Rating: G (Series rating: R)
Character/s: Arthur, Queen Annis, Mordred
Summary: Arthur speaks to Mordred and the Queen.
Warnings: Angst, issues of rape.
Word Count: 1345
Prompt: #34 Devotion
Author's Notes: This installment was supposed to be three times as long, but after endlessly writing and re-writing this scene (and struggling against depression because Merlin is ENDING), this is what I have. So you won't find out who that woman with the child was or what Merlin is doing until next week (though the last couple of lines is a clue).
You can find the rest of my Frozen stars verse on AO3, or here at Camelot Drabble.
Merlin leaves. Arthur exhales shakily. That’s it then.
He undresses, kneels on the floor and upends the pitcher over himself. The water is cold enough to make his muscles seize, and he rubs himself clean briskly, shivering all the while. He ought to have lit a fire in the hearth, but he's not actually present in the moment, and so didn't think of it until it was too late. Like a ghost, he goes through half-remembered motions, though aware that they must look like grotesque imitations to the knowing eye. He washes, and dresses himself, and the red shirt is a flaming brand that feels good and right. He takes a moment to just breathe, and finds that the ever-present knot in his stomach allows him breath, at least, if not appetite or rest. He will have to do with breath for the time being.
There is a knock on the door.
A man steps inside and bows shortly. “My lord, the Queen requests that you join her for lunch.”
“I am ready,” Arthur says. “Lead the way.” Out of all his duties, that to his country is the most important; he must be a strong King for Camelot, and that means rectifying the impression he made last night.
When Arthur arrives in the Queen’s chambers, Mordred is already there, seated on the Queen's left hand. A chair is waiting for Arthur on her right. Arthur has readied himself for battle, aware that Annis will, as any good King or Queen would, try to use his recent weakness to her advantage, to shift the balance of power between them, and Arthur cannot let that happen. Luckily, he has great confidence in his decision to take Mordred under his wing. He has confidence in Mordred. As long as that is the Queen's only topic of conversation, Arthur will do fine.
He bows to the Queen and sits when the chair is offered.
“I'm glad you could join us, Arthur,” she says with a smile that doesn't reach her eyes, and at a wave of her hand, the three servants present step forward to pour wine and heap Arthur's plate with food. He senses a restless satisfaction from Annis, guesses that she still feels the insult of yesterday, but that though she might be eager to show him her lingering displeasure, she is not really angry at him anymore. Across the table, Mordred is wary of them both, but not afraid.
“You have spoken to Mordred already?” Arthur asks, trying to strike a balance between authoritative and repentant. He keeps his eyes on her and Mordred, avoiding the mocking mountain of food in front of him. No doubt the Queen knows exactly how much food he left behind on his plate at breakfast.
“We spoke at length last night.” The Queen confers a smile on Mordred, who bows his head, his features carefully neutral except his eyes, which shine with pride. “He turned out to be a remarkable young man.”
Arthur lifts his goblet in a short salute. “I'm glad you think so. I did not mean to deceive you by bringing him here, I hope you can forgive my mistake.”
She softens, seems almost exasperated with him. With a sigh, she lifts her own goblet and takes a sip. “I forgive you. I understand you had something else on your mind.”
No, no, no, no, no.
Arthur reaches for an apple. “Mordred, do you know where Morgana might have got her dragon from? I thought the Great Dragon was the last of his kind.”
Immediately, something shutters behind Mordred's expression. He has a tendency to sound like an eager child one moment and an ageless sage the next, an effect of having been brought up by druids, no doubt. It’s the sage that speaks now. “She did not say, my Lord, but it must have hatched recently, to be no bigger than it was. The Great Dragon was the last, but there might still be unhatched eggs hidden in this world. Perhaps Morgana found one.”
Mercifully, the Queen allows Arthur to command the topic for a while, and Arthur seizes on the chance to get everything he can out of Mordred. When did he leave the druids? How did he end up with Ragnor? What did he do in between? Mordred answers reluctantly, and will often look at the Queen as if he can’t understand why they are talking about him when there is royalty in the room.
Annis listens in silence for a long time, but she does finally break in, to ask a question that Arthur has been trying not to think about.
“You’ve seen much, young Mordred, and it will make you a fine knight someday, but what will you say to your people the day your King dispatches you to chase them from his lands? Druids are still unwelcome in Camelot, are they not?”
For a moment, there is a silence between them. Mordred's eyes seek the table.
Arthur takes a breath. “I hope it will not have to come to that, and that if it should, my knight will know that my policy is sound. My relationship with the druids is not what it once was.”
Slowly, Arthur recounts the tale of the druid boy haunting the forest shrine, and how it had been put to rest when Arthur vowed to change. “I promised that I would treat the druids better, and that means giving them the same rights as any other citizen of my realm. At the moment, my only concern is that they still practice magic. Any druid who wishes to live in Camelot must forswear that evil path. Beyond that, their religion and their ways of life are their own.”
Mordred's lifts his gaze.
“I believe Mordred understands that,” Arthur finishes, eyes meeting Mordred’s.
“I do,” the druid answers. “There is nothing I want more than to be a knight of Camelot, and I will do whatever my lord requires of me.”
The Queen shakes her head with a rueful smile. “How do you inspire such devotion, Arthur?”
Arthur grows an inch from the compliment. He is so terribly proud of his men, and so incredibly grateful to have their loyalty. “It is no more than your men show you, my Lady.”
Annis laughs. “My men? My men are still sore after the performance you gave them this morning. Sir Breunor is thinking of retiring out of shame.”
For a moment, Arthur doesn't know whether she means shame at Arthur's behaviour or Sir Breunor's own loss. When he doesn't reply, the Queen continues, “I told him he should have expected no less from you.”
Because Arthur is a great fighter, or because after last night they expect him to act like a lunatic?
Thankfully, Annis is not expecting an answer. “Speaking of devotion,” she says, looking around. “Where is Merlin this morning? Used to be you couldn't even sneak into an enemy camp without him stumbling in at your heels.”
The knot inside Arthur tightens, reminding him of its existence. He opens his mouth to tell the Queen that Merlin is no longer in Arthur's employ, but he cannot speak. It is as if he has been robbed of his voice. Merlin has been Arthur's servant and constant companion for years, and if Arthur acknowledges the end of those years out loud, then his whole world will shatter like glass, he is sure of it. No other man will ever show him loyalty as unconditional, faith as blinded and devotion as strong. No one can replace Merlin.
For one terrifying moment, Arthur slips up and sees the years stretch on ahead, sees himself living without Merlin by his side, and it is too much to bear.
“I don’t know,” he says finally. “... I don’t know.”
In the courtyard, far below the Queen’s window, two portcullises come down with a crash, only for a violent explosion to tear them from their support structure. They fall slowly and hit the ground with bangs loud enough to rattle bones.