The Lives That Weren'tRating:
Merlin/Morgana, Arthur/Gwen, Morgause/NimuehSummary:
What would have happened in S1, had Nimueh raised Morgause, Morgana and Merlin; in which Arthur is bemused to find himself seeking out witches to leave the druid boy with and ponders the problematic nature of being a prince who is in love with his laundry maid. Note:
I actually finished this more than a month ago but have only just got round to proofing/beta-ing it; it's in twelve parts and I'll post one part every couple of days until they're all up. Enjoy!
The Lives That Weren't
Arthur thinks that he might be under a spell.
He is under a spell, or he is in love with a laundry maid, and he can’t quite decide which would be worse. But, whatever the reason, he is now half way across the country with a sickly druid child, actively looking for witches to hand him over to.
It was not how he was expecting the week to turn out, of that he is absolutely certain.
The journey to Ealdor is, thankfully, uneventful. Though it takes him riding all through the night and most of the next day to find it, and he takes one look at the grotty, muddy, chicken-littered little place and knows that he cannot in good conscience leave the child here. The people remind him of the starved and wily cats who he has seen down Camelot’s back allies; pitiful, frightening creatures. The children are all too thin, the adults too shiftless. And they are close to Camelot’s boarder – fear of magic has seeped over here. If they don’t try to use the child’s magic for their own gain they might well do something ridiculous like try to exorcise him.
Not that chopping his head off, as Arthur’s father was proposing to do, would have been a much less ridiculous thing.
Arthur does not know how to feel about magic. He used to believe everything his father told him – at first fervently; and then respectfully; and then dutifully. Following orders dutifully. Repeating his father’s words dutifully. Because his father is the king and he is the crown prince and he must behave a certain way. He cannot air the creeping doubt, that his father might – might – be going about something the wrong way. He cannot even allow himself to think it properly. He’d never given it real coherence before; the doubt only manifested as an ever so slight twinge of unease from time to time. He never paid it much attention.
But now there’s Gwen, who never talks about magic at all and yet somehow has made him think differently about everything. About his life and his status and the people in Camelot and the starved cats down the back allies and his father and magic. Because Gwen is not at all like he had always thought laundry maids – common people in general – were meant to be like. And if she can be so extraordinarily as to drive him to needing to kiss her all the time, then lots of other things might be different to what he expects, too.
Still he doesn’t know whether to trust in her, now. She has hidden a dangerous druid boy. She knows about witches. It makes him think about everything else and wonder, because how can he love someone so quickly and for reasons he can’t put words to? What is it, if not magic?
(Maybe just her being very extraordinary and interesting and beautiful and speaking to you like she isn’t afraid of you, whispers a sensible voice not unlike the court physicians, in the back of his mind. Maybe just the way her mouth goes when she smiles and the way she hums when she’s working and the way she pushes your hair out of your eyes for you when you get close enough to let her.)
Arthur is not sure that he likes having a voice that sounds like Gaius in his head, telling him how obvious it is that he’s not under a spell at all – at least, not the kind that can be broken. He doesn’t like it at all.
So he ignores it and rides on past the village, looking for witches.
It’s growing dark again, and he has ridden about a mile outside the village through the edge of some woodland that might eventually deepen into true forest, when he spots the ruins of an old temple – or a castle or a fort of some kind – across a meadow, on top of a little hill.
It looks entirely abandoned, and he might not bother checking there at all except that the boy gives a little twitch and sits up, giving Arthur a nudge, pointing.
“There, then,” Arthur assesses, “that ruin up there? Fine. Let’s have a look.”
It is, most definitely, nothing but a crumbling shell, half-reclaimed by the countryside. It looms out of the gathering dark as they come up the hill, ragged and hunched and crumbling – doesn’t look entirely safe, either, Arthur thinks. No sign of life, certainly. Reaching its outskirts, however, the boy wriggles and slides off the horse, then staggers forward – although he’s still feverish and week and can’t quite keep himself upright.
“Hold on!” Arthur jumps down after him, “careful, boy. Look – there’s no one in there. And it doesn’t look like the best place to go exploring, does it? That bit of roof’s about to cave in, I reckon.”
Not that there’s much roof to speak of, either. The main body of the place is open to the elements. There are traces of rooms left in half-tumbled walls and doorways that are now devoid of doors. There is grass growing where the floors once were. There is rubble strewn everywhere. The only living things besides himself, the boy and his horse are four crows, perched amongst the debris of the place, eyeing the pair of them up.
Arthur doesn’t much like the look of them, and the light of the day is all but gone. They must get on if they are to find druids, or witches, or anyone at all to take the boy in.
“Come on,” he takes the child’s arm, “we have to keep going.”
He reaches to pick the boy up, for he is still staggering and swaying with fever, but the boy shakes his head and points again, this time at the crows.
Except that… now he’s looking properly, Arthur finds something odd happening to his vision. The crows don’t really look much like crows any more. They look bigger. Less feathery. And the more he looks, the less like crows they seem; and the harder he tries to understand what he’s looking at, the more convinced he becomes that they were never crows at all.
Until he’s looking at four people, sat amongst the rubble of the ruin’s front room. And the rubble isn’t rubble any more – he’s not sure how he missed that there was a cooking fire there, with pot bubbling over it and the smell of something good drifting into the night air; that there are stones that have been arranged about it like seats and that there have had pillows placed over them to make them comfortable. That there are little cupboards for storing food and crockery and cutlery, and a stone basin and work surfaces that seem to have risen fully formed out of the ruined masonry. There is a tin bath tub, half full of gently steaming water.
He’s looking into a kitchen, that he had somehow not seen before, albeit one that is mostly out in the air. Behind that there are bedrooms, and what looks to be a study full of books, all mostly appearing to grow naturally from the earth.
He might have sworn that none of it was there a moment ago. There were crows – crows that are now four people, sitting in their kitchen, watching him curiously over their cooking fire.
Three women – one flame haired, stirring whatever is cooking; one fair haired, looking up from a book; one dark haired – the youngest of them – is on her feet, gaze fixed on the boy. The forth member of their company is a man, perhaps Arthur’s own age, who holds a pot he looks to have been cleaning. He is tall and a little ungainly looking, dark haired, bright eyed. He holds the pot defensively, and gets slowly to his feet behind the youngest of the women, and for a moment Arthur thinks that maybe he’s going to hand her the pot for some reason.
But he doesn’t – just stands there, like the woman does, and watches.
So, Arthur thinks. These are probably the witches.
“You’ve grown well, Arthur Pendragon,” one of the women abruptly begins. The one at the cooking fire, stirring the food. She says it casually, as if they are already in the middle of a conversation. “You were but a tiny babe the last time I laid eyes on you.”
Arthur swallows, “what do you mean?”
The woman only smiles, which is not a particularly reassuring expression. “Ask your father, the next time you see him, about Nimueh, and the daughters of Gorlois, who he tried so very hard to kill.” She nods at the other two women. The blond one flicks her gaze to Arthur’s face for a moment, then away again. The dark haired one doesn’t move – she is staring at the boy and the boy, Arthur realises, is staring back.
The name ‘Nimueh’ rings a distant bell – did he not hear Gaius once mention the name, when he was a young boy? Did he not hear his nurse say it in hushed tones to a chamber maid? Is it not sometimes muttered around the court when things are not going well during trade negotiations or tax discussions?
And Gorlois. Yes – he has definitely heard ‘Gorlois’ before. His father had a friend called Gorlois, before Arthur was born. He died in a war or something similar, but Arthur knows that he was almost named ‘Gorlois’ in his honour.
He has never heard anything about Gorlois having daughters, however.
“Who are you?” He asks, keeping a firm grip on the boy.
“I am the priestess who made your birth possible,” Nimueh replies, with a cryptic smile, “this is Morgause, Morgana and Merlin. Let Mordred go – we’ll look after him, don’t worry.”
The boy gives Arthur’s arm a tug – Arthur doesn’t let go.
“The boy must be taken care of,” he says, firmly, “how can I know that you are to be trusted?”
Nimueh laughs, but it’s Morgause who answers him, laying a marker into the pages of her book and getting to her feet. “If we were not to be trusted, you’d be dead already, Arthur Pendragon. Now let the boy go to my sister – she’s been dreaming of him for months.”
Morgana holds out her arms, almost imploringly, and the boy wrenches himself out of Arthur’s grasp and runs to her – a little unsteadily, but swiftly enough – collapsing into her embrace with a relieved sigh. It’s the first sound that Arthur has heard him make.
Morgana sweeps him up immediately and kisses him as if he were her own son (though she’s too young for that to be possible, Arthur thinks); she sits down and gathers him into her lap, bundling him in the blanket he still has about his shoulders, tenderly tucking him against her breast. He huddles up against her and seems immediately to fall asleep.
“Are you hungry?” Nimueh enquires, of Arthur, “you’re just in time for dinner and you’ve travelled an awfully long way.”
Arthur is reluctant to step inside the boundary of the ruin. He has grown up hearing stories about witches – about the faey and how you can sit with them for an hour, leave their company and return home to discover that you’ve been gone for a hundred years.
But he is hungry. Very much so. He’s had nothing but the bread Gwen packed for almost two days now, and whatever is cooking smells incredibly good. And the little home before him doesn’t look like anything he has been warned away from entering. There is no shimmering gate for an entrance; no bubbling caldrons or black cats or dancing devils. It looks warm, and welcoming, and comfortingly domestic, as its occupants spread out plates and cutlery and wooden cups. They are all dressed in plain wool garments, clean but patched and fraying; they are all carefully groomed, conscientiously so. It reminds him of Gwen: mindful always of her and her father’s poverty, but proud of what little they have. Careful of the details – trimmed nails, neatly pinned hair, home always scrupulously clean, clothes always carefully repaired.
But for the setting, it could be any ordinary home in Camelot, or in Ealdor, or anywhere else. A little patchwork of a family, holding their lives together with grit and spirit and luck.
He is full of the aches of his journey and exhausted with the stress of it. He wants to sit down so badly his heart hurts.
The youngest woman is rocking and speaking gently to the boy; the man has gone back to scrubbing his pot; Nimueh and the elder Gorlois sister are beginning to dole what looks like stew onto plates. They might have started the night looking like crows but they don’t look like the kind of faey he has heard stories about – not the wicked creatures who trick people into drowning themselves or impregnate women with demons or eat little children for breakfast.
“Come, Arthur,” Nimueh waves a hand, “sit, and rest yourself. There’s no use in you riding back through the night now – you’ll only grow so exhausted that you have to sleep by the side of the road tomorrow, and that’s got to be more dangerous than spending the night with three high priestesses, a druid child and a sorcerer.”
Arthur glances at the man – Merlin – who does not look up from scrubbing his pot. He doesn’t look much like Arthur might imagine a sorcerer to look – he’d always thought they were meant to be older, with long beards and beady eyes – but then this is turning out to be a very strange few days as it is. He can’t be too confused by the presence of a sorcerer who looks like little more than a grubby peasant boy.
He steps inside the boundary of the ruin, and is only a little surprised when he doesn’t immediately drop dead of some kind of curse. His horse trails after him, cropping contentedly at the grass, and Arthur rather suspects that it isn’t going to wonder off.
“Done to your satisfaction?” Merlin is now holding the pot up for Nimueh to look at, his eyebrows raised expectantly.
Nimueh gives it a critical glance, then waves him away, “well enough, Merlin. And don’t go practicing hexes in my kitchen again, understood?”
“Yes, Nimueh,” the man all but rolls his eyes as he puts the pot away into a cupboard – Nimueh gives a huff of fond exasperation and pinches his ear as he goes past.
“Take a plate, then,” Morgause offers Arthur one, and a fork and spoon, “and some bread. Morgana, is the little one awake enough to eat?”
The youngest of the priestesses gives Mordred a gentle shake, nudging him into a more upright position. “His fever’s getting worse,” she informs her sister, worriedly, “he says he feels like he could eat but he’s very tired.”
“Put him in the bath,” Nimueh advises, as Arthur puzzles over the fact that he’s fairly sure that the boy hasn’t said a word, let alone about his ability to eat, since entering the ruins. “The waters should help his body to heal a little and he can eat whilst he bathes. Don’t let him sleep, Morgana, not yet.”
Morgana nods, and Arthur watches as Merlin assists her in lifting the sick child, divesting him of his clothes and setting him in the tin bath of steaming water which – now Arthur thinks of it – smells faintly sweet. Whatever’s in it works almost immediately. Mordred’s eyes clear and he sits up with a little jerk, as if breaking free of a dream. Morgana helps him take the dressing off his arm to clean his wound.
“Who put this on?” She asks, looking at Arthur, “it’s good – this paste that’s been put on the wound – I’ve only ever seen druids use it before.”
“I…” Arthur shook his head, “my – my friend said she had a midwife help her…”
“One of the old sisters,” Nimueh remarks, almost to herself, “probably taught her craft by druids – or her mother was and the skills were passed down. That’s how we did it in the old days – saved lives, too, teaching those without the gift little things of use for themselves.”
Arthur quirks his head at her. Nimueh does not look particularly old. She and Morgause look maybe ten years his senior – they would have been children during the purge. Not at all old enough to be talking about ‘the old days’. Except that… didn’t Nimueh say something about making his birth possible?
“What do you mean you – made my birth possible?” He asks, still standing, awkwardly, with the plate of stew in one hand, spoon and fork in the other, feeling stiff and out of place on the periphery of their odd little home.
He’s aware that both Morgana and Merlin are staring at him, though he can’t read the expressions on their faces, until Merlin’s features abruptly twist into a projection of deep disgust. Morgana abruptly returns to fussing over Mordred, rather deliberately averting her gaze.
Morgause and Nimueh don’t react at all – although they both, perhaps, suddenly look quite tired.
“Of course he doesn’t know the nature of his own creation,” Morgause sighs, “why would he?”
Nimueh snorts, “my dear, haven’t I taught you enough about that man for you to know that he would never divest to his son his own hypocrisy?”
“What?” Arthur demands, thoroughly perturbed now, “what are you talking about?”
Nimueh gazes at him for a moment, then inclines her head, ever so slightly. “The time will come when it is right for you to hear the story of your birth,” she begins, at length, “now is not that time. You aren’t ready.”
“He seems big enough to me,” Merlin has folded his arms – he looks angry, cold. Morgana has reached out a steadying hand and curled it about his wrist.
“No,” Nimueh shakes her head, “Arthur Pendragon will be a great king; we must be careful not jeopardise such a destiny by thrusting upon him knowledge he is not prepared to hear. It is not only his fate that could be plunged into uncertainty by something so reckless.”
“What knowledge?” Arthur demands, but almost as if in silent, united agreement, they all abruptly pretend to have forgotten that anything odd has been mentioned at all.
“Sit down, Arthur,” Nimueh tells him, firmly, “eat.”
Arthur wants to demand more information. He is a prince, and people are meant to do what he tells them – people don’t lie to princes (except that they lie to him all the time; they tell him he’s stronger and smarter and more handsome than he is. They let him win at jousting and laugh even when he knows that the joke he has just attempted isn’t funny. Gwen is the only person who never lies to him. Except that Gwen might be a witch.)
He doesn’t think that he’s going to be able to persuade these people to tell him anything that they don’t want to, though. And if he tries maybe they’ll get angry with him and turn him into a toad, so he decides not to push his luck.
The food is good, warm and filling – he eats quickly, thinking about how he cannot afford to rest long. He must get back on the road and head home or his father will become suspicious about her whereabouts. The others have fallen to small talk around him. The boy sits in the bath and eats from a plate with a look of careful concentration. Merlin is poking round his stew perhaps a little aggressively for something that has done him no harm. Arthur catches, at one stage, Morgana – who sits between him and the bath – stroking the nape of Merlin’s neck. For a moment, the sorcerer bends towards her like a stalk of barley shivering in the morning breeze, and Morgana says something to him, low and tender. Then Merlin goes back to eating, as if nothing has happened, except that now he looks content, and Morgana is watching him with something – sort of – gentle about her gaze.
Arthur wonders if they are married. They are old enough, he supposes, to have been married for a long time (though it’s more common amongst nobles than commoners, people can get married at twelve – thirteen, and they look his age, perhaps – twenty one. Certainly not much older), and he thinks that he has seen an old couple, Martha, one of the castle cooks, and her husband Jed, who is a groom in the stables, act like that. Used to each other. Intimate, but as if they’ve been that way for so long that they’ve forgotten how to curb it in front of other people.
He finishes his stew, and thinks of getting up and getting his horse and riding through the night back to Camelot.
“Sleep, Arthur,” Nimueh says it almost gently – the way he’d imagine his mother would, “a few more hours will make no difference.”
They make him a bed in their kitchen, and Arthur curls up before the fire, intending only to shut his eyes for a little while – but when he opens them again the fire is all burned out and everyone else is retired to their beds and the moon is sinking low on the horizon, light beginning to well up in the east.
He creeps from the ruined temple, takes his horse and rides hard for the road.
Chapter six is here.