A/N: Hello! Sorry about the lateness (hope I didn't worry anyone). I bring you the final chapter of this fic, clocking in at 9,000 words (4,000 more than my average length), but this usually happens. My final chapters are always ridiculously long :) It was extremely difficult to write though even though I knew exactly what I wanted to have happen. I blame the dialogue. I hate trying to wrap everything up.
Title: Beyond the Vale
Rating: T for violence and some bloodshed and maybe some language. Better safe than sorry, ne?
Characters/pairings: Only friendship here, though you can read it however you want :) Lots of Merlin and Arthur as well as Gwaine, Lancelot, and Elyan.
Spoilers: Season 3, including the finale. This is a post S3 fic.
Warnings: Nothing, as far as I know.
Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin :)
I know I didn't get around to doing the replies for the previous chapter, and I apologize, but I do want to say thank you for all the wonderful comments. I've had a lot of fun with this fic, and I'm glad so many people have enjoyed it :)
If you find something horribly wrong, please let me know. I was exhausted when I proof read this.
With no further ado, I give you the last chapter!
They weren't sure how long it took for the light to finally fade, but it was a good while after before they were able to open their eyes again without fear of being blinded. Everything was rather blurry at first, but when the world finally came back into focus, they found that the room they were in still looked exactly the same as it had to begin with. The platform, the runes, the staff—they were all still there. The only difference was that the magic that had once given them life and light was gone. They were all just ordinary fixtures now.
For a while the four of them remained completely still, looking around the room as if waiting for something more to happen. In the end it was Arthur that broke the tentative silence with the one question they all wanted an answer to.
"…Did it work?"
"I would assume so," said Lancelot even though he didn't sound entirely sure. Everything around them looked the same, after all.
Spotting a small window across the room, the knight quickly made his way over. There was one way to know for sure whether or not they had been successful. He stuck his head out the opening and was immediately met by a soft breeze and the feeling of something wet dripping onto the top of his head. Rain, he noted absentmindedly as he looked out across the vale and found that he could see past the walls of the castle, beyond even the plains and the forests to the north.
"What is it?" he heard Arthur call out as the rest of them slowly approached the window.
"It's raining…" he answered, unable to keep the awe and rising joy out of his voice, because despite all the odds being against them time and time again, they had somehow managed to succeed, to do what countless others had failed to accomplish. "The mist is gone."
He turned away from the window and watched as his words began to slowly sink in, leaving the three of them first shocked, then relieved, and in the end that relief became pure, unbridled joy. Gwaine couldn't seem to stop grinning, Arthur released a huff of laughter that was half relieved, half gleeful, and Elyan looked like he wanted to punch the air but settled for clasping Gwaine's arm when the other man reached out.
"Alright! We actually did it!" he cried out triumphantly, all of them basking in their success and the realization that it was finally over, that everything had turned out, and that they would at last be able to go home.
However, it was while they were all congratulating each other that Elyan's attention was drawn towards something that he hadn't noticed before. It was understandable, really, what with their desperate battle with those creatures and their dash towards the tower. None of them had been paying much attention to anything else aside from reaching their destination, but now that the desperation had fled, his focus turned towards his companions and the state they were all in, and he couldn't help but worry a bit at what he saw.
"Gwaine," he began with enough concern to easily draw everyone's attention, "did you take a hit?"
"What?" He seemed genuinely confused about that question, and it was hard to tell if he just hadn't heard it properly or if he thought Elyan was starting to see things.
"You're bleeding," the knight pointed out, motioning towards a streak of red on Gwaine's left side. It stood out against the silver links of his chainmail, and strangely enough, none of them seemed to be broken. When Gwaine looked down at the spot Elyan was indicating, he seemed rather surprised to see the blood there.
"Huh," he muttered as he poked at the area, vaguely aware that he had everyone's attention. He pressed a little harder, but the stain didn't grow nor did he feel any pain. He certainly didn't remember getting hurt—not one of those monsters had been able to land a blow. Also, from what he could tell, the blood was already dry. If he had been wounded, that certainly wouldn't have been the case. "…It's not mine."
"Are you sure?" Arthur asked to which Gwaine only offered the prince a scowl, one that hopefully got across exactly how insulting he considered that question to be.
"…There's blood on you too."
At Elyan's claim, Gwaine and Arthur both turned to see what he was motioning at only to find that Lancelot apparently had a splotch of red on his chainmail as well. Strangely enough, it was in almost the same place as Gwaine's.
"Lancelot?" Arthur questioned while the knight inspected his own "wound" in a similar fashion, poking the area and looking rather confused. Gwaine was fairly certain that he hadn't been injured either, so obviously there wasn't a wound there, but if that was the case then it begged the question of exactly where the blood had come from. If none of them were injured, then how had two of them ended up with dried blood on their chainmail? He knew for a fact that it hadn't been there earlier in the day, which meant that it had to have happened at some point around the time that they left Rhoshad's tower. It was dry, after all, so it had to have been there for at least a little while.
His eyes roamed the room as he thought it over, trying to come up with some sort of explanation, one that would explain why him and Lancelot both had blood on their chainmail and in the exact same place, but he kept coming up blank. Eventually his eyes wandered over to the staff, still standing tall and proud just a few feet away from where they were all gathered. He wasn't sure what it was about it that drew his attention, but it was the one thing that all of them had had in common in the last few hours, the sole attention of their focus, and now that they weren't holding onto it for dear life (or using it as a weapon), he saw something that he hadn't noticed before.
Gwaine was fairly certain that the staff had been untarnished the very first time he had seen it, completely untouched for hundreds of years, but now there were dark smudges along the wood, ones that seemed very obvious now that he was looking. Upon closer inspection, he saw that the smudges were a brownish red and were in a pattern that reminded him a lot of a…
The bottom suddenly seemed to drop out of his stomach when he realized exactly what it was he was looking at.
Fingerprints…blood…the blotchy shape of a hand wrapped around the staff.
There was only one other person who had held that staff before they had, someone that both he and Lancelot had pulled into a hug barely an hour ago.
"It isn't mine," he heard Lancelot say, and before either Arthur or Elyan could comment or contradict him, Gwaine choked out the two words he knew none of them wanted to hear.
They all turned to face him, and he could see the flood of shock, concern, and accusation that his words had caused, but all he did was turn their attention towards the staff, to the blood that stood out against the crystals and the sand-colored wood. No further explanation was needed.
"…We need to get back to the tower," Arthur stated in a rush, his expression guarded but his words betraying his concern. All of them were easily in agreement, but before they could rush to the door, Lancelot offered his own suggestion.
"We should split up."
"What for?" Gwaine demanded, wanting nothing more than to just run to the tower where they had left Merlin. There was no telling how badly he had been injured.
"In case he left," the knight stated, and the way he said it made Gwaine think that he wasn't just suggesting a possibility. "He said there was something he needed to do, and you know Merlin. He's good at wandering off."
That last bit had been said directly to Arthur, but all of them knew by now what it implied. In hindsight, they should have figured it out sooner. Merlin wouldn't have given them the staff, wouldn't have sent them all off without him if there wasn't something else he needed to do that was more important…or more dangerous (because that was Merlin in a heartbeat, and he was suddenly reminded of the story about Morgana and the cup of life all over again).
"Alright," Arthur said, looking quite a bit more worried than before. "Split up and look for Merlin, but make your way back to the tower. We'll meet up there."
None of them said anything. They didn't need to, because that was one command that no one had any issue in following. They had to find Merlin as soon as possible.
Failure wasn't an option.
Ever since they had split up, Arthur had been running. He had taken off just like the rest of them the moment he had left the tower, but for some strange reason, he found himself just mindlessly making his way through the castle instead of actually searching, sprinting down passages and taking turns that he barely realized he was taking. It felt like something was pulling him, dragging him down the corridors and around corners, but he didn't much care seeing as how his mind was only focused on finding his servant before the fool could do something else stupid.
In all honesty, he had no idea where he was going, but something told him not to stop, to just keep running, and it wasn't long before he realized that he was making his way towards the center of the castle. He wasn't sure why he felt the need to go there—he was supposed to be making his way back towards Rhoshad's tower—but his instincts weren't something to be ignored. They had saved him on multiple occasions, so he simply needed to believe that they would lead him to the right place this time as well.
It wasn't until he turned down a long corridor that he realized jus where he was heading. He recognized the area well seeing as how they had passed it multiple times during their earlier explorations of the castle. Twice they had even tried to force their way in, which certainly hadn't turned out well at alll, and yet for some reason he felt compelled to go there one more time, to stop outside those huge double doors that no one had been capable of opening.
…Until now, apparently.
Arthur came to a stop as he reached the large wooden doors that had been sealed shut, incapable of being moved, only to find that they had been pushed open. There was enough space for someone to slip through, which meant that someone had been here before him, someone who wasn't Eiwyn (she had no reason to use the doors when she could just disappear and reappear wherever she wanted). Curious, he stepped forward and pushed the doors further open. He got only a few steps in before he found himself frozen in place, in awe of what he could see.
Before him was a courtyard, and at its center was what could only be described as the most incredible tree he had ever seen, its bark a healthy gold and its leaves a sparkling silver, making the raindrops clinging to them look like crystals. He had never seen anything quite like it.
Pulling his gaze away from the tree for a moment, he took a look around the courtyard. His eyes didn't get very far before they fell on a very familiar figure lying a few yards away from the base of the tree, completely unconcerned about the rain falling around him.
Part of him desperately wanted to run over there and start yelling at the idiot for leaving the tower, for not telling them where he was going, and another part of him wanted nothing more than to make sure that he was alright. For once it was the latter that won out over his anger, and before he knew it, he was already across the courtyard and falling to his knees next to his servant.
Merlin's eyes were closed, but it didn't look like he was unconscious or even sleeping. His breathing was steady, his chest rising and falling without any difficulty. For all intents and purposes, he seemed to merely be resting, so Arthur just reached out and tapped the side of his face gently.
"Merlin," he called, and sure enough, two blue eyes blinked open.
"Arthur?" There was no disorientation, no confusion. He didn't look hurt or injured or anything, although there were clear signs of exhaustion, but that was only natural. He had been tired long before they had ever entered the vale.
Arthur watched as a grin slowly began to spread across Merlin's face, full of pride and relief as he softly but happily exclaimed, "You did it."
The prince couldn't help but return the smile, finally allowing some of his anxiety to fade away upon seeing Merlin acting much like his usual self. Clearly whatever injury he had suffered wasn't as serious as he had originally feared—there was a good chance he had already gotten it patched up as well, thanks to Rhoshad. The man was a sorcerer after all, albeit a deceased one.
"Yeah, we did."
"Is everyone alright?"
"Of course they are."
Merlin seemed to sigh in relief as he closed his eyes again, but for some reason he made absolutely no move to sit up or lift himself off the ground. However, considering all they had been through, he figured he could let the idiot rest for a moment. He could very easily ask his questions while Merlin was lying down. It made little difference.
His eyes flicked back over towards the doorway, his brow furrowing in confusion as he stared at the wooden doors. He just didn't understand how Merlin had managed to get past them so easily. Not only had they been impossible to move, but both times they had tried, Eiwyn had shown up to deter them. She obviously hadn't wanted anyone to reach the inner courtyard…so exactly how had Merlin managed to get through those doors?
"Merlin," he began, unaware that his servant had been watching him during his contemplation and already knew what he was going to ask, "how did you get in here?"
How had Merlin been able to open those doors so easily when no one else could?
"…She let me."
Very slowly, Merlin turned his head and looked over towards the tree, just off to the right of it. Arthur followed his line of sight until his eyes came to rest on the only other person in the courtyard.
"I had to tell her something," Merlin said, but Arthur barely registered what he was saying. "I needed to get her to stop."
He tensed up at the sight of her, his hand slowly trailing towards the hilt of his sword, because this—this was the woman who had made their lives a living hell while in the vale. She had invaded their minds, had read their hearts without permission, and had tried to kill them more than once. She had even gone so far as to kill her own best friend when all he had been trying to do was save her and their kingdom. With all that in mind, he couldn't help the anger that rose up in him.
"Eiwyn!" he practically growled, making to rise and head over there to confront her, but a hand quickly wrapped around his wrist, stopping him before he could even get to his feet.
"No, Arthur," Merlin said firmly, half demanding and half pleading. "It's alright."
The prince was more than ready to argue the point, but Merlin quickly beat him to it, those blue eyes determined despite their weariness.
"It's alright, she won't harm us. She didn't know. It wasn't her fault."
Not for the first time, he got the feeling he was missing something to the story, something important.
"What are you talking about?"
"She was trying to protect everyone. She believed that the curse would come back if the enchantment was lifted?"
A sudden feeling of dread began to well up in the pit of his stomach, because despite his original wariness about the deceased sorcerer, he had listened to Rhoshad's story. He knew that the enchantment around the vale had been created in order to stop the curse that had been plaguing the lands of Haulden, a curse that had condemned hundreds to a fate far worse than death.
But it's gone now, right? The enchantment put an end to it…right?
"When Rhoshad sealed the vale, the curse was forced down into the earth. His enchantment was the only thing holding it back."
Arthur suddenly felt sick to his stomach, his mind whirling as a lot of things suddenly made sense that hadn't before—all of Rhoshad's cryptic messages and explanations, the reason that Eiwyn had stopped him from lifting the enchantment, and even that whole long spiel about how his staff represented a choice.
Either end the enchantment to save themselves but release the curse or condemn themselves to death in order to make sure that it remained sealed for all eternity.
Why hadn't Rhoshad told them? Why hadn't Merlin told them? If he had only known what was at stake…
"So, then…" He swallowed hard. He didn't want to know. He wasn't sure if he'd be able to live with himself if they had somehow condemned the world to a fate worse than death.
"No," Merlin said, making sure he had his prince's complete attention before continuing, his expression nothing short of resolute. "It's gone now. I…Rhoshad explained it to me. That tree is able to purify magic." He gestured to the tree just a few yards away from them, looking at it with a soft, fond expression. "It removed the curse—it just needed some help is all. Eiwyn didn't know, so I had to tell her."
Arthur's attention was once more drawn towards the young woman who had once been their tormentor. She still wasn't paying them any mind, and Arthur was finding it hard to reconcile the image of her now with the one in his memory. Eiwyn had always had an air of grace and power about her, a presence that was ethereal and omnipotent, but the girl standing there, soaked from head to toe, didn't look anything other than human.
"She's free now," he heard Merlin say. "We all are."
The prince took a deep breath and let it out slowly, allowing himself to finally, finally let go of the anxiety that he had been harboring for the past few days. For the first time in a long time, he felt like he could relax, could breathe a sigh of relief and simply hold onto the feeling that everything was finally over. At last they could go home.
He took another deep breath before settling more fully on his knees beside his servant. Merlin was still watching him, his expression soft, but there was something else there too, something he couldn't quite place his finger on. However, he didn't have time to ponder it at the moment. There were more important things to take care of right now, namely his servant's injury.
"Alright, Merlin," he began, "where is it?"
Merlin's expression quickly slipped into confusion as he regarded his master.
"Where's what?" he asked.
"Your wound," Arthur told him, watching as his eyes widened. "I know you're injured—there was blood on the staff. Now where is it?"
Merlin looked decided uncomfortable with that question, but Arthur wasn't about to be deterred. If Merlin wasn't going to answer him, then he'd just find it himself. The prince did a quick scan of his servant, but he couldn't find anything obvious. His legs and arms were fine, there was no head wound, his chest seemed alright, he wasn't struggling to breathe…however…
However, he did have his left arm crossed over his stomach rather tightly, his hand hidden in the folds of his jacket. Not once had he moved it. Arthur recognized that position, having spent plenty of time amongst wounded men over the years. They would often guard the injured area much like Merlin seemed to be doing. That had to be where his wound was, and whether the boy wanted to or not, he would make his servant show it to him, treat it if need be, and then drag him back to the tower to rejoin the knights. Then, together, they'd all go home.
If only things could have been that easy.
When Arthur began to reach out, Merlin flinched. There was a flash of fear in his eyes before it faded into something almost sad…resigned. The prince quickly shook away the stab of unease that shot through his chest and leaned over, grabbing Merlin's wrist so he could move his arm out of the way. In doing so, the boy's brown jacket fell open, and before Arthur could even finish moving Merlin's arm, he saw something that he had never wanted to see.
His breath caught, and it felt like someone was squeezing his lungs, his heart. His mind blanked, unable to fully register what he was seeing, not wanting to believe it, because Merlin's hand was covered in blood from where he had been applying pressure to a wound deep in his side, his tunic and the flesh beneath it torn in more places than one. The material around the wound was soaked through, the blood pooling and seeping through his jacket and into the cobbles beneath him.
If not for the rain, Arthur likely would have found him in a pool of his own blood. How long had he been bleeding? How much had he lost? How had he even managed to make it back to the tower with a wound like that let alone all the way through the castle and to the inner courtyard?
Blood continued to flow steadily from Merlin's side, staining everything around it red, and Arthur was struck by the sudden thought that if he didn't do something right now, it wasn't going to stop.
He had to make it stop.
Panicking but doing his best not to show it, he quickly placed his hand over the wound and pressed down hard. He began wishing that he had worn his cloak, because then he'd at least have something that he could hold against it or make bandages from. There was only so much he could do with just his hands.
Beneath him Merlin winced, a pained grunt escaping his lips before he fixed his prince with a half-hearted scowl.
"That hurts, you prat," he hissed, his voice laced with pain.
"Shut up, Merlin." Arthur didn't have the time to deal with Merlin and his insolence at the moment. He was too busy trying to come up with a way to fix this.
"That bad, huh?"
He shifted his eyes away from the wound for a moment to meet his servant's gaze, to see how he was doing, but Merlin was wearing a small grin on his face and watching him through half-lidded eyes. There was that look again, the one he hadn't been able to place before, but this time around he saw it for what it was: knowing, acceptance, resignation… Merlin had already come to terms with the fact that there was nothing he could do.
He swallowed hard and looked away, not wanting to acknowledge what he had seen. After all, hadn't it already been proven that he was fairly good at that?
"It's just a scratch," he told Merlin, trying to sound reassuring but knowing he was falling short somewhere around desperate. "You'll be fine."
"You will," he insisted, because he wasn't going to accept anything less. He just couldn't. "We'll get you back to Gaius. He'll be able to patch you up."
"It's a three day ride, Arthur…"
He clenched his jaw and pressed down a bit harder on the wound, not wanting to hear it and wishing he could somehow erase that stupid, accepting smile on Merlin's face. It was full of sympathy and understanding and so much damn resignation that it was starting to piss him off. He didn't need to be patronized like that, least of all by his idiotic, insolent, wounded servant who hadn't even had the foresight to let them know that he was hurt or to ask Rhoshad to sodding heal him. Why did Merlin always have to be like that?
"Why didn't you say anything?" he asked, his voice coming out low, filled with far too many things he couldn't properly put into words. What was even worse was that he already knew the answer. As much as he hated it, he already knew.
"You wouldn't have let me go if I had, and I needed to."
"…You really are an idiot."
Merlin didn't say anything, only huffed a laugh at what was probably a familiar insult by now. However, that short, soft chuckle turned into a slight cough, and Arthur was reminded all over again of the fact that his servant—his stupidly brave and loyal friend—was dying. There had to be something he could do, some way to fix this, because that was just how the world worked. No matter where they went or what they faced, the two of them always made it out alive, always walked away together. He couldn't accept anything less than that, because Merlin was supposed to be there. That's how it had to be.
He had long ago lost the ability to picture his life without Merlin.
While Arthur continued to try and think of something that could be done, he took a glance at his servant's face and immediately lost his train of thought as panic began to take over. Those blue eyes which had been wide open and full of awareness only moments ago were starting to close.
"Merlin," he called out, demanding his attention and trying not to sound as desperate as he felt. He pressed down a bit harder against the wound, earning him a pained groan, but it had the desired effect of gaining his attention. "Listen to me, Merlin. You need to keep your eyes open."
The response he got was mumbled, and by the end of it those blue eyes were already slipping closed again.
"What?" he grumbled without opening his eyes.
Arthur pushed down on the wound again, earning him a grimace and a sleepy glare, but he wasn't about to apologize for it. This was for his own good.
"I don't care," he told him, putting as much authority as he could into his voice. "You need to stay awake. Do not close your eyes."
Merlin huffed in obvious irritation, but he seemed to be listening for once. Though his eyes were only half open, he wasn't trying to fall asleep anymore, which allowed Arthur to calm down a bit and think through his options. He needed to come up with something fast. He was running out of time.
For his part, Merlin was doing what he could to try and fight off the wave of pure exhaustion that insisted on trying to pull him under. In some part of his mind, he knew what was happening, knew that it had been inevitable from the start. He had lost far too much blood to remain conscious for much longer. He was tired and wanted nothing more than to go to sleep, but the stubborn part of him was trying to fight against it, because he knew that if he closed his eyes this time, he wouldn't be opening them again. If he fell asleep now, he wasn't going to wake up.
Arthur had asked him to stay awake. He needed to keep his eyes open.
…But he was just so tired.
He tried to keep his attention on the prince, tried to focus on his expression, on the anxious but thoughtful look on his face, but everything was getting blurry and darkness was starting to creep in along the sides of his vision. He wanted nothing more than to just fall asleep. He was so tired…
Maybe he could take a short rest. Surely Arthur wouldn't mind. He would only close them for a moment.
Just for a moment…
As the warlock allowed his eyes to slip closed and his body to relax, he was unable to see the frantic thoughts that were running through the prince's head and that were reflected just as clearly on his face. He was trying to formulate a plan, one that involved getting his friend the help he needed. It was true that they were too far away from Camelot, but there was a village only half a day from the vale. If he could staunch the bleeding and somehow carry Merlin all the way there, then maybe the village's herbalist would be able to save him.
It was a long shot, but it was the only plan he had. He didn't have much time. All he could do was pray that Merlin would be able to hold on long enough.
"Merlin," he began, slowly raising his head, "do you think you can—"
His breath caught, and even though he knew it was impossible, it felt like his heart had come to a stop.
Merlin's eyes were closed, his face calm and relaxed…peaceful.
He swallowed hard, but he was unable to push back the fear and overwhelming anxiety at the sight before him. When he found his voice again, it was shaking.
"Merlin?" he called, trying to maintain some semblance of control over himself. He was a prince, after all. He wasn't supposed to feel like he was falling apart at the seams. "Merlin, wake up."
Nothing. There was no indication whatsoever that his servant had even heard him. He reached out with his free hand, the one that he had been using to help maintain his balance, and began to lightly tap the side of Merlin's face, trying to rouse him in any way he could think of.
It had no effect.
"Come on, Merlin," he demanded (not begged) as he tapped a little harder, waiting for a reaction—something, anything—but nothing happened. Merlin only continued to lie there, pale and unresponsive, and all of the fear and desperation were rapidly building up into something akin to anger (because anger was so much easier to deal with, and he was afraid that if he didn't just give into it, he may very well fall apart).
He wanted to hit something—a wall, a training dummy, the ground, anything—but instead he settled for yelling at his unconscious servant, wishing for all the world that he would just wake up even if only to tell him that he was an ungrateful, condescending prat.
"Damn it, Merlin!" he shouted, letting the anger and the despair crash over him. "I told you to keep your eyes open! Why can you never just listen? Wake up!"
He slammed his fist into the ground right next to the boy's head, but he didn't even flinch, didn't stir. He just continued to lie there, unmoving and unaware.
It wasn't fair.
This wasn't supposed to happen. It couldn't happen. They were supposed to go home—all of them, together. He had promised that he would look after Merlin, that he would bring him back. He had promised Gwen—had promised himself—that they would all come back.
Damn it, he had promised…
It hurt. He couldn't remember ever hurting this much. He could feel his eyes burning, but he fought against it, refusing to cry. Merlin wasn't gone—he was still breathing, but every breath was shallow, and he knew it was only a matter of time before they stopped altogether, before Merlin…
What am I supposed to do? Please…I'll do anything.
Just save him.
"…It's extraordinary, really."
Arthur's head shot up as he jerked his body around as far as he could, startled at the sudden voice when there had been only his and Merlin's for so long. He came face to face with none other than Eiwyn as she came up to him and knelt down next to Merlin. He had completely forgotten that she was still there.
"I've never met anyone quite like him before."
As those golden eyes trailed over the unconscious servant, Arthur felt the irrational urge to hide Merlin from her, to keep him as far away as possible, but he pushed it back and simply watched her. There was something very different in her gaze, something that hadn't been there before. As she looked down at Merlin, her features seemed to soften a bit. There was still curiosity and that strange knowing look she always had, but there was kindness there too, and he began to wonder if maybe there was something she could do to fix this.
"Tell me," she suddenly began, turning her eyes towards him with that same curious stare, "what is he to you?"
Arthur opened his mouth, wanting to ask her what she meant or why she even cared (or how it was any of her business in the first place), but he found himself unable to in the wake of her gaze. It was penetrating, as if she already knew the answer, and he found himself feeling far more vulnerable than he cared to admit. He quickly looked away from her, focusing on one of the many cracked cobblestones before quietly, hesitantly, and perhaps even a little indignantly muttering his reply.
"He's…he's my servant."
His heart clenched, and he immediately found himself regretting his answer, but he couldn't take it back. His pride wouldn't let him.
"…Well," Eiwyn began unconcernedly, her tone becoming almost casual as she continued, "if that's the case, you needn't worry."
"After all, if he's just a servant…then he can easily be replaced."
And just like that, with a few words spoken in an indifferent, uncaring tone, Arthur saw red. Before he could even comprehend what he was doing, he lunged at Eiwyn, his hands wrapping around her neck as he forced her to the ground, one of them still covered in Merlin's blood that was now smeared across her porcelain skin. Chivalry be damned, she had no right! Merlin had sacrificed so much for her and her kingdom, had practically given his life to save them!
She had no right!
"How dare you!" he growled, rage and loss and so much pain washing over him as he pressed her harder against the ground, trying to wipe that unaffected, impassive, condescending look off her face. "After everything he did—how dare you imply that his life's worthless!"
"…I don't see why you're so upset," she said, sounding genuinely confused and completely unconcerned about the position she was in. "Surely you could get another servant. They're expendable…"
"Just shut up!"
"Why? I'm only telling you the truth—"
"I said shut up!"
Silence immediately fell over the courtyard, broken only by the soft patter of the rain. Eiwyn didn't say another word, only stared up at the prince as Arthur tried to calm down, tried to get his breathing under control, but he was just so angry and so tired, and it felt like he had been screaming for hours, his throat raw and dry. He just couldn't take it anymore—it felt like his insides were being torn apart, and he was pretty sure it wasn't just rainwater anymore that was running down his face.
When he found his voice again, it was barely above a whisper.
"…Merlin isn't just a servant. He's my servant. He's the most loyal man I know, and the greatest friend I could ever have."
In the end his pride was no match for the raw emotion that Eiwyn's words had spurred.
"He can't just be replaced!"
He glared down at her, just waiting for her to contradict him, to insult the first person who had ever dared to become his friend, but to his surprise, the young woman below him just smiled. That indifferent, callous expression melted away to be replaced by something warm and kind, full of understanding and relief.
"Well," she began, "if that's the case, then there may be hope after all."
"What?" he asked, completely lost by the sudden switch of her character, but her next words sent a flood of something warm through his entire being, something that could only be known as hope.
"I can heal him if you'll let me."
And that—that was enough to make him release her. He drew his hands away from her neck and moved back, allowing her to sit up. She still seemed completely unconcerned by what had just happened despite the blood he had gotten on her neck and the collar of her robes. Instead her attention was fixed solely on Merlin while Arthur's was solely on her, still feeling a bit lost due to her sudden change in demeanor. First she had said that Merlin could be replaced and now she was offering to heal him. In some ways, that last part seemed almost too good to be true, but it didn't stop him from hoping.
"You can heal him?" he asked slowly, needing confirmation, some sort of reassurance that there really was a way to fix this, that he wasn't about to lose his best friend.
"Yes," she said while arranging herself so that the two of them were kneeling side by side. "There should be enough magic left in me for that."
He honestly hadn't meant to tense up at the mentioning of magic—he had known it was coming, because Eiwyn certainly didn't have anything on her for treating a wound and Merlin was well beyond being saved by any simple means—but the discomfort he felt from that word was still too much a part of him for the prince to be able to brush it off completely. His reaction was apparently enough to catch Eiwyn's attention despite how minute it had been. She was glancing at him out of the corner of her eye, and even then it felt like she was reading him as easily as an open book.
"I know how you feel about magic, Prince Arthur," she began not unkindly, "but it's the only way to save him, and I'm more than willing to do this with or without your permission."
He was a bit surprised to hear that given the comments she had made previously…right up until the point where it suddenly dawned on him exactly what she had been doing.
Eiwyn had been goading him. Those callous words and that indifferent expression had been to simply get a reaction out of him. She had done all of it on purpose, had allowed him to attack her without fighting back all because she had wanted him to…what, exactly? What had she even been after? Curious and a little frustrated over the whole thing, he was about to ask when she cut him off, and true to her nature, she already seemed to know what he had been about to say.
"I never had any intention of letting him die," she told him softly. "I just wanted you to be honest. I wanted to see how important he was to you, whether it truly went both ways. I needed to make sure that my decision really was the right one, but I suppose there was never any reason to doubt." She reached out towards Merlin and placed one hand against the wound, the other sweeping gently across his forehead to brush away a few strands of hair. "His life is precious, far more so than my own."
There was something strange in that last comment, something that shouldn't have been there, and Arthur found himself growing increasingly uncomfortable. There was a slight nagging in the back of his mind, something that he was pretty sure he had heard Gaius mention before about how nothing could truly come without a prince, and that sometimes not even magic was above that law.
"What exactly are you saying?" He needed to know what was going to happen. He was tired of always being told only half the story. He needed to understand, because the way she had spoken made it sound as if she couldn't heal Merlin without offering up herself in return.
"It's simple," she told him in that same detached tone, as if everything she was saying had absolutely no bearing on her whatsoever. "In order to heal him, I'll have to die."
"What? But…" Surely that wasn't the case. He knew for a fact that healing didn't require that great a sacrifice. She had to be mistaken.
"Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't be the case—Merlin isn't that far gone yet for a life to be necessary. However, I'm not a real sorceress. The magic I have is borrowed, so my control over it is limited, and now that the enchantment has been broken, it's only a matter of time before it disappears altogether."
Eiwyn took a deep breath and bowed her head over Merlin's body. There were no words muttered, no spell or incantation. All she seemed to be doing was focusing, willing the magic left in her to do as she asked.
"The power I was given has always been connected to my will. It became a part of my very existence. If I offer up all of it, then I should be able to save him."
"But you'll die."
"So be it. I would rather use my life to save his. Unlike me, he still has a future."
"So you'd rather die?" he asked incredulously, slowly becoming frustrated with her. "After everything that happened, you intend to just throw your life away?"
He hated that way of thinking (despite occasionally having those kinds of thoughts himself). He couldn't stand it when people got it into their heads that it was perfectly acceptable to just throw their life away. After being trapped in the vale for hundreds of years, she was finally free, and yet her first act of freedom was going to be to end her life. What was the point? Surely there had to be another way, one that involved all of them living, because they had all sacrificed so much and come so far, and it just couldn't end like this. Merlin wouldn't want that.
He was about to say something more, to try and convince her to think of another way, but he was stopped by the sound of a quiet laugh and a soft smile. He watched Eiwyn as what looked like tendrils of light began to snake down her arms and then into Merlin. Both of them were soon covered in it, glowing softly amidst the rain.
"My life ended a long time ago," she told him without a hint of bitterness or resentment. Every word felt warm…kind. "I'm not throwing it away—I'm giving what I have left to someone who deserves it far more than I. It's alright, really. This is what I want. My family, my people, Rhoshad…they're all gone. Things can never go back to the way they were, but this way, I'll be able to see them again. That's all I want. With them is where I belong just as his place is beside you."
The light grew more intense until it had nearly enveloped them, and for the second time that day, Arthur found himself shielding his eyes, but just before everything disappeared from sight, Eiwyn spoke to him one last time, her voice as gentle as the falling rain.
"Thank you, all of you, for saving us. I had forgotten what it felt like to have hope."
Look after him.
With that last whisper, the light died out, and Arthur found himself kneeling on the cobbles next to Merlin, all alone. Eiwyn was gone.
The prince sat in stunned silence for a moment, his mind trying to process exactly what had happened. Only moments ago, she had been right there next to him, talking to him, but now there was absolutely no sign of her. It was as if she had simply vanished into the air.
He really didn't want to think about it. He knew that if he did, he would start to feel sick, because even though he didn't know what he had been expecting to happen after lifting the enchantment on the vale, it certainly hadn't been this. It hadn't been the sight of his servant, his friend, all alone and bleeding out from a wound that none of them had noticed. It hadn't been facing the possibility of losing his closest friend…
…It hadn't been the sight of Eiwyn throwing away the life that Merlin had gotten back for her no matter what her reasons for doing so were. He just couldn't agree with an ending like that.
The prince snapped his head up, his thoughts quickly dispersing as he saw all three of his knights running towards him. He was fairly certain that he had told them to head back to the tower…
"What are you doing here?" he asked, more confused than accusing (he just didn't have the energy or the mindset to be angry anymore).
"We came to find Merlin," Lancelot explained as he came to a stop behind Gwaine who had already fallen to his knees at their friend's side.
"I told you to meet back at the tower."
"We did," Elyan said. "When we got there, there was a note from Rhoshad. It told us to come here."
Heaving a deep sigh, he found that he really wasn't at all surprised. Rhoshad had probably known all along what Merlin had intended to do.
"Is he alright?" Lancelot asked him worriedly. It was obvious who he meant, and Arthur suddenly realized that he didn't actually know the answer to that question. He quickly reached out, practically shoving Gwaine's hand out of the way so that he could get to the wound. The blood Merlin had lost was still there, staining his tunic and jacket, but when he peeled away the tattered cloth, all he found was a scar. The wound was gone.
Relief crashed over him, and he was pretty sure that if he hadn't already been kneeling, his legs would have buckled under the weight of it. His heart suddenly felt lighter than it had in weeks, and for just those few blessed moments, everything was right in the world. He watched the steady rise and fall of his friend's chest and reveled in each breath, knowing that the worst was finally over.
"He's fine," he told them, grinning all the while. "He's alright."
His lightheartedness lasted right up until the point that Elyan felt the need to ask what all three of them had to be wondering by now.
"Sire, what happened?"
He immediately felt sick again, wishing he didn't have to explain it but knowing he needed to. They had to know all of it, had to understand why everything had happened the way it had. They needed to know about the curse, the tree, Eiwyn, and the role that Merlin had played in saving them all. Nothing could be left out. They had a right to know.
So he told them. He told them all of it, without restraint, leaving nothing out.
By the time he finished, the rain had stopped, and as their silence fell over the vale, the cloud cover above them finally broke, and for the first time in over five hundred years, light began to filter into the kingdom of Haulden.
And when that first tentative ray of sunlight touched upon the courtyard, two blue eyes that hadn't expected to ever again see the light of day blinked open.
The first thing Merlin was aware of was the fact that everything was blurry. The second was that he was still lying on the ground. Obviously something was wrong, because he was pretty sure that the afterlife wasn't supposed to be so uncomfortable. He was also pretty sure that it wasn't supposed to hurt, and yet for some reason he had a headache. That fact left him more than a little confused, because if he was in pain, then clearly he wasn't dead, but he knew for a fact that he had been dying…so then why was he still alive?
The warlock slowly blinked his eyes a few more times until he could see something other than just blurry shapes and colors, and once he was satisfied, he slowly turned his head to figure out where he was. He didn't get very far, because his eyes immediately came to rest upon the one person who always managed to draw his attention, who more often than not seemed to encompass his entire world.
Arthur was still there, right by his side, exactly as he had been. He hadn't left him.
"Arthur?" he called out, his voice barely anything more than a whisper, but the prince heard him nonetheless, and soon enough he found not just one but four sets of eyes staring down at him in an odd mixture of surprise, relief, and barely concealed joy.
"Merlin," he heard Arthur sigh in a voice that could only be described as fond. "Welcome back."
Slowly the warlock began to try and sit up, struggling a bit until both Gwaine and Arthur lent him a hand. The movement made him a bit dizzy at first, but eventually he managed to sit up on his own without needing someone to support him. He took a few moments to catch his breath before turning back to Arthur. There was something he needed to ask him, and from the look on his face, he could tell that Arthur was already anticipating his question. It was obvious that he was expecting to be asked about what had happened, but there was only one thing that Merlin needed to know.
"She's gone, isn't she."
In the end it wasn't even really a question, and Arthur's expression alone told him everything he needed to know. So…not a dream then.
Eiwyn really had sacrificed herself in order to save him.
"How did you know?"
"I felt it." He wasn't sure how else to describe it. The moment her magic had connected with his own, he had been able to see all of it, to hear and feel and understand. In her final moments, she had had no regrets.
"I'm sorry…" Arthur began, and even though he didn't know what the prince was going to apologize for, he knew that he didn't need to hear it.
"Don't be. It's alright."
He wasn't sure if he truly believed that, if he agreed with the choice that Eiwyn had made, but dwelling on it wouldn't do them any good. They couldn't change the past. However, it didn't change the fact that a part of him felt as though he had failed in some way. He hadn't wanted things to turn out like this.
He had wanted to save her.
The warlock's eyes went wide, those two words echoing through his head in a way that had long since become familiar.
Oh, Merlin…you truly are one of the most incredible people that I have ever met.
As if in reply, the clouds finally dispersed and sunlight streamed into the courtyard. It bounced off the cobles and chased away the shadows, and when it reached the center of the tiny haven, the sacred tree that had stood tall and proud for hundreds of years caught the light and gleamed in a way that put even the finest of jewels to shame. Its bark shown like gold, the leaves glittering like silver and crystals in the sunlight, but what truly had them all enraptured was the sight of a young man with rust colored hair and eyes like jade sitting at the base of the tree, nestled safely between its roots with a girl garbed entirely in white asleep in his arms.
Not one of them moved, too caught up in the image before them, but if there was one thing Merlin had learned through all his interactions with the sorcerer, it was that Rhoshad always seemed to know exactly what needed to be said. He smiled at the five of them, his arms tightening just a bit around his precious burden.
"I don't know how I could ever begin to thank you for this," he said, his voice echoing throughout the courtyard, carried by the wind. "I'll look after her this time, I swear it."
"We'll meet again one day, and when we do, I promise I'll return the favor."
There was a sudden gust, a reflection of the sunlight, and just like that they were gone, but Merlin was certain that he had heard one last whisper through his mind, a soft but genuine thank you that carried more meaning than he could ever hope to understand. Somehow, he got the feeling that the rest of them had heard it too, and just like that, the rest of his doubts were stripped away.
Regardless of whether it was right or not, these were the paths they had chosen to walk, and that was more than enough.
Merlin turned to look at Arthur just as the prince turned to him, and the warlock couldn't help but smile. It was finally over. After everything that had happened, they were free.
There was just one thing left to do.
"Come on," Arthur said, clasping the warlock's hand in his own and pulling him to his feet (and if the prince ended up turning that simple gesture into a brief, barely-even-there embrace, well, that was just fine. Merlin certainly wasn't going to call him on it). "Let's go home."
A/N: Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the ending. I tried :)
Anyway, again, thank you so much to everyone who has bothered to read this fic. It means a lot, and I hope that it was worth the time put into reading it. I never expected this fic to end up quite this long or to do this well, but I'm glad it did, so thank you for making this writing experience that much more enjoyable for me :)
So, a lot of people have asked for a squel. I honestly don't know if I can write one. I have absolutely no ideas for one whatsoever (which is rare for me, 'cause it usually doesn't take much to spark inspiration), but I shall consider it. Keep in mind that I also said I would write a squel for Healing Spells, and that has yet to happen. I have so many other ideas I want to work on that if I did write a sequel, it might be a year in the making. However, it isn't an impossibility. It'll all sort of depend on how things go and whether I take my sister's advice and start working on an actual novel. That being said, I don't intend to disappear from this section, and I also promise that it won't be five months again before I post something new...or at least I hope not. I'll try my best :)
Until the next time!