But One Side
I'm not sure just how much time has passed. It feels like ages since I last heard his voice, but Arthur's death was before fall, and it's only mid-winder now.
More pressing right now is the question of when I last left these chambers. I've only made one trip to the lower towns with Gaius since Percival brought me home- if Camelot can still be called home, for me. I'm sorry now for what I put the knight through. I was in such a bad way when he found me- half-mad with grief and exhaustion, but mostly just unwilling to be led away from the lake.
They kept me from hearing about Gwaine for a few days, but I knew that he was dead before they told me anything. He would have been to see me, could he have done so.
Gaius worries about me. I know I should do something to keep him from worrying, but I've lost the will. Arthur is dead. I can't pretend that hasn't killed a huge part of me. Gaius would see through that in an instant, and I haven't the strength to put up even the thinnest façade.
I look up from where I slouch on the edge of my bed, to the window where I found the view so fascinating on the day that I came here. Part of me wants to look out of it now. Another part is afraid to, afraid that the view will be different, as so many things are to me now. What really prevents me, however, is a lack of interest. Whatever I see out that window won't do anything to restore my spirit. My spirit is dead. It died with Arthur.
It isn't a misguided sense of loyalty that sucks away at whatever life is left to me. I am loyal to him, of course, and will be to my final breath, but I can't go on because there's nothing left for me to fight for and I just miss him. That's why I haven't been able to leave my room. That's why I hardly eat or sleep anymore, and don't speak unless I have to. Because it hurts too much, and that pain will never go away.
"Merlin." Instead of Gaius, it's Guinevere who stands in the doorway.
Queen Guinevere; Gwen to her friends before she was appointed the rank- and she was of the first friends I made in Camelot- but when I look at her, all I can see is Arthur's wife.
She looks sympathetic to me. That's so wrong because I should be the one consoling her, but she's been stronger than I have all along. As Camelot's last living ruler, she's had to be.
She sits down beside me, and grips my ever-thinning hand. I haven't the heart to return the hold. "I'm worried about you."
At least she doesn't dance around it. I can appreciate that, at least. Gaius always seems to want to say something to the effect, but never quite arrives at it.
Gwen's gentle fingers rub my hand. "I think you should get out of this room," she tells me. When I don't respond, her hand moves to my shoulder. "Merlin," she says. She's growing anxious now. "You've hardly come outside since… Please, Merlin. I don't want to lose you, too."
Her tearful words provoke guilt in me, if not motivation to comply with her wish. Is my reaction to Arthur's death terribly selfish? Am I not allowed to grieve in my own way, or to waste away, if that's the most appealing of my options?
"Merlin," Gwen prompts me in a miserable, harsh voice that… reminds me of Arthur.
"Why, Gwen?" I ask in a ragged voice, finally turning to her.
Her eyes are full of pain, though mostly she looks confused. "Because it's what Arthur would want you to do," she pleads.
I consider this carefully, studying a mark on the stone floor that I've grown quite familiar with. "No," I disagree. "He'd be glad to know he had such a hold on me to leave me in this state, the prat." My own eyes well up as I use the familiar name.
"You know that isn't true. He'd want you to go on living, Merlin. He wouldn't want you to give up-"
"How do you know?" I all but yell at Gwen, rising to my feet. I hate myself for raising my voice to her, but I have little control over this pent-up outburst. "You can't know what he'd have expected of me now!" I start to turn away, but there's more to be said. "You can say whatever you like, Guinevere, but the truth is I don't have anything left to live for." I shake my head, looking down at her. "Protecting him was my purpose. That was my life, Gwen- and what life can there be for me now?"
She has a determined look in her eye, and I know she'll argue the point until she's out of breath- but she's silent for the moment and I take that opportunity to avoid it. I can't move quickly enough out of the physician's chambers, evading both Gwen and the argument, and before I can bring myself to a stop I'm standing in the middle of the courtyard.
People pass by; some stare, and I'm not sure if it's because they recognize me and they know now that I'm a sorcerer or just for the lost look on my face, but I don't care. I just need to find a place to hide.
Perhaps the movement has forced some life back into me, because I'd sworn to myself never to enter Arthur's old chambers again- but it's the first place that I go. I hardly realize it before I've burst through the door, but here I stand, panting from the run, weak from little food and even less sleep- in the place that holds the most pain for me.
The whole room is one big memory. These were the chambers Arthur used before he married Gwen, and it's here I barged in on so many mornings, throwing open the curtains and trying the brighten the mood of Camelot's very-not-morning-person prince. It's here that I'd polish his armor and sharpen his sword- if he was to be here as well to keep my company. Maybe he never realized, but I often arranged the cleaning of his room to coincide with the times that he'd be up here as well. That's not the sort of thing he'd notice after all. I can't count all the times I've dusted this table, this mantle and that desk with all its oddities.
We were happy in those days. I know I complained- Arthur was never the easiest person to live with- but those were the happiest days of my life, those nine years and five months that I knew him. Not quite a decade. Not long enough, for sure.
I close and bolt the door behind me, desiring complete solitude. Gaius will worry when he comes home and finds me gone, but I can't bring myself to care as much as I should. I want to be left alone for a while, here where Arthur's memory is strongest.
I start to walk around the room. The fireplace is clean, with naught but the iron holds for the firewood inside. I was the one to last sweep it, I remember, tidying the room after Arthur and Gwen's wedding.
I run my finger over the dusty table. The room isn't kept anymore, for no one uses it these days, but the bed is made, with the drapes on the bedposts looking as natural as ever. I gaze out of the windows at the training ground below, wander toward the desk, and look at each of the ink marks Arthur made on it. I remember trying in vain once to scrub them away. Now I lay my hand over them protectively. Every little echo of his existence has value to me now.
I untie the bedpost drapes so that they fall into place, and lie down on the bed, shielded from the outside. It would have made sense for Arthur to sleep this way. At least I'd have had to go through extra trouble to let the light in on him in the mornings. But he didn't really mind it- that is, I rather think he appreciated everything I went through to help him be Camelot's greatest king.
…Everything you've done… I know now… for me… for Camelot…
I curl up on my side, holding my head between my hands in this, my temporary safe haven. It's almost completely dark in here, despite that it's midday still. The time is irrelevant, however, in relation to my sleep pattern. I've hardly slept at all in two days- and this isn't the first such incident in these past few months. Exhaustion is the only incentive for sleep now, because when I'm anything less than that, the dreams come. Memories resurface, and I wake right back where I started.
But I'm well out of the dreams' reach now- already too tired to keep my mind working properly. Even I can tell I wasn't thinking straight when I came here, to the old chambers of a dead man. And here I lie on a bed that hasn't been slept in for years.
But no one will find me here- at least not for a little while.
When I came back home this evening, Gaius was, as expected, anxious and worried, having heard Gwen's story of our conversation earlier today. I don't have the energy to feel guilty. What sleep I was able to capture wasn't nearly enough.
When he tells me to sit down at the table, I numbly comply. He sets a bowl in front of me, which I have no interest in.
"You need to eat, Merlin," Gaius tells me. There's a note of frustration in his words, to mask concern, I suppose. I'm glad that he cares about me, even if that doesn't change matters.
Maybe it does, though. I think if I didn't have Gaius, I'd have stopped eating at all a long time ago.
Barely able to touch the spoon before drawing my hand back, I sigh and fold my arms on the edge of the table. "I'm sorry," I tell him. "I'm not hungry, Gaius."
"I didn't ask you," he replies, sitting down opposite me. Nothing further passes between us for a moment. Gaius surely thinks of some further argument, to which I try to come up with a response. It's no use when I don't know what it is he'll say next. His hand enters my line of vision, sliding towards me on the table and settling on my forearm. He reaches out in another way when he speaks.
"You know it wasn't your fault, Merlin," he says, getting right down to the point, for perhaps the strongest part of my grief is motivated by guilt. Because-
"It was all my fault," I contradict. "Almost since the day I arrived here- for more than nine years, Kilgarrah has told me that it's my destiny to protect him… was my destiny," I correct myself, choking up. "Was…" Gaius begins to speak again, but I push past his voice angrily. "What was the point of it all?" I cry. "Why did the dragon do that- why tell me to protect someone who was always destined to die?"
Gaius shakes his head, searching for an answer. "Were it not for you, Merlin, and what you did for Arthur, he'd never have been so great a king. Gwen would not have become queen- Merlin, without you, magic would still be outlawed."
"Damn that," I mutter, so tired of the subject. I'm grateful to Gwen for lifting the ban, but I'll never be able to truly celebrate it- and the accomplishment of this goal has left me with even less purpose. "…The worst- the worst thing," I say, with an ironic, humorless smile, "is that he knew all along. The dragon always knew what would happen. That Arthur..." I scrub at the tears on my face, but it's useless to wipe them away. My body shivers with sorrow and quakes from sobs. Further tears are inevitable. "Did he think I just wouldn't get attached? Or that I wouldn't come to care about him more than anyone else? That it wouldn't kill me to watch him die in my arms?"
Gaius comes around and lays an arm over my shoulders. I'm aware, but I can hardly feel it. "I understand how hard it is for you, Merlin," he says. Maybe he even believes it. "But one day you'll-"
"No," I tell him, pulling away and getting to my feet. "No, I've waited years for magic to be allowed in Camelot, but if I'd only known that it would feel like this…" I can't bring myself to say the words 'I wish nothing had ever changed.' It's good that my people are free, but instead of joy, there's only emptiness for me. "…Am I wrong, Gaius? To be unsatisfied, after everything we went through to achieve this?"
"That isn't for me to tell you," he evades, which is answer enough.
"I'm sorry," I tell him. "I am so sorry, Gaius. …For every headache I've ever caused you, but mostly because… I have to leave."
I hardly made the decision myself before the words come tumbling out like that, but when I say them aloud, I know it's the right thing to do. I can't force my friends to watch me fade away like this.
"Don't try to talk me out of this, Gaius," I say. "I've made up my mind. I can't stay here. I should be glad, I suppose, to have things around that remind me of when he was alive, but instead… it's like being trapped." My face begs for his empathy. "Please don't fight me on this," I ask.
I can tell that he wants to, but he knows me far too well to think there would be any purpose in such an action. "Where will you go?"
"To Ealdor," I reply half-heartedly.
Gaius doesn't have to speak to ask me for the truth.
"…The lake," I admit. "Maybe Ealdor afterwards."
He nods in silence. "Do you think you'll return?"
"I don't know." I shake my head. "All I know right now is that I can't stay here like this. Maybe that will change; I don't know. I just- need to be… anywhere else. At least for now."
After nine years, I can read Gaius like a book. While he's unhappy to see me go, I feel confident that he does understand. He wraps me in a much-needed hug now.
"Then I hope you find what you're looking for, my boy," he tells me.
I nod against his shoulder, but the truth is that, unless what I find is Arthur, I won't be coming back.
It doesn't make much difference how soon I leave, but after I've forced down a little food and thrown together my main belongings, I begin the long walk to the lake. I wouldn't have slept tonight anyway- why wait for the morning?
It's strange though, to walk in the dark. The courtyard is unnaturally quiet, and the lower towns are empty, of course. I should give a fond farewell to this place, my second home- but I'm eager to be gone from it. I avoid the realization that I may never see it again, because nostalgia is the last thing I need right now.
Am I really justified for abandoning my friends? Does my grief have such a hold on me that I'm ready and willing to shut away those closest to me? If it lightens the weight of Arthur's death, I know I'm far more than willing. I can only hope that they don't begrudge me my choice to leave.
By the time I've reached the main road, my mind has turned to Kilgarrah, and I've come to a decision. I'm going to summon him to the field that I so often have. He's who I've needed to talk to for so long- not because I expect answers, but I want to hear him answer for himself. I'm angry, and if I let that anger out, I should do so on someone who deserves it, rather than Gwen or Gaius, who feel the same loss themselves, and have only ever tried to help me. And just maybe our talk will give me peace, somehow.
It occurs to me that I have no need anymore for secrecy- I used to call Kilgarrah to the field where I'm headed because it was sheltered by trees. There's room for him to land beside the road. But the habit is an old one.
There's nothing. No great flapping of dragon's wings- no sound at all. I'm looking up, searching the night sky.
Kilgarrah has been dying for months, I know. After more than a thousand years, he too would be dead soon. Was he already?
The thought provokes a sense of panic. The great dragon's knowledge goes back farther than that of any man or book, and I've relied upon that many times. Of the many questions I have concerning Arthur, he's the only one I know who might have answers.
But the sky is still, and the air quiet. I sit down in the grass, watching the sky. I don't know how long I'll wait, but I don't want to accept that he may not come.
Only death is stronger than the will of a dragonlord. Unfortunately, it's obvious that I've no power over that.
I jump to my feet when I finally hear him, though I can tell something is off about the dragon's flight. The sound ceases for a time, and when it picks up again, the beat of his wings is slow and irregular. Kilgarrah lands unsteadily on the ground and looks down at me, panting from the exertion.
I've never seen him in such a state. "I'm sorry," I apologize, but with little feeling. "If I had known where you were, I'd have come-"
"Why have you summoned me, Warlock?" he snaps. Is he angry though or just tired? What right has he to be angry?
"A number of reasons," I reply. "Foremost, what did you mean when you told me Arthur would rise again?"
"It was a simple enough statement," Kilgarrah explains.
For the first time in months, what I feel is actual hope. "Then… he will return?"
The dragon wearily inclines his head.
"'When Albion's need is greatest,'" I repeat. "When will that be?"
"That, Merlin, I cannot tell you."
"Why not?" I press, edgy and a more than a bit desperate. "Because you don't know? Because you don't want to tell me?"
"I only know that many centuries will pass before that day arrives," Kilgarrah says.
My hopes feel smothered, and for a moment I can't breathe either. But I'm not willing to accept this.
I look up at the dragon's ancient face. "There's a way for me to be there when he comes back," I state. "I know that you know of a way." There has to be a way.
Kilgarrah hesitates. He's holding something back, but I wait to see if he'll tell me before pressuring him for an answer. I shouldn't be surprised when his reply comes to a question. "Your presence will be invaluable to the once and future king, but at great cost to yourself. How far are you willing to go in order to be there when the time comes?"
The answer is one I long ago accepted. "Tell me how."
"There are no creatures left on this earth with immortality," he says. "The dragons have outlived entire species, but their lives too come to an end. However, if a dragon gives his life to a man, he can live for as many ages as he chooses."
Virtual immortality. The prospect of outliving everyone I come into contact with for centuries… it's terrifying. But it's for Arthur. The thought of him returning to Camelot after so much change- alone, confused- it compels me to nod.
But I'm also aware of Kilgarrah's side of this. "You know I wouldn't ask this lightly," I tell him. "I won't command you-"
"As it's not yours to command," Kilgarrah says. "Dragonlord or not, you cannot command me to give you my life."
"…But will you?" I ask.
He smiles in his wry way. "Even now, I've not much time left to me," he says. "I will do as you ask, and it will be the last action that I ever take."
"Thank you," I tell him, for it's still a huge favor that I ask. He cranes his neck, preparing to breathe on me as he has in the past, to grant me knowledge or greater power. But after he does so this time, he'll never speak again- and I'll never have the answers I've long wondered about.
"Wait!" I shout, and he pauses. I struggle to organize my thoughts. I don't want to risk forgetting anything. "There's still so much I want to know, Kilgarrah."
"I cannot teach you everything that is in my mind, Warlock," he says.
"I know," I reply, accepting that. "But there are some things I need to know, that will haunt me for the rest of my days if you don't tell me while you can." I start with the question that has bothered me the most. "Did you know that this would happen?" At his frown, I persist. "'The once and future king,' you said. You said that before Arthur died. You knew he would die like this, didn't you?"
Kilgarrah nods heavily. "Yes," he answers shamelessly. "I knew that Arthur would be murdered when he'd brought about the golden age of Camelot and the unity of Albion."
I shake my head. "So this was… meant to happen?" I suggest, as horrible as the thought seems.
"Yes," Kilgarrah's answers.
I briefly consider not being angered to hear my presumption now proven, but dismiss the idea. "Why didn't you tell me?" I cry in despair. "Why didn't you warn me?"
"I did try to warn you, Merlin. The witch and the druid boy would have both died long before they had a chance to cause Arthur's death, had you not interfered."
It's the very worst thing in the world that this is true. "Then it is all my fault," I admit. "And I suppose… waiting alone for hundreds of years… it's only fair, isn't it? Because if I'd been stronger, I could have allowed Mordred and Morgana to die. I could have killed Mordred myself at any time last year, to keep Arthur alive."
"I cannot approve of your decisions to let them live, Merlin. But do not forget what motivated you."
"I know it was weak of me," I reply, "and I couldn't see the future for myself at the time. I thought I could protect Arthur from the future you told me of."
The dragon stops me. "What I meant, Merlin, is that your kindness prevented you from allowing them to die. On the day you arrived in Camelot, I could see that goodness in you. It seems now that the love in your heart was the cost for fulfilling your destiny."
Stinging though his words are, I fear he's right to say this. I've felt it happening, not suddenly with Arthur's death, but gradually. Every minute I've sat alone in my room, I knew part of me was rotting away. But I didn't realize until now that all the kindness I ever had is gone. "Arthur's not the only person I have love for," I tell Kilgarrah. "Why did it die with him?"
"Something that can be revived is not dead," he answers.
"And if it can't be revived?" I ask, with little hope.
"Then you should not accept what I am about to give you."
I can still say no. I can live out the length of a normal life span- but I'll never see Arthur again.
I will be but one side of a coin for the remainder of my life.
"My mind is made up," I tell the dragon, "but first… Just answer me this, Kilgarrah. How could you know Arthur's fate and Camelot's all along, but not foresee how much pain would exist after the return of magic?"
Kilgarrah shakes his head. "I did know, Merlin," he says. "And I knew how much that this would change you. But answer me, Warlock; if you could have changed your mother's mind about where she sent you all those years ago, would you? Would you undo your time in Camelot, were it in your power?"
My answer, unlike those to so many of Kilgarrah's questions, is easy. "Not a day." It's heartening to say that, but even more to believe it, and despite the pain, the lack of purpose, and the loneliness still to come, I find that I do.
The next thing I feel is the dragon's breath- hot without burning, strong without pushing me off balance. When it's over, I take a deep breath that feels like pure energy. I didn't realize how unhealthy I'd let myself become until now. The not eating or sleeping hasn't been changed, but I can't remember ever physically feeling this well.
When Kilgarrah sighs at the end of his breath, I know that it's the very last he'll ever release. He lowers himself weakly, but can't prevent his huge body from then collapsing against the ground. His eyes are still open.
I come closer to his face, and laying a hand upon it, look down into his eye. "Thank you," I tell him in the dragon tongue, and then he's gone.
From the corner of this field, I watch as the body of the great dragon burns. Only magic fire would catch on him, and I stand upwind of the cloud of smoke, watching the area around the field to keep it from getting out of hand, for this winter has been dry.
In the east, the sky is growing pale. There's nothing left to burn, now, so with a whisper, I extinguish what flames linger in the ashes, sling my pack over my shoulder and turn toward the road.
I'm going to Lake Avalon. I know that for a long time yet, I needn't worry about being there for Arthur's return, but my mind and heart have remained there even though my body hasn't. I have to see it again, to sit on the shore, and come to terms with the fact that the person who meant the most to me really is dead. While this means something less permanent than it would under normal circumstances, it is a long-standing change, and one that I'm going to get used to, or rather, one that will get used to me.
I'm not tired anymore. I don't think I'd ever have to eat or sleep again to maintain this strength, though I do want to sleep again. Hundreds of years is a long time, and if its entirety is spent conscious, longer. The pain is still here, coupled with the loss of my home and a wise old friend- but if there is a path to healing, I think I'm finally on it.
Kilgarrah was right. I'm not the person I used to be, and I have changed for the worse. I don't want to be different when Arthur comes back, and I don't know yet know how I'll regain my old self before we meet again.
But I have a very long time to think about it.