Ok this is it: the final chapter. I hope you enjoy it!
MERLIN: THE LONELIEST HOUR
Chapter 24: In which Merlin gets what he deserves
Over the next couple of days, his most difficult task was getting accustomed to his new duties as physician's apprentice. His routine was significantly changed and he was spending much more time with Gaius than with the prince. It was only for a short while, though, because soon he would be accompanying Arthur on every possible errand. He would be watching the regent and his knights like a shadow. He would have to make sure that they were in perfect health and fit for battle at all times. Far from displeasing him, his new position was giving him access to a wide variety of excuses to sneak out whenever he felt like it, and to spend as much time with the knights as he wanted.
So collecting herbs had become synonymous to 'find out what Gwaine is up to', which usually meant that he was going to end up at the tavern and drink way too much ale.
Spending time with Gwaine was also the best remedy to uplift his mood. The tricky part, however, was leaving him after only one drink.
"Why are you getting up? It's not time to go yet!" said the knight, outraged, as Merlin rose from his seat after a particularly succulent dinner at the Rising Sun.
"Unlike you, Sir Gwaine, I still have things to do before I go to bed, like mixing a sleeping potion for Sir Geoffrey and catching up on my basic anatomy." He felt himself blush instantly. "Reading! I mean, reading! And I have to get up early to make sure Arthur eats his oatmeal."
Gwaine had managed to contain his amusement until then, but at the word "oatmeal" he simply burst out laughing, which caused several of the more drunken men to stare.
"Oatmeal! What are you, his mother?"
Merlin considered the idea. "No, definitely not related."
Then suddenly, Gwaine leaped out of his seat and jumped at his neck, hugging him and patting on the back as though they had not seen each other in ages.
"I've missed you, Merlin," the knight said tearfully. "And Arthur's missed you too even if he pretends otherwise."
Merlin grinned a little uneasily. "That's enough ale for you, my friend," he muttered.
But Gwaine aimed a scolding finger at him. "Don't - ever - die - again."
And then he staggered, stumbled on a stool and fell flat on his back, laughing his heart out as he did.
"I see you're having a 'drunken Gwaine' moment," said a voice behind Merlin's back.
The young warlock did not need to turn around to know that it was Lancelot. The knight pressed a hand on his shoulder, whispering in his ear, "We need to get him to ride. Arthur wants to meet us at the Round Table, and sooner than later."
Merlin glanced quickly around. Lancelot was wearing a black coat, clearly hoping to melt into the crowd and into the darkness of the night as well.
"Any idea what it's all about?"
"No idea," Lancelot said softly, "but I didn't come here to fetch Gwaine. Arthur specifically told me to find you."
"What have you done now?" Gwaine asked a little too cheerfully as Lancelot pulled him unto his feet.
Merlin merely shrugged. By now, he was used to being Arthur's favourite topic of discussion. It was a little annoying to be the only source of information concerning anything to do with magic, while at the same time being "absolutely forbidden" to use his powers under "no circumstances whatsoever", as the prince had put it. Moreover, now that his magic was no longer a secret to Arthur and the knights, the door was wide open for all kinds of awkward questions that he was finding harder and harder to dodge off. It was one thing for them to know that he was a dragonlord, but to tell them about his father... However he knew that he could only manage to avoid certain topics for so long. Soon, the regent would demand answers that he wasn't sure he could deliver them without making it sound like magic was behind everything bad that ever happened to Arthur and the people of Camelot. Above all things, he needed to keep Arthur convinced that magic could be used for good, which wasn't going to be an easy task.
"Are you coming or not?" Gwaine said, punching him on the shoulder to bring him out of his reverie.
Lancelot had brought three horses and spare cloaks so that they could ride out fairly unnoticed. Merlin immediately recognised the black cloak that had been given to him by the druid chieftain Iseldir. Reluctantly, he swung it around his shoulders and felt the familiar weight of the heavy material.
His changing mood had not escaped Lancelot. "Arthur understands why you kept it a secret," he murmured. "You did it for Camelot. We owe you our lives. The only reason that the city is still standing is because of you. The Lady Morgana would have killed us all."
He did his best to keep his eyes on his horse's saddle. "He doesn't trust me, Lancelot. He looks at me like I'm..." He let his voice trail off. "I don't know. Different. Magic is who I am. I can hide it, but it will always be a part of me. But he looks at me like I'm dangerous or something. I'm not a traitor. I'm not like Morgana."
"What you are is what you do, Merlin," said Gwaine when they were all three of them seated on their horses.
"Gwaine is right," Lancelot agreed eagerly. "None of us wanted to go into that cave to face Morgana, but you did. You're the bravest of us all."
Gwaine pulled his horse closer to him. "Do you want another hug?" he said playfully.
His only reply was to send his horse forward, taking the lead. He knew that he ought to ignore his own dark thoughts. Kilgharrah had said that many things were changing now, and his new status was the proof of it. But he hadn't figured out his place yet. He was already the prince's closest friend, the physician's apprentice, the last dragonlord, the elusive Emrys, a wielder of the Four Elements and a sorcerer of the Old Religion. Could he be all of that, protect Arthur and keep his magic secret on top of everything? That seemed like a very heavy burden indeed for someone as insignificant as he was, a mere peasant boy from Ealdor. The subtleties of the court eluded him. Agravaine was watching his back even more closely than Arthur was, for some obscure reason. Overall, he wasn't sure how much more pressure he could take.
As his thoughts grew darker, so did the road ahead. Their horses were getting nervous.
"We're almost there," said Gwaine as his horse came to a halt. "Good thing too. I need a drink."
Lancelot and Merlin both shot him a look.
"A drink of water!" cried out Gwaine at once.
"It's getting late," said Lancelot, returning to the topic at hand. He turned to Merlin. "We could use some light."
"You do know that Arthur has forbidden me to use magic, right?" he let out between clenched teeth.
Gwaine was grinning very annoyingly. "That's never stopped you before."
But something else was on Merlin's mind now: a low pulse, a new presence in the deep magic. It was calling him, drawing him. The young wizard closed his eyes to try and get a better sense of the pulse. It was so familiar. It wasn't a spell or an enchantment; it was something much deeper, like a spirit or soul of something close to him. Someone. He did not share such a deep connection with anything else in the world except Kilgharrah and Freya. But this... It was someone new. Someone shrouded in light. Someone like... Could it be Arthur?
His eyes snapped open, his mind racing to find the meaning of what he had just felt.
Another presence beside him made him jump.
Lancelot was peering into his face. "Are you all right? You had a far off look. Did you just see something?"
"What do you mean by see?" Gwaine inquired a little edgily. "Could you just be a sorcerer and dragonlord? You just keep getting weirder and weirder!"
Merlin smiled. So he was feeling Arthur's presence, using just his magic. Maybe the connection that Freya had conjured was still there. He wheeled his horse towards the path, suddenly filled with excitement at the thought of his new power. The low pulse was almost like seeing with his mind instead of his eyes. It didn't matter that it was getting dark; he had a beacon to guide him.
"We don't need light," he said to Lancelot and Gwaine. "Just follow my lead!"
He sent his horse forward without even the slightest doubt about which way to go. Lancelot and Gwaine followed him closely. As he kept his mind fixed on the thread of magic, Merlin also had the growing impression that the horses too were following something unseen. They rode about two hours in the complete darkness without so much as getting nervous. When finally the three men touched ground, they had reached the old ruin without as much as a scratch on their cheeks.
"Is it just me," Gwaine began to say, "or were the trees actually parting to let us through?"
Merlin clapped him on the back as he passed. "Very astute for a drunken man," he said playfully.
He didn't hear the reply or the laughter that followed. He rushed into the crypt, still guided by the pulse of magic and the aura of light that was Arthur Pendragon. As soon as he saw him, a murderous look on his face, Merlin knew that he was in trouble. Yet he didn't really care. He was simply delighted by his discovery and he felt as though nothing could dampen his spirits.
"Where the Hell have you been?" burst out the regent, rising from the Round Table.
Merlin strode to his side, quite impervious to the prince's scolding tone. Without further ado, he took hold of Arthur's wrist and began to examine it with as much interest as Gaius when he was examining a curious new infection.
"Incredible! I can't believe that you still have it," he let out in a breath.
Suddenly he noticed that Arthur was dangling something right in front of his face: the small wooden dragon wing on a leather string.
"You mean this?" asked the prince.
Merlin released the wrist, feeling a little awkward. For the first time since arriving at the crypt, he actually realised how many people were present. In addition to Gwaine and Lancelot, he could also see around the table Sir Leon, Elyan, Percival, Guinevere and Gaius. Gwen was sitting to Arthur's right and she smiled widely at Merlin when she saw that he was getting embarrassed. Gaius was eyeing him with a grin as well.
"I told you all he was getting weirder," said Gwaine as he slumped on a chair next to Percival.
"I was led here by the connection that Freya placed on him, that's all," muttered Merlin under his breath.
"Definitely qualifies as weird," said Elyan, smirking.
Merlin let himself drop on one of the chairs around the Round Table, crossing his arms on his chest, feeling a little annoyed.
"It's not weird. It's magic. The amulet is magic too. Protective magic. You should all be happy that he's got it."
"Maybe I don't need it," offered Arthur, although he was clutching the necklace tight in his fist.
"Why don't you give it back, then? Maybe it means something to me."
"Does it?" Arthur took the wooden wing higher so that all could see it. "Looks like a child's play thing. Do you want your toy back, Merlin?"
"You shouldn't say that..." But he held his tongue and swallowed hard instead. It was bad enough that he had broken the wooden dragon his father had given him in half to make the two amulets. Did he really have to endure being ridiculed as well?
"That's enough," Gwen suddenly cut in. "Can't you see it's bothering him?" Then she seemed appalled by her bold comment. "I mean... Sire... Don't we have something to discuss?"
"Guinevere is right," said Arthur, smiling warmly at her.
He stuffed the amulet into his pocket and Merlin started to breathe again. They were all sitting around the Round Table now and Arthur stood up to address them very solemnly.
"We are gathered here today..."
Gwaine half-raised his hand and snorted. "You forgot to say 'dearly beloved'."
Both Elyan and Percival burst out laughing, but Arthur ignored them. "The topic that brings us here is..."
"Is this about Merlin again?" Gwaine interrupted. Holding back an outburst of laughter, he added, "What did he do this time?"
Watching Arthur's face turn instantly red was priceless. "Will you just shut up?"
Silence fell around the table, though it was punctuated by a few giggles. Gwaine coughed a small "sorry" while the other knights were trying hard to look concerned.
When he felt that he had everyone's attention again, Arthur leaned forward on the table. There was something a little odd about the way he was staring right into Merlin's face...
"As far as I can tell, Merlin's magic remains a secret," said the prince in a serious tone. "I didn't want my uncle –Lord Agravaine – to find out, and so far he's given no sign that he knows. We want to keep it that way." His eyes flashed warningly at his former manservant and then in the direction of the physician.
Gaius' glance rose to meet Arthur's. "We don't quite trust him," he said to the benefit of everyone else.
"I have... reserves," acknowledged the prince. "And so does Gaius. Agravaine is a man of politics and alliances. I'm not like that. I will not have the kingdom torn apart."
While Gaius nodded approvingly, the others seemed a little lost.
"This is still about Merlin's magic, right?" Leon asked.
The prince seemed to hold his breath in apprehension. "Actually, this is about Merlin in general. I need to ask him a question and I want you all to hear it. No more secrets."
To everyone's shock, Gwaine rose from his seat. "Is this going to become awkward? Because I'd rather just leave..."
"No!" burst out Arthur, seriously annoyed. "It's not awkward. It's personal and it could... potentially determine the fate of the kingdom."
Everyone around the table gasped in surprise, and now Merlin felt so nervous that he could feel the sweat on the back of his neck.
"You should just ask, Sire," Gaius said softly.
"Right." Arthur straightened up. "Merlin, do you know who Lord Henrick is?"
Merlin's mind raced to the old books that he had once held, books containing pages and pages of names and family trees. He had once copied letters of nobility for Lancelot from such a book.
"He's... your grandfather, isn't he? On your mother's side. Agravaine's father. Sorry... Lord Agravaine."
Arthur nodded. "You do know that a male heir, as opposed to a woman, as a much stronger claim on the throne. Even an unacknowledged male heir..."
Merlin felt at that moment as though his heart was going to stop. "Is this about my father?" he mumbled weakly. When Arthur did not answer, he knew that he had guessed right. "Then you needn't worry," he said with as much conviction as he could muster. "He's wasn't a noble. He wasn't even... He wasn't important. He was nobody."
"Your mother never told you about him," Arthur insisted.
"No, not my mother. Listen, I don't understand where you're going with this. You obviously have something on your mind so spit it out."
"You can't talk to him like that!" let out Sir Leon, outraged.
Remembering something from a few years ago, Merlin smiled slyly and said, "I'm sorry. I mean 'spit it out, my Lord'."
Arthur banged his fist on the table, making everyone jump. "Merlin, this isn't a joke! Agravaine is just waiting for the right moment to let out what he knows about you. But it takes two parents to make a suitable heir. If Agravaine finds out that your father has the tiniest drop of noble blood – not to mention the magic – he could tear this kingdom apart. All of those who oppose my father's laws will side with him and we will go to war. Now who is your father?"
He had let out the whole speech in a breath. Merlin's hands were clutching the side of the stone table. He had no choice. His voice trembling, heart pounding, he said: "Balinor."
Silence fell around the table again, but this time it was heavy with anticipation. Merlin searched Gaius' glance for support, and he found his old mentor looking at him with immense fondness and pride.
"The dragonlord," Arthur breathed out. "Of course."
Merlin fought hard not to blink. "I don't know much more about him than you do. If you know something, you should tell me now. But you shouldn't go on about my parents. My mother is just a peasant woman from Ealdor. You've seen that village. It is a poor place…"
But Arthur didn't even look as though he was listening to what he was saying. His expression had turned from shock to complete dismay.
"They were not married," Merlin pressed on. "They were not even together for long. I didn't even know his name until Gaius told me about him. What could it possibly have to do with Agravaine?"
Arthur was still looking at him as though he was seeing him for the first time. "Merlin… Balinor died… in your arms. You never said anything."
The young dragonlord could feel all eyes on him, so he tried to remain stern. "You couldn't find out. It was the price to pay."
The prince was shaking his head. "How could I not see this?"
"Because you're a self-centered prat," cut in Merlin, smirking. When he realised that Arthur was still staring sheepishly at his hands, he added, "Believe it or not, keeping secrets isn't as fun as it sounds. Nor as easy. Especially if you're a terrible liar. At the end of the day it's just…" He half-closed his eyes, thinking of the correct word. At last, he just said, "lonely."
Silence fell between them and Merlin suddenly felt as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. It was not really his magic or what he was that was important at this point; it was the pain of years of loneliness that was being thrown into sharp focus. It was on his face now for all to see. No more secrets, Arthur had said. Those three words seemed to hold the hope for the entire world in them.
"Well, I'm glad that's out of the way," Merlin said a little more cheerfully than what he had intended.
His glance met Arthur's and a silent understanding seemed to pass between the two of them.
"So am I," the prince said softly.
Sir Leon shifted on his seat. "Can we go back to the part where Agravaine is going to tear the kingdom apart? Because I'd like to know how it's not going to happen now."
Arthur sat down and began to stroke his chin. "Agravaine knows only half of what we know," he said. "We have to make sure he doesn't find out more."
Merlin felt a bit at a lost. "Find out what? What half does he know exactly?"
Arthur gazed at him meaningfully. "That you have noble blood."
As always, his first reaction was to turn to Gaius. The old physician always seemed to know more about him than even he did.
The physician leaned forward, joining his hands on the stone of the Round Table.
"Merlin, it never occurred to you how it is quite a strange name. Dragonlord."
Merlin shook his head. Gaius leaned in closer, enunciating as clearly as he could. "Dragon. Lord."
The young warlock almost fell out of his chair. "Lord… W-What?"
"I'll be damned," whispered Elyan.
"I'm not surprised," said Lancelot. "I always knew there was something about you, Merlin."
Leon seemed even more confused. "But… I thought this was about Lady Hannah."
Merlin's mind was spinning with too much information. He was only jus starting to assimilate the fact that he was of noble blood.
Arthur turned to each of the people around the table. "Agravaine doesn't know that Merlin is a dragonlord. That's the half that we must keep secret. The other half – the part that concerns Lady Hannah – that is where our challenge is going to be."
"I think we can manage," said Sir Leon, smiling fondly at Merlin.
All eyes turned to the young warlock again.
"I don't understand," he burst out irritably. "I have no idea what you're all talking about. Who is this Lady Hannah anyway?"
Before anyone could reply, however, he saw Arthur rise from his seat and stride towards him. When he was standing next to him, the prince pressed a hand on his shoulders, grinned widely, and said in his best matter-of-fact tone,
"Merlin. You're my cousin."
A final word from the author:
Yes, this is the end. If you read my other stories, you know that I like to end with an opening statement. It's like my signature. But it doesn't mean sequel!
Please please please drop me a review and tell me what you thought of the story. Hopefully you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. That's kind of the whole point of fanfiction, isn't it?
To all of my readers, reviewers or not, THANK YOU! I love you all!
*** gets up to go and watch Merlin: Season 4***