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A Long Way From Home

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A Long Way From Home

 

Prologue: An Intruder in Camelot.

There were times, despite the reputation that Camelot had earned, when even the castle and the lower city seemed to be at peace with itself. The hush of deep night had settled like a warm comforting blanket, and slowly, slowly lights began winking out as the inhabitants settled down for sleep. Even the taverns had emptied, the few remaining revellers stumbling off to their homes and hearths.

Very little moved about to disturbed the peace. Cattle shifted in their stalls, horses sleepily pulled at wisps of hay from the racks, and an occasional chicken was jostled from its roost. Only the cats were active, hunting the plentiful supply of rats. Camelot's guards, paired and manning the entries into the castle, were alert but relaxed, the late summer evening draping its calm mantle over all. A few guards were walking their routes through the lower city knowing, for a change, that there was nothing exciting or dangerous threatening the city and castle.

Even the forest, a dark and foreboding presence surrounding Camelot, was peaceful and still, its nocturnal denizens going on about their lives in serenity.

Only one person actually moved about with a purpose. Gaius, royal court physician, with his curious bag of medicines and concoctions, was making his way down the lower streets before turning on the outer road and heading for the mill. A birthing was imminent and his attention was needed, having been summoned by a midwife. He nodded at two guards making rounds and continued on his way unmolested, the job at hand thoroughly occupying his mind.

Along the forests edge, concealed in the undergrowth, a girl watched as Gaius passed the sentries disappearing down a side path to the mill while the two guards ambled past the road Gaius had just exited. Swallowing nervously and eyeing the two men, she pulled the foliage back and cautiously crept out into the long grass. They continued on their way before she turned her head fixing her gaze on a deep pool of shadows near the first building along the road. Quick as a wink, she was out of her hiding place, silently dashing in her bare feet across the crude track circling the lower town and scrambled into the safety of the shadows. Trembling from the exertion and fright, she warily peered around the building, watching the guards continue on their way.

As her fear turned to relief, a curious convulsion shook her small body, and she abruptly shrunk back into the shadows, curling in on herself, and buried her face in the crudely spun sack she had scrounged for a covering. The coughing fit struck her hard and she struggled to muffle the sounds. It passed soon enough, but a whimper escaped her lips as she sagged against the roughly cut wood of the building. Perspiration beaded and wet the hair on her forehead and temples. Her eyes, bright with fever, drooped in defeat as she let the tremors shake her. The results left her curled helplessly in the shadows, struggling for breath. Minutes passed by as she lay trembling in the dark.

A curious, harmless, dog passed by. At first, the hairs at the scruff of its neck rose in alarm and a lip lifted in a snarl, but as it sniffed a dirty bare foot, it slowly backed off before turning and going about its way. Swallowing a lump of fear, the girl lay still for a long moment, and waited for the coughing and shivering to subside. Presently she struggled upright, looking back down the street at the dark foreboding forest, and a part of her longed to run back into its shelter. However, she turned and peered cautiously around the building in order to look up the road leading towards the immense castle looming in the dark.

Determinedly, she forced her protesting body up, and like one of the hunting cats, she began stealthily moving from shadow to shadow. She worked her way ever closer to the castle, slowing only in dark, concealed refuges to allow the illness racking her body to run it intermittent course. Time crept by.

As she drew closer and closer to the immense stone towers making up one corner of the castle proper, dread filled her eyes. There was a pair of guards, staunchly standing at the entry leading into the Square of the castle, very much awake. Dismayed, she huddled in her dark corner, trying to work out how she could get past them and into the castle grounds. The area was cast deep in shadows thanks to the torches mounted on the walls of the entry. Immediately in front of the men, the grounds were brightly lit, but around them and along the walls the shadows were as black as ink. She bit her lip, struggling to control the shiver racing through her and watched the two men carefully.

Opportunity came from an unexpected source.

A cat, with a fat rat in its jaws, made the unfortunate mistake of jumping down from nearby storage kegs only to meet with yet another wandering mutt. The abrupt growl and bark of the dog as it vented its gleeful pleasure of the chase startled the two guards to full alertness as the cat dashed in front of them. The dog, with a full throated cacophony of barking, began its hot pursuit running past the two guards. The men laughed and joked, both moving aside from the entry to watch the results.

The girl made her move, crouching low and running swiftly for the shadows of the inner gateway.

The sound of rapidly moving but soft footfalls on the stone pavement caused the nearer guard to frown, and he paused in their distraction of the dog chase to turn and look towards the entry.

“Hey!” he shouted in alarm, bringing the other man up sharply as he spied a small dark figure just disappearing through the gateway into the courtyard. Slapping a gloved hand into the chest of his confused partner he hefted his spear and turned to run. “I just saw someone running in to the Square!”

At the sound of that first shout, panic flooded the girl and she forgot about her sickness. Still trying to stick to the shadows, she fled as the two guards rounded the entryway at a run. Hearing them only goaded her to move faster, and she searched frantically for somewhere to hide. The Square, however, was maddeningly free of anything to allow someone to do just exactly that. She turned towards the nearest tower as the two guards split up, looking for her. She scrambled in frantic haste up a curving stairwell, desperately seeking a place to hide. Making partial headway from the pursuing guards, she began trying doors in the hopes that one of them would be unlocked.

Renewed shouting from the two men spurred her onward as she was spotted, and she scrambled further up into the enormous tower dashing up yet another set of stairs. Trying to silence her whimpering, she found another door and tried it. The door swung inwards, causing her to stumble through in surprise before falling to her hands and knees just inside the door. Spinning around, she grabbed the door before it could slam and eased it shut, then scuttled backwards, crab-wise, in fear that she had been heard and the guards would burst in after her. One of them shouted to the other to split up and moments after the door had shut, booted feet thudded past the doorway.

Panting in fright the girl continued crabbing backwards, until she abruptly hit a table, jostling it and the contents. Tinkling glass, crockery, and other small items, rolled and hit one another, causing her to gasp in fright at the noise. She flipped around onto her knees, hands flying up to catch anything that might have fallen. When nothing dropped she spun away, searching about in the dark.

She stumbled forward, narrowly avoiding another table and catching a few small books that were knocked off by her passing. Clumsily spinning away in her panic, she clutched the books to her, desperate not to make any more noise, and suddenly tripped against a set of stairs. She fell forwards, dropping the books as she stumbled into a set of larger tomes sitting on the landing. She veered left, crawling up the narrow stairs following the wall. Her exertions awakened the illness racking her small body and she felt the pain hitting her chest as she made it onto the landing of a narrow loft.

To one side of her was a large bookcase, crammed so full the overflowing books were stacked up against the railing marking the end of the balcony. Heart beating frantically, she realized she had come to an abrupt dead end. With sheer horror she knew, that if anyone came into that room, she was trapped. Outside the door she could hear the guards shouting directions at reinforcements.

Stuffing a fist into her mouth to stop the terrified cry threatening to escape, she crouched up against the bookshelf. Pain in her chest abruptly blossomed, and she bit into her hand to muffle the first wave of coughs. She fell over, trying to curl into a ball as she struggled to control the coughing and sudden difficulty in drawing a breath. Her vision blurred and constricted as perspiration stung her eyes before a threatening wave of darkness loomed up. Moving swiftly, the darkness swept over her so fast that she couldn't resist it and it buried her in its wake.

With a last gasp and whimper, she toppled over, her body limp and spent while her eyes rolled into the back of her head. Outside, the alarms bells began ringing throughout the castle.

1.

It wasn't unusual to see Gaius, at any time of day or night, coming and going through out Camelot and the lower city. In fact, the guards, in their search of the castle grounds, only briefly paused to identify him as he made his way back towards his chambers. The early morning birth had kept him up very late now and he was only mildly surprised when the bells began to ring in alarm, yet weary enough not to be bothered by such a thing. To him, all that mattered was a successful addition to a family despite a difficult breech presentation.

With a well earned sigh of relief and a smile tugging fondly at the corner of his mouth, he clutched his apothecary bag and began to walk up the flight of stairs to his chambers, remembering with a sigh that Merlin was away on yet another patrol with Arthur and wasn't due back until the next day. Or rather, Merlin was due later that day, come to think of it; dawn wasn't very far off. How he hoped fervently Merlin came home unscathed for a change. Seemed more often than not that wasn't the case. He sighed as he realized that his chambers would be pitch dark; he'd not had time to leave a candle burning, and he knew the hearth embers would be cold.

Nearing his chambers, Gaius tried to remember where the flint and striker had been left, and he looked at his hands in dismay. His old bones, despite the fingerless gloves he wore, ached with arthritis from the night's work and would make starting a fire a tediously long and painful exercise. He paused as he mounted the remaining stairs when yet another guard spotted him. Gaius closed his eyes in mild annoyance.

He identified himself, again, and paused before his door as a young guard, bearing a torch, approached him. “It's perfectly normal for me to be out here. I am the court physician.” Gaius grumbled.

“You're sure you haven't seen anyone else around the grounds?” The young man asked Gaius as he reached up to push open the door.

“Quite positive, my boy,” Gaius replied, “The only people who would be up at this time of night are court physicians, royal guards, and newborn babies.”

“And intruders,” the young guard replied as Gaius opened his door. The guard blinked. “You don't lock your door?”

“Why should I?” Gaius smiled indulgently at the man as he stepped inside, tugging the strap of the apothecary bag over his head. “People are always coming to me at any time of the day or night. Locking my door would be pointless.” Gaius paused before he stepped inside while the guard stood back for him, holding the torch aloft. The room was dark, cavernous and comfortably cluttered with all manner of items, mostly jars and books.

“Now where could that flint be? Merlin is forever putting it where it shouldn't be left, leaving me to try and find the....” Gaius stopped, looking askance at the guard as he hung the bag on a nearby peg. “My boy? Might I borrow that for a moment?” He nodded at the torch.

The guard blinked and handed the torch over. “Certainly.”

Gaius smiled at him and took the torch, swinging it into the darkened chambers. The guard followed him just inside the door way as the old physician reached up for a candle and lit it from the torch. Once he settled the candle into a nearby sconce, he turned towards the fireplace, happily noting that Merlin, per usual, had left it ready to be started, a neat pile of tinder, kindling and logs just waiting for a spark.

Chuckling to himself, Gaius set the tinder alight from the torch and turned towards the waiting guard, handing it back. “I'm afraid my old bones weren't up to trying to light a fire tonight.”

The guard smiled at Gaius. “Glad I could assist then. You'll let us know if you see anything or anyone out of place?”

“Of course,” Gaius replied meeting him at the door as the fire in the hearth caught the kindling and flared, brightening the room. The guard smiled his thanks and set off to resume his search, and Gaius shut the door.

He paused, listening, as the guard hurried away, and turned around slowly looking at the stairs leading to Merlin's room. That strange sixth sense, like a tiny shiver of ice creeping up his spine, was warning Gaius that something was not right. His rooms were as familiar to him as his own self and he knew when something was out of place. Unerringly, his gaze shifted left to the stairs leading up to the loft. There. A pile of books hastily dumped on the steps. Merlin had been gone for several days now, and Gaius knew those books had been on the table.

With his familiar stoic expression settling on his face, Gaius looked up at the loft.

He didn't even blink in surprise when the first thing he saw was a small, dirty arm dangling off the edge of the loft between railings. He focused on a small form lying on the loft floor. Moving cautiously, he climbed the steps and found a girl lying on her stomach, her dishevelled, black, curls -liberally sprinkled with leaves and small stick, splayed out like a cloak over her small body. Clothed literally in a bag, her head, and thin arms, were thrust through holes torn in a dirty burlap sack and tied with a piece of twine around her tiny waist.

The initial assessment that he was dealing with the castle’s intruder was quickly dispelled when he caught sight of the dampness along the girl's hairline. His expression not once changing, he tugged the edge of his robe up and knelt down next to her, reaching out a hand to her face and knowing it was going to be hot with fever. The girl didn't even flinch at the initial contact and she was indeed burning up. His lips pursed slightly in thought as his eyes caught signs of a tell-tale greyness in her face. Her eyes, mostly closed, twitched in disturbed slumber, and the circles under her eyes looked more like bruises.

Gaius reached down and lifted up the arm dangling from the loft, and as he felt for a pulse he could see teeth marks where she had bitten into her hand. Evidence was falling rapidly into place in his head as others reared up asking questions. Forcing them aside, Gaius rose back up and hurried down the stairs.

It wasn't unusual for him to end up with a patient in his chambers,so it was not unusual for there to be an extra cot in the room, usually tucked out of the way when things were calm and normal. To this he went, pulling it with a grunt of exertion towards one of the free spaces left in the room but near to the hearth. He straightened, looking around his chambers and assessing his stock when his ears caught the sounds of feet moving past his door way. More guards.

Turning, Gaius opened the door and flagged down one of them, grateful it wasn't the same one whose torch he had briefly borrowed.

It was fully within his prerogative to avail himself from time to time -as the royal physician- the use of a guard. “Young man!” he called out.

One of the guards,who scowled at being interrupted during an alert, stopped in his tracks. “We are on alert for an intruder! Can't be disturbed right now,” the guard snapped as he prepared to follow his partner.

“Yes, I do realize that,” Gaius sternly remarked, “But that doesn't stop the occasional medical emergencies that come my way. If I cannot get you to help deliver a message for me, could I trouble you to wake one of the serving boys and send him here? I've an urgent message that needs to be delivered to the lady living at the blacksmith's shop. I need her assistance.”

Hearing the sharpness and forced patience in Gaius' voice, the guard quickly realized he was dealing with the physician. With a curt nod to Gaius, he quickly replied, “At once,” before he turned to rush after his partner.

Shaking his head ruefully, Gaius turned back inside, shut the door and made his way back up the loft stairs. There would be no sleeping this night after all.

*

Many moments passed before Guinevere arrived, “Gaius?” she called out, peering around the door and clutching a shawl about her shoulders. She spotted him to one side of the hearth, bending over a patient laid out on the cot.

Gaius glanced her way, “Ah, Gwen, thank you for coming, I am afraid I am going to need your help with this one.”

Gwen frowned, “The whole castle seems to be in an uproar, something about an intruder? I was stopped several times on my way here else I'd have been sooner.” She let the door swing shut as she approached the old physician and his latest patient. Laid out on the cot was a profoundly unconscious girl.

“Oh don't tell me...” Gwen suddenly asked, looking at Gaius with wide dark eyes, quickly putting two and two together.

“Whatever do you mean?” Gaius asked innocently as he concluded his initial examination. “What we have here is a desperately ill patient: advanced pneumonia. I will need your help caring for her and getting her cleaned up.”

“Of course! But shouldn't the guards be...” Gwen asked, looking at him doubtfully.

Gaius just shook his head. “No sense in telling them just now. Besides, she's not going anywhere at the moment. And even if she should awake, I believe we are going to be in for quite a struggle and a prolonged round of delirium.”

“If she should awake?” Gwen asked cautiously.

“She's very sick, Gwen. This is a deeply set infection in both lungs. I was considering putting her in Merlin's room but now I believe it best not to move her.” Gaius looked at her frankly. “It is very conceivable that we'll lose her.”

“Oh, Gaius...” Gwen protested looking at him with despair.

“Where there's life, there's hope, Gwen. Now what I need is water, a great deal, both hot and cold, compresses, blankets, clean linens... things we'll need to fight a virus this entrenched. We also need to clean her up. She's been running wild for some time I believe. I can't even think what it is that would bring her all the way to Camelot?”

“Who is she though?” Gwen asked, “I've never seen her amongst the street children or the orphans. She looks too old, I mean, you know, older than most of the kids to have been joining in with the children.”

“I've no idea who she is. She was unconscious when I found her up there.” He nodded at the loft. “She might be someone's slave or a maid? A run away? We won't know until she wakes up enough to answer some questions. Just from the looks of her hands, she's worked a hard life.”

Confusion crossed Gwen's face as she glanced up. “She must have run in here trying to get away from the guards.”

“And it's a good thing she did,” Gaius remarked, gathering up his robes to stand. “Have one of the serving boys help you with the water, Gwen, and get whatever it is you think she might need. I have some medicines and poultices to make before I can treat her proper.”

“I'll have some dressing screens from the store rooms in the castle brought around as well.” Gwen replied, straightening up and wrapping the shawl back around her shoulders. “You'll both need the privacy if you, yourself, are going to get any rest. You look like you haven't slept.”

Gaius, struck by Gwen's quick perceptions, nodded in agreement, “Thank you, Gwen, that is a very good idea. And you're right, I was just returning home when the bells started ringing. That new family of millers has welcomed a healthy baby boy to their brood of six girls at last.” Gaius replied wryly, wincing at the aches in his body. He shuffled to the fireplace, searching to one side of it before locating several bricks, which he then set on the hearth to warm.

“Need to get those heated up,” he remarked more to himself than anyone, “I'll need them once I get some of these poultices made to draw the infection up from her lungs. Perhaps gather a few more large pots as well, Gwen,” he added before straightening with a groan and slowly moving towards one of the large storage shelves literally chock-full of his medicines and supplies.

“I'll be back as quickly as I can,” Gwen called back as she hurried from the room.

*

Merlin knew something was up even before he reached the door of his home. The smell of cooked onions had begun at the foot of the stairwell leading up to the physician's chambers and only grew stronger as he approached the door. There were other smells, mostly herbal in nature, but the onions were overpowering everything. He was frowning, clutching the straps of his pack and bedroll, when he carefully eased the door open.

Several things struck him at once, besides the smell of onions. Looking right as he entered, he saw that three dressing screens had been set up, one blocking Gaius' bed from view and two others making a tiny makeshift room nearer the fireplace. One of the tables had been pulled nearer to the screens and was loaded with jars, bottles, blankets, rags...things obviously needed for a patient.

“Gaius?” he called out.

“Shhhh!” a hiss warned, before Gwen's head appeared around one of the screens.

“Gwen!” Merlin exclaimed, looking alarmed as he slung his baggage off his shoulder, and allowed the door to shut behind him. Dropping the bags, he came closer to the screens. “Is Gaius..?”

“He's fine. He's asleep,” Gwen hushed nodding towards the hidden bed, “Finally!”

“Finally?” Merlin asked and stopped as he gazed at the scene behind the partitions.

Gwen was rising from a stool, setting a comb, a small sharp dagger, and a bowl full of dirty matted hair off to one side of the cot. The patient herself was propped by pillows on her side, facing the wall, and a glorious curtain of of thick, very long, very black, curls, which Gwen had been working on cleaning and untangling, spread across the sheets. She was wrapped in blankets and the source of the onions was coming from her.

“Gotta be pneumonia.” Merlin remarked looking at Gwen curiously. “Onion poultice?”

“Yes. We're going to reek for days. Gaius and I have been working on cleaning her up as well. Poor thing was filthy from head to toe. I've almost got her hair all cleaned up. She hasn't even stirred since...” Gwen stifled a yawn, glancing towards the windows. “Since very early this morning. What time is it anyway?”

Merlin moved closer to study the girl on the cot and appraise the progress of her treatment. “It's almost supper time. How long have you been here?”

“All day. Gaius has only just fell asleep. Had a breech birthing last night and came home to find her. He's exhausted.”

“Found her?” Merlin asked, reaching down to settle the backs of his fingers on the girl's forehead. She was still burning up. Gwen, seeing the look on his face, leaned past him to dip a cloth into a bowl of water.

“She was running from the guards this morning and found her way in here.” Gwen turned to look up towards the loft. “Apparently she found her way up there before fainting from the pneumonia, Gaius found her a little later.”

“And then he called on you.” Merlin finished, taking the wet cloth from Gwen's hand and smiling gently at her. Squeezing out the excess water, he settled the cloth on their patient's forehead. “Why was she running from the guards?”

“We don't know. She hasn't woken or stirred since he found her, and he hasn't --well, you know, he hasn't exactly gone out of his way to, umm--” Gwen bit her lip, “--let them know that she's in here.”

Merlin's face lit up in a smile. “This must be the intruder we received reports on when we rode in.”

“Yes, that would be her.” Gwen smiled sheepishly and nodded at the the girl.

“No idea who she is? And she manages to get past all the guards and ends up in here? No wonder no one has seen her since.” The smile on Merlin's face grew brighter. He chuckled. “Nothing like coming home to the overwhelming smell of cooked onions and a mystery!”

Gwen looked at him seriously for a moment and then shook her head, a wry smile curling her lips. “She has trespassed on the castle grounds,” she remarked.

“But why? Whatever for?” Merlin looked the girl over. He looked back at Gwen who just shrugged and stifled a yawn.

“Have you eaten?” he asked her.

Gwen shook her head. “Been here all day, haven't had time to go home and make anything.”

Merlin checked himself, glancing at Gwen. “All day?”

“Beats sitting around an empty home,” Gwen remarked. “Since I really don't have a job in the court any more,” she added softly, and the memory of Morgana's disappearance reared it ugly head between them.

Merlin smiled gently at her. “Stay here, I can get us something from the kitchens, and don't you dare even protest,” He held up a warning hand at the look of reluctance that appeared on her face. “Gaius needed your touch dealing with her, so stay here and do it. Besides, apart from the sickness, she's obviously got to be more comfortable having been cleaned up, so you stay here while I get something for all of us to eat.”

“But Merlin you just got back!” Gwen protested.

“And I've been sitting on a horse putting up with his royal pratness for the last three days. Walking feels good. Stay here, I'll be back shortly,” Merlin reassured as he edged around the screen and headed for the door. Looking at Gwen one more time, he easily read the look that leaped into her eyes.

“And he's fine. Never better. Of course, he wasn't too pleased to find the castle's been on high alert in his absence and he's wondering who could possibly have wanted to intrude on the grounds. And why nobody can find her. The king isn't too happy either, so Arthur's in making his excuses to Uther as we speak.”

“Oh, dear,” Gwen murmured, clasping her hands together and taping her index fingers against her lips.

“He'll survive!” Merlin reassured, pulling the door open and entering the stairwell.

“Merlin!” Gwen called out. His head instantly reappeared from around the door, “Nothing with onions?” She asked.

Merlin's smile literally lit up his face and he disappeared again, chuckling as he went.

Once outside the door, he stopped and frowned. A girl had intruded on castle grounds, a very sick one, who had managed to find the one place where she absolutely would get safe refuge. He glanced up and down the stairwell, knowing that no was around to see him.

Instinctively, Merlin tapped into that part of him that was so natural and yet so utterly dangerous to his very life. The outward manifestation of his magic didn't even appear as he inwardly cast out to see if there was something more than just a very sick girl inhabiting the chambers he called his home. His frown increased as he turned his head to look at the door.

There was nothing out of the ordinary, no magic, good or bad, other than his own and the deeply buried minor talent that was his mentor's. Merlin's gaze became contemplative as he pondered the situation. Something was off, but he couldn't tell what it was. At least not yet. Shaking his head to dispel his thoughts, he pushed off from the wall and made his way to the castle kitchens.