Visitors arrive in Camelot.
pynade - a type of medieval sweet.
The present is the ever moving shadow that divides yesterday from tomorrow. In that lies hope.
- Frank Lloyd Wright
Even though the sun was doing little for warmth, it made a lovely sight as it shone brightly down on Camelot. As Arthur stepped out of the castle and spotted Guinevere in the courtyard, he decided that the sunlight paled in comparison to the picture she made. Small white flowers dotted her hair, going nicely with the pink dress she had worn to their picnic those months ago. Even a thick shawl wrapped around her shoulders to protect against the seasonal chill in the air could not detract from her beauty. He took the steps quickly, meaning to catch her up, when someone else got there first.
"Gwen!" An earnest-looking man jogged over from near the gates, beaming at her. He was quite tall, nearly Percival's height, although not as broad as the knight, and similar to Lancelot in hair and complexion. His clothes suggested someone of the working class; not a peasant, but perhaps a moderately successful merchant. Whatever and whomever he was, he was clearly happy to see Guinevere.
She stopped and looked around at the call. After a moment in which the man reached her, Arthur drew close enough to hear her exclaim, "Dorin? What are you doing here?" Then, this Dorin was hugging her and she was returning the embrace.
Arthur felt a twinge of jealousy. He had experienced that a few times before, notably with men who were now his friends, yet for some reason he felt disinclined to befriend this one. "I was passing through, and thought I'd see if you were still about," Dorin replied. With a laugh, he added, "I'm glad to find that you are."
"Good morning, Guinevere," Arthur greeted her as he joined them, giving her an innocent grin which took on a vaguely feral tone as he turned it on her companion. "Who's this?"
Looking startled, it took her a beat to respond; and when she smiled, it seemed rather forced. "Arthur! This… is Dorin. He's my— he is an old friend, who used to live across the way from my family. Dorin, allow me introduce you to Prince Arthur."
"Prince Regent of Camelot," Arthur added his new title helpfully, avoiding Guinevere's eyes.
Dorin had begun to hold out a hand, but it dropped along with his jaw at the introduction. "My lord!" he exclaimed, swooping into a low bow.
It was possible that Arthur waited a second longer than usual to indicate that Dorin should rise. Still, Guinevere did not have to nudge him so hard to get him to do so.
As he straightened, Dorin continued, "It's a great pleasure to meet you." Glancing between them, he said, "I did not realize you knew Gwen."
"He didn't," she replied, a little too quickly. "Not when you still lived here. I have been working as Lady Morgana's maid. Until recently, of course." She frowned and looked down as she said that.
Arthur added more calmly, "And through Guinevere's work here, I am very fortunate to have gotten to know her better over the last few years."
Dorin seemed rather confused, but wisely did not comment. "Well. That's actually quite fortuitous." Lowering his voice so they could not be overheard, he said to Arthur, "I'm aware of what has happened, and have news which may be of interest to you. It is about the Lady Morgana."
Arthur had not expected that and knew Guinevere was equally unprepared to hear it. He did not like her expression; while she had done her best to help with any task she could in the recovery efforts, whenever discussion about the situation arose, she became quiet. It was a feeling he understood well. While he did not want her hearing anything which might upset her further, he did not have the option of ignoring any potential word of his missing half-sister. "Come with me; we can speak in private once we are inside, and allow Guinevere to get back to what she was doing." He placed a hand briefly on her arm in support as he turned to go back to the castle.
With a nod, Dorin started to follow, when Guinevere asked, "Where are you staying?"
"I'm not sure yet," he said. "I had naively assumed that the town would be largely unchanged since I left, but the houses I visited all have new residents now. And I hesitate to stay at the inn, due to my assistant." He gestured toward the gates, and all three of them looked over to where a very young woman was sitting on an oversized pack, working on a small loom which fit over her lap. "Cerys has run into problems at a few of the inns we've patronized along the way, and I had not meant to make her deal with that here."
While in fairness, Arthur had to acknowledge that it was unlikely the man had planned it in such a way, he still grimaced inwardly when Guinevere turned toward him and said, "There must be a place round the castle…?"
"Of course," Arthur replied, trying to make it not so obviously through his teeth. "I'll have Merlin see to it. Dorin, we will talk after you have settled in."
Guinevere's grateful smile appeased him somewhat, but Arthur was still put out as he stalked back toward the castle in search of Merlin.
By the time the visitors were situated in a pair of chambers, supper was approaching. At Guinevere's prompting, Arthur invited them both to dine in the Council chamber, even though he had been anticipating an evening spent solely in her company. It seemed like there was always something preventing that from happening these days; an emergency would crop up in relation to the recovery efforts, or some person of import had to join them. Arthur was beginning to sympathize with his father's authoritarian tendencies, which would enable him to put off nearly anyone he wished. For better or worse, that was a trait that seemed not to have gone to Uther's son.
When Dorin appeared alone at the given time, he apologized for Cerys's absence. "She respectfully declines your invitation, with sincere thanks. If she's not used to rougher inn folk, she's certainly not used to being in the presence of royalty."
Seating Guinevere, Arthur remarked, "You are used to royalty, then?" He managed to make it sound like a jest, but was interested to hear how the man might respond. It was not yet widely known that Arthur paid less attention to rank than most of his peers, and he wondered if Gwen's old friend would attempt to ingratiate himself to Camelot's ruler. While Guinevere shot him a disapproving look, he could not help it; something about Dorin rankled.
And whatever that was, it rankled even more when Dorin chuckled at the question. "I would not presume so much as to claim being used to it. I've had the opportunity on a few occasions to meet with a lord or a minor king. Although," he continued, taking his seat after Arthur had, "I have never dined privately with a regent before; thank you for this invitation, sire."
"Thank Guinevere," Arthur acknowledged, not unkindly. "She's the one who thought of it."
That apparently surprised Dorin, who gave her a warm look. "Thank you, my lady."
"Oh! No." Guinevere waved a dismissive hand. "I'm not a 'my lady,' just Gwen."
"Oh." Awkwardly, he looked between her and Arthur. "I thought…"
Smiling tightly at Dorin, Arthur wished some magical creature would suddenly appear and eat him. "She said it's just Gwen." Then he beckoned to Merlin, waiting nearby. "See to it that our other guest gets a good meal and is well-situated."
As Merlin left, Dorin dipped his chin. "You have my thanks for that, as well."
"Do not mention it." Arthur would have given the order normally, but he was pleased to have diverted Dorin's attention from Guinevere. There was something in Dorin's expression that reminded him of an aging hound, and she seemed oddly tense… Oh. If he was reading the situation correctly, his dislike of the other man was entirely founded. Gwen and Dorin were behaving as though they had a history.
Feeling more tense, himself, Arthur watched as supper was laid out and then dismissed the servants. While he intended to hold off on talk of Morgana until after they had eaten, so that Guinevere could be spared that discussion, he could not guarantee that the subject would not arise sooner. And if that came to pass, he would prefer the conversation to be a private one. Slicing into the cut of beef on his plate, he said, "So, Dorin. What is it that you do?" In truth, he could not care less, but it was a simple enough question.
"I deal in fabrics. I am not a cloth merchant, myself, but I supply merchants both by arranging imports and by trading material between various regions."
"What of the shop in Mercia?" Gwen inquired.
He gave her a rueful smile. "The house that came with it was too big for one man. I figured that, since there was no family tying me down, I might as well take the opportunity to do some traveling, see the world."
Her eyes dropped back to her plate at the first part of the answer. Arthur would have appreciated context to the exchange, but was not about to beg for it it like some jealous suitor, no matter that it was feeling suspiciously like he was exactly that. Instead, he asked, "And, your assistant?"
"Cerys has only been with me a few months, but she's already proved invaluable." Dorin dabbed his mouth with his napkin. "She is a gifted weaver, and I carry her wares as well as those I collect. Also, there are weavers and cloth dyers along my route, especially women, who will deal more readily with her. I've been able to increase the quality of my regional products with her help."
That was a businesslike reply. Nothing suggested to Arthur that there might be more between the trader and his employee than only work, which came as a disappointment. It would have been too much to hope that Dorin's affections were engaged in a direction that did not encompass Guinevere, as was becoming more evident by the moment. And while he did not doubt her in the slightest, he would have preferred for her not to be quite so nice to her old friend as she said, "You've been well, then?"
"Well enough. What of your family? Is Elyan still driving your father to distraction?" he asked with a fond laugh.
Guinevere paused in the act of picking out a radish; the pain that flashed through her eyes was so quick that Arthur wondered if he caught it only because he was looking for it. "My father died about three years ago," she replied quietly.
Dorin looked instantly chagrined, and while Arthur knew it was unfair, the exchange made him like Dorin even less than before. "Gwen— I'm so sorry." A heavy pause descended on the room. Guinevere was trying to remain composed, Dorin was visibly kicking himself, and Arthur was considering doing the kicking for him. Finally, Dorin said gently, "He was a great man."
She gave him a small smile. "Yes, he was." Taking a sip of her wine, she then said, "Elyan is doing well. He's one of Arthur's knights."
Again, she had obviously surprised Dorin. "Knights of Camelot are all noble-born, as I recall," he commented neutrally.
"They were," Arthur replied. "That policy has recently changed— fortunately for Sir Elyan, as a remark like that would have made me suspicious had I thought he was a noble," he noted with a casualness that fooled none of them.
Guinevere face became a study in exasperation at that. Turning to Dorin, she said, "You have news of Morgana?"
He paused at the abrupt change in topic, and Arthur regretted derailing the conversation. "We can speak of that later."
"No, Arthur. I want to hear this." That it was so firmly stated convinced him, and he nodded for Dorin to go ahead.
Still uncertain, Dorin nevertheless proceeded. "Whilst passing through Gawant, I heard tell that she's at the keep of King Urien of Din Rheged."
"Urien?" Arthur frowned. While he had never been an especial friend to Camelot, he had also not been an aggressor toward them. Why on earth Morgana would be there was yet another mystery in a long string of mysteries surrounding her of late.
"Yes. Moreover, she is apparently looking for a stone… the Stone of Thandrastyl, I believe it was called."
"Never heard of it," replied Arthur, looking to Guinevere for any guidance. She gave a slight shrug, reflecting his bafflement. "Do you know what it is?"
Dorin shook his head. "That's all I heard. Without knowing the situation, I did not want to ask more questions; the last I knew, she was King Uther's ward and situated here."
That was a topic Arthur was not willing to discuss, old friend of Guinevere's or otherwise. "Yes, well, as you noted earlier: things are largely changed."
Accepting the sharp tone for the warning it was, Dorin said, "Indeed," and brought up a story from when he and Gwen were younger. The rest of the meal passed with light reminiscing, making Arthur doubly glad when it was over. For one thing, he was eager to consult with Geoffrey in the archives to see if he knew about this stone.
For another thing, while he normally enjoyed hearing stories from Guinevere's life-- such as when she and Elyan would discuss past events-- his suspicion regarding Dorin's role in these memories leeched any enjoyment from it. While Arthur was glad for her sake that she had the chance to catch up, he was very much anticipating Dorin moving along to his next destination.
Hopefully, it would be on the next continent.
Carefully balancing the tray with one hand and a raised knee, Merlin knocked on Cerys's door, cringing when the platter nearly tipped over with the motion. He barely managed to catch it, asking himself for the millionth time why he did not just use magic to do things like this when nobody was about. No one would have seen him levitate the tray long enough to knock, and by the time Cerys answered the summons, he would be holding the thing again.
Even as he posed the question to himself, he knew the answer: it was far too risky. Seeing to a bunch of chores in the privacy of his own room was one thing. Using magic in the open corridor was another, even if that meant preventing a large dinner from being splattered over the flagstones.
Fortunately, the door was opened before disaster could occur. Merlin smiled a little nervously at the young woman who peered inquisitively at him as she said, "Hello, again."
At least he could not feel the tips of his ears going pink this time, as he was sure they had done when he first met her a couple of hours earlier. Cerys was really quite pretty, with wide, green eyes and light brown curls that hung down her back even further than Morgana's. And, despite the fact that she was tiny, possibly not even five feet tall, with a shy demeanor, she also radiated a self-possession that he had rarely encountered before. The contrast between that and her quiet manner was curious. "Hello. Prince Arthur had me bring you supper."
She seemed surprised, but stepped back so that Merlin could enter the room and set the tray on her table. "That was kind of him. I do not have much of an appetite." When Merlin uncovered the tray and she saw the array of food on it, she let out a small laugh. "I surely cannot eat all of that."
Merlin took another look at the spread he had assembled, and rubbed the back of his neck as he echoed her laugh. "That's my fault, I'm afraid. I was not sure what you might like, and he said to see to it that you had a good meal, so—"
"It's fine." She smiled. "And thank you for being so thoughtful. Better to have a selection than to make do with something which does not appeal."
"That was what I thought," he agreed, smiling back. An awkward moment descended as she glanced at the food, and Merlin wondered if he should go.
"Well, thank you again," she said, at the same time that he said, "I'll leave you to it." They both laughed, relaxing as they did.
"Enjoy," Merlin offered, more comfortably than he had felt around her yet. "I am especially fond of the pynade," he noted, indicating the sweets in a small bowl off to the side.
"I shall be sure to try it, then," she replied.
With a friendly nod, Merlin turned to exit. He was nearly to the door when a wave of magic suddenly hit him. It was not magic directed at him; it was radiating off of something… a small piece of tapestry which was laid on a table to the side of the chamber. After a pause, he remarked, "That's very pretty."
Moving over to it, Cerys glanced at him in a mixture of pleasure and shyness. "It's my latest piece. You truly like it?"
In fact, it was lovely, a calm scene depicting a pair of ladies sitting underneath a tree, a unicorn resting between them. "I do." Perhaps, it was not her work projecting the magic; the materials might be enchanted without her knowledge. "That is an unusual shade of green," he tried. "Where did you find it?"
She ran her fingertips over the section in question. "Oh, I make them all, myself. Even the sheep from which I get the wool are my own. It's the best way to ensure the highest quality in my pieces, although it does pose difficulties now that I am traveling with Dorin."
Merlin masked his concern, merely murmuring in agreement. "I should go, before your food gets cold."
"Of course," she agreed, clearly surprised by the abrupt end to the discussion.
As the door closed behind him, Merlin let out a sigh. Could there never be a guest at Camelot who was not secretly peddling magic?
Gwen explains Dorin to Arthur, and discusses Arthur with Elyan.
Gwen took a steadying breath before knocking on the door to Arthur's chambers. She would really rather not have this conversation, but Arthur deserved some sort of explanation regarding the guest in his castle. It would have come up at some point, anyway… she just wished she could have picked a better moment.
However, she was well aware that life did not usually allow that. As Arthur's muffled voice called, "Enter," she turned the latch and walked inside.
"Guinevere," he greeted her in surprise, and she realized that this was a rather unusual time for her to be calling. Most days, she was on her way home by now.
Closing the door behind her, she had even less of an idea how to handle this now that she was in the room with him. "I'm sorry for coming by so late."
"No, it's fine." He came over and took her hand, placing a light kiss on her fingers. "Do not ever apologize for paying me a visit." Gwen tried to smile, but was sufficiently nervous that she could not quite manage— and Arthur noticed it. "What's wrong?"
Gently retrieving her fingers, she moved over to the table and brushed a couple of crumbs off of it automatically. "Nothing is wrong." Forcing herself to meet his concerned gaze, she said, "I thought I should tell you about Dorin."
Arthur was usually a fairly open book with his reactions, at least in her opinion, but the expression that flitted across his face just then was not one she could interpret. "What about him?"
"Perhaps, we should sit," she suggested.
"Is it that bad?" he quipped, although she could tell that he was unsettled beneath the jest.
Well, that made two of them.
He held out a chair for her and then, rather than taking the seat at the head of the table, turned the chair beside hers so that he was facing her when he dropped into it. Propping one ankle on the opposite knee and leaning his elbow on the table, he made a more pleasing picture than she figured he knew— yet, it was not really time for such thoughts. "Now that we're sitting, what is it you wish to tell me?"
That could have been sarcastic, imperious, or impatient; instead, it was simply a question, stated evenly, and it hit Gwen anew how much she loved him. He was not perfect, no one was. But he was such a good man, and he truly would be a great king.
And that made her remember how unlikely this was to lead anywhere. For now, though, she should at least be honest with him. Scooting her chair around so that it was turned in his direction, she clasped her hands tightly in her lap. "Dorin and I were betrothed."
Apparently, he was expecting that about as much as he had expected her to knock on his door that night. "I see," he finally said. His eyes left her for where his hand picked at the woodgrain of the table. "I thought there might have been something between the two of you, but... I was not aware you had been betrothed."
Although he was trying to hide it, deception had never been his strong suit, and Gwen could hear the hurt in his statement. "It never came up," she pointed out. "It ended shortly before I was taken on here. Actually, that was what spurred my mother to arrange an interview for me when she heard that there was a position for a lady's maid open at the castle."
"You took it badly when the betrothal ended?" he asked quietly. She desperately wanted to lay her hand on his and still its restless movement, but felt that it would be better to avoid contact until the conversation was done.
With a little shrug, she answered, "Of course I did, even though I was the one who ended it."
That brought his gaze back to her. "You were?"
Gwen nodded. "He worked for a merchant here, in town, and was given the opportunity to buy his own shop in Mercia. It was his dream and the price was within his means, but I had no desire to move to Mercia. My life was here, as it has always been."
Arthur studied her. "He chose a shop— one which he no longer owns, at that— over the chance to have you by his side?"
"You make it sound so awful." Gwen frowned, trying to find the proper way of wording it. Yet, now that Arthur had put it that way… "I suppose that is what happened."
"Then, he is twice a fool," Arthur stated, visibly relaxing. She blinked at his dismissive announcement, and he frowned. "My mistake. He is thrice a fool for having hurt you, since it means I will have him sent on his way this very moment." He started to rise, but she stayed him with a hand on his arm.
"No, Arthur. It's fine." She tried to give him a pacifying smile; when that did not work, she said, "If he had not made that choice, I would have been his wife for years now." In which case, she and Arthur would not have whatever it was that they had.
Sinking down into his chair again, he resumed digging absently at the tabletop. "You loved him?"
His voice was so low, she nearly missed the question, and the level of insecurity in it almost broke her heart. "No. I thought I did at the time, but I was just a girl. What I felt for him… it was fleeting. Affection, surely, and some infatuation. But not love."
Arthur went to speak, and she was suddenly seized with the panicked notion that he was going to inquire further about what she knew of love. That was not something she was ready to discuss with him yet, not until she knew where this thing between them was headed. They had shared some wonderful moments, some exquisite kisses, but that was as far as any of it had gone. Gwen knew his intentions were honorable, but intentions often meant nothing. As much as she knew he wanted her as his wife, and even though she had begun to fantasize about it when she forgot to stop herself from doing so, she was no queen. She was not trained in the ways of the court, or diplomacy, or being the lady of a kingdom. And, while she loved him, she could not be a mistress— though she doubted he would suggest such a thing. Even if he did, she would watch him marry a princess as was his destiny, but she would not warm one bed for him while that princess awaited him underneath the coverlet of another.
She was getting ahead of herself again.
"Anyway," she said quickly, reining in her thoughts and cutting off whatever he meant to say, "all I feel for Dorin now is the pleasure of seeing an old friend. Nothing more. And I do want to thank you for allowing him to stay here, as well as his assistant."
Arthur appeared momentarily nonplussed at the interruption but quickly regained his composure. Raising an amused eyebrow at her, he gently noted, "You did not give me much choice in the matter."
She really had not, had she? "You're right. I'm sorry about that."
"Do not be sorry." As she had wanted to do earlier, Arthur reached forward and covered her hands with his. "Guinevere, I want you to be comfortable enough to do things like that." Hesitating, studying their hands, he said, "I want you to feel at home here."
"I do feel at home."
He glanced up at her a little reprovingly. "I do not mean in the capacity of a servant."
Her heart was already fluttering at his touch, but began thudding in her chest so loudly when he broached the topic that she was amazed when he apparently could not hear it. "Arthur—"
"I know you do not wish to speak of this now. I also know your reasons; you are right that there is already much to be dealt with. But this is something I actually would like to work out. While most of the other situations I'm dealing with are frustrating or uncomfortable at best, this is one that promises happiness."
"And difficulty," she said sadly. "You need the support of your people more than ever, and there has already been some unkind talk after…" She blushed. "After we kissed in the courtyard."
He sighed. Arthur had handled the gossip-mongers, but that did not erase the damage they had done. Some people had been unexpectedly kind. Others had most definitely not. "If you would only give the people a chance to learn what I already know, that you will be an amazing qu—"
Gwen jumped to her feet. "I should go. It's getting late."
He stood with more reluctance. "I will see you home."
"There's no need," she said, nerves making her words tumble out.
"Guinevere," Arthur said patiently, offering her a smile and using that tone which reverberated from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes. "Let me see you home."
He was apparently dropping the subject, so she nodded, smiling back. "I would like that."
They left the castle and walked to her cottage in companionable silence. As she opened the door and stepped inside, he said, "Thank you for telling me about Dorin. I realize that it is not something you often discuss, and I appreciate that you were willing to explain it to me."
Turning to face him, she nodded. "Of course."
He looked at her for a moment, and then said, "Well. Good night, Guinevere."
"Good night, Arthur."
Suddenly, he leaned over and planted a very solid kiss on her mouth. While she had rather expected a kiss, she had not expected one with that level of intensity. When he ended it and straightened again, she blinked at him in astonishment.
She expected to see that surprise mirrored in his expression. Instead, he appeared quite satisfied. "'Night," he murmured, and then turned and strode back off toward the castle.
Closing the door behind him, Gwen fanned herself with the edge of her shawl. When she turned and found Elyan's eyes on her, she jumped, having forgotten he would be there.
He sat up on his bed in the back of the room. "This needs to stop, Gwen."
The glow that kiss had kindled within her chest sputtered, and she frowned against the hurt Elyan's remark dealt. "Why would you say such a thing?"
"I do not mean you and Arthur," he clarified. "You make each other happy, and you would want for nothing with him; I cannot object in that sense. But, he's the prince. I know his intentions toward you are good, but unless he lays them out, this is just going to end in pain for you. And for him."
"He has more or less laid out his intentions," Gwen replied, so softly it was almost a whisper. Sinking onto the end of one of the benches at their table, she said, "I am certain he wants to make me his queen."
"I am not surprised to hear it, but has he proposed?"
Her eyes dropped to where her hands were folded in her lap. "No, he has not. But he seems very assured that it is our future."
"What future are you sure of?" her brother inquired astutely.
"I'm not." Looking back up at him, she gestured helplessly. "Being Arthur's wife is all I could want, but a queen? I would not know the first thing about how to be the queen he, and Camelot, deserve."
Elyan smiled. "You would be the finest queen this kingdom has ever seen. That should not be a worry to you. Also, he is not yet king, so there would be time to prepare."
"I am a maid," she corrected. "Less than a maid, according to some of what was said." The few comments which had reached her ears despite Arthur's best efforts had stung greatly.
His eyebrows furrowed. "You are better than any noblewoman, any princess, and certainly any of the shrews who stirred up that sort of gossip."
"It was not only women saying those things."
"Gwen, there will always be foul-minded people about, and they will always be spreading their poison. You must ignore them. Ignore your detractors, even ignore your supporters, and make the decision that is right for you." She sighed, and he added, "You know what that decision is, I think. It's only that you have not been brave enough to pursue it."
That was stark truth, and she leaned backward instinctively. "I am no coward, Elyan."
"I did not say you are. It's a difficult thing to face, but you need to make up your mind and figure out what you're doing. It is not fair to either of you to be left hanging like this."
"I know it's not."
Coming over and dropping onto the bench beside her, Elyan put his arm around Gwen's shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "Just give me warning if you intend to turn him down, so that I know not to show up on the practice field for awhile," he said with a chuckle.
She laid her head on his shoulder and laughed, even though her heart hurt at the notion. "Of course."
Merlin and Arthur find out what they're up against, while Morgana tries to make progress.
"You need to eat, Father."
Merlin heard Arthur's words, patient yet firm, as he sidled into Uther's chambers. The nurse, Bess, was standing inside the door, waiting until she was needed again and studiously not watching the royal family. She acknowledged Merlin with a slight nod, which he returned before glancing toward the other two people in the room.
Uther was seated at his table and Arthur had pulled a chair up beside him. The king was staring blankly ahead, while Arthur held a chunk of bread out in front of him. "Father, eat. You cannot lead Camelot on an empty stomach."
Merlin dropped his eyes to the floor, doing as Bess and pretending not to notice what was going on. Arthur's tone was not patronizing, but it may as well have been; Uther could do little for himself most days, much less for the kingdom. However, Arthur knew his father better than most, and the remark worked. As Merlin peered up for a second, Uther took a good bite of the bread. Arthur noticed Merlin then, but he made sure Uther continued to eat before he stood. "Bess is going to step in for me now. I will be back to bid you good night." He laid a hand on his father's shoulder, waiting until Uther slowly looked up at him and met his eyes. Arthur summoned a smile for him before turning toward the door.
Bess moved forward as Arthur neared. He said in a tone low enough that Uther could not hear, "Send for me immediately if he gives you any more trouble."
"I shall, sire."
Arthur murmured a thanks to her, and then gestured with his head for Merlin to follow him into the corridor. "What is it?"
"Gaius has news about the stone Morgana is after." Arthur had stopped in to ask about it before seeing to the king, but Gaius wanted to consult a source or two before giving a definitive answer. That, of course, meant that Merlin had been sent to the archives to ask Geoffrey for the books, who had then sent him into the stacks to find them with only vague directions; and after Gaius had found his answers, he told Merlin to go retrieve Arthur.
He would have liked to sit down for a moment to catch his breath, but that was clearly not going to happen anytime soon. Not that that was an unusual circumstance.
"I take it the news is not good?" Arthur replied, apparently wondering why he was bothering to ask.
Merlin recalled the excerpt that Gaius had read aloud to him. "It could be worse, but not by much."
Arthur shot him a slightly annoyed look. "Care to explain that?"
"I could try, but it's probably best just to let Gaius tell you."
"You are very likely right."
Hesitating, Merlin debated whether to broach the subject of the king, and finally decided that caring was better than ignoring the issue. "I'm sorry that your father's having a bad day."
With a glance that hovered between frustrated and resigned, Arthur nodded, but refrained from speaking. At least, Merlin figured, Arthur had not told him to shut up. That was something.
The rest of the walk to the physician's quarters was in silence. It made Merlin a little fidgety but he figured that Arthur needed the peace. Once they were settled in his room, Gaius handed Arthur the book he had read to Merlin from earlier.
"The Stone of Thandrastyl is one of four items enchanted four hundred years ago by a warlock called Vesprian," Gaius told him. "It has not been seen for many generations, although reports have surfaced now and again regarding its location, none of which has ever been confirmed."
"What does it do?" asked Arthur, scanning the page before handing the volume over to Merlin.
Gaius's eyebrow crept up. "It has the power to raise the dead."
"I should have seen that coming," Arthur muttered, and Merlin had to silently agree.
Shaking his head, Gaius countered, "It is more extraordinary than that: it does not only revive one person. When activated, its magic has a far reach. Vesprian designed it as a personal tool. His plan was that not only would he be reawakened with its use, but that his friends and his children would be given new life, as well."
From the way Arthur was squinting at Gaius, Merlin could tell the prince was having a little trouble accepting that. "Do you mean to say that if Morgana finds this stone, she will reawaken a four-hundred-year-old sorcerer and all of his kin?"
"No," Gaius replied. "If she finds it and figures out how to use it, she will reawaken Morgause and all of Morgause's kin. Sorcerers and sorceresses she has cared for who have met unfortunate ends will all be brought back to life."
Arthur glanced away, fiddling with the ring on his forefinger as he pondered that for a moment. "My father was responsible for many of those deaths," he finally said. "Those who are brought back will head straight for Camelot."
Gently, Gaius said, "I fear that will be the case." He looked over to Merlin, who was already mentally making a list of what he would have to pack for himself and Arthur.
"Then, there is nothing for it. We must find the stone before Morgana does." Arthur gestured to Merlin, apparently wanting the book back, so Merlin handed it to him.
"That will not be so easy," Gaius warned. "It was stolen on the same night that Vesprian died. No one has seen it for centuries."
While Arthur flipped a page, possibly looking for a better answer, something occurred to Merlin. "If Morgana's going to look for it, she must have heard something about its location. Someone must at least have an idea as to where it is."
Gaius murmured an agreement. Arthur eyed him. "That's actually a rather good point."
"You do not have to seem so surprised," Merlin muttered, reminding himself not for the first time that, someday, Arthur would know exactly how many "good points" he had made over the years.
"Well, it's not entirely helpful, though," Arthur continued arrogantly, making it incredibly tempting to whisper a few words and get that pitcher on the table behind him to fly forward and knock him in the head. It would only be payback for all the things Arthur had thrown at his head over the years... Merlin almost missed what Arthur was saying, and quickly dragged his attention back to reality. "We know where she is, but wandering into Urien's kingdom to ask her what she's heard is not really an option."
"It is possible that she does not know where it is," Gaius put in. "She may not be seeking the stone, itself."
"What do you mean?" asked Arthur.
"As I said, Vesprian enchanted four objects. A set. While it is not necessary to have all four in order for one of them to be used, they can point the way to each other."
"If you have one of them, you can find the others?" Merlin asked, in order to clarify.
Gesturing, Arthur asked, "What of the others, then? Are their whereabouts known?"
"Only rumors. Anyone who has one in their possession would be a fool to announce it. That is, unless they did not know what it was they possessed."
Merlin caught a glint in the old man's eye. Sensing a little mischief, the corner of his own mouth tugged up. "You would not happen to know any of these rumors, would you?"
As he began to grin, Gaius admitted, "I just might."
Morgana swept into Accolon's workroom, holding her cape behind her when it tried to billow in front of her feet. She did not have the patience to deal with its impertinence, nor with the sorcerer's.
Accolon caught sight of her a moment before she spotted him, and turned away from his bench to drop into a deep bow. "My lady."
"Do you have it?" she demanded.
As he straightened, she could tell by his expression what his answer would be. "Not yet, my lady, although I have every confidence that—"
She laughed; a cold, sarcastic bark. A sliver of a memory crossed her mind, of a time when she had laughed freely, warmly. She could no longer recall what it was like to be guilelessly entertained. "Your confidence means nothing to me, Accolon. When you suggested this plan, you assured me that you could find the stone and make it work. And yet every day, it is the same." Striding over until she stood directly in front of him, she tilted her chin up, eyes blazing. "It is my confidence you should be concerned with, and it slips every time you fail to give me the answer I seek."
His eyes, a startlingly pale shade of brown that appeared almost normal in the gloom of his chambers, remained even. He even dared to smile at her which, while she fought not to let show, dented Morgana's poise. "With all due respect, my lady, I am concerned with the confidence of my liege. King Urien trusts that I will solve this puzzle, and I shall. I beg you to extend the same patience that your kind host shows me."
Irritated, Morgana's jaw jutted forward. "Perhaps, my 'kind host' would not be so patient if I pointed out to him how long it is taking you to find a way to save my sister." Morgause was the one who had told her to come to Urien if anything went wrong, and the king had been all too obvious in his affection for Morgause when Morgana arrived with her nearly lifeless body.
"I have told you of a way the process could be… helped along," Accolon said softly.
His serene expression remained in place when her palm cracked across his cheek. "And I told you what you could do with that process," she snarled. "Just find me the stone."
Whirling, she stormed out of the workroom, letting anger take over the fear which had her heart thudding painfully in her chest.
Gwaine's in a tavern. This can only end one way.
"He will be all right."
Arthur glanced over at Guinevere, who had drawn up her horse beside his. How she managed to know what he needed to hear at a given time still escaped him, but he was grateful for it. With a sigh, he looked back at the valley below. "I wish I were as sure of that as you are." His father had been causing his nurses a good deal of trouble lately, leading several of them to quit, and Arthur could not shake the worry that upon his return he would find that the king had once more stubbornly refused to eat in his absence. Or, that he had insisted on taking to the Throne Room and started issuing commands in one of his more lucid states-- which were still not entirely balanced.
Or, there was the most appealing possibility, that he had suddenly recovered his wits. At least the shock of finding his power transferred to the prince might distract him enough that he would not think to immediately deal with Arthur's association with Guinevere or his small band of commoner knights. Hopefully, anyway. That would be one of those situations best handled in person, which was not a possibility while Arthur was out here, chasing a lost artifact based on hints from a story in order to make sure his half-sister did not find it and destroy them all.
There were times when he wondered at what his life had become.
Then again, when Guinevere leaned over to lay her hand on his, he knew that he would be willing to put up with any amount of madness if it resulted in having her at his side.
"That looks like a tavern to me," Gwaine declared, gesturing toward the village nestled in the valley as he drew even with them. While it was difficult to say what all of the buildings were from this vantage point, Arthur did not doubt the man's ability to determine a public house from any distance. And a tankard and a hot meal sounded very appealing after the last day spent riding.
Dorin pulled up then. "While I have never found a meal to match your roast chicken, Gwen, I have to admit that something not cooked quickly over a campfire sounds wonderful right now."
Arthur bit back a frown. Why had they allowed the trader along again? Ah, that was it-- he was supposed to be helping them find his informant.
When Guinevere smiled and mumbled, "Nonsense," Arthur had the feeling that he could have found the informant just fine without Dorin.
"Even more than the chicken, I found your crispels to be unparalleled," he remarked. So, perhaps he had only ever had one, and that had been close to three years ago, when he was hiding at her house. It had been very good, though. Ignoring the variety of looks his remark about Gwen's baking was receiving, he nodded toward the village. "But I agree: a properly-prepared meal is in order. Let's go see what's being served tonight."
Sitting at a table and eating surprisingly good food was something they had all needed, despite finding that the main element occupying the tavern was rougher than that which frequented the Rising Sun back home. They also managed to procure rooms, since sleeping under a roof held a great deal of appeal, too.
"This is delicious," Guinevere declared around a bite of pork, from where she sat to Arthur's left.
"Truly, Arthur— you should lure the cook away from these kitchens and to the ones at Camelot," Percival agreed from the seat on his other side.
"It's a thought." Glancing around the table, Arthur was pleased to see that everyone seemed to be eating their fill. Even Dorin's shy little assistant was doing a decent job of cleaning her plate, though that may have had something to do with the fact that she was not conversing with anyone. And, granted, the cause of that silence may have been that her employer was dominating the discussion in the middle of the table, recounting youthful exploits with Elyan and outlandish tales from his travels. Most of those listening were apparently enjoying his yarns, but contrary to what Arthur would have expected, Merlin did not look to be all that entertained.
In fact, he kept sneaking glances at Cerys. Interesting.
A holler from near the bar caught his attention. "Oi! Watch where yer goin'!"
Gwaine, who had gone to get another pitcher of mead for the table, was holding out his free hand in a pacifying manner to a large, red-faced fellow sporting an equally large, red beard. "Apologies, friend. I did not notice your foot there before. I have made note of it now."
The giant man stood, glowering down at the knight and gaining the attention of everyone in the room. As a hush descended, he growled, "I don' like havin' me toes trampled by mice."
Gwaine's eyes narrowed, and Arthur felt something between foreboding and anticipation settle over him. "Gwen, take Cerys upstairs," he murmured quietly.
"I would rather—" she began to argue, just as Gwaine replied, "I am no mouse, but you look remarkably like a cock." Miming a rooster's waddle with his fingers under his chin in reference to the man's beard, Gwaine barely had time to dodge as the man swung. Ducking around behind him, Gwaine gave him a shove when his weight was all transferred into his fist. A chorus of protests broke out from the other brutes at the table as Gwaine's opponent staggered forward, and as they jumped to their feet, so too did the knights of Camelot. Somebody from a completely different section of the room chucked a tankard in Gwaine's general direction, dumping a foamy brew over several patrons along the way, and all hell broke loose.
"Guinevere," Arthur said sharply, gesturing toward the stairs with his head— and nearly losing it in the process. A heavy bucket had been flying toward him, but Gwen grabbed the handle of the board on which their bread had been served and knocked the bucket away just before it smacked into his skull.
"I've got Cerys," Merlin said over his shoulder, already ushering the young weaver toward the stairs.
Arthur nodded at him. "Good. Take Guinevere, too."
Using the board to deflect a generous leg of ham which had been headed in their direction, she said, "It looks like you can use me here."
He batted away a tankard with his elbow. "It is not s—" Arthur lost his sentence as she grabbed his arm and pulled, yanking him toward her in time for a bench to miss most of his upper half. After it clattered into a wall some distance behind him, he protested, "It is not safe down here."
"So, make it safe. I have not finished my supper." She gave him an amused smile. With a resigned sigh, he blocked a hunk of bread as he leaned in to give her a quick kiss before turning to join the fray.
The other knights and Dorin were already well engaged. Percival had seen to Gwaine's florid aggressor, now sprawled ignominiously in a sea of ale, and was currently planting his knee in the solar plexus of one of that man's even larger friends. Gwaine snagged another of the goons by the back of the neck and shoved him aside, then delivered his fist to the chin of a man who had been coming up behind the man Gwaine had just shoved. Lancelot's armor-clad forearm connected with a third attacker's cheek, and a kick sent that attacker barreling into a pair of his friends. Yet another brawler came up behind Elyan, but Gwen's brother noticed him in time, flipping him over his shoulder and onto a table. Elyan's elbow to the brawler's diaphragm ensured that he would not be getting up again immediately. Leon grabbed the vest of the man opposing him and held on, placing his foot in the man's stomach and dropping back into a roll, sending his foe flying over his head and into two more would-be attackers.
Arthur was just getting a feel for the situation when a fist sailed toward his nose. Dodging out of the way, he landed a solid punch into the attacker's belly, following it up with another punch to his face.
Dorin, who was close by, felled his own opponent at the same time. He gave Arthur a cheeky grin and glanced at Guinevere, whose bread board discouraged a daring tavern patron as it connected with his head. "She's really something."
Frowning and watching to make sure the bastard she had hit was definitely unconscious, Arthur tensely agreed, "She is."
"Worst mistake I ever made, letting her go," Dorin mused, casually tripping a combatant who was running past him.
Arthur scowled and delivered a particularly inspired blow to the stocky man with an unkempt beard who unfortunately chose that moment to come at him. "Indeed."
Picking up a plate off of the table beside him and bringing it flush into the next ruffian’s face, Dorin said, “You should be careful. Leaving her as ‘just Gwen’ is a dangerous prospect.”
Arthur was trying to figure out how to respond in a way that did not involve flattening Dorin, when four big men rushed toward them. He leaned over and rolled one right off his back with the attacker's own momentum, and tried not to laugh when two tackled Dorin to the ground. Unfortunately, that sight entertained him so much that he forgot about the fourth man, who got in a good hit, knocking him onto the Dorin pile-up and eliciting a grunt from the bottom of the heap. Pulling his feet up, Arthur kicked the fourth man back and into a table, and then it seemed like it was important to lay out a couple of other men who were on their feet before pulling the men off of Dorin. Of course, his intention was to give Dorin a chance to fight them off for himself.
In a few more minutes, the roughs were subdued. The knights of Camelot were a bit bruised but mostly all right, while Guinevere was untouched save for having a few chunks of food stuck in her hair. The bread board had proved to be a wise choice, acting as both weapon and shield. Their supper was scattered, their table knocked over when Percival had been thrown into it, so Lancelot ordered more food to be sent up to their rooms, and baths as well. None of them had a desire to remain in the public room anymore, and washing sounded as good as the meal and beds.
As everyone headed upstairs, Arthur tugged on Guinevere's sleeve, encouraging her to fall to the back of the group with him. Toward the top of the stairs, he stopped, and she followed suit.
"What is it?"
He realized he had no idea; he had simply wanted a moment alone with her after Dorin's comments. "You did well back there," he finally said, for lack of anything better. Despite that being true, he still wished she had left the room. She had not been harmed, however, which was what really mattered.
The corner of her mouth turned up and her eyes danced a bit; he loved when she wore that expression. "I would not want to have faced them without that board, but yes, I think I did," she agreed playfully.
He grinned. "Perhaps I should provide bread boards to the whole of Camelot's army."
"That might be worth considering." She burst out laughing then, and he followed suit.
As humor gave way to warmer looks, he said, "I'm glad you're here."
To his concern, the light in her eyes faded. "You would be happier if I was safely tucked away back home."
He wished he could deny it. "I would certainly rest easier," he allowed. "But, no; I am happier when you are with me."
At that, Guinevere stepped forward and slid her hands over his shoulders. "I feel the same way," she murmured, pulling him down for a kiss. It did not last long, footsteps on the stairs causing them to step apart. A few maids came into view bearing trays laden with fresh food, serving boys following them with hot water.
When the servants had gone past, Arthur said, "There's your supper, and I pretty much guarantee that it is safe up here."
"My hero," she teased, but the way she smiled up at him made it clear that she meant it, and they went the rest of the way up the stairs hand-in-hand.
Gwen has trouble settling in at Gawant.
Merlin looked where Arthur was pointing and indeed saw a castle nestled on a hillside in the distance. Provided they ran into no difficulties, he thought they should arrive before supper, which would be a relief for everyone.
When they first set out, he would have expected Cerys to be more relieved than the rest to reach their destination, but had found instead that she was a remarkably hardy traveler. The smiling young woman near him was a far cry from the trembling creature he had escorted upstairs two nights ago, when the fight broke out at the inn. Then, she had lowered herself into a chair, pale and quivering, before asking him to brew a mixture of herbs which were in a small chest by her bed. The concoction did seem to calm her, and when Merlin later studied the pinch of the dried plants he had snagged, he was not surprised to identify lavender and mint. Still, there were more ingredients that he could not identify, and he would need Gaius's help figuring out what they were.
It also made Merlin wonder if she had a different mixture for when she was on horseback, or if the fresh air simply agreed with her more than the crowded confines of a tavern. He was inclined to suspect the latter, with the color in her cheeks and brightness of her eyes appearing quite normal… but then, he caught sight of the chest secured to the pack horse near her, which radiated such a degree of magic from within that he was having trouble concentrating on the road when he got too near to it. He truly was amazed sometimes that almost everyone could be so unaffected by such strong magical fields.
Without meaning to, he had been staring at Cerys, a fact he realized when she turned her head and gave him a small smile. Embarrassed, he returned it and glanced toward where Arthur and Sir Leon were conferring before moving ahead, his thoughts drifting to the conversation he had with her on the second story of the tavern.
"My aunt used to tell me tales of all the places she had visited, the adventures she'd had. She painted such vivid pictures, I could almost see those places for myself… and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. Apparently, she left a few things out, such as drunkards brawling and ruining one's meal."
"You are close with your aunt?"
"She raised me after my parents died. But no, we have not been in touch for many years."
The expression on her face had stopped Merlin from inquiring further about just who Cerys was and where she had come from— not that he figured she would come out and admit anything that may be incriminating, but he still wished he could try. Her pain at speaking of her aunt had seemed very real, everything else aside, and he was glad not to catch any sign of it this morning.
And that was something of a problem, since it meant that she appealed to the sympathetic side of his nature. Perhaps it was all right, and she deserved it.
Or, perhaps she was playing him.
Arthur and Sir Leon had been conversing and apparently reached some sort of conclusion, since the prince turned slightly to address the others. "We will take the main road from here. It is not as quick as the low road, but Lord Godwyn's men are sure to catch sight of us sooner this way, so that we will not take him entirely unprepared."
"Shall we fly the banners?" asked Lancelot.
"No." Arthur glanced around at them. "We are to make ourselves visible, not wave a target for anyone else who may be watching the roads."
That was as clear as mud to Merlin, considering each of the knights was wearing the distinctive— and noticeable— red cloak bearing a gold dragon. Still, as he would not be carrying a banner even if they were flying them, it hardly mattered one way or the other.
That decided, they spurred their mounts toward the high road.
Gwen was not entirely looking forward to their arrival at Gawant. While Lord Godwyn and his daughter had seemed pleasant enough during their visit to Camelot, the fact remained that Princess Elena had very nearly become Arthur's wife. While their agreement not to go through with the wedding had been mutual, there was a part of Gwen that thought they were wrong. Marriages in their station had been based upon political reasons for generations, and she was sure they would have gotten along well enough. And, the princess was quite lovely. She would certainly not have made Arthur miserable, nor would he have done so for her.
Of course, a part of Gwen would have died had that happened, but not a large enough part that she would have been unable to carry on. It was how things were done; she accepted that. She would never have been truly happy again, but she would have recovered. More or less.
That was not to say that she was not ecstatic that the union had fallen through; she was. Her heart had gone from sinking through the soles of her shoes to dancing on air as Arthur brought an end to the wedding.
Yet… he was supposed to marry a princess, or another high-bred lady. Gwen was a castle maid, the daughter of a blacksmith. Despite his belief in her, she was not made to be a future queen, not like Elena was. How could she possibly expect to live up to those sorts of expectations?
More immediately, how was Arthur planning to present her once they arrived? If they were married, or at least betrothed, that would be one thing; but, presenting an unattached woman to his ex-fiancée and her father would certainly be too presumptuous. He would know better than to do that.
Or, maybe he would not. As the group arrived in the courtyard of Gawant Keep, Arthur handed Gwen down from her horse immediately upon dismounting, himself, and held out his elbow to her. At that, she gave a short, wide-eyed shake of her head. "They are waiting; go greet them." He frowned at her for a moment, but did not argue, going over to where Lord Godwyn and Princess Elena stood near the castle entrance.
"Gwen," Elyan said quietly, but she cut him off before he could reprove her.
"Don't, Elyan." It was a plea, and she was glad when he respected it.
While she had convinced Arthur not to have her on his arm when he spoke with their hosts, apparently he was not satisfied to let that be. When Gwen walked into the chamber assigned to her, she sighed.
"Does it meet with your approval, my lady?" the steward who had led her there asked politely.
"I am not—" Gwen started over. "It's fine, thank you. Where is Prince Arthur staying?"
"Immediately across the way, my lady."
While the steward's voice and expression remained politely neutral, Gwen wanted to kick herself; whatever assumptions the servant might have made at the room assignments had likely just been confirmed to his mind, and any attempts she might make at correcting him would sound like weak excuses. "I see," she said quietly. "Thank you."
The man bowed and left, and Gwen marched across the corridor. Arthur's door was open, and as she walked in, he was laying his cape over the back of a chair, while Merlin was hanging clothing in the wardrobe. Catching sight of her, Arthur smiled happily, which only served to make her feel worse.
"Guinevere. How are your quarters?"
She simply looked at him for a moment, during which time his smile faded. From the corner of her eye, she saw Merlin glance between them; not wanting to make him overly uncomfortable, she finally replied as she had to the steward. "Fine."
Arthur seemed to notice Merlin's glance, as well. "Leave us."
Gwen wanted to reassure Merlin, but was too upset to take her attention from Arthur. After Merlin left, she said abruptly, "The servants surely think I am your mistress, and their employers probably do, as well."
Clearly, he had not been expecting that; but neither had she been expecting to be treated so far above her station. Taking a step forward, she asked, "The chamber across from yours? And one clearly intended for a guest of high rank? Arthur…"
"I will see to it that they are set straight."
"That is not the point. You're expecting me to be something I am not."
He frowned. "That's not true."
"I told you before, I am not ashamed to be a servant, and I meant that. I am not a noble, nor do I intend to pose as one."
"I never asked you to pose as anything, and I did not request that you be placed in a room by mine." Arthur's expression had turned into something between affront and hurt. "But, you are not a servant any longer, Guinevere."
It was her turn to frown. "What do you mean?"
The corner of his mouth kicked up, although the humor did not reach his eyes. "There is no longer a lady at Camelot for you to serve."
"I have been doing my share these last weeks, as I did the year she was missing."
"I am aware of that, but it really is not necessary. We have enough chambermaids and cooks."
An unpleasant taste rose in her throat. "What are you saying?"
His smile had disappeared, and he glanced down as he continued, "I'm saying that your services as a maid are no longer required."
She stepped back. "You're sacking me?"
"Not as such. Camelot does not need a maid, but I need you." The look he gave her was both warm and vulnerable, which never failed to touch her heart. For such a strong man and leader, he was still finding his way, and that he allowed himself to turn to those around him was one of the reasons she was so confident in his future.
Unbidden, Gwen's eyes welled up. She might have handled it decently were she not already feeling overwhelmed. And that grew worse when she was reminded of the fact that he expected her to take a place at his side without hesitation.
"Gwen," he said softly and walked over, pulling her into a gentle embrace as she began to cry. "I'm sorry; I should not have said that."
"No, do not apologize." Pulling back, she wiped the tears from her cheeks. "It's been a long journey. I think I'll go rest before supper."
Laying a hand alongside her face, Arthur ran his thumb over her skin, obviously regretting his words. "Are you certain you're all right?"
She nodded, trying to smile reassuringly. "Yes, I'm all right."
He did not seem so sure, but she left before he could think of anything else to say. Walking back into her chambers, she was about to shut the door when she noticed the pair of maids pouring the last few buckets of steaming water into a bathtub which had been set up in front of the hearth. The smell of lavender drifted over to her. While part of her balked at the luxury, the work had already been done toward it, and a bath would be lovely. The maids smiled at her and curtsied, and she smiled back. "Thank you." She was about to say that she had not ordered the bath, yet she knew that in their place, she would be frustrated to be told such a thing after getting it set up.
One of the maids exited then, but one remained, a blonde girl with a pleasant presence. "I'm Blanchefleur, my lady, and I'll be seeing to you. May I help you undress?"
"Oh, no, but thank you." Part of Gwen was rather annoyed with Arthur, that she found herself in this situation; however, she knew precisely where Blanchefleur was coming from, and did not want her to think that Gwen found her substandard. "It's nothing to do with you. I am not a 'my lady', and am quite capable of undressing." Pausing to consider whether to say anything more, she finally decided to confess, "Between you and me, I was a lady's maid, myself, until just a few weeks ago."
"I see," Blanchefleur said, with that same polite evenness which the steward had adopted.
Gwen winced. That had sounded all wrong, and she wished she had said nothing at all. "I'm not a mistress," she murmured miserably. Wandering over to the bathtub, she glanced down at her dim reflection in the water. "In fact, I am currently without employment."
She sensed, rather than heard, Blanchefleur walk up behind her. It was a good skill for a servant, to move silently. The maid began to speak, but hesitated. After a moment, she said softly, "You are a friend of the prince?"
Was she? That was how she thought of Merlin, and Gaius; Gwaine, and Percival. She was too associated with Sir Leon's family to freely think of him as such, and Lancelot… well, that was different. When it all came down to it, however, those men were her friends. Arthur, though… there was too much there for that word to be sufficient. With nothing more fitting, however, she sighed. "I suppose so."
"You care about him." When Gwen looked up at the maid, the girl dropped her eyes. "If I may say so, miss."
"Of course," Gwen allowed. "It is the truth, after all."
Assuaged, Blanchefleur gave her the most genuine smile Gwen had seen from her yet. "And he must care about you, to ensure that you are so comfortable."
"He does," replied Gwen in a near-whisper.
Biting her lip, Blanchefleur then reached over, eying Gwen's hair and giving it a few experimental twists on top of her head. "I understand that you can see to yourself, miss—"
"Please, call me Gwen." All of this miss business was little better than being called my lady.
Blanchefleur paused before giving her a small nod. "Very well. Even though you can see to yourself, Gwen, please let me dress you for supper. I will make sure that he could not dare call you simply a 'friend'." Gwen was not certain about that, which Blanchefleur clearly saw on her face. "If nothing else, I would appreciate the opportunity to style your hair; it's so lovely."
Gwen caught the calculating gleam in Blanchefleur's eye, and started to laugh. She was good; Gwen had to give her that. "Very well, you win. But, I will bathe myself."
"Agreed," Blanchefleur said with a grin.
Everyone makes progress in their quests.
Morgana noticed movement from the corner of her eye, and looked up from the fountain in Urien's garden to see the king approaching with Accolon behind him. In the sunlight, Accolon's odd eyes appeared translucent— a handy trait for a court sorcerer, she supposed, but still unsettling.
King Urien reminded her in many ways of Uther. Both men were warriors, having fought for their seats, and wore auras of power like a mantle. Urien was about as tall as Uther and broad, still fit into middle age. Yet, while she would not put it past Urien to keep secrets that were to his advantage, he was no hypocrite, not like her sire. He was also much more pleasant to be around, embracing those who followed the Old Religion despite not personally possessing magic. As such, he struck her as friendlier than Uther ever had, especially since she realized what her dreams truly meant. It also helped that Urien made no secret about his affections for Morgause, and extended some of that affection to her sister.
If, as she suspected, Morgause had ever shown any interest in return, Morgana could understand why. He was physically appealing, even for someone old enough to be her father, still possessed a thick head of hair, very little of which was grey, which he kept on the longish side. His eyes were a warm shade of brown, a normal shade of brown, unlike those of his sorcerer; and they were framed by lashes which would make any woman jealous. And, while his chiseled features and thin lips lent themselves to harsh expressions, his smile was surprisingly frequent— and startlingly alluring.
It was a pity her sister already had a claim on his heart, else Morgana would be tempted to try for it. After all, on top of his personal appeal, he was rich as sin and commanded an army comparable to that which Cenred had managed to raise. Why they had not come to Urien first, Morgana was curious to discover, but was not about to ask.
Meanwhile, his sorcerer sniffed at her skirts like some desperate mongrel. Well… not desperate, really. He maintained a constant composure, a self-assuredness which she would very much like to see shattered, if only for a moment. However, he was not coy about his attraction to her-- and she was not flattered. There was the fact that it would be nice to have the option of conversing about magical subjects with someone until she had her sister back, and he was both extremely knowledgeable and very willing to talk about the subject. Nor was he repulsive, far from it; he was leaner than she would normally like, but had a lithe grace which was just as fine as a broader set of shoulders would be. For the most part, he could be considered quite handsome. Perhaps, many would consider him entirely handsome, but she could not get past his gaze, which seemed to delve straight into her soul. It felt as though he could see the insecurities which she had buried most deeply; coupled with his impertinent nature, that immediately made him unenticing to her.
If only he would accept that, instead of perpetually bothering her and making the occasional inappropriate suggestion under the guise of a magic purpose.
"Lady Morgana, a word?"
"Yes, my lord?"
Urien looked as though he knew something, to which her instant reaction was panic, before she remembered that she had nothing to fear from him. And, indeed, he seemed pleased as he came to a halt in front of her. "Do you know of any reason your brother would pay a visit to Gawant?"
At that, Morgana's eyebrows went up a fraction. "Gawant? No, I cannot think of anything that would take him there." That was especially true with Gwen accompanying him on the journey; leave it to Arthur to take the woman he loved to the home of a woman he nearly wed.
Behind the king's shoulder, Accolon smiled. "Then, it would seem that we are, indeed, on the trail of the Stone," Urien told her with a small smile of his own.
"You mean that Arthur is on its trail," she corrected, annoyed more by the sorcerer's expression than by the actual words, although those irked her, as well.
"I mean that we are." Urien's smile disappeared. "As planned, Arthur and his band of vagabonds are merely a tool in our search. Or, have you forgotten sending your spy in to get the prince moving in this direction for us?"
Morgana would hardly classify the pedestrian little merchant as a spy, but also knew that she would be unable to accomplish much without the king's help. That chafed at her; she had been the queen of Camelot, still had enough of a claim on the throne that she could do so again, and he should not speak to her in such a way. Not for the first time since she arrived at Dinrheged, she had to balance an assertion of her importance with a concession to his own. "I have not forgotten, but nor have I forgotten my sister, lying dead in your castle: a situation which will never be remedied, should Arthur manage to secure the Stone before we can take it from him. My lord." Her eyes were blue granite, her jaw set firmly, even as she ended with the correct words. Once, she would have had more confidence about being able to pluck the thing from Arthur's hands without much fuss, but he seemed to have the devil's own luck. Until the Stone was in her hands, she would not begin to relax.
Urien's brow creased angrily, yet he did not retort. She had suspected that the reminder of Morgause's fate would get him to back down, and the gamble paid off. With a grudgingly polite nod, he turned and stormed away.
When Accolon remained, she stared imperiously at him. "What do you want?"
Her gaze conveyed that she would brook no impertinence, and he heeded the warning. "I found the scroll that you will need once you have the Stone. You are welcome in my workroom at any time to study it."
"Have it sent to my chambers." Her study of the document would take place in the closest thing she had to her own ground here, not sequestered away in the dank hole this louse called home, with him hovering eerily over her shoulder.
"With all due respect, my lady, the scroll is both unique and powerful. I would not trust it in the hands of even the simplest, most honest servant."
"Then deliver it, yourself," she said through her teeth.
"I truly do not think it should leave my workroom. There, I can assure its safety. Elsewhere, an accident— a spilled drink, or a stray ember from the fire— could spell disaster."
She nearly demanded how he could ensure such things would not happen in his rooms, but bit her tongue. He was beneath her, and should not be arguing. "You will bring it to my chambers before supper," she stated coldly.
His expression reflected what he thought of her decision, but he gave her a low, graceful bow. "As my lady wishes."
Morgana never tired of that response. Would that the rest of the world learned it.
Arthur had debated whether or not he should escort Guinevere to supper. On one hand, her chambers were right across from his, so it made sense in terms of location. Also, he very much wanted to. On the other hand, he was concerned about her reputation, after what she had said to him earlier. While he could state that she was not his mistress, assumptions would still be drawn if he seemed too familiar with her.
Why could people not just mind their own damned business?
In the end, he sent word to Elyan to escort her. Not even the most prudish shrew could find fault with her walking in on her brother's arm.
Provided, that was, that said prudish shrew was unable to read minds when Guinevere did come into the dining hall. Actually, the shrew would have to be blind, too, and perhaps deaf; as he caught sight of her, Arthur's breath left him in an audible whoosh and he stared, transfixed.
Her hair hung mostly free down her back, with the sides pulled back into a loose, woven pattern into which ribbon and beads had been worked. The gown she wore was silver, shimmering from the candle flames like a brook in sunlight as she moved. The bodice was less structured than those she often wore, but no less snug, and cut low enough that he practically had to concentrate to drag his eyes elsewhere. From where it clung to the tops of her hips, the skirt flared out generously, nearly hiding the long end of the tapestried belt which hung low from her waist.
She looked radiant despite clearly being a little uncertain, and when she met Arthur's gaze she smiled shyly. It took him a moment to realize that he was staring back at her, so his return smile was belated.
"I hope you do not mind, but I took the liberty of sending a couple of gowns over when my maid told me your guest had not packed a dress for supper." Arthur glanced over to find Elena just behind him, eying Gwen with a pleased expression.
"I do not mind, at all," he assured her, turning his head back to watch as Guinevere and Elyan drew nearer.
"I am a little surprised," Elena continued musingly. "I rather thought she'd pick the red gown."
Arthur glanced at her again, only to find her studying his red cloak. His enjoyment fading, he protested, "It's not like that."
"You love her, don't you?" That abrupt observation surprised him, but before he could say anything, she said, "I remember her from our wedding. The way you looked at her at the start of the ceremony… it made me even more certain that we were doing the wrong thing, even if I could not bring myself to say it until you did."
Still concerned for her reputation, he replied, "Guinevere is very special to me, but there is nothing improper between us." He hoped that was delicate enough.
It was apparently Elena's turn to be surprised. "I didn't think there was." Comprehension dawning, her cheeks turned a little pink as she smiled. "I may have been attempting to matchmake a bit, when I assigned the chambers."
Both of them were now watching Gwen, delayed by Dorin, who seemed to be showering her with praise, and thus making Arthur's jaw set. Still, he managed to reply, "While I appreciate the thought, no matchmaking is needed."
"You are courting, then?"
Were they? "I suppose." Courting usually involved more in the way of gifts and romantic gestures, though, none of which he had done lately. And, it was usually a more official sort of agreement than this arrangement into which they had essentially fallen. "In a manner of speaking."
Elena hesitated, and then asked quietly, "She was Morgana's maid, was she not?"
Arthur gave a brief nod. "She was."
"And now?" she inquired carefully.
That made him wince. "I will be fortunate if she does not look into employment with you. I… may have sacked her earlier today."
Her eyebrows went up. "Oh."
"It was with the best of intentions," he mumbled.
"I believe I can figure it out," Elena said with a small smile. "And, if I can, I am certain that she will, too."
He sighed. "That's what I'm afraid of."
Gwen finally reached them then, and Arthur took her hand as she dropped into a curtsy. "Guinevere. You look… lovely." A more inadequate word, he could not have chosen; fortunately, she seemed to understand. Turning, he said, "Elena, I would like you to meet Guinevere."
"It is a pleasure," Elena replied warmly, as Gwen curtsied to her, as well.
"My lady." When she straightened, she said, "Thank you, so much, for the gown. You did not have to do that." She darted a nervous peek at Arthur, but he was not entirely sure what lay behind it.
"I was glad to. And please, call me Elena."
Guinevere looked startled, yet could hardly refuse, and returned Elena's smile. Lord Godwyn entered the room then, going to his place at the head table, which indicated that everyone else should find their seats, as well. Gwen began to turn toward the lower tables, and Arthur was trying to figure out an acceptable way of having her sit with him, when Elena spoke up.
"Guinevere, would you be so good as to join me? It is not often that I have another woman to talk to at supper."
It would mean that she was seated a short ways down from Arthur instead of beside him, but he found that preferable to having her at another part of the room.
Uncertainly, Gwen asked, "Are you sure? I do not know if it's appropriate…" Her eyes went to where Merlin and Dorin were seated, just below the knights, before flying back to the princess. "It is not that I do not appreciate the invitation; I do—"
"It is fine," Elena assured her, linking elbows and starting toward the head table, leaving Arthur to follow, much more cheerful when he noticed Dorin's disappointed expression.
The food and wine were excellent, and Arthur had expected no less, having been a guest at Gawant before. He primarily conversed with Lord Godwyn, beside whom he was seated, and to a lesser extent with a member of the court called Lord Nibben, on his other side. Arthur was familiar with him, as well, having come across him in various tournaments. The man never got far in a fight, focused more on the stylistic flourishes he designed for his armor and weaponry than on the purpose for which they were intended. It was a mentality Arthur could not grasp. He was not one for frills and adornments, and if not for the astute seamstresses of his court, would only ever be in plain clothing. Still, there was nothing objectionable about Nibben, and the meal passed pleasantly. Every now and then, he caught a glimpse of Guinevere past Godwyn and Elena, and looked forward to the time when she would be beside him at events such as these.
After the last course had been cleared away, Godwyn got to his feet. "Prince Arthur, if you would care to accompany me to my meeting chamber, we can speak about the matter which has brought you here."
Everyone had risen when Lord Godwyn did, and Arthur nodded. "I would appreciate that." Gesturing for Merlin to follow, he fell into step with Godwyn. He was already appreciative that Elena's father evidently bore him no ill feelings about the way the non-wedding had gone, which was something he had not been entirely certain about, despite the amicable way the entourage from Gawant had departed Camelot. It remained to be seen if the favor he intended to ask was too great.
Godwyn's meeting chamber served the same basic purpose of the council chamber at Camelot. Shields bearing the heraldry of the various noble families of Gawant hung on the two lengthwise walls, while a pair of long tapestries depicting Godwyn's own crest, a boar rampant and the other counter-rampant, hung from the wall behind his seat— wisely, high enough off of the floor that they could not conceal a person. The ceiling was higher than that of Camelot's council chamber, and the room itself was wider. Yet, the table situated in the center of the chamber was not as long as the one Uther had selected, thereby leaving a greater distance between those gathered around the table and the walls. Arthur liked the set-up, as it guaranteed a private conversation.
Once they were all seated, he explained the situation. Lord Godwyn had seemed surprised at first to have Arthur's manservant joining them, but said nothing against it, and apparently had no issue with the young man answering some of the questions he had. Once the basic circumstances had been laid out, Arthur said, "According to the story, the sorcerer Vesprian enchanted four objects, any one of which can lead to the others."
Godwyn leaned back, elbows propped on the arms of his chair and his fingers steepled. After a thoughtful pause, he said, "That sounds rather like using magic."
Arthur froze. Gaius had simply said that one of the objects would point the way to another… he had not considered the implications of what that meant. Well, hell. "It's not as if a spell is to be said over them," he replied slowly, his mind racing to figure out a way in which Godwyn was wrong. Unfortunately, he kept coming back to the regent being right. But, how were they to find this stone before Morgana, without something to guide their way?
"It's more like a compass, of sorts, than anything," Merlin chimed in quickly, sounding nervous. Arthur shot him a frustrated look; it was essentially a magical compass, which got them nowhere.
Godwyn, on the other hand, spread his hands in an agreeable gesture. "Ah! Well, a compass— that is nothing to worry about." A twinkle in his eye made Arthur wonder whether he was mocking them, but was placated when Godwyn went on to ask, "Where do I come into this?"
Arthur did not immediately answer, debating whether he should drop the subject. Despite the fact that Godwyn no longer seemed concerned, he was having doubts, which were swirling uneasily in the pit of his stomach. It was magic… was it not?
Since he did not respond to Godwyn's question, Merlin did. "There is a rumor that one of the other objects is in the vaults here. It could be a false rumor," he added carefully, and Arthur appreciated his tact; it would not do to suggest that their host was intentionally housing an item from the Old Religion, when his alliance with Camelot was so strong. "Are you, by any chance, aware of a pendant made of gold, with a large, orange stone, within which is a flaw in the shape of a boar's tusk? Like this." From a small pouch at his belt, Merlin withdrew a piece of parchment on which he had copied the illustration of the objects from Gaius's book. "It was once called Ysgithr, although it has probably not been thought of as more than a trinket for some time."
Setting the parchment back on the table, Godwyn studied Merlin, amusement still dancing in his gaze. "I do know it, although I was not aware that it bore a name. The flaw was what led to my acquiring it in the first place." He gave them a regretful look. "However, I do not think it will do you any good. In all the years it has been here, I have never had cause to believe it to be anything other than simply a pendant."
That made Arthur feel better about inquiring after it, but it got them no closer to the blasted Stone of Thandrastyl. Still, they had come this far, so they might as well examine the thing, provided they were granted access to it. "May we see it?"
"You may, and it will not even require a visit to the vaults. My daughter has it; she took a liking to it as a small child, and it has been in her possession ever since."
So, that was the reason for his levity. The object which they sought in due seriousness had been treated for over a decade as a child's plaything. A bauble that potentially possessed extreme power… come to think of it, Arthur was not sure why the man seemed at all entertained by the notion. He should be demanding it immediately, rather than calmly summoning a guard over to have Princess Elena bring her orange necklace in.
He could hardly say that, however, and watched warily as she entered the meeting chamber, clutching something in her hand. When she reached her father, she handed him the necklace and said, her voice tinged with curiosity so that it was nearly a question, "I was told to bring this to you."
Nodding, he gave her a smile. "Thank you, my dear." With an expression that amounted to a facial shrug, he held it out to Arthur. "I do not know what good it will do, as I said."
Arthur carefully took the thing and looked it over. It was not a very pleasing sort of jewelry, the large stone set within a golden disk, and only a slight bit of gold beading along the disk in the way of decoration. The flaw within the stone was unique, although if he was honest, he thought declaring it to be in the shape of a tusk was something of a stretch. Still, he began to suspect that Lord Godwyn was correct in assuming that it was nothing more than it appeared. "I understand what you mean."
"May I?" asked Merlin, holding a hand out. He examined it closely, much to Arthur's bafflement; there was nothing to be seen.
"What's this all about?" Elena was watching them all as if they were mad, not that Arthur could blame her.
He shook his head as Merlin continued to inspect the pendant. "I had been told that your necklace could help locate a dangerous, magical object, but it would appear that I was misinformed."
She laughed. "The only thing that has ever done is cast interesting light patterns through the stone."
Arthur let out a slight sigh, but Merlin looked up at her sharply. "What sort of light patterns? Um, my lady," he tacked on awkwardly, as his tone brought all eyes to him.
Not overly bothered by his lack of decorum, Elena shook her head. "Usually, it is simply orange, as you would expect. Once in awhile, there is some red in it."
Merlin began to smile, and more politely inquired, "Would you say the red appears as a line or beam?"
She considered it. "Yes, I suppose so."
He was grinning now as he looked at Arthur, who was not so thrilled. "There may be no incantation to be said over it, but that still sounds like an enchantment."
"Perhaps not," Godwyn put in. "A compass is not enchanted, and yet it unfailingly points north. This could operate under a similar principle."
"The information I was given said that all the objects were enchanted by the sorcerer," Arthur countered.
"It did not say how," Merlin said carefully. "For all we know, the gem might have been a different color, and Vesprian merely changed it to one that was easier to see. Or, maybe he made that flaw."
That felt to Arthur as though it were as great a stretch as calling the flaw tusk-shaped, yet Lord Godwyn seemed to like the theory. "Without more to go on, that is as likely as anything else." He watched Arthur for a moment as the prince considered the problem. "What happens if you do not locate this Stone of Thandrastyl?"
Mayhem. Destruction. Betrayal and pain. Arthur stared at the center of the table. "I believe we both know that."
"Indeed, we do. So, take the compass"— he emphasized that word— "and find that stone."
Arthur took the pendant back from Merlin. It appeared so innocuous. Rather ugly, yet otherwise unimposing. To think that a powerful sorcerer had placed an enchantment of any significance on it was laughable; Merlin was most likely right about the spell having been cosmetic.
Closing his hand around it, he glanced over at Lord Godwyn. "I will.""
The Stone is found, with unexpected results.
The minute they walked into the cave, Merlin knew they had found the Stone of Thandrastyl.
Nor was he the only one; peering sideways at Cerys, he saw her react to the strong surge of magic, as well. That came as no surprise, after the three days they had spent hunting for it. He had found that he possessed an odd affinity with the pendant; whenever Arthur took it out to check their direction, Merlin instantly knew which way it was going to send them. And, apparently, so did the weaver, who would glance in the direction they were about to turn moments before Arthur told them which way that was. Merlin was tempted to ask if she had any idea what purpose the gem was supposed to serve unto itself. Each of the objects carried its own enchantment, after all, with the ability to point the path to the others sort of an afterthought-- an extra function. He wished he had thought to ask Gaius, for it was probable that Cerys had no idea. That was, unless her purpose here was to procure the Stone for her own ends, and it seemed a bad idea to inquire. If she was guilty, that could lead her to act rashly; if she was innocent, it could frighten her into giving herself away to the others. So, he merely kept an eye on her as he had been doing all along, which had not led to anything yet. Until she did something suspicious, at least she was pleasant to watch.
Also, it helped that they made decent time. The longer they were away from Camelot with the Stone waiting to be found, the more tense Merlin had felt. Nor was he the only one; even Gwaine had been rather subdued, and the lack of easy conversation within the group punctuated how serious their mission was. Therefore, when the beam of red light pointed to a small rockfall, and Percival made short work of digging a small, iron chest out of it, the suspense holding them all in its thrall was palpable.
Breaking through the rusted lock on the side, Arthur opened the box and removed a greenish-grey stone, twice the size of his hand, and covered in various carvings. Merlin's hand flew to his forehead before he noticed what he was doing, so strong was the pulse of magic that emanated from the thing, and he took an involuntary step backward.
That was when he realized that Cerys was watching him, eyes wide, though he could not have said whether that was from her own reaction to it, or from being startled by his. Dropping his hand quickly, he tried to give her an innocent smile, but was inwardly kicking himself as she stared at him for another moment before looking away.
"This must be it," Arthur declared. Grinning in relief at the others, who returned the expression, he got to his feet. With a considering look at the Stone, he added, "Now that we are not wandering around like lost lambs, we can get back to Camelot in a few days, and see to it that this thing is properly dealt with." Gaius had warned that trying to destroy it outright could prove to be dangerous, so they were going to have him examine it before deciding how best to carry out its disposal.
"We have not yet eaten," said Dorin. "Perhaps, we can make camp and have supper now, and get an early start in the morning?"
Merlin did not care for dawn sojourns, but that sounded like the best possible plan, and Arthur agreed. "Very well. We can set up in the woods nearby, and as we eat, we'll figure out shifts for taking watch."
There was much more chatter around the camp than there had been the last couple of nights. Spirits were high as everyone settled down to sleep, save for Lancelot and Dorin, who had first watch.
The sun had been up for some time when Merlin awoke with a splitting headache. Nor was he the only one; around the camp, his friends were groaning and muttering as they started to come to. A sudden yell from a hill overlooking the camp made them all wince, even as most of them reached for their weapons. Lancelot stood there, clutching his head and using his sword to prop himself up. "Dorin's gone. He must have drugged us," he called down.
A very sick feeling was creeping into Merlin's stomach, at the same time that Arthur dove for his pack. Digging through it briskly, he then tossed it aside. "He's taken the Stone." With a glance around, he asked, "Where's Gwen?"
As they all got up, Merlin added, "Cerys is gone, too." So, she had been after the Stone, all along. Although he was unsure why, Merlin felt very disappointed by that.
"She was probably in on it," Arthur said dismissively. "But, we know Guinevere was not. They must have taken her."
"Why would they do that?" asked Lancelot.
Elyan shot Arthur a look that Merlin could not interpret. "She broke off a betrothal to Dorin several years ago."
"That was her fiancé?" Sir Leon asked in surprise, which sounded as though it was only a fraction of Merlin's own astonishment. Gwen had been engaged? To Dorin? When?
"Ex-fiancé," Arthur corrected tersely. "I knew he was still interested in her, but I did not expect him to steal her away." Well, that explained his attitude toward Dorin, anyway. Merlin had wondered about that, and would have found himself amused at how the other man had gotten under Arthur's skin when Gwen was so clearly not interested, had the situation been different.
As Arthur circled the camp, studying the ground, he instructed, "Look around; see if you can find any sign of where they went." Merlin doubted that any of them would be able to spot anything if Arthur had not, so he turned and closed his eyes, trying to sense the Stone. There were wispy hints of it, but even had they been solid enough to follow, they were being swamped by another source.
The chest in which Cerys kept her weaving materials was right where she had left it, along with the pack within which she kept the small box of herbs. She had not gone voluntarily.
However, Arthur was clearly not in a mood for Merlin to argue her culpability; and anyway, both women were likely in the same place. So, finding Gwen should also lead them to Cerys. A sizable dose of guilt swept through him. Not a moment earlier, he had been ready to write her off as an accomplice to a crime rather than a victim, and all because he knew that she had magic. Of all of them, he should have been the last to jump to that conclusion. Now, he wanted to make it up to her; he wanted to help.
Muttering a curse, Arthur kicked a water bucket that was resting near the campfire which had died out as they slumbered. Liquid sloshed over the ground as the bucket bounced rather too cheerfully along before coming to a rest near Gwaine. "He covered his tracks. There is nothing to follow. How could I have slept through it…?" That last part was muttered to himself as he wandered over to Gwen's empty pallet, then past it once more to look for clues that were not there.
They were all silent for a minute, although they exchanged worried glances. Finally, Sir Leon spoke up. "Sire, if we cannot track them, what do you think that we should do?"
Merlin watched Arthur closely as the prince considered the problem. "Dorin's based in Mercia, but he is rarely there."
"Why would he take the Stone, if he was after Gwen?" Elyan asked.
The answer occurred to all of them in a rush. "He's working for Lady Morgana," Gwaine groaned.
"She must have promised him Guinevere," Arthur muttered, his expression wavering between murderous and ill. "She used Gwen to get at me before, and I doubt she would hesitate to try a similar trick with him."
"Dorin said that Morgana was at Dinrheged, did she not?" Gwaine asked.
Arthur gave a slight shrug. "He was probably lying. He would not give away her location so easily."
"Unless it's a trap," Sir Leon suggested.
"Or, unless his focus is on Gwen." Lancelot continued more quietly, "He may not have been paying attention to what he was saying if he was preoccupied by thinking about her."
Arthur hesitated a moment, and Merlin summed up, "So, Dinrheged is either a trap or a legitimate location."
"Or, it's a red herring designed to send us in that direction, whilst Morgana raises Morgause and they head for Camelot," Arthur said. Merlin let out a long sigh. If only they had some way of knowing which it was—
—at that moment, Cerys breathlessly stumbled into the camp.
The ground was surprisingly soft, and smelled of lavender soap and polished wood. Gwen's eyes flew open and she sat up with a start, and then immediately fell back as a sharp ache went through her head.
"It passes quickly," a quiet voice assured her from nearby.
Peering across an unfamiliar bedchamber, Gwen asked in confusion, "What happened? Where am I?"
"You're safe now," Dorin replied with a warm smile, which he apparently felt was a suitable answer. "You are at Dinrheged, and soon will be back to normal."
"Normal?" Gwen sat up more carefully, frowning at him. "What on earth are you talking about?" Suddenly, the significance of their location hit her, and her heart began thudding in her chest. According to what Dorin had told them, Morgana was here.
His smile faded into a more sympathetic look. "I know that you are not aware of it, but both you and Prince Arthur are under a love spell. Lady Morgana explained it all to me— and I asked around Camelot, as well, after I heard what happened with her. Many people confirmed that an elderly wizard confessed to placing an enchantment on the two of you." He came over and sat on the edge of the bed in which Gwen was laying. "Lady Morgana still cares greatly for you, Gwen. She wants to help, and so do I."
Gwen could only stare at him in shock. She knew Morgana was a skilled liar, after the months she had fooled them all into thinking she was still their friend. Also, Dorin likely did not grasp the full extent of what had happened; while he had heard about it and seen some of the aftermath, the worst was already cleaned up by the time he arrived. And, he had not witnessed the horror of Cenred's immortal army sweeping through the kingdom. That could not truly be understood secondhand.
Still, it was difficult to believe how thoroughly he had bought Morgana's deceits-- which led her to another query. "What of the Stone?"
"Lady Morgana cannot break the enchantment herself, but her sister will be able to. However, she has been injured. So, Lady Morgana is going to use the Stone to heal her, and then Lady Morgause will see to you." He placed a hand over Gwen's where it rested on the coverlet, but she pulled away. "All will soon be well. I promise."
Gwen's mind whirled, even as the pain in her head began to dissipate. The only thing he had said which she did not doubt was that the sorceresses would "see to" her once Morgause was healed. She needed to stay away from them… she needed to get the Stone before Morgana could put it to use… she needed to get back to Arthur and the others. "Dorin, it's all lies. Arthur and I are not enchanted, and Morgana does not wish to help me, or anyone other than Morgause and herself. She likely intends to use me against Arthur." Pushing the blankets away and moving toward the side of the bed away from Dorin, she said, "I must get away from here."
His hand clamped around her wrist, gently yet firmly, preventing her from getting off the bed. "You cannot leave until Lady Morgana says you may. Even if I were willing to allow you to continue under an enchantment, which I am not, King Urien has guards everywhere. They will see to it that you do not escape. It may not seem like it, but I am doing this for you, Gwen." Freeing her wrist, he reached over to caress her cheek, but she jerked away. "I know I made a mess of things those years ago, and I want to make amends. I should never have left you."
"No, you should not have," she replied. "If you truly wish to make amends, help me escape from here. I am in danger as long as Morgana can get to me."
Just then, there was a knock at the door. "Enter," Dorin called, not taking his eyes from Gwen.
"Lady Morgana requires your presence in Lady Morgause's chambers," a servant stated.
"We will be right there." Dorin rose and held a hand out for Gwen as the servant stepped back out of the room. "This will all be over soon," he said reassuringly.
"I am not going anywhere with you." She hastily scooted across the mattress and jumped to the floor, only then noticing that she was clad in a nightgown. "Where are my clothes?" she demanded, arms crossing defensively across her midsection as she wondered who had changed her.
"They were filthy after so much travel. There are a gown and a pair of slippers behind that screen." Dorin indicated the privacy screen behind her. "Lady Morgana loaned you some of her own wardrobe and saw to you, personally." It was obvious that he found this to be very sweet, but Gwen's skin crawled. Had Morgana used any magic on her while she was unconscious? For that matter, had she been put to sleep magically in the first place? And, how much time had she lost?
Despite those questions, she was disinclined to converse with Dorin much longer. He apparently meant well, but Morgana had manipulated him completely, and Gwen could no longer rely on him. What she wanted now was to be alone, with time to figure out what she should do next. "Please leave, so that I may dress."
"That is why there's a privacy screen. It is not as though we are strangers, Gwen."
His voice was somewhat sad, but the reminder only served to reinforce her need to get away from him. Anything he felt for her was a memory. "We knew each other at one time, but I am no longer the woman you planned to marry," she replied, reaching a realization as she spoke. Indeed, she was not; that Gwen had been little more than a girl, not completely innocent to life, but certainly more naïve than she was now. Her naïvete was gone after events of the last few years, and she did not miss it. Because of all that she had been through, she was a stronger person, one who knew how to fight for what she believed in and for those she cared about.
And, that was precisely what she was going to do.
This castle was unfamiliar to her, and even were it not, she would probably be unable to locate the Stone on her own. However, if she met with Morgana, there was a chance that she could discover where her former lady was keeping it. "I insist that you leave so that I may dress." When he started to argue, she shook her head. "Wait for me in the corridor; I will be out in a moment."
She was prepared to offer an explanation for her sudden acquiescence, but he apparently required none. With a pleased smile, he stood. "Thank you, Gwen."
"I'll be out in a moment," she repeated, unwilling to accept his thanks. After he left the room, she quickly looked around for her own clothes, but concluded that they were not to be found. While she did not want to wear Morgana's clothes, she had no choice, and finally pulled the gown over her head and slipped the shoes onto her feet. Tying the sash behind her back, she checked her reflection in the mirror beside the screen. The dress was constructed of dark pink silk, with gold embroidery around the neckline and hem. As Morgana tended to prefer, the sleeves were gauzy and flowing; personally, Gwen liked a closer fit, since it was difficult to work with her sleeves hanging down all the time. However, seeing as she had no work here (or back at Camelot, she remembered with a start), it hardly signified. Keeping that in mind, the garment was actually quite flattering on her. That would normally please her, but she rather wished it was not the case just now, with Dorin apparently hoping to rekindle a relationship that ended what felt like a lifetime ago.
Instinct told her to barricade the door and make a rope from her bedsheets to escape out a window. She was not fond of heights, but there was more stopping her than just that. Unless she was willing to stand aside and allow Morgana to use the Stone of Thandrastyl, she would have to play along until she could work out a plan. Distasteful as that was, she had done it once before, and could do so again. Taking a deep breath and lifting her chin, Gwen went to join Dorin.
The servant who had been sent to fetch them was in the corridor with Dorin, waiting to escort them to Morgause's chamber. When Dorin said, "You look lovely," Gwen tried to keep her smile from looking too forced, and pretended not to notice the arm he offered as they started walking.
Urien's castle, or at least this section of it, was straightforward in its layout. A flight of stairs rose at the end of the corridor, and at the top was an identical passageway. A grand set of doors was at the far end of the upper corridor, and Gwen figured that entryway must belong to the king's quarters; the door the servant led them to was next to the royal chambers. A cold fear washed over Gwen as she and Dorin were announced, yet it vanished when her eyes met Morgana's. There was no compassion in that blue gaze, not that Gwen had expected any, and she was glad for that. It reminded her that she needed to pay attention and do what she could to stop the woman who had once been the closest thing to a friend that a mistress could be to her maid.
Then, Morgana gave her a wide smile and left her post beside the bed in which Morgause lay, unmoving. "Gwen," she said warmly, yet both the greeting and the embrace which followed it rang so false that Gwen could not understand how Dorin was fooled by them. Granted, he did not know Morgana, but it stung that he was eating up a performance that was purely for his benefit when he claimed to have Gwen's best interests at heart.
"Thank you for bringing her to me," Morgana said to him, before turning her attention back to Gwen. "As I am certain that Dorin has explained, I know how to take care of the situation that you and Arthur have found yourselves in." While her tone was kind, her expression had gone cold once more, and Gwen glared defiantly back.
Going back over to the bed and laying a hand on her sister's arm, Morgana continued, "No matter how it seems at the moment, you should be grateful to have someone like Dorin in your life. A faithful friend is a rare treasure."
The irony in her voice was not lost on Gwen, although she had no patience for the allusion that she was the betrayer in their relationship. "Indeed, it is, my lady."
A slight smirk quirked Morgana's lips, but the door opened again before she could reply. Two men walked in, one obviously the king and the other wearing long robes-- some sort of attendant, perhaps. Morgana curtsied to the king as he went over to her, and although he paid no attention to anyone else in the room, Dorin bowed.
Gwen lifted her chin a bit more. This man was harboring enemies of Camelot, thus making himself an enemy. She would show him no respect.
If he took note of her rebellion, he gave no indication. "Lady Morgana, are we ready?"
"We are, my lord." Morgana went over to a small table beside the head of Morgause's bed and picked up the Stone, until then hidden in the shadows. As surreptitiously as possible, Gwen tried to assess the chances of grabbing it and escaping. As she already knew, it simply was not possible, nor did she see any other way to prevent was about to happen— not without getting injured, or worse. And, while she was not opposed to risking her life to save the kingdom, she would not do so knowing that she would fail in her attempt.
Unable to act, Gwen could only watch as Urien's man stood across the bed from Morgana, who placed the Stone on Morgause's chest, and then opened a scroll which she laid on the coverlet. Morgana extended her hands, as did the man in the robes, and she began reciting words that Gwen did not understand. It was clear what the purpose was even before their eyes began to glow, and soon the Stone was emitting a red light that enveloped Morgause. The light grew brighter and brighter, and then brighter still, until Gwen squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head against it. Even then, the luminance continued to intensify through her lids, as Morgana's voice grew louder and the man across from her began to chime in. Suddenly, there was a blinding flash and a loud rumble, and Morgause screamed.
Lightning flashed on the Isle of the Blessed, striking the ground beside the altar. As smoke billowed from the scorched earth, Nimueh stepped out of the thick clouds, arms wrapped around herself against the chill in the air.
Across the sea, an unexpected storm struck several leagues from shore. A ship carrying twin princesses crumbled under the punishing waves, giving over her royal passengers and some of her crew to the murky deep.
A discussion of magic, and Taulard is raised.
Arthur's sword was at Cerys's throat instantaneously. "What have you done with Guinevere?" he demanded.
"Arthur, wait!" Merlin rushed over, holding a pacifying hand out as he carefully took Cerys's arm and moved her back a few steps. "Can't you see that she's frightened?"
Frowning at his manservant, Arthur nonetheless actually looked at the girl and saw that Merlin was right. Nor did it seem to be fear from standing on the receiving end of a blade. While he did not completely trust her motivations, Arthur lowered his weapon. "Well? What's going on?" She had better have a damned good explanation, or she would soon find herself clapped in irons for the rest of the journey.
"Dorin," she said at first, catching her breath. "He drugged everyone."
That did not impress Arthur. "We figured that out already. Where's Gwen?"
She shook her head. "I do not know for sure."
His jaw set. Getting Leon's attention, Arthur gestured at Cerys. "Arrest her."
"Arthur," Merlin murmured, in that tone that said Merlin felt he was being unreasonable.
"I did not know what he was planning," Cerys said pleadingly. "I thought we were helping all of you, exactly as you did. To be honest, I'm not even sure why he took me; I woke up thrown over the saddle of a horse. Gwen was on another, but she did not come to while I was there. I said I had to excuse myself— it took awhile to convince him, but I finally managed and started running once I was out of sight."
Arthur signaled for Leon to wait. "Where were you when this happened?" If Dorin had stopped covering his tracks, they should be able to pick up his trail from where Cerys had escaped. However, that hope vanished when he saw the hesitant look in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, but I'm not familiar with this area, so I cannot say where it was. It's sheer luck that I managed to come across you; I was simply trying to get away."
"We could follow her tracks," Percival said.
"That will take time," said Leon. "And, it's no guarantee that Dorin will not have started covering his own tracks again after she escaped." Sounding reluctant, he added, "If Morgana succeeds with her plan, which it seems she might, she's certain to head straight for Camelot. Sire, the kingdom will need you there if that happens."
Arthur stared at him, knowing he was right, yet also knowing Camelot was not the only thing at stake. "We cannot just abandon Guinevere," he replied tensely. Frowning, he considered the situation, only peripherally noting when Cerys walked over to stand beside Merlin. He already had a solution, yet he did not care for it much. Still, nothing better came to mind. "We'll split up. Some of us will go back to Camelot and begin preparations in case we are attacked, and the others will try to find Dorin, see if they can stop him." As much as Arthur wanted to be in the latter group, Leon was right. He had to be at the citadel in case of battle.
"I will go after Dorin," Lancelot offered.
Elyan nodded. "As will I."
"I'll go, too." Everyone turned to Cerys in surprise. Arthur was about to argue that it was not a good idea, as she could not defend herself, when she continued, "I may be able to recognize things I passed as I fled."
She had a point, but Arthur still did not like it. "It's too dangerous."
"Please. I want to help."
Arthur noticed that Lancelot was trying to catch his eye, and the knight gave a slight nod when Arthur glanced over to him before looking back at Cerys. "Very well." It did not escape him that she was gravitating toward Merlin, and considering the way Merlin was sticking up for her, Arthur pointed at him. "You'll go with them." Based on Cerys's relieved expression, she had been hoping for that result. Merlin appeared startled, but did not argue it. In truth, Arthur was not so certain it was a good decision, with half the group unable to fight well if needed. But, Merlin had been improving with a sword and somehow managed to survive encounters unscathed, so Arthur had to hope that luck would hold out.
Forcing himself to admit that he was not going to be part of that group, he said, "The rest of you will accompany me to Camelot."
They broke down the camp quickly and soon set off in their various directions. As Arthur turned his horse away from where Cerys was leading the other party, he sent a quick plea out to whatever gods might be listening that Guinevere was safe and they would soon bring her home.
It was not the first time he had done that, and while he would prefer it to be the last, he knew that would be unlikely.
Cerys was using magic to trace her steps.
She was doing an excellent job of pretending to find landmarks, but Merlin knew better. And, he was fairly certain that she knew that he knew what was going on, yet they had no opportunity to discuss it for some time. While Lancelot would have been all right with such a conversation, she was not aware of that, and Merlin was yet unclear what Elyan's thoughts on the matter were.
Not only did Cerys get them back to where she had escaped from Dorin, she also helped them continue to follow his and Gwen's trail. Merlin had to wonder if the signs she pointed out had actually been caused by the people they were following, or if it was akin to when he had created false footprints that led Arthur where they needed to go. There still existed the possibility that she was leading them into a trap, although he did not believe that to be the case. Her panic when she burst into the camp and her testimony that she had been in the dark regarding her employer's plans felt genuine. Either she was one of the world's best liars or she was honest, and Merlin was nearly certain it was the latter.
Once it started getting dark, they decided to make camp. The knights went to scout out the area and make sure they were as safe as they could reasonably expect to be, with Merlin and Cerys left at the campsite to collect firewood and get dinner started. While Merlin was looking forward to the opportunity to speak with Cerys, he had not intended to dive straight to the point, as she did the moment their companions were out of earshot.
"You have magic," she said, staring straight at him.
After a lifetime of denying it, Merlin automatically pasted on a disarming smile and replied with innocent confusion, "What?"
Setting down an armful of kindling, she walked right up to him. "I saw you react to the Stone, and I've been watching you ever since. Why did you not tell me? You figured out that I have it."
With a quick look around to ensure Elyan would not overhear, Merlin let out a sigh. "It's not exactly something that I am used to admitting."
It was her turn to smile. "Fair enough. But, there have been other opportunities." She suddenly had a realization. "When you asked about the piece in my chamber at Camelot— you were really asking about the enchantment, weren't you?"
He felt guilty when he saw how taken aback she was, and turned away to drop onto a log at the edge of the campsite. "In my time at Camelot, I have only ever met one other sorcerer, not counting Druids, who was not set on bringing down Camelot or killing Uther or Arthur. I have learned to be careful."
She gave him a small smile when he was finished, then came over to sit near him on the log. "That is also fair enough." Pausing as she leaned over to pick up a stick, she started to draw small pictures in the dirt with it as she said, "The piece you asked me about carries an enchantment of protection to expectant mothers. Most of my works have specific purposes along those lines."
"That's lovely." A part of Merlin's brain was warning him to maintain a distance, maintain some suspicion of her. However, he felt in his heart that to do so would be a great disservice to her. Cerys was trying to aid people who could use a bit of magical help, and that was admirable. The thought made him exceptionally happy, and the smile he exchanged with her was a warm one.
"What about you?" she asked. "How do you use your magic?"
He let out a little laugh. "Very carefully." She laughed, too, and it was such a nice sound that Merlin's smile turned into a grin. That faded a bit as he watched her patterns appear in the dirt, but his good mood remained. "It's been with me all my life, but I never knew what it was for until I went to Camelot. Now, I'm doing my best to ensure that Arthur becomes the king he is meant to be."
Cerys's smile vanished as she glanced over at him. "That sounds like a complicated position to be in."
"It's more complicated than I could ever have imagined. And when I first met Arthur, he was a much different person than he is now." For that matter, Merlin knew himself to be vastly changed from the day he had set foot in Camelot. "I would never have guessed where we would find ourselves, just a few years later," he mused.
"I think that's true for many people," Cerys said gently. "This is certainly not the destiny which was laid out for me. I am still figuring out how to pursue a different one."
"Destiny?" Merlin all but groaned at the word. "I cannot decide if it's better to know that I have one, or if it would be preferable to go back to when I never even considered the possibility."
"We each have a destiny," she declared. "Some might seem to have a greater effect on the world than others, yet they are all intertwined. Alter one, and those ripples are felt straight down the line."
His eyebrows went up. "What of your changed destiny, then?"
"Not all ripples have a negative effect." She sounded almost cheerful at that prospect. "A man about to drown in the middle of a lake could be safely pushed to shore if the water is disturbed properly."
It occurred to Merlin that the theoretical man could also be drowned more quickly if caught in the wrong current, but he was sure that she had considered that, as well.
"Besides," she said, "Just because you think you know your destiny, does not mean you're necessarily right."
"I was told by a fairly reliable source that protecting Arthur is mine." He had heard his straight from the dragon's mouth, after all.
She studied him for a minute, and then smiled again. "In that case, Merlin, I hope whoever laid out your destiny saw to it that you are kept safe." Suddenly, she leaned over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. As he felt his ears go hot again, she said softly, "Thank you for telling me about that. I would have understood if you did not."
Footsteps heralded the return of their companions, and Merlin hastily told her, "Lancelot knows. No one else on our journey has any idea, although a couple of others in and around Camelot do." Perhaps, it would help her to be aware that they were not the only members of the group who were accepting of magic.
"Only my aunt knows," she replied. "And now, you."
He grinned at her once more, his happiness returning, but Elyan walked into the small clearing before he could reply.
"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" the knight asked teasingly.
"Would it matter if you were?" Merlin countered.
Elyan nudged the pile of firewood with his foot. "No. Now, let's get this fire going; I'm hungry."
Gwen was summarily escorted from Morgause's bedchamber before she had completely regained her sight, and had been locked in her own room ever since. A thorough examination of that space made it clear that escape was impossible until she was out the door, at least. The windows opened inwardly, revealing decorative iron gratings set deeply into the stone walls. A study of the floorboards, walls, and even of the ceiling revealed no hint of a concealed passageway. Nor was there a suitable weapon available for when someone did come into the chamber, which she knew was intentional.
So, when Morgana swept into the room some time later, it was to find Gwen staring through one of the window gratings in frustration. There was no performance from Morgana this time, as the only other people present were a pair of guards. "I hope you did not waste too much time looking for a way out," she said haughtily to Gwen.
"Not at all," Gwen assured her, steel underlying her voice. "I do not feel that I have wasted a single minute."
Their gazes locked, until Morgana turned to leave. "Bring her," she ordered the guards, who moved forward to drag Gwen along behind their lady.
The section of Dinrheged to which Gwen was taken this time was far more labyrinthine than the area with bedchambers. They descended a few flights of stairs, on occasion passing along a twisting corridor before coming to the next set of steps. Eventually, the dank corridor through which they strode became a natural cave, and that was where they finally stopped.
Dorin was standing to the side, looking quite pleased, and in a more central location were King Urien and his robed man. Seated on a sumptuous chair beside the king was Morgause, though it was only by the blonde hair escaping the lower edge of her hood that Gwen was able to identify her, as she was greatly enveloped by her cloak. When Morgana went over to Morgause, she held out a hand, and rose with Morgana's assistance. The pair moved slowly to the mouth of the cave, a small glen visible beyond them. When they reached the center of the opening, they turned, and Morgana announced, "Many of you have helped make this day possible. Others have made it necessary. My sister and I are pleased that you are all here to witness what you have made happen: the destruction of Camelot."
As the robed man started forward with a book, Dorin also stepped forward, until he was stopped by a guard. "What about Gwen? You told me you could break her enchantment."
Giving him an impatient look, Morgana replied, "There is no enchantment, you fool. She is here to make her amends to me." If Gwen was not so angry by her treatment thus far, in addition to everything else that Morgana had done, the icy glare her former mistress shot at her would have hurt. As it was, she merely returned it.
That was, until the guards seized her by the arms and began hauling her forward. She had walked along well enough with them before, having no real choice in the matter, but she began to struggle now, certain that whatever Morgana had in mind would not be pleasant. She desperately wanted to retort, to demand why Morgana expected amends to be made to her when she had personally caused so much pain, but was too caught up in attempting to extract herself from the guards to be able to do so. At least Dorin tried.
"My lady, with all due respect, I thought I was to have the chance to win Gwen back after bringing you the Stone."
"Hold your tongue!" Urien commanded suddenly. "I have been lenient toward your incessant whining since you were the one who delivered the Stone to us, but I am finding myself less inclined toward leniency the more you talk."
"We no longer require anything of him," Morgana said airily to the king. "It makes no difference whether he lives or dies at this point."
Panic swept through Gwen. Dorin may be a fool, but it was obvious that he was being foolish out of love or something like it, and he certainly did not deserve to die. Increasing her efforts to get away from her captors, she managed to drag her heel down one guard's leg before digging it solidly into the small bones at the top of his foot. As he jerked, she pulled away, and the other guard was so surprised by the action that she managed to get completely free for a moment. She knew she was not going to get away, but dashed toward the mouth of the cave, anyway. "Run, Dorin!" she cried as she ducked to the side of the opening, trying to put as much distance as possible between herself and the sorceresses. She even got one foot outside before she was grabbed and hauled roughly back. Glancing over, she saw no sign of Dorin, and breathed a little easier. While Morgana clearly had something planned for her, at least he had escaped.
"Shut her up," Urien told the guard who was now restraining Gwen, and a gag was quickly tied around her mouth.
The robed man had opened his book, and Morgana had an arm around Morgause to support her. The women began to recite words much like those which had been spoken in Morgause's bedchamber, and when the ground began to rumble, the robed man said, "Now," to Gwen's guard. The second guard joined the first once more in yanking her over to a tree in the glen, and no amount of flailing and kicking kept her from being bound to the old yew. As they started back toward the cave, the area where the ground was rumbling began to push upward. Soon, the earth was taking on a humanoid form, which continued to grow in size as the sisters continued chanting.
Soon, the form became a man. A very large man.
As the spell came to a close, the giant stared down at the sorceresses who had summoned him. "Why do you call me?" he demanded, in a voice like thunder.
"Taulard, lord of the giants, we call you to lead an army and bring about the destruction of a kingdom," Morgana called up to him.
"What do you offer in return?"
Morgana gestured toward Gwen. "The love of a prince."
Gwen could hardly breathe as the massive man studied her with eyes the color of grass, and she barely remembered to take in air so as not to faint. She needed to keep her wits about her as much as she could. He nodded to Morgana. "I accept this payment."
"You have our thanks," Morgana said. "Now, Taulard, once you have collected your payment, lead our army to Camelot."
"To Camelot," he agreed, as he reached for Gwen.
None of the return trips to Camelot goes undisturbed.
The wooden cage in which the giant had placed Gwen was sturdy, but that made her feel no better about being lugged about in it. She closed her eyes and clung to the bars as she bounced along, Taulard not paying much attention to how she fared as he hauled the container over his back by a rope. He only set it down and walked away once, and Gwen used the opportunity to try to kick the bars out. When that did not work, she attempted to tip it over in the hopes that it would break. However, the thing was very well built, its balance excellent. The door was locked on the outside, where she could not reach to pick it. So, when Taulard lumbered back, chewing on a cow and carrying another, Gwen was right where he had left her.
He picked up the rope and held the cage so that she was at eye level with him. She studiously avoided looking at him— or inhaling through her nose, considering the smell of his breath. "The love of a prince, eh?" he muttered around a mouthful of raw meat.
"I am," she replied, a layer of steel in her voice despite the way it quivered.
He sniffed. "Princesses and ladies. Pretty little birds."
In fact, the cage was rather fancy, resembling the kind in which birds would be kept, but she resented the implication that she was merely decorative. "I am the daughter of a blacksmith, a seamstress in my own right. Do not assume that you know me." She was so terrified that she was trembling, but she would not be dismissed like that.
He raised an eyebrow, the hairs from which could have filled at least two, possibly three mattresses. "You're pretty as a princess. Princess or seamstress; liar or true— it makes no difference, as long as you sing."
"That's right, little bird. Sing." Taulard flicked the cage with a finger that was not much shorter than she was, sending her sprawling as the floor swung from under her feet. She cried out as she fell against the bars on the other side, wringing a cruel laugh from him. He took another large bite of the cow and mumbled around it, "Excellent."
Gwen tried to ignore the throbbing in her shoulder and knee, grabbing hold of the bars nearest her as he flipped the cage over his back again. The movement as he started walking was almost a relief after that-- until he spoke. "Let's find you some friends. I enjoy a harmony."
She shut her eyes, hoping she could find a way to stop him before the giant wanted to hear more "singing"— and before he added anyone else to her traveling prison.
They never stood a chance.
The ground rumbled, and despite Lancelot and Elyan having their weapons at the ready, two swords had little effect against a man who was larger than a three-story house. Despite this, they did try, and the giant kicked Elyan against a tree and Lancelot into some bushes. Merlin extended his hand, about to knock him away magically, when a familiar voice cried down from above. "Merlin!"
"Gwen?" he yelled back, but his hesitation gave the giant the opening he needed, the toe of the giant's boot knocked the breath out of Merlin as he was sent flying backward.
The next thing he became aware of was a growing pain in his midsection when he regained consciousness. As he was opening his eyes, he heard Elyan call, "Everybody alive?"
Lancelot groaned, clambering out of the brush. "Yes."
The pain made everything go white for a moment as Merlin sat up, but he managed to say, "Mostly." His hand went to where the ache was radiating from, and he winced. If one or two of his ribs were not broken, they were at least cracked. Unsurprisingly, he was not the only one who was feeling the attack, judging from the way Elyan was clutching the back of his head. "Are you all right?"
The knight managed a strained smile. "Once I stop seeing two of you, I will be." The smile disappeared when he glanced about. "The horses are gone."
Realizing only the three of them had spoken, Merlin looked around. "Where's Cerys?" It did not take long to confirm that she was missing, and Merlin remembered what had happened just before he was kicked. "Gwen— the giant had Gwen, I think on his shoulder or something. He might have taken Cerys, too."
"Then, we need to follow him," said Lancelot instantly, and they all agreed. At least it was easy to see where the giant had gone; he did not bother to stick to proper paths, forging one of his own when it was more convenient. They had only gone a few yards along the makeshift route when someone hailed. Turning, they saw Dorin rushing toward them.
While he was probably fortunate that he had not come across Arthur, none of the men he was nearing was feeling particularly friendly toward him, either. While Lancelot drew his sword, Elyan preferred a more direct approach: seizing Dorin by his shirt, Elyan flung him up against a tree. "What have you done with Gwen?" he demanded.
"I have done nothing! Elyan, you know I would never do anything to harm her!"
"Then explain how she is now being hauled around by a giant, after you stole her away," her brother growled.
"Let go of me, and I will." When Elyan maintained his grip, Dorin continued, "There's no time for this!"
Angrily, Elyan released him, but with Lancelot and Merlin flanking Dorin as well, he was not going anywhere. "What happened?" Lancelot demanded.
Dorin took a breath. "It was Lady Morgana. She and her sister are trying to destroy Camelot. She said Gwen was going to be making 'amends' to her— I'm not sure what she meant. They were going to kill me, but Gwen saved my life. Since I could not help her there, I thought to find you all…" With a look around, he noticed that their group was diminished. "Where is everyone else?"
Ignoring his question, Elyan demanded, "Why did you take Gwen?"
Dorin glanced downward, seemingly embarrassed. "Lady Morgana said Gwen and Prince Arthur had been enchanted to make them believe they were in love, and that her sister could break the enchantment."
"When did she tell you that?" inquired Merlin, sure he already knew the answer.
Hesitantly, Dorin met his eyes. "A week before I arrived in Camelot."
"This whole thing has been a set-up, hasn't it?" Merlin could have kicked himself. "Morgana needed the Stone to save Morgause, and she didn't know where it was. But, we had the resources to find it, between our library and Camelot's friendship with Gawant."
"It was not meant to be a set-up," Dorin insisted. "I thought I was saving Gwen. And Prince Arthur, and possibly Camelot, since she said the enchantment had been cast in order to weaken the kingdom." Merlin sighed inwardly at that, wishing not for the first time that he had come up with another excuse for "Dragoon" to have cast the spell. "But," Dorin continued, "you are right. I bought Lady Morgana's lies because they were what I wanted to hear, and I did not give consideration to her odd assignment. This whole thing happened because of me, so I would like to help stop it. But we will accomplish nothing if we stand around here!"
He was right, even if none of them wanted him to be. With great reluctance, Elyan stepped back, allowing Dorin to move away from the tree. "Come on," Lancelot said to all of them. "This is going to take longer without our horses."
That also entailed stopping more often than they would have to do on horseback, and Merlin was just returning to their resting point after excusing himself when he overheard Dorin and Lancelot talking.
"…and anyway, you love her, too," Dorin was saying.
After a pause, Lancelot replied, "I never said that."
"You do not need to. I know the look, having worn it myself."
There was another pause. "It does not signify. She is with Arthur, and I will not go between them."
"Because he's a prince?" Dorin asked dryly.
"Because she deserves to be a queen," said Lancelot in such an earnest tone, it was almost painful. The reply surprised Merlin. He had assumed that Lancelot left them after they rescued her from Hengist because of a sense of loyalty to Arthur.
Apparently, it surprised Dorin, as well, since the other man did not reply immediately. "I cannot argue that," he finally murmured.
"If either one of you had bothered to stay with her instead of pursuing fortune or humility, we would not be finding ourselves in this position right now," Elyan announced as he joined them, having gone off in an opposite direction from Merlin.
"It is not as though you were around to look out for her until recently," Dorin retorted.
Enough was enough. "In case nobody noticed, Gwen is perfectly capable of dealing with most things on her own," Merlin said irritably as he stepped out of the trees. "Every single one of us has required saving at some point, and that she needs saving is far more important than who is or is not courting her. Now, are we going to keep talking about her like a bunch of gossiping Guses, or are we going to go rescue her— and the kingdom?"
No one ever seemed to know quite what to do when Merlin unloaded on them, and this was no exception. Without a good rejoinder, they resumed their trek in relative silence.
Arthur's company was nearing Camelot quickly. In the back of his mind, he was hoping that the sooner they returned, the sooner the rest of his men would return with Guinevere. He knew it was not logical, but he was being logical enough in planning the preparations for a possible attack. In his opinion, it was within his rights to allow his personal thoughts to run toward irrationality. It was because those hopes were so impractical, however, that he had them make camp for one more night instead of pushing all the way through to arrive home around dawn. They did need to be back soon, and he was concerned about how his father was faring, but it would do no good if they were all too exhausted to function when they made it to the castle.
They were just finishing supper when a cloaked figure emerged from the trees on the outskirts of their camp. Flickering light from the fire in their midst did little to illuminate the identity of the person, and the knights instantly took hold of their weapons and jumped to their feet. Arthur began to say, "Show yourself," but before the first sound left his lips, the figure pushed back the hood of her cloak— and both Arthur and Leon went on high alert, while Gwaine and Percival began to lower their swords.
"Hello, Arthur Pendragon," Nimueh said, giving him an infuriating smirk.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, causing the men who had not previously encountered her to recognize that she was a threat.
She held out a hand when four blades were pointed in her direction. "I have not come to harm you. On the contrary, I offer an alliance."
"I do not ally myself with sorceresses."
She raised an eyebrow. "It would serve you well to hear what I have to say before you dismiss my offer."
"Every practitioner of magic I have ever met has lied to me." Arthur's gaze was as level and cold as his voice, thinking back to the myriad times he had been misled. "What makes you think I would believe a word that left your lips?"
"My niece has been kidnapped by the same creature that threatens your kingdom— a giant called Taulard, who now has your friend, as well. I can defeat him, but not the army that follows in his path. You cannot defeat him, but you can defeat the army. Together, we can stop them both."
Arthur frowned and shook his head. "I know nothing about a giant, an army, or a taken friend." Morgana had Guinevere, but she was much more than a friend, and he could not imagine his sister would hand her over to a monster who was stealing women. It was possible that she had convinced Urien to rally his army, which was why he had agreed to go to Camelot. But as far as Nimueh was concerned, he was sure this had to be a trap. "Considering that you tried to kill me at least once before, you will understand if I do not trust you." He started toward her. "What you can do is join us going back to Camelot, where you will be tried for practicing magic."
"It is your loss, Arthur. Everything that befalls Camelot will be on your head." She began muttering words under her breath, and then she vanished into the air like a whirlwind.
They all stood there for a moment, and then Gwaine asked, "Am I the only one who has a very bad feeling about this?"
"You mean, a feeling like she was telling the truth?" Percival frowning was a formidable sight, and that was even more true when he was worried.
Arthur and Leon exchanged a look. They knew Nimueh to be a schemer; but for some reason, they were both wondering if the others were correct.
Taulard nears Camelot.
Morgana was pleased to see Morgause holding her seat so well. Urien had offered to have a special saddle rigged, yet Morgause had refused it or any other special conveyance. While Morgana understood, she still did not entirely believe it to be a good idea. So, not only did it ease her mind to see Morgause riding decently, it also made her more confident about her sister's recovery. While the Stone brought Morgause back as Accolon had promised, Morgana had expected it to be a complete cure. That did not prove to be the case, however, so Morgana was worried that she had taken the wrong course of action. Morgause regaining strength was a reassurance, a sign that things could be well again.
Morgana would feel more reassured at that very moment if Accolon's horse was not immediately behind hers. Without looking, she was certain that she could feel that eerie gaze fixated on her.
"This plan was a good one." Urien smiled at Morgause, which annoyed Morgana. Indeed, it had been Morgause's idea to call forth the giant, but Morgana had done all the work leading up to it. She had transported herself and her sister from Camelot, she had brought them both to Dinrheged and seen to it that they were taken in, she had arranged for the Stone to be found and brought to them along with an offering for Taulard… and it was Morgause whom Urien praised.
Well, she did not care. Morgause had thanked her upon awakening, and that was enough. She did not need the praise of some lovesick king and his repulsive lapdog.
"It has worked to this point," agreed Morgause. "We are as yet far from successful."
Gesturing at the swathe of destruction they were following, Urien said, "I would call this a successful beginning of a campaign."
The corners of Morgause's lips curved upward, and she dipped her chin in acknowledgment.
Morgana turned her head and found that Accolon did, indeed, have his weird eyes trained on her. He gave her a smile that may have been an attempt at being friendly, but it made her skin crawl. "Let us make certain that we have a successful ending to our campaign, as well," she said irritably, spurring her mount forward and leaving them— and the army at their rear— to follow.
While it was slightly less frightening not to be alone, Gwen still had the feeling that she should have tried harder to prevent the capture of the women who now surrounded her. That was not to say that she had a clue what she could have done, but being that Taulard had told her what he had in mind and then gone forth and done it, Gwen was frustrated that she had been unable to act at all. Now, it was not just she who was clinging to the carved, wooden bars. Dorin's girl, Cerys, was nearby, as were Princess Elena and her maid Blanchefeur, nabbed as they passed Gawant. He had grabbed a pretty young woman called Philippa from a village a bit further on, and rounded out his "collection" with a noblewoman's entourage that had been unfortunate enough to cross their path. Nor was it just any noblewoman— it was the Lady Vivian and a handmaiden of hers named Mary.
Gwen could not believe that turn of luck, although she was now wondering if it was a more fortunate happenstance than she first believed, for Lady Vivian was irritating Taulard to no end. It was satisfying to see someone finally getting under his skin, since nothing that Gwen or any of the others had said or done seemed to matter to him. On the other hand, though, Gwen was concerned that annoying Taulard would end badly for Vivian, and while Gwen did not like her much, she did not want her dead.
After a spirited string of verbal abuse from Vivian had left the giant looking particularly cross, Gwen said softly, "My lady, it might be wise not to anger our captor."
Vivian glared scornfully at her. "And just whom do you think you are, to be giving me orders?" Peering at her a little more closely, she said, "You're that servant from Camelot. What are you doing here?" The question was asked in such a way that it sounded as if Vivian did not feel that a maid was worthy of being trapped in a cage.
"She is a close, personal friend of Prince Arthur, and a recent friend of my own," Elena said sharply. "I would advise you to watch your tongue with her."
Vivian looked about ready to retort, when she froze. "Did you say she is a friend of Prince Arthur?" Without waiting for a reply, she looked back at Gwen. "Are you?"
Gwen groaned inwardly. She truly did not need this, on top of everything that was already going on. "I suppose so—"
"How fares my love?" Vivian asked, a wide smile spreading over her face.
"Your love?" repeated Elena.
"Prince Arthur— my love, my all. How I have missed his eyes as I stared into them, his voice as he declared his undying love for me, his lips on mine, his arms around me…"
Elena glanced at Gwen in bafflement, but Gwen was too unhappy due to what Vivian was saying to explain. She knew what had happened; she did not care to hear it listed like that, no matter that it was an enchantment which had led Arthur to do and say all of those things. Unenlightened, Elena said to Vivian, "What on earth are you on about?"
"It has been too long since I have been in the presence of my love," Vivian informed her archly. "I have been living on nothing but memories, which do not get me through the nights very easily, I might add." Gwen could have lived without hearing that, and Elena's mouth opened in surprise.
"I am acquainted with Prince Arthur's love, and you are not she," Cerys suddenly blurted. Everyone stared at her in astonishment, even Philippa and Mary, who had no clue what was going on. The edges of Blanchefleur's mouth turned up as she looked at Gwen.
Gwen's eyebrows went up slightly at the same time that Vivian turned her ire on Cerys. "If anyone should be holding her tongue, it is you. How dare you spread such lies!"
"It is the truth," Elena confirmed. "Is it not, Gwen?"
"Yes, ask the maid; she knows where Arthur's heart lies," Vivian agreed.
"I do know where his heart lies," Gwen said, feeling her own thudding at this confrontation, and in such an unlikely place. Each of them was clinging to the wooden bars in order not to get thrown into one another, and here they were, on the precipice of a squabble over Arthur. The thing was, as much as she would be glad to have Lady Vivian know the truth, she also knew it would mean nothing. The woman was enchanted and therefore less rational than she was ever capable of being. "I do not feel that this is the right time or place for such a discussion. We should be figuring out a means of escape, and then how we intend to stop the giant before he takes anyone else or reaches Camelot."
"Please," Philippa said pleadingly. "I want to go home, and I'll do whatever it takes to make that happen."
"Good." Gwen gave her an approving nod.
"I will do what I can," Elena chimed in.
"As will I," Mary declared, earning her a disapproving glare from her mistress.
"And I," said Cerys.
Blanchefleur began to reply, but they all had to grab hold suddenly when Taulard swung them around. Once she had her feet again, she said, "My brother was squire to a knight and taught me to fight. If we can get a weapon, I will do what I can with it."
Vivian gave them a haughty expression. "If you expect me to rescue myself, think again. That is why Father has knights."
"I do not see any knights," Elena remarked.
"I would not wish to see a knight," Mary said quietly, her pale blue eyes sad. "The ones I have known have been less than pleasant."
"How dare you speak of Father's army in such a way!" Vivian huffed. "I'll have you know that they are some of the finest, most perfect men who ever took up arms. After Prince Arthur, of course." Her expression made Gwen wonder exactly how fine and perfect Vivian had found them. "Consider yourself no longer in my employ."
Mary's chin raised a notch. "Thank you, my lady."
Not sure what to make of that exchange, Philippa asked, "Does anyone have a plan for getting out of here?"
"Not yet," Gwen admitted. "We need to keep our eyes open."
Preparations in Camelot were well underway for a possible attack when Merlin, Lancelot, and Elyan returned— without Guinevere or Cerys, but with Dorin in tow. As soon as Arthur saw the man walking with them, he was seized by the urge to greet him with a fist to the face. It was certainly an option, but he knew that his reason was not the best: it was personal, because Dorin had taken Gwen, rather than due to the political implications of his having betrayed Camelot. He had to handle this properly, as befit his position as regent, and not like a man in love.
His visit that morning with his father had served as a reminder of that position, with Uther having an off day again, barely communicative or even aware of his surroundings. Apparently, he had been more lucid whilst Arthur was away, but that was actually a problem, since he had been tremendously difficult with his nurse and she was on the verge of walking out. Arthur did not know how he could find another nurse whom he was certain he could trust. It had been difficult enough to find the ones he had already hired— who had all quit due to Uther's treatment of them.
"We have a problem," Lancelot said as Arthur strode over to the party dismounting in the courtyard.
"I can see that," Arthur said coldly, pinning Dorin with a stare designed to strike fear into the man's heart.
"That's not it." Lancelot gave a shake of his head, although the expression seemed to have some effect on the captive.
Elyan crossed his arms. "Not most of it, anyway."
Behind them, Arthur saw Merlin making his way in the direction of Gauis's chambers.
Lancelot leaned forward and lowered his voice, so that they would not be overheard. "There is a giant headed this way. He has Guinevere."
Arthur drew back, trying not to let his reaction show on his face. Gwaine and Percival's suspicions about Nimueh might have been on the mark.
"I honestly have no idea how we got here first," Lancelot continued. "He must not have taken a direct route."
Arthur let out a breath, allowing himself to accept that at least some of what the sorceress had told him was fact. "I suspect that Urien's army is behind. Morgana and probably Morgause will be along, as well." His mind whirling with possibilities and protocols as he considered ways to defend against a giant as well as an army, Arthur said, "Have everyone from the lower town brought into the citadel." Residents of the outlying villages were already being settled in, but they would have to move faster to accommodate the extra people.
With a nod, Lancelot went to see to those orders. Elyan remained behind, just looking at Arthur.
"What is it?" Arthur asked.
Elyan paused. "May I speak freely?"
The knight glanced aside for a moment, then met Arthur's gaze again. "You know that Gwen was taken because of you."
Arthur's jaw set. While he was aware of that fact, he did not want to hear it. "I do."
"And before, she and I were both taken to lure you into a trap."
Arthur frowned; he did not have time for this. "What are you getting at, Elyan?"
Elyan let out a breath. "Morgana knows what Gwen means to you, and word is spreading— she may become a target to others, as well. But as long as she is simply the former handmaiden to Lady Morgana, the attentions you give her are only going to hurt her. People will not support you going off to save her or using the knights to do so if she is taken again."
"She is taken now," Arthur pointed out testily.
"In a situation that affects everyone," agreed Elyan. "Rescuing her will be a result of saving the kingdom, not our only goal in fighting."
"I think you know." When Arthur eyed him, Elyan shook his head slightly. "If I did not respect you as much as I do, I would be far less friendly about this."
Arthur frowned and looked away. If it were anyone else putting Gwen in this kind of position, he would personally hurt them, yet her brother had an actual right to do so. "We need to get her back before this matters, anyway."
"Then let's get her back."
Arthur gave him a nod. He hardly needed one more thing on his mind just then, but at least thoughts of Guinevere were welcome.
First, though, he had to see to Camelot. Surveying the scene, Arthur got back to work.
Battle for Camelot.
As Gwen began to recognize landmarks and realized that they were drawing quite close to Camelot, she leaned in toward the others as much as she could while still holding onto the bars. "We need to do something," she said quietly, not wanting the giant to overhear them. "I do not think the city walls will stand against him for long."
"What are you thinking?" asked Mary.
Biting her lip, Gwen tried to better her plan before presenting it, but came up with nothing. "I know it's not the best idea, but if we can distract him just outside of the city, where he will be seen and within range of an attack, it might give the knights an opportunity to bring him down."
Blanchefleur frowned. "Distract him, how?"
Gwen's eyes went to Lady Vivian, who shook her head quickly. "No. Whatever you're thinking, I will not do it."
"Not even if it's for Prince Arthur?" Elena shot Gwen an apologetic glance, but maintained the argument, which seemed to have captured Vivan's attention. "After all, it is his kingdom which could either be destroyed by the giant or saved by our actions—"
"What do you want me to do?" Vivian demanded of Gwen.
Forcing a smile which she hoped looked remotely genuine, Gwen said, "He has reacted the most strongly to your insults. If we all follow your lead, it could make him angry enough to set his attention in our direction instead of Camelot's."
"Or, it could make him angry enough to kill us," Cerys pointed out quietly.
Gwen tried to steel herself against what she was about to say. Lifting her chin slightly, she replied, "That would also delay him."
"If we want to act, we need to do so now," Blanchefleur suddenly said, her voice urgent. When the others turned to her, she pointed back the way they had come. "Something is headed this way." Indeed, a large plume of dust was rising over the treetops.
"King Urien," Gwen said softly. "Or, more likely, Morgana and Morgause with King Urien's army, to take over whatever Taulard does not destroy."
"I have never insulted anyone." Philippa sounded very frightened, and Gwen tried to give her a reassuring smile, although surprisingly, Vivian did it better.
With a laugh, she said, "Oh, it's easy. Once you get started, I daresay you will never want to stop. Here, like this…."
From Uther's window, Arthur stared in astonishment at the massive man who was approaching the city, the peal of the warning bells a strangely normal sound compared to such an odd sight. Camelot's defenses were as prepared as they could be, but he wondered if there really was a way to withstand against both Taulard and the army he spied not far behind. A handful of yards away from the city walls, the giant stopped and seemed to take something off of his back. This was an opportunity, and they could not miss it.
"I will return shortly," he said to his father, who was seated in a chair by the fire. Uther gave him a half-nod, and the nurse, Bess, looked at him doubtfully. She knew what those bells signified, and so would Uther. As he strode out of the room, Arthur gestured at the pair of guards stationed in the corridor. "Unless I send orders to move my father, see to it that he does not leave," he instructed them quietly. The last thing they needed was the confused king stumbling into a battle. "No matter what you hear, hold your position."
The castle was already quite crowded with so many extra people packed into it, as well as with extra room set aside for the hospital arrangements. He made his way outside, issuing instructions as he went. Villagers looked up as he passed them, knowing an attack was at hand; this was not a new experience for most of them, yet Arthur wished some of them did not look so resigned to it. Still, he had no time to stop and reassure them, at a jog by the time he reached the courtyard.
Glancing up at the archers stationed along the castle wall as he reached his place in the lower town, Arthur caught Sir Leon's eye and signaled him. At Leon's command, the archers on the wall unleashed a volley toward Taulard. From his position, Arthur could see down the main road and watched as several of the crossbow bolts bounced off of the giant. A few seemed to stick, not that they did him much damage, but it distracted Taulard from whatever had been distracting him already. Turning to brush at the projectiles sticking from his back, the giant dropped something that looked like a birdcage. Arthur frowned-- and then saw people move inside the cage.
Taulard's prisoners. Guinevere.
Arthur had no way of getting to her yet, not without either ending up in the cage with her or being killed. The archers would have to be careful not to shoot in the direction of where it lay. And, that was all beside the hope that she had not been injured when the cage fell.
It might not be Guinevere in there. He was jumping to conclusions, but the fact remained that someone was in there, and held up a staying hand when Leon looked to him for the signal to fire again. Grabbing the nearest knight, Arthur said, "Tell Sir Leon to make sure his men do not hit near that cage on the ground. There are prisoners inside." The young man nodded and took off at a run.
Meanwhile, the giant knew where the bolts had originated and turned toward the city walls. Everyone within tensed, preparing for some form of destruction, so they were not surprised when it came. Stomping over, Taulard grabbed the nearest crenellation and pulled. It took some doing, but finally came off in his hand, a chunk of wall sliding down with it. The entire section of that structure shook when he followed up the initial damage with a firm kick. Arthur looked up at Leon again, who nodded to confirm that he had received the message, so Arthur gave the signal. Another volley rained down on the enormous attacker, more of these sticking since he was closer, a few even burying themselves amongst his hair. Letting out a rumbling growl, the giant seized hold of the wall with both hands and put a considerable effort into yanking on it. He was relentless, his face showing the strain as he pulled against an extremely well-constructed fortification.
There was a cracking sound, and then the ground shook as a huge portion of the wall tumbled down around his feet like a child's building blocks.
"Steady!" Arthur called, glancing around at the knights surrounding him as they lowered into their stances. Taulard entered the lower town through the gaping hole he had just made, keeping his eyes on the castle walls where the archers who had so offended him were stationed. This was good, Arthur thought; it meant he had not noticed the others. Fortunately, Taulard appeared not to be intent enough on havoc to take out the entire town-- which did not mean he was mindful of those structures he crushed underfoot as he made his way toward the citadel. He drew closer and closer to where they wanted him to be, and Arthur felt a familiar rush of adrenaline increase with each of the giant's steps.
Finally, Taulard unwittingly reached his mark. "NOW!" Arthur yelled, and three dozen knights, himself included, swung down on ropes from the highest rooftops around. They did not land very high up on the giant, but they were better off than if they had attacked his feet at ground level where they would primarily be fighting his boots-- and where he could step on them. Most landed on his torso and arms, a few not finding decent handholds and sliding down to his legs. All of them hacked away where they landed. Individually, Arthur had known they could not do much damage; as a combined unit, they might be able to drive him back.
None of them expected it to be a faultless plan, and indeed, it was not. As Taulard lifted one beefy arm, four men lost their hold, only one of them catching the edge of his doublet and the rest falling to the ground below. Six more went flying into the lower rooftops as he brushed them off of his opposite arm, and then went to do the same to the front of his doublet. Seeing what he was about to do, Arthur plunged his sword between the giant's ribs while he had the chance, not thinking that Taulard might decide to slap at him when he did so. It temporarily spared the other knights who were hanging from the widely woven fabric, but Arthur had to let go of his sword or be crushed when Taulard brought his palm swiftly to his midsection. Sliding down and bracing himself for a painful impact on the ground below, Arthur somehow managed to snag Taulard's belt. Other knights were sticking away at the giant, doing what they could to keep him from proceeding any closer to the castle.
All their efforts did was distract him, although he was now bleeding from many minor wounds. As a distraction, however, it did not work for long.
In short order, most of the knights had been dislodged from Taulard's clothing. A few of them were able to maintain their hold, Arthur being one of them, though there was little he could do now that he had lost his sword. Spotting a discarded one dangling from the weave of the giant's shirt, Arthur took a breath and began to climb his way toward it. He was nearly there when a rumble shook the giant, which Arthur finally realized was a chuckle.
"I think not," Taulard muttered, and grabbed him. Holding Arthur out in front of him, Taulard began to squeeze. It was obvious that he could make short work out of crushing his captive, but he seemed to enjoy taking his time about it, grinning in wicked pleasure as Arthur winced and tried in desperation to get some air. He was vaguely aware that some of the knights who had fallen were trying to climb back up and that others had come forward from their positions near the castle gate, but they were outnumbered by Taulard's sheer size. Nor could he do anything to direct them, beginning to wonder if he was about to meet his death.
Then, a shout rang out, one that was not the normal sounds of a battle.
"You great, hideous brute! How dare you bring your offensive stench in amongst civilized people!" The yell was punctuated by a thud near Arthur, though he had no idea what that was. What he did know was that voice...
"A real man would allow his opponent at least the opportunity to win fairly!" an unfamiliar voice, also female, chimed in as two more thuds resounded through the giant's hand. Arthur saw the cause of the second: someone was throwing rocks.
"I am greater than any normal man," Taulard retorted angrily. Arthur's eyebrows went up, surprised that the giant would rise to that sort of bait, although it did him little good. While he was no longer being squeezed tighter, the grip around him had not eased.
A sharp laugh rang out, which went through Arthur's skull more effectively than an arrow would have done. As he blinked against the sound, Vivian taunted, "Greater in size, but lesser in every other way!"
"When I want you to sing, little bird, you will know it," the giant growled. Arthur found that a strange thing for him to say, but was distracted by a more welcome familiar voice from just below him.
"Arthur," Guinevere called softly, apparently trying not to draw attention to herself. "Can you move at all?"
Since he was within Taulard's range of sight, he was concerned that a reply might be noticed, but he could not simply ignore her. So, he shook his head, hoping that would do.
Apparently, it did. "Hang on, then."
"--and, if you did dare to try it, you would be the laughingstock of every kingdom for miles around!" Vivian was promising, and Arthur found himself wondering how that had begun. Then, he found himself not particularly caring anymore, since Guinevere appeared beside him, on the giant's sleeve. That was actually cause for concern, considering how readily Taulard had dealt with the knights, many of whom had not moved since hitting the ground.
"Get ready," she murmured, producing a sword and lifting it over her head.
"Guinevere, no--" But it was too late. Swinging with all her might, she brought the blade down, slicing into the skin at the base of Taulard's thumb and letting out a yell as she dragged the sword as far as she could.
Taulard reflexively jerked against the pain, causing her to lose her footing and teeter backward. He also loosened his hold on Arthur, who dove over and snagged hold of her wrist just before she fell. The move almost caused him to slide, too, but he managed to get hold of Taulard's sleeve with his free hand. Gwen swung her other hand up, securing a better grip on Arthur's arm.
"Pesky vermin," Taulard grumbled, clearly displeased by the gash in his hand, and swept them away with his other hand.
Guinevere shrieked, and Arthur did his best to wrap himself around her as they flew toward the roof of one of the houses, cushioning her as they impacted with the thatching. The hit jarred every joint in his body and knocked the wind out of him. Clambering to his side, Gwen anxiously asked, "Are you all right? Is anything broken?"
Arthur managed to nod and shake his head in response as he tried to get air back into his lungs. At least, he thought nothing was broken; he supposed he would take a better assessment of that when he could breathe.
The giant was also growing impatient. "Enough of this foolishness." A few shrieks rang out and then there were a series of thuds upon the ground as Taulard moved forward again, having divested himself of the remaining knights as well as the taunting women.
Another barrage of arrows was fired as Arthur managed to sit up, Guinevere's hands steadying on his arm and back, yet Taulard was now too infuriated for the bolts to slow him down. All was not entirely lost, as Arthur had not been confident that they would be able to drive him off in that first attack and had arranged a backup plan. It was fairly gruesome, although that was not his hesitation in using it; he was worried that it could destroy the entire town, along with the giant.
Still, their options were limited and growing increasingly crucial. Arthur got to his feet and gained Lancelot's attention, where he was stationed with a group of men atop a nearer section of wall than Leon's unit. Arthur gave Lancelot the first signal, to ignite barrels of tar which were to be lobbed at Taulard upon a second signal. The problem was that setting the giant on fire would likely cause him to set everything around him on fire, and that could spread quickly through the thatched roofs and timbered walls of the town.
He had to take that chance. There was still an army closing in, and they needed to maintain at least some of their defenses to keep from being overcome by Urien's men; perhaps a massive fire would even help provide that.
Feeling rather sick about what was likely about to happen, Arthur went to raise his hand in order to give the second command--
--and that was when a large beam of light shot down from one of the watchtowers at the edge of the city, catching Taulard in the back and causing him to freeze.
"What the hell...?" Arthur muttered as he and everyone else looked toward the beam's origin. When he saw who was behind it, he hesitated.
"A sorceress!" Gwen exclaimed. "Why is she attacking Taulard?"
He frowned, realizing that Nimueh's offer had apparently been sound. He was torn between the impulse to send men to apprehend her and allowing her to do what the knights could not. She would deal with the giant, and he and his men could handle the army. That made him glance over toward where he had seen Urien's army earlier-- which made the decision for him. Troops bearing that king's crest and colors were just emerging from the trees outside of the city.
"He's taken her niece," he finally replied, almost as an aside. Turning to Guinevere, he took her by the shoulders as he looked straight at her. "Go to the castle, and send some of the reserve troops to gather the wounded and dead. We are about to be invaded, and the only way the injured stand a chance is if they're taken to the hospital now."
She nodded and went to move and do as he had said, but he did not let her go immediately. "Guinevere-- thank you. For saving me." Those were words he usually had a difficult time admitting, but it was surprisingly easy with her. Laying a hand alongside her cheek, he said, "I'm glad you're safe."
Placing her bare hand over his gloved one, she smiled. "Just make sure that we all stay that way."
"That is certainly my intent."
That settled, Gwen made her way off of the roof and started running toward the castle.
Nimueh seemed to be having no trouble dealing with Taulard, having added a second beam of light and using them to drag him back the way he had come, the magic apparently keeping him incapacitated. Meanwhile, Urien's army was amassing outside of Camelot, and Arthur jumped to the ground from the lowest edge of the roof. The knights were beginning to regroup, moving their fallen comrades away from the path down which Taulard was being dragged.
"Ready the defense!" Arthur yelled, and led them into place. As it happened, the giant being moved along the main street was proving to be an asset to Camelot's defense, since it was hindering Urien's attack. Arthur used the opportunity to signal Leon's archers, who opened fire on the invading lines. It cut their numbers down a little, but not enough; and the advantage lessened even more when they brought their own archers forward to return fire. The arrows did not quite make it up to where Leon's men were positioned and were aimed too far to hit Arthur's group, who were blocked by the giant, likely falling amongst the men positioned within the castle walls.
A rallying cry went up outside as Nimueh brought Taulard through the hole in the wall, and the knights of Camelot readied their stances.
Merlin had no idea what to do. He had been trying to figure out some way of taking down the giant when a sorceress did the job for him— without being attacked by Arthur's men, which was in itself rather baffling. She was too far away for him to tell if it was someone he knew, but he made a mental note to find out later. Eventually, she had dragged Taulard out of the city, and while that took some time (during which Merlin very nearly got skewered by crossbow bolts while he was watching the giant's progress), the street was now swarming with armed men. Arthur's knights were on the verge of driving Urien's men back, but could use some sort of nudge to give them a solid advantage.
It did not help that Merlin could see very little from ground level, so he darted into the castle and up to the grassy roof that provided a much better view not only of the street through the town, but the road leading up to Camelot, as well. Taulard lay unconscious or possibly dead, in the middle of the space where Urien's troops had been lined up. It appeared that the unknown sorceress had flung him straight into those lines, judging from the odd arm or leg sticking out from beneath him.
From here, Merlin could also make out a section of the city wall which Taulard had damaged, but which had not yet given way. It was some distance from him, but Merlin was fairly sure he could manage to reach it magically. Putting out his hand, he murmured, "Tófiel," and the stones tumbled onto and in front of a large group of Urien's soldiers.
"I was wondering when you would do something like that."
Merlin reflected to himself that it might have been wiser to make use of one of the stone balconies, since footfalls were too quiet on the grass here, but at least it was Cerys who had come upon him unawares. Giving her a slightly crooked smile, he replied, "I have not had a good opening before now."
"It seems to have done the trick." Coming over to stand beside him, she noted, "Camelot's forces are gaining ground."
She was right, yet he kept an eye on the action. If it appeared that Urien's men were about to rally, there was another section of wall he could take down. "I only wish I could do more."
"You could if you were truly brave, Merlin."
He spun at this voice, staring in confusion. "Nimueh? How...?" Snapping out of his bewilderment, he edged in front of Cerys. He had no idea how this was possible, but he knew very well how dangerous Nimueh could be.
She merely laughed as he moved. "Do not worry; I am hardly about to harm my own niece. And I may just let you live for trying to protect her."
"What do you mean, 'niece'?" He stayed in place, not trusting the wily enchantress, but Cerys laid a hand on his arm as she stepped around him.
"It's all right. This is my aunt, of whom I spoke before."
"And I raised you as my own, in accordance to the promise I made to your mother, my sister, on her deathbed." Merlin was surprised to see Nimueh sound so... genuine. He held back but remained suspicious, ready to defend Cerys if needed. "Yet, you left. If you had remained on the Isle of the Blessed, you could have learned so much. You would have killed that giant, instead of being taken by him." Eyeing Cerys pleadingly, Nimueh said, "You still could. I can still teach you."
Cerys shook her head. "I was not meant for that. Neither was Mother, but she did it for your sake-- to impress you. I cannot live that way, for your sake or anyone else's."
Nimueh's forehead creased. "For the sake of our kind, you should learn our ways. Our numbers are diminishing. In fact, Merlin nearly had a hand in seeing that happen." She scowled at him, and he involuntarily took a step back.
Cerys was not impressed. "If he did, I am certain it was with cause. I would be more willing to learn your ways if they did not involve so much vengeance."
"And why should we not crave vengeance?" Nimueh demanded. "All we did was serve those without magic, and yet they turn on us. Kill us, wipe out our kind--"
"Not everyone is like Uther," Merlin finally burst out. "If you would all stop attacking Camelot for once and demonstrate that magic can be used for good, you could sway the opinions of the people. Of influential people."
"Uther Pendragon will never be swayed," Nimueh declared.
"No," he agreed. "But he will not be the king forever."
"He is the king now, and he is instilling his hatred in the next king."
"I am not so sure of that," Cerys cut in. "Prince Arthur is a man of war, it is true, but he is also one of justice. And of love."
Nimueh stared at her for a moment, and finally looked up at the sky. "It is trust like that which led to our downfall. Take care, Cerys; I will not always be around to help you."
Suddenly, Merlin exclaimed, "You were the sorceress in the tower!"
She looked at him as if he were daft. "Of course, I was."
"But... you aided Camelot."
"Indeed." She raised an imperious eyebrow at him.
He frowned at her. "How is it that Arthur's men did not attack you?"
She stared at him before glancing at Cerys thoughtfully. "I must go before they do," she said abruptly. Then, before the other two could respond, she recited an incantation and disappeared into the air. Several shouts from the combat caught Merlin and Cerys's attention, and they looked over in time to see Camelot's knights rout Urien's forces, who broke their lines and began fleeing the way they had come.
This battle for Camelot, it would seem, was over.
Arthur and Gwen make a decision, everyone meets for lunch, and Uther gets a new nurse.
A part of this chapter is inspired by a S4 spoiler.
Arthur squared his shoulders before knocking on Guinevere's door, glancing doubtfully down at the flowers in his hand as an afterthought. The seller had assured him that it was one of the most elegant bouquets that she had ever assembled, and the little yellow flowers (whatever they might be called) amongst the bigger red roses were particularly fitting for the occasion, but he wondered if Gwen might not find it to be too much. He had not even been certain if the flower stall would be open for business, considering the chaos in part of the lower town. As it happened, business was doing well, with people purchasing flowers for those who had suffered a loss or been injured.
As for Guinevere, it was possible that she would find the entire conversation to be too much, in light of the current situation in Camelot. In fact, they had both been busy and had barely seen one another since the battle ended, but Elyan had promised to ensure that she was home at this time. While it was not one of the more important agreements the two knights had reached during their private breakfast meeting, Arthur still trusted that it would be fulfilled.
The door opened and Guinevere seemed surprised to find him there, which turned to confusion as her eyes fell upon the flowers. Nonetheless, she smiled when she looked back at him. "Hello."
"Hello." Arthur was suddenly nervous, not a normal state of affairs for him, and he was concerned that his grin was a bit too enthusiastic as a result. "May I come in?"
"Of course." She stepped back to let him pass, and he felt a familiar sense of peace settle over him as he went into her cottage. It was the same each time he was here. Guinevere had made a comfortable home for herself, which was also welcoming to those who came to visit her. It was warm and personal, perhaps lacking the permanence and solid sense of history which the castle provided, but a place to relax.
After she had shut the door, he held the bouquet out. "For you." Obviously. Good start, Arthur.
Despite his utter failure at suavity, she seemed pleased to accept them. "They're lovely, thank you."
As Guinevere turned to put them in a pretty jug, Arthur let out a breath and came a little further into the room. Pouring a bit of water into the jug, she then set it on the table and turned to him, apparently trying not to look as perplexed as she was. Dissembling had never been her strong suit, and he admitted, "I realize that this may seem odd just now."
Visibly relaxing with that out in the open, she nodded. "It's not that I do not appreciate them," she hastened to add.
"I know." Wondering where to go with this, he suddenly gestured toward the nearest bench by the table. "Why don't you have a seat?"
She eyed him curiously as she sat. "What's this all about?"
There was a definite possibility that despite what they felt for one another, she was going to turn him down, and the knowledge made him hesitate. Nor could he blame her if she did; the path ahead would be a rocky one. "Guinevere, for too long, we had to hide what lies between us. When we ceased to hide it… I have never been happier." She smiled at his frank admission, which turned to a sharp moment of hurt when he continued, "However, I was not thinking clearly. I do not regret it," he clarified, which seemed to mollify her, though she was obviously not as pleased as she had been before. "What I do regret is not considering the effect it would have on you. We have both known that our association would not be an easy thing for many people to accept— I do not give a toss about them, but they have said things which have hurt you, and would continue to do. Most of that will stop if I do what I should have done in the first place, and make my intentions toward you clear."
Even though she sounded reluctant, he forged ahead. "I would like to court you, if you will allow it. Officially."
Her face was a little sad as she glanced at where her hands were folded in her lap. "I'm not sure that is a good idea."
While he had known it was possible that she would reject his suit, now that she was beginning to do so, he felt a fear wash over him like icy water. With all that they had been through, both together or as individuals in the same situation— what had grown between them through all that could not be something to deny. He needed her in his life, beside him. Yet, she did not need the problems that being at his side would create. He would not deny that, but he also wanted to make sure she realized the benefits. "I think it is a good idea," he said gently. "I know that my father could regain his senses at any day and undo the things I have done against his preferences. But… I also know that the chances of that are slim." That was very difficult to say, and brought with it a different sort of fear. "I want to make Camelot better, Guinevere. Fairer. I am not about to fling the gates wide for every practitioner of sorcery," he added with a hint of amusement, "but I do want to ensure that life for the people of this kingdom improves. You already have helped me toward that end, but I am aware that I still have much to learn. I may never learn all of it. With your guidance, I can do my best to act in the interests of my people."
Her head had cocked to one side, her eyes narrowing thoughtfully as she listened to him. "The nobles will not approve," she pointed out.
"I do not approve of things many of them have done, either."
She studied him for another moment. "So, you wish to court me for political reasons."
"No." In this, at least, he was confident. "I wish to court you because I love you."
She lit up at that, but was not completely sold. "This will not be simple."
"Simplicity is overrated." He was trying to ignore the way his heart leapt. She had not yet agreed.
After a pause, she stood and took his hands in hers. "With such a convincing argument, how could I not accept?" She dropped the tease and said softly, "I love you, too."
The grin that spread across his face felt as though it might be permanent, even as he leaned over to kiss her.
Unfortunately, they did not have very long with so much to be seen to today. Guinevere was planning to get back to the temporary hospital in the castle, following a luncheon meeting that Arthur had arranged for everyone who had been part of the events leading up to the battle. Philippa would not be the only one not present, having left as soon as it was safe to do so. Arthur had invited her to stay at the castle, especially after Guinevere told him about the girl's valiant effort to mimic Lady Vivian's insults despite her uncertainty. But Philippa wanted quite desperately to go home, so he had sent four knights to escort her there.
As they stepped outside Guinevere's house and started toward the castle, he said, "I would make a formal announcement today, but it will be better to wait until things have calmed down. Perhaps next week." The city needed time to recover from the shock of what had befallen them yesterday before they would be ready for celebratory news. "I do not mean to hide it until then, though. We have done enough of that."
"I agree." She let out a little laugh. "This is going to be strange for me. It always amazed me how you and Morgana had such patience for the pettier sides of court life: conversational games and political undertones, that sort of thing. I am not sure how I will get through them."
"I intend to avoid those types of situations as often as possible, as I have never been fond of them," he admitted. "But, I think you will surprise yourself as much as others with how well you will handle everything you face." Gwen was compassionate and could be shy, but additionally, her strength of character was remarkable. She was more suited to the role of queen, or that of princess, than most noblewomen he knew.
She gave him a grateful smile. "I hope you're right."
They reached the courtyard just in time to see Bess, Uther's nurse, storming across the cobblestones. Catching sight of Arthur, she came toward them. "Sire, I cannot take any more."
He frowned. "What's happened?"
"I have tried to serve my king as a loyal citizen of Camelot, but this is the fourth time he has thrown his food at me, and the dishes get closer to my head each time. It grazed my ear! I fear that tomorrow will be the day he brains me with his breakfast, my lord. I cannot stay on another minute!"
Arthur bit back a sigh. "No, of course not. You have my apologies for what he has put you through thus far."
Mollified, she nodded. "Thank you, sire. I only resign out of fear for my safety, not out of any ill will toward King Uther."
"I understand. Thank you for staying on this long."
As she curtsied and left, Arthur rubbed his forehead absently. He had worried that this would happen, yet still had not come up with a solution for when it did.
"That's the fifth nurse he has gone through, isn't it?" Guinevere asked softly.
"And the last with both the experience and reputation to be trusted with the king's care," Arthur confirmed wearily, wondering if Gaius might know of anybody else who was suitable.
Gwen bit her lip. "I will do it."
"What?" He looked at her in surprise. "No, I cannot ask that of you, not after… everything." The injuries his father had visited upon her were too great to expect her to spend that much time in his company.
Her eyes grew troubled, and he could tell that she was considering it, too. Regardless, she placed a hand on his arm. "You were willing to leave Camelot and give up everything you know for me. I am willing to do this to help you."
He was glad she acknowledged that it was a sacrifice, because if she had pretended as though everything was fine, he would never have agreed. As it was, his agreement was conditional. "Only until I find another replacement."
"Do not hire someone with whom you will be uncomfortable for my sake."
"Very well." He did not like the arrangement, but it did ease his mind to know that his father would be well cared for. Lifting her hand to his lips, he murmured, "Thank you."
Due to the diversion, they were the last to get to the meeting, and the din from the Council Chamber was audible throughout the castle corridors. There were so many people in the chamber that their conversations added to an uproarious volume, and Arthur had difficulty trying to gain their attention when he and Gwen arrived. In the end, it was not even his own attempts that succeeded in gaining the focus of the room; it was the rather piercing tone that Lady Vivian hit when she caught sight of him.
"Arthur!" she cried happily, shoving her way through the throng to get to him.
For such a keen hunter, he found that he did not care to be the prey, and he held a hand out to keep her back— which she seized onto, rubbing her cheek against his glove almost like a kitten.
"Lady Vivian," he greeted her unenthusiastically, as he tried to pry his hand away without causing her to stumble. He could feel Guinevere stiffen beside him, which put him off even more. Finally retrieving his hand, he gestured toward the table that had been set up for the meal. "Please, take a seat."
He stepped around Vivian to lead Guinevere to the chair at his left, which seemed to baffle Vivian. Gwaine fortunately came to the rescue, pulling out a seat for her toward the head of the table with a sweeping bow. While she was naturally disinclined to be impressed, she nonetheless lowered herself into it with a wounded look at Arthur.
Dorin remained standing off to the side, hands folded in front of himself, eyes trained on the floor. He had requested an opportunity to speak to the gathering, and Arthur had agreed to have him brought up for the simple fact that he did not care enough to argue. Once the others were all sorted, Arthur gestured for him to speak.
"I wish to make my apologies," Dorin said quietly.
When he said no more, Arthur impatiently said, "Then, make them."
Dorin raised his gaze. "Gwen, I'm so very sorry for having put you through all that I have. Many times, I have reflected upon the mistake I made when I left you, and I was too eager to believe the story that Lady Morgana fed me. Because of my oversight, you were placed in mortal peril, and I can never make amends for that. But, you do have my sincerest apologies."
Gwen did not meet his gaze, simply replying, "Thank you." Her tone was rather stiff and she offered no absolution, which spoke louder than words would have done, in Arthur's opinion. Despite Dorin's reasons, Gwen was clearly hurt by the betrayal. As she was quite near to him, it was easy to take her hand where it rested on the table.
Dorin seemed taken aback by her curt reply, but soldiered on. "I also wish to apologize to you, Prince Arthur, and everyone here, for what my actions caused to befall you."
"Oh, do please hush up," Vivian finally snapped. Arthur nearly choked.
Gaping at her, Dorin said, "I am simply trying to do what is right."
"That would be a novel experience," Arthur muttered. He caught sight of servants hovering in the doorway, trays of food and pitchers of wine in hand, and signaled for them to enter.
Vivian beamed over at Arthur. "Well done, my love—" She broke off when she noticed his hand resting on Gwen's. "What is the meaning of this?"
He had not intended to share the news with anyone this way, but was also not going to lie. With a glance around the table, he said, "It means that Guinevere has accepted my suit to court her."
"That's wonderful!" Elena beamed over at them, and other murmurs of congratulation followed.
Vivian was, unsurprisingly, not congratulating them. "Is this some sort of jest? Because it is not funny."
"It's no jest," Gwen replied.
Apparently not believing her, Vivian retorted, "Well, we shall see how you like it, Arthur Pendragon." She briefly looked at Elena on her left and Blanchefleur to her right. Then, she jumped up, grabbed hold of Dorin and yanked him down, kissing him soundly.
Nobody quite knew what to do— except for Gwaine, who let out a low whistle. "I am available for purposes of revenge, my lady," he announced cheekily, just before Vivian leaned back. Dorin looked dazed. She was frowning, but her expression also held a large dose of confusion.
"Oh," Guinevere said under her breath, just before Vivian blinked and stepped away from him uncertainly.
"What is going on here?" she demanded.
Arthur realized exactly what was going on, and failed to completely conceal his amusement this time. "It is something of a long story."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "I do not care for stories."
It was rather nice to be on the receiving end of her scorn again. "Then, I will not bore you. It will come back to you soon enough. At any rate, your father is on his way to escort you home; he should be arriving within the next day or so."
Back to her old self, she huffed. "He expects me to sit around, waiting, and eat—" she gestured at her plate "—this? I hardly think so. Assemble a guard to take me to him."
While Arthur normally would have eaten first, the prospect of getting her on her way was more enticing. "It will be my pleasure." Catching Merlin's eye where he was sitting at the far end of the table, Arthur said, "Merlin, have Sir Reynault put together a guard to see to the Lady Vivian."
"Might I be part of the guard?" Dorin asked suddenly.
"A prisoner?" Vivian sniffed.
He met Arthur's questioning look. "It will be a step toward proving my sincerity."
"I will allow it on the condition that you henceforth keep your 'sincerity' away from Camelot." His eyes promised retribution if Dorin dared show his face in the kingdom again. He had considered an execution, but was concerned that Dorin's death might upset Gwen further, regardless of her anger toward him. This would get him out of Camelot, and perhaps thinking of someone other than Guinevere.
"I understand, sire."
To Merlin, Arthur added, "Take Dorin to Sir Reynault, as well. Sir Leon, the shackles."
"A prisoner?" repeated Vivian.
"A fabric seller," Arthur replied. He could not argue that Dorin was a prisoner-- until now-- but he could try to divert her attention.
Letting out a frustrated noise, she turned and stormed out of the room, Merlin and Dorin following once Leon had removed Dorin's shackles.
Conversation after that was mostly pleasant as they all ate, with some unexpected tidbits. Blanchefleur had not only been the one to throw the rocks at Taulard's hand when he was squeezing Arthur, but had also grabbed a fallen sword and was about to attack the giant's knees when he was overtaken by magic. There were questions about the sorceress behind that, yet other than quick glances between a few of them, no one offered any feasible suggestions. A very quiet girl at the end of the table turned out to be Vivian's former maid, Mary, who was keeping her eyes on her plate until Elena commended her for making sure all the women were unharmed after Taulard dropped the cage.
When the meal ended and the group was dispersing, Elena came over to Guinevere, who was standing beside Arthur and watching everyone make their way out of the room. "Gwen, I know why you did not bring a lady's maid with you to Gawant, but I thought that you might like the services of one now." She smiled brightly between Gwen and Arthur.
"I— I had not thought about it. I am still not a lady."
"That's a shame," Elena said lightly, glancing over to where her maid was speaking with Percival. "Blanchefleur had said to me how much she enjoyed getting you dressed for dinner at Gawant. She also told me earlier that she quite likes Camelot."
Recalling Guinevere in the silver dress with her hair half-loose, Arthur spoke up. "I think that sounds like an excellent idea."
Gwen peered at him sideways. "I cannot deprive you of your maid."
"You would not be," Elena assured her. "I have already taken Mary on, and in fact have been wondering how to properly balance their responsibilities."
She was not as subtle as Arthur suspected she thought she was, but it worked. Gwen gave a little laugh. "I am not certain how this will go, but I did enjoy her company."
"Then, it's settled."
There was still much that was not settled, however, and Arthur excused himself to see to the rebuilding work being done in the lower town.
Several of the injured in the makeshift hospital were doing well enough to return to their homes, which lifted Gwen's spirits. She knew that she would need the boost, since her next stop was to begin her new duties as Uther's nurse. Exchanging nods with the guards outside his door, she took a deep breath and went into the king's chambers.
Uther eyed her as she came in and dropped a curtsey. "My lord, Bess has been relieved of her duties. I will now be seeing to your care."
“You’re that maid. The one who enchanted my son.”
So, he was having a lucid period. While that was good overall, Gwen found herself wishing it were not the case just now. “No, sire,” she replied, amusement distinctly lacking from her voice. Walking over to clear away his luncheon dishes gave her something to do other than facing his accusations. “No one has been enchanted.”
He snorted derisively. “The old sorcerer confessed to it. Honestly, Arthur, in love with a maid, when he has his choice of princesses and noblewomen.”
Gwen was surprised when it was anger, not hurt, to wash over her, but she bit her tongue for the time being.
That was, until he continued. “Your whole family is associated with sorcerers. Bad blood.”
At that, she set the dishes onto the table with a very deliberate thunk. Turning, she marched over to the chair in which he was slumped. “My lord, since you have driven off every other nurse which Arthur has found for you, it is down to me. And, in that case, you are going to have to accept a few things.”
“How dare you speak to me like that!”
“Oh, I dare, and you will listen.” A small voice in her head was horrified at the way she was speaking to the king, but that voice was drowned out by the memories of all the wrongs he had visited upon her and her kin. “My father was innocent of sorcery, yet because of your wickedness, he is dead.”
“He consorted with a sorcerer!”
“So have you.” Uther's nostrils flared, but before he could speak again, she went on, “Also, despite what that strange old man confessed, the love your son feels for me is very real, as is that I feel for him. And you had better accept that fact, because he is courting me.”
“It’s the truth. While I am no more eager to think of you as a father as you are to think of me as a daughter, Arthur loves us both; and for his sake, I will do my best. However, I will not permit you to belittle me or speak ill of my family anymore. You and I will be spending a lot of time in one another’s company, and it really is in your best interest to keep me happy.”
“I am the king!” he snarled. “No one says such things to me!”
She found herself smiling serenely down at him. A notion which had terrified her until now suddenly settled upon her as a pleasant certainty. “I will one day be the queen, and I will say such things to you— just as you will heed them. Now,” she said as she turned and walked back over to the table, picking up the dishes, “I am taking these down to the kitchen, and am ordering a bath brought up. I trust that you will not mistreat the servants who will be bathing you.”
He scowled darkly, which once would have frightened her. Now, she found that it merely put her in mind of a petulant child, and she was able to walk out the door with her chin held high.
Uther's time was waning, Arthur's was beginning, and Gwen knew her place in the midst of it: at Arthur's side.
Long roads ahead.
"There are still many things we can do to invade Camelot," Urien said as Morgause settled onto her horse. Morgana got the impression that a less-controlled man would have been pleading at this point, but his pride would never allow that. "My army remains strong, and Accolon is skilled with diversions that could damage the kingdom's defenses."
"I appreciate what you have done for us," Morgause replied. Her voice was muffled by the heavy cloak drawn over her head, yet Morgana did not think that was the reason it seemed to lack the biting quality she so often employed with those who disappointed her. "There are many things which my sister and I must attend to."
Urien bowed, accepting her denial. He had already attempted many arguments to convince her to stay, each disguised as rational conversation. Nothing had worked. Morgana thought she understood; Morgause had much healing still to do, and she was not the type who wanted others to see her in a state of weakness. That must hold especially true in the case of someone for whom she had feelings.
"Lady Morgana, I hope that our paths will cross again." Accolon had come up beside her horse, although he waited to hear Morgause's verdict before speaking.
She frowned down at him. Her sister assured her that he was a worthy man, both in magic and in blood, but Morgana could not entirely bring herself to believe it. Sorcerer or not, noble birth aside, his presence bothered her as much now as when they first met. Despite that, she could not completely ignore what Morgause had told her, so she drew on her years spent in the court to help her reply a cool detachment. "Perhaps they shall."
"We must be off; a long journey lies ahead of us." Morgause peered over at Morgana from under her hood.
"Safe travels to you both." Urien stepped back to let them pass.
Accolon patted the neck of Morgana's horse. "Safe travels," he echoed quietly, and then went to join his master.
Even after Dinrheged was long behind them, Morgana did not feel comfortable. Their plan had gone terribly awry, Arthur was as comfortable as ever at Camelot, and Morgause insisted on returning to the Isle of the Blessed before she should truly be traveling. Nothing was going well, which normally meant that Morgause would help Morgana spin the situation to their benefit or figure out what their next move should be.
Now, it was all falling to Morgana, and she had no idea what to do.
Hopefully, she would find some answers in the days ahead.
Merlin watched as Lord Godwyn's retinue started out of the courtyard. Lord Godwyn had arrived so soon after Arthur's message was sent regarding the situation, Merlin doubted that he and his party had stopped to rest once on the way. As Princess Elena had been abducted due to an attack on Camelot, Arthur was sending Lancelot and Elyan to increase their guard on the way home, and the red of their cloaks billowing beside the blue cloaks of Lord Godwyn's men was striking as they rode through the gates.
Camelot was settling down. Rebuilding and repairs to the city wall had gone on around the clock for the last four days and were very nearly finished. Similar activity was taking place in the lower town, although at a somewhat more relaxed pace. The most unique problem had been how to handle the dead giant outside the city. A pyre to accommodate the body was out of the question. Finally, a gravesite had been selected in an unused field, and after a day's worth of digging and another half day's worth of moving Taulard, he had been interred.
Meanwhile, the last patient in the hospital had recovered enough to return home that morning. So much had been required of Gaius while the hospital was full that Merlin began to worry about his well-being, and he insisted that Gaius go to bed as soon as the patient had left. Gaius had been asleep ever since, and Merlin did not have the heart to wake him unless he was needed.
Turning to go back inside, Merlin spotted Cerys sitting halfway up the castle steps. A pair of servants was setting her chest at the bottom of the stairs, but her eyes were on Merlin rather than on her belongings. He felt disappointment settle over him as he walked over.
"I did not realize you meant to leave so soon," he said, reaching the foot of the stairs.
"Surely, you did not expect me to stay here." While her statement was genuine, her tone was light.
"I may have had my fingers crossed," he admitted with a small grin.
Cerys came down the stairs to join him just as a hired cart clattered into the courtyard. Standing in front of Merlin, she stared at his shirt rather than making eye contact. "Under other circumstances, I would consider it," she told him quietly. "I do not know how you have managed to live under such a heavy shadow for so long. To face the constant threat of execution... And while lying is never easy, lying to those you care about is even worse."
"I cannot say it gets any easier with time," he admitted.
She smiled sadly at him. "You are a brave man, Merlin. Not one of Arthur's knights possesses a fraction of your valor. That includes Arthur, himself." Embarrassed, Merlin laughed and shook his head. Before he could voice a denial, she briefly laid a hand on his cheek. "Stop selling yourself short. I know it can be an effective defense to have people expect less of you, but you are too great for that. Let your greatness shine through."
He was extremely embarrassed now, but her sincerity kept him from dismissing her words. "Someday, I will be able to," he promised her. "We will all be able to."
"From what I had heard about both the Pendragon men before coming here, I once would have argued that with you. But now, I think you may be right."
Merlin felt his ears and neck starting to grow hot. Hoping to avoid a full-blown blush, he indicated her trunk, which was currently being loaded into the hired cart. "You are going back to Mercia?"
She nodded. "My neighbors have cared for my sheep long enough."
Merlin wished he could ask her to stay awhile longer. Even more than that, he wished he had found an opportunity to spend time with her the past few days. But between Gaius and Arthur, he had been run ragged, only managing a brief chat here or there as he passed her in a corridor or in the town.
Suddenly, Cerys grabbed his shirtfront and tugged, pressing her lips to his when he leaned down. When she finally let go of his shirt, she murmured, "This adventure was not what I expected, and I am sorry that many parts of it went so tragically. In spite of that, there are parts which made it worthwhile." As she stepped backward towards the cart, she smiled, and he could not help but return it. "I may wish to go on another adventure before winter sets in. A happier one," she continued, just before the cart driver handed her up into the seat. Once she was settled, she asked, "Would you be game?"
He liked the way her eyes sparkled as she asked that. Thoughts of Freya popped into his head, a memory of how pleased he had been when he finally got her to smile, how lovely she had looked. He felt a twinge of guilt even as he knew that she would not begrudge him this, but set it aside. "Could we just go for a walk, instead?"
Pretending to think it over, Cerys nodded. "Agreed. Oh! I nearly forgot." Reaching into her cloak, she produced a small package and held it out. When Merlin came over to take it, she said, "I began this some time ago, but could not figure out why-- that is, until I met you. I just finished it this morning."
That was unexpected. Touched, he ran a thumb over the wrapping. "You didn't have to do that. Thank you."
"It was meant for you," she replied simply. When he went to untie the string holding the package shut, she placed her hand on his. "Wait until I've left. Please?"
"All right." He stepped away from the cart after she straightened. "Have a safe journey."
"Take care of yourself, Merlin." As the driver snapped the reins, she said, "Two months."
"What's in two months?" he called.
She smiled at him over her shoulder. "Our walk."
That made him feel quite a bit cheerier even as he waved. As the cart went through the gate, Merlin looked at the package in his hand. He already sensed an enchantment, which gave him a clue as to what lay within.
Untying the string, he opened the plain muslin wrapping to reveal a small tapestry. Along the bottom of the picture was a cluster of tiny figures. Despite their size, Cerys had managed through their stances to make them appear confused and uncertain. At the head of the group was a blond knight, the only person who stood tall.
None of them seemed to notice the storm clouds at the top of the piece-- and there was reason for that. A comparatively enormous tree grew to their right, curving its branches to shield them. They took no more notice of the tree than they did of the storm, though the cloud was sending a bolt of lightning into the largest branch, the only acknowledgment the tree received for its actions.
That was not all. An owl perched on top of the tree, and not far off from that was a robin placing a twig on a nest. A turtledove seemed about to alight on a smaller branch. On the branch getting struck by lightning, closer to the tree's trunk, sat a falcon. Additionally, Merlin thought he could make out other birds behind the leaves here and there.
Even though the image was rather grim at first glance, Merlin felt hopeful as he studied it. The birds drew his attention more than the storm; they may have been small in the overall picture, yet their feathers and the leaves surrounding them appeared to shine. Even the browns of the tree were richer where they sat.
"Merlin, there you are!" Arthur's voice from the top of the castle steps caught his attention, and he jogged up at the summons. Noticing the fabric in his hand, Arthur asked, "What's that?"
"A present. Cerys made it for me."
"Oh, did she now?" Arthur smirked knowingly at him.
Feeling the threat of a blush again, Merlin sighed. "Yes."
Arthur gave him a nudge, then peered at it. "Hmm. She did a nice job on that falcon, anyway." And, that was apparently the end of that discussion. "So, mind telling me where my left gauntlet is?"
While Merlin was pleased that Arthur had taken note of the tapestry, he was even more glad to have attention turned away from it. He felt as though it was too personal to share. "With the right gauntlet?"
Merlin clearly remembered putting both gauntlets away after polishing Arthur's armor last night. "I know it's there."
"It's not, so find it." Arthur turned and went back into the castle, leaving Merlin to follow.
Life in Camelot was definitely back to normal.