So many paths that wind and wind...
Disclaimer: Merlin and its characters belong to the BBC.
"For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be."
The full moon was reflected in the black waters of the lake, a shimmering, unmarred white orb.
During the daytime, while the sun blazed overhead, the lake of Avalon seemed to beckon to all; its surroundings too perfect, the water too calm…the white shore too enticing. But now, at night, it was a different story. Under the cover of darkness, the lake abandoned all pretense of hiding its true character. It was alive with a dark beauty as the moon's reflection in the rippling water danced with the waves.
A slight breeze ruffled the reeds in the water and their movement created even more disturbance over the glassy surface.
Far in the distance, the tall mountain peaks guarded the sanctity of the lake, while on the opposite side, the thick, dense forest was silent. The creatures of the wild, inhabitants of the forest, never wandered too close. They were wary of this place and its mysterious energy.
And perhaps their cautiousness was warranted…after all, it was at this bewitching hour that messengers from the other world dared to venture into this realm. It was strange, however, that amongst the inane chattering of the faeries, tonight two ethereal voices could be distinguished.
While for most souls Avalon was but a glimpse into the eternal realm before returning to the ever-spinning cycle of life and death, for others, it was the final stop in the voyage of their spirits. The souls that were able to escape the ever-turning wheel of birth and death passed through Avalon. Here, they had a choice of either moving on to a state of eternal rest or they could decide to remain, in the land between worlds. Most eventually did choose to go on, but occasionally, once in a while, there was a soul who would choose to wait…for there was something or someone still in the material world that he would be incomplete without.
One such waiting passenger spoke to the woman who was his guide and gatekeeper; she was his only light and long lost love, and it was in this in-between world that he had at long last been reunited with her…
"Do you think it possible, Lady of the Lake?"
"I think that you and so many have given their lives for this vision to become a reality. Your dreams have no choice but to materialize."
"And do you think that the architects of this dream will ever unite again?"
"Merlin, friends cannot be parted even by death. You are the first to make this journey and you have left the others far behind. And now, all that remains is for you to wait…"
"In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin's breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest."
In the wake of the culmination of the war, the whole kingdom had been thrown into a mixture of jubilation and devastation. The victory at Camlann had transformed the dim hope with which they had begun their trial of war into a blazing flame of triumph. Their dream, the new Camelot for which they all had made sacrifices, would be safe in the hands of the King whom they now trusted beyond anyone. And the celebratory air would not leave their minds. Regardless of what they had been before the war: farmer, teacher, cobbler, magician, healer, nobleman or vassal, they could now start afresh – with a clean slate.
But it was not all joy and delight. Most had directly or indirectly lost close friends, and family. Or were now missing a limb, or an eye, or both – or else too ill with fever to even contemplate returning to work. And what good was a blacksmith without his right arm? Still others had returned to ravaged homes and maggoty crops that had been abandoned once the recruiting for the Great War began.
In one way or another, all had been affected.
Those closest to the King had faced more sorrow than joy. For not only were they affected by the same grief and despair faced by their subjects in their daily trials, but also they carried a far greater weight upon their shoulders. Beyond any other grief, what was weighing on their minds was the loss of their dearest friend. Merlin had been their inspiration and losing him had felt like losing the log that had been keeping them afloat in these stormy seas…and now, they were drowning…
Each member of the royal household questioned himself or herself, wondering if the outcome would have been different if they had acted differently. And each expressed their grief in different ways…
Gaius continued with his healing of the injured, imagining that each wound he sewed up was Merlin's and each fever that he tended for was Merlin's…trying to do for others what he would now no longer be able to do for Merlin. His apprentice's death had caused Gaius to age in a way that now his inner spirit matched his weary, old exterior. His will for living had diminished to the point where he now only wished to see the transition of the kingdom safely into Arthur's hands and then take his final journey, to join his kin in the other world.
The matters of the court were left to the one person who had maintained some sense of practicality in spite of all that had taken place. Even though Gwen was internally worn out and mourning for everyone's losses and her own, she knew that more important than being a Queen in name was to ensure that her people did not feel abandoned at this crucial juncture. Tirelessly, with the help of the knights and her old maidservant friends, as well as newfound villagers, she had made sure that supplies could be rationed while farmers could re-sow their crops. Camelot had gained a new influx of citizens – magicians, villagers from near and far, which was wonderful for the city's progress, but also placed an extra burden on their limited city borders. She was consulted in all land disputes, which she decided as fairly as she could, considering that there was high demand and short supply. In addition, she had recruited a group of volunteers to go into the countryside to help small towns and villages rebuild the damage that had been sustained under Morgause's rule. She had also had foresight that their enemies may attack when the kingdom was struggling to get to its feet, so she had sent Sir Lancelot with troops to patrol the borders. The truth was that she found it easier to forget her own troubles in looking after the others. At times, when she lay awake at night, she was tormented by the memories of their last hours with Merlin. She had been so distraught by Morgana's lifeless state that she had, at that time, been willing to do almost anythingto have her back…almost anything…but not this…never this. Sometimes she felt angry at Merlin…he had taken the choice out of all their hands, he had made a decision that had affected them so profoundly, and he had moved on…and now, it was the rest of them that had to live the remainder of their lives with Merlin's choice. Whenever Gwen felt negativity threatening to overwhelm her, she tried to remember simpler times…when they had been younger, more carefree…and somehow that helped her get through the day.
Arthur, meanwhile, had shut himself in his room and had refused to see anyone for three days. It was not that he was willfully abandoning his people – he knew their vulnerability and need for leadership at this time. However, he was also aware that with his brain and heart completely shell-shocked by the loss of his most trusted friend, he would be of no use to anyone in the outside world. And so he trusted his duties to the capable hands of Gwen, while for those three days he devoted to mourning his friend by pacing his chambers, and writing letters to Merlin that he knew would never reach him. Following this period of self-contained misery, he emerged only to walk aimlessly about in the city, stopping here and there, to help his subjects with their various tasks of rebuilding. Though he was able to somehow throw himself into physical labour without much difficulty, he could not yet take on the more cerebral task of leading his small nation forwards. He was still numb with the pain of his loss and the more he ventured out his chambers, the more he realized that Merlin would not appear. In response he worked even harder, putting long hours into building homes for the new arrivals into the city, or cleaning the rubble from the landing of the dragon Mordred in the courtyard, or carrying spare royal furniture to various homes, that Gwen had determined were no longer needed by the castle.
It was in the midst of one of these tasks that the last of Merlin's closest friends, Morgana, found him one afternoon. The presumed King of Camelot was in the castle courtyard, toiling under the hot sun, wiping the sweat from his brow as he chopped wood for timber.
Morgana had disappeared as soon as they had returned to Camelot after Merlin's demise. One moment they had all been walking slowly together to the sleeping quarters of the castle, and the next moment the party of three had become a party of two. Where she had gone, no one knew, but Arthur and Guinevere had been so occupied that neither of them had a chance to even contemplate sending a search party for her, though sometimes both of them would abruptly look up from their respective work, as if they had seen a dark-haired fairy out of the corner of their eyes.
It was well her return was just as sudden as her disappearance.
Exactly seven days from the end of the battle, Morgana had appeared at the city gates. There were whispers as people caught sight of her and some gasped, rushing to point her out to neighbours and friends. Many of the older residents of Camelot had seen the Lady Morgana many times before, of course, but they had never seen Morgana like this. There was something very different about her…she appeared almost ethereal. Clad in flowing robes of crisp white, her black flowing hair contrasted sharply with her pale skin and ivory gown. Why, to the naked eye, she almost resembled a fairy! It was from that moment on that the name of Morgana le Fay was informally bestowed upon her. It was a title that would be associated with her for generations to come…there was a subtle transformation about her even though she had only been away for a week…
…Time passed differently on the Isle of the Blessed. She had gone there in despair, looking for comfort and a means by which to bring Merlin back. But somehow, amongst the ruins, although the voices of sisters long gone spoke to her with soft reassurances, none offered a remedy or potion to reverse death.
Long hours went by. Morgana kept vigil in the old prayer hall, the walls crumbling around her, and wept. She wept for Merlin, for Mordred, for Morgause, for Uther, for her mother Nimueh. She wept for the losses Camelot had suffered, for the wounds Arthur had borne, for the pain Gwen had felt. Though but a day had passed, Morgana felt as though she had aged many years through the tears she shed.
At last at midnight, when her well of tears had run dry, she suddenly rose. Into her mind, the vision that Merlin had revealed to her through the crystal, the vision of the new Camelot swam into her view. And she realized that what she wept for was long gone…the hurts would fade with time. But if she continued to cry and do nothing, that glorious vision she had seen too would fade – would never exist!
The fear now remained that though this task of guarding the new future had somehow been entrusted to her…how could she have the knowledge, the wisdom, the power to be able to see it through?
Folding her hands and closing her eyes, she bent her head in prayer. Unaffected by nature, she stood as a statue in that open temple, the sky dark above her, winds howling, and clouds swirling. She prayed to the spirits of her sisters for some guidance.
And just when she thought no response would come, the voice of Lady Vivian seemed to shout in her ear. Morgana's knees buckled underneath her and she fell into a trance.
Morgana le Fay awoke the following morning, lying on the grass at the foot of the altar under a fine blue, sunny sky. Her old clothes had disappeared, and in their place she found herself wearing a simple white gown, made of thin cloud-like material, with long, flowing sleeves and in the folds of her skirt, she could just make out the feel of the crystal of Neathid against her legs. Morgana felt around her neck, just to be sure, and the Druid symbol Merlin had given her was still there, as her only ornament. Her messy braid from the night before had been disentangled, and her ebony hair now fell freely, with abandon, in waves over her pale shoulders.
Looking at her reflection in the small pool at her feet, Morgana saw looking back at her the terrible and wonderful beauty of the priestesses of the Old Religion. She understood.
Just as her clothes had been so mysteriously changed, so also Morgana's defeated attitude and confusion of the night before had been stripped from her. She rose to her feet with sudden clarity and vision.
She was by no means happy and her heart was heavy, but purpose had returned to her life…
Far and wide, Morgana journeyed. She visited nearly all parts of the kingdom, and close neighbours besides; from the nobles to the huntsmen, from great sorcerers who had come out of hiding to conjurers, cheap tricksters and those who dealt with black magic. She moved so fast that usually people did not see her, or if they did manage to catch a glimpse of her white dress gliding away, they would think that it was their imagination, or else a creature from the other world – a fairy. The generous fairy was well-liked, however, not like most other creatures of the other world, for wherever she went, she left behind her an inexplicable sense of hope.
She was quick to see and hear all around her, the gifts of her Sight aiding her in her quest. She saw much joy but also deep-seated pain and the prejudice of generations from both sides of magic and non-magic people had not disappeared with Arthur's noble resolution. The kingdom was starting to rebuild, she could see this clearly, but there was also an underlying thread of discord that needed to be addressed…
And so one week later she had come to Arthur's doorstep…armed with her knowledge, but trembling inside. Regardless of her trepidation, she walked purposefully through the winding streets, not stopping to acknowledge the awe, admiration and curiosity of the busy citizens of Camelot, directly to the courtyard to stand in front of her foster brother with dignity.
She waited patiently for Arthur to look up, for she knew that he had realized she was in front of him, but he did not stop chopping. He watched her from beneath his burning lashes, for he, in spite of all that had passed, had been worried for her, and tears always seemed just beneath the surface these days, though he controlled them with great effort. Arthur took in her new appearance and a spark of curiosity did alight within him, for the new Morgana looked formidable and yet more approachable than she ever had before. Why had she changed her appearance – for what purpose?
However, he could not look her in the eyes because no matter what he had said to himself, in his darkest moments, he could not put away the thoughts that it was for her that his dearest friend Merlin had died…Arthur had not forgotten that her death in the first place had happened in order to protect himself, and he had to admit that he had felt almost relieved to be able to forgive her wholeheartedly for everything, when she lay dead in his arms. But then she had come back and…suddenly the forgiveness did not come so easily. He felt guilty for blaming her, but a part of him blamed her nonetheless…
Morgana realized after a few minutes of silent chopping that he was not going to acknowledge her verbally, so she decided to speak her piece and leave the rest to his judgment.
"Arthur…I am sorry I left without telling you after…" She swallowed, finding that she could not say Merlin's name. "I am sorry I left at such a crucial time. You and Guinevere…everyone in the kingdom has bonded together to establish a new era. Things are moving, ever forward, but…"
Arthur paused in his chopping, which told her that he was listening, though he still did not look up at her.
"I know it must seem that I abandoned you once again…but that is far from the truth. I decided I could best be of use to you by finding out as much as I could about the true status of your kingdom. Not by reports of spies, or what village headsmen are saying. But I knew you would want to know what was happening in the lives of the common man…particularly one who has magic." Morgana raised her head proudly. Now that she had entered into a rhythm of speaking, it became easier. Neither of them had to acknowledge the awkwardness between them if they were able to instead focus on what had to be done. "I went everywhere, used my magic to separate out your peoples' fears, their anxieties in order to understand them."
The King was surprised, and set down his axe. He had known in theory that not all people would be happy with the war won, but he had been so busy contemplating his own sorrow, he had not thought to dwell on that of others. He finally looked at his oldest friend, and for the first time since the end of the war, he opened up his mind, and listened.
Morgana continued, encouraged by Arthur's attentiveness. "Despite your courage and hard work…there is still more to be done. Gwen has been managing affairs well…very well indeed! But Arthur, do not forget that it was you who drew the sword from the stone, and promised this land a new beginning. And it is you who will be blamed if this should be a false start. It was you who made a promise to the magicians that their voices would be heard. That magic would be given a place in the new Camelot. Unfortunately, because of the lack of communication from the court, there have been whisperings…and questions being asked about the Court Sorcerer's sudden and unexpected death." Morgana suddenly found that she was finding it hard to control her emotions in this subject, and before they could overwhelm her, she quickly said what she had come to say.
"Just because you have lost your herald of magic, do not abandon the dream of having a peaceful kingdom where magic and non-magic can coexist peacefully. He gave his life for me…and I cannot accept…I refuse to accept that he died in vain!"
…The very next day, the King unexpectedly held his first meeting in the Council Chambers. Morgana was summoned to the courtroom and before all was anointed Court Sorceress, to her completely shock. Though Arthur barely met her eyes during the brief announcement, it was clear that he had awoken. There was a new flash of determination in his eyes, and a steadiness in his grasp of her hand as he held it up to the cheers of the courtiers, that told her Arthur would not accept that Merlin had died in vain either. And after that, events began to happen very fast…
The rich, flowing deep violet robes of Guinevere swept gracefully over the freshly scrubbed tiles in the Great Hall.
Today, the Great Hall was filled to the very brink. Children were placed on their parent's shoulders so they could get a clear view and every face was alight with excitement to see the coronation of their beloved Prince Arthur, the boy the kingdom had seen grow up before their very eyes…but it wasn't just for Arthur that the crowd was there. The masses had arrived to see a humble maidservant ascend to one of the very highest positions in the land…something that no one would ever have dreamed of a few years ago, but this was a new era for Camelot…and this day was a beacon for the world to show them that anything was possible.
The crowd parted to allow Guinevere passageway through the centre aisle, where at the end, the presumptive King of Camelot awaited. Beside him, the trusty court physician stood somberly, in his hands a velvet cushion, upon which rested the two crowns of Camelot.
As Gwen reached the foot of the platform, she waited for her oldest friend, Morgana, who had been standing at the front of the silent crowd.
The two ladies of the court ascended the few stairs together. They made a beautiful contrast. The Queen-to-be was dressed in purple and gold, with intricate beading and embroidery sewn by the loving hands of her friends. While beside her, the dark-haired Seer of the complexion of snow was clad in a simply-cut white gown.
It was here in front of all these witnesses that the once first lady of Camelot, Lady Morgana, graciously gave way to the new lady of the court. Their positions may have changed over the years, but there was no doubt that these women shared a friendship that would endure any trials to come.
As Arthur held out his hand to help Gwen up the final stair, she felt a little nervous…even though for so long she had carried the duties of Queen. But to make it official in front of all these people? It was more than a little overwhelming. However, as she placed her palm on her growing stomach, as she often did when feeling anxious, she knew she was not alone, and she gave her husband a small smile.
The King and Queen of Camelot stood side by side and faced their kingdom. Slowly, they kneeled as the Court Sorceress gently took the freshly polished crowns from Gaius' outstretched arms and placed them on each of their heads.
"By the power bestowed upon me by your grace and that of your people, I pronounce you King and Queen of Camelot," Morgana said, her crystal-clear voice heard easily over the growing applause. "May your reign be long and glorious. May your people born both high and low live in prosperity and friendship, able to achieve anything they may set their minds to. May your dreams and ours come to fruition!"
As the King and Queen rose, the kingdom all at once knelt at their feet.
At last, Merlin's dream was complete.
"There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law."
Arthur cleared his throat and the chatter around the round table ceased.
"Thank you, dear friends. To those that have not been here before, we welcome you to our third meeting at this table." He looked around at the knights that were representing the districts under their protection. There were also commoners present from regions of the city as well as the outlying villages to speak for their neighbours.
The large room was well lit by lanterns, and though it was a dark and dismal night outside, the atmosphere in the hall was cheery and hopeful. The round table, true to its name, was an extremely large, circular monument that had been carved out of an old, sturdy oak tree. It could seat up to fifty people at a time, though today the number was a modest twenty. Into the table, the woodcarver had etched the names of Camelot's great knights, had drawn scenes from the battle of Camlann, and had honoured Merlin and the dragon with beautiful poetry. It was a symbol of all Camelot stood for, and Arthur could not have been more proud to sit as an equal with his friends, around this masterpiece of democracy.
On Arthur's right was Queen Guinevere, and on his left was the court sorceress, Morgana le Fay. He smiled at Gwen, wanting to once again give his beloved Queen the credit whole-heartedly for this incredible feat, as well as to provide some background information to the new citizens who had joined them this week. "It was my Queen Guinevere's idea to craft a table where all are equal, where each citizen has a voice. Those new here have come at the behest of the Queen. Knights of Camelot, this has been a new initiative. As you know, in the past two weeks, we have been mostly discussing military strategy here. However, the Queen has been running town meetings this past week, in which each citizen has been able raise their concerns and by a majority vote, each town or district has put forth a candidate to represent them at the table."
Guinevere smiled shyly; her confidence in the value of her ideas had forced away any kind of fear she had felt initially in unintentionally overstepping her boundaries. She knew she was bringing a unique perspective to the table…because she had seen how the majority of ordinary citizens lived, having been one herself.
"Our usual way of conducting this meeting is by going around the table and allowing everyone a chance to speak. If you disagree with anything that has been said, please wait till your turn and you will be given a full opportunity to be heard. Please remember that the decisions taken at this table have the power to affect many lives – so let no decision be taken lightly and without due consideration that it is the correct one."
The new visitors to the table listened more intently than ever, feeling both privileged and nervous about the responsibility that had been placed on their shoulders.
Arthur smiled a little at the serious faces before bringing up the matter which he had given much thought to in the past weeks. "My concern for today involves the outlying territories and disputed lands that have been claimed, but not cared for by Cenred. I would like the knights specifically in charge of the district near to Ealdor speak about whether it is possible for Camelot to take this region under our wing. This is especially of interest to me because our late Court Sorcerer would have wanted his village to be well-looked after, and in the past, this area has been sorely neglected."
One of the new knights, Sir Sagremor, nodded solemnly. Arthur folded his hands and turned to Guinevere, as it was her turn to speak next. The others around the table too looked upon their Queen with respect for undertaking so many useful projects, even though she was due to deliver the heir to Camelot's throne any day now.
Softly, Guinevere spoke, addressing all those present. "It is my wish that any person from Camelot should be able to bring their issues directly to the King. This prevents delay in a solution being found. This is why I am glad you have all accepted the invitation to be here today, so thank you for your time." She smiled at the newcomers, and her humility made everyone present look upon her with even more affection than before. "In addition, one of my new goals is to honour the court physician, Gaius, who passed away this past month." Gwen's voice had become sad, but she continued without hesitation. "He was a dear friend of mine and of all his patients, and it is my wish that a school for healing be established in his name. Worthy students from across the lands should be trained there without incurring a cost to themselves or their families."
She paused, remembering Gaius' loyal dedication to his art and his long years of service to the court. Since Merlin's death, Gaius' health had deteriorated quickly and Gwen knew that the loss of his foster son had been the last blow to Gaius, who in his lifetime had faced so much pain and death. Gwen wanted to honour the man that had taught her so much, not just about healing, but about life with his patience and loyalty. Gwen looked across at Morgana. "Morgana, I would appreciate your help in this as well as magic plays a great part in healing, and there are many healers trained in magical arts who may want to be part of this project, and become teachers?"
Morgana nodded gravely from the other side of Arthur and some magicians around the table yelled, "Hear, hear!"
And so on it went, round and round the table...the table that would go on to become synonymous with King Arthur's rule.
"Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range.
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change."
Arthur had his head bowed over piles of parchment but his head snapped up when the door softly creaked open. Immediately, he heard the pitter-patter of his beloved daughter's small feet as she pushed the door open further and ran into the room.
In her eagerness to see her father, she tripped over the carpet and fell face first, into the soft, well-worn rug. At once, she began to cry, more from shock than pain. In a panic, ever the protective father, Arthur jumped from the table and ran forward.
Before he could get there, Morgana, who had entered behind the toddler, had picked her up and straightened her on her feet. Arthur watched with concern as Morgana wiped away his daughter's tears and pinched her nose, causing the young girl to erupt into giggles.
Arthur smiled in relief and picked his precious daughter off the floor. From a distance, she was a miniature Guinevere, complete with bouncy, dark curls and a tanned complexion, though upon closer examination, her features were more similar to Arthur's, right down to her clear blue eyes.
Over his daughter's curly hair, he nodded to Morgana, who was regarding the father and daughter pair with a happy smile. She acknowledged his greeting with a corresponding incline of her head. Their communication had become quite efficient in the last two years, he felt.
Arthur walked around the desk, and after pointing out some clouds of different shapes through the window to the happy child in his arms, he sat down with her on his lap at his desk. The little girl immediately reached for the quill her father had been using and she began to prod at the parchment vigourously.
Arthur quickly pushed away the most important documents he had been working on, laughing. His daughter may have possessed his wife's looks, but she had inherited a streak of mischief that he was certain she got from his side of the family.
"No, Emryssa! You'll spoil your father's work," Morgana said patiently. "Why don't you tell your father where you went today?"
Unperturbed, Emryssa calmly turned the quill upon her father and drew an ink line down his cheek. Thinking that she had caused enough damage for now, Arthur gently stole the quill away.
"Dada…fishies!" Emryssa said excitedly, trying to explain to her father just how exciting her day had been. Her vocabulary had been rapidly expanding, but unfortunately for her, she was still not at the stage where she could form full sentences.
Luckily, Morgana came to her rescue. "I took her down to the fountain in the courtyard. We even saw some of the little fish," Morgana clarified. The fountain was yet another of Guinevere's initiatives in Camelot. She had seen to it that a little fountain was installed in the courtyard, where the sword in the stone had once stood, for the enjoyment of the public. Many children came each evening, especially in the summer, to play and cool off in the waters.
Morgana's arms were folded, as she took pleasure in her goddaughter's mischievousness, for now Emryssa had taken to ruffling the papers in front of her on the desk.
"That's enough, now, Emryssa," Arthur said sternly. Surprised at her father's tone, the toddler looked up at him with big eyes. Immediately, Arthur felt immensely guilty for chastising his daughter, but Gwen recently had been insisting that it would not do for Arthur to be excessively lenient with his daughter, while Gwen always had to be the firm one.
Arthur smiled at his daughter despite himself because Emryssa's surprised face was the very picture of innocence. He was grateful that Morgana had taken Emryssa outside to play as her nurses and Guinevere were busy redecorating Emryssa's nursery, which had once been Arthur's. The carpet in the nursery had been riddled with mites from disuse and the wallpaper had given off a distinct musty smell. Until now, Emryssa had occupied a cot in her parent's large chambers, but now that she was starting to sleep well throughout the duration of the night, they felt that she was ready to move into her own room.
Arthur held Emryssa tighter to him. He could not help but be protective of his daughter. The day that Emryssa was born was a blur in Arthur's mind. In the days leading to Gwen's delivery, Arthur had been worried to his stomach. The knowledge that his own mother had died during his childbirth made Arthur anxious that something might happen to Gwen unexpectedly. Fortunately, the midwife handled everything in stride and coolly informed Arthur that he was doing more damage with his anxious rambling than he was helping Gwen, and so, she politely told him to wait outside. Many long minutes later, he was allowed inside where a tired, but smiling, Gwen handed him a little bundle. When he looked upon the tiny, crinkled face with wispy curls, an emotion that he had never felt before rose up in Arthur.
From that moment on, their child meant everything to him and somehow, naming her after Merlin had helped to fill some of the void since his friend's passing. It had been Morgana who had suggested the name Emryssa as Emrys was Merlin's title in the Old Religion, and he was grateful that she had somehow known that. It seemed to fit their child perfectly. Gwen and he had been arguing soon after his daughter's birth about what to name her, for Arthur had wanted to bestow the name of Merlin to honour his friend, and though Gwen appreciated his sentiment, she had thought that it was a ridiculous name for a girl…and when he had suggested Merlina, she had given him a venomous look. He had been saved by Morgana's suggestion and Arthur recalled that that was the first time in a couple of years that he had been able to genuinely smile at his foster sister.
Things between them had changed enough so that Morgana felt comfortable enough to sit on the other side of his desk now as she pulled out a roll of parchment to peruse through. Part of her position as Court Sorceress involved investigating cases of improper magic use, as here and there, a magician in the realm would use magic to give himself or herself an unfair advantage. It was strictly forbidden in the kingdom for magicians to enchant the minds of others and Morgana had received just such a report from the northern village of Carmathen. Sighing, she pulled out a quill of her own as she began to draft a letter to the village leader. She knew that she may have to make the journey to the village herself, as much of the time, the rebellious magicians would not change their ways until they saw her in the flesh, and how seriously Camelot's government took their offences.
Arthur, meanwhile, pulled out a wooden dragon toy from beneath his desk and handed it to Emryssa. With pudgy hands, she pulled it from her father's hands and as Arthur placed her down on the carpet beside him, she contently settled down to play with her toy. Taking advantage of the silence, Arthur turned back to his stacks of parchment. Where to build a new well in the city…and to whom should be entrusted the task of distributing crop to the outlying villages?
Soon, both he and Morgana were engrossed in their work. Neither of them ever spoke during these quiet afternoons, but somehow, each took great comfort in the other's presence as they grew closer in mind, if not yet in spirit.
"Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do"
In had been ten years since the war, and slowly, what was once a dream was turning into reality.
Magic and non-magic folk were living peacefully side-by-side in Camelot. The Court Sorceress, of course, had played an instrumental role in overseeing that magic was reintroduced into the kingdom smoothly. Morgana had also brought the Druids back from exile and they had served a great role in the peacekeeping efforts between the magicians and other, non-magic folk. The Druids, with their great knowledge of nature, helped to teach the non-magic citizens about various herbs and gardening techniques. Similarly, the people who had lived in the kingdom their whole lives taught the magicians things that could only be learnt from experience…such as where the best land was to grow crops and where to irrigate water from for agriculture. As a result, slowly, both parties began to learn that they could learn from each other and more importantly…trust each other.
When minor skirmishes or disagreements arose, whether it was within the kingdom or with neighbouring nations, Morgana would go with Arthur's blessing to act as mediator between the two parties. At first, Arthur had rushed to resolve every complaint and disagreement in person, but as time went by, he was needed more and more to attend matters in court. Perhaps it was just as well that Arthur was so busy, for it truly allowed Morgana a chance to come into her own. It was as though Morgana was born and trained just for this role. She had an uncanny ability to determine what the root of the problem was and a kind way of seeing the situation from every party's perspective. As a result of her diplomacy and tactful guidance, many conflicts were avoided. Perhaps it was because she had the ability to See or perhaps it was just that her experience in life had taught her that people do not behave irrationally without reason…
Similarly, on the other front, lands had been uniting under Camelot's flag and slowly, the kingdom was growing. Nearby lands had seen that Camelot was flourishing under King Arthur's rule, and wanted to take advantage of this newfound prosperity. He had established laws to ensure that no one would be treated unfairly and those that chose to join Camelot's banner were not disadvantaged in any way. Instead, these smaller lands had much to gain as uniting with Camelot meant open trading boundaries and access to knowledge from scholars that resided in Camelot. There were no demands that the kings and lords of the other kingdoms had to give up their titles and claims. It was only asked by King Arthur that if a land chose to join Camelot, they had to pledge allegiance to help each other in times of need. While Arthur wanted to avoid war at all costs, occasionally he did have to ride out to battle, to protect the lives of those who were being suppressed under tyranny. And it was particularly in times like these that having allegiances with neighbouring lands was of paramount importance.
As a sign of respect, Arthur began to be called 'High King' by the other nations, though he never requested for this title of honour. After some years, when the King realized that there was no dissuading the people from addressing him as thus, he humbly vowed that he would be worthy of such a title…
They knew it not at the time, but the foundation stones for Albion were being laid.
"Then her cheek was pale and thinner than should be for one so young,
And her eyes on all my motions with a mute observance hung."
It was a relaxing afternoon for the usually busy Queen Guinevere. The drawing room was bathed in the warm glow of autumn; she leaned back in a rocking chair as she worked on knitting a warm scarf for Emryssa as winter was swiftly approaching. She was having an internal debate over which colour she should knit the Pendragon symbol in when her serenity was interrupted by a door being thrown open. Two very sweaty and grumpy faces appeared and Gwen prepared herself for the usual, predictable outburst.
Arthur threw his shield to one side of the room and it made a loud clattering sound as it hit the wall. With just as much vigour, Emryssa plopped herself into a chair directly in front of her mother, her arms crossed defiantly. Her face was drawn into a scowl that reminded Gwen of her dear husband.
This was a familiar sight to Gwen, who did not stop her knitting. She merely noted her angry husband, poring himself a glass of water, out of the corner of one eye, and internally rolled her eyes when he banged the jug down with such force that the water splashed out of the jug and onto his shirt. In front of her, she waited for her daughter to begin her tirade.
It did not take long.
"Mother, you must make Father understand. I am not a child anymore! He just wants me to learn drills in the battlefield until my arms fall off…and I am not even arguing against that. It's just that between these endless drills and my tutoring…I have no time for anything else," Emryssa began fiery, her voice high-pitched and full of energy, trying to persuade her mother to agree with her.
Gwen patiently waited for her daughter to finish speaking even though this was a conversation Emryssa brought up nearly every day.
"And even if I do, I am trapped in this place! Because if I choose to leave, I am followed by guards. Everywhere! Even if somebody wanted to talk to me, they are afraid their head will get chopped off!" Emryssa puffed, her stubborn jaw resembling Arthur's.
Gwen did not blink an eye. "We don't decapitate people here anymore, dear," she said, trying to placate her daughter.
Emryssa shook her head angrily and ran her hands through her curls, which had already been in disarray following her training session. They stuck out at different angles, but she didn't care. Didn't anyone see that she didn't want to be a perfect princess?
Arthur, who had said nothing so far, came and stood behind Gwen's chair. In the past year or so, Arthur and Emryssa had begun to rub shoulders more and more. He did not know whether it was her age or something else…but he was frustrated that she did not understand him…that she did not see why she had to learn all these things. Some in his council had suggested that if Arthur and Gwen were to have another child…a male heir, he should ascend to the throne ahead of Emryssa. Arthur had firmly put his foot down at this suggestion and stated that he did not think that his daughter would be any less capable than a man on the throne of Camelot. And since Gwen had not conceived any more children, the matter had been simplified somewhat. Still, Arthur knew that if there were whisperings of doubt in his council chambers, then there must be doubt outside of the kingdom too asking about whether Emryssa would be able to rule the kingdom effectively. After all, Camelot's history had recorded only one female ruler and that was Morgause…she clearly had not given the kingdom much to celebrate about.
Arthur just did not want to give anyone a chance to criticize his daughter…not now, not ever. He wanted to train her and prepare her for her future in the best way possible to ensure that no one ever could have any reason to complain.
Why couldn't she just see his perspective like a reasonable person?
Trying to remind himself of the end goal, Arthur forced his voice into a reasonable tone. "It isn't as if you don't know any people here, Emryssa. You have plenty of friends," Arthur said. "What about Galahad?" Arthur suggested, knowing that Galahad was one of Emryssa's training partners during sword fighting. Truth be told, Arthur was quite pleased with Lancelot and Elaine's son, who was very close to Emryssa in age. Much to the surprise of no one, Lancelot and Elaine had quietly wed a few weeks after the end of the Great War and shortly after, Galahad had been born. The two children from a young age had spent lots of time together, but unlike Emryssa, Galahad had been the most obedient, well-behaved young toddler imaginable. At present, he had just begun to serve as a squire and he seemed to be a reliable, noble lad to Arthur…exactly the type of friend he wanted for his headstrong daughter.
"Galahad," Emryssa said through gritted teeth. "Could you find a more boring person for me to spend time with? I have never seen anyone adhere to the rulebooks as if their life depends on it. He follows me everywhere…" She cast her father a suspicious look. "And I know that you are behind it."
"I'm just trying to protect you, Emryssa," Arthur replied, feeling slightly guilty that he had also asked Galahad to keep an eye on Emryssa. Of course, Emryssa had a guard who accompanied her into the town, just as a precaution, but recently Emryssa had taken to giving the poor guard, Ector, the slip and taking off own her own…this was why Arthur had recruited Galahad in the first place. Arthur did not know that Galahad had taken his King's words to heart and had followed his duties very seriously, following his charge everywhere she went, even while she wandered within the safety of the castle.
"That's not the point," Emryssa retorted. She turned to her mother for support. "Can you just speak with him? You grew up without being followed every minute. And you turned out fine! Aunt Morgana told me that if I want to help people like she does, I have to first understand and experience the joys and suffering of all the people…not just the castle people. I want to learn about magic and dragons…and spells." Emryssa's face was flushed and she was breathless, the prospect of magic had always entranced her. "You said you named me after Merlin, and I bet if he was alive, he would have been on my side. Just like Aunt Morgana is," she finished.
Arthur tried to force his voice over her angry outburst. "But you are not going to be Morgana. You are my heir…and so, you must learn what you need to so you can take my place! I don't want people to say I made you heir to the throne simply because you are my daughter! I want people to say I made you heir because you were worthy. Birth is not everything Emryssa – actions and choices tell where your character truly lies. There are responsibilities, my child, that you cannot run from. It doesn't mean that you are not still helping people." His voice softened somewhat, having expressed his inner fears to her, hoping that she would gain some perspective.
Grinding her teeth, Emryssa fumed in anger. She felt that his way of helping did not seem to be doing much…reading papers and running meetings! While Morgana…she had journeyed through the kingdom, and when she returned, what great stories she had! She would spend nights with the poor, sleeping in a hay stable…she offered her cloak to the cold, down-trodden people and shared her food with hungry mouths. That was helping people – that was how Emryssa wanted to be! Not some high-born on a throne with a glittering crown, doling laws out that everyone had to follow.
Enraged at her father, at her mother, and at the position she was born into, she yelled back, "But I don't want to be like you!" With that, she stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Arthur sighed and dropped into the chair that Emryssa had just vacated. He knew that his daughter was young and being stubborn, but his face plainly showed his hurt at her words.
"Don't worry, Arthur," Gwen said reassuringly, reaching over to pat her husband's arm. "I am sure you felt like this too when you were growing up." Guinevere had the sense to know that this was a phase that Emryssa was passing through, but her husband…he didn't understand that and he was now looking desolately at the carpet. For the hundredth time, Gwen repeated her advice to Arthur. "Maybe you should give her a little more freedom. She is almost fifteen now and she does have the skills to defend herself."
Arthur said nothing, knowing that Gwen was right. Yet, he could not just let her do whatever she wanted and give her free reign…it was better if she was angry with him as long as she was safe…because the alternative was just too painful. And perhaps in time she would understand why he set such high standards for her.
They were the same standards he held himself to.
"Love took up the glass of Time, and turn'd it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands."
Morgana le Fay lay back in the grass, breathing in the heady scent of the magical shrubs that grew around the lake of Avalon. She came here often, sometimes to be alone…sometimes to not be alone. The grass prickled her arms, but she didn't move, still staring at the blue sky which was sprinkled with clouds here and there.
She knew Arthur came here as well, but she had never crossed paths with him, and for that she was grateful. This was a place that she came to think and just be, and running into Arthur at this sacred place…her stomach flopped uncomfortably. Though the distance between them had closed somewhat, Merlin's death was still a subject they steered clear of. She was never completely certain of what he thought of her in relation to Merlin's death and a part of her did not want to ever find out…because if he blamed her for it…she didn't think that she could stand it. Their relationship was finally on the mend and for now, that was enough for her.
This place did strange things to her. Occasionally, she felt comforted by coming here and at other times, more restless than before. Sometimes, the water lapping up at the shore on some days taunted at her that they had claimed Merlin while she was still here…still alone. Other days, the water exuded a presence she felt had to be Merlin's and that enveloped her into a peaceful calm.
As she twirled a strand of her hair, she smiled blissfully up at the sky.
Today was different…because today, she had not come empty-handed. From her robes, she pulled out the crystal which had given her life…and her magic back. For so many years, she had kept the crystal safe…out of her sight, but never out of her mind.
She shrugged off her outer robes and sat up, holding the crystal in her palm. It glittered innocently in the light, the instrument that had caused so much suffering and pain…but along with those tragic stories, it was also a symbol of victory, for it was the tool that had tipped the scales in the favour of Arthur.
As she peered into the crystal, she acknowledged that it had always symbolized to her the power of bringing him back. She had almost fooled herself for years that she could…if only she had learnt to wield the power of the crystal. The idea that he could always come back had fuelled her in the beginning and she had felt that if she only did what he asked of her, that there would be no doubt of his return.
But she would fool herself no longer…as long as she held onto a shred of hope, she could never fully start living for herself…
Aloud, to herself, she said with a certain kind of finality, "He is never coming back."
There…she had said it. And, finally…finally…she admitted a truth that was long due. It was as if a huge weight fell off her shoulders and she breathed deeply in relief. This had been a long time coming, but she had been afraid to let go…because that would be saying goodbye for the last time.
Over the years, there had been reminders of him everywhere. Just today, in court, she had glimpsed into the crowd and saw a tall, dark-haired man with streaks of grey in his hair and fine lines around his eyes as he smiled at her. For a moment she had been convinced that it was him, but her hopes had been shattered yet again. That had been the final straw…she vowed in that moment that she would do it…today. She resolved to no longer hold onto the crystal…for she could not stand feeling the disappointment yet again.
With determination and a surge of energy, she stood up and flung the crystal into the water as hard as she could. She could barely make out where it landed, the splash in the water was hardly visible from where she was standing. But she knew this was the right thing to do…though she had protected the crystal for all these years, there was always a fear that it would pass into the wrong hands. And now, it was gone…just like Merlin was…to a land where she could not follow…at least, not yet…
Panting, not from the effort of throwing the crystal, but from the rush of adrenaline that came with suddenly taking control of her life for the first time, she felt free. She was no longer bound to the responsibilities because he had told her to. She wanted to do it…she wanted to help Arthur succeed for her own sake.
There would always be an empty space at court…and in her heart that no one could fill. But she had now learnt to live with that emptiness; she was no longer trying to fill his shoes in court with her presence…and nor was she trying to fill the void in her own heart with a crystal.
"Yet I doubt not thro' the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widen'd with the process of the suns."
The round table was noisier than it had ever been before. The table was filled to its full capacity and some were on their feet, trying to make their voices heard.
Impatiently, Arthur banged his fist on the table to silence everyone. He raised his hands as everyone calmed down, and turned to their King, knowing that in all these years, he had never led them astray.
"I know what Sir Galahad has related to us is a shock," Arthur said to the worried faces. "It is unacceptable that Gendrel has invaded the lands of our good friend King Bayard and has besieged his kingdom and taken Bayard captive. Mercia has long been our ally and ever since the joining of our kingdoms, has been one of our most dependable friends."
The people around the table nodded earnestly. It had been grave news indeed to hear that Bayard's lands had been taken over. There had been many years of peace in Camelot and the prospect of entering into war now to protect one of their allies was a frightening and foreign one.
"I am outraged that Gendrel would think Mercia so weak and unprotected that he could overpower them so easily and cause so much suffering to their peaceful land without provocation," Arthur said loudly, emphasizing that though Camelot had been understanding, it would stand for injustice.
Everyone at the table nodded and began to speak again all at once, enthused by their leader's words.
"At least we are in agreement that something needs to be done," Arthur said over the din, in a voice that was commanding, and yet in control.
On his right, however, Gwen looked anxious, afraid of what the verdict would be for her own selfish reasons. She had been feeling light-headed all day and could not help but feeling that it was a bad omen. She was not as young as she used to be, and she was not sure whether or not she would be able to face yet another trial of war.
Emryssa sat by her mother, new to the proceedings at her father's request, and noting her mother's pale face, she took her hand under the table comfortingly. Her mother looked into her eyes and tried to give her a small smile, but Emryssa could see tears swimming in her eyes. As a Queen, Gwen had to put on a brave front and she steadied herself by closing her eyes and taking a deep breath - when she turned back to face the table, her eyes were clear and her face impassive.
While everyone was clamoring to speak, Sir Galahad folded his arms and leaned back, patiently waiting for his King's order. He had grown into a handsome, thoughtful young man – with dark locks of hair and brown eyes, there was no doubt that he was Lancelot's son.
"Silence," Arthur said in a powerful voice. "We will not get anywhere if we not give each other a chance to speak." He turned to the young knight. "Galahad, you have been in this outpost near Mercia for nearly two years now. Speak freely."
Lancelot sat two seats down from his son and the now grey-haired knight looked proudly at his son. To him, it was as though Galahad embodied the hopes of a new generation where knights were made not by birth, but by deed.
"Your majesty," Galahad began in a soft voice. "I think it is appalling that Gendrel has dishonored you as High King. Out of his own jealousy for the power that you have gained through friendship, he has caused devastation to an entire kingdom." Galahad had seen the citizens of Mercia during his outpost; the few that he had run into had precious little food, for Gendrel was rerouting all supplies to the capital city, for his own men. "Everywhere I traveled, people called out to me, begging for aid. I think there is only one choice. We must gather an army and ride upon Mercia," Galahad finished, now more sure of himself, upon seeing the proud face of his father nod in agreement.
At once, everyone erupted in speech. War! It was an alarming concept during these peaceful times.
Galahad stood up, trying to relay to the others that he did not want to rush into war, but only to defend the basic rights of the people of Mercia. "Please…let me finish. Perhaps we may still be able to avoid war, and it is my sincere hope that will be the case, but we should have an army…as an option to protect the people of Mercia…and our people should our talks with Gendrel be misunderstood and he turns his sights to Camelot."
The young son of Lancelot's was one of the finest that had been knighted in recent years, but he had never seen war himself…only heard the stories of the Great War from his mother at bedtime, but that had been enough for him to know that war was not a platform for seeking glory or fame…there was nothing heroic about rushing off to battle and leaving one's family in doubt and despair. This was why, to Galahad, Arthur was a true hero, because he only went to war for the sake of others…to protect and defend, never on the offensive…and the number of battles Arthur had avoided by diplomacy…why, this was truly what embodied knighthood in Galahad's eyes.
"True, Galahad," the King agreed. He turned and looked around the table at the solemn faces that were beginning to register the weight of the King's words. "Begin to gather men from all districts. We will first send a small envoy and try to appease Gendrel." Arthur paused before saying, "If not…we will have to resort to war."
At Arthur's side, Gwen shuddered involuntary while Emryssa silently observed the goings-on, not sure what to make of either her old training partner's well-spoken account of events or her father's decision.
But, to Gwen this was a familiar feeling…a feeling she felt more than fifteen years ago and she not could help but think that the amassing of an army would surely mean war. She was concerned for the people of Mercia, yes, but…she turned to Arthur. For the first time, she saw just how many wrinkles he had and how his hair was now more grey than blond. He was barely forty years of age now, but the stresses of running a kingdom had taken a toll on him. He was not getting any younger…how much more could he take? Gwen did not think that she would be able to bear to find out the answer to that question.
"Arthur, please…" she said softly so no one else at the table would hear.
"Gwen, you know that I would wish for any other way…but if people are starving and dying, I will not turn a blind eye," Arthur said gently, staring straight ahead, not meeting her eyes.
Gwen said nothing but with pleading eyes, she tried to convey her foreboding. Something was telling her that Arthur should not go…that he should stay with her.
"I remember one that perish'd: sweetly did she speak and move:
Such a one do I remember, whom to look at was to love."
Arthur could not stand the silence…the cold, unpersonal feeling of the quiet. The finality of it. It reminded him that he was alone.
A few months ago, the primary concern of Arthur's life had revolved around Gendrel and the potential war. Fortunately for his kingdom and Camelot, that issue had been avoided and Gendrel had negotiated his terms with Arthur. Instead, it was the unexpected news that Arthur had had to face upon return that rendered him lost. He had been dealt a blow that was far worse than he could have ever imagined.
Arthur sat with his head in his hands as he did now many evenings. The room was dark and the shadow of the round table could barely be seen. Why he came here night after night he did not know, but this was where he felt her presence most strongly because she had been instrumental in creating this table…and what the table stood for represented everything in Camelot.
Now, it was not she who sat beside him, but a single rose upon the table at Guinevere's place symbolizing her presence…that she would always be there in spirit.
It was a small comfort to Arthur…not to feel her warmth, not to smell her scent…not to hear her voice…how could a single rose compete with the memory of his love?
Arthur would continue to blame himself no matter what anyone had told him…for so many reasons.
They hadn't thought it possible…considering that she was nearing forty. But there were strange symptoms…and finally Gwen went to the court physician.
When the court physician informed her of the reason for her vague symptoms, she was elated. Later that night, when, in the privacy of their chamber she told Arthur that she was pregnant once again, he had felt extremely surprised and happy…but there was also a shadow of trepidation. Her being older presented with obvious problems and she admitted that even the court healer had said that it was rare for someone her age to deliver a baby…but it was not unheard of. It was possible…but the situation simply presented with more dangers.
While Arthur had been battling nightmares from then on, Gwen was overjoyed and showed no signs of concern. She cut back slightly on her royal duties, but still heard none of the warnings of her physician, of Morgana, of Arthur, telling her to rest more and work less…until six months into the pregnancy when she started feeling more and more weak. She was confined to her bed from then on and Morgana spent day and night with her, caring for her every need and giving her news from the outside world. Often, late into the night, a light could be seen flickering in the Queen's chambers where Morgana would be poring over Gaius' old medicinal books, trying to find a spell to help Gwen.
Meanwhile, all of Guinevere's social causes and castle duties were completely being handled by Emryssa, who was confused by what was going on around her. Whether to be joyous in anticipation of a younger brother or sister with whom she could share her life…or to succumb to the doubt, that clearly her father and her godmother had become party to, whether they wished her to know it, or not. She was unsure of what would be expected of her once the sibling was born…but more than that, she was worried her mother's health. She had the sense to know that her mother was far more ill than anyone let on, but no one had wanted to divulge the details and for the first time in her life, instead of being defiant and making life difficult for those around her, she accepted the situation and went about her duties responsibly.
With each passing day, Arthur became more and more terrified, but he tried to shield his daughter from his fears and told Morgana to do the same. The Court Sorceress followed her foster brother's orders against her better judgement…Morgana did not understand how protecting Emryssa at this moment would make anything easier in the long term, but she went along with Arthur, because her mind was too clouded by worry for Gwen. She tried to See into the future for Gwen, but her inner sight was hazy…she reasoned correctly that it was likely because she was too involved in this matter to use her Seer abilities properly.
That was when news had arrived from Mercia that Gendrel refused to speak with any envoys except the King of Camelot. Arthur was torn – if he refused to go, Gendrel could potentially unleash war upon his kingdom and cause pain and suffering for thousands…but his heart did not listen to his mind…for its every beat was focused on Guinevere's struggles.
But that evening when he went to speak with Gwen, he found her to be in much better spirits than she had been in the past weeks. She was even sitting up and some colour had returned to her cheeks. She and Morgana were laughing about an old joke…something about how Arthur had been a prat in his youth…
…She told him to go to Mercia. She reasoned that Gendrel was willing to meet with Arthur and therefore, he too, must want to avoid war. If he didn't go, it would be seen as an outright act of disrespect. Besides, she had told him that she was feeling much better that day and Mercia was so closeby that he would never be more than a day's ride away…as Arthur's silhouette disappeared from her chambers, Gwen wondered whether she had done the right thing. It was true that her body felt better than it had in weeks, but her mind was still heavy. Yet, she had decided that she would never be able to live with herself if a war had been started on her account and so had done what any good Queen would do…chosen her peoples over herself…
Arthur rode away with a heavy heart. Many hours and long meetings later, Arthur resolved the issues with Gendrel. Though Arthur had to concede some of his borders to prevent war, Gendrel was willing to leave Mercia and return to his northern lands. For Arthur, this was enough and he hurriedly drafted the treaty and signed it.
The following morning, Arthur made his way back to Camelot when the messenger intercepted them. He knew that the news was bad the moment he saw his face. The King rode home in a haze, returning to find Emryssa and Morgana sobbing…
…His beautiful and much loved wife, lay peaceful and serenely on her bed
In years to come, Arthur would regret that he had not been there for her when it happened…he could never forgive himself.
Arthur didn't know exactly what had happened for many days after, though Morgana had tried to explain how his wife had gone into labour early…too early. And there was nothing anybody could have done…neither the child nor the mother had been able to survive.
The court in Camelot declared a month of mourning across all the lands, and in the thousands the citizens of Camelot came to pay their respects to their much beloved Queen. Night after night for an entire week, they held vigil in the courtyard, with their candles lit. Prayers and good wishes were offered to the High King from all of his lands, but Arthur could not register any of it. For all that mattered was that Gwen was gone…
When the state funeral was held, there was a large procession as a casket was carried into the royal crypts where Queen Guinevere would be laid to rest…but three people knew that the coffin was empty, and would remain empty…
The three of them, Arthur, Emryssa and Morgana, had taken Gwen to the one place where they knew that she would be greeted in the next world by a friend, the afternoon before the state funeral. It had been Morgana's suggestion and she gently stated that Gwen would want to be with her loved ones, not in some cold crypt amongst lords and ladies that she neither knew nor cared for.
They had taken her to Avalon and with her stillborn child wrapped lovingly in a blanket beside her, the Queen of Camelot was bid farewell on a barge, flowers in her hair and hands folded across her chest…
Arthur was lost in thoughts, recalling the image of Gwen floating away when his reverie was interrupted by a soft knock on the door. He sighed and lifted his head up, wiping away the wetness from his face before anyone could find him here, grieving openly. He knew he did not have that luxury.
Emryssa came in without waiting for permission. She had demonstrated more strength in these few months than Arthur had ever given her credit for. She had been his rock, taking on his duties along with those of her late mother's and he had heard not one word of reproach from her lips even though she was barely eighteen.
"I thought I might find you here," she said, a sad smile playing on her lips.
She approached her father, who seemed to have aged decades in these past months, and instead of sitting at her usual spot at the round table, she sat beside Arthur in the position that her mother usually had occupied.
"Today, Aunt Morgana and I went to visit the healing school," she said when Arthur said nothing to her. Trying to engage him in conversation, she continued, "It has now been running for fifteen years and all the students were saying how grateful they were to the Queen for establishing this free school for them."
Arthur nodded, but his face was still drawn and expressionless. So much good his Gwen had done for others…and he had not been there for her when she needed him most…
Emryssa persisted, wanting to pull her father out of his abyss. She missed her mother more than she could say, but Morgana had given her strength and wisdom to guide her with her duties because she knew now that without her father's leadership…the kingdom would fall into ruin and she would not let that happen. For all those that had died for this nation, she would stay strong. It fell upon her shoulders to take up her father's mantle while he grieved for his wife, and on her watch, she would ensure that her father had a kingdom to rule when he was able to take on the responsibility again. At long last, she had realized that the idea that her parents and Morgana…and even Merlin had dreamed of was much bigger than just her as an individual. With the good gifts she had to enjoy, there would be many, many things that she did not like about being a ruler, but she would do it…for her mother's sake. For all their sakes.
Gently, she reached for the rose on the table and handed it to her father hesitantly.
He took it from her curiously and slowly met her gaze and was surprised to find determination blazing in her eyes.
"Mother would have wanted you to keep living, not lose yourself," she said clearly, showing wisdom beyond her years.
As Arthur looked into her face, he realized that Gwen was still very much with him in the voice of his daughter.
"Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world."
The fourth annual celebration for the meeting of the leaders was underway. It had been two years since the last kingdom on the Isle had joined Camelot and now, the entire Isle was under one banner…
As High King, Arthur had presided over the ceremony over the past three years but this time, it was Emryssa who took the lead. She carried herself with grace and quiet authority as she chaired the various council meetings and dinner processions. Even the toughest and most intimidating of lords bowed their heads to her and treated her with respect.
Arthur realized that she was truly ready for the responsibility of a kingdom, and he felt an enormous sense of relief. Next to her, he noted that the next generation had fully come of age and young knights Sir Bors, Sir Geraint and Sir Galahad were laughing heartily as Emryssa had excused herself from the High Table to join the knights. They began to retell a humourous tale to her and she too burst into peals of laughter.
Utterly relaxed, Arthur took a swig of his ale and smiled contently at the youngsters. He caught Lancelot's eye from across the room and the aged knight raised his glass towards the youth as if to give them a toast. The King joined in, knowing that his most trusted knight was thinking exactly what he was thinking…
Our time has passed us by…it was their time now…
"Make me feel the wild pulsation that I felt before the strife,
When I heard my days before me, and the tumult of my life"
Arthur leaned on Morgana as she helped him to a nearby bench. They had been strolling in the Royal Gardens when Arthur's knee, which had been troubling him for years, began to ache again.
As Arthur slowly lowered his weight onto the bench, he began to laugh. She laughed too, not knowing why. It was a joyous thing to laugh together as they had in their childhood without any cares.
Wiping tears from his eyes, Arthur said, "No one would believe any of the stories of my heroic deeds if they saw me now. I once fought a dragon, you know, Morgana!"
"The dragon was no match compared to me," she replied smiling, a trace of cheekiness in her response. "You could never beat me."
Arthur chuckled, acknowledging the truth of her words at long last with a pat of her shoulder.
They sat silently, happy in each other's presence, taking in the scent of the fresh blooms all around them.
Neither could have ever predicted that they would one day start to laugh again together, but time had a funny way of healing wounds. Especially since Gwen's death, they had only each other to depend on, for Arthur did not want to burden young Emryssa's mind with his sorrow. And Morgana knew that no one but Arthur could understand her losses. For so long, Morgana had been alone…she had never married, never even tried to find someone to share her life with, knowing that she just did not have the capacity to give herself to someone fully…and she, above everyone, knew how Arthur felt after Gwen's passing. They were united in their loneliness.
The blame, the resentment, the guilt…all those feelings had washed away between the pair and now they were able to see each other with clear minds.
"Arthur…" Morgana ventured hesitantly, interrupting the comfortable silence. "Maybe it is time for us to stop thinking about our youth and start thinking about Emryssa," said Morgana, a little reluctant to bring up a taboo topic.
"What about her?" Arthur asked quickly. He had been playing with some flower stems, from the bushes behind them absent-mindedly, and now dropped them, turning to face her.
"Arthur, are you blind?" Morgana asked exasperated. She had hoped that Arthur would have discovered himself what she was about to tell him, but as always, her foster brother was as unobservant as a rock when it came to certain matters. And Emryssa, no matter how much she had grown, she was still wary of her father's response when it came to this particular area of her personal life, and so, she had begged Morgana to break the news to Arthur on her behalf.
"She is a fully grown woman now," Morgana said patiently. "And she has her own hopes and dreams…of which a very important part is a certain young man."
Arthur sat up very straight, alert, resembling his old warrior self. "Who?" he asked sharply. "What do you mean? Why didn't she tell me first?" he added at the end, slightly hurt that his daughter would not openly share her heart's content with him.
"Probably because she knew you would react like you are doing now," Morgana said bluntly. "Anyway, you have nothing to worry about. Galahad is a wonderful man…and I am sure he will make a wonderful consort to the future Queen one day."
"GALAHAD!" Arthur bellowed, trying to jump up to his feet, but his knee hindered his progress and he gingerly sat back down. He was quiet for a few moments and then added in a slightly confused voice, "But she doesn't even like him!"
"Arthur," Morgana said calmly. "That was years ago."
More than anything, Arthur was shocked by this new information. He racked his mind to remember any conversation where his daughter brought up the young knight, but he could only recall the one where she had informed him that Galahad was boring. But as he thought more about it, he realized that in recent years, since Galahad's return from his outpost near Mercia, he had seen Emryssa in the presence of the knight more frequently. Once or twice he had seen them sparring in the training grounds…but they had been training partners in their youth after all. And another time, he had seen them, their heads bent in conversation at the Round Table…but, Galahad was an intelligent knight and he was no doubt just sharing his strategic plans for defense with her. And there was another instance, where he had seen them walking in the hallways after dinner and she was laughing at something that he said…but…but, he was probably just sharing a funny story about Sir Geraint, who was known to be a prankster…but even the mighty King Arthur was running out of excuses…
After long moments of considering Morgana's words, Arthur had to wonder whether he had been slower on the uptake than usual this time…but if truth be told, Arthur had a very hard time finding something wrong with Galahad…apart from the fact that his daughter seemed to have taken a liking to him, of course. Galahad was noble…always stayed true to his word and he worked hard at training and never missed a practice session. He took great care of his younger siblings and never neglected to send his mother flowers on her birthday. Arthur could not for the life of him say how he knew these things about Lancelot…but then remembered that Gwen would relay all this information to him through Elaine, who bragged to Gwen endlessly about her eldest son. He smiled sadly as he thought of Gwen, knowing that she would have been ecstatic at this news.
Finally, Arthur had to admit to himself, that Galahad was not the worst prospect in the world for Emryssa. He vowed that before the week's end, he would summon Galahad to his chambers and have a word with him about his precious daughter.
Jokingly, he said to Morgana, "I knew I should never have trusted a son of Lancelot."
With a hint of relief, Morgana laughed, knowing that Arthur had taken the first step towards giving his approval. She playfully punched him.
There was another long silence and this time it was Arthur who broke it. "If I am being honest, Morgana, knowing that she will have a…good partner puts my mind at ease," Arthur said solemnly, finding that it was becoming easier by the minute to admit that Galahad was a quite a nice lad really.
"Emryssa will be glad to hear you say that," Morgana said sincerely. She was already looking forward to relaying the news to her goddaughter, whom she knew had spent many restless nights worrying about her father's reaction…perhaps the poor girl had irrationally imagining her protective father ordering the exile of her beloved. But now, Morgana would be able to put her mind at ease…
Arthur spoke again, this time serious, his voice low. "I know my time is coming, Morgana. Since Gwen's passing…I have been thinking more and more…about Merlin's death too and my own."
Morgana stiffened, wondering whether Arthur still blamed her for Merlin's death. They never spoke about it, but Arthur's next words at long last freed Morgana from the last shred of guilt that she had tied herself to for so long.
"No, Morgana," Arthur said as if he could read her mind. "You have done more for me than I could have ever deserved. It is simply the fundamental truth for any life that anyone who is born must die one day." He took a deep breath, trying to keep his emotions in check as he said to his beloved foster sister. "I only wish that whatever precious time remains for me, I may spend with you happily as recompense for the time we never spent."
Without a word, Morgana took his hand into both of hers, and laid her cheek against it. A single tear flowed down her cheek.
"Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and he bears a laden breast,
Full of sad experience, moving toward the stillness of his rest."
Two women stood on the banks of Avalon. One was hunched over, old and weary, while one stood tall, young and vibrant. They held each other, the older woman with both arms around the younger one, while the younger gripped her father's old sword with one hand.
Their wet eyes were on the barge that was carrying away their most precious King.
Morgana and Emryssa watched the sun set on the horizon and as the fading rays of light, cast the lake in hues of gold and green, they could not have imagined a more beautiful farewell scene for King Arthur.
The old barge was crafted from pieces of the old round table. Arthur was wearing chainmail, which Emryssa had painstakingly polished herself. Around his shoulders was his favourite scarlet cloak, and the colour of Camelot was emblazoned on his shield, which he held to his chest. The crown on his head glinted in the fading sunlight and his only other ornament was the wedding band, now worn with age and covered in scratches. It had been his single most cherished possession after Excalibur and while the sword remained with his daughter, it had been the King's wish to take the only remnant of his wife with him…to the other world, where he hoped to meet her once again.
The sun set, fully marking the end of a golden age for Camelot.
The barge disappeared from view and Morgana and Emryssa were left in the growing darkness. They had to make their way back to Camelot soon or people would begin to start asking questions about the new Queen's whereabouts.
Morgana, however, was rooted to the spot, lost in her thoughts. Somehow she had known that she would be the last one of the four to remain. But she wasn't disheartened by this…one day, she too would make the journey through the gateway of Avalon and meet them again…they would wait for her, she knew this now with certainty.
In the meantime, she would watch over their dream with utmost care, as it was entrusted to and moved into the hands of a new Queen.
More to herself than Emryssa, she spoke, in the voice of a Seer that sounded as though from faraway. "Arthur goes to the everlasting lands where he will dwell until Albion calleth for a great King. Then, he will return…we all will."
"Rex quondam, rexque futurus. The once and future King."
"Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and I linger on the shore,
And the individual withers, and the world is more and more."
A/N: Well, folks…what can more can we say? Everything that needs to be said has been said, and the last page of the book (figuratively speaking) has been turned. We can now finally say that this is, in fact, the end. It has been a long journey, and for those of you who have stuck with us from the very beginning, we would like to thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Your support and appreciation has kept us going these last two and a half years. As most of you know, we are not seasoned fanfiction writers. This was just a show we fell in love with and this was a story that came to us in an "aha!" moment while we were traveling through France. A series of fortunate coincidences, if you will. It is doubtful whether we will ever write any sequels or prequels to this story…or if we will ever write any stories at all in the future. So, when we say that this has been a once in a lifetime experience…we really do mean it!
If even one of you enjoyed reading this story half as much as we enjoyed writing it, then we consider it quite a success! It has honestly been a pleasure to write these characters and watch them grow in ways that sometimes was even a surprise to us!
Finally, I would like to take a moment to thank my other side of the coin – there is truly no one else in the universe I would rather have shared this experience with! No, not even Colin Morgan himself…and that is saying something, my friend. Though, I am sad that this adventure is over, I am certain that we will have many more. As the greatest doctor of them all (Dr. Seuss) said: "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." And I will smile fondly whenever I think of 'our' story…and I hope that you will too.
That is all from us, everyone! Thanks for reading…and remember keep the magic secret :)
P.S. - If anyone was wondering, the quotes we used to start off each section of the epilogue were from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall'.
"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you."