Fandom: Merlin/The Lantern Bearers
Word Count 3,105
Notes: This is a crossover between Merlin and The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff (which is another take on Arthurian myth). And it was spawned because altariel asked me for Lantern Bearers fic and somehow in my own mind it ended up getting mixed together :) (There are a few compromises, to make it fit – sorry about that!)
Summary: Aquila has fought battles all of his long life, but it’s strange that now, as an old man, it’s the hard won peace of Camelot that seems so hard to bear…
Aquila stamped his feet as he walked up the short path to the great gates of Camelot from the village below. He stood for a second admiring the strong portcullis, the many arrow slits, the openings high above to pour down boiling oil on marauding enemies. He approved of their well-kept appearance, and the obvious alertness of the guards, but then tried not wince or to sigh as he looked further round the walls, at their defensive integrity compromised by windows he considered too wide, and with towers ornamented in ways he considered too frivolous for a serious fighting castle.
But then, he had to remember that this was not a serious fighting castle, had not been for many years now. Not since he and young Uther Ambrosius, now styled King Uther Pendragon, had been fighting side by side against – it felt – almost everyone. It made sense, Aquila supposed, to celebrate these recent years of peace, and yet… It still felt far too close to his own heart to bear well, they had all shed blood, lost friends, and for what? Gargoyles carved into the South Tower?
Aquila shrugged his shoulders in his well-worn chain-mail. It seemed he was getting crotchety and old, just like his wife, Ness, had often jestingly accused him of, god rest her soul.
The cold early morning air made his breath plume, as Aquila stamped his way towards the stable. He nodded at the head ostler before making his own thorough inspections of the tack, and the stables. He ignored the eyes that were almost certainly rolled behind his back at his insistence that he check all these things himself, but it was ingrained so deeply, he couldn’t give it up now. Not when, for so many years, obsessive checking like this was all that stood between Uther’s armies victory or defeat. Nightmare visions of lamed cavalry had flickered in the back of his mind for so long, that Aquila wasn’t actually sure that he could give up these rituals if he even tried.
He spared special attention to Prince Artorius’ stalls, where his main steed and his spare mounts were housed. Then Aquila shook his head, he must get these old Roman naming habits of mind to leave him, at least. Prince Arthur’s mounts were often cared for by Arthur’s body servant, that boy Merlin, and while a more agreeable lad was hard to find, and he worked hard when he remembered, no-one could deny that he was also, well, a bit of a dreamer. Not exactly perfect squire material. Arthur seemed fond of him, though.
But Aquila couldn’t let Arthur’s horses become less than perfectly physically fit just because the peasant lad set to care for them was clumsier than a bull amongst china. Horses made Merlin nervous, Aquila had noticed, which made a kind of sense. The lad probably hadn’t even seen a horse up close, before he came to Camelot, growing up as he had in the arse-end of nowhere. That made Aquila smile. He wasn’t that much different all those years ago, before the Roman armies left Albion. He hadn’t grown up in a village, admittedly, but a minor manor house was much the same in the rhythms of its life. A glorified farm, really. Being the son of the manor hadn’t altered that one whit.
It hadn’t helped either when they’d been raided by the Saxons, had it? Who Aquila was had made no difference to them, they had slaughtered his family, carried off his sister, and left him to die regardless. Aquila pretended to be frowning at a particularly dubious piece of stable floor as the thought left him overcome – which was happening more and more these days. Gaius fussed over him, but Aquila couldn’t remember a time when Gaius hadn’t fussed over all of them, on campaign or not. It was stupid to get so maudlin when he reminisced, but there was nothing sinister in it, or worrying. Gaius was just an old fusspot, really.
Aquila carried on his rounds, that ended, inevitably, at the practice field. His special charge was the training of Uther’s cavalry, as it had been ever since he wound up in Uther’s tent that night, so many years ago, with the firelight flickering over both their faces, as he’d sworn his sword in Uther’s service. He’d never regretted it, was always grateful that Uther had granted him the privilege, and taken in a wanderer with only the clothes on his back and the scars of a Saxon thrall ring round his neck, and allowed him to prove himself.
Aquila watched with narrowed eyes at first, as the other knights who were up as bright and early as he, practiced jousting runs, rather than true charges, as upon a battlefield. Aquila felt another pang, partly one of guilt, that they were so carefree and cheerful, not grim and battle-hardened like he was at their age, despite the depredations of the odd cockatrice or gryphon. It wasn’t jealousy, he told himself, and hoped that it was true. Or, at least, perhaps only jealousy for their youth and strength, which was a universal sin, and not bitter regret for his own stolen youth working to death as a thrall.
Aquila pulled his wandering thoughts back to the scene in front of him. What was the matter with him today? Instead of mooning into the middle distance – nearly as badly as that boy, Merlin, and that would never do – he concentrated instead on Prince Arthur, as he rode past a straw dummy to practice slashing with his off-hand. Dear Prince Arthur, whose technique was as excellent as ever, and, more importantly, never let his training or standards slip. Aquila could be proud that he’d had the training of that boy, he was the hope of their small kingdom, and didn’t they all know it.
Which, perhaps inevitably, made him move his eyes to his own boy, Flavian, very much not a boy any more, but definitely a man, with children of his own. Aquila and Flavian were not as close as perhaps Aquila wished, but split milk was not to be cried over, and at least Flavian admired Arthur enormously. Would follow him to the death, if needs be, and that too brought a lump to Aquila’s throat. That was as it should be, as it was with him and Uther, back in the day.
Having considered everything before him, it was now time for Aquila to go wading in, his voice raised with a comment here, a change of technique there. The least noble of the knights, he might be, but it didn’t stop his voice roaring in outrage at sloppy footwork, or loosened girths, or badly kept livery. It was his job, and had been for thirty years or more.
At lunch, the morning having flown past, Aquila sat, warming his boots by the fire. It was funny, he was sure he shouldn’t be this cold, he would make himself get up and get his stew and hunk of good wheaten bread, in a minute, he would, in just a moment...
“Here you are, Sir Aquila,” said a light girlish voice, and Aquila looked around, stopping his limbs shaking through sheer will, to smile at the kind maid servant who had brought his repast to him. He supposed aged bones were good for something, after all.
“I thank you – Gwen, is it?” he asked.
She dimpled charmingly, and Aquila almost found himself smiling back, despite his dour and gloomy reputation. “Shouldn’t you be attending to the Lady Morgana?”
“My Lady is breaking her fast with his Majesty today,” she said, “And besides, I’m sure she wouldn’t begrudge me the time to ensure one of our finest warriors was kept well fed, and his toes well warmed.”
Aquila did manage a smile this time, although it made his face ache, and she went away happy, it seemed to him.
The afternoon was harder yet – there seemed to be great bands squeezing his chest, that he tried to shake off, but that would not be shaken. He did not mean to do it, he was shamed that he caused such a panic, but at least he did not slide off his own horse like the least able of stable-boys. He was eased off, after falling fainting onto Inganian’s neck, and then she’d come to a stamping, panting, uneasy halt, so well trained was she.
Aquila could hear voices around him like the crying of the gulls at Rutupiae, when the Romans left Albion for the last time. He wanted to tell them, it was he who lit the beacon fire, just one last time, just one last time...
He came around to find he was in Gaius’ sick rooms, on a straw pallet, and immediately tried to get out of bed, before falling back, panting. His limbs were full of weakness, and Aquila was astonished at how quickly he’d been brought low. He was humbled, and even after Gaius came to attend to him, talking about the strain on his heart, and imbalanced humours, Aquila did not listen. He didn’t need a skilled physician to tell him that he was dying, he could work that out all on his own.
It was odd, it was strange, but he found, now that it had come to it, that he didn’t really mind. Aquila wondered briefly if he wanted to be held up and a sword put into his hand at the last, just like old Bruni back in the Saxon camp, when he was a thrall, but knew that it was idle fancy, nothing more. The fact that he was dying in a warm bed, in a peaceful kingdom, that was reward enough, and always had been. He was no Saxon to demand his death in battle, however often he had thought it would find him there.
It was funny, Aquila decided, that it took something like this to remember how many friends a man might gather in a lifetime. There would be others waiting ahead for him too, battle-companions and others, Pascent and Brychan, even dear old Brother Ninnias, maybe, and that was a comfortable thought. But here and now, it was quite amazing how many people had occasion to drop by Gaius’ chambers; to have a quiet word, or perhaps to exchange a firm handshake, if you were Prince Arthur. To exchange a long wordless look in the case of dear King Uther, who fussed then about how Aquila would be up and about in no time, with Gaius to look after him, but they’d both known it had meant nothing – the look had been the important part. Aquila felt quite content – he’d always been a man of few words.
And now they had all left him, and he was drowsing in the twilight of the day, with a brazier burning next to him – despite the sinful waste of fuel. He’d tried arguing that he didn’t need it, but it had been quite useless, and he supposed that it was all right, he’d made his protest, and Aquila couldn’t deny himself the pleasure the heat brought. So, here he was, alone at last, well, except for that feckless boy, what was his name again... Oh yes, Merlin. Gaius’ lad, or was he the uncle? – it was getting harder to think. But yes, now he remembered, Merlin was Arthur’s servant, and Arthur was very fond of him, that’s right.
Aquila looked at the boy as he sat by him, and realised, judging by his face, that some of those thoughts might have been expressed aloud. He laughed weakly, and decided that since he’d got this far, he was going to deny himself nothing at the end.
“I miss my sister,” he said, murmuring the thing that was closest to his heart. “It has been thirty or more years since I have seen her, and yet I miss her still. Dear Flavia... I do not know if she is even alive or dead.”
“Sir Aquila, we could send for...” Merlin offered, and Aquila reached out a hand – so hard, so difficult, where once he’d swung a sword with ease – and patted Merlin’s arm.
“Ah, lad. She is not to be sent for. She would not come, she could not. All these long years she’s been a Saxon matron, a mother to sons, a wife to her lord. She would not leave them, even to comfort a dying brother. She could not come in time, no doubt, even if I knew where she resided, which I do not. Somewhere in the Saxon lands far away in Kent, I suppose.”
Merlin was looking anxious, and fleetingly, Aquila wondered whether he was perhaps being unfair, putting such a burden on the boy. And yet… And yet… Uther knew of Flavia, knew what he had done when he saved her son, his nephew Mull, after the battle at Sorviodunum, years ago now. Flavia was no secret. He just didn’t speak of her often.
“Sir, if I may ask, why is a lady of Camelot wife to a Saxon lord?” Merlin was terribly earnest, Aquila thought, but there was mischief hidden there too, he had seen it sometimes – that was good in a young man.
“Ah, she was carried off, Merlin, and taken to wife whether she would or no. But still, at the last, it was her choice. She had another, once upon a time, but she’d had a child by then, and chose her other family. I do not blame her, not any more. I only want to know that she has been happy, I suppose. The Saxons have made a their Kentish lands fruitful and prosperous. They trade with us now. I… try not to bear my grudges aloud.”
Merlin giggled, and Aquila stared at him, astonished. “I’m sorry,” he said, eyes downcast, and yet sparking with mirth, “But you’re not exactly known as a chatterbox, my lord.”
Aquila just sat there. Goodness, he was being teased. Teased! On his death-bed, no less, did the boy have no sense of decorum! Then he found himself laughing again himself, at the thought, as though all the mirth he’d bottled and stored away all these years was spilling out now, at the end, like ale through a splayed cask. Merlin joined in, his giggle infectious, and higher pitched than you might expect, like a baby bird in the nest. Ah, Aquila wanted to ruffle his hair, indeed – while still remaining a little sad. His own relationship with Flavian had never been couched in such easy terms. Indeed, earlier that evening Flavian had brought his children, to say farewell, and there had been no such familiarity. No jests, or humour. Ah, well. Aquila sighed quietly.
“My lord,” said Merlin, “What can I do? Let me do something.”
He looked so earnest, so very young, that Aquila was touched.
“What can you do, my dear Merlin? You can’t bring my sister here, or show me she is well and happy. I will imagine it, as I have for a long time. Old men have few enough pleasures, but memory is the chief of them.”
The arm under Aquila’s tensed, enough so that Aquila looked up into the downcast face again. “Merlin?”
“My lord, I suppose… I was wondering… Would you like to see her again?” He looked anxious and troubled. “Gaius told me I should do all I can for you.”
Aquila patted his arm again. “Do not worry yourself, it doesn’t change a thing, you know. What will be, will certainly be. I’ve learned that, if nothing else, over all these years.”
And Merlin relaxed at that, Aquila could feel it, but before he could draw breath to ask what had changed, the air in front of him shimmered, and then drew itself aside as though it were a veil, or a curtain, and in the resulting gap there appeared… Aquila gasped. Older, so much older, but still unmistakably Flavia. She was combing her hair, still long, although grey now, almost white. Aquila could almost see the crackles in the air where she brushed it, rhythmically, and almost hear the hum her lips were pursed into. He sighed, entranced, and only then became aware of the ripple of liquid sound that Merlin was uttering, at his side. When Merlin paused, the image shivered, and when he spoke, it became clearer, almost clear enough to reach forward and touch. Aquila wanted to, very badly, Flavia was so very near, but he was still afraid. For he knew what this was, he knew what Merlin did for his sake, and this was far beyond the singing magics he had seen in his youth. This was serious sorcery.
There were tears in his eyes, as he watched, as he saw the light shining from bright golden lamps, noticed the richly patterned and woven covers on the bed, the heavy tapestries against the walls. The brazier Flavia sat by was larger than his own. She looked well. She looked content and happy. She looked more than prosperous, she looked radiant, to his fond and uncritical gaze.
And then she was gone, the curtain falling gently back, the veil drawing itself across once more, and only Merlin was left at his side, heaving in great breaths, as though what he had done had tired him, like a man after a great race, or a battle. Aquila stared blindly towards his own brazier, picturing Flavia again, and smiling, he couldn’t help himself, the smile just kept breaking through.
“Ah, you’re a good boy, Merlin,” he said, at last, hoping the catch in his voice wasn’t too noticeable. “I thank you. Really and truly. And I’ll keep your secret for you, before you need to ask.”
“I don’t doubt it, my lord,” said Merlin, nervous, pleased and anxious, all at once, by turns. He would do, Aquila thought, absently, he would most certainly do. With his teasing, and his fondness for Arthur, and his empathy… Merlin would keep the kingdom safe, and the future with it. So Aquila reached to clasp his hands, more formally than he had ever done, forearm to forearm, in the Roman fashion, before shooing him out of the room. There was always more honey tea to brew.
Aquila sat back then, tired finally, and whispered to the firelight that flickered in the room. “Forgive me. Although I promised to keep your secret, I do not think I will need to keep it long.”
And with a peaceful smile still gracing his lips, Aquila lay down and shut his eyes.