This story started writing itself as soon as I read it.
Prologue - The Raven
And even the renowned king Arthur himself was mortally wounded.
-Geoffrey of Monmouth
He opened his eyes. Branches swirled above him, with the stars gleaming beyond. Each breath was difficult, and he could feel his lungs full of blood. Morgan had left him, though some of her maidens stood nearby. When he looked at them, they blurred and swayed. He tried to blink his eyes clear, but he could not focus on them. One lifted a hand and touched her mouth—in grief, he thought.
I am dying, he realized. I really am going to die.
He coughed, and his chest burst into fresh pain, and his mouth filled with blood. A woman came to help him, wiping the blood from his chin and whispering about rest.
Sleep. That is what he wanted. After the last several months, he had earned that. He had earned peace.
Will they get married, now that I am gone? he wondered, shutting his eyes. He expected to feel that grief again—that betrayal and anger, that gaping hole that had sunk into him ever since he had retrieved his wife.
"What were you thinking?" he asked her. His voice was forcibly calm, patient. At one time, his gentleness had warmed her heart. He remembered that time. But as she turned to the window, he felt afresh that her heart had never really been his. Over twenty years of marriage. No legitimate children to be heirs. A kingdom nearly torn in half when her affair was discovered.
She would not answer. He could see that in the set of her jaw. He wanted to yell—to accuse her of the deaths of the men, the deaths of his nephews. Everything in him wished to see her crushed, the way he had felt when they brought him the news that awful day.
But suddenly he knew he could not accuse her of anything. She could not defend herself against him. She would not talk back to a king. Perhaps she did not want to speak, did not want to own up to her mistakes, but she also knew that he could change his mind. He could burn her.
Somehow, her face—turned away from him, eyes staring out the window—reminded him of the day after their marriage. He had thought then that she was just homesick. Now he knew that she was resigned to her fate, neither hoping nor fearing. She had been resigned with him this whole time.
He had brought her into this. Perhaps if he had taken the time to secure her affections better, tried harder not to leave her so often for his duties—perhaps none of this would have happened. His friend had wooed her into adultery, but had he—her husband—ever tried to stop it from happening? He had been so blind to it, that it had taken two hateful knights to open his eyes. If he had been paying closer attention, perhaps he would have caught it, would have been able to resolve it quietly—without war and death and injury.
He had left her standing there, and never seen her since. He felt nothing now: no regret, no anger. It would be done with soon. Peace. I want peace.
"Brother," said a familiar voice. He opened his eyes, peering into Morgan's face. There was someone leaning over her shoulder—someone not quite old, but yet ancient—not quite young, but somehow boyish. His advisor. He tried to speak, but blood gurgled up his throat. Morgan wiped the blood from his chin. "You see how bad it is. I cannot heal him."
The man nodded. He knelt down, meeting the eyes of his king solemnly. "My friend," he said, "you cannot live as you are now. But I can give you another chance."
Another chance. The pain began then—in his chest and flowing like fire to his limbs. He looked up, and saw the man's fingers were gleaming with faint light. No, he thought. No more chances! I want to rest!
"You are the hope of your people," the advisor said. His hands had become white, and he was reaching towards the wounds. "Such a hope should not be squandered. You will be needed again."
No, no, no!
His hands came against the wounds. "You will not remember very much, I am afraid," the advisor continued. "But it will have to do."
Then everything began to change. The people over him grew larger—no, he was growing smaller. His chest stopped hurting. His arms felt heavy, but his legs were strangely light. He tried to turn onto his side, but his advisor—a giant now—picked him up.
"A raven," Morgan whispered beside him, awed.
"You will become yourself again when the time is right," Merlin said. He threw his hands into the air and let go. "Fly free, my king."
The raven disappeared into the mists of Avalon, and was not seen again for a very long time.
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