“I’ve always loved you.”
The words were Uther’s own but sounded very far away to him. Darkness swam before his eyes, inky nothingness that was neither warm nor cold in its embrace. He descended through layers of it, floating on this empty sea until he felt something soft, but solid against his back.
“Put him on the bed, bring me hot water and cloth.”
Wherever I am, Uther thought, Gaius will bring me back.
A sharp pain resonated through the darkness. Uther strangled a gasp of sudden agony, clasping his chest. In the darkness, Uther felt the warm, sticky cloy of blood seeping between his fingers. I have been stabbed. He thought he could remember it happening. He thought he could remember a sword in his hands. He thought he could remember...
“Arthur,” he whispered.
“He lives,” answered a voice. It was a woman’s voice. He turned his head towards the sound. He could see nothing. “Shh, listen,” she said.
Thump Thump Thump.
“What’s that?” Uther croaked. He felt a soft breeze against his cheek, a caress of wind that trailed like loving fingers on his flesh.
“It is your heart, Uther Pendragon,” the voice whispered. “And it is breaking.”
“Father, I’m sorry.” It was Arthur, and there were tears in his words.
“My son,” Uther answered.
“He cannot hear you,” the voice said. There was something familiar about it; a tugging memory of times long past. “You stand between this world and the next. You have been gravely injured, Uther, and only you can decide if you should live or die.”
Uther placed his hands against the solid emptiness of the dark and pushed himself upright. “What are you? A shade, a spirit? What malignant sorcery is this?”
The unseen being laughed; a light laugh with only a touch of melancholy.
“Show yourself!” demanded Uther.
From out of the blackness came a brilliant light, painful in its intensity. The light resolved into the shape of a woman; tall, lean and beautiful. She moved closer, her features resolving out of the purest whiteness.
“Ygraine,” Uther gasped.
“Uther, my love,” Ygraine replied gently.
His eyes swam; he blinked back tears. “I thought... I would never see you again.”
“You aren’t,” she said softly. “I am not your wife. I am only the memory of her that you carry within yourself.”
A sob broke Uther’s voice. “I have missed you so.”
“And I you,” Ygraine answered. She cupped his cheek and, again, Uther felt only a tremulous breeze.
“What... happened?” he stammered.
“Arthur was attacked. You came to his rescue but...”
“The knife has pierced his heart, sire. He is bleeding inside. It is only a matter of time.”
Ygraine smiled pityingly.
“I am dying,” Uther said.
“Do you want to die?” she asked.
“Then don’t.” Ygraine stepped away from him.
Uther attempted to catch her hand and felt only the air. “How can I stop it?” he pleaded.
Ygraine’s form was growing dark, being swallowed once more into shadow. “Turn around.” Her voice echoed, and was gone.
Flashes of a red robe. The bent back of age. Uther was rooted to the spot, his eyes barely able to flicker away from where Ygraine had been standing just seconds before. “I can’t,” he hissed.
Ygraine’s bodiless voice floated from far off. “Then you will die.”
“Good morning Sire.” Sunlight streamed through the paned glass of the bedroom window.
“Ygraine?” Uther asked groggily.
“No, Sire. It’s Gwen. Guinevere.”
Uther blinked. He was in his bed, a smell of lavender and sage were in the air. His hand went to his chest - to his heart. There was no wound.
“I was injured,” he gasped.
“Injured Sire?” Gwen answered. Her brow knitted into deep ridges.
“Here.” Uther folded back the covers and touched his ribs. “It was Arthur’s birthday. I was stabbed. I saw Ygraine...”
Gwen smiled her most reassuring smile. “Sire, it is Arthur’s birthday today. The magicians are even now practicing in the courtyard. Here,” she said, opening the window, “see for yourself.”
Shakily, Uther got from his bed. He crossed to the window and looked down. Below him, a number of men were gathered. Flame shot from one of their hands like a ball. Another raised his hand and the fireball froze in mid air before crashing to the ground in icy splinters. The guards at the entrance to the castle applauded approvingly.
“Sorcery!” Uther cursed. “I will have them burned alive!”
“My Lord!” Gwen gasped.
“It is against the law of Camelot that magic should be practiced within its borders.”
Gwen’s hand was on his shoulder. Such familiarity for a serving girl, he thought.
“Father,” Gwen said softly. “I fear you are unwell. Those laws were repealed, years ago.”
“Why do you call me father?” he demanded.
Gwen blanched. “I... I am sorry, Sire. As Arthur’s wife, I thought I was to...”
“You are not my son’s wife. You have never been and never will be so. You are nothing more than the daughter of a blacksmith.”
Tears swelled in Gwen’s eyes, she twisted the fine satin of her dress between her fingers. “I know I was not born a princess, but your son loves me and I him.”
“My son is but a boy, and does not know love.”
“If you felt like that, why did you give him my hand?”
“I would never have done that.”
“You bound us yourself, fa... Sire. On the same day you surrendered the crown to Arthur.”
Uther closed his eyes. The world reeled around him. Magic in Camelot. His son wedded to a servant. He staggered, clutching the window pane. He heard Gwen shout for help and felt hands catching him, one set replaced quickly by many.
“I fear it is a relapse, my lady. We must get him to bed.” It was Gaius. What did he mean ‘relapse’? Uther’s heart had been pierced by a dagger and given a mortal wound. There was no recovery from that, no relapse. “Arthur should be called,” said Gaius.
“I did not want to disturb him on his anniversary,” Gwen replied. Uther’s eyes blinked open, he could see the canopy of his bed above him - the royal crest stitched in the finest gold thread. It blazed with unnatural light.
“The milk should be taking effect by now,” Gaius said. “Arthur needs to know that his father is failing. Merlin, find him and let him know what has transpired.”
‘Yes, Gaius,’ came the answer. Uther heard quick footsteps on the stone floor. A servant who knows his place, that one, he thought.
“Uther said I wasn’t good enough to be Queen,” Gwen said quietly.
“He doesn’t know what he is saying, Gwen,” Gaius assured. “It is his mind, playing tricks. His conscience plagues him for what happened during the great purge. He may have lifted the injunction on sorcery upon his abdication, but he can never bring back the lives he took. The men, the women. The children.”
Uther groaned and closed his eyes.
All was black once more. Uther tried to move and searing pain shot through him. He coughed and tasted the metallic bite of blood on his tongue.
“Try to lie still, Sire.”
It was not Ygraine’s voice. He knew this voice from the vision. “Gwen.”
“Step forward. My eyes grow dim.”
From the darkness came Gwen. She was robed once more as a serving girl; coarse fibre and cloth against her care-worn skin. Her hands, chapped and cracked, smoothed her pinafore. Uther studied the parts of her; her features ungentile, her head bowed with none of the nobility of royalty.
“You shall never be my son’s wife,” he reiterated.
“There are some things even you cannot prevent, Uther Pendragon,” she countered. She lifted her eyes and Uther saw the defiance in them.
“I am your King!” he shouted. It made him cough. The taste of blood was more fulsome now and he spat.
“You are a dying man who cannot even save himself.”
Slowly, painfully, Uther struggled to his knees and then, swaying, to his feet. “I am not dying.”
Gwen watched him with that self-same pitying look as she had in his bed-chamber. She put her finger to her full lips.
Thump.. Thump.. Thump..
“Your heart, Uther,” she explained. “It is growing weaker, beating slower. The life is draining from you.”
“Then let me die,” Uther growled. He swayed and pain flared in his chest.
“Is that what you want; to die like this?”
“Why are you trying to save me?”
“I am doing it for him,” she whispered.
“Arthur...” Uther rattled.
Gwen crossed the space between them. Her eyes were half-lidded, almost alluring. Her mouth was close to his, so close that the breath of her words glided across his cheek. It was cold. “You know so little of love, Uther Pendragon. You sent your own wife to her grave. You would sell your son’s hand for a treaty or to swell your coffers.”
“I had a duty to produce an heir. Arthur shares that duty. The product of such a union as yours could never rule Camelot!”
Gwen sighed. “You claim to love him, and yet you deny him happiness. You refuse to let him be his own man.”
“How can I...” Uther gasped. He swallowed past the constriction in his throat. “How can I, when he would undo all I have worked for to wed with a commoner? Who could ever advise him truly, guide him on the path to become a great and feared King?”
Gwen kissed him as if he was truly her own father, so softly did not seem to be there. It made his lips shiver. “Turn around,” she whispered.
White hair, rheumy eyes that burned like fire. He could feel them boring into the back of his head.
“I will not. I can not.”
Gwen stepped back and Uther fell to his hands and knees.
“Then nothing can help you. Your life will ebb, your son will be King and he will marry me,” she said.
Thump... .. Thump... ..
The nothingness of the ground beneath his palms reverberated with each shuddering pulse. It felt tacky, oozing blackly between his fingers.
“I can’t just let him die!” They were his son’s words, booming through the void.
“Let me die...” Uther echoed.
“Not yet,” said Gwen.
He blinked at the sun, shining over the towering turrets of the castle and pouring into the training arena below. Uther trembled weakly and, were it not for the wicker chair beneath him, he would have fallen upon the grassy ground. He glanced to his hands, laid in his lap, half expecting to find them smeared with blood. Instead, he saw withered fingers clenched into fierce balls; the final defiance of old age.
Before him, battling in the centre of the field, were three boys: two elder; blazing brilliantly with their bronze skin and golden hair, and one younger, smaller boy; bony with a tousled mop of dark hair atop his head. Despite being half their size, the younger boy was holding the two elder ones with an easy grace, the sword flowing in his hand like glinting water. With a twist and a spin, he was in under the first’s defences - a tap to his stomach and then away before the lad could respond. The second boy lunged at the younger one, who danced away from the blow, slapping the flat of his sword against his remaining opponent’s rear as he passed.
To his left, Uther heard a chuckle.
“My boys. All three will make fine swordsmen but Alwyn will be the best of them.”
Uther turned his neck achingly and looked up. The man beside him was well into middle-life, with a gallant beard of gold and silver. He was broad at the chest and not a little rounded at the waist, but still looked fearsome for that. The man put his gloved hand to Uther’s shoulder. “Gwen would have been so proud.”
Uther squinted. This man, this familiar man - his eyes a piercing blue and steady, his cheeks high and rounded. Uther could see his father in that face, and Ygraine in those eyes.
“Arthur?” he croaked wearily.
“Hey!” The shout came from the field. It was the younger boy. The two elder, rightfully defeated, had joined together to pin him, raining blows on him with their blunted short-swords. Suddenly, they flew backwards; dumped unceremoniously on the turf. The younger boy’s hand was outstretched and his eyes flared like a wildcat’s.
“Alwyn!” Arthur shouted, but before he could move one of the watching knights took the field. He was middle-aged as well, but with none of the port of this aged Arthur. He had the build of a man half his age and the poise of one married to the sword. He offered his hand to the upended boys, and then turned on the younger boy, scolding him fiercely. Only when the creature looked sufficiently chastised, did the knight drop to his knee and ruffle the brown tousles fondly. He smiled with satisfaction and Uther suddenly noticed how similar the boy and this knight looked. He knew the knight: he banished him from Camelot for fabricating a noble birth. Lancelot; that had been his name. But Lancelot was dead and the dead cannot rise, certainly not to father a son.
“He must learn to control his anger,” Arthur grumbled.
“He will, Arthur, he is only young.” This further voice was beyond Uther’s line of sight but radiated controlled confidence.
“I want his lessons increased. He has great power and he must learn to be mindful of it.”
“I will see to it.”
Arthur scowled. Slowly, his face softened. “Did you see him, though? What a fearsome knight he will be with both courage and magic at his disposal.”
“You must be very proud.”
Arthur turned to the unseen companion. “Only as proud as you, Merlin. You have had as much a hand in his upbringing as I have.”
“He is very dear to all of us,” Merlin assured.
“He has us all wrapped around his finger,” Arthur laughed. “That’s enough for today,” he roared towards the boys, who were scrapping now as only siblings can. “Gwynavur, Uldred, Alwyn! Come here and take your leave of your Grandfather.”
The boys came bounding over. Up close, it wasn’t hard to see the resemblances - and the differences - between them.
“Grandfather,” the first said. He smiled; the toothsome grin was so much like Arthur at that age. He clasped Uther’s sword-arm at the wrist, above the useless stump of gnarled fingers.
Uther glanced between him and his similar brother, so closely alike that they were like reflections.
“Gwynavur, father,” Arthur provided, interpreting Uther’s hesitation as confusion between the pair. “Whoever said twins were a double blessing never had to tell them apart at a state banquet!”
The boys smirked. Uldred, by elimination, matched his brother’s action of greeting.
“You fought... well...” Uther managed to say. His voice was broken and hoary, almost unrecognisable to himself.
“Thank you, Grandfather,” said Uldred.
The disparate, dark haired boy, with his big brown eyes full of hope, smiled the childish smile of delight. “Did you see me beat them Granpap?” he asked and flung himself at his Grandfather with a giggle. Uther recoiled, trying to scrabble away but the chair against his spine kept him firm.
“Father!” Arthur exclaimed.
The boy cowered back, tears welling in his eyes.
“He has magic!” Uther howled reedily.
“He is your grandson,” Arthur countered.
The boy began to cry.
“Gwynavur, Uldred: take your brother inside,” Arthur commanded. The elder boys looked nervously between them, but bowed and led their tearful sibling between them back into the castle.
“Sometimes,” said Arthur gravely, “I do not know what I should do with you. You know how difficult it has been for Alwyn since his mother passed.”
“But he is a sorcerer,” Uther responded.
“Yes, as is your own daughter. I would not become you. I will not let suspicion and hatred drive this family apart, as it did yours.”
“No, father. If you could let go of your mistrust of magic, perhaps Morgana would not feel she had to stay in that blasted castle in the far north with only Lot’s son for company!”
“Magic is wicked,” Uther insisted. The words drew a line of spittle from his mouth, but he could not lift his hands to wipe it and instead it drooled over his chin. “It killed your mother,” he growled.
Arthur’s face grew black and hard. “Magic is not wicked, it is as fair or as foul as the heart of the person who wields it.” He scowled fiercely. “And your heart, father, is as black as any necromancer’s.”
Arthur span and walked away from Uther, his red robe billowing with his stride. Uther closed his eyes against the burning in them; tears of anger and frustration and desperate, desperate sorrow.
“Aargh!” Uther yelled, collapsing once more into darkness. The pain behind his ribs was a flowering crescendo of agony.
“Arthur?” Uther gasped.
Uther lifted his head. There was a dressing table with him in the darkness.
Uther crawled to the chair drown up to it, dragging himself to sit upon it. A polished mirror in an ornate blackwood frame sat on the table before him. He blinked as the surface of the looking glass seemed to ripple and glow.
“Father.” A face resolved in the mirror where his own should be. Arched, beguiling eyebrows over hazel-green eyes so much like his own; a slender nose; generous red lips set against pale skin.
“Hello father,” Morgana’s reflection greeted. Uther turned his head but there was no-one behind him. He touched the surface of the mirror; the visage so like the fair Vivienne who, in a moment of shared weakness and loneliness, he had lain with. There was only cold, hard glass beneath his fingers. “How are you..?”
“Magic,” Morgana explained.
Uther scowled. “I refuse to believe you have magic.”
Morgana smiled slyly. “Refuse all you wish, father. But magic has run in our family for generations, has it not? Our own name comes from a time when our line both served and commanded the mighty dragons.”
“Those times are long passed,” Uther groaned. “The Pendragon’s have not sired a sorcerer for generations.”
“Until my sister and I,” Morgana spat.
Uther’s eyes went wide. “Not a living soul knows of that.”
Morgana laughed cruelly. “But I know it, because you know it. Twins, begat of another man’s wife. One dark as the mother, one fair as the father. My sister, Morgause, smuggled out of castle because of her likeness to her real parentage. She was the lucky one.”
“I gave you... everything,” Uther stammered. “I loved you more dearly than words could ever say. Morgause was too dangerous to keep at court, there would have been too many questions.”
“That was not why you abandoned her, though, was it? A bastard to the crown is hardly unheard of in this day and age. Was it not, Uther Pendragon, that, even as a babe, she had the signs of magic?”
“That’s not true!”
“How could you have ever loved me, knowing that I might share her fate?”
“I do love you, Morgana,” Uther swore. “Even now.”
“You know that is a lie, father,” Morgana said. “Arthur will be victorious where you failed. He will love all his children, even those with magic.”
“That boy was not his own.”
Morgana smirked. “Perhaps. But regardless of lineage or the boy’s powers, Arthur will love him. That is...” she said, her eyes narrowing wickedly, “if he lives to weave that thread of fate.”
“You would see him dead?” Uther gaped.
Morgana only smiled. “I will see you dead first,” she said. “Listen.”
Thump ... Thu-thump ... ... Thump
“I will stop you,” Uther promised.
“And how will you do that?”
A staff held in an age-spotted hand, the blue glow of magic a beacon at its pinnacle.
Morgana’s eyes widened in terror, looking back over Uther’s shoulder. “Emrys!” she howled. A bolt of energy scorched the air and the mirror shattered with a scream.
The voice was a man’s, ageful and hoarse but the power in it was undeniable. Uther gripped the desk, feeling the shattered glass lace his skin.
“I will not.”
“Then you will die and Camelot will fall. Albion will be lost and many things that are to be good in this world will be undone.”
“I would rather die than be saved by magic!”
“And your son?”
“He knows this.”
The old man chuckled mirthlessly. “Turn and face me, Uther Pendragon.”
Slowly, achingly, Uther turned. The man was dressed in scarlet, with a staff topped by a chalcedony gem. His long, white beard hung halfway down his chest and he looked as ancient as his voice sounded. Uther frowned. “I do not know you,” he said.
“But I know you,” the sorcerer said. “You are a hypocrite and a tyrant. You have put so many of my kindred to their death for no better reason than your own fear.”
The words sounded oddly familiar. Uther squinted at the man. “Your eyes...”
“We have met before, Lord,” the sorcerer said. “But I imagine my kind all look the same to you.”
“Dragoon,” Uther muttered.
The old man bowed his head. “Once, perhaps. But I am known by many names.”
“You are... Emrys?” Uther said.
“To one of your children, I am Emrys. To the other, I hold a different title.”
An unbearable pain shot through Uther, unseating him and spilling him on the floor. The taste in his mouth was the bitterest bile.
“Gestricie pis lic forod.”
“What are you doing?” Uther wheezed.
Emrys frowned. “Nothing. This force comes from without. There is magic at work.”
Thump .. Thump .. Thump
Uther’s eyes swelled with terror. “What is happening?”
“This is the end, Uther Pendragon,” Emrys said. “The very final chance. You must repent of your hatred of magic in order to save everything you hold dear.”
“I will never...” the ground seemed no longer so solid, the blackness like water pouring upwards, “apologise for what I have done. There is no place in Camelot for sorcery and enchantment.”
“Then you will die,” Emrys promised.
“So be it,” Uther hissed.
Slowly, the room came into focus. It flickered like a shadow in firelight. There were blankets and sheets swaddled around him but Uther felt cold.
Arthur’s face, a mixture of fear and joy, swam into view. He looked tired, as though the worries of the world had chased away the last vestiges of boyhood, leaving only a man.
Uther smiled weakly. “Arthur.” I beat them, he wanted to say. They told me I could not be saved without magic, yet here I am.
Pain rendered through him, a thunderous climax eclipsing all the suffering that preceded it.
“What’s happening?” Arthur cried.
“I don’t know.” Someone else was in the room. Uther’s eyes strained to see them and then, he did.
You! Uther thought. He could not find the breath to say it aloud. The sorcerer, the one from his dreams, the one who claimed he could save him. Arthur had brought him. How does my son know you?!
“Do something!” Arthur’s voice was plaintive and desperate.
I will not be saved by magic. I will not let my son see it as a force for good. The only way to save him is to die.
It was dark again, but this time there was no pain, no threat of danger.
“Uther, my love.”
Ygraine stepped from the darkness and took Uther’s hand, linking their fingers together. He could feel the strength of her grip and the warmth of her palm. He smiled. Another hand was laid on his arm. He turned. Gwen smiled fondly at him.
“Hello again, father.”
Uther turned back to see Morgana, dressed in brilliant blue and as beautiful to him as she had been from the moment of her birth. She embraced him fiercely before stepping back.
“You... cannot be ghosts,” he said to her. “Both you and the serving girl are alive. Who are you?”
Ygraine grasped Morgana’s hand alongside Uther’s. In turn, Morgana reached out and took Gwen’s hand. Gwen clasped Uther’s free hand in hers.
“We are the triple Goddess,” Ygraine said. “I am the woman who was.”
“I am the woman who is,” said Morgana.
Gwen squeezed Uther’s hand. “And I am the woman who will be. We have come to lead you beyond the veil.”
“I am dead, then?” Uther asked.
“You are dead,” Ygraine agreed.
“And Arthur is saved?”
“Arthur is now free to save himself. It is his destiny to bring Albion, the joined kingdoms. Whether he chooses wisely in this or doubtfully will depend on the people he has around him.”
Ygraine smiled. “Amongst others. Arthur will be the once and future King. That much is known. He shall make Knights of the brave, and be loved by the faithful. He has it in him to be father to the kind, the merciful and the modest.” She tugged Uther gently. “Come now, my love,” she said.
Uther allowed himself to be led to the edge of the darkness, to the shore of a lake of souls. A boat was pulled up to the bank. Uther glanced back. “Will I see him again?” he asked.
Ygraine laid her head on his shoulder. “You will see more than you could ever imagine,” she promised.