As of March 2012: 31 favourites, 64 alerts and 59 reviews
Ha ha! Yes! I knew it! I knew you wouldn't let me down!
Yeah, I wanted you to pick this road. In fact, it was practically unanimous, and I'm glad for it! XD
So, I release you from your bonds with the last chapter of this tale. I hope you enjoyed it, because it drove me bleedin' mad! ...Ahem. You chose life for Arthur Pendragon, so I give you life for Arthur Pendragon. There were, however, a couple hints given that some wanted both endings ~ I may post both, or I may continue a new story with the alternate ending if I can think of a storyline. But for now, arrivederci, amici, until next time.
"Now we are free." ~ Juba (Gladiator)
The king was attacked by another set of coughs, and blood proceeded to dribble down to his chin from between his lips. His eyes rolled back into his head.
The Pendragon could not answer.
Merlin looked desperately to Aithusa. "Can...can you help him?"
The white dragon cocked her head inquiringly, blinking.
"Please, can you save him? Please!"
₪ † ₪
~15~ There is a King in You
Aithusa's eyes were downcast. She peeped, a sound so out of place for a dragon her size.
Merlin suddenly realized how long it had been since she was but a hatchling, so small she could coil up nicely in his palm to sleep. Now her shoulder stood just over that of a man's. With her size grew her power, it must.
The twin pebbles of mercury, each spotted by an intelligent darkness, flicked up at the king and his servant.
Emrys. Her nostrils flared skeptically. She focused on Arthur. Man of Albion, man of Destiny. Save. How?
You are Aithusa, the Luminance of the Sun. You know what to do, even if you do not realize it.
Save. Save Arthur Pendragon.
"Arthur, wake up."
The king's head lolled against Merlin's shoulder as he was nudged. His eyes opened, then widened to see the white dragon's nose not a foot away, her gaze level with his.
"Merlin?" he said nervously.
"I'm here, sire."
A fresh tear trickled down Merlin's cheek, but not of sorrow. As Aithusa's nose brushed Arthur's forehead, the servant felt a rise of power swell, a tingle, detectable like heat. Aithusa began to hum deep in her chest.
Arthur grunted, stiffening. Merlin felt a peculiar warmth beneath his hand covering the black mess filling the wound in Arthur's chest, and when he removed it, he was shocked to see the gash completely covered, healed. The wound of Romulus was gone. The black substance was pushed out of his blood as the body would reject a sliver, and came away when the warlock touched it.
As Merlin watched, the sewn cut on the king's cheek smoothed over, the twine holding it together falling away in the breeze. There was a snap, and a pained cry, as Arthur's knee was repaired, leaving it whole.
"Saints alive," Merlin gasped, and unravelled the bandages on the king's arms, to find them healed to the complete, sinewy flesh they had ever been. His missing fingers did not return, but the holes where they should have been sealed properly, and infection was drawn away. Arthur's heartbeat strengthened, as did his breathing. His chest no longer rattled and his gaze sharpened to that of a keen eagle.
Aithusa withdrew a few paces, admiring her work but sagging in exhaustion. Her scales seemed less shiny, her eyes less bright.
Merlin nudged the king, who had closed his eyes and slumped back against the servant. "Arthur? How do you feel?"
"I...I...I don't understand..."
"It's all right, sire. Everything's going to be all right." Merlin was getting annoyed with how many tears he was shedding that day, even if they were of radiant joy. "She saved you."
The king heaved in a great breath, relishing the painlessness of it. "Ah. And that's why you're crying?"
"You're crying because I'm alive and therefore you're still fired?"
They both laughed, and for once it didn't hurt.
Arthur grunted and tried to sit up. "Stop cuddling me, you buffoon. What would the knights think?" He was ghostly pale; his wounds had been healed, but he was still very weak from blood loss. The only consolation was that whatever blood had been on his body and soaked in Merlin's clothes had been drawn back within when his flesh was repaired. He would survive, but only just, and as long as he didn't exert himself.
"So I help save your life and avenge your torturous treatment and yet I'm still the buffoon. Great."
Arthur rolled away from Merlin, ignoring the remark, and got onto his hands and knees.
"Sire, maybe you shouldn't..."
Perhaps it was the regal Pendragon blood in him, but Arthur managed to get to his feet. He leaned heavily on the battlements for a while, and then forced himself to take a few steps to where Aithusa sat exhausted. He bent at the waist, bowing in utmost gratitude.
"You have saved my life, noble dragon. I am forever in your debt." The sincerity in the words was as clear and genuine as a true king of Albion. Aithusa dipped her serpentine neck and head smoothly. Her weary voice echoed in the heads of both Arthur and Merlin.
Destiny. Albion. Saved. Rest now.
The white dragon spread membranous wings that blocked the sun, and with a single downward flap, she was in the air. She circled the turret once, turned north, and rode the wind streams over the mountains. She vanished with one last thought for Merlin.
"Magnificent." Arthur sagged, and the warlock dove forward to catch him. He helped him down back against the crenellations, and then sat down beside him. Arthur let his head rest back for a moment, eyes shut, but then he opened one and scanned Merlin up and down, taking in the gashes, claw marks and bloodied neckerchief across his eye.
"What the hell happened to you?"
۞ Ӂ ۞
The death toll was staggering. Scores of men, women, and children had been slaughtered or crushed to death in the swarms of soldiers and slaves as they fought for control of the city. The Essetirians had swords and armour, but the slaves had retribution and fury, not to mention numbers. For two days, hard fighting and bloodshed reigned and stormed the city. By the time the sun had ducked beneath the Ridged Mountains on the second day, the citadel was taken by the now free people of Essetir Castle.
There had been no celebrating. No cheers or sounds of jubilation rang through the streets, nor did joyful exclamations announce reuniting families.
The strongest and most able-bodied had disarmed the defeated knights and soldiers, grim-faced and silent. The sick and fatigued had been given some food, along with a place to sleep. The injured were being treated by Bartholomew the physician, whose formerly-hostage daughter clung to him like a leech and refused to let go.
Bart was up all hours of the day, working. There were a few physicians from the once-enslaved villages to help him out, but he was still under a great deal of stress.
As for the men of Camelot, half of them had departed several days past on the fastest horses, taking the word for aid. Their wounded companions could not be moved, and despite their insistence on going home, they were forced to stay in the captured Essetir Castle. They were treated like heroes, as that was what they were. Because of them, torn families were united and healed. Because of them, none felt another demonic whip on their shoulders ever again. Because of them, they were free.
۞ Ӂ ۞
Five days ago, Arthur had listened helplessly in repulsed horror as Bart worked on saving Merlin's eye. The servant had tried to be as silent as possible for bravery's sake, but failed miserably. Arthur had grimaced, gritting his teeth, deeply regretting the fact that the city had very little of the sleep-inducing, pain-relieving poppy milk to help his friend. He had been bedridden himself, however, because his head drifted away and left him dizzy when he tried to stand. He couldn't have abandoned Merlin to face the pain alone, even if he'd wanted to.
Now, nearly a week later, Arthur sat by the servant's bed, talking away the day. There was a patch on Merlin's eye, which held a poultice that worked on saving half of his vision. Bart was sure it would work, in part if not all. According to the physician, if Merlin had been but a needle's-breadth closer to Romulus's clawed gauntlets, his eye would have been slashed open and destroyed beyond hope. As it was, he will inevitably have scars.
Arthur asked once more about the servant's battle with Romulus, and was both awed and amused by it. Though Merlin had told it numerous times to him and the knights, he obliged in recalling the tale. He explained that he had chased Romulus through the castle to the north turret and out onto the bridge, where he was ambushed and nearly sliced up to rat fodder. Aithusa the dragon saved him by attacking the Torturer, and, in his panic, Romulus accidentally broke the bridge with a spell gone wrong, and he fell with it. Aithusa grabbed Merlin before he plummeted to his death as well.
"So, really, I didn't do anything," the servant concluded with a modest shrug. "It was all the dragon, and that bastard's own mistake."
Arthur accepted it, even though he was still curious about the existence of the dragon in the first place.
He winced and stretched out his leg. The joint that had been crippled by Romulus's Knee Splitter had never fully healed like he thought. Aithusa had mostly repaired the bone and skin, but the tendons were a little...wrong. He would have a limp forever.
He was fortunate though. He could completely see out of both eyes.
"Stop scratching; it's not good for it." Arthur pulled Merlin's arm away from rubbing at the eye patch, again.
"Oh, quit complaining, you big baby. I've had training wounds worse than yours."
"You've had training wounds that made you look like you went through a wheat grinder?"
"Yeah, and then chewed on by wildren."
They laughed. The sarcasm indicated they were back to normal...as normal they could become again, anyway.
Sitting there against his bed headboard, Merlin seemed oblivious to the fact that he looked like he had been mauled by a tiger, or he just didn't let his new appearance get in his way. He caught himself before he could scratch the three long, stitched cuts that ran from his nose across his right cheek. "These are going to scar."
"Don't sweat, the ladies'll love it!" Gwaine swaggered down the way, a loose cotton shirt hiding the gauze that bound his burns. "Makes you look like a victor, a war hero!"
"Or that I don't know how to duck."
Gwaine raised a concurring eyebrow. "That too."
"It's good to see you up and about, Gwaine," said Arthur, nodding politely.
"It's good to be up, you have no idea," the ruffian groaned, rolling his eyes. He grabbed a seat across from Arthur and leaned his elbows on the servant's bed. "I suppose you want to know all about our plan from earlier, with the diversion and all."
Arthur and Merlin glanced at each other, then back at Gwaine, shaking their heads casually.
"Nah, not really."
The knight glowered. "Fine. Be that way. Okay, I'll tell you." The other two withheld grins of amusement. "After you and the cyclops over here were gone, we overheard guards talking about a mass hanging in the southern courtyard. We, being as noble and brave as we are, knew we had to step in and save your sorry asses. To cut things short, we sabotaged the gallows (though not as well as we'd hoped), unlocked the stalls in the stables and prepared a fire, found a vantage point for Leon and Peter to shoot crossbows, and, when all were inside the yard, we barred the gates, to slow guards from getting in, and prevent the audience, including Morgrim, from getting out. And, of course, there were the war parties of pissed-off slaves." Gwaine sat back smugly. Then he frowned. "It turned out rather well, other than that Sean and his two brutish conies. They ruined it by breaking down the gates and letting that pig lord get away!"
"It wasn't ruined. In fact, if anything had turned out different, who knows what would have happened," said Merlin. "But something is still bugging me. Why were you on the gallows? It wasn't necessary for you to risk a real hanging."
Gwaine looked sheepish, and he nearly blushed. "Well, actually, I screwed up and got captured. That wasn't part of the plan."
۞ Ӂ ۞
As always, when Bartholomew came to refresh Merlin's bandages, he had his young daughter clinging to him like a shadow. The doctor was aged, very aged, and seemed too old to have a daughter, but Bart whispered that she really wasn't his blood. He would tell Merlin the story later.
The warlock smiled at the young girl, and, after a while, she grinned back, her mouth devoid of two baby front teeth. She was so young, it made Merlin sad that she had been held hostage while Bart was forced to be court physician – the doctor couldn't kill anyone of importance with a 'foot deodorant' or 'nasal cleanser:' he had itched to toss in poisonous herbs every time he made a medicine for a snobby, heartless lord or lady, but with his ward on the line...
Merlin had forgiven the man for his betrayal, but Bart still gives mournful, sincere apologies every chance he got.
۞ Ӂ ۞
By the time the soldiers from Camelot arrived, Merlin was allowed to get up and wander around – not that he hadn't been wandering around earlier, despite the injury the wood splinter caused on the back of his thigh. Bart had threatened him with buckles and straps to hold him in bed before he was fit to stand, and the servant took the warning to heart, at least when the physician was in the room.
The defeated, imprisoned soldiers of Essetir were stripped of armour, weapons, and, basically, dignity before they were sent away. Arthur ordered their release solely because he wouldn't possibly have them all executed. He couldn't bear to have that blood on his hands.
There was a baron further north, along the coast, who was the closest man of power. They sent word to him about Essetir Castle, and then abandoned the city and its remaining wealthy inhabitants. The former slaves, bearing all the food and supplies they could carry and escorted by soldiers of Camelot, returned to their villages. Merlin's mother went with her son for a visit before travelling back to Ealdor, to heal injured body and heart. Lucia, the kitchen maid, remained in Camelot, much to Merlin's pleasure.
۞ Ӂ ۞
"I suppose I should thank you."
Merlin had to twist in his chair to view Arthur, who was standing behind him against a wardrobe. The patch on his healing left eye itched, but he was working on breaking the habit of scratching it. He frowned, the many scars on his face pulling. They no longer made him feel self-conscious – though, occasionally, he startles himself when his reflection flashes in a silver platter. "What's included in this 'everything?'"
The servant blinked. "Oh. Okay. Um, you're welcome for...everything." He turned back to tending the sword.
"I think you misinterpreted me."
"I'm your servant. I'm supposed to do these things. A thank you is nice, but—"
Arthur waved a hand, then limped over to the cabinet, where he refilled his wine goblet. He had to concentrate to do so, as he was still not used to having only three fingers on his left hand. "I mean what you did for me in Essetir."
Again Merlin blinked. "You're thanking me now. After two weeks."
The king didn't reply. A friendly fire cackled in the hearth of his chambers. Outside, a gentle autumn rain pattered against the slightly-parted window, the smell of cool freshness wafting in fragrantly. For a while, all that could be heard was the tapping water, the satisfying hiss of sharpening steel and the snickering embers. It was a most comforting symphony.
"I also want to ask for your forgiveness."
This really caught Merlin's attention. Not only does Arthur never 'ask' for anything, only demand, he has never asked the warlock for 'forgiveness' either. Suddenly, there was 'ask' and 'forgiveness' in a single sentence!
Arthur stared into the ruby depths of his wine goblet. "I'm sorry for what I have done to you."
"...Done to me?"
"I have dragged you into this, all this, from the very beginning."
Merlin waited for the smile to split when the king looked up from his cup, but it never came. There was genuine grief etched into Arthur's eyes, and weariness in his features.
"For nearly ten years you've been under my service, and not one of those years, not a single, bloody one, has been quiet. You could have seen the world by now. You could have...bought your own home, settled with a nice piece of land, found a pretty girl...But you haven't. You're here, with me, now half blind and scarred for life."
Merlin didn't know what to say. The whetstone in his hand was poised over the sword, forgotten.
"You have been a faithful servant, more than I've ever given you credit for. You have saved my life more times than any other man, but you've never asked for anything in return. A greater friend I could never be blessed with. Therefore, I'm going to offer you retirement."
There was a small clatter as Merlin dropped the whetstone, which bounced off the sword before hitting the table. He never tore his gaze from the king's.
"Arthur...I can't...I don't know how to reply to this."
"Don't." The king looked away, out the window, wincing and massaging his knee. "Just...will you forgive me?"
There was a long, tense silence, peppered only by rain and flame. Arthur watched Merlin blankly, yet anxiously, for an answer.
The servant shrugged, grinning. "Sure. Why not?"
Relief washed over Arthur's face, and he smiled, harrumphing and tasting the wine. "Good enough for me." He paused. "...My offer still stands."
Merlin turned away. Retirement? Free of the shackles of Arthur's hard treatment? No more boot polish or filthy, sweaty clothes or waking up early to fetch his hearty breakfast? It sounded like a dream come true, a real temptation. He could go live in Ealdor, and use the small but humble salary he earned to buy his own house, a horse, maybe some chickens and then...
And then...what? Live the last of his days growing old and fat in blissful oblivion? Cut himself off from the turmoil of King Arthur's existence? Throw away the chance to ever have to fight for his own neck, or save the king's skin, or rid Camelot of some dark plague birthed of magic, ever again? It was all he really knew now; it was practically his life...
Quickly, the dream blooming into reality instead twisted into a nightmare.
Merlin turned back to Arthur. "I'd rather die."
The king laughed, loudly and jovially. "I'll never understand you, Merlin. Never."
"That's probably why I'm still alive."
Arthur laughed again, even if he didn't interpret the servant's words correctly. When he stopped, Merlin spoke once more.
"I am serious though. I can't imagine my life anywhere but here."
Merlin ignored that. "I know I've never said it, but I am honoured to be your servant. You are a good man, Arthur. There is a king in you, a greater king than Albion has ever known. And soon, you'll see so for yourself." He faced away from Arthur's calm, contemplative expression and continued to work on the sword.
Once more, they listened to the sky's tears of gaiety, studiously choosing their next words. None came for a while.
Merlin lifted the gleaming blade, catching his reflection in the silver steel and frowning. He turned his wrist and felt the edges with his free hand. Not quite done.
"I just remembered," said Arthur suddenly, and the warlock looked to him inquiringly. "You are still due for a holiday. That last one...wasn't really..." He scowled thoughtfully at the ceiling. "I think you're owed a week or so."
"No, no, no, I don't think so. I think, for all I've done, I should get three weeks." Again Merlin glanced at his reflection in the sword, tracing the furrows that were his scars with his single-eyed gaze. "You're just trying to stub me because you could barely survive three days without me."
Arthur took a sip of wine, not looking away from his servant. He grimaced. "You really are an ugly bastard."
Merlin clucked his tongue, and proceeded to slide the whetstone along the blade. "You know what they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
₪ † ₪
"Where the hell do you think you're going?"
Merlin led his horse out of the glade and tightened the girth before checking the saddlebags. "I'm going with you."
"Like hell you are." Arthur untied Noble, his roan stallion, from the birch tree and prepared to mount. He felt guilty, even though it had been nearly a month, every time he saw the ghastly scars around Merlin's left eye. He could see from it, at least, but he was still disfigured. Arthur will forever have it on his conscience, which is why, now, he wanted the servant to remain in Camelot, safe within its walls. "I ordered you to stay here."
"To 'hell' with your orders," Merlin countered. "It's my holiday and I'm going with you."
Arthur glowered at him from his seat in the saddle. "You can just never do as you're told, can you?"
Merlin shook his head and mounted the grey steed. "Better luck teaching a badger to sing. Besides, Severus is a sorcerer. I've seen you fight sorcerers: you're no good at it."
"Oh, and I suppose you know all about it," said the king casually, with a mocking nod. "I see. Well, I hope you didn't let anyone follow you here. I don't want a whole bleeding legion—"
"Hey, yoo-hoo! Wait for me!"
"What is this?" Arthur snarled as yet a third companion cantered from the trees between them and Camelot.
"Whoo, that was close. I thought I was going to miss catching you." Gwaine stopped his horse near the king's, already suited up for a long journey.
"He would be as good as any legion," Merlin muttered, mouth twitching.
"What are you doing?" Arthur demanded of the knight.
Gwaine raised his eyebrows. "Well, I couldn't let you two rip Morgrim to shreds without me, now could I?"
"Yes, you could," replied Arthur tightly, glaring darts at his grinning servant.
Merlin shrugged. "I didn't mean for him to come. He followed me!"
"Just like ol' times, mates!" said the ruffian knight merrily, throwing an arm around Arthur's shoulders, an awkward gesture considering that they were on separate horses. "You, the cyclops, and darling, dashing me on a world-wide adventure into the untamed wild, facing monsters and foul sorcerers at every turn!" He drew his sword and held it high. "On the trail we blaze—!"
"Yeah, yeah, sounds epic." Arthur shrugged off Gwaine's embrace, disgruntled and scowling. He couldn't fool the others though. Arthur was pleased for the companionship, as always, and they knew it. "Just as long as—"
Thunder, and then a synchronized, "Oi!"
Arthur's head flopped back sluggishly and he stared at the sky. "You've got to be kidding me."
Leon, Percival, and Elyan pulled up their charging steeds, halting the thunder and smiling like fools.
"What are you all doing here?" the king demanded, just as he did Gwaine.
"Visiting my sick aunt, your majesty," said Elyan.
"Delivering a letter, sire," replied Percival with a nod.
"Picking flowers, my lord," Leon finished, bowing in the saddle.
Merlin grinned as Arthur's face went as flat as the horizon. When that deadpan expression fell on him, he burst out laughing, his sides heaving until they ached. It didn't take long for the others – besides Arthur – to join him wholeheartedly.
"You aren't going anywhere without us, your royal hiney," hooted Gwaine, and finally, the king could not withhold a smile of his own. He looked to Merlin again, who shrugged a shoulder and then nodded reassuringly.
"Shall we?" Gwaine lifted an arm, hand towards the west.
Arthur glanced between his oldest friends, his loyal brothers in arms and his faithful servant, who have shed blood and toiled tirelessly with him, for him, and knew that he couldn't be more content.
"Nothing would honour me more," replied the king, bowing his head.
The company of six turned and rode their horses away from the rising sun, to fulfil sworn oaths and sate vengeful justice, together. High above them, a white dragon circled on the morning breeze, bugling a welcome to the dawn.