Their plans were pre-empted the next day, however, when King Uther called for Court and Council to gather.
Merlin quickly shook out Arthur’s formal court outfit, and with a murmured word it was as new and clean as if it had never been worn. The prince glared, but allowed himself to be dressed as the heralds sounded the warning call—a bell located inside every noble’s chambers, rung only when High Court was gathering.
Properly attired, prince and warlock made their way to the throne room. Arthur joined his father on the dais and Merlin went to stand near Gaius and Gwen.
“Where’s Morgana?” Merlin whispered.
“The king ordered her to wait outside until summoned.” Gwen replied worriedly. “The heralds wouldn’t tell us why though.”
On cue, King Uther nodded to the door guards and the major domo, who commandingly tapped his staff twice to gather everyone’s attention. “Presenting the Lady Morgana, daughter of Lord Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and ward of Uther Pendragon, King of Camelot.”
Surprised, for Uther rarely indulged in such formalities unless it was to showcase the wealth and power of Camelot to visiting dignitaries, the court watched as Morgana glided down the aisle, coming to a stop before the king and dipping into a graceful curtsey, although she did not lower her head or eyes.
Uther’s mouth tightened, but he raised her, his gaze distantly affectionate with a hint of warning. Behind him, Arthur’s eyes sparkled with reassuring warmth and a hint of mischief. So, Morgana thought. He knows what this is about, may have orchestrated it himself.
“Council members, lords and ladies of the court. Citizens of Camelot. Lady Morgana has been my ward for most of her life, since the death of her father and my dearest friend, Lord Gorlois. You have all seen her flourish, blooming into a spirited, willful, beautiful young woman who is as much a daughter to me as she is sister to my heir and son, Arthur.” He took a moment to turn a benevolent gaze upon the prince, who inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. “I am not getting any younger, and life is far too short for me to take my good fortune for granted.” He took a deep breath. “Therefore, it is on this day that I proclaim the Lady Morgana, once and still of the House of Gorlois, a Princess of Camelot and a daughter of House Pendragon, heir to my heir.”
“My lord!” Morgana gasped, as murmurs and whispers filled the room.
“It is no more than you deserve, although it took Arthur to point out the obvious.” Uther said quietly, gesturing for Geoffrey of Monmouth to come forward to begin the rites. “I know that we have had our differences,” he continued. “But you are truly a daughter to me and a sister to Arthur in all of the ways that matter. I am only officially acknowledging what is already unofficial truth in the eyes of the people.”
Morgana cast her eyes demurely away, unable to respond.
“Make no mistake, however.” The king warned suddenly, his voice hard. “Once you accept the crown, you also accept the obligations and responsibilities that go along with it, especially to your king.” His gaze was diamond sharp, unyielding. “No more outbursts of defiance or rebellion, Morgana. It ends here.”
She bowed her head for a long moment. “As you wish, sire. It ends here.”
She turned gracefully away to kneel at Geoffrey’s feet. Uther took the delicate crown from the historian and placed it on her head himself, kissing her formally on both cheeks as the great hall erupted with cheers.
Dazed, she smiled so hard her cheeks hurt, even as she desperately resisted the urge to shake his heavy hand off of shoulder and erase the taint of his mouth from her skin.
The day after the coronation, the castle was still abuzz with the rise in ascension of the Lady Morgana. For Merlin and Arthur however, it was business as usual—except for one wrench in their plans: Morgana had changed her mind about allowing Merlin to take her bracelet. Nothing he had said would persuade her otherwise, as her dependency on the bracelet overrode any weak arguments he had about the potential dangers of Morgause’s true intent.
Defeated, the warlock had reported back to his master on the sudden change. Frustrated, the prince hauled his servant out to the training field for some staff and bow work—and also so that they could speak without being overheard.
“There’s nothing we can do.” The Prince said finally. “At least we know that Morgana is a potential target for Morgause. We’ll just have to stay vigilant.” He glanced over at his friend’s frustrated expression, and changed the subject. “I hardly see Morgana.” He said, testing the weight and balance of the staff in his hand before choosing another. “How are her lessons going with Gaius?”
True to his word, the king had given the services of the new Princess and her handmaiden over to the physician, who was overjoyed—in his own cantankerous way. Following his own intuition, Merlin had not told his guardian about everything that had transpired between himself and the prince within the past week—Arthur learning about his magic, the fact that he had been behind the plans to make Morgana a princess, or his suspicions about the new princess and her potential relatives. It made him uneasy and went against the grain not to confide in the old man, but the warlock was beginning to realize that, like Arthur, he was going to have to forge his own path into the future—and Gaius was too caught up by his own fears and regrets of the past to see past them. Despite what he said, the physician saw too much of Uther Pendragon in his son, and that hampered his trust of the prince. It wasn’t enough to overcome the years of suppression and fear and guilt that had built up over the time of the Great Purge, Merlin realized sadly.
They were growing up, he and Arthur, and the time of change was creeping ever closer.
“Merlin.” Arthur rolled his eyes, prodding the warlock with the end of his staff. “Focus.”
The younger man shook his head, clearing it of his musings about his old friend, and raised his brows. “Sorry. Was just thinking about Gaius.”
Arthur bumped his shoulder companionably before tossing him another staff. “Here. Try this one, and tell me how Morgana and Guinevere’s lessons are going.”
Merlin caught the staff easily, and grinned. “She tried to pull rank, but Gwen and Gaius ganged up on her.” He said, eyes twinkling.
“You rail and storm against Uther’s proclamations, but it is like water on stone. This way, at least you can help the people directly, and build and establish trust.” Gaius scolded.
“Besides,” Gwen added more softly, touching her mistress’ arm. “This way, you will hear of any rumors of magic before Uther does, and be able to deal with it yourself—or take it to Arthur.”
Merlin, Morgana, and Gaius had all stopped and stared at her in surprise, causing the handmaiden to blush and avoid their gazes. After a moment, the Princess had yielded to Gaius’ wishes, and they took their place at his work table, grey and dark heads bent over the first book of herb lore that he had decided was fundamental to their basic knowledge.
Merlin had continued straightening the vials with a smothered grin, inwardly cheering at the shrewdly bold argument of his friend, who had shown astuteness and a flash of the Queen she would become.
“I know you have explicitly ordered me to not reveal my gifts to Morgana, but may I at least tell Gwen? She’s my friend, and a strong influence on Morgana. She can’t protect the Princess alone anymore.” He asked, briefly going on the attack with a flurry of blows.
Arthur frowned, easily countering the moves—he was the one who had orchestrated them, after all—but didn’t immediately dissuade him. It took three more bouts before he made a decision.
“You may tell Guinevere, but discreetly.” He said heavily. “I cannot go forward without you three by my side. We will tell them both, eventually, but only after you deal with Morgause’s bracelet.”
The warlock nodded, content with that decision, and both men turned their attention in earnest to their work.
“No!” Morgause seethed, glaring into the Crystal. Her voice echoed through the courtyard, bouncing off the walls and only magnifying her ire. The source of her rage continued on, blissfully unaware. It was breakfast time, and the three Pendragons were engaged in a lively debate, and although they were laughing and gesturing at each other, there was no malice in the actions.
“It was perfect! Arthur was in a murderous rage when he left here! Uther should be dead now, dead for his deeds and sins! And Morgana—my spells were undetectable on that bracelet. She should be mine now, mine to control and mold, full of hate and fury. So why are they not acting as they should?” She questioned furiously. “Why are they sitting there laughing and joking with that blood traitor?”
The Crystal offered no answer as the agitated sorceress began pacing.
“No matter,” she decided, suddenly composed, although there was an ominous rumbling in the air, like the calm before a tempest struck. “I will have to finish it myself, whether or not she is willing. Blood loyalty only goes so far, as Uther Pendragon has proven time and time again. Prophecy states that he is destined to die, consumed by the fires of rage and hate that are his own making. That will still happen—with a little help.”
Her flat, cold brown eyes gleamed with fanatical rage as she strode briskly away.
“I need a huge favor.” Merlin announced, closing his book with a snap. “But it means going against your father and lying to him if need be.”
Arthur swallowed the automatic denial and merely raised his brows. “I’m listening.”
“I need the Crystal of Nehatid.” The warlock said slowly, hastening to explain when he caught the prince’s dark look. The Druid boy Mordred and his companion had been sensed by the warlock in the castle two days ago with their request of Morgana, and Merlin knew that if she was going to heed their plea she would do it soon.”The Crystal comes from a cave that is said to be the birthplace and source of all magic. Those with the power and ability can use it to see what was, what is, and what is yet to be.” He held up a hand. “Yes, I have that power. No, I will not use it to see the future, not even for you, Arthur.”
“Then why do you need it?”
“Because I can use a small piece to focus and filter Morgana’s dreams so that they don’t traumatize her so. She is a danger, to herself and to us, untrained and instinctual. Her magic is a weapon, and she’s swinging blindly in the dark at friend and foe alike.”
Arthur winced; the vivid analogy striking home.
“Fine. Do what you have to do.”
Switching the Crystal was easy enough; and he didn’t even raise an alarm, since he had the foresight to conjure a fake to leave in its place. Anyone with the ability to harness the powers of the Crystal would know the difference, but that was the problem of Mordred and his followers, and Merlin would deal with them when they came.
Things slowly returned to normal in Camelot. The new Princess settled into her new duties, reluctantly at first, and then with greatest interest and eventually genuine sympathy for the townsfolk’s’ day to day plights.
Arthur watched and listened and was pleased as well, for he had his hand on the pulse of the people in his own way, thanks to Gwen and second handedly, Merlin. Morgana was already revered for her beauty, but now she was quickly gaining a reputation for kindness as well, and in return earning the people’s loyalty and trust.
And although he and Merlin were diligent in their self-imposed duties to watch for the sorceress, she made no move, causing them to slowly let down their guard.
Until the herdsman appeared with the news that the Fires of Idirsholas had been lit.