Chapter 1: And Eden Fell
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chapter 2: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
"A mother's arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them."-Victor Hugo
When she can no longer deny she's with child Hunith weeps, not because of the disgrace as the others in the village suppose, but because of the fear that wraps around her heart, crushing her like a vice as she senses knows that the child is not safe, that if anyone suspected, Uther would kill him, even tucked within her.
The fear is disguised for there is shame, after all, for a young, unmarried woman to find herself with child, and the lines can be easily drawn to the stranger, the mysterious man who came wounded from out of the night and she cared for, taking him into her house and keeping him sheltered even after he was strong enough to be on his own. Tongues had wagged then that no good would ever come of it, then Hunith was far too naive and trusting, and that the stranger had a dark way about him. So when the slight swell beneath her dress can no longer be hidden, and her hands go to her waist at the tiniest flutter there, the women turn their heads and whisper among themselves, glancing over at her as if she is blind and deaf to them, unable to realize she's the subject of their gossip.
It's ended before she has time to truly be hurt by it, because the storms come early, damaging the crops, and she works with the rest of them, hard, backbreaking labor that no woman in her condition should do. In the end, there's no use, and the winter breaks hard, seeping cold into the bones and souls of the people.
There's precious little food even if a few of the more sympathetic women share their meager rations, and she knows with a sinking heart that she's barely eating enough for herself, let alone for the child. The weak die first, the young ones and the newborn infants, and the wails of the mothers fill her ears as she draws her water and watches, heart clenched, as a tiny and wasted body is wrapped in a cloth and carried out.
Her cheeks become hollowed, bones sharp against her skin, and she lies wrapped in her blanket at night and touches the child, barely moving now except for a rare and weak kick, and wills herself and the baby to survive, even as they fade. Somewhere in the distance she hears the sounds of the night, the cry of a merlin hawk comforting her, and she does not allow herself to think of Balinor, only the child, because Balinor is lost to her, and the child was the last thing he gave her, the tangible proof of the love he showed her.
She clings to him - for she knows somehow that the baby will be a boy - as long as she can, but finally she's too weak and the pains come.
He's born quickly, too early and much too small, a fragile scrap of a child with porcelain skin and ears too large for his face. His cries are weak, like a kitten mewling, and the midwife doesn't want to hand him to her when she begs, face etched with a sympathy that tells her that the woman doubts the frail newborn will survive the night. Hunith pleads herself hoarse, and the woman finally relents, slipping the boy into her arms.
He's light as a feather, and his eyes look up at her with a wide gaze too deep for a newborn, as if he can feel her anguish and already seeks to ease it. There's a look about him, like the merlins she used to watch flying as a child, small birds with hidden strength, as if something remarkable, something special is hidden in the deceptively fragile body.
She wraps him in her blanket, warming him against her, touching the delicate features as if memorizing them. He nestles against her, and her heart constricts with love and a fierce sense of protection, of knowing she would die for him before she'd see him harmed in any way.
Before she falls asleep, exhaustion overcoming her best efforts to stay alert, she brushes her lips on his forehead, a feathery kiss against the downy hair and whispers to him like the little nestling that as a child she cupped in her hands and lifted back into the nest.
In the morning when more in the village have died and the child is still alive, sleeping in her arms, her heart leaps against her ribs, free hand smoothing a pale cheek, skin as soft as feathers, her fallen bird safe in the nest.
She names him Merlin.
Vivienne's first thought is panic, a blinding terror when her suspicions are confirmed. A married woman does not conceive a child with the king, does not betray her own husband while he is away at war. Such things are unforgivable.
The guilt is both of their's but she bears it alone. Uther does not rage as she had thought, and his eyes are strangely gentle as he observes her, searching for a sign of a child that is still concealed beneath her cloak. He arranges it quietly, her husband's return, a night with him, and the truth is quickly hidden.
No one suspects, and even Ygraine embraces her with a look of happiness and not-quite hidden longing.
The child that is born is dark, nothing like the lightness of her own hair, no resemblance to her husband, a clear-eyed girl whose fists flail out, independent from the beginning. Uther does not come to see her, of course, but he congratulates the proud father, his eyes lifting to Vivienne as she cradles the infant to her heart.
Later, when the queen is dead and the king has his heir, her other child is taken from her by Gaius, the tiny yellow-haired girl whose eyes burn gold as she howls, small fists striking the air as he carries her away. Vivienne's arms reach out for Morgause, but she is weak, clinging to Morgana and Gorlois. She does not weep, but she trembles like a tree quivering in the wind as she knows her daughter will live, death forged by a reversible poison, and spirited away in the night. But she will not hold her again, and her heart screams as she sees the tiny bodies laid out in the courtyard, the children born with magic that the knights drowned, one by one, as their parents pleaded and screamed, the limp, pale hands and dripping hair, small features blue and frozen in death.
There are burnings and everyone she knew dies quickly, the world folding in on itself, as she waits to be sent for, for her own death that never comes. Some remembrance, some sense of pity, spares her.
But there is no pity in Vivienne's soul, no kindness in her heart toward the man she bore a child for, and she burns in her own way with hatred as she speaks anger in soothing tones to the child she still has. Morgana watches her with bright and curious eyes as she croons her hatred of Uther to the child, infusing it like a poison in her veins.
She does not burn, nor does she die beneath the executioner's ax. Her death is slow, the coughing sickness that fills her lungs and leaves her unable to breathe, to call for her children, the one lost and the one curled up asleep as she dies. Gorlois holds her hand, but she does not try to speak to him as she tosses with fever.
There are no soft, gentle words at the last, and her final breath is a curse, a rattling whisper of suffering upon Uther Pendragon in a day yet to come.
She does not forgive, she does not forgive.
The instant she feels the life quicken inside her Ygraine knows she's going to die.
It's instinctive in a way, the flow of life to the child, the ebb of life from her as each day passes, as the child grows and she fades.
She doesn't tell Uther because she fears what he would do, the rage, the sorrow. It is her secret, a great and terrible one, and she bears it alone.
In her dreams she sees the child, a boy of three or four, golden-haired and strong, running across the courtyard and into her arms. She clings to him, lifting him high, looking into his eyes and his smile, kissing the chubby hands that reach for her face. She weeps when she awakens, weeps for all she will not see, the boy she'll never hold or watch grow.
She sings lullabies to him, as if to give him the love he will need, to fill him up with it, give him enough for a lifetime when she is gone, when her heart will ache for him and find no comfort.
Camelot will be a cold and a harsh world, she knows, without her arms to catch him when he falls, shelter him, and keep him warm. Uther will love him but he will rarely show it, and he will demand much of the boy. The child will struggle for approval and find little, thirst for love and drink the few drops given dry.
There is no magic that can ease her heart because magic has already stolen her life from her, and left her with something infinitely more precious, and so, as she watches Uther prepare for the birth, pageantry and regalia, she sits quietly in her chambers, and rests her hand against the baby, eyes brimming with withheld tears as strong kicks and turning elbows move against her fingertips, a fighter even in the womb, this child woven of flesh and blood and magic.
She senses something within her, a feeling of awe, as if she bears not merely a child but a destiny, someone by whose hand a kingdom will rise as others fall, a child of a new age whose name will never be forgotten, whispered in legends and hallowed halls centuries past his reign. It is fate all along, perhaps, governing them all, and she has slipped into it, been given a place in the fickle memory of generations to come.
The day comes upon her far too soon, slow and agonizing. No one can lessen the pain, their attempts futile struggles against the magic already cast, nor can they save her when the child is lifted free and she begins to bleed, her life draining away as the infant takes his first breath, the air echoing with a full, unbearably loud cry.
The child is a boy, as she always knew it would be, the heir Uther wanted, the son in her dreams. His face is strongly featured, wispy hair the color of sunlight, cheeks pink as he wails with an ear-shattering voice, a strangely comforting and hypnotic call, the last sound she'll ever hear.
Her vision is darkened, fading, but she sees him held up before her, healthy with wide, beautiful eyes, and she knows in that instant that she regrets nothing, that could she go back in time she would repeat it all, do everything a second time, if only to relive this moment and the love she has for him.
His fifth breath is an echo of her last.
Chapter 3: For Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves
"Yet each man kills the thing he loves, by each let this be heard, some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word....Some love too little, some too long, some sell, and others buy; some do the deed with many tears, and some without a sigh."-Oscar Wilde
He is gold and summer and she is ice and winter, contrasting and ever-changing, melting and freezing before her eyes.
They run wild as children, or as unfettered as the son of the king and the king's ward can be, scaling hills and trees, splashing through water, and wading waist deep into the fields, the plants and grasses spread around them, moving beneath their outstretched hands as the wind pulls against them and refuses to concede. They are beautiful together, fair against the dark, as all opposites are, thunder and lightning woven together.
They are antithesis of each other in their games, competitors in all they do. He knocks her down, bruising her knee, and she strikes back at him, only to tend the cut later before Uther can scold.
As children, they are given everything - the most beautiful clothes, the finest food, the warmest chambers. Any request is answered within an instant, a servant at her hand to deliver the smallest thing she asks.
Even as she grows, she is given everything.
But not him.
Never him, of course.
He is the surface of the lake, and she is it's depths, the darkness beneath where she slips her hand into without fear, even when other children would pull back. Her fingers do not reach the bottom, because she's small, only a child, but growing, and one day she will be able to feel and know what rests on the ground beneath the water.
He does not reach into the water, hand only skimming the surface, eyes distant, filled with the dreams of the very young.
"When I'm king I want to live here instead of the castle." He tells her, tossing a stone across the water and watching as it falls, sinking deep and vanishing from view.
"I'll marry you then." She says, suddenly, and it isn't a game of wishes but a vow, because she loves him, and she always will, even grown up, even old.
They are children, and words mean nothing.
He is sand through her fingers and she is the sifter, a flash of her eyes, a smile, and he would forgive her anything. He is good where his father is not, merciful where Uther has none, and at first, she loves him all the more for his weaknesses.
There will come a time when she will take advantage of them, but for now, she is still too young.
He is earth, bound to Camelot, his life set within the borders of the kingdom, and she is air, shifting, moving, and forever changing shape. Nothing holds or defines her, and the magic burns hot within her veins, molding her like clay in a stranger's hands, pulsing as she watches him.
He is grown now, not only in body but in spirit, the spoiled child she loved replaced by a man with a heart that deeply cares. But he doesn't give his heart to her, because he no longer remembers the words by the lake, and even if he did she would only reject him.
The vow was a lie in the end, like everything else, because there will be no wedding, not now, not ever, and no love between them, not with half of their blood shared between them both. She cannot rip that half out of her, no matter how she might wish, and whatever there might have been is irretrievably lost, even knowing she still loves.
She is his sister and nothing can come of it, no matter how his eyes once shone into her's, or how the fire that burns in her veins did not threaten to consume her, because they're not the same, even if he isn't yet aware of the reason.
The earth shifts and the air moves, and nothing stays the same.
He is sunlight and water, and she is darkness and fire. There could have been nothing for them, she sees that now, for they would have put out each other long ago, he smothering her flames and she burning him to ashes.
She hates Uther, not only for the deception, but for the son he gave life, and for the other child - the innocent little girl who loved him as no other, the one who ran ahead of him and turned back to help him when he fell. That child is long buried, burned up like the fall of a star to earth, and nothing can bring her back.
Arthur's eyes are filled with shock, and even anger, and there is no love lingering beneath, only a sense of betrayal.
He's forgotten more than she has, or perhaps he never knew at all.
He is glass now, jagged shards, and she is stone, and they break each other, as they were meant to all along.
There are no memories of laughing children, and if she remembers at all, it's only the bruises where he knocked her down when he didn't get his way and the cut along his cheek from where she struck him back. There were no tears then, and there are none now.
If he mourns for what has become of both of them, the grief is found only in private, in darkness, and in her, not at all.
The bottom of the lake is sand beneath her feet, cool and quiet, and the surface is only a glimmer on the water far above.
He is gold and summer and she is ice and winter, frozen and still as she watches him die. She is holding him at the end, as she hasn't since they were children, and he's so young and so old, as if the forgotten and the remembered have been stirred together, mingled within him.
She senses the moment he dies, not only the stillness of his chest beneath her hand but the hollowness of her own, an empty space as if her heart has become smaller, grown weary, and half given up. She had always felt him, even as a child, a part of her, the blood they shared, the love she once bore, some strange whisper of magic that has now left her stripped to the bones.
He's dead, finally, and she killed him, even if her hand didn't drive the spear into him and twist it deep.
She is the last Pendragon now, and all she wishes could be her's if she'd only put out her hand and take it - the throne, Camelot - a step away, a simple word, as if the last years never were and she is a child of eleven with all she wants an inch from her outstretched fingers.
Everything but him.
He is gold and she is nothing at all.
Chapter 4: What Was Washed Away Before
"Long before we saw the sea, its spray was on our lips, and showered salt rain upon us."-Charles Dickens
He comes to her in the spring as he always does, with a lightness in his step and eyes, and a tenderness in his voice as he speaks to her. The hand that touches the lake is calloused but gentle and she can almost feel her own clasp it, the waters against his fingertips.
"I've missed you." He says softly, as he always has, quiet words etched with loneliness, and nothing she says can change that.
"I'm here. Always." She whispers, the breath of the wind in her voice.
For now it is enough. It must be.
He comes to her in the summer and he no longer needs to search the distance for eyes that could see the flowers he spins out of magic and sets adrift upon her waters because everyone knows and has for some time now. His clothes are the finest material and he has the appearance of a man who lives well, even if his smile doesn't reach his eyes anymore and the lines stay etched into his pale face.
What was once outlawed has now become hungered for, and every day brings a dozen and more to Camelot to beg the magic of Merlin. There are fields withered by the sun, a dying man, a war, a famine, a child with sightless eyes, and a thousand more petitions. And Merlin sees them all, bringing water and restoration, healing and peace, each spell siphoning off more of his life until he has nothing left to give.
He looks weary and worn, and much too old for his years, and if she still had a human heart that beat it would ache for him, for the boy he once was with the red neckerchief and the smiles like the warmth of the sun when he looked at her.
She cannot touch him, or comfort him, so she brings him what peace she can, tranquil waters to sit beside, the calm of the lake against the hands that splash his face, the sound of her voice as she speaks to him.
It is not enough.
He comes to her in the autumn when the leaves are deep red, as crimson as the stains on his hands and the blood on the sword he clutches. She sees the slump of his shoulders as if the fragile bones have broken beneath the weight of all he's carried so long, and she knows what has happened, what was always meant to happen.
His destiny was to protect Arthur, to make him the man he would be, to guide him, to set him on the throne of Camelot to be the king he was born to be. To watch him die and not be able to save him because magic is only so strong and there is so much on earth that is stronger.
He takes Excalibur and gives it to her, from water back to water, and she takes it to the depths of the lake, the stillness where no mortal hands can reach and claim it. He stands on the shore, staring at his hands as if they belong to a stranger, but he does not cry, his eyes hollowed and dark.
The boy he was once would have wept for Arthur, and for himself, but that boy is long gone, set afire on the water and turned to ashes. Merlin, the sweet, clumsy boy she loved is gone, and within the shell is Emrys, the sorcerer of legends, the name whispered in awe, a name commanding fear and a sense of wonder as people crumbled around him and he walked untouched through the middle of the field, feet never touching any of the dead as more spells fell from his lips.
If she had a heart, it would be breaking.
He comes to see her just once more, as the ice settles across the water with the chill of winter, and his face is lined with the years and the burdens he's carried, the dark hair long shifted strand by strand into the color of snow, because even magic he isn't immortal or unchanging as she. He moves with the stiffness of the aged, and the hands that brush the surface of her lake are no longer strong but twisted and frail.
"Arthur is dead." He says faintly.
He's been dead for years now, centuries it seems, and with him almost everyone else, Camelot vanishing like a dream into the mist, the gates to Avalon forever sealed from the eyes of mortals. But he isn't telling her of Arthur's death, she knows, but all he cannot say, of a destiny long fulfilled but never let go, of dreams crushed into powder, friendships and love severed and altered by the cruel and ever-sculpting hands of time.
"You made me feel love." She says quietly, and her voice is soft, like a lullaby across the waters as he lays down on the shore, head resting against his arms. He knows what she's saying as she knew all he could not express.
The world they dwelt in has long passed out of existence and they are merely refugees, now, wanderers drifting through each moment and slipping into the next, a lady of the lake who cannot die again and a man of magic who cannot live much longer.
They needed each other, it seems, then and now and always, and she whispers to him as he rests beside her shore, as the last of his spells echo in the silence and the flowers push through the snow, scarlet and beautiful and shining like the stars above.
In the end when he no longer speaks and his eyes turn from gold to blue, dimming and fading like the candle flames dancing and blown out in the wind, she reaches out and takes him in her arms, carrying him as he once carried her. She is water between his fingertips, a formless shadow, and he is emptiness because water can only cradle and not feel.
But finally, that last time, she rocks him to sleep.