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The Return of Magic (upon dragon's wings)

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“Brogar's army is on the move." Leon set his calloused finger upon the map of Camelot, and traced the terrifyingly short distance between the invading legions and the citadel. "They've crossed the Grey Mountains, and are taking this route, here, through the Northern Plains."

"How many villages stand between us?" Gwen asked, lifting her gaze to the three men at her council table. 

"Three villages," Percival reported. "But the people are already evacuating. Many have already sought refuge here, within the castle walls."

Gwen tried not to think what little protection that stone and swords would be against a sorcerer and his army.  "Arrange what provisions you can for them, Percival.  And send riders out to spread the word and lend what aid they can.  Leon, how long do we have until we need to seal the gates?"

"Three days, my Queen.  Perhaps four.  But I would advise against waiting any longer.  Even with five thousand soldiers, the distance-"

"Five thousand?" Gwen interrupted. "But it was three at last report."

"Scouts have reported," Leon said, sounding grim, "that a legion of mercenaries and Saxons joined their ranks after they traversed the mountains.  But I'm afraid that even at five thousand men, it isn't the army that poses the real problem."

“Brogar,” Gwen sighed.  Yet another remnant of Uther’s genocidal legacy.  Yet another sorcerer driven to madness by vengeance or power or whatever drove the sick and twisted man.  She wondered if she would ever be free of it, of Uther's shadow.  She feared, when she woke in the middle of the night, alone in that massive room and that massive bed, that she surely never would.

“Not just Brogar," Leon said. "There are other sorcerers as well.  Three, actually."

"Three?" Gwen asked, turning to Gaius, who stood at her side with arms crossed over his long robes and an inscrutable gaze fixed upon the map.  “Gaius? What do you know of this?" 

“There have been rumors," Gaius said, so cautiously that Gwen knew immediately they'd been much more than that.  "The Druids in the Citadel say that Brogar has been spreading dissent among users of magic.  Drawing those with vendettas against Camelot to him.  Promising rewards, or more often threatening death, to draw followers to him.  It should be some consolation, my lady, that there are only three."

Gwen rested her fingertips upon the map, seeing not yellowed parchment but the faces of those she passed on the street.  The children playing in the Lower Town.  The farmers tilling their lands when rode through the countryside.  Everyone of them, in her care.  Every one, now in danger. 

“I waited too long," Gwen said softly.  "I waited too long to lift the ban on magic-”

“No, your Highness,” Gaius said, sharply enough that Leon and Percival's soft side conversation fell into silence.  "A year is not too long for such a drastic change in policy.  Especially not after- the change in leadership.”

The hesitation had barely been noticeable, but the omission echoed from the walls.  She wished they would just come out and say it.  Not since Arthur's death.  Not speaking of it didn't make his loss any easier to bear.

“My Queen,” Leon said, and leaned both hands upon the table. “You cannot take the blame for the actions of men with evil in their hearts.  Their pain was not your doing.  It was King Uther’s.”

And Arthur’s, Gwen thought.   Yes, Arthur's too.   Another painful truth they did not mention.

Ruling the kingdom did not allow her the kindness of hiding from such things.  Nor did it allow her the luxury of dwelling upon them.  She would save such thoughts, just like she saved her grief, for her empty chambers, and the long lonely stretches of night.

“We cannot hope to win against an army lead by four sorcerers,” Gwen said, using the old name, the one Uther had turned into a curse. “Even from the protection of the citadel.  Leon, is there truly no hope of peace?”

“Not with Brogar leading them.  They say dark magic has warped his mind.  Even his own men fear him.”

Gwen stared down at the map of the kingdom – of her kingdom, now – thinking of Morgana, and of her madness, and of her power.

“Our knights cannot hope to defeat four sorcerers with an army at their command,” Gwen said.  “Not without magic in our defense.”

Gaius did not reply.  Did not even look up from the map.

“We need him,” Gwen urged.

“Yes,” Gaius said. “We do.  But in truth, my lady…”  He cringed, pained as only the subject of Merlin could make him.  “I honestly do not know if he will come.”

“He will,” Gwen said. “He must.  I will send word by raven.  And Leon?”

“Yes, my Queen?”

“You will go to Avalon and bid him come yourself.”

“But the siege preparations-“

“Percival will tend to them.  He has long been ready to do so.”

“But-“

“Merlin can ignore my letters.  But he will not ignore you.  He values your opinion.  If you say he is needed, he will come.”

After they’d all left, Gwen stood staring down at the map of the kingdom.  Thinking of the fragile lives it contained.  Praying to the gods that she was right. 

That this time, he would come.

*********

Leon was nearly set to depart the courtyard when she spotted Gaius hurrying down the citadel steps.

“I haven’t changed my mind, Gaius,” she told him firmly. “I am sorry, truly.  But Leon must go alone.  We need you here, to cast the wards of protection.”

“That’s not the reason why I’ve come.”  Gaius stopped by Leon’s horse, pulling an object wrapped in cloth from his robes.  "This is.”  

Gwen watched him unfold the cloth with great care, careful not to touch what turned out to be a clear rock.  “What is it?”

“The Crystal of Neahtid.  A useful tool for powerful seers of magic.  Far beyond the skills of Brogar.  But best kept out of his possession.  It could be very dangerous in the hands of those who would bear us ill will.”

“And in Merlin’s hands?  What is it then?”

“A tool of persuasion.”

Gwen gave him a look that occasionally resulted in more information.  Though not, it seemed, today.  “Very well, Gaius.”

Leon reached down to take the bundle, then carefully secure it in his saddlebag.  After a parting nod, he spurred his horse into a gallop, and rode like the devil was at his back.

Gwen watched him go as the hoofbeats echoed through the courtyard.  “You’re certain Merlin can use this crystal?”

“He has done so in the past.”

A dozen knights marched by, preparing for siege.  Lines of archers followed behind.

“Just how powerful is he?” Gwen asked.

“There is no other alive who is more so,” Gaius said.

Gwen bit at her lip, watching servants rushing around the courtyard.  All of them preparing for war.

“He will come back,” she said tightly, fighting back the old pain of betrayal. 

Merlin had been so loyal to Arthur.  So devoted.  So brave.  But she did not deserve, apparently, the same loyalty.  Instead, Merlin had surrendered to his grief, and hid himself away in Avalon.  While she stood here, alone, fighting the same battle every day, the weight of the kingdom upon her, the ghost of Arthur standing at every corner, in every hall-

“Have you eaten, your highness?”

Gwen forced a small smile to her lips.  People in the courtyard were watching her.  It would not do for her to look weak.  “Not yet.  Come, Gaius.  You can join me for lunch.  You’ll need your strength to perform those spells of protection we discussed.”

Gaius smiled, a small wistful little thing. “I wonder if I shall ever become accustomed to speaking of magic within these castle walls.”

Gwen slid her hand around his arm, guiding him up the steps.  “I ask myself the same question every single day.”

***

This is wrong, Gwen thought.  It's too beautiful today. It shouldn’t be like this.

The grass should not be so green around the thousand black armored men upon the field beyond the castle walls.  The breeze should not be so pleasantly sliding through her chainmail and jerkin as she stood upon the battlements.  The sun should not be shining so brightly upon the armor of the knights and archers standing three and four deep along the length of the castle battlements.

No one should die on a day like today. But then, it had been a beautiful day when Arthur had died, too. 

She remembered the birds singing.  She’d despised them for their joy.

Birds were singing now too, as four sorcerers in long robes strode forward from the ranks of soldiers, ready to rain death upon them all.

Leon stepped to her side, his armor and chainmail gleaming in the sunlight, his cape brilliantly red as it flowed behind him.  “At least we don’t need to wonder which ones are the sorcerers.”

Percival gave a dark laugh at Gwen’s other side.  “It’s like they’re trying to be easy to hit.”

Or, Gwen thought, as if they were confident they wouldn’t be. 

Each of the sorcerers wore a robe of a different color.  Brogar, standing there tall and ferocious with a gruesome tattoo over half his bare skull, wore a black tattered thing that reminded her unpleasantly of Morgana.  Next to him stood a man in dark green, hood pulled up over his head, hiding his face.  By his side, another man in grey, also hooded.  And at the end of the line, another much smaller man in light blue. 

The army had gone frighteningly silent.  Even their restless motions in their ranks had stopped.  All eyes had lifted to where she stood upon the battlements.

Armor scraped around her.  The knights and archers all shifting in place.  Readying themselves for the battle ahead.

Gwen rested her hand upon the hilt of her sword, her palm sweaty in her leather glove.  She wished she hadn’t let Leon talk her into wearing such heavy armor.  It wouldn’t do for her to collapse under it before she had a chance to die defending her kingdom, in the shortest reign on record.

She watched the four sorcerers stop shoulder to shoulder twenty paces ahead of their army.  An easy target, as Percival had said.

They honestly don’t believe we have a chance, Gwen realized.  She could hardly blame them.  She didn’t think they had much of one either.  Though she’d be damned if they were going down without a fight.

Brogar looked up at her from the field.  Even from atop the battlements, she could clearly see his utter contempt for the ruler of Camelot.

“I thought he would come,” Gwen said, unable to hold back the words.

Leon’s sigh was nearly lost on the winds.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” she told him.  Because it wasn’t.  It was hers.  All of it.  If she had removed the ban sooner… if she had convinced Merlin to come home… But she hadn’t.  And she couldn’t. 

And now here they all were, minutes from their deaths, watching Brogar striding forward. 

He carried no sword, no bow.  But then, he didn’t need those things, did he.  Just like he didn’t need to cup his hands to amplify his voice. When he called up to her, his words rang through the air, as if coming from every direction at once.

“I claim this castle and this kingdom in the name of the Old Religion!”

Gwen strode forward, waving Leon and Percival to stay back.  She stopped by the battlement wall, sick with terror and breathless with nerves. 

In the wind and the sunlight she felt Arthur there with her.  His voice soft and reassuring in her ear.

You are a Queen of Camelot, Guinevere.  Show these men, now, exactly what that means. 

Gwen’s hands pressed hard to the stones of her castle, and she drew in a deep breath, shouting across the battlements, so that every man could hear.  “Uther Pendragon’s war against the Old Religion is long since over!  Magic is free in Camelot!  The Druids live among us in peace!  There is no cause for this!  Too many people have died already!”

“Not your people!” Brogar yelled. “Our people were the ones slaughtered!  Our people died by the thousands!   If every citizen of Camelot lay dead at my feet it would not be enough to match the atrocities committed by the House of Pendragon!”

“Would you condemn us all to another war?” Gwen shouted back. “Would you slaughter innocent people for committing no crime?   Don’t you see?  That would make you the same as Uther!”

Brogar’s scream echoed through the valley as he thrust his hands forward.

Leon grabbed her and dove to the ground as castle stones exploded around her, a searing heat passing over her head. She heard men shouting to one another as Leon scrambled up, flinging off his burning cape, then stomping upon it to extinguish the fire.

Gwen felt Percival haul her to her feet, unharmed like the others who had managed to get out of the way. 

She felt her heart pounding in her chest, shock numbing her fear, but not dulling her anger, as she stared at the gap Brogar had made in the battlements wall.

The army had begun shouting upon the field, their pikes lifting and falling, swords starting to raise, one after the other.

“Ready!” Brogar yelled above the din.

Gwen drew her sword.  “Draw your bows!”

Leon stepped to her side.  “Highness, you should not be here.”

“Here is precisely where I should be,” Gwen told him.

“At least stand back from the-“

“Dragon!” Percival shouted.

“What?  Where?” Gwen asked, turning in place, until she spotted the white dragon flapping madly as it swept up over the treetops, to the left of the ranks of the army amassed below.  On its back she could see the dark shape of a man.

“Merlin!” Gwen cried out, and rushed to the edge of the battlements, next to the gap left by the explosion.

The white dragon soared downward, fire bellowing from its open mouth, forming a wall of flame across the field of battle, between the sorcerers and the castle. 

The fire stretched high enough that Gwen felt the heat of it on her face.  It obscured the view of the army, as the dragon looped back and landed upon the ground, staggering and half falling under its burden, behind the protection of the flame.

Gwen watched in wonder as Merlin – still looking entirely like himself, still dressed as a servant – climbed down from the dragon’s back, patting it on its neck, the way you would a horse.

“Merlin!” she called.

Merlin looked up.  Nodded at her.  Then he said something to the dragon, and patted it again on the neck.

The dragon shook its head at him,  as if disagreeing.

Merlin pointed to the sky, shouting strange echoing words that were lost in the crackle of the fire burning high upon the field.

The white dragon screeched its protest, but galloped forward, launching into the air, flapping wildly over the treetops and out of sight.

“What’s he doing?” Percival asked, moving close to the wall, along with the rest of the assembled knights. 

“If he can control it, why’s he sending it away?” Leon demanded. 

Gwen watched Merlin swipe at the air, as if swatting a fly.

The line of fire vanished.  Revealing his presence there.  One man, between the castle, and the army.

“Emrys,” came Brogar’s bitter voice.

“What are you doing?” Merlin asked, sounding tired.  “The war is over.  Magic is no longer banned.  Take your men and go home.  Live your lives in peace.”

“There can be no peace so long as that castle stands!”

Merlin ignored the furious man, walking instead to address the other sorcerers.  “This isn’t what magic is for.  You know it isn’t.  If you listen to him, to people like him, you will be driven into the same darkness that forced me to end Morgana’s life.  Is that what you want?”

The three sorcerers glanced at each other. 

Uncertain, Gwen realized. 

Brogar let out a yell, and thrust his arm forward, a fireball flying from his hand.

Merlin barely spared it a glance. 

It exploded between them, the flames turning into flowers that rained down upon the field.

“You see?” Merlin asked the men, as if it had all been part of a lesson.  “Magic can be anything.  It doesn’t have to be death.  It can be life.”

“This man was a servant of the Pendragons!” Brogar yelled at the sorcerers.  “He betrayed our kind!  He watched them die!  He helped to kill them!  He is a traitor!  He deserves a traitor’s death by our own laws!”

Brogar lifted his hands.  The sorcerers in green and grey did the same.  The smaller man in blue hesitated, saw Brogar glaring at him, then quickly followed suit.

Merlin took a few steps back from them all, shaking his head. “You’ll see,” he said.

“Kill him!” Brogar yelled.

A jet of flame surged from Brogar’s fingertips, to strike a wall Merlin conjured with a flick of his hand.  But then the sorcerer in green waved his hands through the air, and vines surged up from the earth, wrapping around Merlin like snakes.  Fog swelled from the ground to do the same, encasing Merlin like a blanket, as the sorcerer in grey joined in.  After a shout upon the field from Brogar, the sorcerer in blue lifted his hands, and frost grew thick upon the field beneath Merlin’s feet. 

With a shout, Brogar sent another fireball through the air, this one exploding in a brilliant flash that sent Merlin to the ground.

“No!” Gwen yelled, straining forward against the wall.

Another brilliant flare of light sent pieces of vine and chunks of white in all directions, extinguishing the remaining fire as they passed.  The fog vanished as well, revealing a clear view of the field.

Merlin was getting to his feet, brushing dirt from his clothes. 

“Right,” he said. “My turn now.”

The sorcerer in blue gave a yelp and ran, shoving his way through the army in his haste towards the forest.

“Anyone else?” Merlin asked.

The sorcerers began to raise their hands in attack.

Merlin shouted strange words at them that vibrated through Gwen’s body, and lightning sizzled down from the sky, blindingly bright bolts striking between the army and the castle.  Thunder exploded, deafening, and Gwen covered her ears, the world growing dark as grey clouds obscured the sun.  Ferocious winds buffeted the trees, bending them back and forth, as more lightening struck the ground time and time again among the pouring rain.

But only upon the field, Gwen realized.  The castle was untouched.

The sheets of rain fell so dense that she couldn’t see beyond where Merlin stood at the edge of the tempest, both arms stretched out, hands weaving through the air, golden light sparking from his fingertips.

Gwen spotted the soldiers when Leon did, because they both called out at together, though their voices were lost in the thunder.

Merlin’s cry echoed across the field, as one of the soldiers who’d crept behind him drove a spear through his back. 

“Merlin!” Gwen screamed, choking on the name, as she saw Merlin stagger backwards, grabbing the blade sticking through his chest. 

Merlin spun around and roared his fury, a physical force that knocked every man upon the field to the ground. 

As silence fell upon the field, the wind vanishing, the rain gone, the sun emerging from the vanishing clouds, Merlin staggered around to face the castle. 

Blood was soaking his tunic, dripping from the fingers he’d wrapped around the spear tip protruding from his chest, as he lifted his eyes to hers. 

“I’m sorry,” he choked out.

And then he fell to the ground, sprawling face down in the mud, driving the spear from his body, the weapon falling to the ground at his side. 

In horror Gwen watched his blood soaking Camelot’s soil, just as Arthur’s had done.

“No!” she screamed.  “No!  Merlin!”

She felt hands upon her arms, pulling her from the edge of the wall.  She staggered away, staring at his lifeless body.

No, she thought, please, no, no, not him too, not because of me, oh god, I should have left him in Avalon, I should have left him in peace-!

“Highness!” Leon called out.

Gwen jerked free from his grip.  Pushing away others who sought to help her. 

Upon the field, the soldiers were getting back to their feet, drenched and in chaos but still very much alive. 

Brogar was flinging water from his robes with angry shakes of his arms.  He spun on the two remaining sorcerers. “You see?  I told you he was nothing!”

Gwen grabbed her sword.  Pulled it from its scabbard with a scrape that echoed through the knights.  “I’m going to kill him,” she ground out. “I’m going to kill him myself.”

“Only if I don’t get to him first,” Percival bit out, the first time he’d contradicted her since she’d assumed power.

“We’ll take it in turns,” Leon said, vengeful as Gwen had never heard him before, as he pulled free his sword.

“Attack!” Brogar screamed at his army. 

“On the Queen’s command!” Leon yelled, striding along the line of archers.

Gwen lifted her sword as the army rushed at the castle, screaming their attack, swords and pikes held high.  Upon the battlements, the archers raised their bows, the knights their swords. 

“For the love of Camelot!” Gwen cried out.

“For the love of Camelot!” they all shouted in response.

Arrows flew from a hundred bows, arching down from the walls, striking deep into the thick of the army upon the field.  Men fell, but the masses kept coming, pouring around the space where Brogar stood beside the two sorcerers, their hands raising towards the castle.

Spheres of fire flew from Brogar’s fingertips and exploded against the walls, as hundreds of vines shot up from the earth, amid a thick fog that rose to obscure the attacking forces below.

“Keep firing!” Leon yelled at the archers, though the command was hardly necessary, arrows flying from the battlements into the mists.

Gwen stumbled back as Percival shoved in front of her, slashing at a vine that reached up like a snake over the wall’s edge.

“They’re using them for ladders!” someone cried out. 

“Protect the Queen!” Leon yelled, rushing to her side, slashing at more of the vines that were crawling over the walls, as explosions shook the foundations.

“Protect the castle!” Gwen shouted at him, shoving him to the side, so she could hack at a vine that had been reaching for Leon’s neck.

“Shoot straight down the walls!” Leon shouted, pressing himself to the edge, hacking with his sword at the vine ladders that had turned into wood.

Gwen sliced through another thick vine that had gone for Percival. She could hear strangled cries all around her, but kept slicing at the surging vines, trying not to think of what a branch as strong as a tree could to do her throat.

Calls for her death rang up from the shouts that were growing closer, as the army scaled the castle walls. Gwen ignored them, stumbling back as her knights surged forward, slicing vines from the archers, some shouting warnings to to each other, others crying out in pain.

Gwen staggered back, pushed out of the way of a vine by Leon. 

She fell to the ground, the breath knocked from her.  Dazed, she twisted around, heaving in breaths, her palms pressed to the cool stone, to push herself up.

And that’s when she noticed it.

How the ground was trembling.

She felt a hand on her arm, pulling her up, pulling her away from the wall.  As she watched, a vine wrapped itself three times around Leon’s neck, already browning, already turning to bark.

“No!” she cried, reaching for it, pulling, watching his face turn red and his fingers pale as they grappled along with hers at the tendril.

Then his breath puffed out of him, as the vine crumbled to dust in their hands.

Screams of men rang out beyond the wall, long echoing things that ended with sickening thuds, one after the other.  The ladders, she realized, had turned to dust.  Dropping all who had been on them to the ground.

“The fog!” Percival called out.  “Look!”

Gwen rushed to the castle wall, falling breathless against it.  The fog had disappeared.  The vines as well.  Black armored bodies lay in piles below, and scattered here and there upon the field of battle, pierced with arrows.

Percival pressed close to her side, sheathing his sword.  “Why are they retreating?”

“That’s not a retreat,” Leon said, as the soldiers staggered backward, shoulder to shoulder, as if pushed by an invisible wall.

“Attack!” Brogar shouted at them.  “What are you doing!  Attack!”

Those soldiers who surged forward were flung to the ground, dragged back with the others, though they clawed up divots of damp earth.  Incoherent shouts rose among the thousands, as they staggered and fell over one another, trampling their own men, some falling upon others’ swords. 

At the front of their ranks, the soldiers were shoved to the sides as well, to leave both Merlin’s body and the stunned sorcerers untouched. 

“Do something!” Brogar screamed at the sorcerers.

“No,” came a voice.

Gwen felt the word rumble through the castle walls, as she stared breathless at the sight below.

Where Merlin was slowly climbing to his feet.

Leon shoved his sword through his belt, pressing forward with all those lining the walls.  “That’s impossible!”

Gwen felt tears fill her eyes, as she watched Merlin sway on his feet, blood soaking the back of his tunic, around the hole the spear had made.  “Of course it’s possible,” she choked out. “It’s Merlin.”

“This ends,” Merlin said to Brogar, his voice carrying as Brogar’s had done before.  “And it ends now.”

“Please forgive us, Emrys!” the sorcerer in blue cried out, throwing his hood back, revealing a shockingly young face.  “He threatened to kill our families!  To kill us!”

“Traitor!” Brogar yelled, and thrust out his hand.

“No,” Merlin said.

Brogar froze with his arm extended.  

Merlin walked over to him, stopping very close, to regard him a long moment.

Upon the field of battle, Gwen saw the soldiers shifting in place, many of them still struggling to their feet, all of them forced back where they had begun. 

“It shouldn’t have to be like this,” Merlin said to Brogar’s motionless form.  “But you leave me no choice.  People like you never do.”

With a sad shake of his head, Merlin walked away.

As he did, the spear that had run him through lifted from the ground.  It shot through the air, piercing Brogar’s chest, before being caught by Merlin’s casually outstretched hand.

He hadn’t even looked back as the killing blow had struck.  Nor did he turn back now, to see Brogar standing there like a statue, his life’s blood pouring from him.

Gwen pressed a gloved hand to her mouth, watching blood slide down the spear, soaking Merlin’s pale hand.

“This isn’t the way,” Merlin was saying, as he approached the other two sorcerers. 

“Forgive me!” the man in grey wailed, and flung himself forward, arms outstretched, face pressed to the earth.

Merlin ignored him, addressing the sorcerer in green. “Look at what you’ve done,” he said, and laid his hand upon the man’s hood.

Silence for a long moment.  And then the sorcerer cried out and collapsed, curling in upon himself on the ground, begging for forgiveness for all the wrongs he’d done.

As his babble melted into quieting sobs, Gwen heard Brogar’s last gasping breath, before he too went silent, even more horrific in death than he ever was in life.

Merlin didn’t spare him a second glance, striding forward towards the army, using the spear like a walking stick. “The war is over!” he shouted, and again his voice thundered up from the earth, shaking the castle walls. “This kingdom is under my protection!  Tell anyone who would threaten Camelot!   Emrys is watching over it!  And there will be no more bloodshed here!”

Merlin swiped an arm through the air, nearly throwing himself off balance.

Shouts went out among the soldiers as every sword, every spear, and every bow vanished from their hands.

“Now go!” Merlin yelled, and drove his spear into the ground.

The earth heaved beneath it, a visible wave rising up and passing through the grass, knocking most of the soldiers to the ground, sending those at the back of the formation flying into the trees.

“My god,” Leon said in amazement, as they watched several thousand soldiers scrambling to their feet, falling over each other in their attempt to flee. 

“For the love of Camelot!” Merlin yelled at their retreating backs, driving the spear into the ground again, calling down a crack of lightning right beside him.  Thunder crashed down all around them, echoing long into the distance, melting into the terrified cries of hardened murderers, all of them fleeing into the trees.

Only when every last one of them had gone did Merlin drop the spear to the ground.  He stumbled forward, caught himself, then turned around unsteadily to face the castle, standing alone now on the field, save for the silent dead, and the horrific sight of the lifeless Brogar at his side.

Gwen blinked away tears as Merlin searched the battlements, until at last his gaze found hers.

“Long live the Queen!” he cried.

And then he collapsed in a heap to the ground.

“Get him!  Get him!” Gwen shouted, but the knights were already on the move, pouring from the battlements, rushing down stairs and surging through the courtyard, out the rising gates and onto the battlefield. 

Gwen ran along with them, pushing past them all, to the open space made by the circle of knights where Percival was picking Merlin up from the ground.   Leon stood on guard nearby, his sword pointed at the other two sorcerers. 

Neither looked older than eighteen. 

“I’m sorry,” the young man in green moaned, between sobs.  “I’m so sorry.”

“Brogar threatened my mum,” said the even younger man in grey, tears streaking his round face.

“What shall we do with them?” Leon asked.

Gwen watched Percival striding away with Merlin in his arms, pale and limp and impossibly alive.  “Hold them,” she said, hurrying to follow.  “We’ll decide their fates later.”

***

Gaius pressed a hand to his chest, mouth falling open, as Percival strode into his chambers with Merlin limp and unconscious in his arms.  “My boy- No- Merlin-”

“He’s alive, Gaius,” Percival interrupted, as he eased Merlin down upon the cot.  He caught Gaius’ arm as he rushed over, because the old man nearly fell in his haste to press shaking fingers to Merlin’s throat.

Gwen knelt by Merlin’s shoulder, soothing his black hair back from the pale skin of his dirtied face.  He was so thin now.  His face sharply angled.  She wondered how much he was eating.   Or if he was eating at all.

Gaius pausing in his ministrations, shaking fingers pressed to Merlin’s neck.   “What happened to him?  Whose blood is this?”

“His own,” Percival said, sounding as if he couldn’t believe his own words. “He was run through with a spear.  And he fell.  But then he got up again.   And did magic.  A lot of it.”

Gwen brushed grass from Merlin’s hair, thinking of the lightning, and the wind, and of Brogar, standing dead upon the field.  For all she knew, he was standing there still. 

“His shirt, Percival, quickly.”

Percival bent forward and grabbed Merlin’s blood soaked tunic, his fingers staining red as he ripped it in half. 

The stench of blood had Gwen swallowing hard. “I don’t understand.  How can he still be alive?”

Gaius wiped the blood from Merlin’s chest, revealing a pink circle of new skin, right over Merlin’s heart.  The sight of it made him pause, and stare, his thin lips parting on a silent ‘oh’.

“Gaius?  What is it?”  Gwen felt hope clawing within her, desperate and wild, pulling tears to her eyes.  “It’s not… something to do with Avalon, is it?   It’s not because of of all his time there?”

Arthur, she thought.  Oh god, Arthur

“I don’t know, Gwen,” Gaius said, his desperation obvious in the use of her name.  He didn’t even realize he’d said it, judging by how he’d returned to work, focused on the frail body laid out before them.  “I’m sorry, but- please- if you could- both of you- leave me in peace- so that I can work.”

Gwen forced herself to her feet, swaying under the weight of her armor, dizzy with thoughts of the lake, and of Arthur, and of the wild stories of the Druids.

Of the Once and Future King.

She felt Percival’s hand upon her shoulder.  “Your highness…”

“Send word,” she choked out.  “The very moment he awakens, Gaius.  Promise me.”

“I promise, my lady.”

“He is not to leave before I see him,” she said, though her voice sounded desperate, even to her own ears.  “Arch your eyebrow at him if you must.  It always worked before.”

Gaius brushed some dirt from Merlin’s cheek.  The tender motion of a father. “If only that were true,” he whispered, then bent to his work.

****

Three days passed before Gwen received word that Merlin was awake. 

Three days that she’d spent overseeing the castle’s repairs, and sitting long Counsel Sessions, listening to report after report of the Battle of Camelot pouring in from the five kingdoms.

They believe Camelot is protected by magic, said the messenger from the distant north.  They say Uther’s War is over, reported the envoy from the eastern sea.  

Among the users of magic, it was very much the same.  Except the focus was on Merlin. Though they never called him that name.

The Dragonlord came, said the Druids in the town.  Emrys protects us, said the old seers in the taverns.   And the Priests of the Old Religion, as they walked in the streets, would bow their heads at the mention of his name, saying the Immortal One, as if any mention of him could not go without it.

Gwen stood at the door of Physician’s Chambers, unable to push the thought from her mind.  Of Merlin, immortal

The Druids had a name for Arthur, too.  She’d heard them use it more than once.  The Once and Future King.  A king born to magic, and to prophecy, who was sleeping, now, beyond the Gates of Avalon.

Gaius had described it that way too, more than once in fact.  She’d thought he was trying to be kind.  Avoiding the other word. 

But now, she found herself wondering.

“So soon?” came Gaius’ voice through the door.

“I can’t stay any longer.”  Merlin’s voice, now.  Defensive.  “Aithusa is waiting for me to return.  He won’t leave until I do.  I ordered him not to.  Unless anything… changed.  But he’s not well, Gaius. I’ve left him there alone too long.”

“But Camelot needs your help.”

“Camelot will be safe now.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“You said yourself that the warning is all over the kingdom. Someone would have to be crazy to attack Camelot now.”

“Insanity never stopped Morgana,” Gaius said sharply.

A scraping of furniture across the stone floor.  “You don’t need to tell me about Morgana!”

A long silence followed. 

“I’m sorry, Gaius, I shouldn’t have-“

“It’s understandable, my boy.  You’ve been through quite a lot.  Why don’t you finish your breakfast in peace. I have errands to run.”

“Gaius-”

“And I do mean all of your breakfast,” Gaius said, closer to the door.  “You’re skin and bones.”

Gwen hurried back from the doorway, though not hastily enough for Gaius to miss spotting her, as he stepped into the hall and pulled the door shut. 

“Perhaps you can talk some sense into him,” he said, though his voice didn’t hold much hope, nor did he bother to explain further, before leaving her alone in the corridor.

When she knocked upon the door, she heard Merlin sigh loud enough to be heard through the thick door.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, sharp and angry.

“It’s not Gaius,” Gwen told him. 

“Oh.  Sorry.  Come in.” 

Gwen did so with a hesitance she hadn’t felt in years.  Merlin’s uncertain expression reflected it, as he stood there by the breakfast table, a blanket pulled tight around his thin frame, his white tunic and breeches both hanging loose around him.

Dozens of plates of food filled the table before him, but most of it was untouched.  He glanced down at it as she did, his dark brows twitching together, as if caught out. 

“My lady,” Merlin said quickly, and lowered his gaze to the floor.

She tilted her head at him, torn between amazement at his deference, and sadness at the distance between them.  “You know,” she said softly, “I think I much preferred it when you called me Gwen.”

The small smile he gave held hints of the young boy she’d first seen in the stocks long ago. “Gwen,” he said, sounding uncertain about it, as if he’d never had the honor before.

She stepped over to the table.  Stared down at the many plates. “Apparently I’m not the only one who’s noticed you look thinner.”

“Yeah, about that, could you tell them to stop?”  Merlin poked at a loaf of bread nearby.  “Even Percival at his hungriest couldn’t eat all this.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Merlin nodded, pulling the corners of his blanket, his fingers still far too pale against the cloth.

Gwen sat down upon the bench, trying to think of something to say.  Her thoughts were filled with years of secrets, and the painful past, and the things she’d seen upon the field.  “I guess- It seems- You have admirers?” she finished, actually stammering out the words, as she hadn’t for so many years.

Merlin took the seat opposite her.  “Guess so.”

Gwen found herself staring as he moved plates out of the way, haphazardly stacking things to the side, as careless as he’d ever been. 

He was the same man, she thought.  Every inch of him looked the same.  His black hair, his pale skin, his ears sticking out a bit too far.  Even his eyes, the color of a summar sky.

Everything about him was the man she’d known.

And yet he’d never been that man.   Not really.  The power and the ferocity she’d seen from him upon the field of battle was more than enough proof of that.

Gwen drew her shoulders back.  Soothing the fabric of her gown. Time to stop avoiding the truth, she thought.  Long past time, in fact.

Merlin had paused in his movement, a plate of rolls in his hand, one eyebrow quirked upward.  “What?”

She tipped her chin up, and smiled at him, reassuring and fond.  “I was wondering if I could have your opinion.”

He nearly dropped his rolls.  “My opinion?  Why?  On what?”

“On the two magic users captured during the battle.”  She picked up a strawberry from a nearby bowl, studying it with interest, to avoid meeting Merlin’s wary gaze. 

“Why do you need my opinion?”

“Because I don’t know what to do with them.”

“What do you mean you don’t know what to do?  They attacked the castle, didn’t they?  Doesn’t that make them traitors?  There’s only one sentence for that.”

“Not anymore there isn’t,” Gwen said, dropping the fruit uneaten to the bowl.  “And in any case, I have no desire to punish anyone for being coerced under threat of torture or death to use their magic against their will.  That was certainly the case with these two boys, and let me assure you, they’re both boys.  They burst into tears every time they see me, no matter what I’m wearing when I speak with them.”

Merlin stared at her a long moment, looking dazed.  “You change clothes to speak with them?”

“That’s really not the point, Merlin,” she said, through soft laughter.

He laughed as well, his brows raised high, as if amazed at himself for doing it.  When he was done, he gave his head a little shake, smiling at her now, as he used to do, when she was being brave. “You really are changing things, aren’t you.”

“I’m trying to, yes.”

Merlin shook his head again, clearly still astonished, as he reached for the strawberry she’d dropped.  “Well… In that case… If you really do want my opinion…”

“Please.”

“Send them both home, if they have one.  Or if they don’t, then invite them to stay and learn from Gaius.   They won’t cause you any more problems.  I’ve made certain of that.”

“How’s that?”

“I helped them feel all the pain they caused.  And then I made it so that they’ll feel it again, if they ever use their abilities to hurt anyone else.”

You can do that? she wanted to ask.  Just like that?  Just with a thought?  But she held back the words.

Merlin must have sensed them anyway, because he pulled his blanket tighter around him, and went quiet again.

“Word has spread through all the kingdoms,” she told him. “That Camelot is protected.  By the Dragonlord Emrys.”

Merlin’s eyes narrowed, his jaw jutting out, the illusion of a servant falling away, leaving a warrior in its place.  “They won’t try it again,” he said, his voice low and dangerous, as it had been upon the field.  “If they do, I’ll stop them.  I give you my oath.  I’ll stop them all.”

Gwen felt herself wanting to lean away, her thoughts filled with Arthur, and how he had become someone else upon the killing field.  A warrior, blooded in battle.  It had terrified her then too.  “So it’s true?” she forced herself to ask.  “You can protect the kingdom, as you said?”

“Now that I have the Crystal of Neahtid, I can keep watch over all of Camelot’s borders, even from the shores of Avalon.”

“Avalon?  But you’re not-  Aren’t you going to stay?”

Merlin looked over at the door. Gwen glanced over as well, expecting to see someone standing there.  But there was no one.  Just the silent room. 

“I keep expecting-” Merlin began, then stopped, looking pained, lips trembling as he sought to speak. “That- that- Arthur will…“ 

Gwen watched him turn away from her, his shoulders shaking, as he drew in a loud breath. “I know,” she said through a tight throat.  “Merlin… I know…”

“I can’t stay here,” Merlin whispered, looking back at her almost desperate, blue eyes shining with the tears that slid down his cheeks. 

“Don’t you see?  If you go, you’ll lose even that part of him.  Here, within these walls… I can just feel him with us.  Watching over us.  Sometimes… I can even…”  Hear his voice, she thought.  Sense his presence.  Feel as though he isn’t gone, not really.  Not within my heart.

“I can’t stay,” Merlin said.  “I’m sorry, Gwen, but I can’t.”

“But why?”

Merlin sat back hard in his chair, dropping his hands to his lap.  “You’re going to think I’m mad.”

“I highly doubt that.”

He let out an enormous sigh, then leaned forward upon the table, hand pressing to its surface.  “The reason I can’t leave Avalon,” he said, his voice low and urgent, as if imparting a great secret, “is because of Arthur.”

“Arthur?”

“Yes. I need to wait there, in Avalon, for him to return.”

It took her a moment to recover from her shock.  And then another moment to reply.  “What do you mean… return?”

“I don’t know when, but he’s coming back. That’s why the Druids call him the Once and Future King.  He’s meant to return when Albion’s need is greatest. To rule over the greatest kingdom the world has ever known. The Great Dragon told me so.”

“But… Merlin… Arthur’s dead.”

“Just for now,” Merlin said, as if this were an entirely rational argument, and not a terrifying sign of madness. “So you see?  I can’t be here.  Because I need to be there.  Waiting for him.”

Gwen only stared in response, unable to even think of what to say.

“I told you, it sounds mad.  But that’s just because it’s prophecy.  Prophecy always sounds that way.   But it’s true, Gwen.  I know it is.” 

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

“And you… told all this to Gaius?”

“Yes.”

“And does he believe this prophecy to be true?”

Merlin snorted, and grabbed at a bowl of fruit.  “Gaius doesn’t know everything.”

They sat together in silence.  Merlin poking at the berries without eating them. Gwen watching dust motes in the rays of light. 

“Now you think I’m mad,” Merlin said, jabbing at the bowl.

She couldn’t bring herself to deny it.  At least not about this. 

“Probably best that I go,” Merlin said to the bowl.  “Everyone’s probably terrified of me now anyway.” 

“Anyone with any sense was terrified of you years ago,” Gwen said without thinking.  When he looked up in surprise, she added, “especially in the archives. A certain incident involving Geoffrey’s chambers, if I remember correctly?”

Merlin thumped the bowl down the to table, indignant.  “If you’re talking about the sheep-“

“A small flock of sheep, yes, though how you got them into his chambers I still don’t know-”

“That wasn’t me!”

“I heard that it was.”

“That’s because Arthur told everyone it was, even though he knew it was Gwaine’s idea!”

Gwen watched Merlin’s smile slowly fade away at the mention of those names, his grief sliding in where his joy had been. 

Before she could think of anything to say, he got up from the table, wandering over to a bouquet of yellow roses.  In the ray of sunlight from the high window, they shone with light brilliantly enough that golden light reflected in his eyes.

He’s quieter now, Gwen realized.  She wondered just how often he was alone.  If he ever had company, there by the shores of the lake. 

Which brought that other question again to her mind. 

“The spear,” she said.  “It pierced your heart.”

Merlin nodded at the flowers.

“But you didn’t die.”

The question didn’t surprise him. If anything, he seemed to have been expecting it, judging by the weary shake of his head.

“Is it… because of Avalon?”

“No.”

Gwen closed her eyes, feeling the embers of her final hopes flicker and die. 

“I think,” Merlin was saying, “that it’s something… about me.”

He’d sounded fragile.  Afraid.  Standing there wrapped in his blanket, the sunlight shining upon his skin, he looked paler, more vulnerable than he had in a long time.  

Gwen rose from her chair, moving over to him.  “What is it?”

“I didn’t learn magic like others do.   Because I… I’m made of it.  And magic doesn’t have a beginning.  And it doesn’t have an end.  It just is.”

Like the lightning, she thought.  Like the rain.  Like all the forces of nature that never changed, never aged, never died.

Oh god, she thought, horrified at the thought of him living through the ages, watching everyone he loved dying all around him, while he waited for the return of a man who would never come.  She felt tears filling her eyes, and moved closer still to him, her shoulder pressing against his, her fingers brushing against his knuckles. 

Merlin sighed, and took hold of her hand, squeezing it gently, as if she were the one in need of consolation, instead of him.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.  “I can’t imagine how you must-“

“Please, Gwen,” Merlin said, sounding desperate.  “Don’t.”

They stood for a while, not speaking, as the dust motes danced in the sunlight around them.

Merlin drew in a sharp breath.  And then another.  “I’m so sorry,” he choked out, his voice breaking.  “That I couldn’t… That I didn’t…“

“Neither did I,” she said sadly, thinking of the thousands of things she could have done, or said, to save Arthur, to save Morgana, to stop all this pain from ever happening.

“But I-“

Enough, Merlin,” she pleaded, and squeezed his hand, hard. 

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, barely a breath to the words.

She wondered if he’d meant for her to hear.

***

She left him when he started swaying on his feet.  Magical exhaustion, he told her.  A claim she chose to believe, though she still extracted a promise from him, not to leave without saying goodbye.

As he slept, Gwen called Leon and Gaius and Percival to the council chambers. 

“Merlin believes that he cannot stay here in Camelot,” she told them all.  “You know the reason why, Gaius, do you not?”

Judging by the expressions on all three of the men’s faces, they all did.

“He believes Arthur will return,” Gwen went on, sparing them the pain of saying it, inflicting it on herself instead.  “He says that this is prophecy.  One you all have heard, I believe.”

“I have,” Gaius replied.  “But it is only that.  A prophecy.  Many of which exist.”

“Many of which have come true, when it comes to Arthur and Merlin.”

“Yes, but… My lady, prophecies are vague by their very nature.  They are open to many interpretations.   In Merlin’s grief, I believe he is perhaps... prescribing this one with more truth than it is deserving.  And even if it is true, we have no idea of when.”

“Which is precisely the reason I’ve brought you here,” Gwen told them all. “The when. Because if Arthur and Merlin are joined in this prophecy… and Merlin, so it seems, cannot be so easily killed…”

Gwen watched the color drain from Gaius’ face, as the meaning of her words became clear.

“I don’t understand,” Percival said.  “If Merlin can’t die, then that’s a good thing, isn’t it?  He’ll be able to help Arthur whenever he comes back.”

“However many years that may be,” Leon said softly.

“Or decades,” Gwen added.  “Or more.”

“But that’s not possible,” Percival protested.  “Everyone ages.  Everyone dies.”

“We don’t know that,” Gwen said gently, worried for Gaius, who had gone so still beside her.

“But if that’s true, then- then- we can’t let him leave.”

“He won’t stay,” Gwen said.  “Not if he believes Arthur needs him.”

Percival looked over at Leon, clearly distressed.

Leon shook his head, for once without anything to say.

Percival frowned down at the table a long moment.  Finally he looked up at them all.  “Then he’s going to need supplies.”

“Supplies,” Leon repeated. Then he smiled, and slapped Percival on the shoulder.  “Yes!  A cart full of supplies.”

“And his horse to pull it.”

“Because it will be filled with wood and nails-“

“And clothes and food.  And some of those pork pies the Cook makes.  Those should last him all winter.”

“Gaius?” Leon asked.  “What do you think?”

Gaius cleared his throat, arms wrapped tight across his chest. “He’ll need books.  About medicine and magic both.  With paper and quills and ink as well.  To teach those who come to him to learn.”

“I’d better write out a list,” Leon said, heading across the room to get some paper.

Percival followed after him, groaning. “A list, god, now we’re in trouble-”

“You wish you were as organized as I am!”

“No one wishes they were as organized as you are.”

As the knights’ bickering echoed through the room, Gwen walked over to where Gaius now stood, staring down at Arthur’s empty throne.

“Did you know,” Gaius said softly, “that the Fisher King lived over a thousand years?  And the The Seer Taliesen, longer still.”  When he turned to Gwen, tears shone in his eyes.  “Merlin is more powerful than both of them combined.  By a magnitude which I cannot begin to imagine.”

Gwen set her hand upon Gaius’ arm, gaze drawn as always to Arthur’s empty chair. 

More than anything she wished she could see him sitting there. She ached for it, with all her heart, every single day.

“Though I want him back, more than I can say, I cannot bring myself to wish for this horrible time of need spoken of in the prophecy.  Too many have suffered and died already for me to be so selfish.”  

She ran her fingertips along the arm of Arthur’s chair, remembering his hand upon it, strong and steady, there to guide her. 

“But someday,” she went on, “when these awful things come to pass, as they always do… There is one thing I do wish.  And that is for Merlin to find his way swiftly to Arthur’s side.  To fight alongside him as he never could here.  And perhaps, the next time, to not lose him, so that he will not have to face the ages of the world all alone.”

For a while, only the distant sounds of Percival and Leon laughing echoed though the room.

“Arthur would be proud of you,” Gaius said, his voice rough.  “For you to wish such a thing for Merlin…  when it must be so close to your heart as well…”

Gwen turned away from the empty chair. “He was never meant to be mine alone. I’ve known that for a long time.  From the first day I loved him, I think.”

Gaius picked up her hand. Held it tightly between both of his own.  “We are all so blessed to have you as our Queen.”

“I’m the one who is blessed to have such good friends to guide me.”

“I swear to do so with honor, until my very dying breath,” Gaius said.  “And I swear to you that it will be with absolute honesty, as it never was with Uther.  And perhaps not Arthur as well, for all my secrets.” 

As she stared in shock at him, he smiled at her, as an old man would, open and kind, his emotions no longer hidden behind a mask.

“I truly believe, Guinevere, that you will lead Camelot into a peace such as we have never known in our lifetimes.  I look forward to assisting you in that endeavor, as long as I am able.”

Across the room, Percival was arguing with Leon about the proper amount of wood needed to build a decent house. Leon was grumbling and shaking his head about it, but was writing even more notes far down the long list of items on the scroll.

“I honestly can’t thank you enough for doing this for Merlin,” Gaius said.

“He deserves it, don’t you think?”

“More than most. Though the challenge will be to make him accept it.”

“Oh I have a plan for that,” she said.

***

Gwen wasn’t sure how, but Gaius somehow managed to convince Merlin to stay until the next day.  Merlin grumbled about stubborn old goats every time she asked him about it, so she’d let the subject drop, content to talk of other things as they took dinner together.

The servants had cast them both strange looks as they’d settled the blanket upon the grasses of the castle gardens. But it was the only place Merlin would agree to eat. 

Gwen understood why.  Those days after Arthur’s death, she could barely stand to see the empty chair at the end of the dining table.  The silence in her chambers had made her want to scream.

Here Merlin could glance up at the sky, as well.  Which he did often.  Looking for dragon’s wings, she thought.

She pretended not to notice, going on with her list of questions about magic, Merlin spilling out answers as if there had never been a secret between them.

***

The next morning she supervised the final items being loaded into the cart, and then the grooming of Merlin’s horse, who had found her way back to Camelot so many months before.

When all was in readiness, she stood outside in the sun, at the top of the steps beside the open doors to the citadel, listening to Merlin’s complaints echoing down the hall as he approached from inside the castle.

She soothed down her formal gown, adjusting her cape over her shoulders, careful not to tip the crown from her head.

The knights lining both sides of the citadel steps all drew even further to the attention, capes swaying and armor catching the sun.  In the courtyard, the assembled castle servants who knew Merlin – which was to say all of them - stood gathered beyond the horse and cart.  Quite a few people from the town stood in rows behind them, enough so that she wondered how he was going to be able to leave the courtyard.

“He’s really not going to like this,” Leon said at her side, sounding amused.

Percival peered up at the heavens.  “That’s all right, because we’re needing a bit of rain, aren’t we.”

“I’d rather not the lightning, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Yeah, perhaps not that part.  Bit of a breeze would be nice though.“

“Hush, you two,” Gwen said, barely suppressing a laugh.

“Gaius, will you stop fussing?” came Merlin’s loud voice.  “I didn’t forget it!  It’s right here!”

“Of course, of course,” Gaius said, and walked through the doorway, then stepped to the side.

Merlin stomped through the doorway, digging through his bag, muttering to himself about stubborn old goats.

Deafening cheers from the courtyard drowned any further words out.

Merlin tripped and nearly fell down the stairs.  Leon caught his arm, steadying him.

“Sorry!” he said, looking in panic at the crowd. He rushed over to Gwen, trying to get behind her.  “Sorry!  I didn’t know!  No one told me!  Who’s here?”

You are, silly,” she told him, pulling him back to the middle of the steps. 

Merlin gave Gaius a horrified look, then glared at Leon and Percival, who both checked the condition of the sky.

“No,” Merlin said, pulling at her grip.  “No, absolutely not, no, I- Careful!“

Gwen laughed as Merlin kept her from tripping over her own dress and tumbling down the steps.  The crowd was still cheering, but were dying down, clearly waiting for something to be said. 

“I’m going to kill whoever’s ideas this was,” Merlin said, through a smile that was mostly clenched teeth.

“It was my idea, which would make what you just said treason,” Gwen pointed out happily.

To her surprise, Merlin stilled beside her.  When he turned to her, his expression had gone soft, eyes shining with tears, a sad smile upon his lips.

Without another word, he’d turned back to the crowd, and just stood there, patient and silent, letting her speak about his bravery, and his loyalty, and how the people of the kingdom could sleep soundly, because of his protection.

He even accepted their gifts without protesting, politely nodding and thanking them, and even turning to wave as he guided the cart from the courtyard, though he could barely be seen behind the supplies piled high in the cart.

It was until later that she’d figured out why.

She was laying in bed, talking to Arthur, as she sometimes did there.  She could always hear his voice the easiest in their chambers.  If she closed her eyes, she could even picture him by her side.

“Why did he go along with it, Arthur?” Gwen asked. “He really didn’t want to do it.   He even threatened to kill the person who arranged it all, until I pointed out it was me.”

She imagined Arthur’s soft laughter resounding from the castle walls.

‘Threaten to put him in the stocks, did you?’

“No,“ Gwen said, smiling.

‘Tell him it was treason to speak to his Queen that way, then, was it?’

Gwen put a hand to her mouth, eyes going wide.  “I should have known!  Merlin wasn’t doing it because of me at all, was he.  He was doing it because of you!”

She looked over to Arthur’s side of the bed, so lost in memory that for a second she expected to see him there. 

Instead, she saw the darkened room.  The empty bed.  And Arthur’s abandoned pillow.

For a time, she let her grief claim her.

And then, after a long while, she pulled herself together again.

“Visitors,” she said, to herself this time.  “I’ll have to arrange for Merlin to have lots of visitors.  Gaius for a start.” 

She wondered how far Merlin had gotten in his travels.  Where he’d camped tonight.  Though likely, he hadn’t stopped to rest.   He believed his king could be waiting for him, after all. 

“Once and Future King,” Gwen said sadly. “But not my future.  His.”

She didn’t know how she knew it.  She only knew that she did.

“Let them find each other,” she begged the magics of the earth. “If I cannot have him again… then please… Let him not be alone.  They do so need each other.  It would be cruel to keep them apart.  And you’ve been cruel enough to us all already.”

She pulled Arthur’s pillow to her, face pressed into it, holding it tight.   

After a while she drifted off, sliding into strange dreams.

Of a stone house upon a hillside. Of a broken tower upon an isle.  Of a festival by a lakeside. 

And of her beautiful Arthur, walking from the water, to see Merlin dropping to his knees by the shore.  Tears streamed down Merlin’s face as Arthur knelt before him, pulling Merlin into a strong embrace. 

As they clung to one another upon the sands, the midsummer sunrise lifted high above them.  A new dawn, and a new beginning.

 ‘Be at peace, young Queen,’ came a woman’s voice. ‘These things will not happen soon.  But they will happen.’

Gwen brushed drops of warming mist from her cheek, blinking herself awake. 

It was morning, sunlight filling her chambers.  She could hear birds singing.  A lovely little song that reminded her of childhood.  She sat up, smiling out the window, feeling better than she had in a very long time. 

A lot to get done today, she thought.  She’d better get to work.