The Magic You So Despise
Disclaimer: Merlin is the property of the BBC and Shine. I make no claim on it and write this purely for entertainment purposes. No copyright infringement intended.
WARNINGS: corporal punishment of children, violence against children
Author's Notes: This was written for the 2013 Paperlegends Big Bang Challenge on LiveJournal. Many, many thanks to Regan X, my beta, sounding board, cheerleader, and all-around hand-holder. Without you, my dear, this story would never have gotten off the ground. Also, many thanks to my artist, aaweth-edain, my artist. She is the one who created the lovely story cover that you see above!
A little boy of seven winters sat snuggled beneath the thick coverlet of his bed with an impatient expression on his round face. This expression did not flicker as the door was thrust open, revealing an old, bent figure. "You're late, Grandfather," the boy promptly pointed out.
The old man snorted as he shuffled into the room, leaning heavily on his cane as he walked. "No such thing as late at my age, my boy." He crossed the large room at a slow, but steady pace, and then settled into the chair that sat next to the boy's bed.
"So," the old man said, "you want your story, do you?"
The boy's only response was to roll his eyes.
The old man raised an eyebrow. "I suggest you watch yourself, young man. I'm not too old to put you over my knee, you know," he warned him sternly. "No matter what your grandmother says. Mind your manners."
This admonishment seemed to work, as a look of contrition crossed the boy's features. "I'm sorry, Grandfather," he apologized. "May I please have my story?"
The grandfather held his gaze for several long moments, and then nodded. "Yes, you may." Satisfied, he leaned back. "Tonight, I thought I'd tell you about the Pendragons."
The boy perked up, his eyes sparkling with curiosity. "King Arthur? And his knights? And —"
"Not exactly, my boy," his grandfather cut him off. "This story starts with Arthur's father, King Uther, and his mother, Queen Ygraine. And his brother, Merlin."
The boy gaped at his grandfather incredulously. "That's silly, Grandfather. Merlin was Arthur's wizard, not his brother!"
The old man chuckled. "So sure of that, are you? Just sit back and listen, my boy. You might learn something."
The child looked as though he might protest at first, but then sighed and did as he was told. Once he was settled again, his grandfather continued. "King Uther and Queen Ygraine were married for several years, but there was never any sign of a child, an heir for Camelot. It was a very sad time for them both. The Queen so desperately wished to fulfill her duty to Camelot, and she wanted to be a mother too. The king, though he never told her, was more and more being urged to set his queen aside and marry a woman who might prove more fertile than her. But Uther refused, for although his wife was blamed for their lack of children, he could not be certain that she was the one who was responsible and not him. Not then, anyway."
"Queen Ygraine couldn't have babies?"
The old man shook his head. "It was thought so for some time. She and the king were married for some five years before she knew she carried a child. But I get ahead of myself." Straightening in his chair, he continued. "During the summer of the fourth year after his marriage, Camelot was at war with its neighbor, Caerleon. The king sent his best general, Lord Gorlois, to head the troops, since he was the finest and bravest warrior of their generation, and was also Uther's most trusted friend. Gorlois, however, worried for the safety of his wife, the Lady Vivienne, since their lands were close to the border with Caerleon, so he sent her to reside in Camelot, where it was much safer. However, during that autumn, the king and Lady Vivienne did something that many people would consider horrible."
"What?" the boy asked, obviously curious despite his earlier skepticism.
The old man leaned forward. "They made a baby together, despite them being married to other people…"
Uther stared at the letter that lay on his desk in front of him, shocked speechless. The missive had arrived in the midst of a thick packet of letters, and had looked completely indistinguishable from all the others, but the contents, oh, the contents…
Pregnant. Vivienne was pregnant. About four months along, by her estimates and by those belonging to the midwife Vivienne had employed.
Vivienne had been in Camelot four months ago. Gorlois had escorted her there before riding off to lead his wing of the army against Caerleon, but that had been seven months ago.
Uther closed his eyes, remembering that night, that one night. It had been after a particularly frustrating council session, where, yet again, a delegation of nobles had offered up the private petition that he set aside his wife and remarry, for the sake of the succession. He had been married to Ygraine for over four years, and still there was no sign of a child, an heir to secure Camelot's future. Much as they admired and respected the queen, the succession had to take precedence over everything.
It had been a very frustrating meeting. He had been reduced to making excuses, reminding them that it was no simple thing to just 'cast off' Ygraine. She had been his wife for over four years, so there was no way to simply annul the marriage by claiming non-consummation. What was more, if he did set Ygraine aside, he would undoubtedly offend her brothers. Agravaine and Tristan de Bois were both influential men in their own right, being the head and heir of one of Camelot's oldest noble families. Their backing had proved vital in Uther claiming the throne, and they had been more than willing to bind their fortunes to his by permitting him to marry their sister. To have her thrown off, sent back to them in shame, would certainly arouse their ire. Tristan, in particular, was infamous for both his temper and his devotion to Ygraine, his twin. Uther had no desire to face him and Agravaine on the battlefield. He had to be certain that it was the only recourse before proceeding. At least, that was what he told his nobles. He might be exaggerating a little bit, since he was fairly certain that Agravaine and Tristan would be capable of looking at the bigger picture.
True, it would hurt the pride of everyone involved if Ygraine was disavowed, but it was a forgone fact that Uther, the first in a new line of kings, needed an heir. If his wife was thought to be unable to conceive, then she must step aside for a woman who could. Ygraine, Uther was certain, could understand that, and so could her brothers. However, Uther knew that even if they could see the need to act for the greater good, there would be a definite cooling of his relationship with the house of de Bois, something he couldn't afford very well at all. Tristan, in particular, given that he was a border lord. The last thing he needed was a foreign king making overtures to a man who had had his sister shamed by Camelot's king.
Especially if it turned out that Ygraine wasn't the problem at all.
Nonetheless, after placating the nobles – for the moment – Uther had left the room furious, if only at himself. He knew he was placing his own feelings and desires ahead of his duty to his kingdom. Camelot needed an heir. He had stormed through the corridors, his blood rushing through his veins like he was in the midst of a battle again. He had not known what he'd intended as he'd stomped through the citadel, but he was certain that he had not intended to end up in Vivienne's bed.
But he had. And this was the result. A child. His child.
He had been reluctant to set Ygraine aside because he loved her, of course, but also because although everyone else seemed content to blame his childlessness on his wife, Uther had not been entirely certain that the problem lay with her. Though it was not widely known to outsiders, there was a history in his family of men being incapable of fathering children. His grandfather had had two brothers, and neither of them had given their wives any children, and they'd both had multiple spouses. His grandfather's sister had also been barren.
This letter, though, written from the wilds of Gorlois' lands, put the mystery to bed. Vivienne was carrying his child. He was capable of siring a child on a woman.
Uther's eyes flew open. What was he to tell Ygraine?
"That was wrong of them," the boy pointed out. "I once heard Ma say that she'd rip Da to pieces if he ever looked twice at Lady Lilith. Is that like what the king and Lady Vivienne did?"
The grandfather looked faintly amused and he nodded. "Something similar, yes." Clearing his throat, he continued his narrative. "Uther was both delighted and disturbed over the new of Vivienne's pregnancy. He had so longed for a child of his own, and now he had proof that he could have children, so the problem seemed to be on his wife's end. However, he could not bear the thought of giving Ygraine up. In lieu of Ygraine having a baby, Vivienne's child seemed to be the best solution to all of their problems.
"Fate, however," the grandfather added with a deep, impressive tone, "had other plans."
Uther knew it had to be done and, truthfully, he wanted to do it. It was the only way that would ensure that Ygraine could maintain her position as his wife and queen, while also safeguarding Camelot's succession. He knew it would cause problems, would be something of a scandal, but, in the long run, it was for the greater good.
He was going to claim Vivienne's child, the one that would make its entrance into the world within the next two months.
Ygraine would be hurt terribly by the admission of his and Vivienne's tryst, no matter how brief it was. Vivienne's reputation would be forever tarnished, and she would lose custody of her baby. Gorlois would be exposed as a cuckold. Uther regretted all of this, but it was the only way he could see for them to go forward. Ygraine was barren; if she had been able to bear a child, surely there would have been some sign of it by now. If he didn't claim Vivienne's baby, there would never be an heir for Camelot so long as Uther remained tied to Ygraine. Short of putting her aside, Vivienne's child was the only conceivable heir Uther would ever have.
The sunlight poured in through the windows of the corridor as Uther strode along it, determinedly making his way toward his wife's chambers. Ygraine had been feeling under the weather the past few days, and had remained sequestered while summoning Alice and Gaius to examine her. No doubt they would have finished by now, and since Uther had not received any urgent summons to Ygraine's side, he was assuming that it was some minor, passing ailment that would be gone soon enough. Still, Ygraine didn't seem inclined to move from her chambers today, which gave him the perfect opportunity to inform her of his plans in some privacy.
Coming to a halt at the door that led to Ygraine's chambers, Uther took a deep, steadying breath before raising his hand to rap his knuckles on the door. Barely a moment passed when the door was opened, revealing Ygraine's maid. The girl curtsied respectfully and stepped aside, allowing Uther to enter. He glanced around the room, searching for some sign of his wife.
"Forgive me, Sire," the maid spoke up from behind him. "Her Majesty is lying down, but she is awake."
Nodding, Uther waved his hand dismissively, ushering her out. He then turned toward the connecting room to the main area, where Ygraine's bed resided. As he approached, he took in his wife's form. She was lying on her side, her back to him. Her form, he noticed, was a bit thicker, fuller than it normally was. Strange. "My love?" he called softly.
She jerked, clearly a bit startled by his voice, but then rolled over to face him. "Uther," she replied. She stared him, her lovely blue eyes bright against her pale face. Slowly, she smiled and held out her hand to him, which he took as he sat down. "I have the most wonderful news," she breathed.
He lifted her hand, pressing an absent kiss to the back. "What news?"
In that moment, her eyes appeared to grow even bluer, and her smile even brighter. "You are going to be a father."
For a heart stopping moment, Uther panicked, thinking that his wife somehow already knew of what he had come to tell her. He opened his mouth, but could say nothing. Then, before he could think of something, anything to say, Ygraine guided his hand down to rest on her abdomen.
It only took another moment for Uther to understand what she was telling him.
"Was the king very happy that the queen was to have a baby?" the boy asked.
For a brief moment, the grandfather didn't answer, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. "Happy?" he finally replied, "Yes, he was happy. As I said, he had wanted a child of his own for a long time, as had Queen Ygraine. So, yes, he was happy. And yet," he added, "he could not help but feel sad. If the Queen was to bear a child, then Uther couldn't afford to recognize Vivienne's child. For one, it would cause great distress to Ygraine, and the physicians warned him against any upset for the sake of her health. What's more, if both children turned out to be boys, it could cause a serious succession crisis."
The boy nodded slowly. "The Queen's son should be the heir, but if the King recognized his other son, then he'd be first in line." He blushed under the raised eyebrow of his grandfather, and then puffed out his chest. "I learned about the succession from my tutor months ago," he said proudly.
"Indeed? Well, excellent," the older man complimented. "I'm glad to see that your education has been fruitful." Clearing his throat, he continued the story. "Faced with these facts, Uther felt he had no choice but to remain silent on the subject of his child with Vivienne, and not long after he learned of Ygraine's pregnancy, Vivienne gave birth to a little girl, who was called Morgana. Vivienne died shortly thereafter of illness, but Morgana thrived, and was doted upon by Gorlois, even if the man was aware that she was not of his get."
"That was nice of him," the boy commented.
"Nice, yes," the grandfather agreed. "Gorlois so loved Morgana that I suspect that if history could have remembered him only as a doting father and recalled none of his many military successes, he would have been well satisfied. His affection did ease Uther's mind somewhat, though he still greatly envied Gorlois.
"Morgana was born in the summer, and Ygraine's pregnancy progressed into the autumn. Around the time autumnal equinox, Ygraine went into labor. It was a difficult birth, lasting close to three days. The physicians, even when aided by Mistress Alice, one of the foremost healers of the day, were beginning to despair, when the child finally came into the world."
The boy gave him an excited look. "Arthur!"
Uther took a long, deep drink from his goblet. The alcohol burned as it went down, but he ignored it, instead staring out over the lower town. It seemed to him that every house was lit by a thousand candles, and even high in the citadel, he could hear the joyous calls and shouts in the streets.
The people were clearly happy to celebrate having an heir to the throne at long last. Uther just wished he could join them.
He was delighted in his new son, of course. There was no cause for disappointment as far as his health was concerned. Alice had declared him hale and healthy, much to everyone's relief, and stated that he seemed not to have suffered any ill effects from his mother's protracted labor. The boy's appearance was rather off-putting, Uther admitted, with his… squashed appearance, but when he'd asked Alice about it, she had merely smiled and assured him that such things were temporary. "Give him time, Sire," she'd told him. "His features will smooth out soon enough and he'll be quite the handsome little prince."
Uther trusted Alice's expertise in this matter, but he still couldn't help but compare his newborn son to the stories Gorlois had shared about Morgana. He'd never said anything about her appearing all red and squashed and such. No, according to him, Morgana had looked like a chubby little angel from the beginning. Arthur looked like anything but.
And that wasn't all that bothered him. Uther was also worried deeply for Ygraine. The birth had been excruciatingly difficult for her. Uther hadn't been present, of course, but had been just outside of her chambers, waiting with growing terror as he listened to his wife's cries grow progressively weaker. When the birth finally ended and he had been allowed inside, Uther had been shocked by the state of his wife. Her hair had hung limply around her face, her skin was almost grey with exhaustion, and her eyes dull and almost lifeless.
It had been perhaps even more horrifying than listening to her earlier screams.
Nor had his subsequent discussions with Gaius reassured him. His old friend had been grave in sharing his report.
"Her Majesty's health is very fragile, Sire, and is likely to be for some time," the physician had stated. "Though she will eventually recover, it is vital that she not be subjected to any further serious strains on her body." The older man hesitated, and then continued, "I must recommend that she not bear any more children for at least the next three years, perhaps longer."
It was a hard thing to hear, but ultimately Uther had agreed. He had the heir that was so vital to his kingdom's future security. There was no need for any more children, to be honest. Arthur would be guarded carefully against illness and other threats.
He had his family.
The boy wrinkled his nose. "The king was disappointed because of how Arthur looked?"
His grandfather chuckled. "Yes, initially. But babies generally looked the way Arthur did when he was born, and no matter what Uther imagined from Gorlois' stories, Morgana likely looked that way too."
The boy nodded, a thoughtful expression crossing his features. "Emilia looked like a wrinkled fruit when she was born."
"Yes, and then she looked like a cherub shortly after."
There was a moment of silence, and then the boy finally shrugged. "So, if the king didn't want to have any more children, how can Merlin be Arthur's brother?"
The older man snorted faintly. "The king may have decided that he didn't want any more children, my boy, but nature will run its course when certain things happen."
"You mean when a husband lies with his wife?" At his grandfather's sharp look, the boy grinned unrepentantly. "The servants can't watch their language all the time, 'specially if they don't know I'm listening!"
The grandfather sighed. "I suppose I'll have to have a chat with them about that, then, but yes. The king attempted to take precautions, but nonetheless, Queen Ygraine became pregnant again. She gave birth just a couple of months after the first anniversary of Arthur's birth…"
Snow poured down from the sky in a torrent, buffeted by the winds. Winter had Camelot in its icy grip.
Uther watched the snow blanket the courtyard outside, trying but failing not to hear Ygraine's every groan and cry coming from inside her chambers just a few feet away. He had received the occasional report from Gaius or Alice, both of them reassuring him that all was going well, but he could barely believe it. He couldn't make himself believe that his wife's ordeal was passing far more quickly than it had the first time. He couldn't believe that her pain was less.
He could only remember Gaius' stern warnings against Ygraine bearing another child.
The past several months had been an exercise in fear. Even though Ygraine was delighted to be with child once again, Uther couldn't share in her joy. Not as long as there was a threat to her health, indeed, to her very life. He had considered broaching the subject of perhaps aborting the pregnancy, if only for the sake of her health, but her perpetual happiness had never left him an opportunity to do so. Given how attached she behaved toward the child, Uther was not such a fool as to think that he could have convinced her to rid herself of the baby anyway.
So he had remained silent on the subject of his fears, and this was the result. He was reduced to pacing outside of his wife's chambers, waiting and trying to brace himself for the worst.
It was just after the first morning bell that the door to the chamber opened. Uther, who had been standing at the window yet again, whirled around to see Gaius step out into the corridor, his shoulders slumped with exhaustion. When the physician met his gaze, he bowed to him and stepped aside. "You may go in now, Sire. The Queen and child are resting comfortably."
Gaius may have said more, but Uther didn't hear it. He pushed past the older man and into Ygraine's chambers. Without hesitation, he hurried toward Ygraine's bed, waving away the midwives and Alice so that he could get a clear look at his wife.
She was tired, no doubt about that. He could see that in slump of her shoulders, in the way her eyes kept sliding shut only for her to jerk them back open again. In truth, though, she did not look as bad as he had feared she would. Her skin wasn't a deathly grey, nor was she lying still as death.
Ygraine must have heard his approach, because she turned her head in his direction. A moment, and then she smiled at him faintly. "I'm fine, my love," she murmured. "It was nowhere near as hard as the first time. Our new boy was much easier on his mother than Arthur."
Boy? New boy? Ah, Uther thought, blinking. He hadn't spared a thought for the child. It appeared he had another son.
The cradle had been placed on the opposite side of Ygraine's bed, closer to the fireplace so as to provide as much warmth for the child as possible. Standing up from the bed, where he had briefly seated himself, Uther walked around it to look down on his latest progeny.
The infant was small, was Uther's first thought, puny. A thin cap of dark hair covered his tiny head, far darker than Arthur's had been when he'd come into the world – a sign that the child likely favored the Pendragon side of his heritage rather than the de Bois', even if Agravaine was dark-haired unlike his fair-haired younger siblings. Still, Uther couldn't bring himself to look beyond the child's under-sized appearance. Even if Arthur hadn't looked anywhere near as beautiful as Morgana, at least he had still been of a healthy size.
"He's beautiful, isn't he?" Ygraine asked quietly from her bed. He glanced over at her and saw the utterly fond and content smile on her face. She clearly couldn't see into the cradle to their son, but that did nothing to deter her from keeping her gaze riveted in his general location anyway.
Uther forced himself to smile, and hide his surprise. Were they looking at the same baby? "Quite handsome, my dear," he lied, trying to sound cheerful even as he calculated the likely probability that the boy wouldn't make it through the winter. "We'll have to name him something, I suppose. Perhaps Constans, after my father?"
Tired as she was, Ygraine still had the strength to shake her head. "Merlin," she said, her tone barely above a whisper as she began to drop off to sleep.
"His name… is Merlin."
Uther watched his wife until he was certain she was deep in slumber, and then turned back to the boy. He'd been disquieted throughout his wife's entire pregnancy. He hadn't wanted this baby, hadn't wanted to risk Ygraine's life after she had so nearly lost it giving birth to Arthur. In truth, however, that hadn't been the only reason for his reluctance. He hadn't wanted to risk another son being born so quickly after Arthur. If there had been a few years' age difference between them, it might not have been so disconcerting. Arthur would be the indisputable heir to Camelot, and any brother clearly the younger sibling and therefore ineligible to wear the crown as long as Arthur drew breath. If Uther was honest with himself, he would have preferred it if this second child, if it had to live, had been born a girl. A girl was no threat to Arthur's succession rights.
And a girl would have been a lovely addition to their family. A girl with beautiful pale skin, adorable dark curls dancing around her head… and instead, he had another son. A boy who was a threat to his older brother just through his very existence.
A tiny little sneeze brought Uther out of his thoughts and he focused on the infant in the cradle again. The infant was sniffling and beginning to fuss. Casting a concerned glance in Ygraine's direction, Uther grimaced and reached down to pluck the child up. He held the shivering baby close to his chest, rubbing his back methodically, just as he had done with Arthur when he was born. Thankfully, it seemed to work and the boy quieted again after a few moments.
If it had been Arthur, Uther would have kept holding him, would have reveled in feeling tiny hands clasping his tunic in a loose grip. But no, it was probably best that he not get attached. The boy looked like he wouldn't last long. Uther had no desire to mourn a child.
In truth, he thought as he put the baby back down, it was probably for the best that the boy didn't make it. It would save trouble for the succession in the long run.
"The king was wrong, of course," the grandfather said. "He was so sure that his second son wouldn't live out the winter, but he did, thanks to the care provided by the court physician and healer, as well as the devotion of the Queen, who could hardly be convinced to let the boy be placed in the nursery with his older brother. The young prince made it through the winter and once Spring came, he began to flourish."
"The king seems to have been wrong about a lot of things," the boy pointed out.
The older man snorted. "You're a good judge of character for one so young." Shifting in his chair, he continued. "The next several years kept Uther busy. There were wars to fight, treaties to make, allies to gain. He had little time to devote to little boys, and what time he did have, he gave mostly to Arthur, since he was the heir, the future king. Young Merlin, however, didn't mind that his father apparently thought more of his older brother. Indeed, he would have been surprised if he hadn't. Merlin thought the world of his older brother, just as much as Arthur adored his younger brother. Such mutual love was encouraged by the Queen." He sighed. "It was a good thing she did, considering what was to come."
"What do you mean?" the boy asked curiously.
For a moment, the grandfather didn't respond. He seemed to stare off into space, seemingly lost in his thoughts. Finally, he replied, "You know that magic was once treated very suspiciously, right? That it was even outlawed in some kingdoms?" At the boy's nod, he continued, "Uther never outlawed it, but he viewed it with great prejudice and distrust. It was something he could not control, and that made it a threat in his eyes. He had no quarrel with the common hedge witch or healer plying their trade, but if someone used magic for ill, he was very harsh in his punishment of it." He gave his grandson a long, steady look before asking, "How do you think he would have viewed one of his sons having magic?"
The boy cringed. Clearly, he had heard enough stories of Uther Pendragon's view of magic to be concerned.
The older man nodded. "Exactly. Discovering that Merlin was a warlock didn't go over well at all, and he did all he could to discourage the boy from using his magic. Merlin was taught to control his magic whenever possible, forbidden from discussing it with anyone who didn't already know of it, and was punished every time the king heard that he used it." He sighed. "As you can imagine, it caused much tension in the royal household. Queen Ygraine was nervous about her son's power, but she did not deem it a dire threat as her husband did, and she disliked Uther's extreme measures to stamp it out."
"Indeed they did. Of course, things grew even tenser when Camelot went to war with Caerleon. It was in that conflict that Gorlois died, and things began to change…"