"I'm sorry, my King, but Merlin... Merlin is dead."
Arthur sits at the desk in his chambers, head in his hands, as he stares blankly at the parchment in front of him. He's supposed to be writing a speech for Merlin's ceremony, but he can't seem to focus. No words fit.
"No... No. Where is he?"
"There isn't a body to recover, Sire," Leon says gently.
Arthur doesn't hear George come in and collect his untouched dinner. The candles continue burning until there isn't anything left to burn. The sun is coming up through the windows behind him.
His head snaps up, recognizing the voice. He looks around frantically, the chair crashing to the floor.
But his servant, his friend, his... well. He isn't there.
George comes in, looking concerned. "Sire?" There are dark circles under his eyes, and it looks like he's been up all night. Arthur realizes he never dismissed him last night, so he must have been waiting for him.
"George. Please, take the day off."
He swears he can hear Merlin's laughter, but brushes it off as a lack of sleep.
"Thank you, Sire," George leaves with a bow that Merlin always forgot. Arthur should be happy to have a servant that knows what he's doing, but... it just isn't the same.
"What do you mean, there isn't a body?"
"He went over the cliff edge, Sire, into the river. He's gone."
Arthur shakes his head, pulling himself back to the present as Gwen walks into his room holding a tray of food.
"Arthur?" She gently sets the food down and puts a hand on his arm. "George told me you didn't eat dinner."
"I'm not hungry," he says, sounding rather like a petulant child.
"Please, Gwen, just... leave me."
The ride back to Camelot had been silent. It was as if the world was mourning the loss along with Arthur and his Knights.
He'd tried looking for Merlin, along the shores of the river, but it was so turbulent he knew Merlin couldn't have survived the fall.
Arthur stares at the parchment again. He's started his speech many times, and he keeps crossing them out and starting over.
He must have been awake for longer than he thought, because he starts to hallucinate. The quill picks itself up and starts writing.
"Merlin?" Arthur asks, incredulously. "How?"
Arthur scoffs. "I know you had magic, Merlin, but no one could have survived that fall. Not even you..."
A breeze blows through the room, moving the curtains and the parchment on the table. Arthur closes his eyes for a moment, trying to remember a time in his life when he was happy.
When Merlin stumbles out of the woods, covered in mud but smiling, he decides. His pure joy at finding Merlin alive and well, holding him close despite the Knights standing behind him.
Arthur opens his eyes, and realizes the windows are closed. The breeze... He shakes his head. He really is losing it without sleep.
He wanders down to Gaius' chambers to ask for a sleeping draught. The physician already had one prepared, like he knew Arthur would come and see him.
"Do you think... Is there any way Merlin could have survived?"
Gaius pauses what he's doing, looking at the King with sadness in his eyes.
"It is very unlikely, Sire, given the strength of the rapids."
Arthur closes his eyes and nods. "Thank you, Gaius."
He returns to his chambers and takes the entire sleeping draught in one go, wanting to sleep for a while.
The King is restless in sleep, dreaming of Merlin. He dreams of his death, imagines the way Merlin would have been quickly swept under by the current and likely drowned. He sees Merlin washed up on the shore, body broken and lifeless. He sees the Druids discover Merlin's body and rush to his aid...
He sits up in bed.
George has just entered the room holding a tray of food.
"George, prepare my horse. I leave within the hour."
The servant nods and disappears to do as he's asked.
"My lord, it's been a sennight already. It's time to say goodbye to him."
Arthur shakes his head. "No, I... I can't."
Arthur takes the horse's reins from George and thanks the boy, set to ride off when Gwaine rides up next to him.
"You think he's still alive."
It isn't a question.
"Yes," Arthur answers anyway. "I do."
They ride for the Druids, only stopping when absolutely necessary.
When they arrive, they leave their weapons in the saddles, and Iseldir meets them.
"Here at last, Arthur Pendragon. Come."
The Druid leader takes them to a large tent and holds the flap open for them.
In the middle, on a bed of blankets and pillows, is Merlin. He looks like he's sleeping, but from what Arthur can see of his chest, it's clear he was badly injured.
"Merlin," Arthur whispers, dropping to his knees next to the man.
Merlin's eyes flutter open, and he doesn't seem surprised to see Arthur.
"You got my message..."
Arthur lets out a wet-sounding laugh, and leans down to press a gentle kiss to Merlin's forehead.
"Trust you to communicate through dreams and spells rather than a letter."
They laugh, and Gwaine steps forward to greet Merlin. He gives him a gentle hug, and steps out to talk to Iseldir.
"Gods above, I can't remember the last time you were this silent, Merlin."
"Blessing in disguise, is it?"
"No," Arthur says quietly. "I've missed you."
Merlin takes Arthur's hand and places it on his heart.
"I never left your side."