XII. Balinor castle

10 years later Arthur, King of Camelot, was once more on progress through his realm, as always accompanied by his Court Magician Merlin and by his adopted sister, the Dowager Queen Morgana.

Until two years ago he had also been in the company of the retired court physician Gaius as well as of Camelot's first minister and Lord Privy Seal Eric. However, they had passed away in the space of three months, much mourned by all their friends and kinfolk. When at home Merlin often went down to the castle crypt to visit his beloved uncle's grave.

After much celebration on the barons' castles and cities, the young King and his Queen Guinivere took the road back to Camelot. As was their custom since Arthur's succession to the throne they paused at the castle of Balinor.

Drenched to the bones by a sudden rainstorm the royal party decided to stay the night. They had never done this before while on progress and Merlin, being proud of his private home which had been Arthur's present when he had proclaimed him Court Magician, virtually grew a centimetre or two when they praised his furnishings. Normally as conscious of his composure and dignity as his King, the Court Magician wasn't beyond some human vanity and enthusiasm when it came to his home or family.

While Merlin's mother Hunith supervised the preparations for dinner, many a courtier jumped at the opportunity to make amends to the young warlock. The King hadn't reacted very friendly to rumours of arrogant nobles sneering at the former manservant's relationship with the Dowager Queen and her son, Mordred Vortigernsson.

While Lord Leon, the Pendragon's Master of Horses and head knight, organized the accommodation of the virtual herd of animals, people and train that belonged to a royal progress like flies belong to horse muck the royal couple retired to their rooms to "freshen up". Merlin, always siding with his friends, inwardly translated this as "getting rid of the whole idiocracy for a while".

After a splendid dinner the King decided to postpone the visit at King Vortigern's tomb until next morning and the whole lot, extremely grateful for one evening without further "entertainments", fell into their beds.

"Thank God, it's over for another year" Morgana yawned when she cuddled against Merlin in front of their private sitting room's fireplace.

"Have you found to your late husband's religion or where does the monotheistic exclamation come from?" Merlin took her in his arms and they both were silent for a moment.

"Merlin, I checked the date twice. Tomorrow would be the day to commemorate Uther's death for the tenth time. Isn't it odd that, with the rainstorm and the delay on Berengar's castle and everything, Arthur is going to visit Vortigern's grave exactly ten years after Uther was murdered by my sister? After all I think my brother accepted the Saxon as his second father after a while."

Abruptly pulling himself free, Merlin got up. "Your brother Arthur has never been overly pampered by kind and tender fatherly love. So why shouldn't he have loved even this brutal swine you married?"

"Vortigern was no swine, as you damn well know."

"Yes I know, I know everything. It was the resilient grain and the agricultural methods we imported from his continental realm which enabled Camelot to prosper and to sustain his huge army at the same time. His ships we used to establish our external trade and his army assured access to coastal cities and harbours, first under Vortigern's, then under Arthur's command. But I will never forget, nor forgive what he did to Arthur or to all the others, never, you hear me, never!"

Morgana also rose and took him back in her arms. "That's not really the reason, is it? He claimed your son to be his own, that's what's nagging at you."

Merlin leaned back into her embrace and closed his eyes. "The boy loved him so much, he still does. It's always 'my father the late King' here and 'my father the late King' there. He doesn't even see me."

Morgana kissed his hair. "Five years ago, a week after Vortigern's death, you and my brother agreed that the boy should never know you are his father. It was you who allowed Arthur to name him his heir when Gaius and the assembled council of the Druid healers confirmed that Guinivere would never give birth to a living child."

Merlin sighed. "It pleased the Saxon nobility and it almost killed Gwen. Wouldn't it be a nice change to live in a world where family is family and politics are politics?"

"Forget it, my sweetheart such a world is not for us. We both worked too hard to make Arthur King and Guinivere his Queen. We schemed and plotted all our lives to make it happen. Now we are stuck with being part of the royal game to the bitter end."

Settling down once again on the thick carpet, Merlin shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. "Sometimes I feel as if I couldn't look Arthur into the eyes anymore. There is so much we kept from him over the years. That Morgause had left the Druids and went after Uther on her own. That Uther Pendragon had been dead and buried for more than a month when Arthur was forced to face the assembly for his father's so called crimes."

"That a certain young magician had once tried to poison his foster sister for the sake of the Pendragons" Morgana chimed in.

Merlin looked at her pleadingly and reached out for her hand. When she took his, he said "you know why I did it."

"To save my brother, wasn't it? As always. Dear God" and she came down to him "if my brother only knew how much looking after he needs."

"Be glad he doesn't, he wouldn't like the thought. He's still the same arrogant royal prat."

Trying to change the subject she said "you know, I think it was this unique goofy smile of yours I first fell in love with."

He smiled at her but he didn't play along. "Did you ever tell your brother that Berengar had Vortigern poisoned for his affair with Berengar's youngest son?"

Morgana snorted. "Like hell I did. You know our beloved King, my precious. He would have laid fire to Berengar's estate, caused a civil war in his wrath. He is his father's son, you know?" Looking into the fire she said more softly "no, I didn't tell him. At that time, Berengar had too much support from the other barons. It took time to undermine his old alliances with the other great families. Besides, Vortigern never wanted the truth to spread. He feared for Camelot, for Arthur and all they had worked for in these five years. He said they had been the best years of his life. Even on the day he died he told me this."

"He died peacefully after you had taken away the pain" Merlin murmured. "I always wondered whether you could have saved him with your magic, after Gaius had given up on him. I most certainly would have thought to do it."

"I never tried."

"Why didn't you? You liked him even while you loved me!"

"He was happy when he died. His life's work had been fulfilled and my brother was more than ready to succeed him."

"Arthur didn't see it quite like that" the young magician remembered "he was devastated after Vortigern's death."

"Yes he would be, poor darling. But it all came true in the end. He is a great King."

"Yes, he is. You know, there is this nice gesture with his right hand when he dismisses someone, it looks really royal, don't you think?"

Morgana feigned a slap at his face. "Oh, stop it. Sometimes you are the prat. Even the barons speak of Arthur's "Golden Rule".

Merlin chuckled. "They ought to regarding the mass of gold it's flushing into their greedy fingers."

He stood up to pour himself a glass of wine. Morgana turned to him, suddenly serious. "As this seems to be our very personal and long postponed evening of truth, I have another question. You never told me why you didn't tell anyone, not even Gaius, that you had neutralized this stupid snake necklace after two days. Your magic was free and powerful when they first took Arthur from the dungeons to the northern tower. Why didn't you use it?"

Merlin sipped his wine for a while then he suddenly shuddered. Almost inaudibly he murmured "I did it for Uther's sake."

Raising his hand to quieten her he continued "I got knocked down in the vaults that evening, but I wasn't unconscious, only paralyzed and confused. I heard and saw what they did to your brother, but I could do nothing. After the brutes had dragged Arthur out Uther briefly talked to the two other men before they also left. Then he wiped his face with his hands and made back for the main castle. He... He carried me, comforted me. He said that I shouldn't worry, that everything was going to be all right in the end and that he would make sure of that. When he saw that the passage to Gaius' chamber was deserted, he carried me there. He told Gaius that Arthur had went out on a secret mission but that I had been injured by a wooden beam in a small cave in down in the ancient vaults. He were to stay with Gaius and me for the night until it was time to meet Arthur in the vaults again, on his return with some messages. I guess Gaius was too confused to see the holes in the story. While he searched for the stuff to treat my wound, Uther whispered to me, urging me to be quiet about what had happened; that Arthur's life depended on it. When Gaius returned Uther told both of us that, whatever happened, I was to protect his son with my magic until his return."

"To protect my brother with your what?"

"Uther knew. In fact he had guessed since I had brought Excalibur to the castle and later he had put two and two together. When you urged him to bring me and Arthur to the vaults at any costs, he was certain. I knew I couldn't fight the whole castle and occupation army single handed, even with my magic intact. Naturally I could have freed Arthur but he wouldn't have thanked me for inciting Vortigern to kill his other hostages. So I waited for Uther's return until it was too late. Your brother didn't want to escape anymore. When they officially freed me of the necklace he hugged me, do you remember?"

Morgana nodded. "Yes. He told you that one day he would make you the Court Magician of Camelot."

"Three weeks later you and I learned from the Druids that Morgause had killed his father long before. I didn't intend to tell Arthur then and I saw no reason to tell him when the great assembly declared Uther officially dead, to free the way for Arthur's succession to the throne."

Merlin swallowed the last of his wine. "Let him simply go on with his life, he deserves it. We all do. Now come to bed." He went to the bed chamber and Morgana followed him.

And so Balinor Castle, mostly without knowing it, slept into the tenth commemoration day of the death of Uther Pendragon, who once had been the King of Camelot.

- Finis -