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Seven Magpies


In retrospect, Arthur would think that if he hadn’t had the sort of servant who thought it was appropriate to tussle with the prince he served as if the two of them were dirty village urchins, none of it would have happened.

It wasn’t that Arthur had been particularly keen to approach the strange bluish glow in the clearing any more than the knights who had been hanging back uncertainly had been. But once Merlin had said, “Maybe you should let me go first, sire,” as if he were somehow better prepared to face whatever it was than Arthur was, the idiot, Arthur had felt it was a matter of pride to push Merlin back.

He’d felt particularly pleased with the level of contempt that he’d managed to pack into his sneer, too.

But no-one could say that Merlin had ever exhibited signs of knowing what was good for him. He’d actually pressed back against Arthur’s arm, repeating his request—“No, really, sire, I insist”—and trying to squeeze past to enter the clearing first.

Arthur had pushed him back again; Merlin had knotted his fingers in Arthur’s tunic with an odd sort of desperation. Arthur had shoved Merlin aside; Merlin had yanked Arthur’s hair, and it had devolved into the sort of undignified affair that Arthur hoped never to have to acknowledge again.

Ever.

They’d burst out from behind a small copse of trees, and Arthur had caught a second’s glimpse of Merlin’s horrified face outlined in blue light before the woods around them had quieted into complete silence, then exploded in a flash of lightning.






Arthur opened his eyes a minute later to the sight of seven magpies streaking across the top of the clearing, their shapes dark against the white clouds and the muted grey of the sky. He tried to remember what it was that seven magpies meant—he’d had a nurse who had sung the rhyme to him as a child—but couldn’t.

“Arthur?” he heard from above him, and he turned his aching head to find Merlin looking down at him bemusedly, smiling as if this weren’t all his bloody fault.

He tried to get the word what out of his mouth, but his throat refused to yield anything more than a dry, hacking sound. He coughed a couple of times, glaring balefully at Merlin.

“Are you all right?” asked Merlin, lips quirking as he extended a hand for Arthur to take.

Arthur blinked slowly, his joints feeling oddly uncooperative, before finally extending his arm toward Merlin’s.

Once he was upright, he pulled his shoulders back, drawing a slow, even breath through flared nostrils. He had found that Merlin had learned to recognise this as a sign of a spectacular berating to come, and the look he always gave Arthur in response, half fright and half amusement, was always particularly satisfying to catch.

Merlin simply quirked an eyebrow at him, though, before shaking his head once and saying,

“Well, come on then. Let’s get back.”

He walked back towards the edge of the clearing, crunching twigs under his boots and not sparing another glance for Arthur.

Arthur felt a roiling, burning anger flare to life low in his belly, stoked immediately into a fierce flame by Merlin’s insolence: his failure to acknowledge that whatever had knocked Arthur on his arse might not have done so if Merlin hadn’t flagrantly disregarded an order Arthur had given him, that he’d now walk away from him as if he were entitled to do so.

Merlin,” he called warningly, and Merlin turned around, raised his eyebrows again, and said,

“Yes, Arthur?”

“What exactly do you think you are you doing?” he asked, trying to place his knights by looking for them from out of the corner of his eye.

The last thing he wanted was to have to order that Merlin be put in the stocks, or worse, that he be whipped. Generally, however, Merlin had more sense than to act as if their more private manner of interaction could be showcased like this before Arthur’s other subordinates, many of whose first allegiances were to Uther.

“Er … Well, mostly, I think I am getting out of here before we both begin to age,” Merlin retorted, intoning his voice in a mockery of Arthur’s.

Arthur saved himself from spluttering only by sheer force of will.

“Gareth,” he called sharply, barely turning his face to the right.

Perhaps he could order Gareth to take Merlin away as if to be punished. Gareth would know better than to do anything before Arthur got back, and he could ride ahead with Merlin before Arthur was forced to give an order out loud in front of others, after which it could not be taken back.

“What about him?” asked Merlin cheerfully, putting one foot in the stirrup of a handsome golden mare outfitted in a fine bridle and swinging up into the saddle.

“Listen here, Merlin,” Arthur began, before stopping, snapping his mouth shut and looking around the clearing carefully for the first time since he’d ended up flat on his back.

He was fairly certain he’d never seen the mare Merlin was riding before in his life.

He looked around, craning his head as far as it would go, then looked again, because he could have sworn the clearing they were standing in now was not the same clearing they’d entered a few minutes earlier.

The trees that they’d been crouching behind before coming forward were gone, replaced by a dark gathering of shrubs, some of which had bright berries clustering heavily on their lower branches. Arthur shook his head slowly, feeling a nagging uncertainty about just how hard he might or might not have hit his head as he fell. The uncertainty spiked into alarm when he saw that none of the seven knights that had accompanied them for the day’s patrol were anywhere in sight.

Arthur looked around for his horse, but the only animal in the clearing, apart from the mare on which Merlin was now sitting, looking at him uncertainly, was a roan gelding.

“Where is my horse, Merlin?”

Merlin looked at him the way one might look at a small child who was asking an uncomfortable question.

“Arthur,” he said, motioning distractedly towards the gelding and craning forward to peer intently into Arthur’s eyes. “Are you sure you’re well?”

No, Merlin, I am certain I am not, Arthur almost said before he thought better of it. Because now that he was looking more carefully, he could see that Merlin was wearing a fine velvet cloak with a hood lined in fur, the sort of thing Merlin could not possibly own. And even if he could, Arthur was positive he did not: he would never admit it, but he was fairly certain he could recognise each of the pieces of clothing Merlin owned. It helped that many of them had been Arthur’s at one point, but Arthur was almost sure he could have identified any of Merlin’s awful neck wrappings, even though none had been ripped from Arthur’s old tunics.

Merlin was looking fixedly at him now, eyes narrowed, and Arthur fought to pull himself together, to tear his eyes away from where Merlin’s delicately spun tunic laced across Merlin’s chest, from where his soft leather breeches pulled across his knees as Merlin leaned forward.

He looked down at himself (somewhat belatedly, considering the circumstances) and noted, with the odd detachment of the utterly confused, that he appeared to be wearing slightly coarse clothing that had been darned at the wrists and ankles, as if someone with longer limbs had worn it before Arthur had.

You are not going mad, he told himself firmly, closing his eyes briefly and counting downwards from ten in his head. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why you appear to be seeing things that are not there.

When he looked up, it was to see Merlin hopping nimbly from his horse. He came to stand beside Arthur, gripping his upper arm tightly.

“Arthur. What is it?”

His eyes flicked from Arthur to the horses, then around the edges of the clearing, as if to see what it was that was making Arthur stand like a statue beside him, every muscle clenched.

“What do you feel? Do you think you’ve been bewitched?” he asked, when Arthur didn’t answer.

He looked intently into Arthur’s left eye, then into the right, then at Arthur’s hands. His fingers pushed Arthur’s hair back from his forehead, then patted at his chest and cheeks.

Arthur thought of the blue light, of the seconds he’d lost between walking towards it and opening his eyes to see the sky above him. Yes, he thought. Yes, I think I have been bewitched.

Then he thought of Merlin’s clothing and of the scratchy feel of his own breeches’ rough fabric at his hips, of all the things that could not be explained away by a flash of light. He looked carefully at Merlin, who did not appear to think anything was amiss, and some odd instinct of prideful self-preservation—Never let them see you uncertain, Arthur, his father always said—made him say,

“No, I … I’m sorry. I was just a bit dazed from the fall. We can— Let’s go back to the castle now.”

Merlin looked at him for a moment longer, brows drawn together, then finally nodded. He clambered back onto his horse, and Arthur put a shaky foot into the gelding’s stirrup. Merlin nudged his horse into motion as Arthur settled into his own unfamiliar saddle. He turned to look at Arthur as he rode, saying,

“We’ll go see Gaius when we return. He can have a look at your head.”

“Yes,” said Arthur gratefully. Gaius will know what to do.

They rode in silence for a few minutes, and Arthur finally broke the silence by asking,

“What day is it?”

Merlin glanced at him sharply, clearly alarmed, before saying, “December. December the ninth.”

That, at least, was as Arthur thought, then.

“Arthur, how hard did you hit your head when you tripped?”

When I tripped? Arthur thought indignantly, because rising uncertainty aside, he was fairly clear on the fact that he was not, nor would he ever be, the sort of person who tripped.

“Merlin, I’m fairly certain it was the massive explosion of blue light that knocked me flat,” he said disdainfully.

Merlin simply shot him another worried look, the sort of look that, had anyone else been there to see it, might have communicated, Oh dear, here comes the village loon, then spurred his horse faster.

“Blue light?” he asked, clearly affecting nonchalance, but Arthur was spared from answering, Yes, yes, blue light, the blue light we followed into the clearing, you idiot. Or … did we? by the sight of the castle’s walls appearing as the two of them emerged from the forest.

Arthur pretended not to have heard the question, and Merlin did not press him further. Arthur felt so addled that he could not even muster up the energy to dress him down for nudging his mare forward onto the drawbridge before Arthur’s horse, as if he didn’t know better than to precede the crown prince into his own courtyard.

Arthur pursed his lips and tried to be patient: he was certain he’d have a chance to scream himself hoarse any moment now, after all. Just as soon as he saw Gaius. Then everything would be cleared up, and Arthur would find his own clothes and his own horse, and he could banish at least two of his knights, on principle, for deserting him, and give Merlin stable duty for stealing clothes.

The moment after he saw Gaius.

“Merlin! Arthur!” Gareth called cheerfully from the courtyard.

Arthur was about to ask, How in the world did you get back so quickly? when Gareth came forward, took the reins of Merlin’s horse, and helped him descend as if Merlin were the knight. He then handed the mare off to a stableboy before turning and climbing up the castle’s stairs, turning to call,

“I’ll let the queen know you’re back!” as he disappeared down the corridor.

“—tell Gaius we need to see him, too!” Merlin called after him, laughing at his hasty departure.

The queen? Arthur thought. He shook his head quickly as he dismounted from his horse. He’d probably misheard. Problems with his hearing, a period of unconsciousness long enough to allow someone to dress him in foul rags (all right, not foul, he’d admit: they were perfectly serviceable, but not anywhere near appropriate). He just had to keep a careful tabulation of the symptoms, then mention everything to Gaius.

“All right, Arthur, we’re going to Gaius straight away,” said Merlin, wrapping his fingers tightly around Arthur’s wrist and pulling him towards the castle like a child.

“Sire!” called a man’s voice from behind them, and Arthur and Merlin turned as one to see a man unloading a heavy work cart at one end of the courtyard. He had an extremely large package balanced precariously against one side of the cart, and he called towards them,

“Could you possibly help me to unload this one parcel, sire?”

Not the most proper of requests, but Arthur would not begrudge one of his subjects his help if he was struggling. He started forward, but stopped when Merlin’s hand shot out before him.

He turned to see Merlin nodding and smiling, saying, “Of course,” indulgently.

He splayed the fingers of the hand in front of him, and the air crackled with an odd sort of pressure before Merlin’s eyes turned golden, glittering amber like a cat’s. Arthur started, then looked back towards the man and his cart, in the direction where Merlin’s hand was pointing.

The roughly wrapped bundle was lifting clear of the cart, despite the fact that the man was no longer supporting it, and Arthur looked between it and Merlin with a dawning sense of horror. His throat constricted, refused to do what he wanted it to for the second time that day. It would not allow him to suck in a breath of air. He was not even able to squeeze a Stop, you fool from it.

Arthur’s father had burned dozens of men and women for lesser crimes than this in this very courtyard: he had burned many of them for no crime at all. In that one instant Arthur felt vindicated that his discipline of looking away from Merlin at key points in the proceedings had not been misled; he felt horrified by the prospect of the men he was certain would begin tearing towards them at any second. He felt scared, something that he had only admitted to feeling three or four times in his life. He felt angry, which was a disturbingly common occurrence around Merlin, a man whose job was supposed to be to make Arthur’s life easier.

No rush of people materialised to apprehend Merlin, however, and the man who Arthur assumed was a merchant called a grateful, “Thank you, sire!” as his package came to rest on the floor beside him, near the back entrance to the kitchens.

“Of course, Balwen,” said Merlin.

Arthur looked around, a stiff talking-to (or, at the very least, some vomit) ready to come out of his gaping mouth, just in time to catch sight of a woman dressed in green silk emerging from the castle.

Morgana, thank heavens, he thought, stepping abortively towards her. When the woman looked up, though, her eyes were lined, and Arthur saw that her hair, intricately decorated with pearls and adorned with a gleaming coronet set with jewels, was greying.

“Merlin, darling,” she called sweetly, and Merlin called,

“Mum!” delightedly and rushed towards her just as Arthur placed Hunith’s face.

Arthur looked between Hunith and the castle’s entrance, feeling an odd sense of disconnection from everything around him, as if the inexplicable had simply added up to too much for his mind to want to attempt comprehension. He looked up from a grounding perusal of the courtyard’s cobbles just in time to see Morgana emerging onto the steps, dressed in a simple tunic the likes of which she hadn’t worn since childhood.

It suited her.

“Gaius asked me to bring you to his rooms, Your Highness,” she said, with a small curtsy. “Gareth told him you might be in need of him.”

Arthur was torn between savouring the moment and indulging the natural urge to point out that Morgana had not ever called him Your Highness without sarcasm, not once. He hesitated for a split moment, unsure what to do, but that second was enough for him to realise that she was directing herself at Merlin, who was nodding quickly and saying,

“We’ll be up in a moment, Morgana. Thank you.”

Morgana inclined her head once and turned quickly, striding back into the castle with a sense of purpose. It was clear that she had been not only unsurprised to have Merlin answer for Arthur, but that she’d expected it.

Of course, Arthur would later wish that it hadn’t happened to him at all. But all things considered—the clothes, the cart and the parcel, the Your Highness, the crown on Hunith’s head, Merlin’s terrifying assurance—he wasn’t as ashamed as he might have otherwise been when the world tilted sickeningly around him, making him weave unsteadily on his feet.

“Arthur!” he heard Merlin call sharply, just before the smooth stone of the steps rushed towards him and everything went black.

Again.






He woke to the familiar smell of Gaius’ workrooms, a blend of warm and pleasant spices and acrid fumes that Gaius had once told him were a side effect of boiling toad entrails. Arthur had been young and impressionable when Gaius had said that, but age had not made him desist in his wish that Gaius had been lying to him.

“The abrasion on his head is minor, sire,” Gaius was muttering quietly, his fingers cradling a small bump on the back of Arthur’s head carefully.

“Gaius, he asked me what the date was,” Merlin whispered urgently, and then, “You don’t think—”

“No,” Morgana interjected decisively. “It’s not that.”

“Morgana, I know you don’t like talking about Uther—”

“It is not that,” she repeated, and Arthur wondered what she meant. He fought the urge to smile at the command in her tone. It was as well known to him as the turns in the corridor outside his chambers, or as the feel of his favourite bow under his hands.

They continued to speak in low voices, and Arthur kept his eyes shut, convinced he’d open them to find everything as it ought to be, but delaying the moment in case … Well, just in case.

“Arthur,” he heard finally, spoken in Merlin’s voice directly above him.

“Mmh,” he said, unwilling to commit to consciousness just yet.

“Arthur, can you hear me?”

He almost answered, “Don’t be an idiot, Merlin; it’s my eyes that are closed, not my ears,” before he realized how stupid that would have sounded.

(Sometimes the urge to poke fun at Merlin won out over even the most basic of Arthur’s impulses—like, say, the long-bred habit of making sense when he spoke.)

He settled for a grunted, “Yes,” which seemed to satisfy Merlin, whose hand loosened its iron grip on Arthur’s wrist.

“I believe it’s probably nothing more than the knock to the head, sire,” Morgana said, lifting one of Arthur’s eyelids with two fingers and taking the opportunity to dig the fingernails of her other hand hard into Arthur’s side, quickly and surreptitiously.

Even if Morgana’s voice had not sounded odd, and even if the sire had not been spoken over Arthur’s head, clearly meant for someone else, Arthur would have taken the meaning of her signal: Stay silent.

He did.

Gaius and Merlin looked relieved when he opened his eyes. Well, that made two of them, anyway. Merlin’s ludicrous furred hood was still resting against his shoulders, and nothing seemed to have been improved by Arthur’s face-first dive onto the courtyard steps.

When he shook his head slowly as if to clear it and muttered simply, “God, yes; my head feels awful,” mindful of Morgana watching over him sharply, Gaius and Merlin seemed almost pleased—they, at least, were clearly unaware that anything was wrong.

Gaius nodded briskly and headed towards his cupboards, and Merlin trailed after him like an anxious hen. Arthur looked to Morgana for approval, but if anything, Arthur’s willingness to go along with what he’d thought was her plan seemed to have made her angry. Her eyes flashed warningly at him, and Arthur raised his hands—half placation, half indignant What?—as she called to Gaius,

“I haven’t yet brought in the new batch of pain remedies we brewed yesterday, Gaius.” She smiled sweetly at him, and continued, “But I know Merlin has been meaning to conduct his yearly overview of the storeroom—” Here her voice turned teasing and light, and if the look on Merlin’s face was any indication, it was because she knew how little he was looking forward to this task— “So perhaps now would be a good time for him to do that? I’ll make sure to apply a poultice to Arthur’s head, and you can bring the remedy up with you when you return. It will probably do him good to lie down for some time, anyway.”

Arthur objected to both lie down and poultice (which in his experience was synonymous with disgusting) but one look at Morgana’s stony face made him keep quiet.

“Are you sure you’re all right, Arthur?” Merlin asked for the hundredth time, and Arthur rolled his eyes at him pointedly. He felt bad a second later for mocking Merlin’s concern (he was being awfully patient with a man who had already fainted twice in one day), but Merlin seemed to take his exasperation in stride, grinning and saying, “Okay, okay,” as he followed Gaius out the door.

Arthur had barely gathered enough wits about him to turn his head back towards Morgana when he felt the cold press of a thin blade at his throat. Morgana darted into his field of vision, eyes wild, and she hissed at him,

“Who are you?”

Arthur answered “Arthur Pendragon” not to be facetious, but merely on instinct. Clearly she could see that he did not quite belong here, which some part of him had known the moment he’d caught sight of Merlin’s worried face in the clearing. He’d never answered to any other name, however, and even the people here—in this enchanted kingdom, or in his befuddled head, wherever this place was (though one option was distinctly more terrifying than the other)—seemed to know that much.

“You certainly do a good enough job of looking like Arthur,” Morgana spat, pressing her small knife harder against his throat. In the next instant, though, her face changed, and she cocked it to the side, eyes wide, and asked,

Arthur?”

“Yes,” he answered, frustrated. He then thought better of it, though, and amended, “And no. I think perhaps I am … not the Arthur you expect?”

He wondered that he was taking this so fully in his stride, but then he reasoned it was only to be expected, to some extent. As much as his father liked to pretend otherwise, it wasn’t as if anyone in Camelot wasn’t extremely well acquainted with magic and strange happenings by now.

She said nothing, but the blade ceased to press so firmly into his neck, and her other hand came to rest above his face, trembling slightly. She held it above his forehead, and Arthur watched in disbelief as her eyelids fluttered, shielding eyes that had gone blank—but not before flashing golden for an instant beforehand.

“Arthur,” she said finally, and Arthur, who had had enough of that, said,

“Yes, as I said. But— I’m not. That is, I don’t— I don’t belong here.”

The last part of his broken sentence rose in a rather pathetic self-pitying whine. He could hardly help it, though.

“No,” she said simply, and Arthur, too relieved at her easy acceptance to question it overmuch, asked, still in that reedy voice that he would not own up to later,

“Can you help me get back?”

Her lips twisted ruefully.

“Perhaps. But first I will have to figure out what it is that brought you here. I do not believe you mean anyone here any harm, however.”

“I don’t,” he said honestly, because he could not imagine wishing harm on Morgana or Gaius—or Merlin; well, not real harm, anyway—in any situation. He breathed evenly as he thought of what to say next. He finally settled on, “Where am I?”

“Camelot,” she answered simply, shrugging her shoulders. “But you knew that. You know us.”

“I do,” he said, not sure how to say, And yet I don’t. She said it for him, though, in the brief distrustful look that she shot him, as if she couldn’t help herself.

“You do not wish to harm Queen Hunith? This would not be the first time a rival sorcerer tries to wreak havoc at court.”

Violent sorcerers: well, apparently things other than Merlin’s infuriating insubordination stayed the same. Rival, though—that was new.

“I am not a sorcerer,” he answered, honestly, but even his brief glimpse of the Merlin of this Camelot made it clear that he would never be able to say, And I do not know any sorcerers, either ever again, and mean it.

He was not sure how he knew that what he had seen of Merlin here was true in his Camelot, as well, but he was. Perhaps (definitely) it was the dozens of unexplained things that always seemed to happen around Merlin, all of which Arthur had expended much effort pushing to the back of his mind.

“I am—” he began. “I am Prince Merlin’s servant?”

Not words he would have ever envisioned passing his lips, but he knew enough about court etiquette to infer this from what he had experienced so far.

Morgana tutted.

“Queen Hunith and Prince Merlin do not like the word servant,” she said, prissily.

“Well,” he amended, piqued (what did it matter what one called it, anyway? What mattered was what one did), “His companion, then.”

She nodded firmly.

“And you are— Gaius’ apprentice?”

She nodded again.

“Father,” said Arthur, coming finally to something that he should have asked straight away. “Where is father?”

A brief flash of pain crossed Morgana’s features, and she said, quietly, “Uther is … no longer with us.”

Arthur felt a sharp stab of grief for a loss he had not suffered, but he heard the weight behind Morgana’s Us and said,

“We are siblings?”

“Not by blood,” she said, but the tilt of her chin and the conviction of her voice were familiar.

(In every way that matters, Arthur, he saw a young version of her saying as she tremulously extended a grimy, spit-soaked palm towards him. That was before she had had to trade in her tunics for gowns.)

“In—in my Camelot,” he offered, quietly, “That has never mattered.”

“That,” she said, turning away so she would not see her smile, “our Camelots have in common.”

She did not say anything else, but her grip on her knife loosened finally, and she stood up to fetch something from a cupboard. She brought a small (disgusting-smelling, disgusting-smelling) jar back with her, and she lifted his head with one hand and applied a salve to the cut on his scalp efficiently with the other.

When she was finished, she lowered his head to the pillow and said,

“I do not believe anyone sent you here with the intent to harm. That is— Well, I believe they sent you here to harm you, in some way, without knowing quite where they were sending you, or what you might find here. Does that seem plausible to you?”

Arthur thought longingly of his soft breeches, of his fine horse, and of his sudden appearance in a world where he apparently served a man who had never done a particularly good job of serving him, and said,

“Yes. That makes … a certain amount of sense.”

She nodded briskly.

“I believe, then, that it will be a matter of turning back whatever has been done to you, rather than of investigating why it might have happened, or working to thwart the efforts of whoever might have sent you here. That will be easier. There’s also the matter of what has happened to our own Arthur, but something tells me that he was not the target here, and that he has suffered no harm.”

Some part of him smarted at her easy dismissal of his own problems—the way she seemed to neatly turn away from the question of why someone might want to hurt him—but then he reasoned that to this Morgana (regardless of how familiar the sharp line of her jaw might seem) he was little more than a stranger.

He nodded to her as she had done to him, and said,

“Right. What can I do to help?”

“Do you have magic?” she asked, inquisitive, and the complete lack of censure or concern in her voice made him pause for a second. She looked at him curiously, until he answered honestly,

“No.”

“That, too, is the same, then.”

“Magic—” he said, not quite knowing how to ask. “Magic is not outlawed here?”

She shot him a bemused look, but as understanding flooded her eyes her face softened, so that it looked almost pitying.

Outlawed?” she said, finally. “No, of course not. Magic is the cornerstone of Camelot. It is what makes her great—the living thread that ties her to Albion, and Albion and its people to her.”

Arthur tried to look as if this made sense to him, and said,

“And so you use magic in the court.”

She looked a bit exasperated, as if Arthur were repeating a question she had just answered—which he supposed he was—and said,

“Of course. Merlin—Prince Merlin, but we do not call him that—is responsible for dealing with magical issues in the court, and for seeking to maintain a balance of magic within the kingdom as well as a magical peace with other lands. The queen—you and I are given permission to call her Mother Hunith, but we do not do this in public, and I believe you have not done it at all for many years—has no magic of her own, but she has the ability to bear magical children, of course, which makes her powerful and respected in her own right.”

Arthur boggled at this utter reversal of the laws he had known so well since his youth—laws of propriety, and of court dealings, and laws that strictly governed the meaning of what magic meant and was.

“My own magic,” Morgana was saying, and Arthur started, some unnamable thing prickling beneath his skin, making him almost sure that this, too, was somehow true in his own Camelot, “is nowhere near as strong as Merlin’s, but it has always been valued because it is of a different sort. I have—at least Gaius believes I have—the Sight, and I would not contradict him, though I do not feel in full control of it. I have always been able to tell the truth of things from listening to it told, and I have some healing magic. Gaius has made long study of the same art, but he says he had not come across a talent like mine before you and I were brought to court.”

Here Morgana blushed very prettily indeed, with the sort of self-pleasure and bashful awareness that Arthur had not seen from her in many, many years. It made him smile.

“In my Camelot,” he said, and his voice sounded sad for some reason, though he had not yet had a chance to fully think through how all this compared to his own life, “Things are not as you say.”

“No,” she said, softly. “That much I can tell from your being here. You have fear about you, and uncertainty. And many doubts.”

Now she sounded more like the sorcerers Arthur had known—breeding unhappiness and working ill on the will of others.

“It’s not like that—” he protested.

“You do not have to explain anything to me,” she said, dismissively, and at that moment the sounds of Gaius’ and Merlin’s voices could be heard echoing up from the bottom of the stairs outside Gaius’ chambers, where they were clearly speaking to someone else.

“Surely the inventory can be conducted at some other time, Kenway,” Merlin was saying, and the tone in his voice—No, I haven’t done what you’ve asked, but I know you’ll let me get away with it, really—was so familiar that Arthur felt a brief tug at his chest, and he turned his face away from Morgana’s knowing eyes.

“I will do everything I can to discover what has happened here, as quickly as possible,” she said to him. “In the meantime you must not reveal to anyone what you have told me. Merlin may suspect something—his power runs very deep, and he has been attuned to you since we were children. Always attuned,” she said, her voice drifting off, slightly, and Arthur wanted to stop and ask her what she was thinking, but she seemed to gather her thoughts quickly, and continued.

“You attend Merlin throughout the day,” she said hurriedly, leaning in to seek his eyes as if urging him to pay attention. Arthur did. “You take his meals to him when he does not take them with the queen, and you oversee the running of his chambers. You accompany him when he rides out, and you are entrusted with protecting him—when he needs you to, that is.”

She did not say, When the power of his magic, which no physical skill that you possess could ever rival, fails him for some reason, as if she knew how badly it would sting Arthur’s pride to hear it. The enormity of it—of what Merlin must be able to do, and of the ridiculous things that Arthur had said to him on this topic when they had argued about battles and protection in the past—struck Arthur right then, but he turned his mind away hurriedly from that deeply uncomfortable thought.

“Merlin trains the castle sorcerers at midday, usually, but he is patient and will not be angry if you ask for guidance about what to do. Make sure you do not tell him what we believe is happening, though—he will not take kindly to something happening to our Arthur,” she concluded as Merlin and Gaius finished their conversation downstairs and began to climb towards them.

“Otherwise, come to me, or to the Lady Guinevere. Except do not call her that. Everyone calls her—”

“Gwen,” he finished for her, and she smiled as if it pleased her to know that Gwen was in the elsewhere that Arthur came from, too.

“Yes.” Then, as if the thought had only just occurred to her, “In your Camelot—what do you do? Are you a knight?”

He knew it was ridiculous, but he felt the familiar anger that came from someone not according him his station—even though this Morgana had no reason to know to do so.

“Of course not,” he blustered, but his bravado faded somewhat in the face of her expectant features, which seemed to demand some moral and right answer from him, such as healer or tender of the poor. He pressed on.

“In my kingdom,” he said, emphasising the my subtly but decisively (or so he hoped, anyway), “I am crown prince.”

Her face was comically blank for an instant, and then she burst into laughter so gleeful and unrestrained that when Gaius and Merlin came back in, asking her what the matter was, she could not answer for wiping her eyes and gulping in great heaving breaths.







Onwards to Part Two.
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