Characters: Uther, Arthur, Morgana
Genre: Gen, Drama, Friendship
Beta: Thanks to the indispensable talesofyesac!
Summary: When thirteen-year-old Arthur was injured outside the castle walls, Uther may have overreacted a tad. But why is Morgana trying so hard to make them reconcile?
Author's notes: Written for merlin_muses Prompt Fest, prompt #176 by lippykid (link): "Standing" sung by Anthony Head. Need some fic with Uther being a good father and king, as my poor BtVS-fan heart can't take Anthony Head being the bad guy all the time.
Oh, me too! My only regret in taking this prompt is that I didn't get to see what someone else might have done with it. Lippykid, I hope you enjoy!
Stand By Me
"Morgana, where is Arthur this evening?"
King Uther Pendragon sat across the dinner table from his young ward. She had not touched her food and was fixing him with an imperious gaze. He supposed her rebellious attitude would eventually wear on him, but as she was only twelve, he found it more amusing than anything else.
"He's very upset. I can't imagine he has any appetite. Nor do I."
"I can see that. You've hardly touched the strawberries, and those are your favorite. Did he tell you he was unhappy?"
"Of course not. He has his manly pride."
Manly pride! Uther bit into a turkey leg to keep from laughing. "Then how do you know he's upset?"
"He's been in the training yard all day long, hitting things with various other things."
"That's what he's meant to do, Morgana. Perhaps the next time he runs off half-cocked, he'll know which end of the sword to stick in the brigand."
"Make fun, that's very nice. It was only a little mistake. You didn't need to bring the entire castle down on top of him."
Uther's eye twitched a little; her determination to challenge her liege lord was beginning to grate. Then she crossed her arms and stuck out her lower lip, and he was right back to smothering laughter. "You think I was too hard on Arthur."
"Of course, otherwise he would be here now. Arthur is always on time for meals because that's the only time he can speak to you. Didn't you know that?"
Uther smiled indulgently. She must have been finding castle life rather dull; perhaps riding or music lessons might keep her busy. "I think you're letting your fancy run away with you, Morgana. If Arthur wishes to speak to me, he need only ask."
"Arthur isn't some peasant requesting boons from the crown, he's your son! He doesn't want to schedule a simple conversation. And I hope you know that strawberries aren't my favorite. They're yours."
Carrying herself like a tiny queen - oh, the hearts she would break one day - Morgana rose and left the table.
Uther chewed the strawberry he had in his mouth at that very moment. Of course he knew strawberries were his own favorite; he'd thought that was something they had in common. But perhaps she was right. As king it was always easy to set aside family and leisure time in favor of constructive tasks large and small, and perhaps he did so more often than he ought. He'd have a talk with Arthur and set things to rights.
As Morgana said, Arthur was in the training yard whacking away at a target. Uther had to tap his shoulder to get him to look up.
"How long have you been at this?" Uther asked, eyeing the splintering target.
Whack. "I need to improve, don't I?" Whack. "Isn't that what you said?" Whack. "Must obey the king's orders."
"Leave that aside for a moment."
Slowly, Arthur lowered his sword and turned to look at his father.
"You're not really training anyway. You're only upset because I shouted at you."
With a dramatic eye roll, Arthur went back to hitting the target. Uther gritted his teeth.
"Every boy who reaches thirteen is convinced he knows better than the idiots who brought him into the world, though I admit I expected better of you."
Arthur started banging at the target harder, and still said nothing.
"As the crown prince, your life is not only your own. You owe it to Camelot to avoid unnecessary risks. One day you will be king, and you will answer to no one. In the meantime, you are to obey me and learn what you can."
"Father, I'm...." Arthur slowed, then stopped hitting the target, leaving his sentence hanging in the air.
Uther waited. Had the boy learned his lesson? He couldn't tell. This was not going how he'd expected.
Arthur wiped the sweat off his brow and turned to Uther. His face was pallid and his eyes dim. Uther's heart beat faster as he noticed the stain of fresh blood spreading across his son's tunic. Immediately, he picked the boy up (when had he gotten so heavy?) and ran with him into the castle, ordering the first guard he came across to run ahead and alert Gaius.
With the help of some of the knights, he managed to get Arthur to his chambers. Gaius was already there and went to work at once, expertly removing the old bandages - now soaked with fresh blood - and applying new ones. Uther hovered about the bed, watching helplessly.
"Sit over there," said Gaius, nodding at a chair across the room. Uther obeyed as readily as his own knights obeyed him. When Gaius was finished, Uther moved the chair to the bedside.
Morgana floated in after a while and laid her hand on Uther's.
"Will he be all right?" she asked quietly.
"As long as he rests. He must have aggravated his wounds. Hot-headed fool."
Morgana frowned and took a step away.
"You don't mean that," she said. "Why aren't you ever honest with Arthur?"
"I am always honest with Arthur, and you," he said, nonplussed. "I don't know why you would say otherwise, Morgana."
"Did you find it hurtful that I called you dishonest? You can say so out loud, you know, nothing bad will happen."
Uther's brow furrowed. She had been part of his court for two years, and still she surprised him. "Would it please you to hear that you wounded me?"¬†
She sighed sadly. "No, not at all."
Well. As long as that was clear, Uther had no idea what was going on.
They sat awkwardly, watching Arthur sleep. Sir Rowan entered a few minutes later requesting the king's presence for some pressing matter of state.
"Damn," said Uther, although he was a bit relieved. He hated sitting around doing nothing.
"I'll watch over him until you come back," said Morgana.
Uther nodded and took his leave.
Morgana slipped back to her chambers to fetch a book before settling in at Arthur's bedside. She was just getting to a scene she thought she might be too young for (and the author had certainly taken long enough getting there!) when Arthur's eyes fluttered.
"Morgana...?" he murmured. "What are you doing here?"
"You opened your wounds beating that target into submission. Gaius said you passed out from blood loss. How do you feel?"
"Tired." He looked the part, too.
"You had us all worried, you know," said Morgana gently. "Your father was just here. He'll be back later."
"Who cares if he is?" Arthur said bitterly. "I don't expect the most important man in Camelot to hang about here all day."
Boys, Morgana thought. Boys are dumb. She shut her book with a snap. "Don't be an idiot. We both know you're feeling hurt-"
"I am not hurt!" Realizing what he'd said, Arthur looked sheepishly down at his bandages. "I mean...not how you meant it."
"You're just afraid to be vulnerable," she said primly. She'd been saving that word since she'd read it in a book several weeks ago.
Arthur looked at her as if she'd handed him a horse apple. "I rather doubt it," he said disdainfully.
"Well, I told Uther you were upset." Ignoring his groans, she pressed on, "I shouldn't be surprised if he apologizes when he returns later tonight."
"Ha! What will you wager?"
Arthur grinned, a bit of color returning to his cheeks. "The day my father apologizes for anything is the day my spirit really does leave my body."
"We'll see about that, Arthur Pendragon. If I win, you take me to have a pair of shoes made at Cecil's."
"That's the most expensive shop in town," Arthur complained. He thought for a moment. "Then, if I win...I want you to apologize to me."
"What! What do I have to apologize for?"
Arthur's mouth dropped open in mockery of her surprise. "For starters, how about disappearing from the castle without a word to anyone?"
Morgana flushed bright red. "You didn't have to follow. I never asked you to protect me."
"Good job I'm so brave, then, or you'd be dead. Why'd you leave, anyway?"
"That is none of your business!"
"I think you owe me that much for keeping your little secret, instead of telling Father all about it when he was dressing me down."
Morgana thought that over, jaw still set in defiance. If Uther found out that Arthur had been injured because she left the castle alone...what? Would the king keep her under lock and key? Or perhaps break his promise to her father, throw her out on the street like rubbish? She didn't know, and she didn't want to find out.
"Fine. It's a deal. If I win, I get the shoes and you keep the secret."
"When I win, you will apologize and tell me what secret I'm even keeping."
Morgana hopped off the chair and left in a huff.
"And I'm spending the shoe money on a sword!" Arthur called after her.
Hearing no response, he sighed. Even bickering with Morgana was better than rotting in this mausoleum alone. He'd only been confined to bed for a few hours and already he was itching to leave and feel the wind across his face.
He was, however, pleased with himself for arranging a wager that he would win no matter the outcome. He was more curious than he wanted to let on about Morgana's escapades outside the castle. Even the dullest of the dull peasants knew enough not to venture outside Camelot defenseless. Morgana might be overbearing, but she wasn't dim. She was rather mysterious, though, even for a girl.
As for Father...Arthur imagined him kneeling at the bedside as if in supplication, begging Arthur's forgiveness for all the harsh words, painful training, and lonely days when he was too busy to speak to Arthur at all. The more Arthur thought about it, the more he wanted to hear it, bet be damned. A pair of shoes would be a bargain for a memory like that.
Having nothing better to do, he elaborated on his daydream. He imagined himself slipping away and dying tragically of his heroic injuries. Daydream-Uther had a lot more to say about that, followed by weeping and gnashing of teeth. Arthur grinned and added Morgana and all the knights of Camelot for good measure. Outside the daydream-citadel, the peasants were amassed and holding a candlelight vigil.
I wonder if Father would have more to say if he thought I wasn't listening? If I pretended to be asleep, I could eavesdrop...only it wouldn't be eavesdropping if he was speaking to me. If he has something to say that he wants me to hear, he'll say it tomorrow. Either way, I get to know.
Very pleased at having constructed his second win-win situation in a matter of minutes, Arthur curled up for a celebratory nap.
Just before supper, Morgana diverted Uther from going directly to see Arthur.
"You should keep your strength up, my lord," she told him. "Arthur will still be there after supper." At the same time, she winked at her friend Guinevere, whom she'd convinced to swipe a bottle of wine from the kitchen. Gwen brought the bottle over to the table, trying to keep out of the king's line of sight.
Uther didn't often request wine with supper, but Morgana didn't think he'd refuse it, especially after a difficult day. Indeed, although he didn't eat much, he applied himself to the wine even more vigorously than she expected.
"Arthur's doing better," she said, trailing off to give the impression that there was something more.
"Is something the matter?" he asked, after a moment.
"Not really, but...you weren't there when Arthur woke up," she said. "I think he was a bit hurt."
Maybe it was the wine, but Uther looked devastated by this news. Morgana felt a guilty tug in her stomach, but she put it out of her mind. All she was doing was bringing father and son together, and that couldn't be wrong, could it?
"You should tell him how you feel," she said, taking the king's arm and leading him away from the supper table.
"Morgana..." he began, stopping to gather his thoughts.
Thanks to Arthur's teasing, Morgana knew she was easy to read; no matter how she tried to prevent it, her emotions always showed plainly on her face. After some fruitless practice, she'd decided to stop fighting it and instead use the trait to her advantage. Therefore, before she spoke, she took a moment to imagine a baby frolicking in a field of daisies with a puppy.
"What is it, my lord?"
Uther looked down at her, so small and helpless with her wide eyes and childish innocence. He wanted to tell her that his personal business was his own and she was not to interfere, but somehow...somehow he couldn't bring himself to reproach her. He patted her on the head and left, undone by a twelve-year-old girl.
On his way to see Arthur, Uther had to stop several times for yet more state business. Arthur's chamber was dark and silent by the time he got there. In the moonlight, Arthur looked even sicklier than he had before. Just as his mother had in the moments after Arthur was born, in the moments before....
The memory hit Uther like a fist to the gut. Shaking a little, he took off his left glove and touched his son's brow. It was warm; he was only sleeping.
Uther let out the breath he'd been holding and sat down next to Arthur.
"I suppose you think I'm very hard on you," he said quietly. "I wouldn't know. My father expected nothing from me, and I certainly gave it to him. When it came time to rule Camelot, I was..." Uther paused. This was difficult to say, even to himself. "I was rudderless. I had to learn everything as I went, even as an entire kingdom relied on my sound judgement. That is not a fate I would wish on anyone, far less my own son."
Arthur stirred a little in his sleep, pushing his quilt aside. Uther draped it back over his son, then, hesitating just a bit, withdrew a folded bit of parchment from his pocket. He had written a poem to Arthur years ago, when Arthur was just old enough to hold a sword. Its purpose served, he had forgotten about it in the intervening years, until Morgana moved him to think about it again.
You're not ready for the world outside
You keep pretending, but you just can't hide
I know I said that I'd be standing by your side
Your path's unbeaten and it's all uphill
And you can meet it, but you never will
And I'm the reason that you're standing still.
I wish I could say the right words to lead you through this land
Wish I could play the father and take you by the hand
Wish I could stay, but now I understand
I'm standing in the way
The cries around you, you don't hear at all
For you know I'm here to take that call
So you just lie there when you should be standing tall
I wish I could lay your arms down and let you rest at last
Wish I could slay your demons but now that time has passed
Wish I could stay, your stalwart standing fast
But I'm standing in the way.
Uther rose and looked down at Arthur.
"The pressure is unspeakable, I'm sure, but it is nothing compared to what you'll face as king. I am sorry for any pain you have felt over this, but you will be prepared, Arthur. I swear it on my life."
The next morning, Arthur blinked the sleep out of his eyes to find Morgana peering into them.
"Don't do that!" he said, pulling the sheets up around him instinctively.
"About time you were up," she said tartly. "How did it go?"
"Oh, right...well...I actually didn't hear anything," Arthur admitted.
"Why not? Didn't Uther come to speak to you?"
"Maybe, but I might have...fallen asleep."
"What do you mean you fell asleep?" Morgana clenched her fists.
Arthur shrugged. "I mean, I lost consciousness for a short time during the night."
He didn't tell her that he had woken just before sunrise and found a piece of parchment tangled among his bed linens. Recognizing the handwriting at once, he read the poem through and promptly hid it in a place only he could find it. Whether or not Morgana would have accepted it as an apology, Arthur was satisfied and considered the matter closed.
Morgana was speechless.
"It would have been nice, but I don't need my father to apologize to me. I'm sure I'll face a lot worse than strong language in my life."
"Then you forfeit," she said.
"Yeah. Let me know when you want to go to Cecil's."
"You...you prince of idiots!" Morgana stormed off, leaving Arthur mystified.
Girls, he thought. Girls are mad.
Breakfast was like a summit between two warring nations. The veneer of civilization was thin and under constant threat of disappearing entirely.
"Whatever is going on between you two, you're both old enough to work it out. So do it," said Uther, feeling a vein throb in one temple.
"There's nothing wrong with me," Morgana hissed at Arthur. "There's plenty wrong with you."
"Because I don't have some lunatic desire to hear apologies from all and sundry? Oh yes, take me away, I must be mad!"
"Because you won't even admit that you were hurt!"
"That's right, Morgana, I was hurt. All because of -" Arthur was nearly shouting, but he bit back whatever he was about to say and mumbled, "- of my foolishness."
At that, Morgana fell silent as well. They brooded into their breakfast plates; they were still children, after all.
Uther said, "Arthur, I may have been...somewhat stern with you two days ago. You must understand, it isn't because I enjoy punishing you. Any day you venture outside our walls is a day you might die."
Addressing his eggs and sausage, Arthur said, "If I'm not careful, you mean?"
"Even if you take every precaution."
"Isn't that why I train, though?"
"Yes, it is. Nonetheless, you must keep in mind that no amount of training will make you invulnerable. Forget that, and you'll end up left-handed."
Arthur's face scrunched in confusion. "What?"
Uther held up his right hand, gloved as always. "This was once my sword hand, until a dragon got to it."
Arthur's jaw dropped and he stared at his father with something approaching awe.
"Why were you fighting a dragon?" Morgana asked, in tones suggesting that by "fighting a dragon" she meant "a tremendous idiot."
"Excellent question, Morgana. Because I was young and I wanted to impress a pretty girl. I didn't think it through, and I lost the use of this hand. I'm fortunate not to have lost my life in the bargain."
"Can I see it?" Arthur asked, eyes huge.
Although it wasn't really appropriate for the breakfast table, Uther took off the glove.
"Awesome," said Arthur, just as Morgana said, "Revolting!"
"The girl I meant to impress found it quite revolting," said Uther, nodding to Morgana. "Arthur, have you learned anything from this story?"
"That you're an even better swordsman than I thought," said Arthur. "I have to train more!"
"And don't forget it," said Uther, mussing Arthur's hair. It wasn't exactly what he meant to impart, but it was close enough for today. Arthur smiled. It seemed their quarrel was over.
"Is that...is that it?" Morgana glanced with dismay between the two of them. "You discover that your father was maimed and nearly killed doing something foolish and the lesson you've taken is that you need to train more? What is the matter with you?"
She ran out of the hall before Arthur could answer.
Arthur looked unhappily to his father. "I...I upset her, Father. I'll go talk to her."
The king shook his head. "I doubt that was all on your account, Arthur. I will speak to her."
Morgana had tucked herself into one of the many alcoves that lined the citadel's corridors, wrapping her arms around her knees and looking desperately unhappy. Uther motioned her to come out.
"Morgana, is there some reason you have been pushing myself and my son towards a reconciliation that neither one of us wishes to have?"
He wouldn't have thought it possible for her to look even more miserable, but then she hung her head and a few tears dripped onto the stone at her feet.
"It's only...if it's true that Arthur could be killed at any time, would you really like to leave anything unsaid between you? Sometimes I wonder if my father knew...if he understood...how much I...."
At once, Uther understood. The last Morgana had seen of Gorlois, he'd simply left home on a military mission as he had hundreds of times before. They hadn't known that they would never meet again. It was no wonder Arthur's injury had brought these regrets back to her.
Gently, he reached out and drew her close, considering his words carefully. He didn't want to add to her distress, but he couldn't let her go on worrying when he could set her mind at ease.
"You were never far from your father's heart, Morgana. I am sure thoughts of you lifted his spirit even unto his final breath. You mustn't think otherwise."
She buried her face in his shoulder, shaking with the effort of controlling her tears. Her sweetness was touching; Uther wondered if she would cry for him one day. Would Arthur?
He drifted off for a moment, thinking of the first anniversary of Gorlois's death. It was relatively fresh in his mind then, and he had made sure to take Morgana out to the cairn on the hill. She picked a bouquet and they ate outdoors and reminisced...Uther had intended to make it a yearly tradition, but now he thought of it, he had entirely forgotten this year.
"I believe that two days ago was the anniversary of Gorlois's death, was it not?"
"Then I have been terribly amiss. He was one of my best friends and noblest allies. I shall have to ride out to his gravesite. Would you like to come?"
"Oh, yes! Thank you," she said, still sniffling.
"Very well, then. We'll leave tomorrow."
"Wait -" she caught at his hand. "My lord, I have to tell you something. I was the one who left the castle. Arthur was only there because he was trying to protect me."
Ah, so it was guilt driving her to all this nonsense with Arthur.
"I trust you understand what a foolish thing you did, but you've done well by admitting the fault was yours. We must always stand by our friends, Morgana, lest we find ourselves alone."
He gave her hand a little squeeze, and she pressed back. "Yes, sire. I will not forget."