It's full night when they reach the top, and Merlin and Arthur emerge into the bailey, the once-paved ground thick with weeds growing between worn stones, vines creeping over the soot blackened stone. Merlin looks up, eyes finding the window that Uther must have watched from, and forgets to wonder how darkness could have possibly fallen so quickly.
"They turned the bailey into a pyre," Arthur says softly, hand on Merlin's elbow. It should be too dark too see this much, but the bailey seems almost alight, and Merlin looks at the wall of the castle, stone blacked for a full thirty feet around. Eyes wide, Merlin can almost see the serfs pressed into service, stripping the land of trees day and night until the bailey was filled while Uther watched, deaf to the screams of the hundreds trapped in the dungeons below for three long days.
Slowly, they cross the bailey, and Merlin flinches as bone is crushed to dust beneath his feet, slow to realize that the vine-covered lumps were the remains of bodies left here to rot. Stopping in the centre, Merlin turns in a slow circle, nausea rising sweet and bitter in the pit of his stomach as he realizes the uneven ground beneath their feet isn't stone any longer, a layer of bone, broken and blackened and falling apart with every step they take.
For a second, Merlin feels heat wash over him, burning through his flesh like a roast on an open spit, and opens his mouth to scream with a voice already destroyed, feeling every individual slash of a metal-studded whip that turned his back into raw meat. The screaming never seems to stop, his magic chained by the iron that was shoved through the palms of both hands, another kind of pain. It would have killed him slower than the fire, but not less painfully, and in the part of his mind not consumed with the agony of it, he thinks maybe this could be called a mercy compared to slow starvation in the dungeons.
Then abruptly, he's bent over, gasping, and Arthur's holding him up, voice soft in his ear, "Merlin. Merlin. There's no fire. You're not burning."
Even though his skin tells him its true, it's a long time before Merlin can open his eyes, and longer until he can believe that what he sees is real. "There's something wrong," Merlin manages, straightening too quickly. Arthur catches him again, and Merlin lets himself be pulled close, head buried against Arthur's shoulder. "Arthur, there's something--we have to leave. We have to leave now."
"I know." Arthur's arm tightens around his waist, one hand gentle in his hair, holding him in place. "And I should care, I know. I just--don't."
Merlin nods his understanding; he doesn't either, and it should scare him, and it doesn't.
After a while, Arthur lets him go, and one hand wrapped around his arm, and Merlin keeps as close as he can as they make their way across the bone-covered ground, unable to ignore the sound of it shattering beneath their feet. Opening the door, Merlin finds himself bathed in the light of the kitchen lamps, nearly as bright as day, and the cook grins at him in welcome. "Ah, there you are. I'd wondered if we would need to send down and tell you it was time for dinner."
"We were enjoying the cool of the cove," Merlin answers as Arthur stops behind him. The cook's smile widens further, bobbling a curtsey. "Has the King returned?"
"Not yet, my lady," the cook answers, then looks at Arthur. "There's a messenger to see you, Your Highness. He's waiting in the audience chamber."
"Thank you for keeping him here," Arthur says, warm against Merlin's back. "We'll be having dinner in my quarters; please see to it. I'll see the messenger afterward."
The cook bobs a curtsey, and Merlin winks as they pass her to the kitchen stairs. "And if anyone asks--"
"I haven't seen either of you," the cook says solemnly, eyes dancing. Merlin snickers, pulling Arthur behind him and into the narrow servants stairs, the door closing behind them and plunging them into darkness.
Merlin grabs for the wall with his free hand, stone cold and slightly slimy. "Arthur," he manages uncertainly, when another name entirely seems to try and twist around his tongue. "Are you--"
"Fine," Arthur says, too softly. "It's--not done."
Merlin nods agreement. "I know."
The stairs, while in desperate need of repair, are serviceable enough, and Merlin reinforces it with magic, faintly aware there's a reason he shouldn't, but Arthur doesn't seem to notice the whispered spell.
The door emerges onto a darkened hall, and Merlin looks down in surprise to see the grey, ragged remains of a rug. "He left the rugs?"
"He left everything," Arthur says, eyes flickering over the wall sconces. Another breathed word brings them to light; magic doesn't need anything as mundane as candles. That doesn't seem to surprise Arthur, either, and vaguely, Merlin thinks he should wonder why. "No one was permitted to bring any more than what they wore. He even left his crown."
The hangings are long moth-eaten, crumbling slowly to dust, colours unidentifiable by the eye, but Merlin thinks they were red and gold, once. Following the corridor, lined with dusty, fading paintings, Merlin wonders how he knows the way so easily, passing a faint impression of a serving girl who bobs her head over a stack of clean bedclothes, a knight who pauses respectfully as they pass, murmuring, "My lady" and "Your Highness" before vanishing. The grip on Merlin's arm tightens, and Merlin reaches up with his free hand, prying Arthur's fingers away and threading their hands together, feeling something settle into place at the firm touch.
Arthur gives him a faint, amused smile, fingers tight, and then pulls him faster, making him laugh, passing a bewildering variety of familiar faces watching them with indulgent smiles, until they stop at a wide, plain door no different from any other. With an elaborate bow, Merlin opens it, and Arthur rolls his eyes, pulling him inside behind him and pushing him up against the door.
"I've been wanting to do this since I woke up," Arthur murmurs, hands framing his face, voice tender.
Merlin smiles, eyes heavy, opening his mouth to the familiar press of lips and sighing into the kiss, arm tight around Arthur's waist. It's the slow, easy kiss of familiar lovers, who know each other as well as they know themselves, and Merlin reaches effortlessly with his mind for the bright glow of Arthur, anticipating his welcome. It's not misplaced; Arthur opens for him as easily as a flower to the sun, and Merlin thinks he could lose himself here, never leave such brightness, feel it wrapped around him warm and safe all his days. "The maids will be here soon," Merlin whispers, stealing another kiss. "What will they think to see you act the hoyden?"
"What they thought when Uther first brought me here," Arthur answers lightly, biting Merlin's lip. "If they aren't used to me by now, they never will be."
Merlin laughs, then pushes off the door, leading Arthur to the small settee near the bed. "It's nearly time," Merlin says abruptly, watching Arthur's face.
"I know. It won't be long." Arthur focuses on the wall behind him, expression unreadable.
"The King offered me the position of court sorcerer," Merlin says, very softly.
Arthur nods. "And how did you answer?"
"It's--not an offer to take lightly." Merlin watches his face, unwilling to read his thoughts now, not sure what he'll find. "It's very far from the isle."
"Yes," Arthur breathes. The crash of Arthur's disappointment is so strong he can feel it twist in his own guts, and desperately, he reaches over, grabbing his hand.
"Tell me you want me to stay."
Arthur closes his eyes. "I can't ask that of you."
"You can. You can have anything you want from me, you know that." And Merlin's proved it, God, taken life and death itself in his hands and bringing to heel for the his sake. "Please--"
"It's selfish to ask this of you.."
Merlin tightens his hold. "You don't have to ask. I've been yours since we met. You have to know that."
Arthur looks up, eyes glassy. "It's unfair--"
"No, it's not. Not to me. It's what I want, too. Tell me to stay."
Arthur looks at him uncertainly, and Merlin shows him. This is worth anything. You're worth anything. Don't send me away. I'll be your sorcerer and your lover and everything, everything you need. Please tell me to stay.
Arthur's hand tightens on his. "Then stay, Nimueh."
Abruptly, the warm, bright room vanishes, and cold, rough stone materializes behind Merlin's back. Sitting up, Merlin sees Arthur staring at him, eyes wide.
"Nimueh," he says again, voice flat. Merlin swallows, Arthur's confusion and anger slicing through the haze of magic like a newly sharpened sword--magic, Merlin thinks blankly, and then, oh God.
"Magic," Merlin breathes, looking around them. The room tries to coalesce around them again, and Merlin whispers a spell that winds around them both, bubbling them away from the crawl of magic, realizing belatedly that he can still feel Arthur's mind--and Arthur can feel his and the spell he just cast, and the memories of all of them he's cast since they came here.
"You're a sorcerer," Arthur says blankly. "You."
There's no way to deny it; Merlin rewinds through the half-dazed conversation back to the cove, then before, remembering the heavy warmth that settled over him, feeling Arthur's attention follow his. "I’m not doing this," Merlin tries, shoving the memories to the front of his mind for Arthur to see. "I swear, Arthur, I'm not--"
"Shut up," Arthur snaps, flushing. "This started--" He stops, frowning in memory. "The man, who came to Camelot--to ask for my help--"
"I asked to come along," Merlin says suddenly, remembering. "I never ask to come on these things. I don't like to come when you hunt."
"I argued for only a few knights despite the danger--."
"And a fast pace. We slept almost the moment we finished eating each night--"
"And woke at dawn every morning," Arthur says bitterly. Then, "You're a sorcerer."
"Yes." Merlin stares back at him; there's no way to prove his innocence. "But I swear, Arthur, I swear I didn't do this--"
"--I wouldn't, ever--what?"
Arthur looks away. "Your--the thing. With--" He waves vaguely toward his head, and Merlin blushes. "I can feel it. I saw it. You're not lying to me. This time, anyway."
Merlin nods shakily, trying not to look too much around them. The bubble of space that contains them remains cold and dark, but outside it, the rich, opulent chambers of a queen flash in and out in slivers of light. Arthur's head jerks around as a young woman comes in, curtseying before taking a tray to the table, setting out a meal for two.
"What is this?" Arthur says, looking around in confusion. "I--I remember this. I can't remember this. I wasn't here. This isn't real."
Head clear, it's easier to see the lines of magic around them, woven in gleaming threads that fit together over the stones of the castle. "It's--not real," he says uncertainly. "Not exactly. This is someone's memory." Nimueh's, he almost says, but it's not entirely her, either. Merlin can feel the threads of the spell around them, worked into every stone, every rug, every piece of furniture. It must have started at the cove, when they arrived. "Someone--" Nimueh, perhaps, "worked them into the very stones. The cove, too, I think."
"My mother's memories," he says flatly. "That was my mother. And this Nimueh's?"
Merlin can just touch the edges of them; minutes ago, they were his, her life filling his mind as if it were his own. "Yes."
"This happened?" Arthur says, very softly. "What I--what we felt?"
Merlin hesitates. "I--I think so. Magic can create illusions, but this--isn't that. It's how they remember it."
Arthur nods, watching the servant girl curtsey in their general direction before leaving. "I--" He swallows, mouth dry. "Do we have to be them--" There's something hopeless and helpless filling the question, torn from somewhere deep, like an infected wound that never had the chance to heal. "I felt her. She was carrying me, and she was so tired, and she was--" Arthur breaks off. "I want to see her. I want to know."
Merlin kneels up, studying the threads of the spell that coat the room like cobwebs. "This is--" Merlin looks at Arthur apologetically. "I'm not really--trained in magic, you see. Sort of--fell into it."
Arthur snorts. "In Camelot, I'd be surprised if you were. Is there any way--any way just to watch?"
Merlin frowns, turning back to the room, trying to identify each part. The memories are here, and Merlin reaches through the bubble, following the lines of bright power. Nimueh wasn't like this when he met her, felt her, ended her life. There's something very young here, uncertain, fragile happiness flickering through it, and Merlin thinks of how Nimueh had felt when she looked at Ygraine, feeling the echo of it in himself.
"It wasn't--quite meant to do this," Merlin answers slowly. "At least, I think. We were supposed to feel it, not live it. But--" Looking at Arthur, he shakes his head. "I don't understand--I think it's because she's your mother. Nimueh's magic recognizes you. And, well--" He killed Nimueh, and her magic recognizes him and what he took from her at her death. "I can make it so we can watch. But I can't--it was meant to be felt. She wanted the people who came here to know that."
Arthur nods, staring at the neatly set table. "Show me."
Merlin closes his eyes, reaching for the fragile strands of magic, wrapping them like a weaver does threads of newly-spun wool. Dropping the bubble, he loops the magic carefully around them, showing it what it's supposed to do. We aren't them he tells it firmly, feeling the vague confusion as it swirls around them, tasting them, then reluctant agreement. Now, show us.
Abruptly, the room changes, and they're both sitting on thick, woollen rugs, the room redolent in the scent of food and spice. A woman comes into view, blond hair in a loose plait that reaches nearly to her knees, richly dressed in rich reds, vermilion and crimson velvet and silk, heavy with child.
"Mother," Arthur whispers as she turns, and Merlin's breath catches at the sight of her face, the pure, perfect lines of bone that she gave to her son, the kind of face that even time would have no power to alter, with eyes as blue as the cove waters outside.
"You need to eat," Nimueh scolds, hand coming to rest on the small of her back. Ygraine rolls her eyes as Nimueh pulls out a chair and eases her into it with a mocking curtsey. "Shall I serve you, Your Highness?"
Ygraine snorts. "You'd be a terrible maidservant, Nimueh." Nimueh grins, leaning over her hand to press a playful kiss against the palm, sweetly intimate.
"I'd be a very faithful one," Nimueh says. Merlin aches a little; they're so young, and somehow, he'd never thought of her as ever having been young, but she's barely a girl herself, certainly no older than Ygraine, perhaps little older than Arthur himself now. In the rich dress of a courtier, hair piled high on her head, she looks regal and beautiful and glows in the candlelight every time she meets her Queen's eyes.
Merlin and Arthur watch the easy intimacy between them as Nimueh fills the Queen's--no, Ygraine, Merlin thinks, not queen, not here, not between them--Ygraine's plate, stew and greens and thick pieces of roasted duck with a dark brown sauce spread over it.
"I don't understand," Arthur says softly. Merlin glances at him, feeling his raw confusion mixed with the hunger for this woman, the mother he had never had, whose death had informed the path of his life. "They were--this can't be true."
Merlin watches Nimueh fill her own plate and nearly ignore it, cajoling Ygraine to eat as she picks over the meal, one hand rubbing absently at the swell of her belly. Looking longer, Merlin can see the lines of strain on her face, the habitual shifts of her body; this hadn't been an easy pregnancy.
"Finish the duck," Nimueh says, picking up the fork. "Or shall I feed you myself?"
Ygraine laughs, head thrown back to reveal the pure line of her throat, and it's so much like Arthur that Merlin hurts just watching. "Would you?"
"Oh," Nimueh says, smile darkening, teasing. "I would." Stabbing a small piece, she lifts it to Ygraine's lips, and the two women stare at each other for a long moment before Ygraine's lips part, taking the bite, then the kiss, slow and soft, before Nimueh draws away.
"No," Arthur whispers. "This isn't true."
"Gaius will be here soon," Nimueh says, spearing another bite. "Would you have me tell him you refuse to eat?"
"And get another potion? I think not." Ygraine's eyes fix on Nimueh's hand. "What are you waiting for?"
Nimueh lifts the fork.
"Stop," Arthur says, getting to his feet abruptly. "Stop it, this isn't--she never--she never--"
But Arthur doesn't approach the table, going out of the door, and Merlin struggles to his feet, running after him, looking back only once to see Nimueh's thumb wipe away a drop of sauce tenderly from the corner of Ygraine's mouth before he slams the door shut, leaning back against it.
Arthur, breathing heavily, leans against the opposite wall. "It's lies. All of it."
Merlin doesn't answer; they'd both felt it, just as if they'd lived it as well. Nimueh's worry had been almost overwhelming, she can barely eat, can barely sleep, what was I thinking to permit this?
"God, stop it," Arthur whispers, sinking to the floor, hand against his head. "Stop it, stop it, I can't--it's not, none of it, God, get out, get out, get out of my mind."
Merlin tries, he does, but what Nimueh did so easily, he has no idea how to stop. Arthur's anger and fear twist through him, drawing them tighter together, the desperation to get away pounding through him like it's his own, and there's no way to think through it; even breathing feels too difficult.
"I don't know how," he says desperately, trying to pull back, separate something of himself, some piece of himself he can hold tight, keep safe. He can't even block it, and it feels as if Arthur's consuming him, his own thoughts small and drowning, helpless beneath Arthur like a fish in the vastness of the ocean, lost and alone. "I can't, I can't, I can't even--"
"--think," Merlin whispers, and abruptly, it withdraws like the tide from the shore. Merlin realizes he's not clutching stone, but a soft tunic and warm flesh and Arthur's arms are around him. "I don't know what I'm doing," Merlin says helplessly into Arthur's neck. "I'm sorry, I don't know what she did--what I did when I was her. I don't know what this is."
"Shh." Arthur's hand strokes down his back, achingly gentle, the other cupped protectively over the back of his neck. "I'm sorry, I--"
"You're sorry?" Merlin chokes back a laugh. "I'm a sorcerer. I should know this. I should know--I'm sorry. I don't know how to fix this."
Arthur snorts softly, an echo of Ygraine. "Well, I’m sure you'll get better. Eventually."
Merlin laughs again, but it feels more like a sob. Arthur radiates careful calm, and Merlin wonders how he knew to do that, how he can even know how.
"The first thing I learned," Arthur says, "is that the man who is angriest when he lifts his sword is the one that doesn't leave the field. Whatever else happened before doesn't matter; you never fight from a place where you cannot think." Arthur pauses, considering. "Apparently, this applies to magic as well. Useful, that."
"Good lesson," Merlin mumbles, trying to get closer, bury himself in all that affectionate calm. He hadn't thought that Arthur--he had known he cared, but it's so much better to have it like this, to feel it. To be sure. To be certain.
"I'd be thrilled to take you back to the practice field for the lessons," Arthur answers, amused, and Merlin sees himself as Arthur saw him then, covered in padding and falling over his own two feet. If this castle makes no sense, then Arthur's behaviour is making even less. The calm slips just a little, edged with faint worry. "Merlin?"
With a tremendous effort, Merlin pulls away; to his surprise, Arthur doesn't let go, opening up space less than the length of a breath between them. "Is the magic doing something to you? It is, isn't it?"
Arthur opens his mouth, then hesitates, and Merlin's surprised to feel the order in Arthur's thoughts, the neat lines that don't seem to match the reckless prince at all. "It's affecting you, isn't it? God, it's doing something to your mind and making you--nice."
What kind of magic makes someone nicer? That makes even less sense than all the rest.
"Well, no, and I'm always nice when you deserve it. You just usually don't," Arthur says, after a few seconds of thought. "Merlin, I can feel you. Everything. It's rather difficult to sustain any kind of unthinking rage when you feel like you'll collapse into tears if I so much as frown at you."
Merlin's eyes narrow. "I am not going to collapse into tears."
"So you say now," Arthur mutters, then shakes himself. The anger is still there, but banked carefully and set aside for later. Merlin thinks of how Arthur fights and imagines him doing this, the neat compartmentalization that's the reason Arthur is so rarely defeated in battle, that allows him to think through rage. "Better?"
"I think so," Merlin says, and Arthur reluctantly lets him go, leaving the places he'd touched cold and uncomfortable. Merlin fights the urge to reach for him, hands clenched in his lap. "I--don't know how to stop this. When we get back, the book--"
"Book?" Arthur's eyes widen suddenly. "You have a book? Gaius gave you a magic book? In Camelot?" Before Merlin realizes what Arthur's about, he's following the associated memories, sifting through them with methodical patience in the space between one breath and the next. "You idiot," Arthur breathes, staring at him. "Not just a book. All this time. You've been--Christ, all of that?"
"Eh." Merlin looks at him helplessly, dizzy from the year of his life that passed in a single moment, from how easily Arthur did that. "I'm sure it's not so--very--"
"Dear God," Arthur mutters, shaking his head. Dusting himself off, he gets to his feet, extending a hand. "We're going to talk. Later," he says grimly. "About the difference between bravery and outright stupidity."
"Like you're one to talk," Merlin says hotly, jerking a trellis, a noblewoman, and a pack of dogs from Arthur's memories and shoving it between them. "There's an example of wisdom there, yeah?"
Arthur flushes. "That was--I was very young--"
"That was two weeks before I arrived!" Merlin crows, then stops, realizing what he'd just done, and so easily--God, so easily, as easily as magic, as breathing, as living. "Oh. Um. I didn't mean to--though you did it first, with the--book."
They stare at each other.
"This is--odd," Arthur says in epic understatement.
Merlin realizes uneasily that he likes this. Like it too much, perhaps. Likes knowing what Arthur's thinking, able to follow the quicksilver changes of mood that never reflect on his face, feel that mind, bright and brilliant, the mind that will one day belong to the greatest king in Albion's history. The greatest king ever.
"What--" Arthur looks at him, then stops. "No, that's--what? No, stop thinking that, stop right now, we have to--" Arthur looks around them helplessly. "You said this is real? All of it? My mother and Nimueh?"
"It's their memories, at least," Merlin tells him. "I--magic is--I don’t know how, but I do know it's real. It's how they remember it."
"Both of them."
Merlin nods silently.
"They were--" Arthur breaks off, blushing.
"Yes, I noticed that." Merlin tries not to squirm as Arthur flips through their shared memories, studying them intently, blushing himself at the memory of the kiss and where it could so easily have gone. "But--I mean, kings have mistresses, and they love their wives, I've heard and--"
"Stop," Arthur grits out, "trying to make it better."
"Right. Good idea." Taking a breath, Merlin looks up at him. "It's not over. There's more. It's--still happening."
"Then there's something we're supposed to see," Arthur says, not looking at the door. "Something--she put this here for a reason."
That's there, too--Merlin can't imagine how much magic this must have taken. Another servant passes them, and belatedly, Merlin realizes the hall is glowing, slipping back into its past all over again. Arthur watches the maid pass with a resigned expression.
"We could leave," Merlin says uncertainly. There's nothing in the spell that makes them stay, but then, there's no reason for there to be. This is Arthur's history and the woman who gave him life and died before she could shape it. Arthur doesn't want to leave, even if he thinks he should. And Merlin doesn't either.
"Can you tell--tell when this is? Exactly?"
Merlin frowns, pressing a palm against the stone. "I--oh." Startled, Merlin jerks back, just as there's a sudden rise of voices. The bedchamber door bursts open, Nimueh stumbling out in surprising disarray. The velvet of her bodice is crushed, laces loose, hair a tumbled mess: she's flushed, eyes glassy, and Merlin realizes what they must have been doing.
Then he knows, and heat rising in his cheeks, the image of Ygraine stretched out on the bed and Nimueh beside her, Ygraine's hands threading through the weight of her hair filling his head. Arthur makes an unclassifiable sound, and Merlin grabs for his sleeve. "I didn't need to see that," Arthur mutters. "Bad enough to walk in on my father--"
"God, shut up," Merlin breathes as Uther's bedchamber pushes into his head, shuddering. It's not an improvement.
"Get me Gaius," Nimueh shouts, grabbing a passing manservant. "Her Highness has started her labour. Get the royal physician and send a message to the king at once. Where the hell are those useless maids of hers?"
"I--I will find them, my lady," but Nimueh shakes him off, muttering a crisp phrase before going back in the door. Merlin looks at Arthur, then follows Nimueh back inside.
Ygraine is sitting up on the side of the bed, looking stubborn.
"In the name of every god I have ever worshipped," Nimueh says caustically, "you are an idiot."
"Walking helps," Ygraine says stubbornly, extending an imperious hand. "Now help me. It's been a very long nine months and I'm quite ready to see my son."
Scowling, Nimueh obeys, looping an arm around Ygraine's waist. "You drive me mad," Nimueh says as Ygraine gets to her feet, leaning heavily against her. "Is it the royal blood that robs the highborn of all common sense?"
"Taliesin knows?" Ygraine says, face twisting slightly. Taking a shuddering breath, Ygraine sighs. "He'll be here?"
Nimueh sighs. "Yes, they felt it when we did. You think they'd dare go far when you are so close? Perish the thought. Count yourself lucky they did not insist on settling in your own chambers for the duration of this."
"God, no," Ygraine says with a breathless laugh. "Good, good. Make sure Gaius doesn't send him away."
"Your brother won't let him, be easy. Can you relax?"
"Now?" Hand pressed to her belly, Ygraine grins. "Oh, he's ready, he's so ready. Do you feel him, Nimueh?"
"Since the moment of his conception," Nimueh answers softly. Reaching over, she presses a hand against the soft linen. "Patience, little one. We've waited this long, we can take a few hours more without ill effect." After a moment, Nimueh turns them around, leading Ygraine back to the bed. "Yes, walking helps, I know. I'm a midwife myself, if you recall, but you must save your strength. This birth will not be easy."
"I know," Ygraine answers mutinously, obviously ready to argue the point, but the door opens abruptly, admitting Gaius. Merlin stares at him.
"Somehow," Arthur says, bemused, "I never imagined him young."
Merlin nods, eyes wide. Gaius' hair is long in the old style, as he wears it now, but dark brown, the lines on his face wiped away. Very young, Merlin realizes; not so much older than Merlin is now, and looking between Ygraine and Nimueh with something that isn't entirely pleasant.
"Lie down, my lady," he says, shooting Nimueh an unreadable look.
"I think not." Ygraine lets Nimueh brace her against the headboard, pillows piled up behind her, then meets Gaius' disapproving eyes. "And we will use the birthing chair."
Gaius mouth thins.
"I do not care what wonders you learned in Rome," Ygraine says pleasantly. "This is not the empire."
Gaius frowns but goes to the table, pushing the dishes aside for his bag. "Do you need anything for the pain, Your Highness?"
"I can control it for her," Nimueh says sharply. "The potions will make her drowsy by the time hard labour begins. We cannot afford that."
"I'm aware of the dangers," Gaius says flatly before turning to Ygraine. "With your leave, I'd like to examine you."
Merlin stills, watching in horror as Gaius crosses the room and Ygraine leans back, reaching for her skirts, and then Arthur says, "No, no, I think not." and Merlin breathes, "Thank God. Now."
Outside the door again, Merlin pushes away the memories of what comes next, reaching to smooth them from Arthur instinctively. "Christ, thank you," Arthur says, heartfelt. "That I did not need to know."
"That makes both of us." Merlin's never seen a woman in childbed. He's certain he doesn't need to, ever. "So--your birth. This is your birth."
"So it seems." Arthur's eyes flicker to the door. "My father never spoke of this. Of Nimueh being there."
"Gaius either," Merlin admits as they watch a flurry of servants going up and down the halls, frantic with the impending birth but doing nothing useful as far as Merlin can tell. "I--what do you know of it?"
"That it is a subject best not spoken of in Camelot," Arthur says grimly. "Taliesin. He's a druid, isn't he? Leader, head druid, something of that sort?"
Merlin nods warily.
"My father has bounty on his head. Magic, high treason, the list is long and rather boring after several pages of it--but here, he's welcome." Arthur chews absently on a thumbnail, looking troubled. "My father said magic killed my mother. But he never said why, or how."
"Gaius never--" Merlin looks at him uncertainly. "I don't know. He never speaks of such things."
"I wonder--" Arthur says softly, then a woman's choked cry echoes through the hall. "Mother," Arthur says, startled. Then, thoughtful, "Do you hear something--"
Merlin's eyes fix on a group of people approaching them, Nimueh's memory providing him instant recognition, even if the soft, earth coloured clothing and long formal robes had not. "Arthur," he says, pointing, and Arthur turns. The man in front is young, but somehow not, and filled with power, glowing from him like light; even Nimueh at her strongest never came close to this, like the difference between a single torch and a bonfire.
"Taliesin," Arthur says, without hesitation. The group stops at the door, and Nimueh is there in seconds, strained face lightening as she bows, stepping back. As they go in, Arthur's eyes fix on the last of the men, dressed as the others, but the neat formal robes are unfastened, revealing the sword slung at his hips. "That--that's Sir Tristan. My mother's brother."
Merlin remembers the silent knight outside of Camelot, and then looks at the fair-haired man again. "He was a Druid?"
"How am I supposed to know?" Arthur snaps irritably. "He's dressed like them! And what is that--that--Merlin, you have to hear that!"
"Humming?" Merlin had noticed it, but it's not a sound at all.
"Yes! Like--" Arthur searches for the word, then looks at Merlin. "Wait, it's not a sound? What does that mean?"
"It's magic," Merlin says. "And you've never felt it before, not when I was doing magic right beside you." Merlin can feel it in his bones, trembling through the soles of his feet from the earth far below them, like sunlight and celebration and hope, like the beginning of everything. "It's--" Merlin frowns, looking at the door, following it to the source. "Oh. Arthur. It's you."
"I'm not--I've never--"
"No, but--" Merlin can't help following it back inside, wanting to see this, and they both watch as Taliesin and Nimueh help Ygraine to a chair--birthing chair, Arthur thinks at him in horror--and seat her carefully. Taliesin leans over, kissing her forehead, face filled with such tenderness that it makes Merlin catch his breath.
"He's coming," Ygraine says, head tilting back, an ecstatic smile lighting her face. Nimueh wipes the sweat away with her free hand, her other twined with Ygraine's. "I can do this."
"You can," Nimueh says, kissing her temple and smoothing back her hair. "I'm here. You're ready? This won't be as other births. He was conceived in magic, and so his birth must follow."
"I know." Ygraine closes her eyes. "I'm ready."
"I do not like this," Gaius says, out of easy hearing, looking at Tristan. "This birth--"
"Be easy," Tristan says from beside him as the others fall silent, eyes closed, the entirety of their attention focused on that warm hum. "Let nature take its course."
"There is nothing natural about that child!" Gaius hisses, and Ygraine's head jerks up, looking at Gaius, eyes flickering gold to match Nimueh's. "You asked my opinion long ago, and it hasn't changed, Your Highness."
"You will speak when spoken to," Ygraine says softly. "And never will you speak of my son in such terms again."
Gaius mouth sets in a hard frown. The memories are too confusing to follow, but Merlin can feel Arthur trying to track them down--magic, conception, nature--and then--
"The King wished for a son," Ygraine says, more gently. "You cannot disobey the King. It was his will that we do this."
"He did not understand what you would do." His eyes go to Nimueh. "You bend our laws, my lady, with less care than a child playing with her mother's mending."
"This night was written before either of us were born," Nimueh says flatly. "Her child, not any your king would put in any belly that would have him. Do not speak of what you do not understand."
"He cannot claim to be king without a son of her body. And he knows that as well as you. If you cannot be productive, leave us. Your presence fouls this room."
"I stand witness for the king--"
"Who could not bother to attend his own son's birth!" Nimueh snaps, straightening, eyes the gold of the sun, filled with anger. "It's not for him we do this. It was never for him."
Arthur suddenly breathes out. "Miscarriages," he says, voice startled. Merlin jerks around, torn between the birth and Arthur's shock. "They said--it was difficult for her to conceive. The court had thought he would put her aside, take another wife despite her rank and station, or even a concubine to--and then she conceived. They called it a miracle."
"That's it," Nimueh says encouragingly, both of Ygraine's hands in hers. Ygraine tilts her head back, face flushed and twisted in pain. "Almost there," Nimueh whispers.
Merlin closes his eyes, searching out Nimueh's memories--there, Uther, there, Ygraine, there-- "She couldn't conceive. The last miscarriage took with it her ability to carry a child."
"A miscarriage," Arthur whispers, watching his mother. "It's a kinder way to explain losing a child when your husband comes to your bed drunk and you try to send him away--"
"Arthur." Merlin grabs for the memories, but Arthur fights him, holding an ugly darkness of blood and useless apologies and the long fever that Ygraine woke from knowing she would never carry a child again. "Arthur, don't--"
"I see the head," Gaius says, and Merlin's attention is jerked back, the humming increasing; even the stones seem to tremble with it. "One push, Your Highness. I think--"
"One more," Nimueh says, forehead pressed against Ygraine's, panting as she eases Ygraine's pain. "He comes, beloved."
Ygraine's body twists, almost convulsing, and for a second, the entire world seems to still, time suspended around them, waiting. A tiny cry breaks through the room, and God, Merlin thinks vaguely through the rush of magic that's light and heat and joy, the whole world must feel this; Ygraine's shocked cry echoed a thousand times through everything, and something huge snapping through the room, through the castle, through every person privileged to be here and witness this, the beginning of a new world, the birth of a new king.
"You have a son," Gaius says calmly, hands shaking as he wraps the tiny shape in clean linen. Nimueh's the one that takes him from Gaius, cradling him gently before easing him into his exhausted mother's arms.
Ygraine looks down, mouth curved in an incredulous smile. "It worked," she whispers, and Nimueh laughs, suddenly, leaning a hand on the chair, dizzy with relief, with happiness too great for her to bear. "Nimueh--"
"What will you call him?"
Ygraine curves a finger against his cheek. "Arthur."
Arthur makes a broken sound, eyes on his mother. "I remember. What happened to her. I remember everything."
The magic in the castle rises up, terrible and ruthless, and answering Arthur's demand, the room stilling before everything goes far, far too quickly, flickering through past and future almost too fast to see, but not to fast too understand. Gaius with Nimueh on the isle "The King has a favour to ask on behalf of his Queen", the summoning of sorcerers and Druids both who knew what was to come, bowing to Nimueh's certainty she could fix what Uther's actions had destroyed, that she could bring life through Ygraine and fulfil the promise of the birth of a new king.
They bowing to her every demand, raising magic like Albion, perhaps even the world had never seen before, an effort that drained them, some even to death, all focused on changing the fabric of time and fate to give them this one thing, this child. They would pay any price that was asked, Nimueh whispered at the end, trembling with exhaustion, desperate, pleading, anything, anything at all. Just give her this child. Give her the son he stole from her.
"That's how it began," Merlin breathes. Then. "No, it's--"
Abruptly, the room dissolves, and Nimueh is kneeling on the bed beside a pale, thin Ygraine. "Come, beloved," Nimueh says, holding a cup to Ygraine's lips with trembling hands. "Drink this. It will--it will help."
"Nothing will help," Ygraine says, cracked lips curving in a smile, and Merlin remembers Arthur in his bed, feverish from the Questing Beast. "You--we both knew--"
"No! I do not accept that. Drink this. Drink it and you will heal--"
"I won't." Ygraine obediently drinks from the cup, then falls back on the pillows, face ashen. "How is he?"
"Thriving," Nimueh says bitterly. "As was foretold. Your son is--"
"Our son," Ygraine says, one hand reaching out and grabbing for Nimueh, fingers weak and desperate, clinging. "Don't, Nimueh."
"How can I look at him and not--"
"You can. You have to. His father--" Ygraine sucks in a shallow breath, eyes closing briefly. "His father never will, not after this. Promise me--"
"I can't!" Throwing the cup aside, Nimueh stares down at her. "How can you--how can you ask this of me, how can you think I can--"
"Bring him to me."
Nimueh stiffens. "Ygraine."
"Bring me my son. Now."
Nimueh's eyes go distant for a moment, then she sits back on her heels as the door opens, a confused woman entering, clutching a bundle of linen in both arms.
"My nurse," Arthur says softly. "She never told me this."
"Bring him here," Ygraine says imperiously. Warily, the nurse circles wide around Nimueh; Merlin can't blame her. The elegant lady is nowhere in evidence now, dark hair in a messy plait, dress creased, face pale and filled with pain. Ygraine takes the child carefully, placing him on the bed between them, nodding for the woman to leave. As the door closes, Ygraine looks down, and the sickly woman seems to vanish, replaced with love so vast and so strong that Merlin's' throat closes.
"She loved me," Arthur says, sounding surprised and pleased and angry and everything that could be in between. "I never thought--"
"Of course she did." Merlin goes to the foot of the bed, watching Ygraine unfold the linens from around him, smile widening at the sight of baby, small and round and perfect. "Arthur," he breathes. "That's you."
Arthur chokes back a laugh, coming up behind him, warm against Merlin's back, and they watch Ygraine trace the baby's face in wonder. "He looks like me, I think," she says softly, looking at Nimueh. "Don't you think?"
"Yes." Nimueh looks down unwillingly, body unyielding. "He does."
"He's perfect," Ygraine says softly. "He's mine. And he's yours. This is the son you gave me. Look at him, Nimueh."
"Look at him!" Ygraine grabs Nimueh's hand, pressing it against the small, vulnerable swell of his belly. "My son. I would have given more than my life for this--"
"--to have him. This is what I created, what we created, what we've done. Feel him, beloved. There's nothing, nothing I wouldn't give, nothing I wouldn't do--"
"I did this to you," Nimueh whispers, eyes filling with tears.
"No. I did. I wanted this. I would do it again, I would do it a thousand times, nothing else mattered, not when--not when this is my reward." Looking down, Ygraine tickles his chin, eyes soft. "Arthur," she says tenderly.
Nimueh looks down reluctantly as Arthur twists under her hand, mouth open in a wide toothless smile.
"Look at him, Nimueh," Ygraine breathes. "He was foretold when time began, this one. He will be great, and he will be powerful, and he will change the world. And even if he were none of those things, I would have asked for this. Because he is my son, and I love him."
Nimueh's mouth trembles, hand softening as she strokes up to his cheek. "He's you," Nimueh whispers, like a promise.
"Promise me he will be safe."
"If--if all goes awry, he must be safe."
"His father will protect him," Nimueh says slowly, frowning.
"No, he won't."
Nimueh looks at Ygraine sharply. "You've seen it?"
"I was never a good Seer," Ygraine whispers, and Merlin watches flickers of gold fill the hollow blue eyes. "But since his birth, it's been clear. He will not be safe. Not alone. Not when I'm gone." Ygraine touches the baby's cheek again. "And--" She hesitates, looking uncertain. "There's only one way this can happen."
Nimueh pulls her hand back, then reaches for Ygraine, touching her temple. "Show me."
Merlin's breath catches as Ygraine's eyes flutter closed; pyres of burning wood that cover the length of Camelot, of Albion; the screams of the condemned as cold iron is thrust through their flesh, breaking their bond with the earth and their magic; starved to death in a hundred dungeons, their bodies committed to the fire with the still living, still screaming; heads falling beneath the executioners axe: villages wiped away until not even the memories remain of those who died--
"Gods." Nimueh jerks her hand away, eyes wide with horror. "I have to warn them! I have to--"
"You can't." Ygraine looks down tiredly. "We can't stop this."
"For him? You'd condemn--how can you--"
"Yes!" Ygraine straightens with sudden strength. "For him, for Hunith's son, for the thousands that will be born, for the world they will been born into. This is everything, Nimueh. I don't know--the other paths are dark and I saw the light die in every one, never to return. I saw it, I watched it, I walked a thousand worlds every night and everything ended, everything. I don't think--I know. They all end in darkness and the end of everything. But this one--in this one, the light comes back." Shaking, Ygraine braces herself on one hand. "I Saw it, Nimueh. And I am not a great Seer, but when I see truly, I have never been wrong. When I was a girl, I Saw the queen I would become, and the man that I would marry, and the woman I would love, and the son I would bear. He'll change the world, Nimueh, he'll--I've Seen it, and--and--" Ygraine's voice breaks. "And now I See this. This is how it must happen."
"No," Arthur murmurs, staring at Ygraine. "No, it wasn't."
"How long until it begins?" Nimueh whispers.
"A day. Maybe two." Ygraine's eyes grow distant, blue sinking under glassy gold, voice changing. "The King's grief is the grief of guilt and he will not rest until all that reminds him is buried beyond memory. The Druids alone will be spared, but their price will be exile until the dawn of the new king's reign." Ygraine's mouth twists in an awful smile. "Mine is my life. I pay it gladly."
"And my price? Do I die, too?"
Ygraine's face twists, growing human again, the Seer fading into a broken woman. "No," she whispers, tears filling her eyes. "No, yours is to bear witness. That's your price. I'm sorry. I’m so sorry."
Nimueh's breath catches in a sob, and Ygraine reaches for her, pulling them together, their shared grief filling the room.
After a while, Nimueh nods, cradling Ygraine's face for a moment, eyes soft. "I love you," she whispers, thumb wiping away Ygraine's tears. "Beloved--"
"I'm not." Nimueh smiles tremulously. "I would--I would do it again--"
"Stop," Ygraine whispers.
"I would do it a thousand times." Nimueh says implacably. Your son-- he will be great, and he will be powerful, and he will change the world. Even if he were none of those things, I would do this. Because he is your son. And because I love you." Sitting up, Nimueh wipes her eyes, looking down at the baby, then at Ygraine. "Show me what path he must take. And I will make it so that no other can be followed."
Ygraine's eyes widen. "No living sorcerer is powerful enough to chain the future. A hundred--even a thousand--"
"No," Nimueh says softly, cupping her hands before her. Merlin watches as the air coalesces, glowing a sullen red, edged in angry black. It's nothing like the bright glow of magic that had surrounded her before, nothing like the Druids; Merlin flinches from the chill of it, and even in memory, he can feel its hunger, reaching, searching for something to take. Nimueh smiles a little, looking down at it. "No living sorcerer can."
Ygraine's eyes fix on the tiny ball for a moment, then on Nimueh. "When?"
"When it's time. When it begins."
The room goes dark, and Merlin wonders what happened before the same darkness slips through him. "Arthur, he starts, but the words catch in his throat, and then there's nothing at all.