Morgana sat draped over the throne of Camelot. It had been two months since she had taken the kingdom for herself, dethroned her father, Uther, and driven his son, Arthur, from her lands. She surveyed her throne room. Soldiers lined the walls, faithful, yet restless for new battle. Villagers cowered before her, their begging for help falling on deaf ears. And Morgana sat, bored. She needed something to focus on. Something to hate.
A guard approached and whispered in her ear, his words bringing a smile to her face. The large doors swung open as a herald announced, “The Lady Morgause.”
“Sister!” Morgana rose and strode forward through the parting throng of people to embrace the other witch. “What news do you bring? Any word on Arthur?”
“The prince remains hidden in holes like a rodent. But don’t worry, Sister. Our armies will drive him to the surface soon enough.”
Morgana growled. “As long as he is out there, these pathetic people will cling to the hope that he will return and be their savior.” She gestured around at the groveling peasants with distain.
“Then perhaps it is good that they are here to witness the gift I have brought for you,” Morgause soothed. “The sight of it might just crush that lingering hope. As well as give you a play thing to keep you entertained as we wait.”
The blonde witch moved aside, her gown fluttering away like a curtain. She revealed a man on his knees. His hands were unbound, but he held them together at his waist as if they were. He wore only a pair of simple, ragged trousers, and two fine chains that crisscrossed his bare torso. Filth stained his skin and short, untidy hair. He stared at the floor, holding himself still and waiting.
The sight was new to Morgana, yet also familiar. For before her knelt her father and once-king, Uther Pendragon.
“I thought you’d done away with him,” the new queen hissed, studying him for the slightest sign of rebellion.
“I took him to prepare this gift for you, Sister.” Morgause laughed as Morgana eyed him. “You need not worry. He is as tame as any beast can be. Nothing but a slave.”
Morgana looked skeptical. For, as much as she hated Uther, the man’s pride was something she never thought could be taken from him. She’d expected him to fight until his last breath.
“You have broken him?” she asked in awe.
“No, Sister. I merely put the final touches on his training.” Morgause smiled, brushing hair from Morgana’s face. “It was you who took his spirit. The power of your hatred. A power even you don’t fully comprehend, of yet.” She moved around the man, raking her fingers though his hair. He made no response. “Go on. Ask him.”
“Slave,” Morgana addressed Uther. He looked up, his eyes strangely hollow and unfocused. “What are you called?” He looked at her as if not understanding. “Answer me!”
Uther ducked his head and said in a small, shaky voice. “I… I am what M’Lady wishes to call me.”
The queen chuckled. “You’ve put him under an enchantment.”
Morgause shook her head. “The only enchantment is here.” She caressed the thin chain that ran over his shoulder. At this, Uther did shudder. “Pretty, aren’t they? They can only be removed by magick. You may use them as you wish. To make sure he can never leave the castle. For his punishment. For your pleasure,” the witch purred.
“What do they do?”
Morgause stood beside her sister and looked down at the slave. He dared a fleeting glance up at them, his eyes full of pleading and fear. It was a look Morgana never thought she’d see from him and it sent a thrill of excitement through her. The blonde witch’s eyes flashed gold and she spoke, “Forbearnan!”
The chains crossing Uther’s chest and back blazed red with heat. The man’s body straightened, his muscles constricting of their own accord. A guttural, animalistic howl of pain was wrenched from deep within his chest and echoed throughout the great hall and corridors. Uther’s subjects wept for him and fled from the room, unable to witness their king’s torment any longer. When the spell was finally released, he fell to his side, shaking and sweating as he held himself.
Morgana’s eyes shone with triumph. She turned and swept back to her throne, Morgause at her side. She caressed the arm of the captain of her guard as he stood beside her, her eyes never leaving the new play thing huddled on the floor before her. “I think it’s time for a little sport, don’t you?” the queen mused.
Her captain nodded once, and soldiers closed in on the defenseless slave with no mercy.
Three months later……
“The guests are here, Sister. Emissaries from all the kingdoms to the north.” Morgause smiled out at the filling throne room and leaned in to whisper in Morgana’s ear. “They are eager to keep the peace with the new power of Camelot.”
Morgana sighed. More smiling at weak simpletons. She had better things to do, with her patrols promising to find Arthur any day now. But, then a familiar face entered and brought with it a faint twinge of joy from her childhood.
The queen rose as the herald announced, “The Lady Dracondile!”
“I can’t believe it,” Morgana beamed. “I haven’t seen you since we played in these corridors together as children.”
“And now here you are… queen,” the lovely young lady smiled back. “Have we come so far?”
Morgana laughed, returning to perch on her throne. “It seems much has changed for both of us. Who would have thought you’d take on the delicate duties of an ambassador? The girl who once solved her problems by pulling hair and hiding for days in secret passages.”
“We all end up taking on the duties our kingdoms require of us.” Sada Dracondile’s keen eyes followed as Morgana reached for a piece of fruit. She noted the man holding the tray, clothed in a ratty tunic, his eyes cast down as he knelt there, still as possible. No more than human furniture.
The queen caught her glance and a wicked grin curved her lips. “Slave,” she announced, “My feet are tired.” Without hesitation the man passed off the tray and crawled forward, becoming her footstool. “See. All have their uses in my kingdom.”
Sada made a show of studying the man’s face, then gasping slightly. “My dear Morgana, I never expected to see him in this room. The news was that you had executed the disgraced king.”
Morgana laughed out loud. “Only a few times,” she boasted cryptically. “Does the sight of him startle you?”
The ambassador showed her an equally evil grin. “The mighty Uther on his knees. What I wouldn’t give for an hour to repay him for slights against my people.”
“It is amazing how often I hear that,” the queen purred, kicking him harshly away. “You ask for an hour, but I am a generous ruler. You shall have a night.”
“But, I would not think of depriving you of your slave.”
“Guards, have the slave prepared and taken to the Lady Dracondile’s chamber.” Morgana smiled at her guest. “I grow bored with him. It is my pleasure to give the gift of revenge to any who seek it.”
Sada bowed gratefully, steeling herself against the resigned pain and sorrow she glimpsed in his eyes as he was taken roughly away.
“Tonight we feast and celebrate new friendships and old!” the queen announced to the gathered nobles.
Sada’s face hurt from smiling. Talking and laughing at the banquet, dancing and singing with the many guests. And Morgana tracking her down constantly, trying to rebuild the innocent friendship of their youth. But her old friend was correct about one thing… Sada wasn’t born to be a diplomat. She was in Camelot for one reason, and her true purpose was about to begin.
She took a deep breath, steeling herself before opening the door to her guest chamber. Sada knew he’d be there, waiting. She had no doubt in Morgana’s word on that. What frightened her was what she would find when she really dared to look. With a curt nod assuring herself, the young lady opened the door and slipped inside.
Her breath hitched at the first sight of him. The Uther of her memory stood strong, sure, and proud. This wretched beast slumped, cowering on the cold stone near the foot of her bed. She could tell he knew she was there, even though he didn’t glance up at her. On her cautious step forward his seemingly constant tremble increased. Sada felt like she was dealing with a frightened and wounded animal, ready to flee at any moment.
“Uther?” she ventured softly, sighing when he made no reaction. “Slave,” she tried in a harder voice, just to get his attention.
At this, he immediately rose to his knees and hurriedly clicked his wrists into chains she hadn’t noticed hanging from a post of the bed. Now held upright and with his back to her, he murmured, “On the table, Great Lady.”
Still confused, Sada glanced at the table unconsciously. When the sight registered in her mind, she looked back to confirm what she had seen. Laid out, as neatly as a royal place setting, were instruments of pain. Whips, small and large, rods, thick and thin, and many other devices that looked so nasty she didn’t even want to think of what they could be used for. She had implied wanting revenge to get him away from Morgana for a short time, but she never imagined how prepared the queen was to indulge such bloodlust.
Leaving the table untouched, she slowly approached the waiting slave. They had taken the filthy tunic from him. Now he was mostly bare, except for a small garment of leather and iron that covered his maleness. Even from a distance it didn’t look at all comfortable, digging into his thighs. But that wasn’t as disturbing as a brief study of the naked back he presented to her. Scars upon scars. Odd lumps made from broken bones that never had a chance to heal correctly. A few fresh bruises, including the clear outline of Morgana’s boot in his side.
The sting of tears in her eyes, Sada gently touched his shoulder and jumped slightly at his flinch. “Uther… Uh, Slave. I don’t want this. Where are the keys to release these?” She stretched up to indicate the rough cuffs holding him.
Uther looked her in the eyes for the first time. His expression was one of complete mystification. He didn’t understand, as if no one had ever dismissed a chance to inflict pain on him before. Only daring to look at her for a moment, he ducked his head again before whispering, “There, Great Lady.”
Sada followed his slight nod and saw the key siting on her pillow. She quickly retrieved the key and returned to unlock his bonds. Uther dropped down into a crouched ball, holding his wrists and keeping his head down. Sada gazed down at him, noting how small he looked huddled at her feet. Much smaller than any man his size should ever look. This king, who once stood larger than life at the head of his great kingdom, was now only hoping not to be noticed.
She knelt down in front of him and sighed sadly when he again flinched away from her touch. This movement brought him more into the light. It was only then that Sada noticed that his skin was an angry red and raw looking.
“What did they do to you?” she whispered, ghosting the lightest stroke of her fingers over his protruding collarbone.
His eyes warily followed her hand, not knowing what to make of the soothing touch. “I… I was prepared. Scrubbed clean so as not to offend the Great Lady.” He ducked his head lower. “I’m… I’m ready to grant her any pleasure.”
She eased her fingers through his unkempt hair, noting the dents and scars that marred his scalp. Though he was still unsure, she smiled when he leaned slightly into her warm palm. “It’s very cold down here. Will you please get up on the bed for me?”
“Yes, Great Lady,” Uther breathed sadly before standing.
Sada didn’t understand his resignation until she rounded the corner of the bed and saw him. He was lying on his back on top of the quilt, every muscle in his body tense. His hands shook as he struggled with the buckle at his hip.
“Highness, what are you doing?” Sada cried, reaching out to still his hands.
His stare was one of complete disorientation as he looked at her. “Making myself ready for you. D-did you want me the other way, Great Lady?”
It took a moment for her to understand. Sada shuddered as she imagined this noble man on his knees, grasping the headboard as unspeakable things were done to him. Suddenly, some of the wicked instruments on the table had a very clear and evil purpose. She shook her head, glancing down at their hands while trying to fight the tears from her eyes. This was when she noticed the bloody marks being caused by the cruel leather.
“Uther,” she whispered, leaning over him to gather up the quilt. “Please believe that I’m not going to hurt you in any way.” She pulled the soft material over his lower half. “All right. Take those awful things off now.”
He stared at her in disbelief, but, as ordered, the cruel garment slipped from the bed and clattered on the floor. His eyes kept watching as she pulled a pillow over and placed it under his head, then wrapped the quilt the rest of the way around him to warm his chilled skin. She rounded the bed and crawled up next to him, wanting to give him comfort, but knowing too much contact too quickly would only overwhelm him. She sat cross-legged and looking down at him, careful to give him space.
“Do you recognize me, Uther?” she asked, tenderly stroking his head as she had before. He shook his head, fear of some coming torment still shining brightly in his eyes. “My name is Sada of the family Dracondile. When I was a girl, bandits overran our lands and my father was forced to flee with us. He brought us here, where you took us in and treated us as your own. You sheltered us, and then you led your knights alongside my father to take back our home. I have never forgotten your kindness to my family.”
“I remember,” he murmured. “Like a dream.”
“Your Highness,” Sada moved closer to whisper in his ear. “Arthur sent me.”
For the first time, a hopeful light brightened Uther’s eyes. It died just as quickly. “Arthur. M’Lady will kill him, and you, too. You must leave before she finds out.” Uther became very agitated and tried to sit up.
“Shh, my lord. Rest.” The quilt had slipped and Sada’s hand came to rest on his bare shoulder as she tried to settle him. She quickly pulled away at his wince. That’s when she noticed the fine chain. It seemed to be seared into his flesh and the skin around it was bloody and blistered in places. “What is this?” she breathed in horror.
“What I deserve,” Uther murmured.
Sada saw the surety in his eyes and fought down her tears. “She told you that, didn’t she? Morgana’s taken your mind.”
“M’Lady gives me what I need.”
“Morgana gives you…!” Sada cut herself off. Getting angry or arguing with him was not what he needed. She had been sent to care for him and take him out of this hell. Reminding herself that this was nothing but another part of Morgana’s torture of him, she let her anger melt away and left him for a moment to rummage through her travel bag. When she returned, she was holding a small vial.
His eyes were watching her every move. The look in them told her that the vial was not what he expected her to come back with. It only took a moment for Sada to realize why. He’d said something that made her angry and was waiting to be punished for it. Cursing her own temper, she made slow and deliberate movements as she approached him on the bed.
“Uther,” she said softly, hoping that repeating his name would help him find his identity. “I promised I wouldn’t hurt you. Do you believe me?”
“Yes, Great Lady,” he answered, clearly because he was supposed to.
Sada frowned, but quickly schooled her features as fear again shone in his eyes. She held out the vial so he could see it clearly. “This is some ointment that will help your sores. Here smell it, feel it.” Opening the vial, she brought his fingers up to touch the cream. “Gaius made it for me.”
Uther breathed, “Gaius?” As if he was remembering a friend he never thought he’d hear of again.
“Yes,” Sada smiled. “Gaius has been with Arthur. Helping him build an army to take Camelot back. They’ve all worried about you. They… they feel guilty that they haven’t come for you.”
“This is where I belong.”
She thought for a moment. “Where, but not how. May I touch you, Uther?” He didn’t have an answer, the question seemed so foreign. “Please, lie down and try to relax. This is going to make you feel better.” Sada refrained from adding the thought, ‘I hope’.
He watched as she coated her fingers with the ointment and began to lightly caress his chest, focusing on the worst of his wounds. It took almost the entire vial, but soon all his open sores were tended to. In the time it took to attend to him, his tight muscles slowly began to relax. Finished, she set the empty vial aside, and when she turned back, noticed the tears leaking from his clenched eyes.
Sharp knocking at the door sent ice down Sada’s spine. If Morgana had come to check on her, it would be the end for both of them. Quickly shaking the terror from her mind, she threw the quilt over him and ran to the door, scooping up something from the table on the way. Yanking open the door, she hit the frame with the full force of her body and stared at the girl before her with ferocious eyes.
“What is the meaning of this interruption?” Sada bellowed.
The young maid outside cowered. “I’ve… I’ve come to help you dress for bed, M’lady.”
Sada suddenly felt guilty for frightening the child, but knew she had to chase all intruders away. “I see. You can tell your queen that I’m grateful for her hospitality,” as she braced her hand above her on the door frame the frayed tails of the whip she held dangled in her face, “But I am busy at the moment and do not wish to be disturbed any more tonight.”
The girl tried to apologize, but Sada slammed the door in her face. She leaned heavily against the door, her heart pounding out of her chest. The whip fell from her shaking fingers. Sada fought the urge to vomit.
When she looked back at the bed, Uther wasn’t there. Panic gripped her and she ran forward searching for him. A wave of relief mixed with her fear as she finally saw him huddled on the stone floor by the head of the bed, naked and shivering, his eyes wide with terror.
She pulled the quilt off the bed and threw it around him. When she knelt beside him and tried to give comfort he pushed her away.
“It’s alright,” she soothed. “They’ve gone.”
“No,” Uther shoved her again. “If M’Lady learns you’ve been kind to me, she’ll kill you. You must flee this place.” His wide eyes drilled into hers as he breathed, “She’ll make me watch. Make me be the one...” Tears began to flood his eyes and spill over.
Sada wrestled him into a tight embrace and rocked him as he shook and cried. “I’m not going anywhere without you,” she whispered to him earnestly.
It didn’t take as long as she expected for Uther to go silent. That, too, was understandable when Sada thought about it. She had seen enough to understand that the Morgana she knew long ago was no longer living. Her friend had been driven mad by her own hatred. Now, she could easily imagine the queen doing everything in her power to force tears like these from him, and then punishing him for showing his pain. He was likely showing her more trust than she even realized, just by letting her hold him in a moment of weakness.
When his still silence stretched on, Sada spoke in his ear with the most soothing voice she could muster. “She’s done that before, hasn’t she? Executed someone for trying to help you.” He nodded against her. “Well that’s not going to happen this time. Morgana doesn’t know what she’s got on her hands with me. So don’t you think about what happened before.”
“No!” he insisted, pounding his head with the heel of his hand. “Have to remember them. Died helping me. Can never forget.”
Sada was confused for a moment and disturbed that he was hurting himself, but then sighed in understanding. She sat more comfortably on the floor and settled him against her. “You’re right, my lord. They were heroes and will be remembered that way.” She held his head, keeping him from trying to damage himself anymore. “Would you like to tell me about them?”
He took in a huge shuddering breath, his face hidden against her shoulder. It took several more minutes before he began to murmur into the silk of her dress. “She was a washing woman, a harmless servant. Found me in M’Lady’s chamber after a night I must have angered her. She showed me kindness while I was broken on the floor. Tended my wounds. I… I held the basket that caught her head when it fell.”
Rocking him, Sada stroked his hair. “It wasn’t your fault, my lord. I’m sure she knew what would happen to anyone caught helping you. She was brave and kind, an example of the true people of your kingdom.”
“Died because of me.”
“No. Because of Morgana.”
“My blood. My child. My hate.”
Sada fought back the urge to raise her voice. “But taken and twisted by Morgause until it grew to claim not just you, but everyone. Morgana’s hatred has blighted her like a disease. Blaming yourself will solve nothing.”
“There was a boy,” Uther murmured. “A scrubber in the kitchen. He so wanted to help me. Snuck me food. Thought no one would notice him. M’Lady put him in the dungeon and chained me across the cell to watch all that happened to him. I was given food and water while he got nothing. I wanted to help him,” he sobbed, “but there was no way of getting what I had to him. When he fell so weak he would no longer wake up, I was given a crossbow with a single bolt. I could have easily used it to end my suffering, but I deserve all I have been given. I sent the bolt through his young heart.”
He began to weep again. Sada whispered soothing sounds to him, finally saying, “The fact that you choose to end his suffering instead of your own proves you don’t deserve this.” Uther didn’t respond, though she knew he didn’t believe her words. He’d been conditioned never to argue. “When was the last time you ate?” Sada asked. She couldn’t fathom why she hadn’t considered such a basic need before.
After a deep breath, he answered, “M’Lady blessed me with bread yesterday.”
“Yesterday? You must be starving.” Sada got to her knees and steadied him. “There’s a platter of fruit and cheese I saw over on the desk. I’ll go get it.”
“That is for you, Great Lady. Too good for a slave like me.”
Sada sighed. “Why don’t you get back up on the bed where it’s warm and we’ll share the food.” She had no intention of eating, still full from the feast. But he might be more likely to accept it that way. “If you stay down here you’ll freeze to death.”
“I haven’t yet,” Uther mumbled. The unspoken continuation of, ‘though I’ve wished to,’ was plainly written in his eyes. “The bed is too soft,” he barely breathed, clearly afraid she’d take it as him requesting something of her.
After studying his eyes for a moment, Sada asked, “Where do you sleep, Uther?”
He hesitated at first, but the compulsion to answer her question was too much. “When M’Lady is… amused when me, there is a corner on the floor in her chambers. When she can’t stand the sight of me, the dungeon.” He must have recognized the sadness in her eyes because he quickly add, “B-but, M’Lady did bless me with a blanket of my own. She said there was an ally she couldn’t have won over without me.”
“What, did she do what she did tonight and loan you out for someone else to torture?” Sada spat her contempt. The man before her lowered his head and began to shake again. “Oh, my lord, I didn’t mean…” Blowing a frustrated sigh, she glanced around. They were in a small nook between a wardrobe and the thick leg of the bed. It was enclosed and protected and she could understand why he would feel safe there. “You stay here. I’ll be right back.”
She stood and pulled the rest of the blankets and the pillows onto the floor. He might have been forced to sleep on stone, but she could build them a little nest to make them both warm and comfortable. Then she ran to retrieve the plate of fruit and cheese that had been left for her. Placing it on the floor, she snuggled into the soft pile and coaxed him to rest against her again. Uther was still shivering.
“Here,” she whispered to him, breaking off a piece of cheese. “Will you eat with me?”
Uther looked lustfully at the sweet and savory treats, but still hesitated. “If M’Lady discovers…”
“Well, then we’ll keep it our little secret. I know you’re hungry, Uther. I can hear your stomach.”
He lowered his head. “There are no secrets from them.”
“What if I told you that you’re going to need your strength? Arthur didn’t just send me here to check on you, he sent me to take you away. I’m going to take you to him. Arthur, Gaius, they’re all waiting for us.”
The king looked up with hope, but it faded as fast as before. “M’Lady will never let me go.”
“Hence the escaping once the rest of the castle has gone to sleep.” He shook his head and Sada frowned. “Arthur hasn’t gathered a strong enough army to defeat Morgana yet, but he can’t stand leaving you here any longer. You have to be brave tonight. For your son.”
“She’ll catch us. You’ll be killed, and I’ll… M’Lady will execute me again.”
Sada’s mouth dropped open. ‘Again?’ At that moment, Morgana’s strange boast of ‘only a few times’ suddenly became clear. “Oh, Sire,” she sighed. “How can she be so cruel?”
“Some… sometimes, when she thinks the people grow too hopeful or rebellious, she forces them to gather in the square. Then they march me to the gallows, and I am hung before them. I feel it all. The rope tightens, I can’t breathe, and it hurts so much.” His voice cracked with pain. “But, after… I always wake up. She always brings me back. Why?” As he described this torment, the rough scars circling his neck became glaringly obvious to his intended rescuer. “Why won’t she simply let me die?”
Feeling her stomach turn again, Sada held his head to her once more, trying to chase away his pain. She could think of a number of answers she could give him. Morgana would never gain the people’s loyalty if she killed their king. Or, deep down, she couldn’t murder her own father. But Sada knew the truth. Death would bring him peace, and Morgana wasn’t going to allow him that. So, she held him and said nothing.
After a few minutes, Uther lifted his head and the constant fear again entered his eyes. “Great Lady, I have made your lovely dress wet.” He franticly tried to dab it dry with whatever he could find. “The silk will be ruined. Please forgive me…”
Before he could go on, Sada shoved the piece of cheese she had been holding into his mouth. “Chew,” she ordered when he only held it on his tongue. “That’s your punishment. I want you to eat this food.” This, too, backfired when he began grabbing the food and pressing it into his mouth as if he were on a time limit. Sada grabbed his hands and made him look her in the eyes. “Slowly. Your body’s not used to getting enough to eat, and now that you’ve had a taste, it will crave more. If you eat too fast you’ll be sick. Take it slow. We have time.” She gave him a radiant smile and watched as he almost let himself return it.
Sada considered it a huge victory as she watched him eat. Sure, she had basically ordered him to, but she wanted so badly for this to mean that his trust in her was beginning to override his fear of Morgana. Of course, she knew it would never be so easy. The hatred of his daughter would always haunt him. But, at least, she could spend these few quiet moments watching him fill his empty stomach and giving him light touches until he no longer flinched away.
Too soon she left him to finish as she went to change out of her banquet dress. In reality, she was more of a warrior than a lady, so it was with a sigh of relief that she slipped into a simple travel frock. They would have a lot of ground to cover that night, so she made sure everything was in order for their escape. Pulling out the simple shirt and trousers of a servant, she returned with them to the slave king.
“Uther, I have some clothes for you to wear tonight,” she said as she sat on the floor with him again.
He gave the garments a strange look, then responded with something she didn’t expect. “These are too fine for me, Great Lady.”
Sada couldn’t decide whether she wanted to laugh or cry. “My lord, you once wore the finest clothing in the land. Your artisans worked tirelessly to make sure you would shine as brightly as Camelot herself. Do you remember? Before Morgana took everything from you.”
“M’Lady gives me what-”
“You need. Yes, I know.” Sada sighed. So much for her victory. “Fine. I want you to put these on so I don’t have to witness your bare form anymore.”
“Yes, Great Lady.” He quickly crawled out of the blankets and pulled the clothing on, showing no sign of offence at her order.
“And I so wish you would call me Sada. I am nothing like a great lady.”
Uther ducked his head and whispered, “But you are.”
There was a strange heat on Sada’s cheeks. Did he truly mean her such a sweet compliment? No, she shook her head. She was the first to show him kindness in months. Of course he would see her as something different, even special.
“Come here,” she pulled him to her and laid him down to rest with his head cradled in her lap. “Try to sleep for a bit, my lord. We have a long night and the castle will be quiet soon. You can rest now.”
He settled in quicker than she thought he would. As she ran her fingers through his hair and her dull nails across his scalp he nearly purred with pleasure. Yes, he did like that very much.
“Uther?” Sada whispered, almost hoping he was too asleep to answer.
“Yes, Great Lady?”
“Um, you don’t have to answer this, but I wanted…” She breathed out a frustrated sigh. The horrifying thought had been crawling in her brain for a while, but how much worse would it be to have it confirmed. “When… when I didn’t want to beat you before, you assumed that I was going to, well do something worse. You know, on the bed. Ha-has Morgana ever done that to you?”
Sada held her breath as he was quiet for several moments, hoping he wouldn’t answer. At last he whispered, “No.” The girl sighed in relief, but then he continued, “To do that M’Lady would have to touch me like I was a person. She never touches me. She is repulsed by me.”
“But, how then?”
“When she would like some sport, she brings a soldier or two deserving of reward to the chambers. She likes to watch as her rough men beat me. Sometimes the men get excited and u-use me for their own pleasures. But M’Lady only watches. If I need punishment, she must only speak a word.”
“It’s about power,” Sada growled. “Dominance over a true king. And, of course, there are the nights she gives you out to other nobles.” He nodded in her lap. “Like some kind of toy. Powerful feelings for little people. Oh yes, and the royal Pendragon seed must be worth something to some lady or other…”
“No,” he breathed. “I would be punished. I must never…”
“Of course not. She’s taken every possible moment of pleasure away from you.”
“It is for the best. She says my seed is rotten. M’Lady knows all I need.”
Sada sat in silence as his breathing became more regular. Only when he wouldn’t be able to see them did she finally let her tears fall. This was no longer a mission. Somehow this broken man had touched her heart. She would succeed in his rescue, or make sure they both died in the attempt. Morgana was never going to have him again.
“It is as I feared,” Morgause sighed, looking at the scene reflected in her basin of water.
Morgana paced and fumed behind her. “How could she betray me like this? How could she choose that… that beast, over the friendship we had? She and I played together while he and Arthur ignored her! Well, the slave warned her, but he has no idea. I will make him scream until his throat shreds and he chokes on his own blood. He thinks I’ve shown him pain before? Before I am done, he will tear her apart with his bare hands just to make the agony stop. Then I’ll only let his mind clear enough to see what he has done before I--”
“Sister?” Morgause turned to her, seeming not to notice the rant going on. “Do you not see? This could be the chance we have awaited.” Rage still burned in the brunette’s eyes. “She told him she means to take him to Arthur. Also, she let slip that the prince is not yet ready to fight us.” She waited a moment for her sister to catch up.
“Will it be a chance worth taking?”
The lovely blonde smiled. “We simply let them leave the castle and then follow with our army as she leads us straight to the prince’s hiding place. There, we will crush all who would stand against you.”
“What if we lose them?” Morgana muttered.
“There is no place in the world Uther can go that we could not find him. The enchantment of his bonds makes sure of that. It also means there is no place he can escape to if you truly wish his end. You risk losing nothing.”
“Nothing I would mourn the loss of,” the queen growled. “Inform the captain… Let them escape the castle, but keep the regular patrols in place so as not to arouse suspicion. Then prepare the army to march.” Morgana stopped to look at the reflection of Uther sleeping peacefully in Sada’s lap. “Tomorrow we will end this, and my ‘friend’ will lament her choice when she watches me take everything she holds dear from her.”
So far, so good. Sada had no trouble finding the hidden passages she had discovered in her explorations of the castle as a girl. It was a little amazing to her. Not that she thought the passages would have moved. But that her memories were so accurate. They moved silently around Morgana’s guards. Even with the large, shrouded figure trailing behind her, she knew they would be safely away in no time.
At the appointed hour, they reached the hidden doorway that exited the outer wall of the castle grounds. With a sigh of relief, Sada greeted the man waiting there.
“Any trouble?” he asked her nervously.
She shook her head, “All according to plan.” Sada stretched back through the dark doorway and gently took Uther’s hand, pulling him forward. His eyes darted around, wide with fear. “It’s time. Are you ready to go?”
Uther looked at her, his voice pleading as he spoke, “Flee. Go far from here and do not return. Please.”
“But, your Majesty…” the man began. A slightly raised hand from Sada forestalled his attempts to reason with his king. She already knew that would get them nowhere.
“Do you not want to come with me, Uther?”
The slave ducked his head. “M’Lady would never allow it. She’ll search for me. She needs me here. I must stay. But I don’t want her to hurt you. I only needed you to get away safely. Thank you for the kindness you’ve shown me, Great Lady.”
As he turned to make his way back into the castle, Sada sighed something very unladylike under her breath and leapt onto his back. With her arm pressing in on his neck, Uther began thrashing around in panic. Sada cursed her decision to use this method as she remembered his descriptions of Morgana’s preferred method of execution for him, but knew she could never bring herself to hit him. She hung on as he thrashed and whispered softly in his ear. “Breath, Uther. Keep breathing. I’m not cutting off your air. You’re just going to go to sleep for a while.” The large man stumbled to his knees as she pressed in on the arteries carrying blood to his brain. “Go to sleep. And when you wake, you will be with Arthur.” He finally fell over and passed out.
Sada ran back to get her accomplice. “Help me get him into the wagon!”
Together they dragged the king to the waiting buckboard and made sure he was completely hidden under the stack of fresh hay it carried. Sada almost laughed as her companion looked at her with wide eyes. He’d stood there and watched her assault the king of Camelot.
“Morgana has taken his mind. I knew it might come to that.”
The man frowned. “Do you think he can ever recover from her betrayal?”
“I don’t know, but I promise I’ll do all I can to help him.” She handed him a pouch of gold. “Take this and be sure no one ever suspects you of helping us escape. If Morgana finds out…”
“I know what the pretender is capable of. When the king wakes, please tell him his people are still loyal. And we eagerly await his and Arthur’s return.”
He help Sada up onto the cart, and she thanked him again as she started the horse walking.
The sun was low when the wagon reached the crest of a rise in a large clearing on the other side of the Darkening Forest. Here, Sada leapt down from her seat and called to the one clearly visible tent. “The dragon flies home when it’s spring!”
Prince Arthur appeared from a hiding place next to her. “That’s not the all clear phrase, Sada.”
She couldn’t help a grin. “I know. But I couldn’t bring myself to shout ‘the chicken is home to roost’ to tell you that there is a king among us.”
From the look that crossed Arthur’s face, she could tell that all was forgiven. “I can’t believe you found him alive,” the young man sighed with relief.
Sada place a light hand on his strong shoulder as Gaius and Merlin quietly joined them. “He is very much alive. But you must brace yourself, Highness. Morgana did not go easy on him. He’s not the man you remember.”
The prince frowned, then schooled his features into a look of resolve. “As long as he’s alive. That’s all that matters to me.”
“Good, my lord.” Sada turned to head toward the back of the wagon and smiled sadly over her shoulder as the three men began to follow her. “Please stand back and give me a moment. He’s… He’ll be rather skittish at first.” She received three worried nods as they backed off slowly.
At the back of the wagon, Sada grinned brightly at the pair of wide, green eyes that were peering at her from inside the haystack. “Uther,” she cooed softly to him. “Would you like to come out now? I promise you’re safe here.”
“Wh-where are we?” a small, shaky voice came back from the hiding place.
“Someplace where people love you and where no one is ever going to hurt you again.”
He glanced around frantically. “I can’t be here. M’Lady will be looking for me. She needs me. Why did you take me from her?”
Sada closed her eyes and sighed sadly. “I need you, too. Your Lady told you to attend me, did she not? You are to service my every pleasure?”
“Yes, Great Lady,” Uther answered in a sure voice, finally being given orders he recognized.
“It will please me greatly if you come out of the cart now.” She reached out for his hand. “Please, Uther?” He hesitated a moment and Sada frowned at Arthur. “Forgive me, Sire,” she whispered to the prince. She then commanded, “Before me now, Slave!”
Uther scrambled so quickly he tumbled out of the cart and came to rest on his hands and knees at Sada’s feet. He clutched at the hem of her skirts muttering, “Forgive me, forgive me, please forgive me.”
Sada quickly raised her hand to stop the other men rushing forward. Kneeling down, she took Uther’s head in her hands and brought his eyes up to look at her. “Always,” she smiled. “I will always forgive you anything.” She could feel him relax as he stared at her. “I won’t let anyone hurt you. I made that promise and I will keep it. Do you trust me?”
He nodded slowly and Sada’s heart leapt. It was not the automatic answer of a slave. This time, it was the truth.
She motioned for Arthur to slowly approach. “There’s someone here who really wants to see you, Uther. He’s been so worried.” Carefully standing, she pulled the king up with her and turned so he could see his son.
“Father,” Arthur began, glancing at Sada for conformation that his voice was pitched gently enough. “I’m… I feel I have failed you. I’m so sorry it took me this long to find a way to rescue you.”
Uther looked at him blankly at first, but then a hint of recognition sparked in his eyes and the corners of his mouth twitched up. “Arthur?” he breathed.
“Yes, Father,” tears were welling up in the prince’s eyes. “It’s me.”
Uther’s eyes went wide. “Get away!” A devastated look briefly crossed his son’s face as the king shoved at him. “You must get away from Camelot, Arthur. She’ll find you, she’ll kill you. M’Lady often talks about how she will destroy…” Arthur held his father by the shoulders as the older man unexpectedly reached out and tenderly caressed his face. “Don’t let her take you from me,” he whimpered, tears leaking from his eyes.
The prince looked to Sada for help. “He means Morgana,” she said sadly. “It’s what he calls her now.”
“We know all about Morgana’s plans, Father. I will win Camelot back for you. I promise.”
“What did she do to him?” Merlin breathed with a truly shaken look on his face.
Gaius put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “His own child hates him. That’s enough to break the will of any man.” The old man shared a glance with Sada. He knew that even if she could tell all that had happened to the king, she wouldn’t. It was not her place. She gave the wise man a grateful smile.
The three men jumped as Uther seemed to go into panic again. He dropped to his knees, clinging to Sada and shaking.
“What is it? What is it now?” Arthur looked around frantically, ready to protect his father.
Sada gently pressed Uther’s head to her stomach, trying to reassure him. She pointed behind Arthur to where several of his knights were gathering to see for themselves that the king had been rescued. “It’s the soldiers,” Sada frowned. “Men in armor haven’t exactly been friends to him lately.”
At the front of the group, Sir Leon heard this. He immediately dropped to his knee and bowed his head low in an attempt to show his allegiance to his king. The others quickly followed suit.
Arthur got down beside his father and placed a comforting hand on his back. “These are your men, Father. The knights of Camelot. Each of them would die before they let any harm come to you.” There was a grunt of agreement from the group.
Sir Leon looked up and carefully stated. “We serve Camelot and her true king, Uther Pendragon.” Having an idea, he then motioned Merlin over and gave the boy his scarlet cloak. Merlin caught onto the thought, understanding that with no armor he was least likely to be seen as a threat. He slowly carried the cloak up the hill and draped it over Uther’s shoulders.
Though the knights were clearly shaken by the sight of the frightened king, they did their best not to show it. Sada was proud of their understanding and compassion. She moved her hand on his head so he would look up at her. “See, my lord. You are not a slave here. You should stand up.” He looked at her, confused. “Stand up and be the man I see when I look at you.”
The king slowly rose to his feet, never taking his eyes from hers. “Yes, my lady,” her breathed softly. Sada fought the urge to take him in her arms in front of his men, the simple endearment was so overwhelming.
Arthur waved the court physician to them. “Gaius, will you please take my father to my tent and see to him. And, Merlin, find him food and clean water.”
The old man carefully placed a hand on Uther’s shoulder and grinned when his old friend seemed to recognize him. “Come, Sire. Let’s see what we can do to make you well again.”
As they got a few step away from the knights, Sada pulled Uther’s shirt aside to show Gaius his chains. “He says they can only be removed by magick. I know these are what Morgana uses to torture him, and I fear that when she finds she has no more control of him she will use them to kill him. You must find a way to free him before that time.”
Gaius and Merlin shared a knowing look before the physician nodded to Sada. “I will use all the resources available to me. Don’t worry, my dear.”
Sada smiled. “Try to keep him calm. I’ll be there soon.” She quickly returned to Arthur, knowing that the king’s gaze remained on her as he was led away.
“And the rest of the plan?” Arthur asked her as the knights gathered around.
“The witches are as predictable as I’d imagined. Morgana’s hatred has consumed her and given her power, but she lets Morgause lead. The sister is calm, cunning, and tactical.”
“So they took the bait?” the prince pressed.
Sada smiled. “As expected, they let me take him so they could follow us to you. Sire, Morgana’s entire army is not half a day’s march behind us. By sunrise you will be in battle for the very future of Camelot. And, may I add, your people pray for your return.”
“Then we will not let them down.” The small group turned to look down the hidden side of the slope at the combined armies of several kingdoms. All gathered with Arthur against the spreading evil of Morgana’s hate. “Prepare the men. Our fight is coming.”
“Yes, Sire,” everyone chorused.
Arthur stopped Sada with a hand on the shoulder as everyone else departed. “Not you.”
The young lady sighed. “I thought you understood by now. I am a warrior, same as you. Do not bar me from this battle because I am a woman.”
“After all you’ve done, I would not want to go into any fight without you by my side.” He gave her a weary smile. “But I need you to do something even more important for me now. Take my father as far from here as you can get. Someplace safe that I don’t even know about. I would send an entire compliment of knights to protect him, but it’s clear that you’re the only one he trusts. You can take Gaius and Merlin with you. I only beg that you make sure he’s not captured again.”
Sada smiled sadly. “Gaius will want to be here to tend to the wounded. And Merlin would never leave your side with a battle looming.” She raised her hand against the coming protest. “You know it’s true. But, yes, I will take Uther away from here. Morgana will never have him back.” She didn’t add that she would put him to a quick death herself before she let that happen, but the look in the prince’s eyes told her he knew. “Win this day, Arthur. So we can take him home.”
“For my father and for Camelot,” he nodded. “Please tell him… Let him know that…”
“He is a man destroyed by hate. He will never again be the man he was, the one you remember. But there is only one thing that might heal him. Love him, Arthur. In all his weakness, love him.”
The prince swallowed hard. “I… I do. Please make him believe that I… I always have.”
Uther shot upright in his bed, screaming.
Sada went calmly to his side. “Hush, my lord. You’re safe.”
“Where am I?”
“In your chambers, in the castle of Camelot. You’re home.” She stroked her fingers through his hair, coaxing him to lay back and rest. “Arthur is here and the kingdom prospers. There is nothing you have to worry about.”
“You are Uther Pendragon, king of Camelot.” Sada sat beside him and looked him over with a practiced gaze. “Where are you hurting tonight, my lord?” He shook his head slowly. “Gaius made an extra draught of your pain elixir. Let me know if you need it.”
When she got up, Uther reached for her. “My lady? Sada…” he whispered desperately.
“I’m here. As I always am.” She smiled back at him. Slipping out of her dressing gown, she slid into the bed beside him. They’d had to replace his mattress with a mat of straw, but it was better than a stone floor. Sada still didn’t understand it as she curled against his side. She had been an adventurer, soldier, spy, and now her whole world was this man. This broken man who looked at her and saw safety, love. Somehow, as she’d rescued him, he’d claimed her heart, rescued her as well. She couldn’t imagine doing anything more important than letting his arms wrap around her at that moment. Sada placed a tender kiss on his marred chest and whispered, “As I always will be, my love. My Uther.”