The Red Rose Knight Chapter Four
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There isn't much Merlin in this chapter. He'll be along more in a bit, sorry about that, Team Merlin.
Merlin reminded himself that he liked Lancelot. He liked Lancelot a lot. It was just a difficult concept to remind himself of, after being trapped in a cell with him for hours. Maybe even days. It didn't ever seem to get dark here, on the Isle. Outside, the sun shone, the trees were laden with apples, the water in the spring ran clear and bright, and the flowers filled the air with scent, but it was as though time wasn't passing. He felt no hunger or thirst, and only slept for something to do. The magic that hummed through the bars, preventing him from using his own talents, gave him a headache. And so did Lancelot's whining. Lancelot was not someone who took to imprisonment at all well. Having thoroughly explored every possible physical escape, he found it impossible to reconcile himself to awaiting rescue calmly and quietly.
"Arthur will come," said Merlin, lying on the floor, curled up, eyes shut, but feeling no weariness, apart from with Lancelot's grumbling.
"He'll follow a statue?"
"Yes." He wouldn't be able to resist.
"I'm not sure. He shouldn't leave Camelot, not as things are."
"I'm sure Leon will point that out."
"And you think he'll come anyway?"
"Yes. I'm sure of it."
"Yes, I'd come," agreed Lancelot, after a pause. Then, mournfully, "but he doesn't have us, to help him, against the witches."
"No." Agreed Merlin, because there was nothing else to say to that. He pressed his cheek into the cold stone floor.
Lancelot sat silently for a moment, before saying plaintively, "we could be here years! You know, we could be here forever. Do you feel you're getting older?"
"I really do."
"I don't. I don't think we are. We don't need to eat or drink or sleep, we could be in this living death forever." Lancelot's voice trailed off as he imagined the horror. "Arthur could get old, trying to find us, and never finding us."
"I expect Morgana would kill us eventually," said Merlin, grumpily, a little facetiously. Normally he'd have just thought it, but in the face of eternity with a stir crazy Lancelot, he couldn't resist it. "If Arthur dies, or gets too old to look. No one would care after that, not enough to come and get us."
Then they both went silent. "Arthur could be an old man," said Lancelot, who seemed incapable of getting past the idea. "And we'd be here the same as we are now, and he and Gwen would be growing old together –"
"Lancelot, please – be quiet." It was the fiercest thing he had ever said to Lancelot, but he couldn't stand it. All that could be done, was done. Merlin believed Arthur would follow the statue of the knight in red armour, just because that was the sort of thing Arthur would do. People would be advising against it, but Arthur wouldn't leave them here. The question that haunted Merlin was whether he should have done it – it was the question that meant he couldn't relax, and brought terrible images before his eyes. What if he had just summoned Arthur to his death? Arthur was defenceless without Merlin's magic, yet Merlin was bringing him here, to the Isle, alone, and for what? The idea of Arthur growing old without them didn't haunt Merlin, the idea of Arthur not growing old at all did.
"It's no way for a warrior to die," said Lancelot, presently. "In a cell, at the hands of crazy women."
Merlin put his hands over his ears, as subtly as possible.
King Evrain left for his hunt a minor member of the court. Respected because of his birth – he came from a long line of famous men whose victories and glorious defeats on the battlefield were still the subject of poetry – he had an easy life. People called him 'King' automatically, even though he wasn't a king, nor had been for years. His kingdom, such as it was, had centred around a small town and castle called Brandigant to the west, which had been overrun by Caerleon during the war Caerleon-Camelot war decades before, and although Uther had kicked Caerleon out of the town, he had carelessly forgotten to ever give Evrain his sovereignty back. So Evrain had family wealth, but no castle, and no townspeople,. He loved his kingdom enough, but couldn't face the idea of leading them into a civil war when he was a second-rate king anyway. Uther, out of deference to their close familial relationship, had been more than happy to put him up in Camelot, and Evrain had been more than happy to stay there. He had been a popular, but entirely ineffective, ruler, and had no illusions about his flaws in the kingship department.
He returned from his hunt to find that, in his absence, he had become de facto King of Camelot. His one comfort was that everyone looked as utterly appalled at this prospect as he was. Everyone apart from Elaine, that is, who was grim-faced but determined. Evrain knew the look well. There was no arguing with that look.
"I don't suppose the King will recover?" he asked Gaius.
Gaius looked thoughtful.
"Today?" tried Evrain.
"No. Sire." Said Gaius.
No. Evrain looked around the Throne Room, glumly. It was entirely possible Arthur would be killed on this mission. Arthur was always gadding about nearly getting killed. And if he died now, with Uther mad, Uther wouldn't be able to elect an appropriate heir, and he, Evrain, was suddenly looking down the barrel of a crown. And he, after all, wasn't going to live long, and then what? A Queen Lyonors? Evrain looked at his daughter, who he loved dearly, but gracious gods as queen? She couldn't be trusted at most court events to behave herself, even at the back. What on earth would happen to her if she was in full view?
"Evrain," said Elaine. "This is going to sound like a strange thing to say."
Evrain didn't think much could be stranger than becoming King of Camelot in a couple of hours while you were out hunting.
"But it was very peculiar. The stranger we've been telling you about? The one who came for Arthur? He looked familiar. I only saw him briefly, just walking past me, but..."
"Mother, he was wearing a visor," pointed out Lyonors.
"He had very distinctive armour," said Elaine, coolly, to her daughter. "Evrain, I've been racking my brains and I think I saw him once at Brandigant, when I first met you."
"Oh? What was his name?"
"I'm not sure he gave one. And the strange thing was, I still can't place his face or who he was. Normally I can remember wives and children, but I can't think of anyone connected to him. Or his name."
"Then it'll have to stay a mystery, darling. Besides, if he were a knight under my father all those years ago, I can't imagine he's still young enough to be charging around the country collecting princes."
"He did give a name," said Lyonors, sniffily. "A fake one, anyway. Sounded like an utter simpleton, to me. Gwen, you were there. What was it? Sir Red something – "
"The Rose –" began Gwen.
"The Rose Red Knight," said Evrain, urgently, the colour draining from his face. His wife and daughter stared at him with undisguised curiosity.
"That's the chap," said Elaine. She had no idea her generally calm husband was capable of such alarm. "Evrain? You look quite shocked. Who is he? Was it at Brandigant I saw him?"
"That isn't possible," Evrain was looking at a wall, to himself. "It isn't possible he was here."
"Why do you say that?" Gwen broke in, tensely, forgetting her position. "Why isn't it possible, sire?"
"I assure you, it is possible, Evrain," Elaine informed him. "He was as much here as you are now."
"And the prince went with him?"
"Yes; him and all his friends."
"Oh, gods preserve us." Evrain sat, heavily, in the nearest chair, not noticing it was his new throne. He put his head in his hands. "It can't be possible."
"You think I've made a terrible mistake." Arthur had judged the situation carefully, waiting until they could be alone. Percival and Elyan were asleep, Gwaine was on guard – watching the Red Rose Knight inside the camp as much as for those outside of it. Arthur and Leon were lying by the fire, meant to be asleep. The Rose Red Knight was sitting away from the campfire, still as always, but possibly awake. It was impossible to tell, really. Arthur kept his voice low. It wasn't that he distrusted the rest. But they had unrealistic view of him. Leon, frustrating as it was, had a resolutely grounded understanding of Arthur's abilities.
"No," murmured Sir Leon, slightly sleepily. "Not necessarily."
"Leon. Honesty, please."
"I think," Leon rolled over, and seemed to accept the conversation wasn't going to be a brief precursor to sleep, but a serious examination of the events of the day. "I think the situation was possibly worthy of more thought than it was given. Sire."
"I see." He said it snippily, and loathed himself immediately. Why did he ask for honesty, if he hated hearing it so much? Leon was right. The situation hadn't been given any thought at all. He had barely heard the Knight's words before knowing he was going for them. He had never thought anything else. "Would you rather I don't come for you, next time?"
Leon gave that stroppiness a moment to blow over, and Arthur was relieved it was too dark for them to see each other's faces. "Sire, I realise the value of Lancelot as a warrior and Merlin as a friend to us."
"I value their lives."
"Yes. But with due respect, Sire, there are other warriors and friends. But there is no other Camelot and no other Prince Arthur."
"There is no other Lancelot and Merlin, Leon."
There was a long pause, as they listened to the sound of Gwaine, Elyan and Percival breathing.
"To all intents and purposes, there are," Leon said, finally. "Sire, it isn't like the old days. You can't leave Camelot every time one of your citizens is in trouble..."
"Because my father's mad, my sister's trying to kill me and my court is a nest of vipers."
"Well..." Leon was taken aback. "Yes."
Then they started laughing. It started with Arthur snorting, then Leon giggled and before long they were both helpless with silent laughter, burying their faces into their packs. No, it wasn't funny. Of course it wasn't funny. It was hysteria. Finally, their giggles died away and Arthur stared up at the sky.
Why couldn't he hear the Red Rose Knight breathing?
He rolled over. There were Elyan's snores, and Percival's mutterings. Gwaine was shifting and blowing on his fingers. Leon's breathing was becoming regular, as he drifted off to sleep.
The Red Rose Knight definitely wasn't breathing.
He lay back and stared up at the sky again, digesting this information. "Leon," he whispered. "Leon."
"The Red Rose Knight isn't breathing."
Leon was silent for a moment, clearly straining his ears. Finally he said, in a toneless voice, "No. He isn't."
The natural end to that sentence, Arthur thought, would be 'what do you expect me to do about it, you who have dragged me out here with him against all advice?' He groaned. Of course the Knight was magical. He'd always known that much, really. "What am I doing?"
"Your best," said Leon, drowsily. "Sire."
Arthur let him drift off this time. They'd reach the Isle tomorrow, and Leon would need all the sleep he could get. What a responsibility this kingship is, he thought. That doing my best is now the foreign policy of the kingdom. And here they were, in a forest, with a knight who could knock doors off of hinges and didn't need to breathe, and for what? For looking for two men. It was the act of a friend. It wasn't the act of a king.
And he wasn't even that sorry about it.
His father had always said you couldn't have friends if you were a king. He hadn't believed him until now.
Gwen had been sitting at the window in the Lady Elaine's quarters for hours. Or rather Her Majesty the Queen Regent's quarters, Gwen ideally speculated. Elaine was definitely more royal than Evrain, despite Evrain being an actual king.
She jumped as the door opened. But it wasn't Elaine, it was Lyonors. Even in the half-dark, the room lit only the faint glow of Camelot's lamps coming in through the window, Gwen could see Lyonors' face was glum.
"Oh," said Lyonors, attempting to rally a smile. "Sorry. Where is she?"
"The Queen Regent? Still in with the King Regent at the council meeting."
"I see." Lyonors glanced around. "You have to wait for her?"
"There's something I'd like to talk with her about. You don't have to wait, though, I can have you told the moment she's free?"
"Thank you. I'd rather wait. Do you mind?"
"Of course, my Lady."
"Oh, gods," said Lyonors, bending over the empty fireplace. "Don't call me that. Can't we just be Lyonors and Gwen?" She was expertly building the fire.
"I can do that – " began Gwen.
"So can I," Lyonors said, and her face was briefly lit flame red as she set the fire ablaze.
"You and your parents are some of only people who say that at court. 'Gods'. Have you noticed?"
"I've noticed." Lyonors straightened up. "Uther doesn't practice mind control, Gwen. He can't change people's memories and speech patterns just by clicking his fingers. Have you noticed that?"
"I've noticed," Gwen echoed. Lyonors was speaking amiably, but the simplicity of her words was slightly alarming. Had Lyonors just admitted to practicing the Old Religion?
Lyonors smiled. "You want to ask my mother about the Red Rose Knight, and what my father knows about him?"
"Yes," said Gwen, distantly. She was watching the dusk over Camelot. "I'm worried about why King Evrain was worried. Do you know?"
"No idea, I'm afraid. I was little when we left Brandigant, his armour didn't mean anything to me. There were always so many people there. All these knights used to come and take part in some unwinnable quest in the sacred courtyard there. If you think Camelot is beautiful, Gwen, you ought to see Brandigant. It is truly the most blessed of places. Full of gardens and glades and fountains." She flopped onto a chair by the window seat where Gwen sat. "Of course, it mightn't be anything like that anymore, I don't know." They listened to the guards changing shifts far below. "Do you want to know why I want to see my mother?"
"Not unless you feel comfortable telling me," Gwen said, a little discomforted by this unsolicited confidence.
"I feel comfortable telling you. You seem a trustworthy type and have a vested interest in it, anyway. Do you know Sir Garin?"
Gwen knew Sir Garin, all right. Everyone knew Sir Garin. He was a famous womaniser, debtor and drunk who couldn't ride in from his castle to Camelot without spending time in the cells.
"I think so," she hedged.
"I'm sure you do. What you don't know, Gwen, is that we're secretly engaged."
Gwen couldn't hide her horror.
"Yes, I know. That's why it's secret. Only we know – and you, now."
"I'm sure if you...if you really love him, your mother will understand."
"She'll be completely furious. And I don't know if I really love him, if we're being honest for a moment. I like him – bit of a wild streak, you know? He isn't perfect. But he stands up for himself and doesn't take Uther's nonsense, unlike all the other pathetic wilting lilies that pass for knights here, who claim allegiance to their blasted Knight's Code of honour, while serving the least honourable king in known lands."
"That's treasonous," said Gwen, as lightly as she could.
"Can you be treasonous to a dead king?"
"But Uther isn't dead."
Despite the fire, the air in the room seemed to freeze.
"Do you want to know what I know, Gwen?"
Gwen kept very still. She stared at Lyonors. Lyonors was looking at her through lidded eyes, completely relaxed. She could think of nothing to say. She was scared half to death.
"Maybe I shouldn't tell you," said Lyonors, into the silence. "You may be wise." She examined her fingernails. "But I don't think it would surprise Arthur that Garin isn't one of his most loyal of subjects."
"I'm one of his loyal subjects," said Gwen, faintly.
"Indeed you are. Except you're not. None of us are his subjects at all, really, we're all Uther's subjects. Are you one of Uther's loyal subjects?"
"It's the same thing."
"Ah." Lyonors twisted her head, examining Gwen's face with an expression of sympathy. "You've rather hit the nail on the head there, Gwen. Uther, who killed your father and treated you so infamously. Uther, who killed a race of people and continues killing innocent citizens. People like Garin, and his men, and you, and I, are wondering, 'why should we prop up his regime? Isn't it time for a different thing?'"
"Your parents would be appalled to hear you say these things, Lyonors," urged Gwen, desperately.
"At first, yes. But my mother watched half her family be murdered for possessing a gift they had never asked for. My father had his kingdom stolen from under his nose. Can Arthur change any of that? Would he even want to? He's a Pendragon after all. People are wondering how much appetite for change he can really have. Why'd he want change, when he has this castle, and these lands and all these men on his side? It's all 'one day' with him, it's never 'now'."
She stood, and wandered over to the fire, allowing Gwen time to respond. Gwen said nothing.
Poking the fire absently, Lyonors said, "This is all theory."
"I don't much like it, as a theory." She didn't care it was forward. She thought it was pretty forward of Lyonors to be saying this anyway.
"I didn't think you would, that's why I told you. I'm not completely sure I like it much, to be honest. It was a pipe dream for a long time, but Garin thinks he can carry most of the garrison now, and certainly public opinion. The people liked Arthur, but they're growing weary of him not living up to his promise."
"That's only because Uther's alive," said Gwen. "I don't care for Uther, Lyonors, but Arthur's different to him."
"Yes," said Lyonors, slowly. "If that were true, Gwen, I promise you I wouldn't agree with Garin. But I'm not so sure that is true. The King isn't going to recover. Yet Arthur has changed nothing. Why has he changed nothing? Out of respect for his father. Why does he respect his father? Because he loves and agrees with him. Uther can die, Gwen, but the ghost of the father will live on in the son. Do you disagree?"
"I absolutely do."
"With which part of it? I'm not saying Arthur is a cruel man like Uther. He is as much a victim of Uther as the people are."
"He's different, Lyonors," Gwen urged, desperately. "Uther wouldn't have gone riding off for his friends."
"No," agreed Lyonors, "but on the other hand, is that a very kingly response? Where is he now? Here we are whispering in darkened rooms, and where's he? Chasing after a servant and an exile. Gwen, Arthur's a good man, but he isn't a king. He's not got the killer instinct, but he's got all his father's prejudices. He'll lead the kingdom to disaster."
"That isn't true. He loves this kingdom. He'll do anything for it."
Lyonors walked back to her, waiting until she was close enough to look into Gwen's eyes. "Including abdication?"
Gwen found no air in her lungs. This is how Camelot will fall apart, she thought wildly, not over immortal soldiers but over two young women arguing in a dark castle. "Abdication-?"
"Don't you think he could be happy? He could have lands, a nice castle of his own. He could farm, treat his few tenants well, he could have justice and peace in his tiny estate, where such idyll is manageable. He could have you. You could be happy, together, away from here. Don't you think he could be happy?"
He couldn't be happier. Could he?
"But – "
"Garin and Arthur could come to an agreement. With our help."
"By what right does Garin take the kingdom?"
"None at all. By what right did Uther take it, and Arthur inherit it? I will be his queen. And Garin is from one of the oldest families of the Old Religion. We'll re-establish Camelot as once it was, before dictatorship. We'll end the persecution. It'll be a new dynasty, a new partnership. He and I are both of the Old Religion. The people will respect us. And we will have made peace with Arthur. The Lady Morgana, wherever she is, won't have a fight with us. There will be no civil war. There will be no need for Camelot blood to be shed. Arthur can retire, happily, safely, knowing he acted for the best for his kingdom and himself. This way, no other way, it's for the best for everyone. Or so I think. Now I want to know what you think."
She had never come here to find Elaine, Gwen realised, dazedly. Lyonors had come here to find her.
What Lyonors was saying was wrong. Deeply wrong.
But it sounded right.
He had once offered to give up the kingdom for her. He had said he would again.
He would if she asked.
Lyonors looked out the window over Gwen's shoulder, at the sleeping Lower Town. "The fact is, Gwen, we have the keys to the kingdom." Their eyes met, reflecting the flickering lights far below. "The question is – should we use them?"