It would have always ended like this.
Crackling, the canopy of dust-shorn leaves above the field is alive with fire and the metallic click/clang/crash of swords against swords against wrists with delicate veins that tear too easily, like threads of fine silk unraveling against jagged nails. The curl of darkness on a wide red horizon beckons. Spits. Terrorizes. The sounds of screams riot through the air, flip into eardrums to accompany a rapid heartbeat. A deep fog shrouds the land, drowns it in chill; winter this year hasn’t so much arrived as ripped its way into the countryside, a storm at its helm and a series of bitter floods at its heels.
There is a split second in which a straight white arrow of light darts from the sky, crashes down to break open the soft, yielding earth, and it flares away the mist for just an instant, just one, so that the bodies lying listless on the ground are caught in its blinding gaze. The blood is still fluid. Has not yet dried, crusted the crisp grass.
He runs as fast as he knows how, slipping on stray clipped branches—clutching his side, barely breathing under the layer of terror in his mind, bold and dreadful as a wildfire, the one image. All he can think as he reels around the scattering of trees and comes upon the scene is, he’s seen this before. He must have. He’s dreamt this before, maybe, and forgotten it a long, long time ago. Of all the dragon’s warnings; of all Morgana’s sweat-drenched, frightened prophecies. Because it plays out like it’s already happened. Realization strikes as clearly as the lightning; all the raindrops and the winds and the seeds in the ground point him to it, finally. In the end, it’s not even a choice—it’s not a sacrifice or a gift to be given away—more a fact, a solid stone wall he’s been moving towards all along, and then he sees it, the air clears and he sees it; he knows what he needs to do, and so the words and movements are already there, let loose out of his mouth before he registers them in his throat. Arthur watches him with wide eyes that don’t understand, frightened and confused, waiting for an explanation, but he can’t—he doesn’t have any time—they’ve already run out of time.
Smooth as the rain currently melting its way onto the ground, the spell falls gracefully off his lips, slowing the seconds down (not enough; he can’t stop it completely, half a heartbeat too late; but it’s enough) and letting him step carefully, quickly, readily into the line of the short blade from Mordred’s hands as it reaches terminal velocity and slices into—
It’s over in a glimpse of a moment.
One, two, two [point] three seconds.
And then everything blurs.
There is no glory in war
(Happy to serve you till the day I die, he said a long time ago, and
despite this, Arthur’s face rings out a treachery of the deepest kind,
because it is nothing but treason to them, this, this last lie, this
too-late revelation, this slow-moving, torturous e – n —)
Nor the feel of ice-cold steel bruising his ribs and sinking into his back, a death not meant for him but meant for him, is this the dungeon or the battlefield? he can’t tell, but perhaps it was always going to be this, definitely, it was going to be this, the hollow thud of certainty, as the sun drops down into a graceful arch in the arms of the earth, a loving rendezvous, so many shadows that they threaten to drown him in their folds, time like flecks of light sand slipping away from the gaps between his fingers, and how the last thing to hear in the end, the very end, is his name by his favorite voice followed by a deep sad silence, a wretched, terrified, broken
Three nights before they reach the front lines of the other army, they make camp at the base of a mountain. The night is still. There are layers of cloth around them shuttered tight against the cold, tucking the tent in a cocoon of coal black nothingness, shut off even to the slightest glimmer of moon.
I don’t think you should fight in this, Merlin says abruptly, to the ground. Under the rough blanket, his knees tremble slightly, mostly unnoticeable. He turns his head. To this he’s only given a cold, focused glare, a bitterness in tone from the floor next to him when Arthur says, dry: thanks, but I don’t recall asking for my manservant’s advice, Merlin. And then, a scoff as Arthur turns away—and with him, all the emotions steeped down inside their chests, all the things they won’t say tonight; tomorrow, maybe, tomorrow’s tomorrow, someday, when everything will be clear. All of it buried for later, again. Never the right time. Merlin shifts until his face is pressed into the blanket, and he drifts off to sleep, trying to brush off the dread prickling at his chest like spiderwebs.
[ and this is the wonder
that’s keeping the stars apart ]
If there are legends about this world later, nobody here will know about it. In a thousand sweeping, axis-tilting, unimaginable years, if everybody in the land and across the seas and up in the air has heard their stories (stories to make your head spin; to unravel the threads at the center of your life; to break your heart; to shake apart history itself in violent cataclysms)—well, they’ll be long dead and buried, all of them, all their secrets and loves and unmade confessions, a part of the earth’s deep soil, a part of the ever-soft trailing of the wind.
Things are more subtle than you might give them credit for.
There are more nuances in stories, more fine shades and distinctions, quirks, details, oddities, twists and turns, moments, than you can ever think to imagine. Everything you ever see or feel through the most brilliant of tales is only the merest shadow of how things really were—just a refraction, a cheap imitation. You will never know how this felt. How lovely, how awful, how unbearably real.
See, Merlin doesn’t love Arthur for his honor, or his courage, or his nobility, or his place in the royal court or in the hearts of his people; no, Merlin deserves a little selfishness for once. Just this one (1) more small secret, for himself. Merlin loves Arthur in private, impossible ways. The almond shape of his eyes when he laughs. The small indent of unseen bone behind his ear.
The tangle of his ankles into Merlin’s, sitting together, side by side, at the same height, the same table, like in a different world they could have been equals.
Because when Merlin sighs and says, yes, sire, I will clean out your stables, I will fetch your laundry, I will serve you dutifully at dinner, I will sharpen your sword, I will lay out your armor and I will always stand by you in freezing forests carrying your hunting things, I will draw up your bath, I will suffer through endless, pointless feasts and put up with your temper, and polish your boots, and mend your cloaks, and bring you breakfast, because, because— and can’t ever seem to finish the sentence— what he really means (what you never realize) is: I would die for you. I would take my life and place it in the bowl of your palm, my heart and my mind, my everything. You can have it. Here. Now. It’s yours. This, every flutter of this, life-death-murder-love, is the first and the last thing I would do for you. Always.
And sometimes, Merlin is a question
that Arthur wants to spend his entire life answering.
• Merlin is not anybody’s guardian angel
• Merlin is not Arthur’s saving grace
• Merlin is not predictable like a tally of numbers on a wall
or a clock’s swinging pendulum, motion vs. stop vs. motion
• And Merlin’s name from Arthur’s lips, the way the
soft/strange double syllables are formed, they’re not
a chain of precious lilies strung together, certainly not
a b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l line from an age-old poem, not
anything revered, sacred, or divine, like the breath of a
god, with all that quiet desperation, wanting, wishing—
(and when Merlin tilts his head up and opens his lips to
respond, it is not any sort of blessing
that Arthur’s been holding his breath for)
• They aren’t. He isn’t. He doesn’t.
Just boys. That’s all they are. Boys, but also no longer. They grow, they open up and out, like trees and souls inevitably will always do. Time passes like it’s trying to steal away from them, stealthy, in the dark of the night. They are a little different every time, every painfully fast second and hour and year around, that’s all. That’s what age does to you. Merlin’s hair is shorter today or longer tomorrow and Arthur’s heart is less heavy in this moment, not so laden with the weight of a crown and a purpose and a land alive (so alive) with people—but what—who are they kidding—why does it matter? It’s nothing. These changes are nothing; they barely make a dent. Just tiny, forgivable things. Details.
Everything matters, and everything simply is.
The first time Arthur goes to war with Merlin at his side, Merlin barely misses an arrow to his neck and Arthur spends three hours afterward yelling at him for it, alternating between fury and terror. Like he isn’t sure if he wants to have the pleasure of murdering Merlin himself, or just grab him immediately, hold him to his chest to feel that solid living shape and never, ever, ever let go.
You’re so stupid, Arthur says, through clenched teeth, and whirls out of the room, the door slamming loudly on his way out. Merlin stands there fuming. But by the end of the day they’ve mostly forgotten about it, and Arthur’s hands are apologetic against Merlin’s skin as he pulls Merlin in and tucks his face into his neck, whispering unintelligible things against the nape of it.
They say and do a lot of things that they don’t mean, being two parts young and foolish and maybe one tiny fraction-decimal-infinitesimal-bit involved in something dangerously, frightfully close to love.
How it starts—but it doesn’t. It doesn’t. Really, it doesn’t start at all. There is no head or tail or linearity in it whatsoever, no sense, no reason; there is no end, nor start, and there can’t possibly be. How can there be? Not when it feels like immortality in each other’s mouths, like a long stretch of forever-lives in the bend and crook of elbows. Eternality sealed tight inside the tiny pocket of air, the unfathomable dimension, linking lips, fingertips, collarbones.
Maybe not all stories have to begin. Maybe, some of them just are—
Rewind, rewind, let’s
peel back the time
like the skin of a
Here. Stop it here. Freeze it, hold it in your hands: this scene. The trees dip in long, languid ways, and the sky whistles along with the soft blue laziness of summer suns. Here, years, years back, in both the space between and the life before, it is all right to dream without waking in a sheen of sweat and tears and blood jumping from veins. Before wars, before anything. Here is the most innocent time. Here is Camelot in all of its beauty. Whole and undamaged. Here are the turrets, the perfect spires, the hallways, the chambers, the drapes, splendid red and gold. The sheets, mussed. The candles high. Here is Arthur, Prince Arthur, just Arthur, who is tired one night and lurches unsteadily in for a hard kiss to Merlin’s lips, half-unknowing of what he’s doing, what he’s promising into that one first shaky touch, and Merlin leans into it with a force of his own, powerful enough to raise the heavens out of the sky, to match. And when Arthur settles close, tired, or unsure, or ever wavers—
“Always,” Merlin says surely, certain of a future so bright it positively gleams.