"Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even."
Good King Wenceslas, an old English Christmas carol
On the night Merlin died, Arthur saw the ghost of the Good King from his bedroom window. This night also happened to be Christmas Eve.
It was that terrible Christmas of the year that Gwen had betrayed him, that his father had died, that Morgana was definitely a turncoat. In a fit of good humor he'd granted leave to any knight to asked for it, leaving only the bare minimum guard to stay at the castle. Leon, the oldest, the one who'd known Arthur since he was born, had taken command of the remainder of the guard and, indeed, half of the Christmas feast. Arthur had spent most of the evening sulking at the head of the table, wishing for his father, or at least for some peace and quiet. The merriment of the holiday seemed like an affront, a personal attack, a gigantic joke played on a too-young-king who was far too frustrated to be merry. He'd gone up to bed, shaking off Merlin when he grabbed his sleeve. He didn't even want the company of his hapless servant. He didn't think he could stand Merlin's easy amicability on this night. So it was a terrible Christmas Eve all around. He just didn't know how much worse it could get.
Arthur leaned against the window pane, looking out over the courtyard, over the lights of Camelot. He didn't know he was humming a snatch of Christmas carol a visiting jester had sung that evening. If he had, he would have stopped immediately, because the singing of Christmas carols was almost jolly, and he wanted to be morose. But he sang tunelessly, humming here and there because, after all, he'd only just heard the carol this evening. "Good king Wences-hmmm went out, on the hmm of Stephen..."
He nearly jumped out of his boots when he saw a lantern flicker int he courtyard where there definitely had not been a lantern a moment ago. The light illuminated a hand, part of a emerald cloak so green it matched the mistletoe Merlin had insisted on adorning his room with. The light glinted off of something circular, shiny. Like a crown.
The jester who had sung the song had spoken of a legend. It was the only part of the feast Arthur had perked up for, because while he didn't care for speeches he adored stories, especially ones about the old kings. Especially ones about ghosts.
The fool had said that there had been a Good King who lived an age ago, a King who used to bring gifts to his subjects every year on the eve of St. Stephen's Day. His faithful servant, his faithful friend, would accompany him, and point out the houses in special need of firewood or chestnuts. One year, the Good King went out on a night that was blanketed with snow, his faithful companion trotting along next to him. But something happened, and the companion fell, slipped, froze to death on the darkest night of the year. Ever since, at the very darkest nights of a snowy year, the ghost of the Good King could be seen by other good kings, as the ghost searched forever through the snows for his friend.
It had been a good story, and the carol was easy to sing. Of course, while Arthur adored ghost stories, he never put any stock in them. Until now. Until he stood at his window and the Good King Wence-something looked up at him and he could see a face as clear as his own. Could see the desperation and grief etched there, as if a hundred years hadn't been enough to overcome the loss of his servant.
Madness overtook him and Arthur seized his cloak, the one lined with animal fur. He might be having a terrible Christmas, but he could do some good this night. He could help the king find his servant. Find peace.
The castle was quiet, and Arthur skirted around the corridors he knew would be patrolled. He didn't want to run into another person. Somehow he knew that if he spoke to someone about this, he would not be able to find the King when he got to the courtyard.
Which is why Arthur was alone when he went out into the snow and came face-to-face with the memory of the man. Up close, the emerald cloak was even more dazzling, the crown more beautiful, even though the entire figure was eerily transparent. "I've come to - to help." Arthur said timidly, lamely. He cleared his throat, tried again. "To help you find your servant."
The ghostly king's troubled face broke open in a smile and he patted Arthur's shoulder, leaving him colder than ever. Holding the lantern out before him, the king started gliding across the snow. He didn't leave footprints.
Arthur winced at the voice and turned to see Merlin tripping down the steps, nearly sliding on the ice at the bottom. He was wearing only his thin coat and pants and was shivering as soon as he caught up to his king. "What are you doing outside, Arthur? It's Christmas Eve. St. Nicholas won't come if you're not in bed." He was grinning that familiar grin, and Arthur didn't want any of it. He looked over his shoulder and - yes, the King was still there, hovering, waiting for Arthur.
"I'm helping him." He jerked a finger over his shoulder and watched as Merlin's eyebrows came together, puzzled. Of course Merlin couldn't see him. Didn't that jester say only kings could? "You know what? It's none of your business what I'm doing Merlin. Why don't you get into bed? Can't pass up that good coal St. Nicholas is going to leave for you."
He felt the King touch him again, and shivered at the sensation. The King gestured at Merlin, a question that Arthur understood as clearly as if it was spoken out loud. "Yes, this is my servant. Merlin." The King motioned again. Bring him along.
"Arthur?" Merlin was looking at him like that, like he was crazy. He was no crazy. This ghost was proof he was a good king.
"Fine, fine. He can come." Arthur turned back to Merlin, speaking quickly, daring the servant to question him. "Look, I can see that ghost, the one the fool was talking about at the feast this evening. The Good King -"
"Wenceslas?" Now Merlin looked intrigued and was peering through the darkness, eager to catch a glimpse. "Are you sure?"
"You don't think I'm going mad?" Arthur asked, curiously. At this point, even he thought he was going mad.
"Nah. After all the crazy stuff that happens in Camelot, ghosts are nothing." Merlin's eyes shone and he poked Arthur in the ribs. "Are you helping him find his servant? You're such a softie."
"His lantern was going to keep me up all night." Arthur muttered, taking off after the quickly moving king before he could admit that the story of the king who brought peace to his people and the servant who cared too much had struck a chord in him from the start.
They left the courtyard, left Camelot, ventured into the forest. Merlin was shivering so badly Arthur could hear his teeth chattering. "What were you thinking, coming out in the snow with no clothes on?"
"I was thinking that you were sleepwalking, and it would take me about a minute to get you inside." Merlin snapped, though his tone was made somewhat less menacing by the incessant chatter. "Anyway, it's not like I have any warmer clothes to wear. I'd just have put all my clothes on, one atop the other."
Arthur nodded. He'd noticed this, and thought of the gift up in his bedroom. He'd planned to give it to Merlin at the end of Christmas day, after the servant had gotten huffily annoyed at Arthur's gift-giving. Arthur loved to give presents to the knights, the court, the servants. He'd give everyone their gift, making Merlin to carry them all. Only at the end of the day, after feast, after mass, when Merlin was helping him out of his clothes, would Arthur give Merlin his present. It was a trunk filled with warm winter clothes and blankets, the softest ones Arthur could find. He'd spent most of the winter preparing it. Merlin could use that gift now.
Another five minutes, and the King was taking them deep into the woods. "Arthur, are you sure he knows -?"
"He knows where he's going, Merlin. Just - just stop shaking, okay? You're making me nervous."
Merlin shook his head, shivered some more, and then tossed his head back and broke into the carol. "Sire he lives a good league hence, underneath a mountain. Right against a forest fence, by St. Agnes fountain." Merlin stopped then, and looked at Arthur at the same instant Arthur understood. "Are we walking all the way to St. Agnes fountain? That's another mile!"
"Come on, Merlin, a mile will take fifteen minutes at the very most." But he was getting worried about how blue Merlin was. They moved faster.
They were going to St. Agnes fountain, a lake to the East of the heart of the Old Forest. It was frozen over when they got there, and Arthur looked to the Good King. "Did your servant fall in the lake? Is that what happened?" Merlin just stood, hunched over against the cold. He was staring across the lake.
The King extended his arm out, straight across the lake. "What? Is he on the other side? Look, my servant - Merlin's very cold already. I want to help you, I really do, but if we don't find him soon -"
That's when everything happened at once. Merlin cried out a strangled "Arthur!" and Arthur turned, stared across the lake to the spot where his servant had just fallen through the ice. He stood, gaping, for a moment before he heard a muffled sigh behind him. He turned back to the Good King and watched the spirit embraced a smaller man, dressed almost identically to Merlin.
"I am very sorry," The ghost spoke in a voice that was deep and accented, a voice from far-away, like an echo of a man. "I have spent so many years looking for my servant. The only way to get him from the fountain was for another to fall in on this day. Truly, I am sorry."
But Arthur wasn't listening. He was already across the lake, on his belly, one arm fishing in the hole for his only true friend in the world.
This was the night that Merlin died. He had to, otherwise no ghostly servant would be able to join his ghostly master in the afterlife. "Sod them both," Arthur said, trying not to cry because he knew the tears would freeze like ice on his face.
"It's - it's all right, Arthur." Merlin said, his voice barely a whisper.
Arthur shook his head, held Merlin closer. He wouldn't forget the moment after sliding across the ice towards Merlin, not for a hundred hundred years. He plunged his arm into the water to find...nothing. And it was dark, so completely dark, and he couldn't see anything. And then - the lantern, the one Wenceslas had been holding all night, was suddenly at his shoulder, and the king held the lantern over the hole, and the servant that had just gotten its liberation slithered into it and came up a moment later holding a very dead Merlin in his very dead arms. After Arthur got a firm grip on the back of Merlin's neck, the pair had disappeared for good.
Somehow, he'd dragged the dead weight of a wet body back across the ice, and had the presence of mind to start a fire, to put Merlin near it. But his heart was in the process of shattering, you see. Merlin was dead, and his last reason to get up in the morning was gone. "I'm sorry, my friend." Arthur had said, cradling Merlin's body in his lap. He didn't really know where the point was when a person stopped being a person and started being a body. He didn't know if he'd ever be able to let Merlin go. "I should never have trusted ghosts. Spirits are - they're like magic. Evil." But even as he said it he knew that the King hadn't been evil, not really. He'd been selfish, and had condemned another man to his own fate. For Arthur knew that he would never be content, not ever, not without his faithful servant.
Christmas Eve passed over into Christmas day, and just like that day long ago, there's room in that time for a miracle. That's the only way Arthur could explain Merlin's too-cold body suddenly opening its eyes and staring at him. A miracle, and he wasn't one to question miracles too thoroughly.
Of course, Arthur knew this was just a brief reprieve. It was too cold. Merlin was too cold. There was no way he would survive the night, even if he had come out of the lake with a pulse, weak and slow. But Merlin didn't seem to be in any pain, and Arthur had determined that the rules of death did not apply, not tonight. So he wrapped his arms and his cloak around Merlin and held him close, and they talked through the night.
"Were they really ghosts?" Merlin asked quietly, though he knew the answer. The land Camelot was on was riddled with magic, and walking spirits were the least of them. "Good King Wenceslas from the fool's story?"
"He obviously was no fool," Arthur said, squeezing Merlin against him. The younger man was like a child, light and thin, and Arthur's heart was pounding hard against his chest at the thought of Merlin's innocent soul wandering the woods alone. "But you are. What in the world made you go out onto the ice?"
"I saw -" Merlin shook and pressed his body against Arthur's. "I saw - myself. Or someone who looked very like me, surrounded by the most beautiful light. It looked like they were in a field, not on ice. I wanted to see them."
"Curiosity killed the cat." Arthur said, then pressed his hand against Merlin's heart less that was true. "That must have been the King's servant. He did look a lot like you."
"The once and future king." Merlin said, his voice full of wonderment. Arthur did not know what that meant, but Merlin obviously thought it meant something. Then the servant went quiet for so long that if Arthur had not had his hand over his heart, if he could not feel it beating, he would have thought him dead.
So he started singing that song the jester sang at the feast. "Page and monarch forth they went, forth they went together." He didn't remember the next line, and so sang that one again. And again. Together. Always together. There had been a time, long ago, when he did not know Merlin, did not know such a person existed. And what an awful life that had been.
Suddenly Merlin gasped and Arthur started, holding Merlin against him as the man straightened and bent, moving as a man in a fit. Then he stilled, and gasped, "Sire, the night is darker now," it was part of the song, that wretched song, and Arthur shushed him, rocked him in the cold bitter night. He murmured against the younger man's black hair, words of quiet and comfort. But still Merlin sang, "And the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart, I know not how." A quick gasp, and Arthur could feel Merlin's whole torso shudder. "I can go no longer."
It was the quiet, dark hours of Christmas morning, and earlier that night Merlin had done something like dying before he was brought back to Arthur. A Christmas miracle. But the hours were long and the night was cold and Camelot was far, far away. I can go no longer, Merlin had sang, that awful song, and Arthur plotted to kill that fool, that jester, even as he stumbled through the song over and over and over again, praying for dawn to come swiftly. After all, it is more difficult to die in the light of Christmas morning than in the dark, chilly corners of the night.
When Arthur woke he was in his bed, and Leon was by his side, looking cold but happy to his king awake. "It's halfway through Christmas day, sire. You gave us all a good fright."
"Merlin?" Arthur croaked, burying deeper under the covers. He didn't think he'd ever be warm again.
Leon cleared his throat and pointed to the thing Arthur had taken for a pillow. Merlin had his head bent into the the crook of Arthur's arm. Though he could no longer feel his heart beat, he could feel the tickling breath against his skin. "I won't ask what you were doing in the woods on Christmas Eve, Arthur. But Gaius does want to speak to you about Merlin's clothes. He was close to death when we found you."
"How?" Arthur asked, acutely aware that he was questioning miracles and afraid that they should reverse themselves with too much probing. "How did you find us?"
"It was the strangest thing," Leon said, and told the story in bursts, about how a servant who looked strikingly like Merlin had appeared at the doorway to the knight's quarters, and how they'd followed the boy, who glowed like a candle in church, out to the Fountain of St. Agnes. How Leon had literally tripped over Arthur, wrapped protectively around Merlin, and thought them both quite dead.
It was Christmas day, but by the end of the story Arthur was tired, and almost warm, and content to lay in bed with Merlin definitely alive next to him. Just before he fell asleep, he saw the wink of a lantern and a flash of the truest green in the corner, and could hear a rumbling laugh like an echo from a life long ago.
a holiday ghost story. it was weird, so we'd appreciate your thoughts.
merry christmas. god bless you, every one.