Chapter 1: Ygraine
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.
Chapter 2: Merlin
When the queen is brought back, all of Merlin's secrets start coming out.
“I was thinking,” Arthur said one evening, “that I might try to find this Nimueh my mother keeps talking about.”
Merlin dropped the dagger he was polishing, only half on purpose, and took his time bending under the table to pick it up so he could hide his initial reaction. “Why—why would you do that?” He groped for the dagger and sliced his fingers on it, still fumbling through his shock.
“Honestly, Merlin.” Merlin managed to get his expression under control, at least mostly, and straightened up, wiping the blood off on his polishing cloth. Arthur’s eyes fixed on the streak of red before he could continue with his previous subject or with mocking Merlin for incompetence, and he moved as if he might grab Merlin’s arm to see the damage for himself. Merlin curled his fingers up, and Arthur leaned back again. “Do you need bandages?”
“No, sire. Why do you want to find Nimueh?” She tried to kill you once. More than once. But had she introduced herself to Arthur, when he went to find a cure for Merlin?
Arthur sighed and toyed with his cup. “Because perhaps my father was wrong about her. My mother thinks so, at least. And she … misses her, I think. Most of her friends from then are dead. I suppose there’s a chance that Nimueh is as well, but it might be worth a try.”
It wasn’t, but how could Merlin tell Arthur that? He’d been listening to Queen Ygraine’s stories of magic in a way Merlin never could have hoped for, but that didn’t mean he would forgive Merlin for everything he’d done. “Your father might still kill her. More than he would any other sorcerers, I mean.”
“I could arrange a meeting, though. Somehow.” Arthur set his jaw. “I’d like to meet her. To know if it was really an accident, or if she meant …”
She meant to kill you. She meant to kill my mother. She meant to kill Gaius. “I’ve got to go,” he blurted. “Just remembered, Gaius was going to try brewing something new for Morgana and—”
“You’re very scared of magic, aren’t you?” Arthur asked, somewhere between amused and serious.
Merlin thought of Sophia nearly drowning Arthur, of the afanc and Nimueh’s ease trading lives for lives and fighting off Sigan within his own mind. And then he thought of saving lives and silly tricks and doing chores and Freya’s smile when he’d snuck down to the dungeon to see her while she was proving the curse was lifted and he made candle flames dance for her. “Sometimes,” he settled on.
“That’s odd, when Will was a sorcerer. A powerful one, if that show in Ealdor was any indication.”
“I trusted Will. That doesn’t mean I trust every sorcerer I meet.” It was the closest he could get to not lying. He finished swiping the cloth over the dagger standing up, fingers wrapped up in the cloth so he didn’t bleed on it any more. He wasn’t finished with all of Arthur’s weapons, but he had to get out and think of something that would keep him from chasing after Nimueh. “May I go to Gaius now, sire?”
For a second, Arthur looked at him in the way that made Merlin’s heart go rabbit-fast, like Arthur could see right through him and knew, somehow. Then he dropped his eyes and picked up the dagger as Merlin set it down, giving it one last polish with his sleeve, and Merlin could breathe again. “Yes. Of course. I’ll expect you at the usual time in the morning.”
Merlin babbled something that he hoped was a proper good night and fled.
Gaius was there when he got back, and Merlin opened his mouth to let it all come out in a flood and beg for advice even though he knew Gaius would caution him, tell him to keep lying just a bit longer. Gaius looked up, startled and tired, and he closed his mouth again.
Instead of speaking, Merlin just went to where Gaius was working and started helping him to chop up the herbs.
“Pack for both of us, for a few days’ journey,” Arthur said at lunch the next day. “We’re leaving in the morning.”
“On a hunt?” Merlin asked, without much hope.
“I asked my mother where this Nimueh might be found, this morning. She told me of a place called the Isle of the Blessed. I’ve heard of it only in legends, but she says it was where the priestesses of the Old Religion had their base and that if Nimueh is alive there might be sign of her there.”
“Does your father know?”
“We’ll make it look as if it’s just a hunt. There have been no attacks from sorcery since that sorceress brought my mother back. Camelot is as safe as it’s ever been.” Arthur must have read some of Merlin’s trepidation on his face, because he went sober all at once. “I won’t order you to come if it bothers you this much, Merlin.” His lips twitched. “You great girl.”
“No, I’ll—I’ll come.” It would be easier to tell Arthur the truth outside of Camelot, and it was what he would have to do, otherwise he would never give up on finding Nimueh. That way, if it went badly, he could run. “Leaving early?”
“Yes, it’s nearly a day’s ride.”
“Then if there’s nothing else you need me for, I’ll take care of what needs to be done before we leave for a few days. Packing, last-minute chores for Gaius, all that.”
Arthur shrugged. “Yes, go. I’ve got training this afternoon and the squires can take care of my needs, and then I’ll be taking dinner with my father and mother and Morgana, where you’ll be expected to serve, so you’d best finish your chores by then, and then I’ll want my sword sharpened before we go tomorrow.”
All told, it wasn’t the worst day of chores Merlin had ever had to deal with, although most of his days didn’t involve packing up all his most precious and treasonous possessions to take out on a quest in case Arthur banished him or tried to kill him. “Yes, sire.” He ran into Gwen halfway back to the tower and nearly knocked her basket of laundry out of her hands. “Shall I walk you to Morgana’s room?” he asked after he rescued a slipping shift off the top of the neat pile.
Gwen smiled, but she still looked nearly as tired as Morgana. “Don’t you have something else to be doing?”
“Nothing that can’t wait a few minutes.” If it went badly with Arthur, it might … but no, he wasn’t thinking like that. Arthur was changing his mind about magic, with his mother back, the question was just if he would forgive Merlin in specific for it. “It’s been a while since we had a chance to talk. Is Morgana still …?”
“Her nightmares got worse after the queen returned. She says she dreams about the sorceress that did it, but I don’t know.”
Perhaps he would have to tell her, too, if Arthur let him come back to Camelot. Gaius wasn’t always right, and if Morgana was getting worse maybe he could do something for her if she knew. “I’m sorry.” Gwen gave him a surprised sideways look, and he nudged her with a smile to change the subject. “If I haven’t seen you, it must be getting in the way of you and Arthur as well.”
To his surprise, she didn’t blush and duck her head like she had at first when he teased her about Arthur. “I don’t think so. He’s so busy with the queen, these days. It’s been a while since we last spoke.”
Merlin blinked and thought through the last several weeks, and how Arthur hadn’t been sneaking off whenever he could to “accidentally” run into Gwen in the corridors. Had they even spoken since the witchfinder? “I guess I’ll have to—”
“Merlin.” She stopped walking, so he stopped with her. “It was a lovely dream while it lasted, but I was never meant to be queen of Camelot, or Arthur’s wife. I’m just glad to call him my friend.”
Come to that, there had been little aside from looking between them since Hengist took Gwen, and he knew what the answer to that might be. “Lancelot?” he asked, because he might as well, and trotted after her when she started walking again. “You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to.”
“He left,” she said after a few more steps, “without even letting me say goodbye. I don’t know if I can forgive him for that. But I also know it isn’t fair to Arthur or any of us to continue on knowing there’s something unfinished like that.”
Merlin almost asked if Arthur knew that, but Arthur had barely even looked at Gwen since the sorceress brought his mother back, and when he wasn’t with her he seemed content to boss Merlin around his room like usual. He probably knew. It was just Merlin who had missed it, and Merlin who had no right to feel the quiet stirring of relief over it. “Pity,” he said as lightly as he could, “you might have kept Arthur from being a complete prat when he takes the throne.”
“He’ll have his mother around for that.” Gwen finally smiled again and looked at him. “Not to mention you. Now, you’re going in the opposite direction to what you should be, and I have Morgana’s linens to change. We’ll talk soon.”
“We will,” said Merlin, hoping he wasn’t lying, and gave her hand a quick clasp before heading back towards Gaius’s tower.
Merlin waited until they were three hours’ ride from Camelot to pull his horse up and clear his throat. Arthur turned around, and Merlin caught the end of him rolling his eyes. “You can’t possibly be tired already.”
“No, I just. I need to talk to you, before we go any farther.” He stayed on the horse. Arthur was the better rider, but on foot he would have no chance at all unless he used magic against Arthur, and he didn’t want to do that. He might lose Arthur’s trust by telling the truth, but he wouldn’t make it worse. “It’s important.”
Instead of making a joke, Arthur spent a few seconds on the edge of a glare before nodding. “Fine, then. If you think you must tell me right this second, then tell me.”
“We’re not going to find Nimueh.”
Arthur really did glare that time. “Really, Merlin? And how would you know that?”
There were a hundred ways to say it, but Merlin couldn’t force any of them out quite yet. “Remember the woman you met when you were searching for the Morteus flower?” he asked instead, ignoring Arthur’s growl. “That was her. Nimueh. She was the one who poisoned me, too, and she did … she was responsible for a lot of things that happened last year. The afanc. The wraith that almost killed your father.”
“Right.” If Arthur’s hands weren’t on the reins, he probably would have been crossing his arms. “And you know this how?”
“So she’s my father’s enemy. He blamed her for something that was just as much his fault, I can’t in good conscience blame her for going a bit mad. What makes you so sure we won’t find her?”
“I killed her.”
Arthur started laughing and spurred his horse on. “Very funny, Merlin. You killed the greatest sorceress my mother knew. How? By spilling wine on her?”
Merlin didn’t bother following after him. Instead, he whispered a quiet spell. The ball of bluish light that floated from his palm towards Arthur looked less impressive in broad daylight, but Arthur would recognize it. And did, judging by the way he froze when it stopped to hover a few feet in front of him. The horse, well-trained, went still as well, and there was a silence that felt like it lasted centuries before Arthur turned. There was no expression on his face at all. “With magic,” said Merlin.
“When?” Arthur asked, and it sounded like he was forcing it out.
“The Questing Beast. She didn’t send it, I don’t think you can send them, but you were dying, and I went for a cure. To the Isle of the Blessed.” Arthur turned his horse around and came just a bit closer. It wasn’t a comfort. “It was—a life for a life. If you took the cure, water from the Cup of Life, someone else would have to die.”
“So you killed her, because she’d hurt Camelot in the past?”
Merlin clenched his hands on the reins. The light next to Arthur went out. “I traded my life for yours. I thought that was the deal, it was always supposed to be me, so I—”
“You said goodbye to me.”
“Yes. And I was ready, but I woke up alive, and my mother was there, and you were getting better but she was—she was dying. So I got ready to go back to the Isle, to make sure it was me. Gaius tried to go in my place, and when I got there he was nearly dead. I couldn’t think, so I just … I killed her. I wanted it to be me.”
Arthur’s jaw worked. “Show me.”
“It was lightning. There are too many trees around. But when I left the Isle the ground was still scorched from it. I can show you—”
“How long have you been doing magic?”
“My whole life.”
“And since you’ve come to Camelot?”
“I’ve protected you. And Camelot, and your father.” He tried a smile, though in the face of Arthur’s stony expression it felt more like a grimace. “And I’ve done chores with it.”
“Chores,” Arthur said flatly. “You are aware that magic is illegal in Camelot, aren’t you?”
There were no satisfactory answers to that. Shouting out the amount of times that he’d saved Arthur or Camelot wouldn’t do anything, at least not yet. “I don’t know what you want me to say. Yes, I know. I would rather have you alive than not.”
Arthur closed his eyes and breathed deeply a few times. Merlin’s horse shied a bit, edgy. “How many times? Just … a number. I don’t want the stories.”
“How many times—”
“How many times have you saved my life, Merlin?”
“Directly, maybe six or seven. A few more than that indirectly.”
“Right.” Arthur opened his eyes, but he looked away like he didn’t want to see him, and Merlin tried not to wince. “You—stay here. Make camp, if you like, or don’t. I’m going on to the Isle alone. To see if there’s still proof.”
“I need to think.” Arthur turned his horse again, let it take a few steps away. Merlin held his reins tighter to keep his from following automatically. “If you aren’t here when I return, I will go looking for you, Merlin. That is a promise.”
Merlin dismounted. “Fine. But if you aren’t back by midday tomorrow I’m coming after you. I don’t know if anyone will show up and want to hurt you, and I can’t …”
For a second, Arthur softened, and Merlin reached out. “I’ll be back before then,” said Arthur after a second, looking away, and started off again, faster than was safe on the forest path. Merlin allowed himself a few seconds to lean against his horse and breathe before tethering her to a tree and collecting firewood.
Arthur arrived just as the sun was getting high the next day and Merlin was packing up his makeshift campsite to go after him. “Did you—?”
“Come on, we’re going back to Camelot,” said Arthur, and didn’t wait for him.
His mother wasn’t in her rooms when Arthur let himself into them, twenty minutes after riding through the castle gates. Merlin was somewhere behind him, perhaps just riding into the city judging by how fast Arthur pushed his horse, and if he had any instinct for self-preservation at all he would wait to talk to Arthur.
It only took five minutes for his mother to slip into the room, probably informed by a concerned servant. “Arthur? You were meant to be out on that hunt for another day, weren’t you?”
“It turns out my quarry was—I’m sorry.” She caught him a few steps into his pacing. He tried not to think about scorchmarks in grass that looked like they hadn’t healed over at all in nearly a year, of how Merlin had proved to be both more and less loyal than he’d thought, and how much that hurt. “I was looking for Nimueh, because you said you wanted to see her. She’s …”
Her eyes brimmed, but she didn’t cry. She just shook her head. “When she didn’t come, I thought she must be dead. At least you tried.”
She deserved nothing less than the truth. “Merlin killed her.”
That made her suck in a breath and stumble back, and he reached out, worried, but she steadied herself on the table and looked up at him. “Tell me.”
Since he’d had no message to the contrary, Merlin went to Arthur’s rooms as normal the day after they got back. Arthur was awake and dressed, which wasn’t a surprise. Merlin set out breakfast in silence. “You have the queen to thank for your continued employment,” Arthur said at last, staring at his plate but making no move to pick up anything to eat.
“Not for my life?”
“Kill you for sorcery when I was looking for a sorceress? I’m not a hypocrite. And you’ve apparently saved my life a great deal. I’d like to know why.”
“Because people keep trying to kill you.” The weak attempt at a joke fell flat. “Instinct, back when we hated each other. Then I just … didn’t want you to die.” He still had nightmares sometimes, about Arthur pale and feverish and poisoned, or sinking under the water, and the horrible empty feeling in his gut that came with it.
“But you wanted Nimueh to die?”
“No. But better her than you, if she wouldn’t kill me.” That made Arthur look up at him, startled for just one second. “Do you want me to tell you everything? I will, you know. Everything that’s mine to tell.”
Merlin fidgeted for a second before going about picking up the mess Arthur had made after he returned. He’d been angry. “You told the queen.”
“She had a right to know what happened to her friend.” Merlin just folded up the clothes that had been stuffed haphazard into Arthur’s travel bag. “She forgives you. She knew what you are, already, and I suppose she wasn’t surprised that Nimueh did awful things after her death, since my father did as well.”
“Yes. Before I did.” Arthur’s tone was frosty enough to make Merlin flinch. “Who else knows?”
“My mother. Will, before he died. Gaius.” He had to turn to look at Arthur before the next few names. “Lancelot found out, by accident. The Druid boy we helped out of Camelot might have, I’m not sure. Freya, because I had to lift her curse. Your mother, apparently.” Arthur finally turned away from the table to look at him. “I only ever wanted to tell you.”
“Yet you didn’t.”
“Before your mother was brought back, would you have let me live?”
Arthur stopped to think about it instead of just saying one way or the other. “Yes,” he said at last. “I probably would have sent you away. Perhaps had you officially banished on some pretext.”
“Are you going to send me away now?”
“No.” Before Merlin could ask any more questions, Arthur stood up, picking up a piece of bread from his plate as he went. “Do your usual chores. I’m going to take audiences with my mother today, my father is dealing with urgent business about the treaty, Alined is trying to go back on it.” It was all almost normal for an instant, and then Arthur paused at the door. “Stay out from underfoot as best you can, for the next few days,” he added after a second’s deliberation, and didn’t quite slam the door on his way out.
“Merlin,” Gwen called down the corridor the next afternoon.
He was halfway back to Arthur’s chambers to fold Arthur’s laundry in oppressive silence, if Arthur was even there, so he was more than glad to turn around. Gwen was biting her lip and looking at him like she wasn’t quite sure what to think. “What can I do for you? Is something wrong?”
“Morgana says she wants to speak to you. Alone.”
If Arthur had told anyone besides Queen Ygraine about Merlin, it would be Morgana, and he didn’t want to imagine her reaction. She deserved to know, even more now that Arthur knew, but he wanted to tell her himself. Still, though, she probably would have found him herself if it were that. Gwen’s presence meant something else. “I’ll go right there.”
“Is everything okay?”
“I don’t know what she wants me for, but I’ll let you know if it’s anything you need to know about.” He reversed direction and walked back past Gwen towards Morgana’s chambers, expecting her to fall in next to him as he went. When he paused to wait for her, she just shook her head and went down a side corridor towards the kitchens.
Morgana called him in by name when he knocked, and when he came in, she was standing, pacing like Arthur did when he was upset. She looked as tired as she had for the past several months, but shocked as well, like something new had happened. “Gaius came to see me this morning,” she said without preamble when the door was shut.
“With the new sleeping draught? I know he’s been working on one.”
“And you know as well as he and I that there’s no sleeping draught that can help me.” Morgana takes a deep, shaky breath and turns to face him completely. “He finally saw fit to tell me what I’ve known since the Druid camp. That I’m a Seer, but that he doesn’t know how to train me. That it’s dangerous to have magic in Uther’s court, as if I didn’t know it before.”
Merlin blinked. Gaius hadn’t told him he’d changed his mind, or that he was going to speak to Morgana. “Why are you telling me, my lady?”
“You’re the only other one who knows, unless Gwen has guessed.” She clenched her fists. “He dares to tell me as if I don’t already know, as if I didn’t have a right to know the moment he knew what my nightmares were. He pretended he thought me mad along with everyone else in—did he tell you, Merlin?”
She deserved the truth just like Arthur did. Probably more than Arthur did. “He said it was best if you never knew, to keep you safe.” The dragon had said the same, for different reasons, but Merlin wouldn’t let himself think about that. “It’s why I … the Druids. If he wouldn’t help you, they could, at least. I know it doesn’t help, but I wanted to tell you everything.”
Morgana and Arthur were disconcertingly alike, sometimes, even if they both denied it. She took a deep breath in through her nose, eyes closed as she controlled her first reaction. “I suppose I can’t blame you. Uther would have killed you for even hinting at such things, if he found out. At the very least, he would have had Aredian’s eyes on you from the beginning, when he came.”
“Yes, and he would have …” The truth. “I’m sorry, my lady,” he said first. “If I knew for sure how to help you, I would have told you, no matter what Gaius said.”
His voice deserted him, so he reached out a shaky hand and met her eyes as he made the vase of flowers Gwen must have put on her table hover a few inches in the air. He put it down when she took a sharp breath. “I’m sorry.”
Morgana stiffened up, went from wary to furious in under a second, and Merlin flinched back. “Get out.”
“Out of my chambers. I can’t even look at you right now. You knew, you could have helped me, I didn’t have to be alone, and you—”
He could only repeat what he’d already said, miserable: “I’m sorry.”
“Out!” The window was rattling in its casing.
Merlin backed out, shut the door after him, closed his eyes, and leaned, trying to get his breath back. Arthur’s reaction was worse, if only because Merlin wanted him to understand so badly, but the look of betrayed anger on Morgana’s face wasn’t something he ever wanted to see again. He didn’t know how long it was before someone interrupted the silence. “Merlin?”
For a second, he thought it was Gwen, but when he opened his eyes, it was the queen. He scrambled to stand up straight. “My lady, I’m sorry, did you need something?”
“I thought I would stop by to see Morgana, but I think I ought to talk to you instead.”
No matter how she phrased it, her tone made it clear that it wasn’t an option. Merlin nodded and stepped away from the wall. “Not right here, though.”
“No, in my chambers. Uther is doing business and Arthur is in training, so we won’t be interrupted.”
He followed her down the hall, trailing a few steps behind like he rarely did with Arthur, and kept his head down until they entered her room. He would have waited for her to speak—he deserved anything she had to say, and his day couldn’t get much worse—but when the silence stretched on for over a minute, he looked up at her. “I wouldn’t have, if I could have thought of another way. I’m sorry.”
“Nimueh cared for me, in her own way, every bit as much and as fiercely as Uther. If he went a bit mad with the grief and the guilt, I can’t fault her for doing the same, and I can’t fault you for defending those you love.”
“Arthur said …” Ygraine nodded, encouraging him as if she knew what he was going to say. Merlin swallowed. “Arthur said that you already knew that I have magic.”
“It was the way you looked, when I told the stories. You and Morgana both.”
Morgana, who might never forgive him for lying. “Thank you for not telling anyone.”
“It wasn’t my secret, and just because I love my husband doesn’t mean I agree with everything he does.”
“I meant Arthur.”
“You obviously care about him.” Merlin nodded, not quite able to trust his words. Ygraine smiled tightly. “That’s why I trust you even though you killed Nimueh. I trust that there was a reason, because you’re protecting Arthur and I couldn’t. That was what was missing from all the stories you told me while I was still staying with Gaius, wasn’t it?” He nodded again. “Sometime, I’ll ask you for the whole story. For now … thank you, for taking care of him.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call it my pleasure, your Majesty, but thank you. For thanking me.” At least there was one person in the palace who wasn’t ready to have him thrown out on his ear. He could only imagine what Morgana would tell Gwen when she went back.
“Someone had to, and Arthur won’t. Morgana likely won’t either, for a while.” She smiled for real, and Merlin was suddenly reminded how close to their age she really was, perhaps two or three years older than her own son. “Now, you ought to get going. I may not know Arthur well, but if he’s anything like his father you being late with your chores won’t improve his temper any.” Merlin grimaced at the thought of Arthur’s normal displeasure on top of the icy silence. “Yes, exactly.”
Merlin sketched a quick bow. “Thank you, my lady.”
“This doesn’t mean I forgive you,” said Morgana.
Merlin, kneeling under Gaius’s table to scrub the floor properly because being in Arthur’s chambers with nothing but silence was becoming too much to bear after nearly two weeks, tried to straighten up in surprise and only hit his head on the underside of the table. “Ow,” he muttered, and crawled out from under the table before sitting up again. “My lady?”
“I can’t forgive you for lying to me like you did, not yet, but this is more important than that.” She shut the door. “Is Gaius here?” He shook his head. “Good. You know how to control your magic, don’t you? Better than I do?”
“Well enough to do what’s needed most of the time. What’s the matter?”
“I had a dream last night.”
Merlin allowed himself a second to close his eyes and brace himself. He’d been wondering when an attack would come. The queen’s resurrection had given them a reprieve while everyone waited to see what Uther would do, but nothing was changing, so it was only a matter of time before they started in again. “Who’s in danger this time?”
It took Morgana a while to answer, long enough that he dared to look up at her. She wasn’t outright glaring, but she certainly wasn’t happy. “Someday, not today, you’ll tell me why that sounds like something you say often. Today, we’re solving this. Arthur’s in danger.”
Of course it was Arthur, who would still barely look at Merlin, instead of Uther, who at least would be blissfully ignorant of his near miss or anyone else who might have felt at least a bit of gratitude. “What’s going to happen?”
“I believe he’s on patrol when it happens, since he’s in the woods. Some sort of creature attacks. Something like a small dragon. It kills the others, and attacks Arthur. I woke up before I could tell if it succeeds in killing him.”
Merlin levered himself to his feet. “He leaves for a patrol tomorrow morning.” Morgana nodded. “I’ll try and figure out what the creature is, and how to stop it.” She nodded again, and turned around to go. “Do you want to help?” he blurted before she could.
Morgana turned back and almost, almost smiled. “Yes.”
The next day, after nearly a full night of research and then giving in and actually begging Arthur to go on patrol with him (not that it made any difference besides making Arthur look annoyed instead of expressionless), Merlin found himself sneaking through the woods after Arthur and his knights.
They’d decided, with Gaius’s help after he returned from his rounds, that what Morgana had seen was a wyvern, something like a dragon but not quite, and that it would probably take something like what Merlin had done with the griffin to get rid of it. He almost went to the dragon for advice, but he knew there would be almost no way to get away without promising more concretely to let it free, and he wasn’t sure if he could trust it. Not until Uther changed his mind about magic. He would just work on instinct, if something went wrong.
And something inevitably did, of course.
Merlin lost the patrol’s trail when they crossed a stream at a place he couldn’t on his own and he had to go a ways out of his way. It was then, of course, that the creature decided to attack, and he found Arthur and his men again by the sound of the animal’s shrieks and the knights’ shouts. Merlin ran, but most of Arthur’s companions were already down by the time he got there, and Arthur had his sword out, battling off the wyvern, which kept itself between Arthur and—a nest. Morgana hadn’t seen that. No wonder the wyvern was attacking.
If it could reason, like the dragon, Merlin might have just tried to stop it, but he didn’t have the luxury. He whispered the spell that made Arthur’s sword glow blue, but the second Arthur noticed his sword in the middle of the battle he looked wildly around instead of striking, and the wyvern nearly opened his scalp up.
And, like always, there was the thought: Not Arthur. Please, not Arthur. There was at least one knight left on his feet besides Arthur—Leon, he thought, though he wasn’t paying attention—but he didn’t care. Arthur knew, which was what mattered, and Merlin could offer protection. He ran out of his cover and directly towards the wyvern’s nest, ignoring Arthur’s shout. He could defend himself better, since it seemed Arthur wasn’t going to wield a spelled sword.
The wyvern saw him and changed course in midair. It swooped low, and he ducked it, preparing some of the spells he and Morgana and Gaius had researched. Arthur was still yelling, calling him an idiot, and someone else was too, or maybe a few more. “Your sword,” he shouted, but the wyvern chose that moment to let out a screech and he didn’t know if Arthur heard.
A second later, he twisted out of the way of the wyvern’s attack, though its claws raked into his arm, throwing him off-balance, before it wheeled to go for Arthur again, because Arthur was charging at them. Hopefully more at the wyvern than Merlin, but his sword was still glowing and he didn’t look happy about it, so there was a small chance he didn’t care much who he hit. Merlin stumbled a few steps and raised his hand to send a blast of fire to distract it, but Arthur hit him running and tumbled them both to the ground. “Don’t you dare, there are people watching, I can’t protect you,” said Arthur, aiming a swipe as he tried to roll to his feet again.
Merlin grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down away from another scratch of claws. “Use your sword, then.”
Thankfully, Arthur didn’t argue, though when Merlin tried to get up with him he was shoved unceremoniously back down. The other knights weren’t getting up—unconscious or dead or injured, and the few on their feet weren’t a concern for the wyvern, with Arthur and Merlin just feet from its nest. Arthur swung his sword again as soon as he was on his feet, and the wyvern let out a shriek of pain but came back seconds later and knocked Arthur’s sword out of his hands. It fell to the ground, the magic leaking out of it as soon as it left Arthur’s hands.
Merlin tried to do the spell again, but Arthur had his knife out and was far too close to the wyvern for his peace of mind, so he got to his feet again, wincing at the pain in his shoulder, and blasted it back with a jet of fire. He didn’t even get the luxury of a moment’s silence or shock from Arthur, or whatever other knights were still conscious, because the flame only angered the creature more and it was back before he could check their reactions.
From there, it was just as much a fight with Arthur as it was with the wyvern, because Arthur picked up his sword and attempted to get Merlin out of the way whenever he could, while Merlin tried to spell the sword again so they could actually kill it and failed. Finally, he grabbed Arthur’s hand when he was shoved out of the way again and wrapped his hand over Arthur’s on the hilt, getting the spell out at the expense of the wyvern clouting him around the head. He saw the gold in his eyes reflected in Arthur’s before he was shoved aside, all the way to the ground, bleeding and hurting and looking up at Arthur as he waited for the wyvern to swoop back and then stabbed it with his sword glowing blue.
The wyvern crashed ungracefully to the ground, but Merlin wasn’t paying attention and neither, it seemed, was Arthur. Arthur was dirty and breathing hard, but he was looking at Merlin again, eyes wide and almost confused, and Merlin managed something that he hoped was a hazy smile before he passed out.
“Nobody is to say a word to my father,” said Arthur, staring down at the ground and Merlin, bloody and unconscious.
It shouldn’t have been the first thing he said. He should have asked how many knights had been lost, how many were just injured, but when he turned around Leon was checking on that, only looking up long enough to nod sharply at Arthur’s words. Some of the other knights were groaning and levering themselves to their feet, and others were unconscious, but if they’d lost any, it was only one or two. A minute or two longer without Merlin, though, and they might not have been so lucky.
Merlin, who had thrown himself into danger for Arthur’s sake and wielded fire and light even though the knights were watching, and who’d been knocked unconscious for his troubles.
For the first time, Arthur didn’t think of how many times Merlin had saved his life, building up a life debt Arthur couldn’t hope to repay, one that forced him to lie to his father. Instead, he wondered how many times Merlin’s life had been in danger without Arthur’s knowledge. How close he’d come to losing him like his father lost his mother, unprepared and with no idea how to go on. His stomach clenched at the thought of it.
He lifted Merlin off the ground and looked back at Leon. “Let’s get as many as we can back on their horses and go back to Camelot. Check the nest and see if there’s anything else in it.”
“My father turned a blind eye to an accusation of magic today,” Arthur said the day Merlin went back to work.
Merlin nearly dropped the pillow he was meant to be fluffing. Arthur wasn’t looking up from his papers, but he didn’t seem nearly as casual as he was pretending to be. “Why?”
“Because the one accused was a child, and my mother said please.” Merlin snorted, and Arthur sighed in response. “I can’t promise that you’ll have to stop hiding soon, Merlin, but he’s changing his mind, since she came back. Just as that sorceress intended.”
When Arthur finally looked at him, Merlin looked away. “Does that mean …” His voice deserted him. He fluffed the pillow a few more times for good measure, even though Arthur made an impatient noise. “Does that mean I’m forgiven?”
“I’m not ungrateful. I owe you a great deal, and I suppose understanding of your need to lie would be the least of it.” He couldn’t read Arthur’s tone, but at least it wasn’t as cold as it had been recently.
Merlin tried to smile and put down the pillow in favor of walking over to Arthur’s table. “Last time I got rewarded for saving your life I got enslaved to you, you know. I’m not sure I want rewards for the rest. I would probably end up fetching water for the cobbler or something.”
Arthur just continued as if he hadn’t heard. “I think the position of Court Sorcerer will go some way towards paying the debt, when the time comes.” He stood up before Merlin could school his expression and catch his breath. “Perhaps my father will relent enough to allow it before his death. Perhaps it won’t be until he dies, but as far as I’m concerned you’re the best hope we have, where magic is concerned.”
When Arthur didn’t make a joke immediately after, Merlin tried to find his voice in spite of how close Arthur was standing and how serious he looked. He wanted to blurt out that Gaius did most of the research, really, and how the dragon advised him more often than Merlin wanted to admit, or to say that Morgana would give him a run for his money for Court Sorcerer, but it wasn’t the time for those conversations, at least not yet. Morgana’s secret was her own to tell, anyway. “I’ll keep helping you anyway.”
Arthur nearly smiled. “You always do.”
“Well.” Merlin shrugged. “Apparently we have a destiny.” That made Arthur’s expression shut down, and Merlin cursed himself. He never wanted that as a reason in the first place, for all it was still the argument the dragon and Gaius used most. “I’d keep saving you anyway, though, just because it’s unreasonable how many people try to kill you in a given year. You need someone around to even the odds.”
That time, Arthur did smile. “I’m amazed I didn’t figure it out before, really. I’ve felt as if someone’s been watching out for me, since you came to Camelot, because of all my close calls, but I never imagined it was you.”
“That’s because you think I’m useless.”
“You are a useless manservant.” Arthur looked pointedly at the bed, which was still rumpled despite Merlin’s best attempts at making it, though in Merlin’s defense his shoulder still hurt from the wyvern’s attack and he’d been distracted by Arthur. “But you’re a better sorcerer. Before you swooned like a girl the other day—we wouldn’t have survived without you.”
“I didn’t swoon,” Merlin objected automatically, a bit breathless with how close Arthur was standing and how he never looked away from Merlin’s eyes. “The damn wyvern hit me on the head.”
Arthur raised his head and touched it gently to where the knot on Merlin’s skull was. Merlin winced, and the hand dropped to settle on his good shoulder. “Like a girl,” he repeated, but he sounded fond and a little hoarse, and Merlin couldn’t bring himself to object again. “Merlin—”
“Yes.” It was the only possible answer to anything Arthur was going to say while he looked like that, even if he had no idea what was going on. And what he thought was going on surely couldn’t actually be going on, because Merlin hadn’t seen that look on Arthur’s face for a while, and he’d thought he imagined it if it was ever directed at him.
For a moment, Merlin was sure that Arthur was going to back down from whatever happened next, make some joke about Merlin needing to finish making his bed or polish his swords or take his shirts to the laundry. Instead, he just kept smiling. “Yes what, Merlin?”
“Yes, I’ll be your Court Sorcerer, or …” He trailed off and grabbed Arthur’s hand instead, to lower his head and press a kiss where Arthur would wear a signet ring someday. “Just, yes.”
That made Arthur catch in a startled breath, and when Merlin dared to look up, releasing Arthur’s hand as he did, he was staring at Merlin’s mouth. He started to speak, probably to ask Merlin if he was sure, if he knew what he was offering, but Merlin didn’t want to hear it. It had been coming, probably for longer than either of them had acknowledged, so he just looped his arms around Arthur’s neck and kissed him.
Arthur’s lips were chapped, but his mouth was soft and warm and he responded instantly, like Merlin’s kiss was something he’d been waiting for. His hands fluttered for a moment, indecisive in a way Arthur never was, before settling at Merlin’s waist, and Merlin kissed him openmouthed in response.
When they pulled apart, Merlin rested his forehead on Arthur’s shoulder, hiding the silly grin Arthur would surely mock him for. “Merlin,” said Arthur, and he could hear him smiling.
His voice only shook a bit when he answered. “So what you’re saying is that I’m forgiven?”
Arthur tilted his head up again to meet his eyes. “What I’m saying is ‘thank you.’”
The harvest was just beginning when Uther pardoned a sorcerer before the full court for the first time.
Merlin was hovering behind Arthur’s seat—lower on the dais, now that Ygraine had Arthur’s old one for the foreseeable future—when the guards shoved in a boy about his age, maybe a bit younger, sullen and with his face bruised. “Who is this?” the queen asked, putting her hand on top of Uther’s.
“He’s a confessed sorcerer, your Majesty,” said one of the guards.
Only someone looking hard would see the way Arthur, Morgana, and Ygraine all flinched at once, but Merlin was looking. He clenched his fists so he wouldn’t reach out to Arthur and glanced at Gwen, who was patting Morgana’s shoulder under cover of giving her a drink of water. She didn’t bother to look at the accused sorcerer, because everyone in the room knew he was doomed, if he’d confessed, and he was a full-grown man, not one of the children for whose lives the queen had pled. She just looked at Morgana, brows knit with worry, while Morgana went white.
“Our crops were dying!” shouted the sorcerer. “I did what I had to do.”
Everyone waited for Uther to send him to the dungeons to wait for his execution. It never mattered what they said, after all. “You should have sent to Camelot for help,” Uther said instead. “Why use sorcery?”
“There wasn’t enough time.”
“And you used it only to save the crops in your village?”
That was when the whispers started, and Merlin looked from the king, who looked as angry and impassive as ever, to the sorcerer, whose anger was turning into shock, to Arthur, who was just staring at his father like he’d never seen him before in his life. “I did what I had to do,” the sorcerer said again, and he was still belligerent, but it was fading out of him by the second.
Uther turned his gaze to the guards. “Is there anyone else from the village present? Has anyone been hurt or poisoned by the crops this man touched?”
One of the guards shook his head; he must have been on the patrol. “We don’t know, it had only been a day since the crops started flourishing again when we left.”
“My parents eat that grain, I wouldn’t—”
“Be silent, you are on trial,” said Uther, and by some miracle the sorcerer shut his mouth. “You meant no harm?”
All the whispers went dead silent, and Merlin forgot himself and clasped his arm on the back of Arthur’s chair so he wouldn’t fall down. “Of course I didn’t,” said the sorcerer, and his voice was so full of scorn that Merlin was sure Uther would have him executed for insolence instead of sorcery.
“Have him taken to the dungeon. In a week, check the crops in his village. If no one is ill and they still flourish, allow him to go free.”
People were talking, Uther was saying something about mercy, but Merlin couldn’t pay attention, couldn’t think. The sorcerer’s defiance was leaking out of him, replaced by shock. The queen had a hand over her mouth, hiding a smile or tears, and when Uther reached out to pat her hand as he often did, she didn’t just give him a nod as always, she grabbed his hand and kissed it in front of the whole court. Merlin just held on to Arthur’s chair, sure the wild grin he had inside of him was showing on his face just as Morgana’s fierce happiness was all on the surface.
Uther heard two other cases but Merlin kept clutching, white-knuckled, until Arthur rose during a break and jerked his head towards the door when Merlin nearly forgot to follow him. “Training,” said Arthur, nodding to his father and giving his mother a kiss on the cheek as he went by. “Come along, Merlin.”
They made it as far as an alcove before Arthur let them stop and pulled Merlin into the darkness. Merlin reached out and Arthur caught him by the collar to pull him close and let him calm his mind. “Did you know he was going to do that?” Merlin asked at last.
“No, I’d no idea. I knew my mother was trying to change his mind, but I didn’t think he would ever bend.” Arthur’s lips were at his temple, his breath ruffling Merlin’s hair. “Do you know what this means?”
“It won’t—it can’t be any time soon. But maybe even before you’re king …” And Uther would pass down a kingdom to his son that wasn’t roiling with thousands of hidden sorcerers and druids ready to kill the heir, if it happened soon enough. The word would spread, and if Uther let the sorcerer go, he would have to release others as well, when they came.
“I can’t even imagine what we’ll do.”
Merlin stepped back and whispered a spell that made a flame spark up in his palm. When Arthur held out a hand as if to touch it, Merlin clasped their hands together, the fire between them, and made sure it wouldn’t burn. “I can.”
Arthur smiled. “Show me more.”
In the afternoons afternoons, Ygraine sometimes thought her room was the busiest in the castle. When he wasn’t busy, Uther would come, and it was always quieter when he was there, but she didn’t mind, because during those times she saw the man she’d married more and more often.
When Uther wasn’t there, it was most often the children, though in truth they were more friends, given the closeness of their age. Arthur would sit at her table with business or just to listen to her stories, his smile freer than it had been when she first woke. She couldn’t take all the credit for that, though, for with Arthur came Merlin. He’d come shyly at first, and stood in a corner unable to meet her eyes, but more often now, he sat next to Arthur and they bumped shoulders and smiled when they thought no one was looking. Morgana came as well, nearly always wearing the bracelet that Uther had confiscated from the person of the sorceress who brought Ygraine back to life, which had the mark of the house of Gorlois on it. She looked less tired, as time went on, and she smiled more, though it took a long time before she would smile at Merlin. Gwen sat near her lady, her worry gentled, and sewed or sat, rarely speaking.
When Ygraine could, she did the work of looking through papers and ledger books, catching up on years and history, but mostly she sat and listened to them chatter, and told stories of the Camelot she remembered in return.