Chapter 1: Repercussions
Merlin goes on a trip. Arthur is told that he's going on a trip.
Chapter I: Repercussions
Once, he had been… not quite ordinary, but anonymous. There was a separateness to the magical and mundane parts of his life, and the world at large had no idea who and what he was. They hadn't known that in a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rested upon the shoulders of this young man. His name… Merlin.
But now they did.
"I'll probably be back within a week, ten days, maximum," Merlin told his mother and father, not for the first time. He fidgeted with the straps of the bag that hung at his side and found himself wishing that the Isle of the Blessed, his parents' demesne, had more horses. It wasn't like a horse could get through the Impenetrable Forest better than a human (or, they were reasonably certain, a human/banished-Sidhe hybrid) could, but at least the animal could carry his bag for him.
"We know, Merlin," Hunith answered. "Still, try to check back with us as often as you can, all right?"
"I will, Mother," he promised. "You take care too."
Hunith rolled her eyes. "Don't worry about that. Your father's been a little bit paranoid ever since he learned I'm pregnant."
"Can you blame me?" asked Balinor.
The dragonlord smiled fondly at his wife, rolling his eyes ever so slightly. "Pregnancy is risky, love. Gaius, you tell her."
"I know better than to get involved in this," the old physician retorted, but he was smiling too. "Merlin, I would recommend that you escape while you still can."
The warlock laughed softly, spoke the words to the teleportation spell: "Bedyrne mec. Astýre mec þanonweard!" A whirlwind brushed up the dust around him, rippled across his deep blue cloak. When the wind died down, he was gone.
Merlin stood on the edge of a forest. The plain behind him was bright, filled with sunlight that scorched the barren dirt. The woodland before him was a labyrinth of green shadows and twisting tree-trunks, as dark as evening and as still as the grave.
"Queen Mab?" Merlin called. He didn't really think that this would work, but he'd promised his worried family that he'd at least try to talk with Mab before actually entering the Impenetrable Forest. "I seek an audience."
"We made a deal when Cornelius Sigan tried to bring me to the Dark Tower," Merlin continued, fingers drumming on his staff. "I know that I agreed to do something for you, but I think that the magic he used affected my memory. I can't recall what I promised."
The leaves rustled. A few fingers of sunlight crept into the shadowy underbrush before being forced once again into retreat.
The warlock huffed. Well, he'd tried.
Staff in hand, Merlin stepped into the Impenetrable Forest.
Arthur had known that this day was coming for a long time. Hell, he'd known it was coming since before he condemned himself by wielding Excalibur against Sigan's gargoyle army. If anything, he was surprised that it had taken so long for Uther Pendragon, so notorious for his swift punishment of anything even vaguely magical, to take action.
That didn't make him any less nervous, though.
He tried not to show it. Face blank, shoulders square, back straight, hands loose and neat at his sides. If it was taking him far too much effort to not curl his fingers into fists and let his hackles rise, well, that was nobody's business but his own.
The room was empty save for him and his father. It was probably the first time they'd been alone together since before he'd left for Tintagel. It should have been warm and pleasant, but the air was thick with tension like humidity before a storm.
Arthur didn't like it, but he remained still. He needed to see what his father would do.
Prince and king watched each other for long moments. The only sound in the room was their quiet breathing and the occasional muffled noise from outside.
Finally Uther spoke. "I suppose I ought to ask for an explanation."
"I did," Arthur told him, "what needed to be done." We all did, he thought but didn't say. No need to remind the king that he wasn't the only man to pick up an enchanted sword that night.
Uther's lips thinned. "What needed to be done? Tell me, Arthur: who told you what needed to be done?"
"No one, Father. I could see it for myself."
The king sneered but remained silent. His hard gaze practically commanded Arthur to continue.
Arthur obliged. "Cornelius Sigan had a history of using overwhelming force, most notably with the Knights of Medhir. He liked to ensure that he could attack his enemies in ways they were completely incapable of countering. To ensure the survival of the citadel and all its inhabitants, I needed a surprise of my own. Excalibur."
Just saying the sword's name made him miss it more. It had been confiscated almost immediately after Sigan's defeat, hidden away in some hastily improvised weapons vault deep within Lord Leodegrance's keep and guarded by four men every hour of the day.
Merlin had still managed to steal it, though he'd left the swords of the Knights of Medhir behind. The cheeky little blighter had also left a note informing 'any and all concerned parties' that he had unspecified 'plans' to keep the sword safe. Considering that Merlin's last attempt to safeguard the blade had resulted in him throwing it into a nausea-inducing enchanted fairy lake haunted by a woman who had once tried to kill him, Arthur shuddered to think of where his sword might be now.
Arthur met his father's eyes, fists curling with defiance. "And I was right. Until Tom the blacksmith arrived with those extra hammers, nothing except enchanted steel stood any chance against Sigan's gargoyle army."
"We had hammers of our own—"
"Which Sigan knew about. If you recall, Father, the armory was his first target. Nobody could access our store of blunt weapons, so the guards were forced to fight with standard-issue swords."
"Perhaps if your sorcerer had had the decency to warn us of his kinsman's intentions, we would have been able to hold the armory."
"Actually, Merlin did inform me that the Raven's Key had been stolen when he visited me in my cell that night."
Uther jerked, eyes bulging. "What?"
That was right, he hadn't known about that. "Merlin came to visit me in my cell that night," Arthur repeated. "He wanted me to know that he wasn't under Sigan's control and that we should worry about the Raven's Key. I was going to tell you in the morning, but we were attacked before I could manage it. Merlin escorted me back to my room to retrieve Excalibur, at which point we went our separate ways. Then so much happened that I forgot to tell you."
"You forgot to tell me that a sorcerer broke into our dungeons to speak with you?!"
"It was a long night," Arthur deadpanned.
Uther reddened, fingers spasming into fists. He looked ready to explode, and it clearly cost him to hold his temper. "Yes, it was. Sorcerers fighting in the citadel, destroying my castle, murdering my people."
One caused the damage, Arthur could have said. The others fought against him. But if reports from the other eyewitnesses hadn't convinced his father, nothing he could say would change the king's mind. He didn't even bother pointing out that technically, Merlin and Sigan were both warlocks. His father didn't care.
Not that long ago, Arthur wouldn't have either. He wouldn't have known that there was a difference.
"Report," the king commanded. "Tell me what you did and what the hell you were thinking."
The prince obeyed. He started with Merlin's visit in his cell and ended when the gargoyle army stopped dead in its tracks. If his report focused more on his own thought processes than on the fact that five other fighters had wielded enchanted steel and that spellbinders had used magic to fling gargoyles into each other, well. He was just following orders.
The hardest part was not going into a rant about Merlin's deranged (but also, sadly, intelligent, though he was loathe to admit it. Kilgharrah had probably saved several lives) decision to summon his talking dragon.
His thoughts were logical, his actions necessary, but Arthur knew that Uther wouldn't see it that way. He gloomily wondered if he'd end up in another dungeon and how long he'd stay. Maybe he could break out and wander the kingdom as a knight-errant for awhile, except he'd never actually do that. Princes had responsibilities, and he had more than most. He was the only person who stood a chance of curbing some of his father's more… excessive ideas.
The king was silent for a long time after Arthur's report was over. Finally he gave a sharp nod, more to himself than to his son. He'd probably finalized his decision.
A thin sheen of sweat gathered on Arthur's brow. Uther would never kill his heir, but there were other ways to punish him.
(And how unjust was that, that he was being punished for saving the city?)
"You are to make for Gawant immediately."
Arthur blinked, pulling up short. He didn't know what he'd expected—probably to be sent to fight against Magance—but this wasn't it. "Gawant, Father?"
"Yes. Due to those damn sorcerers destroying everything, Camelot cannot host the meeting of the Five Kingdoms this year. King Godwyn has agreed that our kingdoms should switch, and all five of us have decided that the meeting should be delayed until the beginning of September."
That was good, because the meeting was supposed to be next week. In the chaos of reconstruction, Arthur had almost completely forgotten about it.
"You will serve as an ambassador to Gawant. Make certain to stay on good terms with them, but do not lead on Princess Elena. Godwyn has long assumed that the two of you would marry one day. Part of your job is to forge an alliance that will not be damaged when you marry another."
"You've… chosen my wife, then?" Arthur squeaked. Guinevere's face flitted through his mind. Somehow, he rather doubted that she was the one Uther had decided on.
There was something a little bit cruel in the king's smile. It was not at all encouraging. All he said was, "Negotiations are underway."
"Ah. With whom are you negotiating?"
Uther made a negligent waving gesture. "Someone I can trust."
Arthur grimaced but didn't say anything. No need to pick a fight unnecessarily. "I see. When would you like me to depart?"
"Tomorrow. I've already made arrangements."
In other words, he wanted Arthur gone as quickly as possible. He must be planning something that he knew his son would object to.
"…Of course. By your leave, Father."
Uther nodded, so Arthur bowed and backed out of the room.
As soon as he'd turned the first corner, Arthur nearly doubled his pace. "Where is the Lady Morgana?" he asked the first servant he encountered. With Alator in hiding and Merlin banished, she was the only spellbinder he knew how to contact in the citadel, and he knew that she fully intended to quietly counter Uther's inevitable anti-sorcery campaigns.
Not to mention, he'd likely find Guinevere with her lady.
"I'm not certain, sire," the woman replied. "I think she might be requisitioning herbs for Mistress Gwen."
Guinevere wasn't a healer nor even a healer's apprentice, but she'd spent enough time around Gaius to have picked up a few things. She knew how to clean wounds and make certain that bones were healing right, which made her a valuable asset after the earthquake/attack/fires. It also, Arthur worried, made her a target. Healers were frequently suspected to be practitioners of magic, which was why Camelot had so few of them. It didn't help that Guinevere was known to be a friend of Merlin the warlock and Gaius the probably-not-actually-reformed sorcerer. Still, Guinevere had been adamant about doing everything she could to help, and she'd consequently ended up in charge of the city's medical team.
Nodding his thanks to the servant, Arthur continued on to the tent in the marketplace that served as Guinevere's clinic. If Morgana was searching for herbs, someone here would be able to tell him more.
It turned out that the servant was wrong. Both women were in the tent. Guinevere's sleeves were rolled up as she changed a child's bandages, and Morgana was organizing several herbs along the construction's single table.
Arthur watched them for a moment in silence, a faint smile on his face. Then the patient's mother noticed him, recognized him, and dropped into a clumsy curtsy. Guinevere's quick bob was significantly more graceful. Morgana didn't bother. She simply nodded her acknowledgement.
"When you have a moment, I'd like to speak with you," Arthur told them. He smiled at the wide-eyed little child.
"Kyla, could you come here, please?" Guinevere called. She finished tying the new bandage. "There you go. Does that feel better?"
The boy nodded shyly, his gaze still fixated on his prince.
"Don't worry," Morgana assured him, "Arthur doesn't bite."
"Not citizens of Camelot, at any rate," Arthur joked.
The child flushed.
"You two," Guinevere chided, but she was smiling. To the child's mother, she said, "He looks to be healing nicely. I think that we can remove the bandages entirely tomorrow."
"Thank you, Mistress Gwen."
"You're very welcome, Hilda."
Another, older woman, presumably Kyla, ducked inside. "Can you take over for me for a few minutes?" Guinevere asked her.
Soon enough, the tent was clear except for them. Something must have shown in Arthur's face, because the women were visibly worried.
"What's going on?" Guinevere asked.
Arthur did his best to relay the story dispassionately. He was sorely tempted to leave out the bit about the marriage scheme, but they needed to know about that too.
"The fact that Uther's sending you away means that he's going to act soon," Morgana muttered. She huffed. "I'd hoped he would wait a bit longer than a week, fix up the citadel more before he did anything."
"Dad's been telling me about the Day of Pyres," Gwen told them quietly. "I haven't seen any evidence of a list, but that probably doesn't mean anything."
The others hadn't either, but it wasn't like they'd been spending a lot of time around Uther. Arthur had been actively avoiding him. Also, it wasn't like Uther had to make the list himself. He could have delegated it to any number of people.
"We'll need to spread the word," Arthur decided. "Leon and the others can help."
"Not for long," Morgana told him. "They're being sent to the front tomorrow." A muscle jumped in her jaw, and there was a hard edge to her voice. "Uther wants them on the front lines."
"He specifically ordered all five—"
"By name, even. Direct orders." Morgana's nostrils flared. "They're heroes. He can't kill them directly, so he's trying an indirect route."
With a start, Arthur remembered how Lord Gorlois had died. But—Gorlois and Uther had been friends. Gorlois had been loyal, and he'd been as against sorcery as any man in Camelot despite the fact that his wife had quite a few connections to the Old Religion. Surely Uther had had no reason to have his old friend killed.
At least, Arthur hoped so.
"It won't work," Guinevere said quietly, desperately. "They'll be fine. But. Just in case, would it be possible to contact Merlin or that Alator fellow or, or someone? Maybe even Blaise, though I'm not sure how much a druid could do on the battlefield."
Arthur almost asked who Blaise the druid was before remembering that he was Merlin's tutor who had been living in the woods for the past year or so.
"Merlin would probably be best, but he's off in the Impenetrable Forest right now," Morgana replied.
That was right. They had that odd dream connection.
Arthur sighed. "What is the Impenetrable Forest and what is he doing there?"
"It's the forest around the Dark Tower over in the Perilous Lands," she explained. "Remember, he made some kind of deal with its queen?"
"Right," Arthur sighed. "Why do I have a feeling that fulfilling this promise will take a ridiculously long period of time?"
"…Merlin thinks that it'll take a week at the most, long enough for Uther to cool down a bit more. I think he's laying low in the hope that Uther will be slightly less homicidal that way." Morgana's tone implied that she felt this was a futile hope.
Guinevere grimaced. "I wonder if it would be possible to contact the Isle of the Blessed? For the war, I mean."
"Blaise could," Morgana answered.
"Our best hope is to end the war quickly. Gods, it's so stupid."
Guinevere's brow furrowed. "Does Odin have any daughters?" she asked, suddenly alarmed.
"They're both married already," Arthur assured her. "And even if they weren't, Odin wants this war. He'd never agree to end it with a marriage."
Morgana looked between them and sighed heavily. "Arthur. Gwen. I know that whatever marriage Uther is planning is not going to be a pleasant subject, but we need to at least try to figure out who it is."
"Not Elena," Arthur muttered. "Not Vivian either, thank the gods."
"I think I might have an idea," Guinevere announced, eyes wide. "There's only one king who hates magic more than Uther. Does Sarrum have any daughters?"
"His youngest would be about sixteen or seventeen, I think," Arthur answered, dread curdling in his gut. "What's her name again?"
"Orgeluse," Morgana supplied. "She's sometimes called the Haughty Maiden."
"Of course she is." Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. "Of course she is."
"You're not marrying her," Morgana informed him.
"Of course not!"
"You're marrying Gwen." She hesitated, chewing her lip a little, then added, "I've Seen it."
Two heads whipped around to gape at her. Guinevere sat down, hard, almost falling onto her chair. "Oh," she said faintly.
"Oh," Arthur agreed. Then, more loudly, "Oh." A grin blossomed on his face.
Morgana smiled slightly, a little bit smug. "We can finish this talk tonight. I'm going to try to get in contact with Blaise. Alone. He hasn't been by today yet. Goodbye." And she was gone before they could say a word.
Guinevere looked up at him, her eyes bright, her smile brighter still.
Their kiss was everything he ever dreamed it would be.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Arthur is Justifiably Concerned about the State of his Sword (and Several Other Things)"
Next update: Queen Mab remains unhelpful. King Uther reveals a bit more about his plans.
I found the name Orgeluse by searching for Arthurian female names. (SO MANY Elaines...) She really was called the Haughty Maiden of Logres, which is why I picked her. This Orgeluse is even more of a piece of work than her mythical counterpart, who got a sort of redemption arc and ended up marrying Gawain. In other versions of Gawain's myth, he married other women, so rest assured that he won't end up with the Haughty Maiden in this verse.
Chapter II: Ignite
The forest was darker than it should be, the air heavier. No breeze stirred the leaves. Old mulch squelched beneath Merlin's boots as he kept moving.
"Queen Mab?" he called yet again. He'd lost track of how many times he'd shouted (and eventually just said) her name. He had an odd sense that time didn't matter quite so much here in the Impenetrable Forest.
Yet again, the Queen of Air and Darkness failed to respond.
Merlin huffed softly. He sat, his back against a tree, arms folded. "I'm taking a nap," he informed the trees.
A laugh tinkled through the air. A woman's form, lithe and strong, seemed to materialize out of the shade. "I wondered how long you would keep going. Where is your famous determination, Emrys?"
Merlin shrugged. "There's no point in doing the same thing again and again if you're not making progress," he pointed out. "I figured that if I couldn't find you, you'd find me, and I might as well be rested when you did."
"I suppose," she chuckled. "A pity you didn't wait longer."
"Sorry to cut short your amusement," the warlock deadpanned. He stood, his face settling into seriousness. "I can't remember much of our conversation from when Sigan kidnapped me, so I don't know if I thanked you or not for delaying him until the rescue party arrived. If I didn't, then I thank you now. If I did, then thank you again."
"You did," Mab assured him. The laughter was fading from her tilted eyes.
"Do you remember your promise?"
"No," Merlin admitted. "That's one of the reasons I'm here."
"I'd prefer to fulfill the promise as soon as possible."
"That will not happen as quickly as you'd like," Mab replied. Her lips were beginning to curve again. "What do you think you promised to do?"
…maybe it hadn't been a good idea to admit to the mischievous queen that he didn't know what he owed her. In hindsight, that seemed like a good way to let her take advantage of him. Then again, he wasn't quite certain how he could have tricked her into telling him without letting on that he didn't know.
"Apparently something that will take a long time," he quipped. He closed his eyes, struggling to remember. The odor of the forest filled his nose. He'd smelled it in the dream, too. But that wasn't the only thing. Salt. He'd smelled salt too. And….
"It wasn't just you," he said slowly. "You said, 'We'd like to make a deal.' There was a man there too. Maybe your—no, I don't think he was your husband."
"I have none."
"Yeah, I kind of figured. Um. Was he the Fisher King?" He was the only other person, male or not, associated with the Perilous Lands that Merlin could think of.
"'Tragic is the speaker's plight,'" he recalled. "And the salt. I think it was. Am I supposed to help him somehow? I don't know a lot of healing magic, but I can try."
"Aye. Helping him is the first part of your quest."
Oh, lovely. A quest.
He did not have time for a quest.
"What does he need help with? Like I said, I'm not very good at healing magic yet. I know talented healers, though, and the Keeper of the Unicorns."
"He can tell you himself when you go to Caer Corbenic," Mab told him. "And once you have… assisted… him and received his gift, you'll find it much easier to fulfill the second portion of your vow."
Merlin was beginning to feel that he might have overpaid for his rescue.
"I don't suppose you're going to tell me what that second portion is?"
Mab's eyes sparkled with mirth. "Not directly. Where's the fun in that?"
"With me. The fun is with me."
"Instead of with me. I will give you a few hints, though. First, it is something you are prophesied to do. Second, you were quite enthusiastic about this part. Third… light and silence."
She disappeared then without so much as a goodbye. Merlin would have been surprised if this had happened a year ago, but he'd known Kilgharrah long enough that he'd honestly more than half-expected her to do that.
"Goodbye to you too," he grumbled, then lay down to take his nap.
Elyan and Gwen blinked, surprised that they'd said the exact same thing at the exact same time.
"Of course I'll be safe," Gwen told her brother, the lie sour on her tongue. She certainly hoped she'd be safe, but, well, she had no way of knowing for certain. Just Morgana's wonderful, wonderful dream. "I'll be fine." Her voice was firmer this time. "You're the one going off to war, Elyan."
"The front lines," their father added, darkness in his eyes.
"And I'll have the others to guard my back," he pointed out. "You're in danger too, Gwen. We all know it."
Because Uther was going to do something, and Gwen was Merlin's friend.
"I have Morgana to guard my back," she retorted, unconsciously echoing his words. Her family didn't need to know how much danger Morgana was in herself, between the magic and her intention to sabotage the king in any way possible. (Also, the lady in question was still rather cagey about people knowing she had magic, which was another excellent reason to keep quiet.) "Morgana and Dad and quite a few of the people I've been helping. And if something goes wrong, I have plans to escape."
"To Merlin's parents," she replied honestly. "His father is a dragonlord."
Tom jerked in shock, but Elyan looked more confused than anything else. "What exactly does that mean?"
"It means that he can summon the Great Dragon whenever he feels like it. Is that how the dragon knew about Sigan's attack?"
"…that's a good question. I'm honestly not certain." Gwen sighed softly, sadly. "I think that we should start walking now. We can talk on the way."
In public, their conversation turned to lighter, less treasonous things. Perhaps they should have discussed Elyan's departure some more, but they'd come to an unspoken agreement to avoid that. Instead, Tom told his children a couple stories about when he'd been courting their mother.
There was a contingent of soldiers waiting in front of Lord Leodegrance's manor. Several milled about aimlessly. Others checked their riding gear. Still others spoke among themselves or with their families.
Leon strode over, his red cloak swaying in the breeze. He nodded acknowledgement at Gwen and Tom before asking Elyan, "Do you have everything?"
"Yes." His smile was fond. "Do you really think that Gwen would let me leave the house if I didn't?"
Leon's lips quirked. "True," he acknowledged.
"It looks like almost everyone is already here," Elyan observed.
"Yes. We're almost ready to leave."
"I'm surprised your lady mother isn't here," Gwen teased, trying to lighten the mood.
It worked. Leon gave an affected shudder and assured them, "Don't worry, Father's keeping her busy. We said our goodbyes last night so Mother wouldn't delay the troops by hours."
Conversation continued in that inconsequential vein until the sharp call of a clarion signaled that it was time to march. Elyan hugged his family one last time (Gwen was pleased to note that he barely hesitated at all before wrapping his arms around their father) before jogging into position.
The guardsmen-turned-soldiers departed.
"…Do you think he'll be all right, Dad?"
"I hope so, Gwen. I hope so."
Morgana spent the day in a state of steadily increasing anxiety. She did her best to alleviate it, mainly by quietly spreading the word that Uther was planning something, that he'd act soon now that he'd sent Arthur out of the city. Her attempts were not very successful. Neither were Gwen's attempts to calm her down. The maid meant well, but she was afraid too, just doing a bit better job of hiding it.
Yet as the sun approached its zenith, Uther made no move. He'd spent most of the morning overseeing more of the reconstruction, which she supposed was a lot better than going on a rampage the second Arthur's party cleared the gates. It was just very nerve-wracking to know that he was preparing to strike back against sorcery, that he had to be planning something that would happen soon, without actually seeing those plans come to fruition.
Then an announcement went out: The king would give a speech shortly before sundown.
Having a timeframe did very little to ease the tight coil of fear in Morgana's belly. Perhaps it would have been different if Uther planned to announce his intentions earlier in the day, but it was still summer. Sunset was a long time away, so she had several hours to worry.
She and Gwen were spending the day in the healing tent again, which they'd found was an excellent way to gather and disseminate information. Shortly after receiving the news of Uther's speech, the women elected to take a break.
"Dad remembers the Day of Pyres," Gwen murmured, scanning the street for anyone paying undue attention to them. "He said that it all happened so quickly, nobody had time to fight back."
"Because Uther never bothered to announce that magic was illegal before he started rounding up spellbinders," Morgana growled.
"But now everyone knows that magic is illegal, and people realize that Uther would never let Sigan's attack go by without retaliation. I doubt that there are many spellbinders left in the city."
"We both know it doesn't matter if they're guilty or not. Dead is dead either way. And correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that anyone who died on the Day of Pyres got even a semblance of a trial. They were just rounded up and burned."
Gwen shuddered but didn't deny it. "They didn't know what was coming."
"They do now," Morgana pointed out, grim as the grave.
"They'll fight back," her friend agreed.
"They will," the witch confirmed.
Sure enough, the atmosphere all throughout the city soured and thickened and darkened as the day dragged on. Citizens were eyeing guardsmen with thinly disguised fear. The guards, for their part, watched the people with eyes that were narrowed in suspicion. Doubtless they were already searching for spellbinders.
There had been a slow but steady trickle of people heading out of the city all day. Morgana and Gwen weren't the only ones to realize that Arthur's forced departure was a prelude to something worse, and Tom wasn't the only person to remember the Day of Pyres. But shortly after the announcement about Uther's speech went out, he ordered the gates to be shut.
Word was quick to spread. Neighbors whispered it to neighbors, who murmured the news to their families and friends and any passerby who wasn't a guardsman. By the time the sunlight turned golden and the shadows long, the miasma of fear was strong enough to taste.
Gwen and Morgana spent the afternoon stockpiling bandages. They chatted a bit, at first, but they were affected by the mood too. Their sentences became shorter until they just stopped talking, working in grim silence.
The bells tolled. They sounded like death knells.
"I think we've done all we can here," Gwen said quietly, looking around the linen-filled tent with trepidation.
"Probably," Morgana agreed.
As Uther's ward, Morgana had a place on the balcony where he would give his speech. As her maid, Gwen had a place by her side. They'd have front-row seats.
They found the king writing in a study. The scratching of his quill was the only sound in the entire room. Scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch….
"Sire." A guardsman, his cloak as bright as blood on snow, entered with a bow. "You requested that someone tell you when it was time."
Uther stood. In appearance, at least, he was every inch a king: his crown golden and shining, his clothing fine, his cloak rich, his iron demi-gaunts glinting. This was the man who had started the Purge.
Morgana curtsied slightly, though everything in her railed against it. Gwen's curtsy was deeper, and she tried to keep her face averted. She knew she was in danger, but there was no point in making things worse by giving Uther another reason to remember her existence. Better he half-see her as one of Morgana's accessories than as a potential target.
"Morgana." The lady almost jumped, her head snapping up. "You've been out in the city all day, have you not?"
"…Yes. I have."
"What do the people of Camelot say, now that our city is in ruins because of sorcery?"
This was absolutely not a conversation she wanted to have with him, now or ever. "…They say that Prince Arthur, the guards, and the knights fought valiantly against Sigan's forces." They said similar things about Merlin and his duel against Sigan himself, but she knew better than to mention that. "And they are grateful that Sigan will no longer trouble them."
"Yes." A muscle jumped in Uther's jaw. "One of the sorcerers who attacked my city is dead, but others remain. This so-called Merlin Emrys—" He nearly spat the name "—remains at large, as do the Great Dragon and the accomplices who wielded magic against the gargoyles. Do the people understand this, or do they believe that they were here to help?"
Morgana wished that Uther had chosen to wait in a room closer to the balcony. She settled on, "They know, Sire." It wasn't her fault if he made the wrong assumptions about what they knew.
"Perhaps," Uther sneered. "Or perhaps they know that you are my ward, that you are supposed to be loyal to me, and they refuse to reveal their true thoughts to you." He stopped, looked her dead in the eye. "Are you loyal to me, Morgana?"
"Of course," she lied, hoping it sounded convincing. "To you, and to Arthur, and to Camelot." Mostly the latter two, but that was another of those things Uther didn't need to know.
Uther stared at her, eyes boring into her soul. She stood rigid, a fake smile plastered on her face, sweat trickling down the back of her neck. Was the smile overdoing it? The smile was probably overdoing it. She let it fade into something more solemn before breaking his gaze to drop into a curtsy. It was deeper this time, and she held it for several seconds before she dared to look up again.
There was a frown on the king's face, a little wrinkle between his eyebrows. Other than that, his expression was indecipherable.
He turned. "Come. I have a speech to give."
(Morgana remembered her dream, then: a storm spewing forth from Uther's mouth, red rain falling across the kingdom. The storm symbolism was overdone, but at least it was easy to understand.)
He walked. Morgana followed with Gwen at her heels. Gods, she hoped that Uther had fallen for her lies.
The king strode out onto the balcony, cape swirling behind him. Lord Leodegrance and Lady Laudine were there already, staring out into the restive crowd that had gathered in the square below them—and, perhaps, the guards who loitered by every possible exit.
Uther stood by the railing. He lifted a hand, waited. Slowly, the murmuring of the crowd quieted.
"People of Camelot!"
Decades ago, long before Morgana was born, Uther had led the armies that reclaimed Camelot from Vortigern. He had learned to project his voice above the roar of battle, to give clear orders amidst the chaos. That skill served him well now. His words rang out, filling the square.
"More than twenty years ago, I began a crusade against the forces of magic that had run rampant throughout the land. The battle was long and hard and bloody, but I prevailed. I drove back magic and forced it into hiding. Yet the sorcerers have not taken their defeat lightly. They have been plotting against me, against Camelot, against us." He gestured to the wounded city. "Look around you! See what magic does!"
The crowd stirred. Their voices blended together in a soft buzz. Agreement, perhaps, or protest? Probably a little bit of both.
"We have grown complacent!" Uther thundered. "Our enemies have seen it, but we were blind until they started a war with Magance and almost destroyed this city. We must not be complacent any longer. We will not be complacent any longer."
Morgana clenched her hands into fists to stop their trembling.
"The time has come to renew our campaign against magic. Every claim, every whisper, every shadow of suspicion, my guards will investigate it all. Additionally, I have given them more power to protect you. No longer will we keep sorcerers imprisoned. Instead, when my guards find evidence of magic, they are free to execute the perpetrator."
Behind her, Gwen gasped.
The crowd murmured again. Just as before, Morgana couldn't tell how much was approval and how much was anger.
Uther waited for his people to quiet before continuing. "I have chosen to strengthen Camelot's alliance with King Sarrum of Amata, whose exemplary work in eradicating magic is an inspiration to us all. King Sarrum's youngest daughter, Princess Orgeluse, will wed Prince Arthur this winter. Amata's men will reinforce the security of the citadel and assist in crushing sorcerers wherever they might be hiding."
This time, Morgana thought that the crowd sounded more disapproving. Amata in general and Sarrum in particular had… reputations. So did Orgeluse, though Morgana suspected that the Haughty Maid was more known to the nobility than the peasantry. Leodegrance and Laudine had certainly looked horrified by the news before they'd managed to cover it up with false smiles.
"We are also strengthening our alliance with Essetir. King Cenred will marry my ward, Lady Morgana of Cornwall, this autumn."
Morgana's jaw sagged. Her ears rang. Surely she had misheard. She must have.
"Soon, I shall depart for the great meeting of the Five Kingdoms. My brother kings understand full well the dangers and evils of magic. Godwyn and Alined have already pledged their aid, and Olaf and Rodor will doubtless follow suit. Together, we will form the greatest alliance in the history of Britannia! We will raise armies as numerous and powerful as the legions of Rome! Together, we will seek out our sorcerous enemies. We will hunt them down like the beasts they are, drive them out of their lairs, and kill them all with fire and sword. None will be safe. None will survive. All of them, from the lowliest hedgewitch to the greatest mage, will die."
Uther slammed his fist down upon the railing, metal against stone. His smile and the light of his eyes were terrible to behold.
"Tonight, the Purge begins anew!"
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Uther Does the Thing We All Knew he was Going to do (and Some Things we Didn't Expect)"
Next chapter: Morgana is not happy about her betrothal (or anything else), Merlin comes to a realization, and Uther has a scheme that he's keeping secret.
Chapter 3: Stranglehold
Reactions to Uther's pronouncement.
Chapter III: Stranglehold
"I should have brought a horse," Merlin grumbled.
He'd left the Impenetrable Forest about half an hour ago, exiting onto a blasted wasteland peppered with a few unhealthy clumps of brown grass. Merlin looked at the scant vegetation and amended his previous statement. "Or maybe that's not the best idea. A horse wouldn't have much to eat here. Then again, I could probably have packed enough grain in the saddlebags, except I don't know how long I'm going to be here. I should have asked Mab for dire—no, that's a terrible idea. She's the one who made that forest impenetrable."
Walking by oneself through a dusty, rocky expanse was quite boring. It would be so much more pleasant if he'd had someone with him. Arthur, Morgana, Gwen, Lancelot, Will…. He should really write to Will one of these days, tell him everything that had happened. Except Will wasn't very good at reading and he probably hadn't practiced much recently with Merlin and Hunith both gone. Actually, that was a reason to write to him in and of itself. He could use the practice.
The Perilous Lands were not very perilous. Merlin thought about commenting on this out loud but decided not to jinx it. Despite what certain people might think, he wasn't actually an idiot and didn't put himself in danger just for his own entertainment.
Still, this was getting kind of boring, and he kept thinking about how sooner or later Uther would strike back and he had to get through with this before then. He needed a distraction. Maybe he could sing? It would help pass the time, if nothing else, and it would probably scare away any perilous wildlife that might have otherwise decided to try to eat him.
He sang for a while, but his repertoire of songs was rather limited. Merlin tapered off into quiet, his thoughts inevitably drifting back to Camelot.
Uther was planning something. Merlin suspected that the man had already sent troops to Ealdor. He wouldn't help them with bandits due to the sanctity of the border, but that sanctity mattered very little when Uther was hunting spellbinders. Thankfully his parents and unborn sister were long gone. Everybody else would be safe. Even Will, who was known to be his dear friend, would escape unscathed. Uther had this bizarre idea that spellbinders were incapable of true friendship, something that Merlin suspected had come from his falling-out with Nimueh. Still, that balderdash had historically kept him from using peoples' friends rather than their families against them, so Merlin supposed he ought to be grateful.
Still, there was no way that the king would let the partial destruction of his capital city go unpunished. What's worse, he was probably desperate. Even if he claimed to disbelieve Merlin's prophecy about his death, the prediction must still be on his mind, the words echoing throughout his skull. Your death approaches, Uther Pendragon. You will never see your children marry, never meet your—
Merlin pulled up short, his eyes round as saucers. So Uther had at least one bastard, did he? Arthur was not going to be happy to hear about that. Then again, he wouldn't be happy about the part where his father died, either. It was almost enough to make Merlin glad that he didn't dare contact his friend directly just yet.
Soon, though. It would have to be soon. As soon as he left the Perilous Lands, which would hopefully be sooner rather than later, because it was only a matter of time before Uther unleashed whatever horrors he'd been planning. He and Arthur really needed to discuss the king.
Gods, he was not looking forward to that conversation.
The Impenetrable Forest was still visible behind him, if only barely, a darker line across the horizon. This was a flat portion of the Perilous Lands. In better times, when this was still the prosperous kingdom of Listeneise, this area had probably been covered in farmers' fields, maybe even a non-impenetrable forest. That would certainly explain the lack of structures and roads.
That, or the farmhouses had all fallen down, the roads covered by mud and dirt.
Merlin wondered what this place had looked like back then. He imagined fields of grain and vegetables, little homes scattered throughout, maybe some grazing land for livestock. A good place to live, peaceful and quiet.
Maybe, if he can heal the Fisher King, it can be like that again.
Merlin picked up his pace again and kept walking. He had a long road ahead of him, and the faster he finished this task, the sooner he could go back.
"What the hell was that?"
"No." The lady shook her head vehemently, hair whipping behind her. She wanted to scream at him about everything: the alliance with Amata, the guards' new right to execute people on the spot, even how he'd closed the gates earlier. But she was afraid that he'd learn of her true alliance if she protested the renewed Purge too much, so she focused her rage into something that she maybe could change, the one thing Uther must have known she would be outraged about. "You could have mentioned it while we were in the study or even when we were walking down the hall. 'By the way, Morgana, you're getting married, and I'm going to tell everyone in the city in about two minutes." Her nails dug into her palms. "And Cenred. Cenred. He murdered his way to the throne and oppresses his people. He—"
"He is my cousin's son," Uther cut in.
"A cousin that he murdered. You hate him for that, remember?"
"That is why this alliance is so important!" the king exclaimed. "Your marriage will end the bad blood between Camelot and Essetir, and you will be a queen. What more do you want?"
"To not marry a murdering tyrant, that's what!"
"It has been decided, Morgana," Uther snarled. "I am your guardian and your king. I have every right to choose your husband, and I have chosen Cenred."
"How long do you think he'll let me live?" the lady demanded. She knew that it was futile to protest—Uther had clearly set his mind to it—but her anger demanded an outlet. "He killed his father and brother, the king and crown prince that you installed in Essetir. He already owes you his throne. He doesn't need—"
"I will see you marry," the king growled. His fists were tight. His knuckles must be white as ice beneath his demi-gaunts. "I will meet your children. You and Arthur both!"
"Assuming Cenred doesn't kill me before I give him any," Morgana retorted. Not that she would ever bear that man children. The mere thought made her stomach roil.
There was no way in hell that she was marrying Cenred. She wouldn't let it happen, just like she wouldn't let Arthur marry Orgeluse.
"He will not dare," Uther sneered.
"Just like he wouldn't dare to—"
"Be quiet, Morgana!" the king roared, rearing up to his full height. She stepped back automatically, her protest dying before it left her lips. "I have tolerated your willfulness in the past, but I am your king. You will obey me. You will marry Cenred even if I have to drag you before him myself."
"…No." She squared her shoulders, jutted out her chin, tried to look determined and defiant and proud.
Uther's nostrils flared. His lips thinned. He breathed in once, twice, thrice, each breath loud and jagged. When he spoke, his voice was dangerously calm. "Several people have informed me that your maidservant was close to both of the sorcerers who had infiltrated my household."
The bottom fell out of Morgana's stomach. No. No, he wouldn't. "She didn't know what they were. She had no idea."
"Still. The girl is in a precarious position, is she not?"
"She's innocent, so no, she isn't."
(Uther had thrown his own son into the dungeons not just once or twice but three times. The first time, he'd disobeyed the king's direct orders and gone questing for the mortaeus flower. Then Arthur had used Excalibur against the Knights of Medhir and not tried to kill Emrys, so he'd been locked up again. The third time had been upon their return from Tintagel, when Arthur had flat-out told his father that Merlin is a warlock and we should probably not let Cornelius Sigan take control of his mind. Three trips to the dungeon for the crown prince, because Uther gets what he wants.)
"I imagine that Arthur would have said a similar thing about his manservant, had he been asked before the wretch exposed himself."
"No, Arthur would have started complaining about him," she corrected. Maybe, if she could change the subject, he would drop it. It was… not likely, but she had to try something.
"But he would have thought that the idiot was innocent of any sorcerous taint. Guilt and innocence are so hard to determine." Uther's eyes were diamond-hard. "I'm sure you understand."
Damn him. Damn him. "I understand," she ground out.
Uther nodded. "You seem tired, my lady. I recommend that you turn in early."
Morgana didn't speak. She didn't trust herself to speak. Instead, she nodded curtly—she couldn't bring herself to curtsy properly—and stalked away, shoes snapping against the stone floor.
Gwen followed, pale and trying not to tremble.
Leodegrance's manor had been packed full of courtiers and their servants, meaning that the populations of two castles had been crammed into one. Several nobles had left for the war or to get out of the destroyed city, but there were still far too many people living in this building. All of the staff and several members of the lower nobility had been crammed multiple bodies to a room, but the king's ward had a chamber to herself. She'd never been so glad of that.
"We need to get you out of here," Morgana said as soon as the door clicked shut. "I can find coin for you, and Tom can get supplies. We'll sneak a horse out of the city. You can go to the Isle of the Blessed. If we move fast, you might be able to leave tomorrow night."
Morgana gaped at her. Surely she couldn't have heard right. Except Gwen was wearing an expression of pure pigheaded stubbornness. "Are you insane?"
"If I leave, he'll find someone else, someone who might not have an Isle of the Blessed. You know he will, Morgana."
"No he won't," she argued. "He knows that you're my dearest friend, Gwen. Who else would he target?"
"You're compassionate. You're friendly with all sorts of people. You're on good terms with most of the servants in the castle! All he has to do is find one who can't escape and he'll have you."
"I—I'll bluff. You have to leave, Gwen. There's a difference between courage and stupidity."
"What if he calls your bluff? There are plenty of servants in the castle." She swallowed hard, raised her head up high. "If—what you said last night is true. If I am destined to marry Arthur, then… one day, I will be a queen. What kind of queen abandons her people?"
"The smart kind, who knows how to live and fight another day," Morgana retorted, sorely regretting her big mouth. "You have to get out of here. He knows he can use you now, so he'll keep using you for more than just my wedding. You have to leave."
Morgana pulled up short.
"We have to leave together. If I go too soon, he'll find someone else to use against you. If you escape before me, he'll have me executed. We'll only be safe if we escape together, and I… I think that we should try to stay as long as possible to mitigate as much damage as we can. Please, Morgana. You know I'm right, at least about the first part." Her smile was just a tad wavery. "I'm not quite as convinced of the second bit."
Morgana ran her hand through her hair. She began to pace, her thoughts whirring. Gwen waited, silent and mostly resolute.
Unfortunately, the maid was right about the first bit. They would have to leave together to prevent the scenarios she had described. Of course, them leaving together would probably convince Uther that Gwen was definitely a sorceress, so Tom would have to leave as well. Then they'd have to send word to Elyan, get him out of Uther's power before he could be dragged back to the citadel in chains for his sister's supposed crimes. And if Uther convinced himself that Gwen was magical, he probably wouldn't do anything to the other servants they would have to leave behind. He'd think that Morgana had been enchanted and/or kidnapped, so there would be no point in randomly executing people just to make her come back.
So, yes, they would have to leave together. That would take time to plan, time to get everything into place. Gwen would have to explain things to her father, everyone would have to pack, and they'd need some way to get out of the city. Teleportation would be best, but Morgana wouldn't be able to transport herself, much less two other people, for quite some time. That meant they'd have to involve someone else in their escape if they wanted to use teleportation, which she did. Less chance of being tracked and captured that way. Merlin would do it, or at least he'd know someone who could. Or Blaise could ask Anhora.
Involving a third party in their escape meant that they couldn't just flee at the drop of a hat. They'd need to pick out a date. In theory, it could be any time between now and her wedding day. An early departure would guarantee their safety, but…. Gwen and Morgana had already chosen to stay to at least try to minimize the carnage Uther would wreak. They'd made that choice knowing the dangers and accepting the risk.
(Queens did not abandon their people, not unless there was no other choice. Neither did ladies.)
Morgana's pacing slowed. Her shoulders slumped ever so slightly. Her voice was tired, even drained. "I hate it when you do that."
"No, you're not."
"I am, actually," Gwen admitted quietly. "I'm the one who gave him the idea."
Morgana snorted. "Uther gave himself the idea. Gods, I wish that Arthur was king."
"I wish that Uther wouldn't do this," Gwen muttered.
"I wish so, too, but that's not going to happen. Now. Let's talk about our escape."
Their discussion was low and intense. They agreed on the necessity of picking a date beforehand, though they probably couldn't select one until they knew when Morgana was supposed to be married and when their magical transport would be available. Gwen wasn't particularly happy about telling Tom about their plans—"Not that he'll betray us, of course, but he'll fret for weeks"—but she understood the necessity. (If part of Morgana was vindictively pleased that Gwen's damnable logic would discomfit her too, well, she'd never claimed to be perfect.) Since they were going to wait at least a little while, they decided that they should probably try to arrange for lodging on the Isle before they departed. The women were debating how much they could pack beforehand without attracting suspicion when a guard burst into the room.
Morgana jumped to her feet, heart in her mouth. Beside her, Gwen gasped, rigid. Their eyes met.
"M'lady," the guard panted, "the king has commanded that you be moved to a safer location."
"A safer—the riots." She'd been so intent on her plot that she'd forgotten about the inevitable riots.
"Yes, m'lady, there are riots. Sorcerers are inciting the people against us guardsmen. They won't breach the manor, but King Uther would still prefer it if you were in a more secure area."
"I have to get home," Gwen said. "Dad must be so worried about me."
She tried to walk away, but Morgana grabbed her by the arm. "Remember what I said about courage and stupidity? We don't even know how bad the riots are." She turned to the guard. "How bad are they?"
"They won't harm anyone in the castle, but I would advise against a young woman walking home alone."
Morgana turned back to her friend. "I could try to get you an escort—"
"M'lady," the guard cut in, "the king has ordered that the castle be locked down. Everyone needs his express permission to leave."
And there was no way Uther would risk losing his tool so soon, not when he'd just seen how effectively she could be used.
There wasn't much they could do except follow the guardsman to a heavily guarded room in the inner part of the keep. It was packed with highborn ladies and their children, as well as a few lords too old to fight.
Morgana made a beeline for Laudine. "What's going on?"
"The people dislike having their homes searched so… vigorously," the lady answered. "A fair few also seem to disapprove of the guards' new right of execution. They fought back, the guards responded in kind, and now there's violence everywhere."
"I heard that some of the peasants are fighting each other," interjected another woman who Morgana thought might be Geoffrey's cousin. "Some of them believe that the king's decrees are justified, but others feel differently about him, his decisions… and possibly even magic."
"How could they?" demanded yet another lady. Two red spots burned in her cheeks. "King Uther is protecting us from the evils of sorcery!"
The older woman held up her hands. "I never said I approved," she stated. "They are, of course, wrong. Very wrong." She nodded rapidly.
Laudine moved between them, hands aflutter. "We don't know if that rumor is true. We need more information before we can start condemning anyone."
"Except sorcerers," the young lady muttered.
Laudine's smile was beginning to look rather forced. Her eyes darted around. "Of course, of course," she shrilled. "I'm afraid that I don't recognize you, my lady. Have you been in Camelot long?"
Morgana and Gwen snuck away before the subject could return to condemnation and innocence. "I suppose that we should find some way to try to help," Gwen said. "I see some children over there. They look frightened. Shall we?"
"Your Majesty, the guardsman Maddox requests an audience."
Uther was just sitting down for paperwork (easily the worst part of being king), but he looked up at the servant's announcement. "Does he have anyone with him?"
A slow smile dawned on the king's face. "Good. Send them in."
The servant bowed and backed out of the study.
Maddox and the other man entered, bowed before their king. "I apologize that I took so long in my task, Your Majesty."
Uther waved a negligent hand. "No need. His sort are unfortunately difficult to find in the citadel. Who is he?"
"This is Rience, sire. He has the skills you seek and, when I investigated his character, I learned that he has uncovered and turned in no fewer than four sorcerers over the years."
"And I testified in the trials of others," Rience butted in. There was a sense of barely contained energy to him, an eagerness. "How may I serve you, sire?"
"Did Maddox tell you why I need a man with your knowledge?"
"No, sire, but from what I just heard, I would guess that it involves a blow against sorcery." His eyes gleamed. "I am yours to command."
Uther nodded, a slow smile growing on his lips. "Good. I have a rather difficult task for you, one that must be handled with discretion. Are you capable?"
Uther told him what he had in mind.
Rience was grinning now, his eyes fairly sparkling with excitement. "I'm honored, Your Majesty."
"Can you do it?"
Rience's head jerked up and down, up and down. "Yes, Your Majesty. I believe I can."
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Uther Reminds Us All that he is Indeed a Big Mean Jerk"
You may have noticed that Merlin thinks that Uther won't use spellbinders' friends against him, then Uther goes and does just that with Morgana and Gwen. Remember, he doesn't know about her magic, and he's seen for himself how close they are.
Merlin picked the worst possible time to go off to fulfill his debt. He's trying to hurry, but, well, he doesn't have any way of knowing that things got Bad as soon as he left the Isle. When he left, it looked like he would have a bit more time before Uther tried anything.
The thing about Uther and Cenred being distantly related is covered in more detail in chapter 14 (I think) of The Warlock's Quickening: "Tales of Carmarthen."
Any guesses on what ominous thing Uther is planning with Maddox and Rience? Fun fact: I found Rience's name by googling "Arthurian names." Apparently someone named Rience was an enemy of Arthur early in his reign, so I took the appellation and gave it to this guy.
I'm sorry for not responding to reviews lately. I've been kind of creatively dead inside, but I think that the fugue is starting to lift. Hopefully I'll get through that (and my technical difficulties with my Microsoft account) soon and start writing more and being more active. Until then, thanks for being patient.
Chapter 4: The Red Wyvern
Merlin makes a friend.
Chapter IV: The Red Wyvern
Despite what certain people (namely Arthur Pendragon) might think, Merlin was not an idiot. He was by no means stupid enough to not take precautions in a place literally called "the Perilous Lands," even if he hadn't been attacked by anything so far. So when the sun went down, he found a rocky overhang where he could make camp, then set up wards along the perimeter. Anything larger than a bug that got too close would set off a blinding flash of light, followed immediately thereafter by a loud noise like the clanging of bells. He then went to sleep content in the knowledge that nothing could sneak up on him.
A couple hours before dawn, the wards went off.
Merlin jumped awake, banging his head on the rock. (He must have shifted around in his sleep.) He sat up, fire flaring in his hands.
Something huge and fanged stared back at him with eyes the color of blood.
"Get back," the warlock commanded. He scooted forward, the fireball increasing in diameter. "I'm extremely dangerous!"
The creature just stood there without comprehension, because it was an animal that could not understand human language. What kind of animal, he didn't know for certain. Merlin brightened his fire for a better look.
It was a bit bigger than a human, a quadruped with a long neck and a triangular horned head. A long tail lay behind it, and a pair of wings were folded atop its shoulders.
A wyvern. Not just any wyvern, though: an ancient red wyvern with only one front leg.
Merlin's eyes went wide. "I remember you," he breathed. "You were there at Carmarthen. You and the white one nearly got me killed."
The wyvern stared at him for a long moment before crouching.
Merlin tensed, but the great beast didn't do anything. It just kept staring at him.
A minute passed, then another, then a third and a fourth. Merlin was beginning to feel a bit silly, engaged in a tense standoff with a creature that hadn't done anything but stare at him. Finally the wyvern gave a little huff—was it just his imagination, or did it sound annoyed?—before lying down. It tucked its head beneath its wing. Soon, the creature's breathing evened out.
"Are you seriously just sleeping there?" Merlin asked incredulously. Once again, the animal didn't answer.
"All right," the warlock muttered, utterly nonplussed. He wasn't quite certain what to do. This was odd even by his lofty standards. In the end, though, he opted to place alarms on his unexpected guest and go back to sleep.
He awoke shortly after dawn to his wards going off, but the wyvern was just stretching itself. It noticed that he was awake and crouched, made a jerking motion with its head.
"You want me to ride you?" Merlin exclaimed. "No. No way."
The wyvern glared at him.
"It's nothing personal. It's just that you're a bloodthirsty predator and I'm a delicious potential breakfast. I don't want you bringing me back to your nest."
The wyvern snorted.
"I said no."
But when Merlin started walking, the wyvern followed. When he stopped for lunch, it sat down and waited, staring at him with those huge eyes. Merlin didn't mind as much as he'd expected to. It turned out that mute animals were very good listeners, so he could rant about anything and everything to his heart's content.
The afternoon was half-over by the time Merlin gave in, not because the wyvern kept staring at him, but because he knew he couldn't risk staying away from Camelot too long. "Fine," he sighed. "I'll go with you. But if you try to eat me, I will bring back that nasty fireball you saw earlier, and then I'll set you on fire. Just bring me to the Fisher King, assuming that's who sent you."
The wyvern—he really needed to think of a name for it (him? Her?)—crouched. Merlin clambered on. He needed a few moments to figure out the best way to position himself, but then they were off.
Flying was… incredible. Wind whipped through his hair, chilled him, made his eyes water, but the discomfort was more than worth it. He was just so high up and moving so fast!
The ground blurred beneath warlock and wyvern. One mile passed, then another, then more and more. Still, the sky was darkening rapidly by the time he sighted a castle ahead of them, and the sun was entirely gone by the time they landed.
Merlin patted the wyvern's head, scratched at the base of its horns. The creature made a noise like a lion purring. "Thanks for not bringing me back to your nest and eating me," Merlin said. "I appreciate it."
The wyvern chuffed. Merlin chuckled.
A creaking noise interrupted their bonding moment. The wyvern looked at the castle doors sliding open and backed away. Its wings unfurled again, flapped. Then the creature was gone, disappearing into the night in a way that sort of reminded him of Kilgharrah, though he doubted the dragon would appreciate the comparison. Dragons and wyverns were distant kin, but that didn't mean they liked each other.
Merlin smiled ever so slightly as he watched his new friend leave. Then he turned around to face the Fisher King's castle. Corbenic, he thought it was called. His smile faded into solemnity.
A globe of light appeared in his hands, floated into place above his head. Despite the illumination, the hallway ahead of him was as dark as a cave.
It was time to meet the Fisher King.
Tom the blacksmith sat in utter silence.
Gwen, sitting on the other side of the table, did her best to not fidget. She didn't think it was working.
The silence stretched on, growing more uncomfortable by the minute. Random thoughts flitted through Gwen's head: this must be how Merlin felt, I hope he's all right, I hope Arthur and Elyan are okay too, how long has it been since we said something? I should probably say something. What should I say?
"I'm… I'm thinking, Gwen. I just need to think."
"Would you like me to leave?"
Tom winced, guilt flickering across his face. "I think that might be best, honey. I just… need to think."
"Okay, Dad. Goodnight. I love you."
"I love you too, Gwen. I'm not… I just need to think."
He'd said that twice before, but his daughter opted not to comment. Instead, she walked away and went to bed.
Not surprisingly, it was almost impossible for her to fall asleep. She had, after all, just told her father everything: how she'd known about Merlin's secret, Morgana's as well, their connections with the magical community, why they would have to flee before the first snows arrived. It was a lot to take in. And while she wasn't worried that Dad would reject her, she was afraid that their relationship would suffer. When he and Elyan had fought, her brother had left for years.
But she needed to sleep, needed it desperately. She'd only gotten a few hours' worth last night thanks to the riot, and her day had been ridiculously busy as she tried to repair as much damage as possible. The healer's tent had been full to the bursting, and she'd barely had time to sit. By now, the exhaustion had sunk deep into her bones. Only worry was keeping her awake.
So, to fall asleep and get energy for another miserable day tomorrow, she had to do something to alleviate her worry. Or think of something, as she really didn't want to get up. Her feet hurt, as did her back and neck. So. How to stop worrying?
She could start by reminding herself that nothing would happen to her or her dad. They would be safe until they escaped, if only because Uther wouldn't want to waste his new tool. Tom would understand what she had done and why. Even if he didn't get it right away, he'd forgiven Elyan, welcomed him back with open arms. It might take time, but they would be fine.
They would be fine. They would be fine. They would be fine….
Gwen woke up.
She was still tired and really would like to go back to sleep, though of course she knew that was a bad idea. She'd have to leave for work soon. She was sore, too, and her head felt rather fuzzy. It wouldn't surprise her if she was coming down with a summer cold.
She was so distracted by her body's protests that she didn't remember last night's conversation—confession, more like—until she saw her father at the table.
Tom apparently hadn't slept well either; he looked as tired as she felt. His posture was slumped, his eyes half-lidded with huge dark circles beneath them. He barely even reacted when she entered the room.
"Good morning, Dad," Gwen said after a few seconds of awkward silence. "I…I see that we have blackberries this morning. Those are new. Did you pick them up at the market yesterday? I'm glad. I always did like blackberries. Maybe I should try to find some more and make jam."
Tom just stared at her.
Gwen was trying to break her old habit of nervous babbling, she really was, but it was rather difficult to just sit there in silence. She compromised by turning her attention to breakfast. She wouldn't speak with her mouth full, and it gave her something to do. Besides, she was hungry.
The lack of conversation seemed to magnify the sounds of her chewing, which was utterly ridiculous. Of course she wasn't being louder than normal; she was just nervous. Unless she was making an absolute boor of herself without realizing in, in which case—
"I'm not angry, Gwen."
The maid jumped. "What?"
Tom heaved a drawn-out sigh. "I'm not angry, Gwen. I almost want to be, but it's hardly your fault that two of your friends turned out to be sorcerers. And your mother and I always taught you to defend your friends and stand up for what's right. I can't be angry at you for doing exactly that. I just wish that none of this had ever happened."
Gwen didn't trust herself not to start babbling again, so all she said was, "Oh. That's good. Thank you."
"How soon can Morgana get in contact with… whoever is helping us escape?"
"Probably today, if she hasn't already," Gwen admitted. "She can do this thing where she talks to certain people in her dreams, but she doesn't quite know how to completely control it. She may have made contact with Merlin last night, but I won't know for certain until I ask. If she hasn't, we'll tell Blaise—he's a druid who helps supply us with herbs and such—when he visits today." Blaise hadn't come in yesterday despite the many people who had been injured in the night of riots (though he probably had no way of knowing that there had been riots). She hoped he was all right.
They lapsed into silence again, but it wasn't nearly so awkward this time. Just like Gwen had kept telling herself, they were going to be okay.
Soon they were done with breakfast and it was time for her to go to work. She kept her pace up as she went through Camelot. Part of that was a desire to not be late, but there was also a sullen resentment in the air. People weren't talking with each other. Instead, they stared at passersby with narrowed eyes. They'd had a day to heal from the riots, but the wound had barely even scabbed.
There were plenty of guards patrolling the streets. They were subject to even more blatant staring, and their passing inspired hushed mutterings. For their part, the guards remained close together, and their hands were never far from their sword-hilts. Gwen knew some of those men, but she tried not to look them in the eye.
How long would it be, she wondered, before another riot began?
The tension didn't abate once she reached Lord Leodegrance's estate. It too was crawling with guards (where had Uther found them all?), its halls bereft of friendly chatter. It had been like that yesterday, though Gwen had told herself it was just because everyone was tired after staying up half the night.
Morgana was up and dressed already when Gwen walked in with her breakfast. "Any luck?" the maid queried.
The witch knew what she meant. "No, unfortunately. I dreamed about a laughing man brewing some kind of potion, not the path. How did it go with you?"
"Dad is pretty overwhelmed. I don't think he got much sleep last night. I think he wants to get us—well, mainly me, but he does rather like you—out of the city as soon as possible." Gwen blushed slightly. "Although I'm not sure how well I explained things, and I'm sure that I accidentally left at least a little bit out."
"There was a lot to tell him," Morgana reminded her. "I'm sure that Tom will understand if you forgot a few things."
"I certainly hope so. He's been very understanding so far, all things considered, but I'd still rather not push him."
"Should I go find our escort?"
"That's probably a good idea. I'd like to get back to the tent as soon as we can."
"I would too." Gwen slipped out of the room.
For obvious reasons, Uther hadn't wanted his ward to go out and help treat riot-caused injuries. They'd had quite the fight about it yesterday morning. Eventually, they'd reached a compromise. Morgana could go to the healers' tent, but she needed four guards with her at all times. The same rule applied today.
Donald, the captain of the guard, had died during Sigan's attack. The new captain was a nervous bootlicker called Brun who liked to micromanage his men. He had insisted that he be informed when Morgana set off with her escort, so Gwen ducked her head into his office, announced that she was borrowing the four guards from yesterday, and made her escape before he could trap her in another inane conversation. The captain's protest rose up behind her, but Gwen was already halfway down the hall.
The quartet of guards was comprised of mostly-decent fellows who were relieved to be off patrol duty. Gwen brought them to Morgana's chambers. Then they were off.
The morning passed in a blur of mild chaos. While exhausting, the work helped her forget her worries, at least for a little while. (Blaise's brief daily visit, in which he and Morgana presumably exchanged information, reminded her about but also soothed her worries.) Then, shortly after lunch, a dirty-faced boy burst into the tent, jabbering excitedly about how someone had tried to kill the king.
It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning. Her breath caught, her eyes went wide, her spine went stiff. Across the tent, Morgana was having a similar reaction. Their gazes met, and she knew they'd had the same horrible thought.
Uther was the source of most of Camelot's current problems. He couldn't be blamed for all of them—Sigan had destroyed huge swathes of the citadel and started the war with Magance—but Uther's actions had led to the riots, the rage, the people being cut down in their own homes by guardsmen-turned-executioners.
But if Uther were to die….
Arthur would be a good king, a great king. He would put an immediate end to the pogrom. It might take him awhile to end the Purge entirely—it was firmly entrenched in the laws of the land and in their treaties with other kingdoms—but he would stop that, too. He might even find a way to end the war quickly, which would be rather difficult with him essentially exiled to Gawant. And Gwen and Morgana and Tom and Merlin would all be safe.
Everything would be so much better, not just for them but for people in general, if Arthur were the king. If Uther was dead.
If someone succeeded in killing him.
Gwen felt sick at the thought, but she couldn't deny that the thought of Arthur on his father's throne was appealing. It was the murder part that frightened her.
Was it right to murder a man to save countless others? And not just any man. Arthur's father, whom he still loved despite their recent quarrels. Her own future father-in-law, if Morgana was to be believed.
She didn't know. She just didn't know.
"Are you all right?" the boy asked her.
Gwen forced a smile. It must not have been very convincing, because the gossipy child just looked more worried. "I'm fine. I'm just tired, that's all. It's been a long few days."
"What exactly happened?" Morgana asked. Hopefully Gwen was the only person who noticed that she was speaking a bit too quickly to be entirely natural.
"Someone tried to shoot him with a crossbow," the child answered. He still looked a bit concerned, but the worry was fading rapidly as he got into the story. "He was on the rooftops. The king went out to inspect the walls like he did last week, and I guess the archer knew he was going to do it because he was waiting. He took aim—" The boy mimed drawing back a bowstring—"and fired! They say it got so close to King Uther that the wind from it moved his hair. It came this close to hitting him in the neck!" He held his thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart.
"Did the shooter get away?" Morgana queried.
The boy grinned, shook his head. "He tried. He ran as fast as he could, but the guards ran faster. They caught him and they chopped off his head right there! There was blood everywhere."
"Ah," Morgana said. Her expression had frozen. "I see."
Obviously, this child had never actually seen bloodshed. He must be from one of the less damaged parts of the city; his family must not have been visited by the guards. His parents had probably kept him inside during the riot, trying all they could to protect his innocence, praying that the violence wouldn't spill into their home.
Gwen wondered how much longer it would last in Uther's Camelot. She wondered if it could last with Uther on the throne.
With Arthur, though….
She shuddered, because there was a difference between killing someone on the field of battle and plotting his death in advance. But it would save so, so many lives….
What was the right thing to do?
The boy was chattering on, but Gwen could barely hear him over the turbulence of her thoughts.
Morgana jolted, head snapping up. "There might be another way," she said silently.
Not for the first time, Gwen wished that she could use thought-speech too. It would make these conversations so much easier.
"What if we found some way to incapacitate him?" the witch suggested. "That's what Gaius tried to do when he was possessed. We make him sick or delirious or something. Or maybe I could persuade him to go to the front himself. The new captain's a weak-willed idiot. I could probably make him obey me if Uther isn't there breathing down his neck."
The tension drained from Gwen's shoulders. She fought back a heartfelt sigh of relief and bobbed her head ever-so-slightly. She liked these ideas. Maybe there were other things they could try, like convincing Arthur to lead a bloodless coup or having Merlin drop him off in Eire. Merlin would probably be easier to convince. She'd have to tell that to Morgana as soon as they could have a real, two-person conversation.
They would think of something to protect Camelot without murdering anybody. They would.
They had to.
You know things are bad when GWEN starts contemplating homicide. In her defense, though, her instincts are protective rather than vindictive, and she's very open to doing literally anything else. She wants to do what's right but doesn't know what that is.
The red wyvern comes from Merlin's story in chapter 14 of The Warlock's Quickening.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Gwen Tries to Fight Awkward Silence and Only Makes Things More Awkward"
Next update: Merlin meets the Fisher King and learns what he signed up for. Gwaine raises some interesting points. Blaise tells us what he and Morgana were talking about, then meets someone unexpected.
Chapter 5: The Fisher King
Merlin meets somebody whose identity I am sure you will never be able to guess.
Chapter V: The Fisher King
Corbenic was full of dust. The furniture, the windowsills, the sconces in the wall were all covered in a thick layer of grime, and Merlin's passage left distinct footprints even as it kicked up particles undisturbed for who-knows-how-long. Thankfully nothing had floated high enough to reach his nose. If he started sneezing in here, he'd never stop.
Now that he was actually in the castle, Merlin realized that he didn't have any idea where he was going. The building was huge, with several stories and multiple turrets and probably at least one basement. The Fisher King could be in any of them.
"Hello?" Merlin called. His voice bounced through the corridor before the dust silenced the echoes.
"Hello?" he called again, this time more loudly. Nothing answered him but the muffled, barely-there sound of his own footsteps.
It took Merlin only a few moments more before he realized that he was being an idiot. The warlock cast out his mind. "Hello? I'm here, Fisher King."
"Emrys," sighed an ancient creaking voice. "I was beginning to fear that you would never come."
"I'm sorry. First Cornelius Sigan was rampaging through Camelot—long story—then I couldn't actually recall speaking with you at all. I set out to meet you right after Queen Mab told me that you had been included in our deal."
The mental contact gave him a sense of presence. He turned left, then up, then left again. The floor was less dusty here, which he counted as a good sign.
"You misunderstand me," the Fisher King replied. "Centuries ago, the great Seer Taliesen prophesied that Emrys would release me from my suffering. It is good that you came alone. Had you come with Strength and Courage, it would have boded ill for Albion. But here you are: Wisdom, not simply Magic."
"…I'm still sorry for not going to Mab as soon as I remembered my debt. My family and I thought it best to prepare first."
"Wisdom," the Fisher King murmured, approval in his silent voice. "Good. That will serve you well, Emrys, you and your king."
"I hope so."
There was a door ahead of him, a vast slab of wood and wrought iron. Merlin pushed it open.
This room was already lit, though only dimly, by a fire that floated above a rusted sconce. It was shrouded in dust and draped in cobwebs, but the air lacked the musty scent he'd noticed in the rest of the castle. This chamber smelled faintly of ocean water and coppery blood.
There was only one piece of furniture in the room, an old wooden chair carved with figures that Merlin couldn't quite make out in the gloom. A man sat in the chair, an ancient man covered in furs and finery and spider silk. A crown of gold rested upon his wrinkled head, and he clutched a cobweb-draped trident in his hand.
The Fisher King.
Merlin didn't often bow before his so-called superiors—their heads were big enough already—but he bowed now with the courtesy he'd learned but never actually employed in Uther's court. The Fisher King inclined his head slightly.
"Well met, Emrys." Although they were now in the same room, the Fisher King kept using thought-speech. He must have trouble moving, which certainly explained the cobwebs. "I am Anfortas, King of Listeneise."
"I am Merlin Caledonensis." Strange, but he didn't think he'd ever introduced himself by that name before. "You helped save me from Cornelius Sigan when he sought to break my mind in the Dark Tower. Thank you."
"The Dark Tower is a blight on my lands. The foul place should never have been built. I was glad to keep someone out of its vile walls… particularly the one prophesied to one day tear it down."
Merlin jerked, his thoughts racing. "That's what I promised you. I vowed to destroy the Dark Tower." He grinned, relieved. "That's good. I was worried I'd promised something crazy."
"It is not as simple a task as you seem to believe," Anfortas chided gently. "There are evil magics woven into every stone. You cannot tear it down as you would an ordinary building."
"Then what should I do?"
The ancient man met his eyes. "You must take my place as king of Listeneise."
Merlin nearly fell over. His head spun, and he wondered dazedly if he should sit down. "I—what? I don't think I heard you right. It sounded like you said—something crazy."
"You must take my place as king of Listeneise," Anfortas repeated.
"No. No no no no no. That is an absolutely terrible idea. Trust me, I am not royalty material. Noooo. That's just—were you joking?" He laughed nervously. "Of course you were joking. Good one! Now, what's the real thing I have to do?"
The Fisher King stared at him. He wasn't blinking, Merlin observed with the tiny part of his mind that wasn't running in panicked circles. That was kind of creepy.
"This land is tied to its reigning monarch. I am ill, wounded. I have existed on the very brink of death for centuries, but my power will not let me die easily. If I perish without a successor to take up the land-bond, my kingdom will slowly but surely crumble into the sea. Everything will be lost."
"Okay, so we need someone to take over the land-bond. How about my friend Gwen? She's the People's Queen. Peasant-born, you know, so a lot of people are going to get all bent out of shape when she marries Arthur. Maybe they'd shut up if she had her own kingdom."
"No." Anfortas's mental voice was stern, uncompromising. "No one else has the power to restore Listeneise. Only you can do this, Emrys. Take up my mantle, heal my kingdom, and use the land-bond to destroy the Dark Tower."
"There has to be another way to destroy the Tower. There just has to be."
"There is not. When the High Priestesses of the Old Religion constructed the Dark Tower, they essentially created a powerful infection in the body of the land. While the kingdom is otherwise wounded, the Dark Tower can draw strength from the corruption whenever someone attempts to destroy it. But if the land is healed and its bond-holder moves to destroy the Tower, it will be destroyed."
That made sense, unfortunately. "What if the bond-holder and the person destroying the Dark Tower worked together? The Dark Tower would still be facing a two-pronged attack. It could work."
"It is too risky."
Merlin didn't understand. "Riskier than putting all your eggs in one basket?"
"Yes. If two attempt to bring down the Dark Tower, the defensive magic woven therein can target the land-bonded mage and sever the connection. Your power is great enough to withstand this attack, but a lesser spellbinder would be overcome and perish."
"…I'm not sure about that. I know some pretty powerful mages." Not that he would trust Morgause with something like this, but Morgana was a fast learner, and she had raw power in spades. Besides, she was already a fine noblewoman and would make an absolutely fantastic queen.
The Fisher King frowned, his eyebrows bunching together. "Why are you so opposed to this idea, Merlin Caledonensis? You are already the lord of all magic, the archmage of Albion."
Merlin shuddered. "Not really," he mumbled.
"But you are. Say the word, and the druids will unite behind you as they have done for no other. The head of the Catha will bow at your feet. Even the remaining High Priestesses and dragons and Sidhe will submit to you, to say nothing of the other children of magic. You are Emrys. You are already their king in all but name."
Merlin flinched away, denial catching in his throat.
Anfortas paused, his expression softening. "This frightens you. Why? It cannot simply by the responsibility, for you have already taken on the challenge of restoring magic to Albion. Why are you so afraid of this part of your destiny?"
The warlock wanted to deny it, to laugh it off, but he knew that there was no use in even trying. Not here and now. "This is… different. I am not, never have been, and never will be leadership material. That's for Arthur and Gwen and Morgana. All that I want is to set my people free. After that, I'd be perfectly content to just stay at Arthur's side helping him defend the world he's going to create."
"The Once and Future King is to be the high king of Albion. He will need loyal vassals to support him. I may not know you well, but I can already see that you care for him and for Albion very much. You are clearly humble, you know how to plan ahead, and you keep your word. That is a good foundation for a ruler."
Merlin bit his lip, searching for another counterargument. "I wouldn't know what I was doing."
"You are young. You have time enough to learn. I was younger than you when the land-bond fell upon me, a lowly fisherman who could not even read. I grew, I learned, and for a time, I was a good king." His eyes clouded. "Then came the war, and my wound, and my curse. I wish to be free of this suffering, Emrys."
"You want to die," he murmured.
"Yes. I was never meant to be immortal." There was something peculiar in his gaze then, in his intonation, but it was gone before Merlin could ask. "And I wish to see my kingdom, my home, in the hands of one powerful enough to heal it. If you insist on pretending that you are not yourself a king, you can entrust the day-to-day governance of the kingdom to another. You can even give the title to another, so long as you hold the land-bond. The kingdom is so weak that only you can save it."
It was like being deep underwater, feeling the weight of it above him, barely able to see the light, his lungs beginning to burn. It was like seeing Iseldir and Alator kneeling before him, like looking out at the crowd on the Isle of the Blessed and knowing they were here because he'd called them.
"I don't…." His hands were shaking, he noted absently.
"Even after the land is healed, it will not be able to support a large population for quite some time," the Fisher King pointed out. "You would have years to decide or to appoint a regent. But the land itself would be yours, and it would give you the strength and support necessary to fulfill your promise."
Merlin was beginning to regret making that promise. He should be in Camelot now, hidden in an illusion, helping people avoid the worst of Uther's wrath. He should be teaching Morgana magic and coordinating escape efforts. He should be doing something that would help people.
But a restored Listeneise would help, too, wouldn't it? The Isle of the Blessed was beginning to get crowded; they could always use another sanctuary, even if Listeneise couldn't sustain a large population yet. The Perilous Lands were closer to some peoples' homes than the Isle, too. It would make escape easier. And while he and Morgause were on much better terms these days, he hadn't forgotten her plan to enslave the monarchs of Albion through magical mind control. There were probably a thousand other ways she could take people over—High Priestesses learned a lot of horrifying spells—but perhaps it would be best to remove the temptation of the Dark Tower, which could apparently suborn anyone.
And he had promised.
"All right." Merlin swallowed hard, balled his hands into fists. "I'll do it. The land-bond part, I mean, not the other bit. I'll give this place to Gwen, or maybe I'll just make it part of Camelot proper. Either way, it will be in good hands, I promise you." He forced a smile. "How long will it take?" Because he had other responsibilities that he couldn't just ignore. If this took too long, he could… put the Fisher King in an enchanted sleep so he wouldn't suffer. Yes. That's what he'd do.
"Not long at all."
The warlock nodded, his smile becoming a bit more real. "Then what must I do?"
Anfortas smiled back, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Nothing. You must simply remain here while I transfer the bond to you. Now, Merlin Caledonensis, Merlin Emrys, do you swear to care for this kingdom to the full extent of your abilities?"
"Do you swear to defend it from all threats within and without?"
"And do you swear to remember the humility of your origins rather than becoming arrogant and disconnected?"
"Then come forth, and receive the spirit of the land," the Fisher King croaked out loud. He lifted a trembling arm, breaking the cobweb that attached it to his chair.
Merlin came forth, as close as he could. He and Anfortas clasped hands.
The world went white.
"Any of you ever been to Magance?"
At the sound of Elyan's question, Lancelot leaned forward. Gwaine had an expression that made him think he had quite a story to tell.
Percival shook his head.
"I'm afraid not," Leon answered.
"I passed through it once," Lancelot admitted. "You, Elyan?"
"I spent a couple months there two, maybe three years back. It wasn't anything too interesting." Elyan's eyes glinted with mischief. "What about your trip through, Lancelot?"
The would-be knight fought back a smile. "I was working for a merchant caravan at the time." When he paused for breath, Gwaine cleared his throat.
"Do you need a drink of water, Gwaine?" Leon asked him innocently.
"Ha, ha. You three are hilarious. Back me up, Percival."
The big man blinked at him, utterly guileless. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Gwaine snorted. "And to think that I'm risking my life to protect you people in this stupid war. I could be halfway to Hadrian's Wall by now. We could all be halfway to Hadrian's Wall instead of indulging Uther's paranoia. Why am I still here again?"
"Because you like us and don't want us to die," Lancelot supplied.
"For some incomprehensible reason," Gwaine grumbled. For a moment, it looked like he wanted to say something. Then one of the other soldiers picked up his pace, getting a little closer to them, and the moment was over. A smile, bright with false cheer, plastered itself across his face. "Now, as I was about to say before you lot so rudely ganged up on me, I have in fact been to Magance. It was about four years ago, and I ran into a man who was having problems with his brother-in-law…."
Blaise was aware that this was probably a terrible idea, but he'd been doing it ever since the attack and wasn't about to stop now that Uther was becoming more active. Yesterday, with the gates closed from the recent riot, had been the exception. Guinevere and Morgana needed herbs still, and the entire city was horrifically undersupplied.
So, despite the risk, he made his daily journey into the citadel of Camelot, smiling and nodding at the guards who had become familiar faces before making his way to the tent that served as the ladies' base of operations. He stayed there for a few minutes, listening to the people talk, quietly despairing at how frightened they were.
(He wished that Alator of the Catha had not been so gravely wounded by Sigan's gargoyles. He wished that he could bring a few of Anhora's unicorns here or even Anhora himself. The Keeper of the Unicorns was by nature gifted in healing magic, nearly as powerful as the creatures themselves. Unfortunately, his beloved could do nothing as long as Uther reigned.)
He and Morgana silently exchanged news. Her mind fairly boiled with rage at the thought of Uther's actions. Blaise did his best to calm her, but they both knew that her anger was more than justified.
"I will contact Anhora for you," he promised. "Don't be surprised if he comes with me tomorrow."
"Isn't that dangerous?"
"Not if he comes in disguise."
"Then thank you. Thank you both."
Eventually, Blaise took his leave. Almost as soon as he had left the tent, however, a man approached him.
"Can I help you?" the druid asked. His unexpected companion wasn't wearing a bloodcloak's uniform, but that didn't mean he was safe.
"I believe that you can," the man replied. "My name is Rience. I am a pharmacist. You have been donating herbs to the healers, have you not?"
Blaise relaxed. "I have," he confirmed.
"I find myself in need of certain plants," Rience confessed, smiling self-deprecatingly. "Do you know of any good patches of wolfsbane?"
"Of course. There is some near the stream that flows into the Silver Thread, near an old dead oak that was scorched by lightning. If you reach the foxglove patch, you'll know you've gone too far."
"Excellent, excellent." Rience's eyes glimmered strangely. "None of the others have known about that. What about cuckoo pint?"
Blaise frowned, confused. "Cuckoo pint?" he repeated incredulously. Wolfsbane made sense; the earthquake and fires had stirred up a great deal of dust, aggravating peoples' lungs. "Why do you need that?"
"You know, of course, that it can be used for… encouraging emotional healing in these trying times."
Blaise raised an eyebrow. That was an interesting euphemism if he'd ever heard one.
"Do you know where any is?" Rience asked again.
"No," Blaise lied, after only a quarter-moment's hesitation. "I'm afraid I must be going now." He picked up his pace, conscience at war with itself.
Should he alert a bloodcloak that a man had been asking after poisonous plants? No, he decided after a few moments' thought. Wolfsbane and cuckoo pint had perfectly legitimate (well, half-legitimate in the case of the aphrodisiac) medical uses. Rience was almost certainly not going to poison anyone, but if Blaise talked to a bloodcloak, the pharmacist would likely be killed. Uther's regime had created an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia, and he rather doubted that the Butcher would give Rience a fair trial—assuming that the bloodcloaks didn't just murder him on the spot.
Besides, he assured himself, why would Rience need to use two poisons? It wasn't as though cuckoo pint and wolfsbane were too terribly hard to find; he wouldn't need both of them to kill someone. A large group of people, perhaps, but why would Rience do that?
Blaise walked back through the city and put the incident out of his mind.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Merlin is Finally Called on the Fact that Yes, He is Magical Royalty (and Still Tries to Deny it)"
So. A lot of stuff this chapter. Merlin is going to be delayed a bit longer than he thinks ("not long" means something different when you've been around for centuries), I'm afraid. The thing with giving Listeneise to Gwen... Well, I took a break from writing the first draft of this chapter to crank out "Largesse," so now you know where that came from. (It's a good thing I made a buffer this time, because in the original draft of this chapter, Lancelot and Leon embarked on a subplot to REDACTED.) And, yeah, using the unassailable logic of Why Not? and Because I Felt Like It, Blaise and Anhora are now low-key A Thing. Well, I think that's-oh, right, Rience. It's... probably a lot easier now to guess what Uther wants him to do.
Next chapter: Morgana and Gwen complete a mission. We finally meet up with Arthur again and see what's gone wrong with his mission. Until then!
Chapter 6: Swefne
Sleep is the best thing ever.
Chapter VI: Swefne
Not for the first time, Morgana le Fey wished that she knew more magic.
A spell for invisibility would really come in handy right about now. More controlled levitation, perhaps. Certainly the ability to use magic without at least whispering the appropriate incantations.
But magic or not, she had to do this. Even though she and Gwen hadn't arranged their escape yet, she had to do this. There simply wasn't any time.
She had decided to dine with Uther that evening. Part of it was pure vindictiveness—a couple of his lords were there as well, and she had taken far too much pleasure in telling them how he hadn't bothered to warn her about her upcoming nuptials before announcing it to the whole of Camelot. The other part was practicality, for she wanted to keep an eye on her guardian, to see what he was up to.
It was a good thing that she'd chosen to sup with him. He had a list. Several lists, in fact.
Several people had left Camelot after Arthur's forced departure but before Uther had ordered the gates shut. It seemed that these people had been forced to give their names and occupations to the guards manning the gates. There had been a literate knight at each post, and those knights had recorded the names.
Many of the smallfolk who had fled had undoubtedly given pseudonyms, knowing full well why the guards wanted to record their identities. A few had lied badly and been taken away for 'questioning.' These men and women had disappeared that day; Morgana could only assume that they'd been tossed into one of the new pits just north of the city and covered in a thin layer of dirt. Logically, there must have been others who were more skilled at lying, who had successfully duped the guards. These people were, for the most part, safe. They'd gotten out and were hopefully halfway to the Orkneys by now.
But some of the names on Uther's lists were real. They and their families were in danger. Tomorrow, the guards would go out on another search. If they found the people on the lists, they'd probably be executed on the spot. If the guards found their families, everyone would be questioned and at least one person from each household taken hostage.
The solution was as obvious as it was difficult: she had to destroy the lists.
"Do you think they're strong enough?" Morgana asked Gwen.
The maid was chewing her bottom lip. "I think so. Gaius said they'd get stronger with age, right? Or was that the other sort?"
"It was this type," the lady confirmed. "The other sort gets weaker."
"Then it ought to be enough. I mean, the guards are bigger than you, but they're probably already tired and I doubt they're used to staying up this late."
Morgana nodded. Uther had been randomizing the guards' hours, reasoning that this way they'd be trained for every task and could fulfill whatever role he needed if another Sigan-scale attack took place. (He seemed to think that Merlin was working on a nefarious scheme to kill them all, which part of Morgana couldn't help but find hilarious.) The idea (the one about the guards, not the warlock) had some merit, but it also had the convenient side effect of tiring the guards out. Hopefully, their exhaustion would make them that much more vulnerable to the effects of Morgana's old sleeping draughts.
Their plan was simple, if a bit desperate. Gwen would sneak the strengthened sleeping draughts into the guards' wine while Morgana distracted them at the beginning of their shift. The maid would have to leave then, making certain that plenty of people saw her go. Uther probably didn't actually believe that she was a sorceress, but there was no need to tempt fate. Best make sure Gwen had an alibi for the time of the crime.
After an hour or so passed, long enough for the draughts to take effect, Morgana would creep into the room where the lists were being kept, destroy them, and get away as quickly as possible. Hopefully, she could do it without being seen. If not, she'd pretend she'd already had a nightmare and was taking a walk to work off her nervous energy. She'd be wearing her nightgown (the dark one, of course) to make the lie more believable.
Oh, gods, she hoped this worked. The sleeping draught might not be strong enough or the guards might not drink or someone might see her. Leodegrance's manor didn't have nearly as many conveniently placed nooks and crannies as Uther's castle. They didn't know the patrol schedule, either, because there wasn't a patrol schedule. The non-stationary guards just wandered around at random so that intruders wouldn't know when to expect them, one of Captain Donald's many innovations.
Right now, her main concern was that her acting skills wouldn't be up to snuff. She was right down the hall from then. By now, Gwen must almost be in position. (Thank the gods for servants' passageways.) It was time to act.
Morgana yelped as loudly as she dared.
Footsteps. The guards were starting forward. Morgana turned to open a door, slip inside a room, when a man's voice called, "Hold your position. I've got this!"
The footsteps stopped. Another set continued. Someone's shadow appeared at the wrong end of the hall.
Morgana slipped into another hall, trying to walk as quickly as she could without making a sound. She glanced behind her, glimpsed the shadow, and ducked behind a statue. Her heart raced like a galloping horse.
If the guard decided to investigate—if he found her here in her flimsy shelter—he would definitely find her actions suspicious. She'd be questioned. Gwen too, probably. Even if they escaped that awful situation, they wouldn't be able to take as much action without arousing even more suspicion. They might have to leave Camelot entirely within the next few days.
Please, let this be one of the lazy ones….
Fortunately, he was. The footsteps paused. A torch cast dim light and long shadows down the hall. Then the guard started moving again, heading down the first hallway, and Morgana could breathe once more.
Ten heartbeats passed before she dared to move. Then the lady drew herself up and walked slowly and confidently (or at least apparently so) to her room. She wasn't doing anything questionable, of course she wasn't. She was Uther's ward, and she had every right to wander around all night if she wanted to. She even managed to nod amiably at another passing guardsman.
She only started shaking once she'd shut the door to her own room. That had been far too close.
A knock sounded, and she opened the door to admit Gwen. "I couldn't get in," she confessed. "I'm sorry. Do you think we should try again?"
"I don't think we should, no." Morgana shivered. "They'll definitely be suspicious if the same thing happens twice. I suppose I could try talking to them."
"No. We talked about that before, and it's even riskier now than it would have been then. Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll fall asleep on their own." But her tone was doubtful.
"…I think I'll have to actually try the sleep spell," the witch said.
"The one that you're only half-certain you remember correctly, have never officially been taught, have certainly never actually cast, and that probably only affects one person at a time?"
"That's the one."
Gwen thought for a moment before sighing deeply. "Test it on me first."
"Are you sure? I blew up the lock."
"I was trying not to think about that."
"But I am sure. You've improved since then. I'm sure you won't make me explode." She grinned nervously. "Didn't Merlin say that magic is about making the world see things your way? Just make sure the world understands that you prefer me in one piece."
Morgana hesitated, mulling over her meager knowledge of magic and weighing her options. Even if she couldn't remember the correct incantation, there was a powerful element of intentionality to magic. A mismatch between intent and incantation would probably just result in the spell not working.
"Okay. Lie down before I change my mind."
Gwen lay down on the bed, arms hanging loosely at her side.
Morgana steeled herself with a deep breath. Sleep. She wanted Gwen to sleep. Gwen would sleep. "Swefne."
Her maid's eyes fluttered shut. Her breathing was deep and level.
"Are you awake?"
No response, just more calm breathing.
Morgana gave her friend a little shake, then a harder one. Gwen remained asleep. That was good because it meant that the guards were less likely to wake up but bad because she had no idea how to end the spell. She eventually resorted to poking her poor friend in the eyelid. Gwen blinked awake, looking dazed and confused.
"Did it—it worked!" She grinned. "And on your first try, too."
The witch hesitated, not wanting to ask more but knowing that she had to. "The guards will be farther away from me and I might not be able to see them. Do you think we could try again?"
Morgana retreated to the other side of the room and closed her eyes. "Swefne," she whispered.
When she opened her eyes, Gwen was sleeping once again.
The witch's grin nearly split her face. One success, especially at such close range, might have been a fluke, but two meant she actually knew what she was doing. She found herself wishing that Merlin was here, smiling his brilliant smile as he congratulated her.
(Gods, she missed him.)
Gwen woke up with a little prodding and left for home, hopefully with plenty of witnesses to see her departure. Morgana waited. She paced some, then dug up a hooded cloak so old she couldn't even remember where she'd gotten it. If she had to knock out two guards, she'd need some method of avoiding recognition. This ancient thing was certainly less conspicuous than her scarlet cloak.
The minutes passed. Wax dripped down her candle. She took up pacing again.
It was dark now, the castle finally settling down for the night. It was late enough that the last servants must be settling down for bed.
Morgana put on her slippers and raised the hood over her head. She pulled the cloak tighter around her nightgown and slipped into the hall.
Anxiety heightened her senses, which saved her from discovery when she heard a guard plodding down the corridor. Morgana ducked into a doorway and went completely still. It wasn't the best camouflage, but the guard barely peeked down the hall before continuing on his way. Evidently Donald's captaincy hadn't lasted long enough to instill a lasting discipline in his men, something for which the lady was exceedingly grateful.
Soon (too soon), she found herself in the same place where she'd cried out earlier that night. When she turned the corner, she'd be in the guards' line of sight.
She'd have to act fast.
One hand grasped the front of her cloak, keeping it closed over her nightgown. The other stretched out in a classic spellbinding position as she darted around the corner. "Swefne. Swefne."
The first guard collapsed before he knew what was happening. The second almost had time to yell before he fell.
Morgana darted down the hall, put her free hand over the lock. "Tospringe."
She slid into the narrow room—and nearly passed out when she saw a human figure in Camelot red curled up in a corner. Another guard, doubtless posted inside the study in case someone overpowered the first two. A lazy guard who had decided to take a nap in the corner rather than do his job.
Just to be safe, Morgana cast the sleep spell on him anyways.
Every moment she spent in the study, searching for the lists, seemed to stretch out for entire hours. Thankfully, Uther's notes and papers were kept in a different section than Leodegrance's records, and the lists were near the top of the pile. She counted out six sheets of parchment, one for every gate. No, make that seven sheets—one gate had apparently seen significantly more traffic than the other. The one closest to the border with Essetir, she noted. Hopefully Uther didn't have people patrolling there. (He probably did.)
She held the pages as tightly as she could and left, closing the door behind her.
If the journey out had been excruciatingly slow, the return trip was as fast as a blink. Soon she was back in the safety of her own room, where she burned the lists and tossed the ashes out the window (after, of course, checking to make sure that nobody was there to see her). Then Morgana buried her cloak beneath her other clothing, so deep that she could plausibly say she'd forgotten its existence, and crawled into bed. She might as well try to get some sleep before the alarm went up.
Naturally, Morgana was almost at the point of drifting off when the bells began to ring.
The witch jolted back into awareness, her heart racing. For a single wild moment, she found herself wondering if they'd found her already. Then she realized how ridiculous she was being. Someone must have discovered the guards, that was all.
Now, how would she have reacted to this situation if she was completely clueless and innocent? She would probably get up and ask what was going on. So Morgana hefted herself out of bed and darted into the hall, which was fairly swarming with guards. (One day, she was going to figure out where they all came from and why they were so intent on serving Uther.)
"What's going on?"
Morgana valiantly refrained from rolling her eyes. "What kind of sorcery?"
"The evil kind!" The guard disappeared around a corner.
Now what? With the guard having been so useless, an innocent version of herself would probably have gone looking for a better source of information, so she stepped a bit further out of her room and asked the next guard. He was more coherent than his coworker and told her that a sorcerer had broken into Lord Leodegrance's study and stolen the decoy lists.
The bottom fell out of Morgana's stomach. "Decoy lists?" she repeated, trying to sound curious rather than horrified.
"Captain Donald, may he rest in peace, suggested that we should never store things where we said they were."
"I see. That was… very intelligent."
The guard's eyes misted over. "He was a great man, my lady."
"…Right." Why couldn't he have become a magic-loving captain under Arthur's command rather than a rabid magic-hater with Uther's blessing? She would have liked him so much better then.
Back in her room, Morgana let her forced smile drop. All that anxiety and planning and improvisation, just for a decoy. Where could the real list be? Wherever it was, it had to be under heavy guard, and its protectors would be on high alert. She doubted she could force them all to sleep without getting caught. They might even cut her down on the spot, especially if it was too dark to recognize her as Uther's ward. The king wouldn't take kindly to her death, but his wrath wouldn't bring her back to life. If anything, it would make him even more rabid in his persecution of magic.
So she couldn't steal the list, but she had to do something. Inactivity wasn't an option, not with so many peoples' lives on the line. Surely she could think of a plan.
What if she spread the word? If she went to the lower town and told the local gossipmongers, they would tell everybody they could. Except this had its own problems. She'd have to sneak out of the very awake, very paranoid castle, tell people without being recognized, and sneak back in. Even if she wasn't discovered, Uther might decide to send a guard to watch over her chambers. He might even check up on her himself. If they discovered her absence, she didn't know what they'd do.
Could she pull this off?
She had to.
But she would have to wait, Morgana decided. The castle was too active now, but in a few hours, it would have calmed down. She could leave a bit before dawn, when there wouldn't be many people awake. Except the guards, of course. They'd be awake. And she couldn't just leave a note because most of the population was illiterate, not to mention that whoever investigated that note might recognize her handwriting.
What if she used thought-speech? The more she contemplated the idea, the more she liked it. Wander around for a bit, use thought-speech to warn everyone within a certain area—for instance, a tavern or a square—then hurry back to the castle and get into her room before anybody noticed she was gone.
That's what she would do. She couldn't think of any other options.
For now, though, she could only wait.
The bones of the land were strong, but the sickness ran deep. It had seeped through stone and soil and even groundwater, little capillaries entangled with everything. And the Dark Tower was the worst of all.
It pulsed with screams and shadows and the echoes of broken minds. It drew strength from them, but most of its power was leeched from the land itself.
(In another life, the Fisher King might have recovered. His wound was grievous, but it was not insurmountable. Then a High Priestess, the cruelest in all recorded history, of the Old Religion had taken advantage of Anfortas's weakness, and king and kingdom had begun to fester. And so Merlin found himself in this life instead.)
Its base was a gaping mouth, its chambers the blood-filled belly of a parasite. It had stolen so much, so very much.
The Fisher King was right, Merlin realized, looking at the Dark Tower through his developing land-bond. Only a bond-holder (not a king, never a king, Arthur was the king) of unrivalled power could dislodge something so deeply rooted.
Anfortas must have sensed it, he understood, felt it draining him and his home throughout the centuries. How awful, to live with that abomination sucking him dry.
But Merlin was stronger, Merlin was hale and healthy and powerful. The Dark Tower could not lodge itself in him, would not lodge itself in him.
The sickness ran deep, but the bones of the land were strong. Rock more ancient than he could imagine, limestone and mudstone and sandstone and bluestone and slate. Hills and mountains and valleys that still remembered roots and footsteps. The Impenetrable Forest, guarded by its implacable queen. Rivers like ribbons, lakes like jewels. Ancient buildings that had withstood the test of time. Sleeping skeletons who had lived birthed eaten drunk aged loved mourned died in a once-glorious kingdom.
Anfortas lit the way, and Merlin followed. This is how he could add power to the land, and this is how he could draw it away. This is what it means to hold the bond.
Time passed them by.
Arthur's head hurt.
Something was moving beneath him. His body ached, though not quite as badly as the blow to his head. It was mostly the soreness of sleeping in an uncomfortable position, with a sharper pain in his leg.
The prince thought back, struggled to remember. Bandits. That was right, bandits had attacked them… yesterday? Probably yesterday. They'd just been sitting down for supper when they were attacked, so it was probably yesterday.
It wasn't the first time he'd been attacked by bandits. They came upon him when he was hunting sometimes, though only rarely. Last time had been… almost a year ago, he thought, and several of them had been downed by conveniently timed falling branches that, in retrospect, were almost certainly Merlin's work.
But this time, he hadn't had Merlin, just a few guards who were both his escort and his jailors. He hadn't been allowed a weapon, and at least one bandit was a superb archer, good enough to hit his targets' throats every time. Though Arthur had tried to grab a weapon from one of the downed Camelot men, it hadn't done him much good when they stopped shooting and charged him all at once. He was certain that he'd managed to kill at least two or three of them, but there had been almost a dozen. He'd gone down after an agonizing blow to his leg.
A dozen bandits, and they must know who he was. They hadn't hesitated to kill the others. Probably ransom-seekers, then, either to Uther or Odin.
Gods, but Arthur hated bandits.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which the Guardsmen of Camelot Remain Mostly Incompetent in Spite of Valiant Efforts Towards Their Improvement"
Yeah, of course Arthur ran into bandits. Remember what show this is based on, dear friends. You can't walk your dog without getting bandited.
Chapter VII: The Plan
The dream-world was the same as it had always been: pleasant weather, a dusty road that split into two, vague portents along the way (tonight's was a selection of plants), a soft breeze rustling the leaves. She'd never been happier to see it.
Then she saw what had happened to Merlin's avatar, and the grin fell from her face.
The warlock (or, rather, the representation of him) was kneeling on the ground, his eyes closed, his expression unreadable. But the earth had welled up to cover his feet and hands, and strange vines burrowed into his skin. Tiny motes of light fell from his exposed skin to land upon the dirt, and equally small particles floated into his nose and ears and mouth.
"Merlin?" Morgana tried to shake him, but her hands passed right through. He might as well have been a ghost. "Merlin!"
The witch bit her lip, wondering what else she could do. She looked around the landscape for inspiration, her eyes eventually lighting on Arthur's figure—and the crown upon his head.
Arthur was the Once and Future King, Merlin's king. They were two sides of the same coin. Perhaps he could call Merlin out of this bizarre stupor.
It was probably safer than asking Morgause, the only other person in this dream world, for help.
"Arthur." Morgana took him by the arm, gave him a little shake. "Arthur, I need you."
The figure—normally statue-still—jolted. Arthur blinked rapidly, his expression baffled. "What?" he asked blankly.
"We're in my dream world," Morgana explained.
"Oh." Arthur looked around. "Not quite what—what's wrong with Merlin?"
"I don't know. I tried calling him here like I did with you, but it didn't work."
"It doesn't look good," the prince observed. His frown only deepened as they got closer. "What the hell?"
"I don't know," Morgana reiterated. "I just want him out of it. Try calling him, Arthur. You're his king. Maybe he'll listen to you."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Merlin, listen to me?"
It was a good point, though not something that Morgana wanted to hear. "Just try it."
"Okay." Arthur tilted the warlock's head back so that their gazes would have met if Merlin's eyes were open. "Merlin, wake up."
"Merlin." Arthur's voice was sterner now. "Wake up."
Arthur poked him, then poked him harder. That didn't work either. The prince hesitated, grimaced. "Emrys? Emrys! Merlin Emrys, wake up!"
Merlin opened his eyes. He blinked, obviously dazed. His eyelids fluttered.
"No!" Morgana yelled, grabbing him by the shoulder. "Stay awake!"
Merlin gave his head a little shake. "This is your dream world, right, Morgana? No, of course it is. Wait. Arthur?"
"Merlin." The prince smiled ever so slightly. "As difficult to wake as ever, I see."
"Look who's talking," the warlock retorted automatically.
"Do you know what's going on?" Morgana cut in, gesturing at the earth that was apparently trying to consume her friend.
"It's a long story—"
"Of course it is," Arthur groused.
"—but basically I promised Mab and the Fisher King that I'd tear down the Dark Tower, which requires me to take on the land-bond. That's what I'm doing now."
"The Fisher King's land-bond?" Morgana said slowly.
Merlin flushed bright red. "The land-bond is completely different from the crown. I'll probably just give the kingdom to Gwen or something once I've fixed it up some."
Morgana and Arthur looked at Merlin, at each other, at Merlin again. The witch didn't know if she wanted to laugh or shake him. Probably both at once, she decided.
"…And how long is this land-bond thing going to take?" Arthur asked, having decided that the best way to deal with Merlin's casual kingdom-gifting was to not deal with it at all—an excellent strategy, in Morgana's opinion, though she would definitely want to watch if he ever did try to give Gwen her own nation.
"I'm not actually sure," Merlin was forced to admit. "Probably not much longer, though. The Fisher King promised that it wouldn't take too much time, but he didn't give me an estimate of hours."
"Can you maybe put it off until we aren't facing multiple crises?" Arthur demanded.
"…Has Uther finally started?" He winced suddenly, and not just (Morgana thought) at the idea of the king's wrath. "Speaking of which, Arthur, we really need to talk as soon as I'm done."
"…Is this going to be one of those conversations, Merlin?"
"I'm afraid so. It's kind of—" But here his eyes snapped shut as the magic reclaimed him.
Arthur groaned softly. "Something tells me that this is going to take longer than he thinks it will. Do you think he even realizes what day it is?"
"Merlin's the expert on magic," Morgana pointed out, even though she had a nasty feeling that her foster brother was right. It was one thing to not poke an angry viper, the major reason he'd mostly stayed out of Camelot so far, and another thing entirely to end up out of commission for an unknown period of time. "He's… look, if he's still like this next time I end up in the dream world, I'll get you to snap him out of it."
"Which will probably just make it take longer," Arthur groaned. "Would it have killed him to ask the Fisher King exactly how long this whole land-bonding thing would take? In solid numbers, not the vague assurances the ancient magical types prefer."
"You know Merlin," Morgana sighed.
"I know he's an idiot."
"He's impulsive, and he's getting better."
"He's an idiot." Arthur grimaced. "But I suppose he's a useful idiot. Sometimes. What's going on in Camelot?"
"Riots in the streets, guards with the right to kill suspected spellbinders on the spot, you're engaged to Sarrum's daughter Orgeluse, and I'm supposed to marry Cenred this autumn." She hesitated, but she knew that Arthur ought to know about this. "And… Uther is threatening Gwen."
Arthur's gaze went cold and hard. "What?"
Morgana told him everything: the announcements, her argument with the king, the plans to escape, even the decision to take Uther out of commission somehow. It was a mark of Arthur's fury that he didn't even protest the small conspiracy to poison his father.
(She caught herself wondering if she would ever find a love like that, but the witch pushed the thought aside. She'd deal with that later.)
When she was finished, he reciprocated with his own (much shorter) report: he'd been attacked and taken hostage by bandits who were, as far as he could tell, taking him to King Odin.
"You're certain you and Guinevere can escape?"
"Yes," she lied. She'd seen a vision of Gwen as queen. Her friend, at least, would make it out, which meant that it was almost certain that Morgana would as well. "What about you? Do you have a way to escape the bandits who are currently bringing you to a man who wants you dead?"
Arthur grimaced. "I'm still working on the details."
"So no, then."
His tone was defensive. "There's nine of them, Morgana, and I'm tied to a horse. I think I know how to undo the knots, so I'm going to run for it later tonight, once their guard is down. The most difficult part will be getting out of their camp. After that, I know enough about hunting to evade pursuit."
Morgana wasn't convinced. "Assuming you get that far."
"That's the difficult part," Arthur acknowledged. "But if they think I'm still asleep while I work on the knots, they'll be taken completely by surprise and I'll get a head start." He smirked. "And it helps that I've been playing concussed all day."
Morgana smirked back. "How is that different from your usual behavior?"
"Ha, ha." The prince rolled his eyes. "But what about your plan?"
"We got in touch with Blaise, and he contacted Anhora. Anhora can't take all three of us at once, but he's strong enough that it will only take two trips. Gwen and I—and Tom too, I suppose—are getting ready to start smuggling our things out of the city. We'll be ready by the time Cenred gets here. No, we don't have an exact date yet," she added, correctly interpreting the other's expression.
They spoke a bit longer before Arthur bid the lady farewell. He had an escape to make.
Morgana lingered in the dream world. She looked at Merlin again, chewing her lip from worry. He'd be fine, she assured herself. Him and Arthur and Gwen. They'd all be fine. It was the rest of Camelot that she had to worry about, because she still didn't know how she was supposed to stop Uther.
A stray thought tickled the back of her mind. Morgana went rigid as the thought grew, unfolding and twisting until it filled her head completely.
Slowly, she turned towards Morgause.
This was a bad idea. She should just ask Blaise. Surely he'd want to incapacitate Uther to prevent the violence. But the witch still found herself edging closer and closer to the sorceress.
She could just ask for options. She didn't actually have to do what Morgause would suggest, not if she didn't want to. She was just trying to have as many choices as possible.
Morgana reached out to take Morgause's (her sister's) hand.
The sorceress blinked, awareness lighting her eyes. She noticed Morgana and stiffened. "Is something wrong?" she asked, worry in her voice.
"Then tell me, sister."
Morgana grimaced a bit at the appellation but obliged. She told her about Uther's actions, his plans, his threats, and then she told her about the budding, ill-formed conspiracy to somehow get him out of commission.
"Why not just kill him?"
It took Morgana a moment too long to answer. "Because we need to prove that we're better than him."
Morgause did not look overly convinced. "Defending our people is better than anything Uther Pendragon has ever done."
"But the rest of the world won't see it that way." Morgana spoke swiftly, almost as though she could make up for her earlier hesitation.
Morgause scoffed. "With the way he's treating them, they'll rise up soon enough."
"His own subjects, maybe, but the other kingdoms won't. We have to—we have to do this in a way that will make people less likely to seek revenge. Merlin calls it the red spiral, and it has to stop sometime."
The priestess's lip curled, but she jerked her head in a nod. "Very well, sister. I see that your mind is made up in this."
Morgana's throat was dry. "Then you'll help?"
"…I'll help." Morgause's gaze drifted skyward. She was silent for a long time. Then she smiled, teeth gleaming.
"I think I have an idea."
Escaping from the bandits was taking longer than Arthur had expected, but he was close, and the half-asleep sentry keeping watch still thought that he was asleep. The escape wasn't coming along as well as Arthur had hoped, but he knew that it could be much worse.
Finally, his hands slipped free.
Arthur lolled his head to the side, squinting at the sentry. The man was sitting against a tree and looked ready to fall asleep. Should he wait a few minutes to see if he succumbed, or should he leave now? If the prince stayed and the guard didn't give into slumber, he'd risk discovery and lose a few minutes of darkness to cover his tracks. If the guard did fall asleep, though, they wouldn't know he was gone until morning, and he might even be able to steal a sword. If he bolted now, though, he would lose that chance.
The prince decided to risk it.
One… two… three….
By the time Arthur reached one thousand, the sentry was snoring softly. The prince slipped his hands out of the unknotted rope, slunk over to the nearest sword. It was no Excalibur, but it would do.
Then he was atop one of the horses. His wounded leg gave him a bit of difficulty as he mounted, but he ignored it.
Thankfully, the bandits were all heavy sleepers. Arthur and his stolen steed were able to creep out of their camp without awakening anyone.
It was too dark to risk cantering or galloping through a trackless forest. Trotting might be all right, but only in patches of smoother terrain. His best bet would be to find a road, which would let him move more quickly and help cover his tracks.
The hours passed. Dawn glimmered in the east. No sign of a road.
Arthur's leg hurt, a dull ache that throbbed in time with the horse's steps. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his face flushed, but he was shivering. He suspected that an infection might have taken root in his limb, which only made it more urgent that he find a road.
Maybe he should have told Morgana about his injury. Then again, it wasn't like she could do anything from Camelot, especially when Arthur himself wasn't quite certain where he was. No, he'd made the right choice in not worrying her further.
By the time the sun ascended fully over the horizon, the dizziness had set in. When he pressed a hand to his leg, the skin was tender beneath his fingers, swollen, hot even through the fabric of his breeches. There was still no sign of a road.
Perhaps he ought to change directions. It would be just his luck if he'd been riding parallel to the only road nearby for the last three (he thought) hours. If he turned north, though, and rode that way instead of east, he… would probably just ride further away from the hypothetical road. But there was a chance that north was the right direction, and it might confuse the bandits, especially if he took pains to hide his trail. They were probably awake by now, and he didn't know anything about their tracking abilities. At least they didn't have dogs.
The day was heating up rapidly, or was that just the fever settling in? The world was blurring at the edges.
A stream. Arthur dismounted, wincing at the pain in his leg and the stiffness in the rest of his body. He rolled up his pant legs. The wound was inflamed, angry red lines stretching from it. Not good.
The water was cool and soothing. Arthur splashed it over his face, dipped his leg in. He rubbed at the scab, pushed down; blood and pus drained out. Too much pus.
Arthur tried to squeeze as much corruption as he could out of his leg before washing it again. The pain was a bit less intense now, the red a bit less vivid, but he wasn't better, not by a long shot. He needed a physician or even just a village wise woman.
One more reason to not let the bandits catch him again.
With that in mind, Arthur forced himself back onto his stolen horse. Pain made him clumsy, made stars burst in his vision. He grit his teeth.
The little brook ran northeast. Arthur guided his horse into the water, then set out downstream. It wasn't a road, but perhaps he could find some sign of civilization if he followed.
He just had to keep moving, no matter how tired and dizzy and fevered he felt. He just had… to… keep….
This was better than poison, Morgana told herself. Easier to maintain, for one, and less likely to get them caught. She hadn't had any idea how to dose the poison correctly, much less slip it into Uther's food and/or drink again and again until she had to leave. It would permanently damage his credibility, too, and it would look much less suspicious than him suddenly falling ill. Madness was known to lurk in the Pendragon bloodline; Uther's uncle and great-great-aunt had spent their last years flitting between sanity and lunacy, locked away in the furthest reaches of the citadel. No one would think it strange if a Pendragon king under so much stress suddenly lost his mind.
And… there was a sort of poetry to using the mandrake against him, a justice in forcing him to see, to acknowledge what he'd done. Retribution for his victims to help them rest in peace.
Morgana stood in the marketplace where she and Morgause had agreed to meet, staring at the wares before her without really seeing anything. Someone cleared her throat. The witch looked up to see a familiar face looking at her expectantly.
Without a word, the daughters of Vivienne made their way to an empty side-street.
"I have the handkerchief."
"You're certain it has some of his tears on it?"
"Physically, I doubt that they're still there," Morgana admitted, "but you said that as long as he'd shed a tear into it at one point, it would work. He's had this one for years, and I saw him use it to dab away a tear when Arthur was bitten by the Questing Beast."
Morgause nodded, her mouth tightening. "It will work. I can get the mandrake root to you this evening." She met Morgana's eyes. "We'll need to renew the spell every day."
"We'd need to renew poison often enough too," Morgana pointed out.
"I suppose you would," the priestess sighed. "Just… be careful, sister. This is dangerous work you're doing."
The younger woman snorted softly. "Believe you me, I know."
Alternate chapter title: "In Which the Promise of Uther's Imminent Suffering Hopefully Makes up for Arthur's Situation"
Next up: The knights conspire. Arthur has a disturbing conversation.
Chapter 8: The Camp
A detour into the esoteric.
Chapter VIII: The Camp
"I should probably have brought this up before," Gwaine said, "but we could just leave."
"Leave?" Leon echoed.
The five of them sat around a campfire. Other fires dotted the roadside, but few men wanted to sit with them. It was hardly a secret that Uther had sent them to war hoping for their deaths, and if the war didn't kill them, the king would find some other way. Leon didn't blame the other soldiers for not wanting anything to do with them except when absolutely necessary. Besides, it gave them better privacy than they would otherwise have enjoyed, and Leon had several reasons to be grateful for that.
"Leave," Gwaine confirmed. His posture was casual, perhaps to fool onlookers, but his eyes were hard and serious. "Look, Leon, Elyan, I know that you're loyal to Camelot because it's your home. Lancelot, you've got friends there. You three all have connections and loyalties to Camelot. I'm not sure about you, Percival. You're kind of an outlier. But we all know that Uther assigned us to the front lines because he hoped it would kill us. No 'Thank you for saving my city with your amazing fighting skills,' just 'You used magic weapons, time to die.' And we're just… going along with it."
"My dad and sister live in the citadel," Elyan pointed out, his jaw tight. "Leon's got parents, five older siblings, and… how many nieces and nephews do you have now?"
"Liadawn had twins."
Gwaine held up his hands before they could get completely sidetracked. "I'm not saying we flat-out abandon the people you love, but maybe there's another option. What if we faked our deaths? Uther gets us out of the way, he doesn't hunt us down or hurt your families, and we don't have to throw away our lives for someone who's trying to kill us all. If we find a way to get in contact with your families, to let them know you're fine, then everyone's happy."
Leon opened his mouth, an automatic protest rising to his lips. He was a knight of Camelot; he had sworn an oath, as had his forefathers before him. But then a thought crossed his mind, and what he said was, "We'd need to get Marrok out too."
"Your squire?" Lancelot asked.
"I'm responsible for him," Leon explained. It was even the truth, just not all of it. "Marrok might not have fought with us, but he'll still fall under suspicion."
Lancelot nodded slowly, speculation in his eyes. Leon hoped he didn't say anything. He met the other's gaze. Lancelot smiled gently.
The others seemed to accept Leon's justification wholesale. They looked at each other, eyes darting from face to face, uncertain, hesitant. Nobody wanted to be the one to actually say it.
"I've thought about it a long time," Gwaine continued, "and I think this is our best shot at survival. Why should we die just because Uther Pendragon doesn't like how we saved his city?"
A long moment of silence, broken at last by the man with the fewest ties to Camelot. "So how can we do it?" Percival inquired.
Gwaine grinned. "I've got a few suggestions."
Arthur woke up dazed and groggy. It took him several seconds to remember that he shouldn't be lying comfortably on a blanket with a makeshift pillow cushioning his head. He should be collapsed in the woods somewhere after losing consciousness and falling off his horse.
Someone had obviously found him. It wasn't the bandits. He wasn't tied up or guarded. Instead, he'd been left alone in a small tent with a jug of water at his side. His wound was bandaged, and though he still felt a bit warmer than normal, that might have just been the homespun blanket lying atop him.
The prince sat slowly. No dizziness. When he scooted his leg around to inspect it, the bandage was clean of blood. How long had he been out?
He drank, then pulled on the clothes that had been left for him. His trousers had vanished—there was probably too much blood to save them, or perhaps someone was scrubbing and sewing right now. His unknown benefactors had left another pair, dark blue and a little bit too small. The shirt was his, though, and it had been cleaned. His armor, what little of it he'd escaped with, was stacked neatly in the corner.
Arthur debated putting it on, but whoever had saved him was obviously well-intentioned. He had no need for armor here.
It was surprisingly easy to walk outside. His leg twinged a bit, but that was it. When he stopped dead in his tracks, it was because of the sight before him, not any residual pain.
He was in a druid camp. Tents, most a fair bit larger than the one he'd awakened in, were scattered throughout the clearing. The brown-and-green fabric blended into the forest around them. Lines strung with drying laundry, mostly robes and cloaks, marked the borders of the camp. At its center was a fire pit surrounded by logs. Red-hot coals burned dully beneath an enormous iron pot.
What really caught Arthur's attention was the people. A trio of druids sat around the cookpot. One was shifting the embers with a fire poke. A young woman was bringing water into the camp. Another woman was inspecting the laundry to see if it was dry yet. Still other druids meandered throughout the camp, occasionally murmuring to each other but mostly silent.
An older man looked up from his silent conversation (they had thought-speech, right? He thought that Merlin had mentioned something about that) with a young teenager. He met Arthur's gaze with a smile, then dropped into a bow. "Well met, Once and Future King."
The other druids were bowing too. It was oddly discomfiting, and not just because of what that title meant. Arthur was used to the people of Camelot bowing to him, but these were the people whom his kingdom—his father—had persecuted. Still, he inclined his head and said politely, "Well met. Thank you for your healing and hospitality."
"It was an honor," the druid replied. He actually sounded as though he meant it.
The boy beside him was trying to inch away, discomfort writ large on his face, but the druid man didn't allow it. "I am Iseldir," he said, taking hold of the boy's arm, "and this is Mordred. I believe that you've met."
"I thought you looked familiar," Arthur stated. "It's good to see that you're doing well."
"Thank you, Prince Arthur," Mordred said, looking like he would rather be anywhere else. If not for Iseldir's hand on his shoulder, he would have bolted.
Arthur suppressed a frown. Mordred hadn't been this nervous (if this was nervousness) the last time he'd seen him, which was back in the heart of Uther Pendragon's citadel right after his foster-father had been killed. Or maybe he'd just been better at hiding it. After all, his life had depended on pretending that he was Merlin's younger brother. If that wasn't impetus enough to hide his true emotions, Arthur didn't know what was.
Iseldir gestured for Arthur to come sit. He still hadn't released his veritable captive, so the prince tried to be considerate (what? He was perfectly capable of being considerate, thank you very much) and sat on the druid's other side. "Mordred found you in a sorry state," he commented.
Arthur smiled at the boy, trying to look as non-threatening as possible. "Thank you, Mordred. I might just owe you my life."
A peculiar expression flitted across Mordred's face. Guilt? "You're welcome," he mumbled, gaze averted. "Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm better than I have any right to be," Arthur replied. "Were you the one who tended my wound?"
"No. Iseldir did it himself."
Arthur grinned at him. "Didn't want to risk killing me?" he teased.
Mordred flinched like he'd been struck. The friendly smile fell from Arthur's face as the teenager stood and strode away.
The prince and the older druid exchanged startled glances. "What was that about?" Arthur asked.
"I have no idea whatsoever," Iseldir confessed. "He's been acting strange ever since we left the Isle of the Blessed, but this is the first time he's walked out on someone."
"…Maybe I'm just bringing back bad memories. He was afraid for his life the last time we saw each other."
"Perhaps," murmured Iseldir, plainly unconvinced. "I'll have Kara speak with him." He was silent for a moment before nodding. "She's on her way. Now. Tell me, Arthur Pendragon, what happened to you?"
"Bandits," the prince sighed. "I was sent to Gawant, but they ambushed us, killed my men, and tried to take me to Odin. I managed to escape… how long have I been here?"
"Only a few hours."
Arthur started. "Really?" He shifted his leg. It barely hurt at all. "I thought I'd been unconscious for days. I would have escaped this morning, then, a few hours before dawn."
Iseldir's tone was casual. His gaze was anything but. "Tenille has always had a gift for healing spells."
Arthur met his stare. "I'll have to thank her in person, then."
A smile crept across the druid's face, slow and radiant as the sunrise. "I'll introduce you tonight at supper, if you wish to stay that long. We would be glad to host you overnight, or for as long as you'd like."
The prince glanced at the sun. It was relatively low in the western sky, though not so far down that the light had turned golden. Supper would probably be ready in an hour or two, three at the most. "It would be my pleasure, Iseldir. If you agree, I think it would be best for me to spend the night here and depart in the morning."
"A good plan, Prince Arthur. Your leg should be fully healed by then, and your horse will be well rested."
"He's not my horse," Arthur replied automatically. "I took him from the bandits."
Iseldir shrugged. "I doubt he was their horse either."
That startled a short laugh out of Arthur. "You're probably right. Where is he?"
"Getting a drink at the stream, I think. We don't have troughs and didn't want him in the stew pots."
They continued in that vein for a while, exchanging increasingly-less-cautious trivialities. Iseldir was easy to speak with, Arthur found, even if most of their conversation so far was politeness and small talk. After perhaps half an hour of knowing the druid, the prince had decided that he would be a great deal of help when the time came to return magic.
Iseldir had other duties to attend to, and Arthur had other druids to thank. They went their separate ways fully intending to continue their conversation that evening or perhaps in the morning before he left.
The other druids had been watching, listening. Arthur took a moment to steady himself before walking over to the healer whom Iseldir had pointed out earlier to convey his gratitude.
By the time supper rolled around, Arthur had met half the people in the camp, including Mordred's friend Kara (who had no idea why the boy was behaving so strangely). They were, for the most part, surprisingly ordinary people. Yes, they dressed differently from the citizens of Camelot. They had a more pacifistic outlook than he was used to. And their ability to speak without actually speaking was a little bit creepy. But they were parents and children, siblings and friends, who looked at him with wary quiet hope.
He couldn't tell which ones had magic and which ones didn't. The spellbinders were just as ordinary as the others.
Arthur should have expected that. He'd known intellectually that magic users came from all walks of life, that they must have as much variation in personality as any other group. Still, he was used to… flashier people. Merlin and Morgana had stood out from the crowd even before he'd learned about their magic. The druids could have been anyone.
Supper was a simple pottage eaten around the fire. Arthur startled when the woman across from him muttered a spell to cool down her meal, then gave himself a little shake. Thankfully nobody had noticed.
He understood now that magic wasn't inherently evil, that it depended on the user, but he wasn't used to it. He probably wouldn't be accustomed to such casual sorcery for quite some time.
Mordred was at the dinner as well, but he seemed to be trying to stay as far from Arthur as possible. Once in a while he would glance up from his bowl, something like guilt mixed with anxiety on his face. Then his gaze would drop, his expression becoming pensive. Arthur wished he knew why. He didn't think he'd done anything too offensive when they'd met back in Camelot, but this seemed a bit much for, say, bringing back unpleasant memories. (Then again, it wasn't like Arthur was an expert on emotions.)
"May I speak with you, Prince Arthur?" a voice asked in his mind. The man in question jumped, looked over to meet Mordred's gaze. Arthur nodded.
Mordred swallowed hard and went back to his supper.
The meal seemed to pass more slowly after that. There was an odd, irrational dread unfurling in Arthur's gut, though he had no idea why. Was he worried that Mordred would ask about Merlin, that he'd have to explain that the fool had gotten himself trapped in some sort of magical coma of unknown duration at the worst possible time? No, he doubted it. It had more to do with Mordred's behavior. The druid's own reluctance was contagious.
The meal was over. Mordred slipped away silently, lingering on the edge of the clearing where the trees' shadows were darkest. Arthur couldn't escape quite so easily, but he made his excuses and went over to the boy. Mordred fixed the prince with the most unconvincing smile he'd ever seen before leading him deeper into the woods.
There was nothing different about the place they stopped. It wasn't by a pond or stream. There weren't even any distinctive trees. Mordred probably just felt like they'd been walking long enough, or perhaps he didn't want to lose his nerve.
"What did you want to speak about?" Arthur finally asked.
Mordred shrank in on himself. How old was he, anyways? Thirteen, probably, or fourteen at the very oldest. Young.
"…It's a long story," the druid finally confessed. He stared ahead and down, not at Arthur, but at one of the trees behind him. "I was… my tribe was on the Isle of the Blessed for the summit. Did Emrys tell you about the summit?"
"The big meeting of spellbinders that took place earlier this summer." Only a few weeks ago, Arthur realized, startled. It felt like it had been so much longer.
Mordred nodded. "Towards the end of the meeting, I saw the Great Dragon. Kilgharrah. I wanted to pay my respects to him, thank him for telling Emrys about his destiny." His fists clenched, unclenched, clenched again. "But he… he recognized me. He knew me." The boy swallowed. "He knew my destiny." Tears glittered in the corners of his eyes.
A long moment of silence, broken by Arthur's hesitant, "Your destiny."
"My destiny." Mordred's voice was bleak, miserable. He was shaking. "He said that… that I'm the Kingslayer. That I'm destined to kill you."
Arthur stared, vaguely aware that his mouth had fallen open but unable to care. "What?"
"The Great Dragon said that I'm the one who's destined to kill you," Mordred repeated. "I… thought that you should know. To protect yourself."
Arthur opened and closed his mouth a few times, searching in vain for the correct words. Mordred took that as a reason to keep talking. "I don't want to. But—you're not the king yet. Albion hasn't been born, much less reached its golden age. And. I don't know how long it will be until then, but it will be enough time to change me. Maybe I'm destined to go mad or, or turn evil or—"
"Did the dragon say how he knows about your supposed destiny?"
Mordred pulled up short, blinking owlishly. "What?"
"How does Kilgharrah know all this?" Arthur repeated. He gestured wildly. "How does he know it's supposedly you? Because Merlin restoring magic, him recruiting me to do it, that makes sense. You killing me—aren't you a pacifist? Have you ever lifted a finger against anybody in your life?"
"You and everyone else in the world. But, seriously, why does the dragon think you would kill me?"
"Dragons have ways of knowing," Mordred mumbled, "and there are prophecies about the Kingslayer." He shuddered. "About me."
But Arthur was shaking his head. "You're warning me." He supposed it was possible that they would quarrel in the future, that he would do something to drastically provoke the druid, but….
Like he'd said, Merlin being destined to restore magic made sense. It was something that he'd wanted to do anyways, something that he'd poured his heart and soul into. And now that Arthur knew about witches and warlocks—now that he understood that magic could be dangerous but didn't have to be evil—how could he not overturn the ban? He might not know a lot about the prophecies, but everything he did know was consistent with their characters. Arthur could imagine himself and Merlin doing the things they were apparently prophesied to do.
Perhaps he just didn't know Mordred well enough, but it didn't feel like killing Arthur was consistent with his character. He couldn't imagine the boy doing the thing that he was apparently prophesied to do. It just didn't make sense to him.
The prince tried to explain this in halting, stumbling words. Mordred didn't seem convinced, and not just from Arthur's lack of eloquence. "Dragons know these things," he argued. "Why would the Great Dragon lie?"
"Just because dragons know things doesn't mean that every dragon knows everything," Arthur retorted. The longer he spent with Mordred, the more he was convinced. This boy wouldn't murder him. Maybe there would be an unfortunate accident sometime in the future—the far future—but… he just couldn't see it happening.
Mordred flung up his hands in frustration. "Why are you so convinced that he's wrong?"
"Why are you so convinced that he's right? You're clearly not evil."
Mordred's eyes were full of shadows. "Are you willing to bet your life on that, Arthur Pendragon?"
Arthur hesitated, because it wasn't like he knew a lot about prophecies in general, wasn't like he'd known Mordred for long. But… "From what I've seen, you obviously have no interest in killing me. Yes, I know that can change as the years turn," Arthur added, forestalling the boy's argument, "but maybe, if you ever feel murderously inclined, you could tell me what's wrong instead of, say, bringing out the poison?"
"That's not how these things work!" Mordred burst out, flinging up his hands in frustration.
"Why not? You don't want to kill me, I don't want to be killed by you. I don't see why we can't avoid doing something neither of us wants to do."
"Kilgharrah told me that no one can escape their destiny."
Arthur thought of a story he'd once read, one of the Greek classics. Oedipus hadn't been able to escape his prophesied fate, but he hadn't been a real person. "Has Kilgharrah ever seen anybody try to defy their destiny?" He thought of Morgana's dreams, of the things that Merlin had mentioned. "And even if he's right and nobody can escape their fates, how do we know that he's interpreted these famously cryptic prophecies correctly?" He remembered another story then. "Have you ever heard of Croesus?"
That's a no, then. "He was an ancient Lydian king who asked the Oracle of Delphi what would happen if he attacked the Persians. She told him that if he did so, a great empire would be destroyed. So Croesus attacked the Persians, and his own great empire was destroyed."
There was something like hopes in Mordred's eyes—cautious, yes, but present. "Do you think that dragons can misinterpret things, too?"
The prince shrugged. "I don't see why he couldn't."
Mordred nodded slowly. "I hope you're right," he said softly, "but… please be careful around me, Prince Arthur." His pale eyes were old, shadowed. "We won't know who's right until you're dead."
Unfortunately, they both knew he was right.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which the Knights Approach the Point of Total Doneness"
I calculated Mordred's age by looking up his actor and averaging their ages at this point in the show. The Greek stories that Arthur references are both 'real.' Also, it is becoming increasingly clear that Something Is Up with Leon and Marrok.
Next chapter: Mandrake time!
My NaNo writing is going super well. I'm partway through the first draft of chapter 22 of this fic. Yay for expanding my buffer!
Chapter 9: The Mandrake
The suffering we've all been waiting for finally begins.
Chapter IX: The Mandrake
"There aren't any servant's entrances to the king's room," Gwen said quietly when they finally had a moment alone. "I don't know how well it's guarded, but maybe one of us could be a distraction—probably you, I think—and the other could slip this thing beneath his mattress. You said that Morgause can get it to you by this evening at the latest, right? And you're certain you can trust her."
"In this, I think we'll have to risk it," Morgana sighed. She glanced outside and grimaced. "Someone's coming."
Gwen huffed. "I hate not being able to answer you in thought-speech," she grumbled, then raised her voice and changed the subject to herbs.
She knew, intellectually, that they were doing good work here in the lower town, giving whatever medical assistance they could. But with the guards Uther had insisted upon standing at their door, more than a few people were afraid to come to them. Worse, it was only a matter of time before another riot produced yet another influx of patients, and it was getting harder and harder to get ahold of healing herbs. The forest around Camelot had been picked over for plants to prevent infection and hasten the mending of wounds. It felt, sometimes, that she and Morgana were trying to empty the ocean. With leaky buckets. In a storm.
The rest of the day passed slowly. Soon evening neared. Morgana wasn't certain if she could escape the guards again—neither woman was quite certain how she'd managed it that morning—so it was Gwen who returned to the alley, Gwen who met with Morgause.
"I remember you," the priestess said. "You were with my sister the day I met her. What is your name again?"
"Guinevere," Morgause repeated. "And why do you fight for magic, Guinevere?"
Her heart beat was louder than it should be. It was an effort to keep her voice level. "I have plenty of reasons. Morgana and Merlin are my friends. They don't deserve to die for being born with magic. If they don't, then neither does anybody else. Spellbinders should be judged by what they choose to do, not by what they are."
"Yes," Morgause agreed quietly. "We should be." She reached beneath her cloak to withdraw a satchel. "The mandrake root is inside. How are you and my sister going to get it under the Butcher's bed?"
"We're still figuring that out," Gwen confessed. "We spent most of the day in the healers' tent. Morgana could use thought-speech to talk to me, but I'm not magical. I couldn't talk back."
"I'll need to teach her that," Morgause murmured. "Will you be the one to return the mandrake to me tomorrow?"
"Probably. Uther's having guards follow Morgana around."
"Then I'll have to use thought-speech to communicate with you," the other woman declared.
Their meeting lasted longer than Gwen had anticipated, mostly because Morgause insisted on teaching her how to communicate with thought-speech. Apparently non-magical people could be taught the techniques of telepathy, but only a spellbinder could provide the power to actually converse. Still, Gwen was back at the castle less than an hour after she'd departed from her friend.
It was surprisingly easy to slip into Uther's chamber. Gwen supposed that most of the guards were occupied with hunting down innocents in the citadel, or maybe they were heading home after a long day of reconstruction. The room was empty, so nobody was watching over it, and Gwen's servant status rendered her practically invisible. So she hid the mandrake root beneath Uther's mattress and left as quickly as possible.
Morgana was waiting for her in her own chamber, chewing her lip and pacing back and forth. "Are you all right?" she demanded.
"I'm fine," Gwen assured her. "And while I was making my way here, I noticed that Uther's room was unguarded, so I decided to hide the mandrake root right away."
"You're sure you weren't seen?"
The tension drained from Morgana's shoulders. "Good, that's good." A hesitant smile. "Thank you."
They said that it was good to keep friends close and enemies closer. With that in mind, Morgana had decided to start taking meals with Uther, forcing her rage and fear beneath a thin veneer of docility. The king could probably see through it, but he likely blamed her upcoming wedding to Cenred and his own threats against Gwen. Morgana hoped that he attributed her presence as a way to ingratiate herself to him, to convince him to drop his threats against her friend.
As long as he didn't realize that this was her way of spying on him, the lady couldn't care less what the king thought.
That morning, Uther was tired but smug. The combination instantly set alarm bells to ringing in Morgana's head, and not just because she thought that the mandrake should have been working by now. Was it safe to comment? Probably. Hiding her trepidation behind a false smile, she commented, "You're looking cheerful this morning. Good dream?"
"I haven't slept," the man replied.
"Oh." That explained the mandrake. It also made the alarm bells double in volume. "Why not?"
Uther's smile was as sharp as a blade. "Captain Brun and I spent last night organizing another series of raids against sorcerers."
Morgana's stomach plummeted, falling from her body to the tunnels deep beneath the citadel. Please, gods, let her have misunderstood. "When will those be?"
The king's smile widened; teeth glinted between his lips. His eyes were as bright as firelight on a sword. "You mistake my meaning, Morgana. They all took place last night."
She hadn't misunderstood. While she'd been sleeping and dreaming (water clogged with decaying plants, serpents hiding in jugs made of mist), while she'd been safe in her bed, the guards had broken into peoples' homes and dragged innocents off into the darkness, never to be seen again. "But didn't you need a new set of lists? You … raided against dozens of people just two days ago."
"And many of them escaped due to the interventions of that damned witch warning them." A muscle jumped in Uther's jaw. "The guards spent all of yesterday finding their lairs. There are still a few who managed to evade justice, but most of the ones who escaped have been dealt with."
No, no, no. Morgana took a sip of milk that wasn't enough to wet her dry throat. "How many did they capture?" But she knew, even as she asked, that nobody had been captured.
Guards were allowed to kill on sight, now.
"None. The guards put down over fifty escaped sorcerers and sympathizers last night."
"I see." Morgana put her glass down so that her shaking hands wouldn't spill. Her voice was shaking too. "That's, what, two hundred people now? Two hundred people put down without trial. I wonder how many of them were murdered just because their neighbors hated them or, or they turned down someone's advances or—"
Uther shrugged. He shrugged. "Perhaps a few peasants were falsely accused, but some sacrifices are necessary to maintain the peace."
Morgana stood with such force that she nearly knocked over her chair. "What peace?" she spat. "This isn't peace, it's murder."
"If I were you, Morgana," the king said quietly, "I would think very carefully about what I would say next."
"If you were me, two hundred people would still be alive."
It would be easy, so easy, to charge him now. She wanted to. It was taking all her self-control to stay in place.
"Two hundred sorcerers would continue to plague this city."
"They aren't the plague on this city, Uther Pendragon."
He put her in the dungeons for that, of course. Morgana stalked her cell like a caged tigress, warding off (or trying to) her horror and grief and guilt with rage.
Maybe she should have just killed Uther, but the thought of it made something twist inside her. Morgana made a noise like a snarl, punched at the wall.
It wasn't fair. Uther was a monster. She knew he was a monster.
So why did a part of her still love him?
Arthur didn't set out right away in the morning. He helped set snares, determined to at least partly repay the druids' kindness. They protested, of course—they needed no repayment, and even if they did, his returning magic to the land would be more than enough recompense—but he waved off their protests. He spent the morning assisting them, then came back to the camp. The healer confirmed that his leg was as good as new, so Arthur thanked them all one last time and departed immediately after lunch.
Mordred was there, but they didn't mention what they'd talked about last night. Their mealtime conversation was a little bit stilted, enough to make Iseldir raise an eyebrow, but it wasn't unfriendly.
Arthur should have gone back in the general direction of Gawant. His father and king had ordered him there, after all, and he was sworn to obey. But there was a war going on because he had accidentally killed another king's son. It wasn't entirely Arthur's fault, and he knew this, too. Magance and Camelot had never been bosom friends, Odin had tried to have him assassinated, and then Cornelius Sigan had used Uther's body to declare a full-fledged war. Odin, eager for vengeance, had refused all of the real Uther's attempts at making peace, so now countless men were camped at the border between their kingdoms, waiting the command to attack and kill and die.
Magance was to the east, so to the east Arthur rode.
His plans were vague. He had to get to Magance and… do something to stop the war. He just wasn't certain what.
Good thing he had a long ride ahead of him.
A marriage contract was a traditional way to stop wars, but that was out of the question. Even if he'd never met Guinevere, there was no way in hell that Odin would allow one of his daughters to marry the man who had killed her brother. He probably shouldn't be so relieved by that.
So what would it take to make Odin stop the war? Probably revenge against Arthur; that was what he wanted more than anything, after all.
Arthur's automatic response to the thought was to give himself up, but…. He had responsibilities. To Camelot, to his friends, to himself. He had to curb his father's rage and make peace between the divided factions of his people and sire an heir to prevent civil war after his death. He was a prince. He couldn't just waltz into Odin's throne room and bare his throat.
But maybe, just maybe, there was something else that he could do.
Ygraine stood before him, her face white as porcelain, her hair unbound. She wore nothing but a thin pale shift. She was young and beautiful and everything he'd ever dreamed of, but her mien was sad, almost heartbroken.
"My love, what's wrong?" Uther tried to say, but all that came out was a gurgle. He coughed to clear his throat and expelled a huge clump of half-congealed blood.
The blood fell to the ground between them. It burst, red splattering all over Ygraine's clean pale dress. Then the stains began to spread, red spiraling over white, dripping from her skirt into the crevasse that yawned beneath her feet. The earth itself was splitting down to its very bones, and Ygraine was trapped at the bottom of the new cavern—a canyon that was rapidly filling with blood.
Uther scrambled towards her as the gap stretched wider and wider. The earth was shaking; he'd fallen to his knees. The smell of smoke poisoned the air.
He reached the edge. The canyon was full of blood already, little rivulets running off its sides. The ground beneath Uther was a red-stained mud. He would sink if he stayed there too long, he knew distantly, but that didn't matter. Ygraine was down there.
A face, too soft and too pale, appeared beneath the bloody lake. Not Ygraine. A child. Dozens of children in druid robes and simple peasant attire, their unseeing eyes bulging almost out of their sockets, their bloated tongues drifting in invisible currents.
Uther jerked away, back onto his feet, back into something cold.
The king whipped around, his heart hammering. At first he didn't see anything. Then he made the mistake of looking down.
A severed head stared up at him, its lips curled back in a sneer of condescension. The hands holding the head lifted it higher, higher, until it was level with the horrified king's own gaze.
The mouth opened, but no sound came out. The head snarled silently as the body behind it pulled it back, balanced it on a stump of a neck.
"We're not the plague on this kingdom, Uther Pendragon."
Other voices took up the chant, people who had to physically hold their heads lest they fall off, people missing arms and legs, people with huge holes in their chests, people with their entrails dragging on the ground behind them.
"We're not the plague on this kingdom, Uther Pendragon."
The voices came from all around him: his front, where the wounded dead advanced; his sides, where burning figures crept towards him; his back, where the drowned corpses crawled out of the lake.
"We're not the plague on this kingdom, Uther Pendragon."
They were close, so close, but—they were beginning to rot now, eyes liquefying, skin sloughing off, muscle falling from bone to mix with the bloody muddy ground. (Uther tried to move, but he'd sunk up to his knees now. He was trapped.) Yet even as bones blackened to ash and crumbled to dust, the victims of the Purge kept up their awful chant.
"We're not the plague on this kingdom, Uther Pendragon."
He was sinking and there was blood in his mouth his nose his ears his eyes—
Uther Pendragon awoke panting and quivering, tangled in his sweat-soaked sheets. A dream, it was just a dream. He'd decided to sleep for a couple of hours after his long night and the disastrous breakfast with Morgana. He'd dreamed. It was just—
A child's face stared at him, soft and pale, its bloated tongue lolling from its slack jaw, its hair stained with duckweed.
"We're not the plague on this kingdom, Uther Pendragon."
The king closed his eyes. "Another dream," he assured himself.
A wet gurgle of a laugh. The sound of dripping. The fetid stink of rot. Something cold and slimy and soft, too soft to be living flesh.
"You're wrong," the drowned child said, and began to laugh. Its mad cackling echoed around the room—but that wasn't an echo, there were men's voices in the throng and women's too, and they sounded like crackling flames and weak gasps and moist bubbling. There were other noises too, the screams of the dying and the lamentation of survivors.
Uther pinched himself, but the hideous cacophony continued. He pinched harder, nails digging into flesh and leaving behind red crescents.
It didn't work.
Shaking, the king rose to his feet. If this wasn't a nightmare, he must be enchanted. (He ignored the childhood half-memory of a madman's wails, his father's warnings about their bloodline.) Some vicious sorcerer had sent these monsters to torment him. Well, not today.
He had to crouch and duck to avoid the corpses. He tried not to look at their faces, but Uther couldn't help but notice that some of them were familiar. Thomas Collins brandishing his head. Edwin Muirden, his scars still distinctive even when his flesh was blackened and crisp. Nimueh, her poison-red lips bright against white flesh.
Gaius, unharmed, his eyes sad—but when Uther reached for him, the physician turned away.
Damn him anyways, the traitor. Damn him and Merlin too.
It took far too long to reach his sword. When his fingers wrapped around the hilt, he barked a laugh in triumph, the sound a weak counterpoint to the others' manic cackling.
Uther swung. His blade cut through the nearest corpse like air, and the creature dissolved into smoke. Uther smiled, fierce and almost savage, and swung again. Another creature vanished… but the smoke from the first foe was swirling together. Bone gleamed white before red muscle and peach skin knit over it. The reformed creature bent over to retrieve her smirking head.
"No," the king gasped.
The monster's eyes met his. "We're not the plague on this kingdom, Uther Pendragon."
He hacked at it again, then yet again as it began to solidify. The dead were all around him; he smelled rot and burning meat and stagnant water.
Uther lurched forward, swinging wildly, a battle cry rising to his lips. He cut a swathe through the unquiet dead and sprinted forward into the smoke before they could regenerate. More corpses gathered to block his way, but he sliced through them, too.
"TO ARMS!" the king bellowed as he burst through the door. The hall was empty of corpses for now, but their voices were getting closer every moment. "SOUND THE BELLS!"
"Huh?" said the least-baffled-looking servant.
Did the idiots think that the gibbering monstrosities behind him were friendly? "Sound the alarm, you fools," he snarled.
"…Okay," said another. They shuffled away, still more confused than afraid.
Uther ran through Lord Leodegrance's manor, his bare feet slapping against the stone floor, his unsheathed sword flashing in the late morning light. People gasped and startled as he passed, turning to stare. He shouted warnings to them, that sorcerers had invaded the castle, that they had summoned the dead against him.
"Where is your captain?" he snarled, bursting into the guard room.
"Drilling the men," replied the half-armed man. "Why—" But he froze midsentence as Uther pivoted on his heel and thrust his sword into a burning abomination's ribcage. "Sire?"
"Sorcerers," Uther told him shortly, and carved a path through the throng at the door.
Several of the dead had caught up to him. They advanced slowly but surely, trickling through the halls of the building, following him on rotted feet. Uther had to fight his way through them, swinging and thrusting with wild abandon, trying not to breathe the smoke.
If he had not been so intent on his task, he might have noticed that nobody else was reacting to the gruesome specters. It was almost like he was the only one to perceive them.
Brun was indeed in the yard, but he wasn't training the men. Instead, he was exchanging worried words with a pair of guards. They went rigid as Uther charged into the yard.
The king was panting. His arm was heavy, his heart thudding in his chest. Sweat from his dream and his battle coated his body.
"TO ARMS!" he roared.
The men… didn't move. They were shifting uneasily, carefully avoiding his gaze.
"Are you blind as well as stupid?" Uther demanded. He gestured wildly at the literal army of reanimated corpses shambling out of the manor. "We're under attack!"
One of the guards elbowed Brun. The captain winced. "Sire, there's…."
"Tell me after we've destroyed these things," Uther growled, dropping into a crouch. Surely these monsters couldn't regenerate forever. (He ignored the part of him which remembered magic and knew that yes, they probably could—or at least they'd last longer than mortal men.)
"But, Sire," Brun repeated. His eyes darted to the door, then back to the king. His tongue flitted out to wet his lips. "There's nothing there."
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Uther Finally Receives Some of the Pain and Suffering he so Richly Deserves"
Next update: Uther continues to crazy. Merlin finally wakes up (at least for a little bit).
My NaNo writing is just over 30k, and I've written the first drafts of chapters 17-24, with a little bit of 25. My goal is to finish chapter 25 today.
Sorry for not updating on time. I woke at 5 in the morning for a 13-hour shift and was... a little tired by the time I had internet access.
Chapter 10: The Mad King
Uther is crazy. Morgana is amazing. Merlin wakes up.
Chapter X: The Mad King
When Uther threw Morgana into the dungeons, she expected to be stuck there for at least a day, possibly two or three. So when Lord Leodegrance arrived to let her out after only a few hours, she was understandably surprised.
"Uther changed his mind?" she said incredulously, trying to remember if such a thing had ever happened before.
"Not exactly," Leodegrance lamented as they walked through the dungeon. "He has… taken ill, and Laudine and I thought that you might be able to…." He sighed, shoulders slumping. "He seems to have gone mad."
Morgana started. The mandrake. "What happened?" she inquired, trying to keep her own realization from her face and tone.
"Nobody knows," Leodegrance confessed. "After he ordered your imprisonment, he decided to sleep for the rest of the morning. He'd stayed up all night coordinating efforts against sorcerers."
"I know," Morgana growled, fists tightening.
They were out of the dungeons now. Leodegrance lowered his voice a bit more, eyes darting about for potential eavesdroppers. "About an hour ago, he sprinted out of his room in his nightclothes, swinging his sword at invisible corpses. He tried to call the citadel to arms, but…." The lord shrugged. "No one else could see anything."
"Have you sent for a physician?" Morgana asked.
Leodegrance snorted softly. "You of all people should know, my lady, that Gaius was the only proper physician in the city. There's a couple pharmacists and several people like you and Gwen who have just a bit of medical training, and we've sent for some of them, but no."
"I meant outside of the citadel," the witch clarified. "Surely Gaius can't be the only proper physician in the entire kingdom."
The lord winced. "We're hoping that King Uther's… fit will not become public knowledge."
"…I thought you said he ran through half the castle fighting invisible enemies?"
"He did," Leodegrance moaned. "Still, we must at least try to keep word of his condition from spreading."
Morgana would prefer to shout the news from the rooftops, but she couldn't exactly say that. If she needed to (which she doubted, if there were as many witnesses as Leodegrance had implied), she'd find subtler ways to get the word out. "We are at war," she acknowledged. Then, carefully keeping the hope from her voice, she added, "What will happen if he does not recover?"
"I suppose we would have to send for the prince," Leodegrance speculated. He frowned then as another thought crossed his mind. "Or perhaps not. How far away is Gawant? I've never been good with geography."
"Ten or eleven days, I believe." Also, there was the fact that Arthur had been kidnapped by bandits. She hoped his escape plan had worked. "He'd come here and have to turn around to get to the meeting in time. Someone else would have to act as regent." Hopefully, that someone would be her.
It suddenly occurred to Morgana that Uther's incapacity might result in a great deal of political infighting as various candidates jostled for the regency. Quite a few nobles had left the capital for one reason or another—the war, the destruction and the resultant lack of space, knowing damn well that the king was about to start another killing spree—but there were still a few left. Leodegrance was one of the highest-ranking ones.
The man in question was staring at her, a faint frown on his face. "And who should that be, my lady?"
She'd pushed too far. "I don't know. Hopefully Arthur's uncle won't come to claim it." The lord winced as he nodded his agreement. "Is Uther still sane enough to choose his own regent?"
The suspicion faded from Leodegrance's eyes. "See for yourself."
Uther's door was shut. Two young, nervous guards stood before it, their postures completely rigid. Morgana could hear something inside: a high, thin, inhuman shriek. Thankfully she was the only person who seemed to notice the mandrake's cry.
The king had backed into a corner. His eyes were wide and wild and focused on something that nobody else could see. Small tremors ran across his skin. Laudine was there as well, trying to distract him with soft words and a frozen smile. It wasn't working.
"Your Majesty," Leodegrance called, "I've brought Lady Morgana to you."
Uther didn't seem to have heard. Laudine, though, met her husband's gaze, her rictus-like smile melting into something more genuine. "Your Majesty." Her voice was loud, halfway to shouting, but the king made no response, so she reached out and gave him a little shake. "King Uther, your ward is here."
That appeared to get through to him. He started peering around, squinting like he was looking for something far away. Morgana supposed that his view of them must be blocked by hallucinations. She and Leodegrance began their cautious approach.
Morgana could tell the instant they passed through the king's delusions and became visible again by the way his eyes fixated on her face. "Have you come to torment me as well?"
"No," the witch lied, trying not to wince as the mandrake let out another shriek. "Lord L—"
"Speak up," he ordered, just as loud as before. "I can't hear you over all this noise."
Morgana raised her voice. "Is this better?"
"Lord Leodegrance told me that you had taken ill," she explained.
"Ill?" Uther snarled. "Is that what you call this enchantment? Someone raised the dead against me—probably that bastard who calls himself Emrys."
"…I don't think that Merlin has anything to do with this." Morgana held up her hands in a placating gesture and continued before Uther could start raving. "I think that you have been under a great deal of stress lately, and you obviously didn't get enough sleep last night. Maybe you'll feel better once you've rested."
"What do you think of that?" Uther inquired of an empty space somewhere to Leodegrance's left. The hallucination must have agreed, for a tension drained from his shoulders. "Yes. The strongest you can brew."
Laudine met her husband's eyes and shrugged helplessly. She didn't know either.
"The rest of you, begone! BEGONE!"
The three real, actual people in the room hesitated, uncertain whether he was addressing them or his delusions. Uther settled the question mere moments later when he lurched out of his chair and tried to body-slam an apparition. He missed, obviously, and went flying, crashing onto his belly and skidding across the room with a low groan.
"Let's get him to bed," Laudine suggested quietly.
Leodegrance helped Uther to his feet and gently but firmly guided him toward the bed. "Sleep well, Sire," he instructed. "The citadel will be safe until you recover."
"As my d—ward, you will lead the kingdom until I am well. It should not take long."
That actually went much better than she'd expected. Focus on that, not the way her insides shriveled when he almost called her his daughter. Careful to keep the triumphant relief—not to mention the other emotions—off her face, Morgana bobbed into a curtsey. "As you command, Sire."
"And sextuple the efforts to find that damned sorcerer!"
"Of course, of course." Morgana nodded, actually meaning it. They'd never find Merlin in the Perilous Lands or on the Isle of the Blessed, and if sextupling the effort to find him just so happened to take resources away from the rest of this Purge, well, she was just following orders.
The three nobles kept quiet as they walked through the castle to Leodegrance's study. They'd barely shut the door behind them when Laudine hissed, "Do you think he'll recover?"
"…Of course," Leodegrance answered after hesitating a moment too long.
Morgana kept silent, waiting for them to talk it out among themselves. She couldn't be seen to manipulate them. She'd have to be subtle, subtler than she'd ever been in her life, at least in some ways. She couldn't let them suspect that she'd had anything to do with Uther's state.
"It won't," Laudine told her husband. She glanced around. Seeing no servants, she continued, though in a low voice, "You know that madness lurks in the Pendragon bloodline. He hasn't been quite right since Queen Ygraine died, we both saw that. He was holding on by his fingernails, love. Perhaps seeing Camelot in ruins and his own son questioning him was enough to push him over the edge."
Her husband wanted to protest, but then the fight drained from his shoulders. "Gods, why now?" he whispered. "Why not when Arthur was still here, or in another month when he returns?"
"Maybe that's why," Laudine sighed. "He relies on his son. Maybe Arthur's presence helped him, just as we hoped Morgana's would." She turned to the lady in question. "We might have known him longer, but you grew up in his household. You may know him better. What do you think of his chances?"
"I don't know." It was, she realized uncomfortably, only half a lie. She had no idea how long the mandrake's effects would last or what sorts of side effects prolonged exposure might cause. "But even if he does recover with rest, who's to say that it couldn't happen again? Like you said, the Pendragon bloodline has a… certain history." She wanted to suggest that they take steps to prevent such a thing but recalled her decision to remain subtle at the last moment. Maybe she could guide them into coming up with the idea on their own. "We should probably plan for every eventuality."
Leodegrance nodded. "Yes. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, as my father always used to say."
"Do you think we'd even know?" Laudine wondered. She winced when the other two turned their attention to her. "Never mind. It was a foolish thought."
Morgana chose to risk it. "You mean if he was truly sane again?"
Dead silence, and nervous eyes flitting around for anybody who might overhear. Confirmation.
The witch weighed her options, remembering the horror on their faces when they'd heard that the guards could essentially murder anyone they pleased. And they had been quite reasonable so far. Once again, she took the risk. "You might have a point. What he's letting the guards do—we all know that's going too far. It's one thing to want all sorcerers out of the kingdom, it's another to kill everyone who might have magic and hope it works."
Leodegrance met her gaze, one eyebrow arched in question. "You intend to use your position as Uther's appointed regent to overturn this decree."
…Well, she'd tried to be subtle. For a minute or two. She met his gaze squarely. "Yes. Do you want to risk another riot while the king is incapacitated?"
"Somehow, my lady, I doubt that preventing another riot is your primary motive."
"It's a nice benefit, though, don't you agree?"
"She does have a point, love," Laudine informed her husband.
"And I suppose we'll have to delay the wedding as well?"
Morgana's eyes widened. "I honestly hadn't thought of that."
"If his illness extends that long, we should," Laudine decided. "We cannot afford to show weakness around Cenred."
"Or Amata," Morgana added. Everybody knew that Sarrum was even more ambitious than Cenred. "Hopefully he'll recover long before that." But she tainted her tone with doubt.
Husband and wife exchanged nervous looks. "If he does recover quickly, my lady, I doubt that he will be pleased about you repealing his orders." Leodegrance's gaze drifted down towards the dungeons before returning to her face.
"That's for me to worry about," Morgana assured them. "Perhaps the lack of riots will change his mind. It could happen," she added, observing Laudine's incredulously raised eyebrow
"If you say so." The older lady was obviously not convinced, but she opted to change the subject. "We'll need to come up with an excuse for Uther's retreat. I suggest just telling people that he's taken ill."
"A good plan," Leodegrance agreed, and Morgana seconded (thirded?) the notion, already plotting how to use the pretense to her advantage. When they were around, she'd pretend that Uther was simply sick.
No doubt the truth was already beginning to spread.
"I must confess," Rience said, "that I find myself torn." He tapped his fingers across the table, one after another. "On the one hand, our great king has entrusted me with a task that he would see completed as soon as possible. On the other, he gave me that assignment before he was struck down."
Maddox frowned at him. "Surely you don't actually believe those rumors that King Uther has gone mad?"
"Of course not." Rience waved a negligent hand before returning to his tapping. "That's obviously a lie spread by his enemies. Still, I find it suspicious that he fell ill so soon after reinvigorating the Purge."
"As do I," the guard agreed. "He must have been struck down by sorcerers, probably the same ones who are trying to destroy his reputation with this whisper campaign." A muscle jumped in his jaw. "Damn that bastard for starting this."
"Do you think I should stay?" Rience inquired, frowning. "I am a pharmacist, not a physician, but the Court Physician is a traitor. There is nobody else in the citadel who could help him."
"You do know your herbs," Maddox acknowledged. "I suspect that you're the one best qualified to assist him." He leaned back in his chair. "Our first duty is to our king. The so-called Isle of the Blessed will keep." His lips curled in a sneer.
Rience stood. "No use in staying here, then. I'm off to Lord Leodegrance's manor. Will you accompany me, vouch for me before your fellows?"
The pharmacist's usual smirk returned. "Excellent."
A whisper as gentle as a breeze gliding into his mind.
"Goodbye, Emrys. Thank you."
Merlin returned to his body slowly, reluctantly, like he was squeezing himself into a too-small garment. It took him a few moments to become re-accustomed to the feeling of his own skin.
He groaned, lips cracking and a thin strand of blood dribbling into his mouth. Gods, he was thirsty. Maybe the Fisher King could direct him to some water. There had to be some in this castle, right?
The ocean was nearby. He could feel the tide brushing against the shore, depositing sand and taking it away. He could feel the nearest river cutting through the soil, its mouth opening wide into the sea. He could feel—
Merlin shook his head. The motion made him dizzy, but it diminished the connection, too, so Merlin counted it as a draw. The land-bond was still there—he could feel it just as he could feel his arms and legs and magic—but it wasn't monopolizing his attention anymore.
Slowly, each little motion sending agonies through his frame, he pushed himself up. His head spun, so he waited a moment before unsteadily attempting to rise to his feet. It didn't work.
Something warm and scaly nudged at him. Merlin weakly grasped at the red wyvern (how had he even fit in here?). The reptile half-lifted him into a standing position, then crouched. Merlin, who had been leaning on his shoulder, stumbled, his frame flopping uselessly over the wyvern's side. Oh. Oh, he was meant to… not ride, exactly, because that implied sitting upright, but just… lie down on the wyvern's back and let him take him places. What a nice creature. Merlin should find it a treat of some kind.
There was a pride of wyverns soaring above the sea not too far from here, slipping into the waves and emerging with fish. There weren't many terrestrial sources of food for them. Merlin could feel the barrenness of the land, feel the—no, no, back to yourself.
He wondered if this was how Anfortas had felt all these centuries. If it was, then he couldn't blame the man for wanting to die. This was awful.
Something about Anfortas tickled at the back of Merlin's battered mind. Something that the king had said, a whisper as gentle as a breeze.
Oh, he thought, and turned. Even in the darkness of the night, he could make out the details. The Fisher King's body rested in his throne, his eyes closed, his visage peaceful. Merlin bowed his head in quiet respect.
Eventually, though, he had to move—or, rather, the wyvern got tired of waiting for him. He needed water, needed food, needed a better place to rest a few hours and heal. He needed to go out and actually touch his land.
Still, it seemed wrong to just leave the Fisher King there, so after the wyvern led him to water (a deep crack in a room whose roof had fallen off), he climbed back onto his wyvern and requested, "Could you bring me to, I don't know, a linen closet? We should cover him up." His mount chuffed but obeyed, bringing him to a tapestry that hadn't yet rotted away. There were a few holes in it, but it was better than nothing.
Back to the throne room they went, where Merlin clumsily laid down his makeshift shroud. He'd do something better later, when he could actually move of his own volition. He was getting tired just laying on the wyvern's back.
He really ought to name the wyvern. It seemed like the polite thing to do.
The end was in sight now. A door, bigger and grander than the rest. It would let him outside, so he could finally collapse upon the land (as opposed to the wyvern's back) and sleep.
It was harder than it should have been to open the door, but then Merlin was outside, rolling onto the dirt beneath the silvery light of the full moon.
The full moon?
Shock and horror temporarily banished the exhaustion from his veins. The moon had been several days from full when he'd gone in. Now, though, it hung in a perfect circle in the sky, almost bright enough to read by.
In the best-case scenario, he'd been unconscious for several days. In the worst case…. No, no, Merlin assured himself. It was as warm as summer, and the Fisher King had promised that the bonding process wouldn't last too long. It was just a few days, not months or years.
Just a few days was more than enough time for Uther to do so much damage. He had to get back to Camelot. He—
The exhaustion caught up to him in a wave, and Merlin passed out.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which the Wyvern Continues to be a Good Boy"
Next update: Arthur and the knights have plans.
Good news! I finished the entire first draft of this fic AND the first chapter of Book IV. I'll need to do a lot of editing, but the heavy lifting is done. Thank you, NaNoWriMo!
Chapter 11: A Meeting in the Woods
This is another of those titles where the summary is pretty obvious. But which meeting am I referring to?
Chapter XI: A Meeting in the Woods
The moon hung round and full above him, its light turning the leaves to sheets of silver. The stars twinkled merrily alongside it, each tinted with subtle colors. It was all very lovely, Arthur supposed, but he didn't think it was enough to safely travel by, not in this unfamiliar terrain. That was a pity; he was having trouble falling back asleep and would really rather keep going than lie here on the ground. Maybe he could get more wood for his fire? It was better than tossing and turning some more.
Arthur walked into the woods, careful not to wander too far from his fire. His horse, he noted sourly, had no difficulty sleeping. Stupid creature.
He was gone barely five minutes. When he came back, though, his horse wasn't alone in the clearing.
At first he thought that the wolf must be an adult, but then he realized that it was simply an enormous yearling. Its paws were too big, its gray-and-beige coat still textured like a pup's. The huge creature was sniffing at the place where Arthur had been trying to sleep.
The prince looked at his idiot horse, which was still fast asleep. His hand drifted towards his sword as he calculated the best way to get rid of the wolf before it could eat him or his stupid mount. He hoped that there weren't any others hidden in the trees, though he knew that was unlikely. Wolves traveled in packs.
Perhaps the others were too afraid of the fire to approach it. Perhaps he'd only have to face the one, chase it away from his makeshift camp—or perhaps the pack would attack him if he threatened their fellow. Arthur wished he knew more about wolves.
The creature looked up, eyes gleaming amber gold in the firelight. Those eyes focused on him and went wide with an almost human shock. For a second they were both frozen, man and beast. Then the wolf turned and loped off into the forest.
It was a long time before Arthur managed to sleep.
"This isn't exactly subtle, you know," Gwaine pointed out.
Leon huffed softly. "I'm not suggesting we leave now. I just think we should discuss things when we're not in the camp, that's all, maybe scout out a good place to do it."
"And a hunting trip was your best idea?"
"It worked, didn't it?"
Elyan cleared his throat. When the two warriors looked at him, he shot a significant glance to the front of their party, where Leon's squire—Marrok, Gwaine thought—was riding.
"We can trust Marrok," Leon promised. "Besides, I already told him about your suggestion."
Gwaine stiffened, bit down his automatic protest. Leon was pretty insistent on bringing the kid with them if/when they left, so Marrok (or was it Mark?) deserved to be a part of the discussion. "So I was thinking that maybe we could stage an ambush. You know, the six of us on another hunting trip, and Odin's men were just too tempted by the easy targets."
"An ambush with no bodies from us or them?" Lancelot said, incredulous.
"…Good point. Maybe we could fake an accident instead. What if we all tragically drowned?"
The discussion continued for several minutes. Everyone had his own opinion about what should and shouldn't be done; even quiet Percival and shy Marrok (not Mark) chipped in occasionally. They were once again debating the merits of 'drowning' when Leon, who had gone up front with his squire, halted, lifting a hand. "Do you hear that?"
"It's this way," Marrok told them, walking off to the left.
"Hello?" Leon called.
"Don't scare off the game," Elyan hissed.
"Leon?" an incredulous voice called back.
"Arthur?" Gwaine exclaimed.
They found the prince on the other side of the nearest hill, mounted on an unfamiliar horse and not surrounded by the guards who were supposed to have brought him to Gawant.
"What are you doing here?" everyone asked at once.
It turned out that Arthur had been captured by bandits a few days ago. He'd escaped, run into some druids, and, rather than go back to Gawant like he was supposed to, decided that he could singlehandedly end the war by fighting King Odin in single combat.
"That's a terrible idea," Gwaine informed him.
Arthur glared. "This war is my fault."
"Actually, I think it's Odin's," Lancelot corrected him.
"He seeks revenge because I killed his son."
"Accidentally," Leon cut in. "Then you stood vigil for him yourself and personally escorted the body back to Magance. If I recall correctly, he told you that he'd kill you if he ever saw you again."
"Pretty sure he has to see you again before you can duel him," Gwaine pointed out.
Arthur's smile was downright smug. "I have a plan for that."
Leon, who presumably knew him best, looked rather alarmed at the proclamation. "What exactly are you planning to do?"
"The Knights' Code."
Leon and Marrok seemed to get it, and Gwaine thought he understood it too. Gods above, it might actually work.
"Mind explaining to those of us who didn't take in the code with our mothers' milk?" Elyan requested.
"Have you heard the story of the wraith?"
Gwaine had, but he didn't get how that's related to what he thinks is going on. "Merlin pretended to be you and set it on fire. I fail to see what this has to do with anything."
"The wraith appeared at my birthday and threw down his gauntlet in front of everyone," Arthur said. "According to the Knights' Code, the challenge had to be answered."
Percival gaped. "You think he won't kill you if you just throw your glove at him?"
"King Odin is a knight. Moreover, his court is comprised of knights. He can't refuse without losing a great deal of prestige and support. I doubt that this war is very popular with his people; Camelot is larger and stronger than Magance, and my father has won harder battles with fewer resources. They're going to lose, and I suspect they know it."
"That makes sense," Lancelot murmured. "Kings can only push so far. This offers Odin a chance at revenge and an end to a costly, bloody, unpopular losing battle." He nodded firmly. "Of course, there's the problem of getting to him. Does anybody know where Odin actually is?"
Gazes gravitated towards Leon, the (supposedly) highest-ranking among them who had recently been with the army. The knight shook his head. "Nobody knows for certain, but the most prevalent theory is that he's somewhere along the border with his troops rather than holed up in his castle."
"For morale, or because that's the kind of person he is?" Elyan asked.
"Both, I think."
"Good. That'll make him more likely to go along with it." Elyan frowned as a thought occurred to him. "How good of a fighter is he?"
"Not as good as me," Arthur proclaimed. It warmed Gwaine's heart to see him so humble, it truly did.
"But are you willing to gamble your life and kingdom on that?" Lancelot's voice was dead serious, pun not intended. "If you die, Cenred will lay claim to Camelot and the country will erupt into civil war. Magic won't be free, and people like Merlin will still be persecuted."
Arthur met his gaze. "I'm certain."
"Right then." Lancelot inclined his head. "How can I help?"
"He means, 'How can we help?'" Leon corrected.
"I need to know where he is. Then I need to get there."
"So information and an escort, basically." Gwaine was grinning. "You think you could tell the commander that you're borrowing us for a secret mission?"
"That probably depends on who the commander is and how likely he is to send me to Gawant."
"It's Sir Ector," Leon stated.
Arthur brightened. "That's good. Is Kay here too?"
"He's second in command."
The prince nodded. "Even better. I'll approach him. He's a good man, but… gullible. He'll definitely believe that you were sent here on a secret mission." He smiled. "Lead the way."
Only about ninety-nine percent of his body was in pain. That was thoroughly unpleasant, but it was still an improvement over how he'd felt last night.
Merlin's muscles protested as he pushed himself up. His head swam, but his mind was clear.
Water, food, escape. He needed to save up enough energy for a teleportation spell. The mere thought of it inspired a pained little whimper because he would really rather just go back to sleep after eating and drinking, but the warlock knew that he had to get back to the Isle of the Blessed. His family must be worried about him, he needed information on what was going on in Camelot—there was no way Uther's inactivity had lasted this long—he had to talk to Arthur and Morgana and a bunch of other people. He had spent too long here already.
Something rumbled in front of him. Merlin opened his eyes a sliver and flinched as the fading daylight stabbed into them.
The thing rumbled again, the sound oddly familiar. Merlin lifted a hand to shade his eyes and opened them again. Sure enough, the shape before him was huge and red.
The wyvern pushed something into Merlin's chest. He fumbled for it, his hands closing around something thorny. The confused warlock peered down and realized that it was a branch from a blackberry bush. Not exactly a filling meal, but juicy and sweet and a lot more palatable than the raw meat that wyverns usually ate. Merlin finished them in less than a minute, at which point a crooning noise made him look at… ah, there's the raw meat, specifically an entire duck. And a jug of water, too. He hadn't known that wyverns were that smart. Maybe this one was just special.
Merlin was almost hungry enough to eat the duck as it was, but that wasn't healthy. He conjured a fire—it took him an embarrassingly long time to manage the simple spell—and levitated the creature above the flames. The smell was agonizingly tempting.
Water. He should drink while the duck cooked.
"Will you take me to the Isle?" Merlin asked the wyvern. His voice was scratchy and harsh; it hurt to use. He gulped down a bit more water and rubbed at his throat. "I need to get back."
The wyvern stared at him, its expression unreadable.
It occurred to Merlin then that he might not be able to leave Listeneise. What if he was trapped here until the land healed more? What if he was trapped here forever? Why had he thought that this land-bonding was a good idea?
No. No, he couldn't think like that. He had to leave, regain his strength, find out what was happening in Camelot. He would come back one day to tear down the Dark Tower—he could feel it like an open sore—but it could wait until the situation in Camelot was under control.
Stupid, stupid, stupid to leave. Arthur was right. He really was an idiot.
Arthur. Arthur was….
Merlin jerked, eyes going wide.
He'd seen Arthur and Morgana. They'd been in Morgana's dream world and Arthur had strongly implied that yes, Uther had finally snapped. 'Multiple crises,' he'd said.
Merlin cursed aloud. Speaking hurt his throat, but he spat out a couple other profanities before his voice failed him, at which point he was forced to continue his tirade in silence.
The wyvern was beginning to look concerned.
By the time the duck was cooked, Merlin had drunk enough water (slowly, in small quantities) that he could theoretically speak again. He was also getting very, very tired, which was colossally unfair. He had woken up barely an hour ago! But by the time he was done with his meal, the warlock was having difficulty keeping his eyes open.
Next time he woke up, he would escape. He just had to….
The guardsman—she had no idea what his name might be—bent in a shallow bow. "I am Maddox. I have with me the pharmacist Rience, who seeks to aid our king."
"…I think I remember him. He came here yesterday, did he not?"
"I did," said the man in question. "Your ladyship indicated that King Uther's illness was minor and under control."
"That I did," she agreed. It was, after all, the cover story that she and Leodegrance had agreed on. If their decision to keep Uther's condition secret meant that she had to turn aside all visitors, including healers, then that was just unfortunate. Raising an eyebrow, the lady commented, "You don't seem to believe me, considering that you're here again."
Rience smiled at her. "Any sickness, no matter how mild, can benefit from the attentions of one trained in medicine. What if his disease worsens? I would rather nip it in the bud than risk letting it develop into something more dire."
"And how much would your benevolent intervention cost?" Morgana asked dryly.
"Nothing. I serve the king."
(Was it her imagination, or did he emphasize 'I' ever so slightly?)
"You want the job of Court Physician, then?"
"If King Uther chose to reward my service so, then I would be honored. Gods know that I can't be worse at it than that sorcerer." He practically spat the word.
Morgana bit down her instinctive defense of Gaius. It wouldn't do any good and would only look suspicious. She might be in control for now, but one misstep….
"The king is recovering nicely."
"As you say, my lady." Rience clenched his fists. "Might I ask what steps are being taken to ensure that sorcerers do not take advantage of his condition?"
"The precautions are secret," Morgana improvised. "For obvious reasons." She really hoped that he would just leave.
"Of course, of course. One last question before I depart. How long must the king be ill before I can tend to him?"
Morgana cursed silently. "We have no reason to believe that he will stay sick much longer." It was a blatant lie. Uther was worse today than he'd been yesterday. He spent half his time conversing with his hallucinations like they were his best friends and half his time screaming that they were demonic spirits sorcerers had sent to torment him. Then, like a candle being snuffed, his raving would cease and he would go back to chatting with Ygraine and Gaius and even Nimueh like they were all as thick as thieves. It was disturbing, and not just because he tended to throw things while raging.
"Then I will return on Saturday," Rience decided.
"I'm sure that won't be necessary."
"I hope so," Rience agreed, "but I've found that it's always best to have a second plan in place. With your leave, my lady." He bowed and backed away, Maddox at his heels.
Morgana told herself not to worry. Even if he did return, even if he did get into Uther's rooms, he would never find the mandrake root.
No one would.
"Wart?" Kay exclaimed, stunned.
"Wart?" Gwaine giggled quietly.
Arthur glared at his old friend. "You know I refuse to respond to that."
"You just did," the knight pointed out, a grin spreading across his face. "It's good to see you, Arthur, even if I did have to sneak out of my own camp to do it."
The prince smiled back. "You too, Kay."
They'd been foster brothers once, years and years ago. Uther had gone to war with Essetir for sheltering Vortigern and his sorcerer (and possibly dragons. The reports had been rather confusing), and he'd sent his heir off to an obscure country fort. Due to the king's worries about assassins—not unreasonable, considering how his father and eldest brother had died—only Kay's parents, Ector and Sefin, had known their fosterling's true identity. Kay, like everybody else, had believed that Arthur was some random hedge knight's offspring, named for the prince in an attempt to flatter Uther.
The day Kay had found out was one of Arthur's most treasured memories. His face had been absolutely hilarious.
"I thought you were going to Gawant, though?" the knight inquired, his blue eyes curious.
"That's the official story," Arthur told him. "You know how Father gets about assassins."
"Isn't an assassin trying to assassinate you the reason we're at war?"
"Well, yes," Arthur was forced to admit, "but there's no need to tempt fate. He didn't want anybody knowing that these fine gentlemen and I are actually going on a secret mission on the front."
"Oh, that's why he specifically sent them here!" Kay nodded sagely. "I should have known that he wouldn't try to have such fine fighters killed. Not that I doubted the king's wisdom, of course."
"I know you wouldn't," Arthur assured him. "However, the idea that he's trying to get them killed is a little bit too pervasive. Sir Leon can't get ahold of confidential information that we need to complete our mission."
His foster-brother didn't hesitate. "What do you need to know?"
Kay leaned back, tapping a finger against his short red beard. "Last I heard, he was sighted about thirty, thirty-five miles northeast of here near a little village called Usk."
"I've been there," Gwaine volunteered. "Best fish sauce I've had in years."
"Best fish, too," Elyan added.
"Speaking of food, you'll want provisions. Horses, too. I can get some for you if you'd like."
"Of course." Kay's beard-tapping increased in tempo. "Give me an hour or two. How long do you think you'll be gone?"
"Get us provisions for a week. We can always supplement our diet by hunting."
"Or fish in Usk," Gwaine interjected. Arthur glared at him. The rogue just grinned, completely unrepentant (not that the prince had expected anything else).
Kay left for his task. Conversation turned, perhaps inevitably, to what they would do upon arriving in the village. Percival and Lancelot volunteered to act as scouts; they had a great deal of experience tracking men and beasts alike. Elyan and Gwaine started telling them everything they could recall of Usk. (Elyan's information was much more useful than Gwaine's more tavern-based observations.)
The red-haired knight returned in just over an hour, several horses at his heels. Arthur winced slightly, wishing he'd told his old friend to be more discreet. Still, it didn't seem as though his foster-brother had been followed, so he decided to let it slide.
"Thank you, Kay."
They clasped forearms in goodbye, then turned away. Kay walked back to camp. Arthur mounted the horse he'd taken from the bandits (he really needed to name him).
If all went well, they would reach Usk by sunset tomorrow. Arthur could face Odin on Friday. Then, if all went well, the war would be over.
He tapped the horse's sides with his heels and rode.
Sefin was wife of the historical Cynyr the Fair-Bearded, who was apparently Arthur's foster-father in lesser-known ancient Welsh version of the legend. Pretty sure I found that on Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt. I couldn't find a name for Ector's wife.
Usk is a real place in Wales. I chose it because it apparently dates back to Roman times.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which the Red Wyvern is a Good Boy"
I'm thinking of updating faster for all December in honor of Christmas. NaNo is going really well, so I've got a fair bit in my buffer.
Chapter 12: To Usk
Road trip! (Also, other stuff.)
Life on the Isle of the Blessed was strange after so many years in Camelot, but less strange than it had been at first. Gaius was no stranger to abrupt relocation. He'd left Ealdor as a gangly teenager, a country bumpkin on his way to the city. Then, when Vortigern had invaded, he'd gone with Aurelius and Uther to Armorica. He'd followed them into war, serving as a battlefield medic in the campaign to take back Camelot. After that, though, he'd remained in the citadel for… was it really almost thirty years? He'd gotten used to staying in one place, leaving only for brief visits to his family in Essetir, and even those had become less frequent as the years went on. The point was, he was significantly less accustomed to changing homes these days, so he wasn't surprised that his adjustment was taking a bit longer than he'd expected.
Or perhaps it was the fact that, after over two decades of turning aside, he was a sorcerer again.
He had trained himself to not look at magic as a solution, to not think of spells and enchanted potions. He had used magic only twice since Uther outlawed it, once to mask Merlin's golden eyes, once to strengthen a potion made with the mortaeus flower.
Now, though, Gaius was free to practice the entirety of his craft again. He spent his days among the druids who wanted a reprieve from their endless wanderings and his evenings with Balinor and Hunith (and Merlin, before his departure). It had taken the druids some time to warm up to him—King Uther's physician was infamous in the magical community—but they had been polite from the start and more than willing to help jog his memory.
Today, Gaius and one of his new druid friends were discussing the effects certain spells had on pregnant women. Given Hunith's condition, Gaius was highly focused on the conversation. Derryth, though, was rather less invested. She stopped mid-word, one hand flying to her mouth, the other pointing up to the sky.
For a moment, Gaius thought that the great winged creature descending on the Isle must be Kilgharrah, but that was a foolish thought. This being was smaller, its coloration different, its shape wrong. Besides, Kilgharrah had left yesterday for the Perilous Lands to find Merlin, who had been gone too long.
"Is that a wyvern?" the physician demanded, incredulous.
"I think it is," Derryth replied faintly. "What could it possibly be doing here? They're supposed to stay in the Perilous Lands!"
The Perilous Lands. Merlin was there doing who-knows-what for a famously capricious forest spirit.
If the red wyvern wasn't somehow here because of his nephew, Gaius would eat his own shoes.
"I think it's heading for the fortress." Balinor would be able to handle the creature, but Gaius still began walking. If this had something to do with Merlin, who had been gone for just over a week, he would need to know. Hopefully the creature was Merlin's way of letting them know that they didn't have to send out search parties like they'd been planning to if Kilgharrah couldn't find him.
It would be just like the warlock to make such a dramatic gesture.
Sure enough, he found the wyvern a few minutes later lying tamely in the courtyard by the island's largest well. It peeked at the newcomers, then huffed and retreated under its wing.
"Gaius!" Balinor's voice.
"Did Merlin do this?" the physician inquired, gesturing at the magical creature before them.
"Sort of. He rode back on it, but he's unconscious, Gaius."
Balinor gestured. Gaius followed him through the halls. "He looks like he's just tired, not sick or injured, but I'd still like you to take a look. He just isn't waking up."
"Did you inspect his head for bruising?"
"Of course. Nothing."
There was no space set aside for healing on the Isle of the Blessed because so many people knew either healing spells or herb-lore or both. There was a repository of herbs in the fortress, but that was as close as it came. Consequently, Merlin had been brought to his own chambers, where Hunith was gently probing his head, probably looking for an injury that they might have missed.
"Did you find anything?" Gaius asked.
"No," she replied, backing away to let her uncle in.
It wasn't Hunith's fault that she couldn't find any sign of injury on her son's cranium. There wasn't anything. After a few minutes of inspection, Gaius was forced to conclude that there was nothing physically wrong with Merlin. "He's just exhausted, not to mention dehydrated and probably quite hungry," the physician told them. "I suspect that he used too much magic and has been unconscious for a while. He'll be fine once he wakes up and we get some fluid into him."
The tension drained from Hunith and Balinor's shoulders. Neither asked if Gaius was certain, but Hunith inquired, "What could have happened to cause this? I don't think he's ever used enough magic to end up like this."
"I haven't either," Gaius added.
"We should never have let him go," Balinor muttered.
Hunith scoffed softly. "Let him go?"
"…You know what I mean. I should have talked him out of it."
Hunith looked back at Merlin. Her brow furrowed. "There's something strange about him. I can't describe it, but… he's different, somehow. More."
"Is that a good thing?" Gaius wondered. "Or is it the cause of his exhaustion?"
His niece shrugged. "Maybe? It's… deep, and old but new, and… steady." She leaned closer, squinting. "I couldn't see it first, but now that I've noticed, it's the only thing I can see. Derryth, have you ever heard of something like that?"
The druid had been so quiet that Gaius had almost forgotten she was there. "I'm afraid not."
"We should get him food and water," Gaius said. "And someone ought to keep an eye on him until he awakens. I'll take the first watch if that's all right with you."
"I'll call back Kilgharrah," Balinor decided. "He might know what's going on, and it's not fair to make him fly around the Perilous Lands when Merlin is right here."
"How long are shifts?" asked Hunith.
They eventually agreed to watch him for three hours at a time. Balinor and Hunith went off to summon and consult with Kilgharrah, who might be able to understand what she was seeing. (Or possibly not. They didn't know for certain if Hunith's birth parents were banished Sidhe, but if her seeing was some form of innate Sidhe magic, the dragon might not know much.) Gaius settled in with a book, glancing up every page or so.
Merlin woke about two hours later. The looked up from his reading at the sound of the warlock's groan. "Good afternoon."
"No 's not."
Merlin obeyed, gulping down mouthfuls of water between bites of bread. Gaius closed his eyes, focused. "Balinor, Hunith, he's awake." Gods, he had missed thought-speech.
By the time Merlin was finished, his parents had arrived and gone through their preliminary greetings. "What happened?" Hunith demanded.
"…I did something stupid."
His mother rolled her eyes. "Obviously. You need to be more specific."
"Mab and the Fisher King want me to destroy the Dark Tower, but I couldn't do that without bonding to the land due to complicated magic reasons. Anfortas—the king—said that the bonding wouldn't last long, but he was several hundred years old and apparently had a different definition of what 'a long time' entails." He fidgeted, suddenly nervous. "How long was I gone, by the way? Please tell me it was just a few days."
"Eight days," Balinor assured him. "When you say that you took on the Fisher King's land-bond—"
"And only the land-bond," Merlin said sharply. "That's why I'm so tired. The land keeps draining my magic, and the Dark Tower makes it even worse." He shuddered.
"It's still standing?" Gaius was startled. "I thought you said you'd agreed to tear it down?"
"I did," Merlin confirmed, "but then the bonding took so long and I don't think I even can yet and there's no way that Uther is still sulking. He's doing something, probably something horrible." The warlock's fists clenched. His face was hard. "So I need to do something too. What's going on in Camelot?"
Uther was sleeping, his eyelids twitching in response to unquiet dreams. Gwen closed the door behind her, smiling a farewell to her exiting coworker.
Leodegrance and Laudine had decided that someone had to stay with Uther at all times. They needed to watch his condition and soothe his nastier delusions and keep him from harming himself. As Morgana's trusted servant and an amateur healer, Gwen had been an obvious choice for the job. Uther's manservant and one of Leodegrance's men watched over the king when Gwen wasn't there, with the nobility frequently stepping in for an hour or two.
"I am sorry, you know," Gwen confessed quietly. "I wish that this wasn't happening to you… that I wasn't doing this to you. But we need to stop the killing, to stop you."
"You have a soft heart, Guinevere."
The maid didn't jump. She turned slowly, calmly. "Hello, Morgause."
"He deserves this," the sorceress pointed out.
"I know," Gwen sighed. "I just wish he didn't. I wish that none of this was necessary, that Ygraine lived and Uther never banished magic… but that is not the world we live in."
"No, it isn't."
Gwen reached under the bed, withdrew the mandrake from its hiding place. Morgause accepted it with a nod of thanks. "How long has he been sleeping?"
"About an hour, I was told."
"Then I'd better hurry." The sorceress disappeared in a gust of wind.
Gwen knew from experience that it wouldn't take Morgause too long to renew the mandrake spell. Then she would scry this room to make certain that only Gwen and Uther were there. Ideally, the king would be sleeping, but the sorceress wasn't too concerned about a madman seeing her. Even if he realized that she was different from his hallucinations, nobody else would believe him. Still, Gwen had been careful to not let Uther see her place the mandrake under his bed. He wouldn't need to make people believe him when he could remove the curse himself.
Sure enough, Morgause returned within half an hour. Uther was still asleep. Gwen had been stitching. She paused her work to watch Morgause hide the mandrake.
The maid knew that it was difficult for the priestess to get so close to Uther without killing him. She strongly suspected that she would have given in and ended him if she hadn't seen his suffering herself. Morgause was angry, so very angry—and she had every reason to be.
"How fares my sister?"
"She's doing well. There are a few particularly rabid magic-haters who are still protesting her decision to rescind the guards' right of execution."
"Still?" Morgause echoed.
"They're much quieter now," Gwen pointed out, "and even they can't argue with the lack of riots."
"I suppose they can't."
Uther shifted, a mumble rising from his throat. Morgause and Gwen looked at him, then at each other.
The priestess was gone before he opened his eyes.
"Good morning, Your Majes—"
"YOU!" Uther staggered to his feet, pointing furiously at a patch of air. "How dare you show your face again!"
Morgana laid down the report and closed her eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Try not to break down even though this is horrible and heartbreaking and proof that you've failed….
"My lady?" the messenger said, befuddled. "Are you unsatisfied with our progress?"
'Progress,' he called it. "Hundreds of people are dead," she said flatly. Uther must have sent out the orders before his big speech; the information wouldn't have gotten back so quickly otherwise.
"Only sorcerers," he replied, looking genuinely befuddled as to why Morgana might not be thrilled about hundreds of casualties scattered throughout the kingdom.
"They didn't have trials," Morgana pointed out flatly.
"The king's orders—"
"Have been rescinded."
"Well, yes, my lady, but the right of immediate execution was in effect at the time of these… deaths."
They were. Even if Morgana had put a stop to executions throughout the entire kingdom—and she wasn't fool enough to believe that she had—she'd been too late for almost a thousand human beings scattered among the villages and towns of Camelot.
Other communities didn't have a standing guard. They did, however, have lords and ladies and constables, people of authority who could condemn innocents to death. These people had also been given the right of execution, if only for a few days until Morgana's orders reached them. A few days too many, in her opinion.
Morgana wished with all her heart that there was more she could do.
The ride was uneventful, at least so far. Arthur and his men kept to the road to make the best time possible. Gwaine had argued against riding out in the open, pointing out that someone could easily find them, but Arthur had shot his suggestion down.
"It's highly unlikely that any of us will be recognized," the prince had said. "Well, unless you've done something particularly memorable in one of the villages we'll be passing through. Have you done anything particularly memorable here?"
"No," Gwaine sighed. "And I find it very offensive that you looked at me as you said that."
Elyan snorted. "No need to sound so regretful."
Gwaine just grinned at him all sunshine-bright before returning his attention to Arthur. "Even if we aren't personally recognized, we're obviously part of Camelot's army." He made a sweeping gesture to indicate their arms, armor, Arthur and Leon's red cloaks, the others' less fine but equally distinctive red cloaks. "People will think that we're deserters, and that has a lot of potential to cause trouble." He doubted that anybody would try to attack six armed and mounted men (and Marrok, who was still a boy, but who carried a sharp blade of his own), but they could run off to inform someone, which could result in all sorts of complications.
But Arthur, the idiot, was shaking his head, something like amusement on his face. "Would deserters openly ride on the road in their military garb?"
Gwaine blinked, rendered temporarily speechless. That… was actually a good point.
Arthur grinned at him. "The most we'll have to worry about is some of Odin's men making it to this side of the border and stumbling across us, but from what I've heard of his strategy so far, that doesn't seem too likely."
"Which is odd," Lancelot commented. "He's the one who declared this war, but so far, all he's really done is sit at the border. Have there actually been any battles yet?"
"Yes," Leon replied, "though I'd call them skirmishes more than anything else. A half-dozen at most, last I'd heard. But perhaps things have changed and we just didn't get word of it yet."
"But you don't think so," Lancelot observed.
"I think that Arthur has a very good chance of making it to the king. It's what might happen then that worries me."
Gwaine considered. He didn't know much about Odin—he'd learned more about the usurpers in Essetir and northern royalty; Magance was on the southern coast of the island—but from what he'd heard, the man was more interested in avenging his dead son than in conquering anything. The rogue nodded slowly. "You might just be right." He looked at Arthur sideways. "This started because he sent an assassin after you, right? And then your father got possessed, said Camelot and Magance were at war, and Odin wouldn't listen when he tried to call it off."
"Yes, that sums it up."
"So he just wants you dead, and while he'd probably prefer doing it personally, he'd also be happy if somebody just brought him your head."
"Your point being?"
"We need to be sure that Odin really is at the camp," Elyan said before Gwaine could get to it.
"I know," Arthur sighed, "that's why we're scouting ahead. He needs to take the bait, not one of his men."
Odin was playing games with his peoples' lives. Gwaine had no doubt that if Arthur had failed to take the bait (especially since Odin wouldn't have known about the prince's mission to Gawant), the king would become a bit more aggressive, then a bit more, until the violence escalated out of his control. The rogue wondered if Odin would care about the lives lost. He obviously considered them an acceptable sacrifice for his son's vengeance, so probably not.
How very like a king.
Arthur, though, was different. He was risking his life to stop pointless violence. He… might actually be a decent king one day. He cared if his people died, he listened to their objections (even if he disagreed with them) and shot them down with reason rather than brute authority. Gwaine approved. Well, sort of. The prince was still a prat.
The day passed. The sun drifted steadily lower, casting long shadows across the road and riders. They rode through two little villages as the afternoon wore on, but mostly traveled through fields and forests. Conversation lulled, then shifted, then lulled again. They broke into smaller discussions in twos or threes. Gwaine found himself telling Arthur a bit about life in the Orkneys—not enough to reveal his identity or even that he was nobly born, but still details that he rarely shared with others. He'd always preferred telling stories about his life on the road to memories of what he'd left behind.
They arrived at Usk perhaps an hour before sunset. As they'd decided earlier, they entered the village without fear to ask where the Camelot camp was stationed. The tavern-keeper (because they might as well get a hot meal when they got directions, Gwaine pointed out) sent them to a slight bend in the river just a few minutes' ride to the north.
The party would camp there overnight, gathering information (which they would obviously double-check in the morning) and pretending that their mission was completely legitimate and approved by Uther. Gwaine wasn't certain how many people would believe that the old despot was risking his heir to save a bunch of peasants, but he rather doubted that anybody would be eager to countermand their prince.
The scout found them shortly after they left the village. He approached openly, obviously reasoning that men in Camelot red walking around all bold as brass were probably not going to ambush them. Still, there was tension in the scout's voice as he commanded, "Declare yourselves!"
Arthur drew himself to his fullest height. "I am Arthur Pendragon, Crown Prince of Camelot, and these—" A brief moment of hesitation, so short Gwaine almost wondered if he was imaging it "—are my knights." He smiled. "We're here to end the war."
Derryth: Welsh name meaning "Of the Oak." Druids are traditionally associated with the oak tree.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Gwaine Tries and Fails to Remain Completely Cynical"
You may have noticed that today is not Friday. Long story short, I got a lot done during NaNo and am celebrating the Christmas season with more frequent updates. I'll cross-post twice weekly here and put new stuff up on FFN every Friday instead of every 3 weeks.
You may also have noticed that one of the tags is now "Good Red Boi." I felt like this is appropriate.
Chapter 13: Uther's Children
Arthur and Morgana receive some distressing news.
Chapter XIII: Uther's Children
Morgana's dream world was beginning to become familiar. This time, it only took Arthur a few moments to realize where he was and what was going on. Then alarm coursed through his veins. "What happened?" he asked his foster sister.
"Lots of things," she answered. "Did you get away from the bandits?"
"Bandits?" asked a startled voice. Arthur had seen Merlin standing on the road, but he'd thought that the warlock's form was just an empty shell. Apparently not. "What's this about bandits?"
"I got temporarily captured by bandits," Arthur explained. "Then I escaped. I'm at the border with Magance now."
"Good." Merlin smiled at him, golden eyes crinkling at the edges.
"There aren't any emergencies," Morgana said, "but I thought that since I was here, we might as well try to talk. I haven't figured out how to come here at will yet, so this might be our last chance to talk for awhile."
"Not necessarily. I got out of the Perilous Lands. Once I'm rested up a bit, I can come talk to you and help out in person."
"Yes." Arthur frowned at him. "What the hell possessed you to wander away to a place literally called 'the Perilous Lands' when you knew that my father was planning something?"
Merlin flinched, and Arthur was forcibly reminded that his former manservant was three years younger than he was. "I thought…. I owed a debt to Mab, the Queen of the Impenetrable Forest, for helping save me from Cornelius Sigan. I didn't want an obligation to a notoriously capricious, very powerful spirit hanging over my head, and I didn't think that the task would take this long. And Uther was taking his time, and I was afraid that my showing up in Camelot, even in disguise, would just provoke him. I thought…." He sighed heavily, shoulders slumping. "But I was wrong, and something tells me that you two aren't the only people who have suffered from my mistake. I'm sorry."
Morgana laid a hand on his shoulder. "Merlin, I'm not certain how much you could have done even if you'd been there."
"More than I did."
The witch grimaced, but there wasn't much she could say to that.
Merlin closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, then straightened. "What's been happening? I haven't really been up to anything interesting. I bonded to the land, passed out for awhile, and just got back to the Isle of the Blessed… probably today. I've been sleeping a lot. Oh, and I think I have a pet wyvern now, but I'm not sure if he's still around."
Arthur opened his mouth, thought better of asking, and gestured at Morgana for her story. She must have been having similar thoughts, because she didn't ask either. Instead, she told them about the mandrake root.
She did not give details about what exactly Uther was seeing. Part of Arthur wanted to demand elaboration. The rest of him was happy to remain in the dark. That way, he could tell himself that it wasn't anything too bad. No doubt he would regret this decision when he returned to Camelot and actually saw his father, but for now, he was still angry about what the man had done to Guinevere and the other people of Camelot.
Morgana seemed to have been waiting for commentary or interrogation. When she realized that Arthur wasn't going to offer either, she relaxed. "What about you, Arthur?"
"Like I said, I got attacked by bandits," he sighed. "They killed my escort and took me hostage, probably intending to ransom me to Odin. Fortunately, they were terrible captors. I stole a horse and escaped, but a leg wound I'd taken during the battle got infected. I woke up in a druid camp." He paused, a thought entering his mind. Mordred…. "How do prophecies work?"
"Huh?" Merlin blinked owlishly. Morgana looked equally confused.
Arthur made a vague but expansive gesture. "Prophecies. I know what they are, obviously, but how do they work?"
The spellbinders exchanged baffled glances. Merlin's gaze became inquisitive, but Morgana shook her head slightly. Merlin nodded, then said, "For me, the words just sort of… come out. I don't prophesy often, though, and I can't control it."
"You know about my dreams," Morgana added. "I usually see symbols. For instance, a raven and a falcon for Sigan against Merlin. Other times I get a clearer vision, like the one of you and Gwen getting married."
"You saw that?" Merlin interrupted, plainly thrilled.
"Yes, Merlin, I saw that." She rolled her eyes, but her smile was fond. "I think that some prophecies take an if-then form. During the summit, a Seer told me that apparently my destiny depended on Merlin keeping my soul safe." She frowned. "'Once the full force of her magic awakens, she shall become a force of great good or great evil.'"
Merlin smiled at her. "I personally don't think we have to worry about you turning evil."
Their expressions…. Well. Arthur set that knowledge aside for another day. "Are if-then prophecies common?" Maybe Kilgharrah had given Mordred only half of a conditional prediction. 'If you turn evil, you will murder Arthur Pendragon,' but he'd left out, 'And if you do not turn evil, you won't.'
"I don't know."
"What brought this on?" Morgana wondered.
The prince didn't want to tell them what Mordred had confided in him. He settled for a half-truth: "We got to talking about prophecies in the druid camp, and it set me wondering about them." He ran his fingers through his hair. "For instance… I don't know much about the Albion Cycle, but the little bit I do know corresponds with what I know about you. Merlin, you don't want to bring magic back because some long-dead Seer said it was your destiny. You're doing it because you want freedom, for yourself and for your people. But what if you tried to do the opposite?"
"…I suppose I wouldn't be me."
"Yes, but would those prophecies have been made?"
Merlin frowned. "Maybe, but someone else would be Emrys."
"That's what I mean when I asked how prophecies work. What would happen if the prophecies said you were destined for something that went against the fundamental aspects of your personality? What happens when someone hears of their destiny and decides to fight it?"
Merlin fidgeted, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Morgana said slowly, "Arthur, what exactly brought this on?"
"I told you, we got to talking about prophecies, so I started thinking." He waited a beat for Merlin's inevitable interruption (probably something along the lines of "Did it hurt?"), but the warlock remained silent. Odd, but Arthur wasn't going to complain. "None of us are destined to do anything that's fundamentally against our natures. Guinevere's not either."
Neither spellbinder looked entirely convinced. Time to change the subject. "But the druids healed me up, so I went to the camp at the border with Magance. There's been practically no activity along the front, just a lot of posturing and waiting. We think that Odin is currently more interested in luring me out, but if I don't take the bait, he'll start picking fights."
"I ran into Leon and the others. They're serving as my escort and potential scouts." A grim smile. "Tomorrow, if King Odin is still in the area, I intend to challenge him to single combat."
"That's a terrible idea," Merlin said, blunt as ever.
"It's not as bad as you might think," Morgana protested. "Remember the wraith?"
"I can, but what makes you think that Odin is interested in following the Knight's Code? You might recall that he sent an assassin. I somehow doubt that assassination is part of the knightly handbook."
"He'll have to if I challenge him publically. Otherwise, he risks losing his honor in the sight of all his people."
"You're assuming that he actually cares what his people think of him."
"Do you have a better idea for stopping this war?"
"…I could probably kidnap him."
"No, Merlin. Absolutely not."
The warlock hmphed but nodded. "I'll try to be there tomorrow. In disguise, of course, but I'll do my best to help you."
"That's really not necessary."
"It is, actually, and… not just for the duel." He fell silent for a moment. "Do you remember last time we three met in this world and I said that the two of us need to talk? We still need to have that conversation. But… now that I've had a bit more time to think about it, I think that Morgana should be here too, because I honestly can't think of who else it would be."
"We're not going to like this conversation, are we," the witch groaned.
"Not at all," Merlin confirmed.
Arthur pushed down the dread that was rising in his chest. There was no possible way that this could be worse than when he'd learned his manservant was a warlock. "Just get on with it."
Merlin nodded. "Uther was there when I finally defeated Cornelius Sigan. He was chained to his own throne, and I couldn't free him until after the fight was over. We had a brief conversation then, and I made a prophecy." He closed his eyes, steeled himself. "'Your death approaches, Uther Pendragon. You will never see your children marry, never meet your grandchildren, never witness the birth of Albion. By the time the days wane again, a new and better king will sit on the throne of Camelot.'"
Silence, thick and heavy.
Arthur should say something. He wanted to say something, but the words stuck in his throat. They slammed into each other, restricting his airways, paralyzing his tongue.
For once, Merlin remained silent, his natural irreverence stoppered by the seriousness of what he'd just said. His eyes were downright solemn. Pitying, too, which made Arthur want even more to say… something. Anything.
It was Morgana who broke the silence. Her face was bloodless; even her lips paled to white. "You said 'children.'"
A noise escaped the blockage in Arthur's throat, something strangled and appalled. He hadn't even noticed that.
"I did," Merlin confirmed softly.
Morgana's hands trembled even as she balled them into fists. "After he announced my betrothal to Cenred, he said that he would see Arthur and me married. Like he was defying something."
"…I'm not surprised." He stepped forward, took her hands in his. "I'm sorry, Morgana. I just… thought you had the right to know."
"You're right. I do. I'm glad you understand that." She drew in a deep, shuddering breath. Her little trembles stilled. "But. The rest of the prophecy. 'By the time the days wane again.'" She swallowed. "By next Midsummer, at the latest."
"Yes." Because what else could Merlin say?
Finally, something broke through the barrier in Arthur's throat. "Do you have any other prophecies, Merlin? Any more details?" Any way I could stop this?
"No," the warlock lamented. "I don't think that it will be a spellbinder, though, but if it is…." He met the prince's gaze. "It won't be with my help, or my knowledge, or especially my blessing. I refuse to betray you like that."
"It's probably Cenred," Morgana growled. "It wouldn't be the first time he killed a kinsman." Pain and rage flitted across her face.
"What about you, Morgana? Have you Seen anything?"
"…Plants. A laughing man with a cauldron. I can't see his face. Cloudy water. But I don't know what any of it means because apparently I don't know much of anything."
"Don't, Arthur. I don't want to talk about it."
She was the one who had brought it up, but the prince had sense enough to not point that out. He just nodded.
"Do you two need time?" Merlin asked quietly.
Arthur wanted to say no, to pretend that his world hadn't just turned upside-down again. He wanted to say that this prophecy was as ridiculous as Mordred being destined to kill him… but he couldn't. Mordred's supposed destiny hadn't made sense. This… did.
If anything, it made too much sense. Uther's favoritism with Morgana, even before she'd become his ward. His hand tightening on Camelot, spellbinders and citizens alike, because even kings could only squeeze so much before something broke.
His father had always been there, as strong and constant as a mountain. Of course Arthur had known that the man wasn't immortal, that he would die someday, but that was for some vague and nebulous future. The only time he'd actually thought Uther might die had been when Edwin Muirden cursed him. But now….
Before the days wane again. The days were waning now, had been waning when Merlin delivered his prophecy, would keep growing shorter until midwinter. Then, six months later, they would wane again.
If Merlin was right—and maybe he wasn't, Arthur tried to convince himself, pretending that this prophecy didn't make all the sense in the world—then Uther Pendragon had less than a year to live. At most.
And even though they were at odds—even though Arthur had recently become acutely aware of the king's flaws—Uther Pendragon was still his father. Had still raised and protected and loved him from infancy.
"Arthur? Did either of you hear me? I asked if you wanted me to leave."
Something in him frayed, came dangerously close to snapping. "I suppose you're happy about this," he heard himself sneer. It wasn't fair to his friend. He knew that. He didn't care. "You must be looking forward to it."
Merlin's eyes flashed, but he said nothing. Not yet.
"Hell, you've probably wanted it since before you met him. Since the day you knew he existed. Are you going to celebrate on the day I lose my father?"
"Of course not," the warlock snapped.
"Really?" Arthur's laugh was higher than normal, almost hysterical. "It won't make you even a little bit happy to see your greatest enemy dead?"
"It will make me very unhappy to see you suffering."
"That's not what I said." His palms hurt, part of Arthur noted distantly. His nails were digging into them.
Merlin met his eyes. "You're right. A part of me will be glad when the man who betrayed and murdered my people, hunted my father like an animal, and once started a damn war to try to kill me can't do that anymore. I'm human, Arthur. But so are you, and so is he. We're complicated creatures. We can experience more than one emotion at a time… and I think that when Uther is dead, part of me will mourn him. Not as the king he is, but as the king he could have been, and as your father."
Arthur didn't want to be calmed, to be comforted. "So you admit it."
The warlock's nostrils flared. "Were you happy when Edwin Muirden died?"
"What does that have to—"
"Were you, Arthur Pendragon?" Those golden eyes were hard as diamonds. "Because I think that you were, at least a little. After all, he'd attacked your family and nearly succeeded in destroying it. And then your father ordered him to burn on green wood." Merlin shuddered. "And yet, you took me aside to comfort me in your own rough way, because you saw that I was conflicted and hurt and you cared about me, so for a few moments, you put aside your triumph to help me. So keep that in mind when you rail at me for being human."
He wanted to say—to yell, really—something else, but that damned lump was back in his throat and suddenly it was very difficult to not collapse. Merlin must have seen it, because his gaze gentled.
"What am I supposed to do, Merlin?"
A sigh, heavy and mournful. "I think that you should finish up with Odin as quickly as you can, then go back to your father. If… if you think you would regret not doing it, then do it." A hand on his shoulder, steady and warm. Arthur didn't look; he stared at a patch of ground without really seeing it. "And I will…. I have to take care of things on the Isle of the Blessed, in Camelot, but I'll talk to people who know more about the nature of prophecy. The Vates, Kilgharrah…." He grimaced. "If I can't find anything, I might have to look into the Crystal of Neahtid."
Arthur scoffed. "I doubt your people will look kindly on you helping my father." Trying to help him, he could have said.
"They don't need to know. Believe it or not, Arthur, I do know how to keep secrets."
The prince looked up sharply, an eyebrow automatically flying towards his hairline. Merlin grinned at him (and if it was a bit less brilliant than usual, neither of them commented) and winked, which was enough to startle a smile out of the older man. It faded quickly, of course, but he appreciated the effort.
It was easier to think now, easier to notice things other than his rage and pain and despair. Easier to think, too, which was why Arthur realized that Morgana had been uncharacteristically silent during this entire fight. As much as he appreciated not being yelled at, that was peculiar. Except, looking around, he couldn't—oh, there she was. At least he thought it was her. She was quite far away; she must have stormed off while Arthur was wrapping his mind around Merlin's news.
"Do you think we should go check on her?"
"She said she wanted to be alone," Merlin answered, but there was doubt in his voice. "I think that maybe I should sneak into Camelot tomorrow and visit her, make certain she's all right."
The warlock saluted.
They were silent for several long moments. Arthur wavered between staying there thinking and going to check on… his sister. Morgana was very probably his sister.
(Part of him recognized that the longer he debated, the longer he could put off doing either of those things. He ignored that part.)
"I'm sorry, Arthur."
Now it was the prince's turn to stare, the warlock's to look away. "I thought that you had the right to know. I still think that. But it's never pleasant to bring bad news."
"I suppose not." He was tired now. "Is there any way for me to leave this place without bothering or waking Morgana?"
"Probably, but I don't know it." Merlin frowned. "I suppose I could try a sleep spell."
A year ago, Arthur would have backed away from the mere suggestion. Now, though, he simply nodded his permission.
And Arthur Pendragon slept.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Everybody is Mad at Uther Again, but for a Different Reason This Time"
Merlin's comment about Uther starting a war to kill him, which Arthur didn't notice in his grief/rage, is from the backstory I gave him in chapter 14 of Book I.
Next chapter: Tuesday, December 10. Arthur and Merlin are both idiots.
Chapter 14: Things About Kings
Arthur and Morgana aren't happy about last chapter's revelations.
Chapter XIV: Things About Kings
Arthur woke as the first blush of dawn lightened the eastern horizon. A hot ember of anger sulked in his belly. It took him a few moments to remember why. Then he went rigid.
He would have to talk with his father when he got back to Camelot, a talk about his love for Ygraine and his friendship with Gorlois and the way he'd betrayed them both. Uther wouldn't like the talk, but Arthur didn't particularly care. He would welcome a shouting match.
(He would welcome a reconciliation even more, or a change of heart, or a way to escape Merlin's all-too-plausible prophecy.)
Arthur slipped out of his tent, careful not to wake the squire, the knight, and the supposed-knights-who-he-really-was-going-to-knight-one-day. The camp was quiet around him. A few people were awake, mostly guards and a few commoners poking at the fires. They didn't seem to realize who he was; they must have arrived too late for word to spread. Good. He welcomed the anonymity.
The prince walked, his boots dampening in the morning dew, with no particular destination in mind. As the sun rose, more men woke up. Conversations began, first in murmurs, then normal voices.
He found a few soldiers drilling at the camp's western edge and joined in without a word. Nobody bowed to him; the men must have thought he was just another knight. They said nothing of import as they sparred, just banter and friendly taunts. Their practice swords spoke for them.
Arthur felt better when he returned to his companions, his emotions dulled by physical exertion. The six of them were awake. Elyan, the best cook of the lot, had started up a pot of porridge.
"Any news of Odin?" Lancelot inquired.
"None," Arthur grumbled. "I overheard a rumor that King Alined of Estrangore is negotiating an arms deal with him, but there's nothing about his location. I would assume that he's still across the river, just like he was last night."
Lancelot nodded, unoffended by the prince's crabbiness. "Good. Did you still want us to scout?"
"No." Arthur's smile was vicious. "We're going to go pay him a visit."
"…I sincerely hope you don't mean that literally."
"I'm still working on the details. Ideally, we'd wait until Odin was on the very outskirts of his camp, then throw down the gauntlet in front of witnesses. Alternately, we could send a messenger with a formal challenge under a flag of truce."
"Why is that the alternate plan?" Gwaine plopped down beside them. "It seems to me like that's the easiest way."
"Because I don't know for certain that Odin will prefer single combat to sending his army against these men. You might recall that I'm trying to keep them alive."
Gwaine winced. "Good point. What if you sent a messenger saying that you were in a secret location?"
"That might work." The prince tapped his chin.
"Send someone from the north," Percival suggested.
Arthur had been thinking something similar. He nodded. "Any volunteers?"
"Not Marrok," Leon declared. The squire huffed but didn't say anything.
"It's traditional to send five if you're sending more than one, right?" Gwaine asked. "One messenger in the center and one guard for each point of the compass for a royal parley."
Arthur goggled, more than a little surprised that Gwaine of all people knew this. Still, he supposed that wanderers picked up quite a few things on the road. "It is, yes."
"So the five of us, basically," Elyan said. "I vote we make Percival the main speaker."
Percival stared at him, completely deadpan, until he cracked, laughter breaking his serious façade. "No, they're probably most likely to listen to Leon."
The conversation changed to details for the parley. Arthur fully intended to listen, if only to make certain that Gwaine didn't try to slip in anything too ridiculous, but a whisper in his mind distracted him. It sounded like Merlin's thought-speech thing, but surely the known warlock wouldn't be stupid enough to approach an entire army of Uther Pendragon's soldiers while exhausted and severely weakened from performing ridiculously powerful magic.
…On second thought, he'd better go find Merlin before the fool got himself killed.
Improvising his excuses, Arthur fled from the circle. The others seemed surprised and confused but not suspicious, and nobody tried to follow him. Good. Now all he had to do was figure out his warlock's location as quickly as possible.
"You just passed me."
Arthur turned around, scanning the unfamiliar nearby faces and praying that Merlin had at least had enough sense to don a new illusion. Thankfully, he had. A plain-faced, brown-haired teenager grinned and winked at him, his eyes flashing gold.
The prince grabbed him by the arm and half-dragged him out of earshot. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I'm helping, of course."
"You can help by going away before someone kills you." Would bystanders get suspicious if Arthur just started shaking him? "Didn't you pass out yesterday as soon as you got to your island? I might not know much about magic, but I somehow doubt you can maintain an illusion if you're unconscious."
As usual, Merlin missed the point. "You can, actually, provided that the spell is properly anchored. Besides, Gaius is the one who made this illusion. He says hello, by the way. Or, well, he would if he knew I was here."
"Go away, Merlin. I have a plan and plenty of help already."
"What is it?"
Arthur briefly debated the benefits of explaining and decided that they outweighed the cons. "I'm sending my men to tell Odin that I'm in a secret location and that I want to duel him. He wins, I die. I win, the feud between us is over. Either way, this war ends."
Merlin nodded, his currently-brown eyes thoughtful. "Not bad."
Arthur scowled. "I'm fairly certain that I told you the basics last night."
"Not really. It sounded like you were just going to walk into his camp and hope you could throw down your gauntlet before anybody cut you down. I was going to volunteer to help disguise you." He grinned, tapping his mousy brown hair. "I know a thing or two about disguises."
"I thought that Gaius made that?"
"He did, but I made Emrys."
"Good for you. Now, as you can see, I do in fact know what I'm doing. Was there anything else you wanted to bother me about?"
(He realized he shouldn't have asked right after the words left his mouth.)
The grin faded into solemnity. "Yes, actually. Are you all right?"
His shoulders tightened. "I'm fine."
"You don't sound fine."
"You obviously need to get your ears checked."
Merlin opened his mouth, then thought better of it. "If you insist."
"I do. Now go away."
"On one condition."
"That's not how this is supposed to work."
"I don't particularly care. You remember how I called Kilgharrah for the fight against Sigan?"
Arthur's pulse must have doubled. "No, Merlin, you do not get to summon a dragon to set Odin's camp on fire."
The warlock rolled his eyes. "Obviously. I was referring to the enchantment itself, the one that lets me call him when I need help or advice. I thought that you might be unreasonable about accepting help, so I got the spell from him before I came." He reached into his pocket, withdrawing a plain metal disk on a leather strip. "Call my name three times and I'll be here."
The prince took hold of the crude amulet. It was warm, almost hot, and lighter than it should have been. "You didn't steal one of the dragon's scales and coat it in metal, did you?"
"Of course not," the warlock scoffed. "That would summon Kilgharrah, not me. This just has a bit of my blood mixed in, is all."
Arthur nearly dropped the amulet. "What?"
"Don't worry," Merlin assured him. "It's mixed in with the metal so it can't wash off and ruin the spell."
"Oh, that's such a relief."
"It should be," his friend sniffed. "Now… be safe, all right? And call if you need me. I'll be there."
"…Yes, Merlin. I know."
Something was wrong with Morgana.
They hadn't seen each other long before Gwen went into Uther's chambers to watch over him, but Gwen had noticed that her friend seemed more tightly wound than usual. Her eyes had flashed at the mere mention of the king. Gwen could only suppose that she was still furious—and rightfully so—about the news about supposedly magical 'executions' from the rest of the kingdom. Or maybe the lady had received some other horrible information. Gwen hoped not, or, barring that, that the source of Morgana's wrath was something they could do something about.
She pondered her friend's mood intermittently throughout the day. Uther was calm for most of the morning, carrying on animated conversations with the air. Then his hallucinations changed. He started babbling on about how he hadn't caused your death, Ygraine, he hadn't known that Nimueh was going to betray them.
Gwen tried to distract him. "She isn't real, Your Majesty. You've been enchanted, remember?"
Uther didn't seem to hear. He hadn't acknowledged her existence all day. Perhaps she was invisible to him. It wouldn't be the first time.
Still, she kept trying.
The hours trickled away. Morgause came and went, came and went again. Gwen thought about asking her if she knew what was wrong with Morgana, but the maid didn't think her friend would appreciate it, so she stayed silent.
Finally, her shift ended, and she went to find Morgana.
The lady was in Leodegrance's study; she and the lord of the manor were going through some of Uther's correspondence. Her mood seemed to have improved, though that might have just been from the distraction. Still, when Gwen looked closer, she saw that her friend's movements were still terse and jerky, her back still stiff. Anger simmered beneath the surface.
The maid's stomach sank. It must be something truly bad, then.
"My lord, my lady, would either of you like me to bring supper?"
"No, thank you, Gwen. We've eaten already." Leodegrance smiled at her, the expression only a little strained. "How fares the king?"
Morgana's nostrils flared. Cords bulged in her neck before she forced herself back into smoothness.
Gwen didn't draw Leodegrance's attention to it. "He's as well as can be expected."
"I'm afraid not. He was calmer in the morning, but that's because he was having a lovely conversation with Queen Ygraine and his brothers. He took a turn for the worse shortly after lunch."
Leodegrance's shoulders were slumped. "We won't be able to hide his condition much longer," he muttered, probably to himself. "There are already rumors circulating. Gods." (Actually, virtually everyone in the citadel had heard about the king's madness. They just claimed to not believe 'those slanderous rumors' whenever guards were nearby.) He closed his eyes. "And with no true physicians left in Camelot…."
"Which is Uther's own fault," Morgana spat, voice thick with loathing. "If he hadn't betrayed so many people, Gaius would still be here to help him."
Leodegrance and Gwen both stared. Wasn't Morgana trying to hide the extent of her negative feelings about Uther? Yet here she was, boiling beneath her skin, not bothering to hide. What in the world had Uther done to test her control like this?
"Perhaps there are skilled physicians in other kingdoms," Gwen said, mostly to draw attention from her friend. "My brother mentioned once that Caerleon's court physician is very skilled."
"I thought of that as well." Leodegrance didn't look like he'd forgotten Morgana's rage, but he was willing to overlook it. For now. "Laudine suggested that we ask Cenred to bring along his court physician."
"What?" Morgana demanded. Then her eyes went wide, like something horrible had just occurred to her.
"Laudine reasoned that we could pretend it was to help select our next court physician." The lord smiled fondly. "Even if the king were to recover this very instant, we could still use a skilled healer here. You two have done wonderful work in the lower town, better than anyone could have expected from you, but there is only so much that two untrained young women can do."
"Have you written to him already?" Morgana asked. She was still stiff, still tense, but Gwen thought that her friend's control was returning. Her fists weren't so tightly clenched, at any rate.
"I have," the lord replied softly, sympathetically. "It was just this morning. Hopefully the letter won't prompt him to come more quickly. I know you want to stay in Camelot as long as possible before you have to leave."
Morgana narrowed her eyes. Gwen's heart thudded in her ears. Surely the man's phrasing didn't mean anything.
"You might want to move up your preparations for departure, though," he added blandly. "Just in case he gets here early and decides to move up the wedding as well."
"…I suppose that I might have to." Morgana loosened some, but Gwen couldn't. If Leodegrance (and Laudine, too; she couldn't imagine him keeping this a secret from his wife) had guessed at their escape plans and approved, the mere fact that he'd watched them closely enough to figure it out made her nervous. Except that was ridiculous, she chided herself. Morgana was always so careful when it came to her magical connections. Leodegrance didn't know, didn't even have cause to suspect, that the lady was a witch or that Gwen and her friend were trying to undermine Uther's new Purge from within. He couldn't.
"If neither of you would like supper, is there anything else I could do for you? Find something, find someone, take a message…."
"I think that we're done for the night," Morgana decided. "At least with this."
"I agree." Leodegrance stretched; something popped in his back. Gwen winced at the sound of it, but he didn't seem to mind. "Until tomorrow."
"Until tomorrow." The lady took her leave.
The door of Morgana's room had barely shut when Gwen demanded, "What's wrong?"
The witch hunched in on herself, eyes tightly closed until she forced them open. "I spoke with Merlin and Arthur in the dream world last night."
"Are they hurt?"
"No, no, they're fine. Arthur got away from the bandits and Merlin woke up from taking on the land-bond." She halted, worrying at her lip, suddenly uncertain.
"…Is Arthur coming home, now that he's free?"
"No. The idiot's decided to end the war by challenging Odin to single combat."
Morgana explained, backtracking a bit to explain that Merlin had been there too before falling silent. While Gwen was relieved to hear that Merlin was back from the Perilous Lands and intended to help Arthur survive his foolish duel with Odin, she recognized that this wasn't the whole story. Morgana might not be overly happy with Arthur's decision, but that wasn't what had upset her so much.
"Did something else happen? Not that this isn't a lot on its own, but it just seems like there's something else."
Morgana fell silent, weighing her words. The quiet stretched on and on until Gwen almost started talking again just to fill the room. Then, in soft, halting words, the witch told the maid about Merlin's prophecy… and its implications.
"Yes, oh," Morgana spat.
Gwen decided that it would be infinitely wiser to remain silent. Not only was it safer, her friend needed to vent.
Morgana was pacing now, talking half to herself. "He would talk to me sometimes about my father. 'Your father would be proud of you.' 'You truly are your father's daughter.' And while I thought that this was his way of honoring my real father, he was really just talking himself up. He—"
Something shattered, shards of pottery slamming into the floor.
The women jumped. Morgana paled, sucked in a deep breath as she tried to get her raging magic back under control. Gwen muttered something about getting a dustbin and made her escape. Halfway to the nearest supply closet, another thought occurred to her. She slowed, then made a detour.
Morgana was calmer when she returned, or at least more composed. She held an imaginary sword, wielding it against imaginary opponents to physically work through her anger.
(Arthur did the same thing, though he was allowed the luxury of the training fields and other knights. Gwen had never thought twice about the similarity, not until now.)
Gwen set aside one of the wooden practice swords she'd found on the training grounds and offered the other to Morgana. "I'll join you once I'm done with the sweeping."
But the lady had already grabbed the broom and sweeping shards into the dustbin. "I'm the one who broke it. Besides, you can consider this a preemptive apology for trouncing you." Her smile was as forced as her joke, her neck still tense, but she looked a little better.
"Apology preemptively accepted," Gwen said, because there was no possible way that she would win against Morgana. Her swordplay was mediocre at best.
The broken plate disappeared, and Morgana picked up her sword. They didn't speak again until it was time to go their separate ways.
When Gwen left for the night, Morgana's smile was small but completely genuine.
Negotiating with Odin had taken longer than Percival had expected. He'd had a vague notion of riding into the camp under the flag of truce, giving a time and place for the meeting, and going back to give Arthur the news. Instead, they'd ridden back and forth three times with various demands and details. Odin needed proof that Arthur was there, he wanted to choose the location himself, he wanted Arthur to just surrender…. It had taken over an hour to talk him down from demanding the prince's head outright. (Percival was fairly certain that he'd known it would never happen, that he was opening negotiations from an extreme position to make his later requests look reasonable, but it wasn't like kings were the most reasonable men in the world.)
But eventually they'd managed it, though they'd been forced to exchange hostages. Leon was currently Odin's 'guest,' while they were hosting a courtier from Magance's court. Esclabor was a decent enough fellow: genial, well-traveled, with one son around Marrok's age and two other, younger boys whom he clearly adored. Percival had nothing against him, but he'd still rather have Leon at their campfire.
They'd get Leon back tomorrow morning, after Arthur and Odin completed their duel to the death and the war ended.
Percival knew that he should be more worried about the outcome of the fight. He hadn't known Arthur long, but he liked the man, respected him, thought that he would make a fine king one day. If he died tomorrow, all Albion would be worse for it.
But he'd seen Arthur battle his way through an army of gargoyles, and he knew that the prince was going into the duel to protect his people, not for revenge.
Arthur would win. Percival was sure of it.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Gwen Continues to be an Amazing Friend"
Esclabor: father of Palamedes the Saracen Knight and his brothers Safir and Segwarides, who were on the Round Table.
Chapter 15: A Searching Gaze
It's time to d-d-d-d-d-duel!
Chapter XV: A Searching Gaze
"Do you remember that pharmacist from a few days ago?"
It had been a long few days, so Morgana took a few moments to think. "Rience, right? Why do you—oh, no."
Gwen grimaced but nodded. "He's waiting at the door to the great hall."
Morgana groaned. "I suppose I did promise him that he could come back today. Were there any other petitioners in front of him?"
"No, but I did get you a larger-than-normal breakfast."
"You're an evil genius, Gwen."
"Don't be ridiculous," she retorted, rolling her eyes. "I have to get to Uther now, unless you needed anything else?"
"Have you had breakfast?"
"Yes. I didn't realize that you'd need to prolong your morning."
For a brief second, Morgana considered dining with Uther. It was a terrible idea, of course. She hadn't gone to see him since receiving Merlin's news. Just thinking about the man made anger knot her belly.
Gwen hesitated at the door. "Are you all right?"
Morgana glanced over at the practice swords from last night. Keeping her voice light, she joked, "I should be asking you that. How many times did I defeat you?"
"I did win once."
"I sneezed. It doesn't count."
Gwen turned back to her friend. "Are you, though?"
Morgana closed her eyes. "I will be."
"Good. But still, come get me if you—wait, that's a terrible idea. Send for me if you need to."
"I will, Gwen."
Morgana delayed a little too well; Laudine ended up sending a servant to fetch her. The lady made something up about falling back asleep after Gwen left and made her way to the council chamber where she, Laudine, and Leodegrance had been holding court. Sure enough, Rience the pharmacist was visibly eager. Morgana shot him her widest, most winsome smile as she passed.
The petitioner bowed deeply but began speaking even before he was fully upright. "My lord, my ladies, three days ago I heard that our great king had fallen ill. Lady Morgana assured me that the disease was not severe enough to warrant examination but stated that I could return today if His Majesty had not yet recovered. Judging from your presences here, it would seem that he has not."
"His Majesty remains indisposed," Leodegrance was forced to admit.
"Then I would like to see him, my lord." His eyes glimmered. "Considering the timing, I believe it could be sorcery."
"We have considered that possibility," Leodegrance sighed. "However, in the interest of keeping the people from becoming restive, you must first swear an oath to reveal nothing of his condition to those who do not already know of it."
"I swear it."
On impulse, Morgana said, "I'll go with you." Startled eyes turned towards her. She faked another smile and added, "He's my guardian. He raised me since I was a girl."
It wasn't like Rience could stop her, so he accepted graciously enough. Suspicion lurked in his eyes, though.
He was right to be suspicious. Morgana had concocted the brilliant plan of going along to sabotage the pharmacist, except she had somehow temporarily overlooked the fact that subverting his goal would bring her into Uther's presence. She'd regretted it almost the instant the words were out of her mouth, but she couldn't turn back without looking suspicious. Besides, it would be easier to distract him if she and Gwen were both working on it. (Assuming that he even needed to be distracted. The mandrake was under Uther's bed, not on his body. It left no physical signs. She was probably just worrying over nothing.)
"What are the king's symptoms, my lord, my ladies? How did his illness develop?"
Leodegrance and Laudine grimaced. Morgana let her shoulders slump.
There were no other courtiers in the room, only a pair of the noble couple's most trusted guards, but the lord still spoke quietly when he admitted, "King Uther seems to have gone mad."
The witch took over the narrative. "He converses with people who aren't there. Sometimes he becomes violent and tries to attack them. Other times he flinches away from them and covers his ears. He can barely sleep for the nightmares."
Rience bared his teeth. "Sorcery of the foulest kind."
"Perhaps not," sighed Laudine. "Madness lurks in the Pendragon bloodline, though I don't believe it's ever afflicted a reigning king. Then again, few kings have been under the sort of strain that Uther has suffered."
"Few have had as many enemies. How did his symptoms develop?"
As Leodegrance and Laudine filled Rience in on all the unpleasant details, Morgana contemplated the benefits of telepathically telling Gwen to hide the mandrake. No, she shouldn't. Nobody had noticed the mandrake so far, and where else could she hide it anyways?
Soon it was time to escort Rience to the king's chambers. Morgana tried to open the door, but it was locked. She rapped loudly against the wood. A few moments later, a very frazzled maid answered the door. "Sorry," she said, "it's a bad day." It must have been, or a new person wouldn't have been let in on the secret.
An inhuman screech erupted behind her. Something slammed against a wall. Not a body, Morgana thought. Perhaps a book? Slam, slam, slam.
The lady and the pharmacist slipped inside as quickly as they could, closing the door behind them. Sure enough, Uther was attacking the wall with a book while Gwen spoke to him in quick, soft reassurances.
Rience bowed low. "Your Majesty." His voice carried entirely too much reverence towards someone in his nightclothes.
That wild gaze lighted on the pharmacist. "Are they dead yet?" he demanded.
"Soon, sire," Rience answered as soothingly as possible.
"Kill them all," the king spat. "Every man, every woman, every child. Kill them, and make them stay dead!" His arms flailed. "Then bring me that serving boy's head on a spike."
The women went rigid. Thankfully, Rience was too occupied to notice.
"Before I killed them all, sire, I had hoped to examine you."
"Yes, yes." His head bobbed in erratic nods. "They scratch at me. Their nails are jagged and filthy, like claws. Sometimes they bite, and their teeth break off into my wounds. They all need to die."
The king was surprisingly cooperative throughout Rience's examination of his body, at least as far as Morgana could tell. She and Gwen were on the other side of the changing screen, quietly talking about nothing as they eavesdropped on the men's conversation. It mostly consisted of Uther talking about his delusions and Rience assuring him that yes, of course I'll kill them all. He sounded eager, which did nothing to improve Morgana's opinion of him.
When the examination was over, Rience asked Uther to recount what exactly the sorcerers had done to him. Partway through the interrogation, Uther started shrieking mid-word and attacked his bedpost. It took Rience nearly half an hour to regain the king's attention, and even then, Uther's account was far more disjointed than it had been in the beginning. That wasn't saying much—he'd had a tendency to go off on random tangents and/or rants even before this—but it was noticeable all the same.
"Sleep, Your Majesty," Rience advised.
"Who are you to command a king?"
"Forgive me, sire. I meant it as a suggestion, though now I see it was poorly phrased. I merely meant that you must be exhausted from these tortures."
"Yes. Ygraine could tell you. Kill them before I wake. Before they attack Arthur and Morgana."
"I will, sire."
Uther must have been exhausted, for it wasn't very long before Rience (looking rather exhausted himself) rounded the changing screen. Gwen laid aside her mending. "I've been tending to him since he fell ill, Master Rience. Would you like to question me as well?"
"No, no." He waved her aside. "I need to search the room."
Ice chilled Morgana's blood. "Why?" Somehow, her voice was level.
"Evidence of sorcery, my lady."
"But wouldn't that be on his body?" asked Gwen, her tone convincingly curious.
"No. Many curses are… anchored in an object that is placed near the victim."
"Like an amulet?" the maid inquired. "I heard a story once about a sorceress who cursed an entire family by selling the woman of the house a cursed amulet. She—the non-magical woman, not the sorceress—put it on and barely made it home before she started dripping blood everywhere. Then her skin fell off and the same thing happened to everyone else in the house. But I haven't seen King Uther wearing any amulets. Could the sorcerer have put it on him just long enough to make the curse stick, then taken it away before anybody noticed?"
"Perhaps," said Rience, "but I rather doubt it. Now be silent so I can search."
Gwen bit her lip and nodded.
To Morgana's horror, the pharmacist was thorough in his hunt. He began in the western part of the room, carefully going through the wardrobe and even pushing it aside to make certain nothing was hidden beneath. He crossed the room north to south, then took a few steps to the east and went south to north.
If he'd started at the eastern wall, he'd have found the mandrake root already. Morgana wasn't certain how grateful she was for that. It would at least be over then. But the king was sleeping, and Rience respected his liege too much to awaken him.
Was there anything she could do to keep him from discovering the mandrake root? She could sort of make objects float, though without much precision, and she could unlock doors and make shields and do a few other minor things that were all completely useless. Not even swefne was an option. Perhaps she could incant it quietly enough that Rience wouldn't hear her, but when he woke up, he'd know that one of them had to be the spellcaster. He'd also realize that they wouldn't have struck unless he was getting too close to something important. Basically, short of killing him and hiding the body without anyone noticing, there wasn't much Morgana could do to keep the mandrake secret.
"Do you have any ideas, Gwen?"
"I don't know. All I can think of is to try to distract him."
Gwen offered to help twice, doubtless intending to take the bed, but Rience refused her each time. The king needed trained, experienced eyes, he told her. Not yours. Now go back to your mending.
Morgana wished she knew more curses. The magical kind, though ordinary profanities wouldn't be amiss either.
Then the moment they'd dreaded arrived. Rience knelt at the foot of the bed. Uther was still asleep, so to avoid disturbing him, the pharmacist began by searching beneath the bedframe.
They'd hidden the mandrake well, but it dripped. The little puddle pooling beneath it betrayed its location. Less than two minutes after getting to the bed, Rience emerged with the mandrake in his hand and death in his eyes.
Silence, thick and heavy. Then Morgana broke it with a soft, "What is that?"
They couldn't get out of this with the curse intact, but she could save their masks.
"The anchor of the curse," Rience growled. "A mandrake root, used by the foulest of sorcerers to drive good men into madness. It must be destroyed."
"Fire, of course." A smile, ugly and gleeful all at once. "First the spell, then its caster. Both must burn."
To Morgana's surprise, his words provoked a flash of fear for Morgause. (She'd gone from being an only child to having two half-siblings in less than a season. How strange to think about.) The priestess would be fine, she assured herself. She was on the Isle of the Blessed, a place that none of Uther's goons knew was inhabited. Besides, Rience couldn't possibly have any idea who had hidden the mandrake. He probably blamed Merlin.
"Then I shall order the construction of a woodpile," Morgana declared. "Unless you needed to do something to it first?"
"No, my lady." For the first time, there was a hint of deference as he said the title. "It must be destroyed as quickly as possible."
"Of course. Gwen, go find wood."
And so they burned the mandrake that they'd conspired to place under Uther Pendragon's bed. They stood and watched it curl, blacken, crumble into ash. It screamed as it died, but Morgana was the only one to hear the awful noise. She kept her face grim and blank.
The fire crackled. It sounded almost like crackling.
The mandrake's scream fell silent. A thread of something intangible, something Morgana hadn't truly noticed until it was gone, snapped.
Maybe Uther wouldn't recover immediately. Maybe his nobles wouldn't believe that a spell was responsible for his madness, that he might lose his mind again at any given moment. Maybe they weren't back where they'd started.
Maybe they could find another way to keep him from his rampage.
Morgana could only hope.
Odin looked like his son. Same coloring, same nose, same ears. Possibly the same chin, too, but Arthur couldn't tell for certain. Odin had a beard; Prince Meili had barely been old enough to grow a few whiskers. He'd tried, though. It had looked ridiculous.
Gods, how Arthur wished he'd never accepted that duel. How he wished that Meili hadn't slipped at just the wrong moment, that Gaius could have saved him.
For the first time, Arthur found himself wondering if Meili could have made it. His wound had been deep and bloody; Gaius had taken one look at him and slumped, grief already on his face. But what if the physician had been allowed to use his magic? Could that have saved the other prince?
(How many people had died because there weren't enough healers, because the magical healers who remained were crippled in their art?)
King Odin was staring back at him, his visage stony. It was the first time in years that he'd laid eyes on the man who killed his son. Arthur wondered what he was thinking.
One of the Camelot men cleared his throat. "This battle is to be fought to the death. Prince Arthur again requests that the terms be changed to death or surrender."
The king's lips curled. "Trying to save your hide, boy?"
"Trying to save yours," Arthur retorted.
"Are you certain? I have waited many years for this moment." His hands tightened into fists. "You killed my son. You took what was most precious to me and now you will pay the forfeit. Considering what I've heard of you, I am not surprised that you're trying to avoid justice."
"I came here of my own free will, against my father's wishes, after you tried to kill me and dragged our kingdoms into war." His head was high, his gaze unwavering. "I will not run."
"Your request is denied," Odin spat. "I will kill you, Arthur Pendragon. Then my son will finally rest in peace."
He drew his sword. The steel shone in the morning light, a pillar of silver in his hand. Arthur drew as well. His blade was no Excalibur, but it would do.
They approached each other slowly, warily, balanced on the balls of their feet. Arthur's world narrowed to the king before him, the way he shifted his weight, the way his eyes darted around for an opening. They circled and circled, drawing closer on every loop, until they were within easy reach.
That was when Arthur struck. A simple attack, a test of Odin's defenses. The king was older, yes, but not elderly, and the prince had never seen him fight before. Unknown opponents were dangerous.
Odin met the thrust with a lightning-fast parry. Their blades clashed, the impact vibrating down Arthur's arm. His opponent was strong and knew how to hold himself. No surprise there.
The king thought that his enemy was a headstrong boy, drunk on his own arrogance and pride. The prince had been thinking about that on the ride over, pondering how it might be made into a strategy. He'd figured it out mere minutes before arrival.
He kept up his assault, not pausing to give Odin a moment's breathing room. All his attacks were simple and straightforward; although he saw through and countered his opponent's feints, he made no feints of his own. He let Odin think he was a brute who relied on strength and stamina rather than strategy.
And then, almost four minutes into the bout, Arthur feinted to his left.
Odin took the bait.
Arthur reversed his momentum, his blade a blur. Odin's sword went flying. The prince positioned himself between the king and his weapon and went on the advance, slashing, hacking. He kicked, and his enemy went down.
Then Arthur's sword was at Odin's throat. "Yield," he ordered softly.
"I will not." To his credit, the king didn't flinch away. "Finish it. Finish it and be done."
"And what then?" Arthur gestured to the men around them with his free arm. "Your people will seek their revenge. A war without end." And suddenly he was thinking of Merlin, and the Purge, and how very easily he could have died if his manservant the powerful warlock with every reason to hold a grudge had chosen vengeance. "But there is another way. A truce. Peace between our kingdoms, an end to the cycle… or a pointless death that would condemn both our peoples to war."
"You killed my son." Raw pain still.
"And I will regret it to the end of my days." Arthur stepped back, pulled away his sword, laid it on the ground. He leaned over the king, his hand extended. "I would bring Prince Meili back if I could, but all I can do is offer life to his father and peace to his kingdom. I didn't know him long, but I think he would want that."
Odin swallowed hard. Liquid limned his eyes as he took Arthur's hand, let himself be helped to his feet. "I think he would."
Found Meili's name on Wikipedia list of sons of Odin. Some of Odin's dialogue is lifted directly from "Another's Sorrow."
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Morgana Does Not Know Enough Swear Words to Adequately Express Herself"
Next chapter: More speculation as to the nature of prophecies.
Chapter 16: Snatches of Things to Come
Remember that one Seer guy who showed up for a single chapter in Book II? He showed up for an infodump.
Chapter XVI: Snatches of Things to Come
Merlin was heartily tired of being tired.
It had taken all of his willpower (and a few potions stolen when Gaius wasn't looking) to stay awake long enough to talk with Arthur. He'd barely made it back to his room on the Isle of the Blessed before collapsing onto the floor. Someone had moved him to his bed before he woke briefly that evening, just long enough to gulp down food and water and reassure his parents that yes, he was absolutely certain that this would pass, don't worry about it. Then he'd passed out again until morning.
At least he wasn't quite as fatigued today. He felt like he had… an hour, maybe two, before his next collapse.
So Merlin forced himself out of bed and went to find someone who could give him more information about what had happened while he was in the Perilous Lands. At least, that was the plan. There was a vaguely familiar man standing outside his door. It took the warlock a few moments to recall his face. When he did, he barely stifled his groan. A headache began to build behind his temples, and he found himself a great deal more exhausted than he'd been a moment ago.
"You're Rodrik, right? Of the Vates?"
"I am indeed, Lord Emrys."
"Please don't call me that."
Amusement glimmered in the prophet's eyes. "Would you prefer King Emrys, then, Your Majesty?"
"Dear gods no."
Rodrik chuckled softly before returning to his previous serious mood. "I am not here to argue about your titles, my lord. I come with a warning."
Bloody wonderful. He should have just stayed in bed. "What happened? I mean, what's going to happen?"
"Two men in Camelot red stalking these streets, tears welling up in their footsteps. A pair of crowns tied together. A lion descending into the shaking earth. Your lady mother surrounded by wings."
"All right," said Merlin slowly. The lion…. Uther's personal sigil was a lion, so that might be him. A descent into the earth could refer to his death, but then why was the earth shaking? Maybe Uther was going to dig up another ancient spellbinder's spirit. Hopefully not. They were still recovering from the last one. But he was more interested in something else. "My mother surrounded by wings?"
"Yes. Several of my comrades and I have Seen that."
"Can you give me more details?"
"I can," Rodrik assured him. "It was either dusk or dawn, the world poised between night and day. Stars fell, burning into nothingness behind her. She clutched at her belly without moving, as still as the lake in which she stood."
"How big was her belly?" Merlin interrupted. She was far enough along that her pregnancy was plainly visible; they thought that she was a few weeks over halfway through, maybe two-thirds of the way. She'd been small while carrying Merlin, so the bump size wasn't the best indicator. If Hunith was still pregnant in the vision, either Merlin would get another sibling after Ganieda or this would happen in the next four or so months.
"Not much larger than it is now."
So probably soon, then. Bloody marvelous. "Right. What else?"
"One pair of wings belonged to a falcon," the Seer recounted. "The others moved too quickly for me to make out, especially in the darkness. Large dragonflies, perhaps, or small birds."
Merlin relaxed a bit upon hearing that a falcon—probably a merlin—had been (would be?) with his mother. At least he'd be able to do something. The other winged creatures, though, those were more worrisome. "Were they attacking her?"
"No, my lord, but she seemed to be in pain."
That was right. She'd been clutching at her belly. Fear chilled Merlin's spine. Bad enough that something terrible might happen to Hunith; even worse that Ganieda was in danger.
"Then the vision ended," Rodrik informed him. "I looked upon this scene for mere seconds before it dissipated into mist."
"Thank you for telling me. I'd appreciate it if you could tell my parents, too. But before that, could you answer a few questions for me? Not about these visions, about prophecies in general." Even if he hadn't promised Arthur that he'd look into this, Hunith and Ganieda were in danger now too. (If he somehow saved Uther, his baby sister would be born into a world where her mere existence as a dragonlord's daughter was considered a crime. Merlin shoved the thought aside. He would keep them all safe from the king.)
"If you so desire, yes, but be warned: prophecy is rarefied, ephemeral, controversial. Some say that the future is as the graven stone, others that it is as the dancing flame, still others as the morning dew. I can answer, except when I cannot."
Ah, yes, there was the unnecessarily cryptic Seer he recalled from the summit. He must have been spooked indeed to relay his visions with such clarity.
His headache was getting worse.
"How do prophecies work?" Merlin asked, thinking back to whatever had so distressed Arthur. He'd learned something among the druids, the warlock was sure of it.
"They are glimpses of what shall come to pass, shrouded by the mists of time. They are uncast shadows which seep into the minds of Seers and prophets."
Merlin imagined Arthur's reaction to that and was torn between wincing and giggling. "I see." He didn't. "How do they come back?"
Rodrik shrugged. "Only the gods truly know."
Marvelous. "What if you hear a prophecy or have a vision or something that doesn't make any sense? Say, somebody that you know is good and kind is supposedly destined to become evil. Or you're destined to do something that you never would."
The Seer's brow furrowed. His eyebrows bunched together. "The future is layered, and shadowed, and only glimpsed by mortal minds with no idea of its context. Sometimes the prophecies are misunderstood. Other times the spirit of them is twisted, though the countenance remains the same. And sometimes the state of knowing—or rather, thinking that one knows—is what sets that very chain of events into motion."
"So it… can be changed?"
"Yes and no. You are Emrys. It is your destiny to restore magic to Albion and to guide its greatest ruler. There are so many ways you could have done this, even without ever encountering the Once and Future King. A book, letters, even an example of what not to be."
Merlin thought back to his prophecy about the king. It seemed rather clear-cut to him: "Your death approaches, Uther Pendragon" was rather hard to misunderstand. But, if he looked at it sideways and squinted… death approached everyone, didn't it? As for the bit about a new king on Camelot's throne, maybe Arthur was going to overthrow his father. Maybe someone would somehow conquer Camelot, driving Uther into exile. Then a new king would rule Camelot, and it wouldn't exactly be hard to be considered better than the man who'd started the Purge. So… maybe, just maybe, there was a bit of wiggle room.
(He tried to ignore the twinge of disappointment.)
"And there's a symbolic aspect, too," he muttered, half to himself. "You saw falcon wings in the vision about my mother, but that's probably me and I'm not really a bird. Other people have seen a merlin in their visions too. A falcon and a raven locked in battle."
So that was more wiggle room if Uther's death, the lion descending into the earth, was somehow symbolic. Maybe he'd get a complete personality change, renounce his genocidal ways, and become a new and better king himself before the days waned again. Not bloody likely, of course, but technically possible.
The vision about Hunith, though, that was definitely full of symbols. The stars probably weren't going to actually fall from the sky—though if they did, he'd go to her immediately, just to be safe. The mention of a lake made Merlin think of the waters that surrounded the Isle of the Blessed. It could be impossibly still at times, especially at night when nobody disturbed it. Maybe her pregnancy was allegorical too and simply represented Ganieda. But Hunith's expression of pain was hard to ignore. He couldn't think of any way that his mother's suffering might be a good thing. Well, unless it was birth pangs. Hopefully it was just birth pangs.
"Allegory mingles with reality in prophecies, especially those relayed through dreams. It is difficult for even the most experienced of us to discern which is which."
"Okay." The tiredness was getting worse. He'd better reclaim control of the conversation before they got too sidetracked. "If I wanted to change the future I'd glimpsed, how should I go about it?"
Rodrik didn't answer right away. He stilled completely, eyebrows bunching together. Finally, he replied, "In the same way you would change the courses of the stars, I suppose."
"I don't know how to do that, either."
"No. What is it that you seek to change?"
There was absolutely no way that Merlin was about to explain his promise to Arthur. He somehow doubted that a Seer would appreciate his oath, however reluctant, to help Uther Pendragon escape his oncoming doom. He settled for a half-truth. "I managed to get in contact with Arthur. He'd run into some druids and got to discussing prophecies with them. I don't know what they told him, but he started asking me questions I didn't know the answers to."
"Perhaps the questions he asked have no answers," Rodrik suggested.
"Perhaps they don't, but I doubt Arthur would understand that." He wouldn't. He'd probably blame Merlin for it, too.
"…Does he hesitate?" A hint of nervousness leaked into Rodrik's voice.
"No, no, I don't think he's going to try to defy his own destiny, at least not in the way you're worried about." Pride fluttered behind Merlin's collarbone. "He's come a long way. He understands, now, that magic is no more good or evil than any other power. I doubt that he'll be able to wave his hand and make the Purge disappear—there's all sorts of laws and treaties and whatnot that he has to overturn—but I know that Arthur will set us free."
"Then perhaps he has stumbled upon a more minor, unwelcome facet of his future. His death, perhaps, or the death of someone he loves."
Someone like Uther. Could it really be that simple? If the druids had also warned him about his father's impending demise, that might have been enough to get him thinking. Arthur had asked about prophecies before Merlin brought up his prediction.
The explanation made sense, but something about it didn't sit quite right. A moment's reflection revealed the source of his uncertainty. What would happen if the prophecies said you were destined for something that went against the fundamental aspects of your personality? Arthur had asked. What happens when someone hears of their destiny and decides to fight it? It sounded more like the prince was supposedly fated to do something he found evil or repugnant.
"What would happen if you heard you were prophesied to do something that you would never do, and then you decided to change it?"
"Nothing, or everything, or something in between."
Merlin was beginning to wonder if Rodrik was trying to be unhelpful. "So you have no idea."
"None whatsoever," the Seer confirmed, completely at peace with his ignorance. "Brighter minds have debated these queries for centuries without arriving at a definite answer. We do not know if prophecies can be changed because we do not know what their original meaning was."
"Then what's the point of them?"
"Only the gods know. Hope, perhaps, or warnings."
"Speaking of warnings, have you told my parents about those visions? Especially the one with Mother in it."
"I am to speak with them next."
"Great. You can go do that now. And thank you for telling me and for this talk." He was mostly thankful for the warning about his mother. The talk had worn him out and given him a nasty headache.
"By your leave." Rodrik actually bowed slightly as he backed away. If Merlin had been feeling better, he'd have raised a fuss about that, but all he really wanted was to go back to sleep. He'd either greatly overestimated his current stamina or he finally had proof that overly cryptic discussions were physically unhealthy.
Either way, Merlin couldn't wait until he was back to his old self.
It was entirely possible that, if he was given a few days to rest and recover, Uther would soon be back to his old self.
Gwen had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, she'd seen his suffering up close. Uther had wept, had screamed, had fought invisible opponents, had rent his own flesh. He'd cowered away from invisible specters chastising him, the ghosts of everyone he'd ever done wrong. He'd been terrified and in pain and sick, and Gwen hated seeing anybody in such a condition.
On the other hand, Uther's recovery boded ill for Camelot. He had been furious before, a cold calculated rage that shattered everyone in its path. Now he would be incandescent in his wrath. People were going to suffer and die because the king ordered it. He would take back power from Morgana and renew his second Purge.
She wished there was another way, something she could do to stop the destruction rather than simply mitigate it. Yet the thought of killing Arthur's father, of building peace on bloodshed….
What was the right thing to do? When did the ends justify the means, and when could the means never be justified? Wiser minds had debated that for centuries, probably millennia, and they hadn't figured it out either.
But, Gwen reminded herself, there was always a chance that Uther wouldn't recover. Nobody in Camelot knew much about the effects of long-term exposure to mandrake roots. That knowledge had gone up in flames with the rest of the kingdom's spellbooks. Gaius would have had an answer, but he was on the Isle of the Blessed.
Certainly Uther would need time to heal. He'd collapsed when the root burned, covering his ears and howling about the mandrake's cries. Then, when it crumbled to dust, its victim had gone utterly limp. For a moment, Gwen had wondered if he was dead. Then Rience had gone over and proclaimed that he was merely sleeping, the kind of deep dreamless sleep that had been denied to him this past week.
Nobody knew what would happen when the king awoke. Everyone in the manor, noble and servant alike, walked as though on eggshells, their eyes darting about, their ears pricked for news as they carried out their tasks. They didn't know every sordid detail of Uther's 'illness,' though they'd all heard the gist of what was going on. But word had spread of a pharmacist entering the king's chambers and coming out with something foul and magical in his hands.
Morgana and Gwen had to prepare for the worst: massive slaughter immediately following Uther's awakening. The first step for that would be to get the word out. This was Gwen's task. She approached the most nervous-looking servants to give them a version of the truth: Uther's illness had been magical in nature, but he was recovering now and she shuddered to think of what he'd do to the sorcerer responsible.
(What would he do to Morgana if he knew her role in his madness? Would her status as his secret daughter protect her, or…? No. He wouldn't find out.)
Nothing Gwen told the others was classified information. Saying it wasn't even suspicious. She knew better than to warn people directly, but she could be subtle when she needed to be. They would hear her message anyways.
Morgana had a different task. She had to obstruct Uther's future progress as much as possible. Part of that, Gwen knew, would involve undermining his credibility in the eyes of the nobility. Yes, his madness had been caused by sorcery, but who knew what long-term effects that would have on his sanity? After all, madness was known to lurk in the Pendragon bloodline. This ordeal might have shaken something loose in his skull, something unstable and dangerous. Surely it would be best to wait for Arthur's return before doing anything too drastic.
Her second idea involved ensuring that her sources of information didn't dry up. With Uther incapacitated, she'd had access to his correspondence, his records (the few that had made it to Leodegrance's manor, at any rate), and the guards' reports. They both remembered their disastrous attempt to steal the first set of lists. That couldn't happen again.
Morgana knew now where Brun was supposed to keep his lists, the real ones and the decoys. She'd bullied that out of him almost as soon as Uther fell ill. She'd ferreted out the most fervently anti-magic guards and the ones who seemed most hesitant. She'd even discovered—and promptly 'misplaced'—the drafts of Uther's next plans. Hopefully that would stymie him a little while longer.
The problem was that these things might change soon. Not the guards' alignments—though some of the kinder ones would doubtless pretend harder now that Uther was potentially coming back—but the location of the lists and the king's strategy. She had pushed her way into the information network when there was a gap, but now that gap was filled and Morgana could very well be cut out of the loop, or Uther could become suspicious, or or or.
They needed some way to keep that from happening, but neither the lady nor the maid had any ideas. Morgana had said something about talking to people in her dream world that night, but she'd had a nightmare instead: a red man dropping a serpent into a lake before the plants on its shore browned and withered. She hadn't been able to fall asleep after that, Gwen knew. Morgana hadn't said so, but her friend recognized the signs.
So here they sat at the lady's table, their breakfast between them, the air heavy with tension and tiredness. Neither woman spoke; neither paid much attention to her food, picking at it with utter apathy.
Gwen broke the silence. "Dad's going to keep spreading the word. Everyone in the castle must know by now, and all my neighbors, and people who recognized me on the streets. I suspect that most of Camelot has been warned by now. And while I'm nowhere near as good at phrasing things as you are, I think I managed to foster some doubt about his continued suitability. Maybe we should target the guards' families, make their wives and siblings and other kin question Uther's sanity. That might chip away at some of his power. What do you think?"
"Do it," the lady replied.
The maid frowned. Normally Morgana would have said something along the lines of "Let's do it" or "We should try." The two of them, plural. If Morgana thought that Gwen would be doing this alone…. "What's your plan?"
The witch's shoulders stiffened. "I don't have one."
Gwen channeled Gaius as best she could and raised a single eyebrow. Her impersonation must have been spot on, because Morgana winced. "You aren't going to like it."
"There is very little about our current situation that I do like."
Her friend smiled ruefully. "That's true." Another moment's hesitation, then she spoke her idea aloud.
Morgana was right. Gwen didn't like this plan at all.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which There is Much Ominousness"
Next chapter: Arthur does something neato and good. Morgana chats with Uther.
Chapter 17: The Treaty
Two political figures talk things out like rational adults and form a mutually beneficial compromise while learning to respect each other, which even more than the prophecies and magic and stuff proves that this is a work of pure fantasy.
Chapter XVII: The Treaty
Arthur doubted that he and Odin would ever be friends. He'd killed the man's son; accident or not, that was hard to forgive and even harder to forget. But there was respect in Odin's eyes as they negotiated, respect and curiosity and none of the seething hate that had been there before.
They'd spent all of yesterday afternoon treating, a duel with words rather than blades. There had been a treaty between Magance and Camelot before, of course. Camelot had treaties with all of its neighbors. Even Mercia, which had until recently been at war with them for decades, had a signed and binding contract. However, when Odin and Sigan began this pointless war, they'd obviously broken the agreement. (Meili's death and the assassin had also been violations, of course, but they hadn't completely destroyed it like this war had.)
Arthur supposed that he should have simply reinstated the treaty. He was only a prince still, not a king. He didn't technically have the authority to change international treaties without his father's permission, and there was no way in hell that Uther would approve of the alterations that his son was making.
He was going to change it anyways.
If the Purge had been limited to Camelot, all the spellbinders in the kingdom would simply have walked away. Other nations would have gobbled them up, putting Uther's homeland at a distinct military and economic disadvantage. So the king had negotiated with other rulers, persuading them that magic was too dangerous to run rampant. Arthur didn't know how he'd managed that. The way Uther told the tale, he'd just had to point out the evils of magic and everyone else had leapt to join him.
Gaius claimed otherwise. Last year, when he'd been teaching Arthur and Leon and Merlin about magic, he'd explained that the truth was more complicated. Although Britain's many magical groups had never been united behind a single leader, each one was powerful in its own right. The Catha were famous warriors. The priestesses of the Triple Goddess knew terrible foul spells and could command entire legions of the faithful. The Vates could see the future itself. The dragonlords controlled dragons. Even the druids, with their non-monarchical leadership, their disregard of borders, and the loyalty they inspired in those they healed, posed a quiet threat to the accepted order of things. The occasional power-mad mage had not helped magic's reputation. Their nastier exploits were highly visible and highly memorable, much more so than charms to cure hangnails.
And then Uther had come with his plan to crush all those other powers, and the Purge had spread across Albion.
Part of the old treaty with Magance was an oath of solidarity, a promise that they would stand together against magic within their own holdings and another promise that they would unite to crush any kingdom which offered sanctuary to spellbinders. Arthur actually rather liked the rest of their contract—it benefitted both sides—but this was not something he could let stand. Not anymore.
His life would be so much simpler if Merlin had never blundered into it.
(Also, he would probably be dead several times over, but Arthur ignored that thought.)
So he'd spent far too much time talking around that particular treaty point, hoping that if he pretended he'd forgotten about it, maybe Odin wouldn't bring it up and they could recreate the pact without this one stipulation. He'd thought he'd gotten away with it, too, until the end of the afternoon's negotiations, when Odin had commented that they had only to go over the articles on magic before everything was ready.
Arthur had spent the evening lost in thought, barely acknowledging the soldiers who came to thank and congratulate him. Finally, he'd gone to Lancelot, who had known about Merlin's magic from the day he arrived in Camelot. The man might not have been educated in politics, but he had a good head on his shoulders and Arthur knew that he too wanted the Purge to end. He thought that his other future knights (and Leon) might want that too—he'd flat-out told them, back when Gwaine had asked, that he intended to repeal the Purge—but it was one thing to know his plans in an abstract sort of way and another to actually take steps towards carrying them out.
Lancelot was a good listener. He didn't have many suggestions, but just talking to him made Arthur feel a little bit better. Still, he found himself wishing for Merlin's relative expertise about magic or Guinevere's levelheaded good sense.
The night passed. Arthur's dreams were mundane and half-formed, not nearly as crisp as Morgana's dream world. Part of him was grateful that his not-just-foster sister (my blood, my father's blood) hadn't managed to contact him. He wasn't looking forward to the inevitable conversation in which they discussed recent revelations. On the other hand, it would have been nice to get a second opinion from someone who had grown up in court and understood how politics worked.
The prince may have dragged his feet a bit as he went through his morning ablutions. His mind raced, struggling to find some genius technique to make Odin drop the uncomfortable subject of magic.
It was silly, stupid even, but… 'forgetting' to recreate the anti-magical clauses felt like it was less of a betrayal than actively telling Odin that no, he would not keep their kingdoms' agreement of mutual aggression. The intent was the same. The results would hopefully be the same. But actually saying it out loud, arguing on behalf of Merlin and Morgana and Gaius and Mordred and the other druids and Balinor, tasted almost of apostasy. He could perfectly envision his father's disappointed rage.
But it was the right thing to do. He had to start dismantling these treaties somewhere, or Camelot's former allies might band together and attack once Arthur repealed the ban.
He wasn't even king yet, but the crown was already weighing him down.
Arthur walked through the camp like a man approaching the executioner's block. Odin was already there, sitting at the table they'd commandeered yesterday. He kept watch in silence.
Then Arthur was there, sliding into his seat, his face carefully blank. This was going to be terrible, he just knew it.
The king stared at the prince, a challenge in his eyes. Arthur met his gaze, steeled himself, breathed in deep.
"I see no reason that we cannot write down and sign the treaty in its current form."
"I believe, Prince Arthur, that your father would disagree."
And that was the crux of the matter, wasn't it?
"My father is not here," he retorted. "I am, and I see no reason to unite against our own citizens."
"You know, of course, that your reticence in this matter will be interpreted as support for magic wielders."
"I know this."
A direct question—a demand, really—impossible to dodge or avoid. The men around them stilled, barely daring to breathe, as they awaited the prince's response.
"…What have you heard of recent events in Camelot?"
Odin leaned back in his chair, his hands clasped before him. "King Uther claims that he was possessed by the spirit of Cornelius Sigan when he declared war on me. I know that Sigan was real. He awakened the gargoyles and tried to destroy the entire citadel, possibly even the entire kingdom. And I know that your manservant was exposed as a sorcerer."
"Merlin is technically a warlock," Arthur corrected. Gods, he wished that their highest-ranking nearby officers (not to mention soldiers to guard them all) weren't here. They were all staring at him. "He bound Sigan in a mortal body, then fought him to the death in the throne room, where my father was held captive. He could easily have killed Father and blamed it on Sigan. There were no other witnesses. Instead, Merlin let him go."
"I find that hard to believe," Odin commented, but it wasn't quite a challenge anymore. An invitation, perhaps.
"I do too, sometimes," Arthur confessed. "But Merlin killed Sigan, started a rain shower to help set out the fires, and left without harming anybody else. He wasn't even the only spellbinder to fight for us. At least one other person used magic to knock Sigan's gargoyles together, and most everyone suspects that there were several of them. Then there are all the stories of spellbinders appearing to perform good deeds before vanishing back into the woods. All these people knew that they could be killed for their actions, but they did it anyways."
He didn't look away from the other king now, despite how he wanted to. He couldn't. "I grew up hearing that magic was innately evil, that it inevitably corrupted those who chose—and it was always a choice—to use it. The only way to stop them was to kill them all, destroy the knowledge itself. And for most of my life, most of the spellbinders I saw seemed to confirm that belief when they tried to kill my father." A rueful smile. "And then I learned I was wrong."
Odin kept staring at him, his face inscrutable. Arthur fought the urge to drop his gaze. If he couldn't stand firm before Odin, how could he hope to face Uther?
"Magance is not the only kingdom with which Camelot has this sort of agreement." What was Odin thinking? Arthur still couldn't read his expression. "I am obviously not familiar with all the details of Camelot's other treaties, but in the compact between our kingdoms, there was no stipulation that we would have to unite against any realm which didn't agree to unite against magic as long as it remained illegal."
Arthur needed a moment to decipher that, to tease out the question. "You're right," he finally confirmed. "To the best of my knowledge, every treaty between Camelot and its allies contains clauses that they will attack kingdoms where magic is legal. However, there is no obligation to attack sovereign nations that don't have similar treaties, so long as magic remains outlawed there."
The king's lips curled up ever so slightly. "Good. I would hate to think you were trying to get me attacked."
"Why would I? Camelot would fall victim too."
"Camelot has that agreement with other nations. Magance only has it with Camelot."
Arthur had hoped so. "Neither of our kingdoms will be assaulted for removing this clause."
"Unless your father feels otherwise. I would rather not provoke his wrath so soon after we finished this war."
An unfortunately valid point. Arthur remained silent for a few moments, considering, weighing his words. "I doubt that my father will be eager to resume such an unpopular war immediately after it ends. Additionally, any attempts he makes to claim that my treaty is insufficient could be interpreted by the nobility as a slight on my suitability to succeed him. He is already facing enough difficulties." Including but not limited to a son and almost-certainly-daughter doing their best to curb his more bloodthirsty impulses, finishing the rebuilding, hunting down Merlin and other spellbinders, whatever insane thing Merlin was going to do next, and the summit in Gawant.
(An unwelcome little voice reminded him of Merlin's prophecy. 'Your death approaches, Uther Pendragon.' He told the voice to shut up.)
Odin was silent, thinking. Weighing his options.
Should he say something? But what would he say? Arthur didn't know. Words slipped through his mind like water through clasped hands. Gods, he really needed to think of something to say. Odin must believe him a fool.
"Very well, then. Shall we sign?"
Arthur startled at the sound of the king's voice. Wide-eyed in disbelief, he barely restrained himself from full-fledged gaping. But he had been trained to keep his emotions under wraps during negotiations and recovered with alacrity.
"Gladly, Your Majesty."
The parchment was brought before them. The man who carried it—a knight from a minor noble family on Camelot's coast—looked at Arthur with something like betrayal in his eyes, but he said nothing.
Odin took the quill first, writing his name in bold swathes of ink before offering it to the prince. Arthur took it slowly. The feather weighed heavier than it had any right to be, and Odin's gaze was heavier still.
His father would be furious at this betrayal—and betrayal it was. There was no doubt of that, no way to pretend it was anything but.
What else could Arthur do? Knowingly, deliberately contribute to the deaths and persecution of innocent spellbinders? It was a betrayal either way; at least this perfidy was only against one person.
(But that wasn't true either, was it? So many in his kingdom feared and hated magic even after the word and deed campaign. They would call this betrayal too.)
He dipped the quill into the inkwell, drew it out all wet and gleaming. Somehow, his hand remained steady.
It wasn't freedom, but it was a start.
Prince Arthur Pendragon signed his name.
"This is a terrible idea," Gwen said. It must have been the fifth or sixth time she'd pointed that out, and she'd probably keep saying it until Morgana agreed to back down. She was rather stubborn like that.
"Can you think of anything else that might distract him?"
"Delay him until we receive word that Arthur's disappeared. Convince him that that dragon's been sighted in Gedref. Have Merlin or Morgause turn him into a newt."
"…He could get better. Eventually. This will distract him, Morgana, but it will hurt you too."
"I need to know, though, Gwen."
That seemed to get through to her. The maid's shoulders slumped. "And there's nothing I could say to convince you otherwise?"
Morgana's lips pursed. She said nothing.
A sigh rattled through Gwen's throat. "It probably would distract him long enough for word about Arthur to arrive," she admitted grudgingly.
"Or long enough for Merlin to turn him into a newt."
"…You know, I was only joking about the newt thing, but now that I'm thinking about it, it's actually not a terrible idea. Can Merlin do that?"
"Someone probably can," Morgana answered. "I'll ask Merlin next time I see him." She would have asked Blaise, but it had been harder to get in contact with him lately. Camelot wasn't very welcoming to strangers these days, especially strangers with knowledge of herb-lore.
"But you're certain?" Gwen's cheer faded. "Absolutely certain?"
No. "Of course." Morgana stood. "Actually, I'll do it right now. Get it over with."
"What? Weren't you going to plan more or, or—"
"Wish me luck, Gwen." Morgana strode out the door before her friend could talk her out of it.
Uther had only awakened an hour or so ago, groggy and twitchy and quiet but sane (or at least as sane as he'd been these past twenty-one years). It was probably a good thing that he'd come to right now. Morgana had only divulged her plan a few hours ago at breakfast, and only her immediate retreat to public spaces had kept Gwen from talking her out of it.
The king was dining. It was late for lunch, but he hadn't eaten anything for at least a day. He jumped when the witch swept in, only relaxing when he saw her face. Then her expression penetrated his haze of exhaustion and he stiffened again.
Just being in his presence was enough to stir up the embers of her rage. She summoned up all the vitriol she could and spat out a single word, sarcastic and sneering and vicious. "Father."
Uther blanched. "What are you—"
"You said some very interesting things while you were ill," Morgana lied. "For instance, your affair with my mother."
The king tried to gather himself. "I don't doubt that I said many untrue things. I was insane."
"So you never cuckolded Gorlois?"
"Never," he assured her, far too quickly.
"And you expect me to believe that?"
"I don't. It makes too much sense. Did my father know?"
He blinked, nonplussed, before realizing that she was talking about Gorlois. "There was nothing for him to—"
"Tell me. The truth."
Uther was silent for a long, long moment. Then his head jerked from side to side. "He never knew for certain, though I think he suspected near the end."
"Is that why you sent him back into the field?" Morgana demanded, finally giving voice to the question that had been haunting her for days. "Did you want him dead?"
The king recoiled. "No! I wanted him preoccupied, too busy to think about it. I never wanted him dead!"
"What, did you think that Father would just forget I might be another man's bastard? How stupid do you think he was?!"
"Or maybe you just didn't want to admit to yourself that you wanted him dead. Did he even want me to grow up in Camelot, or was that another one of your lies?"
"How can I ever trust anything you say? Why shouldn't I leave for Gawant right now to tell Arthur how you dishonored his mother's memory?"
The king blanched. Good.
"I should leave," Morgana continued, her voice lowering to a growl. "I should go back to Tintagel and never return, not until you're dead."
"No!" Uther cried.
And now she had him. Time to move in for the kill.
"Give me one good reason not to leave," she ordered, soft as silk and deadly as steel.
"You are to marry Cenred in mere weeks."
Morgana pulled up short, heart freezing in her chest. No. No, this wasn't how it was supposed to go. He was supposed to plead with her to stay, to offer her anything. He was supposed to make himself vulnerable, giving Morgana an opening that she could use to protect her people. He wasn't supposed to find another way.
The witch opened her mouth. Does Cenred know I'm a bastard? she nearly asked. Then her mind caught up with her tongue and she choked on the words rather than let them pass. Uther would never believe her if she threatened to reveal her true lineage to Cenred. He was already too close to the throne of Camelot; the last thing he needed was to know that his intended bride was of Pendragon blood.
But that was an opening in itself. Morgana rallied. "Are you insane?" The king flinched. "Are you trying to give him the throne? Camelot will be Arthur's, not Cenred's."
"Unless that warlock kills him," Uther interjected. "This way, one of you is guaranteed to keep our house in power."
"I can wed him just as well at Tintagel, without you," Morgana improvised. Inspiration struck. "You will not see my wedding, Uther Pendragon, and you will never meet my children."
The king jerked back as though struck, horror and fear mingling on his face. He blanched as white as foam.
Good. Now he would offer her anything to avert her justified rage and take back her supposedly unknowing affirmation of Merlin's prophecy. She'd name her price: Never again would he lie to her or keep secrets. She would have full access to everything he did and wrote and planned. He would give her the information she needed to keep her people safe.
Except he didn't. Instead, he reared up, rage eclipsing his other emotions. Uther stormed over to the door, flung it open. "Guards!"
A pair of nervous men in Camelot red walked over.
"Lady Morgana is exhausted," the king lied. The guards glanced at each other but didn't say anything. "Escort her to her chambers and keep her there." He turned to her, eyes ablaze. "We will speak again when you're willing to be reasonable."
"I'm the unreasonable one?"
He shoved her out of the room, slammed the door behind him. The guards watched with wide eyes.
Morgana straightened herself up. "Come on," she growled, striding down the hall. They scurried along at her heels.
Rage and despair warred within her, but the lady beat them into submission. This plan had failed, yes. She'd miscalculated.
Next time, she wouldn't.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Arthur Signs a Very Important Piece of Paper"
Next chapter: Lancelot is very happy and Merlin overhears something worrying.
About the worldbuilding/backstory: seriously, the Purge should NOT have worked. In a sane world, the other kingdoms should have just scooped up all the spellbinders with incredibly useful skills who were fleeing Camelot and used that magic to increase their own power. Heck, Camelot probably would have been conquered within a few years (...when did the war with Mercia start?) because they'd be the only kingdom on the entire fricking island without a magical defense squad. So, basically, I needed a reason that other monarchs would agree to Uther's idiot plan of 'let's just plain murder all these powerful, useful people with unique skill sets that we'll never be able to replicate.' (Seriously, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT.) Hence the treaties, which will inevitably cause Team Arthur a lot of trouble in the future.
Chapter 18: A Message from a Spy
Merlin's been watching. Now it's time to give his report.
Chapter XVIII: A Message from a Spy
When Arthur had gone off to stop the war, he hadn't really thought too much about his original destination. Now that he and Odin had made peace (and a better peace than he'd dared hope for), however, he found it difficult not to fixate on the potential repercussions of not arriving in Gawant when Godwyn had been expecting him. Never mind that Arthur had been attacked by bandits; he could have gone there after escaping, and he'd chosen to ride off in the opposite direction.
Godwyn probably wouldn't be too offended that Arthur had, after an attack that he couldn't have prevented, gone to protect his people by stopping a war. He wasn't an unreasonable man. He wouldn't even be overly upset that Arthur hadn't managed to send word about his new destination. It wasn't like he'd had access to a messenger until he'd arrived at the camp.
But then he'd gotten to the first camp and hadn't even thought about explaining his situation to Godwyn. He hadn't thought about it until after he'd signed his first treaty (with Odin of all people, which still surprised him a little every time he thought about it), and now he couldn't stop thinking about it.
So on the way back from the treaty signing, Arthur turned to Leon and asked, "Do you know of anyone who could ride to Astolat for me?"
Lancelot turned curiously towards him. "Astolat?"
"Yes," Arthur replied. "It's the name of King Godwyn's castle. I was supposed to arrive there… probably around now, actually, give or take a couple days." It would have depended on the weather and the possibility of less fatal bandit encounters. That reminded him—he needed to deliver news of his guards' deaths to their families. Perhaps he ought to send another messenger ahead to Camelot, but the men had died trying to protect him. He owed it to them to deliver the news in person when he arrived. "I need to send word and explain what happened."
"A messenger wouldn't arrive much earlier than you," Leon pointed out, mildly suspicious.
"I'm going back to Camelot," Arthur said. "If anyone asks, it's to tell my father what happened here."
Leon hesitated. "It might be better to send your father a message."
It would be, but if Merlin couldn't find a way around his prophecy…. Besides, Arthur was needed in Camelot. He was the only person who could stand up to Uther and mitigate the damage he was causing. He wouldn't be able to stop everything, but something was better than nothing.
An idea struck. Arthur looked again at Lancelot, honorable and brave and loyal. Lancelot, whom Uther wanted dead, Lancelot and Gwaine and Percival and Elyan and Leon. Hell, he might even want Marrok dead if he considered the squire tainted by association.
Uther had sent them to war in the hope that they would die there. Arthur doubted that he would stop trying to end them, but if they were out of his power….
"How would you five like to visit Gawant?"
Neither asked who 'you five' were. Instead, they exchanged meaningful glances that Arthur couldn't quite decipher. "I would have to bring Marrok," Leon finally stated. He must also be worried about Uther lashing out at the boy. Arthur wished he could blame him, but he couldn't.
"I think I can manage," announced Gwaine, who had once again been shamelessly eavesdropping.
"Good taverns there?" Elyan quipped.
Arthur sighed exaggeratedly, but it wasn't like he'd been speaking quietly. Percival had probably heard too, and Marrok (Arthur had noticed that he had good ears), but they at least weren't saying anything.
"Are you going to write a letter?" Lancelot inquired, mercifully bringing the conversation back to its original purpose.
"I probably should," Arthur admitted, "and I'll have to give you a verbal message too. Do not let Gwaine deliver it."
"What, don't trust me?"
"But won't he be insulted there's only one knight?" Percival asked.
Arthur thought about it, turning away so that his men couldn't see his expression. After a moment, he mentally shrugged. Uther was already furious with them all; he probably couldn't get too much angrier (there had to be a physical limit on how much rage a person could experience at one time without literally exploding), so the least he could do was afford the four commoners who had become his trusted companions a bit more protection.
"We could bring along another knight," Leon suggested, clearly deciding that his prince wasn't going to say anything.
"Or," Arthur interjected, "I could just knight you now instead of waiting until I become king."
Lancelot's head whipped around. Gwaine choked on air. Leon sucked in a breath. Elyan went completely still, save for the widening of his eyes. Percival nearly fell off his horse.
"What?" Lancelot half-asked, half-squeaked.
"You risked your lives to protect Camelot from Sigan's gargoyle army. More than that, you did it in a way that you knew would endanger you for as long as my father sits on the throne. If that doesn't deserve knighthood, I don't know what does."
Lancelot looked like he was going to start crying. Arthur hoped he didn't. That would be horrifically awkward. "My king," the would-be—no, future—knight choked out.
"I'm not king yet," Arthur pointed out sharply. By the time the days wane again…. No, no. Focus on the present.
"You are to us," said Gwaine—Gwaine the laughing rogue, Gwaine who disdained royalty and nobility, Gwaine the wandering vagabond without a cause. "And not just because you're offering us knighthoods."
Lancelot shook his head in disbelief, but there was a tremulous smile growing on his face as his joy brightened like the sunrise.
His other men were smiling too, even Leon, who was already a knight and part of a class that might feel threatened by these commoners' upward mobility. They'd bonded, that night when stone had come to life and only magical steel could drive it back. Arthur had known even then that he would knight them, but he hadn't realized how soon it would occur.
"We won't have time for a full ceremony," Leon noted. "Not if we're to be used as messengers. I assume you'll be using the battlefield version?"
"I will." There were two forms of dubbing. One was a court occasion, full of ceremony and ritual and acclaim. The other was stripped to its bare essentials so that it could be performed whenever and wherever necessary: on dying squires who had proved their valor, on noble-born warriors between battles, places where drawn-out rituals were impractical at best and impossible at worst. "We'll have to hold the full version later." That was what usually happened if the newly dubbed knight survived battle.
Lancelot was getting uncomfortably misty-eyed. Arthur flailed about mentally for a change of subject. "Gawant! I should tell you what to expect in Gawant and what to tell Godwyn. You can start out by conveying my deepest apologies…."
Merlin thought that scrying might be one of his favorite branches of magic. There was something immensely reassuring about knowing that, no matter how far away they might be, he could check up on his loved ones whenever he wanted. Better yet, now that he was so much better at teleporting, he could go to them if he saw they were in danger.
They were all doing well enough, Arthur and Gwen and Morgana and the folk of Ealdor. His friends weren't necessarily happy, but they were safe and uninjured and moving forward. Sometimes, that was all anyone could ask.
The warlock hesitated, but, well, there were several reasons to do this even if he preferred to use scrying to watch over people he actually liked. Grimacing, Merlin cast the spell again, focusing on Uther.
The king was with Lord Leodegrance, Leon's father, listening to his report on the state of the citadel. He wasn't visibly insane, but that wasn't a surprise. Merlin had overheard Gwen and Morgana talking very quietly about what Uther might do now that the mandrake had been found. Once Merlin had a little more strength back (he was better than he'd been this morning, but still far too tired for a man who'd spent so much time sleeping), he should pop in and let them know that Arthur was on his way back. He could give them the king's information, too, if Uther ever got around to providing any. Leodegrance was, but Merlin suspected that nothing the lord said would be news to Morgana and Gwen.
"Enough of this," Uther snarled, interrupting Leodegrance mid-word. "Has there been any news of the sorcerer Merlin?" He literally spat the name, flecks of liquid spraying from his mouth.
"No, sire," the reluctant lord was forced to admit.
The king growled again, slamming his fist down against the table. "Every person I've talked to says the same. How is it that the lying bastard cursed me in the heart of my kingdom without anybody noticing?"
"I have no idea," Leodegrance confessed. "Perhaps he became invisible? I understand that some sorcerers can turn invisible."
"Or perhaps he has a collaborator here," Uther continued. He didn't seem to have even heard Leodegrance.
Merlin's blood chilled. He doubted that Uther would ever suspect Morgana, but Gwen was known to be his friend, Gaius's too, and he was fairly certain that she'd been one of the king's caretakers while he was ill. He leaned forward until his nose nearly touched the water in the scrying bowl.
"…Like who?" asked Leodegrance.
"Someone with access to the entire manor, someone we would never suspect."
Merlin would have to grab Tom too, maybe even Morgana.
"We need to investigate the guard."
Merlin pulled up short, eyebrows shooting past his hairline. A relieved chuckle escaped. "The guard?" he repeated softly, incredulously.
"The guard?" Leodegrance echoed, his words overlapping Merlin's. "A full investigation?"
"Yes, yes. I should have seen it before. How else could the sorcerer have released the Great Dragon or emptied my weapons vault? He must have a collaborator on the guard, several collaborators. I need to find them and make an example of them." His hands were shaking, twitching, his eyes wide and manic. Merlin found himself wondering whether the mandrake exposure might have had any long-term effects. He'd seen Nimueh snap completely, and it still gave him the occasional nightmare.
"If I had the numbers, I'd clean them all out," Uther muttered darkly.
Leodegrance went rigid. "I'm certain that that is not necessary."
Uther shook his head. "Better to kill them all than to let a single sympathizer escape," he muttered. "All of them but Maddox. Maddox can't be a traitor."
Merlin wondered if he'd be able to scry this Maddox fellow whom Uther apparently trusted so much. Probably not. Scrying worked best if the scryer had already met the scryee; they needed to know faces to help differentiate between people with the same first name (people with surnames and/or titles were considerably easier to find). Still, he might as well try. He might get lucky.
"I am certain that he is not," Leodegrance soothed. "Perhaps you could make a personal guard and name this Maddox its head? That might prevent something like this from happening again."
"Maddox is needed elsewhere."
That… was ominous. Merlin would definitely have to look up Maddox.
"Besides," Uther continued, "how could I know that the other guards are loyal?"
"Perhaps by taking into account their long years of faithful service and courage in the face of danger?" Leodegrance was doing a good job of hiding his fear. He was a little too composed to be genuine. "Or you could reward the ones who fought most valiantly against Sigan's gargoyles, or you could take your guard from among the knights."
"Gaius served long and well, and he was a traitor." Uther's voice broke slightly on the last word, but he rallied quickly. "The sorcerer won his position by saving Arthur's life, murdering one of his own kin in the process. They brought me Edwin Muirden! Now they're after my son. I can't trust anyone."
"That's what happens when you kill so many people," Merlin muttered, not particularly sympathetic.
"But perhaps…." Uther nodded, up and down, up and down, up and down. "Yes. Yes."
Leodegrance kept his face blank and smooth. Merlin clenched his fists.
"The ones who best prove their loyalty can be my guard," Uther decided.
Leodegrance clearly didn't want to know, but he asked anyways. "How might the guardsmen prove their loyalty, Your Majesty?"
"By rooting out the traitors in their ranks!"
Yes, Merlin had expected that. Feared it, even. While he wasn't particularly fond of the guard as a unit, he was fairly well acquainted with several individual guardsmen, only some of whom were objectively terrible people. He didn't want a massacre among the guard, even if the cold-blooded part of him noted that such a slaughter would do Uther more harm than good.
The lord hesitated a long moment. "Your Majesty, may I make a suggestion?"
"If you must."
"The guard is not unified, especially not with so many new recruits." Very new recruits: they'd gotten their positions after Sigan's gargoyles killed their predecessors. "The established guardsmen have many rivalries, and newer members might be tempted to take the easy path to power by bringing false charges against their seniors. Perhaps there should be more stringent criteria for accusations made against guardsmen." Meaning, of course, that the guards shouldn't be allowed to just go up and murder each other on some trumped-up charge of 'sorcery.' Merlin approved.
But Uther was shaking his head. "No. The risk of escape is too great. Better to accidentally kill a few innocents than risk letting a sorcerer survive."
Leodegrance held up his hands, kept his voice soft and soothing. "I understand the necessity of such a firm stance, sire, but others might not be so understanding. The people are already upset. I suspect that even members of the nobility—"
"Can't you see? The sorcerers are stirring them up. Sorcerers and traitors and gossiping fools." Uther's lips curled. "But I won't give them an inch. Find Captain Brun. He needs to tell his men their new directives."
The lord must have known that protesting further would just waste his breath. With a carefully even, "Sire," and perfectly proper bow, he backed out of the room. If he was moving a little more slowly than usual, well, it wasn't like Merlin was about to go tell Uther about that.
The warlock let the scrying magic dispel. He leaned back in his chair, chewing at his lip as he considered (vacillated, really) what to do next. He had to do something, because Leodegrance was right about there being rivalries on the guard. It was simply a question of which course of action would be most effective. Should he limit himself to telling Morgana and Gwen, or should he go to the one person who might be able to change Uther's mind?
Then Merlin imagined Arthur's reaction to him not at least offering the option and winced. Yes, he should go tell the prince, offer his aid. So he cast the scrying spell again, summoning up an image of his friend. One spell later, he materialized in the woods near his friend's path.
"Arthur," the warlock called silently, "I need to talk with you."
The prince startled so badly that he nearly fell off his horse. He looked around wildly, eyes wide, as the honor guard around him watched with confused concern.
"I'm in the forest a bit to your east. Just make an excuse and hurry over here. I'm still recovering from the land-bonding." He was only a little tired for now, but that could change at any moment. This was the longest he'd stayed awake for… over a week, he thought.
One of the soldiers worked up the courage to speak with Arthur, probably inquiring if he was all right. The fellow was vaguely familiar; Merlin thought that he might be a minor knight from a family on the border.
Arthur nodded sharply, mouth pressed in a thin line. He said something else—Merlin found himself wishing he knew a spell to improve hearing—before raising his voice and bellowing, "Merlin! Get over here!"
The warlock froze.
"Merlin!" Arthur repeated, more commandingly this time.
"You realize that you're surrounded by armed men of Camelot, right?"
"They'll stand down. Just come over here."
Merlin wasn't certain if the men would obey their prince's orders, but they already knew he was there. (Why Arthur had felt the need to blab, he really had no idea.) They were scanning the woods, hands uncomfortably close to their weapons.
He did need to talk to Arthur, and he could be fast when he needed to be. If he stayed away for them, kept an eye out for arrows, and raised a shield at the first whiff of danger, he'd be fine. Probably. So, ignoring the reprimands of a mental voice that sounded very much like his mother, Merlin stepped onto the path.
The soldiers stared at him, their eyes full of judgement and suspicion and even hatred. A few men looked ready to gut him at the slightest provocation. Still, they kept still as Merlin made his way over to Arthur.
"You can ride on one of the spare horses," the prince informed his warlock. "We'll talk as we ride."
"Okay," Merlin mumbled, thoroughly spooked. Arthur wasn't going to betray him. He knew that Arthur wasn't going to betray him. Even though, with Cornelius Sigan gone, Camelot didn't actively need a spellbinder's protection, and Merlin had sort of lied to him for a year, and then there was the part about Uther's prophesied death and he was just going to stop thinking about this now. "Can… can we ride in the back?"
Arthur was baffled. "Is something wrong with the front?"
"I'd rather not turn my back on all the armed men who are supposed to kill me on sight," he admitted. "You know, to avoid getting shot, stabbed, decapitated…."
Arthur raised his voice again. "For now, Merlin, you're under my protection. If a known warlock is desperate enough to approach an armed contingent of Camelot, I'd like to hear why."
So Merlin ended up at the front of the column on a horse that probably didn't like him with twenty or so trained warlock-killing killers who knew he was a warlock staring at him. It was not a comfortable experience, and he wanted to ask Arthur just what the hell he was playing at. But he also wanted to get out of this situation as quickly as possible, and that desire trumped his curiosity. At least the terror was keeping him awake. "You know how your father is now allowing guardsmen to kill accused spellbinders on the spot, without even a trial?"
A muscle jumped in the prince's jaw. "I know."
"It looks like there was some kind of exemption clause in that decree which protected the guards. Uther's removing it now. Lord Leodegrance tried to talk him down, and I don't doubt that Lady Morgana will try too, but… he's not really in the mood to listen to others."
Arthur groaned long and low. "Leodegrance pointed out that this is guaranteed to be used as a way to get promotions and clear out rivals?"
"Uther told him that's acceptable collateral damage. I didn't think you'd agree."
The man riding closest behind them (Merlin was hyperaware of his presence, of his eyes boring holes in the back of the warlock's head) cleared his throat with unnecessary vigor. Merlin flinched, automatically jerking around in his seat (and nearly falling off his horse in the process), his magical shield already half-formed. But the minor lordling hadn't been giving the signal to shoot or bludgeon or otherwise attack. He'd just wanted their attention.
"And how," the knight sneered, "do you know all this, sorcerer? Were you spying on our king?"
"He is my king," Merlin snapped, jutting a thumb at Arthur, "and of course I was spying on Uther. It's not like he lets me into his council chambers anymore."
"Lets…?" choked one of the lower-ranking soldiers.
Merlin almost explained, but he still very much wanted to be out of here as quickly as possible. He returned most of his attention to Arthur, though of course some of it remained on the bloodcloaks behind him. "I thought that you should know. Also…." Why was this part so hard to force out? Everyone here knew he had magic. (The hostile trained killers knew he had magic.) "If you wanted to get back to Camelot more quickly to try to stop this, I would help."
The lordling and everyone else who was close enough to hear spluttered. It would have been funny if Merlin weren't so viscerally frightened. Keep the magic secret, his mother had told him every day for most of his life. If Camelot knows what you are, you will burn, and scream, and die. Keep the magic secret, Merlin.
"Sire," the lordling gasped, "you can't seriously be considering the sorcerer's suggestion. He'll kill you!"
"Merlin is harml—" he began automatically, then remembered otherwise. "Merlin wants me alive and well. Think about it. If he wanted us dead, he'd just call his pet dragon."
"Kilgharrah's not a pet," Merlin pointed out, wishing his friend hadn't just reminded the armed men that yes, he was indeed a threat. "I might have a pet wyvern now, though. I'm thinking of calling him Ralf."
Arthur gaped at him in something like horror, his mouth working soundlessly. "I…. No. No, I'm still not going into that. If you were to… help, how many men could you take?"
"Sire!" cried the knight.
"If my father is about to let his guards massacre each other—"
"What proof do you have other than a sorcerer's word?"
"Merlin willingly revealed his magic to me, knowing full well that I could have killed him for it, as a gesture of faith and goodwill when Cornelius Sigan was ravaging our home. He has repeatedly saved not only my life, but quite possibly the lives of every man, woman, and child in Camelot. I'm not trusting his word, Traherne. I'm trusting his actions."
Merlin swallowed hard against the sudden lump in his throat. He really hoped it didn't show. Fortunately, Arthur, when he turned back to his warlock, didn't seem to notice anything. "How many?"
"I... don't actually know yet. But, Arthur, my ability to teleport isn't the only risk factor." How could he phrase this delicately? "You could survive magical transportation, but..." He gestured at the men behind them.
But Arthur was grinning. "You're right, of course."
"Are you feeling all right?" Merlin blurted. "Any blows to the head recently?"
"Did he take any blows to the head recently?" Merlin repeated, directing his question at the bemused soldiers.
"He did not," growled Traherne.
"I knew all along that my father would never forgive anyone else coming with us. I wanted to see what you would say."
Merlin goggled at him, his mind racing. The prince had wanted to show his followers that Merlin would think of them and the consequences they'd face if they let him teleport them back to Camelot. He'd wanted the guards to see the entire interaction: Merlin's warning, whatever it may be; the inevitable banter that occurred whenever they conversed; the sight of a nonthreatening, very human spellbinder freely offering loyalty and aid, deference and affection to a Pendragon prince. He wanted them to see a man with magic acting in a decidedly non-evil way.
"What are you grinning about?"
"Long story," the warlock replied. "I'm just… glad you've been thinking like that."
Arthur's lips quirked ever so slightly. He understood. "So. Merlin. Are you willing to bring me to Camelot to save the guardsmen who hunt your people?"
A couple soldiers startled slightly. They hadn't thought of it that way. Even Traherne's eyes widened.
"Yes," Merlin answered honestly.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Hurry up."
Merlin could have laughed. "Of course, sire."
And they were gone.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Arthur is Very Uncomfortable with the Happy Emotions that he Inspires"
Fear not, friends, the red wyvern will not be named Ralf, or Redward, or anything quite that stupid.
"Traherne" is just a random name I found online, not one of the Round Table knights or anything like that. Astolat, though, is mentioned in the mythos.
Next update: December 20. The new knights begin their sidequest. Arthur returns to Camelot.
Chapter 19: A Gulf Between
Arthur reunites with his father. It goes about as well as you'd expect.
Chapter XIX: A Gulf Between
Sir Lancelot (Sir! Sir Lancelot! A knight's title, because he was a knight, because Arthur had knighted him and thereby made him a knight) rode towards Gawant in a daze. Part of him wondered if he was dreaming, but he knew that couldn't be the case. His dreams had never been so vivid, so wonderful.
Admittedly, his knighting was of slightly dubious legality, the King of Camelot's desire to see him dead would no doubt increase when he heard of it, and he could probably consider himself exiled from the kingdom until someone snapped and finally killed Uther. But a knighthood was a knighthood was a dream come true, and he couldn't quite recall the last time he'd been so happy.
Gods, but he wished his family were here to see it, them and Guinevere (still his friend, despite their romance having been strangled by distance) and Merlin.
Something tickled at his mind then, something about Merlin and knighthood. It took him a few moments to remember, but then his smile turned rueful. That was right. Merlin had predicted this back on the day he'd left the druids' camp. He'd called Lancelot the Knight of Joyous Garde….
Lancelot pulled up short, eyes going wide.
Merlin hadn't just called him a knight. He'd told his friend to seek out… a lily, that was right, and arcs. He'd looked for them for several months (though not very well, as he had no idea what they were meant to represent) and had nothing. Then he'd heard about Cornelius Sigan, returned to Camelot, and been occupied by other thoughts.
Should he tell the others? None of them were particularly prejudiced against magic and its wielders, so he doubted they would disdain the recipient of a prophecy. Percival had been taken in by druids for a small portion of his childhood. Gwaine sneered at rules that he felt were stupid and was quietly but fiercely opposed to laws and customs which wounded the smallfolk. Elyan had been saved once by Merlin's word and deed campaign. As for Leon, he'd known Merlin for the better part of a year, and Lancelot was almost completely certain that the man's squire was a warlock under the knight's knowing protection. (He had been dropping subtle hints to the poor nervous boy that he too would protect his secrets, but Marrok had yet to actually confess to anything. Lancelot didn't blame him. He had, after all, grown up in the kingdom of Camelot.)
So Lancelot told the others about Merlin's prophecy. He no longer remembered the exact words, but he recalled the gist of it well enough: seek the lily which should grow where the lavender had grown, seek the arcs, and we will meet again.
"Arcs are parts of a circle, right?" Gwaine asked.
"I suppose," Lancelot replied dubiously. Not for the first time, he wondered about just where Gwaine had gotten his education, because that certainly wasn't something one picked up on a farm. "That doesn't really help much, though."
"No," Leon agreed slowly, "but this might." He met Lancelot's eyes. "Princess Elena is sometimes called the Lily Maid of Astolat."
Merlin brought him to a patch of forest not far from the city gates. The warlock staggered as they touched down, an enormous yawn wrenching its way out of his throat. He shook himself, slapped his cheek a little. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Still recovering."
"I noticed." Indeed, Arthur didn't know if he'd ever seen such impressive (and worrying) bags under someone's eyes except during their last meeting. They'd been worse then, he reminded himself. Merlin was obviously recovering. "You know, I thought you were just going to warn us about bandits or something."
His former servant blinked at him, utterly befuddled. "Why would I do that?"
The prince blinked back, just as baffled. "To minimize the risk of everyone dying?"
"Well," Merlin allowed dubiously, "I suppose I might have told you about the bandits after I'd taken care of them so that you could arrest the sorry sods."
Arthur almost asked but thought better of it at the last moment. It was far too easy, he reflected, to forget that Merlin was actually competent. Of course, it could be that the warlock was overestimating himself, but….
Sometimes, it was safest to just change the subject.
"Is there anything else I need to know about—"
Merlin yawned again. He was swaying slightly, and maybe it was just Arthur's imagination, but he was quite certain that the eye-bags had grown over the past few seconds.
"Never mind," the prince decided. "I'll have to ask Morgana and Guinevere. You just go back home and sleep."
It was a mark of Merlin's exhaustion that he didn't protest. "Okay, I'll do that. Say hi to them for me."
Arthur managed not to roll his eyes. "All right, I will. Now go away."
Merlin grinned at him, muttered something in the Old Tongue, and vanished in a gust of wind.
Now that his warlock was gone, the implications of his return were beginning to sink in. He groaned, allowed himself a moment's respite before squaring his shoulders and striding towards the road.
The gate guards (and there were more of them than usual, he noted sourly) recognized him immediately. They straightened to attention, eyes wide and disbelieving and maybe a little bit guilty. Marvelous. That was just a bloody marvelous sign.
"Prince Arthur," one guard began, "we didn't realize you were coming."
"It's a long story," Arthur sighed. "Now let me through. I need to speak with my father."
The guards let him through.
Camelot was quieter than he remembered. The streets were emptier. Other pedestrians walked along quickly, their heads down in an effort to avoid meeting anybody's gaze. No children played underfoot; the few children he saw clasped their parents' hands tightly, allowing themselves to be half-dragged along. Merchants in their stalls stood rigidly, speaking with their infrequent customers in low, quick words. Fear thickened the air, almost strong enough to smell.
But then the people would see Arthur. Some just looked at his red cloak and flinched, picking up their pace. Others noticed his face and recognized their prince. They tended to freeze, something like hope in their faces. Or maybe it was desperation.
This was getting better by the second.
Leodegrance's manor loomed in the distance, closer and closer with each step. Yet he'd barely blinked before he was on its threshold.
"Prince Arthur?" asked the guard on the right. "Why—"
Arthur cut him off by lifting his hand. "Not important. Where is my father?"
"I'm not certain," the left guard replied. He hesitated. "Highness, the king has… not been well."
"I've heard. The gist of it, at least, though not the details."
The guards exchanged nervous glances.
"Just let me go through," the prince sighed. He remembered where Leodegrance and Uther had met while discussing things—policies, reconstruction, everything else—before his departure. They would either still be there or his father would be down in the impromptu barracks, telling the guards that they were now allowed, even encouraged, to kill each other.
It was hard, going forward, to not slow. Something like dread crept up his spine.
Why was this making him so uncomfortable? Not scared, of course, never scared, but definitely unhappy. It couldn't just be that they'd been fighting and that Arthur was supposed to be in Gawant. They'd quarreled before, though not so severely or for so long, and he'd just stopped a damn war. Surely that would exonerate him for not heading to Godwyn after escaping the bandits.
Was it the knowledge that this fight would be ugly, that it would even more conclusively prove that his heart had changed? The worry that his mandrake exposure (exposure which Arthur had done absolutely nothing to prevent, had even encouraged) had permanently broken something in his mind? The discomfort of Merlin's thrice-damned prophecy hanging over his head? Morgana's paternity? Probably all of it, he reflected glumly.
He rounded the corner and nearly collided with his father.
Prince and king jumped back, identical expressions of surprise on their faces. Then, quick as thought, Uther's shock morphed into feral rage.
"Leodegrance!" he roared. "I've been enchanted again!"
"Don't speak to me, you disgusting magical hallucination."
"You! Servant! Fetch Rience at once!"
The terrified laundress dropped her load and fled.
"It's me," Arthur tried to explain.
Uther turned aside, visage stony, and tried to stride away. Arthur reached out, grabbed his arm. "Father, I'm really here!"
The king jerked away from his son's touch as though it burned. He gaped for a moment at his arm, then reached out and poked at Arthur's face. Uther glanced sideways at Leodegrance, who nodded. "I see him too, sire."
It took Uther a moment to reorient himself after that. "Did they call for you while I was bewitched?" he demanded.
"No, Father. My escort was slain by bandits. Could we speak more privately?"
"I suppose." His eyes darted about. "Lord Leodegrance, we're going back to your study. When Rience arrives, tell him what happened and send him back to Maddox."
"Of course, Your Majesty."
Their meeting had been almost comedic, certainly unexpected enough to take Arthur's mind off his unease. Now, though, the dread returned full force. His palms began to sweat, and he found himself wishing that Uther had been in the study.
When the door closed behind them, it almost sounded like a death knell.
"I hope you sent a messenger explaining your absence to King Godwyn," Uther finally said.
"I did, Father," Arthur assured him, "but I'm not here for the reason you seem to think. On the way to Gawant, my party was attacked by bandits. I was the only survivor. After escaping, I made my way to the front, where I fought King Odin in single combat. The war is over. I reinstated our treaty with Magance and was returning here when Merlin appeared."
The king jerked, lips pulling back in a silent snarl. A muscle beneath his eye spasmed.
"Merlin conjured a shield between us and my men, who were unable to breach it." A blatant lie, but Uther had once thrown Leon and Arthur into the dungeons for not immediately trying to murder Emrys. There was absolutely no need to risk the soldiers' lives by revealing that they'd obeyed his orders to stand down and let him talk with the known spellbinder.
"And what did the bastard want? To complain that I'd escaped his curse?"
"He wanted to give a report about the state of affairs in Camelot. I understand that Morgana rescinded the guards' new executioner duties while you were incapacitated, but then you reinstated them as soon as you were well?" He'd almost told the truth, that Merlin wanted to save the guards from themselves, but though better of that at the last minute. Uther was clearly not stable. In his current state, he might take that concern as 'proof' that the entire guard was against him and try to have them all executed. If there was a faster way to make the guard rise up and kill him, Arthur didn't know it.
"I gave them the power to do what's necessary," Uther spat.
"Father," Arthur said, trying to keep his voice calm, "the witch trials existed for a reason. Not only did they keep the innocent alive, they assured the people that they were safe from false accusations."
The king shrugged. "So a few peasants die along with the scum. A kingdom free from the scourge of sorcery is worth the sacrifice."
"There has already been at least one riot," Arthur pointed out.
"Yes, when your sorcerous friends incited those peasants you care so much about against me."
"The people are terrified!" the prince snapped. "They don't need to be incited when the guards who are supposed to protect them can kill anyone without more proof than a stranger's word!"
"I'm protecting them!" Uther roared back. He loomed as tall as he could, but Arthur stood strong and unbent against him.
"And I'm protecting you," Arthur hissed. "How long will it be before they decide that the only way they'll be safe is if you're dead?"
"—can also be killed without trial, and may have friends and trusted retainers from among the smallfolk. And they can get a lot closer to you than a random man on the streets."
"Any knight who tries will be killed the moment he draws his sword," Uther spat.
Clearly this was not working. Arthur fell back mentally, scrabbling for another approach. His mouth discovered a way before his brain, though, and he found himself blurting, "This wouldn't have stopped Merlin, you know."
The king went rigid.
The prince kept talking. With the words already out, it was easier to realize what he wanted to say. "No one suspected Merlin of sorcery, Father. Edwin Muirden might have accused him on his way to the pyre, but you recognized then that men use accusations of magic to attack their enemies. Other than that, nobody thought he could be Emrys, not in their wildest dreams. Even if you'd had these laws in place when he saved my life, he'd still have become my manservant and my friend. Any witch or warlock who's survived this long in Camelot won't be found out so easily."
"Perhaps you're right." Uther's words were so unexpected that Arthur barely kept his jaw from going slack. "Perhaps they can't be found out… but they can be driven out. Let them see the bloodshed around them and run." A smile, all white teeth and red rage. "They won't get far."
"Father." His voice didn't quite break, but it came close. "I don't want you to die."
Uther sucked a breath in through his teeth. "What did your sorcerer tell you?"
Arthur slumped. "He told me about his prophecy."
"He was lying," Uther spat, too quickly to convince. "He lied to you. Again."
"Then why were you so quick to betroth your children to Cenred and Orgeluse?" At the king's jerk of horror, he added bitterly, "Yes, I figured it out. So did Merlin. We'll have to discuss that too once this has been settled."
"He lied," Uther repeated. His denial wouldn't have fooled a child.
"I wish I could believe that," Arthur confessed. "Hell, I wish that I could believe he was wrong. But if you keep pushing, something will break. Someone will break… and then you will be broken."
For a moment, he almost thought that this might have gotten through to his father. The king certainly looked stricken, frightened, even.
But Uther Pendragon was nothing if not stubborn, and he had too much invested in being right about this scheme to easily pull out. His shoulders tensed ever so slightly, and Arthur knew he had lost.
At least for now.
"Begone, before I throw you in the dungeons."
Arthur weighed his options, the nodded jerkily. He didn't quite bow. "By your leave, Father."
"You have it."
The prince turned and left.
How many people, he wondered, could he save?
His own children had been turned against him. Sorcerers had turned Arthur and Morgana against him. One sorcerer in particular, he did not doubt.
Uther wanted nothing more than to ride out to the Isle of the so-called Blessed and raze it to the ground. He wanted to run the false Emrys through and throw the bastard's corpse into a midden pit. Surely, surely that would release his hold on Uther's offspring.
But sorcerers were a vicious, cunning, cowardly breed. Merlin would flee if Uther left to kill him personally; he had to put the sorcerer down through a proxy, as the bastard was undoubtedly spying on him. Arthur's return (more proof that the sorcerer had wrapped his mind in layer upon layer of hateful enchantment) had only served to confirm Uther's long-held suspicion.
So instead of contacting Rience and Maddox directly, once the ensorcelled prince stalked away, Uther wrote notes containing their new instructions, then started on the longer letters. The date he gave was perhaps a bit sudden, but he didn't want the sorcerer to remain alive for a heartbeat longer than necessary. They all had to die as soon as possible. Then Arthur and Morgana would be free and safe, and Uther would not have to worry about this damned prophecy, and perhaps, if he was lucky, Ygraine's memory could finally rest in peace.
He couldn't trust anybody in his own kingdom, no one save Rience and Maddox, but there were other lands. The sorcerers had focused on Camelot this last year, doubtless because they hated Camelot and its king most of all. Uther was the one who had finally seen them for what they really were, who had begun the Purge, who had acted most zealously to kill them all. Of course they would focus all their attention on him and his kingdom, which meant that they were neglecting other nations, which meant that they could help him. It galled Uther to accept this help, of course, but it would be infinitely worse to let a single sorcerer escape.
The Sarrum might have difficulty arriving on time, but he was famously enthusiastic for cleansing the world of magic. He would find a way to make his forces go more quickly. Cenred would not have that difficulty; his men could bring the boats.
Sorcerers were tricky, one contingency layered inside another inside another inside another, and at least one had definitely been spying on Uther. They might know. They might have done something that would neutralize Rience's poisons, that would let them laugh at Uther's attempt to see them all dead. But if they knew all about the poison, they would be watching for that and that alone. They wouldn't be looking for Uther's new contingency. He was not a sorcerer, but he could be tricky too. He would be the one to laugh; they wouldn't be able to laugh at him (horrible laughter, screeching, grating, hurting his ears no matter how he tried to cover them because they were already in his head) because they would all be dead, their plans ruined, their enchanted dupes free at Uther's side.
In two weeks, the Isle of the Blessed would fall.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Uther Decides that his Former Murder Plan Didn't have Enough Murder, so he Adds Some More Murder to Make his Murder Plan Extra Murdery"
Next chapter: Arthur and Morgana make a scene, then everything is on fire and Gwen joins the criminal underworld. (No, seriously. It makes sense in context.)
Chapter 20: Criminality
Morgana makes a scene, everything is on fire, Gwen joins the criminal underworld, and all this madness actually makes sense in context.
Chapter XX: Criminality
"It's good to see you back, Arthur," Morgana told him.
The prince sighed. "I can't say that it's good to be back." He glared at the two guards who had been ordered to follow him. They were ostensibly for his own protection against evil sorcerers (especially Merlin) but that claim fooled absolutely no one. Uther didn't want his son—or his daughter, for that matter—causing trouble, so he'd assigned guards to both of them. It was immensely inconvenient for a secret witch trying to undermine the regime from within.
She had to get creative.
"Yes," Morgana continued, outwardly serene. She took a bite, chewed, swallowed. "The guards are a bit much."
Arthur glanced up at Uther, sitting at the head of the table on his left. "Yes," he grumbled. "Yes, they are indeed."
Uther ignored him, of course. He'd always been good at not listening to things he didn't want to hear.
"What's next, tasters?" Morgana asked, pitching her voice so that the king can't help but hear. His eyes acquired a speculative gleam. Good. One of her goals was to make him look as crazy as possible, and while his paranoia was actually justified, tasters still wouldn't be good for his reputation.
"Gods, I hope not," Arthur muttered, stabbing at his venison. His irritation didn't change Uther's interest; if anything, it increased it. Good. Hopefully, the king would go about getting tasters in the most publicly deranged way possible.
She kept charge of the conversation. Between Arthur's terse sullenness, Uther's monomaniacal focus, and the other diners' reluctance to get involved, the task was relatively easy. Their words meandered for several minutes, but when the servants rolled out dessert, she struck. "King Uther, do the laws about accused sorcerers not receiving trials truly apply to everyone?"
"Of course," he growled.
Arthur went rigid, red-faced. "Don't say anything," Morgana instructed him, sending the words to his mind alone. His jaw clenched, but he remained silent.
"Truly everyone?" A smile, almost sweet and almost demure and definitely not meeting her eyes. "No matter what their rank?"
"They could be anyone, hiding anywhere," the king replied. His eyes darted about the room as though he expected a spellbinder to burst out of the woodwork. "No one can be trusted, not even your dearest friend."
Her smile sharpened. "Then I'd like to make an accusation of sorcery, with the full expectation that justice will be done regardless of his station."
Uther leapt to his feet. "Where? Who is the sorcerer? Who here do the guards need to kill?"
The other diners cringed, recoiled, unable to hide the fear that crossed their faces.
Morgana's smile grew like a blade leaving its sheath. She moved in for the kill. Her arm rose, finger straightening, pointing at her victim.
"You, Your Majesty," she said, loud and clear and serene. Her voice carried through the silence and left a trail of gasps in its wake. "You are the sorcerer."
Uther spluttered. His expression was almost enough to crack her façade, but Morgana forced herself to remain implacable. "Guards," she chirped, "I trust that you will see justice done."
"I am not—how—I most certainly—"
"What are you waiting for?" Morgana continued. "I accused him, so now you kill him. That's the law."
The poor guards looked like they would rather be literally anywhere else. One stuttered something about treason.
Uther recovered his ability to speak in complete sentences. "I am not a sorcerer! This accusation is insane!"
"I imagine that's what they all say. Why should they listen to you when they're deaf to everyone else?"
"I am your king," he snarled.
"'They could be anyone, hiding anywhere,'" Morgana reminded him. "In fact, I think that everyone at this table has magic." She gestured at the pale-faced guests. "Guards, start killing people. It's the law."
"You will be silent," the king snarled.
"You can't silence justice, Your Majesty," she shot back. "No matter how much you would like to."
"Not forever," Arthur agreed. Morgana blinked; she hadn't expected him to say anything. "Perhaps these accusations of sorcery won't be investigated now, but when I'm king…." He took a sip of wine. "I fully expect that a fair few cases will be reviewed." His eyes bored into the increasingly uncomfortable guards.
Uther was on the verge of literally exploding. "Guards," he raged, "the dungeons. Take them to the dungeons. And find someone who can disenchant them!"
Morgana inquired, "But I thought that their first priority was killing everyone accused of sorcery? Shouldn't they wait until—"
Uther lunged. Morgana jerked back instinctively; the king's eyes were wild, and she thought that he might hit her. He didn't, though rage coursed through his body in visible shudders. "Dungeons," he ground out. "Now. Guards!"
Morgana and Arthur rose to their feet. He offered her his arm; she accepted. Together, they strolled out of the room, leaving the horrified nobility in their wake.
Gwen ducked behind a building as more guards ran past, their cloaks like waterfalls of blood in the raging firelight. In the distance, the rioters gave another great cry of rage, a hundred and more voices joined into one. Hopefully that wasn't an indication of someone dying.
But the mob and the guards were not her concern. She pounded on the domicile's door, hoping and praying that they would answer. "Fire!" she cried. "There's a fire!"
The door cracked open just a smidgen. Two frightened faces peered out at her. "Where's the fire?"
Gwen pointed. "Three blocks. See the glow?"
"…No," the woman said. "It must not be very big. I'm sure you can handle it." She tried to shut the door, only for it to collide with Gwen's foot. "Hey!"
"The fire isn't very big yet," Gwen snapped (her patience was running a bit thin), "but fires grow. If the wind picks up, it will leap to more houses and rage out of control. You need to—stop that." She bent her knees, refusing to give ground no matter how they pushed her. "We need all the help we can get." For this part of the city hadn't burnt on the night of Sigan's last attack, and it hadn't rained in days. The air was mercifully still for now, but one good gust could carry the flames over the street, setting alight another block. "They need help at the well." For the nearest well was two blocks from the inferno. That was usually not a bad distance, but there weren't yet enough hands to form a complete bucket chain.
"They'll kill us," the man told her. She didn't know if he meant the rioters or the guards; maybe he himself didn't know.
"The fire will kill you too," Gwen retorted. "Besides, the streets are clear." Probably. They'd been clear when she went through them, pounding on doors and only sometimes receiving answer, but this skittish couple didn't need to know that she wasn't entirely certain.
"We have children!"
"Good. They can help too. Or would you rather wait for the fire to consume you all?" A wind wafted through the air, lifting her hair, moving her skirt, as though to punctuate her statement. "Now get out there, all of you, before it's too late." And with that, she withdrew her foot from the door and scurried over to their neighbor's entry. "Fire! There's a fire!"
Five houses had been burning when she left for help. The people were out safely, thank the gods, and they were all fighting its spread. She hoped that nothing else had caught.
A crash boomed from the direction of the fire. One of the buildings—one of the homes—must have collapsed.
No response. It could be that no one was home. No candlelight gleamed in the windows, and she hadn't heard anything inside. Then again, the riot had passed very close to this house. They could be hiding behind darkness and silence, afraid that the crowd's violence and fury would turn against them rather than the living symbols of Uther's regime. But she couldn't spend too long on any individual dwelling because if people were absent or just not willing to help, then she couldn't waste time on them. She'd give it a few more seconds, a few more collisions of knuckle and wood, before moving on.
No one answered. Gwen grit her teeth and moved on.
She didn't know how many houses she'd visited, how many people she'd recruited, when the guard caught her. He grabbed her by the shoulder, spinning her on her heel to face him. "Orders from the king," he grunted. "There's a curfew now. All civilians—"
"Part of the city is on fire," Gwen interrupted, pointing. The guard followed her gaze, eyes widening as he took in the telltale glow. He cursed. "Is the riot over?" Gwen continued. "Can you rally the other guards against the fire?"
He bit his lip, young and vulnerable in the dim light. "They're trying to get into the manor," he explained. "We're holding them off. Captain Brun sent those of us—I've got a sprained wrist, Chad's arm is broken, and there's a few others—we're supposed to round up stragglers so you can't join in."
"I have no interest in joining the mob," Gwen assured him. "I just don't want the city to burn down! Go tell Captain Brun about the fire, make him—"
The man—barely more than a boy—whitened. "I can't disobey orders," he choked. "Not now. I can't."
"Well—go help with the fire and tell everyone else about the curfew. Then they'll know, you can help, and you'll still be obeying orders."
"Some of the guard is rebelling with the rioters," he told her. "They're going to die."
"The sooner the fire is out, the sooner you can send all those people home," Gwen pointed out. "Now go."
The fire continued all night long, finally submitting about an hour after dawn. Gwen found that she was almost a bit grateful that Morgana was locked up in the dungeons, as that meant that she could go home and sleep rather than work.
Her father wasn't doing much better. He'd been with the bucket brigade, alternately manning the well and throwing water directly onto the flames. His arms must ache as much as her legs and knuckles.
Still, they had to eat something before collapsing into bed. Gwen pulled out a heel of bread. She stared at the nearest jam jar, debating whether it was worth it to slather some on, when a nervous knock sounded at the door. The maid groaned, not wanting to move, but she was closer.
The young guardsman from last night slid inside, followed by a suspiciously cloaked and limping figure. They half-slammed the door behind them and pulled the nearest window's curtains shut.
Somehow, Gwen managed not to groan again. This was going to be terrible, she just knew it.
At least the young guard had enough grace to look apologetic. Indeed, the first words out of his mouth comprised a heartfelt apology. His father (who had sunk to the floor, rubbing miserably at his wounded leg) had been accused of sorcery just a few minutes ago. He wasn't a sorcerer—neither of them was, he assured her, and they were in fact sworn enemies of all magic—but the scumbag accuser had hated him for a long time. The father, Aglovale, had escaped, and now they were both of them condemned to death.
"…So you came to me?"
"We don't have any family here," Morien the guard told her, "and even if we did, they'd look there first. They're probably already searching our friends and neighbors."
He was shaking, she noted dully.
"You won't be in danger," Morien promised, mistaking her silence for hesitation. "They won't think to search here. That's why I came to you. We'll leave as soon as possible."
Gwen looked at Tom. Tom looked back, his expression pained, but he nodded.
"You'll have to sleep on the floor," Gwen told them, and handed Morien her bread.
There wasn't anything they could do that day. The city was too on-edge from last night's riot, sullen and resentful and likely to explode at the slightest provocation. The guards would probably be exhausted, yes, but so were the escapees and their helpers.
So Morien and his father spent the day and the next night hidden in Tom's home. Gwen was a little grateful, as she had no idea where to send them. They had no family in the country; they had immigrated from the Orkneys after the death of Aglovale's wife. Both men were very adamant about their opposition to sorcery in all its forms, so she couldn't exactly send them to the Isle of the Blessed. Perhaps she could send them to the front? But there wasn't a front anymore, since Arthur had ended the war.
"I suppose we'll have to send them over the border to Essetir," she sighed. It wasn't an ideal solution, as Essetir and the Orkneys were hardly friends and Aglovale still spoke with a noticeable accent, but the citadel was close to Essetir's border. Of course, Cenred was Uther's ally now, but she doubted that travelers in his kingdom were accosted with quite as much suspicion as they were here in Camelot.
"Perhaps they could join some merchants?" Tom suggested.
"There aren't a lot of merchants coming in," Gwen sighed. Not many were willing to risk running afoul of Uther's new Purge. "Besides, merchants would be just as likely to turn them in for a reward and the hope of avoiding suspicion themselves." She thought wistfully of Blaise, whom she hadn't seen in days, and of Merlin, who had smuggled more than one of Uther's victims out of the city. Not that these guards would accept help from a druid or a warlock, but—
Gwen began to pace as she turned the idea over in her mind. It might work. They'd undoubtedly overcharge, but she—unless she could trade something else, information for services rendered. Or maybe Morgana and Arthur would be willing to fund it. And if she played her cards right, found the right people for the job, then this could go on indefinitely.
Tom waited until his daughter slowed, nodding to herself. "What did you think of?"
"I wouldn't want to send them out with perfectly legal merchants," Gwen said, "but perhaps we could find some smugglers."
So she and Tom went to ask their guests if they knew where and/or how to find any smugglers. Morien looked appalled at the mere thought, but Aglovale tapped his chin. "I was investigating a rather suspicious couple back before the business with Sigan. Tristan and Isolde, I think. They favored the Merry Dancer Inn, if I recall correctly, but I don't know if they're in the city." He sighed. "Probably not. They were smart."
"Can you think of any other potential smugglers?"
"No," he admitted, "but the Merry Dancer is a good place to find them. It has a reputation." His brows crunched together. "Unless it's been destroyed. The earthquake might have toppled it."
It was a painfully thin thread of hope, but it wouldn't be right to sneak Aglovale and Morien out of the city without at least trying to ensure their escape from the country, too, and Gwen rather liked the idea of professional smugglers sneaking out potential victims.
Not long after, she stood in Lord Leodegrance's dungeons on a visit to Morgana. Thankfully, the witch read her desperation. "What's wrong?" she asked silently.
Once again, Gwen silently thanked Morgause for teaching her how non-spellbinders could use thought-speech. "I'd like to try to recruit smugglers to help people escape, but I'd need funds." She didn't like flat-out asking for capital, but a bit of discomfort was better than the possibility of losing her smugglers.
"Use my jewelry," Morgana suggested, not discomfited in the least, "and hint that Arthur might grant them a pardon."
Gwen smiled her relief. "Thank you so much." Out loud, she queried, "Are you well?"
"As well as can be expected," Morgana sniffed, nodding disdainfully towards her squalid quarters. "And infinitely better than the poor innocents being murdered in the streets." The guard assigned to watch her and Arthur grimaced but said nothing. "I heard there was another riot last night?"
"Yes, and a fire."
Their conversation continued in that vein for several minutes before the guard 'suggested' that Gwen go home. The maid smiled blandly, thanked him for allowing her visit, and departed for the disreputable inn where Tristan and Isolde might be found.
The Merry Dancer was dim and cramped and suspicious-smelling, full of shady characters nursing various alcoholic beverages. It was, in short, exactly the sort of place where one would expect to find smugglers.
"Hello," Gwen said to the barmaid, "I was wondering if Tristan and Isolde were in residence?"
The barmaid stared at her through narrow eyes.
"I have a job that they might be interested in."
The barmaid's eyes narrowed further. (Gwen was starting to wonder if she could even see through that squint.) Her fingers rapped against the table.
"This is the part where you're supposed to bribe her," announced a cheery voice. It belonged to a visibly amused young woman dressed in men's clothing, her brown-gold hair tied back in a practical braid.
"Oh," said Gwen, embarrassed.
The stranger grinned even wider. "You're new to this sort of place, aren't you."
"I am, yes," she had to confess.
"So, what sort of job do you have for them?"
She was absolutely not going to confess her intention to commit treason through smuggling in a crowded public room, even if everyone here was probably a criminal. "I'm afraid that's private," she confessed. "Do you know if they're here?"
The barmaid snorted.
Gwen sighed and reached for her coin purse.
"No need for that," the stranger interjected. "I can bring you to Tristan."
The stranger shook her head as she led Gwen through the crowd to the staircase. "You really haven't done this before."
"I haven't," she confirmed. "I'm Guinevere, by the way, or Gwen, for short. I'm pleased to meet you."
"Isolde," the stranger replied. "Pleased to meet you too."
Gwen nearly missed a step. "Oh," she said, embarrassed. "Well, that is… much more convenient than I'm used to."
"Maybe you were overdue for some good luck." Isolde pushed open a door. "Tristan, this woman has a proposal for us. And yes, I'm positive that she isn't some sort of sting for the guards. Even if they weren't so busy killing random innocents, they'd never use someone who sticks out so much."
"I'm Gwen," the maid repeated, belatedly holding out her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Tristan," the man said. He didn't take her hand, nor did he appear particularly enthusiastic for this entire venture. He only added "Likewise, I'm sure," when Isolde elbowed him. "What sort of proposal?"
Gwen took a deep breath to steel herself. "I'd like you to guide two men out of the city. One of them, the father, was accused of sorcery. He and his son managed to escape the guards, but now their lives are forfeit and they're in hiding, and… they won't be the only ones. If you can get them out safely and over the border of Essetir, then I'd like to hire you again."
Tristan and Isolde exchanged long, level gazes, communicating in the silent language of long-time partners.
"I know a secret way out of the city," Gwen told them, "and… I'm Lady Morgana's maid."
Isolde startled. "The one who got arrested for accusing Uther of sorcery?"
"Well, I wouldn't say that she's been arrested, exactly, she's just been locked up in the dungeons. But that's not the point. She is willing to pay you very handsomely, and the two of us know Prince Arthur, as well. He hates what his father is doing more than anyone, and I don't doubt that he'll pardon you for everything as soon as he takes the throne. Not to mention that you would be doing so much good for so many desperate, innocent people who would die otherwise."
The smugglers retreated to the opposite side of the room, where they conversed in voices too low for her to make out. In desperation, Gwen tried reading their lips. When that failed utterly, she focused all her attention on their expressions, hoping and praying that she was interpreting them correctly.
Finally, Tristan and Isolde turned back to face her, their miens resolute. Gwen knew their answer even before Isolde spoke.
"We'll do it."
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Gwen is Wildly Unsuited to Recruiting Criminals, but Thankfully Isolde Finds her Adorable and Agrees to Help Anyways (Tristan Too)"
Honest confession time: when I started writing this, I didn't expect Tristan and Isolde to show up. They just kind of... did, because that made sense in the story. Who better to smuggle people into Essetir away from a mad tyrant?
Next chapter: January 3. Even more criminal activity! You've got to love that criminal activity.
After next week, I'm going to go back to updating every 3 weeks. Since you guys are now all caught up with what I've got on FFN, this fic will also update only every 3 weeks.
Aglovale and Morien are a father-and-son duo of Round Table knights. I like putting in random, lesser-known knights and characters. Book IV gave me an unexpected but delightful way to bring in Blanchefleur!
Happy New Year!
Chapter 21: Sabotage
Everyone is conspiring against Uther. It's great.
Chapter XXI: Sabotage
"I have an idea."
"What is it, Mother?" Merlin asked, popping another bite into his mouth.
"What if we interrupted Uther's lines of communication?" she suggested. "He needs to send messengers from Camelot. What if those messengers were somehow interrupted?"
"You want to kill them?" asked Morgause, looking far too interested for Merlin's comfort. (Merlin still wasn't entirely certain why his mother had invited the priestess to dine with them. She'd just smiled and said something about how he should at least try to be on good terms with Morgana's sister.)
"What?" Hunith was appalled. "Of course not!"
"So you want to take them captive?"
"I don't think we have the facilities to keep them here," Balinor lamented. "I suppose we could stick them in the Perilous Lands."
"I know spells of eternal sleep," Morgause volunteered. "Or I could turn them to stone, or perhaps animals."
"Or," Gaius cut in, "you could simply replace the letters." The others turned their full attention on the old physician. "Ambush the messengers with a sleep spell, swap their orders, and send them on their way."
"'Dear everyone,'" Merlin said, "'Uther's gone mad again, so we're suspending all state-sanctioned murder until further notice, which will be never.'"
"Not quite how I would phrase it," Gaius deadpanned, "but yes, something like that."
"We could ask them to send false reports," Morgause speculated, tapping her fingers against the table. "Make them as real-looking as possible to satisfy the mad king." She was smirking. "I quite like it."
"Yes, I thought you might."
They spent the rest of the lunch working on the practicalities of the plan: how to know when messengers were on the move, how to find them, what spells to use, who could be recruited to carry it out. There was a brief debate concerning whether they should have two or three people on each team. Merlin thought that two was more than enough manpower to take down a single unsuspecting individual, but Morgause pointed out that the messengers might be accompanied. Then Hunith reasoned that not every spellbinder was as powerful as the two of them; wasn't it easier to transport two rather than three people? Morgause acquiesced, and when their meal was over, they rummaged for parchment to draft the first replacement missive.
By the time the evening ended, they had a working copy of the letter. Hunith, in a rather transparent attempt to keep her son from overexerting himself, suggested that Merlin should be in charge of replicating it. The warlock felt like he ought to be offended, but it was getting increasingly difficult to keep his eyes open. His recovery had been progressing nicely (or so said Gaius), but he still wasn't back to his usual self.
Morgause took her leave; she intended to spread the word about this project and acquire the first volunteers.
Balinor stood as well. Hunith and Gaius raised their eyebrows at him. He explained, "I have another idea for a distraction."
"Kilgharrah," he replied, grinning wickedly. "I'm sure that he'd love to lead Uther's goons on a wild goose chase throughout the kingdom."
Hunith and Gaius laughed. Merlin gave a brief chuckle, but he somehow had difficulty appreciating how absolutely hilarious his father's idea was. There was something about dragons that he was… not quite forgetting, however much it felt like something he'd forgotten. Something he should know about them, something terribly important. But when he reached for the thread, it slipped through his fingers, disappearing into a haze of steadily increasing exhaustion.
Gods, how he hated being so tired.
The trick to getting away with things, Isolde had told her, was to act like you had nothing to hide. The merchandise they were carting through the streets was completely legal. The couple striding arm in arm towards the market was most certainly not two suspected criminals. (The boy in the neckerchief wasn't a druid at all, and Prince Arthur's manservant couldn't possibly be a warlock.)
So Gwen and Morien walked through Camelot like they had nothing to fear, nothing to hide—at least until they got to the castle. Then they 'stopped to talk' while scanning their surroundings for any onlookers. Seeing none, they ducked into the half-completed building.
Sunset was rapidly approaching, so there were no workmen present. The castle was as quiet as a tomb and nearly as dark. It was still considered uninhabitable, parts of the ceiling far too likely to collapse.
"You're certain that this dragon tunnel hasn't caved in?" Morien demanded.
Gwen froze in her tracks. She hadn't considered that possibility, hadn't even thought of it. "I've… never actually been in it," she was forced to admit.
Morien blanched. "Then how do you know that it ever led to the outside?"
Because she was Merlin's friend, and he'd eventually told her about his not-a-joke-at-all sheep-smuggling, but she couldn't tell that to a magic-fearing bloodcloak. She settled for, "Well, the dragon had to escape somehow, and he would have been noticed coming up through the building."
"But that was before the earthquake."
Gwen was saved from answering by the sound of footsteps. She and Morien fell silent, ducking against the wall, then relaxed when it was only Aglovale. "Here they are," he called, and the smugglers materialized out of the darkness behind him.
The group made their way down through the too-quiet castle, down to the place that a cave mouth yawned wide. They encountered no debris on their way, nor any wall hangings or decorations. Those had been cleared out before reconstruction began. Their torch-born shadows flickered larger than life against the walls.
The entrance to the dragon's lair was unobstructed. Still, the party paused for a moment before setting foot inside, following the narrow tunnel down into a much vaster cavern. Here, at last, they could see evidence of the earthquake. Stalactites had plummeted from the ceiling, cracking and shattering against the floor, leaving behind naught but round pale scars and small jagged just. The stalagmites were in slightly better condition. They hadn't fallen quite so far, so most of them were still relatively intact.
A crude staircase led from the ledge to the rest of the cave. Merlin's doing, probably, to make his illegal activities easier. Now it was being used to further Gwen's exciting new criminal pastimes.
Honestly, he'd probably approve of that.
They descended in a silence that was only broken by Tristan's sharp inhalation when he spotted the huge ruined manacles which had once bound Kilgharrah to his prison. "Look at the size of them," he murmured. They had been mostly melted by dragon fire, lumps of shapeless metal atop scorched stone, but a few links of chain remained. The metal was as thick around as Gwen's wrist. Just looking at it made her shudder.
By some unspoken agreement, they remained quiet as they traversed the cave. No dragon lurked in the shadows, and even if he had, Gwen knew that he wouldn't harm one of Merlin's friends. But the very air of the place was thick with years of grief and simmering wrath.
There were a few fallen stones along the way, and in one place, they had to scramble over a trio of great boulders that had fallen from the ceiling. (Aglovale, with his wounded leg, barely made the climb.) But then the atmosphere changed, hints of late summer air wafting in, and they picked up their pace. Tristan and Isolde half-doused their torches, reducing the flames to a faint red glimmer, and signaled the others to follow suit.
The sun had set completely, and only a few traces of twilight blue lingered in the west. The sky was clear, though, and the waning moon shone bright. Between it and the dimmed torches, the four travelers would have enough light.
"How long do you think you can walk on that leg of yours?" Isolde inquired.
"How far is the border?" Aglovale retorted.
Gwen pressed a few coins into Tristan's waiting hand. "Try and stay safe, all of you," she pleaded.
"We'll try," Isolde promised. She brushed her hand against the hilt of her sword. "But Tristan and I are quite accomplished at getting out of trouble." Her smile flashed in the darkness.
Gwen stayed there until she could no longer see them, then made her way back through the secret passage. They would definitely have to do something about that once Arthur was king, but for now, she would keep her silence.
Once she was at the door to the castle, Gwen peeked out at the city. Most of the lights she could see were stationary, but a few were on the move. Guards. It seemed that the curfew really would be enforced. She watched them for a time, mentally mapping their routes as well as she could. Then, when no guards patrolled nearby, she slipped outside.
The journey home lasted too long. Her senses were on high alert. Every dull noise was a guard's footstep. Every glint of light was a patrolman's torch. Every corner was a danger.
Needless to say, Gwen was beyond relieved when she got home. So was her father. He wrapped her in a fierce hug the moment their door was closed.
"It's okay," Gwen assured him. "Nobody saw me."
"I know that," Tom said. He did not say that she wouldn't have made it home if someone had. He didn't need to. "I don't suppose I could talk you out of doing this again?"
"Sorry," she sighed.
He pulled back, his expression serious. "Gwen, we need another way to get in contact with Blaise or Merlin or… the other one, I can't remember his name."
"Anhora, Dad. He's the Keeper of the Unicorns."
"Good for him. But, Gwen, this is the sort of thing that could get you killed at a moment's notice. You need a way to get out quickly."
She nodded slowly. "I could… try and visit Blaise tomorrow. He might have something."
"Would you be allowed to leave the city?"
She shrugged. "That's why I said 'try.'"
Tom groaned softly. "Didn't Merlin use to get herbs from him?"
Gwen perked up. "That's right, he did. He'd go on herb-picking excursions and get magic lessons at the same time. And I'm reasonably well-known to be a healer, so that won't look suspicious at all."
"Just remember to come back with herbs," Tom cautioned her.
"I'll bring my biggest basket," she promised.
By the time morning arrived, however, she'd slightly modified her plan. Instead of heading directly for the gate, she strode towards Leodegrance's manor and made her way down to the dungeons.
Morgana was visibly relieved to see her. "It's ridiculously boring here, Gwen," she complained. "Arthur and the guards are terrible conversationalists." Silently, she added, "How did the smuggling go?"
"Quite well. Tristan and Isolde are willing to do it again, assuming that they make it to the border and back unscathed."
The lady grinned. "But I'm sure you'll have something more interesting to say."
"Oh, yes, I have quite a bit to say."
"Dad pointed out that we need a faster way to get in contact with the spellbinders who will help us escape. I'm going to visit Blaise."
"I might have something," announced a very unexpected voice. Gwen nearly jumped out of her skin, stuttering on the beginning of the irrelevant anecdote she needed to tell to keep the guards from becoming suspicious.
"I taught Arthur thought-speech," Morgana explained. "There's not much else to do here."
Gwen continued on with her story.
"Merlin gave me a sort of amulet thing that will supposedly let me summon him at will," the prince explained. "It should still be in my chambers, possibly still in my bags. It's a gray metal disk on a leather strip. You're supposed to call his name three times to make it work."
Gwen paused her story long enough to say, "All right, I'll try to find that. Thank you."
The rest of their conversation took place out loud, with Gwen telling random tales while Morgana and Arthur offered commentary. It would have been a pleasant way to spend a couple hours if they weren't in the dungeons.
It was time to leave. Gwen made her goodbyes and emerged from the dungeons. She did her best to follow Isolde's advice—be bold, act natural, and they will have no reason to suspect—as she went through the manor to Arthur's chambers.
There was a maid sweeping the hall. Gwen nodded to her and walked past. She'd either need to kill time or find an excuse to legitimately enter Arthur's room, which would be rather more difficult now that she'd just nonchalantly passed it by.
She ended up helping out and chatting with two laundresses, then delivering clean clothing. If this job happened to bring her past Arthur's room very often, that was most certainly not suspicious.
When the maid was finally gone (she'd decided to mop too, much to Gwen's frustration), she ducked inside the room and made a beeline for Arthur's bag. It had been completely emptied, of course, which really shouldn't have surprised her. Of course the servants would unpack for the Crown Prince. Hopefully they'd put the amulet in with Arthur's jewelry (not that he had much, just a few plain rings) instead of having it destroyed as a potentially sorcerous artifact.
Gwen's luck held. Arthur's amulet rested between a thin golden chain and a gaudy ring that might have been a gift from some queen who'd never met him. She swiped it, then slipped out as quickly as possible. She was, she reflected, becoming far too adept at this whole sneaking-around business.
A trip through the manor, a brisk walk through the sullen frightened city, and she was at the gate. Not many people were trying to leave; those who got too close eyed the guards' weapons with wary disdain. Gwen wasn't too surprised when they refused to let her through, even when she proffered her basket as proof of her intentions.
"No luck?" asked Tom when she returned.
"I'm not quite sure yet," she answered, going into the house. She shut the curtains. Ordinarily, that would have looked suspicious, but half the city was keeping their curtains closed now even in the brightest daylight.
Gwen pressed her fingers against cool metal. "Merlin," she called softly. "Merlin, Merlin."
And then he was there, eyes burning gold, fire in his hand. He blinked upon seeing Gwen, straightened, looked around. "I'm confused."
Gwen laughed, because that was so very Merlin. She wrapped him in a hug. Sudden tears rose unexpectedly to her eyes, but she blinked them away before separating.
"I'm not complaining," the warlock said, "but what's going on?" He surveyed the room once again as though he thought some enemy might have climbed out of the woodwork.
"I wanted to test this," his friend explained, "see if it would work for people other than Arthur. Gods, Merlin I've missed you."
"I've missed you too, Gwen. Scrying is well and good, but it's not the same." He hesitated a moment, then forged on ahead. "I wasn't doing anything important when you called, just reading some more of Sigan's grimoire. Did you want to catch up?"
"Very much," she replied.
He stayed for nearly three hours. They swapped tales and made each other laughed and got into a small but good-natured argument about whether 'Rupert' was a suitable name for the wyvern that was now hanging around the Isle of the Blessed. ("I'm telling you, Gwen, he just looks like a Rupert.") Tom came in at one point, grabbing a quick snack between smithing jobs, and exchanged greetings with his daughter's friend. "You can come to her in mere moments?"
"Yes, I can." He tilted his head. "Are you… all right with this? With us being friends, I mean."
"I'm not all right with the danger, if that's what you mean." Merlin winced. "But I'm glad that you care enough about her to save her. I just hope that she never needs your help, or at least not until we're ready to leave."
"I hope so too."
"As do I," Gwen acknowledged. An idea struck. "Say, Merlin, you mentioned something about scrying earlier?" At her father's incomprehension, she added, "That's when spellbinders look in on people far away." Tom's eyes widened in comprehension.
"Elyan's doing well," Merlin assured them. "They should be entering Gawant sometime today. Would… would you like to see?"
Tom's nod is slow, but it comes.
Elyan was riding, his new red cloak spilling out behind him, and listening to (or perhaps ignoring; he did look fairly bored) one of Gwaine's improbable tavern tales. He might not have been doing anything exciting, but Gwen preferred it that way. A boring journey was a safe journey, and she would like for her brother to remain out of danger for a while.
They watched until Gwaine finished his yarn. He looked ready to start another, but Lancelot broke in with a question about Gawant's royal family. Gwaine sulked at being cut off, but the other knights (she still had trouble believing that her brother was a knight) were relieved.
"…I'd better get back to work," Tom lamented. "Thank you, Merlin."
The scryed image faded, leaving clear water behind. Gwen narrowed her eyes at him. "You're still recovering from claiming the Perilous Lands, aren't you?"
"What makes you—" But here Merlin interrupted himself with a huge yawn. "Oh. Never mind." He huffed. "I'm doing much better, though."
"I believe it," she assured him. "Now go home and sleep, Merlin. You need to keep your strength up. Oh, and say hello to Gaius and your parents for me."
"I will. Goodbye, Gwen. I'm glad we got a chance to catch up."
"Goodbye, Merlin. I am too."
The days were beginning to blur together. There was no sun in the dungeons, no hourglasses, only the delivery of their meals and guards changing shifts. Sometimes visitors arrived: Gwen, of course, and Leon's parents, and various other acquaintances. Once, Arthur's uncle Agravaine arrived, only to be sent off to represent Camelot at the summit meeting that Uther had apparently decided to ignore entirely.
Morgana probably would have gone mad if she hadn't taught Arthur thought-speech. That was the only way that they could speak freely.
Speak, and plot.
They had to do something about Uther. While they were both reluctant to flat-out kill him, they also understood that he had to be taken off the throne. The best way to do that would be to bring back the scattered members of the Royal Council, who had fled first from Sigan and then from the king's insanity, and convince them to name Arthur regent. So, when Gwen arrived to distract their guards, Arthur wrote letters on the parchment that she had smuggled in, royal orders to return to the citadel to see Uther for themselves. This plan would take time, yes, but it would give Arthur's regency the legitimacy he would need to make sweeping changes. Soon, he'd sent orders to everyone he could, smuggled out by the few messengers they could trust, and all he and Morgana could do was wait.
Waiting, the witch reflected sourly, would be a great deal more pleasant and productive if Uther would just let them out of the blasted dungeons already.
"How long is he going to keep us here?" Arthur demanded, not for the first time.
"He's probably waiting for us to apologize and publicly support his… methods."
"So we're never getting out of here."
They'd had a variation of that conversation dozens of times before. Perhaps it was time to add something new.
"We could probably break out if we really had to," Morgana speculated.
The guards stiffened.
"But what would we do if we broke out?" Arthur wondered.
"I suppose that we could lead the guards on a wild goose chase across the country." According to Gwen, Merlin's dragon friend Kilgharrah was doing something similar. He'd be sighted first in one place, then twenty miles to the north, then halfway to Mercia. They didn't know how many soldiers had been sent after him, but there must have been quite a few.
"We'd have to split up," the prince mused. "Why settle for one wild goose chase when you could have two?"
It was fun, winding up the guards like this. "We could spread rumors as we went," Morgana suggested. "'Prince Arthur was spotted in Gedref.' 'They're both in Essetir.' 'Lady Morgana crossed the White Mountains.' Confuse everyone, hide our trails better."
"But wouldn't people just follow the sources of those rumors?"
"We'd have to be subtle about it, obviously, and it wouldn't hurt to have a disguise. I could probably pass myself off as a man. How do you feel about hair dye?"
Fortunately for their poor guards, a page chose that moment to come scurrying into their line of sight. "Orders from His Majesty," the child panted. "Prince Arthur and Lady Morgana are to be brought up and bathed, and then they are to attend him."
Morgana raised an eyebrow. She would certainly appreciate a bath, but it seemed strange that Uther had specifically ordered them to get clean. Maybe he wanted to parade them around in front of the nobility (some of the Council members had to have arrived by now), pretend that he hadn't let his own son and ward rot behind bars for the last however many days. Or maybe he didn't want to look at the reminder of what he'd done.
Not that she was complaining. Once they were out, she and Arthur could find more ways to fight back.
So she let herself be led to her chambers, where Gwen was waiting with a warm tub. Her friend looked a bit tired from all those late-night smuggling excursions (Tristan and Isolde were worth their weight in gold), but they exchanged grins when Morgana arrived.
Then another woman came bustling inside, an ornate red gown on her arm. "The king wants you to hurry so that your hair is as dry as possible," she explained, grabbing the soap right out of Gwen's hands.
"Why does he care?" Morgana demanded.
"Because you're to be presented to your fiancé in less than two hours. King Cenred is almost here."
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Beloved Fan Favorite Agravaine Finally Shows his Face, Only to be Booted Out Immediately"
Next chapter: January 24, since I've caught up with FFN and will now be posting all-new material. That means updates every 3 weeks. Morgana tries to not explode Cenred's head. Merlin does some teleporting. The knights arrive in Gawant and learn something worrying about the princess.
Happy New Year!
Chapter 22: Cenred, King of Essetir
Something explodes, but it's not Cenred's head.
Chapter XXII: Cenred, King of Essetir
Arthur was genuinely afraid that Morgana would lose control of her magic and blow up Cenred's head, or set him on fire, or something equally fatal and unpleasant. While he doubted that anybody would think to blame her—at least not out loud—a royal death would make things messy for more than just whatever poor servants would have to clean him up.
At first, he'd been surprised that she had appeared at all. When he'd learned that Cenred had arrived early, he'd more than half-expected his sister to barricade herself in her chambers until the guards knocked down her door with a battering ram. Then he'd glimpsed Guinevere standing off in the side of the room and remembered his father's threats against her.
The charm worked; Guinevere had assured him of that. Either the ladies hadn't had the chance to use it or they'd decided to stick it out a while longer. He wouldn't put it past Morgana to disappear half an hour before the ceremony, just to cause as much drama as she could, and Guinevere would want to keep up her new smuggling project for as long as possible.
Arthur hadn't seen Cenred since they were both young. He had vague memories of a rude, haughty boy a few years older than himself. The last… had it really been almost a decade and a half?... had been kind to him. He'd learned to control his temper, his wants, his tongue.
The King of Essetir had focused most of his conversation on Uther rather than his bride-to-be. He hadn't been so rude as to ignore her outright, but he didn't speak to her very much, either. Arthur wondered if he felt she was unimportant, useful only for her connections, or if he was intelligent enough to fear setting her off. Certainly Morgana's baleful glare promised death for anyone fool enough to provoke her.
…In the interest of avoiding an international incident (and a messy magical accident), he should probably try to defuse the witch's temper. He just didn't know how.
At least the dinner was almost over. Only dessert remained. Arthur would be more grateful for the nearness of his escape if he hadn't expected his father to give a speech between courses.
Sure enough, Uther rose as the last few dishes were being taken away, gestured sharply for silence. Quiet fell with unusual quickness; these days, everyone was paying particular attention to the king.
(There were almost enough members of the Royal Council to give his planned coup legitimacy. Admittedly, forcing a king to abdicate was not one of their prerogatives, but if Arthur got enough support, that little detail wouldn't matter. Much. He hoped.)
For the most part, Uther's speech was exactly what Arthur had anticipated. He was glad to welcome this mighty ally of Camelot, he was glad to see the wedding of his foster-daughter cement the ties between them, he was glad that they would destroy all magic together. (If he diverted into a somewhat rambling tangent about the evils of sorcery, nobody was stupid enough to comment.) Then he announced that the wedding would take place the day after tomorrow, immediately following lunch.
"Do you really think that a day and a half is enough time to prepare for a royal wedding, Father?" Arthur asked the second conversation resumed.
"The servants will not dally. I want to see her married as soon as possible. Then it will be your turn, Arthur. The Sarrum has agreed to come early." He grinned. "I will see you both married in just a few weeks."
Arthur somehow managed to not look at Guinevere. "…Surely another day or two of preparation would allow us to show more honor to our guest and ally."
"The Lady Morgana's hand is honor enough, Prince Arthur," Cenred interjected. He smirked. "Besides, the sooner we produce an heir—"
His goblet exploded, a fountain of wine geysering all over his face, ruining his clothes.
"SORCERY!" Uther yowled, leaping to his feet.
The entire room went into an uproar: servants frozen in indecision, platters of pie in their hands; nobles surging towards the exit; guards shouting to one another, some with weapons drawn; and Uther shouting above it all, ranting about assassins and evil and how this was clearly Merlin's fault.
Morgana hesitated in her chair, pale-faced and stiff. Arthur jerked his chin towards the door. At the same time, Guinevere reached her lady's side, murmuring something about getting her away from the chaos. She and Arthur exchanged quick smiles as she helped Morgana to her feet. Then the two were gone.
When his father paused for breath, Arthur told him, "Yes, this was definitely Merlin." Better to blame the known warlock than to start yet another witch hunt here in the castle. "It's exactly the sort of thing he finds hilarious." That part, at least, was true.
"He's going to die soon," Uther mutters darkly, and it was different from his usual tirades. Darker, quieter, more assured. A promise.
But at least Merlin was staying outside of the citadel these days. He'd told Guinevere about his family's campaign of false messages, and Guinevere had conveyed that information to Arthur and Morgana. Right now, the warlock was probably either scrying one of the gates or watching this disaster of a dinner, chuckling to himself at Cenred's misfortune and Morgana's escape. That, or he was eating his own dinner or sleeping; he might still be in recovery for his impulsive idiocy in the Perilous Lands.
Naturally, Uther ordered a manhunt, with Cenred's soldiers supplementing his own (somewhat depleted) forces to help hunt down the loathsome sorcerer who had 'tried to assassinate' the younger king. Arthur volunteered to help, mostly because he hadn't been outside in days and wanted to breathe in the clean night air.
Uther paused to squint at him suspiciously. "And what will you do if you find this sorcerer of yours?"
Yell at him for being stupid enough to visit Camelot during a manhunt, then begrudgingly assist with whatever emergency was urgent enough to make the known warlock enter the citadel. "I'll do what I have to."
The king accepted this vague platitude and sent him on his way.
(He never would have fallen for that before the mandrake root, before Arthur had let a sorceress drive him mad. But he'd changed since then, and not for the better.
Gods, he hated seeing his father like this.)
Gwen and Morgana took advantage of the confusion caused by her loss of control to slip into the manor's library. It was empty—Leodegrance didn't employ a librarian and Sir Geoffrey had been at dinner—and private and far enough out of the way that, hopefully, no one would think to enter. If someone did show up, they could claim they'd been hiding from 'the sorcerer,' but it would be better to not need that plan.
"Two days," Morgana hissed. "Two days. Just for that, I'm going to disappear right before the ceremony. Do you think I should leave a note saying that I'm eloping with Merlin?"
"That… might cause problems when we all return to Camelot. Unless you intended to marry him for real?"
The suggestion—or perhaps, Gwen thought, it was a revelation—startled Morgana out of her rage, though only for a few moments. "I'll figure out my marriage later," she proclaimed. "If we got Tom and our supplies out that morning, we could leave together right after I put on my so-called wedding dress."
Gwen didn't bother asking why Morgana would go through all the difficulty of putting on a fancy gown just to disappear. "I'd have to call Merlin the second you were done. It would be very uncomfortable to have him in the room while you changed." Even though she was fairly certain that he'd be a perfect gentleman about it, just like when he'd wandered in with a sleeping draught and been mistaken for a maid. "And there would be too much risk of someone bumping into him."
"That's true," the lady acknowledged. "What if I only hinted that we were eloping?"
"Then Uther and all the local gossips would probably explode, if for very different reasons."
Morgana grinned dreamily at the prospect.
"Perhaps we should focus more on the other details," Gwen suggested.
"Right, right. Can you speak with Merlin tonight, or do you have guests?"
"Two guests," Gwen sighed. "And there's an entire family in Kilgharrah's old cave. Five children. Isolde and Tristan aren't due back until tomorrow, which I don't think leaves us with quite enough time to plan."
Morgana hesitated, then levitated the desk to block the door. She was getting much better at that.
Gwen touched the simple metal disk and called for her friend. He was there moments later. A glowing golden shield snapped into existence in less than half a heartbeat before he realized that they were in a mostly-empty library. Grinning sheepishly, the warlock dropped his shield. "What happened?"
They told him about Cenred's arrival and the bare bones of their new plan, leaving out the disastrous dinner for brevity's sake. Morgana, of course, couldn't resist proposing the fake elopement. Gwen had more than half-expected Merlin to acquiesce with a chortle, but her friend just winced. "I'd… really rather not have my name associated with something that would anger Cenred so much. Ealdor isn't my home anymore, but I don't know if he knows that."
The women exchanged very awkward and uncomfortable glances.
"Oh, gods, what has Uther been telling him?"
"I lost my temper at dinner and blew up his goblet," Morgana confessed. "Uther blamed you."
Merlin blanched. "Oh. I understand why you'd want him to think that and not go rampaging through the manor, but that's not…."
"Do you really think he'll attack Ealdor?" Gwen asked. She thought of the brave humble people standing their ground against Kanen's men, wondered if they would try to fight back against their own king's soldiers.
"I don't know," Merlin admitted. "He's never been a good king, but I can't think of a time that he's ever sent his men to destroy a village. We're not… I don't think that my people would stand for that, not with King Loth's family alive and well."
"Surely he wouldn't risk an uprising," Gwen tried to assure him.
Merlin wasn't entirely convinced. "I'd still like to warn them, though. Just in case." He forced a smile, a pale imitation of his usual brilliant grin.
"But they can't get there tonight. We have time to plan." His smile became a little less pained.
It didn't take them long to iron out the details: Tom would fake an illness to provide an alibi for his disappearance that morning, Gwen would whisper the summons in the dressing room, Merlin would arrive invisibly and put the other maids to sleep, and Morgana would not pretend she was eloping with the man her king loathed more than anyone else in the world.
"You'd better get back now," Merlin finally sighed. "You were trying to avoid a manhunt, right?"
Morgana sighed heavily. She would undoubtedly be put under guard the moment she returned to the public eye. Gwen had more opportunity for privacy, but she could imagine how maddening the constant surveillance must be. Honestly, it was sort of a miracle that she hadn't blown up anything but Cenred's wine. Hopefully the promise of their escape would prevent another incident.
A day and a half, and they would be gone.
It felt like years since he'd last set foot in Ealdor. Last time he'd walked these paths, it had been as a simple manservant and healer-trainee, son of a peasant woman and a former slave. Now, though, his parents had essentially disappeared from the village, and he himself was exposed as so much more than these people had assumed: a warlock, an infiltrator, the mage who had defeated Cornelius Sigan, the face of the magical resistance movement.
So it was with a sense of… dichotomy, he supposed, that he trod through the dirt streets to Will's house. Not many people were out at this late hour, but those who saw him startled and began to mutter. Their gazes followed Ealdor's most infamous native all the way to Will's doorstep. They watched him knock, watched Will answer and greet him with a hug and bring him inside.
It was a relief to duck away from all those staring, judging eyes.
"What're you doing here, running around in plain sight?" his old friend demanded. "Not that I'm not glad to see you, but gods, Merlin, they all know what you are now."
"I wanted them to see me," the warlock replied quietly. "Will, I have bad news. You know how Cenred is supposed to marry my friend Morgana?"
"He thinks he's going to marry her," Will corrected. He'd met the witch only once, but she must have made quite the impression. No wonder. Morgana was an impressive woman. "What happened?"
"Earlier tonight, an untrained spellbinder I know accidentally blew up a goblet of wine in Cenred's face." Despite the grimness of his message, Merlin felt his lips twitch. Will, too, smiled, though his died down rather quickly. "Uther hates me more than literally anyone at this point, and he's not exactly sane, so he decided that I was the one responsible." Will's eyes widened. He understood. "I don't know if Cenred believed him or if he plans to take action, but I had to warn the town."
His friend started pacing back and forth, back and forth. "And you can't tell the rest of the village about your magical friend, because then Uther will tear the palace apart to find him."
"Yes, he would. There has been enough blood shed already. I don't want more to fall in Camelot or here."
"Uther hated you already, you said?" At his friend's nod, Will continued, "Then just tell everyone you're worried about Cenred making a gift of your hometown to someone who hates your guts."
"Good plan." He probably should have thought of it himself, but the idea of Ealdor burning just because he'd been born here had paralyzed his mind. "That's good." He'd been quietly panicky ever since Gwen had summoned him. Actually, now that he thought of it…. "I just had an idea. What if I made you an amulet too?"
"An amulet?" Will's eyes lit up. "Would it, I don't know, conjure impenetrable armor and an unbreakable, enormous sword?"
"No, although that would be utterly excellent. I don't know how to make something like that, but I can enchant something to summon me."
Will frowned at him. "What, so you can take on an entire party of soldiers by yourself?"
"If I have to," Merlin answered coolly. "Although I'm not certain why that's any less foolhardy than you singlehandedly taking them down with that hypothetical sword and armor."
"Impenetrable armor," Will sniffed.
"That wouldn't stop them from sitting on you."
"They could sit on you too, you twig."
The two friends glared mock-haughtily at each other for a few moments, then broke out into grins. "I missed you," Merlin said softly. "You're always welcome on the Isle, you know."
"I have to watch after my sisters. Eggplant Ed's been making eyes at Maisie."
"The nerve of him."
Will sighed. "But I suppose you ought to deliver your news to everybody else before someone works up the courage to break my door down. There's probably quite a crowd out there by now."
There was. No one was feeling brave enough to knock, but that didn't stop the villagers from lingering. A haze of murmurs erupted when Merlin stepped back outside. He caught only a few words.
There was no point in explaining that he was actually a warlock. Merlin raised his hand for silence, watched a hush roll over them in a wave.
"Cenred and Uther are allies now," he announced, his voice clear and calm even though his insides quivered. All these people, men and women he'd known since infancy, knew what he was. They knew he had magic, that he was fighting loudly and publicly for the rights of his people.
But these were his people too, in a way, even though few of them had been overly kind to the foundling's bastard. They shared no blood, but they'd worked the fields together, listened to the same gossip, fought the same bandits. He would not deny those bonds.
"Uther despises me," the warlock continued. "I think he might hate me more than anyone else, since I was so close and did so much damage to his cause. By now, Cenred knows how much Uther wants me dead, and even if neither of them can find me, it wouldn't take them long to find Ealdor."
The murmurs resumed, a resentful current running through them.
"I don't know if you're actually in any danger. Hopefully you aren't. Hopefully I'm just being paranoid. But you need to be prepared, just in case."
The wind whirled around him, and he was gone.
Marrok was fidgeting, casting anxious glances at Leon. "Is something wrong?" Lancelot inquired.
The probably-magical squire didn't answer at first. Then the words burst out in a great gush. "Did anyone notice anything unusual about the princess? Or her nurse. I think that there's… something wrong about them."
"Why would you say that?" wondered Elyan. "Elena's a bit odd, but I wouldn't exactly call her wrong."
Marrok hunched in on himself and did not answer.
"He has good instincts," Leon stated. "Do you think that her nurse has enchanted her?"
"No, that's not what I—think. But she's connected to it, whatever it is."
"We don't even know if it exists," Elyan pointed out. "Not every personality quirk means that someone's been enchanted. That's the kind of thinking that can get innocents killed."
"I know that," Marrok snapped. "And I'm not going to say anything to them, not without proof. But I didn't like the way that nurse looked at her, and I definitely didn't like—" But here he cut himself off with such force that his nose twitched.
"It wouldn't hurt to keep an eye on them," Lancelot suggested.
"Especially if Elena is the lily," Percival added.
Gwaine sucked in a breath. "That would make sense though, wouldn't it? If there's something weird and magical about the girl he's supposed to 'let grow.'"
"Yes!" Leon seized on the point like a dog with a bone. "It can't hurt to do a little bit of investigation, not if we keep quiet. If it's nothing, we'll only have wasted some time, but if it's something, then we need to act."
"He's right," Lancelot agreed. "How should we proceed?"
"Shameless spying, of course," proclaimed Gwaine. "We spy on the princess, we spy on the nurse, we spy on everyone who's acting even a little bit suspicious."
"I think it's just them," Marrok mumbled. "At least, I haven't—seen anybody else like them." The poor thing was completely rigid, his face a few shades whiter than usual."
"Will you tell us if you see anyone else who tweaks your instincts?"
A jerky nod.
"You know," Gwaine said, "having a warlock around would be quite useful right about now. I certainly wouldn't complain if anybody in this room were to confess to convenient magical powers."
Almost every eye turned to Marrok. The only exceptions were Leon, who glared bloody murder at Gwaine, and the squire himself, whose considerably more panicked gaze was also locked on the loudmouthed rogue.
"I'm not a warlock," the boy (and he really was just a boy) choked. "I'll swear any oath you want, but I am not a warlock or a sorcerer or, or anything like that."
"And I'll second the oath," Leon half-growled.
"And we will drop the subject," Lancelot guaranteed, elbowing Gwaine. "No one is saying that anyone here has magic—although if anyone did, I for one would put him under my protection." He glared at the other knights until they agreed with the former sentiment as well as the latter.
If Marrok didn't want to confess, he understood completely. The squire had grown up in Camelot, had seen Uther's wrath firsthand. Paranoia must be second nature to him, even around those who wanted only to help.
Merlin had been afraid too. Lancelot wished the other warlock was here, a mentor and friend and example. But he wasn't, and Marrok had every right to deny his magical nature.
"So," Lancelot said, "how does one go about investigating an enchanted princess?"
"You can call it spying, you know," Elyan muttered. "But she thought she'd marry Arthur, right? So they'd expect us to pay more attention to her. Just don't do anything suspicious, and let everyone else know what you see."
"Let's maybe plan it out in a bit more detail," Lancelot suggested. "Any other suggestions?"
Gwaine nodded. "I might have a few."
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Merlin Didn't Actually do Anything, but he's Still Blamed for all that is Wrong in the World"
Next chapter: February 14. Something is indeed wrong with the princess, which means that the knights have their own little side quest to keep them busy. Morgana is once again forced to refrain from exploding Cenred's head. Arthur takes care of his people.
Is Marrok telling the truth about not being a warlock or sorcerer? How did he really know that Grunhilda and Elena were off? What does Leon know? (Also, why am I so obsessed with this minor plot thread? Seriously, I don't even know.)
Chapter 23: Tomorrow's Problems
Lancelot takes up espionage. Morgana continues to not set things on fire.
Chapter XXIII: Tomorrow's Problems
Lancelot had, by pure random luck, ended up drawing the first evening shift although he'd objected to the necessity of said shift. It had seemed entirely ridiculous to be in the room while Elena's nurse helped her to bed. He'd nearly refused the task and only given in because he wasn't quite certain that Gwaine, who had come up with the suggestion, would resist the urge to peek. Some of his tavern tales were… rather risqué.
Now, though, he was glad that someone was here to hear this, the first private conversation that 'Elena' and her nurse could conduct.
Elena's voice was different somehow, more in the way she spoke than the sound itself. "If my host is not to wed the Once and Future King, is there any point in my remaining?"
"From what I've heard of the prince, he'd sooner chop off his sword arm than wed the Sarrum's daughter." Grunhilda sounded different too, raspier, with the faintest hint of an unfamiliar accent. "You still have a chance. Remain with the princess for now."
A soft, borderline inhuman hiss. "Wait, wait, wait, while my dear host continues to fight. No, she hasn't become aware of my presence—you've done well at keeping her from questioning her 'blackouts'—but her unconscious mind still struggles against me. I need to crush her sooner rather than later."
Lancelot went rigid.
"And we will crush her," Grunhilda assured the person who most certainly was not Princess Elena. "You just need to be patient."
A scoff. Lancelot imagined the princess's face twisted into something disdainful and haughty. "So you say. Just give me the Sidhe dust already, pixie."
Grunhilda's voice returned to its normal register, though her tone was glacial. "As you command, Your Highness."
Strange sounds echoed from the room beyond, but Lancelot didn't dare crack open the wardrobe. He didn't know how observant pixies were, nor did he wish to find out.
A groan. "Oh, bother." Elena sounded herself again. "I hate these blackouts, Grunhilda. Are you absolutely certain—"
"Of course," the pixie crooned. "Just sleep, my dear. You know that will make you feel better."
"All right," the princess mumbled. "Goodnight, Grunhilda. Sleep well."
Footsteps padded across the room. A door hinge creaked, creaked again.
Lancelot waited until his straining ears could no longer make out the noise of a shifting body. Then, slowly, he crept out of the wardrobe, across the room, over to the door with the creaking hinge. He pressed his ear against it but couldn't hear anybody passing by. He'd have to risk it. He cracked the door open just barely enough to squeeze through, then headed straight for the guest chambers where the others were staying.
His fellow knights (and Marrok) were sleeping when Lancelot arrived. He didn't care. Something was planning to crush Princess Elena, and it was getting impatient.
The others weren't happy to be dragged out of bed, but they begrudgingly congregated in Lancelot's room. "I take it you found something thanks to my brilliant idea?"
The knight nodded, a swift jerk of his head. "Gwaine, I owe you an apology for speaking against it. You may have saved the princess's life."
It wasn't easy to see in the candlelight, but he could hear the rogue's sharply indrawn breath. "What happened?"
Lancelot told them. He recounted the exact words whenever he could, paraphrasing only when he had to, which he didn't very often. The things they'd said were graven on his mind.
"A pixie, you said?" Leon inquired. At Lancelot's confirmation, he declared, "Then I think I know what we're dealing with. Pixies are servants of the Sidhe."
"Like the Tir-mors?" Lancelot asked automatically.
Leon blinked. "The jewel thieves who kidnapped Arthur?"
That was right, he hadn't heard that story yet. "They were actually Sidhe bound in mortal form for some sort of crime. It's a long story."
"…They were changelings too?"
"If they were, Merlin didn't mention it. What are changelings?"
The older knight's brow furrowed. "If I remember correctly, changelings are humans who had Sidhe… put into them when they were babies. Once their hosts are grown to maturity, the Sidhe destroy the human's mind and take over completely."
"So these Sidhe things want one of their own as Arthur's queen," Elyan muttered. (Lancelot supposed that Sophia and Aulfric hadn't known about this particular plot or they'd have chosen another prince for their sacrifice.) "What exactly are the Sidhe?"
"Merlin described them as little blue people with dragonfly wings and surprisingly resonant voices. They've got powerful magic, but a different sort than human spellbinders."
Leon was nodding. "Yes, that squares with what I remember of Gaius's lessons. They're excellent healers, superb with illusions, inhumanly intuitive, and they've an affinity for something called time magic."
"Did Gaius say anything about how to fix changelings?" Lancelot asked.
Leon's frown deepened, his brow furrowing in thought. After a few moments, he was forced to admit that he had no idea… but he knew someone who did.
The door opened.
Morgana didn't look up from her book. "I told you already, I'm ill. A stint in the dungeons will do that."
"We both know that you're not ill," snapped Uther Pendragon. "You're just being difficult because you don't want to marry Cenred." He glowered. "I've given you far too much leeway, Morgana. You're wild."
"I'm ill," the lady repeated. "My deepest apologies for needing time to recover from being thrown into the dungeons for almost a fortnight." She turned a page.
The king tore the book from her hands. "You will look at me when I speak to you, my lady. I am your king."
She looked at him coolly, her mouth level. "What do you have to say?"
"You will attend your fiancé. You will behave for him."
Morgana faked a cough. "I'm sick," she protested.
"Then be sick at his side, or I will have her flogged." He pointed at Gwen, who had been silently minding her own business in the corner. The maid faltered in her mending, fingers bunching in the fabric. "Now get dressed. It's too late for you to breakfast together, but you'll not leave his side for the rest of the day."
"That will make visits to the privy very awkward," she deadpanned.
"Except then," he growled, an eye twitching.
"That's good," she said. Would anyone question it if she claimed to be in the midst of her bleed? Probably. She was already straining Uther's credulity with her 'illness.'
With Gwen's safety on the line, Morgana didn't dare delay too much, which meant that she only 'changed her mind' about what dress to wear twice and had just a little difficulty in locating her dear, darling betrothed.
She could do this, the witch told herself as she opened the door to the courtyard. She just had to stay calm and not lose control of her magic again, and everything would be fine.
Except staying calm was easier said than done. Cenred was unreasonably, insufferably smug about his imminent ownership of her entire life, as if he was entitled to complete control of—no, no, breathe. Stay calm. Don't blow up his head.
Even if that would be immensely satisfying.
Morgana kept her answers to his questions as short as she could without veering into outright rudeness. She asked Cenred no questions, offered no unprompted commentary on his anecdotes or observations. But her coolness seemed only to amuse the bastard. "You'll warm up on our wedding night," he chuckled, as though he were the greatest wit in the world.
She would not blow up his head. She would not blow up his head. She would not blow up his head.
Although if there was another 'sorcerous attack' from 'Merlin,' even one less violent than cranial explosions, she could probably go back to her room and avoid him for the rest of the day. She'd never have to see him again. Well, all right, she probably would have to see him again, but only when he came on diplomatic missions to Camelot (she would certainly not go to Essetir's capital while he was in power). So what could she blow up?
But then Morgana remembered how Merlin had paled when he learned about the goblet, his fears for Ealdor. She thought back to the brave villagers with whom she'd faced bandits. Ealdor had defeated Kanen, but Cenred had more power, more resources. She shouldn't risk an entire village, especially not Merlin's hometown, for a few moments of satisfaction.
So instead of, say, setting the king's hair on fire, Morgana excused herself for a trip to the privy, hinting at maidenly modesty. Her betrothed got even more smug at that, which she hadn't thought was physically possible, but the witch didn't let herself regret the decision.
The reprieve calmed her, let her think about more than violence. She needed some sort of coping mechanism, something to focus on in lieu of her bloodier fantasies.
When Morgana returned to accompany Cenred to lunch (oh, gods, she had to put up with this all afternoon and then half the evening), she imagined that Merlin was there, making snarky commentary on everything the king said. It worked. Sometimes, she even managed to smile at some of her fiance's comments.
(Gwen kept giving her suspicious looks, like she thought that Morgana was picturing the many ways that Cenred could horrifically die. The witch eventually told her what was happening through thought-speech, which only slightly lessened the frequency of her scrutiny.)
The afternoon dragged on intolerably. Even with the imaginary Merlin's commentary, Morgana felt like every minute stretched out into ten.
Fortunately, wonderful Gwen came to the rescue about an hour before they were due for supper with the king and his (somewhat reduced) court. She suggested that her lady might want to freshen up before dinner. Morgana seized on the excuse with more enthusiasm than she'd mustered all day. The women were gone before Cenred could get a word in edgewise.
"Thank you so much," Morgana proclaimed as soon as her bedroom door closed behind them. "My imaginary Merlin was getting a bit bloodthirsty."
"That's a terrifying thought, you know, a bloodthirsty Merlin. But you're welcome." She sighed. "Although I do suppose you'll have to freshen up for real now."
"I want to. It feels like I've been swimming in slime all day."
"I'm just glad that you didn't blow up his head. How late do you think you can be for dinner?"
"Not very," she answered, Uther's threats ringing in her head. "I think I'll wear my knight's dress." The king wouldn't be able to complain, for most of the dress was in Camelot red, but the embroidery suggested chainmail. Morgana couldn't wear her armor to a formal dinner, so she'd settle for the next best thing. It was a subtle gesture of defiance, but she and Gwen both understood what it meant.
Her friend nodded.
And so, armored in red and gray, Morgana went forth into battle.
Arthur felt a little bad about using his father's preoccupation with Morgana to sneak around his back and speak with the Captain of the Guard. His sister had described Brun as a mousy bootlicker, more interested in placating the king than any of his actual duties. The prince was honestly a little surprised that the captain was still alive. One would think that such an obsequious brownnose in such an important and influential position would attract accusations like moths to flames. Perhaps, he mused, nobody wanted to take charge of the guard for fear that they'd immediately become a target. It made as much sense as anything else.
The captain and several high-ranking officers agreed to meeting with him, of course. They had no real choice in the matter. Neither did the unhappy, confused record keepers whom Arthur had conscripted on the way to the office.
"I understand," Arthur began, "that recent circumstances have made bookkeeping unusually difficult. However, that does not make it any less important, especially since I fully intend to have several of the more suspicious summary executions audited once I am king or if my father becomes ill again."
Three of the officers blanched. Their faces were unfamiliar to him; he did not know their names. Arthur didn't visibly single them out, but he committed their features to memory. He wanted no opportunistic murderers 'protecting' his people.
The silence stretched on until Brun, the highest-ranking commoner present, felt obligated to break it. "Has there been any indication that the king's health is at risk?"
Your death approaches, Uther Pendragon. "You recall the annual meeting of the Five Kingdoms?" Cautious nods all around. "My father has decided that Camelot will not be attending this year. He says that it is due to the weddings, but with his recent bout of illness, I cannot help but fear that he has some ulterior motive." Though honestly, that ulterior motive more likely had to do with the complete eradication of sorcery than any fear of a relapse. His father was predictable like that.
(But even so, he would still have gone if he were completely himself. He'd leave ridiculously thorough instructions and return as soon as he could manage, but he wouldn't completely neglect foreign relations with the kingdom's ancient allies. Instead, Arthur had had to send Agravaine and hope that nobody was too offended by the irregularity of Camelot's delegation. Thinking about it made his heart twist.)
The prince gestured at the record keepers. "These two gentlemen will train at least thirty guardsmen to read, write, and keep records of every spellbinder and sympathizer you kill, as well as the names of their accusers and the proof they offer." He smiled benignly. "You'll also record the backlog as well as you can remember. Hopefully, we won't have to investigate and punish too many improper deaths. Do you understand?"
"Excellent. Captain Brun, I expect you to have selected your new secretaries by sundown. Lessons will begin tomorrow morning. Now, go spread the word about these new stipulations. I'd like not just every guardsman but every citizen of Camelot to know, as civilians are welcome to add their own recollections to the archives."
One of the officers was sweating profusely. Arthur shouldn't have found that so profoundly satisfying, but he'd never claimed to be perfect.
They spent a few more minutes ironing out the details. The sweating officer once tried to suggest that perhaps such thorough records were unnecessary, but Arthur calmly shot down his objections one by one. If he backed down in this, they'd expect him to back down on his investigations, and that, he could not allow. He had to protect as many people as he could, however he could, without getting thrown into the dungeons again.
Finally, the unhappy guardsmen and overwhelmed scribes were sent away to carry out their tasks. Arthur allowed himself a few moments of reprieve before going to see what his father was up to. Thankfully, Uther was still occupied with the wedding preparations, so the prince was free to commit further sabotage.
Sir Geoffrey had taken over two small rooms that had formerly been used as storage. They were still used as storage, but for records and notes and books that had been rescued from the rubble of the castle's library. The librarian had become something of a recluse these last few weeks, repairing and preventing as much damage as possible. Rumor had it that he hadn't slept in his bed for a fortnight, instead collapsing over his work.
The man's appearance only supported the rumors. Geoffrey was pale, his face thin and haggard, his robes too loose on his frame. Arthur took one look at him and mentally amended his plans. He'd have to find some assistants for him, not just for this task, but in general. Perhaps he could look into the younger sons, even the daughters, of the nobility, several of whom really needed some productive way to occupy themselves. It was too bad that so few people were literate. (Maybe he should do something about that once he was king…. But that was a thought for another day.)
Geoffrey startled when Arthur cleared his throat. "Your Highness! I did not realize you were there. Please, be…." He looked around as though to offer his prince a seat, but all the available chairs were covered in books. The archivist moved to rise, but Arthur shook his head, gestured at him to sit back down.
"We've been neglecting you, it seems."
"You and your father have more important concerns to occupy your time."
Arthur ignored the politic comment. "I'll need to find you some assistants. Help me remember to speak with the treasurer about the library budget." Perhaps he could even manage to siphon those funds from the anti-sorcery campaign.
Cautious hope dawned in Geoffrey's eyes. "That would be wonderful, Prince Arthur."
"Don't thank me yet, Sir Geoffrey. I've thought of a task for you. It's nothing urgent," he added, cutting off the librarian's despair, "but I would like it accomplished eventually. I need you, if it's at all possible, to compile and analyze all reports of banditry in the last thirty years. I want to see how the statistics have changed so as to better fight this sort of crime." Specifically, he wanted to test a theory of his about crime rates skyrocketing after the Purge, when killing spellbinders had taken priority over everything from fraud to outright murder.
The archivist stared at him sideways.
"Would it be possible?" Arthur asked. "I don't know how well those records have been preserved."
"Well enough, I think, sire," came the wary reply. "I simply did not expect this request from you. I'll begin as soon as possible, though I fear that might be some time."
"And I'll find you some bored lordlings to help," Arthur assured him. They exchanged pleasantries, then he left.
With these two tasks accomplished, the prince shifted his focus to the neglected rebuilding effort. Progress had stalled most appallingly since the new Purge had been announced, despite Morgana's valiant efforts at fixing everyone's priorities while she had been in charge.
He wanted to make life better for Merlin and Morgana's kin, to undo the Purge that was his inheritance (the thought still caused him to wince when he dwelt on it too long), and so he would. But. He wasn't just the prince of Camelot's underground magical community, he was Crown Prince of the entire kingdom, and he owed non-magical folk his allegiance and aid as well. That meant restarting the reconstruction. (And if, in the process of doing so, he happened to meet with certain members of the Royal Council, that was just a bonus.)
It was an afternoon well spent.
Alternate chapter title: "In Which Leon's Lessons from Gaius Finally Come in Handy"
Next chapter: March 6. A good thing that happens is immediately counterbalanced by another thing going disastrously wrong.