Disclaimer: Merlin belongs to the BBC and Shine. No money is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.
Warnings: Angst, minor character death, major character death (canon characters; temporary/reincarnation), non-linear timeline.
Pairings: Arthur/Merlin endgame. Mention of Arthur/Gwen, Arthur/other, Merlin/Freya, Merlin/other, Leon/Morgana.
Art! There's gorgeous, gorgeous art created for this story by Amythystluna on LJ. You can find it here: . ?view=407970#t407970
Author's Notes: This story was written for Paperlegends, the Merlin Big Bang fest on LJ. Heaps of thanks and love go to my betas, Marguerite_26 and Sabriel75, to my untiring cheerleader Isisanubis and of course to my artist, Amythystluna.
The chapter quotes were taken from The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck, and from various poems by Richard Siken in his wonderful collection Crush.
SHOULD MY SWORD FALL FROM MY HAND
PART ONE - DEFEATED KING
And as he rode with Merlin by his side, the king said bitterly: "You must be proud to serve me, Merlin, a defeated king, a great and worthy knight who does not even have a sword, disarmed, wounded, and helpless. What is a knight without a sword? A nothing - even less than a nothing."
They ride out early on Arthur's request - only Arthur and Merlin, with no particular goal, aim or errand. This happens sometimes when Arthur wants to clear his head. Merlin feels honoured, pleased that he is the one Arthur asks; pleased that Arthur can relax with him, as if Merlin is part of him. No one else rides out with the king like this.
The ground is silvery with frost and Merlin shudders despite his cloak - from the cold, from lack of sleep, from the sinister light that creates a strange sense of doom. Purple clouds are building into eerie shapes above their heads and the sky is bruised with sunrise.
Later on, Merlin will think he ought to have sensed something, or read the apocalyptic light as a portent. Then he would never have made his disastrous mistake, never committed the sin of omission.
Now, everything is quiet as they ride side by side without talking. The only thing heard is the muted sound of the horses' hooves on the path, the creak of leather and the chink of bridles, dry leaves and wintry grass rustled by the wind. From time to time Merlin throws Arthur a glance, but Arthur's gaze is lost in the distance. He is absent-minded, deep in thought, but he still rides beautifully. His hands hold the reins calmly without bothering the horse's mouth, and he moves with the horse as if they are one.
Merlin has just drawn a breath to speak when the woman appears before them on the path, out of nowhere, it seems. She is middle-aged and small, clutching the ends of her worn shawl to her breast with a white-knuckled fist. The wind blows her greying hair in all directions and whips tears to her eyes.
She begins to throw hateful words at Arthur; she spits on the ground in front of his horse and curses him for letting her son be killed. There is a weak tremor of magic from her and Merlin scrutinises her through narrowed eyes, trying to read it. There is not much to sense or see. A hedge-row witch, he thinks dismissively, judging by her clothes and the sprigs of sage on a leather strap around her neck. A wise woman administering ointments and poultices, dispensing ineffectual love potions to young girls and dabbling in witch-knots and charms.
"My good lady," Arthur begins, dismounting to be level with her. There is no annoyance or contempt his voice or eyes; they are filled with empathy. She is one of his people and soothing her anger is his task, his responsibility. His concern for her is genuine.
Merlin watches them as they stand face to face on the mud path among the stark, frost-bitten hills, the ageing woman who has lost her son and the young king struggling to grasp the depth of her pain and find the right words to meet it. His hair gleams golden in the strange light.
And then it is there, the thing that Merlin failed to sense or see. It is there before he can stop it.
The sky is ripped apart by a flash of lightning as the woman raises her hand, and the wind carries her spell forward. It is uttered in the Old Language, harsh and heavy with the magic she concealed. It hits Arthur squarely in the chest and Merlin watches the king go down like a skittle pin.
There is nothing for it but to meet magic with magic. Hers is powerful, more powerful than any Merlin has encountered for some time, sharpened as it is by grief and fury. For a split second he wonders who she is, but it does not matter. There is no time for it to matter.
She is no match for him. His magic flows liquid and obedient, hot and golden, intensified by his fear for Arthur who lies motionless on the ground. Within a second the witch has been reduced to a wisp of smoke and dispersed by the wind. Merlin staggers sideways into the high grass, clutching at his throat as he retches. Killing is like tearing at his own soul, fraying it painfully at the edges. He has killed so many, ripped so many threads from the fabric of life. Perhaps he should not have killed the witch. She was not evil, merely an unhappy woman driven by despair - but Merlin had to protect Arthur, as he has always done and always will do.
He straightens up. Conscience and reason will have to wait. Arthur needs Merlin's immediate attention.
The chainmail shirt has a cut down the chest, the metal edges bite into the flesh and Arthur is losing blood fast. Merlin's fingers hover over the wound as he murmurs frantic healing spells. They stop the bleeding, but Arthur's breathing is rapid and shallow.
Merlin soothes the nervous horses with meaningless words as he looks around. There is no one to see and not a sound is heard apart from the wind over the hills. He decides to risk using more magic. He levitates Arthur onto his own horse and mounts behind him, holding his inert body upright on the agonisingly slow ride back to the castle. Arthur's head dangles forward until Merlin tips it back on his own shoulder and keeps it there, feeling Arthur's skin burn, watching the blond lashes against the cheek and thinking how fragile a life is. He wants to scream until something shatters, wants to use magic to get them both back to the castle, get them to Gaius in an instant, but does not dare.
Above them the sky clears and morning breaks, reluctantly.
While Sir Leon and Sir Percival carry their king to his chambers, Merlin runs to get Gaius.
They all stand around Arthur's bed looking at him helplessly, before Gaius dismisses Leon and Percival and asks Merlin to help him get Arthur out of his armour.
When the armour is off, Gaius examines Arthur whose pale, unconscious face is vulnerable like a child's. Gaius's fingers tremble over the pulse point at the wrist, and when he looks up, Merlin meets his eyes and represses a shudder.
"Can you heal him, Gaius?"
The old man's eyes are dark with worry but he sounds dry as always. "I don't know, Merlin. I don't know what this is. Dark magic, evil magic, inducing some kind of poisoned fever, but I don't know the root of it. Who was she - the woman? Perhaps if we knew that, we could…"
"But I don't know," Merlin says miserably, feeling his own failure like a weight. "I had never seen her before."
"A Druid woman?"
"No… well, possibly. I mean, she must have been… ? I thought she was just a hedge-row witch - you know, a wise woman of the harmless kind, until she..." He entangles himself in guilt and possibilities and arrives at nothing, lets out a frustrated breath and turns his palms up.
"Well," Gaius says, "we must try and find out."
Merlin sits by the bed with one hand on Arthur's fever-hot brow. He takes the books Gaius hands him and leafs through them lightning-fast, finding nothing useful on the fluttering pages. He closes the last book with a thud and looks at Arthur's unconscious face. He can't bear it; something has to be done. Intuition will work as well as anything, he thinks. Closing his eyes, he lets his thoughts reach out for Arthur's, tries to locate the sense of Arthur that always flickers at the edges of Merlin's mind, but the glow of Arthur's presence is faint. Dying.
Arthur! he calls, soundlessly. Arthur, help me. I need to know where you are, what is happening.
Something comes to him then, travelling up his fingers; he can feel the dark magic as it crawls along Arthur's veins and spreads in waves and ripples through Arthur's body. He can see the slow working of it like a map of rivers and tributaries, and tries to stop the flow with his own brand of magic: bright, liquid fire.
Arthur's eyelids flutter, a minute movement that sends wild hope into Merlin's breast. He lets fire chase after the dark poison, sends flames licking along its flow to burn everything clean.
Arthur mutters. His head moves on the pillow. After an eternity his eyes open wide and he stares up at the canopy above his bed.
Arthur moves in darkness, groping at thin air to find something solid to touch, something to tell him what kind of place he is in - a wall, a pillar, something to guide him out of there. The floor is rough and uneven under his feet and he trips and stumbles. The place has the feel of a cave: hollow, bare. He hears only the sound of his own footsteps, his own loud breathing.
The pain in his chest is cold and sharp and slices through him with each step, each breath, but he can't remember what caused the wound. A sword, a lance, a dagger…? He is wearing his chainmail shirt and it weighs him down but he can't remove it. His fingers are stiff and numb.
Merlin, where is Merlin? He really is the worst servant ever. Why is he never there when Arthur needs him?
Arthur opens his mouth but no sound crosses his lips. His blood feels cold and sluggish in his veins, every breath hurts and there is a shuddering weakness in his limbs. I am going to die, he thinks, very matter-of-factly.
Merlin! Where are you?
There is no reply, no sense of Merlin's presence, no sense of any human presence at all beside his own. And soon Arthur can't remember why he called for Merlin, why it was so important to get help. If he could only rest, if the pain would only recede for a moment… if he could sleep.
Suddenly there is a faint light. It is not enough to show him his surroundings but enough to ignite a spark of energy. It is not there with him in the cave – it seems to come from inside him. Warmth comes creeping through to fight down the chill in his veins... Oh, it feels good, and he knows this feeling – familiar and safe, hopeful...
Arthur falls out of the darkness into the soft light of his own room. Dim though it is, it sears his eyes, and the pain in his chest is an excruciating, icy burn. Fire-glow licks the ceiling and something heavy rests on his forehead. A hand.
"Arthur," Merlin gasps, wild-eyed, pulling back.
The pain is like nothing Arthur has ever felt, burning inside him. When he lifts his head half an inch there are stars bursting inside his skull, tendrils of fire licking along his ribs. He falls back against the pillow and almost bites through his lip.
"Is it bad?" he whispers. "I am not dying, am I?"
Merlin leans in over him. "No," his mouth says, but his eyes are bright with tears. "Shh."
"Liar," Arthur wants to say with a smile, but finds he can't speak. His eyes wander over to Gaius to demand an explanation, to hear the truth Merlin is unable to get across his lips.
But Gaius has his back turned. The outline of his long, red tunic looks soft and fuzzily luminous in the firelight, or perhaps it is the pain blurring everything. Merlin's hand returns to Arthur's forehead like a blessing.
Moments later Arthur finds there is a kind of beauty in the white-hot agony just before the world drowns.
"Gaius, help me," Merlin whispers, wiping at his face with the back of his free hand. "Tell me what to do. He is dying."
"We are doing all we can, Merlin," Gaius says in the clipped way that means he is deeply worried. "Which is not much, I agree, but until we know what is going on here, we can only keep him as comfortable as possible. We need to know the illness to find the cure."
Platitudes seem to be the only thing they have, Merlin thinks bitterly as he slides his fingertips down Arthur's clammy temple, resting them there briefly to feel the reassuring, steady beat of Arthur's pulse.
"I need to fetch more books," Gaius says and hurries out of the room.
When the page boy arrives with an urgent message for Merlin to go to Gaius's chambers, Merlin is reluctant to leave Arthur's side, but Gaius would not send for him without good cause. He stands up and presses the damp cloth into the boy's hand.
"Sit here," he orders and points to the edge of the bed. "Bathe his forehead with the cloth. If there is any change, ask the guards to get me at once. Do you understand?" he adds, because the boy is staring at Arthur with wide eyes, shying away and stepping on his own toes.
"But it's... it's the king," he whispers.
"Yes," says Merlin mercilessly, "it's your king and he needs you."
And then he runs, leaving the boy to deal with his fear on his own.
Merlin reaches Gaius's door panting and skidding to a near-stop. When he pushes it open he sees a girl by the fire, hunched with her arms wound tightly around herself, rocking back and forth as if in pain or deep distress. She is wearing the blue cloak of the Druids. Arthur has made his peace with the Druids; they are free to come into Camelot now, any time they want and without fear. If their welcome is not particularly warm, at least they are not harmed.
Gaius has a furrow between his eyebrows and a comforting hand on the girl's shoulder. He looks up when Merlin hurries in.
"Now, my dear," Gaius says to the girl, "I am sorry I interrupted you before, but I need Merlin to hear your story, too."
She pushes the hood back and straightens up, stilling as she sees Merlin. She is fair-haired, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, rather beautiful in a calm, quiet way; she is not someone he has ever seen before.
"You..." she says. Her eyes widen and her voice drops to a whisper: "You are Emrys."
She slides off the stool and down on her knees, reaches for Merlin's hand and kisses his knuckles, leans her forehead against the back of his hand. A confused blush rises to Merlin's face. He is not used to being treated like this, as if he is the king.
"Please don't," he manages, barely refraining from snatching his hand back. "Please get up off the floor."
The girl looks up at him with something resembling awe, still kneeling, not letting go of his hand. "You are Emrys," she repeats in a half-dazed way. "I can feel it. Your presence. We have been waiting for you."
Now he does pull his hand away, hot with embarrassment, and out of the corner of his eye he sees Gaius bite his lip against a grin. "Please get up," Merlin says again. "We can't talk when you are on the floor. What was it you wanted to tell us?"
The girl gets back on the stool, arranging her cape around her knees. "I saw it," she says without taking her eyes off Merlin. "I saw the attack on the king."
Merlin frowns. "You - you can't have. There was no one there - no one, apart from us."
"We have ways to avoid being seen," she replies with the shadow of a smile, proud and scared. "You do not need to see me for me to be able to see you. You killed her."
Merlin draws a breath and feels himself turn pale.
"Oh, I know you did not want to," the girl adds hastily. "I could sense your thoughts. I can sense them now - you are Emrys; the echo of you is in my head. You had to protect your king."
Merlin shifts uneasily; he has never felt so naked. He does not know how to defend himself against this girl. She is invasive, not like Mordred was, but in a soft relentless way. He does not understand her. Nor does he understand how she hid from him where there was no place to hide.
"So the woman was one of you?" Gaius asks.
"She used to be one of us. But then things happened." The girl bites her lip as she looks from Merlin to Gaius and back again. "She saw her husband killed by King Uther. He made her watch. Then she lost her only son in a battle led by King Arthur. The Pendragons took her life away; the grief took her sanity. She was lost to us," the girl says tonelessly. "Sometimes we saw her, gathering herbs and talking to herself. We knew she used to have power but we thought it was lost, that she was harmless."
"I am so sorry," Merlin mumbles. "I had no choice but to kill her."
"She was already lost to us," the girl repeats, staring straight through Merlin as if he does not exist. "But I heard her, I heard what she said. I heard what she cast on the king."
She is very pale now, her skin almost translucent. She slides off the stool again and clutches at Merlin's robes, bending down until her forehead touches the hem. "Please forgive us," she says almost inaudibly. "This is a terrible thing. There should not be curses like this. They ought not to exist."
"What does it do?" Gaius voice is like a knife. "You are wasting our time, girl. Out with it."
"I... they will be so terribly angry with me if I tell you," she says, straightening up but still holding a fistful of Merlin's robes. She looks ready to faint.
"Please," Merlin says. "We need to know. It is very brave of you to come to us, and your courage will not be forgotten." He winces at sounding so pompous, aware that he is using her regard for him.
She is swaying, holding on to Merlin's robes and looking at something beyond him, beyond the room. "The curse poisons the mind," she whispers. "It will cause the king to lose himself in darkness." She coughs and her breast heaves, as if she has trouble breathing. "It will take him to the Door... and he will walk through it willingly."
"The Door?" says Gaius sharply, leaning closer. "You mean that the king will die?"
"Yes," the girl gasps. "The king will die. He will have only his dark memories and his guilt, and he will want to die."
"Is there a way to save him?"
"Only... by way of... magic." She is breathing in short gasps now, struggling to speak. "If anyone can save him... Emrys can."
Merlin does not bother to try to deny his magic. After all, she knows it. She has already seen it at work. "But what - "
The girl scrambles to her feet, wild-eyed and clutching at her throat, her mouth open to get air in or words out, Merlin is not sure. When Gaius reaches out a hand towards her, she bats it away and runs for the door.
"No, wait!" Merlin shouts after her as the door is flung open so violently it crashes against the wall. They hear her steps disappear down the corridor. "I need to know more - wait!"
But when he reaches the door she is already gone, and he turns to Gaius. "What happened?"
"The Druids are protective of their secrets," Gaius replies slowly. "I hope the poor girl will not pay too dearly for what she did."
They look at each other in silence until Gaius takes a deep breath and says: "Come. We must go back to the king's chambers."
They dismiss the page boy, who looks tremendously relieved and takes off as if he has suddenly sprouted wings.
"She said I can save him," Merlin says as he stands looking at Arthur, "but I have no idea where to begin." There is an embarrassing little tremor in his voice; he tries to swallow it. "Gaius, what do I need to do?"
"I think it is clear what you need to do," Gaius replies, "but I am afraid can't tell you how." His fingers close around Arthur's wrist to feel the pulse. "He is lost inside his own mind, the girl said. You must find him and bring him back. You must enter his mind."
Merlin's mouth opens and he stares blankly at Gaius. "Enter his mind," he repeats in a flat voice. "But how...?"
"I am sorry, Merlin," says Gaius heavily. "I truly do not know how."
It is appallingly clear to Merlin in that moment how old Gaius is, how frail. His hands are shaking, his face is deeply lined and his back bent. He does not have the strength to do this. It all falls on Merlin's lot.
"The girl is right," Gaius continues like an echo of Merlin's thoughts. "Only magic can cure Arthur, and my own magic is far too weak for me to take on anything this powerful." He looks at Merlin. "Your intuition has served you well on many occasions, Merlin, and you will have to rely on it now. It is the best we have."
Merlin closes his eyes for a moment. He used to think that things would get easier as he got older, that he would leave the confusion of his younger years and, when he had shaken it off, he would step into adulthood clear-headed and bright-eyed, ready to deal with anything that life decided to throw his way. But instead everything seems to turn more complicated, because as he gets older he begins to see things from other angles besides his own. And here he is now, shouldering a responsibility Gaius can't take on, facing a problem Gaius finds too difficult.
"But I do think," Gaius adds quietly, half turned away, "that this can only be done with the help of love."
Merlin blinks. "I... what?"
"Love," Gaius repeats, straightening up. "You do love Arthur, don't you?"
Gaius may be old, but he can still see right through me. Merlin swallows. "I - yes. I mean - I love him as... a friend. As my king."
A true enough answer.
Gaius's piercing look makes Merlin blush, but the old man only says kindly: "Of course, Merlin. But you have followed Arthur through so many hardships and on so many adventures, and you have saved his life on so many occasions that the bond between the two of you is very strong. You are closer to Arthur than anyone and your magic is powerful - it has to be you. Think of the curse; think what it does. What would be the natural antidote?"
Merlin remembers the desperate hate in the woman's voice as she spat out the words to poison Arthur's mind and make him lose himself in darkness. Of course Gaius is right. Of course the antidote is love. Fight magic with magic but hatred with love. And it is not sexual desire Gaius is referring to. This is about selfless love, unselfish magic, true devotion.
Merlin looks at Arthur, at his pallor and the shallow breathing, and for a moment he is blinded by panic. It is not only that Merlin has failed in his duty to protect Arthur and that saving him is his responsibility now – it is the thought of perhaps having to exist without Arthur. That is unbearable, unthinkable.
"What if I can't... what if I don't reach him in time?" His voice cracks and he takes a deep breath. "Is it… Gaius, if I fail - is it possible to bring someone back from the dead?"
"No," says Gaius quietly. "No, not like this. You must catch Arthur before he reaches the Door. Once he passes through it, nothing can bring him back except time itself. Even you with your extraordinary powers can't do that."
Merlin squeezes his eyes shut. He does not understand what Gaius means by "time itself", but that is not important for now. He can't let himself be afraid of failing, he thinks. There is no choice here. Either he tries, or Arthur meets a certain death.
Because why was Merlin given the gift of magic, his strong flaring beautiful magic, if not to save what is most important to him and to Camelot? Arthur will be the greatest king of all time. This is what Merlin's magic was meant for.
He remembers that time by the sea, when they sat facing each other and facing death; how he had been fully prepared to drink down the poison for Arthur and let his life end there and then - if he could only have done so without risk for Arthur. And he remembers his own panic when Arthur had emptied the chalice and slid off his seat, lifeless.
If Arthur walks through the Door, I will follow him. But Merlin keeps that resolution to himself. There are some things Gaius does not need to know.
"I think," he says in a surprisingly steady voice, "I think I want to be alone with Arthur. Give me two candle marks, Gaius. If I can't find a way to do it in that time, I don't think I will be able to do it at all."
Gaius looks at him, then nods. Before he leaves the room he briefly puts his hand on Merlin's shoulder, and Merlin is alone with the unconscious king.