39 There always is a price to pay
"He's dying" Morgyan said.
She could have said "the weather's changing."
Arthur, even to his own ears, sounded like a dimwit parrot when he repeated how sorry he was. The word was so pathetically inadequate.
"Is that all" Morgyan asked, still void of all obvious emotion. "He goes out, he falls into the sword that was meant for you, you and your son come back, and Antek's dying. You're sorry." She rose slowly, and suddenly she came for him like a tigress, grabbed him, nailed him against the wall "Goddess, Arthur, IS THAT ALL you have to say?"
A thousand well phrased platitudes went through Arthur's head, the kind of phrases that come easily to a Prince. Talk and forget. But in the end he just said "I would tell you so much more, if only I knew what has happened …. there. Perhaps Merlin could…"
Yes, Merlin. How very unfortunate that Merlin was in no state to talk.
"He wants to see you" Morgyan snapped, and let go of him, as if in acceptance of the futility of every effort. The unsaid words hurt them both. "You, Arthur. On his deathbed Antek wants to see you. Not me."
Without another sound she turned away and left the shelter.
For a moment, Arthur thought about following her. Be a coward, a deserter. How on earth should he ever speak to the man inside the other room. Antek, the traitor, the selfish courtier, the man who sold anyone to anyone if the price was right. The man who had almost got Uther killed, Merlin sold into slavery. Antek, without whose greedy appetite for the Rashnijaan nothing of this would ever have happened.
Antek of Llanfair, who had brazenly confronted death, his father, and hell itself, to pull Arthur Pendragon's precious arse out of the pit. Antek, who had, and more than once, stood between Arthur and death. Antek, whom Merlin had just put to use, like a tool, a heartless, soulless thing.
Merlin, the destroyer of Blackrock. Merlin, without whose reckless acts, Antek might still be a Lord of the Border, a friend to Camelot, a husband one day soon, a father, perhaps ….
All that, lost and gone, to spare a Pendragon Prince the trouble of taking things into his own hands.
All his life, Arthur had been surrounded by smiling faces, some kind, some fraudulent, some empty. Even with Leon, with the others, with his boyhood companions, he had had just two real, close personal friends in his life, and in their stumbling over each other in their eagerness to come to his rescue, the one had killed the other.
Only Merlin would know if he had gathered some evil satisfaction from getting Antek killed. And Merlin would have to live with that knowledge. As much as Arthur Pendragon had to.
A last duty then, and no escape from it.
Arthur sighed, turned, and went inside the tiny bedroom where Antek was waiting for him.
To his surprise, he found Gaius there, holding the dying man's wrist for a pulse.
"Shouldn't you be…." Arthur started, and Gaius finished "with your father, yes. Uther is interrogating the Druids – again! – to shed some light on the affair, as he calls it. As usual, darkness is spreading where your father holds the lamp. Ever since we came…Arthur, he'll still be the death of me."
Arthur felt a wave of gratitude wash over him. That Gaius was here, as wise and as warm-hearted as ever, that he could make jokes when things were so grim, and that these jokes were never misplaced, or cruel, or thoughtless.
Perhaps it was true, what he had been told. That Uther had been almost out of his mind with hurt and anger, when he had been informed that his baby son Arthur had spoken his first word ever. And that this first word, contrary to the King's express command, had not been "Dadda", let alone "father". No, Arthur Pendragon's first word on this earth had been "Gaia", as the ominous "-us" was still too much demanded.
"Talk to your father, Arthur" Gaius said, as if he'd been reading the Prince's thoughts. "One of these days. Talk to him. As fathers come – you could have done much worse." With a furtive, silent gesture of his hand, Gaius pointed at Antek's waxen face. The man who had had Anwar of Llanfair for a father.
"I was saying" Arthur said, not taking the bait "should you not be with Merlin?"
"No" Gaius stated firmly. "As usual there's not much I can do which his magic cannot do better, and quicker, and more sustainably. Except…."
"Except" finished Arthur ruefully "look after us until he wakes up to resume the job."
"Exactly" confirmed Gaius with a wicked grin. "You know, if I had known how much easier things are without keeping you and Uther in the dark about Merlin's talents – I would have told you myself. First thing in the morning you hired him."
"First of all – I did not hire him, Uther did. Second – it would have got you both killed. As it almost did when it came out in the end. My father …."
"Accepted magic back in Camelot. In the end."
"Because he had to, in order to save the realm."
"Strange" Gaius said. "I thought it was to save you from the consequences of your father's idiocy." Again, seemingly without reason, Gaius hand pointed at Antek's sleeping form. "A lot of people need you, Arthur. If anyone makes a sacrifice for you, do not throw it into his face. It's not polite."
"Is that what I'm in this world for" Arthur said irritably. "To be polite?"
"Some say" Gaius answered placidly "that this talk about destiny and fate is a crime, that it holds people back from fulfilling their potential, whatever that is. Perhaps something one could eat with a strawberry sauce. Or perhaps it is the pretentious babbling of those who think too highly of the human race. But if indeed we alone are masters of our lives – then your friends could have made other choices. Instead they chose you. Above the potentially abundant power of a sorcerer born of legends, above their fear and loathing of all magic in this world – even above the potential rise of a new Blackrock Castle. Let your friends be the judges of their own foolishness or wisdom. It is your duty to honour them for the choices they made on your behalf" Gaius cleared his throat discreetly. "Your Royal Highness."
"Long speech" Arthur said gently. Presently, he felt neither royal nor high. But then, truth be told, with Gaius he rarely did.
"Long enough to let Antek wake up I shouldn't wonder." Gaius turned, slapped Arthur on the shoulder and with a casual "good luck, my boy" he was gone. Doubtlessly there was another urgent holding operation waiting for him, with a Pendragon crest labelled to it in one way or the other.
"I'm here, Antek. Don't exert yourself." Arthur sat, and without the revulsion he had so feared, he took Antek's hand where Gaius had left it.
"I'm not a pretty sight, eh?" the withered skull with the sunken, greyish eyes that had once been so vivacious and vibrantly green, actually managed a smile. The gums were still bleeding, and Arthur thought from where this blood might still come in this broken shell of a human being. Three days ago, when Arthur had first come to, it had cost Gaius, recently arrived in King Uther's wake, one look at the Count to see that he was bleeding inside, and that there was no hope.
"Your vanity will still be the death of you, Antek of Llanfair."
Antek shook his head a little. "I think not." On his pillow the last strains of his formerly shining black mane, now whitish fluffs of hair, were caught and came off his skin, just like that. In Arthur's strong fingers, Antek's bones were brittle, light, like those of a bird.
"Perhaps" Arthur started clumsily, broke off, and started again "perhaps… if you could tell me what actually happened …. I might ….. you see, Morgaine would like to know."
"It wasn't Merlin's fault" Antek said. He talked in a whisper, but he was persistent. He had to say this, and he would. "The choice was mine, and mine alone. Face it, Pendragon. You're not the only hero in this world!"
"No buts, Your Royal Highness. Bear it." This stubborn tenacity was really the last shred of the man Arthur had known almost all his life. "Merlin wanted to fight through this alone, but once he'd told me that he could use me as a distraction … I was on my way. And I didn't turn back." Exhausted, Antek stopped talking.
"I…. I do not know what to say…."
"You can stop searching for the right medal in Camelot's chests, I did not do it for you, you royal oaf!"
Arthur looked up in perfect perplexity, to meet a very sarcastic gaze from the dying man. "That is what Your Royal Highness thought and feared, is it not" Antek added wheezily, but still grinning. "Rest your soul, Arthur. I did it for Blackrock. For my people. And for myself."
"I told you once, I told you a hundred times, Blackrock and the Llanfair Heritage are as dear to me as Camelot is to you. I told you, to hell with our fathers, and I put my trust in you, for both our peoples' sake. Why do you never listen?"
For a second, Arthur had it on his lips, that Blackrock could never be restored, that the Druids, that Merlin, Gaius, and all the other holders of magic and the Old Religion would never permit it – but he bit his tongue just in time. Antek did not deserve this, the one word that would tell him that all his sacrifices had been in vain.
And then – Llanfair was bigger than one haunted castle site, however splendid. "Antek, I promise you …."
"Yes, you might well promise me. And I promise you, I'll hold you to it; from the other world, I'll watch you and if you let me down, I'll come back to hold you responsible. I'm a Llanfair, Arthur. I mean it."
"I promise you" Arthur said with more earnestness "to do my best."
"Merco died for it. I had to murder my own father for it; I would have killed your father for it, every day of the week" Antek said feverishly. "You, I trusted. Don't you dare to let me down! I entrust Llanfair to you. I give it into your care, not as your own, not as a part of Camelot. I'm not making donations to the Pendragon Crown here!" He coughed raspingly, and could not go on.
"Antek…. if there were anyone but you, some cousin, uncle, a bastard line of the family … anyone. It would make forcing my father into heeding your wishes so much easier if there was a rightful claim …."
"That's just like you, Arthur" Antek muttered softly. "A trick. A lawyer's miracle. A court, a King in his fineries speaking in judgement amongst his peers."
"Is that so wrong?"
"No, there's nothing wrong with it, just that your father does not care, just like mine. Justice. To you it's everything, but to our fathers, it is nothing. But then, you wouldn't really turn against Uther, would you, not even for the debt of gratitude you owe me."
"This isn't fair, Antek…."
"No, it's not fair, life isn't fair, will you ever get that into this thick Pendragon skull of yours. I'm a Llanfair, I know all there is to know about the absence of fairness."
"Well, here's a claim for you. I know your father. Uther the greedy bastard, he'll not let go of Cendred's kingdom now that he's got it. Cendred is finished, his male line of succession is terminated and that is all the excuse Uther needs to make Camelot just a tiny bit bigger." Again, Antek fought for breath. From where he took the strength to talk like this, in his condition, was a mystery to Arthur. Somewhere deep inside this flippant, self-absorbed aristocratic brat a fire was still burning. A fire that more than matched the fire that once had driven Uther Pendragon to take the throne of Camelot.
Fleetingly, Arthur thought that he envied them. Such surety. Such self-righteousness. No room for doubt, no scruples – must be easier to rule this way. Who needed laws, or justice, or sleepless nights if he knew that he was above mistake. Above error. That he was always right.
"Do not get me wrong, Arthur" Antek gasped menacingly. "I do not despise the differences between you and Uther. I rely on them. Before one of my ancestors ran from Camelot's threatinto the arms of Cendred's predecessors, Llanfair was a sovereign country. This sovereignty I now claim back. With the Crown Prince of Camelot as my witness, who owes his life and that of his son to me, I say that I leave all my earthly possessions to the Princess Morgyan. And to her children, as long as these her children are not offspring of the Pendragon line, how many times removed ever, you hear me?"
"I hear you" Arthur replied soberly. "I'll do my best, but I cannot guarantee anything. You know that."
Antek actually laughed. Or rather, he tried to. It led to another coughing fit, from which he recovered enough to grab Arthur's shirt to pull him closer. "You're twice the man Uther is, and you're the only one who does not know it, Arthur. And do not whine to me again about this time as my father's prisoner, or this night you – almost – spent in his bed. Do you know what your father would have done in the same situation? Yes? Exactly the same. Uther is a survivor. But afterwards, oh-la-la, afterwards. You almost fret yourself to death, but your father – he would have forgotten all about it, just because HE WANTED TO. Just as he's now forgetting about all the misery he's brought to the Druids, to my family, to your Merlin-friend's family, to all of Albion with his idiotic purge. He couldn't get over the death of your mother, because he loved her so very dearly, yes? He married Igraine because he desired her realm, and she married him because if she had not, he'd just raped her. She was the Queen, and thereby Camelot." Antek let go of the fabric, and laid back, the force given to him by his life-long loathing for the King of Camelot was spent.
"Please" Arthur said "leave my mother out of this."
"I will" Antek said. "I'm sorry. She was a fine woman, your mother. I've seen the pictures. Heard all these stories. If you had been a daughter instead of a son, perhaps … the two most prestigious family lines of Albion, Llanfair and Pendragon…. but this is idle talk. Do I have your word that you will fight for Morgyan's claim, as if it were your own?"
"Against my father the King?"
"If needs be. As I fought against my own father, when the time came – you or him. I chose you. Will you choose me, once I'm dead and buried?"
"I will" Arthur said roughly. "You have my word. Morgyan will rule Llanfair in your name, and in your family's name, in its entirety, and after her, her children, may they be male or female. No Prince, no King, not Cendred, not Uther, will stand in the way of this as long and as far as I can help it. May the Great Mother hear my vow, I swear it!"
"Do you swear for you alone or does that bind your sorcerer friend, too? Forgive me for mentioning it, but I've seen what he can do, against a castle's walls, against a world full of demons, against the monster that fathered me, I saw it."
"And yet you say what has befallen you was not his doing."
"And yet I say that the choice to save you and your son at the peril of my own useless life was mine, and mine completely!"
"Because you needed him. You let him use you so that you could use him!"
"For the Llanfair Heritage. For the love of Blackrock."
Arthur blushed under the other's derisive stare. "Merlin is his own man."
"That" Antek smiled again, a ghastly sight in his withered face "is a lie."
"I'll tell him what I vowed to do and let him make his own choice!" Arthur retorted firmly.
"Then" Antek said "I am content." He closed his eyes. He'd had his say. The day was his.
"One last thing" Arthur ventured with a courage born of utter despair of a man selling his soul to the devil and knowing it. "You did not treat her well. Morgyan might still refuse."
Antek opened his eyes, and they were no longer those of an old, dying creature. "Then tell her, if she does, I will curse her name and that of her brother with my last breath. I'll spit on the love she allegedly had for me, I'll piss on her memory and on every word of love she ever gave me. She'll never be free from me and the hatred I bear her. Tell her that!"
"I will" Arthur promised. "You're a cruel, vengeful man, Antek. I never knew that in you before today."
"I am" Antek gasped "my father's son. Don't you ever forget that. Not for a second."
"I won't" Arthur replied, whilst rising. "You can sleep now. You have my word." He made ready to leave; he almost had left, when Antek's voice stopped him. "Arthur – don't get this wrong, I'm not relieving you of anything. But for our childhood's sake, for all the good you once did me, when I needed it most – if I had once more to choose between killing you or saving you – I would always choose the latter."
For the first time since he had come, Arthur genuinely smiled. "I know, my friend" he said. "I've always known."
He did not look back but the soft rustling of the fabric told him that Antek was searching for a more comfortable position; that he would want to rest now. It gave the Prince a peculiar sense of peace.
He would have been a great man in his own right, Antek of Llanfair, Anwar's unwilling son.
And had he lived, perhaps, one future day, and fate be merciful, a reasonably good one.
What more could a man ask for, the world being as it was?
As Arthur had expected, Gaius was waiting outside, serene, calm, and yet there was a tiny shred of nervousness just under the facade.
"What did you give him?" Arthur asked for a greeting. "He's strong, he always was, in his own way, but this is more than nature would provide to a man so close to his grave."
"A potion known to me. It takes away the pain, it gives you the strength to bring your affairs in order, it soothes your mind, and it drives off the natural fear of what is to come – a blessing, that is its name in the old language – blessing. Made of belladonna, opium, and some other things."
Gaius returned his gaze steadily. "Perhaps."
"It hastens death" Arthur accused him.
"It also makes death less frightening where it can no longer be fought. Where is the harm in that?"
A fight of stares, brief – and Arthur lost it. "I don't know" he murmured. He kicked the dust with the top of his boot, like he'd done as a child when he found the adult world confusing. "You know what he said to me?"
"Every word" Gaius confirmed.
"He told you or….."
"He dictated it to me. That was why he was asleep when you came. It exhausted him."
"You wrote it down?" Arthur said, aghast.
"I felt it was my duty" Gaius said. "To you, to Merlin, to Morgyan – perhaps to truth itself. I…. you might say, I owed the choice to you."
"What choice? Where the hell do I have any choice in this?" It was a cry from Arthur's heart, it sounded like one, and it cut through the old man's soul like a blade.
"Antek will not live through the night, Sire. And before he breathes his last, he will not wake up to talk to anyone. As I said before, the drug's gift is painlessness and fearlessness in one's last hours." Gaius spoke with great emphasis, but very low. To any onlooker, they were discussing the upcoming demise of a man dear to Arthur's heart, nothing else.
"What is that to me?" Arthur said, still in the grip of pain and awe, he could not see any further than Antek's suffering, and the load of guilt it loaded him with.
"You and I, Sire, nobody else knows. Nobody else has to know, unless you will it so. You can either sign and seal the document; in good leisure, when you're calm and yourself again, or you don't, and the paper will follow Antek to the next world. And he won't come back, Arthur, to haunt you, I know how to make sure of that, and I will do it!"
"What are you talking about?"
"See, Arthur" Gaius explained patiently "Uther will not give up what he's got willingly. But, if you sign and seal the document, even Uther will be extremely hard put to ignore a pledge his son and heir, Camelot's future King, has made to a man on his deathbed. To a man who's saved his life and that of his son, Prince Thomas Pendragon of Camelot. Besides, you would vow to help a woman who's alone in the world, who's lost her love, her brother, her whole family – if Morgyan is not a damsel in distress, who is? There's the knight's code, the rules of chivalry, of honour, of bravery – and what not. You name it, your father invented it. He's a great King, your father, most of the time. And smart."
"He invented these niceties to serve his purpose!"
"Sure" Gaius said, unruffled. "There's politics for you. But when he made the rules, he also bound himself to them. How often did Uther tell you that a King's reputation makes for two thirds of his strength, and as for the last third ….."
"….you need an army worth their keep" Arthur completed the familiar quote.
"Exactly" Gaius said. "I, for my part, would add you need the peasants to feed your army, you need the craftsmen for weapons and armour, you need the merchants to pay for them, you need …. but why should I carry leather to the cattle farmers, you know all that, very well."
"Because you and Geoffrey taught me" Arthur said wryly.
"Whatever. But do not count out Uther so lightly. Your father taught you many things, Sire, some of them good." Gaius reprimanded him. "As he taught me the art of politics. Your promises to Antek – if you should choose to ignore them, for the sake of your own family and the peace of the realm, you can easily do so."
"What the…." Arthur was gobsmacked by the sudden change in Gaius' attitude. "Are you, you of all people, telling me to ignore a dying man's last wishes?"
"Antek had no right to ask this of you, not in the state you're in. But he had no time to wait until you're in your right mind, either. I'm giving you this time, Arthur, no more, no less. It's what Antek would have wanted, had the choice been his, I'm sure of it. He is – was – your friend."
"Are you saying he loved me? As a friend?"
"He did" Gaius repeated. "He just loved Blackrock more – and Llanfair."
"As I love Camelot" Arthur said.
"As you" Gaius confirmed "love Camelot."
"What should I do?" Arthur said.
"Wait" Gaius said. "Until you know yourself. Until you know where you stand with Merlin. With Uther. With Guinivere. Make yourself a gift – the gift of some days, to think it over. Pay homage to Antek and his life, at his burial. Give Morgyan a day or two to get over the worst of the pain. Then make your choice."
"Some kind of a choice." Arthur muttered. "Between hell and damnation."
"You know" Gaius said "perhaps both theories are valid. Perhaps fate just puts the choices before you, without ever asking your leave. But it is still you who has to make the choice."
"If this is the freedom of choice that enables one to fulfil one's potential, I could well do with fate alone" Arthur said, miserably. "At least it would not be my fault."
"Your Highness's potential has been, I'm very much afraid, predetermined the day you were born. Fate has put you in a position where you have to make the tough decisions. If you do not want that, forfeit the Crown!"
"Now there's a thought" Arthur said defiantly.
"That is another decision to make. And perhaps for another day." Gaius said. "And again, it is one neither I nor Merlin can help you with. So you better don't tell him anything. I won't."
Arthur's head snapped up. "He's awake? Merlin's well?"
"Like a fish in the water" Gaius smiled. "Has been so for hours; doubtlessly his impatience to see you is tearing him apart. I just knew that your conversation with Antek could not wait."
"Gaius, you're a heaven sent genius" Arthur hugged the old man until the bones creaked before he ran off, to where he knew his friend to be.
"I guess I am" Gaius muttered to himself as he stared after his Prince. "Where would you Pendragons be without me, I wonder?"
The old healer shook his head, and walked back into the shelter.
"Is it time already?" Antek asked.
"I would advise it" was Gaius' gentle reply.
Antek nodded lightly, the fleshless skull with the brittle skin was a ghastly sight, even for the seasoned physician. The hands that took the half-filled cup from Gaius were like bird claws. "Did you speak to Arthur?" Antek asked.
"As promised" Gaius retorted.
"Will he do it, what do you think? Keep the word he gave me?"
"I've made sure that Merlin will not hear of it too soon" Gaius said. "He won't talk the Prince out of it. I dare say Arthur is a man of his word, and he will be true to his promises to you. You've done all you could. You would've done Merco proud, My Lord, very proud."
"Merco was your friend too, Gaius, wasn't he."
"Once" the old healer said. "In another life. When we studied together. I owed him much and I never repaid him. Not for what he did for me. And not for what he did for Arthur."
"You repaid him today" Antek said. "Especially with that." He raised the cup in a kind of salute, and then he emptied it with one gulp.
Gaius stayed with him until he stopped breathing, painless, in his sleep. It was the second half of the potion's way to kill. Quickly and quietly.
The healer inhaled deeply, closed his eyes and completed the spell.
Antek's body was covered in a glowing, golden light, and when the light faded, the old physician looked at his work.
The withered old wretch was gone. In his place was the body of a young man; his black hair and honey skin looked vibrantly alive, as if he was just sleeping. No trace of the ordeal inside the demons' world was left.
Gaius folded the limp hands on the chest and closed the green eyes. "Good night, my boy. You did your best. No one can ask for more."
Then the healer went out and called one of the guards. "Tell the Princess Morgyan that Antek of Llanfair is dead!"