Author's Note: This is my first Merlin fic. I was rewatching the first season and came across the episode Excalibur and was struck by the interaction between Uther and Arthur. It prompted me to write this fic as a kind of character study on Uther. Reviews are welcome!
Uther Pendragon had never been what anyone would consider a good and loving father. Most of the court, and those subjects of the Kingdom that cared to speculate probably thought he was cold and brutal to Arthur. He could understand why. When Arthur had been born, and Igraine had died, Uther had been beside himself. He had loved Igraine more than life itself. He would have gladly, without a thought, taken her place in the bargain he had made with Nimueh. How many times had he questioned his actions? Had the need for an heir overtaken his love for Igraine? He hadn't meant for her to die – he hadn't understood what Nimueh was saying to him when she said there must be a balance – a life for a life. He hadn't wanted to listen to her – he just had plans and images in his head – he wanted an heir – a happy family, he, Igraine, and a son to reign when he passed. Uther imagined that his poor barren wife would give birth to a strong young boy – with his dark hair, strong build, and her gentle smile, piercing blue eyes, and warmth of heart. Instead, what he ended up with was a dead wife. She had held the infant after he'd been born for a few brief moments as she began to fade, and named him Arthur. Then, because somehow she knew she was dying – she had clutched Uther's hand and whispered words that would always burn in his memory.
"I love you, Uther Pendragon. Take our son and raise him to be the King you always dreamed he would be – but love him for me, and keep him from all harm." She had pressed Arthur into Uther's hands, as if she could will Uther to love his son enough for both of them, and by morning, she was gone. Gaius had stayed with her through the night, muttering about how she shouldn't be ill – how there had been no complications during birth. Gaius hadn't said what Uther had been thinking. It was magic – and it was all Uther's fault.
When Gaius had announced the Queen's death in the way of a gentle, caring friend, something died in Uther.
He had looked down at the baby still clutched in his arms. Arthur was pale and small against the black cloth of Uther's tunic. In his face, Uther saw nothing but Igraine, and a cold knot of despair and disgust formed in Uther's stomach. He had given up his beautiful wife for the silent infant in his arms that he felt nothing for. Abruptly, he had handed the baby to Gaius.
"Get him out of my sight," he remembered whispering.
"But sire… Your son needs you!" Gaius, ever the faithful friend, would not let the matter go so easily, and for the first time, Uther had turned his cold, unfeeling eyes on Gaius – and the feelings he only allowed out during battle became set on his face and in his heart.
"Never question me again. Get out of my sight!" he had roared, and the servants had looked at him in terror and Gaius had pulled Arthur tight to his chest, a never before seen look of fear on his face, and he had fled the room. Uther knew the physician was afraid of what Uther might do to the baby – proof that his dear friend knew him too well, because part of him wanted to kill the baby and take away the reminder of Igraine. Uther didn't see his infant son for weeks.
Instead, as coldness descended all around him, he launched into a reign of terror, killing anything magical in his path. He drove Nimueh from the court, but would have killed her if he could have. No amount of begging from her had brought Igraine back. The kingdom was turned on its side. The once gentle and fair King turned black and angry, and they had never seen so much death. It was then that Uther demanded absolute loyalty from his subjects, and those found to be lacking were put to death at his whim.
When Tristan had come to avenge his sister's death, Uther had been tempted to let the man kill him. It would take away the desperation in his heart. But something kept the will to live alive, and although he took no joy in it, he had slain his wife's brother in combat, and had left the field emptier than before. Tristan hadn't even wanted to see his nephew.
Nothing was too great to be tackled, and Uther's campaign of revenge and death leapt to great heights as he began slaying dragons – and the dragon lords. Nothing satiated him. Nothing brought back Igraine. It wasn't until all but the Great Dragon were dead that Uther's mad rush into death was slowed. He stood before the Great Dragon, as the Dragon Lord Balinor held the dragon in place, but the old lizard wasn't so easily taken – and he could still use his voice as a weapon.
"Uther Pendragon – you leave quite the legacy for your son," his voiced boomed, fire in his eyes as he looked down at the mortal king. His words gave Uther pause.
"What do you know of my son?" he demanded, having forgotten all about Arthur.
"I know he will be the greatest King this land will ever see, despite having you for a father. He will far surpass anything you could ever dream of for him – and he will be good, the opposite of you," the Dragon had roared. Uther had stood there, ready to bring the killing blow to the dragon, but his words had pricked something in Uther's heart. Arthur. His son – his heir. He knew enough of magic to know that dragon's were often able to see the future. Something in his heart warmed just enough to imagine his son – grown and ready for the crown – a man able to undo all the wrong that Uther knew someplace in his heart that he had done. A legacy to leave behind – a promise for the future. From that moment forward, Arthur was the only thing that touched his heart until Morgana became his ward. Still, Uther could suffer no magic to usurp him, and so he locked the dragon away deep in the bowels of the castle, having the Dragon Lord bind him in enchanted chains. And then, because the darkness inside him was too great, he tried to kill the dragon lord so that the dragon would never be set free.
That night, after he had captured the dragon, he finally went to see his child. He had wanted nothing to do with the infant – blaming the hapless child for the death of his mother, when in reality, he knew with every fiber of his being that no one but Uther himself was responsible for Igraine's death – but that could never be known. He had sworn Gaius to secrecy over the origin of Arthur's birth. When he entered the nursery that night, the woman that had been entrusted with Arthur's care had leapt to her feet, shocked to see her King, especially considering a month had passed since the baby's birth, and in all that time he had never come. It was well past the middle of night, but Uther was silently pleased that she was awake, watching over his son.
"My Lord," she had gasped out, rushing to straighten her skirts, but Uther had simply waved a hand at her.
"How is my son?" he asked sternly. She trembled a bit before him, but smiled tentatively.
"He's perfect, Sire."
Her response was exactly what Uther had wanted to hear, and he moved past her to the bassinet where Arthur lay, close to the fire, but not too close. As promised, the baby was sleeping peacefully, and Uther examined the boy. He didn't have much experience with babies, but Arthur seemed too small. Never the less, he looked healthy. As he stared down at Arthur, he knew that great things would be expected of the boy – if the dragon was telling the truth. That meant that Uther would have to raise him up to be strong and capable – and without Igraine, Uther wasn't really sure how. So he had done it in the only way he'd known how – with a stiff upper lip and stern words and lectures.
At first Uther had been afraid that the wall of hatred and anger he had built inside of himself to keep the self-loathing and despair he felt at bay would be melted by Arthur. He was a good child – he cried little and charmed everyone he came into contact with. His nurses all loved him like their own children and Gaius adored the boy. This drove Uther to be even harder on the child, unwilling to let others make him soft. What saved Uther from giving in like everyone else had was Arthur's appearance. By the time he was one, he had a full head of golden blond hair – just like his mother's. It had been like a sword wound to the stomach for Uther. Then it soon became clear that Arthur's blue eyes were there to stay. Uther had told himself that all babies were born with blue eyes, and that most gradually changed to their intended color – but Arthur's remained bright blue – just like his mother's.
It continued on like this – Arthur had his mother's pale, flawless skin and then her build. That became clear as he reached the age in between ten and twenty. Uther had hoped that the resemblance between his son and Igraine would fade some as the boy's body matured – that he would gain Uther's thicker body and strong shoulders, but Arthur grew lean and tall – and while Uther had been afraid this would be a weakness, instead it was a well-used attribute. Because he was lighter and thinner, Arthur was unspeakably fast and agile, and his height gave him the advantage on the battlefield. Because he looked so much like his mother, it gave Uther the strength to hold him at arm's length.
Through the years, the servants and common people had often muttered and disapproved of Uther's treatment of Arthur. He was well aware that they told stories of how Uther had refused to see his child for a month after he was born. He knew they had disapproved when Uther had given Arthur his first sword at the age of four and had him train with the knights by five. It was no secret that they all thought that Uther was only interested in Arthur as heir – not as son, that he was more a knight than a child. But Uther had wanted Arthur to be strong – and safe. He wanted his son to know sword-craft and to be able to protect himself, and others. It was evident right away that Arthur was as different from his father as night from day – and not just in appearances. The boy cared for wounded animals and asked countless questions on why there were rich and why there were poor. When he had become the age of fifteen, he became politely rebellious – often sneaking out into Camelot unaccompanied to see how the people lived and to understand those he would someday rule.
Uther had done his best to stamp the wildness out of Arthur, and had succeeded in teaching the boy that all magic was evil. He had so ingrained it into Arthur that he was sure his son would never question him. And although he knew that Gaius disapproved, he had bred the arrogance of privilege into Arthur. The young prince wanted for nothing and Uther never missed an opportunity to remind Arthur that he was better than those around him – though he never personally gave the boy praise. His actions were only reinforced by the fact that Arthur truly was a great warrior. It didn't take long for his father and the other knights to realize he'd been born with a natural talent for war. By the age of twenty, Arthur was the most revered knight in all of Camelot – and not simply because he was the Prince and heir apparent. Arthur truly was exceptional, and Uther had been proud to give command of the knights and the army to him.
Gaius had beamed that day, as proud of Arthur as Uther was, but Gaius could show his joy and Uther could not. Instead, he had just seized Arthur's elbow in a guarded moment while the knight's weren't paying attention.
"Don't muck this up Arthur," he had said sternly, and as always, the quick flash of hurt in Arthur's eyes only showed for an instant before the boy stiffened and just nodded his head.
"Of course, sire. I won't let you down," he had promised, and the conviction in his voice had almost brought the well-hidden emotions under Uther's hard shell to the surface. Part of him wished he could embrace Arthur, tell him how proud he was – and how important Arthur was to him, but he couldn't allow that.
Once, Gaius, who had moments of trying to push past the "new" Uther to the "old" Uther, had gone off on a tirade about the fact that Arthur had admitted that he was certain Uther hated him and held him responsible for his mother's death. The words had obviously sickened the physician, and if Uther was honest with himself, they had sickened him as well, but he had simply brushed his old friend off. "Arthur must never know of the circumstances surrounding his birth," was the only response he would give Gaius.
So it continued on like this, with Uther holding Arthur at arm's length as the boy matured. Arthur became a strong and enigmatic young man. The knight's followed him like he was already their King – a fact that both thrilled and frightened Uther. The people loved him – they thought he was wise and just (and he'd heard they added "…completely opposite of his father.") He had all the trappings of youth – he was young and confident, and good-looking – every woman he ever met except for Morgana and her maid seemed taken with him. Many of the knights, though loyal to the end and in great awe of Arthur's skill grumbled about how cocky and arrogant he could be, but there was also a clear soft underbelly to the Prince that he was careful to only show when he wanted to. That alone endeared him to his men. It made Uther's heart ache because it reminded him so much of Igraine. Uther was certain that he would never break the mask he had kept in place for so long – never allow Arthur to see his true feelings, but that all changed when Tristan came back from the dead.
Uther recalled being frozen in place when the wraith had thrown down his gauntlet the first time in the great hall after he had just officially sworn Arthur in as Crown Prince. It had ruined a beautiful moment. Arthur, his son – his heir – the future King of Camelot, had sworn his allegiance to his father, and had looked up into Uther's eyes with trust and conviction that Uther knew he didn't deserve. Somehow, despite how coldly he'd treated Arthur, the boy had grown to love his father. Arthur had always been eager to please, and although Uther gave praise sparingly, the boy constantly fought for it – bending over backwards to bring Uther pleasure. Uther had silently been delighted to be on the receiving end of a son's love that he didn't deserve. So when Arthur had sworn his allegiance to Camelot, it had been one of the happiest moments of Uther's life, and he almost didn't think of Igraine, even as he stared down into copies of her eyes.
But Tristan's wraith had destroyed the moment and despite the fact that the knights and Arthur stood protectively before their King, sword's drawn, Uther knew that the cast gauntlet was for him – not for Arthur or the knights. He'd been frozen to the floor, so shocked that he'd done nothing when Arthur had moved to reach for the gauntlet, and he would never be more grateful than when Owain, feeling brash and arrogant had beaten his Prince to the challenge.
Later, Uther sat in his chambers, fear and shame gripping his heart. He was ashamed because he was glad Owain had taken the challenge – and not himself – or worse yet, Arthur. And he was afraid because he remembered Tristan's dying words – a threat that he would be back to wreak revenge on Camelot. He'd forgotten it until that moment.
Sitting there, watching the fight the next day, he selfishly hoped that Owain, though young and inexperienced, would kill the black knight. He had spent the night convincing himself that dead men couldn't live – and even Gaius couldn't convince him that Tristan was back – until Owain was slain and Arthur had tried to leap the wall to get to the gauntlet. Fear had rushed through his body, and with a grip of iron he'd seized Arthur's arm in enough time that Sir Pelinor had the chance to take up the challenge. Arthur had been furious with him – and confused.
Uther couldn't blame the boy –it was the one promised that he had given to Igraine that he hadn't kept. In his push to ensure that Arthur wasn't weak, he had thrown his son into danger after danger. At his young age, Arthur had seen more death, fought more monsters, and killed more men than some of his seasoned knights. There had been more than one occasion that Gaius had to sit next to Arthur's bed through long nights, treating sword wounds and stabs from lances and knives. Already Arthur's lean, muscled body was covered in pale white scars. So to forbid Arthur to fight against another warrior, which was against the knight's code was unexplainable to Arthur, and Uther just couldn't come out and tell Arthur the truth about Tristan or what he and Gaius suspected – no more than he could tell the boy about his birth. Arthur had been stung, convinced Uther thought he was too weak to defeat the black knight – when Uther knew that defeat was impossible and death was certain.
He wasn't wrong, and although the knight should have died at Sir Pelinor's hand, instead he lost another good knight, and was prepared to wrestle Arthur to the ground if he tried to accept another gauntlet thrown – but he should have known better – and he reflected that if he'd really known Arthur, he would have already been able to foresee his son's next move. Instead, he watched in horror as Arthur's own gauntlet seemed to fly in slow motion to land at Tristan's feet.
"I, Arthur Pendragon, challenge you," his son, standing to his feet, announced with cool conviction.
Uther felt his heart seize – something he hadn't thought possible after Igraine's death. Never before had Arthur been in such mortal danger – never before had Uther realized his son was knocking – no banging – at death's door.
Later, forbidding Arthur to fight proved useless. Not only had his son taken every lesson about what it meant to be a knight and the Prince of Camelot to heart, but he was showing more and more that he had a mind of his own, and despite his loyalty and love for both Camelot and his King, he was still his own man. When it became clear that Arthur would not be swayed, Uther had grown desperate. He couldn't lose Arthur – he couldn't lose his son like he'd lost Igraine. He realized that the only thing in the world he loved was Arthur. Even if he couldn't always show it, he could finally admit it to himself. He cared about Morgana – but it wasn't the same as his own, flesh and blood child. Uther felt sick that Arthur might die and never know how his father truly felt about him. That the cruel, hard man that was Uther had something else buried deep inside of him.
So he went to Gaius and demanded the physician mix a sleeping draft and administer it to Arthur. Gaius had argued. His friend had never thought twice about speaking his mind, even if he was abruptly silenced. Uther didn't care if he died as long as Arthur lived. It wasn't a hard argument to win – Gaius loved Arthur as well, so he had done as Uther had asked and mixed the draught, taking it to Arthur and convincing the stubborn prince to drink it as something to help his strength for the next day. Before Uther had ordered the doors to Arthur's room to be bolted securely from the outside, he had allowed himself a few private minutes with his sleeping child – an act that had the guards looking nervous. He'd sat on the bed and stroked Arthur's blond hair to the side, getting a really good look at his son, imagining it would be the last time he'd ever get the chance. He pressed a kiss to Arthur's forehead, knowing his son would never know, then left without a word, having the guards seal their Prince in behind him.
Although Uther had never been impressed with Arthur's manservant, Merlin, except for the times he'd saved Arthur's life at great risk to his own (the boy seemed rather impertinent and Uther was sure he'd heard him refer to Arthur as "Arthur" or "Prat" rather than "Your Highness" or "Sire"), he did have to admit the scrawny creature was exceptionally loyal to his son. He had proven that again when he had been awaiting Arthur to prepare him for battle. In his hands was the most beautiful sword that Uther had ever seen – and Merlin had said it had been forged specifically for Arthur, but Uther hadn't cared and had carried it into battle anyway.
The battle was still a bit of a blur to Uther, and he was still shocked he was alive and the wraith was gone – but all that really meant to him was that Arthur was safe. Safe – and furious. The youth's righteous indignation and hurt that his father hadn't trusted him to win had cut Uther deeply – and before he could stop himself, he found himself finally saying words to Arthur that had been bottled up since the first time Uther had witnessed Arthur injured – as a three year old with a slice in his head from a tumble into a wooden table. So he told his son that he was everything to him – and that he couldn't bear to see anything happen to him. Arthur's reaction had been hurtful but not unexpected.
"I always thought I was a big disappointment to you," the boy had said, blue eyes covered in confusion.
And Uther had taken the blame for that – because it was his fault – and he was to blame. They stood there, having a rare father-son moment, then Arthur had grinned and insisted Uther should come train with the Knights to work on his footwork – and just like that, apparently all was forgiven. And so most people would consider Uther a bad father – including himself – but in his own, he loved and cared for Arthur in a way no one else could. He might have regretted some of what he had done in his life – but one thing he was proud of was Arthur – and he had great hopes for his son – for the future.