syllic: ([merlin] seduction)
[personal profile] syllic
In Possession of a Fortune

Word Count: Roughly 8,500 this part, one hundred and eleventy thousand overall (no, not really. But close).

Pairing: Merlin/Arthur

Rating: NC-17 (not this part)

Written for [livejournal.com profile] _la_la_la, for [livejournal.com profile] australia_aid. So once upon a time I said to [livejournal.com profile] _la_la_la, "Give me a month, and I'll write you a 5,000-word story." Fifteen months later, here I am, hangdog and apologetic, and as for the 5,000 words, all I will say is HAHAHA, how innocent I was then, not to know the panic of seeing the rough draft climb disturbingly toward 100,000 of the old palabras.

[livejournal.com profile] _la_la_la wanted "something having to do with Arthur and Merlin dealing with court intrigue", or maybe, "Roman Holiday, or, Arthur's day off." This is both--much less the latter than the former, but that'll do, [livejournal.com profile] syllic-pig, that'll do.

This is not a WIP. It is very much in progress, but it has been in progress for fifteen months and I'm beginning to feel pathetic about my own patheticness, quite frankly. I'm beginning to think it will always be in progress. But it is all written down, now: part of it is with the saintly betas who agreed to this, and part of that is now back with me being tweaked for posting. I hope to post a part every two or three days, as I fit in editing around heavy workloads. Why not wait, you ask? Because at this point this thing is either going to fly, or I'm coming down from the rooftop with it, Radio Flyer and all.

This veers off mid-S2, but spoilers for every episode, just in case. Canon-flexible: Morgana stays in Camelot, but we know about dragonlords. S2 basically took me hard while I was in the middle of this. I coped as best I could.

I want to thank M for her amazing willingness to look at this, again and again; I want also to say that [livejournal.com profile] arlad sat through an impromptu presentation, practically PowerPoint slide-inclusive, about this once (and then again), and that [livejournal.com profile] lilith_lessfair helped to shape it and will inevitably help to make it better yet before the end.

All remaining mistakes are mine.

Most of all, though, I want to say thank you to [livejournal.com profile] _la_la_la, whose forbearance in the face of my entire freaking life was really beyond measure. I apologise, and hope very much that you like this. Truly. And I'm sorry about the e-mail flood. All of it. Thank you, so much.

(Oh, yeah. I'm also not entirely sure why this is called In Possession of a Fortune. I mean, I kind of see the theme, but lately I have been feeling as if it's one of those 'You kind of had to be there' things. Originally this was a companion piece of sorts to In Want of a Wife, both written in the present tense, but then I changed that. So... yep.)

But onwards, troops!








In Possession of a Fortune
For the wonderful [livejournal.com profile] _la_la_la





PART I: COUNCIL




Reign of King Uther, Year the Fifth

“Please,” she asked, unwilling to force the issue as they both knew she could.

“You are making a mistake,” he said, but she could already see him moving towards the mouth of the cave, towards the crevasse she had carved into the cliff face.

“It’s just until we can get the panic under control, until the prince is born,” she pleaded.

It made her uncomfortable to see the slump of his shoulders, the weary tilt of his neck.

He laughed without any humour.

“Don’t fool yourself, Nimueh,” he said in his low, rasping voice. “The panic is half of Uther’s making.”

She shook her head, unwilling to accept this. Everything had been misconstrued, interpreted in the worst possible light, but Uther was good at heart. She believed that.

“This new Camelot is skin and bones strung together with tattered cloth, and you know it,” she said to him. “Uther needs an heir. We need Uther to have an heir. And he needs to do whatever is necessary to maintain the stability of the kingdom until then. If we love this land, then it is our duty to help him do that.”

“Uther is frightened, and weak-willed,” he said. He didn’t sound angry; his voice was low and persuasive. “And mark my words, young one: this is only the beginning of how that will bear out.”

She shook her head again, more vehemently. She didn’t see it that way; she couldn’t. Not with what she knew of the king and queen.

“Hiding the dragons away,” he said, unfurling his great wings as if to let the air beat against them one last time. “And ordering the dragonlords north. What next?”

“It’s only because of the rabble-rousing in the south, Kilgharra! You know they’ve bred fear into the villagers, telling them Uther will use the dragons against them. He can’t allow Acca to stir that fear into dissent, not when there’s no clear line of succession.”

She looked at him, imploring him to understand. It rankled, having to ask a friend to do this, and it would be much easier if he would see the sense of what she was saying.

“Ygraine will give birth to a boy,” she said. “It is only a matter of time, Kilgharra; we simply need to be hopeful. And Uther trusts the old magic, and respects it—you know that. He’s only acting in his people’s best interests.”

He did not reply. He only heaved a great breath, and turned to look at her sadly before ducking his head into the dark space hewn from the rock.

“He will betray you, Nimueh,” came his voice as he faded into the blackness beyond the entrance. “Mark my words.”








Reign of King Arthur, Year the First

Uther died on a Tuesday.

It was unexpected—pale skin against paler sheets, nothing like the splash of red on dark earth that Merlin had imagined.

It was quick, but also interminable. At the very end, it seemed as if only a minute had passed since Arthur’s face had first become lined with grooves of worry, after the physicians had initially told him about his father’s fever. The lines had deepened when the fever had not broken: when Uther had begun gasping in wet, laborious breaths, Arthur’s brow had looked like something that had been hacked away at with a chisel and hammer.

It was only then that time slowed down. It felt as if years were passing, but in reality it was only three hours. Arthur’s hand was white and clearly clammy where it clutched his father’s, and he did not turn as the physician drew Uther’s eyelids down.

“Your Majesty,” he said, and Arthur did not respond for a long moment.

He tensed his back, firmed his shoulders. When he finally looked up, a ripple crossed the room as its few occupants bowed their heads, flexed their knees.

Arthur’s face was slack with shock, but wiped absolutely clear of the desperation of standing guard as his father battled for every breath. The other people in the room watched him surreptitiously, anxiously.

The possibility that Uther might die soon had not escaped any of them. It had not escaped Merlin and Arthur in their planning, or, as Merlin would find out later, Gwen and Morgana in theirs. It had not been far from any of their minds during the few exchanges in which they had managed to address the possibility obliquely. But talk of the king’s death had been treason—no matter who the speaker might be—and talk about what a world free of the king might be like had been worse. They had therefore never been able to say it out loud, but they had each plotted, each imagined how it might be.

How it must be, if peace were to be maintained and the deep wounds of prejudice and long hatred were to heal.

None of them had expected what had eventually happened, though: the dreadful, endless week of sweating that had sped disconcertingly towards that fragile moment in which people had lowered their eyes from Arthur’s in a quiet room.

They had almost been ready, but not quite.

When Arthur looked across the room at Merlin, Merlin held his gaze for an instant in acknowledgment of this, in reassurance—you can do this—before he let his chin drop to his chest—my king.




The day that Uther died, Merlin and Arthur had been speaking for four years and three months. On the day that they had started speaking again, all that time ago, Merlin had already known Arthur for two years and six months. But it was the silent time—four months, two days, and three bells after matins—that was heaviest between them as they walked back to Arthur’s chambers (Arthur’s old chambers, now), listening to the sound of bells tolling in the distance.

Merlin walked a step behind Arthur and half a step to the right, where Arthur could turn his head to speak into his own shoulder and Merlin could hear, and where Merlin could reach the knife at the small of Arthur’s back in an instant, if he needed to. It was also where Arthur didn’t have to see Merlin’s eyes glint golden, if he wasn’t quick enough reaching for the blade.

Merlin had not thought Arthur had it in him, the silence. Two years of training days and tournament victories and clearing the trestle table so that Arthur could spar with the air in his rooms, where no-one could see him practicing for practice, had taught Merlin two dozen new meanings of discipline. But Arthur had never quite grasped the concept of discipline when it came to overcoming his desires for petty things. He gave up food and love and sleep for his people, but never the chance to crow about whatever small victory he had achieved over Merlin that day, that week. Merlin had thought him able to keep his rage in silent check for twelve hours, a day at most.

He had imagined what it might be like, what Arthur might say—you lying rat, give me one good reason why I shouldn’t turn you over to the guards—and how he might lord it over Merlin in the weeks to come, taunting him with the possibility of discovery. Arthur had been so angry when he’d found out, and he was always cruel when he was angry. Merlin had braced himself. But Arthur had said nothing, had kept his eyes turned from Merlin except when they had flicked to the object of whatever task he had wanted performed. He had gone twice as long as Merlin had thought him able to without saying anything, and four months besides. By the end, Merlin hadn’t been able to go to bed at night. He’d kept his eyes wide open as the hours had passed, his eyeballs gritty as the dark bore into them. He had had a streak of bloody crescent moons along the middle of both palms, from where he’d dug his fingernails constantly into his skin.

No punishment could have been more effective; no sentence could have been harsher. To this day, though, Merlin was not certain that Arthur had thought of how it might affect Merlin, of what it might do to him to bear the long wordless months. It had simply taken Arthur four months to decide what to do, to mull over every angle in silence, and only then had he said,

“I want to know nothing of it until I tell you it’s time. In the meantime, find out what you can about what hatred for Camelot my father’s hunts have engendered, about which individuals are already on courses we might have to re-direct as a result. Do not give anyone cause to believe the prince’s manservant is anything but the idiot they have come to know over time.”

“Don’t call me idiot,” Merlin had said feebly, too relieved to truly mean it.

His bones had felt like cut strings fluttering in the wind.

Merlin had not thought Arthur had had it in him, then, but four years later he had learned Arthur in dozens of new ways, and he knew exactly what Arthur was capable of, and also what things Arthur could never bring himself to do.

He walked behind him in silence, squeezing himself through the gap in the doorway as Arthur pushed the heavy wood door shut behind him. He watched Arthur walk to the window and grip the stone under the glass with white hands, and he edged towards him, breathing evenly and making no sudden movements.

He was just considering whether to lift a hand to Arthur’s shoulder when Arthur whirled around, and Merlin tensed, not sure whether Arthur might strike him. But Arthur simply ducked his head, not looking at Merlin in the eye, and hid his face in Merlin’s neck, his nose pressing sharply against Merlin’s clavicle.

There he let out a single heaving sob, and was still. Merlin did not move, merely watched as the sun dove gracefully behind the treeline, colouring the courtyard golden. He lifted one hand and pressed his palm into the small of Arthur’s back, and Arthur inhaled deeply, his breath warm and wet against Merlin’s skin.

The room was darkening when Arthur finally lifted his head. The twilight made his eyes look violet, and they were fierce with pain and pride and nerves and strength.

“It’s time,” he said simply, and Merlin nodded.




They walked into the great hall with a minimum of ceremony, though it was impossible not to notice individuals spinning around them, orienting themselves towards Arthur in whatever order befitted this new court’s hierarchy. Arthur nodded gravely at Sir Colgrevance and at Sir Lionel, whom he’d never had much cause to greet before, but as Merlin watched he shot Lancelot a hidden look of such sheer exasperation that Merlin had to cough to mask a nervous laugh.

As Arthur spoke quietly to those who approached him to give their condolences, some much more sincerely than others, Merlin looked carefully at Morgana, who sat like a pale statue in white in her carved chair. When Arthur turned away from her direction to speak to another well-wisher, she looked at him with intense respect and satisfaction shining from her eyes. But Merlin could see the deep grief, and also the complex, unwanted relief, lurking behind her composed gaze.

It would be like that for both of them, Merlin thought, a battle of conflicting emotions. Uther’s children had not awaited his death with any joy, but Merlin didn’t think either of them would deny that they’d been hoping for better for their people for some time. It was an impossible situation, trying to mourn their loss fully even as they took starved gasps of the castle’s fresh air, so full of the hope that was so badly needed after all this time.

Merlin looked at Gwen carefully, raising one eyebrow to ask how Morgana was coping. Gwen gave a minute shake of her head as she adjusted the fall of Morgana’s dress on the stone floor, and Merlin tilted his shoulders to give her an About the same, I think when she furrowed her brow to ask about Arthur.

They had finally learned some discretion, the two of them, after years in a court that had made them pay heavily for small mistakes more than once.

“Wine, Ranulf,” said Arthur, abruptly, and Merlin turned to see him moving towards the table and preparing to sit down.

There was a tense, uncertain moment as Uther’s advisors made as if to step forward, only curbing their motion at the last minute. Arthur turned away from Lancelot and Galahad—who had sat by him for years, but knew now that they were not appropriate dining companions—and headed towards Morgana, shooting Merlin a pointed look.

What do you want me to do? Merlin tried to mime, as Arthur focused his gaze on him again upon reaching Morgana’s chair, looking more exasperated than before. He was asking her something inane, clearly making time, and Merlin fought his panic, knowing Arthur was waiting for him to do something, but not sure what that might be. Cloth rustled on the stone floor as someone moved beside him, and relief bloomed in his chest as he realised what Arthur needed.

“Sir Geraint, Lady Enid,” he said quietly, curving his hand behind the noblewoman’s back, not touching, but trying to shepherd her and her husband towards the table as unobtrusively as possible.

They looked confused, almost affronted, for a moment, but then something lit in the Lady Enid’s eyes, and she took her husband’s hand and smoothly manoeuvred him to the top of the hall, where she gracefully picked up the thread of Arthur and Morgana’s conversation.

“Sir Geraint, my Lady,” said Arthur, and Merlin hoped there were very few people in the hall who could hear the faint tremble underneath his clear, confident voice as well as Merlin could. “Won’t you sit down?”

Arthur sat next to Morgana, and Merlin took up residence a few feet behind their chairs. Gwen was already motioning to the maids who were helping Ranulf water the wine, and Sir Geraint and the Lady Enid were slowly sitting down to the right of Arthur, both clearly trying to look natural as they did.

Gaius shuffled towards a seat beside Morgana, and Gwen helped him lower into it; his eyes were pained, and Merlin knew it was not only his bones that were troubling him. He made a point to rest a hand on Gaius’ shoulder as he went to collect the pitcher with Arthur’s wine, and Gaius put on a brave smile for him, trying unsuccessfully to protect Merlin from his pain.

Merlin had known Arthur for seven years. Whatever else Uther might have been, he had been in Gaius’ life, had been Gaius’ friend, for almost ten times that period. Merlin could not imagine what the end of such a thing might feel like—nor did he want to.

Arthur’s choice of Geraint as a companion was clearly a good one. Sir Geraint had unambiguous allies in the court, and was known for being plainspoken and almost brutally honest; there was therefore no doubt of what Arthur was saying by asking him to sit at his right hand, or of whom he was inviting to join them. The rest of the courtiers arranged themselves accordingly, shuffling awkwardly according to rank, though Merlin noticed that Gawain and Tristan cheekily sat much nearer to Arthur than was entirely proper. Sir Colgrevance was forced to spin on his heel as they did, trying to make it look as if he and his wife had not been heading for those same seats.

Morgana looked to the side, almost as if she were inspecting the wall hanging to her left, but Merlin could see a curve of amusement softening her cheek. She looked pleased: she and the Lady Enid and the Lady Ragnelle were good friends, and Arthur could not have chosen better, if he had meant to make her happy.

This would have been far from the forefront of Arthur’s thinking, Merlin knew, but it would certainly have been somewhere in his mind as he made the choice. Merlin’s suspicions were confirmed when Arthur looked askance at Morgana, his shoulders relaxing fractionally at the sight of her pleasure.

“Tristan’s clearly looking to be stabbed in the night, then,” Merlin murmured into Arthur’s ear as he bent to pour wine into Arthur’s goblet.

He was thinking of the murderous look on Sir Colgrevance’s face as Tristan and Gawain had taken their seats.

It took a moment before he realised he was not pouring into Arthur’s usual goblet, and he rocked in place for a instant before catching himself. The sight of the heavy red stones beneath the silver rim had made him feel as if he were at the wrong end of the table, serving someone entirely different, for a long, disconcerting beat of time. But it was only the king’s goblet—Arthur’s goblet now, of course.

Arthur took advantage of Merlin’s dilly-dallying to turn his head, murmuring into his cup as he did,

“At least Colgrevance doesn’t know about him having an eye on Afanen yet.”

Afanen was one of Sir Colgrevance’s wife’s chambermaids, and Colgrevance had always shown a marked preference for her, flaunting his interest even in front of his wife. Tristan had been wooing her for some weeks now, probably more out of spite for Colgrevance than anything else, but all accounts said he was affectionate and attentive with women, and that they did not mind being caught in the middle of his scheming, most of the time.

Assuming that their friendship with Arthur entitled them to sit so close to the head of the table, closer than a head of household like Colgrevance, was part of the same game, Merlin knew. It was indeed fortunate that Colgrevance had not yet found out about Afanen; otherwise he might have been willing to give up the cover of night and just stabbed Tristan right then and there. Arthur had not shot a single look in Tristan’s and Gawain’s direction, meaning that while he was not willing to endorse their cheek, he would not do anything to quell it, either, and Merlin knew enough by now to recognise how significant this was. This would be an entirely new world for Colgrevance and his wife, who had known nothing but favour for many years now, since Colgrevance had taken over as the unofficial leader of Uther’s witch hunts.

It was strange, Merlin thought, standing still at the top of the hall while things moved so quickly around him.

“I don’t even know where I’m supposed to stand now,” Gwen whispered nervously, giving voice to Merlin’s thoughts almost exactly as Merlin handed her an empty pitcher and she replaced it with a full one.

“Mmh,” Merlin agreed quietly, the image of Colgrevance’s aggrieved face, the sight of the heavy new goblet, and the sly look in Tristan’s eyes all whirring through his mind.

“No, I mean that,” Gwen said, and Merlin focused on her face and saw a slight hint of panic in the delicate curve of her lips.

He took a breath, thinking about it.

“Behind Morgana, I suppose,” he answered finally, and Gwen nodded briskly as if Merlin had just confirmed what she’d been thinking, too.

Neither of them would pretend to know all the rules of his new game, as unfamiliar to Merlin as those first few days in Camelot’s stocks had been. But, Merlin reflected as he went to stand behind Arthur, ready to listen if Arthur turned his head to mutter into the air, this was certainly where he belonged. This much he knew.

They served a light supper, more an excuse for everyone to sit down than an actual meal, and it wasn’t long before Arthur pushed his chair back, prompting the other men at the table to crouch awkwardly, unsure whether to stand with him.

“Please,” Arthur said simply, lifting his hand to prevent them from getting up.

He retreated towards the small chamber behind the hall, and Merlin watched as everyone settled uncomfortably into their seats again, not entirely sure what to do.

Morgana followed gracefully after Arthur, and Gwen shadowed her. Arthur stopped at the door and looked at Gaius, who stood carefully, and then again at Lancelot, who looked back attentively while pretending to carry on a conversation with the woman next to him. Arthur flicked his eyes to the door at the front of the room and Lancelot seemed to grasp what he meant quickly, because he immediately retreated in that direction with loud excuses about looking after a new horse. He stopped to pull Gawain up after him, entreating him to come see the destrier before anyone else.

Merlin handed his half-full pitcher to another server and followed Gaius, extending an arm towards him for support. Gaius did not take it, but he leaned his weight carefully against Merlin, and Merlin pushed back against him as they walked through the door. Merlin shut it behind him.

At the back of the chamber where they now stood was a door, and behind that, another: nestled at the heart of the castle was a small dining room where Morgana, Uther, and Arthur had often had private meals together. Arthur sat there now, Gaius and Morgana at either side.

A few moments later Lancelot and Gawain entered quietly through a second door. Gawain sat quickly, but Lancelot hovered uncertainly by the wall until Arthur snapped,

“For crying out loud, man, sit.”

Lancelot hurried to the table and drew a chair back, but he pulled too enthusiastically and the chair toppled before he could catch it. It clattered loudly and Lancelot looked down at the floor, clearly mortified. There was a beat of tense silence before Gaius chuckled dryly, the sound loud in the dimly lit room.

This seemed to set Morgana off, who tinkled a high laugh before stopping abruptly, as if unsure whether it was appropriate to laugh. The cut-off giggle proved even more amusing than actual laughter would have been, though, and Gwen huffed indelicately, clearly trying to swallow her own mirth. An instant later Arthur smiled, almost as if he couldn’t help himself, and as soon as he did they all let out a great laugh together, Gaius in great cackling peals and Lancelot snorting between breaths.

It was more than a little hysterical, but no-one said anything about that as they all fought to catch their breaths.

“Right,” Arthur said finally.

He steepled his fingers and leaned forward, clearly trying to look serious, and Merlin bit his lip to keep from smiling.

“Priorities,” Arthur continued.

Merlin was not entirely sure what he meant. That was clearly not the case with the others, however, who all replied as if he had asked a question, almost speaking over each other in their haste. Arthur held his hands up to stop the babble, clearly taken aback, and then said,

“Morgana.”

“Beginning to reject the strictures on magic immediately, but gradually,” she said, her eyebrows drawing in towards the middle of her forehead. “The Druids have been agitating in the west. I know that many are ready to join them. But you can’t be too quick about it, or they’ll sense blood, Arthur. Authoritatively, calmly, but soon.”

Arthur glanced at Merlin.

“I—” Merlin stopped, unsure.

He had always been told never to speak of this, and he was uncertain whether Arthur wanted him to do so, now.

Arthur looked at him expectantly, and then said, sounding much wearier than strictly necessary,

“Didn’t I say earlier that it was time, Merlin?”

Oh. Merlin had thought Arthur had meant it was time to make an appearance at the hall, but clearly he had been making reference to once saying, I want to know nothing of it until I tell you it’s time.

Merlin took a deep breath.

“Awstin, leader of the larger western clans, will not attack in the first months of your kingship,” he said finally, shifting uncomfortably when Gawain turned to look at him with an accusing glare.

Arthur motioned for Merlin to continue.

“We have spoken many times about the fact that you intended to loosen the restrictions on magic, and to put a stop to the hunting completely, the moment you became king. He said he was willing to see if the apple really fell far from the tree before acting. A few months at least, he said.”

Awstin and his people had little more than rock-slings to their names, and that had certainly been part of his reluctance to make war on Camelot, too, but Merlin had thought being gracious in acknowledging the threat was probably the best course of action.

“What about Mallt?” asked Morgana, and Arthur raised an eyebrow at her.

She blushed, but offered no explanation for why she might know the name of the woman who led the westernmost Druid clans, who had advocated for attack when Awstin had preached restraint.

“Awstin’s clans are larger,” said Merlin, slowly, “And though I very much doubt that Awstin would ever claim he has ever had any say in anything Mallt does, I believe she will stand by his resolution not to attack.”

“Good,” Arthur said, nodding. “Good job, Merlin.”

Merlin tried not to let his pleasure show, but from the amused look in Gaius’ eyes, he did not succeed at all. He couldn’t truly help it, though. They had been hard, the years of leaving Arthur with vague excuses about his mother in order to broker the uneasy truce that allowed him and the Druids leaders to speak, and this was the first time Arthur had acknowledged that Merlin had been doing it at all, let alone acknowledged that Merlin had done it well.

“You may tell Awstin that you now speak for me officially, Merlin,” Arthur continued, “Though please tell him also that I ask that he keep that fact to himself as I re-arrange and consolidate power in my court.”

Arthur stumbled ever so slightly on the my.

“Lancelot,” he said, and Lancelot snapped so forcefully to attention that they all heard something in his neck crack.

“First of all,” said Arthur, holding his index finger to his thumb as if he were counting bushels of corn, “Calm the bloody hell down before I calm you down.”

Lancelot laughed loudly, his nerves clearly forgotten in that instant of such sheer Arthurness.

“Before you calm me down?” he scoffed, still laughing. “What does that even mean?”

“Show some respect for your king,” Arthur teased, mock-threatening, and Lancelot jerked again.

They all tensed. Your king. No-one had said it quite like that before now.

Arthur squared his shoulders, soldiering on.

“Anyway. Lancelot, I want you to inspect the rosters of the castle’s cells, and of the dungeons below the granary in the eastern city. Release any of…” He stuttered, but continued, “Any of my father’s prisoners who are elderly. And for pity’s sake, let the women and the children go immediately. Do it quietly. Ask them if they need aid in order to return to their villages. Once you have done that, bring me the list of the prisoners that remain, and be prepared to tell me why they were incarcerated.”

Lancelot nodded, and Arthur turned his head.

“Gawain. You were saying.”

Gawain tilted his head from side to side, which he always did when he was considering what to say. Merlin used to find it infuriating, once upon a time, though he could see in retrospect that his short patience then had had more to do with Gawain’s constant proximity to Arthur, which had seemed threatening at the time, than with any head-tilting.

“I believe the Lady Morgana is right to point out the danger of the western villages, my liege,” he said, transitioning from his usual Arthur with nary a blink.

Arthur winced, and when Gawain continued he rephrased,

“But Arthur, I do not believe they are waiting for a leader in the Druids. Your father the late king brought many of their men to the castle dungeons, and few will return. Those men’s sons do not forget.”

He was breathing heavily as he finished, probably from the strain of saying something that he had never been able to articulate before. Merlin knew the feeling.

Arthur nodded, then said,

“Send riders out. Not just to the western towns and villages—around the kingdom. Have them make an official announcement and then hint unofficially at changes to come, perhaps as they are preparing to return, or if they spend the night at a local boarding house. Have those riding out to villages from which we have prisoners whom we are releasing take the prisoners with them when they go. Those poorer villages, whose taxes we have been waiving unofficially since last harvest—make that waiver official now. Can you organise the knights?”

“Leon and Galahad and Lancelot and I have a grid worked out already,” Gawain said confidently, before realising what he was saying and adding, somewhat shamefacedly, “Sire.”

How long had they all been planning, Merlin wondered, thinking they were alone?

“I want to meet with Geraint before you leave, Gawain, Lancelot,” he said, “Leon, too, and a few others. Gaius, do you think you can persuade Ector and Caradoc to come back to court?”

Gaius nodded.

“I will write to Sir Ector tonight. And visit Sir Caradoc in the morning.”

“Thank you, Gaius,” said Arthur. “Morgana?”

She did not answer straight away.

“Arthur, I’m not certain it’s wise to—”

“Morgana,” he said authoritatively, sounding less like a king than like a stubborn sibling. “We’ve spoken about this.”

“Ragnelle, then,” she said, defiantly. “And Ysolde.”

“Fine,” said Arthur. “You and Ysolde and Ragnelle, Ector and Caradoc and Gaius, Lancelot and Gawain and whomever you choose from your men,” he continued, turning to the men in question. “And of course Geraint. We’ll meet tomorrow afternoon and convene the general council the morning after, once we have established how best to go about this.”

“Arth— Sire,” Gwen paused. “Your Majesty?”

“Don’t sound so sure about it, Guinevere,” he teased.

She ducked her head, and Arthur said,

“Gwen. Come now. What were you going to say?”

“I—” She straightened her back and looked Arthur straight in the eye. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to hold that first meeting without Sir Colgrevance and Sir Lionel. They may not know which way the current is flowing yet, but if you exclude them like that, you can be sure they’ll try their hardest to swim in the opposite direction.”

Arthur looked at her shrewdly.

“Yes. You’re absolutely right. I’ll let them know. Anything else?”

Gwen shook her head, and Arthur looked around the room to see if anyone else had an issue to raise.

“What about Merlin?” asked Morgana when he looked at her, and Merlin looked up from his perusal of Gwen’s satisfied smile, surprised.

“What about Merlin?” Arthur asked, honestly bewildered.

“Well, I assume— That is,” Morgana said stiltedly, looking around the room as if reconsidering something.

“Spit it out, Morgana,” said Arthur impatiently.

She rolled her eyes at him and said,

“All right, I’ll assume that if you have no need for tact, I don’t need to show any, either.”

Merlin tensed.

“If you’re going to loosen the ban on magic, you’re going to need someone to help. Someone to teach you about what you might not understand,” she said.

When Arthur opened his mouth to protest, she lifted a finger, forestalling him.

“Spare me, Arthur. You are many things, but a sorcerer is not one of them. I’m assuming you’re going to name Merlin advisor. He can do what you can’t: you can either have him ride out to convince others that you are in earnest, or he can stay here and help you reel those you wish to be closer in. I approve, of course, but you need to find a way to do all this without rattling cages. Perhaps say nothing official until you can find a way to give him a greater amount of duties, allowing him to prove his competence in other areas. You might pass on the running of your household to Ina, free Merlin up for new tasks.”

Ina was the steward’s son, and a good friend of Merlin’s, but Merlin could hardly spare any pleasure for his friend with Morgana in the middle of laying his life out like that, like a bloodied hide hung out to dry.

You are many things, but a sorcerer is not one of them. The implied unlike Merlin hung about Merlin’s neck like a noose.

Gaius’ face was a study in controlled horror, a look that Merlin had seen too many times for comfort. His stomach twisted guiltily. But as he glanced around elsewhere in the room he saw only Lancelot’s mild surprise at Morgana’s bald choice of statement, and Gwen’s reassuring smile. He looked again, only to realise that among them, only Gawain had not known. Merlin and Morgana had said nothing to each other, but it had only been a matter of time before she had realised that Merlin’s empty assurances about finding a place in the world were rooted in his own experience, and she had known the truth for years. He had always assumed she’d told Gwen. Lancelot had known before anyone other than Gaius, and Arthur… Well, silence aside, Arthur had also been a faithful and kindly keeper of Merlin’s secret for years.

Merlin looked at Gawain, but his face revealed nothing. It took Merlin a moment to realise Arthur was looking at Gawain too, with an oddly expectant look on his face. The look melted as if it had never been there when Gawain said mildly,

“Perhaps we can start by putting Merlin under part-time apprenticeship to Glæadwine.”

Glædwine was the young nobleman tasked with monitoring food stores in the city and the outlying villages, and he was well loved by all those he served.

“Yes,” said Arthur, consideringly. “That’s a good idea. Merlin?”

Merlin nodded dumbly.

“Very well, then,” said Arthur. “That’ll do.”

He turned to Gawain and Lancelot, presumably to speak to them more about their plans to send messengers out from Camelot, asking questions about the system they’d already put in place. Merlin wandered to sit next to Gaius, and Gaius laid a dry hand on his and said,

“Well, we couldn’t have asked for much better.”

His voice was not entirely steady. Merlin thought about the last few years, about the great pyre of books that they had lit last Yule in expectation of the latest of Uther’s investigations. Prior to that they had secreted the books and the loose bits of parchment under the floorboards, and before that inside the hay mattress in the spare room, but last December they had decided they couldn’t continue to take the risk, not with things the way they were.

Gaius’ books had been beyond value, the last remaining vestiges of a long magical history that Uther had dug out by its roots and chopped to fuel his despair. As they had lit the fire Merlin had wondered whether it was worth it, whether he could bring himself to leave Arthur and the others and take that last memory of magic with him to preserve it, until Gaius had said waspishly, as if he could hear Merlin’s thoughts,

“Only one thing in this room is invaluable to me, wretch.”

Merlin looked at Gaius’ tired face now, at the deep grooves framing his mouth and the dark shadows under his eyes. They had all been afraid, and ready for a new dawn, but when Uther had languished Gaius had looked tirelessly for some way to break the fever’s hold on his old friend. He hadn’t slept in days.

“Thank you, Gaius,” said Merlin, meaning Thank you for being there before anyone in this room knew anything, and for still being here after.

“Oh, tosh,” said Gaius dismissively, and Merlin grinned.

“Tosh?”

“Do be quiet, Merlin,” Gaius said, his nose wrinkling in amusement.

Merlin could see Arthur was getting ready to stand—he always placed his palms flat on a table when he was about to finish a conversation and depart a room—and so he scrambled to his feet. Sure enough, Arthur wrapped up what he was saying and jerked his chin towards the door, and Merlin took that as his cue to go fill the ewers in Arthur’s rooms in preparation for tomorrow.

He was almost to the door when Morgana said, too loudly to be casual,

“Ina has moved your things to the royal chambers, Arthur,” and Merlin stopped, turning around to see a horrified look cross Arthur’s features before he smoothed his face and said,

“Oh? I thought I might wait a few days, allow everyone some time to adjust. I thought it might be a kindness to give Lucan some time, particularly.”

Lucan had served Uther since they had both been children, and the wail that had escaped his lips when the physician had covered Uther’s body with a sheet of clean linen was something that Merlin would never forget.

“I understand,” said Morgana, still in that odd, formal tone. “I am sorry if I was too hasty. I was simply thinking that for simplicity’s sake, it would be best if people knew where to find you. Straight away, that is.”

Everyone in the room knew Morgana and Arthur well, and Merlin was sure they could all perceive some measure of what Merlin could hear clearly, listening between the lines of what the two of them were saying.

Arthur had not been able to stand the thought of his father’s rooms, cold and empty of his presence, and he had hoped to avoid entering them until the last possible moment. Morgana shared his horror but knew Arthur had to act as if his new chambers, along with the many new responsibilities he had acquired, were something he was ready for, something he relished receiving. There were many who would be watching with sharp eyes for the slightest hint of hesitation.

“Of course,” Arthur said finally, conceding the point. “Merlin?”

Merlin opened the door, continuing to hold it open as Arthur passed through, and then walked beside him as they wound towards Uther’s rooms. The corridors seemed oddly unfamiliar, even though the castle was far too small for either of them not to know its every nook.

Arthur stopped in front of his father’s heavy oak doors, and Merlin pushed them open, too, sensing that Arthur was reluctant to touch them. They walked in to find sconces and candles lit, and Arthur’s familiar furs resting over the fresh linens. Ina had removed the heavy blue cloth that had hung from Uther’s bedframe and obscured the bed, perhaps knowing that Arthur would not want it there, and the room looked clean and sparse in the candlelight.

“Ina forgot to move your pallet in,” said Arthur distractedly.

His eyes were flickering around the room as if they did not want to settle on anything for too long.

“I don’t think so,” said Merlin, busying himself with turning down the linens and moving the furs from the bed to the chest at its foot. “I think I have my own room now.”

He looked away from the bed, towards a small arch that led into a small chamber lit by a single flickering candle.

“I think it’s so that if someone comes to kill you in the night, I’m literally between your and their blade.”

“For whatever that’s worth,” said Arthur mean-spiritedly, sitting on the bed and letting his shoulders slump the way Merlin suspected he had wanted to all night.

Merlin let him sit, knowing Arthur would not want anyone looking at him, and went to inspect the room where he would be sleeping.

It was little more than a water closet, just enough space for his thin pallet and a single battered chest. Ina had brought Merlin’s own pallet in, and Merlin was intensely relieved that he would not have to sleep in the bed where Lucan had rested so many years. He wondered how Arthur felt, not having the same choice.

Beyond Merlin’s tiny room there was a reception chamber, and beyond that, another meeting room. Merlin and Arthur had walked in through the door that led directly to the bedchamber, but no-one other than the king was allowed that privilege. Until yesterday Uther had had guards stationed there; there were none there now.

“Come take my boots off,” Merlin heard from the other room, and he rolled his eyes as he made his way back to Arthur.

He would have said something disparaging about Arthur’s royal inability to undress himself, but Arthur’s face had a desperate, frightened quality to it, as if he had given Merlin an order simply because he needed something to say. Merlin swallowed his retort and knelt in front of him silently, doing as he had been asked. Then he stood up so that Arthur could stand, and helped him undo the lacings on his breeches and tunic.

Arthur moved as if to get into the bed, but suddenly he tensed, a small shiver running along the muscles in his back.

“Do you want a nightshirt?” Merlin asked.

Arthur normally slept without one, but Merlin thought the shiver had been a sign of revulsion at the thought of getting between the cold sheets of this new bed.

“Yes, thank you,” said Arthur, and if Merlin hadn’t already sensed Arthur’s complete discomfiture, he would have known how Arthur felt simply from the fact that he had let a genuine thank you slip his lips for such a minor thing.

He opened a chest next to the door, thankful that Ina had done his best to recreate the organisation of Arthur’s rooms, and passed Arthur a light tunic and, after a moment’s hesitation, some thin breeches. Arthur put them on without comment, and then settled into the bed, stiff as a board and looking upwards. Arthur never slept on his back.

“I’ll put out the lights, shall I?” asked Merlin, wheeling about without waiting for a response.

He had extinguished all but one of the candles when the rustle of linens made him look at Arthur again. He had hardly moved, but now his hands were clenched into loose fists.

Arthur was more than ready for kingship. He and Merlin had spoken about it more than once, and Arthur had, after all, quite literally been born for it. In the last few years, Uther had made ruling the kingdom into something Arthur could not bring himself to want. Uther had sat in council chambers and levied taxes, ordering Arthur’s knights to imprison his people, and Arthur had watched helplessly, throwing himself into the tasks he considered worthy of a true king as penance. He rode tirelessly along Camelot’s borders, protecting the vulnerable outlying populations; he distributed surplus grains fairly and efficiently. The minute Uther had died Arthur had already been ready to continue what he had begun, the work of safeguarding and aiding his people. He was absolutely ready for kingship, yes—but that did not mean he was ready to lie comfortably in his father’s dark rooms and sleep. Merlin understood that.

He left the candle alight and walked to the bed, where he gathered the edge of the linens and pulled them up to Arthur’s chin. He punched his fist into the pillows that had been brought from Arthur’s rooms and pressed Arthur’s temple gently to turn his face into the plumped down, and Arthur followed his guidance, curving his body to the side.

“This bed is really the least of our worries, Arthur,” Merlin whispered.

Arthur didn’t say anything, but Merlin knew he heard what Merlin was trying to say, the understanding he was trying to convey along with his reassurance. These rooms were not some terrible metaphor for the king’s shoes, which Arthur had been walking in for many miles already. But they were dark and redolent with the scent of fresh rushes and chill with the bite of cold air, from when Ina had tried to air them out. And they were still and quiet, much larger than Arthur’s rooms, and Merlin did not miss the parallel between them and the cold chamber where Uther’s body lay now, waiting under the castle floor for a burial ceremony.

He pressed a hand against Arthur’s shoulders for the shortest moment, knowing he’d get brushed off angrily if he tarried, and blew out the last candle on the way to his own pallet.

They lay there in silence, breathing evenly. After a minute Merlin blew out his own candle, a fat beeswax thing unlike anything he’d ever had for light the last time he’d had his own room, back when Gaius was still pretending Merlin had any real value as a physician’s apprentice.

He was closing his eyes against the sight of the stone ceiling above him when he realised he could no longer hear Arthur breathing. In the dark of the cold room it seemed suddenly as if Arthur might not be there, and Merlin fought back his irrational panic, trying to reason that Arthur was just the other side of the arch near Merlin’s feet.

But when he craned his head to look into Arthur’s chamber there was no moonlight coming through the windows, and all he could see was a dark space. As his eyes slowly adjusted he could see the shape of the heavy four-poster bed, and of the chests piled against the walls, but Arthur was an indistinguishable lump on the mattress, much like Uther had been after that last, rattling breath.

He was just considering whether moving to sleep at the foot of Arthur’s bed like a hunting hound was too pathetic at his age when he heard Arthur’s sharp voice from the other room.

“Merlin.”

It was half tremulous question, half command, and Merlin decided to interpret it as Come here, because from the sound of Arthur’s voice that reading of it was convenient for them both.

He dragged his thin pallet, little more than sticks and leather tied together, behind him, and he tucked it against the side of Uther’s imposing bed and flopped down on it, looking at the ceiling again and trying to feign nonchalance. He was close enough to feel the heat of Arthur’s body near his.

Arthur didn’t say anything for a long time, but then, just as Merlin was drifting off to sleep, almost as if he knew that this was the last chance for Merlin to hear him speak, he said,

“I couldn’t hear you breathing anymore.”

“Yes,” mumbled Merlin, turning bleary eyes towards Arthur’s shadowed face. “That was my problem, too.”

When he finally slept, he dreamt of Uther.








Reign of King Uther, Year the Eighth

He looked disinterestedly at the shallow pool of water where her pale face hovered on the surface, uncertain what she wanted him to say.

“He would have locked me up if I hadn’t run, Kilgharra. Thrown me in the dungeons with the traitors and the criminals. I did nothing but what he and Ygraine asked, nothing but what they wanted. I still don’t fully understand.”

He nodded, not paying much attention. He had known how it would be, what Uther would eventually do. Nimueh had hoped for different, but then again, she was very young. Very powerful, but very young.

“I— I was wrong,” she said, and her voice was not so much apologetic as grieved, betrayed and stunned.

He hummed an assent, letting fire flicker briefly from his nostrils.

“They saw now that he’s locking up all magic-users. And I have to stay crouched, hidden in the forest—” she made an incoherent sound of rage, air whistling between her teeth— “and helpless, looking into scrying pools for knowledge, but they say he means to burn those that go against him next. Burn them!”

Kilgharra nodded slowly. Uther had already begun burning: first magic books, now histories of the kingdom. It wouldn’t be long before he started in on people.

“They’ll stand against him,” she said firmly, and Kilgharra lifted his head.

This he was interested in. This, a means to break free of his chains, he wanted to talk about.

“Who?” he asked eagerly, and when he looked carefully at her face he saw that her eyes were burning fiercely.

“The noblemen. My allies—our allies. All those who know the power of the old magic. Caradoc. Ector. Anselm.”

Kilgharra let his shoulders drop.

“I do not think,” he began, but at the sight of the despair on her face he stopped, unwilling to hurt her when he didn’t strictly need to.

She loved him still, he knew.

“Yes,” he amended. “Perhaps.”

“There is no perhaps about it,” she said, sounding like a petulant child.

She was so certain. So young, and so certain.

She had put Kilgharra in the ground, and out of faith she had coaxed him into chains. She had worked tirelessly for Uther, and she had not noticed the chains he had been weaving around her until it had been too late. She needed to believe, now, that others had not allowed the same to happen to them. She wanted to hear that Anselm and Caradoc and the others were already rising against Uther, shining light on his cruelty and injustice and clearing the path for the new prince, whom she loved fiercely even now.

Shining a light.

He chuckled to himself. She needed to believe all this in order not to shatter, and he would let her have her illusion. It cost him nothing. But he had seen it already: Gaius hiding his books and feigning ignorance, the Lady Angharad discarding her medicine pouches into a deep well. In a vision he had seen Ector’s frightened face as he hollowed out a room beneath his dining hall, as he carefully bricked up his work, as he meticulously built a wooden panel and fashioned it into a secret entrance. Ector’s daughter had always shown signs of strong magic, and Ector, unlike the young Nimueh, saw Uther for what he was. Ector was already taking every step he could to protect what was his.

Nimueh thought their friends were about to rise against the king, that they would come to the castle with torches and swords and walk past the prince’s new nursery in support of the old magic. That they would make the prince into a kindly king through their support, and that they would come to free Kilgharra from the hole in the ground that had been his home for the past three years. She thought it was inevitable that they would topple Uther, and therefore could not see the crippling future that lay ahead for what it was.

But Kilgharra knew better. What was more, he had already seen it begin.

No, they were not coming to free him from this hole, from this darkness. Just the opposite—they were already building holes of their own.



Part I(b)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-16 01:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] syllic.livejournal.com
Haha, H! I can't decide what thrills me more: pleasing you, or you describing my modus operandi for half of my life with such startling accuracy.

God, it's that terrible feeling where you think of a shower and long for it, while simultaneously thinking, "You know, maybe if I just give this next paragraph a chance..."

I'm beginning to suspect almost pathological addictive behaviour on my part, really.

THE DRAFT?

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure how it's going to play out. I have 70,000 words that are for sure, and then 30,000 words of maybes and flashbacks and WHAT THE FUCK [livejournal.com profile] syllic, HATE YOURSELF NOW. But then again, this part grew 2,000 words in the editing. So... bring it on, a hundred and eleventy thousand?


But. But. Most of all, good luck with your paper, and equally heartfelt but less important, I truly, truly hope this makes you happy.

Thank you for being so amazing.

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