Chapter 4 The Farewell

"He's alive, Sire," said Gaius softly, "but just barely." He passed a candle near Merlin's face as his practiced hands held one of his eyelids gently open. "See how his pupils are still reacting to light, Arthur. His breathing is so shallow it's hard to detect. His heartbeat is there, but faint and slow. I can't..." The old man's voice trailed off as tears stung his eyes. The physican turned away from the bed where Merlin lay, looking on his shelves of drugs as if he truly had an idea of what would help. He was just buying time to compose himself, but Arthur didn't need to know. He was barely coherent as it was.

"What's wrong? Is it poison?"

"Possibly, Sire. I can't say as I have no idea what he ate or drank. There is no evidence of a residue either near his ear or his mouth. I can find no puncture marks . But there is something in this that makes me think of magic." He paused. "It resembles the effect of the lamia, but it does not follow the pattern of attack, where the victim was alone. Merlin was in a crowd."

"Magic," came Arthur's stunned reply. He paced back and forth in the confined space and then turned back to Gaius. The king's eyes were dark with desperation; there was an almost unbalanced horror in their depths that unsettled his mentor. It worried him deeply, almost as much as Merlin's sudden collapse. Never had Gaius witnessed the depth of the bond beween his two beloved boys to this degree. Never had he felt this fear for Arthur when it was Merlin who was at death's door. He swallowed down his sense of forboding. Bitterly he regretted his help in sending Merlin to the dance. Little had he guessed the danger, despite his warning words.

Arthur appeared lost in thought, almost frozen, during Gaius' ruminations. Without a word, he turned back to Merlin and with his hunter's quiet, almost as if he was afraid to startle him, Arthur took one of Merlin's cold hands in both of his own. "Magic" he repeated in a strange, hushed tone.

"Merlin." Arthur's voice trembled slightly as he called him once more, but his servant never moved. The king kept up an interior dialogue, for his heart was full of things that he could never find the words to say. He wished he could say them, but he knew they wouldn't come. His hurt was too fierce, the words too unwieldy. He lifted Merlin's hand so it rested against his chest, still clasped in his own. He had lost so many he had loved to magic. In his darkest moments, he feared it was his doom to be bound forever to its dark forces. Magic had stolen his mother before he ever knew her. Morgana's magic had warped her, turning her from his arrogant,courageous, beautiful sister to a vengeful caricature of retribution. His father. Magic had driven him mad and in his madness, innocent people had been swept away, caught in the wake of his vengeful grief. He remembered his own atavistic fear that had arisen and ebbed again and again. The fear that he would lose the only friend he had ever had. He could not bear the thought that magic might rob him of his idiotic manservant. And yet, here he was again. He wanted to plead with Merlin, to beg him to fight free of what dark spell was holding him, he wanted to shake him until he awoke. He wanted to hit something, to make it all stop. But fear and sorrow rose to choke any words that he might have tried to speak, and all he could say, in a pleading dark whisper, was "Merlin".

MMMMMMM

Hidden by their combined magic,veiled by power, Merlin's hands trailed from the gasp of the dark haired girl who stood before him.

"We will meet again I promise, Emrys," she said fondly. "But, never again so sweetly. Go. Your king is calling you. Can you not hear him?" Merlin turned. He realized he did hear Arthur calling him and he sounded unusually upset.

MMMMMMM

To the shock of Arthur, his servant took the smallest of shuddering breaths and his eyelids fluttered. The king placed one hand on Merlin's chest as if he could send his own vital srength into the body of his friend. But Merlin did not move again.

Arthur wanted to scream; Merlin couldn't leave him, not like this. Not pulled away into some dark place by magic where Arthur could do nothing to save him. He knew nothing of breaking enchantments. He was powerless and desperation was robbing him of hope. "Merlin", he called again, trying to brace his soul against what might happen next. He heard the boy take a breath, and then another breath. The king watched along with Gaius, hardly daring to breathe himself, as Merlin eased into a regular pattern and he began to lose a little of his frightening pallor. His eyes opened slowly, but they were unfocused, bright with tears.

"I have to go now, Brigid," he whispered weakly. And then to Arthur's utter devastation, Merlin's eyes dropped shut once more and his breathing slowed again to a stop. A cold fear settled in the pit of his stomach; a fearsome unseen prescence loomed near and it weighed on Arthur's heart.

MMMMMMMM

In the shimmering invisible light, the Cailleach now stood directly behind Arthur. Her hand brushed the the king's disheveled golden hair and she saw the start of fear in Merlin's eyes. Brigid smiled.

"You have been told, your destinies are bound together. Your king will never truly be mine any more than will you, Emrys. He is the Once and Future King, and his is another fate. I promise, we will meet all of us, once more." When she laughed the eldritch power in her voice skirled like music, and suddenly she was only a girl again, with ancient eyes and an innocent smile.

"One more kiss", she whispered. And moved by her lonliness, whose burden Merlin was just beginning to learn, he moved towards her once more. Tenderly the young warlock enfolded her in his arms, gently his lips met hers, reverently he brushed a tear from her eyes.

"I will not forget you, young Emrys. There is something in you- a goodness- that runs even deeper than your destiny. It will be your undoing and your salvation." Her smile was young and tender as a flower, but her eyes; there were no words to describe her eyes. The ancient visage of the Cailleach shifted like mist over the springtime face of Brigid. The scintillating blue and gold fires faded from Merlin's vision and he was alone in the darkness. He heard a trace of Freya's laughter.

"I'm back dollophead," said Merlin, but to his surprise his voice wasn't working very well. It sounded like a gasp for air. It sounded pitiful. He couldn't get his hands to move as he fumbled them free of the blankets. As he opened his eyes,hardly able to register the familiar faces hovering nearby, he felt someone holding his hand tighten their grip as if in surprise or encouragement. He squeezed the hand that held his, simply hoping to reassure. As his eye cleared, he saw Arthur swallow convulsively and duck his head for a moment. His heart twisted with a familiar guilt, as he started to guess what had happened. More lies would soon be required and it pained him more than he could say. But Merlin put those thoughts aside because he saw Arthur's eyes light with hope as he took one breath and then another. He held Arthur's gaze with his own, until he had enough air to speak.

"I'm here" he whispered.

"So it seems," answered Arthur stiffly, but his eyes were shining and the shadow that had loomed so large, only a moment before, evaporated with those words. Gaius sat down suddenly with a whuff and laughed like a boy. Merlin's eyes slid shut again, overcome with weariness.

Panic rose like a wave in Arthur's eyes again but Gaius calmed him with a touch.

"I believe the spell has drained his strength Sire. He will need a long rest, but clearly the enchantment is broken and Merlin has rejoined us. Already his breathing and color are much stronger."

"She was so beautiful," murmured Merlin, fighting to open his eyes. "She only wanted to dance. I kissed her. She looked just like Frey... a friend of mine," he contnued, "but then, she didn't."

"It must have been a witch," said Arthur.

"Or maybe it was another Lamia" suggested Gaius.

"No," said Merlin as his voice trailed off in exhaustion. "She was much, much more." He closed his eyes and opened them again slowly. His gaze met Arthur's steadily for a heartbeat. "She told me to go when she heard you call me."

"He's raving," said Arthur promptly, but somehow he knew Merlin was telling the truth.

"She was so sad..." breathed Merlin. "So sad. So alone..." He was fighting his weariness to talk to Arthur, working himself into a senseless agitation. But the king soothed him with a few softly spoken, dire threats, until at last Merlin relaxed enough, that Gaius could slip him a potion of hawthorn to strengthen his blood flow.

"Leave him rest, Sire," counseled Gaius as they settled Merlin back on to pillows. Arthur was still anxious. Merlin was so weak, he could only manage the smallest sips of the potion without choking. Arthur nodded, knowing Gaius was right, but it was obvious that the king could not bring himself to leave his friend as he settled authoritavely into the chair beside the bed.

"Just don't go to any more dances, Merlin," he said quietly to his drowsing companion. He watched his friend for a long moment, taking a deep satisfaction in each slow, steady breath. His hand ruffled roughly through his servant's dark hair. "And don't kiss any more women you don't know."

"Not my fault I like to dance", the warlock retorted weakly. But Merlin was asleep again as soon as the words left his lips and he didn't see Arthur's blazing smile of relief.

At precisely that moment, Gwen entered the room and broke into a tremulous laugh. Arthur's eyes were clear and Merlin was breathing. Gaius looked giddy with relief. She took in their expressions and did not care to hear any explanation It was enough to know that the world of Camelot was back in order again. Gratitude flooded her heart, and happy tears stung her eyes. "No more dances," whispered Gwen.

A/N I want to thank each and every one of you for reading my story. Constructive comments are very welcome. I will continue to strive to improve my writing. Until next time!