From the author's desk: Hello everyone! Here is my entry for this year's Halloween challenge at the Heart of Camelot. The prompt I did was Prompt #3: Write a story based upon the traditional pagan holiday Samhain, from which our modern Halloween is derived.
Please leave your feedback for me, as I'd love to know what you think. Many thanks go to caldera32 and IcarusLSU for being fantastic betas. Happy reading!
Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin.
Merlin frowned as he looked out at the city from the top of the east tower, thinking over the past few days.
Something strange was going on with his magic, or maybe it was just with him.
In any case, Merlin found himself oddly jumpy in the days approaching Samhain. His nights were filled with restless tossing and turning as his mind was invaded by odd whispers. The warlock wasn't sure what the whispers were. Perhaps a warning? Perhaps a sign of something coming?
When he did manage to sleep, Merlin dreamt of the dorocha and the Cailleach. Her sadness was palpable, and the phantom of the bone-chilling cold jerked him into wakefulness.
Merlin looked up into the night sky, the tiniest sliver of the moon winking at him from among the stars, and rubbed his face tiredly.
As much as he had tried to hide it, his lack of sleep was showing. He felt off-kilter and in no mood to talk, and when he did speak he found himself snapping at others without meaning to.
No one had said anything to him yet but the young man often caught the knights looking at him only to quickly avert their eyes, and noticed Arthur studying him with a thoughtful frown sometimes. Still, they asked him no questions aside from the general "Are you all right?" type of query. (Except for Arthur's "Moody, are you?" whenever the servant glared at him for even considering asking if he was okay, because clearly Arthur could see he wasn't.) So Merlin kept mum about it all.
On top of the lack of sleep, his magic was constantly bubbling under his skin, reacting to something and adding to his frustration. Merlin couldn't find anything concrete, however. There were no wayward angry sorcerers (though this was a blessing considering how close Samhain was), no misplaced creatures, no enchantments, nothing.
It was the fact that there was nothing wrong that worried him the most.
The young man leaned forward on the stone wall as he sighed heavily and felt his eyes drooping shut.
Gods he was tired.
Taking one last whiff of the crisp night air Merlin straightened up and headed down the tower steps.
There was no point falling asleep in the cold when he could drop into his own bed, after all-even if he was sure that he wouldn't sleep very long.
Merlin opened his eyes to the low hum of a countless whispering voices. He found himself standing at the altar on the Isle of the Blessed, where Morgana tore open the veil between the worlds one year prior and where Lancelot had looked back with a sad smile before sacrificing himself.
Merlin hated this place.
The Cailleach stared at him from behind the altar with eyes older than time itself, a deep grief in her presence.
Why? Why do I keep seeing you?
One gnarled hand clutched tightly at her staff while the other gestured to their surroundings. Suddenly he became aware of the cold—the soul-deep chill of the dorocha that froze him from the inside out.
The whispers transformed into the terrible screaming he remembered and immediately he wanted to cover his ears but found himself unable to move.
He tried to squeeze his eyes shut—he needed to block out something—but his gaze was glued to the Cailleach. She no longer gestured around them, but alternately pointed at him and curled her hand back toward herself.
What do you want from me?
He didn't have time to ponder further as a smoky white ghost came screaming through him and the world went dark.
"Augh!" Merlin cried out into the darkness of his little room, startled awake by the frightening dream. His magic rolled within and around him, and he swore loudly when a nearby clay pot exploded.
The warlock's head snapped up at Gaius' voice, the familiar figure of his mentor dressed in his night-shirt filling the doorway. "What on earth are you doing?"
"No—I—it—it's not—" Merlin stammered, before snapping his mouth shut and taking a few deep breaths, running shaking fingers through his already mussed hair.
"Merlin?" Gaius' voice was considerably softer and Merlin welcomed the warm touch of the old man's hand on his shoulder, feeling more grounded and aware than he'd been before.
Ten minutes later found the pair in the main room, the young man wrapped in a blanket and nursing a cup of tea while a fire danced merrily in the hearth.
"Now, are you going to tell me what's been bothering you?" his guardian asked, eyes peering at him in a way that told Merlin the question wasn't really a question.
So Merlin explained everything about the last few days and described his dream to Gaius, who came to the same conclusion that the warlock had.
"She wants you for something."
"Yes, but what?"
Merlin watched the old physician think of possible answers for a few minutes before asking, "You said you heard whispering?"
The sorcerer nodded. "I couldn't figure out what they were saying though."
Gaius looked at him curiously, "And then the dorocha appear?"
"Yeah," Merlin affirmed with a shudder. "What do you think, Gaius? Do you have any idea what she wants me for?"
"Well, the only explanation I can come up with has to do with the fact that you survived the dorocha's touch," Gaius confessed. "Perhaps this has something to do with that and your role as Emrys. I think the only way you're going to get an answer is to visit the Isle."
The physician's ward sighed. "Meaning I need to leave first thing tomorrow. Which then begs the question, 'What do we tell Arthur?'"
Gaius looked at him with an amused grin. "I'm sure you'll think of something."
Having not returned to bed after his talk with Gaius, Merlin spent the rest of the night preparing for his journey by collecting provisions and putting together his customary assortment of medicines and supplies just in case he would need it. His things packed for the journey, the manservant headed down to the kitchens to gather Arthur's breakfast.
Gods. What was he going to tell Arthur?
Merlin supposed he could say something about going to see his mother, but his return to Camelot the next day wouldn't make much sense.
Maybe he just wouldn't say anything, though he'd have to tell Gaius once more to not say he'd gone to the tavern.
And then he realized that if he did that, George would serve Arthur in his stead, and Arthur would probably kill him when he came back to service. Actually, George would most likely serve Arthur while Merlin was gone, whether Merlin told Arthur a reason why he was going or not.
Merlin winced. His death—or more likely, an impossible list of chores upon his return—was imminent.
Before Merlin could ponder further he entered Arthur's chambers, arms laden with the breakfast tray and a jug of water. Running on a combination of habit and instinct, the servant laid out breakfast on the table-a filled goblet of water joining the plate of food, folded napkin, and silverware-before quickly gathering Arthur's clothes from the previous night and filling the laundry basket while saving himself some time by stoking the hearth fire with a flash of his eyes. Finally, Merlin moved to the window and grabbed the curtain.
Glancing back over his shoulder, Merlin couldn't help but grin before pushing open the curtain with an extra bit of obnoxious flourish.
"Blessed Samhain! Rise and shine, Arthur!"
A long groan sounded behind him and Merlin turned to see Arthur flipping over in the bed to face him with a squinty-eyed stare.
"Two greetings this morning, Merlin? Really?" The manservant watched Arthur finally sit himself up. "As it is, Samhain technically doesn't start until tonight. Why on earth are you wishing me now?"
Merlin wanted to smack himself. He should have thought of that.
Time for a bit of quick thinking…
"Er, well, that's something I need to talk to you about…"
"Oh no." Arthur covered his faced with his hands. "It's too early in the morning for this." Merlin rolled his eyes at Arthur as the king sighed. "All right. What did you do?"
The younger man glared indignantly at his friend. "Why do you always think I've done something?"
"Because you're very good friends with Gwaine," Arthur deadpanned.
"This is true," Merlin conceded, "but that's not it this time!"
"This time? Wait, no. Never mind, I really don't want to know," the recently woken monarch muttered, and Merlin grinned cheekily at the blond man as he got out of bed and slipped behind the changing screen. "Anyway. What possible issue can you have that you feel the need to be this cheerful about a night festival so early in the morning?"
"Um, well, I—" Merlin wracked his brain. "I, um—"
"Spit it out, Merlin."
"That is—" C'mon, think!
"Today would be nice," Arthur called as he came out from behind the screen, dressed for the day, and made his way to where his manservant was waiting by the laid out breakfast.
"Plague!" Merlin blurted out.
Arthur, having just settled into his seat behind the table, looked up from the bite of sausage he was about to consume with an incredulous expression. "…Plague?"
"Well, not yet. But it could be, if we're not careful. There's a sickness in one of the surrounding villages and I have to go treat it. We got word late last night, and I've got to leave right after you finish that plate of food," the raven-haired man rambled, his mind hurrying to fill in any blanks, and hoped the gods would forgive him for using such an inauspicious reason to get away.
"And you're going in Gaius' place because…?"
"He saw fit to send me," Merlin said. "Says he's got plenty to take care of here. Also, trips like these…" The physician's ward paused, his mood sobering. "Since Morgana, he hasn't been as well as he was…he tries not to let on, and I know he doesn't want me to worry, but…but too many trips like these are harder on him these days."
Merlin knew that Gaius still had several years in him yet, but he hadn't been able to miss the growing number of days where the older man was shuffling about more than striding, sitting to grind herbs and make tonics instead of standing, his thoughts wandering off more often in the evenings, his need for a tonic to ward off illness cropping up more often than it did a year ago. It was why Merlin was making it a point to help Gaius out more often, why Merlin was coming to Arthur just a little later in the mornings, why Merlin was trying to step in and help Gaius whenever he was with the older man despite the protests he received.
Arthur was king, but Gaius was like a father to Merlin. Everything else could wait if it meant that Merlin could make the older man's life just a little easier.
Seeing Arthur's understanding expression in the wake of Merlin's explanation, the servant knew Arthur would do the same if they were in each other's shoes.
Arthur grimaced and returned to his breakfast. "Fine. Go see to the village. You're dismissed after I finish breakfast."
"Great! Thanks Arthur!" Merlin chirped, and scurried about, making up the bed and placing Arthur's sleep clothes into the basket of laundry while Arthur finished his breakfast.
As soon as Arthur had finished, Merlin piled the dishes and dirty cutlery and napkin on the serving tray and made a beeline for the door. Hearing his name being called, Merlin turned to look back at Arthur.
"Blessed Samhain. Don't do anything stupid. I don't have time to train another half-decent servant," the young king instructed him as he studied one of the various reports he needed to get through today.
Merlin rolled his eyes and shook his head with a grin. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were worried about me."
"Don't be ridiculous Merlin," Arthur mock-glared at him.
The secret warlock chuckled. "I'll be fine, thanks. Aren't I always?"
And with that, he slipped out the door.
Merlin's journey to the Isle of the Blessed took the rest of the day, and he arrived at the shore of the lake where the Isle was located just after sunset when the last rays of light painted the horizon blood red and cast the clouds and sky in varying shades of purple and darkening blue. He tied his horse to a nearby tree, gathered wood, made a fire, and had his evening meal as he waited. By the time he had finished and had changed into the special garments his mother had specifically sent him for Samhain—a loose but comfortable white tunic, and a white cloak—the sky had darkened to full night and stars dotted the moonless expanse.
Merlin stared at the Isle, reaching out with his magic to search for the Cailleach's presence. Sensing her there he also became aware of the familiar cold he associated with spirits of the dead populating the place, he could hear their ghastly shrieking in the distance.
Come, Emrys, the Cailleach's voice echoed suddenly in his mind, startling him out of his observations. We have need of you.
Scanning the shore of the lake Merlin found a small rickety boat bobbing in the water nearby. The warlock settled warily into the boat, his eyes flickering around the darkened waters all the while, praying to the gods that he wouldn't be attacked by the dorocha again.
It was a miracle that he'd survived the last time, and he was fairly certain that he wouldn't be able to withstand another incident like that one.
It was a short while later that the boat came to a stop of its own accord at a set of stone steps leading into the temple on the Isle where the volume of the dorocha increased tenfold.
He tried, but couldn't suppress the shiver that ran down his spine.
Merlin blamed it on the sudden drop in temperature.
Carefully, he climbed out of the boat and up the stairs to enter the courtyard, pausing at the entryway to take the scene in.
The Cailleach looked even more sad in reality than in his dreams, and even older than before. Her cloak and robes billowed in the freezing wind, one gnarled hand wrapped firmly around a staff and the other tucked away in the folds of her clothes.
All around the ghosts shrieked and screamed into the night. This was the greatest oddity of all to Merlin, since the dorocha were supposed to disappear with the closing of the veil.
There had been no sightings of the ghosts after the initial ordeal Merlin, Arthur, and the others had faced the prior year. It made Merlin wonder if these spirits were somehow different from the dorocha he knew. Weaker maybe? He thought it was plausible, considering they were only visible to him tonight when the veil was thinnest between the worlds…
Squaring his shoulders and steeling himself, Merlin stepped into the courtyard. The ghosts reacted immediately, swarming around him like a cloud.
"Do not fight them Emrys," the Cailleach commanded, her voice calm and strong in the night.
"What is this?" He cried in response, slapping his hands over his ears, shrinking in on himself. All over, icy ghost-fingers bit through his clothes and into his flesh.
"No mortal man can survive the touch of the dorocha," the Cailleach intoned, and Merlin remembered Gaius saying the same thing the previous year. "But you did and in so doing, you have become something of importance to the spirits. For you are Emrys, a creature of magic, magic in and of itself. Your connection to the Old Religion cannot be denied, and therefore it is fitting that this new task falls upon you."
"What task? What do you mean?" Merlin fought hard not to whimper as the ghouls drifted around him.
"Look around you, Emrys. Do not these spirits seem different?"
The warlock remained curled into a ball on the stone ground and kept his eyes squeezed shut. He wasn't ready to look at the cluster of spirits seemingly hooked onto him, freezing him from within. Seeming to sense his discomfort, the Cailleach spoke again. "Use your gift Emrys. The answer is right in front of you."
Taking a breath, Merlin slowly let tendrils of his magic through his inner barriers, allowing the warm energy to touch the beings swarmed around him. He could hear their shrieking still, and as he funneled more out, he was beginning to hear a message under the terrible noise.
They were the whispers he remembered from his sleepless nights, but this time the warlock could understand the spoken words.
Help us, Emrys. Please help us.
How? How do I help you? he asked telepathically, letting his magic carry the message to them.
Save us, Emrys.
"Who are these people?" He wasn't expecting the Cailleach to answer, but she did.
"These are the spirits of the wrongfully dead, and they seek your aid to find peace."
"The wrongfully dead?"
"Poor souls whose lives were taken before their time," the Cailleach elaborated.
"But how do I help them find what they want?" Merlin asked, finally calm enough now that he understood he was needed, that someone—even if they were dead—needed his help.
"They want peace, and they can only receive it by putting their restless wandering to an end. You must lead them to the lake of Avalon by daybreak. But beware—while good spirits walk this night with you, so do those who would do you harm. Tread carefully, Emrys."
Merlin's immediate thought was of Morgana. He was certain she'd been gravely injured in their last battle, but since she hadn't been found in the castle rubble it was clear that she had managed somehow to get away.
Bringing his attention back to the task at hand Merlin looked around at the wispy spirits circling him before he turned back to the Cailleach, only to see her disappearing in a sudden gust of wind. "Wait! How do I get them to follow me?"
But the Cailleach was gone by then and he was left alone with the dorocha.
The young man pursed his lips in frustration. Just great. Now what do I do?
Looking at the sky Merlin estimated that it was past midnight on Samhain now.
How was he going to get these spirits to Avalon in such a short amount of time?
He had managed to communicate with them earlier, maybe that was the way to go about this.
Releasing his magic a bit, Merlin felt the connection that had turned the senseless screaming into the whispers from his dreams and sent a message to the ghosts.
Follow me. I will lead you to Avalon's gates.
Instinctively, the young warlock conjured a small fire in his palm. Follow my light. I will guide your way.
The dorocha congregated around him in a large cloud of icy, wispy white. Merlin felt the cold seep into his bones, his body growing heavy and tired with the chill.
Shaking himself of the sensation Merlin began to make his way back to the ferry he'd used to cross the lake. Carefully he climbed back into the boat, the fire dancing in his palm all the while and drawing the ghosts with him. The boat began to move of its own accord back to shore and all around Merlin and his boat the spirits circled, drawn to his light like moths.
In his last encounter, he and the knights had warded themselves against the dorocha using fire. This time, it seemed the flame in his palm was akin to a candle left in the window of a home, guiding lost ones back to where they were meant to be.
Merlin shook his head. He needed to focus, not let his mind wander. There were only a few hours of the night left and a lot of distance to cover.
Upon reaching his camp from earlier in the evening Merlin relit the fire pit. Wait here, he communicated to his charges. I must gather my things before I can continue to lead you forward.
He marveled at how the dorocha so docilely followed his instructions. It was odd having such a power over the dead, considering the last time he'd encountered such spirits he had nearly died.
Quickly checking that all of his things were packed away into his mare's saddlebags, Merlin untied his horse and climbed into the saddle. It was going to be tricky using only one hand to steer his mare tonight, but Merlin knew he would just have to make do. Calling the fire from the pit back into his right hand, the warlock addressed the ghosts. Follow me now. I will lead you where you wish to go.
As the spirits congregated around him again, Merlin kicked his mare into a hard gallop and led the spirits into the dark of night.
Merlin and the dorocha were only a couple hours from the lake of Avalon by Merlin's estimate when he noticed the spirits around him becoming restless.
The more the sorcerer communicated with them the easier it became to understand what they had to say beneath their awful shrieking and the less their presence affected him physically. It was almost effortlessly that he asked What's wrong?
Something wicked lurks ahead. Beware, beware!
Suddenly, the sound of someone singing reached his ears. Merlin brought his mare to a stop. He listened to the voice and marveled at its sweetness and beauty, a sense of calm and warmth washing over him. Drawn to the lovely music, the young man dismounted his horse and picked his way through the woods toward the beautiful music and its singer.
Finally he stumbled into a clearing where a woman dressed in rich traveling robes of blue and black moved about, singing and collecting wood for her fire pit. Hearing him enter the copse of trees where she had made camp for the night, the woman turned to gaze at him and the warlock felt his mouth go dry.
The woman was stunningly beautiful, with flowing raven hair and skin as pale as the moon. Her eyes were dark brown, large, and edged with long lashes; her lips were lush and red like roses in the height of summer. She was tall and slender, with delicate hands and a slim waist. She had a regal air about her.
"Hello," she said, her voice warm and inviting.
"Hello, Milady," the servant said, bowing his head.
"Please, come and sit by my fire," she invited, gesturing to a log. "You look weary. Please, you must rest here in my camp tonight. I absolutely insist."
Nodding dumbly and unable to refuse her gracious offer for fear of somehow offending her he settled himself by the fire, resting against the log. As she went back to humming softly, his chilled body began to warm from the heat, and he only realized then how tired he was.
Why was he so tired? Merlin couldn't remember.
Was it even important though? It must have been, if he was out so late…
However, before he could think on it further, a bowl of stew and a piece of crusty bread appeared in front of him. Looking up, he found the woman smiling invitingly at him, an odd gleam in her eye that he could only take for concern. "You must be hungry."
As if on cue, his stomach growled and he blushingly accepted the bowl and bread. "Thank you," he murmured. Her answering laugh was soothing, though, and he smiled more easily, digging into the meal he'd been given.
As he ate he found himself sneaking glances at her. She had settled near him, working a needle and thread through a patch of multicolored cloth. He wondered what she was making.
His thoughts drifted as he continued to eat. It would be dawn soon.
Dawn… that was important wasn't it?
Wasn't there something he was supposed to do before dawn…?
Merlin blinked slowly, his thoughts feeling sluggish. Goodness, he was tired.
"Are you alright?" the woman's melodious voice rang pleasantly in his ears.
"Just more tired than I realized," he said, shaking his head to gain some alertness.
"Perhaps you should sleep for awhile before you travel again," she said. "I'll make sure you're taken care of."
"But—" the servant was interrupted by a jaw-cracking yawn. "But who'll keep watch? It isn't safe."
Safe. Something about that word tugged at his mind, but he didn't know why.
Merlin yawned again.
"I can do it," the woman said softly, resting a hand on his shoulder and gently rubbing back and forth, the motion oddly soothing. "You look so very weary. Rest now. There's nothing to worry about."
Lulled by her voice Merlin agreed, shrinking lower in his seat against the log until he was resting flat on his back on the forest floor; head pillowed on his arm near the woman's leg and eyes closed.
As he sank deeper into sleep the warlock felt the woman's fingers carding through his hair, her nails scraping against his scalp and sending an unsettling shiver down his spine, pulling him back toward awareness.
Cracking his eyes open, he looked up to see the woman smiling down benignly at him and her long raven tresses surrounding him like the curtains of Arthur's bed. He felt sleep begin to claim him once more.
As he began to fade, warmth wrapped around him from his shoulders to his feet, cocooning him like a swaddled babe. He smiled as he enjoyed the warmth…
...Only to realize the warmth wasn't soft like a blanket, and was starting to feel more and more like a long, very thick rope tied around him.
What? That couldn't be right.
Merlin decided he must be on the edge of a dream.
If it was a dream, it would fit with the voice he was hearing in his mind.
That voice was so very familiar.
Merlin! Wake up!
Why did his heart ache at the sound of that voice? He didn't like this dream anymore. He felt like crying.
My love, please! You're in danger! You must wake up!
Her love… His love. The only woman he had ever loved, and the one it still hurt sometimes to know he'd lost.
"Fre…ya…?" he mumbled, and struggled to open his eyes.
The woman whom the gods had made just for him.
The only woman he would ever love.
Merlin, my love, you must fight the creature's dark magic. She has you ensnared in her spell. You must fight. Your charges need you.
A flash of light caught his gaze when he finally cracked his eyes open.
Light that danced.
As he recognized the flames, he heard a sound—the telltale screaming of lost souls—beneath which was a whisper. Emrys, help us. We are lost without you. Come back to us, Emrys.
Their call blended with Freya's voice. In his mind's eye he could see her standing, dressed in the gown he'd stolen for her, at the edge of the Lake of Avalon.
In her hand a fire danced, and her eyes glowed with determination.
Fight, Merlin. You are the only one who can complete your quest.
With a choked gasp Merlin awoke to find himself bound in hardened silk thread, large and long spider's legs holding his body in place, and the once beautiful woman suspended above him, giant pincers protruding from her mouth.
He became aware of the burning sensation all over his body, inside his body, and knew immediately that she had somehow poisoned him—and in doing so had poisoned his magic. Just the thought of calling his gift to his aid sent jolts of unrelenting pain through his body. Looking up helplessly into the sky past the hideous creature, he could see his charges restlessly swirling about.
They needed him. They couldn't go forward without him to guide the way.
He could not fail them.
"Oh, you're awake," she cooed, slitted eyes peering at him hungrily. "No matter. I enjoy a meal with spirit."
As the creature lowered its mouth, pincers snapping and ready to crush him, Merlin heard a soft whisper in his head.
You are helping us, Emrys, so I will help you.
It took him a moment to realize what that could mean, but when he did he could do nothing to stop it.
One ghost separated from the swirling mass and came shrieking at the creature. The creature, distracted by the sudden onslaught of sound, looked up and spewed an acidic substance at the dorocha from its mouth. One last shriek and the ghost vanished.
And now, my death has meaning. Thank you, Emrys, for giving me that, Merlin heard in his mind before he heard nothing more.
"No!" He cried out, feeling grief-stricken because he didn't want another life lost in his name—even if that life was only a remnant of someone once living.
His magic surged through him, setting his veins painfully aflame, and he channeled it at the fire still dancing in the pit. The blaze rose into the air like a thick ribbon and wrapped around the creature. Screaming, the creature burned to ash, and with its disappearance the magic used to create Merlin's cocoon weakened to nothing.
Feebly the warlock crawled from his imprisonment, the last vestiges of its dark magic clinging to him like slime and sapping his energy.
His whole body hurt in a way Merlin had never experienced before, and he soon found himself retching up the meal the creature had given him earlier. The burn of bile was intensified with something that the young physician understood to be the poison infecting him, combined with the sickening sweet metallic taste of blood.
That was definitely not a good sign.
Merlin, you must hurry. There is very little time until dawn, Freya's voice called to him.
Looking up, Merlin saw the lightening blue in the sky.
How am I to reach you?
Yet as he thought this he heard the galloping of horse hooves, and soon his mare came bursting into the clearing, coming to a stop near him with a toss of her head and loud whinny.
Your steed has a noble and loyal heart. I will help her to help you. Now hurry, my love.
Slowly, his body shaking violently from the poison still coursing through it, Merlin got to his feet and hoisted himself up into the saddle. It was taking most of his strength just to stay upright.
Thinking quickly, Merlin dug a length of rope out of his saddlebag and jerkily tied a portion around his waist before knotting the rest to his saddle in order to secure himself.
He trusted Freya to keep him from getting any more injuries. He knew she would look after him.
Finally, he looked up at the swirling mass of spirits and held out his palm. He tried to wordlessly conjure a ball of fire, but nothing happened. His magic was damaged after his entrapment with the creature.
He tried again, hoping that saying the spell would help channel his currently unwieldy gift. "Forbearnan."
A small flame, no brighter than a candle, appeared in his palm. Concentrating all his energy on the flame Merlin kicked his horse into a gallop, praying that they reached the lake in time.
They reached the shores of Avalon just as the first shade of pink seeped through the mists that danced on the horizon and hid the mountains.
Merlin wasn't sure how they did it, but he knew that Freya had much to do with it. Merlin couldn't help but smile in gratitude. Freya's assistance proved that her magic had grown exponentially in strength. It gave him hope that one day she would be able to leave the lake and join him as his lover in the land of the living.
Unable to stand any longer and collapsing to the shore, Merlin watched as the growing rays of light broke through the horizon to create a stunning gateway into the land of eternal youth.
He smiled even more brightly as Freya came through the gate, gliding smoothly through the water while still garbed in the gown he'd dressed her in. A lovely circlet studded in gems rested on her head.
Opening her arms wide in a gesture of welcome, she tilted her head to look up at the spirits hovering on the shore. Merlin felt tears brim his eyes as he watched them fly through the gate, a torrent of gold in the dawn light.
It was a beautiful sight and, with the way he felt right now, he wished he could join them.
Having Freya so close yet not close enough, knowing that they would be separated again soon, tore at his heart.
Her task complete Freya came to him, kneeling where the water lapped at the shore.
"Oh my love, it is good to see you," she said, caressing his face.
"Freya," he sighed, eyes closing at her touch. Her magic seeped into him and began to heal the damage the creature had caused.
"Come," she said, and pulled him to his feet before leading him into the water slowly. He clung to her as she supported his weight, his energy spent from the journey and the illness wracking his body. Merlin felt the lake's and Freya's magics thrum through him, the pain and the sickness ebbing away with the water, until all that remained was a bone-deep exhaustion.
Still Merlin held tightly to Freya, burying his face into her shoulder. "We don't have much time left, do we?" he whispered.
"No," she said, her voice equally sad. "The gates will only stay open for me a little longer."
He sighed. "I thought as much."
They held each other in silence for a while before Freya spoke again. "At least I got to come home."
Merlin pulled back to look at her. His confusion must have been evident because she gave him a brilliant smile.
"I love you, and home is wherever the one you love may be. You're my home, Merlin," she explained, cupping his cheek with her hand.
Merlin's eyes filled with tears again—some with joy at her confession, some with pain at their constant separation—and leaned into her touch before bringing a hand up to take hers and press a kiss to her palm.
"I love you, now and forever, and I will never stop loving you," he declared before pressing a fierce kiss to her lips. He relished the feel of her returning his affections before she pulled away from him reluctantly.
"I wish I could stay," she whispered, eyes brimming with tears. "I wish I didn't have to keep leaving you."
He pressed a more gentle kiss to her forehead before he smiled and wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs. "One day I'm sure you'll be able to leave this place and we can be together like we planned."
She smiled tremulously at him. "I want that more than anything."
Freya kissed him gently once more, standing on tiptoe, and Merlin closed his eyes to savor every sensation and imprint every second of it in his memory.
"Blessed Samhain, my love."
"Blessed Samhain, Freya," he wished her, and opened his eyes to watch her walk back through the lake water to the shining gates. When she reached the barrier she turned back to glance at him once more before passing through the mists.
Once he could no longer see her, and once he no longer felt Freya's distinct magic, Merlin made his way back to the lakeshore. He was weary but didn't stop, instead making his way to his mare.
Climbing into the saddle, Merlin nudged his horse in the direction of Camelot.
His mission for the dead complete, it was time to return to his mission in the land of the living.
But before that, Merlin would check that Arthur hadn't gotten himself in trouble while the warlock was gone during Samhain, he would eat some real food that wouldn't kill him, and he would sleep and dream of his Freya—and the next time he would see her.
"Beltane can't get here fast enough," Merlin muttered with a yawn, and then grinned at the thought of seeing Freya then.
It was just a few months, after all.
Summer would come again soon.