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Title: Of Recoil and Grace
Author: kepp0xy
Pairings/characters: Arthur, Merlin, Gwen, Morgana, Uther, Morgause, Mordred, Lancelot, Leon, Freya, Gaius, Igraine. Central pairing is Arthur/Gwen, with numerous shades of multiple others.
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: ~27 K
Warnings: Character death. Some dark themes. Fiddle-fooling with Arthurian legends. Working with established canon from series 1 & 2.

Summary: The shaping of a new Camelot begins with Arthur's coronation, Merlin and Gwen on his either side. But unbeknownst to the three of them, Morgana is guiding her own piece of Albion, heedless to Camelot's changing currents.

As they adjust to their roles to shape the kingdom, Arthur, Gwen, Merlin and Morgana must undergo their own trials and personal victories. Choices in private will affect actions in public, and they must each strike a balance to avoid the collapse of everything they've worked for.

Author's notes: Written for paperlegends: A Merlin Big Bang challenge. My everlasting and enormous thanks goes to la_esmeralda_, anjali_organna, _autumncolours, and_i, the_muppet and especially imigination. And as they deserve far more and effusive words of appreciation than I can reasonably write herein, please see my full author's notes here.

Art link: Herein lie most beauteous creations by the incredibly talented and patient la_esmeralda_.

Disclaimer: Did not make Merlin. Do not make money from this either. Such is life. Title from The Beginning is the End is the Beginning.






The coronation itself was as straightforward as could be.

He kneeled before Geoffrey, ancient now and appearing as wrinkled as some of the damaged leather tomes in his care.

He had been aware of Merlin and Guinevere standing at the forefront of the nobles. Their elation bombarded him constantly as the ceremony proceeded - repetition of words his father had spoken, forty-odd years before. Words his heir would one day speak. He wondered vaguely if his father had felt as he did now.

Probably not.

He wasn't really sure how he felt about any of it himself anyway.

He stood and turned and held his head high, ignoring the urge to quail as the hall echoed applause, Merlin's inappropriate hoot sending a dissonance through the swell. He just made out Gwen's soft laugh of delight, felt his lips twitch with the beginnings of a genuine smile.

Except, he could not ignore the weight low in his stomach. There was so much to do with the dawn.




I.

Nimueh said he would know by the light in her eye, and indeed he had returned to their chambers and been able to see the glow from across the room.

And Uther recognised the soft flush across her throat, the way her head tilted just so upon his entrance. The desire might have been a side effect of the spell, but the affection was pure, unsullied.

Love.

His grip trembled when he laid aside his scabbard. His stomach twisted when her hand slid across the back of his, her lips whispering veiled invitations against his ear which turned his heart cold. His eyes burned when he looked at her, taking in that grace and delicacy which had so caught him from the start.

She would notice none of his responses, recognise no sign. Perhaps not remember the night at all, by the end of it.

But Igraine smelled as she always did, her tongue moved just as it always had, and Uther was able to make himself forget that she had said no and that he had done it anyway.



II.

He knows her, of course. Guinevere to Arthur, as she had been Gwen to Morgana. As she comes to stand before him, Uther remembers a time when she had been flung to the floor as a witch. She had borne none of the dignity then which keeps the line of her neck confident, if demure, now.

He recognises love when he sees it. The kingdom may think him cruel, his past may be black, but he has known love and shared it. He can see it between his son and this girl. If she had not been a servant, he may have instantly condoned it. But as maidservant, there is no room for her on Camelot's throne.

"I know what you think of me," she begins and he nearly scoffs. How can she possibly, when he hardly knows himself.

"That I am Prince Arthur's lover, no better than a common whore," her voice wavers on the last word, her throat and cheeks burn a dusty red. In another time Uther may have corrected her. He knows his son has not bedded the girl; will not bed the girl. Whatever differences lie between he and Arthur, he recognises his son's innate honour as easily as he disregards his own lack thereof.

"But I am aware of my place, and also my role to the kingdom," she continues, and Uther finds himself bored. He has no interest in rehearsed speech, not as things unfold beyond the castle walls.

He waves a hand and her words cease, and there's a flash of impatient abhorrence on her face before a mask of neutrality falls neatly into place. He nearly smiles. "Why have you come here?"

"The people have a proposition, my lord."

"You should have sent it through my son," Uther says dismissively, already shifting away, resting his elbow on the arm of his throne and twisting to place his chin on his fist.

"Your son - Prince Arthur," she corrects with an irritated toss of her head, "is currently indisposed," Guinevere says, bitingly, and Uther looks at her again with interest. "But I believe we would have his support, were he present."

He watches her, calculating, as she returns his stare in a measured way which he finds equally disconcerting and impudent. Almost as though she does not fear him.

"What is it the people are requesting?" he asks slowly.

"Naught, my lord. Rather, they have an offer and only ask your lenience in the face of their admission."

Leaning forward, curious, Uther scowls. "And what need would they have of lenience?"

Guinevere hesitates, drawing a deep breath. "Since the harvest season began a few months ago, there are a number of farmers and herders who have set aside some of their crop."

Where benign curiosity had sat previously, anger begins to curl in the pit of his belly. "What?"

But Guinevere does not quail beneath this anger, and neither does she explain in full, instead replying, "They hear now of the Prince and his army's need for food and support on the eastern front. They offer those stores they've kept, for Camelot's need."

There was no denying the need, though he briefly questions how she knows of it. His inclinations to imprison the lot of them for their traitorous behaviour he sets aside, and instead Uther nods slowly. Such punishments can be dealt out later, when the stores have been handed over.

"Fine," he begins and redirects his gaze to the columns. Affected disinterest can be as good an intimidation as anything overtly menacing, and to appear unimpressed now, when it is clear Guinevere's weakness is her heart... "Leave the names of those offering their... goods with the magistrate."

"No."

Uther's head snaps around, eyes narrowed, and for the first time, Guinevere appears nervous: her hands tremble once at her sides before she fists them and raises her chin a fraction.

"What do you mean, no?" he asks, keeping his voice low.

A strange movement passes her lips before she draws breath to speak. "Organization and the transfer of... goods will happen through me, and anonymously, my lord. Or... Not at all."

"I have given my word," Uther says firmly.

She looks on the cusp of countering him, but swallows, instead saying, "It is their terms, sire."

The silence hangs heavily between them, Uther fighting against a wave of discomfort as Guinevere seems to grow in stature before him, the anonymous faces of the farmers and herders seeming to turn to masks of malice in his mind's eye. How clever they were, how calculating.

The temptation rises to quash this rebellion; disallow such tactics to be used against him.

"Fine," he snaps finally, and takes small pleasure that Guinevere's tense stance does not ease. He bristles again when she does not speak her thanks, merely inclining her head in understanding. "Have the first allotment prepared by dawn."

"Yes, my lord." She curtsies, and turns smoothly, exiting the throne room.



III.

Merlin was never comfortable here.

The firelight flicked along the walls, stroking and prodding the heavy ornaments which adorned the king's chambers.

Arthur, alternately restless and stock still, so angry - furious - with fear that he would lose his father. The words hung in the air as though an invisible hand had written them in cursive flame from the hearth: I'm not ready.

Merlin recognised the black in Uther's veins. He had faced similar once, slipped a poultice beneath a pillow, whispered some words and watched as another father stirred to the delight of a dear friend.

Gaius' hand moved inexorably.

Slip the cloth into the bowl.

Soak up the cool water.

Wring out the excess.

Dab across the king's fevered brow.

And Arthur stared, and stalked, and Merlin watched his Adam's apple bob and his eyes redden and wet and then clear crushed under a wave of indignation which took the form of a stumbling shout of expletives.

And Merlin could stop it all.

But Arthur would not leave his father's rooms.

Hours passed before Gaius met Merlin's eye, silent secret shared when Arthur's back was turned: soon now.

Merlin's hands shook.

His eyes stung.

He nearly vomited.

He said, as strongly as he could, "There is one thing we have not tried."

Arthur's movement was swift and Merlin was pinned to the wall, hardly able to draw breath.

"You waited until now to suggest it?"

Arthur released him only when Merlin forced himself to meet Arthur's eyes and began trembling under his hold.

"You'll understand," he begged, hoarse.

"I doubt it," Arthur sneered.

Merlin swallowed, curling in on himself. "Please -

Gaius' voice interrupted urgently, "Merlin -

"It's time, Gaius."

"Will the two of you -

"Remember all we've done," Merlin interrupted Arthur. "And the future you imagine. The one you've told me of."

"Merlin, for -

But Merlin was moving, jerky, sweaty, shivering as he was scorched by terror.

"I only need a few things," he gasped, roughly digging through Gaius' kit, barely able to see, to control his movements.

The physician's hands were suddenly shoving Merlin's aside and Merlin's head snapped up.

"Gaius, please."

"Are you certain you want to do this?"

Merlin stared, and Gaius waited, brows dropped, gaze shrewd.

But Arthur: "Will the two of your explain to me exactly what you plan on doing?" Roared, words echoing in on themselves, bouncing from everything and rendering Merlin momentarily blind.

Shaking again, Merlin dropped his head and resumed his task as Gaius moved off, retrieving a spare scrap of fabric.

It was when Merlin began to tie the poultice that breath, hot and damp, hit the back of his neck, danced through his hair, and for a moment, the shaking stopped.

"Merlin," Arthur was quieter now, imploring not demanding. Sounding nearly as afraid, as desperate, as Merlin felt. He turned.

"Everything is about to change," he breathed, meeting Arthur's eye without wavering.

They stared at one another, the pause lengthening ...

Then Arthur stepped aside.




"We can't inundate the kingdom with changes overnight, Merlin," he was saying, using his dagger to pick at a knot in the wooden table of Merlin's chambers in an attempt to funnel out his anxiety. "Much as I would like to simply wipe clean the laws banning magic, there's too much at stake to act rashly."

Arthur watched as Merlin's lips pursed, and he cocked an eyebrow.

"Don't tell me all I had to do to shut you up was be crowned king," he said dryly.

Merlin rolled his eyes and scoffed. "A different crown and new title doesn't change the fact that deep down inside you're really just a git."

"Then what aren't you saying?"

Merlin shook his head. Then he twitched. Finally he burst: "Don't you think it's been long enough? Enough oppression and secrecy and injustice and -

"Of course I do. But it isn't enough to just say, oh yes. Magic is all right in Camelot now. Sorry about the last twenty-six years. Bit unfortunate, that."

"Of course not, but -

"What we need to do first is go through the cases of those currently awaiting trial or execution for crimes of magic and re-evaluate them."

"You're not going to release them?"

Arthur watched Merlin for a moment. He looked so aghast that Arthur's resolve shook and he almost relented. The uncomfortable fact of the matter was that they would likely find all of those being held to be entirely innocent, and the time it took to look into it would only extend their suffering.

But it simply made no sense to release everyone without having done some checking. His father had been misguided, but that didn't make him incorrect all the time.

"While I accept that having or - being - magic doesn't necessarily equate with doing evil, that does not mean that some of those people didn't commit some kind of crime."

Merlin hesitated, and then his shoulders sagged and he nodded. "All right."

"And once that's under way," Arthur added after a brief pause to rally his thoughts. "I want you to get in contact with some of your... peers."

"What do you mean?" Merlin asked absently, now focused on making a pitcher pour water into a chalice of its own accord.

Momentarily distracted himself, Arthur was again jolted by how much life in the kingdom would change with the alterations of laws on magic. A walk in Camelot's streets would just never...

Clearing his throat and shaking his head, Arthur continued. "Those you trust, see if you can convince them to come here. If they won't come to Camelot, sort out somewhere they all feel safe, and I'll go to them."

"What for?" Merlin asked, now floating the goblet across the room towards himself.

Arthur rolled his eyes. Nothing made Merlin seem more thick than when he was distracted.

"I want them to help us re-write the laws." He winced as the goblet fell and landed with a hell of a thump on the table, spilling almost all its contents.

"That's... actually a genius idea," Merlin said, sounding thoroughly astounded.

"I'm glad you approve," Arthur snipped. Merlin grinned and inclined his head with false deference. "Be sure to invite the new druid leader, and that codger with the unicorns."

To that, Merlin laughed outright. "Anhora won't come," he said brightly. "He doesn't care about the rest of us as long as the unicorns are safe."

"Try anyway," Arthur insisted, leaning back in his seat. "He was mad, but his values were right enough. His perspective would be welcome."

Merlin inclined his head, still grinning. "All right."

"And..." Arthur hesitated. It was a long shot but... He took a deep breath. "See if you can't contact Morgana, too."

His grin vanishing immediately, Merlin sat bolt upright and looked at Arthur, halfway alarmed and halfway rebellious.

"That isn't a good idea."

"I know you two have your... history... But those days have passed," Arthur said firmly. There was no need for divided allegiances any longer. They all wanted the same thing. At least, in this. And Morgana had always been good with understanding the law.

And how to break it.

"She... will likely say no," Arthur continued. "But we're going to make the effort."

"Arthur, no. It just won't -

A gentle knock interrupted - for which Arthur was thankful, being in no mood for the brewing argument. The door opened before he bid welcome and Gwen leaned around it.

"Hello, Merlin," she said with a warm smile before looking at Arthur. Her smile turned a bit impish then, and she stepped fully into the chamber, offering a curtsy with eyes lowered demurely.

"King Arthur," she murmured, flicking her eyes to meet his from beneath her lashes. Her muted smile was proud and satisfied, and she had chosen the dress he favoured, with various fabrics in different shades of purple. Her hair was up, a few stray curls teasing the line of her neck and she was now simply watching him...

He was an absolute fool, but for just a moment, he couldn't speak.

"It's time to meet with the council," she added.

The news knocked him entirely out of his daze and he straightened quickly. "Already?"

Merlin snorted and Gwen smiled with open amusement as she nodded.

"I left the agreements in my -

"I have them here," Gwen said, raising a sheaf of parchment papers. "I had a feeling you might forget this morning, after how late the celebrations went last night."

"Ah, Guinevere," he said heavily, appreciative, as he stood.

"We'll finish this later, then?" Merlin asked, finally cleaning up the mess from the spilled water.

"Yes," Arthur said from the door, holding it open for Gwen to precede him from the room. "But none of my requests will change, Merlin."

In the hall, Gwen reached her hand out to him. He took it gratefully, also accepting the pile of parchment from her.

Their wedding was to take place two weeks hence; then the ceremony which officially granted her the throne in his stead would occur a few months after in order to regulate the dramatically shifting currents within the kingdom. He wasn't convinced the slow progress would ease any discomfort amongst the courtiers or townspeople, but the advisers were quite adamant about the plan and Gwen had agreed.

He rolled his shoulders a couple of times. There was hardly a point in his memory when he had felt so constantly tense.

"Just briefly," she began, interrupting his thoughts as they started down the corridor, "Algan wants funding for the battlements as you know, and Gregory will insist the money is better spent on the keep. But the reports from the outer town came in this morning - they're at the top, there - and they support Algan's position."

Arthur sighed. "Gregory is like a wild cat when he doesn't get his way," he muttered. He'd been hoping the reports would reveal otherwise, simply to avoid the acidic fool's bitching.

"I know," Gwen said bracingly. "But you'll win him over."

He snorted out a smile and then glanced over his shoulder. They were alone in the corridor. Very quickly, he drew her up short, ducked and pressed a fast kiss to her forehead and then a more lingering one to her mouth.

When he pulled away, Gwen nibbled her bottom lip and offered him a pleased half smile.

"How are you doing?" she asked softly, tugging him onwards down the corridor towards the meeting room.

Rather than answering, Arthur took a deep breath and asked, "How long is it until supper?"




IV.

They sit, tucked into the edge of a chair dragged closer to the fire. Silence has long since fallen and it would soon be time to part ways. Guinevere has let her hair grow longer; it reaches past her shoulder-blades, and he cannot stop touching it. His hand hanging over her shoulder moves, and he captures stray curls between his fingers, letting them tumble and catch between his knuckles.

She stirs when he pulls one more sharply than intended and with a twist of regret he presses his mouth into the side of her head in apology; he hadn't known she had fallen asleep.

She turns slightly, slips her hand across his stomach and sighs.

"Perhaps we ought to make an announcement," he says quietly once she's settled.

"About what?" her voice is groggy and he imagines her eyes fluttering closed.

So he turns a little, and wraps both arms around her waist. "Everyone knows about us," he says thoughtfully. "They may as well know our intentions."

Gwen chuckles, and her fingers press into his ribs. "To reform Camelot?"

"That much will be apparent soon enough," he says gravely. Her cheek presses into his chest and her hold on him tightens for a moment. "But I meant about us. Our engagement."

Her response is immediate: the soft, slumberous sag of her body vanishes as she becomes as stiff and hard as a stone column. Then fluidly her hands move, one on his thigh, the other on the middle of his chest, and she's risen to her feet before him, taking a hurried step away.

"Pardon?"

Arthur watches her, shocked, frozen and uncertain how to proceed. She's watching him, wide-eyed and still, waiting for him to explain. "I only suggest we make the obvious into something official."

"I think nothing is obvious," she responds quickly, and were it anyone but Guinevere, he would have expected the statement to be led by a derisive scoff.

His brow drops and he makes as though to stand, but that only sends her back another step and so he holds himself seated. "What do you think we've been doing all these months? These years?" he asks quietly, looking up at her unwaveringly.

Her tongue slips out and wets her lips, and her throat bobs as she swallows. Gwen's hands come together before her to clench as her fingers link, and the rise and fall of her bosom is suddenly fast and fearful. Beyond these reactions, there's a distinctive pause, heavy in the air as she hesitates, then says, "Postponing the inevitable," and Arthur hears a hollow ringing in his ears.

"You still don't trust me," he murmurs, leaning back.

But Gwen steps forward to that, her expression turning from fear to impatience and her tones are exasperated when she says firmly, "Of course I trust you."

Far from mollified, Arthur snorts. Gwen's eyes rise to the ceiling and she sucks in a long, deep breath. "There was never any way I would become queen, Arthur."

"Don't you want to rule?" he blurts before thinking the question through because she sounded so dismissive, as though being queen was not something she had ever truly considered when it was something he had long held as guarantee.

The look on her face tells him easily enough, but her aghast, "No!" seems to twist the knife.

Hardly giving him the chance to recover, she continues without pity, "That has never been the point of this. At least, not for me."

"So you intended to love me until I was king and then turn aside?"

"Of course not," she says, and she sounds annoyed. This is all backwards, he thinks. "But I was never meant to be queen," she says quietly, annoyance evaporating with each word until he is left with her tones playing something raw against his ear. "There are others more suitable."

He scowls at her, willing some of the bright fight that inspires him to enter her eyes again but their warm brown remains dim. So Arthur stands and thinks nothing as Gwen steps back, aside, but grips her shoulders and waits until she meets his eye. "Name one to whom you would entrust Camelot's care."

Her bottom lip is pinched between her teeth, then nibbled, until her brow dips briefly leaving her forehead furrowed. "They will come when you are crowned king," she offers weakly.

"Oh, perfect," he responds acidly. "Exactly the kind of woman I want to sit on Camelot's throne – or to wake up beside," he adds cruelly, bitterly relishing her wince, "One who capitalises on the death of a king."

"That isn't -

"Guinevere," he cuts across, raging - where is her fight? "When you were imagining this idyllic future in which I am married to some tramp noblewoman and ruling a kingdom the worse for her presence rather than yours, what did you see yourself doing?"

He thinks perhaps he has taken things too far. Her jaw raises and her eyes harden, and a shadow of movement on the periphery tells him her fists are clenched at her sides. If she asked him to, he would release her, and when she left, perhaps she would not return.

But, after a lengthy pause, she says, "Much as I am now. Serving," and he only just bites down on a sigh of relief, because that much he can work with.

"And what, precisely, have we always said it is to be a ruler," he starts, more gently now, nearly pleading as he eases his grip on her shoulders, "If not a servant to the people?"



V.

He starts awake.

The instinct to sit up vanishes as soon as he recognises the sickening feel of a sword tip at his throat. Uther sinks into his bed, eyes following the length of the blade to its owner.

She had always been beautiful; even as a child brought to the castle in the throes of grief, he had seen it. In many ways, Uther had always thought that Morgana's darkest moments were the times she appeared the most stunning, her stark features that much more appealing in tragedy or fury.

"I held you as part of this family," he finally says, because the intent in her eyes is unmistakeable. He had seen it before in many foes, had overcome each one. But none had found him so unprepared, in his nightshirt, with sword on the far side of his chambers.

Old.

Her nod is casual, as though she expected to hear no less. And when she speaks, he thinks the tone is so familiar, that derisiveness. It only lacks that thread of frustration that he had not lived up to expectation. She hopes for better from him no longer, and that, he feels, is almost the greater loss.

"You did," she agrees, immobile above him, sword held absolutely steady, "You kept just as many secrets from me as from anyone else." There was a short pause, and Uther's chin tipped back as the sword point pressed against his throat. "From your wife, your son... My father. Who you called brother."

He should not feel the need to defend his actions. He is king.

Yet the weight of secrecy suddenly feels as heavy on his chest as though Camelot itself had settled there and the compulsion to talk is overwhelming.

"I loved them all," he croaks. "I loved you." Because it is true.

Morgana softens for a moment, no longer than the space of a breath, then is hard and angry once again. "You loved your title and the power it brought you," she sneers.

It's been many years since he last argued with her, but he feels the exhaustion tug at his limbs as though they had only argued yesterday. Which is ridiculous, he admits, as he should want to fight and to live.

"With your father's sword?" he asks, glancing down at the shining blade momentarily before seeking her eyes again.

Her lips curl, the tip strikes a nick in his throat and he feels the pain and the blood begin to trickle. "It's better than you deserve," she whispers.

He waits, watches, expectant. Then Morgana shakes her head and lowers the sword, and Uther wonders at the breeze of disappointment he feels that he is not dead.

But when she says, "The problem with keeping secrets, my lord, is that those around you begin to keep secrets, too," he fears.

Her eyes flash gold, and it is not the terrible pain in his chest, the shooting sensations in his left arm that he notices, but the acid drop of his stomach, the bone-deep betrayal of dreaded suspicion confirmed.

With sunrise, the bells toll out their mourning within Camelot. Only Merlin frowns with consternation when Gaius pronounces natural causes, Arthur too consumed within a maelstrom of emotion to consider otherwise.

Outside Camelot's borders, in many camps and towns sprinkled across Albion, the music does not stop for days.



VI.

Darkness. Pitch and thick.

A whiff of nostalgic, forsaken scent is the only warning before light fizzles - painful, blinding - and a voice, smooth and aching in its familiarity, speaks.

"I hear you are to be queen."

Gwen tips her chin; she doesn't want to feel so instantly defensive. But she knows that tone.

It's been years. Years of unknowns followed by the heartbreak of mysteriously - permanently - broken bonds.

Gwen is not queen yet, but the weight of the crown bears on her mind more heavily with each morning she awakens in a bed of polished oak, not sanded ash; when light bounces from walls of carved stone, not weathered clay.

She swallows to wet her mouth - dry, as though she had licked the floor of her prison.

"And you are a lady of the faeries, I hear."

"You can't trust rumours, Gwen." Gentle, chiding. Accidentally affable.

Gwen levels a stare at Morgana. There are some things she will always believe and no amount of careful schooling from court advisers will convince Gwen that gentle imporation did not work upon occasion.

And indeed, Morgana relents with the slither shift of unknown silken materials as she drapes one long leg over the other.

"It is a possible future," she concedes.

Nodding without thought, Gwen shifts so her shackles clack and pain prickles sharp from her fingertips to her shoulders.

Morgana's face remains impassive. Gwen dismisses the urge to sort out what Morgana sees in her now and focuses instead on studying her former ...

Gaunt, but without the constant hunted air which Gwen had seen in the months leading to Morgana's defection.

And even so. Just as enchanting as ever.

Gwen's throat feels tight. She wants water.

Abruptly, Morgana's feet plant and, with a grace to make spirits weep in envy, is crouched before Gwen in an instant. So close, Gwen feels Morgana's breath breeze across her face.

"You chose Merlin," Morgana says quietly. There's nothing behind the words; whatever betrayal had been was long since scar tissue. Gwen can see it: this moment is merely formality for Morgana.

Not so for Gwen.

"I wasn't given a choice," she murmurs, holding Morgana's gaze steadily. "Everyone thought you were kidnapped, then declared a defect. Enemy of Camelot. I had no chance to choose anything in this."

In rebellion to the bitter thread which defied her best intentions, to the way her voice had cracked as she spoke, Gwen tosses her head to free her forehead and cheeks of errant curls.

"Guinevere, newly of the Pendragon household," Morgana says after a moment. Gwen doesn't like to hear it; the way the words roll in Morgana's mouth makes them seem dirty. Morgana's eyes flick across Gwen's face, but she reveals nothing; does not rise to the mockery. "Had you been given choice and known then that Merlin poisoned me and forced my departure... Would there be a difference today?"

The silent void left in the wake of Morgana's words leaves Gwen empty.

She holds Morgana's gaze as long as she can, but the implied accusation is true... As soon as Gwen looks away, the shackles shriek open and her hands fall as stones to the floor.

Morgana's face stays close to Gwen's as she rubs feeling back into her wrists.

"The crown will suit you, in the grand tradition of the Pendragons," Morgana whispers, biting. Before Gwen can contest or plead or anything, Morgana is gone and a dim shine permeates the space, lighting a way home.



VII.

"You should have seen her face when I invited them, Merlin," Eliza murmured with a reserved smile, though her bright eyes belied her excitement. "The Queen just brightened right up, she did."

Merlin brought the mug to his mouth and finished off its contents, hiding his smirk. "I told you they would accept," he said warmly, signalling to Al for another.

Eliza rolled up to the balls of her feet and back down again, bouncing with pleasure. "You did," she agreed with a smile. "My Peter's birthday has just been so good." Then she hesitated, before fretting, "Though I reckon he's talked King Arthur's ear right off."

Merlin chuckled. "Peter's nothing the King can't handle. It was good for him; I'm sure he enjoyed it."

Still looking sceptical, her brows dipped in a nervous frown, Eliza said, "You know him well enough to say."

Merlin did. And it was more than that: he had seen Arthur's expression as the candlestick maker engaged him in conversation, pulling him into a debate about jousting with the butcher and the lower town's baker. Arthur had enjoyed himself. A great deal.

"Oh," gasped Eliza, lifting her clamped hands to her mouth, seeming suddenly a young and giddy girl of sixteen rather than the respected woman of forty-two that she was. As Merlin began slowly to turn to follow her gaze, she whispered dazedly, "Just look at them," and he knew.

Smiling to himself, he turned to see Arthur approaching Gwen where she had taken a seat as celebrations reached a lull. It was the first they'd been together since their arrival several hours earlier, and her smile was soft and fond as Arthur settled himself down beside her.

In a display of ease and candour which they would never have acted out in the strictures of a court occasion, Arthur leaned over, whispering into her ear until Gwen laughed and shook her head at him. They held both themselves utterly still as she hesitated, but with something of a facial shrug, Gwen curved into him, tucking her head against his shoulder.

Arthur tentatively sent his arm around her back, and Gwen relaxed herself into his hold.

"If they're tired," Eliza said suddenly, a faint blush across her olive cheeks, "They needn't stay until the end... You know the men, Merlin. They'll keep themselves here till dawn if Al lets 'em."

"I know," Merlin said with a smile. When she didn't ease her stance, he patted Eliza's shoulder reassuringly. "I'm sure the Queen remembers as well, Eliza. It wasn't so long ago that she was still just Gwen."

Worrying her nails, Eliza seemed at a loss to respond, and so Merlin said gently, "But I'll tell them of your concern," and with her nod, ambled over to where they sat.

"Merlin," Gwen greeted quietly, affectionately, sounding quite as tired as Arthur looked. Merlin, on the other hand, felt capable of staying with Peter and the other men until dawn if they did... Though admittedly he'd risen just in time for the midday meal. Even so.

As he dropped into the seat on Gwen's other side, Arthur said, "Haven't seen much of you tonight."

"I was around, you just weren't looking," Merlin retorted. "I saw you though. Enjoying yourself."

"Oh, it was an amazing evening," Gwen said with quiet relish. "I'm so glad Eliza thought to invite us."

It had been several months since their wedding celebrations, which had taken place in the courtyard, gates thrown wide as heralds bellowed invitations throughout the kingdom. From the wealthier market residences to the distant farm houses, people came, and in as joyous an occasion as Merlin had ever attended, peasants danced merrily alongside the more reserved nobles, tavern men fiddled in tune with royal pipers, and the newly weds had taken turns with those in silk as often as with those in wool.

Since, though, Merlin had seen the brief flashes of longing in Gwen's expression each time she heard of an event in the towns and had received no invitation from her former peers. She did not know how to bridge the gap any more than they did, and so Merlin had decided to.

Arthur met Merlin's gaze over Gwen's head in a knowing way, and said, "I'm glad as well."

Merlin did his best to appear innocent. "Eliza wanted me to mention that you mustn't feel a need to stay until the end."

"Oh," Gwen said, expression twitching into a disappointed frown.

"Does she want us to leave?" Arthur asked quietly, grimacing.

Eyes wide, horrified, Merlin threw his hands up, palms forward to stop them rising. "Are you kidding? It's taking all their reserve not to ask you both to return home with them for breakfast."

Gwen smiled in relief and Arthur chuckled. "I wouldn't mind," he said easily, shifting for better comfort on the hard wooden seat. Gwen's smile became soft, pleased, and Merlin couldn't prevent a similar smile on his own face.

"Did you enjoy yourself, Merlin?" Gwen asked after a moment.

Arthur narrowed his eyes, inserting an opinion where it was uninvited and unwelcome, saying, "You can't have. You don't look anything near drunk."

Merlin only sniffed. "I have excellent tolerance."

"You don't," Arthur scoffed. "How many have you had?"

Merlin hesitated. "This is my second."

Arthur grinned. "You've been holding yourself back tonight, Merlin. Why's that, I wonder?"

"I could drink you under the table," Merlin retorted.

Arthur laughed loudly, causing Gwen to wince and pull away. "Sorry," Arthur muttered quickly, his hand landing on her head, gently pulling her back against him.

"You could not," he added, more quietly.

"Could so," Merlin insisted. Then hesitated. And leaned forward, conceding in a low whisper, "So long as I'd put a potion in your drink first."

While Arthur looked as though he didn't quite know how to respond to that, still tentative about magic, Gwen laughed. "When the laws have passed," she said affectionately, reaching her hand out to Merlin. He linked their fingers together and let her rest their clasped hands in her lap. "I'll have my eye on you, Merlin Emrys. I won't have you drugging my husband."

"Thank you, Guinevere."

"Without my express permission," she added playfully. Arthur made the requisite noise of protest and displeasure, but his hand fell, heavy and warm, over their joined ones.

They three sat a while, watching Peter tug a bashful Eliza to the middle of the tavern, demanding the tables be cleared so he could share a dance with his wife on his birthday.




Arthur watched a spider clamber over the handle of the water jug. Slip - then catch itself on its invisible line and lower down, down...

Sir Geraint on his left wasn't bothering to find subtle entertainment, opting to clean beneath his finger nails with his dagger as Sir Leon droned on. Lancelot appeared politely interested as ever, but Arthur could see the watery way his eyes were slightly glazed as he attempted to keep focussed.

War counsel had never previously felt so mind-numbing. The meetings he had attended under his father's reign always had some issue to address - and with something resembling haste. But this -

"... And the stone mason has sealed all the cracks from last winter's freeze. The eastern battlements are well fortified," Leon concluded, in rather a small voice for such an enormous man.

Arthur smiled slightly. "As it was with the north, south and western battlements?" he asked dryly.

There were a few appreciative snorts around the table but Leon, to his credit, held his head high, unabashed and said evenly, "Yes, sire," though amusement did crinkle around his eyes.

"Is there a reason we meet so frequently?" Arthur asked idly, reaching for the water jug, spider be damned.

An aged cough told him Gregory was about to answer, and Arthur froze each muscle in his face to keep the disdainful wariness from giving him away.

"Your father instigated and required the weekly meetings, sire," Gregory said, tone on the cusp of chastising.

Ever snide, Sir Lamorak muttered, "Quite. With Camelot on the verge of war fortnightly, what else was there to do?" Arthur saw Leon send Lamorak a stern, quelling look.

They had served his father unfailingly, but few of them had liked it. The knowledge never ceased to jar him.

"Odin is still a threat," Gregory persisted with a sniff in Lamorak's direction.

Lamorak sneered, and had just opened his mouth before Lancelot interceded, "Odin may always threaten to do something against Camelot, but he will not dare act on it. Not -

"When Albion's kingdoms are so keen for peace," Arthur concluded, lowering his goblet. Lancelot nodded and Lamorak quickly added a vindictive, "Precisely," to which Leon rolled his eyes as Gregory bristled. "The weekly meetings aren't necessary," Arthur added decisively, before a proper row could start.

Gregory twitched. "But sire -

"We'll try meeting like this fortnightly," Arthur interrupted firmly. "If problems arise, the knights are prepared to gather swiftly." This was met with agreeable noises from around the table, and as Gregory began puffing his chest to, no doubt, work up a proper snit, rallying further argument, the air trembled, a spark jumped from invisible flames in mid air and Merlin tumbled from nowhere into his seat.

"Good of you to join us," Arthur drawled, rotating the goblet by its stem in affected boredom. "Just as the meeting ends, too."

Merlin sat slumped and gasping - this vanishing, reappearing trick of his was new and left him tired as yet; he was absolutely unwilling to travel as normal people do now that he'd learned it - but managed to raise his head and smile in a way Arthur was certain he thought was winning. "I've always had impeccable timing," he offered weakly.

Half the table had reactions to that, from Lancelot's smirk hidden politely behind a hand raised as he pretended to cover a cough, to Geraint's snort of disbelief.

Arthur settled on looking to high heaven in an open call for patience. "At least tell me your trip was fruitful."

"This isn't the right council for that discussion," Merlin wheezed obstinately, with a sly glance in Gregory's embittered, fuming, direction.

"Merlin," Arthur said lowly.

"Yes, sire?" he asked innocently.

"Get on with it!"

"All right, all right." Tension, which had been absent all afternoon in deference to a pervasive boredom suddenly frothed to life and each man, as one, leaned forward with their eyes trained on Merlin.

Who drew a deep breath - and by all things if he didn't start in the next ten seconds, Arthur would throw his bloody goblet at Merlin's head -

"The Sidh have agreed to the truce, and so the last remaining lakeside druid tribe have signed the treaty."

Though an apprehensive silence remained, there were a few hesitant smiles as eyes slid from Merlin to Arthur.

He spared a glance around at his most trusted, and then found Merlin's face again - so pleased, with most of his shadows gone.

But Arthur's stomach knotted tightly. It was all just about to begin.

He licked his lips, and said, "Good. That's very good."

Palpably, the men let their trepidation go, turning to each other with broad smiles, clapping each other - especially Merlin - heartily on the back and shoulders.

All but one.

Lancelot watched Arthur closely, expression worried and knowing as Merlin chuckled good-naturedly with the rest.

Arthur was not surprised in the slightest when Lancelot appeared at his elbow moments later. "You seem worried, sire," he said in lowered tones, straining a smile in case one of the others looked his way.

Standing, Arthur focused on rearranging his cloak unnecessarily, then breathed out heavily and confided, "It will not be as simple as Merlin seems to think."

As they faced one another, Lancelot looked at him – compassionate, and Arthur was briefly reminded of Gwen. "I worry you're correct," Lancelot responded gravely, turning as Arthur did and falling easily into step on his left. "But you are right to let Merlin and the knights nurse their hope. If difficult times are coming -

"They will need all the cheer they can get," Arthur finished tiredly. "I know."

They reached the door and Lancelot bowed before departing in the direction of the next meeting location. Arthur beckoned a page to his side, saying, "Tell Queen Guinevere she is required in the council chambers. When she asks what's wrong," he added, catching the page's sleeve as he eagerly turned to go, "Tell her Merlin has returned and the news is as we hoped."

The boy nodded solemnly, bowed quickly from the waist, and strode off in the direction of the town.

Arthur turned, eyes seeking for Merlin, before he frowned sharply, shouting, "Merlin, for god's sake, that had better not be ale!"

A nervous look crossed Merlin's face before the flagon vanished with an audible pop. "Nope!" he said cheerily and then hiccoughed.

As the others laughed openly, Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. It would be a tiresome afternoon.

"Come on," he said wearily. "We have things to discuss. With the right council."

Merlin bounded forward, stumbled, and righted himself quickly. Momentarily swept up in his sorcerer's enormous, idiotic grin, Arthur found himself nearly smiling despite his concerns and his hand shoving Merlin out of the round table chamber was not as rough as it might have been otherwise.




Part Two

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
timeblind
Sep. 6th, 2010 06:42 am (UTC)
Well, I kinda flailed at you while you were still online. Here's a little more flailage:

- Merlin channeling the Weasley twins re: apparition = ♥

- Arthur beckoned a page to his side, saying, "Tell Queen Guinevere..." Gave me a feeling of glee to read Queen Guinevere! :D :D :D
kepp0xy
Sep. 23rd, 2010 11:30 am (UTC)
eeeeeeeee! I'm always down for your flailing, vikkilikkingdonpants ;D ♥!

And muahaha. I can't even imagine how things would go if Merls were to meet the Weasley's.... @_@

Queen Guinevere. Plz, show, let that day come. *_*
genstarwen92
Sep. 6th, 2010 08:09 pm (UTC)
*BOUNCES* This is absolutly stunning so far!!!

and GUH these lines are just...I can't even...:

'Except, he could not ignore the weight low in his stomach. There was so much to do with the dawn.'

'Remember all we've done," Merlin interrupted Arthur. "And the future you imagine. The one you've told me of.'

...'Everything is about to change," he breathed, meeting Arthur's eye without wavering.

They stared at one another, the pause lengthening ...

Then Arthur stepped aside.'

'Yet the weight of secrecy suddenly feels as heavy on his chest as though Camelot itself had settled there and the compulsion to talk is overwhelming.

"I loved them all," he croaks. "I loved you." Because it is true.'

SO MUCH DEPTH IN YOUR SENTENCES!.<333

Reads on...













kepp0xy
Sep. 23rd, 2010 11:33 am (UTC)
Ahhh, thank you so much for this! It's such a kind comment and absolutely made my morning, so thank you again <3

And also: your icon is fantastic :DD!
nurse_stiney
Oct. 13th, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC)
Ok, so forgive me for taking so long to finally sit down and read your no-doubt-will-absolutely-be-amazing Merlin saga here. :P But I am reading it now, and so far it is GLORIOUS! You describe just enough to make me squee, but leave out just enough to make me go O.O at all the implications. :P
::off to read the rest!::
kepp0xy
Dec. 3rd, 2010 10:55 pm (UTC)
Ahhhh. Late response is inexcusably late, but thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment! I'm glad you enjoyed this first part :D!
yalegirl03
Dec. 3rd, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC)
Excellent beginning. I have to go on to part two when I am home and not at work wasting time :( Well done!
kepp0xy
Dec. 3rd, 2010 10:55 pm (UTC)
hahahaha I hope your day at work progresses smoothly ;)

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment! Super glad you've been enjoying what you've read so far :D
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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