Concern flitted across the king's features as his son turned dejectedly back to his dead serving boy, placing his warm hand over the boy's cold one.
There was a quiet knock at the door; Uther had no idea if Arthur had even heard it.
"Sire. Prince Arthur." Gwen greeted the two men meekly, carrying a tray of food and a flagon of wine.
At Gwen's voice Arthur finally looked up. Her heart clenched for her poor, sweet friend and for her prince. The fearless Arthur Pendragon looked dazed. Lost. As a child who suddenly finds himself alone in the marketplace. He blinked slowly.
Gwen went to the table, set down her tray, and began clearing away the remnants of Arthur's breakfast. Arthur silently followed her with his eyes. As Gwen began to curtsy her way out of the room, he spoke. "Wait. Gwen."
"The tray…" Arthur couldn't get another word out around the lump in his throat. He could see it from where he sat. Half a bun. With honey. Arthur's vision blurred and his ears buzzed. Was everyday going to be like this? For the rest of his life? Constantly scorched by reminders of Merlin's simple goodness? Reminders that the truest and most sweet person he'd ever know was gone? Gone. Dead. Having willingly thrown down his life. Thrown it down with a smile. As if tossing down a hand of cards, knowing he'd been beat. Because of him, the bloody great Prince Arthur.
"Arthur. Arthur. Look at me…" As Arthur looked up blearily at the king, he found he was no longer sitting on the edge of the bed, but on a chair. Gwen was gone. The tray was gone. She'd left the small honey pot. Uther pressed a goblet of wine into Arthur's hand. It was filled to the brim with a strong, dark wine. And a touch of something that would help the boy sleep.
Arthur obediently gulped the wine. On shaky legs, he walked to the tray of food, his stomach protesting weakly. With a real effort, he picked up a thick piece of bread and slowly buttered it.
Merlin. Merlin had really wanted Arthur to eat. Had been willing to go to the stocks to make his point. Idiot. Arthur almost smiled at the memory of Merlin peaking out from under his bangs at Arthur but standing firm. He wasn't going to move until Arthur ate the damn bun. Before a smile could form, another wave of grief washed over the prince.
He smeared the precious honey on his bread and sat. Methodically, he ate it. Because Merlin would have wanted him to. It clawed at his throat but he swallowed roughly again and again.
Feeling suddenly exhausted, Arthur staggered back to the chair beside the bed and sat heavily. His blinks became longer and longer. He'd just close his eyes for a minute.
Uther stood with his back to the small fire, looking out the window. It was the middle of the night when the king realized that Arthur must have woke. He'd been weeping in his sleep and went quiet suddenly as the sleeping draught ran its course.
Arthur woke with quiet sobbing in his ears. Who was crying? Was that Merlin? As Arthur's mind began to clear he realized two things. The sobbing had been his own, and Merlin lay on the bed in front of him. Merlin was dead. His father stood behind them, at the window. At least he had the decency to say nothing as Arthur's grief took him again and again. He'd never cried like this, the prince felt as though something inside him had torn. Ripped. And from the rip poured pain. He tried to be quiet, to hold down his sobs but surely the king heard Arthur's shaking breaths and gasps, his sniffling. His whimpering. Arthur welcomed the physical agony emanating from the suppressed sobs pulling his cracked ribs. His mind tortured him with thoughts of the pain Merlin had endured.
After hours, Arthur was exhausted. His chest and throat throbbed; his eyes felt like slits, his head pounded. After wiping his nose on his sleeve, Arthur sat motionless, eyes glued to his friend, awaiting the second worst day of his life.
As the sun rose, Arthur was gently prodded into action. As promised, Gaius arrived. He insisted the Arthur take willow in his tea. Several silent servants appeared and, much to Arthur's shock, the world continued. His room was tidied, food offered and removed. Arthur somehow found himself bathed and dressed. He had little memory of any of this—except dark blood, dried on Arthur's chest and legs—turning to pink whorls in the bath.
Word had spread like fire in the castle and beyond. The prince had been injured and his man, Merlin, had been killed. Merlin had been popular, such a ray of sunshine. More shocking though…and much more worthy of gossip had been Prince Arthur's reaction. Word snuck out from all over. The grooms who'd been at the stables, the merchants and royalty who'd seen Arthur stagger from the stable following in the wake of his broken servant. Eyes that had seen his lonely walk with his servant's body across the courtyard. Maids and servants who had passed Arthur's apartments in the night had indeed heard the young prince keening in his sleep. The talk continued to build. It was rumored that the king himself had visited Arthur's chambers. Anyone who had served Arthur that morning attested that, indeed, the prince seemed a broken man. Over a servant. A commoner. Someone just like them.
Not only that, the viewing was to be held in the prince's own chambers.
Between the talk and people's genuine sadness that poor Merlin had been lost, many attended the viewing. Commoners, servants, and even a few members of the visiting royalty.
For hours, people came and went. Many looked a bit afraid to enter the prince's room but Jillian and Fiona ushered all, in their professional but kind manner. Arthur stood silently at the foot of his bed all day. The weight of is formal clothes, cloak, crown, and sword tried to pull him into the depths but he resisted. There's no way he would disrespect Merlin or Merlin's mourners by being anything less than Prince Arthur. Although he stood tall and rigid, there was no hiding his grief. It was written across his face, across his whole being, for all to see.
He stood guard over his friend and found himself blinking back tears more than once as Gaius kindly accepted hugs, handshakes, and condolences. The bravest of the mourners would look at Arthur and give him a nod. A nod that said "I'm sorry sire." Arthur nodded back "As am I". And so it went. For hours.
As night fell, Arthur oversaw a small group of servants as they carefully took Merlin from the castle to the place of the pyre. As he walked behind these men, Arthur's throat closed with sadness. He was filled to the brim with it. Choking on it.
There were many people at the site of the pyre, awaiting Merlin. Although Arthur did not think of it, many were likely awaiting him as well. The prince. A prince who just could not hide his anguish.
As Arthur joined the group, he was sad to see only Gaius at the head of the pyre, reserved for family. There was no way Merlin's mother would have been able to arrive so soon. With confidence he didn't feel, Arthur worked his way through the surprised onlookers to stand behind Gaius.
Merlin's body was consumed by roaring flame; smoke billowed, embers were whipped about by the wind. Arthur stood still as a statue, his eyes bore into the flame. His bandaged hand rested on Gaius' shaking shoulder.
Arthur Pendragon's affection for and loyalty to Merlin, even in death, became legend among the regular citizens of Camelot. It became legend among leaders, legend into the countryside beyond. Became a tale for the ages, sung by bards and told to servants' children as they went to sleep.
Too few years down the road, Uther succumbed to a battle injury. Arthur, Gaius, and the matrons prepared the body together. Arthur grieved the loss of the king; their relationship had blossomed over its final years.
But Arthur was ready to become a brave, wise, and compassionate king. History's finest. The people's king. And so it was that Merlin fulfilled his destiny—having taught both Arthur and Camelot just what kind of man Arthur could be.
Gaius had been right; Arthur's hand pained him whenever he held a sword. Anyone could tell it by the look on his features.
Arthur never took another manservant.
The end! Thank you for reading along on this sad little journey, I truly hope you enjoyed it! Last chance to leave me a spot of feedback…