The quiet, hesitant word barely filtered through into his sleeping brain, and he felt no inclination to respond to the summons.
"Your Majesty? You have left standing orders to be woken at this time every morning..."
The voice was polite and deferential, and it grated on his nerves, dragged him rudely from blissful unconsciousness. He cracked open an eye.
"Good morning, King Arthur."
The servant was unfamiliar, but he worn the same expression Arthur had seen all too many times; it was a mixture of reverence, fear and relief, common to all namby-pamby spineless bootlickers.
He grunted with annoyance.
"Breakfast is on the table for you, sire, and I have laid out your clothes for today-"
"Where's Merlin?" he interrupted.
The servant froze and gaped at him.
"Well?" Arthur prompted impatiently.
"Merlin, that no good, lazy layabout manservant of mine," Arthur elaborated, allowing the irritation to weigh heavily in his words. "Where is he?"
"Sire, he's – he's-"
"Stop stammering and spit it out," Arthur ordered.
The servant closed his eyes, as though silently beseeching protection from an unknown deity. When he opened them again, the resignation of a man about to die showed in their depths.
Arthur had a sudden flash of memory. Blue eyes gazing up at him, bearing that same emotion but with greater certainty. Arthur abruptly changed his mind – he didn't want the servant to answer his question. But it was already too late.
"Arthur, look out!"
He began to spin, searching for the danger, but something ploughed into him before he had the chance, knocking him to the ground.
There was a sickening crunch of metal impacting flesh and bone. A scream of unbridled agony rent the air.
Arthur rolled back to his feet, instinctively bring up his sword just in time to block the mace that had been swinging down on him. A swift twist tangled the chain, enabling him to yank it from the bandit's grip and fling it off to the side.
The man's lip curled in a snarl, and he lunged forward with a dagger.
A quick deflection and Arthur embedded his own blade into the man's gut, using a boot to push the dead weight off his weapon moments later.
He glanced up, searching for further threats. The knights were having no trouble routing the last of the enemy, and Arthur felt the grim sense of victory.
Then his gaze fell on the man who lay, unmoving, at his feet.
"Merlin," he drawled, half in exasperation and half in amusement. "This is hardly an appropriate time or place to catch up on sleep."
His servant didn't reply, so Arthur used the toe of his boot to flip the young man over onto his back, intending to startle him awake.
Merlin's head lolled. His body remained limp.
Arthur realised that the perpetual red of his servant's shirt had been stained a darker crimson that was still spreading.
Arthur dropped to his knees – intentionally, he told himself, not because his legs had given way beneath him.
"Merlin," he croaked. He must have lost his voice from yelling out so many orders during the course of the battle. He tried again. "Merlin." Dammit, his voice kept breaking. "Merlin!" he barked, trying to make it sound more like a command and less like a desperate plea.
His hands were moving of their own accord, patting Merlin's cheek, tugging lightly on his ear, trying to coax him into waking. There was an unbidden tremble in them that no amount of stubborn willpower could still.
His eyes were drawn down, away from the ashen face of his servant, to his weakly stuttering chest.
The shock of seeing the horrible, gaping wound was not lessened the second time. Arthur could barely move, barely think for the blinding panic that gripped him.
Finally, an eternity later, training kicked in.
Arthur ripped Merlin's shirt open, and the damage done to it by the mace made the task easy. Clear of fabric, the injury looked even worse.
Arthur's own cloak was torn off in an instant, wadded and pressed tightly against the wound to try to stem the rapid flow of blood. A traitorous part of his mind whispered that too much had been lost already, that his efforts were too little, too late.
"Don't you dare, Merlin. I did not give you permission to quit your job. In fact, I forbid it." The stern tone he was aiming for faltered. "Stay with me."
He pressed harder, ignoring the dampness he could feel against his skin – and Merlin gave a choked cry, blue eyes flashing open. They were filled with such pain and anguish that Arthur's heart wrenched in sympathy.
"Merlin, I'm sorry." Oh god, never had he meant it more. "I'm sorry."
Those blue eyes sought him out, flitting around uncertainly until they found his face.
"Ar- thur." His voice was barely audible, so tired, so broken. "Ar- thur?"
"Yes, you idiot," Arthur said gently.
Arthur was hurt that Merlin could think he was lying at a time like this. "Of course I'm sorry! You pushed me out of the way, Merlin; you saved my life!"
A faint glimmer of an amused smile touched his lips. "I know...Arthur... but... I am not sorry...I did it... would do it again... in a heartbeat-" His words cut off, his back arching off the ground as a spasm of pain gripped him. A whimper escaped when he collapsed back onto the bed of dirt and fallen leaves, his face twisted in agony. A tear slipped down his cheek.
Arthur couldn't bear it, seeing him suffer like this. He wanted to curl into a ball and howl at the sky, railing against the inevitable, but he had to stay strong for Merlin. "It is going to be okay. We'll get you to Gaius; you're going to be fine."
Merlin's attempt at a laugh ended up as a hacking cough. Blood bubbled from his lips. "...may not... be a physician, but... after watching Gaius work... I know... when there's nothing... that can be done..." he wheezed. "Besides... can see it in your eyes... wound is fatal. I'm dying."
"Always... arguing with me..." Merlin exhaled, smiling despite the pain. "...so stubborn...even when... know I'm right..."
"You are never right," Arthur sniffed.
"Yes, I...am... all the time... you're just... too proud... to admit it..."
"Well, you're wrong now," Arthur insisted. "You can't die, Merlin, and do you know why?"
Merlin shook his head weakly, humouring him as he always did.
"Because you still have tons of chores to do for me when we get back to Camelot. My armour will need polishing, my chambers cleaning, my stable mucked out-"
A bout of violent coughing interrupted him, and Arthur felt helpless.
"Sorry, sire," Merlin gasped. "Afraid... going to... disappoint you...again... You will have to get... someone else to... do it for you... someone new."
"I don't want someone new," Arthur said, sounding petulant but speaking the truth. "The position is filled already. By a friend of mine."
A glow of affection entered Merlin's eyes, but it was shadowed by sadness. "Not for... much longer."
"Don't talk like that," Arthur ordered. Definitely ordered, not begged.
"'s okay, Arthur..." Merlin slurred, his mind beginning to fog with pain. "'s long as you're safe. Had to... had to protect you... Be a great king... one day... unite Albion... Promise me that... you will always be... fair...and just... Listen to... your people... And don't take after... your father... too much..."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Arthur asked with mock gruffness, although he thought he might already understand. Uther had been a strong king, but he had also been ruthless, blinded by his all-consuming hatred for magic. Some of his actions had been brutal and unfair. Merlin had no need to worry, though; Arthur did not intend to repeat his father's mistakes.
Merlin's lips twitched. "I know... you'll do the right thing, Arthur... I believe in you. Trust yourself... as much as I... trust you... and you'll be fine."
"Is this you trying to be wise again?" Arthur teased, even as he tried not to think about how much this sounded as though Merlin was passing on the last words of advice he would ever give.
"One of us... has to be..." Merlin quipped tiredly, his eyelids beginning to droop closed.
Frantic, Arthur tapped Merlin's cheek, gently but insistently. "No, no, Merlin, stay with me." He barely contained the 'please', though he thought his friend might have heard it anyway.
Those blue orbs flickered back into view, and Merlin gazed up into Arthur's concerned eyes. His expression was more resigned now, as though he realised his fate was fast approaching.
"I wish... that I could... sire. I would have... served you gladly... until we were both old and grey... But this is okay. I don't mind... so much."
His breathing was becoming more ragged, strained. Arthur could tell that every word was hurting him, but even being mortally wounded apparently couldn't stop Merlin from talking.
"...just... look after Gaius... for me, will you?"
Arthur felt a deep pang in his chest at the thought of how much grief Gaius would feel at his ward's passing. Losing Merlin would break the old man's heart.
"Of course I will," Arthur assured him, struggling to keep his voice steady.
Merlin gave a faint nod of gratitude. "And be good...to Gwen."
"I will," Arthur said again.
"And Arthur... take..." His words faded, becoming so quiet that Arthur couldn't hear them properly. He leaned closer.
"Take care of yourself," Merlin exhaled.
Arthur nodded wordlessly, not trusting himself to speak. He could tell that this was the most important thing Merlin had wanted to say, because when he received the unspoken promise in return the strain left him. His face relaxed, became peaceful.
Arthur realised with horror that Merlin wasn't fighting anymore. He was losing him.
The reply was long in coming, and Arthur stopped breathing for fear he would miss it, or worse, that it would never come at all.
It was hardly a whisper, but it was enough. Merlin was still with him. Arthur still had time. It wasn't too late.
"I just wanted you to know that..." God, why was it so hard? "...that you weren't such a terrible servant after all."
No, he could do better than that. Merlin deserved better.
"You were so brave, and so loyal. You stuck by me even when I was being a... a clotpole, and a prat." Arthur laughed quietly, in spite of himself. Only Merlin had the courage to call him those names to his face.
"Our banter always brightened up my day, and you relieved the tedium of formal court proceedings or long banquet speeches by being your usual self. I think at first I just kept you around for the entertainment.
"But you proved to be worth much more than that. I never expected it to happen, but you became my closest friend, my most trusted confidant. You were there for me during the darkest times of my life, and you always seemed to know the right thing to say. You were my strength. You gave me hope.
"I don't think I ever told you how much I enjoy your company and value your advice. I know a lot of the time I treated you rotten, and it looked like I wasn't listening to you, but so much of that was me just trying to keep up appearances. It was still wrong of me, and I'm sorry.
"I hope you know... I hope you know how much you mean to me. How much I'll- miss you." His voice broke, but he forced himself to keep going.
"I guess this is just my long, roundabout way of saying... Thank you, Merlin. Thank you for everything."
He closed his eyes against the tears that threatened. "Thank you for saving my life."
Arthur looked down at his friend, even though he could see that he was fading and the sight was breaking his heart.
Mustering the last of his strength, Merlin lifted his arm from the ground and, with a gentle sigh, let his hand settle over Arthur's own. A soft smile graced his lips.
"You... were... worth... the... sacrifice... my friend."
"He's dead, sire."
Arthur knew that. He remembered now.
Merlin had died in his arms.
He had hoped that it was just a particularly bad dream, and still half expected to see Merlin come stumbling in through the door, apologising for being late again.
But Merlin didn't, and he wouldn't.
Merlin was gone.
He couldn't recall much of the ride back to Camelot; only that he had refused to allow anyone else to touch the body or take it from him. His horse had borne the extra weight without a fuss and just followed the other horses without needing direction, allowing Arthur to sit there in a numb haze, cradling his friend against his chest.
He was not sure if anyone had tried to speak to him; if they had, he did not know what they had said and did not much care.
He dimly remembered seeing Gwen's face, expressing first puzzlement, and then growing horror. He remembered the heart-rending cry of grief that had escaped her lips, but there were no words of comfort he could offer.
He remembered Gaius stumbling out of the castle and down the steps, in a terrible, desperate rush to reach the boy who had been like a son to him and somehow fix the irreparable damage.
The look on his face when he realised it was too late...
It would haunt Arthur to his grave.
Arthur had finally relinquished his charge to the boy's guardian, and retreated to his chambers, needing to be alone.
No one bothered him.
After long, silent hours spent trying to was the blood off his hands, trying to control and repress the grief that was ripping his insides to shreds, Arthur had fallen asleep.
But now this servant, thinking to be Merlin's replacement and falling dismally short of the bar, had woken him up.
Life goes on, he seemed to be saying silently as he stared at his king. You are still the King of Camelot. You cannot neglect your duties. Those few hours of private mourning yesterday should have been sufficient. You should be over it by now.
Merlin was just a servant.
Just a serving boy, as Uther had called him. A nobody whose life was worth less than Arthur's, just because of the accident of birth.
Merlin had never seemed to care that Arthur was a prince. He had never seemed to treat him any differently because he wore the crown.
But the truth had always been there for Arthur to see if he looked hard enough.
Merlin had valued Arthur's life more than his own. He had risked everything for Arthur time and time again, and yesterday he had paid the ultimate price.
"You were worth the sacrifice, my friend."
Arthur didn't feel worth it. Never more than in that moment had Arthur ever wished that he was nothing more than a simple peasant.
"You are going to be king," Uther had told him sternly. "This boy won't be the last person to die for you. It is just something you are going to have to get used to."
Arthur hadn't wanted to accept it back then, and even less so now.
It wasn't right that such a good, kind, funny, warm-hearted person should have to die for him.
Arthur's chest ached. He could feel the tears threatening again.
But as he told all his young knights, no man was worth their tears.
No man was worth his tears, especially since his were tears of a king.
Everyone expected him to be strong, unbreakable.
He was supposed to move on from this easily, accepting Merlin's loss as just another casualty of war.
So he boarded up his heart and plastered an emotionless mask on his face.
He ate his breakfast mechanically, and he allowed the servant to dress him for the day.
He went about his duties as if nothing had happened, going through all the motions of being king that were expected of him.
He told himself that he didn't feel anything. Nothing had changed.
His grief was shoved back into the smallest and darkest recesses of his mind.
No one could understand what he had lost. The pain was his to bear alone, and he had to bear it in silence.
Merlin had been a hero to the last, but no one cared about his passing. It was just another day in Camelot.
... Or so he thought.
Until, late in the afternoon, he walked out onto one of the upper parapets, needing peace, quiet and fresh air.
From his vantage point he looked down into the central courtyard, staring without truly seeing. But then his gaze was caught on a blue neckerchief fluttering in the wind.
Sir Gwaine stepped away, a hammer in hand, from the post that he must have erected himself because it certainly had not been there before. Words that Arthur could not hear fluttered across his lips, and Gwaine bowed his head. His body shuddered – with sobs, Arthur realised.
Guinevere came out into the courtyard, carrying a large bouquet of flowers. She laid them at the foot of the post, and then moved to stand at Gwaine's side, also bowing her head.
Sir Leon was the next to join them. He laid down a heavily dented training shield.
Sir Elyan came out, too, bearing a battered tin bowl and spoon that Arthur recognised to be from their travel packs.
Sir Percival offered a broken lance, which Arthur thought might have been the same weapon that Lancelot had used to kill the Gryffin those many years ago.
Gaius walked toward the post slowly, his back bowed under the weight of his grief. He brought with him a small, carved statue, and kneeled to set it down carefully. Arthur was too far away to see it properly, but he thought it had wings. The knights helped Gaius to his feet, and Gwen put an arm around his shoulders to support him as they both cried.
Hours passed, the sun slipped towards the horizon, and more and more people filled the courtyard. It had started among those who had joined Arthur at the round table, but had rapidly expanded out to the servants of the castle, the other knights, the common soldiers, and finally the general populace.
Everyone who came brought something with them, mostly flowers, but sometimes letters or other items that had personal significance.
The memorial was growing.
As darkness began to creep over the city, candles began to emerge and soon the courtyard was lit by the glow from hundreds of tiny flames.
Arthur had witnessed a tribute like this for his father, and had been told of one held for himself when he had lain dying, but neither could truly compare.
He had no idea that Merlin, his unassuming manservant, had managed to touch so many lives.
He was not alone in his grief after all.
Arthur finally abandoned his position upon the parapet and went down to be among his people.
They parted for him, murmuring condolences and words of comfort. Some touched his arms or shoulders as he passed, wordlessly offering their support, and it meant more to him than they could possibly know or he could possibly express.
He walked with his back straight and his head held high, his face solemn and composed.
As he approached the memorial, he didn't know what he was going to do. Did they expect a speech from him? Some sort of grand gift or gesture?
He tried to think of what he could possibly offer in tribute to this great man, this loyal servant, this beloved friend. A hundred and one ideas passed through his mind, but nothing seemed good enough. He could not think of anything he could offer to Merlin that would be worthy of his friendship and his sacrifice.
He reached his destination, the fringes of the memorial, and he stopped, dimly aware of his company of the round table stepping back to give him more room.
He paused, and there was an expectant hush, as though something grand and momentous was about to occur.
But he had nothing to give.
I'm sorry, Merlin.
His eyes were drawn to the blue neckerchief, nailed to the top of the post, fluttering gently in the breeze.
Merlin was gone.
Sadness welled up within him, and his eyes burned.
Out of force of habit, he tried to repress the tears.
No man was worth his tears. That was the motto he lived by. It gave him strength, and the ability to carry on.
He had lost so many, and he did not cry for any of them.
What made Merlin any different?
But the answer rose to his mind easily, as though he'd always known.
The dam burst.
And Arthur, King of Camelot, broke down in the face of his grief for a lost friend.
Because no one was worth his tears.
No one, except for one man.