As soon as the images appeared, I knew that I'd forgotten to wear the bracelet. Damn it—forgetting a stupid little thing like that is going to cost me a good night's sleep.
I saw a large, opulently furnished room, much like the throne room in Camelot—and a quick glance from side to side revealed that I was sitting on a golden throne. Morgause—looking secure in her golden beauty and favoring me with a confident smile—was sitting next to me, clearly as an equal. Wherever this place was, we reigned supreme over it.
I looked around, and it was clear that magic was not exiled here, as the law would have it be in Camelot. Fairy lights twinkled from the ceiling and walls—I could actually feel the magic on my skin, matching the power I could feel within me. Wherever and whenever this place is, I had obviously mastered my control of magic well beyond being pummeled by random visions that terrified me into sudden wakening.
A young man, probably seventeen or eighteen, walked into the hall, and paused for a moment before running up to me and giving me an uninhibited hug that belied his age. Mordred was all but a man, but he still had the exuberance of a child in many ways. I felt a maternal impulse—somehow I knew that in this place I had no children of my own, but Mordred was all but a son to me, as deadly peril and moments of joy had bound us irrevocably.
The cup of wine in my hand was empty, and I filled it with a casual gesture before draining it again. A calm descended on me, and Morgause's smile grew wider--I saw the approval in her eyes.
I fill the cup again and raise it as I call out: “Camelot will be ours!”
I saw Mordred nod and smile, and I ran my free hand through his hair as I drank more wine.
The view wavered and changed, and I found myself in a pitched battle. I used subtle magic to make the bellowing knights ignore my presence as I looked for Mordred. My magics were of less use in a battle like this, but I could help to protect him by obfuscation and distraction. I continued to look around, only to be stopped suddenly by the sight before me.
A tall, heavily muscled man in full armor was on horseback, effortlessly hacking away at what I knew to be my side's knights with a blade that cut through steel as effortlessly as air. He wore no helm, allowing me to see Arthur's familiar features, different only in a few years of age and a beard that his father would have undoubtedly viewed as a affectation. He was King Arthur now—the crown made that clear--and clearly he refused to lead anywhere but from the front—a choice that I had a sinking feeling would cost him this day.
Feeling ambivalent, I looked slightly to the left and almost gasped at the figure standing there. He wore a white robe with a hood, and his face was somewhat obscured by a medium length beard, but I knew those eyes and angular features. Merlin stood at his king's side, and his gestures and flashing eyes as my men were tossed around like straw in a storm made it clear that he commanded mighty magics indeed, and that Arthur must have clearly known that he did.
The shock of this revelation was interrupted as I saw Mordred charging at Arthur from behind, somewhat obscured by magic and aided by the ferocity of the attack against Arthur and Merlin from the front. When he was within ten feet, he stopped and cast a powerful banishing spell on the enchanted blade in his hands. The blade flew true and took Arthur through the back—through the heart.
I felt a pang of regret as Arthur fell, dead without even realizing what had slain him. Merlin whirls, and I could see the horror on his face as he dropped to his knees at Arthur's side. He put his fingers to Arthur's throat to confirm his death, and whispered, “Forgive me, my king,” as he kissed Arthur gently on the forehead and closed his staring eyes.
I forced down the guilt and began casting the most dangerous spell I knew at Merlin, knowing that he would soon be spoiling for blood and that I had no chance against him in a fair fight. Mordred had the same idea, and red energy sailed at the grieving sorcerer from both sides. With a casual gesture he deflected the magic into the sky, and he looked directly at me. The hate in the eyes of the gentle man I had known in Camelot startled me, and it cost me precious moments as his eyes flashed red-gold and he raised both arms to the sky. From out of clear air, lightning came flashing down, and I heard Mordred screaming as I fell to the ground, my skin burning. The last thing I saw before the world faded away was Merlin kneeling again at Arthur's side, ignoring the end of the battle.
I woke up screaming, and my cheeks are wet. Gwen came dashing in and whispered soothingly, “It was just a dream, my lady—you're safe.”
I looked around and saw that I had kicked my covers off, and that I had managed to scratch up both my arms. I looked balefully at the bracelet that would have prevented this, sitting quietly on my nightstand.
Gwen took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. “Would it help if you talked about it?” she asked quietly.
No, Gwen—I'm fairly certain that telling you about a dream where I helped to murder the man you're in love with will help either of us very much.
I almost smiled at the absurdity of it all before replying, “I can't remember the dream any more—I'm sure I'll be fine.”
“Morgana,” Gwen started, but didn’t finish her thought. She nodded, and curtseyed before leaving me alone again.
I thought about the witchfinder's reaction to me not long ago, and while he had proven to be a treacherous fraud, he had almost certainly been right about me—and I was starting to believe he had been right about Merlin as well. I needed to speak to him, and without Arthur nearby. I dressed quickly, examined myself minutely in the mirror, and headed directly for Arthur's chambers.
I carefully folded the shirt, and put it on the pile with the others. After almost two years of experience, it had become second nature to fold each laundered garment in the manner Arthur preferred—it certainly beat mucking out the stables, or whatever humiliating task Arthur chose for me when he was irritated with my existence. He had been more or less civil that morning before going out for training, and I wasn't about to do anything to change his mood. I glanced at the drawer where Arthur's keys lay, and nodded in satisfaction before turning to the doorway—only to see Morgana there with a determined, yet somewhat perplexed expression on her face. I took a subtle half step to interpose myself between the new arrival and the keys that had helped cause so much trouble before commenting quietly, “Arthur isn't here.”
“I can see that, Merlin.” Morgana's tone was firm, but not impolite. “It is not Arthur I wish to speak to.”
I managed to suppress any outward expression other than a raised eyebrow, but I was less calm inside. This can't be good. I inclined my head imperceptibly to invite her to continue.
Morgana folded her arms inward, as if to protect herself, then dropped them abruptly—almost as if she was discarding a futile course of action. She met my curious gaze and asked simply, “Do you think all those who practice magic are evil?”
This time I could not suppress my reaction. I whirled, looking into the recesses and corners of the room for any signs of spies or eavesdroppers ready to report what might well be treason in Uther's mind—and when I was facing completely away from Morgana I augmented my search with a subtle spell I had learned only days before. My enhanced senses quickly told me that we were alone and unobserved, and I allowed the spell to fade and my eyes to return to normal before taking a step closer to Morgana and nervously running a hand through my hair as I steadied myself and asked quietly: “Lady Morgana, do you really think that anyone cares what I think?”
She frowned, and her stare grew more intense as she replied, “In this moment, I do.”
I contemplated lying. The wrong answer could doom both of us if Uther somehow learned of it. I was angry at her recent duplicity, but I didn't want any harm to come to her—and I certainly didn't want my evasion of Uther's “justice” to come to an end. I started to open my mouth, and realized that I couldn't lie to her—not about this. I looked down at the ground and whispered: “No.”
“No, what?” Morgana said clearly.
No avoiding it, then.
I looked up and met her eyes with what I hoped was a confident expression and elaborated: “No—I don't think all those who practice magic are evil.”
Morgana's expression turned thoughtful before she nodded and turned to leave the room. I felt a sudden urgent impulse and called out to her: “I don’t think that magic is evil, Morgana, but I don’t think those who’ve grown up believing it is are evil either.”
Morgana stopped in her tracks, though she did not turn around. “King Uther,” she said, spitting out the word “king” as if it were poison, “would have killed Mordred. He’s just a boy. He’d have your head too, Merlin, and almost has before.”
I turned away and whispered a bit more harshly than I would have dared before as the memory of Uther's abuses of power overwhelmed my caution for a moment: “Do you think I don’t know that, Morgana?”
I heard her turn, and prepared for a reprimand—or worse—for my cheek. I turned to see her flushing, her hands clutching the expensive fabric of her gown as she replied with a sad tone in her voice, “ I’m sorry. Of course you know--I didn’t mean to offend you.”
I smiled slightly—whatever I thought of her recent actions, Morgana had been my friend, and was clearly concerned for my well-being. I shrugged and said, “It’s alright. Arthur offends me all the time, and he means it.”
Morgana did not return my smile, and I wondered again if I had crossed the line when she said quietly, “I’d better be going. Good-day, Merlin.” She walked out, and I looked at the empty doorway for a long moment before returning to my task.
Sir Leon tumbled off his horse and landed in an untidy pile, and a cheer went up from the observers as Arthur smoothly vaulted off his own horse and moved over to help his friend to his feet. Sir Leon shook his head ruefully and said something I couldn't hear—causing Arthur to laugh and smack Sir Leon on the back once before dismissing him to a well-deserved break.
As Arthur moved off to retrieve his sword for sparring purposes, I looked over to the royal stand to see how Morgana was doing. Even from where I was, I could see the dark circles under her eyes and the pensive expression she was wearing—that dream had really shaken her up and cost her precious sleep. I noticed that Merlin was standing nearby and also watching Morgana, his expression unreadable. I turned back to Arthur, who was walking back to the arena with his blade, and saw that he too was looking at Morgana with a worried expression. After a moment, he turned his gaze in my direction, and smiled at me in a way that made me tingle down to my toes.
King Uther walked into the royal stand and sat on his chair, ignoring Morgana—he was clearly still angry at her for challenging him regarding the sorcerer who had ended up escaping not long ago. I noticed that for her part, Morgana visibly edged away from Uther as far as she could without leaving her seat, but did not otherwise acknowledge the presence of the king as they both watched Arthur spar skillfully with two knights of Camelot. I looked on in concern, then sighed in resignation before turning to watch Arthur, hoping that she would tell me what was bothering her later.
I took one of Gaius' sleeping draughts along with making sure the bracelet was in place before retiring that night, but the visions weren't chased off. When my sight cleared, I saw that I was sitting next to Uther on a platform, looking at a tiny, naked figure tied to a stake in the midst of a massive pile of wood.
I saw a very young girl, with dark curly hair that cascaded down her back in waves screaming out for someone, anyone to spirit her away from this fate. I could see members of the watching crowd squirming in repressed dismay, but no one dared to intervene--the girl was alone in the world and as naked as the day she came into it as she approached her fiery death. I looked closely at the girl, and feel a shock of recognition as my perspective changed—I was that girl, and I could see Uther's stony expression as I squirmed against my bonds, trying to break free before the fuel was lit.
“Burn the witch,” Uther cried out, and a faceless lackey set the wood pile on fire. After a few agonizing moments, the flame approached me.
I looked into the crowd, and I saw Gwen sobbing, with Arthur cradling her gently and looking at me with regret. I saw the small figure standing unseen next to them, and I somehow heard Mordred over the crowd as my end neared.
“It is Uther. He will never let us live in peace. You must save us, Morgana Le Fay.”
I blinked, and the flames took me.
I woke up shivering, my blankets again on the floor. I rejoiced in the cool air in the bedroom—it was proof that I was not dead by Uther's cruelty or Merlin's vengeance. My heart hammered in my chest in reaction to my terror, and I ruthlessly forced the fear down—I would never shed another tear in fear of Uther Pendragon. I dressed quickly and retrieved two objects that would help me do what needed to be done. After a few moments, I was ready and departed, heading for a guarded door and the most important task of my life.
I stirred, and was immediately alert. The door to my room had just quietly shut, and I heard soft footfalls in the darkness outside the dim candlelight by my bed. I reached behind me for the dagger I kept behind the headboard as I bellowed, “Who disturbs the king during his rest?” Overly melodramatic, perhaps—but even an assassin can be startled into hesitation by the right distraction.
The footsteps grew nearer, and I had almost reached the dagger when Morgana came into view, looking apologetic and somewhat frightened. She met my eyes and said softly, “I'm sorry to wake you, Uther.”
Her manner told me that something was wrong, but I was still angry over her recent insolence—and I made her aware of it as I abandoned my quest for the dagger and sat up in bed: “Morgana? Have you decided that you have more insults to throw at your king that could not wait till morning?”
She bowed her head, and took several small steps toward me before whispering, “No, my lord. I had a dream.”
I blinked and stared at her in disbelief: “A dream? You woke me up at midnight for a dream?”
She nodded, and moved to sit on the edge of my bed as she elaborated, “I had a dream, sire, that I was being attacked by wizards. I had to watch you and Arthur die before they did….terrible, vile things to me with magic. It was absolutely terrifying, my lord, and I came to apologize for the things I said to you.” Fat tears rolled down Morgana’s face, and she looked up at me with an expression of utter regret and misery as she moved closer to me.
My residual anger faded away, and for a moment I saw her as she was at six—brave and determined, yet so fragile. I smiled reassuringly and told her, “I can see how disturbed you are by this dream, Morgana. I am sorry, and I accept your apology.” I repressed a yawn—the hour was very late, and the strain of the emotional confrontation was tiring me further. She nodded gratefully, scattering more tears on the bed, and moved next to me before embracing me with both arms. I froze for a moment, but I did not push her away.
I heard her speak again, and had to strain to hear her ask in a voice as fragile as fine crystal: “I am very sorry for waking you, my lord, but may I stay for another moment?”
I didn't hesitate. “Of course.” After a moment, I reached my hands from my sides to around her back, and rubbed gentle, soothing circles as I rocked her slightly. I could feel her left arm tighten around me, and I wondered if somehow I should have made sure that it had always been this way, since the day she came to live here.
A pain like ice interrupted my thoughts, and all the strength left my limbs. Too late, I realized that Morgana's right arm was no longer around me—she must have reached for a dagger concealed somewhere on her person and used it to deadly effect. I gasped involuntarily, and her hand covered my mouth with inexorable firmness as she pulled the dagger from my back and forced me down onto my back. I could feel the blood pooling at my back, behind my heart—the wound was clearly mortal.
I tried to struggle, but I was helpless—there was nothing to do but look at my killer and wait for the end. I saw determination, anger, and no small amount of sadness in her eyes, and in that moment I realized my folly. I had never told her the truth, but in her strength and dedication to what had been her purpose, she was clearly all Pendragon. The slight flash I saw in her eyes—it could have been a trick of the light, but somehow I knew it was not—told me that my vendetta over my dead wife had taken what should have been one of Camelot's greatest prizes and made her a deadly threat to the kingdom. . .and to Arthur, who would be king when my heart ceased beating.
I choked, and I could taste the blood in my mouth as I grew cold. The world began to fade away, and though I could no longer speak my last thoughts were clear, as a tear trailed down my cheek:
Forgive me, my children.
My eyes snapped open—the sight of Uther's eyes opening wide as the dagger struck home was still fading from my view as I threw on my tunic and grabbed a torch before running out the door, running for the end of the passages that led out of the castle. After a few moments, I heard soft footsteps and halted, looking towards the sound.
Morgana came into view, looking intent on her path out of the castle. Her eyes fell onto me and she stopped dead. Her expression twisted in annoyance, and I wondered if it was because she had been interrupted while leaving, or if she was simply not inclined to respond well to the determination and concern that was naked on my face. “Am I too late?” An obvious question for me to ask, but nothing else came to mind. She looked at me in silence for a moment, then nodded once.
I shook my head in dismay, and folded my free arm against my chest and met her eyes as I asked urgently, my voice getting gradually louder and more so than prudence would have dictated: “Do you think I’ve never had the same idea? I’ve thought about it. I’d be able to make it look like an accident, drop a door frame on him, make it look like fate or shoddy craftsmanship.”
“If stabbing counts as an accident, than I have followed the example you’ve fantasized about,” Morgana snapped, her patience clearly wearing thin.
She wasn't exactly in a position to have me disciplined for insubordination any more, but she could still accuse me of being a sorcerer on her own way to the chopping block. I felt the power rise within me for a moment, tempting me to strike her down, but I knew that would also mean my death, even if I was really inclined to kill her. I changed tactics and asked softly, “What do you think this’ll do to Arthur?”
Her expression softened, and her words took a lot of steel out of my spine: “It will make him King, Merlin.” I could only stare silently in response, and she looked at me with affection and added, “Merlin, tell him. Tell him I love him and to be a better king than his father, and to stop leading with his left when he sword-fights and to watch his back.” I nodded, and she added, “And tell Gwen I’m sorry, and that I’ll miss her, and to be happy.”
“I’ll tell her.” In a way that won't get me hanged or burned. “Where are you going, Morgana?”
“I have no idea,” Morgana said, and I could see the truth of it in her eyes—she had no idea where her flight from Camelot's justice would take her. She looked at me and added, “You could come with me,” but I could see that she knew that I would not, and after I shook my head she walked past me without another word and vanished into the night, clearly headed for the stables.
I sighed and headed back for my cot—there was no plausible reason why I would be the one to discover Uther, and it was several hours before his guard was likely to discover the body. I crawled onto the cot, knowing that I would get little sleep before morning.
My eyes snapped open at the sound of the alarm, and the pattern had me dashing out of my room having only taken time to don my robe and grab my sword—the bells were saying: “Assassination or attempted assassination of the King.” I was gratified to see that several guards had beaten me to my father's room, and they let me pass through the open door without a word as I ran up to my father's bed and saw his still form. His eyes were closed, and his skin visibly pale—the bed was soaked with his blood, and his chest was not rising and falling. I checked for a pulse, and as I heard the guards acknowledge Gaius and admit him, I felt only cold skin and stillness. I turned to Gaius with a grim expression and whispered, “I think he's gone.”
Gaius frowned, and took supplies from his kit as he quickly examined my father's body. I heard a commotion at the door, and turned to see that the guards had refused to admit Merlin. I thought of sending him away—what could he do here? The concern on his face caused me to relent—Gaius needed to concentrate on his task, and I needed to speak to someone about this. I waved to the guards to let Merlin pass, and he walked in. His face twisted in dismay as he saw the body on the bed, and he turned to me. I interrupted him before any comforting words could come forth and said simply, “Thank you—your sentiments are appreciated. Right now, I need someone to help me find out what has happened, and until I can assemble the Knights of Camelot you're it.” Merlin nodded, and I looked back to the bed in time to see Gaius look up and shake his head sadly. I scowled, then asked quietly, “Can you tell how long ago it happened, Gaius?”
“About three or four hours ago, from the state of the body and the blood on the bed, Your Majesty.” I flinched at the title, and almost shouted at him for using it before I realized he was just being correct—my father's death had made me King. I started to ask him another question when Gaius reached across the bed and retrieved a jeweled dagger that I recognized instantly—and the realization made my heart go cold.
Merlin had spotted it too, and the horror was audible in his voice: “Isn't that Morgana's--?”
I cut him off with a gesture and nodded curtly before calling over a guard and ordering: “Go to the Lady Morgana's chambers and bring her back here as soon as she can dress herself adequately to avoid indecency. If she is not there, go to the guardroom and organize a search for her on my personal authority—she is to be brought back to me alive and unharmed or I will have the head of the man who is responsible for harming her. Am I understood?”
The guard bobbed his head in assent and almost fled the room—I wasn't about to call him on protocol violations right now. I turned back to the doorway of the room and called out, “Where is the guard who was watching this room last night?”
A guard walked forward, looking pale and tormented. Hard to blame him, under the circumstances. I looked at him grimly and asked, “Did the Lady Morgana gain entry to this room last night?”
The guard nodded, and he elaborated, “The Lady appeared and said she had urgent business with the King, and I admitted her. I listened at the door and heard the King acknowledge her, but after challenging her at first he made no further objections, and I heard them talking for several more minutes before I heard no more. When the Lady did not leave the chamber, I assumed that the King had allowed her to stay to comfort her, but the King has been slain and the Lady is gone—some fiend must have somehow gotten past me and taken the Lady after foully slaying the King. I beg your forgiveness for my failure, my King.”
I felt anger rise within me, only to feel it fade away. I looked at the wretched man and shook my head, “If the Lady had told me what she told you, I almost certainly would have let her enter as well, and the King did not object, from what you said.” I walked to the back of the room and opened the door to the secret passage—causing the eyes of all the guards to widen—and took the blade from Gaius as I held it up for the guards to see and added, “The assassin left by that passage—and I hope that against the apparent evidence that he entered that way as well.” The guards stared in dawning horrified realization, and I shook my head and concluded, “We'll know the truth soon. Go to the guardroom and await orders—we'll be fine here.”
The guards hesitated for a moment, then departed as I gave them a stern look. I turned to see Gaius looking at me with a supportive expression, and after a moment he commented, “If Morgana exited through that passage, surely she could have entered that way as well—why involve the guard by coming in the front door?”
“She didn't want there to be any doubt of who did it.” Merlin spoke quietly, walking to the window and looking outside. “No hunts for lurking sorcerers or treacherous druids—just one woman with a dagger and the king's trust, who could gain access to his chamber without recourse to magic. If she hadn't done it that way, we'd be looking for someone with magic right now to charge with regicide.”
I didn't like it, but Merlin was making sense, though I scowled at him and stated, “I'm not coming to any conclusions until we find out what happened to her—this could be someone who wanted to make it look like Morgana did it, someone who impersonated her by magic or other means.” Merlin's expression looked skeptical for a moment, but it quickly turned back to supportive as he nodded. I walked next to him and looked out the window—crowds were already forming, as the sense that something momentous had happened spread through the kingdom. I shook my head, then called out, “Let's go, Merlin—we have a kingdom to prevent from falling apart.” I strode out of the room where my father lay—I would never enter that room again.