He apologises, words which fell from his lips almost without thought. Feeling like the closest to the right thing to say; an apology Arthur didn’t yet truly fully understand. It's okay now that you’re here.
She tells him and his eyes sink closed a moment as he takes in those words, ones he couldn’t wrap his mind around just yet. A head only just torn from its own vivid imaginings; a world so real and so detailed, it felt like a reality in itself.
But he was here now. Like Gwen said. And though Arthur couldn’t yet grasp what she meant by that, it brought an odd sense of ease to her King. Just knowing that wherever here was, Gwen was here too. She was here, right beside him, holding his hand and speaking to him in gentle words. She could hear him now, she saw him again. Which was such a blessed relief compared to whatever hell he’d just left.
It is an apology that soon comes right back, now he knows, knows and understands far more just the gravity of where he was. And where he’d just come back from the brink of. Death. Had he really come so close? The ache in every part of him, the feebleness of every muscle, there were hardly any clearer indications. It felt like hell, like all the energy had been drained from him. And it had, spilt across the floor of that room he had chosen for its privacy. Blood silently leaking from him, staining stone and leaving his body with increasingly less.
Such a feeble apology in the face of it all. As he lay, with barely the energy to move, out on their bed. Looking up into her face, into those eyes filled with grief and exhaustion, and Arthur knew they were words which would hardly suffice. No words would, not in the face of this, in all that was still to come.
I almost lost you. It was so painfully clear in the way she spoke, in that distress caught up in her voice. “You didn’t, you didn’t.” Arthur repeats in that weak whisper, repeating himself like she did herself. Searching Gwen’s face desperately, wishing and willing to do anything to calm the terror he knew must have been in her heart. Though he wished so much to take Gwen into his arms and prove it without a doubt. He was here. She didn’t lose him. To whisper to her more gentle promises that he never would again...he lacked any of the strength he needed to do so, hardly able to lift himself from his pillows. But he still had words, as small a voice as they were said in now, they would serve as proof.
But you’re here. You’re here. Her King dared a slight smile at her reminder.
It was fleeting, swallowed by his sudden confusion. His desperation to understand just what had happened, and explain it, to both himself and more importantly, to his wife. Arthur tries to tell her, that he had never meant for this, had never meant to do such damage, to go so far. To risk so much. He would never try to leave her, not like that. It had been an accident, a horrendous and reckless accident.
She shook her head at him and his brow creases in confusion and worry and pain. “Please,” he tries again. “I never meant for this, Gwen.” She hadn’t known. Of course, he’d never warned her of his plans. He hadn’t warned a soul. It was a miracle that they’d found him at all… His heart aches for her own, desperate to make this easier in any way but struggling to find how. The truth. Whilst it might not take any of this away, wouldn't bring that blood back into his body, nor let him walk from this bed right now, but perhaps it could ease her mind a little if nothing else.
Arthur watches, with a bleeding heart, as Gwen tried to calm the grief which was tearing her apart. A guilt sinking deep into him for having been the one to put her through such torment, even though it had never been his intent, it had been his fault. Entirely his own. In that small pause, he asked a question;. how long was I there? Seeing her shake her head immediately after. She didn’t know, she tells him, and no, she wouldn’t know. She had not been there when he started, nor when he’d offered up his sacrifice, nor when he had passed out from the effort of wielding such a ritual...she had only arrived later. When it had been almost too late.
Long enough. Arthur managed a slight nod. Yes, long enough, long enough to have almost left her here, in this world, alone. To have gone where she couldn’t reach.
“It was evening.” He isn’t fully sure where the answer comes from, but it spills from his lips like a realisation he’d only just made. “Before dinner.” His eyes search Gwen’s own. That’s when he’d began, after his meetings for the day had finished up, after he’d gathered all he would need, he’d escaped to that little room in the far depths of the castle-
Arthur suddenly tried to crane his neck against his pillows, to stretch his line of sight to see more of the room. How long had he been laying there? Laying here? Gwen didn’t know the first, but the answer to at least the second might be enough. Not to put his frantic mind at rest but to provide him just one more piece of this puzzle that still didn’t seem to be fitting together. The King took a few seconds, to recognise that the curtains were drawn, but no sunlight was trying to filter through the fabric. The room was lit still by the warm flicker of candlelight. It was night, or early morning. He couldn’t tell. It was as much as he could do alone.
His gaze shifts slowly back to Gwen’s. “What time is it?” He managed to find those few words, to form one more question nagging at him. One more which could make just a little more sense of this to a mind still reeling from blood loss and the vivid visions which had accompanied it.
Their hands resting over where his heart beat steadily and surely, that small smile which spoke volumes. Her King does all her can to comfort her, all that was still left in his power.
But she reminds them both of that encounter in the hallway and wipes that precarious smile from his lips with it. Gwen insisted that she hadn’t meant those words, that heavy promise. “I know you didn’t.” He promises her in a gentle tone, his eyes never leaving her.
He wants to assure her too that he’d known so from the beginning, which truly he had, that those words hadn’t hurt him the way they had but Arthur didn’t want to lie to her. Not now, not even for the sake of easing the pain of that moment in the corridor. Those words had eaten away at him, but even more so those angry tears which had filled her eyes. They had affected him, of course they had, it was those words and those tears which had told Arthur that it had been time. Regardless of whether or not he had been ready.
Instead, behind tears which stung his eyes again, Arthur told her she didn’t need to apologise to him. “It’s okay,” he continued, knowing he had forgiven her immediately. That there was no need for her to be sorry, he’d been sorry right away as well. “I deserved it.” It came in the weak whisper which had become his voice, through the tears which threatened to fall again. And Arthur believed it, he had done. He’d deserved her anger for all the promises he had been breaking, in order to fulfil the one promise he knew he couldn’t afford to break.
“You know the same, don’t you?” His thumb traced gentle motions against the back of her hand. “I could never survive without you.”
(It seemed odd now, to speak and know so with such a certainty, that neither could live without the other. When only weeks ago, a lifetime it seemed, they had almost torn their marriage apart with their own hands. Arthur nearly sending her way in some even more futile effort to protect her from all a life beside him entailed. To a life permanently apart in which both would live without their other halves. They could never have done it, never survived without one another. And Arthur had been so, so glad then to let themselves realise that, to have stopped pretending they could ever have lived a life apart.)
He pressed a kiss against her knuckles. Able to bear the pain of the movement, if only for that. If only to see that smile light up on her lips again.
A smile immediately matched on his own, the corners of his lips spreading wider as Gwen accepted his silent invitation to lie with him without any hint of hesitation. He opened an arm up for her and she came to lie down beside him, resting her head carefully on his shoulder and pressing up against his side. Arthur grins to only be so close to her again. To feel the warmth of her against him, not truly realising until then just how cold he was. Skin still pale, but warming with every minute he still breathed, with every time his heart still beat.
This is where he belonged, with his Gwen. No matter how the world was crashing and burning around them, they would always have each other. They would always have this closeness. This love which shone so brightly, even in silent glances, even in the smallest of gestures, even in the simple act of holding her in his arms.
It was not as sure as it usually was, purely for Arthur’s cautious treatment of the arms which bore those long cuts he’d inflicted himself. But his arm still came to wrap around her, resting lightly around her waist. Careful not to put too much pressure on the wounds which would be healing for a long time to come. Gwen rested a hand once more upon his chest and Arthur shared a smile at the small gesture; her fingertips resting against his skin, the hand bandaged. Matching the ones tied about his own hand. Both of them stained red with blood.
He did not know yet what she had done for him. Did not know that his skin was still stained red where they had rushed in washing him, eager to merely see him rested and alive rather than washed clean. He doesn’t realise the blood which had seeped from her, all over him. Coming to rest on his skin as his had on hers. The blood spilt, together, in unison, as always, to save their little prince. To keep Arthur alive. To finally allow their family to live.
Their little prince.
His mind finally catches up with all that had occurred the night before, the events and his decisions preceding them trickling through to finally form a picture of this near tragedy which made sense to the King of Camelot. As he holds his wife tenderly, Arthur confessed the ultimate truth, the one he realised would hopefully bring Gwen some relief. His reasons. He confessed his reasons.
Arthur watches her for a moment, taking in just the implication of that small question, asked in that small voice. Choked on the tears which still flowed from her eyes. He fell silent.
Had it worked? How exactly did one even know? All this time and all this planning, Arthur Pendragon, and there was one inevitable oversight. How did one know when a curse was broken? When its effects were to kill every one of your children before they was born?
“I-” Arthur stuttered on his words. Words he didn’t have, that fell dead before even truly beginning. His eyes fall closed, his brow creasing in what was either pain or concentration. Or more likely both. His mind desperately scrambles, trying to make sense of those final pieces of this puzzle. That looming something that still evaded him. “It-” Those visions swim before his mind’s eye again. That confusing array of scenes painted red which seemed to be slowly making more sense with time. It was there. That something was there, he could sense it. But where? And what?
The King forced his eyes back open, staring now up at the ceiling as his broken voice sounds out again. Determined to give the explanation it now knew how to give. “I promised you, Gwen, that I’d find a way to fix this, do you remember? When I told you of this curse.” He very much doubted that Gwen would need such a reminder, he remembered all too painfully holding Gwen in his arms as they both cried, together. Over the deaths of all the children they would ever try to have, over the sheer unfairness of such a cruel curse to lay on them and all those innocent unborn children who’d never even been given a chance.
Arthur had sworn he would find a way to fix it, had promised Gwen then that no matter what came, this would not be forever. (He would bring relief to her heartache, he would give her a family. Even if it killed him.) “I looked, I did, but not properly, not until-” That sentence dies on his lips, the weight of what was to come choking his words. Arthur knew he wouldn’t have to fill in that blank for Gwen, she would realise well enough just what had given her husband this urgency. “I knew then I couldn’t afford to lose another child, not like that. I didn’t want you to have to go through that again.” He forced the words out even though his weak voice was breaking. Those hot tears stinging his eyes again as he remembers it, all of it. Just the pain and the burning guilt which had spurred him on to finally find some way to rid them both of this heartache, to let their children have the chance they deserved.
He remembers the research he’d completed between meetings and early in the morning, before the castle had properly woken. Delving into the world of magic which by right, by blood, was his. A magic which had sat dormant in his veins for so very long now, an insidious breed which ran back through his mother’s line for generations. The same kind which had forced this curse upon him would be the only option to force that curse from him again. A war of familial magics, of blood magic of sister and brother. It would work, in theory it was the most likely to. And it had to, for their child’s sake.
He remembers the ensuing scramble to practise. Distancing himself then from the wife he had vowed so many times he would never do that to again, all to hide this great and terrible secret. He remembers tripping over the pronunciation of ancient tongues some part of him found so familiar, of scarring his skin with that same dagger and flinching every time. Of collecting water and darting about his duties, attempting not to show that anything, anything at all was going on.
“I found the solution.”
He choked out, not able to look at her. Crying now, and not the silent tears from earlier he had barely noticed falling, but tears which came with great sobs. His chest heaving as the full weight of all which had led up to this moment and all which he had caused became clear to him.
He’d found his solution, his answer, the only one he had. The one which had brought him right to death’s door, which had sapped the strength from his body like that sacrifice had demanded its blood payment, crippling him with a pain he could never hope to endure and stealing his very life force as he bled out on the stone. The solution which had asked him to give up so very much of himself.
Arthur battled to right his breathing, turning to face away from her now as the tears showed no signs of calming. “I know I said we’d do this together but...I had to, I had to.” Break so many promises in order to keep only one. “...You would have stopped me.” It’s why he had been so scared to be close to her, in fear of Gwen finding out just what he was planning and stopping him from risking himself for such an uncertain outcome.
He came to look at her again, desperate now for the first time properly to free his other hand from within these bedsheets. It took all the energy he didn’t have, Arthur wincing as the arm he knew matched his right dragged along the bed, fought with the sheets so he could finally see it. Yes, just as he knew it would be; blood-stained cloth wrapped from his wrist up past his elbow, his hand sporting a newer bandage since he’d last seen it. Arthur lays it gingerly down on their bed again.
“I was trying to prepare properly. To practise. My hand, in the corridor, that’s what I was doing. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you then, but I couldn’t.” He shook his head slowly. I deserved it He’d deserved every bit of her anger. “I wanted to be ready but, I didn’t know. None of us knew how much time he had left. It could have happened at any time, any day now.” A truth neither of them needed reminding of.
He shakes his head, tears spilling down his cheeks, as his chest struggled against heavy sobs. Arthur forces that hand, the one he’d intentionally injured only the day before, to lift up off the bed. In his distress, he pressed the hurriedly bandaged hand to his forehead. Finally able to hide behind something.
“I couldn’t lose our child again.” He let the tears fall freely, in no state to stop them. “I needed to save him...Save you both.”
And he was both sorry for it and not. Confused and weak and in pain as he was, he cannot help thinking of the hell Gwen had gone through. Of the thought that he might have actually died in this, and left her to this kingdom without him. The thought terrifies him and Arthur lacks the sense to push those thoughts away. Instead, letting his breath battle with his tears, letting the sobs come now.
He shuts his eyes to it. And they are back, those spiralling visions in their scarlet tint. As he is crippled by a pain which he can only cry out at, screaming into a void that does not care. The empty throne. The dagger sat on broken glass, with the sky that burned outside the castle window. Their bedchamber and Gwen who could not sense him there, no matter how he called her name. And in the corridor, as Gwen calls his name-
Except it wasn’t his, it never had been. Every time she’d looked right through him.
He remembers it then, the sight of the child in her arms. And with it, comes that final piece, that something which lay just out of reach. That something which truly meant everything.
“It’s gone!” Arthur cried out suddenly in elation, his voice cracking with the strain of it. The smile on his face such a stark contrast to the still wet tears painting his skin. “It’s actually gone!” Those heavy sobs which had wracked his tired chest turn suddenly to soft laughter. A sound switched from despair to joyful disbelief.
He didn’t know quite what to feel or why he was feeling it but something made him so entirely sure. It was done. It was finally done
“And I saw him. Gwen, I saw him!”