So she takes a deep breath ands strides towards Arthur’s chambers with her chin lifted and her gaze set and with all the confidence of a laundry maid who absolutely must change the crown prince’s bed linens.
One guard recognises her and raises his eyebrows; the other, who she doesn’t know, makes as if to stop her.
“You can’t – ” says the one who recognises her, the tone hasty and apologetic.
“Hey – ” The other, just as hasty, less apologetic.
Gwen ducks them both and is inside the room before they can quite stop her.
Gaius is at Arthur’s bedside, and there are, clustered around him, Uther and a number of other officials of the court – there’s Leon, Arthur’s most trusted knight; Geoffrey, the record keeper; a few others she knows are terribly important but cannot put names to. She can just make out the prone lump of Arthur in the bed, mostly obscured by blankets and the bodies of those standing round him.
They are all looking at her.
“What’s this?” Uther demands, a heartbeat later, in a tone that suggest that he has already decided that ‘what this is’ is a dog turd that has somehow grown legs and wondered into the room of its own accord. “Guards!”
“Ah – my lord!” Gaius has already taken his arm, “I sent Gwen to fetch a few things that might – might help – they were quite far afield so it has been something of a journey for her…”
Gwen hurries away from the door and sets Morgana’s box and Morgause’s bundle of things down on the chest at the foot of Arthur’s bed. She’s afraid almost to look properly at Arthur, to see how much worse has grown since she left – to see if he may even not still be –
“You mean there is still hope?” Uther’s voice has a waver to it that Gwen has never heard before (she doubts that anyone has ever heard him sound like that before).
“I…” Gaius still has hold of his arm, is patting it gravely, “there is a very small chance – the… errand that Guinevere has been on was quite a far fetched idea and…”
“But it could work?”
“It may, Uther. But you must prepare yourself for the possibility – ”
“You will make it work, Gaius!” Uther is already striding away, a cloud of harried courtiers leaving with him, “you will save my son!”
He exits with a clatter and Gwen is left alone with Gaius and the dying prince whom she desperately loves, not quite knowing why it is that she’s trembling (although the pocket full of magical mice in the presence of a man who would certainly have her burnt at the stake if he knew about them may have something to do with it).
Gaius is very firmly closing Arthur’s bedchamber doors.
“Did you succeed, Guinevere? What have they given you?”
“They…” Gwen feels in her pocket for the mice – swallows a moment of blind panic when she realises that they’re gone – and then spots Nimueh shaking off a pair of mouse ears and brushing down her skirts.
“Gaius,” the priestess’s greeting is coldly formal.
Gaius starts back, then forward, and Gwen has never seen so many expressions attempting to exist on his face all at once. For a moment, he seems incapable of saying anything at all – and then he collects himself, quite abruptly.
“Nimueh.” A breath, a pause, “the years have been kind to you.”
“The benefit of a little magic here and there,” Nimueh tosses her head, and out of four more mouse-bodies around her feet erupt Morgause, Morgana, Merlin and Mordred – if their presence startles Gaius, he doesn’t show it.
“A victim of questing beast poison has never been saved, magically or otherwise,” Nimueh begins, as if in answer to a question that Gaius has not asked, “clearly more than one high priestess is going to be required if we are to save the prince’s life, no?”
“Indeed,” Gaius sighs, “although I had hoped that perhaps there might be a less – ostentatious way of helping him…”
Nimueh snorts, derisively, and goes to unpack the items that Gwen set on the chest at the foot of Arthur’s bed.
“You’re Gaius, then,” Morgause has narrowed her eyes.
“Morgause,” Gaius repeats the name quite gently, “I remember when you were a child – and Morgana – you were an infant.”
“He brought you to the priestesses,” Morgause informs her sister, who has looked up from where she is settling Mordred on a chair where he cannot be seen from either the door or the window. “He saved your life, Morgana. He saved mine.”
“And he condemned thousands of others to the pyre,” Nimueh sounds abruptly, uncharacteristically bitter. “How many did you turn over, Gaius? Was the odd infant whom you smuggled to the druids or the temples further afield enough to salve your conscience before even these last havens for magic were sought out and destroyed?”
“You know that I tried to save as many as I could,” Gaius’s words sound weary and Gwen looks up from where she is hovering, caught between the need to go to Arthur – to check that he lives – and the terror of what she will see if she looks into his face.
The idea that Gaius might have collaborated with magic users has never crossed her mind before – he’s the court physician and one of the most trusted of Uther’s advisors. And yet it’s clear that he knows one high priestess and personally saved the lives of two others whilst they were children.
She swallows. She can’t think about it – can’t begin to process the implications of such a thing now – she has just caught sight of the greyish tinge of the skin around Arthur’s wound. His lips are peeled back and almost blue. His face might actually be a very faint shade of green, his eyes half-slits so that only the glassy white as visible beneath eyelashes clotted with discharge from his tear-ducts. She can’t tell whether or not he’s breathing but he looks like a corpse already. She’s afraid to touch him.
“The poison has reached every major organ in his body,” Gaius is telling Nimueh, the pair suddenly all business as he assists her in unpacking and setting out her supplies, “it’s breaking them down from the inside out – he has maybe an hour or two left before the organ failure kills him and even if you can stop that I have no idea how you can possibly hope to restore him to full health. The damage that has already been done is immeasurable – ”
“Restoring him will be easy,” Nimueh replies, dismissively, “living tissue wants to grow – a little coaxing is all it will need to heal – the problem we face is extracting the poison in the first place.”
“Whatever you do – ”
“I know – it must be done quickly.”
Gwen feels a gentle hand clasp her own, and Morgana is at her side, peering down into Arthur’s deathly face with her.
“You love him very much, don’t you?” Her fingers find Gwen’s arm; Gwen finds the intimacy of such a touch strange given that they don’t know each other, really – even more strange in that it feels familiar. Correct, almost. As if this is just the natural way to be with Morgana. She doesn’t pull away.
“I…” she swallows. ‘Love’ does not feel like the right word for the yawning hole in her chest that she feels looking at the dying prince.
“If anyone can save him,” the youngest priestess is firm, “it’s Nimueh. She’ll be able to do something, Gwen, don’t worry.”
Gwen inhales, and worries. “You – had a vision of this, you said. Dreamed of it.”
“Dreamed of something,” Morgana replies, “terrible but… not specific. I have such dreams from time to time, sometimes they come to nothing and sometimes they mean that the world is ending.”
“Did you… see what happens? To him?”
Morgana can only shake her head. “It doesn’t work like that.”
Gwen bites her lips. Somehow, she didn’t think that it would, but she needed to ask. Morgana is stroking her arm again, making soothing little semi-circles.
“I have had other visions,” she offers, after a moment, “things you and Arthur will do, maybe, one day.”
“Like what?” Gwen asks, and feels the other woman smile.
“Do you really want to know? If he dies it can never happen – do you wish to inflict that cruelty upon yourself?”
For a moment, Gwen closes her eyes – thinks of Arthur, kissing her for no reason in a corridor; Arthur making her laugh and fussing over his soup and clumsily offering her daisies. “Yes,” she says, head still full of him, “yes, tell me.”
Morgana is silent for a moment, so that Gwen almost thinks she’s not going to tell her anyway, but then she laughs again, and Gwen realises that actually, she’s trying not to cry, though her lips turn up as she speaks. “He will make you his queen, Guinevere, if he lives. He will make you his queen and your reign together will be the most happy and peaceful of any reign that Albion has ever seen, and your children will be – beautiful.”
It sounds too strange to be believed, really. For all she has seen grown women turn into mice and back, Gwen has lived all her life in a Camelot without magic, and now she struggles to believe that it really exists – that it is anything more potent than the paranoid ramblings of a tyrannical king. The idea that a priestess might pluck out possible lives from her dreams and show them to Gwen as if she is merely cheating at cards seems absurd – she’s not sure why she’s starting to weep.
“Questing beasts,” Morgause mutters, as she stalks past, “I hate questing beasts.”
Morgana has wrapped her arms around Gwen and delivers a tight squeeze.
“It’s no use trying to neutralise the poison,” Nimueh is informing Gaius, “even if the Great Dragon would be a willing donor, which I seriously doubt, to neutralise questing beast poison would take so much dragon’s blood that we’d kill Arthur anyway.”
“Perhaps a banishing spell,” Gaius suggests, “some modified form or other to specifically to select the poison…”
“To rip it directly out of his veins?” Nimueh looks doubtful, “his body has suffered damage enough – a healthy man would struggle to survive such a treatment and Arthur is already on the brink of death.”
“Transference,” Morgause speaks up, abruptly, spreading her hands, “questing beast poison is especially difficult to survive because it wants to kill things – it wants a living host – it has a purpose and a drive. Arthur’s dying as it is – we offer the poison another human host it’ll come easily. Move on to fresh meat.”
“Transfer the poison into me,” Gaius immediate offers, “I’m old – I – ”
“It will need to go into a magical host,” Nimueh cuts him off, “you wont do, Gaius.”
Still at Arthur’s bedside, Gwen draws a breath around the realisation that what they are proposing means the sacrifice of one of the four other adults in the room besides herself and Gaius. A part of her quails at such a notion. A part of her rails against the fact that they were even pausing to decide who it ought to be – Arthur is green for the love of god! There is no time for this!
“Transference doesn’t solve anything,” Merlin enters the conversation, “it only delays the outcome!”
“We’ll have four more days, give or take, to come up with a solution,” Morgause informs them, “it buys us time, it saves the life of a man whose death will plunge Camelot into civil war and destroy any hope of a peaceful future for the rest of Albion.”
“One of us should not have to die to save the life of Arthur Pendragon!” Merlin’s cheeks colour with outrage at the idea, “his birth precipitated the genocide of our people!”
“That was not his fault,” Nimueh informs him, jaw tightening, “it was mine. I made Arthur’s existence possible – I bare a share of the responsibility for what came after his birth.”
“You are nowhere near as responsible as Uther is!” Merlin points out, and Nimueh arches a brow at him.
“And so we should let his son die?”
“Please!” The word escapes Gwen’s lips without her permission, a strangled, desperate squeak of a thing that she barely has time to connect to herself, “please – save him!”
The breath is beginning to rattle in Arthur’s chest. He twitches, violently – it’s the first sign he’s given of anything remotely approaching consciousness since Gwen’s arrival in the room but she can’t feel any joy about it. It’s so obviously the beginning stages of his death.
“We have no time to lose here,” Nimueh decides, striding to the head of Arthur’s bed, “we should transfer the toxin into my body – then we can think of something else. Perhaps the Great Dragon will see fit to donate enough blood to neutralise it.”
“No!” Morgause is shaking her head, “I’ll do it, Nimueh – you’re the more powerful of us – you’re the better healer – ”
“Precisely why I should be the one,” Nimueh raises a hand, her tone that of someone who is not going to be argued with, “I am the strongest, the most skilled healer – I will be able to fight the poison longer than any of the rest of you. I have the greatest chance of survival.”
Such cold logic chases a look of utter dismay across Morgause’s face, and a hard little flint-edge of fear works its agonising way beneath Morgana’s heart. Suddenly she’s wondering if the terrible thing she saw but could not name in her dream the night before was not Arthur’s death but that of the only woman she could ever consider to be her mother. The idea burns like acid running down her face and she glances away, blindly seeking Merlin’s hand, feeling the tremble in him as she clasps his wrist.
“Dragon blood,” Merlin spits out, a moment later, “there’s a dragon in this castle – we help Nimueh draw the poison into herself and then we go to the dragon and we beg a few drops of his blood and we feed it to Nimueh…”
Morgause looks stricken – so much so that she barely looks like Morgana’s sister anymore; she looks much younger. Much more frightened than Morgana’s strong, stoic, witty older sister ought to. “The amount of blood that that would take – ”
“If it’s done quickly enough I should remain strong enough to survive such a dosage as would be required to neutralised the questing beast poison,” Nimueh says, “yes, Merlin, that might work. But it would need to be very quick – the poison will weaken me to the point of unconsciousness within an hour. If the dragon’s blood is not administered before then then it may already be too late for such a radical move.”
“We will go to the dragon as soon as the poison is transferred,” Morgana assures her, “he must help – he may be reluctant to help Arthur but he knew you, Nimueh, before – ”
“Morgana!” Morgause looks betrayed, and Morgana realises that she is still desperately seeking a way to prevent this particular plan coming to fruition at all, “you are really – you – ” she turns to Nimueh, now quite obviously desperate, “you cannot be serious!”
“Morgause,” Nimueh approaches, takes her arm, and for a moment no one else in the room knows where to put their arms (except Mordred, who stares, fascinated) because Nimueh kisses her lover, so tenderly that it might almost be chaste except that it is quite clearly not. Then she puts a hand to Morgause’s jaw and says something directly into her head that no one else can hear, and that seems to be enough.
Morgause takes a deep breath, and abruptly becomes herself again – or close enough – nodding, straightening, tightening her jaw and blotting the sheen of her eyes on the back of her hand.
“Now,” Nimueh announces, as if nothing has happened at all – as if nothing is going to happen of any significance – promptly begins setting the room to order, “Morgana, Merlin, that side of the bed, please – Gwen if you could help them sit the good prince up, it’ll make this easier; Gaius, you could best assist by finding something to make an effective tourniquet with.”
Nimueh sits on the bed, lays her hand over Arthur’s wound, whilst Merlin, Morgana and Morgause each find a different bit of skin to hold – Merlin takes the prince’s shoulder; Morgause his left hand, Morgana slips her fingers beneath his ribs.
They are going to force the poison back to its point of origin and out, into Nimueh. It will take all of them more because of how far it has spread than because of the task taking any substantial amount of energy. The toxin in Arthur’s blood will likely only be too glad to find another, much more lively host with more life to suck – to abandon Arthur’s husk, assuming it’s job already fairly well done. It will need no more than a few guiding hands.
Gwen steps back, wringing her fingers together so tightly that she hears the joints crack. She wants more than anything for this to work – and she is terrified of what that means because to wish for it to work is to wish for the very end that Arthur is lingering on the brink of to happen to someone else. To this woman, here, who is offering up her life for Arthur’s – who has people who love her, too.
It takes a few words – a breath – Morgause’s knuckles whitening as she clasps Nimueh’s wrist – and then Nimueh drops backwards onto the bed clutching the hand that was covering Arthur’s wound, the flesh on the palm abruptly boiling black.
No shout, no flash, no scream.
It all feels far too quiet – Gaius scurrying, taking a scrap torn from his robe and binding it tightly at Nimueh’s elbow. Gwen watches the others gather around the oldest priestess, fluttering, hovering – Morgause clambers over Arthur regardless of the prince and all Gwen can think is is that it? Will he live now? Can you tell me if he will live?
Still no one says anything as Nimueh is helped off the bed, onto a sofa. She has paled, considerably, already. She clasps the blackened hand, which shakes, and the others seem unable to move from her for a moment – a moment – and then Nimueh abruptly breaks the horrified silence.
“Go! Go, now! Gaius – Arthur needs willow bark under his tongue – Merlin, Morgana – one of you – to the dragon; the other – stay here – Arthur needs – ”
“I don’t care what Arthur needs!” Merlin is spitting, clutching, trembling as deeply as Morgause is, “I can’t – ”
“Then go to the dragon!” Nimueh snaps, “save me, Merlin! Morgana, stay here – Morgause – ”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“I was going to ask you not to.” She softens – Morgause reaches and holds the blackened hand so that Nimueh wont have to.
Merlin and Morgana dither a moment longer, and then Merlin is abruptly a brown finch – a small, sharp, agitated dart in the air – Gaius opens Arthur’s door for him a crack and he bolts out before the guards can spot him. Morgana is flapping around the contents of their supplies as if she has too few hands to quite grasp everything she needs at once.
Gwen staggers forward, galvanised. “Can I help?”
Morgana barely glances at her, “take this.”
A shrivelled root of something.
“Clasp it in your left hand and hold Arthur’s shoulder with your right.”
“What – what will that do?” Gwen blinks, bemused.
“The root will calm you down,” Morgana informs her, “and holding onto Arthur will – also clam you down. And Arthur is going to be in a great deal of pain, not to mention in the same room as a great number of magical people doing magical things to him, when he wakes up. So he will need you to be calm. So go – and be calm, Gwen. That is how you can help.”
Gwen takes a deep breath, and nods, and does as she is told.
Chapter eleven is here.