Pairing(s): Arthur/Gwen/Merlin/Morgana (vaguely shippy), Hunith, Will, Gaius, various
Warnings: Some violence, some disturbing imagery
Spoilers: Season 1 only
Word Count: 26,000
Summary: Merlin's birthday is tomorrow, and so is the midwinter feast. But it will take more than a new cloak to get him through the longest night of the year, when the cracks in the world briefly widen and all manner of things slip through.
Author's Note: A million thanks to: camelotsolstice mods, for my assignment and the extension; 'H' and 'I', for audiencing the initial outline; 'K' for the iron-working details; and my beta team, 'S', 'U', and 'K', without whom this story would not exist. Any remaining errors are mine. The hedgehogs are from 'H' and 'C'. Some ideas were borrowed from conversations with yue_ix herself, which was inevitable given how much she has affected the way I look at Merlin and at storytelling in general. I hope it's still a surprise, babe.
The title comes from T.S. Eliot's Four Quarters.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction – none of this ever happened. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit is made from this work. Please observe your local laws with regards to the age-limit and content of this work.
Merlin hurried home through the sudden snowfall, the second this week. Thick, white blobs collected on his shoulders and the hair tucked behind his ears, leaving damp patches that bled heat when the wind kicked up. He carried a bundle of firewood over one shoulder and his other arm stretched around a basket filled with fresh food and herbs, the last of the season, he expected. Everything thereafter would be dried - dried apples, dried beans, dried meat-on-a-stick, and cabbages. It was better than he would have been eating back in Ealdor but still not exactly thrilling.
Even though it was the long way round, he took the side road past Gwen's house and saw a light flickering in the forge. Pushing the door open carefully, he peeked in.
No one. She must've been up at the castle after all. The only light came from the sunset casting an orange glow through cracks in the shutters, but he could still feel heat from the fire gently filling the space like a living presence. Giving in to temptation, he stepped inside and set basket and wood down on the work table so he could warm his hands over the dark forge.
With self-pity he looked down at his ratty gloves, the fingertips long gone to tasks that shredded even the thickest wool. He needed new ones, but his mother hadn't been here to make any, and he knew he hadn't the heart to ask her when she came tomorrow. He could have done with a cloak, too. A cast-off, maybe. Gwen might know where he could get one.
After a minute or two he could feel his fingers tingling with new warmth. Enough to get him to the castle without going numb, maybe. He picked up basket and firewood and headed back out into the snow, kicking the door shut behind him.
In just the short time he'd been inside, the sun had nearly set. Just a sliver hung above the skyline now, far west of the clouds that sprinkled white like the king's salt cellar. The clouds above looked lavender and dove gray, and he lost himself a moment looking up, imagining that each soft, damp clump of snow was a living creature, spinning and dancing between cloud and ground, from birth high above to sleep underfoot.
He was so busy staring up that he didn't see the small branch sticking out of the snow and stepped squarely on it with the arch of his foot. The crack of it scattershot around the courtyard, louder even than his sharp cry as he flailed, basket going one way, wood going another, and Merlin yet a third, his ankle giving under him as his arms pinwheeled frantically-
- and somehow kept him on his feet, even as the basket and wood went crashing.
Gasping with mixed relief and annoyance, he looked down to see that his attacker wasn't a branch after all, just a small stick, now split in half. It had felt so much larger when he was wobbling over it one-footed. Bending down, he set the basket on the ground and lifted the pieces, inspecting them. Yew, with a few uncrushed berries and cones hanging on determinedly. The scent was unmistakeable.
Well, the villagers always said it was good luck to burn yew on the solstice. He reached back and tucked the pieces in two gaps between the logs in his bundle, then refilled the basket and picked up both burdens again before trudging to the servant's door.
Above him the sky darkened further, edging towards night.
A guard held the back door open for him, and he hurried up the steps. It was warmer inside, but still he could feel the chill in his feet and hands and the tips of his ears. A proper hat and scarf wouldn't be amiss, though his neckerchief did a passable job when it wasn't soaked through with snowmelt. At least his boots were half-decent.
Gaius was puttering about the room when he got there, clearly working out some potion he hadn't made before.
"Hey," Merlin said, not expecting a response, and set about putting things away.
He had the fire built back up and the vegetables stored by the time Gaius blinked up at him and said, apropos of nothing, "You'll be twenty-one tomorrow."
"Yes?" Merlin wasn't sure what the point was. He'd been twenty the whole last year, he'd be twenty-one this coming year. It was kind of how birthdays worked.
Gaius continued to eye him closely. "On midwinter."
"Yes." Though Merlin was pretty sure it wasn't a question.
Gaius nodded though, as if he had answered something. "Here," he said, pouring a ground up mixture that was most definitely not a potion into a small, cloth bag and tying it up with a thin strip of leather, "put this round your neck. Under the handkerchief."
"What about the one I've got?" Merlin usually wore the charm bag his mother'd made him as a child. It bumped reassuringly against his collarbones most days, reminding him of her and of home. He couldn't remember ever being without it. What about his birthday could worry Gaius so?
"Keep that, too. A mother's power is a bit beyond me."
Merlin laughed, stringing the pouch round his neck and tying little knots in the back. "Any particular reason for all this?"
"Midwinter's a time of magic, my boy."
"And feasts," Merlin reminded him. He was looking forward to his first midwinter feast at Camelot. Gwen and the other servants told him it was grand, and the leftovers tremendous. Merlin's belly had been rumbling in anticipation for days.
Gaius laughed. "Well, we'd best get on with making supper, then."
Later, as they were eating, Merlin's thoughts bounced around from Gaius's worry to the feast to his mother coming tomorrow. He wondered why she was making the trip again so soon after she left. He murmured, almost musing out loud, "Mum's never made such a big deal about my birthday before."
Gaius stopped eating and slowly set his spoon down. The silence stretched out as Merlin, bewildered, tried to catch his eye.
"Tomorrow's important," Gaius said, still looking at the table.
"Why?" Merlin felt a deep surprise, mingled hot and cold in his belly. His mother had never said anything at all about his birth, his father, anything. Merlin had begun to think - wrongly, that was clear - that everything about that time had been washed out of history like beautifully dyed clothes left to soak in hot water and lye.
"Because it is," Gaius said, then picked up his spoon again. "Eat your soup."
None of Merlin's pleading looks could get another word out of him on that subject for the rest of the evening.
The next morning, Merlin woke to a handspan's width of snow on the windowsill and a disaster of a room. He remembered two things immediately: first, that Arthur had demanded his presence at first light, which it was past; and second, that his mother was arriving this afternoon to spend midwinter with them, and oh, once more, his room was a disaster.
The spell was totally justified, and if he had to duck a few flying items and leap out of bed as it tried to make itself around him, well, that was his penance for not remembering to take care of this last night. And if he felt a bit more drained after, well, that was for staying up all night reading about the properties of yew. Obviously.
He waited until everything seemed quite settled in place before going to his cupboard and pulling out some clothes, wishing he knew a spell to make his body feel like he'd gotten more sleep.
She woke suddenly, but not from a nightmare this time. Melodies such as she might have heard in childhood - sung on rocky shores overlooking the sea - still rang in her ears, a fire leaping blurrily before her eyes. For a moment faces seemed to twist in the flames, half-familiar; then she was awake, sitting up in her chair before the hearth, the sound of bells fading in the distance. A book slid off her lap and hit the floor.
She had just bent to retrieve it (noting how it had fallen open to a page she'd never read, a picture of a laughing boy with pointed ears, bare feet, and a curved cap on his head sitting on a branch and swinging his legs, with a caption that said simply, "The Chestnut") when Gwen bustled in, her arms full of blue-gray and bright red fabric.
"My lady," Gwen chirped, the kind of greeting she gave when she was especially pleased.
Morgana set the book on the side table and turned to fully face her. "Let's see it, then."
Gwen shook out the fabric in her hands so it unfolded into a long swirl of red that she spun up onto her shoulders. The cloak settled like it was folding her in its arms. Morgana's own arms tightened a bit in sympathy. "It looks lovely."
Gwen beamed and spun the cloak the other way, showing the blue-gray side. "The hem's not quite done, Milly will take an hour or two to finish that and the embroidery."
"Not too much embroidery, I hope."
"No, just the touches on the red side. It's not quite Pendragon red, but it should go well enough. "
Morgana nodded. If someone were, say, a servant in the royal household and really needed two cloaks - one for dressing up days and one for running silly errands for certain boys who thought making personal servants muck out the stables was great fun - and if said servant were to not have any cloak at all at the moment, well, wouldn't one have to consider Gwen a genius for making one cloak that could be turned inside out to do the work of two? Of course, Morgana was biased. She thought everything Gwen did was wonderful.
"And how about Arthur's part?"
"Almost finished. I made one half of the clasp yesterday, and the pin. If you don't need me this afternoon after Merlin's mother arrives, I was going to take her down to the house and settle her in, then ask her to help me with the bellows. It's hard to pump and hammer at the same time." As she talked she drew off the cloak and draped it over a straight-backed chair, then set about tidying up the breakfast tray and replacing the candle stumps. Before settling each new candle in its sconce, she brushed it briefly across her lips the way the older women still did. To prevent accidental fires.
Morgana watched her quietly. "We have a few things yet to do this morning."
"Yes," Gwen agreed. "Now that Lady Gaelwys is, ah-"
"Bigger than a barn?" Morgana offered. "I don't envy her, pregnant at this time of year. She said she can't keep her feet warm."
"Maybe it'll be a midwinter baby?" Gwen looked a tad reluctant at the idea, and Morgana understood. It sent a bit of a shiver through her, as well. Born in the deep widwinter, on the longest night of the year. She couldn't recall the whole ballad, but that line had always stuck with her.
"I doubt it," she replied, willing her words to be true. "She looks like she has another week or two, at least."
"I hope so," Gwen whispered under her breath, so quietly Morgana shouldn't have heard it. Then, louder, "So, shall we get started?"
"Lead on, then!" Morgana gestured grandly, and Gwen laughed.
Already her dream had faded, chased away by the cheerful morning light.
Arthur wasn't hiding in his rooms. He certainly wasn't sulking. And yes, his boots needed polishing. All of them. It wasn't an excuse for the pleasure of Merlin's company, that much was certain.
Merlin dropped a boot for the hundredth time and bent to pick it up. Arthur sighed. This was. This was intolerable.
"Merlin," Arthur said. Merlin's head jerked up as he dropped the boot again. "For goodness sake, Merlin. I didn't ask you to polish them standing on your head. Slow down and do it right."
Merlin took a deep breath, seeming to calm himself before he picked up the boot again. Arthur cast his eyes over the pile and realized there were only three left. He would have to think of something else soon.
"When you're finished, I'll need you to take my luncheon back down to the kitchens and, ah, bring up my second-best mail."
Merlin dropped the boot again, but this time he didn't even look down at it. "You want me to-"
Arthur's eyes flicked quickly to the window. Not snowing yet, no, but there was still frost on the glass in the shaded corners. Merlin's fingers had been blue when he came in with supper yesterday. "Yes, absolutely," Arthur told him. "I can't let any of my equipment rust over winter."
Merlin's face was rather dismayed for someone who'd just been rescued from running errands for Gaius in the freezing outdoors. Arthur wondered again how someone with so little self-preservation could survive through the winter in a tiny village like Ealdor. Probably his mother kept him wrapped by the fire and never let him go out.
Arthur wanted to be outside. He would gladly ride in the snow, fight in the snow, if it would get him out of these rooms and moving around. But the moment he stepped through that door, he knew fifty women would descend on him with questions and requests and all manner of unpleasant things that would leave him floundering like a fish out of water. He'd even turned over his keys to Morgana for the week in desperation. Of course, he'd told her it was because feast preparations were the work of women and servants. No need to show weakness in front of the harpies. They would attack at the first scent of fear. Last year, they'd asked his opinion on draperies.
The noblemen were even worse. Morosely, he wondered what the Knights of Camelot had been like before his father instituted the Test. Probably a bunch of weak, pampered second and third sons looking to get drunk. Just like the ones downstairs right now. Arthur detested them almost as much as the fluttering women, though he didn't fear them. A drunk man in Camelot was mostly dangerous to himself.
Arthur wished he were drunk now, but that couldn't happen until tonight.
A boot hit the floor, and Arthur was about to snap at Merlin when he realized the pile was empty and Merlin was standing, stretching. Too soon! Arthur's mind shouted, but he kept his shoulders slumped, leaning sideways in his chair with his chin on his fingers, as if he had important things to ponder. Which he did. Obviously.
Merlin flew to put up the polish like something with teeth was after him. He gave Arthur's boots a miss entirely, leaving them in a pile by the stool as he swooped down on the dishes from lunch and piled them into a teetering stack. Arthur's belly tensed, but somehow Merlin made it to the door intact and even managed to get the thing opened and himself through without dropping the lot. Arthur sighed, but not in relief. Obviously he didn't care if Merlin dropped every dish in Camelot. They did come out of his paltry salary, after all.
Once Merlin was gone, Arthur stood and went to the hearth, idly stabbing it with the iron poker. His hand wanted to close around it like a sword, but the grip was all wrong. Instead, he rolled another log over until the glowing coals showed and wondered if he could send Merlin for more firewood. That was in the upper cellars, definitely a warm area.
Abruptly, his eyes caught on a tiny bundle of twigs, no longer than his thumb, wrapped in red thread and hanging down from the inside of the hearth. He never would have seen it if he weren't bent over prodding the logs into flame. The knotwork was intricate, far too careful for something caught there by accident. He lifted his hand to brush his thumb over it and felt a small zing, like when he touched his sword after walking across a woolen rug. Yanking his thumb back, he looked at the skin but could find no mark.
He was reaching for the twigs again when the doors burst open and Merlin tumbled through. Arthur leaped up, dropping the poker. "Merlin?"
"Arthur!" Merlin's face was red, his breath heaving as he leaned against the table. He was not carrying Arthur's second-best mail, or any other mail.
"Merlin?" This time Arthur drawled his name a bit, making it a clear demand for answers.
Merlin panted two or three more times, then gasped out, "My mum passed-"
Arthur tensed. Hunith-?!
"-the gate. Ten minutes ago."
"Is she all right?" Arthur demanded.
"What?" Merlin looked confused, and then his face crinkled in a laugh. At Arthur, the bastard. "She came for midwinter. My birthday. I told you last week, remember?"
Oh. Ah. Arthur did not, in fact, remember. Not that he should have to remember things like this. Details of Merlin's life were not. Not part of his-
-Oh. Arthur was brilliant.
"Shall we go greet her then?" he asked, rising from the hearth and putting the poker back in its stand. Merlin looked at him like he was possessed, but Arthur knew this was perfect. No harpies would attack him if he was greeting Merlin's mother and making sure she was comfortable. The harpies would smile and look upon him fondly and, most importantly, let him go. And he could get out of this room.
"Um, sure?" Merlin still looked dubious, but Arthur was not to be deterred. This was his chance, and he was seizing it.
"You first," he said magnanimously, holding the door open so Merlin could lead the charge. It was all about strategy, really. He could still out-think Morgana any day.
Morgana knew she was a genius, but these preparations were madness. She should know, being more than passing familiar with both.
The main difference was, the whole castle joined her in this.
"Just put them in the sconces, we'll light them with long tapers."
"How many barrels of-"
"Bring up three more but keep them in storage beside the hall."
"The tapestries-" "-need to send for more firewood-" "-undercook is ill-" "-the pots all fell at once, just this rain of copper kettles-"
"What? I mean, yes Gwen?" Morgana relaxed her grip on the keys - her keys, back from Arthur finally - and tried to calm her breathing. "What do you need?"
Gwen saw right through her, of course. "You need to sit down, my lady. Come over here." She led Morgana by the arm to one of the benches. Morgana pretended not to notice the way Gwen's fingers tapped the wood twice before helping Morgana to sit, or the way the fingers of her other hand lingered on Morgana's elbow; she had a lot of practice with pretending in public.
"I thought you slept this morning," she said mildly, leaning sideways into Gwen. They watched the bustle of the room, the controlled chaos like a beehive; Morgana normally found this sort of thing energizing. Not today.
It had been such a good morning, too.
"I keep seeing things out of the corner of my eye," Morgana admitted softly. Gwen's fingers tightened on her arm. "I'm sure it's my imagination. Lack of sleep, nerves, something." I'm sure it's nothing. I'm sure. She didn't mention she'd just had a nice conversation with a candlestick who told her she had a lovely fire in her soul. Harping on compliments wasn't ladylike. Morgana suppressed a bubble of hysteria so it came out as a cough. She covered her mouth quickly.
Gwen looked away. "I'm sure," she echoed slowly, not sounding it.
Morgana took a breath and removed her hand. "If I just concentrate on the preparations-"
"Everything will be fine." Now Gwen did sound sure. "The feast will go fine." Across the room, three lads carried in an enormous subtlety in the shape of a monstrous swan and barely dodged the serving woman packing down fresh rushes on the floor. There was a bit of staggering, mostly for show, and then they set it down on its own table, safely out of the way. Or so she hoped.
Morgana let out a breath. "There's a family of hedgehogs in the upper cellars," she pointed out. "I don't see how this can be anything but a disaster."
"Well, at least Lord Healwise won't be seated beside Sir Caradoc this year." Eight men trundled by, rolling giant barrels of cider and beer that echoed like drums on the stone floor. "So there won't be any drunken dueling with butter knives."
"I haven't the first notion how to give Merlin his present without the whole court seeing."
"Leave Merlin to me."
A woman with an enormously long stick with a rag on the end shuffled behind them, sweeping the ceiling for cobwebs. Morgana ducked, in case she found one. \
Sitting back up, she continued. "And the steward asked me about servant rotations just now. Seems the lower kitchens are short-staffed again. Something about a rash of falling pots."
"I'll send Amery to fetch his cousins from the town. Their mothers will want them out from underfoot anyway."
"Oh, Gwen," Morgana sighed, letting her head droop onto Gwen's sturdy shoulder, "what would I ever do without you?"
"Let's not find out, shall we?"
Gwen pulled back slightly. "But I did mean to ask you, Merlin's gift?..."
"Oh, how selfish of me. You need the afternoon off to finish the clasp, don't you?"
Gwen looked around dubiously. From the corner, a psalter shrieked as someone turned it, not sounding musical at all. "Um, if you don't need me?"
"To be honest, I could use you in ten places at once, but the feast will happen whether we're ready for it or not." She kissed Gwen lightly on the cheek. "Go on, I'll see you in my chambers in time for dressing, okay?"
"Okay." Gwen smiled and pressed Morgana's hand between her own, but she didn't kiss back because they were in front of the other servants. Morgana tried not to pout.
She kept her eyes on Gwen's retreating back all the way across the hall, mostly to avoid looking at the marching Roman armies in the tapestries they'd hung up last night. Stay where you are, she told them. And of course, when she looked straight at them, they did. I don't trust you, she told the barrels in the corner, and rumble rumble rumble they laughed when a serving boy knocked into them.
She wished Gwen would come back, and never mind Merlin. Except Morgana did mind Merlin, minded and liked him, because he was a good person. A person who didn't deserve to freeze to death in Arthur's service. And so she let Gwen go.
The rushes shuffled under her feet, whispering as she stood and started calling orders.
They met seven sets of harpies (mostly in pairs, but once in a truly terrifying flock of nine) on the way to Gaius's chambers. Arthur noted several suspicious looks tossed his way, but Merlin, idiot Merlin, got nothing but dopey, fond smiles and giggles. Women. Who truly understood them? Arthur waited until after they'd passed to roll his eyes.
"Your highness!" Gaius said, standing quickly when Arthur followed Merlin into the room. "I didn't know you were-"
Arthur waved him off, more concerned with shutting the door firmly behind them. "Just dropping by to greet our guest." He put on his best 'charm the mothers' smile, even though it never seemed to work on Hunith. "My lady."
Today was no exception. He could see her hiding a smile behind her teacup, but perversely that pleased him. Now if Merlin did that, then he would have to feign irritation or knock him on the head or some such.
"Tea, your highness?" Gaius asked as Hunith stood to hug her son and ruffle his hair. Arthur averted his eyes and pulled up a stool.
"What kind?" Perhaps it wasn't exactly appropriate to question one's host, but Arthur had been served many things by Gaius in his lifetime, and most of those had been foul.
Gaius seemed to understand. "Just tea, I promise."
"Then yes, thank you." He accepted the cup that Gaius poured and said nothing about it being chipped. He'd learned something from camping out in Merlin's hovel, after all.
"Hunith was just telling me," Gaius said as he poured Merlin a cup and passed it, "that they had a litter of kittens born just days before she left."
"Didn't even know the queen was pregnant," Hunith added.
Merlin grinned. "Was it Midnight? She's such a round little thing I'd never be able to tell, that's for sure. She had six, can you believe it?"
The room was warm, warmer than Arthur's chambers even though the fire was lower. Slowly, unexpectedly, Arthur unwound. He let the gossip of a tiny village flow over him and found himself strangely not bored. Perhaps it was the way Hunith told the story of what the goat did last Saturday with such wry amusement. Or the way Gaius laughed in half-stifled chuckles at Old Lady Carlisle's epic battle with the Cooper twins' over the proper disposition of her apples. Or maybe it was even Merlin's obvious eagerness to hear the most prosaic of details, how he weighted in on the debate over whether or not the house would need a new roof next spring like he still lived in it.
"But I can't believe she'll have to take care of them in this weather," Merlin sighed, circling back round to the question of kittens. Arthur was rather accustomed to Merlin's hopping-around conversational style by now, and so apparently were Hunith and Gaius, because Gaius merely rolled his eyes and Hunith said, "I handled you just fine, didn't I?"
"I wasn't born in a barn," Merlin grumbled, then paused. "Was I?"
Gaius froze. Neither Hunith nor Merlin noticed, because they were looking at each other, but Arthur saw it.
"You were born in this room," Hunith said. "Well, that one really." She gestured towards Merlin's room up the stairs. "But I carried you on donkey-back through a blizzard a week later, so I think Midnight has life a bit easier."
"Hunith!" Gaius hissed, arching his eyebrow and glancing at Arthur.
"It's fine," Hunith said, before Arthur could think of the many (not so many, really) reasons why Gaius wouldn't want him to know the circumstances (location?) of Merlin's birth. But Hunith was looking at him, steady over the rim of her teacup, hands relaxed. "Arthur is a friend to my son."
It wasn't a question, but Arthur answered anyway. "Yes, I am."
The way Merlin lit up at that was a bit disturbing, but Arthur could hardly take the words back right in front of his mum. It wouldn't be honorable.
Apparently Hunith was satisfied, too, because she leaned back and looked up at the ceiling, the way old campaigners did when they remembered long-gone wars.
"We stumbled into Ealdor the morning after the storm blew through, and I don't know who was weaker, me or the donkey. You, though," her mouth quirked as she glanced at Merlin, "you were healthy as a wolf pup and about as playful. You loved the snow and the edge of your blanket and pretty much anything you could try to get your mouth around. The only time you cried was when we got to the edge of the village, and then you let out such a wail as I never heard from you before or since. The whole village came running. What an introduction." She laughed, shaking her head. "Oh my boy, you always were one for spectacular entrances."
Arthur watched in fascination as Merlin's face slowly suffused a deep red, but he made no move to stop his mother from speaking. Arthur could almost sympathize. True stories about his past, but at the price of his dignity. What man wouldn't be torn?
Hunith seemed to understand, too. "But you were a baby then. I'm sure things are much different now."
Arthur barked a laugh. "Not really, no. In fact, I'd have to say he hasn't changed at all. Have you, Merlin?"
The way his manservant glared daggers at him was all the encouragement Arthur needed to crack open his best stories. "There was this one time. I believe it involved a broom, a rooster, and my second-best doublet - my former second-best doublet..."
Gwen sighed and turned away from the fire, wiping the sweat out of her eyes with her wrist. She was down to the hard part: making the second half of Merlin's cloak clasp fit the first.
She ran her fingertips over the unfinished base that would form second half, finding it heavy and rough to the touch. The design was still drawing itself out, almost as if the fire were pulling the shape out of her Lady's dreams with Gwen's hands as unwitting accomplices.
The basic design she understood. In each hand she held a half circle; interlocked, they would make a whole and hold whatever they were bound to securely together no matter what pressure tried to pull them apart. But the sign within the circle, the strangely shaped tree that was meant to form the lock with its interweaving branches - that kept twisting away from her as if seen through a fog. Every time she dipped the finished edge in the water to cool, she had the mad thought that the steam rising from the bucket was more real than the iron itself. She kept an eye on it, not trying to pin it down, just making sure the strangeness didn't spread.
It wasn't that she was superstitious. It was just that her father's voice still echoed in her ears, especially here, speaking of the way each piece of iron had a soul. She could see his hands pointing to the cold bar that would someday become a sword and saying, It's in there, Gwennie. Can you see it? The brush of memory stung her eyes but she gripped it fiercely with a clenched belly, settling with her knees wide and slightly bent every time she lifted a hammer. Dad-in-her-mind said swing with your whole body and trust the metal and breathe, and somehow Gwen felt this was all beyond her in this moment, the smell of straw and hot coals burning in her nose and throat.
No, Dad. I can't see anything.
Somewhere inside, she was off-balance, and no amount of widening her stance or pressing down her heels would ever bring back the empty space in this forge, in her life.
Merlin couldn't believe it. Or rather, he could believe it all too well. "Hedgehogs? In the stables?"
"I told Morgana you were an expert with vermin."
"This is about the rat again, isn't it?"
Arthur smirked at him. Well, that answered that.
Merlin sighed and lifted the broom. "Here, hedgie...hoggies? Run out of the nice, warm stables and into the snow where all good animals belong. There's a good... hedgehog." He whacked the broom half-heartedly against the wall. There was a desultory scrabbling from inside that quieted down almost immediately.
Beside him, Arthur was leaning against the opposite wall, one hand over his face. Merlin grinned briefly, then schooled his features to look insulted. "What? At least I'm trying. I don't see you helping."
"Merlin," Arthur rolled his eyes as he spoke, "I'm the prince. I don't chase hedgehogs."
"Well, apparently they don't want to be chased anyway."
"Here, give me that." Arthur snatched the broom, turned it around, and drove it handle-first into the wooden wall with a resounding bang! Scrabbling took off in several directions at once. Arthur handed the broom back and dusted his hands off. "See? You just have to-"
Abruptly, the timbers above them creaked and a rain of hay dust fell, covering them both, head and shoulders. Merlin ducked, but when nothing else seemed inclined to follow he carefully wiped each eye clear and looked up at Arthur.
...And promptly ducked back down, smothering laughter. Arthur was - he was gray. He looked like a bakery accident on a busy morning.
"Don't," Arthur growled. "I will not - they're hedgehogs. Aren't they supposed to live in hedges?"
Merlin snickered. "At this point I think they live wherever they darn well please."
"We'll see about that," Arthur muttered as he stalked off towards the castle proper. "Merlin! Bring the broom."
Oh, this should be fun. More fun than polishing boots, at least. Merlin shook the dust out of his hair and followed cheerfully, a few steps behind in case Arthur got it into his head to hit anything else.
Hunith stood framed in the doorway, a dark shape against the light world outside. Gwen wiped her face on her sleeve and set her tools aside.
"Hunith, I'm sorry. I meant to come get you. Did Merlin tell you-?"
"-That I'll be staying with you tonight? Yes, thank you." Hunith smiled and stepped inside, closing the door after her. "You don't need to worry. I know my way here well enough, even now."
Gwen blinked, then quickly moved to clear the stool. "You knew my father?"
"I suppose." Hunith avoided the seat and moved through the room, her fingers ghosting over the salt lines and the little saucer of milk on the windowsill. "I knew your mother better, though. She kept house exactly like this."
Gwen also remembered her mother. A round woman, sharp-eyed, laughing-mouthed. Gwen remembered snatches of songs, the smell of violets, a voice admonishing her to speak the truth or not at all, fingers under her chin, warm hands rubbing her back, the scent of baking bread. She had dozens of memories like a tangled skein of wool, useless and incoherent and completely impossible to throw away because they were so precious. Gwen wanted to ask for more pieces to tie into the mess, but words failed her. She could only watch Hunith's dancing fingers move over her mother's precious defenses. Everything wants to find its way into a forge, Gwennie, her mother's voice echoed the words a dozen times or more in life, another hundred in Gwen's memory after she was gone. You mustn't let 'em. We got our own things happenin' 'ere. Human things. Can't be havin' 'em wander in to play their games wi' us.
The circuit of Hunith's travels around the forge finally brought her to the workbench. She bent over to look at the clasp in the vice, careful to keep her fingers away. "This is wonderful, Gwen. Who are you making it for?"
"Merlin," said Gwen, her voice thick.
"My son?" Hunith looked up at her, surprised. "I'm sure he can't afford something this beautiful."
"It's Arthur's present to him. For his coming of age."
When Hunith smiled it was like a a wreath, all the creases of her face settling into something joyous. Gwen found herself smiling back, though she had no idea why.
"Merlin will need friends tonight, Gwen," Hunith said. "Will you be a friend to him?"
"Always. But why-"
Hunith caught her hand, tracing one finger along the back in a simple circle, exactly like Gwen's memories. Mum.
Hunith repeated the circle and let go of her hands, stepping back. "How much longer do you need to finish the piece?"
"About an hour. But that can wait."
"No, no." Hunith clapped her hands. "Let's finish. What can I do?"
Gwen blinked, bemused. "Well, can you pump the bellows a bit? Wait until I get this part into the fire."
"Excellent." Hunith took hold of the handles and poised herself, body balanced. She's done this before, Gwen thought.
"May I tell you a story while we work?" Hunith's voice was casual, diffident, but Gwen heard a tightness underneath it that was familiar. Morgana had sounded more and more like that these past few months.
Still, she was greedy. "About my mother?"
Hunith smiled. "Maybe. A bit."
"Yes, please." She didn't try to hide her eagerness, though she did carefully pull the iron from the fire before it turned white. She didn't want to burn it so close to finishing. "You can stop pumping."
Hunith released the handles and came around to watch her cool one edge in the water and clamp that in the vice. Abandoning the tongs, she picked up the pliers and grasped the thick, stumpy ends of the metal, working them into long, thin branches that swept outward, bare and twisting.
Humming as she watched, Hunith asked, "Did your mother ever tell you that sometimes when a baby's born - a very special baby - his soul splits in half?"
Gwen blinked sweat out of her eyes and looked up briefly, then dropped her eyes back to the iron. "No."
"Well, it's just a story," Hunith whispered, "but it's an old one. The soul splits, and half of it goes into an object or something else nearby. They say that some families where it happened regularly would keep special objects by the bedside during birth, just to make sure the soul chose something appropriate."
Gwen licked her lips and loosened the vice, using the tongs to tuck the iron back into the fire, under the hottest coals. Hunith moved back to grasp the bellows again.
"Wouldn't that be lonely?" Gwen asked, wondering what it would be like to go through life with only half a soul.
"Very, I suspect," Hunith panted. Her thin arms twisted, muscles pulling in stark relief as she squeezed the large handles together and relaxing somewhat as they parted again. "Speaking of births, your mother was at Merlin's."
"My-" Gwen almost left the iron in too long in her startlement. Quickly, she snatched it out, white but not quite sparking, not quite burning. She quenched one side quickly. "My mother was?"
"Yes. You were less than a year old, but your mother left you with your father and snuck up to the castle to see me." Hunith wiped her hair out her face with one wrist. Her hands were almost as dirty as Gwen's now.
"Ah," Hunith laughed dryly, "everyone else thought I was gone already. Which, if I'd been wise, would have been true."
Gwen wanted to ask, but the iron had cooled now and she had so little time to finish. Now was time for working, and later for asking questions. Her father's words.
But still, she tucked the question into a corner of her mind with all the rest, not to be forgotten.
When Merlin walked in, Gaius was snoring in his chair, tucked up close to the dying fire. Merlin paused and reached out to the flame, telling it in a wash of gold to grow again. It opened a pair of salamander eyes, cat-slit, to look at him. Its tails flickered sleepily. Then it stretched, slowly, slowly, until the room began to grow warm once more.
Merlin gasped and let go, panting. His magic - it had never been this hard to do something so simple. Fire usually leapt to his hands as if it couldn't stay away.
Wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers, he slipped into his room.
His things were halfway tidy still from this morning, and he had to open the cupboard to find it. But there it was, yes, in the bottom with the paltry few belongings he'd brought from home. Three seasons here and he'd acquired so many things they nearly filled the cupboard, when his original life had fit inside a small pack. What a change time made.
He stepped back out into the main room carrying the tattered blanket. It was always warm no matter how many holes the moths chewed, and he laid it now in Gaius's lap and tucked it around his legs. The old man had moved slowly enough these past few days, no need to let his joints grow stiffer.
Quickly, he brushed the dust out of his hair and changed shirts, then grabbed the things he'd come for, stuffing his pockets up with the bits and bobs he preferred to carry but had forgotten this morning in his haste. A candle stub, bits of string, a wad of dried lavender, single copper coin, lost button, and the rock shaped like a seashell. He had no idea why he kept these things. His mum had called him her 'little crow' when he was a lad, always going about with river stones and pieces of broken birdshell in his pockets. It just calmed him, made him comfortable to know those things were there, where he could slip his hands in his pockets and touch them anytime.
His eye fell on the broken yew branch, still sitting in the pile of half-used firewood. It's berries were a bright, shocking red in the dark corner, but the immature cones were what his fingers fell on and plucked away, one-two-three, followed by a few of the needles.
And then he was dashing off, because Arthur had insisted the buttons on his best jacket needed polishing again, and there was nothing Merlin loved so well as a chance to sit down and do even more work.
Behind him, the fire burned sullenly and Gaius slept on.
The sun was long down, but a hundred candles blazed in the hall, brighter than daylight. Morgana had made her entrance on a lull, after the soup but before the first subtlety. She was not overly fond of the soup.
Now she sat at Uther's left hand, listening politely as he and Lord Ottwell roasted chestnuts over the candles and debated the various merits of hunting boar on horseback or on foot. Lord Ottwell seemed to be one of those men who liked to live dangerously, or at least to have his beaters do so. Morgana was not terribly amused. The fact that a ginger cat seemed to be twining in and out between his legs (when she knew for a fact that there were no ginger cats that size in the castle) did not improve her temper. Ottwell wasn't the type of lord to carry cats in his retinue, and this one had a particular insolence to the curl of its banded tail, a way of twitching its whiskers to show it was laughing at her. Behind Uther's back, Morgana chucked a raw chestnut at it. It vanished without so much as a puff of smoke.
At the next lull she signaled the jugglers to step back. They did so in perfect unison, leaving space for a half-dozen boys to stagger forward with something on their shoulders. (Morgana winced to recognize Amery's cousins - who let them out of the kitchen? They were notoriously unwashed. But it looked as though someone had taken a scrubbing brush to their faces and hands, at least, for these shone brightly in colors ranging from deep brown to ruddy pink, when for years she'd thought them all the same shade.)
Uther smiled and sat up, breaking off his interminable conversation with Ottwell. "Morgana, is that-"
"Quite," she agreed, as the boys carried over the giant, complete roast boar, head, feet and all, ridden by an exquisitely carved wooden knight. "We couldn't possibly have let Arthur's luck go to waste."
"That wasn't luck," Arthur complained from Uther's other side. "I'll have you know it required great skill to take down that boar."
"I'm sure," Morgana murmured demurely, in a way she knew would drive Arthur mad. "Anyway, Sire, if you would care to-?"
And so Uther was duly served, with Arthur second as the victorious hunter. After her own plate was filled, Morgana motioned for the boys to take the boar to a side table and begin serving the rest of the guests. Uther was already turning back to Ottwell, so in desperation Morgana signaled the minstrel early, and the man strode into the center of the room, backed by three crumhorns and a tenor cornett.
Uther's wave of royal permission might have been a bit reluctant, but once the story began, he was captivated by the tale of a young hunter's attempt to atone for the killing of a sacred white stag. On Uther's other side, Arthur started to cough, Merlin helpfully hitting him on the back a few times until Arthur waved him off.
A few minutes passed, during which the room slowly quieted. Guests were eagerly cutting meat and stuffing their mouths, many of them actually listening to the story for a change. There was the usual angsty bit about the rains refusing to fall, and then out of the corner of her eye Morgana saw Gwen catch Merlin's arm and lead him out, obviously making it look like they needed to refill their pitchers. Morgana knew better.
She waited until the minstrel got to something about a labyrinth in a hedge (or a hedge-labyrinth, it wasn't clear) before murmuring, "Excuse me," and rising to slip out the side entrance herself. Hopefully everyone would just think she'd gone for some fresh air or to yell at a cook.
She wanted to see the look on Merlin's face when Gwen gave him his presents. It would be priceless.
Bloody hell. Arthur couldn't believe he'd had to sit there listening to a minstrel sing about him, and in an embarrassingly flowery way that made his face heat. He was going to kill Merlin, but not until after he found out who all the idiot had told. He would have to make a list of things Merlin was to keep private. Unicorns would be at the top.
Of course Morgana might have something to do with it, with her sneaky way of discovering just about every secret Arthur wanted to keep and then needling him mercilessly until he gave away the rest of the details by accident.
He watched her make her escape from the Hall and barely refrained from rolling his eyes. In that dress she was about as subtle as a six-legged ox wearing daffodils. Ah well, he might as well use her as his own excuse. "Checking on Morgana," he muttered to his father, wiping his fingers on the tablecloth. His father nodded, and Arthur rose as unobtrusively as was possible from the high table (not very, he conceded) and ducked out after her.
He didn't see her in the passage right outside, but that simply meant he needed to wander a bit. Not a hardship. At least he would miss the flowery and no doubt mortifying finale of the song, in which he heroically sacrificed his life for a mere peasant. Blech.
"-told you he should stay in Ealdor until after he was of age!"
Arthur stopped short. That was Gaius's voice like a stage whisper, carrying around corners he was pretty sure it wasn't meant to. Terribly curious, he slipped closer.
"-couldn't, you know that." Hunith's voice. Arthur suddenly felt bad for eavesdropping, but not enough to stop. "He would have come anyway. He's drawn to this place."
Merlin. They had to be talking about Merlin. Arthur edged even closer.
"Well, it hardly matters now. We just have to make sure he stays in the feast hall with all those people for as long as possible. After that, I don't know."
"Gaius." Hunith's voice was gentle but firm. "He'll be fine. He has good friends who care about him."
"We'd better hope that's enough."
A hand landed on his arm. Arthur did not yelp, no matter what anyone might say later. He let out a quiet sound of surprise was all. Nothing untoward.
"Morgana," he gasped, furious at being surprised, but she covered his mouth with her hand and pulled him away around another corner and down a shallow set of steps.
"Would you care to explain," she asked, taking her hand away, "why you were spying on Gaius and Hunith?"
"I wasn't. Really!" He faced down her glare. "Mostly. Not on purpose, anyway."
"Sh!" He pulled her back towards the wall so they wouldn't be seen by the person walking by-
-who was Guinevere, her arms full of fabric. "Gw-?"
Morgana tugged his arm, and it was his turn to glare. "What?" he hissed. "You want to spy on your own maidservant now?"
Her eyes danced. "Just to watch her give Merlin his presents."
Oh. Well. That was a worthy reason. They shared a grin and dashed up the stairs and down the hall, his hand still wrapped around her wrist.
Gwen hurried down the stairs pitter-pat because Merlin was standing outside the drying room with his hands over his eyes, the pungent smell of onions filling the air. When she'd asked him to wait there, she hadn't realized quite how long it would take to get up to Morgana's chambers and back, though she should have.
But there he still stood, stork-like on one leg, leaning against the wall with his eyes still covered.
"Merlin," she called out, then, "don't open your eyes!" as he grinned and tried to wave.
"Sorry!" He slapped his hands back up. "Gwen, I don't really need..."
She shook out the cloak quietly, trying not to let the fabric snap and give away the surprise. When she had it draped dramatically over her arm - a great spill of vermillion with a tiny border of gold-threaded Pendragon crests along the facing that winked in the light and a freshly polished clasp - she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and said nervously, "Okay, open your eyes."
He did, and then opened them wider, his mouth dropping open. "I - what?"
"Because you don't have one, and you should," Gwen explained, rubbing her hands together under the cloth. "I have one. You- you're part of the household. You should have... things."
Merlin blinked at her owlishly, his hands curled at his sides. "I- things?"
She nodded decisively. "Yes. Things. Morgana designed the trim and the clasp. I, uh, made it. The clasp part, I mean. Milly did the stitching, I didn't have time. Not that I don't have time for you, I mean-"
Her mouth shut with a snap, cutting off the words as Merlin suddenly reached out, pulling away from the wall to trace his fingertips over the fabric, the trim, the soft hood. He seemed to shiver, a full-body twitch, and then he was looking up at her with open-eyed wonder.
"Thank you," he whispered.
Her heart melted. "Don't thank me. Thank Morgana. And Prince Arthur, but don't tell him I told you that."
"I'm thanking you now," Merlin insisted, "and them later. Help me put it on?"
So she shook out the fabric once again and pulled it in a quick twirl around his thin shoulders, settling it with a few quick brushes of her hands so that it fell correctly. He blushed faintly; she snatched back her hands.
The cloak hung strangely, though, the two bits of the clasp hanging forlorn on either side of his chest. Carefully, she reached out and hooked the two pieces together so they fit into a smooth, unbroken whole.
"Happy coming of age," she whispered, stepping back. He flashed a quick smile at her before reaching up to trace the clasp with curious fingers.
And vanished, as if sucked down into a sudden flood.
Strangely, Gwen didn't scream or feel panic or anything of the sort. It simply wasn't believable enough. People didn't disappear into thin air, and certainly not in that twisting, sinking sort of way, where the air itself seemed to get thicker and then swallow them up. Stepping forward, she lifted her hand to call after him-
-and fell sideways with a cry as everything rushed around her in a giant swirl of light and color, her voice spinning away from her into nothing.
One moment, Morgana was standing behind one of the many Roman busts Arthur's great great uncle had installed in the back halls of Camelot (specifically to trip people if you asked the servants), watching Gwen wrap the cloak around Merlin's shoulders, seeing the way his face broke open with pleasure like a child's as he reached for the clasp-
-and the next moment there was a strange pop! as Merlin shimmered and disappeared. Gwen's cry filled the corridor briefly, then warped and faded as she stepped forward into the space where Merlin had just been. The light seemed to bend around her, halos of color that didn't exist except in Morgana's dreams, and then Gwen, too, vanished.
Morgana screamed. It wasn't a scream of fear or shock, but one of deep fury that wound its way up her throat and choked her, drowning the world in red from the edges inward.
She'd seen this. A week ago, a month ago, last night - it didn't matter. Gwen disappearing into light, Merlin sinking into green forever, Arthur looking up at her with wide eyes as he bled out on the floor. No, Morgana thought, anger sharpening to a fine edge. She strode towards the space where light and sound bent back on themselves, shaping a hollow. She would not accept this-
Arthur grabbed her wrist. "Where do you think you're-"
"I don't have time for this!" Furiously, Morgana yanked him forward. If he wouldn't let go, then by all that was holy he would come with her.
And wonder of wonders, he did.
They reached the spot at a dead run, everything twisting inside out without warning: the light, the sound of their footsteps, the feeling of Morgana's skirts swirling against her ankles. There was a sudden, high tinkling of a bell mingled with strange laughter. Arthur's grip on her wrist tightened. She clung to that, even as she felt squeezed from all directions at once.
The whirlwind ripped her scream straight from her mouth.
The instant Merlin's stomach finished trying to squeeze out through his left ear, he sat down hard on the cold stone floor. In place of bright colors and a swirl of sound beyond normal hearing, abruptly the world was darkness and ominous silence, stretching emptily in all directions. He couldn't even see well enough to find a wall or something to lean against, rather than his ungainly sprawl in the middle of the hallway.
Something about this moment tickled his memory, and not in an entirely pleasant way.
The brief surge of hope he'd felt - that the rushing sensation and bright colors had been his magic coming back full force - flickered and died as he tried to conjure a light and failed miserably.
"Bugger," he said to no one in particular, hoping perhaps that Gwen would be there to scold him for his language. No such luck.
After another minute or two of feeling sorry for himself, he finally turned over on his hands and knees, pulled his cloak out from under, and started crawling. It didn't take long for his head to bump into a wall. After that he leaned his shoulder against it, both as a guide and to keep from bumping his head again, because there was a sore spot on his forehead now that would surely swell into a bruise later. Then Arthur would laugh at him and Gwen would cluck and Morgana would hide a pitying smirk, and... right now he wasn't sure why any of that was a bad idea. At least it would mean he wasn't alone.
He'd had a dream like this, not once but dozens of times since he was a wee babe, and though the particulars changed over time, the beginning of the dream always began with wandering if the dark, unsure where he was going. It always ended well, though.
After a while the darkness fading to dim gray, enough for him to think about standing and putting one hand on the wall. The light seemed to be coming from up ahead. He picked up his pace, eager now.
"Hello?" he called out. "Is someone there?"
From behind him came a scratching noise, soft and sinister. Merlin froze.
The very air seemed to hold it's breath, and then "MERLIN," the dark whispered back, in a thousand creaking voices that didn't sound remotely human.
Merlin scrambled to his feet and ran, cloak whipping out behind him like a banner snapping in the wind.