So a lot of people weren't... let's just say completely satisfied with how Merlin drew to a close. I understand. I'm one of them. I may be content with how it ended in general, but I can't help but feel that there was so much more that could- maybe even should have been done.
A long time before the final episode was ever aired though- most likely before it was ever even created- I had this one idea, and the ending of that episode provided me with the perfect setting to bring my idea to life. And that was how this story came into fruition. It's been a long time in the making, but I think I'm finally satisfied with what I've produced. And I only hope that, while it may not be entirely what one would expect, any who stumble upon this page may feel similarly about my take on one possible variant ending.
With that said, I present to you: The End of the Beginning
(Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin. But if anyone is willing to join with me in kidnapping the cast and crew of the series and forcing them to make an alternate timeline for the last two or three series wherein magic actually got freed and Albion's golden age actually happened, that would be absolutely epic.)
"Though no man, no matter how great, can know his destiny, some lives have been foretold Merlin. Arthur is not just a King- he is the Once and Future King. Take heart. For when Albion's need is greatest, Arthur will rise again. It has been a privilege to have known you young warlock. The story we have been a part of will live long in the minds of men."
As Merlin stood there, mere feet from the waters of Avalon, with his best friend's life hanging on by a measly little thread, and with Kilgarrah's words one by one picking away at the foundations of everything he had spent so many years of his life believing in, he was surprised to find that there was only one thing he could bring himself to say.
It was just a whisper- barely audible even to him- but as he spoke it he knew with every ounce of his being that it was the truth, and that in itself was enough to make Kilgarrah pause in his departure.
The word was stronger this time, a strange feeling of rebellion settling itself in the pit of his stomach, and he could almost have sworn that he physically felt something snap inside him. Finally, after all this time, Merlin had had enough. For years he had done his absolute utmost to live true to his destiny. But no man can whole-heartedly serve two masters- the time would always come when their loyalty would be tested, when choices would have to be made. And when it came down to it- if Merlin finally had to choose between destiny and friendship- then he knew that there really was no choice. There was absolutely no way on Earth that he was about to just give up and stand by while Arthur died in his arms.
Pure determination burning in his eyes, Merlin glared up at Kilgarrah, his gaze practically daring Kilgarrah to defy him. And for the first time since the two had first lain eyes on each other, the young Warlock witnessed a glimmer or fear flit across the great beast's features.
'Do not let go, Merlin. Do not give in.
You are a son of the Earth. The Sea. The Sky. Magic is the fabric of this world, and you were born of that magic. You are Magic itself. You cannot lose what you are.
Believe, Merlin. Believe what your heart knows to be true.'
With his father's words ringing clear in his ears, and with unbridled hope coursing through his veins, Merlin dropped to his knees, laying Arthur gently before him. He slammed his palms as hard as he could against the ground and, closing his eyes, he reached out to the utter limits with every last sense he possessed. Reached and reached, until he could practically see the magic which saturated the entire kingdom. His was the magic of the Earth and the Air. His father had told him that his journey had only just begun. That he wielded a power he couldn't even conceive.
He had never before tested the true limits of his abilities.
It was about time he found them.
With a guttural roar, Merlin tore into the magic, ripping it out of the very Earth. He only dimly registered as Kilgarrah reared back in alarm, the Dragon turning and flying away as though the very beasts of hell were nipping at his heels. The magic was all that Merlin could sense in that moment, and he focused every last scrap of his willpower on taking it for himself, feeding it through him and redirecting it to a single purpose.
As more and more magic streamed towards the pair, the air around them began to literally crackle with power. Before long, each and every speck of dust surrounding the lake of Avalon was vibrating at such speed that they began to glow with an eerie light, all the while emitting an absurd, high-pitched whine until the entire area was filled with the sound. It was as though the atmosphere had developed a life, the thrumming beat of raw energy reminiscent of a fast-beating heart.
But still Merlin continued, ripping more and more magic from the land. He was beyond caring how much it took. As long as Arthur survived, nothing else mattered. Not that the entire country was now almost drained completely dry, or that the energy he was now collecting came from beyond the great sea itself. Not even that he could sense the panic of hundreds of magic users as they lost the source of their abilities, left only with a glimpse of his intentions. He took it all- all but the bare minimum required to keep the plants, creatures and people themselves living and able to go on.
Then, just as the air and ground around them became so thick with power that he could barely breathe, he issued a single command.
For a single moment, it was as though the world itself froze. Then, in a rush of wind which blasted the warlock several feet backwards, the magic rushed towards the dying King, bombarding him with a seemingly unending stream of power. It swirled around him, shards of it darting into his flesh, sinking deeper and deeper until he was glowing an almost blindingly dazzling gold. The high-pitched keening which filled the shore grew deafening, driving itself into Merlin's brain until he nearly passed out. But he refused to give in, instead keeping his gaze fixed firmly on his friend from where he now lay.
Then, suddenly, it was over. The air was still heavy with power, but it was no longer in action. And Arthur was still lying there...
Struggling to his feet, Merlin rushed forward, sliding into a kneeling position at his friend's side. He found himself fumbling at Arthur's wrist, attempting to calm down his own breathing enough to concentrate on trying to find a pulse, and staring wildly in an effort to see even the tiniest hint of a breath.
A breath which wasn't coming.
He could feel the tell-tale prickle of tears blossoming in his eyes. How could this be possible? He had poured everything he had into that single spell, but still nothing had helped. All of his supposedly great power, and he was completely useless when it counted most.
Arthur was dead.
The tears were falling freely now, and Merlin could literally feel the moment all of his willpower drained out of him. He couldn't even bother trying to find the strength to stay kneeling, and instead collapsed into a heap, as every single grief and injustice he had suffered in Camelot- suffered for his so-called destiny- poured out of him in silent sobs which racked his entire being in painful shudders. It just wasn't right that their journey should be ended so unfairly. Not in such a manner. Not when he was so close to being able to save Arthur. And certainly not when the two of them had so much more they could have accomplished together.
Then, out of nowhere, he felt the tiniest of pressures against his hand.
A hand which he was belatedly realising had fallen atop Arthur's own digits.
For a moment, his grief-ridden mind couldn't make any sense of what he was feeling. Because dead men didn't move.
His eyes slammed open.
Dead men didn't move.
Moving what was possibly the slowest he ever had in his life, Merlin propped himself up with one arm, his gaze slowly shifting to Arthur's face, watching for any sign of life there. And he wasn't disappointed. Blue eyes flickered open, hazy with confusion. And for the longest of moments, there was complete silence. Then Arthur's eyes found his.
He couldn't speak. He couldn't move. He daren't even breathe for fear that even such a simple action would break the illusion, driving him back into a reality he never wanted to face ever again. It wasn't until the hand underneath his shifted once more that he allowed himself to believe, even for a second, that Arthur truly was alive.
It took him three attempts before he could choke out even a single word.
The Blond shakily raised his free hand, rubbing it weakly against his forehead. "What happened?"
Merlin couldn't help the burst of relieved laughter which erupted from him mere moments later. The situation felt so familiar- years of sitting by Arthur's side as the King woke from one attempt on his life or another. And the expression on the other man's face wasn't helping to lessen his amusement in the slightest. He had never seen Arthur look so utterly bewildered.
Arthur, for his part, was feeling more than a little confused. The last memory he could dredge up from the recesses of his mind was hazy, but he could have sworn he had been riding on the back of the Dragon he had supposedly killed, with Merlin taking him to some lake or another in order to heal his-
The train of thought stopped there, his hand moving tentatively from his head to feel around where he knew there was supposed to be a deadly wound. When no pain flared up he pressed harder still, but he still couldn't feel the slightest indication that something had ever even been there in the first place.
It hardly seemed possible, but that fact alone could only mean one thing. Merlin had succeeded. He was healed.
Which meant that...
In almost no time at all Merlin was leaning over him, pure, unadulterated worry in every one of his features.
"What is it? Arthur? Are you alright? What's wrong?"
"I can't believe," he began, his gaze settling on the blue of the sky above so that he didn't have to see Merlin's face upon what he had to say, "I gave you that ridiculous speech."
The younger man's face twisted into a teasing smile, though its usual effect was somewhat marred by the fresh tear-tracks staining his cheeks. "Oh yeah. You actually apologised. And what else was it you said?" He paused, pretending to think, before raising his eyebrow mockingly. "Something about always wanting me to be me?"
Arthur allowed a minuscule smirk to stretch the corner of his mouth. "Shut up Merlin." Still, he had to be grateful that Merlin was choosing to focus on the less embarrassing of his two speeches. Maybe the idiot had a bit of decency and respect in him after all.
"Or were you talking about when you thanked me?"
...Or maybe not.
"I was dying! I can hardly be held accountable for all of the rubbish I must have been spouting!"
"Still embarrassing though."
Laughing, Merlin dodged out of the way as Arthur sent a half-hearted blow in the direction of his head. "So does this mean I don't get my days off any more?"
"What it means, Merlin," Arthur joked as he rose up into a sitting position, sending his friend a taunting grin, "is that your duties are in fact going to be doubled."
Trying to ignore the faint sheen in Merlin's eyes in favour of the playfully disgruntled expression his words had elicited, Arthur jumped lithely to his feet, marvelling inwardly at the fact that he felt better than he could ever remember doing before. In fact, he was practically buzzing with energy. Smiling broadly, he reached an arm down towards his friend.
"Come on then Merlin. Let's go home."
Merlin, in typical Merlin fashion, stubbornly ignored the proffered hand, choosing instead to clamber ungracefully up to stand beside him.
"Home it is then."
Grinning broadly, the two set off, their gaits lighter than they had ever been.
"You know, Merlin?" Arthur began about fifty paces on, not even bothering to turn his head to check on the Warlock's reaction. "It's just a shame that Dragon I apparently didn't kill isn't still here. Would have made the journey back a hell of a lot shorter. As it is, we've got an awful long way to wa-" His speech cut off as he found himself once again facing the broad expanse of water which made up the Lake of Avalon. "What?"
Sharing a confused look, the two men turned as one towards the path which should have led them home...
...And once again found themselves back where they had started. Again. And again. It didn't seem to matter whether they walked, crept or even ran- nothing seemed alter the pattern, and both men were gradually growing more and more alarmed.
"What the hell is going on here?!" Arthur demanded, eyes wide as he stared round at their surroundings, half expecting to be faced with some unknown sorcerer or other.
"I don't-" Merlin looked, if possible, even more panicked than Arthur felt. "I don't know."
Pushing down the dread rising in his throat, the Warlock motioned for Arthur to remain in place, then took several steps away from the lake, one arm stretched out in front of him as he pushed out with his magic, attempting to find the source of whatever it was which was keeping them there.
It wasn't long before his hand met resistance- a strange force, almost flexible and yet at the same time more solid than even the rocks of the distant white mountains. Pushing harder, Merlin sent a small jolt of magic into it...
...And gasped as the entire barrier pulsed with a shimmering light.
Hearing a similar sound from behind him, Merlin spun around- his shock only rising as he found that the light wasn't limited only to the area he was trying to pass through, but instead encompassed a wide, pulsing dome which stretched to encircle the entire Island of Avalon itself, as well as the land on its surrounding shores.
"You begin to see what your actions have created, Emrys."
Jerking his head towards the source of the voice- an action mirrored by Arthur- Merlin had to forcefully prevent himself from attacking straight off as a solitary Sidhe came into his line of sight, standing at the edge of the lake with all the height normally unattainable to his kind within the mortal realm. As it was, though, the Warlock still made his way over to stand protectively beside his friend, his eyes never once leaving the piercing stare of the Fae being.
"What do you mean?"
"The Pendragon was destined to die this day, Emrys," the Sidhe stated, his eyes flashing with barely restrained impatience. "In choosing to ignore this fate, you have meddled with forces beyond your reckoning. And now the entire world must suffer the consequences."
Even as Arthur bristled at his side, Merlin fought to restrain the numb feeling which had been trying to take root in his stomach ever since they had first been turned back. Something was wrong here. Wrong- so wrong- and yet oh so right at the same time.
"I don't understand," he forced out at last, thankful that Arthur had had the sense of mind to realise that this was his debate to puzzle through. "What consequences? What are you talking about?"
"You turned your back on destiny, young Emrys. In your grief, you drew together all but the barest of magic from the world itself. Such a collection of power, bound in one place while the rest of the land has almost none- the concentration was great enough to form a barrier not even all the forces of Avalon would be capable of tearing through. Until the concentration of magic in the outside lands equals that in the sphere itself, none will be able to pass, and the Isle will fade into the distant knowledge of men, no longer visible to those in the outside world. And here you must remain until that day comes."
"But that's impossible!" Arthur insisted, even as the intensity of the Sidhe's gaze set a cold, hard certainty into being within Merlin's mind. "How long would that even take? How are we even supposed to survive here?"
"Your life is bound to that of the immortal Emrys now, young Pendragon. While he lives, so will you. And the magic in the air is more than enough to sustain you, as it does us."
"How long?" Merlin managed to force out, once several seconds had passed. "How long before we can leave?"
The Sidhe fixed his eyes once again on Merlin's, and this time the Warlock almost thought he could detect a glimpse of pity in their otherwise stony depths. "That, I cannot say."
Silence fell as the full magnitude of his actions finally hit Merlin's mind. Trapped. They were trapped here. They'd never be able to see Camelot again- not Gaius, not Gwen, not any of the Knights or people who made up their great Kingdom. He'd never be able to speak with his mother again- not even to say goodbye. They would wait for him- wait for Arthur- and they would believe that he had failed them. They would have no choice but to think the pair of them dead.
Minutes passed, no-one moving, as the dome of magic gradually lost its shimmer and faded into invisibility once more. The path was there- plain for all to see. And yet none of them would be able to walk it.
And it was all Merlin's fault.
In the end, though, somebody had to break the silence.
"What would have happened?" Arthur eventually uttered, his voice low and hoarse even as he did his utmost to remain calm. No answer came his way, and after several seconds he spoke once more, his voice firmer this time, though still subdued. "If Merlin had done nothing? What would have happened?"
Those steely eyes fixed on him once more, practically boring into his soul with their intensity.
"If destiny had run its true course, young Pendragon, then you would even now be resting in Avalon, and Emrys would have been free to wander the Earth until the time came for you to be returned to the mortal realm once more."
"And when would that be?"
"It is not for me to tell you your fate, Pendragon."
Alright, now he was feeling more than a little bit ticked off. "Then give me an approximate answer! Five years? Ten? Fifty?"
The Sidhe's cold exterior cracked at last, and he let out a harsh bark of laughter. "Do you really believe destiny to be so short-sighted, young king of men? The mistress deals not in such paltry periods of time. Are you so vain as to believe that the realms would be so desperate for your presence within the stretch of a single mortal lifetime? No, young king- it will be hundreds, if not thousands of years before you are called upon once again. And even that is but the blink of an eye to those who live forever."
His previous thoughts of Guinevere- of her having to mourn him for however many years it took for him to return- vanished then, as he turned his face to take in the lonely, haunted expression on his best friend's face. So that was destiny's plan for them- for him to die, for Camelot to move on, and for Merlin to be forced to live on for hundreds of years, alone and unable to die- a life of indeterminate length meant only to wait until he, Arthur, returned once again to give it purpose?
If their roles were reversed, Arthur was unsure his mind would have been able to cope with that.
Seemingly unnerved by the Arthur's gaze on him, the Warlock shifted his face to one side. Fast, but not fast enough to conceal the pain of having what must have been only a dawning fear clarified in its entirely from the eyes of a man who was now all too willing to understand his friend's pain.
The Warlock flinched almost imperceptibly. "I'm sorry."
"I've trapped you here with me. You'll never be able to see her again now. Such long life- such a journey- it was never meant to be your burden to bear."
"So what? You would rather you had left me to die?"
"No!" Merlin's head snapped towards his, his eyes burning with an oh-so-familiar intensity and protectiveness. How had he never truly seen his friend's true power before the events of these past days? "Anything but that! I will not see you dead!"
In an attempt to lighten the situation even slightly, Arthur forced as best a smile he could upon his face. "I'd rather avoid that myself, to be perfectly honest."
Merlin's eyes widened slightly, and for the first time since the barrier had first flickered into view, Arthur fancied he could spot a glimmer of hope hiding in their depths. "You mean you're not mad?"
"Why would I be mad? That would be rather unfair of me, wouldn't it? Considering you just saved my life and all."
"But-" dark eyebrows furrowed in sorrowful confusion- "but Gwen. And Gaius. And everyone else- they'll all think that you're dead. I haven't changed anything. Not for them."
"No," Arthur acknowledged, allowing himself a moment of grief over the cruel misconception. "No you have not." Merlin's eyes lowered once again. "But you have changed things for us." And flicked up almost instantly. "I told you, Merlin- I have no real wish to die. But I desire even less that my first true friend should be forced to endure so many years alone. This way, we may have to face endless years watching the world pass us by, but at least we can undertake this trial the same way we always have."
A minuscule smile finally stretched at the corners of Merlin's lips. "Any how's that, then?"
Arthur grinned. "Together, you oaf." He clapped Merlin on the shoulder, then turned to survey where he knew the barrier still stood, dimly registering that, at some point during their discussion, the Sidhe had vanished from sight. But even in his determination to remain positive, it was difficult not to feel the stabbing pain of all that they had lost- of all which had been taken from them. And it was in a rather more subdued tone that he uttered his next words. "We'll get through this together."
And they did. The years passed, and Merlin's magic helped them to watch as Camelot grieved the loss of its King, and as those closer to them mourned for them personally, and then as the world moved on. They watched as Arthur's son- conceived, it seemed, on the night of that fateful battle- was born and raised to be a fine and just leader, and as he taught his own descendants the tales of his father and the mighty sorcerer Merlin, as his mother had him. They watched and supported each other as all those they loved eventually grew old and tired and passed into their eternal rest. They watched as the years went by, and as the last of the Dragons died, and as all talk of magic slowly faded into the realms of myth and legend and fantasy. And together they forged a friendship and a bond so deep that even destiny could never have foreseen it- Arthur stood, enthralled, as Merlin studied, with the help of the Sidhe, every branch of magic known to men and monsters alike. And Merlin suffered through it as Arthur mastered each and every new fighting style to develop through the ages. Together they grieved, and together they laughed, and together they lived. And when, after hundreds of years had finally passed, the crystal cave had once again saturated the land with enough magic that they could leave their prison behind them, together they travelled, and together they learned. Always watching. Always waiting.
And when the day finally came- when the darkness grew so great that only the Once and Future King and Emrys would be able to face it- they would be ready. They would be waiting. And they would be stronger than ever before.