SUMMARY: A King of the Sidhe had a daughter. She was beautiful as the dusk, wise as the moon, and willful as her father. He loved her beyond reason - the apple of his eye - and all that she wanted was hers at the asking.
CATEGORY: gen, drama
WORD COUNT: ~5,000
NOTES: My very first Merlin fic - an answer for the merlin_flashfic challenge 'fairy tales'.
I hope you enjoy!
The King Of Elfland's Daughter
A King of the Sidhe had a daughter. She was beautiful as the dusk, wise as the moon, and willful as her father. He loved her beyond reason - the apple of his eye - and all that she wanted was hers at the asking.
Yet, in the end, all the Sidhe had to offer gave her little pleasure enough. So she left her father's kingdom for adventure and excitement, went in search of lands beyond the Fae, beyond the lake, beyond the forest. And although her father waited decades for her return, she never came back.
This is not her story.
Merlin remembers the afternoon - a sky of perfect blue, clear as a diamond, and the dappled light skimming across their horses' heads as they rode out through the forest canopy. He carried the wine and blankets, Gwen carried the picnic foods. They rode behind, knee by knee, with nothing on their minds other than an afternoon out.
"Merlin, don't dally. I want to be at the lake by lunchtime, not sunset!"
In the midst of a discussion with Gwen about the properties of the tansy plant, Merlin rolls his eyes. Of late, Arthur has become less peremptory, if no less demanding. Of course, 'less' is not the same as 'not at all'. "Coming!" He lowers his voice so it only carries to Gwen. "Sometimes I think he's just a stomach masquerading as a prince."
She laughs, but softly. "And you're not? You forget, Merlin, I've seen you eat."
"I'm a growing boy." He grins at her as they pass between a row of birches, pale trunks gleaming in the bright sunlight. "And running around after him all day, I need my strength."
"So does he."
"For what? Ordering me around?" The complaint has little barb. Arthur has his burdens to bear - expectation, responsibility, and the care of his people; Merlin doesn't begrudge his service - how could he? But sometimes he'd settle for a little more appreciation.
"Well, you aren't exactly biddable."
Laughing, Gwen spurs her mount ahead, leaving Merlin gaping after her as she handles the beast through a low overhang of branches. She's not a bad rider, although she's not the best. Daughter to a blacksmith, Gwen learned horses from an early age, from the plodding beasts that drag the plough to the high-spirited stallions of the nobility, bred and trained to battle. She's better than he is - although, if you listen to Arthur, a sack of potatoes is better at riding than Merlin.
His eyes lift up through the tree, instinctive estimation of his surroundings. They pause at a hanging of dried sticks, hollowed out and strung high in the tree, faint chalky markings showing white in the clear light of day. Recollection tickles his brow and he narrows his eyes to catch it.
"Merlin!" Arthur's bellow rings strong through the glade. Startled, Merlin tugs on his horse's reins and nearly tumbles both himself and his horse into a ditch, only just saving himself at the last minute.
"Coming!" And he hurries on.
"Did you want another apple, Gwen?" Morgana offers the last of the fruit to her servant with a smile, and Gwen takes it without hesitation.
"Thank you, my lady." A hint of something deeper tinges the otherwise demure smile, and Merlin hides his own smile behind his apple core. The affection between Morgana and Gwen mirrors that between Arthur and him - albeit with a lot less sarcasm and mockery on Morgana's part, and a lot less spirited retorting on Gwen's.
Arthur tilts his head, studying the apple in Gwen's hand as though it's a puzzle he can't work out. "You like apples, Guinevere?"
"Who doesn't, my Lord?" Gwen bites into the apple with a snap of crisp flesh, and her smile might hold all the secrets of Eve from the way Arthur's watching her.
Merlin glances away, consciously giving them a certain space. Arthur's heart is not Merlin's business, although he'll do his best by his prince to smooth the way. Arthur's not free and in her own way, neither is Gwen - they're both bound by their responsibilities, loyalties, and society.
If Arthur's preferences are clear enough to Merlin, so are his responsibilities; and Gwen is...well, Gwen.
Anyway, life comes with no guarantees, and Morgana's the seer, not him.
His gaze falls on another set of chalk-marked sticks, hanging only a few feet away off a branch.
"Do you still have that arrangement with Aelfred?" Morgana asks Gwen.
"One of the farmers who supplies the royal table." Even to Merlin's absent-minded hearing, Gwen sounds flustered. "It's nothing."
"Are you blushing, Guinevere?"
"No!" The denial is a little too vehement, and Gwen seems to sense this. Her next words are calmer - a forced calm. "It's an old arrangement, from back when my father was alive. My father would repair Aelfred's tools and shoe his horses in exchange for a portion of apples from the orchard. That's all."
"That's all?" Arthur's tone doesn't quite make a mockery of the question, but it's close. He's not exactly subtle when piqued.
Merlin stands up, choosing to take the pressure off Gwen. Knowing Arthur, he'll just circle back around to this later, but in the meantime, Merlin's happy to give Gwen a chance to muster her defenses. When it comes to Arthur, she'll need them.
"Merlin?" Morgana follows his gaze. "What are they?"
"Peasant chimes, no doubt."
Merlin doesn't bother looking around at Arthur. "Except for the fact there's a marked lack of peasants anywhere around." And even if there were, why would peasants hang hollowed-out sticks in the trees and mark them with chalk? It's not a practical use of time - Merlin should know, being one.
Besides, Merlin's nape is beginning to prickle with the sense that something isn't quite right here.
"What are the markings on them?" Gwen comes to stand beside him, probably glad of the opportunity to avoid further questioning.
"I don't know. Probably nothing."
Still, as Merlin turns back to the others, he can't shake the feeling that they're being watched.
The sense of being spied upon doesn't abate as the midday turns to afternoon and they ride out of the forest. Merlin's nervous, jumpy, uneasy and the white chalk symbols are reminding him of something, if he could only remember.
He's fairly certain that Gwen's noticed his unease, but doesn't call attention to it. Arthur's oblivious as usual, more focused on teasing Gwen, whose taking it with a tolerant amusement and a certain wariness. It's Morgana who brings it up as her jennet dances sideways at a too-close rustle in the undergrowth.
"You've been nervous all afternoon, Merlin. Do you expect trouble?"
"No. No, of course not." But he is. And when he glances up at another set of hanging sticks, he knows they're in trouble.
Ahead, Arthur's paused by a cairn of rocks, one hand lifted for silence. "This isn't the way we came in. Merlin, where have you led us?"
"What? I haven't been leading us at all!" Merlin splutters at the accusation. It's been Arthur leading their party for the last league, not him.
"You suggested this path, back when we were fording the stream!"
"I was tracing our steps back from the path markers." Merlin remembers giving that direction, but his attention had been on the clusters of hanging sticks. They'd passed another set down at the stream and he was sure the markings had been different to the other two he'd seen.
"Does anyone else see any path markers? Morgana? Guinevere? I don't. Now, maybe it's just me, but--"
"All right!" Merlin scowled as he tugged his mount around, only too aware of both Morgana and Gwen's expressions - half-amused, half-sympathetic. "We can't be too far off the main trail, we only passed the stream a little while back."
They backtrack with Arthur making comments about people who get lost in their own backyard.
Merlin holds his tongue. It's Morgana who points out, smooth as silk, that this is Arthur's backyard and he's lost in it, too.
"Only from following him."
"Then I see no reason why you shouldn't be taking the lead and getting us out of here."
Blue eyes narrow before Arthur lifts his head. "Fine. Move aside, Merlin. Let a real hunter get us out of here."
Some time and many paths later, Arthur reins in his horse and stares at a familiar cairn of rocks as Morgana spurs her beast up alongside his. "So," she says archly, "this 'real hunter'... Are you expecting him soon?"
He can't take his eyes off the shifting sticks, twirling this way and that in the slight breeze - not even to get involved in the argument taking place between Arthur and Morgana. There's something at work here, something more than just confusion and missed paths.
"You've been staring at those each time we pass." Merlin turns his head to regard Gwen, who's pulled her mount up next to his. "Are they the reason we're lost?"
"We're not lost." Arthur speaks authoritatively, although he glares at the ubiquitous cairn that's dogged their attempts all afternoon. "We just can't find the way out."
"We're going around in circles." Gwen says, patient with Arthur's insistence. "That isn't natural."
Morgana hesitates. "Magic?"
Merlin knows it is, but he wasn't going to be the first to say it. He opens his mouth to concur, and his horse shies, startled by the appearance of a stranger at the bridle.
He glimpses fierce, gold eyes and proud features before his horse dances aside. It takes him a moment to control it - the same moment in which Arthur draws his long-bladed hunting knife and places himself between the stranger and the girls.
Morgana's voice rings out. "Arthur, don't!"
Whether in response to her plea, or because he'd never intended to do so, Arthur doesn't charge. "Who are you?"
If the man is alarmed, he gives no sign of it, but smiles and bows with a courtier's grace. But he resembles no courtier Merlin's ever seen in Camelot - something about the set of his shoulders and the pride in his expression. "My Lord Merlin."
Arthur snorts. "Don't you have eyes in your head? He's no lord! And how'd you know his name?"
"His name rings through the land, my lord Prince, had you ears to hear it." His eyes drift beyond Arthur to the girls, and he inclines his head. "My Lady Morgana." Then his gaze rests on Gwen and a strange austerity comes over him, grave as a priest. "Lady Guinevere."
"Have you been following us?" There's no humour in Arthur's voice now, only a harsh accusation. His grip on the knife adjusts, the stallion sidling as it responds to the subtle pressures of it's rider's anger, ready for a fight.
For Merlin, the question isn't whether the man - if man he really is - has been following them, but something more elemental. The chalked sticks, the address by name, the way the man just appeared out of nowhere... This isn't random; there's a purpose at hand. "What do you want with us?"
Gravity takes on a new intensity, a fervent flame of inexorable judgement. "You have trespassed on my Lord's lands, for which the penalty is a life."
In the silence after the statement, Merlin feels the forest shift. He can feel the leaves fluttering high above them, taste the sunlight on his tongue, smell the shock of his companions.
Shock doesn't last long. "These lands are the property of my father, Uthyr Pendragon; the trespass is yours." Arthur moves forward and the tip of his sword presses against the man's silvery collar. "Think your Lord's claim over very carefully, because right now, the penalty is going to be your life."
The chalked sticks are in the corner of Merlin's eye; he sees them shift and flare and only has time to cry, "Arthur!"
Bright tunic and silver blade become little more than blurs as Arthur is thrown back off his horse. Merlin has the words of a spell on his lips even as he faces the man. But the stranger hasn't moved a muscle, not even to adjust the slight dent in the quilted fabric of his collar, and above the pale collar, bronzed lips curve faintly.
Behind Merlin, Gwen's leaped off her horse and kneeling by Arthur's side, one hand reaching behind his skull to check his head as he groans and levers himself up.
Morgana looks from her maid to the stranger. "What are you?"
Even as she asks the question, Merlin answers. "He's Sidhe."
"Sorcerers!" Arthur's on his feet, hand groping for his knife. He sways a little and Gwen's hand catches his elbow, supporting him, even as her expression makes it plain she thinks he's a fool for trying his mettle against a sorcerer.
Merlin steps forward, not quite in front of Arthur, not quite protecting him as he repeats his question of before. "What do you want with us?"
"The price for trespass on these grounds is a life."
Arthur pushes past Merlin, his knife held out in wary defense. "Merlin, get the girls away."
And that has about as much chance of happening as does Uthyr declaring the last twenty years of hatred a terrible mistake. Merlin's not about to leave Arthur to face the Sidhe alone, and neither Morgana nor Gwen are going anywhere.
In fact, Morgana's not even going to back down. "A life? Or a death?"
Her voice rings with challenge, but the Sidhe courtier's eyes crease at the corners, easy laughter. "A life, dear lady. One life in exchange for the freedom of the others from this forest. No harm to come to them, only that they remain with the Sidhe. Forever."
"We don't even know he's telling the truth!"
"We've been going in circles, sire. Even if he's lying about one life in exchange for the others--"
"Of course he's lying. All sorcerers lie!"
It's nothing big. But Morgana's shoulders go back, her chin lifts subtly, and her eyes harden. "They can't all lie."
"And you've met so many to be able to say otherwise?" Arthur barely glances at her, too locked in his own helpless fury to see the look Gwen directs at her mistress. Morgana doesn't see it either, too focused on Arthur. "This is a trick. He wants me, of course."
"Of course." Merlin can't help the echo; it's almost a habitual gesture after the last two years of serving Arthur. So is the glare Arthur directs at him.
"What would he want with any of you? I'm the Prince of Camelot."
"That didn't impress him so much the first time." Morgana turns her head to regard the Sidhe, who is letting Gwen's horse whuff at his hand, the picture of harmless innocence. "And he hasn't tried to attack you yet."
"And being thrown six yards doesn't count?"
"You were threatening him." Gwen looks only partly abashed at interrupting when Arthur turns on her.
"Because he was threatening us!"
"He isn't threatening us now. And we're still lost."
"And how do we know it's him making us lost?"
Merlin drags his attention away from the argument, studying the Sidhe who is now petting the beast's nose with a faint, fond smile. Not exactly the vengeful bitterness Merlin's used to encountering from magical creatures in and around Camelot.
The Sidhe looks up, quirking one dark brow. My Lord Merlin.
How do you know who I am?
As I said, your name rings through the land, had your people the ears to hear it. Much is foretold of you and Arthur Pendragon - even of the Lady Morgana.
Nothing that Merlin didn't already know. If you want a life to return you to Avalon, you won't get it. I won't let you.
A trick of the light somehow makes the quirk of the Sidhe courtier's mouth seem like full-blown laughter. There are more Sidhe worlds than Avalon, Emrys. And more Sidhe kingdoms than fiefdoms in fair Alba. My king lets me wander freely here - I am of his kingdom. You and your companions are not, and so a price is required.
"Would you stop daydreaming, Merlin?" The slap on the shoulder isn't the buffet about the head it once might have been; but it's hard enough to snap him out of his reverie.
"He's telling the truth."
"Oh? And how exactly did you come to this conclusion?" No-one can drawl like Arthur, and Merlin feels himself flush as he shrugs.
"I just know. One of us must stay behind so the others can leave."
It's a bargain. An exchange. A sacrifice. Somewhere, high above the forest, a bird screeches in hunting triumph; to Merlin, it sounds plaintive as a parent's broken cry over their lost child.
No harm to come to them, only that they remain with the Sidhe forever.
"I'll do it." Gwen shatters the silence, and with that statement, seals her fate.
Arthur and Morgana try to argue her out of it, of course.
Merlin doesn't, although he wants to.
But he knows where this is going, how this has to play out. Arthur has a destiny, and so does he, the one linked to the other. Morgana's a part of that destiny, too - the dragon's made that clear. But Gwen...
"What's the alternative?" Gwen is saying to Arthur. "We wander around and around, never finding our way out? No."
Arthur glances at Morgana as though trying to get support, but her gaze is fixed on Gwen. Merlin can see the slow-growing realisation dawning upon her: this isn't something she saw and it's not something she can stop. She knows Gwen better than Merlin, better than Arthur, and she has to know that they're not going to persuade Gwen out of this.
"I think you're forgetting something. I'm your prince - your liege. And as the Prince of Camelot and future king, I command you to give up this stupid idea!"
Her lips firm and her eyes narrow, a rebellious hardening of her features. "No, sire."
"Gwen, you don't have to do this."
"Who else is there, my lady? Prince Arthur? Merlin? You? There's only four of us here."
She holds out her hands to Morgana, fingers twining, brown and white, the one gripping the other with a warm tenderness. "My lady, what would the king would do if you were taken? Do you think he would leave one stone of these woods unturned to get you back?"
They all know the truth of it. Uthyr would take to these woods as much to destroy the Sidhe as he would to reclaim his beloved ward. And from such an assault, at least one more life would be lost - perhaps many, as the Sidhe claimed their due from the intruders.
"Do you think I'll leave one stone unturned to get you back?"
Arthur's words ring unguarded through the forest. Morgana stares at him as though he's a stranger - and perhaps he is a stranger to her at this moment, although Merlin's seen this in his prince before. A harsh flare of embarrassment stains Arthur's pale cheek, but his gaze never wavers from Gwen's face. Her eyes meet his without flinching or dropping away, even as her fingers clench around Morgana's.
"Don't. Please, sire. This is my decision. Let it stand." Her entreaty doesn't go unheeded, but Merlin knows it's more than Arthur can do to to agree.
She seems to realise this and turns to Merlin, her gaze brilliant with tears. "You understand, don't you?"
"Yes." He wishes he didn't. "I understand. Gwen—"
"Don't, Merlin. Don't make it harder."
Gwen pulls her hands from Morgana's, gentle when it seems Morgana won't let go. Her chin lifts as she faces the Sidhe man, and in that instant, Merlin sees something in the Sidhe's eyes - like compassion, like sadness, yet with a steely resolve.
"I'll stay. Let them go and I'll stay."
Merlin has nowhere else to go to ask his questions. Gaius can hear the story, will grieve at the loss of Gwen, but he doesn't have the answers his apprentice needs.
Only the old dragon does.
The descent down to the caves is colder and longer than Merlin remembers. And when he reaches the jutting landing out towards the piled rock, he holds the torch high and waits for the drag of leathery wings through air, for the clank of spelled steel.
"So, young warlock, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"
"Tell me of the Sidhe."
"You have encountered them once before when they threatened the young Pendragon They are many, old, and powerful - it is their magic that runs through the blood of so many men. And they are possessive. What the Sidhe have claimed, they keep."
He hesitates before the question he intended to ask, caught by a thread of curiosity. "Mine?"
"Perhaps. I cannot see your past, young warlock; only your future with the Pendragon."
"They took another of my friends today. Gwen, the blacksmith's daughter." And he had been helpless, his magic held back, his will caged.
The great neck rears back in surprise as the dragon tilts its head. "A daughter of iron and fire? Taken by the Sidhe?"
"They had Arthur, Morgana, and myself at their mercy as well. Why Gwen?" That is the question that aches in Merlin.
"Do you consider her sacrifice to be lesser for her status?"
"No!" The denial is immediate, even if Merlin finds himself questioning that. Is that the assumption that grates on him - that they took Gwen who was only honest and patient and true and strong, when they could have had a prince or a seer-to-be or a budding warlock? The smallness of the thought shames him, even in anger, grief, and frustration.
"Then perhaps you are not looking at this from the view of the Sidhe."
"I don't know anything about the Sidhe! They're not exactly open history in Camelot."
"There are many Sidhe. Not all of them share a history."
"This one looked human, with dark skin. His eyes were gold and he took Gwen into the stream with him." And as they watched, bound by magic that even Merlin couldn't break, a wall of water had rushed over the two and in its subsidence, there was no sign of either Gwen or the Sidhe.
Before him, the dragon's head draws forward, resting on claws that curve fully Merlin's height. His wings stretch out in the great cavern, flick closed with a gust of air that sends the torch flaring. "There is a story from before Camelot's rise of Leodegrance, a King of the Sidhe. His daughter was the treasure of his kingdom, beautiful, wise, and willful, and he gave her everything a heart could desire, save the one thing she yearned for - freedom to walk the human lands."
Merlin can feel the shape of this tale, hanging in the stale air of this cavernous prison. "What happened to her?"
"She took her fate into her own hands and left his kingdom, fled the Sidhe in all their incarnations and realms, fled the forests, fled magic itself - or so the story goes. It is murmured in the rivers and the streams that her father yearns for her yet."
The connection is easily made; terrifyingly shaped. "You think Gwen is— But that was hundreds of years ago. Gwen's not— She can't be - her father was Tom the blacksmith!"
"I only tell the story." The dragon eyes him, shrewd as a huswife at market, cunning as a sorcerer with fell intent. "It is not what I or you believe that counts."
"How do we get her back?"
But Merlin already knows the answer.
"You do not."
The meadow is vast and green, stretching out across the horizon to a distant shore. Wavelets frolic and glitter beneath the heavenly blue of an arched sky.
Gwen stands at the window of a castle far grander than anything Camelot could ever aspire to be, and the beauty of sky and sea and sand and land brings tears to her eye.
Too much beauty, too much light, too much brilliance for mortal eyes in an immortal land.
A step comes from behind her, and a warm hand rests on her shoulder.
"Why do you weep, my daughter?"
"For the beauty of it." A smile is summoned from reserves Gwen didn't know she had. She's learned to lie to Leodegrance in these last few weeks, learned to be politic - a courtier in a faery court. And yet, she can't hold to the lie - not entirely. "And because my friends will never see it." Because I will never see them again.
"If they desired it, they would have offered themselves to come here."
Gwen bites her tongue and does not say that she offered herself to come here for their sake, not to see the land of Cameliard. "They did not know of its beauty then, my Lord."
"Then they will not miss its absence." Leodegrance takes her arm and enfolds her hands with his. "Walk with me, my daughter."
They walk through the halls of Cameliard castle, and if Gwen was a servant in Camelot, she is considered a princess - a princess of rough hands and human mien.
The Sidhe are a strange people - not unkind, but not human either. And yet Gwen aches for another land, another people, something familiar to her, that speaks of home.
"You are not happy here, my Gwenhywfar?"
"Happy enough, my Lord." Here she wants for nothing: fine food, fine company, fine clothes - the silk she wears would put the finest of Morgana's dresses to shame, and it slithers over her skin with barely even a whisper.
And yet Gwen would trade this king with his land and castle and wealth for the comfort of her father's embrace when he left for the forge in the morning, or the press of his lips to her hair when she bid him goodnight. She would trade all Cameliard for Camelot and Merlin's foolish enthusiasm, for Morgana's laughing authority, even Arthur's arrogant disdain.
She chose this, she reminds herself. No-one forced her, she took it upon herself.
"My Lord, your land is beautiful. But it is not mine. There is nothing here that speaks to me of home."
He stops in his walk, and turns to face Gwen. His eyes are the colour of oak as they look frowningly upon her, his brow furrowed. "Perhaps it is so," he says after a moment. "Come, then. I have something you should see."
They walk through rooms of sunlight and beauty, vivid colours and fine, darkwood, through crowds of courtiers who draw aside bowing, the glittering finery of the least servant putting Lady Morgana's wardrobe to shame.
And finally they come to a room that stands empty but for a cunningly crafted stand of bronze and horn that rises off the ground to hold a sheathed sword in pride of place.
Gwen feels the gentle touch of something down her spine as her gaze focuses on the sword.
With a glance back at Leodegrance, who nods to her, she walks into the room and lifts the sword from the stand.
When Gwen draws it, she remembers her father's forge - bright heat, fierce sparks, the endless searing burn of metal and flesh and sweat, steam rising from the quenching trough, soot puffing out in great billows.
She remembers this sword.
As she turns the blade this way and that, Gwen sees the fine sheen of the steel folds that her father worked into the blade, hours of labour in the folding, forging, quenching, over and over.
Gwen has handled swords before - well-made and ill-made. But only once has she held a sword like this - one forged by her father, given to Merlin to fight the black knight, and never seen again. He wouldn't answer her when she asked where it was; and, seeing his deep discomfort, she didn't press the matter. Her father never asked - he never even knew it was missing before the soldiers dragged him to his death.
"You recognise the blade. And...it recognises you. It knows your hand upon it. You have handled this steel before, daughter?"
Startled, Gwen looks up at Leodegrance. How can the sword recognise her? It's just a sword.
"Yes, my lord. My father—"
She stops, grieving to cause even him pain. He is a captor, but not an unkind one; she has suffered at the crueller hands of men before. But it's too late - with her words, something in him has drained away and there is only a great sadness.
"And so I shall lose you again." The words are murmured, barely audible, as he looks from her to the sword. "A daughter whose destiny lies ever not with me. So be it."
"Would you know the sword's name?"
Gwen weighs the blade in her hand; perfectly forged, perfectly made. A sword fit for a king - or a king-to-be. Arthur. "It has a name?"
"The earth rings with it, had you ears to hear, Gwenhywfar."
Memory lifts its head and sniffs at the air. "The courtier - Galehaut - he said that of Merlin, too." And Merlin asked her for the sword.
Within her, knowledge grows green-tipped buds that unfurl with slow understanding. There's more here than Gwen ever knew or understood. And within her, something speaks, not with words, but with a feeling that this is the right thing to do.
She made this choice to free her friends, but it was her destiny to make it - to come to Cameliard, and find the sword of her father's making - the sword she gave to Merlin, whose name rings out in the lands of the Sidhe.
Gwen thinks that perhaps she needs to practise listening more carefully.
And there will be no going back to being merely Gwen, the daughter of Tom the blacksmith.
"I would know the sword's name, my lord."
"It's name is Excalibur."
- fin -