It began with Percival showing up during a council meeting.
Camelot's burliest knight had come back from patrol, sweaty and out-of-breath, insisting that the king should follow him out on horseback to a place about an hour away. "You just have to see this," he said, seeming frustrated with his inability to put it into words. "I think it means something, and that only you will be able to tell us what that is."
Arthur's brow furrowed. Where was the rest of the patrol? His gaze flitted to Elyan, who stood in the doorway, accompanying his large friend. But Elyan merely shook his head, looking apologetic about having no more information to share.
"The others rode on," Percival explained, "they wanted to see it up close. Will you come?"
Arthur took a deep breath and looked Percival in the eye. He had never known the knight to be deliberately obtuse or misleading, or to take advantage of his position as one of the king's inner circle. "We will leave immediately," he said, holding up a hand to silence the protests of several council members. Trust was something that Arthur made a point of exercising on occasion, to remind himself that there were those in his life that he could depend upon.
"You won't regret it, sire," Percival said.
Then a strange thing happened—time and distance melted, and Arthur and several knights were all seated on their usual mounts, the horses' hooves pounding the ground, the knights feeding off of Percival's urgency.
Ah…this is a dream, Arthur decided. His mind was remembering, relishing the events of that day just as they had happened. Then let me dream.
Long before they arrived, those in front began exclaiming, and Arthur could see for himself the phenomenon that had so moved Percival: where once there had been only a slight rise, there was now a towering hill. Atop the hill stood a strange stone formation the height of five men: rods of stone that seemed to spray out from the ground in the design of a star. It seemed impossible.
The bases of the rods were buried deep in the earth and the tips pointed heavenward toward the azure sky. Even more incredible, the earth around the rock looked undisturbed, as though it had been there for decades. Yet it hadn't. According to Percival, the formation had appeared over the span of a week, growing like a ludicrous plant.
Arthur led the way to the hill, noting his errant patrol among the many others that had gathered—some to worship, some to gaze, and some to wait for their king's arrival. There was a palpable sense of awe and dread about the place, keeping all those gathered at a distance.
Arthur alone approached the summit, driven by some inner compulsion or need to understand. There was a strange hush in the air and a sense of breathless anticipation. This ground was hallowed. Arthur sat, slowly, and removed his boots. Despite the dread in the pit of his stomach, he crept closer, needing to see more, feeling something familiar in the air—something strange and sweet. At the top of the hill, he discovered a deep green carpet of grass marking a perfect circle around the rock formation.
"Hello?" Arthur called out, then immediately crouched, feeling the pressure in the air build into a strong buzz in his ears. The ground trembled underfoot. "Sorry," he whispered, grimacing.
"Sire?" Percival called up to him. Arthur stood slowly and gestured to keep the knight back. Instinctively, he knew there would be worse consequences if anyone else disturbed the peace of the hill.
The king began to back away and then froze as he caught the faintest scent of clover and honeysuckle in the breeze. "Merlin," Arthur whispered, falling to his knees. Percival had been right: the king had needed to be here. Something he'd done was right; Camelot was moving in the right direction The king bowed his head."Thank you."
A shudder of relief went through his body, and it was a moment before he could pull himself together enough to stand. When he reached the other knights awaiting him, there were still tears standing in his eyes. Despite that, he looked each of his knights in turn before he spoke.
"This hill is a sacred place. Do not cross into that ring, and warn the people away. They must not interrupt the work of the gods." He turned to look back at the large edifice, the might and strength of Camelot's gods displayed for all to see for miles around. "From this time on, this place shall be called Merlin's Hill."
Arthur woke with a jolt.
Though bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and still blinking away the warm feeling of purpose from his dream, he was on his feet in an instant. The ground beneath his feet was still, as it had been since some time near dawn. Or had he simply slept through more unrest? Arthur scrubbed at the stubble on his face and called to his guard.
"The earth has ceased its shaking, but there was damage during the nighttime tremors. The kitchens lost one inside wall, but there were no injuries. The masons are already there, surveying the damage."
"Are the kitchens functional?"
"There have been no attacks, no signs of enemies approaching?"
"Thank you. Send for my servant. I am ready for the day." The guard hesitated, and Arthur raised his eyebrows in expectation of protest. The guard reconsidered and simply nodded. "And make sure no one disturbs the queen this morning in her chambers. I'd like for her to have a few more hours of rest."
"Yes, sire." The guard left with a determined look.
Arthur blew out a breath. Yes, he was exhausted. Yes, he would rather have slept in after two successive nights of ground tremors big enough to set the furniture dancing in the castle and to cause lesser buildings significant damage. But he was the king, and he would not shirk his duties.
Arthur walked over to the window and pushed it open, surveying the courtyard below. Everything seemed in order. Merlin's Well still stood in its place of honor in the center with a long line of peasants waiting to draw the sweet water from its depths. Rumors had been flying around the city that the water itself was magical, able to cure lingering illnesses and prevent infection. Arthur had to admit, he rather suspected so himself. It certainly tasted better than any well water he'd had before, and, well…it rather sounded like something Merlin would do.
The sudden appearance of a bubbling fountain of water in the collapsed center of the stone courtyard had, at first, seemed too good to be true. It had opened up under the onslaught of the first tremors Camelot had experienced over the last month. By the time Arthur had been summoned, the area was blocked off with sawhorses to prevent curious onlookers from trying the water. But after a week, the water had been tried, first by animals, then by a few foolhardy knights, the royal taster, and finally by the king himself. It was declared healthful and a blessing of the gods.
When the masons and workers had dug down deep enough for a well, it was discovered that the water came from an underwater stream flowing directly from Merlin's Hill. It was Gwaine who had first popularized the theory that it was a gift from Merlin himself. The idea had caught the imaginations of the people, already full of popular stories about the warlock. They frequented the new well more often than the old one and told tales of its miraculous properties.
Arthur himself preferred its light and fresh taste to that of the old well water. He hoped that his servant would bring some with his breakfast. Whatever properties it had, he would feel better able to face the day with Merlin's blessing on him.
"Good morning, sire," said a low voice. Arthur turned to see his new servant, Darby, entering the room with a tray of light breakfast.
"Your water," the man said, offering a golden goblet of water to the king. Arthur took it and looked his servant over as he drank. Darby, usually crisp and well-turned out, looked haggard and almost unkempt.
"Did you not sleep last night?"
"It was difficult, sire. Helena is terribly afraid of those quakes and she clung to me like a little monkey." Darby had two children by his wife, Gavina, and talked about both of them an inordinate amount. "We couldn't get back to sleep until she went back down. Thomas took it like a man, though—slept through the whole thing."
Arthur smiled at the picture. He hoped that one day he would have children to adore, though raising the future rulers of Camelot would be a daunting task. "I hope we've seen the last of them."
The two of them went through the regular motions of the day, both ignoring their exhaustion. Once Arthur was shaved and fed and ready for the day, he decided to head up to the west tower to see the outlying areas of Camelot. His heart quickened at the thought.
Ever since the stone starburst had appeared on Merlin's Hill, it had been impossible to ignore all the signs pointing to an advent, to a momentous occasion the like of which Camelot had never seen. Everywhere in and around Camelot, the natural world thrived. Food had been plentiful and better-tasting. The weather had settled into a milder climate, with rain a predictable one day out of every four. The hunting was astoundingly good. Inside the city walls, there had been a population boom with babies born to nearly every young family, and the crops had been thrice that of the year before. Goodness was everywhere, and Arthur couldn't help but feel that Destiny was at work again.
As he neared the tower, he saw that he was not the only one wishing to survey the land around. In fact, a small crowd had gathered, talking excitedly and looking out to the west, toward Merlin's Hill.
"Sire!" The crowd turned and fell silent.
Arthur strode forward, and the crowd in front of him melted away. He knew what to expect on a normal day. Even from this distance, the Giant's Star would be visible, as well as a line of people heading out of Camelot down the road to make a pilgrimage to Merlin's Hill, many Druids among them.
But when Arthur reached the edge of the tower and looked off in the distance, he could tell that something had changed. The pilgrims were headed in the wrong direction; they were returning from Merlin's Hill. And the hill—the hill itself had been altered.
Arthur was off with his guard as soon as they could be found, desperate to see for himself the changes wrought during the night. As he mounted his horse and snapped a few last orders, someone striding toward them caught his eye.
Was that Gwaine? Astoundingly, the knight was clean, close-shaven and grinning as he strode toward Arthur, looking very unlike the unkempt and bitter man he'd been for the past year.
"Princess!" he crowed, instantly taking Arthur back in time to happier days.
"To what do we owe this pleasure, Gwaine?" Arthur asked, refusing to make this easy for him.
"Oh, I just felt like going for a ride."
Gwaine was back in his knight's gear, expecting to accompany the king. Arthur paused, his horse shifting under him. "As one of my knights?" he asked, his gaze piercing Gwaine's own until the man looked down and away.
"If you'll have me," Gwaine mumbled, finally forcing himself to meet the king's gaze, "now that everything has changed."
The look of joy in Gwaine's eyes took Arthur by surprise. "What's changed?"
To his irritation, Gwaine laughed, a sound of pure, unadulterated joy. "Everything. You'll see soon enough."
Arthur jerked at the reins of his horse. "You may accompany my guard if you wish. Just keep your incoherent mumblings to yourself."
"Sure thing, Princess."
Arthur was smiling as they rode out. It felt right to have Gwaine with them, even if he was being annoyingly cryptic.
They rode to Merlin's Hill as hard as their horses would go, swinging out wide of the road in order to give way to the pilgrims and other foot traffic. Arthur was nearly frantic to get there, though the changes were visible long before they arrived.
The starburst had been pulled apart. Somehow, the slabs of rock were balanced, one atop the other, in a large circle that exactly matched the ring of grass already there. It was the most fantastic thing Arthur had ever seen, a work of precision and beauty and of such scope as to be naturally impossible. Only magic could make a thing so…perfect.
One other thing was different. As he dismounted, Arthur realized there were no Druids in the thin crowd around the hill, a first since the Giant's Starburst had appeared. Moving closer to the stones, he felt the reason. The sense of awe and of power that had pervaded the atmosphere and hallowed the ground was gone.
Arthur spun around, searching for something—for someone. Surely…
When his eyes failed to find the figure he was looking for, Arthur ran to mount his horse again. "Follow me," he thundered out, and began to race trails across the countryside for the better part of the day, seeking far and wide for any further signs of magic. There had to be something. Surely, the tremors during the night had meant something other than rocks being moved.
Arthur rode until he could no longer find a reason. Exhausted and frustrated, he snapped at Gwaine. "Do you have any further words of wisdom for us? Anything beyond 'everything's changed,' and 'I can't say,'' and 'you'll see for yourself soon'?"
Gwaine had the grace to look guilty. "No, sire. I don't understand. I thought…" he trailed off and shrugged. "Maybe we should head back to the castle."
Arthur, gritting his teeth at the setting sun, bit out his agreement. He wasn't sure what he'd expected, but this wasn't it. Something was meant to have happened. This was supposed to be the day of his reward. And instead, all he'd gotten was frustration.
He followed his knights home with a heavy heart, sure that he had again fallen short somehow and that all of Camelot was going to pay for his many mistakes.
Leaving his men to themselves, Arthur headed into the castle, ignoring everyone until he reached the guard at the entrance to the king's hall. "No one is to enter my chambers tonight." Then he paused. "Give the Queen my apologies."
Exhausted and alone, Arthur took the stairs up to his chambers. The weight of disappointment clung to him like a leaden garment, and he had to pause on the last landing to catch his breath. The goal that had driven him for a year dissipated like the morning fog. What was left? He was sure there were other reasons to keep going, to fight for his people and his kingdom, but at the moment, they all escaped him.
He closed the door, barely noticing his surroundings as solitude wrapped its mantle around him. No one would disturb him now—one of the benefits of being a king.
He stood unmoving, defeated. He was in such a state that it was some time before the warmth and light in his chambers caught his attention.
The king jerked and whirled around, feeling himself go pale. That voice—
And suddenly—he was.
Merlin was standing there, the ghost of a smile on his face, looking whole and the same, but different, and with so many emotions stealing through his deep blue eyes that Arthur couldn't even attempt to follow them.
"Arthur, I'm back," he said, smiling with affection and warmth in his eyes.
Arthur reached out to him slowly, remembering so clearly the feel of his friend's dead body, haunted by those moments of starkest grief and fearful of visiting them again. He gasped out a near sob when his hands touched solid flesh. "I did it," Arthur whispered. "I did it!"
Merlin laughed. He actually laughed. "You did it? You think you single-handedly brought me back to life? That's a tall order even for the Once and—"
Arthur interrupted by pulling the warlock into a crushing hug. Merlin seemed shocked into silence, but Arthur was too busy breathing in Merlin's familiar scent—the humanity and the magic and the clover and honeysuckle. "I've been looking all over for you," he choked out. He knew there were other things he should say, but was helpless to say them.
Merlin gave a slight shrug from inside Arthur's arms. "Guess nothing's changed, then," he said lightly, though his voice was tight with tears. "Not really."
Arthur gave a bark of laughter. "Nothing? Try everything."
He felt Merlin's shoulders shake and thought he was joining in the laugh at first.
"I'm sorry, Arthur. I am. I am so sorry." The tears and misery in Merlin's voice finally made it through to Arthur, and he pulled back from the embrace.
"Merlin," he said in amazement, "are you actually apologizing for dying?"
"Uh…erm…I guess I am." And Merlin gave one of those guileless, goofy shrugs of his that had Arthur grinning and laughing in pure relief. Despite the wisdom and power that radiated from the warlock, and even with his new, neatly trimmed beard and mustache, this was still the same old Merlin.
"Then stop it, really. No more apologizing." Merlin gave him a grin in return until the king felt positively silly. He gave Merlin's shoulders one last squeeze before releasing him. Something inside him had begun to right itself, and with it came the knowledge of all he must say to his friend. Arthur's smile died.
"I am the one who must apologize, for turning on you and banishing you. I was wrong. It was my fault that Morgana…" At the serious look on Merlin's face, Arthur trailed off, his emotions crowding to the surface again. He moved away from his friend and sat heavily, facing the fireplace. "You were dead, Merlin. Dead. For a year, and it was my fault."
Quiet invaded the room, the only sounds those of the crackling fire. Arthur dreaded Merlin's next words, and at the same time longed for them. He'd waited so long to hear the anger, the rage—the blame. He deserved it.
"I know you feel that way," Merlin finally said, and something in his voice sounded different. "I remember everything. I remember what you said and what she did. I remember how you found me then and everything you said in the cave." Merlin walked over to Arthur slowly and put a hand on his shoulder. "I remember." He paused, and his grip tightened. "I have to ask: are you ready for this?"
Arthur looked up at Merlin hesitantly.
"I think you are." Then Merlin's eyes flashed gold and burning embers swept up from the fireplace filling the air. Arthur gasped. The flecks of fire were moving and shaping themselves into something. The flow of gold took Arthur's breath away, but not because it frightened him. It was beautiful.
"This was the view from the mouth of the cave. Do you see it?" And suddenly, Arthur did. In the picture built out of embers, he saw the stream swimming by, broken up by lines of tree trunks, the view enclosed by walls of rock on all sides. Merlin's voice was somber as he continued. "I looked at this every day, all day. I didn't know who I was or how I'd come to be there, not until you came and told me. You saved my life, Arthur, and that is every bit as real as anything you did before hand." The golden air painting faded and Merlin moved to kneel beside Arthur.
"I know that I hurt you and I'm sorry for that. I know that you're sorry for what you've done as well. But we've both paid for our mistakes and for our sins—heavily. Let's talk no more of those." Merlin paused, and Arthur glanced up to catch the deep sorrow in his eyes. The king nodded.
Merlin gave him a brief smile and then stood. Arthur watched as the warlock paced a few steps away, taking in the tense set of his shoulders. For the first time, he noticed the midnight blue tunic and well-fitted pants and boots that Merlin was wearing. Where had he gotten those, and when had Merlin gotten so tall? Arthur shook his head. Not smart questions to ask when someone has the power to come back from the dead, he chided himself.
Merlin turned back to face the king, and there was a look of strange intensity on the familiar features. "Before I returned, I was given a vision, Arthur, of the future. I know how it all ends."
"Ends? What do you mean?"
"What we will build here—the peaceful nation of Albion—is a beautiful but a very fragile thing. It will take every ounce of courage and strength that we have to hold it for any amount of time."
Arthur rubbed at the tense spot between his eyes. He took a deep breath, willing himself not to ask the question. But in the end, he had to. "Then why are we doing it? If we're just that sure it's going to fail?"
"Because it is beautiful, Arthur. While it lasts, its glory will outshine the sun in the sky." And Arthur saw, in Merlin's face, the beauty of the dream, the glory and the hope. "It is worth it. You will see it yourself, one day."
Arthur nodded slowly, standing to his feet. "I believe you. But only if you stay to guide us, Merlin. Otherwise, we are doomed."
"I know. Why else do you think I returned?" he replied cheekily.
Arthur laughed. He sensed the conversation moving back onto more familiar ground. "To plague me, I have no doubt. All I've had since you've left has been one servant after another, each more competent than the last, and all without a spark of personality."
"You prat. Do you actually think I came back from the dead to be bothered with making up your bed and cleaning your britches?"
"Some would consider it a privilege."
Merlin snorted. "Then get them to do it. I have more important things to do."
Arthur smiled. "Yes, you do," he admitted. "For example, being on the Council, working to establish laws to govern magic and being my royal advisor."
A wide grin battled for dominance on Merlin's face. "You expect me to do all of that at the same time?"
"Of course. It's not like there's anything else you need to do."
"Thank you, Arthur," Merlin said sincerely.
Arthur waved away his thanks, grinning. "I'm suddenly starving. Want something to eat?"
Merlin eyed him warily. "You mean, you want me to go down to the kitchens and get some food for us?
"No. I mean, Merlin, are you hungry? I can get a servant to get us some food."
"And I'd eat it here? At your table?"
"Yes. Or anywhere you like. And you can start practicing that royal advisor bit. I have quite a few questions about this magic of yours."
"That sounds excellent. But…I think that there are a few other people I need to go see."
"You came here before seeing Gaius?" Arthur asked, surprised.
"Of course," Merlin said with a smile. "I had to make sure the Once and Future King had survived without me."
"Well, it was touch and go there for a bit. But I made it."
"Barely," Merlin said firmly.
"Barely," Arthur conceded.
Merlin moved toward the door.
"Merlin?" Arthur called after him. Merlin stopped and looked back with a question in his eyes. "So...the vision that you saw…the future?"
"Do we have much time left before the end?" Merlin's face grew guarded, and Arthur shifted tactics. "Forget I asked that. What I really want to know is…is it…good? The time we have left?"
Merlin smiled softly. "Yes, Arthur. It's the best time of our lives."
Arthur smiled in return.
Merlin turned to go, moving swiftly into the hallway, a shadow falling across his face. He closed the door behind him and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly
"Merlin?" came a voice from down the corridor. "Merlin!"
Then he was grinning again, moving into shaking arms that engulfed him completely.
"My boy. My boy!"
And Merlin...was home.
A/N: Thank you so much to *all* my wonderful readers! *hugs* You bless me every day. And thanks to Eilonwyn and her amazing, totally mad beta skillz. *more hugs* This fic is so, so much better for all her input. Love to you all! Thanks for your support!