Arthur was asleep. He knew he was, because he could see his father, standing in front of him, holding his arms out lovingly towards his son. Uther had never shown that kind of behaviour towards him in life - not in public at least - so this must be a dream, he reasoned to himself. Besides, if that wasn't reason enough to believe this wasn't real, then how about the fact that his father was dead, and had been for several years?
So yes, this was most definitely a dream. But not an unpleasant one, either.
Morgana appeared at some point, though he didn't remember her making an appearance. One moment she was not there, the next she was, simply appearing from nowhere. Considering this was a dream, he wasn't surprise.
She was dressed in the fine clothes of a Lady of the Court and was younger than he remembered her to be now. She was also wearing her old, familiar smile of warmth and love. This was the Morgana he remembered from back in the 'good old days' when she'd been a loving ward of his father and a loyal Lady of the Court.
Gwen was there, too, in her old, familiar place beside Morgana. His dear, sweet Gwen. How he longed to hold her again.
The images dissolved around him to be replaced with a sandy beach and crystal clear waters of the ocean. There were no oceans like this anywhere near Camelot, as far as he knew, so a distant part of his mind wondered where this place actually was.
Glancing down, he realised that he was now riding his bay stallion and Gwen was beside him, astride a grey mare. They galloped together, side by side through the surf and the sprays of water made Gwen laugh. Arthur laughed along with her, enjoying the sense of freedom and peace that he felt at that moment.
But then it all come crashing down as something dragged him back into darkness, away from his beloved wife. He tried to struggle, tried to reach out for her, but she vanished into the darkness, calling his name. He floated for a moment, lost in the limbo of darkness, before he heard someone calling his name again. A man, this time.
His eyes flickered open to see Gaius and Merlin leaning over him, their faces stricken with worry. Somehow he knew that this was no dream. He was once more awake.
But it wasn't exactly the kind of sight he'd been hoping to see after such a wonderful dream, and he started in surprise, crying out in alarm. Merlin and Gaius both jumped back in equal shock, before Gwen's voice from somewhere to his left called his name again. Tilting his head to the side, he could see her sitting beside him on the bed, holding his hand in one of her own. And he smiled.
THAT was what he'd wanted to see.
"Welcome back," she grinned, leaning over to kiss him tenderly. Now he knew that he was where he belonged. The memory of the dream was already fading, and he didn't even bother trying to recall any of it. Gwen was here with him, and that was all he cared about as he kissed her back, one hand reaching up to gently cradle the back of her neck and hold her to him.
It could not last, though, and she finally pulled back. That was when he noticed the healing cut and slight bruising across her temple. He raised a finger to delicately probe it.
"Who...?" He asked, his voice hoarse. He coughed, worked his tongue to try and wet his dry mouth, then tried again. "Who hurt you, my love?"
"The same person who poisoned you," Gwen said softly as she took a cup of water from Gaius and held it to his lips. After a few sips he nodded and she removed it, handing it back to Gaius who set it on the table beside the bed.
Arthur's brows knitted in confusion as her words finally registered. "What?"
"You were poisoned, Sire," Gaius took over the explanation.
"By who?" Arthur frowned.
"Arthur," Merlin started uneasily, speaking for the first time. "I'm afraid you're not going to like the answer."
"By who?" The King asked again more forcefully as he propped himself up on his elbows to stare at his manservant.
Merlin looked to the others, who looked equally as uneasy, then took a deep breath and sighed.
"Dante?!" Arthur asked, incredulous. Then he laughed. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"I wish it were," Gwen sighed, placing a hand on his shoulder. "She's in the cells now. She's confessed to it already."
The strength left Arthur's arms then and he fell back into the mound of pillows with a loud groan. "Why would she...?"
"We don't know, sire," Gaius said quietly. "The men wanted her executed straight away, but I convinced them to wait until you were recovered. If there's anyone who can get answers out of her, it's you."
"What has Gwaine had to say about all of this?"
"He hasn't been seen since her arrest," Merlin added. "A lone figure was reported to have left the Citadel, the night you were poisoned, and the guards gave chase, but whoever it was gave them the slip. Gwaine has not been seen since Dante's arrest and had he not been with the others in the barracks when the alarm was raised, the suspicion would have fallen upon him instead."
"Gwaine would never do such a thing," Arthur protested, closing his eyes and rubbing the sides of his temples in slow circles. Gwen's fingers found his, then took over, and he finally felt himself begin to relax.
"Many thought the same of Dante, at one time," she sighed as she finally took her fingers away and he opened his eyes once more.
After a moment of consideration, he finally sat up slowly, with a little help from Gwen and Merlin to either side of him. "Fetch my clothes, Merlin," he said at last. "I need to speak to Dante."
"Sire, you're in no fit state to go down to the dungeons right now," Gaius protested as Merlin went to the wardrobe and began pulling out shirts and jackets. "You need to rest!"
"Then I'll rest in my throne and she can be brought to me," Arthur sighed, having no energy to get angry just then. "If I am to sentence her, it needs to be official, in front of the court anyway. An unofficial sentence might catch the attention of her father, and the last time I looked, he had a small army at his disposal. Plus he's one of Lot's citizens. We need to avoid Lot at all costs."
"As you wish, Sire," Gaius nodded. "I'll summon the council then, shall I?"
"Please do," Arthur nodded as Gwen took a comb from the bedside and began to run it through his mess of hair. "And have Percival escort Dante up, when I am ready."
"Of course, Sire," the physician bowed, then turned and left. Arthur sighed and turned to his wife.
"Why did she strike you?" he asked quietly with a frown, touching the cut on her forehead again.
Gwen shrugged. "I'm sure I can't say. In all honesty, I don't remember anything about what happened."
"Then how did the guards know it was Dante?"
"She was standing over our..." Gwen faltered, then tried again. "She was standing over us, when the guards came. She admitted there and then, in front of them all."
"Maybe she was covering for someone?" Arthur mused. "But who?"
"You'll have time enough to ask her soon," Gwen said gently, leaning forward and kissing his forehead. "I'm sure there's a perfectly good reason for all of this."
"I'm sure there is," Arthur nodded as Merlin finally came back with an arm full of clothes. "But I get the feeling I won't like it."
For three days and three nights, Dante remained chained to the wall of her cell, with only a mouse for company. He had appeared an hour or so after Morgana had left, and at first Dante had tried to shoo him away, disgusted to be sharing her cell with such a filthy creature, full of disease. He'd scurried back through the hole in the wall and immediately she'd regretted it. Who was she to hold herself any higher than he, at that moment in time?
She, the traitor, who was chained to the wall like an animal and had been left in darkness to await her fate. She, who had tried to kill the king, and deserved this fate.
But I didn't try to kill him, she reminded herself angrily at one point. I was saving him! I don't deserve this!
But then another voice had spoken up, in her subconscious, and it was a voice she recognized immediately. It was her father's voice.
When you first arrived in Camelot, you sought to overthrow Arthur and see Morgana returned to the throne. Had you forgotten that?
And to her horror, she realised it was true. Before she'd come to know Arthur and realise what a good man he was, she'd plotted with Morgana to usurp him. She'd WANTED him dead, so that the woman she believed to be the just and rightful ruler of Camelot could take her place instead.
How times had changed, since then! Dante's time in Camelot had certainly done one thing to her. It had opened her eyes to the truths of the world. The REAL truth. The world was not simply black and white, as she'd foolishly believed. There were not just good guys and bad guys with a definitive line between them, separating them. There were actually so many shades of grey, it was hard to keep track - so many people doing the right things for the wrong reasons, or the wrong things for the right reasons - each and every one believing that they were in fact right and those who opposed them were wrong.
It was all so confusing, trying to make sense of it all that in the end she didn't even bother trying.
She'd started her life in Camelot believing the word of a woman she had only recently met, just because she'd saved her life. This woman - Morgana - had led her to believe that Arthur was evil, cruel and corrupt. Removing him and his equally evil wife from their thrones was the right thing to do, so that she could take over instead and rule the kingdom fairly and justly. Dante had been fooled by several things. Firstly she knew nothing of Arthur, so believing Morgana's lies about him was easy. Secondly, she owed Morgana her life. Why would she go against the woman who had saved her? And thirdly, Morgana had offered her power. Power unlike anything she'd ever known before. Dante had been young and foolish...and more than a little greedy.
Now she knew differently. She knew that Arthur was not a bad man at all. He was a fair, kind and just ruler, and so was Gwen. It was Morgana who was cruel and corrupt...though not without reason. Dante understood why Morgana had done the things she had. She had magic, and she was afraid. She just wanted to be accepted for who she was. She was one of those people doing the wrong things, but for the right reasons, it seemed to Dante. And despite the fact she should have felt angry with her cousin, she didn't. She merely felt great sympathy.
She had also been awarded great power, just as Morgana had promised her, but she'd also learned that with great power comes great responsibility - a responsibility she could not handle. She'd abused her privilege as First Lady of Camelot, she'd made many mistakes, and now it was all catching up to her.
In the past three days, she'd had nothing else to do but think about all this, and realise just how stupid she'd truly been. But at least she had not been alone.
The mouse had returned several times since she'd first shooed him off - usually when the guards brought her food. She'd become quite fond of the little fellow - he being her soul companion during the long periods of loneliness. She'd named him Bob, because of the way he would sit on his hind legs, bobbing his head up and down as he tried to catch the scent of whatever it was he was smelling at the time. At first he wouldn't come near her, he'd stay by the wall and she'd throw small crusts of bread in his direction - probably wary that she'd try to shoo him off again, as she had done the first time. Soon, however, he'd become more confident around her, until by the third evening, he was taking food from her hand and running up her arm to sit on her shoulder, where he'd sit nibbling the crust of bread, or the lump of cheese, or whatever else she fancied sharing with him at the time.
"I've messed up big time, Bob," she sighed as he sat on her shoulder on the fourth morning since her imprisonment, holding the lump of cheese in his tiny paws and taking delicate nibbles of it. "And there's so many things I wanted to do before I died. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to be a wife. I wanted to dance under the moonlight on a midsummer's evening with the man I love...don't laugh, I did!...Oh yes, you can poke fun, Mister. Haven't you ever dreamed of doing the same? No, of course you haven't. You're probably too worried about where your next meal's coming from, or where the stable cat is..."
The mouse continued to eat his food, completely oblivious to the fact he was supposedly holding a conversation with her. And then he froze, sniffed the air, darted down her shoulder and bolted back for the whole in the wall. Dante strained against the chains as she tried to catch him and bring him back. "No! No don't go! Come back! Bob, don't go! Please don't -" The chains jerked her back roughly, and she yelped in pain, before tugging in a futile effort against them. "Aaargh! Damned chains! I hate you! Do you know how annoying you are?!"
"You know, talking to yourself is the first sign of madness," Percival grinned as he leaned against the cell door, watching her slump back against the wall in defeat, the chains rattling and clanking with each movement of her wrists, as if taunting her.
"For someone so big, you sure are a silent bugger," she grumbled, glaring back at him - her face flushed bright red - though whether this was out of embarrassment at being caught talking to herself, or from the impromptu wrestle with the unforgiving chains, he wasn't sure. "What do you want?"
"I came to give you the news," he said, straightening up, his face unreadable. She raised her eyebrows, but said nothing, simply waiting.
"Arthur's awake," he said after a moment. "Gaius managed to counteract the poison and he says the King will live. Gwen is recovering well, too."
"Good. That's...well that's great!" She nodded, relieved. So Morgana's plan hadn't succeeded, after all. At least that was something.
"He sent me down here to fetch you," Percival spoke again as a guard with the keys stepped forward and unlocked the door to her cell. Then he walked over to the shackles round her wrists and undid them too. She rose unsteadily to her feet, trying to ease away the numbness and cramps that had worked their way into her legs after four days of being unable to get up and stretch. Then she rubbed her wrists gingerly, hobbling awkwardly over to the doorway where Percival was waiting.
He gave her a sympathetic look, holding up another pair of restraints.
"Really?!" She groaned.
"I'm afraid so," he nodded. "You tried to poison the King and attacked the Queen. They're taking no chances."
"Fair enough," she shrugged with a resigned sigh, holding out her hands. He winced when he saw the red raw skin from the shackles of the cell, and underneath those, the scars from long ago, when she'd pretended to be Lot's slave, in order to work her way into Camelot and gain Arthur' s sympathy.
The huge knight hesitated, waited until the other guard had gone back to his duties, then reached down and tore a strip from the bottom of his red cloak. Tearing the strip in half, he wound the material round one wrist before clamping the iron manacle over the top. Then he did the same to the other, before tucking the ends of the red material underneath to hide them.
Dante was surprised by this action and looked up at him with a quizzical frown as he took her by the shoulder and gently led her away, out of the dungeons.
"For what it's worth," he explained quietly as he escorted her back up into the bright daylight of the busy Citadel above, "I don't believe you're guilty, for one second."
"Thanks," she smiled, touched. To know that she still had at least one friend, even after everything, was a humbling thought indeed.
After four days in darkness, the bright sunny day was a shock to Dante, and she threw her arms up in front of her face in a feeble attempt to shield her eyes. That was when she realised how dirty they were - covered in grime and dirt from the dungeon floor. Glancing down at herself, she could see that it was not just her hands that were in a state - pretty much the rest of her looked a right royal mess, too.
"I don't suppose there's any chance I'd be allowed to clean myself up a bit first, is there?" she asked as she slowly, gingerly lowered her hands and squinted her eyes instead, trying to force them to adjust to the light.
"Sorry Danny, no can do," Percival sighed. "Arthur's orders were to bring you straight up from the dungeons. If you turned up all squeaky clean, he'll know I disobeyed him."
"I could say I shed dirt like a snake sheds it's skin?" She offered. Then thought a moment. "A snake? Huh, probably not the best animal I could compare myself to, right now."
"Are you intending on slipping through Arthur's grasp?" Percival asked suspiciously, giving her a sideways glance as he took her shoulder. Up until that point, he'd left her alone to walk by his side of her own free will. But now, a group of knights going out on patrol were coming towards them, and he had to keep up the pretence that she was being escorted.
"No Percy. I intend to tell him the truth," she replied, her head held high, chin stuck out in defiance as she walked past the knights, who paused to watch her with undisguised distrust and in some cases, even hatred.
"All of it?" Percival asked knowingly as they rounded a corner, out of sight of the knights and he let her go again.
"As much as I deem necessary for him to know, given the circumstances," she replied, not looking at him as they stopped outside the huge oak doors to the throne room where her trial was to take place.
Before Percival could question her further, however, the doors began to swing open.
"Percy, when we get in there, you'll have to throw me on the floor," she said quietly to him as they waited.
"Gwaine is already under suspicion for helping me! Don't add your name to the list of suspects too! If anything were to happen to either of you on my behalf, I'd never forgive myself. Please Percy, play the role? For me?"
"I'll do what I can," he nodded, taking her shoulder and knowing that she was right. If he was going to help her, he had to keep up the appearance that he wasn't helping her - as twisted and confusing as that may have sounded.
So, he marched her in, towards the thrones, through the crowd of knights and assembled nobles. When they reached the front, he pressed firmly on her shoulder, forcing her down to her knees with a slight yelp. She'd been expecting him to shove her forward, and had prepared to catch herself on her hands. She hadn't expected to be almost flattened beneath the huge paw on her shoulders.
Glaring up at him, she bit back her colourful comment, then focussed her eyes back on Arthur and Gwen instead.
Gwen looked perfectly healthy and radiant as ever. Her curls of dark hair had been strategically twisted and shaped to hide the cut and bruising on her temple, and nobody would have known any different, to look at her now.
Arthur, on the other hand, wasn't so...healthy looking. He slumped in the throne, unable to even find the energy to sit up properly, and his skin was still chalky pale, his eyes hollow and lifeless. His clothes seemed baggier and more crumpled than usual, too, and his hair was a birds nest that had been hastily flattened into some sort of normality beneath his crown.
"Dante," he greeted with a nod of his head as she stared up at him, horrified by his appearance. She blinked a few times, then shook her head slightly as if waking from a dream, only now realising that he hadn't used any form of title when addressing her. So, he'd already decided to strip her of her title, regardless of whether she was innocent or not.
"My Lord," she replied, bowing her head to him and, knowing the protocol when in this kind of situation (having watched people being tried by Arthur many times) did not raise her head again until he addressed her once more. Even then, she did not make eye contact, but merely looked to his pale hands as they rested on the arms of the throne.
"Gaius tells me that I was poisoned and almost killed, three nights ago. Merlin informs me that Guinevere was attacked and rendered unconscious by this very same would-be assassin. And Sir Leon tells me that you have confessed to both crimes. What am I to make of all this?"
"Make of it what you will, Sire. My answer remains the same," Dante shrugged, affecting a nonchalant air. If he saw how truly terrified she was, he'd work at her until finally she cracked under the pressure and told him everything - the truth about her betrayal and her alliances with Morgana, Mordred and Lot. He would be even more devastated by these accusations than by the one he was laying at her feet right now.
"Your answer?" Arthur asked, finding the energy to sit himself up finally as he studied her. "To which question?"
"Am I the person you're after?"
"And are you?"
"Why did you do it, Dante?!" He banged a fist on the arm of his chair, causing several of the nobles, plus Dante, to flinch. Finally she looked up into his big blue eyes.
"You would never understand, Sire."
"Then help me! Help me to understand what's going on in that head of yours!" He exclaimed, frustrated by her whole attitude. Did she want to die? Because she was going the right way about it!
"What does it matter why I did it?" She asked finally. "Is it not enough for you that I've admitted to it? Can't you just accept my guilt and get it over with?"
"Are you so keen to die?" He asked softly, leaning forwards with his hands steepled in front of him, elbows resting on his knees.
"No, I'm not. But one way or another, I doubt I'll be alive tomorrow evening."
"And why do you say that?"
"Because I'm guilty. The punishment for my crime is death. You cannot escape that law any more than I can. The people expect you to be fair and just in your judgement. They will not take kindly to you letting me off because we are friends."
"So we are still friends?" He asked, eyebrows raised. "Because to me, the definition of a friend is not someone who poisons you."
There was a moment of silence then, and Merlin, standing in the front row beside Gaius, could feel eyes burning into the back of his head. Turning slightly, he saw Morgana scowling at him from the shadows, and knew that the comment about poisoning friends was a significant one for the two of them, also.
He did his best to ignore her and turned back, in time to hear Arthur sigh. Apparently Dante had refused to dignify that question with an answer.
"So where's Gwaine then?" He asked, changing tactics.
"In the castle?" Dante shrugged.
"Not anymore. He hasn't been seen since you were imprisoned."
"Well sorry to break this to you, sire, but I was down in the dungeons. Gwaine was not allowed to come see me, so how am I supposed to know where he's vanished to?"
Arthur frowned, wrong footed. He should have seen that one coming really. After all, his men had assured him that Gwaine had gone missing on the eve of her arrest. But then another thought came to mind.
"This could have been a premeditated attack. You and Gwaine planned it together, and when you were caught, Gwaine panicked and ran."
"Oh Gwaine usually runs at the first sign of trouble," Dante agreed with a nod. And then she smirked. "Right towards it, the stupid fool."
Arthur allowed a slight smile at this, knowing she was right. But then he quickly composed himself once more. "So you're saying that Gwaine had nothing to do with any of this? You're not covering for him?"
"Hardly," she scoffed. "If the silly bugger was stupid enough to get caught, I'd let him fend for himself. I'd never stick my neck on the line for him."
"Yet you're clearly sticking it on the line for someone," Arthur retorted, staring into her eyes, daring her to crack and reveal the truth to him. He could see that she so desperately wanted to. "Tell me who you're covering for."
"I know you, Dante Quincailan. You're not a killer. You'd never do this. I'm not believing it for one second. You're covering for someone else who would see me dead, and if my sources are correct, I believe it to be Morgana."
"What?!" Dante gasped, stunned. How the hell had he known?!
"Alright, so maybe not Morgana. But someone," he corrected, taking her outburst for an outraged protest. So it had been a guess then, apparently. Dante breathed a sigh of relief at that. For a moment there, she'd feared that he'd discovered her for who she truly was.
"Are you going to tell me who you're working for?" He pressed, once more.
"Myself," she managed to reply, although her calm composure had cracked under the panic of thinking she'd been caught in a lie.
"And why do you want me dead?"
"So that Lot may rule the whole of Albion."
"You did this for Lot? The man who stabbed you and left you for dead?" Arthur was unconvinced. Dante needed to end this now. He was getting too clever with his words, for her to keep up with all the lies. She was, of course, in no hurry to bring about her own death, but at the same time she just wanted this trial to be over with.
"Sorry to cut this short, Arthur," she said bluntly, getting back to her feet at last. "But I have a headache. Why don't you just chop it off?"
The entire room gasped at the sheer audacity of her statement, and Arthur blanched, staring in shock from Dante, to Gwen, then back again.
"Is that what you think? After everything? That I would execute you without a chance to redeem yourself?"
"You're offering me one last chance?" She asked with forced contempt as Leon and Percival stepped to either side of her, sensing that the situation was spiralling rapidly downhill. "One last chance to what? Confess to trying to poison you? Very well, I confess! I did it! It was me! I poured hemlock in your wine and smashed a vase round your wife's head! Is that what you wanted to hear, Arthur? Because that's all I have left to say!"
There was silence for a very long time then, before Arthur finally and shakily rose to his feet, a grim expression on his face.
"Give me a name, Dante. You were not alone in all this, so give me a name and I will spare your life. They can't help you now, so why protect them? Just give me their name."
Dante briefly considered speaking Mordred's name. He'd caused nothing but trouble from day one, and if she was going down, she may as well drag him with her. But even as she went to speak his name, she felt an odd tingling in her throat. No matter how hard she tried to say his name, she simply could not. And she knew why.
Mordred was standing in the crowd, not ten feet away. He could easily have cast some sort of spell to prevent her from speaking his name. She didn't know of such a spell that existed, but then neither had she known that sorcerers could strangle someone with but a mere thought, either. Anything was possible where magic was concerned.
So she gave up trying to name him as her accomplice, knowing it was a futile waste of her time and energy. Instead she looked to Arthur and said, "I have no name to give, other than my own."
"Then you leave me no choice," Arthur sighed. "Though it saddens me greatly to do so, I must charge you with treason and attempted murder." He paused for a moment to let his words sink in, and Dante felt her breath hitch in her throat. What had she done?!
But it was too late now. Too late to go back.
"Every person here present now knows the crimes for which you are guilty. Therefore, Dante Quincailan," Arthur spoke loudly and clearly, so the whole room could hear. "By the power vested in me and pursuant to the laws of the land, I hereby sentence you to death. At noon tomorrow, you will be taken from your cell...and hanged."
Nobody moved, or spoke, but a cold chill seemed to have filled the air. Or maybe it was just Dante. She suddenly felt as though she'd been plunged into a frozen lake - all the breath had been stolen from her.
Arthur nodded to Percival, who took her shoulder and turned her away, to lead her back to her cell. As she walked, she kept her head held high, refusing to let the tears fall, and refusing to look at anyone else in the room. As soon as the doors had closed behind her, however, she held back no longer.
The tears fell thick and fast, and she made no effort to hide them from the knight escorting her. He seemed not to have noticed, however, as he marched beside her, eyes kept firmly ahead of him, jaw set in grim determination.
Raising her chained hands to wipe the tears away with her sleeves, she glanced up at him and finally saw why he was making such a studious point of staring straight ahead as he walked.
His cheeks were slick and glistening in the candlelight.
He was crying, as well.
Dante had never seen a grown man cry before, let alone one as strong as Percival. She bowed her head and wept openly at the terrible, foolish mistake she'd made, but there was nothing she could say or do now.
"I'm sorry Percy," she sniffed at last, through her tears. He glanced down at her, doing his best to compose himself as he forced a smile.
"Hey, don't be sorry. I'm sure Arthur'll have a change of heart by morning. He'll realise there's been some terrible misunderstanding, and you'll be free again by lunchtime."
"I wish I shared your optimism," she sniffed again, wiping her eyes with the back of one hand.
He wiped the tears from his own cheeks and offered a more convincing smile this time. "Gwaine's out there somewhere, probably cooking up some scheme to get you out of all this. You wait. He'll leave it till the last possible moment, because he likes to make a dramatic entrance. But he'll be there. He'll get you out of this."
"And if he's not?"
"I won't let you die, Dante. By my honour as a knight, I will not let you die tomorrow." And she knew that was a promise that he intended to keep.