Uther didn't notice her until the business with her father. Before then she was part of the kingdom, Morgana's maid, the girl with the pleasant face and irritating stammer. Her name was something he remembered occasionally, but even then it was a vague knowledge, like a distant kingdom he'd passed on the way to a more important destination. There was a brief time when he'd had her imprisoned, but even that failed to make an impression, as she was released before any real harm was done.
This is why he's surprised when Morgana rails over the blacksmith's imprisonment. She says her maid's name with fevered devotion, like a sister instead of a servant. Days pass before she offers an apology, but she does eventually. Uther accepts of course. He even offers a bit of humility in return, but it's largely for her benefit. Despite the blacksmith's likely innocence, his death will be a deterrent for those with more nefarious motives.
When Uther sees the maid again, her name is vivid in his mind. Guinevere, is a source of tension between him and his ward, and as such, has become a person, fully realized with a mild temperament and strong will. The other servants look to her for guidance and instruction, nearly bowing as though she's some form of peasant royalty. Even his son's man, Merlin, hovers with an air of fierce devotion.
This is when Uther starts to resent her presence in his kingdom. It's also the night he starts to dream.
His bedroom is too dark. Uther knows its long past nightfall, but the inky black that's covered his walls is unnatural, sinister. It's the kind that leads to nothing, suffocating in its vastness. He reaches out because he's afraid not to.
Surely there's something out there to grasp. Surely he's not here alone.
There's a light in the distance, flickering like a small flame struggling to survive. Uther squints and wills it to burn brighter. It complies, wavering and tilting until it's a flame, brilliant fingers licking at all that dark. Sparks burst in rhythmic succession. He hears footsteps, the metallic clang of armor on stone. It gets louder, closer, until he realizes that it's not footsteps at all. It's pounding, terrible heaving strikes of a hammer against steel. Something is being forged. The thought alone makes him shudder.
"Whose there?" Uther's voice is multiplied, like there's three of him inside his throat instead of one. He speaks again, though now he's afraid of his own voice. "Show yourself, I demand it."
"An order from the king," a voice replies, graveled and booming, so loud it makes Uther's ears ring. A man is standing in front of him, back turned while he heaves that heavy hammer over burning coals. "My Lord demands it," the demon says (Uther's decided this must be sorcery) "and so it shall be done."
"Who are you?" Uther's voice is no longer amplified, but it wavers, thins near the end because he isn't sure he wants the answer.
"Who am I," the thing asks. It laughs, a hearty, throaty roar and turns around with that hammer raised high. "No one Sire. No one at all."
It's the blacksmith. Only now the man's eyes are filled with red light, and his voice sounds like someone else's, like something spoiled and rotted has taken root inside his throat.
"You're dead," Uther says, and the blacksmith shakes his head. "No, you're dead," he says again, and points to the large hole in the man's chest. It starts to bleed and grow wider, spewing crimson like a spigot. It covers the blacksmith's pants and shoes, pooling at his feet in a crudely shaped circle.
"I made this for you," the blacksmith says, and lifts a sword. It's the finest Uther has ever seen. "Fit for a king."
"Yes," Uther says, because it really is fit for a king. "Yes, it is," he says again. He can't bring himself to look way. The blade is still glowing from the fire as the blacksmith moves closer and levels it at Uther's face. Heat strokes his skin in stinging, prickling waves.
"You want everything," the blacksmith says and lowers the sword until it's aimed at Uther's chest. "Do you not?"
Uther stares into those burning eyes and nods. That's exactly what he wants. He'll never rest until he has it.
"I want everything," he confesses. It spills from his lips like the blood dripping onto the floor. The blacksmith lifts the sword and holds it aloft, high overhead, for what feels like hours. He strikes down with a killing blow, parting Uther's chest with that scalding sharp metal until the blade impales his heart.
He used to wake at sunrise. Uther has always considered late risers slothful, the habit of pampered royals complacent with whatever land they'd already conquered. Uther has never been complacent about anything. He takes pride in Camelot's continued prosperity and it's ever expanding borders. When he's gone, his son will inherit a kingdom any man worth his salt would be honored to rule.
But now the sun pulls Uther from sleep, burning bright and angry in a midday sky. His servants hover outside the bedroom door, unsure of whether he's merely tired or ill. Uther wants to tell them that he's both. He wants to call Gaius and explain that he's being haunted. But instead he claims it's a mild malady and asks for a sleep draught to use until it's passed. Gaius gives him the small bottle with an admonishment to use it sparingly.
"How is the servant girl," Uther asks, though he regrets the question immediately. Gaius is visibly surprised and responds with a cautious "I believe she's doing better Sire."
Uther is in the greenest field he's ever seen. The grass is soft beneath his bare feet and the wind is saccharine with the smell of wild flowers. He sits down and closes his eyes. The soft hum of insects is like music.
When he opens them again, he's not alone. A small girl sits a few feet away, her hair a messy swarm of black curls that trail down her back and over the ground. Her hands are brown blurs as she plucks blades of grass and spins them into slippery, green links. It looks like a necklace or the beginning of one rather.
"Hello?" Uther stands and moves towards her. The girl's face is obscured by her hair, and she stiffens but doesn't speak. He tries again, "hello there," and his voice softer than before. He's convinced she's been abandoned. "I won't harm you."
"What happened?" she asks, and looks up, into the distance. Uther follows her gaze and frowns at the puffy, grey clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky.
"I'm not…I don't know."
The girl rises to her feet and shoves the hair from her face. She looks up at him with large brown eyes, glittering with hatred that makes him stumble and fall to his knees. She cups his chin in one, tiny cool hand.
"You should have killed me Uther Pendragon."
The grass ignites, buries them under a wall of flames. His skin is seared, charred into little black flakes that float the ground as he screams and screams and screams.
When Uther is told of Gwen's abduction, a large part of him is relieved. She's become a burden, the constant reminder of his mistake. The girl looks at him and he feels her recrimination. The possibility of her death is so comforting that he sleeps for the first time in months.
No one tells him when she returns. Gwen appears outside his quarters carrying a basket filled with linens. Aside from a faint bruise on her cheek she's in perfect health. She looks at him, actually meets his eyes, for the first time in what feels like years. "Sire" she says, with a stiff bow that feels like an accusation.
"It's good to see you," Uther says, though he's never spoken to her this way before. The words taste bitter and he balls his hands into fists. "None the worst for wear I hope?"
Gwen's lips tighten and her eyes flatten into stoic, dark voids. It's unnerving how well she hides her thoughts. From her terse answer, "yes My Lord, I'm perfectly fine," he doubts he's managed to do the same.
Uther stands beside the lake. Igraine is lying on the banks, skirts bunched around her thighs. He stares at her pale legs, gleaming in the moonlight and his love becomes a solid weight, settling heavy and warm inside his veins. Uther touches her stomach and feels the child's heartbeat.
"Thank you," he says, and kisses her cheek. Her skin is wan and slick against his lips. "Thank you for this."
"No." Igraine stares at something in the water. "What have you done?"
A man is moving towards them, obscured by the mist that's thickened into dusty swirls. Uther stands, hand outstretched to hold off the imposing figure. "Stay away."
The mist clears. The face that's revealed is smeared with blood, dripping rivulets that spill from every pore. Uther cries out and it's a keening, gasping sound, one that echoes and breaks over the dark, glassy water. The man, the thing that's hemorrhaging right in front of them, is his son.
Arthur's lashes are clotted with crimson, his mouth shiny and slick with the blood that continues to flow. He extends an upturned palm in Uther's direction, but frowns at the sight of his own hand. "Something's wrong."
Uther looks down at Igraine. Her skin is dank blue, her eyes wide and unseeing. Uther falls to his knees and cradles her in his arms.
There is a moment while Arthur is reporting news of the latest hunt, when his eyes shift to the right and rest briefly on Gwen's face. He furrows his brow, like he's caught himself in the act as well and then returns his gaze to Uther, calm and guileless, sure he's protected the poorly kept secret.
Guinevere doesn't react. Uther isn't sure whether she even notices his son's attention, but even if she did, he's decided she's much to cunning to acknowledge it. They're likely having an affair. With the amount of time the girl spends around him, such a thing was largely inevitable.
It shouldn't bother him. Uther bedded a few maids himself before Igraine, mostly for sport, but occasionally with sincere affection. Only this girl is different, he can see that much in Arthur's eyes. She's far more than some serving wench flashing her ankle during dinner.
There are many others he could have chosen, all comely and willing to service a man of Arthur's station. Of all the women in the kingdom, why would his son pick this one?
"Well done Arthur." Uther looks at Guinevere, who stands with hands folded demurely in front of her, eyes downcast and a small smile on her lips. "I'm sure your efforts will keep us well into the winter."
"Thank you father," Arthur says, eyes fixed stubbornly straight ahead. "I'm glad you approve."
He's standing in a hole so deep and narrow that only the sky is visible above him. Uther scratches at the sides, peels away clumps of earth that fall at his feet and fill the space around him. His ankles are nearly covered with it now. He peels away more dirt to reveal gnarled tree roots that stab his chest when he tries to climb again.
Uther is burying himself alive. He realizes this, knows that his frantic pawing and squirming are only killing him faster, more efficiently than the person who put him there. And yet he keeps trying, rubs long, skinny grooves into the dirt with his knees while his nails crack and splinter into ragged bloody nubs. The light is fading quickly, much too fast and he's afraid of being trapped there, alone in the dark.
More of the tree root is revealed and Uther grabs it, victorious. But something also grabs him. It pulls at his cloak, a hard, vicious yank that rips the root from his fingers and knocks him off balance. Uther falls back, arms outstretched and hands grabbing uselessly at the air. He hits the ground with a muffled thud. The last bit of light is slowly swallowed in darkness.
The walls shift and bend, dumping dirt onto his face. Uther tries to breathe and chokes when it fills his lungs. So he stops trying, just holds his breath until the edges of the world darken and fade into nothing. The last he hears is her soft, melodic whisper.
"You should have killed me."
They think he doesn't see the way they look at him. Uther is well aware of the whispering behind his back, the long looks with wide, judgmental eyes disguised as piety. He's show weakness, which is unforgivable in a king. The occasional lapses in memory could be explained, but the tremor of his hands, the long silences while he gathers his thoughts, they're signs of insanity, the broken visage of a once respected leader.
No one knows about the dreams, or that they follow him now, haunting him during the day. The previous night he saw Igraine walking down the palace steps. And just this morning he heard the blacksmith's hammer, forging that royal sword he never finished while alive.
This is a curse. Uther can smell the black magic on his skin like sulfur, and the only way, the only way, is to kill the thing that's cursed him. It all started with her, the girl with the empty, dark eyes. Her death at his hands has been long overdue.
"You find her," Uther commands. "The servant…" His voice fades, as her name escapes him, sinks into the exhausted recesses of his mind. "The maid," he says, and slams his hand against the table. His knights do nothing, just stand there willfully disobedient. "What the hell are you waiting for?"
"Father." Arthur stands in front of him, hands clasped behind his back. There's a gleam in his son's eye that makes Uther frantic.
"You will not harm Guinevere," Arthur says. "I won't allow it." His love drips from every word, unabashed and filled with the potential for violence. Uther stares at his son's hand, the fingers a stiff claw over his sword, and knows he's already lost him; that this must be the ache that's settled around his heart.
"Do you remember the first time I met you?"
Uther is sitting on the floor of his own dungeon. He's dressed in rags, his legs stippled with deep, bloody gauges from someone's knife. The shackles have peeled raw red circles around his wrists.
"No, I don't," he says, and refuses to look at her. She's wearing only a thin white chemise, the outline of her body backlit by a large fire burning in the corner. Gwen stretches her legs and her knee brushes against his.
"I was eight," she says. Her voice is no longer that sweet, hesitant thing he's come to despise. This is deeper, flatter, dead just like her eyes. "You gave me flowers."
And now he remembers, the small dark girl in a green cloak, hiding behind her father's leg. He'd given wildflowers to the women to celebrate some occasion; a birth possibly or a milestone for the kingdom. "You were afraid."
"I was." Gwen shifts onto her side, which pulls her skirt higher. He sees a flash of bare brown skin, before he averts his eyes, studying the ground beside her. "I was afraid of everything back then, but you in particular. I called you The Lion Man, because of your eyes. I had dreams you'd come to eat me."
"A child's fantasies." Uther risks a glance at her face. Her hair is loose, a wild tangle of curls so dark they're nearly invisible in the dim room. One side of her face is lit in flickering gold, while the other is a long, wide shadow, her eye a sinister cavern in the center "I would never harm a child."
"You truly believe that?" Gwen touches his cheek. Something spills from her fingertips and pricks his skin like a dozen small daggers. "You've killed fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. You've torn families apart Uther, including your own. You really believe you've never harmed a child."
"I have done was needed." The room is cold, suddenly freezing and the fire burns higher and higher. He can see her face now, but her eyes are still hidden in shadow. "I've made mistakes, yes, but I've always done what I thought was right. I did was best for Camelot."
Uther flinches when she touches his wrists. Gwen holds them tightly, punishing the torn flesh as she straddles his thighs, the chemise pushed high on her legs. He can feel himself responding, the growing tightness in his groin, and his stomach lurches, recoils at his own lust.
"You're weak," she says. "And a coward."
Gwen's lips hover near his, the curls sliding over his face. She smells like flowers, and something else, some sort of elixir. "This is how I ride your son," she whispers, and he can taste her breath, feel her body against his hardness. "That's what you really want, isn't it? To be Arthur? To be a man someone could love?"
"I want to sleep." Uther breathes deep and exhales into a sob. Gwen touches his cheek and he buries his face against her shoulder. "Please," he moans, the dungeon echoing his broken plea.
"Just let me sleep."
They meet at the lake. Gwen arrives to find Merlin waiting for her, studying the water with solemn eyes. She's always found this place unnerving. The water is too dark and still for her comfort. Her father used to say there were years of secrets beneath its surface and Gwen believed him. She always did. And now hers are buried here too.
"My mother said there used to be celebrations here." Merlin gestures towards the muddy banks. "Sorcerers would gather and cast spells into the sky." He looks up, at stars glittering overhead. "She said it made her feel so small, all that magic. But in a good way, like she was in the presence of something momentous."
Gwen reaches into her pocket and pulls out a small bottle. Gaius gave her the sleep draught with a half-hearted caution to use it sparingly. Wouldn't want you sleeping through the winter, now would we?
Merlin takes it from her hand. His eyes flicker and light with gold as he curses its contents, the pale green fading to grayish-muddy brown. Gwen doesn't know magic, only what he's told her. But she does understand the last few words he whispers. Here where sleeping demons lie. Awake. And remember.
The bottle trembles in Merlin's hand. He gives it to Gwen, who quickly hides it inside her cloak.
"Once he's gone," Merlin says, and looks up at the sky. "Do you think it could happen again? All those people? All that magic?"
Gwen touches the bottle, which is now warm against her palm. She reaches for Merlin's hand and grips it tight.
"I'm sure of it."