No Better Assassin
A/N: Thank you all for sticking with this story even though I had taken so long to update! I really appreciate all your kind comments; I really am my own worst critic. So, ahem, yes...another update. What can I say? I had this chapter half-written by the time I posted last chapter and my muse wouldn't shut up. I think this is going to be the longest conversation for Arthur and Gaius ever!
I thought about holding onto it for a couple of days since now I will have nothing new written and you all may have to wait longer for the next chapter, but, well... I'm as excited to post updates as you all are about reading them!
I didn't get as much chance to beta this (I self-beta) as I usually do, so if you notice anything, I'd appreciate a PM and I'll take care of it when I get back from work tonight. Thanks!
Thanks again for reading and I would love it if you leave me a little something to let me know what you think. Your comments really keep me going!
Chapter 10: Born of Magic
"A sorcerer killed my mother," Arthur automatically responded, spouting what had been drummed into his skull since before he could talk.
Gaius' conscience pained him for breaking his oath, but there was nothing for it. "I'm afraid that the truth is much more complex than that, Sire."
Arthur rubbed a bone-weary hand against his temple, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on. "Why do I have the feeling that I'm not going to like this truth very much?" A moment of tense silence stretched between the two men before Arthur sighed and motioned with his hand for Gaius to continue.
"In the early years of your father's reign, he met and married your mother. He loved her very much and they were very happy together. Camelot rejoiced in its Queen; she was all that was kind and good and fair. She brought out the very best in Uther, and it was obvious to all that saw them together that he revered her."
Arthur smiled softly at the thought of a time when his parents were together and happy.
"There was only one thing that marred their otherwise sublime existence: Igraine did not conceive a child, even after several years of marriage. After seeing several physicians, including myself, it was determined that she was not able to conceive."
A shiver of foreboding ran down Arthur's spine, dredging up with it the memory of a phantom brought to life by a sorceress—a phantom masquerading as his mother. No! His mind rebelled, not wanting to believe it. It can't be! Yet somehow, he knew it was.
"Other kings would have put aside a Queen that was barren, no matter how much they loved her; the need for producing an heir was just too strong. This was doubly so in your father's case; because as a new ruler it was imperative he establish a new bloodline. But he also had no siblings who could provide the kingdom with a prince should he and Igraine not be able."
"Yet, your father would not put Igraine aside. He loved her too much. Instead, he started researching more—creative—ways to deal with the problem."
"Magic," Arthur replied hollowly, knowing in his gut this was what Gaius meant.
"Yes," Gaius agreed. "Don't make that face, Arthur…" he scolded with a raised eyebrow when Arthur glowered. Guiltily, Arthur closed his eyes and steeled himself for what would come next.
Gaius nodded and continued, "Magic was not banned then as it is now. And your father was…desperate. He wanted to help them conceive the child they needed to have…that they wanted to have together."
"He and your mother tried many potions, tinctures, and charms. None of them worked. Meanwhile, word had discretely gotten around the magical community that the King and Queen were searching for a magical remedy to her ailment and that all that had been attempted to date had been in vain."
"They had almost completely lost hope when a mysterious woman appeared at the gates of Camelot and asked for an audience with the King and Queen. Once it was granted, she explained to them that she was a High Priestess of the Old Religion and that she had the power to give them what they wanted most—a son."
"You see, she had the ability to Mirror Life and Death. It is a rare gift; only very few can master its secrets and even less have the power required to cast it."
As Gaius' story progressed, Arthur felt his face get redder and redder. Anger, hatred, and betrayal coursed through his system until it became a tidal wave of anguished emotion. It was true! It was all true! He killed her! Killed her with magic!
Arthur was not aware he'd pushed to a stand, oblivious to the fact that the words he'd thought had echoed in his head were actually echoing around his chamber, unconscious of the tears streaming down his face until he was brought abruptly back to himself by the loud banging upon his chamber door.
"Sire! Sire, are you all right in there?" bellowed an anxious voice that must have belonged to one of the guards outside his room.
Frantically turning his back to the door and grabbing the edge of his tunic to wipe his eyes, Arthur called out hoarsely, "I am fine. Carry on." But when he turned to face a very startled Gaius, his eyes were red-rimmed, his face was ashen and he was shaking all over.
"Arthur!" Immediately, Gaius jumped up to grasp him by the arm, for he looked dangerously close to passing out. "Come sit down."
"He killed my mother, Gaius…He swore…" Arthur whispered brokenly as he slumped back into his chair by the fire, "He swore to me he didn't…"
Gaius grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him. "What you saw and heard that night was not the truth. Morgause took a few key facts and twisted them around to suit her own purposes. The spirit you spoke to may have looked like Igraine, but it was definitely not your mother because she would never have blamed your father for what happened to her."
Arthur's eyes flew to the old man's face, searching with fragile hope that what he was hearing was true. Gaius nodded his encouragement. "Let me finish and then you will understand."
Subdued, Arthur nodded slightly, staring at his hands.
"The Priestess cautioned your parents that the price to be paid for such a thing would be very high. Not in gold, or other riches…but something far more precious. To create a life, a life must be taken. That is the way of the Old Religion; the balance of nature must always be restored."
"I tried to urge them against this course of action, that spells of that magnitude were difficult to predict, but both of your parents were adamant. They wanted you, no matter the personal cost to themselves."
Gaius lowered his head, his heart saddened. "Your father knew how very much Igraine wanted a child, and he could not deny her that wish if there was even a chance it could work. He agreed to the terms of the pact; he vowed to pay the price personally. He bargained his own life for yours."
Arthur's eyes widened, staring at Gaius, speechless. His father had planned to give up his own life, not his mother's!
"Satisfied with his oath, your father was allowed to accompany the Priestess to the Isle of the Blessed. There she procured the elixir your mother would need: water drawn from the Cup of Life."
A hiss of stunned horror whistled between Arthur's teeth. "The Cup of Life!"
"Yes Arthur," Gaius replied, reading Arthur's mind. "The very same cup that created the immortal army. But do not forget that it is also what saved Sir Leon's life…and it helped to create you." Gaius laid a gentle hand on Arthur's forearm. "You were born of magic."
You were born of magic… The words reverberated around Arthur's head and resonated inside his soul. Magic—the very force he'd been conditioned to hate and fear his entire life—was the very reason for his existence. Magic had done terrible things to his family and had struck at the heart of Camelot with its evil too many times to count, yet how was he to truly hate the power that had given him life?
"I realize this will be hard for you to accept, Arthur. It goes against everything you were taught. But sometimes…magic can be used for good. Look what it did for Sir Leon; he would not be alive today were it not for the Druids and their use of the Cup. And what about the light you spoke of, the one that saved you in the Caves of Balor? Surely that was not evil."
Arthur held both hands to his head as if the pressure of his palms was the only thing keeping his head from bursting. He wanted to believe Gaius, but he felt as if he would be betraying his father's memory if he did. After all, his own father had died at the hands of a sorcerer because of him, because he let down his guard and dared to believe.
"No…no!" Arthur shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut tightly. "I tried. I tried to believe, Gaius. I gave it a chance; a chance to save my father; a chance to redeem itself. But that sorcerer used my fragile hope and saw it as a weakness he could exploit. He ingratiated himself with me and took advantage of my goodwill. Because of him, my father is dead!"
Gaius was offended on Merlin's behalf. He knew how hard his ward had tried to save Uther—a man who would happily have sent him to his death—simply out of sympathy and love for his son. Merlin had been through the sudden and grievous loss of a father and wanted to spare his best friend the same kind of pain.
And, moreover, he knew how much Merlin hated and blamed himself for his failure. He could not stand for Arthur to say such hurtful things that would only add to his ward's feelings of guilt. Gaius pointed an accusing finger in Arthur's face. "That is not true! Dragoon has been nothing but faithful to you!"
Arthur snorted. "A sorcerer faithful to a Pendragon? That will be the day…"
Gaius gave Arthur a look so cold that he actually shivered. "You know not of what you speak! Dragoon did everything in his power to save your father. And it might have worked had it not been for that anti-healing charm around Uther's neck!"
Arthur gasped in shock. "What? What anti-healing charm?"
Gaius touched his hand to his forehead in mortification. He'd never meant to mention the charm…He'd just been so angry about Arthur's accusations against Merlin that it just slipped out. "Arthur, I…" he began remorsefully.
But Arthur's iron-clad tone stopped him immediately. "What. Charm. Gaius…"
Gaius sighed deeply, but knew there was nothing else for it but to confess. "When I was examining your father's body after his passing, I found an unfamiliar charm around his neck. It was attached to a long cord and had been hidden beneath Uther's shirt. It bore markings of the Old Religion upon it, so it was clear that it did not belong to your father. I researched the runic markings on it. Its sole purpose was to absorb any healing magic cast upon the wearer, amplify and reverse it to cause tenfold the damage instead. So while it was Dragoon's magic that failed to save your father, it was the amulet that killed him."
Confusion overtook Arthur's features. "But, then…the old man really was trying to heal him?"
"Yes he was," Gaius admitted sorrowfully.
Gaius' claim that the sorcerer Dragoon had been innocent of any wrongdoing shook Arthur's steadfast beliefs, leaving him feeling lost and adrift. Frankly, he didn't know what to think anymore.
"But…but…he enchanted me!" He claimed with the desperation of a drowning man. "And Gwen almost died because of it!"
"Arthur," Gaius scolded sternly, "I thought you had more sense than that! You and I both know you were in love with Gwen long before that poultice was ever found." Gaius put up a finger to stop Arthur's protest before it even started. "And no, Merlin didn't tell me. It had been obvious to me for some time. And besides, you knew she was in love with you, too. Therefore, you were not enchanted."
"Then how do you explain the poultice, Gaius?"
"That poultice was placed under your pillow with the intention of making your father believe there was an enchantment at work in order to separate you and Gwen. Dragoon did not do that; someone else did. But when he discovered who the true culprit was, he knew there was no way of exposing that person. So he asked me to make up an identical poultice so that he could be deliberately caught instead. He did it so he could save Gwen's life, Arthur."
Arthur's eyes goggled in disbelief. "So that he could burn on the pyre in her place? What a crazy old coot! He's lucky he escaped with his life!"
"Indeed." Gaius' voice was filled with irony.
"You said the sorcerer couldn't expose the true culprit." Arthur couldn't bring himself to call the sorcerer by name; it would humanize him and he didn't know if he could handle that right now. "Why not? Who was it?" Arthur asked despite himself.
"The one person that your father would never have suspected; let alone believe could betray him. It was the same person that made that amulet and made sure it was around your father's neck. Morgana."
Arthur didn't know why the depths of Morgana's treachery even surprised him anymore…but they always did. Every little betrayal sliced open another wound on his already battered heart. But this time was different. This time, she'd…
"So she killed her own father?" Arthur actually felt bile rise into the back of his throat at the thought of such a horrific thing.
"She had stopped considering Uther her father a long time ago, so I doubt she saw it that way." After a moment of silence between the two men, Gaius mentioned, "You realize that for her to bother having made the amulet at all, she would have had to have known you were planning to use magic to heal Uther."
It hadn't actually occurred to Arthur, as he'd had so much information thrown at him this evening that he was surprised he was still coherent at all.
"Who did you tell?" Gaius prompted.
"Only Merlin, Gwen…and Agravaine," Arthur groaned the last name on the list and dropped his head into his hands, consumed with grief and self-hatred. If only he hadn't told his uncle…if only he'd known of his treachery sooner, his father might still be alive!
"Arthur, please don't blame yourself. You didn't know you couldn't trust him. There was no reason for you to think it."
Arthur lifted his head to meet Gaius' eyes beseechingly. "But shouldn't I know these things, Gaius? Shouldn't I be able to tell? I'm the king. It's my job to know."
Gaius patted Arthur gently on the back. "You are being too hard on yourself. You may be a king, but you are only human. You cannot possibly know everything."
"Perhaps not, but I'm sick of not knowing enough. Tell me the rest, Gaius. Tell me what you know about how my mother died and why Agravaine would blame my father and I for it."
"As you wish, Sire," Gaius answered dutifully. "When your father returned from the Isle of the Blessed, he told me that Igraine was to drink the water on the night of the next full moon. For that night, and that night only, she could conceive."
"A few weeks later, I was called to your mother's chambers. She was not feeling well. She was terrified that, as had all the others, the elixir did not work."
"As much as I'd had grave misgivings about the course your parents had decided upon, I could not have been happier when I was able to tell your mother that she was with child at last. Never had I seen your mother so blissful as she was that day. She just glowed with happiness!"
"The kingdom rejoiced that the King and Queen would finally have their heir. Your parents were so thrilled that they invited the High Priestess who had helped them to live in the palace as their honored guest. At long last, all seemed well."
"As the day of your birth approached, everything was in preparation. Your mother seemed perfectly fine and healthy. Secretly—for none but myself knew the terms of the pact—your father had done everything he could to prepare the kingdom for the loss of its king, setting in place protections and guardians and the like until you were of age."
Arthur's eyes looked suspiciously wet and tears hovered on his eyelashes, humbled as he was by the story of how much his parents had loved and wanted him.
"Yet, I had never been able to shake the feeling that the pact would not go according to plan. I was right. I was there with the midwife as you were being born, Arthur. Igraine was perfectly fine and healthy…until the moment you took your first breath."
"The change in her was immediate. Even though there was no medical explanation for it, instinctively I knew that she was dying and nothing I could do would save her…and so did she. She confided to me that she'd known; she had always known that it would be her and not Uther who would die. She knew it before Uther had even struck the bargain. And she regretted nothing, Arthur. Not for one moment."
Tears rolled down Arthur's cheeks in rivulets, witnessing his own first moments of life, and his mother's last, if only through Gaius' compassionate eyes.
"Even though her strength was fading, when you were brought to her and laid in her arms to suckle…her smile was brilliant. She kissed the top of your head and stroked your tiny cheek and told me that you were to be named Arthur…and to tell Uther that she was sorry. She asked me to look after you both." Gaius paused and cleared his throat, the memory clearly affecting him. "Her last words on this earth were ones of love for you."
Arthur closed his eyes and drew a hitching breath. He could feel the love radiating from his mother's memory washing over him in healing waves. "Thank you, Gaius…" he choked out in a tear-filled voice. "You'll never know what this means to me…"
"Oh, I think I do," Gaius answered, putting a steadying hand on the man's shaking shoulder.
After several minutes, Arthur sat back, wiping his face on the corner of his tunic before asking, "Why did no one ever tell me this story before?"
"Your father forbade it. He did not want you to feel guilty for Igraine's death, something which you had no control over, and something that was not your fault."
"And it was Mother's death that led to the Great Purge?"
"Yes. When your father discovered that it was Igraine that had perished and not himself, he was out of his mind with anger and grief. He felt tricked by the Priestess and demanded that she honor their agreement. She told him that nature took the person it felt was the most appropriate payment of the debt. In order to give Uther what he wanted most in the world—a son and an heir—nature would take in payment what was most precious to him, which was not his own life but that of the Queen's."
Gaius' head bowed and his voice began to tremble. "When the Priestess told Uther she could not change the outcome, he imprisoned her and promised to execute her and all of her kind because they could not be trusted. It was then that the ban on magic was decreed. The Priestess escaped the fires, but many others with magic died in her stead over the years since."
Arthur laid a hand on Gaius' arm, letting the man wrestle with his own demons until he was better. When Gaius finally raised his head again and met Arthur's look with a small nod of thanks, he asked, "But what does all this have to do with Agravaine?"
Gaius' mouth became a thin line, his face grim. "For years after Igraine's passing, her family blamed Uther for her death, thought that he had used Igraine to his own ends. They did not understand that it was Igraine who had wanted you badly enough to willingly give her life for you. It did not help that your father believed he was at fault just as much as they did."
"In the months following your birth, her brother Tristan actually challenged your father to a duel to the death over her honor. Obviously, your father won and your uncle was laid to rest in Camelot's royal tomb beside his sister; the highest honor your father could bestow, even though he had cursed your father and Camelot with his dying breath."
"Following the death of Tristan, an uneasy truce formed. But relations between the Pendragons and du Bois families were always strained at best."
"Is that why Agravaine showed up only after my father was…unwell?"
"It would seem so. Your father would not have been well enough to warn you of the possible danger."
"But why didn't you? Why didn't anyone?"
"To warn you of my suspicions would mean breaking the oath of silence I had given your father. I have only done so now because it was imperative for you to understand why your uncle would betray you. I think—I hope—that in this case, your father would understand why I broke my vow; he could not possibly have foreseen the events unfolding now."
"Besides, at first, Agravaine seemed so sincere that I hoped his goodwill was the truth…that he could put aside hatred of the father to help his sister's only child."
"I guess not," Arthur spit bitterly.
"I am sorry, Arthur," Gaius said remorsefully. "I wish things had not turned out this way."
"Me too," Arthur replied on a sigh, his tone no longer bitter—just sad and weary.
Gaius waited a long moment to see if Arthur would say anything more. When he did not, Gaius asked carefully, "What will you do now, Sire?"
Gaius stared at Arthur, dumbfounded. But before Gaius could remember how to form words, Arthur continued, his voice determined now, "I will not let his crimes go unpunished, but I will not act in haste. Morgana thinks she can place someone inside the castle to spy on me; well, two can play that game. I will not let on that I suspect Agravaine. Let him think that he still has my trust. But I will have him watched and followed in the hope that he will eventually lead us to Morgana."
In those few moments, Arthur proved to Gaius that he would be a great king and a brilliant tactician. Despite the obvious anger, pain, and betrayal Arthur felt, he would not let those emotions rule his decisions. Instead, he would use the situation and turn it to his advantage.
"Gaius?" Arthur asked after a while.
"Whatever happened to the High Priestess? The one that gave my mother the potion. You said she escaped."
"She became bitter and jaded and turned her hatred back upon Camelot," Gaius explained. "She's tried several times over the years to exact revenge for what she saw as your father's betrayal of her and the Old Religion."
"The Black Knight that your father fought in your stead several years ago was a wraith of your Uncle Tristan, brought back to life by that self-same Priestess to enact their revenge. That was why he felt it was so important to be the one to fight him and not you. It was his battle to win or lose again…not yours."
Arthur nodded, understanding his father's reasoning for drugging him and taking his place in battle at last.
"She was also the person responsible for creating the Afanc that contaminated Camelot's water supply…and the one that poisoned your cup with the Morteus flower."
"Poisoned Merlin, you mean," Arthur spat bitterly, suddenly knowing exactly whom Gaius spoke of. "And almost killed me in the Caves of Balor."
"Yes." There was no point in denying it, as Arthur had figured out the connection on his own. "She was also the person responsible for creating the Questing Beast that bit you."
Arthur's hands clenched so hard that his knuckles were white. "I know she was responsible for bringing about my birth, Gaius…but she deserves to die for all the evil she's done!"
"I'm afraid you're several years too late, Arthur. Nimueh is already dead."
Arthur leaned back with relief and his hands relaxed. "Wish I knew who to thank for that; I'd go and shake their hand!"
"Then you won't have to travel far, Sire."
Arthur stared at the physician, perplexed.
"It was Merlin."
A/N: Poor Arthur! He is getting so much thrown at him, but I think a lot of it was long overdue, so...he's just going to have to deal with it! ;)