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Damn. Guess this is it. Six months, thirty chapters and lots and lots of words...I'm actually struggling to think of something to say. *Sniffs* ...What? I ain't crying! There's onions everywhere. Sheesh! Talk about jumping to conclusions.
But really, mates, I don't know what to say. Just...thank you. For everything.
~30~ All Will be Well
Arthur felt feverish. He struggled to say awake as Gaius gave him something for the pain, set his wrist and cleaned the blood from his flesh wounds, not to mention bind the bite on his neck. The physician had told him it was okay to sleep now, but Arthur didn't want to. He wanted, needed, to see his servant.
Merlin had curled into a ball beneath the sheets, shaking like a leaf in a tempest. Beads of sweat tried to prove that he had been out in the rain. As Gaius removed the poultice from his neck, the raw, angry wound that was the vampyric bite was revealed in all its grotesqueness, the source of Merlin's pain.
Arthur stayed by the physician's side as he fixed a new application to the bite. More cheer would be found in a graveyard than in the king's features.
"Gaius?" he asked quietly, clearing his throat as his voice cracked. His own wounds were cared for, but it was clear that he had it easy compared to the servant. "Are...are people...affected by bites like this?"
The aged physician turned to him, grim. "If you mean by the place of the bite and how much blood was taken, then I'm sorry to say I cannot know until he wakes up."
"He'll be fine, though, right? Because...he was bitten before, and ended up okay." Arthur glanced down at the raging wound, grimacing at the pussy fluids oozing from the festering marks. He rubbed fatigue from his eyes. "I mean...Can you tell how many times he was bitten?"
"By these punctures, at least twice." Gaius shook his head, mouth a thin line of distress. "As far as I am aware, you're either born a vampyre or you're not, so he shouldn't...change, if that's what your worried about. As for being affected, though..."
Arthur remained silent, staring sullenly at his harried friend with a sense of foreboding. What if Merlin woke up thirsting for blood? What if he suddenly had inhuman strength that he could not control and he hurt himself? What if he no longer recognized friend from food? Then the king realized what Gaius meant about being affected. Merlin may lose his memory, or his sense. Blood loss, even if staunched in time, could have devastating mental affects in the long term.
Arthur's teeth clicked as he gritted them together, suddenly angry. It was foolish of him to even think that Vraal had been gone for good, that he would stay away from Camelot. Now, due to his laxity, his closest friend was in a critical condition. There was an arms race between the venom in Merlin's veins and the supply of mandrake root Gaius had left, meagre as it was now.
The taxed physician left Arthur alone with the servant, muttering something about checking to see if the herbalists in the city had acquired any more of the rare root. The supply that had been discovered on the endeavour through the Marshes was almost gone, now that both Arthur and his servant had used it.
The king remained there in the chambers, sometimes watching the birds out the window, or scanning the many, overflowing shelves of books and scrolls, or squinting into the bottles of cynical substances donning the work benches. Mostly, though, he remained by Merlin's side, hoping against odds that his friend would awaken in his own mind.
He was shaken from the depths of sleep by Gaius several hours later, and he rose, stiff and groaning, from the hard wooden chair by Merlin's bedside. The bruises on his back and shoulders protested angrily, his limbs stiff and uncooperative like sacks of sand. He eagerly looked to see if the servant had finally awoken, but his heart jolted to see that he was still prone, still fighting against the raging fever, still thrashing motionlessly in the cruel grasp of the deadly venom.
Rage boiled within him. He knew something like this was going to happen, he thought furiously. The knights had told him what had really occurred when Merlin was attacked by the horse thieves, how the vampyre had "rescued" before the bandits killed him and stole his horse. He knew that Vraal would come for him – why him specifically is still strange – yet he still kept away from other people. The fool! The...the...clotpole!
Gaius redressed the king's own bite wound, gave him more foul mandrake-root-concoction and told him to go get proper rest, and despite Arthur's feeble, fatigue-hindered resistance, he was aided back to his private rooms. He left a message with a passing servant saying that he would not be seeing Gwenevere that evening. He wanted to be alone.
For days it was like this. Once recovered enough, Arthur went about on his routine duties as king, limiting himself to only five minutes of his overwhelming schedule to visit Merlin. It was the same, day...
He'd forgotten to close the curtains himself the night prior again, as there was always someone else to do it for him, and so when Arthur rolled over and opened his eyes, they teared up against the morning brightness and he turned away, shutting them and grunting in annoyance. When he opened them again, he was faced with the most unexpected sight.
Standing at the edge of the bed, Merlin, pale-skinned and gaunt, grinned toothily at the king, revealing the twin canines stabbing down from his upper jaw.
Arthur yelped and tried to throw himself to the opposite side of the bed, but he overshot. His unbroken arm missed the mattress entirely and he fell, crashing to the ground with a dull thud in a tangle of sheets. Before he hit the floor, however, Merlin was howling with laughter. Arthur automatically drew Excalibur from the scabbard on the bedside table even as he rolled to his feet, eyes wide, palms sweating. And then he stared in puzzlement at the servant, but did not lower the sword or his guard.
Merlin heaved for breath between bursts of laughter. "Ha ha ha! The look on your face!" he gasped, holding his sides.
The king's brow furrowed. "What madness is this?" He stepped around the bed, keeping Excalibur, the weapon he now went nowhere without, between him and the creature impersonating his servant. "Who are you?"
Though he tried to stop, a bewildered expression on his pale features, Merlin couldn't help but release the occasional snicker. "What do you mean? Ha, ha ha! It's me!" The servant held out his arms to the side for emphasis, and as he did so, his left canine fell from his mouth and hit the floor.
Arthur glanced briefly at the fang-shaped piece of hardened clay on the ground, and then saw Merlin pull the second one off his normal, rounded tooth, grinning all the while.
"I was thinking about dipping them in red dye, but Gaius figured that that would have gone a bit far." He took his sleeve and brushed his cheek, wiping the white powder from his skin. "I suppose it was a wise choice: you look paler than I! Ha ha! Ha, ha...ha...heh heh...uuueh..." Merlin's face dropped. He retreated a step, all frivolity gone. "Wait, Arthur—" He yelped and dodged around king's swinging fist, then ducked beneath the hurled wine goblet and the water pitcher that followed as he fled the room at top speed.
Ψ Ѫ Ψ
Several days had limped past since Vraal was killed, but Merlin was not calming down. He was a mouse in the lair of an adder, still flinching at little sounds and avoiding solitude at all costs. The spurt of childish glee he had expressed with his prank on Arthur was long since extinguished like a candle in the wind, and though he tried to shrug off the extremely uncharacteristic and hindering twist in his life, it was clear that Merlin was suffering.
It was making Arthur mental.
"He's dead, you bumbling buffoon!" he roared as the servant glanced around the door before proceeding, a routine now. Merlin jumped a league and cowered, then sheepishly stared at his feet. Arthur seethed, glaring mercilessly at the other man. "You are being ridiculous. You aren't eating—Gaius told me. You aren't sleeping, that much is clear. When are you going to get over this?"
The servant slowly raised his darkened eyes, though they flinched and flickered when they saw the dangerous sparks aimed at him from the king's own. With that glare, it was a wonder Arthur didn't set the sun afire.
"Look at you. You sway on your feet like a sapling, you can't be alone without shaking, your eyes appear about to leave because of the bags they've packed beneath them. It's driving me crazy!"
It must have been that final comment that bit Merlin. He shrank, wringing his hands and shuffling his feet.
Vraal's attack really got to him, Arthur thought, soothing his enraged breathing with force. He could see the bandages on Merlin's throat where his neckerchief failed to conceal them. He won't have at me with sharp words of his own. We need to get him out of this rut...But how? How does one stop being afraid of that which no longer exists?
Gaius may know, but he would have said something by now. Bain, whose wide range of expertise exceeded even that of Geoffrey the Archivist, probably would be just as at a loss. The bard had returned to Camelot after following Vraal back to the castle, learned of Arthur's success and rejoiced.
Two days ago...
"Where is he? Where is he? Let me see him!"
The bard flew from the saddle of Clarence, his trusty mule, his hat blowing off his head and his feet barely hitting the ground before making their way for the front doors. Having heard of his coming, Arthur was already waiting for him.
"Bain Beton Browsten, welcome back," the king greeted warmly.
"Your majesty," the bard replied, bowing as low as he wanted because his hat had already fallen off and he needn't worry about it. "It's a pleasure to be back, sire!" His mule brayed and started to wander away. Bain seemed not to notice, and he merely straightened, grinning boisterously beneath his imperial moustache.
"You want to see Vraal, I presume," said Arthur, and Bain nodded.
"Twenty years I've been tracking him. To hear of his death...no, I must see his body for myself."
The king grimaced. "We had his body burned and the ashes scattered."
Bain frowned. "Then how do you know it was him? It could have been a look-alike, another vampyre in disguise, a wannabe, a—"
"Bain, Bain, it was Vraal!" Arthur insisted, raising his hands to calm the rotund man.
"You're ab-so-lute-ly sure?" the bard demanded, and he looked slightly reassured when the king nodded.
"There was no mistaking."
Arthur retold the horrid visit of the vampyre, explaining his attack on Merlin and then on the king. Bain was avid in seeing the marks left on Arthur's throat, and kept praising the late Vraal's sense of honour.
"And now he's gone," the bard said quietly, and Arthur's expression grew grim as he nodded.
"What will you do now?"
Bain sniffed, then reached behind his back to pull free the lute strapped there. He tuned it, strummed, then tuned again as Arthur winced.
"I will continue my endeavours about the Five Kingdoms, and beyond," he said. "I will sing of the brave deeds of Arthur Pendragon, Vanquisher of Vraal D'Angeral...
"The creature of the night, his hair of flames,
Has long made the helpless his prey.
Flitting as a shadow, silent as a whisper,
From your hearths be foolish to stray.
Far have I roamed in search of this creature,
Flanked by years and teeth of dragon,
Yet it was not I who challenged the nightly wraith,
But the great Lord Arthur Pendragon.
Oh, good king, you are most blessed,
For you fought and did not flee.
Your grace, your strength, your undying prowess,
Makes me wish I were you, and you were me."
"Okay, Bain, that's—" Arthur started.
"But oh, how your sword flashed and stabbed,
How you fought with such vigour!
How Vraal fell back in terror and fear,
Finally, the bard paused. "What rhymes with vigour?"
Arthur blinked. "Uh...Digger? Bigger?"
"Eh, I'll come back to that."
"No, it's quite alright. You need not—"
"Swish! Clang! Your sword sang!
Beating the beast to a pulp.
You cut of his head, and claimed he was dead,
And let his remains fall with a fulp!"
Arthur grimaced. "Fulp?"
After reassuring the "bard" that he would listen for drunkards whistling the soon-to-be famous ballad, the king made Bain accept payment for his time, then had to spend some time helping him reacquire his wandering mule, the ever-trustful Clarence, before he departed from Camelot once more.
Arthur gritted his teeth as Merlin stubbornly refused to make eye contact or speak half a word. It was after several seconds of tense silence that the servant finally opened his mouth.
"You—" He coughed and cleared his throat. "You keep Excalibur with you, now."
Arthur glanced down at the wondrous blade, in a scabbard at his side even though he was sitting and doing nothing but paperwork. "I do."
He nodded. "Good. That's good."
"What's this about, Merlin?" asked the king, waving the quill in his hand. He wrote with his left for now, his right wrist still in a cast. "You're acting very...well, to be perfectly honest, odd."
The servant raised an eyebrow. "Oh, you prefer the slinking and skittish tendencies?"
"Nooo," Arthur blurted, half rising from his seat. He sat back down, looking awkward.
Another prolonged silence.
"Erm, you needed me, sire?"
"...Oh, yeah. Those documents need to be delivered, if you would be so...inclined."
"Right away, sire." Merlin made to pick up the stack of scrolls as Arthur lowered his head to proceed with his writing. Just as he made for the door: "Merlin?"
The servant turned. Arthur chucked a goblet at him. With barely a flick of an eye, Merlin snatched the cup from the air, not even flinching.
"Good." The king ignored him then, and continued to write in silence.
It took time, it took patience, and it took perseverance, but Merlin gradually emerged from the pit created by Vraal's assault. As the bruising on his neck faded, so did the look of wary malaise in his eye. He was mostly left to deal with it himself, but others, including Arthur, acted behind the scenes. At first, they accompanied him wherever he went, acting normally, then, gradually, they abandoned him to walk places completely alone. Once he was able to control his fears of solitude, they began to startle him on purpose, not malevolently (most of the time), but by rushing around a corner or stepping in front of him when his mind had wandered. Merlin didn't like that, of course, but the knights were glad to see that it wasn't because he was genuinely scared of attack, but as anyone would when someone jumps out at them while they were daydreaming. After a month of this, Merlin had had enough.
"For gods' sake, stop that!" he roared as Gwaine, laughing like a drunken crow, stepped free of the servant's closet where he had been hiding, waiting for the opportune moment. It'd come soon enough, with Merlin barely holding back a scream when the knight lunged out at him as he opened the door.
Even if the warlock didn't enjoy himself during the recuperation, Arthur and his men certainly had a few laughs.
"Wake up one day and find spiders crawling in your bed," Merlin was muttering to himself as Gwaine retold the closet story to Arthur, who was howling hilariously, clapping his hands. "Or worms."
Gwenevere seemed to be the only one with true sympathy. Even Gaius let the knights do as they pleased to "help" Merlin.
"If you ever need to talk about it," said the queen, unconsciously rubbing her swelling belly, "remember that I'm always here for you."
Merlin nodded his appreciation, knowing that he may never need to anyway. For weeks now, ever since he realized that Arthur kept Excalibur with him at all times, his nightmares have dwindled and become nearly nonexistent. His recurrent one was gone entirely, the last of them having a different twist from the rest – Arthur had held onto Excalibur when Merlin found him in the council chambers. He fought the living shadow and its whirring blades, and defeated it.
Speaking of Excalibur, from the day that the king fought Vraal to the death, he wondered aloud how the sword could have affected the vampyre so. Merlin kept his assumptions to himself. The blade was enchanted by dragon fire; such weapons were tools against the living dead, immortals. Vampyres were only immortal if they fed on human blood, and so were not completely invulnerable to normal blades, but, consequently, they were not instantly destroyed with one touch of Excalibur either. Vraal had been weakened by the touch, nothing more. Nevertheless, Merlin felt reassured by the sword's presence, for his own sake, but especially for Arthur's.
"Thank you, Gwen," he said, smiling widely, and was satisfied to see her smile back. For a moment, they were both servants again, young and compliant, befriended where their masters quarrelled like siblings. Then Gwenevere adjusted her intricate, lacy dress, and she was a queen again. Merlin looked away.
"The nursemaids say it's okay," she said, continuing as the warlock blinked inquiringly, "The baby. Whatever happened to me seems to have had no serious affects on it, if any." She smiled lightly, again unconsciously feeling her stomach.
Merlin nodded, appearing thoughtful and content. Gwen's body had gone through a lot, what with having her soul taken and her body, though it had fed itself, not in proper function. The chances of the baby making it had seemed thin to the warlock. As to not unsettle her, Merlin smiled graciously. After all, it was he who was sneaking discreet Healing poultices into her pillow every night. Into, not under. There have been too many incidences where a poultice has been discovered under pillows. He wasn't entirely sure if they worked, seeing as he had done little of the kind before, but by the accounts of the nursemaids and Gaius, who had also been unconvinced of the infant's survival, the poultices of magically-enhanced herbs seemed to be doing Gwen well...if the all-around glow about her was anything to go by.
"So far," she was saying, "I think they are right. And I have you to thank for that."
Merlin started. "It wasn't me—"
"You were there," Gwen interrupted, reaching forward to take Merlin's hand. "You went with the knights, with Arthur, and you were there." She laughed lightly. "Don't try to demean your achievements, Merlin. You are a wonderful, brave man, and you should be proud of it. Neither Arthur nor I would be alive but for you. Remember that."
Ψ Ѫ Ψ
Merlin had a casual yet thoughtful stance as he stood at the battlements overlooking the city. Arthur approached on catlike feet, hands already clawed and ready for strangling, but then his servant called over his shoulder, "Don't even bother, Arthur."
The king blinked, then lowered his hands and grinned smugly. "I guess Gaius was wrong – it seems that you were affected by the vampyre bite. You heard me coming."
"No. I just know you too well."
Arthur harrumphed and came to lean against the crenellations with his servant. There was a soothing breeze, upon which rode a homey scent of woodsmoke. It ruffled the king's hair as he inhaled deeply.
"Some game, eh?" he said, squinting in the sun. It was Merlin's turn to snort.
"Game? More like nightmare."
Arthur grinned, chuckling lightly. "Vampyres, daemons and necromancers. What's next? Werewolves?"
"But what have we to fear, eh? We can always call Bain back." The servant shrugged nonchalantly.
"Yeah, he can scare our enemies away with his poetry."
A goofy grin stole Merlin's features, but he said nothing. He scratched his neck, and Arthur's hand rose unbidden to do the same. His fingers brushed over the raised scars that had yet to fade, then he shook his head, his hand falling to the pommel of Excalibur.
"All will be well," he said.