TITLE: After Ealdor
SUMMARY: There's a fine line between good and evil, and Merlin wonders if he's crossed it. Angst. Missing scenes from 4.13, or AU within the episode itself. No slash.
RATING AND WARNINGS: T, for slight goriness dealing with bodies
SPOILERS: 4.13, and mention of episodes prior
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Really, how big was Aithusa at the end of 4.13? In one shot I thought he was as big as a horse, in another, about the size of a small dog. For the purposes of this fic, I'm assuming he's about knee-high. And I have no idea how far away the caves near Ealdor are from Camelot, so let's say it's about a day of hard riding.
It'd been two days since they'd reclaimed Camelot, and four days since he'd requested Kilgharrah's aid to help Arthur escape Agravaine and the Southrons.
Because they were burning for him, all of them, to keep his secret safe.
Merlin had known he'd not be able to leave the evidence of Kilgharrah's involvement in Agravaine's defeat at the caves near Ealdor. The dead Southrons were too numerous, and they'd fallen too close to his home village. They'd be discovered, and questions would be asked. He'd returned as soon as he could to hide what he'd done, and to conceal what he was.
The optimism and relief he'd felt when they'd won back Camelot had dimmed before he'd started his self-imposed mission, then vanished entirely when he'd arrived at the scene of his crime. The smell of death hit him first, then the buzz of thousands of flies, and then, through the dusk ... his gut churned at the sight, what had he done?
There were so many dead and half burnt bodies, bloated and misshapen, they lay where they fell, the once living men now grotesque corpses. The ground was heavy with the scent of death, the air fly-ridden and putrid, and he breathed it in and let it fill him, because this was his doing, this was him.
He tried to feel nothing, wanted to feel nothing, as he'd taken it all in. So many. He'd desecrated his childhood sanctuary, now he'd forever remember it as his own personal killing field, a revelation of his sins. He wondered, and he didn't know, had he been right to call upon Kilgharrah, or very, very wrong?
He looked at what he'd done in the murky light of the fading day, and tried to hold his fractured soul together. But as much as he told himself that this had been war, and the killings were justified, that they'd been after Arthur, and had invaded Camelot ... it didn't help.
He didn't want to be so good at this, at taking men's lives, at killing. Kilgharrah had been nothing but the instrument of his dragonlord, they were Merlin's kills, Merlin was the one to be held accountable for them. Not that he hadn't killed directly too; just one glance was all it took. So easy, too easy; if the Southrons had been in the open instead of under trees he'd have been as quick and deadly as Kilgharrah ... as long as he could act and still keep his secret safe.
Merlin allowed himself to break, just a little, here with his dead, where it was private and no one living would see. He sobbed until his head was pounding, and his eyes were swollen and gritty. He screamed out his agony until his throat was raw. He railed to the heavens and the Old Religion at the unfairness of it all. Why, why, why? There were no answers.
Was this truly what all his power was for? Was this the way to protect Arthur, to save Camelot? There was no honour in this, it was ...
No poison had ever made him feel as ill as his conscience, and he clutched his stomach and retched miserably, hunched and shaking over the polluted ground. Then afterwards, exhausted and empty, he huddled on the dew-damp grass, surrounded by the reeking companionship of his dead.
He'd never felt so alone, or so lonely.
And then, much later, when dusk was a distant memory and the night was as dark as his soul, he did what he had to, what he'd always do because he was strong; he pushed aside his feelings and wiped away the vomit and the snot, and built a pyre of bodies. He had to make them burn, to disappear with his conscience, so they'd keep his secret safe.
He piled the dead with magic, Agravaine's broken body on the top of the heap, and it was just then, as he lit the pyre with only a thought and the flames began to lick hungrily at their feast, that the Southron stragglers attacked.
He pressed an unsteady hand over the wound above his hip. Foolish men.
The sword slicing into his side had caught him unawares, and he'd reacted instinctively. He'd let his power thrum, later he told himself this time it was justified, and so it took just one glance, and four more Southrons joined their comrades in the flames.
Murderer. So many.
But Agravaine's empty eyes were accusing, and the guilt wouldn't go away, and Merlin bowed his head and stumbled back against a nearby tree, trying to gain comfort against the old oak that was honest and living and right. He took long, deep breaths, the warmth of the flames a traitorous comfort against the biting chill of the night.
Murderer. Too many.
Merlin didn't realise he was crying again until the heavens began to weep with him; it began to rain.
It rained. And even as the downpour increased, the pyre continued to burn with its magical flames, and the deluge of rain building up was his own doing, the rawness of the elements growing around him a mirror of the tempest in his heart.
The storm grew, and he let the power coarse through him, he welcomed it. Wind screamed its fury and spat debris, leaves peeled away from branches and whipped his face. The shelter of the tree was no protection from the storm, heavy rain drove through the canopy, the magical flames he'd conjured sizzled angrily under the downpour, fighting against the driving onslaught as they did their dreadful work. Yet for all its violence and fury, the storm was soothing too, for it made him feel he was living amongst the dead.
And the storm protected him too; it was localised and it ensured that no one from Ealdor would venture out and discover what he was doing, and so this explosion of his magic too would help ... keep his secret safe.
Always safe, always hidden, these deaths his truth amongst all the lies.
Merlin watched, as Agravaine and the Southrons burned for him. He watched for a long time, as their bodies writhed and crackled in the flames as the storm pounded down. And slowly, as the adrenalin that kept him going faded and the angry battle of the elements began to ease, he shivered, again.
He was wet, and very cold.
Merlin cradled his injured side through the sodden material of his jacket. He'd instinctively slowed down time as soon as he'd felt the slice of the sword pierce his skin, and he thought he'd acted soon enough. But now he wasn't so sure. It hadn't hurt that much at the time, so he'd assumed it wasn't a serious injury, but now in the light of the pyre he could see the streaky moisture soaking his clothes wasn't just water, it was blood, a lot of it.
He blinked slowly, the rain cool on his face. His body felt like it didn't quite belong to him. He felt strangely heavy and sluggish, yet light, like he could float away. He shut his eyes, pained by the horror that burned in front of him and by his wound. He was cold and wet, and he didn't like it. He thought. The rain stopped.
Did the end always justify the means? He didn't know, he didn't know.
He swayed slightly, his free hand pressed against the tree trunk to steady himself, and his thoughts drifted. Once, he would have longed for his father's advice, but dreams of parental guidance belonged to a boy who had ceased to be. It had been years since he'd truly craved father-son support, he yearned for the acceptance of the one who also had to make the choices as he did, the one who also had to judge what was right and wrong, the one whose decisions would also affect the lives of many.
But this could never be.
The bodies twisted as they burnt, and the flames hissed at him.
He wiped the dribbles of water from his face.
He hurt, his side hurt, his heart hurt.
He gazed at the flames, at his dead, and as he stood looking at the evidence of his worst sin yet, he accepted a truth he'd fought against; Merlin knew there would never be any escape from the loneliness of his existence.
His destiny was with Arthur but it would not be shared with him, their paths would remain separate, and the loneliness that sometimes choked him was something he must accept. That was how it was, and how it would always be.
There was no one he could talk to about the burdens placed on him. Not with Gaius, who saved lives and didn't take them.
Not with Lancelot, not now. If things had been different, he might have confided in Lancelot, at times he'd almost been desperate enough. Lancelot had been a warrior, he'd understood war and love and fighting for what you believed in, and his moral compass had been strong. But Lancelot was gone, and he wasn't who Merlin needed either.
He had no one, no one at all.
There was no one to confess to that he'd killed Agravaine. There was no one to confess to that he thought he could have saved Isolde, but he hadn't even tried. She was his dead too, another sacrifice to keep his secret safe, he was a coward and a ...
He had no one to talk to, no one at all.
There was no one, there'd never be anyone, and it was time he accepted it. His destiny was great, but it demanded much personal sacrifice, and he'd give it. There'd be no love, no honest connection and true friendship, that was the price he'd have to pay, for Arthur, for magic, and for the people of Albion.
No one for him.
No one who'd be able to listen to him vent the anger and frustration that kept building up.
No one to say, I understand.
No one to say, I know and I still care.
No one to say, You're not a monster despite it all.
There was no one, no one at all.
And he knew this now, he accepted this now, and he promised himself he'd not fight it any more. His chance was gone, that road and its possibilities had diverged long ago, he'd missed that point somewhere and now there was no going back.
He promised himself he'd be stronger for accepting it, instead of fighting against the truth. He could, he would.
Merlin's eyes were golden in the light of the flames, his breathing was shallow because the movement of his chest made the gash in his side sting, and he was so tired, so very tired.
He hurt, everything hurt.
Slowly, Merlin came out of his stupor, and stumbled back a step to lean heavily against the trunk of the oak tree. His side hurt, he clutched at it again. He realised his legs were shaking, and he was finding it difficult to stay upright. He slid down the rough bark and onto the muddy ground, choking back a cry as the movement increased his pain, he gritted his teeth, he deserved the punishment.
The pyre continued its dreadful work, its flames lower now as it burnt away the evidence of his crime. Because it was a crime, wasn't it, what he'd done to them all?
Had Uther ever burnt this many, all at once? Merlin had counted the men as he'd piled them up, he'd counted them all. There were ninety-five men including Agravaine and the few he'd killed in the caves, as well as the four who'd wounded him tonight, in this pyre that burnt for him.
Except for Agravaine, all these men died in a war they never knew they fought in; they'd died at magic's hand, magic piled up their bodies, and now they burnt for magic too, they burnt for him, to keep his secret safe.
He trembled, he was cold, so cold.
His thoughts were cloudy, but gradually, it occurred to him to check his wound. His hands were shaking now, and he edged aside his jacket carefully, panting at the sting as the material separated from the gash in his skin. He touched his injured side gingerly, and the light pressure was enough to increase the trickle of blood leaking from the deep slice above his hip.
Merlin stared at the injury numbly. Now that the rain had ceased it was apparent the copper stain was growing, spreading over his breeches. He knew there was too much blood, he had to do something about it, now. He thought for a moment and tried with a whispered spell to close the wound but his magic felt sluggish, and the rush of power leaving him made him gasp.
For a moment he couldn't understand, because he'd manipulated the weather with ease, but healing magic was not his natural forte. He tried again, his head throbbed with the effort and his stomach heaved, but the blood continued to seep.
Comprehension was slow to come, but he realised he'd left it too long, he could not heal himself. He should have been able to fix it, but the pain and the blood loss meant he was unable to concentrate his focus.
Carefully, he covered the wound with his jacket again and settled back against the tree. He'd had enough training from Gaius to know severe blood loss chilled the body, created confusion in the mind, and was a very serious condition, especially with the amount of blood that seemed to be staining his breeches. Part of him knew he should be concerned about the situation he'd found himself in, yet he wasn't, perversely he almost welcomed the punishment, it was a small penance for his transgressions, an outcome he deserved.
Defeated, exhausted, and heart-sore, he shut his eyes. He shivered, then coughed as the stench from the burning bodies swirled around him with a gust of wind. He trembled and his thoughts grew more confused as his strength slowly bled out of him.
He tipped his head back. The rough bark of the tree dug into his shoulder and hip, but he was too drained to move. He knew he had to do something to save himself, but the urgency to do anything at all was fading.
He was starting to lose feeling in his legs. His vision swam, and the pyre sparked in front of him. He remembered that he was a dragonlord ... but the words for the call slipped from his grasp. His hand trembled above his wound again, and he tried his magic once more, but this time the effort exhausted what reserves he had, and his vision fuzzed as the blackness overtook him.
He slid into unconsciousness. The flames burnt on.
A/N: Thank you everyone who's been reviewing my other fics - this is the first thing I've posted in 5 months and the reviews that keep appearing now and then on my other fics have motivated me to continue with this one. So reviews are greatly appreciated.