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Peach, Plum, Pear
Merlin/Arthur, implied other pairings. Futurefic. 13,750 words or thereabouts. Warnings for explicit content and blatant disregard for both Arthurian legend and historical accuracy. (I love this fandom.)
How in his tenth year of rule King Arthur chose a man to take the role of Court's Magician, and how Arthur made his decision.
Peach, Plum, Pear
Or, How in his tenth year of rule King Arthur chose a man to take the role of Court's Magician, and how Arthur made his decision.
Or, How in his tenth year of rule King Arthur chose a man to take the role of Court's Magician, and how Arthur made his decision.
It was autumn in Camelot, the air frosted with the chill of oncoming winter, but the cold had not dimmed the people's spirits. Ten long years had passed since the death of Uther, and the kingdom was thriving under King Arthur's rule. In the streets, peasants still whispered of their King's kindness, and knights bowed their heads to his bravery. The markets bustled with steady trade, and young maids blushed at the boys. Some girls cast simple, innocent spells of love and courtship. The younger children barely remembered a time when such magic was outlawed.
"You're a great spellcaster," one young squire told his friend, a gangly boy by the name of Tim. "You should go to the trials!"
"Trials?" Tim asked.
"You haven't heard?" The squire laughed, his grin creasing his freckled face. "The King has finally decided to appoint a court magician! Sorcerers from all over are coming to have a go!"
Arthur hid a yawn behind his hand. The sorcerer from the village of Reathon fumbled his spoon for a moment before collecting himself, taking a deep breath, and beginning to stir the contents of his pot counterclockwise.
"What is he doing?" Arthur hissed.
At his side, Guenevere cast a placating look at him. "A spell, my lord."
"It looks like a stew made of hog gut and caterpillars," Arthur announced, no longer attempting to hide his dislike. The sorcerer flinched, but kept stirring. "Rotten hog gut. What the hell is it supposed to accomplish?"
Guenevere looked ready to defend the hapless magician, but her brow furrowed and she said nothing. They both looked back at the man. Beads of sweat were collecting on his forehead; his arms were trembling. He began stirring clockwise.
Guenevere shook her head, sighing. "I don't know, my lord."
"Well, whatever it is, it's ridiculous."
"Not all magicians carry their skill in the palm of their hand, your majesty." This time, when she glanced at Arthur, her look was too knowing.
Not all magicians were Merlin, she meant. Twelve years since Merlin had fled Camelot, and still Arthur often thought of the boy he had known. It was in times like these, when Arthur was confronted yet again with the pomp, pageantry, and general uselessness of the kingdom's sorcerers, that he missed Merlin most. The boy had been obnoxious, and always disrespectful, but also brave as any knight--with dark hair and mesmerizing eyes. Of course, the latter qualities had little bearing on Merlin's skill as a warlock, but they still wrought a surprising amount of influence in Arthur's fantasies.
Arthur dragged himself from his thoughts in time to catch Guenevere's amused expression. He cursed himself yet again for marrying a woman who knew him so well.
"Any lady would gladly have had me as their husband, you know," Arthur told Guenevere, his tone full of mock severity. "Some of them begged for weeks. I could still have rid of you and marry a less impertinent bride."
"Of course, my lord. Perhaps Lady Rodria, with the warts?" Belying her words, Guenevere's voice was deferential, containing the tone of respect one could only learn by wearing servant's garb. When Arthur glanced over at her, however, she arched a devilish eyebrow at him.
Arthur couldn't help but laugh. "I was thinking more of Lady Finnel, with the unfortunate bladder condition."
"Much better that you stick with me, sire," said Guenevere. "I require no diapers, nor must I consume costly potions for the treatment of boils."
"Hmm," said Arthur. "Yes, I suppose you are still the best candidate." He glanced back at the magician, who was still stirring his potion. "Oh, bloody hell. Is it too much to hope for some magic with a bit of power? A bit of bang?"
BANG, went the magician's cauldron. A heavy shard of the cast-iron pot shot past Guenevere's head, and the substance inside began to leak to the floor, steaming ominously upon contact with the stone. The magician himself blinked, wiped a streak of something from his cheek, and beamed up at Arthur proudly.
"No," said Arthur. The magician's face fell.
Arthur judged the talents of sixteen more sorcerers before he could stand no more. Most could hardly conjure a nasty rash, much less command the power and wisdom that the job of court magician required.
"I think that's quite enough for today," he told Sir Kay. "How many more of these idiots are there?"
"Only six," said Sir Kay. "Although there may well be more before tomorrow."
Arthur groaned. "For God's sake. All right, tell those six to return in the morning. I'll meet with them then. And may that be the last of them."
Sir Kay nodded. "Of course, sire." The knight looked sympathetic to Arthur's plight, although his feelings toward the hopefuls had probably been affected by the boils he'd contracted from a witch's charm a few days previous.
Arthur clapped Kay on the shoulder in support. "Good man." He turned to Guenevere. "My lady, shall we take our leave?"
Guenevere smiled at him and looped her arm through his. As they walked down the dim corridors to their rooms, Arthur tried, once again, not to think of Merlin, but failed. Arthur had put out the call for court magician with Merlin in mind. He knew it was ridiculous to miss a boy he had known for scarcely two years, and after more than a decade, Arthur was aware his memories of that time were idealized, but some truth remained. Merlin had never truly been Arthur's equal, at least not in the public eye, but he had served Arthur faithfully as a servant, and believed in and challenged him as a friend. Arthur had trusted Merlin with his life. All other feelings aside, it could not be denied that Arthur could use a man like that in his court.
Guenevere, as if she had read his mind, or perhaps simply his mood, took his hand and ran her thumb over his knuckles. "Are you all right?" she asked softly.
Arthur summoned a smile. "Fine. Just--I wish it wasn't necessary to hold these ridiculous trials. I would rather choose a good man for the job and be done with it."
"You should send out scouts." She turned in his arms and tugged him closer to her, reaching with her other hand to glide a comforting touch across his brow. "Have them look for Merlin. He has to be out there, somewhere. Maybe in a tiny village where they haven't received word of the trials." Guenevere had always been fond of Merlin; perhaps that was why she accepted Arthur's strange fixation on his long-departed servant with such grace and understanding.
Arthur shook his head. "Merlin would know. If he's not here, it's because he can't be--or he chooses not to be."
Guenevere brushed Arthur's hair from his eyes. "Do you want me to stay with you tonight?"
"No." Arthur leaned his forehead against hers, closing his eyes briefly at her kind words, at the feel of her skin and her warm breath against his face. His Guenevere was beautiful. She was his wife, his partner, and his truest friend. But-- "No, my dearest," he told her. "You should go to Lancelot."
"Arthur, don't be stupid."
Arthur drew back, giving her a quick smile. "Gwen, really. I'm fine. Give Lancelot a big kiss from me."
Gwen laughed, but sobered quickly. "Are you sure, Arthur?" Her voice dropped lower. "I know your bed must be chilled tonight."
"You think me a lonely man," Arthur said, making a joke of it.
"Are you not?" She sighed. "You know you are welcome, any time you wish to join us. Lancelot would capture the sun for you, and sink the moon into the sea, if he thought you had need of it. "
Arthur nodded. "I know. But it is you he loves. Go, Gwen." They had already lingered in the hallway too long; it would not do for a servant to come upon their whispered conference. Even badly-kept secrets were secrets, until such time as a loose-tongued scullery maid heard them spoken aloud.
Guenevere hesitated a moment, kissed Arthur gently on the mouth, then was gone.
The next day dawned bright, despite the blistering cold. Only five magicians waited for Arthur in the main hall, the sixth no doubt having given up and gone home. He sighed while settling onto his throne, wishing Guenevere were there to keep him company; unfortunately, she was required in the kitchens to organize the menu for an upcoming feast. Arthur took a moment to glower at the hopeful candidates, just long enough to make a couple of them shift uneasily.
"Your names," Arthur stated tiredly.
A hawkish-looking man with curly blond hair coughed, then announced: "Frederick du'Noir, your grace. Of Elmswood."
"Tim, sire," said a skinny nothing of a boy. "Camelot born and bred, sire."
The next man had a handsome, dark face and a high brow. "Accolon, fifth son of Everett. Formerly of Gwynedd, your majesty." Formerly? Accolon wore the trappings of a royal house and had the bearing of a nobleman. Arthur was intrigued, but there was more of a story there than he wished to hear at present; he asked no questions, and instead looked to the next candidate.
"My name is Myrddin Wyllt." The old man was stooped, with a scruffy gray beard, ragged robes, and an intent gaze. He leaned inelegantly on a large knobby staff. Arthur waited to hear his place of birth, but when it seemed none was forthcoming, he turned to the next and last contender.
"Wallace the Weaver," said the kind-faced, portly man. "Also of Camelot, sire."
The trials themselves took less time than the introductions.
"No," said Arthur to Frederick's summoning of two buckets of roast beef. ("It was supposed to be a cow!" Frederick wailed.)
"No," said Arthur to Wallace's frustrated attempts to make every belt buckle in the room sparkle.
"No," said Arthur to Tim's antics with a pair of sparrows. He added, "Sorry," out of a moment's pity for the boy's crestfallen expression.
"Maybe," said Arthur to Accolon's shielding spell. It was nothing extraordinary, but unlike most of the magic Arthur had seen over the past week, it was at least useful.
When his turn came, Myrddin Wyllt stood silently, leveling his gaze at Arthur. The hair on the back of Arthur's neck prickled, but he didn't think it was from magic. The old man's eyes were a piercing blue, intense and harsh like the light of the sun off a lake. Arthur had not been stared at in such a way in years.
"What?" Arthur snapped, finally.
"What?" Wyllt echoed. The old man must be senile.
"You do magic, correct?" Arthur waved a hand. "Do some."
"What would you have me do?" Wyllt asked.
Arthur straightened a bit in his chair, suddenly more interested. No one else had ever asked Arthur for requests before demonstrating their abilities, although now, Arthur wondered why they hadn't. Perhaps they were worried he would challenge them beyond their skill.
"Mend the buttons on my queen's favorite riding jacket," Arthur told the sorcerer. "And heal the mangy mutt that the squires keep in the stables. It has a bad limp."
"Very well," said Wyllt.
Another long silence.
"It is done," said Wyllt.
It was then that Arthur realized his folly; he could not check the results of Wyllt's work without calling a halt to the day's proceedings. "Very well," said Arthur. "Accolon and Wyllt, you two will return this evening for additional tests. The rest of you may leave. Immediately." He turned to Sir Kay, who was again stationed faithfully behind his throne. "If you'll see them out? It appears I must go rummage through my wife's wardrobe before we continue with this insanity."
"Of course, sire," Sir Kay said. He looked amused.
The buttons were mended. Arthur held the jacket up to the light, and then tugged on one of the buttons, testing the thread. It held fast.
"Huh," said Arthur.
A throat was cleared behind him; Arthur spun around, clutching the jacket, only to be greeted by Guenevere's quizzical face.
"Is there a reason you're in here?" she said, raising an eyebrow. "What's mine is yours, of course, but you should really ask before you borrow any of my clothes--what if I had need of them for some special occasion?"
"Ha, ha," Arthur said flatly. He brandished the jacket. "The buttons are mended."
Guenevere blinked. "I...know?"
"You know," said Arthur. "Wait. How do you know?"
"I mended them." Guenevere's amusement was fading to confusion. "I know you're always saying to let the servants do such tasks, but when I'm perfectly capable, it didn't seem right--"
"You mended them?" Arthur interrupted. "When?"
"Last week," said Guenevere. "Arthur, what-"
But Arthur merely handed her the jacket, kissed her on the cheek, and headed for the door. "I'll tell you later!" he called over his shoulder.
Arthur caught up to Wyllt in the stables. The old man blinked up at him, smiled faintly, then looked back at the sleeping dog before him.
Arthur settled on the straw beside Wyllt. "She had already mended the jacket," he said. "Did you know?"
Wyllt scratched gently behind the dog's ears. "It was done, just as I said."
Arthur snorted. "Right." He glanced at the dog. "And what of Griffin?"
"You know the dog's name," said Wyllt. Arthur couldn't tell if it was a question or merely an expression of surprise, but he answered the man.
"Everyone knows this old mutt." He reached over to rub Griffin's nose; the dog stirred, but didn't wake. "He's been around for ages, barking and chasing rats. Not too many more years left in him, though, I think. He's gone gray and half-deaf."
"No." Wyllt sighed. "Not too many years at all. Months, perhaps." He looked up at Arthur, his eyes sad. "You wanted me to heal him?"
"Yes," said Wyllt, but his tone indicated there was something else.
"But?" said Arthur.
"Or I can simply ease his pain. For a while. He's old. He knows his time is up."
Arthur nodded. He gave Griffin another scratch behind the ears. "Do that, then," he said. "No miracles. But he's been loyal."
"Very well," said Wyllt. He closed his eyes and bent over Griffin, his wrinkled, age-spotted hands first smoothing carefully over the dog's back, then reaching to straighten the twisted hind leg.
Arthur watched for a while, but when Wyllt took no further notice of him, he left to prepare for the second round of tests.
"This is the first of three tasks," said Arthur. "Both of you have, to some extent, impressed me with your abilities. Now, you must demonstrate your knowledge and skill." He paused. "I hope that you will find this a simple task. It is nearing winter, and the halls are cold and drafty. Warm them. You have an hour."
Wyllt and Accolon exchanged a glance, and then headed out of the room in opposite directions.
"Should I follow them, sire?" Sir Kay asked. "Just in case one of them sets fire to the castle?"
Arthur squeezed the bridge of his nose. "Yes," he said. "Yes, that sounds like a fine idea."
Accolon managed to place heating spells in strategic spots for maximum coverage of the castle, but he returned with blistered hands and the admission that the magic was rather unpredictable and should be handled with care.
"Accolon," Arthur said tiredly, "Is anyone going to combust unexpectedly as they walk through the halls and run into one of these spells?"
"No!" said Accolon. "Well, probably not."
Wyllt went out to the forest and brought back an enormous fir tree. "Firewood," he told Arthur. "And might I suggest that you move the servants' quarters closer to the heart of the castle? You're losing fuel by heating so many separate rooms."
"There's no place to put them," said Arthur.
"I counted several of the more lavish guest rooms that are currently unoccupied," Wyllt replied.
"No," said Arthur.
The next day, Arthur gathered Accolon and Wyllt before him in the throne room.
"After the stunning display of idiocy yesterday, I was tempted to deny you both another try," said Arthur. "However, I have decided to be fair. I have ruled the first task to be a tie between you. We will speak no more of it, and shall move on to the second task immediately." He paused. "I would ask that the information gleaned from this task remain within these walls, as a gesture of respect for your king and queen."
"Of course, your majesty," said Accolon.
Wyllt simply nodded.
"Good." Arthur gestured and Guenevere entered the room, resplendent in pale blue and indigo, her hair falling in curls around her face. She smiled at Arthur in greeting, but her eyes were troubled. Arthur suddenly regretted involving her in this latest debacle.
She glanced at the two sorcerers. Accolon bowed deeply; Wyllt inclined his head and said, "My lady." They were the first words of respect that Arthur had heard out of his mouth.
"My wife is barren," Arthur said. The words tasted bitter on his tongue; he saw Guenevere's shoulders stiffen, but she stood firm. "As king, I require an heir. Despite your failings, of all the magicians who have demonstrated their arts in front of me, the two of you show the most promise. I want you to prove yourselves worthy of the many difficult tasks that may lie ahead of you. Speak to my wife, speak to me, prod us with sticks--or whatever you must do, barring ill treatment--and make your diagnosis. Then tell me of our options."
Guenevere shot Arthur a reassuring smile, but it didn't reach past her mouth. Accolon exchanged a look with Wyllt, then strode toward Guenevere. "May I examine you, my lady?" he asked.
"You may," answered Guenevere.
Arthur was so fascinated with Accolon's quiet, efficient movements--first he looked into Guenevere's eyes, then felt her jaw, and the base of her neck, before pressing a cautious hand to her abdomen--that he was nearly startled out of his wits by Wyllt's arrival at his side.
"Your grace?" Wyllt held out a hand.
Arthur blinked at the hand for a moment before he realized what Wyllt wanted. He offered his own, and Wyllt took it, clasping their hands palm to palm.
"How long have you been trying to conceive?" Wyllt asked quietly.
"Nearly ten years," Arthur answered. "She's been seen by the best physicians in the kingdom. None of them harbor hope."
Wyllt's brow furrowed. Arthur felt a--a something, a warm feeling, stirring in the pit of his gut, and wondered if it was the man's magic. He shifted uncomfortably, and Wyllt's grip on his hand tightened. "If you had a son, what would you name him?" Wyllt asked.
Arthur cleared his throat. "Um. Uther, for my father."
"And a daughter?"
"I don't know," said Arthur. "I'd call her Igraine, for my mother, I suppose. Or Hunith."
Wyllt's eyes flickered up to meet his, then dropped again. Arthur bit back a gasp as the warm feeling increased for a moment before it slowly faded away. Wyllt released his hand. "Thank you," he said. "That's all I needed."
He stepped away, quietly joining Accolon at Guenevere's side to ask more of his odd questions. Arthur closed his eyes, taking a few slow, deep breaths.
"So. Which one should I pick?" Arthur asked Guenevere later, as they waited in his chambers for the sorcerers to return.
"Myrddin Wyllt," Guenevere answered immediately.
"Huh," said Arthur. "Really?"
"Of course, really."
Arthur stopped pacing and flopped into his favorite wood chair, heaving a sigh. "You don't think he's a bit--daft?"
Guenevere shook her head. "You just think that because he's old."
"He reminds me of Gaius," Guenevere said, looking faraway all of a sudden. "More quiet, a bit more rude, but there's something about him."
"Gaius was a good man," Arthur said gently.
Guenevere blinked, returning her attention to Arthur. "Yes," she said. "Yes, he was."
Arthur blew out a breath, absently cracking his knuckles. What had started out as a harmless test was beginning to prey too much on his mind. What if one of the sorcerers actually found a solution? Arthur knew it was folly, but a few traitorous thoughts crept through: images of a young son or daughter with his eyes and Gwen's skin, or her graceful jaw line; a child to teach, to raise with courage and honor.
What was taking them so long?
"Besides," Guenevere added suddenly. "Accolon--I mean, he's good. I can see why you like him."
"I never said I liked him," said Arthur. There was just something about the man that he found reassuring, even comfortable, so different than Wyllt's odd words and challenging stares.
Guenevere waved a hand. "He's got all those qualities you go for," she said. "He's a decent man; he's careful and honorable, and he has courtly manners." She paused. "But when they were speaking with me in the hall today... only Myrddin was speaking to me. To Accolon, I was just... I don't know. He made me feel like a child's puzzle."
Arthur looked at Guenevere; she gazed steadily back.
"All right," he said. "I understand. But I have to consider what is best for the court. If need be, if the kingdom should ever lie in peril, I believe Accolon could think like a warrior. Wyllt is more the type to give sweets to small children." He had not intended his comment to be hurtful, but Guenevere flushed angrily and stared at the table. Bugger.
There was a knock on the door. "Let's see what the fools came up with," Arthur said, and went to let them in.
Accolon carried an armful of stoppered bottles, while Wyllt's hands hung empty at his sides. They both looked grim.
"I am sorry, my King," said Accolon. "Your options are limited. My tests have shown that Queen Guenevere is, as you said, barren."
Arthur glanced at Guenevere, but she ignored him, her face expressionless. Arthur nodded for Accolon to continue.
"I have brought a selection of potions and medicines." He began to set the bottles on the table in a neat row. "They are designed to purify the blood, strengthen the loins, and make the womb more fertile."
"My womb, if you please," Guenevere interrupted sharply. "Not 'the,' as if you were discussing the innards of a cow."
Accolon looked confused. Wyllt began to stroke his beard, as if he were deep in thought, but Arthur could see a slight smile on his lips in response to Guenevere's words.
"Right," said Accolon. "Queen Guenevere's womb." He finished lining up the bottles, then straightened. "All of these methods have proven to work in similar cases," he said, then hesitated. "However, I fear that these medicines may not be sufficient. There is--one other way."
Arthur leaned forward in his chair. "And that is?"
Accolon's face was almost fearful, but he said, "To bring life to the Queen's womb, one could... theoretically... draw that life from somewhere else."
"Sounds difficult," said Arthur. "And dangerous."
Accolon swallowed. "It is, sir."
"Somewhere else?" Guenevere asked. "Like where, exactly?"
"Not people," Accolon assured her. "Plants and beasts. Just enough for a spark, if you will."
Wyllt was busy staring daggers at Accolon's back, but the other sorcerer didn't seem to notice. Arthur ignored him too, saying instead, "So, you've done it before."
"No," said Accolon, looking rather sheepish. "No, sir, I haven't. But I am willing to try."
The traitorous hope in Arthur's heart seized onto Accolon's words. He turned to Wyllt. "And you? Are you willing to try?"
Wyllt was silent for a long moment. "No," he said, finally. "I am not."
Something about the man's tone was utterly infuriating. Arthur gripped the edge of the table until his knuckles turned white. "Then I have made my decision," he said coldly.
"Arthur--" Guenevere said, but Wyllt's head had already snapped up, his blue eyes snapping angrily in the sagging skin of his face.
"Are you an idiot?" Wyllt hissed. He waved a hand at Accolon. "Both of you? No one is meant to harness the power of life and death. There is always a price, and it is always much too high to pay."
"Like you've ever done it," Accolon scoffed.
"I have," said Wyllt. "I have done it. I don't regret my actions, rash as they were, but I would never do it again. Especially when you, my King, remain unaware of some very basic facts." He turned to Arthur. "What my opponent--and for that matter, the physicians of Camelot--have failed to tell you is that the problem does not lie solely with fair Queen Guenevere. She is barren, yes," and here, he glanced at Guenevere, "And I am sorry for that, my lady. With time and care, there may yet be hope," then back to Arthur. "However, you, sire, are the primary cause of your misfortune." Wyllt's passionate intensity faded abruptly, and he shrugged, his careless manner at odds with his harsh words. "The well has run dry, so to speak."
Arthur blinked. "You're sure?" He glanced at Accolon, to see if he would deny it, but the man refused to meet his eyes.
"Absolutely certain," said Wyllt. "There is no hope that you could ever sire children. Perhaps, if Queen Guenevere was willing, you could foster sons from another father."
For a brief second, Arthur thought of Lancelot, but knew that the knight would balk-and rightfully so-at having his children raised by another man. He sank back in his chair, deep in thought. "But this giving life thing--it would still work, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," said Accolon. "I mean, if I could get it to work, then yes, sire, it would work."
"And he probably could," Wyllt said, cocking his head at Accolon. "But the more fool we, for following the same paths and expecting different destinations. You see, sire, this particular condition... I think it likely that it was passed from father to son."
Arthur sat very still. Guenevere reached for his hand, squeezed it, and asked: "What do you mean, Myrddin Wyllt?"
"If I am right--and I know that I am-King Uther was equally incapable of siring children."
"And yet here I am," said Arthur. "Obviously your information is false."
"Yes," said Wyllt. "Here you are." He paused. "But where, I wonder, is Lady Igraine?"
Wyllt's words seemed void of context, at least at first. As soon as the implication sank in, Arthur's hope withered; despair seized him instead, scooping into his stomach and hollowing out his insides. "Leave," he said hoarsely, sitting up straight in his chair. Guenevere gripped his wrist tightly, but her wordless support only made Arthur feel sicker.
"Sire!" Accolon's eyes were wide, as if to protest his innocence.
"Go." Arthur took a breath, making himself add, "I haven't made my decision yet. Come back tomorrow for the third test."
When they had gone, Guenevere embraced him, tipping him so his head rested on her shoulder. He lingered in her arms, ignoring the discomfort of the chair arm digging into his side, and for a moment, he was not king. He was just Arthur.
"Oh, Arthur," Guenevere murmured. "It has been ten years. We already knew it could not happen."
"I know," he said. Accolon's ugly bottles still sat in a row on the table, as if to mock him. Arthur turned his face into Guenevere's neck, shutting his eyes tight.
"I think," said Guenevere slowly. "I think perhaps Wyllt is the wiser of the two."
"Yes," Arthur admitted. "You're probably right."
She pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "Will you choose him?"
"Doubtful." Arthur swallowed a chuckle. "I don't particularly like him. Either of them."
Guenevere smiled; he could feel the motion of her lips against his hair. "Then don't choose. Tell the people that none of the contenders were worthy. Take up the trials again next year. In the meantime, you can search for Merlin. It is his kindness and his love that we need, not these bizarre rituals."
Arthur didn't say anything; he didn't want to think about Merlin.
"I'm staying here tonight," said Guenevere.
"I'm staying here," she said, and that was the end of it.