He is fourteen years late, but it is Samhain and his father never talks about her. Even on this night, when the dead are supposed to be remembered, the king speaks only of fallen soldiers or distant relatives. Arthur's own mother is conspicuously absent from this mustering of ghosts. She is a shadow, an emptiness.
Sometimes he tries to imagine what she was like. He knows she had hair like his, and he wonders if it stuck up in the back like his does. Did she like apples in the fall and horse races in the spring? Would she have sung to him like Leon's mother did? He has only snippets and whispers to know her by, but his imagination fills in the gaps, hoping that the parts of him that aren't Uther are her: sunlight spilling through the shadows.
He knows she must have been wonderful. Arthur has noticed how all the best things, the most wonderful things, are hardly spoken of. He's learned to keep his treasures close, silent and still. There is no space to speak of beauty or longing. It is all devoted to duty, and he has seen how wishes and dreams shiver to pieces in the crush of his days. What remains unspoken remains alive.
He kneels before her stone, tracing the runes that name her and the manner of her death. Gaius once tried to explain that mothers sometimes die giving life to their children, and that it doesn't make the death the child's fault. He didn't bother arguing because he knew Gaius wouldn't understand. No one understands. But to Arthur, it is very simple: he is alive and his mother is dead. It was his life that ended hers. He has always known this with the same certainty that he knows which way is up.
He hopes that maybe, if he can find her tonight, she can forgive him. He hopes that his honoring of her spirit can mean something even though he has no memory of the one he honors. He knows he has to say goodbye - that's what the living say to the dead. But how can he bid farewell to someone he's never met?
The night turns colder and he burrows into the thick cloak and full wineskin that he brought. It seems that he blinks his eyes and the sun is rising. Someone is standing over him, and his heart leaps wildly before he recognizes the tall shadow as his father, standing with his back to the east and his head bowed.
But Uther is not looking at his son. He's staring at the stone, and for just a moment Arthur thinks he's going to say something, because there is such sorrow in his face as he has never seen. In an uncharacteristically tender gesture, Uther reaches out to brush the runes with his fingertips, as though remembering the touch that went with that name. Arthur holds his breath, waiting for the words that will paint him a picture of his mother. But they never come.
"You're late for swords, Arthur."
He pauses, shivering, then heads for the training grounds. His father pays him no heed, just continues to stare at what he has lost, what Arthur took from him. That is the mother he meets: she is the desolation in his father's eyes, the silence on the hill. She is what is lost and unspoken, and yearned for.
"Goodbye, mother." The wind catches his whisper and bears it away beyond hearing, but he knows that her ghost will always walk with him.
He is sixteen the first time he leads men to death on the battlefield. It's a border skirmish: an argument over land, if kings are to be believed. But to Arthur it's about the bodies of the slain bloating in the sun, and the thunder of Mercian knights sweeping away the lives of farmers and blacksmiths, all so Bayard can claim the width of a quill stroke on a piece of parchment.
His father commands the blades of Camelot, but Arthur is in charge of a small cohort of knights. It's a test, and Arthur is determined as ever to pass it, to make his father - his king proud of him. He feels Uther's gaze on him and he tries, as always, to wrap his veins in ice and iron. A fearful man cannot make decisions. An indecisive man is useless.
His father often speaks of the glory of battle, but Arthur mostly remembers screams and stench and men so spattered with mud and viscera that they all look the same. It's as though some mad god molded them out of clay and set them one against the other so he could watch them give their blood back to the earth in an endless frenzy of war. Part of him wants to laugh, and he shoves the lunatic impulse into the same dark hole where he keeps his fear.
They have the second cavalry charge. It's a job that mostly involves running down fleeing pikemen, and Arthur is not looking forward to it. He and the other knights sit atop their mounts, watching as the infantry run in and die. Men who were drinking and laughing last night are now bleeding and screaming and choking . But they do it with precision, and the enemy line falters. All along the row of barely restrained warhorses, muscles tense and helmed heads swivel to track the battle. Then the breach in the enemy's infantry becomes a gaping hole, and suddenly a thunder of hooves is shaking the earth to fill it.
The prince of Camelot watches and waits and tries not to think about how every one of the men under his command is at least ten years his senior. He tries not to think that any one of them - any one - would make twice the commander he does. When it is time for the second charge, Arthur does not look to the man at his right side - it wouldn't do for the men to see their leader glance at a subordinate for permission to give the order. But he is acutely aware of Sir Lucius' strength at his right hand, and it makes his shouted command ring out over the hill with a confidence and power he does not feel.
Arthur leads, and his knights follow. He does not hesitate, and they do not question. It's not a remarkable show of faith in his leadership - it's hardly a difficult duty, with the Mercian line ready to shatter - but it is proof of a confidence that will grow with time. They gallop into the left flank, killing dozens of men before their blades are even bloody. Most of the infantry scatter and flee, and the knights begin the inglorious task of riding them down one by one. A sword stroke delivered at a canter creates a liberal plume of blood and gore, and Camelot's knights are soon covered in it.
Arthur watches the pocket of resistance form in slow motion. By the time he gives the order, several knights have already been unhorsed by the rapidly coalescing square of Mercian infantry. The remaining horses pivot swiftly at Arthur's command, and the brief opposition collapses. It is a matter of minutes before the battle is over: a victory for Camelot.
Arthur leaps from his horse as soon as the last enemy falls. It feels like silence when the clash of steel is replaced by the panting of men and horses, and the groans of the dying. He rips off the stifling helmet and scans the ground. Sir Lucius is not far away, still lying where he landed when a Mercian pike hooked his torso and sent him plunging from his mount. As he kneels beside the fallen knight, Arthur can hear the man's bloodied gasps. A length of wicked steel protrudes from the crease between breastplate and pauldron; part of the broken haft is still attached, the splintered wood hanging at an odd angle. Hot blood steams in the cool air as it pools beneath him.
Arthur carefully removes Lucius' helm and grips the knight's shoulder, though he knows Lucius will not feel it through the armor or the shock of the mortal wound he has been dealt. He thinks he should say something to ease his passing, but finds that he cannot speak. It is Lucius, his grey beard soaked in his own blood, who says the words. They are barely a whisper, but Arthur hears and understands.
Mercy, my prince.
He's not sure if the wetness that streaks down his clenched jaw is sweat or tears, but he ignores it as he draws the misericorde. Lucius gives a faint nod and Arthur bids him farewell, slipping the thin blade between the plates of his armor and into his heart. The knight's last breath whispers of Camelot.
Arthur stands, cleans his blade, and does not speak. The knights around him are silent as his father approaches to congratulate his son and honor the dead. He grips Arthur's shoulder before directing the removal of the bodies. Not a few of them are wearing gold and crimson. It seems such a terrible price, and he thinks it would feel worth it if his father told him he had done well.
But Uther never offers praise. Only acceptance. A thump on the shoulder, a nod of the head. An acknowledgment of a duty performed. Arthur is not a good son; he is adequate. And he can't help thinking, as he stares at a golden dragon splashed with red, that if he could be more than just good enough, if he could be magnificent, then maybe his kingdom would not have to be bought in blood.
His vision fractures when he watches her step out from behind the throne, and his memory of the next few hours will be hazy at best. He knows that Merlin is with him, and that somehow they make it out of the city. He's vaguely aware of a deep, biting pain working its way up from his leg, but the injury seems buoyant in the wave of Morgana's betrayal. He limps along silently, then limps to the sound of Merlin's incessant chatter, and it's not until he's leaning against a cave wall that the numbness ebbs away, swallowed by a deep black well somewhere inside him. He wants to believe that she's been enchanted or tricked in some way, but he can't seriously entertain the idea.
It's in a thousand little details that he's blissfully ignored. It's in the reactions that seemed just a tiny bit out of step with the rest of the court. It's in the way that he knowsher: her pride, her sense of justice, her willingness to pit herself against the world when it refuses to bend to her will. He would never have believed, if someone had told him. But seeing her, he wondered how he had missed it: the facile lies, the subtle deceits. She played on everyone's expectations, their goodwill, their (his) love.
For the first time that he can remember, he is incapacitated by fear. He has lost the battle before arriving on the field to fight it: his father is a prisoner, his sister a traitor, and Camelot is lost. Everything is broken, and he cannot see a way back to the world he knew. It's not just that they are hopeless odds; it's that it's her. How can he raise his sword against his sister? How can he not?
Merlin interrupts his musings with typical chatter about the bright side of things and some nonsense about never giving up because people are depending on him. Merlin has a mad talent for giving voice to the most uncomfortable truths of Arthur's conscience, whether he wants to hear them or not. The unacknowledged weight of his servant's words settles over him, casting his eyes down.
It's not until he leaves their pathetically small camp on the pretense of scouting the surrounding area that he is able to find the place in his heart where Morgana dwells. He stands at the lip of a stone-strewn ravine and thinks of the first insults she hurled, and the first secrets she kept. He thinks of the way she fought for the druid boy and the mountains she moved to see Gwen returned safe. He thinks of advice given over the rims of silver goblets and the generosity of a lady towards her people.
He tries and fails to understand how the love she felt for the people of Camelot turned to poison in her veins. He tries to see within the vengeful, usurping queen the young girl who scolded knights for whipping their horses. He searches for the false notes in her declamations on equality, delivered on slow winter nights, when the wind screamed against the casements and boredom turned their usual sniping into full-blown political debates.
It is the lack of understanding that bothers him most. He has never fought an enemy he does not know, and he thought he knew Morgana. How could he not see the loathing in her heart? How could there be in her heart for kin and country? Even if she could claim grievance against the king, what crime have the people committed?
He sees again the face of his manservant: ridiculous, consistent Merlin. His head wants to argue that his kingdom is no longer his, but his heart...his heart can't quite admit defeat with those bright blue eyes still looking to him for protection. Still loyal. As long as he still has Merlin, he still has Camelot, he thinks crazily, and almost laughs into the dappled sylvan shadows.
And if he still has Camelot, then he still has a duty to perform. No matter the cost. His kin are the ones who followed him into exile, and they cannot abandon the ones they left behind. If he is to protect them (and he must protect them), he must finally say goodbye to Morgana.
So he does.
When he enters his father's chambers, he almost stumbles. It's like walking into another world: a place of whispers, dust in sunbeams, and time suspended. What seemed lethally urgent just a heartbeat previously now seems remote, like a drama played out through cloudy glass. Arthur has been treating these days like an interlude, expecting his father to sweep into the throne room at any minute and pass judgment on Arthur's regency. He has relied on his uncle's counsel chiefly so that the kingdom he hands back to his father is the kingdom his father wishes to rule. But when he crosses that threshold the day after Samhain, he understands for the first time what Morgana took from him.
He doesn't know if the king can hear him, but he says the words anyway, because he can't leave without saying goodbye. It's nothing like the formal greetings and farewells they have conducted in the presence of the court. It's the first time he can remember taking leave of his father without an audience, and he almost doesn't know what to say. But Uther's silence leaves a space that Arthur's heart rushes to fill, and he finds himself struggling to justify his future actions. In the back of his mind is the horrible thought that his departure will end the Pendragon line, and it's little consolation to know that his father is not aware enough to have his heart broken again.
He wonders when things got so complicated, but of course they were never simple. It's just harder to ignore his choices now that his father isn't guiding his sword arm. So many times he wished for the freedom to do as he saw fit. Now he thinks he would rather be forced to obey the blindest order than make this decision himself. Even in their disagreements, Arthur was only ever trying to be the son - the prince - that his father taught him to be.
When the trembling hand reaches out to catch his arm, to prevent him leaving, it feels like the bottom is falling out of his stomach. It's easy to ignore a shout, but that pleading whisper almost breaks Arthur's resolve. He has to force himself to think of what will be lost, and what can never be.
He turns aside his father's pleading, shivering fingers, and walks away. Another goodbye awaits him by the door, but he can't help smiling. No one could look at Guinevere and keep from smiling. More than anything, he wishes he could chase away the fear and the doubt that he sees in her eyes. And with a few words, he does, at least temporarily. Because Gwen is as full of life and courage as the night is full of spirits, and no darkness or danger can hide that for long.
This is the moment when he realizes that marrying Guinevere isn't just what would have been best for the two of them, but for the kingdom. Camelot needs her, maybe more than it needs Arthur. He can swing a sword, but Gwen...she can light up the sky: sunlight spilling through the shadows. With her as its queen, Camelot might have stood a chance. He would happily leave the kingdom in her care.
But there is no time to overturn the social customs of the court now. He has to hope that Camelot will weather this storm despite his mistakes. He knows his duty, and can only trust that Agravaine will do his. So he drinks in the smell of sunlight, because he wants to carry it with him into the dark. Of all the farewells he will say today, this is the most bitter, but it is also the sweetest.
As he begins the frenzied march to his death, warmed by the memory of a smile, he thinks that farewells aren't always about losing things. Sometimes they're about taking things with you.
Arthur watches the two figures recede into the distance. Leon's worried gaze is like a weight on his shoulders, but he is unable to turn away. He knows he is showing a weakness, an indecision. He doesn't care.
He keeps seeing the darocha sweeping toward them like the wind of death. He keeps feeling Merlin's surprisingly commanding grip on his shoulder. Since the first day they met, Merlin's been giving orders where he has no right. Arthur should have known. He should have guessed. But who could foresee such preposterous, suicidal bravery?
Arthur is used to being the one who moves too quickly to be stopped; he has never been the one standing by while things happen around him. He wonders if this is how his enemies feel when he outmaneuvers them on the battlefield: like the world is whirling about them in an ineffable tempest that lasts forever and no time at all. Merlin moved so quickly. It had not occurred to Arthur that he would have to protect Merlin from himself. The boy was terrified.
As he watches the tiny slumped form trailing after the silhouette of Lancelot's duty-straight shoulders, he thinks about the bravery of his knights, and how it has been matched, time and again, by Merlin's ridiculous insistence on accompanying Arthur into the worst situations. But there's something about Merlin...something that makes even his most egregious acts of idiocy seem somehow fitting. Arthur would never admit it, and barely acknowledges it in the silence of his heart, but he depends on that idiocy. Wherever he goes, Merlin is there. He's not useful, exactly, but he's...loyal. Sometimes that's worth more than a hundred horse.
His knights are pulling him away, onward to their destination, but the journey that seemed so easy with a gangly twit at his side now seems impossibly long. He thought he was making the bold decision to save his people on his own; he thought the strength to walk into certain death with his head held high belonged to him. Now he feels as though all his power and will is leaving with his manservant.
The job was always hopeless. That hasn't changed. But Merlin is impossible victory; he's laughter in the face of defeat; he's dauntless, irrational hope; he is what never changes and what's always there. Arthur could no more bid him farewell than he could leave behind his sword arm. Proceeding now is the hardest thing he has ever done. He thinks this must be what despair feels like.
A horse nickers impatiently. The eyes of soldiers are watching him and judging, anxious in their fear. He wants to tell them to just wait a goddamn minute. But he knows they don't deserve his anger, and would not understand in any case why he has to put himself back together. They cannot know that their quest almost failed here, on this windswept ruin.
No. This is not despair and this is not the end. This is one goodbye that Arthur refuses to voice. He will deny it, because that is what Merlin means: strength where there should be none, and light where no flame should catch. This can be no parting, because they cannot be separated, not by injury or distance or death.
Arthur turns away, but he knows that Merlin walks with him.