A/N: I know it's been absolutely months, and I never meant to leave it this long... but I finally just had to complete this fic - it's the least I could do for all of your reviews and favourites and everything. So, finally, here it is. The last chapter. And I am really, reeeeally sorry it took this long. But now, it's finally done.
Thank you so much for sticking with this story the whole way. It was my first fic, and the response I've had is overwhelming. Thank you so so much.
Enjoy, and please review, one last time?
"How much further do we have to go?"
Merlin smothered a smile, subtly spurring his horse on faster. "Not much further!" he called brightly, breaking into a canter, "And besides, you need the exercise!"
A groan came from behind him. "If we ride any more then we'll be over the border!"
And Arthur said it was Merlin who did all the moaning.
The whine came again. "Is this your 'master plan'? Get ambushed and never return to Camelot because we're enslaved by the enemy?'
"Alright, alright." Merlin stopped abruptly, the glimpse of a clearing visible through the edge of the trees. "We can walk from here." He swung himself down and started striding towards the clearing, leaving the prince watching him in indignation. Arthur followed slowly, reluctantly placing the box containing the manacles underneath his cloak. It seemed heavier, somehow, than before.
"Merlin!" His voice was filled with the authority of a Prince that wanted answers. Once upon a time, that voice would have sent Merlin scurrying back to him – a sarcastic Merlin, but submissive all the same. The fact that the boy didn't seem to bat an eyelid now showed how much things had changed.
Arthur stopped. "As your Prince, Merlin," he called, the hard look in his eyes challenging the boy to keep walking, "I command you to tell me where we're going."
Merlin didn't respond until a gauntlet hit him squarely in the back of the head.
"What?" He clutched belatedly at the tender spot, eyes searching blankly as if waking from a daze. "Oh, Arthur." The boy smiled apologetically, running a hand through his hair. "I was just … somewhere else. Did you say something?"
Arthur growled. Merlin got the message. "The only way to stop your father's plan is to destroy the manacles, right?"
Arthur nodded, slowly. "It's the only option I can think of."
"And the problem is that it's too strong to be destroyed – at least not by normal means."
"I know that, Merlin," Arthur said irritably, "You don't need to repeat it. I guess you've got some powerful 'magic thing' to destroy it instead?"
Merlin turned his head to the night sky, surveying the stars as if searching for something. "From what I gather, this thing sucks the magic out of its victim, killing them in the process – so, in my case, trying to use magic on it would not end very well. The only thing powerful enough to destroy it completely is dragon fire."
Arthur didn't like where this was heading. "But we don't have a dragon, do we?" He stepped forwards until he was level with his servant, apprehension evident in his voice. "I killed the last one."
Merlin shifted nervously, not quite meeting Arthur's eyes. "Well, actually, it's not quite as dead as you think it is."
"What?" Arthur's shout of indignation echoed around the empty space. "What do you mean – ?"
"Look, do you want me to do this or not?" Merlin interrupted impatiently. "This is the only way to save all those people's lives. You're just going to have to shut up and trust me." Arthur looked furious – livid, in fact, and Merlin got the feeling he was very close to overstepping the line. "Sire," he added quickly, "I meant, you're just going to have to shut up and trust me, sire."
The boy strained his head towards the sky. The voice that came out moments later was not his own – it was much older, and weighted with some heavy power that sent a shiver down Arthur's spine.
"Ic ábannan unc, fýrdraca,ætstæl úre cnósl!"
In the gold flash that followed his words, Arthur got a glimpse of the power that Merlin truly had, power that he had never imagined someone like Merlin could ever possess. Merlin stood, majestic and certain, so at ease with this display that Arthur began to wonder how this confident being and the clumsy servant that served him back at the castle could ever be the same person.
If he was honest, it scared him, seeing what Merlin could do. But a Prince never feels fear, especially not due to a servant, so he quickly shut it away, beneath everything else he had ever buried in his heart. This was Merlin, he quickly reminded himself, as the boy turned to him, a hint of anxiety in his smile. Stupid, self-sacrificing Merlin, who liked nothing more than to laze around the castle grounds when it was sunny and hated going hunting because the 'poor animals had never done anything to him'. The idiot.
"What – I – just –" Arthur spluttered for a moment, seemingly lost for words. Merlin let him collect his thoughts, smirking to himself as Arthur floundered around – it wasn't often the Prince was short of something to say, and he intended to make the most of it.
Arthur let out a long, controlled breath. "What was that?" he asked through gritted teeth.
Merlin paused, trying to think of the best way of breaking this particular news to the Prince without sending the man off the deep end.
"There's something else I forgot to tell you," he began cautiously, "About me." There was no easy way to say this. He took a deep breath. "I am a … Dragonlord."
He looked up to find Arthur staring at him with a rather unimpressed expression. "A what?"
"A Dragonlord. The last Dragonlord. Remember when the dragon was attacking the kingdom – " he broke off, realising that reminding Arthur of that particular incident would not be particular beneficial in relation to the rest of the night, " – well, we needed to find a Dragonlord, and we did. But then he … died."
"That man was my father," he said, the words spewing out in a rushed confession, "I only knew him for a few hours, but he was my father. He'd been banished a long time ago – but, in the end I couldn't save him." He blinked furiously, shaking his head to clear his vision. "Anyway, now I have all his powers. I can talk to dragons, command them. I'm their master, I suppose."
Arthur blinked in surprise, as silence stretched out between them.
"Well," he said eventually, "That's …" He trailed off. What was he supposed to say? That he didn't realise Merlin had been in possession of such power? That he was awed by what he could do? That if he'd known that Merlin was a Dragonlord, he would have… would have done things differently?
"I – I'm sorry," he said eventually. The words sounded awkward – apologies were not something he was in the habit of making. "About your father."
Merlin shrugged. They stood in silence for a minute, the damp heavy in the night air. Unable to keep silent, it was Arthur who broke it first. "I thought you said no more secrets."
Merlin closed his eyes. Was this how it was always going to be from now on – patches of doubt, suspicion always shadowing their conversations? "I told you everything important."
The silence that followed signalled that Arthur certainly did not class this little detail as unimportant. If only he knew, Merlin found himself thinking miserably, if only he knew how much he still doesn't know. Freya. Morgana. How would he react when he found out that Merlin had known all along that Morgana had magic? That he could have reached out a hand to pull her from the darkness? That he poisoned her –
"You called a dragon!" Arthur's indignant shout pulled Merlin from his miserable thoughts. "You called a dragon, here!"
Merlin glanced up at the sky. A black patch had obscured some of the stars, and was growing larger by the second, accompanied by the familiar wing-beat in the open air.
"Not just any dragon," Merlin murmured softly, as Kilgharrah drew close enough for Merlin to make out the familiar glint his eyes, "the last dragon."
Arthur's hand was already on his sword, a burning distrust in his eyes. The last time he had seen this creature, it had been destroying everything he had held dear and killing thousands of people. He had felt a cold satisfaction at the thought of its death – but, now, Merlin was saying it was their only saviour. How twisted fate was.
"Arthur, promise me you won't do anything stupid, okay?" Merlin muttered quickly, moving in front of him, "Leave it to me."
"Kilgharrah," Merlin greeted the beast with a warm smile, "That was fast."
"I am never far away, young warlock." The dragon settled on the grass, fixing his gaze on the man who stood so uncertainly behind him. "And the occasion is grave. I will always come when you call."
"I know." Merlin grinned.
Kilgharrah's gaze flickered from Arthur to Merlin, then back again.
"I see that you have brought a friend."
Merlin took a deep breath. "Arthur." He turned to the Prince, silently pleading with him to cooperate. "This is Kilgharrah, the 'Great Dragon'."
Arthur just stared at the beast in front of him, struggling to get his around the situation. The dragon - the bloodthirsty beast that had nearly killed him and his kingdom - was talking to him.
"I am glad that we have the chance to meet on better terms," Kilgharrah said, a slight mocking tone to the rumble. Arthur bristled, hand still on his sword.
"Last time we met," he answered, his voice low, "You tried to destroy my kingdom and everyone in it."
Kilgharrah cocked his head to the side, as if remembering. "Yes, I did, didn't I? In hindsight that was, perhaps, foolish of me. But you forget, Prince Arthur, that your father has killed so many of my kind and kept me imprisoned in the darkness for so long that I felt that I required some kind of compensation."
Arthur growled. "Don't talk about –"
"Stop." Merlin laid a hand on the Prince's arm, throwing an angry glare in the dragon's direction. "We didn't come here to argue, Kilgharrah. You know that."
The dragon inclined his head, amusement in his eyes. "I apologise, young warlock." There was something strange about watching Merlin command the respect of a beast so old and majestic when, as a servant, it was always Merlin who had to be respectful of the rest of the castle's inhabitants. Although, Arthur thought ruefully, Merlin never did try very hard.
Merlin sighed, the sound of a long suffering parent who grew tired of having to deal with all this awkward behaviour. "We found the manacles, the last ones hidden after the Great Purge. Uther wants to get rid of magic for once and for all, and he plans on using them on everyone in Camelot – it would kill so many people. We need to destroy them. Can you do that?"
"I am a creature of the oldest magic," Kilgharrah spoke, after a pause. Arthur looked at Merlin, apprehension beginning to rise to the surface – that did not sound promising. "As these manacles are. But you already know what they do to beings like us, do you not?"
Merlin nodded, swallowing.
"Artefacts such as these are a source of great power. Destroying something like this will not come without a price – the darkness will need to flow somewhere to keep the world's balance in order."
"A price," Arthur muttered darkly. This whole conversation was beginning to sound a lot the like the desperate exchange that took place on that cursed isle, as Arthur tried to bargain for Merlin's life – there was no honesty in these kind of deals, only deception and deceit. Nimueh had taught him that. "We will have none of your trickery."
"Arthur!" Merlin exclaimed angrily, turning round to glare at the Prince. "For once, could you just –"
"I know what happens when you make bargains with beings like this," Arthur said, his voice hard. "And so do you." He turned to Merlin, trying to make him understand. "Don't you remember what happened with Nimueh? I was almost tricked into letting you die, and you said yourself that she tricked you into killing Gaius." Merlin flinched slightly at this accusation, but he couldn't deny its truth. "I won't let that happen again."
"Arthur, this isn't the same thing," Merlin said softly, "Kilgharrah isn't asking for a life."
"How do you know?" Arthur turned to stare at the creature, meeting the unblinking golden eyes with a steady gaze of his own. "If you do not mean to trick us, then what is it that you require?"
Merlin held his breath. No one moved. Then Kilgharrah let out a great laugh that echoed around the empty space, like the rumble of distant thunder.
"A very wise move, young Pendragon. Merlin would do well to follow your advice occasionally." Arthur threw a smug smile in Merlin's general direction. Merlin just groaned, burying his face in his hands. "Indeed, there are similarities in these bargains, as all things concerning magic are governed by the same rules. However, a life is not required here – the dark magic will just return to the earth, until such a time when it is called up to be used again."
Merlin sighed. "Then what's the problem?"
"Power of such a scale would be a great aid to either side of a battlefield."
At the mention of war, Merlin felt Arthur stiffen beside him. Merlin narrowed his eyes – what was Kilgharrah playing at?
"Perhaps it would be wise to keep the artefact, until such a time when the magic could be used to your own benefit." Kilgharrah looked innocently past him, gaze fixated on the man behind. "Is that not true, Arthur?"
Arthur's head was reeling – another war?
"I …" His voice trailed off. What did he really think? Had his father been asked, Arthur doubted that the man would have turned down such an opportunity – in fact, given how Uther had jumped at the chance to gain the staff from the Isle of the Blessed, there was no question.
He could see Merlin out of the corner of his eye, wringing his hands nervously. To be honest, a part of Arthur wanted to accept the dragon's offer – after all, if he'd accepted the use of magic, the least he could do is keep some in reserve in case he ever needed it. Strategically, it was the best option – by keeping the manacles away from his father, not only would he save the kingdom from Uther's wrath, but he would also be keeping a vast resource of power from his enemies.
"Arthur, don't take the staff. Please."
An image of Merlin, gasping for breath whilst Nimueh talked of bargains and promises, flitted across his mind.
"A mortal like you would not have been able to use it without surrendering to its power."
Arthur was not his father. He did not desire absolute power – he desired the safety of his kingdom. He made that mistake before, and he almost lost Merlin. He wouldn't make it again.
"I think we should destroy it. The magic returns to the earth – that's where it belongs." He risked a sideways glance at Merlin, hoping he was saying the right thing. Merlin gave him a small smile that looked almost … proud. "The kingdom would be no better off if we kept it – to be honest, we would be putting the citizens in more danger, as the manacles could be stolen at any time and the power harnessed against us."
Arthur could feel Kilgharrah's gaze burning into him, through him, but he stood his ground.
"And if the time comes that we do need magic to win a war, well –" He broke off, smiling ruefully. "Maybe it's time that Merlin started doing something useful instead of skulking around in the shadows."
"I do not skulk," Merlin muttered petulantly.
Arthur raised an eyebrow in the perfect imitation of Gaius – Merlin had to suppress an urge to stick out his tongue in response. "In battles? When you go and hide at the corners of the fray? When I catch you sneaking around the castle at night with no plausible explanation? Yes, Merlin, you do."
"Well, I couldn't very well stand in the middle of the battlefield casting enchantments left, right and centre, could I?" Merlin couldn't quite keep the annoyance out of his voice. "I had to find some way of saving your royal backside without you taking off my head!"
Arthur laid a hand on his arm, smiling softly. "I was joking, Merlin. I know. I know you did."
"You truly are becoming the king of legends, Arthur Pendragon." Kilgharrah shifted slightly, something resembling a smile appearing on the dragon's face. "The decision you have made today is a glimpse of how you will rule in the future – with both your heart and your head, compassion for others eclipsing the desire for power. But be warned – even though that is your strength, it will also be your downfall." The creature continued quickly, before either man could interrupt. "You have a great destiny, you two, side by side. The Once and Future King, destined to unite the kingdom of Albion, and Emrys, the greatest sorcerer to walk the earth. Together, returning magic to the land."
"Wait –" Arthur began, the last pieces slowly beginning to fall into place. "You're Emrys?"
Merlin nodded, slowly.
"My father's going crazy trying to find you," Arthur murmured slightly breathlessly, running a hand through his hair. "And all this time, it was you! He's searching the entire city – Merlin, he won't stop until he kills you."
"Don't worry about me, Arthur," Merlin shrugged, trying to ignore the guilt that bubbled in his chest when he thought about all of the innocent lives Uther was prepared to take just so he could locate Emrys – locate him. "You know I can take care of myself. After all, I've managed this long, haven't I?"
"I really don't know how," Arthur muttered, "Greatest sorcerer to walk the earth, and you can't even walk without falling over your own feet. That bodes well for the future of the kingdom."
Kilgharrah chuckled, as Merlin glared indignantly at the Prince, trying to think of some kind of retaliation.
"Now, you desired my fire?"
It was almost light by the time the deed had been completed. As soon as the magic had been separated from the manacles, Merlin had felt a great deal better – it was as if there had been something buzzing in the background the whole time, making him feel uneasy, but he only noticed its presence once it had gone.
"We'll take them back to Camelot, and put them back where we found them," Arthur announced, gingerly placing the manacles back into the box, "This way, he can go along with his plan, but they will be useless – it will seem like there is no sorcery within the borders, and hopefully that will give me enough time to convince him to abandon this whole charade."
"Whatever you say, Sire." The title dripped with sarcasm, as always, causing Arthur to give Merlin a quick slap on the back of his head as he made his way back to where the horses were tethered.
"You've done well, Merlin," Kilgharrah said softly, as they both watched the prince's retreating figure. "I know you fear for your destiny sometimes. Do not lose heart, for even when your path becomes clouded, you will lead each other back."
Merlin made a small noise in agreement. There were a few things that had been playing on his mind for a while now, questions that Kilgharrah had thrown up, but he wasn't sure that he wanted to hear the answers.
"Kilgharrah," he began haltingly, "What exactly did you mean by –"
"Are you planning on walking back to Camelot, Merlin?" Arthur's impatient shout cut through his thoughts, interrupting his speech. "Or is there something else you've neglected to tell me?"
"Destiny is calling, young warlock," Kilgharrah noted, with amusement. Merlin sighed, rubbing a hand over his face, before taking a deep breath and hollering back, "Have you ever heard of the word patience, you prat?"
"Of course I have – waiting for you to get me breakfast every day is lesson enough. You would think that, with all of those powers you have, the least you could do is retrieve the food from the kitchen whilst it's still morning."
"Look, Arthur, that was just one time –"
"One time too many!"
"You're such an ass."
"A royal ass!"