A Challenging Hostage

Chapter 1: The Surrogates

Annis mused that if she closed her eyes and forced every muscle to relax into the padding of the seat she rode alone, the grinding whisper of the carriage wheels could almost be the night wind in the top of the pines in the heights to the north of the fortress, and this damned interminable trip more like one of the rides she'd taken with Thurston when they were young.

And squeezing her eyes closed helped keep tears at bay, too.

If she was riding a-horseback as she had as a young queen, too proud to be thought soft and too wild for dignity, the presence and attention of the accompanying warriors would serve to keep her chin up and her eyes dry.

But that was too many years ago now, to ignore. She wasn't young. And though no one could see her, riding inside the carriage alone – because Thurston would have to be dying to enter it, himself – she refused the weakness and consolation of tears.

Her eyes would remain dry and empty. As her body.

And the wheels rubbed and whispered and the frame creaked in rocking, and her head ached futilely with regret, and there was nothing and no one to distract her from this last and final disappointment – and what it would mean upon their return home. A king without an heir was a vulnerable person, after all, and though Thurston was a ferocious warrior, still, he wasn't getting any younger, either. He'd fought off half a dozen attempted takeovers in the last decade, and though he'd never say it, part of that was because he was too proud – or something – to set her aside for another marriage partner whose body might prove more fruitful.

Annis loved him fiercely for that, and ached at her inability to give him the one thing that might bring greater peace and wider stability to their spare, hard land.

Her heart jumped at a sharp rap on the flat roof of the carriage, a signal from the driver. She straightened on the seat and reached to unfasten the window shutter, glad at least that she would not show red eyes or damp cheeks to her husband.

He rode beside the carriage, bent to see her at the window, his body rocking in the saddle.

"We're over the border," he raised his voice to inform her, in the dry rasp that warmed her blood near her ear in the dark. "Coming up to a farm village. Would you like to stop for an hour or so?"

"Half an hour," she returned.

Because really she just wanted to get home to the sanctuary of her own chamber, the comfort of the thick soft furs underfoot and on the bed and she could be alone. Maegden, her maid, an intuitive and compassionate and thoroughly loyal girl, could be dismissed early. Thurston would drink hard with his men and come to bed late and pass out. He'd snore and she'd know that he never heard her if she was still crying by then.

He nodded, straightening to let out a shrill whistle and a series of hand signals to his men, conveying commands.

Annis left the window open, watching the limited square of the world with little interest. Damn Camelot was always so damn verdant – this wasn't Camelot any longer, as they'd crossed the recognized border, but currently unclaimed territory. She thought she hated Uther a little more at the evidence of his complacency – no need of more land, with the riches he already held, and so he made no move to expand his borders to the mountains. He already had his heir, also, and found their not-completely-hidden desperation amusing, maybe. Worthy of mockery, maybe.

Damn Gaius, too, she decided, watching the daub-huts with their messy thatched rooves grow larger as they approached. Peasant villagers, standing and shading a hand to watch, some of them hurrying to complete various chores or tasks so there would be time for curiosity and gossip.

They trundled ever closer and she realized – again, anew, it was always a pain in a new place, so that she preferred their castle at Beckon Cove to traveling – there would be the children.

Damn the caution of the physician – former sorcerer. His excuses, his side glances toward the liege-lord who held his vow to do no magic. Magic brought Uther his heir, ten years ago, and though he was violently dissatisfied still with the price, he refused Annis the chance to pay the same, to prove her love and her worth to her lord and husband, to make her life count for the kingdom of Caerleon.

Her view of the village was obscured again by her husband and his mount, as the carriage reached the center of the space between haphazardly-planned huts, and the driver pulled the horses to a halt.

She waited a moment more, for the man to jump down and reach the door to open it; when she stepped stiffly down to packed earth, she found Thurston dismounted and waiting for her.

"The well is there," he told her, pointing – not really looking at her. His dark eyes never rested one place long, always wary of the myriad dangers, so prevalent in their own kingdom it was habit even when they visited the softer valleys. "We'll water the horses. This is Geof, the village elder – if you need anything, ask him."

Lean fellow with wispy hair more white than gray, his face lined with years more than hardship. He ducked a shy bow at her.

She didn't care to drink her fill of fresh well-water, or she'd need to stop again soon – the men wouldn't mind, of course, but she didn't like to be the reason for more time wasted on the journey.

"I'd like to stretch my legs," she said to Geof. "Perhaps you might point me toward a scenic spot where I won't be disturbed."

The village elder blinked at her dumbly. Thurston shifted his weight and cast his gaze about – not impatient, but as always more comfortable with purposeful movement than inaction.

"Never mind," Annis said.

Seeing a young woman approach the well with a bucket, she brushed between the two men and made eye contact with her – only a girl, really – stalking across the packed earth of the village center to meet her. The girl was dressed in drab shapeless brown, the strings of her smudged apron giving her slim figure its only definition. She stared at Annis, but wasn't too distracted to hook her bucket on the line and feed it down the well until Annis was close enough to exchange a greeting.

"My – lady?" the girl said, with a pause of uncertainty.

Annis didn't correct her assumption of title. She had no time for the fussy-delicate fabrics of silk and satin; but though her gown was wool, it was dyed a rich dark blue and the bodice trimmed expertly with creamy embroidery.

"Would you like a drink?" the girl added, winding the well-wheel with sturdy capability. "It'll be cool – our well-water is fresh and good." She bent to retrieve the dripping bucket, and propped it on the stone edge of the well.

"Thank you." Annis dipped a cursory palm-ful, not doing much more than wetting her mouth. "My company intends to hold here for a while – perhaps you could tell me where I might go to be alone? In a place that is soothing to the senses, and restful?"

The girl smiled. "There's a stream. A hundred and a half paces yonder." She pointed down a row of village-huts, not to the fields but to the nearest edge of forest. "If you look for a clump of tall spruce trees, just beyond it the rocks form a small pool of water. You have to kind of push past the evergreen growth – and I don't think anyone else knows of it. Or at least if they do, they don't go there."

"Thank you very much," Annis said.

The girl dipped her head in acknowledgment. And instead of loitering to stare at Thurston and the band of armed warriors milling about with their mounts – no other horses in sight, in this village – she took her bucket in hand and moved away purposefully. No leisure time in her day, maybe – no curiosity? Or maybe she'd satisfied her curiosity already.

In watching the girl for a moment, Annis had turned back to where her husband was speaking to Geof the village elder, and Sir Geart. Thurston was scowling, his arms crossed over his chest, and her heart twisted within hers.

He was so gruff, not many realized that was not all there was to him, especially since he did not want anyone to realize what it had taken her a year of marriage to figure out. He was a man of action who viewed the world as a place to conquer – and now they had to admit defeat. Now they had to begin another sort of conflict – the succession of the throne of Caerleon.

Annis turned and lifted her skirt slightly with one hand to begin the trek to the forest, confident in her belt-knife and her ability to defend herself if need be.

Now they'd have to choose an heir not of the king's blood. And there was no clear candidate, someone who fit all criteria and would not cause conflict with some or others among the nobility and warriors. A good fighter, but also a thinker – young enough to be trained, but not foolish or intemperate. Not someone who'd alienate supporters with arrogance or ignorance. There wasn't anyone like that, though. A handful with some of the characteristics, but… with any of their choices, there would be conflict.

Annis reached the clump of spruce feeling like she'd run the whole way. Like she couldn't draw a deep, calm breath; like her stinging eyes would never clear again. She pushed through the last prickly bough of needles, and sank down on a low rock that had been exposed at the edge of the pool.

The stream babbled wonderingly to itself coming in and going out, as she let her chin fall down on her chest. She felt such a failure. Such shame, which was a black and bottomless feeling after the breathless light of courtship and wedding. There had been such energy, then, such eagerness for the future. Family, children, sons and warriors to follow Thurston's footsteps – maybe daughters to run as fast and laugh as readily and shoot as straight as their brothers. But she was barren… and not really ready for life and usefulness to be over. Not so soon.

She did not weep, but it was hard to control her breathing, and with her eyes squeezed shut and the sound of the water teasing her ears, she didn't realize she wasn't alone, right away.

Some whisper of sound or movement – a breath, or the click of a shifted stone… Annis raised her head, and startled the child.

Male, by the clothing. Trousers ragged over bare dirty feet – shirt cuffs probably in the same condition, but they were rolled to show bony wrists and knuckles. The garment was too large, exposing collarbones that were clean and pale and prominent; he was kept clean, then, and the grime the accumulation of a single day. It was the face that arrested attention, though, only slightly more than the attitude he'd frozen in.

Eyes deep and clear blue, holding her gaze with an expression somewhere between bold and bashful – mouth dropped open to breathe, cheekbones showing from a face too thin with a perpetual lack of sustenance. Black mop of hair endearingly disheveled over ears and brow. He was crouched on the stones by the pool-side just next to her – how had he gotten so close without her noticing? – stretching forward to lay a yellow flower at the edge of her crumpled skirt.

Annis held still, having no wish to frighten the boy who came to her. Who interested her. Maybe the only one ever, on both counts, no matter how she privately yearned for that special connection.

"Is that for me?" she asked in a near-whisper.

The boy nodded, opening his fingers to let it drop, then retreating back into his crouch. His gaze never wavered from hers.

"Thank you," she added, claiming the stem – but watching him in return. He showed no signs of flight.

"I make," he said, sounding calm and confident in an unself-conscious way – then correcting himself, "I give flowers to my mama when she's sad."

"Oh," Annis said, touched at the moment of vulnerability. "That's so nice of you."

He twitched a shrug, wrapping his arms around his knees and balancing on the rocks on bare soles. "Are you a queen?"

Annis felt her eyebrows lift. Brave and thoughtful and observant, for his age, though her experience was limited. "I am," she said. "How did you guess?"

"Your dress," he told her candidly. "No one wears a dress like that here."

And so he wasn't intimidated by her rank. In the moment of silence that followed his remark, and he didn't scamper away, she judged his age to be six or seven – too young to be tasked with gathering the forest's wild harvest of the autumn season, or the maintenance of traps or snares for rabbits or fowl. She heard no sounds of anyone else nearby, which meant-

"Are you out here by yourself?" she asked. He twitched another shrug that seemed evasive to her and she didn't smile, not letting him see her suspicion of mischief. "In this place?" she added, indicating the secluded pool.

"Mama knows I come here," he explained. "To get away from the boys."

"The boys?" she repeated, to get him to keep talking. It was fascinating to her that this conversation was taking place at all; she felt somewhat illogically proud of accomplishing something worthwhile, as a stranger and an adult.

"They don't like me. They call me-" His eyes darted around to make sure they were alone, then he leaned forward to whisper the word, eyes wide at his own daring. "Bastard."

Annis' eyebrows rose again, slightly – surprised, and then not. "Really."

His forehead furrowed and the corners of his mouth turned down. "I don't know what it means. Mama says not to say words I don't know what they mean. Mama says that it's a bad word, and not to say those, either."

"Your mother is right," Annis agreed, looking him over again – the details of poverty and core cleanliness striking her differently to know his heritage and situation. And that was probably why the flowers for when she cried, too. "What of your father?"

"He went on a trip before I was born," the boy said, readily enough – repeating what he'd been told, no doubt. "He didn't come back. He might be dead. Why?" He tilted his head questioningly, and Annis found herself pleased to smile at him.

"That's what bastard means. That you don't have a father," she told him.

He thought a moment. "Do you have a father?"

"No, mine died several years ago." Belatedly she realized the connections he was making, and opened her mouth to correct him, but not quickly enough.

"Then you're a bastard, too," he pronounced happily, grin wide and blue eyes sparkling.

"No, I'm an orphan," she said. And to head off the next logical question about the difference, she asked, "What's your name?"

"Merlin," he said, his expression inviting her to be charmed with the revelation. Then, astonishingly, "M-E-R-L-I-N."

Her mouth dropped open, and her surprise delighted him. "Who taught you that?" she said. Letters – reading and spelling – were not commonly taught among the peasantry.

"Mama," he said smugly.

"Your mother is – a very special person," Annis told him. She added clever to her mental list of his characteristics, and curious which made education easy. And he had no father…

"I know," he said contentedly, rocking on his heels.

She lifted the flower he'd given her, several inches of stem without a leaf, and the yellow blossom at the top. "I think she deserves one of these, too, even if she's not sad today. Maybe we should bring…"

Annis paused, eyes on the daffodil she'd just identified by name, because… that was an early spring flower. An impossibility for several months, now. "Where did you get this?" she demanded.

Little black-haired Merlin twitched another shrug, dropping his grip of the legs folded to his chest to poke slender fingers at the exposed edges of the rocks in the earth beside the hidden forest pool. His head ducked, enough to hide behind the fringe of shaggy hair – but not so far that he couldn't keep an eye on her anymore.

I made, he'd said first. And the few sentences about his father – his age, and the village's proximity to the border with Camelot… where ruled a king whose fanatical hatred of magic after the death of his queen was well known.

But – something like this? At his age? Annis twirled the daffodil stem slowly, and could find no flaw in the shape or color. So which was more impossible?

"Merlin," she said, laying the flower in her lap and leaning closer. "We're friends, right?"

He cocked his head to eye her warily. He wasn't stupid, by any means.

"And friends tell each other things," she went on carefully; she didn't want to frighten him. "For instance, I know I can tell you that I was sad because… because I'm not a mama. I'd like to be, but I can't. And that makes me sad."

"Because a king and queen need a prince or princess," he said, relaxing again enough to speak – but not lifting his head.

She nodded. "Now it's your turn. Merlin, will you tell me… do you have magic?"

His head came up and his eyes flared terrified, and it was as good as a yes. But, he didn't pop up from his crouch to take to his heels.

She said, purposefully making her tone as kind and sympathetic as she could, "You do, don't you? Please don't be frightened, I think magic can be a very good gift to have."

But for such a child, bold and guileless and already ostracized in his village for his illegitimacy… so close to Uther's border. And if anyone knew the father's name – and the father had been caught in the Purge…

Annis made a decision. "Never mind that," she said, putting her hands on her knees and making a lengthy process of getting to her feet. "I'd like to meet your special mama. Do you think you can introduce me?"

He jumped up, worry forgotten in eagerness. "She's never met a queen!"

"Well, let's not delay," she answered, bending to brush spruce boughs out of their way.

He ducked and squirmed through ahead of her, and chattered enthusiastically as they walked, answering questions she had about their accustomed activities and household belongings and status within the village. His head came up to her elbow, and even with what she had in mind in her mind, she was surprised to find her hand straying of its own accord to that mop of could-be-silky black hair. Three separate times.

"My house is over there," Merlin announced when they reached the edge of the village. "Behind that one."

She touched his hair a fourth time, smoothing it back to lightly cup the back of his head, and he grinned up at her, hitching the shoulder of his ragged oversized shirt back up to his own bony shoulder.

"Yes," Annis said lightly. "But I'm going to speak to my husband a moment, first. Do you think your mother would like to meet a king?"

She regretted asking as soon as the question was past her lips. He stiffened, and all willing liveliness vanished from his person. The glance he gave her was as wary as when she'd inquired after the origins of the flower she held.

"A king?" he said cautiously.

Because of course the king he would have heard the most of was King Uther. And his atrocities. Colored by Merlin's mother's fear for her little son's life.

"King Caerleon," she answered, like nothing was amiss. Say what you would of comparisons between their kingdom and Camelot, at least this child had nothing to fear from Thurston. "That's where I live, the kingdom of Caerleon in the west and south. Would you like to see the sea someday?"

"See the sea," he repeated, and his anxiety seeped away.

Three of the warriors had marked her reappearance already, spread out through the huts in a ready-for-anything not-formation. One of them alerted Thurston to her return, and he swung about to face her; she was aware the rest of their men watched as closely as the villagers, to see the young boy with her – and Thurston was no fool. His eyes narrowed and his brows dropped, and he spoke before she could.

"No, Annis."

She didn't argue. Didn't contradict his rather insulting conclusion of empty-headed feminine caprice, or an overwhelmingly frustrated maternal urge that fixated on the first convenient child. She didn't speak to promote the hints of character she'd seen of the child and his parent both, that could be fostered and nurtured, encouraged and trained.

Annis held out the daffodil, saying in a low voice, "He made this."

Thurston would cheerfully allow himself to be tortured rather than reveal any knowledge of flowers, but he realized the significance of the out-of-season blossom as she had. His eyes widened fractionally, and he shifted his gaze to the clear blue of Merlin's eyes.

Unprompted, Merlin said, "Good afternoon, Your Majesty," and bowed at the waist. Annis could have hugged him.

Thurston's eyebrows hiked toward his hairline, and he looked back at her. "His parents?"

"Only a mother," Annis said, trying to keep the triumph in her voice between the two of them. She watched him consider the choices they had back in Caerleon, and all the yes-buts that inevitably followed each. If anyone was offended at this, at least all could be equally offended – and this choice admitted the possibility of a change in mind.

"Wot's 'e done now?" Geof the village elder ventured, trying to mix displeasure toward Merlin with a longsuffering attitude toward his royal visitors. "I 'pologize, Majesties. Won't happen again. We'll take care of it." He reached, and Annis shifted subtly between his hand and the boy.

"His mother's residence," Thurston demanded gruffly. The elder subsided, pointing out the hut that Merlin had already identified to her.

Thurston led them both, scowling frequently down at the boy who skipped oblivious. "Are you sure?" he demanded bluntly of her.

"It's a better option than all the rest," she pointed out, secretly thrilled. Spur-of-the-moment decisions weren't always the best, but they were exciting, and sometimes stopping to think logically ended in regrets for things left undone.

He glanced sideways at the daffodil, and said nothing further, til they reached one of the huts on the edge of the village; the girl Annis had met at the well stepped through the doorway to shake out a square of cloth. Her, Annis thought in pleased surprise, perfect.

"Mama!" Merlin exclaimed, darting ahead.

The girl made a happy sound, bracing herself as he threw his arms around her waist – immediately smoothing the hand she freed from the dirty cloth down the back of his head. Then she realized their presence, and made the noise sound shocked. "Oh!"

"A king and queen, Mama!" Merlin informed her. "They wanted to meet you!"

The girl's eyes dropped to the impossible daffodil, and she lost all color, clutching her young son's thin shoulders as her gaze darted from Annis to Thurston and back again.

"No," Annis said immediately, stepping forward and offering her hand. "No, please. We mean you no harm – we're not here to take anything from you. But rather, to offer you something."

The girl might have been a doe, and Thurston the hunter. Merlin was motionless under her hands, not comprehending more than her reaction; his eyes were enormous and his lips pinched together. Annis took another step.

"My name is Annis," she said to the girl. "We're from Caerleon – on our way back home, now. I would be grateful for a few minutes of your time."

The girl backed into the doorway, drawing her son with her. "I'm Hunith," she said, still watching Thurston. "You're welcome inside."

Clearly, speaking to Annis. But her husband wouldn't want to be inside the hut anyway; he didn't like small spaces, and preferred the outdoors, always.

She followed Hunith into the little hut – surprisingly well-furnished, though maybe it was inherited from her parents – and surprisingly clean. Hunith gestured for her to be seated on a crudely built bench and she did so, aware of Thurston dropping to a crouch in the doorway, sideways so he could see both directions. Hunith wiped her hands unnecessarily on her apron, ignoring Annis' patted invitation to join her on the bench.

"If Merlin disturbed your privacy by the pool, I'm so very sorry," the girl said.

Merlin made a noise of protest, like he was disappointed that his mother should think him capable of poor behavior; it made Annis smile once again.

"Not at all. You see, we are just leaving Camelot –" both of them tensed – "where we were consulting with Gaius about our – my inability to conceive an heir for my husband."

Annis' throat wanted to stick shut on the painful admission, but she realized only honesty would convince Hunith of her sincerity. Hunith went to the corner to dip a wooden cup of water; offering it to Annis, she perched on the opposite end of the bench.

"We've been trying for years, you see," Annis said huskily. "A kingdom without an heir has – little chance of settling to peace, for very long. We thought – perhaps whatever Uther Pendragon did for his prince… We thought Gaius could help."

The girl made a noise of comprehension, and relaxed; Annis wondered if the court physician's fame had spread even here.

"We were disappointed. And now we must decide, which of the boys of our acquaintance we will name as the heir to the throne. Only – that is not a simple choice, nor one we expect to be accepted without conflict. So many will want their son chosen, and the jealousy of being passed over in favor of a rival… And this boy is good with a sword, but has no intellect to speak of; and this boy is smart but throws violent tantrums; and this boy will likely be poisoned by his oafish older brother before the week is out if we choose him; and this boy has frightfully humiliating familial connections."

Thurston turned his head slightly at that and informed Hunith succinctly, "Incest."

"Oh," she said, startled.

"There is another option," Annis said gently. "We might adopt a boy entirely unknown to our noble families and warriors. Someone who will show no favoritism or prejudice, but rule fairly and evenly, when it comes to it. Someone who shows potential, but is yet young enough to be trained to the authority and responsibility of the throne."

"Someone who can handle power without being overwhelmed or manipulated," Thurston offered suddenly.

Annis thought Hunith might have stopped breathing. Her knuckles were white around fistfuls of her apron.

"Your Merlin is brave." She was almost whispering, so careful not to frighten the peasant girl. "And compassionate and polite. You've begun teaching him letters? And the magic, Hunith…"

She lifted her hands to cover her mouth. Watching them from the hearth, Merlin tilted his head curiously, alert to his mother's emotions.

"You cannot possibly mean to…"

"We could begin with a trial period," Annis suggested softly. "If you were unhappy with the arrangement for any reason… and we would provide for your future and his, regardless, this I swear."

Hunith began shaking her head – in disbelief, though, not refusal. "I have thought… for quite some time, now. That he was not meant to be a farmer. But… ye gods. A k-" She couldn't say the word. It would probably take a lot of getting used to.

"Well, it won't be tomorrow, woman," Thurston said testily from the doorway. "I am neither old nor infirm. What of his father?"

Hunith shifted to look at him past Annis. "A refugee from Camelot." Which was to say, a sorcerer. "He thought to settle here, but… Uther's arm is long, and we have no ruler for protection, here. We'd… we'd promised our fidelity to each other in private, but… He was afraid, if the knights came here, they'd discover us. And they did – he left ahead of them and they ignored me…" She straightened and smoothed her hands over her waist, looking at Merlin; Annis surmised the girl hadn't been showing her babe yet, at the time. "We've heard nothing of him, since. He's probably dead."

"Strong, was he?" Thurston demanded.

"I don't know how to gauge that, sire," Hunith answered, understanding that he meant magic, without saying the word in front of Merlin. "His use of it was… often, and easy. It seemed to me. Ay gods, is this happening."

Annis reached to squeeze one of her hands. "If the idea comes to nothing, or if you decide this is not his path, for any reason – please still consider how much safer the two of you might be, in Caerleon. Uther would never dare set foot across the border, you know. And I find… I doubt I could forget your little Merlin, now." She looked at him, and he grinned back at her, causing her heart to expand almost painfully in her chest. "I believe I would worry," she admitted quietly. "Leaving him – and you – behind, without knowing."

"So I could come," Hunith said in a rush.

"Of course!" Annis was surprised, and a little dismayed that she hadn't made conditions clear. "No, I don't wish to take him away from you – come and welcome. His care will be entirely up to you, with all our resources – only in his education and training would we be his surrogate parents."

Thurston shifted to eye the boy sitting on his heels at the hearth. Merlin's spine straightened, and he looked back at the king thoughtfully, too. Hunith huffed a little laugh at the sight.

"If we came with you," she said. "It would be now?"

Annis felt wings unfurl from her spirit. Bless fate or destiny or whatever blind chance guided their stop and this meeting. Meant to be.

"You can have an hour to pack," Thurston said brusquely, his attention outward again.

"Pack light," Annis told Hunith, who still seemed uncertain. "We can provide you with anything you need."

"We're going with you?" Merlin spoke up suddenly.

Hunith looked at him. "Would you like to?"

The boy hopped up and came to stand between them at the bench. He studied Annis a moment, then looked his mother over, leaning comfortably and instinctively into her embrace, even as he smiled at Annis. "To a castle?"

"Yes," she said. "And a bed of your own –" the hut had a single room, and a single bed they probably shared – "and a horse to learn to ride…"

"And a pretty new dress for Mama?" he suggested.

They both ignored Hunith trying to shush him – which impressed Annis with Merlin's priorities and his mother's manners.

"Of course," she said.

And didn't add, And no one will ostracize you for a bastard son, and you will never worry for food or shoes or a sound roof over your head

"Please," Annis added, and it was a word she rarely said.

Hunith seemed to hear that, and gave her head a slow nod. "We will… be ready to leave in an hour."

Thurston pushed upright, reaching into his belt pouch and stepping far enough into the hut to hand Merlin what turned out to be two gold pieces on his small grubby palm.

"One you can hide here," he said shortly. "One you can carry with you. For your peace of mind, and independence. Til you trust my honor, and that of my men."

"Can I hide it, Mama?" Merlin said excitedly.

Hunith was relieved at the gesture and its implications, Annis could tell – and she was glad. The girl gave a smile and a nod to her little son; he flipped one coin in the air. His eyes flashed gold and the coin disappeared, and Merlin laughed.

The happy childish sound made Annis' breath catch in her throat.

And Thurston was smiling.

…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..

Gaius stood in the sun in the courtyard of Camelot's gleaming white citadel, hands hidden in his sleeves, outwardly composed. Inside, he missed Alice so acutely it felt like he was bleeding from a mortal wound – small, hidden, slow… Time was said to heal all wounds. He could only wait to see if the saying proved true, in his case.

But it was an undeniable truth that she should be here now, today – being female, she could have expected to handle the care of their expected charge much better than an old bachelor like him could. With firm compassion and genuine empathy.

If Alice was here today, he wouldn't be an old bachelor.

And he had to quit thinking like that.

"Have I ever met her before?" said the boy whose sun-reflecting golden hair came just past Gaius' elbow.

Gaius looked down at him – handsome, strong, sturdy – and not nearly as confident as he was growing adept at making people think. Feet planted, shoulders squared, fingers tucked together behind his back – and gnawing his lip.

"Not to my knowledge, sire," he told the boy. "Morgana was born in Trevena, a full season after Lord Gorlois brought her lady mother to the estate. None of the family have been back to Camelot..."

"Until today," Arthur finished for him, lifting his chin and swaying just a bit with contained impatience.

Gaius followed his line of sight, down the bottom half of the courtyard stairs to where the king his father waited even more impatiently.

Tellingly, also, which caught Gaius' attention. Uther had seemed surprisingly eager to fulfill his promise to Gorlois; more than just keeping a promise or satisfying guilt, he actually seemed to be anticipating the arrival of a nine-year-old orphaned Lady to a palace with no queen to direct household affairs. Gaius kept his sigh to himself, wondering how often medical care was going to translate into emotional care for a second child.

A sudden disturbance at the raised portcullis disrupted his thoughts, however; the arrival of the carriage they all – from busy king to attendant stable boy – had been requested to await personally. For the last half of an hour.

The Gorlois carriage, which now belonged to the little Lady. Gaius spared a thought for the older sister no one spoke of – if she lived and was well, and where. Since there was no congregation of sorceresses at the Isle any longer, destruction and dispersion the result of the recent siege that had claimed Gorlois' life.

And what in the wide green world was he to do if the younger sister – the ward of magic-hating King Uther Pendragon – had m-

Gaius forbid himself even to think it.

The carriage came to a stop, and Uther himself leaped forward to open the door. Every person in Gaius' field of vision leaned, simultaneously, to better see the interior of the carriage and its unseen passenger. Arthur rose to his tiptoes.

And Uther backed, slowly and carefully, drawing a slip of a girl – emerald silk and a cascade of black curls – out of the carriage. Dainty slipper on the stair, and you might have heard a pin drop, in the courtyard. And then she was down on the cobblestones, slim and straight and proud – very much like her mother, Gaius remarked to himself.

"Welcome to your new home, Morgana," Uther was saying, bending to her level, and his voice was so warm and happy that Gaius found himself startled. How long had it been since his king had used that tone to address anyone?

"May I introduce Prince Arthur, my son and heir," Uther continued, beckoning the boy with a blind gesture, as he kept his gaze focused on the small emerald beauty.

Arthur hesitated. But only a moment, before descending the stair with a dignity he didn't always present – so Gaius knew it was deliberate. He stopped at arms'-length from the king's new ward and inclined his head stiffly. "Welcome to Camelot, Lady Morgana."

She didn't respond.

"And Gaius, our court physician," Uther continued, and it was Gaius' turn to descend and meet the young Lady.

She was very pale – sunlight and plenty of fish, eggs, and milk in her meals – and her eyes were red-rimmed. Sleeplessness, grief, bad dreams – maybe a tonic or a draught tailored to her needs. But her chin was up and her gaze steady, and Gaius smiled as he bent over her small slim hand. "My lady."

"Your chambers are ready for you," Uther said, his hand gentle on her shoulder.

Arthur's eyes were on his father's hand.

"You may take as much time as you need, to rest after your trip. Anything you like to eat can be sent up to you, and as soon as you feel ready, I would be delighted to show you around your new home myself. Now–"

Uther turned to the plainly-dressed woman, brown braid wrapped around her head, who'd stepped down from the carriage unassisted, unobtrusively waiting behind Lady Morgana, her face smoothed of expression and her gaze lowered.

"I understand you were traveling with your own maid – I'm sure she'll become sufficiently acquainted with the citadel to fill your needs in no time as well."

Morgana lifted her chin to look up at the king, and except for the young crown prince at his elbow, Gaius had never seen such an evaluating look on a person so small, or so feminine in all other ways.

"I don't want Dunna anymore," she said in a clear, even voice. "I want a new maid. Someone from Camelot. Someone my own age."

The woman's lips pressed together slightly, but otherwise she didn't react to protest. Gaius guessed that her charge had been a handful the past few weeks – not only bereaved but orphaned, and at nine years old, she outranked all the adults around her. He found himself glad that he was not meant to be the young Lady's guardian – the prince was a handful himself as it was, and he was not parentless.

Arthur was frowning. Last month - Gaius knew because he'd been subjected to the prince's repeated complaints – Uther had summarily rejected the same request from his son, to be given a personal servant who was not an adult charged with care and safety and mannerly upbringing.

"Yes of course," Uther said immediately. "First thing tomorrow morning, I will have potential candidates waiting for you to interview. For tonight, though, perhaps your own – or another can be appointed to you temporarily?"

Lady Morgana thought. Then nodded gravely. "Another, please. I wish to become accustomed to Camelot as soon as I may."

Very mature of her, Gaius thought. But he was not impressed with her casual dismissal of the faithful servant who'd left her own home many leagues distant, even if they hadn't gotten along.

The king turned away to speak to his steward about the arrangements, and Morgana shifted her weight as if tired or bored – and faced Arthur almost by accident. For a moment she studied him expressionlessly; his blue eyes flicked to Gaius with something of a question or plea in them. He'd never had female playmates.

He said to her, "Can you hold your breath and swallow at the same time? I can."

Gaius bit back a smile at the young prince's idea of a conversational topic meant to put her at her ease.

Again, Morgana didn't respond. She only stared at him coolly another moment, then looked away. Arthur's face fell.

Gaius wanted to assure him that the failure to connect was not his fault. That the girl was hurting and probably frightened, and dealing with her change of situation the best she could. There would be time for all of them to adjust.

"Arthur," the king said impatiently. "Stop teasing her. Come, Morgana, I will walk with you to your chamber."

He put his hand on her shoulder again, tenderly solicitous, and took each step slowly at her side, speaking to her occasionally though she didn't appear to answer. Gaius glanced around to see that the faces watching the two wore expressions of pleased approval – a lady in Camelot again, how appropriate, perhaps she'll soften the king a bit, he needs a touch of femininity in his life

Arthur stood and watched them go, unmoving, and it was rare that Gaius could not tell what the boy was thinking.

"There will be changes," he said gently, patting the prince's shoulder. "But it will all be for the best, I'm sure."

Arthur tore himself away from Gaius' hand, and dashed across the courtyard.

Gaius watched him go, and sighed.

He missed Alice.

A/N: Next chapter, Merlin raids across the border at Caerleon's command, and Arthur makes the capture.

So this is my new WIP. Because there was a tie in the poll, I went with the story that I had a chapter ready for… But "Past Faults and Future Perils" will be next after this, then.

Few details: I can't make any guarantees about updates or chapter length, I'll just be up front about that. It'll employ multiple POV's, including Arthur and Merlin and Morgana (I'm going to try to remember to start the section with the name of the character whose POV I'm employing). I'm going to explore some Mergana eventually, but at this point I'm not planning for that to be the endgame for this arc…

I'm going to include some chapters or sections of their childhood like this one – Merlin, Morgana, and Arthur – as it bears relevance to the current complication (beginning of season 3).

And sections of synopsis, where the episodes of seasons 1 and 2 happened differently because Merlin did not come to Camelot. To clarify: doing it this way might make it seem like I think, things would have been 'better' if Merlin hadn't come (especially when it comes to Morgana's choices), but I don't want to give that impression – not better, just different. I don't believe that Arthur would have been dead the first 'episode' without Merlin there to save him; I believe that because he has a destiny to fulfill, he's going to fulfill it. And if it's not Merlin's responsibility to protect him in these few specific incidents, then someone else is going to fill in, either directly or because the situation itself rolls differently. Also, I don't mean to imply that Merlin bears any fault, directly or indirectly, in Morgana's choices in-canon; the differences with her character are, I believe, because her character is very likely to be influenced by the situation and attendant emotions, more than ingrained standards.

Also (long author's note, sorry), because 'Caerleon' seems to refer to the man, his castle, and his kingdom, I've taken the liberty of giving him a first name, and another for their castle, though they wouldn't necessarily be familiar enough with outsiders for the usage to become common. Therefore, Thurston and Annis, king and queen of Caerleon.