Okay, so in order to save my sanity from the SNOW that's falling outside, here's the epilogue to this story. To everyone, who's been reading: thanks so much for sticking with me, guys! Also, many, many thanks to Glastaig
, my wonderful beta.
Disclaimer: Nope, still don't own anything except the plot and maybe a few green bubbles.Warning:
If you're expecting a funny, light-hearted epilogue, sorry, this isn't it. Tissues may be required. Arthur and Merlin sort of hijacked this chapter and demanded I give it the proper solemnity the subject deserved. Also, there might be some blink-and-you-miss them spoilers for the rest of the series - if you haven't seen season 4, you might not even notice them as spoilers, especially since this story is pretty much an AU at this point anyway.A Key in the Kingdom Epilogue
The smell of blood clung to the air like a desperate lover, the once bright green field now coloured a dull, dark red-brown. Somewhere in the distance, a flock of crows argued amongst each other, the only sound that permeated the stillness.
Merlin fell to his knees, not noticing how the ground squelched underneath him. All he felt was despair. All his power, all his determination to keep his king safe, was useless. He knew, had known since the moment he'd stepped out of the cave Morgana had managed to imprison him in. His king was dead. He could feel the intense sadness in his bones as Albion mourned for him.
He simply hadn't wanted to believe it.
If only he hadn't left Arthur's side to confront Morgana, to make one, last attempt to find a peaceful resolution with the woman he'd once considered a good friend. But there was too much anger, too much hate and bitterness within her soul. She looked back in bitterness and saw only what she thought could've been. She'd seen Merlin and Arthur's silence about his magic a betrayal and Merlin keeping silent about her magical powers instead of helping her was unforgivable.
Merlin knew why he'd never spoken to Morgana. The dragon's words echoed too loudly in his mind whenever he contemplated the idea. Sometimes he wondered whether this anger, this bitterness was all his fault. The dragon was wise and things tended to not go very well when Merlin ignored its advice, but surely even Kilgarrah wasn't infaliable.
Merlin had realized Morgana's initial reaction to his and Arthur's deception were the most telling. She couldn't understand why they'd stand by and let people be executed for magic (she seemed to have forgotten the mysterious rash of people, who somehow managed to escape the dungeons mere hours before facing the gallows – they were also the first to come out of the Camelot forests after Arthur's coronation and swear allegiance to the new king). What Morgana never understood is that as prince, Arthur would never betray his king. Bend the rules, protest rulings, or even outward disobedience, yes, but he'd never actually commit treason against the crown. Morgana was too ready to argue with the Uther, too willing to throw poisoned words at the king in order to win the argument. Merlin shuddered to think what might've happened had Morgana carelessly thrown out the information that his son was harbouring a sorcerer to prove a point.
But even the most logical argument did not penetrate Merlin's haze of despair. Here, at the battlefield, he let Albion's pain wash over him, own him. Silently, he begged her to release him from her grace, to let him die along with his king.
“Merlin!” a man's voice finally penetrated his ears. He listened and heard hoofbeats of a galloping horse.
Merlin looked up and watched as the knight approached. He was missing his helmet and so Merlin quickly recognized Gwaine. A bit of warmth spread within him when he realized his friend had survived the battle. Taking a deep breath, he stood to meet his friend. His vision was a bit blurry and Merlin realized he was weeping, but he made no move to wipe away the tears. Gwaine lept off his horse before it had even properly stopped.
“Merlin, I'm glad you're alive, my friend!” he exclaimed.
He stopped just in front of Merlin and placed a hand on his shoulder, looking at the sorcerer with worried eyes.
“I'm too late, aren't I?” Merlin croaked at him. It wasn't really a question, but he still wanted to hear it spoken by human lips.
Gwaine's eyes filled with tears.
“Mordred is dead,” he said. “But he dealt Arthur a mortal blow. The king still lives, but not for long. He sent me to find you, because you would know what to do with this.”
Merlin blinked and looked down, for the first time noticing what Gwaine was holding in his hands. He took the long object, wrapped in what he recognized as Arthur's cloak and unwrapped a corner. Excalibur.
“I tried to convince him not to, but he insisted it needed to be hidden somewhere safe.”
Merlin nodded. “He's right,” he said, gently caressing the hilt that symbolized Arthur's strength and connection to Albion as her chosen king. “This sword was forged and tempered for Arthur. Anyone else wielding it could bring disaster upon the world.”
“Then where shall I take it?”
Merlin took a deep breath, shaking off the sorrow he'd cloaked himself in. He had responsibilities to see to; he couldn't disappear just yet. And he knew what needed to be done right now.
“It needs to be set to rest somewhere no one will ever find it,” he finally replied.
Placing a hand on his friend's shoulder, Merlin thought of a place he hadn't been to in a very long time. Whispering the spell under his breath, he closed his eyes, feeling the spell wash over himself and Gwaine, whisking them off like creations of the wind and then depositing them in the middle of a clearing in a forest far away. Bracing himself for the pain this place always brought him, Merlin opened his eyes.
“Where are we?” Gwaine whispered, the usually loud knight somehow being overcome by the peace and sanctity of the place.
Merlin quirked a half smile at his friend, the closest he knew he'd come to his usual bright smiles for a very long time.
“We are here to return Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, who will guard it until it is needed again,” he said.
Somehow, the knowledge that Excalibur would one day be needed again didn't surprise Merlin the way it should have. His heart constricted at the thought that someone other than Arthur would one day hold this sword. However, he also finally understood, that Excalibur, although Arthur's, belonged to Albion, not Arthur and she would bestow it on a worthy champion when it was needed.
Merlin turned away from Gwaine to face the lake. He unwrapped Excalibur and watched for a few moments as the sun reflected off its surface. No matter where they were, light always managed to find it, and Excalibur would then become the shining beacon that cut through any darkness. Gwaine took Arthur's cloak from Merlin's hands and the sorcerer walked up to the water's edge.
“Freya!” he called out. “Will you once more take this sword and protect it against those, who'd wish to use it wrongly?”
For a moment there was nothing. Then the surface of the lake began to shimmer with tiny waves. At the centre of the lake, a dark-haired head began to break the surface. The Lady of the Lake walked towards Merlin, slowly coming out of the water, as though she were walking up a flight of stairs only she could touch. Her hair was long and smooth, her lips pale pink as she stepped out of the lake and her long white dress was plain. Although she was stepping out of water, there wasn't a sign of moisture anywhere on her.
“Emrys,” she greeted, once she was within an arm-span of Merlin. She smiled sweetly, though there was sorrow in her eyes. She held her arms out. “I will once again take the sword into the lake with me and become its guardian until Albion once again needs her champion to take it up.”
Carefully, Merlin handed Excalibur over to the Lady of the Lake.
“I'm sorry for leaving you with such a burden,” he blurted out, not quite wanting her to be gone just yet.
She looked more regal than the skinny waif of a girl he'd rescued, fell in love with and then lost all those years ago, but time had not changed her. Just as Albion would not allow him to age and die either. And still death was a chasm that separated them.
“I take this burden gladly, Merlin, you know that,” Freya answered and this time the fondness in her eyes outweighed the sorrow. “Don't worry about me. The lake is peaceful and through it I can feel the rest of Albion. Your choice is wise: none will be able to find the sword here.”
Merlin nodded, knowing this to be true. Even if stories spread of a sword in a lake, there were many lakes in Albion and not many individuals would have the power to summon the Lady of the Lake even if they figured out which one it was.
“It was good to see you again,” he said, because he needed to say it, to acknowledge the brief connection they'd shared outside their greater Destiny.
“You too,” she smiled. “But now you should hurry to your king's side while he still draws breath. 'Till next time we meet, fare thee well, Emrys.”
With that, the Lady of the Lake turned around, cradling Excalibur in her arms as the precious treasure it was, and began to descend her way back down into the lake.
“Good-bye, Freya,” Merlin whispered after her.
When she was gone, he turned away and headed back to where Gwaine stood, a stunned look upon his face. Then he shook his head in amusement.
“All these years and you're still full of surprises.”
Merlin chuckled darkly.
“If it makes you feel any better, I'm pretty sure this is one thing I never told Lancelot about,” he said.
The knight's face darkened at the mention of their one-time friend's name. “A little. But the Lady's right, we should hurry back to Arthur's side. He needs to know the deed is done.”
Merlin nodded and then reached out to grasp his friend's arm. He closed his eyes and pictured Arthur, felt for that part deep in his soul where the two of them were linked – one side of a coin could always find where its other side was. The spell was whispered and, once again, they were whisked away by the wind. When they arrived, Merlin almost didn't open his eyes. For one, eternal moment he didn't want to see Arthur, didn't want to see his king near death, wanted to simply summon Kilgarrah and fly away to some distant land, perhaps somewhere, where they had elephants. He'd always wanted to see an elephant.
But the moment passed and Merlin found himself opening his eyes and letting go of Gwaine. There was a small gathering of knights at Arthur's side. Sir Leon was the only one not weeping, but Merlin could tell by his rigid posture and the tightly balled fist at his side, he was only hanging on by a thread. One that would, no doubt, be broken the moment his king passed into the next world.
The knights moved aside to allow Merlin to pass.
“Excalibur is safely hidden, my lord,” said Merlin as he knelt at Arthur's side. Arthur had been watching him approach and now he smiled pleasantly.
“Good. And I'm glad Morgana didn't hurt you.”
“Morgana is dead.”
Arthur nodded, closing his eyes. Merlin finally took the opportunity to look at Arthur's wounds. He'd never quite gotten the hang of healing magic, but perhaps... His hopes sank when he saw the long dagger sticking out of Arthur's abdomen. He could practically smell the dark magic rolling off of it.
“The dagger is cursed,” he said, despair once again rushing over him in waves. “I won't be able to heal you.”
Arthur chuckled and opened his eyes again.
“You always were rubbish at healing anyway. The only thing you're worse at is being a manservant.”
Merlin rolled his eyes.
“I was a perfectly good manservant. 'S not my fault the prince I was working for was such a prat. Not that the kingly version was any better mind, just a bit more royal.”
“Well, the prince was cursed with this horribly incompetent idiot as a servant. One he then found out was doing half of his chores with magic!”
Then the king reached out and grasped Merlin's hand. Merlin shifted the grip and then tightly squeezed Arthur's hand in both of his own. It took all of his willpower to stop himself from breaking down in tears. Arthur winced and Merlin forced himself to relax his hold. Arthur smiled again.
“It really is a good thing that loud-mouthed boy, who didn't know his place, ended up being a better friend than manservant.”
“And I suppose that royal prat didn't turn out too badly.”
“Hey, I was a brilliant king!”
The protest was a mere whisper, lacking any sort of strength and Merlin knew his king had only a few moments left. Arthur closed his eyes and Merlin tried to smile through the silent tears he could no longer keep from falling.
“Yes, you were,” he whispered. “Good-bye, Arthur.”
Arthur let out one, last breath and then his body stilled. Merlin pressed his forehead to the hand he still clutched and finally allowed the sobs he'd been holding in to force their way out. He could feel Albion's sorrow as it too grieved for its king, its chosen ruler. In a flash of sudden anger, he wanted to rip himself away and demand why it let him die, why Merlin was forced to live on forever, when Arthur was now dead.
Suddenly, he felt familiar magic gently wash over him. Only once had he ever felt this pull and it had been a long time ago, but he still remembered it. When he looked up, he saw a river appearing through a mist, where none had been before. The gateway to Avalon. A boat with no oars floated towards them, three women sitting inside – one at the front and two at the back - a bed of leaves and flowers between them. Merlin stood, eyes widening as he recognized them.
Nimeuh felt like a long-forgotten dream as she smiled at him when they reached the shore. Dressed in a long, white dress, she looked as beautiful as ever, though her eyes seemed gentler, as though death had soothed her anger. It was the other two women, however, who had Merlin stunned speechless.
“Mum,” he finally whispered in disbelief. Hunith smiled back at him and though she didn't speak a word, he could feel her love envelope him, greeting him and telling him she was proud of the man he'd become. He wanted nothing more than to leap into the boat and throw himself at her feet to sob into her arms as he once used to. But he knew the rules; the living could not interact with the dead, not directly.
The woman next to his mother was one he'd never met, but he recognized her nonetheless. Ygraine Pendragon looked exactly like her portrait that now hung beside Uther's in the feast hall. He nodded to her in greeting and she smiled sadly back.
“Greetings Emrys,” Nimueh called out. “We have come for Arthur, to take the Once and Future King to his resting place in Avalon.”
Merlin looked at Nimeuh sceptically. She laughed.
“Oh, don't worry, I'm not here to harm him. I was once so blinded by anger at the injustice inflicted upon my brethren by Uther Pendragon that I could not see what the Old Religion was trying to tell me. Arthur Pendragon has corrected the wrongs done by his father as you always knew he would. I am satisfied.”
Merlin nodded and then motioned at the knights to stand back. Nimeuh stepped out of the boat and glided towards the dead king. In her hands, she held a golden goblet, one Merlin recognized all too well. He frowned, wondering what she was up to. She held the goblet over Arthur's body and poured its contents onto the dead king.
A soft glow enveloped Arthur's body. Several of the knights gasped as, before their eyes, Arthur's injuries began to disappear, his skin and armour losing the blood and grime from battle and death. And then, finally, Nimeuh reached down and removed the cursed dagger. The glow disappeared, leaving behind a healthy-looking Arthur.
His golden hair shone as the sun kissed its locks and the beard he'd grown simply because it annoyed Merlin so much was full and unmarred by blood and Arthur's spit. The smile he'd died with was still on his face. He looked as though he were merely sleeping, waiting for some princess to bestow an enchanted kiss in order to waken. If only he were breathing.
“Lift up your king and take him to the boat,” Nimeuh commanded. “But take care not to touch the water.”
The knights exchanged unsure glances and then looked to Merlin for guidance. Camelot's Court Sorcerer nodded and immediately they scrambled to do as the woman bid.
“He will be well cared for, Emrys,” Nimeuh said softly, stepping closer to Merlin, but not touching. “He is Albion's champion and the last king of the Old Religion.”
“Thank you,” Merlin said softly, never taking his eyes off the body of his friend as it was solemnly carried to the boat by six of Arthur's knights. He couldn't help but feel that it was a part of him they were carrying off.
Once Arthur was laid onto his bed of leaves and flowers, the knights stood aside. Without another word, Nimeuh turned and walked to the boat, climbing in effortlessly despite the movement of the river. As silently as it came, the boat sailed away from the shore and into the distance. The mist that clung to the edges of the river quickly rolled in, cloaking the boat from view.
“And so passes from this world, Arthur, High King of Albion,” Merlin whispered as the mist dissolved into nothing, leaving no trace of its presence or the river's. “The greatest king Albion has ever seen, and ever will see.”
A sob interrupted the stillness and Merlin heard something fall to the ground. He turned behind him to see Sir Leon fallen to his knees, his head buried in his hands and bent over so that his forehead was less than a foot off the ground. His king was gone, now he could weep openly.
Suddenly, a scream exploded into the air, making Merlin jump in alarm. It was Gwaine. His arms were open wide, head drawn back as he screamed his anger and grief into the sunny sky. Merlin wished he could join him, but the sorcerer knew that if he allowed himself to let go like that, he'd likely end up burning everything on the battle field, including his friends.
“He'll be back one day, you know,” said a voice Merlin recognized instantly, though it had been years since he'd heard, or even thought, about it.
He turned to face the tall, skinny girl from the twenty-first century and another dimension.
“Dawn,” he said quietly. “It's been a while.”
“Yeah,” she said brightly. “I learned how to control my powers – oh, who am I kidding? I learned about my powers period, did the whole meet and greet and then figured out how to use them without either a) blowing up the planet, b) getting stuck in another dimension, like, oh, say Camelot, for an indefinite period of time, or c) creating some sort of hell dimension out of the one I live in because I've accidentally opened a portal I can't close.”
“Then why didn't you come to visit?” Merlin asked.
“I came to Arthur's coronation,” she answered in a quiet, uneasy voice.
“Aha!” Gwaine suddenly exclaimed, making both Merlin and Dawn jump. “You're that beauty that kept trying to leave before the party had even started!”
“Oh my god, you're that drunk knight that just wouldn't take no for an answer!” she exclaimed back. “There I was, trying to be discrete and you kept wanting to make a scene. I was so glad when that big guy came to distract you so I could leave.”
Merlin frowned, wondering why she hadn't wanted them to know she was there. And then it hit him.
“You knew,” he said, his voice sounding dull and cold even to him.
“Did I know Arthur was going to die at the battle of Camlann after finally defeating Mordred? Um.. yeah, I did. I mean, it's what happened in our legends anyway.”
The intense anger that ignited within Merlin at her confession was like molton lave.
“Then why didn't you warn us?!” he yelled, stalking towards her. “You could've told us!”
“So you could do what exactly?!” Dawn yelled back, not backing down an inch. “Tell Arthur to stay at home, to not accompany his army into battle? Do you seriously think you'd have had a chance in hell of convincing him of that, Merlin?”
Merlin clenched his eyes shut, not wanting to hear the truth in her words. Yes, Arthur would've gone with his men even if he'd known he would die in the battle. He was stupidly noble that way.
“Or what if I had told you that Morgana would betray you?” Dawn continued. Merlin's eyes flew open. “What would you have done differently? Been suspicious of her every move? That would've only made her betray you sooner.” She paused and looked into Merlin's face for a few moments, before delivering her final blow. “And most importantly, Merlin, how do you know that anything you did differently, wouldn't have only made things worse?”
Merlin sucked in a breath. Worse? Right now he couldn't imagine worse. Except that he could: he could imagine much worse.
“You said he'd back one day?” Sir Leon suddenly spoke up, his voice sounding hoarse.
“Yes,” Dawn answered. “You've sent Excalibur back to the Lady of the Lake, right?”
Merlin nodded, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “It lies in wait for Albion's next champion to take it up.”
Dawn's eyes softened with sympathy.
“No, not for the next champion, for the same
champion. Arthur is the Once and Future king, that means he will always
be the high king, forever Albion's champion. And one day, when Albion faces its darkest hour, he will take up his sword to come to her aid.”
And, somehow, that made Merlin feel a little less like being swallowed up by a great pit of darkness would be a wonderful thing.
“Dawn, what are you doing here now?” he asked.
“Because, I know what it's like to lose someone very important to you and with Arthur dead, you're kinda in limbo with no true purpose anymore. Balance has been returned and the last of Albion's enemies are dead - well the magical ones anyway. Now you can kinda go and do anything you want really.”
“I take it you have something in mind?”
“Ah, well, it's a really big universe out there with all sorts of dimensions and alternate universes to explore...”
Merlin thought about it. Part of him wanted to jump at the chance to just leave, go far, far away from the pain he was surrounded by, but part of him knew he had responsibilities now. Albion was without a king, a vulnerable time for any kingdom, but particularly when the king had died in battle alongside half his army.
Just then, a large hand landed on his left shoulder. Merlin looked up to meet Gwaine's sad eyes.
“We will miss you, my friend, but perhaps the beautiful young lady is right. Of all of us, you need the most time to heal, for you must be ready for Arthur's return.” Merlin opened his mouth to protest, but the knight silenced him. “Aah, don't worry, we'll keep Albion safe.”
And then Merlin found himself engulfed in a tight embrace.
“God's speed, my friend,” Gwaine whispered into his ear. Then he let go and stepped back, a pathetic attempt at his signature care-free grin. “Only don't have so much fun you forget to visit now and then.”
“I won't, I promise,” Merlin said, attempting his own smile despite the tears that were once again streaming down his face.
If Arthur were still alive he'd call him a girl for all the crying he'd been doing today. And then Merlin would turn his hair green, which Arthur – the vain prat – wouldn't notice until two hours later when he finally noticed all the giggles aimed in his direction. Which would result in his storming into Merlin's lab demanding his Court Sorcerer change his hair back immediately or he'd send him to the stocks. Of course, Merlin would pretend he was rather excited about spending an afternoon entertaining the children, who gathered around the stocks and begin heading that way. They'd spend the entire walked to the stocks arguing (Arthur would once again be oblivious to the moment, when Merlin changes his hair back to its natural colour), passing Gwen somewhere along the way, who would merely shake her head in amusement at them.
Merlin let out a sob, using his sleeve to wipe his eyes, because he could no longer see anything through them. The rest of his life suddenly seemed so empty. Perhaps Dawn was right. He might never completely come to terms with Arthur's death, but perhaps he'd find the ability to breath hidden within some strange new dimension, somewhere that wasn't full of memories of his adventures with Arthur.
One by one, the knights said their farewells. Some he knew he'd likely never see again. Others, like Sir Gwaine and Sir Leon he'd try to remember to come back and visit. But perhaps it'd make things easier if he didn't have to watch them die as well.
Merlin and Dawn stood on the battlefield and waited until the last of them was gone from the horizon. Merlin took a deep breath and faced his new travelling companion.
“So, where to first?” he asked. He felt hollow, empty. Even his tears had stopped flowing.
“I was thinking maybe a nice, desolute hell dimension where you can indulge in some relatively harmless, but highly theraputic destruction,” she said matter-of-factly.
Merlin blinked, surprised by the suggestion. She was giving him the chance to let go of his anger without fear of harming anyone? He thought of Gwaine screaming his anger and grief to the heavens.
“Yes, I like that idea,” he finally said.
Dawn smiled. Then she closed her eyes, concentrating.
Merlin could feel the magic pooling around her. No. It was emanating from
her. She opened her eyes and they were glowing green. Then she raised her hand and a pale green bubble appeared several stepped in front of them. Slowly, it expanded, until it was only slightly taller than Merlin himself. Inside the bubble, Merlin could see a barren landscape with a few, whithered trees and some giant boulders in the distance.
Merlin took a deep breath and stepped into the bubble without a single look back.The End....or The Beginning?
Lol, before anyone even asks, yes, there will likely be a few one-to-two-shot follow-up stories to this. Crossovers with other fandoms, probably (because playing in two sandboxes at the same time apparently isn't enough for me). Anyway, please review!