scraping noise, pulling out of its scabbard of rock.
The relief is so great that Arthur almost sways with it, his focus caught on the sword he holds as it shimmers in the sunlight.
"Oh," he says, soft and almost wonderingly, and then he carefully pushes the sword back into the narrow slit left in the stone.
Hunith greets him with a guarded face. She surveys Arthur for a moment, and then says "He's out back."
"Thank you," Arthur says, and she nods at him before closing the door.
Merlin is leaning on a shovel and staring into space when Arthur finds him. He is gaunt, skeletally thin, and Arthur feels a pang of guilt when he sees the dark shadows under Merlin's eyes. When Merlin sees him, the shovel drops to the ground as he starts, taking an apparently reflexive step backward.
"Merlin," Arthur greets, fingers twitching with the need to touch, to soothe.
"Arthur?" Merlin asks incredulously.
Arthur's lips twist into a half-smile.
"I... I didn't let you explain...before," he says. "But I...think you should."
Merlin starts to tremble, almost imperceptibly. "Oh," he says, blinking.
"Yes," Arthur agrees.
They walk, and Merlin talks, recalling memories Arthur had half forgotten, painting an alternate view of events with his words, and Arthur feels something in his chest loosen as he looks at Merlin. Merlin doesn't look back at him, not at first, but as they move farther away from the village he starts peering at Arthur sideways, hiding under his fringe. Arthur is careful not to let on that he notices these glances.
They stop at a river, sitting on the bank, side by side as Merlin starts to talk of Morgana. Arthur manages to stay silent (everything is different, now) and pretends not to notice the tears in Merlin's eyes (not that different, not yet. Maybe not ever.).
And as the sun starts to sink in front of them, Merlin talks of the stone.
"No one was supposed to find it," he says, facing Arthur now, imploring. "The stone was just supposed to protect it... to protect everyone. I didn't start the rumour, I swear."
Arthur stares at the ground (grains of sand shifting underneath his hands). "No," he says, "I didn't think you did. You're not that eloquent."
Merlin looks startled for a moment, and then smiles (a slow smile, a wondering smile, as though he never expected to smile again, and cannot quite comprehend the action now).
"No one's going to get the sword out of the stone, though," Merlin says, determined. "You don't have to worry about any crackpot claim to your throne."
In the spirit of their slowly healing camaraderie, Arthur doesn't say that the myth has done quite enough damage to his claim to the throne as it is, and instead says, with a smile slowly spreading across his face, "No, I don't."
The closer they get to Camelot, the more grim and timid Merlin grows, the hesitant banter they had cultivated during the journey fading away into long silences. Arthur doesn't know how to fix this, how to apologize for all his mistakes simultaneously, how to prove himself so that all the repercussions fade into the past, distant and barely remembered.
When they reach the gate, Merlin halts his horse, staring up at the walls with an odd mixture of trepidation and hope. Arthur stop as well, and turns his head around to look at Merlin, trying to hide his hesitation.
"It will be different," he swears. "We will make it be different."
Merlin turns his gaze to him, Arthur's favourite smile spreading across his face (the shadows in his eyes almost gone).
When the sky has just started lightening, Arthur pulls Merlin out of sleep with a soft, "I want to show you something" and they walk to the clearing, treading the well-worn path through the trees.
"There wasn't really a path, the first time I came here," Merlin says, rather nonsensically, but Arthur doesn't say anything.
"I didn't want to leave you," Merlin continues. "You looked mad with worry and stress, and Morgana was gone and it was all my fault, but I had to get rid of the sword."
Arthur walks closer to him, their arms brushing occasionally.
"I didn't want to leave you alone," Merlin says, with a short, bitter laugh. "As though I could hold you together with just my presence."
Arthur thinks of a morning spent on Merlin's bed, covered in dust, and of a constant pressure on his chest, constricting his lungs. "You did," he says softly, and Merlin's answering smile almost feels like forgiveness.
Merlin stops walking when they step into the clearing, but Arthur doesn't hesitate, walking up the stone and then turning to face Merlin. Reaching out, Arthur grasps the sword, and pulls it gently from its sheath of stone.
Excalibur shines in the dim light, and Merlin smiles slowly.
"Since it was made for me," Arthur says, ignoring the sword in favour of looking at Merlin, "I think I can probably wield it safely."
"Since it chose to be removed by you," Merlin says softly, "I reckon so."
Arthur looks at the sword, and then, smiling, turns back to Merlin. "I want you to do something."
As the sun rises, Arthur kneels at Merlin's feet. Merlin holds Excalibur in his right hand, trembling slightly (though Arthur will never tease him for it, because Merlin's eyes hold wonder and hope and endless centuries of secrets). Arthur bows his head, and Merlin lifts Excalibur and places it softly on Arthur's right shoulder.
"Arise King Arthur," Merlin says, as he lifts the sword and places it on the opposite shoulder, "the rightful king of all Albion."
Merlin steps back, lowering the sword, and Arthur stands slowly. Merlin is looking at him as if he has never seen him before, as if he too feels as though the world has aligned, as if their actions on this hilltop have set in motion a course of actions neither of them can stop.
"The rightful king of all Albion?" Merlin says, trying to smile teasingly though his eyes belies the fact that, for at least this moment, he believes that Arthur can be the ruler of all of Albion, that together they could conquer the whole world. "Be careful, Arthur, your ego is showing."
"Shut up," Arthur says, smiling because in this moment they are invincible, and the future stretches out before them, theirs to explore, theirs to claim.
After a moment, Merlin hands Arthur Excalibur and gestures toward Camelot with his shoulder. "Time to head back then, my liege?" he asks, sarcasm obvious.
They turn their back on the rising sun in unison, starting to walk back the way they had come, and Arthur reaches over to cuff Merlin's ear, before wrapping a companionable arm around Merlin's shoulders. It is an unexpected gesture, according to Merlin's surprised glance toward Arthur, but Merlin's face soon stretches into a soft smile and Arthur keeps his arm where it is as they walk out of the clearing, toward Camelot.
Toward destiny, Arthur thinks, and then scoffs and calls himself a sentimental fool.