Gwen was watching his face carefully. Arthur's jaw tightened and his eyes prickled with heat. He brushed past them and paced into the white vapor. Once he had gathered himself, he turned back to them.
"So let me see if I understand this clearly: the most powerful sorcerer ever to walk the earth gives up everything to become my servant, to protect me until Camelot can getheaded in the right direction. Because of his secrecy and my...arrogance he is neglected, unappreciated, as well as in danger every hour of every day because of his birthright of magic. For his faithfulness and care, his service and selflessness, he is rewarded with being forced to stand by and watch me die, then spend fifteen hundred...fifteen hundred years waiting for me to return. Is that right?" When they nodded, Arthur turned away, a trembling hand pressed to his mouth. It was an outrage, so unjust and impossibly unfair that his sense of duty and justice demanded action. "Then I must return."
"There are others who wish to see you, Arthur," said a new voice behind him.
Arthur frowned and turned to see a beautiful, dark-haired lady with liquid brown eyes walking toward him. To Arthur's surprise, Gwen and Leon bowed their heads to her. "I am Freya, the Lady of the Lake. You have been under my protection while you were here, and if you leave, you leave that protection behind. Out there, you will be only a mortal again, subject to the same laws and forces of nature as you were when you were alive. Only this time, you will not have Merlin at your side."
Something about her impressed itself on him, her bearing or her manner, instantly changing his approach. "Thank you, my lady. But regardless of the danger, I need to findhim. Can you help me?"
Her eyes held deep pain and regret. "He would not wish me to send you, Arthur. I know it with every fiber of my being. He has always held your safety far above his own. But I cannot hold you back when I know that you may be the only one who can save him. He is in great danger, Arthur, oceans away, so much farther than the Old Religion can reach. And he has been there long enough for his magic to begin to affect the land, to awaken and draw out those things that would hunt him for his magic. I can feel their hunger and...I cannot feel Merlin. He is lost to me there, and I fear he may still be lost to himself."
Arthur clenched a hand, wishing for a sword to put in it. "Can you send me to him?"
"I think so, but I dare not send you alone. There is another who would go with you. In fact, I hardly think I can keep him back. He believes he has a debt to repay."
Hearing footsteps, Arthur focused on the swirling mists and watched in disbelief at the familiar figure that approached. "Gwaine?"
The man walked towards him, eyes crinkled up with a familiar smile. "Who else?"
Arthur reached out and clapped the man on the shoulder, a rush of emotion overcoming him. Gwaine gripped his arms with fierce strength. "It's good to see you, Sire."
"And you as well." The joy leached out of their faces as Arthur continued. "They've told me that Merlin has been out there all this time, waiting." He saw the pain of acknowledgment in Gwaine's eyes. "I intend to find him and do whatever I can. I don't know what we will face or in what manner of trouble Merlin will be in, only that he will be, given his nature." They shared a small smile. "Will you come?"
Gwaine's eyes darkened. "You know the answer to that. It's been fifteen hundred years of hell having to wait and watch. Only you or that Freya lady can open the gates and she hasn't budged." And Arthur thought, watching the man twitch and glance away with emotion-filled eyes, it probably had been punishing for him.
"I understand, But what debt do you feel you have to repay?"
Gwaine stood up straight and looked Arthur in the eyes. "Morgana caught me, using that damn magic of hers, and tortured me to death with a nathir. Some time before I died, I gave up the secret that Merlin was taking you to Avalon to heal you. I was weak. She came after both of you and slowed you down, probably just long enough for Merlin to fail."
Arthur grimaced and shook his head. "No, Gwaine, bad timing wasn't responsible for my death. It was meant to be."
Gwaine scoffed and brushed at his eyes. "Try telling that to Merlin."
Arthur put a comforting hand on Gwaine's shoulder. "I intend to, as soon as I can find the way out of this damn mist."
The voice penetrated his thoughts, but did little break his concentration. Matthew was seated on the hard stone bench outside UEF's chapel building, enjoying the Florida sunshine while simultaneously brushing up on his Latin, trying to ignore his friends for the five minutes more it would take to cram this into his head.
He frowned and focused harder on the next paragraph of the textbook. Dr. Abbott was one of the most notoriously difficult professors at the University of East Florida and if you didn't keep up with your reading, he would roast you alive. Slowly. In front of the whole class.
On the grass nearby, Cricket sighed, watching her boyfriend stare intently at his Latin text. He was adorable, all folded up and scholarly-like. One leg was hiked up and bent at the knee, his torso shifted to the side so that one elbow could take advantage of the low ledge nearby. The rest of his lanky body rested gracefully in-between the bench and the the ledge. There was a smudge of ink on his cheek, and she was dying to go and wipe it off just to see his embarrassed grin. He might even laugh in that husky way of his...
A large, blur of a body hit the grass beside her and she jumped. It was just Garrett, snatching at a frisbee just before it hit the ground. Yes, it had been a stellar catch, but he had startled her, so she smacked him as he rolled over and jumped to his feet.
"So jealous," he taunted before flicking his wrist and sending the disc soaring over the grass to Todd. Garrett watched idly as the bigger boy made a gravity-defying leap and caught it. "This is getting boring. Tell spaz over there he has one minute and then we're bailing." His brown gaze gave Cricket a pointed look before spying the disc floating back his way. "Got it..." He took off, staying under the disc as it came down, leaping over a small flower bed before snatching it easily and...running smack into a tree.
Off at the top of the hill, Todd collapsed in laughter. "Oh my god. That tree? Totally powned you."
Cricket gasped and stood. "Garrett, are you all right?" Garrett waved one hand, the other busy holding his nose onto his face. "Are you bleeding?" He waved again, his fingers red this time. "Oh crap. Matt?" Cricket strode over to the cement porch area where he had chosen to spent the last hours of their Saturday. "Garrett just like, impaled himself on a tree." She stood in front of Matthew, watching as he held up a hand like a policeman directing traffic. "No, I will not wait a minute. He's bleeding and may need to go get his nose sewn back on! I'm no good in a crisis and Todd is an idiot and we need you."
Matthew blinked up at her, his ocean blue eyes narrowed in frustration.
"Don't give me that look. There is blood on his face and you know how that makes me get sick."
He growled at her quietly, but began stacking his books.
"And it's time to stop studying anyway. You're such a professor sometimes! You're going to be the first old man freshman in history if you keep going at this rate."
"I'm up! I'm up!" Garrett called over to them thickly. He was on his feet, swaying slightly and holding a bloody hand to his nose.
Todd had stopped laughing long enough to make it over to him. "That was so awesome. Why didn't I catch a vid?"
"Nah. My mom would have freaked if... it'd gone viral." The pause was when Garrett hocked up and spat a mouthful of blood and gunk on the ground.
Cricket tried not to give in to the nausea she was feeling and the struggle must have been evident on her face. Matthew moved to her side and took hold of her arm, leading her to sit on the bench he had just vacated. He knelt in front her and signed the words, You all right?
She nodded. "Just help Garrett."
Matthew watched her face for signs of further discomfort or trauma, but saw none. He gestured for her to stay, knowing that she could read his signs better than anybody. Then he turned and jogged over to Garrett and Todd. Todd had already managed to get Garrett's hands away from his nose, which was bloody and misshapen.
Matthew shook his head and made an impatient noise as he got into position to feel Garrett's nose.
"What?" Garrett asked defensively as he lifted his nose up for Matthew to look at it. "It was an awesome catch. Truly."
"And then-tree!" Todd laughed, his face blooming with red until his freckles nearly disappeared. "Is it broken?"
Matthew felt the nose give under his hand and nodded his head.
"Can't feel a thing," Garrett said in wonder. "Do I have to go to the campus doc?"
Matthew nodded and put up a hand, indicating himself and then signaled for themto wait.
"Nah. 'll take him," Todd offered, "no problem. You and Crick can hang out and smooch for a while. No, really," he insisted as Matthew grew agitated, "I got this. Just walk this way, idjit," he told Garrett. Matthew watched with frustration as Todd took Garrett's arm and led him to the sidewalk. "And try not to hit any more trees with your face."
"Everything okay?" Cricket asked from where she sat, pale and woozy-looking.
It's broken, he signed with his hands. Todd is taking him to the doc. He sat down beside Cricket and felt her lean against him. It was beyond irritating to be treated like an invalid when something like this happened. But he had to admit that taking someone to the doctor and explaining what happened was not something at which he excelled, unless someone else there knew sign language or they were patient enough to read what he wrote out laboriously. He was faster at texting, as so few people knew sign language. His friends were aware of this. Beside him, Cricket sighed.
"Can you be done with Latin now?" she asked in a small voice.
Before Matthew could answer, something stopped him.
The air around him had just...shifted in an undefinable way. He glanced around, seeing exactly what he expected to see: twilight dawning over the grounds in the southeastern quad. The campus was thick with oak trees but empty of students by the chapel, which was exactly why Matt had elected to study here. It was eerie, but quiet. Most dead weekends were like this; there were no student events planned and most students were inside studying and gearing up for finals.
Crickett stiffened. She felt it, too, the feeling that something or someone was watching them. The way Matt was scanning the trees and nervously gripping the bench was only making it worse. Not for the first time, she wished her boyfriend would speak and make this horrible, unnatural silence go away. But in all the time she'd known him, he had yet to speak a single word.
"What is it, Matt?" Cricket snapped, creeping fear making her tone sharp. She was watching him the exact moment that his deep blue eyes flew wide open. "Matt?" There was naked fear was on his face. She followed his gaze and grew absolutely still.
Something was moving toward them in the half-light between the trees, a hulkish figure with hideously long arms. Hidden by shadows, it loped down the path, the gleam of its eyes fixed right on them.
"What is it?" she hissed, clutching Matt's arm as her heart begin to pound. Matt shook his head slowly and stood, pulling her to her feet. "What is that?" Still, Matt was silent.
As it moved from shadow to light, they could see it better, though Cricket regretted that immediately. The thing was like a man, but huge, furry and with gorilla-like arms. It walked upright, with a long, swinging gait that made its knuckles brush the ground. Its face was gray and wrinkled with round eyes black as pitch and bright as diamonds. When it opened its mouth in a horrifying grimace, teeth as long and sharp as needles slid out.
Cricket couldn't even scream.
Matthew stared as it came closer, and it took him less time than he would have expected for him to accept the fact that yes, there are monsters alive and running around the U.S.A. on college campuses and yes, one of them just happens to be fixated on him and his girlfriend at this very moment. He swept Cricket behind him, signing call security as some desperate, undefinable feeling swelled inside and broke loose.
With an inarticulate cry as loud as any sound he'd ever made, he ran madly forward and took a stand, his right hand outstretched and foreign words on the tip of his tongue. Then he froze.
What the hell am I doing?
Behind him, Cricket was screaming and the creature came at him impossibly fast, swinging a massive arm. Pain erupted along the side of Matthew's head and he was in the air and then on the ground, pain reverberating through his bones.
He could hear Cricket sobbing and shrieking for the creature to leave her alone. He had never felt so helpless in his life as he worked to force himself up in a sitting position and waited for the world to stop spinning. Finally, he could focus his eyes, just in time to see the creature roaring at Cricket. She collapsed behind the bench and went silent, her eyes wide and her whole body trembling.
Matthew couldn't get to his feet, could barely think through the ringing in his head. His hands swept the ground around him until he came up with a sizeable rock and flung it with all the desperate hate swamping his heart. It went farther than he expected, hitting the creature's back with a rewarding thunk. Those strange obsidian eyes fixated back on Matthew immediately. It started stalking toward him.
As death moved closer, time seemed to slow to Matthew. There was something wet on his face-probably blood. Probably his. His mind rifled through all the monsters he'd ever heard of, the urban legends that had occupied his mind through his teenage years, and settled on one. Not hairy enough to be a werewolf, but definitely a predator. Possibly a wendigo, which meant that this thing was hungry, always hungry. But in all that he'd read, nothing had prepared Matthew for what it felt like to be frozen as those eyes bored into his own, watching it creep closer, its grin growing wider and wider.
Too late, Matthew realized that he was actually paralyzed-those eyes had hypnotized him somehow. Helpless, he watched the creature sidle close enough to lean in and sniff at his hair, run its foul tongue into his ear and nuzzle his neck like an affectionate cat. It had too many fingers on its furred hands, with claws that caught and sliced Matthew's skin. The smell of its hideous hide made him gag, and Matthew was coughing on its fumes when he suddenly found himself lifted and thrown over the shoulder of the beast. Breath was driven from his body and its stench filled his senses. For a moment, he blacked out.
The next thing he knew, he was swinging limply from side to side as the thing took him down a path. They were in the woods, hopefully still near the campus. Maybe it was the blow to his head, but Matthew couldn't feel much of anything, not even the fear he knew should be thrumming in his veins. For some reason, he was wide awake now, his senses creeping up to high alert.
Other than the footsteps of the beast rustling through dead leaves, all was quiet, as if the whole world was waiting, breathlessly, for something to happen. There was another shift in the air around him. Then came a voice, commanding and deep.
"Put. Him. Down."
A tremor of shock ran down Matthew's spine. That voice...
"What the bloody hell is that?" came another voice. They both sounded British, the first more cultured than the second.
"No idea. Split up. You..." and the instructions trailed off into silence.
Matthew tried to turn, to pull himself up and see who had spoken but the creature did not like that. It roared and punched Matthew in the ribs with enough force to make him go limp again. The sharp, new pain in his side made breathing a challenge, especially as the beast swung him from side to side when his attackers moved in on either side of him.
"That's right, this way, you hellish beast," said the second voice. "Put down the nice warlock and have a go at me. You know you want to; everyone wants a piece of me. But you? Too bad you've got one of the ugliest-"
The creature lunged and Matthew flopped helplessly as it turned to swipe at the man taunting him. But now he could see the other man behind the creature, if he lifted his head just right. Matthew caught a glimpse of blond hair, wide open blue eyes and a bright, shining sword before he was jerked back to the side. The creature roared; it had been struck.
"How's that feel? You like that?" the second man called out, sounding angry.
It roared again and started forward. Then the blond man was beside them, keeping pace, steadying Matthew's shoulder, pressing him aside as he aimed his sword. With a vicious thrust, the man buried his sword deep into the creature's back.
Matthew had just enough time to think, Wait- and then the world was a blur of motion as the creature arched and tried to grab at them. The blond man danced out of the way, calling out a warning as the creature's claws closed on Matthew instead. He found himself lifted bodily, pierced and then flung headlong.
Matthew was upside down and curled into a ball of pain when he took down someone like a bowling pin. They cushioned his body with their own, but his head and neck still slammed into the ground and the world went white.
When the world faded back in, someone was complaining loudly. "I almost ran him through like a spitted boar."
Then someone was cursing and trying to keep Matthew from rising off the ground. Everything was blurry. There was a man over him with long brown hair, a scruffy beard and a rakish grin. "Merlin? There you are." His voice was the second British one, the more common sounding. "Sorry, I didn't catch you better, mate, but that thing was dead set on breaking you in half. You all right?"
Matthew had no way to describe the pain screaming at him from every part of his body right now. He just looked up blankly, then over at the other man who was jerking a bloody sword out of the lifeless creature on the ground. Yes, a sword. Matthew blinked.
"Merlin?" The other man called, then bent to wipe his sword on the grass.
The man over him patted his face to get his attention and Matthew knocked his hand away.
"All right, take it easy. I said I was sorry. You've taken harder knocks than that, you know. Just going to check your ribs." He began to lift Matthew's shirt, but was halted by a grip on his hand. Matthew was breathing hard, painfully; he was confused and scared and did not want someone he did not know looking at his ribs. The man looked taken aback. "Merlin, it's me-Gwaine," he said in a husky whisper that broke his smile. "You know I wouldn't hurt you."
Matthew shook his head, then regretted it instantly as the pain flared behind his eyes. He released Gwaine's hand and signed, My name is Matthew.
"What does that mean...why are you moving your hands like that?"
Matthew grimaced and patted at his pocket for his cell phone. When, instead of finding a pocket, he felt shredded denim, pain and blood, he stopped with a surprised grunt, his trembling fingers held away from his body.
"It's all right, mate. Just keep breathing."
The other man stabbed his sword in the ground and dropped to his knees beside them, causing Matthew to flinch away.
"Easy, Arthur," the one called Gwaine cautioned, "he doesn't know us."
The blond man's eyes went wide, some heavy emotion swimming in them that Matthew couldn't understand. No one had ever looked at him like that. "Merlin?" Arthur said.
Matthew shook his head again, wincing at the pain. Not Merlin, he signed.
"Why is he doing that?" Arthur asked sharply.
"I don't know. It's some sort of hand signal."
Matthew rolled his eyes, then gestured to his mouth and made a curt gesture.
Arthur went pale. "You can't speak?" His eyes searched Matthew's intently. "You can't speak and you don't know us."
Matthew nodded and closed his eyes. Pain was taking over his existence. The worst of it seemed to be on his hips, where the creature's claws had dug in deeply. Matthew groaned as he tentatively felt the area. He heard Gwaine give Arthur a murmured reassurance before turning back to Matthew.
"Sure you don't want me to take a look at it?"
Matthew shook his head. Cricket was getting the police and they should have anambulance here soon. He was already bracing himself for the inevitable ride to the hospital. Accident-prone, his mom called it. Ridiculously-appendaged was what he called it. It had taken him years to finally grow into the long arms and legs he'd had since junior high.
A loud smack pulled his attention. Slowly, Matthew swiveled his head to see Arthur hacking at a nearby tree with a vengeance, slamming his sword into the bark and then ripping it loose with an oath. Merlin's face screwed up in confusion. Nothing was making sense right now.
"Nothing to worry about," Gwaine said with an awkward smile, "There's no other knights around to beat up on and he doesn't use words very well when he's upset. So. The tree. Do you have a healer around here somewhere? 'Cause I'm thinking you're going to be needing one."
Matthew jerked. It was Cricket, her voice coming from somewhere far off. More voices joined hers.
"You don't need to be here, ma'am. Stay back."
"There's another smear of blood here, sir."
"Follow it. Weapons out,"
As the two campus security guards crept into the clearing, Arthur sauntered up to meet them. There was really no other word for it. There was a smile on his face, but it wasn't a very pleasant one. "Are you the guards for this area? It seems like a little something slipped by you."
"Matthew!" Cricket was at Matthew's side in seconds, blocking his sight of the men, crying hysterically and trying to find places to touch him that didn't hurt too much. He hated not being able to reassure her with words, having to settle for signing it with trembling, bloody hands that just emphasized his injuries.
"My god, what is that thing?" The two security guards had moved closer, their expressions a mix of horror and fascination.
"Whatever it is, it's dead," Gwaine said in his gravelly voice as he picked up his sword and sauntered over to the creature.
"Sir, put the sword down." One of the guards, one with a girth that strained the fabric of his uniform, already his hand at his belt, twitching toward his gun.
"Relax," Gwaine reassured him, "I just have to clean it." He bent down and wiped his blade on the grass as Arthur had done before sliding it home in his scabbard. For the first time,Matthew noticed that the two British men were wearing some kind of Kevlar vests and scabbards over their jeans and sneakers. Kevlar and swords?
Arthur was stepping closer to the guards, his body tense and his voice shockingly authoritative. "Your tardiness almost guaranteed the death of this student. If you were my men, I'd have you flogged."
The skinny one took offense at this and his mustache bristled. "Excuse me? And who the hell are you?"
"My name is Arthur and I'm his...servant."
Despite the pain, Matthew's head jerked up. Servant? A shudder ran through his whole body, though he couldn't say why.
"What is he talking about?" Cricket asked in a whisper, wiping away the last of her tears.Matthew made the sign for crazy. Cricket took his hands in her own. "The ambulance should be here any second. Just rest, Matt."
With those words excusing him, the world began to blur and Matthew let himself close his eyes. There was far too much that didn't make sense, but he let all of that go and fell into blackness.
Matthew woke in the hospital, as expected, to the sound of distant voices, wheeled buggies going by and beeping. What he didn't expect was the disorienting jumble of images in his mind that blocked out the white room and the machines hooked to him. Clutching at his head, squeezing his eyes shut, Matthew was forced to watch a parade of people he had never met, of places he had never seen, of conversations in another language and at another time. He felt like Alice in the rabbit hole watching odd relics of another life float by as he fell, but each of these images hurt somewhere deep in his soul.
Matthew tried hard to ground himself in the here and now, in the feel of the bedsheets against him, the muted pain from his injuries and the cold, crisp air of the hospital room. But his mind was falling away again, so far that he had no awareness besides this dream...
He was racing through a castle, the kind he'd read about but never visited, never even wanted to. There were the distant sounds of fighting-screams, clashes of weapons and shuddering thuds that shook the stone beneath his feet. He hated those sounds.
"Arthur, please tell me you're returning now-please," he muttered as he turned a corner and took the stone steps three at a time. The posted guards held out their weapons, but relaxed when they recognized his face.
"Hurry, Merlin!" one of them said and the desperation in his tone shocked him to the core. Merlin rushed inside and then froze in horror.
Gwen was on her knees, holding the still form of her daughter, little Hildie, and rocking back and forth, sobbing wretchedly. Merlin's quick gaze, working even when he had no desire to learn more, took in Leon kneeling by the bed at the other side of the room, one hand on the still, pale figure of 10-year-old Eddis. No. The boy was slack as if in sleep, but the gray cast to his features told a different story.
"Uncle Merlin!" came a cry behind him and he turned with a gasp to see a small figure hurl itself at him. With more relief than should have been possible, Merlin gathered up little Arthur in his arms and tucked the feverish face against his neck.
"What-what-no..." Merlin found himself completely incoherent.
"Merlin?" Gwen lifted one hand toward him listlessly, the other cradled around Hildie. "They're gone, both of them. We think it's poison, but we don't know how...or why...it makes no sense when the entire city is to be overrun in moments. Why?"
Merlin tensed. "Where is Ogilvy?" The healer was unfailingly dependable. "When did this happen?"
"Ogilvy is dead, poisoned as well. They were very thorough, Merlin," Gwen said, clutching at her stomach. Merlin stared at her hand, then forced his gaze to her eyes, where he saw in them a dreadful knowledge and an even more dreadful decision. "No," he said forcefully, kneeling to put Arthur down, but the boy's arms just cinched tighter around his neck.
Leon answered from where he stood at the window, gazing down at the soldiers defending the city without him. "It's too late for us, Merlin. Our knights are not strong enough, not by a long shot. If Arthur could see them..." His voice wavered before steadying again. "Sir Gideon's training has wasted them and they are going to be slaughtered."
"Why are you giving up? I can defeat the Saxons, I've done it before."
Gwen looked up at him sadly. "At great cost to yourself, Merlin, and I won't be here to nurse you back to health this time." She lifted a hand as he moved toward her, pulling little Arthur with him. "No. No, Merlin. I know you can heal me, but again, it will take too much and the city will fall anyway, and without my little ones...without them..." she cut off and sank to the ground, sobbing again.
Leon pulled himself away from the view, rousing himself enough to stumble over to her. The limp in his right leg was even more pronounced tonight, the old war injury that made the knight unfit for hard training and fighting. It had been the one of the greatest hardships in his life, but paled in comparison to the events of this night. Tears were falling down his face steadily, though he made not a sound as he wrapped his wife and dead daughter in an embrace.
Merlin's heart clenched painfully and he shook his head in denial. "Leon, you cannot agree with this. I can save Gwen! And I can save Camelot!" He turned to little Arthur and once again tried to disentangle himself.
"No!" Arthur yelled fiercely, clinging like a little monkey.
Leon raised weary eyes to Merlin. "She is right, Merlin. The time for saving has past. There is no more Camelot. We are betrayed within and harried without. You cannot save Gwen, the boy and the castle."
"Let me at least try!" He drew in a strangled breath. "I cannot watch you both die. You're asking too much!"
"We do not ask you to watch," Gwen said, opening tired eyes and reached a hand out to Merlin, who shifted and moved forward to take it, bowing and touching his forehead to it. Hot tears fell on her hand, but she pretended not to notice. "You will take the prin-you will take little Arthur and escape." Merlin looked up into her eyes, horrified, shaking his head but there was steel in her glance. "Merlin, this is the command of your queen. You will take Arthur and go live among the Druids for as long as it is safe. You will raise Arthur as we would have wished to, without the blessings and curses of being a prince, and you will be his father and guardian. I cannot imagine a better choice for my son. Please," she added in a pained and weakening voice, "you are our only hope now."
Merlin took in the faint sheen of sweat and pain on Leon's clenched brow and the heavy breathing of the queen. Both poisoned, then. But maybe it wasn't too late-
There was the clash of swords in the hallway, and Merlin jumped to his feet. Automatically, he shifted little Arthur's body to his back and stepped in front of the queen and her king consort. Anger flooded his veins.
A thud against the wall and a scream of pain came just before footsteps rang out in the doorway. Sir Lionel stood there, looking shocked to see Merlin. He recovered quickly, raising his bloody sword.
"Slight miscalculation. I was sure you would be busy on the walls at the present moment."
Merlin's upper lip curled and his gaze narrowed. Slowly, his right hand came up. Arthur, who had been looking over his shoulder, gasped and ducked his head into the back of Merlin's neck. "You did this?" Merlin asked in a deadly voice. "You betrayed your queen?"
Lionel was by no means an old man. His hair was still brown and curled, his eyesight sharp and keen and his shoulders heavy with muscle and self-importance. Apparently, he thought himself worthy of the crown. But at the sight of Merlin's well-deserved hate, he sagged like a man on the edge of death. Which was quite appropriate.
His gaze darted around the room as if seeking some shield that would protect him from a warlock's wrath. "She was a weak queen, not of royal blood," he finally spat. "The bloodline of Uther is no more! It died with Arthur. They don't deserve the throne!"
Merlin felt his power surging, circling, wanting to burn this man alive, pull him apart and drag him through the streets, burn him alive on a pyre, eviscerate him. He held back, shuddering and only Arthur's whimpers of terror kept him from fulfilling every one of those fantasies. Instead, he stalked forward, his gaze burning into Lionel's. With a shaking hand, he pressed Arthur's head down against his shoulder and whispered soothing words and then, "Don't watch."
Arthur shuddered, but kept his head down and obeyed.
Then Merlin held out his hand and pronounced judgment on the man even as the coward begged for mercy. Merlin's magic filled the man, invaded him, and Lionel's eyes goggled. His mouth opened in a silent scream. Then the magic...jerked.
Sir Lionel's scream lasted only a second and then he was gone, his body vaporized, his spirit released to judgment. Merlin stood there, his arm raised, his eyes blinded gold, vibrating until it was over.
Then he turned back to Gwen, Hildie and Leon, lifted them with his magic and laid them on the bed, on either side of little Eddis. Gwen was suffering, so Merlin went to her side quickly.
"I am so sorry," he picked up her limp hand, tears stinging his eyes. "I failed you."
"No, Merlin, you have saved me over and over again, as you did Arthur. And you would do it again, if I let you. But my time is over, and you must use your gifts for someone else, for some...other place. You are the truest friend I have ever had and I'm so sorry to leave you."
Merlin bowed his head and despite himself, let go a few, quiet sobs. Losing his friends one after another was hard. From the other side of the bed, he heard Leon's quiet thank you and gave the man a nod in return. From his back, little Arthur began calling for his mother.
Gwen looked up at her last, living child and smiled gently. "Be brave, little one, like your namesake. I am sorry I will not be there by your side. But you know that I love you and your father does as well. Uncle Merlin will show you that love every day."
Little Arthur finally let go of Merlin and climbed up on the bed. He wailed as he saw Hildie and Eddis, unmoving, and threw himself in his mother's arms. Merlin's tears slowly faded as he took in the boy's wild grief. His gaze met Gwen's, who was beseeching him to do something, and he nodded slowly. WIth a regretful glow of his eyes, he put Arthur to sleep.
Gwen's face twisted, but she did not cry as she held him close one last time. "Explain it to him, when he is older. I adore him so."
Merlin smiled and nodded, unable to commit himself to explaining everything, which might cause the boy unending pain. It might be better to forget. He tried to smile at her. "And when you see him...tell him he's a clot pole for not returning. He always did love to keep me waiting, didn't he? Arrogant prat."
She knew who he meant, the man whose name had hardly ever left their lips until she had named a son after him. Gwen nodded, looking weaker by the second. Merlin bent over and brushed back her hair, kissed her forehead and gave Leon a slow, respectful nod. Then, with a soft smile and glow of gold, he sent them to sleep until their deaths.
He stood there, watching, tears flooding his eyes, unable to force himself to continue on until the castle began to shudder anew and the clashing of swords and the sounds of dying men grew too close for comfort.
Then he shook off the heavy mantle of grief, took up the sleeping boy up in his arms and made his way down to the catacombs. He was forced to use a few spells along to way to stay hidden, breaking up the memories that were nearly overwhelming him. This castle had been his home once and had become his home again, this time with his magic in the open, no Gaius to help him and an entire kingdom to protect. It had been just as difficult as it had been wonderful.
He'd stayed away for fifteen years, protecting Camelot and Arthur's legacy from outside dangers, but never getting close enough to speak to those he'd left behind. That time hadn't been a happy one, spent mostly in learning how to function with only half a soul and how to become what Camelot needed. There were still sorcerers to fight, bandits to discourage and innocent lives to save. So he did all of these things in secret. Only later did he discover that Gwen and Gaius had taken every occasion to spread the word about a mysterious sorcerer benefactor. All of Camelot knew of his deeds, but they didn't know his identity.
One day, he'd awoken in his dusty hut and realized that his reasons for staying away had evaporated. So he walked into Camelot without even a disguise. He'd gone straight to the throne room, escorted by a guard of soldiers, only a few who had recognized him as Merlin. Once there, he'd waited for entry, feeling empty and numb.
When the doors had opened, the flood of feelings had nearly overwhelmed him. The room sang of Arthur's presence, of his legacy. Merlin had walked forward, feeling the weight of his failure and the lack of his king. At the dais where Gwen sat beside an empty throne, Merlin had fallen to his knees, begging her forgiveness for failing her husband and all of Camelot, ready and willing to pay whatever forfeit she demanded.
Instead, she'd sunk to her knees before him and thrown her arms around his neck, crying softly. When their eyes finally met, he saw love and joy among the pain in them and knew that he'd punished both of them by staying away. A soft smile had stolen over his face and a new peace had entered his heart. In wonder, he had watched her rise, proclaiming him the secret sorcerer who had been helping Camelot for two decades.
To his shock, Camelot welcomed its own sorcerer home and gladly saw him installed as the Court Sorcerer before the year was through. He'd been enchanted by Gwen and Leon's children and had become their honorary uncle, had been acknowledged over and over as Camelot's savior and had seen the fruit of all that Arthur had done. Despite his continued sorrow, he had found a new path to joy. Sometimes he let his memories fade and it felt as though it had happened to someone else, as though a large part of him hadn't died with Arthur after all.
But now that was all falling away again and he was saying goodbye, for himself and for Arthur. Despite Merlin's desperate hoping to the contrary, Arthur would not be returning in time to save Camelot. The castle would fall and Arthur would never see it again. Merlin sobbed as he walked, taking some measure of comfort from the boy in his arms. Little Prince Arthur was limp and breathing sweetly, unaware that Camelot, his entire world, was collapsing around him.
Merlin protected them both as they passed through miles of caverns, crossed an underground river and came out safely in a cave near Escetia.
There, he collapsed and drew a magical cloak of sleep over them both that lasted a year, unwilling and unable to deal with their collective grief.