Pairing: Merlin/Morgana, Arthur/Gwen, Morgause/Nimueh
Summary: What would have happened in S1, had Nimueh raised Morgause, Morgana and Merlin; in which Gwen must save her prince.
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
Gwen has lingered as long as she can stand to on the outskirts of the prince’s room, as people ebb in and out like tides – the king, the courtiers, the servants. Gaius has finally forbidden all but a select few and then banished them all from the room so that he can work.
Gwen stays, quiet and discreet as any laundry maid ought to be, so that no one notices her in the corner, worrying the edge of one of Arthur’s shirts, which she is, for all intents and purposes, there to wash.
When only Gaius is left, having bound the terrible wound that sits over Arthur’s heart, the flesh of which is starting to turn a terrifying, dark greenish shade and oozes blood and venom equally. The prince seems full of fever and otherwise barely moves – does not respond at all to voices or touches, his eyes closed, a slight tremble to him as he shivers against the pillows.
“Come and see him, Guinevere,” the physician does not look at her when he speaks, but remains concentrated on his work, tucking in the last of Arthur’s bandages.
Gwen clings to the wall. “Will it make a difference if I do?”
“It will to you.”
Gwen cannot deny the truth of that, and creeps closer, to peer into Arthur’s unconscious face. It looks so like and unlike him – the mask of him, the muscles slack with the loss of the consciousness that usually animates him.
“I can imagine it must be difficult to see him in such peril,” Gaius remarks, mildly, “when he saved your father and yourself like that.”
Gwen swallows and nods – let him think that that is all that tugs at her so; not the memory of him sitting up, rumpled in bed, this morning, as she came in to collect his clothes from the night before, with his sleepy smile and teasing inquiry as to what her plans were for the day. Or of his last kiss, delivered to her mouth the day before last, quite gently, when he’d come back to his chambers from running drills with his knights to discover her folding rose petals into his shirts so that they stayed smelling fresh for the week.
How had all that life and warmth been reduced to this so swiftly? With so little warning?
And she had had such a terrible dream the night before, as well. But it had floated away from her in the morning and even if she’d had it all properly laid out in her head, what could she have said to Arthur? Don’t go hunting today because I have such an awful feeling that you will come to harm?
It would have sounded too silly.
Yet here lies the prince she knows (and will not admit to herself that she loves, though the realisation is creeping up upon her like a thief in the night), and he has come to harm, and the court is full of weeping and the king is storming around like a man possessed because word has it that his only son will be dead before dawn.
She is afraid. She is so desperately afraid.
“You can – find something to heal him, can’t you?” She asks Gaius, swallowing heavily.
Gaius looks up at her, his old brow furrowed gravely. “I can try, Guinevere. But if he was attacked by what I think he was, then I… I don’t know what there is that I can do.”
Gwen swallows. She’s not going to ask if Arthur will die. She can’t trust the words not to come out properly, and she cannot bear to have them exist out-loud. She is afraid of Gaius’s answer.
“I fear that the cure is something that his father will not call for, not even to save his son,” Gaius passes a hand over his face, “this looks to me like the bite of a questing beast, and the only cure for a questing beast bite is a magical one.”
Gwen swallows, “but – couldn’t you – ”
“What little skill I have in… that particular area,” Gaius shakes his head, “is nowhere near enough to save him. Guinevere, when I was young the only cure for this kind of injury was to beg the assistance of a witch strong enough to draw the poison out of a person’s veins.”
But something blooms in Gwen at that – the puff of an idea – the desperate grasping of a thought. For hadn’t Arthur told her about the three witches he had delivered little Mordred to? He’d not told her a great deal, and seemed troubled by the encounter, but he had said enough for it to seem clear that they had not been hostile. They lived outside of Ealdor, a day and a night’s ride away.
“How… long can you keep him alive?” She knits her fingers, already thinking of the horse she can steal away, of the heavy winter cloak she will need, the blade she will tuck into her boot just in case, the note she will leave for her father.
“I can slow the progress of the poison for a little while,” Gaius replies, “a day or two. Three at the most. What are you planning, Guinevere?”
“As long as it takes,” Gwen is already edging backwards, “you must keep him alive until I return, Gaius. You absolutely must – I will come back with a cure for him.”
She has not done a great deal of riding before – perhaps a few hours with her father accompanying him when he is selling his wears in the outlying villages around Camelot – and the road out of Camelot towards the boarder where Ealdor lies is a hard one. By the falling of the following evening, when she is starving hungry and wet and cold, her thighs are numb and rubbed raw and every bone in her body feels half broken. She has not stopped once and ridden the horse quite mercilessly and still several miles away she can pick out on the horizon the slight sparkle of what may be a village, fires being lit as the autumn darkness descends.
The moon is coming past it’s peak in the sky by the time she passes the place that must be Ealdor (it is exactly as Arthur said it would be – with a woodland at its back and two peaks sloped into a V against the horizon to its left). He had told her about finding what looked like a ruin and how it had, before his eyes, becoming a dwelling place – it’s occupants looking like crows one moment and people the next.
It looms up shortly and she slides from her horse to find her knees almost giving beneath her at the shock of finding the ground with her feet again for the first time in perhaps twenty four hours.
The night seems very still, and something unseen calls menacingly out of the dark. Witches – she’s going looking for witches to save the prince she loves. The prospect seems almost as daunting as it is ridiculous.
But she sets her jaw, and marches up the short slope towards the ruined temple before her.
What she is perhaps not expecting is the woman standing quietly atop a fallen tree, waiting for her. The ruins hold only briefly onto the glamour of emptiness before they are almost immediately a kitchen, bedrooms, library before her eyes – and the woman waiting for her steps forward with a smile that is far more familiar than it ought to be.
“Guinevere!” She looks relieved – her own age, and quite pretty, tall and a little bony. “You’ve come at last!”
Gwen staggers to a halt, “how do you know my name?”
“It’s a long story – something has happened to Arthur, hasn’t it?” The woman has on a cloak and is clutching a bag and behind her there is movement – a man coming out of the old temple, leading the little druid boy by the hand. “You’ve come for help. What happened? I had such an awful vision but it wouldn’t come clear…”
“Her name,” says the man, giving Gwen a kind look, “is Morgana. I’m Merlin, and you know Mordred, of course. Morgause and Nimueh are just over there – and yes, we had an inkling you were coming and yes, Morgana is anxious to help – she has this odd notion that Arthur is some sort of brother to her.”
“He would have been – it’s hard to explain!” The young witch flushes, “I’m just… he’s dying, isn’t he? And time is of the essence, isn’t it?”
Gwen nods, hands clasped, swallowing. “I… I…”
“Don’t worry,” Morgana comes to her immediately and Gwen finds herself almost drowning in an embrace that smells faintly of lavender and wet earth, “don’t worry, we’ll save him, Gwen.”
“Oh,” Gwen gasps, and suddenly finds her eyes full of tears, for she’s been as frightened as she was when her father was imprisoned and the terror has eaten at her, now that the adrenalin of the journey has drained away, and she’s exhausted. “Oh, please…”
“Mother,” says the boy, as Morgana gently releases Gwen and uses her sleeve to mop up her tears, “I want my dinner before we go, please.”
“Oh, Mordred, you and your stomach,” Morgana shakes her head.
“We’ll bring food – you can eat when we arrive,” Merlin adds. “Say hello to Gwen. She looked after you very well – be grateful.”
“Hello, Gwen,” says the boy, gazing solemnly up at her, “thank you for looking after me.”
“I – you’re… welcome,” Gwen feels as if she may have stumbled into a dream; she is hungry and she is frightened and everything inside her is knotted up so tightly with nerves that she can hardly breathe – and here is the little boy she risked everything to save, thanking her for looking after him.
“Come,” Morgana takes Gwen’s hand, “come – we’re all ready. We can get back to Camelot very quickly.”
They step inside the temple, into a kitchen full of the smell of something boiling sweetly over a fire, Nimueh patiently stirring and Morgause apparently gathering supplies into a box.
“Questing beasts!” she’s saying, features twisted into a grimace of displeasure, “Uther got rid of all but one of the dragons yet he couldn’t wipe out those ridiculous questing beasts?! Everyone knows the questing beast is a useless, destructive fool of an animal! They serve no purpose whatsoever other than to stir up disaster – they’re almost as bad as afancs – why couldn’t Uther have gone after them, just once?!
“We are bound to love and protect all living things, Morgause,” Nimueh chides, gently, and the other woman rolls her eyes.
“Can I not love, protect it and consider it to be a useless fool of an animal at the same time?”
“Well,” Nimueh pauses, “if anyone is capable of such a feet, I’m sure you are.”
“I am!” Morgause declares, “here, Mordred – a sandwich.”
“What’s in it?” Mordred picks at the bread looking rather doubtful, “is it cabbage again? I don’t like cabbage…”
“Cabbage is good for you,” Morgana reminds him, “and say thank you to your aunt for making you the meal, Mordred. Don’t be rude.”
Mordred sighs out a ‘thank you’ that could not have sounded less grateful had he been handed a plate of rat poison, and sits down to eat.
“Drink this,” Morgana hands Gwen a little vile full of a silvery looking liquid, “it will make the journey back easier.”
“What… is it?” Gwen is not entirely sure that she wants to know.
Morgana shrugs, “a little unicorn hair, boiled up and distilled. And honey, for flavour. It’ll relax you just long enough for the journey not to hurt. And trust me, you want that. Anyone who isn’t used to travelling using Mandrake juice needs something to knock them out first.”
“What – what are we doing?” Gwen blinks, “mandrake juice?”
“Time is of the essence, is it not?” Morgana asks, practically, “so we are just going to take something that will move us all back to its point of origin. In this case, Nimueh has used a mandrake plucked from the castle gardens in Camelot. I mean, goodness knows how she got hold of it but the point is that it will transport us back to Camelot in… oh, perhaps a heart beat or so. So we can return to your prince and begin to heal him as quickly as possible.”
Gwen swallows, and something silly occurs to her. “What about my horse?”
“I’ll have a word with it,” Morgana gives her arm a squeeze, “it’ll trot off back to Camelot on its own and see you in a few days.”
“Oh… okay,” Gwen frowns, and then decides to sit down next to Mordred, “should I just – drink this…?”
“Wait until we’re ready to go,” Morgana advises, “then down it all in one and then Nimueh will give you the mandrake juice. Then we’ll be back in Camelot – you’ll probably feel a bit woozy but it’ll wear off fairly quickly.”
She hurries away, presumably to have a word with Gwen’s horse, and Gwen is left clutching her little bottle of distilled unicorn hair, next to the druid boy who is making terrible faces as he finishes his sandwich.
Merlin sits down on her other side and reaches slyly across her to give Mordred a nudge. “Lad – here.”
He is, abruptly, holding a pie, where Gwen is quite sure that he was only holding a pebble before.
Mordred immediately brightens, “thank you, father.”
“Just eat it before Morgause spots you – or she’ll take offence,” Merlin warns.
Mordred nods, and begins to break the crust of the pie apart and stuff it into his mouth with gusto. Gwen glances back at Merlin, to see his smile bright and affectionate as he watches the boy consume his meal.
She wonders what odd little bit of domesticity she has stumbled into – what lives she is jeopardising by having them save a man whose father will have them all killed if he catches them.
Then she decides that she doesn’t care, not even slightly. And it isn’t like her not to care, but the idea of doing nothing – getting Arthur no help and sitting back instead to watch him die – fills her with a desperate, wailing kind of horror. She suspects she’d do a lot more than just lead a young family into harm’s way to save his life. It’s a terribly selfish thing, she knows, to be in love.
She swallows. “Is it – wise? To bring the – child?” She glances up for someone to direct her question at. Morgana is just returning, Merlin still supervising Mordred’s meal.
It’s Nimueh who snorts. “We are all more than capable of seeing off anything Uther feels fit to set on us. Mordred will be well protected.”
“And it’s not as if I’ve never seen a dying man,” Mordred adds, quite helpfully, “I’ve seen dead men. I’ve seen my first father with his head chopped off.”
“And we’ve talked about how it’s inadvisable for you to discuss such things whilst eating, Mordred,” Nimueh reminds him, breezily. “It gives you indigestion.”
Mordred nods, stuffing the last of his pie into his mouth.
“The juice is burning, Nim,” Morgause has raised a critical eyebrow as the smell from the pot boiling on the fire abruptly becomes smoky.
“No it’s not,” Nimueh prods her out of the way, “it’s meant to go that colour just before you serve it.”
“I’m sure,” Morgause sounds entirely unconvinced – the expression lightened by a gently teasing smile – and narrowly escapes another prod.
“Just for that, you’re going first,” Nimueh informs her, picking up a ladle, “are you ready?”
Morgause waves a hand and picks up a wooden cup, proffering it, “serve it up then, my love.”
Gwen watches Morgause down the cup that Nimueh has filled for her, make a face at the taste, begin to say what is probably the word ‘burnt!’ and then vanish.
No sound, no flash, no puff of smoke – in one moment, there stands a slight, fair-headed, dark eyed women dressed like a village boy though she looks at least thirty years old, and in the next, she isn’t standing there at all. She’s not anywhere to be scene.
Gwen blinks, as Nimueh hands another cup to Morgana – who drinks, vanishes – then to Merlin, then Mordred – and then she is ushering Gwen to her feet.
“Drink that,” she indicates the little vile of distilled unicorn hair that Morgana gave her, (it hits Gwen’s throat and immediately fills her with sunshine), “good – now – swallow the mandrake juice all at once and when you come out the other side remember to take a few deep breaths – it’ll help, believe me.”
Gwen just has time to register that the mandrake juice does taste a little burnt, before suddenly everything is upside down and inside out and tumbling around and around and – suddenly she’s staggering a few paces across Camelot’s kitchen gardens, the castle a glittering hulk in the gloom a few hundred yards away.
An arm grabs and steadies her and Gwen feels very light and then begins to giggle uncontrollably. Her legs seem to have entirely developed minds of their own and want to go in completely different directions at once and certainly neither of them care much what she wants to do anymore.
“That’ll be the unicorn hair,” Morgana is explaining to her, as she lets her slide, still giggling, to her knees on the lawns, “trust me, you’ll prefer this to vomiting everywhere like most people do the first time.”
“Mm,” Gwen replies, thinking how very pretty Morgana is and how she’s never noticed how high up the stars seem and just how sparkly they are. She decides to point this out to Morgana, just in case she’s also never noticed it before, and points upwards, frantically. “Loo – look! Look!” She pulls out the word on her lips and is abruptly distracted by how it tastes and feels in her mouth and how funny it sounds and then she starts giggling again because really, this is all terribly silly.
Nimueh pops out of nowhere a moment later (which is also terribly silly and Gwen keels over, clutching her sides – she’s never seen anything so funny in her life before).
“All present and correct?” She asks, “everyone’s limbs where they left them? Everybody still have the usual number of testicles?”
“Journey was bumpier than usual,” Morgause observes, casually, as Mordred curiously peels the waistband of his breeches away from his belly to check on the welfare of his testicles, “not that I’m shocked given that you burnt it.”
“It wasn’t burnt!”
“Who’s going to carry Gwen up to the castle?” Morgana interrupts, before the two older priestesses can begin bickering, “she’s in no fit state to walk.”
The laundry maid is still a helplessly giggling heap on the grass, occasionally pointing at the stars and burbling about how sparkly they are.
“Good goddess – how strong was that dose of unicorn hair?” Nimueh cocks a questioning eyebrow at Morgana.
Morgana shrugs, “I just didn’t want her to feel as miserable as I did after my first trip on mandrake juice. Poor thing has enough to deal with at the moment as it is.”
“You’re a soft touch,” Nimueh observes, although not as if this is a bad thing. “Merlin, can you carry her?”
Merlin gives the prone laundry maid a doubtful glance. “Umm…”
“Oh, I’ll do it,” Morgause rolls her eyes, leaning down to scoop Gwen up as if she weighs little more than a doll, only the vaguest gold flicker about her eyes suggesting any magical assistance in the task.
Merlin is still muttering a little resentfully about how he could have managed – not really that much of a weakling – when they arrive at the entrance to the castle kitchens. A large wooden door, its lock coaxed open with a tender word from Nimueh – they step inside and Morgause sets Gwen down on a kitchen table.
“Come on,” she delivers the laundry maid a gentle shake, “come out of it now, mm?”
Gwen manages to stop giggling, although her mouth is still full of rainbows and sunshine, and her legs don’t feel particularly attached to her body. She hiccups, trying to focus on staying upright as her surroundings gradually cease to shimmer and swim and she recognises a darkened corner of Camelot’s kitchens – a dog being gently dissuaded from barking by Morgana; a serving boy sound asleep under a further off table.
“Back with is?” Morgause is asking, “Guinevere?”
Gwen nods, a little uncertainly, “um – we’re um – this is Camelot…”
“Gwen, we’ve no time to lose,” Morgana is setting down the box of supplies she brought with her on the table, “you need to take us to Arthur’s chambers.”
“I can’t just – ” Gwen finds a hiccup bursting on her tongue and swallows it hastily, “there are guards everywhere! I can’t just march five strangers into the prince’s chambers!”
“We’re not asking that you do,” Morgana says – and then she’s not there anymore, and instead there’s a little mouse on the floor.
“Put us in your pockets,” Nimueh instructs, before she too is a mouse, and Gwen looks, and Morgause is a mouse, and so are Mordred and Merlin.
She picks them up, one by one, only a little gingerly – she isn’t scared of mice, exactly, but experience has taught her to be wary of them; they bite, they carry fleas and other unpleasant things. But the mice do not run or wriggle away from her, and she sets them very carefully all into the left pocket of her tunic, then picks up the box that Morgana set on the table, and the bundle that Morgause had besides, and sets off out of the kitchens, into the body of the castle.
Her legs are still somewhat unreliable – her feet feel as if she has been sitting on them and tingle and twitch unpredictably beneath her. But now that her head is entirely her own again she is once more aware of the fact that Arthur is dying – that perhaps it is already almost too late – that there is no time to waist on her numb feet and trembling knees. She holds in her arms (and in the left pocket of her tunic) perhaps the only key to his survival.
She takes some comfort from the fact that the castle seems sound asleep. If Arthur were dead, the place would still be awake, she is sure. Something so terrible and momentous as a kingdom losing the only heir to its throne could not happen without a great deal of noise – without weeping and wailing and thunder claps and bells tolling.
But the corridors are empty, for the most part. She passes a guard snoozing in a doorway, and spots a scribe still awake through a door left ajar, scratching away with a quill and parchment by candle light at his desk. No one challenges her as she hurries upwards – for she must traverse three floors of the castle to get to Arthur’s chambers – and onwards, for his rooms are far across the other side.
It may be as little as a five minute journey, with her first stumbling then scurrying then running as her legs are finally fully restored and her sense of urgency grows.
Abruptly coming to the corridor off of which are Arthur’s chambers she comes to a halt – these are still properly lit, and there are guards on the door, which is open, and voices coming from within.
Gwen is suddenly horribly aware of how she looks – the riding clothes (her fathers, so of course all far too big), the mud on her old boots, her cold-chapped hands clutching mysterious boxes of things, and goodness knows what her hair is doing at the moment.
She’s a laundry maid looking like little more than a vagabond and she’s about to try to walk into the chambers of a dying crown prince. Even if she didn’t have a pocket full of magical mice who may or may not also be witches, she’s not entirely sure she’s going to be able to succeed without a struggle.
But she has no other choice.
This chapter continues here.