Chapter 23: Satisfaction: The Choices of Destiny
Mordred leaned over his knees, his feet on the next step down from where he sat, arms loosely wrapping his legs, the sword at his belt twisted awkwardly out of his way. Merlin's arrangement of wearing it across his back had some advantage, he thought, if one could get used to reaching for a hilt over one's shoulder, and not at one's hip.
Prince Arthur sat beside him, his longer legs sprawled to a lower step, watching the departing villagers make their way through the opened doorways, thanking the queen who wished them well. Queen Annis of Caerleon intimidated Mordred, but he thought he admired her, too.
"You could go with them," Arthur remarked.
Mordred glanced at him. The prince's eyes followed the villagers dispassionately; he was recognizing an option more than pressing a suggestion. He was right, though, the refugees would probably welcome him. He was old enough to work for his keep, and there was the magic in addition to his muscle that could be used, here in Caerleon. If they'd had casualties, there would be need. And he'd be within hours of Beckon Cove and Prince Merlin.
Emrys. Who might, after all, want Mordred settled close by.
But that felt temporary, to Mordred, to contemplate. Work and shelter and sustenance. But no training, no learning, no progressing, no meaning. He'd been with the druids long enough to know how much he didn't know, yet.
And if his fate was to be part of the story of Emrys and his king, he wanted to be a productive and beneficial part.
Voices behind and above alerted him, with the faint vibration of footsteps descending the stairs where they sat. The queen noticed, too, and moved forward as Mordred pushed to his feet, turning. Prince Arthur stood at the same time, but waited – and so Mordred waited – as the dragonlord excused himself to the great chamber where Mordred had glimpsed the refugees, last night.
Only days ago he'd marveled to consider himself in company with princes. He marveled again to wait as queen and princess were added, discussing the health and expectations of the king of Caerleon.
Then Queen Annis shifted to include Prince Arthur – and Mordred. "Go get something to eat, now. Trevena is already settled, and it won't take long to see to your horses, either. Excuse me…"
Last night, Prince Arthur had seemed too weary for chatting, and Mordred had accepted the comfort of the bed in the shared chamber, grateful that he wasn't going to be asked to put thoughts or plans into words.
"You're sure you have to leave today?" Merlin said to Arthur, sounding disappointed.
"I'd like to make the border by sundown, at least."
Mordred sighed out his breath, a bit relieved to hear that Prince Arthur wasn't in a hurry. He was a bit nervous about the plans that had formed in his mind to think about his future, now that he had choices – a bit nervous also to reveal them to anyone else. Especially these two.
Merlin moved down the stairs toward the great chamber, speaking of sausages, and Mordred's appetite turned over and woke up. Arthur snorted, and threw Mordred an amused glance.
"We've waited for you so long we could eat just about anything, hey, Mordred?"
He could eat just about anything anyway, and sometimes had. But, while it was all well and good for the princes to poke fun at each other with sarcasm and exaggeration, Mordred was sensitive to the princess, pretty and feminine in a creamy-yellow dress – gown? – and stumbled over his words trying to explain and apologize. "We didn't wait long. It was only a few moments, really…"
She smiled at him, understanding the teasing and his attempt to smooth it over, both. Mordred followed the three royals into a massive banquet chamber, and immediately realized why it had been chosen to house a village of refugees. Would he ever be comfortable in surroundings like these?
It might help to remind himself, his druid childhood and his ordeal with the bandits, living simple and rough in temporary camps and caves, was going to be behind him, now. If he had any say in his future – and Arthur seemed to believe he did. Not unlike Princess Freya herself, maybe – she seemed at home here, despite growing up much as Mordred had, ordeal included.
But Queen Annis had been right about the Lord and Lady of Trevena being already seated for their breakfast. He wore chainmail and his tunic displaying the emblem of his home; she was dressed in black – trousers, and tunic over a white blouse – her dark hair tied behind her head, and exhaustion written into the pale lines of her face.
It reminded him of the morning after he'd been turned out of the druid camp. How it felt to have his connection to Kara severed, and the protest he felt had been thoroughly ineffective.
"Good morning, Mordred," the Lady Morgana said – speaking to him alone, when a nod of acknowledgement sufficed to return the politeness from both princes and princess.
"My lady," he mumbled, feeling his face heat. He covered his discomfort at being singled out by fumbling to a place on the bench with Prince Arthur between them. She was magic, but she was a lady. Another element of this new life he was totally unused to, yet – the company. Royalty and nobility.
Princess Freya gave him a sympathetic smile, settling across from him. She was different; she understood. She wasn't magic the way Lady Morgana was magic, but she'd been a druid.
Mordred wondered if she would have wanted to try the smeldian wyrd, when she was Kara's age. He wondered if Lady Morgana would have wanted to. He remembered curse, and wondered, if Freya had known about it beforehand, what it meant and how it ended, what she would have done – avoid, or embrace and endure. Maybe it would be best for him to strive always to use what he knew about himself and his destiny, for good.
A bowl of porridge was placed in front of him, and his restless stomach growled at the scent of the steam. It was honeyed, and not scorched, and he hadn't been required to cook it – a perfect breakfast, no matter what the princes told each other about sausages.
But, out of the teasing remarks and offhand queries, the Lady Morgana spoke to him directly, again.
"So, Mordred. Have you decided to stay here in Beckon Cove?"
And everyone's eyes were on him. He swallowed with difficulty, awkwardly aware of the great disparity in his status and those around him. No, it doesn't matter. They don't care. And Emrys and his wife know.
"I thought about going to Camelot," he said to the porridge in his bowl – darting a quick look at Arthur's face to see astonishment. "If – if you wouldn't object, sire."
"Now that we're in a castle, you have to call him sire?" Merlin said with light humor, giving everyone a moment to absorb Mordred's unexpected decision.
"That's really not necessary unless we're in my castle," Arthur returned mildly, responding to Merlin's quip but addressing Mordred.
"Why Camelot?" Lady Morgana demanded.
In looking up at her, he couldn't help reading Arthur's expression – surprise and curiosity, and no rejection. Even knowing what he knew about Mordred. The Lady, though, was intensity overlying more subdued grief and loss. He understood a bit, he thought; she'd been part of his escape from Camelot, years ago. And no matter what anyone said about King Uther's illness, he was still king. Mordred's life was forfeit under the laws of Camelot as they stood, the moment he set foot across the border.
But if he wanted Arthur to trust him…
"Your quest," he said, wishing he could have gathered courage to say these things to the prince alone, instead of before an audience. "It was partly my fault that it was… compromised…"
Merlin snorted, but it was a sound that drew Mordred in, rather than setting him out.
"And I know you don't have… the object of your search, to return to show your people," he continued, lifting just his eyes to meet Arthur's. "So I thought, I could be a witness, and tell whoever needs telling, the result of your quest wasn't failure at all, it was… just an unexpected way to succeed."
No one said anything, and he felt his face heat. Talking wasn't really something he was used to – not and have people listen. People like this.
Arthur looked more shocked than surprised. Merlin was grinning, his eyebrows up, and Sir Acollyn rubbed a finger over his lower lip thoughtfully. Lady Morgana still looked upset. And after all, he wasn't a crown prince of a sovereign kingdom to be able to demand immunity from punishment, or execution.
"Nobody would need to know I was a druid," he added lamely, reaching up to touch the tattoo just below his collarbone, through his shirt. "I can keep the mark hidden. And after – I thought to go to Helva, maybe? To Merlin's tutor?"
Too late he realized he should have said Prince Merlin. Sire. My lord.
"I was going to write a letter to your council anyway, giving them an objective account of your quest," Merlin said to Arthur.
Who scoffed derisively at his description. "Objective."
"But possibly, they wouldn't accept it, since they know me for a sorcerer. This might be better – and I could write a letter of introduction for you to give to Alator, Mordred."
Merlin's eyes were deep clear blue. No hesitation, no suspicion – maybe relief. Maybe Helva and the druid tutor was a better idea in Merlin's opinion than day labor in a small village, even one that was nearby.
"If you ever need a refuge, Trevena would welcome you," Lady Morgana said suddenly. Her back was very straight, and her eyes flashed as she met Arthur's glance.
"Let's hope it's never necessary for Trevena to hold against Camelot," Arthur returned in a low voice.
She tossed her head a bit in turning to her husband across from her. "Need there be any further delay to our departure?"
"I'm ready when you are," the knight returned – perfectly chivalrous, but with a warm twinkle in his expression that made Mordred think he chose to accept and understand and love her, moods and emotions and all.
She reminded him of Kara. He missed his friend with a dull ache – she had been his – but evidently she hadn't felt the same loyalty. And anyway, both of them were free to meet and befriend other people.
Mordred scooped the last of his porridge from his bowl in large, satisfying mouthfuls, aware that the others were finishing, assuming that when the Lord and Lady of Trevena rose to leave, the others would accompany them, and he thought it would be more polite to walk with them than to excuse himself to remain behind alone.
He was warm; his belly was full, and he'd slept in a soft bed for the first time in his life. Maybe the gods and goddesses had found him unworthy for some reason, turning their backs on him before he could help it, dooming him to a destiny of death and destruction.
In which case, maybe he'd put his faith and trust in the people who'd accepted him in spite of that, and would support him in his chosen endeavor of preventing death and destruction.
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Gwaine woke early that morning, surrounded by the subtle stir and murmur of the villagers of Hanbury preparing to return home. He didn't envy them the monumental task facing them there – to rebuild whatever the witch had destroyed, to carry on living their lives without those who had been lost.
He would have been tempted to shift positions and surrender to slumber again – he'd done it many a time in a tavern common room, sleeping on a table or under it – but for the pervasive ache promising sharper pain when he tried to move. And he was going to have to move.
"There's breakfast, Uncle." Gareth's dark curls were a tangled mess, his words shaped oddly by the obstruction of said breakfast in his mouth. He gestured with bowl and spoon, and Gwaine decided it really didn't matter if Gareth had just finished his own, or if he intended to share. "Just porridge, Lady Hunith said. Even though there's company."
Gwaine remembered. Last night was shadowed with a haze of pain and the draughts he'd been given to lessen that, but he remembered. Not just dozens of village refugees. Merlin's father, the lord and lady of Trevena, and Prince Arthur of Camelot, to say nothing of Beckon Cove's own royal residents, back where they belonged.
"It's Caerleon," he rasped. Speaking was an effort first thing in the morning, flat on his back and the ache in his shoulder was spreading, up his neck and down his chest. "No one expects fancy."
Gareth grinned at him, leaning forward to offer the spoon. Gwaine figured he preferred a liquid breakfast at the moment – but beggars couldn't be choosers, and Balinor said the energy for healing came from him. The first mouthful of warm honey-flavored mush made his stomach growl.
"D'you think he loves her?" the boy-squire said matter-of-factly, leaning back in his tabletop seat to scoop another massive spoonful for Gwaine.
"What?" Gwaine said, opening his mouth again to receive the offering. Last night it had been, his nephew making the same remark about Merlin and his lady. " 'Oo?"
"Lady Hunith is nice. Maybe because she has only one boy?" Gwaine glimpsed Gareth's mental comparison to his own mother; he'd never have described Siura as nice, but he was glad to see further evidence of the boy's loyalty. "I think, if he loves her, that's good."
The muscles in Gwaine's neck felt like knotted fishnet, trying to turn his head to see to the hearth.
It took him a minute to recognize Balinor, as much for the mane of hair combed back as for the absence of his enveloping long-coat of fur and hide. It reminded Gwaine of the changes that could occur in the demeanor of his two friends – Arthur and Merlin in their respective armor also donned a formless mantle of responsibility that showed the shift in attitude, actions, and words in a real if subtle manner. Balinor looked less imposing, this way, less intimidating – still too wild for a lord of Camelot, of course, but he could comfortably sit down at table with lords like Myles of Orkan-broch.
Hells, though, to imagine that meeting. Would Caerleon consider Balinor nobility because of his title of dragonlord?
Gwaine took a third mouthful, watching the dragonlord speak to his wife there at the hearthside, taking her hand almost shyly, holding it like he'd never been entrusted with anything more precious.
Like feeling the feather-weight and warmth of a second chance in your palm, maybe.
He blinked, and for a moment he pictured the dragonlord in the cave in Merendra that he and Merlin had found abandoned. Rough indifferent natural tone, rough furniture cobbled for function, not comfort. Bits and pieces of a broken life, carelessly neglected because there was no reason to forge them together into anything more than stark existence.
"I think you're right," Gwaine said. "It'll be good for him to love her."
Where did that leave the dragon? he wondered. Even if they had remained together after Balinor helped the beast escape from Camelot, would it remain in Caerleon?
It didn't look to him, though, as if Hunith was disappointed one whit, anymore. Even though the passage of several years had been anything but smooth, like his sister he thought Hunith was satisfied with where it had brought her, to the relationships with those around her, new and fulfilling and unexpected, from the viewpoint of the past.
The two shifted away from each other, Hunith gesturing with the hand Balinor held, to encourage him to leave her side – in Gwaine's direction. Gareth, watching as Gwaine was watching, shoveled the last spoonful in his own mouth, scooting out of the dragonlord's way as he approached them.
"Good morning," Balinor greeted them.
"Emphasis on good?" Gwaine suggested, not moving from his prone position. "The accommodations were far more civilized than what you're used to."
"And the company." Balinor tilted his head, reminding Gwaine of Merlin – because he'd never noticed that mannerism from Hunith – and gave him the first smile he'd ever seen on the dour dragonlord's face. "Did you find it so when you first stayed here?"
"Far better than village taverns and mercenary camps, that's for sure," Gwaine agreed. "Accommodations and company both… though yours was of the female variety."
Balinor glanced at Gareth, and huffed in a self-depreciating way. "I didn't have time to figure out how to be a husband when we were first together," he said to Gwaine. "Much less a good one…"
Gwaine made a thoughtful noise. "If you don't mind me saying it, you might learn something from your son, then. In return for teaching him all about dragons."
Balinor's mouth twisted wryly beneath his beard. "I think he's already begun those lessons on his own…" He leaned forward to check the bandaging that stabilized Gwaine's arm, changing the subject. "How does this feel, this morning?"
"Sore," Gwaine allowed, and tensed against the pain as the older man spread one hand more firmly over his collarbone, slipping the other beneath his shoulder.
Balinor murmured words Gwaine knew for magic; he wasn't yet so well-versed that he recognized them, though as with Merlin, he trusted their intent. Heat spread through him, akin to the feeling of a spill of blood over his skin, but in this case it was soothing and calming, the opposite of alarming.
He swore in hoarse relief, setting Gareth to giggling, and opened his eyes to see the smirk still on the dragonlord's face. "You know," Gwaine managed, as Balinor withdrew his hands slightly, to offer them for Gwaine's assistance in sitting up. "Every quest from now on that this imp of a squire accompanies me on, is going to seem boring and inconsequential in comparison."
"Do you think that will make him change his mind?"
He grunted. "No. This boy isn't one who's going to run away."
Gwaine felt his nephew's small hands on his back as he tensed for another reason – and his muscles and recently-damaged bones worked together to raise him to a sitting position on the edge of the table, his boots dangling almost to the floor and his head threatening to lift off and float away to the smoky rafters in the dim far overhead. He turned his head to take in his nephew's expression, having expected Gareth to add his own protestation, and found the boy's attention had been claimed by new arrivals at the chamber door.
The princes. And Lady Freya, and the boy Arthur and Merlin had brought back with them from the north.
"And," he added dryly, "those two will continue to liven things up for the rest of us. And then there's the dragon…"
Balinor made a face.
"They're sitting with my lord and lady of Trevena," Gareth hissed, plucking at Gwaine's sleeve. "Can we go? Join them?"
"I won't be welcomed to join the lady of Trevena, but of course you…" Balinor said. "Take it easy til you get going, though."
Half a year ago, Gwaine would not have been welcomed to join any of them, anywhere. He thought it the effect of Merlin's personality, somehow, and wondered if it was only a matter of time before his father felt that irresistible inclusive draw also. He suggested, "Maybe next time."
Balinor grimaced again, but didn't argue, and Gwaine wasn't in a hurry, either. His legs held him and his shoulder felt stable, if weak and achy; later he'd take the bandage off and see about his range of motion.
"How about riding?" he asked. "I have a feeling the activity around here is going to be of the labor-and-organization sort…"
The dragonlord was shaking his head before Gwaine finished. "No, that's not for you, yet. Lifting and carrying should wait – but you ought to be all right a-horseback, if the pace is leisurely and the journey without conflict."
Gwaine cocked an eyebrow at Gareth, who was breathlessly intent on his decision. "What do you think? Fancy a trip to Camelot?"
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Balinor trailed behind the younger man, understanding what drew Gwaine to his friends but not feeling the same sense of urgency, himself. He didn't figure the folks from Trevena or Camelot would mind missing a farewell with him.
The boy Gareth scampered after Gwaine, and that made Balinor smile. The young were so resilient, all it took was a full night of good sleep and a reassurance in the strength and ability and love of those who looked out for them, and they were ready again the next day for more adventure.
Balinor had seen Gwaine himself run after his own father on fat, unsteady legs the same way. On occasion, he'd had swung Gwaine up to ride on his shoulders when the little boy couldn't keep up… and it hurt to think he'd missed doing that with his own son.
But grandsons… and granddaughters…
At the doorway of the grand chamber, he paused to glance back – just as Hunith straightened from the hearth at the far end of the room to look toward him. He raised a hand to wave, and she returned the salutation, turning back to her work.
He wandered across the floor of the hall to the doors left open by the crowd of younger people, pleasantly half-blinded in the morning light. Already the air was warming after the chill of night, and he found the noise of a populated tower and bailey didn't set him on edge, at all. It was like Camelot, where he'd spent half his time growing up, with his father. Enough to remind him of those good days and good memories, long ago.
Balinor paused at the top of the stair, watching the half-dozen below him. Family, children of old friends. He'd never spoken to Gorlois personally; he'd never met the Lady Vivienne. He wasn't worried if Morgana of Trevena held a grudge – though he was sorry for the pain she felt at losing someone she loved, otherwise he wouldn't fault Kilgarrah for his violent intervention. He squinted and noted the wagon at the gate, men lounging on the driver's bench dressed in black tunics over chainmail – Trevena's escort, ready and waiting to bear their pitiful burden back to Trevena's burial vaults.
Acollyn seemed a decent sort, level-headed and quiet. Balinor watched the knight hand his lady up to her mount before swinging a-horseback himself. Together they turned the horses' heads toward the gate with one last call of good wishes exchanged. The boy Mordred, near enough Arthur's elbow to reach out and touch him, lifted his hand to acknowledge something the Lady said.
Balinor shifted out of the doorway, easing himself down to sitting on the top stair, feeling in his pockets for his carving knife and the block of wood he'd begun shaping. Tradition held that a dragonlord's first would be a son, and of course the carving would be finished before the babe was ready for toys, but… the rough image of a dragon that Balinor had in mind would just as much for his son as for his grandson.
The gates opened for the group from Trevena to exit and disappear from sight into the lane along the outside of the wall, but the rest lingered there at the bottom of the stairs, and Balinor felt no embarrassment in watching them.
There was a lack of tension between Mordred and the others that relieved him. Young Gareth had claimed the older boy's attention, jumping around him with great deliberate leaps requiring both feet at once, talking with barely a pause for breath, by the looks of it. Maybe discussing the druid boy's weapon – maybe discussing his magic.
The easy camaraderie between Geart's son and his filled Balinor's heart with satisfaction, and the princess seemed content to lean against Merlin and listen to the three young men, not begrudging one second of her husband's time. They teased in a way that was familiar to Balinor – and it ached that he had no one left to include him in such, anymore.
Abruptly, Prince Arthur threw his head back to let a peal of laughter ring across the bailey, and the sound stopped the rhythmic motion of Balinor's hands, claiming his entire attention. Merlin and Gwaine were both grinning, but that laugh… that took Balinor back to a time when he was no older than Mordred – both boys looking toward their elders curiously – when Uther and Ygraine's marriage was full of youth and hope and vitality. Balinor remembered when Uther laughed like that, unreserved.
Heaven and hell, spare these two young princes from the weight of rule that forbid humor and constrained trust…
But there were attendants leading more horses toward the group, packed and saddled. Four of them; he recognized Arthur's gray mount but not Merlin's, and assumed Mordred was being given one of Beckon Cove's spare mounts. And if the druid boy wasn't coming back to return it, that was a truly royal gift.
Then Freya turned, lifting her chin to look up the stairs toward him – lifting her hand to beckon him to join them.
He still wasn't sure Arthur or Mordred would appreciate his presence, but – well, when a princess who was your daughter and carried your grandchild summoned, you pushed upright and stowed your carving once again to obey.
"I don't imagine the council will raise any serious objections," Arthur was saying to Merlin. "But it might be several days before anything is resolved."
"We'll be waiting for Gwaine to bring us word, then," Merlin responded. "Best of luck to you, Arthur, as always." He reached readily, and the Pendragon gave a half-smile in taking Merlin's hand. It was genuine in a way that made Balinor slightly ashamed when the two of them looked up and shifted to accommodate his arrival.
"Safe travels to you, Your Highness," he said, giving Prince Arthur an abbreviated bow, to indicate his respect and to apologize for his rudeness til now without voicing the words. "I – appreciate your support of my son these past few weeks."
"Finally satisfied he hasn't got any ulterior motives?" Merlin said, with a snap in his voice that Balinor couldn't blame him for.
Then again, maybe he was glad that his son wasn't a naïve milksop – though it made him wonder about the advisability of cuffing Merlin lightly upside the head. They didn't have the familiarity of years of expressing discipline and respect and affection at all, much less in such a way – but it was Caerleon, after all…
He chose to ignore Merlin's comment. "And I want to express my sincere regret for the consternation caused you by Kilgarrah. And Mordred too, of course."
Mordred stepped closer. "I don't hold that against you, or him," he said quietly. "I know you didn't mean any harm."
As to what Kilgarrah meant… that might be deeper and more complicated than any of them wanted to examine.
"Queen Annis has said," Freya spoke up, gently and effectively redirecting the conversation, "how Arthur reminds her of his mother, Queen Ygraine. You knew her, Balinor – what do you think?"
The prince didn't show his reaction in his expression or posture, but his eyes…
"I do see her in you," Balinor said. "But you also… remind me of your father. I'd forgotten what he was like. Before."
He was aware of Merlin's experience with Uther – and Mordred's – but for the moment he focused deliberately on Arthur like they were alone. Perhaps to make up for his unearned treatment of the young prince; perhaps to earn some favor back from his son. Perhaps, simply to speak what was true.
"He was a good king. It was hard, what he did, fighting to conquer his enemies and bring Camelot together as a kingdom. But when your mother died, your father… broke. Men like Gaius and Gorlois, they stayed with him because they loved him, and they kept hope… Some like Geart were… sent away, when they had better stayed." Gwaine grimaced ruefully in the corner of Balinor's vision, but he didn't glance away from the Pendragon. "I was given no more choice than that, but I… I rather wish I had been."
Arthur nodded, understanding, and reached to take Balinor's hand in the grasp of a comrade – which was quite astonishing, considering, and gave added evidence that Merlin's judgment of his character was more correct.
"I am so very sorry for what happened to you and your family. I know I cannot promise a better loyalty between myself and your son, but I do hope… the future proves my intent."
"I feel like I want to say something sarcastic here," Merlin remarked. "But nothing comes readily to mind."
Arthur elbowed him.
"I have a suggestion," Gwaine offered, grinning. "But it's rude as well as sarcastic, and as there's a lady and a child present…"
"I'm not a child," Gareth spoke up, scowling. "I'm a squire."
"So you are," Gwaine said down to him. "Mount up, squire, so you can be ready to attend upon His Highness' favor."
"I am glad to have met you," Arthur said to Balinor – and a sly twinkle preceded the qualification, "after all."
"I hope I see you again," Gareth said to Balinor.
"We will," Gwaine interjected, trying to press his nephew toward a bay gelding, while Arthur and Mordred mounted their horses.
"Mordred said…" Gareth was not quite finished; his evident admiration gave Balinor a quiet sort of confidence he hadn't realized he'd been lacking, in living alone. "You healed him with magic. And Arthur. And my uncle. I want to see more…"
"So you shall, someday." Gwaine bent and scooped the boy over his shoulder, swinging him toward the bay.
Alarm spiked in Balinor. "Oh, Gwaine, you shouldn't-"
Freya seemed to feel the same, stiffening beside Merlin. "Your shoulder, Gwaine, please be careful!"
Gwaine rolled his eyes to them. "Of course I didn't throw this bony squirmy squire over my injured shoulder…"
"I will write to you when I reach Alator in Helva," Mordred said to Merlin. "Thank you for everything. My lady, thank you."
Freya lifted a hand; Merlin said, "Alator should have my letter before you reach him. I look forward to seeing you again."
Arthur leaned over his saddle to point at Merlin. "We missed your wedding because of the weather, but I expect to be invited when there's a child." Freya covered her stomach with one hand, and her smile with the other. "Even if you have no ceremonies whatsoever here in Caerleon, you promised me that barbarians do in fact name their children."
"Bring your wife when you come," Merlin returned with a sly smirk.
"I just may." Arthur let his full grin show, turning his horse's head to follow the others to the gate, raising his hand in one final farewell.
"Oh," Freya said, after a moment's silence and the last glimpse as they passed beyond the wall. Merlin's exhale was quieter, but poignant with regret. "I forgot there's going to be work to do today…"
"I'm sorry the company didn't stay," Merlin told her, wrapping his arms around her and kissing the crown of her head. "But you must rest whenever you need to, you know."
"I'm sure your mother and the queen will make sure of it," Freya said wryly.
"I would help as well," Balinor said, knowing that he sounded abrupt. "I… I'm not exactly a guest. And I would not ask your mother to leave here til she's sure she's ready. I… well, we need to discuss the dragons, but… when you're ready for that, too. And in the meantime, I'd rather be useful than idle."
Merlin studied him a moment, and he was startled again at the flash of something… authoritative, in his son's regard. "It feels like a deficiency in my training, that I know nothing of healing," he said. "I was going to see the men in the barracks – I've got to discuss the resumption of training with Anden, and there should be a vigil of remembrance organized for the fallen. But I can see if any of the wounded are amenable to having their prince practice healing magic on them. If you'd like to give me some pointers."
"It's a place to start," Balinor said, instinctively smothering the outward expression of the relief he felt.
Merlin nodded, looking pleased. "Give me half of an hour – the barracks are just there." He brushed his fingertips over the curve of Freya's cheek, and she smiled. "I'll see you later?"
For a moment they both watched him walk away, striding across the rocky ground of the bailey, head up and gait confident but loose.
I've never been a father before… Balinor confessed to his daughter, "I have no idea how to train him to be the next dragonlord, when I'm gone. My own father did not expect… well, I suppose he expected we'd have more time."
"I could help you, if you like," Freya offered. "Her Majesty might have some advice, too, she taught him quite a lot of lessons over the years. Perhaps if we made notes and wrote some things down – the topics you feel like you need to cover, and maybe some general organization or order? Maybe some ideas if practical lessons are advantageous?"
Even that suggestion was a better start than he'd had since Merlin said to him, I am your son.
He smiled at her; it was different letting her see his reactive emotion. "I'm so very glad he has you."
Her lips quirked with shy pleasure, but she returned the compliment with pretty gravity. "I'm so very glad he has you."
And Balinor himself had far more than the cold stone of a damp cave and the treacherous ephemera of disappointed dreams. His destiny had come to him, after all.
…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..
Gwaine had given up fishing for details on the princes' journey to the north, by the time sundown found them crossing the River Rusk into Camelot's territory.
"Not enemy territory, my uncle said, because Prince Arthur is regent, and he's friends with our prince Merlin," Gareth confided to Mordred. The boys were riding alongside each other, behind Gwaine who was next to Arthur even if he wasn't talkative like Merlin could be. "I'm on a quest, too – I'm going with my uncle, to see that it's true."
He glanced over to see whether the prince had caught the boy's comment, or not. Arthur's mouth took a rueful shape, and he reined in to dismount in a little clearing near enough the source of fresh water for their convenience that night. If Mordred answered, it wasn't audible – which had become usual for the boys, over the course of the day – but his quiet demeanor didn't seem to deter Gareth.
"Is it still odd to you," Gwaine asked, stretching muscles and bones conformed to his saddle for hours that sometimes seemed interminable. At least his shoulder wasn't paining him unduly – thank heaven for magical healing.
"What?" Arthur said, choosing the limb of a tree to wrap his reins around. "The fact that your nephew talks almost as much as you do?"
"Ha. Give him a few years, maybe it'll be more." Gwaine watched his nephew swing his right leg over the saddle, twisting to lie on his stomach and slide slowly down – tumbling the last distance almost down to his rear on the ground.
Gwaine snorted his opinion of the prince's wit – but it was a point in Arthur's favor that he wasn't short-tempered after the day's journey, only dry-humored. "No, I mean… is it still odd to you to ride in company with us." For all the months he'd spent traveling back and forth between the princes, the fruitless trip to Merendra was the one time he'd ridden with Merlin – and never with Arthur, til today.
Arthur sighed, pausing before he heaved the saddle off his mount. "I know you warriors of Caerleon can't comprehend it, but it was important for me to do this a-"
"-Lone and unaided, I know," Gwaine said, keeping sarcasm from his tone. If Uther hadn't banished his own father, he'd have been raised in Camelot himself, and faced a knight's quest. Alone and unaided. "What about if you're in the company of people that you're giving necessary or reciprocal aid to?"
Arthur let the saddle and its accompanying bundles drop to the earth and straightened, looking at Gwaine.
He shrugged. "I'm just saying, maybe it's only a matter of perspective. No one else chose your path or forced advice upon you or fought to protect you while you stood idly by."
"A matter of perspective, hm?" Arthur tipped him a look that said he wasn't convinced, and didn't care to discuss the matter further.
Gwaine tied off his own horse and pulled down the saddle, keeping an eye on Gareth trying to do the same. Mordred seemed like he knew what he was supposed to do, even if his movements were awkward and unpracticed.
"Mordred, why don't you and Gareth go for some water, and see if you can't find a handful of rocks at the river to guard our cookfire here," Arthur raised his voice to suggest. "I'll find some dry wood and Gwaine can prepare the food, and we'll see to the horses after we've eaten."
The boys mumbled something more or less agreeable, and took themselves off toward the river without fuss or argument, and Arthur ducked a low branch to head into a thicket. But their fare was mostly dry and cold and wouldn't want much cooking – and Gwaine wasn't ready to give up. He followed Arthur.
"Did Merlin tell you we found the cave in Merendra where his father lived for all those years?"
Arthur ignored him, stepping on a fallen branch to snap it to manageable lengths.
"Obviously unoccupied. He looked around a bit, and I said, you must be disappointed. You know what he said?"
"Can I stop you from telling me?" Arthur said sardonically.
"Nope." Gwaine was pleased that Arthur was fairly easy to annoy – but he didn't seem to hold it against a fellow. Merlin had been right to like Arthur. "He started telling me not what he didn't see, but what he did. He looked at what was there, and found reason for hope."
"Gwaine…" Arthur sighed, and turned away to gather a handful of twigs before straightening again. "You're not subtle-"
"Thanks," Gwaine said agreeably.
"I understand what you're trying to say, I do. So please quit trying to say it."
"Hm," Gwaine said, making a decision. "All right. Do you know any reason why I shouldn't be happy about the way my boy is making friends with yours?"
Arthur swung around, unbalancing his load and having to catch it back from dropping. The sound of Gareth's voice carried from near the water; Mordred's words were lower, and fewer.
"There's something there, more than you and he and Merlin are letting on," Gwaine said. More than the complication of capture and rescue, druid and Pendragon, debts accumulated and discharged in the oddest of ways.
"Sometimes," Arthur said, setting his jaw in a way that told Gwaine, he was picking his words carefully, "you have to choose to trust someone, with no idea if it's the right thing or the best thing or what the consequences might be, because… mistrust is definitely the wrong thing."
"Yeah," Gwaine said. "I've been there. Did you learn that from Merlin?"
Arthur looked at him again, and the humor that lurked behind his expression was purer, somehow. "I guess you have," he said. "So then it's – sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't, and it's decided by… fate, or destiny, or chance?"
"Nah," Gwaine said. "Our decisions have an effect, too. Can't stop a stream or make it flow uphill, but you can redirect any number of ways..." An idea hit him, and he amended, "I wish you could've seen Merlin this spring, though, after those storms – when magic is involved, the unexpected happens."
"So you… trust his motivation and training," Arthur said, looking toward the sounds the boys were making.
"Just like any man," Gwaine said.
Arthur echoed thoughtfully, "Just like any man."
Everyone made mistakes. And if he was lucky, he'd found and earned the sort of family who'd forgive him – and help him learn to do better. Help him to motivate and train the child who held his blood-oath, too, in the future.
…..*….. ..…*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..
Arthur led the way through the lower town of Camelot, up to the gates of the citadel.
He nodded to acknowledge those who glanced up at the travelers passing – those who bothered with more than a single incurious look to recognize. His solitary knights' quest hadn't been publicly announced, as a safeguard from those who might seek opportunity to harm him, but there might have been a few to see him depart, or to notice his absence this last fortnight, and remark upon it to begin and further rumors.
The clop of hooves on cobblestones and the familiar bustle of home brought back to mind the thoughts that had weighed on him when first he crossed the River Rusk into Caerleon to begin his quest. Alone and un-bloody-aided. No matter what Gwaine said about perspective, it wasn't true that he'd relied solely upon his own advice, or his own sword and skill for protection.
There were dangers and risks on these quests, there were meant to be – to prove the mettle of a man, a knight, and especially a future king. Was he to allow himself to be sold, or killed, or die any other way, because he hadn't been able to perform the task within the Code's confines? And did it necessarily follow, that because he hadn't triumphed completely, that he couldn't?... and therefore, didn't deserve his throne and crown? There was no example within memory of anyone who'd failed, so he wasn't sure whether he faced exile and obscurity, or a second try.
The quest was meant to prove his worth. What did it mean if he had to confess, I didn't do it alone? Being a warrior and a king was about risking everything for duty, making sacrifices. He hadn't lost his life, but what if the sacrifice was his pride? What did it mean for Camelot if his reputation as an able warrior and a strong leader was compromised?
"Sire! My lord! Welcome home! Welcome back!"
The guards at the gate into the citadel courtyard recognized him, reacted to send the news flashing from person to person, and he wondered whimsically how many moments it would take before every last inhabitant had heard. He remembered the moment he'd ridden into the citadel with Morgana perched before him on the saddle, feeling every inch the hero, finally successful at that quest. How ignorant he'd been, and how it had cost Camelot…
Once again he was bearing the weight of regard, the center of attention. Merlin talked like the same thing made him uncomfortable in Beckon Cove, but you wouldn't guess it to watch him interacting with his people there.
Sir Ectyr strode toward them across the cobblestones and Arthur dismounted, aware that Gwaine was already down on his own two feet, and that Gareth was gawking open-mouthed and inattentive. He couldn't look at Mordred, recalling what memories the druid boy might have, here. Loss and prison and terror.
"Prince Arthur! Good to see you!" Ectyr called out. Almost he might have called Arthur boy, as he had done in the early days they spent together on the training field. "You look well?"
"I am well, thank you," Arthur said, gripping his trainer's arm in return. Merlin's trainer had been killed in the siege; he was abruptly grateful for Ectyr's steady presence. "And Camelot in my absence?"
"Also well." Ectyr's expression was open, pleased to have him back, not lined or clouded with concern.
Arthur breathed a little more freely to hear. Not that he doubted the ability of his men while he was gone, but… it was always better to be there. Another thing he knew Merlin understood. "My father?"
Ectyr hesitated, slightly but enough for Arthur to know. "That is a question best answered by the physician, my lord. But he receives the best of care from personally chosen servants, day and night."
Arthur swallowed regret, and schooled his own expression in the moment. "You remember Gwaine – and this is his squire, Gareth," Arthur said, gesturing.
The little boy's chin pointed straight up as he stared at the peak of Camelot's tallest tower. Gwaine shrugged, and grinned.
"Of course." Ectyr nodded; it wasn't the first time Gwaine had been received in Camelot on official, if private, business. The senior knight didn't exactly approve of the former mercenary, but if he actively disliked him, at least he kept it hidden behind cordiality. "There will be provision made for them in the barracks, again."
"Thank you," Gwaine said, inclining head and shoulders in an insouciant bow. Usually he gave no reason for the knights of Camelot to form personal grudges, which Arthur appreciated.
"This is Mordred," Arthur continued, watching Ectyr study the boy, seeing what his knight saw. Young, plainly dressed, armed with a cheap blade. Awkward more than confident. "He's my guest, and is to be housed and tended as such."
Ectyr's left brow lifted incrementally. Mordred's eyes were wide, fastened to Arthur.
Instead of offering any more explanation, Arthur filled his lungs and exhaled, readying himself to leave his travels behind, and reassume authority and responsibility. "Have Leon meet me at my father's quarters," he said, using his tone to make it more request than command. "Have the council convene in an hour, I want this done tonight. Dinner in-chambers, I won't ask the kitchen to produce a feast at this late hour, but we'll discuss something for tomorrow."
Ectyr gave a nod that was also a bow, and moved away to obey.
If Uther had been himself, it would be the feast he threw for Arthur's triumph – for surely his son, the crown prince, could never return a failure. In that case, he'd not return at all. As it was, Arthur would not celebrate himself; that was too arrogant even if there were no conditions to the quest to be explained, but… the council would want to announce their decision to back Arthur's regency while Uther continued to live incapable of ruling. Or their decision otherwise.
Attendants had reached them, stable boys to take their mounts and porters to arrange their baggage. Mordred was looking a little lost; Gareth was trying to climb the base of the mounted statue at the bottom of the stair.
"Come, sir, I'll show you to the guest quarters," one of the young men was saying to Mordred – who threw Arthur a look that held some panic around the blank edges.
How could he say, you're not confined at all, you're free to go anywhere in the citadel or lower town without raising the eyebrows of those who heard them?
Gwaine slapped a hand to Mordred's shoulder, and kept it there in a comradely way. "We'll come with you," he said. "I've already seen the barracks; I'm curious how guest quarters compare. And, to the council room in an hour?"
"Probably wait in the corridor outside the room?" Arthur suggested. He'd tell the tale himself, and if they decided to hear corroboration, they could call Mordred in.
"We'll see you in an hour, then." Gwaine nodded.
Arthur shook his head to himself as he took the stairs two at a time in his haste. Gwaine was an excellent informal companion; Arthur knew of no one better to put someone completely at their ease unless it was Merlin himself. Or, wait – Freya was very good at it, and here in Camelot there was always…
Almost he wished there had been some necessity for a call upon Camelot's physician. He did need to speak to Gaius about his father - though his own senses would influence his conclusion – but now that he was home, he wanted to see her with an intensity that surprised him.
Damn Merlin for saying wife, and exciting the imagination.
As it was, however, he'd have to wait til they met by chance, and he was impatient, and-
She answered his knock on the door of his father's chamber, dark eyes going wide with surprise and full lips parting on a gasp. "Oh – Arthur!"
He wished he could take her in his arms, but he settled for taking her hand. She immediately grasped his between both of hers, drawing him inside the room.
"I missed you," he said in a low voice.
"And I you – oh, I'm so glad you're home safely!" She led him as she spoke, bringing him along behind her through the outer room, around a corner and through an archway toward the hearth of the bedchamber. "My lord – see who has come! It's Arthur, home from his quest!"
Uther was slumped in his armchair. The blanket that wrapped and hid legs and feet had fallen from his shoulders, revealing a thin white shirt like a nightshirt, laces loose and ornaments absent. His hair was disheveled, and he gave a startled grunt, rousing himself as if he had been sleeping – a good two hours before anyone's dinnertime. There was more white than gray in his hair this year than in any year previous, to Arthur's memory. More bone and slack flesh than muscle, and he couldn't help wondering just how much time he had left with his father – if maybe he was lucky to find him still living after two weeks' absence.
That was a thought to make breath come hard and slow around the pain in his chest.
Uther cleared his throat, squinting between Arthur and Gwen. "What? What's that?"
"Father," he said, moving forward as Gwen did as if he was unable to decide upon his own action, tethered to her for direction. "I'm home, again. The quest was-"
"I'm not your father," Uther grumbled, fussing at the blanket's fringe in his lap. "I have one son, his name is Arthur-"
"This is Arthur, my lord," Gwen reassured him, giving Arthur an unreadable glance.
"Arthur is a young boy, a child," Uther disagreed petulantly, flapping a hand at Arthur to emphasize his unacceptable height. "Not this… this."
He stood very still, feeling a quiet sort of panic melting the hard-edged block of anticipated loss inside him, the ache losing shape to ooze into every part of his being.
"Yes, of course he was," Gwen soothed, in a practiced way. "But he's grown up now, a young man."
"I don't remember," Uther growled. Then, in a completely different voice, whimpered piteously, "I don't remember…"
"He's been gone. His knight's quest – and he's home, now."
Uther's hands fidgeted and fidgeted, and he darted two glances at Arthur from the corner of his eye before resettling himself in the chair and tucking his chin to his chest in a defiant wordless dismissal.
Gwen moved back to Arthur, her eyes shining in the firelight with unspilled moisture. "I'm sorry. Maybe in the morning… mornings are better…"
"He's declining," Arthur said. Uther could barely lift his head; the bones of his hands and his shoulders were noticeably more prominent than when he'd left. Weight had been lost, and the rest of his flesh hung uselessly from his frame.
Gwen didn't deny it. "He's quieter, though. He hasn't been trying to give orders or demand answers to questions that don't make sense. And he hasn't mentioned you-know-what at all."
He knew what she meant. Magic.
"I don't think… that I can…" Arthur closed his eyes and felt her small strong hands grip his shoulders, anchoring him.
"Yes," she said vehemently. "Yes, you can. You're ready. And we'll all help you, you know we will."
We. But he knew for a fact that not everyone would be pleased to hear his thoughts and plans regarding magic, or accept without protest of one kind… or another.
But then, that was maybe something intangible he'd brought home from his quest. Humility – the choice to trust – not alone or unaided. But with her, and others like her – Ectyr and Gaius and Leon, Gwaine and Merlin. Mordred.
"I have to go, to speak to the council," he said, giving one last glance to his drowsing father as he retreated to the door.
"I'll call someone to sit with him, and see you there," she told him. He stopped in the threshold, tilting his head in wordless question – Why, particularly? - and she explained, "Gaius tripped the other day and bruised his foot. Nothing to worry about, but it hurts him to walk on it, so he's been keeping to his rooms. I'll be his representative on the council."
"Well done," he said, hoping the first words to come to mind were appropriate; pride mixed with surprise and came out confusedly.
Evidently so; she beamed, closing the door behind him. It occurred to him for the first time that she hadn't asked after the results of his quest, as if she took his success for granted. Or maybe his return, uninjured, was success enough for her.
He found Leon waiting as he turned to head to the council chamber. "Welcome home, sire."
It was tiresome, in a way, to hear that again and again.
"Thank you, Leon," he said. "A long story from a long trip. Gwaine is here with me, though, so you'll probably hear some fantastic gossip about it."
"Gwaine is here?" Leon said, puzzled.
Arthur sighed. "There was no object for me to claim," he said. And to Leon's raised brows he added tiredly, "Long story. Long trip."
"Yes, my lord." Leon wasn't the sort to worry over the unexpected, or to be scandalized when expectations weren't met or conditions neglected. For example, the whole fiasco with Merlin, that spring.
"I have a guest. His name is Mordred. It's likely that he'll be spending some time with Gwaine, and I don't anticipate trouble, but just in case I want you ready to act in his defense." Arthur marked his puzzlement, and held his gaze to convey significance. "Just like you did for Merlin, when he was here."
It took Leon another half a moment to understand what Arthur hadn't put into words. "Oh! Oh. Of course, sire, consider it done."
That was all right, then. Arthur wouldn't ask Mordred to reveal himself to anyone here, not with the way the law stood. That information wasn't necessary, for the boy to give support to Arthur's tale of the Diamair; rather, in addition to decreasing his credibility in the eyes of the council, a revelation of Mordred's origins and abilities might be downright dangerous for Mordred himself, at this point; he didn't have Merlin's status to protect him from reprisals from any direction. And Merlin had only been conciliated over Arthur's refusal to carry a message containing his own testimony – royal, but foreigner and sorcerer – by the reassurance that Mordred's word would be sufficient for whatever credit was to be forthcoming.
But now Leon knew what to be alert to, and what to do for just in case. Arthur hadn't seen magic from Mordred like Merlin was capable of, but then again, the prince of Caerleon didn't bear a druid's indelible mark on his skin, either.
They rounded the last corner to find Gwaine and Mordred by a window at the end of the corridor leading to the council chamber. Gwaine leaned against the wall, feet spread to brace himself casually, arms crossed over his chest. He looked up at the sound of their boots on the stone; Mordred continued to scowl at the floor, arms crossed in a way that was completely different than Gwaine's attitude. Uneasy and defensive.
Well, let's get this meeting over with, and send him on his way to Helva.
"Leon, this is Mordred," he said aside as they joined the other two. "Mordred, Sir Leon. You may trust him as you do myself, or Gwaine…" Leon gave the boy an earnest nod, and reached to shake his hand. And maybe Mordred didn't realize the depth of meaning there, but he went pink at the mark of the knight's regard anyway. Arthur added, "More than Gwaine, actually."
"Hey," Gwaine protested, predictably.
But it sounded like the council room held most of its members already; both guards had their helmets turned in his direction in anticipation.
It was time.
Arthur stepped forward, awkwardly aware of how very much this wasn't anything like what he'd anticipated, for years. Like the whole quest, maybe. He was neither glittering with triumphant splendor, nor grim with bloody victory… only smudged and exhausted.
He reached the doors and paused, seeing the faces of men he'd been taught to respect since he was a child. Men he'd been taught to lead. He couldn't help thinking of Merlin, considering the question of the battle with the Saxons, there with the lord and the captain and most of the warriors older and more experienced than himself. Merlin had seized his command without any ado at all – get out of my way; follow me or go home, but I can do this without you…
Arthur felt a wry smile creep onto his lips. Well, why not?
"My lords, good evening," he said firmly, striding forward. "Thank you for responding to my summons. I wish to have your absolute support for my regency-" for the love of Camelot- "and to that end I'm prepared to recount to you the events of my quest, and answer any questions you might have."
Creak-thud behind him as the guards closed the room. He glanced over his shoulder at a hint of sound and movement – Gwen slipping into the room, present and unprotested, though she didn't claim Gaius' seat. She gave him a subtle smile, and nod of support.
You're ready. And we'll all help you.
"All right," he said to the group of men gathered expectantly around the table. His men. "Let's get started."
A/N: So that's it! I'm really sorry this last handful of chapters got to be so long and so late… But thanks very much to everyone who followed the story, who favorited and especially those who reviewed!
Plans for future endeavors will be posted on my profile page…