AN - Thanks so much everyone for all the reviews. It's been a little overwhelming to be honest! Hope this last chapter doesn't disappoint.
"Leave me alone."
"Emrys…" the words slipped into his head like someone pouring honey into his ear. "Join us."
"Just one night. Can't I just have one night of uninterrupted sleep!" he moaned.
There was the sound of laughter, but gentle, not mocking. Not like his other nights.
"But Emrys… you are not sleeping."
"What?" Merlin opened his eyes to find that the words were true. He was awake, and the voice in his head was no more a dream than the four walls surrounding him. Walls that were unexpectedly bright, he noticed, blinking, and sitting up in confusion.
The blanket that had been covering his window and keeping the room in darkness all this time had been removed, and a rectangle of fresh light was playing on the far wall. He squinted at it, realising it was probably the first morning sunlight he'd seen in almost four months. He hadn't missed it that much.
But why was his window uncovered now? Gaius knew he hated the light, that it hurt his head, and made things go foggy. Whenever someone had tried to take the blanket away in the past few weeks, he'd always made such a fuss that it had been reluctantly left where it was. But now, someone had crept in and silently removed it while he slept.
How sneaky of them, he thought to himself, irritated.
He looked around, barely registering how the fogginess of his room was already settling as he hunted for the covering, intending to magic it back up to its former position. But there was no sign of it. Whoever had taken the blanket, had removed it entirely, although they did also appear to have left him breakfast. On his table sat a plate of bread and ham, and a beaker of something, and a bowl set beside them, which was faintly steaming in the morning sunlight.
"Gaius?" he called, craning round to look out of his open door. There was no response.
He screwed up his face, blinking his eyes and scrubbing at them. He wondered if he was ever going to shake the feeling of constant heaviness that was sitting on him, like he was too weak to move, or even be bothered thinking about getting out of bed. Maybe he should just go back to sleep, ignore the light, and the breakfast and burry his head under the blankets until Gaius re-appeared and he could shout at him properly for leaving him alone.
But that bread smelt so good. His stomach gurgled rudely.
Sighing, he pushed a foot out of bed, and then the other, and staggered upwards and over to the table. He ate quickly, and without thinking, dinking what turned out to be a very light ale, and letting his eyes stray to the bowl of hot water, which had clearly been left for the purpose of morning ablutions. With the idea in his head, as soon as he was finished the bread and ham, he washed his face, enjoying the feeling of the warm water soaking into his beard and hair and then dripping down his neck. He rubbed it all over. The water smelt of lavender.
His head shot up, drips of scented water flying off as he whipped around.
He reached for a drying sheet that had been left over his chair, then, on some instinct, looked around for clothes
He hadn't been dressed since they'd brought him back from the hall, shaking, exhausted, and reluctant to let even Gaius help him remove the tattered remnants of his old outfit. Since then, he'd been living in his sleep clothes like they were a second skin. But the cupboard that housed his clothes was still there, and he went over to it quickly, yanking the doors, and sighing heavily in frustration as he realised that nothing inside was his. The clothes were finer, fancier. Perhaps his room had been used for storage in his long absence – another sign of how they'd all so easily forgotten him, and moved on with their lives.
Well tough. Whoever the owner was they would just have to share, he thought crossly, as he grabbed dark brown trousers, a red chemise and a darker red over-shirt. He pulled them on quickly, barely noticing how well they fit as he huffed about tassels that didn't want to be on the right side of where they were supposed to go.
He found boots by the door, well shined and new, but still soft when he slipped them on. They smelt good quality, and were surprisingly comfortable as he walked out into Gaius' chamber, scanning it quickly to confirm that his guardian was not present.
He was all the way across the room and at the door before he felt his heart rate suddenly picking up, and a prick of sweat on his brow that was nothing to do with the swelter of the room, caused by the good fire banked up in the hearth. Going outside, even the idea of going outside, was still enough to panic him, and he closed his eyes for a moment, swallowing and gripping the door handle firmly.
He had to do this. Whatever was in his mind, was out there, calling to him and he had to go to it. He'd heard voices calling to him for most of his imprisonment, saying his name, telling him to be strong, that his time would come But those hadn't been the only voices he'd heard. There had been less kind ones, scornful and harsh: you're alone, they would say, they all hate you and what you are and that's why you're here, and no one's ever coming to let you out.
The voices had mingled, dancing in the darkness until he could almost see them, and certainly passing beyond the point where he could separate the imagined from the real. Whatever kind souls had been trying to reach him to offer support, they'd achieved little with their efforts beyond compounding his confusion.
But the voice in his head now was as real as day, and seeking out its source was as urgent for him as finding Gaius. His guardian, after all, hadn't left him alone these long weeks, not completely alone like this, not waking up to the solitude he feared almost as much as going outside.
He opened his eyes, pulled over the door roughly, and walked out into the corridor.
There was no one at all in sight, or even in range of his hearing. Which was good, he didn't really want to be subject to any questions or scrutiny, or have people watching him. That's all people seemed to want to do: look at him, look at the sorcerer Arthur trained by sticking him in a hole in the ground.
The thought plagued him as he crossed down to the steps that would take him up into the higher reaches of the castle, and he suddenly realised that he was talking as he walked, telling himself off for being so stupid and weak. He stopped it quickly, not wanting to draw any attention, and started on the steps, keeping close in to the side as he ascended, taking the steps slowly and carefully in deference to his weak legs, and trailing a hand along the wall as he went, enjoying the odd security that the feeling of stone seemed to give him.
Somehow in his head, he knew he was making for the grand hall, and his feet took him there with barely an instruction from his brain. The only addition his thoughts made to the process was advising his feet to use the back entrance rather than going in through the main doors, and they complied willingly enough, bringing him around and in the side door, again with barely a thought.
He could hear the voices long before he reached the entrance, and he tried to pick out words and recognise who was speaking. There seemed to be laughter, but short bursts of it, as if those laughing didn't feel comfortable enough with their humour to express it for long. There was also applause, and the murmur of crowds talking amongst themselves. As he drew close, he could clearly make out the sound of Arthur's voice, and he picked up speed to get inside the room so that he could hear what his King was saying.
Keeping behind a pillar, he again put a hand to the stone, and listened.
"Once again I wanted to thank you all for coming here today, and thank you indeed for those kind words and unexpected gifts. It has been a long time since magic has been so openly performed within this great hall. But it is that very subject which I have called you all here to discuss. The subject of magic."
It took Merlin maybe 10 seconds to digest what Arthur had said, by which time he'd gone on to say other things, which the young warlock subsequently missed. He flipped himself round so that his back was to the pillar, and shut his eyes. The subject of magic.
"…like my father before me," Arthur was saying behind him. "But I have now come to question whether that belief is in fact correct, and I have realised that I am not in possession of all the information that I need. When such decisions are made, they need to come from a base of wisdom and compassion, not fear and mistrust. In light of this, I wish to hold open talks with you all on the subject of magic, on its uses and abuses, its history, its mythologies, and its people I want you to convince me why magic should no longer be banned within the boundaries of Camelot, and I want you to be open and honest with me. In return, if I am compelled by your arguments, I will seek to immediately change the laws, and declare magic, and those who practice it, to be free in my kingdom once more."
As the crowd broke into excited murmurs, Merlin's eyes and mouth shot open at the same time. He felt his legs weaken further beneath him and he gripped the stone with damp palms to prevent a potentially embarrassing and painful trip to the floor.
Magic free? After all he'd been through, after all Arthur had done to him – was this his attempt to make things right? Or was it a trick? Was this his way of rounding up the magic users that his father had missed, and putting an end to them?
Merlin wondered who was in the hall, and used the distraction of the crowd to poke his head out from behind the pillar for a quick look.
The group standing before Arthur was larger than he'd been expecting – some thirty people. Some of the druids he recognised, and there was Alator of the Cathar. But the rest were unknown to him – it wasn't like he'd had much of a chance to hang out with sorcerers in his life. He wondered where they'd come from, and how Arthur had contacted them and persuaded them to attend.
The king held his hands up for silence, and Merlin hid himself once more as he began to speak.
"This may come as a shock to many, and I understand that change is difficult," he stated. "But I strongly feel that this is the way to proceed."
Merlin breathed. He sounded genuine – and say what you want about Arthur, he wasn't usually underhand. If he thought something he said it, and if he wanted to do something, he did it. But this was huge, this was unbelievable. He rubbed his face.
"King Arthur." Merlin recognised the voice of one of the druids. He'd met this man before on more than one occasion, though he did not know his name. "We thank you for your gracious welcome, and for the offer of peace between our peoples. For too long, those who practice magic with good will, and no evil intent have been living in fear for their lives. These abilities are natural, and though they must be developed, we have no choice as to whether we have magic within us or not, as to whether our children will grow up to have the ability or not.
"There are those who use magic for their own ends, but they are not the majority of our kind. If magic is made legal once more, if we are free once more, then we will gladly give our skills to assist you in the creation of this great kingdom; our abilities used for healing, and to help bring peace and protection to your people."
There were more murmurs around the hall at that.
When they died down, he continued. "Legends have long spoken of you, King Arthur, as a great man, a wise leader, who would bring about an age of stability, and rule over one of the greatest kingdoms this land has ever known – both magic users, and non-magic users. But I must ask, when the legends speak of you, they do not speak of you alone, they speak of you and another, both great men, both destined to bring about the return of magic to the land for the benefit of all peoples. The legends say you are two sides of the same coin, greater together, and greatly diminished when apart.
"I must confess that I expected to see both of you when I came here today. Please tell me: where is Merlin?"
There was another murmur around the hall, and Merlin closed his eyes in shame. The voices seemed mocking suddenly, harsh.
Arthur's voice rose above them. "Your words are kind," he said. "But you speak too well of me I'm afraid. If I am great, then I am also capable of great mistakes, and even as a King, I am not immune to making bad decisions. I made the worst one of my life not four months ago when it was revealed to me that Merlin, who you speak of, was in fact a sorcerer." More murmurs, but Arthur went on. "Merlin had been given my complete trust, and had proved himself a brave and selfless servant, time and time again. But when I discovered the truth about his abilities, I allowed my prejudices to get the better of me. I imprisoned him, cruelly, and for many months. But even after what I had done, when Camelot had need of him, when my beloved wife…" here he paused briefly, and Merlin could only assume that he was glancing to Gwen. "When she was in danger, and only magic could help, Merlin rose to the challenge and again put the life of others before his own. He has been released and exonerated, and is free to return to his position and live his life in Camelot. But my cruelties have affected him deeply, and he keeps to his room now. I have no doubt that you will find him there is you wish to see him. For my part, I deeply regret my actions, and wish only that I could go back to that moment, and make a different decision.
"Merlin is the reason that you are here today. He is the reason that my eyes have been opened to the goodness of magic. And I am more grateful to him than he will ever know, and more sorry that I can ever express."
In the silence that followed Arthur's heartfelt statement, Merlin raised his eyes to the roof, feeling the wetness on his cheeks as tears dripped down into his beard.
"King Arthur," the druid spoke again. "There are no perfect men in this world of ours. All that we can ever ask is that we know ourselves, and that we strive to be better. That have you taken this action is regrettable, but that you wish to make amends is the sign of a better person than you give yourself credit for.
"Merlin is known to my people as Emrys, but he has many other names, as he has been spoken of in our legends for an age and more. He was born to his power, and magic flows through his veins as blood flows through yours. He is connected to the earth, to all things living, magical and not. He has protected your kingdom, and without him you would have died many times over. He is the most powerful of all magical peoples, and yet he has endured a lowly position at your side for many years, seeking no reward, and striving only to keep you safe. Without him, we would not be living in the world we see today."
Arthur cleared his throat. "Indeed," his voice broke. "We all owe him a great debt. More, clearly than we know."
"Then you should tell him," the druid said, and Merlin could hear the humour in his voice, and with dread, knew what was about to happen.
"Unfortunately," Arthur responded. "Merlin has refused to see me these past few weeks. His reasons are quite understandable."
"You should tell him now then."
"What do you…?"
As Arthur broke off, Merlin could sense the eyes of the entire hall turn to look at the pillar he was hiding behind. He wondered briefly if this was simply another nightmare, and in a few seconds he would wake, with the sheets tangled around him, and the memories quickly fading. But it was real, and there was no easy awakening.
He sniffed, and swiped a hand quickly across his face, before turning and stepping out before the crowd.
There were gasps from the bystanders, and smiles from many of the knights, at his sudden appearance. Merlin knew then that none of this had been an accident: the food, the water, the clothes, the voice in his head. He caught sight of Gaius looking rather pleased with himself in the crowd as he came forward, but before he could even throw him a disgruntled look, he was distracted more by the shocking reaction of the magic users standing before the King. They, all of them, dropped to their knees before him in honest reverence to the greatest warlock that had ever lived.
Who pretty much wanted the floor to just crack open a fissure right at his feet and swallow him whole.
He was crying now, which was – humiliating, but fairly uncontrollable, and he moved forward as quickly as his legs could carry him.
"Please," he said quietly. "Please don't kneel to me."
"Merlin!" came a voice from behind him, and he turned to see Arthur staring at him in abject and genuine shock, clearly not part of the scheme to get him to the hall. The King came forward himself, and then, to Merlin's utter embarrassment, also lowered himself to one knee and dropped his head before him.
Merlin gasped slightly, watching as a grinning Gwen stood from her throne and did the same. And then of course, when the King kneeled the people follow, and he whipped around as the whole hall proceeded to genuflect towards him.
He put both hands to his face. It was too much. He wanted to hide. Wanted to go back to his room and his bed and his tiny world and see no one and do nothing and just forget what had happened.
Arthur, seeing his distress, rose quickly and came towards him, taking his hands.
Everyone rose to their feet again, but Merlin's eyes were on the floor, and he couldn't look at anyone.
"I'm so sorry," the King said. "Merlin, I'm so sorry for everything."
He nodded briefly, unable to speak.
"The best days of Camelot are still before you," a voice came from behind them, and they turned to see the druid smiling benignly. "And together, you will make this kingdom a shining light that will be the wonder of the world."
Arthur turned to Merlin. "Will you help me?" he asked. "I've said it before, and you know I mean it. I can't do this without you. And you'll be free to use magic. Magic will be free."
Merlin looked at him then, and looked around him. Arthur had done this. He had challenged everything he believed and everything he'd been taught to bring these people here, to publicly acknowledge magic. To make these people free. And he'd done it for him. All this was for him. It was overwhelming, it was staggering. It was more than he could have imagined. And in that moment, Arthur became his King again, still an idiot, still with so much to learn and so much to make better, and so much to do.
But he was human, after all, and which of us ever walks a path through life without making a few hideous wrong turns along the way? It was down to your friends and your heart to guide you back to the road you were meant to travel.
Taking in a breath, Merlin tried to steady his voice. "Yes," he said eventually. "I will."
"Long live the King!" someone shouted, and the hall quickly erupted into loud applause and woops and cheers from all angles.
Arthur gathered his warlock friend into a firm embrace, feeling him shake with emotion. "I really am so sorry," he said into his ear, barely heard over the hullabaloo around them.
Merlin drew back to look him in the eye. "I know, Arthur," he said softly.
"Can you ever forgive me?"
He considered his King, thinking carefully, running through the emotions in his heart, and the feelings in his soul. "Yes," he responded eventually, then quickly shook his head. "But not this day. Not yet." Arthur looked crestfallen. "It was too much," Merlin went on. "It almost destroyed me, and you have to understand that. I can't just forgive and forget and move on like nothing happened, because it changed everything. But this, what you've done today, this starts something. It starts something. Give me time."
Arthur put his hands on his arms. "All the time in the world," he asserted. "We'll do this together. And I promise, nothing will come between us again."
Merlin shrugged faintly. "You can't promise that," he said, then smiled. "But who am I to challenge a legend?"
Arthur smiled back at that, and docked him very gently on the chin as the cheers around them continued. "So when are you going to shave off that ridiculous beard?" he asked.
Merlin raised his hand and rubbed it over his face, ignoring the hall, allowing himself to feel better suddenly, better than he had done in weeks. "Do you know what," he said, looking into the face of his King. "I think I might just keep it."