Disclaimer: This story is a missing scene from The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. The Crystal Cave is the story of Merlin's childhood and youth as told by Merlin himself. I highly recommend it and its three sequels to everyone.
Author's Note: Merlin is the bastard son of the daughter of a Welsh king. When he is twelve years old, his uncle becomes king, and Merlin knows his life is forfeit if he remains. By a strange twist of fate—or by 'putting himself in the hand of the god'—Merlin arrives at the court of Aurelius Ambrosius, the Count of Brittany. For various reasons, Ambrosius's brother, Uther, dislikes young Merlin.
This scene takes place just after Uther first sees Merlin wearing a brooch Ambrosius has given him—a brooch with the insignia of the royal red dragon. Uther then takes a good look at Merlin's face and sees what others have seen.
Merlin the Bastard
Ambrosius had heard the heavy tramp of booted feet striding swiftly toward his office but did not truly pay it mind until he heard his brother's voice tell his clerk, Sollius, "I must see the Count."
"Of course, sir," the clerk said swiftly. "Go straight in." For anyone else, Sollius would have checked with Ambrosius before sending the man through, but Sollius had been with Ambrosius long enough to know that he never kept his brother waiting.
Uther swept aside the soft leather curtains of the doorway and ducked slightly as he came through. It was the instinctive gesture of a man who frequently found himself taller than the lintels under which he passed. Here it was unnecessary. Ambrosius was even taller than his younger brother, and the doorways of his house had been built tall enough that he never had to stoop. That Uther had ducked here in their own house indicated that his mind was elsewhere.
That Uther had come still splashed with the mud of travel and still smelling of the horse he'd ridden also spoke volumes about the urgency of his errand. Of course, Uther was prey to thinking his errands more urgent than those of others simply because they were his, but on the whole, Uther was an accurate judge of men and of situations. If whatever it was had brought Uther straight to his brother and commander rather than to the pleasure of his bath, it was probably urgent indeed. Ambrosius allowed the scroll he'd been reading to roll closed and dropped his stilus on the wax tablet on which he'd been making notes.
But rather than speak, Uther crossed the room to the small table bearing wine and two goblets. Uther splashed some wine into one goblet and drank it straight off. As he poured more he asked, "When were you planning to tell me he's your bastard?"
Merlin. Ambrosius had known this conversation was coming. "When you came back from this patrol," Ambrosius said calmly. Uther looked over his shoulder sharply, disbelief in his eyes. "Truly. I could hardly hope to keep it a secret much longer. The gossip has been spreading all over camp. I'm surprised Merlin hasn't heard the whispers yet."
"He doesn't know?" Uther asked in surprise. He sprawled in the carved chair by the brazier and looked across the cluttered worktable at his brother.
"I don't think he does." Ambrosius found it strange that he did not, and stranger yet that Merlin had found his way to his father's court without knowing that Ambrosius was his father. "His first night here, he told me that his mother had never told him who his father is, and I believe him. And since then—the rumours started spreading around the camp shortly after you left, but I don't think Merlin has heard them."
Uther laughed a short bark of a laugh and shook his head. "You didn't tell me. You haven't told him. I never realized how secretive you are, brother."
"It was necessary. I needed time to decide what to do."
"Oh?" Uther watched him carefully. Uther was not one to idly sit by and see himself supplanted as his brother's heir by a bastard son—especially not by one who by his own admission would never be a warrior and was thus ill-suited for kingship. Ambrosius knew that perilous path still lay ahead, but it wasn't the dilemma he referred to now.
"I needed time to know his heart," Ambrosius explained. "His grandfather was a staunch ally of Vortigern, and thus no friend of ours." Ambrosius found himself smoothing away the mark on the wax tablet where he'd dropped the stilus. "And I found it strange that Merlin found his way here if he really didn't know I was his father."
"You wanted to know if he'd been sent here to be an enemy within your own household."
"Yes," Ambrosius admitted.
"And do you think you know his heart now?" Uther asked. Something in his tone caused Ambrosius to look up sharply. "Do you know where your brat was tonight?"
Ambrosius did not, but it was more than apparent that Uther did.
"My men and I were returning to town when we caught Merlin coming out of the forest," Uther explained. He put the goblet aside on the small table and leaned forward as if about to impart the most important part of his news. "In his saddlebag was a white robe splashed with blood and reeking of the holy smoke. You know tonight was the equinox. Somewhere in the forest tonight, they met for their damned sacrifices to the goddess, and Merlin was in the thick of it."
Ambrosius rose heavily from his chair and moved to the shuttered window behind his work table. He put a hand to the shutter, craving fresh air, but let his hand fall away again without opening it; he did not wish to admit the cold.
He turned to face Uther again but his gaze strayed to the empty stool by the brazier. In the months since Merlin had come to Brittany, it had become their custom for Merlin to join him here after supper. Merlin would sit on that stool, and he, Ambrosius, would sit in the chair where Uther was now poised like a crouching lion. Ambrosius would ask Merlin to tell him about his childhood in Wales or about his lessons that day. Sometimes Merlin would play his harp and sing. Or Ambrosius would talk. He would speak about Maximus, the Roman general who married a Welsh princess and became the first High King of Britain, or he would speak about his beloved elder brother, murdered by Vortigern when he stole the throne of Britain. They were both tales of Merlin's own family, even if Merlin did not yet know it, and Merlin drank them in.
Ambrosius had become genuinely fond of the boy, and that made this revelation doubly hard. The gathering Merlin had attended tonight was against King Budec's laws, laws that Ambrosius had promised to uphold when he become the Count of his kinsman's forces, but Ambrosius had looked the other way for lesser men, such as the boy's tutor Belasius, if they were useful. What truly bothered Ambrosius was what Merlin's participation in these bloody rites might reveal about the boy's character.
He wondered if tonight had been the first time Merlin had attended such a rite. It was possible that Belasius had brought the boy without adequately warning him what was to transpire. Cadal should be able to tell him. He'd given Cadal strict orders to stay with Merlin at all times. He was there for Merlin's safety, not to be a spy, but he would be able to tell him what he needed to know.
"Was Cadal with him?" Ambrosius asked his brother.
"No, he was alone, but he said that he had gone out with Ulfin. He was riding a brown mare, and he said that his pony had gone lame. He'd left Ulfin to lead the pony home while he rode home on the mare so as not to be late."
Ambrosius found it troubling that Merlin had gone out without Cadal. There could be an innocent explanation, but Ambrosius couldn't help but wonder if Merlin had deliberately shed his watcher because he had known where he was going tonight and that the night's events needed to be kept secret. Ulfin was Belasius's slave and would keep his master's secrets.
"His exact words were, 'Usually your brother sends for me after supper, and I didn't wish to keep him waiting'," Uther continued. "Whether he knows he's your bastard or not, he's quick to use your name when he thinks it might get him out of trouble. I don't trust him, Ambrosius, and you'd be wise not to trust him either."
Ambrosius nodded at the wisdom of Uther's advice, as difficult as it was to hear. He looked again at the wax tablet and added a few more words. Uther took the hint that his brother wished to be alone and stood to leave.
"I'm sorry," Uther said as he placed a comforting hand on his brother's shoulder. "This would be easier if—" Uther left the thought unfinished and let his hand fall away.
"If I were merely sharing my bed with him like you originally thought?" Ambrosius asked with a slight smile.
Uther laughed. "What did you expect me to think of your sudden obsession with this boy?"
"How could you think anything else?" Ambrosius agreed. Uther didn't seem to notice the slight emphasis on the word "you." Someday, Ambrosius hoped, Uther would learn to think with his head and not his prick.
They both heard the sounds of soldiers coming to attention as someone entered the anteroom where Sollius worked, and Uther turned his head toward the curtained doorway. Ambrosius did not. It was the time of the evening when he usually sent for the boy, and although he had not yet done so tonight, Merlin must know that Ambrosius would want to speak with him after speaking to Uther.
"What are you going to do?" Uther asked.
Ambrosius inhaled deeply. "First, I'm going to speak with Merlin. I need to hear his explanation of tonight. And then—we shall see." Uther nodded at his brother and went out.
"You may as well go straight in, sir. He'll be expecting you," he heard Sollius say.
Behind him, Ambrosius heard the leather curtain being pulled aside and then falling back into place. Ambrosius had never been one to put off difficult or painful tasks, so he turned now to face his son. For a brief moment, Ambrosius had wondered if tonight's rite would have left its imprint on the boy's face, if he would look less innocent than he had last night. He saw no change, but as he looked into the boy's dark eyes he realized that they had never seemed to be a child's eyes.
"Merlin." He gestured toward the stool. "Sit down."
—Written November 2005