They wake up to a blustery, chilly dawn, but the rolling hills and copses of woodland are lush and green.
It's a good day for a ride through the countryside.
At first, Uther finds himself enjoying the morning ride and the fresh air. It clears his mind. Yet he cannot relax, for he feels Morgana's cold and furious resentment as she follows close behind him. He senses it almost like ice down his spine.
She says she's forgiven him, but he doubts it. Morgana's too much like himself, in so many ways, and he certainly knows how to carry a grudge. Yet he hopes he can win her over.
His gloved hands twitch on the reins, and his horse shakes its head, irritated. Uther wishes he had a goblet of wine in his hand. He should have brought a flask, but he didn't want Morgana to see him drinking during this pilgrimage.
He has difficulties sleeping. The wine helps. So does the gloves he always wears, creating a barrier between himself and reality— especially the reality of human touch.
The burden of the past takes its toll. There are too many memories. They keep him up at night. Some of them haunt him.
He turns in the saddle to meet Morgana's eyes. "Is everything going well? We've a long ride ahead of us."
A vision of exquisite beauty in her long green cloak, his daughter nods at him. "I am well, my lord. The fresh air does me good. It clears the mind."
Those are his own thoughts, reflected back at him. Yes, his daughter is very like him.
He faces forward again, moving with the horse's slow gait, travelling towards Gorlois' resting place in the far hills and sinking into thoughts of the past.
It was that thrice-damned woman, Lady Vivienne. She wove the vicious web that has tangled them all, from the first day he set eyes on her till this day. She is to blame, and so is his own lamentable stupidity in not having realized the danger she represented and the evils of magic much sooner than he did.
In the early days, the free practice of sorcery was accepted, even encouraged. He understood too late that it was a scourge upon the land. He's worked tirelessly for more than two decades now to eradicate magic. And yet— without it, he would have neither a son nor a daughter.
Uther sighs, his face an emotionless mask as his mind continues its relentless journey back in time.
* * * * * *
Uther didn't know back then how strong her magical abilities were, and at any rate, he himself used the High Priestess Nimueh as his councillor, sometimes also his oracle. Nimueh could scry and see glimpses of the future, and would on occasion deliver prophesies. She was ancient, but ageless. He trusted her at that time, more fool he.
Lady Vivienne was beautiful, charming, and temperamental. She did as she pleased, with no one to tell her no. He's never understood what her true intentions were in acting the way she did during their acquaintance. Vivienne has remained an enigma to this day.
In the middle of the strife and seemingly endless battles for the kingdoms of Albion, it was perhaps strange that any man had time for courtship and for planning a family. Nevertheless, that was what both Uther and Gorlois had done. They were young men then, with boundless energy, high hopes for a better tomorrow, and passions burning bright.
Uther had known from the moment he met Ygraine De Bois that she was the one for him, the only one, forever and always. They married in a lull between battles, just as Uther had gained a foothold in Camelot, and he swore to her that she'd be the queen of Camelot all her life.
That vow certainly came back to bite him.
They were so filled with joy and love! His heart still hurts to think about it.
Gorlois, meanwhile, had fallen head over heels for Lady Vivienne. She initially refused him, perhaps aiming for a higher position at court than becoming a mere duchess. Eventually, once Uther and Ygraine had married, Vivienne accepted Gorlois' proposal. She did not hide that, although unmarried, she was with child at the time. As far as Uther knew, she had never divulged who that child's father was. She'd laugh and say he was a powerful spirit risen from the Lake of Avalon, that he had ensorcelled her and stolen her free will, or other such nonsense. In hindsight, maybe it was true, although it was more likely she'd participated in one of the indecent Druid festivals.
Gorlois married her anyway, promising to treat her child as his own.
They'd all four of them been happy for a few months, revelling in their love, their new kingdom, their near-certain glorious future.
Then Nimueh had to make her damn prophesy. That witch had ever been a harbinger of doom, an omen of darkness, he saw that now. Back then, he had believed her.
"Vivienne's daughter will be your doom, Uther Pendragon. She will be the death of you."
He'd been aghast. He'd talked it over with Gorlois, who had been furious— angry at Nimueh for her dire warning, angry at Uther for even contemplating its truthfulness. If Vivienne were to have a daughter, she would be as Gorlois' own, and no child of his would cause Uther's downfall.
The heated arguments about the prophecy created the first fractures in the rock-solid friendship between the two men.
Ygraine cautioned Uther against rash action. Even if the child were a girl, it would be many years before she could spell anyone's doom. They'd face that threat when they had to.
Uther had believed at the time that Vivienne didn't know about the prophecy. He'd later learned that he was wrong.
When her time came, Vivienne did indeed have a daughter. Uther was away on campaign when the babe was born. As soon as he returned to Camelot, the newly appointed court physician, Gaius, told him that the child had been frail and had died mere days after birth.
Uther was relieved, although he tried to hide it from Gorlois, who went about looking like a thunderstorm. Vivienne on her side retreated to the Isle of the Blessed, ostensibly to find solace and strength with the High Priestesses. Hah! Solace indeed. Those hateful witches surely had influenced her in the most malignant ways.
Thinking back on it now, he wonders what Nimueh and Vivienne could have had to say to each other. They could hardly have been friends, but perhaps they had reconciled and joined common cause in secretly stirring up evil? Frowning, Uther imagines the two witches, cackling, their heads together over some boiling pot of harmful potions.
Some years passed. With Gorlois' help, Uther slowly strengthened his grip on Camelot, securing the borders in battle upon battle, winning new lands to add to his kingdom. The two men were a good team on the battlefield, both of them excellent and inspiring commanders. They discussed strategies, challenged each other on risks and rewards, and sparred together to keep fighting fit. Gorlois was loyal, but never afraid to speak his mind. And they could laugh together until their sides nearly burst. Those were good times. They were in their prime, war was their way of life, and they got used to winning.
At home in Camelot, Ygraine would be waiting. She was the light of Uther's life— her grace, delicate beauty, love, and kindness the center of his existence, the sun that his world and all his mighty deeds revolved around. Their only grief had been that Ygraine did not conceive; but they were still young. They had time. Or so they thought.
Vivienne had returned to court by then, and behaved as a proper lady should, keeping herself back, acting with respect and decorum. Gorlois was completely devoted to her. Uther was relieved that Vivienne's return had not stirred up any old grudge from the quarrels over the prophecy. Gorlois never mentioned it.
Uther still consulted regularly with Nimueh, but she had no more to say on the matter.
Then Vivienne showed her true colours.
Two neighbouring minor kingdoms had joined together to attack Camelot's northern provinces. Gorlois left to lead Camelot's forces and to beat back the invasion. Uther remained behind for some days to take care of the plans for defenses to the east. He was alone, as Ygraine was visiting the De Bois estate and her brothers for a time.
One late evening, Vivienne appeared in the quiet council chamber, bringing a flagon and two wine cups.
"We haven't been on the best of terms," she'd told him, as he looked up from a table overflowing with parchments and scrolls. "It pains me. You are my husband's closest friend. I want to start anew, and let the past rest."
She offered him a drink. He was suspicious, but weary and distracted by battle plans, logistics, and army reports. He thought sharing a cup with her would be the easiest way to get her to leave without creating any sort of scene.
He drank the wine.
In hindsight, it obviously contained a magical love potion. The one minute he was wondering how best to make her leave, the next she was the most desirable woman he had ever beheld. She slipped into his hungry embrace with an enigmatic smile, whispering; "I've been so lonely," before kissing him. Her eyes were bright gold. It was all a blur after that.
He awoke the next morning to find Vivienne standing by the bed, looking down on him disdainfully. Her dark hair tumbled freely across her shoulders, and she was only wearing a light robe. Her potion's impact had worn off.
"You threatened the life of my daughter, Uther. You robbed me of her presence. But this I foretell: You will not rob me of your child."
He watched her go, furious, incredulous, and with a sinking, queasy feeling. How could he have let this happen? Had she meant those final words the way he interpreted them?
"Leave Camelot, harpy, and stay away forever!" he'd roared after her. "Never let me see your face here again, or Gorlois will know just what sort of woman he married! I'll kill you! Leave!"
She did leave, returning at once to Gorlois's estate in the south.
Uther, on his part, left for the war in the north the very next day. He was still in a wild rage, and Camelot's enemies got to pay the price. They learned to fear his sword and his fury during those crimson days of battle.
In the end, Uther had said nothing to Gorlois. There was neither a time nor a place for personal affairs in the middle of war, of course. But once they'd won, he had still kept silent. He couldn't quite explain it to himself— he should have exposed Vivienne as the wily and dangerous witch she truly was, and made Gorlois get rid of her. But then, if Uther's suspicion was right, and she really was carrying his child— even one conceived under the worst of circumstances? The babe would be innocent in the sins of the mother. And Gorlois loved Vivienne. Would he even believe Uther? What if Vivienne were to tell him that Uther had forced himself on her instead? And what immeasurable grief might all of this cause Ygraine?
Questions and worries had been constantly churning in Uther's agitated mind. He had decided to leave well enough alone. As long as Vivienne stayed away from him and from Camelot Castle, he would not speak up, and not move against her.
Following the decisive military victory in the north, there was a lull in the fighting. Uther returned home to Ygraine. Gorlois travelled onwards to his estate and his wife.
Not long after, tidings reached Camelot that Gorlois and Vivienne were expecting an heir. He knew that Gorlois would be ecstatic. Like Uther, he had always yearned for children of his own.
Ygraine was concerned. Uther would notice her studying him out of the corner of her eye.
"What is it, beloved?" he'd asked, although he knew her well enough to guess.
"I'm worried about Vivienne's child, dearest. Are you still thinking of the prophecy? What will you do?"
Once more he'd sensed a strong and irrational reluctance to act against Vivienne. In later years, he'd sometimes wondered whether she'd cast a spell on him to let her be, but in truth, he didn't think so. He couldn't bring himself to move against someone who in all likelihood was carrying his child, no matter how the child came to be, no matter which prophecies had been uttered.
"No," he told Ygraine, his voice firm. "I'll let it rest. There will be time enough, and much can happen."
Ygraine was pleased. She liked Gorlois, had befriended Vivienne, and was delighted for them.
In due course, Vivienne bore another daughter. Gorlois sent word that the child was strong and healthy and had been named Morgana.
Uther thought of Vivienne's words to him that fateful morning nine months earlier, and knew beyond doubt that the child was his.
He never found out what Vivienne had intended to do, or how she had planned to use the babe against him. For as soon as she was up and about and well enough to ride out into the countryside, she was unexpectedly killed in a freak accident. Her horse was bitten by an adder, took off at a mad pace, and threw Vivienne. She broke her neck.
Gorlois was devastated.
All he had left was his baby daughter, and he doted upon her.
Once more, Uther knew that it was impossible for him to speak the truth about the little girl's paternity. He wouldn't and couldn't hurt his grieving friend like that. It would certainly have cost them their friendship, and Gorlois might even have started a rebellion. It was too late.
Ygraine longed for a child of her own. The news about baby Morgana added to her distress. She told Uther that she feared she was barren and that she'd be childless for life. Maybe he ought to think about finding another queen. He had made himself king of Camelot; he needed an heir.
Uther did want an heir. He also could not even imagine not having Ygraine by his side. He loved her with his entire being. He told himself everything he did to build their kingdom was a gift to her. Ygraine was the air that he breathed, she made his heart sing. She tempered all his rash and violent impulses, and made him whole. He needed her.
Vivienne's sordid schemes had made Uther distrust magic users. He'd kept Nimueh at a distance for a year. Now he turned to her in desperation. Could she help them? Could magic make Ygraine conceive?
There would be a price to pay, Nimueh had said.
There's always a price, Uther had responded. I'll pay it. We'll manage. Just help us.
Nimueh came down to Camelot from the Isle of the Blessed. She talked privately to Ygraine for a time. Uther had never learned what she'd said, what Ygraine had responded. In later years, the thought of what might have been discussed and agreed tormented his lonely nights.
Nimueh performed a magical ritual. It involved Ygraine drinking from a chalice. The High Priestess then took her leave with well-wishes, but with a solemn look.
Soon after, Ygraine found that she was expecting.
They'd both been incredibly happy. They'd blessed Nimueh's magic. Bah!
The queen had an easy pregnancy. Camelot was at peace. Uther was full of energy, and he threw it into improvements for Camelot and her people. He was a good king, it was a prosperous time, and his subjects cheered when they saw him. Most of all he spent time with Ygraine, sitting with her in the south tower catching the warmth of the sun, walking in the newly-made castle garden, watching everything grow and flourish. Those months were the happiest of his life, and they lived on in his mind awash in the golden light of sun and joy.
Ygraine gave him a son. Finally, an heir to the throne.
Their lives should have been complete. Instead, Ygraine wasted away before his eyes, very soon sinking into a sleep like death, her decline so rapid that he couldn't even take it in. Neither the Druid healers nor Gaius, with all his herbs and potions, spells and medical lore, could do anything. He told Uther that the cause of Ygraine's illness had to be magical in nature.
Uther had had Nimueh sent for once the queen went into labour— the sorceress arrived just in time to witness Ygraine's passing.
He hadn't even realized or accepted that it was time to tell his wife goodbye. His heart turned to stone in his chest, and he entered a state of severe shock, seeing and hearing everything through a fog— distorted, unreal, and far away.
"I'm so sorry," Nimueh had said, placing a hand gently on his arm. "A life for a life, that is the magic's demand. There must be a balance. If a new life is brought into the world through magic, another life is forfeit. Ygraine knew this, and accepted it. I thought you did, too."
Uther had ordered Nimueh seized. She was thrown out of the castle.
His mind exploded in a white-hot rage, so intense that no one dared stand in his way. He had trusted in magic despite his reservations, and magic had tricked him and killed Ygraine. Sorcery was evil. All sorcerers would pay.
This was the beginning of the Great Purge of Camelot. The pyres burned night and day, the sorcerers' screams serving as temporary balm for Uther's endless anger and grief. His fury made him powerful, for there were no restraints. He denied himself nothing in achieving his new purpose— to eradicate magic and all magic users. He used deceptions, he used threats and violence, he had children and women killed, he waged war on the Druids and the dragons, he was unstoppable.
Uther had been completely mad with grief, and his madness rose to the very heavens and blanketed the entire land, just like the smoke from the many pyres did.
He felt a disconnect and disbelief now, looking back at that time. Though sorcerers occasionally still would create havoc in Camelot, and Nimueh recently had started a campaign of vengeance, there was an immense difference between the magical old Camelot and the current kingdom. He could hardly reconcile one with the other.
His two small children stood at the very crossroads between the old and the new era. Arthur was a gift, a light in the darkness that followed Ygraine's death. Uther loved his son completely, although his military ways and his temper got the better of him all too often. He knew with regret that throughout Arthur's childhood, his son considered him a distant, demanding and sometimes frightening father.
Gorlois had been displeased about the purge, and initially opposed it. His wife had had magic, after all. He thought the persecution of magic users excessive and cruel, and he'd had harsh words for Uther about it. Their friendship balanced on a knife's edge for a while. But in the end, Gorlois remained at Uther's side, seemingly as trusted as ever.
Uther knew that however much he wanted to, he couldn't possibly antagonize Gorlois further. He couldn't ever claim Morgana as his daughter. He had wanted to, but instead watched as the relationship between Gorlois and his little girl grew ever stronger.
Morgana was fierce, bright and beautiful from the very first.
* * * * * *
Gorlois rests in the place where he died during a battle against forces allied with a group of magic users.
* * * * * *
He'd wanted Gorlois dead. It couldn't be helped. Although Morgana was but ten years old, and Arthur even younger, Gorlois had started talking about a possible future union between the two. And of course, from Gorlois' point of view, nothing could make more sense. But to Uther, it was the final straw. He wanted his daughter under his own wings, and he definitely did not want to keep fending off marriage discussions.
He'd been tired. The long battle against magic was by and large won by then, but victory had come at a considerable cost. Uther wanted to settle down, to raise his children in peace, and to see Camelot grow and prosper without the evil shadow of sorcery darkening the land. He wanted to let go of the past.
Gorlois was in the way.
Uther will never admit this truth about his hand in Gorlois' death to a living soul. Never. He'll deny it with his final breath if he has to, no matter how much it's being bandied about in rumours. He's managed to repress it to the extent that he hardly believes it himself.
* * * * * *
She is very pale under the green hood. "I know."
Uther studies the land as they cross the remaining distance. It is peaceful now, but those many years ago, when he rode up, the fields were trampled and bloodied, trees had been overturned by magical blasts, the corpses of horses and men dotted the landscape. The terrible cries of the wounded rang out across the land, and ravens circled overhead.
He'd known in his heart that Gorlois would be dead.
He'd mourned the man, in his way. Uther saw no hypocrisy in this. Gorlois had been his closest commander and ally, had questioned him, advised him, fought by his side. He'd been a true friend. There was much to mourn.
On the king's order, Gorlois had been buried under a cairn on the field of battle. Uther also had a big and elaborately decorated marker stone raised. He hadn't wanted the grave closer to Camelot Castle. It would have been a constant reminder of his own treachery and guilt.
Now he sees that very grave right in front of him— the erect headstone an admonishing grey pillar. There's an unsettled, eerie mood here. The green landscape undulates with every gust of wind, as if there's no peace to be had, as if unruly spirits inhabit the trees. Uther shudders as he dismounts and walks back to give Morgana a hand down.
She sends him a bleak smile and walks forward, kneeling by her supposed father's grave.
* * * * * *
Morgana had been so devoted to the man, she would never have forgiven Uther. Nor would she believe any ill words he could speak about Vivienne, so long dead. And equally troublesome, there would be complications for the succession if he were to claim Morgana, older than Arthur, as his own. No. He'd made her his ward, treated her as his daughter in all but name, and left it at that. He was content. And he hoped that Vivienne, wherever her spirit might be, kept watching and choking on her disappointment that fickle fate had thwarted her. Her sinister plans had come to naught. The daughter she likely intended as a weapon had instead become Uther's blessing.
As for Nimueh's so-called prophecy, he dismissed it out of hand. The witch had clearly only wanted to manipulate him for her nefarious purposes. She had even succeeded for a while.
Now he knows Nimueh for what she is. He rejects and disregards all her evil deeds and sayings.
* * * * * *
He can't be without her. He needs her, like he needs Arthur. A father's instinctive possessiveness and sense of belonging cannot be denied.
The three of them are all that remains; him and his two children.
Uther holds back, watching Morgana, who remains lost in grief and remembrance by Gorlois' headstone. After a while he plants his sword in the ground and walks forward, kneels by her side, and kisses the stone.
No angry ghost appears to strike him down. Gorlois is truly dead.
His journey to get to this moment has been full of terrible lies, betrayals, deceit, deaths, carnage, sorcery and spells. But none of it is his fault. Everything has been due to the evils of magic, the treachery and wiles of Vivienne and Nimueh. He's diligently done his utmost to eradicate their legacy, their followers, their arcane knowledge and mystical powers. Nimueh is still out there, doing her worst, but he will get her in the end.
It's true that without the two sorceresses' magical interference, neither Arthur nor Morgana would have been born, but the children are blameless, and he loves them.
Morgana's rebellious nature, her temperamental outbursts, her lack of nuance in distinguishing between what she deems right and wrong, good and evil: he recognizes all of it as character traits she's inherited from him. No one understands her better.
She's a Pendragon in all but public name.
Here on the green hillside, a battleground turned peaceful pasture, Uther will do what has to be done, say what he has to say. He'll calm Morgana down and win her back. It's a small price to pay to keep his beautiful daughter happy and at his side, despite their heated disagreements. He has lied and deceived so many times for the greater good. He can do so again.
He once more praises Gorlois and compares him to Morgana. And he tells her he's sorry about the blacksmith's death. It's an easy lie— the man was a small cog in a larger magical scheme, his life and his death weren't important. He knows that his words mean much to Morgana, though. She cares deeply for her maidservant.
Both his children have developed surprisingly close bonds with their servants. Uther dislikes it. Maybe it's the impact of growing up motherless that makes them show so much consideration for those who wait on them and take care of their everyday needs?
He looks Morgana in the eye. "I will strive to listen to you more and quarrel with you less. You've been a blessing to me, Morgana. You are the daughter I never had. Your counsel is invaluable, as is your friendship and your love. Without you, I cannot hope to be the king this land deserves."
He sees it in her eyes. She is relenting. He'll win her back. He delivers the coup de grâce with sincerity.
"Please forgive me, Morgana."
* * * The End * * *