It was ridiculous, really, how it all happened.
It took Arthur awhile, but he found Mordred. Mordred raised his sword first, but he didn’t even have a chance. There was a high-pitched whistle, and when Arthur looked up, there was an arrow slicing through the air, aiming straight between Mordred’s eyes, before finding its mark with a wet squelch.
Arthur watched with only the slightest tinge of regret as Mordred dropped to his knees, sword falling listlessly from his hand. Distantly, Arthur could’ve sworn he heard Morgana screaming, in fury or in anguish, even though she must be very far away.
It could only be sorcery at work here—the arrow’s trajectory followed no natural law that Arthur was aware of. The arrow had wound through the air, curving and twisting, utterly unconcerned with anybody other than Mordred.
He wasn’t sure what made him look up towards the cliffs that half-surrounded the battlefield. He found Merlin there, dressed only in his travelling cloak and not a bit of protective armour. His eyes were fixed firmly on Arthur. Arthur didn’t even have the time to be surprised at Merlin’s presence. Merlin’s arm was still outstretched, the gold only just fading from his irises. Arthur’s heart stuttered to a stop. A myriad of emotions and a million thoughts were racing in his head. First, there was shock and disbelief. Then, there was the all-consuming rage.
It was only because he was looking up, then, that he realised that Morgana was there too. His anger didn’t have any time to settle before it was replaced with cold dread as he watched Morgana steadily making her way towards Merlin.
Arthur jerked as if struck, becoming aware again of his surroundings. Some enemy knights were taking notice of his hesitation, saw that for a moment, he had stopped fighting, and were advancing towards him. He brought them down with mindless ease, barely sparing them a single thought. He didn’t have the time for this—he had to get to Merlin before Morgana did. It was a race that Arthur knew he was going to lose, but he’d be damned before he stopped trying.
When Arthur looked up again, he saw that Merlin was too focused on bringing down lightning to strike the Saxons where they stood to notice Morgana. She was advancing ever closer, her face contorted with fury. Desperation was beginning to coil tightly around his chest. Must be sorcery again at work, Arthur thought, must be a glamour, or something to that effect, because there was no way that Merlin would easily identify Mordred among these men and not notice Morgana sneaking up towards him.
“Merlin!” Arthur howled, trying to get Merlin to pay attention to Morgana. No such luck—Merlin, the idiot, seemed to genuinely think that Arthur was the one who needed help. Merlin swiped his arm outwards, and the horde of enemy knights between them flew backwards before dropping to the ground like a rag doll. Arthur took off on a run.
He was so close now. He was close enough that he could almost reach out, and yank Merlin out of Morgana’s way, and he knew he would be quick enough to cut her head clean off her neck—
Morgana was quicker. Arthur watched helplessly as she came up close enough behind Merlin to plunge her sword into his stomach. Merlin gasped softly and looked down, uncomprehending, to where the sword was protruding from his stomach. The gold slowly bled from his eyes, leaving the blue behind. But Morgana was not done—there was a sickening smile on her face, the look of a cat who’s finally, finally got her cream. “Emrys,” She snickered, and twisted the sword in his gut before pulling it out.
Merlin made a soft, wet grunt, before dropping down to all fours. Arthur knew that the sound will haunt him all the way to his deathbed. Morgana looked down on her once friend with nothing but pity and disdain, before kicking him aside. Then she looked up, staring at Arthur square in the eyes, her smile growing ever wider, not a bit of fear in her.
There was blood roaring in Arthur’s ears. He raised his sword.
But Merlin wasn’t done either. Merlin visibly summoned every bit of his strength and slammed both palms into the ground, screaming into the sky in that ancient, guttural tongue with everything that he had. Lightning struck Morgana where she stood, brighter than anything Arthur had ever seen in his life. Morgana screamed, enveloped in the pure energy that felt like destruction itself. The force knocked Arthur on his back, and he raised his arm to shield his eyes.
When he opened his eyes again, Morgana was gone. There were no traces of her, other than shreds of dark fabric fluttering in the wind and charred earth where she once stood.
Merlin was there though, on the ground, on his back where Morgana had kicked him. Each breath was gasping and laboured, and there was a trail of blood trickling down his lips.
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered senselessly. He dropped to his knees next to Merlin.
“Arthur,” Merlin gurgled, eyes finding Arthur’s. His lips twitched, as though going for a smile. There was more blood trickling down his lips. Arthur had seen enough men die to know what it meant. This was it, Arthur knew. He was going to watch Merlin die.
Merlin’s eyes spoke of terror, and Arthur couldn’t tell if it was fear of death or fear of Arthur. It would kill him if it were the latter. He couldn’t think, couldn’t process anything other than the sight of Merlin dying. Couldn’t feel anything but cold in his veins.
Merlin’s lips moved again, though he made no sound. Arthur leaned closer, but couldn’t hear anything but that godawful gurgle. He couldn’t scramble back fast enough. Merlin looked hurt, and that just wouldn’t do. Arthur grasped Merlin’s hand and squeezed gently, for once, at loss for words.
When Merlin’s lips moved again, Arthur could read the words forming on his lips. “I’m sorry,” Merlin was trying to say, over and over. It broke Arthur’s heart. He was all too aware of the very limited time he had, yet he found himself unable to properly string words together. Nothing he said could possibly convey the magnitude of the things he needed to say to Merlin. Nothing seemed adequate. You have nothing to be sorry for, Arthur wanted to say. I’m sorry, and thank you, and please don’t leave me. “Merlin,” Arthur choked instead, helpless and awfully, awfully lost. All his power, as King of Camelot, useless. All that power and he couldn’t save Merlin.
Merlin softly squeezed his hand back. It was all the warning Arthur had before Merlin’s grip slackened and he went completely still.
Arthur didn’t weep and howl skyward, didn’t rage at the gods for taking Merlin from him. He didn’t fling himself to cover Merlin’s body, nor did he paw desperately at Merlin’s chest, willing him to take another breath and begging him to stay. He didn’t pull Merlin’s body to his chest and cradle him close. Instead, Arthur watched as life drained from Merlin’s eyes, as his gaze became glassy and empty, unable to look away. He felt hollow, numb. Couldn’t hear the clang of steel meeting steel, couldn’t hear the groans and screams of knights broken and dying, couldn’t hear anything but the blood roaring in his ears.
The rest of the battle went by in a haze. It didn’t last very long at all, once Morgana and Mordred were dead. Arthur didn’t remember finding Merlin’s broken body again, well after the battle, nor did he remember carrying Merlin’s body away from the bloodshed and into Gaius’ tent.
Arthur only went back into the tent after the dust had settled—after those who surrendered were given mercy and those who didn’t suitably dealt with. When Arthur entered, Gwaine was already there. He didn’t try to act surprised.
Gwaine nodded in his direction, not bothering to greet him with an insult. There was grief in his red-rimmed eyes. Blood was drying on his temple, and one of his forearms were wrapped tightly with a bandage. Arthur didn’t ask him what he was doing in that tent and just pulled a seat opposite Gwaine. Merlin’s body laid between them.
They sat in silence for a long time. Then Arthur said softly, “I called him a coward, before we marched here,” He would not look at Gwaine. When he continued, his voice was tremulous. “He wasn’t going to come. And if I hadn’t told him—“
“No,” Gwaine interrupted. “It wouldn’t have been that, there must’ve been something else. He never would’ve left your side, Arthur, no matter what you say.”
“You didn’t see the look on his face,” Arthur whispered brokenly. “Now he’s gone, and saved us all, and I won’t ever have the chance to say sorry.”
“He made his choice, Arthur,” Gwaine dismissed him impatiently. “He decided to be here, to fight for Camelot, and don’t you dare take the dignity of that decision away from him.”
The ferocity of his tone made Arthur inhale sharply. He stared up at Gwaine, looking every bit as though he’d been slapped. Arthur looked impossibly young, and impossibly lost. Gwaine was suddenly reminded that Arthur was not yet thirty. The anger drained as soon as it came, leaving him hollow and just a bit guilty for lashing out. Then, the realisation dawned on him. “You love him,” Gwaine exhaled.
“Don’t you?” Arthur shot back without missing a beat. He refused to meet Gwaine’s gaze.
“Doesn’t matter now,” he sighed.
They built a small pyre for Merlin, away from the mass funeral where bodies were stacked on wooden pallets and set on fire. It was only a small band of Merlin’s closest friends in attendance. They knew they couldn't make a big deal of it, because sons of lords and close allies died too in that battle, and they were given a mass funeral. Making a special occasion for a servant, even if he was Arthur's, would never be regarded well.
Arthur placed Merlin’s body gingerly on the platform. His face was utterly blank. He couldn’t feel his fingers for the ice in his veins. Somebody handed him a torch, he couldn’t tell who. Arthur took it, and froze. It felt awfully like executing all those sorcerers in the main courtyard, back in Camelot. The irony wasn’t lost on him.
I don’t want to do this, Arthur thought, suddenly, shutting his eyes. He swallowed. His throat burned, and it was getting hard to breathe. I don’t, I can’t—
“Arthur,” somebody behind him pleaded.
I can’t! Arthur wanted to scream at the man. His arm was still outstretched, gripping the torch. His eyes were wide. His whole body was shaking.
“He’s gone, Arthur,” He heard Guinevere's voice, reminding him, though not unkindly. As if he needed any reminder. “Please, you must let him rest now.”
Not lighting the pyre won’t bring him back, Arthur heard. He shut his eyes tightly and steeled his resolve before setting the pyre ablaze.
He didn’t know how long he stood there, unable to tear his eyes away from the blaze engulfing Merlin. He could imagine the alternative scenario all too easily, if Merlin had been alive and tied to the stake, burning for his crime. Could imagine how Merlin might call out to Arthur, might beg Arthur to cut him free and save him—
“Arthur,” Guinevere’s hand was wrapped around his wrist, snapping Arthur back to the present. He didn’t know how long he stood there, lost in thought. He didn’t know how long she’d been waiting for him, either, but he was ever so grateful for her compassion.
“I can’t leave him alone,” Arthur whispered softly, an answer to a question Guinevere didn’t voice out loud. “Feels like I’m abandoning him, if I walk away now.”
“Then I’ll stay with you,” Guinevere replied. She took his hand in her grasp, and tenderly wiped the tears from his cheeks. “You’re not alone either, you know.”
“He left me this, Sire,” Gaius handed him a neatly folded parchment. “He said to give it to you, should he fail to return.”
Arthur’s hands were none-too-steady when he reached out to accept the letter. He wondered, absently, how long Gaius had kept Merlin’s last words. The Arthur written on it was unmistakably Merlin’s hand. Arthur wished he was anywhere but there, in Gaius’ workroom, about to read the very last words Merlin would ever say to him. The door to Merlin’s room was in his direct line of sight. He wondered if it’s been left exactly how Merlin left it.
If you found this letter, I’m going to go ahead and assume that I’m not here to tell you this in person. I’m a sorcerer. I was born with magic. I only ever used it for you—all for you, Arthur, and the kingdom that you will one day build. I’ve wanted to tell you, so many times, but I didn’t want you to ever think differently of me. I am sorry I hid the truth from you, but I will never be sorry for saving your life. Even if it meant that my life was forfeit.
I told you once, I’m happy to be your servant till the day I die.
When he finally, finally looked up from the letter, Gaius was looking at him expectantly.
“He really believed it, didn’t he,” Gods, isn’t that a thought? “He really thought I’d chop his head off if he told me.”
“Would you not have?” Gaius retorted, ruthless and accusatory. Arthur was suddenly reminded that of course, he might’ve lost a lifelong friend, but Gaius lost a son, too.
“Not sure what I would’ve done,” And that was the honest truth of it. But now, knowing that Merlin had died thinking that Arthur would forever condemn him for having magic, Arthur’s stomach gave a painful lurch.
“He wanted to tell you.” Gaius admitted, “he wanted you to know all along. I convinced him not to.”
“That decision shouldn’t have been yours to make,” Arthur snapped. It was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain his composure. How dare they presume what actions Arthur would've taken? He had a right to know. He took a deep breath to steady himself. “I apologise. I have been very inconsiderate. I will leave you to rest now, Gaius.”
Gaius bowed at him. When he rose, the look he shot Arthur was unreadable.
Arthur blinked awake, instantly alert. He sat up, already reaching for his sword.
He looked around. There wasn't anybody in his chambers. He couldn’t pinpoint the source of the voice, but it reverberated in his head.
Nobody is here, young King, the smile evident in its voice.
Arthur closed his eyes. He wondered if he was going mad.
You are not, the disembodied voice assured him.
Great, Arthur thought pointedly. Of course you could read my mind.
You are not very hard to read.
“Who are you?” Arthur called out to the room out loud, feeling ridiculous. “What do you want?”
If you truly wanted to see everything, come to the vaults at once.
It’s a trap, Arthur told himself, closing his eyes. They’re trying to get me alone and vulnerable.
Hah! The voice scoffed. If I wanted to take your life, young King, I would’ve done it a long time ago.
Very reassuring, Arthur thought wryly.
Merlin saved you. All of you. I can show you how.
Arthur didn’t hesitate, after that. He scrambled up, dressed quickly, and took off on a run.
It was the weirdest sensation. Arthur’s feet seemed to know exactly where to lead him. He looked down at his feet, betrayed, and absently wondered if this was how his horse felt when Morgause wanted to show him the vision of his mother.
It didn’t take long to realise where his feet were taking him. There was a bright white glow in the distance, drawing him in. Arthur realised quickly that it came from the crystal that he took from the druid camp. It was magnetic in its pull, and Arthur drew closer, unable to resist.
Arthur peered gingerly at the crystals, fingers tightening on the hilt of his sword. Something seemed to be rippling on the surface. He stared, transfixed. The ripples subsided, fading into a series of moving images: A mother, holding a tiny babe with golden eyes who let out a squall too loud for its tiny lungs; a dragon, roaring in jubilation for its newborn kin; a small boy with a toothless grin, with a jet-black mop of hair and blue eyes flickering with gold—
Merlin. Arthur would recognise that grin anywhere, toothless or no.
“How small you are,” Arthur heard a voice, ancient as the earth itself, booming in his ears as the scenes continued to unfold, “for such a great destiny.”
“Why? What do you mean? What destiny?” The sound of Merlin’s voice sent a painful pang through his chest, but Arthur smiled before he could stop himself. How could he have forgotten already, just how annoying Merlin could be?
“Arthur is the Once and Future King who will unite the land of Albion.” Arthur stiffened. His heart thudded painfully against his ribcage. “Without you, there will be no Albion.”
The scenes drifted again. He saw Merlin, delirious and near-death, a luminous blue ball suspended upon his palm. Merlin, on the Isle of the Blessed, declaring to the High Priestess that he’d willingly trade his life for Arthur’s. Merlin, saving Uther, of all people, from Morgana. Merlin and Lancelot, fighting to get to the Cup of Life. Merlin, protecting Arthur and saving Camelot, over and over again. All the while, believing that Arthur would have him dead the moment he found out about the magic—
“There must be another Arthur, because this one’s an idiot,” He heard Merlin say.
The insolence, Arthur thought, though it did bring a smile to his face. The absolute cheek of him, the lack of regard for the law of the land—‘
“Perhaps it is your destiny to change that.”
The images were different now. Merlin riding side-to-side with Arthur. Arthur throwing his head back, laughing at something Merlin said. Arthur, trapping a squirming Merlin in a headlock and rubbing his knuckles on Merlin’s head. Merlin with a cheeky grin, saying something that was no doubt insolent, and Arthur, gaping in fond disbelief, before running after him.
Arthur scrambled back, suddenly extremely heartsick, and the crystal fell to the floor with a loud clatter. It was hard to believe they were ever that young, or that careless. They looked so happy. His heart constricted at the thought. He couldn’t remember the last time Merlin smiled, let alone the last time he heard Merlin laughing brightly. Gone was the innocent, cheerful boy that came to Camelot all those years ago. In his stead was a bone-tired man, hardened through years of making difficult decisions. Those easy smiles were gone, replaced with stony expressions and muscles coiled tight with tension.
Gods, Arthur exhaled shakily. Had he done that to Merlin?
They were on horses. It was just the two of them, riding side by side, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and Arthur’s sword sheathed safely on his side. The sun was bright on their faces and soft wind breeze all around them. It was a lovely day.
He didn’t know how long he’s been there. Merlin’s idle chatter filled his ears, and Arthur interjected here and there to respond to something that he says. To insult him, too, maybe, whenever he had the chance. Merlin insults him in return. It’s an old, familiar game, this comfortable back and forth. Arthur smiled, fond. He didn’t let Merlin see. There’s affection filling in his lungs, and it had been so long since he felt this light and happy.
They arrived at a clearing and get off their horse. Arthur didn’t realise there was a destination, here they were. He walked alongside Merlin. He was not a king, here. Just a man, an equal to the man beside him.
Merlin turned to him, a soft little smile on his face. His eyes were clear and blue and fond, and his voice was steady when he said, “this is where I go.”
The contentedness was shattered—Arthur’s blood ran cold. There was a panic fast rising in his chest, a sort of desperation so strong he reeled with it. He reached out; grabbed Merlin’s forearm. Arthur called him, but he couldn’t hear his own voice.
Merlin stepped closer, then. They stood like that for a moment, standing chest-to-chest. Arthur had forgotten that Merlin was marginally taller than him.
“My king,” Merlin whispered. He pressed a soft kiss upon Arthur’s forehead. Arthur closed his eyes, revelling in the feel of Merlin’s soft lips on his skin. He breathed in deeply and felt, rather than heard, Merlin’s words. “You’ll be alright.”
“No,” Arthur replied weakly. He squeezed his eyes shut, his fingers clenching around Merlin’s wrists. He was trembling with the effort to keep himself together. “No, Merlin, please.”
His voice broke on the soft plea, and despite Arthur’s vice-like grip, Merlin slipped from his grasp.
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered, pleading, “stay with me.”
Merlin didn’t seem to hear him. He was already far away.
When Arthur opened his eyes again, he was alone.
Arthur gasped himself awake. He closed his eyes again, squeezing shut, turning to his side. I am hunting, Arthur reminded himself. I am with my knights. We are a short ride away from Camelot. Merlin’s gone.
He let out a choked sob then, before he could stop himself. Oh, he thought distantly, oh gods, Merlin’s gone.
He clenched his fist and pressed it against his chest, against a gaping hole he felt was there. Despite the proximity to the fire, he had never felt so cold in his life. He couldn’t fill his lungs with enough air, and he swallowed his sobs except for the scant few that managed to escape.
He didn’t know how long he curled there, struggling to keep from spiralling further and to get his breathing in control. Struggling to anchor himself when all of his thoughts were of Merlin. Desperately hoped that the others were too fast asleep, and that whomever was keeping watch would be far enough away. He wouldn’t be able to look them in the eye and see their pity without falling apart completely.
He made himself count slowly. Made himself remember the grain reports from his last council meeting. Made himself think about how much he’d need to ration to keep the grain stores well-stocked in the winter. Made himself think of the herbs that could help cure a battle wound, like Gaius taught him. Anything sufficiently dull and brain-numbing to distract him while he tried to pull himself together. Anything but the lack of Merlin by his side, and anything but the dream that felt too much like a goodbye.
Arthur liked to think that he’d do it right, if given the chance.
He’d be raging, that bit would be inevitable, and seething from the betrayal, but he liked to think that he’d be fair and just. He wouldn’t just look over the fact that Merlin had been saving his life since he stepped foot in Camelot, even if he did it with magic. Merlin had been born with magic, he didn’t choose it. He simply used everything he had in his disposal to protect Arthur.
Arthur realised, suddenly, that he had forgiven Merlin. The betrayal stung, sure. Merlin had lied to him since the moment they met, but it had been necessary. Arthur could see that now. He poured himself a goblet full of fortified wine and drank deeply.
It hurt even more that Merlin didn’t trust him enough to tell him about his magic. Arthur trusted Merlin with his life, and Merlin had seen parts of Arthur that nobody—not even Guinevere—had seen. He’d laid his soul bare in front of Merlin, and Merlin couldn’t bring himself to do the same.
He thought to the many, many times he’d interrupted Merlin, and the look of abject hurt on Merlin’s face. He forced himself to remember the times he told Merlin that they were not friends and that Merlin meant nothing to him but a servant. He had hoped that Merlin could see through him and see that Arthur never meant it—any of it. But Merlin had evidently taken him at his word and carried that belief to his grave.
This, Arthur couldn’t forgive himself for. He drained the wine in his goblet and poured himself another.
Arthur liked to think that he wouldn’t toss Merlin in the dungeons and execute him without a second thought. Wouldn’t just cast him aside and banish him from Camelot. Wouldn’t tell his father, God rest his soul, despite Arthur being duty-bound to him. Especially now, having seen what he saw on the crystals, he knew without a doubt that he wouldn’t condemn Merlin like that. Couldn’t even bear the thought of it.
Would I really, though? A traitorous voice in his head piped up. Would I be able to look past the anger and accept Merlin for who he was if I hadn’t seen the extent to what Merlin had done to save Camelot?
Would he have given Merlin a chance to explain himself?
Arthur was a man of action, prone to making rash decisions. Merlin had always been able to temper that side of him.
For all the rage he felt at Merlin’s deception, he also knew, deep down, that Merlin had been right to conceal the magic from Arthur. Arthur wouldn’t have listened to anything Merlin would say.
He felt as though he’d been struck by lightning. He felt sick to his stomach. And now, knowing everything that Merlin had done, he’d done for Arthur…
He poured himself another cupful, then another, lost in thought and what-could-have-beens. Called for a passing servant to bring him a full wineskin, then drank half of that too, before staggering to his feet and putting his cloak on. “I’m off to see Gaius,” he slurred to the guards posted at the door.
He stumbled, instead, past the main courtyard, right out the castle gates, and to the small graveyard where they buried Merlin’s remains. The grave itself was unmarked, but Arthur knew exactly where it was. He was the one who chose the spot, after all. He was the one who buried Merlin.
“You utter coward,” Arthur raged, though he was unable to stop the flow of tears. “Should’ve told me yourself, you complete idiot, if you weren’t already dead I’d kill you myself—“ He sank to his knees, so despondent he thought he’d go mad with it.
The horror came later, after Arthur took a couple of big gulps from his wineskin and allowed his brain to catch up with his mouth, and realised what he said. Couldn’t bear it, if Merlin somehow heard him from beyond the grave.
Whatever I would give, he thought miserably. To have Merlin here again, beside me, like he’s always been there and he always will be.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur finally said, and it came out in a harsh sob. “Everything you did to protect me. All the things you did in my name, Merlin. I know now. I’m sorry.” And once he started, he couldn’t stop. “I’m so sorry, Merlin.”
“With all your magic, Merlin, if you could somehow hear me, please,” Arthur begged, dignity be damned. Nobody could see him here. “Just one more miracle, Merlin, please.”
Gwen didn't know what woke her, or what led her to Arthur's chambers, only to find that Arthur had missing.
“Arthur’s not in his chambers,” She said in a rush, without preamble, the moment Leon opened his door. Her face was creased with worry. “I’m sorry to bother you so late at night, Sir Leon, I don’t know who else to turn to.”
“Right, I’ll summon the others,” Leon was already reaching for his sword and travelling cloak. “We will find him, my lady.”
“Oh, I do hope he’s alright,” Gwen sounded awfully worried. “He hasn’t been the same, since—“
“None of us has been, my lady,” Leon interjected mildly.
“Yes, of course,” Gwen looked admonished. “I apologise, I didn’t mean to imply—“
Leon smiled. Gwen might be queen now, but some things have not changed.
“We must be discreet, my lady. We could unintentionally cause a panic if the people discover the King has gone missing.” He paused. “It would perhaps be safer if you stay with Gaius, my lady.” Leon suggested, “We can’t have both monarchs going missing.”
“Absolutely not,” Gwen snapped, looking infinitely annoyed. “I will not be staying in while my husband is going missing.”
“Of course,” It was Leon turn to look chastised. “Then please, allow me to accompany you.”
In the end, though, it was Gwen who found Arthur. He was curled up on top of the grave that they dug out exactly a month ago, where they buried Merlin’s bones. His wineskin was still held loosely in his hand, empty. He was out cold, his face still wet with tears. She couldn’t bear to think how long he had been out here, alone and drinking himself into a stupor, grieving over Merlin’s death.
“Oh, Arthur,” Gwen murmured. The sight of him broke her heart. She sank to her knees, gently putting the wineskin away and drying the tears with a handkerchief. Arthur stirred, mumbling unintelligibly, reaching out for the wineskin.
Gwen looked up to Leon, who had found them. “We must find a way to bring him back to the castle.”
Leon took in the situation without a word. His thoughts harked back to that first hunting trip after Camlann, only several days ago, and he couldn’t say he was surprised.
It was Leon’s turn to take watch. The rest of their party slept around the campfire, the way they always did.
There was a sniffle. Leon sat straighter, tensing and becoming more aware of his surroundings, not sure where the noise came from. Many creatures called these woods their home, but more worryingly, there could still be Saxons wandering about the place. Although Arthur had granted mercy to everyone who laid down their swords after Morgana and Mordred were suitably dispatched, there were still Saxons with their own personal motifs against the knights of Camelot. Morgana had been very good at sourcing them.
There was a quiet gasp, and this time Leon had no problem pinpointing the source of the noise.
“Merlin,” Arthur was gasping. He was shifting restlessly in his sleep. “No, Merlin, please,” If Leon had moved closer, he would see that Arthur’s brows were furrowed, expression twisted in wild grief. “Merlin,” Arthur whimpered again.
Leon couldn’t bear it a second longer, and he was just about to come closer so he could shake Arthur awake. Arthur beat him to it, by the sound of it, because he gasped again and seemed to wake up with a shudder. Leon pretended not to hear, to spare Arthur the dignity, when Arthur let out a choked sob and a shaky breath. Arthur—well, the lump on his bedroll—was trembling, making quiet, choked-off sobs. It was awful, and Leon has never felt so helpless. He knew, though, that if he tried to come and comfort Arthur, it would only embarrass the king. It was a small mercy that he didn’t.
Leon thought Arthur was coping remarkably well, especially when he thought back to the times Arthur went into utter panic every time Merlin was in peril. When the bandits struck Merlin down and took him, Arthur had sent patrols after patrols to find any traces of him. When he was convinced not to waste any more of the kingdom’s resources, he had ridden out himself. There was also the time with the Mortaeus flower, and the time he’d ridden to save Merlin’s village from the bandits. Much as he had tried to keep it hidden, it became obvious that Arthur cared for Merlin.
Outwardly, Arthur had not acted much differently. Arthur seemed fine, as fine as any of them could be expected to be. He was quieter, more considered, and infinitely more world-weary, but he wasn’t mad like Uther when he lost Morgana. Looking at Arthur now, Leon wondered if perhaps they just haven’t been paying a close enough attention.
For all intents and purposes, Arthur seemed well. He mourned his fallen friends and brothers-in-arms for as long as it was appropriate, and then he moved on. If you were to ask any of his subjects, Arthur was the perfect king, and then more—fair, just, and brave of heart. They wouldn’t tell you that there was a single thing wrong with him.
Gwen, though, wasn’t everyone. She was Arthur’s friend first, before she was his wife. She was privy to seeing a side to Arthur that he would never show the adoring public. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, at first.
The facts were these: Arthur was alright, but almost too much so. He was smiling and courteous to visiting dignitaries wishing to extend their congratulations. He trained his knights with just a little bit of extra vigour, keen to make up for the numbers he lost at Camlann. He threw himself into his work with single-minded focus. These were all perfectly reasonable, except that it was as though he wasn’t grieving at all.
It wasn’t until she found him, that night, drunk and out cold on Merlin’s grave, that something clicked. Once she knew what to look for, it was plain as day—Arthur was too tightly wound, too brittle. He threw himself into his work to keep his mind from wandering, trained hard enough to exhaust himself that he would pass out the moment his head hit the pillow.
What she could see, that others couldn’t, was that Arthur’s heart was not in it. He was going through the motions of being a good king, keeping himself together through sheer willpower and nothing else.
She knew exactly what that felt like, and allowed herself to think of Lancelot.
Guinevere invited him for dinner in her quarters that night.
“It has been a while since we sat together and talked,” She said with a smile. “I thought it would be nice.”
“I apologise,” Arthur replied immediately. “Matters of the court—“
“Oh, I know,” She rolled her eyes fondly. Arthur smiled back, reaching for the wine goblet.
“Arthur,” she started, taking on a more serious tone. “I told you before, you’re not alone.” She reminded him. “I meant it. Please, Arthur, let us help you.”
Arthur’s smile froze on his face.
“You miss him,” She surmised. More than you realised you would, she didn’t say. Arthur’s breath hitched, and that was all the confirmation she needed. “Arthur, it is alright to grieve, you know. He was your closest friend. Nobody would expect anything less.”
“I don’t have time to be weeping around the halls,” Arthur dismissed her callously. The smile had slipped from his face, replaced with a carefully neutral expression. “Life goes on. There are too many things that need to be taken care of. You know this as well as I do.”
“That is not what I meant,” Gwen sounded exasperated. She knew Arthur was being deliberately obtuse. For all the empathy he displayed in court where his subjects were concerned, Arthur truly had the emotional range the Gods gave a warhorse. She decided to change tactics and clasped Arthur’s hands on the table. “I know you care for him. More than you think you should. I’m not an idiot, Arthur, I could see it in your face plain as day.”
Arthur stiffened. He still couldn’t meet her eyes, instead focusing on his dinner. He really did underestimate her by thinking he could ever cover it up.
“I don’t blame you,” She assured him. Arthur’s eyes flickered up to hers in surprise. But how could she blame him for anything, when she knew all too well what it was like? “Arthur, I just wanted you to be honest with me.”
“I didn’t—“ Arthur broke off, swallowing. “Didn’t know,” he forced the words out with some effort. “Not until—“
Gwen took pity on him. “Arthur, it’s alright. I believe you.” She squeezed Arthur’s hands. “You’re an honest man, Arthur. I know that if you’d known, well.”
“I never did anything,” He said, almost pleading.
“I know that too.” She patted his hands gently. “Don’t worry, Arthur. You’ve treated me with nothing but kindness and courtesy.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur looked down again to their joined hands. “I never wanted any of this to happen. I do love you, you know.”
“I know.” At that moment, Guinevere felt nothing but terrible for Arthur—for all of them, really. “And I, you.”
“But you knew,” He realised. “Why didn’t you say—“
Gwen stiffened. “Oh, Arthur, you're really not asking me that."
Something seemed to occur to him, then. “It was the same for you, wasn't it?” He concluded. “With Lancelot.”
The corner of her lip quirked up in a rueful smile. It was all the answer he needed.
“What a pair we two make, eh?” He broke into a mirthless laugh. For a moment, it was as though a weight had been lifted off his back, but he soon turned sombre again. “Does it ever get any easier?”
“Not really,” She confessed. “Not for me, anyway. You just learn to live with it.”
Arthur sighed deeply. “What do I do now, then?”
“You know the answer to that, Arthur.” She pulled her hands back. “You make sure he didn’t die for nothing.”
Arthur was quiet for a while, focusing instead to focus on his dinner. “I’m glad you’re here, Guinevere.”
Arthur was on that battlefield again.
This time, Arthur didn’t hesitate before raising his sword against Mordred. Arthur knew that Mordred was a skilled swordsman, having trained Mordred himself.
Mordred snarled, and his eyes flared gold. A force yanked Arthur back, and he fell to the ground his sword just slightly out of his reach. Mordred raised his sword with an eerie smile, but impossibly, something made him drop his sword. Mordred’s head whipped to his right, outraged, to find Merlin standing not too far away from him, arm outstretched and eyes flaring with gold.
Arthur took advantage of Mordred’s momentary distraction, grabbed his sword, and slew Mordred where he stood. He stared at Merlin, uncomprehending, and he knew he couldn’t hide the hurt in his eyes.
“Merlin—“ Arthur threatened. Before he could do anything, though, he could hear Morgana scream.
Next thing Arthur knew, he was lifted off his feet, levitating off the ground, trapped in some sort of beam. He scrabbled for purchase to find nothing but dense air around him. It really was the most disconcerting sensation, flying. Morgana’s arm was raised and her eyes were gold, and it was her suspending him there. She lifted her arm, and Arthur levitated even higher. She grinned, as though sensing his fear and unease.
“Scared, Arthur?” Morgana taunted as he hacked uselessly at the dense air. Her voice echoed all around him. “Maybe I’ll keep you here, so you can watch your friends and your knights get slaughtered. And when I’m done, I’ll kill you myself.”
But Merlin wasn’t letting her have it. Arthur couldn’t do anything but watch as Merlin duelled Morgana, sending flashes of lightning that she countered with green fire.
Morgana was gaining ground, pushing Merlin further and further back. Then Merlin shouted something, threw his arms back, sending a blast of heat and light that quickly enveloped Morgana. Arthur raised his arm to cover his eyes.
When he opened his eyes, Morgana was gone. Arthur began to fall.
Merlin’s eyes flared gold again, and it was as though he was falling in slow motion.
It was a long way down. Arthur had a surprising amount of time to think, but he couldn’t even begin to process the myriad of emotions running through him.
The fury, though, dulled everything else. How dare Merlin betray him like this, how dare he turn to the one thing that killed both of Arthur’s parents, after everything he went through—
Merlin dropped to one knee, head bowed, as Arthur landed gently on both feet.
Arthur raised his sword again, tip pointed at Merlin’s throat.
“I thought I knew you.” Arthur heard himself growl through gritted teeth.
“I’m still the same person,” Merlin said miserably.
“I trusted you.”
Merlin looked up, pleading. His eyes were so very blue. “I’m sorry.”
Arthur swallowed. His sword felt heavy in his hand, but Arthur’s grip didn’t waver. “I’m sorry too,” He replied coldly, then thrust his sword.
Arthur woke in a cold sweat, heart in his throat.
If this is what would’ve happened had Morgana not killed Merlin, Arthur thought, utterly repulsed with himself. His whole body was trembling. He looked in horror at his hands, then promptly ran across the room to empty his stomach into his chamberpot.
It was a council meeting like any other council meeting. It was dull, and by all accounts, nothing extraordinary. Arthur stared at Leon, who was stood to his right, reading his reports. He wasn’t sure what made him think of the abandoned stone table at the Castle of the Ancient King all of the sudden. He glanced down at the round table again and froze.
He couldn’t hear Leon’s voice for the blood thundering in his ears. He looked at the table, in front of him—really looked, then glanced to his right, where Leon was droning on. There was no empty place on his right with Merlin’s name on it. His vision tunnelled in front of him. He couldn’t see anything else but the table—one he commissioned, to ensure that everybody had an equal place in his court.
All equal, except for one.
This isn’t right, Arthur thought, swallowing. Memories resurfaced, unbidden, of the things the crystal showed him. Merlin doesn’t have a seat here.
Why doesn’t he? A traitorous voice in his head supplied. Arthur’s breaths were coming up short and quick, fingers curling and tightening painfully on his armrests.
When he tore his gaze away from the table, Guinevere was shooting discreet glances at him, concerned. He shot her a panicked look, and she covered his hand with hers, squeezing gently.
Arthur just nodded his gratitude at her, though she looked unconvinced. He scanned around at the table and was pleased to notice that nobody else seemed to notice his small episode.
“Later,” He mouthed. For the first time in days, he knew exactly what to do.
Later, Arthur took Guinevere aside.
“I’ve had time to think.” Gwen didn’t interrupt to insult him like Merlin would’ve done. “Perhaps it is time to repeal the ban on magic.”
“Oh, Arthur,” Gwen gasped. “I think that would be brilliant.”
His first reaction was surprise, but then he remembered that Gwen had lost his father to the pyre. “Your father,” He began.
“Was no sorcerer,” She sounded very sure. “I would know.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said, not knowing what else to say. He didn’t want to think about how many innocent others had been unjustly executed. “If I could save others from his fate—“
Gwen hugged him before he could finish.
“He would be so proud of you, Arthur,” she whispered in his ear. He knew that she wasn’t just talking about his father anymore. “I just wish that he could be here to see it.”
“As do I, Guinevere.”
They gathered a small council of all the people who once sat around the ancient round table. Gaius was the last to arrive. Arthur tried not to notice the absent friends.
“Right,” Arthur slapped his thighs before standing up. “You have been summoned here because I’d like to hear what you think about repealing the ban on magic.”
Arthur pretended not to hear the “about bloody time” that Gwaine muttered under his breath. He knew that Gwaine would immediately agree, for Merlin if not for anything else.
Other than that, there were a few moments of quiet as his small council processed the news. Arthur took the opportunity to study their reaction.
Like him, Guinevere was looking around, intently studying each and every one of their faces. The small council was her idea, after all, consisting of none but Arthur’s most trusted friends.
There was a barely-concealed joy on Gaius’ face, no doubt thinking of Merlin. Arthur knew that had practised magic before the ban, and he wondered how many more people could have been saved if magic hadn’t been outlawed.
Percival was quietly surprised, but he didn’t seem violently opposed to the idea. Arthur wondered what Percival had seen before he arrived at the court of Camelot.
Leon was the one Arthur was most concerned about—he was loyal to Uther before he was loyal to Arthur. Though he cared for Merlin as an older brother would, he was obligated to put Camelot first. Indeed, Arthur could read the conflict in his expression.
“Is this about Merlin?” Leon spoke up gingerly. “Do you think it wise to change the laws of Camelot for one man?”
Gwaine looked like he was ready to punch Leon. He opened his mouth, but Arthur raised a hand to stop him.
“There would be no Camelot left standing at all if it wasn’t for Merlin,” Arthur answered him. “I’m not talking about fully lifting the ban. But if magic were legal, perhaps it would be easier to regulate it.”
Percival nodded, satisfied with Arthur’s answer. Leon, however, still looked unconvinced.
“Other than Merlin, I have only ever seen magic used for evil.” He insisted. “For all we know, Merlin could have been the exception, not the rule.”
“You are too young to remember the purge,” Gaius pointed out. “It wasn’t just the evil sorcerers that Uther executed. It was all of them—simple farmers trying to improve his harvest, physicians trying to make their cures more potent.”
“Sir Leon, you may remember that my father was executed after being accused of magic,” Guinevere added, her voice steady. “I can confirm to you now, he did not have magic. As his daughter, I would know. There wasn’t sufficient proof of it, yet he was executed regardless. A repeal would save countless others from his fate.”
Leon raised his arms, acknowledging his defeat.
“Pragmatic as always, Sir Leon,” Arthur commented wryly in an attempt to diffuse the tension in the room. Leon glanced at him gratefully, relieved.
This was a discussion they needed to have, a practice run before Arthur could try convincing the court. He would face a much stronger opposition, he knew, especially from his father’s old advisers. “I am asking for your help in drafting a preliminary law that I can present before the court.”
“You have my help, Arthur,” Gaius replied immediately.
“And mine,” said Leon. The others all murmured their assent. Arthur smiled, grateful for their support, but too keenly aware of the voices absent in the room. One, in particular, that Arthur would give everything to hear again.
Gwaine caught up with Arthur on the way to the armoury.
“Arthur,” Gwaine called, not bothering with proper etiquette on how to address a king. “Can I talk to you a moment?”
Arthur sighed, but stopped walking. He hasn’t spoken to Gwaine since Merlin’s vigil and secretly dreaded to hear what he had to say.
“What I said that night, on the tent,” Gwaine began. Arthur immediately decided that he’d rather be anywhere but there. “I was being unfairly harsh. I’m sorry.”
“Forgotten already, Sir Gwaine,” Arthur smiled tightly.
“You know,” It was incredibly strange, hearing Gwaine sounding wistful. “Merlin was right about you.”
“Good to hear he was right about a thing or two,” Arthur grumbled, but his heart skipped a beat.
Gwaine grinned, before turning more serious. “You’re a good king, Arthur.”
They continued walking—they were both heading towards the same direction, after all. Gwaine was banging on about something or another. Arthur tuned him out. Gods know he’s had plenty of practice.
They were much alike, Merlin and Gwaine, Arthur thought bitterly. Perhaps they should’ve sought comfort in each other.
Then something caught his eye.
Two servants were passing by. One was lanky and tall, with pale skin and dark hair. He was carrying a pile of armour in his arms, but his eyes were crinkling, and his head was thrown back with laughter. His companion was blond, and his lips were quirked with a fond smile.
Arthur’s heart gave a painful twinge. He didn't even realise that Gwaine had gone quiet and was following Arthur’s gaze. His stomach sank when he realised that Gwaine must’ve seen the abject longing written all over his face.
Gwaine shot him a knowing look. Arthur turned away and resolutely marched on.
That night, Arthur summoned Gaius to his chambers.
“What can I do for you, Sire?” Gaius said by way of greeting the moment the door closed behind him.
“Ah, Gaius,” Arthur smiled, standing up. He looked pale and slightly gaunt, with dark circles under his eyes. He seemed to be fraying at the seams. “I was wondering if I could have one of your sleeping draughts.”
“I’ll arrange for a servant to send one every night, Sire,” Gaius bowed. “If that will be all?”
“Yes, yes, you may go,” Arthur looked back to his reports.
When Gaius’ hand just reached the door handle, though, Arthur’s voice called him again.
“Do you remember that horn that summoned my father’s spirit?” Arthur asked tonelessly.
Gaius froze then, surprised at the utter lack of emotion in Arthur’s tone. He sounded like he was talking about the weather, instead of talking about ripping open the veil of separating life from death. It didn’t take much of a guess who Arthur was thinking of summoning, and the thought chilled him to the bone. “Whatever you are thinking, Sire, I must implore you to stop,”
“I won’t look back this time,” Arthur’s tone was soft now, plaintive. “I won’t forget my lesson, I promise.”
“It’s too dangerous, Sire,” Gaius pleaded. “The spirit world is fraught with danger, and Merlin isn’t around to protect us this time."
Merlin’s name was all it took. Arthur swallowed thickly, nodding, but refusing to meet his eyes. Gaius rushed to Arthur’s side.
“I miss him, Gaius,” Arthur said softly, voice down to almost a whisper and thick with emotion. Then he looked startled, as though he hadn’t meant to say it out loud. “I keep looking, but he’s never there, and I keep wondering where he is, and then I’d remember—“ He ploughed on, strangled. “He’s really gone.”
Something seemed to shatter in Arthur when Gaius said “yes”. Arthur sagged against the heavy desk, looking much like a marionette with all its strings cut. He covered his face with one hand. “So many things I should’ve told him—“ His shoulders were bent, bowed under the weight of the words he never said. “Can’t now.”
Gaius’ own eyes were burning and he watched, helplessly, as Arthur came apart.
“He loved you, Arthur,”
“Did he ever say that?” The hope in Arthur’s voice was unbearable. He sounded like a dying man, desperate for absolution.
Not in so many words, Gaius thought, but to be candid now would’ve been terribly unkind. Merlin may have not said as much, but his devotion for his king was rather obvious in his actions, in how much he was willing to sacrifice for Arthur. Gaius thought, unbidden, to how many times Merlin had ranted about how unappreciated he was. How he nearly died, over and over, only for the person he cared about the most to treat him like an idiot. He knew Merlin hadn’t done anything for recognition or merit, but Gaius also knew that to be the most powerful sorcerer to ever walk the Earth without being able to share the burdens with anybody made for a lonely existence.
“He believed in you, in the Albion that you’d build.” Gaius chose to say instead. His deflection was not lost on Arthur. “It was your destiny to unite Albion, like it was his destiny to protect you.”
Arthur’s head snapped up. “Is that why he stayed here?” he sneered, but his tone was brittle. “Some destiny?” Something flickered in Arthur’s expression. “And how am I meant to fulfil it, now that he’s gone?”
“He’s done his part, Sire,” Gaius reminded him gently. “It’s up to you now to fulfil the rest.”
Arthur didn’t reply for a while, burying his face in his hands. The silence was only broken by Arthur’s small, hitched sobs. “I don’t know if I can,” He finally admitted in a small voice without looking up. “Every threat Camelot has ever faced, every threat—it was him all along. How am I meant to do it now, when I’m on my own?”
“You’re not on your own,” Gaius was quick to reply. “You never are. We are, all of us, behind you.”
“Thank you, Gaius.” Arthur sighed, rubbing his eyes tiredly. He sounded old, suddenly, a man worn down by his losses. “You may go.”
Arthur dreamt that night.
“Rise and shine!”
Arthur was unceremoniously woken from his slumber when somebody ripped the curtains open, streaming sunlight into his face. First, he felt nothing but indignant, and then he played back the few moments in his head. He froze.
“Come on, up you get!” Somebody tore the blankets around him, exposing him to the chill. Arthur grumbled. Whomever it was, he had Merlin’s voice, his mannerisms—
Arthur froze. It couldn’t be. Surely not. Arthur watched Merlin die on that battlefield, burned his body, then buried his bones. Still, he couldn’t keep the hope from his voice when he whispered, “Merlin?”
Arthur didn’t dare open his eyes. He prayed to the gods to let him preserve this illusion.
“Expecting somebody else, were you?” The man with Merlin’s voice said. Arthur could hear the smile in his voice. “Well, no such luck. Come on, then, you lazy daisy.”
Arthur opened his eyes, just a slit. Then blinked. And blinked again. It was Merlin standing by his bed, no doubt about it—dressed in his ratty red shirt and brown trousers, that godawful neckerchief wrapped around his neck. He was the best thing that Arthur had ever seen. Arthur’s heart stuttered to a stop in his chest.
“By the gods, it really is you,” He breathed, scrambling to get on his feet before wrapping his arms around Merlin. He felt solid in Arthur’s arms, whole and healthy. Arthur buried his face in his neck and his hand in Merlin’s hair, before quickly stopping himself and stepping back. He started patting his servant’s body down, looking for injuries, before Merlin batted his hands away.
“What is wrong with you today?” Merlin was staring at him strangely. “Had too much wine last night, did you?”
“Merlin, I saw you die fighting Morgana,” Arthur said breathlessly. A sense of unease settled in his gut. “She stabbed you, clean through, right here—“ He tapped Merlin’s stomach, only to feel nothing but smooth skin underneath the fabric. Arthur staggered back.
Please, he thought desperately. Please let this be true, please let the past few months be nothing but a terrible dream—
“Arthur, I’m right here.” Merlin was looking at him as though Arthur had lost his mind. “We haven't heard of Morgana in months.”
Arthur huffed out a breathless laugh, disbelieving. “Merlin, you have magic,” He whispered. “You used it to kill Mordred and Morgana. You saved us all. Then she put her sword through your gut."
At the mention of his magic, Merlin’s face drained of all blood. Arthur’s eyes were shining with unshed tears, but he ploughed on, his voice breaking. “I watched you die, and I couldn’t—“
“You know about the magic?” Merlin interrupted, his voice strangled. “How long—?”
“That’s what you choose to take out of this?” Arthur chuckled breathlessly, his eyes bright.
Merlin knelt. “I only ever used it for you, Arthur,” His eyes were fixed firmly on the stone floor. “Only for you.”
Arthur couldn’t bear it. He crouched down to his knees too, tilting Merlin’s face up towards him. “You idiot,” Arthur breathed. “You think I care—“
“You don’t?” Merlin’s eyes flickered up.
“I don’t,” Arthur laughed again, breathless with joy. He grasped Merlin’s face in his hands. “Not about any of it. You’re here, Merlin. There are so many things I need to tell you—“ Arthur closed his eyes, leaning his forehead against Merlin’s.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered back thickly.
“You don’t know half of it,” Arthur gasped, throat closing up. His body was beginning to shake. “Merlin—“
“I’m sorry,” Merlin choked out. Merlin’s hands came up to cover Arthur’s. “I never wanted to lie to you.”
“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Arthur finally, finally said. “There was nothing else you could do. My father would have killed you, and I—“ he choked again. If somebody asked him just a fortnight ago, he would say that he didn’t know what he would’ve done, but he knew now. " Everything you’ve done for me,” Arthur whispered with conviction. When Arthur opened his eyes, Merlin had tears running down his face. He thumbed away the tears gently. “For Camelot. I know now—“
Merlin let out a harsh sob.
“Thank you,” Arthur breathed. He pressed a soft kiss on Merlin’s forehead, tasting salt, for he, too, had been crying. He wrapped his arms around Merlin’s again, holding him tight, relishing the press of Merlin’s solid body against his own. He took in a deep breath, taking in Merlin’s scent, committing it to memory. He moved one of his hands as to grasp the back Merlin’s head gently, feeling Merlin’s soft hair between his fingers.
I’ll never let you go again, Arthur thought fiercely as Merlin came undone in his arms, trembling with soft sobs. Not now, not ever.
Arthur woke with a start and whimpered at the loss of contact. Gods, it had felt so real. So much so that waking up felt like he was on that battlefield again, losing Merlin all over again. He could still smell Merlin, could still feel Merlin’s skin on his fingertips—
He keened softly as wild grief hit him in the chest with full force. It felt as though something has been ripped from his chest, and he was bleeding from a gaping hole that he couldn’t see. The loss was suffocating and he couldn’t get enough air in his lungs. He sank deeper into his pillow, scrunching his eyes shut, grateful that it was not yet dawn. Attempting, to no avail, to regulate his breathing, to get a bloody grip already.
Merlin was gone. There was nothing that Arthur could do to change that, nothing he could do to bring Merlin back. Merlin was lost to him. The things he never said to Merlin were just that, unsaid, and the feelings it stirred in him were things he’d bring to his own grave.
In the privacy of his chambers, Arthur allowed himself the luxury of falling completely apart. It took him a long time before he fell back asleep. It took even longer for the tears to dry.
Arthur didn’t burn a single sorcerer that year. Couldn’t, when all he could see was Merlin on the pyre. The ones committing evil were locked up in the dungeon with cold iron cuffs tight around their wrists. The ones who didn’t, Arthur made up excuses for.
It took almost a year of weekly meetings for them to draw up a viable proposition that Arthur was happy with. They’ve extensively consulted Gaius’ notes and written accounts of Merlin’s adventures. They’ve even consulted the history books in Geoffrey’s collection. Arthur hadn’t broached the subject with his court, though no doubt they’ve heard the whispers that magic was coming back to Camelot. The rumour mills had been particularly active and Arthur did nothing to dispel them, but he wanted to be absolutely sure that the laws he proposed would be comprehensive and cover all grounds.
The night before Arthur was going to present the new laws, he went to Merlin’s grave again. It was no longer unmarked, he made sure of that. The inscription on the headstone read, Here lies Merlin, beloved friend and devoted servant.
Arthur had it made discreetly. The people would talk, and while it was common knowledge that they were close friends, only a handful knew the true depth of Merlin’s devotion. Even fewer knew the extent of Arthur’s grief when he lost Merlin. Knowledge of such a close relationship would only ever be used to undermine his decisions, especially where magic was concerned, and Arthur would not allow that to happen.
There were a thousand other things that he wanted to put on that headstone. The most powerful sorcerer to ever walk the earth came to mind, as Gaius suggested. He only very briefly considered a clotpole until the very end.
In the end, he settled on something simple. He liked to think that Merlin would be happy being described as such. Gaius had stared at the finished headstone for a long time before nodding his approval.
“I know I haven’t visited for some time.” Arthur apologised, sitting down on the log they placed next to the grave. Gwen was right—the old grief was still there, and Arthur suspected that it would always be there, but Arthur was learning to live with it. “It’s been so busy, especially when you’re not around to write my speeches.” He went on, speaking of the new alliances he’d forged, the young knights he trained, and the peace that was starting to befall Albion.
Arthur was nervous, though he didn’t know why. “I’m planning to repeal the ban on magic tomorrow and appoint Gaius as Court Sorcerer. I’ll discuss it with the court tomorrow morning, and formally announce it during the feast in the evening.” He took a deep breath to steady himself. “It’ll be a year, exactly, since the battle. I thought it would be most appropriate.”
“Your absence has been noted. George has been… absolutely dreadful.” Arthur’s voice began to shake. “Never thought it would be like this.” Never thought it’d be so lonely, being king.
“I hope you found peace, Merlin.” Arthur stood to leave. "God knows you deserve it, more than anything."
The court meeting went as well as could be expected. There was strong opposition from his father’s advisers, but a majority was more understanding. They all had heard, by now, about the things Arthur’s old servant had done to save Camelot. Some had grown up in distant lands, where magic helped the land thrive, yet kept mum for fear of retribution. Others, like Gaius, remembered life before the purge. Arthur was steadfast in his conviction, calmly countering concerns with reason. The law was passed before the sun went down.
Later that day, Arthur walked towards Merlin’s grave again. When he arrived, Gaius was already there. There were fresh flowers on Merlin’s grave. He stayed back, fully intending to let Gaius have his privacy, though the wind carried his words nonetheless.
“If only you could see Arthur now, my boy.” Gaius had murmured softly. “You’d be so proud to see him.”
Arthur choked. Fresh grief rose in him, unbidden.
“The things that were foretold, they are coming to pass,” Gaius continued. “It is thanks to you. You helped him grow into the person he is now. He truly is the Once and Future King.”
Gaius rose then, bowing to Arthur as he passed him.
Arthur took his usual seat as soon as Gaius disappeared from view. He laid down the flowers he brought with him, and sat in silence.
I miss you, more than I ever thought I would, he didn’t say. I’d do anything to have you stand by my side again. So much time, wasted...
“Thank you, Merlin.” He said instead.