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Behind Every Great Man

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"My love lies bleeding."-Thomas Campbell

The legends describe her as the lovely princess from another land, fair of face, with light in her eyes and heart, a winsome smile, and a charming way. They say it was her that Arthur Pendragon called beloved, the one he held in his arms and made his queen.

In them it is she who betrayed that love, who stole the Prince's heart, only to shatter it into pieces. They say that all along she had a choice, when she knows she never had any choice at all.

The legends tell of her love for Lancelot, how she betrayed her husband and fled with the knight, how she left behind all she might have had broken and bleeding like the king's heart and the kingdom he ruled.

The legends are as fallible as the men who write them, and if there is one truth in life it is that mortals lie.

For it was not his heart that broke.

It was her's.

oooOOOooo

The stories tell beautiful lies, spun of gold and silver and stardust, fairy tales for children to be in awe of, tales of the love he bore for her, how he burned with it so brightly that he extinguished himself and Camelot along with him.

But Arthur never speaks of love anymore, except for Camelot, not Camelot as it is but as he sees it in his dreams, a white city of myth and renown, a fairy land of kings and queens, chivalry and purity of heart. He lives for his dreams and she has no strength to lift him out of them, no heart to shatter his hopes as the kingdom crumbles, because he offers her nothing of himself, no quiet words or gentle touches, no arms for her to cling to as she stumbles and falls.

Even Merlin does not reach for her, keeping a respectful distance, as if a touch will betray the man who is her husband in naught but name. He keeps to himself, shut up in closed rooms, studying papers, searching, seeking an answer as to where everything turned wrong.

There is no destiny, not anymore, as if somewhere a door that should have been opened suddenly closed, a light snuffed out before it fully burned, the flap of a butterfly's wings that has altered the fabric of time.

She does not know who was the butterfly, and it no longer seems to matter.

oooOOOooo

In most of the legends, except the two that are gracious and kindly toward her, she has no children. The others say she was cursed to be barren, that her efforts to bear an heir were only futile struggles against magic, or even that her love for Lancelot would not permit her to bear a child for a man she would betray, a selfish act that left no one to inherit, a kingdom with no king.

The legends never say how she loved him and how he turned his face from her day after day, locked away with the problems of the kingdom, or how he barely spoke to her. She sleeps alone and there is never any talk of children, no matter how her arms ache to hold them or how her heart is as empty as the throne will be after Arthur is gone.

Once, in desperation, she goes to him, enters his chamber without being summoned, and speaks to him freely.

"Our child could have golden hair." She says softly, voice woven with a tone a hairsbreadth from a plea. Her arms clasp around herself in an embrace, a protective shield over the place where the child would form.

He doesn't answer her, not even raising his face to look at her, buried in a stack of ancient books, eyes fixed on the endless procession of words that march off the pages like the men he sends into battle only to be slaughtered because their king is not with them, leading them, and giving them hope. The pale light from the window filters across the table, brushing gold back into the dullness of his hair, and she wants to reach for him, to beg him to look at her, if only once.

If she'd married Lancelot when Arthur was still a prince, there would have been no satin and velvet. They would have lived hand to mouth, perhaps, gone hungry at times. But there would have been a child, the antithesis of the one Arthur could give her, dark where he was fair, intuitive where he was shut away from her. Lancelot - and she struggles to recall his face, not ashen with the pallor of death but alive and strong - would have laughed and loved her and the child, counting fingers and toes, kissing her forehead as he lifted the boy into his arms.

Strange, that she can imagine that, and not Arthur doing the same.

oooOOOooo

The legends say nothing of how he does not touch her anymore, how she aches when his hands twitch or his face tilts toward her and he pulls away, distracted by a cry for help, someone pounding on the door, an illness, a war, anything and everything that steals him away from her and widens the gap between them.

There must be an heir, she knows, for Arthur cannot live forever, and she is his only queen. Through her and only her can Camelot's future be secured.

Finally, she goes to Merlin, to beg the one thing she knows he will not do, to beg a child conceived of magic because Arthur will not give her one. She knows what the forfeit would be, but it would be given gladly, her life to save Arthur's Camelot. But Merlin blanches white at the request, and shakes his head violently, imploring her to speak to Arthur once more, to make him understand.

She does not, because Arthur is already lost to her. She is a widow, even if her husband is still living and breathing in the next room.

oooOOOooo

Like so many things forgotten and folded away in her chamber, the stories say nothing of Merlin as he once was, the day they first met, dear, sweet, clumsy Merlin, and the infatuation she once harbored, the one that might have grown had only she watered it and given it a bit of sunlight, the faintest chance at all.

It's gone, of course, and she's no longer a servant but the queen, and Merlin is her subject, trusted, beloved, but not her king.

She wonders idly if he remembers the flower she once gave him, the one tucked in his tunic like a scarf worn into battle. Arthur does not give her flowers anymore, and Merlin certainly doesn't.

"Would you have made me flowers out of magic?" She asks him, quietly, and he starts, document spilling from his hand and halted with a flash of gold eyes. When his speaks, his voice is strange, and for the first time since he stood beside the king as his sorcerer he seems uncertain of his words.

"If you wish something, I can give it, my queen." It's always my queen these days or the rare Guinevere. Never Gwen, anymore.

"I wish nothing." She says quickly, head down before he sees the pain in her eyes. Merlin, the boy, would have seen it, would have comforted her in his awkward way, and made her smile. There is no laughter in this Merlin, no warm smiles, because he's troubled, with Arthur, with the kingdom, and he doesn't notice her grief.

There are never any flowers in the castle walls other than the ones pressed in a book that she holds between her fingertips, forehead against the glass of her window, and watches the colors fade in the sunlight as the years pass.

oooOOOooo

The legends tell how magic was restored to Camelot, and how it shone like the stars through a dark sky, radiant and alive as if the earth sang with it, how it was beautiful and right.

There is no beauty.

The magic that comes is a twisted, cruel perversion of all Merlin had dreamed, as if Uther's hatred and the legacy of the burnings have been passed through blood to the children, corrupting all that could have been pure and good. The children do not heal with magic but destroy. The words Merlin speaks with tenderness turn foul in their mouths and they strike out with them, maiming and wounding when something displeases them.

She grows to hate the ancient ways, the shrouded mists of Avalon, and the dark secrets scrawled in books of spells and sorcery.

After a time she begins to feel grateful that there was no child, even one spun from the purity of Merlin's magic, because even born on the king's bed, the child might have been tainted like all the rest, one who would bring the downfall of Camelot. Better it die with Arthur, she decides, than perish slowly with his heir.

oooOOOooo

The legends tell how she did not weep for her husband when he rode out that final day, how she hid herself within the walls of a convent as if to absolve herself of the sins of her betrayal.

There are no records of how she reached toward him to assist him with his armour and he shrugged away from her hands, or how he did not turn to look at her one last time as he rode away. It is Merlin who looks back, face aged beyond his years and etched with unmeasurable sorrow.

If there is any truth in the stories it would be that Queen Guinevere did not shed a single tear as she watched them leave - not because her heart had turned to stone but because there were no more tears left to shed, all the rest poured out through weeks and months and years, wept quietly into the bed covers and against the hand that reached out in the darkness and felt only emptiness on his side as she heard him, pacing the halls before retreating to his old chambers.

She does not go inside but stands against the parapet, watching as the battle from a great distance, the men and horses tiny specks like chaff caught in a violent maelstrom.

Once, she thinks she spies Arthur's colors, the dragon emblazoned on his shield. But she is not certain.

oooOOOooo

The legends say how Merlin passed over an old man, before Arthur was ever struck down, how Arthur mortally wounded Mordred before he himself died, and how the king's body was borne over to Avalon.

They say nothing of how Merlin's magic was too late that day, how he held Arthur as he died and watched his lifeblood slip between his fingers and drain into the earth. They know nothing of how he slaughtered sorcerers that day, a purge as crimson as Uther's, driven with an anger as deep as the man they once hated, how his eyes burned as gold as a hundred fires as Mordred broke before him, how the allies of the Druid died screaming for mercy and found none.

It is Merlin alone who returns, clothes stained red, eyes hollow, as if he has given all and burned himself up like the sun on the final day of the world. He comes up the steps like an aged man, and when he stops before her he cannot seem to speak, lips trembling with unspoken words. And then he's falling against her and she to him, hands clutching, and she's howling like a wounded creature as he sobs against her shoulder, fragile and so thin she can feel every one of his bones through his tunic, every beat of his heart against her's.

When he finds his voice it's only to apologize, over and over, useless words that change nothing.

The king is carried home on his shield but she does not look at him, turning her head as he's lifted past her, shutting her eyes to the wounds and the frozen set of his eyes, the fair hair matted with scarlet and grime. It is Merlin's hand that wipes away the blood and places him in his grave, and that touches the torch to the pyre that burns Mordred's twisted remains.

And it is Merlin who sits outside her door that night and listens to her mourn.

oooOOOooo

The legends tell how she spent the remainder of her life behind the walls of a convent, how she grieved for Lancelot and her own sins, how in time she forgot Arthur until he became only a name, a whispered memory, and nothing more. The legends make her tragic, destroyer and victim, beloved and reviled, a name passed down generations without the marvel in the voices as they speak of Merlin, the mourning for Arthur, once and future king, or even the hatred as they spit out the name of Mordred.

Camelot falls, the final pieces stolen from the board as knight and king are taken by pawns, a gradual dying finally put out of it's misery in one final, violent burst of life. The castle she once lived in is taken, the knights dead or scattered, all but their names wiped from the memory of man.

It is Merlin, dear, faithful Merlin, who takes her out in the midst of the battle, toward the woods and past the lake, as Freya's face weeps from the water and the ancient spirits mourn for all lost. He takes off his cloak and wraps it around her, tucking in the edges.

She wants to speak, to say something, anything, but no words come. His hand presses against her's, dry and cold, calloused from the years as Arthur's servant, as her own hands remain. And then his hand falls from her's as he turns away, back to help the people in any way he can, to save as many as possible.

His name catches in her throat, scraping raw and burning with the thickness of held-back tears, but she does not call to him for he won't listen. Instead she runs, branches slapping at her hands, tearing at her clothes as the sounds of battle rage behind her, and she feels Merlin's magic wrapped over her like his cloak, shielding her.

There is no convent, nor does she mourn for Lancelot, because Lancelot is long dead, and Arthur is gone, and with him Camelot, and Merlin Merlin....

But she is strong and so she survives.

oooOOOooo

The legends lie, of course, lovely words of pure magic and the deepest love, of Camelot, the land of myth, and of the people who once lived inside it's walls. They say nothing of hamartia, of fatal flaws, of the hearts that broke and all that could have been that was lost, a hundred paths forsaken and a destiny shattered into pieces.

In their hands a young warlock becomes a mighty sorcerer, golden eyes lost beneath a mantle of age and wisdom, and a king whose dreams were never fulfilled lives forever in a land lost to mist and time. And because they cannot blame fate is it told that her disloyalty, her love for another, destroyed the kingdom.

People do not want to hear the truth, in the end. Only one half told and much embellished, because lies do not hurt as much as the truth.