A/N: Again, sorry for the long wait!
Six months later
Arthur paused, his fingers digging in the already too ruffled parchment, as echoes of steps came from behind the closed door. Only after they had faded once again in the distance did Arthur let himself breathe freely, his body relaxing from the defensive position he had unconsciously adopted.
Not that he'd been in any kind of danger if discovered. Well, not mortal danger at least. Just the combined powers of Gaius' disapproving eyebrow and Guinevere's concerned frown. Though, granted, those two could be quite intimidating when they put their minds to a common goal. Especially if that goal was Arthur. Lesser men had cracked under such pressure.
But not him.
He shook his head, his attention once again focusing on the item in his hands, the letter Gaius hadn't even bothered to hide from display while he ventured in the lower town to make his usual calls on his patients. Arthur couldn't help but wonder if the old physician had done it on purpose. After all, if there was one thing he'd come to realize these long months, that was that there was no one in Camelot who understood better the depth of Arthur's loss and the nature of the ancient bond that had been compromised –if not broken- than Gaius.
The small, almost illegible scribbles on the worn piece of parchment, even though not intended for his eyes but for the tired ones of the physician, still worked soothingly to calm his restless spirit.
...the results were remarkable indeed. I wish that you could have been there to witness it with your own eyes, Gaius. No matter how colourfully I try to relay my experience, like many things in magic, you had to be there to truly appreciate its magnitude and splendour.
As for what you asked of me in your last letter, I'm sorry, Gaius, but I can't. At least not yet. Arthur knows I need time away and I fully expect him to understand that this includes all kinds of communication between myself and him.
And what would I write to him about anyway? Magic? Or how free I feel now, in contrast to how I felt back in Camelot under his rule?
No... I'm afraid that even if I did write to him, I would do Arthur more harm than good. I don't think I've completely forgiven him –or myself- yet. But I am honestly trying, my old friend. For the sake of my soul and his own, if nothing else.
If they ask of me, then tell them I am well. Tell them that each day I rediscover myself.
Tell Gwaine not to spend too much time in the tavern, and tell Gwen that I wish her health and happiness.
And Arthur. Tell Arthur not to worry, for I may be far away but I am still watching over his Camelot.
Take care, my friend.
He read those lines over and over so many times that, eventually, the words lost their meaning. The only thing that remained was the way Arthur's name stood out from the rest of the words, its letters slightly darker and larger, more prominent. Special.
The thought that Merlin had chosen to put them thus on the parchment...
Surprisingly, it didn't hurt much to read Merlin's rejection of any contact between them. It was as the warlock had said in his letter: Arthur knew not to expect anything better. And he had accepted that in his way by showing Merlin that he could let him go, if that was what the other desperately needed.
And it had been, at the time. Arthur had made the right call.
He had shown Merlin that he wasn't that selfish.
Or selfish at all.
But , most importantly, Merlin had never insinuated that he didn't intend to write to Arthur at all. On the contrary, he had specifically said that he was trying to overcome the past and that he genuinely wanted to succeed in his efforts.
Though Arthur's greatest desire was to have his right hand man and closest friend back, he had acknowledged months ago that every aspect of their relationship had changed irreversibly. If Merlin came back, no, when Merlin would come back, they would need to rebuild it from the beginning, with new foundations. A friendship between two equals.
And they would succeed. Because, despite everything, they were still Arthur and Merlin.
Time passed by. Soon, Gaius would return, and the council too was bound to send a page boy to inquire about the King's whereabouts. Camelot would be looking for her King. Arthur was very much aware of this pressing schedule.
He sighed, wishing he could hide away from the world for a little while longer. But Arthur Pendragon wasn't one to cower at the face of responsibility.
He sat up, Merlin's letter still in hand. He had accomplished what he'd come for anyway. He had no business in the physician's quarters to begin with.
The small parchment weighted heavily in his grasp, never truly leaving his mind. Gaius might not have been aware that Arthur had been keeping track of his correspondence with Merlin, but he must at least have suspected as much.
A brief inspection of the counter revealed a couple of scrunched pieces of paper with unfinished paragraphs full of "I miss you, my boy"s and "be safe"s as well as more than a few ink stains. He felt safe to assume that Gaius had already written and sent his response to the warlock, the man he loved like a son. Another detail Arthur had observed was that nowhere in the letters had there been any mention of an address or a destination. It wasn't hard to imagine why...
He tried to place the letter back down where he'd found it. But his hand wouldn't cooperate. It wouldn't let go.
Well... Gaius didn't technically need the letter any more.
With extra care, Arthur rolled the parchment in a neat cylinder that he then safely tucked away in his inner jacket pocket. Of course the old physician would know who had taken it and why, but he couldn't find it in himself to care.
Perhaps Gaius even meant for him to get possession of the letter. Perhaps not.
It didn't matter. Arthur needed to hold on to those words, those sentences, that, despite their apparent harshness, held a promise of hope as well.
With a surprisingly lighter heart than usual, the King of Camelot left the physician's chambers, ready to return to his never ending string of duties.
The horses shifted nervously as they slowly reached the top of the hill. The sky was a brilliant dark blue, thousands of stars sparkling brightly upon its weave. Merlin had discovered that some places, places of magic and ancient power, made everything appear different, better. Or maybe they just allowed the true nature of the universe to shine, uninhibited by the limitations of mortality and of men. Sites like this lone hill were the place where divinity touched the earth. Very few people in all the kingdoms could truly appreciate those sites' importance. It was a privilege of the most powerful and most wise of their kind, and Merlin was still in awe that he too was counted as one of them.
When the two riders reached the top, they stood there in silence for a long moment. Merlin exchanged a final look of farewell with Declan, not feeling the need to say anything more. They had said their goodbyes back at the druid camp, along with the elders and the friends he had made those few weeks. Months.
Merlin dismounted and secured his horse's reins to the back of Declan's saddle.
"Don't worry Emrys, we'll take care of the mare until your return..." they had said, and Merlin had been grateful. The horse wasn't just any other animal. She had been a faithful companion to him for years. And when he left Camelot, he hadn't stolen her… She'd been a gift.
To Merlin, from Arthur.
As Declan left with the horses, Merlin turned his eyes towards the sky.
He had been debating this moment in his mind for months.
His time with the Druids had proven to be very enlightening, but despite the volume of knowledge he now possessed, he knew it had been just the beginning.
Merlin had wanted to know it all, to be able to travel to all planes of existence, to wield his magic like it were a sword in the hands of a seasoned warrior, to unlock the mysteries of the universe. But he'd always known that something was keeping him from achieving those goals. It wasn't just time he needed, but something else.
And after hours of meditation and many talks with the elders, he came to realize exactly where the problem lay.
He needed closure. More precisely, he needed to have an extensive talk with a certain someone.
He was ready for it, now.
When he was certain the Druid had entered the safety of the forest once again, Merlin through his head back and cried the summons to the skies.
"O drakon, e mala soi ftengometh tesd'hup anankes!"
Gwaine was having a very busy morning. He had woken up late, with a terrible headache due to last night's excessive drinking, that had been only worsened by the persistent knocking at his door.
It'd turned out that it hadn't been his door after all.
He'd just managed to escape through the room's window when the woman's husband barged in, no doubt searching for hidden lovers in the cupboard. But thankfully, experience had taught Sir Gwaine not only how to get fully dressed in less than a minute, but to actually achieve that while nursing a terrible hangover.
After that, he'd rushed back inside the castle, leaving the allures of the lower town behind him, only to find that he had been assigned desk duty.
The registration desk office was a recent addition to the insanity that was Camelot's political and legal system. If asked, Gwaine wouldn't hesitate to say so in front of the entire court. He had expressed his disagreement in a private audience with the King, but it had been to no avail. And Gwaine, though many would argue, wasn't stupid. He understood the reasons behind the council's decision, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
It had been almost four months now, since the ban on magic had been repealed. Gwaine soon discovered it was far easier to revoke a law than it was to write another one, a fair one, in its place.
It was decided that, for the sake of Camelot's safety and the sense of security the people needed to maintain, that the King would enforce new laws on magic users. Laws designed to prevent a sorcerer from using his powers to harm and maim, and, most importantly, to use those powers against the Crown itself.
So it was thus that the registration had come to existence. Every man or woman with magical abilities had to register for the state.
Gwaine remembered how his private audience with Arthur had gone…
"How do you expect the people to trust magic when you show them that you still not trust it yourself, Arthur? These people, if there will be any crazy enough to come out and offer themselves, will be worse than outcasts!"
It had been Gaius who registered first, under the magical art of healing and element wielding. Arthur had insisted on making a big show out of it, having that first registration in the courtyard amongst hundreds of people. He had praised the old physician for his gifts and service and then actually went on and talked about Gaius' ward, Merlin, and how much that known sorcerer had done for the kingdom.
It had taken a few weeks, but after realizing no one would be burned or beheaded, sorcerers started accepting the new regime.
Amongst the first to register were the druids, specifically those living closer to Camelot. Gwaine hadn't been the only one to be shocked when it was revealed there was a Druid camp hidden in the Darkling forest. In small groups of three or four at a time, the entirety of the Darkling Forest Druids as they were now known, had ventured to Camelot, registering for a large variety of magical abilities.
People had been reluctant towards the magic users at first. They had whispered and pointed, spat on their backs and cursed. But when nothing had happened in return, when the only thing those actions of contempt were met with was disappointment and reprimand, they backed off.
When Gaius started using magic to heal his patients again, it was met with thankful smiles and gratitude. Not long after, the first magic shop opened at the lower town, the owners a middle-aged couple from Escetia recently arrived in Camelot in search of a better life. Soon, others followed, healers and charm-sellers, all fairly minor in their powers, from what Gwaine could gather, but all received surprisingly well from the people of the town.
It was progress, even he would admit that.
But still there were those who attacked magic users at night, or vandalized their homes, throwing dung and blood on their doorsteps. Cowards who never dared showed their faces. And Gwaine knew that those occurrences would continue as long as that law of registration wasn't abolished.
Lunchtime came and Gwaine was still sitting behind the desk – which was cleverly situated at the entrance of the castle's courtyard, making it easy for an outsider to locate-. He was musing over whether he should ask for one of the servants to please fetch him some chicken or wait half an hour for the registration hours to end, when he realized there were only two people left in line, a grumpy old woman dressed in a worn brown cloak and a pointy hat, of all things –talk about stereotyping- and a young man with curious, excited eyes.
The old woman claimed to be an alchemist that sometimes used magic to enhance potions. She meant to set up business in the lower town, like most of the others. Gwaine was busy trying not to laugh as the woman stroll down the road towards the inn, scaring some children who were unfortunate enough to be in her path, when he heard the clerk's surprised exclaim and turned his attention back at the registration desk.
"You want to what?" the man said, looking at the young boy like he had just confessed to having two heads. Well, for all Gwaine knew, he could have done exactly that.
"I want to become a knight…" the young man responded, stubbornly, forcing his body to stand straight, like he supposed a knight should do.
"But… you have magic," the clerk continued, speaking slowly as if he was repeating something in a foreign language. Gwaine rolled his eyes.
"Yes," the boy answered, his façade of bravery starting to leave him. Gwaine took a moment to observe the lad. He was young, that was true, but he looked like he had the necessary physique to be a knight. Judging from his clothes, the bag on his shoulders and the small sword he was carrying, the boy must have traveled far to come here.
Gwaine looked the young man in the eye, realizing how uncomfortable and even frightening this experience must be for him. But still, the kid had guts, he granted him that at least.
"Do you know how to use that sword you've got there, lad?" he asked, pointing to the weapon tucked on the young man's belt. The boy nodded eagerly.
"Of course, Sir Knight," he replied seriously.
"Then I can't see why he can't try…" Gwaine concluded, effectively putting an end to any objection. The clerk sighed and finished the young man's registration.
The boy lingered behind, and as Gwaine made his way back inside the castle, he caught up with him.
"Thank you, Sir…"
"Gwaine. You're welcome," he replied. He stopped in his tracks, a thought coming to him.
"Do you have a place to stay?" the knight asked, half expecting the self-conscious shaking of the head and the red on the young man's cheeks that came as response.
"Right then," Gwaine decided. "You're coming with me to get you sorted."
The boy seemed relieved, and perhaps even dazed, at his sudden fortune. It took him a few moments to manage an answer.
"T-Thank you, Sir Gwaine."
The knight laughed goodheartedly. In a way, the boy had reminded him a bit of Merlin. He supposed that must have been how Merlin looked at everything around him when he first arrived in Camelot. With wonder and hope. Perhaps that was why he was so willing to help the lad. It would be what Merlin would have done, Gwaine was sure of it.
"Don't mention it…" he said, realizing he still didn't know the young man's name. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name back there…"
The lad laughed offering his hand for Gwaine to shake. He had a strong handshake.
"My name is Mordred."
A/N: You didn't see that one coming, did you? Or maybe you did... who knows.
I would like to thank you all once more. If it weren't for your constant support and encouragement, I wouldn't be able to finish this story. And, as always, a special thank you to my beta, Arwyn-T!
I wish to say just one thing about the epilogue. I know that the idea of having mandatory registration of all magic users is something that many of you will find offensive (and with reason). The reason I did it is that I just couldn't have the situation in Camelot suddenly be ideal. History teaches us that, unfortunately, it takes a lot of time and a series of combined efforts and mistakes for mankind to learn to do the right thing. Giving sorcerers complete freedom isn't something that realistically would have happened. It's just the way politics work.
Wow... I actually find it hard to believe it's over. I will definitely miss this story.
I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!