I saw the season four promo a couple weeks ago on Youtube. I am so excited! It is going to be so awesome. Anyone else hardly able to wait? Anyways, here is the conclusion to "Hunger Pains" - when Arthur goes to the Labyrinth of Gedref. Sorry it took me so long to get it typed up and posted. Rereading it, I found it came out a bit slashier than intended. If you read, I'd like to hear from you. Enjoy!


The following day, Arthur was putting on a clean shirt when he heard the door to his chambers open. He wasn't really surprised when Merlin entered, appearing excited and flustered, panting from some physical exertion. "I thought I gave you the day off."

In hurried tones Merlin explained that he had been to see Anhora, who had promised to give Arthur a second chance. If he could pass one final test, then Camelot would be saved. Arthur too was greatly excited by the news, but he admonished Merlin for ignoring his orders and going off into the woods alone. Sorcerers were dangerous and he had put himself in a risky position. How would he have defended himself? He could barely even hold a sword let alone wield one. Merlin rolled his eyes – little did he know.

Arthur was suited up and prepared to leave in record time, his face a reflection of the determination he felt. As he picked up his sword, Merlin said, "Let me come with you. I might be able to help."

"You're not coming," Arthur's voice was firm. "I brought this curse upon Camelot. I'm going to be the one to lift it... or die trying." It was his mess and he was going to clean it up, damned be the consequences.

"How does your dying help anyone?"

Arthur paused and looked at Merlin sadly, all his unsaid thoughts caught in this throat. How could he possibly explain that he would die a thousand times over to protect those he loved? That he would rather face hell itself than be forced to watch his people suffer and slowly die, one by one? How could he describe the searing guilt and fear that was eating at him? How could he say that when he had seen Merlin lying there unconscious, felt the sickening thinness of him, that he had wished he was dead? No, he couldn't find the words. So instead all he said was, "I will die knowing that I did everything I could." In Arthur's mind that should have ended the conversation.

"I'm coming with you."

"Merlin," Arthur's voice was stern, "you are to stay here and help the people as best you can. Is that understood?" He left no room for argument. He did not want his servant to be there with him, for the simple fact that he would not be able to bear it if Merlin was hurt. Hadn't the young man already been through enough? What if he fainted again? Arthur would have nothing to sustain him. The journey would be too perilous to his health. No, he would not let anything hurt Merlin ever again.

The prince left as quickly as he could, scarcely acknowledging his manservant's presence. He was afraid that if he stayed longer than necessary his conviction would waver and he would let Merlin come with him. Although he never admitted it, Merlin was a source of comfort to him on these quests. His presence kept him from being consumed by loneliness and anxiety. Maybe he should turn around... No! Arthur shook the thought from his mind. He couldn't do it.

Merlin watched Arthur ride away until he was out of sight. Then he headed towards the stable, confident that no one would stop him.

Merlin

The labyrinth was a complicated maze, composed of narrow, twisting paths bordered by thick, green hedges. Arthur felt claustrophobic as he cautiously made his way through it, sword held out before him. He didn't like situations like these: if an opponent ambushed him from behind he was sunk. There was very little room for him to turn around and defend himself.

Originally he had been moving stealthy, but as his paranoia started to increase so did his pace. After some time he started running, meeting dead-end after dead-end, forced to backtrack. He was beginning to fear that this had all been a ruse and he would be trapped forever. He could feel panic eating at the back of his mind. He was struggling to stay focused. Mercifully, he came upon the exit just as his sanity started to slip away.

The maze opened onto a beautiful beach, unlike any Arthur had ever seen. It was breath-taking. He allowed himself a moment to just stand there, collecting his bearings and appreciating the view before him. It was peaceful here. The waves lapped gently against the sandy coast. It was the bluest sky he had ever seen, meeting and blending with an even bluer ocean. He drank it all in: the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the taste of the salty air. What ghastly horror could such a wondrous place hold for him?

He continued on his way. As he walked along the pebbled shore, Arthur came upon a sight that made him stop abruptly. However, the shock he felt this time was anything but pleasant. He was filled with dread as he recognized Merlin, sitting on one side of a makeshift table, Anhora standing close by. His servant didn't seem hurt, but the distress he felt was evident on his face. In that moment Arthur hated the old sorcerer more deeply than he ever had. How had he gotten to Merlin anyways? And what was he planning?

"Merlin?" That one word was a loaded question.

"I'm sorry." And he was. He was sorry that he had gotten caught, been fooled into a trap, was being used against Arthur. He was, however, not sorry he had disobeyed orders, because he knew he would do it again.

"Let him go. I will take your test, but not 'til he's released." He had no idea what the final test may be, but he wasn't about to put Merlin in harm's way. He couldn't risk it.

"That is not possible. Merlin is part of the test. Please sit." Arthur hesitated. Merlin was part of the test? He did not like the sound of that. "If you refuse the test, you will have failed and Camelot will be destroyed."

Arthur sat. To Merlin he said, "I thought I told you to stay at home." To Anhora, his tone no less irritated, he said, "Let's get on with it."

"There are two goblets before you. One of the goblets contains a deadly poison, the other goblet a harmless liquid. All the liquid from both goblets must be drunk, but each of you may only drink from a single goblet."

"What kind of ridiculous test is that? What does that prove?" How did killing one of them accomplish anything? It was the most outrageous thing Arthur had ever heard. He figured the old sorcerer must be some sort of sadist.

"What it proves is for you to decide. If you pass the test the curse will be lifted." Could Arthur really take him at his word? What if he died, leaving Camelot without an heir? Then again, the man had restored their water to them after the first test.

"Let's think about this," Merlin finally said, "What if I drink from my goblet first?"

"If it's poisoned, you'll die."

"If it's not, you'll have to drink from yours and you'll die. There must be a way around it."

"It's perfectly simple. One of us has to die. We have to find a way to determine which goblet has the poison," Merlin nodded as he followed the prince's train of thought. Yes, all they had to do was distinguish which was the deadly brew, "...then I'll drink it." The young warlock looked up at him, dismayed.

"I will be the one to drink it."

"This is my doing, I'm drinking it."

"It's more important that you live. You're the future king, I'm just a servant."

"This is no time to be a hero. It really doesn't suit you."

"What if I drink from mine first then if it's not poisoned I will then drink yours." Idiot, Arthur thought, didn't he just hear what I said? He cast a cautious glance at Anhora.

"He said each of us is only allowed to drink from a single goblet." Merlin sighed heavily, his mind working overtime to find a solution. Arthur looked at him, "I had no idea you were so keen to die for me."

"Trust me, I can hardly believe it myself." Arthur chuckled, though there was little humour in it. He looked at his friend in appreciation. The servant's heart was plainly displayed on his face. He really was deeply willing to die, right then and there, for the crown prince.

"I'm glad you're here, Merlin." If he was going to die, he was glad he wouldn't have to face his exit from this world alone.

"I've got it! We pour all the liquid into one goblet and then we can be sure it's poisoned. Then all the liquid can be drunk and it'll be from a single goblet."

"You never cease to surprise me. You're a lot smarter than you look."

"Is that actually a compliment?" Guilt and conviction passed across Arthur's face, though he tried not to let Merlin see it. His next words had to sound sincere or else his plan wasn't going to work. He only had one chance at this.

"Look out!" His tone held just enough urgency that Merlin turned and looked over his shoulder. He used the chance to grab the goblet in front of Merlin and pour it into his own.

"No! I will drink it!"

"As if I'd let you."

"You can't die. This isn't your destiny."

"Seems you're wrong again."

"Listen to me..."

"You know me, Merlin. I never listen to you." He raised the goblet in a final farewell, the warm sunlight glinting off it's deadly metal."Arthur! No!" Arthur did not hesitate, showed no reluctance, as he pressed the cup to his lips and gulped down the tepid contents.

The prince slammed the goblet down in triumph, managing a small smile. No one could drink like he could. "What have you done?" Merlin watched as his friend's gaze dropped and he fell from his chair. "Arthur! No! Arthur? Arthur? Come on. Arthur, come on. Come on. Come on! No. Come on." His desperate pleading did nothing to waken his friend. "Please. Please. Just let me take his place."

"This was Arthur's test. Not yours." How could the man act so indifferent?

"You've killed him. I was meant to protect him." Misery ached so deeply within him he thought he'd die. It should have been him...

"He's not dead. He's merely consumed a sleeping draught. He will come 'round shortly."

"What?" Merlin's tears dried in his eyes, confusion sweeping over him. His brain could not process both Arthur's death and non-death. What about the test?

"A unicorn is pure of heart. If you kill one you must make amends by proving that you are also pure of heart. Arthur was willing to sacrifice his life to save yours. He has proven what is truly in his heart. The curse will be lifted."

Merlin sighed in relief and fell back in the sand. Arthur was alive. He was going to be okay. His destiny had not failed. As he sat there, waiting for the prince to wake, several conflicting thoughts and emotions crowded his mind. He would never, ever put Arthur into a situation like that again, because yes, he had shown what was in his heart, and evidently he cared about him. They would die for each other in an instant, but next time they might not be so lucky. He didn't think he could have bared the guilt and grief he would have carried the rest of his life if Arthur had died for him. He would have to be more careful from that point on.

After some time Arthur started to stir. Anhora was long gone by that point. Merlin doubted they would ever see him again. "Sire?" he called softly, leaning over the prince. "Arthur?"

The surprise on Arthur's face as he opened his eyes was almost funny. "Good God, I've died and gone to hell." Merlin laughed and helped him to stand.

"Something like that."

Arthur become more alert the longer they rode. By the time they reached Camelot he was wide-awake and had been fully informed on what exactly had happened. The great kingdom was in good cheer. The people celebrated and feasted – their stomachs and hearts full. Arthur smiled upon their happiness, although he could take no pride in his part in it, even as his father congratulated. He had almost been their undoing. He would never allow himself to hurt his people, or his friends, ever again.

Arthur asked Merlin to come with him as he went back out into the forest, carrying the horn with him. He needed to make amends, and he wanted his servant there by his side as he did it. He buried the horn, feeling for the first time a deep regret for ending the life of an animal, and apologized. Never before had the realization of killing, and in turn almost being killed, been felt so deeply by him.

"Arthur, look." He stood and gazed at the majestic creature, finally seeing it for what it really was: beautiful. He smiled and clapped a hand on Merlin's shoulder.

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13 (NIV)

END