Uther could hardly bring himself to look at the child at first. It wasn't the boy's fault that he had been his mother's death, of course. Knowing this did not make it easier to see Ygraine's eyes looking at Uther from his heir's face, and so he drowned his memories of her in blood and fire until he could look at Arthur and see only his son, not hers.
He still had no idea of how to talk to a small child. Perhaps, Gaius said, talking at all would help, because for the first three years of Arthur's life, this had been left to a succession of nurses, and this was hardly fitting for a future king. This not so subtle appeal to Uther's pride succeeded. He began to fill the awkward silences whenever his son was brought to him with lessons; lectures on knighthood, on responsibility, on the evils of magic. The awe and complete trust in his son's eyes - her eyes, but he did not think of this any longer – was soothing, and the boy seemed to take to his lessons. There was justification there; Uther could make his son into the future he wanted his kingdom to have.
Then the boy became ill. One of childhood's many illnesses, Gaius said, albeit a dangerous one. Uther sat at Arthur's bedside, watched the boy toss and turn and only then realized he did not fear for his heir, for the kingdom, but for his child. The horror and helplessness inside felt all too familiar, and he knew how to deal with it. This could not be a natural illness, no matter what Gaius said. It had to be magic. Uther ordered every room in the castle searched, but in vain. In the evening, he came to his son's bedroom only to find the boy didn't even recognize him anymore. And yet Arthur did recognize his nurse, grasped at her hands, while she murmured some peasant foolery over him.
That was when Uther knew. It hardly needed the discovery of herbs beneath the boy's pillow to prove the woman's guilt. He ordered her executed at once, and sure enough, Arthur's fever broke. The next morning found Uther's son no longer in danger, and able to sit up, eat and drink. It also found him asking for his nurse. There was a moment of temptation for Uther in which he wondered whether to leave an explanation to the servants, but then he banished the thought as unworthy. This, too, was a lesson his son needed to learn.
"Sometimes, those who are closest to us can harbour treachery in their hearts," he started, then, seeing the wide, uncomprehending look, phrased it in a way he hoped Arthur would understand. "Aldys was not your friend. She did not love you. She tried to hurt you, using magic. Do not grieve for her." Uther hesitated, then he knelt down in front of the boy, so they were at eye level, and put his hands on Arthur's shoulders. Maybe he should embrace the child, but he had never done so before, and he did not want to scare him. "It is a hard thing to learn. It was for me, too. But you need to understand that evil is around us, and it will rarely attack us openly. But this, too, will always be true: I will protect you, my son. I will stand between you and anything that seeks to take you from me. Do you understand?"
There was silence. Underneath Uther's fingers, he felt the child tremble slightly. With dismay and something that suspiciously resembled fear, he expected the boy to break out in tears, and again fought down the temptation to summon a servant for help. This was his responsibility.
"Yes," Arthur whispered, and if his son's voice was very low, so quiet, in fact, that Uther might not have heard the reply had he been standing up, then there were no tears in his eyes. Uther told himself that the hot satisfaction in his heart was paternal pride, not shaming relief.
When Morgana became the king's ward, she was still a child, but two years older than Arthur, and her father had allowed her sword fighting lessons. She was also taller than Arthur, though not enough so Arthur could have used this as an excuse as to why she was beating him. Most bewildering was the way Uther became a different person when she was around. She made the king smile, and he never seemed to look for someone else when watching her. And there was never any talk about her duties to the kingdom. Hard not to be envious and jealous of Morgana.
Then their bodies began to change. Morgana started to bleed, and suddenly Uther was stern with her, telling her there would be no more sword fighting, as she was becoming a woman, and even her fits of rage and tears would not make him relent. Paradoxically, this moved Arthur into sharing the way all lessons about duties of a prince towards the daughter of his father's dear dead friend had not done, and he offered to continue to spar in secret. For a while, this experience of acting behind Uther's back made them into allies; it was a new and quite heady experience. But Arthur continued to grow, and the fact that his father had him drilling with the knights twice or three times his age beside bore results. Morgana became smaller than he was, and softer, and he started to win nearly all of their fights.
"I hate you," she said, and he couldn't be absolutely sure she was joking.
"Should we stop?" he asked. She shook her head and muttered something about being locked up enough, but something, though not all, of the joy she used to show had irrevocably vanished.
When Arthur was twelve and Morgana was fourteen, Uther took him on a campaign. Border skirmishes with Mercians masquerading as bandits so as not to implicate their king, not a real war yet, but men fought and not in play. Two knights Arthur had practiced and jousted with, people he thought invincible, died, one, who had been charged by Uther to keep an eye on the prince, near enough that Arthur could see the man's face and smell the blood gushing out of his side. There was no time to think; Arthur went after the attacker with all he had, and when it was done, he realised he had killed for the first time.
He also realised he would never spar with Morgana again, not using blades, at least. "I could hurt you," he said when she protested once he was back in Camelot.
"You wish," she said, with her usual asperity and bravado, but there was an undertone of pain there, too, and he understood he had hurt her, only in a different way. He felt sorry; not enough to change his mind, not with the new understanding of what he could do. Morgana reacted by throwing herself into the role of a noble lady, heart and soul. Appearing in sumptuous gowns and wearing her hair in elaborate curls somehow had the result of making Uther treat her as an adult, while he still talked to Arthur as a child, campaigns aside. Uther even asked Morgana for her opinion once or twice, and when he did, her eyes flashed at Arthur in triumph.
There was a sense of mutual betrayal between them, just as there had been an alliance before, and before that, jealousy. Then Morgana had the first of her nightmares and screamed enough to wake up everyone in the keep. When Arthur showed up in her chamber, half expecting to find a monster attacking her, fully prepared to fight it off and show her how good he was at that, more than a little disappointed that nothing of the sort was present, there were tears all over her face.
"I dreamt I killed you," she whispered. "That I made it happen."
The horror in her voice was very real, and he had no idea of how to deal with it. "You wish?" he suggested, because making it into a joke seemed to be far better than to actually contemplate what she had just said. She scoffed, wiped her tears away and threw a pillow at him, telling him he was an idiot. But the fear vanished from her eyes, bit by bit as he continued to tease her, and she started to take potshots at him again. There was a comfort in their bickering he had not noticed until now, and at the end, when her maid rushed him out, they smiled at each other with mutual relief.
Jealousy, alliance, betrayal, reconciliation: this, then, was what it was to have a sister.
Arthur spent most of his time with the knights as he left childhood behind, but he didn't have a favourite among them. There were sensible reasons for this: he was the king's son, and any preferment shown by him, Uther used to say sternly, would foster jealousy and resentment instead of the brotherhood the knights were supposed to share. He also was younger than most, at first, and had to earn their respect, real respect, not just lip service, and this was done by becoming the best, not by trying to become someone's best friend.
(There was also an unexamined fear of what would happen if he did have a best friend, coupled with the bone-deep certainty that his father would send the man in question to the next dangerous mission, but Arthur did not care to follow that train of thoughts at all.)
Still, sharing the drills, the tournaments, the hunts, the patrols and the occasional genuine battles did create a bond, and it was not a little satisfying to find that if they regarded him as some sort of mascot when he was twelve, they looked up to him as the new and acknowledged champion by the time he was sixteen. At this point, his father had stopped participating in any of the daily exercises, had not taken part in a tournament for years, and the unspoken expectation was that he would soon turn actual command of the knights over to Arthur. If anyone thought this was premature and perhaps even ridiculous, they kept it well out of earshot. On the other hand, there weren't any murmurs of anyone looking forward to this day, either. It was as if they regarded it as inevitable as the weather, and that stung a little. Arthur reminded himself that he wasn't in the business of being popular.
Then one of the knights, Sir Pwyll, suddenly stopped training with the rest of them for a week, and when he resumed his duties, he insisted on wearing full armour and gloves all the time, despite the fact it was high summer. He also had a new manservant, as the old one appeared to have run off, and he did not talk to anyone beyond a short clipped "yes" or "no" . Arthur waited for one of Pwyll's friends to draw him aside and speak to him, and then realised he did not know who among the knights was friends with Pwyll beyond plain comradeship. For some reason, this made Arthur feel ashamed, and he decided to talk to Pwyll himself. This was easier said than done, as Pwyll did not give him any answers, either, so Arthur ordered him to stay around for single combat and proceeded to fight long past the point where anyone else had patience to watch them. When Pwyll finally begged to be relieved, Arthur refused, despite being close to breaking down in exhaustion as well. Pwyll fell to his knees, then, and confessed that he had discovered signs of leprosy on his skin, the sickness that made him one of the living dead. He had hoped to keep it secret a while longer, for he knew as well as anyone what would follow.
"A pity," Uther said regretfully when Arthur reported this to him. "He was a good knight."
"He still is," Arthur replied. It wasn't as if any of this was Pwyll's fault, and the man still walked, still breathed. Gaius said that in far away Italy, there were schools of physicians claiming they could treat leprosy, in a place named Salerno.
"A knight of Camelot has to be noble in blood, sound of mind and firm in body," Uther said, quoting from the code. "You know what has to be done. Are you ready to do this?"
What had to be done was to strike Pwyll's name from the rank of the knights, send him away, not to his home, for he could not return there, either, not as one afflicted with leprosy, and find a new promising scion of the nobility to take his place. It might be necessary, but it felt neither just nor noble. Surely they owed Pwyll more than this. Surely the knight's code did not only mean the knights were obliged to protect their king and kingdom, but the king owed protection to the knights in their hours of weakness as well.
"Am I in command then?" Arthur asked, trying to find his way through the wilderness of unbidden, rebellious thoughts that had just arisen and to show none of them. Uther looked at him searchingly, and then the king nodded.
There was no one in Pwyll's quarters but Pwyll himself, not even the new manservant. Arthur had to fight down his own fear before entering, and he was very careful not to touch anything.
"Sir Pwyll," he said, "you are to leave Camelot."
Pwyll nodded. He was not wearing his helmet anymore, though his armour still covered all the rest of him. His face looked ashen.
"On a pilgrimage," Arthur continued, and Pwyll, who had been staring at the floor before, raised his head in confusion. "To Salerno in Italy. If the physicians there can heal you, you may return. Not until then. But you will retain your rank of knight. As such, it is only just that we shall provide you with the means you need to travel, and insist that you continue to carry our arms."
Lepers were commonly stripped of rank and possession, and if they travelled, they did so on foot, in shunned groups, the prey of fearful towns and villagers who threw stones to keep them away. Some colour returned to Pwyll's cheeks, and he opened and closed his mouth again, drawing in a harsh breath.
"Thank you, sire," he murmured, his voice sounding as if it was about to crack. Arthur felt his resolve to be a good commander swim away at the prospect of the man actually crying, because he had absolutely no idea of what to say or do in such a case, so he just nodded and beat a hasty retreat. He made sure the gold for Pwyll's journey was ready, got Gaius to write a letter to the physicians in Salerno, and a description of the way, and ordered everyone to be there in the morning to take their leave of Pwyll. If Uther disapproved of the modified way Arthur fulfilled the code, he did not say so. Neither was he present.
"The king will not come?" Sir Pellinore asked, but made it sound more like a statement, while they watched Pwyll approach in his armour. Arthur shook his head.
"There is no need," he said. "I'm in command now."
At this pronouncement, there were some murmurs from the other knights that sounded suspiciously like the word "good". It spread a strange sense of warmth intermingling with the grief of Pwyll's fate.
This, then, was what it felt like to be a leader.
If there was a single person in the whole wide world less suited to be his manservant than Merlin, Arthur didn't want to meet them. To begin with, Merlin was clumsy, and sloppy; his own room at Gaius' bore evidence that the idea of cupboards being used to store clothing in them was news to Merlin. Secondly, he had only vague notions of what combat entailed, and got upset at hunting as if labouring under the delusion that the animals prepared in Camelot's kitchens had somehow ended their lives voluntarily. Thirdly, he had no sense of decorum; Merlin's idea of showing respect and restraint seemed to be not to talk back for five minutes. And most importantly, Merlin had less sense of self preservation than God gave a fly. Their first meeting had been a case in point, but started to look downright tame in comparison after Merlin delivered such masterpieces as accusing himself of being a sorcerer in front of Uther who had sworn to kill all magic users a mere two weeks after starting his service, and drinking from a cup he knew to be poisoned to prove a point to Arthur the week after that one.
Obviously, someone this idiotic and suicidal could not be left on his own; he needed constant supervision. Arthur told himself this was why he kept Merlin around; he was simply doing his duty as a knight, protecting those who could not protect themselves. It was a trial, but someone clearly had to, and if it meant missing out on some deer because Merlin had taken it into his head to run into a tree, then so be it.
This rather sensible explanation worked for Arthur until the time Merlin's mother came to Camelot and Merlin declared his intention of returning with her to his home village. Which was another of Merlin's attempts to get himself killed, albeit for a far better reason than usual; helping his mother and the rest of the village against a warlord was the right and honourable thing to do, and Arthur could not fault him for this. Following Merlin to help was just a logical consequence of acknowledging the justice of the cause, and of continuing to protect those who could not protect themselves, especially if their mother was at stake. It wasn't until they were actually in Ealdor that Arthur faced some utterly unwanted truths that were not covered by the knightly code at all.
For starters, watching Merlin with his mother, who was full of warmth and tenderness without being weak at all, felt like being shown a strong shield one was proud of was actually made of painted wood. Arthur told himself it was unworthy to feel envious, but he wasn't always strong enough to suppress the odd hunger he felt when Hunith embraced her son, or Gwen, or Morgana. She would have embraced Arthur, too, but he wasn't that far gone. Then there was Merlin's old friend Will, whose mere existence was a surprise, and it shouldn't have been. Of course, Merlin was bound to have old friends. He had had a life before he came to Camelot. A life he could return to when this was all over, and the thought stung, almost as much as Will's accusation that Arthur was here for his own glory and would get everyone killed. Which made no sense at all. Between his mother and his old friend, Merlin obviously did have people who could take care of him, so Arthur should be grateful and advise him to stay in Ealdor once the warlord had been dealt with. This one particular problem aside, it seemed to be a far safer place than Camelot. So the responsible thing for a liege lord to do would be to leave Merlin in Ealdor, return to Camelot and get himself a new manservant, a proper one this time, who actually would do as he was told.
Arthur did nothing of the sort. He didn't even attempt to make the suggestion. It wasn't because Will revealed himself to be a sorcerer and died; "why don't you stay with your mother, she obviously misses you very much" would still have been a sensible thing to say. Not to mention that if Uther ever found out Merlin's best friend had been a sorcerer, he would look at Merlin's foolish self accusation from months ago in a new light. No, Ealdor was the safest place to be. And still he did not leave Merlin there, struggling the whole way back with the extremely unwelcome realisation he could not imagine not being stuck with the worst manservant ever, getting his hunting expeditions ruined and being forced to consult Geoffrey's dusty volumes for new insults, because for a peasant, Merlin had an amazing vocabulary, and it just wouldn't do to be surpassed in this regard.
It had nothing to do with knightly honour at all and was selfish, but there it was. He needed Merlin. This conclusion did nothing to improve Arthur's temper. "Is that a joke?" he snapped when on the morning after their return to Camelot, Merlin managed to serve him breakfast a full hour late and with several items missing, muttering something about being attacked by a goblin on the way. This being Camelot, he might actually have been telling the truth.
"I thought you'd enjoy fighting something before breakfast," Merlin said, face unreadable. "You know, because of all that training you've been missing the last few days. Or are you saying liberating your food from a goblin is too tough for you?"
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, and went on a goblin searching quest even though he was pretty sure Merlin had been lying and was just winding him up. In the end, he found his missing breakfast in a wooden box that looked as if it might have been used for Gaius' herbs otherwise and certainly smelled like it, and somehow was standing on one of the towers.
"Must have been some goblin," he said to Merlin. "He probably poisoned it. Which means you get to eat half of it, just to make sure."
"Are you saying you don't trust me?" Merlin asked with his usual wide eyed look that meant he was definitely not telling the truth, except there was an undertone of seriousness there that meant he wasn't entirely kidding. Arthur remembered that half-finished conversation in Ealdor before the battle. He also remembered the panic that had gripped him when he saw magic on display, before Will had claimed it as his own, because of what it must not, could not mean.
"You know what you are?" he said to Merlin. "The sort of person I trust with my life. Not with my breakfast. But I guess that works for me, so shut up and start eating, because I'm really hungry now."
Arthur didn't know when exactly he began to think of Morgana's maid as "Gwen" or "Guinevere", only that he had already known her for years by then. Somehow, she remained in Morgana's service while his own manservants before Merlin came and went. "That's because I actually talk to people instead of ordering them around," Morgana said smugly when he asked her, which both proved she was missing out on the definition of "servant" and was living in self delusion, because she spend most of her time ordering him around, or trying to.
He did know when he first noticed something about Gwen that extended beyond "pretty, pleasant and competent, especially in comparison to certain other servants". This was when she shamed him in Ealdor by pointing out his lack of gratitude towards Hunith for the meals Merlin's mother was providing them with. She was right, and for the first time, he saw her as something other than an extension of Morgana; realising he did not know anything about her, not really, and that if this was true of Guinevere, it was true for most of the people who weren't knights or his immediate family, which was an unsettling thought. He was supposed to rule them one day, and they were strangers.
After her father's death, he made sure she would not lose her house or her job, but he also wondered how she could stand looking at him without wishing to kill him. He had stopped regarding his own father as right about everything a good while ago, but if someone killed Uther, no matter how mistaken they might have been, or how understandable their motivation, Arthur still couldn't imagine forgiving them, or being at peace with them at least. And he knew that Uther never forgave anyone, for anything. Mercy from his father meant a quick death instead of a long and painful one.
Gwen was different, and sometimes, as when he was sick after his encounter with the Questing Beast and heard her voice in his delirium telling him he needed to survive because of the king he might be, he wished he could be different, too, and learn her way of seeing the world. It wasn't the fact she had expectations of him that was new; everyone had, since the day he was born. But she was not related to him, she did not owe him anything, and had every reason to resent him; she had watched him for years and had to know he was his father's son. For her to have faith in him was an unexpected present Arthur didn't quite know how to live up to.
Then he shared her house for a while, and managed to fail the task of being a good guest quite thoroughly, as he realised to his chargrin when she told him just how rude he had been. Again, she was right in her observations, and utterly fearless; amidst trying to figure out how to make it up to her, he thought that she was beautiful, and how blind he had been to have missed this so far, which had nothing to do with anything else.
Sadly, this blindness would not return, and he wanted it to. What if her hands, used to work as they were, were as strong as any knight's, what if her dark eyes were fine, what if she had the kind of smile that made one only wish to add to her happiness so she would smile again? It wasn't as if he could offer her any kind of future. His father had always made it clear that marriage was a matter of state and should only be done in a way that benefited Camelot. If he suspected Arthur might feel more than a passing infatuation for a servant girl, Gwen would find herself dismissed and banished before the night was over. (Or dead, something in Arthur whispered; it was the oldest of all lessons.)
Going back to the way things had been proved to be impossible, though, and not simply because he could not watch Gwen without remembering that brief moment when she kissed him. Arthur could control himself, no matter what certain people who would remain Merlin thought, and he didn't make himself ridiculous the way some of the knights did around Morgana, openly pining and all but shouting the name of their beloved to the world. But he couldn't stop thinking about her, and what he thought was this: Gwen might or might not feel for him what he felt for her, but she certainly did not need him. Take away Arthur, take away Uther, for that matter, and say the Pendragons did not rule Camelot but someone else did, perhaps Morgana's dead father, Gorlois, and Gwen's life would be the same, only better, because chances were her father would still be alive. This was not only true for Gwen but for many, if not most, of the people. They might need someone to protect them from warlords like the ones who had menaced Ealdor, but it did not truly matter who that person was.
On the other hand, the reverse was anything but true. Take away Gwen, take away Merlin, take away the knights and take away the people who trusted their lord to protect them instead of bringing down devastation because of ill advised hunting expeditions involving unicorns, and Arthur's life really would have no point. They were his reason and justification for existing. That was what his father had wrong. It wasn't that the people needed them. It was that they needed everyone else.
Arthur did not know what to call this need. But arguing for two hours in vain with Morgana who had taken to eating in her chambers since her kidnapping by the druids, watching Gwen then persuade her to make an appearance at the feast in a few minutes, finding Merlin to complain to about the incomprehensibility of women only for Merlin to call him a prat again, he suspected it might be love.