Gaius clutches the phial as he races up the stairs, two at a time regardless of the wild thumping of his protesting heart. Time is his enemy, though he accepts it is not his sole foe. It is, however, the only one he is willing to name at the moment. He lacks the will to confront Nimueh, the capacity to rebuke Uther. But, Gaius reminds himself, if he succeeds, neither option will even be necessary.
In his heart, in the hidden corners where he hides his darkest emotions, he fears failure is inevitable.
The baby’s cry is the first thing he hears as he approaches the queen’s bedchambers, a good, solid squall that foretells a strong, healthy childhood. Gaius takes what measure of peace he can from it, then blocks it out as he knocks on Ygraine’s door. No matter what the rest of the kingdom might believe, the new prince is not his immediate concern.
The door swings open. Aldith, her handmaiden, is paler than when he left. She steps aside without a word, and Gaius rushes inside, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste to get to Ygraine’s bedside.
When he sees her, his thudding pulse grinds to a halt. She is a wraith amongst the wealth of colorful bedspreads, the magic devouring her from the inside out. Her flawless skin stretches thin, no longer alabaster but bruised and translucent, and her lashes spider against the hollows beneath her eyes as she rests. Little of the beautiful woman he has come to cherish remains.
Before, he resented Nimueh for how she slithered her way into Uther’s life.
Now, Gaius loathes her.
“I’m back,” he murmurs and sits on the edge of the bed, taking care not to disturb his queen.
Without opening her eyes, Ygraine offers a fragile smile. “I knew you would be.”
“You must drink this.” He pulls out the stopper and sets it aside, but when Ygraine doesn’t move, he rests his free hand on her thin arm. Too thin. A woman who’s just given birth shouldn’t be this slight. “My lady, please.”
Her lashes flutter, but the gaze that settles on him has already resigned itself to the hand she’s been dealt. “Dear Gaius. You have the greatest heart of anyone I have ever known.”
A heart that feels as if it’s being skewered with Uther’s favorite sword, but Gaius does his best not to let that show. “Let me help you sit up to take this. Time is of the essence.”
“Is it? The baby is strong, isn’t he?”
“He’s doing wonderfully, but this isn’t—”
“But it was,” she interrupts, and perhaps because she displays a fraction of her usual independent spirit, Gaius allows a sliver of hope to return. “It was always about him.”
He has wondered for months how much Ygraine knew of Nimueh’s involvement and this seems to settle those questions. Not so long ago, he might have asked Uther to allay his concern, but those days are gone, have been so since he first brought Ygraine to Camelot. Gaius has never begrudged those choices. How could he when Ygraine brought Uther such joy? All he’s ever taken umbrage with was Nimueh and Uther’s blindness when it came to her.
Especially now. Because he can’t believe for an instant that Uther knew the true consequences of what Nimueh created.
“The King will want to see you well when he is done doting on the child,” Gaius says in a last ditch attempt to get her to see reason. Ignoring his normal deference, he scoops a hand beneath her neck—so delicate, too delicate—and raises her the scant inches needed to keep her from choking as he tips the phial to her mouth.
She swallows without further argument, but her breathing is labored when he lowers her back to the pillow. The tincture stains the bow of her upper lip green, even after the tip of her tongue appears to lick it away.
“His name is Arthur,” she says, returning to the subject of her son. “Wasn’t he beautiful?”
“Yes.” Agreement is simple when it’s the truth. “He’ll be a fine king one day.”
“Uther loves him.” She startles Gaius when she suddenly grasps his arm. “Don’t let him forget that.”
Gaius frowns, both at her order and the weakness of her grip. “I don’t see how he could.”
“Yes, you do. You know how he gets. Better than anyone else in Camelot, I wager.”
He can’t concede the point without verbally acknowledging the history he’s shielded from Ygraine all this time. “You will help him remember, my lady.”
She shakes her head. “No more lies. Please. I can’t bear them.” She squeezes his arm once, then lets her hand fall back onto the coverlets. “I need you to do something for me, Gaius.”
His eyes begin to burn. “Anything.”
“Take care of him for me, please?”
“Of course,” he assures. “It’s my job to ensure the prince’s health.”
“No, not Arthur. I know he’ll have the best care.”
“Then I don’t understand.”
The muscles in her throat tense as she swallows, and her nostrils flare as she struggles to catch her breath. It’s that moment when Gaius realizes his attempts to reverse the course of Nimueh’s magic have failed.
“Uther is a proud man.” Her voice is anemic in its fight, and he has to lean forward to catch every word. “He will not ask for aid, even when he so desperately needs it.”
His first tear falls. “I know.”
“Because you love him, as much as I.” Her gaze is steady in spite of her body’s decline. “The same as I.”
Would it have been easier to know she was aware of their history before she lay on her deathbed? Gaius doesn’t know. He might not ever know. But he cannot deny the bond that ties them any longer, or Ygraine the comfort in accepting it in the equitable manner she obviously wishes.
“I need you to stand by him,” she goes on. “No matter what he might say to you.”
It’s almost an insult that she would think he could ever abandon Uther. “I would never—”
“I know. But he will need you now, more than he ever has. And you are the only one I trust his heart with. The only one who sees him the way I do.”
Taking her hands in his, Gaius bows his head to hide the rest of the tears he cannot contain. He hears the warning behind her words, that regardless of what Nimueh has done for them, she is not to be trusted with anything as dear as the fate of the man they both love. She and Uther might share a lust for power, but unlike Nimueh, Camelot’s king is so much more than that.
“I will, Ygraine,” he whispers. “I give you my solemn vow.”
Her pulse trembles against his fingertips.
Gaius does not let go.
* * *
The hours disappear, one by one by one, until the sun, too, deprives its denizens of its radiance. Ygraine’s chambers are silent, and thankfully, Nimueh hasn’t attempted to seek Uther out. She must have a stronger survival instinct than Gaius has credited her with. It makes his job easier, at least.
When the door creaks, he emerges from the alcove to block Uther’s path.
The words choke in his throat at the age that now lines Uther’s face. He expected it, but the reality of the red-rimmed, swollen eyes breaks what remains of his heart.
“Don’t, Gaius.” His voice is bereft of its usual power. He can’t even seem to muster a scowl for the disturbance.
Gaius doesn’t care. For what is perhaps the first time since meeting Uther, he ignores what Uther says and takes the action he knows is required.
Uther is stiff when Gaius takes him in his arms, his chin high to avoid further intimacy. Gaius buries his face in the hard curve of Uther’s neck and lets the tears come until they dampen Uther’s shoulder.
Uther shudders. A moment later, a hard sob wracks his flesh, and he grapples awkwardly to gather Gaius even closer.
They share their grief for long minutes where the only sounds that echo down the corridor are their crying. Later, when Gaius is alone and has time to relive their solace, he will wonder if the guards stayed away out of respect for the noise they heard, but now, he doesn’t think to question the good luck. It gives him the space to comfort Uther as best he can, or at least until Uther finally pulls back to gaze upon him in gratitude.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Uther says in bleak confession.
Gaius nods. He understands. “Start with your son.”
Uther’s gaze drifts in the direction of the nearby direction. Gaius sees the question form behind his eyes—was it worth it?—and cuts in before the doubt can fester.
“We will all feel her loss,” he says, “but there is a way to help.”
“I don’t want any of your potions.”
“And I wouldn’t think of giving you one. This isn’t the time for it.”
Uther turns a harder stare back to Gaius. “Then what do you suggest?”
He girds himself for what he is about to say. Before Ygraine’s death, he would never have dared, but he would not shame her last request by holding his tongue now. “Banish Nimueh. After all, she is the reason you mourn.”
In the dim light, it’s impossible to read how Uther takes his advice. Did he go too far? Will Uther lash out and banish him instead? His stomach churns as he waits for a response.
Uther bows and brushes a kiss across Gaius’s temple. “No one has ever served me as faithfully as you, old friend,” he says.
Then he is gone. Gaius lets him go, just as he lets his fears go.
His declaration is a whisper to any who might be nearby, but a boom inside his soul. “It’s always been my honor, Uther.”