Chapter 1: There's Something Under that Rock
“Oh cummon,” Merlin insisted enjoying the fact that he seemed to have made Arthur uncomfortable. “I mean, you must have stories. I told you mine.” Arthur didn't need to know how much of his was fictional, what he'd really been caught doing in that hayloft or who with.
“Look, I told you,” Arthur said petulantly, maybe more than petulantly, turning to adjust his saddle bags, pulling almost violently at straps and buckles, suddenly eager to a task that he normally would have insisted on having done for him, “this is not an appropriate topic for discussion between a master and a servant.”
“Alright, alright,” Merlin conceded as he proceeded to check over his own horse's tack, preparing to let it go. “I'm just saying...” he heard himself continuing anyway—Letting it go was not his strong suite—“I mean all the women in this castle must—well but obviously most of them are servants so probably you wouldn't but, well there's always Morgana or—”
By the time Merlin identified the huge, muddy, planet shaped object that he'd been hit on the head with as the Earth, he had a knee on his chest and a sword at his throat. Fighting mortal panic, he found himself looking upon a hard-set face that, despite the blue eyes and blond curls, suddenly reminded him very much of Uther Pendragon. Those cold-burning eyes, that determined jaw, insisted on reminding Merlin of something that he expended quite a lot of energy every single day to actively deny. Arthur had gutted more men than his servant had fish. The pan-Pendragonish look on his face was the expression of an experienced killer sizing up his victim, or maybe mastering himself to the task.
Merlin's eyes began to dart around the clearing, looking for something slightly smaller than a planet to hit back with if need be, fighting the paralyzing, paradoxical fears that he would injure Arthur in the course of defending himself and that Arthur would be knocked off of him totally unharmed and all the more determined to kill or arrest him for the obviously magical circumstance of inanimate objects having jumped to his defense.
The moment passed. The clouds didn't exactly lift from Arthur's countenance, but they... shifted, less brutal, more brooding, an expression that was still very Utherish in it's way. With a noise of contempt and amusement (not at Merlin but at himself) and a little Pendragony private smile; Arthur stood, sheathed his sword, and walked away, shaking his head. As Merlin got unsteadily to his feet and began to feel his heart swelling with the joy of still being alive, the prince called over his shoulder “Lead my horse, Merlin. I think I'll walk back. Give my legs a good stretch.”
Merlin sighed, took the reigns to both horses and saddled up. All the way back to Camelot he was careful to stay a few paces behind Arthur. Back at the castle, they parted company (the prince for his rooms and the servant for the stables) without a word or a glance. It was nothing, Merlin tried to tell himself. He'd insulted the prince's dignity by not keeping his social and emotional distance, that was all. Running his big mouth, he'd forgotten his place, hadn't listened for the cues that he was going too far. In the morning, everything would be back like it always was.
And basically, it was. But Merlin couldn't quite shake the sight of those expressions. Both the I'm-going-to-actually-kill-you look and the why-am-I-bothering-with-this-fool look reminded him uncomfortably of the king. And yet—maybe it was seeing them on a different face, the face of a man he knew wasn't really heartless and cruel for cruelty’s sake—but somehow both expressions had seemed, at their very bottom, to be based not upon anger, but pain.
Chapter 2: Dare Not Speak
“Hurry up, Merlin!” Arthur found himself shouting again, though he'd promised himself to go easy on the boy today. 'A man masters his passions,' the Prince reminded himself, practically hearing his father's voice speak the words aloud inside his head, 'he doesn't allow them to master him.' And yet, less than twenty-four hours ago, he had come within seconds of murdering his most devoted servant, a man—a boy really, probably no more than seventeen—who had saved his life twice, once nearly dying in the process. The problem was, devoted and worthy though he was, Merlin kept on being Merlin. And so, “Merlin, if you don't add that hot water soon, you'll just be adding more cold water!” Arthur found himself shouting. “Merlin! Fetch me that towel! I could have sown and reaped the flax, spun it into yarn, and made it myself by now!”
If anything, Arthur found himself being harder on his servant rather than easier, and that realization itself frustrated him and made him all the more angry. The original cause of his wrath, objectively examined, seemed trivial... and yet in his heart it was not. Coarse talk and idle prattle from a low and rustic fellow ought to have been beneath the notice of a Pendragon prince. He should have been amused by his servant's clumsy attempt at camaraderie. And yet he was not. Partly, he supposed, because Merlin had shown him such devotion, and partly because the boy had no ability to judge, let alone keep, a proper social distance; sometimes talking with Merlin didn't feel like talking to a servant. It felt like confiding in a peer, or someone as near to a peer as a man in Arthur’s unique position could hope to have.
And that being the case, he should not have mentioned Morgana. Of course, beyond the obvious stupidity of treating the delicate subject of a noblewoman's chastity so lightly—a degree of idiocy one really had to expect from a base born peasant—there was no way Merlin could have known the relevant facts. Those who knew the truth, Arthur had to remind himself, could be counted on one hand. Morgana. Gaius. His Father. Arthur Himself. Perhaps her servant, Guinevere, by now, though much as Morgana seemed to dote on and confide in the girl, Arthur really doubted it. Uther had expressly forbidden each of them to speak of it. And despite her rebellious passions, Morgana was a devoted and mostly obedient ward. She was like a member of the family; as protective of the King as she was assured of his protection.
Like family yes. But, Arthur had to remind himself, family she was not, and never would be. Uther had made that quite clear. And he was not one to change his mind. Not when he had already spoken so firmly. Already taken all possible extenuating circumstances into account.
“Never mind about the shirt!” Arthur snapped at Merlin, tearing it from his grasp. “Leave me to dress myself!”
“Shall I just go and get your breakfast then?” Merlin asked, offering a tentative glimpse of his huge goofy smile, clearly wanting to be extra friendly, extra helpful this morning. Clumsily calling attention to the fact that Arthur had nearly killed him yesterday while honestly seeming not to hold a grudge. Paradoxically, it made Arthur want to punch him right on the nose, to make him as angry as a normal man ought to be having been so ill used for such little cause that he could possibly know.
“Just... Go and muck out the stables,” the Prince commanded, suddenly anxious to be rid of him, to be alone. “And when you've done that go and pick me a bushel of mushrooms. I fancy having them for dinner tonight.” Arthur felt hot, agitated, disordered in his thoughts. And unclean in a way that his almost-hot bath had done nothing to help. He certainly didn't want Merlin of all people seeing him in this state. Trying to talk to him about it. Behaving as though he were his friend. Trying to cheer him up. And all the Gods of Olympus knew he didn't want the boy walking in on what he was clearly going to have to do about it.
When Merlin finally took the hint and left, Arthur bolted the door. He did not begin to dress right away. In fact, he carefully removed the undergarments that he had already donned, folded them neatly and laid them on the bed. Taking a tall, thin, four-legged stool from a corner and covering it with a large gray rag from a certain box in a certain cupboard, Arthur set it before the fire. Making sure to position the rag so that a generous portion of it hung down in front of the stool (ready for its final act of service before being thrown into the fireplace and consumed by the flames) Arthur got himself into position. He mounted the stool, facing the fire with his feet hooked under its rung-like braces and his knees spread wide apart.
'While the occasional release of bodily tension is absolutely necessary for any healthy, unmarried man,' his father had warned him on the one and only occasion upon which they had discussed the subject, 'it is important not to make oneself too comfortable during the physical act of release lest it become a pleasurable habit of indulgence which dulls a man's senses and inclines him to idleness.' It was a lesson Arthur had taken very much to heart. After all, at thirteen years of age, he had already indulged himself more deeply in selfish pleasures than any man of honor had a right to, and with deadly consequences.
Now, as he set before the fire, eyes focused intently on the flames, blocking out the room and the world around him, Prince Arthur took his manhood in hand and began to do what was necessary to relieve his present suffering, or the part of it that properly belonged to the present anyway. For the lingering injuries of his past misdeeds, of course, this was no remedy. After all, as he could all but hear Gaius saying, 'What may by the ounce prevent the most serious malady may by the pound that same ill fail to cure.' No truer words.
As he endeavored to master his passions by allowing his flesh, for this brief moment, to master him, Arthur tried very hard not to think of Morgana. But whether it was because his body knew no other lover's touch or because it was she who (second only to one) had suffered the worst consequences of his youthful self-indulgence, he could not easily think of anything else at these times. The glory he had taken in her body and the guilty shame that followed were all mingled in his mind, all one, until he could hardly say whether his thoughts of her were of pleasure or torment.
And that was a thought which put him in mind, strangely enough, of Merlin. That boy! His stupid, idiotic grin was painful to look upon at times, at others it seemed to infect all around him with laughter and good humor. He was just so clearly and consistently well-meaning. Even when he was mucking things up or overstepping his bounds. Especially when he was over stepping his bounds. No matter how galling his impertinence, no matter how misguided his thinking, Arthur sensed, in retrospect, even in Merlin's initial, foolhardy challenges to him, an honest and courageous if totally misplaced sense of justice that he thought was probably the peasant equivalent of gallantry. And though he was often one to wheedle, complain, and flinch at small pains and dangers, including any risk of a hard days work; Arthur was in awe of the courage Merlin had shown in the face of near certain death when Uther had callously handed him Bayard's chalice to drink.
The look in Merlin's eyes as he had drained that chalice to the dregs! Knowing full well that whether he was right or wrong in accusing Bayard his life would be forfeit and Arthur's would be saved! Arthur sighed and closed his own eyes now, breathing raggedly in and out, thinking of that look, picturing Merlin's face, still stroking himself rapidly, automatically. It was a look of resolution certainly, of loyalty and courage befitting the noblest of knights.... But there was more to it than that. Merlin would not have drunk that cup to save just any man, and considering the circumstances of their first meeting and every frustrating day sense, Arthur had no illusions that his servant's willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice had been in deference to his nobility.
Squeezing his eyes more tightly shut, stroking harder than ever, grunting with the effort of holding on to the edge of letting go, Prince Arthur reached that moment of inexpressible tension that immediately precedes release. “Mu—Mu—!” he began to moan, and at the moment of climax clamped his startled mouth shut so hard that he almost literally bit his tongue. For the first time he could remember, the name that tripped to the tip of his tongue at that moment had not been 'Morgana'! The name he held in like a scream of terror was a name that matched a set of pleasant regular features broken by a goofy smile beneath a mop of dark, unruly curls. A name that matched a set of icy, brilliant blue eyes brimming with what the Prince could no longer deny was nothing but pure love!
The name? Merlin!
Chapter 3: The Wrong Boots (Or Maybe a Different Bucket)
As Merlin hurried back towards Gaius's chambers with the bucket of water he'd just drawn, the better to tend to the wounded Lancelot, he was distracted by the screech of a bird. He knew it to be a bird, a falcon, probably, and yet he could not help but look to the sky, heart hammering madly. The moment, hours ago, when he had come face to face with winged death was still too fresh with him, still too terrifying. While his eyes were turned from the way, his feet continued to hurry. Until he ran smack into the side of a tall, brown horse, slopping his bucket across the dark leather booth and breaches of the figure who had just dismounted, before tripping backwards and landing flat on his ass against the hard cobbles of the courtyard.
“Merlin!” he heard Arthur gasp, sounding shocked and unsettled, worried even, rather than angry or annoyed. It didn't take Merlin a moment to figure out why. Not once he looked up to meet terrifyingly angry face that was staring down at him. The man whose feet he had actually spilled his bucked across. Uther Pendragon, King of Camelot.
“I'm sorry, My Lord,” Merlin gasped as he got very carefully to his feet and desperately flashed the King his best 'but aren't I an adorable idiot' smile.
“Undoubtedly,” the Kings agreed tersely. Then, turning towards the castle proper, addressing himself to Arthur, as though Merlin had disappeared the moment he'd turned his head, his tone commanding his son to come along with him, which he did, without a word of parting, “That fool servant of yours needs to be taken firmly in hand before he does himself a mischief. Honestly, take a rod to him if you have to. A few strokes across the haunches should teach him to watch what he spills on better men's breaches. I'd suggest a blow to the head, but he's obviously taken more than enough licks there already.” As they strode purposefully away, Merlin could have sworn he heard the Prince stammering, like a tongue tied... well, Merlin... struggling to make his father an adequate response. He supposed Uther could have that effect on anyone, even Arthur, when he got that glowering look and that vicious glint in his eyes.
“Having one of those days again, Merlin?” Gwen's voice was soft, friendly as always. Amused yet sympathetic. Merlin turned to see her smiling her radiant smile, the one that made the sun shine a little brighter, the way his mother's always had at home. Before it had become so unusual to actually see it.
“Oh, yes, always,” he answered with his best friendly shrug-grin combination. “But the sight of your beauty makes it all worthwhile,” he flirted in his playful exactly-as-ironic-as-you-want-it-to-be-tone, with a theatrical wink that made her duck her head a little in a pantomime of 'blushing'. Not for the first time, Merlin wished that he could fancy Gwen the way she seemed to fancy him. That he could use his considerable charm to make this lovely, lonely, unappreciated woman his own and that they could live a happy life together. A life of love and friendship, complete with children and a home.
But Merlin knew himself better than that. It would be unfair to condemn so worthy a woman, so goodhearted a person, such a very pretty girl, to be married to a man of his peculiar passions, never mind the risks of living with a sorcerer. “Why are you looking at me like that?” Gwen asked, brow suddenly furrowed.
“Oh,” Merlin shrugged, this time with a bit of a frown that broke into an acutely embarrassed smile despite him, ducking his own head a little to the side and definitely blushing under the weight of her scrutiny. “I—nothing—I just, you know—I...” his eye lighted on the pail of water she was carrying in her hands. “I was just wondering if you would trade buckets with me.”
“You mean your empty one lying in the mud for my perfectly good one full of fresh water?” she asked with goodnatured skepticism, shaking her pretty curls. “I don't think so, Merlin.”
“But it's for Gaius, for a patient,” he coaxed.
“What, a patient?” she asked, seeming a bit worried. “If Gaius needs your help with a patient, what are you still doing standing here talking to me?”
“Relying on your kindness and generosity as the fastest means of getting back to him with a full bucket as instructed?”
“Alright,” Gwen relented, smiling, handing over the bucket with another little shake of the head. “For Gaius and his patient, with my compliments.”
“Thanks!” Merlin declared with genuine gratitude, smiling more than ever, and hurried back to Gaius and Lancelot, leaving Gwen staring after him, shaking her head. But before he could reach the physician's chambers, Merlin was intercepted yet again. By Arthur. Who would have had to have taken his leave of his father almost as soon as they were out of Merlin's sight and still made haste to be standing where he was at that moment, not three yards from Gaius's door. He looked troubled. Dour. Brooding.
“Your not... here to take a rod to me?” Merlin asked worriedly.
Arthur seemed to sort of... wince at the thought, then crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. “No, you idiot. I'm here to warn you. Watch how you behave, especially around my father. I won't be made to look a fool in his eyes for all the gawky severing boys in Camelot. Is that clear.” He was taking that adorably 'firm and serious' tone again, the one Merlin was coming to realize he often used to mask affection and worry.
“Yeah...” Merlin began to answer with the best semblance of worried hesitancy he could muster. “I hear what you're saying. Just one thing,” he continued, giving his brows an exaggerated furrowing, working hard at keeping his face straight and his tone flat, “What would you want with all the gawky serving boys in Camelot, anyway?”
In the astonished second before Arthur could process this comment and decide to be angry, Merlin flashed him a mischievous grin and dashed away, reaching the sanctuary of Gaius's chambers in time to pretend he didn't hear the Prince roaring in his wake, “Merlin! Come back here, Merlin! Where are my damned mushrooms!?!”
Chapter 4: Do as I Say, Not as the Romans Do.
“Any further word of attacks?” Uther asked without preamble as Arthur and his cadre alighted. Arthur was used to being so greeted (or ungreeted) by his father. When there was business in hand, the King did not stand on courtesy, never mind ceremony and he had little patience with those who did.
“Word, no,” Arthur replied grimly, equally straight to business. “But we passed two burned out farmsteads that were not so yesterday. It appeared there were no survivors. And yet, the cattle stood in the fields lowing to be milked. At one house a dog whined piteously, digging among the ashes. It is as with the village we saw yesterday. The creature hungers for human flesh alone.”
“Well, if nothing else,” Uther replied with a sigh, “at least we know the thing's tastes and cravings. That ought to help Geoffrey and Gaius to identify it and so perhaps to learn its weaknesses. A man's weaknesses, after all, are married to his passions, and in some wise, the same is often true of beasts. Oh, have you any word yet from the monks of St. Francis?”
“The monastery is secure for now, Father,” Arthur replied, falling into step with his father, headed to their customary working luncheon in the map room, while his knights headed off to the stables with the horses. “As for the nature of the beast, they swear they have never seen its like nor read of it in any of their texts.”
“Well, we must keep an eye out,” Uther advised, “The New Religion and its clerics are much set by among our people and a positive boon to us in keeping the Old Ways at bay. We must make certain the monks remain safe.” Arthur nodded, deep in thought.
When they reached the map room, the luncheon had already been laid on the side board. Later, the Council would join them, but for this hour, the King and his son dined alone, without so much as a servant to hear their conversation. “Now then,” Uther said firmly, but not unkindly, “what, besides this beast is troubling you, my son.”
“What...? Nothing.” Arthur assured him as confidently as he could manage, though his father was difficult man to lie to, “Is not this monstrous beast enough?”
“Enough to frighten the spines off a hedgehog,” Uther half agreed, “but not enough to explain why you've spent the last two days brooding over your own thoughts and had to be startled out of your revere by my voice more than once even to speak upon this monster and the crisis it has caused.” Arthur ducked his head and took a bite of food, extending the moment afforded him to say nothing. What could he say? That he was distracted by thoughts of his servant to the point that he could hardly focus on the King's urgent business? That he was tied in knots for want of any clear idea what he thought of what his servant thought of him, assuming he wasn't only imagining that his servant was thinking it? “Oh, gods spare us!” Uther declared, more than half playfully, “It's not a woman is it?”
“No,”Arthur assured him quite honestly, “it is certainly nothing to do with a woman.” Before his father could ask, 'well but what then?', Arthur abruptly asked, “But why 'gods spare us', Father?”
“Because nothing can cause more trouble for a gentleman than getting involved with women. You know that.”
Arthur broke eye contact again, concentrating on his plate as an excuse. “Yes, I do know that,” he said shortly, impatient with his own shame. “But what I meant was, why gods? You justly condemn the Old Religion and the dark powers its cruel rituals invoke, and among the common people you encourage the New Religion, investing its clerics with lands, offering them protection, enforcing their tithes. Yet here in the keep of Camelot itself, we adhere to neither. We still venerate the Roman gods of our fathers and our knights are still wed by the fasting of hands, rather than by the Christian Rites that prevail elsewhere in the Kingdom. Why? Why one faith for us and another for the people?”
“Because they are peasants,” Uther explained, with patiently restrained impatience. “Barbarians. Not one in ten of them has any Roman blood in his veins. Our gods mean nothing to them and never will. Meanwhile, the New Religion is simple, comforting, and encourages vigilance against the Old Ways. Which is the best we can do for them. It gives them what they need and we are all the better for it. We, of course, will continue to respect the gods of our fathers, as befits men of our station.”
Arthur's heart beat a little faster. He saw a sudden opportunity in this turn of conversation, if he dared to seize it. As the moment aged, he realized that he hardly dared not too. He truly was tormented in his heart and in need of his father's counsel. “Were not the Romans good men father?” he asked, more abruptly than he'd meant to, feeling that tiny window of opportunity almost ready to slam shut. “Were they not wise and virtuous?”
Uther paused and gave him a serious look, pulling at his chin, still clearly wondering what the devil his son was getting at. “The Romans were men,” he said carefully. “Of all sorts. Good, bad, and indifferent.”
“Well,” Arthur tried again. “What about Julius Caesar? Wasn't Caesar a good man, Father?”
Uther's brow furrowed, clearly more puzzled than ever. “Caesar was a great man,” he said after a moment. “Without him there would be no Camelot. No Kingdoms of Albion. All of Britain would remain a wilderness like the Barbarian North.”
“And yet,” Arthur pressed, trying not to sound too eager, too invested, hoping to sound the King out without appearing to do so, “there were aspect of Caesar's life, of his... tastes and passions, that both the New Religion and the Old would call sinful. Though perhaps the gods of our fathers would not?”
“Come now,” Uther said, losing patience a bit, “Speak plainly. What is it about Caesar and his 'passions' that vexes your spirit so?”
Arthur's courage nearly failed him, but he was past the point of shrugging his father off with some non-answer. Besides, what better time or manner would there ever be to ask his opinion? Still, to 'speak plainly' was more than the young prince dared, and he continued to couch his inquiry in term of curiosity about the past. “Did not Curio say of Caesar, and the histories generally support him, that he was to every woman a husband and to every man a wife?”
Uther stopped, his hand raised halfway to his mouth. He blinked once, frowned and carefully laid down his fork and folded his napkin before looking his son squarely in the face. Or rather, he looked him in the top of the head, because Arthur suddenly found that (with those now foolishly transparent seeming words hanging in the taunt, unbreathable air) his plate was a great deal easier to face than his father.
“Look at me,” Uther commanded coolly, “and listen very carefully.” Arthur had no choice but to raise his head, feeling a fool, humiliated. He should have known what his father's counsel would be. He needn't have asked, really. “It has been many years since Roman law and custom held sway in this land, my son. Some say the personal vices of the Romans are in part to blame for this and some say not. But what is certain is this. We are not in Rome and may not justify our acts by what is or has been done or accepted there. Were our noble fathers of the House of Aemilius here to see me going about with this crown on my head calling myself a 'king' they would kill me where I stood. And yet, I would not for all the world put it by nor dishonor the blood that has been spilt to build this kingdom by calling myself by any less a title than my father and his father before him. Times change, Arthur. And a man must live in his own times and no other.”
Chapter 5: Just Friends
“So,” Arthur reprized Merlin's terse account even more tersely, “what you're telling me is that you didn't pick my mushrooms for yesterday's supper because you were attacked by a great beast, then rescued by a tall dark stranger who then swooned in your arms and had to be taken immediately to Gaius for tending, Hmm?”
Merlin winced at the sting of each sarcastic word. He knew Arthur was testy from yet another failed knight's test and nervous about whatever he and the King had been all huddled up in council so hush hush about the last couple of days, but still, he didn't have to make Merlin's (entirely true) story sound so ridiculous. Merlin tried to think of a tactful way to say that to the Prince. “But it's the truth!” he said, “You don't have to make it sound so ridiculous.” To which Arthur responded by shoving a shield into Merlin's arms and piling armor on top of it, pealing down to his everyday chainmail as he walked.
“You just don't understand, Merlin,” the Prince continued to grouse, not seeming to notice that he'd completely changed topics from what he had been berating his servant for to what he'd obviously been thinking about all along. “Grimond's the third to fail this month. How'm I meant to defend Camelot with rubbish like that?”
Opportunity! Arthur was practically begging for Merlin to suggest someone. He fought back a sly smile, concentrating on make his suggestion seem humble, casual. The last thing he needed was for Arthur to feel challenged by the very fact that his 'mere servant' dared to suggest anything and to become irrationally resistant to considering Lancelot. “I think I might be able to help.” He ventured, fighting another smile at the thought that he'd hit just the right note there. Arthur railed at him a bit about all the things he wasn't meant to know anything about; courage , honor, etc. But it was only out of habit, there was no force in it. He accepted Merlin's obligatory acknowledgments that he was no one to be listened to and kept listening. When Arthur feigned to scoff at Lancelot for saving his life, Merlin knew he had his in. He hardly even stumbled over the awkward question of nobility. After all, it wasn't exactly a lie. He didn't know that Lancelot wasn't a nobleman. There were dirt poor, eighth son of an eighth son noblemen all over the place these days. He could have been one of those.
But he wasn't. And stupid Merlin had gone and talked about it in front of Gaius. Which meant he'd have someone to pester him and try to prick his conscience when he did what he knew had to be done. But he did know what had to be done, and using his powers to forge the documents had been even easier than talking Lancelot into something he so clearly wanted to be talked into. “Damn the rules,” said Merlin to this reckless daring young hero who made him want to be reckless, daring and heroic right back. And damned they were.
“But I don't look like a nobleman,” Lancelot pointed out. “I don't have the right clothes, let alone armor.” At that Merlin's grin only widened. Because he knew someone who could help with both of those things, maybe better than anyone else in the kingdom. And he knew his tall, dark, handsome stranger was exactly the kind of gentle-tough, save-the-world kind of man she deserved. And really he'd be doing them both a favor, paying back all the kindness they both had shown him. And they'd be so pretty together and make even prettier babies. Merlin could almost feel his little godchildren already bouncing on his knee.
Merlin knew, the minute he saw them seeing each other, he'd made a match. It was almost embarrassing, the level of outright sexiness in that room as he tried to both watch and to not watch Gwen taking Lancelot's measurements. In fact he sort of felt jealous, though he hardly knew of which one; the man who could give Gwen what she needed or the girl who had what tall, dark heroes really wanted. Maybe both. Them and all their happy babies and fat grandchildren. Finally, he tried to make an excuse to go and leave them to it, but by then Gwen said that they were done. When Lancelot kissed the back of Guinevere's hand, Merlin had never wanted to be the back of a hand so much in his life.
It was almost comical, the way Lancelot tried, as they walked back towards Gaius's chambers, to ask without asking if he and Gwen were lovers. The awkward hand gesture, which looked like nothing so much as rickety old woman's ancient pelvis shaking, topped it off, and Merlin had to laugh. Which was good because it made it seem as if Merlin really had never given the idea that he and Gwen could be together a thought, never imagined what that life might be like or wanted it. It lent authenticity to his breezy declaration that they were just friends. He had to look away when he said it though. Because it still felt too much like a lie. And because it hurt too much like the truth. They were just friends, he and Gwen as well as he and Lancelot. A man like Merlin could hardly expect anything more.
Chapter 6: Sort
Arthur's first thought had been that Merlin was blowing smoke when he said his 'friend' was a nobleman. But blimey if the fellow didn't turn up, seal of nobility in hand. His next thought was that he was probably Merlin's boyfriend. He had those sort of soft, smoky good looks and gentle, hesitant manners that women liked to titter about and swoon over before almost always passing his kind up for a real man who knew what he wanted. 'Oh, really?' Arthur could here his father's voice argue back inside his head, 'and what is it exactly you want?'
When Lancelot bowed his head and leaned in much closer than was necessary to hand over the seal, Arthur could feel his warm breath on his neck. He struck him on impulse, taken by a sudden whim to knock him to the ground, which he did, handily. “Sluggish reaction time,” he heard himself saying aloud, by way of justification. “On the battle field you'd be dead by now.” He wasn't jealous. It would be absurd to be jealous of his servant having befriended another nobleman, even if it so happened that they were more than friends. He just... didn't want to encourage Merlin's obvious, hopeless infatuation by doing favors for him or his friends. Besides with that sort of man, one never knew... But by the time Arthur turned and looked down at the ground to deliver the taunt on his lips, “Come back when you're ready,” Lancelot was not on the ground. He was on his feet, standing tall.
“I am ready now, Sire,” he declared, and Arthur knew, whatever 'sort of man' Lancelot was, he was a man, and one with the makings of a knight.
Still... “You can start by cleaning out the stables.” There was no sense letting him get cocky.
“There you are,” Morgana said, as Arthur entered the front hall, in that teasing little voice that's meant you make you wonder what naughty thing you've done now. She was wearing one of her much too low cut gowns that clung to and accentuated her womanly figure. The whole thing was an elaborate, pathetic ploy to get attention. Arthur didn't have the patience for that today.
“I've been to the training ground, Morgana,” he explained bruskly, “Not to invade the Northern Plains. What do you want?”
Morgana shook her head and laughed. “It is your father who wants you, not I. He's in the Council room with all his ministers; they've been asking for you.”
“Well it isn't as though I would have been hard to find!” Arthur pointed out angrily as he stomped off in that direction.
“Tell it to Uther just like that,” she called after him teasingly, positively merry now to see him vexed, “see how well he responds to your temper!”
But Uther wasn't angry, only gravely concerned. “The creature's depredations do not cease,” he explained. “Columns of refugees from the affected villages are already making their way towards Camelot on foot and by Ox carts and should begin to arrive tomorrow afternoon. We must make ready provision for their shelter and maintenance, even as we prepare our own defenses. And Arthur, if you have any promising young candidates pining to be made knights, best step up their training and get them tested as soon as possible.”
“Yes, Sire,” the Prince agreed, not sure why his heart was suddenly so much lighter at the thought of Lancelot as a knight. Perhaps because he thought he might have misjudged him and would be glad to get the chance to see that Merlin's friend was just that and not really 'that sort of a man' after all. Which might just mean that he had equally misjudged Merlin.
Sure enough, when he taunted Lancelot one last time and dared him to 'kill' him with a broomstick, he seemed properly angry, and straight to business. There was nothing hesitant or womanish in him. Nothing goofy and demurring like Merlin even. “Congratulation, Lancelot” Arthur said, stopping himself as soon as both men were sweaty and breathing hard. Stopping himself because he felt his inborn blood lust rising and knew that, if he continued to trade blows with this man, the time for playing would soon be over and someone would get hurt, which was nothing to his purpose. “You just made basic training.”
Chapter 7: All Patched Up
Morgana watched out her window as the wounded, bedraggled, terrified, mentally shocked villagers streamed steadily into the gates of Camelot. “There's got to be something we can do,” she said to Gwen earnestly, imploringly. “We can't just sit here helplessly while our kingdom is under attack!”
“Well, I can get you a sword, My Lady,” Gwen teased with gentle irony, “but I don't think we've any armor in the shop that will fit you.”
“I've got a sword,” Morgana reminded her, biting her lip in thought. “More than one.” After brooding another moment, she said, “We'll help Gaius. The both of us. He's bound to need the extra hands with this many new patients.”
The front hall had been made into a sort of temporary causality ward, the courtyard into a triage. Gaius saw each patient and then passed them on the Morgana, Gwen, or Merlin with instructions what to salve, bind or bandage. As she worked, Morgana kept an eye on Gwen and Merlin, who kept accidentally invading each other's space, tripping over one another almost, nervous as fawns. She'd have thought they'd have been over that by now. Especially after Gwen's close brush with death at Uther's hands. If she'd just been let out of the dungeon, and the wood round her stake still laid for the burning, Morgana had no doubt that her first steps back into the land of the living would have been towards Arthur's chambers.
Morgana sighed heavily. Not that she was at all certain she would have been admitted to Arthur's chambers, no matter the circumstances. In all likelihood he'd have chided her and sent her away declaring that such acts were now forbidden by the decree of the Good King Uther, who thought her a scheming whore not good enough to be his son's mistress let alone his wife. Morgana tried to shove these thoughts aside and focus on her work. But it was difficult. To be fair, Uther had never called her a whore, to her face anyway, nor accused her of scheming to force his hand and make herself Arthur's future queen, though she had certainly done enough to support either accusation. No, he had done worse than that. He had called her a child, called them both children, accused them of playing at something they didn't understand.
“Look, you hold the splint still and I'll wrap the gauze around it,” Gwen suggested to Merlin as they worked on a patient together, both laughing and smiling, becoming much more relaxed in each other's company. Perhaps it would not be so very long then before she would be hearing wedding bells and the beat of the stork's wings for them, not necessarily in that order. She hoped so. Gwen was a good servant and a lovely girl. She deserved to have someone, and for Morgana's sake it was well that she should choose another servant in the king's household and have no cause to leave. As for Merlin in particular... he seemed a bit daft, but also very sweet, very brave, very loyal and he clearly cared for her enough to dare almost anything for her. Just as he would for Arthur.
Morgana had no doubt that it was Merlin who had obtained the magic poultice which had been used to cure Gwen's father of the Avunc's plague. Whether he had made it himself or merely found out someone who could, there was no better explanation. Merlin had access to all of Gaius's writings and facilities and all of the King's library to boot. Gwen had access to an anvil and a weaving loom. How would she even know what to ask of whom to get what she needed? And perhaps that was the answer to why their romance had stalled at such an early stage. Perhaps she had needed some time to forgive him for nearly causing her to be executed. And then perhaps he had needed some time to forgive her for blaming him, when he was only trying to help.
All this was rank speculation, of course. Gwen had spoken of her ordeal very little, of Merlin less still, and of any connection between the two not at all. Still, watching them together now, it was evident that the matter no longer stood between them. What had happened between Morgana and Arthur could never be so thoroughly put behind them if they lived another thousand years. Even if Morgana could let go of all her grief and shame, Arthur would never forgive her. Arthur would never forgive himself. And Uther would never quite trust either of them again. And besides, there was another person involved. A wronged party whose forgiveness could never be had. And so, all any of the rest of them could do was to go on smiling, pretending it was over, and trying to live their lives as best they could. Eventually, Uther would make matches for both of his charges will they or no, no doubt for reasons of state in both cases, and that would be that. Water under the bridge. Dust under the carpet. And no doubt enough money paid to insure that a lack of blood would go as unremarked as the blood that had already been shed.
“Well, that's you all patched up then,” Gwen assured the patient confidently, setting her on her feet and giving her leave to go with an ointment to apply in the morning and a powder to be mixed with water and taken for pain. “Nothing that won't heal in time if you look after yourself.”
Chapter 8: A Worthy Man in a Most Needful Time
“Do you submit, Sire?” The point of Lancelot's blade did not touch his chest and yet Arthur felt himself wounded to the heart. This was what he truly needed, what he had hoped for of this day. What, seconds ago, he had been grieved and disappointed for the imagined loss of. A successful test. A worthy man. In a most needful time.
And yet, Arthur choked on pride as the challenger was pulled off of him allowing him to scramble to his feet. There was no need to fake the harshness in his voice as he commanded Lancelot, “On your knees!”
Lancelot struggled for a moment as the men began to force him into position. For a moment, it was almost as if he was honestly unsure what to expect of this, as if he'd forgotten the ritual and ceremony that such a moment carried. As if he feared the Prince would run him through. Then he relaxed. His breathing becoming a bit slower, less ragged, he allowed himself to be held.
Arthur looked into his eyes, and he could see. It was not ignorance or fear that had caused Lancelot to struggle, nor submission that had caused him to be still. Here was a man of fierce pride and honor for whom even a ritual submission at a moment of true victory was no easy thing to swallow. And yet, he had mastered himself to it.
Lancelot had mastered himself and Arthur must do the same. He stood with his sword to the chest of his victorious opponent, still breathing hard, heart still hammering. For a moment he was uncertain of himself. Defeat, even a defeat so eagerly courted, still stung and there was that in him that would avenge it. He pressed his point against Lancelot's mail, against the flesh beneath, making not hard but definite contact. “Arise,” he said at last, withdrawing his sword and offering his hand, “Sir. Lancelot, for as I am my father's son, he will make you this day a knight.”
Relief and joy washed over and through Arthur. He saw the same reflected in Lancelot as they first clasped hands and then embraced, like brothers, all tension between them broken. In that instant, Arthur knew. This man was his friend, exactly and only that, not more or less. He was neither an enemy nor a trap, and though he was Merlin's friend, neither a peasant nor 'that sort of man'.
For a master and his servant to have a friend in common? It was unusual, but perhaps not so terribly bad. And bringing him so fine a knight as this was yet one more loyal service that Merlin had done him. Merlin was a boy yet, Arthur reminded himself, if only just. Not cynical and guarded like a man trained up in war and politics. Not always looking out for himself even against his betters. Perhaps his devotion to his master was only that. His admiration, admiration only.
And as for the way that Arthur sometimes thought he felt, thinking of the boy's foolish, infectious smile? Perhaps the Prince had merely been too long without a woman. He was, after all, but months from his majority. And as Merlin himself had so tactlessly pointed out the other day, it was almost uncreditable, indeed unnatural for a man of twenty to deny himself so totally the pleasures of female company. Though (as his father might justly remind him) there were reasons why this must be so in Arthur's case, was it not still possible that the lack of what he must deny himself was affecting his thinking, making him see lovers' charms in the smiles of gawky serving boys?
He should speak to his father, Arthur resolved, and soon, about his lack of a wife. For honor's sake if nothing else, he should speak to him first, once more, of Morgana. For though the vow that he had once given her had not been his to give, though it was, as his father had said in refusing to honor it, 'the promise of a child', yet it was his vow and he had given it. It would be a man of little honor indeed who could be satisfied with presuming his father's continued refusal without test or challenge, taking refuge in the unenforceability of his word rather than seeking the opportunity to stand behind it.
Besides, although he would hardly describe his feelings for Morgana as a heart-throbbing romantic passion, he knew her well and deeply cared for her. He had no wish to see her leave Camelot to be married to another. Especially some stranger who might care more for her father's lands or her connection to Uther than for her happiness or wellbeing. Nor could he well imagine finding anyone more suited to be the Queen of Camelot, certainly no one who would love the kingdom or it's people more. And beyond all that, it was still true that his body had known no other lovers touch. And so, conversely, hers was the only touch that he knew for certain was enough. With Morgana in his bed, Arthur felt sure, he would not easily fall to lust for another, least of all a gawky serving boy.
But most of all he was the one man to whom she could yet be a queen, purely and honestly, as she deserved; not the lady of some lesser lord, bribed and bartered second hand. This was the thing that, as a boy, he had not understood. A man may be defeated, may be disgraced by the loss, and yet, if he has contended honorably, his honor is not marred and the wounds to his pride will heal. But when a woman submits to a man, her pride and her honor are all in his hands, to do with as he will, and should he abuse them, it is a loss which she cannot recover. The night that they had sworn their love, whispered their foolish vows, Arthur had had Morgana at the point of his sword without even realizing it. In the moment when it mattered most, he had failed to master himself. Like the Romans in their Colosseum, spilling real blood though they battled only in jest, he had pressed his point home when he should have bid her rise and offered her his hand in friendship.
Chapter 9: A Vexing Problem
As Uther examined the seal of nobility that his son had brought him from the man who was to be knighted in the evening, he was surprised, but at first not seriously concerned. He had thought Lord Eldred had only four sons, but then, he hadn't seen him in more than a decade, not since they had campaigned together in the North, beyond Hadrian's Wall. Perhaps he was only remembering the fact that his ally had had but four sons old enough to ride with them in that campaign.
But when he saw the man, Uther's suspicions deepened. Both Lord Eldred and his Lady were very fair, as were all their four sons whom he had met. He might have believed this dark young man a son by a second wife, but that was not how the seal read. This was not a time to speak of such suspicions however, having no proof. The ceremony was to begin at any moment. If he delayed it and his suspicions proved unfounded, it would be an embarrassment to everyone. And Arthur, would have just cause for offense, his father having meddled so unjustly in his management of the knights, which were given him to command. Conversely, if Lancelot were knighted and then proved a fraud, the blame would be his alone. Besides a great feast had been prepared for the celebration which should neither go to waste nor be wasted on unhappy company. And the knights were sorely in need of the diversion with the battle that was soon to come. The morning would be soon enough for regret, as it so often was.
As Lancelot knelt before him, bursting with vigor and gratitude, hardly seeming to notice the King's sword at his chest, Uther hoped that he was wrong. The youth appeared strong, well formed and presented himself well. He must indeed be something special as a fighter to have passed the test against Arthur after but three days training here in Camelot. Which tended to suggest that he did indeed come from a large noble family like Lord Eldred's in which, like Arthur, he'd have begun to spar before he was in breaches. And the way Morgana looked upon him, with frank lust and admiration, both reminded Uther of a vexing problem he had yet to solve and suggested a possible solution.
For more than seven years now, Uther had had on his hands a very complicated puzzle that could not both easily and honorably be solved. How was he to dispose of a 'ward' who had already made disposition of herself to one whom he could neither in good conscience forbid nor by any means allow her to wed? How was he to honor his promise to Gerlois to protect his heir and her estates when this unfortunate pre-dispostion seemed inevitably to condemn her to an inferior match? How could he gain her a better one without being deceitful as to her history and what it suggested, however unfairly, of her virtue? Were he to comb the Earth and find a man who both deserved Morgana and would have her, how could he endure this dreary castle and the tiresome company of men without his daughter's cheering smile and healing laugh? And how could he send her away, no matter the outward appearances of honor attendant thereto, from the home she knew and loved, believing she had been rejected as a whore without betraying both Gerlois and himself? In short, what was to become of a woman who's honor had been stolen in her own House and could neither be recovered nor avenged?
But if, once again, Morgana were to make her own disposition, and allow him to do her the favor of blessing it.... A Knight of Camelot was no unworthy husband for a Kings ward, and yet a young lover who had made his own arrangements could hardly demand a virgin bride. Nor could he well refuse of his King a gift he had already enjoyed. Besides, stronger ties with Lord Eldred, positioned as he was on his boarder could only be to Uther's advantage. Nor was there any family he would trust more to come into possession of Gerlois' lands, so near the heart of the Kingdom. And after all, how could Lord Eldred object to having his fifth son suddenly so honored and endowed at no expense to himself or his elder sons?
But so little answer was this 'Lancelot' able to make to his inquiries about his father, so evidently nervous was he of the topic; that Uther's suspicion’s deepened more than ever. For a moment he thought that he had best put a word of caution in Morgana's ear, lest she dispose of herself once again too hastily and much to her regret. But the way Arthur rushed to Lancelot the moment his father had left him, pushing past knights who had been his companions since infancy in his eagerness to embrace him; the way they walked out of the throne room, arms round one another's shoulders, like brothers, though to the King's knowledge they had a total acquaintance of but four or five days.... Another, still unpleasanter thought entered Uther's mind and would not be dislodged. Perhaps there was a better explanation than superior skill as to why this young stranger has risen to his knighthood so quickly. Had not some of the knights said of the test that Lancelot had appeared defeated until Arthur had been fooled into casting aside his sword and giving him a better opportunity to prevail?
Unrolling the seal, Uther looked at it once again. It looked authentic enough. Yet now he hoped that it was not. “Take this seal to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Court Genealogist,” he instructed a servant quietly. “I want his opinion by morning.” If indeed this was the person who had his son woolgathering like a mooncalf and earnestly arguing the virtue of Caesar's vices, it would complicate matters considerably if he were truly Lord Eldred's son.
Chapter 10: "Here's Trouble"
Arthur downed his second flagon of ale in one long gulp, just like the first and reached for a third immediately. It was a celebration after all, which seemed excuse enough. But at Lancelot's slightly worried look, he felt chastened enough to sip the third flagon much more slowly. An Heir Apparent and Captain of Knights had to maintain a degree of respectability even in the midst of a revel. No matter what terrors the morning might hold. No matter what he was trying to put out of his mind.
And Arthur had a lot not to think about tonight. The first two flagons banished winged monsters easily enough. The third and fourth, though more slowly taken, made short work of fear of death or (worse still) failure in battle. And yet and still, though Lancelot's conversation was humorous and engaging, Arthur could not stop his eye from wandering over to Merlin (who seemed to be making worshipful, passionate love to the buffet) nor his mind from wondering to thoughts of Morgana.
Objectively, he supposed, the thought of marrying Morgana, at long last, should have made him feel happy, or at least hopeful. Or at least, if it did not, it should have been because of his quite reasonable fear that Uther would never allow it. And yet, that wasn't quite it. As much as he dreaded his father's refusal, as much as he expected to regret it, the thought that this time he might not refuse filled Arthur with it's own species of uneasiness. He wasn't at all certain that he wanted to be married to Morgana, and yet, he was very hard pressed to say why not.
While it was true that she could be difficult, strong-willed, arguably cruel even at times, these hardly seemed like strong objections to the match. He was used to these qualities. In fact, she reminded him of no one so much as his father, too honorable to ever be seriously mistrusted unless very seriously wronged. In truth, he doubted that a woman too gentle in spirit, one who presented him with no such challenges, could long hold his interest, let alone perform the vital roll of a queen as her husband's most secret and therefore frankest adviser.
And yet there was something. A feeling of... lack. Like an hourglass already too near empty, not easily turned back over.
Morgana lies in her bed, eyes turned towards the wall. She does not look up when he tries, tentatively to greet her, nor when Gaius (with a quick word of reminder that Uther would not appreciate hearing that he has brought the boy here) turns and leaves, closing the door behind him, giving them a few moments alone with their grief. He talks idly for a while, fumbling with explanations of what's been going on around the castle during her confinement, the servants, the horses, his training, the bloody weather.
When she finally speaks it is in answer to none of his childish babbling. “His eyes were blue, like yours. So beautiful. So alive! You could never possibly think... I can't understand... Gaius says it doesn't mean anything. Almost all babies have blue eyes.”
He can hear that she is weeping and though he wants to reach for her, to hold her in his arms, something stops him. Her despair frightens him. He has never known that someone so strong could be so broken. He wipes his own tears hurriedly away and waits the speak—some non-answer—until he can summon a steadier voice. Somehow, in this moment, it seems terribly important that she never know that he has wept.
“...And, of course, I doubt that it would have been possible to have made a more disasteous move!” Lancelot finished whatever anecdote he'd just been telling. Arthur laughed heartily and slapped him on the back as he was clearly meant to do. Gods, what was the topic of conversation? Fencing? Jousting? Tournament fighting? Horse racing? Paganica? Backgammon? Arthur honestly hadn't a clue. He had to let his companion lead the conversation a bit longer until he could catch the drift of it again and try to stay at least focused enough so that he had something to contribute. In the meantime, he covered his lack of insights to share by calling for more ale for the both of them.
When Morgana finally appeared, it was no wonder what had taken here so long. She'd waited to be sure Uther had retired. It was clear that she had dressed with the intention of causing a mild scandal, of making sure no one else at the banquet would be half as much gazed upon or talked about as she was. Her red satin gown hung suspended from a choker around her neck, exposing more of her milky skin than anyone present had a right to see. She had that look in her eyes, that dangerously bored hunger for something, anything, to happen.
“Here's trouble,” Arthur found himself saying aloud. Lancelot made no reply. His expression remained friendly, his warm brown eyes politely non-committal. Suddenly, Arthur felt desperate to know his opinion of her, as if his new knight could somehow validate the course of action he had resolved to take. “Tell me,” he asked, as lightly as he could manage, as if taken by an idle fancy to hears his friend's mind on the subject, “Do you think her... beautiful?” The word did not encompass a tenth of what Arthur had meant to ask and yet, in his half inebriated state, and considering that he was asking a man who hardly knew Morgana from Eve, it was the best he could come up with.
“Yes, sire,” Lancelot answered with gentle gravity and without the slightest hesitation, “I do.”
And to what he had actually managed to ask, Arthur realized, there could be no other answer. “Yes,” he agreed, feeling that somehow in his own heart he had found the answer to a great deal more, “I suppose she is.” A thrill went through the prince, an excitement and was half anticipation of uncertain dangers and half the pure joy of certainty. Of decision. It was a moment like steel landing on steel, cutting skin, sinking into flesh. The battle was joined, the challenge set.
Without further thought, and with no more than a glance or two at Merlin (who seemed happy enough in the company of Morgana's pretty servant, Gwen) Arthur was on his feet and making the toast that was his last obligatory contribution to the evening's festivities. With one quick round of the room, grasping hands and slapping shoulders, exchanging a dozen flirtatious words with Morgana, the prince excused himself and hurried off in the direction of his father's chambers. Arthur was ready to press his suit in earnest and he did not mean to be turned away. Not even by Uther Pendragon, King of Camelot.
Chapter 11: A Persistent Suitor
“How long must I go on repeating myself!?!” Uther demanded, rising to his feet with a violence that should have caused Arthur to take at least one step backwards. He didn't. They stood there, alone in the King's Chambers, eye to eye, toe to toe. If the young prince trembled slightly, it was only slightly and even at this proximity, the old king could hardly tell if his son shook with fear or anger. The set of the young warrior's jaw was determined as he doggedly opened his mouth to speak (yet again) on the subject Uther had been trying for half an hour to declare completely closed. Though his throat was already sore from shouting, Uther continued to shout, “MY ANSWER IS STILL NO, ALWAYS NO, A THOUSAND TIMES NO!!! You may not have the hand of my ward, the Lady Morgana, daughter Gerlois, in marriage!”
“Give me one good reason!” Arthur demanded stubbornly, “and do not dare to suggest that she is rendered unfit by those transgressions which are as much my own—” When the back of Uther's leather-gloved hand landed against Arthur's mouth hard enough to bloody his full, almost girlish lips, the boy stumbled backwards a step or two at last, eyes wide with shock. He stood there a moment, looking wounded and angry. And much too much like his mother. If Ygraine or any daughter of hers had looked at him that way, Uther would have folded her in his arms and wept; would have forgiven her anything, promised her anything, would have apologized, right or wrong. But Arthur was not a woman. He was a man, less than a year from his majority. A fellow knight. A warrior. And Uther was not wrong.
“Do not you dare to suggest to me what I should not 'dare'!” Uther declared, his voice ringing with affronted authority. “I am the King of Camelot! Not you! And I owe you no explanation of my decisions! Now get out of my chambers before I call the guards to drag you out! My word is the LAW of this Land and I will not have it questioned in this way in my own house! By my own son! Is that understood!?!”
Arthur seethed quietly for a moment. Long enough that Uther could feel his temper storming within him to be released by further shouting. But the Prince spoke first. “I understand, Father, that it is a fact that you are willing to visit this dishonor upon—!”
“The only man I know who has 'dishonored' Morgana—!” Uther began shouting right over him, but Arthur only raised his own voice, determined to be heard, and Uther did the same, both men shouting at the same time.
“And I'm the one—”
“Don't you dare suggest—!”
“—forbid me keep—”
“The promise of a child is—”
“—a sacred vow—!”
“WORTH NOTHING!!!!” Uther shouted his son to silence at last. “As are the improvident vows of two subjects and wards made without the consent of their King and legal guardian,” he added in a tight, cold, quiet voice, “who knows better than either of them what they and the Kingdom need. Leave me now. I have done with being shouted at in my own castle and will hear no more of this if I have to put you in the cells to regain my peace in quiet.”
When Arthur once again opened his mouth to speak, Uther thought he would go mad with rage and frustration. The expression on his own face must have shown it, because the prince's mouth snapped shut. Looking defeated, angry, but also as though he might weep, Arthur turned to go at last. “You're wrong,” he said with quiet heat and obvious anguish, standing, holding on to the door frame as if he needed it to stay on his feet. “Whatever you think you're gaining by... punishing us like this. You're wrong.” Uther hardly knew if he wanted to shout or weep himself. Before he could decide, Arthur was gone.
The King sat down at his bedside desk once again, shaking with more than rage, more than frustration, though he felt plenty of both. In all truth, though no law in Rome (Civil, Christian, or Olympian) would have recognized their union, though the Triple Goddess of the Old Religion Herself would have called it a mockery of nature; but for the obvious impediment, his son and daughter were, by the most basic standards of all of the above, already married. They had sworn solemn oaths. In word and deed they had been joined as one. They had produced a child. Small wonder then that no matter how sternly he opposed the match his son, having in the meanwhile grown into a man of honor and courage, should be unwilling to accept his judgment, which must seem both ruthless and unaccountable.
Uther poured himself another drink. He would need to dull his senses if he meant to have any sleep tonight. And given the eventualities that the morrow might bring, he knew very well how much he needed his rest. Before he had set the decanter down, Gaius appeared unbidden in the doorway. He had that look. That wanting to have a word look.
It was obvious that he'd heard much of what had been shouted between Uther and his son. As he impatiently bid the old man come in, sit down and close the door, it occurred to him for the first time that probably a dozen or more servants and courtiers working or lurking nearby must have heard the same. Uther's heart sank just a little bit more as he put the question to Gaius of what had likely been heard.
“Enough that all of Camelot will know by morning that the Lady Morgana has in your son a very persistent suitor who is nonetheless failing in his suit,” Gaius replied measuredly, “probably not enough to discern exactly why on either score.”
“Which won't prevent them speculating, of course,” Uther grumbled darkly.
“If I may, Sire,” Gaius began carefully, “I must admit that I myself find that I must resort to some degree of speculation to decide why you oppose the match so adamantly, and still, I cannot fully fathom it.”
Uther snorted, not quite a laugh. “Well then, perhaps you are not quite as imaginative a man as I have always supposed,” he suggested, grimly amused.
“I know your history with the House of Gerlois is complicated,” Gaius began to argue earnestly. Of course, he didn't know the half of that. “...And, all things being equal, separate marriages would create an opportunity to form two new alliances. But given the state of affairs that already exists, Sire—”
“This is not your concern, Gaius,” Uther cut him off sharply. “You are a physician, not a King. Kindly stick to your art and leave me to mine.”
“As you say, Sire,” Gaius agreed with that infuriatingly superior humility of his, “You are the King.” He made as if to go without another word. Uther knew him better. He had more to say. The King waited, keeping a guard on his temper, reminding himself not to blame his loyal and well-meaning servant for things he couldn't know and couldn't help. Sure enough, Gaius turned back, his hand on the door knob. “One further thought does occur to me, Sire,” he seemed to half apologize, “Which is that Gerlois intrusted you with his daughter's welfare and future happiness despite having full knowledge of the entire ugly business between his wife and your brother, and therefore, we may assume—”
At this Uther could not hold his temper or his tongue a moment longer. “Ambrosius,” he reminded his subject in a hard, warning, threatening tone, “was not my 'brother'. He was my mother's bastard son. There is no other explanation for... what he was.”
“As you say, Sire,” Gaius agreed with stiff, uncharacteristic reticence, making his way out the door at last. He went slowly, Uther noticed, giving his King every opportunity to stop him and intreat his further counsel. It didn't happen, of course. Sometimes, Gaius really could be an insufferable old fool. He knew damn well that Uther knew his mind on the subjects of brotherhood, forgiveness, and Ambrosius Aurelianus. By now he ought to know to keep such thoughts to himself.
Chapter 12: Smoke
The Prince returned to the banquet hall in a foul mood, sullen and snappish. Even from across the room Gwen could see that, as clearly as she could see that Morgana's pretended contempt and honest disgust masked deep concern. When Lancelot and Merlin greeted him, arm in arm, offering him a fresh flagon of ale, Arthur called for a bottle of wine to be brought for he and Lancelot instead and loudly declared he had no wish to drink with his servant. At this, the two very drunk friends burst out laughing and went to refill their own cups, leaving the royal snob sputtering, fit to be tied. A lot of people laughed, including Morgana.
Gwen didn't laugh. The look in Arthur's eyes! Could no one else see it? As the young Pendragon snatched the proffered bottle from the hand of a quailing servant and propped himself sullenly in a corner to begin drinking it alone, Gwen felt lucky he was no longer wearing his sword. And yet, at the same time, she had an impulse to pity him. Which was silly she supposed, having no idea of the rights or wrongs of whatever was spoiling his evening. For all she knew, he might only be having a tantrum because he had failed to bully someone into giving him his way about something.
And yet, somehow, it didn't seem to be exactly like that. The Prince looked to be more than merely sulking. He seemed really hurt. Rightly or wrongly, Gwen's heart went out to him. He'd had a rough life altogether when you actually thought about it, losing his mother as a baby, learning to kill as a child, taking on a man's responsibilities and the weight of a knight's honor so young. It couldn't be easy to be a king's son. Especially when that king was Uther Pendragon.
Still, there was no knowing exactly what had turned his smiles to frowns so quickly this evening. Where the Prince had hurried off to was as much a mystery as why he had returned after clearly stating his intention not to, bidding everyone enjoy the feast in his absence and rest well afterward. Neither remained a mystery for long, however. “Your mistress knows what business he's been about, I'll wager,” Maggie the serving woman allowed a few minutes later as she handed Gwen a fresh pitcher of watered wine and honey for Morgana and her ladies, “even cool as she's playing. And she can guess at his success by his sour looks well enough, poor dear.” The way she said 'poor dear' it might have been a vicious epithet, full of ice and poison.
“What are you saying?” Gwen asked curtly, bristling a bit. Maggie was a scald and a gossip with no love for Morgana, or anyone whose station was much above or below her own. Whatever she meant, it was nothing good.
“Oh come now,” Maggie simpered, lip curled in cruel amusement. “No need for that coy bit between us girls, is there? He'll have asked for her hand, won't he? Fine as you are, a blacksmith’s daughter and no need of a bed in the servants' quarters, I suppose you'll claim you've not heard tell of how he's already had the rest of her.”
“For shame!” Gwen actually gasped. “Maggie, bite your spiteful tongue. Where did you hear a slander like that?” A quick glance around the room revealed dozens of tight, sudden clumps of whispering humanity, grouped like with like by some combination of age, class, and sex. Before Gwen's eyes, several such clusters popped like pustules, their giggling or scowling members hurrying off to form new clots of whisperers.
“So that is how you mean to play it off then?” Maggie scoffed.
“I'm not playing off anything,” Gwen hissed back, fierce and quiet, mind racing to imagine how this sudden buzz of malicious gossip had begun and how it could be stopped. “I'll have you know that my mistress is a lady of honor and dignity and modesty. She would never—”
“Aphrodite’s Girdle, Gwen!” the Lady Morgana called, her voice slightly thick with drink and more than slightly sharp with impatience, fit to pop out of her necklace of a dress, “Where is that pitcher!?!” Maggie held the vessel out to her with an evil smirk and a raised eyebrow of triumph. Gwen folded her arms and returned to her mistress empty handed.
“It's off,” she explained in hearing of the other young ladies of the court, “they've made it with wine that's already gone to vinegar and used up all the honey trying to sweeten it. My Lady, might I have a word a bit apart on another matter?”
“What is it Gwen?” Morgana demanded impatiently, sounding uncharacteristically like royalty.
“In truth, My Lady,” Gwen entreated, with a discomfort she did not have to fake. “I would be too embarrassed to reveal my fault in the matter in this grand company. If we could speak in the corridor, or better still My Lady's chambers, it would ease my mind terribly to unburden myself and to seek your wisdom in correcting my error.”
“In truth,” the Lady Judith pointed out apologetically, having joined the group from another knot of young people slightly lower in station with whom she was incidentally acquainted, “the hour is late and I for one would leave this revel to the Knights before they are too drunk to be trusted as gentlemen. Should we not rather stun them all at once with our grand exit and get ourselves to bed? There may be many trying days and nights ahead of us, after all.” A few of the ladies nodded agreement. Several others looked from Morgana to Judith to Gwen to Morgana with subtle apprehension.
Guinevere held her breath. A look of puzzled annoyance flashed across Morgana's face before she shrugged off her impatience with a resigned sigh. “Very well,” she said magnanimously. “Go on to bed if you like, girls.” Tipsy mischief glinting in her eyes and purring in her voice, she added, “I'll just go and say good night to Arthur and then, Gwen, you can tell me whatever it is you have to confess. I'm sure it's nothing that can't be mended.”
The Lady Judith threw Gwen a look, which she acknowledged with her eyes, silently pointing out that there was little she could do. To have tried to dissuade Morgana from seeking her own amusement would have been the height of folly as they both well knew. Especially where Arthur was concerned.
Chapter 13: Taken Firmly in Hand
“Merlin! MERLIN!!!” Arthur's drunk, surly, impatient voice cut across the noise of the entire whispering crowd and brought it momentarily to a halt. Nearly everyone seemed slightly worried, slightly embarrassed. As if they'd been caught at something. Merlin had no idea what but everyone was so... tense. Merlin and Lancelot turned to each other and burst out laughing. So drunk were they now that everything was funny. Including the fact that they were both so drunk, which made them laugh even more. Most of the throng (nearly all of whom were tipsy, unless they were drunk) laughed along with the guest of honor and his companion, relieved, taking it as their cue to go back to talking, less quietly than before.
But Arthur wasn't laughing when he grabbed Merlin by the arm and jerked him nearly off his feet. Soon, neither was anyone else. Especially when Lancelot stood and turned towards the Prince; alert, concerned, tense, ready for trouble. The crowd noise quieted by at least two-thirds and in the relative lull, the pleading note of Gwen's voice could be distinctly heard, emphasizing words like 'just' and 'please' above her otherwise muffled prayer for restraint.
“My, aren't we heroic this evening!” Morgana projected above the noise, steel and irony wrapped in dignity and silk. “It takes a Brave Prince in deed to violently manhandle a lowly serving boy with nothing but a citadel of two-hundred Knights and the impunity of his father's throne to back him up.”
Startled, Arthur jerked his head in her direction. From his position of having been pulled to the Prince's side, Merlin could see him in profile and much, much too close up. Close enough to smell his sweat and see the traces of his tears at the corners of his still slightly puffy eyes. Before his face set hard with contempt and anger, there was a momentary flash of honest, wounded shock at this sudden, unlooked-for attack from Morgana.
“What would you know about it?” Arthur demanded, in fine Royal Prat form. “Play with swords how you will, My Lady, you have no idea what it is to be a man or what courage and honor require. You have no idea the importance to a man of commanding respect and obedience in his own household! And so I will deal with my servant as I like. If I have to beat him senseless, it is no concern of yours! Just... go back to brushing your hair or whatever it is you do all day. And for the love of Camelot, put some clothes on! You look like a Courtesan in the worst sense of the word.”
For a moment, it looked as though Morgana would be too shocked to speak. Already, Merlin knew her better. He was shocked only by the relative mildness of her reply. “Truly, your manly 'honor' is a thing to behold, Arthur Pendragon. I bid you good night, and I assure you, My Lord, I will give you no further cause to suspect me of immodesty.” With that, Morgana turned and majestically swept out, Gwen trotting at her side and a dozen other ladies and their maids following in her wake.
Arthur looked as if he desperately wanted to call after her. He looked sorry, in fact. It was a look Merlin had never seen before and which, at any greater distance, he might not have recognized. Murmuring a terse apology to Lancelot, and only to Lancelot, for the unfortunate disruption (for which he seemed to imply he was in no concrete way responsible) Arthur turned and headed for a different door, to return to his chambers another way, quietly instructing Merlin to follow.
Lancelot looked uneasily from one young man to the other. Merlin gave his friend a big smile and a last congratulatory pump of the hand before quickly bidding him goodnight, assuring him with his eyes and his tone that he felt perfectly safe in Arthur's hands.
Chapter 14: Spare the Rod
Two bodies lurch in unison, like a single (awkward, unnatural) being. A swaying, clomping monster. Arthur isn't sure why he's helping Merlin back to his (Arthur's) rooms. In theory, his servant is supposed to be helping him to bed. Not that he needs a great deal of help to get to bed. Not that Merlin is in any condition to help anyone do anything. Unaided, the fool can't even walk. He ought to be left to crawl back to Gaius's chambers and sleep it off. Or to lumber home in Lancelot's embrace.
But then Arthur would be alone. And his murmuring and complaining about the way Morgana has just dismissed him, about the damnable gossip that has been stirred up all over again, about having the absence of mind to actually say 'all over again'; would seem insane. They nearly do anyway. Even he knows that. His ravings are self-contradictory, a soliloquy of angry excuses and agonized self-accusation. He raves on in urgent, frustration, “These foul rumors died out years ago! Like... like smoke clearing, for want of the smothered flame. Then I had to go and stir the ashes, bloody fool, not for all that she appreciates any of it. God, why did I call her that? Bastard.”
Arthur sniffs an angry laugh at himself. For using the word that way. Even against himself. To use the name of a thing to call something else vile is to revile the thing itself and all who bear the name. He doesn't mean that. The smothered flame. He shivers a little at the image conjured by his own words, shakes his head, and plunges forward, by turns berating and excusing both Morgana and himself. And his father.
Merlin seems not to hear any of this. He seems, in fact, to hear something comforting and cheering in its place. The goofiest of smiles is plastered across his face as he leans heavily into Arthur's side, arms around the prince's waist, eyes half closed in what could actually be bliss. He is surprisingly heavy, and awkward to balance. That shouldn't be the case, slight as he is. The powerful prince ought to be able to whisk his toothpick of a servant about much more easily. It's just possible that Arthur himself has had a bit too much to drink.
And perhaps that is why he is suddenly arrested by the sight of Merlin's face, the quarter of it that he can see from this too close perspective, angular cheek highlighted by the glow of a passing brassier, or rather, one they are passing, he supposes vaguely. The beauty of it almost stops his breath. Almost wounds his heart. Almost frees him to weep for other things. Almost.
The boy is breathing on his neck. Sighing against him, in fact. How is it that Arthur has half carried him all this way only now to notice this. He is tempted to smile as goofy and as blissful a smile as Merlin's at the realization of how close and perfectly trusting Merlin is. How dear. But realizing what he is feeling agitates Arthur and confuses him. The harshness of knowledge without understanding jangles his wits, and he wishes these feelings would go away.
He is disturbed by the image of a dark-haired, blue-eyed child whom he has never seen. At an age that child never saw. The image is almost but not quite that of a much younger Merlin. And now Arthur does begin to weep. Just a few tears. Silently. With no one here to see. He thinks of Morgana, in images nothing like as young as he knows her to have been. How he once burned for her with lust that seared his heart and felt to be of a piece with all the love and friendship he had ever born her. What he feels with Merlin in his arms, gazing upon his beauty, is the same, but also different. Like light as bright but in a different cast.
Is he truly like Caesar then? Neither the one sort of man nor the other? Or is this what all of those sort of men feel? An additional need rather than merely a different one? It is not usually spoken of so in books or in rumors; but what need to speak of what is normal and expected in a man's desires? Perhaps it goes without saying that all those who lust for the flesh of other men lust after women also. Perhaps all men face such temptation, but only the weak entertain it. Only the womanish.
This thought is enough to pull him from the contemplation of Merlin's beauty at last, to restore his focus to the task at hand, the opening of his chamber door, which has suddenly arrived before him. The world spins and jerks a bit as the prince tries to turn himself sufficiently to stretch out his one free arm and turn the key in the lock. His eye skips over in that direction long enough to tell him the key isn't in the lock. Of course it isn't. It is on the ring of keys looped through his belt. On the side Merlin is still draped across. Still clinging to like a child to a favored toy.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, quietly at first, barely above a whisper, but firmly, nudging his servant slightly in the ribs with an elbow.
This gets a muzzy, “Hghm?”
“Merlin!” the Prince repeats both louder and more sharply, elbowing a bit harder.
The boy's now almost totally descended eyelids rise back to half mast. “Wha—muh—? I'm up!” Merlin proclaims with a sudden though partial increase in alertness, clearly disoriented.
“Get off,” Arthur instructs him impatiently, giving him a little shove.
Merlin's smile becomes if possible goofier, “Whassire?” he murmurs against the prince's neck, sounding vaguely amused, though Arthur has no idea what he could have possibly done to amuse him. Drink in such quantity, he supposes, is enough.
“On your feet!” Arthur snaps impatiently, pushing Merlin away much harder. “Lean on the wall if you have to. I've got to get my key out so I can put it in this... this... opening thing.” At this, Merlin giggles outright. Girlishly. But he turns loose of Arthur and stumbles to his feet, catching himself against the corridor wall as instructed. Arthur sighs and shakes his head as he fumbles at his belt, wondering how Merlin can be at one and the same moment so infuriating and so adorable.
He is more beautiful than ever, leaning back in the torchlight, as if posed especially for viewing. His body is angular, but by no means gaunt. He has the lean, subtle muscles of one who may never make a warrior but is as quick on his feet as with his tongue and certainly man enough to take a hard day's work in stride, however much Arthur loves to tease him to the contrary. He has lost his kerchief somewhere along the way, and his chest is half exposed in his partly unbuttoned shirt. It is almost as smooth as a child's, or seems so in the dim light, which reveals only a lone strand or two of dark hair stark against his pale skin ever so often. His full face too is visible now: the plane of his cheek... the line of his nose... the glittering points of his eyes beneath those long, soft, feminine lashes... the curve of his moderately full lips, slight but knowing, as if waiting patiently to be kissed.
Arthur shakes himself, chides himself for thinking such thoughts. He forces his attention from his beautiful servant to the key in his hand, to the strangely complex task of managing to fit it into the lock and make it turn. The boy is nearly unconscious. Totally helpless. And he is a boy. Not yet a man, not quite. Which reminds Arthur, most uncomfortably, of other stories he has heard about what 'that sort of man' really does and truly wants.
“My Lord?” a passing servant enquirers, just as the door pops open and Arthur nearly stumbles across the threshold. “Let me help you,” she offers, suddenly at his side. Her movements and her worried voice seem impossibly steady and purposeful. She stands straight and tall as the world spins around her. It is Guinevere. Who is sober. And, as Arthur notices for the first time, here in the dancing torchlight of this wildly swaying corridor, as beautiful as Merlin or Morgana.
“Morgana's,” Arthur murmurs, confused. Why is she here with him?
“My Lady sent me to fetch a bolt of cloth,” she explains, seeming to understand his question. “I saw you... struggling, and...” her voice trails off. At this proximity, he can see the subtle blush rising beneath her dark skin. Her body is as close against him as Merlin's was a few moments ago. He tries not to lean too heavily upon her arms (or anything else) as she helps to steady him on his feet.
“I'm fine,” he assures her, pronouncing the words carefully, striving for clarity, fighting the urge to physically push her away. Soon she is gone and he is alone in his chambers, sitting on his bed, then lying down and almost instantly asleep. But not before he hears Gwen's gentle voice out in the corridor. Urging Merlin to his feet. Offering to see him back to Gaius's chambers. Arthur smiles as he succumbs to oblivion. All's well that ends well, he supposes, forgetting that little has ended well tonight. At least he has managed to get through one more day without taking a rod to his servant.
Chapter 15: Shame
Uther took no one with him. After the reports he had gotten the night before, he had no idea what he might find. Or rather, he had only too many ideas of what he might find. But mercifully, his son was alone. Arthur groaned in his sleep, proving that he'd survived the night despite his intemperate drinking and whatever other debauchery he may have indulged in. Of which, Uther was moderately relieved to notice, there was no evidence whatsoever.
Arthur was lying on top of his covers, the bed barely mussed, still fully dressed. He hadn't even taken off his boots. Indeed, the scene was so pristine, so clearly evidencing innocence of what was implied in the whispers others had reported overhearing, that the King almost wished that he had brought along a couple of young knights to witness the fact that there was absolutely no sign of 'a dark-haired young man' having accompanied Arthur home 'in rather a state' and spent the night. But Uther had things to discuss with his son that not even his closest knights could be trusted to hear. He silently thanked several gods (of whose existence he was not entirely certain) that at least he didn't have to personally arrest Lancelot here and run the risk of having Arthur physically defend him.
“Father?” Arthur yawned to life, bewildered. He half sat up, rubbing his eyes and then his temples. “Father,” he repeated a bit more firmly, between a groan and a grumble, becoming annoyed as well as confused, “what are—” suddenly the Prince was alert, wide eyed, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, preparing to get to his feet. “What's happened?” He asked, tense and focused, “The Monster?”
“No,” Uther managed to choke out, barely above a whisper. He sat down on the edge of the bed, next to his son, indicating to him to stay seated. He tried to look over at Arthur, but he found himself closing his eyes at the same time. Needing a moment. Hardly knowing if what he felt was embarrassment or anger. For either of which, he felt foolish. “Arthur,” he began, hearing and disliking the strain and hesitation in his own voice, willing himself to open his eyes and look his son full in the face. The look that met him was worried, lost, needy, sheepish, defensive, and sulking all at the same time. Like that of a twelve-year-old boy expecting a scolding he only half believed he deserved.
“I made a fool of myself last night,” Arthur admitted sourly. “I suppose you heard.”
“You made a fool of yourself before my very eyes,” Uther found he couldn't help retorting, though he began to regret it even as the words left his lips.
Arthur looked up at the ceiling and let out a deep ragged sigh of anger and frustration. Then he turned his eyes upon his father. “Why are you here?” he asked curtly.
“There's a problem with your 'friend' Lancelot,” the King informed his son, every bit as shortly. He saw Arthur wince (or flinch, very nearly) at the acid incredulity with which he could not help but name the supposed relation between his son and the false knight. Rage and humiliation stirred within Uther's breast. He had to caution himself that Arthur might be reacting only to the harshness of his tone or to that and the bare recognition of his (hopefully absurd) insinuation. He must not, Uther warned himself, leap to the conclusion that such insinuations struck the young man too close to the heart to be comfortably endured.
It could still be that he was being paranoid, the King told himself. Perhaps Arthur's sudden interest in discerning the honor and worth of sodomites as fighting men was occasioned only by a genuine interest in the truth of Roman history and culture. Or by his desire to reconcile himself to having discovered such a proclivity in Lancelot or some other young gentleman for whom he nevertheless felt respect and brotherly affection. Uther could have understood that. He had himself, once or twice, fought alongside men known or rumored to be so inclined who had nonetheless acquitted themselves with honor on the field of battle.
There was no shame, he supposed, in taking such a man as he was, had he virtues to compensate for his vices. But that was quite a different matter from allowing rumors to fly abroad suggesting that the future King himself indulged in such recreations. Uther could not allow his dynasty to become a laughing stock. Unpleasant as it was to discuss the subject, he had to make sure that Arthur understood his responsibility to the Kingdom in that regard.
“Well?” Arthur prompted impatiently. “What about him?”
Uther's courage failed him. While he tried to grapple it back into place, he repeated, as succinctly as possible, everything Geoffrey had explained to him about the forged seal. But the King never could quite bring himself to touch upon the subject of what certain courtiers claimed to have seen any more directly than to point out that kings and princes were often judged for the company they kept and for their judgment of others. “In short,” he concluded, “This 'Lancelot' is an imposter. A villain posing as a man of honor. It does you discredit to have him in your service.”
Arthur was quiet a moment. “I can't believe that,” he said at last, almost defiantly, eyes trained on the far wall rather than his father. “I won't believe it until I hear it from his own lips.”
Uther snorted in contempt, shaking his head. “You would take the word of a man with whom you have not a week's acquaintance over that of your father and King, over that of the foremost genealogist in all of Albion?” he challenged with quiet heat.
Arthur looked him square in the eyes at last, so fiercely that he fought the urge to blink. “I would,” was his firm reply.
“Why?” Uther demanded, eyes burning just as fiercely, anger propelling him at last to thrust more closely at the heart of the matter. “What is he to you?”
“A friend,” Arthur said stiffly, getting to his feet as if to walk away, as if to foreclose debate and declare the matter settled in Lancelot's favor. “And a knight.”
As the Prince moved to exit the room, Uther stood and grabbed him forcefully by the arm, shouting for him to stop and finish the conversation. Arthur jerked his arm free and turned to face him. There were not four inches between them. “You were seen ,” Uther hissed with quiet venom, underlain by urgent worry.
“I have received no less than three separate reports that my son was noticed stumbling drunkenly through the corridors of this castle with a dark-haired, half-undressed youth wrapped around him, as one rather amused fellow apparently put it, 'like an over enthusiastic Greek wrestler!'” Uther went on, his volume raising apace with his temper. “I ask you, how am I to respond to such reports!?! On the same night, I might add, that my same son has publicly humiliated my ward by denouncing her as a whore before all the court mere hours after demanding her hand in marriage!!! What am I to say to advisers who sincerely warn that if you do not govern yourself you will soon be quite understandably thought to be mad by all the Kingdom!!!”
“Father, I don't—” Arthur tried forcefully to interject.
“Shut your mouth!” Uther snapped. “I don't want to hear it! Lancelot is to be arrested presently, and we will soon hear what your peasant knight has to say for himself. And for your sake, and the sake of this Kingdom, I pray to any god who will listen that he says nothing to further shame this House! Because, so help me Jupiter, before I will let the seed of my bloodline be wasted inside a cowherd's ass I'll draw my own sword and cut the bastard in half!!!”
Chapter 16: Revelations
He'd said it. It had been said. It was out in the open, hanging between then.
At first Arthur didn't respond. Denials, expressions of disgust and dismay, all stuck in his throat. The allegations were false. Especially where Lancelot was concerned. But though he'd never exactly put into words what he'd wanted to do to Merlin last night—truthfully for perhaps the last month—he couldn't avoid the realization that Uther's crude jab had actually hit pretty close to the mark.
Arthur froze, as if he'd been struck by a bolt from heaven. He was that sort of man. Exactly that. And his father knew it.
But whatever else he was, Arthur Pendragon was a knight of Camelot. He could not allow an innocent man to be convicted by his silence, nor by his unconvincing denials.
“It wasn't Lancelot,” he said softly.
“What?” Uther answered, startled and wishing to be confused.
“The uh...” Arthur turned his face away and mumbled, “the young man who... that I was 'seen' with last night.”
“Oh gods, no!” Uther gasped, finally grasping the horrible truth that no denials would be forthcoming. Not with regard to the underlying issue.
“Nothing happened,” Arthur half pleaded, half argued, his voice so full of frustration and resentment that it sounded almost sullen, even in his own ears. “We were too drunk to have done anything even if we'd known for certain what we wanted to do, which I certainly didn't, so I... sent him home to sleep it off.”
Uther's back straightened. He turned to face his son with the kind of cold eyed resignation he usually reserved for battle or for difficult treaty negotiations. “Who is he?” he asked in a hard, careful voice, devoid even of anger.
The temptation to look away again was enormous, but Arthur held his father's gaze, heart thumping. “Father, I'm not going to tell you that,” he answered, bracing to be struck, physically or in some other way.
Uther sniffed contemptuously and breathed out heavily, shaking his head. “Don't trifle with me boy!” he rebuked him, warningly. “I, your king command you: Tell me his name.”
“Why?” Arthur challenged. “So you can 'draw your sword and cut him in half'? I am still a man, Father. You can't command me to be a disloyal coward!”
Uther clinched his fists, but he breathed deeply and kept them at his sides. “It's curious to me,” he said thinly, “how you manage to comprehend such a dizzying array of competing 'loyalties' as to dictate to your king what he may and may not command you.” There was the barest hint of a pause. Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but Uther continued sharply. “I'll have more to say on that subject, fear not. In the meantime, We've still got to deal with your 'Sir' Lancelot.”
If Arthur had ever felt angrier, more humiliated, more disrespected in his entire life, he certainly couldn't recall when it was. Uther smiled cruelly. No. It was more than that. He sneered. Arthur had killed men for less. But they were lesser men. The Prince stayed his hand and even held his tongue, even when the King added, “At least there's one good thing to come of this... revelation of yours. I can move with confidence against the brigand, secure in the knowledge that he has no secrets to shout from the gallows.”
Arthur watched with dumb, increasing horror and resignation as Lancelot's prefunctory trial was commenced and concluded in a matter of minutes. The prisoner knelt, hands chained behind him, eyes downcast. In an attitude everything and nothing like the pose of ceremonial capitulation in which he had been made to kneel successively before his Prince and King the day before. This was no mere ritual. He was truly defeated now. Arthur knew, even before he heard the confession from his own lips that Lancelot was not Lord Eldred's son. And yet, Uther's barbed pronouncement 'Lied' and Lancelot's softly sighed admission stung him like blows, no less sharp for the clear anticipation.
The Prince lowered his eyes and put his hand to his temple, blinking in shock, partly hiding his face. The way Uther kept on about shame and broken codes, Arthur could not doubt that he meant to address more than one man present with the words, “You are not worthy of the knighthood bestowed up on you. You never were, and you never will be.” The King was so clearly venting his ire at the unworthiness of his heir upon the hapless soul before him that it was an unspeakable relief when he concluded, not with a sentence of death but with a mere, “get him out of my sight.”
But Arthur could not rest in his relief. Lancelot was still imprisoned, still in mortal danger, still hostage to Uther's humors. And it was still, at least in part, his fault. For taking Merlin's word in a matter he ought to have know beyond the boy's competence, if nothing else. For being blinded by affection. And the desperate need for knights. A need this so called peasant could have filled admirably, and still could if only Uther could look past his want of pedigree, could see him for who rather than what he was. But no one knew better than Arthur his father's incapacity to see past the circumstances of a man's birth.
“Sire...” Arthur spoke almost without intention, hearing the pleading note in his own voice, unsure what, exactly he meant to say on behalf of an obvious and admitted fraud.
“Do you contest my judgment?” Uther demanded. Softly. Coolly. Arthur knew him well enough to know that his quiet, dignified, righteous anger was sometimes deadlier than his screaming rage. And yet, the challenge was already too clear to all the court for any but a coward to back down from. Besides, someone had to advocate for Lancelot. He had no other friend in Camelot, saving Merlin. Who had no standing before the court and who was—thanks to Arthur—already in too great a danger of coming to Uther's attention as a 'threat' of 'shame' upon his House.
“His deception was inexcusable,” Arthur was forced to admit. Lancelot (and almost certainly Merlin) had done a more dishonorable thing than they, being mere peasants, could possibly understand. There was no point pretending otherwise. “But he meant no harm, Sire, I'm sure of it,” Arthur found himself saying, speaking as his father had, of both Lancelot and himself, “he only wished to serve.” By all the gods in all the heavens, why could the King not see the truth, that he had before him two loyal fighting men who were, despite their grave faults, ready and able to be at his service, exactly as he needed them to be?
And yet, what answer could he make when the King dismissed his thin arguments with the entirely obvious question, “How can you trust a man who's lied to you?”
Unless you're a fool, you can't.
Chapter 17: The Lion and the Mouse
“Well?” Morgana demanded primly, but with a touch of happy defiance dancing in her eyes, “How do I look?” Gwen cast an uneasy eye over her handiwork, stomach tight, certain that the King would not be pleased. Morgana was covered from head to toe in a simple, dun-colored dress of linen twill (complete with matching wimple), worn over a loose, white linen shirt with tapered, wrist-length sleeves and a collar that nearly touched her ears. Back straight, head high, hands folded formally in front of her skirt, she looked like a proud Christian convert preparing to take Holy Orders.
“Are you certain you want to wear the headpiece as well?” Gwen ventured hesitantly, attempting a wining smile. “It is a bit... heavy for this time of year.”
“Quite certain,” Morgana assure her crisply. The little nod with which she emphasized these words seemed very certain indeed. For a moment she frowned slightly under the weight of her own determination, and in doing so, looked for a moment so much like the King that Gwen was reminded of the common saw that all the nobility were related one way or another. Jokes would have it that they married there own cousins, even their aunts and nieces, and were rendered effeminate because of if, fit only for the sort of specialized fighting that relied on a delft hand, a sly mind, and an expensive weapon. Not man enough for a real days work that you had to put your back into.
Not that anyone who had been in the presence of Arthur Pendragon could believe something so ridiculous. There was nothing effeminate about the Knights of Camelot, Gwen thought, least of all their leader. He was like a lion. Beautiful, sleek, and deadly. Compelling yet to be avoided. However differently he might have seemed last night, however wounded and in need, Gwen reminded herself sternly, he was like the lion in the fable with the thorn in it's paw, still a powerful beast, still more dangerous than vulnerable. For more reasons than one.
The memory of having been so close to him the night before, pressed against him, feeling the heat of his body against her skin, made Gwen almost physically shudder. Like a mouse who had felt the brush of a cats whiskers, she told herself, she was lucky to escape unharmed. And lucky her mistress could not read her heart to know what, besides fear, she had felt at that unsafe proximity. Far from believing the comforting lie that noblemen were little more than women, Gwen had seen the glint in Morgana eye during a hunt, at the moment of a kill, enough to doubt that the women of her class were much less than men. Certainly, they could be just as deadly.
At any rate, Morgana's frown was gone as quickly as it had come. A new smile lit her face, more brightly than ever. “Now go and see that everything his ready,” she instructed her servant eagerly, eyes shining with something very like that same hunting glint, “and bid our noble lords and masters of the House of Pendragon join me in the Hall for lunch.”
Gwen pursed her lips but said nothing. There was no talking to Morgana when she was like this. Even when she was enjoying being like this. Especially when she was enjoying it. Wallowing in spite and delighting in the creative expression of her indignation, as she was now. So Gwen simply sighed and shook her head, going to do as she was told.
She hadn't gone thirty paces from Morgana's chamber door when a man in shackles was dragged past her, headed for the nearest stairwell and down into the dungeons below. With a start she realized that it was Sir Lancelot, back in his old peasant's clothes, being so unceremoniously hauled away. She could see from the sorrowful and not at all angry look in his eyes exactly what had happened. He had been found out.
As the guards disappeared down the steps with their charge, Gwen's heart nearly seized up. Those eyes stayed with her, haunted her. The project had seemed so harmless, clever even. To make a knight from a good man, rather than a well born one, saving Camelot from the silliness of it's own laws. She had laughed about it with Merlin, been happy to help, never once considering that they might be caught, or what might happen if they were. She realized now how utterly foolish she had been, how gravely she had failed her truest friend and this innocently trusting stranger in not pointing out to them how deadly it could be to cross Uther in so serious a matter as the Knight's Code.
Gwen's heart hammered in her chest. What did Uther plan to do to Lancelot? Would he be hanged, or worse still, flogged until a slow, painful death was all but certain? Uther being Uther, he might even have him burned alive. Gwen didn't honestly know. Which was intolerable. This was as much her fault as anyone's, though it was clear from the way the guards had ignored her that Lancelot had told no one of that fact. She had to do something.
Firstly, she had to find Merlin.
While she searched the palace, trying to be swift without being obvious, Gwen incidentally completed the things Morgana had assigned her to do, thinking vaguely, that her needle might actually get her in quite a lot of trouble today, one way and another. Merlin was in neither the kitchen nor the hall, where lunch was, in fact, just about ready. She delegated the task of informing Uther's serving men to one of the kitchen girls, but to Arthur's chambers, she went herself, since it stood to reason that Merlin might be there.
When she knocked, the Prince himself bid her enter. Merlin was not there. Gwen wanted to ask after him immediately, but all things considered, she thought she had best work up to it. Besides the fact that it might look suspicious if she were more concerned with finding Merlin than in completing her business for Morgana, there was already some sort of odd rumor going round implying that Arthur's having left Lancelot's Knighthood Celebration in Merlin's drunken company (or Lancelot's as some would erroneously have it) was nefarious in some way that Gwen didn't quite understand.
“My Lord,” she therefore began, feeling stiff and formal and silly, especially after having seen him in such a state only the night before, “the Lady Morgana bids you good day and begs your consent to dine with her at luncheon in the hall presently.” Gwen hesitated, heart thumping for more reasons than one, but had no choice but to state the rest as instructed. “Together with your father, with whom she wishes to discuss a matter of some importance.”
“I'm not hungry,” the Prince pouted, lowering his gaze in a way that he never would have if confronted by another knight, seeming suddenly much more like a child than either a lion or a man. Then suddenly his expression changed. Eyes fixed on Gwen, he rose from his chair and closed the space between them with the speed and grace of a cat. It happened so swiftly that, for a moment, she was tempted to bolt through the open door, like a frightened rabbit.
“You're friends with Merlin,” the Prince said purposefully. It wasn't a question. It was a statement of fact, but one that seemed to require a response. Gwen nodded, feeling more puzzled than uneasy. Until Arthur gave her an appraising look that would have made literally anyone uneasy. Again, like the mouse to his cat. Was this about Lancelot's arrest? she worried. Had Merlin been implicated?
Then suddenly, as if she had passed his inspection, as if he had suddenly realized that he could trust her, or perhaps that the had no choice, the Prince shed his abrasiveness as if doffing a suit of armor. Suddenly, he was begging, eyes filled with frank desperation. “Guinevere, I need your help. Lancelot's been arrested, supposedly for forging his credentials, which he did, but... there's more to it than that, and I just... I said some things in the course of defending him that only made matters worse, and now I fear Merlin may be in serious danger.”
Gwen was stunned by his sincerity and anguish. She hardly knew what to think. If he was working for his father, trying to get her to say something that would implicate Merlin in the forgery of Lancelot's Seal, he ought rather to be a performer than a prince. He must have been even more moved than she'd realized by Merlin's heroism in the poisoned chalice incident. She never could have imagined a Pendragon showing compassion, let alone loyalty to someone who had actually broken the law, regardless of the circumstances. As far as she knew, during the afunc plague, he'd been resigned if not quite content to lead her to her execution as his father commanded, believing full-well that she was innocent. To be sure, he had worked to prevent it, but if ordered he would not have refused.
“But, My Lord,” Gwen heard herself saying, “what can I do?” At that, the Prince lowered his gaze again, with that same oddly abashed, slightly nervous look with which he had met Morgana's invitation. Except this time, it was followed by his putting his finger tips to his temple, blinking rapidly, and (dear gods there was no mistaking it at this proximity) actually blushing slightly. The Prince worked he mouth for a moment as if having difficulty getting words to come out. Then finally he dove in, as the mistress of her old dame school had been wont to say, 'in the middle of the race'.
“I don't know... how much you saw last night,” he began, forcing words from his lips in hurried misery, seeming to want to get the whole wretched business of speaking over with. “I can't swear that I remember the exact details of what was said or done.... But when you are asked, and you will be asked, you must say that it was not Merlin with whom you saw me last night. You must say that the young man was a stranger to you, and what's more, that though his coloring was much like Lancelot's you are certain he was not the man you saw. Most importantly do not mention Merlin's name at all, but if directly asked, you must state firmly that he was never here last night, do you understand? Can you do that, even if the King questions you personally before the court?”
Gwen's heart was pounding harder than ever now. This was sounding more and more like the sort of thing that could get a person executed. And though, of course, she would sooner die than betray Merlin, there was still so much about this sudden, urgent entreaty from the Prince that just didn't make sense. Finally, not knowing what else to do, Gwen confessed her confusion, “My Lord, I do not understand. Why must I lie to the King? Is it not natural that your servant should be with you at any time you desire?”
To Gwen's amazement, the Prince only colored more deeply. If she hadn't known better, she'd have sworn that he himself must have played a role in the forgery, must at least have sanctioned it. Why else would he be so overcome with shame? Why else would he be taking so much responsibility for shielding Merlin?
The Prince opened his mouth to speak. Perhaps to explain further, perhaps to insist that she obey without further explanation for his sake and the sake of their mutual friends. But whatever he had yet to say remained unspoken. At that moment, alarm bells sounded. Screams, both human and inhuman, could be heard without the castle walls. Camelot was under attack!
Chapter 18: You Can Stop Blaming Yourself
“You can stop blaming yourself.” That was Lancelot's answer to 'what can I do to help'. Besides being false, it was disheartening. Mainly on account of being so disheartened, so devoid of actual hope for or even willingness to pursue a better outcome that patiently awaiting Uther's 'justice'. Lancelot seemed so resigned, he was almost serene. Never mind blaming Merlin, he didn't even seem to be angry at Uther, at his fellow knights (who had collectively failed to lift a voice, let alone a finger in his defense), at Arthur, at the circumstances even. It wasn't that Lancelot was happy to be tossed in a dungeon, and anyone could see he was positively grief-stricken at no longer being a knight; But at the same time, he seemed strangely at peace with it all. As though it was what he deserved.
The worst part was that, as Lancelot has been reluctantly forced to admit, Arthur had stood silent throughout his entire so-called trial, had let him face Uther alone, with no one to take his part. Lancelot claimed it was only fair, that Arthur had been a victim in all of this, had been duped into believing his new knight a gentleman when he was none. That it would have been too much to expect him to speak up on behalf of someone whose first act upon gaining his friendship had been to abuse it by deceiving him for his own ends.
It didn't seem possible that Lancelot could view his own actions in so harsh a light and not also blame Merlin. After all, it was Merlin who had cooked up the whole scheme and all but twisted Lancelot's arm to get him to go along. It didn't seem possible, and yet it seemed to be so. No wonder Lancelot was so disheartened. So defeated. The way he chose to view things, he had both Merlin's dishonesty and Arthur's narrow-minded, pig-headed, self-centered, hardhearted, inflexible, legalistic, misplace-loyalty-having, Pendragonish wrongheadedness for which to blame himself.
As Merlin made his lonesome, sullen, disheartened way back towards Gaius's chambers, he silently cursed himself for being such a fool. Gaius had tried to tell him all of this last night when Gwen had all but heaved him (stumbling and giggling) across the physician's threshold to land at his feet. He had tried to drum it into his thick skull with angry shouting and even a smattering of light (and some not so light) blows. Arthur was not just any man, and certainly no one a man like Merlin should completely trust. And even if he had been, he was Uther Pendragon's son and therefore not to be trifled with in any conceivable sense of the word.
And he did mean any sense, Gaius had made clear, for he knew all about Merlin, even the one secret more shocking than his magical abilities, the one secret even his mother had never guessed. “It is your destiny to protect Arthur,” he had railed until he was nearly horse, “not the other way round. Who knows what the fates have in store for you, what good you could accomplish if you were to exerciser the kind of self-discipline that could keep you safely at Arthur's side for many long years to come rather than indulging in these impulsive displays of renegade heroics aimed at remaking the laws and customs of Camelot as you see fit! You've already put both yourself and Lancelot in mortal danger with this Seal business, not to mention Gwen. If Uther should even suspect for one moment that your interest in Arthur amounted to anything more sinister than a servant's devotion to his master, I shutter to think what he might do!”
“Sinister?” Merlin had repeated incredulously, thinking he should be angry, but feeling in his drunken state amused, “You think my interest in Arthur is sinister? Do I look left handed to you?”
At that Gaius had pulled a dour face and, shaking his head, sent him on to bed, murmuring, “I swear that boy will be the death of me if he lives long enough.” At that Merlin had laughed even harder.
By morning, all had been forgotten. Until the guards had come for Lancelot. And Merlin had learned the “sinister” rumor going around the castle that forgery might not by the only way in which he had tried to take advantage of the King's son. As soon as Uther had finished taking Lancelot's confession and left him to rot in his dudgeon until a more convenient time, Merlin had rushed to his friend's side, eager to see what he could do for him... only to be told, “You can stop blaming yourself.”
But that wasn't true. He couldn't. So when he walked through the front door and Gaius called out his name like a man with something very serious to say to him, Merlin all but chastised him, his guilt curdling into resentment, “Whatever you do, don't say I told you so.” He was abashed and made all the more miserable by the gentleness and obvious sincerity of Gaius's response that he had no wish to gloat. Merlin was gearing up to feel even worse about the old man's patient but probably pointless attempts to help him clear up his unclearable mess. Until he saw the picture of the Griffin.
Gaius had done it! He had solved the mystery! And rational or not, it seemed like an omen. It gave Merlin hope that this whole sordid mess (his conspiracy with Lancelot, his deceit of Arthur, his hopeless infatuation with both, and the true and false rumors swirling around it all) really could be cleared up somehow if he could just find the right way to apply himself. And if it wasn't for the fact that the Griffin picked that exact moment to attack Camelot.
Chapter 19: Twisted
When Gaius saw the look on Uther's face at the word magic, he knew that this particular battle was probably lost. Sure enough, he got the impenetrable, anti-logical defense he had suddenly come to expect. Why, on today of all days, in the face of this (rationally) undeniable threat, when for once Camelot actually needed to be defended by the smiting hand of Uther the Avenger, Uther the Crusader; why must he have Uther the Denier to contend with?
Naturally he had expected resistance to the idea of actually using magic to defeat the Griffin. Half mad rage, breast beating, saber rattling threats of death, demands for another solution; all that he had been prepared for. But this... glib insistence on the impossibility of a fact without the slightest interest in hearing evidence for or against it? This simple side-stepping of both Gaius's learned opinion and Arthur's firsthand experience? It wasn't the first time Uther had irrationally refused to see that which was staring him boldly in the face; but Gaius hadn't seen him this bad since the day Arthur was born. Since he had tried to explain to Uther that Ygraine was not merely in need of a little rest, but was minutes from certain death.
Granted the choice between using sorcery to defend his kingdom and surrendering it to the depredations of a magical beast left Uther (even more so than any other king within the realms of Albion) in an untenable position. Especially in the long shadow of that dark day. But still... the way Uther looked without seeming to see at the way Arthur and Merlin were nervously eying each other... Gaius had a feeling there was something more going on. Something the King found even more disturbing to him than the Griffin and which gave him double cause to see no evil.
Gaius wondered how much the King actually knew or had heard tell of regarding the past night's events. He wondered if there was in fact more to the past night's events than he himself had supposed. He wondered if it might be necessary, at least for a time, for Merlin to leave Camelot, or at least to leave the King's household. He wondered how doing so might affect the great destiny Kilgharrah claimed awaited him by Arthur's side.
But there was no time to worry about that right now. The Griffin was all too real, no matter what Uther chose to believe, and the only thing that could defeat it was powerful magic. Gaius only knew of one person left alive within the entire kingdom who could (probably) do what needed to be done and had any inclination whatsoever to do so. A generation after The Great Purge, only Merlin, Nimueh, and perhaps one other soul outside of the Druids and the High Priestesses still had that kind of power.
Though if Merlin were to use his power.... But no. That was the wrong way to think about it. Whether he used it or not, simply by having the power he had, simply by being his father's son for that matter; Merlin was Uther's mortal enemy for more reason than either of them knew. Conversely, if Merlin did not use his power to defeat the Griffin, Arthur would surely die. Uther saw to that with his definitive pronouncement of, “We finish this tonight.”
As soon as Uther turned and began striding purposefully from the room, before he had even cleared the doorway, Arthur turned and gazed on Merlin with such a pitiable look of longing and regret that it nearly broke Gaius's heart by reminding him what it was to be so young and so in love. And so helpless to make love into anything but a disaster. So ruined, from the cradle to the grave.
No wonder Uther had suddenly become so dedicated to the art of willful blindness. The unpleasant truth was plain to see, for anyone who cared to. Like a child born with a twisted leg, whom no physician's art could make fit for full participation in any ordinary occupation; the King's son had been born with a deformity of his natural affections. And like Merlin, like Gaius, he would never be able to join fully in the kind of love that brought life into the Universe. He would always long instead for the sterile embrace of another man.
Chapter 20: Like a Knight
Arthur had not practiced what he would say. Perhaps he should have. Because it all came pouring out. Things he hadn't meant to mention. Mainly his personal feelings. Perhaps that was his womanish tendency? “I should have known!” he raved, “How could I have been so stupid? You don't sound like a knight! You don't even look like a knight!” Lancelot only watched. Humble. Reserved. Patient. Calm. Contrite. Exemplifying the virtues of a knight—better than he himself could at that moment, Arthur couldn't help but notice—even in defeat. Even in disgrace.
“I'm sorry,” Lancelot said simply. Seeking no favor, making no excuse. So very much a man. Arthur felt ashamed to stand in judgment of him.
“I'm sorry too,” the Prince declared honestly. Because suddenly he knew. Lancelot had not only meant no harm, he had done none. It was the First Code that was the cause of the harm. An unjust law? In his father's Kingdom? It was a sobering thought. But Arthur realized that in this case it was true. He realized that the 'mercy' he had come to extend was nothing but simple justice. Lancelot was no criminal. He had not sold his word of honor for unearned glory. He had sacrificed it, for the good of Camelot. He had put the needs of the kingdom before his pride and told an honorable, necessary lie, no different than when he had pretended to be defeated in order to best Arthur in the test. “Because, Lancelot, you fight like a knight.”
But the Prince's voice broke with emotion when he tried to say more. “And I need—” was as far as he could get looking into those huge, soft-brown, beautiful eyes. He turned his face away. His needs were not the point, he reminded himself firmly. “Camelot needs...” but that was no better. He could not ask Lancelot to do what Camelot needed. In the first place, his father would never have allowed it. And in the second place, if Gaius was right (and he usually was) there was nothing a mere knight could do that would be of any use anyhow.
And suddenly, somehow, they were discussing that fact, speculating dangerously on the possible necessity of using magic. Something the Prince had certainly never intended in coming here. “It doesn't matter what I believe,” Arthur firmly reminded both Lancelot and most especially himself, “The use of magic is not permitted.” This though his soul was screaming that if Uther could be wrong in something so fundamental as the First Code, perhaps he could be wrong even in this.
He thought again of the magic poultice that Gwen or someone on her behalf had surely used to cure Tom the Blacksmith of the debilitating illness that evil magic had brought upon him through no possible fault of his own. If the use of magic were truly necessary to fight the effects of evil sorcery, if it was what needed to be done to protect the innocent from those who would do them harm; how could that be wrong? And was it not at least as wrong to allow the practitioners of magic to abuse innocent people and do harm to the Kingdom? To let one's people die out of stubborn pride in the purity of one's methods of defending them?
Regardless, Arthur reminded himself firmly, he could not do magic if he wanted to. Not for Camelot, not for all the world. He simply hadn't the talent or the skill. No one whom he could turn to had. For all but the King's enemies, magic was a lost art. “Knights must prevail with steal and sinew alone.” It seemed a ridiculous thing to hope for, but hope he must. There was nothing else that could be done. He had to stop stalling, Arthur scolded himself. He couldn't change things by procrastinating. He must do what he had come here to do. The only thing that could be done for Lancelot. Which at that moment was more than he could do for anyone else in Camelot, including himself.
“There's a horse waiting outside...” he explained. “Take it and never return to this place.” Of course, gentleman that he truly was, Lancelot protested, but the Prince stood firm and eventually he yielded. Or seemed to. But when, after a battle fierce and bloody, after losing his senses for only the gods knew how long, Arthur awoke to find the griffin slain; there sat Lancelot astride the very horse he had given him, bearing arms and wearing armor that could only have come from Tom and Gwen.
The slain griffin smoldered. It smelled of both charred flesh and the singed state of the air itself after a discharge of lightning. These were effects that could not be caused by “steal and sinew alone.” They were the effects of magic.
As Lancelot raised his helmet, before he had noticed the Prince stirring, Arthur followed his stunned gaze only to see a figure running away. Or, well, to be more accurate, shambling away at a high rate of speed. He couldn't see the boy's face clearly. Not in the foggy darkness. Not at this angle and distance. But he didn't need to. He'd know that form, those movements anywhere. It was Merlin!
And suddenly, everything made sense. Arthur finally understood what was going on. It was Gwen who had dressed Lancelot up like a nobleman in the first place, after all. Had to have been. Whom else could have provided both such fine clothes and such serviceable armor on a scant day's notice to a penniless peasant with no friend in all of Camelot except Merlin? The three of them had been in on the forgery together from the very beginning.
And so, when he had been dismissed by Arthur, still determined to serve, Lancelot had returned to Gwen to be outfitted again. And Gwen had run to Merlin, and to the one person they both knew who could not unknow the magic he had learned before the Great Purge, could not sit idly by and let Camelot suffer merely because the use of such knowledge was forbidden. Just as he had not let Tom die of the plague. Just as he had not let Merlin die for his courageous act of saving Arthur's life. It was so clear, even a child could see it. The Sorcerer responsible for saving Camelot from the griffin, for saving Camelot from it's self, from the curse of Uther's rigidity and blindness; was none other than Merlin's uncle, Gaius, the court physician.
By the time Arthur reached his feet, he had reached his judgment. It was an honorable lie. On all their parts. Gwen (who had provided the weapon), Gaius (who had enchanted it), Merlin (who had rushed it out to Lancelot already on the field of battle), and Lancelot (who had wielded it with skill that any knight could be proud of); together, secretly, these four 'commoners' had done what the 'noble' Knights of Camelot could not. And Arthur meant to see that every single one of them was rewarded and protected to the best of his ability as the Heir to the Throne and Captain of the Knights of Camelot.
Chapter 21: Men As They Are
Uther had never thought he could be so impressed with a Peasant. Gauis, perhaps, but the physician was a special case. Still, the King was determined to do what he must, and to say what he must about it. Arthur, to his discredit, kicked and fussed as if he were a toddler again, demanding to know why, as if there were some mystery in it. Or rather, to his credit, he spoke up bravely and loyally for his friend. Uther hardly knew which way to judge the matter. He was unused to such self-doubt. It rankled him.
Regardless, Lancelot must be driven from Camelot. Uther stood firm on that point without the slightest qualm. Nor did he hesitate to give the most dignified reason therefore which was available. And after all, being seen to take a hard line on The First Code was not such a bad thing in itself. Just because one exceptional commoner (no doubt the bastard son of a great man) had the makings of a warrior was no reason to encourage the daft notion of equality to flourish like a weed among the lower classes.
The King was grateful that Arthur at least had the sense to speak no more plainly of his reasons for wishing Lancelot present than his father spoke of his true reasons for demanding his absence. Whatever else he was, Uther Pendragon's son was no fool. That at least was a comfort. But even without touching on the unseemly subject of his proclivities, Arthur's stubborn advocacy in the face of his father's settled judgment was threatening to become embarrassing.
In the end, it was Lancelot himself who solved Uther's problem. With the wisdom, courage, and selflessness of a true Gentleman, he took his leave, refusing to allow Arthur to disgrace himself by pleading his hopeless case any further. Provided there were any justice in the mortal world, Uther thought, that boy would someday make some king a fine knight indeed. He let him keep the horse and all his arms and armor, however they may have been procured. In his heart, he wished the young man well. And well away from his son.
Uther knew there was more to be said. More to be dealt with. Lancelot was not the cause but merely the object of his son's affliction. Removing him from Camelot might alleviate the immediate risk of disgrace to Arthur, but the underlying threat of scandal remained. That evening he made sure to dine with his son privately. But as he watched his normally headstrong son force down his food in subdued silence, looking more weary and wary than he could ever recall seeing him before the revelations of the last few days, Uther found he lacked the stomach to broach the subject.
Silverware clanked and scraped against the sturdy metal dishes as the two men shifted awkwardly in their seats and tried not to look at each other without looking as though they were avoiding looking at each other. There seemed suddenly to be no space between staring and averting ones eyes. Uther was on the point of excusing himself when Arthur squared his shoulders and looked squarely at him at last. The King summoned his courage and met his son's gaze with equal frankness. He steeled himself to hear almost anything. But he was not prepared for what Arthur said next.
“Father, I am in need of a wife,” he declared earnestly, “The sooner, the better. If not Morgana, then you must help me to find someone equally suitable. Ours is one of the richest kingdoms in Albion, and I know that several of our neighbors must treasure hopes of an alliance.”
Uther's brow furrowed. Was Arthur saying this because he thought it would please him? Granted he would need a wife someday to produce an heir. But there was no rush in that, and no harm in using his eligible status as a tool of diplomacy for another five or even ten years. If there was any good thing about his situation, it was the very fact that he needn't rush into marriage for personal reasons or worry about a love match mucking up his prospects to marry well. Men like Arthur didn't have those kinds of desires. Did they? Granted he had managed to misbehave with Morgana as a child, but given their ages and personalities, she might well have been the aggressor in that.
Arthur gave him an impatient look. “Well, Father?” he asked finally, “Aren't you going to say anything?”
“There is no need for such rash action,” Uther advised, speaking carefully, unsure of his own emotions, feeling at once on guard with his son and protective of him. “Son, these... rumors will pass. The best way to address them is not at all.”
For a moment Arthur looked acutely puzzled, then frustrated, bordering on disgusted. “Rumors? Wha—you misunderstand me, Father. I don't want a wife for appearances. I want her for, well, usual purposes.”
Now it was Uther's turn to be puzzled and annoyed. “What does that mean 'usual purposes'.”
“Alright,” Arthur admitted with a sigh, “I want a wife to keep me out of trouble. After all, is not the lawful satisfaction of desire the best way to avoid the temptation to seek satisfaction elsewhere?”
Now Uther was thoroughly confounded. “But what desires have you,” he asked finally, “that a wife can satisfy,”
At that Arthur crossed his arms, sighed exasperatedly and rolled his eyes. “The same as any man has, so far as I can tell,” he declared impatiently. “Or at any rate, the same a Caesar had.”
That last struck Uther off guard, and yet, as he contemplated it, it made a kind of sense. As a man might be nearsighted rather than blind, so he supposed, he might suffer only a partial distortion of his natural affections. Which might explain both Arthur and Caesar. If so, perhaps one who could find it in himself to use the discipline of a warrior rather than the self indulgence of a Roman Senator could suppress his unnatural desires entirely, or at least well enough to avoid acting upon them to his detriment. If so, purhaps there was more hope for his son's future happiness than he had dared imagine.
Slowly, definitely, Uther nodded. “If it is a wife you want, my son,” he agreed, “then a wife you shall have.” He looked deeply into Arthur's eyes and took a firm hold of his hand. “You are my son,” he assured him, “and in almost all respects, no father could ask for a better one. This... difficulty that fate has dealt you... It can't prevent you from being a Great or a good king unless you let it, and I'm willing to do everything in my power to help you master it.”
For a moment, Arthur seemed almost to sag with relief. “I'm glad to hear it,” he affirmed, his smile turning slightly self-conscious, “because I need to ask you for yet another favor.”
Uther very nearly answered 'name it'. But he was too cautious a man for that. “Well?” he prompted instead.
“It's about Merlin,” Arthur cautioned.
Uther suddenly tensed with dread. Knights were one thing but... dear gods... Merlin was... well Merlin. That muddle headed, servant was hardly fit to polish Arthur's armor, let alone... Worst of all, now that it had been mentioned, it was difficult to disbelieve. Frankly it explained a lot.
“Nothing has happened,” Arthur hastened to explain, seeing Uther's expression. The phrase clicked, and Uther suddenly, sickly, knew exactly how much was in fact explained. Of one unspoken charge at least, perhaps Lancelot really had been innocent. “As far as I know,” Arthur blustered forward, transparently lying, “he hasn't even shown any inclination. But he's a distraction to me, through no fault of his own. A temptation. And honestly, if circumstances were to become...” Arthur's looks became very pained indeed. “...Well to be frank, I don't know that he would deny me anything.”
“I could banish him,” Uther offered, 'joking' only in the sense of having no real hope that the suggestion would be seriously appreciated.
“Gods no!” Arthur gasped. “I just... Well... Gaius could certainly use a full-time assistant at his age. Perhaps an apprentice even. And if we could manage a small stipend, perhaps I wouldn't feel so bad about putting the boy out of a job he performs... adequately.”
Uther rubbed his chin and squinted at his son. The Prince was serious. And in all honestly, the King could not say that what he asked was unreasonable, even if it did rub him very much the wrong way. It was only to be expected of an honorable man, Uther supposed, that he would try to do right by a servant who had shown him such loyalty. However, he did have one concern that he deemed worth voicing. “But will that be removing the temptation far enough?”
“Well I should think so!” Arthur huffed a bit indignantly. “I mean I'm not entirely without self control, I just don't need him helping me get undressed.”
“Very well then,” Uther agreed grudgingly, “Merlin shall be apprenticed to Gaius. Under my sponsorship and supervision.” His voice became just a bit brittle as he attempted levity but managed little more than irony. “And I will happily pay him not to undress you. A privilege for which all the available gentlewomen in Albion will no doubt soon be lined up rank on rank.”
Arthur took it goodnaturedly enough, smiling a bit himself. “What, like pawns on a chessboard?” he joked.
Uther smiled a bit more warmly, relaxing a little himself. “They do become queens from time to time, don't they?” he agreed, laughing slightly. “No wonder they don't come at you straight on. Women never do.” The joke was stilted, conventional, sharing little with the joker's own experience. Behind his relaxed exterior, Uther was stabbed by thoughts of Ygraine, who was his moral better in every respect and of Vivienne who had always been frank with him even when she was being false to another.
But Arthur laughed lightly, seeming to give the truth or falsity of the matter no thought. “Of course,” he parried, risking a jab at his own expense, “even a queen can't sneak up on you the way a knight can.” Arthur's smile was as easy as ever, but his eyes were searching, nervous. Needing reassurance for his father's faith in him despite these unsettling developments, despite their recent differences.
Uther's heart swelled three sizes with emotion. He wanted to grab his son, his Arthur, his brave-little-bear and pull him into a bear-sized hug, to plant kisses on his forehead and tell him everything would be alright. To tell him how proud he was of him for facing these difficulties head-on and seeking the means to live a virtuous life, for placing the needs of his Kingdom and the Honor of his House above his own selfish desires.
But they were men. And men did not hug and kiss one another under these circumstances. Instead, Uther ruffled his son's hair, license enough even for a father and king, considering his age and stature. “Enough of this,” he said. “It's been a trying day and a victorious one at that. I think I'll celebrate by beating you at a game of chess.”
“Ha,” Arthur scoffed, completely relaxing into their usual, easy back-and-forth. “I've been wiping the board with you since I was sixteen, old man.”
“Oh really!” the King feigned indignation, trying not to grin too hard. “And who won last time?”
Arthur rolled his eyes theatrically. “That was a fluke!” he playfully protested. “I've been taking three out of five for years!”
“Well go on then!” Uther insisted, laughing heartily now. “Get out the board, and I'll teach you not to let knights and queen sneak up on you.” Thinking of Lancelot and Merlin, but keeping his tone as light as if he hadn't, he added, “And all the pawns on the board besides.”
All the troubles and doubts of his uncertain future seeming (at least for the moment) forgotten, Arthur threw his head back and laughed. The mock battle was soon joined. And if the simple joy and and affection that the two Pendragon men shared over that game was not all that there was between them, it was no less real for that.