gnimaerd: (Morgana_sorceress)
[personal profile] gnimaerd
Title: The Lives That Weren't
Rating: R
Pairing: Merlin/Morgana, Arthur/Gwen, Morgause/Nimueh
Summary: What would have happened in S1, had Nimueh raised Morgause, Morgana and Merlin; in which there is a very, very angry dragon.

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!

Part one.
Part two.
Part three.
Part four.
Part five.
Part six.
Part seven.
Part eight.
Part nine.
Part ten.
 
The Lives That Weren't
Chapter Eleven

Merlin does not remember his mother.

 

Her death has carved him hard as flint, made him shy and tender and sharp and angry; made him scared to put his arms around Morgana, sometimes; made him scared ever to love her to begin with. Made it so that, at times, he might have wiped out much of a village just to see his mother avenged.

 

And he does not remember her.

 

So what he will do if he loses a second mother – a mother who raised him, loved him, bathed him, fed him, rocked him on her hip, smoothed his hair, kissed his grazes, made him scrub pots when he was naughty and told him of course Morgana loves you; of course she does; buck up and love her back, child! the day before he managed to kiss Morgana for the first time – what he will do if he loses his second mother…

 

He does not know. He does not know and cannot stand to think about it. But he is quite certain that many people will die.

 

So he plunges on into darkness, flittering feathers and skittering tiny legs against stone walls, seeking out the lurching, scaley rage that lurks beneath Camelot. The rattling chains and breath as hot as what comes off a roaring fire – the voice that muttered Merlin in his head as soon as he got within Camelot’s walls.

 

The dragon gives no pretence that he has not been waiting.

 

Merlin puffs out of feathers and legs and beak back into his own flesh on a ledge in front of which the dragon is already perched, eyes beady embers in the gloom. Even before Merlin summons a flickering ball of light the dragon’s bulk is enough to make his presence quite obvious – a blacker black against the darkness – a huge, hulking thing looming out of the cavern that Camelot has been built over.

 

His light flickers over greyish scales, a head the size of a two story house, a body larger than ten placed end to end and retreating back out of what Merlin can see.

 

Its breath heats the air until Merlin finds himself sweating, shirt sticking to his skin, hair slickening to his forehead.

 

The dragon gazes quietly, unsurprised, unperturbed and not in any hurry to begin the conversation.

 

Merlin swallows and realises that he has no idea how one even speaks to a creature this old, this magnificent, and this angry.

 

“Dragon,” he begins, which seems as good as any mode of address, “I need your help.”

“I know,” the dragon replies, in perfect English – the words coming out of its mouth in spite of the teeth like turrets, the split snake tongue; a voice surprisingly soft given the magnitude of the throat and lungs behind it.

 

“Then you know,” Merlin continues, “that I need – ”

 

“My blood,” the dragon almost seems amused, “the high priestess Nimueh has poisoned herself to save the plague that she brought into this world – a plague I warned her of, I might add. And now she has sent a sapling to beg me to save her life.”

 

Merlin feels his heart sink.

 

No, this is not going to be easy, is it?

 

“Nimueh has never harmed you – ”

 

The dragon throws his head back and laughs – a movement which starts in his chest and shakes him and everything around him until most of the cavern and Merlin himself is vibrating with a sound far more vicious than any laugh ought to be.

 

“Nimueh,” intones the dragon, when it has calmed, “is responsible for the extinction of my species. On her hands lies not one genocide but hundreds.”

 

“Nimueh had no idea what would happen when she helped Uther have a child!” Merlin cries, “she couldn’t – ”

 

“I warned her!” The dragon hisses, “I warned her of the scourge Arthur’s birth would bring upon our people – I warned her of who Uther was, when he was born, and Nimueh was but a young girl herself – hers was a destiny she had a choice about shaping and she did nothing.”

 

“She tried to help a friend!” Merlin takes a breath and realises that he is shaking with the terror that he cannot win this argument. The dragon’s hatred boils in his very veins – this creature does not care about anything but his vengeance. “What is it that you want?” He asks, already knowing the answer, “I can give you what you want if you give me what I need.”

 

The dragon glares haughtily down at him, “you are not going to set me free, sapling boy. You will never keep such a promise.”

 

“I could!” Merlin retorts, “you don’t know what I’m capable of! I would sacrifice a great deal to keep my family safe – I don’t care about Arthur! I don’t care about anyone in Camelot – I just want the people I love safe! Give me the blood, give us time to get out of Camelot, and I will come back and set you free and you can do whatever you please.”

 

The dragon scrutinises him for a moment, gaze unreadable. “You might,” he intones, “but your priestess lover wont let you. And you will look into the face of the seedling boy you call your son and you will know there will be no pulling him from an abyss that you yourself have already plunged into.”

 

Merlin feels a surge of desperate anger sweep through him in a rush, “have you no compassion?” He struggles, wrenches at his own shirt in agitation, “there is too much – there is too much grief already in this world! Will you not stop just a little more? Will you not save us from just a little more? What would it cost you?”

 

The dragon pauses; inhales. All the heat comes out of the air, abruptly, and Merlin is freezing, cold air on his sweat like a sheet.

 

“There is no compassion in this world, sapling boy,” the dragon’s voice is gentler again – Merlin thinks he sees perhaps just a hint of something pitying in the huge, hard face that looms over his head. “Not for any of us – not a drop left. It has been sapped out by Uther’s hatred.”

 

The animal rears, abruptly, great wings shaking loose from his back and leasing a storm of hot air swirling over Merlin’s head, and Merlin is about to shout – beg – scream – cry – when suddenly Morgana is at his side and the dragon is stuck, frozen, somehow – Morgana’s hands outstretched, face pinched with effort.

 

“Go, Merlin!” Her order forced between gritted teeth, “now!”

 

The dragon howls its outrage but Merlin wastes no time drawing his knife and lurching forward, stepping into midair and ordering it to hold him aloft as he scrambles through empty space to the dragon’s exposed, frozen chest, and forces up a scale.

 

The sliver of flesh beneath is black as coal and so is the fist-sized ooze of blood that seeps from around Merlin’s knife as he slits it.

 

He holds the blood aloft, catching it in the air with an unspoken word, waits for more to gather – more than they will need – more than will poison most of an army – then seals the cut and pushes the scale back down.

 

“Run!” Morgana’s nose is bleeding, her eyes reddening, her body quakes for the dragon has magic of his own and is not taking kindly to her holding him still, his whole great form alight with outrage.

 

Merlin holds the boiling blood aloft with a thought and lands lightly next to her with another, “I can’t leave you – ”

 

Now, Merlin!”

 

Merlin runs, and barely a breath later Morgana has caught up with him, the dragon loosed from her grip as she staggers, drained by the effort, a ball of fire leaping at her heals – the dragon’s displeasure in a terrible howl.

 

The mouth of cavern snaps shut behind them: Morgana’s last word on the matter, just in time to keep the flames from quite catching at them (though Merlin is sure that his hair has been singed), and Morgana collapses against him.

 

“Morgana,” he gasps, half laughing, heat still thick in his lungs, “Morgana that was amazing!”

 

“Trick or two up my sleeve, still,” Morgana’s smile is quick though she’s exhausted, and Merlin kisses it – the gleeful look on her face, the trembling hope she’s brought them in the glistening ball of dragon’s blood still shivering over their heads.

 

She is a very brilliant person, after all. And for a moment in the lurch and pull of this oceanic night they are close and quiet and clinging, noses touching, breath mingling.

 

“Alright?” He asks her.

 

“Alright,” she replies.

 

There are voices now, somewhere above them – guards – and that delicately whirling, boiling ball of blood still sits in the air and must be brought to Nimueh now, now before she gets any weaker.

 

They are changed again (Merlin a sparrow, Morgana a mouse) and running, the dragon’s blood whirling behind in their wake.

 

***

It is not long after Morgana leaves the room that Arthur stirs.

 

His chambers are deathly quiet aside from Nimueh wheezing (a horrible sound). Morgause has been talking to her, trying to keep her awake – talking about things Gwen is certain she has no right to be listening to. The first glimpse Morgause remembers of her lover’s naked body; the first trembling tendrils of attraction in her young, pubescent mind; the hope after so many years that she might find her affections returned as she matures and – the first kiss – Morgause was twenty three – the first arm about her waist – the first time that they made love – the look on Morgana’s face the first time the young girl began to understand – the first – the first. 

 

Gwen is listening to their love story, and is not sure how much more she can bear to hear. She wouldn’t even have understood how it could work between two women before – like that – though of course there are always mutterings of it around the town, it’s mostly comical or just implied. Snide, unpleasant whisperings about unpopular women. Talked about as odd and unsavoury, but there is nothing unsavoury about what she’s hearing.

 

Only a terrified sort of love that hangs and clings and gasps on Morgause’s lips as the woman refuses to cry; only comforts, sets her jaw, talks endlessly. Keeps Nimueh awake.

 

Still, now things have fallen quiet. Gaius has retired to a chair. Mordred is curled in his own, eyes tightly closed although Gwen is quite certain that he is not asleep. He is posed the way that cats pose when they want the mice to think them oblivious.

 

Morgause is tending to Nimueh’s blackened hand, soaking it in a mixture that may relieve its throbbing. They have been arguing on and off about the tourniquet. It is causing Nimueh some discomfort and she wants to take it off, insists it’s doing no good anyway; Morgause is reluctant. She wants to do everything in her power to slow the magical questing beast poison’s spread, no matter how small.

 

Then Arthur coughs, softly. A small, wet sound in the back of his throat, barely more than a swallow.

 

He is far less green than he was an hour ago, and the wound in his chest has been closed up by Morgana’s gentle fingers. For the last little while he has looked sweaty and sickly, certainly, but not dead, which is an improvement.

 

Now his bare chest lifts, fractionally, and his eyelids flicker, and he coughs again, more definitely. One arm twitches clumsily at his side, as if he means to lift it to his face but has forgotten quite where his head is in relation to his hand.

 

Gwen suppresses a squeak of triumph – aware of the dying woman across the room – and reaches for the clumsily twitching hand. Gaius has sat up, leaning forward, and she sees Nimueh’s heavy lidded eyes travel across to the prince, Morgause glancing up from her task.

 

“Arthur,” Gwen leans closer, dropping the root that Morgana gave her to hold, “Arthur – can you – ”

 

“Mm,” Arthur’s tongue touches his lips; his eyes scrunch up and he inhales, turning his face into the pillows like a child resisting it’s mother’s attempts to rouse it for breakfast.

 

“He may take a little while,” Gaius touches Gwen’s elbow, making her jump – she’s been too caught up in catching every possible sign of Arthur’s recovery to notice him moving. “He has been very far away, Guinevere. It will take him some time to make his way back.”

 

Gwen nods, and realises that she’s trembling, just a little. The realisation that Arthur is now probably, almost certainly, going to live, is draining her of the energy that has kept her awake for the last two days. She’s exhausted, starving hungry, and she stinks of sweat and she can still taste the sickly sweet of the distilled unicorn hair elixir in her throat. Her legs are starting to make strong suggestions to the rest of her brain that they will not feel happy about baring her aloft for much longer.

 

She sinks to her knees by Arthurs bed, resting her elbows on the mattress.

 

Arthur, however, seems to be fighting his way back to full consciousness – he turns his head again, screws up his face into a fearful grimace, grunts and manages a low moan.

 

Then a word, dry as the wind. “Lord.

 

It’s a pained but very Arthur-like curse. Gwen finds herself gripping Arthur’s arm without quite being aware of doing so. “Arthur!”

 

He peels open one bruised eyelid, the gaze misty. “…’wen?”

 

Gwen inhales, sharply, pressing her mouth to his slack hand as she rubs his forearm distractedly – the only bit of him she feels able to touch, too frightened she’ll hurt him if she tries to reach, to embrace as much as she wants to.

 

“What – ” Arthur closes his eyes, mouth working around the words with great effort, “’re you – doing in here? M’shirts aren’t… aren’t due til…” he yawns, “…till Monday…”

 

And Gwen has dissolved into a fit of hysterical giggles before she can stop herself.

 

Shirts – he’s asking about shirts – and he’s been dying and now someone else is dying and there’s a dragon under the castle and witches in the prince’s chambers and she hasn’t slept in three days and –

 

“You’ve been very ill, Arthur,” Gaius is peering into the prince’s face, gently patting his chest, checking some vital sign or other. “Do you remember what happened? There was a questing beast…”

 

“Mm?” Arthur opens his eyes again, “um… mm. Yes there – something… attacked me I… came out of the dark and… head like a snake…”

 

“A questing beast, very poisonous,” Gaius informs him, “gave you a nasty bite. We’ve had to go to quite some lengths to save you.”

 

“Mm,” Arthur mumbles. He squints at Gwen, “what’s wrong with your hair?”

 

Gwen has ceased any attempt to stop laughing and has pressed her face to the mattress, weeping over-tired tears of mirth – bemused, Arthur lays a hand across the back of her head and turns his questioning gaze back at Gaius, then across the room, at Nimueh, hunched on his couch; Morgause kneeling, tending to her hand.

 

“What…” he draws in breath then grunts again in pain, something sharp sticking in his chest with the effort, “…what lengths… exactly, Gaius?”

 

But before Gaius can even begin to explain there is a rattling of footsteps and voices outside and there is a single, horrible split second when everyone is perfectly aware of exactly what is going to happen next but can do not a single thing to stop it – and then Uther Pendragon is entering the room.

 

Mordred is up like a cat and has dived beneath Arthur’s bed faster than is normally humanly possible. No one else moves, save for Morgause springing to her feet and drawing her sword, standing over Nimueh like a sentry.

 

Uther is alone save for the guard holding the door open for him. Nimueh stays on the sofa, Gwen and Gaius by the bed, Arthur blinks, prone.

 

“Hello, Uther,” Nimueh begins, quite calmly, as she continues to nurse her dying hand, “have you come to thank me for saving your son?”

 

Then several things happen in an order that later cannot quite be determined – Uther shouts, Gaius says “my lord – ”, Arthur sits up, Gwen jumps to her feet, a guard rushes into the room and Morgause hurls him (and his friend, running to join him) back out again with enough force to knock them both senseless, slamming the doors shut in their wake.

 

“Gaius – how could you – ” Uther’s rage and confusion is palpable.

 

“It wasn’t him!” Gwen squares her shoulders, draws her mouth into a tight line, “it was me – I brought them!”

 

“Gwen – ” Arthur has reached out to stop her and then falls back against his pillows, clenched his mouth shut around a hiss of pain. Gwen turns to look at him at much the same time as Uther, witches momentarily forgotten, strides across the room to his son.

 

“Arthur!”

 

“Father – I’m… I’m alright…”

 

“He was saved, my lord,” Gaius, gently manoeuvring Gwen out of the way, takes Uther’s arm, his tone set and firm, “by Nimueh. She has taken the poison out of his body and into herself. It was something only a priestess of the old religion could do. It was the only way to save your son.”

 

Uther reels, his gaze flying from Arthur to Gaius to Nimueh then finally to Gwen. “You – brought them – you brought witches into my son’s bedchamber – ”

 

“She has saved his life, Uther!” Gaius snaps, harder, firmer, “it is done – Arthur will live because of Guinevere’s actions. Because Nimueh came, in spite of having every reason to want the Pendragon line to end with you.”

 

Uther shrugs him off, rounding on Nimueh, whose gaze remains steady.

 

“You killed my wife!”

 

“You killed your wife,” Nimueh retorts, quite evenly. “And a great many other people besides. I gifted you your son, and now I have done so a second time.”

 

“You – you – ”

 

“Father!” Arthur snaps, as much as he can with his voice reedy with sickness, beginning to sit up again, “stop shouting! My head.”

 

Silence, the prince’s outburst hushing his father as he goes back to examine his son – still weak, sickly, tired but alive. Looking no worse than if he has perhaps simply had a terrible fever and is just now coming out of it. He puts a hand to Arthur’s forehead and Arthur gazes at him, licking split lips.

 

“I think,” he begins, slow and careful, “that I owe – that woman, Nimueh – my life.”

 

“You owe her your very existence, Arthur,” Gaius informs him, over Uther’s head, ignoring the alarmed glance from the king, “he might as well know, sire. It’s been kept from him long enough.”

 

But King Uther Pendragon is for once without words to explain what it is that happened some twenty two years ago at the event of Arthur’s conception. The event now is drowned beneath what followed – mired so deep in shame and fear and righteous fury; in blood; in execution pyres – that it suddenly seems hollow. Delicate – sore and open as a blister.

 

“Father,” Arthur clears his throat, and begins to speak instead, plucking out of his feverish mind the thoughts that have been churning there since his turning over of the druid boy to the high priestesses outside of Ealdor, “did Nimueh help with my conception?”

 

And the story that escapes then – the words from Uther, little by little, and Gaius, and Nimueh – is like a sigh, held for twenty years and finally released. Old air, stale and toxic, drifting coldly in the room and fading away to nothing as Arthur listens for the first time to the full story of his creation and thinks I knew. I knew all along – haven’t I heard it muttered for years?

 

That Arthur was born of magic is almost no surprise at all.

 

The ball of dragon’s blood is ready to burst as it hovers over Merlin’s palm – he steps over a fallen guard, exchanging a fearful glance with Morgana as they push open the door to prince Arthur’s chambers – to find the tip of Morgause’s sword awaiting them.

 

“Good God how many are there?” Uther sits on the bed with his awakened son but the room feels oddly peaceful. Morgana looks to her sister, confused, and the other woman shrugs – her gaze is on the dragon’s blood that Merlin is dropping into a goblet.

 

“Don’t tell me you don’t remember Gorlois’s youngest daughter,” Nimueh’s voice is dry, “you held her in your arms as an infant, Uther – you blessed her in front of the court.”

 

“And the boy?” Uther’s gaze goes to Merlin.

 

“One day to be your son’s closest advisor,” Nimueh replies, “one day. For now, only a very powerful wizard – very powerful indeed, to have snared blood from an unwilling dragon.”

 

“That was Morgana,” Merlin informs her, “she was brilliant.”

 

“Only a little hex,” Morgana shrugs, though she’s still weak and sits, abruptly, on the floor. She can see Mordred under Arthur’s bed, and holds out her arms until the boy creeps out towards her, and allows himself to be drawn into her lap.

 

“What will – that do?” Uther looks at the goblet of thick, black, steaming dragon’s blood, watching as Morgause takes it from Merlin and sits down with Nimueh again, helping to hold it to her lips.

 

“Neutralise the poison,” Nimueh replies, “or kill me.” She leans across to press one more tender kiss to Morgause’s brow, then takes the goblet and downs as much as she can stomach before she begins to choke.

 

Dragon’s blood has approximately the same consistency (and quite possibly the same taste) as molten tar, and so swallowing it was always going to be difficult. But the greatest challenge in consuming it comes from the fact that it will never lose its heat – that it will burn to the point of charring most anything it touches. Any mortal consuming more than a few drops will certainly experience terrible pain, if the burns done to his or her gullet do not eventually result in terrible infection and death (being as they would be somewhere very difficult to treat).

 

A mouthful is ordinarily more than enough to kill the consumer.

 

But if someone is strong and suffering from an unrelated poison, the dragon’s blood will boil it out of their veins almost immediately. The individual will usually require magical help to then combat the effects of the cure, but it will always, always save someone from poisoning.

 

The questing beast poison in Nimueh’s body begins to curdle almost as soon as she has forced down the first mouthful. It takes two more for her to be certain that the toxin will have been thoroughly purged and then she pushes the goblet aside to double over in agony.

 

Her lips and mouth have already blistered, and it takes all of her strength to reign in the scalded flesh of her insides and stop it doing much the same – though the dragon’s blood, of course, remains and burns and will do for several hours yet, until her body has broken it down. And it will be a long and unpleasant recovery.

 

Still, the questing beast toxin is gone – which is one less thing to worry about, at least.

 

“Father,” Arthur speaks for the first time since hearing the story of his birth, “you ought to grant them safe passage.”

 

The balance of power between father and son is odd, all of a sudden. Uther looks smaller and much older than he did perhaps only half an hour ago – and even though Arthur remains terribly unwell looking, his gaze is keener, his expression firm.

 

“Arthur – we cannot be seen to be – ”

 

“I was given life at the hands of a witch,” Arthur groans, “and you have done nothing but punish them for that when – when my mother died for your whims, not theirs – and – ”

 

“Do not speak of your mother, boy!”

 

“I’ll speak of her as much as I like,” Arthur grimaces, though he doesn’t raise his voice. “I owe my life to magic again today – it’s dishonourable, father, to show so little gratitude.”

 

He coughs, painfully, though his gaze has gone to Nimueh – then questioningly seeks out someone who might be of authority on the matter (eventually settling on Gaius).

 

“Will she be alright?”

 

“It… will not be pleasant,” Gaius intones, after some consideration, “but Nimueh is a powerful sorceress – she will live.”

 

Arthur nods, brow knitting. “Is there – something we can… do?”

 

“Arthur!” Uther snaps, appalled, but his son, for perhaps the first time in his life, is ignoring his father.

 

“We must do something father,” he points out, quite evenly, “she’s in terrible pain!”

 

“I think Nimueh would find more comfort,” Merlin, abruptly speaking up, “in a change of some of your father’s policies with regards to those who practice magic than in any kind of pain relief you might be able to offer her.”

 

Uther stands, abruptly, and might be about to round on the young warlock but Arthur closes a hand on his arm. “Alright,” he says, “alright, father. I think we’re going to have a lot of discuss, aren’t we?”

 

Uther seems about to say something else, but catches himself, and closes his mouth.

 

“Is there really nothing – ” Arthur’s glance has gone back to Nimueh, whose breathing is becoming increasingly laboured.

 

“It might be best if we depart,” Morgana suggests, gently manoeuvring Mordred off her lap and getting to her feet, “so that Nimueh can be put to bed.”

 

“You can’t make such a long journey – ”

 

“We have ways of making it shorter,” Morgana assures him.

 

More mandrake juice, this time from a root grown in Nimueh’s own garden – Merlin goes first, with a respectful nod at Arthur; then Mordred, Morgana – gathering up their medical supplies and giving Gwen’s arm a gentle squeeze, Arthur a tender look; then Nimueh (still gasping) and finally Morgause.

 

The room is empty of magic, aside from the prince who was born of it, smiling, and reaching out a hand to the laundry maid he loves.

 

 

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