And you, my love, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
- Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas
Guinevere stared at the royal seal in her hand – her final bequest from Arthur.
She could not deny it any longer, for the throne beside her was empty and would remain so. And yet she could not collapse with grief, could not scream and cry and rail against her world ending, for the entire kingdom needed them to be strong for her. She had to be a queen – she was no longer just Arthur’s wife, she was not acting as his advisor or another voice at the Round Table. Nor was she simply a steward while he was away from Camelot as she had been many times in the past. Gwen was now a ruling queen, solely responsible for the lives of her knights and each and every one of her subjects. She could not let them see her cry, for they needed strength, surety, and trust that she would continue her husband’s legacy; that their lives would continue as they had before. They could not see her falter.
Guinevere nodded at Leon and he, with a great sadness, spoke the words she was dreading.
“The King is dead,” he proclaimed to the assembled congress. “Long live the Queen!”
Percival stood at the front of the crowd, and repeated the last words softly. It was he who had brought her the grim news of Gwaine’s death, and that Morgana had discovered Arthur and Merlin’s destination. The rest of the knights stood behind him, and called out the refrain in unison. But she did not know them well; they were not her close friends like Leon and Percival, the only two of Arthur’s inner circle who remained. Her dear Elyan was slain, and Gwaine’s body, which Percival had brought back to Camelot, was being prepared for his funeral at that very moment. And of course Lancelot was long gone. She had loved each of those men deeply, albeit in very different ways, and they would all be kept dear in her heart.
And yet all of her heart was with Arthur – she had told him that when he’d asked her to marry him, and it had been those words which had broken the spell Morgana had held over her. She had only wanted to be his queen, not Camelot’s, and now she was faced with a world without him, where his people were in her keeping. She felt their expectation, even as they honoured her, and the responsibility was a further weight on her lonely, crushed heart.
Finally, when duty was done, Gwen was able to escape to her chambers. She dismissed all of her servants; she couldn’t bear their sympathy. Alone, she entered her rooms but did not find them empty. Her heart sank to see Merlin seated at the table. He did not look at her when she entered, but had obviously been waiting for her, and Gwen knew she would not yet find her solace.
It had been Merlin who had returned to tell her of Arthur’s death. Without his confirmation, she never would have accepted it, never would have given up. But Merlin had passed on the solemn tidings of Arthur’s passing, with an apology and the gift of Arthur’s rings. He hadn’t seemed in a fit state to divulge anything else, and Gwen had convened the council immediately. From the looks of him, Merlin hadn’t left his place at the table since that time. But he did not acknowledge her entrance, and Gwen took a few moments for herself.
Her chambers seemed so empty without Arthur, large and cold. Gwen walked over to the bedchamber, to the dresser by her side of the bed. Arthur’s rings rested there, where she had left them. Gwen twisted her own betrothal ring around her finger and fought back the bile that rose in her throat, because this had always been his room. She had once tended to its keeping as a servant before she had ever come to it as Arthur’s wife – and a mere three years it had been her home. It would never feel right without him.
She ran her fingers over the bedspread, and her heart ached with the knowledge that she would never again share it with her husband. Never again would she wake with his warmth at her back or his kiss on her neck; never again would they share night-time confidences, or a passionate embrace. Gwen wanted nothing more than to pull on one of his tunics – one that still carried his scent – crawl into that bed and weep until the pain had left her. Although she wasn’t sure it ever would.
But still, her own grief would have to wait. Guinevere sighed and turned around to see Merlin still at the table; he had not moved. She folded her hands in front of her and tried to speak as calmly as possible.
“What happened, Merlin?” she asked, surprised at how steady her voice was.
Merlin shook his head and was silent for several moments. When he looked up it was not at her but at the other side of the table, at Arthur’s empty chair, and there were fresh tears in his red-rimmed eyes.
“We were too late,” he said, his breath falling on the last word. “Morgana found us, and we lost the horses… I killed her,” he added with a whisper.
Gwen closed her eyes, unsure of how to feel about the information. Relief, in the foremost, that Morgana would no longer pose a danger to Camelot or herself. Bitterness, that her death had not made a difference, and Arthur had been taken from her anyway. And, despite herself, pity. For she had dearly loved Morgana once, had thought of her like a sister; looked up to her and admired her beauty, her bearing, her compassion for those who had been wronged, and the kindness and love she had once shown to Gwen herself. In spite of every hurtful and despicable thing Morgana had done to her since then, Gwen couldn’t help but feel saddened by the thought of her former mistress, driven insane with hatred and anger, dying alone.
“And Arthur?” she asked, putting thoughts of Morgana’s fate aside to be dwelt and grieved upon later.
Merlin’s lower lip trembled, and he drew a hitched breath. “Arthur’s wounds were too great,” he told her. “We didn’t make it to Avalon in time. He…” Merlin trailed off, and Gwen held up a hand so that he didn’t need to continue. She had thought she wanted to hear details, but had been wrong – she couldn’t hear about the moment of her husband’s death, for if she did she would break. It was several long moments before she trusted herself to speak further.
“So even with all your magic,” she said, unable to keep a note of accusation from her tone. “You couldn’t save him.”
Merlin looked at her properly for the first time since she entered the room, and their eyes met.
“You know?” He seemed surprised, and yet his reaction was dulled. Once, the thought of her finding out about his secret must have caused him concern, but now he seemed beyond caring.
Gwen nodded slowly. “I’ve always known there was something special about you, Merlin,” she told him softly. Ever since she’d seen him that day in the square, talking back to Arthur like no one else ever had, Gwen had known that Merlin was different. And every danger that had come Arthur’s way, Merlin had been there, in the background, as everything had seemed to work out - often miraculously. “I’m ashamed how long it took me to put the pieces together,” she continued, remembering the times she had dismissed his suspicious behaviour as mere quirks, and attributed his tendency to have the answer at convenient moments to coincidence.
“But you kept your secret well,” she added with a note of bitterness.
It was hard to read Merlin’s expression – in many ways he looked as she felt, with all emotion wrung from him - empty. He did not look at her.
“You’re angry at me.”
“Do you blame me?” she asked, her voice cracking with emotion, and began to pace the room with agitation. “It’s not that you have magic, Merlin, I don’t care about that,” she told him emphatically, stopping at the table and resting her hands on the back of an empty chair. “It’s that you’ve lied to me every day, for years – since the day we met."
He looked down and away, and it was clear that whilst he felt guilty, he would not apologise for it. She sighed heavily, berating herself inwardly for her rise in temper – she promised herself that she would not give in to it.
“I understand why you did it,” she continued in a calmer voice, and that was the truth. The times that she had been held in suspicion of using magic, thrown in the dungeons or almost burnt at the stake made her understand, perhaps more than anyone else, the dangers Merlin had faced. “But it still hurts to know I never had your trust. That I never really knew you.”
Merlin bowed his head and was silent for several moments. He looked up again and swallowed heavily, but she cut him off before he could speak.
“And when I did figure it out,” she continued not wishing to be side-tracked by explanations or denials. “I was so relieved. Because I thought, surely, you would save him as you must have done so many times before.” That was what had shocked her the most – not that Merlin had magic, but that this time it had not helped. He was a powerful sorcerer who could change his appearance, who could make lightning rain from the sky and vanquish armies, and yet Arthur was dead. Magic had killed him, and yet it had not saved him.
“I know,” Merlin spoke, finally, his voice raw. “I failed Arthur, and you, and everyone else in Camelot. I would have done anything to save him, but I couldn’t. I tried.”
Gwen, moved by his overwhelming guilt, took a seat beside him and placed a hand over his, clenched on the table. “I’m sorry,” she told him softly. “I didn’t mean to imply that it was your fault. It’s not." As upset as she was with him for lying to her, she could never blame him for what had happened.
He looked up at her, eyes bright and cheeks wet with tears. “Yes it is,” he said firmly. “When I first came to Camelot, I was told of a prophesy. That Arthur would unite the kingdoms, that magic would once again be allowed in Camelot, that he would bring peace and prosperity to all of Albion.” He shook his head and Gwen felt his fist clench tighter under her hand. “But everything I have done to try and make sure that happened only seemed to ensure that it wouldn’t. I could have helped Morgana before she turned to evil, but I was too afraid for my own secret. I tried to stop Mordred from betraying Arthur, but in doing so I gave him a reason to turn against him. I could have tried to influence Arthur to accept magic, but didn’t because I feared for his life. And he died anyway.”
It was too much information to process, as Gwen realised that Merlin had been living with a burden greater than simply his magic, greater than she could comprehend at this moment. So she squeezed his hand in reassurance, unable to offer much more. Gwen knew nothing about such things, so she could not alleviate his guilt, as much as she wanted to.
“Where is he?” she asked after a long silence. Merlin had not brought Arthur’s body back to Camelot. “I will send the knights to bring him home.”
“They cannot,” he told her. “Arthur is resting in Avalon. Safe.” This seemed to comfort him, and he wiped away his tears with the sleeve of his tunic.
“Oh.” Gwen withdrew her hand, a lance of hurt piercing through her. Not only had Merlin been with Arthur in his final moments, but he had not even planned to bring his body back to her. Her husband should be interred with the former kings of Camelot, like his father had. Where she could visit him.
Gwen suddenly felt very tired, and she didn’t want to hear Merlin’s reasons, although she was sure he had them. She stood and walked away, her feet almost of their own accord leading her to the cabinet opposite her and Arthur’s bed. She opened the door to reveal several of Arthur’s white and red shirts, waiting for an owner who would never return. She fingered the sleeve of one, the material soft and well-worn between her fingers. She couldn’t help but feel a sliver of resentment towards Merlin, who had kept so much from her over the years, and who had now kept her from seeing her husband one last time. Arthur would always be in the realm of magic, separated from her, and all she would have to remember him by were some rings, some clothing, and an empty throne. Merlin had not even brought Arthur’s sword back to her, she thought bitterly as she closed the cabinet door.
In her peripheral vision she saw Merlin stand, and was relieved that she would finally be alone. But he did not leave, and instead took several steps towards her.
“There’s something different about you, Gwen,” he told her, and for the first time his voice seemed strong, more like the Merlin she had always known.
“I am…upset, Merlin,” she said, wishing more than ever that he would just leave her to her grief. The struggle to remain stoic was taking its toll, and she wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold on.
“I know,” he continued. “But it is not that.” He closed the distance between them, resting his hands on her shoulders and turning him fully towards her.
“Merlin, please,” she said, close to tears. “I really just want to be alone.”
But Merlin ignored her, studying her intently. “Is it possible…” he began, before hesitating for several moments. “That you are with child?”
Gwen looked away with shame and anger. Why would he say such a hurtful thing to her now, of all times? Now when there was not even hope to cling to?
“You know that it is not,” she replied shortly. It was something they’d never spoken of, at least out loud. Gwen knew the gossip scuttled about beyond her or Arthur’s hearing, that she had not been able to provide the kingdom with an heir. Three years and just as many pregnancies that had ended too early, no child even living long enough to quicken in her womb. It seemed she could conceive, but that her body could not keep hold of the new life long enough for the child to grow.
She felt that failure painfully, although Arthur had never once brought up the subject, had never pressured her to take remedies or seek advice from Gaius to aid in conception. She knew it was because he loved her so dearly, and took great pains to avoid any insinuation that she may be wanting as a wife or queen. And for Arthur, childbirth meant the risk of death, carried the fear or losing her as he had lost his mother. So Gwen kept the yearning locked away in her heart, in the hope that one day, they would be blessed. A hope that was now lost.
“I am serious, Gwen,” Merlin said, seemingly ignoring her distress. “I sense something different about you.”
“With your magic?” She brushed off his hold and walked away.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” he told her. “It’s never really worked this way before.”
Gwen turned back to face him unhappily, leaning against the bedpost for she did not feel the strength to stand unaided any longer. Merlin, by contrast, had become much more animated, and so she felt it was only right to let him say what he felt he needed to.
“Before the battle, I went to a place of great magic,” he continued following her nod of assent to do so. “To the birthplace of magic itself. And ever since then, I have felt everything so much more clearly.” Merlin glanced around, and Gwen noticed a faraway look in his eyes, almost replacing the grief and pain he had radiated earlier. “I can feel everything around me,” he continued, and she was struck by the nobility of his bearing, the confidence that she had seen in the sorcerer on the hillside of Camlann. “Every presence, every lifeforce, the earth and the stars and all that is in between.” Merlin spoke softly, reverently, before turning his gaze back to her. “And I sense Arthur within you, Gwen."
She pressed a palm to her belly, but felt nothing, not any change to her body at all. But of course she would not, if in the very early stages.
“But why now?” she asked, more distressed than anything else. “And even if it's true, how can I have hope this time will be different?"
Merlin seemed to consider this. “In the old religion,” he said finally. “The world is one of balance. To save a life, a life must be taken. Or to create a life,” he added. “That is how Arthur was conceived, through the power of the magic.”
“That is cruel,” she managed to say; inwardly cursing sorcery, cursing the old religion and all the loved ones it had taken from her. “I made no such bargain, I would never do so.” As much as she had wanted a child, she would not trade anyone’s life in such a way, let alone her husband’s.
“I know,” Merlin nodded emphatically. “But Arthur was born of of a soul's bargain. So what if a new life of his bloodline,” he gestured towards at her abdomen, “could only...thrive once he was gone?”
“Are you speaking of that prophesy?” she asked wearily, tired of hearing about magic, about life and death and fate. “I thought you said it hadn’t come to pass.”
“Maybe…” his gaze dropped for a few moments, before he lifted his eyes to hers and smiling for the first time. “Maybe I still believe in destiny. In hope,” he told her. “I always felt that it was Arthur’s fate to marry you, Gwen, but I never knew why. I thought it was so you could help him become the king he was born to be…” he smiled again with realisation, and held her gaze. “But it was for you as well. So you could become Queen. So you could continue Arthur’s legacy to unite Albion.”
“And allow magic back into Camelot?” she asked him pointedly, remembering the rest of the prophesy he had spoken of. “How can I do that?” she continued, walking away from him and back into the bedchamber. “How can I permit its practice when it has been used to perform so much evil?” She began pacing again, pressing a hand to her temple and trying to think clearly. The greed of sorcerers had robbed her of her father. Morgana had been corrupted by hate and anger, and used magic to fuel her revenge. Lancelot had sacrificed himself to the veil, had been brought back by dark magic in a corruption of everything he had stood for. She had been enchanted into betraying Arthur in the Dark Tower, had been locked away inside her own mind and watched her body commit acts of treason against her husband and king.
And yet she knew that Merlin must have saved her life, the lives of the knights, and the kingdom a dozen times over because of his magic. It had been magic that had purified her of the curse of the mandrake, and it had been Merlin’s sorcery that had saved them at Camlann. It seemed that sorcery, and Merlin, had been a great advantage to the kingdom.
“But how could I keep magic outlawed and allow you to stay in Camelot?” she continued out loud, aghast at the dilemma. “I cannot expect the people to meet standards that you and I do not.” She looked over at Merlin, and he tilted his chin at her but said nothing. He was letting her make the choice, and Gwen turned away from him again, trying to clear her head.
Tradition had always been important to Arthur, and the stability of the kingdom even more so. That was why he had maintained the ban on magic even when he had, on rare occasions, been forced to make use of it himself. Gwen knew she should honour that decision, particularly given that Morgana and Mordred had been defeated. But if she did, her own honour and honesty would not allow her to make use of magic under any circumstances, to prove that as queen she was not above the law. And she believed she knew Merlin well enough that he would never be happy if he was prevented from using magic – he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.
“But how can I send you away?” she asked, turning back to him desperately, voice quavering with emotion. “How could I ask that of you?” She remembered the old days, when they had both still been servants, and the good times they had shared together. Those had been days filled with laughter, of quiet confidences over meals, of knowing looks and shared smiles over the behaviour of those at court. They had been a team, once, they had worked together to discover plots against the kingdom, to save Arthur. And whilst their relationship had been somewhat altered since she had become queen, she still loved him dearly, and depended on his good advice and comfort of his presence.
Gwen found herself remembering that she trusted Merlin more than anyone, despite the secrets that he had kept from her, and she knew that everything he had done had been to serve Camelot and Arthur. But separate from that, he had always been a friend to her, had always been there when she needed him. She did know him, she realised, for he was clever and funny, and insightful – brazen when he knew he was right – endearingly scatty when it suited him, but serious and thoughtful when it was required. Being a sorcerer was simply another facet of the man she already knew and loved.
If Merlin had magic, she decided, than magic could not be so bad.
“Merlin,” she told him, the weight of her loneliness and responsibility overwhelmed her, and she finally let her tears fall. “I cannot lose you as well.” Her hands dropped to her sides in defeat, and in moments, Merlin had crossed the room to embrace her tightly. Gwen allowed herself to cry in Merlin’s arms, to finally let go of let the sorrow overtake her. She needed Merlin to stay with her, help her, but to do that she would have to allow magic back into Camelot. How she was going to manage to convince the knights and persuade the kingdom as to the wisdom of that choice she had no idea. More than ever, she wished Arthur was with her, so that they could make the decision and decide on the best course of action together. He had not simply been her husband and she his wife, they had not just been lovers; they had truly been partners in every aspect and losing him was like losing half of herself.
“I’m so afraid, Merlin,” she sobbed into his shoulder, unable to deny it any longer. “Afraid I cannot go on without him.” That was what she feared the most – that the loneliness and sorrow would eat away at her, as it had done in the Dark Tower. Morgana had known then her greatest fears, had known how to break her by making her believe she had been abandoned, that she was alone. That was what had allowed the mandrake to take hold of her soul and Gwen feared a return to that state of emptiness and isolation more than anything else.
But Merlin held her close and stroked her hair, and she held onto him desperately, her tears soaking the material of his tunic. He soothed her gently, and she was grateful to let someone else be strong for a while, to allow herself to feel everything that she had been denying ever since Arthur had been lost at Camlann.
“Yes you can,” Merlin whispered to her finally. “We all must.” He drew back, cupping her face in his hands and looking directly into her eyes. “You will be a great queen, Gwen, I know it. You are a great queen” he told her intently. “The whole kingdom knows it. They believe in you – they trust you.”
His reassurance was like a balm to her battered heart. Gwen thought that she would be alone without Arthur, and whilst she was certain no one could ever replace him, that her soul would always call out for him, she understood that she would not be without friends. She would have Merlin and Gaius. She would have Leon and Percival and the other knights. And, if she allowed herself the hope of believing Merlin’s words, she would have a child – a living part of Arthur to love and protect – to raise in the world he had built for them.
“Will you help me?” she asked, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
“Of course,” he smiled reassuringly. “Of course I will.”
“I mean, with your magic as well,” she clarified.
Merlin closed his eyes for several moments, and when he reopened them he was visibly moved. Gwen imagined he had been waiting years for such an invitation.
“Yes,” he nodded, and smiled with true happiness. “Yes, absolutely.”
“But no more secrets, Merlin, no more lies.” That was her condition.
His smile faded and his expression became solemn once more, as if remembering something. “Arthur knew, at the end,” he divulged. “About my magic.”
Gwen took his hand and clasped it gently. “I’m glad.” It gave her comfort to know that Arthur had seen the truth about Merlin, at the end. She just hoped he hadn’t been too hard on him. “What did he say?”
Merlin’s expression was guarded, and he bit his lip. Gwen knew he probably would never tell her everything of Arthur’s last days, but she did not begrudge him that, since there were also things she and Arthur had shared she would never want to tell another living soul about.
“He…” Merlin began after a long pause. “He thanked me,” he continued, voice thick with emotion. “He said that…I should always be me.”
Gwen smiled and squeezed his hand gently. “That is what I want as well.” That was all she ever wanted of anyone, and all she wanted to be herself.
“Thank you, Gwen,” Merlin, and embraced her again briefly, and with a sense of relief. “I will leave you now,” he told her, pulling away and heading towards the door. “But I will come back tomorrow,” he added. “I’ll always come back.”
His words helped drive away her fears of abandonment, of losing those she loved. Gwen believed his words, and knew that henceforth he would only speak the truth to her, that she could rely on him. That he loved her, as he had loved Arthur.
“It’s funny, isn’t it Merlin,” he called out to his retreating back, and he paused in the door way and turned to her. “The two of us, mere servants, ruling Camelot and allowing the return of magic,” she smiled grimly. “Can you imagine what Uther would have thought?”
She didn’t hate Uther – one could not care for someone the way she had the last year of his life and hold onto hatred. She did hate everything Uther represented, hated the hold he’d had over Arthur, the man he’d tried to make his son become. Now, here she was, in charge of his entire kingdom, appointing a sorcerer as her foremost advisor. It was a victory over him, she supposed, although it did not feel that way.
“I don’t think it matters what Uther would have thought,” Merlin said resolutely. “Only what Arthur would have thought. Or thinks,” he added. “My father told me that there are no goodbyes in this life, not truly.”
He gave her a brief bow of his head and left the room, leaving Gwen finally alone. She went to the bed and lay upon it, not bothering to remove her jewellery or dress. She reached out to Arthur’s side of the bed, and though the sheets were cold and empty, he was alive in her memory, and perhaps waiting for her in the next life. Gwen’s pressed her hand to her belly once more, and this time, she felt the warmth of hope reach back to her and knew Merlin had been right.
Arthur would always be with her.