Merlin was quite sure he should have woken up dead today. When he did wake up, he certainly felt as though he had died. Died, been trampled and tossed into a pyre for good measure. And yet he could feel his heart beating, feel cold air flow to and from his lungs, and he was shivering - shivering because he was cold.
"Gwaine, have you brought more wood, he's freezing!" Merlin heard Arthur shout. He cracked an eye open and even that hurt, as though his eyelids had been pasted shut. He saw Arthur's blurry form next to a blurry fire in need of more kindling.
"I found something even better!" Gwaine called excitedly. The place, where ever they were, echoed sharply with the clop of horse hooves, then Arthur's high-pitched laugh of joy.
"Smart lads. They were standing just outside the ruins. I saw them when I was digging for more wood. Here." Splinters of wood clattered to the ground. Arthur quickly added them to the pile.
"That's all there is, I'm afraid," Gwaine went on. "That place buried itself good."
"No matter. We're leaving this place. The bleeding has stopped and if we use any more of that cloak to bandage him we'll have nothing to keep him warm. Get him ready."
Merlin watched through his one slitted eye as Gwaine moved toward then behind him. He felt the knight's hands slide under his body and lift. Pain ripped through Merlin like a wave, and blackness took him once again.
When Merlin next woke, it was to aches rather than pain and the ability to open both eyes. The first thing to register other than his body's more mild complaints was the softness beneath him and warmth all around him. He blinked up at a familiar ceiling, then turned his head taking in a very familiar room.
His room, to be precise, with his things, scant as they were. He was in his bed, with his blanket.
And that meant they were home.
Merlin's next breath shuddered from his lungs, followed by the next after that. He felt as though his chest were filling up - relief, joy, more relief – and that soon it would burst. His vision blurred until moisture slid down his face. He lifted a hand to wipe it away, only to be distracted by the clean white bandages wrapped around his arm. Looking to the other limb he saw the same. Looking down, he saw more white peeking through the collar of his nightshirt – his warm, wonderful nightshirt.
The moisture pooled and fell more rapidly. He was home, free, safe. No more beatings, no more cold, no more hunger, no more Jimbol and beasts and monsters coming from portals. He, Arthur, Gwaine...
Arthur and Gwaine.
Merlin snapped upright then dropped back when his ribs twanged in complaint. He hit the pillow with a grunt and lay there, breathing through the pain.
"Gaius," Merlin called, though it came out as more of a squeak. Merlin cleared his throat. "Gaius?" Hoarse, but better.
The old physician hurried through the door. On seeing Merlin with his eyes open his body seemed to deflate as though finally releasing the breath he'd been holding forever.
"Oh, thank goodness. I knew you would wake soon but you still had me worried. How are you feeling, Merlin?" Gaius asked. He didn't wait for an answer but launched into his usual fussing of feeling Merlin's forehead then checking the bandages on his wrist.
"Less dead," Merlin croaked. "Gaius... Arthur, Gwaine, are they...?"
"They're fine, Merlin. I dare say a lot better off than you. Arthur had a bit of a bump on his head and Gwaine cuts on his wrists but nothing serious."
Now it was Merlin's body's turn to deflate, every muscle easing out of its bow-string tension.
"And from what they told us you've had quite the adventure," Gaius said with a pointed look. Then he smiled. "But one you can tell when you are up to it. You're going to be feeling quite weak for some time. I do not know what you were forced to do but it left you in a terrible mess. Arthur and Gwaine weren't sure if you were going to make it." He filled a cup with water and held it while Merlin drank as much as he could. Knowing Gaius, it was to be easy on everything from food to water until he was better.
Merlin then suffered through having his shirt lifted and his ribs prodded, and still being more than tender his body was not happy about it.
But when Gaius was done, he adjust Merlin's shirt carefully, followed by the blankets, fiddling with them as if intent on their perfection. When he was finally satisfied, he placed his hand on Merlin's head and looked at him, long and lingering the way people will when committing every detail of what they were seeing to memory. Even groggy as Merlin was, he didn't miss the wet shimmer in Gaius' eyes.
"I'm so glad they found you," Gaius said. His voice cracked, there, at the end.
Merlin reached up with a shaking hand and gripped the solid wrist.
A soft knock at the door ended the moment. Quickly wiping his eyes with his sleeve, Gaius rose, composed himself and answered.
Arthur and Gwaine stood on the other side, looking for all the world like two little boys wanting to ask if their friend could come out and play.
"We, uh... came to... you know," Gwaine stammered. "And you weren't in your chambers and we heard voices and thought that maybe..."
Gaius smiled with a small chuckle. "Yes, Gwaine, he is awake. And, yes, you can both see him. But not for long, he's still very weak." He then shuffled aside, making way for the two men to enter the small room, Gwaine wearing his biggest smile and even Arthur looking pleased.
"About time," Arthur said. "I told Gaius you were most likely pretending so you could go on lazing about."
"Yes. That's it exactly. Nothing at all to do with being too weak to pour my own cup of water," Merlin said dryly but with good humor. Not enough good humor when Arthur's smile faltered a little.
Only to reform itself into something softer, more fond. "It's good to see you awake, Merlin." Then fond became a smirk. "Because now you can tell us what happened."
"Yes, please. It's been driving us both mad," Gwaine said. "How the hell did we get out of that place alive?"
"Oh," Merlin said, thinking fast. "Um, well. This... door, I guess you could call it, began to open. Everyone was distracted by it and I used that moment to push Gwaine off the table. I guess it caused the spell to backfire or something when the whole place collapsed. I don't remember anything after that. Sorry."
Merlin winced internally as he often did when having to lie. He hated having to do it, always had and always would until the time he could finally tell Arthur – or Arthur found out. But not now, not after what they had been through, after nearly losing Gwaine to magic.
And that was always the problem, wasn't it? Just when Merlin thought Arthur might come around to accept magic as something that could be used for good, some enchantment or sorcerer came along to put him right back in the mindset of his father and magic being evil.
But someday, Merlin would tell him the truth.
"That must have been some backlash. It certainly did a number on you," Gwaine said, grabbing Merlin's foot under the blanket and giving it a gentle squeeze.
"But not us," Arthur said thoughtfully.
Merlin replied easily and with a shrug, "You both were on the floor. I was upright." Which was true, kind of.
"Could explain why the manacles were so easy to get off when they were such a pain before," Gwaine said. "They must have been knocked loose."
Merlin could only offer up another shrug. The manacles he couldn't explain. How his magic had broken through them he definitely couldn't, and he made a mental note to ask Kilgarrah about it when he was able.
"Still rather uneventful, though," Gwaine said, scratching behind his ear. "Not the whole caving in part or the magical explosion part. The part where you pushed me off the table and, poof, evil destroyed. Not exactly one for the legends, is it?"
Arthur whacked him hard on the shoulder. Gwaine rubbed his shoulder, affronted. Arthur then grabbed Gwaine by the back of the shirt and shoved him out the door.
"Come on, Merlin needs his rest. The sooner he's better the sooner my armor gets polished and the stables mucked.
Merlin gripped his chest, fighting a laugh that he would only regret. Then the door shut, leaving him alone with his thoughts, and his bandaged wrists lying there for him to see.
Somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, an echo of unimaginable pain whispered to him.
Was it worth it, Merlin? Was it worth nearly dying? Was it worth so much pain?
Merlin curled his fingers into a fist, feeling the pull of cuts and damaged flesh.
Would you do it again?
Merlin shivered, swallowing against a tight throat. Because even remembering that echo of pain, the answer was yes. It would always be yes.
"Your ventures have not been kind to you, young warlock," Kilgarrah said.
"Believe me," Merlin said, sliding from the saddle of the horse. "This is an improvement." He'd enchanted the horse before arriving, and it stood calmly, not seeing a great dragon but a cow grazing in the clearing.
Merlin leaned heavily against the horse, the ride having taken more out of him than he thought it would. Gaius had warned him that only a week of bed rest wasn't time enough for him to get his strength back. He needed more time, but Merlin had too many questions, questions that had been keeping him up at night.
"If I had known of your fate, I would have come to you," Kilgarrah said.
Merlin smiled up at him. "And I would have called, but I couldn't." He then told Kilgarrah everything, of his capture by slavers, of the manacles, the rescue, the castle, the doorway and his magic reacting.
Kilgarrah's reaction was to chuckle. "Ah, and this merely proves what I have been telling you for so many years. You are powerful, Merlin. Your captors might as well have tied you up with string for all the good those manacles would have done."
Merlin narrowed his eyes in annoyance. "Those manacles nearly killed me when I released my magic."
"But they did not. Your magic made sure of that. Even string can be painful if wound tightly enough."
Merlin shuddered when the whisper of remembered pain rose to the surface. "Not like this. This was..."
Kilgarrah looked down on him kindly. "I did not say it was easy. But you and your magic will be stronger for it. That is both the price and the reward of doing what must be done."
Merlin nodded, finding comfort in the dragon's words. "What was that creature? And how was I able to drive it back?"
The dragon thought for a moment, then, "I can not say."
Which had Merlin's eyes nearly popping out of his head. "You can't... but I thought you knew everything!"
"As much as I would enjoy boasting of such a feat, I am not a god. My knowledge is limited to what must be known, and there are things in this world where knowledge of their existence can be dangerous. But there are tales from times before even my existence, of creatures meant to be forgotten, and creatures who were never worth remembering. For a creature such as the one who you described to rely so heavily on outside powers to bring it into this world, it could not have been very powerful to begin with. Sometimes the illusion of power is all a being has to maintain its existence. When that illusion is broken, then that being is nothing."
Merlin frowned. "So... I didn't destroy a god-like creature?"
Kilgarrah laughed. "I am afraid not, young warlock. But do not think that made it no less formidable. Whatever this being, it was good that you sent it away, never to return. It may not have been strong, but that does not mean it could not have grown in power."
A little well of pride swelled in Merlin's chest.
"Gwaine, we really shouldn't..."
"Yes, we should, Merlin. It's not like we're going on patrol, just to the other side of the castle."
But even the other side of the castle was enough to wind Merlin, causing him to stumble. Getting his strength back was as much of a pain as having injuries. Just when he thought he could handle anything simply because he managed a few steps without getting exhausted, he found out the hard way that his body still had miles to go.
"Not much further, Merlin, promise," Gwaine said. "Besides, it'll be worth it, especially after being cooped up in that tiny room of yours for so long."
When they reached their destination, Merlin immediately recognized it and with quite a bit of trepidation.
"Oh, no, Arthur doesn't want me to help him train, does he?"
Gwaine gave him an odd look. "No. Of course not. Here, put this on." He handed Merlin a heavy cloak trimmed in fur, then a pair of thick gloves. Only when Merlin was bundled up to Gwaine's satisfaction did they go outside.
The weather had been kind the past few days, the snow having melted and the air not as frigid but still liable to chill Merlin's healing body had he not been dressed so warmly. They went out to the training ground where a chair was waiting, and Gwaine had him sit.
Not minutes later, Arthur and the knights arrived for training. Gwaine took that moment to vanish.
Merlin's heart sank as he tried to fathom what Arthur was up to.
"Comfortable?" Arthur asked, unsheathing his sword and giving it a few deft twirls.
"Good. And no falling asleep because I want you to pay close attention."
"Okay. To what?"
Arthur held up the sword. "To this. Since I can't start teaching you proper use of the sword until you're completely healed I want you to observe."
Merlin blinked, then relaxed. "Oh." Then perked up. "Oh!"
Arthur smiled. "Yes, oh. Now where the hell is... oh, here he comes."
Gwaine trotted back onto the field, dressed in chain mail and ready for a day of training. While the rest of the knights spread out staking their own spots for practice, Gwaine and Arthur stayed in front of Merlin.
"Watch closely, Merlin. First we'll run through a few defensive moves in which to disarm your opponent without needing to exert too much strength. Now..."
Merlin watched with rapt attention as Arthur and Gwaine disarmed each other with an ease that made it seem so possible, even for Merlin.
Merlin didn't need to know how to fight with a sword, not any more now that he knew what he could do, bound in enchanted chains or not. But he didn't care. He wanted to know, anyway, and Gwaine and Arthur wanted to show him.
It was the kind of things they were willing for each other, after all.
A/N: Hope you all enjoyed my first multi-chapter foray into Merlin. I know some of you are probably disappointed that I didn't provide a more detailed explanation on the creature, but A: I really loved the idea of even Kilgarrah not knowing everything and B: I also loved the idea of things being out there that are so evil they are never spoken of or so forgotten even the most ancient of beings barely remember them. Even though I am a sucker for explanations I'm also a sucker for the incredibly mysterious.
Thank you all for you wonderful feed back. It always does my writerly heart good to know something I wrote is being enjoyed. I do have other works in the making, most of them for other fic-a-thons and Big Bangs and the like, so there will be more multi-chapter fic in the future for anyone interested. Again, thank you for your comments. So glad you enjoyed :D