“Everything you’ve done, I know now. For me. For Camelot…Thank you.”
Over and over these words echoed in Merlin’s mind. Over and over he felt the warm weight of his best friend go limp in his arms. Over and over he felt the warm touch of Arthur’s hand fall from his face. And over and over he watched as those familiar, bright blue eyes grew dim and faded from this world.
His magic sensed as Arthur’s soul left his body. A rustle of wind swept through his hair and took with it his purpose, with no regard for destiny. He carded his fingers through his friend’s golden hair. They encountered nothing but disappointment. Arthur should have pushed him away by now, embarrassed by their proximity. Arthur should have called him an idiot or a girl’s petticoat. But instead he just lay silently in Merlin’s arms. He’d never known the King to be a quiet man. That’s how he knew.
It wasn’t his last breath, or his last words. Nor was it his rigidity or lack of pulse. It was his silence that proved Merlin’s worst fears correct. Every sacrifice and every minute he’d spent chasing his destiny had been a failure. Every joyous moment or gleeful occasion a harsh echo in his memory. What use is magic if you cannot protect the ones you love?
He’s never used the word love in connection to Arthur, or even thought of it. Now lying here next to the Lake of Avalon, cradling his best friend in his arms he knows the word fits. He loved him dearly and now it was all gone.
Tears seeped from his eyes as he pulled the King’s corpse closer to his chest. Trying to express all his emotion, hoping that Arthur could still sense it, even though he knew it was impossible. The cold chill emanating from his body brought choked sobs from the warlock’s chest. Everything he had ever fought for was now over. Albion along with Arthur would soon be only faint memories.
Light soon turned to darkness and still Merlin remained by the Lake, unable to part with Arthur just yet. Unable to process his death, and unable to lay him to his final rest. As the light of morning rose on the next day Merlin extricated himself from Arthur’s limbs. The dead weight had turned his extremities to useless twigs, as rushes of pins and needles ran up and down his nerve endings. He welcomed the pain; it was a sensation other than numbness.
It hit him as he sat immobile next to his friend that he would never again see him. Albion’s need would never be greatest because Albion never came to existence. The destiny of the Once and Future King had been left on a cliffhanger. It was a book laid to rest with the last page unread. And Emrys was immortal, destined to wait for the Once and Future King’s return. Never would Arthur live again, and never would Merlin die. The King and his most faithful servant could never be reunited in life or in death.
For years only destiny had propelled Merlin to continue. In times of his greatest struggles and darkest periods of grief his loyalty to Kilgarrah and the Druids, and to Arthur had pushed him forward. Now nothing remained. All the pain, sadness, and death had achieved nothing. Lancelot, Freya, Balinor, Morgana, and Arthur had died in vain. Only a few more days and Arthur could have achieved the creation of Albion, He had finally learned of and accepted Merlin’s magic. He would have legalized sorcery. He would have appointed Merlin as Court Sorcerer. He would have lived out his days as an old man with grey hair and many children. Together he and Merlin could have reminisced of old days, and Merlin could have told him the truth of all their adventures. Now nothing remained.
The days travelling back to Camelot would live to qualify as Merlin’s worst memories. Slinging Arthur’s body over his horse and lashing him down haunted his waking moments. Staring at the broken and lifeless body dangling over the horse’s rump removed any sense of royalty. He might as well have been a fresh killed deer from one of their hunts. Merlin had never held any great respect for nobles or royalty but Arthur deserved better. He wished he could have laid Arthur in a wagon but he had not the energy to conjure one. As he rode through the forest the Druids lined up one by one. They bowed their robed heads as he passed. The women threw wildflowers before his horse’s hooves as their children quietly wept. Their wordless prayers reverberated through his mind. Unspoken funeral songs played in the forest. Even the birds awoke to join. As the journey neared its end the silence regained control.
Gwenivere’s reaction qualified as Merlin’s second worst memory. He remembered the days she had lived as a carefree servant. She had introduced herself as he was pelted with rotten fruit in the stocks. She had praised him for his courage against Arthur. Now she praised him for his courage with Arthur. She praised him for bringing him home and this broke what remained of his heart. Her voice cracked and her eyes watered as Arthur’s body was removed from his horse but she remained strong. No longer was she carefree.
Gaius hugged him. Tears streamed down Merlin’s face but he could no longer feel them. The arms of his surrogate father might as well have been those of a stranger for all the good it did him. Gaius had tutored him in all his studies. He had saved the city through his research more times than he could count. And he trusted in the destiny of his ward. That trust was now useless and wasted.
Some wounds never healed, and Merlin knew that intrinsically. Eventually the horse doesn’t get up and you put it down. And he couldn’t seem to stand.
The day of Arthur’s funeral came and Merlin awoke to the sun streaming through his room. The mornings were the worst, before his mind could fully awaken he could fool himself into believing he was late delivering the Prat’s breakfast. When he was finally dressed and would lay his hand on the doorknob reality would finally shift into focus. He would retreat to his bed and lay down, no longer overburdened by his duties he would remain with his grief as long as he wished. He rarely ate or slept. He hadn’t used his magic since Arthur’s death. It was in mourning as well.
He entered the throne room alone. Gwen had granted him that kindness. Arthur was dressed in the full splendor of the great kings of men. Excalibur was laid down his torso, folded under his pale hands. His crown rested atop his golden head. From shoulder to foot he was draped in the most expensive cloth money could buy, but the quality of the cloth could not change that it was dressing a dead man. The red and gold Pendragon seal flew from every corner of the elaborately decorated room. It blew forward as a gust of wind entered through the main door. Merlin turned, behind him stood Gwen.
Earlier she had been stoic and measured. Now it was quite clear it had all been an act. In Merlin’s own grief he had overlooked that of his friend’s. Her vivid eyes were cloudy with tears and exhaustion. Her brown hair, which was usually tied in separate braids, was loose and tangled. But worst of all was her dress. Not once in his life had Merlin seen her wear black. Today it was all she wore. Her normal purple or red dress was gone, and with it her vibrancy. That vibrancy no longer remained. Today she was a widow.
Something finally clicked in Merlin’s mind. A solution.
He turned back to Arthur. Striding forward the few steps to his funeral alter he placed his hand on his hair.
“Goodbye old friend. Forgive me.”
He placed a kiss to his forehead. His lips remained touching the skin for a long moment. He was reticent to leave, reticent to part for good.
Merlin slowly rose, his hand leaving Arthur’s hair quickly as his determination began to waver.
“Gwen?” He inquired softly.
“I need you to promise me something.”
“I don’t understand.” She replied. Confusion marred her faced. In her grief she could not spare her mind to ponder Merlin’s request. Her eyes kept flickering to her husband’s body.
“Don’t bury him. Don’t burn him. Not yet.” He told her determinately. This was the most alive he has been since Arthur’s death.
“Why?” She asked him. He had her full attention now. Concern now replaced confusion as she become worried. But if he looked deeply enough, Merlin might have noticed a slight beacon of hope flicker in the depths of her eyes.
“I’m going to save him. “
Before Gwen could respond he rushed out of the throne room. He didn’t return to his chambers, nor did he say anything to Gaius or the knights. He broke into a full sprint and was seen riding out of the stables in mere minutes. Arthur’s horse was in a raucous as Merlin rode away. The town square watched as the King’s infamous manservant rode away from his only home and toward his death.
Camelot’s castle walls morphed into meadow. The meadow morphed into forest. The forest morphed into lake. The green was only a blur to Merlin whose eyes were set on the vivid blue of Avalon.
His horse had barely stopped as Merlin dismounted. He didn’t notice the tears in his pants where he fell, nor did he feel the blood as it seeped from his wounds. He only stopped once his waist was submerged in the lake. The sudden stop from the buzzing constant motion of his journey temporarily overwhelmed his senses. This was it. This was the end. This was his destiny all along. Nothing else remained.
His magic reached out. Freed from its cage of grief and disuse it spread like wildfire into every cranny of the lake. The dark blue waters lit up by bright gold was indescribable. He felt whole once again. His eyes closed of their own accord in pleasure.
Soft touches tingled down the side of his face. They felt familiar. He desperately wanted to keep his eyes closed lest this be a dream. Merlin probed his arm out, reaching blindly for the kind figure. His hands reached warm flesh and he sighed in contentment.
“Freya.” He whispered.
“Oh my love. What has this world done to you?”
As Merlin opened his eyes the most beautiful sight in the world greeted him. Freya stood before, ensconced in ethereal light. She was neither dead nor living yet she was warm in his arms and solid in his grasp. She still wore the dress he had laid her to rest in, the one he had stolen from Morgana’s wardrobe. But where Morgana was darkness she was only light. Nothing else remained.
“Not this world my love. Only destiny.” He told her solemnly.
“I’m starting to tire of destiny I’m afraid. Getting a little too meddlesome,” She responded.
Merlin laughed. For the first time in weeks he laughed a true, honest laugh.
“I couldn’t agree more. But this time I must follow through with it.”
His blue eyes were strong. Only an hour before he had appeared gangly and pale, only a poor recreation of the old Merlin. Now, with his choice made, he appeared as Emrys. He stood tall and proud, his skin flush with adrenaline and his eyes alight with desire. His magic was once again in tune with the earth.
“I come forth to take Arthur’s place in Avalon.” He declared.
“Are you absolutely sure?” Freya asked. She knew his answer already but needed to hear him say it.
“Then it will be done.” She leaned forward to take his hand.
“May I see him? One last time?” Merlin asked quickly before she could grasp his arm.
Her eyes gleamed with a mixture of pride and sadness. She remained silent but turned to face the expanse of lake. Merlin turned his focus away from her.
Arthur was rising out of the water, only a few feet from them. His chainmail was undamaged and his skin unblemished. Merlin’s recent memories of his pale, deathly figure did him no justice. The golden hue had returned to his hair, his skin was once again tan, and his cheeks were flushed with blood. He was also alive, and confused.
At once Merlin began to feel his own life force seep out of him. His magic began to diminish and he knew the deed was done.
“Hello Prat.” Merlin replied, a wise cracking smile on his face.
Arthur walked toward the couple, concern evident in his features but overruled by joy. He clasped Merlin in a tight bear hug. He had only ever been hugged by Arthur this way once before and with a rush of sadness the warlock realized this would be the last. After many moments Arthur pulled away, his hand still ghosting over Merlin’s shoulder. With a great shock he discovered his friend’s form disappearing before his very eyes.
“Merlin, what’s happening? What’s going on?” He asked desperately. A sense of urgency perforated his voice and his body language became increasingly uncoordinated and tense.
“A life for a life remember?” Merlin replied calmly. A smile still graced his features. He reached out his hand and cupped Arthur’s cheek in his grasp.
“Make me proud.”
His hand left Arthur’s face. He turned from his King and walked with Freya deeper into the lake. His heart breaking all the while but determined in his decision. Arthur’s voice followed him, crying out anxiously. For answers. For help. But despite the King’s best efforts he could not follow his manservant any further into the water. As the water reached chest height and Merlin could tell he had only seconds left he stopped and turned back to his King.
His stoic, dollop-headed, clot-pole of a master had tears streaming down his face. He was pushing with all his might against the barrage of water and was reaching with arms outstretched toward Merlin.
He smiled at Arthur. His hand clutched tightly in Freya’s. Arthur’s last words before his death still prominent in his mind, he locked his gaze with Arthur’s.
With those last words Merlin faded into the lake alongside Freya.
Miles away, spread across distant lands and kingdoms, creatures of magic stirred. Destiny had been righted. Albion was no longer lost.