Chapter 1: Past is Prologue
A week since Morgana was taken, and each day is tighter with apprehension. Following the Great Dragon's vicious attack on Camelot the people are rebuilding, but all the king can think about is Morgana. He does not pray. He leaves that to those who have nothing useful to do.
He sends out wave after wave of search parties, in concentric circles, but they come back with nothing. Useless. He knows the kingdom better than anyone; he should be taking the lead.
And then he remembers. And he insists on going himself.
It is the cave behind the waterfall, where he found so many of them during the Great Purge. That was where Morgause would keep her, wasps always returned to the hive…. The men think him mad, but Uther doesn't care, he knows this place….
And there she is, all porcelain beauty laid out on a stone slab the high priestesses once used for their dark ceremonies. The witch Morgause standing over her, casting some kind of enchantment, looking up, surprised….
Too enraged to waste time drawing a weapon, Uther raises an armored fist and brings it crashing down into the sorceress's blonde locks….
Uther Pendragon woke up in his bed, in his chambers, in his castle.
What! was his first thought, followed immediately by How?
"Ethan!" he bellowed.
Ethan appeared in his midst with a pleasant, "Yes, sire?"
"Where is Morgause? Where is Morgana?"
"Your Highness, I believe I saw the Lady Morgana's servant Guinevere bringing breakfast to her chambers. My sincerest apologies, but I do not know anyone by the name of Morgause."
"The blond woman who murdered five knights and nearly killed Arthur some months ago."
The servant bowed low. "I beg your pardon for my foolishness, sire. I do not recall any such lady."
"She's no lady," Uther said under his breath. "Ethan, what is today?"
"Midsummer, Your Majesty."
Uther frowned. It was autumn, near winter. What reason would his most faithful servant have to lie like this? "Is there anything special about today?"
"For the morning's entertainment, a sorcerer shall be leaving his head in the courtyard."
"Thomas Collins, I believe."
Uther dressed absentmindedly. That name sounded familiar, and the dream he'd woken from seemed so real….
Ethan said, "We also prepare for tonight's festival celebrating the end of magic in Camelot. Lady Helen of Mora will be performing."
"Impossible. She was killed two years ago by a witch." Uther thought for a moment. Hadn't that witch been called Mary Collins? And hadn't she sworn revenge for the execution of her son?
The servant said nothing, but Uther could tell from the way he over-fluffed the pillows that he was searching for a way to respond.
"You may speak freely, Ethan."
"I am certain it is my mistake." Fluff, fluff, fluff. "But I was absolutely positive that tonight's entertainment is to be…" fluff, fluff-fluff, "Lady Helen of Mora."
Uther considered that.
"No, the mistake was mine," said Uther finally. "I had a vivid dream, and I believe it unsettled me a bit. Perhaps I'll visit Gaius after breakfast."
He had another visit first, though. Morgana was just finishing breakfast. Uther was nearly overcome with emotion at the sight of her, unharmed and safe inside the castle walls. He threw his arms around her, kissed her cheeks, and told her how he'd missed her.
"And why not, after all those hours asleep?" she said, sounding amused.
Most peculiar; she didn't seem to have any memory of being gone. He told her he'd slept poorly and was still feeling a little off.
"That makes two of us," Morgana sighed. "If you're going to see Gaius, why don't I walk with you?"
And so Uther was in exactly the right place to witness his court physician and old friend nearly fall to his death. But he was caught in mid-fall by….
"Merlin?" Uther meant to shout. He was so surprised, it came out as more of a mew. Arthur's idiot serving-boy, a wizard?
Merlin and Gaius turned to him, Gaius suspended in mid-air, and Merlin with that ridiculous look on his face. Uther knew that look. He knew that boy. And now he knew the boy's secret.
"This explains everything!"
Uther ordered Merlin beheaded along with Thomas and Mary Collins. Morgana objected, as naturally she would. Uther wanted to explain, but how could he? He tried to tell her that sometimes he might do distasteful things, but they were always in the best interests of Camelot. She didn't seem satisfied, but there was nothing he could do about that. She had to learn to trust him.
That evening, Gaius excused himself from the banquet. Uther knew it was a silent protest over Merlin, but he was too pleased with himself to care much. After twenty years of unbroken peace, all manner of curious and uncanny things had been unleashed upon his kingdom the very day Merlin arrived in Camelot. As far as Uther was concerned, he had put the lid firmly back atop Pandora's box.
Lady Helen performed at the banquet, and Uther thought he had never heard a sweeter sound. Yet…somehow…he could hardly…keep his eyes…open….
Uther Pendragon woke up in his bed, in his chambers, in his castle. Ethan was whistling softly as he went about his duties. Uther knew the song.
God save our gracious king
Long live our noble king
God save the king.
Send him victorious
Happy and glorious
Long to reign over us
God save the king.
"Begging Your Majesty's pardon," said Ethan, bowing low and sounding slightly ruffled.
Uther smiled. "No need. It's a fine morning, isn't it?"
"Quite, sire. A lovely day for a festival."
"Again? Are you asking for a holiday?"
"I must be mistaken, sire. Is today not the day Camelot celebrates twenty years without magic?"
Ethan had made one mistake. He had gotten within arm's reach of his master. Uther grabbed him by the collar and yanked him close so they were eye-to-eye.
"Are you toying with me, Ethan?" he said, voice dangerously low.
"Of course not, sire! I would never presume!"
Ethan's eyes were wide and, Uther thought, innocent. He let go, still stewing, and ordered Ethan to get out and find a calendar to study.
After dressing hastily, Uther went to see Gaius.
"I feel…unsettled," said Uther, pacing back and forth on the small clear patch of Gaius's floor.
"Is that so?" said Gaius mildly. "Perhaps a tea of chamomile and…let's see…valerian. To banish evil."
While Gaius brewed the tea, Uther asked about the date. Gaius, too, thought it was Midsummer and that Lady Helen of Mora would be performing later that night.
Pace, pace, pace, turn. What did it mean? Pace, pace, pace.
"You must be Gaius!"
Uther turned and -
In a flash, Uther had the boy against the wall, one gloved fist at his throat.
"How are you doing this?"
"Making this day repeat!"
Merlin gave him a look. Uther knew that look. It was the same one he had given his own father, when the king had begun speaking of things no one else could see. The beginning of the madness that eventually consumed him.
Uther called for the guards and ordered Merlin executed for sorcery.
Gaius did not attend the banquet. Uther had no choice, although he was hardly in the mood, and he had the oddest feeling he'd forgotten something important.
Lady Helen sang, and Uther felt an enchanted sleep fall over him like a warm blanket. His last thought was a curse.
Uther Pendragon woke up in his bed, in his chambers, in his castle. Ethan was whistling softly as he went about his duties. Uther threw the nearest object at hand at him, wishing it were something heavier than a pillow.
"Must you persist with that ghoulish death-rattle!"
"Begging Your Majesty's pardon," said Ethan, bowing low.
Uther glared at him, but he seemed unruffled. That was one of the things that made him Uther's favorite amongst his personal attendants.
"Are you looking forward to the festival tonight?"
"And will you attend Thomas Collins' execution?"
"I observe the extermination of sorcerers whenever possible, sire."
More's the pity you can't remember the three times you've already seen this one, thought Uther.
At least there was nothing wrong with Ethan. Come to think of it, there were few people in the world Uther trusted more. Among the servants, absolutely none.
Thoughts churning and settling on nothing in particular, Uther went to see Morgana. He had nearly forgotten her last time. Again she seemed surprised by his sudden affection, but not displeased. And again, Uther was in just the right place to see Merlin catch Gaius' fall. This time, he decided to try something new.
"Gaius, you are one of my oldest and best friends," said Uther. "I owe you my life many times over. I will spare the boy if you wish."
"Please, sire. He is my nephew." Gaius was staring at the floor, but Uther could tell he was quite upset.
"Is he? Why did you never mention this before?"
Gaius continued to avert his eyes deferentially, but he couldn't help blinking in surprise. "It would not have been…apropos…before anyone had ever met him."
Of course it wouldn't. Uther wanted to sigh, but restrained himself. "Merlin, I hereby banish you from Camelot. Do not cross my borders again, or I shall have you executed immediately."
The boy looked affronted, but he didn't need to be told twice.
This time, Uther remembered to inform his guards to look for Mary Collins and have her beheaded alongside her son.
This time would be different.
Lady Helen - the real Lady Helen - performed at the banquet. Uther was so anxious that each song would be his last that he couldn't enjoy it at all. Still, he wasn't dead at the end of the night, and that was always a good start.
Chapter 2: Past is Prologue
Uther woke the next morning, and it was really the next morning at last. Ethan was so quiet that Uther didn't realize he was there for a moment.
Merlin was banished back whence he came, but there was still the matter of Morgause, Nimueh, and God knew how many others. For whatever reason, Uther had been given a second chance with Morgana. This time, he swore to himself, he would keep better control of her. His complacency had allowed magic to corrupt Camelot, but that was all over now.
Uther immediately ordered a constant rotation of search parties to find Morgause and Nimueh. The first place he sent them was the waterfall cavern where he'd found Morgause before, but she wasn't there. He drew maps showing all the old hiding places where he'd found sorcerers during the Great Purge. His knights flushed out dozens of magic-users, living right under his nose. The Second Purge had begun.
# Valiant #
After some weeks, it was time for the annual tournament. Uther remembered Knight Valiant quite well. Privately, he offered the young man a chance to leave Camelot quietly - without his shield. Valiant, living up to his name, refused. Uther had Sir Leon arrest him.
The shield did not come to life without its master, unfortunately, and Morgana was incensed. She accused Uther of all manner of absurdities, including trying to throw the tournament in Arthur's favor. That brought Arthur around to her side, which Uther hadn't seen coming.
Finally, Uther had no choice but to overrule Morgana by fiat. He knew Valiant was guilty, and that was that. Honor was important, but he wasn't about to risk Arthur's life over it.
# Lancelot #
The half-lion, half-eagle creature made its appearance north of Camelot town. Uther recalled that some peasant called "Lancelot" (surely a nom de guerre) had slain it last time, and waited patiently for said peasant to arrive with his falsified seal. When he did not arrive by the time the creature had nearly reached Camelot, Uther ordered him found.
Lancelot explained that all he wanted in the entire world was to be a knight of Camelot.
"And from what noble house do you come?" Uther asked.
"I'm not a nobleman," said Lancelot, entirely without guile. That was interesting. Uther wondered if it had been Merlin who had given him the seal last time. Probably; it would be just like a sorcerer to corrupt an otherwise good man.
"Slay this beast," said Uther, "and you will have your knighthood."
He saw Arthur's eyes go wide, but his son had enough sense not to speak until they were alone.
"Father, the Code. The First Code of Camelot!" Arthur sputtered, when everyone else had cleared the chamber. "It's…the first code! The prime directive!"
Uther kept his gaze steady. "Arthur, there is a mystical beast tearing towns apart. Can we not use every man we can get?"
Confusion wrestled with disbelief behind Arthur's eyes. Finally, he said, "Yes. Yes we can. That is a sensible and reasonable policy, Father." And he left to gather his knights.
"Don't look so surprised!" Uther called after him, annoyed. Arthur's challenges to his authority were also annoying, but in a bittersweet way; they heralded the prince's growth into a king, and pride mingled with irritation in those cases. But this…it was as if Arthur expected his father to be unreasonable, and there wasn't a silver lining in that.
The gryphon did end up slain, although Lancelot refused all credit. That could only mean there was yet another plot going on right under Uther's nose. In a fit of pique, he sent Lancelot away. To Arthur's objections, Uther declared that the peasant was lucky to leave with his head on his shoulders.
That settled the matter, but Arthur and Morgana's continued disappointment was quite clear enough.
# Edwin Muirden #
When a physician called Edwin arrived in Camelot with lofty claims of his healing prowess, Uther had him searched. As he suspected, the search uncovered a number of magical artifacts. Although no one else remembered it happening, Uther resented Edwin for tricking him into doubting Gaius. For that he would suffer; Uther had him burned at the stake.
Following Edwin's execution, Morgana briefly stopped eating.
"Camelot is safer than it has ever been," Uther assured her. "No one who uses magic will escape my grasp, I promise."
He expected her to be pleased, or even angry. But the way she shivered and avoided his touch perplexed and wounded him. Uther had never felt safer, himself. Forewarned was forearmed, was it not?
He recalled that Nimueh had attacked Camelot twice between Valiant's arrival and Edwin's, but this time all was well. She must have been frightened off, which was only sensible when your opponent knew the future.
# Avalon #
Sophia and Aulfric of Tír-Mòr arrived, and Uther remembered well how the pretty girl had entranced Arthur into eloping with her. In deference to Morgana's delicate sensibilities, Uther decided not to banish them right away. Instead, he had Ethan keep an eye on them. One midnight when Ethan reported that Aulfric had left the castle, Uther followed.
Deep in the forest was a lake, of no special importance that Uther was aware. He observed as Aulfric cast some sort of spell with his walking stick - really, now, that enormous otherworldly gem should have been a clue, he chided himself - and Uther was astonished to see a number of tiny glowing orbs appear above the surface of the lake and flit about. His blood ran cold. He had entirely misjudged these two. How had Arthur avoided death the first time? He recalled that Merlin had acted particularly idiotic, even for him, during this time. Was he in league with these sorcerers? Their plan seemed to be running perfectly well without him.
Uther's gut fought with his brain. Merlin had to have been a conspirator. But Merlin as conspirator made no sense. Merlin as rescuer, on the other hand….
He was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't notice Sophia coming up behind him. She ensnared him with her obviously magical staff and levitated him over to the lake.
Aulfric addressed the tiny lights, asking whether a king might be a good enough trade for his daughter's immortality. The girl pleaded with her father to come with her. He said that he couldn't. There were tears. Uther started to think he would give his life to be free of this maudlin family melodrama.
"If you leave Camelot and never return, you may have your lives. The next time I see you, it will be both your heads on the chopping block," Uther informed them, still hovering helplessly over the water.
They drowned him in some sort of arcane ceremony. It was no more than he expected.
The next morning (or rather, the morning of Thomas Collins' execution), Uther strutted around the castle feeling as invincible as Achilles on the battlefields of Troy.
He proceeded the same way he had before, although he hesitated just a little before banishing Merlin. He had expected his life to be much simpler without Merlin around, but things were turning out quite the opposite.
None of that, he told himself. Magic is evil, therefore Merlin is evil. Even if he doesn't know it yet.
Although he had learned much about Sophia and Aulfric, there wasn't a good way to explain what they were or how he knew. As soon as they arrived again, Uther had them executed as he'd promised. Morgana threw a fit, as she would, but there was nothing for it.
# Mordred #
About that time, people began to talk of the king's inexplicable sense for sorcery. Some even said it was in itself a kind of sorcery. Uther ordered anyone caught spreading such rumors executed for treason. Arthur tried to speak with him delicately, then indelicately, but Uther would have none of it. Paranoia was defending yourself against threats that aren't real.
"Edwin, yes, but Valiant? Aulfric and Sophia? Lancelot? What were their crimes?"
"Valiant's shield was magical," said Uther, annoyed at having to repeat himself, "and our hospitality is offered at my discretion. This discussion is over."
As the Purge went on, Morgana grew more distant. They were hardly speaking when a Druid child and his guardian were found in the marketplace. Nonetheless, she saw fit to argue with Uther over the boy, as if she had any grounds to ask him for favors. Hurt that this, of all things, was the reason she chose to speak with him again, Uther responded somewhat more harshly than he really meant.
Later that night, he reminded himself that this was already his second chance, and he was doing no better with her than he had the first time. His sleep was troubled.
While Uther slept restlessly, Morgana snuck out to Gorlois's grave to meet her sister.
Morgause had introduced herself to Morgana around the time of the tournament. Of course there was ample reason to suspect her, especially as she insisted on total secrecy, but she had quickly proven herself. First was the gift of a healing bracelet wrought with the symbol of their shared heritage. Morgana had never slept better than when she was wearing that bracelet, and she was pleased to have a memento of their father. Second was a demonstration of Morgause's magical power. Knowing that Morgana could have her executed with just a word to the king, Morgause chose to trust her. That meant more to Morgana than her sister could know.
Unknown to anyone in Camelot except the two of them, it had been Morgause who killed the gryphon at Morgana's behest. Morgana was softhearted, and still saw Uther's subjects as innocents. Morgause had tried to explain to her with a chessboard that pawns could still topple the king if placed correctly, but Morgana was stubborn and for now it was best just to appease her. She would come around in time.
In fact, Morgana had suggested their meeting spot; Uther was concentrating on desecrating places special to the Old Religion and had apparently not even considered places special to himself.
"How fitting that we should meet here at the memorial to Uther's betrayal of my father," said Morgana, running a hand over the stone marker.
Morgause smiled. Truly, she could not have done better at separating Morgana from Uther than the man himself had. His crusade against sorcery terrified Morgana, who was constitutionally incapable of being helpless and probably would have acted against him sooner or later. He had sent her more than halfway to Morgause's side; all Morgause had to do was gently lead Morgana where she wanted her.
"Do you trust me, sister?"
"Of course," said Morgana, taking her hands.
"Then allow Uther to continue his plans. I will rescue Mordred. And then…."
"We take Camelot." Morgana's green eyes were alight. "And our people shall finally have the peace Uther has denied us."
The revolution was simple. Morgause, an unstoppable force unto herself, swept into Camelot and freed Mordred just as the boy was about to be tied to a pyre. Arthur and the other knights who had been attending Uther left to help with the chaos.
Morgana's part was primarily to wait for her sister's arrival, but when she found herself alone with Uther, she couldn't resist drawing a sword on him.
Slowly, he drew his own sword and cast it aside. "Will you attack an unarmed man?"
The answer was yes. Apparently he had raised not one but two children who were willing to attack an unarmed man, as long as that man was their father. He blocked with his gauntlets and rearmed himself within seconds, but he was wearing no other armor and she drew first blood. The sight made her smile.
"One of us is going to die today," she informed him, attacking again.
His face hardened - more than usual - and he pressed back.
Morgana had not been practicing swordplay very long, and perhaps Morgause's effusive praise had inflated her sense of skill. Even trying to avoid hurting her, it did not take long for Uther to knock the sword out of her hand.
"Why?" he said, holding the tip of his sword to her throat.
Morgause burst into the room, Mordred at her heels.
Morgana's voice trembled with rage. "Because you are a madman. A murderer. And a tyrant!"
"No, sister!" Morgause cried, but it was too late.
Morgana's eyes burned gold, and every candle in the room exploded into pillars of flame. It was really no more than a light show by a novice, but it was enough. The implications of what she had done landed on Uther as if she had caved the roof in on him, and he was quite as incapacitated. Morgana picked up her own sword and kicked Uther's away for good measure.
"You'd best finish the job," said Morgause, not sounding entirely pleased.
Uther could not tell from Morgana's tone whether she was hoping to prolong his suffering, or whether she didn't feel ready to kill him yet. He looked at Morgause. From her expression, she couldn't tell either. Then this battle was winnable.
He smirked as his daughter drove a sword through his chest.
Chapter 3: Death, Where is Thy Sting?
Uther Pendragon woke up in his bed, in his chambers, in his castle. Ethan was whistling softly as he went about his duties.
From every latent foe
From the assassin's blow
God save the king.
Confound their politics
Frustrate their knavish tricks
On Thee our hopes we fix
God save the king.
"Ethan," said Uther, staring up into the bed's canopy.
"Am I a tyrant?"
"Speak freely. No consequences. Tell me your honest opinion."
"Your Majesty, there are many more worthy than I -"
Uther sat up and looked Ethan in the eye. "There is no one whose opinion means more to me, right this minute. You represent the common folk of this kingdom. Speak."
The servant was clearly unnerved by this, as well he should be. It was an enormous burden that Uther had placed on his shoulders.
"As for myself," said Ethan, choosing his words carefully, "I breathe easier every time a sorcerer burns, and I would feel nothing but relief if it could be ascertained that they were all gone. I'm sure this comes as no surprise."
Indeed, it did not. Uther nodded for him to continue.
"Others…sometimes see the pyre and wonder if they might be next. That frightens them more than any witchcraft, especially if they have not experienced sorcery firsthand."
"I see. Thank you, Ethan."
Somehow Ethan had hit the bulls-eye on his first shot. Morgana saw herself in every sorcerer Uther burned. The solution was obvious: he could not allow her to see such things.
Uther reviewed his maps, recalling where his knights had already searched for Morgause. He reasoned that she must be starting in the same place every time, just as he was. He didn't know where that might be, but it was only a matter of time before he found her, and time he seemed to have in abundance. He made sure the knights understood that they were to attack no one except Morgause. This was a compromise, and although Morgana wasn't aware of it, Uther hoped she would appreciate it.
In accordance with his kinder, gentler anti-magic policy, Uther sent out an assassin to secretly kill Merlin before he reached Camelot. By Uther's reasoning, Gaius and Morgana couldn't miss a boy they'd never met.
However, the assassin did not return. Instead, Merlin arrived at the castle and requested an audience with the king.
It was so insolent for a commoner to request an audience on his own behalf that word almost didn't make it to Uther. As soon as he heard, he invited the boy into the council chambers. Sir Leon was bemused, but Uther was well used to that.
"I have a message," said Merlin, nervously shifting his weight from side to side. "The Great Dragon would like to see you. Outside."
Uther jumped off his throne, grabbed the boy by his shirt, and dragged him down to the basement level that almost no one knew even existed.
"All this is under the castle?" said Merlin, goggling. "How does it keep from caving in?"
"Aaaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhhh," said Uther.
The cavern was empty.
Uther let go of the boy's shirt and promptly forgot he existed. Paying no mind to the babble around him, Uther left the citadel. At least it wouldn't be difficult to find the dragon; he could see the great lizard from the castle, waiting for him like a pup in the forest outside Camelot town. He waved off Arthur and his guards. This was no time for distractions.
When he was nose to nose with the dragon, he demanded, "How did you get free?"
"I was already free, or don't you recall? Perhaps this will refresh your memory."
The Great Dragon opened its mouth and belched out an enormous plume of fire, roasting Uther instantly.
Uther opened his eyes. Looked around. Sighed. He got up, dressed, and took a horse back out to the same forest clearing outside Camelot town. There the dragon was waiting for him again.
"Are you satisfied?" he asked it.
"No," said the dragon, and crushed him under one enormous foot.
"Don't you have something important to impart?"
"Yes," said the dragon, running him through with a talon.
"How is it that you and I remain unaffected by this enchantment?"
"Obviously, we are affected by it. You are three hundred years too early for this." With a flick of its tail, the dragon sent Uther flying into a tree.
"What do you require from me?" Uther asked, cringing a little in anticipation.
The dragon lowered its head to look Uther in the eyes. "You must allow Merlin to work with Arthur."
"The servant boy? Why?"
In response, the dragon ate him in one bite.
"So Merlin is important to you. What of Morgause?"
"Insignificant. The Druid boy Mordred is the one you must destroy."
Uther would have been more than happy to do so under normal circumstances, but he had already ceded ground to the lizard and didn't want to give up more unless he had to. If that meant dying to find out how serious the dragon was, well, the previous eight times had rather sapped the experience of its mystery.
"I will not. I do not execute innocents." Or at least people Morgana thought innocent, and he seemed to recall she was up in arms about that one.
A shrewd look appeared in the dragon's beady eyes.
"You lost the witch the moment she was conceived. Cling to her, and you'll lose Arthur as well."
That hit Uther nearly as hard as the dragon's tail. If the dragon knew about Morgana, there was no telling what - if anything - was stopping it from spreading the secret of her parentage far and wide.
"Fortis cadere, cedere non potest. The brave may fall, but cannot yield. My family motto." True, Uther had made it up along with the name Pendragon as part of a dynasty that started with himself, but that was hardly relevant. "I will not give up on Arthur or Morgana while there is life left in my body."
"Of course. All overflowing with righteousness until it's your turn to make a sacrifice," said the dragon, sounding disdainful. Smoke curled upwards from its nostrils.
"By what right do you speak to me in this manner?" Uther said, raising his voice.
The dragon flapped its wings, and the smoke began to pour out of its nostrils in earnest. "The right of that is how the world is, you absurd homunculus."
That was all Uther could take. "You do not command me! You will tell me everything you know at once! You will -"
The dragon seized Uther in its claws and carried him high above Camelot town. Uther continued to rail against it, though his words disappeared into the rush of wind and the thrum of the creature's wings. He stopped when he caught a glimpse of his magnificent castle town from above; it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, and for a moment, he couldn't breathe.
Then the dragon let go and Uther fell, gracefully as a feather on the breeze, onto the topmost spire of the topmost tower.
"And you have no memory of sustaining any kind of injury?" Gaius inquired.
Uther shook his head.
"Indeed, you don't seem to be harmed in any way."
Uther shook his head sadly.
"We're neither of us as young as we used to be, eh? I do have a draught that eases these phantom aches. Try this."
Uther took the draught. It tasted lemony.
From the doorway, a voice called, "You must be Gaius!"
It was Merlin, of course. Uther wearily told him to report to Prince Arthur immediately, leaving both Gaius and the boy completely bewildered.
The day wasn't entirely lost, however. His search parties had finally located Morgause. She killed a good number of the knights, as expected, but she was injured. Uther rode out to pick up her trail, along with a fresh batch of knights.
He defeated the weakened sorceress handily, but he didn't run her through or arrest her to be executed later. He felt much more satisfied personally choking the life out of her body.
After returning home and having a hearty supper, Uther went to bed early. Thomas and Mary Collins: dead. Morgause: dead. Merlin brought on as Arthur's servant: check. Arthur and Morgana home safe: check. A full and productive day and yet, a vague sense of regret nibbled at him.
I could have killed Morgause a bit more painfully, he thought, before drifting off to a sound sleep.
Morgause awoke with a start, leaning against the stone slab in the waterfall cavern where she had carefully laid her sister. She checked to see if Morgana was there, albeit without much hope.
She had been through this many times already.
The most annoying part was that she always woke with a headache and a lump where that preeminent prat Pendragon had clouted her. And why wasn't he here too, where she could kill him at her convenience? She thought of him waking up in his fluffy bed in his castle, and dedicated three minutes to hating him. It was a lot like praying, but more cathartic.
This was not at all what she had set out to do. She had only intended to bring Morgana's body - not the whole of Camelot! - back to an earlier time when she wasn't quite so poisoned. Somehow that had turned into two years that periodically snapped back to some arbitrary point like a trebuchet.
She knew from her last encounter with Uther that he also remembered everything, else he would be going about his business in Camelot as he had every day prior, but she felt she could rule out the possibility that he knew what was going on and could stop it.
She turned these thoughts over as she walked towards Camelot. The guards didn't try to stop her as she approached the citadel. She didn't notice the archers positioned in the battlements, and barely had time to register the hail of arrows that felled her before she reached the gates.
Morgause awoke with a start, leaning against the stone slab in the waterfall cavern. Her head was pounding. Lesson learned. This time, she bothered to steal a horse. She stormed the castle before breakfast and almost made it to Uther before Arthur jammed a sword into her stomach. Morgana looked on in horror, but Morgause could tell that her sister didn't recognize her.
"We could work together," she suggested, as she hemorrhaged on the stone floor of the council chamber.
"I don't care if I am trapped in this purgatory for three consecutive eternities," said Uther. "As long as it means you are, too."
Morgana and Arthur's baffled faces were the last thing Morgause saw before she died.
Chapter 4: Hearts and Minds
Nimueh and Morgause stood across from each other among the ancient stones of the Isle of the Blessed. It had rained recently, and mist rose up from the ground with the fresh scent of renewal.
"Midsummer," Nimueh murmured thoughtfully. She dipped her hand into a still pool of water, watching concentric circles ripple out from her touch. "What is the significance of that, I wonder?"
Morgause tried to keep the weariness out of her voice. "It could be anything. An event. A person. A life. A death. An arrival. A departure."
"How many times have you already explained this to me?" Nimueh asked.
"It is the first time from my perspective," Nimueh pointed out, a note of bitterness in her voice.
"I realize you see it as a cosmic insult that Uther Pendragon transcends time and you do not. He got in the way of my spell, nothing more."
Morgause did not add that Nimueh, who remembered nothing when time reset itself, had in some ways gotten the better part of the bargain.
"I don't know why Morgana remembers nothing. Perhaps because she was unconscious when the spell was cast."
"Last time, you suggested that time resets when events stray too far from Destiny's path."
"Isn't very specific, no."
"Will you stop that!" Sparks arced between Nimueh's fingers.
"Maybe next time I shall write it down and send it by carrier pigeon," said Morgause icily. "This is a long journey to make again and again."
"If you have come here to make some request, speak. Otherwise leave me."
"Stop trying to kill Uther Pendragon."
Nimueh laughed at that, as she had before. Morgause waited unsmilingly for her to finish.
"Every time he dies, we are all thrust again into the past," Morgause explained. "My death functions likewise. Fool though he is, Uther has stopped sending knights after me. It is a declaration of armistice until time resumes as normal." Of course, it was only a truce in the narrow sense that they wouldn't be killing each other. Other tactics were still on the table.
"And when will that be?"
"I suppose our best chance to restore the natural timeline will be at the point where it first spun out of joint, two years from now."
Nimueh looked sullen, as if that was a long time. What were two years to a sorceress who had passed a century?
"It's for the best," Morgause assured her. "Think. Uther needs only discover one of your plans. Once he knows where you'll be and when, he will make it a point to execute you. And you won't even remember why."
Morgause hopped off her stone and made to leave. She didn't need to look back to know that Nimueh would do as she said.
Humbling though it was, Uther had to admit that there were some forces against which even he could not stand. The Great Dragon. Morgana. Bloody time itself. All of these forces pushed him in a single direction, which made him want to dig in his heels and push right back. Nonetheless, it seemed he would be stuck forever if he resisted, lacking even the solace of death as an option.
Therefore, Uther resigned himself to certain realities. Firstly, that Merlin must be Arthur's servant. Regarding that matter, he did not know what the dragon's endgame was. Since it clearly wasn't to assassinate either himself or Arthur, the most obvious plot was for Merlin to gain Arthur's trust and thereby win him over to the side of sorcery. In that case, Uther's best move was to watch and allow Merlin's true nature to reveal itself. If - when! - Merlin showed himself false, Arthur would have nothing more to do with him.
Secondly, if Uther did not find some way to placate Morgana, he would lose her to the forces of evil forever. He should have realized sooner that she would never stop pursuing her version of justice, however wrongheaded. She needed to see for herself why the wisdom and judgement of his law was better than the vigilantism he had replaced.
For his first demonstration, he allowed Mary Collins to get close to Lady Helen of Mora before having her arrested for attempted murder. He had never bothered doing that before; he had previously executed Mary alongside her son with no explanation. Morgana was a bit unsettled, but far less than she had been before. So far, so good. Valiant was banished. Edwin Muir burned, with irrefutable evidence of witchcraft. Sophia and Aulfric of Tír-Mòr he simply sent away, and they did not return.
With Merlin back in Camelot, Lancelot again presented a falsified seal. Again, Uther had Geoffrey check its veracity, and again he and Arthur rowed over the First Code. Arthur eventually fell into line, though, as Uther knew he would. He always did.
The Druid boy Mordred made his appearance in Camelot right on schedule. Uther had been attempting for weeks to send Morgana to see Lord Godwin's daughter Elena - or anywhere, really, besides Camelot - but he had been magnificently unsuccessful in that endeavor. Perhaps it was the invisible hand of Destiny, but Morgana didn't want to leave, the horses contracted some sort of horse illness, and storms raged for days where Uther was certain they had previously had clear blue skies.
When Mordred and his father arrived in Camelot and were subsequently captured, Uther sentenced them to death as he had before. And again, Arthur argued passionately, if not eloquently, that the Druids were peaceful. Uther very much wanted to correct him on that point, but he stopped himself. He had kicked this dandelion countless times, and only succeeded in spreading the seeds. No more. And if it didn't work out, he supposed he could push Merlin off the battlements and start over.
Telling Arthur that he would give the matter more thought, Uther went to see Morgana. At the last moment, he decided against knocking and instead opened her door silently, following Morgana's voice to her bedside. She had the canopies pulled shut and was speaking in the song-song cadence of a bedtime story; Uther supposed the boy was in there.
When night fell, Pepin's father was no longer his father. He transformed into a dreadful beast and slaughtered their entire family while Pepin ran for his life. When he stopped running, he found himself in a part of the forest he didn't recognize. He didn't know what to do, for his family was gone and there was no one in the wide world to look after him. Night fell, and the little boy grew cold and hungry. And then, glimmering in the moonlight, he saw a knight upon a white steed.
"I am Sir Umphrey," said the knight. "I live by honor, and I help those in need."
"I live by bread," said Pepin. "I don't suppose you have any of that?"
Sir Umphrey did, and they ate together near a little pond where ducks slept with their beaks tucked under their wings. Pepin told Sir Umphrey what had happened to his family. When he finished, Sir Umphrey said, "I do not belong to any king, but only swear allegiance to what is good and right. It so happens that I've been traveling alone these many years, and I could use a companion to assist me." And so the orphan boy became Squire Pepin, and the two had many great adventures.
Mordred said nothing, but Morgana responded as if he had spoken. "The rest will have to wait," she said warmly. "You need to sleep."
Morgana jumped when she emerged from the canopy to find Uther waiting for her. He motioned for her to sit with him.
"Explain," he said.
"He's just a boy. Please, the soldiers injured him and he's done nothing wrong." She cast her eyes downward. "You can't help the way you're born."
Uther said nothing, waiting to see if she would admit her secret. After a few minutes, he had to accept that she was not going to do so. Disappointing.
"I will spare their lives. However, they will be banished and are not to set foot in Camelot again. No one is to know that you and Arthur aided them. Is that understood?"
"Then let it never be said that I cannot be merciful," he said, savoring her gratitude. He enjoyed playing the knight in shining armor, and he didn't often get a chance nowadays.
A flicker of annoyance crossed her face, but did not linger.
As the town bells chimed midnight, Morgause saw her sister's red cloak appear out of the forest gloom.
"If you keep calling me out here I'll never get any sleep, no matter how many bracelets you give me," Morgana teased her.
"What happened with the Druid boy?"
"I batted my eyes and Uther agreed to banish him instead of beheading him."
Morgause tried to keep the condescension off her face. "Banished? Why should he leave, when he'd done nothing wrong?"
Morgana frowned. "If it weren't for me, Mordred would be dead. The king listens to me. He did as I asked."
"No doubt he saw some political advantage in doing so."
"No doubt," Morgana agreed, but Morgause could see they were talking about two different things. There was little of the old venom in Morgana. At this rate, Pendragon would win. And Morgause would not accept that.
Gwen was sewing when it all began. She recognized the even, rhythmic footsteps of the king's chief retainer coming down the corridor even before he poked his head around the doorframe.
"Miss Guinevere. His Majesty King Uther desires tarts for today's tea. Please bake a tray and deliver it to him in his chamber."
Ethan inclined his head, as he always did when he finished addressing his female peers. Gwen hastily spit out the pins she was holding in her mouth.
"Wait - why me? Why not one of the actual cooks?"
"I couldn't say."
"Can't or won't?" Gwen frowned at him. She knew he must hear a lot of things that he'd do better not to repeat, but sometimes she thought he was evasive merely out of habit.
"I do not know why His Majesty requested you specifically. He also requested that I do the tasting."
"Oh," said Gwen brightly, "I'll leave out the poison, then, shall I?"
Ethan gave her a faintly scandalized look and tick-tocked back down the corridor.
Gwen folded up her sewing, thinking. Custard tarts were her only dessert recipe, and people did say she made the best in the kingdom (her secret was garnishing them with brandied pears). The king made a point of not knowing anything about the cogs that kept his castle running, yet he had requested Gwen specifically, and her signature dessert besides. What could it mean?
When Gwen entered the king's chamber with her tray of tarts, she found Uther glaring at her from across a table. Arthur was there too, posture and expression neutral. Ethan stood between them. Her hands shook a little as she set the tray down.
Ethan served himself one of the tarts and a swallow of tea. As he tasted it, Gwen thought she saw a shadow of a smile pass his lips. Then he bowed low to Uther and Arthur, nodded to Gwen, and took his leave.
"Sit," said Uther, gesturing.
Arthur bit into a tart and smiled at her. That was encouraging, she supposed. Maybe she should have used more brandy.
"Guinevere, is it?" said Uther. "You may or may not be aware that your father is contemplating doing business with one of Camelot's sworn enemies, a sorcerer called Tauren."
Gwen turned to Arthur. His eyes spoke for him. They said he was sympathetic, but he was still the hand of the king and would do as commanded. Steeling herself, she turned back to the king, who hadn't taken his eyes off her.
"Please, Your Majesty, there must be some mistake. My father would never do such a thing."
"It is a crime to knowingly harbor a sorcerer. Your father would be punished severely, regardless of his intents."
The king took a tart and chewed slowly, leaving Gwen to imagine all the terrible things that could happen if he was telling the truth. Her father, imprisoned. Her father, on trial. Her father - she couldn't bear to continue that line of thought. Her words came quickly, tumbling over each other.
"Then, if it please my lord, allow me to talk this matter over with him. My father is a good man. He would not participate in treason."
"I have a better idea," said the king. "Let him strike his bargain, whatever it is. You will then tell Arthur when Tauren is set to return. For his cooperation, your father will be cleared of any wrongdoing in this matter."
Gwen kneaded her hands together. It didn't seem as if she had a choice. Uther dismissed her and she left, nearly running into the doorframe on the way out.
"Gwen, wait." Arthur caught up to her in the corridor. "Are you all right?"
"Why…why is he asking this of us?" Gwen's eyes fluttered, trying desperately to hold back tears.
"I've been tracking Tauren for some time. He conspires to assassinate the king. If I had found him with your father, I would have had no choice but to arrest them both. This is far better, believe me."
"Won't it be dangerous?" She couldn't seem to stop shaking.
"Not at all. My knights and I will lay the trap. You and your father will spend the night elsewhere, perfectly safe."
He rested his hands on her shoulders, squeezing gently. She relaxed a bit at Arthur's touch, allowing herself to trust his reassurances. He was a good man at heart, and he must have a difficult job balancing Uther's demands with those of the people he was sworn to protect. Besides which he had eyes you could fall into and swim about, and why am I thinking about that now, of all times?
"One other thing," said Arthur, "I wanted to tell you…your tarts were delicious."
"Thank you," she said, smiling in spite of herself.
That evening at dinner, Tom sat thunderstruck as Gwen related her story. When she finished, his first words were, "How in the five kingdoms did he know?"
"Then it's true! Father, what on earth were you thinking?"
"I meant no harm by it. I thought it was an opportunity. To give you the kind of life you deserve."
"Do you mean the life of an orphan?" Gwen said sharply. She knew she had hit her mark when Tom slumped and avoided her glare. She let him think on it for a few minutes, then moved over to embrace him. "You know I wouldn't trade you for all the gold in Camelot. Not even if they crowned me queen."
Arthur's trap went as expected, and Tauren was captured. Morgana thought the evidence against him was weak, until Uther took an orange stone from Tauren and told Gaius to demonstrate its use. Gaius used it to turn a lead candlestick into gold, and that was that. Tom was left well alone, as promised.
The next day, Gwen heard the sound of the execution through Morgana's open window. She imagined her father on that chopping block, and shivered. It had been too close. Although she was busy as always, she took a moment to close her eyes and pray that her father had learned his lesson.
Chapter 5: To Be, Not to Seem
Uther kept an eye on Merlin, wondering what special purpose the Great Dragon had for him. He was much more concerned, however, with keeping his family and country safe than with providing Merlin opportunities to prove or disprove his loyalty.
So when a vault of riches was found under the castle, Uther immediately ordered it sealed again, and brooked no disagreement.
"It is cursed," he said simply. "Leave it wait for someone more foolish and vain than I." Granted, that description fit himself before all this temporal tomfoolery started, but no one needed to know that.
Shortly after the resealing of Cornelius Sigan's tomb, "Lady Catrina" and her servant Jonas arrived. Uther had given her a lot of thought. Mostly he thought he would like to reclaim the dignity the troll had stolen from him, perhaps by slaughtering it in some spectacular fashion. However, one night he decided to take a walk around his vault. There he discovered an artifact he had entirely forgotten.
It was a torque of gold and silver, woven as an endless knot without beginning or end. Engraved in flowing script on the underside were the words esse quam videri.
When Catrina arrived with her tale of woe and her face of woo, Uther slipped it over her head and bid her never take it off.
The next day, she was upset. "It's Jonas," she admitted under questioning. "He persists in saying the most distressing things to me." She lowered her voice. "He thinks I am a…a troll! Could it be some manner of jest?"
"If so, I don't find it funny. Shall I have him executed?"
"Oh, no. I think banishment will be adequate." She sighed, and brushed her silken hand across his cheek. "I feel so safe with you, Uther. How fortunate I am."
"I am the one who is fortunate," he said, catching the fresh scent of lavender on her hair.
They married shortly after. No one had an inkling of what she really was - or rather, used to be. Although she still loved jewelry and other luxurious things, she did not press him to raise taxes or disown Arthur or any such nonsense. She was perfectly happy as long as she had sundry fineries and opportunities to show them off.
"I realize this all happened rather quickly," said Uther, walking outside with Arthur during the wedding festivities. The cold evening air buffeted pleasantly against his drink-warmed face. "But she…is like food to a starving man."
Arthur laughed. "She must be something if she's inspiring you to speak in poetry."
Uther gazed amorously at the moon. "Cake. Angel food cake. Soft, moist cake with sweet, creamy, delicious -"
"Honestly, father, I don't need to know the details!" Arthur's look of horror melted into amusement. "But as long as she makes you happy, I have no complaints."
Truly, the boy had his mother's grace and kindness. Uther was so overcome he pulled his son into a close embrace.
Arthur returned it hesitantly. "Strong wine tonight," he said, laughing nervously.
Uther stepped back, surprised. "Have I forgotten?"
"To tell you - how proud I am, how important you are to me."
At first, Arthur looked astonished. Then touched. Then furious. "How could you forget something like that?" he demanded, an angry blush rising in his cheeks. "What am I, a half-cooked roast?"
"Well, well, now we see how fragile is filial piety!" Uther blustered. He didn't know why; he thought Arthur was in the right. It was really just an instinctive reaction.
He should apologize.
He did not apologize.
He had hesitated too long, and Arthur stalked off.
Catrina joined him presently. "What's the matter with Arthur?"
"He's an ungrateful, spoiled brat. And a hothead," said Uther, not meaning a word of it.
Catrina drew her husband near, laying his head on her shoulder. "Poor dear. Wouldn't you be more upset if your son were nothing like you?"
Uther laughed. He had entirely forgotten how good it was to have a partner to share with, to provide much-needed perspective on one's problems. She truly was Queen Catrina now, and there was no one who could say differently.
"How could he just say a thing like that?" Arthur said, pacing a rut between the window and the desk. "'I'm proud of you! You're so important to me!'"
"How awful," said Merlin, who had never known his own father and was working on a cocktail of irritation and self-pity in response to Arthur's "problem."
"That pompous, overfed, boil-brained…" Arthur trailed off, unable to think of any other adjectives to describe his father. Merlin had plenty, but this wasn't the time. Arthur looked around the room, presumably ensuring Uther wasn't lurking behind a candelabra or something, before finishing, "-prat!"
Must run in the family, thought Merlin.
"He only said it because he was drunk." Arthur's tone was petulant, but Merlin could tell by the way he averted his eyes when he spoke that he was genuinely hurt.
Merlin slumped a little. Defending the king took a lot out of him, but sometimes it needed to be done.
"Maybe it's been so long since he's been happy, he's out of practice?" Merlin only meant it as a joke, to lighten the mood, but Arthur looked at him as if he'd said something profound.
"You don't understand. I do know how long it's been," Arthur said. "My mother died bringing me into the world. I don't think he's ever seen that as a fair trade."
"Your father could never blame you just for being born," said Merlin. He spoke so quickly and with such conviction that Arthur looked up at him in surprise.
"I think…I think I'll believe you today, Merlin."
One morning a few days after the wedding, Merlin was collecting Arthur's clothes for the laundry when a delicate cough from behind him alerted him to the presence of the queen.
"If you're looking for Arthur, he's at the training ground, Your Majesty," said Merlin.
"Thank you," she said, biting her lip. "Although…I confess, I can't recall exactly where that might be."
Merlin smiled and offered to escort her, although it was out of his way. She accepted, twirling a delicate lace parasol over her shoulder. It was new, as were her gown, shoes and earrings. He liked Catrina, who always remembered his name (and the fact that he had one), but he doubted he liked her more than the jewelers, tailors, and merchants of Camelot did.
It had rained in the night and the ground was wet. Without even thinking about it, Merlin tossed one of Arthur's shirts down in front of Catrina as they walked. Then another and another, until they reached the ring where Arthur was training with his knights.
Arthur broke from the training to greet Catrina. As he did so, he looked back over her shoulder.
"Merlin! Are those my clothes?"
Turning back, Merlin realized with a groan what he'd done. Better yet, there was the king! Well, the day wouldn't be complete if his good deed went unpunished.
"What is this?" said Uther, pointing at the clothes as he approached.
Catrina turned around. "Oh, my - Merlin, did you do that?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," said Merlin, wondering how many pieces he'd be in when they sent him back to his mother.
"So I wouldn't get my shoes dirty?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Uther tilted his head at Catrina. "Dearest, those shoes cost more than Arthur's entire wardrobe. Do try to take better care of them."
Merlin began gathering up Arthur's scattered clothes, but Uther stopped him. He looked…what was it…? Amused? "The queen will need some way to get back to the castle."
"Father! I need those to wear," Arthur protested. Behind him, the knights were starting to laugh.
"I'll get them clean. I'll find something for the queen, too," Merlin said hurriedly. "Don't worry. Consider it done."
"This is not funny," Arthur was saying, as Merlin turned to head back to the castle. "I suppose you'd all be happy if I strolled about in the nude?"
At least one knight catcalled. They were always more courageous when they were in a pack. Merlin grinned. It might have been his imagination, but he even thought he heard Uther laugh.
Late that night, Catrina gazed at herself in the full-length mirror, poking at her breasts. She had the strangest feeling that this was not how she was supposed to be. She thought back, but the only other body she could recall having was that of a young, pneumatic girl. Was that the problem? Was she simply feeling her age? And should her memory really be so hazy? She wasn't that old.
"Tell me something," she said, making a face and observing with distaste how many lines appeared on her forehead and around her eyes.
"Anything," said Uther, lolling about on the bed behind her. He was making a show of being relaxed, but she knew he peered at his own crow's feet and gray hair when he thought nobody was watching.
"There are a lot of pretty young things around. Princess Elena, Princess Vivian, the Lady Morgana…. Why not one of them?"
"Morgana?" Uther laughed, but there was a bit of an edge to it. "I doubt that's what her father had in mind when he entrusted her to my care."
"Now, now. It isn't as if she's your daughter. Don't tell me you never considered it."
"Certainly not. What kind of man do you take me for?"
Regardless of what kind of man he was, Catrina thought the king protested too much. But she had a long time to dig up her husband's secrets, if she wished.
"Never mind," she said lightly. "I didn't mean to pry. I was simply wondering why you would choose me, and after so much time alone."
"Because you're beautiful and kind," he said. "And you aren't twenty."
Uther watched for her reaction in the mirror. She had it tipped down a bit so that he could see her face, and she could see his.
"Aren't you sweet?" She smiled, but it quickly faded into thoughtfulness. "You do favor Morgana over Arthur, though."
Uther frowned. "I do no such thing."
She turned around to return his stern look. "And you're so terribly obvious about it. You row with Arthur over nothing, but you let Morgana get away with murder. You are aware she's been slipping away from the castle at night?"
Uther's faced darkened further. He was, but he could hardly explain why he allowed it. The truth was, he had no good way of stopping Morgause from contacting Morgana, if Morgana wanted to see her. It would be one thing if Morgause could die….
In some ways, things would be so much easier if he let it be known that Morgana was his daughter. Catrina wasn't the first to think Morgana would be a good match for Arthur, or even Uther himself. However, that was a minor annoyance compared to what Morgana might do if she knew she had a claim to the throne….
As he stewed, Catrina's expression softened. "I know very well how girls can wrap Daddy around their fingers, but boys need love too."
Uther had to smile a little at that. "I suppose we do."
Catrina went to see Gaius six weeks after the wedding, complaining of pain in her legs and a general feeling of unease.
"Of course, my husband puts me through my paces daily," she said, laughing. "And twice on Sundays."
Gaius let that go with a raised eyebrow and continued to examine her silently.
"Let us go see the king," he said at last. When they arrived at the council chambers, Gaius had the room cleared.
"What on earth is so serious, Gaius?" Uther asked.
"As you may or may not know, I treated Her Majesty for an incurable bone disease in her childhood. I'm afraid it seems to have returned."
"With all due respect to the court physician, I hardly think I'm dying," said Catrina. "Perhaps I ate something that disagreed with me, but I can rest…."
Gaius shook his head solemnly. "I'm sorry, my lady. I can give you a potion to make you more comfortable, but there is no known cure."
Despite Gaius's diagnosis, Catrina seemed fine for the next few weeks. After a while, however, it became obvious that she was merely hiding her symptoms. She woke frequently in the night, ate less and less, and suffered from near-constant pain.
For the second time in his life, Uther could only watch helplessly as his wife died. And once again, her blood would be on his hands.
Chapter 6: The Torque of Galatea
Morgana loved her sister, but sometimes the woman was maddeningly opaque. Morgause had insisted that Morgana fetch some bauble of Catrina's, so here she was, outside the king's chambers just after breakfast, wondering if stealing the queen's jewelry counted as treason. Gaius was there, examining Catrina and dosing her with tincture-of-something.
Uther was not there, as Morgana had predicted. He had been slowly distancing himself from the whole situation. Later on, Morgana planned to take him to task for running away from his wife just when she needed him most, but first she had this business with the necklace.
"Good morning, dear," said Catrina, looking and sounding like a woman twice her age. "A bit early, isn't it?"
"If none of us sleep, does it really matter?"
Catrina smiled. It seemed to take some effort.
Morgana pressed on, "I was wondering if I might see that necklace of yours? I've been admiring it for ages."
"Uther gave it to me. He bade me never take it off, but…" Catrina slipped it off and gave it to Morgana. "I suppose it will be yours soon enough."
Feeling ashamed of herself, Morgana apologized, but Catrina would hear none of it.
"Please, Morgana. I know we've only known each other a short time, but I do think of you as a daughter. Let's not fight."
Morgana, who had lost her mother in early childhood, was overcome with emotion and cast the necklace aside.
Merlin had to make an effort not to whistle. The atmosphere in the castle was stifling due to Queen Catrina's illness, but aside from that, the leaves were turning, the air was crisp, and…Gaius was waiting for him outside his chamber door?
"Merlin, there is an issue on the other side of this door," said Gaius. "If you wouldn't mind lending a hand."
"And a good afternoon to you too," said Merlin, listening to the "issue" bark inside. Steeling himself, he went in and subdued the dog while Gaius kept lookout. It didn't take long with magic; why anyone would want to not have magic when they could have magic was beyond his understanding some days.
"Very good, Merlin. Now…take that necklace off of him."
Merlin hadn't noticed that little detail. "Would this be an awkward time to point out I've never seen you on a date?"
For that, Gaius gave him the Doom Glare.
No sooner had Merlin removed the necklace than the dog turned into a stone statue.
"Then I was right. Merlin, I believe this is the Torque of Galatea. Anyone or anything wearing this necklace becomes what it appears to be."
"And that would be good for…?" Merlin imagined a man sitting in a field of stone dogs, praying to all the gods that he had a live one.
"Uther gave Catrina this necklace. It was previously locked in the vault beneath the castle." Gaius checked outside the chamber door just to be sure no one was listening. "She took it off this morning and nothing happened."
"Merlin! The king gave his wife a magical artifact - something expressly forbidden by his own law - and it apparently had no effect whatsoever. Why would he do such a thing?"
Merlin took the necklace and looked it over, turning it in his hands and reading the inscription. "It's pretty," he said. "Women like pretty things." Especially Queen Catrina.
Gaius was silent for a long time.
"Put it back in the vault," he said at last.
Morgana met Morgause in the woods later that night. As per usual, they played at cloak and daggers - changing the location and times of their meetings periodically. It all seemed a bit silly to Morgana, who tried to convince her sister that she had Uther wrapped around her finger. But that only seemed to make Morgause angry, so Morgana put up with her sister's peculiar habits and assumed it had something to do with her upbringing.
Morgause looked pleased this particular night. "Well? Did you find your task illuminating?"
"I found it heartwrenching," Morgana said. "I quite forgot to take the necklace with me. Was it very important?"
"It was the taking that was important. Didn't anything happen?"
"Catrina gave it to me, told me I was like a daughter to her, and then we both cried. Was something else supposed to happen?"
"How?" said Morgause, strangling the word as it tried to crawl out of her throat.
Morgana stared at her blankly.
Vexed, Morgause sent her sister back to the castle. Had she waited too long? Perhaps the magic of the necklace infused the wearer until there was no longer a difference between seeming and being.
It didn't matter. What mattered was that she was running out of ways to defeat Uther. She had hoped that when Morgana revealed her magic to him, he would do the obvious thing and disown her at once. (Actually, she'd hoped he would die and stay dead, but alas, wishes were not horses.) Instead, he had dedicated himself to spoiling Morgana senseless and was succeeding, be he thrice damned!
From what Morgana said, Uther was taking his queen's imminent death badly. Perhaps her death would weaken Camelot sufficiently to take it…but if Morgause were to press that advantage, would Morgana ever forgive her?
This was supposed to be different. You're supposed to be different, Merlin thought in Arthur's general direction. Encouraged by the Great Dragon, Merlin had expected that when Arthur gained power, he would be a very different king than Uther. That faith in a better future was the only thing keeping Merlin in Camelot, not that he could come out and say so.
With the queen's illness, Uther was withdrawn and distracted, leaving Arthur the de facto regent much of the time. He did send away Aredian the Witchfinder, Merlin gave him credit for that. Then a bounty hunter had arrived with a Druid girl called Freya, and Merlin put Arthur to his first real test. He interceded on her behalf, and was bitterly disappointed to find that Arthur had little interest in overturning his father's policies while Uther was still alive. So Merlin broke Freya out of her prison and hoped he'd made tracking her down too much trouble for Arthur to bother with.
Freya filled a hole in Merlin's heart that he didn't even know was there. He realized how lonely he had been in Camelot, never able to share all of himself with another person, always hiding. The fact that his new friend was a beautiful girl didn't hurt, either.
He hid her successfully for two days and two nights, after which he discovered that she had a terrible secret: at midnight each night, she transformed into a ferocious Bastet. She couldn't help it, but in that form she was a real threat to the people of Camelot. Merlin felt responsible for the two deaths she'd caused; after all, they would be alive if he had done nothing to help Freya. He pondered his options the next day, but if he seemed distant, he was no more so than most of the other occupants of the castle.
"Merlin," said Gaius over dinner that evening, "Are you in there somewhere?"
"I feel like I'm the only living creature in this castle today. What on earth is the matter with all of you?"
"Oh, er…I'm worried about the queen." That was partially true; Merlin liked Catrina, who was unfailingly kind to him, but - the queen!
Merlin jumped up and ran into his room, where he dug around in his wardrobe, carelessly tossing things all over the room. There it was! He was so happy he actually laughed. Gaius had told him to put the Torque of Galatea back in the vault, but that required getting the key from Arthur, and awkward explanations, and Merlin had put it off until he forgot about it.
He was so intent on his task that he didn't notice Gaius follow him.
"Merlin! I told you to put that back in the vault!"
"I didn't mean to keep it, Gaius…but now that I have it, how can I not use it?"
"She can't live here. She's already a fugitive, all the more if she's caught wearing jewelry from the royal coffer." Gaius's voice was gentle and sympathetic, but that only steeled Merlin's will.
"Then I'll leave. We'll come back later, when Camelot is ready."
"Just that simple, is it?" Gaius said softly.
"Yeah. It is."
Merlin closed the door in Gaius's face, heartsick but determined.
When the extent of Catrina's illness became clear, Uther did not process it in the usual way. He had chosen to give her the necklace instead of a noose because he was tired of being alone, and he missed the emotional and physical intimacy of marriage. Having that torn away in so cruel a manner was more than he could bear. He'd tried to do the right thing and stand by her, but his first attempt at being supportive was a fiasco. He'd ended up weeping into her skirt while she consoled him.
He recovered from that, but only partially. Unable to concentrate, he wandered around the castle, feeling as if he were a mere observer, watching some foreign land go about its arcane business. He couldn't take his duties as king seriously at all, and indeed, Camelot hardly seemed to need him. This malaise was punctuated with bouts of feeling like a giant hand was squeezing the life out of him.
His path crossed with Gaius, on his way to see Catrina for her nightly examination. Unseen, Uther followed him into the chamber and watched them from the shadows.
"Have you seen Uther today?" Catrina asked.
"I have not, my lady." Gaius pinched his lips the way he always did when he was biting back something impolitic.
"It's just as well. I lost the very first gift he ever gave me. He would be angry."
"I don't think so, my lady," said Gaius gently. "But perhaps you didn't lose it. Perhaps it was stolen?"
Uther joined her at the side of the bed. Gaius was startled, but quickly melted into the shadows.
Holding her hands, Uther asked, "What shall I do, my love?"
Catrina smiled, breaking Uther's heart all over again. "If it was stolen by a young swain for his lady, you must be merciful. There isn't enough love in the world."
He bent down and kissed her, and stayed with her until she drifted into a sleep from which she would never awaken.
Merlin waited until he heard the bell tower strike eleven before going to visit Freya. Arthur hadn't time to change the pattern of the patrols lately, so Merlin was reasonably sure he wouldn't be caught.
As he crossed the last arcade on his way to the depths of the castle, a hand reached out from the shadows and grabbed him. He found himself looking into the stony face of the king.
Uther's mouth was moving, but for a moment all Merlin could hear was the sound of blood rushing in his ears. After a bit of struggling, Merlin understood that the king had asked him what he intended to do with the necklace.
"There's a girl -" Merlin began, and Uther's face fell into resignation. "This might be the only thing that can save her life."
"That cursed necklace cannot give you what you want," said Uther. "If you love the girl, you will turn it over and forget you ever saw it."
Merlin's head swam. There had to be a reason, a very good one, that Uther was telling him this instead of calling the guards and hauling him off to the gallows. Was it a trick?
"I have to try. Wouldn't you do the same in my place?"
Wordlessly, Uther released him.
Now the owner of a magical necklace and a heavy feeling of impending doom, Merlin scurried away into the night. But Freya's beautiful smile was all the assurance he needed that he had done the right thing.
"We don't have much time," she said, barely managing to get the words out before Merlin busied her lips with his own.
"We have all the time in the world," he said warmly, showing her the necklace. Together, they slipped the necklace over her head.
The effect was immediate. Freya turned into the beast. Merlin had to roll to the side to avoid being mauled to death. She didn't seem to know him at all; even that small comfort was apparently too much to ask for.
The alarm bell rang, and soon the night was alive with flashing blades and clanking armor. Merlin did what he could to help Freya, but it was no use. Arthur and his knights managed to surround it - her - and fatally wound her. She breathed her last surrounded by hostile soldiers in a body that wasn't even hers.
Numb, Merlin wandered aimlessly until he made his way to the bell tower. Uther was there, staring out at the blue countryside.
"You knew what would happen," he said flatly.
Uther shook his head. "No."
"But you let me take it."
"It was Catrina's last wish. She would have wanted you to save your love."
A chill came over Merlin, like cold rain extinguishing the fire in his heart.
"Why didn't it work?" he asked, although he already knew what the king would say: Because it was magic, and magic is evil.
But all Uther said was, "I don't know."
The king wavered on his feet, finally giving up and dropping to his knees. As Merlin watched him weep, fury crept over him. He thought of Freya, dying afraid and unaware that Merlin was there, loving her to the very last. For no reason he could articulate, he felt as if Uther had cheated him of something important, something he should have had.
It would be easy, so easy, to push Uther off the tower. He felt the impulse wash over him - it felt different, somehow, from his other desires, as if it came from outside, from a power greater than himself. It pulled at him like a riptide, as if…Uther was meant to die here, and Merlin was merely the instrument.
No, he thought firmly, I am not a murderer. I am not a catspaw for Destiny or anyone else.
Merlin helped the king up and took him to his bedchamber. When he returned, exhausted, to his own chamber, Gaius was waiting up for him.
"Why didn't it work?" he asked Gaius, without preamble. His whole body felt like it was made of some kind of very heavy clay, but he needed to know what had gone wrong. Uther's answer had surprised him; maybe Gaius's would too.
To his relief, Gaius did not lecture or judge him. Instead, he poured Merlin a glass of wine.
"I don't know precisely how the enchantment works," Gaius said, lacing his fingers together. "The Torque of Galatea was an heirloom of House Valeria, one of the founding families of Camelot."
"I've never heard of them."
"No, you wouldn't have. Some years ago, when Uther was the age Arthur is now, Valeria had declined down to its last male heir. The boy died in an accident, and his desperate father tried using the necklace on him." Gaius paused, his face clouding over. "The effect…well, I couldn't say that he was alive in the sense that you and I are, but neither was he dead. He was incapable of speech, but he had killed both his parents when Uther and I got there."
"Is the necklace cursed, then?"
"Hard to say. There may be some good purpose for it, but I believe it can only turn an object into something it is not."
Merlin considered Gaius's words. If he was right, that would mean Catrina was once something other than human. And Freya…Freya all too human.
Tears stinging his eyes, Merlin excused himself and went to bed.
It was an understatement to say that Arthur Pendragon, crown prince of Camelot, and recently unofficial regent, had a lot on his mind. No sooner had he gotten used to the idea of having a stepmother than she'd fallen ill and died. He worried that he wasn't sad enough, until he got thinking about it, and then he was entirely too sad. Meanwhile, his father, the actual king lest we forget, was falling apart and there was nothing Arthur or anyone else could do for him.
At the same time, he was falling in love with Guinevere, an entirely inappropriate and impossible match, but she wasn't like any other women, and he didn't even like the princesses he'd met. He more or less trusted and relied on Merlin, but every now and then Merlin did something that suggested a whole other life that Merlin kept hidden away, not unlike that improbably huge cavern underneath the castle.
And that was just his personal life. There were many matters of state that urgently required his attention as regent. Was this what his life as king would be like?
He glanced over at his father. Uther was staring grimly at a point on the horizon, entirely avoiding the sight of the queen laid out for her funeral. Arthur didn't care, as long as he was quiet. Gaius had once, and only once, told him the story of how Uther's father had spent the last months of his life ranting at things no one else could see. For years, Arthur wondered if he, too, would die that way. Only recently had it occurred to him that his father might do so.
When the funeral was over, Uther disappeared. Arthur stayed for a bit, watching the common folk pay their respects. Although they had known Catrina even less than the royal household, they still seemed quite moved by her death. Arthur allowed himself a few minutes to imagine what Camelot would have been like if his mother had lived.
After his moment of contemplation was up, he returned to the castle and ordered Merlin to find out where Uther had gone.
Merlin returned after a time, while Arthur was applying himself to state business.
"Ethan says he's in his chambers."
Arthur frowned. Nothing? Nothing at all?
"I'll give him some time. He'll recover. It's not like he hasn't been through this before."
The next day, the king was not better. He did not get out of bed and would not speak to anyone.
Arthur decided to try tough love. He crossed his arms and put on a disapproving look.
"If this is how you're going to live, why don't you just die?" he said.
His father closed his eyes and sighed. "Don't you think I would, if I could?"
No matter what else happened in Camelot, Ethan worked promptly and fastidiously. He had done so for a quarter century, and would continue doing so as long as he was able. It was beyond most to choose the moment of their demise, but Ethan hoped his would happen at the end of a full day's work, preferably a laundry day.
Noting with concern that His Majesty did not get out of bed, speak or eat for a full day, Ethan prepared to take extraordinary measures.
The following evening, he started dusting the king's chambers. It was a time-consuming job, not one he normally did in the evenings. As he dusted, he spoke, not to anyone in particular, but in the same way that he sometimes whistled when he was feeling cheerful.
Lady Honoria was the most kind and beautiful woman in all the land. She had flaxen hair and skin like fresh strawberries and cream. Sir Umphrey loved her more than anyone in the world, except their son, Jocelyn. Lady Honoria begged Sir Umphrey to stay home and live in idyll with her and Jocelyn. But he had trouble sleeping when he remembered the evils of the world and how he had sworn to combat them. And so Sir Umphrey and his faithful squire Pepin rode away again and again, leaving Lady Honoria and Jocelyn alone.
One day, Sir Umphrey returned home to find funeral arrangements in progress. He asked Jocelyn what had happened.
"Don't you know, father? Your own wife caught ill and died, and you weren't even here. Do you even recall the last words you said to her?"
Sir Umphrey felt deeply ashamed. He began wearing a cilice at all times. Every time Jocelyn touched his father in comfort, it dug into Sir Umphrey's flesh and he grimaced as through struck. When Jocelyn begged him to speak, he would only say "What does it matter?"
Jocelyn and Pepin were now young men, but neither of them had heard of a question that had no answer. Jocelyn became determined to find the answer for his father, hoping that it would cure him of his melancholy.
They first found a chef, the finest in all the land. He told them that life was pleasure, and promised to bake the most delicious cake he had ever baked for Sir Umphrey. But Sir Umphrey took one bite and said it tasted of ash.
Next, they spoke to a bard, the most wonderful in the land. He told them that life was feeling, and promised to sing his most beautiful songs for Sir Umphrey. But Sir Umphrey listened and was not moved, and the bard left.
On and on Jocelyn and Pepin traveled, but it seemed nothing and no one could help Sir Umphrey. Finally, they reached a swamp at the very edge of the world. In the center of the swamp lived an old monk, and when they told him of their troubles, he wrote down a few words on a dirty piece of paper.
"Is that all?" said Jocelyn, angered that they had wasted time getting here, and had gained mere words. He felt that the monk could at least pray for his father. But Pepin, who had seen more of the world, led Jocelyn away.
They returned home, and Jocelyn knelt at his father's bedside. "I'm sorry, father, but I've failed. All the riches this world has to offer have not restored your hope, and there is nothing more I can do."
Morgana was on her way to bid Uther good night. She slowed down when she saw Arthur outside the king's chambers, sitting on the floor.
"What's going on?" she asked, alarmed, but he shushed her and pointed towards the door, which was slightly ajar.
From inside, Morgana could hear Ethan's voice.
"Oh," she whispered, sitting down next to Arthur. "Is this the one where Lady Honoria dies? I love that one - so sad!"
"After Jocelyn left dejected, Pepin gave Sir Umphrey the monk's note."
Ethan stopped speaking, and continued to polish the mantelpiece. The silence was also part of the story.
Uther watched him for a moment before saying the first words he'd uttered in two days. "Well? What did it say?"
Still turned toward the fireplace, Ethan smiled to himself.
"It said, 'If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do.'"
Merlin grumbled to himself as he carried a potion to the king's chamber. This particular potion had to be made fresh every day, and it was always to be delivered to Uther after supper. It was well after supper now, but Gaius was just now getting to it - how like Gaius to forget a thing he did every single day.
An unusual scene greeted him outside the king's chambers: Arthur and Morgana, huddled together outside the door, apparently eavesdropping.
Before he had a chance to ask what was going on, Ethan swept out of the chamber.
"King's potion," said Merlin, sticking out his hand.
Ethan took the phial without a word and swept back into the chamber. Merlin let out a breath. It wasn't that he didn't like Ethan, just that sometimes he wondered if some mad inventor had built him out of spare parts from the drawbridge and portcullis.
Morgana said, "He changed the ending. Sir Umphrey died of a broken heart. Perhaps he thought that was too dark for Uther to hear right now?"
"Don't be silly," said Arthur. "He told it the same way he's always told it. Sir Umphrey has to live, or how could he see Jocelyn follow in his footsteps?"
"He wouldn't, would he? That's what makes it a tragedy. Tell him, Merlin."
Merlin held up his hands in surrender. "I'm sorry, but I've never heard of Sir Humphrey."
"Umphrey," said Arthur. "Are you joking? What kind of hideously impoverished childhood did you have?"
Merlin waited a moment, to see if Arthur was listening to the words dribbling out of his own mouth. Morgana, too, was watching him with a sort of amused outrage.
Arthur looked from one to the other. "Most people aren't so poor they can't afford stories," he said at last. "How was I to know?"
Ethan reentered the corridor, closing the chamber door silently behind him. He handed the empty phial to Merlin and made to leave.
Morgana stopped him. "Ethan, tell Arthur how the story really ends. You did change the ending for Uther, didn't you?"
Ethan blinked. It seemed he hadn't known about his shadow audience. "Why…no, my lady. I told His Majesty the story I always told His Highness Prince Arthur."
"Aha!" said Arthur. "You see?"
Morgana set her hands on her hips. "Which one is the real one, mine or his?"
"Both, my lady. Each of you got the Sir Umphrey you preferred."
His tone was mild as always, but Morgana still looked a bit anxious, as if she had slain Sir Umphrey herself. Ethan excused himself and went back to his cupboard or wherever he kept himself at night.
As far as Merlin knew, Ethan had no life at all outside his duties. He didn't socialize much with the other servants, didn't drink or dance or flirt. But it was well known among the castle staff that Ethan was the one to fetch when the king was in one of his moods, and now it seemed he had invented a series of stories for Arthur and Morgana. While they argued about whether Jocelyn was a son or a daughter, Merlin wondered where in Albion Uther had found such a man, and why he would be satisfied living the menial life of a servant.
The next morning, Ethan resumed his customary duties in the customary way. His Majesty's appetite had not entirely returned, but otherwise the morning routine was back to normal.
"Is there anything else Your Majesty requires?" Ethan asked, as he did every morning when he'd finished his tasks.
His Majesty looked at him thoughtfully.
"One thing. Did Sir Umphrey ever thank his faithful squire for his service?"
Ethan smiled a little. As children, His Highness Prince Arthur and the Lady Morgana had also asked him that question.
"One does good for its own sake, and proves devotion by deeds, not words."
"Yes, of course…but still…I suppose it was understood between them?"
"I have always thought so, Your Majesty."
Ethan whistled as he went about the rest of his day.
After Ethan left, Uther lingered at the mirror for a bit. One does good for its own sake, and proves devotion by deeds. Uther himself had told Ethan that, a very long time ago.
Once upon a time, there had been a gallant prince in these lands. He was devoted to righteousness, for he had seen how avarice destroyed his elder brothers. One evening, as he was returning from a patrol in the forest, he'd come across a young boy wandering alone. On questioning, the boy told him that his family had been slain by a great beast. The prince found and killed the beast, which, on its death, turned back into the boy's father. It was the cruelest punishment the prince had ever seen - and he had seen many - for the beast's first victims were the loving family who had welcomed him home.
Moved by the boy's plight, the prince had him taken into the royal household and trained as a servant. After many years of devoted service, during which time the hero prince became many other things - a husband, a father, a king - the boy repaid his debt with a simple story reminding the king of the man he used to be.
Uther hated sitting still when he was feeling unsettled, so he headed to Gaius's chamber and asked the physician if he wouldn't mind a bit of a stroll. As they walked, he explained the entire situation, all the way back to Morgause's spell and the many time disruptions he had experienced.
Gaius listened patiently. When Uther was finished, he said, "May I ask how many times have we had this conversation?"
"This would be the third."
"I take it, then, that I wasn't very helpful before."
"In all fairness, I'm not sure what I'm asking of you."
"I am fully qualified to offer either an honest opinion or nonjudgemental waffle, sire."
They stopped at a window overlooking the training ground where Arthur was demonstrating a new sword technique to his knights. Uther watched his son for a few minutes, pride and affection mingling queasily with guilt.
"I suppose you'd better give me the truth."
"Medicine it is." Gaius nodded decisively. "It seems to me that you've done a fine job winning Morgana over. Yet you have only done for her what cost you nothing, and never anything but what would advance your cause with her. What's more, you've neglected Arthur. I suppose he wasn't unhappy enough to require your attention?"
Uther scowled. Medicine, indeed. "What do you mean, 'cost me nothing?' What am I meant to sacrifice, exactly?"
Gaius's eyes hardened in a way Uther had only seen a handful of times in all the years they'd spent together. "Your ward is magical. Don't you find it the slightest bit ironic that you and she are both keeping the same secret from one another?"
"Of course, but if I were to discover Morgana's secret, clearly the only options would be to enforce the law or upend it entirely. Therefore, I must remain ignorant."
"In other words, you're intentionally deceiving her to avoid making a difficult decision, and using magic to do it."
Uther leaned against the wall, defeated. He hadn't thought of things that way, but now that Gaius had said it, it was undeniable. "You think I should tell her."
"I think you are at a crossroads, and Camelot's destiny lies in the path you choose. And another thing," said Gaius, now fixing him with The Eyebrow. "What was Catrina before she was Catrina?"
"You don't want to know," Uther said. "Truly."
That was it, then. The safe road would be to take his secrets to his grave. It did entail lying to Arthur and Morgana for the rest of his life, but the peaceful and prosperous Camelot that Uther had worked so hard to build would remain. Or he could tell them the truth and risk everything…and it wasn't only his life, but the lives of all his subjects in the balance.
The hair on his arms stood on end when he imagined the catastrophe he might bring down upon Camelot if he chose poorly.
Jocelyn is named for Joss Whedon, who penned the ending line of Ethan's bedtime story.
Chapter 8: The Brave May Fall, But Cannot Yield
"You look lovely, my lady," said Gwen, encouragingly.
Morgana turned around, looking at herself in the mirror. She did look lovely, but that wasn't really why she was procrastinating. After all these years as the king's ward, she still got nervous when he summoned her for a private meeting. When she was younger, she simply found him intimidating. As she grew up, she found that she could coax a smile out of him sometimes, and flattered herself that she could touch the king's heart in a way that no one else could.
But then came the nightmares.
Her dawning awareness that she was magical turned her back into that scared little girl, and she still wondered if the king would have her executed if he found out. Morgause certainly thought so. Even Gaius thought so, and he was the king's best friend, if someone like Uther could be said to have friends.
Smiling nervously, she left Gwen and made her way to the royal solar.
She joined Uther on a plush settee, trying to keep her mind blank. Thinking of nothing at all was the only way she had found to prevent her thoughts from showing plainly on her face.
"I must make you a confession, Morgana," he said. His voice was halting and tentative, hesitation that he never showed the public and his family only rarely.
"Please, speak your mind, my lord." She smiled encouragingly. "Surely there's nothing so terrible it could come between us."
He took her hands. "Very well. This is a short story, for there's little I can say that will matter once I reach the crux. When Gorlois was away fighting on the northern plains…I betrayed my wife with his. That was twenty-four years ago. You are my daughter, not Gorlois's."
Morgana's world shattered, collapsed, then rebuilt itself from the ground up. Her vision blurred at the edges, and she realized she should probably continue to breathe.
"You will be crowned princess of Camelot. This is your seal." He handed her a small velvet pouch.
Trembling, she took the seal out of its pouch and looked it over. The dragon insignia was carved into a ruby, and set into gold. "Why…why now?"
"Because you deserve to know," he said simply.
Of all the things he might have said, that was most unexpected. She tried to wipe away the tears, but more came to replace them. He handed her a handkerchief with the same dragon insignia, his - their - family crest.
"T-then there's something I need to tell you, too. I…somehow…." It was too difficult to explain in words. She took out one of her hairpins, wrought in the shape of a flower. She held it in her hands, and although she was not aware of it, her eyes glowed gold. When she opened her hands, the hairpin had become a real, live flower.
"Your mother was a priestess of the Old Religion," said Uther softly. "It's no surprise that you inherited some of her gifts."
Morgana was completely overwhelmed. She had never heard Uther speak this way of magic; indeed, she wouldn't have thought him capable of it, if he hadn't just done so. Because of me, she realized, and her heart beat faster. He changed for me, because he loves me. Impulsively, she threw her arms around him, and was gratified that he returned her embrace without hesitation.
After a moment, she broke free and sat back, looking at the king. Her father, the king. His eyes were damp, and he looked as though he weren't sure if he should be as happy as he was.
She slapped him.
"That's for my father! I mean, Gorlois." She crossed her arms. Was he…smiling? "Is that funny to you?"
"I deserve that, and more. But you should know Gorlois defended his own honor perfectly well. He gave me this as a memento," said Uther, tapping the scar above his eye.
Morgana gasped. "He knew?"
"Oh yes, he could do arithmetic. He loved you all the same. Just as I do."
Uther took off a glove and stroked her cheek. She had only ever felt his bare hands when she was half-asleep, on the occasions when he had come to soothe her nightmares. As a child, she often wondered why he never took the gloves off, whether he felt the need to protect himself even from her.
Voice shaking almost beyond recognition, Morgana said, "I…I'm going to need another handkerchief."
"But this is wonderful news!" said Morgause, at midnight that night. "You have a legitimate claim to the throne. More's the better that idiot already gave you the proof."
Morgana said nothing for a moment, just stood there looking like a wounded bird, and Morgause's heart sank. No, it couldn't possibly be….
"You needn't be ashamed, sister. You didn't choose your father."
"That's not it. I…have no interest in the throne if it means harming my father and brother."
"Then, will you harm me?"
"No! Of course not, sister." Morgana sighed unhappily. "I only wish we could all live in peace."
Morgause's face hardened. "That can never happen."
"I'm sorry you think so. I hope this isn't the last I see of you, but I'll understand if it is."
With that, Morgana left her sister spewing steamy clouds into the frigid autumn air.
Emboldened by his success with Morgana, Uther turned his thoughts to Arthur. The crown prince would obviously need to know about his sister, though that was only the beginning.
In a room selected for this purpose, Uther met Arthur across a table. Morgana sat at Uther's right hand, and Merlin hovered behind Arthur's shoulder. Uther hadn't requested Merlin's presence - that would require too much explanation - but he was glad the boy was there, just in case.
Arthur waited expectantly, fingers laced together on the table. A diplomatic posture.
Uther began, "I have something to tell you. Several things, actually. The first of which is about Morgana."
He explained, watching Arthur's reaction carefully. It went from incredulous to angry, then back.
"Let me see the seal," said Arthur. Morgana handed it over, and Arthur inspected it. "She's older than me."
Uther and Morgana stared at him. "Yes?" said Uther.
In clipped tones, Arthur repeated, "She's older than me. That means you were still married to my mother at the time."
"Yes," Uther admitted. He did not elaborate or try to defend his actions.
Arthur set his hands back on the table, looking sharper somehow, if not exactly angry. "What else?"
Once before, Arthur had learned the secret of his birth. The only thing that stopped him from killing Uther then was Merlin's assurances that the story was fiction. Uther hoped to soften the blow this time, both by confessing it himself and by offering a gift. Not a trifling bauble, but something that cost as much for Uther to give as it enriched Arthur to receive.
"You must believe that I loved your mother, Arthur. When she died, it was as though a dagger lodged in my heart…I kept her from you because it hurt too much to touch. Do you understand?"
Arthur nodded slowly.
"I regret that my weakness robbed you of knowledge that should, by rights, be yours. It was terribly unfair to both you and your mother, so…I had her things taken out of storage. You may ask about any of it, and I will tell you whatever I know."
At that, Arthur's mask of indifference cracked. He looked around the room in open astonishment, taking it all in. "Anything at all?" He picked up a book of poetry, flipping the pages until he came to a branch of pressed cherry blossoms.
"Your mother bought a handful of pips from a foreign trader after he showed her that pressing. Out of that batch, only one grew. When it finally bloomed, she said it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen."
"Then that's why…the cherry tree in the gardens…. But it only blooms for about a week. Wasn't she disappointed?"
"She looked forward to it every year. She thought -" Uther's breath caught in his throat, "-that it was more beautiful for its short life."
A tear escaped Arthur's eye, and he wiped it away quickly. "I know - I know you always said no man was worth my tears -"
Uther smiled. "Men, no. Women, most certainly."
Arthur looked down at his hands, fidgeting. "I always thought…I mean, didn't you ever think…that the wrong person died?"
The dagger in Uther's heart twisted. "Not once," he lied, putting all his conviction into it. "Regardless of how you came into the world, whatever mistakes of mine played a part, I would not take them back if it meant losing you." He looked to Morgana. "Both of you. There is nothing that means more to me in this world or the next, than you, my children. Whatever else you think of me, believe that I would do anything for either of you."
Arthur and Morgana were speechless. And for that moment, the three were a family.
Uther felt that if Destiny saw fit to strike him down then and there, he would die happy. Yet he knew he wasn't about to get away that easily. He had done too many wrongs in his life to make up for so quickly, and he was still avoiding the most painful confessions, the ones that might yet cost him everything. He was afraid, terrified of the consequences, but he could not go on buying Arthur's love with deceit.
Uther took a steadying breath. "There's more."
"Honestly, father," Arthur sighed. "Why not wait till Christmas and make an Advent calendar? Only instead of chocolate, we'd get some heinous thing you did twenty years ago."
Arthur and Morgana laughed, relieving the tension in the room. Uther closed his eyes and silently asked whether he really, absolutely must do this…but he already knew the answer.
He began speaking. Arthur and Morgana quieted at the sound of his voice.
"I was born the youngest prince of King Constant II. I never expected to be king. However, when my father was incapacitated, my brothers fought over the crown. They bickered and deceived each other until they were both dead and a usurper took the throne. When I reclaimed the throne, I began a new dynasty, a clean slate.
"I say all this to explain why I felt it so important to have a true and indisputable heir to my own throne. If the same thing were to happen to my own children as happened to my brothers…"
Uther closed his eyes. Arthur and Morgana remained silent. After a moment, he continued. "My queen was unable to produce an heir. I went to Nimueh, a high priestess of the Old Religion. She made your birth possible, Arthur."
"You…used magic to conceive me?" Arthur's face went stony.
"Is that why my mother died?"
Having started down this path, Uther had no choice but to admit that Arthur was correct.
"Did you know?" Arthur's hand rested on the hilt of his sword, his eyes filling with a terrible rage.
"I knew someone would die -"
Arthur stood, gripping the sword.
"-but I swear to you, I didn't know it would be her!"
"You told me witchcraft was evil. You told me all those who practice it must burn. You let me believe I killed my mother when it was your fault all along! Is there anything, anything at all you've taught me as gospel truth that wasn't a shameless lie?" Arthur's voice raised gradually until he was shouting.
Only one thing came to mind.
"I love you. That is the truth."
Arthur blinked, stunned. Without another word, he walked out the door.
Uther stared vaguely at the place where his son had been. "Merlin?"
"You'll look after him…won't you?"
Merlin bowed lower than Uther had ever seen him do, and ran out the door after Arthur.
From the small room where he'd left his father and sister, Arthur went directly to his chambers to pack. He didn't know exactly where to start; Merlin always handled this kind of thing, and it wasn't as if Merlin was…standing in the doorway.
"What are you doing here?" Arthur said, tossing a pile of clothes on the bed.
"I go where you go," said Merlin.
"Idiot. In case it wasn't clear, I'm renouncing my claim to the throne. I can't pay you."
"As a friend, then."
Merlin reached up to the top of the wardrobe and pulled down a rucksack. He took it over to the bed and began folding shirts matter-of-factly.
Arthur watched him fold clothes, looking completely ridiculous with a deathly serious expression and the sun shining through his enormous ears. He had never been so glad to see anyone in his life.
Yet, he had no idea what to say next. Emotions like he had never felt were tearing him apart and he had no words to explain, for he had been taught that such things were not for sharing. Maybe that was why his grandfather had gone mad, and his father catatonic. What else could you do?
Merlin said, "You shouldn't have stormed out like that, you know. Who knows what he might have confessed to if you'd let him keep going? Maybe he's my father too."
The idea of Merlin as a prince was so comical that Arthur couldn't help but laugh. Then he couldn't stop, and he laughed and laughed until he was on the floor and hadn't enough breath to laugh any more.
"Feel better?" asked Merlin, sitting down on the cold stone next to Arthur.
"No," said Arthur. "Do you have any idea how many people I've killed because they had magic? Or even the potential for magic."
"You can't undo the things you did, but you can always learn from your mistakes and do better next time."
It was exactly what Arthur wanted to hear, so much so that he was suspicious. Nothing in life was that easy.
"Aren't there some things that can't be forgiven? That shouldn't be forgiven?"
Merlin shrugged. "Maybe you're right. Then again, we can't move forward if we're always looking back."
Arthur thought that over.
"My father taught me that sorcerers were evil and must be slaughtered…but why didn't I question? Why didn't I refuse? I can't blame him for that. It's nobody's fault but my own if I followed him blindly." Arthur shook his head. "I can't stay here, Merlin. I have to find my own way."
"Then Morgana will be first in line for the throne. If you ever want to come back, you can't expect her to give that up without a fight."
"I won't hold it against you if you want to stay -"
"Not at all. Just making sure you understand what you're doing."
Arthur extended his hand, and Merlin shook it.
"You are a true friend, Merlin, First Code be damned. If I do return, things will be very, very different."
After his own chambers, the royal garden was Uther's favorite brooding spot. At the western end was a cherry tree that marked his first wife's grave. His second wife's grave was nearby, marked with a moonflower. Uther hadn't known Catrina long enough to find out what her favorite flower might be; the choice was Gaius's suggestion. It was a plain-looking plant that bloomed only at night, producing beautiful flowers that glowed in the moonlight and withered by dawn.
If Uther were to kill himself, as he was contemplating now, here with Ygraine and Catrina was where he would do it. Granted he was almost certain he'd wake up again, he still didn't want his body found someplace awkward, like the garderobe.
As he stood deep in thought, the sky darkened momentarily. He looked up and saw the silhouette of the Great Dragon turn and glide back across the sun. Then the dragon dipped down, settling in the forest outside the town, in the spot where it had met Uther before.
It wasn't exactly a sealed letter, but as the dragon hadn't been seen in Camelot for the past two years, Uther took its appearance there as a message and rode out to see it.
"How well-trained you are, Uther," said the dragon, blowing smoke out of its nose in amused little puffs.
"What do you want?" Uther asked wearily.
"You will be pleased to know that I have solved our mutual dilemma."
"Speak plainly, or I will fall on my sword." Uther reflected on and added, "I may do so regardless, so be quick about it."
The dragon's face twisted in some lizard version of a scowl. "In twelve hours, we will return to the moment when the witch Morgause tore the fabric of time. Only then can the tear be mended. If you fail, we will find ourselves again at Midsummer, two years ago."
That was a highly unappetizing prospect, and Uther did not bother to hide his displeasure. "And if I do as you ask?"
"Then time will proceed as usual, with no further interruptions."
"Time will continue on from here…? No, I can't do that. Not with things how they are."
The dragon's eyes narrowed to slits. "And how are things, exactly?"
"It seems…that Arthur will leave Camelot. For the time being."
The dragon stamped its feet, shaking the ground so hard that flocks of birds abandoned the surrounding trees. "I warned you, Uther!" it roared.
"And I told you I would never give up!" Uther shouted back at the beast. "I can make this right. This time will be different!"
"You may be fool enough to repeat your mistakes for all eternity, but I will not wait forever. You will allow Morgause to cast her spell on Morgana as she intended."
"I'd rather die," said Uther, through his teeth.
"That is not an option. If you do not finish what you started, then you, Uther, will be responsible for trapping everything and everyone you hold dear in purgatory forever."
"But what of Arthur?"
"Arthur has many years to find his way back to the throne of Camelot. You may never see him again, but that is hardly any concern of mine."
Uther wanted to tell the dragon that he would do the opposite of whatever it wanted. Part of him was willing, eager even, to give up another two years just to spite the beast. Another part of him wanted as many tries as it took to unite his warring children. They should not have to pay the price for his mistakes.
But all that was rationalization.
Given the chance to do things properly, Uther had made the same mistakes he'd always made. Again he'd meddled with magic to have the wife he wanted, and again it had resulted in her death. Again he'd managed to hold onto one child while driving the other away. It seemed he would lose his kingdom to one or the other; the only say he had was to which, and in what manner.
Long ago, he had naively thought of the world as a castle that he could travel freely throughout and enjoy as he pleased. Now he saw that even the life of a king was confined to a corridor, and he had barred so many doors along the way that very few were still left open.
Thus, twelve hours after the Great Dragon's pronouncement, he brought Morgana to the waterfall cavern where he had broken time.
"What will we do about Arthur?" Morgana asked, sitting down on the stone slab.
Uther squeezed her hands. "He may return one day. He's still my son, your brother. Promise me you'll never forget that."
Morgana nodded. "I promise."
Morgause silently prepared her spell. Her sister wouldn't look her in the eye. Morgause had tried to explain that Merlin and Uther's betrayal was the reason she had to enchant Morgana, but her sister was too stubborn to listen. She was her father's daughter, through and through.
It was time for the last resort.
The spell Morgause prepared was ever-so-slightly different than the one she had cast two years prior; this one would restore that original timeline, in which Morgana was loyal to Morgause and loathed the Pendragons. No one, not herself, perhaps not even the Great Dragon, would remember what had happened in this timeline. She'd hoped it wouldn't come to this, but one option was better than none. With magic, no door was ever truly locked.
If at first you don't succeed, thought Morgause, and cast the spell.
Thank you for reading! Reviews are much appreciated, too! :)
Many thanks to my beta reader, Yesac, without whose insight this story would be two-thirds as long and not even half as good (and make a tenth of the sense).