Author's Note - Thanks for the reviews. I hope you enjoyed Merlin at the weekend.
The forest was eerily quiet. Usually there would be squirrels scampering over tree branches and birds twittering between their roosts but at this moment everything seemed to have vanished. There wasn't a creature in sight. Occasionally the leaves of the trees would rustle in the light breeze but that was the only thing Arthur could hear other than his own heavy breathing.
Grunting, he hefted the dead weight of his manservant higher up on his shoulder to avoid the boy tumbling into the dirt and ploughed on. It was midday and the sun was beating down on them despite it being autumn and Arthur could feel the perspiration gathering at the nape of his neck, trickling down his back. His fringe was also stuck to his forehead with salty, warm sweat – it was dark brown with moisture. Carrying Merlin was exhausting work, despite the manservant being half his weight, and Arthur was beginning to slow. Every time he felt his step falter, however, he gritted his teeth and forced himself to move forward because he had a feeling that every second counted. He had to get Merlin to Gaius or else he wasn't sure whether the young man would survive. In truth, Arthur didn't believe he'd last the night and that thought scared him terribly.
Occasionally Arthur would glance back at Merlin's pallid face – almost grey in colouring – and wince. Merlin was without a doubt on the brink of death and Arthur couldn't let that happen. He knew there were other things to consider about what happened outside that cave but right now all he could focus on was healing his friend.
It was nearing sunset by the time Arthur tumbled into the courtyard of Camelot Castle. As soon as he arrived he was met by a crowd of people including Gwen who smiled broadly at him but then dropped her expression as soon as she saw the state of Merlin.
"What happened?" she asked, hurriedly, placing a warm hand on Merlin's cool skin.
"Its… it's a long story. I need to get him to Gaius," Arthur replied and then frowned. "I thought I told you to wait where I left you Guinevere. I went back to look for you…"
"Oh, I'm sorry if I worried you, Arthur, but you were gone so long that I thought it would be best to head back to Camelot before it grew too dark. I thought that way we would find each other more easily."
Arthur nodded in agreement. "I see." But inside he was cursing the time he'd wasted searching for Gwen when he could have been bringing Merlin back to Gaius. Of course he couldn't voice his thoughts aloud.
"Sire! Would you like help carrying Merlin to Gaius? Your hand… it must be hurting you greatly." Sir Leon had appeared in front of him, offering a supportive arm.
"I don't care a whit about my hand," Arthur answered more fiercely than he intended. He felt a little guilty when Leon's eyes widened and he took a cautionary step back. "Yes, help me carry him. I fear it could be too late."
The rest of the knights swarmed around them and all helped carry Merlin towards the physician's chambers. By the time they'd reached Gaius, someone had obviously already gotten word to him as he was preparing potions and dressings as they arrived. He spun on the spot when he heard the door bang open and hurried over.
"Quickly, quickly, put him on the bed!" The old man's voice was full of worry and urgency. Arthur didn't like the sound of it at all. "Now, stand back and let me work."
Immediately, the physician began checking Merlin's pulse, feeling his temperature, checking his pupils. All the while he muttered unintelligibly to himself. The furrow between his eyebrows deepened the more he inspected Merlin's injuries.
"Terrible head wound…." he murmured, "That will need stitching… no, it's infected, it will need to be covered first…" He continued with his examination for a couple more moments before he looked up and saw all the knights still standing there. "What are you still doing here? There is nothing you can do to help so get out of my way." The uncharacteristic anger in Gaius' voice alerted Arthur even more to the fact that this must be very, very serious. Usually nothing could upset the ancient doctor.
The knights who had carried Merlin in left quickly, although several of the dithered, wanting to make sure their friend was going to be safe. However, one more sharp bark from Gaius and they left sharpish. Only Arthur remained.
"My lord, I don't know if you should remain for this…"
"How is it looking, Gaius?" Arthur said, ignoring his words.
Gaius paused and gave him a discerning look. "Not good, sire, not good at all… I'm… I'm afraid he might not make it this time."
"Because his body is shutting down as we speak, system by system," Gaius replied, gravely. "What happened out there, Arthur?"
"It was Morgana," Arthur murmured, not taking his eyes off Merlin's grey face, "She tried to kill me. Merlin got in the way… but he survived! He got up again and he killed her. He killed Morgana, Gaius! Right in front of me."
Gaius was surveying him with a very peculiar look – a mixture of confusion, apprehension and hope.
"How did Merlin kill Morgana, sire?" The old man's voice was soft, wary.
Arthur took a moment to gather his thoughts before he said, "By magic, Gaius."
The eyebrow that was perpetually raised on Gaius's forehead lifted even higher and the old man looked as if he might faint. He was almost the same colour as his dying ward. Arthur observed all these changes in Gaius' demeanour and deduced that the physician who had treated him all his life, who he trusted with everything, had already known about Merlin's magic. It seemed everyone he had thought he could trust was not all that they seemed – even the man who delivered him into this world. He wasn't sure how he felt about this so he filed it for later. It was the same file that held his feelings on Merlin's use of magic.
"So if he survived her spell then why is he dying?" Arthur broke the tension, focussing their attention back on Merlin.
Gaius blinked a couple of times. "I fear his… magic was only powerful enough to stop her spell from killing him instantly. He gave himself enough time to kill her but once he'd done that…. well, his body just started shutting down." There was water gathering in Gaius' eyes; his voice was a little choked.
"But…" Arthur didn't know why he protested. Maybe he thought by the mere action of protesting that all the problems would go away. He knew better than that though. He was king, not a small boy anymore. He could deal with this, couldn't he? The familiar pain in his heart was back again though, like someone had stabbed a shard of jagged glass inside the soft, red tissue and twisted mercilessly. Without another word he collapsed on a nearby chair, breathing heavily.
"Are you alright, sire?" Gaius said with concern.
"I'm…. I'm fine. Focus on Merlin," Arthur exclaimed, wincing as the pain worsened. "Please… is there nothing you can do, Gaius? No hope at all?"
Gaius shook his head. "The only person who could save Merlin is, ironically, himself." A small wry smile twisted the old man's lips for a second but it slipped away almost instantly. "I'm sorry, Arthur."
Arthur's cheeks felt hot all of a sudden and so did his neck and his ears; in fact, all of him was enveloped in an uncomfortable heat. He stood up but light-headedness made him sit down again almost immediately.
"I'll see if I can ease your discomfort, sire," Gaius said and set about mixing up something to reduce the symptoms that Arthur was experiencing. Arthur wanted to shout at him to stop, to do something for Merlin but he knew that if Gaius thought there was any hope for the boy then he would be helping him.
Arthur's eyes began to sting and his throat began narrowing, constricting the air to his lungs and making him choke a little. He hadn't experienced this feeling in a long time, not since his father died. However, in this case, he wasn't sure whether he'd ever get over the grief. Everything seemed so overwhelming.
"Sire," Gaius murmured, near his ear and Arthur looked up to see him offering a cup of something. Usually, the king wasn't keen on taking drugs for emotions but in this case he didn't see how he could cope without them. Gratefully, he took the cup and swallowed the contents. It tasted gritty and smoky and he wrinkled his nose at the flavour.
He was looking into the bottom of the empty cup when he felt Gaius draw up a chair beside him. A warm hand was placed onto his quivering back. Arthur bit back his tears; fought to hold himself together. His knee bounced continuously as if he were channelling all of his emotions into that one limb in an attempt to conceal them. He waited for Gaius to speak. He didn't want to hear what the old man had to say. It would hurt too much.
However, Gaius seemed to understand his need for silence and the two of them just sat in mutual grief as they watched their friend slip further away.
After a time, Gaius sighed, heavily. "Not long now, sire. Would you like me to fetch anyone else?"
"No, Gaius, I think we're enough. The others can say their goodbyes afterward." Arthur's voice was a little stronger now thanks to the effects of Gaius' soothing potion. "Though we will need to get hold of Hunith as soon as possible."
The lapsed into quiet again.
"He was a good man," Gaius said, softly, his eyes never leaving his ward. "Humble, kind, generous, brave. He was much more than you ever gave him credit for, Arthur."
Arthur frowned. "You think I didn't know he was all those things, Gaius?" His tone was rather hurt. "Of course I did. Why do you think I kept him around all the time? Why do you think I came to think of him as my best friend? He was the best man I've ever known."
There was a pause. "And even now - now that you know about his magic - is he still the best man you've ever known?"
"Yes," Arthur replied without hesitation.
"Good," Gaius said, placing a gentle, calloused hand on Merlin's pale forehead. "It's a shame that it's too late for you to tell him that."
Arthur felt his insides clench at the thought of Merlin having magic all the time he'd known him. Obviously he felt quite betrayed by his manservant who had kept this huge secret from him for so long whilst living right under his nose but even more so, he felt sorry for the poor young warlock having to hide his true identity for years out of fear. And he also felt massively guilty for not giving Merlin enough reason to trust him with his burden. He obviously wasn't as good a friend as he thought he was.
He wanted Merlin to be conscious now if only to tell him that he would be forgiven, that he would be accepted and wouldn't have to live a lie anymore. But that was not to be. Merlin would go to his grave as an unappreciated nobody, a mere serving boy. That thought made Arthur's heart ache all over again. He deserved so much more.
"Is he in pain?" Arthur asked, quietly, staring at the flickering eyelids of his manservant.
"Perhaps a little but I've given him all I can to help that without sending him into unconsciousness permanently."
"But it is bound to be painful when all your organs stop working and there is not a lot I can do." Gaius seemed angry at himself for not being able to ease his ward's passing into the next life. He stroked the boy's forehead again. It was now damp with sweat. "You deserved longer, my boy, you really did. You should be the one outliving me." Tears were leaking unchecked down the physician's face.
"I should be the one in his place," Arthur lamented, "It was me that spell was meant for."
Gaius looked up sharply. "No - don't you go feeling guilty. Merlin gave his life to protect you, the least you can do is be grateful. He knew that something like this would happen eventually… We both just hoped it wouldn't be for a long time."
"What do you mean?" Arthur sounded genuinely puzzled.
"Merlin dedicated his life to protecting yours. His fate and yours were sealed together. Since he's known you, well, let's just say you've been saved from the gods a good few times by Merlin even though you had no idea. He couldn't tell you because he was using magic. All I have to say is at least it stopped his head getting too big because he couldn't boast about it to anyone – only me and I'm a boring old fart." Gaius smiled, weakly. "You have no idea how many times he came back to me moaning about how he'd saved your life and you had no idea again. I just told him that you'd appreciate him one day."
"I did… I do," Arthur replied, mulling over what Gaius had said. "And that's why we can't give up on him yet because he has to know that all he did was not for nothing."
"No, there must be another sorcerer I can get. I'll do anything. We just have to heal him!"