Chapter 11

Hwicce

Nine Years After the Poisoning

Whilst Arthur shut himself away in prayer and contemplation, (Or spent time sulking, as Merlin mentally phrased it), the sorcerer journeyed to the Crystal Cave to see what answers its visions might give him. He was especially concerned about what was happening in Court and what part Mordred would play in Arthur's future this time around.

What he saw was not especially clear, but did give him some small measure of hope. It seemed that, although Mordred did appear to be Arthur's doom once again, this time their fate might not be set in stone. This time, if Merlin intervened, he may be able to prevent an early death for the Once and Future King.

He remained in the cave for a little longer - long enough to check a few more visions and confirm his findings - before eventually returning home; wondering what greeting he might receive there.

"A message arrived for you," Arthur said, with little expression showing on his face as he approached the warlock. "I promised I would give it to you, but obviously you should ignore it."

"Obviously?" he asked, but Arthur just shrugged as he handed the letter over, and it was clear that he hadn't forgiven his friend quite yet.

Merlin opened the parchment and read it, his confused expression quickly turning incredulous. "Ha! Now they want my help?" he crowed.

"It's quite ridiculous," Arthur agreed. "You should refuse the invitation, of course."

Merlin shrugged. "Actually, I think it might be interesting to discover what this 'deal' is that Edgiva's talking about."

"You would go to assist the new king that has so recently sent an army to kill us?" Arthur scoffed. "Well, I'm not going."

"Well, I'm certainly not going to leave you here," Merlin retorted. "At least if you're with me, I can ensure you safety and I'm quite certain that everyone in Wessex will know exactly who they're dealing with by now."

"You're really going to go?"

Merlin grinned. "I've never yet turned down the request for an audience with a king and I don't intend to start now."

Arthur looked at him curiously. "You talk as if you've met numerous kings rather than just the two-"

"-Well, as it happens-"

"-Well, on your head be it, Merlin, but I'm quite certain that this is going to be a very bad idea."

~o~0~o~

Arthur and Merlin entered the Great Hall of the royal court and the whole room fell instantly quiet. As the pair walked forward toward the throne, whispers broke out all around the Hall and most people took a nervous step backwards as Merlin drew level with them, a few quite obviously crossing themselves as he walked past. It seemed that Mordred and the other survivors had been quick to tell everyone exactly what they had encountered at Hwicce.

"Silence." Ælfweard's voice was firm but quiet, and his complexion quickly confirmed that Morgana had been telling the truth in her letter to him - the young king did not look at all well. "I have granted Merlin safe passage and hereby offer a truce and apologies to my brother Æthelstan. No harm will come to either of them during their stay here."

Merlin bowed to the king and then to Morgana, the recently widowed queen sitting by his side. "I accept your apology," he replied. Arthur, he noted, did not respond.

"I admit that I wasn't happy when Edgiva said she had called for you," the king continued. "And I'm even more surprised that you have come." He grinned as he noticed Arthur's expression. "I see my brother agrees. Why did you accept the invitation?"

"I come from a long line of physicians and advisors to the kings of this land," Merlin explained. "I felt it was my duty to my calling and to my ancestors."

"Very well. I have been feeling unwell of late and my own physicians are quite unable to find a cure. Perhaps your great skill and your … other abilities might succeed where others have failed."

Muttering broke out around the Hall at this, but Merlin simply bowed again in response and awaited his next instructions.

~o~0~o~

He was summoned to the King's bed-chambers the very next day and Arthur came along too, despite his objections. Ælfweard may have guaranteed their safety during this visit but Merlin certainly wasn't going to take any chances; he was keeping the prince close to him at all times, even though he felt that Arthur still didn't fully trust him.

"Well?" Ælfweard asked, when Merlin had uttered little more than a few grunts during his examination.

"Your condition is a serious one, Your Majesty. You have an infection which has been aggravated by too much rich food and far too much alcohol."

"My physicians said much the same and I have cut down on both, but I'm still not getting any better."

"No." Merlin sighed. "The infection has taken a firm hold now, I'm afraid."

"What is the nature of this infection?"

"I can take a guess but..." Merlin bit his lip. "Perhaps this is not something we should discuss in front of others."

"I have no secrets from Edgiva and it appears you don't trust Æthelstan to be out of your sight – which I can hardly blame you for. Tell me what it is and how to cure it, Merlin."

"I believe it is an illness picked up from taking rather too many ladies to your bed." Morgana raised her eyes to the ceiling and he heard a muffled grunt from Arthur behind him.

"Something else to give up then," the king replied. "Although I've not felt much in the mood for such activities lately anyway. Do you have a cure?"

"Ah... I don't believe so. I can ease the pain, reduce the symptoms but I'm afraid there are other complications involved and your condition has become very serious."

"What?" The king turned even paler at the news.

"We all know of your power now, Merlin," Morgana said. "Please. You must be able to use that skill to cure him?"

"Over the years I have learnt to my cost that life and death are not so easily mastered. Sometimes there is nothing that can be done. I'm sorry, truly I am. I am a physician and, despite the bad blood between us, I would not wish this on you but, I fear you need to prepare yourself for the worst."

"I can understand why you wouldn't want to help me, after what I have done, and that Æthelstand here is considered a contender for my throne, but-"

"I give you my word that I do not hold that type of grudge, Sire. If I had a cure I would give it to you. It would go against everything I believe in to withhold it, but..." Merlin sighed heavily. "I really am very sorry, Your Majesty, but I'm afraid this is completely out of my hands."

~o~0~o~

Hwicce

Six Months Later

Morgana had asked for a meeting with Merlin and Arthur, but the atmosphere was still nervous at Court and none wanted to stay there for longer that they had to. Merlin offered his home as a 'neutral' meeting place and so, after sending a number of messages, another meeting of the Round Table was held at Hwicce, with Morgana now seated in her husband's old place.

"Ælfweard will want his brother Edwin to succeed him," Morgana announced. "And there are many at Court who support this."

"Yes, but there are also a great many who had wanted Æthie to succeed Edward and now the situation is tense enough that it could mean years of conflict and confusion over the throne," Merlin said.

"That is true," Morgana agreed. "And, despite my promises to Elfeda to support her sons, I believe I could be persuaded to support Æthelstan's claim... for the good of the realm."

"You would?" Merlin asked with a frown. "Why?"

Morgana shrugged. "Edwin is only nineteen, for a start."

"More than old enough to rule," Gaius said. "That in itself that would not be considered an issue."

"Perhaps," Morgana continued. "But I am not certain that he would make a good king. Ælfweard has the right personality for rule, even though he rather let his greed get the better of him. Edwin is still a child in mind if not in body and often lets his emotions get the better of him. I would of course wish that my eldest son would inherit the throne but, seeing he's only three, that's hardly an option at this point in time.

The solution presented itself to Merlin in a flash - all the pieces of the puzzle finally falling into place.

"What if Æthelstan promised to rule as a caretaker king?" he suggested.

"What do you mean?" Morgana asked.

"What if he promised not to marry or have heirs, and named your sons as his successors instead?"

Morgana laughed. "Well yes, I can see how it would be easy for him to keep that particular promise."

"Look, I know that's what I said, Merlin," Arthur complained. "But I also said..."

"Don't you see how perfect this would be?" Merlin replied with a grin. "Especially if it means we gain Edgiva's support in the process."

"Well..."

"I think it's a great idea," Leon agreed. "With our supporters and Edgiva's joined, we could ensure that any conflict would be kept short, and peace would be far more likely to be achieved."

"Yes," Gwen agreed. "And with Æthie as King and Merlin as his advisor, I would have great confidence that the country would be well and justly managed."

"I admit that the pair of you ruling does make a certain amount of sense," Morgana replied, before suddenly grinning wickedly. "Yes, I do believe you'd make the perfect queen, Merlin."

"What?"

Arthur burst out laughing. "I think I might just have to accept the offer for that very reason alone." He too grinned broadly, before getting up from his seat and quickly dropping to one knee. "Merlin, would you do me the honour of consenting to be my wife?"

Everyone around the table laughed loudly whilst Merlin folded his arms and glared at Arthur. "You promised not to marry, remember?" he grumbled.

"Spoilsport."

"I assume that means you've forgiven me, then?"

~o~0~o~

Æthelstan was crowned King later that year and almost immediately set about bringing various neighbouring kingdoms under his control. During his reign he united the whole of England and, in-between campaigns, assisted Merlin in governing the territory and educating Edgiva's two young sons to rule after him.

Arthur had even offered an olive branch to Mordred, but the young prince would not be swayed. He caused a huge scene at Court and then left, only to return seven years later declaring that he was the rightful king and promising to take the throne off his half-brother by force.

Whilst most at Court shrugged it off as an idle threat, Merlin had good reason to not be so easily convinced. On the night that Edwin set sail to France to gain additional support and troops, and without informing the king or any of the Court of his plan, the warlock cast an enchantment and caused a great storm to form over the English Channel.

That night it was Arthur who awoke with a sudden cry. His skin clammy and his eyes wide.

"What? What is it?" Merlin asked.

"My chest. The pain..." he gasped.

"What pain?"

"I don't know... I..."

The king's breathing was already becoming laboured and Merlin started to panic. What had he missed?

"Lie back. I need to examine you."

"Not magic …" Arthur pleaded. "I really don't think..."

"Don't be stupid. Lie still." Merlin pushed his senses forward and sensed a magical block. "Idiot!"

"Now what have I done?"

"Not you. Me. I should have known there would be a catch."

"W-what catch?"

Merlin had just realised that he'd misunderstood the connection he'd sensed between Mordred and Arthur in this life. Their fates may not have been fixed, but their souls had been tied together by a strong enchantment; probably cast years ago by Morgause. She had certainly had enough power to engineer something like this, and it was unlikely to have been Morgana's doing, considering the truce they had now which would ensure her sons would succeed to the throne after Arthur.

"I think I can counter this. Hold on."

Using every bit of strength he had, Merlin pushed as much magic as he could into Arthur's body, willing Morgause's curse to break. Willing his friend and lover to live.

And he succeeded - to a certain extent. Arthur survived but, from that day on, he was never fully well. Always prone to illness and yet never wanting to slow down. Continuing to campaign and fight and forge a new country of peace.

Merlin had brought Arthur and England six more years - that was all. But it better than last time, he decided. Forty-four was not especially old, but it wasn't a bad age for a warrior king during this particular era and maybe, next time, his friend would live for even longer.

~o~0~o~

And so now Merlin waited. Waited for the circle to close again; for the remaining five souls to pass on. Before settling down to wait some more.

He waited for the circle to reopen. Waited for that day when he'd again wake up as a young man and go hunting for Gaius or Leon or whoever the first reborn would be the next time around.

And then he waited for Arthur. The Once and Future King.

"For he will always appear when Albion has need of him and you will always be there to guide him."

~o~0~o~

The End


Book Three: Master of Time: Guardian of Magic

Coming up... The circle has opened and closed many times whilst Merlin continues to play his part as Guardian of the Crystal Cave, and now, in the late twenty-first century, the characters' story is set to play out once again. This time, however, the Round Table will need Morgana's dubious help in order to defeat their enemy. Neither human nor beast; could this foe be too powerful even for the legendary Emrys?


A/N: Thanks for your support on this more complex part. Book 3 has been started and I'll work as hard as I can to get it out to you as soon as possible.

So, for any history buffs, the outcome of this story would not have been a surprise. Æthelstan did indeed promise not to marry and have children - naming Edgiva's sons as his heirs and, as soon as I heard that fact, I instantly found myself wondering why and thinking about Merthur.

I also found the recent news that they think they've found the bones of Alfred or Edward rather interesting timing too. Not that they're sure they can prove anything but, at least I had no problems knowing who they were talking about. :D

Anyway, next time it's back to my more usual Mergana pairing and, now I've dipped my toe into Merthur, who knows? I might try it again. ;)

Jaq