Note for readers unfamiliar with the planet O:
Ki'O society is divided into two halves or moieties, called (for ancient religious reasons) the Morning and the Evening. You belong to your mother's moiety, and you can't have sex with anybody of your moiety.
Marriage on O is a foursome, the sedoretu — a man and a woman from the Morning moiety and a man and a woman from the Evening moiety. You're expected to have sex with both your spouses of the other moiety, and not to have sex with your spouse of your own moiety. So each sedoretu has two expected heterosexual relationships, two expected homosexual relationships, and two forbidden heterosexual relationships.
The expected relationships within each sedoretu are:
The Morning woman and the Evening man (the "Morning marriage")
The Evening woman and the Morning man (the "Evening marriage")
The Morning woman and the Evening woman (the "Day marriage")
The Morning man and the Evening man (the "Night marriage")
The forbidden relationships are between the Morning woman and the Morning man, and between the Evening woman and the Evening man, and they aren't called anything, except sacrilege.
It's just as complicated as it sounds, but aren't most marriages?
It had been a long day, coming at the end of a long winter, but even Uther cracked a smile when Lady Imogen and Sir Taley announced their engagement.
There was a stir all through the room. Lords who had been snoring gently through yet another petition from an outlying village started waking up and demanding to know what was going on.
One of the younger lords, a skinny man dressed in garish green who normally looked two minutes away from being too bored to breathe, jolted awake so fast he almost fell out of his seat.
Merlin caught himself looking for Gwen to share a smile. But no, wait, she wasn't there, though the disappointment of that would be more than made up for by getting to be the one to break the news to her.
Imogen and Taley -- both children of the Morning -- stood side by side, trying not to look nervous as Uther clapped his hands together in the sort of proprietary glee Merlin was more used to seeing Arthur use of his horses or Gaius of his poultices.
"We will be delighted," Uther said, "to hold the ceremony in Camelot itself."
Merlin watched as Imogen and Taley forced grateful smiles from their matched expressions of horror.
Taley was a fraction quicker, perhaps thanks to Arthur's thorough training. Their intendeds -- Lord Haven and Lady Fain -- were not from Camelot. From the way Arthur twitched his mouth more in sympathy than amusement, Merlin judged perhaps it might have been easier on them to have a simple ceremony, away from the watchful eyes of Uther's court.
Any hope of that, though, died in less than the time it took for Taley to sweep a hasty bow.
"You do us a great honour, sire," he said.
"A great honour," Imogen echoed. There was a hint of laughter at her lips, though, and Merlin found himself smiling at it.
He'd once done a favour for her -- rearranging Arthur's schedule for reasons of court intrigue -- and since then, she'd always favoured him with a smile and the odd kind word. Of course, she thought he'd made the rearrangements without Arthur's permission, but that was hardly Merlin's fault.
He should be sympathetic, but Uther's glee was weirdly infectious.
He couldn't wait to tell Gwen.
A wedding, the whisper went around the room, as if anyone could have missed it. A wedding.
Arthur motioned for Merlin to attend him.
"This is not going to be fun, you understand," he said under his breath as Merlin leaned forward to refill his goblet.
"Of course not," Merlin grinned back. "Sire."
"I hate weddings," Arthur continued, almost conversationally. "And I am nothing if not generous with my displeasure."
"Of course." Merlin's cheeks were beginning to hurt.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Oh, go on then. Run off and tell Guinevere. But do try not to skip and giggle openly, at least until you're out of sight of my father."
"Sire," Merlin agreed, and put the jug back down on the table with a happy clatter as he rushed out of the room.
Gwen had only been sick for two or three days, but thanks to Gaius's newest poultice, she was already improving.
Though, Merlin mentally appended -- the effort of keeping one secret pushing all others out into the open -- fevers like this tended to improve after two or three days anyway, poultice or no. But the poultice made things smell nice, which probably helped. He thought. Maybe. And it kept Gaius happy, which was an important part of any medical procedure.
"There we go," Merlin lilted, moving her hair back to press a cool, damp cloth against her neck and face. "All better soon."
"You sound just like my Evening mother," Gwen said, her voice musty with sleep. "Only-- Only male, of course. And Morning. Um. And--"
"Thank you." Merlin smiled down at her, wiping her brow again.
"Oh," he said, feigning surprise so unconvincingly Gwen laugh-coughed, "I forgot to say!"
Gwen gave him an encouraging nod. Her movement jostled the poultice on her chest, making it release another gust of mustardy, minty air into the room. "Oh?"
"Arthur isn't happy -- there's going to be a wedding." He could almost keep himself from gloating. Almost. "Lady Imogen and Sir Taley, and Lord Haven and Lady Fain, from, uh." He hadn't been paying too much attention; at that point, it had seemed more important to work out how long he would have to maintain his expression of vague sympathy in Arthur's direction before he could start grinning. Five seconds had seemed about right.
"From Lincoln?" Gwen prompted.
She beamed up at him. "Morgana was down here earlier."
"Morgana kn-- Ah, stupid question."
This time, Gwen's laugh-cough turned into a real cough, and Merlin bent to support her head as her body shook with the force of her lungs. "Easy," he said, the lilt back in his voice and the furrow back in his brow. "Easy."
Gwen's smile was weaker, but no less warming. "Can you tend to her today? If you-- Only if you have time, of course. But you know how she--" And there, she didn't even try to finish the sentence.
Merlin nodded, willing and sincere. "Of course."
Morgana's room always smelled of fresh flowers and clean, spring air, even in the depths of winter. Now, with the first real flowers of the spring beginning to bloom, her chambers would normally be dotted with hundreds of tiny spots of colour, blossoms left by Gwen in every available space.
Instead, the room was just . . . clean. Clean and boring, and Merlin was half-tempted to summon up a summer's breeze to let some life back in. He smiled to himself, thinking of how nice everything would look when Gwen was up and about again. It wasn't a spell, just a thought, but it must have had some power behind it: with his next breath he noticed a hint of apple blossom in the air.
There was nothing much for him to do without Morgana there -- however much faith Gwen had in him, she hadn't been hoping he'd tidy the place better than her substitute could -- so he began to rearrange the things on Morgana's table, moving them into the shape of a star, then a snake biting its own tail.
The snake needed an eye, so he reached over to her bed for the goblet he knew she kept there; he'd watched Gaius fill it with sleeping draught often enough.
Three things happened at once. Morgana entered the room, Merlin realised the goblet was still full, and their eyes met, horror dawning in both pairs.
Her voice stopped him with such force there was no need for the firm hand she put on his arm.
"I have to keep Gaius from drugging me," she said.
In the half-breath it took for Merlin to think about and dismiss feigning ignorance, her grip on his arm tightened.
"The things I see in my dreams--" she said.
"--they can help us." She moved her hand to his jaw, forcing him to look straight into her eyes. "Merlin. For all Uther's laws, if you could use magic to help people, if you could use magic to help Arthur, wouldn't you?"
She let him stutter through a few garbled words before taking pity on him.
"So tell me, if you can, why can't I?"
He had no answer to that.
"So," she said.
Merlin bowed. "My lady."
"You may leave."
Thinking about it later, running through what he should have said, all Merlin could feel was her handprint, burned into his jaw.
In the time it took Gwen to recover, Merlin learned that Arthur's displeasure was nothing as to the trouble caused by Uther's glee.
Everything had to be polished. Everything. Parts of the castle that Merlin had never even seen before turned out to have whole rooms of things that needed polishing. Whole wings of things. And with the constant threat of people poking their heads round corners to find new things to polish, he had to do his share by hand. It was Merlin's own personal hell.
"Oh, hello," said Imogen, poking her head round a corner just as Merlin was starting to convince himself no one would notice a little bit of magic, done discretely.
Merlin smiled his greeting. Perhaps she'd help him with the polishing.
"Sorry about all this nonsense," Imogen said, waving a hand at the gleaming and soon to be gleaming silverware. "If I'd known--"
"I know," Merlin said. Then again, she was nobility, and nobility had this nasty habit of thinking polishing was beyond them, some sort of arcane knowledge available only to the most privileged servants. And oh, what a privilege it was.
Then, remembering himself, he blurted out, "Congratulations!"
"Thank you!" She beamed. Say what you like about the trouble this was causing, and Merlin did, there was no denying the genuine happiness in all four of the sedoretu-to-be. It was clear this marriage was as close to a love match as nobility were ever likely to get.
Well, excepting Uther's sedoretu, and that had hardly ended well.
"I wanted to ask you a favour," she said. "Yes, I know, another one. But would you mind awfully letting me know what rooms the gifts will be displayed in? I want to make sure my maidservant gives everything an extra polish."
Merlin felt a twinge of sympathy for Alana, Imogen's long-suffering maidservant. It was bad enough being peripherally related to the wedding. Alana was probably so overworked right now she'd accept a magical helping hand.
"I know, I know," Imogen said. "Indulge a blushing Morning bride-to-be?"
"I'll find out for you," Merlin promised.
"Why is Uther so excited about this wedding?" Merlin asked Gaius one evening, poking dejectedly at the final portions of this week's stew. "I would have thought he'd hate marriage as much as he hates magic, considering."
Gaius raised both his eyebrows, a sure sign Merlin had overstepped his bounds.
But Merlin's hands ached from polishing, and his head ached from the smell of beeswax, and his jaw ached from the phantom print of Morgana's hand, and he wasn't in the mood to pay attention to his bounds.
"A good marriage brings joy to the entire kingdom," Gaius said eventually. "Even you know that." There was reproof in his voice.
Earlier that day, Arthur had shouted at him -- shouted -- for some minor and inconsequential breach of protocol that Merlin had been breaching perfectly happily since he first became Arthur's manservant. When Merlin had apologised, Arthur had just sighed and thrown something at him, without aiming to miss. If Gaius wanted to faze Merlin, he'd have to try harder.
"Good magic brings joy to the entire kingdom," Merlin pointed out. "That doesn't stop Uther."
"Merlin," Gaius said, voice heavy. "There's enough treason in this house without such talk adding to it."
And Gwen, even Gwen was in a bad mood, working too hard for someone so recently recovered from a fever. All Merlin had done was suggest she sit down and rest for a while, and suddenly he was as far in her bad graces as if he'd insulted Morgana. Really, it was enough to make him want to set something on fire.
"But," Gaius added with a deep breath, "I suppose you'll only go about asking other people if I don't tell you."
And Merlin, who'd been so far sunken in his bad mood he'd barely heard Gaius speak, felt his mouth twitch with half a smile. Good old Gaius.
"Uther doesn't just blame magic for the death of his Morning wife, he blames it for the destruction of his sedoretu. Every happy marriage formed without magic is proof that love is stronger than magic, that happiness can be found without metaphysical aid."
"But that's stupid!" Merlin burst out. He couldn't help it: it was.
"Thank you, Merlin, for that unpredictable contribution."
Merlin ducked his head in apology.
"Uther gave his Morning wife a choice. Their Evening husband -- Igraine's brother -- died with Igraine, and it was just the two of them, left to try and make a life from what was left. Leave magic, he said, and keep a family."
"And what did she choose?" asked Merlin, hoping against hope that the story didn't have the obvious ending.
"Merlin," Gaius said, shaking his head sadly. "She was Nimeuh."
"Now remember," Arthur had said, "Neither Lord Haven nor Lady Fain are from Camelot, and some of their customs may seem strange to you. Try not to stare."
"I'm not from Camelot," Merlin had protested.
For some reason, Arthur had seemed to think the matter was closed.
But the wedding was strange, and as the quartet walked towards each other dressed in white, Merlin couldn't help but gape.
"Some of their customs may seem strange to you," Arthur repeated without moving his lips. "Try not to stare."
"But they're wearing the same colour," Merlin pointed out, quietly enough that the glare the now healthy Gwen shot him from behind Morgana was completely unreasonable.
"Look at their wrists," said Arthur, the you insular country hick going unspoken but not unheard.
Merlin bristled, but did as he was told, and sure enough, the blue and red of the bands on Fain and Haven's wrists marked them out as the Evening moeity as surely as the gold on Imogen's and the green on Taley's showed them to be the Morning.
"In Lincoln," Arthur explained, taking pity on him, "the custom is that you do not come into your full moiety until marriage." He paused. "Try not to think about it."
Merlin did his best. "But, you mean they--"
"Try," Arthur gritted the words out, his royal smile growing more fixed, "not to think about it."
Merlin tried to focus on the quartet in front of him, joining hands in the familiar manner: Morning and Evening; Day and Night. Then they moved apart for the final ritual words, the ones Merlin -- even Merlin -- knew by heart.
"One to ask." Fain stepped forward, going first as Winter always did.
"One to answer." Haven took his place as Spring.
"One to bring." Taley, Autumn, moved to join them.
And finally, Imogen let Summer complete them. "One to bear."
It was beautiful, truly beautiful, but he couldn't shake off the nagging unease that came from knowing two of them had grown up without moiety, neither Morning nor Evening. It was--
"I would think you of all people, Merlin," Arthur said quietly, "would appreciate the virtue of tolerance."
Which wasn't fair, because Merlin was trying, and-- Oh.
Before Merlin could confront Arthur about anything, they had to endure the gift-giving.
Gwen had explained it all to Merlin before, trying to impress upon him the importance of not saying or doing anything that might cause offense, and then Arthur had explained it again in words of one syllable, trying to impress upon him the importance of not saying or doing anything at all.
First Camelot would give gifts to the newly married sedoretu, then the ambassadors from Lincoln would do the same, then the sedoretu would give gifts to Camelot for hosting the wedding, then there would be food.
The food sounded good, at least.
There was some complicated order to it that no doubt had great religious significance, but all Merlin could think was that Arthur had known, and Arthur hadn't said anything, and Arthur had known, and suddenly Arthur was kicking him discreetly.
"Take the red box," he hissed at Merlin, as if he hadn't explained this already in great and patronising detail.
The red symbolised Autumn, which was Arthur's season -- his gift was a beautiful gold model of a scythe, to wish the sedoretu plenty in all things. Personally, Merlin felt a real scythe might be more useful, but nobility was nobility, so he stumbled forward, presenting the box to them with a graceful bow.
From the choking sound Arthur made behind him, it wasn't as graceful as he'd hoped.
Then he had to stay there for absolutely ages while everyone else swapped presents, until finally Taley's manservant, Alfred, came forward, bearing a red basket containing jewels in the shapes of eggs.
It was all very symbolic.
"You knew about the ma-- About me?" Merlin asked, trying to keep his voice neutral and failing miserably.
"I'm not an expert," Arthur said, angling his body to hide their argument from the rest of the room, ready to draw his sword quicker than Merlin could summon a spell, "on how you imagine this master-servant dynamic to work. But even your view of the feudal system should allow that you're not the one who should be angry here."
"You knew," Merlin repeated, sounding stubborn and petulant even to himself. "I--"
"You wanted to tell me?" Arthur offered. "You didn't know how? First you weren't sure if you could trust me -- and thank you very much, by the way, for that glowing vote of confidence -- and then you couldn't see how to stop lying?"
It sounded so bleak coming from Arthur, so much weaker than it should be.
"I'm sorry I lied," Merlin said. He found himself rushing the words to get to the good bit, the bit he'd practised in his head tens of dozens of times, knowing with a shamefully eager dread that this day might come. "But I'm not sorry for who I am. This, this is part of me. I know it, as sure as I'm Morning, as sure as I know anything. I--"
But Arthur cut him off before he could get to the bit about loyalty, musing as if to himself. "My father says the same thing."
Maybe Arthur had gone mad with the shock.
He was still angling his body to hide them from the rest of the room, but now it was more conspiratorial, as if they were just plotting how to get Arthur out of the room without starting a minor war.
"No, not about magic," Arthur continued. "Idiot. He says that. 'As sure as I'm Morning.' Why is that, do you think? Why is it only Morning people?"
Merlin watched him carefully, not willing to rule madness out just yet.
"I mean, you don't catch me saying that, do you? You don't hear Morgana telling the world, 'This embroidery will hold, as sure as I'm Evening.'"
"No?" Merlin offered.
"Right." Arthur took a step towards him, hand finally, finally moving from his sword. "Your loyalty has never been in question, only your intelligence. Do at least try to be more careful."
Lord Haven was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a pushover. A lot of a pushover. Enough of a pushover that Merlin felt it was particularly unfair when Arthur clapped the poor man on the shoulder and announced they were going hunting.
Haven looked around, trying to catch any of his new spouses' eyes, but Ladies Imogen and Fain were too busy cooing at each other, and Sir Taley was engrossed in a conversation with Uther.
"What a good idea, sire," he said eventually.
Arthur beamed, and Merlin found himself torn between his sympathy for Haven and the tiny, almost ignorable lift in his gut when he saw Arthur smile like that.
Merlin caught Gwen's eye, and tried to indicate with his eyebrows what was going on.
What? Gwen mouthed.
Merlin pointed with his eyes at Haven, then Arthur, then at the rest of the sedoretu.
What? Gwen mouthed again.
Merlin tried to nod in everyone's directions subtly.
Gwen gave up and came over.
One whispered conversation later, Gwen caught Morgana's eye, and tried to indicate with her eyebrows what was going on.
Unfairly, Morgana understood first time round. She nodded once, and strode over to where Taley was talking with Uther.
Another whispered conversation, and Taley excused himself to go stand by Haven.
"Hunting, Alric?" he said.
Haven smiled up at Taley with a look that made Merlin feel embarrassed to be watching something so intimate. He looked away, only to catch Morgana's eye as she, too, flushed slightly. She smiled at him, and the tiny, almost ignorable lift in his gut became a little less ignorable.
"I'm sorry, my lord," Taley said to Arthur, "Alric has a prior engagement." He put a proprietary hand on Haven's shoulder, and Haven leaned into it. "We already promised the Lady Morgana that we would view her tapestries."
Merlin and Arthur winced as one. Sometimes, as Gaius liked to say, the cure was worse than the disease.
Merlin thought he and Morgana had settled into a nice, comfortable routine of not talking about it. What it lacked in originality, it more than made up for in not giving him the kind of headaches their current conversation was producing.
"Merlin," Morgana said, gripping her embroidery tight enough to tear poorer quality cloth, "you have to tell me why Gaius was drugging me."
Merlin started to apologise, only to trail off in the face of Morgana's disappointed expression.
They stood like that for a minute or more, time creeping along without a hint of concern for Merlin's mental state.
She spoke again. "No. I don't want your pity, or your apologies, or your guilt. I want the truth, Merlin. You owe me that."
He did. That and more.
To take responsibility for his actions, to avoid, for once, being the coward, Merlin swallowed down the words 'Gaius said' and started his explanation with, "It was for your own comfort. The dreams were distressing you." Again, again, he wanted to point out that it was Gaius who had decided this, Merlin who had merely gone along without a word of protest. But he owed Morgana more. "You asked for relief against the nightmares. That was what we provided."
He would have more than deserved a look of scorn at that, but instead Morgana closed in on herself, mouth twisting in a gesture reminiscent of Arthur. But where Arthur would have used it to signal unwilling amusement or equally unwilling indulgence, she seemed to be showing unwilling thought.
"That's all? I was the only one you were seeking to protect?"
Gaius, Merlin wanted to say. It was Gaius who chose this. But, but, and but.
"My magic is not dangerous? It's not evil?"
Merlin wanted to rush to her at that, to shake her shoulders and tell her that she, surely she, knew better than that. But that was hardly his place, hardly his role in her life.
"Magic is neither bad nor good," he said, trying to put all the weight of truth behind his words. "It is a tool; only the user can decide its purpose."
Perhaps it was the lilting quality to his voice, reflecting the fact he'd learned that answer by rote long ago, but that seemed to draw Morgana out of her introspection enough to produce, if not a smile, then at least the grounds on which one might form.
"What was it like," Merlin had asked Gwen once, a couple of days after the wedding had first been announced, "growing up with a whole sedoretu of parents?"
Merlin had only ever had one mother, and no fathers at all, but until she and her Morning father had come to Camelot to seek their fortune, Gwen had had two of each.
Gwen had let out a breath, thinking as she redid the hem on one of Morgana's favourite blue dresses. She had still been recovering from her illness, but hated to be idle, and Morgana really did love that dress.
Merlin wouldn't have asked -- they didn't talk about their families, normally, especially not since Gwen's Morning father had been killed -- but he was curious, and Gwen was a friend.
"There's love everywhere," she said after a while. "There's always someone who has time for you, someone to listen to you or worry about you or-- You're surrounded by love."
Privately, Merlin thought that didn't sound any different from how he'd grown up.
Changing tack, he asked, "Do you think Morgana will get married any time soon?"
If Gwen hadn't been ill, she probably could have hidden the look that flashed across her face before she fixed on her patience smile. "I doubt it. Not until Arthur does."
Merlin was pretty sure he didn't hide the look that flashed across his face, either. They grinned at each other, fond recognition of their own stupidity.
"They're a matched pair," Gwen explained. "Different blood, same moiety; for just one of them to get married would as good as branding the other unfit for any sedoretu."
"So why doesn't anyone want to marry both of them?" Merlin asked, indignant on their behalf. Any sedoretu would be lucky to have either of them, not that he'd admit it within five miles of Arthur's hearing.
"And let half the power lie with Uther's children?"
Two days into the wedding celebrations, Morgana dreamed of a monster.
Merlin heard Morgana in his head, a shout of warning that echoed long after the connection had broken. He came running to her quarters to find her curled up around Gwen, her fingers tracing frantic lines across Gwen's forehead.
They both looked up as he entered -- Gwen defensively, Morgana with a terrifying blankness -- but neither made a move to break contact with the other.
Even if they hadn't been Gwen and Morgana, Merlin wouldn't have judged them. If he had someone to ground him after strong magic -- if he had someone like Gwen -- he wouldn't let them go, either. And since they were Gwen and Morgana, well, Merlin could not have wished them a higher blessing.
Morgana was beautiful and terrible in that moment. Merlin couldn't take his eyes off her. She was pale and shaking and as strong as Winter, and he would have gone down on one knee before her if she weren't also Morgana, and he weren't also worried as hell about her.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Gwen looked approving at the question; Merlin felt his heart leap for it.
"I dreamed a creature, a giant, snake-like thing," Morgana said, her voice slow and measured. "It grew from within Camelot, and killed, and killed again, until there was nothing left."
Gwen's fingers rose of their own accord, sweeping back Morgana's hair in a comforting gesture. Merlin, torn between leaving them to this moment and the impulse to try to help, stood still, trying to form the right question.
"Should I go and get Gaius?" was not it.
"No!" Morgana all but shouted. "I need to have this dream. I need to know, Merlin. I need--" She cut herself off. "I need to know."
"The creature-- What did it look like?" Maybe Merlin could research it without Gaius noticing. "How was it killing people?"
Still shaking, still clutching Gwen as if that was all that was keeping her from fading away, Morgana began her description.
Life went on, even under threat of magical doom. If Camelot paused every time something mystically dreadful might happen, Gaius had once pointed out, they'd never get anything done.
And so the next day Merlin found himself out in the woods, gathering things for one of Gaius's poultices.
Rosemary, camomile, motherwort and those mushrooms, the small ones with the yellow tips. Rosemary, camomile, motherwort and mushrooms. Gaius kept threatening to teach him why, but fortunately there was important polishing to tend to.
The creature, whatever it was, wasn't in any of Gaius's more accessible books. He was going to have to choose between obeying Morgana's wishes and trusting Gaius, and it surprised him to realise there really was a choice to be made.
But then, no, there wasn't. Not with Morgana's phantom handprint still burned into his jaw.
Picking his way through the woods, Merlin arrived at a little grove, normally a good spot for the mushrooms Gaius was asking for today. He noticed a cluster of bright yellow and orange flowers, the colour of flames, and on a whim bent forward to pick some of them.
Maybe Gaius would know what they were.
Morgana had said the creature was bright white, with sharp teeth and brilliantly shining scales. It couldn't fly, but had the stumps of vestigial wings, flapping with excitement as it breathed poison over its targets. She said she could see people dying under its shadow, inhaling its breath and then collapsing, pale and unnaturally still.
Even as he moved to tuck the flowers into his belt, Merlin shuddered. They needed to stop it before it destroyed Camelot. And they didn't know how much time they had.
Merlin gave some of the flowers to Gwen, laughing as she ducked her head in happy embarrassment.
He would have liked to give some to Arthur, too, a token of-- of something, but he could just imagine the look on his so-called master's face. Probably not the best plan if he didn't want to be laughed out of the room. Still, maybe he could save it for when Arthur was in a particularly grim mood.
Smiling to himself at the thought of Arthur's likely scathing response to such a gift, Merlin went to go and see Morgana. They had to get more information about this creature somehow.
He said as much to her, bursting in with only a cursory knock.
"And I brought you flowers," he said as an afterthought.
But then, after a moment more's thought, Merlin -- even Merlin, Arthur would have said -- could spot there was probably something inappropriate about a servant bringing the King's ward flowers.
"For Gwen?" he added smoothly.
Morgana was hiding a smile. She looked elegant as ever in the blue dress Gwen had re-hemmed days ago.
"For Gwen?" she prompted.
"She likes them. You could give them to her. Not that I'm trying to tell you how to-- how to anything, I just--" Merlin cut himself off. He was beginning to sound like Gwen.
"Thank you," said Morgana, the grace of queens in her voice. "I will."
Merlin felt his palms beginning to sweat. It was never like this around Arthur -- he knew where he was with the prince, two parts irritation to one part fierce loyalty to four parts a kind of resigned amusement. With Morgana, though, he always felt slightly off balance.
"We need to know more about the creature," he said again, clinging to this point in desperation.
"We do," Morgana acknowledged.
"You have Guinevere to thank for how reasonable I'm being," Arthur remarked conversationally.
They were in Arthur's quarters, Merlin polishing something already shiny enough to see his face in, Arthur practising sword strokes already sharp enough to slay a giant. And oh, how Merlin wished he didn't know that for a fact.
Merlin wasn't sure reasonable was the word he would have chosen. Scarily calm like the air before an autumn storm, yes, absolutely; terrifyingly still like an eagle hovering over a small, defenseless field mouse, yes, however unflattering the comparison was to him; reasonable, no, probably not. Wisely, he kept quiet.
"She saw me see you take your boots off."
Arthur's definition of reasonable, clearly, did not include making sense. He took another swing at the empty air. Step, step, parry, thrust.
"Of all the damned fool things to be caught doing, you took your boots off without touching them. You were tired from a long day of being useless and insubordinate. You muttered a word and your boots unlaced themselves."
Even though it was far past too late, Merlin felt a shot of purest fear running through him. He kept polishing.
"We were in the stables. Guinevere had been tending to Morgana's horse." Arthur was biting each word out now, letting his anger -- or at least, Merlin thought, some of it -- show. Step, step, parry, thrust.
"She saw me leave and followed me. She said," Arthur paused here, sighed to himself, "loyalty commands loyalty."
Merlin polished on.
"Unlike some people, she was appropriately deferential about it. A skill, Merlin, among the many you could stand to learn. But yes. Loyalty commands loyalty. Whose loyalty was whose, she was too polite to say."
Merlin felt his head bobbing in gratitude. "Gwen is--"
Then, trying to put everything he felt in the words, Merlin said, "Thank you."
Arthur's lips twisted in what Merlin hoped was acceptance. "Thank her."
They decided to do it at midnight, to capitalise on Morgana's Evening status. She told Gwen, of course, leaving Merlin feeling as if he should have told Arthur. This, however, wasn't his secret to share.
"Are you sure this will work?" asked Morgana, all rigid, queenly composure save for the fingers pressing anxiously against Gwen's wrist.
"No," Merlin said. But it was all any of them could think of to do.
"Fair enough," said Morgana, sounding almost like Arthur in her clipped, firm acceptance. "Let us begin."
Gwen stepped back, away from the two of them. She was wearing the flowers Merlin -- and, it seemed, Morgana -- had given her, woven into her hair. Merlin smiled at the simple beauty, appreciating it one Morning sibling to another.
At the first touch of Morgana's hands to his temple, Merlin almost jerked away from the intensity.
It was too much, much too much, much too soon for him to do anything but bite his lip against the rush of feeling. It was like doing a spell, like doing a hundred spells, but instead of the warm, tingling spread of life through his body, this was a fierce chill. This was Winter magic, he realised with a shock, as alien to him as Camelot itself had once been, and far more powerful.
Shards of cold stabbed through his mind, starting at Morgana's fingers and spreading through until he couldn't feel anything but icy, frozen fear. If this was what it was like for Morgana all the time, no wonder she had come to Gaius begging for a cure.
He gasped as the first image hit him.
"I see it," breathed Morgana, and Merlin saw too:
A white beast, great and terrible, breathing poison into the face of a little girl.
Wings, tiny and useless, flapping against the monster's great flanks.
The sound of huge teeth breaking into a skull, of a child crying, of jewels cracking open like eggs hatching, of--
"One to ask," Morgana said, the ritual words ringing out of her mouth clear and true.
"One to answer," Gwen whispered automatically, Merlin in too much pain to do his Morning duty.
"One to bring," Morgana said.
"One to bear," Gwen finished.
And then Merlin fainted.
Merlin woke to raised voices. It sounded as if they'd begun the argument quietly and then got carried away, until the only thing left of their original good intentions was an angry hissing quality to their speech.
"I can't believe you could be so stupid," Arthur was saying.
And wait, what, Arthur was involved now? One to bring, his brain helpfully reminded him, so yes, okay, Arthur was involved now. Who else could be their fourth?
"What am I saying?" Arthur continued. "Of course you could be so stupid. Risking Merlin's life without a thought to the consequences."
"You can talk!" Morgana shot back. "Do you know how many times I've seen him save your life? He runs into danger where you lead, Arthur."
Gwen spoke softly to Merlin. "They've been like this for a while now. I'd try and get some rest -- I don't think they need us here for this."
He opened his eyes at that, to see he was lying in Morgana's bed with Gwen's worried face looking down on him.
"Mm?" he said, intelligently.
"First he couldn't believe she hadn't told him about the magic, then he couldn't believe she'd drag me into this, and now they're on to you. Not, um, not that you're not as important -- I think they've got a lot get through."
And, true to Gwen's word, the topics shifted again, with Arthur's loud, angry hiss of, "And what else have you known that you didn't see fit to share with me? What wisdom that could have saved lives?"
Whatever retort Morgana had been building up to, it was lost to her shock. She stood, mouth open, as if she'd been slapped.
In the silence that followed, Gwen's quiet words rang out like the clash of steel against steel. "Sire," she said. "It was not a lack of love that held us, that held any of us back from you."
"Yes, Guinevere?" Arthur's tone was as icy as Morgana's magic. "And what have you been holding back from me? What sorcery will you now confess? What lies?"
Gwen's mouth snapped shut as if she, too, had been struck.
"This is reasonable?" a voice asked. Merlin was surprised to realise it was his own.
Arthur turned, ready to deliver a cutting blow to Merlin, too, when his eyes met Merlin's. Merlin didn't know what he saw there, but it was enough to make him visibly deflate.
Merlin had no idea how much time passed, only that the aching silence was cut by Arthur's harsh, uneven breathing.
"Loyalty commands loyalty," Arthur said, sounding broken. "I have failed you."
Their protests all rang out together.
Arthur took a deep breath, then let it out again.
"Morgana," he said, voice solemn, all trace of indignation gone. "I did not behave as an Evening brother should. I understand your fear and your discretion, and it is not my place to assign blame." Arthur knelt before her. "Please, forgive me."
Morgana smiled, a genuine, grateful burst of love. "Of course." Her eyes were soft.
Arthur rose, only to turn and kneel again before Gwen. "Guinevere, you have been nothing but loyal and true, and my doubt of you reflects only my own unworthiness of what you offer. Please, forgive me."
Gwen stood, almost regal in her grace. "Of course."
Finally, Arthur turned to Merlin. "Merlin?"
"You're still an idiot."
Merlin heard what wasn't spoken, too. "Of course, sire. Of course."
"Once Morgana threatened to cut his parts off and wear them around her neck." Gwen grinned with the memory, not pausing from her work.
Merlin and Gwen were having a little polishing party, just the two of them and a truly distressing amount of silverware.
"Arthur once offered me any estate in the land if I'd slip a laxative into her drink."
"Morgana once stabbed him with a fork hard enough to draw blood." At Merlin's shocked expression, Gwen smiled with what might even be pride. "She was six."
"Do you think it's being royalty that makes them like this, or are all children of the Evening this crazy?"
Gwen laughed, a happy sound that brought a smile to Merlin's lips. "I think it's being Morgana and Arthur."
That was probably it.
Merlin paused in his polishing, his hand aching from the repetitive action. "I've never had a friend like you before," he said suddenly, the words all jumbled together in a rush, trying to force them out before he could get embarrassed and just let the subject drop.
Gwen's face was unreadable.
"Will--" Months after his death, it still hurt to talk about him. "I told you about Will."
Gwen nodded. "Yes. I know it must be hard for you."
Merlin twisted his lips in thanks. "Yeah. We were friends, but he was Evening, so once we grew up a bit there was always that between us -- the thought that there might be more. With you it's different."
Gwen nodded again.
Merlin wanted to say a thousand things or more, but none of them sounded right as he tried to shape them in his head; it was as if he knew everything about how a spell should work apart from the words to say. Instead, he breathed for a couple of beats, watching Gwen's fond, attentive expression and calming himself with the summer warmth of it.
"I'm glad we're friends," he said, finally.
"I know," Gwen said. Then, after a pause of her own, "But it's good to be told."
In warm, comfortable silence, they continued to polish.
There was a dance in honour of the wedding that evening. Merlin had to wear the hat.
There were few things in life worse than the hat, and Merlin couldn't decide if poison-breathing monsters were one of them or not.
The feather flopped down to tickle his nose. Merlin wished fervently -- but not too fervently -- that the damned thing would burst into flames.
Gwen didn't have to wear a hat. Indeed, Gwen seemed to be wearing one of Morgana's old dresses -- a beautiful dark blue affair that swept out elegantly behind her. Morgana herself was wearing a green that made her eyes sparkle all the more in the candle light.
Arthur appeared by Merlin's side, standing so the warmth of his body just reached Merlin's. They stood there for a while, taking in the scene.
Behind Morgana, the candle flames burned a little brighter.
"They look--" Arthur said, making a vague gesture at a group of women that just happened to include Gwen. "Good. They look good."
"I suppose so," Merlin replied, deliberately not looking at Morgana.
They shared a look that spoke more eloquently on the stupidity of Camelot's arbitrary class distinctions than Merlin had ever managed, even after a goblet or two of wine.
"Yes," said Arthur. "Well."
Merlin caught himself watching Arthur's mouth.
The utter stupidity of Camelot's arbitrary class distinctions.
"We could--" Merlin began.
"I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about," Arthur said, too fast to be even remotely believable.
"Right," said Merlin. They could.
"Of--" Arthur stopped. "I suppose you think you're witty."
Merlin considered this. "A little."
It was Gwen who worked out where the monster might be coming from. She came to Merlin first, perhaps hoping that he'd laugh off her suspicions without either of them needing to bother Morgana and Arthur.
Edmund, one of Uther's younger and more gormless servants, had been charged with tending to the gifts from the recently married couple. He kept the Winter lamp of power burning, watered the Spring plants of new life, polished the golden Summer sundial of wisdom and dusted the Autumn jewels of plenty. The strangely warm Autumn jewels of plenty.
When Gwen relayed this little snippet of gossip, one of many she collected and filtered every day, to Merlin, he felt his blood run cold. Jewels cracking open like eggs hatching.
He had to stop them.
Merlin thanked Gwen with a quick, impulsive hug that left her off-balance. She shouted something after him, but he didn't catch it, already running out to the display room where Uther was keeping the wedding gifts during the celebratory period.
He dashed past the plants, the lamp, the sundial and a gaping Edmund to find the jewels.
"Are they all here?" he asked Edmund.
Edmund continued to gape.
"Are they all here?"
Edmund watched Merlin as he bundled the jewels up in his arms, careful not to drop any of them and hasten their hatching.
"Very urgent," Merlin said. "Arthur's orders. You know him." He gave Edmund a conspiratorial eye roll, one servant to another, then dashed out again before any objections could be raised.
Once back in his room, he examined the jewels carefully. They were beautifully stylised, large, brilliantly polished gems with hundreds of shining facets, all reflecting the light around the room. All six of them looked just as jewel-like as each other, but only one was warm to the touch.
Merlin breathed out, a weary puff of air. He was going to have to be careful with this.
Somewhere in the last hour, 'being careful with this' had become 'the magical equivalent of hitting it with a big stick'. Nothing Merlin could do was having any effect on the thing -- from gently poking it with his mind to forcefully trying to take it apart into its constituent elements, all Merlin had achieved was a headache, two shattered jewels and a crushing sense of his own inadequacy.
The egg sat there, exactly as polished and brilliant as ever. Maybe it was slightly warmer.
Merlin reached out with his mind again, trying to feel his way past the egg's defenses. His mind skittered over the hard outer shell, failing to find any purchase or entry point.
He summoned up words of power and used them to push with all his might, channeling all his strength into a razor-fine edge of magic, trying, somehow, to get in, to get at the creature before it could get at them.
He felt something, a sliver of a hint of a crack, and pushed against it, hurling everything he had at the chance this might save them before it even started.
He felt his magic creeping like ivy over castle walls, felt it exploit the crack until it became something real.
Sweat dripped down his brow, stinging his eyes. If this didn't work, he would have to give up: he didn't have the strength to push again.
But, finally, there, he felt something give. His knees gave way with the effort of forcing the magic in, so he was lying sprawled on the floor, defenseless, when he watched the egg shatter and realised he'd made a grave mistake.
"All those in favour of Merlin never, ever taking unilateral action again?" Arthur asked.
Merlin mustered up a glare. Morgana and Gwen looked as if the only reason they weren't raising their hands was a wish not to give Arthur the satisfaction.
"How could you be so stupid?" Arthur asked, almost conversationally. "What were you thinking? Were you thinking?"
Merlin was lying in Morgana's bed again, weak with the effort of all that magic. He waited for Arthur to continue scolding him like a naughty child.
"Merlin," Morgana said. "We were worried for you."
That was worse.
"You idiot," Gwen added. While she may have said it fondly, there was no doubt in Merlin's mind that she meant it.
"Thank you," Arthur said to her. "Now please, Merlin, tell us what you know about this beast."
It could not be killed by Merlin's power alone, that much Merlin had sensed when the monster broke free. His power -- his Spring power -- had helped it hatch, and he wouldn't be able to stop it himself. It would grow quickly, he knew that, he could feel the pull between the two of them, the connection he'd formed when he let it out into the world, and now it was becoming stronger, much stronger than him.
"I see," said Morgana. From her, it sounded less of a judgment than it would have from Arthur.
She and Gwen exchanged an unreadable glance, then Gwen stepped to her, holding out a hand that she drew back at the last minute, self-conscious.
Arthur flapped a hand in their direction. "No, go ahead, I know."
Another look passed between the women, and then they were holding hands, looking defiant and beautiful, every inch a Day couple.
"You need my power," Morgana said. "You need to channel me, the way I channeled you."
Her fear was evident only in the tight grip she kept on Gwen's hand, and if Merlin could have stood, he would have knelt before her.
But then the monster killed someone, and the screaming pain inside Merlin's head blocked out everything else.
When he came to again, Merlin had a blinding headache, the strength to stand and a plan.
"I need all of you," he said. "I need to turn what we are into a weapon, into more than a weapon. I need--" He caught himself. "We need to speak with one voice."
He turned to Morgana, desperate to find the words to reassure her. "You won't be giving up control. You'll be sharing it. You have to trust us, and we have to trust you. And we do trust you."
He laid out the details of the plan.
They all took a moment to digest it, but then Morgana drew breath. "Merlin," she said, more tentative than he had ever heard her before, "you do realise what you're proposing is-- It's basically a marriage."
There was a silence.
"It'll have to wait," Arthur said, more to himself than to them.
"Arthur!" Morgana snapped. It sounded as if she needed something to snap at. "Have you not been listening to a word of this? It can't wait."
Arthur waved a hand dismissively. "Not that. The other thing. Doing it properly."
A series of expressions flittered across Morgana's face quicker than Merlin could read, and then she nodded her approval.
He turned to Merlin and Gwen. "We'll try to talk around my father, of course, but you know our success rate with that. Otherwise, we'll just have to sort it out when I'm king."
Merlin felt about as shocked as Gwen looked. Arthur couldn't seriously be planning--
Arthur answered his unasked question. "Of course we want to marry you. Who else is there?"
Well, that was flattering.
Something of that thought must have shown on Merlin's face, because Morgana rolled her eyes.
"What my idiot foster brother is trying to say," she said, "is that we may not be worthy of either of you, but we love you very much, and you would be doing us a great honour if you would consent to wait for us."
Gwen stood rock still; she didn't even move to wipe the tear that was trickling down her cheek.
"I thought--" Merlin began. What was there to say? He'd thought a lot of things, most of them wrong.
"Yes," said Gwen. "Yes."
They were all looking at him. Merlin thought of Gwen's constant, overwhelming kindness and insight; of Arthur's proud, stupid, arrogant loyalty; of Morgana's handprint, still burned into his jaw. He couldn't speak.
Arthur got it first. He stepped forward, took Merlin's hand for the first time. "Thank you."
Morgana stepped forward to take Merlin's other hand. "Thank you."
As she took her place in the circle, Gwen's grin was blinding.
Of course, they still had to do it.
Morgana dressed in blue, the ice-chill blue of midwinter. She wore a pendant round her neck: a tear drop diamond.
Arthur looked amazing in red, and Merlin's breath caught with the swirl of his cloak. He was wearing something around his neck, too: a string of wooden beads that rested above his collarbone, visible past the open neck of his shirt.
Gwen was wearing Summer yellow, a thin gold band around her neck. She stepped forward, smiling, to where Merlin was wearing his best green shirt and a worried expression.
"I made this for you," she said, holding up a cord of leather with a carved jade stone strung on it. "The necklaces, they're a Camelot tradition."
Merlin smiled his thanks, unable to speak, and leaned forward for Gwen to tie the cord around his neck.
Morgana gave an embarrassed cough. "I, too, brought you something. I wasn't sure you'd know the tradition, and--" She held out a woven choker of long stems of grass. "You don't have to wear it, of course."
"I'd be honoured," said Merlin.
Gwen moved toward his neck, and he realised she was going to try and take her cord from him. "To wear both of them. I'd be honoured to wear both of them."
Arthur gave, if possible, an even more embarrassed cough. "Well, if we're all doing it," he said, and threw something at Merlin.
Merlin caught it easily, then opened his hand to see a string of wooden beads to match Arthur's own.
"From my Night parents," Arthur said, and once again, Merlin couldn't speak.
"Well," Arthur continued, "don't just stand there. Monsters to kill, secret weddings to conduct, that sort of thing."
"Right," said Merlin.
"Right," said Gwen.
"Right," said Morgana, clapping her hands together loudly.
Merlin put his hand in first, then Morgana gripped his wrist tightly. Gwen took Morgana's wrist, Arthur Gwen's, and then Merlin closed the circle by taking Arthur's wrist in his hand.
Briefly, absurdly, Merlin wished his mother were there.
With a couple of words, Merlin brought up the cloth to bind their hands together. There was a difference between being fine with Merlin's magic in theory and really being fine with it, but Arthur and Gwen watched the cloth fly through the air without even one wince between them.
And then, with barely a moment of effort on Merlin's part, the binding was done.
Next was the blooding, for which Arthur had provided a small, sharp hunting knife.
Merlin picked up the knife with another muttered word, and--
"Before we get to the illegal bit," Arthur said, and Merlin let the knife drop with a clatter. "The more illegal bit," Arthur acknowledged. "Before that, shall we--?"
Merlin tried to catch someone's eye, but they were all staring firmly at the hands clasped and bound between them. Gwen and Morgana had the fingers of their free hands laced together, gripping each other tightly.
"One to ask," Morgana said.
Oh. That wasn't necessary for the magic to work. But of course, of course Merlin replied, "One to answer."
Arthur smiled. "One to bring."
And Gwen, shining brightly, concluded, "One to bear."
Arthur let out a small breath of satisfaction. "Well then."
It was Morgana who answered him. "Yes."
And that seemed all there was to say. Even if they stopped now, they couldn't go back to how things were before. Not after saying the words and -- Merlin knew without a shadow of a doubt -- meaning them.
Merlin lifted the knife again. His left hand was free, but he could do it more easily with a word. He cut a small, neat gash in the flesh of his own thumb, watching as the blood welled up, and then began to trickled down Arthur's wrist to splash, drop by drop, into the basin below. Quickly, he cut the others, and then their blood was pooling together, bright red against the grey of the smooth stone basin.
There. Now, in theory, he could do everything else without the rest of them even present. In practice, he was less scared of the monster than he was of their combined wrath if he suggested they leave his side.
The monster had a wall of magic around it, as hard and impenetrable as any castle's.
Merlin tried to be ivy, growing and creeping in all its cracks and crevices, letting feelers explore every last inch of the magic guarding the monster, pushing and shoving inch by inch into its defences, every movement individually harmless, individually unnoticed, but together enough to make even the strongest wall crumble.
That was met by what Merlin could only think of as hot oil, searing and sizzling against his flesh, withering each tendril of magic into a fragile, charred husk. He countered that with Morgana's power, icy cold and brilliant, making the monster's magic slow and hiss slow to a grey, gooey sludge of ineffective hatred and evil.
He pushed further, trying to keep his magic warm with Gwen's strength and targeted with Arthur's precision, trying to keep it moving with Gwen's life force and pressing on with Arthur's sheer bloody mindedness. He reached out and pushed and pushed, extending himself again and again against the wall of magic in his way, letting tendril upon tendril grow and be beaten back, grow and be beaten back.
If nothing else, he had the monster's full attention.
There was no choice but to keep at it, keep pushing, keep hoping that one of these openings would be enough to let him through.
Only that was him thinking, him and Arthur, not how Gwen would fight this, not how Morgana would feint and twist past. So he called on them, using their blood as insight, as power, to gradually fall back, let the monster think it was gaining ground, as slow and subtle as a change in seasons, until there was just enough leeway to twist like this and turn like that and dart forward, swifter than Arthur's sword, into the gap that had opened up.
With killing words, he hurled himself at the monster, his magic a single beam of power plunging into it, using the connection that had formed at its hatching, and through that he poured in Morgana's will, and Arthur's discipline, and Gwen's hope.
He felt it twist on his magic, trying to shy away, and he pushed hard and harder, willing this to be enough. But it was pushing back, using his own magic as a conduit for its power, trying to shove fire and ice and cold, hard steel into his bones.
Merlin sank to his knees, fighting with all his power to keep the upper hand, when he felt something touch his shoulder.
"Use me." He barely heard Morgana's voice past the rush of blood in his ears, but it registered and resonated with something deep in his soul.
"And me," a voice added, though whether it was Gwen's or Arthur's, he couldn't tell.
"And me," came a final voice, and with it a third hand touching him, letting him use their strength with his own.
With one last push, the monster shattered.
Arthur was doing his level best to look regal and composed. As far as Merlin was concerned, this was a bit of a wasted effort. He'd last seen Arthur's eyes shine that brightly when he'd taken down a wild boar single-handed, and Morgana was watching him with such amusement that it was clear she could read the excitement bubbling just beneath Arthur's attempt at a calm smile.
"So," Arthur said, badly faking casual. "That's what magic feels like."
No one bothered to answer him.
"It's dead?" Gwen checked.
No one bothered to answer her, either. They'd all felt it die, and they'd all felt each other feel it die: the connection between them hadn't snapped, only gently faded away.
"So," said Morgana, a little more pointedly. "That's what your magic feels like."
No one knew how to answer that one.
Merlin gave it a moment, then, "The jewels were Taley's gift."
It would be tough on the sedoretu's families, but they had to be brought to justice. Attacks on Camelot couldn't be tolerated, not now, not ever. It was his duty and his fate to protect Arthur, his duty and his fate to protect them all.
"Imogen wanted to know what room the gifts would be displayed in," he added.
"So did Lady Fain," Morgana said.
Arthur let out a breath. "Well then."
Morgana nodded once. "Quite."
There was another silence.
"Um," said Gwen. She looked shocked that she had spoken, but pressed on. "By which I mean, um, no."
They all looked at her.
"It'll be fine," Arthur said, trying to reassure her. "I'll tell my father we caught them plotting; I fought the beast; we won." He paused, sighed more to himself than to them, and continued, "I wish I could tell him your part in all this. You all fought bravely and well, and it is not my credit to take."
"No," Gwen said again, slightly stronger. "They'll be killed."
Arthur frowned. "Well, yes."
"We cannot be sure of who did it, of what they did, of why they did it, and they'll be killed."
Merlin swallowed uncomfortably. They had rather glossed over the point where someone was supposed to argue with him, to point out that it could have been an innocent gift on Taley's part, that it could have been slipped into the jewels by some wicked other power.
Next to him, Morgana seemed to be having a similar thought process. "They did try and unleash unspeakable evil across the land," she tried, but didn't sound wholly convinced.
Arthur nodded once, decisively. "Prove it."
Gwen was careful with all her clothes, but there was one dress, a soft grey one, she cared for so much even Merlin had noticed. She was wearing it the fourth night of the wedding celebrations, when Taley's drunken uncle leaned back to laugh and spilled red wine over it.
No one -- especially not the painfully embarrassed Taley -- missed the way Morgana actually rose from her seat to help Gwen with the stain, but Merlin fancied he might have been the only one to notice how Arthur's eyes softened to see Morgana do so. If he hadn't felt his own heart lift, he might have missed it, too.
If Gwen was careful with her clothes, it was as nothing to the care Arthur took over his horses. He knew their wants and needs better than he knew his own. Which, Merlin liked to note, was hard to imagine: that many baths and backrubs indicated a care for the constitution that bordered on the obsessive.
So when he came home from riding Viper -- named by Arthur when he was nine -- to declare that she needed shoeing, it was no surprise the stable master hadn't already noticed. What was a surprise, and one that made his smile broaden, was that Gwen had prepared the horseshoe already, having muscled the new blacksmith out of his own smithy to make sure the work was done as well as her father would have.
If he hadn't been looking elsewhere to try and hide his smile, Merlin might have missed the way Morgana's shoulders straightened at the sight of Arthur conferring with Gwen, happiness easy to read in the set of her back.
And if his day hadn't brightened, he might have missed the way Gwen's smile blossomed when they caught Arthur inclining his head in a tiny, private bow to Morgana.
But even caught as he was in his sedoretu's -- his sedoretu's -- glorious mess of small gestures and secretive smiles, he couldn't miss the way Haven, Fain, Taley and Imogen glowed at each other with their own share of happiness.
Taley liked to catch Imogen's hand and kiss it, calling her sister and making her giggle in embarrassed delight. Imogen, in turn, would swipe the hair out of Fain's eyes with a proprietary gesture, tucking the strands behind Fain's ear with a caress. Fain, who was taller than her Evening brother Haven, liked to call him tall, dark and handsome, making the pale man flush. And Haven, not given to overt gestures, would sometimes tolerate Taley's dark hand on his shoulder for minutes at a time.
It was a pleasure to watch, and it lit up the court. A good marriage brought joy to the entire kingdom indeed.
All of which made it all the harder to treat the sedoretu with the suspicion they deserved.
"Can't you just use your magic to find out if it's them?" Arthur asked Morgana on the fifth day of the wedding celebrations, the two of them taking a quiet afternoon stroll attended to only by their closest servants.
Morgana gave him a look so scathing Merlin was surprise the greenery behind him didn't wither and die.
"Yes, Arthur, of course we can. Merlin and I just thought that would be too easy."
Morgana stopped to smell something small and colourful. Despite all Gaius's best intentions, the closest Merlin could get to identifying it was plant.
"You may have a point."
Morgana twitched her mouth in what Merlin hoped was amusement. "Maybe."
They shared a slight raising of the eyebrows.
"I don't suppose you're any closer to finding out--" Arthur paused. "--anything?"
Morgana didn't even grace that with an answer. "Are you?"
"Not as such." Arthur offered Morgana an arm. "Care to take another turn around the garden?"
They walked off, following the path west.
Merlin turned to Gwen. "At least they're not stabbing each other with forks."
"It's a change," Gwen allowed.
Arthur didn't turn round. "You do realise we can hear you?"
Gwen ducked her head, then visibly rallied herself. "Is there no end to your talents, sire?"
Morgana actually let out a burst of laughter at that.
"Honestly," Arthur said to no one in particular. "You marry the help and suddenly they start getting ideas."
The help's current ideas centred on talking to the sedoretu's servants. To be more precise, they centred on Gwen talking to the sedoretu's servants, while Merlin stayed out of the way. He had many talents, Gwen had tactfully put it, but perhaps not interrogation.
As Arthur somewhat less tactfully put it when Merlin went to amuse himself in Arthur's quarters, there was nothing less convincing than Merlin's attempts to bumble information out of someone.
"Remember that time you tried to find out when my birthday was by subtly, oh, what was it? Asking me when my birthday was."
"It worked, didn't it?" Merlin pointed out.
"Only because I felt sorry for you."
Merlin didn't see why he had to concede the point. "And we had flan."
"Yes, Merlin, we had flan."
"And that pie with the gooseberries," Merlin reminisced.
"And that pie with-- Merlin, why do I feel as if I am talking to a particularly slow child?"
Merlin tried to look innocent.
"You know you just look constipated when you do that?"
That was a filthy lie, and Arthur knew it.
"What do you want, Merlin?"
Merlin groped for something to say which wasn't I'm bored and Gwen won't let me help. "Do you want to see me do some magic?"
The flash of chlidlike eagerness on Arthur's face was gone almost as soon as it appeared, to be replaced by a studied disinterest that fooled, Merlin really needed to point out one day, no one.
"You forget," Arthur said, "I've seen you do no end of magic." He paused. "But I suppose, if it would make you happy--"
Merlin grinned. He rolled up his sleeves with a flourish. This was going to be fun.
Cupping his hands together, he spoke a word of power. In his hands, a flame appeared, burning brightly.
He risked a look at Arthur, who stood transfixed.
Merlin stayed looking at Arthur as he made the flame change colour, burning blue and red and silver. Arthur's face was a picture, his mouth open stupidly, gazing at the flame.
Merlin had to focus for the next bit. In the silver flame he made the dragon of Camelot appear, mouth open, shooting out tiny flames of purest gold. Its scales glinted silvery white.
He let his eyes flick back to Arthur's face. The sight of Arthur so purely, simply happy at something Merlin could do made Merlin's heart sing.
Right. Well then. Merlin closed his hands decisively, making the dragon vanish, then stepped forward and kissed the moment from Arthur's lips.
Arthur, his hands rising to cup Merlin's face, kissed it back.
The best lead Gwen got was from Fain's maidservant, Carolyn. Carolyn was still awed enough by the splendor of Camelot, as well as scared enough of putting a foot wrong, that it took little effort on Gwen's part to coax a few useful snippets of information from her.
The jewels had been in the Haven family for years, crafted for the family by Alric Haven's grandfather.
"She was shocked I hadn't heard of them," Gwen said. "She thought everyone knew of the Havens' jewels."
"My father will have," Arthur said grimly.
They were sitting together in Morgana's quarters, avoiding the pre-feast bustle taking place in the great hall. Uther was in such a good mood he was unlikely to mind his son and foster daughter showing up late, if he noticed at all. Personally, Merlin was just glad to be out of the kitchen staff's ways: they had a habit of seconding other servants in preparation for a feast, and Merlin could live without peeling any more turnips.
But, yes, everyone -- by Carolyn's measure of the word -- had known that the jewels were to be a gift to Camelot. It was, apparently, all very symbolic.
"Anyone could have enchanted them," Gwen pointed out. "Or switched them."
Morgana spoke for the first time since they had exchanged greetings. "Anyone with access."
Merlin nodded. She had, as ever, a point.
"I'll ask Taley about his husband's security," Arthur said. "If I know him, he'll have strong opinions on the matter."
"One of your knights," Morgana teased, "with opinions on such matters? Tell me it isn't so."
Neither Gwen nor Merlin bothered to hide their grins.
Arthur's smile was unbarbed. "This from the woman who would drill her honour guard on swordsmanship if she were still allowed?"
"I'd do a better job than you, that's for sure."
Another shared twitch of the eyebrows, and the two Evening siblings turned to Gwen.
"Thank you, Guinevere."
"Yes, thank you."
Gwen ducked her head at that, and Merlin smiled to see her so.
Uther's glee, now reaching levels that left Merlin terrified this was the result of a magical curse, did not excuse the four of them from all courtly affairs. Merlin made a mental note to have words on that very matter with whoever had bewitched Uther.
There was a dance that evening. Arthur looked so very splendid that Merlin, the memory of Arthur's lips still making his own tingle, wished he had the hat with him. That, at least, would have given him an excuse for blushing.
Arthur's throat was exposed, and Merlin could not keep from looking at the line of it, watching where his hands had traced with a single-minded want.
"Distracted?" Gwen whispered in his ear.
Merlin's could feel his cheeks redden.
"Don't worry," Gwen said, her voice almost husky. "Me too." She slipped her hand into his, gave it a squeeze. "And I think we're not the only ones. Do you see a single Morning person here who can keep their eyes off him?"
With the honourable exception of Uther, she was right. You could tell the Morning moiety from the way each and every one of them seemed to be tripping over their own feet.
Merlin squeezed Gwen's hand in return. "He's--"
She laughed in his ear. "I know."
"Have you--?" Merlin was determined not to be embarrassed. It was a normal, healthy part of married life, and they were married, whatever Camelot's records might not yet say. "With him? Yet?"
Gwen's laugh grew throatier. "Merlin!" she whispered, aiming for shocked and just coming across amused. Then, her voice growing yet more conspiratorial, "No. I dare not ask him, and you know he will not approach us first."
"I do?" Merlin said, surprised into speech.
In front of them, Arthur took Morgana's hand for a dance. They moved with such mesmerising grace and matchless matched beauty that Gwen and Merlin paused their conversation in open appreciation.
Arthur and Morgana shone with elegance and power. If any eyes were straying to Gwen and Merlin, they would see the two of them shine with equal pride. Somehow, though, Merlin thought it unlikely any eyes would be straying to them.
"Our Evening bride and groom have strong feelings on abuses of power." Gwen's voice was both proud and fond. "Can you believe it, Morgana would not even kiss me until we married." She hesitated on married, her smile threatening to keep her from speaking.
No, as it happened, Merlin couldn't believe it.
"Of course," Gwen said wickedly, "I could kiss her."
"I know who it is."
They paused. Gwen, Arthur and Morgana had all spoken at once, the words serving in each case as urgent greeting. They all looked to Merlin, as if he could arbitrate.
Merlin shrugged helplessly.
Arthur spoke first.
"I know who it is. I spoke to Taley. A dark knight came to Lincoln last summer, an man who would not eat, would not sleep, a man who took part in their Midsummer tournament. He was Evening, and would not accept the prize -- he said it would ruin his Winter luck -- but asked instead for the chance to see the Havens' riches. He was watched carefully the whole time, but did not take anything nor even touch anything: he just looked at them. He must be magic."
Merlin thought. It was powerful magic to transform a mere gem into the incubator for a monster. A power that dark, that dangerous, would surely not use such an indirect route.
Into the silence, Morgana spoke.
"I know who it is. I dreamt, I dreamt of a beautiful woman, her skin alabaster white and her lips as red as blood. She--" Morgana paused, giving Gwen a long, measuring glance before continuing. "I've seen her before. When the well was poisoned, when Gwen's Morning father died-- was killed."
"Nimueh," Merlin breathed.
She certainly had the power, and the reason to be circumspect, but why would she use someone else, why would she allow someone else a part in her victory? He must be a tool; but he didn't sound like one, not like the other hapless servants Nimeuh had sent to do her bidding.
"I know who it is," Gwen said. Her voice was strong, unwavering. "Lord Haven was visited in a dream; that's why he chose to give the jewels as a gift. He said -- I heard that he said, from Yvon -- that it was a couple in the dream, a Morning woman and an Evening man, who told him to do it. They said it would bring great luck to the righteous, and great justice to the wronged."
"How did we not know this?" Arthur asked. It was an empty question: of course, of course no one would dare mention a visitation where Uther could hear. But still.
Great justice to the wronged. A Morning woman. An Evening man. Nimueh.
"I know who it is," Merlin said.
"Arthur," Merlin said slowly. "Arthur, I'm sorry."
Arthur looked at him. "Out with it."
"It's your Morning mother and your Evening father. It's Nimeuh and Tristan, Igraine's brother. It must be."
"My Evening father is dead," Arthur said, but it was more of a form protest. With magic involved, strong magic like this, anything was possible.
Beside them, Morgana had gone completely still, watching the exchange with an unreadable expression on her face. Gwen had fallen back, making herself near-invisible as only a good servant could.
"Who else could it be?" Merlin said. "They have every reason to want to bring down Camelot, and every reason to want to use a wedding to do so. Your Evening mother, Uther loved her enough to want to destroy magic. Surely they could love her enough to want to destroy him."
If Arthur told him to leave, he would go. If Arthur told him to stay, he would and gladly. But this was Arthur's moment, Arthur's point to choose how to deal with this revelation, and Arthur said nothing.
Love, Merlin thought, was like magic. It could do glorious, terrible things.
"If I ever, ever betray our love like this," Arthur said, "you are to slit my throat like a dog."
Gwen gasped, and Morgana took a step back, to hold her hand once more.
"And if you ever, ever say anything as stupid as that again," Morgana said icily, "I just might."
"This is what my family does," Arthur spat out. "Again and again, we break and we break whatever we find. My Morning father would kill the three of you for a mere hint of the treason we have committed; my Evening father hates me enough to rise from the grave. I killed my Evening mother. And as for my Morning mother--" He couldn't go on.
Merlin couldn't watch this. Arthur was crumbling before him, his defences nothing against this news.
It was Gwen who spoke. "You are a great and honourable man, Arthur," she said.
Arthur choked out a laugh.
"Look at me when I speak," she said. "You are a great and honourable man, Arthur, and one day you will be a great and honourable king. But for now, let us help."
She spread her arms, a gesture to encompass Merlin and Morgana.
"Loyalty commands loyalty," she said, "and you have given us no reason to do anything but love you."
"Arthur," Morgana said quietly. "Let us help."
"Yes," Merlin said. "Let us help."
Arthur's eyes, when he finally looked up, were not dry. "No," he said. "Let me help. Let me help make this right."
They were stupid, so stupid, to think it would be just one egg. But now they knew who was responsible, Morgana's dreams soon helped them realise the true extent of the danger.
"So you can target your visions," Arthur said, urging on his horse as if he'd just won a bet. The two of them were taking a ride along untroubled country lanes, having assured Uther they would be back in time for the final feast of the wedding celebrations.
Behind them, Merlin and Gwen prodded their horses into trots.
"I'm learning," Morgana said. Merlin could hear the pride in her voice.
"Right," Arthur said approvingly. "Good."
"Right," Morgana mimicked. "Good."
"So," Gwen said, loud enough for all of them to hear. "What are we going to do about it?"
"We already got married," Morgana said, "so that's out."
Arthur shot her a look more amused than annoyed, but only just.
She shot one back, challenging and fond together in one glower.
"We're going to have to destroy all the eggs," Merlin said. "I'm not sure we can do it as one."
"Can we do it as two?" Morgana asked, her voice too steady to be quite believable. "You and Arthur, me and Gwen?"
That would be dangerous. Only half the power, but twice as many ways of attacking. It could work, if Morgana could trust herself to direct her power as well as she trusted Merlin.
"Morgana," Merlin said, not sure what to say next.
Fortunately, she said it for him. "I know, I know. Can I? Should I? Will my magic even work like that? But we have to try."
Gwen nodded. "We do."
The feast passed in a blur. Morgana barely touched her food, but past that, Merlin couldn't have given a single detail of the event.
He gathered from Arthur and Gwen's amiable -- but quiet -- squabbling as they made their way back to Morgana's room that they couldn't decide who had fussed over Morgana more. Arthur held that Gwen had almost needed to be restrained from force-feeding her wife -- and Merlin, preoccupied as he was, felt a little lift of glee at the phrase -- while Gwen actually used the words mother hen.
In other circumstances, Merlin was sure he would have enjoyed every moment of the argument. From the pinched, wistful look on Morgana's face, he gathered she felt much the same.
He moved to her side as she opened the door to her room. "It'll be okay," he said.
She smiled at him, the expression deeply unreassuring. "Thank you, Merlin."
They stepped inside, closing the door firmly against all possible intrusion.
"Right." Arthur clapped his hands together. "What do we do?"
Merlin set to arranging the knives and cups for blood, the cords for binding, yet again, while Morgana explained what was different about this time around.
"Now I know what to do and how to channel my magic, I can use it as Merlin did last time, to find weaknesses in the eggs and attack them before they are fully hatched. Unlike Merlin, my magic is--" She paused. "My magic can kill more subtly. If any of them do hatch, you and Merlin will be ready to blast the creatures with power before they can feed. They should be weaker, then."
Gwen nodded her understanding, Arthur his.
"Now we know whose magic this is," Merlin added, picking up and putting down the knives first in the one place, then other, "we have a better chance of stopping it." He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. Now he knew whose magic it was, he marvelled that he'd been able to stop it before.
"Guinevere and Morgana," Arthur said to him. "You and me."
Merlin nodded. Right. The subtle power of winter, grounded and given force by summer. The fierce, overwhelming power of spring, given discipline by Arthur's autumn. It would work. It would.
But if it didn't-- Merlin put down the knives again. He stepped towards Morgana, holding out his hand to her in a courtly gesture that shocked her into accepting.
Taking her hand in his, he pulled her towards him. She moved, but gave a tug on their joined hands, making him meet her in the middle.
And as they kissed, their lips curled into matching smiles to know that beside them, Gwen was kissing Arthur.
Now he knew what he was looking for, Merlin could sense the eggs' magic in the same way he could sometimes sense a door before it slammed, or someone looking at him from across a crowded room. It was a nagging itch in the back of his brain, formless but there, part of his surroundings.
Morgana's magic -- Morgana and Gwen's magic -- was like a comforting glow beside him. They triggered the same sense-at-the-edge-of-sensing, the same uncanny knowing, but where the eggs were an itch, they were a balm. A powerful, mildly terrifying balm that could probably lay waste to the castle without raising a sweat, but a balm nonetheless.
The first part of the battle was theirs. Hopefully it would be the only part, and Arthur and Merlin would not be needed, but somehow, Merlin doubted that. Still, the first part of the battle belonged to Gwen and Morgana, and all he could do was sit back and watch as they began to channel their energy.
With his eyes open, he saw the two women sitting still, hand in hand, a look of calm concentration on both faces. With his eyes closed, focussing everything he had on that uncanny extra sense, he felt Gwen and Morgana swirl around each other, a tangled spiral of power and skill, building up speed like a whirlwind of colour that wasn't colour, shape that wasn't shape.
Then, sudden as a snake uncoiling, the mixed power sprang out towards the eggs, a blur of speed-sharpness-ice-heat-power that seemed to burrow through the shell of the first jewel-egg without so much as a crack, leaving it not protection but prison.
Inside the shell, great powers fought. Merlin started to ready himself and Arthur to tackle whatever emerged.
He drew on the bond between them, using their kinship as the first hook with which to bind the two of them together into one power. It was like making armour, one link at a time, trying to get the--
The first shell started to crack.
All subtlety forgotten, Merlin entwined his magic with the raw, human power of Arthur's spirit, using Arthur to focus and ground him as they moved to face the victor of the first fight.
And thank all the powers there were and all there weren't, for all that crept out of the broken egg was the mess of magic and humanity that Merlin knew, as sure as he knew anything, were Morgana and Gwen.
He opened his eyes to see the two of them clutching each other in exhausted relief, then looked down to see his own hands gripping Arthur's tightly.
"One down," Morgana said hoarsely.
"Two to go," Arthur added.
The four of them nodded at each other, firmly assured in their mutual support, and then got back to work.
Morgana tried the same trick again for the second egg, striking at it with the poise of a needle and the strength of a tightly coiled spring, and it almost looked like it was going to work. At the last moment, though, as the tail end of their combined power was threading in past the shell's defences, something went wrong. Tiny at first, then blossoming like a bruise, a crack began to form.
Merlin and Arthur threw themselves at the emerging creature, their magic a blur of greens and reds against the bright white of the snake-thing's power. They fought desperately, striking blows as if they were battling in the physical realm. and dimly, as distant from his senses now as the eggs' magic had been a few short minutes ago, Merlin could feel the cuts on his hands reopen and bleed.
One push after another, Merlin used his and Arthur's combined might to surround the creature, to coil around it as if they were the snake and it the prey, and to start to squeeze.
Far, far away from it all, Merlin heard the echo of an echo of Morgana's cry, "The third one! It's hatching!"
WIth one last burst of power, the creature they had surrounded bucked them off, throwing them so hard the magic snapped back into Merlin like a physical blow. He swayed under the weight of it, but something -- Arthur, it was Arthur, rising as firmly as if he had been knocked down in the training ground -- pushed him up again.
The creatures mimicked Morgana's quick, darting motion, weaving their magic in and out like sword thrusts, like-- like Nimeuh, weaving a spell.
And as Merlin faltered again, so overwhelmed by the power surrounding him, it was Arthur who buoyed him up once more, the discipline of his mind as much as part of Merlin's magic as Merlin himself.
"Hold them!" Morgana cried. The words were so distant, so far from this plane of magic and power that Merlin was barely sure he'd heard them.
He pushed himself and Arthur forward, thrusting and parrying with their combined strength until the tangled mess of magic was as much them as it was the creatures, and all of it was so snarled and twisted they couldn't move.
Then, then, with Gwen's power and Morgana's skill, the snake-things were blasted out of existence.
Afterwards, Morgana looked fit to drop, Gwen looked worn and fragile, and Arthur looked like he'd just taken on an army singlehandedly and won.
"You can stop looking so smug any time now," Morgana said to Arthur.
Arthur sketched a bow. "My lady, you can start."
Morgana flashed a smile at that. "A lady is never smug," she said, then paused. "But I can, can't I?"
She really could.
They all really, really could.
Merlin wasn't the only one whose clothes were bloodstained. In the heat of the battle, Morgana's dress had become not only stained but ripped, exposing a pale strip of skin along one arm. Merlin couldn't look away.
"I think," said Morgana, a smile in her voice, "I shall need attending to this evening."
At that, Merlin did look up. He and Gwen swapped a look. If she wanted, it was hers: Merlin would not interfere with a Day marriage.
Arthur coughed pointedly. "I could use some, uh, attendance myself."
Merlin and Gwen swapped another look. This was getting complicated.
Then Gwen gave a sudden, blinding smile. "You know what?" she said. "I think I'm going to choose Arthur this evening. My lady," she turned to Morgana, "may I have the pleasure of your company tomorrow evening?"
That startled a laugh out of Morgana. "Any evening you wish, my love."
"And my wife," Merlin said, treasuring the word on his lips, "would you care for my company tonight?"
They grinned at each other foolishly. All four of them, in this stupid, impulsive, beautiful mess of love and magic and happiness and everything, they grinned at each other like the young, foolish newlyweds they were.
It was the stupidest thing Merlin had ever done, and it just might work.
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