His shoulder tingled strangely where the Questing Beast had bitten him.
It wasn't pain, exactly, but the feeling was definitely uncomfortable. The sling Gaius had insisted he wear lay discarded on his bed, and his left arm hung limply by his side. He flexed his fingers experimentally. Still no pain. He could do this.
He raised his left hand to the collar of his shirt and hissed as needles lanced up and down his arm. He let his arm fall to his side again, swearing loudly. Where was Merlin? He had hardly seen the idiot all day. Did he expect Arthur to get ready for bed with only one usable arm? Maybe it had been too long since the last time he'd been in the stocks. Arthur scowled and snapped the sling up from the bed with his right hand. Somehow, he wrestled himself into it again and strode out the door.
He passed a few servants as he walked through the castle, and they all bowed respectfully, but he didn't think to ask any of them to help him. His eyes scanned the corridors, looking for a red neckerchief, laughing blue eyes, and an insolent smile. When he reached Gaius' rooms, his irritation had strengthened. If Merlin was sleeping... He pushed the door open so violently the handle knocked against the wall on the other side.
Gaius was sitting at his desk, a dozen parchments scattered in front of him. Two opened vials releasing what Arthur suspected were toxic fumes into the air sat on the desk, but Gaius wasn't looking at them or the papers. He appeared to be staring into emptiness. Deep in thought, Arthur guessed. The old man hadn't even heard him enter, even though – Arthur glanced at the door sheepishly – he hadn't exactly been quiet.
Arthur waited a few seconds, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. A look out the window reminded him it was getting late, and he cleared his throat. Twice.
Gaius turned his head slowly. For a moment, he stared blankly at Arthur. Then all at once, his wits seemed to return to him and he sat up so quickly he knocked his stool to the floor.
"My lord," he said. "How may I serve you?" His eyes went to Arthur's arm. "Is your wound still hurting? I have a potion –"
"My shoulder is fine," Arthur said. "It only needs a little more time. Thank you, Gaius. A less talented physician may not have been able to heal it. I do believe you've saved my life."
"Saved you," Gaius echoed, and Arthur realised there was a strange, hollow quality to his voice. "Yes, my lord. Of course. I only did my duty." He averted his eyes.
Arthur felt uneasy. It was clear Gaius didn't want him here, though he would never say so. Come to think of it, why hadn't the physician been sleeping? Half the castle had gone to bed by this hour.
"I'm looking for Merlin," Arthur said, unable to keep some of his irritation from creeping into his tone. "I haven't seen him all day –"
"He isn't here," Gaius said flatly.
Arthur frowned. "No? Then where is he? I thought perhaps he was already asleep." He glanced at the door which led to Merlin's tiny room; it was closed.
"Asleep," Gaius repeated. "Yes, I suppose... you could say that."
"I'm not in the mood for riddles, Gaius. If he's in there, there's no use protecting him."
Ignoring Gaius' quiet protests, Arthur walked over to the door and flung it open. "Merlin –" he began hotly, but stopped when he saw the room was empty. The bed was made and tidier than Arthur had ever seen his own bed. There was a shirt on the floor, and a scrap of red fabric that Arthur identified as one of Merlin's neckerchiefs. And that was it.
A tingle ran up Arthur's spine. Without knowing why, he stepped into the room and stared at it a while longer. The walls were bare and ugly, cracked in places. The sheets were plain and, Arthur could tell at a glance, scratchy, with a blanket hardly thicker than his tunic. It was plainly a servant's room, but every inch of it screamed of Merlin – the neckerchief on the floor, the string of beads wrapped around the head of the bed, the withered flowers in a corner. Arthur took another step, and the floor creaked beneath his feet. He looked down and knelt, his fingers moving along the floorboards, looking for something, but what –
A hand on his shoulder made him jump. Sheepish, he looked up at Gaius.
"I told you, he isn't here."
"I just thought –"
Gaius shook his head silently. Arthur stood up and brushed the dust off his knees before raising his eyes to meet Gaius' again. The old man's eyes were red, he noticed, as though he were very tired.
"I should leave," he said, suddenly ashamed. "You should get some sleep."
Gaius didn't answer. He guided Arthur out of Merlin's bedroom with a slight push on his shoulder and carefully closed the door behind him. He stood there for a few seconds, staring at it.
"Gaius..." Arthur's shoulder was beginning to itch. "Is everything all right? You seem... different."
"I'm fine, my lord. Perhaps you should go to bed."
"I was trying," Arthur said. "But Merlin's nowhere to be found. I don't know where he's gone off to. Did he tell you anything? When did he leave?"
"Hours ago. He left... hours ago."
"Where is he?" Arthur pressed. "Not the tavern, surely. He knew I'd need him tonight –"
"Merlin never went to the tavern."
"What? I told you, Gaius, it's no use protecting him. I only want to find him. I'm not going to take his head off for being late."
At the words take his head Gaius flinched, and it was then that Arthur knew something was terribly wrong. A cold hand wrapped itself around his heart.
"Gaius," he said, struggling to keep his voice steady. "Where is he?"
Gaius stared at him.
"Where is he? Where is Merlin?" A queer sort of panic rose in Arthur, though he couldn't have said why. "Gaius, tell me. Tell me now."
"Merlin..." Gaius seemed to have trouble speaking. His breathing was slow and labourious. "Merlin... Merlin won't be coming back."
No. "You mean he's left? Where? Has he gone back to Ealdor?"
Gaius' eyes shifted, moving over to his cot in a corner of the room. Arthur followed his gaze and realised, with a jolt, that someone was sleeping there. A woman with long, straight black hair, her face slick with sweat. Hunith.
"Why is Merlin's mother here?"
"She was sick," Gaius said. "Dying."
Her illness didn't look that serious, even if her sleep was deep. "Is she going to be all right?"
"She will recover."
You don't recover from death, Arthur almost said. He didn't understand any of this. He didn't think he wanted to understand.
"If he's not going to Ealdor, then where? He doesn't have any other home." Camelot was his home. "Are you sure he said he wasn't coming back. If Hunith is here..."
"There are places no one returns from," Gaius said.
It was late. Arthur was tired, his thoughts not at their clearest. Still Gaius' words chilled him to the bone.
"What do you mean?" he asked. "Gaius, tell me what happened. I'm the prince, I'm Uther's son, and this is a command. Tell me what happened."
Gaius let out a deep sigh. "Yes, my lord," he said, and Arthur wondered whether he'd been waiting for the order.
The physician didn't say anything more, though. Instead, he gestured for Arthur to follow him. He moved slowly, like an old, old man, as though he'd taken ten years in the hours since Arthur had last seen him. It scared Arthur. Gaius led him outside the room, then down the steps, then through the great doors and outside into the courtyard. It was not yet cold, and the fresh night air filled their lungs. The moon was high in the sky, half-full and yellow.
They walked in silence. Arthur wanted to ask where Gaius was taking him, but he held his tongue. To Merlin, he knew instinctively. Wherever Merlin had gone, Gaius did know. They moved almost painfully slowly, out of the courtyard and into the deathly still village streets. Arthur could hardly recognise anything in the darkness, but Gaius never hesitated, turning this way and that without pausing until at last they stopped in front of a small house with a wooden door. Gaius knocked on it, twice, and waited.
"Maybe they're asleep," Arthur said after a few breaths. "We shouldn't be –"
The door opened a crack. "Yes?" A woman's voice, very soft.
"It's me. Gaius."
"Oh!" The door opened in full. "How is she?"
Her dark curls were lazily tied back with a leather band and Arthur had never seen the black dress she was wearing, but that didn't stop him from recognising Guinevere instantly. A mourning dress, he thought. Her father had died not that long ago, it was true.
"Hunith will recover," Gaius replied. "As Merlin knew she would."
"Well, yes, but I thought – she looked so –" Gwen bit her lip. "He won't have gone for nothing, at least. Does she know?"
"She hasn't woken yet."
Gaius gestured, and Arthur stepped forward into the light emanating from the open doorway. Gwen's mouth fell open for a moment before she recovered herself and gave a quick curtsy.
"My lord," she said, her eyes flicking back and forth between his face and Gaius'. "My house is hardly fit to..."
"He should know," Gaius said softly, and Gwen's shoulders sagged.
She nodded, and stepped aside so they could enter. The main room was small but cozy, with a dozen scented candles to light it. It was sparsely furnished, but it was obvious this was where Gwen cooked, ate, and lived. An archway on one side led to another room – a bedroom, Arthur could guess. Maybe her father's, when he had been alive.
"He's in there," Gwen said, in the same strange tone Gaius had. "I haven't moved him."
Arthur felt cold all over as he followed Gaius through the archway. It was a bedroom, tinier even than Merlin's back at the castle. The bed was hardly more than a slab of wood, a couple inches from the floor, with a mattress of straw. And on the mattress lay Merlin, in the very clothes Arthur had seen him in last, down to the stupid neckerchief.
There was no wound that Arthur could see. He was pale, but that wasn't new. He wasn't moving, but Merlin tended to sleep peacefully. He wasn't smiling, either. And he wasn't breathing.
Arthur knelt on the floor and touched two fingers to Merlin's wrist. His skin was cold, and there was no pulse to be felt. His fingers had already begun to darken even as his face went white.
Merlin's words came back to Arthur all at once. "I'm happy to be your servant, 'til the day I die."
"What happened to him?" he asked. He kept his hand on Merlin, but raised accusing eyes on Gaius. "How could this happen? Who did this?"
"No one, my lord."
"Then what? It couldn't have been an illness. No illness kills that fast without leaving a trace."
"No," Gaius agreed. "Nothing except magic."
"Then it was someone. A sorcerer –" I'll have their head.
"There was a sorcerer," Gaius admitted. "But not the one you think."
"Merlin is dead," Arthur said. His fingers closed around Merlin's wrist almost convulsively. He couldn't look down at Merlin's pale, white face. "I don't have time for riddles and guessing games. For the last time, Gaius – tell me what happened. Tell me all of it."
Gaius hesitated again. Arthur bit back his anger. "He was my manservant and I'm your prince. You owe me the truth. I demand to know how he died."
Gaius' spine remained stiff. "Why disturb the past? It doesn't matter anymore. He only needs to be put to rest. Guinevere and I will bury him at first light. It would mean a lot to him if you came with us."
"It would mean a lot to him..." Arthur's hand slid down Merlin's wrist to twine their fingers together, warm flesh against cold. A burial. Could he do that? Could he watch as Merlin was lowered into the ground?
"It matters," he said fiercely. "It matters because he wasn't meant to die. He shouldn't have died. He should be with us now – with me. It matters because he was my friend, and if our places were exchanged, he would want to know. He would deserve to know."
"Merlin would want him to know," Gwen's voice said softly from behind them.
They both turned to look at her, though Arthur still didn't let go of Merlin's cool, stiff fingers. Arthur saw now there were circles under her eyes, and they were puffy from having cried, too. And the black of her dress took on another meaning.
Gwen's dark eyes were fixed on Merlin. "Gaius told me, when he brought him back."
"Then why not tell me?" Arthur asked Gaius.
Gaius looked pained. "I... Merlin never..."
"He never told," Gwen said. "But he must have wanted to. Didn't he?"
Gaius gave a brief nod, though it looked like it cost him. He glanced down at Arthur's hand, curled protectively around Merlin's, their fingers entwined, and something flickered in his eyes.
"No one killed Merlin," he said firmly. "I tried to save him, but he wouldn't hear of it. He was too selfless. He wanted to save everyone, even if it meant his death."
"To save... everyone?" Arthur repeated, not comprehending.
"You were the first, when the Questing Beast bit you." Gaius gestured at the sling still supporting Arthur's left arm. "My poultices have no power over a Questing Beast's bite, Arthur. The only cure for that is death. Any other man would have died."
"But I didn't." Arthur's thumb stroked Merlin's palm. "I lived. So you did heal me."
"No healer has that skill. I did all I could, but it would not have been enough if Merlin hadn't... if he hadn't..." Gaius trailed off.
Something twisted in Arthur's gut. "Merlin isn't a physician."
"He didn't heal you. He went to the Isle of the Blessed to negotiate for your life."
"Negotiate? Who could –"
"The Isle of the Blessed is the home of a High Priestess of the Old Religion."
The coin dropped. "Sorcery," Arthur said. "Are you telling me he went to some sorcerer to save my life? Merlin wouldn't do that. Even he isn't that s –" He cut himself off. He'd been about to say stupid, but the word wouldn't come out, not with Merlin's hand so cold and limp in his.
"Merlin always believed in you," Gaius said, in a tone that implied he wanted to say something else, something more. "He thought your life was worth it."
"One day, you'll be a great king," Merlin had said, as if he believed it. That was the last time Arthur had seen him alive. His stomach clenched at the memory. He remembered all the insolence, the insults, the disrespect, the teasing – and then this. How could that be the last conversation he had had with Merlin?
"And this sorcerer. He... healed me?" Arthur asked, the words tasting foul in his mouth. "And then he killed Merlin."
"Merlin brought back what was needed to save you. The sorceress took Hunith in exchange."
Arthur's mind flashed back to the pale, sweat-covered woman lying in Gaius' bed, looking ten years older than she was. "You said she'd be fine."
"She will be. She was the second. Merlin saw to her, as well."
"He went back?" Arthur asked. Treason. It was illegal to consort with sorcerers, to require their services. But what did it matter, now? "Why didn't you stop him?"
"I tried." Gaius' hands were shaking, he saw now. Gwen wrapped an arm around him in silent sympathy, but Arthur couldn't bring himself to feel any sort of sympathy. "I went... before he could. I talked to the sorceress. I thought it was done, but I woke up and Merlin didn't. He must have caught up with me and... There is a balance in this world, Arthur. When your life was spared, another had to take your place. Merlin wouldn't let his mother die, nor would he let me. So he gave his life to settle the balance."
"I owe it all to Gaius," Arthur had told Merlin. Had Merlin flinched as he said it? Would he have noticed?
"You're telling me magic killed Merlin. A fucking balance killed Merlin."
"No one killed Merlin. He gave up his life. For you," Gaius added, not unkindly, but the words sent a spear through Arthur's gut anyway. His shoulder began to itch.
Merlin had died for him. None of it made any sense to Arthur – the balance, Hunith, a sorceress, an isle – but that much he could comprehend. And yet not.
"Why? I'd never ask him to. He was a servant, not a –" The words died in his mouth when Gwen cast him a withering look.
"He believed it was his destiny." Gaius sat down heavily on the edge of the mattress, as though his legs could no longer support his weight. The mattress sunk down, shifting Merlin's position lightly.
"His destiny to die?"
"His destiny to protect you. He knew you were..." Gaius closed his eyes briefly. "Gods, this was never meant to be. I should not have to be doing this. He would have told you, when the time had come..."
"But he won't," Gwen said, looking straight at Arthur. "He can't, Gaius. We have to do it for him."
"I know, Guinevere. I know it better than you." Gaius looked down at Merlin's still, pale face. "My boy... He was special, Arthur. He had a gift stronger than I'd ever seen before in an untrained person."
Arthur's arm itched furiously now, and a warning chill ran down his spine. "A gift?" he repeated.
"He was told, here in Camelot, that it was his destiny to protect you. That you had a bright future ahead. You would be the greatest king the realm has ever known, and he would be by your side to ensure you lived to see that day happen. He was meant to protect and guide you."
"Merlin? Protect me against what, dust bunnies?" The joke passed his lips before he could think it through, but when the corners of Gwen's lips tilted up in the shadow of a smile, he couldn't bring himself to regret it.
"Merlin wasn't just a servant. He wasn't meant to be a servant."
"Hardly surprising," Arthur almost quipped, but he thought that would have been going too far.
"He saved your life a dozen times, even if he had to work in the shadows. He could spend hours practicing when he knew you would need him to protect you. He lacked discipline, but he had the raw skill... In time, I know he would have been the greatest warlock this world has ever seen."
The horror and revulsion that ripped through Arthur was beyond anything he had ever experienced. It didn't occur to him not to believe Gaius. A part of him had been expecting this ever since he'd seen Merlin's empty room. But this was Merlin, his trusted Merlin, Merlin who had polished his armour and accompanied him on hunts and shared a tent with him and fucking died for him, Merlin who was at this very moment lying dead beside him.
Merlin, who apparently had used magic to do all that and more.
Merlin, who had been a sorcerer.
Arthur tore his hand out of Merlin's and stood up so quickly he almost went dizzy. "You taught him magic? My father trusts you –"
"Arthur, please. I have never betrayed Uther."
"You knowingly harboured a sorcerer, you taught him –"
"Merlin didn't need to be taught. He was born with it –"
"People aren't born knowing how to use magic."
"But Merlin was. He'd been doing it ever since he was little. That's why he came to Camelot, why his mother sent him to me. And here he realised what it was for. He's always used it for you, Arthur."
Arthur shook his head. "No. No, you're lying. Merlin didn't – I would know. I would have seen. You're lying."
There was a long silence. Gaius' eyebrows knitted together. If he had told Arthur then that there had been some misunderstanding, Arthur would have pretended to believe him. He'd have lied to himself whenever he remembered Merlin if he'd had to. But Gaius said nothing, and the silence stretched on and on, until –
"Ealdor," Gwen said, her voice velvet-soft.
Ealdor. Something tugged and pinched in Arthur's chest. That hadn't been that long ago, had it? They'd slept on the floor next to each other and spoken of the battle to come. "Whatever happens out there today, please don't think any differently of me."
"It wasn't Will," Gwen said, even though Arthur already knew. "It was Merlin."
They'd burnt Will on a funeral pyre. Merlin had wept for his friend, and Arthur remembered feeling angry and confused and grateful, for the sorcerer who had won the battle for them. Except he hadn't. Merlin had.
"He lied," Arthur said. "He always lied. He was a traitor."
Gwen scowled at him. "Don't call him that. Don't you dare call him that. Merlin was worth ten of us. Any of us."
Ten thousand of you, she might as well have said. Arthur heard it clear as day, and he felt the reproach sharply.
"I only meant –"
"He saved you," Gwen said. Her chin was tilted up. "I mean to bury him tomorrow, the way he deserves. You should come with us. If you won't, you can leave us. This is my house now."
And I'm the prince, Arthur almost said. You can't talk to me like that. But he remembered saying those exact words to Merlin, and that made him hold his tongue. He stayed.
Arthur slept there that night, with his back against the door behind which Merlin lay. He dreamed of fire and thunder, of a globe of swirling blue light, of a beautiful woman with cold cold eyes. In the dream, he followed the glowing orb through a forest and through the night until at last he reached a clearing, and it was morning, and Merlin was there. He laughed and ran toward Arthur to embrace him, alive.
When Merlin's fingers reached out to touch him, Arthur woke up. Gwen's hand was on his shoulder, gently shaking him awake.
They left the city in the back of a covered wagon. Gaius drove, and Arthur and Gwen sat beside Merlin's body. Arthur was acutely aware of the cold, stiff corpse beside him, though he wouldn't look at it. He'd seen dead men before, countless times. He'd lost men he cared about, he'd seen soldiers die gruesome deaths – but this was Merlin, and like everything Merlin did, his death left Arthur feeling slightly resentful and mostly bemused. His magic, on the other hand... Arthur didn't know what to think about that.
He watched Guinevere instead, and Gwen was watching Merlin, so she didn't seem to feel his gaze. He had often noticed her beauty, but it was faded and dull now, its glow washed away by grief. Arthur wondered how he himself looked. Was his face also grey and ashen, his eyes red, his mouth unable to smile? Or did Gwen grieve for Merlin more than Arthur did, Arthur whom he had been closest to? We weren't friends, he told himself. It was a lie, but Merlin had probably never known it. Two servants had more right to be friends than a prince and his manservant.
"Why would you come, if you can't even look at him?"
Arthur looked away from Gwen, his eyes focusing on the canvas hiding them from view.
"Looking isn't treason." Gwen's voice was hard as ice. "Looking won't corrupt you. You owe him at least that much."
Arthur wasn't so tired and drained that he wasn't surprised by her newfound audacity. The awkward, stammering Gwen he knew never spoke so coldly or authoritatively to her prince. "You owe him at least that much." Arthur hadn't looked at Merlin since Gaius had come out with the truth. He didn't think, if he looked at his manservant again, that his face would have changed. Still, in his mind he couldn't face it. He wanted to remember the Merlin he'd always known – the one in his dream, who smiled and laughed and was innocent and guileless. Not the lying, scheming, stupidly suicidal sorcerer he had really been. And he knew, if he looked at Merlin now, that would be all he could see.
"He died to save you, you know."
"I never wanted it," Arthur said defensively.
"Would you rather have died? Another man might be grateful."
How can I be grateful? There was nothing honourable about what Merlin had done: lied and pretended, dissembled and faked, and all to protect someone he refused to be honest with. Arthur couldn't summon any gratitude. He felt dirty, sullied by Merlin's lies and his sacrifice; a sorcerer's sacrifice. If Merlin had told him what he was doing, Arthur would never have let him go.
He did tell you.
"I'm happy to be your servant. Till the day I die," Merlin had said, and Arthur had seen nothing, realised nothing.
And if he had realised, what then? He was a sorcerer. He would have died anyway.
"Arthur," Gwen said, and then, in a tone so rushed he just knew her cheeks had flushed, "I mean, my lord. I wouldn't want to make you feel guilty. I just meant... Merlin knew what he was doing. He believed in you. If you cared for him at all, don't let him down. That's all I'm asking."
Arthur shivered, and a twinge of pain ran up his left arm. He remembered Gwen's voice, warmer than it was now, speaking other words through a cloud of fever. "You are going to live to be the man I've seen inside you, Arthur. I can see a king that the people will love." What had he done, that Gwen would believe that of him, that Merlin would sacrifice himself for that dream? What man was worthy of that sacrifice, what man could rise up to such a challenge?
"You'd want me to legalise sorcery," he said in a hollow voice. "That's what Merlin wanted, isn't it? That's why he stayed."
"He stayed because he knew you would be a great king. And you will be, Arthur, if you'll only let yourself. Arthur, look at me."
He did, and saw that her eyes were shining beneath a veil of tears. Why couldn't he summon any? There wasn't so much as a lump in his throat.
"Today isn't the day you become that king," Guinevere said. "Today is the day you grieve for the one who believed in you. Merlin didn't die for the man you will be. He died for you, for who you were and are today. For that, at least, you should miss him."
I do miss him, Arthur thought. He had missed Merlin from the moment he had realised he was gone, trying to undress last night alone in his room. He had become used to having a clumsy, grinning shadow always following him. Now, whenever he walked, he felt as though something were missing.
At last his eyes slid down Gwen's arm to her hand, which lay on Merlin's pale forehead. And he looked at Merlin.
He looked long and hard, his eyes tracing Merlin's cheekbones, his jawline, the white curve of his neck disappearing beneath that stupid neckerchief; Merlin's thin shoulders, the clothes that hung almost awkwardly on him, the slender fingers and short, dirty nails; Merlin's trousers, cut from an old pair of Arthur's, so ill-fitting Arthur had hooted with laughter the first time he'd seen him in them. He looked until his eyes stung and his throat tightened so that he could hardly breathe, and then he looked some more, and when he raised a hand to his face, it came away wet and salty.
Gwen reached out and pressed her palm to his wet one, her fingers lacing through his, squeezing in a silent offer of comfort. Arthur felt weak and half-treasonous, but at the same time it was as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and he held on to her hand tightly and dragged his eyes away from Merlin. Through the veil of tears in his eyes, Gwen glowed like an angel.
"I hate him," Arthur said, and knew it for the truth. "I hate that he lied, and left me, and died before I could tell him how much I –" hated him, he thought, but also needed him, valued him.
"I know," Gwen said in a strangled voice. "I know."
By the time the wagon halted, Arthur's eyes were dry again. He helped Gwen down, then gently gathered Merlin in his arms, with one arm under his shoulders and the other under his knees, holding him close to his chest as he carried him outside. They had crossed a forest, he could tell at a glance. The wagon had left deep gouges in the muddy grass behind them. Behind them lay green fields; ahead, hills and trees.
"This way," Gaius said, pointing at a small group of bushes and low trees. "It isn't far, now."
Arthur shifted Merlin so his servant's head rested against his shoulder and followed. Merlin was cold and limp in his arms, but he didn't flinch away from the contact. His heart felt heavier than the weight in his arms, and with every step he came closer to letting go for good. Until then, he held on tightly.
Beyond the brush lay a shimmering lake, wide and peaceful and quiet. Arthur was certain he had never seen it before, but the sight woke something in his heart, a strange feeling of longing and recognition. On the edge, a narrow boat was tied to a tiny dock so old the wood looked like it might not support a man's weight. And Arthur knew, somehow.
He stepped forward onto the deck, though it shifted ominously under his weight. Kneeling, he carefully set Merlin down, arranging his arms and legs so that he looked comfortable and peaceful. He spent more time deciding on Merlin's position than necessary, he knew, but when at last it seemed right he had trouble stepping back from the dock. His fingers tingled where they had touched Merlin.
When he reluctantly turned away from the boat, he saw Gaius kneeling beside a small pile of dry sticks, with a stone and flint in his hands. Further away, Guinevere was walking in the grass with her black skirt billowing around her legs, and every so often she would bend down and add something to the small basket under her arm. Arthur made his way to her. Her basket was already full to the brim with wildflowers, all red and yellow and blue and purple. They reeked so much of life it left a bitter taste in Arthur's mouth.
Then, all too early, everything was ready. Gaius stood in front of a blazing fire, and Gwen knelt where Arthur had minutes previously, tucking flowers beneath Merlin's neckerchief, in the buttonholes of his shirt, around his wrists and beneath him like a mattress of colour. A crown of vivid flowers went around his head, and another wreath encircled his neck before Gwen had emptied her basket. Then she stood and backed away.
It was Arthur who drew his knife and cut the boat loose. It was Arthur who gave the boat the shove that sent it moving gently forward across the lake, the water rippling all around it. It was Arthur who took the bow Gaius handed him, dipped the arrow in the fire, and nocked it. He raised the bow and drew the string back in one fluid motion... and hesitated. He held the bow taut for several seconds, eyes trained on the boat as it moved further away.
"Arthur," Gwen said, quietly.
Arthur released the arrow. They watched the blazing trail it left behind it as it soared across the sky, then began to fall. For a second there was nothing; then the fire took, and smoke and flame rose from the boat, burning across the water and casting beautiful shadows on the lake. The smoke pricked at Arthur's eyes, making him blink fiercely.
They watched in silence as the boat floated away and burned slowly, the fire consuming Merlin's body. Silent tears slid down Gaius' cheeks, but when Gwen began to weep in earnest, Arthur slid an arm around her waist. If truth be told, the touch brought him at least as much comfort as it did Gwen. The lump in his throat grew as he looked at the boat, tears making his eyes smart. They should have said something before setting him afire, he realised, something that explained just how much Merlin meant.
Gwen seemed to think the same. "Goodbye, Merlin," she said, her voice thick with tears. "And thank you."
"Thank you," Arthur echoed, pushing from his mind all thoughts of the sorcerer and focusing only on the servant, the friend who had died for him.
Gaius said nothing, but Arthur thought he could sense his approval. It felt wrong, somehow, that only the three of them were here. Hunith wouldn't wake up for hours yet, Gaius had told them, and they hadn't dared to tell anyone else about Merlin. It made for a sorry funeral for someone who deserved so much more, and so much less.
Come back, Merlin, thought Arthur. Come back so I can tell you what an idiot you are.
But of course Merlin didn't.
His shoulder healed quickly.
The day after Merlin's ashes had sunk down to the bottom of the lake, Arthur removed the sling. He could move his arm freely in all directions, and felt only a little discomfort when raising it above his head. He could dress and undress himself without needing help. He almost regretted it, because the pain in his arm had reminded him of Merlin.
He told his father Merlin had gone home when his mother did, because he was concerned about her health. In truth, Hunith had left the very day she'd woken up, perfectly healthy, because there was nothing left in Camelot for her anymore. Uther had said something about taking on a new manservant, and Arthur had hummed noncommittally, but inside he had been raging. How was he meant to find a replacement for Merlin? He'd never met anyone as insolent yet loyal, and he doubted he would find someone like that again. Insolence wasn't a quality he looked for in a servant, but in Merlin, it had been refreshing.
Gwen wasn't insolent. Whenever he passed her in the corridors, she averted her eyes, which infuriated and dismayed him both. He wasn't sure what he'd done, or not done, to deserve it. He missed the way she looked at her, with pride and affection and encouragement, and the way she addressed him, respectful but unafraid to speak her mind. "I know that one day you will be a greater king than your father could ever be..."
His father was a good king, he knew. He watched him more closely now than ever. He had always wanted to emulate his father, to be strong and proud and kingly like him, to make him proud of his son. And that desire was still there when he watched his father take decisions, make choices, and deliver sentences. Uther was a just, competent ruler. He never let his emotions cloud his judgment... except where magic was concerned. Arthur could predict the sentence even before the case was fully explained. Uther was inflexible when it came to magic users.
Arthur had been raised in full awareness of all the harm it could do, the people it could kill, the danger it represented for the kingdom. He understood his father's views. But Merlin's death had opened his eyes to the other uses of magic. The lives it could save, the dangers it could prevent, the fear it instilled in the very hearts of its users, who risked discovery every time they called upon it.
And Merlin used it every day, right under our noses, and we never saw. Uther's system was deeply flawed, if such a sorcerer as Merlin had been able to live at court without anyone ever realising something. The knowledge was disquieting.
Two weeks after Merlin's death, a witch was arrested, judged, and sentenced to death at a trial Arthur had declined to attend. Uther would have found it strange if he didn't at least show himself at the execution, though, so he forced himself to stand beside his father and look down as the witch knelt and laid her head on the block.
"Magic is a poison which spreads like a sickness," Uther told him. "We cannot rest until every last drop is gone from the kingdom."
The witch pushed her hair to the side to leave her neck exposed. Dark hair, almost black, and though it was long and thick, when the axe came down it was Merlin's head that Arthur saw rolling on the floor, and he was almost sick.
"About your manservant," Uther said afterwards. "Have you given any thought to it?"
"To what?" Arthur asked dumbly, his stomach still roiling. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the bloody axe, and the witch's dead eyes staring up at him accusingly.
"A replacement," Uther said patiently. "I understand it will be difficult to get accustomed to him at first, but in time, it will be like Merlin was never there."
Arthur's mouth twisted at that. That was the last thing he wanted, though his father couldn't know.
"Maybe," he said. "I'd need to find someone suitable."
"I doubt that will prove difficult."
Arthur shrugged. "Promise me this: if you get another servant, don't get a bootlicker." He had gone over Merlin's last words to him countless times. He had committed them to memory and tried to make sense of them, but every time he tried, it seemed to him Merlin had only been saying Good-bye. "Just... don't be a prat," he had said, and Arthur couldn't even find that amusing anymore, only sad beyond measure. Merlin, you idiot, why?
He realised Merlin was gone when he went to the market with Morgana.
Of course he'd known Merlin wasn't coming back. He'd seen the body, had watched the fire consume him, had known his ashes lay at the bottom of the lake. But until then, it hadn't really sunk in. He sometimes found himself tucking a piece of information away to tell Merlin later, or turning around and expecting Merlin to be there like he always was. Every time he wasn't, something twisted in his gut.
That day, though, Morgana – to whom, Arthur was certain, Gwen had told everything – graciously invited him to come to the market in the lower town with her. Gwen trailed after them, like a proper lady's servant, and Arthur realised with a pang that he missed Merlin traipsing after him wherever he went. He missed the constant companionship and always having someone to talk to, to mock and tease, to exchange a joke with. Merlin liked to keep a running commentary of everything he saw, and Arthur missed that as well, though at the time he'd only told Merlin to shut up. But that wasn't the worst part of the day.
When they left the market, they passed by the stocks, where a young man was locked into place. Tomato juice dripped from his hair and into his eyes, and rotten fruit had stained the wood around his face. Arthur froze and stared, unable to look away. How many times had he sent Merlin to the stocks, pleased with his own joke? Merlin had always come out of it laughing, which only prompted Arthur to do it again.
He would never see the stocks again.
It was a stupid thought. Arthur couldn't make any sense of it, but for some reason the stocks fascinated him. Looking at the dark-haired youth covered in tomato juice was almost like seeing a ghost. Morgana had stopped when he had, but now her hand pressed against his arm gently, signalling that they should go ahead. Arthur hardly felt it.
"Arthur," she said. "Please don't."
He blinked and looked at her. Her eyes were wide and worried where they hardly ever let any emotion show. That brought him back down to earth. When he glanced at the youth again, he only saw a stranger.
"I'm sorry," he said, blinking again. "I just..."
She linked her arm through his again, and they returned to the castle, walking slowly. Arthur was all too aware of Gwen a few steps behind them. Morgana's touch burned hot through his sleeve, and he wished it was another woman on his arm.
That night he waited outside Morgana's chambers until Gwen left them, carrying Morgana's dress, clearly destined to be washed. Gwen froze when she saw him, and curtsied awkwardly without dropping the dress.
"Careful. It's brushing against the floor," Arthur said, and Gwen straightened up again, blushing. He had missed that blush.
"My l-lord," she said, with a hint of a stammer. "Should I announce you to the lady Morgana?"
"Guinevere. You can stop that. There's no one around."
Gwen looked around, her dark eyes darting left and right. "My lady is –"
"I spent the entire afternoon with Morgana. I think that's more than any man ought to suffer. It's you I wished to see, Guinevere."
Gwen held the dress more tightly to her chest. "My lord –"
"You never call me Arthur anymore," he said. "You hardly ever talk to me. You won't even look at me."
"I'm sorry, my lord. I just –"
"My lord again. What is it, Guinevere? How have I offended you?"
"Oh!" She looked genuinely dismayed. "You haven't. Of course you haven't. I just thought..." She averted her gaze. "You're the prince. The way I spoke to you, I shouldn't have –"
"You should," he said. "You're the only one who speaks to me like that. Who speaks the truth. And I... I like it," he confessed. "I know that one day you will be king. It's what keeps me going." "I wish you wouldn't avoid me."
She blushed again, but didn't deny it, which hurt.
"Do you blame me?" he forced himself to ask. "Do you resent me for what happened to Merlin? For what I said afterward? Because I –"
"No," she said rushedly. "No, of course not. I know why Merlin did it." She bit her lip shyly. "I... I would have done the same."
It was meant to be reassuring. It was meant to be friendly, maybe even more. But the words chilled Arthur to the bone.
"No," he said, so harshly Gwen flinched. "God, no. I don't ever want to hear you say that. Merlin was wrong, and I'm not – I won't let anyone else die for me. Least of all you."
Gwen met his gaze again, and he was surprised to see that she was smiling. "He was right," she said. "So right, and you'll never know. But one day, Arthur..."
She didn't finish her sentence, or if she did, Arthur never heard. When she spoke his name he closed the distance between them and touched his lips to hers, gently, chastely. He felt her stiffen in his arms, and her hands rose to his chest as though to push him away, though she didn't. Her lips were slack against his, and Arthur pulled back, his face heating up.
"I'm sorry," he said, feeling a fool. She had been still and unresponsive, only giving in because he was the prince and she was a servant. "I shouldn't have..."
Gwen's expression was frosty, and there was no trace of a smile left. "No," she agreed. "You shouldn't have."
She brushed past him as she left. She smelled of roses and rain and lost opportunities.
After that Arthur felt lonelier than ever. Whenever he passed Gwen, it was he who averted his eyes and pretended not to see her. He felt ashamed whenever he recalled that night, the way she had wanted to push him away but hadn't dared to. If she had, he told himself, it would have hurt less. It would have shown she wasn't afraid to stand up to him. He had always believed that. Now, he wasn't so sure.
It only took a few days before he caved and accepted the manservant Uther offered him. His name was James, and he was a servant. That shouldn't have surprised Arthur, but it did. It took some time getting used to someone who called him "my lord" without irony, who was always prompt and flinched whenever he misstepped as though he feared a lash, who was as quick and efficient as Merlin had been relaxed and unworried. Arthur tried to coax the lad into a conversation a couple times, but soon gave up; James only answered direct questions, and even then with as few words as possible. He bored Arthur near to tears, but it was better than no one, so Arthur filled the blanks in the conversation himself. Once he mentioned Merlin, but even then James asked no questions, and Arthur never spoke of him again.
It was disquieting to realise how much space Merlin had taken up in his life. Now that he was no longer there, Arthur felt the lack sorely. He had tried talking to Gaius, but Gaius was much busier now than he ever had been when Merlin was alive, and even mentioning his name brought tears to the old man's eyes, so Arthur felt awful every time and stopped trying. That left only Morgana, but Gwen was never far from Morgana's side, so Arthur had taken to avoiding her as well. His knights were comrades, but not friends, and there was no one he could have talked to as freely as to Merlin.
He had had companions, boys his own age whom he joked with and with whom he played pranks – bullied, Morgana had called it – on others. But until Merlin came to Camelot, there had been no one he shared everything with, no one he trusted so completely, no one he could have called friend and meant it. No one who had betrayed his trust so completely.
It was still hard to swallow, but it was becoming easier every day. Arthur tried not to think what he would have done if he had found out the truth before Merlin died. As it was, it was hard to resent a dead man. The good memories outnumbered the bitter ones, and they were the ones he chose to remember. Still, from time to time he wondered, and those days he found himself wishing Merlin had trusted him with the truth, no matter the outcome. He wished he could have had that sort of friendship, at least once. A king does not have friends, his father had told him once. He may love his subjects, but he can never call them friend, lest he be unable to judge them should the day come when they stand before him as criminals. How right he had been.
But that wasn't the sort of king Arthur wanted to be. Friendless and alone, cold-hearted and aloof. He had known that once, and didn't care to return to it. But, willingly or not, he had cut himself off from all those he called friend.
He thought of Gwen often, and of the way her hands had lain flat against his chest, almost – but not quite – pushing him off her. Did he repulse her so? He had thought, when she had spoken to him on his sickbed... but he had been wrong.
The first weeks were the hardest. But as days and weeks and months went by, Arthur became stronger.
The first time he was attacked by a sorcerer, he ended up with a star-shaped scar on his chest and a narrow escape from death.
The second time it happened, he was more prepared, and the sorcerer burned.
The third time they caught one at it, Arthur realised just how much Merlin had been doing for him, but also how dangerous magic really was, and how its users all hated him. After that he was always tense and on the lookout, and he frequently spoke to Gaius about prevention.
Then Morgana started having dreams.
It was Gwen who came to him, looking as though she would rather be anywhere else. They hadn't spoken in months, nigh on a year, not since that kiss. But she came.
Her face was ashen and her eyes downcast. She was as lovely as she had ever been.
"My lord," she said. "I'm sorry, I..." Her eyes darted left and right. "May I come in?"
She looked nervous, and Arthur stepped aside to let her in. His room was spotless, courtesy of his new manservant, whom Arthur had slowly become used to. Gwen's eyes scanned the room, and he thought he knew what she was thinking.
"What is it?"
He deliberately kept his tone cool, and had the satisfaction of seeing Gwen flush. The sight held no charm for him, though; beneath the satisfaction, he felt a hint of shame.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, my lord," she said, her eyes fixed on his feet. He wished she would look up at him, so he could see her eyes. "I wouldn't if it weren't important. It's about Lady Morgana. She –"
"Look at me," he interrupted her.
Gwen froze, then slowly raised her eyes to his. They were wide and pleading, and as warm as Arthur remembered. He smiled at her despite himself, but she didn't smile back.
"Morgana's in danger," she said, dropping the title. "Please, my lord."
"How can I help?" Arthur asked, thinking of his sword, his knights.
"She's been having dreams. Every night, or close enough as makes no difference. She wakes up screaming, or breathless, and terrified."
"Nightmares," said Arthur. "What can I do about that?"
Gwen bit her lip. "You're the only one who can help. You have to. She doesn't know who to trust, who to go to. Gaius won't tell us anything, but she knows. There's something wrong. It's not normal. They're not just dreams. She sees things, and sometimes... Sometimes they come true."
No. It was the same feeling as when Gaius had told him about Merlin: that cold, hard stone dropping in his stomach, and an icy fist closing around his heart. No.
"Why hasn't Morgana said anything?" He was still on good terms with his father's ward; at least, as good as they had ever been, even though they rarely saw each other these days.
Gwen hesitated. "She doesn't know I'm here. She can't trust anyone, she's afraid someone will tell Uther... I don't know what the king would do..."
I do, thought Arthur. He knew why Morgana hadn't told him. She'd thought he would betray her to Uther, and see her burn. Maybe, once upon a time, he would have.
"Then why tell me?" Arthur asked. "Why are you here?"
"I thought..." Gwen lowered her gaze. "I thought you would remember Merlin."
There was something about the way she said that, something brazen and beautiful that sent a shiver down Arthur's spine. He remembered. He remembered everything.
"Not all magic is evil," Gwen said. "And you know Morgana. You know she isn't..."
"I do," Arthur said. "But what do you expect me to do about it?"
"She needs help. She needs support. She needs someone to tell her she isn't a freak, a monster, a murderer. She needs someone to be there for her when your father talks about how magic must be eradicated. She needs you, Arthur. You're the only one I can trust, the only one who knows magic can be used for good."
Arthur looked down at her, at her curly dark hair and smooth skin and slightly shaking hands. Trust, he thought, and a slight thrill ran through him.
"I'll see her tonight," he said. "Tell her to expect me."
Gwen curstied hastily, and made for the door.
She half-turned, expectant.
"Thank you," he said. "For everything."
It was almost seven years to the day since the Questing Beast bit Arthur when Uther got sick.
Arthur had very rarely seen an illness affect his father, but this one took him hard. On the first day he went to bed with a headache; the next morning he could hardly get up. His fever shot sky-high, he couldn't hold anything down, and he began to talk feverishly of days past, especially of Arthur's mother and a woman called Nimueh. Morgana's name often came up as well, though Arthur was hardly ever mentioned. He tried not to let that sting.
"Can't you do anything for him?" Arthur asked on the third day.
Gaius shook his head sadly. "I'm afraid there is no cure for old age, my lord. I can only ease his pain a little. I would advise you to prepare for the worst."
Prepare. No word had ever sounded colder, Arthur thought. He tried to keep his grief at bay. He isn't dead yet. But that evening in Morgana's chambers, he lay his head on her shoulder and took comfort from her slender arms around him.
"He is like a father to me, too," Morgana told him, and he knew it was true, but Morgana was afraid of Uther as well, had been ever since her dreams started. His death would come as a hard blow, but it would also bring her relief. He didn't want to think about that. He didn't want to think she would be safer when he was king. Treason, a voice still whispered in his head. In seven years, he hadn't learnt to silence it.
Uther wasted away for seventy-three days. His muscle and fat melted away and left behind hard bone and dry skin, sunken cheeks and eyes that retreated into his skull. Night after night, Arthur was at his side, watching his father die. During the day it fell to him to do everything Uther could not – appease nobles, gather councils, greet guests, and judge cases. He was surprised at how easily it came to him, though he missed being able to spend his days with his knights. Uther had raised him well.
On the morning of the seventy-fourth day, Uther woke up early. His eyes were clear, his face expressive.
Arthur leant over him, startled, hardly daring to hope. "Father..."
"Arthur." Uther's lips were dry and cracked, his voice faint. "My son."
"Yes. Yes, it's me." Arthur took his father's hand in his. The bony fingers felt fragile and breakable beneath his strong callused hand.
"Where is... Morgana?"
Something twisted in Arthur's chest, but he ignored the sensation. "In her room. Asleep. I can send for her, if you wish."
"I... yes. I must..." Uther closed his eyes briefly. "Arthur, you must know..."
"Be calm," Arthur said gently. "You shouldn't strain yourself. Gaius says –"
"Gaius knows I will not recover."
"You're better today. Talking –"
"Better," Uther echoed. "Please, send for Morgana."
The please had Arthur on his feet in an instant. He was unaccustomed to hearing his father ask, and not command. He knocked on the door until a guard appeared, sleepy-eyed but awake, and ordered him to find the Lady Morgana.
"And quickly," he added. "The king wants to see her."
"Arthur," Uther said when he returned to his side. "You will make a good ruler. You have to. I raised you... I showed you..."
"I won't disappoint you."
The smile Uther gave him was infinitely sad. "You never have."
Arthur brought his father's hand to his lips, pressing a long kiss there. It served to hide the tears welling in his eyes.
"You have to understand... I never wanted to hurt you or Morgana. I only wanted to protect you."
"We know that. Morgana loves you as her own father, you know she does."
A strange expression crossed Uther's face.
"Are you in pain?" Arthur asked, alarmed.
"No." Uther grimaced. "Not the kind of pain you mean, though." He looked at the door yearningly. "Morgana..."
"I've sent for her. She'll come."
Uther lapsed into silence then, and Arthur didn't know what to say to make him talk again. He was afraid of exhausting his father, so he respected the silence, and sat there with his eyes also trained on the door.
When at last the door opened, Morgana slid in, wearing only her thin cotton nightgown with a faded blue cloak thrown over it. Her hair was undone, a little messy from sleeping, and there was no paint on her cheeks or lips. She looked almost a girl.
Uther seemed to think so, too. "My little girl," he said, one hand reaching out to her. "Come here, Morgana."
Morgana seemed to hesitate, but she walked forward and knelt by the bed, giving him her hand. He ran his thumb over the back of her hand.
"Morgana... I'm so sorry. There is much I owe you. I hope you can forgive me before I go. I..." His voice was thick. "I promised Gorlois I would look after you. I took you in as my ward, but it was a lie. Vivienne... your mother and I, we..." Uther swallowed, as though his throat were dry. "I fathered you, not Gorlois. You're my daughter, Morgana. My daughter."
The revelation left Arthur reeling. Morgana, his sister? All those years of lying and not knowing, never suspecting, and now...
Morgana drew her hand back, very slowly. "No. I'm not."
Uther winced. "Morgana..."
"I'm not," she repeated. "You are not my father. You cannot, after so many years of telling me otherwise, now claim that right. Gorlois was my father. He loved me and told me so and raised me as his daughter."
"I did wrong by you," Uther admitted. "I wish I had done certain things differently, but I cannot change the past. Forgive me."
Say it, Arthur willed her. Three little words, and his father – their father – would be at peace. It would cost her nothing. She could even lie, if need be.
"Why," Morgana said, "did you never tell me?"
"I'm sorry. I thought –"
"Did you do it to keep Arthur safe? Did you think I would try to harm him, to steal his throne? Or were you just too ashamed? You betrayed a friend and lied to me, you lied to everyone –"
"Morgana!" Arthur said, alarmed. "Don't, look at him, he's –"
"– a liar," Morgana finished. "Think of your mother, Arthur."
Arthur flinched. He'd been avoiding thinking of that, but now it was impossible. He looked at his father, who had the grace to look ashamed, just as Morgana said.
"I loved your mother," he began, but Morgana cut him off.
"And my mother? What did you make of her?"
Uther looked pained. "Morgana. Don't let this be the last I hear –"
"You made this the last. It was your doing." She stood to leave, the cloak slipping from her shoulders to reveal the white nightgown underneath. Her expression was cold and unforgiving. "Good-bye, Uther."
Arthur caught her arm. It was smooth and white, and he could feel her shaking under his touch. "Wait. Please, Morgana. He loves you." And you love him.
Morgana's features contorted into a grimace. He could tell she was caught between two decisions, two feelings – to leave in anger, or stay out of love? She ground her teeth together, and finally knelt again and allowed Uther to take her hand, though her mouth never smiled. Arthur let out a breath.
"Thank you," Uther said. He closed his eyes. "Thank you both. My... children. God blessed me with the two of you, and I have known it every day since you were born."
They talked some more, but less and less with each passing minute. Uther died like that, lying in his bed with Morgana holding his hand and Arthur watching them, his heart heavy and his mind racing.
Arthur became king like that, in a room that smelled of sickness and death, betrayal and lies, love and scorn.
They crowned him scarcely a month later. Morgana was there, in the first row with all the important nobles, smiling at him. It was the free, honest smile he hadn't seen in a long time, not since her dreams had started, and it almost made everything worth it to have her smile like that. Her face lit up, and she was beautiful, and she was his sister.
His knights were there too, all armoured up and polished. The four fighters he had raised from lowborn scum to proper knights stood among the nobleborn. It had been his first act as king, to finally give their deserved titles to Gwaine, Lancelot, Percival and Elyan, Gwen's brother. They were as chivalrous as any knight.
Further away, near the back with all the servants, Gwen was also watching, he knew. He thought he saw a glimpse of purple in the crowd, and that made him smile. She had promised him she would come. "I wouldn't miss it for the world." He believed her, and that gave him strength.
He knelt so they could crown him. The circle of gold felt cold and heavy against his brow, but it warmed up quickly enough, and when he spun around to face his people, the cheer that rose up made his heart swell with joy and fierce pride.
"Arthur!" they shouted, "Arthur! King Arthur!"
Arthur looked at them. Their faces blurred together in his mind, and each became Merlin, Merlin as young as the day he'd first come to Camelot, armed only with the clothes on his back and an insolent grin. Merlin saying, "One day, you'll be a great king."