Born of Magic: 04

Merlin approached the prince’s quarters with some trepidation. He had never returned to complete his evening chores, assuming that the king and prince would want some privacy. And he had been half-right; Arthur hadn’t sent a servant after him, but coming upon Uther prowling around in Gaius’ chambers and the resulting awkward conversation/threat had left the young warlock sufficiently spooked with a bad taste in his mouth.

Taking a deep breath, he knocked once and stepped warily into the room. “Good morning, sire,” he said in an approximation of his normal cheerful tone. Setting the breakfast tray down, he turned…and stopped. “You’re dressed.”

“I assure you, Merlin, that despite your awe of my abilities, I was getting dressed by myself before you came and shall continue to do so by myself many times in the future.” Arthur said dryly from his spot at the window. “Especially since my erstwhile manservant is always late and I do not particularly wish to attend a council meeting in my nightclothes, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Merlin muttered not so quietly, frowning as he noticed the extra, slightly smaller pile of armor next to Arthur’s own. “What’s all this?”

Arthur turned from the window and smiled wolfishly. Merlin paled. “I was thinking-”

“Uh-oh.”

“-that although you are incredibly incompetent, I’m obviously not getting rid of you—by my choice or yours—so you need to have at least some weapons skills beaten into you. I have no idea how you’ve managed to survive this long.”

Actually, he knew perfectly well exactly how Merlin had managed to come out unscratched after a fight, but he pushed that away. Magic or not, midnight talks with dragons or not, Merlin was his servant, not Uther’s, and therefore under Arthur’s protection and personal responsibility. Until something happened to force his hand one way or the other, that’s how things were going to stay.

Arthur didn’t think he could bear the weight of riding back to Ealdor to inform Hunith that her son had succumbed to the flames of Uther’s hatred. That was even if he made it out of Camelot once Morgana and Gwen were finished with him.

“Just lucky, I guess.” Merlin replied, managing a wobbly smile. “Oh, and once upon a time I wasn’t chasing after a royal prat of a prince. Apparently a lot of people want to kill you.”

“Don’t know why; everyone loves me.” Arthur shrugged, but his mood darkened a bit. Most of his enemies were actually Uther’s, forged in the heat of hate and grief and revenge for their loved ones having fallen to the king’s law.

“Okay!” Merlin said brightly, edging toward the door. “I guess I’ll go get started on the laundry then—“

“We have laundresses to do that, Merlin.” Arthur rolled his eyes at the obvious ploy. “You’re not getting out of this.”

“But—“

“You need to learn to defend yourself. There’s not always going to be a convenient branch to drop on someone’s head.” He watched the other man pale slightly and waited. Merlin said nothing. “Come on.” Arthur sighed. “We’ll start easy.”

***

“Your definition of ‘easy’ and my definition are not even in the same realm of experience.” Merlin groaned, collapsing in Arthur’s chair later that afternoon.

Arthur laughed, pulling his hapless friend out of the chair and steadying him when he nearly fell over. “It really does get easier—with practice. Lots and lots of practice,” he added with a smirk as he finished with Merlin’s armor and easily slung off his own.

Merlin fell back into the other chair with a thump as Arthur claimed his own and regarded him curiously. “I know you aren’t out of shape—you run around this castle like a rabbit, and you eat like a horse, despite appearances.”

Merlin opened his mouth to retort, but Arthur wasn’t finished. “And you can be quiet when you want; I don’t sleep that heavily, yet there have been plenty of times where you have managed to come in and get the fire going, and my clothes laid out, and breakfast on the table before I wake up.” He fixed the younger man with a look. “So what’s with the clumsy act, and what other abilities have you been hiding from me?”

He knows it is fruitless, knows the answer he is seeking won’t breach the air between them, but some inner impulse spurs him on anyway.

Merlin has no clue of his inner turmoil, taking the question at face value, and for once, considering it seriously. “I guess I’m fine on my own, but swords and other things make me nervous.” He finally answered. “You know, being noblemen’s weapons and all. I’m a peasant—hunting rabbits is one thing, but deer? In the royal forest? Not a chance. In Camelot or in Cendrid’s kingdom,” he added bitterly.

Arthur nodded slowly. It wasn’t the answer he wanted, but he was still pleased by the honesty. He wanted to ask why Merlin hadn’t said anything over the past months he had been there, but knew the answer. He assumed the castle chatelaine would show Merlin how to do his duties, had assumed that he would automatically know because it never occurred to the prince to think otherwise.

“Well, we’ll do some training every day,” he said out loud. “Being my servant elevates your status and it also raises other people’s expectations and assumptions of your skills. Those who have seen you in action know better, of course.”

“We all must maintain certain illusions of rank, of course.” Merlin retorted cheerfully. “I’m certain there are many among the court and town who would be severely disappointed to learn that you really are a royal prat. Oh wait.”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “Merlin.”

Even Merlin knew to back down upon hearing that tone.

“Yes Arthur?”

“Get out.”

“Yes, sire.”

He was nearly at the door when Arthur spoke again.

“Merlin. I ordered you to get out. Not your armor. Leave it right there. You’ll need it for tomorrow.”

He watched as Merlin reluctantly relinquished the armor back to the table, and slunk away. Only when the door was safely closed behind him did Arthur groan loudly, running his hands through his hair in frustration. He had returned to his bed after his conversation with the dragon—Kilgarrah—expecting to toss and turn the remainder of the night away. Instead, he had slept deeply and woken filled with new resolve.

While he was still coming to terms with the revelations and repercussions of the past few days, one thing had remained quite clear: Merlin was still Merlin. Prophecies and predictions and magic could not change the fact that his bumbling, good-natured, sarcastic, stubbornly loyal to a fault servant and friend was still just that. Arthur had felt the strength of Merlin’s faith and loyalty in him, solid down to the core. Not even the news that his bumbling, good-natured, sarcastic, stubbornly loyal to a fault servant and friend was actually a powerful warlock could change that.

Of course, that also didn’t change the fact that Arthur had every intention of dragging Merlin on a hunting trip very soon (the next day)and getting him to reveal the truth to him. No more secrets.

In the meantime, since he had resolved things towards his manservant in his own head and heart, he could now face the other problem that plagued him: Morgana.

He had always had an interesting relationship with his—Arthur stifled a shudder—half-sister. It was hard to even think, much less put into words out loud. In the time that they had known each other, they had travelled the spectrum of outright hatred to light flirting before finally landing on sibling like bickering and rivalry—and loyalty. He paused at that thought, before nodding slowly. While Morgana was usually the first to point out his shortcomings, she was also the first to stand beside him when he needed her.

Of course, it was probably more to goad him on when he felt the need to stand up to Uther in some way, but then Morgana had always been more passionate—and compassionate—than Arthur was.

Being Uther’s ward was a sore point with her; she was treated like a princess, kept in her tower like a precious jewel, but she had no real power or authority. Her marriage would be an arranged one, likely with some high ranking lord or petty prince that Uther wanted to bring under the Pendragon banner, and even then, she would never have true power or control over her life or lands. They would be in her husband’s name, and would fall back to Camelot in the event of his death.

However, if she were princess of Camelot in truth…Arthur’s eyes narrowed. Grabbing a scrap of parchment, he began sketching out his plan, coming up with all possibly scenarios and objections that he could think of and ways to counter them. Hours later, he sat back with a satisfied sigh, regarding his handiwork. Now all he had to do was convince his father…

The next morning found Arthur up and dressed early, without Merlin’s ‘help’. He had sent word that Merlin was to help Gaius with the morning rounds, and then report to Arthur when he was finished. As much as he enjoyed having a partner in crime (of sorts) to plot and plan with, this was a delicate matter that had to be broached carefully. Merlin’s history showed that he had appalling timing of saying precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time, so it was best to keep him safely out of the way.

Timing was key for Arthur’s plan; he had to approach his father when he was in a good mood, which meant before the council meeting, but still alone, which meant after breakfast with Morgana. Luckily, he was well versed in the art of distracting and annoying his…sister (it was getting easier to think, even if he still couldn’t put it to words out loud quite yet), so he had no doubt that getting Morgana out of the room would not be a problem.

Uther and Morgana were already seated when he entered. They greeted him politely as they helped themselves to the generous array of platters. Uther had decreed that breakfast was just to be the three of them; not even servants were allowed to linger. Arthur supposed that it was his father’s way of attempting to spend time with his children, even as they grew farther and farther apart each day.

Morgana was being somewhat more stubborn than usual that morning; usually Arthur could get her to flounce out of the room in a huff with a couple of well placed barbs. Luckily, Uther himself, unknowing, provided a solution.

“Alright! Enough you two; one would think you are either siblings in truth, or an old married couple, the way you bicker on so.” He scolded, which earned him equal glares of disgust from his progeny. “Arthur, Morgana, I am ordering you two out of the castle for the day. Go on a picnic, go for a swim in the lake, I do not care; just make sure you get the fidgets out of your system and can return and behave like the young adults and heirs of Camelot that you are.”

Arthur bit his tongue, hard; he couldn’t have planned for a better segue way than that! He nodded stiffly at Morgana. “I’ll meet you at the stables in ten minutes?”

She narrowed her eyes, wondering what his game was, but agreed. “I’ll have Gwen pack a basket while I change into riding clothes.”

“If you see Merlin, tell him to saddle the horses, would you? Make sure he brings out Zephyr for you; I noticed Star was favoring that left rear hock again, and I want Bram to check it out before she goes out again.”

She inclined her head in agreement and in a brief bow to the king before exiting. King and prince watched her go.

“Father, I’m worried about Morgana.”

Uther frowned at him, already distracted by the notes for the upcoming council meeting. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, what is to be her place here in Camelot?” Arthur pressed. “She is your ward, to be sure, and adopted family, but she has no true status or power except by your clemency. She is not a princess, so there is no hope of securing an alliance through marriage, and while she can read and write exceptionally well, she has no real skills to become the castle chatelaine. What is to be her place when you are gone?”

Uther’s mouth dropped open in outrage, and Arthur hastily added, “Not that I am looking forward to your demise, father, but it is something that I have to consider as Crown Prince. Morgana has a home here in Camelot for as long as she wishes; but you know her. She is ambitious. She cannot simply sit around and knit or sew or whatever it is that the noblewomen do around here for the rest of her life. She barely tolerates such things now.”

The king’s mouth closed slowly, even as his frown darkened. “I assume that, since you have been considering this matter for some time, that you have a solution to suggest.”

“Yes. Adopt Morgana as your daughter in truth. Make her a princess of Camelot.” Arthur said earnestly. “She is already like a sister to me, and a daughter to you to everyone except the eyes of the law. Give her the status and power that she deserves, and it will cement her loyalty to you, and to Camelot.”

“She is my ward; she is already loyal to me.” Uther snapped.

“Is she?” Arthur countered, bracing himself slightly. “You know how passionate she is. I understand your reasons for the execution of those with magic, but Morgana is a woman. She gets emotional; she doesn’t see, doesn’t truly understand. Making her a princess will subject her to the laws and standards that we as Pendragons must uphold. She will have to learn to rule with her head, not her heart, as you have taught me.”

“You are crown prince of Camelot. I will not have her usurp your throne.”

And there lay the true heart of the matter. Morgana was her father’s daughter, ambitious and cunning to the core, and Uther knew it—and feared it, were she to ever know the truth.

“Then draw up a contract. Give her the status of a princess and all that comes with it, but also state very clearly that she will not inherit Camelot. If, however, she is married off, the lands of Cornwall will be part of her dowry and inheritance, to be kept in her name. Not her husband’s. And,” he added, “if she ever raises sword or hand against her homeland-or allies with someone else to do so—she will be immediately stripped of her status and exiled, and Cornwall will come under Camelot’s banner.”

Uther nodded slowly, his frown slowly clearing. “What else?”

Arthur blinked. “Sire..?”

“You clearly have been thinking about this for some time. What other plans do you have for Morgana?”

The prince hesitated. He had thought up another idea, but wasn’t sure the parties involved would go for it. Oh, well, he thought. In for a penny…

“Have Morgana apprentice with Gaius as a healer.” He stated. “As loyally faithful as Gaius is, he is getting on in years, and deserves the right to retire gracefully as the cherished member of the court that he is. He needs an assistant to help and eventually succeed him. Merlin is complete rubbish at it, plus he has other duties to me now. Have Morgana learn the healing arts. It will give her a purpose, security, and it is a good skill to have.”

Uther studied his son for a long moment, so long that Arthur nearly squirmed under the assessing gaze. “Already you begin to think like a king. You have done well, Arthur. I will take your proposals  to the council.”

Arthur stood, sensing the dismissal, and bowed. “That is all I ask, sire. Thank you.” He turned and left, feeling his father’s gaze on his back as he walked away. Phase one was complete. Now on to phase two…