Chapter 1: An encounter in the woods
Merlin didn't know how long he walked, away from the Lake of Avalon, away from the knights calling his and Gwen's names, away from Camelot and all he had ever known.
But walk he did, and the entire time he walked, the greatest part of his awareness was fixed upon one thought: He was alone.
There was a smaller part of Merlin trying to tell himself that that wasn't completely true, not really; he had plenty of patients, after all, and was well known in the castle and throughout the city. He had helped birth an untold number of babies, had trained several apprentices over the years and gotten to know their families. He wasn't alone…
Except that he wasn't ever going back to Camelot. He'd never see any of those people again.
Everyone who had ever known Arthur was either dead, or old like him. Everyone who had ever known Merlin himself, back when he was younger, back when his heart had been whole, they were all gone. Gwen had been the last, and he'd just killed her himself.
It's what she wanted, his thoughts whispered. She asked you to end her suffering.
And that was true, but he had a feeling her son, King Henri, wouldn't see it that way. Not that Merlin was close enough to Henri to explain. He was just the court physician, not a confidant. Not a friend. What business would an old man have had, befriending a child prince, anyway?
No. Gwen was dead, and there was nothing to tie him to Camelot anymore. He wasn't sure he could bear to go back, and in his guise as an old man, people would have been suspicious if he hadn't kicked it soon, anyway. He'd have had maybe ten more years, and people would have expected him to spend those years in retirement, not still serving, or healing, or teaching. They would have expected him to sit alone in his chambers, or in a little house in the Upper Town, and wait to die. Because that was what old people did.
As soon as Gwen had asked him to kill her, Merlin had known he wouldn't be returning to Camelot. He'd gone back to his chambers, looked around, gathered up what belongings he'd wanted to keep for himself, and stored them in a satchel for traveling. It wasn't enough that he couldn't bear to go back to the citadel, he had no reason, at all, to do so now, either; everything he needed, he'd already brought with him.
So Merlin walked; the day deepened to dusk, then to full night under the trees, where the moonlight barely penetrated and the stars were not to be seen. He would have tripped over his own feet when he was younger, or stopped to make camp, but not anymore. Now, his magic guided him through the trees, limning everything in a soft glow. His own eyes probably gleamed in the darkness, but there was no one to see, and magic wasn't illegal anymore anyway.
He had a feeling his magic could keep him going for a long time; he had already figured out that it wouldn't allow him to die. What would it feel like to starve, and not die from it? Or freeze, or grow desperately ill? Merlin didn't really want to find out, but he had a feeling he probably would someday. He had nothing but empty time ahead of him, now.
Merlin was a peasant without a home, a trained physician with no patients, and a ridiculously powerful sorcerer with no point to his magic. Where would he go? What would he do? How would he eat?
His stomach growled just then, as if to punctuate his thoughts, or maybe explain the direction they were taking; Merlin only glanced down at it and shook his head, and kept walking. He'd eat in the morning, probably.
It wasn't like there was anyone with him, anymore, to care whether he did or not.
Merlin walked on, letting his feet go where they wanted, while his mind wandered.
I fancied you once, Gwen had said. You were kind. Was he still? Merlin thought probably not.
He remembered a conversation he'd had with Gaius once, long, long ago now. I remember the boy who came into my chambers those years ago. What happened to him? —He grew up, Merlin had replied bitterly.
He was even older now. He'd given up his naivety a long time ago, had turned himself into someone he hadn't wanted to be in order to protect Arthur, had become silent and mistrustful… and none of it had worked. He'd become a liar and a killer, and still he'd failed to save the person he cared about most in the world. In his efforts to avoid a prophecy, he'd helped to fulfill it.
Merlin had had years to think on his regrets, and he knew now that Mordred would likely never have turned against them if Merlin had only extended the hand of friendship at the beginning.
Morgana might never have turned against them… or at least, that would have been true before he'd poisoned her.
Just like he'd poisoned Gwen.
The thought stopped Merlin in his tracks, and nearly dropped him to his knees. He'd been trying not to think about it, but now the memory came roaring back, overtaking his entire awareness. She'd asked for it, she'd wanted it, but oh God, he'd poisoned Gwen. She was dead, his last connection to Arthur was dead, and it was because of him.
Merlin's magic-enhanced vision went dark, and he staggered over to brace himself against the nearest tree trunk. Tears trickled down his face, and they felt strange because his skin was smooth instead of wrinkled, and the beard he'd worn for decades was gone. His breath shuddered and heaved, and he felt his expression twist with the agony of his heart.
His legs buckled then, and he banged one of them painfully on a tree root as he dropped to the ground, but he hardly noticed. Merlin put his face in his hands and sobbed, with no one to comfort him, as the enormity of all he had lost washed over him.
Gwen. The knights, especially Gwaine and Lancelot. His father. Freya. Will.
His mother. Gaius.
Merlin threw back his head and howled, feeling the magic course through him uncontrolled in a way it hadn't done in decades. At the peak of his despair, it burst out, sending a shock wave in all directions, affecting everything it touched.
His cry cut off sharply and Merlin gasped, the tears still wet on his face, appalled at himself; spent and trembling in the wake of so much magic flowing out of him. What had he done? What had his magic done?
Frantically, Merlin looked around, but he could see no damage. The trees still stood around him, nothing burned, and the moon continued to shine serenely through the canopy above. The only difference that he could perceive was that the forest had gone completely silent, but that could easily have been a result of the pathetic racket he'd been making as anything else.
Slowly, Merlin pushed himself to his feet, still looking around. Gradually, his magic settled within his body, and then it filled his vision again, so that he could see in the dark once more. Everything was outlined in gold, the trees like glimmering columns and the leaves like flickering embers as the faint breeze stirred them; what little wildlife moved at night was picked out against a backdrop of darkness. Merlin saw a fox stop and stare at him before going about its business, hunting for food.
Nothing seemed different, but that couldn't be right; his magic had done something, he was certain of it, only he couldn't tell what.
Slowly, cautiously, Merlin began walking again, reaching out with his senses to see if he could perceive what he'd done, but the only thing that he noticed was a flame, off in the distance. A campfire.
Merlin didn't want to see anyone tonight; he certainly didn't want to disturb a camp of bandits, or perhaps knights on patrol, and didn't want to be seen as a bandit or vagabond himself, so he veered away from the light and kept walking.
Or at least, he tried to. After another hour, Merlin looked up and saw the campfire—or was it another fire?—directly in front of him. Had he been walking in circles? Despite the late hour, there was a single figure silhouetted against the flames, poking at them with a stick. A man on watch?
No, that couldn't be right. A man on watch would face away from the fire, so that the glare wouldn't ruin his night vision. Merlin knew that from countless patrols with Arthur.
Well, in any case, Merlin still didn't want to talk to anyone. He turned away…
…and a few minutes later, another campfire appeared in his line of sight. It hadn't been there before, Merlin was sure of it.
The same figure sat on the same log, tending the flames.
Merlin stood there staring for a moment too long, before reaching out with his senses to see how many other people were there, asleep around the fire. He frowned when he could perceive none.
"You may as well come closer," called the man, startling Merlin. He wasn't even looking in Merlin's direction. "I mean no harm, and I don't think you do, either."
Merlin approached warily, his magic close to the surface, but there was no ambush, and no one else around the fire. An owl flew past the clearing and landed in a nearby tree, and the crickets had begun to chirp once more.
"I've rabbit or pheasant, if you want it," said the man, once they were in sight of one another. "Be happy to share."
Merlin wanted to refuse, but his stomach growled again just as he was about to open his mouth. The man only chuckled, and moved over on the fallen log he was using as a bench. At his feet were leaf-wrapped bundles, and he picked one up and opened it to reveal a bit of cooked meat, still steaming. The smell of rabbit reached Merlin's nose, and before he knew it his mouth was watering.
"If you've anything to add to the meal, I'd not say no," the man suggested, holding the bundle out for Merlin to take.
"I have a little bread and cheese," said Merlin. His voice was hoarse, and he cleared his throat. "Small beer and water in my flasks."
"A feast," said the man with a smile. "It'll be good to have company, a night like tonight."
Company was the last thing Merlin wanted, but it didn't look like his magic was giving him a choice in the matter. "I suppose," he said. He reached into his satchel and pulled out the food he'd packed.
They ate in silence for a little while; the rabbit was perfect, the bread still fresh from the palace kitchens and none the worse for being squashed in Merlin's pack. The cheese went well with the small beer. Merlin hadn't realized how hungry he was, nor how enjoyable a meal could be in the depths of his grief. He thought perhaps it had been a long time since he'd enjoyed food this much, and wondered if the aging spell had had something to do with his sense of taste.
He also wondered whether he deserved to enjoy anything like this, ever again.
Regardless of his morose feelings, Merlin was able to settle in and eat, and let his wariness fade as the man next to him only did the same. He had finally really begun to relax when the man passed him back his flask of beer, and opened his mouth. "Can I ask what brings Emrys this way, this time of night?"
Merlin slowly sat up straight on the edge of his seat, studying the man's face intently. He was nondescript, really; dark brown hair, brown eyes, ruddy brown complexion. He wore leathers like a hunter, trimmed in fur, but nothing really luxurious. His beard was neat enough, but his skin was weathered in a way that spoke of years spent toiling under the sun. There were only hints of white in his hair, just the beginnings of streaks at his temples, and light crow's feet at the corners of his eyes. He wasn't old, that Merlin could tell. He certainly wasn't as old as Merlin himself.
"Are you a druid?" Merlin asked. They still insisted on calling him "Emrys", no matter how many times he asked them not to. The name was a reminder of too many painful things.
"Me? Nah. Though they call on me, from time to time." He shrugged easily, relaxed. "You still haven't answered my question."
"I'd like to know how you knew my—that name," said Merlin. Especially since no one alive now should have recognized him in his younger guise.
The man waved that off, unconcerned. "As I said. The druids call on me, from time to time. And they like to talk, when I visit."
"That's not an answer," said Merlin.
The man sighed. "You're more suspicious than I thought you'd be, given how young you are," he said.
"I'm not young," Merlin snapped irritably, and then regretted it. He'd forgotten he no longer looked like an old man. A druid might understand what he was getting at, but most people had no knowledge of the prophecies.
"You sure look it," came the laughing reply.
Merlin scowled. "If you know I'm Emrys, then you know I have magic,” he retorted. “Looking… young for my age… isn't something I really get a say in.”
The man gave a shrug and a sigh, still smiling. "You're not the only one who can look younger than he really is," he said. "Trust me, from my perspective, you're a youngster. Practically an infant!"
"I'm nearly ninety," said Merlin, his eyes narrowing.
"And I'm about… hm. Maybe ten thousand. Give or take."
Merlin's mouth went dry; for a long moment, only the crackling of the fire and the chirp of crickets broke the silence, as the stranger met Merlin's gaze steadily. "That's impossible," he said at last.
"What, like being born as magic incarnate is impossible?" The man shook his head, and reached for the flask Merlin held in limp fingers. "I don't remember hearing of you being so close-minded, either, Merlin."
Merlin was on his feet, across the fire from the man, almost before he realized he'd moved; his magic thrummed under his skin, and Merlin held it only loosely, ready to defend himself, no matter what the man tried. For his part, the stranger seemed supremely unconcerned, drinking from Merlin's beer flask and tossing another stick on the fire.
“I already told you, I mean you no harm.”
"No one alive knows me anymore," said Merlin. His throat hurt. "No one knows what I look like with this face. They only know an old man."
"I know, and I'm sorry for that. That you've lost your human ties. It's been a long time—hm. A long time—but I still remember how painful it was for me, too."
Merlin stared at him for a long moment, the magic roiling beneath his skin. "Who are you?" he finally asked.
The man simply shrugged. "I have many names."
"Still not an answer!"
"Heh. Fair. Call me Herne."
Herne… that name sounded familiar, and Merlin frowned. Why couldn't he place it?
Herne raised an eyebrow, one corner of his mouth quirking up. "Or sometimes I'm called Cernunnos? By the druids, that is."
Now that name, he knew. Despite himself, Merlin felt his jaw drop, and a thread of fear curl up his spine. "You're a god," he whispered.
For an instant, flickering at the edges of his vision, Merlin thought he saw the ghost of antlers rising from the man's—the god's—head. Behind him, the image of a king stag in his prime stood facing Merlin, staring him down.
"That I am," said Herne, and the images vanished. Once again, he was only a solitary hunter sitting by a fire. "Or so people say, anyway. Come. Sit.”
Merlin didn't move at first. “What do you want of me?”
“Only to talk," said Herne. "And maybe to offer you a choice, if you're interested.”
Merlin scoffed, unable to help himself. “I haven't had a choice in anything I do for a long, long time. Whatever you have to offer, I don't want to hear it.” Then he bit his tongue; this was a god, and Merlin was sassing him like the insolent peasant he'd always been. It would be a miracle if he didn't get squashed like a bug.
To his relief, Herne only shrugged again. "Suit yourself, of course. Though I am curious what makes you say that."
"You haven't heard of the prophecies?" Merlin demanded, failing to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "You said the druids talk to you. The Once and Future King, and Emrys? The destiny I was saddled with, far too young and with no one to guide me through it?"
"The druids do love their prophecies," said Herne dryly. "But destiny, eh? Sounds like you've been listening to dragons, too."
"…A dragon was the one who first told me about all of it," admitted Merlin. "But what's that got to do with anything?"
"Perhaps we can talk about that part later," said Herne. "For now, I don't want to get sidetracked. Come and sit."
Swallowing his nerves, Merlin did. His magic surged under his skin, but he still could feel no threat from the god sitting next to him on the fallen log. The night was serene, and Herne seemed to be, too.
"Now, would you mind telling me what this dragon told you?"
Merlin didn't really like having his questions put off, but again, he reminded himself, this was a god. It probably would be unwise to refuse him, or to pitch a fit about not getting his own way. "He said I had a destiny," Merlin said slowly. "That all this power was given to me for a reason. That it was my task to protect Arthur so he could—" Merlin's heart twisted, and he stopped. "Well. That doesn't matter, since he never did it. I failed him."
"I'm not so sure you did," said Herne. "What else did your dragon say?"
"So many things," Merlin sighed, looking away into the flames, blinking back tears. "After Arthur—after I sent him to Avalon—Kilgharrah said that we'd achieved everything he had predicted we would. But before all that, he'd promised that Arthur would unite Albion, that he'd bring magic back to the land. And then he said that Arthur would rise again when Albion needed him most. But I don't see how how Arthur united anything, really. He didn't bring magic back, Gwen did. He certainly didn't unite Albion. The druids still hide; if anything, there are even fewer of them now, because their kids come into the cities to live, and forget the old ways. Fewer and fewer people follow the Old Religion, or even practice magic at all. The only thing that came true was the part where Arthur would die if I didn't protect him."
"And yet the Old Religion remains, whether there are any left who know its tenets or not."
"I don't understand." Merlin risked a glance up at Herne, who was watching him kindly.
Herne took a deep breath. "There will always be wild places," he said. "There will always be wild creatures. Even if there are fewer of them with every passing century, as humanity gains dominion over the earth, there will always be places where humans don't go. Which means I will always have a domain. It doesn't matter if people worship me or not, I'll still exist. The wild is my place, and protecting it is my purpose."
Merlin couldn't tell if Herne was speaking in riddles or not. "But didn't you say it would diminish over time? Doesn't that mean your domain will diminish too?"
"Heh. I try not to think about that part," said Herne. "But yes. Still, every empire that rises will eventually fall, and the wild reclaims places that were once tame. Cities fall to ruin. Farmland goes fallow. They return to my dominion, eventually." He shook his head. "But I didn't come here to talk about me."
"Why did you come?" asked Merlin, curious despite himself.
"I came, because you called me."
At this, Merlin frowned. "I'm pretty sure I'd know if I'd deliberately summoned a god," he said slowly. "Or… invoked one. Or whatever. No offense."
"None taken," said Herne. "And maybe 'called' isn't the right term; but I did feel your magic, here in my domain, and I came to speak to you because of it. "
His magic. The outburst Merlin had caused earlier. So this was the result, he thought. "I didn't mean to," he said slowly.
The Hunter only chuckled, and tossed another bit of wood onto the fire. "No, I know you didn't. But… well. The truth is, a number of us have had our eyes on you for some time now, and we were waiting for you to be ready to hear us. Only you're not a druid either, and you don't generally pray, so it's hard for us to talk to you. We had to wait till the moment was right, and tonight, it finally was."
"A number of… other gods?" Merlin felt his mouth going dry again, and took a long pull from the flask in his hand. The Disir had judged Arthur; had they judged Merlin, too? Had he been found wanting? It would only make sense, if he had, he thought. He thought of the White Goddess, whom he'd invoked once to save Gwen from a powerful enchantment. He thought of the druids; how he was supposed to be their savior, their Emrys, yet he had done nothing but let them down at every turn. "Am I in trouble?"
"In trouble?" At this, Herne threw his head back and laughed. "You? Ha! No. Not in the least. In trouble," he said again, still chuckling. With a sigh, he got himself back under control. "No, no. As I said when you first got here: we wanted to offer you a choice."
Chapter 2: Herne
Herne reached a hand out for the beer flask, and Merlin handed it over to him, not taking his eyes off of Herne's face the entire time. The other man—god—simply took a swig and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Why do I get the feeling this isn't going to be a choice I will like?" Merlin asked slowly. "Or maybe, not really a choice at all?"
"It's nothing like that," Herne promised. "As to whether you like it, well, that's entirely up to you."
Merlin waited, with no idea at all what Herne or the other gods might want from him that he hadn't already given. What more could they take? What more did he have to lose?
"Some of the other gods might be a bit more circumspect about it," said Herne amiably, "but I'll just come right out and say it: If you like, you could become one of us. Or maybe a better way of putting it would be, take the place beside us that has always been open to you."
Merlin blinked; whatever he might have been expecting, that was hardly it. "You want me… to become a god?"
"In a way, you already are," said Herne. "This would just mean acknowledging what's already there."
Merlin's mind went blank, and for a long moment he had no idea what to say. "Neither—" he had to stop and swallow to get his voice back. "Neither of my parents were gods," he countered faintly. "I met my father, before he died." Balinor had died mainly because Merlin and Arthur had gone looking for him and revealed his location; had died saving Merlin's life. It was Merlin's fault he was dead. "And I grew up with my mother. Unless…" His eyes grew wide.
"No no, you did," Herne reassured him. "This isn't some cruel way of saying your parents weren't really your parents, or any nonsense like that. Balinor sired you, and Hunith birthed you and raised you. But, you do have more magic than any living human should be able to possess. And I believe your father himself told you, you're the son of the earth, the sea, and the sky. All that is magic, all the magic of the world, lives in you. Flows through you."
Merlin swallowed again, and said nothing.
"That's why we're saying you could be a god, if you wanted," Herne went on. "As I said: in some ways, you already are."
"I don't want to be a god," said Merlin. He clasped his hands together, and his fingers were like ice. "I can't be a god. I'm human."
"You know that's not entirely true," said Herne gently.
Merlin felt his breath coming faster. "What, because I have too much magic to be allowed to die? Because I'm some kind of freak?"
"Nobody said anything about being a freak," Herne began, but Merlin had already jumped up and begun pacing the little clearing, too agitated to let him continue.
"When my mother first sent me to Camelot, it was because I couldn't control my power. It leaked out of me with every emotional outburst. I felled a tree and nearly killed a man before I was old enough to shave. I asked Gaius if I was a monster, and he said no, and now you're telling me instead that I'm a god?"
"I'm saying you could be a god, if you wanted to be," said Herne. "You already meet a lot of the requirements."
"There are requirements, now?"
"Merlin." Herne opened his mouth to say more, then sighed. "It would seem I'm bungling this all up," he said instead. "You're no monster. You never were. Whatever you're thinking about yourself, I doubt it's true."
"I'm thinking that everyone I love is dead! And most of it is my fault!" The crickets fell silent at Merlin's shout; there was a long silence as Merlin caught his breath, heedless of the tears that had begun to spill down his cheeks. "I killed Gwen today," he choked, and turned away from the fire, unable to face whatever sympathy or pity might be in Herne's eyes.
"I know," said Herne.
"And you say I'm not a monster."
"I know you're not. You gave her what she wanted, despite your own wishes. You gave her a death with dignity and mercy. I'm a hunter, Merlin. I'm the Hunter. You gave her more than I sometimes can."
Merlin's face twisted as he struggled to get his weeping under control. His breath shuddered and his body shook as he sniffed. Wiping his eyes with his sleeve did no good; the tears just kept coming. "I killed my last friend."
"I know. And I know how it hurts."
"How can you?" Merlin whirled then, glaring at the god sitting on a fallen log and looking at him as if he had any interest in Merlin's wellbeing. "How could you possibly know what it feels like?"
"You'd be surprised how many gods used to be ordinary humans," said Herne. "Not all of us, by any stretch, but quite a few. We all of us have to let go of our ties to humanity before we can embrace that next stage of our existence." He was studying Merlin's face calmly, but Merlin had no idea what Herne might see there. "It was a long, long time ago for me, but I still remember how it felt. And I'm sorry that you're going through it now."
"So that's the catch, is it?" asked Merlin. "I can become a god, but I have to let go of all my human ties?" He sniffled one last time. "My humanity, what's left of it?"
"Not necessarily," said Herne slowly. "I suppose it depends on what you mean by humanity."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You already know that you're immortal. Does that make you inhuman? Because you're also compassionate and kind. You love. You grieve. There are gods who don't. Can't, in the course of their duties." Herne grimaced a little. "There are gods who've forgotten how."
"I don't want that."
"Then don't do it," shrugged the god. "You have a lot more choice in this than you think you do."
"I haven't had a choice for a long time," said Merlin.
"Is this about that destiny bit with the dragon?"
Merlin took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he nodded.
Herne worked his mouth for a moment, thinking. "The thing about dragons," he said slowly, "is that they are not gods. But they are very powerful, and they can let their power go to their heads. Your dragon… hmm. Kilgharrah, you said?"
"Yeah," said Merlin warily.
"Kilgharrah was old, and arrogant, and bitter with his imprisonment. He looked at the possible paths into the future to find a way out of his captivity, and he found you. He steered your path partly to get him what he himself wanted."
"I'd figured that much," said Merlin. And he had, but not until a few decades too late to do anything about it. "Was our destiny a lie, then?" After everything he'd been through, the parts of his soul he'd carved out to be what Arthur needed, the heart he'd broken so many times for Arthur's sake… if it were all just the concocted story of a manipulative dragon, Merlin wasn't sure what he would do.
"No, not exactly," said Herne. "The path you took was one of many possible futures. Kilgharrah may have made it seem like there was only one inevitable future for you, and it's true that once you and Arthur met, the options narrowed somewhat, but the choices you made are what have led you to this point."
Merlin nodded. He'd already considered the choices he'd made with regard to Mordred and Morgana.
"This isn't 'destiny', Merlin," Herne went on. "This isn't fate. This isn't some preordained thing that you have no choice but to accept and find a way to cope with. It's an offer. The decision is ultimately yours."
Merlin shook his head. "I still have a human tie," he said. "I still—Arthur is supposed to return. I can't leave him behind. I can't… I won't turn my back on that." On him, he didn't say, but Herne probably heard it anyway.
The god nodded. "Not my domain," he said, "And I don't often look to the future for fear of trapping myself on one path. But do you have any idea how long you'll have to wait for him to come back?"
Merlin licked his lips. "No." He'd thought about it. When would all of Albion need some kind of foreordained high king, when the kingdoms weren't united even now? How long, how dire would the circumstances have to be, before he could see Arthur again?
Would Arthur even need him when he came back? Had Kilgharrah only told him a comforting fairy tale to placate him when Arthur had first died—was Arthur even coming back at all?
Herne seemed to read some of what Merlin was thinking on his face, or maybe he was able to hear Merlin's thoughts. He was a god, after all. "It's not my domain," he said, "so there are questions I can't answer. But I could take you to see someone else who might be able to."
He nodded. "A minor one, yes; a guardian, if you want to be fussy about it. But she was human once, and she was offered a choice, the same as you. We can go to her place in the morning."
"A guardian?" Merlin asked. "Would I have heard of her?"
"You know her as the Lady of the Lake. I think you knew her before she became Avalon's Guardian, though."
"Freya?" Merlin's heart kicked in his chest, and he had to take a deep breath to calm down.
"In the morning, Merlin," said Herne. "For now, sleep."
Merlin wanted to protest, but between one blink and the next, Herne had disappeared, and in his place was an enormous gray wolf. It gazed at him fearlessly with wild yellow eyes, and then turned and bounded off into the forest.
Merlin was left alone by the fire, a part of him wondering if what had just happened to him was even real.
He slept fitfully, despite the soft bed of leaves and the blankets he'd conjured for himself. Merlin wanted to lie, wanted to tell himself that this younger body had more energy and simply wasn't tired, or that his magic was sustaining him and he wouldn't need to sleep as much anymore, but he knew he was only avoiding the truth.
A god had sought Merlin out and spoken to him, directly, in a way that he hadn't experienced since… since the Cailleach, when Morgana had ripped open the veil between the worlds. Before tonight, if anyone had asked, Merlin would have said that he wouldn't ever want to repeat that experience. Herne, though, had been… personable. Considerate, sympathetic to Merlin's feelings. At least, he'd seemed to be.
A god had sought Merlin out. To offer him the chance to become one of them. Merlin had no idea what to think of that. There had to be a catch, a string, something that would snare him or trip him up or make him regret the choice forever if he said yes. If it sounded too good to be true, it probably was; Gaius had always said so.
Kilgharrah had made it seem as though he didn't have a choice, that his destiny would always draw him to Arthur's side. And certainly, once he'd been pulled into Arthur's orbit, any attempt, any thought, that he'd made even in the general direction of leaving had been slapped down brutally. He'd considered staying in Ealdor, and Will had died. He'd wanted to run away with Freya, and she'd been killed. He'd desperately wanted to make a connection with the father he'd never known, and Balinor had paid the price for that, too. Merlin had always assumed that fate had had a hand in directing his steps, keeping him on the path of destiny and punishing him whenever he was tempted to stray.
What would he suffer, if he said no to the very gods themselves?
What would he suffer if he said yes?
And anyway, what made Merlin worthy of godhood, of all people? If it was only his strength as a sorcerer, then Herne and all the others could forget it. Merlin had never chosen to be a sorcerer, and had certainly never wanted to be identified only by the depths of his power. He was a human, a person, and he refused to give that up. What would he gain? More magic? He already had more than he knew what to do with. And what had his magic ever done but get him in trouble? Arthur had been right; all his power, and it hadn't been enough to save his king.
Herne had made it sound like Merlin would get to see her again; if he were a god, would he be able to see her whenever he liked? Could he actually gain back one person, just one, whom he'd lost in the course of his life?
If he could…
The worst part of Herne's offer was that Merlin was tempted despite himself. He already knew he was powerful, stuffed full of so much magic that he couldn't even die like a normal person. Morgana and others had certainly tried to end his existence more than once, and no one had ever been able to pull it off. Spells, falls from a great height, poison, even the touch of the dorocha hadn't been enough to do it. Merlin suspected that at this point, only a dragon-forged blade would be able to kill him, and even then he wasn't completely convinced it would work. The druids had known before he had; they'd always called him "Emrys", but had never bothered to explain what the name meant.
So, Merlin was functionally immortal. He had already figured out that he'd have to spend the rest of his existence alone because of it. His friends, his family, they'd all died. Merlin was not sure he wanted to put himself through the heartache of connecting to any more people, all of whom he'd have to watch wither and fade as the years went by, while he lingered, unable to join them in death.
But if he became a god, he might have companions that would endure as long as he did. He might not have to be alone while he waited for Arthur to return.
Assuming that Arthur really was going to come back at all, and that Kilgharrah hadn't been lying to him.
Merlin sighed and rolled over to face the glowing embers of the fire, wide awake despite his body's fatigue. He didn't know what to choose, and there was no one he could turn to, to ask. Even if Gaius or Arthur or Kilgharrah had still lived, or even his mother, none of them would have understood the dilemma he faced. What could they have said, if they had understood it?
Gaius would have told him to seek more information, probably. Kilgharrah would have given him a riddle to solve, ultimately answering nothing. His mother would have told him to follow his heart, but Merlin wasn't sure he trusted his heart to lead him true anymore, after all the mistakes he'd made. And Arthur? Well, he wasn't one for giving advice in the first place, really. Too close to expressing feelings, probably. He'd have mocked Merlin, or made some joke, or distracted him, or something like that. Thrown something at him, maybe.
On the other hand, when he wasn't plagued by insecurities and his father's ghost, Arthur had always just instinctively known right from wrong. If it were his decision, he'd have led with his heart instead of his head, and gone in the right direction every time.
But Merlin wasn't Arthur, and he had no idea: which direction was the right direction?
The predawn chorus began to sing before Merlin finally shut his eyes, still no closer to an answer.
Merlin didn't wake until a sunbeam pierced the canopy and shone directly on his face. He sat up slowly, expecting joints to creak and ache, expecting to smooth his beard the way he did every morning, and startled when he felt only skin beneath his hand instead. He jolted to full alertness quickly, looking around the forest clearing, as memory came crashing down on him:
His body was young again. Because:
He was alone. No one left alive knew him in this face. Because:
He'd killed Gwen. And then:
A god had come to speak to him, to tell Merlin that he could be one of them if he wanted.
"I must finally be going mad," Merlin muttered to himself. He was eighty-seven years old, after all, it was only to be expected. Merlin was alone in the clearing; the ashes of the fire were barely smoldering when he went to check them. There was one blanket, and it was the one he had wrapped around himself. He was dressed still in the clothes he'd worn yesterday, the robes of the court physician over a pair of sturdy trousers for riding. There was no evidence that a god, an actual god, had manifested itself at all, much less done so to speak to Merlin of all people.
He stood and bundled his things with a wave of his hand, then sat on the fallen log by the remains of last night's fire and pulled out his bread and cheese. Some was missing, but that probably had less to do with a divine visitation than it did with Merlin's empty stomach. Merlin washed them down with water and a bit of small beer, a perfectly ordinary travel breakfast.
When he was finished, he stood, looking around and feeling a bit lost. Well; that part was nothing new, at least. He'd felt lost ever since Arthur had died, and he didn't think anything was ever going to change that. It was late morning, nearly noon by the position of the sun, and he only knew that he wasn't going back to Camelot. Wherever his feet took him, that was where he'd end up today.
Merlin nearly jumped out of his skin as he whirled, one hand and his magic coming up to defend himself, if need be.
Herne stood at the edge of the clearing, one eyebrow raised. "Are you always this jumpy first thing?"
"…I didn't hear you coming," said Merlin. So. Herne was real, then. Probably.
"Hunter," Herne pointed out.
"…Right." Either Merlin was going mad, or he was living a mad adventure… and he'd rather thought he'd left mad adventures behind after Arthur had died.
Herne only looked amused, and politely ignored Merlin lowering his hand. "I see you've packed your things," he said. "About ready to go see the Lady, then?"
Merlin cleared his throat and did his best to push aside the sudden butterflies in his stomach. "Uh, yeah. Yeah, I guess I'm ready."
"All right. It's this way."
They walked in silence for a while, Merlin trying not to stare at the god walking beside him (was he really a god? Was he a lonely trapper who was just having Merlin on? Was Merlin hallucinating in his old age?), and also trying not to trip over roots or walk into tree trunks as he went. He had a feeling a hunter god, a god of wild places, would not be very impressed if Merlin were to go crashing through the underbrush like a drunken boar.
For his part, the god walked easily, either unaware or uncaring of Merlin's scrutiny. His arms were relaxed and swung by his sides, and he kept his chin high, nose slightly in the air as if he might be scenting the wind for prey. For all Merlin knew, maybe he was. Herne's footsteps made no sound on the soft earth, he seeming to know without looking where to place his feet so that twigs did not snap and leaves did not crackle.
Merlin pulled a little magic forward, just enough to feel the earth better, and listened as his own footfalls grew quieter in response. Herne looked at him then out of the corner of his eye, the side of his mouth turning up in a little smile, but he said nothing.
The sun was past its zenith when they broke the cover of the forest and reached the lake. A path led away from it, on the other side of the meadow, but there was no road and no one else near.
Merlin recognized the place, of course. How could he not? The scenery was unforgettable: this was the Lake of Avalon. It was only yesterday that he'd sent Gwen on her way through the veil here… after killing her. Merlin blinked rapidly, until he was sure he could keep the tears at bay.
"Do you want to call her, or shall I?" asked Herne. It was the first either of them had spoken in a few hours.
Merlin licked his bottom lip nervously, looking out over the water. "I wouldn't know how," he admitted. "It never occurred to me that I could."
"Well, it helps that I'm here with you," the Hunter allowed, "but it would also have helped if you had any priest training whatsoever."
At that, Merlin's expression soured, and he tried not to sound too bitter as he said, "Yeah. No one really saw fit to teach me anything about being Emrys, way back when. They all assumed I would just know how to be their great savior."
"You could have learned in the years since," said Herne.
Merlin sighed. That was probably true, but the god couldn't know that the mere thought of seeing any of the druids after the ways in which he'd failed them all had been too painful for him to reach out to them. Merlin had sought to expand his learning over the years, yes, but he'd done it by reading books and traveling to other kingdoms to speak to sorcerers there, not by connecting with the Old Religion.
Or maybe Herne did know. "Shall I show you how, or just call her myself?"
"Show me how," said Merlin immediately. If he learned nothing else from this encounter, at least he'd know how to speak to Freya again, and have her hear him. "Please."
"It's easier than you think," said Herne. "You know how to speak a spell, right? How it's not just the words, but the magic you put into them?"
"There are spells to catch a god's or a spirit's attention, prayers and offerings and whatnot, but most of those are for ordinary mortals; priests and sorcerers, and the like. But for you, Emrys, all you'd really need to do is speak the name of the goddess, and put magic behind it. She should hear you."
"For you, yes."
Merlin smoothed suddenly sweaty hands down the front of his tunic and faced the water. It had never occurred to him to turn a person's name into a spell, but there was plenty of lore out there about giving your true name to the fairies or to evil witches; perhaps this was where that lore came from.
He pulled his magic to the fore, and thought of Freya; after all this time, it was hard to remember her smile, or the sound of her voice, but he remembered the way she'd made him feel. Protective, and understood, and seen.
"Freya," he whispered, and saw the world flash gold for a second as the magic surged out of him in a gentle wave. It rippled across the surface of the lake, and he felt it brush against the gates of Avalon itself.
At first he felt no response, but then, for just a moment, the world fell still; the birds stopped chirping and the breeze died, before they both returned, a joyous chorus from the birds and a caress across his face from the wind. The water went as still as a mirror, and then, about ten paces from shore, Merlin saw her, rising out of the water and walking toward him.
The Lady of the Lake, once called Freya.
Chapter 3: The Lady of the Lake
Tears blurred Merlin's vision; she was here, she was really here, and she was smiling at him as if everything was okay. Merlin stepped forward, splashing into the water before he remembered where he was, but Freya, gliding across the surface as if it were a dance floor, only laughed at him and sped up to meet him. They threw their arms around one another, and all Merlin could think was, You're real.
"Merlin," she said, and just like that, he remembered the sound of her voice, and the way she'd thanked him as he held her, even as she was dying; thanked him for making her feel loved and treating her like a person rather than a monster.
"Oh, Freya." His voice wobbled, and he was sniffling again; he'd shed so many tears in the past two days, it was a little embarrassing how easy it was to set him off. "Freya, I'm so glad to see you… you can't know…"
"And I you, Merlin," she said, pulling back. She met his eyes and the look of love on her face nearly undid him completely. "It's been too long."
"I didn't know I could call on you," he said wonderingly. "Otherwise I'd have spoken to you every week."
Freya laughed. "It's all right. You had your duties, just as I have mine."
"I suppose that's true." He stepped back, just a little, uncaring of the way the water squelched in his boots. He had to look at her, up and down. She was wearing a dress that Merlin thought he remembered. "You look well."
Freya giggled, actually giggled, and there was a twinkle in her eye as she said, "The last time you saw me, I was dying."
Merlin's joy faded. "That's true," he said. "And I'm so sorry. I wanted to save you—"
"Hush, love," she replied, caressing the side of his face. "I already told you. You did save me. In more ways than you know." She stepped past Merlin, up onto the shore, and with a wave of her hand a smooth boulder appeared, right at the edge of the water. It was the perfect shape for a bench, and just the right size for the two of them to share.
Merlin looked around, but Herne was nowhere to be seen. "Herne?"
"He'll be back," said Freya. "I think he just wanted to give us some privacy." She sat, one bare foot resting on the water, and leaned back, tipping her head back to look at him with a smile. "Will you join me?"
"Of course." The stone was even more comfortable than Merlin had expected, curved in all the right places to support him, and sun-warmed even though it had only existed for a few moments now. Sitting so close next to Freya, he was uncertain where to put his arms, but then she leaned into him, and it was the easiest thing in the world for Merlin to wrap them around her, and to rest his cheek against her hair. He took a deep breath, and she smelled like sunshine, like life; she was so warm, and alive in his arms, and here… "I can't believe you're here."
"I've always been here, at the lake," she replied. "In a way, I was here even before you brought me."
Merlin frowned, but couldn't bring himself to let go of her long enough to look at her face. "I don't understand."
"I know. It's hard to explain."
"Herne said you might be able to answer some of my questions."
"I might. I'll certainly try. Go ahead and ask, Merlin."
"It's… I don't want you to feel like I don't care about you," he began haltingly, "but… Arthur? Is he okay?" And then the dam burst, and he couldn't help going on. "There are supposed to be these prophecies that say he'll come back when the time is right. Are they true? Was I lied to? What does it mean that I could become a god? What does Herne mean when he says that I technically already am one? What—"
Freya laughed, cutting off the flow of his words. "One thing at a time, Merlin," she said, nuzzling under his chin.
"I just don't understand," he said plaintively, and she reached up to trail her fingers along his forearm. "There's so much I don't understand."
"What's the first thing on your mind?" she asked.
"Arthur," he sighed. "Always Arthur. I… I don't want you to feel like you're less important…"
"You said that already. Don't be silly. I know that you love him."
"I loved you too," he protested.
"You loved… the idea of being seen," she said gently. "Of being understood, and not having to hide parts of who you were. But we didn't really know one another that well, Merlin. We were only together for a few days before I was killed."
That hurt, but it was probably also the truth. "I would have loved you," he tried.
"I know. I think I would have loved you, too. You had a kind heart. How could I not? You were so gentle with me, when I was so afraid." She sighed in his arms. "But you loved Arthur too. And I don't think I would have wanted to ask you to choose."
"I'm sorry," he said, because he knew she was right. He'd chosen Arthur, time and time again, no matter what that choice had cost him. "It would have been less painful to run away with you, though."
Freya laughed again, and he felt the vibration all along his side where she was leaned up against him. "You'd have grown bored with me."
Now Merlin smiled, nuzzling his cheek against the top of her head. "I can't imagine."
"I can," she said, but he could hear the smile in her voice too. "All I really had that was interesting about me was my curse."
"I can't believe that," he said. "Although… your curse? Is it gone?"
"You helped me break it, before I died," she said. Freya leaned away to look up at him. "Didn't you know?"
Merlin shook his head, frowning. "No."
"I was condemned to kill every night," she said, "to be a dangerous monster for all of my days. And the night I died, I did kill Halig. The bounty hunter," she reminded him, when he frowned again. "But then I escaped, and you found me, and I knew you, Merlin. I didn't hurt you. You helped me overcome the bastet's instincts."
"Okay, but you still died."
"I did, but my love for you is what stopped me from hurting you, so the curse was broken even before I died. That's what I mean when I say you saved me in more ways than one. I was myself when I died, and that means more to me than I can ever say." She settled back into the circle of his arms, and Merlin let her, still thinking over her words. "After I died, because you brought me here, I was given a choice."
Merlin hummed thoughtfully. "To become a god? Goddess, I mean?"
"I suppose I'm a goddess," Freya replied, "but only a little one." She huffed a little laugh at that. "I'm the guardian of the Gate to Avalon, where the Sidhe dwell. And my domain, I suppose, is sacred water, and other gateways to the Sidhe." Then she laughed louder. "I didn't mean to do it, but one time, I felt new sacred waters being created, and so I appeared in them to see where they were located, and I gave a priest of the New Religion a terrible fright!"
Merlin grinned. "I would have liked to have seen that."
"I think he decided I was either one of his saints, or possibly his Mary. She's supposed to be the mother of their god, or maybe his wife, or something like that, I think." Freya shrugged. "It's not like I know much about the New Religion, after all."
"You were talking about a choice, though."
"Once the curse was broken, if I had lived, I would have had the ability to become a bastet whenever I wanted," she explained. "I could have protected my loved ones against almost anything. And I was brought here, to Avalon. The gods said that if I wanted, I could use that power to protect the Gate of Avalon against those who would seek to defile it."
"But wouldn't that mean you wouldn't get to pass into the afterlife yourself? Wouldn't get to see your family again?"
"The druids threw me out after I was cursed," said Freya quietly. "Who did I have that I would want to see again, besides you? And… they explained that you were immortal; that you would need companions once your human ties were gone. I thought that was worth waiting for."
Merlin blinked, unsure what to say. "You… you waited all this time? For me?"
"You'll be waiting for Arthur," Freya pointed out. "Would you really want to have to wait alone?"
"No," he said. "But I'm not sure I'm ready to become a god while I wait. But… you became a guardian for me. If I stay human, does that mean I won't get to see you?"
She chuckled, and shook her head. "You've already seen me more than once," Freya replied. "And anyway, you're Emrys, whether you become a god or not. You don't have to be alone."
"But Herne said I'd lost the last of my human ties."
"Technically, I'm not human anymore."
"You know what I mean," Merlin said with a frown.
"I do," said Freya. "You could always make new ones."
Merlin sighed heavily, shutting his eyes. "I don't know if I could bear saying goodbye to them over and over. And if I'm really immortal, I certainly can't just tell people that, or expect them to understand. I'll have to live like a nomad, never settling down anywhere for very long, because people will get suspicious of the guy who doesn't die when he's supposed to."
"Do you want to die?" Freya asked, craning her neck up to look him in the eye.
He sighed again, shaking his head. "I don't know. I don't think it's natural to live this long, that's for sure. But if I die, then I won't be here when Arthur returns. If he returns." He bit his lip, and met her gaze. "Is he going to return? Do you know?" He was almost afraid of the answer she might give him.
Freya looked down at her lap. "I don't know, Merlin," she said softly. "I'm sorry. I only know that his body is in Avalon. As the Guardian of the Gate, I don't get to spend much time there. I tried to check on him for you, though."
"You did?" Merlin couldn't help the surge of hope in his voice, in his heart.
"I couldn't find out much," Freya warned him. "I know his body is in Avalon, sleeping. I think the Sidhe are helping him recover from the wound he took."
"Time doesn't flow the same in Avalon as it does here. For the Sidhe, it is as if he was only just delivered to them."
"It's been over sixty years."
"Not to them. Remember, Merlin, they're immortal too. Time doesn't mean the same thing to them as it does to humans. And… forgive me, love… you're still used to thinking like a human. For you, sixty years is an almost unbearably long time."
"I still am human," said Merlin, but his throat was tight and his chest ached, and he wasn't sure how true that really was, anymore.
"You are Emrys," said Freya.
"But I don't want to be!" Freya startled at his cry, and Merlin tightened his arms around her in apology. "I don't want to be," he said again, softer this time, plaintive. "No one ever asked me if I wanted to be Emrys. I was just born like this, and no one ever told me why. No one ever told me what it meant until I went to Camelot, and even then it was just, this is who you are, get used to it." He sighed. "Then I found Arthur and we became friends, and now… now I'm trapped waiting for him to return, because there's nothing else for me."
"Am I nothing, then?" asked Freya, and Merlin stiffened.
"No. No, I didn't mean it like that. I only meant—"
"You meant that you have all this magic because of one man, Arthur, and he isn't even here, so what is the point?"
"Yes," sighed Merlin. "Yes, that's exactly it."
"I wish I had answers for you," said Freya sadly. "I can only tell you this: The Sidhe know that Arthur is important, and that they have an important role in healing him. And they know that you're important, as Arthur's guide and friend. But as important as you are, they don't like you very much. I don't know when Arthur will return, or even if his spirit sleeps within his body or if he waits in the land of the dead. And I don't think the Sidhe would give me answers to those questions, for fear that those answers would get back to you."
Merlin took another deep breath, letting it out in a long, slow sigh. "I suppose they have reason to dislike me, given the few encounters we've had," he said. "Sophia and her father. The goblin. The time they wanted to make Princess Elena a changeling and I had to kill her guardian."
"Just so," Freya agreed. "The higher courts know that the Once and Future King is important, and they understand that you would protect him, but they can't forgive you killing their kind, either… even when those who threatened Arthur were going against the courts' own decrees."
"As long as they don't hurt Arthur in revenge, I don't care," he said. "If they do… I don't know what I would do."
"I do," she said. "You'd ask me to let you into Avalon, and I would do it so that you could save him."
"Even if it killed me," Freya replied fiercely. "For you, anything."
"But… no," he protested, his voice small. "No, Freya, I don't deserve that. Not that kind of loyalty, and I certainly don't want to be responsible for you sacrificing yourself!"
For her part, Freya only shrugged. "I really don't think they'd be foolish enough to do it, because if the Sidhe threaten the Once and Future King they threaten to throw a lot of things out of balance, but if they did… yes. I'd help you protect him and restore that balance."
"It's my choice, Merlin," she said gently, touching his face again. "Please respect that."
And what could he say to that, really? "I will." He'd hate it, but he'd do it.
"Anyway, I doubt it will ever come to that," Freya reassured him, settling back into his side again. "The Sidhe are not gods, and they know better than to trifle with those who are more powerful than they are. They won't trifle with you."
"I'm not a god," said Merlin.
"You could be, if you wanted."
"That's another thing I don't understand," he said as he shook his head. "Why would I be offered a choice in the first place?" Freya took a breath to speak, but Merlin went on, "And if it's only because I have power, then I'm not interested. I won't be used, Freya. I won't be made into a weapon for someone else, or be put in someone's debt just because they want to make use of my magic whenever they want."
"It isn't like that," she said. One hand reached up to squeeze his arm. "I promise."
"Then what is it like? I need to know."
"It's… hm." Freya pulled away from Merlin and sat up, thinking; Merlin held his tongue while she figured out what to say. "It's not that they want you only because you have power," she said. "But your power is an important factor. It's… it's what you represent," she explained haltingly. "Magic, as a force in this world. That's what your domain would be, if you were a god. Protecting magic, and ensuring that something like Uther's Purge never happens again."
"And if I don't become a god, then what happens? I don't want to be responsible for something like another Purge. Or… what if magic just goes away?" A choice, they'd called it, but Merlin wasn't sure he could live with it if he chose wrong. If the magic of the world just… died out, because he picked Arthur over godhood.
And yet, what else could he choose?
Freya frowned, looking out over the water. "I don't know," she admitted. "I think it would just be… ungoverned. It would still exist, magic will always exist. But with no one to guard it, perhaps it would… diminish? Fade from the world somewhat?" She shrugged. "Maybe it would be at greater risk of becoming corrupted or going out of balance, or just be harder for mortals to access. I'm sorry, Merlin, I just don't really know. I'm only making guesses right now."
Merlin grimaced. It sounded like a big responsibility, and an important one. "They couldn't pick someone else for the job?" he joked weakly, and Freya turned to smile at him again.
"Do you know of any other sorcerers with your kind of power?"
"Well, no… but the world is a big place. Much bigger than I ever could have imagined, when I was younger. There might be someone out there, in the Far East maybe, or down in the lands to the south. Or even across the sea on some island we've never heard of."
"There isn't," said Freya with confidence. She smiled at him slyly, an expression he'd never seen on her face before. "I have been to every sacred spring, lake, and waterfall you can imagine, in places that the mortals of Albion don't even know exist yet. You truly are the most powerful sorcerer to walk the earth, Merlin. There will never again be anyone like you. You're a perfect candidate to watch over magic and keep it safe."
"But Herne said I'd have to give up all my human ties," said Merlin. "Or… what he really said was that the gods couldn't make the offer until all my human ties were gone. But there's still Arthur."
"Arthur isn't in the land of the living," Freya reminded him.
"No, but he will be again someday. I can't allow myself to believe that Kilgharrah lied about that. And I can't abandon Arthur. Who knows how the world will change between now and when he returns? Who's to say he'll even understand that he is the Once and Future King, or that he has a task to fulfill? Someone will have to explain it to him, or teach him about the world when he comes back, right? I just… maybe it's arrogant, but I always assumed that would be me. That that was my task, the reason I was made immortal in the first place." Merlin drew his knees up and looked out across the lake himself. "If I become a god, won't there be some sort of prohibition against interfering with this world? Won't I just go off to wherever it is the gods hide, and be forced to watch from a distance?"
Freya… winced, which was not a good sign. "Merlin, I don't know. But I've only been a guardian for less than a century! And there are some who would say I'm not really a goddess at all, that being the guardian here doesn't count."
Merlin rested his forehead on his knees, and Freya laid her hand on his neck, her fingers ruffling his hair. It was a soothing, gentle touch, but didn't really settle his heart. "I don't know what to do," he said.
"I'm sorry," she replied. "You came to me looking for answers, and I don't know if I've given you any."
"You've given me some. I just… still have other questions."
"Maybe an older god or goddess would have better answers for you than I would. I'm only a baby, compared to most of them."
"I'm not sure I'm ready to talk to even more gods," said Merlin. He laughed humorlessly, and looked up once more. His chin dug into his knee as he sighed. "I can't abandon Arthur. I can't. But if magic itself needs me, and I'm this, this creature of magic… Freya, I don't know what to do."
"I know. But I'll be beside you, no matter what you choose."
They sat together for the rest of the day, reminiscing a little, but mostly not speaking. Freya seemed to understand that Merlin needed to think, but even more than that, he needed comfort and support. He'd given that to her once, long ago; now it seemed it was her turn to repay the favor.
"Is the land of the dead different from Avalon?" he asked, out of the blue. Swallows were dipping low over the water, catching mosquitoes alongside the dragonflies that buzzed here and there. A gentle breeze rattled the rushes along the shoreline and made the trees whisper to one another.
"Avalon is the land of the Sidhe," said Freya. "For the most part, the dead don't go there."
Merlin grimaced. "I've been trying to send people to the wrong place my entire life," he said.
Freya shrugged. "It doesn't matter. The soul goes where it goes. But having the body in Avalon may mean that it's easier for them to be reborn someday."
Freya sat up and looked at him with a little frown. "Do you not know about the Great Wheel?" she asked. "It's a fundamental druidic teaching."
"I don't know any druidic teachings," sighed Merlin. "Sorry."
"Don't be. I should have remembered."
"How would you have known?"
"Well, I at least knew you were not a druid," she said with a smile, nudging him gently with her shoulder. Merlin smiled back at her.
"So what is the Great Wheel, then?" he asked.
"It's the cycle of birth, life, death, and then the journey through the underworld before rebirth," she explained. "But the Great Wheel manifests itself in other ways as well. The cycle of day to night, and then back around to day. The Wheel of the Year, which is the turning of the seasons. It's not linear, Merlin. Everything that has happened will happen again. Everyone who dies will be reborn."
"Of course. Although for the most part, when people are reborn, they don't remember their past lives. The idea is to live this life without being trapped in the mistakes of your past. But I think that may be what makes the Once and Future King different. It's possible that when he returns, he'll remember his old life, and he'll be able to make decisions with the benefit of that wisdom. Then he would know what to do, when Albion's need is greatest."
"Do you really think that will happen?"
"I hope so," said Freya, "but I don't know. I'm just a guardian of the gateway. The land of the dead isn't my domain."
Merlin remembered something then, and sat up straight. "When Gaius died—my mentor, he was like a father to me—when he died, he said he would watch over me 'until the turning of the Wheel," he said. "I never understood what he meant, and he died before he could explain it."
"Well, as I said, the land of the dead isn't my domain, but I imagine that the dead can look in on us, if they want. If they're able. I was always taught that, just as it is our task in life to live and to learn, it is our task in the underworld to let go of our pasts and resolve our regrets, say our goodbyes, so we can be reborn at all. Otherwise we stay trapped in the underworld, and can't come back, until we learn to let go."
"So Gaius might still be watching over me, like he promised he would. My mother might. My father."
"Maybe," said Freya. "If they're not druids, they may not know how to let go and be reborn. I really couldn't say."
"There's so much I don't know," said Merlin. "I spent my life trying to teach myself magic, after it was made legal again. And there is still so much I just… don't know."
"Well, I don't know if this helps you any, but you are immortal. You have time to learn."
Merlin blinked, taking that in. "You know," he said slowly, "all this time, I've been so wrapped up in what I've lost. My human ties, the people I've loved. The chance even to die and see them again, if that's how the afterlife works. It never really occurred to me that I had anything to gain from immortality. That it could be anything other than a curse."
"If you chose to be a god, it wouldn't be a curse," she said. "It would just be a part of you."
Merlin shrugged, shaking his head. "It's a part of me now," he replied. "And I think it always has been; things that should have killed me when I was younger never did. Not even the dorocha."
Freya shivered. "I'm glad I was already the guardian here when they came," she said. "We felt their presence even here, at Avalon. One of the only times that I think the Sidhe were ever afraid of anything."
"Were you all right?"
"They can only harm the living, and technically, I'm not living," she said. "I couldn't do much to harm them in return, but I could chase them off. It was enough to keep them from crossing through the gateway."
"My magic wasn't any good against them," Merlin remembered. "They didn't kill me, but it was a near thing."
"Because you're immortal," said Freya. "You said it's already a part of you."
"Yes…" Merlin looked at her quizzically.
"So, why not just embrace the role?"
"Because there's too much I don't know about my own magic as it is. I don't know anything about how to be a god. And I need to know what is required, I need to know if becoming a god means giving up on Arthur and our future together."
"Are you sure you don't want to talk to anyone else about this?"
Merlin sighed, and tipped his head back to rest on the edge of the stone bench. "I don't know," he said. "I suppose I'll probably have to."
"Do you know any other gods?"
"There's you, and Herne," he said, shaking his head.
"You've never spoken to any others?" Freya had her eyebrow lifted as if she were waiting for a specific answer. Merlin was reluctant to answer.
"I have," he admitted finally. "But only one of them ever spoke back to me. And I don't know if either of them would be willing to see me now."
"The Cailleach," he said. "I confronted her when the dorocha were set loose. And later, I went to the Cauldron of Arianhrod—"
"Oh! I've been there!"
Merlin chuckled. "Right, sacred water. Anyway, I had to invoke someone called 'the White Goddess' in order to free Gwen of an enchantment. But I never saw her or spoke with her, the way I'm speaking with you now."
"The White Goddess is powerful," said Freya. "And so is An Cailleach. They're both much older than I am, closer to Herne's age. Or maybe even older. They might have answers for you."
"They might," Merlin allowed. "I just… I don't know, Freya."
"Well, you don't have to decide right this second. Come. We can watch the sunset together if you want, and then we can see if Herne has any other advice for you."
"That sounds nice," said Merlin.
With a sigh, they snuggled into one another and sat until dusk, while Merlin tried to slow the thoughts that tumbled through his mind.
Chapter 4: An Cailleach
"If I could only talk to Arthur, or see him, just once," he said wistfully, once the sun went down. "Just to know if he's all right."
"I could let you into Avalon to see his body," Freya offered, "but he's… still asleep. Or in whatever state you might call it. I don't even know if his spirit is there."
"You'd said that before," sighed Merlin. "Anyway, it's probably a bad idea. I'd just try to see him again and again. If I could be by Arthur's side, I'd never leave."
"That doesn't sound like it would be very good for you, no," said Freya, reaching up to run fingers through his hair. "So what will you do instead?"
"I don't know."
"Maybe you should talk to other gods, find out more about what they really want from you."
Merlin sighed again, and rested his head against Freya's as the sky turned from red to purple. "You really think they'll want to talk to me?"
"I think a lot of them are interested in having you take your rightful place," she replied. "They should at least be willing to give you information."
"Hard to speak to them if I don't know their names," muttered Merlin.
There was a rustling in the grass behind them, and Merlin turned to see Herne approaching, barely visible in the twilight now. He was pretty sure the older god had made the noise deliberately so as not to startle them. "I could tell you some names," Herne said, "or you could just start with the ones you do know, and go from there."
"I've only ever really spoken to the Cailleach," said Merlin.
"So speak to her again," shrugged Herne. "I'm pretty sure she'll speak to you."
Merlin shivered. "I assume I'll have to go to the Isle of the Blessed to see her?"
"She rules the gateway to the land of the dead," said Herne. "You can find her anywhere there is death—"
"I'm not going to sacrifice something just to talk to her!"
"—or, as I was going to say, you being Emrys, you could just speak her name."
Merlin thought about it. "I suppose that makes things easier," he mused, "but it feels rude to just… yell at her."
Herne laughed, and even Freya smiled at him. "You wouldn't be yelling," she replied. "Just speaking her name with power behind it. Whether or not she answers is up to her."
"Oh." Merlin blew out a breath and stood. "Well. Okay."
"You're going to call her now?" Herne asked.
"Seems like it'd be best, yeah," said Merlin. He wiped nervous hands down the front of his tunic; one good thing about his older body had been that he'd largely stopped such obvious displays, but now they were back. "All right. Is it just 'Cailleach'?"
"An Cailleach," corrected Herne. "And be respectful when you call."
"Oh, I will be," said Merlin. His shook his hands out, shifting from foot to foot. The last time he'd seen An Cailleach, he'd nearly died. Lancelot had, sacrificing himself so that neither Merlin nor Arthur would have to. He couldn't imagine that this goddess would have anything good to say to him. Still, it wasn't as if he had much choice. "Okay. Okay."
"Merlin?" Freya stood from her seat on the bench, reached out, and took both his hands in hers. "Don't be afraid," she said, kissing him on the cheek before stepping back onto the surface of the lake.
"I can stay if you want me to," she said with a smile.
"I'd like that."
"All right. But it's best if I stay on the lake, near my own gateway."
Herne spoke up, "And I'll be at the edge of the forest. My domain. It's respectful," he explained. "A bit more formal of us."
"All right," said Merlin. He glanced at each of them, then took a breath and closed his eyes. Feeling the power well within him, he called softly, "An Cailleach."
The magic rippled out across the world, and for a moment Merlin felt as if he were rippling, too, touching everything at once in an ever-widening circle. He opened his eyes, and waited.
A cold breeze rose up, uncharacteristic for the time of year, and Merlin saw his breath fog in the sudden chill. The crickets and frogs of the lake fell silent, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Freya wrap her arms around herself and shiver. As soon as he noticed it, however, the cold was gone, and An Cailleach stood before him.
"Emrys," she said. In her eyes was an age of sadness and suffering, which surprised Merlin. She'd struck him as cruel and cold before, but now she seemed only ancient, weighed down with the burden of untold centuries.
Merlin wondered if he would ever look like that, if he chose to become a god himself.
"Um. Hello," he said, then mentally smacked himself. "I was told you might be able to answer my questions?"
"That depends on the questions," she replied. Her tired eyes never left his face, and Merlin resisted the urge to squirm under her scrutiny. He wondered what she might see that he couldn't.
"Is Arthur dead?" he asked. As with Freya, he half-feared the answer.
"He sleeps," said An Cailleach.
"I don't understand."
"He sleeps," the goddess repeated. "His body rests in Avalon, recovering. His soul is elsewhere."
"In the land of the dead?"
"No." She smiled then, and Merlin was reminded of just how cruel she could be. "It would seem you will not be able to see or speak to the Once and Future King before the appointed time."
"Why not? The Horn of Cathbhadh—"
"Only works on the dead. Your king is not dead. He sleeps. There are laws which even one such as I must follow, Emrys. I think you know that already."
Merlin pressed his lips together, refusing to show her his upset. "You're not going to help me, are you."
"You do not need my help, Emrys. You need information. And I will give it to you."
"But not willingly."
"That is not so. I cannot answer a question you do not ask." When Merlin did not speak, she went on, "You believe I have a quarrel against you. I do not. I have no need for such petty squabbles. All souls pass through my gateway, in time."
"But you released the dorocha on the land," said Merlin.
"No. A willing sacrifice—Morgause, at Morgana's hand—did that. It was they who tore the Veil and released the restless dead. Only another willing sacrifice could close that tear. You knew this."
"You could have stopped her!"
"I warned Morgana of the consequences of her actions, and she chose not to listen. I also tried to warn you, though you did not know it. So young, you are. Ignorant. Naive, at the time."
"I don't understand why you couldn't have closed the Veil yourself," said Merlin. "Aren't you a goddess? Don't you have power?"
"Oh, Emrys," An Cailleach sighed. "There is much you still do not know. Still so young."
"I know that I don't know things, that's why I'm here, to ask questions! But no one ever wants to just give me a straight answer, if they have it. They never have. I'm just expected to know things, and then punished when I don't." Merlin nearly gave in to the urge to tear at his hair or pace, and only stopped himself at An Cailleach's amused expression. It sat oddly, her smile against her ancient, sad eyes.
"What do you know of destiny?" he asked, unsure even why he said it. "Or fate?"
"Fate," she scoffed. "Destiny. I know that mortals believe in them far too much. So easy to believe that there is only one path laid out for you to walk. So much better to abdicate your responsibility for the choices you've made. It wasn't your fault; you were fated to poison your friend." Merlin flinched, and she went on, "Fate is the path laid out for you by gods higher even than I; the course of your life is their domain, not mine. Fate is the series of events that will happen in your life no matter what choices you make. You are Emrys, and you were fated to meet the Once and Future King, one way or another. Destiny, on the other hand, is the course you chose to walk between those moments. At every fated event, your choices determine your destiny from that point forward. One can fight one's fate, or embrace it, all in the choices one makes; it is impossible by definition to fight one's destiny, for every step you take leads you to where you are now."
Merlin puzzled that out for a moment. "So… fate is the crossroads, and destiny is the road I end up taking?"
"Just so, Emrys," she replied, and Merlin almost thought he saw approval in her eyes. "You were fated to become Emrys, from the moment of your birth. Emrys was fated to meet the Once and Future King. But how you chose to meet him, how you guided him, what you achieved together, was always up to you."
"That's not what Kilgharrah said," muttered Merlin.
"The Great Dragon may have had a different definition of the terms than I use," said An Cailleach. "Or, perhaps he wanted to steer your choices. Manipulate you, into giving him what he wanted."
Merlin sighed, because it wasn't as if he could refute that. "He made it seem as if my destiny were inescapable."
"He made it seem as if you had no choice, yet you always did."
"But whenever I chose against what he advised, things went horribly wrong. If not immediately, then later."
"And yet, you chose, not he. You chose to defy the Great Dragon, and you also chose to allow him to pull you back into his manipulations. If you had truly broken free of his influence, perhaps your path would have looked different, in the end."
"Maybe. But he also tried to tell me that we achieved everything he promised, and I know that we didn't. Arthur never lifted the ban on magic, Gwen did. Arthur didn't bring about Albion. I don't even know if Arthur will really return the way Kilgharrah said he would."
"He will," said An Cailleach, and oh, Merlin wished his heart didn't leap in his chest when she said that. "Just as you are Emrys, he is the Once and Future. Rex quondam, rexque futurus. He does not reside in my realm. He is fated to return."
"Do you know when?"
"That is not my domain. I only know that until he passes my gate, his story is not yet complete. Just as yours is not."
"I was given to understand that I'd never be allowed to pass your gate."
"You are Emrys," she said, as if that explained everything.
"But I never wanted to be Emrys," said Merlin. "I never wanted to be the savior of the druids, or whatever it is they think of me. And if I were really fated to be all that, then why did no one ever offer me help when I needed it? Why did no one ever teach me what I needed to know?"
"Did you ask?"
"What, in Camelot?" It was Merlin's turn to scoff. "Maybe living people aren't your domain, but you have to have seen how many people died just for the suspicion of magic. Who could I have asked?"
"Magic is no longer banned in your kingdom, is it?" An Cailleach countered, and Merlin gritted his teeth in annoyance. "Or there are other kingdoms. Other sorcerers who wished to teach you."
"They wanted me to serve them and overthrow Arthur."
"The druids, then."
Merlin sighed, exasperated. "Look, what are you trying to say, anyway?"
"That there is a third option open to you, Emrys. To become a god and take your rightful place beside us is desirable to many of us… even me, whether you believe that or not. But if you should refuse that, to remain as you are, and await the Once and Future King, walking the world alone, is not the only other choice."
Merlin blinked; there were two things in that statement he wanted to address, and he had the feeling he'd only be given an answer to one of them. "Why do you all want me to become a god, anyway?" he asked.
"Because you are Emrys," said An Cailleach.
"But what does that mean?"
The goddess smiled again, coldly. "You do not need me to seek that answer. Just as you do not need me to think for you and tell you what to do."
"But I only want—"
"Farewell, Emrys. We will meet again someday."
"Wait!" he cried, but An Cailleach had already gone.
"That went well," said Herne, as he crossed the clearing. A light sprang into being over his head, its soft green glow illuminating him and Merlin.
Merlin raised his eyebrows. "You're joking."
"She spoke to you, and I think she gave you more answers than you realize."
"She reminds me of Kilgharrah,"muttered Merlin. "Everything in riddles. Why do you all want me to become a god? What do you even mean when you say I'd only be taking my rightful place? How is 'You are Emrys' even an answer?"
"Do you know what it means to be Emrys, love?" asked Freya. She stepped off the water and up to join them, ducking under his arm to lean into his side. Above her head, another light began to glow, this one a soft yellow.
"I… don't. Not really. I thought I did, after Camlann, when I embraced my power. But the, the ramifications—the outcome of my doing that—no, I'm not sure I really understand those."
"Maybe that's what An Cailleach is suggesting you learn," offered Herne. "There's still a lot you haven't let anyone teach you, right?"
Merlin sighed and looked away, and did not answer.
"She also said you had a third option," said Freya. "What are the first two?"
"Well, it's like she said, isn't it? Become a god like you all are asking—and I should mention, I still don't know what it would mean to be a god, what would be demanded of me or any of that—or stay as I am. Not exactly mortal, but still… human enough. Stay in the world and wait for Arthur."
"You don't strike me as one to enjoy solitude much," said Herne, leaning against the stone bench. "You'd be alone for a long time, waiting for the Once and Future King to return."
"Do you know how long?" asked Merlin.
"I don't. Not my domain. But I think that's not relevant right now," Herne added, when Merlin opened his mouth to retort. "The point is, there's a third option. Do you know what it might be?"
"Then maybe figuring that out should be your task, rather than deciding immediately whether or not to join us. Don't get me wrong, we want you… but maybe not right away. After all," he smiled, "you have time."
"Time is all I have," said Merlin bitterly, then startled as Freya swatted his arm lightly.
"You have me," she reminded him, "and any other god you choose to call on who wants to listen. Herne would, if you needed him. You have your skills and your knowledge. You've faced down worse foes with less. This is only a puzzle to solve."
"But if I get it wrong…"
"Then nothing changes," said Freya. "You are still you, Arthur still sleeps, and we are still here for you."
Merlin blinked. "I hadn't really thought of it that way," he said. He paused, thinking, then asked slowly, "What does change, if I become a god?"
"Probably not as much as you think," said Herne.
"People never see or speak to gods," countered Merlin. "You never hear about people talking to gods, and the gods actually answering. At least, not in a way that you can definitely point to and say, yes, that was a god, and not just some other mysterious coincidence. The only reason you're speaking to me is because you want me to become one of you."
"You're Emrys," shrugged Herne. "A lot of the rules don't apply to you."
Merlin shook his head, frowning in annoyance.
"What are you getting at?" asked Freya.
"I mean… won't I be even more alone as a god?" asked Merlin. "You talked about me being ready because I've finally lost the last of my human ties. But I just said goodbye to Gwen yesterday. I'm still tied to her. To Gaius, and my mum. To Arthur. I still care about them, I'm not willing to just forget about them… and even if I were, I'm not willing to never make human connections again. They might only be temporary, but I think I'd go mad if I had to just… sit on a cloud somewhere and listen to people pray and worship and, and whatever else they do with the gods." He looked at Herne imploringly. "You can't tell me you'd just spend all your time keeping each other company. How do you even keep busy?"
At this, Herne smiled and crossed his arms. "That, Merlin, is what we call our domain. We 'keep busy' doing the things that are important to us, and that is what we become known for."
"Well, waiting for Arthur is important to me. Not being worshiped or… or sacrificed to, or anything ridiculous like that."
Herne nodded. "And what else?"
"What do you mean, what else?"
"You could be waiting for Arthur for hundreds of years, Merlin," said Herne. "Or he could come back in only ten. You don't know. You have no way to know without asking a god whose domain is the future, or fate, and even then they may not answer your questions."
"Why wouldn't they?"
Herne sighed, "Because I think you've already learned the hard way what happens when you try to force a prophecy to go one way or another. Telling you about what the future may hold could prevent it from happening, or enforce it so that it happens no matter what you do."
"Isn't that fate, though?"
"Fate is a collection of moments, not a path. And anyway, that's not the point I'm trying to make. You're getting distracted."
"I'm sorry," said Merlin. "What is your point, then?"
"My point is, there should be more to your life than waiting for your king to show his face again. Are you telling me you're just going to sit on the shore of this lake and wait with Freya—no offense, guardian—and do nothing to prepare for his return?"
Merlin opened his mouth to answer, and then shut it again. That… was actually a very good point. "He's said to return when Albion's need is greatest," he said after a moment. "Albion will need a king… and a king always needs an adviser. And there's still so much I don't know. That's one of the reasons I don't think I can be a god, actually. I don't know enough."
"So maybe you should learn it. Or make that your domain, and see what happens."
Merlin was silent for long enough that Freya gave him a worried look. "Merlin?"
"I need to think," he said, half to himself. He shook himself and met both their gazes, Freya's worried expression and Herne's patient one. "Thank you both—and if you see An Cailleach, thank her for me too—but I think I need to be alone for a while to think, before I can make this decision."
"I understand," said Herne, "and to be honest, I enjoy my solitude as well. I've spoken with you more in the past couple of days than I have with anyone in decades."
"And you tell me I won't be lonely if I become a god," quipped Merlin with a raised eyebrow.
Herne only shrugged in visible amusement. "I said I prefer my solitude," he said. "If you don't, then do something about it."
"Time flows differently for us," Freya reminded him. "We have eternity ahead of us. What's a few decades of peace and quiet, compared to that?"
"Will you be annoyed if I visit you more often than that?" asked Merlin.
Freya only laughed. "I don't think so, but you're welcome to visit me as often as you like, and we'll find out together whether or not it bothers me."
Merlin smiled, and, greatly daring, leaned down to press a kiss to Freya's cheek. Freya turned her face at the last second, though, and he was surprised to find her kissing back. He pulled away, startled, and she grinned up at him.
"It's time for us to part," she said. "I wanted to give you that, so you'll remember to come back."
"I think I'll remember," he said in astonishment. "I'll talk to you in a few days, maybe."
"If you don't, I won't mind," she said. "After all, we have all the time in the world. But when you're ready, just go to any sacred well, or spring, or anything like that, and call on me. I'll come to you, no matter where you are."
Freya stood on her toes and kissed him again, and this time Merlin shut his eyes, lost in the sensation of it. "No," she said when they parted, "thank you."
Herne cleared his throat, and Merlin turned, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks and grateful that it was too dark outside now for it to be noticeable. "Sorry," he said.
"Don't worry about it," said the god. "But I wanted to say my farewells too, rather than just disappearing on you. My advice, if you'll have it: go to the druids from here, and see if they have any answers to your questions. If nothing else, they can tell you the names of other gods you could consult."
"I'll remember that," Merlin nodded. "Thank you."
"I'm glad we got the chance to talk. Think about what we've said."
Herne held his hand out to clasp Merlin's arm, and nodded to Freya respectfully. That done, he nodded to Merlin, then turned and walked into the woods. In the blink of an eye, Merlin saw a king stag in the shadow of the trees, before it too vanished into the dark.
"I'm glad I got to see you again," said Freya.
"Me too." Merlin opened his arms in invitation, and she came to him readily, slipping her own arms around his waist. "I've missed you. I hadn't known I'd ever be able to see you again."
"Well, now you do," she said impishly, and squeezed him tight before stepping back. "No matter what you decide to do, I'll be here for you. You only have to call."
"Thanks," he replied simply. "That means a lot to me."
Freya reached up and caressed his face, and Merlin had to resist the urge to turn into her hand. "You'll never be alone unless you want to be, Merlin," she said. "I promise."
He swallowed, and blinked back sudden tears. "Thank you." It had been the greatest source of his despair, two days ago: believing that he had no one left who knew him, no one who would care what happened to him or would miss him if he were gone. Just meeting Freya had virtually erased that burden. "Thank you," he whispered, and she trailed her fingers through his hair before stepping back.
"Travel safely, Merlin."
He took her hand in his and tangled their fingers together. "I'll talk to you soon."
"I look forward to it." She pulled their hands up and left one last kiss on the back of his hand, then pulled away and stepped onto the surface of the water. "Goodbye for now," she said.
"For now," he replied.
Merlin waited until she turned away, and he felt the invisible gateway open to receive her, before he turned and walked away.
Chapter 5: Emrys
As much as Merlin wanted to be near Freya, the shore of a lake was too damp to make a good campsite, so Merlin stepped back into the forest and let his magic guide him to a nearby clearing. It was the work of moments to lay out his bedroll and eat the last of his supplies; he'd have to revisit civilization tomorrow, probably, to buy more, unless he found druids willing to take him in for a while.
Druids… Merlin sighed. He'd been avoiding them for years now, ever since he had sent Arthur to Avalon. The weight of his failure had crushed him, and he couldn't bear to face their judgment, their knowing stares, or worse, their pity. Would it be worse, or better, now that so many decades had passed? Would they still be willing to give him hospitality, or would they reject him? Herne had seemed to think that he'd have no difficulty finding someone willing to teach him the old ways, but Merlin wasn't so sure.
On the other hand, if a god whispered to the druids and told them what to do, maybe they'd listen. Would Herne go that far for Merlin?
Merlin fell asleep before he could come up with an answer, and woke the next morning feeling just as confused. He packed his things, then began wandering aimlessly through the forest, just letting nature tell him which way to go. He was probably wandering in circles, and he'd never find any druids at this rate, but he'd wanted to be alone to think anyway.
What if he did find them, though? If the druids were willing to take Merlin in, what would they teach him? What did he even want to know, at this point? An Cailleach had said that she couldn't answer any questions that Merlin didn't actually ask, and then hadn't seemed to appreciate the questions Merlin did come up with. Maybe he'd been unprepared, and had called on her too quickly. All of this was so new, though, so… overwhelming. The gods wanted him to become one of them; he hardly even knew where to start wrapping his mind around a concept that big. How could he help but ask the wrong questions, or at least, questions that didn't delve deep enough?
At least he'd learned for certain that Arthur would return. That helped. And he'd learned how to reach out to Freya, and that he'd have at least one companion in the long, lonely years ahead of him. But apart from that, it felt as though Merlin had learned nothing.
He honestly wasn't sure he knew what he'd ask of the druids, either. "Who is Emrys?" might be the first thing he tried, except An Cailleach had made it pretty clear that he should already know the answer to that one.
All right, then, who was Emrys? What did it mean for Merlin to be Emrys?
Merlin thought back to Camlann, when he'd wielded the power of the elements to bring victory to Camelot against the Saxons. He thought back to before that, when Morgana had taken his magic and he'd had to go to the Crystal Cave to get it back. The ghost of Balinor had come to him then, and told him that no one could take away what he was. Merlin didn't have magic. He was magic. Emrys was magic incarnate.
Merlin had reached, had found who he was at his core, and all his power had come rushing back with more to spare. He'd never felt so much magic in all his life, and it had come to him unbidden, freely, joyfully doing what he willed with only his whim to guide it. No spells; no words to shape the energy, because the energy was his and he was the energy.
And then he'd wrapped up all that power and put it away, and become human again after he'd found Arthur.
Maybe… maybe being Emrys meant unwrapping it again, letting it flow freely in a way that he'd never done since… since his earliest childhood, if he had to guess. When his magic had been purely instinctual, pushed and shaped only by his wants and his emotions. He'd needed to learn control, but he had that now, didn't he?
Merlin barely used his magic anymore, even though it was legal now. Sure, he made his chores easier, yes, he infused his remedies with a bit more efficacy, but other than that, his power was all but buried nowadays, deep inside himself. Perhaps he needed to unleash it, in order to be the "Emrys" the gods wanted him to be.
But would doing that, unleashing all that magic, change him? Merlin feared that it might. Magic was… was bliss, sometimes, when he'd allowed himself to just sink into it and feel. He could feel the life of the forest around him right now, and it was beautiful. But if he focused on that, became that, wouldn't he risk forgetting all about humanity, and human ties, and all their suffering and pain? Wouldn't he stop caring, if he had magic to distract him?
Wouldn't he risk forgetting about Arthur?
He couldn't afford to do that, and if that made him a coward, afraid to embrace his own power, then so be it. He'd been a coward during Arthur's life anyway, hadn't he, with the way he'd hidden and lied, and never revealed the truth of himself to his best friend until it was too late to do anything about it.
On the other hand… Merlin paused, wondering. On the other hand, what if he could feel Arthur, resting in Avalon, if he embraced his magic? What if he could watch over Arthur that way, or even travel to Avalon and watch over him in person, as a god? Would the Sidhe be able to keep him out?
As a human, he was still vulnerable to the things that could stop the flow of magical energy; cold iron, bespelled shackles, enchantments to block a person's magic. As Emrys, when he embraced his power, he was the spell, and he could sidestep it or negate it easily. That power could protect Arthur when he returned in ways that Merlin had never been able to, before.
Which was the right course to take?
Merlin sighed, and started walking again. It was a beautiful morning, not too hot, the gentlest of breezes stirring the leaves. Merlin almost thought he could hear the trees whispering, and wondered what he might hear if he were to stop and listen.
He was afraid to stop and listen… and that was what it came down to, wasn't it? He was afraid to become Emrys, fully embrace his powers, with no one to use them for. No one but himself. It felt wasteful, partly, and selfish, and… unnecessary.
Except that he was pretty sure the gods wouldn't ask this of him without a reason. Too bad Merlin had no idea what that reason might be. "Because you are Emrys" didn't seem to be much of an answer when he'd asked.
To become a god, or to stay human… or to find the third option that An Cailleach had hinted at?
What would that look like? Some sort of middle ground, perhaps, neither solely human nor entirely god. Still connected, still able to care, not some absent, abstract idea of a being that people worshiped from afar but could never befriend. But powerful, too, able to protect the people he loved. Able to wait for Arthur, but also able to speak to companions who would not wither and die before his eyes as the centuries passed.
What else would he be, if he were neither god nor human? Merlin put one foot in front of the other, puzzling it out. What was Merlin now? What else was he, besides "Emrys"?
He was Hunith's son. She'd taught him to be kind, taught him that his magic wasn't what made him special. She'd taught him to see the best in people, and to help where he could. He wasn't sure how well he lived up to her teachings anymore, but she had taught him.
He had been Gaius's ward. He'd taught Merlin by example, mainly, how to be patient with exasperating people, but he'd also given Merlin a trade. Merlin was a passable physician even without his magic. It settled something in him, to be able to give in to his natural inclination to help people by healing them, or at least trying. If he didn't embrace godhood, he could always work to help people that way. It was better than living as a hermit in the woods, anyway.
He was Balinor's son, for what that was worth. Merlin had barely known his father, and still believed that the man would have lived a longer life if Merlin hadn't found him. Still, Balinor's blood made him a Dragonlord, even though he hadn't spoken to a dragon since Kilgharrah had died. (He'd felt it when the Great Dragon's spirit had finally departed, an emptiness in his heart that had put him on the back of a horse and questing until he found the bones that were all that remained.) The thought of Aithusa, and all the ways he had failed her, filled him with shame. He didn't even know where she was, and she probably hated him for how he'd abandoned her. That was fair, since he hated himself for it too.
He could fix that, maybe.
Merlin had failed so many people, beings, whatever. In so many ways. And, he realized, he'd been hiding from that shame for decades now.
Was that who he wanted to be, going forward? A cowardly failure who only dwelled on everything he'd done wrong, who lived in the past and was incapable of looking to the future?
He had centuries to wait, possibly, before Arthur returned. He'd certainly better learn to look to the future, if he knew what was good for him.
"I'm trying," he breathed aloud. He had left Camelot behind, unsure whether that made him even more of a coward, but it could just as easily mean that he was ready for a new start, right? He could move forward toward a new role, if he wanted, rather than moving away from everything that weighed on his heart. It was all a matter of perspective, really, wasn't it?
The gods certainly wanted him to move forward, into a role he wasn't sure he was prepared to accept… but there was that third option. It was up to him to decide what it meant.
Herne had said that a god's domain was simply what was important to them. They did the things that mattered to them, and they became known for it. It sounded pretty simple.
What was important to Merlin?
Arthur, of course. First and foremost and always. His mother, and even Gwen, had acknowledged what Merlin had not, that he had loved Arthur deeply. Not romantically, perhaps, the idea had never even occurred to him while Arthur had been alive, but Arthur had filled his whole heart nonetheless, and filled it still even today. He was deciding whether or not to become a god based on whether he'd still be able to help Arthur when he returned.
Helping people in general was important to him. Helping Aithusa, if he could, might be a good project to while away a few years while he waited for Arthur. Furthering his medical knowledge, he could do that.
Learning more about what it meant to be a god would be good, but that meant learning more about the old ways, and that meant contacting the druids. Facing some things Merlin hadn't wanted to face. It made his stomach twist up in uncomfortable ways, but… well, he couldn't very well serve Arthur when he returned, if he was still living in the past and making the same mistakes over and over, could he? It wasn't something he was looking forward to, but he'd probably have to put "personal growth" on his list of important things to work on before too much longer.
Learning things, he thought carefully. He'd never really considered it before, but learning was important to him. Part of the reason he didn't want to be a god was because he knew he'd have to stay abreast of what was happening in the world in order to be able to better help Arthur. That meant keeping in touch with gossip, or whatever news came out of the big cities and important kingdoms. If there was a war happening, he'd need to know and to be there, just in case Arthur came back and needed him. Gods didn't seem to really do that sort of thing, from what he'd seen.
If he were a god, what would his domain be? That was easy, thought Merlin as he stepped over a fallen tree. His domain was magic. Everything to do with sorcery would be his to know and to work with, and there was still far too much he didn't know about sorcery even now, after decades of learning. He was supposed to be magic incarnate, and he didn't even know what that meant or how it was supposed to work.
All right, thought Merlin. He stopped and looked around him, listening to the birdsong and the wind in the leaves. He might not be ready to become a god, but he was definitely willing to learn more. And as Freya had pointed out, he had plenty of time to do that.
So. Druids first. Maybe the Crystal Cave, if he needed it.
And after that, he had a dragon to find.
The years that followed were rewarding in ways that Merlin had not anticipated they could be. The druids accepted him, despite his many failings, and forgave him. "Your destiny has always been a heavy burden," one of them said. "You did not fail us. We failed you, when we did not consider that you were more than only Emrys, with no one to teach you how to carry what you were given. And besides, you cannot fail in your destiny when it has not yet fully come to pass. The Once and Future King will return, and you will be by his side."
So the druids took him in and taught him their ways, everything from how to survive in the wild, to the laws that they themselves used to regulate magic, to the names and rituals that best pleased their gods. Merlin still missed Arthur, and thought of him almost every day, but with the help of some of the druid elders, he was able to let go of some of his crushing grief and regret. Shame, he learned, was best faced head on, and would crumble like dust if exposed to the light of his awareness and attention.
With that in mind, he faced Aithusa, and apologized to her. He learned how her magic differed from his and how it was similar. He found ways to keep her magic from fighting against his, and he healed her. He was never sure if she forgave him, but that was all right; Merlin wasn't sure he deserved it, anyway. He spent years trying to find ways to do penance and atone for how he'd abandoned her, until one day she swatted him with her wing and sent him tumbling, and pointed out something that should have been obvious: Uther was a fool to think he could eradicate creatures of magic and fire and flight, and the humans they cared about. She was not the last dragon in the world by any means, and had spent the intervening decades looking for others of her kind, craving companionship. Even better, Merlin was not the last dragonlord, either.
That set off a completely new phase of Merlin's life. The world was so much bigger than he'd ever imagined possible, and there was so much to learn from it. With Aithusa by his side, Merlin worked up the courage to leave Albion, in search of other dragons and dragonlords. He carried with him always a flask filled with sacred water from the Lake of Avalon; he could pour it into a basin and speak to Freya anywhere, anytime he wished, if there were no other sacred waters nearby. He trusted her to tell him when Arthur's body awoke.
Merlin learned, at long last, what it meant to be a dragonlord, and the sacred responsibilities that had been entrusted to him on Balinor's death. He learned how to properly care for Aithusa, and met other young dragons in different parts of the world. It was exhilarating, and every day that Merlin spent with the dragonlords was a day that he felt closer to his father.
And then there was the magic that flowed in and around and through Merlin.
He wasn't sure if it was something gods did, but he once spent ten years not speaking, simply learning to listen to the wind and the waves and what magic had to say to him. The humans he met during that time must have thought him either mad or a holy man, or possibly both. Merlin almost couldn't bring himself to care. Magic was bliss.
But then one day he realized he'd had enough of that, and that it was time to rejoin the world. He said his farewells to Aithusa and went about practicing medicine, learning about new advances in the field and herbs from other parts of the world that were in some cases even more effective than what he'd had access to in Camelot. The intersection of scientific knowledge and magical enhancement meant he could save more lives than ever, and more importantly, he could spread that knowledge to other physicians, healers, midwives, and hedge witches, everywhere he went.
That probably wasn't something gods did, but it suited Merlin's quest for a middle ground just fine.
After perhaps fifty years of just doing that, he realized he had had enough of traveling. It had been fun, but he feared he was starting to forget what Arthur looked like and why Merlin had loved him. So he visited a sacred well one last time, told Freya he was returning to Albion, and reached into the magic of the world and pulled, finding himself at the shore of the lake once more.
The trees were different, older, taller, closer to the shore. The sense of peace, however, was exactly the same.
"How long have I been gone?" he asked, when Freya appeared at his side.
"A few hundred years," she replied. "Give or take."
"Wow. I hadn't realized."
"There's someone who wants to see you," she said with a smile.
Merlin couldn't help the way his breath caught."Arthur?"
"No, not yet," said Freya. "I'm sorry." But she lifted her chin and indicated a point behind Merlin, so he turned around to see Herne, stepping out of the forest to join them.
"Hullo," said Merlin.
One corner of the Hunter's mouth turned up. "Are you still thinking about whether or not to become a god?" he asked.
Merlin paused. The question hadn't really crossed his mind in quite a while. "I think," he said finally, "I think maybe I'm taking that third option that An Cailleach talked about. Or making one, for myself. Is that all right?"
Herne's smile grew wider. "Are you sure you haven't already become a god? You're keeping magic alive in the world," he said. "And there are legends about you and your king, spreading everywhere."
Herne, of course, refused to answer that. "Freya tells me you're happier than you've been in a long time."
"I'm… at peace," said Merlin. "I don't need worshipers for that. But I don't feel completely human anymore, either."
"You never really were," Herne pointed out, as Freya slipped under his arm to lean against his side. "It just took you a while to come to terms with it. Same as the rest of us."
"I'm not really a god, you know."
The Hunter tipped his head, acknowledging the point. "Perhaps not," he said, "but you have done quite a lot of good in the world on this third path of yours. What brings you back to Avalon?"
"I was thinking of settling down for a bit, actually," Merlin replied. "I've traveled a lot, and it's been nice—it's been great, actually—but I think I want to have somewhere to come home to at the end of a journey, rather than just starting the next one. For a while, at least."
"So you're staying here?" asked Freya. She looked up at him hopefully. "It's been wonderful being able to speak with you so often, but I'd love to actually see you instead."
"I thought I'd see if I could build a house here, if you didn't mind." Merlin had collected relatively few possessions as a nomad, but he'd also been a physician and a scholar and a dragonlord, and had picked up his fair share of belongings despite his wayward lifestyle. It would be good to have a place to put them all, rather than leaving them scattered around the world in the various places he'd stayed.
"What will you do while you're here?" asked Herne.
"I thought I'd write about my travels," said Merlin, "all the things I've learned. Not necessarily to share with anyone, but so I don't forget. And maybe write down what I remember of Arthur, too." He glanced away, uncomfortable. "Since I know he's coming back, I've stopped mourning him quite so much… but I fear I'll forget what he was like, too."
"I understand," said Freya. She wrapped one arm around his waist and squeezed. "I'll help you remember, if you want."
"I don't suppose he's waking up yet, is he?"
"Not that I've seen, no. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. He'll come along in his own good time, I suppose." He smiled. "In the meantime, I have things to do. It's enough."
Merlin's house grew to a respectable size, with a study and library that Gaius would have been proud of, gardens full of fragrant medicinal herbs, and a courtyard large enough for a dragon to land in and visit for a night or two. Merlin kept to himself for the most part, but his house was known as a place of learning, and more than a few scholars took up correspondence with him as the decades passed. He always missed them when their letters inevitably stopped coming, but it was the way of mortals to come and then go in the blink of an eye, and he'd mostly come to terms with that.
The mix of science and sorcery that he'd unwittingly fostered had made for uncountable advances in both fields. Scientists discovered bacteria, and the atom, and the speed of light; sorcerers spoke to the tiniest life forms, manipulated molecules, and bent the pathways to the stars. It never occurred to Merlin to take any credit for what the mortals around him did. He wasn't a god, and didn't want to be; what he had was enough.
Humans were still petty sometimes, or stupid, or selfish, or cruel—wars and curses still afflicted people, diseases still spread, greed exploited people and land alike—but they were also amazingly creative and kind. For every robber baron out there hoarding his wealth, there were dozens who would give theirs away to help the poorest of the poor. For every destructive dictator, there were hundreds of artists creating beauty. For every sorcerer who craved power over others, there were scores of druids struggling to maintain the balance.
It was enough.
Aithusa had come to visit, fifteen hundred years after Merlin had first hatched her, and they were enjoying the sun together in his courtyard when a cold breeze blew across them. The white dragon stood, hot breath gusting from her nostrils, while Merlin's magic told him they were no longer alone.
An ancient goddess stood on the other side of the courtyard, one Merlin recognized.
"An Cailleach," he said, bowing respectfully. "It's been a long time."
"Emrys. I did tell you we would meet again."
"You did… may I offer you hospitality?"
"There is no need."
"Then, if I'm not being too blunt, what brings you to my home?"
"I bring tidings," said An Cailleach, stepping closer. "If you were a god, you would have a right to this knowledge. If you were a mortal, you would find out in your own time."
"Then why tell me now?"
"You are close enough to a god that it will harm nothing to do so."
Merlin couldn't imagine the gatekeeper to the land of the dead having anything good for him to hear. He braced himself, and asked anyway. "What are your tidings?"
"Only this: The Wheel turns."
The Great Wheel. When Merlin had first heard that phrase, he hadn't known what it meant, but now… he took a deep breath. "The dead?" He'd known a lot of people over the past millennium and a half. Apart from his companions among the gods and dragons, they had all died, sooner or later.
"Some have watched over you for a long time. Some have been reborn and forgotten you. But others prepare to return, and wish to reacquaint themselves with you. You may need to quest to find them, when the time comes."
Merlin's eyes grew wide. "And Arthur?"
"Does not dwell in my domain, as you well know," she replied tartly. "Nevertheless. The Wheel turns, Emrys. See that it does not crush you when it does."
He studied her face, but she looked only inscrutable, ancient, and sad, just as she had the last time they'd spoken. "I'll do my best," he said, and she nodded.
Between one breath and the next, she was gone.
Over the next five years, Merlin received visitors more than he'd ever done in his life, and his guest rooms were almost never empty. He collected email, cell numbers, and holographic links to friends all over the world, mortal friends, some of whom remembered things from before they were born.
Remembered him, and Camelot, and Arthur.
Merlin's hands shook sometimes with the intensity of his feelings, the knowledge that if Arthur's people were returning, unlooked for, then it was only a matter of time before Arthur himself came back as well. He set aside one guest room and kept it empty, waiting.
And then came the moment when Freya woke him in the middle of the night, a gleeful grin on her face. "Sunrise," she whispered. "It will be at sunrise. Be ready."
The Sidhe, after all this time, still did not like Merlin very much, and apparently did not like it that he and Freya had been in so much contact over the centuries. Thus it was that Arthur was not so much returned to life in triumph as he was spat out of Avalon, barely healed and barely conscious. Merlin was furious at them for the insult to his king, but he had more important matters to see to.
He brought Arthur into the guest room that was waiting for him, and put him to bed, and sat all that day and into the night holding his hand and resisting the urge to run fingers through his corn silk hair, so much softer and more golden than Merlin remembered. His magic flowed through Arthur's body, finding him healed but exhausted. There was nothing that Merlin needed to do but allow him to rest, and so he did.
The next morning, Arthur opened his eyes slowly, and after a moment focused on Merlin. Merlin held his breath, unsure what his king would say.
"Thought I died," were the first words out of his mouth, and Merlin felt tears well up.
"You did, sire." Or, he'd come close enough as to make no difference in the grand scheme of things. "I'm so sorry."
Arthur shook his head. "I'm alive now?"
Arthur swallowed, and brought his left hand across to rest on Merlin's, which were both clasping his right. "You waited."
Merlin nodded, and the tears spilled over his cheeks at the motion. "I did." He gave a watery grin and added, "Took you long enough."
His king took a deep breath and shut his eyes again, and on the exhale said softly, "Thank you."
"Always, sire. For you, always."
This was a weird little idea that wouldn't leave me alone, and I'm still not sure it's my strongest fic, but for those of you who chose to read it anyway, you have my thanks. Your comments mean the world to me.
I don't have any plans for another fic right now, but if you want, my Tumblr ask box is open for prompts or just discussion of the story, whatever you like. I can make no guarantee that I'll be able to fill those prompts, but I will read every single one.
Have a great winter holiday season!