syllic: ([merlin] gwen light)
[personal profile] syllic
This small part approximately 6,800 words.

Ganieda had served in the same household from childhood.

Caradoc the Elder had employed Ganieda’s mother as a cook, and when Ganieda had been born, she had been taken into the household and eventually been put to work in the kitchens.

She had discovered her skill for healing almost accidentally. She had never thought much of how quickly her scrapes had seemed to scab over, or of how well it seemed to work when she bound the other maids’ burns in damp cloths smeared with salve. It hadn’t been until Sir Caradoc’s steward had fallen ill, and a physician had been brought in to fight his fever, that she had realised she had any skill at all. It was chance that she had been chosen to ferry the ewers and towels to and from the room, and to wipe down the steward’s brow as the physician worked.

He had made tiny nicks in the crooks of the steward’s elbows, and placed hot coins against his back as she watched. Then, suddenly, he had stopped his work, looking at her as she bent over the steward’s face, and said,

“Child, have you had any training?”

Ganieda had heard stories about women who were taken away from their masters to be ‘trained’ elsewhere, and her heart had clenched in her chest. The physician had been a kindly man, though, and a wise one, and he had quickly realised she did not know what he meant. He had explained carefully, slowly wearing away Ganieda’s resistance: she had not believed, at first, there could be anything special about her in particular.

The physician had stayed once the steward’s illness had passed, giving her patient tutelage under Caradoc the Elder’s watchful eye. Eventually she had been sent to a physician in the east of the kingdom for further training, and from there, to the castle. She had trained under Gaius, and, for a short time, when Nimueh had spent some time perfecting her own healing magic, under the king’s sorceress herself.

Ganieda had learned quietly, asking few questions. And on the day that the king had forbidden her and the other healers to use magic again, even to save the life of one of his favoured knights, she had also said nothing. Sir Caradoc—the Caradoc that she had known since he had been a boy, Caradoc the Younger—had carefully cautioned her against speaking out of turn before they had gone to the castle. He had taken her home immediately after her silent audience with the king, during which he had ranted and railed while a boy died in a room down the hall from him, his mother weeping.

Caradoc had gripped Ganieda’s upper arm tightly as they had left, almost as if he had known that walking away had seemed nigh on impossible to her.

He had walked with her all the way back to her rooms in his household, and had said nothing, simply waiting as she packed her books and healing pouches. He had helped her loosen a stone on her wall, and together they had preserved what they could. The rest he had burned in the stableyards, and they had not spoken of it again.

But unlike the king, Caradoc had not asked Ganieda to stop the work she had been born to do after that day. She was often consulted, if quietly, and given free rein to work in whatever manner she needed. When the Lady Tegau had struggled to deliver her and Sir Caradoc’s youngest, Llyr, Ganieda had given her own blood in hopes that they would both survive, and no-one had said anything as they had watched her dig the edge of a knife into her own flesh, making a fist over a stone bowl.

She had tended Caradoc’s children, and once or twice he had even brought sick men and women from the city to her rooms, under the pretence that she had some interest in buying some trinket from the men, or that she would be teaching the women needlework.

Ganieda was known far and wide in the city as a talented seamstress.

She had never really sown anything that hadn’t looked jagged and unfinished in her life.

For sixty-seven years, Ganieda had worked in the same household, loved the same family, worked in secret within the safety of their loyal silence. She did not know any home other than Celliwig. But now, a lifetime later, she found herself back in her brother’s house in the city, carrying only a small satchel with her and having no idea what she was supposed to do, or where she was supposed to go. Scur had let her in without a word, perhaps reading something of her despair in her face.

He had led her to a small room in the back of his tiny house, and she sat there now, staring at the walls and wondering what it was she was meant to do.

The king had given her leave to do healing work in the city, she remembered. That, certainly, was a place to start. But perhaps she would allow herself one day to regain her bearings. To mourn her losses. To understand that she would not return to Celliwig again, because the man who had given her a home her entire life had asked her for one thing in return, and she had refused.

She would never fully know if she had made the right choice, she thought.

She stared at the floor, breathing deeply. She jerked upright when there was a firm knock on Scur’s door, and then Scur’s voice saying, nervously,

“My lord. Please be welcome.”

She stood from the wooden crate on which she had sat, and smoothed down her apron. Whatever censure he had come to impart, she deserved, and she would hear it with dignity.

The tread of his boots was familiar as he approached the room Ganieda was in, and she looked up to meet his face, which seemed grave and tired, as he entered.

“Ganieda,” he greeted her, and she curtsied—something she had not done in many, many years.

“My lord,” she whispered.

He looked surprised when she straightened to meet his gaze again. He looked at her for a long time, letting his eyes drift to the small parcel by her side, to the dress that she was wearing. It was threadbare, one of her oldest.

“Where are your things?” he asked, finally, and Ganieda said, quietly,

“I would not presume to— My Ladyship gave me those dresses. I took only what I needed, my Lord.”

His brow furrowed, and he looked deeply aggravated. She braced herself for his anger, but he only raised one hand to his forehead, rubbing at his temples.

“Ganieda,” he said again, looking at her with exhausted eyes. “Come home.”

Ganieda gasped. In her entire life—a life of leaving Celliwig only to do her masters’ bidding, always knowing she would return—neither Caradoc nor his father had ever called the manor her home.

“Sire?” she asked, too confused to hope for anything.

“Ganieda,” he said, dragging the vowel sounds of her name out. “You and I played in the same courtyard as children. You brought my youngest son into the world, when everyone said he would not survive. Tegau’s health has been frail all these years, but has not failed her. That has only been thanks to you. You nursed my eldest. You have healed all the men and women of Celliwig twice over, and have never asked for anything in return.”

He paused, and looked to the side, at the wall.

“I cannot say I am best pleased,” he said finally. “Because I do not wish to tell you a lie. But whatever gave you the impression that the ties between us would be broken as a result of this? You have knit our family together when illness has threatened to rend it apart, more than once. Celliwig is your home.”

She looked at him, too shocked to answer him immediately.

“Will you refuse me in this, too?” he asked, and his face hardened. “Is it that you do not wish to return?”

“No,” she said, as quickly as she could. “No, my Lord Caradoc. I would return happily, and with gratitude in my heart.”

“The last isn’t necessary,” he said.

She nodded.

“Then I return happily, my Lord.”

He looked at her carefully, but did not remark on the wetness of her eyes.

“I do have one request to make of you,” he said, and she tensed, unsure how she could refuse him after this kindness, but knowing she must, if he asked again.

“It is not that,” he said, reading her thoughts clearly. “But it does have to do with the king. Will you hear what I wish?”

He came to her, to ask her to return to Celliwig, and he called it her home. He asked whether she would hear him, rather than simply demanding her acquiescence. He treated her…

For today, he treated her like an equal.

Ganieda was humbled.

“Yes, my Lord Caradoc,” she said, quietly. “Of course I will hear what you wish.”

Merlin was slowly beginning to think that what he wished to do for the trials might turn out not to be as simple as he had originally predicted. What he had felt around the castle today made him hopeful, and he was certain that given time, he would be able to give Arthur what he wished to. But he was working without direction, trying to find for himself what he had no reference for.

He sighed, looking at the gurgling water of the creek that ran along the north of the castle walls.

It would help, perhaps, if his mind were fully engaged with what he was doing. But some part of him kept itself oriented towards the castle, wondering what Arthur and Morgana might be doing, what Gwen or Lancelot might need. And he did not like having the pyres out of his sight: he could not give up the idea that he needed to be watchful, if the others were to stay safe.

Norvel had followed him all day, an incessantly cheerful presence. He had not asked about the tunic that Gwen had brought, though he had clearly been curious. When Merlin had finally asked why he was allowing Merlin to do mostly what he wished, after he had considered that Norvel really had little interest in reporting back to Colgrevance, Norvel had shrugged his shoulders and said,

“My brother and I were actually sent by our parents to serve Sir Dornar, not Sir Colgrevance, when we were children. Our land was tied to his manor. Then Sir Dornar gave Sir Colgrevance a stallion, and Benwick and I were transferred along with it, like a saddle and a bridle, and told that we were to serve Sir Colgrevance’s master of horse after that.”

He had shrugged again.

“No-one asked us what we wanted. No-one even asked whether moving away from our parents and our sister would be difficult for our family, who depended on us. I mean, Benwick and I do our best to travel from Sir Colgrevance’s manor to our home near Sir Dornar’s household, but it’s difficult. And you know, I don’t think Sir Colgrevance has even asked us where we live, in all the years we’ve been with him.”

His face had scrunched up, almost comically.

“I’m not even sure if Sir Colgrevance had ever spoken to either me or Benwick before two days ago. And then suddenly he strides into the stables to tell us we’re each to follow someone in the castle, and to report exactly what that person does and says back to him, though we are not to let that person know we’re doing it.

And he called my brother Berwick, as if he’d never laid eyes on him before. Benwick fits the saddle on Sir Colgrevance’s horse every morning. And he helps him dismount when he returns to the stables.”

“I see,” Merlin had said, noncommittally.

He hadn’t been sure whether Norvel was saying he felt no allegiance to Colgrevance at all.

“They hinted that you all might mean to hurt the king, but all I see is you running around with Guinevere trying to make sure the king doesn’t come to harm, like. You don’t seem like a bad person. A little like a chicken once it’s had the head off for cooking, but not like a bad person.”

“Thanks?” Merlin had said with a smile.

Norvel had shrugged one thin shoulder. He seemed to favour moving his shoulders over speaking, half of the time.

“I’ve served in two households over ten years, and only Lar, Sir Colgrevance’s master of horse, has ever been kind to me and Benwick. Now if he had said to me, ‘Go and follow the king’s servant and do not lose sight of him,’ that might be different. But he didn’t.”

Merlin had crouched down to the ground, trying to hide his smile, and Norvel had turned away decisively, as if he considered the conversation over, and wanted to communicate this to Merlin. Merlin had smiled wider, and remembered what it had been like to be that young.

And now here the two of them were, after hours of wandering around as Merlin searched. Norvel was looking in the direction of the woods many yards away, clearly musing on something else, and Merlin was in clear sight of the drawbridge that led into the castle courtyard from the north fields.

Merlin did not want to try Norvel’s patience. He seemed affable enough, but he’d probably react badly to Merlin leaving him here and sneaking back to the castle. Furthermore, the last thing Merlin wanted was for the boy to be given five lashes or worse for letting Merlin get away from him.

But he really was distracted, and clearly bored of following Merlin around, and if Merlin could get across the drawbridge and through the entrance behind the kitchens, he could be in Arthur’s new chambers before Norvel turned around, even.

A chance to see Arthur and Morgana for himself—that would be enough. Merlin took Gwen’s and Gaius’ points about the urgency tied to the trials, but there was little chance he’d be able to truly concentrate until he saw that Arthur and Morgana really were well, or until he could hear from Arthur’s own lips that he did not need Merlin to be doing something other than trying to find signs of magic in the ground.

The tunic had been all well and good, and Merlin had to admit that he was surprised that Arthur had even thought of it. Normally neither of them were much for any sort of display, and it was uncharacteristic of Arthur to spend time trying to think of a way to ease Merlin’s concern. Particularly, Merlin thought, when he was sure that Arthur could have just found a way to tell Guinevere to tell Merlin to focus on the pyres and stop badgering him. But as comforting as the tunic had been to receive—Merlin wondered if Arthur had sent it because he felt the same way as Merlin did, oddly prickly below the skin because they couldn’t work together the way they usually did—the surprise of it had really only kept Merlin calm for a few minutes, before the incessant worry had returned.

The sun was dipping towards the horizon, and as Merlin turned to look at Norvel again, a group of riders came from the path behind the woods, riding around the castle and towards the city gates. The lead rider bent his head to ask Norvel something, and the opportunity proved simply too good to pass up. Merlin leapt up on the drawbridge as Norvel turned to answer, glancing back one more time to make sure he hadn’t been seen, and ducked into the kitchen passageway, beginning to run as soon as he was out of sight.

He felt guilty for an instant, trying to imagine the look on Norvel’s face when he looked up to check on Merlin and found him gone, but then his desire to speak to Arthur won out, and he ran faster.

He took the last bend too quickly, almost braining himself on the stone as the stumbled, and he laughed quietly, stupidly giddy, as he looked up and down the corridor that led to Arthur’s bedchamber doors.

There was no-one in sight, and he walked quickly towards the entrance, trying to be quiet.

“Merlin,” he heard immediately behind him, when he was almost to the door.

It took everything he had not to start at the unfamiliar voice. He turned slowly, trying to keep his shoulders relaxed.

There was an alcove immediately opposite the doors to the royal chamber, and Lionel was standing there, leaning against a window ledge. Merlin hoped his face did not show his disgust, or his nerves.

“Sir Lionel,” he said, dropping his eyes respectfully.

“Do you need something, boy?” Lionel asked, and Merlin bristled at the disdainful tone of the nobleman’s voice.

Lionel had never addressed him like this when Arthur had been present.

“I simply wished to see whether the king had any need of me, sire,” he said, introducing a small note of disdain into his own voice.

Lionel’s nostrils flared at Merlin’s tone. He stepped forward angrily. Merlin held his ground, attempting to keep a placid look on his face.

“I thought Sir Colgrevance had assigned one of his stablehands to serve as your messenger, Merlin,” Lionel said finally, stopping and clearly trying to get his temper under control.

“Unfortunately Sir Colgrevance required the services of my messenger briefly,” Merlin lied, hoping the growing distance between Lionel and Colgrevance would be enough to stop Lionel from asking Colgrevance if this was true.

He kept Norvel’s name out of it, too, hoping also that Colgrevance would not remember who was responsible for watching Merlin, if Lionel did indeed speak to him.

“I see,” said Lionel, in a calculating voice.

He took another step towards Merlin.

“And you would enter the royal chambers not through the petition rooms, but through the king’s private entrance?”

His eyes gleamed; he was clearly pleased to have caught Merlin in this misstep. Merlin faltered, but then retorted with a cheeky,

“I could ask you the same question, my Lord. Did you know the late king kept guards in this alcove at all times, and that entering it was punishable by incarceration? King Arthur has not yet instituted a similar policy, but I am certain he would be interested to know that you are spending time here, with so little concern for his privacy.”

“Why, I—”

Lionel’s voice rose unexpectedly, and he lurched towards Merlin, hands outstretched. Merlin shrank back, trying to look as if he wasn’t, and hit his elbows against the oak of the door. He hoped that Lionel did not have the authority to order that Merlin be punished; that wouldn’t normally be the case, he knew, but he wondered whether that might have changed since Arthur had released Merlin from his duties as royal manservant.

What is going on here?” asked an icy voice, as the wooden door pressed against Merlin’s back, someone clearly trying to open it from the inside.

Merlin moved away from it, and turned just in time to see Morgana’s outraged face. There was colour on both her cheeks, and her eyes widened when she saw Merlin. Then she turned, and took in the sight of Lionel standing there, too. Her mouth tightened.

“Could the two of you explain exactly what you are doing in this corridor?” she asked, sternly, and Lionel babbled,

“My Lady Morgana. I was simply walking by the main corridor when I saw the boy Merlin standing by the king’s door—”

Merlin stiffened at the outright lie, but the look in Morgana’s eyes stopped him from saying anything. He hunched his shoulders and kept quiet.

“Merlin?” she asked, with no trace of her customary warmth in her voice, and Merlin replied,

“My Lady. I simply came to inquire whether the king needed anything from me before the evening.”

He raised his eyes, and looked past her into the room. Arthur was standing by the table, and… Ganieda and Caradoc were sitting at it. Merlin had thought Gwen had said that they had both departed the castle, and he let his eyes rest on them curiously. Then he looked back to Arthur, who was looking at him impassively. Only his eyes betrayed any emotion: he seemed angry.

“I do not believe the king requires anything at this time,” Morgana said firmly, and Merlin dragged his eyes back to her, nodding.

“Yes, my Lady.”

She gave him a brisk nod in return.

“You may go, Merlin.”

“But my Lady Morgana,” said Lionel, “Surely there is concern over the fact that the boy was skulking about in the king’s privy corridor…?”

He trailed off suggestively, and Merlin clenched his fists. He was, firstly, getting fairly bloody tired of people calling him ‘boy’, and he certainly was not about to let Lionel get away with his lie a second time. He looked up, intending to argue his case, and caught a look of the brief exhausted glimmer in Morgana’s eyes, and of a similar tiredness in Arthur’s.

“My Lady,” he said quietly, bringing Morgana’s attention back to him. “I simply wished to be of aid to the king. I see now that he does not require my services, and I am certain he does not need to be troubled further. This will not happen again.”

Merlin turned his eyes discreetly to Lionel as he continued.

“I know you and the king are occupied. The last thing I want is to add to your concerns.”

Lionel lowered his eyes, and Morgana looked between them.

“Very well. I would be grateful if both of you could ensure that you do not enter this corridor again. Camelot’s knights are otherwise engaged and it is my sincere hope that none will have to be called from other duties to be stationed at this door.”

Merlin nodded quickly. He looked into the room again; Ganieda and Caradoc were looking at him curiously, and with their faces turned away from him, Arthur allowed himself one pointed, exasperated look. Merlin winced.

“My Lady,” he said, lowering his head for both Arthur and Morgana, and backing out towards the main corridor.

“Lady Morgana,” said Lionel, following Merlin a second later.

“Sir Lionel,” she called after him, and he halted in mid-step. “It is interesting that you say you saw Merlin entering the corridor, and yet you were not aware of anyone else doing the same. We have heard the sound of shuffling outside the doors for some hours now. Perhaps you could do us a favour and be watchful, to see if you might be able to stop anyone else wishing to intrude. King Uther used to punish entry into this corridor with imprisonment, did you know?”

Behind Lionel’s back, Merlin grinned at Morgana. She turned her eyes to him for a split second, then looked back at Lionel, expectant.

“Y— Yes, my Lady,” he said, officiously. “I will certainly keep more careful watch.”

“We appreciate it, Lionel,” she said, turning back towards the door even as she spoke.

He looked as if he wanted to say something further, but Morgana shut the door in his face. The look he turned on Merlin once Morgana had departed was black with hatred; Merlin simply smiled at him, and went back to Gaius’ rooms.

Norvel was not happy when Merlin walked slowly back through the door to Gaius’ workroom. He did not say anything, but his eyes had a wounded, betrayed look that cut Merlin to the core.

“I am really, truly sorry,” Merlin said, simply. “But I had to.”

“Did anyone see you?” Norvel asked angrily, and Merlin cringed.

“Yes. But don’t worry—I really don’t think it’ll get back to Colgrevance. I’m sorry, Norvel.”

Norvel did not reply, but his injured silence made Merlin feel absurdly obligated to justify his actions further.

“You said you were loyal to the master of horse in Colgrevance’s household,” he began, tentatively.

Norvel turned to look at him, but continued to say nothing.

“He is kind to you?” Merlin asked.

Norvel nodded, almost unwillingly.

“He has taught you many things that you needed to know?”

“Yes,” Norvel said.

“He—” Merlin swallowed around a peculiar tightness in his throat, and continued— “He depends on you to do your job? To do as he asks, before he asks?”

The anger in Norvel’s face disappeared, and he nodded wearily. Merlin wondered if anyone in this court would ever look anything but tired, ever again.

“Yes, he does,” Norvel answered.

“Then you understand,” said Merlin.

“I suppose,” Norvel said grudgingly, but there was a softness about his eyes and mouth.

“I am sorry,” Merlin said again. “If Colgrevance gives you grief, you tell me, all right?”

Norvel laughed.

“And you will do what, precisely?”

Merlin looked at him seriously before replying.

“Colgrevance’s master of horse,” he said. “He is loyal to you?”

Norvel did not answer, but his mouth parted slightly. Merlin could hardly believe he had let himself say something so utterly inappropriate. He comforted himself with the thought that he had been vague enough to avoid certain condemnation if his words were repeated, but he turned away from Norvel and busied himself with getting them some dinner nonetheless.

He couldn’t understand what had happened to him, these last two days, that he seemed unable to stop swinging wildly between defiance and anger and misery and insubordination. Now that he was back in Gaius’ chambers, and not crouched by the drawbridge in anticipation, thinking only of getting to Arthur, he saw how foolish he had truly been. He had put Norvel at risk of punishment, and—he saw now—he had added to Arthur’s worries by being arrogant enough to believe that he alone could ease some of them. Lionel might keep the story of his and Merlin’s encounter silent, if only because Morgana had known he had been out in the corridor before Merlin, but he was just as likely to repeat his original lie in the hopes of incriminating Merlin.

Worse than that, he might repeat the story, highlighting the way in which Merlin had escaped punishment, to undermine Morgana, or even Arthur.

Merlin cursed himself for an idiot, and tried to avoid slamming their crockery down on the table. Norvel sat with him, clearly sensing something dangerous about his mood, and ate in silence.

When the time came for them to go to bed, Norvel arranged his bedroll on the pallet quietly, and said nothing when Merlin kicked savagely at his mattress a few more times. Norvel rolled away to face the wall and Merlin lay down on the bed, trying to make himself calm enough to rest.

He was on the edge of sleep when he thought of it, and with the idea came an even deeper sense of regret at his encounter with Lionel. Merlin fought the urge to smack himself in the face and breathed evenly, trying to concentrate.

He had never done this at such a distance, but then again, he’d never tried to. He focused on the thought of Arthur, and on the thought of the royal chambers. He funnelled his intention down the curling steps that led to Gaius’ chambers, and down the corridor at the bottom, up the short staircase to the kitchens and down the corridor to the right. He could see the familiar doors of the hall and the stone arches that opened into the castle’s central gardens in his mind’s eye, and when he reached the corridor to Arthur’s rooms, he thought of flattening his voice to squeeze under the gap below Arthur’s doors, and then concentrated on winding it to Arthur’s ear as he lay in bed.

When he had done this with Arthur in the council chamber the other day, or with Gaius a few times before that, it had simply been a matter of willing his voice a few feet forward. It had been so easy he had hardly had to think about it. Now, however, it seemed as if the strain of the distance was making it difficult to even form the words he needed, and the surprise of that made him lose his focus on Arthur’s chambers for an instant. He closed his eyes and forced himself to concentrate, and tried to curve a whispered Arthur into the shell of Arthur’s ear.

But when he finally managed it, he could tell immediately that… Arthur wasn’t there. There was something—someone—dampening his presence, making it feel muted and shrouded. Merlin reeled back, alarmed, and funnelled all of his power down the same path, immediately on the offensive.

He had told them that Nimueh had no intention of simply watching as they struggled with her spells. He had told them.

Merlin was furious, and so it took him longer than he might have liked to realise that the power swathed around Arthur was not Nimueh’s. Nimueh’s magic tasted like earth and mist, and by the time Merlin had met her, it had also been barbed and quietly dangerous, like a coiled snake’s fangs.

The power around Arthur seemed benevolent, and protective. It tasted of herbs and wood. Merlin focused harder, curling his toes with the strain of it, and finally matched a face to the magic. Ganieda, he thought, and as soon as he did he could see the clear grey of her eyes and the kindness of her face.

She had…

Merlin struggled with it for a second longer, and then it was clear: she had put a spell used for healing on Arthur, like Gaius had taught Merlin to do in the very early days. A monitoring spell, so that a healer could feel what was changing with and near and inside a patient.

Merlin crept his own power forward carefully, hoping to find a way around Ganieda’s competent, well-meaning shroud, but he found no weaknesses. He tried to gauge whether he could push past it, and immediately saw that he could. But she would know, and no doubt she would report it to Caradoc, and Caradoc to Arthur, and Merlin could not take the risk of being caught using magic on the king, in the king’s bedroom, while the king slept.

They would not know what his intentions were, and he could not chance them interpreting them in a negative light. He had seen enough of where that road led to know to avoid it completely.

So he slunk his power back, after contenting himself with one more assessment to make sure Arthur really was unharmed. And then, when the anger and the anxiety and the fierce protectiveness were all back under his skin again, thrumming just below the surface, Merlin forced himself to relax, and fell asleep.

When Gwen came in the next morning, Merlin yanked her to the window straight away and whispered angrily to her,

“Ganieda has put a spell on Arthur. It’s not meant to harm him. But it’s tied to him completely, wrapped around him, even when he sleeps. I think that means she’s able to observe him, in a way, most of the time, and report what she feels to Caradoc.”

He pulled back, expecting that Gwen would want to run to Arthur with the news immediately, but when she looked at him, her face was kind and unsurprised.

“I know,” she said, and Merlin let out an angry breath through his nostrils.

“I am well aware of how busy you all are, Guinevere,” he said, resentfully, “But small things like this—someone working magic on Arthur—perhaps you could find some time to come tell me about.”

She looked at him sympathetically.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I didn’t know about it either, until this morning. Apparently Ganieda and Caradoc came back to the castle yesterday afternoon, and that’s when she did it.”

“I saw them,” Merlin said, and she raised her eyebrows at him.

He waved her unspoken question away, looking at her pointedly.

“Ganieda is still not going to participate in the trials, but Caradoc asked whether Arthur would consent to her helping to keep him safe during the entire process.

She’s a healer, and it’s a healing spell. Arthur agreed because everyone assured him it was done in good will. I think Caradoc is happy, because this allows him to continue to be of service to the king, even without Ganieda participating in the trials. And Arthur seemed to think—”

Gwen looked at Norvel, who shrugged expressively at her, as if to say, What do you think I’m going to do?

Gwen smiled at him, amused by his gesture.

“Well— Arthur seemed to think you would tell him if there was something wrong with any of it,” she continued, turning back to Merlin. “How did you know about it, anyway?”

Merlin looked away uncomfortably, unwilling to admit that he’d been trying to communicate with Arthur again, even after they had all told him to wait, more than once.

“Never mind,” said Gwen, shaking her head at him. “As I said, Arthur seemed to think you would know about it, and that you’d let him know if it was meant to harm him. He even sent Leon—”

She cut herself off, but Merlin put a hand on her shoulder and forced her to look back at him when she tried to shake off what she had been about to say.


She took a deep breath.

“He even sent Leon to stand watch outside Gaius’ chambers last night, in case you tried to run over there once you figured it out,” she said, sounding almost apologetic.

Merlin twisted his mouth in displeasure. Arthur wasn’t wrong to think that Merlin might have done exactly that, but the mention of Leon standing watch outside Gaius’ rooms made Merlin’s hackles rise.

It was as if every word out of Gwen’s mouth only confirmed how separate he was from the rest of them, as they worked together while he wasted his time watching Gaius stir and decant his medicines.

“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely, for the hundredth time in the last two days.

Merlin couldn’t bring himself to reassure her that it was all right.

“Will you take him a note from me?” he asked instead.

Merlin…” she said warningly. “What about the tasks?”

Merlin heaved the greatest sigh he could.

“Guinevere, look— I truly promise to focus on nothing but the tasks after this, all right? It’s quickly becoming obvious to me that I don’t really have much of a choice but to do that. But just… can you do this one thing for me?”

She nodded.

“What about—?” she asked, hitching one shoulder towards Norvel.

“I think he’s pretty cross at me already, from yesterday,” Merlin said, looking in Norvel’s direction and smiling at him. “But I don’t think he’ll tell on us.”

“I won’t,” said Norvel.

He seemed strangely exasperated, though, and it became clear why he was when he said, annoyingly,

“But Merlin, listen— I really think you need to be focusing on the pyres, now.”

Merlin took a deep breath, fighting the urge to run directly to one of the pyres and throw himself in it, if only to stop people from remind him about them.

As if he could forget.

“Gwen?” he asked, and she nodded, fetching some parchment and a quill from Gaius’ desk.

Merlin sat down and looked at the blank parchment, trying to think of what to write. You are an idiot seemed too risky, in case Gwen was caught giving the note to Arthur, and I’m going mad on the other end of the castle while you march ahead blindly, apparently allowing people to perform magic on you without asking me, and if you do not stop excluding me so utterly, I might come over and kill you myself was too long, and too little like what he actually wanted to shout at someone, to write down in a note.

Finally, he settled on the vague Extremely foolish behaviour, which seemed unlikely to incriminate anyone even if the wrong person saw it, and he folded the parchment, handing it to Gwen.

She took it, and turned away from Merlin and Norvel to do something complicated with her hands that appeared to have the end result of concealing the note in her bodice. Merlin widened his eyes, turning away, and Norvel turned the colour of a beet as he stood by the door.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, clearly slightly embarrassed, and Merlin nodded glumly, looking down at the table as she departed.

“You two are lettered,” he heard Norvel say, and he looked up to see Norvel looking at him in awe.

“My uncle taught my mother, who taught me,” Merlin said. “The Lady Morgana taught Gwen.”

Norvel did not say anything, but there was a covetous, almost worshipful light in his eyes. Merlin understood.

“Would you like to learn?” he asked, and Norvel looked at him distrustfully, as if Merlin were having him on.

There was a long silence.

“I can’t let you run off again, no matter what you teach me,” Norvel said finally, very primly, though it clearly cost him to turn the offer down.

Merlin shook his head tiredly.

“It’s not a bargain, Norvel,” he said. “When this is all over, I promise to teach you. You’ll have to come to the castle, and I won’t always have time when you’re able to come away from Colgrevance’s stables, but I’m sure Gwen and Gaius will be willing to help, when I have other duties.

If I have any duties at all by the end of next week, that is.”

Norvel looked at him as if Merlin were offering to have him knighted tomorrow, and to give him land and fortune, besides. Then he seemed to remember Merlin’s downheartedness, and he said sympathetically, and very quietly,


Merlin looked up, confused, and Norvel said,

“That’s Sir Colgrevance’s master of horse. And yes. I do think he is loyal to Benwick and me, as we are to him.”

Merlin smiled at him wanly, not at all reassured, but thankful to Norvel for trying.

Their conversation yesterday seemed like an age ago.

They waited in silence, and eventually the soft patter of Gwen’s slippers could be heard coming up the stairs. She stopped at the door, turning away to dig in her bodice again, and Merlin laughed at the haste with which Norvel moved away, looking fixedly at the floor.

Gwen handed Merlin the same piece of parchment that he had given her a few minutes earlier, and he unfolded it to see a single line written below his, in Arthur’s clear, slanting script.

I am doing the best I can, it said simply, and Merlin, who had been expecting some sarcastic or insulting rejoinder to his own message, hitched a sharp breath.

He supposed, later, that that was what changed his mind. The simplicity with which Arthur had replied—so unlike his usual manner, and so clearly an indicator of how weary he must have been—made Merlin’s own behaviour loom grotesquely in his mind’s eye. He felt suddenly, deeply ashamed of how he had disregarded Arthur’s requests until now, which Gwen had repeated more than once and which even Gaius and Norvel seemed eager to remind Merlin of.

Arthur and Morgana were trying to arrange everything so that Merlin could have the chance to join them in their chambers, permanently. So that he could be Arthur’s advisor, and so that he could never be sent away like this again, the way only a servant could. And Merlin (though he would recognise he had a right, and good reasons, to be anxious) had responded to their efforts with negligence and ingratitude, choosing to do what he wanted, instead of what they had asked of him.

He smoothed the parchment out again, and then folded it neatly, curling his fist around it. He took a deep breath.

“Gwen, Norvel,” he began. “I need to find something in the castle, so that I can begin to deal with the pyres in the courtyard. But I haven’t really lived in Camelot long enough to know where to look, because what I need to find had, I think, almost disappeared by the time that I arrived. If I’m going to find what I want, then I need the knowledge of people who have been here for much longer.”

He looked at them, and smiled gratefully at Gwen when she looked back at him evenly, without judgment or reminder of what she had been asking him to do for two days.

“Will you help me, Gwen?” he asked.

“I’ve already asked Morgana if I can be away from the royal chambers for the next week,” she said, smoothly.

She came to sit next to him, and placed her hand on top of his.

“What do you need?”

ETA: Didn't realise some people were still reading these first parts, sorry about locking them briefly. I thought it would be easier to lock them until I could get back to posting post-RL craziness, but I'm sorry if that interrupted anyone mid-read.


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October 2017


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