syllic: ([merlin] morgana leaf)
[personal profile] syllic
These three parts conclude the first section of the story, Council. These three parts are 21,000 words long; the section overall is approximately 37,700.

37,700 for one of three sections what what.

This story began to be written over a year ago; as season two aired, I picked and chose only what was convenient for me. For the purposes of this story, most of S2 has not happened, except for the dragon's release and subsequent attack on Camelot; think of Merlin honouring his promise much sooner, perhaps, with no bizarre back-pedal from the rest of the characters, and no Violins of Emotional Intensity (TM).

We have not met Morgause yet; we only know that Mordred escaped from Camelot with Arthur's and Morgana's and Merlin's help.

The sorcerer-trial conceit was a strange occurrence of the fannish hive-mind, and bears no direct relation to the wonderful Peach, Plum, Pear by the talented [livejournal.com profile] sweetestdrain. Though our ideas were conceived separately, I can only hope to pull mine off with half the grace and beauty of hers.

There is genderswapped Cai because it's fun.

Thank you also to [livejournal.com profile] arlad, to [livejournal.com profile] lilith_lessfair, and to M.

Thank you to [livejournal.com profile] faynia, [livejournal.com profile] cellophane_ria, [livejournal.com profile] lavitaestbella, [livejournal.com profile] pau494, and [livejournal.com profile] puckling for invaluable cheerleading.






Reign of King Uther, Year the Eighth

Ector had asked them to meet in some mud-splattered back alley in a part of town Lionel had never even been to, and when the time had come to crawl out of his and his wife’s warm bed, Lionel had considered simply not coming. But if there was one thing he had learned in his few years at court it was that meetings outside the castle usually meant secrets, and that secrets meant leverage. To have passed up the opportunity to get one over on Ector, who had never shown him a kindness, would have been a mistake.

“Lionel, over here,” he heard from a doorway, just as he was ducking his head and quickening his pace to avoid the bite of the rain on his skin.

“Ector, man, have you no mercy?” Lionel grumbled poor-naturedly as he turned on his heel. “Or was it your intention to have us arrive at this meeting half-drowned?”

Ector said nothing. His face was pale and tense with some unnamed anxiety, and he merely motioned for Lionel to follow him. Lionel did as he was bid and couldn’t say he was particularly surprised when they eventually wound up in a dusty room that could barely be described as anything other than half-dark. An oil lamp burned dimly in the corner, and Lionel muttered unhappily as he took a seat on a rickety chair by the wall.

“Lionel,” Caradoc greeted him from the opposite end of the room.

He was wringing his dark cloak out between his hands, and there was already a large puddle of water collecting beneath his chair.

“Caradoc,” said Lionel, trying to inflect some politeness into his tone. It never did to make outright enemies, or so Colgrevance always said. “Gaius,” he acknowledged, tilting his head towards the room’s fourth occupant.

Gaius nodded at him without saying anything. He tried so hard to affect a sense of righteousness and wisdom, Lionel thought snidely, but that wisdom had helped him not a whit when the queen had lain bleeding in her chambers.

“If we are done with the introductions,” Ector interrupted nervously.

They all turned to him, eager to have the reason for this strange gathering explained, but having begun, Ector seemed hesitant to continue.

“Well, Ector?” asked Caradoc eventually. “Surely you didn’t drag us here through the rain and the mud and what I’m certain were at least three pox-ridden dogs lying half-dead outside to sit in silence with us.”

“No,” said Ector, laughing threadily. “I didn’t.”

When he said nothing further for a second time, however, Gaius pressed him, in that infuriatingly unchanging cadence of his,

“Ector? You can speak freely.”

“Can I?” Ector’s voice rose and broke on an odd sound that Lionel thought was supposed to be a laugh. “Can any man truly believe that he is safe to speak these days, in the king’s court or elsewhere?”

Lionel tensed. If he had been brought here in the hope that he would speak ill of the king, the other three men had been sorely mistaken to invite him. Not only that, but Lionel would happily leave right now and report the others’ activities to their enemies, and never spare a thought for how these men might suffer as a result. It would be foolish of them to think otherwise.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, trying to decide whether immediately disassociating himself from whatever happened here tonight was more important than finding out what actually would take place, and Ector turned at his movement.

“Lionel, please,” he said, waving him back into his seat. “I apologise for not speaking more frankly at the outset. I have merely called you here to ask some questions of you, to gather some information. I have been away from court for a few days, as you know.”

Ector had disappeared on the day that the king had imprisoned Sir Lucan for flouting the recent edict that stated healing magic was not to be used without royal permission. Rumour had had it that Ector had already been hard-pressed to make some necessary improvements to his house in preparation for the winter storms, which were only around the corner, in time. That was why he had taken his leave during such a fraught time.

Lionel had also heard it said that Ector had been hard-pressed for time because gaming had previously made him hard-pressed for gold, at a point when the improvements could have been made with months to spare before they were truly needed.

“What is it you would like to know?” Lionel asked suspiciously, dragging himself from thoughts of Ector’s misfortunes.

If the questions could be answered simply, he would not begrudge Ector his answers. Lionel enjoyed having more information than others, and what was more, he knew that Ector could hardly be looking to procure in this dank room the sort of everyday tidings he could have easily gleaned from a conversation at court. It would be useful to help him now and remind him of it at a later date.

“I merely wished to benefit from your wisdom, from your knowledge on what direction you believe the king might be heading,” said Ector. “Yours especially, Lionel; I know the king keeps you and Sir Colgrevance in his council on many matters. I will admit that tonight my particular curiosity has most to do with— That is, I wish to ask whether you know more about the new policies that the king will be instituting regarding magic.”

A strange look crossed his features. If Lionel were forced to describe it he would have said that Ector seemed angry, but also deeply afraid, like a man facing the gallows unjustly.

“The king has asked those who have magical knowledge to cease making use of it until further discussion on the matter can take place, Ector,” said Gaius firmly. “I believe it would be unwise to speak on this issue further when he has asked us for patience as he deliberates.”

“Of course; of course,” said Ector. “I am well aware of that, Gaius, and you know I respect the king’s greater wisdom on these matters. I’m simply… interested in the coming developments for those who practice magic. I know all of us know someone skilled in at least some magical art. All faithful subjects to the king, of course.”

He seemed oddly eager to convince the rest of them that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, though it was hardly as if they had accused him of anything. Lionel gathered the information Ector was giving away—the look on his face, the way in which he wrung his hands. He wasn’t entirely sure what it meant yet, but it might well prove to be useful later.

“You wish to speak about the future of magical individuals in this kingdom?” asked Caradoc.

Caradoc was known in court for always cutting to the heart of the matter, Lionel knew. Before now he had always found Caradoc’s gruff manner somewhat of a nuisance, but at this moment it was useful to have someone there to ask the difficult questions Lionel did not want to voice himself.

“Well,” said Ector, hesitating for a long moment. “I suppose, if I’m honest, that I do. I mean… Caradoc, I know you’ve had a healer in your household for many years. Gaius, you’ve been an invaluable advisor to the king on this matter yourself. Lionel, rumour has it that you had been preparing the son of one of your young maids for apprenticeship under Nimu— In court. For apprenticeship in court.”

They all winced as one as Ector faltered. He continued.

“Do you mean to tell me you will expel Ganieda from your home, Caradoc?” he said. “Lionel, will you give up your hopes for the young boy? Do you truly agree with Colgrevance that magic will have no place in our kingdom after… After the events of the last few months?”

There were so many pitfalls that one could fall into in conversation these days, Lionel knew. He had found that silence often worked better than trying to avoid them, so he said nothing himself.

“Ganieda may remain with my family, Ector, of course, as long as she remains a dutiful subject to the king,” Caradoc said calmly. “I am certain Lionel will say the same of the young member of his household.”

“I would,” Lionel said, thinking this was a safe enough thing to say.

“But these individuals—shall we simply tell them not to practice those things that they are most skilled at?” asked Ector urgently. “Gaius, will you not foster their talent, document their advances, as you have in the past? Lionel, are you truly so ready to give up your ambitions for the future? The talk is that your kitchenmaid’s boy is powerful for one so young.”

Lionel did not know what to say. It was a very complex matter, really, and one he was not ready to speak about.

“I will do as the king bids me, of course,” Gaius finally said into the silence that followed Ector’s questions.

There was something about the way his eyes shifted, however, that made Lionel feel as if Gaius were leaving half of what he meant unsaid.

“As will I,” Lionel agreed smoothly, leaving much more than half of what he thought unspoken, as well.

“You truly believe that there is no future for those with magic in Camelot?” asked Ector.

He seemed incredulous, angry. Lionel could see him trying to keep hold of his temper; his jaw was clenched.

“That is a question only time, and the king, can answer, my friend,” said Caradoc.

He rose and placed a quelling hand on Ector’s shoulder, flicking his eyes towards Lionel.

Caradoc knew perfectly well that Lionel’s allegiance was with Colgrevance and with the king, and that these men, who had treated Lionel like an inconsequential country thane when he had arrived at court, were not nobles he felt any loyalty towards.

“If that is all, gentlemen, I wish to return to the castle to rest,” said Gaius.

He rose without waiting for an answer, and Lionel tried to quash his disappointment. Had he really come all this way in the freezing rain only to gain little more than a sodden cloak for his troubles?

He hesitated before standing, but was left with no choice but to do so when Ector said,

“Yes, yes, Gaius— I apologise for calling you from your bed. I simply wished to ascertain exactly what information I might need upon returning to the castle tomorrow. I wish to take no missteps. I know how difficult this time has been for the king; the last thing I want is to trouble him.”

No-one wants to misstep now, Lionel thought acerbically. Uther’s anger and despair had, after all, already proven to be far more formidable foes than most men.

They all shuffled out quietly. Each of the others seemed absorbed in his thoughts, and Lionel permitted himself a few minutes to think on some of the things that Colgrevance had told him he must leave firmly in the past. It couldn’t hurt to do so, after all; not in this shabby wooden house in the middle of the city’s forgotten streets.

Did he truly believe that there was no future for magic in Camelot, as Ector had asked? No, he could not say he did. Uther was a powerful man. He was clearly more powerful than the rest of the kingdom’s lords combined, as his ability to unite them when they had been in conflict for so many decades had proven. But he was not powerful enough to leech the magic from Camelot, because magic ran as swiftly and widely through this kingdom as its rivers—both those that were visible to men’s eyes and those that were not—did.

To believe that Uther could make the use of magic stop entirely and permanently would be unwise, because Uther was unlikely to have that sort of power over years of tradition and over the deep magical ties that had formed over that period between people and land. But to speak against or act against Uther now, when his rage burned so hotly and when the people’s sympathy was so firmly with him after the death of his wife, would be the worst course of action a man could take. No. Better to side with Colgrevance now, to do as the king bid, and wait for that stream to shift in its own time, on its own terms. Better to foster Daren’s young Feran quietly, to give the boy care and knowledge in secret, and to reap the benefits of those attentions when the right time to do so came. Lionel himself might not live to see it, but his sons would certainly benefit from his forethought, and that would be enough.

“You can’t truly believe that any one man has the power to change what Camelot is so fully,” Lionel heard Ector whisper heatedly to Caradoc as they left.

Lionel dallied in the corridor, trying to make it seem as if he weren’t listening.

“Calm yourself, Ector,” said Caradoc, shooting a shrewd look in Lionel’s direction.

Even in the half-dark, his eyes were sharp and accusing. Lionel turned away and kept walking, albeit more slowly than he had been before.

“You know that I am faithful to Camelot’s king,” said Caradoc firmly.

Then he lowered his voice, and said quickly,

“And you know also what I think of other matters. I know it must be disconcerting, returning to court after little more than a week away to find things so changed. But our king is a wise and brave man, Ector. Perhaps… some time. Perhaps some patience is what is called for.”

Lionel wished he could turn to look at the two of them. He wondered what Caradoc’s face looked like; his voice sounded very odd.

“Yes,” said Ector, more serenely, musingly. “Yes.”

“And after all, old friend,” said Caradoc, his voice lighter, “Unlike the rest of us, you have no sorcerers among your servants. Neither you nor your wife were particular friends of the king’s old advisor; neither of you ever learned under her, as Gaius did. What does it matter to you, of all people, if our king wishes to make some changes on this matter? You must count yourself lucky, man, to be so firmly out of the reach of the fire.”

“You’re right, of course, Caradoc,” said Ector quietly.

He’s saying ‘You’re right’, Lionel thought, but his voice couldn’t be heavier with despair. How odd.

He pricked his ears, hoping for more, but all Ector said was, still in that strangely dull voice,

“Yes, of course you’re right. Why should it matter to me?”








Reign of King Arthur, Year the First

“I thought you said this could be done discreetly,” Arthur ground out from between clenched teeth.

Morgana inclined her head.

“I would not have said that if I hadn’t believed it to be true at the time, Arthur. Something must have happened last night to change what we had hoped would happen. Someone must have said something. No—someone must have said something and then worked specifically to ensure that it would be repeated.”

“We were already forcing this issue at Ector’s insistence, Morgana, and I know you felt as uneasy about it as I did. It was supposed to be a matter for the court. And now you are telling me that people are talking about it in the streets?”

Arthur glanced at Merlin, who was sitting quietly with Guinevere, listening to him and Morgana speak. His and Gwen’s eyes were both wide.

Arthur thought of his father’s pyres, and about the heat with which people had pushed neighbours and family into them, to avoid the lick of the flames themselves. He firmly believed that the people of Camelot had the desire, and the ability, to return to a saner relationship with sorcery, to remember their compassion and respect for those who could wield magic. But Arthur and the others could hardly expect that to be the case immediately. Not after years of his father’s hunts; not with his father’s body not yet buried.

And now Morgana said there was talk on the streets of Arthur choosing a sorcerer for his court, and that people were wondering who among them might still have the knowledge necessary to do what Arthur wanted done. What if their curiosity turned to apprehension? What if no other candidates materialised, and Merlin alone was left to be the face of what people feared?

“We cancel the trials,” he said firmly. “We speak to those that were at the council yesterday and ask them to confirm that these rumours are nothing more than that.”

Morgana shook her head.

“It’s too late for that. Many in the court already have confirmation of what took place yesterday. I think it must have been Colgrevance, looking for support to speak against the proposal in council today. From what I’ve heard, he’s found no significant allies yet.”

Arthur waved this away.

“It’s hardly the courtiers I’m worried about, Morgana. They’ll be much more concerned with currying favour at this time than with anything else. But we can hardly expect that the thought of what I might think will be enough to stay a mob, if there is enough opposition in the town. And I hardly want to face shopkeepers down with horses and armour.”

“I don’t think it’ll come to that,” came a quiet voice from the table.

It was Guinevere.

“Arthur,” she said slowly, measuring her words as she always did with him. “I think it’s silly to give the nobles more credit than the common folk. You speak about men who want to curry your favour. They do so because they hope to be a part of the rise of your kingdom. And the people in the streets, they are not so different from those men. They too have hope for something new. And unlike many here, they want the best for you, and they hope that you want the best for them. That’s not to say that there are no uneasy people in the streets right now, but I’m fairly sure all they need is your assurance. Just your assurance that you’re trying to do what’s best for them.

It’s hardly as if they have forgotten magic, simply because they have never lived between the walls of this castle. Many remember a time before the purges, Arthur, and you can rest assured that they all certainly remember the times they have suffered since. Your people know magic, not least because they have smelled the flesh of their loved ones burning. But they also know magic because in town there is always a girl who believes she is in need of a love potion, or a man who wants to better please his wife, or a son who hopes against hope for a cure for a parent’s illness. They may not call it that, and they certainly won’t have ever brought your father’s men’s attention to it, but there are many people in the markets who trade in skills that were supposed to have been wiped out two decades ago.

It seems ridiculous to me that you believe you can trust the people within these walls more than the people without, Arthur, because you can rest assured that the men and women who live in this city have never had anything but love for you. For you to think they would not follow you with loyalty and devotion is disgraceful. For you to think of lying to them instead of offering an explanation, which is the only thing they would ask of you in order to follow you, is shameful.”

Arthur stared at her, wide-eyed. This was the longest he’d ever heard Guinevere speak, and though he was certain this was not true for Merlin or Morgana, they didn’t seem any less surprised.

Gwen’s jaw was set, and she reached up to wipe her fingers at the corners of her eyes, breathing heavily. Arthur watched her struggle not to give any more away and was horrified to be the cause of the brittle, proud look on her face.

“Guinevere,” he whispered, walking towards her and kneeling awkwardly in front of her.

He did not forget her scream as they had taken Tom away.

“You are right, of course,” he said gently, laying his hand on top of hers. “And I apologise for speaking mistakenly and for any insult that I have given.”

She nodded, but said nothing else. Arthur stood and looked at Morgana, who looked on the edge of composure herself.

“We’ll go ahead as planned, then?” he said, unsure whether he was asking whether they should or saying so. “We’ll announce our plans in council and call a vote, and then I will make an announcement in the courtyard. We’ll have Lancelot spread the news in the lower town that I will speak this afternoon.”

“I can help with that,” said Merlin quietly, and Arthur turned to him.

“No,” he said sharply.

Gwen might not be wrong, but that was no reason to send Merlin out to the streets. Who knew what Colgrevance might suspect, or what news he might have had spread amongst the courtiers, or in the markets, in expectation of this morning.

Merlin looked affronted, and Arthur amended,

“I need you here. I intend to call for a preliminary declaration of possible candidates at the council, and it will be useful for you to know who might stand against you. I will extend the invitation to the townsfolk when I speak afterwards. If Gwen is right, some among them might wish to be included as well.”

“Do you not think that’s a little fast, Arthur?” Morgana asked cautiously.

“I think ‘fast’ hardly does what has happened here justice, Morgana. This has spun entirely out of our hands and you can rest assured I do not like it one bit. But quite frankly, we might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb at this point.”

“Yes,” she said. “I suppose I see the logic in that.”

“Gwen,” Arthur began, about to finish with, Are you all right?

The look on her face dissuaded him entirely, and so he added, “Perhaps you could accompany Lancelot, take the measure of the people in town. If you think there is anyone worth speaking with…?”

He trailed off. He did not want to make her angry again by assuming anything further, but she nodded decisively as if what Arthur was saying made sense.

“Perfect. Morgana, find out what you can before the council. Merlin—”

He struggled to come up with some task for Merlin, preferably one that would keep him in close proximity.

“Find out if anyone is waiting for an audience this morning. And I’ll—”

He wasn’t quite sure how to finish that thought, either, but he was saved from having to do so when the door to the antechamber opened suddenly, without warning from the page outside. It was Gaius, looking anxious. The circles beneath his eyes were shallow purple valleys, and he looked, impossibly, more tired than he had two days ago.

“Gaius?”

“Sire,” he said. “I must speak with you.”

“Of course,” Arthur said earnestly. “Now? Do you wish to speak in private?”

Gaius glanced at the others, and said, “I can speak here, Arthur.”

Arthur nodded encouragingly.

“Sire,” said Gwen, turning to Gaius and continuing, “I’m sorry, Gaius, I don’t mean to interrupt. I just— unless you need me here, perhaps I could go find Lancelot, and do as you asked, Arthur?”

Arthur looked at Gaius inquisitively, and he nodded tiredly.

“Thank you, Gwen,” he said. “I believe you may go without worrying. I simply have some information for Arthur.”

Gwen raised her eyes to Arthur’s, and Arthur nodded her away, trying to apologise to her once more with his eyes.

As soon as the door shut behind her Arthur motioned for Gaius to sit. Merlin pulled a chair out from the table for him, and Gaius lowered himself into it with his customary care. His bones were brittle, and he had to be exceedingly careful not to move carelessly and risk a fall. Arthur knew this because Merlin had confided in him after spending a week tending Gaius when Gaius had broken his wrist two years ago, as the result of a minor mishap in a corridor. Gaius had wanted no-one to know.

“Sire, I believe I can explain why the news of our meeting yesterday has spread so widely,” he began, and Arthur’s eyes widened at this seemingly unrelated mention of the topic of their earlier conversation.

“Go on,” he said, coming to sit beside Gaius.

Morgana and Merlin did the same.

“I have been told that Sir Ector sent his pages to their families in the town, sire, and that they were encouraged to then spread the news from there. It appears that Caradoc may have asked some from his household to do the same, and that Lionel, perhaps, also had his servants make some tentative enquiries.”

Morgana narrowed her eyes.

“That makes sense. Colgrevance in the court, because he has interest in taking control of the situation here. Ector and Caradoc and Lionel in the town, because they—for whatever reason, particularly Lionel; his agreement yesterday was a surprise if ever there was one—have an interest in making this venture a success. It would make sense to gauge the townspeople’s reaction, and also to make this widely known before Colgrevance could shut down our options in court, if he had succeeded in his attempts to do so overnight.”

“But why do the others care so much?” asked Merlin, giving voice to Arthur’s thoughts.

Gaius sighed deeply.

“Caradoc’s children were nursed by a woman who was once renowned for her healing magic,” he said. “Ganieda is her name. She is old now, but not too old to act as your advisor for some years, Arthur, if you were to ask for her council.”

Arthur was silent.

“And Lionel— I believe Lionel also has a powerful sorcerer in his own household. The son of one his maids, though I believe she died some time ago. He must be close to your age, Arthur; he was only a few years old when you were born. I had thought the boy had been sent to his family after his mother’s death, but I have been told now that Lionel fostered the boy alongside his own sons. Feran is his name.”

“And Ector?” asked Arthur.

He clenched his fists as he waited for Gaius’ answer. It was too much to handle calmly—the casual mentions of magic in court households; the knowledge that Merlin would have to face serious opposition, if indeed Merlin could remain a contender at all; the exhausted look on Gaius’ face.

Gaius shook his head.

“I do not know why Ector remains so interested in this issue. It is my belief that he was strongly against your father’s initial decision to ban magic from the kingdom, and that he now sees an opportunity to reverse all that has been done in the intervening years. He and Caradoc never spoke openly about this, but it was well known that they did not always agree with your father’s policies. That is why they have been away from court for some time.”

“Gaius, how do you know all this?” asked Morgana.

Her tone was wondering.

“Many years ago,” Gaius said, shaking his head wearily, “ I was summoned to a rather strange meeting in the middle of the night. Ector had called us there, I believe, or perhaps Caradoc. I remember thinking that the issue Ector had clearly hoped for us to discuss—magic—couldn’t bring us anything but trouble, and I was sorry to have come as soon as I arrived. I left early, and the others followed, and I always believed it was nothing more than one man’s passing fancy that he could sway the opinion of the king, if only he gathered enough support. Lionel was there, despite the fact that Caradoc and Ector did not trust or like him. But I see now that he had been called there for a very specific reason—like them, he had an interest in preserving the right of someone in his household to practice magic. I had been summoned because they believed I would fight for my own right to do the same. And I believe now that that night was somehow the first step on the road we now find ourselves on, despite the many years that have passed between then and now.”

Gaius looked fatigued, confused. Arthur could sympathise.

“And that is not all, your majesty,” Gaius said cautiously.

Arthur glanced up. He was sure his face quite accurately conveyed what he thought about there being more.

“As soon as I heard what Caradoc and Lionel and Ector were doing, I went to some of my more trusted friends in the court,” Gaius continued. “I have since discovered that Lionel and Caradoc are not alone in having a practitioner of magic in their households. It appears, sire, that many courtiers, with the exception of Colgrevance and a few others, chose to do the same—to protect a magic user by ensconcing them in their households, after your father’s original restrictions were put in place. These individuals do not practice magic openly, certainly, but I do not believe that they completely ceased to practice magic twenty-nine years ago, either.”

Arthur gaped. It was far from a kingly thing to do, to look so gormlessly at Gaius as he sat hunched in his chair, but Arthur did not know what else he could do. Something was building in his lower belly, something that he was unable to put a name to until it battered against his ribs like an angry animal.

Rage.

“Are you telling me,” he choked out, “That my father ordered the people of Camelot killed— That my father—” he glanced at the chair where Gwen had just been sitting— “That my father had Guinevere’s father burned even while his nobles did what they wished? That my father made common men and women pay for his anger while the courtiers shielded those that they deemed more worthy?”

“Uther needed Lionel, because no-one had proven so effective in doing his bidding or as unswerving in their devotion to him as Lionel and Colgrevance had,” Morgana said, her voice dripping with disdain. “Tom was only a smith. And a smith he could replace very easily indeed.”

“No,” said Gaius.

His voice was like thunder. His eyes were troubled, and his hands were trembling.

“No, Morgana, Arthur,” he said. “You do Uther a great disservice. Your father was many things, Arthur. He faltered often and he failed his people in ways that will never be forgotten, even if they are eventually forgiven. But his hatred of magic was genuine. Give a choice, he would have had magic routed from every corner of this kingdom. If he had had even an inkling of what his own courtiers were doing, they too would have faced the stake.

No,” he finished wearily. “Lionel and Caradoc and the others were simply very careful. They gave the appearance of being loyal subjects while hedging their bets in expectation of just such a change as the one you are now proposing, Arthur. But your father did not know of this. This I am certain of.”

Arthur’s head spun. He brought his left hand to his face and squeezed the bridge of his nose tightly, trying to focus on the sharp pain of it.

“So… this person in Lionel’s household, and the woman in Caradoc’s. They’ll have been trained in magic?”

Merlin’s voice was a welcome distraction, but his question brought another source of Arthur’s anxiety back to the surface.

“I believe they will have received training in secret, if any was available, yes,” Gaius said.

Then he looked fondly at Merlin.

“That said, I can’t think they’ll prove too much of a challenge, my boy.”

At the warm tone in Gaius’ voice, Arthur relaxed momentarily. Then he thought of how parents always seemed to think their children were more beautiful, more skilled, and more extraordinary than anyone else ever thought they were, and tensed again.

“I’m beginning to think that we should cancel the trials again,” he said with a sigh.

“You’ve already sent Lancelot and Gwen out,” said Morgana.

She was clearly trying to sound reasonable, but her voice was as tired as Arthur’s.

“Arthur,” said Merlin.

He waited until Arthur looked up at him, and then he spoke, jabbing his head forward as if to emphasise how serious he was. He looked ridiculous, and Arthur tried to mask his smile.

“Did I or did I not tell you not to worry?”

Arthur laughed.

“Yes. And how could I have forgotten your sage advice, Merlin, especially when things are so simple and uncomplicated for us?”

Something in Merlin’s eyes shuttered and Arthur blew a breath out through his nose.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Merlin’s tense shoulders did not relax.

“Merlin, I’ve got three dozen other things other than you to worry about, you know,” he said peevishly, and immediately regretted it.

Firstly, because it really wasn’t true. At the end of the day the fact was that he had thought this would be simple, for him and for Merlin; the trial idea alone had been stressful enough to contemplate. Now along came Gaius full of revelations from the past, like ghosts risen in the night, and the country lane that Arthur had seen them all traversing to ensure that Merlin could stand at his side now looked more like a treacherous ravine.

Secondly, because it was true: this was all far more complex than he had ever imagined it being. He had thought his father’s kingdom needed some gentle coaxing in order to be nudged back into a more tolerant form of existence. Remember to be patient, he had told himself, certain that he could steer his people there, given time. Now it turned out that they were the patient ones, and had been waiting years for him to come along and finally do what they had all been preparing for.

It was somewhat dispiriting to discover he was not quite the visionary he had imagined himself to be. The implications of this for his judgment of his father’s rule were an unpleasant and related matter, too tangled and distasteful to even begin considering now.

“You’re right,” Merlin was saying, shaking his head. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” said Arthur, disgustedly. “Don’t apologise.”

“But you just said—”

“I know what I just said, Merlin; I said it.”

Merlin made a small sound of frustration in the back of his throat, and muttered,

“You know, it’s really a struggle to understand why I bother when you get like this.”

Arthur was thinking up some witty rejoinder about how it was funny that Merlin seemed to think that he was the one who was inconvenienced by Arthur when Morgana laughed, shattering his concentration.

“Hearing you two speak sometimes is a good reminder that as dire as things might seem,” said Morgana, looking at them with a mixture of affection and condescension, “They could always be worse.”

Gaius’ nose twitched, and Arthur narrowed his eyes at him. Merlin glared, boring holes into the wall with his eyes.

“Look, I suggest we proceed as planned,” said Morgana.

“Are you under the illusion that we have the ability to decide how we do anything at this point, Morgana?” Arthur bit out, choosing to forget that he had said the same not half an hour ago.

“No,” said Morgana. “But ‘I suggest we proceed as planned’ sounds better.”

Arthur couldn’t disagree.

“I would suggest making only one change to your arrangements, sire,” said Gaius.

Arthur looked at him.

“If the situation is as we suspect, Arthur,” Gaius said, looking down at his knees, “Then it stands to reason that once you announce the opening of the trials, candidates will be crawling from the very woodwork to participate.”

Arthur nodded.

“I think that’s probably an accurate assessment.”

“Might I suggest, then,” Gaius said, “That you come up with a preliminary requirement that all participants must fulfil if they wish to enter the process? Something difficult enough to weed out all of the hopeless ones, but simple enough to retain all those whose potential might be greater than their knowledge, still.”

“That makes sense,” said Morgana. “Merlin?”

Merlin rubbed the middle finger of his right hand with his thumb, the way he always did when he was thinking carefully about something. His mouth twisted musingly, and he finally said,

“Ask them to summon water.”

“Water?” asked Arthur.

He knew very little about magic, granted, but that hardly seemed complicated.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds, Arthur,” said Merlin, rolling his eyes. “You can light a fire by sparking the air and feeding intention into the flame, and you can ask the wind to shift direction with the right spell. But water—water has to be drawn from the earth. Don’t ask me how it happens; I’ve never completely understood it. But I know what it feels like. When you bring water forward… It’s as if the ground is unwilling to give it up. It takes a lot of concentration, and a lot of skill. I wasn’t able to do it until I was eleven, maybe twelve.”

We’re asking everyone to do something you were able to do as a child in order to weed out the incompetents? Arthur almost said. It was on the tip of his tongue, but Gaius looked very serious, as if Merlin were making complete sense, and Morgana was nodding already.

Arthur spared an instant to be irked, because their compliance seemed to him as if they were suggesting that they knew Merlin better than he did. Then he turned his full irritation to the memory of Merlin’s unfamiliar eyes the night before, to the thought of how the air in these rooms had tasted, and decided he had better not complain about this in particular.

“Fine,” he said, with poor grace, trying to sound nonchalant. “If you say so. Summoning water it is.”






Part I(d)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-20 07:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lilith-lessfair.livejournal.com
Violins of Emotional Intensity?

I think I might have to borrow them from Messrs. Capps, Murphy, et al. and declare my undying affection for you before I run off to read this.

Lady, have you slept at all this past day or two?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-22 03:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lilith-lessfair.livejournal.com
Sweet Syllic,

Do you know what impresses me greatly in this fic? Aside from the ten or twelve other things I've mentioned thus far?

You are managing both to discuss the high implications of court politics -- the meanings behind the delicate, tedious maneuvering and the large scale implications of policy -- and to give it a human cost. The impact of Ector's grief, which is evident to everyone in the room and which they'd likely investigate further if they hadn't their own troubles and the power of Gwen's simple words (hello Guinevere -- now there is a queen to love and one to express her opinions without sounding motherly or condescending but motivating through the force of her faith) are extraordinary. This is no mean feat.

I wonder about syncretism in the world in which these men and women live: to what degree would sorcery not only go underground as it seems it did but also how might men and women disguise magical beliefs in new guises? Sorry, thinking ahead of myself...

As before, I am struck by the degree to which Arthur and Merlin do know each other and the degree to which they don't.

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