There was a spell that had only been used three times before. Not one to create a child and sacrifice another’s life for it, the same spell that Uther and Nimueh had used and abused, but one to bring back the dead as if they had never died at all, only slept, if they had been taken before their time.
Morgause paged past it when she first saw it, looking for spells to dethrone a king, to push back the veil just long enough to let the queen turn her son against his father, to end the torture of her people. It wasn’t long before she went back to it. It killed the caster every time, pouring their life force into the spell. She would never see her sister again, as she hoped to do. She would never see the downfall of Uther Pendragon.
But perhaps, just perhaps, she could show him the folly of his ways. She could bring his hypocrisy to light, and show him just what magic could give him. She could restore the queen who had been kind to Morgause as a child to her place.
And so it was that she walked through the doors of Camelot and stood before the court. “I am here to give you a gift,” she said, “freely and without trickery. It will harm no one but me, I give you that on my honour, but I hope this gift will show you exactly what you have done to your people.” And with that, she started chanting.
It took only three repetitions, shouted over Pendragon calling for his guards, before she felt the magic pulling her life from her. A peasant boy let out a shout, and on the dais, the king’s ward gasped, so Morgause turned for one last look at her sister, little dark-haired Morgana who was only months old when Morgause was spirited away, and pushed the last of her breath out with one more use of the words.
Ygraine was cold.
She was cold, and wearing only a shift, and there was stone beneath her back, not the feather mattress she remembered.
What did she remember?
Arthur. She remembered Arthur. She remembered hours of screaming, tearing pain that went away when she held her son in her arms, the son she had never thought she would have. And then the exhaustion that followed, she remembered that, and Nimueh’s white face, and Uther’s apologies, whispered into her hair, as she drifted to—
Ygraine blinked her eyes open, and found herself staring at the ceiling of an audience hall, Camelot’s audience hall, with faces hovering just at the edge of her vision. But it wasn’t her court. When she struggled to prop herself on her elbows, she saw none of the friends she should, none of the allies who had helped Uther to take the throne. She just saw strangers, staring with distrust, with horror—she’d been taken. She’d been taken, and somehow couldn’t remember anything after the birth of her son. Arthur. Where was he, where was he, had they taken her son from her breast or had they knocked time from her head when they took her to this court that couldn’t be Camelot, was he old enough to be on his own?
But then, breaking her from her own spiraling panic: “Ygraine?” And she knew that voice, knew it like she knew her own name, and she looked up to see Uther on the throne.
It was Uther, it must be, no one else said her name in quite that way, but he looked as if he’d aged twenty years in a single night, and he was gripping the arms of his throne white-knuckled. “What—what’s happened to you? Where’s Nimueh? And Gorlois? How did I get here?” She looks again. No sign of the nursemaid she’d picked for Arthur, either, a sweet young girl Gaius had recommended. “Arthur, where’s Arthur, has something happened to him?” The blond knight standing at Uther’s side started, eyes wide and wet.
“Calm yourself, your Highness. The prince—the prince is well.” And she knew that voice, even if it was shaking, so Ygraine twisted to look at Gaius, hoping for a reassuring smile and Alice standing at his shoulder shaking her head with a wry smile over her lover’s insistence on always trying science first. Instead, she found an old man, stoop-shouldered and wearing robes, bowed and sad but with the unmistakable twist of expression that proved his identity.
Ygraine looked between the men who couldn’t be her husband and one of his most trusted vassals but couldn’t be anyone else either, to the court of strangers, and wondered if she’d been sleeping for years like a princess in a fairy tale, or was in some dream, panic rising in her throat all the while. Her eyes caught on a woman just a few feet away, crumpled like a doll left by a careless child. No one was looking at her. They were all staring at Ygraine, but there was only silence, no one stepping forward to explain.
The darkness swam in her eyes again and she fell back.
“The spell is thought a legend by most, sire, and even if it weren’t there are few who have ever had the power to do it. Even Nimueh … do you think, even after the Purges began, that she would have hesitated if she thought it would work?”
Ygraine drifted awake again to the sound of Gaius’s voice, but she kept her eyes firmly closed, trying to work her way again through what could have happened. “You’re telling me it’s really her, then,” Uther answered, from much closer, and she recognized the feeling of a hand resting on her shoulder.
“Was there ever any doubt? No one who saw her could think it a trick.”
“But she doesn’t—she didn’t see anything that happened in the meantime?” She didn’t know that voice.
“None of us knows what happens beyond the veil, sire. It’s possible she saw, but forgot when the sorceress returned her to us.”
“She missed more than twenty years, Gaius,” said the unknown voice, and he sounded so wretched she wanted to reach out even though she didn’t know him.
And then his words caught up to her. Twenty years. She wasn’t fool enough to think they were speaking of anyone but her, so … something had happened, something at Arthur’s birth, and she’d been frozen in time, or. ‘Beyond the veil,’ Gaius had said. She’d died. Died because of Arthur, or because of Uther’s stricken face, or Nimueh’s.
There was something important, something she was missing, but it was all obliterated in a second, because a different voice, softer but still male, was saying “Arthur” quietly, and everything faded in comparison to that, so Ygraine forced her eyes open. “She’s coming around,” said that same voice, and she turned her head to look around the room.
There were Uther and Gaius again, still so old and careworn, and she ached for them, ached for whatever had changed them from the men she’d known just hours—decades—ago. Her death, perhaps, and taking the weight of a kingdom for so long. There was a dark-haired young man standing behind them holding a bowl of water, torn between smiles and shock, but she couldn’t think to wonder who he was, whose son he was, because there was a fourth man in the room, the blond knight who’d stared so much in the audience chamber. He was still staring, and he looked—he looked like her, like Tristan, with a set to his jaw that was all Uther, and this was her son. This was the baby she’d cradled to her chest so recently she could still feel the weight of him. “Arthur,” she whispered, because if it was true, if she’d lost twenty years, this could be no one else.
“Mother,” he choked out, and she’d thought she would have to wait so long to hear him call her that, but it was still precious, and she could do nothing but struggle to stand despite Uther’s hand still on her shoulder and the weakness in her limbs. Arthur blinked and shook his head. “No, don’t—Gaius said you shouldn’t—”
“Come here, then, please.” He went, walking like he was afraid she might startle, but the second he was close enough she reached and pulled him into her arms, caring less than nothing about the links of chainmail pressing into her cheek. After a second, he gingerly wrapped his arms around her in return and let out a shaky breath against her ear. She reached out a hand to take Uther’s, needing something else to ground her, and breathed.
For the next few days, Ygraine was kept in Gaius’s chambers, barely allowed out of the sickbed even though she simply felt sore and swollen from being so recently with child. There was always someone there, usually more than one, but they wouldn’t answer her questions. Gaius sat with a stack of books in front of him and never once mentioned Alice even when Ygraine asked after her, barely able to meet her eyes. Uther merely sat and clutched her hand and said he couldn’t believe it was her before urging Gaius in low tones to do something he wouldn’t let her hear of. Arthur was there every second he could be and sat in a chair next to her bed or sometimes next to her. She asked about his training, since she knew Tristan and what boys of his age—just a few years younger than her, a few years more and her son would have lived longer than her—always wanted to talk about, and he was the only one that would answer her questions. Sometimes Morgana would come, her pretty dark-skinned maid following at her heels looking worried. Morgana was a comfort, with the look of her mother about her, even though she looked tired and sickly, but no matter how much Ygraine urged her to come often, to stay longer, she excused herself after only a few hours. None of them would answer her endless questions: where was Nimueh? Where was Tristan? Even Morgana had barely let slip that Gorlois had died in battle.
One night, Ygraine woke to find only the dark-haired boy, Gaius’s apprentice and Arthur’s manservant, nodding beside her bed. He shot awake when she shifted. “Did you need anything, my lady? Gaius needed some rest, but I can wake him.”
“No, don’t. It’s just that everyone wants me to sleep the day away, but that means I wake at night.” She squinted at him in the low light. There was some familiarity in his face, but nothing she could pin down. It was possible she was just looking for things that weren’t there to find. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
“It’s Merlin, my lady.”
“Merlin.” She does her best to smile at him. “Who were your parents? Would I have known them? I think you’re a bit too young for me to recognize you.”
“My father—I don’t know who he is. My mum would never tell me. She was in Camelot for a while, she knows Gaius, but I don’t know if you would have met her. Hunith, that’s her name. She lives in Escetia now. Ealdor.”
That brought a real smile to her face. “Fitting that you’re Arthur’s manservant, then. Hunith was meant to be his nursemaid. She was a lovely girl.”
“She’s—she never told me that. Not even when she met Arthur, a year or so back.”
“Did she come for a visit?”
Merlin shook his head, bit his lip, shook it again. “No, she—there were bandits attacking my village. I went to help her. Arthur, he came too, and Lady Morgana and Gwen, that’s her maid.” His face lit up. “It was—he was, he helped rally them, and we fought them off. There was … we had help. And we lost some friends, and some … but Arthur, you would have been proud of him. Helping a bunch of peasants, not even in his own kingdom, just because he thought it right.”
For all the story was confused and he’d obviously left out half of it, the smile on his face when he spoke of Arthur was enough to tell her everything she needed to know. “I would guess Uther wasn’t pleased at that. He and the King of Escetia don’t get on well.”
“No, he wasn’t. But he was fine after we got home, I think.”
Knowing Uther, he simply kept his rage away from the servant boy’s hearing. She couldn’t imagine him forgiving Arthur quickly for such a thing. “How long have you been with Arthur, then? Over a year, it seems.”
“Closing in on two, now.”
“Then you must tell me more about him. He’ll barely say, and Uther and Gaius will speak of nothing but my health. Tell me about my son.”
Even if Merlin hadn’t mentioned himself, Ygraine would have known that he wasn’t raised on Camelot’s court by the way she could see every expression flying across his face. How much to tell her, how respectful he ought to be, a hundred other questions rushing across his face like he’d asked them aloud. “Once, pretty soon after I came to Camelot,” he started at last, and told her a story of a knight using an enchanted shield to cheat during a tournament, and how Arthur had defeated him, and listened to a servant he’d known barely two weeks to do it.
Silence fell when he finished, and Ygraine leaned back, wondering if he would help her out of bed or if he would follow Gaius’s orders. “Thank you,” she said. “And I’m sorry there are parts of that story you couldn’t tell me,” she added, because any fool could have seen him pause and skip over things he’d done in favour of talking about Arthur.
Merlin shook his head. “There are parts of the story I can’t tell anybody, my lady.”
Somehow, that was a comfort, though it couldn’t be for him. “There’s a great deal I’m not being told, though.”
It wasn’t a question, but still: “Yes.”
“Uther, he …” She paused to see the way Merlin flinched, to remember Morgana’s exhaustion and fear, to think of the way Arthur moved, like he had all of Camelot on his shoulders. He did something stupid, something wrong, after I died, she finished in her head, and knew she couldn’t ask it aloud.
“Yes,” Merlin said anyway, then ducked his head when he remembered he shouldn’t address the queen so. “I should get some sleep, my lady. Would you like a book?”
Ygraine wanted to thank him for being the first to ask her instead of assuming she would be content to stare at the ceiling, but she was growing tired again. “No, Merlin, I’ll rest as well. Thank you for the story.”
“It’s been a week,” Ygraine told Uther the second he came to Gaius’s rooms, and he knew by Gaius’s beleaguered expression that she was done being put off. He’d hoped, when that time came, to know what to say. “No one will tell me where my brother and my best friend are, I am a prisoner in the physician’s chambers, and I will not be lied to any longer.”
Uther had never been able to deny her anything, so he told her of Nimueh’s betrayal, Tristan’s madness, of purging magic from the land because it always asked the worst price of those it should have been helping.
Ygraine was trembling by the time he finished, staring at her lap, and he took her hand to comfort her through the shock before she snatched it away and looked up at him, eyes snapping with anger. “Get out.”
A week after she was brought back from the dead, Ygraine was installed in her own chambers, the same ones she had occupied before her wedding to Uther.
The first thing she did was lock herself in them.
She’d thought—she didn’t know what she’d thought. She’d known that Uther had done something, after she died, perhaps gone a little mad and done something that still mattered, still made Camelot different after twenty years. In her worst moments, she’d wondered if he blamed Arthur for her death and perhaps sent him away for a while, left him with one of his knights to raise.
She’d never imagined … Nimueh branded a traitor, Tristan blaming Uther and dying for her uselessly, as if that would bring her back, and the magic that was the lifeblood of Camelot becoming the enemy overnight. What was Camelot, now? What did its children believe of the sorcerers who had helped build it from the ground? What did her son believe? How could Gaius stand by and let it happen?
It took an hour of progressively more insistent knocks—“my lady, I just need to light your fire, you must be chilled” to “your Highness, it’s Gaius, please” to “Ygraine, just let me in, you must understand”—before there was silence, for ten blessed minutes, followed by a knock even more hesitant than the chambermaid’s. “Mother?”
Much as she wanted to be alone, even if he was sent by his father, Ygraine couldn’t deny Arthur entrance, so she unlocked the door and let him in. He was alone. “Uther sent you?”
Arthur pursed his lips; shook his head. “Merlin did. I don’t like to ask how he knows these things, but he told me you were upset after talking to my father and I wanted to …” He trailed off and looked around. “Morgana and Gwen marshaled the maids into cleaning these rooms just hours after that sorceress brought you back. I used to come here as a child, after I figured out how to break locks. It’s been years, though.”
That brought unwanted images, a lonely little boy sneaking away from his tutors to sit in his dead mother’s dusty rooms. She couldn’t soothe Arthur on her lap anymore, or wipe away his tears. She doubted he was young enough that he would let her see him cry. Instead, she clasped his hand and put the lock on the door again. “Did Merlin tell you what your father was speaking to me about?”
“No, he neglected to provide me with that particular piece of information. Just showed up at training and said father was thinking of taking the door off its hinges and I was to stop him.” His fond smile at his manservant’s high-handedness told her everything she could ever want to know about her son.
“Thank you. And thank him. He’s a good servant.”
Arthur snorted. “He’s a rubbish servant. But he’s loyal, more so than some of my knights.”
“Come, sit. I’ve hardly had you to myself all week.” The table she ate at was the same one, but it was shifted a few feet, and there was a deep scratch down one edge of it. She sat down in one of the chairs—different—and pointed Arthur to the other. “And I’ve missed so much. It will take me years to learn it, and even then … I’ve lost so much of you. I woke expecting to have a baby to hold and instead I have a knight.”
Arthur’s face fell. She’d said the wrong thing. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you have nothing to apologize for.”
“But I killed you.”
Ygraine’s heart twisted and she scrambled to reach across the table and catch his hand between hers. “No, Arthur. Has your father not told you of your birth? He only told me today, but I thought he would have the courage …”
“You couldn’t conceive, and the witch Nimueh lied her way through a deal and took your life for mine.”
She shouldn’t have hoped. If he banned the use of magic, if he still killed people even on the suspicion of it and sent for the mad witch-hunter Aredian, he wouldn’t have told Arthur the truth she’d read behind his defense and delusion. “I couldn’t conceive, true enough. Your father asked Nimueh, one of our dearest friends, if she could help, and she found a way. But to give a life, one must be taken, and there aren’t any rules about who it is. It could just as easily have been your father, or Nimueh herself, or … Merlin’s mother, even. I knew her.” She hadn’t known what Uther and Nimueh had done, just thought that there was a miracle of a child growing inside her. Despite the sting of betrayal, she couldn’t bring herself to regret it.
“But he always said—”
There was no reason other than sentiment for him to believe her. “He knew the magic had a price, he always knew, but it was never thought evil while I was alive, Arthur. He took a gamble, and blamed everyone but himself when he lost.”
Arthur was silent for just too long, jaw working, and she wondered if she’d lost him completely. Not just his childhood, raising him to be a king as she’d wanted to do, but anything she had left from him. “I’m going to kill him,” he whispered at last, and his chair fell over when he shoved it back.
Ygraine recognized that temper; for all Arthur looked much like her and more like Tristan, his temper was all his father’s. She lunged from her seat and caught him by the shoulders before he could get far, pulling him into an embrace. He stood stiff, but he didn’t push her away. “I didn’t tell you for that, Arthur. Don’t. I only told you so you would know, so you could make your own choices.”
“And I choose—”
“It won’t change anything that’s been done. Do you understand me?” She pulled back just enough to look at him. He was starting to come back from the unthinking rage, but not enough. “I’m back now, I’m here, and that doesn’t undo it either, but what’s most important is changing what comes next.”
After a lifetime spent hating and fearing magic, she didn’t expect that to change him, just as her outburst in front of Uther had done nothing to change him back into the man she’d known. “But he was wrong,” said Arthur, suddenly the little boy she’d never met.
Ygraine didn’t know what to say, just as she didn’t know what to do with Uther and Gaius treating her with kid gloves instead of letting her take on duties as queen again, without the babe she’d expected to rear. She just held him close until he relaxed, breathing shaky and steady in her ear, one hand pressed to her pulse as if he was assuring himself she was still there.
Three days later, Ygraine went down to court while Uther was holding audiences. They’d spoken little, in the time between, neither willing to move though Ygraine told him time and again that it was chance that took her away and magic, targeted and good, that returned her. Arthur, though, had been in her room at every opportunity, usually with Merlin dogging his heels. He asked her question upon question about what Camelot had been like when she was queen, so she told him the stories. Magic, Nimueh’s presence at their court on their panel of advisors, the dragons that flew through the skies and the Dragonlords who kept them in check when the humans who angered them would have otherwise been obliterated. Sometimes, Arthur brought Morgana with him, and her maid, and though she rarely spoke, Morgana listened to the stories with a kind of hunger that made Ygraine’s heart hurt. At one of those times, she looked at Merlin, who usually looked delighted with the tales of magic’s great deeds and even more delighted with Arthur’s reactions to them, and he was wearing the same look.
They were children, and they’d been forced to hide from someone who should have been giving them protection. If they were that brave, Ygraine could go down to court without being invited. She borrowed a dress from Morgana, since all she owned were shifts and one simple dress that the seamstresses must have thrown together for her. It fit badly, but it was well enough for court, so she went down, Arthur beside her and Merlin trotting along behind, beaming in the way that made Arthur call him dim.
Uther started to his feet when she entered the audience chamber. “Ygraine, you don’t need to be here, you’re still adjusting.”
The throne next to Uther’s was probably Arthur’s, now, but he guided her to it nonetheless and stood calmly at her side. She smiled, because people were watching. “Unless you have married again, and I assume you would have mentioned that, I am still the queen.” He started going red, and Merlin let out a strangled snort behind her. “Uther? Have you married without telling me?” Horrified, she spent a second remembering Morgana’s inability to meet her eyes, but no, Arthur would have mentioned that if no one else had.
One of the knights standing to the side made a valiant effort not to laugh. Uther simply sat frozen, unsure what to say. It was Morgana who spoke, mouth twitching. “There was … a misunderstanding. And an enchantment. The marriage was announced as void, so you are still queen. We were just about to call the next person forward to be heard if you would like to hear, your Majesty.”
“Thank you, Lady Morgana,” said Ygraine, and silently dared Uther to send her away like a misbehaving child.
Instead, he turned away and surveyed the crowd. “Who’s next?”
The knight who’d almost laughed stepped forward. “A man named Halig, your Majesty. He’s a bounty hunter who claims to have a Druid sorceress for you.”
Ygraine gripped the arms of her chair, and Uther looked at her briefly before nodding. “Bring him in.”
The man who came in was a familiar sort of sight, the rough near-criminals who’d brought war traitors and breakers of the Knight’s Code to them when Ygraine was queen, but instead of dragging a full-grown man behind him, there was a girl. Dirty, stumbling, wearing what might well have been a sack, crying quietly but not asking for mercy. “This is the Druid girl I mentioned, sire,” he said, jerking the chain but not bothering to look back.
“And you’re certain she uses sorcery?”
The man’s smile was unpleasant. “Lock her in one of your strongest cells for the night and then tell me she doesn’t. She turns into an animal, at night, a monster killer with wings. The Druids gave her up to me themselves, said she was too dangerous.”
The girl was crying harder now, head bowed so the tears dripped to the floor. She was barefoot. She didn’t look like a monstrous killer, and she wouldn’t believe Uther that she could just be tricking them. Ygraine stood, and shrugged off Arthur’s hand when he grabbed for her. “No.”
Uther turned to her, scowling. Good. It had been a long time since he’d treated her like anything but spun sugar. Since before she was with child, certainly. “Ygraine, according to the laws of this kingdom—”
“She’s barely more than a child, and she’s frightened out of her wits but not trying to run.” She stepped forward to look directly in the girl’s eyes and felt Arthur step up behind her, prepared to protect her if necessary. “Are you going to hurt us?” That only got her a mute shake of the head, then a pause, then a nod and more tears. “Not on purpose, then?” Another nod. “You’ve been cursed.” In the past—weeks ago—the cursed had come to court and Nimueh had taken care of them, and if she couldn’t, the rest of the priestesses of the Isle of the Blessed could. Were the cursed executed with the sorcerers, now?
“She was brought in because she is dangerous, and I cannot have magical monsters unleashed on my people,” Uther started, surprisingly gently.
“So we find a way to heal her. We don’t kill her for something that isn’t her fault.” The girl murmured something, and Ygraine hushed her. Gaius was standing in the crowd, face frozen, and she jerked her head at him. “Come, Gaius. You’re going to see how much this man has injured her, and then we’re going to find a solution to her problem. Her chains?” The bounty hunter began to protest. “Her chains, sir. If you insist I’m sure you can arrange payment with my husband.”
Uther, if the past was any guide, would shout later, when there wasn’t a roomful of subjects. As it was, he watched, face purpling, as she took the girl’s chains and walked out of the audience hall with no one saying a word, Gaius falling into step as she passed him and Arthur and Merlin catching up seconds later.
Merlin took to the girl—who introduced herself quietly as Freya—like a duck to water, fluttering about and seeing to her every comfort. Arthur just as clearly mistrusted her and dragged Merlin away to seat him in front of a stack of books before placing himself conspicuously between them. “Your Highness,” said Gaius under his breath after Freya was settled, chainless and wrapped in a blanket, on a bench, “are you sure this is wise? Uther has not changed his mind in over twenty years, and he does not like being challenged.”
“Twenty years ago, when I was this same age, you trusted me enough to do this sort of thing, Gaius. I’m no different, not suddenly to be treated as a child or a glass figure. You’ve run your tests, done your research. I’m here to stay.”
“I may believe that, but Uther does not, and Uther is still king and still makes the laws. He won’t even let Arthur stand against him.”
She hated him suddenly, for not stopping Uther’s descent into madness after she died. His other advisors told him he was wrong when necessary, and yelled at him, but only Ygraine and Gaius had ever truly given him pause when he was set on a course. Couldn’t Gaius have done something? His own lover had been sent away and he was defending Uther. “I will not wait and let him kill innocents.”
“Freya,” said Merlin, just loud enough that Ygraine knew he’d heard them, “it would help our research if you could tell us what kind of creature it is that you turn into.”
Freya shuddered and wrapped her arms tight around herself. “I never remember much in the morning. But I’m … black, I think. And I can fly. I’m sorry, I should know more, but I don’t.”
Arthur answered, after casting a sideways look at Merlin to find him teary-eyed. “That helps, at least.”
Ygraine turned away and whispered to Gaius; they might still hear, but Arthur was the only one she was worried about anyway. “If the only cures are magical, is there still a way to cure her?” The way his eyes flickered was answer enough. “Do it, if you can. Lie, if you must. I’m going back to the audience chamber.”
Gaius took a breath and sighed it out. “Take Arthur.”
It would help her having him there, but she doubted that was why Gaius asked to have him taken away. She just nodded, as tired as if she’d lived every minute of the twenty years she’d missed, and turned back to the others. Arthur and Merlin were bent over their books, necks stiff in the way that meant they’d been eavesdropping, or at least trying. Freya was staring openly. “Arthur,” she said, and his head snapped up. “Better to go to your father than have him come here, I suspect. Shall we?” Merlin stood up when Arthur did. “No, Merlin, you’re Gaius’s apprentice as well. You’re best suited here.”
Arthur cuffed Merlin on the back of the head as he walked by. “Yes, Merlin, don’t get yourself into any trouble in my absence.”
“Arthur, don’t hit your servants,” she said automatically, as if he were the little boy he wasn’t, and everyone froze, Merlin’s mouth twitching and Arthur’s eyes wide with horror, before she cleared her throat and turned towards the door. “Let’s go.”
Her son fell into step seconds after they were out the door and held out his arm for her to take. She grabbed it and squeezed her apology for chastising him, but when she met his eyes he was hiding a smile.
It was easier to lift the curse than Merlin was expecting.
Gaius found the curse, but it was Merlin who found the cure, so he whispered the words and Freya looked up at him as if she could already feel the weight lifting. Arthur and the queen came back, and Gaius mumbled something about a simple cure and an infusion of herbs. Neither of them looked convinced, but neither of them said otherwise.
Freya spent the night in the cells anyway, locked in chains to be sure that if the curse wasn’t lifted she wouldn’t hurt anyone. Merlin snuck down and spent the night sitting at her side, whispering where the guards couldn’t see and making candle flames dance for her when midnight approached and she got nervous.
“This is the first sunrise I’ve seen in years,” she whispered as dawn came, and he conjured her a flower, since she deserved something in the way of celebration.
Uther wouldn’t let her stay, no matter how Queen Ygraine and, more grudgingly, Arthur argued against it, so Merlin packed her a bag and saw her out to the gates. “If you’ve nowhere else to go,” he whispered as he hugged her goodbye, “there’s a village on the border of Escetia called Ealdor, and my mother lives there. She’d be glad for help around the house, and to let you stay, if you say you know me.”
Arthur, standing behind them with an expression Merlin couldn’t place, cleared his throat. “Merlin. We have things to do today.”
Freya pushed him gently away. “Thank you, Merlin. I’ll repay you somehow. Someday.”
Merlin waved and let Arthur grab his collar to pull him away and distract him for the rest of the day. Arthur never let him out of his sight, as if he was afraid Merlin would run if he turned his back.
Ygraine sat in audiences and council with Uther every day, and took on some of her old duties over everyone’s protests. She greeted the vassals and subjects who came from all over the kingdom to see their resurrected queen. She didn’t mention magic, though she wanted to change that more than anything, but if Uther’s answer was still that magic was evil even after a selfless sacrifice of a sorceress brought her back to life, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
She might have waited until the next time a sorcerer was arrested to bring up the subject again, if it weren’t for Morgana.
Something was the matter with her, Ygraine knew that from how tired and pale she looked, from the way that Gwen trailed after her looking helpless. That perhaps she had magic she was hiding from Uther wasn’t too much of a stretch, given her reaction to Ygraine’s stories. But it wasn’t until Ygraine came to Gaius’s chambers looking for Arthur and she overheard Gwen speaking to Gaius that she knew what the problem was: “The nightmares are getting worse, Gaius, and she won’t talk about them anymore, not since she was kidnapped by the Druids! Please, isn’t there anything more that you can do?”
Ygraine stepped in, since it wasn’t fair to eavesdrop, but she was remembering Nimueh. Her visions had never been frequent or strong, but they left her unsettled and pale for days afterwards, and she was trained. If Morgana wasn’t … but surely Gaius had seen the signs. “I’ll see what I can do, Gwen,” said Gaius. “Good afternoon, your Majesty. Is there something I can do for you?”
Gwen backed towards the door as Ygraine walked farther into the room. “I won’t trouble you any longer. Thank you, Gaius. My lady.” With that, she scuttled from the room.
“Can I help you?” Gaius asked.
“I was looking for Arthur, but it’s no matter, he’ll find me soon enough. Is Morgana a Seer?” His instant instinct to shush her was more than enough answer to that. “Haven’t you trained her at all? She’ll drive herself mad like this, Gaius.”
He stiffened and straightened, and for one wonderful second he was the Gaius she knew, proud and sharp. “It’s safer if she doesn’t know what she is, Ygraine. You’ve had time to see what Uther does in the face of sorcery. Even Nimueh wasn’t safe from him.”
“She can’t control it! I don’t know how bad the nightmares are, but she looks so unhappy. Does she even know what she is?”
Gaius pursed his lips. “She does, but I cannot train her, nor can anyone else here. Even if she were safe, if Uther found out he would ask who taught her. There is more at risk than just Morgana.”
“And when the dreams start coming every night instead of just most? When the magic comes with it, and she hurts someone because she isn’t ready? Nimueh and I were friends as girls, I remember what it was like, when something new came to her.”
“It isn’t safe for anyone either way. My life is forfeit if I do anything for her.”
And Merlin? she wanted to ask, because she was no fool. Do you train him? “I shouldn’t be surprised,” she snapped instead. “A man who came to Uther’s heel like a lapdog and let his lover and one of his best friends be persecuted and sent—”
“You weren’t here.” Gaius drew himself up. “What happened in those days—I was not the only one who chose to hide, Ygraine.”
She breathed in, and out. She wanted Nimueh, but Nimueh was exiled, on the run, hadn’t even tried to contact her somehow even though she must have seen or heard of Ygraine’s return somehow. If she was still alive. She wanted her own husband back, not the man who sat on the throne now. “I suppose I can understand, for the past. I don’t know what he did to all of you, and I am sorry for it, but now? It’s been twenty years, for you. And Morgana is just a girl, and scared.”
“When Arthur is king,” started Gaius, in the gentle, patient tones of someone who said the words twice a day, and perhaps thought them even more frequently.
“So I am meant to hope for the death of my husband, to bring justice back to Camelot?” The man she loved was in there somewhere, he had to be. But he’d done so much to so many. “No. He let Freya free, and didn’t ask too many questions. My death made him hate magic for his own mistake. Perhaps my return, at the hands of a sorceress, will help to change him back. Otherwise her sacrifice is for nothing.”
“We’re old men now, my lady. We’re set in our ways.”
“Not enough to let such a miscarriage of justice stand, I hope. Or you are not the men I knew, old or not.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Please help her, Gaius. She reminds me even more of Nimueh than she does of Vivienne, and I wasn’t here to help her. At least I can do something about Morgana. She’ll turn on us, if someone else offers her help. She’s scared.”
“I can make no promises, but I will consider it.”
Ygraine would get no better from him. She stepped back towards the door. “I suppose I’ll check the training field for Arthur. He was meant to be done by now.”
“Your Majesty,” he said, and kept his head lowered as she walked out.
Uther knocked on her door one night shortly before dinner, carrying a tray with enough for them both. It was something he’d done often, when they were first married, and especially when she was pregnant with Arthur. He hadn’t done it since she’d returned. “May I eat with you tonight?” he asked, clearly uncomfortable with the question.
Ygraine opened the door all the way. “Of course you may.”
They set the dinner out together, and sat. “Your dress is new,” said Uther at last.
She could almost laugh at the inanity of it, if she had any better idea what to say. “Well, all of my old ones seem to have mysteriously disappeared. The seamstresses have been hard pressed to get a few things finished for me.” And with her clothes had come a proper maidservant as well—the same one she last remembered, probably too old for the work and with four grandchildren, but pleased to see Ygraine and comfortingly unchanged in her manner, if not her appearance. “You couldn’t have saved my favorite, at least?” she tried teasing, when her words brought no answer.
It was the wrong thing to say, of course. His face shuttered. “That was the one I had you—”
There were twenty years that he would never get back and she had missed entirely, and they were a chasm that wouldn’t go away. They had to build something new, though. She still loved her husband, for all his betrayal stung, but he was a different man, and she had to learn to love him all over again. Uther likely had much the same problem, though it would pain him to admit it. “Alined and Olaf and several other kings are coming to Camelot in two months,” he said at last. “They were meant to come a few weeks ago, but with your return, we all thought it prudent to put proceedings on hold for a short while.”
“I’ll look forward to seeing them again. Is Godwin coming? I’ve been hoping to see him again.”
“Godwin is already firmly my ally. He has a daughter now, a bit younger than Arthur.”
“I suppose I ought to study who married whom and had which children before they all come.”
“Geoffrey will speak to you. He makes it his business to keep track of all those things.”
Ygraine smiled, because Geoffrey at least was something that hadn’t changed. His beard was a little whiter, certainly, his steps a little less sure, but he was just as irascible and stodgy as ever. “I shall look forward to it.”
Uther didn’t seem to have an answer to that, so they ate in silence for a little while. “I’ve missed this,” he said at last.
“I wish I’d had time to miss it.”
He bowed his head. “I’m sorry, Ygraine.” She wanted to say that she forgave him, but she couldn’t, not quite. Her death due to his deal was one thing—he couldn’t have known, and if he’d guessed he would never have done it—but Camelot’s sorcerers living in secrecy and fear, her brother’s death, and Nimueh’s continued absence (and with every day Ygraine grew more certain that she had died) were more difficult.
“Don’t apologize for my death,” she said when it became clear that he wanted some sort of response. “That’s the least your fault, of all that’s happened.”
Uther stiffened, drawing himself back up and pulling on the mantle of king easily. It had taken him a long time to learn that skill. “I have done the best I could in your absence.”
“Blaming all of magic for one mistake? Killing hundreds, even thousands?” She shook her head when his face flooded red with temper. “I won’t fight, not about this. But if magic took me away, Uther, can you not remember that it brought me back as well? A nameless woman gave her life for me, and still you don’t change your mind.”
“It isn’t that easy.”
“It was easy enough to—no.” Ygraine stopped herself snapping and ate another bite instead. “I will only ask that you think about it. I will keep defending anyone who hasn’t actively hurt another with their magic, though.”
“Magic still demanded you as the price for Arthur, even if Nimueh didn’t do it on purpose. I can’t trust it.”
Ygraine thought of dropping the subject, at least for the time, because the set of his jaw was going ever tighter, but she couldn’t let it rest quite yet. “But you can perhaps try to trust those who use it, again.”
Somehow, it was the right thing to say. She didn’t expect that he would change the laws first thing in the morning, but he relaxed back against his chair and picked up his goblet. “I’ve missed this,” he said again, and she wondered who he’d spoken to about such things in the twenty years she was gone. If he’d had anyone, or if he’d had to keep it to himself, and perhaps if that was why it had all gone so wrong.
So, instead of continuing the argument, she raised her goblet as well, toasting him across the table. “To many more such discussions in the future, then.”
Uther leaned across the table to bump his goblet against hers.