syllic: ([merlin] a study in gwen)
[personal profile] syllic
This part about 8,000 words. Part 1c hopefully up tomorrow or the day after (work permitting editing).

Reign of King Arthur, Year the First

Arthur woke to the sight of pale stone set in a star shape.

The stone of his bedroom ceiling was dark grey, like that of all the rooms in the south wing of the castle. It was made darker by the fact that Merlin had never in his life taken a brush to it, not even after the fires had burned in the hearth all winter.

Lucan scrubbed his father’s rooms once a week with a brush made from stiff twigs.

“Your breakfast is on the table,” he heard from somewhere to his left, and he did his best to untangle himself from the bedcovers and the tunic he’d foolishly worn to bed, which was now wrapped tightly about his neck.

“Do you want a hunting knife to cut it open, or can you manage?”

Arthur muttered something rude against the cloth he was pulling over his head, and Merlin laughed harder at him.

Merlin had a very stupid laugh. That had always been a comfort, when Arthur was in the middle of being mocked.

“I can have you killed, these days,” Arthur said as he tumbled from his father’s high bed and made his way towards the table.

“You have always been able to have me killed, Arthur,” Merlin said quietly, abruptly serious.

When Arthur had initially decided to stop speaking to Merlin, after that fateful day when an arrow had changed course a few inches from Arthur’s chest, he had never expected that his reward would be this kind of deep gratitude from Merlin, which did not seem to be fading as the years passed. Arthur had stayed silent initially because when he was a child, he had once overheard one of Morgan’s matrons telling her, “When a lady has nothing gracious to say, Morgana, she says nothing at all”. He’d always taken the lesson to heart. He hadn’t had anything gracious to say, those first few weeks—only barbed and deadly things. After a while it hadn’t been so much that he didn’t have anything to say, but that he didn’t know how to say what he wanted; it had taken a long time for that to change. He hadn’t expected the gaunt, starved look on Merlin’s face to haunt him even when they weren’t together, though, and he hadn’t expected that Merlin would mark every day that Arthur spoke to him after with a deep reverence for Arthur’s forgiveness for his secrets.

Arthur wasn’t even sure that there had been anything to forgive. His father had certainly given Merlin enough reason to stay silent, even to lie. Merlin had done what he had to do. Arthur had even told him this, as much as he could without having to apologise, but that hadn’t seemed to make any difference. Whenever Arthur tried to joke about that time, or made some comment about how Merlin always teetered on the edge of driving Arthur to violence, Merlin seemed unable to stop himself from saying (always earnestly) that Arthur had been patient and compassionate when it mattered. Arthur wasn’t sure if Merlin was trying to remind Arthur, or to remind himself, but he supposed that Merlin’s quiet faith was as familiar and reassuring as it was discomfiting.

“There’s cheese, and some bread of slightly dubious provenance. The kitchen bakers stopped working when—”

Merlin cut himself off abruptly, unable, as always, to bring much subtlety to any matter. He might as well have said exactly what he meant, for all the good swallowing back his words did.

Arthur chose to say nothing, taking a seat at the table instead. Merlin looked chagrined enough; he didn’t need to be reprimanded.

Arthur ate in silence for a few minutes. The sun was slanting in through the window, making his father’s pale walls look almost white.

“Do you really want to be apprenticed to Glædwine?” asked Arthur suddenly around a mouthful of almost-stale bread.

Merlin picked up the thread of what Arthur meant quickly, shrugging his thin shoulders.

“I wouldn’t mind it, I suppose.”

Arthur nodded pensively.

“I don’t think we necessarily need to have you do that. People are used to seeing you like a burr in my side; if we do it gradually enough, they might not notice when you start to speak.”

Arthur was more worried about how the two of them would adapt to this new dynamic, quite frankly, than he was about establishing it. Whenever they had worked together, he and Merlin had never had particular trouble changing the beat of the music around them, and Arthur didn’t see why this should be any different. It would be complex, but that, too, was nothing new.

“Gaius said both Ector and Caradoc are coming this afternoon,” Merlin said some time later, once Arthur had finished eating.

He handed Arthur a sharpened blade to shave with.

Arthur began to scrape carefully along his chin, and was about to express his approval at this development when Merlin said,

“Please don’t speak while you’re doing that. You almost cut your lip off last week.”

Arthur glared, but did not argue. It was true. He moved the blade around his jaw as quickly as he could without causing damage, though, simply for the satisfaction of watching Merlin’s eyes widen and squint in turn. Merlin watched him with hawk eyes, but did not stop him.

Arthur was already doing up the last laces on his tunic, ready to head towards Morgana’s chambers, when Merlin spoke quietly behind him.

“Arthur,” he began, hunching his shoulders tentatively.

This sort of behaviour was never a good sign. It usually preceded some ludicrous request to grant a village a year’s reprieve on their harvest payments, or something of the sort. Arthur raised an eyebrow to urge him on, but Merlin did not seem any less hesitant.

“What?” he asked finally, glaring, and Merlin replied, almost too quickly to be understood,

“Do you want the other crown?”

For years Arthur had had a box in a chest somewhere—he was certain Merlin knew its exact location—with a crown wider than his prince’s coronet. It was not the same crown that he would use at important events, and it was not the crown his father would be buried in. This was his, crafted at a time when the gold could have been better spent alleviating the suffering of some in the city, but his father had been unwilling to hear dissent.

“I suppose so,” he said reluctantly, and Merlin looked at him disapprovingly.

“Yes, minion, bring it forth,” he intoned in as bored a tone as he could manage, and Merlin shook his head despairingly, but said,


As if Arthur would dream of expressing uncertainty outside of these rooms.

Merlin shrugged and muttered something about bad habits, almost as if he knew what Arthur was thinking, then dove into a chest under the largest window. When he found what he was looking for he walked to Arthur and placed the gold circlet gingerly on his head, twisting it around until it sat to his satisfaction.

Arthur made for the door immediately, but Merlin shook his head and said,

“There are people waiting for you. In the antechambers.”

Of course. Arthur nodded quickly and said,

“Well, you know what order to send them in in.”

They walked across Merlin’s miserable hidey-hole, where Merlin’s pallet was once again crunched against a wall, and Merlin shut the door to the bedchamber as they passed. Arthur took a seat on the small wooden table in the reception room, and Merlin walked through the next door to usher the first person in.

Arthur had foolishly thought that his informal council in the afternoon would be the most trying part of his day. He had conveniently forgotten the sheer volume of busywork that had always seemed to keep his father occupied, however. Uther had relished it, come to love it even above his other duties. A single morning had shown Arthur that he should not foresee ever gaining much satisfaction from it, now or in the future.

“I can handle the household requests,” Morgana was saying to him as they walked swiftly down the corridors, late already. “You can appoint someone to hear petitions before they are passed to you.”

Arthur nodded.

“Yes. Who?”

“Glædwine for the cityfolk, perhaps; they already know him. Many will be surprised to hear that their petitions can be brought forward once more. They have some sort of unofficial system in place already, from what I heard; they have had since—well, for some time. I would leave it as it is. For the nobles… that is trickier. Maybe Geraint, if he is willing.”

“I’ll ask,” said Arthur.

They had reached the smaller of the council chambers, and Arthur waited for a page to open the door before ushering Morgana in. No need to stand on ceremony at an unofficial gathering. He was toying with the idea of not standing on ceremony for anything, but that was, as Gwen sometimes said, a passing fancy for another afternoon.

“Be seated,” he said as he walked in.

Merlin shut the door behind him and Morgana, ushering the scribe out after a quick questioning glance in Arthur’s direction.

“Your Majesty,” said Lionel as he and Morgana took their seats. “I hope this afternoon finds you exceptionally well.”

Arthur looked at him steadily, long enough for Lionel to begin feeling fractionally uncomfortable, then answered,

“Yes, thank you, Lionel. Very well.”

Lionel shifted in his seat, seemingly unsure of what to say next. Arthur noted his sincere willingness to please—perhaps his obsequiousness was little more than an ingrained behaviour, in which case Arthur could hope for better from him as time passed.

“I’ve called you here to hear your council prior to the meeting I will call tomorrow,” he said, looking around the table.

They were all looking at him attentively, and Arthur fought off the unfamiliar weight in his chest that told him that if he made a mistake, these people had no higher power of appeal. He was the best they could hope for, now, and he wasn’t sure he could give them all what they wanted or needed, no matter how hard he tried.

Arthur breathed deeply, fighting to keep the chasm in his lower abdomen from opening. He was not ready to think about his father, not in terms of a permanent absence. He clenched his jaw to stop the despair from coming up further than his throat, focusing on the sight of Merlin standing by the window. His manservant was examining his fingernails as if he were in the middle of some personal task of little importance, rather than listening to his king at council. The nonchalance had to have been intentionally put on, but it calmed Arthur nonetheless. He continued.

“I want to address four things. Allow me to mention them all, and I will answer questions immediately afterward.

Firstly, I want us to come to a decision on what to do about the overcrowding in the east dungeons. I believe it would considerably ease pressure on the city’s resources to release those prisoners who might have served sufficiently long sentences already. Some leniency may be called for, but it makes no sense to continue to tax the city’s resources for the benefit of a few petty criminals.”

Don’t say that anything prior to today was a mistake on anyone’s part. Hint at possible improvements, but exude loyalty to Uther at every turn, Morgana had said. Arthur hoped he could walk that fine line with skill.

“Secondly, I want to address how the official announcements of my father’s death will be given throughout the kingdom. Gawain and Lancelot and Leon will speak further on that.

Thirdly, I would like to hear your opinions on the matter of binding the more outlying villages more closely to Camelot. Other concerns have forced us to turn our interest elsewhere before now, but I believe a convenient opportunity for change presents itself with the riding out of our messengers.”

“Finally,” Arthur concluded, keeping his voice as neutral as possible, “I wish to speak about Camelot’s ban on magic. Though caution has served us very well in the past, it is my view that Camelot currently has the strength and wealth necessary to allow us the privilege of loosening the ban gradually, and perhaps ridding ourselves of it entirely in time. It is a testament to my father’s concern for his people that he gave Camelot the security it required to develop into the powerful kingdom it is today. I believe that we can now begin reap the benefits of his wisdom and his considerable exertions.”

He glanced briefly at Morgana, and she blinked slowly, indicating approval.

“I am now open to your comments,” he finished, and was unsurprised when Colgrevance blustered immediately,

“If you will permit me, your Majesty. I am not sure if the last is entirely wise. I see how the joyous dawn of your reign—” Arthur saw Tristan roll his eyes exaggeratedly at one end of the table— “might be cause for hope and newfound clemency, but I believe it was your father’s long experience that led him to believe, rightly, that subjects often require a firmer hand when it comes to this matter. Magic has worked against us for many decades, overtly as well as insidiously. We would do well not to forget that.”

It was dangerously close to insubordinate. Arthur looked at Colgrevance through half-lidded eyes, the same eyes with which he had always assessed the sparring fields, and said flatly,

“I thank you for your input, Sir Colgrevance. I know very well the harsh experience that you are referring to, as, as you know, I maintained my father’s front lines for many years. It was my father that taught me, however, that flexibility is as powerful a tool for a king as a firm sense of purpose can be. I am therefore determined to see some changes in this matter.”

“I think that is wise, sire,” said Geraint in his deep baritone. “It is my feeling, from my conversations with the other noblemen, that you are not alone in your assessment of Camelot’s current stability.”

Arthur nodded briskly, grateful but knowing he could not show this openly.

“I agree. I think perhaps we ought to begin with freeing some of those imprisoned for the use of magic, as I mentioned. The women and the children, certainly, and perhaps some of those whose crimes were lesser.”

“I think that would aid us in forging the ties to the border towns, sire, as you were mentioning earlier,” said Tristan.

“That is my hope too, Tristan. Any other suggestions for immediate measures?”

Ysolde, who until now had sat quietly near Morgana, opened her mouth as if to speak, then shut it again.

“Lady Ysolde?” Arthur prompted.

He was determined that women should be allowed to speak in these informal council sessions, if not in the main council chamber. Morgana had cautioned him against too much change too quickly, but Arthur could hardly warrant keeping women from court decisions when he had a sister like Morgana. It would have been the highest form of hypocrisy to depend on her so fully in private while neglecting to give her a voice in public.

“I think, sire,” Ysolde began tentatively, clearing her throat, “That if your wish is to eventually repeal the ban on magic, we must first overcome the deep fear that many of our people have developed of it.”

“Go on,” said Arthur carefully, looking at Morgana to see if she had prompted this contribution.

She shook her head ever so slightly.

“I believe that your father’s wise choices, while indubitably necessary at the time, created, as the years passed, a deep distrust of the magical arts in the kingdom,” Ysolde continued. “I do not believe we would be successful in repealing the ban and integrating magic back into our society if we did not address that distrust first.”

Arthur fought not to wince. This was an issue he had hoped to avoid discussing until his first measures were in place, but he could hardly fault Ysolde for her quick mind.

“Perhaps, your Majesty,” she was saying quietly, “If your wish is to start a process that will eventually end with the complete reintegration of magic, you might bring magic back to the court first, to show the people of Camelot that you yourself are not afraid of it.”

“I do not know if that is wise just now, Ysolde,” Arthur began hurriedly, eager not to open this matter for discussion before they were ready for it.

He and Morgana had a plan for how to do so, when the time came, and he did not want it changed prematurely.

But even as she was nodding, clearly perceiving his reluctance, Caradoc was nodding his assent and interjecting,

“I, too, believe that would be a good idea, your Majesty.”

Ector chimed in, too, almost if the three of them had agreed this prior to coming, though Arthur knew that was impossible. Caradoc and Ector had only found out about the meeting a few hours before it had begun, and the Lady Ysolde hardly knew the two noblemen, who had been mostly away from court for many years.

There was an eager light in Ector’s eyes that Arthur distrusted immediately, but he could hardly satisfy his curiosity as to its provenance now, with Ector already speaking.

“There was a time, your Majesty,” he was saying, lowering his eyes respectfully, “When your father’s court had a sorcerer.”

Out of the corner of his eye Arthur saw Morgana’s nostrils flare in alarm, and he blanked his features to ensure he would not give a similar reaction away.

“I am aware of that, Sir Ector,” he said simply.

“There was a sense of deep connection to magic in those days, and the people of Camelot enjoyed a far-reaching and prosperous trust of it. Magic was used for healing, for marvellous works. It was not turned to corrupt uses then, as it later was.”

“And perhaps a time of similar trust can come again, in time,” said Arthur cautiously.

He was eager to be away from this troublesome topic.

“I believe that appointing an advisor skilled in magic for your new court might ease that process considerably, sire,” Ector pressed, unable or unwilling to see Arthur’s lack of enthusiasm.

“On the contrary, Sir Ector,” Arthur said ruefully, calmer now that he knew where Ector had been heading. “I believe such abrupt change might be very disconcerting for the people of Camelot, and perhaps even counterproductive.”

“For the people of the city at large, certainly,” said Ector, smiling in agreement.

Arthur sensed a but coming, and for a moment he deeply regretted his impulse to ask his father’s old advisor to attend this first meeting.

“But the memory of the court is long, and there are few who do not remember a time prior to the troubles that led your father to design the difficult preventative measures that he so skilfully implemented.”

Behind Ector Merlin raised his eyebrows sharply, as if to say, That’s a neat rewriting of the court’s history. Arthur agreed. He admired the skill with which Ector was navigating the issue, picking carefully through the veritable bramble that had been Uther’s thorny leadership when it came to magic.

“Perhaps an individual skilled in magic, not appointed publicly, but working discreetly within the court, could begin to do the work you foresee as eventually being widespread, sire,” Ector was saying. “At first the people of Camelot would only hear rumours of such a thing. It would build faith with those unwilling to believe the sincerity of your intentions—there are always those who doubt, even in the face of earnest commitment—and ease some of the fear that the Lady Ysolde rightly mentions. Surely there can be no cause for fear, the people will think, if the king himself welcomes magic back into his court? It would be very gradual, you understand. I am suggesting not a sudden change but rather a change that is whispered about before it is known, known about before it is felt.”

Arthur rather felt as if he had been uncomfortably backed into a corner. He had not expected this first meeting to yield anything of import; he had merely wanted to assess those who he hoped would be his allies in the future. He had been so confident that his uncontroversial first-step measures would meet with approval, in fact, without need for any real discussion, that he had told Lancelot to begin implementing them the night before. He had certainly not expected this: Ysolde’s unknowing misstep, or Ector’s strange commitment to returning magic to the kingdom, once Ysolde had mentioned the possibility. Arthur flicked his eyes towards Gaius, whose face seemed about to come undone with the weight of a history that Arthur knew nothing about. He wished he had had the presence of mind to ask about it before he had invited Ector and Caradoc here.

“Well,” he began, stalling. “I certainly see some merit in what you are suggesting, Sir Ector.”

He looked towards Morgana, and then towards Lancelot. Their faces were carefully blank, so he risked a quick look at Guinevere, who was standing by the door. He did not dare look towards Merlin.

The frustration that Arthur could not reveal shone clearly from Gwen’s face. They couldn’t have hoped for worse, in one sense: what Ector was saying was exactly what they had wanted, but not exactly when they had wanted it. To reject Ector’s idea now would make it difficult to justify suggesting it later, particularly when Ector was only advocating a gradual seeping of magic back into the kingdom, siphoned through the careful filter of the court, rather than an abrupt change.

Many things were done that way, customs begun amongst nobles tied together by oaths of fealty and by tradition, eventually adopted by the people of the kingdom because they had become fact before the people even fully knew about them. Arthur had hoped not to implement policies in this way, but he had known it would be impossible to avoid the practice entirely. And now here was Ector, suggesting that they do in this subtle way what Arthur had hoped to carefully hint at wanting done at some later date. It was not that Ector was avoiding rattling the cages as he suggested this, as Morgana had called it, but rather that he was rattling the cages for them, sparing Arthur the pressure of having to propose the plan without revealing his bias.

In some ways, he felt it was too good an opportunity to pass up. A larger part of him, however, was reluctant to pounce on what seemed like a viable opening, but might turn out to be a disaster, if it forced their careful hand and ruined their later machinations.

Morgana clearly agreed with the former, though, for she offered, very quietly,

“I think this is perhaps worth thinking about, sire.”

“Your Majesty, I have reservations about this.”

Gaius’ raspy voice was enough to deflate Arthur’s rising sense of hope at Ector’s proposal and Morgana’s support. Gaius wanted what was best for Merlin, and if he opposed Ector’s suggestion, Arthur knew immediately that there was reason to be cautious.

“I do not think there is anyone among us who does not have reservations, Gaius,” said Caradoc.

“I can wholeheartedly agree with that,” said Colgrevance.

Colgrevance had been far quieter than Arthur would have expected during Ector’s entire speech, but perhaps that was because he had sensed that the tide of the room was not with him. Now that some were expressing dissent, he was clearly gathering energy for a spirited counterargument.

However,” Caradoc continued pointedly, speaking over Colgrevance’s sharp inhale, “I think you will find that if you weigh with care what Ector is saying, you will find it has a greater potential for success than for creating risk. He is right to say that magic would be new only to those at court who are very young. This would be a slow return to a practice that may now seem distant for some, rather than the creation of a new practice in the true sense. I do not believe it would be as disruptive as we might fear.”

“Say I see the value in yours and Ector’s argument,” said Gaius.

His tone was edged with something menacing, and Arthur looked at Merlin for some explanation. Merlin shrugged his shoulders, and Arthur saw confusion on Morgana’s features, too.

Something was going on here—some heavy thing was being dragged from the past onto the council table, and this was why none of the younger people at the table were making any contributions of their own. They all sensed that they did not have the information necessary to intervene, and yet Arthur knew it was crucial that he regain control of the situation, no matter how much knowledge of the past he might be lacking.

“Say I see the value in your argument,” Gaius was repeating.

Caradoc was tense, clearly sensing Gaius’ hostility.

“Who, exactly, are you suggesting that this ‘individual skilled in magic’ might be?”

Caradoc relaxed abruptly, as fully as if Gaius had just waved away his own objections and agreed wholeheartedly with him. Perhaps he had, in some surreptitious way, but Arthur was still none the wiser.

Caradoc chuckled, and said,

“Why Gaius. I would not presume to suggest I might know who the best choice for such a delicate task might be. That wisdom can rest only with our young king. But I am certain he would allow you to put in your bid for the position, old friend, if you so wished.”

Caradoc was clearly trying to establish some form of rapport, but Gaius’ face only hardened further.

“Allow me to remind you that no-one is suggesting that this position is something Camelot is ready for,” said Arthur, warningly, trying to head off the storm, and Caradoc inclined his head.

“Of course, your Majesty. It was only a suggestion.”

Arthur nodded. It seemed as if Caradoc and Ector would not press the issue, if cautioned outright against doing so.

“But perhaps a timely one,” interjected Gawain.

Arthur shot him an exasperated look. He had been very clear, he had thought, that this avenue of conversation was to be closed, and he had been halfway to closing it before Gawain had suddenly decided to interrupt.

“Sire,” said Gawain, lifting his hand as if to settle Arthur’s temper, “I am simply thinking of the plans you were mentioning earlier. I mean your desire to see some changes in the court’s relationships with the border villages, and your decision to release some of the prisoners in the city’s dungeons. It is clear to me that the next few weeks will be a time of constant, if gradual, change for Camelot. What better time to effect this difficult transition? Change, no matter how significant, can certainly pass by unnoticed when it is other change that masks its presence. If your highness was willing to risk this delicate balance, to wager on succeeding, the court might emerge unscathed on the other end—that is to say, the change might be fact before it even faced opposition.”

Colgrevance’s loud spluttering immediately lent weight to Gawain’s proposal. Gawain had seen something Arthur had not: though it was unpleasant to be pushed to this point before they were ready, Arthur could seize the opportunity now and avoid having to quash dissent from those who would cling to the old ways, as Colgrevance would, later.

Arthur looked at Gaius, who looked unhappy but considering.

“That is not unwise, Gawain,” said Arthur gravely.

He raised his eyes to the ceiling as if to think for an instant, but what he was really doing was raising his eyebrows at Merlin and Morgana.

Morgana flicked her eyelids for Arthur again: Yes. Merlin looked uncertain but trusting: I leave it in your hands. I will do as you wish.

“How could we find an appropriate individual, Ector?” asked Arthur, turning his attention to the portlier of the two noblemen. “That is, if we were to go ahead with this? Surely there are not many magical practitioners left at court.”

Ector blanched visibly.

“Not many, sire, no. But I am certain that a few must remain. Some who remember the old ways, or who would be willing to take the learning of them up again.”

“Perhaps more than a few, no, Ector?” asked Gaius sardonically.

“Perhaps,” Ector said lightly, clearly unwilling to engage with Gaius’ anger.

“In the past, when no clear candidate was immediately available, such things were often decided by a show of skill, your highness.”

The contribution came from Lionel, of all people. Lionel had been Colgrevance’s faithful dog for many years, helping him to rout out threats to the kingdom under Uther’s orders, breaking the fragile webs of community in villages and towns. The two of them had continued doing this long after any real threat had been exterminated, and Arthur had never understood how they had acted with so little regard for human life, for justice.

He dragged himself back to the conversation at hand. His dislike of Lionel was immaterial at the moment.

“Yes. A show of skill to pick the most suitable individual from among the possibilities, sire,” agreed Ector.

His gaze was unfriendly as it landed on Lionel, as if he resented the other nobleman for suggesting it first.

“Open to all in the court,” said Morgana, musingly, as if the thought had just occurred to her.

“Noble and commoner alike, given the scarcity of options,” clarified Arthur.

He thought for a moment that he might have revealed too much with that last, but no-one seemed to look at Merlin in the wake of Arthur’s pronouncement.

“That seems reasonable, considering that the number of eligible candidates will probably be very small indeed,” said Lionel.

His gaze was eager, reminiscent of how Ector had looked upon first raising the issue for discussion. It all made Arthur extremely uneasy, even as he felt relieved at how quickly they had all agreed to the terms that truly mattered to him.

“How would this person’s skills be demonstrated, sire?” asked Lancelot.

Arthur took comfort in his steady, familiar voice, looking around the room as he thought. Apart from Colgrevance, who sat, sour-faced and clearly unhappy, there seemed to be a general consensus in the room that bringing a magical advisor into the court would be a good idea. Moving them from this initial approval to an acceptance of Merlin would not be easy, but Arthur had faith that he and Morgana could engineer that, given time.

As he had thought earlier, he could not have hoped for worse from this meeting, in some ways. That was true. But in some ways, he also could not have hoped for better.

“I do not know, Lancelot,” he answered, honestly. “But if we are all agreed on this course of action, I am sure between us we can design a suitable trial.”

That afternoon, he and Morgana rode through the streets of the lower city, greeting the people. They were thronged into the narrow passageways that lined the city’s main thoroughfare, and Arthur was unable to keep a smile from his face at the sight of so many gathered there, dressed in vibrant colours and throwing wildflowers into the air.

Morgana was dressed in green and her hair was loose in the wind, tumbling about her face in wild tendrils.

Arthur had been ready to head out to the street in his usual tunic and chainmail when Guinevere and Merlin had stopped him at his door, shaking their heads as if they were scolding a child.

“Here,” Merlin had said, thrusting a red velvet doublet at Arthur and motioning for him to lift the chainmail over his head.

“You can hardly head to the streets looking like a yob, Arthur, past practice aside,” Gwen had said.

She had sat Arthur on the bed and stood on a chest beside it, doing who knew what to Arthur’s hair. Merlin had polished Arthur’s black riding boots in advance, as well, but as he had brought them over, Arthur had winced.

The sight of the glossy leather against the red velvet had been too much like a living memory of his father, and he had not been able to bear it. He had also been unsure whether he wanted the people’s first sight of him as king to be so similar to his father’s imposing figure, but that feeling had been half-formed and mangled in his chest, and he had not known how to fully deal with it.

Merlin had looked at Arthur’s face carefully, and had immediately buried his head in another chest.

“Here,” he had said finally, extending a blue tunic with the Pendragon crest embroidered on the chest in gold thread. “The people will like your eyes in this, I’m sure.”

Arthur had scoffed, and Guinevere had yanked his head in reprimand.

“It’s true. Will you please stop moving about?”

Arthur had not counted on Gwen’s and Merlin’s prescience, but he would admit now that he and Morgana made a striking pair, riding down the street in their bright colours. Morgana sat side-saddle on a white mare, and someone had brushed the coat of one of Arthur’s geldings to a high shine.

“Long live the king! Long live King Arthur!” the people were shouting, and Arthur smiled, overwhelmed, picking daisies and lavender out of his hair.

“My lord! My lord,” he heard a woman’s voice calling to his right.

He turned, smiling, to watch her lift a child in her arms. The child made as if to kiss the top of Arthur’s boot, and Arthur recoiled, unable to help himself.

She snatched the child back into her arms, turning her body to shield the little girl from Arthur’s foot, and Arthur recoiled further.

“No, no!” he entreated, trying to get her attention before she turned away.

He held out his arms for the child, and the woman looked at him cautiously before extending her arms again. The little girl, unaware of the last exchange, giggled and squealed.

“Your Majesty!” she cried in a high voice, and Arthur laughed, bringing her up to his knee and kissing her cheek.

The crowd roared.

“Long live King Arthur! May the Lady Morgana prosper!” they thundered, and Arthur handed the child back to its mother, who was looking at him with a wide, uncertain look in her eyes.

The ride around the lower city took far less than two hours, but as Arthur and Morgana slowly walked their horses into the castle courtyard, Arthur felt as if he had just come off a week’s patrol. His bones were aching with the strain of holding him upright as he had tried to exude a confidence and joy he did not quite feel. But the people’s excitement had been infectious, in its way. It had fuelled Arthur’s resolve when it had flagged, and even as his shoulders slumped he could feel something burning in his chest, like a fiery coal.

“I’ll take the horses,” Merlin said quietly.

He had been walking between them, fighting not to get crushed as the people crowded the two horses together. He had not wanted to ride with the knights who had accompanied them on horseback, claiming that a horse above the people was no place for him.

Arthur had been inexplicably ashamed by Merlin’s humility, but as they had walked their horses across the narrow walkway that led to the greater city, Morgana had laughed and said,

“You just want to make sure you’re within range of Arthur all the while, Merlin; don’t lie.”

Merlin had shrugged.

“That, too.”

Arthur helped Morgana up the castle steps as they dismounted. The delicate train of her dress was trailing behind her, and her hair was a dark mass of knots against the pale skin of her back.

“You look very beautiful,” he said honestly, and she laughed, waving him off.

A pretty flush was making its way up her neck, though, and Arthur looked away, smiling.

“Not bad for a first day, all in all,” she said, when they were back in her rooms and Gwen was braiding her hair for the evening.

Arthur hummed. He agreed, but he did not want to be over-confident, today or ever.

“You’ll bring the issue of the magical advisor up at the council tomorrow?” asked Morgana shrewdly, sensing Arthur’s anxiety and navigating the conversation back to more pressing matters.


“I wonder what had Ector and Caradoc so excited. And Lionel, even.”

Arthur shook his head.

“I wish I knew, too.”

“What are you going to suggest for the trials?” asked Morgana, and Arthur sighed.

“I have no idea. It would be nice if it were something with a little bit of drama in it, I suppose. It couldn’t hurt to establish Merlin decisively.”

Impulsively, stupidly, Arthur found himself wishing for dragons. But while the nobles and the people could say what they wanted about the effectiveness of Uther’s iron fist, the truth of it was that Camelot had faced no magical challenges of true import for many years now.

“Do you think Merlin… I mean, he can do it, right?”

Morgana looked sorry to have to ask, but Arthur saw why she felt she needed to. If he were perfectly honest, after all, he was not entirely certain that Merlin could do this either. Some part of him felt a bone-deep assurance that Merlin would always do what Arthur needed him to, what Arthur asked of him, no matter how extravagant or outrageous or impossible-seeming. That was what Merlin had always led him to expect. But Arthur would not deny that it made him uncomfortable to have to thrust Merlin so firmly into the middle of the court’s intrigues now while asking him to do something he had never really done before in the process.

Merlin chose that moment to walk through the door, presumably having delivered their horses to the stables, and the sight of his collarbone peeking through the top of his tunic, still as sharp as when they had all been little more than children, made something pang in Arthur’s chest.

“What?” asked Merlin self-consciously, clearly aware that he was being looked at.

“Nothing,” said Arthur, even as he catalogued the fine web of veins along Merlin’s inner arm, the curve of his ears, and the jut of his hips, all of which suddenly looked disturbingly frail.

“Arthur is just discussing his desire for a dramatic end to the court sorcerer affair,” said Morgana airily, and Merlin chuckled dryly.

“Oh yes. Because you do so well with drama, Arthur. Yours is such an understated way.”

Guinevere laughed loudly, and Arthur wondered, not for the first time since yesterday, at the fact that being king apparently afforded one no privileges when it came to respect from one’s subordinates.

It was oddly comforting, to have some things remain the same when so much else was changing.

“We’ll leave you to it,” said Arthur to Morgana, standing and kissing her swiftly on one cheek.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.

Only her voice betrayed how tired she was. But as Arthur looked into her eyes he also saw a familiar glimmer of pain in their depths, like the glint of a coin at the bottom of some very dark well. He saw her recognise the same thing in his own gaze, and nodded at her gravely.

“You’ll come to the petition chamber, so we can walk to council together?”

She nodded.

“Tomorrow and every morning,” she said.

“Every morning,” Arthur repeated, liking the taste of the words in his mouth.

They turned to leave and Merlin preceded Arthur out the door, his back squarely to the room, improper as always. Arthur followed, chastising him with a sharp shoulder jab once they were both in the corridor.

Merlin groaned half-heartedly.

“So that was exciting,” he said as they walked.

“What?” asked Arthur, and Merlin graced him with a small roll of his eyes.

He lifted his hands in front of him, waving them about stupidly, and said,

“You know. All the—” he waved his hands even more wildly, and Arthur looked at him in amusement, trying not to laugh. “All the Long live the king!

Arthur smiled in agreement.

“Yes. Exciting, but also terrifying. I didn’t know the city even had that many people.”

“You know exactly how many people this city has,” said Merlin seriously, leading the way into Arthur’s chambers.

“I was speaking—”

“Yes, I know,” said Merlin, cutting him off and extending his arms for Arthur’s tunic.

Arthur tugged it over his head as Merlin continued to speak.

“But I wasn’t really referring to the number of people, though that was exciting, too. Loud,” he said, as he folded the tunic carefully and replaced it in its trunk.

“It was their eyes,” said Arthur quietly, and Merlin nodded.

“We pin a lot of hope on the one man,” Arthur continued, and Merlin nodded again.

Arthur felt a fierce throb of affection for Merlin in that moment, because only Merlin would let him say something like that without comment, without pointing out the obvious. They pin their hopes on you, Morgana would have said, eager not to let Arthur get away with looking askance at the reality of the situation. They’re right to pin their hopes on you, Lancelot or Gwen might have said, full of quiet faith. But Merlin just let Arthur say what he needed to, and offered nothing in return.

“I have a question,” said Arthur.

“What is it?” called Merlin from where he had disappeared into the next room.

Then he backed back into Arthur’s bedchamber, arse first, dragging a heavy ewer behind him.

Arthur couldn’t help laughing, and Merlin turned to look at him accusingly.

“I would wash, if I were you,” he said scathingly. “You stink of self-importance.”

Arthur laughed louder, but obediently went to splash water on his face and upper body.

“Can you do it?” he asked suddenly.

Merlin looked up from where he was fetching Arthur’s dining clothes, clearly bewildered by the sudden sharpness in Arthur’s voice.

“Can I do what?”

“The trial. This magical advisor choosing process, whatever it might end up being.”

Merlin said uncertainly, “Well… I think I can.”

Arthur scrambled to reassure him.

“Oh. I mean, it’s very unlikely that there will be any serious competition. A few individuals with healing magic, I would expect. Some self-important courtier who has dedicated himself to the study of magical history in secret, perhaps. Nothing you won’t be able to deal with. I’m really much more concerned with getting them to look past your insubordination and terrible ethic of service. I know you can do the rest.”

As he said it, though, he realised that he didn’t. He didn’t know if Merlin could do it, because even after they had begun speaking again, they had always maintained a dutiful silence on this topic. Arthur had never seen Merlin do magic, not truly—he had made it a point to turn away when it happened, or he had expressly asked Merlin to do it out of his sight. His faith in Merlin’s magic was therefore a transferred one; it was really more a faith in other qualities of Merlin’s that Arthur was absolutely certain about—his loyalty, his devotion, his friendship. Arthur realised, suddenly, that while it was all very well and good to trust Merlin on principle, it would be the height of irresponsibility to throw him to the court wolves without some concrete assurance that Merlin would come out unscathed.

“I mean. You’re skilled. Yes? Would you say that was true?”

Merlin looked a little panicked, as if Arthur had him trapped against a cliff face and were asking him for all his worldly goods at knifepoint.

“I know we’ve never spoken about it,” Arthur said. “At my request, mostly. But I want to know. No— I need to know that you’ll be fine.”

Merlin leaned forward, looking attentively into Arthur’s face, and then suddenly he laughed. It was an incredulous sort of sound, and it was not the reaction Arthur was expecting.

“Are you saying you’re concerned that I don’t have enough power to do this?”

His voice sounded odd. It took Arthur a moment to realise that he was utterly unused to hearing that timbre of certainty when Merlin spoke.

“Merlin, this new court is no joking matter. Colgrevance is certainly no joking matter, and he’ll be looking to—” Arthur began.

He stopped abruptly, because… something in the air was changing. The cool wind blowing through the window had seemingly vanished, and Arthur’s rooms were turning sultry and oppressive, like a summer’s day before a storm. The heat of it was pressing against Arthur’s skin, beading sweat on his upper lip, and when he opened his mouth the hot air dried his tongue, his throat.

Arthur looked up slowly, half-afraid of what he would see, but of course it was only Merlin. Merlin standing there stupidly, with his hands at his sides and a self-deprecating look on his features. His eyes were golden, and sunlight seemed to be streaming through the gaps between his fingers, between the places created by the wide spread of his hands.

“I—” Arthur said, dumbly.

Merlin walked over to him, something about his steps making him look like a stalking predator, and Arthur swallowed against the grain of his dry throat. Some small part of him was screaming, For the love of all that is holy, it’s just knobbly-kneed Merlin. The rest of him wasn’t listening.

“You’ve never wanted to know this,” Merlin said once he was close.

His voice was almost a whisper.

“But if you ask it of me… This has always been yours too, Arthur.”

Arthur could feel a faint shudder in his knees. It took him a long moment to realise that the stone floor of his new chambers, in this castle that he had always considered unmovable, was trembling, humming with the coiled strength of something volatile and raw.

“I—” said Arthur, unsure what it was he was asking, but knowing he had to ask anyway, “I want to know it.”

Merlin cocked his head to one side, and his lips curved up into a small, secret smile. It was a look Arthur had never seen on his face before.

Do you?” he asked.

If Arthur hadn’t known better, he would have said Merlin’s tone was… goading. For a peculiar and utterly inexplicable moment Arthur felt tempted to describe it as heavy with the pull and the hope of a seduction. He opened his mouth to say something, feeling completely bewildered, but nothing came out.

It was as if he had never been here before, and as if this man standing in front of him were a complete stranger.

In the next instant, though, Merlin smiled broadly and the bizarre illusion shattered. The air was cool against Arthur’s hot skin again, and the odd pressure of the room had disappeared entirely, as if it had never been. Merlin’s eyes were blue as he looked at Arthur, and he was cheerfully bending to retrieve Arthur’s riding boots from the floor, as if he’d been in the middle of doing so all along.

Arthur shook his head, trying to clear it, and then looked at Merlin again, trying to make sense of him once more. He felt absolutely certain that something utterly foreign had just taken place. But when Merlin looked back at him his face was absolutely familiar, and his voice was nonchalant as he said,

“Don’t you worry about it, Arthur. Truly, don’t. I can do it.”

Part I(c) coming soon.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-17 07:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
MY LOVE FOR YOU AND THIS FIC IS ENORMOUS! ENORMOUS I TELL YOU! I know I said it last time, but this is exactly how this should all be.

And I see you over there slyly shaving Arthur's chin. *cracks up*

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-18 06:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<lj=faynia>') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

So <lj=faynia>, I will begin by saying that no-one <I>in the world</i> could hope for a better cheerleader, and honestly, as I'm staring for what seems like the millionth time at another segment of this at 2am, I am so filled with gratitude for you that I could float.

I am very, very pleased that this continues to feel right to you. I'm uncertain about this whole first section (these last two parts and the one I hope to have up tomorrow) because it involves so much fucking backstory, which just continued to grow and grow and grow in my head and which I want people to find interesting, because it pins up all of what comes after. So thank you for sticking with it, and I'm thrilled you're enjoying it. Thrilled, I say.

As for shaving Arthur's chin, all I will say is: BRADLEY JAMES VISIT A BARBER. (Mind you, I only feel this sometimes. I have beard-fickleness. Is that bad?)

Thank you for taking the time to comment, as always!

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-18 06:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I will continue waving the pompoms madly because I can't get enough of this fic. CAN NOT. I ♥ your writing style and have been prodding everyone I know who even has a passing fancy in Merlin over here. I have mildly succeeded in probably annoying people. Alas.

As for shaving Arthur's chin, all I will say is: BRADLEY JAMES VISIT A BARBER.

Have you seen the set pics yet? HIS CHIN IS DELIGHTFULLY FUZZ FREE. Though it was starting to grow on me, a lot. I mean it led to this. It can't be all wrong.


syllic: (Default)

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