A/N: This story is a sort of homage to the song The Queen and The Soldier by Suzanne Vega, which is a really beautiful song. Neither the song nor the show Merlin belong to me, which kind of goes without saying and yet here I am saying it anyway... Curse you backside of mine that needs covering! This has not been written as a songfic (not that I'm bashing songfics) so you don't need to listen to the song, because that would actually spoil the end of the story for you if you don't already know the song. Okay, I'm done :) I hope you like it! If you do, I'd really appreciate feedback, to know what you make of it!
A deathly silence was draped over the court of King Uther like a black, gauzy, mourning veil. The darkly-clad courtiers exchanged long, sorry glances and the occasional slow shake of the head but no one dared to venture even a word of comfort to the King who sat, as though carved from stone, upon his solitary throne, with his head resting in but one hand. He refused to meet even the most understanding of gazes, because he was too proud, and would not have his citizens see the un-cried tears that clouded his vision.
From the courtyard there was a constant stream of screams, and coils of foulest smelling smoke curled up past the windows, twisting so that they almost seemed to be sneering mouths against the blackening sky.
The tiniest of breezes trickled in tentatively through the open windows and tickled the red Pendragon banners, dull in the dim light. They still hung, as if to mock Uther, reminding him of his lineage and his desperate need for heirs.
His own heir was locked away in some far off room in the castle, as high up as possible, where no one but those in the king's strictest confidence would ever be able to touch him. He would be trained as a great and masterful warrior and swords would glide off his chest like butter; no harm should ever come to Uther Pendragon's only remaining family, of that he was certain. He clenched his fist on the arm of his throne and frowned, deepening the crevices of his forehead as he made this promise to himself: Arthur would be safe.
The lonely cries of the child occasionally penetrated Uther's hideaway, and twisted themselves around his heart with their little chubby hands, but he batted them away and refused to pay them any attention.
It was for the boy's own good.
No one was quite certain how long the King intended to go on slaughtering for, and no one really had the gall to try and stop him, or rather, there was no one left who did. All opposition had been destroyed.
Uther cared little for the pleas and cries of these people that he supposed might have haunted a weaker man. He could shrug them off his shoulders as easily as he could his cloak. The only dying face that haunted him was not one that had become twisted and warped by flames, but was one as peaceful and serene as an angel's: Ygraine's.
The King snarled to himself at the memory for it felt like knives digging into him at every part of his body.
The court rippled back from him in alarm at first, but soon regained composure, and continued trying to find some way of not offending him, or some way of continuing on as usual.
And then, suddenly, there was a slight tap at the door.
It was a rather polite, quiet little tap, which was very efficient, taking up as little time as possible, but was also quite sharp and unavoidable, so that it would almost certainly be heard, and would not have to be repeated.
Whoever it was at the door was most certainly a proficient tapper.
It was not court procedure for doors to be knocked on and answered; arrivals were always announced, and none of the party assembled were common doormen, so they all looked to each other, expecting someone else to deal with the problem, all secretly hoping that it would simply go away again, but perhaps a little glad for having something to do for the moment.
There was a second tap; slightly more agitated than the first.
The King raised his head, for the first time in such a long time that his neck was not at all happy with him about it, and gestured for the person to be let in.
The courtiers, as it turned out, did not have to set about worrying which one of them was qualified to do this, as the doors flew open in a rather marvellous gust of wind that sent the Pendragon banners waving jubilantly as if they were greeting the young woman who strode - in Uther's opinion - almost arrogantly into the room, with her head so high it was practically hitting the ceiling and her great, shimmering cloak billowing out behind her.
Uther's legs seemed to detect an aura of threat about her, and set him straight without him even needing to think about it. The King arched his back a little and narrowed his eyes at the stranger.
"Who are you?" he demanded, in a voice that was a little raspy from his only using it when absolutely necessary. If he felt any embarrassment at sounding slightly like a scraping chair, he did not show it in his face.
She tossed her head up even higher, sending the hood of her cloak falling down onto her back and revealing a head of luminous red hair so bright that it forced the formerly gloomy lights to burst newly aflame, an action that caused harsh whispers to instantly cascade around her like a prison, as the courtiers began to encircle her ravenously, awaiting the command for her execution.
It did not come.
Uther stepped towards the woman, and repeated his former question. "Who are you?"
She tilted her head to the side and observed him with a round, soft face that contained not an ounce of natural unpleasantness. Her features were small and dainty, her eyes were an earthy brown that seemed to glow with that natural aptitude some people have for seeing the best in others, and they contained a tiny hazel-coloured fleck that danced about her irises like a lively sense of humour.
"I do not suppose that is of any real importance," she told him, with a smile, and a curtsey, to show that she had not forgotten her place, even though her impudence meant she clearly had.
Uther was sure by now that she was a sorceress.
He wondered a little to himself why he had not already had her dragged off by that burning hair and had her set alight herself. But as he drew even closer to the woman, who seemed to be smiling slightly at nothing, he could see absolutely nothing evil about her. And this set him on guard more than anything else could have done; his back was as rigid as the sword by his side.
"Your majesty," the young woman addressed him, with a curt nod, sweeping aside her cloak for the minute so he could see that beneath it she was dressed as a plain peasant, which took him by surprise, for he had expected her to be some High Priestess.
"I have live in Camelot all of my life," she continued, looking wistfully about her at the castle that now looked more like a crypt, as it was hollow and empty as a skull.
At this Uther started again, for he had not recognised her face at all, and he hoped that he might have had some better knowledge of his citizens than that. He leaned in imperceptibly to try to examine her face better, which turned out to be a mistake because he was suddenly met by a rather abrupt waft of innocence that seemed to radiate off her, and it smelt like roses. Uther had always liked the smell of roses.
"And so many times I have looked up to this castle, and I have wondered about you; about your wife," Uther tensed, but she continued, with a calm voice that rang through the air like the stillest and clearest of lullabies. "About the life you led and the things you were doing, and these were always charming, girlish fantasies. I wondered whether or not there would be a new princess, and what she might be like," here the woman broke off, and seemed lost in her recollections.
Uther was almost loathe to interrupt her, for they appeared to be happy recollections. But he did have to cough, to regain her attention.
He regretted doing it almost instantly, because she turned back to him with a keenness about her eyes fixed on him that had certainly not been there before.
"And now I have found myself looking up to the castle and wondering who this beast is who lives there, who could slaughter so many innocent people? I cannot believe it is the same kind man who once came to my father's bakery and patted me on the head!" her hands flung themselves up in the air emphatically and her voice rose several octaves at the end of this speech.
All of a sudden, Uther realised he recognised her. With her hair a few shades browner and her height substantially less, he could place her as a small girl he had once met on a visit to the lower town in his very early days as King.
A smug smile made its way onto his lips with the satisfaction of remembrance, only to be just about instantly displaced by the realisation of what she had said announcing itself to him.
"I used to love Camelot!" she told him and, sorceress or not, he truly believed her, for tears were animatedly flinging themselves out of her eyes. "But I cannot stay here now. This is a terrible, terrible place! I cannot stay where I love and serve the city that I love, when the city that I love has become corrupted so awfully. I have tried to do what I can to help, to make things better, but it seems that every good, kind, innocent thing I do, you can match tenfold with so many mindlessly horrendous brutalities! I do not suppose that you even know their names? But I do. I know their names. And I cannot abide it any longer. I am leaving tomorrow, and there is nothing in all the world that you, Uther Pendragon, can do to stop me, but please, please, I have to know just one thing: why?"
And, strangely, Uther found that he did not have an answer.
But, even more strangely, he felt the overwhelming need to provide one. "The court is dismissed," he announced, in a quiet, but authoritative voice, and the courtiers, with a little disgruntled and bemused bumbling and mumbling, did as they were told.
Uther strode down the length of the room, perhaps simply to give him time to think.
The woman, who now that she was alone, standing in the shadows set dancing by the flickering flames of the candles, looked more like a girl, stood silently away from him, listening to the heavy sounds of his receding footsteps.
"Sit here," he commanded her, pointing to a chair relatively close to his throne, and she did as commanded, watching possibly with admiration but possibly with disgust - her face was unreadable - the way that the candlelight made his crown shine.
Uther sank down into his former posture, his head in his hand, not caring if he looked weak before the woman, because it was comfortable, and she observed him with thoughtful and compassionate eyes.
Speaking exceptionally quietly, she said, "I know what you have lost."
Uther snorted. The whole kingdom knew what he had lost. What of his life was unknown to anybody?
"I know what it is to lose love," she insisted, her smile back again, tugging at her lips, but oddly making them look sadder, and not happier, because it wasn't really a very good sort of smile at all.
Uther turned his head a little to consider her, not truly believing that she was old enough to have ever loved and lost anything except perhaps a pet.
Her fingers ran around the fourth on her left hand nervously, and again a slight smile - more of a grimace - flitted across her lips, but she offered no more information on the subject, and Uther didn't care enough to ask.
"I know what it is to lose love," she repeated, in a more confident voice, speaking more to herself than to Uther, as she was looking nowhere near him. "But my pain was mine alone," she turned her gaze swiftly back to Uther. "You cannot force others to hurt for you, and you are not so foolish as to do that, are you? You are a kind man, and have been such a good king for so many years; I cannot believe such a thing of you."
There was a silence as Uther considered whether this ought to be taken as a compliment or not.
"Then why? Please, I must know. I have seen so many deaths and so much hurt that I have not the ability to heal, and I cannot bear to go on living with the memory of it without an answer from you. Why?"
Uther's head jerked towards the woman at this incessant questioning, and he saw she was leaning towards him in her chair, imploring him to answer her with her soft, nagging eyes.
"You could not hope to understand my reasons," he informed her harshly, setting his jaw hard but regretting the words as soon as he heard them, and wishing he could capture them and stuff them back in his mouth.
The woman slipped further forwards out of her chair as she saw the vulnerability slithering across Uther's face.
He sighed, and looked towards her, with his hand on his heart and tears on his cheeks. "I bear such a burden," he confessed. "I… I must protect everybody. I must protect everybody… I must protect everybody! All the time!"
He leaped from his throne as if it had pinched him with such pain on his face that it was taking much restraint from the woman to not embrace him.
"Always it is me! Me! As if I have the answer to everything! To whom am I supposed to turn, now that she is gone? I could not protect her… I could not protect her," he finished simply, with sagging shoulders.
The woman rose from her chair to go over to the sobbing king, who looked up at her with tear-stained cheeks and whispered, "Am I protecting them from me?"
She reached up to pet his face and he jumped away.
"Witchcraft!" he screamed. "Witchcraft! Sorcery! Enchantments! How have you made me say these things?"
"I have done nothing," she responded flatly. "These are your own feelings. You know that."
"No! NO!" he howled, banging his hands against his head wildly.
"Please, you know the truth," she insisted, drawing even closer and looking ready to touch him.
"Don't you dare touch me!" Uther yelled, drawing his sword from his side and trying to warn her off but, in his mania, instead waving it in front of his own face and cutting his forehead.
A cry of pain and then he dropped the sword to the floor with a clatter.
Out of nowhere she was right in front of his face, her hand stroking the blood away. He thought he ought to shudder from her but something in her touch seemed soothing, and then her fingers went strangely cold.
His eyes widened and all he could do was stare into hers as they shone a serene gold. She fixed her eyes steadily on his wound and ran a suddenly hot nimble finger right along his aching gash, sealing it with that simple movement.
Her touch felt somehow sweet like softly scented flowers and it drifted slowly along his skin with such tenderness that he didn't even stop to realise she had performed magic, let alone accuse her of it.
His hand went to his forehead and he felt his new scar with wonder.
She stepped back from him and smiled slightly, knowing that she had sacrificed her secret for him, for some strange reason. She held her hands up in surrender, waiting for his response, and she saw that, ironically, her palms were stained with blood, whilst his were perfectly clean.
Uther actually said nothing to her, and just looked up at her in amazement. She took this as confirmation to continue, and gently led him towards the window by his hand.
"I know that you must be lonely here, Uther. It must be so hard for you to be so responsible for everyone, and yet so isolated from them," she swept a hand across the glass of the window that kept him from the town. Then she turned her head back over her shoulder with renewed sharpness, "But you cannot think that excuses this behaviour. No one man's hurting or vengeance should cause such suffering."
Uther looked out of the window, watching the skyline soaring freely above him and wanted more than anything to breathe it in and just let all his tension go.
But feeling the compassion in her beside him, he stiffened. Glancing out of the corner of his eye he saw those gentle, shining eyes were fixed understandingly on him again, and the way that they bored into him scared him to such an extent that he could do nothing but back away from the window and from her, refusing to meet her gaze.
She turned back to the window, and stretched her hand out across the glass desperately, looking out searchingly into the distance as if it held the secret answers to questions she sought.
"I want to live a simple life," she confessed in a hushed voice. "I do not want to live a life against the crown or the state. I wish to be good and lawful. I wish to be able to help those I see who hurt, and to use my gift to bring goodness and happiness to everyone around me, instead of constantly putting them in danger."
She did not look at Uther as she spoke, almost as if she never really expected him to grant her these wishes. She simply stared longingly out of the window as if it could provide an end to her troubles.
"I could live quietly, peaceably. I could love," she pondered wistfully, turning, and meeting Uther with such an honest and hopeful look that the heart he thought dead fully broke right there.
His breath caught in his throat as she stood; silhouetted by the window, leaning against the wall in the tired way that Ygraine had done in the later months of her pregnancy. He was so startled by the urge within himself to stride up to her and hold her that he gasped and backed further away, the crown on his head slipping a little in his alarm.
He removed the offending crown and sat it idly on his throne.
Thinking of his wife, so different to this woman and yet so similar, he found shame beating at his breast, and he led the girl away from the window, into the courtyard, as she continued to speak at a slow, rhythmic pace, like a song, about what she could have, or wanted to have, her eyes having taken on a glassy quality.
He left her in the courtyard, where today's pyres were finally being cleared away; his hand went to his head and he excused himself momentarily to slip back and fetch his forgotten crown.
He turned his back on her, somehow bright in the darkness, filling the empty courtyard with a sweet tune that she hummed soothingly to herself.
Uther stomped up the stairs to the ramparts, his heart thudding madly, with the image of her patient smile still ringing unavoidably around his mind.
When he reached the guard on duty, he leant over to him, whispered in his ear, and pointed down to the lone, delicate figure in the courtyard.
He registered a slight flicker of surprise span the flat planes of the guard's face, but he nodded, and accepted the command, aiming his crossbow.
Uther turned on his heel and paced away.
Her smile still shone behind his closed eyes as the sound of an arrow swished through the still air and a swift, startled scream followed it.
The king continued on down the corridor in his stiff, stern manner, storming along unstoppably throughout the castle and throughout the months, choking the life out of Camelot until it was a truly miserable place.
Little by little, life and colour crept back into the city, but it was by no doing of Uther's, who was content to lock himself away from everyone and everything, keeping them distant so that he could judge them fairly, and protect them properly.
And with every sorcerer he persecuted, it was true; their faces never clung in his mind. There was only one face that remained, and it was not Ygraine's. And with the knowledge of this his guilt swelled.
He tried to push off the hushed whispers of He'll never love another woman that seemed to cling to him with eager, gripping fingers. They made him sick to his stomach, and every time he heard them the persecutions would triple in number.
It was her smile he would never forget. It lingered behind his eyelids on those long, lonely nights, when his defences against himself were at their lowest, and he wondered what it might have been like to kiss it. And it was these thoughts, more than anything, that Uther hated himself, and everyone else, for.
From time to time he would stroke his scar and know that no woman could ever be allowed near him ever again.