Actions

Work Header

O Most Unthankful

Chapter Text

It is a great privilege that the gods have granted me: to serve as tutor and guide of the one who someday will serve as High King of this isle, uniting our people and thrusting back the darkness that has already overwhelmed so much of the world. This much my visions have told me.

I tried to keep those visions in mind one sunny afternoon in May, as I confronted an angry youth whose sole goal in life, it now seemed, was to provoke his tutor into murdering him.

I took a moment to gather together the books that my pupil had scattered about the table, though I ignored the ones that had fallen to the floor. Some of these books had cost men's lives to be obtained; more to the point, some of them had nearly me cost my life. I waited until my breath was steady once more before I turned and said coolly to the young man before me, "I am waiting, Arthur."

Uther's son glared at me, saying nothing. He had passed his fourteenth birthday the previous midwinter, and had shot up in height since then, leaving his limbs to fill in the flesh when they had the time. Until then he was lanky and somewhat awkward in his movements, giving all too many who met him the impression that he was nothing more than an untamed colt, like many boys his age. That impression vanished once visitors saw him at practice in the weapons-yard; it took longer for them to realize that his mind was as cutting as his sword.

Given that I could not attribute his silence to lack of wit, I sharpened my tone, saying, "I said that I was waiting, Arthur. I do not have the patience of a god."

Arthur mumbled something then, a phrase obviously not meant for my ears, but ten years of travelling amongst cutthroat barbarians had sharpened my hearing. I took a moment to shoo away a bird that had flown into the schoolroom through the open window and was inspecting some fragments of parchment that had torn off when Arthur dashed the books onto the table. By the time I was through doing this, I had steadied myself enough to say calmly, "Very well. Explain to me, please, why Homer, the greatest poet the world has ever known, writes . . . nonsense." I rephrased Arthur's appraisal into more polite terms.

For a moment, I thought that Arthur would continue in his black silence. Then abruptly he moved, with the swiftness that allowed him to better his elder foster-brother in arms, and pulled from the floor one of the books, spreading it out onto the table. Jabbing with his finger, he said, "Look at this! The Greeks have decided to fight the Trojans – they've been doing so for ten years, and victory still awaits them – and in the midst of it all, Prince Achilles decides to go off and sulk like a little child, abandoning his comrades!"

I looked down at the passage he was pointing at: "Meanwhile unstirring and with smoldering heart, the godlike athlete . . ." I refrained from saying that the description of young Achilles fit very well the description of Arthur at this moment. Instead I said, "Well, he believed that Agamemnon had stolen his girl from him. Desire can make men do foolish things."

"Foolish!" Arthur stared at me, his straight brows drawn down in fury. "It's madness, that's what it is! If the Trojans win, they will surely take revenge for the Greek assault on them, and Achilles' people will be among those who suffer. He's destroying his own land for the sake of a passing passion – that's unforgivable!"

He was standing erect, with all the authority of a royal prince making a pronouncement. It would have been a humbling portrait if he had not had a bit of dried honey left at the edge of his mouth from the midday meal. I felt my mouth twitch, but said gravely, "I am gratified to hear you say so."

Suddenly all the dark rage was gone, and he was biting his lip. He looked down, staring intently at his sandals for a moment, and then said hesitantly, "I was thinking of my father, actually."

For a moment, I could do nothing but blink – Arthur, like all of Britain, knew the tale of how his father had courted his mother, but I would not have expected the young prince to condemn Uther's lustful folly as severely as many did. Fortunately I said nothing, for Arthur continued, "He put aside his own desires for the sake of his land – he sent me here to be fostered safely, though he surely would have preferred to have me by his side all these years. That's how a true king should act, making sacrifices for the sake of his people."

I was silent again, but this time out of uncertainty of how to reply. Ectorius and Belin had chosen to give Arthur an abridged account of the events leading up to his fostering; it was Arthur who, adoring his royal father from afar, had placed the positive interpretation of Uther's motives upon those events. One of these days Arthur would have to be told the truth, but none of us wanted to be the messenger of ill-tidings. Most likely the task would fall to me. It usually did.

"On the topic of following one's royal duty . . ." I looked pointedly at the books on the floor.

"Oh." Arthur gave one of his bright smiles and bent to retrieve the fallen books. Placing them gently on the table, he said, "I'm sorry. I ought not to have mistreated them. I lost my temper, just like Achilles did."

The trouble with Arthur, I thought as I came forward to help him sort the books into order, was that he rarely offered me time enough to scold him; he usually ended up chastising himself before I had a chance to do so. Sometimes I wondered whether he really had need of a tutor, or whether he simply tolerated me as a friend of his father, to be given respect when I was nearby and to be laughed at when my back was turned.

We sorted the volumes in silence for a while, a pool of light falling upon the table from the doorway, which faced toward the courtyard. Faintly I could hear the sound of maid-servants chatting as they drew water from the well for cooking, and further off the sound of horses entering the courtyard. I saw Arthur raise his head at this, and I said, "Not Ectorius."

"No." He gave a half-smile. "He won't be back for weeks – the Picts are causing too much trouble at our northern border."

It was a wonder, really, that he remembered the name of his foster-father; a widower and a dedicated soldier, Ectorius had been on the field practically every day since Arthur's arrival here as a baby. When I had arrived here four years before, I had found Arthur to be a quiet boy, almost sullen, overshadowed by his foster-brother who would inherit his father's title. I had watched Arthur for three days; it was like watching a bright flower shrivel in the shade. Then I had announced – I had not been so tactful as to request – that I would take over his tutoring from the villa's priest.

Fortunately, Belin was a true follower of his god, without jealousy and only nervous lest I should introduce the boy to knowledge forbidden to one being raised in the faith of the Anointed One. This I had been careful not to do; indeed, there seemed no end of lessons I could give Arthur on matters that a future High King would need to know.

Now I stole a look at Arthur out of the side of my eye. He was no sheltered prince: his skin was browned by days spent in the fields, helping Ectorius' laborers bring in the harvest; his arms were crisscrossed with the faint lines of old blade cuts, for he refused the royal privilege to practice with blunted blades; and his hands were calloused by days spent helping the servants, after he had finished his own duties.

Not a sheltered prince; instead, the sort of prince that Britain had been waiting for since the Empire withdrew its protection from this isle. A prince that almost no one knew existed. And I had only my visions to depend on to believe that this would ever change.

"I don't think he even cared about the girl," said Arthur, as though there had been no change in our conversation.

"Perhaps not," I said, "but Achilles did care later about his friend Patroklos."

Arthur looked over at me, saying nothing. I took from his hand the book he was holding and folded it out until I found the passage I wanted. "Here," I said, pointing. "Read this, and you'll see what I mean."

I nearly laughed as I looked over and saw the expression on Arthur's face as he stared down at the Greek. "I've finished my translations for the day," he suggested hopefully.

I smiled, laid my hand on his shoulder, and left him gazing gloomily at the parchment.

o—o—o

I met Caius in the corridor; he was racing back from the courtyard, an opened letter in hand. I put my hand out to stop him and said, "News from your father?"

He shook his head. He was a big-boned lad, four years older than Arthur, with little taste for books but surprisingly skilled in numbers. Since I had virtually no command of numbers, he had made his assessment of me early on. Now he looked me up and down, as though I were a servant who had interrupted his betters. But the enjoyment of being the first with the news was too great; he burst out, "No, from the High King!"

"The High King?" I looked pointedly at the open letter.

He was far paler than Arthur, and I could see the flush travel over his neck. He said stiffly, "It was addressed to my lord father. Father said that I was in charge of the estate while he was away."

"Yes, of course." I had to remind myself that Cai was eighteen, well into manhood, and certainly qualified to run the estate in his father's absence. "And what is the news, if I may ask?"

This phrasing of the question pleased him. He said, with his chin raised high, "The High King has asked us to send troops to him. He is hard pressed by the recent attacks."

"Uther has always been hard pressed by the Saxons," I said. "Will your father agree to the request?"

Cai considered this question a moment, and then shook his head. "We have too much trouble to the north; we couldn't spare the soldiers. But—" He raised his chin once more. "I shall ask my father to send me, so that I can fight at the High King's side. The High King specifically asked for me in the letter."

This was news I did not want to hear – that Uther was so lacking troops that he must beg his lords to send their first-born sons. Here in the north, we were relatively sheltered from the dark waves of attacks that had devastated the south, leaving scores of villages and towns in smoldering ruins, with men killed and women and children led off to slavery. But I had no doubt that, if matters continued as they were, either the bloodthirsty Picts would travel south to overwhelm us or the heart of Britain would be lost to the scavenging Saxons. And then all the gods of the world would not be able to protect us from what I had seen in the old Western Empire.

I closed my eyes momentarily, haunted by a vision of young Arthur speared in his gut and left to die in agony. It was not a vision brought by my power; I must trust that the gods saw better than I did what lay ahead. Opening my eyes, I said, "Did the High King request that you bring Arthur with you?"

"Arthur?" Cai stared at me as though I had named a field-hand.

"Yes, Arthur. Your foster-brother."

"But the High King wouldn't want him around. He—"

He stopped himself, too late; it was forever Cai's burden that he stopped himself when it was too late. He bit his lip, and then bit harder as I grimly took hold of his arm and pulled him into the privacy of the summer room.

This chamber faced northward, toward the bleak hills that rose into cold mountains. Cai, as I released him, looked longingly toward the door, and then scuffed his feet for a moment on the mosaic of a merlin in flight.

"I have to go see Belin," he said, trying to sound manly.

"Presently," I said. "For now, explain to me why the High King would not want to see his own son."

He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again and said, "Look, I know. You don't have to pretend around me."

I raised an eyebrow and leaned back against the wall, folding my arms against my chest. This was the chilliest room of the house, being unheated year-round, but I was warm enough in my tunic and breeches. Cai, who stubbornly adhered to the older Roman style, was shivering under his toga, and knew it, and was glaring at me as though I were a Saxon he was assigned to spear.

"And what is it that you know?" I asked carefully.

"That Arthur isn't really the High King's son. That he's Gorlois' son, begotten upon the Queen before her old husband died. And that's why the High King sent Arthur away – because he's the son of the man who was traitor to the High King and raised a rebellion against him."

I was grateful that Cai had not eavesdropped upon the worst part of the tale, which was that Uther had been prepared to slay Arthur outright until I intervened. "Gorlois might have had a somewhat different perspective on the matter," I said dryly, "considering that Uther plotted to commit adultery upon his wife."

Cai frowned, chewing his lip. "But you helped him."

"I did, and not in order that a son of the Duke of Cornwall might be born. I helped the High King fulfill his desires because, on the night of Gorlois' death in battle, when Uther lay with the woman who had been Gorlois' wife until a few hours before, Arthur was begotten, the true-born son of Uther and therefore his heir."

Cai frowned yet further, biting at his thumb until he finally said, "But the High King doesn't believe this."

"The High King doubts it," I agreed, passing lightly over the furious bout of shouting between Uther and me that had led to him banishing me from his presence for the past fifteen years. "Yet even if Arthur were begotten by Gorlois, he would still be Uther's heir, for he was born when Uther and his queen were married, and Uther has fathered no sons since then. So rest assured that your little foster-brother, who is so unfortunate as to be better than you in arms, will one day be your sovereign lord."

Cai started to reply with fire, then saw my smile, stopped, and after a moment gave a grudging smile as he kicked at the mosaic. "He'll be a good king," he said, with all the eagerness of a virgin being raped by a barbarian. "It's just that he knows he'll be a good king."

"Which is very irritating, I'm sure," I said gravely. "But Cai, he will have burdens enough in years to come without the loss of your support."

Cai shrugged. "He'll have your support. That's all he needs."

I studied the face of the frowning youth before me, silently cursing myself. I had known for some time how deeply jealousy had poisoned Cai's feelings for his foster-brother; I had not realized that I was part of the jealousy. Yet it was plain to see how it had occurred. I, Merlin, known for my great works for the High King and for his brother the High King before him, had come to this part of the world where few visitors travelled, had made myself at home in the villa—

And had paid no attention to Cai. My attention had been focussed on the younger boy who would inherit, not Ectorius' estate, but the fate of Britain.

This was no small matter of brotherly quarrels. When Arthur finally emerged from this country hideout to claim his title, men would look to see who supported him, and without his own foster-brother's support, there was little chance Arthur could win his throne. I wondered whether it was too late to turn part of my attention to Cai. I suspected that it was; he was too old now to need a tutor, and I could offer him little help in running the estate. It would be Arthur who would have to sort through this problem. It seemed I had placed yet another burden on the young prince, and I found myself wondering once more whether Arthur would have sooner seen me gone from his life.

There was a hollowness in me that I could not understand – something that went further than the interest I had in the future High King's welfare. What it was I did not know, but I could feel my power pressing upon me, as though I were on the edge of seeing something new.