There is a part of Gwen that senses the flames and the smoke as she sinks into oblivion. On some level, this has always waited for her, she thinks: The fire. She's a girl again, waiting for Uther to burn her after he accused her of causing the plague that came upon Camelot. She's a woman, and he wants to burn her again, this time for bewitching his son. FIre and flames, and Merlin asks her, what would you do, if you had Uther's life in your hands.
Merlin calls her name, and she can't tell whether it's past or present anymore; it has all become one. Just the heat, the unbearable heat, and then there is coldness, blessed coldness. In fact, it's icy. And white. Everything around her is white.
"Guinevere," says a voice, and Gwen looks up. She has never seen the woman in front of her in her life. A slender woman, blonde and pale enough to become almost one with the white dress she wears and all the brightness around them. There is something familiar in her eyes, but Gwen is more sure than ever she has never seen this woman before. She does recognize the diadem the woman wears. Just the other day, it had been set on her own dark curls.
"Guinevere," the woman repeats, and Gwen realizes who she must be a moment before she hears the words said out loud, "I am Ygraine."
Her brother Elyan has told her what it had felt like to be possessed by a ghost. He had described his own conversations with the dead boy, the overwhelming pity he felt. What Gwen feels right now is less pity than amazement and a vague sense of disappointment. If she was to encounter one of the dead, she'd have wanted it to be her own mother and father, not Arthur's. There are so many things left unsaid.
Then the obvious occurs to her. There has been fire before, she is sure of it.
"Am I dead now?" she asks, and tries not to let the horror of it overwhelm her. Not now; not this soon.
"It is always too soon", Ygraine says. "But you are still of the living, even if you have entered the realm of the dead. I was waiting for you."
"Why?" Gwen asks, and means so many things: why was she here, what has it been that attacked her, why did Ygraine wait for her, when there was no connection between them other than the crown they'd both worn, and Arthur, whom Ygraine had never been permitted to know. What Ygraine replies is an answer to all of this, and yet is none.
"Because," the former Queen of Camelot says, "I need you to finally give us an ending. You must destroy what is left of my husband, forever."
When Merlin had brought the unconscious Gwen to Gaius, it was because she needed treatment as soon as possible, but afterwards, when Arthur wants to have her moved to her own room, Gaius shakes his head.
"Best she rests here", he says. "Until you have found what you seek."
He doesn't spell his real reason out, and from the way Merlin opens his mouth, then shuts it again, he sees his former student understands. Arthur frowns, and Gaius, inwardly sighing, decides to put it to the test: more than three years, ever after Agrivaine nearly had him killed, ever since he first spoke openly to Arthur here in this same room about those who used magic in his realm who were working for the good.
"I can protect her here", Gaius says, emphasizing the last word, and pointedly looking not at his potions but at the volumes of books he no longer bothers to hide. From Uther, he does not add, and doesn't need to. Not using magic has stopped being a sacrifice for him a long time ago. It has never been so quintessential to him as it was for Alice, let alone as necessary as breathing, which it is for Merlin. But he no longer hides that he could use it, if he wishes to, and accepting this has been Arthur's way of doing penance for his distrust during Agrivaine's day, as asking Gaius for advice whenever there is a magical problem has been the young king's demonstration of renewed faith in Gaius' integrity. But never before this day has Gaius announced out loud in the presence of a Pendragon he will perform magic, for this is what he means, and going by Arthur's stricken look, Uther's son has understood the declaration.
There is guilt in Arthur's eyes now, and not about Gaius. Gwen would not be in need of protection, magical or otherwise, if he had not given in to his desire to see his father again; those thoughts are written in his face as clear as day. Of course he hadn't been able to resist the temptation. He's his father's son in that; the very last thing Uther asked of Nimue, before the Purge, was to resurrect Ygraine for him, and she refused, still shaken from his reaction to Ygraine's death and newly aware of what price he might make her and every other magic user pay. But Arthur has learned the lesson Uther never did. He does not try to make his own guilt easier by blaming others.
"I know you will", Arthur says to Gaius, and sits at Gwen's side while Gaius mixes the potion that will enable Arthur and Merlin to see Uther, and not just when Uther wishes them to. It's good that Arthur and Merlin are watching Gwen. That way, both of them miss that Gaius tests the potion on himself before he gives it to either of them.
Uther will come here, that he knows. And protecting Gwen is not all Gaius has in mind.
Ygraine's explanation as to why Uther was haunting Camelot hasn't done much to clear things up for Gwen. If anything, it has left her more disturbed. She had thought she had made her peace with Uther before he died, in the long, long year she had taken care of him, exorcising her own anger and grief for her father. True, there hadn't been a way to be sure whether or not Uther noticed anything in the state that he'd been in, but surely, if he is now aware that she is Queen of Camelot, he must know about the past as well.
Against her will, she thinks of Morgana, and the way the past stopped mattering to Morgana a long time ago, or has been rewritten into a tale too distorted for Gwen to recognize. And Morgana had loved her once, that Gwen still is sure of, while Uther at best and before finding out about her and Arthur had merely tolerated her as a useful servant. So maybe she should not be surprised. And yet she is. Because she is not a servant anymore. These last three years, she has ruled this realm at Arthur's side, and a ruler is who Uther still claims to be.
"But how can he claim destroying everything we built will benefit Camelot?" Gwen demands, forgetting her confusion over her rising indignation. "We have created peace and prosperity, forged alliances."
"This is why you have to end us", Ygraine repeats. She has Arthur's eyes, but her face and voice are her own; expressing both regret and iron determination. "He wants the past to swallow up the future. He always did, but he used to want other things as well. No more. When he died, he thought he would find me as the girl he married. But I was the woman whom he killed, and whose blood he used to kill so many more. I could not be whom he remembered, and I could not be at peace. So there was no peace for him, either, and bitterness consumed him. Now Arthur has given him a way to return to the living, and he will not rest until he has destroyed everything in his attempt to change the world into what he wants it to be."
"If Arthur has summoned him, Arthur will send him back", Gwen says. She knows her husband. As much as he loves his father, he had reached the point where he was not willing to let Uther cause more grief quite a while ago. It will hurt him deeply, but he will do it.
"It won't be enough", Ygraine replies. "Our son was created by magic, and has used magic twice to summon us. Years ago, he had Morgause summon me; this is why I was able to come here and talk to you. Uther, too, will be able to return if ever the veil between the worlds gets transparent again, even if he gets pushed back this time. Arthur is the anchor that still binds us to the living, and we bind him to the dead. It is not right, Guinevere. More than anything, I wish I could have raised my child. That I could be with him now. But it was impossible, and to try to change that, to force life and death together, would be wrong were he a farmer or a beggar. But he is not. He is the king. And so his people suffer if the dead continue to try what Uther tries."
Listening to her, Gwen knows Ygraine is right. She remembers the days when Uther started to talk of ghosts in wells, when reports of his sinking into insanity spread, and the fear and uncertainty this caused ripping through Camelot like waves in a lake. Even those discontented with Uther's reign, even those who feared him had feared the prospect of a lunatic king even more. Then she imagines those stories being about her husband instead, imagines both of them having to contend with spectres instead of focusing on the living, and shudders.
There is, however, still something she doesn't understand.
"You are dead," she says softly. "He is dead. How can I give you an ending beyond what you already had? I have no magic. And if what you say is true, and I am still alive, then I do not even have the powers of a ghost. You should be able to do more than I can."
Slowly, Ygraine raises her hands, and now Gwen can see there are chains around the other woman's wrists.
"They are not real", Ygraine says, following her gaze. "But you still need your eyes to see, and so I give you something you can see. I told you I could no longer be the girl Uther married. Nor was I ever able to forgive him. But there is a part of me that loves him, still. And that is why I cannot do what you must, not just for him, but for me. I can not bear this any longer, and that, too, is why I want an ending for myself as well as for Uther."
Eyes aside, Ygraine still doesn't look anything like Arthur, but at this moment, her voice could be his voice, telling Gwen he'd seen Morgana again, in the north. "The worst thing", he'd said, "the worst thing was that when Mordred stabbed her to save me, a part of me was glad. Because he'd done it, and I knew I couldn't, I still can't, because she is not dead. I know it in my bones. But in the cave, there was this moment when I thought she might be, and was glad, and yet she is Morgana and my sister and I love her still. I - I just wish there was an end. I looked at her and thought that I hated her, and that she needed to eat more and looked like she'd been freezing for months, and I wish there was an end."
"There needs to be an end", Ygraine insists, and Gwen recalls how Morgana has been created in so many ways by Uther, and how Arthur had been. She thinks of her father as she'd seen him last, a corpse killed by many swords, some of which he'd made. She thinks of the city, attacked, starved, taken and reconquered so many times, of the fields and plagues magical and real, of going to bed with the awareness that tomorrow would be a day to create, not to destroy, a day to help, not to hide. She thought of her own coronation, Arthur putting the crown on her head, Geoffrey reciting the oath and her own voice after him, the oath of a Queen.
"Yes", Gwen says. "There needs to be."
Gaius has used every protective spell he could think of around Gwen. It drains him more than he had expected, but then, the last time he used magic was several years ago, against Morgause, and that was just one act in the desperation of a moment, not several in careful preparation. He sweats, his bones ache, and he's short of breath. Old, he thinks. I've gotten old.
"You've gotten old," he hears a voice murmur, as if in echo. He turns around and sees him, unchanged now. Forever unchanged.
"I did that a long time ago", Gaius answers, feeling his voice constricted. "But you never noticed because you were getting old with me, and you only ever saw what you wanted to see."
The shade of Uther approaches, and that is when he notices the magic around Gwen, as he never would have when alive. His head swirls around, and Gaius can feel the fury of him radiating like hot gusts of desert wind.
"I cannot believe", Uther hisses, "that you would betray me now. You swore, Gaius. You swore you would never use magic again!"
"And yet you begged me to save your daughter by magic," Gaius replies, "not that long ago."
They look at each other. While alive, Uther never knew it hadn't been Gaius who had brought Morgana back from the brink of death. If he does now, he doesn't say so. As far as Gaius can guess, Uther only knows what Arthur knows, because Arthur is his bond to the living world.
Uther evidently decides to switch tactics. "I know you are fond of the girl," he says, staring at Gwen who still lies unconscious, but not in peace, her face tense and body coiled. "But you must admit she is not fit to be a queen. She is a servant. She changed Arthur, and he is changing the order of the world as it should be for her."
"How little you know your son", Gaius whispers. He means that while Gwen's influence on the young king and her role in his realm is indeed vital, the changes in Camelot were and are not implimented by a lover to please his beloved; they are caused by Arthur's desire to work for the best of his people. The irony is that this, as much as his temper and the capacity for cruelty that is still in Arthur, is the legacy of Uther. It was the earliest lesson the old king taught: that the kingdom has to come first. Only father and son have come to define the good of the kingdom so very, very differently.
"I knew him", Uther rages, misunderstanding Gaius as usual, "I made him! He was my son. He is. He can be again. He can be the king he should be, if this girl dies." He calms down somewhat, and the gaze he levels at Gaius is terrible. "For the good of the realm. You helped me kill so many, Gaius. Why should she be any different?"
There it is: the worst. The thing that keeps Gaius alive, kept him alive even when Morgana was starving him and his aged, overtaxed body was shutting down. The truth is that he is simply too scared to die. Too scared of whom he will find beyond the veil, and he doesn't mean Uther. He's told himself, again and again, that many who died in the Purge had indeed been guilty; that he has saved others behind Uther's back. But in the end, what it comes down to is that every life is a life, not to be replaced or made up for by another, and many lives have been lost with his help who had been far more innocent than he ever has been.
"What's done is done," Gaius says. "It doesn't mean we should not ever learn from our mistakes by telling us that we're doomed already, so we might as well repeat them. She's not a girl, Uther, and your son is not a boy who still needs to be guided. She's a woman, he is a man; their choices are their own. It is their time now, and you should let it go."
"That is the coward's way," Uther says, and his arrogance, so familiar, so alive still in both his children, is blazing. "Your way. I have wondered why there was no peace for me when I died, but now I know. I can still save Camelot from the error it has fallen into."
"Not by killing the queen", Gaius says, hand half raised, because he expects Uther to attack him now if this last gambit misfires. "You did that once already. Do you really want to do it again?"
There is utter stillness around Uther. Not even a flicker, nothing; he could be carved in marble, as his tombstone has been. It reminds Gaius of nothing so much as Uther's retreat behind the walls of his own mind after Morgana broke him.
Living or dead, it seems there are still truths Uther cannot face when spoken by someone he cares about, or used to. If this was the best of all worlds, he would now concede this whole senseless endeavor, but it is not, and Gaius knows Uther too well to expect it. The best he can expect is that Uther will now stop trying to attack Gwen, will attempt to rule his son instead, and that Arthur will have the strength to banish him.
"How long", Uther asks at last, "have you hated me? You must, to say such a thing."
Gaius sighs. "I stopped hating you quite a while after stopping loving you. Both were not easy. But I came to realise that what I hated you for were my own deeds, because it was easier than to hate myself. And so I let it go."
"The coward's way," Uther says again, and there is so little conviction his words that they do not even carry a sting anymore. Gaius isn't sure what he had hoped from this confrontation; making Uther see reason, or goading Uther into killing him. Either deed would have served to make their shared past easier to bear. But there is one thing Gaius can still do, one thing he has wanted to do and which has been denied him before.
"Goodbye, Uther," he murmurs, and the remnants of old affection and guilt make the words heavy between them. But they are spoken, at last, and as he says them, he can see Uther fading from sight until the last of him is gone.
Having made a decision doesn't provide you automatically with the means to accomplish it. Gwen still has no idea how to kill a ghost, let alone two.
"We are in the realm between", Ygraine says, gesturing at the whiteness around them. "Between life and death. There are rules for either realm, but anything can happen here." Something about her is different; it takes Gwen a moment to recognize what it is, and then she does. The chains around Ygraine's wrists are gone, and when she says so out loud, Ygraine replies: "They were never there, and are still there. I told you. You see because you still have eyes, but you see what you need to. What you want to."
This is far too much like magic not to scare her. Gwen has never been easy around magic even before it started to directly affect her life; after all, she has been raised to think it evil. After going through a magically caused plague, after her father died because he was helping a sorcerer, after Morgana changed so much and disdained all who were not magical, she has been given little reason to consider it otherwise. One of the worst experiences of her life has been to feel magic affect her directly, to change her body into that of a deer, to lose speech and form and anything that makes her Guinevere and then to find Arthur in this shape, with an arrow aimed straight at her heart.
But she also remembers that Arthur did not shoot. That Merlin recognised her even as a deer, enough to search for her, find her and save her later. So there has to be a core of her, a Guinevere that remains through all magical transformations. And if that is so, then she should be able to transform in this realm where nothing and everything is real out of her own volition.
She imagines her father's forge. Imagines the armor, the shields, the swords. Hears the hammer evening out the form, feels rough cloth and sand to polish the metal. Once, shortly after Merlin arrived in Camelot, she showed him how to dress a knight in his armor, and what each piece was called. Now she puts that armor on herself, bit by bit, imagines it carefully crafted by her father's skill in loving perfection.
She opens her eyes and feels the weight of the armor upon her; doesn't have to look to know she is carrying it. Expecting Ygraine to comment, she looks at the other queen, but Ygraine has tilted her head, and then Gwen hears it, too. The sound of a horn, and yet not a horn; she remembers that sound, and a part of her will always hear it as a deer, running from it, knowing it means death. But not this time. Not for her.
The whiteness around her tears, and she can see the shape of Uther assembling, clad as the king, head thrown back, screaming in fury, heartbreak and betrayal. She knows then Arthur must have sent him back. Despite everything, there is a tiny shred of her that is sorry for Uther at this moment, if only because she knows what it feels like to love Arthur and be banished by him.
But then Uther's form is complete, and he sees her, but not Ygraine, who stands behind him. At once, that shred of pity in Gwen burns away in the fire of his anger and contempt.
"You", he breathes, though he has no breath to draw. She must not forget this; anything here is illusion expressing emotion, there and not there, like Ygraine's chains. It's impossible to say how Uther sees her; clad in armor as she made herself, in the robes of a queen that infuriate him so, or in her old servant's dress that he wants to keep her in.
"I should have had you executed a long time ago", Uther declares. "You and Merlin both. You corrupted him. And Morgana, too. Now everything is clear. Both of my children. There you were, scheming servants, dropping poison in their ears, day by day. That is why she turned against me. Why he forgot all I taught him. They were mine, and we were happy, and then you changed her into a madwoman and him into your tool."
This is so far from anything resembling truth that Gwen can't even be insulted, or dignify the accusation with denials. But she reminds herself these are not to be dismissed as the ramblings of a madman who can only hurt himself with them. This is Uther's reality, this is what he will fight against even from beyond the grave, and she knows that Ygraine is right; he will try again, as soon as he gets the chance.
"Is this because I ordered your father's death?" Uther asks. "Or did you plot even earlier than that?"
Oh, that memory still has power, and she feels the shield in her hand falling down as the image of her dead father, thrown into the castle's court like garbage, invades her heart. The icy whiteness closes in on her. Her father's dead body, in her arms, her father, but she resurrects the forge around them again, the forge and her armor, blazing heat given form.
"And that is all you will ever understand", Gwen says. "Cycles of revenge. Injury and retaliation. You were a king once, you went through death itself, and you still understand no more than that?"
For the first time amidst the whiteness, he looks at her surprised. He'd done it before, in his resounding silence when she'd made him eat soup and told him of her father's life, not death, during the year she had cared for him, herself between the past and future.
"Who are you to talk to me thus?" Uther demands, making a step towards her. He is the black shape that burdened her life ever since she was a girl, and he's the man who gave her husband life; but most of all, he is, as Ygraine has said, the past threatening to swallow the future. She sees Ygraine behind Uther, opening her arms. Ygraine looks at her, her blue eyes are Arthur's when he spoke of Morgana in the north, and Gwen knows it has to be now.
She does not imagine a sword. She imagines a spear, a spear for her to hold, wood and iron, tip still glowing from being formed, a spear for her to hurl.
"I", says Gwen, "am the Queen."
The spear flies, and Ygraine puts her arms around Uther, holding him, holding him so tight there is no space between them. The spear flies and goes through them both. This time it's not anger on Uther's face, or surprise, or betrayal: it is utter shock and blankness. Gwen looks at him, looks at Ygraine, both of them enveloped in each other. A lover's embrace that is also death. It has to be. An ending, Gwen thinks, wills it as strongly as she has ever wished anything, and the spear stays. She imagines there is relief in Ygraine's face, and maybe even on Uther's, for the briefest of moments, but she can't be sure. She can never be sure. They're gone, from one heartbeat to the next, simply gone. They do not explode, they do not vanish or fade. They're gone, and she is surrounded by ice and fire, whiteness and red iron, everything and nothing at the same time.
Then she feels clothes on her, a sheet tucking her in, and hands holding hers.
"Guinevere," Arthur's voice says, and Gwen wakes up.
When Arthur tells her belatedly about the gift of the horn that could allow the living to speak with the dead, Gwen says nothing.
"I would never have used it if I had known what he would do to you, " Arthur says. She looks at him and thinks that he hadn't known, but must have guessed; that was why he had not told her and why he had gone to the ring stones to use it instead of trying it at the castle. Why he had kept their relationship a secret until Uther discovered them, years ago. Loving Uther and being aware that Uther was hostile to any other love had always been a struggle for him.
She could make him admit it. But there was a mercy in keeping silence sometimes that she herself needed right now. She could not tell him what she had done to his parents, even if it had been at Ygraine's request and for Camelot. Maybe one day, but not now, when they were both raw from having confronted the past.
"He won't return now", Arthur says. Gwen sits up in Merlin's bed and wonders why they brought her here instead of her own rooms, or to the bed she and Arthur share; there is something oddly comforting in the spell of spices and medicine that always pervades Gaius' abode, and so she is glad. Merlin stands at the entrance of the room, softly talking to Gaius, presumably describing what happened when they found Uther and Arthur sent him away again. But Gaius doesn't look at Merlin. He looks at Arthur and Gwen.
"No, he won't," Gwen says quietly, as hers and Gaius' eyes meet. There is a weary understanding in his expression. The mercy of keeping silence, it seems, extends to yet another person. "His story has come to an end."