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 the people of Ealdor are creeped out, Merlin faces his demons and Morgause gets to stand on her own two feet.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
The people of Ealdor look like starved cats, all tightened into themselves and weary. The children’s eyes are all too big for their gaunt faces – it’s clear that they do not have enough food to go round as it is. If they have their current harvest taken from them, the cost will be high.
“We will need a number of young girls,” Morgause informs them, standing on a bucket in the middle of the village, amongst the crowd that has gathered warily around the witches. Mordred huddles close in between Morgana and Merlin; Nimueh eyes the crowd from Morgause’s side.
“You need their blood?” Somebody asks, and Morgause rolls her eyes.
“No,” she informs them, in a tone that quite clearly implies how ridiculous she considers the suggestion, “but there are certain spells that must be cast to keep the village and its population from harm – they can only be cast by women who have never taken to bed with someone, and the more there are who cast them, the stronger they will be.”
The village murmurs and shuffles and then one little girl steps forward, bony hands balled into fists, chin raised – and some older ones, shamed by her bravery, follow her – and before long most of the village’s unmarried women have set to work laying basic protection charms around the perimeter of Ealdor.
Morgana almost goes to join them, automatically, before remembering that, of course, she no longer qualifies as virginal. Odd – it has not occurred to her that what she and Merlin do might affect how efficient some of her spells are. Then again, she also knows that there are others that are better performed by those who have sexual experience. That’s the way it often works with magic – there is always give and take. Power ebbs and flows with the life stage of the spell-caster.
Of course, protection charms will not be enough – they are merely the first layer of defence, drawing any immediate luck in the area onto the side of the villagers, and also doing something to help hold aloft their spirits. Make them feel safer.
Then begins the process of moving the most vulnerable villagers out of harm’s way – the very elderly, all the children (and any mothers still nursing), two women who are heavily with-child, and those who are already sick. They are escorted up to the ruined temple where Nimueh coaxes a hospital out of the muddy earth – cradles and beds, blankets and chests for what few bits of precious the villagers wish to stow.
After some debate, it is Nimueh who stays behind to oversee the refugees, for she has the best manner with them, whilst Morgause takes over organising the full defence of Ealdor.
“You’ll be fine,” Morgana gives her sister’s arm a tight squeeze.
Morgause’s smile does not quite reach her eyes, “of course I will.”
“You gave that speech earlier – they loved that!”
“Yes – but…” but she’d made that speech with Nimueh standing at her side.
Morgause does almost everything with Nimueh standing at her side. It is something she knows has been troubling her lover.
“I fear I have done a disservice to you, keeping you so close,” she has remarked, as little as a few days ago, “I fear you may struggle to do things alone and a priestess must be able to function singly.”
Morgause had snorted, laying a gentle hand on Nimueh’s knee. “What sort of disservice could you have done me to give me so secure a place to grow from?”
“I fear what losing me would do to you.”
“I have no intention of losing you,” Morgause had informed her, tossing her head, “besides, I would have to be very careless indeed to lose an entire person. You really think I would be so incompetent?”
Nimueh had allowed herself a small smile at that, and let the matter drop. But the fact that the conversation had cropped up several times between them in the last year means that Morgause is more than aware that Nimueh is looking for an opportunity to test her – stretch her – force her to function without her mentor for a change. It’s not a shock when Nimueh calmly places the fate of Ealdor onto her shoulders, but it’s still abruptly intimidating.
Morgause is strong, and proud, clever and gifted on a number of fronts, but she is not above nervousness.
So Morgana tells her what she knows very well – that she will be fine – and Morgause smiles and brushes her away, but is glad of her beloved sister’s faith.
They spend a few more days preparing the village, awaiting the promised return of the bandits. Mordred does not take kindly to the invasion of his new home by Ealdor’s children, and stubbornly refuses to go anywhere near any of them.
The children, for their part, are intimidated by Mordred, and stay out of his way.
Morgana catches him gazing at a game played amongst a few boys his own age, involving the tossing off a wooden ball between them. He is peering surreptitiously over the book of spells that he is pretending to study, biting his lip every time one of them drops the ball, his fingers working as if to say that he thinks himself a great deal more capable at such a task than them.
“You could ask if you might join in, you know,” Morgana suggests to him, “I’m sure they wont mind, Mordred.”
Mordred only shakes his head, and hastily pins his gaze back to his book.
He accompanies Merlin and Morgana in and out of Ealdor, watching proceedings with a curious eye, but lingering always within reach of one of them. He is afraid, Morgana realises, of the villagers themselves. At least one of his nightmares has involved being hounded by a mob out of a village – it’s not unlikely that that has actually happened to him (perhaps more than once).
And it’s difficult to teach him that he has nothing to fear when the villagers themselves are far from welcoming. She cannot take Mordred and introduce him to other children so that he can see that he has no need to be cautious around them, when they might simply turn tail and scatter from his presence (at best).
The sadness of it tugs sharply beneath her ribs – allows her a ripple of the anger she realises must be a shade of what Merlin and Mordred live with.
She’s lucky, she knows. She’s been so sheltered from the purges and their aftermath. Morgause and Nimueh have kept her away even from Ealdor as she’s grown up – she has only ever been cherished and loved by those around her.
The suspicion of the population of Ealdor, though she understands it in principle, is still a little shocking.
Merlin is merely struggling to accept the idea that he may well be passing amongst the very people who murdered his mother. There is one house, on the edge of the village, that stands empty and crumbling – much of the roof has rotted away. Some of the villagers have used the part that still remains in shelter to store their grain in. He does not need to be told that that is where his mother used to live – the very fact that it is known amongst the rest of the population as The Witch’s Hut is clue enough.
“That your lad?”
Lingering near the mouldering little cottage, fingers on the rotting wood frame as if he might draw out just the hint of the life he might have had there, he is interrupted by one of the young village men – his own age, maybe. Merlin suspects that his name is Will, but cannot be certain.
He’s indicating Mordred, anyway, who is sitting on a fence post a few paces away, absorbed in a little puzzle game that Morgana devised for him that morning and has given to him to keep him occupied whilst she is training a number of the village women in basic swordsmanship.
“Looks like you,” maybe-Will adds, casually, “must be nice, to have a boy. I – I always think about – you know – what it’d be like.”
Merlin raises an eyebrow, wondering why he’s being talked to – realising Will wants an answer.
“He’s…” he glances at Mordred, who fell asleep against his chest last night whilst Morgana was bathing – the first time he’s fallen asleep in anyone’s arms but Morgana’s (maybe they’ll eventually get him to sleep on his own now). “He’s mine, yes.”
Will nods, a little self-consciously. He holds himself stiffly – he’s searching for something say, Merlin realises. He really wants to make conversation. Which is odd. Most of the people in this village will avoid talking to them until absolutely necessary. There are very few who will talk directly to Merlin or the priestesses.
“And um – her – over there with the um… sword,” he points, “that’s your wife?”
“Mordred’s mother,” Merlin consciously avoids telling an outright lie.
Will nods again. “That’s nice. I mean she seems – nice.”
Merlin waits, quietly, for Will to get whatever it is he really wants to say out of his mouth.
“You’re name’s Merlin, then?” Will asks, suddenly sounding grimmer – more sure of himself.
Merlin nods, suspects almost immediately where the conversation is going, for he is certain there may be a reason why it is, beyond their innate suspicion of magic, that many of the villagers are having trouble looking him in the eye.
“You… you were…”
“Born here. Yes.” Merlin keeps his voice carefully level, though he feels his fingers curl tighter against the wooden frame of his mother’s crumbling house.
Will is silent for a moment that lingers on into something sharp and devoid of breath in the cool, Autumnal afternoon. When he speaks again, it is with a voice like ash.
“I was a baby, when it happened – with your mother. I don’t remember it,” he swallows, “but people still talk… I mean – everyone knows you… you were Hunith’s boy.”
Merlin keeps his mouth drawn tightly shut – but he has sent a single finger of magic licking across the ground – without conscious effort, almost – it finds Morgana’s foot and tugs enough for her concern to immediately flow back to him. He sees her gaze come up and meet his in silent question, and he is glad of the familiarity of the mental contact, for he abruptly feels that the rest of him is swimming somewhere unfamiliar and full of tentacles.
“Some of them are dead,” Will informs him, “the ones who did it. But – some of them aren’t. If you… want to know who they are I… I could tell you.”
Merlin feels every muscle in his body tighten. “Why would you do that?”
“Because,” Will shrugs, and Merlin sees almost immediately the loss that lingers about Will’s own soul – the chip of his dead father, sent away to a war he had no business fighting and never returned from, “it wasn’t right. And if you want to do something about it, I mean… I wouldn’t be the only one who’d give them up to you.”
Don’t – it’s as much a plea as it is a command from Morgana, who is continuing to run drills with some of the women as if she is not privy to another, entirely separate conversation happening several hundred feet away.
Mordred must have picked it up too, because the boy is suddenly looking up, alarmed – Merlin can see him trying to spot what it is he should be preparing to run from.
“You can’t give me information like that,” he exhales, finally, looking at Will. “You just… you can’t.”
Will licks his lips, but nods, quickly. “Yes. Um – sorry.”
He walks away, then, and Merlin is left with a feeling like a needle stuck in his chest.
They see the bandits off, of course, though it is not without cost (Will and a number of other young men are killed in the ensuing skirmish). It is Merlin who eventually gives up all pretence that magic is not in play (for they were attempting to make sure that the bandits could not carry news of the existence of witches in Ealdor across the country – it will only lead to trouble). He summons up a wind with a mind to seek out invaders and carry them off and the population watch in amazement as the bandits are picked up off the ground as lightly as feathers and scattered far and wide and away.
“I just wanted it over with,” Merlin tells Morgana, later, when they have put the village back together and put the sleeping Mordred into bed and are inspecting their own battle wounds.
Morgana has a thick cut slashed across one upper arm but that’s the worst of it, and Morgause heals it with a few tender words, until it has shrivelled down to nothing but a faint scar.
“It was still reckless, Merlin,” Nimueh is reproving, but gently so.
“It was impressive,” Morgana remarks, “to create something with just enough consciousness to be born of your will like that…”
Merlin flushes at the look that she’s giving him. Not since the day when he first kissed her has she been truly awed by his power, and a little part of him rather enjoys the sensation. Morgana delivers him a teasing poke, sensing the flare of his ego.
“There were not many casualties,” Morgause is soaking a sprained wrist in an elixir that will prevent swelling, “and the village was not set alight and the people will not starve this winter and those bandits will not be returning in a hurry…”
“A job well done,” Nimueh says it almost to all of them, but the words are tender enough that they are mostly for Morgause, and the other woman smiles for a moment, pleased at the approval.
“I never want to set foot back in that place again,” Merlin declares, shaking his head.
“A choice which you are perfectly welcome to,” Nimueh assures him, “eat your dinner, Merlin. You’ve had a difficult day.”
Chapter nine is here.