And here it is, folks. The final chapter. Sorry it took so long. I hope you've liked it, and I want to thank you so much for sticking with me for all of this. Enjoy!
The king made his way through the woods towards the gleaming surface of the lake. He could hear his servant's voice, even from this far off. He was chattering away about something, and a quiet laugh followed after a brief moment's silence.
Arthur had known Merlin would need this today of all days. So the previous night, he had told the warlock to leave. He was dismissed early to speak to whomever he felt needed to be spoken to. After the younger man had thanked him and left for his evening off, Arthur had mentioned to Leon that perhaps Merlin should visit his friend in the lake. He felt it wasn't his place to mention her himself since it was his fault she was trapped there in the first place. He knew Merlin had forgiven him, but he also knew from experience that that did not necessarily mean it didn't still hurt.
And Leon had understood, slipping out of the room to make the suggestion to Merlin privately. Within the hour, the servant had been spotted riding out of the city in the direction of Lake Avalon.
The king was not surprised to hear that he had not returned yet when George brought his breakfast bright and early the next morning. He ordered his horse be saddled while he dressed—which, despite what Merlin thought, he was perfectly capable of—then rode out after him. There were still hours before he was to hold court, plenty of time to find his servant and bring him home, so his ride had been leisurely. There was still over an hour before noon when he caught the first glimpse of the water. And the first echo of laughter.
Now, he slid out of his saddle and tied his horse with Merlin's before stepping onto the shore. His friend was floating on his back, lazily drifting across the surface of the lake. His eyes were closed against the light of the sun as he finished his story.
"-and the last scarf was in the chimney. The chimney! I could have set it on fire!"
A bout of musical laughter seemed to rise from the water. A woman's laughter. It came from a young woman floating, just visible, under the surface. Judging by the way Merlin's hand dipped beneath the water, Arthur guessed they were holding hands.
"Well, I say you deserve it, using them to take each other down."
"Aw, Freya! You're supposed to be on my side!"
The girl, Freya, giggled, and it sent a series of ripples to the shore. "Sorry, Merlin." Her voice was deeper than Arthur had expected. But she sounded kind, and kindness was good for Merlin, especially today. After letting them be for a few moments more (it felt wrong to interrupt), Arthur felt that he would have liked Freya, had circumstances been different. But today was not a day for guilt.
He was about to call for Merlin—they really should be heading back—when the servant lifted his free hand out of the water. It held a rose, a small, red, delicate blossom that he must have just conjured up.
"Would you like a strawberry?" Merlin smiled gently at Freya as a soft silence fell over the water. After a moment, a delicate hand emerged to reach for the rose. No, Arthur realized, it hadn't quite left the water. A thin layer coated her skin as she took the flower and pulled it to her chest.
Only once she had cradled it close against herself did she reply in a gently tease, "One day, Merlin, you'll actually master that spell."
Merlin's smile turned to a grin. "Who says I haven't?" He offered his hand again, and this time, it held a small strawberry. "I learned it for you." The slender hand took the fruit and Arthur thought that for a moment the layer of water receded just long enough for their hands to touch. He couldn't help a small smile. "Don't get any ideas!" Merlin's voice was suddenly louder, and the king realized he was looking right at him. "I'm not summoning out of season fruit just because your highness' tummy gets rumbly."
Arthur rolled his eyes and decided to ignore him. "You do know you're late, don't you? You should have been on your way at least an hour ago."
Merlin blinked and looked up at the sky, muttering a surprised, "Oh," before rolling out of his float.
"Yes, Merlin, oh." He smiled slightly. "We need to get back to Camelot. You can come back later if you must."
Merlin stood, but looked back down at the water where Arthur knew Freya must be, and Arthur turned away to saddle the servant's horse and give the two a moment alone. He was careful to avoid eavesdropping this time as Merlin said his goodbyes just as he knew Merlin had done for him and Gwen time and time again when he went off to fight.
It only took a few minutes before Merlin made his way to Arthur's side, now fully dressed. The king offered his servant the reins. "I am sorry to drag you away. But I couldn't imagine you'd want to miss today."
"No, of course not," the servant replied as he mounted up. "I wouldn't miss this for the world." After a pause, he added, "How did you know I would be late?"
Arthur grinned as he nudged his horse into motion. "You're you. You're always late."
"Yes, Merlin. Always."
The two men reached Camelot after a couple of hours of leisurely riding. Arthur would hold court in a little over an hour, and then allow time for the citizens of Camelot to hold audience before the feast and celebration. Was that enough time to get ready?
Arthur took the horses to the stable himself after ordering Merlin to arrange a hot bath "as quickly as you can, however you see fit". The servant had run off without comment, but did not bother to hide his grin. As soon as the King handed off the reigns to a stable hand, he started off for his chambers. He ran into Gwaine first.
"Arthur! Can I speak with you?" The king sighed—he needed to be getting ready—but turned to his knight. "I just want you to know how much the people are talking. Commoners and nobleman alike."
"Is the talk positive?"
"Most of it is, believe it or not. Most of the negative stuff is the old coots who would disagree with everything you say just because 'the old ways are the best ways and I don't actually know what we're talking about." Gwaine smiled and nudged his friend. "This is good, Arthur. For Camelot, and for Merlin. I've seen him smiling more this week than in the previous months combined. And that's saying something."
Arthur nodded, letting a small smile slip out to match Gwaine's own. "It is."
"Well, you need to get yourself ready. I just thought you ought to hear. Now go on, princess. Get all prettied up." His smile turned wry and he ran off to join a waiting Percival.
Arthur rolled his eyes but took advantage and finally left for his room. Fortunately for Merlin, there was a full, steaming tub of water waiting for him. The manservant appeared after a moment with a towel, dropped it on the stool beside the tub, and started to undress his master.
Gwaine was right, Arthur thought absently as he stepped out of his trousers. Merlin hadn't stopped grinning in over a week. He had also, of course, been extraordinarily worried. Arthur completely understood. He also knew that he was lucky that, between the two drastic emotions, Merlin was still managing to complete all of his chores. Well. Most of them. He had never been very good at finishing them all. At least he was consistent with his incompetence.
As the king stepped into the tub to wash, he asked, "Do you really think Camelot is ready for this? I know I've made some changes before, but it's one thing to decide who I can marry or who can be a knight, but another thing entirely to—"
Arthur cut himself off and dipped beneath the water to wet his hair. When he surfaced again, he asked, "How do you know?"
"Because I know that all of your people have lived in fear for decades now. Fear of your father. Fear of you. Of others. It's time they get peace." Merlin said it casually, as if it weren't the core of Arthur's arguments to the council for months. As if it didn't mean the world to him. "Because it's not just people like me that were afraid, either. It was everyone. So to help everyone, we need to get rid of the source of that fear."
"You know, Merlin, at this rate, you might just earn yourself a promotion. Especially if you keep sounding smarter than you are."
Merlin sorted, moving the towel to the bed and sitting on the stool to start washing Arthur's hair. "A promotion? To what, head launderer? Perhaps the steward, so I could be in charge of making sure the whole castle gets clean, instead of just your rooms?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Or maybe I'll just demote you. Make you clean the dungeons where no one would ever have to see you. No, that wouldn't work. You'd just befriend all the prisoners. Sneak them the good food. Help them escape."
"Oh come on, Arthur. I've only done that maybe a handful of times. And maybe four of them, it was me escaping. And it always worked out, didn't it?" He shoved Arthur's shoulder lightly.
Arthur gave his friend a very pointed look. "You've turned breaking into and out of my dungeons a hobby."
"It's not a hobby," the younger man grumbled as he rinsed Arthur's hair, then used magic to retrieve the towel from the bed. "And it was aways necessary. You know that."
"Yes, I do. But it really needs to stop."
"Fine. Then stop arresting the wrong people."
"What do you think I'm trying to do?"
Merlin opened his mouth to argue, then thought better of it. "Yes, I suppose you are trying." And just like that, the grin was back.
Arthur couldn't help the small smile that crossed his lips in response, even when Merlin helped him from the tub. The king watched as the warlock lay out his best clothes and ceremonial sword, and he dried himself off. It wouldn't be long now.
Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot, strode through the crowd of lords and ladies of his court and noticed that the servants from all over the castle had lined the walls. His queen stood on the dais at the front of the room before her own throne. Leon, in his role of head knight, stood just to the right of the dais, and Gwaine, his second, was just to Guinevere's left. Everything was in place as Arthur stepped up and turned to face his court. That is, except for Merlin. He wasn't in his normal place by Gaius.
After a moment's search, Arthur spotted his friend in the back of the room, muttering to the herald at the door. Who knew what he was doing? But Arthur didn't have time to worry about that as he waved Geoffrey of Monmouth forward so he would be ready when he was required.
"People of Camelot," the King began, "I want to share with you this day of incredible change. For nearly thirty years, there has been a group of our citizens who have lived every day in fear for their lives. They have hidden themselves away because my father feared and hated them. He created a law that made it easy for us to fear and hate them as well, which only drove them further away. But today is they day we begin to set things right. We will work hard as a noble people to welcome these men and women back into our society. This begins by eliminating the main cause for their fear—having a penalty for their existence. Today we free them again. Today, we free magic. Lord Geoffrey?"
The record keeper bowed his head, then held out the newly written law. After adjusting the distance of his hand for a few moments, he began to read it aloud to the court. Arthur mostly tuned it out. He had already heard each detail hundreds of times as he and his council had argued over them. It outlined that magic itself was no longer illegal, nor were the sorcerers who used it. It was, however, illegal to use magic to commit any other crime. If someone was caught doing so, the punishments would be no more severe than they would have been if magic had not been used.
Some of the council had asked for harsher punishments for criminals who used magic. They said the sorcerers were using magic because they knew no one would be able to fight it and therefore were crueler. Arthur had argued that it was no different from using a blade. Fear was an advantage that not only sorcerers used. It took weeks for that aspect to be settled. There were, of course, measures to be taken to contain sorcerers. Arthur made sure of that, thanks to Merlin's many stories of escape. Arthur had sought Gaius out for ways to hold sorcerers without causing them unnecessary pain or going so far as to remove their magic. The physician had a collection of runes to bind magic that could be put on chains or on cell doors. He, Arthur, and Merlin had tested their effectiveness on Merlin in private one afternoon. The servant had complained all day, but the runes and spells had held out and done their job. Merlin's magic was still there, but Merlin couldn't get ahold of it to use it.
As Geoffrey continued to read off the new laws, Arthur glanced around the room. He saw plenty of practiced, politely blank stares as the lords, ladies, and servants hid their thoughts on the changes. However, there were also a few who didn't bother to hide. The scowls mostly belonged to the older lords of the council who had been Uther's men and had fought this law the whole way. There were a couple of scattered frowns. That was to be expected. These people had been told to fear magic for nearly thirty years. It would be difficult to change their minds overnight.
But there were also those who were grinning or hiding smiles. Gaius was one. Gwaine, another. Lord Taron was doing his best to control his smile. Arthur remembered that Taron's youngest brother had left Camelot to travel years ago. Rumors had sprung up that the young man had actually left to keep his magic from being noticed. There had never been any confirmation, but their father had suddenly become very determined to cozy up to Uther. Arthur wondered if the brother would be returning home soon. He hoped so.
As Geoffrey read over his summation of the law, Arthur caught sight of Merlin grinning at him from the back of the room. Even at this distance, he could see the younger man bouncing on the balls of his feet. The king ducked his head slightly to hide his smile. When he heard the record keeper finish the last of it, Arthur stepped forward once more.
"People of Camelot, today is a day of celebration as we welcome magic back to our courts and our land. I hope you will all join me in this celebration." He bowed his head toward the people before him, and the crowd lowered themselves in bows and curtsies.
As they straightened, a voice—Leon's? Gwaine's? Possibly both of their's—called out, "Long live the king!" The rest of the crowd joined in for the second cry.
Arthur stopped them with a raised hand a moment or two later to open the court to anyone who sought an audience. As his group of lords, ladies, and knights parted, Merlin made his way forward as the first in line to speak with his king.
He stood tall at the front of the room and bowed low before his king—a move Arthur was sure he must have practiced. "Your Majesty," Merlin began, speaking formally for possibly the first time in his life, "as you said, today is a day of celebration for Camelot. But it is especially so for those with magic." There was a slight pause, a moment's hesitation, and Arthur thought that Merlin might actually be nervous. But then he began again. "For people like me." As many lords and ladies began muttering to themselves—some shocked, some confused, some outraged—Merlin raised his voice to be heard. "I was born a sorcerer, sire, and bore that weight and that fear my entire life. But now that magic is free, I can do with it what I was meant to."
Arthur nodded his head slightly. "And what were you meant to do with your magic?"
"Protect you, sire. As I have many times before in many different ways." The sorcerer met the king's eyes and slowly knelt before him. "My lord, I am before you today to swear an oath to you. Like your knights, I want it known that I hold loyalty to you and your kingdom and that I will do everything in my power to protect you." He held Arthur's gaze a moment longer, then bowed his head and extended his hand before him as the knights extended their swords, offering his magic to Arthur in trust.
The throne room was silent as everyone watched for Arthur's response. For a long moment, he didn't move. He had to take the time to appreciate what Merlin was doing. He was setting himself up for public scrutiny as a precedent. The first sorcerer known in the court. And the first thing he had done was pledge loyalty to the crown. People would be watching him now, and Arthur of all people knew how much Merlin hated to be in the public eye. But he also knew that Merlin would be willing to put himself through the hardships ahead to prove that magic didn't need to be feared. Arthur stepped forward but didn't take the offered hand. "Who is it that pledges loyalty to me today?"
Merlin looked up at him and blinked in confusion, but Arthur could see the exact moment Merlin understood what he wanted. "Merlin, Your Majesty. Merlin, son of Hunith and Balinor. I am the last Dragonlord by birthright." A few quiet gasps spread through the room, but Merlin continued. "The Druids know me as Emrys, one who is destined to protect you and bring Camelot into its golden age. I offer all of the power I possess to Arthur Pendragon to protect and obey him." He bowed his head once more.
The name Emrys was already being spread among the older crowd and those who were well read. Soon, neighboring kingdoms would hear the name. Those who knew it would be warier when it came to dealings with Camelot.
Arthur took another step forward and placed a hand on Merlin's to be kissed. "I accept your pledge of loyalty, and make one of my own in return, to you and others like you. So long as you protect this kingdom, I will protect you." He could see the smile as Merlin leaned down to kiss the ring on Arthur's finger, though he could feel a slight trembling in the hand supporting his.
"Your pledge satisfies me, my lord." The words were familiar to the king, having heard them from all of his knights when they vowed service in their official knighthood ceremonies.
Arthur smiled and stepped back. "Rise Merlin, son of Hunith and Balinor."
"Wait." Arthur and Merlin both paused, glancing over at Guinevere as she stepped forward. "Merlin, your king has accepted your pledge of protection and loyalty with one of his own." There was a pause, and Arthur couldn't help a flutter of nerves. He knew that Guinevere had made a point to leave Merlin alone since she had found out about his magic. What was she planning now? "However, I think we must acknowledge what you have done. You will be watched and judged by those around you. There will be those who hate you for who you are. Do you understand this?"
There was only a slight hesitation before Merlin nodded, and replied, "I do, Your Highness."
"And yet, you made this pledge anyway, by your own choice."
"I did, Your Majesty."
Silence filled the room for a long moment, and Arthur observed the crowd. Everyone watched the conversation with interest, and he noticed the moment of recognition on some of their faces as they realized exactly what Merlin had done. What he had sacrificed. Even Elyan wore an expression of grudging respect.
Guinevere wore a small smile when he turned back to her. "Then I, too, accept your pledge of loyalty, and make one of my own, to you and others like you. Rise, Merlin of Camelot."
Merlin beamed up at her, then seemed to actually hear what she'd asked. He tried to school his expression into something more appropriate and obeyed. "Thank you, Your Majesties." Then he stepped out of the way to take his normal place by Gaius.
Arthur smiled softly at Gwen, then welcomed anyone else to come before him.
When no one did, he led his way out to speak to the rest of the citizens and start the real celebration. Merlin took up his place right beside him wearing the biggest smile Arthur thought he'd ever seen.