Disclaimer: I am merely playing in the sandbox of giants; I do not own that sandbox, but am enjoying the time spent in this little corner.
Grief of a King
Summary: One-shot, character death. When loss shakes Arthur's world again and destiny turns aside, he must find the strength to continue on.
The would-be King was hunched over a still body, face falling into shadow. There was blood everywhere; on the body, on the floor, on his hands. Had her brother actually tried to staunch the flow of blood? It was a very Arthur thing to do – too blind to see the truth, too stupid to think logically. Just another reason why he was not fit to be rule.
It worked, Morgana thought. The very idea of something finally going her way, of having the vengeance she had sought for so long, made her giddy. It finally worked.
"So you've managed to find a use for the fool," she said, smirking. "He makes a good replacement for a shield, doesn't he?" The witch stalked closer, letting her voice drop. "You're well rid of him, he was always a slimy little–"
He was looking at her now. There was pain in his eyes, such pain. In all the years they had known each other, she had never seen her brother hurt like this. In the face of such an expression, she found herself speechless, the taunting dying away.
"I am going to take him home, where he'll get the hero's burial he deserves," Arthur said. The blond man stood, picking up Merlin's corpse, cradling it in his arms like a child. Blood was seeping through his chainmail, staining the tunic beneath, but he didn't seem to notice.
He turned to face her, letting her see the full force of his grief in his eyes, even as his voice and expression remained calm. "You will not stop me," he told her; the authority in his voice kept her standing in that same spot until long after the King was gone.
Late that night, lying restless in her bed, those blue eyes haunted her sleep. The reasons she should be glad that Merlin was dead swirled around her mind, yet she could not find that earlier joy at finally having accomplished it.
Fury filled him, forged in the fires of grief and pain. He needed someone to lash out at, someone to blame. Anything to take away the hollow feeling where his heart once rested.
His eyes fell on Arthur, and he knew – here was the reason that Merlin was gone, the person that failed to save him. A red haze filled his vision, and his feet carried him forward, planting him directly in the other man's line of sight.
"It's your fault," Gwaine yelled. "You stepped aside deliberately, didn't you? I bet you're glad he's dead–"
Arthur swirled, fury etched in every line of his face. The man stalked towards the Knights, shoulders vibrating with suppressed fury. Gwaine fell back a pace, the mindless anger beginning to drain away.
"Don't you dare accuse me of not caring," Arthur snarled. Eyes wide with fear, Gwaine was unable to bring himself to respond. At that moment, the King resembled nothing less than the dragons that were his family's namesake, all claws and flame.
"Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sire," the Knight managed to grate out past the knot in his throat.
The blond man stood still, gaze fixed on Gwaine. Finally, he seemed to decide that he would not be challenged again; ignoring the other knights, the King strode away, disappearing through the castle doors.
It was all Gwaine could do to stand frozen, trying to recover his breath. After knowing Arthur for years, after all they had been through together – he had never seen the man so angry; so dangerous.
As his brothers surrounded him, he wondered if Merlin had been all that held the Pendragon at bay.
"He should be interred with the knights," Elyan argued. "We all know he was as brave as one, and he died a Knight's death. He deserved the same honours as any one of us."
"I know that, Elyan," Leon snapped, rubbing his face in weariness. "But it's not that simple. If we do that, the noble families will revolt; the last thing we need right now is their ire." The Knight stood from his chair and began pacing, the tread of his boots echoing in the stifling confines of the physician's quarters. The other Knights watched him, each face reflecting their shared pain.
"No matter – no matter what we think, to them, Merlin is just a servant. Nothing more."
Gwaine shot up as if burned, nearly upsetting the table in his haste. "Merlin is not just a servant," the man growled, fist clenched. As he began advancing on Leon, the other Knights sat up in alarm, ready to break up the imminent fight.
Leon held up his hands. "I know that. We all know that. But it doesn't change anything." He glanced over at the corner, eyes begging for rescue that wouldn't come. His King remained silent, as he had since they had first gathered to make the necessary arrangements.
"Then where?" Elyan asked in frustration. "We have to do something!"
Before another argument could break out, a noise from the bed in the centre of the room drew their attention. Gaius cleared his throat again, trying to find his voice.
"There's a lake, not too far from here," the physician said, voice thick with bottled emotion.
"A lake?" Arthur moved out from the shadows. The sunlight highlighted the sharp angles of his face; the King could have been a marble statue, were it not for the intenseness of his eyes. "There is no lake near Camelot."
The old physician inclined his head a fraction, acknowledging his King. "Merlin found it," he said. "It's where he took Lancelot."
There was a sharp intake of breath at the mention of their fallen brother. While Lancelot's loss was a familiar ache that they had all learned to live with, in the light of this more recent loss, old wounds were torn open and bleeding.
For a time it was silent, each person absorbed in their own thoughts. The sounds of the market drifted through the window, the sound of life continuing, with no regard for their anguish.
"We bring Merlin to the lake," Arthur said at last. He looked around defensively, but no one dared question him. "Get him ready. We leave in an hour."
They made for an odd sight, travelling through the woods. Four knights bore a litter, where a man lay decked out in worn, rough clothing, skin bearing the pallor of death. In front of them, an old man picked his way carefully through the underbrush, supposedly leading them.
For Arthur, striding through the woods ahead of them all, had no need of guidance to find his way. The King had hunted these woods his entire life, had crisscrossed the forest in all directions. It was as familiar to him as the corridors of his palace, and he knew that there was no lake nearby. Yet despite this knowledge, his feet never strayed; he knew exactly where to go.
It still came as a surprise when the trees gave way to lakeside, the late afternoon sun making ever-moving patterns on the surface of the water. The Knights murmured their shock, bringing the litter to rest on the ground.
The King turned to them, face calm. "Build a pyre. We'll send him out onto the water."
While the Knights spread out in search of wood and Gaius tenderly arranged branches around his ward, Arthur stood at the water's edge, gazing at the distant mountains. He wondered how Merlin had found this place; the very air he breathed felt... different. Otherwordly. Despite knowing that he had never come to this place before, it felt familiar; it felt welcoming.
The shadows lengthened; by the time they had finished arranging Merlin's body, the sun had almost set. Percival pushed the boat they had constructed into the water, where it floated gently. In the dimming light, the rocking of the boat made the manservant almost seem to breathe.
Gaius handed Arthur the lit torch. The King accepted it wordlessly, eyes never leaving his friend's body. He hesitated a moment; if he did this, it would be final; Merlin would not be coming back. Steeling himself, Arthur put the torch to the boat, letting the flames take it.
The boat was pushed further into the water; it drifted towards the centre of the lake, where it finally came to a halt. There, it burned.
At last, Arthur spoke. "If not for Merlin, I would not be alive today. He has saved my life more times than I can remember." His voice remained calm, steady. "More than that, he saved my soul. I would not be a fraction of the man I am today without him."
Taking his cue, each of the knights began to speak one by one, giving their farewell. They then turned to Gaius, who simply shook his head, his face drawn. Where the physician had already been old, now it seemed that centuries were added through the lines on his face.
As the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the flame in the centre of the lake finally died out. In the darkness, they turned away, and began the long journey back to Camelot, back to the rest of their lives.
Arthur was the last to leave. Just before he reached the trees, he glanced back, branding the scene into his mind.
He knew he would not be able to return here, not for many years to come.
Tearing his eyes away, the King of Camelot followed his people home.
He found himself sitting by the same lake that had claimed his manservant's earthly remains. It was a clear night; the stars shone out of the deep blue of the night sky, their reflection mirrored on the still surface of the lake.
He could say how long he sat there, staring out at the mountains. The silence of the night save the lapping of water on the shore was comforting, as was the familiar breathing of the man sitting next to him.
"We never do admit what we really feel until it is too late."
His companion turned his head, face questioning, but Arthur couldn't bring himself to meet the other man's gaze. "I never told you this, but you were more than just a friend; you were – are – my brother."
"I knew," Merlin said softly. "You never had to say anything, I always knew."
At this, Arthur twisted around, blue eyes meeting blue. The other man's eyes were light, clear, the weight they had always carried noticeable in its absence. In contrast, Arthur could feel his eyes stinging with the force of the emotions he had been too numb to feel.
"It's not fair – there was so much we were going to do–"
In the peace of the lakeside, far from the prying eyes of the living, Arthur finally let himself fall apart. Tears dripped salty tracks down his cheeks; his shoulders shook uncontrollably. As his vision blurred, he bit his lip hard, trying to hold back the sobs desperate to escape.
Thin yet strong arms slipped around him, pulling him close. He buried his head into a welcoming shoulder, muffling his cries on a worn jacket, hands fisting around scraps of fabric. Pride and dignity were forgotten in the ocean of grief.
A hand stroked his hair, soothing the tremors. "Gaius once told me that that is the lament of all men," a voice murmured in his ear. "We no longer have the chance, but for what it's worth, I am so proud of what you've done so far."
Warmth flared in the midst of his pain; warmth, and a cold fear. He no longer questioned how the faith of his servant never failed to lift him, to support him when his own strength failed. But how was he supposed to find that strength now, without his guiding light?
"I'm not strong enough," Arthur said. "I can't do this without you."
"Arthur," the other man said, tone laced with exasperation, "you're never alone." Merlin gently untangled himself from his friend, pushing him back so that they were looking eye to eye. Clever fingers tightened on Arthur's shoulders. "You still have Gwen, and Gaius, and the knights. They won't let you go astray."
Then he smiled, a gentle smile tinged with mischief, so familiar that Arthur couldn't help but return it with a wobbly one of his own. "I might not be alive, but I'll never leave you."
I'll never leave you. Arthur took the words into himself, wove them into his heart and soul. When his strength failed, when that of those around him wasn't enough for him to see the way, he would remember.
The two men turned to face the water again, Merlin's arm slung across Arthur's shoulders. They sat in silence, listening to the rustling of the leaves in the wind, taking comfort in each other's presence.
The scene blurred, drifted into darkness. Feeling the soft expanse of his mattress, the smooth silk sheets, Arthur opened his eyes, seeing not the canopy of the stars but the fabric of his bed. Beside him, his wife continued to slumber.
Licking his lips, he tasted salt. The King reached up to brush the offending tears away in the dim glow of the dawn, before letting his eyes drift shut and sleep claim him yet again.
I'll never leave you.
There was much that he would have done, with Merlin by his side. Alone, destiny faltered, drifted towards a new future, one not as bright as the first.
But for now, it was enough.
A/N: While this isn't my first foray into writing, it is the first time I have actually published. I wasn't expecting this to be my debut piece, but the characters ambushed me with their tale, demanding to be heard. Who am I not to oblige?
As a serial lurker, I am not going to beg for reviews, but any feedback would be appreciated. This piece is un-betaed; all mistakes are my own.