Gwen doesn’t have to be told of Arthur’s death.
It isn’t like the stories. She doesn’t feel as if her heart has been ripped out of her chest, as if all the joy has gone out of the world (she’ll have days and months and years to feel like that, curled up on one side of a bed that never seemed too large when he was there and always did when he was gone). All of Camelot, though, seems to scream at once, ripple with the sudden grief of losing its king.
Or maybe it’s not Camelot. Merlin is with Arthur, and if half of what she thinks can be laid at his doorstep is true, it could be his sadness that alerts Gwen to what’s happened.
He has the luxury of sadness, of mourning. Gwen doesn’t, the same way Arthur didn’t (the same way it was selfish for Uther to). She keeps her head high to bear the crown that’s now hers alone. She smiles at her people—those of the lower town who are giddy that one of their own is their queen and those of the nobility who will never trust a servant fully. She will have to watch them, and make sure the foreign rulers trust her.
There is a lifetime of work to do. Gwen puts off her mourning and sets her jaw.
Two weeks after Arthur’s death, Gwen bleeds. She bleeds the same way she has every month since her marriage (it was only towards the end that there was a sort of uncertainty on Arthur’s face when it continued to happen), and she has to tell herself that it’s the same even though she knows it isn’t. A child would have been her last, best hope—to keep a piece of Arthur, to keep the throne without objection, to secure a life without having to marry again. She may well marry again and have an heir, but she would have liked for it to be choice, not necessity.
She wants nothing more than to shut herself in her chambers for days and mourn the husband she’ll never put on a pyre and the child she’ll never have by him. Two weeks after Camlann, though, there is still much to be done, and she cannot yet show weakness. If she ever can.
It’s Leon who finds her—Leon, who has become her right hand the same way he was Arthur’s. “Your Majesty? Is something—”
“Nothing’s the matter.” She smiles, smoothes out her skirt with her hands. “What am I needed for?”
He allows her the lie and her dignity, just bows. “The ambassador from Nemeth is here. Would you like to see him?”
“I’ll be there in a moment.”
Merlin doesn’t come back, not that she really expected him to. Percival and Leon both offer to go search for him, and Gaius looks greyer and more bent in his absence, but Gwen tells them it’s his own choice. After all she’s lost, she understands the urge to run away.
In her worst moments, she hates him for being there for Arthur when she couldn’t be, for indulging his grief, for being part of the destiny that starry-eyed Druids talk about when she tries to treat with them. It’s easier to hate him when he’s gone, but she always reminds herself of a country boy telling off a prince, someone who always came to her rescue when she needed it, someone who saved her husband too many times to count. In the end, he’ll always be her dear friend. She has few enough left that she’s willing to forgive him for loving Arthur as much as she does, in his own way.
It’s in Merlin’s honor that Gwen brings magic back to Camelot, just as winter is setting in. She makes it known that sorcery (and she hopes that when Merlin hears word he’ll know she means him) has a place in her court and always will, and she ignores all who learned to fear it during Uther’s reign. She did too, but her own observations and some talks with Gaius have taught her differently. If nothing else, the thought of ever being frightened of Merlin, powerful though he may be, is absurd.
Merlin doesn’t return (not that she expected him to), but every day that winter there’s a bouquet of spring flowers on her table, ones the maids never know how to explain.
Gwen makes certain the court knows that she trusts Leon, Gaius, and Percival above all others, because it is the least she can do for them.
None of them talk about what they’ve lost. It was too much, in too short a time. The marks are all there, though: in Gaius’s slower steps, and the way Percival trains long, hard hours past the others, and how Leon cannot seem to go a whole day without making sure he’s seen Gwen and Percival for at least a few seconds, like he’s afraid they may disappear. Gwen knows she must seem as worn to the others—perhaps one of them has noticed her late-night walks through the palace, or the maids have let slip that she keeps a shirt of Arthur’s tucked under her pillow as she sleeps at night.
She wonders if she’s the only one who wonders sometimes he she’s poison for those around her. She’s too young a woman to have such a litany of names for those dead or driven away: her husband, her father, her brother, the two best friends she’s ever had (Merlin may not be dead, but he is so far from her reach that he might as well be, and she has never, never forgotten that Morgana was her friend before Merlin came and before Arthur even looked at her twice), and two men who, at various points, might have been in love with her. She wonders if Gaius blames his advice, Leon his lack of vigilance, Percival his strength being not enough. She wonders, endlessly, sleeplessly, if there’s something different she could have done to save even one of their lives.
Of course there is, but then she always must remind herself that she’s not the only one who could have made a choice to save a life. The burden of guilt isn’t hers alone, isn’t even mostly hers.
Leon and Percival are men of action, so it’s Gaius she goes to when the thoughts grow to be too much. He never asks her anything right away, or talks much himself. He simply pretends she’s a girl again and asks for her help with things Merlin would have done, had he still been there.
“Does it ever get better?” she asks one morning when she should be supervising the inventory of the grain stores, mashing some herbs into a paste while Gaius mutters over a vial. He may be using magic, but she doesn’t ask.
He thinks about it for a moment, putting a cork in his potion. “No,” he says at last. “But life changes enough so you can bear it.”
By all rights, they should be overrun: by brigands, by politicians, by invading forces testing their borders. Even spies tell them several times through the winter that there are armies massing, and Gwen prepares for battle each time.
No one ever comes. It’s as if they forget their purpose for being in Camelot the moment they cross the borders, and never bother to come back.
Gwen isn’t fool enough to wonder who is doing it, not now that she knows. She thanks Merlin, aloud and warmly, every time she gets the chance, and she thinks that somehow he knows, with the way her arrangements of flowers get more elaborate, and how her room stays a little warmer than it should with her ration of firewood. She could drive herself to madness wondering if Merlin is doing it out of guilt or obligation or friendship, or even just to see the Albion the Druids speak of being built, but instead she chooses to be thankful. Chooses to keep her memory of Merlin bright and good and untainted.
“Your Majesty,” Leon says after word comes that a Mercian raiding party turned around in the middle of a field and went back the way they’d come, “we have to talk about this, prepare for an attack. They could be baiting us.”
It’s Leon’s job to think everything is going to turn out to be a disaster, so Gwen can’t help feeling affectionate as she shakes her head. “It’s a gift, Leon. I don’t believe it will last forever, but we have breathing space. Maybe for this winter, maybe for longer. Use it well, train our men, and when the time comes we’ll be ready to continue Arthur’s work.”
Leon blinks at her, like perhaps he’s surprised that she wants to do more for her legacy than just hold on to Camelot by her fingernails. “Your Majesty?”
“It’s Merlin, Leon. Can’t you see that? He’s doing his best to protect us.”
Of all of her closest advisors, Leon is the least sure of magic, but he still relaxes when he hears Merlin’s name. They all trust his devotion to Arthur and those he left behind, even if sorcery takes it a step further. “I’ll replenish our ranks as well as I can in the meantime, your Majesty.”
“Gwen,” she says, and takes his hand when he tries to shake his head. “No one calls me by my name anymore, and you’ve known me since I was a child. Please.”
Leon takes a deep breath. “I’ll replenish our ranks as well as I can, Gwen.”
Gaius goes with the spring, and Gwen grieves, but is not surprised. There’s an old man at his pyre, one she recognizes, and Gwen sends for him in her chambers afterwards. “It’s not much of a disguise,” she says when Leon brings him and then, at her word, leaves them. “It never was. I suppose we must all have seemed blind to you.”
There is no magic melting away of his wrinkles and the ridiculous beard, just a weary sigh, like perhaps Merlin is as old as he appears. “I’m sorry, Gwen.”
“It might have meant more if you said that before I’d forgiven you,” she says as gently as she can, and shakes her head when he winces. “I didn’t call for you to blame you for anything. I just want you to know that Gaius’s position is yours if you care for it. If you don’t, there are things that belong to you—he collected them in a bag for you before he got worse.”
“I wish I could stay.”
Somehow, she knew that would be his answer. With Gaius gone, there’s less reason than ever for him to stay in Camelot, and everywhere he turned would be another reminder of what he’s lost, just as it is for Gwen. “I wish you would. But I know why you won’t. Just … know you are always welcome. As long as I’m queen.” She takes a deep breath. “As long as any of my children reign, you have a place in Camelot. That’s a promise.”
He has no right to sound as if she is betraying Arthur’s memory, and by the way he winces after his outburst he knows it. “We don’t all have the luxury of staying faithful to his memory for ever.” She means it to hurt, but she means her next words just as much. “Though I’m glad there is someone who is able.”
Merlin kisses her forehead, a benediction. His hands feel wrong, old and brittle. “I’ll keep his memory, and you will make Camelot into what it was meant to be.” He laughs, a dry sound nothing like what she remembers. “It took me helping him to get Arthur to start a Golden Age, but I’ve got every faith you’ll do it on your own, Gwen.”
Gwen thinks of Leon and Percival and the spell of protection Merlin has over them all. She thinks of Arthur with her and Merlin and all his knights of the Round Table at his back. She thinks of Uther and how he had no one at all, and how that might have been his true downfall in the end. “No one reigns alone.”
He’s quiet for a long, long time, and when she looks at him, there’s a hint of the Merlin she recognizes in his expression, like he’s letting something go. “You never will.” It’s a promise. “I’ll get my things from Gaius’s chambers. That’s where they are?”
“Yes. Be well,” she says, and swallows. “Watch over him,” she adds, and thinks maybe she’s letting something go as well.
Gwen celebrates a year on the throne with Leon and Percival flanking her, and after the endless banquet of gifts and pretending it wasn’t her husband’s death that made her Queen, they have their own celebration, a flagon of wine and their memories.
The grief is a little softened, with a year’s time, and they all smile more than they hide their shining eyes. They indulge in not speaking of the future (the marriage Gwen must make while she is still young—though she knows what the court expects and thinks for all its obviousness the idea is not a bad one, and that Arthur would even approve—the plan for a united Albion they still speak of even if Gwen respects the leaders she knows to take their thrones from them) and dwell on the past, the good memories that are just starting to come out from beneath the poison of too many deaths.
Percival stumbles to bed first, knowing he has to rouse himself for an early patrol, and Gwen talks about childhood with Leon, the stories of Elyan learning to fight and getting both of them in trouble. It’s late by the time she excuses herself, yawning, and leaves him sitting at the table alone. “Long live the Queen,” he says, giving her half a smile and toasting her.
Gwen smiles and nods in return and allows herself, just a little, to think of the future.