The war looms near, but the real battle is in Arthur’s head.
The next month saw Camelot prepare for war. Arthur became increasingly withdrawn as the days went by, refusing to engage in any conversation beyond his formal duties as King. Finally, when the day came for his army to march to meet Kinsley in battle, no-one even tried to address their king.
Moving silently out of the courtyard in formation, the King waved a slow, forced goodbye to his Queen, who was watching him from their bedroom window. For the rest of the day he gazed into the distance, letting Leon issue orders and decide resting points.
Merlin was some way behind the king, taking in the sights of Camelot. This would, in all probability, be the last time he’d ever see the city. There would be no return journey for him, he was sure Arthur would see to that.
“Merlin, why so glum?” Percival asked, startling the wizard who was deep in thought.
“It’s nothing, Perce.”
“Is it because we’re riding to war?”
“No, it’s not, but really -”
“Is it because you cried at the hanging yesterday?”
“What?! How did you know?”
“Gwaine told me. He’s quite the gossip, you know.”
“So I’ve come to learn.” Merlin said, through gritted teeth.
“It’s Arthur, isn’t it? I know, you all say I’m not the most perceptive, or the smartest, but even I can see that.”
Merlin sighed. Percival was a good man. Percival still thought Merlin was a good man.
“Yeah, it’s Arthur. It just… hurts, that he can’t talk to me any more.”
“I know, Merl. We all have different ways of dealing with things. I think Arthur is… struggling with something. Something important to him. Let him deal with it the best way he knows, he’ll talk when he’s ready.”
“You know, Perce… you’re not as thick as you look.” Merlin replied, laughing quite freely for the first time in a while. He’d forgotten how his laugh sounded.
“Ha, watch it Merlin. I could still throw you off that horse quicker than you can say ‘gangly servant’.”
The two continued to joke until they reached camp, where Leon was giving the knights a briefing. There were roughly fifty men there, Merlin guessed, and apparently each one commanded two hundred men. That was one of the biggest armies Camelot had raised in living memory. Each knight listened carefully as Leon described the potential threats of Kinsley’s creations, the way he was known to use magic, and the experiences of fighting magic Gaius had documented during his long career in court.
“How many do you think there will be, Leon?” Asked Gwaine, looking less cocksure than usual.
“Reports estimate around 40,000, although by the time we reach him he could easily have increased this to equal our numbers.” Gwaine looked less than reassured.
“And where will we do battle?” Another knight asked.
“There is a large plain a few leagues beyond his castle. We will make him face us there. An open battle.”
Merlin was horrified by Leon’s announcement. They’ll be like sitting ducks for Kinsley’s magic. The same realisation seemed to have reached the knights too, because the questions gave way to an awkward silence. Leon dismissed the men soon after, and soon it was just Arthur who remained.
He sat there, silently, lost in his own thoughts for the best part of an hour until a page boy disturbed his peace.
“Sire, a message.”
Arthur nodded, allowing the page to approach him. He took the letter from the young boy and examined the seal; it was from the Queen. He motioned for the page to leave.
After a few minutes Arthur finally opened the letter.
It is with great sadness that I write this letter, not for the words within it but rather for the simple fact that I may never see you again.
I am your Queen, and I am honoured to be so. Not a day goes by when I don’t thank your kindness. But I am also your subject, and no subject should lie to their King, no matter the consequences.
When I married you, Arthur, Camelot was in turmoil. Your father had passed away, civil war threatened the outer realm and you needed to firm up your position. A marriage was a brilliant way to win the hearts of your people and the support of your lords.
It made sense for a King.
But it didn’t make sense for Arthur.
I was so happy when you proposed to me and I doubt I will ever forget the day. I do love you, and I know you love me too. But love isn’t as simple as that. Just as there are hundreds of shades of green in the leaves of a tree, or shades of brown in the dirt, or shades of red in the berry, so there are different shades of love.
Our love is strong and it is special. But it is not what I deserve, and it is not what you deserve. Camelot needed a Queen, but you never needed a wife.
I have but one request, if you will grant it.
Be true to yourself, Arthur. You deserve no better. You can not be the warrior, the King, that Camelot needs you to be on the battle field if you are burdened by your own conscience.
Sobbing gently, he stayed in his tent for another hour, rereading the letter. Slowly the tears disappeared, leaving a plan of action in their place. Arthur knew what he must do.
“Have you seen my sword, Perce?” Merlin was at the end of his tether. Although marchers were never very organised affairs, his belongings seemed to have ended up all over the camp.
“You have a sword?” Percival replied, a wry smile on his lips. “What would you be needing a sword for?”
“We are going to war.”
“Yeah, but a proper sword? You have to pick it up, you know, and you’re not the strongest…”
“Fuck off, Perce, and just tell me.” Merlin was not in the mood for jokes. That seemed to have been made clear, because Percival stopped his purposefully annoying smile.
“Sorry Merl. I don’t know, there’s a pile of swords over there though, might be worth looking through them.”
After rummaging through the pile – and cutting himself a few times – Merlin found his sword. It was nothing special, but he always felt safer with it around. He’d need to feel safe soon enough.
Returning to his tent, he noticed that the knights were watching an arm-wrestling competition.
Merlin cautiously snook away from the camp, and disappeared through the trees. The urge to turn back was growing, so he broke into a run. He could feel Kinsley’s magic now, pulling him in. Stopping for breath in a clearing, the wizard mentally assessed the situation and began to plan a route from a map he’d stolen.
A twig snapping distracted him from the exercise. Suddenly on full alert, he drew his sword and tried to identify the direction of the noise. He moved towards it, his heart beating and his hands shaking as he advanced.
“What are you doing?”
Merlin spun around at the voice from behind. He saw Arthur standing there, with a look of faint confusion on his face.
Crap. Arthur can’t know I’m sneaking off to face Kinsley. He wouldn’t understand, he wouldn’t trust me.
“I thought… a noise…”
“Yes, that was me.” Arthur replied, coolly.
“Oh, I thought it came from over there.” Merlin mumbled.
“I just wanted – why do you have your pack with you?”
“What? Oh, I… erm…”
“Were you planning on running away, Merlin?”
“No! No, I was just… going for a walk.”
“A walk? Fucking hell Merlin, you’re a bigger cunt than even I imagined.”
“I wasn’t -”
“To think I was going to – never mind. What was it, did it get a bit real? Did it get a bit fucking much for you Merlin?” Arthur was yelling now. Dressed in his full royal armour, he looked quite terrifying. “I have thousands of men willing to give their lives for this kingdom, against a foe they have no hope of defeating, and our one weapon, our one chance of not fucking everyone over, gets a bit panicky and decides to fuck off?”
“No, Merlin. No excuses. You’re pathetic, you’re a pathetic little boy who calls himself a wizard. You’re a coward, you’re a -”
“I WAS GOING TO STOP HIM.”
Silence. Arthur stared at the wizard, scrutinising him.
“Just words…” The king muttered, shaking his head. He looked sad, Merlin thought, almost disappointed. “Just words, nothing more.”
“I was going to kill him, Arthur. I don’t want to see your men die against a foe they can’t fight. I don’t want to see you die. It’s like you said, I’m your one weapon, the rest of you really aren’t necessary. So I thought I’d just cut out the middle-men, the war, the death, and I’d face him, wizard to wizard.”
“What, and you were just going to march back afterwards and just tell everyone he was dead?”
“I… haven’t packed enough for a return journey. I didn’t think it would be necessary.”
“Oh.” Another silence. No longer awkward, but… strange. Arthur once again felt powerless in front of Merlin, but for completely different reasons now. Despite everything Arthur had put him through, Merlin’s courage, his bravery, his dedication to his follow knights was astonishing. It occurred to Arthur that this is who Merlin really was, not the monster he’d thought.
“I’m sorry Merlin. I was wrong. I’ve got it all… wrong. I’m sorry, really.”
“Thank you, Arthur.” Merlin replied, holding back his tears. “Now, I’ll be off.”
“Don’t go, you can’t. You’re just one person, you can’t fight an army.” Arthur realised he was pleading. He reached a hand out to grab the wizard’s shoulder.
Merlin tried to pull away, but Arthur’s grip was strong. He smiled sadly at the King, unashamedly talking in every last feature of his face, every hair, every imperfection.
“Goodbye Arthur.” With a flash of Merlin’s eyes, the King was thrown across the clearing. Merlin turned away, took a deep breath and began to walk.
“Stop!” There was something in Arthur’s voice, a royal command, that made him do so. “Stop hiding behind your magic, Merlin. Stop using it to push people away. Stop using it as an excuse to be selfish.”
Merlin turned to face Arthur, who had pulled himself up and was advancing towards the wizard until they were less than a sword’s length apart.
“I’m offering to kill myself to save you, to save Camelot. How is that possibly selfish?”
“Because I don’t want you to leave me.” Arthur replied. Before Merlin fully could comprehend the meaning of Arthur’s words, the king was kissing him. It wasn’t like any time before – this time, Merlin felt a connection, something told him this time it was right; inexplicably, undeniably, unrelentingly right.
For what seemed like an eternity, the two stood alone in the clearing, and kissed. Kissed away all the pent up anger, jealousy and hatred that had poisoned their relationship.
They kissed because they forgave each other. They kissed because they wanted to be forgiven. They kissed because they were finally free.
Minutes later, they broke away.
“Why now?” Merlin whispered.
“I’ve always felt differently towards you, Merlin.” Arthur began. “I didn’t always know what it was, but it’s always been there. I called it a phase, a strong friendship, or maybe I was just a bit horny, but I’ve always… well, until you, did, you know, and then I didn’t know what I felt any more. Your magic didn’t work, Merlin, and I was awake the whole night. I wanted to move, I wanted run away, have you arrested, but I just lay there holding you. Then the morning came, and I felt you… blow me. I just lay there again, I just lay there and let it happen. You administered the potion but it quickly wore off. I remembered what you did, and what I didn’t do.
I hated you, but I began to hate me more. Why couldn’t I just say no, why didn’t I stop you? I kept thinking about it, and I’d get hard and I’d hate you again. I kept thinking of what I’d do to you, to punish you… and then I did, in Portcullis Nook… it was so fucking hot Merlin, seeing you there like that. But the fact I enjoyed it so much disgusted me. I couldn’t face the truth. It didn’t even cross my mind.
Later I found out you… turned to Gwaine. The scullery maids see everything. I thought I was feeling anger. I went to confront you, I wanted to hurt you, but as soon as I saw you there I knew I was just… jealous. I realised what I was. I had never admitted it before, but I was… gay.”
Merlin was speechless. It was all too much to take in. His plan, the start of this sorry affair, was unnecessary. He opened his mouth to reply, but Arthur continued.
“Please, just… hear me out. This is really, really difficult for me. Because of everything you’ve done to me… I still wanted to hate. I have spent so long focusing on hate… on hating you. And then I see you here, willing to die for me, willing to sacrifice everything you have for me… despite everything you’ve done, I love you. I love you, Merlin, and I only wish I’d realised it earlier. So I guess what I mean is, please don’t leave me Merlin… please don’t go to die. Just, stay with me and tell me that, well if you still do, tell me that -”
“I love you too, Arthur Pendragon.”