syllic: ([merlin] whyever pass up a crest icon)
[personal profile] syllic

Over the next few days, Arthur watched Merlin carefully, trying to see the coiled power that everyone had told him was there. After their conversation with Gwen, Morgana had told him that there were complications that she had not foreseen, and that she would need more time to make sense of how to send him back, to understand what had happened. Arthur would have suspected her of conspiring to keep him there, but the exasperation in her eyes made it clear that she wanted him gone as much as he wanted to be gone. She told him to go to her again at week’s end, and Arthur suppressed the large sigh he wanted to emit but wasn’t quite able to stop himself whining, “But it’s only Monday!”

She hadn’t said anything, but the look she’d shot him had spoken volumes about what she thought of that.

Arthur therefore found himself with a week’s worth of time to fill and no real tasks to perform. Merlin’s official business as prince appeared to be winding down as midwinter approached, and since Arthur had no real part to play in preparing for the feast, he mostly lounged in Merlin’s rooms, pretending to fold clothing.

He didn’t really know how one folded clothing properly, so he put his own attempts at the bottom of chests and dragged up the things his counterpart had already folded to the top.

He and Merlin played chess and dicing games, and occasionally Gwen would come into Merlin’s rooms, and join in a game or watch as the two of them played. Gwen and Merlin expressed surprise that Morgana was not joining them more often, and Arthur would feel a brief twinge of guilt every time they looked around for her. He had seen her poring over Gaius’ books in his chambers, and knew she was working tirelessly to find a solution for him. For them, maybe, considering how often Merlin and Gwen looked at him strangely, as if not sure quite what to make of him.

On Thursdays Hunith and Merlin heard petitions, and so he spent a whole morning watching as they settled disputes and heard pleas for grain from villages or individuals. Seeing them work was eye-opening. Hunith’s soft laughter and her careful look of concern resulted in her subjects speaking freely about their problems, without fear of censure. This meant that Hunith and Merlin often heard petitions for the better part of a day, but there was something to be said for the absence of fear. The two of them were always able to collect all of the necessary information, and they ruled fairly and, in Arthur’s opinion, well, most of the time.

It was incredible what the use of magic did for this Camelot, too: Merlin alone was able to repair damaged property that was involved in a dispute easily, and Arthur heard from Gawain that Merlin was training a young courtier who supposedly had the power to control the growth of plants and crops. Arthur could barely imagine what that might mean, the certainty of being able to feed your people.

Arthur finally dared to watch the sorcerers’ training the day after the petitions, and what he saw filled him with terror, but also with a strange sort of exhilaration, mostly due to the possibilities that it suggested were open to his own Camelot.

Merlin was an excellent teacher. He was kind and patient and seemed wise beyond his years as he walked quietly among the different people practicing their different skills. They were practicing in the woods, in a hollow near the west cliffs, and Arthur felt insignificant and at a loss as he watched them.

There were men and women, old and young. As Arthur watched, Gareth squeezed his fist in the air and made a column of water come rushing out of the nearby river, spinning in on itself the way a strong wind often made leaves spin in the courtyard. It twisted like a snake and knocked a passing Gawain off his feet. He’d come to deliver a message for Merlin, and was on his way out of the clearing when it happened. As he spluttered and tried to right himself, a red-haired woman came up behind him, saying,

“Let your brother alone, Gareth.”

“Or what, Ragnelle?” he taunted, speaking to her as if she were a fellow knight, or some fellow merchant, and not clearly a lady of the court. Arthur started forward, about to berate him, but at that moment the earth around Gareth pocked and burst, as if invisible shovels were pressing inwards and upwards in it, and he fell back on his arse, laughing, as vines crept from the upturned earth and fastened his arms and legs. The vines were not strong, but there were enough of them to bind him effectively.

“I give, I give,” he called, smiling, and Gawain tipped his head towards Ragnelle, saying,

“My lady,” as he continued walking in the direction he’d been going.

“She’s really coming along, isn’t she?” asked Merlin in a pleased voice, coming up behind him. Arthur didn’t know how to say You could unite this Albion into a single kingdom, with your water-weavers and earth-turners and fire-breathers. So he only nodded dumbly, trying not to start as two young men beside him laughed shrilly, gouging large pieces of rock from the cliff behind them and hurling them towards each other as if they were toys.

“My father,” Arthur breathed unconsciously, not sure how to finish the thought. Is mad not to see the potential of this was treacherous, especially when Arthur could see the danger, too. It would take unimaginable power to keep these myriad terrifying skills under control, and Arthur shivered to think what that meant about Merlin. There was no guarantee that his own Merlin could manage it—Arthur thought of his fine-boned wrists and his guileless face and was almost certain he could not.

(Then he asked himself what wrists had to do with it, and concluded that—well, probably not very much.)

But this clearing was full of laughing people, all working together towards a purpose, for Camelot. And even if Arthur did not know quite how to finish his original thought, it was clear that Uther would do well to think long and hard about the implications of his edicts, of the doors he was closing.

Merlin seemed to overhear him as he whispered, and his face was sympathetic when he turned to look at Arthur. Arthur wondered how recently he and Morgana had lost Uther, or how deeply the two of them were loved by others in the court, that everyone was still so careful around them. Merlin wrapped a hand around Arthur’s wrist, and warmth spread into Arthur from where Merlin’s fingers pressed into his skin. He wondered if it was just the unknown feeling of having someone stand beside him so openly, or whether Merlin could work magic by touching others.

He turned to look at Merlin in return, surprised by the tenderness and the fierceness he saw in his eyes, but when Merlin caught him looking his face closed off as it had once before, in his chambers.

“We don’t really want you to fall backwards onto your head again, Arthur,” he said teasingly as he moved away.

Arthur wondered what he meant.

On Saturday, Arthur went to see Morgana as agreed. He could tell the moment he entered Gaius’ workroom that the time had not been enough; her face was drawn and she was bowed over one of Gaius’ books like an old woman.

“Arthur,” she said, and the apology and guilt in her voice made Arthur recoil.

“Morgana,” he said hurriedly, “Do not worry. I know you are working as hard as you can. Please—”

He didn’t know why he was so desperate to have her stop sounding like that. It probably had something to do with the look on her face, which was hauntingly familiar. He had seen it on her features before, as her problems with sleep grew worse in his own Camelot, and the skin under her eyes bruised to deep purple crevasses. He had not realised until now that the Morgana of this Camelot was different from his until now, when she looked the way he was used to seeing her: exhausted and diminished.

“Please do not trouble yourself on my account,” he repeated. “I am certain we’ll find a way out of this.”

“Oh, I’m not tired,” she answered, and at the disbelieving look on his face she amended, “Well, I am, of course, but it’s not really that.”

“What is it, then?” he asked, trying to puzzle out, at the same time as he listened to her answer, what it was that made Morgana here different (or had made her different, anyway), less worn.

Was it her magic that was giving her trouble at home? Did she not know how to make sense of it, whereas here she was surrounded by those who could guide her? And could someone be found to help her, in Arthur’s Camelot?

“Arthur?” she asked, and Arthur realised he must not have been paying attention as she spoke.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sorry. I was thinking about my Morgana.”

She smiled, but looked curious as to what he might mean.

“I was just saying,” she said, “That I am afraid.”

“Of what?” he asked, more nonplussed than truly concerned, at first.

“I am afraid we will not be able to find a solution without Gaius,” she said, her voice low. Her brow drew together even more tightly. “To be honest, I’m afraid we will not be able to find a solution with Gaius’ help. I am afraid we will not find a way to help you. And I am terrified we will not get our own Arthur back.”

She looked up at him sharply, as if she was ready to apologise for what she had said, but he waved her off. He understood. He liked the people here well enough, and even cared for them deeply, by association, but he missed his Camelot, his Morgana, his pathetic-excuse-for-a-servant Merlin. He looked at Morgana’s pale face, and as he was letting his eyes sweep over her furrowed brow, what she was saying truly sank in.

Morgana was afraid.

This was what Morgana looked like when she was afraid. Not when she was tired, not when she had missed a night of sleep. All this time Arthur had thought she had been growing increasingly exhausted, but what had been building in Morgana had been terror. She had been afraid—of his father, of him, maybe?—for months, and she was growing increasingly more afraid, and Arthur had done nothing as his sister lived a half-life of fear and uncertainty.

Something of his own horror must have shown on his face, because Morgana almost lunged at him in alarm when she caught sight of him.

“Arthur?” she asked, raising a hand to his face. “Are you well? Do you feel all right?”

“Yes, yes,” he said, lying about the state of near-panic he found himself in for the hundredth time since arriving in this other Camelot. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.

“It’s just— It distresses me to see you this way, Morgana. I suggest you suspend the search over the next few days. It’s not as if that much will be happening in the castle over midwinter, and you say the other Arthur is probably not in danger—”

“I do believe I have figured that much out,” she interrupted excitedly, pulling a piece of parchment towards their end of the table.

Arthur made what he hoped was an encouraging gesture with one hand.

“There was a woman in court,” she began, “When the four of us were children, who could supposedly … roll and unroll time at will,” she said, making a face as if she expected Arthur to tell her how foolish that was. He was of half a mind to, but he kept his face carefully blank.

“They used to say that she could make a feast appear to last for many days and then return the revelers to the starting-point, so that no real time had passed and they could use the days that they had spent in feasting again, this time to work the fields or attend to whatever their responsibilities might be. It was as if the days had not passed at all, Gaius says, and the only evidence of the days of feasting were the remnants of the food and drink in the hall. No-one could remember what had taken place, but they had the evidence to tell them that they had enjoyed themselves.”

“And,” Arthur said cautiously, trying not to misunderstand her, “This is what you think it will be like, once I return to my own Camelot?”

“I cannot be certain, you understand.”

She said this slowly, as if to impress upon Arthur that what she was saying was little more than guesswork. It was not reassuring.

“But I believe that our Arthur is where you are meant to be. I believe that no time is passing where he is. I believe that when you return the time will … roll back here, as well, and it will feel to those of us who remain after you are gone as if we are back at the moment when you arrived here, in this place.

When you arrived, when you were first brought into Gaius’ rooms, I felt a great amount of power clustered around you. Gaius believes the Sight works in many different ways—as I told you, I can tell a truth from a lie, and sometimes when something happens I feel as if I knew already what the outcome was, before the event even took place. I also get … impressions, sometimes, particularly of magic or intent. When Merlin brought you into Gaius’ chambers, I believed, at first, that the power that was gathered around you was meant to harm you. I now believe that it is perhaps more subtle than that. The power is meant to affect you, yes, but not necessarily to harm you. Look.”

She pointed to a marking on the parchment that she had placed in front of them.

“I have been watching you this week, as often as I can. And I am almost certain that whatever is tying you to our Camelot is also tied to this rune—Morality. The power of the spell is twined with it, I think. At first I thought it might be the sign of some protective magic working against the spell, perhaps the result of some ward woven around you by someone in your own Camelot.”

“Merlin,” he said, and she dipped her head in agreement.

“Yes. But then—” she pointed at another marking— “This rune, Change, Transformation. What I was just telling you, that the power is meant to affect you, but not necessarily to harm you. I now think perhaps it is meant to change you. And then there’s this—”

She jabbed her finger towards the final marking she had made on the page.

Discovery, Sight."

“You believe I’m meant to learn something here. To discover something, and to be changed,” said Arthur, cottoning on to what she was suggesting.

Morality, he thought.

“I am here to learn something, and to change for the better?”

(Or for the worse, but thinking about such things just now could not possibly be helpful.)

Morgana shrugged—a deep, weary heaving of her shoulders.

“Arthur, this is only a guess,” she said. “I could be utterly wrong. The spellcaster could wish you grievous harm, and he or she could have laid these false clues for us. Or I could be seeing what I want to see: if the intent here is to teach you a lesson, as it were, then that means that the spellcaster wants you back in your own Camelot, and that he or she will send our Arthur back to us when your path here runs its course. Much as I like having you here,” she grinned, “I want that very badly.

On the other hand,” she continued, “the runes do seem clear. And I have gotten the sense from you that you that the world you come from is … not as it is here?”

Arthur thought of the sweet, cloying smell of burning flesh, of the waxy ashes that littered the courtyard after his father had sentenced another man or woman to die. The flakes settled on the hair, and felt and smelled like death. Then he thought of Gareth’s water-trickery, and of Merlin’s confident leadership here, inextricably tied to magic.

Not as it is here, Morgana said.

Well, that was one way of putting it.

He nodded.

“Right. Well, this at least is a theory, then. As good as any, since we have no other.”

She put her forearms on the table and leaned forward onto them.

“If it is as I think … can you think of anyone who might want you to see this world, for any reason, who might want you to change your mind on some matter? Knowing who cast the spell would be a big help.”

I am the crown prince, Morgana. There is no shortage of people who wish to change my mind on any number of issues. But even as he thought it the answer came to him, took clear and unmistakable shape in his mind.

Yes, he knew someone who wished to change his mind on many matters—who had told him so herself, and who perhaps had the magic to send him here.


Morgause, who had spoken her poison so beautifully (have you ever been fully sure that it was poison? a treacherous part of him whispered).

“I think perhaps it was a woman,” he said to Morgana, slowly. “Who believes she was wronged by my father. Whether that is truly the case I can't say.”

Morgana nodded and made a notation on her parchment, but fear gripped him as he watched her think.

“Casting this spell,” he began. “Holding time still in one place, and giving it speed in another, while sending me across from my home to this Camelot. It must have taken a tremendous amount of power.”

Morgana did not say anything straight away, but then again he supposed he had not really asked her a question.

“The woman who had a similar power in the court here,” she said, cautiously, clenching and unclenching one hand, “She died very young. Gaius and I have always believed the two things were not without connection.”

Good, Arthur thought savagely. Then he thought that it might be many years before this use of power took its toll on Morgause at all, and felt unaccountably disheartened.

“Then again,” Morgana said, elaborating when Arthur had not expected her to, “It is said by many wise people that each of us has many possible fates in store. I think perhaps that this is what our two Camelots are—two such fates for you and me and the others. And it may well be that it was also your fate to undergo this … change. If that is the case, someone skilled in reading such things might well have been able to take advantage of a pathway that was already there.”

“And,” she said, raising one finger in the air to forestall his immediately reply, “Was Merlin with you?”

“Yes,” Arthur admitted suspiciously, and at his tone Morgana’s face hardened. He tried to look intimidated and contrite, and he must have been successful, because she continued.

“Merlin is, we believe, a sort of … conduit. He can ground a spell to the earth, and draw power from the earth to strengthen it, to focus it. To make it more powerful. It is his chief strength, and it is why Camelot is so powerful with him for a prince—because any skill any of us possesses, no matter how limited, can be augmented to something fearful and mighty with Merlin’s aid.”

As Morgana had been speaking, the lines in her face had ceased to look as deep. Just a few minutes of someone listening to her—was that all it took, Arthur wondered? None of Gaius’ cordials, no days-long sleep? How could they—how could he—have been so blind? And was he alone in his obliviousness, in failing to see what the true problem was? What did Gaius know? And Merlin?

He did not know what manner of punishment would befit Morgause’s crime when Arthur returned (if he returned, and if he ever found himself in a position to dole out punishment to her), but for this single insight into how alone and desolate Morgana must be feeling, Arthur would see Morgause thanked, in whatever way he could. It might be that they could never act against her, anyway, though Morgana’s theory that Merlin might have been responsible for powering the better part of the spell—that was what he took from what she had said, anyway—gave him some hope.

“Morgana,” he said. “I truly do not wish for you to be troubled, as you have been this past week. I think we should ask for Gaius’ help.”

She seemed to think this over.

“We cannot know how he will react,” she said after a long pause. “Gaius was always loyal to your father. I think some part of him still is. I am certain that he would not take the chance that our Arthur might be in danger while you are here. I believe he would tell Merlin, whether we asked him not to or not.

As of now, the spell has done nothing—nothing except keep you here. What if the introduction of some new power, some new intent, turns it harmful? Some spells are designed to do that, and power without careful direction can also turn against its caster’s intention. I think it is probably better if we establish as much as we can about this on our own before we go to anyone else.”

“But—” Arthur tried to think of a way to say what he needed to without giving offence— “I do not like the thought of you having to toil alone.”

She laughed, almost happy again. “Arthur, I am hardly toiling. It has been taxing, deciphering the shape of the runes, but also interesting. It has brought me closer to understanding my own skill. And I am frightened, that’s true. But I am hardly alone, am I?”

Arthur did not have to think about this at all.

“No,” he said, and meant it wholeheartedly. “Never alone.”

Arthur had been in Morgana’s Camelot (he had begun calling it this in his head without realising it) for ten days when he saw the first council convened. By that point he had learned from Nelda how to mend a stocking, and for the first time in his life he could identify the tailor’s and the shoemaker’s homes in town, and their market storefronts. He had also learned that Merlin’s feet got so cold in winter that he needed a hot stone in his bedclothes to stop his toes from turning blue, and that he had a fondness for walnuts.

Arthur had turned over and over in his mind the question of what it might be that this Merlin expected of him. He looked at Arthur in exasperation and in anger sometimes, but he was also affectionate, and fiercely protective. Arthur had been taught that any servant worth having lived with the question, What does my master want? at the forefront of his mind, but with Merlin the answer to that seemed to be Nothing.

He wanted Arthur’s companionship, that much Arthur had realised, and he seemed, oddly, to want Arthur’s happiness. He usually had a few requests a day for Arthur to fill, but on the whole Arthur was allowed a surprising amount of time and freedom with which to roam the castle, or to watch Merlin attend to his duties, if Arthur wished.

Merlin always seemed most pleased when Arthur chose to do the latter, and Arthur told himself that it was partly because Merlin knew how rubbish he was at some of the basics of ruling, and could tell that having Arthur around to make sure he did not make an absolute hash of it was a good idea.

“Where shall we send the patrols next, sire?” Tristan would ask, and Arthur could swear he could see the wrong answer forming in Merlin’s mind.

South, his tongue screamed as it peeked out from the corner of his mouth in indecision, even though he already had a garrison in the south, and someone should definitely be sent to check on Boniface in the north. Even during his short stay in Morgana’s Camelot, Arthur had realised that it was not a kingdom anywhere near as beset by worries or conflicts as his own was, but still. Was Merlin daft?

He’d be itching to let Merlin and Tristan and everyone else in the room know exactly what he thought of Merlin’s terrible idea when Merlin would shrug blithely and ask,

“What do you think, Arthur?”

Arthur would try not to dwell on the impropriety of asking a servant his opinion, and would simply say,

“If you send them anything but north, you are an idiot. Sire,” he added as an afterthought.

Merlin grinned at Tristan.

“There you have it,” he said. “Exactly what I was going to suggest.”

He turned to wink at Arthur, and his eyes seemed to dare Arthur to speak out loud what he was thinking: Liar, liar, liar!

It was the way things always seemed to go in Hunith’s court—short of disrespect, Hunith and Merlin seemed to accept (to want; to encourage, even) all manner of input from those serving them.

It was not proper, not in any way. But Arthur found he could not bring himself to truly dislike it.

He supposed he should not have been surprised, then, when Merlin informed him that Hunith had ordered a council to be called, and led him towards the library rather than towards the hall. Nothing in this Camelot ever worked quite as Arthur expected; he was, at least, beginning to expect that he would be constantly surprised.

The library was not as it was in Arthur’s Camelot: the shelves were pushed against the wall or sheltered inside hollows carved out of the stone for that purpose, and in the centre of the room sat a very large rectangular table made of polished dark wood.

Hunith was already sitting, but she was not sitting at the head of the table. She seemed to have chosen a place at random, and when Merlin sat down, he did not do so next to her, but across from her. He placed his hand on the back of the chair next to his and looked at Arthur as he asked,

“Would you like to sit?”

“At council?” Arthur squawked, horrified.

It was true that the equivalent meeting had not been held in Uther’s court for many years, but he had not been too young when they were a regular occurrence to remember that each seat was reserved for a noble, arranged according to stature.

“Yes,” said Merlin, smiling as if extremely amused. “At council.”

“No, thank you,” Arthur said primly, standing next to the door.

“Suit yourself,” said Merlin, cheerfully.

Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere came in through the side door and sat at one end of the table, and Arthur wondered whether Merlin had been playing some sort of joke on him, inviting him to sit.

Tristan, Gawain, and Gareth entered together, chatting amongst themselves, and sat near Hunith. It was not completely unheard of for sons, rather than heads of a household, to come to council, but the fact that Gareth and Gawain seemed to be allowed two seats seemed odd.

Well, Merlin and Hunith’s court had shown him time and time again that informality could be stretched to encompass meanings far beyond Arthur’s wildest dreams of impropriety.

He watched disinterestedly as a few more people that he did not recognise entered and took their seats. When Morgana and Gaius walked in and sat down confidently, Morgana shooting him a bemused look, Arthur wondered whether he might have misunderstood what Merlin had meant by My mother has called a council. He was busy trying to figure out what sort of council this could be when the head cook walked in and plopped himself down in a seat next to Hunith, as if this were the most natural thing for him to do in the world. He was followed by a stableboy whose name Arthur thought was also Arthur, and by Nelda. She sat down next to Merlin.

Well, perhaps this was a meeting to establish how visiting noblemen might be served at the midwinter feast the next day. That seemed far-fetched to him, but anything was possible. This was his thinking, at least, until Hunith cleared her throat and said,

“I hereby call this royal council to order.”

Arthur was not quite able to suppress his disbelieving cough, and Hunith looked at him inquisitively, but did not say anything.

“I call you here to rule on the matter of Ealdor, an outlying village of Cenred’s kingdom that sits almost on Camelot’s border. Though they are not part of our kingdom, the people of Ealdor have sent Freda, daughter of Ricbert, to relay the plight of their village to the court, and to ask for our help. Though we may rule not to give them aid, it is my judgment that we should reward her long journey, at least, with an audience. What do the rest of you say?”

“Aye,” said Tristan from one end of the table, and he was followed by Sir Kay. Then, to Arthur’s utter bewilderment, the cook and the stableboy voiced their Ayes as well, and the young chambermaid standing next to Arthur by a bookshelf moved forward, insinuating herself into a space between Gareth and another man, and also gave her vote.

Before Arthur’s no doubt stupefied face, twenty-seven of thirty-two people who chose to speak—all who were there were apparently free to choose to speak, and Merlin had clearly meant his invitation to Arthur in earnest—voted in favour of Hunith’s suggestion.

“Send in Freda, daughter of Ricbert,” said Hunith clearly, and a pageboy standing next to Arthur swung open the door and ushered a pale girl with freckled cheeks in.

“Your highness,” she said, inclining her head to Hunith, and then, turning to the table, “People of Camelot.”

“You are given the right to speak, Freda,” said Merlin kindly, and as Arthur listened, she proceeded to tell a tale he had heard once before—which was, in fact, familiar to him in every way except for the supplicant that brought it to the castle to be heard.

It elicited a very similar reaction to the one it had then, too. Ealdor was Cenred’s responsibility, and taking action to check Kanan might give Cenred a reason to start a conflict that could be avoided if Camelot kept to its own business. The discussion was not long, and in the end it was Bedivere who outlined the many problems with helping Ealdor, though he expressed regret that more could not be done. The mood of the table seemed to suggest that most of the others agreed with the points he made.

Freda seemed downcast, but not as if she had truly expected any other conclusion to be reached.

Arthur saw Hunith, whose eyes were pained, look around the table as if to measure whether the debate had gone on long enough to call for a vote. She drew breath to do it, and Arthur felt, suddenly and inexplicably, a pressing urge to stop her from making the same mistake that his father had made when faced with the same situation.

“Queen Hunith,” he said from his place at the wall, assuming that one could join in at will, as the chambermaid who had been standing next to him had done at the beginning. “May I speak?”

“Arthur,” she acknowledged him. “Go ahead.”

“People of Camelot,” he began, the way he had seen others do, and they all turned their eyes to him. “I see that you are becoming ready to reach a conclusion, though most of you do so with heavy hearts.”

Tristan nodded briefly at him, and the others continued to watch him with interest.

“If my father were here,” he said, and paused immediately when he noticed the sudden and absolute change in the atmosphere of the room. It was as if suddenly each and every person at the table had been given a reason not to listen to him, and he looked to Morgana for support only to find her watching him with wide, chagrined eyes. He pressed on only because he did not know what else to do: it was not as if he could stop to ask her to explain what it was that he had done.

“If he were here,” he repeated, and a few people shifted restlessly in their seats, “he would advise us all to take the course of action that we have heard Bedivere outline.”

Bedivere let fly a small sound from between lips that Arthur could not interpret as anything other than outrage. He groped desperately for a way to continue that would not increase the animosity he felt from the people in the room even more, but he found none.

“People of Camelot,” came a meek voice from his left, and he turned, expecting to see someone else, to notice Morgana sitting straight and proud in her chair, though her hands were trembling slightly.

There was an emotion on her face that Arthur could not quite identify, but when she spoke again, he was able to put a name to the familiar sound: for some reason, she felt guilty. Why she would feel such a thing it was beyond him to understand, but that was only in keeping with the entire inexplicable situation.

Morgana continued, “Before Uther—”

She stopped, and drew in a short breath. She seemed to be gathering her strength.

“Before Uther was banished from this city, he had been a wise and trusted counsellor of our queen for many years. He had many moments of wisdom, and I am certain that Arthur has an important point to make. I urge you to open your hearts and listen to him. Listen to my brother, for he is not a man who speaks without thinking, and he has Camelot’s best interests at heart. That you know.”

There was a low, displeased rumbling around the table, but Merlin tapped lightly on the tabletop, once, and it desisted immediately. People turned their faces to Arthur again, if a bit grudgingly, and Morgana shot him a look that seemed to say Go on, clearly trying to bolster him.

Arthur could say nothing. His mind was stuck on the first thing that Morgana had said, and he had not really processed the rest: Banished from this city.

Banished. He had thought his father was dead, had assumed that from the first. Now that he thought back to the conversations he had had he realised no-one had actually said that—that Uther had died. People’s strange reluctance, their tact in mentioning him, made a terrible sort of sense now that he knew the truth: not dead, but banished.

He racked his brains for any reason why this might have happened to his father, and only one came to mind. Uther must have committed some grave ill against Hunith and Merlin to have been sent away.

He must have committed treason, a small voice whispered, and it sounded too much like Morgause’s for Arthur to feel at peace with it.

You cannot know that, he told himself. In your city it is only treason that is punished by banishment, but it may not be so here. Many things are different.

It was true that he could not be certain, but he could not doubt that the sudden shift in the room’s mood could well be explained by treason: if Uther had committed a serious wrong against these people or their kindly rulers, they would be right to despise the very mention of him.

It was only by virtue of the same part of him that had been trained to keep fighting even in the face of injury or shock that he was able to keep speaking despite his mounting horror and shame. As if from a great distance, he heard himself continue,

“My father would agree with you, and he would be wrong.”

Another dissatisfied mutter swept the table, and Arthur gripped the back of the chair in front of him with both hands and pressed on.

“It is true that little can be done by conventional means to help the people of Ealdor, but that is not reason enough to let them perish. Kanan has taken their stores for the winter, and in the cold and dark of these months, that will mean that they cannot survive.”

He knew he was speaking sense, but the only friendly faces in the room were Morgana’s and Gaius’ and Hunith’s and Merlin’s, and he suspected that that was more out of love for him than anything else. Freda was looking at him adoringly, but that was only the result of hearing him speak what she had dearly hoped to have someone say in Ealdor’s defence.

Banished. Banished. Banished, he heard loudly inside his own head, even as he continued to speak.

“We cannot give aid to Ealdor without causing trouble with Cenred; that much is true. But it would be truer to say that we cannot give aid to Ealdor openly if we are to avoid conflict with Mercia. There are other ways to rout villains, which do not involve knights wearing Camelot’s livery marching in ordered lines. We can send a group of men, for example, acting as volunteers, to help Ealdor—I know I myself would go. They can keep Kanan’s men away this winter, and in the spring the people of Ealdor may have more choices open to them than those they do now. That would be very good indeed, because make no mistake: at this moment, their ‘choices’ all lead to death.”

He looked around the table and wished fervently that he had known not to mention his father—his father, the traitor—because all that he had said afterward seemed to have had no real effect on the table’s discontent. He feared they might all vote against his proposal solely because he had made the mistake of saying something that this Camelot’s Arthur would have known never to say.

“I think there is merit in Arthur’s suggestion,” said a woman’s voice, and Arthur turned.

This time he was expecting to see Morgana, loyally standing by him.

It was the Lady Ragnelle, however, and Arthur looked at her in surprise. She smiled at him.

“Arthur is urging us to think outside the boundaries of what is expected,” she said, and then, in a firmer voice, “And for that reason, he is right to mention Uther.”

There was a low murmur of agreement.

Traitor traitor traitor, thought Arthur. You are nothing but the son of a traitor here.

He felt a fiery hatred for Morgause, for sending him to this place, but in his heart he knew that she had not been responsible for this. She had made certain that he would see it, yes; but she had not been involved in advising Uther in whatever harm he might have wrought in the past.

“I believe we can do more than send a band of men to help the people of Ealdor,” the Lady Ragnelle was saying, and Arthur fought to concentrate. “Arthur speaks of looking beyond what, on the surface, appears to be within our grasp. I think he is right. After all, from what Freda says,” she said, turning to look at the girl, “Cenred has not concerned himself with the fate of Ealdor for many years. Perhaps it is a bother to him, this distant village, and perhaps he would be glad to be rid of it. We have not had conflict with Mercia in many years, and its value as an outlying border town, looking out for Camelot’s attacks, is long gone. Perhaps we can make it attractive for Cenred to yield this land. We could, maybe, suggest a hefty payment in crops next year, to compensate for giving Camelot wardship over Ealdor.”

At this she extended her hand, and a branch from the tree outside tapped insistently at the windowpane. The meaning was clear: I can help to ensure the growth of such a payment.

“Cenred will look to us to provide a reason why we wish to protect the people of Ealdor, Ragnelle,” said Gawain, almost reluctantly, as if he did not like to contradict her, “And he will conclude that we wish to increase our own power over his, for that is almost always what rulers conclude.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “That is true.”

“Could there not be some reason why a city such as Camelot and a village so far away might wish to have closer ties?” asked Nelda, and at this Merlin laughed, and answered,

“Of course there is. Marriage comes to mind, for one.”

Arthur spared a moment away from his self-abasement to wonder at this turn of events: he had not hoped to force anyone to marry in order to protect Ealdor. But Hunith had grasped some other meaning from Merlin’s words, and she spoke, clearly pleased that her subjects had thought of it,

“We can give the impression that one of our knights has an interest in one of Ealdor’s young girls,” said Hunith. “That would certainly provide a good excuse, though Cenred might think Camelot foolish for its indulgence.”

She turned to look at Freda, clearly not wanting to ask her explicitly to participate in the subterfuge, but the girl nodded vigorously and said,

“I will agree to that.”

“As will I,” called Gareth cheerfully from the other end of the room, and with that the tension in the room shattered as people laughed.

“That sounds plausible, then,” said Hunith, sounding extremely satisfied. “If we can agree to it, I will send messengers to speak to Cenred on Gareth’s behalf. They will speak of the current situation in Ealdor, and we shall do our best to paint Kanan as a nuisance that Camelot will be happy to take off Cenred’s hands. For the sake of love,” she added slyly, glancing at Gareth, and he laughed.

“We will also send out a group of men to aid Ealdor immediately; if Cenred looks for a reason why we acted without his permission, we will have already provided him with one. Gareth would not want Freda to be harmed, after all, and Gareth is a favourite of the court.”

“Clearly,” Gawain said with great feeling, trying to feign despondence, and people laughed again.

Arthur strained to make his lips turn upward along with the rest of them.

“In addition to this, as a token of our good will, we will offer Cenred payment for the privilege of guarding Ealdor: a number of hundred-weights of grain, to be determined by those responsible for the grain stores and approved by this council at a later time. Hopefully he will know not to look a gift horse in the mouth—we will be driving our generous bargain with much conviction.”

Nodding and sounds of agreement could be seen and heard around the table, and Hunith clapped her hands and called a vote, clearly eager to settle the matter while people were in accord.

Thirty out of thirty-three individuals voted in favour, and as Hunith gave the final count, Merlin said formally and almost forcefully,

“We thank you, Arthur Pendragon, for thinking of what others could not see.”

There was a small, defiant cheer from Gawain, and the others expressed similar sentiments with varying degrees of reluctance.

It should have been a proud moment for Arthur, especially considering his current status—though his notions of what status even meant were probably well beyond recuperation after the shattering they’d received here—but his,

“I am thankful the Lady Ragnelle was able to think so resourcefully,” tasted like dry earth in his mouth.


Arthur wished he had never learned about this during his time here. He wished he could ignore the knowledge, now that he had it. But now that it had been spoken in his presence, it could not be taken back.

Morgana passed him on the way out of the library, squeezing his shoulder sympathetically and leaning in to whisper,

“I am sorry, Arthur. I thought— Well, I don’t know what I thought. I thought you knew, I suppose. I did not want to speak about it, and so I made myself believe I thought you knew. I am so sorry.”

“You could not possibly have known that I didn’t,” he said.

That Morgana should not suffer further for his father’s actions and his own trespass just now was abundantly clear to him.

She nodded at him, but did not seem convinced, and her head was hanging as she walked with Gaius from the room.

Arthur kept standing by the wall, attempting to appear as insignificant and unobtrusive as possible. He had not ever known this feeling, this desire to disappear or to draw others’ attention away from himself. It appeared that he was successful despite his lack of practice, for no-one paid him any mind, and when he looked up, only Merlin and Hunith remained in the room with him. He wondered if they had sent the others out, and felt embarrassed at the thought.

“Arthur,” said Merlin, softly but commandingly.

Arthur looked up, only for a moment.

“You should not ever be ashamed of your father,” he said, pinpointing the problem immediately, though that was perhaps not surprising. It could not have been difficult to connect Arthur’s mood to what had happened during the council.

“Arthur,” said Hunith, and her voice sounded like compassion and love and pride and all sorts of things that Arthur had been told were always in mothers’ voices.

This time he looked up because he was helpless not to.

She smiled at him, the way the Hunith he’d known before had smiled at him in Ealdor, so Arthur kept his head up.

“Merlin is right,” she said, and she did not sound pitying, merely sorry. “Neither he nor I have ever believed that Uther had any real choice in falling into madness.”

She said something else, but Arthur, as he had been when Morgana had said banished, was now stuck on madness. He was not sure if this new information was more or less distressing than the last.

“I am not even sure he meant us real harm,” Hunith said, trying to get his attention by leaning towards him. “I know he certainly never meant for harm to come to you or Morgana, who have suffered most for this.”

“The two of you have spent years feeling guilty,” said Merlin, and his voice was low but impassioned, as if he did not want to startle Arthur. “None of us have ever been able to make sense of why. You cannot possibly still believe that you can be held responsible for your father’s actions.”

He said it the way people said things they had already said many times before.

Arthur had thought he had felt frustration at being in this place before, but it was only now, at this time when he needed answers and could not ask any of the questions, that he felt the real weight of his displacement.

“Why do you think—”

He trailed off purposefully, trying to look desolate (which did not take much effort) and hoping that Hunith or Merlin would take up the thread.

If the three of them had already spoken about this often, then perhaps they would be willing to indulge Arthur once more.

“I still believe what I have always believed— that it was your mother’s death that planted the seed of grief that grew with such terrible speed in Uther’s mind. I think Merlin’s birth was a reminder of that which he wished to forget, and with Merlin’s coming, and the manifestation of magic in others, he felt completely trapped amidst the very thing that he most wished to escape.”

Hunith’s voice did sound as if she had been over this many times; that made sense to Arthur. He tried to think of what he would have felt like, attempting to make sense of Uther’s actions and departure as a child, and he thought immediately that he probably would have spent entire days asking Why.

“I think it was Morgana’s magic manifesting that finally made it impossible for him to bear, though,” said Merlin, carefully, as if he did not want to upset Arthur any more than he already was, but wanted to offer his own perspective.

Arthur wondered if Merlin had shared this with the other Arthur at some other point, or whether it was something he was saying for the first time. From the sound of his voice, it could be either.

“Morgana has always felt responsible for it all— but she had no part in it! For years she has worked long hours in Gaius’ workrooms, healing and tending the sick as some sort of penance. And you—” Merlin’s voice took on an edge again— “You, Arthur, have made a life out of protecting me and my mother as you believe your father failed to protect us. You would make a knight to be reckoned with. You could be a shoemaker if you wanted, and I’m certain you’d be good at it. But instead you serve us— you serve me out of some sense of duty.”

He spat the last word out as if it were poisonous, and Hunith shot him a sympathetic glance. Something in her gaze said she did not fully believe what Merlin was saying to be true, however, and Arthur thought of what Morgana had told him earlier in the week and felt inclined to agree.

“Uther was a dear friend to us, Arthur. To me especially,” Hunith said. “And I have always counted you and Morgana among my children. I still think of you in this way.”

Arthur nodded and tried to look grave, as if he were slowly sifting through what had been said. But his mind was spinning, and there was no real order to his thoughts. Grief had changed his father’s life here—this much Arthur understood, for it was the same with his father in the Camelot he knew. But whereas in Arthur’s Camelot Uther had transformed his grief into control and strength, here it appeared to have devolved into madness. That madness seemed to have driven some crime for which he had had to be banished, in spite of the royal family’s unwillingness to force a dear friend away.

Arthur wondered what it was that his father had done. He wondered whether Morgana really did feel the guilt Merlin believed she did, and whether that made her lonely in this place, too—this place where Arthur had thought she was well counselled and well loved. He wondered what the Arthur of this place truly thought of his father, and questioned how he had made peace with Uther’s actions, if he had at all.

Hunith was looking at him expectantly, with a look that reminded Arthur of the way in which his nurses had looked at him once, when he was still young and before Uther had sent him away to be trained with the knights.

“Thank you,” he said, and for the second time since he had been here, as he had when Merlin had spoken to him after that first feast, he truly meant it.

Hunith looked extremely happy to hear him say it, too.

Arthur could not fully explain what came over him in the next instant. It was something about Hunith’s eyes, which looked pleading, and something in his own heart, which perhaps made him long for the pleasure of feeling the word in his mouth once more. He had not realised how much he had missed it since riding away from Morgause.

“Thank you,” he repeated, and he reached a hand out to clasp Hunith’s.

He remembered what Morgana had told him. “Thank you, Mother Hunith.”

Onwards to Part Four
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syllic: (Default)

October 2017


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