Uther had imagined the afterlife would be more than it is -- he was expecting to continue his rule over Camelot, Ygraine by his side. He would see his father, his father before him. Fallen warriors, fallen friends. It might be quiet, but he would be happy.
Instead, he finds himself alone in the courtyard garden. The sky is overcast, the color of the flowers falls flat, there is no sunshine to warm his skin. He feels a breeze that he does not see in the trees. He hears the soft sound of Ygraine's laugh, but when he turns to greet her she is never there.
It is cruel, to have been denied her living years, to be denied her these years after.
Uther moves around the garden as he pleases, falling into a doze on the well-worn wooden chair hidden in a nook, or on the cushioned stone bench.
After returning from the realm of the living, he had spent time pacing around the gardens, planning on how to return, how to return Camelot to his rule. He was proud of his son, but that pride did not negate Arthur forgetting everything that he had been taught. But the pacing was tiring, and his anger slowly faded.
Now he just sits, eyes closed, head tilted up to the sky. He imagines sometimes that he feels the warmth of sunlight, that he hears the echo of Ygraine.
Days pass, or perhaps they don't. Uther does not know if he is existing in one dreary overcast afternoon, or if the sun rises and sets beyond the metal gray clouds.
There's the click of footsteps approaching, boot on stone, sounding far closer than the echo normally does.
Uther opens his eyes.
Nimueh stares down at him.
And then he's on his feet, stepping back.
"Good afternoon, Uther," she greets.
"What are you doing here?" he demands, reaching for a sword. He looks down in alarm when he sees that he is without his sheath, and he realizes he has been unarmed the entire time. He looks back up at Nimueh, and glares. Her betrayal of him still stings sharp -- it is needlessly cruel that hers is the only company he has had.
"There is a matter of grave importance that we need to discuss." She turns, eyes tracking his movements as he angrily circles around her. "Take my word for it, Uther Pendragon, I would not approach you of my own volition. I come on behalf of your son. He is in great peril."
Uther stops, and frowns at her. "I am well aware of the danger Arthur is in."
She looks visibly surprised, before she reigns herself in. "How?"
"I had visited the realm of the living not long ago. I saw the state Camelot has fallen into, peasants made knights, a serving girl made a queen. His own manservant is a sorcerer, and has been the entire time. And I suppose that is your doing, isn't it? I banish you from my court, your kind from my land, and so you send a sorcerer in to poison Arthur's mind once I have gone, to--"
Nimueh throws her head back and laughs. "Oh, Uther, I had forgotten how much a fool you were. It was you who appointed Merlin to Arthur's side, not I. I have no allegiance nor loyalty to Merlin, other than recognizing that he is the greatest sorcerer in Albion, and recognizing that he has a greater power than mine, and that he is the only thing keeping Arthur alive right now." She mulls her words over, before adding, "Or the closest thing to it."
A stab of panic goes through Uther. "What do you mean?"
"Arthur has attempted to enter the Spirit World. Anyone may enter it, and in time everyone shall, but to leave the Spirit World is no easy task, especially for mortal men. He has doomed himself. But Merlin went with him, as he does, and through his power, there is a way to send him and Arthur back to the land of the living."
"How do you know of this? And how can I trust any of what you say?"
"I cannot answer your second question," she says, gaze hard, "but as for the first, I am a powerful sorcerer myself, but Emrys is far more powerful than I. He does not want to be found, much less by anyone in this land, and with all my power I was only able to sense his presence. There is only person who will be able to find him, who is able to talk to him. He has told me of the situation, and he will need your help to arrive there, as loathe as he will be to admit it."
Uther waits, suspicious.
Uther snarls. "What use will a Dragonlord be of to me?"
"He is Merlin's father. The line of a Dragonlord is passed from father to son--"
"Merlin is a Dragonlord," Uther says, faintly, horrified.
"And as such," she continues, patiently, "they share a bond the extent of which does not end in death. Balinor has been able to cut through Merlin's magic, open a conversation with him. He can sense his son, and can save him."
"What does Balinor need me for?"
"There are many here who may not want Arthur to return to Camelot. Balinor would be able to make his way undetected where he needs to journey, but it might take more time. As we do not know Merlin's power, we cannot know how much time there is before he loses his connection to the land of the living, and Balinor needs to make his way as quickly as possible. You were once a great warrior, and Arthur is your son. I thought it might be beneficial to inform you.”
"And if I do not trust Balinor? Or you?"
Nimueh's gaze goes cold, as does her voice. "Then I will cease to waste my time. If you do not care for your son--"
"I care for Arthur," Uther interrupts, starting to grow angry himself.
"Then Balinor is waiting outside the castle."
She turns, and makes her way to the corner of the garden, where there is a hidden door that exits out of the castle.
"It is not possible to leave the castle," Uther tells her, as he follows after her. "The doors are locked."
At this, her gaze goes soft and pitying. "Have you tried them?"
Uther has not, but he does not want to give her the satisfaction. He walks past her, and sets his hand on the handle. He pulls at it, and it gives, drifting quietly open.
The land outside the castle is not the land of Camelot. He steps onto a rocky terrain that encompasses the entire area. The world remains colorless under an overcast sky.
Balinor is standing a few strides off, back turned to them, facing a mountain range rising in the distance.
"Balinor," Nimeuh calls out in greeting.
Balinor turns, and gives her a bow. "My Lady," he replies. He straightens back up, and looks down his nose as he glares at Uther. To Nimueh, he continues, "I was expecting it to take far longer."
Uther glares at him. His temper has been steadily increasing during his conversation with Nimueh, and it is beginning to hit a peak. He regrets agreeing to work with this man, regrets opening his eyes. He does not greet Balinor, and instead asks, "Which way are we heading?"
"East. We will have to travel under the mountains, that much I can be sure, but past that I am uncertain of where the path lies. It will be nightfall soon, it would be best to arrive at the mountains by then. Keep up and keep close." And then he is striding off.
Uther stares after him, enraged.
“It would be best to do as he says, Uther,” Nimueh says, a laugh in her voice.
He turns around, but Nimueh has vanished.
Uther stares at the castle, but for all his regrets, there is no desire to return to the place; not when he knows his son is in danger.
Balinor has not stopped to wait, has not slowed his pace, and Uther follows him.
They walk in silence for hours, the mountains slowly rising up before them. The dull lighting remains the same, but as they make progress, the rocky ground under foot tapers off into sparse grassland. After so long in the grassy gardens with unyielding stone paths, the muffled sound of their footsteps on dirt makes Uther feel oddly uneasy.
It feels like little time has passed, but soon they are starting up the incline of the foothills.
"We will stop here for the night," Balinor announces, as he draws to a stop.
Uther continues a few strides past him, then turns around. In the distance, he can’t make out where his castle is. He had been planning on continuing forth, but now that he cannot see where they had come from, he is all the more eager to keep going. "For what reason?"
"It is night, and it would be best for us to rest."
There is something about Balinor's tone-- how he speaks very calmly and very slowly, as if his patience were worn down to nothing-- that sets Uther’s temper on edge. "For what purpose? I am not tired, nor does it darken in this place, so unless your magic allows you to see something I cannot--”
“Have you not been seeing the passing of the days?” Balinor interrupts, brows drawing together.
Uther looks up at the sky and frowns.
Balinor takes a step in, gaze intense. "Does it look as if it is to storm soon?"
Uther draws himself up. "I presumed I were cursed by a vengeful sorcerer, not to see the sun shine.”
Balinor shakes his head. “You are a cursed man, Uther,” he says, “just not as how you thought.”
Before Uther can object, Balinor turns away from him, and starts chanting. His tone is deep and low, and Uther can feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up. It’s magic, deep and powerful magic, and Uther feels powerless against it.
"I must say, I did not expect you to call upon me so soon," comes Nimueh's voice.
Both men turn around, and see her standing before them.
"And I must say, I did not expect you to hold valuable information from me. As a High Priestess of the Old Religion, I expected you to pay me the courtesy of giving me the entire story behind this disaster," Balinor says, coldly.
Nimueh’s expression shifts into something harsher. "You presume much, Balinor. I have told you all that I know."
"You mean to tell me you did not know he was a Weeper?" Balinor asks, sweeping an accusing hand towards Uther.
"What is a Weeper?" Uther asks. When neither reply, only stare at him, he continues, "I demand that you tell me."
"Uther," Nimueh starts, voice soft in concern. "Is it raining?"
"Are you two mad? Of course it isn't," Uther says, furrowing his brow. "The sky is overcast, and there will be rain soon, but I hope that at least one of you would have noticed had it started already."
Nimueh looks to Balinor. "It was overcast in the gardens, but I did not know it would follow him."
Uther feels suddenly very off-balance. "What do you two mean?"
"A Weeper," Balinor says, somberly, "is a soul who is so consumed by their grief, they are unable to keep from weeping. So much so that they perceive the weather to follow suit. Even when there are clear skies to all others, Weepers are always in the rain."
Uther looks up at the skies. They are still overcast. Tersely, he says, "I take it the skies are currently clear, then."
"They are, and it is quite obviously nearing midnight. Weepers don't notice the change of days-- it feels like one drawn out day, for the rest of eternity."
The looks of Balinor’s accusation and Nimueh’s pity wears on him. "And what if I were a Weeper?" Uther snaps. "Would I not have reason to weep? After what magic has done--"
And then Nimueh is gone.
And Balinor is in his space. "Would I not have reason to weep, Uther?" Balinor demands, dragging him in close. "Your hatred of magic has driven me from the woman I loved, the child she raised. You made me a blood traitor, damned to wander this forsaken land, knowing I was the death of my kin. Your men hunted me, and they hunted others like me, and they hunted men who were entirely innocent. So many men have suffered at your hands, and all you can think of is your own suffering?"
"It was caused of your own arrogance, thinking you could best the Old Religion," Balinor hisses.
"It killed my wife," Uther yells, shoving Balinor back.
"And in the aftermath, how many wives did you kill?" Balinor bellows. "How many families did you ruin, in the process of exacting revenge for something in which you alone bore the entirety of the guilt?"
"If you think so lowly of me, why are you here helping me? Why did you ride to help me when the Great Dragon attacked Camelot?"
Balinor laughs, dark and bitter. “It was not for you -- when I rode to Camelot to appease Kilgarrah, I came because I felt indebted to Gaius. As I am traveling with you now, it is because my concern for my son outweighs my utter contempt for you. I am not here because of you, but despite. For all that Lady Nimueh insisted that I would need your help, I am fully confident in my ability to travel without you. It was only my respect for her that made me agree to this arrangement.” Balinor takes a step back, finally. The fire slowly fades out of his gaze, and he just looks weary. “I have very little else I desire to say to you, and I trust you feel similar in that regard. And so now I am going to collect firewood, and with any luck, we will have very little else to say to each other for the rest of the night, if not for the rest of our travel.”
Balinor stalks off.
Uther watches him go, torn between wishing to follow and confront the man, and agreeing that there is little else he desires to say. As he is not armed, he finds a fallen log, and settles down on it.
Setting up camp for the night is unwieldy -- for all that Uther strongly disagrees with Balinor on most points, he cannot deny that it has felt like one eternal day to him. Although he dozed off on occasion, sleep has never been a conscious thought.
Now, with a handful of hours before they are to resume their ravels, Uther finds himself at something of a loss. The ground is hard, and Balinor is setting up a sleep roll, and Uther does not know if he has a second, but if he did, Uther would not ask and Balinor is not the kind of man to offer. Instead, as Balinor starts on the fire, Uther starts collecting pine needles to soften the ground.
Unwilling to have his back towards the open foothills, and likewise not desiring to have his back to Balinor, Uther lies down ramrod straight on his back. He closes his eyes, and tries to will himself to sleep. The crackle of the fire is loud, and it distracts him, and makes sleep that much more difficult.
He thinks of all the long nights as king when sleep was difficult (thinking about how to save his country and protect Camelot), and he remembers Ygraine beside him, her presence calming him.
He imagines her next to him.
He imagines seeing her again.
It feels like it has only been moments of him closing his eyes, when he is woken by his name. He sits up, snapping to alertness almost instantly, and he sees Balinor has mostly cleared the camp, and is standing above Uther. He makes no overture to help Uther up, and he feels an anger at the disrespect, but ignores it in favor of standing up on his own.
To his great surprise, though, Balinor hands him over a sword. "We will be entering what may be dangerous country," he says. "You may need this."
"Are we not already dead, though? What harm will a blade do?" he asks, though he gladly takes the blade, and starts giving it a few test swings.
"That is no normal blade," Balinor says, tone overly patient, "though even in the afterlife, a wound is a wound, and needs time to be healed."
"How is it unlike any other blade?" Uther asks, feeling more curious than he wishes he were. It feels like one other blade he has had in his hand, the way it moves smoothly. The balance is almost perfect, and it feels like an extension of his arm. Despite his experience with them, and general knowledge of swords making, he does not know the finer details, such as what would make the difference.
Balinor does not answer him, though, and instead just starts off from the camp.
Uther strides after him, making a point of not hurrying.
"I have been through these mountains many times," Balinor says, over his shoulder, when Uther is closer. "Keep towards me, and do not get lost. I do not think Merlin is in immediate danger, but I want no delays. Keep me in your sights, always."
Uther nods, even though he does not think Balinor would have seen it.
They wind their way between trees, and through jagged rocks. There’s a sharp path down, as a giant cave opens up into the side of the mountain. Balinor picks up a large stick, the end wrapped in cloth, and he says a few words under his breath, and the end lights up.
Uther has his sword out and ready in an instant, though parts of the movement feel sluggish, and the blade suddenly feels awkward in his hand.
Balinor had turned at the sounding of the drawing sword, and his gaze bores down at Uther. "You wound me, you kill your son," he says, expression sharp, voice tight. He turns around, and goes deeper into the cave, striding, not slowing down.
It takes Uther some time after him, as he is less familiar with how to place his feet, doubly so when the fire moves further and further away.
Uther is not willing to call to Balinor to have him slow, and so he hurries as best he can, while still being extra careful of his footing.
The cave is dark to Uther, which he finds unsettling, being so used to the constant overcast lighting.
He thinks he might actually be able to sleep in here, which is the strangest thought of them all.
Uther is only starting to regain a sense of time, but it seems to take quite a bit of it to navigate through caverns. Balinor is surefooted, turning down fork after fork, not stopping to check his progress.
"Are you certain we are heading the right way?" Uther asks.
"Quite certain," Balinor says, not bothering to turn his head, only pitching his voice slightly louder. "As I said, I have travelled this passage many times. This route is familiar to me. I care for my son, I would not want to endanger him by taking a wrong turn, and I would not risk not checking were I unsure."
The way Balinor speaks is very slowly, as if speaking to someone he views as being quite unintelligent, and it rankles Uther. He has never been one to suffer disrespect, and now is no exception. He knows that Balinor is his ally in keeping his son safe, and it is only that fact that keeps Uther from testing the deadly capabilities of the sword, now a familiar weight at his side.
They do not speak as they travel, and it makes sense to Uther-- from his memory of twenty-some years ago, Balinor had always been a quiet man, never spending that long in court, instead taking to talking to the dragons for hours at a time.
As well, Uther has made a fair share of traveling through mountain tunnels before, and those were often done in silence. Though that had been the result of traveling through areas in which there were likely wilddeoren, not for finding his traveling company scarcely tolerable. Rather the opposite, for Uther had always enjoyed Gorlois’ company on scouting missions when they were both younger men and Uther was not yet a king.
A ripple of shame goes through Uther to think of Gorlois in comparison to Balinor, when the men are nothing alike.
He also feels a ripple of shame at the fact he has not thought of Gorlois often.
His only thoughts have been of Ygraine, and more recently of Arthur.
There are others to consider, Uther thinks, as he walks behind Balinor. He is gladdened that Gaius is not yet dead, although he has a sinking suspicion that Gaius must know of Merlin's sorcery. Gaius' past in the subject makes Uther fear many things, such as the idea that Gaius may have been aiding Merlin to taint Arthur's mind. Gaius has only ever shared Uther’s concern for Arthur, and Gaius spoke against magic often, but Uther cannot be sure that Gaius has not in fact not been using it. And even if he has not, Nimueh described Merlin as being a powerful sorcerer. It is more likely that he is working alone, against Arthur. His unerring loyalty to Arthur must have been a ruse, lulling Arthur to think as highly of Merlin as he does, allowing him to get close.
To the warlord within Uther, he would be tempted to commend Merlin for his strategy -- ten years is a long time, and to play for the long game is quite remarkable. But as it comes at the expense of his son, Uther swears that when they reach him, he will test out the harm that the blade can do.
They arrive out of the mountains, and Uther lifts his face up eagerly to the sky, but the color is still a smooth stone gray; if anything a darker color it had been going in. He frowns to himself.
"It is nearing nightfall. We should camp here."
"Why? Should we not go farther?"
Balinor looks at him, askance. "As I said, it is nearing nightfall. It would be best to settle down somewhere that we might know well enough."
"I do not know this place."
"Thankful for us, I do."
"You come here often?" Uther asks. It would explain how Balinor had lead them so easily through the maze of tunnels.
Balinor nods. "I have made the journey a few times.” But he offers no further information. Instead, he continues to gather firewood, as Uther watches him.
The man has not lead him astray yet. Uther does not trust him, will never trust him, but he does wonder what the man has been informed of, what Uther has not yet been informed of. He wants desperately to know why Arthur is in the spirit world, but Uther sees no reason why Balinor would know. Instead, he focuses on another aspect that he has been questioning in the back of his mind. “Have you come across many others?”
Balinor starts setting the firewood up. He regards Uther coolly, before he murmurs a string of words, and a fire blazes up.
Uther’s hand tightens on his sword hilt, but he refrains from drawing.
Balinor looks almost pleased. “A few.”
“How much of a danger are they?”
“So far, the men I have come across have not served as any threat.”
“Then what danger are they?”
Balinor gazes at Uther, hard and searching. "Are you happy?"
Uther blinks, startled at the change of conversation. "I beg your pardon?" he demands, bristling at the personal nature of the question.
"Are you happy, Uther Pendragon?"
Uther just stares at him. He feels as though he is being attacked, and he wants to assert his happiness, defend himself. But he can’t.
Balinor looks satisfied. "You are not. Do you not think there are others who would have been unhappy with their lives, and as such unhappy in the after life? We have not found the peace needed to truly pass on, and so every one we would meet would share the same weary and unresting unhappiness."
"What do you have to be unhappy about?"
“Although I have told you once before,” he says, his voice low, gaze burning, “I will put faith in the possibility you may listen this time. I was the death of my kind, Uther. You made me the death of by kind, my kin. Some were able to pass on themselves, seeing that in the grand picture, our kind will live on, and one day flourish again, they know that magic will see its place in King Arthur's kingdom. But there are some that have not made peace, some that carry the same resentment I do. I am going to them for atonement, as even though it was not my intention to cause their desolation, I am still the cause of it. Some have found their peace, and passed on. Others still need time more, and I have that to give them. I am a murderer, Uther, in everything but in act. I will find my peace one day, I know, but until then, I will work to deserve it. That involves helping my kin, and that includes my son, who is in danger still.”
“I have no pity for you,” Uther tells him.
"You do not feel much of anything for others," Balinor just replies, head held high, eyes blazing. "I do not expect you to feel any remorse, or repentance."
"Magic is evil," Uther continues. "You brought your fate upon yourselves."
"We were born as Dragonlords. We served you. And I suppose, for alleging ourselves to such a cruel tyrant, we did bring our fate upon ourselves. It is only that much more that I must repent for, and atone for.” He sighs, heavily. “I grow tired of discussing matters you will not consider. I am going to get some rest. I suggest you do the same."
"We are dead, we do not need to sleep."
"Our spirits may be free of our mortal bodies, but it does not do good to deny oneself of sleep, alive or no. Rest might do you good." Balinor's eyebrows go up as he considers what he just said, and then he turns and goes a way off, and starts to unroll his bedding.
Uther assembles his own bedding, lies down. Try as he might, he cannot imagine Ygraine.
Uther is roughly brought back to a state of wakefulness, to an empty campsite.
For a moment, Uther wonders at the possibility that Balinor has left him. For all that Nimueh had insisted Balinor needed him, Uther has not felt as though he’s been providing a great service to the man.
But there’s a cracking of twigs, and Balinor makes his way back into the clearing. “Let’s go,” he says, tone more curt than prior.
It is strange -- Uther has had many campaigns in the past, and he knows what it is like to camp out, to leave quickly, but they get up and go. Uther is used to having to tend to his soldiers, tend to their horses, eat and dress and prepare. It leaves him wanting, not being able to eat (though he feels no desire to do so), and he feels uncomfortable from sleeping on the dirt with only pine needles to pad the ground, but at the same time, the feeling is distant, and soon wears off.
His body is not quite his, and not quite connected. It is strange, and it unsettles Uther, as does the fact that sky seems to get darker and darker.
He will not tell Balinor, as the man deserves no such knowledge.
Uther is glad of the fact that they will bring Arthur to safety -- or as much safety as he can be in, with his manservant a traitorous sorcerer -- but beyond that he feels little good will towards Balinor, in no small amount due to the unrepentant lack of respect and regard Balinor holds towards Uther.
They continue, down the foothills of the mountains, across a stretch of rocky terrain. It is difficult, though Uther cannot articulate why -- he has no mortal body, and he does not feel any mortal weariness, nor does he have any hunger or thirst. He is a ghost, and that is all there is to him. But he still feels weary, and he is silently thankful when Balinor slows to a stop.
“Stay here,” he tells Uther, before stepping up a large outcropping of rocks. He lifts his head to the sky, and from the angle Uther is at, he can see Balinor’s eyes are closed, his mouth moving.
A wind seems to pick up, the forest leagues beyond them swaying, Balinor’s own hair whipping around his face.
Something about the situation makes Uther nervous, and he looks around. "We should hurry," he calls to Balinor.
Balinor opens his eyes, and turns to him. He opens his mouth, but then just sighs out angrily through his nose. "I am far more concerned about going at an understandable pace and making sure we are heading in the right direction, rather than hurrying and going to the wrong end of this realm."
But Balinor seems to have found the direction, and he jumps down from his stoop, and starts them towards the forest.
Or Uther believes they are heading to the forest, but every so often Balinor adjusts their path north of the forest.
After the fourth adjustment Balinor makes, Uther stops. He watches as Balinor continues on, and when it quickly becomes apparent that Balinor is not going to stop, Uther calls out, “Why are we not going towards the forest?"
Balinor stops, and turns back to Uther. He has a pinched expression on his face, the same get always gets when Uther asks questions. "Because," he starts, patiently as always, "the woods are not safe."
"Why not?" Uther demands, striding to close the gap between the two of them. Then, thinking the better of it, asks, "Will it be a quicker journey through the woods."
"No, for, as I said, they are not safe."
"Would it be a shorter journey, then? Would we travel less if we were to go through them, instead of around them?"
Balinor looks pained as he says, "Yes."
"Is our destination above the woods, so it would be best to go along its edge, or is our destination straight through the woods?"
Balinor looks at the woods, his gaze somewhat distance -- Uther knows he is searching within him, for whatever force is pulling him. After a few moments, he sighs. It takes him another long moment, before he announces, expression pained, "Through the woods.”
"And do you not want to get to your son as quickly as you can?" Uther says, his throat going tight. He does not know how to account for it, but he has been feeling a low pull of tension, the worry in the back of his mind steadily growing.
"Shortcuts," Balinor says, and the man is honestly pointing a finger at him, "makes for long delays. But," he adds, with a heavy sigh, as he starts walking towards the woods, "arguing with Uther Pendragon would make for a longer one."
Uther grants him the courtesy of not addressing the statement.
"Are you not going to ask what's dangerous about the woods?" Balinor asks, sometime later, as trees start growing thicker around them.
Uther has never been overly appreciative of nature, but he enjoys the quiet strength of the trees, rising high above him, how strong they look against the overcast sky. Balinor has stopped, has his head tilted up towards them -- Uther supposes the sunlight is trickling onto his face.
Uther supposes he misses the sunlight, but more than that, he knows he misses Ygraine, and he yearns for his son.
He wonders if that's the problem, but he doesn't care.
“I presume it would be the others in this realm, that are no threat nor danger, that you still have reason to fear.”
“They have not been a threat to me,” Balinor corrects. “And I fear not for myself, but that your presence may bring out in the anger in them. I can only imagine how many men were brought here, sorcerers and druids and innocent men alike, who have not been able to let go of their hatred for you."
Uther draws himself up, and reaches his hand towards his sword hilt. “Let them come.”
Balinor turns to look back at him, and his expression looks oddly disappointed. He frowns, but says nothing, just looks ahead and leads them through the forest.
They continue on in silence for a long time, before Balinor draws to a stop. He walks over to a tree, and runs his hand along the bark.
After a few moments, Uther sighs, and makes his way over. He runs his eyes over the wood, but he can make out nothing to differentiate the tree from others they have passed. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Druids have passed through these woods. But they...” he trails off, brow furrowed. “The ones who ended up here would not have the power to place a curse on an ancient place like this.”
"A curse?" Uther repeats.
"It has to be more than that," Balinor continues, but he seems to be talking more to himself. "It doesn't..."
"The woods are cursed?" Uther repeats, more loudly.
"We have passed this area thrice in the past hour," Balinor replies.
"I have been through cursed woods before," Uther says, thinking back to the many druid camps he had passed through, "and they have never impeded progress through the wood before."
Balinor turns to Uther, his face flickering in some emotion Uther hasn’t seen from him before, before it settles into a grim, dark satisfaction. "Then that makes sense. Curses from the woods can last through many lifetimes. You went through druid camps, blessed places, and you murdered innocent people in them. You have been cursed, and it has finally caught up with you.”
"I trust you will be more use on that than you are with my other curse?"
Balinor is quiet, and his expression is stormy. "Your other curse."
"The fact the skies are--"
"That is no curse that has been laid on you, Uther," Balinor interrupts, a quiet fury burning in his words. "That is a misery of your own making, even more than this is. Thankfully for you, you are traveling with me, and I have shown nothing but utter respect for the woods. For all that you have desecrated, and for all they might trap you here forever, they will respect my desire to travel through them. They will not delay us long."
"You thought something like this would happen, and you led us in here regardless?"
"Shortcuts, long delays," Balinor repeats, and then keeps walking. "You brought my son into the equation. I find I do foolish things when he is involved, such as traveling to Camelot when your son asked. I find I am concerned little for my own well being when my son is involved."
“You and I share that, then,” Uther says.
Balinor gives him a long look at that. “I suppose we do,” he says, gruffly. He sighs, then continues, “We will make no progress for the rest of the night.”
It takes Uther some time to come back to himself the next morning. He feels tired in a way that has nothing to do with sleep, and everything to do with the fact the sky is darkening above the treetops.
As they move through the forest, Uther keeps an eye on their surroundings, and grows agitated as he starts to recognize clumps of bushes, distinctive branches on trees. He keeps an eye on his and Balinor’s movements, seeing if navigation is the issue, but their course keeps straight even as they pass the same clumps of bushes.
Balinor himself seems to be growing agitated as well, his strides longer, the line of his shoulders harder. Uther has seen him angry, in their past confrontations, but there is a new element to his body language.
"We camp here for the night," Balinor announces, coming to a standstill.
"It's barely night," Uther says. His sky is dangerously close to black, to the point where it could very well be night; but he does know the flow of time in this place, and it can't be more past mid-day.
"That may be true, but we are going to make no progress going as we are. We need to wait for the forest to forgive you, before we can journey forward."
Uther prickles. "It is not my fault."
"Many things in this journey are your fault.”
There’s something wrong in Balinor’s tone, and Uther gets the sense Balinor is talking about something other than the argument they keep repeating. “And what do you mean by that?”
“Have you not once wondered why Arthur traveled to the Spirit World in the first place?”
Uther glares at him. “Of course I have. As soon as we come to them, once I am assured of my son’s safety, I am going to ask him.”
Balinor’s expression is far too knowing.
A sick thought hits Uther. “Do you know why?”
"I do," he says slowly, his expression turning far more cautious. "But I do not believe that you would take my words seriously, or give them any serious consideration."
Uther frowns. "And what do you mean by that?"
"From what I understand of what my son has told me, Arthur has traveled to the Spirit World to find the spirit of his mother, talk to her. Ask for guidance. Ask if he is really too lenient in his rule. Ask if he might have one parent he has not failed."
Uther goes cold. He still holds his disapproval for Arthur’s rule, for what Arthur has done to Camelot. But the idea that he has failed Arthur, that his own disapproval of Arthur has possibly sent him to his death... He frowns. "I do not trust you," he says.
"As I believed you would not. You do not accept blame when it is rightly placed on you, I did not expect you to feel the remorse for this action. But I am not going to waste my time trying to convince you of such. You need to come to the realization on your own, and I trust it will happen, in time."
And that, more than anything else Balinor has said, takes Uther by surprise. "And what would make you say that?"
"Because you are in this land. It is not just unhappiness that ties us here -- there is some deep wanting. You are looking for absolution, and you will only get it if you grant it to yourself."
"What are you waiting for, then?" Uther fires back. "You make my plight to be so pitying, and yet you are in this land just as I am."
"And I suppose I need the same thing," Balinor admits. "But at least I am aware of it."
The next morning, Uther is woken to his shoulder being roughly jostled. “Uther,” Balinor says, urgently.
Uther rises to his feet, quickly coming to alertness. “What--” he starts, but then he looks over Balinor’s shoulder, catches sight of it.
“The edge of the forest,” Balinor confirms. And then he starts off at a jog, Uther following close behind.
Balinor is speaking in a language that Uther does not recognize, though it does not seem to be any spell, but something more like a plea.
They break into a clearing, and a relieved laugh bubbles out of Uther. "Finally," he says, taking a few steps, enjoying a clear view of the sky. He turns around, and sees Balinor is bowing to the forest. He bites back a comment.
Balinor reshuffles his pack, before he claps Uther on the shoulder as he passes. "We should hurry," he says, before once more starting off a jog.
They fall into a steady pace, and Balinor has lost all of the other’s day uncertainty, set straight on a destination and leading them to it.
“I take it you know where we are headed?” Uther calls out, thinking it cannot hurt to be certain.
"The Citadel of the Blessed,” Balinor calls over his shoulder. “It holds ties to the Isle of the Blessed, in Albion. I have suspected that it might be where Merlin and Arthur are, but I spoke with Merlin last night, and am sure of it now."
“How long will it take us to reach there?”
“It should not be long,” Balinor replies, even as he speeds up.
They jog until the sun falls, and past.
"Balinor," Uther calls, as he increases his pace just slightly to match Balinor. "We should rest for the night, should we not?"
Balinor slows, but does not stop walking. "We should," he says, reluctantly. "It would take us until sunrise to get there, and I will need my strength to get us through the barrier my son has raised."
“It is why Nimueh was not able to find him. To protect him and Arthur, he has raised a series of protective spells, which have kept them hidden from those seeking them. But they are at the Citadel, and we are close. ” Balinor starts drawing in the dirt. Uther does not know the land well enough to recognize the landmarks Balinor draws, but he memorizes it regardless. "We will have to travel another few leagues, but if we leave at dawn break, we shall arrive late morning.”
“Is there a plan for what needs to be done when we get there?” Uther asks, uncertainly. He knows magic will have to be used to send Arthur back to the land of the living, and he fears it, fears the ways a spell may twist itself to take what is most dear to him, as it always does.
Balinor sighs, heavily. “Of that, I am not certain. It will require a magic more advanced than mine. Merlin will be strong enough, surely, but I do not know if he knows any rituals that would be needed to send them back.”
Balinor looks at him, for a long moment, eyebrows raised in surprise.
“What?” Uther snaps, feeling oddly defensive.
“I was expecting you to suggest an alternative to magic, not an alternative magic user,” Balinor says. “But Nimueh would know the ritual needed.”
Uther stares at him, discomforted as Balinor summons Nimueh once more.
“Balinor, Uther,” she greets. To Uther, she looks tired in a way she did not the last time they met.
“I am surprised that you have not been dropping by, keeping an eye on us,” Balinor says, something like humor coloring his tone.
In response, Nimueh’s expression goes cold. "My position as High Priestess of the Old Religion is not one that faded with my mortality. There are still obligations I have, as well as other matters I must look into."
Balinor’s expression sobers. “I apologize,” he replies. “Although it may not be of the most importance, I hope you have been able to look into ways to send Merlin and Arthur back to the land of the living?”
She nods. “And I am looking still,” she admits, looking displeased. “Merlin has used up a large reserve of his magic to keep the two of them tethered to their human bodies. The barrier keeping them safe is faltering. I have sensed his magic, and he only has enough to send one of them back. I am looking for ways to bolster his magic, so they may both return. And they both must return, if Albion is to flourish.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Balinor asks.
“That remains to be seen,” Nimueh replies. “There are still some options I have yet to look into. Though if I may take your leave...”
“Of course,” Balinor says, his own tone off. “I apologize for keeping you.”
Nimueh evaporates in a whirlwind of smoke, and Uther looks away. The last time he had seen a similar display of magic was when a witch had taken Lady Helen’s body and tried to kill Arthur. He takes a deep breath, pushing those thoughts away.
“I have never seen Nimueh in such an ill mood,” Balinor muses.
Uther is turning back to Balinor, when he sees a flicker of movement.
“I had not anticipated--”
“Quiet,” Uther interrupts, in warning. He draws his sword, and keeps gazing around. They’re on the edges of a scarcely wooded area, and although the clouds above are dark and the light is scarce, there is more lighting for him than he imagines there is for Balinor.
There’s the quiet unsheathing of a sword. In a low tone, Balinor asks, “What do you see, Uther?”
“Four men,” Uther replies, counting them. “Waiting to ambush us.”
“Well I would hardly consider it an ambush anymore.”
Uther snorts, then shifts. “Seven men,” he corrects, seeing another group slowly approaching.
“I have rarely made my way to this stretch of the realm, and cannot think of a better place to camp for the night.”
“And so we fight,” Uther announces, voice ringing through the area.
The other spirits take their cue, and they charge.
The man who reaches them first is quick and agile, though has terrible swordsmanship. Uther ducks a wild swing, and brings his blade up and into the man’s side. He stumbles back, when Uther withdraws, and falls to the ground. He doesn’t move.
The next attacker to reach him is more cautious, and guarded with his blows. But like the other, he is a weak swordsman, and Uther takes care of him easily, as well as the next.
While Uther is on his fourth attacker, he hears the ringing of clashed swords, and sees that Balinor is fighting a ghostly white spirit. He is babbling angrily, and though the snarling Uther can make out the name Arthur.
Uther quickly dispatches of his current attacker, and retreats a few steps to Balinor. These are all men that are passingly familiar to Uther, they would have not been wronged by his son. "What do they have against my son?" Uther demands, as he quickly takes down another attacker.
"It is far more a grudge against you than against your son," Balinor yells back, after the babbling spirit has fallen quiet at his feet.
Uther stills at the comment, his breath taken away.
"Uther!" Balinor yells, gaze over Uther's shoulder.
Uther brings his sword up on instinct more than anything, preventing the blade from grazing his side. And it is instinct that has him feinting back as he turns, dodging a second blow. There is a caution in this spirit as he draws back, falling into a defensive position. They deflect Uther’s strike with ease, and go in for their own strike. The fact that the spirit has some degree of training has them exchanging another few volleys of strikes, but it is not enough to make up for the fact Uther has had far much more battlefield experience.
The spirit puts too much force into one swing, is unbalanced when Uther dodges it, and Uther strikes into their side.
The spirit falls to the dirt, and Uther spends a few moments catching his breath, surveying the land to make sure there are no more advancing attacks.
In the silence, Balinor goes around, rolling all the spirits onto their backs.
“What happened to them?”
“I had our blades enchanted with an ancient magic. Those wounded by them fall into a deep sleep. I will recant the spell once we have sent Arthur and Merlin back.”
Uther sheathes his sword, and does not dwell on that it is magic. Instead, he just says, “Unless you think we should move our camp, I will keep watch.”
Balinor raises his eyebrows. “I do think it would be best to stay. As just proven, it does well to prevent ambushes. Let me sleep a few hours, then I can take over the watch from you.”
“It is not my strength that will be needed to save my son. I will keep watch,” Uther says, hoping it does not come off as dismissive as it sounds.
It must not, because Balinor looks begrudgingly thankful. After a moment, he even goes so far to say, “Thank you, Uther.” Then he turns his back, and in quick, efficient movements he lays out his bedroll.
As he watches Balinor sleep, Uther realizes he could leave.
Balinor would have had no reason to deceive Uther with his map, and so Uther could find the Citadel on his own. He could demand Merlin to send Arthur back to the land of the living, then wound Merlin to ensure he could not follow.
Balinor starts them off at a brisk jog, as they pass through the sparse forest.
Uther tries to clear his mind, after spending the entire night prior reflecting on his reign, wondering why some ardently held beliefs didn’t seem as true now. He had come to no conclusions then, and he will not come to them now, and he focuses on the rhythm of their advance, footsteps in the dirt.
Dirt turns to grass, and soon the ground starts to incline.
“Just past this hill,” Balinor yells over his shoulder, speed picking up.
They crest the hill, and below them lies a decrepit citadel.
Any thought of a steady pace has been abandoned, and Uther follows Balinor’s rush down the hill, towards the citadel, towards the drawbridge leading into it.
Balinor strides across the drawbridge, and as Uther attempts to follow him, he's hit by a wall of fear, of confusion, and he takes a step back, wanting very much not to follow through.
Balinor has disappeared, and Uther is beginning to wonder if he should not himself disappear in the opposite direction.
But then Balinor has a hand gripping Uther's shoulder. "It is powerful magic, warning all beings to keep their distance," he says, in low tones. "But I share the same magic, I will be able to shield you from the brunt of it. But you must stay very close to me, do you understand?"
Uther swallows a few times, fighting a powerful fear to run away, but his son is waiting for him, so he nods.
Balinor leads him across the drawbridge, and then the haze that is at the edges of Uther's mind absolutely shatters as they enter a clearing, and Uther sees Arthur.
He takes off at a sprint, and drops his knees at his son's side. Merlin is holding Arthur, but Uther reaches out and pulls Arthur away from him, cradling his son to his chest. "Is he still...?" he starts, voice cracking. He runs a trembling hand down the side of Arthur’s face, looking for any sign of life.
"Yes," Merlin says, his own voice hoarse. "I don't know how much longer I can keep this spell up, but for now, he is safe."
But he does not look safe, nor does he look alive.
Uther presses his forehead down to the top of Arthur's head, and fights against the tears that are building up. He swallows a few times, trying to keep himself composed, but he knows, deep down, that he is the reason that Arthur is here. To see Ygraine, to see a parent that is proud of him.
"My son, I am sorry," Uther whispers to him. Despite his attempts to dispel them, a tear trickles out of the corner of his eye. He bows his head further. "I am so sorry. This is all my fault." His breath catches, and the tears are coming stronger now. He is weeping as he repeats, "This is all my fault."
Overhead, the sky crackles with thunder, and soon Uther feels a rain drop on the back of his head, his neck, his shoulders. Uther hugs Arthur, pulls him in tighter, trying to keep him safe from the storm, futile as he knows it will be.
He can feel his son's breathing only faintly, and it's a wound more than anything else.
He pulls back from his son, watching the rain hit his slack face. "I am proud of you, for all you have accomplished, for being a better man than myself." He clears his throat. "I am sorry I did not see it before. You are a great king, and I am proud of you for that. And I am sure your mother would be so proud as well."
"Uther..." comes Balinor's voice from behind him.
There's a touch to his cheek then, and Uther blinks, startled, eyes widening as he looks up to see Ygraine kneeling down at Arthur’s other side.
"Ygraine," he says, the name falling from his lips, as though it hasn't been years since he was able to address her last.
She smiles at him, as she traces her fingertips down his cheek, the touch lighter than the rain.
Then she turns, moves her touch to Arthur's brow.
His brow furrows.
"Your father is right, Arthur," she says, tracing her hand down his cheek. "I am so proud of you."
Arthur's eyes slowly open, and he blinks a few times. He opens his mouth, but nothing comes out, though Uther thinks he's mouthing 'mother.'
"Hello, Arthur," she says, and she herself looks like she wants to cry.
“Mother,” he finally manages to croak out. “I... I...”
Uther has to look away from his son’s face. He sees Merlin is kneeling, a hand wrapped tightly around Arthur’s ankle. He’s sodden wet, his pinched expression from earlier replaced with a look of pure relief.
“You kept my son alive,” Uther says, wondrously.
Merlin startles, turns to Uther. His expression goes guarded, and Uther is reminding of their last confrontation. Merlin has no love for Uther, no respect for the king. He’s a sorcerer, he should hate Camelot. He should have left Arthur to wither away in the Spirit World, not stay by his side for days on end.
“Why?” Uther asks, finally.
Ygraine answers for him, quietly saying, “Because magic is not evil.” Uther feels a reflexive desire to fight it, but Ygriane's voice is firm as she turns to Arthur. "I wish there would be a way for you to recall this once you have woken up in the land of the living, but magic is not evil, only men are. But there are good men, Arthur, and you have grown to be one yourself."
Arthur’s eyes start to water, and he presses his lips into a thin line.
Ygraine is looking at Uther again. “And you are starting to become one once more,” she says, a hint of reproach in her voice.
Uther watches the raindrops fall down her face. He turns around to Balinor, who has been standing a respectful few steps away. He is nearly soaking wet. “It’s raining,” Uther says.
“I had noticed,” Balinor says, voice low, something like humor in his voice.
“I thought it would be raining for me, and me alone.”
“Were you still a Weeper,” Balinor explains, “it would be.”
“It is part of the ritual,” Nimueh says, dropping down to a knee beside Ygraine, a cup between her hands.
Uther can’t help the immediate wariness, as he is bombarded by memories of the last time this occurrence took place. “What ritual?”
“My passage back to the afterlife, for Arthur’s return to the land of the living,” Ygraine says.
“No, Mother, you can’t--” Arthur says, while Uther starts, “Ygraine--”
She speaks over them, saying, “I have made it to the afterlife once, I will find my way back once more.” She touches her fingertips to Arthur’s cheek. “I am doing this willingly.”
Nimueh sets the cup at Arthur’s lips, and tilts it back.
Reluctantly, Arthur starts to drink.
"The ritual is done. Your time is ending," comes Nimueh's voice behind them. "Merlin, you need to return to your bodies now."
Merlin nods. He tightens his grip on Arthur's ankle, and starts chanting.
Behind, Nimueh continues the chanting, words different but somehow sounding the same, and then Merlin's eyes flash gold and he and Arthur disappear.
Silence reigns for a few moments afterwards.
Uther turns to Ygraine. "I have been waiting to see you for so long," he says, finally. "I have missed you."
"As I have, Uther," she says, a soft smile on her face.
His throat works, overcome with happiness with finally seeing her smiling once more, but at the same time, “I am sorry that it was under these circumstances, though,” he confesses.
Her head tilts to the side. “What do you mean?”
“That sending Arthur back will keep you from the afterlife, all because of my mistakes.”
Ygraine shakes her head. “I have given up my instant passage back to the afterlife, not my right to return there on my own. As I said, I have made it to the afterlife once on my own. I will make it there once more. This time, I think,” she adds, beginning to smile once more, “with some much desired company.”
Uther’s throat tightens. “I do not think I am at peace, yet,” he admits. He bows his head, closing his eyes as once more tears streak down his face.
“But,” Ygraine says, touching a hand to his cheek. “One day, you will be.”
Uther sits in the gardens of Camelot, Ygraine’s hand warm on his, lifts his head up to the first rays of sunshine, and smiles.