He had not thought taking in Morgana would be so much trouble. But there had been no woman left in his life to tell him about the nature of young girls, to explain their quicksilver tempers and their awkward, childish pride. There had been no woman to smile wryly or laugh and say, Don't be an idiot, love. Young girls are always difficult. And as for that one...
No. There had been no woman.
But there had been a promise, a vow knotted so tightly into his many griefs that even if he had known what a trial Morgana would prove to be he still would have cared for her. Uther Pendragon had always had his pride and his honour. And now at the price of a promise, he had a young girl as his ward.
In the past when Morgana's father had brought her with him to Camelot she had been a scrawny little thing, quiet and serious and easy for a grown man to ignore if he chose. When she became his ward she was still quiet, but not quite so scrawny. She had some of the look of her mother: the light skin, the stubborn chin balanced out by high cheekbones and the low, serious brow that somehow translated into loveliness. At the time he'd just been pleased that her beauty would one day make it easier to marry her off.
He had been kind to her upon her arrival, and he had introduced her to Arthur, who had viewed her with the wariness of a boy who was not yet used to certain girls looking at him as if he were something particularly nasty they'd found on the bottom of their shoe. Uther left her care entirely to her maidservants, and felt as if his duty to her had been fulfilled. He saw little of her for months.
Until, of course, Gaius interfered.
"I fear for her health, Highness," Gaius murmured. Gaius, whom Uther trusted, was always careful with his words. Fear meant that Uther's attention was required, whether he liked it or not. Honour demanded it. "She rarely eats. Her nightmares are growing more… difficult."
"Then give her a higher dose of one of your draughts," said Uther crisply. They were standing out on the battlements. A cool wind was blowing. Even through the barrier of his gloves Uther could feel the chill in the air, the edge of frost pinching at his weatherworn face. "Surely you can handle a child, Gaius."
"Draughts, I can make," he said. "But I do not think they will be enough, sire."
They looked at one another. There was no need for further words to be spoken, not on this matter – the two of them had shared in times of great tragedy that could not be easily forgotten. Uther understood about wounds that could not be healed; wounds that clung to the soul and festered, awful and raw. Uther had purged his in fire. But no Purge would bring solace to the girl in his care, and apparently no draught either. He thought of her small, solemn face; how she had tilted her head up to peer at his with red-rimmed eyes on the day she had come to Camelot. A vague feeling of pity rose up within him. More than pity he felt guilt, and the acrid taste of it was heavy on his tongue.
"I will talk to her," Uther said, turning to stare steadily ahead.
Gaius did not thank him. The King's decision was the King's own, and to suggest that Gaius had had any hand in it would have been unseemly. Gaius smiled regardless. Uther, who could see the physician's expression from the corner of his eye, chose to ignore it.
Uther did not delay going to visit his ward. Once a decision was made, he rarely hesitated on carrying it through. He had expected to find Morgana lying listless in her bed; weeping, perhaps. But when he entered the room he found her sitting by the window, dressed in a plain day gown with her dark hair neatly pinned back. At the sound of his entrance the girl turned to look at him and rose respectfully to her feet.
"My Lord," she said, a faint frown etched on her forehead. "Have you come to visit me?"
"It seems so," Uther murmured, giving the girl a measured stare. "Gaius informs me that you have not been taking care of yourself."
Something flickered through her pale eyes; perhaps a flash of surprise, or a feeling close to anger. But her expression did not change. Her face was placid, as if she had tucked each unnecessary emotion carefully out of sight. "I try, my Lord," she said. "But sometimes it's hard."
"Try harder then," said Uther.
"I don't think it is something I can control, my Lord," she replied, lifting her head to meet his gaze. Her pale eyes were unflinching, and her jaw tight. "I must grieve."
"Grieve if you need to, but in the future try to eat, sleep and grieve. Do you understand, Morgana?"
She said nothing. And this was ridiculous, she was a child. She had no right to contradict him or stare at him with those narrow, insolent eyes, so woman-like in their awareness of all his myriad faults and failings. He reminded himself that the way she was looking at him did not make her an adult. It made her a girl in a sulk.
A girl grieving.
"You haven't cared before," she said, and her lilting voice trembled. She swallowed, throat working, and when she spoke again the tremor had gone. "I don't need anyone's pity, my Lord."
"You avoid and leave me with servants every day, my father – " Morgana stopped abruptly. Took a breath; continued. "You don't want me here. I know pity when I see it."
Surprise warred with annoyance in him at her words. She had no right to speak him so – less than no right, in fact. But against all the odds he felt a smile tugging at his lips. Greater men had trembled in his presence many, many times before and would so in the future. And yet this child… this child looked at him with accusation, with annoyance, but no fear. No fear at all.
If anyone else had dared to speak to him in such a way – anyone else's child – there would have been severe repercussions. But when Uther looked at Morgana's blazing eyes and the stubborn set to her jaw he was hit by a feeling of nostalgia so strong that it gripped his heart like a vice.
For all that she had the look of her mother, Morgana was clearly her father's daughter through and through.
"Then you have my most sincere apologies," he said courteously. He held out one hand towards her. "Walk with me," he requested, voice soft. "And I will attempt to make it up to you."
She was not frightened of him, but he could have taught her to be. He didn't want to. He saw the way she hesitated, starting at his gloved hand as if it were a threat in disguise. He realised how scrawny she had become again. Her slim fingers touched his hand with all the lightness of bird bones.
"I don't need a new father," she said in a strange voice.
"And I would never attempt to replace him," he told her, and felt a sense of tenderness spark in him for the first time for this prickly, sullen and brave girl. His life had long been one of honour, yes, but there had been little kindness in it. He clasped her hand and the moment with uncharacteristic care. "Will that suffice, Morgana?"
"Yes." Her hand tightened its hold on his, and she looked away. Her eyes were damp, and her voice choked. "Thank you, my Lord."
He didn't not acknowledge her tears. To do so would have been a betrayal of the pact they had just made, a pact of respect and remembrance. Instead he nodded, once, and led her out into the corridor where the sun poured in through the narrow windows and people were hurrying along to carry out chores and duties. If any servant gave the sight of the King and his ward walking together a second look of surprise then Uther did not take note of it.
Instead he kept holding onto Morgana's small hand, guiding her through her new home, and told her about a promise he had once made to her father.