HO. LEY. CHEESE.
170 pages. Yes, that's how long this fic is, all seven parts combined. That's about 87,000 words. I did warn you that you'd have plenty to read from me, didn't I? Well, here's Part 1—the first part of the reason why I've been slightly AWOL the past few weeks. I almost regard each part as a sort of "movie," like in the style of Lord of the Rings; each "Part" is a long story which leads to a second "Part," and so on. (There are six parts, by the way, and an epilogue.)
As the summary states, this is a reincarnation!story, but just so we're clear—Merlin himself is the only character you'll recognize who is NOT reincarnated, but in fact he's been alive for 1,533 years, precisely. It's a partly-adventure/fantasy, mostly-angst/friendship story, so I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I'm a little nervous that you won't read it all because it's so long, but I hopehopehope you'll stick around until the end! You're all so great to do so in all my one-shots and shorter multi-chapters, and I want to thank you so much for that with this summertime gift!
I'm trying not to put too much Author's Note, but one thing I'd like to say is that this is sort of a pre-published work to me, which means that as of now I'm actually working on an original book I'd like to get published soon for real! It's a very different genre style, but I'd love constructive criticism on dialogue, grammar, plot, flow, etc., if you please!
REMEMBER! To anyone reading this, this fic was written under the knowledge of Season 4 events; I knew nothing about Season 5 or later seasons when I wrote all parts of it, so there are guaranteed to be things that do not match up with the show post-Season 4. I wrote it with inspiration from both the show AND the legends, especially regarding the Final Battle scenes. Any similarities or conflicts in the plots after Season 4 settings are completely coincidental. Thanks so much and I hope you enjoy!
The Voice in the Dream
"Arthur! Behind you!"
He whirled around with quickness and agility that could come only from a lifetime of training and preparation—preparation for this battle, this moment, even if he had never known it until now.
His eyes were struck with the gleam of the dull sunlight reflecting from the metal of a blade, and even while he realized with a terrible jolt that he couldn't move fast enough, that he wasn't as young as he once had been, that this blade might surely be his last rival, he could not help but wonder at how incredible it was that the sun's rays were still shining and penetrating the putrid atmosphere of war surrounding them.
The sound of swords clashing all around seemed to vanish altogether as the unknown opponent grew closer and closer, his blade raised high above his head…
…and then, the dark figure was gone, blown back like a weightless leaf in a wild wind.
A hand, wrinkled and weathered, stretched out in the edge of his vision; eyes, golden and glowing, met his own.
Scarcely a beat between them, but it was enough to convey all, and then that same voice, coarse with age but still so alive, in a language that was not the one he knew, but something more ancient and primitive,
"The tower, Arthur. She's in the tower."
He followed the eyes, aqua blue now, to the great fortification standing on the hill before them, like a wicked giant watching with solemn exultance the brutal conflict between the two armies, untouched by all but the darkness sweeping in with the opaque storm clouds gathering overhead.
He turned to his ally, never fully taking his attention from the battle around them for fear of assailant; even in the midst of such outward and inner turmoil, he could somehow find the presence of mind to appreciate that this man, whose hair had been dark and face innocent when all of this had begun so long ago, who had had every chance to leave him to suffer this war alone, was still here, still with him, still ready to endure whatever he must to save him.
"Go," he heard himself say, in a voice as worn and rough as his companion's, and it was a voice he would not have recognized when he was a younger man, before he had been aged by the cruel world around him.
His friend's eyes, deep as an endless pool, darkened with doubt and dread, and for only one, brief moment, he took in that look, the one which bespoke of such incredible loyalty and undeserved love, before the unmistakable death-cry of one of his youngest men rang in his ears from somewhere in the fray.
His companion did not move, only waited for him to give the word, ever as calm and trusting as he had always been, standing so still and silent with the fraught movements of the battle so close behind him.
He sucked in a harsh breath, and took firm grasp of his courage, for though they both had known it would come to this, he had never been one for goodbyes.
Then, his own harsh shout, resolute and succumbing, echoed more painfully in his head than the roar of war.
Merlin did not look back.
Arthur heard his own gasp as he woke with a start, heart pounding in his ears and breathing sharp and painful in his lungs.
He looked around himself, and where he half-expected to see freshly dead bodies attired in some capes of red and some of black, he saw only the obscure shape of his dresser, sitting silently against the plain wall beside the window.
Pale moonlight poured in, illuminating a perfect rectangle across the center of his small bed, shining upon him like a quiet reassurance of reality.
He carded his fingers through his damp, silken hair, and was irritated at their trembling.
"A dream," he murmured to himself, firmly, and it was more to hear his own voice than anything.
Still, he repeated it in his mind several times and let his breathing calm before he stood and moved through the light of the moon to the window. He rested his head against the cool glass and peered down into the street, letting the muffled noises of the few cars below serve to confirm that he was, in fact, standing by the slightly dirty window in his apartment in central London, and not at the open one where he so often dreamed he stood, in a medieval castle tucked away in a vast forest where knights bearing a golden crest scoured and pure-white unicorns grazed and magic danced in the breeze.
And where he sat upon a regal throne with a warlock called Merlin at his side.
Merlin walked alone in a strange world.
It was not unfamiliar, certainly not that. He had walked this way more times than even he could recall; with its immense, lush oaks and its soft, dirt footpaths, it was as close to the place he knew as home as he dared to get. He knew that, less than a mile from where he walked in silence, the continuous blaring of car horns and the blinding glare of city lights cut through the peace of the air, and that he must return to it eventually; while he was here, however, surrounded by the sweet-smelling plants whose branches swung gently in the breeze, as though friends greeting him as he passed, he could very nearly imagine that he was not there at all, in that huge city which was regarded as one of the brightest and best in all the world but was really nothing but anger and greed and sadness, and that he would travel the worn pathways until he soon reached the gate of the city which truly had been the best.
He thought sometimes of returning to that place, of sitting at that secret brook from which he used to drink when he was in search of herbs for Gaius, and of looking out across that fertile hill where he had once been able to catch the first glimpse of the strong and majestic city called Camelot.
Sometimes, he wished he could forget it. He wished he could erase from his mind the sensation of pure contentment when the first great tower reached his eyes after a long journey away, and the sweet scent of the breads in the marketplace and the soothing sound of hoofs against the cobblestones and the welcoming smiles which met him as he maneuvered with the ease of familiarity through the winding streets toward the solid castle in the center.
He belonged nowhere now, to no one, living an empty life in an unhappy land, his hair forever dark and face eternally young so that no one could ever guess how many hundreds of years had passed since his age had matched his countenance. For this lifetime, he hid within the meaningless name of Colin James, because his true identity was just a comical shadow in a legend so ancient that no one even cared for it anymore.
No one cared that there had once been a good and wise physician called Gaius, who had taught the would-be prodigy Merlin how to be equally good and wise, or that Merlin loved him as a father long before the kingdom loved Merlin as its savior. No one cared that there was once a great dragon named Kilgharrah, who suffered captivity in a dank cave for twenty years and who waited with restless spirit for the world of freedom Arthur would raise. No one cared that there were five knights—Percival, Gwaine, Lancelot, Elyan, and Leon—or that they were all good and noble soldiers who fought without self-regard for their beloved king. No one cared that there was a beautiful woman with dark skin and a kind heart named Guinevere, or that Arthur was the only person who never called her "Gwen," and that she spoke with honesty and honor, and that was how she cared for Arthur's heart as well.
Merlin thought Arthur might find it amusing, the fictional rumors which fueled book plots and movie scripts in this modern age.
He supposed he should be grateful that at least Arthur's name was not forgotten. As hollow as he was, he himself could not resist a smirk of enjoyment as he listened to schoolboys argue over which of them got to be King Arthur in the battle (for the first few hundred years, it was with wooden swords and armor of gray sackcloth, now of computer-animated figures and glowing weapons which looked nothing like the true Excalibur). When a historian once had declared that even as a prince, Arthur was the cleverest, brightest, and quickest of all the boys in the kingdom, Merlin had commented, in so many words, that perhaps you should have seen him yourself before you assume he was anything more than a royal prat with an arrogance issue.
That had been in the year 1681, and he'd never attended another history class again.
Now, he nearly looked up when a figure with broad shoulders and blonde hair which gleamed in the electric lights passed him, but he did not, for he had learnt long ago that no matter how many of them looked like kings, they would never be Arthur. They would never possess his wit, or his heart, or his soul; he was impossible to duplicate.
So through the circling days and years and centuries, Merlin chose to walk alone.
As had become his daily problem, Arthur did not see the buildings and vehicles and people as the train sped through the city. Instead, his face flashed through his mind…his, and so many others'…and he rubbed his eyes in hopes to dispel the visions.
Though, he knew, he didn't really want them to disappear. As insane as he sounded even to himself, and though he should grow up and stop dreaming make-believe, he could never stop them, could never want to stop them. There was something in them, in these dreams which felt so real and yet so unreal. He was complete in his dreams, like he was a half of something greater and that when he dreamt, the other half was with him, and that was something he could never explain to even himself.
"Are you all right, Arthur?"
He looked to his right, where Kate was watching him with green eyes that held that all-too-familiar look of odd regard.
"Yes," came his standard answer. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"Dreaming about your beloved kingdom again, are you? Say hi to Guinevere for me?"
Arthur sighed and wished for the umpteenth time that he hadn't let his father's young, accomplished secretary hang out at his place that one time he got drunk.
"I told you," he said, hoping that she didn't notice the blush creeping upon his cheeks, "they're just dreams, Kate. They don't mean anything."
She flipped her mock blonde hair from her face and watched him shift uncomfortably in his seat, and just as she knew he would, he misunderstood the weight of her gaze entirely.
"I'm serious, Kate," he reaffirmed, and there was no mistaking the blush now. "There is nothing to these dreams except a little too much imagination from my childhood."
"Imagination?" she laughed. "You? Arthur, you have about as much imagination as a doorpost. Perhaps it's just plain insanity."
She smiled coyly but did not interrupt as he continued.
"We've been friends for what—seven years now?" He pulled unconsciously at his sleeve in the chilly air. "And in all that time, have I ever shown any signs of insanity…besides these dreams?"
"I suppose not, Arthur."
He narrowed his sapphire eyes at her without amusement.
"No," he corrected firmly. "The answer is no, Kate. I don't actually believe that in some alternate universe, I am, or once was, King Arthur. For all I know, he may never have existed at all. Camelot may be nothing more than a myth. They've never found proof of it, you know."
"That doesn't mean it never existed," she reminded him without hesitation. "And all historians will tell you that Arthur must have lived at some point."
"I know that, Kate," he sighed, but before he could say more, she added,
"And what about Merlin?"
If she noted the way his back seemed to tense just the slightest bit at mention of the name, Kate never said so, but only continued to watch him with intense eyes, aqua in color and swirling with something he had never noticed since the day he accidentally ran into her in the park and they met for the first time in their lives.
"What about him?"
"If Arthur lived, then Merlin must have as well."
"And what makes you say that?"
Her eyes dimmed, but as always, Arthur never saw the memories dancing around in the darkest parts of her mind, or understood what it meant when her teeth clenched together.
"Well, if Arthur was anything like you," she said at last, and it was supposed to be teasing, but her voice had changed just the littlest bit, "then he would have needed someone smarter than him to guide him."
"So you're telling me," Arthur's loud and skeptical voice pulled her shifting eyes back to his face, "that you actually believe a magical man called Merlin took a long-lost prince named Arthur to a rock with a magical sword stuck in it, and that this boy was crowned king just because he could pull the sword out in one try. And even though Merlin was already a shriveled-up old man in a pointy hat, he lived long enough to be Arthur's advisor for fiftiesh years, until at last he was locked for eternity in an enchanted tree by the woman he was stalking. The end."
Kate flitted her gaze up to Arthur, and the hard laugh which escaped her did not mean exactly what Arthur assumed.
"No," she conceded lightly. "I guess that is very fictional, isn't it?"
"Total and complete rubbish," he agreed, returning his attention to the scenery outside. "If they both did live, they were probably just like every other king and advisor that have ever been in Britain. They were just chosen by bored writers to be characters because they won some great battles against a few bad people. That's all."
At that, the two friends both turned away in what could have been a congenial silence. Neither saw the other's face as Arthur's fell in a peculiar sort of inward guilt at his own disregard for the legend which haunted his dreams, and Kate's darkened with an unspoken vengeance which seethed beneath the surface like sizzling poison.
Arthur could never have known it, but she did.
She knew it was all to begin a second time.
She was determined that she would not lose again.
Merlin had no home.
The place at which he dwelt was not his home. It was bleak, and empty, with bare, white walls and water-stained ceilings. In it, the air was always cold, and the sun shone in to light up the monotony only once for a short time in the day before it disappeared from the view of the tiny, warped window.
Once, when he was but a young manservant to a demanding prince, he might have leapt at the chance to live in such freedom as he had in this modern world. Now that his skills were sharpened and his magic potent with ages of use, he could live in better conditions than any king of Camelot ever did; he could invent riches from nothing if he so desired, he knew, and live in total invincibility in whatever glory he wanted.
Now, however, he would give up a thousand lifetimes of glory if he could simply serve Arthur again.
He had nearly nothing from that past life. During the expanse of time of what is called the Middle Ages, his kind were hunted once more, by men—some truly wicked, some only frightened of what they did not understand—more cruel and ruthless than Uther Pendragon ever was during the Great Purge. He had been more inexperienced then, lost and unaided by anyone, and so he had been forced to abandon every scrap of recollection he had, from the tiniest bottle of potion to the worn book Gaius had given him in well-meant hopes that first week in Camelot, before of any of them knew what he was, or was to become. He had the pages memorized, every discolouration and fold of them, but he'd still felt a choking pain in his chest as he had watched it burn into ashes in a great fireplace raging with so many fragments of him.
He had changed his name for the first time that night, and he was never called by it again.
He hardly needed even to think about unlocking the door of his flat. So accustomed was he to using his magic—albeit discreetly, just as it had been before Arthur's setting him free and as it seemed it would always be now—he did not even feel the flash of power any longer. Where it had once been a process of constant learning and study, magic was as easy to him now as breathing; there were no books of enlightenment for him to read, no spells left to practice until perfect. He knew them all, and yet they did him no good except to open a door or flip on a light. There was no evil to vanquish (at least, none that was anymore worth it), no Camelot to defend, no one to protect…and so it was all but futile knowledge to him, and while he still loved the magic within him, he despised its uselessness more and more each day.
He entered slowly into the blackness of the flat, eyes flashing gold once and dispelling the darkness with small circles of light floating in every corner and little flames appearing on honeycomb-wax candles placed about the room. He had used electricity for a short while, when it had first appeared in the world and he'd thought it more remarkable than anything ever invented by man, but its novelty had worn off eventually, and he much preferred to step into a place lit dimly with his precious magic and candles bearing one of the elements of the earth than one bathed with the glaring brightness of electric bulbs.
He had taken the time to remove his tan jacket and woolen, red scarf before he felt it trickle into his awareness.
His back stiffened abruptly, the little places at the back of his neck and the base of his spine tingling at the sensation he had not felt in centuries. His eyes became wide and bright, the slightest gold seeping into them—not from himself, from somewhere else, someone else….
He looked up, his heart suddenly pounding in his head and fingers curled in instinctive readiness. There was nothing to see in the reflection of the mirror in front of him but his own face, and yet, in the still-dark bedroom behind him, something was tugging at him, pulling insistently at his spirit….
The forgotten scarf dropped to the mock-wood floor, and he turned toward the closed door of the room, body trembling not with fear, as he supposed it should, but with anticipation, for here, after all these endless years, someone was here, someone had found him, and perhaps, no matter for what they had come, they could give him purpose, could make his life meaningful again….
His blood had run cold even before he saw the figure standing beside his bookcase in the unlit room.
It was madness, perhaps, and obsessive devotion as well, but when he looked into the peering, iced eyes and his magic whispered in frantic, Mordred, the first coherent thought in his mind was that if he was here again, perhaps so were others…Arthur….
He stepped without trepidation through the doorframe, and five candles about the place flickered to life at his presence, illuminating the pale and stone-cold face before him.
Mordred closed the tome in his hands and replaced it upon the shelf with the others, his crystal-blue eyes never leaving Merlin's as he did so. He was surely not much older than a boy, with the stature and age about his countenance of a man equal to Merlin. Like the ages-old warlock, however, he was not what he seemed.
Merlin had only to look once into his icy eyes to see it.
Mordred's face did not move, but his youthful voice whispered inside Merlin's head all the same, inspiring a thousand questions within him. There was one, however, to which he knew the answer already. Mordred had returned, from some wicked place deep in the earth, to make a request of his own.
"It has been many centuries since I was called by that name," said he unflinchingly, in their native tongue of the old Albion, though he himself was so long in speaking it he wondered, briefly, if he was fluent anymore.
"I know it has been."
Mordred stepped forward, softly and eerily, like a spirit come to haunt him from dreams he wished to forget; his steps did not even make the old floor creak as it always did when Merlin walked upon it, so light and delicate were they.
"Then you know," said Merlin, who never moved, even when Mordred was but a few feet from him, "that I'll not help you."
"You will. You must, Emrys. It is the only way that we can be free again."
"I refuse to throw my good magic in with your selfish kind. Excalibur is safe, where the likes of you will never find it and use it for evil."
"Look where your 'good magic' has gotten you, warlock."
He tried to hide the breaking of his breath at the truth those words struck in him, but he could hide nothing from his brother of the Old Religion, and Mordred slid closer to him across the dull and scratched floor of his lonely room.
"They told you," his voice carried on, softly, almost in sympathy, though Merlin knew that could never be so, not with the coldness of his soul which could never be cured, "that it was your destiny. They whispered words in your mind and to your heart, told you that Albion would be saved and magic freed through you and your king, if you would only serve them and their will."
He refused let the curtains shielding his eyes fall and reveal it all within him to his old enemy, but even as his gaze hardened and his fingers curled against his palms, he remembered in his deepest soul how many, many times these very words had risen in his mind while he sat alone in the dark.
"Look out your window, Emrys. Albion is not saved. Magic is not free. You gave your life as a servant to the destiny they chose for you, and now that Camelot's time to reign in greatness is over, they have abandoned you, left you cold and forgotten in the world they let die after you sacrificed all to resurrect it."
Merlin realized suddenly that his eyes had fallen from Mordred's, and that his mask had dropped as he felt the reality seep into his heart and kill him slowly, as it had been doing for ages; with each passing moment in his history since his era of glory, he had been dying in spirit, little by little. To hear the words not from himself, but from the heart of another from that same past, only served to increase their potency. What reasons he once had to remain strong were swiftly disappearing from his memory, and the one reason who stood out beyond all others felt so very far away, so long moved on.
"Where is your purpose now?"
The knowing inflection of Mordred's whispering voice made him lift his gaze again, and he did not feel as strong and sure any longer; he felt fragile, as if one touch to the right point would shatter him completely…and Mordred knew exactly where his weakest place had always been.
Then, the mere thought of his king brought with it that old, familiar fire inside his heart. It mattered not where Arthur was now; all that mattered was that he keep his promise, the promise he had sworn to uphold for as long as they were apart. What, he thought in his mind where Mordred could not see, would Arthur say to him here? When his sapphire eyes burned into Merlin's, what would they plead for him to do? As it always had, it took little more than the image him to renew Merlin's strengths, and he held Mordred's gaze with more intensity than he had before, his voice strong as the Merlin from that time and with neither frailty nor insecurity.
"My loyalties lie only with King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot," he declared with his whole heart, speaking the English of the modern world as a symbol the timeless truth of his words. "I will not betray him for anything someone like you could offer me. It is in his name, and his alone, that my purpose lies. You should know that better than anyone."
Mordred's eyes flickered, briefly, with something black and frigid, and following it, his demeanor hardened into stone once more, his voiceless words becoming acidic and vicious.
"You have no purpose anymore, Emrys. You cannot fool me; I know that you have been searching for a meaning for all these years since that day. Look, and you'll see that you should forget the faith you have in him."
At that, the pale blueness in the eyes of the corrupt warlock was overtaken by a whispering gold, and in the depths of Merlin's imagination appeared a vision that was unlike anything he would have expected from his ancient foe. He felt it when his magic gave a jolt in his chest, and he could no longer even see Mordred standing there with him as the image filled his vision and took hold of his every attention.
It was Arthur, though no Arthur he had ever laid eyes upon. This Arthur was without a past, so very young and defenseless, with hair the color of unripe wheat and curling in soft, adolescent tendrils. Eyes, deeper blue than sapphires, sparkled with innocence and wonder which the older Arthur had lost by the time Merlin knew him. He sat on a hardwood floor with his small legs crossed, and in his hands which were without mark or callous, two, plastic knight-figurines battled.
As Merlin watched, this tiny Arthur's face changed telling expressions as in his youthful mind, the red- and blue-caped knights at his command made an agreement of battle. He set them both on the polished floor, one at the front of a tiny, red army and the other at the front of a blue one, and then he twisted and grabbed a pair of toy dragons from behind him, moving them so that they appeared to be flying in the air above the still soldiers, both creatures fighting gallantly for their respective kings.
Our Arthur, his voiceless magic whispered within him excitedly.
Merlin felt his eyes soften and tenderness spread through his body, which had been so long empty of any feelings at all except loneliness and growing despair. He found himself wanting only to scoop the child into his arms and smooth down the unruly, yellow curls with his own fingers, to tell him stories that would make him laugh that unbridled laughter, to protect him from everything—everything—that might harm him.
He blinked the tears in his eyes away, for somewhere in his mind, he knew that Mordred was still there, watching him with a gaze cold and calculating. Then, he noted something else which stole the breath from his lungs. In his many lifetimes never had he seen anything so inspiriting, for on the wall behind where Arthur played, a paper calendar hung, and on it symbols clear and bold declared the day to be October 13, 1989.
Arthur is alive.
Somewhere outside the haze which had overpowered him, Mordred shifted just slightly toward him, and then the image changed before his eyes. Now, where the toddler Arthur had been sitting, there stood an older boy; his hair was a darker blonde, and shorter now, but the light of hope and strength in his familiar eyes was the exact same. The room in which he stood was dimmer than in the last image, a sharp line of orange across his blue shirt indicating the hour of sunset, and in his hand he held a plain, red backpack.
Merlin could not help the affectionate smile which touched his lips as he saw the poorly-drawn dragon on the corner of a worn notebook sticking out from the front pocket.
Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, his smile faded, for beside the young Arthur stepped another little boy, and this one he was terrified to find he recognized as well.
The child Mordred, whose face was forever seared into Merlin's memory from their distant past, took the backpack from Arthur, and the blonde boy patted his shoulder as his lips moved in what was evidently a farewell for the day, his mouth forming into that warm smile which Merlin had not seen with his own eyes in far too long.
The little Mordred said nothing, but his small hand reached up to pull the teal-coloured hood of his jacket over his dark head, and then he turned his steady fingers forward.
Young Arthur had only the time to blink in perplexity before Mordred's palm touched the center of his forehead, and Merlin watched, frozen in terror, as his beautiful-blue eyes clouded with murky gold like an instant poison.
Ten-year-old Arthur collapsed onto the dark-wood floor, listless eyes wide open as if having just woken from a nightmare; like a shadow, young Mordred drifted out of the room.
"The Once and Future King was like a tiny flame in the night—easy to destroy with barely a breath. He will never reign again. And you, Emrys, have no meaning."
Mordred's voice, mocking and damning, echoed from nowhere, the place where he had been standing empty and the room void of all light and life, the candles having flickered out just as the hope in Merlin's heart had done at the sight of his friend Arthur lying dead and cold…again….
A shadow quivered beside his own, stretched out across the room in the light from the hall, and he barely felt his own body moving as his vision blurred with the black of a wild fury he had never before felt seeping into his veins, controlling his body, his mind, his magic. The scream which tore from his throat sounded alien to his own ears, and when the darkness had trickled away from the edges of his vision, he found himself with his back against the doorframe, head spinning and chest heaving for breath, and Mordred was gone, though whether his enraged attack had touched him, he did not know…the whole world felt empty and dark, and he felt cold and alien in it, having nothing left, no hope for the future against the horror of this past. How long had he waited for his return, for the gods to grant him another purpose, to have reprieve from this terrible nothingness? And now, this...
He had failed Arthur before he even knew him.
"Merlin, I hesitate to ask this, but…what are you doing?"
Merlin looked up from where he was sitting upon the stone floor with his back against Arthur's old, wooden wardrobe. His face, so young and angular and yet so filled with wisdom, was slightly wan with the past week's preparation of the harvest, in which they had had to fight off a vicious curse in the form of famine for the northern half of Camelot. The warlock responsible—a cruel-minded foreigner with self-inflicted burns like pictures decorating his arms and the sides of his face, and who was sympathetic with Morgana's cause due to the falling of his family in the Great Purge—had died a quick death by Excalibur once they had found him, but it had been the reaching him which had taken many days' journey through cool forests and much enchantment on Merlin's part.
Said sorcerer, whose strange, whispering chants had died away the moment Arthur had voiced his name, stood quickly from his place and moved to show his master the ancient book which had been open in his lap.
"I found it in that abandoned castle in the mountains. It is a book of enchantment," said he with an excitement Arthur would never truly comprehend, "speaking of the gods of the earth, and the power of the full moon upon all magic. It is a full moon tonight—"
Arthur turned his body halfway around and peered up through the window to the glowing orb high above them in the blackened night sky.
"—and I thought," continued his companion, "that I would try to see if my magic really is stronger, like the book says."
Arthur gazed at the moon for another moment, the question which had been burning in him since he had begun to learn more about the art of sorcery leaping to the forefront of his mind at Merlin's words.
His eyes tightened in consideration, and he bit his lip contemplatively as he turned back to his friend. Merlin, who could read Arthur's every move and action like the clearest of pictures defining his thoughts and feelings, looked at him with narrowed, sea-green eyes.
"What is it, Arthur?"
Arthur sat back in his worn chair and regarded his old friend with something resembling awkward shyness, much to the warlock's evident surprise.
"I was just wondering, Merlin," said he with some mild hesitation, "I know that you were born with your power already within you—"
The warlock smiled and nodded encouragingly.
"—but Gaius did say that most practitioners learn to use magic. Isn't that correct?"
"Yes," Merlin conceded. "Nearly all of them do."
Arthur bit his lip again, once, and then posed his great inquiry.
"Do you think I could?"
At the bright glow appearing in Merlin's eyes and spreading to his wide grin, Arthur hastily reworded his question with a nervous stammering he would allow only his beloved wife and loyal warlock—being the two most trusted in his entire kingdom—ever to hear come from his mouth.
"That is, if it's possible…I'd like to try it. You know, merely out of curiosity. Just to…know what it's like."
He felt increasingly bashful and warm, wondering helplessly if what he was saying sounded very foolish to Merlin's ears as the warlock grinned all the broader and set his ancient book, forgotten, on his king's writing-desk.
"You'd really like to try it?" he inquired with a tone verging on hilarity, and Arthur thought in his mind how very unhelpful it was to his mounting discomfort.
"It is possible, isn't it?"
Merlin nearly laughed aloud before controlling himself, and then he was nodding vehemently, and some of the troublesome embarrassment dissipated from Arthur's mood immediately at the sight. His manservant—soon to be Camelot's new official sorcerer, he'd already decided, though Merlin had yet to hear the wondrous news—took a step back, straightened his shoulders, and stated eagerly,
"Let's try something small, then, all right?"
Arthur nodded, somewhat uncertainly.
"You're the expert here, Merlin, not me. Just tell me what I should do."
If possible, Merlin's smile grew all the more gladdened, and he seemed to be scrambling mentally to get his thoughts arranged. Once he had done so, he deliberately leant over a bit and blew out the single candle sitting between them on the writing-desk.
The king sat up slightly in obedience, and though it had been nearly a year since that first time he had watched the stormy shade of his dear friend's eyes flash gold in a moment, he still had not quite recovered from the pure and complete wonderment at the knowledge of something so great and powerful existing within his noble manservant…or why it was there. He could not understand how he was so very special, to deserve something to unique and precious as Emrys to call his companion.
As though it, like the king, had learnt to obey Merlin's wisdom, the candle flickered alive at his will.
"Now, you try, Arthur."
He felt the heat trickling to his face, and he wondered, briefly, if he was blushing, before he said with wholesome honesty,
"I feel a bit foolish. What if it doesn't work?"
Merlin chuckled quietly at that, but it was not in a demeaning manner; rather, it was in that strange way which made Arthur feel that Merlin may just slightly adore him at times.
"Don't worry. It takes me days to learn some spells. You just have to keep repeating it inside yourself, and with your voice, over and over, until you get it."
Hearing the warlock of legend admit to having to practice enchantments for perfection of them comforted Arthur a bit more, and so he sat forward and blew out the candle decidedly.
Merlin smiled again, this time a soft and gentle smile, and his eyes glowed now with a peculiar sort of peace as he placed his hand atop Arthur's wrist.
"Now," he instructed kindly, "close your eyes."
"Take a deep breath, and try to relax your mind and body. The magic inside you is there—you just have to reach past everything to touch it."
Though he had always had an inborn instinct that prompted him never to close his eyes and release his guard in front of anyone, Arthur never even considered disobeying as he trustingly shut his eyes and followed Merlin's orders as best he could manage. It was then that he wondered if Merlin was not casting some helpful enchantment upon him through their contact, for as he inhaled and exhaled slowly, three times, he began to feel a strange sort of shiver—like the burn of a metal blade in frozen winter, but with no pain, only power—creeping into his very blood, starting at his heart and spreading through his whole body like a frightful, wonderful toxin.
He felt it when Merlin released his wrist, and then he opened his eyes and murmured the word his friend had said, though he thought in his mind even as he said it how much more fluent it sounded on Merlin's lips.
It seemed that Merlin was more thrilled than he himself was when he felt his eyes change in an instant, the magic seeping through them to touch the wick of the candle and create a tiny flame. His warlock laughed aloud, freer than air, and cried exultantly,
"You did it, Arthur!"
He felt his answering grin, and stared in sincere awe at the flickering candle.
Merlin rested his hand solidly upon his master's shoulder.
"You did it," he whispered, and they both knew, as magic from the full moon began to whisper in the air for the first time in twenty-five years, that he meant so much more than just the little enchantment.
It was several seconds' time before Arthur realized his name had been called twice already.
He raised his head reflexively from where it had been perched in his palm, his other hand coming to slam almost painfully against the plastic armrest of the hard-backed office chair. He could feel the heat seeping to his face, and was grateful his cheeks did not pink with blush easily, because he was certain he would be an open book to anyone looking at him—the "anyone" being the prim, stringent, iPad-wielding secretary his father had chosen especially for him.
"Mr. Gregory," she sniffed, sharp green eyes magnified by her thick-rimmed glasses, "you are nearly twenty minutes late for your meeting with the board. I'm sure your father would be thrilled to hear that you haven't been frittering away your time in the break room, again."
Arthur opened his mouth, then closed it again as he recalled that to argue with Mrs. Osprey was nothing but a waste of the time she claimed she did not have. So instead, he merely stood and followed her through the polished halls of the Gregory Enterprises main building until she held the door of the conference room open for him, widely enough so that any attempt to sneak inside would be in vain.
As he moved to his place at the right of corner of the table, his father's sharp hazel eyes were stabbing into him from where he stood with either firm hand clutching the backs of two chairs on the right side of the table. The silver of his Armani suit and Versace tie only served to make his piercing gaze all the more—yes, Arthur was willing to admit it—frightening.
Pretty, blonde Kate, who was the senior Gregory's own personal assistant (Arthur still wondered but did not dare ask how that was fair), kicked him beneath the table as he sat down across from her. He could offer little more than a helpless shrug as his father continued going over the profits of the past year and what Gregory Enterprises could do to encourage the support of their sponsors; within moments, Arthur's mind had wandered—almost of its own volition—back to his fantastic thoughts of minutes before.
He knew it should probably concern him greatly, that these dreams were evolving from simply dreams to consuming visions in the daytime as well. It should probably concern him that this did not concern him, but that there was something else which made him more frustrated and unnerved than actually having these wild delusions. Regarding them, he could only bring himself to care about one thing, and one alone.
Try as he might, and though every piece of furniture and every other face from the dreams were perfectly clear, seared into his memory, where Merlin was, he could never remember a face. There was nothing visible of the manservant-turned-court sorcerer who existed in almost every one of his invented memories; there was nothing for him to remember of the warlock which haunted him—nothing but the voice in the dream.
Ten years had passed before they had begun to notice.
It had started off as nothing—nothing but a small jest here or there. He could still recall Arthur's voice the first time he made mention of it, the teasing laughter in his eyes as they'd sat at the breakfast table—he, Arthur, and Gwen—and the king had stated off-handedly as he'd reached for his cup to drink,
"Merlin, how is it that you still have so much energy? If I didn't know any better, I'd say you haven't gotten any older in the past decade."
Then, a week later in the hall, Guinevere had chuckled at how he had never seemed to lose or gain a single pound, no matter how long he'd gone eating thin stew and berries on hunting trips or how much excess bread he'd swiped from the castle kitchens after a grand banquet.
It was nearly three months after that Arthur had asked, in casual curiosity as they'd pored through old records in the castle library, why Merlin never had grown his hair out. His face—slightly more worn than Merlin's had been, and characterized with golden stubble so lighter than his suntanned skin—had fallen from his typical light humor to stunned and fearful shadow when his warlock, who had grown with him from the very start of his coming-of-age, whispered the truth of his unwanted immortality in words soft and unsure. He recalled Arthur's answers to his fears, the strong voice reassuring him that they would overcome this trial as his hand fell solidly on his shoulder, that they would get their answers to this unexpected mystery—"together, Merlin, just as we've always done."
Nearly thirty years after, Merlin had watched Arthur die an old man, while he sat beside him, alive and healthy and forever young.
The Isle of the Blessed never changed.
That was how Merlin knew the same magic that created it created him as well. The world around the isle grew different—the green of the hills on either side of the ancient lake withering to brown as settlers had come and polluted the magic from the soil, the pale sky, once clear and untouched, now often with a trail of dirty smoke from a passing plane or jet. The people living around it saw the small island in the middle of the nameless lake as nothing but a forsaken castle—a crumbling fort, perhaps, built by people from the past who no longer mattered. They never knew what deathless beauty rested in the cracks of these immortal stone walls.
Still, the modern world, with all its advanced technology and lack of time for the magic which kept it turning, could never be powerful enough to suck the life from the Isle of the Blessed. It was as eternal and mysterious as the moon, a constant in the ever-changing and darkening earth belonging to man. He had come here often in his many centuries of living, even abided here for a while in the beginning after he had left Camelot to new monarchs. He had left it after ten years, choosing to explore the world in search of a new and brighter future for himself, but while he had found many places on the planet with magic just as potent and preserved, the Isle of the Blessed was as close to home as he ever hoped to see again.
Oftentimes, it comforted him to step upon the island; it was treacherous, complex, and in the might of its dangerous power it gave him a peculiar peace. This time, however, stepping here brought him no feeling at all—not joy, or tranquility, or even fear. Nothing did anymore.
His face was as impassive as it had ever been as he walked the overgrown halls to the ceremonial, stone altar in the very center, where the priestesses of the Old Religion once had laid their flowers and perfumes to receive enlightenment of the gods of the earth and skies. The priestesses no longer existed, however, and here, in their place, he knew even before he arrived in the open space the two who were awaiting him where good sorcerers once had walked; he showed no surprise, for he felt none, when he saw the long-dead Morgana le Fay standing alongside Mordred at the far end of the place.
He approached them fearlessly, never pulling his eyes away from them. When he stopped mere footsteps away, they regarded each other for a moment in silence before Morgana spoke, her voice not even slightly altered in her new life, ruby gown showing none of the modern age in which it had been sewn.
"You have changed your mind, then, Emrys?"
There was a cruel edge to her voice, a wicked victory and dominance that made it clear what she saw in his presence here. They had won. A thousand years after he thought he'd triumphed over them, his life was empty, his spirit broken, his destiny unfulfilled, and they had beaten him without even having to touch him.
"I will tell you," Merlin said, the magic in his voice whispering echoes all around, and he would hold onto that; he would not show them any weakness or submission, even now, "where we hid Excalibur. I will give you the enchantment to wield it. You know that there is a time every three thousand years."
Morgana's and Mordred's eyes shifted only vaguely, but he could see it. He could see the desire scratching under their skins—desire for power, for revenge. The world of men feared the "addictive drugs," cocaine and marijuana and other pitiful stimulants; these were weak potions in comparison to black magic. The dark arts ate away at the users not in mind or body, but in soul. They were the true addiction, because they were alive in themselves and fed on hate and grief.
Merlin never had practiced them; he had done all he could to rescue poor addicts from their clutches, and been forced to kill others who had been too consumed by them to be rescued. Now, however, he simply let these two stand here before him, and he did nothing but speak what they wanted to hear.
"The night during this time is the darkest of nights," he went on, and he knew what he said, that it was what he had sworn never to utter, but he said it anyway, his voice low as he told the tale which most mortals would never believe. "It is the time when the veils between worlds are at their thinnest. The magics run between them all, for only that one night, as one line of magic, twined together like braid. It is then that your chance to wield Excalibur to its fullest potential can be fulfilled."
"We know of all of this already, Emrys," Mordred murmured in their minds, his face never changing. "Why do you think we came alive again in this era of time? It is our destiny to wield it."
"You have seven months from this day." Merlin spoke as though the younger sorcerer had never whispered a word, numb to their threats and to the passion with which they upheld them. "I'll not waste any more time playing games with you."
"You're going to give it to us," Morgana taunted, laughing skepticism in her tone, and he fought off an onslaught of memories long-forgotten, "just like that?"
"You can do whatever you want with it once you have it," Merlin affirmed, taking a step closer. "I won't stop you. But you must give me something in return."
"What is it that you want, Emrys?" Mordred questioned, slowly, sensually.
Merlin, for the first time, lowered his eyes to the soft grass at his feet, only for a moment, and then he raised his head again, and there was fire in his gaze.
"Help me die. If you swear to me by your very blood that you'll do this, I'll tell you everything."
As he expected, both faces fell in startlement at his singular demand, but then, just as quickly, the enemy sorcerers seemed to realize the depth and meaning behind his request. Merlin felt open, exposed; never before now had anyone seen the never-ending millennia written by time upon his face. He knew he would get no sympathy from them, but at least they would not refuse the chance to kill him themselves after what he had done on that battlefield. Perhaps it was better this way, for all of them; perhaps this is how the gods wanted it to be.
Perhaps this had been his destiny from the start.
"If that is what you desire," Mordred consented for the both of them, a grave but somehow glad light in his frozen eyes.
Merlin felt his own eyes dim of their own accord, for while he felt he should be rejoicing that he might now—at last—see those he loved and lost to mortality, he could not stop the sensation building within him, the one which told him he was betraying everything he'd ever fought for, that he was becoming what he had despised, or at least no longer saw it as evil.
Arthur's face flashed inside his mind, and he could have sworn that, for one, brief second, he heard the angered and saddened cry of his king—a figment from his memory, but real in its own way—demanding to know why…why are you breaking your last promise to me, Merlin?
He closed his eyes against the unreal sound, and though he tried to convince himself that he had no other choice, that he didn't deserve this anymore, that he did not have any reason to apologize for his actions, he still found himself whispering in the silence stretching on between them, when Morgana and Mordred could not hear, "I'm sorry, Arthur."
"You taught me the values of being a knight—the code by which a man should live his life…to fight, with honor, for justice, freedom, and all that's good. I believe in the world that you will build."
"Even though I was a commoner, a nobody, you were willing to lay down your life for me, Arthur. It is now my turn to repay you."
"I have fought alongside you many times. There is no one that I would rather die for."
"I think we've no chance…but I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Your enemies are my enemies."
"If you need an old man…"
"You know the answer."
A beat of silence.
"No, I don't really fancy it."
"You don't have a choice, Merlin."
"Your father wants you out of Dublin and at least two-thirds of the way back to London by one o'clock in the morning, tomorrow," Mrs. Osprey declared curtly, never actually looking up to him from her iPad as her long fingers tightening around the pen. (Her fingernails were perfectly manicured in the exact shade of primrose pink, but it did little for compliment the bony, wrinkly appendages.)
Arthur shook off the voices still echoing around in his mind—that was all, this time; no faces, just voices, though he could accurately describe every detail of them. From Leon's strawberry-blonde, slightly ratty beard to Elyan's kind, brown eyes and kinder face, he knew with all certainty every face to whom each voice belonged…
…every face, that is, except Merlin's. Where Merlin sat, he could recall a flash of humor in his expression, but nothing more. He was always little more than a voice. Arthur had decided long ago that it was due to his lack of imagination that caused his subconscious to be unable to choose a face for the sometimes-manservant/sometimes-warlock; there were times, however, when it struck him that there might be a deeper and heavier reason for it.
It mattered little what the reason was, however, but only that it sometimes angered him that the one person most prominent in these invented visions was nothing but a voice in the dream. He could never move on from it until it was solved.
He grabbed his duffel bag from where it sat beside him on the poorly-polished airport floor and followed his dislikeable P. A. out into the cool night air, gladdened to finally be leaving the foreign city after the short but crude business meeting his father had forced him to attend.
Even as he walked along the cement strip where his father's private plane sat waiting, a feeling—dark and intense, almost sickening in his stomach—made him feel strangely unhappy. He let it carry him for a moment, and he began to believe his deepest instincts, barely even realizing he was…
…There was someone in danger…someone far away…someone important to him in a way that he did not comprehend…
He wondered, momentarily, if it might be his father, but dismissed the notion. This feeling was deeper than that, somehow, like he had felt it before, somewhere….And then, he remembered the dream from nearly a year ago. An impossible labyrinth called Gedref, a sorcerer in white—the keeper of the unicorns, and Merlin; he'd had this same feeling then, in that dream, when Merlin had been in trouble and he'd dashed onto the dreamlike shore to find him. (2)
Then, suddenly, Mrs. Osprey was urging him impatiently into the plane, not waving or even smiling in farewell at him as his pilot took his seat in the cockpit and the engines began to whir. Arthur struggled within himself not to stick his tongue out at the door when it closed and blocked him from her eagle-eyed sights.
The young heir never knew it when Morgana le Fay, hair waves of chocolate and lips red and wet as fresh blood, no longer under the pretense of bubbly-blonde Kate Coulby, whispered an otherworldly enchantment to seal his doom from an island they all had known well, in another life.
Merlin winced despite himself as Mordred's mind broke away from their union. He nearly staggered, blackness wriggling at the edges of his vision, but held his body firm and shook his head to dispel the pain in his temples from their connection. It had been a great while since his magic had overwhelmed him to such a point, but the secrets he had just opened for Mordred's taking were ones he had concealed beneath locks of magic for fear that someone might try to steal them from his mind. Here, he was breaking those locks himself; it was a strange irony.
Mordred's eyes were just fading from gold when he opened his own and their gazes met.
The vile warlock was smiling, a small, twisted smile, and Merlin knew that this was the point of no return. Mordred and Morgana's path to Excalibur was clear for them. He had no more secrets to keep, no more fates to protect. His life was over as far as any meaning was concerned.
Morgana, who had been standing near a half-broken arch in the western corner of the place so that he could not hear whatever spell she was casting forth, rejoined them and placed her hand upon Mordred's shoulder, murmuring into his ear.
"I'll be back shortly."
The younger wizard nodded, meeting her eyes briefly, and Merlin was curious what plans they had afore laid out which would warrant such intensity between them. But then, he decided, it mattered little to him what they did now; soon, he would never have to worry or care again. It was a selfish thought, the goodness in his soul argued, but he had sworn an oath with them, and he was too weak to fight for faith in a lost destiny anymore.
Morgana spared him a long glare, and he never broke it with even a blink; even after everything, he was not willing to allow her to see how truly broken he was. She finally looked away, her silken sleeve barely brushing his arm as she passed with all the grace of a phantom princess from another lifetime.
Within moments of her departure from their presence, an animalistic roar filled the sky, so familiar that Merlin's heart stopped in his chest and he turned to follow the sound. Emotion coming to alight his stony demeanor, his widened ocean eyes followed the movement in the heavens as the white dragon, Aithusa, brought alive again, as well—the first dragon to live in five hundred years, carried Morgana away into the distance. (3)
Though he knew Aithusa died in the same battle in which the wicked witch and sorcerer fell by his doing, because he was as evil and deserving as they, Merlin could not stop himself gazing longingly after the great, pearl wings until they vanished into the pale of the sky. He wondered what his father would think if he could see him now—the very last dragonlord left in all the earth, and the only dragon remaining being this one who would see him dead.
He wondered if Balinor would think him a coward as much as he himself did.
"It is time now, Emrys."
He turned at the voice whispering repercussions in his mind, and forced his shoulders back so that he was standing evenly with the other warlock. Mordred's eyes glimmered with a tiny bit of gold as he summoned forth his dark magic; that little glimmer was Merlin's end, and yet as he saw it building, he could feel only eagerness for it.
"You are not afraid."
"I have no reason to be afraid of you," he answered truthfully, in a hard voice. "You know that I am more powerful than you could be for another thousand years."
"And yet you ask me to help you die. Is your magic not powerful enough to do this without aid?"
Merlin felt his eyes flicker with emotion, and looked away, down at one upturned hand, in which his magic was pulsing in his blood just beneath his flesh.
"I don't know," he said softly, hauntingly. "I've never tried."
"So you would rather that you allowed your enemies to kill you, than to face him with the knowledge that you did it to yourself."
Merlin supposed he should be considering the rest of Mordred's declaration, but the only thing upon which he could concentrate was "…face him…;" he would be facing Arthur again before sundown, and no matter what guilt or burdens he must confess to him then, he would see him….He would see all of them, and that was enough to make him care ever less for his sins.
Mordred seemed to sense the irreversible decision being made, and so he said, in finality,
Without another word or hesitancy, the younger warlock placed one hand flat over Merlin's heart.
"Déaþ ór cwylþ, fǽgð, astrice! Bøan—"
The colors of Mordred's eyes had just become overwhelmed with gold when, like a holy summoning, the skies turned black above them, and Merlin was distracted from the warlock's chant by the electricity suddenly in the air, the charge so incredibly powerful and clouds rolling with unnatural speed that his heart began to pound faster in his throat.
There was something wrong; he could feel it in his soul. There was something not right about this….
Before he could so much as move, white lightning came down upon them both.
In the next instant, Mordred was lying dead, uncolored eyes wide, and Merlin had been taken with the storm.
For the first time in over a thousand years, Merlin stood at Camelot's limits.
His eyes roamed over that place at the bottom of the valley, the exact place where the gates of the great city once stood—or, at the very least, the same position, for the passing centuries had long-since buried the real location beneath layers of dark dirt and rock, so that the shape of the hills remained but not any sign of the walls of the city which had once stood mightily upon them.
It was then that Merlin realized he had not left.
He nearly collapsed, his knees shaking beneath him, eyes filling with desperate tears, but his years had made him strong in many ways his youth had not been, and so he could only drive himself to move, to stumble down the embankment leading him to the center of the place which had once been his beloved home.
He had known…he had known it would never work…
Merlin lifted his face from where it had been buried in his palms, body still trembling but mind keen enough now to take in his surroundings.
He had returned only once after his initial departure, just in time to watch Camelot—irreversibly changed and corrupted after the era of King Arthur—fall to a foreign warlord. He had stood in this very place as the smoke curled to the sky, marking its downfall to the gods, and he had averted his eyes as the last star of the night disappeared in the west; all the while, he had thought in his mind Arthur's words from when they were young. "They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn." (4) Dawn had come that day while he'd stood there, and the last piece of his life as the court sorcerer of Camelot had vanished with the night, so perhaps Arthur had been wrong in his hopes.
Perhaps they both had been.
His cry rang clear, echoing over the empty land as though he was the last flicker of life remaining in all the world.
Sometimes, he believed he was.
"This is where you wanted me. Here, where the castle stood in great Camelot. Isn't that right?"
He was not shouting now; there was little need. If the gods cared, they would hear.
"I did everything you asked of me."
His voice was hard, cold, and nothing like it had been, once, long ago…too long ago. It was the voice of the haunted, the hopeless, and he could not force it to revert back to what it had been then.
"I gave my life over to you and to the destiny you chose for me."
His words might have been Mordred's very own, but he knew they came from that dark place within himself which had been growing ever-darker since the day the corpse of the greatest king of Camelot was burnt to ashes on a merciless pyre in front of him.
"I watched them die."
There was a sound somewhere in the distance, like rolling thunder, building and then dying away again, and that was the only answer he received.
"I watched them all die!"
His hoarse scream startled even himself, but like collapsing a dam, he could not stop the raging waters' flowing once it had begun.
"You named me Emrys. The powerful one, the chosen one—the greatest warlock in all of history past and to come. I was victorious over every evil you allowed to threaten me. I lifted Camelot to its greatest glories; I saved it, preserved it. I protected your Once and Future King. I protected him with everything I had."
The trees at the edges of the hill shook with the power building within him. The wind spun around his in a circle, never touching him, like it feared the magic roiling inside him.
"I loved him. I loved them all. And you had me to watch them die; you took him from me, after you bound me to him…you forced me to let him go….I had to let them all go, and stay here alone…Are you listening?"
His legs collapsed beneath him at the sharp stab of pain in his chest. His magic was raging upon his emotions, tightening inside him like a knot of energy, barely containable, unstoppable should he let it break free. He considered it, for the barest of seconds, letting his magic explode from inside his soul and destroy the gods' creation for as many leagues as it could reach…but he could not do such a thing. Even now, when he felt as empty and lifeless as it is possible for any creature—man or magic—to feel, there still was no evil breeding inside his heart. There was nothing but sadness and Why? What have I done to deserve this?
"You left me here alone."
It was nothing stronger than a sob, and he did not know if he was talking to the gods now, or to Arthur.
The thunder echoing to Merlin's ears had been the gods' answer to his brokenhearted cries.
It had not been thunder at all.
So distracted was he with the speech he was attempting to write on the sensitive keys of his high-priority laptop, Arthur barely heard it when the pilot of his private plane shouted in mortal terror, low voice muffled through the wall separating them. However deaf he had been to Sam's cries, there was no mistaking the sound of both engines' exploding.
He looked out the oval window by his seat; the flaming sunset on the horizon was nothing in comparison to the burning fires eating up the wing of the plane. With reflexes well-sharpened, he instantaneously left the thousand-euro computer sitting on the small table and reached back for the double parachutes behind his chair. Then, his entire body went cold as the movement of life caught his eye beside the broken wing of the plane.
Arthur knew that he must be losing his mind when he met the piercing eyes of the witch from his dreams, her blood-red lips smiling at him as she led the white dragon away into the darkness of the night sky.
Then, it mattered little, because there was not a parachute anywhere, behind his seat or in the storage, though he had checked it himself before they had taken off from Dublin and there had been three to spare. Praying that Sam had moved them, he dove into the cockpit with a sharp order for the older man to call for help.
Sam was gone, his state-of-the-art headset dangling from the board as though he had vanished into the air.
Arthur had never felt a rush of adrenaline so powerful before in all his life, and for one, brief moment, flashes—a thousand, overwhelming, wonderful flashes—filled his mind while he moved desperately throughout the failing plane. They were pictures, moving pictures, from his dreams…but not from dreams at all...where they dreams?...moments when a sword gleamed at his throat, or when a voice…Morgana, the witch…the one who'd done this…she'd done this…shouting spells of vile magic to destroy him…a dank cave…a cold dungeon…an autumn forest…his knights…Guinevere…Merlin…
He threw open the door of the plane, the wind whipping his hair, and it was too dark—there was nothing below, no lights, just forests, endless forests, familiar forests…he knew them, somehow….How did he know them? He could see nothing, hear nothing over the raging wind, so frigid against his skin.
He thought he heard a scream echoing over the trees below, growing frighteningly closer; it was a familiar scream…like the ones from his dreams….It was that voice…the voice in the dream…
Arthur heard his shoulder disjoint against the unforgiving ground in the same instant as the plane exploded somewhere nearby. He shouted, hoarsely…at least, the thought he did, but in reality, it was nothing more than a tiny cry, his broken ribs preventing enough air from moving through his punctured lungs to let him breathe easily.
The plane was on fire; he could feel the heat of the roaring flame beating like ocean's waves against the left side of his body. He knew he had to get far from it, or he would surely be burnt. He staggered dizzily to his feet, and crumpled again as his fractured ankle snapped completely under the burden of his weight.
He screamed again in his mind, but though he knew it never escaped his throat, he heard another scream echoing in his ears just the same.
He heard wings beat behind him…white wings…Aithusa's white wings…and feel her coming to finish what she had started…
There was a glimmer of silver on the ground near where he lay, panting and desperately searching for a way to fight. His gaze flickered to the metal object—his sword, the one he had had specially made, with a flat blade like the ones from the time of knights. He felt that his father had always thought it childish, his irrational love for Medieval weaponry and the codes of the knights which had wielded them; he might be angry should he ever discover his son carried one with him whenever he travelled, but Arthur would not tell him, because he himself had never known why he did so.
Now, with an instinct buried deep within him, concealed from even himself until this very moment in time, he half-crawled to where the somewhat dulled blade lay surrounded by smoke and debris. When his hand circled around its hilt, it seemed to bring with it a security he had never felt before.
The voice—the other voice screaming, not his—was shouting words in a language dead and old. He could hear the words forming, syllable for syllable, but could barely comprehend as they echoed, fading, over the night-blackened land.
"...warlock…past…Camelot…Future King…loved…Are you listening?"
He knew this meager sword would not be enough to fight the witch advancing upon him, and so, with the weapon held tightly in one hand, he ran. With broken, brittle bones, he ran towards the voice…the voice from the dream…Merlin's voice…
Merlin had crouched upon his knees, shivering in the darkness, alone, for not even a whole minute after his voice had broken to his tears. His sobs, having been building inside him for over a thousand years now, broke through his walls of strength, making him shake and tremble as though he would fall apart with it.
Then, a sound in the brushes close to him, and a sensation, familiar, wonderful, impossible struck him deep inside his soul like a flash of lightning bringing a rainstorm after drought. His breath was stolen from his lungs at it, his heart skipping a beat and his tears stilled.
He barely had the time to stand to his feet before a bloodied body fell upon him, and then he was on his knees again, but this time, his arms were not empty.
He met the deep sapphire eyes, saw the life—a familiar, wonderful, impossible life—glowing there before the blue was overtaken by relief at the sight of him, and then the wounded and broken man went limp against his breathless chest, the old sword he'd been clutching dropping from his weak hand to the cold soil.
Merlin's magic rose up again and he lifted his eyes once more to see Morgana's terror as she beheld him, the Emrys, her hard eyes dimming as she cowered away in fear into the dark forest; he blinked and she was gone with Aithusa in the night, but he could not pursue them….He could not breathe.
Merlin looked down again, and it was Arthur's face he saw, emotionless with slumber and with a river of blood flowing down his cheek…but it was Arthur. He knew the angles of his king's face better than he knew himself.
His magic rejoiced.
With shaking fingers, he turned the bruised face toward him, and it was so young and handsome, unscarred, like it had been when he'd been Prince Arthur, and Merlin a mere farm-boy in a new world, so many lifetimes ago.
In a wild moment, he wanted to laugh and weep again all at once. His eyes were opened again to his destiny. His faith was restored. His purpose was returned. His life had meaning, and it was lying in his arms, broken and hunted by ancient enemies, in need of him…Arthur needed him….
As he clutched this new Arthur close with tears on his face, thunder shook the ground of the place where their destiny had begun a thousand years before, and he dared anyone to take it away again.
To be continued
(in Part ii)
(1) The Coming of Arthur, Part 2 (Episode 13, Season 3), beginning at 23:41.
(2) Reference to The Labyrinth of Gedref (Episode 11, Season 1).
(3) A few things regarding Aithusa in this story: I keep seeing from unofficial sources claiming that the white dragon is actually going to be female in Season 5, but I went back to the episode in Season 4 when he/she was born, and Kilgharrah actually refers to him/her as "him." It will be several more months before Season 5 premiers, so I'm leaving Aithusa male for now; if he/she is female in the next season, please bear with my ignorance. (It's not my fault!) Also, some are saying he/she is not actually evil or sided with Morgana, but I like it better this way; it's just cooler! Arthur, Merlin, Kilgharrah—Morgana, Mordred, Aithusa. It's like chess (not that I know anything about chess; we play checkers where I'm from…:P).
(4) The Darkest Hour, Part 1 (Episode 1, Season 4), at 41:52.
So…how did you like it? Please tell me the truth! I'd love to hear from any and all of you. And I feel I should tell you—there will be A LOT more dialogue and interactions between characters (two in particular..;)) in Part ii. Really. So I hope you'll watch for the next update!
There also are several songs which inspired me during the process of writing this story; I though I'd share them with you, because they really are worth a listen. For this section of the story:
I Still Cry by Ilse DeLange
Broken by Lifehouse
Your Guardian Angel by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus (because it's, like, Merlin's LIFE SONG)
My Immortal by Evanescence
Check out these songs; they're pretty amazing.
The time when I'll post Part ii depends on what sort of reception I get. ;) In the meantime, I hope you all have weekends filled with adventure, and remember that there's magic in you; you've just got to reach past everything else to touch it. Words of encouragement from me, Rin. :P