To be always fortunate, and to pass through life with a soul that has never known sorrow, is to be ignorant of one half of nature.
Leon scolds her over the Samhain feast for having the window to her chambers open.
"Your Majesty, if you don’t have a care for your own safety, at least pity your bodyguards."
He has grown a little fat on the prosperity of his land holdings, and he folds his arms across an ampler belly than Guinevere remembers seeing on him last time he was here.
"My Lord," she says, waving for Leon's cup to be refilled, "I hardly think anyone could scale an interior tower of Camelot without being seen." She leans in a little closer, mock-conspiratorial as her eyes fall on the captain of the guards. "Besides, I think Kay has a man permanently stationed on the battlements, just in case."
Leon laughs, raising his now-full goblet to toast Sir Kay. "I would expect nothing less, of course." And he wouldn't, not when he trained half the men in the hall, who turn at the sound of his laughter, smiling and raising their own cups in toast.
It is some hours before Guinevere can excuse herself from the feast, stopping in the antechamber to take a breath and clear her head. Back in the hall, the noise rises a level, as it always does, voices that had restrained themselves released by her absence. Despite it, she smiles. It had been the same under Uther, the departure of the king leaving those behind freer to celebrate, and – although he never would have admitted it – the same when Arthur had got up, taking only his inner circle with him and leaving the rest to a freedom of words that his presence had prevented. That they continue to do the same for her has always been a comfort somehow.
There is no inner circle waiting in her chambers, only Maud with hairbrush and nightgown and a slightly strained smile on her face.
"It's alright, Maud," Guinevere says, taking the brush herself. "Just unlace what I cannot reach and I will see to myself this evening."
Maud does so with hasty fingers, staying long enough to help her shed the heavy outer dress, then sketches a curtsey and skitters out of the door as though Guinevere may change her mind. But then it is Samhain, a night of revelling and feasting, the night when stories are made, and Maud will not want to miss out.
Sparing a smile for her servant's excitement, Guinevere sits at her dressing table, fingers searching for the pins that hold up her hair and examining herself in the glass as she piles them in front of her. Older, certainly. There is grey in the long tresses that fall down her back and over her shoulder, lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth when she smiles. Her seamstresses do not say so, but her stays are no longer as tight as they were, and she suspects some kind of cunning artistry to keep her figure appearing as trim as it does.
Still, looking into her own eyes, she finds it hard to remember that she is not the girl she was fifteen years ago, the lonely girl she felt, weighed down with grief in her heart and a kingdom to rule. The grief remains, the kingdom flourishes, and while she is rarely alone now, she is still lonely. It is bearable, as she had known it would have to be, and she does not regret it. To feel less would be a betrayal, just as letting it conquer her would have been, but on nights like this, when she cannot escape the memories, it weighs her down again the way it did that first night.
It is cold tonight, and the breeze coming from her open window stirs her hair a little. From below, she can hear singing rising from the hall, men toasting each other and those gone before. They will toast the chair left empty at the head of the table, a place that can never be filled.
The empty place in the hall is for the King. It is for the Knights and the people, all those who wished to pay their respects while Guinevere had sat next to it, holding the love of the kingdom as dearly as Arthur had always done. But it was for them, not her, and while she has done her public duty to grief, she knows this weight will not leave her until she is able to make her private observances as well. There is still a long table in this room, for private counsels and discreet dinners, and she belts her robe as she crosses to it. There are plates in the long, low cupboard by the wall for such occasions, and she takes them to the table, laying places of her own.
There is one each for her father and brother, next to each other in death as they so rarely managed in life. One for Lancelot, and next to him Gwaine, complete with an extra cup, of course. She hesitates, then lays one for Morgana, finishing it with a fine silk napkin, embroidered and shining in the candlelight. At the head of the table, she lays a place for Arthur with a cup each for wine and water, a sharp knife and fine silver spoon. There is the large plate he preferred, simple despite his rank and not highly polished. He always said that hated having to look at himself while he ate.
Finally, she takes a smaller plate and sets it beside the large one, wondering if the unspoken understanding runs from life into death, and if Arthur is still helping Merlin to poach from the banqueting table Beyond.
Then she goes to the other end of the table, taking her seat as though she is preparing for an informal dinner, just her friends and her husband, safe and warm in their chambers. But she does not put out any plates or cups for herself, just places her arms on the table, puts her face down into them, and lets herself weep.
It's the breeze that awakens her, rippling over her head and sending a cold chill down the back of her neck. She still has her face on her folded arms, and her shoulders are stiff from being so long in one place as she tries to rise. The breeze is more like a light wind, sweeping through the room and making the candles sputter. The ones by the bed have blown out completely, and wax is dripping in misshapen rivulets down the ones on the table.
Rubbing her arms to try to get some feeling back into them, she crosses to the open window, not wanting it closed but needing to ward off the worst of the chill. The castle is so quiet now; it must be long past midnight, into the small hours when no one is abroad. Not on Samhain.
The window has blown fully open, the pane folded back against the one next to it, and Guinevere cannot reach the catch to pull it closed. Resigning herself to a cold night, she rubs her arms again and turns back to the room. And stops, the chill in her veins nothing to do with the night wind still blowing through her hair.
The figure standing by the table reaches down, moving Arthur's cups so that they sit in a neater line beside each other. Then it turns to her, face ghostly in the still-flickering candlelight and says with Merlin's voice,
For a fraction of a second the room whirls around her as she tries to catch a breath that will not come. Stars begin to appear at the edges of her vision, then there are hands on her arm, cool and strong, guiding her to the edge of the bed so that she can sit. The mattress dips beside her, and she manages to pull air into her lungs properly, forcing her eyes to focus. This is no spirit, gripping her arms and pulling at the covers as he shifts for balance.
"Merlin?" She almost chokes on the word, she is so short of breath still. Her hand shakes as she runs it along his arm, across his shoulders and neck, coming to rest on his cheek. "Merlin?"
"It's me." It is his voice, Merlin's voice, but it is rough and hoarse, as though unused for too long. Then he says, "Er. Hello, " and it is so much Merlin, her Merlin, that she can do nothing but throw herself at him, embracing him as though he will slip away again if she does not hold onto him.
For his part, Merlin gives a strangled yelp and loses his balance, grabbing her shoulders as he slips so that they both fall to the floor, and Guinevere is laughing now as they struggle to right themselves. The laughter will not stop, bubbling up from the well of her grief, until it slips into gasping sobs that she cannot hold back. Fifteen years of unsaid sorrow, unmanageable now, wave after wave that she could show to no one, suddenly released and pouring over her in laughter and weeping, and she's not sure she will ever be able to stop.
She clings to him as he tries to right them, helpless and swaying and trying to find her breath, then slumping against him when he tries to pull away.
"Gwen," he says, more urgently now, getting a proper hold on her shoulders and shaking her a little. "Gwen, come back to me."
And that sets her off again, that thought that he is the one who has come back to her, and she doesn't care how or why, not yet, only that he is here and she is not the one who is going to leave. The storm breaks, and she finds herself crying freely at last, while Merlin holds her against him, his hands uncertainly patting her shoulders as the last of it subsides.
When she can breathe and see and think again, she doesn't move for a long moment, content to be here, huddled on the floor against Merlin's chest and feeling his arms around her. She doesn't want to lose this, not yet.
"I'm sorry," Merlin whispers, still with that roughness to his voice. "I'm sorry."
"Where-" Guinevere coughs a little, then tries again. "Where were you?"
There is a long silence as she waits for answer, and she can feel the cold from the stone floor seeping into her skin, the tremble of Merlin's muscles as he holds them together. She waits, and waits, and when she can wait no longer, she waits again until she has to know and the need for it forces her to move.
Merlin steadies her as she sits up, his hands still firm and strong on her arms for all their coldness. At first glance, he does not seem to have changed at all. The years seem to have washed past without noticing him, for there is no grey in his hair or apparent change to the slim body she had been pressed against. Then he shifts awkwardly under her gaze, and she sees that there is something, subtle but different. The hardening of the sharp angles of his face, the wildness of his hair that is starting to curl around his ears and around his neck. In the half-light of the candles, his eyes seem dark, distant for all that he is right there in front of her.
He flushes a little, looking away, and Guinevere feels some of her coldness replaced with a hot flash of fury.
"Merlin,” she says, reaching up to mirror his grip, not caring if her fingers dig in too deep or her voice is too loud, because she has been alone, all this time with just her grief, and now he is here and she does not have to hold these things back any more. “Where were you? Where is Arthur?”
Something passes across his expression, so raw and pained that it bites through her growing anger, cooling its heat. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, voice cracking. “I couldn’t save him.”
She closes her eyes so she doesn’t have to see him cry. Her own tears are drying, the gusts of wind from the open window cooling her flushed face, and she cannot take on his grief along with her own.
“I know,” she says. “I know, Merlin. It’s alright.” And still without looking, she gathers him to her, because she can feel him crying, not the wrecking sobs that had washed over her, but the long weeping of someone who still has many tears ahead of them. “But you could have come back to us. We needed you.”
He takes a deep, shuddering breath in her arms, sitting up on his own again as she opens her eyes to look at him. He still looks so young.
“I came as soon as I could. I’m here now,” he says, sliding his hands down her arms so that he can grasp her hands, twisting them together.
So young, she thinks again, as his fingers tremble under hers and he blinks away the last of his tears. There is no padding of flesh on his throat or at his wrists, no sign that the years have weathered the lines of his face. The jacket under her hands is the one he was wearing when she last saw him, the tunic and trousers just the same as he always wore. Apart from a wildness around the edges, he is so unchanged it is uncanny, as though the years have taken them back to the moment she longed for, all those years ago, to have someone she could share this pain and this grief with. And now Merlin is here, just the same as he was, and something stirs at the back of her mind, all the things Gaius told her about Merlin, about his magic and his power and the stirring becomes full-blown realisation and she flinches a little at the thought.
Feeling her twitch, he looks up at her, startled and puzzled and perhaps a little hurt.
“Gwen, I know, I’m sorry, I came as soon as I could, I-”
“Merlin.” She does not know how she keeps her voice steady, and she swallows, hoping it will last. “Merlin, it has been fifteen years.”
That silences him, his eyes wide and open and staring into the distance from a face that seems to be utterly immobile. For a long moment, he does not even blink, and the fingers that are wrapped around hers go so completely motionless that she has to resist the urge to squeeze them, to be sure that he still lives. Then he takes a breath, eyes still fixed on a point that she knows she will not be able to see. His mouth opens as though he will speak, but no words come, and he untangles himself from her, pushing himself to his feet and going behind her to the fireplace.
When she turns, rising stiffly from her cold seat on the floor, he is leaning against the mantle, both hands braced against it and his head hanging low between his arms. She shivers, not only from the winter wind, and suddenly the fireplace bursts into life, flames rising and dancing and giving off instant heat that she knows cannot be natural. It seems to stir Merlin, because he lifts his head, turning at last and looking at her as though seeing her properly for the first time. She notices that there are holes in the hem of his jacket, that his trousers are stained and muddy, and that one sleeve is covered in tiny rips, as though caught on a bramble bush and forcefully pulled free. Slowly, he comes towards her, reaching one hand out to catch a lock of hair, more grey than black now, and she turns her face to his touch.
“I lost myself,” he says. “I lost Arthur, and I lost myself.” He shakes his head, and although he has his back to the fire, she can see the glint of gold in his eyes. “I thought I would just need some time. Some time to think and-”
He cannot say it, so she does. “To grieve.”
“I never meant to leave you alone.”
She smiles, then, because she can at last, because the sharpness of her sorrow has passed, leaving her with the familiar ache that she knows she can live with. “I was never alone, Merlin. I had Camelot.”
His voice is resonant, ringing around the room as he says, “And you have made her great.” His eyes flash fully this time, the brightness of his magic stark and startling in the darkened room. It doesn't frighten her, and not only because magic users are commonplace in Camelot. Somehow it looks right for Merlin, as though she is finally seeing the man she always knew he could be, the potential that always hid beneath a shy grin and nervous glances. He looks complete.
Then the moment is gone, the light fading and he blinks a little, curling his fingers to stroke her cheek. She realises that until now she had wondered if he was some sort of apparition, conjured by her grief through the weakened Veil. But now she knows he is not, and just as strongly she knows that he will not be able to stay.
He seems to realise this at the same time as her, eyes darting to the window and back. He smiles suddenly, a wryness under the familiar humour.
"I didn’t come up it today, but you do you know that tower is surprisingly easy to climb, don’t you?”
She laughs, just a little, feeling some of the tightness in her shoulders ease, and she manages to frown with mock-seriousness. "I will have someone look at it first thing in the morning. How long-" But she cannot ask, because she does not want to hear the answer. Hearing it will bring the truth crashing in, and she is not ready for that just yet.
"I don't know," he says, lowering his hand and leaving her face suddenly cold. "I didn't even know I was coming here."
She frowns in earnest this time at the confusion in his voice. "Then why did you come?"
"I heard you call." He holds up a hand to halt her next question. "Please, I don't understand it myself. Any of it." There is real anguish in his voice as he turns away. "Fifteen years."
Now that he is no longer looking at her, Guinevere can gather herself, steel her nerves for the question she must ask, and the answer she knows she cannot truly prepare for.
"Merlin," she says, drawing his attention back to her from whatever distant past it has drifted away to. "Where is Arthur?" They have a monument for him in Camelot, and a memorial stone beside his father's, but it is not the same, and it is not nearly enough of an answer for her.
Merlin is silent for a long time, his eyes distant again, and he turns from her, going back to the fireplace. He crouches beside it, inclining his head just enough that she understands and goes to join him, looking with him into the flickering flames. She isn't sure what she's supposed to be looking at, and the brightness and heat is hurting her eyes, when she suddenly sees it.
In the depths of the fire, outlined in sparks and glittering light, a shape is rising from the flames. She can't recognise it at first, then it resolves itself into a hill, then an island, standing clear of the molten lake around it. There is an obelisk on the hill, tall and straight, shining like a beacon amongst the light. It's beautiful, and the sight of it makes something inside her twist, because she knows this is the answer to her question.
"Ætíe," Merlin says, and the image shifts, revolving under his outstretched hand so that she can see all around it. As it turns, she sees something on the fiery water, a tiny speck of whiteness in the yellow-gold. It moves slowly and steadily in a straight path towards the island, and Guinevere has to resist the urge to reach out and touch it. As she watches, the light reaches the island, its spark joining the glow of the shore and flaring once before disappearing, the whole scene dissolving back into the background flicker of the fire.
Guinevere feels bereft as she stares into the flames, their abstract, dancing beauty no substitute for the picture Merlin had conjured.
"I couldn't save him," Merlin whispers. "Please, Gwen, you have to believe me. I tried so hard, but I couldn't save him. All I could do was send him to Avalon."
"What does that mean?" Over the years, she has dealt with enough sorcerers and druids to have patience with their mysteries, their need to see everything in riddles and symbols. Here and now, though, she just needs to understand what Merlin is talking about.
He huffs a laugh, an almost wistful sound. "I don't know," he admits, dropping his head and rubbing at the back of his neck. "The dragon said...he said that Arthur is the Once and Future King. That he will return when Albion needs him the most."
"We have always needed him." The response is automatic, a voice to the thoughts that have haunted her since she took the throne and through battles, crises and emergencies ever since. The thought that Arthur did not come when she needed him twists in her heart, and she turns her face from the fire.
"No, you don't." Merlin is watching her steadily, head still lowered and resting on the knees that he has drawn up to his chest. "Look at you, Gwen. You're..." he breaks off, one hand waving vaguely, searching for the word. "You're brilliant."
Guinevere Pendragon has been sole ruler of Camelot for fifteen years. She has stared down Lords and Barons, overruled her advisors, managed a kingdom, protected its borders and cemented her authority every day, and she is secure in her rule. And those two words, here and now, are threatening to undo her. The warmth of them seeps into her, and she holds Merlin's eyes, wondering if he can feel what they mean to her. It's not approval she seeks - she knows she has done well - but the affirmation of a friend, someone who has seen her through bad days and good and who, if Gaius' words are true, knows more about the workings of power than she can ever hope to. He has no reason to flatter her, and she suspects that if he wanted, he could bring down her reign, her whole kingdom, with a single thought.
Instead, he is sitting curled up on her hearthstones, looking at her with such love that she thinks her heart will break all over again. Gently, she reaches out to touch his hair, stroking through and feeling the roughness of it, the feel of someone who has spent too long exposed to the elements, caring nothing for them.
"I can't stay," he says, lifting his head into her touch, then turning to look out of the window again. The smell of smoke has drifted in, and it feels as though they are sitting by their own Samhain bonfire, waiting for the morning and for the spirits to recede again with the light. "It's been too long."
She knows already, and so is braced for it. "Where will you go?"
"I don't know. Not far." The smile he turns to her is sad. "I can't go far from Avalon. Someone must watch over him."
"For how long?"
He stirs at that, uncurling and staring into the fire, as though searching it for the answer. The light is sufficient for her to see him properly at last, and she lets herself just look, memorising him in his distraction. For ten years, she saw him almost every day, yet she finds she had forgotten things. How he looks so much younger at rest than when he smiles. How his hair curls when it is too long, tracing the outlines of his ears. How his face narrows so much to his chin, so that his cheeks seem almost hollow when shadowed. She has never regretted that her last memory of Arthur is of him alive and vital, the image of his strong, capable figure that is all she sees when she closes her eyes. Now she can place this image beside his, the memory complete at last.
She jumps a little when he speaks, having almost forgotten the question.
“As long as he is there, I will be there.” It is said as a simple statement of fact, even as the depth of it sinks into her heart, a mixture of sorrow for her friend and gratitude for his devotion. She cannot possibly understand what this will mean for him, how long he will wait beside the lake for his - for their - King. But then the past fifteen years seem to have passed without his noticing, so perhaps the next fifteen, twenty, one hundred, will as well. It doesn’t matter that she does not understand, only that he knows what this means to her.
“Thank you,” she says, knowing that the words are inadequate but hoping he understands anyway. Carefully, she leans forwards, pulling him close enough that she can place a kiss on his forehead, making him flush and look back into the fire.
She follows his gaze, watching the flames dance on the crackling logs, fierce and bright and tall. There are no more pictures in them, only those she imagines for herself, the way a child sees a horse or a dog or a flower in a cloud. They ripple, dying and flaring as the wind whips through them, and she glances towards the window, seeing the faint light of dawn creeping over the castle walls. The nights are long at this time of year, and she hadn’t realised they had sat together all night like this.
When she turns to Merlin to say so, she finds she is speaking only to the air. The space where he sat is empty, the stone cold when she puts her hand on it. In the grate, there are only the last embers of a dying fire, not even enough spark to set a new one if she wanted. She sits for a while, one hand still in the place where her friend had been, the other tracing patterns in the cold ashes. It is many years since she spent a night without sleep, but her heart feels lighter for it, as though a burden that she did not know she was carrying has been lifted, and its loss has freed her somehow.
Carefully, because her knees are stiff and her back aches from sitting on the hard floor, she rises, crossing to the window. The air smells fresh, with just a hint of woodsmoke from the last bonfires. Below, the courtyard is quiet, too early for anyone to be stirring just yet, especially after last night’s revels.
Somewhere in the distance, she can hear the dawn chorus just beginning, a pure high sound above the rustle of leaves from the forest that surrounds them. One brave soul has ventured as far as the citadel, ruffling its feathers and darting from perch to perch, as though testing the rooftops for the best place to rest. Finally, it chooses the eastern wall, settling on the highest point and lifting its head to the sky. Its song rises clear and true, ringing in Guinevere’s ears and heart, as it welcomes the new day.
Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief.