Chapter 1: King of the Stocks
Where was he? Why was tracking down his own personal manservant -- a man who, by all rights, should be constantly at his beck and call -- so damned hard?
Gripping a shirt in his hand, Arthur stormed through the castle, his glower causing the women to scatter with tiny squeals and the men to suddenly find the stonework fascinating. Upon turning a corner and spotting Gwaine talking to one of Lord Perrin's knights, he raised his eyebrows in question. Gwaine smirked slightly, and jerked a thumb in the direction of the council chambers.
"Saw him talking to one of Lord Perrin's servants inside the council hall."
Arthur inclined his head, but didn't break stride. If anything, it grew more purposeful now that he had a direction. As he left them behind, he heard Perrin's knight ask Gwaine how he knew who the King was looking for.
"When his face looks like that," Gwaine replied, "he's only ever looking for one person."
Arthur cracked a tiny, dark smile, and rounded the next corner.
More fleeing servants and knights marveling the architecture.
When he reached the council chambers, he was blessedly alone, having left the bulk of the castle staff scurrying from his wrath in the opposite direction. Stopping just before the open doors, he blew out a heavy breath and tightened the grip he had on his favorite shirt. Or at least, what had been his favorite shirt. The pale, yellow linen shirt had been a gift from one of his favorite paternal aunts, the Duchess Cecilia. His aunt had embroidered it herself, and it was easily the softest shirt he owned. It was now a somewhat dull gray color and had been coarsened to the point of feeling like one of (shudder) Merlin's shirts.
He was going to kill that miserable excuse for a manservant. But…he would do it with dignity. With grace. With, well, majesty. So, he breathed out slowly and loosened his shoulders, seeking a moment's calm before….
"I really don't know what you think I can do," Merlin's voice said clearly from inside the room, his voice tight with tension. It was that tension that caught Arthur's attention, and, immediately, the shirt was forgotten. He took a step forward, so he could hear more clearly.
"It's quite simple, Merlin. I can call you Merlin, yes? I just need you to talk to the King for me, help him see sense." That was Lord Perrin's voice.
"I think you have the wrong man," Merlin said, still sounding tense. "I'm just his servant."
"Oh, I think you're a little more than that," Lord Perrin pressed. "Word is, if you want the King's ear, they need to get your ear first. He values your counsel, nearly above all others. Lord Humphries told me as much yesterday. Indeed, Humphries seemed to think you’d already done him a good turn a few months ago, and expected it to happen again."
"I don't know what you've heard, but I can assure you—"
"Oh, don't be so modest, young man." Lady Perrin now—she was in there, too? "You forget, we took refuge in here like everyone else when the Dorocha attacked last year. We saw how you worked together, always side by side. Everyone did. And with recent events…."
"What happened with Lord Agravaine," Lord Perrin stated solemnly.
"…You are clearly one of his inner circle. You've even spoken up a few times in the High Council, have you not?" Lady Perrin said, her tone somewhere between sycophantic and patronizing.
"Always wisely," Lord Perrin simpered. Arthur felt his lip curling in disgust.
"Ummm…." Merlin had the sound of someone who had been cornered.
"Look," Lord Perrin said, "We would not ask for your help if our situation were not dire. You heard today that the King is undecided about whether to lighten the tithes we owe this year, despite the terrible winter we had, and we simply would like him to consider our poor, hardworking people. They are struggling; we all are. Why, we ourselves have had to cut down to only three meals a day."
Arthur almost snorted, thinking of the rather substantial girths both Lord and Lady Perrin carried.
"In the council," Merlin said slowly, "Arthur questioned whether you had appropriately prepared for the winter—none of the other lords are struggling as much. He also said you cleared out perfectly good farming land to build a folly and some sort of sporting park…?"
"Perhaps some poor decisions were made, but is that enough to punish our starving people?" Lord Perrin asked. "They need our king's compassion, not his censure or disdain. Please, Merlin, surely you must understand, being peasant born yourself."
"You are kind, Merlin," Lady Perrin purred. "I can see that in your eyes. If you could just talk to him, we—"
Arthur had heard enough. Backing up a few steps to the entranceway to the hall, so that he couldn't be accused of eavesdropping, he raised his voice and shouted, "Merlin!"
He imagined the startled looks of the three people in the council chambers as he strode again towards the room, and smirked. "Merlin! Where the devil are you?"
"Here, sire!" Merlin called, running into hallway to meet him, slipping slightly on the flagstones in his haste. He grinned, his expression one of clear relief until he saw the shirt in Arthur's hands. Then it most certainly was not.
"Oh," he said, swallowing thickly. "What…um…what happened to your shirt?" Worst. Liar. Ever.
"Don't," he snarled, throwing it at Merlin, who barely caught it. "Can you explain this?"
Merlin blushed deeply, looking down at the shirt, and then briefly into the council chambers, before looking back at Arthur. He bowed his head. "No, Sire. I cannot."
"Then maybe a day in the stocks will refresh your memory."
Merlin's head came up instantly, his expression clearly surprised. "What?"
"You heard me. You know what that shirt meant to me. You need to be punished."
"I…" Merlin's eyes were round as saucers now, and he looked down at the shirt again. "Wait, but—"
"No buts. Report to the guardroom immediately, and inform Sir Reginald of my decision. Dismissed."
Merlin stared at him a moment longer, as if looking for the joke, before finally pressing his lips together tightly and nodding. He bowed slightly, if a little sharply.
Arthur felt a tiny twinge of regret as Merlin turned dejectedly and walked away. With some effort, he fought the urge to call him back and rescind the order, but then he heard the whispering coming from the council room and recalled his reasoning for being so harsh. Walking the rest of the way into the council room, he found himself looking down his nose at Lord and Lady Perrin, who were standing near the room's center, both looking a tad unsteady. Lord Perrin bowed and Lady Perrin curtsied, but looked extremely unhappy doing it. He placed a hand on his sword, a move he had seen his father do a thousand times, and the effect was instantaneous—both nobles stepped back, cowed.
"Something I can do for you, my lord and lady?" he asked.
Lord Perrin smiled weakly. "No, Sire. Not at the moment."
"Well then," Arthur said. "I should let you know that I have made a decision about your request to lower the tithes this year."
They both instantly straightened, Lady Perrin's head lifting to reveal the fat pearls about her pale neck.
"I am going to deny the request," Arthur intoned. "May I suggest that you find a way to live more within your means this year. In addition, if I hear that there are any abuses of your serfs as a result of your poor handling of your lands, I may have to consider adjusting those property boundaries," he paused, "and making them smaller."
The wide-eyed stares he received were expected, but Lady Perrin fainting to the ground a second later was not. It was a bit like watching a Beltane pageant wagon collapse in slow motion. Almost amusingly, Lord Perrin just watched it happen, gaping like a trout on the end of a fishing hook at his wife as she went down in a sea of pale blue fabrics.
Arthur sighed, and shouted for the servants to bring water for the Lady and to fetch Gaius.
As people bustled into the room to help, he backed up, feeling slightly guilty for his abrupt actions, but also knowing it had to be done. Not just to teach the lords a lesson, but to send a strong message to everyone in Camelot that Merlin was his servant, and only his servant.
This was not the first time he'd found people trying to go through Merlin to get to him, or seemed to be under the mistaken impression that Merlin had some sort of sway over his decisions. The first time he'd noticed it was when Princess Mithian was here last year, when she'd asked if Merlin had had a role in his choice not to go through with the wedding. “I know that you consider his opinion very highly,” she had said, right after he’d told her his decision, “and I know he doesn’t like me. Is that the reason? Has he turned you against me?”
He’d not thought too much about it at the time, though he’d been a little embarrassed that she thought Merlin had that much influence over his thoughts, and impact on his decisions, but then it had happened again. About a year ago, during the High Council's first meeting following his father's death, he’d overheard Lord Humphries asking Merlin for advice as to how to approach Arthur about increasing the military allotment for his lands—emphasizing the greater uncertainties now that Cenred was no longer king of the neighboring lands. Merlin didn’t say a thing about it later, but Arthur had been annoyed at the presumption. Still, he’d agreed to the increased allotment because it was logical, and he’d tried to ignore the smile Humphries gave Merlin.
And then again, with Lord Bailor a few months ago, who had requested Merlin attend him during his last visit, only to find out later that Bailor had wanted Merlin to deliver messages to Arthur after hours, knowing he wouldn’t deny Merlin into his chambers. Merlin had found it amusing, but it only incensed Arthur.
Then yesterday, Arthur happened to catch sight of Humphries snatching Merlin outside the High Council and pulling him to one side. Arthur had quietly followed and listened around the corner as Humphries tried to convince Merlin to help him again—he wanted an even greater military allotment, now that Lot was king. Arthur was intending to deny the request this time—Humphries needed to raise his own funds, not rely solely on Camelot’s wealth—but clearly, the man thought he had some sort of ally in Merlin. His servant, to his credit, had denied providing any service to Humphries before, but the lord was insistent. "Use your influence," he'd begged. "I know you can get him to see reason and help me."
Well, that was the last time. Arthur wasn’t going to wait until the final day of meetings tomorrow. He’d tell Humphries tonight that his request was going to be denied, just as he had told the Perrins. As for Merlin….
A day in the stocks would not only teach Merlin a lesson about taking care of his shirts, but would show the world that his servant was just a servant, nothing more.
Even so, Arthur had already decided that more drastic action was going to need to be taken. It wouldn’t do for people, especially not the nobility, to think that Merlin had any influence on Arthur. Yes, he’d asked his friend for advice in the past, but if other people knew that, it could be dangerous. It suggested weakness; that a servant could have any sort of sway over a king’s decision was not only inappropriate, it was ignominious. His father would turn in his grave.
It was time Arthur stood on his own two feet—no more councilors or advisors, no more uncles or servants to confuse his thoughts. After today, he was going to make it clear that the only person Arthur was going to listen to from now on was Arthur.
(And maybe Guinevere. But only because she'd kill him if he didn't.)
______________________________ ... _________________________________
“Unbelievable!” Merlin snarled, shoving open the door to the court physician’s quarters with a bang. “Not only does he keep me in the stocks all day but I didn’t even deserve—”
He stopped when he saw Arthur standing in the middle of the room, talking quietly to Gaius. Merlin quickly shut up, actually biting his bottom lip in the process, and tried to ignore the flush that had filled his face.
“Um,” he said, trying for an innocent looking smile. “My apologies, Sire, I—“
“No matter,” Arthur said, waving the complaint away, which was actually pretty nice of him.
Unfortunately, Arthur being nice also meant something was very wrong.
Merlin’s thoughts instantly turned dour, and he steeled himself for whatever bad news was about to be delivered. He glanced at Gaius, trying to read something in his mentor’s face, but Gaius just gave him an inscrutable look and turned his attention to the king.
“I’ll just be going, then,” he said, sounding disturbingly calm. "So that the two of you can discuss this matter in private."
"Thank you, Gaius," Arthur said, his tone beyond formal.
Merlin frowned slightly, stepping to one side as Gaius picked up his bag and shuffled past, not giving Merlin a second glance. Merlin’s heart sank—it had to be bad if Gaius wasn’t even trying to give him some kind of encouragement or warning.
As soon as the door was closed, Merlin stepped closer to Arthur. “What’s the matter?” he asked, not hiding the concern in his voice. “Is someone hurt? Is it Gwen? Or Gwaine?”
Arthur’s brow furrowed briefly, but his expression remained irritatingly neutral as he shook his head.
“No,” he said. He gestured at the bench next to a table. “Please, have a seat.”
Merlin glanced at the bench like it had turned into a pit of snakes, and returned his attention to Arthur. “Ealdor?” he asked softly, gripping his hands tightly by his sides. “Has something happened? Have you heard something? My mother?”
Arthur sighed heavily. “No, it’s nothing like that. Please, just sit. There’s something you and I need to discuss. About something you’ve been keeping from me.”
Merlin’s eyebrows lifted, and ice cold fear pooled in his stomach. No. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t be talking about….No, no. There’s no way. He hadn’t done any magic recently, had he? Nothing overt, anyway. Please, please, please….
A little numbly, he walked over to the bench and sat down. As he passed by the table with the glass vials and flasks, he caught sight of his reflection. There was a bit of tomato (and possibly lettuce) in his hair from the stocks. Great. He was about to be accused of sorcery and he had a salad on his head.
“Um,” he touched the side of his face under the tomato, it's juice mixing with his sweat, “may I clean up first?”
“This won’t take long,” Arthur replied, still monotone.
Merlin swallowed thickly, but nodded. It seemed that was the cue for Arthur to start.
“I overheard you in the council chambers today,” Arthur said, “with Lord and Lady Perrin.”
Merlin’s mantle of doom abated slightly, and he looked up. “Huh?”
“I overheard them trying to convince you to talk to me about reducing their tithes.”
Merlin’s eyebrows lifted. He almost smiled, his relief was that strong, but he managed to keep a straight face. “Oh?”
“How often does that happen?”
"What, being hit on by nobles? All the time. I think it's the jaunty way I carry off this scarf." He grinned.
Arthur didn't. Merlin's smile fell.
"Answer the question," the king said, in a voice that said and remember who you are talking to.
Merlin sighed, still a bit giddy from not about to be sentenced to death, and tried to recall. How often did people come to him, hoping he would help them get to Arthur? Pretty often, actually. Mostly, it was minor stuff—other servants, some of the guards and knights, the occasional townsperson—but he suspected Arthur was talking specifically about the nobility. Then, it had been a couple of times during each meeting of the High Council, which occurred every three months or so. The largest landowning lords visited, some from quite far away, to discuss the state of the kingdom with Arthur and his council.
“I’m not sure,” he said, scratching at his chin, “a few times, I suppose.”
Arthur pursed his lips, obviously pondering that response. “Define, ‘a few’.”
“A couple of times each time the High Council meets? And, sometimes when we have visitors, they might ask me to help them talk to you. Like Lord Bailor, if you remember that.”
Arthur’s eyebrows lifted high, and Merlin wasn’t sure what to make of the expression. Was that surprise? Or something else? He tried to think what might be wrong with what he’d just said.
“Of course, I never do as they ask,” Merlin said carefully, trying to suss out what was going on in Arthur's head. “And I always inform them that you don’t talk to me about matters of state.” It was a lie, of course; Arthur talked to him all the time. But the nobles didn’t have to know that. Merlin wasn’t about to become some sort of intermediary between Camelot’s nobility and the king. He had enough to worry about. “I always tell them that I’m just your servant, and I don’t want to get involved.”
Arthur, however, wasn’t looking happy, as if he didn’t believe what Merlin had just said. His gaze had narrowed, and Merlin found himself getting worried again.
“If you keep telling them that you’re just a servant,” Arthur asked, “then why do they keep coming back to you?”
Merlin opened his mouth to answer, but realized he didn’t really have one. “Um…I don’t know?”
“I do,” Arthur said. “I’ve been too lenient with your behavior in public. How we talk in private is one thing, but in public, you need to be seen, not heard.”
Merlin frowned slightly, a little annoyed at the implied rebuke. “I know that.”
“And yet, yesterday, you said something during the High Council session.”
Merlin’s eyes widened. “Yes, but…I was asked a question.”
“Yes, but before you answered, you should have looked to me for permission. More to the point, I don’t like that you were asked a question at all.”
Merlin frowned. “Why?”
“Because you’re supposed to be invisible. Unimportant.”
“But I was asked whether I thought there was unrest in the outlying villages in Lot’s Kingdom, like Ealdor.”
“The fact that Lord Humphries even knew you were from Ealdor disturbs me. Why would he know that?”
“Well…” Merlin shrugged. “I suppose because I told him? He'd asked when we first met, which—”
“There! See? That’s a problem. You can’t talk to the lords of this kingdom so freely, and never when I’m not present.”
Merlin found himself frowning even more. “I don’t understand. Am I supposed to ignore them if they talk to me?”
“No, but you can tell them to direct any questions to me. Let me make it simple. I am your master, and they need to know that. How can I show I have control over this kingdom if it appears I don’t even have control over my manservant?”
“No. No buts, Merlin. It became very clear to me today that the nobility think you have some influence over me, and I can’t have that. So, I’ve decided to make some changes. From now on, you will only attend me in my chambers, out on the practice field, or outside the castle. You will not attend me during council meetings, during receptions or feasts, or when greeting visiting nobles. I want you out of the public eye.”
Merlin squinted slightly, but said nothing to these new rules. Instead, he asked, “And who will attend you at those times?”
Ouch. “I see.”
“You have to understand, Merlin,” Arthur’s veneer cracked slightly, “I have to do this. You’re becoming too familiar, and, consequently, are becoming a potential risk to me.”
Merlin huffed. “A risk.”
Arthur frowned. “Dangerous, if you prefer.”
“Oh, I’m dangerous now.”
“No, of course not!" Arthur snapped. "You yourself are not dangerous. It's how people view you that is dangerous!” He shook his head, stepping back and rubbing his forehead. “The fact is, you make me look weak. And right now, I can’t afford even the perception of weakness. You must understand that, after all we’ve been through—I'm barely here as it is. My choices of late, because of the people I surrounded myself with, are in question. I need to demonstrate strength and independence and…." He hesitated, and added, " discrimination.”
Merlin gritted his teeth. He heard that last part loud and clear. At the end of the day, he wasn't good enough to be seen as the King's friend….
"Because I'm just your servant," he said, finishing his thought out loud.
Arthur grimaced slightly as if in pain, but nodded. "Yes. The lords think I'm vulnerable, that they can get to me through you. They wouldn't have dared to think such a thing of someone like Agravaine or anyone on the council, but you? You they see as a potential tool, the weak spot in my armor. And I can't have that. I have to stand alone, to be seen standing alone." He frowned, his royal mask cracking a little. "Tell me you understand."
But Merlin didn’t understand. How did he make Arthur weak? Arthur’s strength lay in his friends and his people, not in his airs and veneers. And it lay deepest with those who had stood by him in the darkest hours. But…he couldn’t argue. Friend or not, Arthur was still king.
He bowed his head, turning his eyes to the floor. “As you wish, Sire.”
He could imagine Arthur’s face pinching at that, obviously knowing that wasn’t an agreement. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Arthur straighten his shoulders and nod.
“Good." Arthur looked everywhere but at Merlin. "Then it’s settled.”
“What would you like me to do when I’m not attending you?” Merlin asked, still generally focused on the flagstones.
“You will do as Gwen did, after Morgana went….” He trailed off, then simply finished the sentence with, “After Morgana. She worked where she was most needed. Start with Gaius. If he has no chores for you, you will report to the Steward.”
Merlin tried not to wince, fearful he’d end up working in the kitchens or the laundry, or, worse yet, mucking out the stables or the dungeons. But Arthur’s mind was clearly made up, so Merlin just nodded, and repeated the same phrase from earlier:
“As you wish, Sire.”
For a moment after that, neither man said anything. And then Arthur looked at the door.
“So, you’ll probably want to clean up.”
“Probably,” Merlin replied coolly. “The vegetables were particularly rotten today.”
Arthur gave a nod, obviously not listening. “I’ll just go then.”
Arthur breathed in deeply. "Right. I'll, uh…I'll see you later."
“Thank you, Sire.”
Arthur’s jaw tensed at the formality, but he didn’t argue. With a tense nod, he walked to the door. Merlin simply looked down at his hands, amazed that he hadn’t punctured his palms with his nails, he was gripping them so tightly.
Sighing, Merlin looked up. “Yes, Sire?”
Arthur was still standing in the doorway, one leg in the room, one out in the corridor, his expression worried. “You do understand, don’t you?”
Merlin watched him for a moment, and then nodded. “Of course. I understand all too well.” That you’re a complete prat.
Arthur studied him a minute, then gave a nod and left, leaving the door ajar. Merlin sighed and slumped against the table.
After a few seconds, someone cleared their throat. When he looked up to see Gaius framed in the doorway, Merlin turned away. He didn't want his mentor to see how hurt he was.
“Are you alright?” Gaius asked.
“Oh, fine,” Merlin snarled. “Arthur just banned me from attending him half the time he’s in Camelot. Anything ‘public’ and I’m supposed to be helping in the kitchens.”
Gaius stepped around him so that he could see Merlin's face. “I know. He told me what he was going to do before you came in, and I know you must be hurt, but--.”
"Hurt? I'm not hurt!" Merlin snapped, masking his embarrassment with as much force as he could muster. What did Gaius think he was, a girl? "I'm angry! And more than that, I'm worried! How am I supposed to protect him, if I’m not there? If someone attacks him or threatens to attack…”
Gaius gave him that annoying look that said he could see right through him. “He has guards, Merlin.”
“Oh yes, because they’ve been so useful in the past. The number of times I’ve had to—“
“I know,” Gaius said, hands raised in a soothing gesture. “I know. But Arthur’s feeling very vulnerable right now. You have to understand that, after what happened with Lord Agravaine, he has to wonder if he can even trust his own judgment. He wants to stand on his own, to feel like he’s not dependent on anyone, and he wants the people of this kingdom to know it as well.”
“But what has that to do with me?” And that didn't come out as whiny as it sounded, did it?
“People go to you, Merlin, because they think you have the king’s ear. He’s afraid of how that looks. He wants people to approach him directly.”
“I don’t ask them to come to me.”
“I know that, but they come anyway. You know that as well as I. Gwen is going to start being approached as well, but he can’t require the Queen to not attend him at functions. Plus, it's expected that the Queen would have some influence. But a servant….?”
Merlin crossed his arms, turning his head away. “I still think it’s foolish. No man stands on his own. Why doesn’t he know that? His father had advisors. All the lords have seconds…..”
“But you’re not his advisor, Merlin. You're not his second.”
“But I'm also not just his servant, Gaius! You know that as well as I do. I’m also his friend. And right now, he needs his friends. Why can’t he trust me to do what’s right by him?”
Gaius gave a small smile at that, and sat down on the bench next to him. “Like he trusted Agravaine? And Morgana?”
Merlin grimaced. “That’s not the same.”
“I know that, and you know that, but….” Gaius sighed. "But if I were Arthur, I'd be questioning everyone I've allowed close. And right now, besides Gwen, you are the closest person to him. And the fact that his betrayals by Morgana and Agravaine were so public, is it any wonder that he's concerned about how people are perceiving him? About who he has chosen to be close to?"
"I suppose, but—"
"You need to let him do this, Merlin. If cutting you out of a few dinners is what he needs to feel like he's in control then--"
"Then what?" Merlin shook his head, feeling his shoulder sink as he considered more than just his own feelings. “Thing is, this is about more than a few dinners. And it's about more than just me. You didn't hear him earlier. He thinks he has to 'stand alone,' that he can only do things on his own, but he’s wrong. He needs people he can rely on, just as we rely on him. If he isolates himself from the people who care, the people who love him….”
Gaius put his arm over Merlin’s shoulder. “I know. And he will too, someday. But he has to come to that realization himself first. It’ll happen. Trust me.”
Merlin frowned. “So long as it’s not too late.”
Gaius said nothing to that, just gave Merlin’s shoulder a squeeze. After a moment, he dropped his arm and smiled brightly.
“So. I understand the other part of this new change in duties is that I get to use your services more. Is that right?”
Merlin bowed his head in resignation.
“Then that’s very good news,” Gaius continued, “because my herb stocks are at an all time low. I could really use a hand gathering up some items from the forest, and now that you have some free time….”
Merlin’s heaved groan could probably be heard all the way to the Great Hall.
Chapter 2: King of the Flies
Arthur pushed through the doors in the council chambers the next morning and nodded at the lords gathered there. Lord Perrin lifted his chin in blatant disrespect, Lord Humphries kept his head turned away, Lord Bailor's bushy eyebrows were lifted high, and the rest of the peers regarded him with some uncertainty. Arthur's decision to deny both Humphries' and Perrin's requests last night had obviously already been discussed. Good.
Walking up to the head of the table, he nodded at George to close the doors. The efficient servant had already anticipated the action, and simply looked at the guards, who shut the doors.
"Is the Queen not joining us?" Lord Bailor asked. Ah, that explained the raised eyebrows, Arthur thought.
"No, Bailor. She has unfortunately come down with a slight malady. She will attend the feast this evening, but, as we are going to discuss military matters this morning, I felt she could avoid this particular meeting." In the background, standing and sitting in a group below the windows, several of the Ladies started to whisper noisily behind their fans, and Arthur gave them a dark stare. They quieted immediately, turning invisible once more.
"Is…" Lord Humphries frowned at George, before looking again at Arthur and asking, "Is anyone else going to be joining us?"
Arthur frowned. "No. This will be it."
Humphries eyes widened slightly at the obvious implication, and, interestingly, he almost appeared to blush, though Arthur wasn't entirely sure why. Still, Humphries was young—a year younger than Arthur in fact—so he hadn't learned to school his features the way his late father could. When Humphries lowered his eyes to the table, Arthur turned his to the rest of his High Council.
His gaze lingered on Gaius briefly, where he was sitting next to Sir Leon. The physician was there to discuss the latest innovations in his field for use in battle. In response to Arthur's attention, Gaius simply gave an understanding nod.
Arthur looked away quickly. He didn't need understanding nods, damn it!
"Well," he said, laying his hands on the table and looking to the middle-aged lord at the far end of the table, "shall we begin with the status of our border with Bayard's kingdom, and the state of your military, Lord Exestan?"
The more he thought about it, the more Merlin was certain he had every right to be angry. Every. Damn. Right. While he couldn't exactly blame Gaius for this chore (though, honestly, couldn't he have picked something less annoying to find than cowslips? Cowslips meant marshes which meant slime which meant he was definitely leaving his socks outside his room tonight for Gaius to regret his choice), or Arthur for throwing him over for George (though, really, George? That's just insulting), or Lord Humphries for putting him in this position in the first place (why are all young lords so damn thoughtless in their actions, blabbing to the Perrins like that?), he could still be angry.
And he most definitely wasn't hurt. Much. Alright, maybe a little. More than a little.
He sniffed, wiping a sleeve across his running nose.
Arthur needed his help, after all. And it wasn't like he gave bad advice. Arthur had as much as said so. Had even called him "wise" once or twice.
But because he was a servant, it somehow meant he couldn't talk to his friend? Offer him help? Be there to provide a second opinion? Arthur needed someone to….oh. There they are.
He'd found the cowslips Gaius wanted. They were all around him. Actually…he'd sort of crushed a lot of them by stomping on them.
Sighing, Merlin crouched down, the wet, marshy earth squelching under his boots as he shifted to his toes. Of course, mud just had to splash over the top and onto the laces, because cleaning his boots of the sticky mud was exactly how he wanted to spend his evening. Swallowing down a curse, he started roughly pulling up the delicate little flowers, dumping them in the basket he'd brought. The light, sweet smell of the flowers tried to compete with the muggy, algae-ridden air of the marsh, but it failed completely. Still, he appreciated the effort.
Unfortunately, so did the gnats. Like moths to a flame, they descended on him in thick, brown clouds, landing on his nose, in his hair and…ugh, in his mouth.
Spitting out the tiny flies, he waved uselessly at the air, trying to dispel them, but it only seemed to make the flies even more interested.
"Go away," he hissed, standing up and stepping backwards to get away. "Leave me alone!"
Mocking him, they just followed, buzzing in his ears and nipping at his bare neck above the kerchief. He swore he could hear them laughing.
And he was not in the mood!
A few choice words of magic, and flash of will, and the gnats fled, like a fog instantly burned off by the sun.
"Yeah," he muttered, sneering as he watched wasps, bees and every other insect life up and flee after the gnats, "you better run, because today I'm the king of the flies!"
He froze then, and turned around slowly. That would have been exactly the right time for Arthur to be standing behind him, a knowing smirk on his face, ready with a mock for the self-proclaimed king. He relaxed upon finding nothing there but the same empty, sun-soaked marsh he expected.
Blowing the air out of his cheeks, he took a step forward, to get the rest of the cowslips…and sank in mud higher than the top of his boot. "Oh…come on," he whined, closing his eyes and turning his face up towards the sun. "Really?"
Lifting his foot out, he growled at the mud (and insects and cowslips and weeds) dripping off (and inside) his boot and wondered what else could go wrong.
It was then he realized he could hear voices.
He froze again, this time for a very different reason. He hadn't realized before just how loud the insects had been when they'd been here. Without the constant buzz and hum, he found himself surrounded by nearly perfect silence…except for the soft murmur of people talking somewhere in the trees beyond the open marshland. The ground inside the trees was not quite as boggy as out here, but it was still marsh, and the trees thin and spindly. No one ever came out here. Why would they? The ground was useless for anything but giving you foot rot, the trees couldn't be used for building or even burning, and the air was thick with the smell of mold and skin-biting insects. All this led to just one conclusion: the owners of the voices he could hear were up to no good.
Walking carefully to avoid making too much noise, he crept across the field and into the trees, trying as much as possible to stick to the dry land and roots sticking out of the marshland. The squelching footfalls he was making didn't exactly make him a paragon of stealth. You'd think by now I'd have learned something from following Arthur on his hunts. But no. He really hadn't. Mostly because he hated every moment when he was on a hunt, so he spent most of his time feeling sorry for himself and hoping they didn't kill anything. If anything, he made even more noise when they were hunting.
Leaning against a sickly looking birch, feet balanced on an exposed root, he stopped to listen. The voices were louder now—less a murmur and more distinguishable as coming from different people. He still couldn't quite make out the words, but he could get a fix on the location. The hiss and smell of someone burning wet wood helped—weak puffs of blackish smoke were drifting towards him, like a beckoning finger.
Unfortunately, between him and where the smoke and voices originated from was a lot of wet. He'd never make it across that mud quietly. Thinking a minute, he looked down at his feet and tried something new.
He felt the magic ripple through him, his feet taking on a strange sensation of lightness. Arching an eyebrow, he stepped into the mud and grinned. No squelch.
Trying not to feel too cocky, he crept closer to the voices and the smoke. Dodging from tree to tree (keeping to the ones that provided a bit more cover than a birch), he quickly found himself on the edge of a small rise, looking up at what appeared to be a fairly established camp. The people occupying it—about a dozen or so—looked to have been there a few days.
They were also clearly bandits, judging by all the leather and weaponry scattered about.
A pot was bubbling over a fire pit, being tended by a swarthy looking character with a scar down the side of his face and a fairly vacant expression. Several more men were sitting a few feet away, playing a game with dice on a blanket. A couple of others were tending to a set of ragged horses, one of which was a large draft horse—probably there to pull the mostly empty cart. The others bandits, including the lone female, were all standing around talking to a figure in a hooded cape.
Merlin frowned, trying to see who the hooded figure was, but he was turned away from him and hunched over, as if embarrassed to be there at all. All Merlin could see clearly was his hands—white, clean and wearing a ring with a massive pale blue-flecked stone on it, like a robin's egg. Nobility.
Using the tree for balance, he leaned forward and strained to hear what the hooded figure was telling the bandits. It sounded like a woman's voice, but it was soft, and could just as easily have been a high pitched man's, like Lord Perrin's gratingly high voice.
"…going even worse than expected. We're not going to wait any longer. There's a feast tonight to celebrate the second to last day of the High Council meetings—everyone will be so preoccupied with what's happening upstairs, you should be able to slip in and out without any trouble."
"Great," the tallest bandit said, crossing his arms over his chest. Probably the leader, Merlin surmised. "Now I'm even more certain this is a bad idea. A feast doesn't mean there will be fewer guards. There may even be more because of it. We should wait for tomorrow, as we planned. The chaos of everyone leaving will provide better cover."
"Perhaps. But having you utilize the feast will mean that those at the feast will not be suspected. And I want all the lords to be there when they discover what's happened, how easily Arthur can be ruined." The figured waved a hand, the ring shining in the sunlight. "I should mention I've also found a less guarded route. Come to the usual door, and I'll--"
"How can you be sure that the route will be less guarded?"
The hooded figure sighed. "Because I said so. Look, obviously, there are going to be guards. But you're not amateurs; you're the best in this land. What's a few guards to you?"
"A lot, when they're Camelot guards, and they are backed up by a large army of knights."
"Oh please, I'm sure you can handle it. Besides…" The hooded figure gestured at the female bandit. "Isn't that why she's here?"
Merlin's eyebrows lifted curiously, his attention following the others to the woman in question. The female bandit had been standing silently to one side, but at being singled out, her frown deepened and her chin lifted. She was about the age of his mother, but with a worldliness his mother didn't have. Dark brown hair was bound tightly in a braid around her head, dark brows overshadowed deep-set eyes and a long nose, and lines marred her pale lips. She didn't look particularly formidable. But then, neither did Morgana.
"Camilla is an asset, yes," the bandit leader said, "but she's not omnipotent."
"As long as she's powerful, I don't really care." The hooded figure stepped closer to the bandit leader. "You recall your debt to me, Malcon? You agreed to do whatever I asked, and no job was impossible, remember? Not even stealing the gold from inside Camelot's famous vaults."
Merlin sucked in a breath. These weren't just bandits—they were thieves.
He backed away, having heard enough, and stepped right into a slick patch of mud, taking his feet out from under him. The yelp he emitted as he landed on his butt was clearly loud enough to get the attention of everyone in the camp. His eyes widened upon seeing the leader—who suddenly looked very, very large—staring right at him.
Scrambling to his feet, he started running, bee-lining back the way he came just as someone yelled "get him!" He cared about nothing now except running, something that, unlike hunting, he had become really good at.
Despite the wet terrain, he made it back to the meadow and carried straight on through, ignoring the basket he'd left there. A bolt whistled past his head, and he ducked, panic welling up inside. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the bandits boiling out of the trees—and at least two of them were stopping to point crossbows at him.
"Fléoge áfiehtest!" he hissed, looking up at the sky…and immediately tripping on a chunk of earth. He smacked face first into the ground, his momentum sending him skidding across the wet dirt and into a mound of mud a dozen feet away. Spitting out dirt, grass and cowslips, he looked over his shoulder, expecting to see the thieves right on top of him.
He grinned to see all of the thieves surrounded by clouds of insects—the buzz was intense! With a grin, he got back to his feet and started running again. King of the flies!
No longer looking back, he hit the edge of the meadow and jumped over a small brook. Legs and arms pumping, he gasped up a small hill, the elevation bringing him back to dry land and to the horse he'd used to get out here.
He realized, with some amusement, that his footfalls were still completely silent. Sadly, his footprints were as obvious as blood on snow. Still, as he closed in on the horse, it didn't matter. With a tiny mental push, his horse's lead loosed itself from the tree and met him as he jumped up into the saddle. With a loud "hyah!" he had the horse turned and galloping back to Camelot.
Only when he was back on the main road and within sight of the castle did he dare to look over his shoulder. He sighed in relief to see no one behind him. For once, luck was on his side.
The arrival back at the castle was almost anticlimactic after the race through the forest, convinced at any moment that he was going to feel a crossbow bolt in his back. He’d looked over his shoulder several times on the way and hadn’t seen anyone. But his heart still beat with the speed of a terrified rabbit, and it wasn’t until he was inside the walls that he felt it begin to slow. He raced up the stairs to the council room floor, knowing that’s where he’d be. Today was the last full day of sessions, and everyone would be in chambers, even Gaius.
He skidded around the corner, legs shaking slightly, and nearly fell into the guard standing at the door. When he went to move past him, however, the guard stepped neatly into his way. Merlin frowned, confused.
“I have to get in there,” he said, his voice breaking slightly. “There’s something—“
“No one is allowed into the council chamber right now,” the guard said. “I’m sorry.”
Fenric. The guard's name was Fenric, Merlin realized as he identified the face under the helmet.
"Let me in, Fenric. He’ll want to hear this,” Merlin promised, trying to sidestep him again. The second guard, Melichor, was watching them with something akin to pity.
“I’m not being funny,” Merlin said, frowning slightly when Fenric again rebuffed him with a gentle hand to his chest. “There’s a threat that—“
“We’re being attacked?” Fenric asked.
Merlin frowned more. “No. No, not exactly, but—“
“Is someone going to attack?”
Merlin took a step back, and so did Fenric. “No. Well, yes," Merlin said. "It depends on how you define ‘attack.’” He furrowed his brow. “I overheard someone plotting to steal from the vaults. Arthur needs to know.”
Fenric pursed his lips, as if considering this information. After a moment, he shook his head. “Nope. I don’t think that’s enough.”
“Enough?” Merlin spluttered. “What does that mean? Enough for what?”
“Enough to break the promise we made to the King.”
Merlin tilted his head, regarding both Fenric and Melichor at the same time. “And what promise was that exactly?”
“That we were not to allow anyone to disturb the High Council meeting, unless the castle was under threat of imminent attack.”
“And…” Melichor prompted.
“And?” Merlin repeated.
“And, you in particular, Merlin, were not allowed in. He made us swear.”
Merlin’s eyes widened slightly. “What?”
“I’m sorry,” Fenric said again, and he really did look sorry. “Maybe you can go tell your story to Sir Leon? I’m sure he could—”
“Sir Leon’s inside,” Melichor noted.
“Oh, right.” Fenric looked genuinely embarrassed by this news. “Perhaps the castle steward? He might--”
“Also inside,” Melichor said.
“Gaius is, I assume, in there as well,” Merlin asked Melichor, his tone level.
“At the moment, yes.”
“I’m really, truly sorry,” Fenric said again.
Merlin snarled slightly. “I’m sure you are.” He took a step back, his filthy hands fisting by his sides. He felt shivers running down his arms and legs, adrenalin demanding he act, demanding that he do something…
…And turning to bitterness in his mouth, as he realized that he wasn’t going to find anyone to listen. He could go find Gwaine, he supposed, or Percival, but what was the point of that? They’d just tell him to wait on Arthur, meanwhile, go have a drink…calm down….
All the anger he’d felt earlier against Arthur, which he’d forgotten about, resurfaced in his mind, brighter and sharper than ever. This, this, was why he shouldn't be cut out! He could feel the magic inside him wanting to ride it out, to be let go, to prove….Good lord, is this how Morgana felt?
Shaking his head, he willed his strength back down and walked away from the two guards. Fenric was still calling apologies after him, adding something about "perhaps use the time to clean up a little?", but Merlin didn’t care.
His walk soon turned into a jog, and then a run, and he found himself heading straight to Arthur’s chambers.
Fine. Arthur wanted him to wait? He’d be waiting, still covered in mud. Arthur wouldn’t be able to avoid him. He’d be there, in his chambers, dripping mud on everything, waiting for the time that Arthur deigned to take a break from his fancy High Council meeting. And Merlin would simply tell him that there was a chance that a sorcerer might be aiding thieves in breaking into Camelot’s vaults tonight, and, gee, maybe he should do something about it before it was too late. Oh, and, by now, it might be too late.
It’d serve him right! Who did he think he was? (Royal lineage thing notwithstanding…)
He rounded the corner into the hallway where the king’s chambers were, and hit the doors with a slam, using far too much force to swing them both wide open, the wood banging against the stone walls. Without stopping, he grabbed the metal jug sitting on the table in front of him and threw it as hard as he could against the wall opposite, bellowing with rage.
The shriek from the bed caused him to nearly jump out of his skin. Holy hell!
“Merlin!” Guenivere was staring at him, shock clear on her face. She had been lying down, half under the covers, and was looking at him like he had two heads.
Merlin completely froze, eyes wide. Oops.
“What the hell are you doing!” she demanded. She looked at the jug on the floor, water cascading down the wall and puddling near where it had landed.
“Um…” Merlin quickly turned his head, to look at anything but Gwen in the bed, which led to uncomfortable thoughts about why she was there, what else she did there, what that meant, and…. He clapped his hands over his eyes and tried to think completely blank thoughts. Blank. Blank. Blank…
Slowly, with great reluctance, he opened his hands. "Yes?" he squeaked.
"Look at me. I'm standing right next to you."
He lifted his hands away, and squinted at the woman now standing a few feet away. She was fully dressed (thank God), and had her hands on her hips, staring at him with such an acid gaze, he could almost feel his skin melting.
"Hi," he offered, uselessly. "How are you? You look nice. Fully dressed and…everything. I wasn't expecting you here. Not that you don't have every right to be here. You're the queen now, after all. Though you do have your own chambers, and during the day…um…I mean. Um. Your majesty. You know what? I should go. Yes. Go. Away. I'm going away. Forget I was here. Please. Please forget I was here."
She snagged the arm of his jacket before he could back up more than a step. "Little hard to forget you were here considering the water pooling on the ground and soaking into the rug," she offered evenly.
He swallowed, only now remembering the mess he'd made. He stared at the jug like it had thrown itself against the wall under its own power.
"Ah, that. Yes. Rags. I'll get rags." He smiled weakly.
The acid stare was gone, replaced by something akin to amusement…and possibly pity. That was almost worse. He felt his earlier anger beginning to boil inside him again. He felt himself shutting down, and he took another step back. As his demeanor changed, so did hers. Gwen's eyes narrowed, but with concern this time.
"Not until you tell me why you threw the jug," she said cautiously, as if afraid he'd bolt. "What's the matter?"
He frowned, and bowed slightly. "I don't want to bother you, your majesty."
"You surprised me, but you're not bothering me, Merlin. And please don't call me 'majesty.' Not you."
He gritted his teeth. She'd said that to him before, but he knew he had to practice. With Arthur, it was easy, but Gwen had always been Gwen until recently, and if he still called her that in private too often, in public, he might forget to call her by her title. Things had changed, after all. He…they…had to change with it.
"I'll try," he said, not meaning it. "And I…I am sorry for the intrusion. I genuinely did not think you would be in here."
Gwen frowned at that. "Why wouldn't I be? They're my quarters as well."
"You have your own quarters, your majesty." He ignored Gwen's grimace at the use of the title again. "The Queen's chambers next door. It is assumed that, when you are not with the king, that you would either be there, or elsewhere in the castle."
She blushed slightly, and lifted her chin. "Then that assumption is wrong. I choose to rest in here. Near my husband's things, where I can…." She trailed off and blushed a bit more heavily. "That's none of your business," she said quickly, ducking her head slightly.
Merlin couldn't agree more. "Yes, your majesty."
"I asked you not to call me that. Why do you keep doing it?"
He tensed his jaw, and looked away.
"Oh, don't be silly. You know I don't want you to call me that because we're still—"
She stopped suddenly, but Merlin didn't look at her to understand why. After a moment, he felt her touch his arm again. He wanted to pull away as he'd done before, but managed to hold still.
"You're doing this deliberately," she said softly. "Calling me that. To distance yourself. But you're not angry at me, are you? You're angry at Arthur."
He still kept his head turned away.
"You threw that jug because of something Arthur's done, and I can guess what that is. He told me…he told me of his decision to have someone else attend him during council meetings. I am sorry, Merlin. He is only doing it because—"
"I know why he's doing it," Merlin snapped.
She was silent a moment. Then, "I don't agree with it either."
His eyes widened slightly, and he turned to look at her. "Really?"
She nodded. "Really. He needs his friends with him, now more than ever. Isolating himself from the people who have proven their love to him is a mistake."
He could have kissed her. Instead, he just grinned foolishly. "Thank you."
She offered a light smile, before frowning, taking a firmer grip on his arm. "But I also understand the pressure he is under, and how tremulous he thinks his position is. He is afraid of anything that might jeopardize that."
He frowned. "I know, but—"
"But you have to let him come to the realization of what is weakness and what is strength on his own, Merlin. He will figure it out. I promise you."
He tried not to pout. When she smiled with amusement, he knew he hadn't succeeded. She tilted her head slightly.
"I also," she said, the amusement leeching into her tone, "understand why he was so mad about his aunt's shirt. That was pretty unforgiveable, Merlin."
Instantly, his pout disappeared. Huh? "His what?" he asked.
"His aunt's shirt?" Gwen repeated. "I saw what you did to it. How could you?"
He just blinked, and then looked towards the wardrobe. What the heck was she talking about? With a frown, he headed to the wardrobe and threw the doors open, quickly skimming through the shirts hanging there. Huh. His aunt's shirt wasn't there. Why….? Oh, yes. Right.
He walked over to the trunk where he'd put the king's clothes for special occasions. He'd grown tired of having to clean things that should only be used for feast-times and receptions, just because Arthur grabbed the first thing out of his wardrobe that looked good when he was too impatient to wait for Merlin to lay out his clothes for the day. He'd washed enough blood and pit stains out of the Duchess's shirt to last a life time.
Cracking it open, he shifted a few things aside and pulled the shirt out. It looked perfect still.
"You mean, this shirt?" he asked, holding it up.
Gwen just stared, mouth agape. "Wait, you mean that's…?"
"Then what shirt did he have yesterday?"
Merlin frowned, remembering the shirt Arthur had tossed at him. He'd initially thought Arthur had been using it to save him from the Perrins. It was one of the king's shirt's that Merlin set aside for weapons practice. Usually, those were in the closet with the others, but….had he put it back in the wrong place? He frowned, thinking…and then lowered his head. He had. He'd ruined the shirt in the last cleaning, and had meant to throw it away. He must have hung it in the wardrobe without thinking. Probably in the same place where Arthur's aunt's shirt usually hung.
"I meant to throw that shirt away," he said, blushing slightly. "It was one of the shirts he wears when he's practicing with the knights. I accidentally left it in the wash too long."
Gwen sighed, but nodded her head. "Ah."
Merlin looked down at the shirt in his hand, understanding a little better why Arthur had put him in the stocks yesterday. With a shrug, he folded it neatly back up and put in back in the trunk.
"There's a great deal of miscommunication going on lately, isn't there?" Gwen asked slowly, sitting down at the table near the door. "It's getting a little tiring."
Merlin shrugged, walking over to join her at the table, but maintaining a respectful distance. He tilted his head towards the water on the floor.
"I should go get something to clean that up."
Gwen nodded, looking lost in thought. Merlin figured that was a dismissal, so he turned to leave.
"Oh, Merlin?" Gwen called. He turned, eyebrows raised in question.
"Before you go, I meant to ask." She smiled crookedly. "Why exactly do you look like you've been rolling around in a bog?"
His eyes widened. He'd almost completely forgotten why he'd come here in the first place! And, looking at Gwen's open face, he realized that there was someone he could tell after all. Grabbing a chair at the table, he started talking about everything he'd seen and heard in the marshlands.
Malcon frowned, keeping his head down as he, Camilla, Jason and Aaron filtered quietly through the streets of Camelot. Touching a hand to his neck, he scratched at the welts he'd received from the insect bites, his face, neck and arms feeling itchy and, worse, bubbly. His stomach churning from the stings' poison, he wondered if his men felt as sickly as he did. That damned boy must have stepped into a half dozen ground nests to scare up that many wasps! He'd never seen anything like it—they'd been lucky to be near a pond or they'd probably be dead from the sheer number of insects that had attacked, like the storybook plague of locusts. He just hoped the boy had been hurt as badly, though the fact that he'd escaped suggested otherwise.
Not that he was particularly happy with this "new" plan of their patron. She'd left as soon as they'd returned empty handed to the camp, demanding that he and Camilla join her in Camelot as soon as possible. The boy would have to be dealt with before he could talk, she'd said. And if he did talk, Camilla would be necessary to make sure that whatever he said would be called into doubt.
Malcon would have rather run right then and there. They'd already raided the vaults twice this week, with no one in the castle the wiser. They'd had enough to live on for a good long while, but it wasn't enough for their patron. She wanted more, and if she didn't get it they would all quickly find prices on their heads greater than the purse awarded for killing the last of the dragons. The whole point of what they did was that they never had to run—so the threat was effective.
After he'd ordered the rest of his men to break camp and shift its location to their backup site, he'd grabbed Camilla, Jason and Aaron and headed into the city. It was different during the day—but they could be just as invisible as if it were night. His men were built for stealth, even Camilla, with her mane of almost black hair, managed to blend in perfectly.
Catching her eye, he tilted his head towards the inner castle wall and she nodded. The foursome changed course, leaving the more populated dirt streets and quietly making their way up the cobblestones to the small doorway in the wall. As expected, it was unlocked—as it had been every time they'd come—and they slipped inside, all the while making sure no one was watching.
As soon as Jason closed the door behind them, the Patron stepped out from behind an arch, her black cloak still hiding most of her face from sight. The candle in her hand, though, flashed off her teeth as she smiled at them.
"He hasn't told anyone yet. He was denied access to the council chambers."
Malcon's gloom lifted slightly—they might still have time. "Do you where he is?"
"Not as such, but I can guess where he'll be. You'll just need to watch to make sure he's alone in there before doing anything."
"Excellent, then Camilla should be able to—"
"Actually…." The teeth flashed again. "I have a better idea, one that won't require her usual talent."
Malcon's gloom instantly returned.
"Stealing from the vaults," Gwen said, shaking her head when Merlin was finished. "They really think they can get away with it?"
"Apparently. And, from the sounds of it, they have someone with magic who can help it happen."
"But you don't know what she can do."
"And you don't know who the cloaked figure was, only that it was nobility."
"The size of the stone on that ring, it had to be."
Merlin leaned back in the chair as he watched Gwen puzzle through what he'd told her. She lifted her hands and started ticking fingers.
"Well, it can't be anyone on the High Council," Gwen mused, still ticking fingers—she was obviously going through their names in her head. "If any one of them missed the session this morning Arthur would have sent word to me."
"What about the Ladies?" Merlin asked.
Gwen's eyebrows lifted, and, curiously, she gave Merlin a small smile. "You really think a woman capable?"
"I've learned that women can do just about anything men can do," Merlin responded, his tone cold. Gwen's tiny smile disappeared, and she nodded in acquiescence.
"Fair point." She sighed, putting her hands down. "Speaking of, there is someone else out there who wears jewelry that ostentatious. What if the person you saw was…" She bit her lip, lowering her voice slightly. "What if it was Morgana? Could it have been?"
Merlin frowned, trying to remember exactly what the hooded figure had said. "I…I suppose. But why would Morgana care whether anyone at the feast was suspected of being part of the theft?"
Gwen grimaced, but nodded. "I don't know, but we can't rule it out."
"I guess not. But it didn't seem like her. The way that figure looked….hunched over. Morgana doesn't hunch."
That earned a frown from Gwen. After a moment, she gave a shrug. "Well, I don't disagree with you on that. So for argument's sake, let's say it was one of the Ladies. Then that means one of them was missing from the council this morning. Problem is, I wasn't in there this morning either." She bit her lip, and looked through the windows to determine the time. "Right, here's what we're going to do. Arthur was supposed to stop the council meeting for the morning's break about now. I'll go down and join him and see who is there and who isn't. If it is one of the Ladies…." She frowned. "Well, you know as well as I that we'll need to tread carefully."
"Of course," Gwen said, shrugging slightly, "there's also the possibility that, since they know you came here to warn the king, they may give up the whole idea of stealing from the vaults at all."
"Either way," Merlin said, standing up, "I'd feel better with extra guards on the vaults, and, if we know who was missing this morning…."
"We'll know who to keep an eye on." Gwen nodded. "Agreed. So, as soon as I've had a chance to identify who is missing I'll pull Arthur aside and bring him to you in your quarters."
Merlin smiled, feeling infinitely better now that he'd talked to someone. "Thank you, Gwen," he said, his voice soft. "Thank you for listening to me."
Her face lit with a smile. "No matter what, my friend," she promised, "I will always listen to you." She reached to touch his arm but pulled back at the last second. "Though…," her eyes brightened with amusement, "I would feel better if you'd cleaned up a little before Arthur sees you."
Merlin was almost whistling as he opened the doors to the physician's quarters, ridiculously pleased at Gwen's total faith in him. Not that he should be that surprised—Gwen had always been one of his closest friends—but he hadn't been certain that friendship would stay now that things were…different. But it seemed she really wanted it to remain unchanged, and though, realistically, he knew it would be different, it was still heartwarming to know that at least one person still believed in him. Arthur may not, but Gwen still did, and that went a long way to soothing the anger he still felt.
And it wasn't her fault she fell in love with someone as stupid as Arthur.
Grinning at the thought, he grabbed the washbowl and put it on the table, quickly filling it with water and grabbing for the soap. In seconds, he had his head immersed, viciously scrubbing the mud and grime from his head and neck. He also found himself humming, growing more pleased by the moment as he imagined Arthur's reaction to Gwen's news, and how Arthur would be kicking himself for not trusting Merlin enough to grant him access to the council chambers earlier, especially when Merlin had such important information to—
A board creaked to his right. They were here already? Pouring water over his head to get rid of the soap, he wiped at his eyes and turned to the door. "Arthur?"
Still stinging from the soap, his blinked a few times, confused by what looked like a tall, dark figure walking towards him. Wiping more of the soap away, his eyes widened when he recognized the scarred bandit leader just feet away. With a panicked yelp, he threw the water bowl at him and turned to run around the table, to get away. Only to find another man standing on his other side, arms spread wide like a bear. He tripped over the bench as the man grabbed for him, almost upending the table, and reached for something on it to use as a weapon. But the woman stood directly across the table from him, watching him over the glass vials and beakers. She had a smile on her face as she reached out and grabbed his hand.
"Epikaloúmai Hypnos," she whispered, her magic flooding up his arm and into his mind like a torrent.
Instantly, his eyelids grew heavy and he felt his body begin to slip, arms and legs becoming lead weights. He tried to fight the magic, but what she'd done was too strong and too foreign. Gasping, he looked up into her eyes, seeing silver in their depths, like looking into an underground river. Just as the overwhelming need to sleep turned his world to darkness, he realized she was no sorceress.
She wasn't even human.
Chapter 3: King of the Burlap Sack
Malcon sighed as the boy collapsed, hitting the table before slipping to the floor like deadweight. With a jerk of his hand, he indicated at Jason to encase him in the empty feed sack their patron had stolen from the kitchens. It should be large enough to carry him, though he was taller than Malcon had remembered. Tall, but skinny. With luck, that also meant not too heavy.
He glanced at Camilla, who was frowning slightly as she studied the boy she'd just felled.
"Good job," he offered, meaning it as he always did. It amazed him that she stayed with him, considering what she could do.
"Something odd about this boy," she said, ignoring his praise, her Greek accent clipping the edges of her consonants. "Like he could see through me."
Malcon shrugged. "I don't know what that means, and, honestly, I don't care. He went down like they all do when you touch them. I assume he'll be down for a few hours."
She nodded. "Anywhere from three to four," she replied, stepping away. She studied the room as Jason and Aaron worked together to muscle Merlin into the sack. "The room is too neat. He did not fight very hard."
"We didn't give him a chance," Malcon said, smiling briefly. He kicked at the bench that had toppled over. "But you're right. It could use a little more chaos."
Camilla grinned and backed up as Malcon got his hands under the table and, with a heave, upended it, sending glass vials and bottles crashing to the floor, skittering around Camilla's feet. Laughing, she stepped over them daintily and pushed over a small bookcase, sending the papers on it flying.
"Better," she said, dancing a little in the mess before moving to stand at Malcon's side. Between them, Jason and Aaron lifted up the sack with Merlin in it and tipped the boy over Aaron's broad shoulder.
"You got him?" Malcon asked. Aaron grunted an affirmative to his boss, shifting the sack higher on his shoulder. "Good," the bandit leader said, scratching again at the welts on his neck. "Then let's get the hell out of here—this place give me even more hives than I've already got."
As the others filed out, Jason in the lead to make sure no one was coming, Malcon picked up a knife from another table and drew a paper their patron had written on from his pocket. Once they were all out, he pressed the note to the face of the open door, stabbing it in place with the knife.
______________________________ ... _________________________________
Gwen slipped through the servants’ hallway, trying not to notice how the people she used to call friends ducked their heads and avoided her gaze. Swallowing thickly, she reached the small door that led into the council room and sighed slightly. Gathering her self-confidence, she pushed the door open and stopped.
As she'd expected, no one in the room looked at her, except a few of the servants standing at attention. The lords and ladies paid no notice to anyone coming in via the servant's entrance, as they typically paid no attention to the servants. It gave her a moment to survey the room, to see who was there and who wasn't.
All the men were present, including Gaius and Sir Leon, both standing near Arthur as he considered a map of the kingdom on the table and listened to something Lord Bailor was saying. Of the ladies, they were crowded under the windows, whispering amongst themselves. Only Lady Humphries seemed to be listening to the men, playing nervously with a ring on her finger, one with a large lapis stone ("a ring with a large blue stone on it, about the size of a robin's egg," she remembered Merlin telling her). She stood apart, closer to Gwen than the others.
Lady Bailor was absent, as was Lady Perrin and Lady Exestan, and the fact that Lady Perrin was missing in particular definitely rang some alarm bells….
Gwen walked forward, heading for Lady Humphries. The young woman was actually younger than Gwen, only a little over twenty years in age. She and Lord Humphries had not been married long, six months at most. There was a certain hesitant air about the woman, her shoulders always bowed forward and her arms around her chest, as if she wasn't sure where she stood with anyone. It came mostly from not being of noble birth—Eleanor was the daughter of a wealthy merchant who married into nobility in exchange for a large dowry. Gwen knew what that was like, being thrust into a world where you hadn't previously belonged. Oh yes, it was something she knew all too well.
"Hello Eleanor," Gwen greeted softly. Lady Humphries nearly jumped a mile, her pale face blushing bright red at the improper reaction.
"Your majesty," Eleanor whispered shakily, bowing low. "I did not see you enter. My apologies. I—"
Gwen stilled her nervous words with a hand to her arm and a quiet smile. "I wanted to enter unobtrusively," she assured. "Your reaction is understandable. It's I who should apologize."
Eleanor smiled gratefully. "Thank you."
"Have you been here the whole time?" Gwen asked. "Listening to the men?"
Eleanor shook her head. "No. No, I only came in a little while ago." She lowered her eyes, shoulders slumping slightly. "It was a difficult night," she admitted. "After Arthur's announcement last night, my lord was up all night worrying about…." She bit her lip as if to forestall any further words, and then shook her head. "I decided to rest a little longer this morning, so I have only been here for a few moments."
Gwen's smile tightened slightly, not liking the news. She did not want to suspect Eleanor—she'd felt a kinship with the woman when she'd met her, both having married for love above their stations. "I understand." Looking towards the other ladies, she then asked. "I see a few others are missing as well?"
Eleanor gave a nod. "I understand that Lady Bailor, Lady Exestan and Lady Perrin have all come down with some sort of malady of the stomach." She gave a tiny frown. "The Lady Gwent was more than happy to tell me all about it, asking if I suffered from the same. She seemed disappointed that I did not."
Gwen huffed a small laugh. "I can imagine." The Lady Gwent made the gossiping fishwives of the lower town look like amateurs. "It was just those three ladies, then?"
Eleanor gave a nod. "Everyone else is here, and has been, so I understand." She looked sidelong at Gwen. "I hope you did not suffer from that malady as well, your majesty. The Lady Gwent seemed to think you might."
"Of course she did," Gwen replied, not surprised in the least. The Lady Gwent may act respectful, but the woman's true feelings for Gwen were not hidden. Anything to take the new "peasant queen" down a peg. Gwen gave the woman a dark look—The Lady Gwent hadn't seen her yet, still holding court amongst the other ladies, her silver streaked black hair tightly wound about her head in perfect, snake-like coils. Secretly, Gwen had hoped The Lady Gwent might have been missing from the room as well.
Sighing slightly in disappointment, she turned her attention back to Lady Humphries, to find Eleanor giving her a curious look.
"I am fine," Gwen said, smiling slightly.
"I thought, perhaps, it may have something to do with Merlin. I noticed he was not here. After what happened, Eric…Eric was also concerned that he may have brought the boy some trouble."
Gwen smiled more deeply. Of course, Eleanor would notice Merlin wasn't in the room. Lord Humphries always seemed to greet Merlin as warmly as he greeted Arthur when he visited, and had been quick to introduce his young wife to both of them. Gwen gave a head shake.
"No, not at all," she promised, patting Eleanor's arm lightly. "Please, do not worry."
And with what she hoped was an encouraging nod for the girl, she strode deeper into the room to make her presence known.
Sir Leon saw her first, snapping to attention and bowing deeply. That caught the other's attentions, and soon Gwen was giving a bowing room a nod of thanks. Arthur, of course, didn't bow, he just strode around the table to her side, taking her hand and kissing it.
"My dear," he said, "you have joined us after all."
"I have," she concurred. "Though I would like a moment of your time, if possible. I know you were thinking of adjourning for a short time around now." She glanced at the window, and Arthur followed her gaze, measuring the time as she was.
"Actually, yes, that is true," he said, sighing slightly, almost in relief. "And doing it now would be a great idea." Considering the overbearing Lord Bailor had been the one talking, Gwen did not need to imagine why. Turning, Arthur announced to the room that the servants would soon be bringing in a mid-morning's repast and inclined his head at George who immediately vanished to alert the wait-staff. Upon seeing the mild-mannered servant leave, Gwen recalled that Merlin was waiting, and she tugged insistently on Arthur's sleeve as he finished telling everyone that they would adjourn for an hour. When he looked at her, she indicated that he step away to the side. His expression darkened at her demeanor—he clearly knew something was wrong.
When they reached a corner, Arthur raised a hand before she could speak. "If this is about Merlin, Gwen, I—"
"It's about someone planning to steal from Camelot's vaults," Gwen replied sharply, keeping her voice low. "But you need to hear the story from the one who overheard the thieves' plans."
______________________________ ... _________________________________
Arthur tried not to doubt Merlin's sincerity as he led the way to the physician's quarters, with Gwen, Sir Leon and Gaius in tow, but it was difficult. It was a little too convenient that, on the day he banned Merlin from attending him in High Council, his servant would have learned of a plot against the kingdom. He found himself cracking the knuckles of his fists as he walked, wanting to trust Merlin, but nonetheless suspecting a plot to wheedle his way back into the room. Through Gwen, no less. If he used Arthur's wife's friendship to get to him….
He slowed when he saw the door was open, frowning slightly. There was a strong odor wafting through it, filling the hall, like brimstone.
What the hell?
Arthur picked up his pace, almost jogging as he hit the opening, only to come to an immediate dead stop.
"What the hell?!" he demanded, out loud this time.
The room was in shambles—one of the tables was on its side, and there was glass and liquid spilled everywhere. Some of the liquids appeared to be smoking, and it was the smoke that was giving off the sulfurous fumes. Something else sounded like it was fizzing.
"Oh my lord," Gaius said, pushing past Arthur into the room. "What happened here?" And then he looked up, his gaze clearly on the doorway to the small room in the back of the quarters. "Merlin?" He started in that direction, moving quickly. "Merlin!"
Arthur stopped him before he reached the steps, and Sir Leon stepped in front of them both, his sword unsheathed and balanced in front of him.
"Merlin?" Leon called, gently pushing the door open and stepping inside. A moment later, he stuck his head back out into the room, shaking it. "Empty."
Gwen's gasp of dismay echoed around the room. Arthur turned to see her pull a note from off the door—something none of them had noticed when they'd first entered.
"What is it?" he asked. Gwen skimmed the note, and looked up, tears in her eyes.
"Someone's taken him," she said, holding the note towards them with a shaking hand. "They want gold for his return."
Arthur rocked back a step, like he'd been slapped, all thoughts going out of his head except the imperative to get Merlin back now.
______________________________ ... _________________________________
Merlin shivered, feeling increasingly ill as he tried to make sense of what was happening.
He was cocooned inside a burlap sack, that much was obvious, the coarse fabric scratched through the thin fabric of his shirt. He was also hot, sticky and, since he hadn't had the chance to change his clothes, still smelled like the marsh, which wasn't doing his stomach any favors. He was also painfully aware that he was slung over a horse, as the horse's constantly shifting shoulders bruised his belly—like being repeatedly punched in the same place over and over and over. He would have groaned, but fear kept him quiet. He didn't want them to know he was awake, since he suspected he wasn't supposed to be.
The magic that had knocked him out had been cold and strange—almost ethereal—like it came from someplace altogether different from his own. It had reminded him of something, but he couldn't grasp what it was. Almost as if his mind were blocking the memory of it, like something terrible it wanted to keep buried. But he knew he'd felt it's like before, he just had to remember when.
Either way, his own magic had rebelled against it, keeping him from succumbing completely. In a way, he hadn't fallen asleep at all—just dozed—while his magic had burned away the enchantment on him.
Burned. The word had come unbidden, but it seemed right. His magic sometimes felt like a fire in his chest, thrumming with life. This woman's magic was like water, silvery and cool, more like the touch of death. It had coated his mind briefly, but didn't settle, and he had started to force it out of him, though he could tell it still lingered, like a slow to fade poison, making him feel even sicker than the sack and stomach pummeling did alone.
But more than anything, he just need the constant movement to stop, because if it didn't do so soon….he was going to throw up inside this sack.
As if hearing his pleas, the horse he was lying across slowed and halted, and muffled voices were raised in greeting. There was another sound as well, like wind chimes and murmurs. A chill ran down his spine, hoping that didn't mean what he thought it did. Uneasiness settled in his bones, and whispers touched his ears. No, please no….
He was suddenly grabbed from behind and roughly pulled off the horse, dumped onto the hard ground like a sack of feed, and he couldn't stifle the gasp of pain from the harshness of it.
"He's awake?" Someone asked nearby.
Merlin closed his eyes as he felt hands grabbing at the sack, and then a knife stabbed through the fabric, very close to his head, causing him to flinch.
"Oh, yeah," another voice said, chuckling, "he's awake."
Within seconds, the knife had cut an opening in the burlap, and Merlin found himself blinking muzzily out at the bright light of day. His stomach roiled, bruised and abused muscles seeking release, filling his mouth with saliva, but he kept the bile down as he tried to get his bearings.
"I thought you expected him to be asleep for a few hours?" A third voice said, and this time, Merlin recognized it as the leader of the bandits, Malcon. "It's barely been two."
"Normally, he should be, but I told you there was something odd about him," a woman answered. Camilla.
Someone standing by his head said, "It might've been the result of being pulled off the horse. He didn't make a sound the entire way here." The man with the voice knelt down and looked at Merlin, a large stocky man with dark hair. "How long you been awake, boy?"
"Guh…" Merlin's mouth was insanely dry. "Wh….Where am I?" He played up the grogginess, which wasn't hard. "How'd I get here?"
The man smiled and turned his head to speak to Malcon, whom Merlin realized was standing before them both.
"See, boss? Just woke up."
Near Malcon, Merlin watched Camilla frown deeply, her arms crossing over her chest. Malcon, though, simply shrugged.
"Alright. You and Jason tie him to one of the trees. We have a lot of work to do."
Roughly, Merlin was pulled from the sack, his mind still a bit foggy. When his legs attempted to get their bearings, though, they seemed suddenly incapable of holding his weight, and he collapsed. Hands under his arms pulled him up again, and, at the abrupt motion…he promptly threw up all over the ground at Malcon's feet.
He didn't look up, to see the leader's expression, but from the snickering around him, the others apparently thought it pretty funny. Merlin just felt even more wretched, sagging in the arms of the people holding him.
"Just get him out of here," Malcon growled. "I'm sick of looking at him already."
Merlin tried to say something else as he was pulled away, to argue that he deserved answers, but Malcon was already walking away in the opposite direction. He'd hoped they would at least tell him why he was here, why they had taken him. If they'd wanted to silence him, why not just kill him? All he knew for sure was that he was in trouble, and, so long as he felt like death warmed over from the silvery magic, he wasn't going to try any of his own magic to make some sense of it. Worse, he wasn't sure if Camilla, whatever she was, would be able to tell if he was using it.
So he let himself be dragged across the ground to a tree…though, considering how weak he felt, "let" might be a little generous a term. The dirt underneath was wet, almost black like peat, and the green grass a little too bright. As they unceremoniously dumped him next to the tree and turned him over so that he was sitting against it, he got his first good look at where he was.
Horror filled him when he saw the colored strips of cloth and the chimes hanging from the low tree branches. His fears had been realized--the thieves were hiding in a shrine. Now the uneasiness he felt, the chill and the whispers, felt more real and more terrible.
But it was a perfect hiding place for the thieves, he knew. Without even intending it, most people avoided shrines, even if they couldn't hear the voices like Merlin could. They just looked the other way, detoured around the area, all to avoid the feeling this place instilled. And with good reason. Merlin just had to pray that the spirits residing here didn't possess anyone. Especially not him.
The two men pulled his arms back and tied them tightly around the tree he had been shoved against. He tried not to panic too much at the feeling of helplessness that it engendered, but his fear must have been obvious, because the stockier of the two men gave him what was probably meant to be a kindly smile.
"It'll be alright, son. If you behave, we won't be hurtin' ya. It's not who we are."
Merlin just blinked at him, as if he were speaking in a foreign tongue.
"Please," he whispered. "Why…Why am I here? Is it just so I won't talk?"
"Don't worry on it. As I said, if you behave, you won't be here long."
Merlin wished that provided more comfort, but it just left him feeling even more scared. He looked away, trying to gain comprehension of what was happening around him. The area didn't look much different from the one where Arthur had freed the spirit that had possessed Elyan, though it was less rocky. Large dark trees towered overhead, blocking out much of the sunlight and creating natural barriers that split up the band into small groups. The mossy ground itself was carved and shaped around the trees, as if it had been tamed to hold small, earthen homes, though no sign of those existed except in imagination. Malcon's men flitted around, moving in and out of the trees like ghosts, much quieter than he'd seen them in the marsh, clearly in deference to the shrine's affect. The same tents he'd seen before had been moved here, and a couple of small fires were burning to cook food, probably for lunch, based on the angle of the sun through the trees. He realized it had only been a couple of hours since he'd tried to warn Arthur in the castle, and they'd moved everything in that time. Which, damn, meant they had moved fast. Though, Merlin supposed, it was probably a honed skill after many years of being outlaws.
Malcon was standing near Camilla besides a copse a dozen yards away, the two of them turning to glance at him every so often.
The man tying up his arms finished, tugging at the ropes surrounding Merlin with a grunt of satisfaction. He stood, and Merlin felt absurdly small still on the ground, looking up at the man's large bulk.
"You want some water?" the man asked.
Merlin wanted to say no, but his treacherous body made him nod instead. "But not from the spring here," he pleaded.
The man smiled deeply at that. "Not as dumb as you look, boy. Don't worry—we brought it with us. We don't disturb the places like this. We know better."
Merlin tried to smile back, but he knew it likely came out more like a grimace. When the man left, Merlin dropped his head. It wasn't until he heard a sniff to his left that he realized someone else was still sitting with him. Right. Two men had been tying him up.
Merlin gave the second man a sidelong glance. Where the first man had been stocky and dark, like Agravaine, this one was lean and blond, a little like Arthur in appearance.
"Hi," the blond man said cheerfully.
Merlin blinked. "Um…hi?"
"Name's Jason. Other fella's name is Aaron."
Merlin gave a nod. "Merlin."
"We know." Jason grinned. "So, you hear the one about the ox, the rabbit and the virgin?"
Merlin was almost grateful when he threw up again before Jason could get to the punch line.
______________________________ ... _________________________________
Arthur couldn’t stop pacing, hating not being out there searching with the others. How had his father handled it so well? Being stuck in the castle, like this? He'd hated it that time Merlin had gone missing after the ambush, and he hated it even more now.
He looked up when the doors flew open, turning to face forward as his most trusted knights pushed into the throne room. Leon led the way, his expression dour. Gwaine, to his right, looked furious, while Elyan looked disappointed, not meeting anyone's gaze. Percival walked tall, determined but unhappy.
"You haven't found him," Arthur guessed, gripping his hands into fists. Leaning against a column a few feet away, Gaius sighed.
"No, Sire," Leon said, bowing slightly. "We've scoured the immediate vicinity of the castle, and there's no sign of him."
"No one saw anything either," Elyan added, shaking his head. "We've spoken to the staff and the guards, and the townspeople who delivered goods today, to see if anyone could give us any information, for a lead but—"
"Nothing," Gwaine growled. "How could they have seen nothing!" He slammed his gloved fist into a handy stone column. "How could they have been so blind!"
"As you ordered, we're organizing all the knights into search parties to start searching the forest," Percival said, his eyes still a little distant. "Each of us will take a group of about a dozen men."
Arthur gave a nod. "Has anyone been out to the marshlands? Where Merlin told Gwen he'd seen those bandits?" He had no doubt that they were the ones responsible for this.
Leon nodded. "I went out there, Sire. It's clear people had been there, and we found Merlin's things left in a nearby meadow. But there's no one there now. They did a good job hiding their tracks."
"Any idea of the size of this group?"
"Twelve to fifteen, maybe?" Leon suggested. "Based on the tracks we found, and the amount of waste. Not too many places a group of that size can hide without being noticed." He turned his gaze to Gaius. "We put Merlin's things that we found in your rooms, Gaius."
Gaius simply gave a nod, his gaze unfocused.
Arthur stepped off the dais, his head down. "The ransom note stated that we should leave the gold inside the main cave at the Ridge of Chemary. I want those caves searched, and as many of them blocked off as possible. They think they'll be able to use the network of caverns under that ridge as a means to escape—I want you to make sure that doesn't happen."
Leon nodded. "Of course, Sire, but I don't know if we'll have time to block every—"
"I don't want excuses, Sir Leon. Just get it done." Arthur turned his back to them, wincing slightly as he realized how much he sounded like his father just then. Not that his father would ever have mobilized this much simply to rescue a servant. Hell, who was he kidding? His father wouldn't have mobilized anyone to rescue a servant. He snorted a dark laugh and turned to look at them over his shoulder. They were still watching him.
"Why are you still here?" he demanded roughly.
Leon nodded. "On our way, sire."
Gwaine gave Arthur a smile, a dark one, showing his agreement. The others simply bowed respectfully and left.
At almost the same moment, Lord Humphries arrived in the open doorway to the throne room, and the knights gave him a fairly wide berth, giving him small bows as they left.
Arthur sighed and stalked over to the throne, sitting heavily and watching as Humphries strode forward before falling to one knee.
"Forgive me, Sire," he began. "I know you asked us to remain in our chambers for a few hours, but I heard what happened and—"
"You heard what happened," Arthur repeated quietly. "And what is that?"
"That a member of your court has been kidnapped. Your manservant, Merlin." Humphries looked up, and, amazingly, there was genuine concern on his face. He stood up. "I would like you to know that my knights are at your disposal. I only brought about a dozen with me, as you know, but if they can help you widen your net…."
Arthur straightened slightly. "You would do that?"
"What affects you, affects all of us," Humphries said. "In addition….I have known your servant for many years, Sire. I think of him as a friend, and I would like to help."
Arthur actually lifted his eyebrows at that. "Did you just say that you think of him as a friend?"
Arthur looked towards the door, eyebrows lifting even higher as he spotted The Lord Gwent, Lord Bailor and Lord Exestan standing on the threshold. Apparently, Lord Humphries was not the only lord intent on sticking their noses into this business. Humphries audibly sighed as the three men swept in. The Lord Gwent bowed deeply as he reached Humphries side, the other two slightly less so, but no less somberly.
"Your majesty," Lord Bailor greeted as he straightened. "The High Council met soon after Humphries here informed Exestan of his intent to offer you the services of his knights, and we are resolved. We offer you the knight contingents of all your faithful lords to aid in search of the missing boy."
Arthur sat back on the throne, not hiding his surprise. "I…I'm sorry, what?"
"We understand a young man has been kidnapped. We would like to help," he looked at Humphries, giving the young lord an almost reproachful look. "All of us, no matter what some may think." Humphries flushed slightly, turning his head away.
Arthur shook his head. "You do understand that Merlin is merely a servant. He is the responsibility of the castle, not—"
"What affects you, affects all of Camelot, Sire," Exestan said, unknowingly repeating what Humphries had said just moments earlier. "But it wouldn't matter if he were connected to you or not. If any of our people are attacked, whether they be of noble birth or not, it is you yourself who told us that such an offense cannot be borne anywhere in this kingdom. We agree. All of your subjects deserve and are worthy of all the protections this kingdom can provide. It is our duty to aid you in routing these bandits out and making an example of them, showing them that we will not tolerate this sort of criminal act."
"Our people make us strong, Sire," the Lord Gwent agreed. "Attack one, attack us all. We will help you find the boy and bring him home, and we will kill the men responsible for his taking."
Humphries had a funny smile on his face as he moved to stand in line with the other lords, apparently deciding that they had said enough for all of them. He simply nodded when Arthur looked at him.
"And you are all agreed in this," Arthur asked, switching his gaze from Humphries to Gwent and Exestan, both of whom were amongst the oldest of the lords. Exestan inclined his head, and gave a wry smile.
"Yes," he said. "We are all agreed."
Arthur had to smile, feeling a little ashamed that he hadn't understood the depth of their loyalty before this moment. The knights he trusted, and, after what happened in the forest of Essetir, the people, but the nobility had been a question mark. His father trusted the nobles because the nobles' power could be taken away with a wave of Uther's hand. But these men weren't here out of fear of Arthur—rather, they seemed to be here out of respect for him, for what he was doing.
His mind reeling slightly from the revelation, he stood. "I am grateful for your aid and your generosity. It will be remembered." He looked over his shoulder at George, who was standing quietly near the door. "Inform Sir Leon that the knight contingents of the High Council will be added to the rosters, and that he should expect them in the courtyard with the others when the time comes to send out the search parties." At the order, George gave a single nod and disappeared out the door. Arthur looked to the four lords standing before him, and, because he felt it was the right thing to do, he bowed before them.
"You have shown yourselves true friends today," he said. "Camelot thanks you."
Even the typically aloof Lord Gwent smiled a little at the praise.
______________________________ ... _________________________________
Merlin had started to shiver, his body feeling a little like it was at war with itself. Whatever magic that woman had used on him, it was still inside him, and he could feel his core fighting it, like an infection it needed to kill. Where he'd felt weak before, now he felt as limp as a wet rag, his body breaking out in a cold sweat. He wasn't sure he could move right now, even if he'd wanted to. The bindings around him, keeping him upright against the tree, felt like the only things holding him up.
Aaron had brought him water, and when he'd just thrown it up again, Aaron had tutted and said something about getting a cloth to clean him up. Merlin found the kindness unbearably confusing. Hell, he found everything confusing.
"What's it like," Jason whispered after Aaron left again, his voice almost eager, "if you don't mind me asking?"
Merlin frowned slightly, teeth chattering, wondering if he'd missed something. "What?"
"Camilla's touch. What's it like?"
Merlin swallowed, and he looked over at Camilla. She had stopped watching him, but he sensed that she hadn't lost her interest in him. "Cold," he said, wishing he could stop trembling. "Like ice."
"Been wondering. Seen her touch all sorts of folks, doing that thing she does, but never felt it. I've never had the chance to ask any of 'em either. Most times they don't remember even being touched."
Merlin's eyebrows lifted. "Why not?"
The man just smiled. "Because that's what she does. She makes people forget."
Merlin frowned at the information, trying to recall if he'd seen a spell like that before. "But…I remember what happened," he said carefully.
"Oh, you she just put to sleep. Making people forget is something else she can do. She can even kill, just with a touch." Jason's voice was full of wonder as he added, "I've seen it."
Merlin visibly shuddered. "I don't think I've ever heard of magic like that," he muttered.
"Oh, that's 'cause it's not magic, least, not like normal magic. That's why I wondered what it felt like."
That caused Merlin to sit up a little, even despite his trembling. "What…what does that mean?"
Jason sat a little closer, grinning and lowering his voice slightly, as if sharing a juicy secret. "She says she was born with it. Inherited it from ancestors that may not've been…." His grin turned almost conspiratorial as he whispered, "Human."
Merlin huffed at hearing his suspicions confirmed. "Not…you mean….if not human, then what? Pixies?"
"Nah. Nothing like that. Nothing from the old religion. Something else. She calls herself a Daughter of Erebus, which, apparently, is some island somewhere on the other side of Rome. She says she can invoke her ancestor's powers…or something like that."
"Erebus," Merlin repeated, testing the name on his tongue. It wasn't any place he'd heard of. If he ever made it back to Gaius, he'd have to ask him. "And being related to the people of Erebus," he continued, voice shaking enough that he was almost stuttering, "that's where her power comes from?"
"So she says," Jason said, nodding. "We've been laying bets as to whether it's a real place or not. Aaron thinks she says that to make herself sound more mysterious and powerful, but I figure it could be real. Never know what's really out there, you know?"
Merlin gave a nod, not about to disagree with someone sitting a foot away and carrying at least two very sharp knives that he could see, while he was bound to a tree and feeling about as powerful as drowned cat.
"I mean," continued Jason, "look at those things last year—the Dorocha, Camilla called them. What the hell were they? If it weren't for Camilla, I doubt any of us would be here. Can't believe how many dead we saw when we came out of hiding."
Merlin flinched at the memory, and at his own inability to protect anyone against them. Then what Jason said suddenly registered, and Merlin stared at him, eyes wide. "Wait. You mean…Did Camilla…Was she able to stop them? By herself?"
Jason nodded. "Yeah. She just…she seemed able to direct them away from us. She said some words in that funny language of hers and they left us alone."
Merlin's eyes felt wide as saucers now, and he looked over at Camilla again, wondering just how far her powers went.
And, just like that, he knew what her magic had reminded him of. That bone cold he'd felt after being attacked by the Dorocha. It had been…it felt almost the same. And he'd been powerless against them. Does that mean….would he be powerless against her? Even if he felt strong enough, got his magic back, if she was like the Dorocha, or was related to them somehow….
Heart hammering, his shuddering intensifying, he shook his head, latching onto Jason's words from earlier. "And…" He swallowed nervously. "She can kill with just a touch? She doesn't…she just touches you?"
The young thief chuckled, and patted Merlin's thigh, obviously trying to provide comfort. "Now, now, don't be scared. See, her ability to just make you forget is why you don't have to worry, like Aaron said. We don't have to kill you to get away. We haven't had to kill anyone in ages."
"So, I'll just forget?"
"Um…." Merlin frowned as a particularly violent shake ran down his spine, and the cold sweat worsened. "But…if she can make people forget things, why didn't she just make me forget you when you found me in Camelot? Why bring me out here?"
"Because the Patron ordered us to."
Merlin frowned. "Patron?"
"We do what she tells us."
"And she told you to take me?"
"Yep. Patron says you're not just a servant. She says you're special. Are you?"
Merlin frowned, stomach flip-flopping. Special? He had absolutely no idea what that meant—unless this Patron meant the obvious. Maybe…maybe he'd been wrong thinking it was one of the High Council. What if Gwen had been right? What if it was Morgana? Could she have found out who he was? He looked away, back to the others. Camilla was watching him again, her gaze steady, as if she expected him to do something. He swallowed under the weight of that pregnant stare.
"I'm not special," he said, his voice shaking, memories of being chained up in Morgana's hovel bright in his mind. "I'm nobody."
Jason grunted. "Well, guess we'll find out soon enough," he replied. "She's coming to see you."
Oh God. "When?"
Jason shrugged. Then he frowned. "Hey. You want a blanket? You've been shivering for a while now, and you don't look to good."
Merlin said nothing to that, still looking at Camilla and seeing Morgana in her place. With the way he felt, he wasn't sure if he could even practice his magic right now, and if Morgana used Camilla to touch him again before he was well….he might not be able to survive a second dose. And if she was like the Dorocha, he might not survive even if he did feel strong enough to use his magic.
"Okay, all that shaking is making me feel cold. I'm getting you a blanket whether you want one or not," Jason said, standing up. He arched an eyebrow at Merlin. "Don't move."
Merlin gave him a dark look, and Jason chuckled as he walked away.
The young warlock hung his head once he was alone and tried not to think about how screwed he was.
Chapter 4: King of Fools
Gwen was twisting the ring around her finger, sitting very still and very straight in her chair in the council chambers. Doing his duty as king, Arthur had been forced to recall the High Council into session, to complete the day's agenda, but it was pretty clear, at least to her, that he was barely paying attention. The others seemed fooled, however. Any why not—to them, their work was done. Unlike Arthur, they were used to sitting back and letting others fight their battles. Arthur, she knew, desperately missed the freedom he had to be out with the men that he'd had when he was prince.
For her part, she watched the women around her, trying to catch one of them in a lie or a question. She hadn't told Arthur yet, but one of them had something to do with Merlin’s abduction, she was certain. She just had to figure out which one.
Lady Perrin seemed the most obvious. She'd joined the afternoon session, looking none the worse for wear. Her outfit was a shiny, shiny blue—clearly it was new, and the jewelry dripping from her ears, neck and fingers belied the supposedly destitute state of the Perrin lands. Not to mention, the large blue ring on her finger easily matched the description Merlin had given. Plus…well, Gwen didn't like the Perrins. At all.
Lady Bailor was also a strong possibility. She hadn't shown up for the afternoon session at all, which made her even more suspicious. Fact was, her husband was a conniving jerk, always trying to gain an advantage, never above using people to get what he wanted. His wife wasn't much better, though Gwen had always felt some pity for the woman, having seen her crying often in her chambers when she thought no one of import was watching. His lordship was such an awful person that Lady Bailor clearly had to find happiness any way she could, often without her husband's permission. And that happiness could be bought with enough gold. More to the point, Lady Bailor was strong enough that she might be able to carry this sort of thing off all on her own.
Lady Humphries, on the other hand, had an air of fragility about her that was so pervasive, Gwen thought a harsh wind might blow her over. Like Gwen, she was the only one who seemed genuinely interested and involved with what the men were discussing. But she too wore a large blue ring, and, personal feelings aside, it could have been her. The Perrins needed gold to supplement their extravagance, Lady Bailor to find happiness. The Humphries needed gold to protect their lands from raids from Lot's kingdom. What if Arthur's denial of the extra military allotment was the cause of all this?
Which only left Lady Exestan. She too had also been missing from the morning session. But Lady Exestan was also almost seventy years old. Formidable as that woman was, was she up to something like this? So late in life? Then again, Merlin did say that the figure seemed hunched, as an older woman might be. But motive? That Gwen couldn't figure. Of the four, Lady Exestan seemed the most unlikely.
She sighed, shaking her head. If she was going to figure this out, she was going to need help, but how could she tell Arthur that she suspected one of the ladies of the court? Just on Merlin's word of a large blue ring?
She closed her eyes, trying to think of a better way to figure this out….
"What do you think, Sire?....Sire?...Sire, are you alright?"
Gwen's eyes popped open, and she looked to see Arthur look up from where he'd been sitting at the head of the table, chin balanced on his hand, blinking rapidly. Oh dear. She'd been wrong. He hadn't just been barely paying attention; he hadn't been paying attention at all. And when Gwen looked at the unimpressed faces of the High Council, it was fairly obvious they all knew it now. Arthur frowned, and stood up.
"My apologies, Lord Perrin," he said, looking down at the map of the kingdom. "Can you repeat what you just said?"
Lord Perrin smirked slightly, but did as he was asked, describing his suggestions for new supply routes through his kingdom. Arthur nodded when he was done.
"Sounds fine," he said, shrugging slightly.
"Sounds fine?!" The Lord Gwent snapped. "Sire, not to be difficult, but these new routes add on hours to the lines. He's only suggesting them so he can avoid having anyone cutting through his precious new hunting grounds. It's utter nonsense! We need those routes to be as straight as possible, or my fishermen run the risk of losing half their wares to time-induced rot!"
"Nonsense!" Lord Perrin puffed. "How dare you! I chose routes based on topography, thinking of avoiding the many stark ravines and impassable rivers that crisscross my lands. My merchants need ease of passage as well!"
"Look," Gwent snapped, pointing to a dashed line on the map, "this route is perfectly passable, and—"
"Enough," Arthur said sharply, waving a hand between them. He sighed heavily, looked at the map, and then shook his head. "I am sorry, my lords, but my head is not in the game today." He pressed a hand to his forehead. "I suggest we leave the lines as they are for now, Lord Perrin, and then we revisit this in two months time, at the next session."
"But—" Lord Perrin began, but Arthur held up a hand, stopping him. The Lord Gwent scowled slightly, clearly not happy either that the issue wasn't resolved.
"The decision is made."
"Perhaps a break is in order," Lord Exestan suggested, kindly.
"For the day," Lord Humphries stated, looking almost as pale as Arthur. "It's closing in on mid-afternoon. I believe we can resolve the remainder of our issues on the morn, during our last session."
Gwen didn't miss the grateful look Arthur gave the young lord, but she couldn't help but wonder if Humphries did that on purpose. Or Lord Exestan. Which was a horrible thought, because the two of them were amongst the most genteel of the lords.
She rubbed a hand across the back of her neck, hating having to even think this way about any of these people.
She stood and acknowledged the bows in her direction as Arthur agreed to the dismissal and the men filtered out. Arthur glanced at her, and raised his eyebrows in question—he was asking her permission to throw duty to the wind and join the search. At her nod, he flashed her a grateful smile and quickly strode out a different door, the one that led to his quarters, with George dutifully on his heels.
She sighed and looked around. Several of the ladies were still in the room, chatting, including Lady Perrin and The Lady Gwent. The two older women had wandered over to the table with Lady Fitzgerald and were looking down at the maps the men had left behind.
"Is it a nice area, the new hunting areas you've designated?" The Lady Gwent asked. Lady Perrin gave a shrug.
"You know hunting is not an interest of mine, Charlotte," she replied, sounding a little despondent. "Still, it would have been nice to have this subject resolved, for my lord's sake."
"My lord would have liked it resolved as well," The Lady Gwent said, glancing towards the doors through which most of the men had left. She shook her head. "All this consternation over one servant."
"Indeed," Lady Perrin said. "Isn't it enough that we've committed all our knights to this search? The King acts like it's not enough."
"It is very strange," Lady Fitzgerald said, huffing slightly, brushing a loose lock of gray hair from her face. "My Lord is most frustrated—I know he thought gifting his knights to aid in this minor happening would please his majesty, but it seems nothing will."
"Well," The Lady Gwent said, "I doubt my lord would have even thought of it, had young Lord Humphries not nearly shown us all up."
"I cannot believe this supposed kidnapping is having such an impact on the King," Lady Perrin sniffed. "Uther would never have permitted such a distraction."
"He wouldn't even have noticed it had happened." The Lady Gwent chuckled. "He knew the qualitative difference between nobility and the peasants."
Lady Perrin laughed. "And he knew better than anyone how nobility should be treated. With respect, not disdain." She shook her head. "This whole affair is…eye-opening. I fear for our kingdom's future, if this is how King Arthur intends to rule. Putting servants before taking care of his most loyal subjects."
The Lady Gwent looked at her, about to say something, when something must have clued her in to the fact that Gwen was still there. With deliberate slowness, she turned her head to look at the new Queen of Camelot, and raised her eyebrows as if to say, "case in point." Lady Perrin and Lady Fitzgerald both glanced at Gwen, but looked away quickly, as if she wasn't worth the effort.
"Ladies," Gwen said, moving forward to the table. "I suggest you either join your lords in their chambers, or find somewhere else to be. I do not believe you are welcome in this room anymore today."
Lady Fitzgerald drew herself up. "I do not—"
"Leave," Gwen ordered. "Now."
Lady Fitzgerald turned a lovely shade a pink, and Lady Perrin raised her nose in the air. Linking arms as if for support in the face of such rudeness, both strode out of the room without another word. The Lady Gwent smirked slightly, but made no move to leave.
"You sounded very commanding just then, you majesty."
Gwen inclined her head. "If the crown fits, Charlotte…." She frowned. "Which it does."
The Lady Gwent actually chuckled at that, and inclined her own head. "Well done." She turned to walk out of the room, and, like moths to a flame, the other lingering ladies fluttered around her, leaving the room simply because she was. On the threshold, The Lady Gwent turned and smiled at Gwen. "You'll make a queen yet, your majesty."
Gwen regarded her coolly, saying nothing as The Lady Gwent left her alone in the room.
As obnoxious as that exchange had been to overhear, it had told Gwen something rather important about her list of suspects.
And it was heartbreaking.
______________________________ ... _________________________________
Merlin had started to doze again, his arms having lost some of their feeling and his head aching a little from being sick earlier. Thankfully, the last lingering effects of Camilla's magic had finally faded. Although he still felt like a rag that had been beaten against a rock on wash day, he no longer felt sick. Just tired. If it weren't for the fact that he was surrounded by bandits and that he didn't know the extent of Camilla's powers (or even what she really was), he might have tried using magic to escape.
The stocky one—Aaron—had been kind, giving him water and cleaning his face, and Jason had, oddly, been entertaining, sitting with him the whole time and talking about nonsense, as if excited to have someone new to talk to. The other men were eating, gaming and joking, openly discussing their plans for getting in and out of the vaults this evening. They weren't hiding anything from Merlin, which, if what they said about Camilla's powers were true, made some sense.
It was strange—his earlier fears had abated somewhat, partly because he had his magic back, but also because it seemed that these people genuinely did not intend him harm—but he was still no closer to understanding why he was here. Or why Morgana might want him. Or just how dangerous Camilla was.
Time was ticking by—it was close to late afternoon—and Merlin wondered what Arthur was doing. Were they looking for him? He hoped not. He hoped Gwen had warned him to protect the vaults instead, because Merlin knew he could get away now, if he could just get a chance to—
"Is he here?" a new voice asked, strong and clear…and undeniably feminine. Merlin looked up, head turning towards the newcomer. He knew that voice.
And it was most definitely not Morgana's.
Malcon stood up from where he, Camilla and a couple of others had been discussing strategy. A figure in a dark cloak, the same cloak Merlin recalled from this morning, had ridden into the camp on a dark brown horse. Everyone in the camp stood at her appearance and a few—including Malcon and Camilla—actually bowed. Though, not as respectfully as they could have, Merlin noticed.
As she dismounted, tossing her reins to one of the thieves, the newcomer pushed her hood back, and Merlin's mouth dropped open. It couldn’t be. Not her. Damn it, he'd liked her.
She walked into the camp, ignoring Malcon as the leader moved to meet her, her gaze clearly searching. When she found Merlin's face, she stopped.
And then she smiled. It was a nasty, nasty smile.
Until this moment, Merlin could never have imagined that Lady Eleanor Humphries could have ever looked so ugly.
"Hello, Merlin," she cooed, pulling off her riding gloves and striding across to where he sat on the ground, as if she owned the entire camp. "How lovely to see you again." She smiled brightly, crouching down as if to scrutinize him more carefully. "How do you fare? Are you well?"
He blinked once. "Not so much," he deadpanned. "I've been kidnapped by thieves."
She nodded solemnly. "Indeed you have. My thieves. How astute of you to notice."
His brow furrowed. "Your thieves?"
"I am their patron, as my father was before me." Her smile faded. "If he hadn't died soon after wedding me to my 'precious' lord, he probably would be standing here instead of me." She stood, so that she was now looking down at him, clearly relishing the feeling of superiority it gave her.
"I don't understand," Merlin said, his mind spinning with confusion. "Why? Why would you need thieves?"
"Are you serious?" she asked, shaking her head. "Why else would one need thieves?" She tilted her head, her eyes bright with what he could only assume was avarice. "Because there's gold sitting inside Camelot's vaults, being wasted. And I want all of it."
______________________________ ... _________________________________
Gwen stood on the battlements, watching as Arthur rode out with a contingent of knights of mixed colors—mostly red, for Camelot, but also blue, green and yellow for Perrin, Exestan and Humphries. She wished them luck.
And she also wished herself luck.
The more she considered the members of the High Council and their wives, the more convinced Gwen became that the person she suspected was guilty. The fact was, none of the older members of the nobility would have done this—kidnapped Merlin to elicit a ransom—because they all thought as Uther had: that servants weren't important. But not all of the Lords and Ladies thought that way. And there were only two she could think of who could even conceive that Arthur might be willing to pay a literal king's ransom for a mere servant. Only two who understood that servants could also be friends.
The irony of it was sickening.
But Arthur would need proof beyond her suspicions (and, frankly, so did she), so she'd gone to the best network of spies Camelot had, calling in whatever friendships she still had left among the servants to get information. Once she knew who to focus on, they were able to corroborate that one of the Ladies had left the Castle this morning, and indeed, had left again about thirty minutes ago, by herself, for a ride to get some "air." They also corroborated nighttime walks around the castle, and other strange behavior. It quickly painted a picture of treachery that had made Gwen's stomach turn. Unfortunately, it was still only hearsay, and without something tangible, Arthur would never accuse the woman Gwen was now certain was behind everything.
And Gwen was determined not to let her get away with it.
"You sent for me, my lady?"
Gwen glanced at the Castle Steward, inclining her head. "Yes. I need your help. It's for Merlin."
The Steward straightened eagerly. "Anything you need."
"Anyone you can spare, I need them watching the forests and the roads from the battlements with the guards. One of our guests went out on a ride an hour or so ago. When she returns, I want you to tell me exactly what direction she rode in from."
The Steward frowned—he didn't need to be told who the woman was. They all likely knew by now. "As you wish." He took a step back, and then paused, uncertainty visible on his face. "Is…will knowing that help us find him?"
Gwen nodded. "I hope so. Also please inform me the moment any of the knight contingents return, or if Sir Leon returns from the Ridge of Chemary."
The Steward bowed. "I will do so immediately, your majesty."
To Gwen's ears, that was the first time he'd said her title and actually meant it. As he turned to leave, she returned her attention to the forests beyond the town's walls with only one thought on her mind.
If one hair on Merlin's head was hurt, she was going to prove just how well her crown fit; and there would be no place Lady Eleanor Humphries could hide.
______________________________ ... _________________________________
It felt like the world had turned upside down. Of all of them…of all of them, the one he'd liked the most was Lady Humphries. Like Gwen, she'd risen above her station, married for love, made a lady in the court of Camelot….Why would she do this? What more could she want?
"Your father was a thief?" Merlin said, trying to make sense of this. "I thought he was a merchant."
Lady Eleanor's smile turned ugly. "Oh, he was a merchant, and a wealthy one. But he didn't make his money from selling wares. He made his money running this lot." She gestured to the thieves in the camp. "And he ran them so well, and garnered so much wealth, he was able to marry his only daughter into nobility. It was his dream." She snorted then. "For all the good it did me."
"He paid to marry you into nobility? But I thought…we all believed that you loved….That it was your love for each other that softened Lord Humphries' father's heart, so that he permitted the marriage."
"Oh please. Eric's father was so desperate for the cash, he had to agree to the marriage, and my foolish father squandered everything we had made on the dowry, thinking that marrying me to a lord would mean I'd want for nothing for the rest of my life." She shook her head. "But all he did was marry me off to a hapless boy whose lands are perennially at war with the neighboring kingdom. Because of that, every penny we receive from your miserable Camelot goes to protecting the farmers and villages, and not one gold piece comes to us."
Merlin frowned. "That's not true. King Arthur sends a generous allotment every—"
"Generous? In his mind, maybe. You wouldn't say that if you saw how we live. I am forced to live in a castle that is falling apart, with a roof that leaks every time it rains, and windows that are held up more by boards than glass. We barely have enough servants to keep it running, our food is worse than a prisoner's rations, and our dungeons are overflowing with bandits, thieves and cutthroats, because Eric hasn’t the time or energy to try them all." She knelt again. "Do you know what it's like, Merlin? Having your father give everything to see you succeed, only to see it all squandered on helping other people, protecting villages that no one cares about, while we shiver in a castle that hasn't been warm in six months?"
Merlin simply remained silent, though he'd felt his upper lip curl slightly. He'd been at the castle for the wedding last autumn—it had looked beautiful, bright and full of life. Plus…it was a castle. Not exactly a symbol of the impoverished.
"So I'm taking the money I need," Lady Humphries declared. "I'm taking gold that will be used to make the Humphries name great again, to restore our lands to their former glory and make us a force in court. And since neither King Arthur nor my husband will help to make that happen, I will do it myself." Her eyes shone with excitement. "And with enough wealth, and the king's own vaults stricken, we'd be able to undermine the king himself—he'd kneel at our feet, begging for money from us, instead of the other way around."
Merlin felt sick again, but not from illness. "And Lord Humphries doesn't know about this," he muttered.
"Eric? Are you kidding? He worships Arthur. The idiot. He thinks we can survive the way we are. I married a man whose sole ambition in life is to make everyone happy, even the servants. He doesn't want more, doesn't see the problem with how we live. Look at the way he treats you! He acts like you are one of his closest friends—a mere peasant boy." She shook her head. "He was so miserable when he found out what Arthur had done to you yesterday, blaming himself. And when he learned you'd been taken? Like the world had come to an end!" She sneered, lifting her chin so he could almost see up her nose. "I will not live like that. That is not what my father bred me for. I will be the most powerful lady at court, you'll see. The Lady Gwent will be the one fawning over me, not the other way around."
Merlin had rarely felt so badly betrayed. He had only met the Lady Eleanor twice, but both times she had seemed wonderful, a perfect wife for Lord Humphries, who really did deserve happiness. She had seemed kind and honest—even Gwen liked her, and Gwen didn't hold many of the ladies of the court in much esteem.
He knew a little now of what Arthur must have felt upon learning about Agravaine. Hurt, first and foremost…and disgust at himself for being so easily fooled.
"You don't deserve to be a lady," he spat. "You don't deserve to be Eric's wife."
She laughed again, straightening up as she did, as if he had just said the most hilarious thing she had ever heard. "I don't deserve him?" she repeated, gasping a little for air. Her eyes were bright as she stared down at Merlin. "With everything I'm going to give him, he doesn't deserve me!"
Merlin turned his head away, unwilling to even look at her anymore. Eleanor snorted.
"You actually think you can ignore me," she said. "That you are better than me. Your audacity is a wonder, Merlin. It's astonishing that Arthur didn't try to keep you out of the public eye earlier than this—do you talk to him this way?" She kicked his shin, and he grunted in pain. "Not that it matters what you think. The hilarious part is, you're not going to remember any of this, and when I see you again in court, you'll be in love with me once more."
"I wouldn't be so certain," he whispered, turning to glare at her. "I'm not going to let you get away with this."
"With what?" she asked innocently. "Stealing from the vaults?" She knelt down again. "Or using you to distract Arthur? Because, frankly? I have already succeeded at both."
He frowned. "What does that mean?"
"It means I've already won. It's just a matter of time now."
"Speaking of," Malcon said, clearing his throat as he stepped up next to Eleanor. "I take it, the plan is working then?" He looked down at Merlin. "Arthur is searching for the boy?"
"As I knew he would. The fool has sent every available knight out to look for him." Eleanor turned away, ignoring Merlin and pulling her riding gloves back on. "He's done exactly what I knew he would, made Camelot vulnerable all for the sake of one tiny servant."
Merlin's eyes widened at her words. "What?"
"I told you the boy was his weakness," Eleanor continued to Malcon. "The only person he cares for more is that wife of his. I'm only surprised no one else has tried to exploit their strange relationship. And I was right, was I not? Taking the boy was easy, and how useful that he's the only one who could threaten our plans to rob his master blind."
Weakness? Made Camelot vulnerable? Merlin felt like he couldn't breathe, hearing Arthur's words to him yesterday ringing through his mind.
"While Arthur's foolishly out here, looking for him…." Eleanor kicked Merlin's leg again. "You'll be in the vaults, with only a handful of guards to worry about. It'll be the easiest take you've ever had."
Merlin's thoughts were reeling. Arthur had been right—he had become a liability, a danger to the kingdom. Oh God, he understood it now, what Arthur had been trying to say. It hadn't been about him, it had been about them…people with power looking for any tool to use against the young king. Arthur had known that if the lords figured out how close they were, that he could be used as a weapon to hurt Camelot, just like Morgana once had….
Just like Lady Humprhies was doing right now.
"I hope you didn't just jinx us, Patron," Malcon said, and Merlin looked up at the bandit leader.
He was regarding Merlin coolly, almost scientifically, and Merlin shrank back a little under that stare, trying to guess what the bandit leader was thinking. But Malcon clearly only addressed his "patron" when he spoke next.
"When do you want us to act?"
Eleanor nodded. "The evening meal, which will likely be held at twilight. The feast celebrating the end of the High Council session has been postponed because of the search, but Arthur will still be dining with all of his guests at that time, trying to pretend he's still a proper king. With most of the knights still out in the forests, and the guards distracted looking for clues, and the servants focused on taking care of us, you'll be able to slip in and out with none the wiser."
Malcon gave a nod. "Where do you want your share of the gold?"
"Under the carriage, with the rest."
Malcon nodded again, and he looked down at Merlin. "And the boy?"
Eleanor's smile turned nasty again, staring down at Merlin as one would when looking at a bug they were about to squish. "Well, I was thinking about just having Camilla make him forget, but I think someone needs to teach Arthur, and my husband, a lesson about caring too much for servants." Her eyes narrowed. "Kill him."
Chapter 5: King of Rash Decisions
Arthur roughly pulled his horse to a halt and bit back a swear as the trail they'd been following led to nothing more than a caravan of merchants bedding down for the night. They looked startled as knights surrounded them on all sides, eyes wide and nervous. Only the sight of the two small children leaning out of the back of the wagon, watching him with clear terror, stopped Arthur from demanding a search of the caravan's wares.
"There is nothing to see here," he snarled, glaring at his men, and whipping his horse around with a sharp tug. He felt the horse shake its head, angry at the mistreatment, and forced himself to lighten his touch. He shouldn't be taking his frustration out on the loyal animal.
Closing his eyes briefly, he kicked the horse faster, heading him back in the direction of the main road. He heard the others rushing to catch up, but he needed a little space. Otherwise he'd be taking his frustration out on them as well.
Leaping over a tree, he pushed the horse into a gallop, only to pull up again harshly as he burst back out onto the main road. Sitting atop his horse a few feet away, Lord Eric Humphries backed up a little, both horse and rider surprised. The couple of men with him backed up as well. They'd been watching the flank, in case the trail had led to the camp that held Merlin.
"Nothing," Arthur growled at the young lord, turning away. "Let's keep moving."
Humphries said nothing at all to that. He just melded into the rest of the knights with Arthur, meek as a mouse. Arthur forced himself not to frown too deeply. He didn't understand why the man was out here. Committing their knights to aid in the search was one thing, but for one of the High Council to actually request to join him in the search was something else. At first, Arthur had unkindly thought it was Eric's way of gaining extra time with the king, to further plead his case for a greater allotment, but Eric had barely spoke in the last two hours. If anything, the young lord was sullen.
Arthur frowned, trying to wipe that thought from his mind. Gwen had mentioned on their way down to talk to Merlin this morning, that Merlin had seen someone who might have been nobility in the camp, and Arthur had instantly discounted it. Morgana, perhaps, or a wealthy merchant, or a noble from a neighboring kingdom, those bore consideration, but he would not suspect anyone on his High Council without proof. A ring on a finger did not mean Camelot nobility, it just meant wealth. Besides, the whole council had been there this morning. And Gwen hadn't brought it up again after they'd found Merlin missing, but…. But then Arthur had found himself thinking on it more and more in the session this afternoon, seeing them all fighting over allotments and trade routes and power. What if had been one of the Ladies, acting on behalf of one of the Lords?
And Eric's behavior was definitely odd. In his entire life, he had never seen a Lord volunteer to go on a mission like this with the knights. Then again, before today, except in times of war, he'd never heard of the Lords volunteering their knights to aid Camelot, not without a promise of something in return. Perhaps…perhaps it was a sign that things really were changing?
He shook his head. This wasn't helping him find Merlin.
He looked up at the darkening sky, frowning as he knew he would have to quit the search soon, even though he intended to have his knights continue to search in the light of the night's full moon. It would be more than bright enough to keep them out, at least until the moon set, which would be sometime after midnight.
"Perhaps something further to the west," Sir Reginald suggested, coming up alongside. "Near the banks of the Riddle? There are some good pockets that could hide an encampment."
Arthur sighed, lowering his head. He couldn't go that far, and get back to Camelot in time for the evening meal. He really, really wanted to punch something.
"You go on," he said finally. "Search it. Every inch. I…Lord Humphries and I need to return to Camelot."
Reginald gave a nod. "I'll choose some men to accompany you, Sire. How many—"
"None. You go on. Lord Humphries and I will be fine."
"But, Sire, if the bandits find you, you could be—"
"We'll be fine," Arthur snapped, glaring at him. "Every single one of you is going to continue to search until the moon sets, do you understand? I will brook no excuse."
Reginald flinched slightly at the tone, but, as all good soldiers should, he nodded. "Of course, your majesty. And we will find him. I promise you."
"I don't mind staying out here and helping," Lord Humphries said then. "Every man helps."
Arthur's eyes narrowed, and he frowned at the young lord. He couldn't ignore the suspicions now they were planted—was it a ruse to be there to lead the men astray? Even if not…he couldn't take the chance. Slowly, he shook his head. "I appreciate the offer, my lord, but it is not necessary. Besides," he glanced at Reginald, "Sir Reginald is correct. I should not traverse these woods alone."
Lord Humphries frowned slightly, but gave a nod. "Of course."
Arthur watched him a moment longer, and then turned his horse towards Camelot. Without another word, he simply started riding, not even bothering to ensure that Humphries was following. Frankly, part of him didn't care much if he was.
"Milady," the Steward greeted, panting slightly as if he'd been running and bowing to Gwen where she still stood on the battlements, a shawl tight around her shoulders to keep out the chill of the oncoming evening. He stood again, and said, "Lady Humphries has returned."
Gwen straightened up, her heart hammering with excitement at the news. "Did you see what direction she came from?"
"Yes. She came in via the road to Mercia, from the east."
Gwen immediately turned her head in that direction, frustrated that it wasn't the direction she'd been watching for the last hour or so. "Have any of the knights returned?"
"Sir Gwaine has returned with his men. I believe they plan to eat a quick meal before heading out again. Unfortunately, Sir Leon has not returned yet, or I would have informed you of that."
Gwen grimaced. Leon was all but second-in-command when it came to the knights, and she could have used his authority to redirect the search parties as they came in. The problem was, even as Queen, she didn't have the authority to direct the knights, but she knew Gwaine would do as she asked—he was the last person to throw the convention in her face. It meant she could turn at least one group in the right direction, and Gwaine would not stop until he found Merlin. Especially now that she could give him a trail to follow, of sorts.
"Can you take me to Sir Gwaine?" she asked the Steward.
The camp had nearly emptied out, and all the fires had been extinguished, making it feel darker. The thieves had left in small groups, to give them the veneer of being merely travelers should any of the search parties cross their paths. Only Malcon and Camilla and a handful of others were left. Even Jason and Aaron had gone, which, bizarrely, left Merlin feeling far less safe than when the two of them had been around.
Especially when Camilla made her way over to sit next to him. Even the ghosts of the shrine seemed to disappear when she was near.
He tried to avoid her gaze, and when she reached out to touch his leg, he immediately drew it back, even though he knew it was fruitless.
She actually laughed at that.
"Really," she said, "you think, because you do not want me to use my power, that I won't?"
Merlin said nothing, his eyes still looking anywhere than at her. He could feel his magic just under his skin, ready to blast her away if he had to. Assuming, of course, that it worked on her. He couldn't get that moment out of his mind when he'd tried to hold back the Dorocha, and it hadn't even fazed them.
"You understand," she continued, her voice quiet, "that if I do not do this, we will have to kill you?"
He lowered his head, relief rushing through him at those words.
"Then," he said softly, "despite what Lady Humphries said, you're not going to kill me?"
"No, strange boy. Malcon is no cold-blooded killer."
"Are you?" He asked the question before thinking, and instantly regretted it when he saw her expression harden.
"Why?" she asked, her voice cool. "Because I am a sorceress?"
"No," Merlin said, finally looking at her straight on. "Because I don't know what you are." He was breathing a little harder now, some suicidal part of himself unable to stop from asking, "Are you even human?"
Her eyes widened ever so slightly, lips parting in surprise. Then her entire face flushed scarlet, and she grabbed his chin in a harsh grip, bringing her face just inches from his.
"Take that back, child," she hissed. "How dare you say such a thing."
His jaw started to her as she gripped even tighter, as if she could actually snap the bone if she wanted to. "S…sor…plea…I ca…" He couldn't get the words out, her hold was too tight, and his eyes started to water from the pain. His own magic flared inside him, wanting to throw her backwards despite his fear that it wouldn't work, but before he gave into it, she suddenly let go. She drew back, staring at him with an almost furious confusion.
"Why would you even ask that?" she demanded, her eyes searching. "Why would you not think I was human?"
He was panting, light-headed, but he somehow managed to answer. "Because…what you did…that wasn't magic. It was something else."
She stared at him, her eyes darker now. Finally, she pressed her lips together tightly and shook her head.
"You are lucky." She reached out and touched his cheek, the tip of her finger like an icicle against his skin. "If Malcon didn't specifically want you to live, because he hates our Patron so deeply, you wouldn't."
Merlin swallowed and closed his eyes as Camilla pressed her hand to his forehead and invoked her cold magic with a whisper.
"Arthur!" Gwen burst through the door to king's chambers, stopping short when she saw George unbuckling her husband's armor. Arthur looked exhausted and angry from what she knew had been a fruitless afternoon, but he gamely tried to smile at her. Gwen didn't even bother, too full of nervous energy.
"George," she said quickly, "I need to speak to the king in private."
George glanced at the king for permission, who gave him a nod, and the servant darted quietly out of the room. Turning to face Gwen, Arthur raised his eyebrows in question, holding his still half-buckled armor in place with one hand. Gwen instantly moved forward to aid in removing the rest.
She started by undoing the buckle on his arm. "You recall I told you that Merlin suspected one of the lords was involved with the thieves, before all this happened," she said, working the leather loose.
He nodded, looking at her over his shoulder, his expression curious but, interestingly, not dismissive. "And I told you that I couldn't accuse or even start searching a lord's rooms without proof," he said, his tone almost cautious.
"Which I agreed with," Gwen said, attacking the next buckle. "But now I believe I know who the person is, and that they were involved in Merlin's kidnapping."
Arthur stopped her hands, so that he could pull away and look at her. "Who?"
She rubbed her lips together nervously before answering. "Lady Humphries."
He said nothing for a moment, then, softly, "On what grounds?"
"Because Lady Humphries is the only one who could even conceive that you might be willing to pay a ransom for a mere servant. No one else on the High Council would even think it an option." Gwen frowned slightly. "All the Lords know you care about Merlin, but they liken it to the fondness one has for a pet. Lord and Lady Humphries are the only ones who think of servants as people. Friends."
"And on those grounds you convict them?" Arthur said, his tone even.
"On those grounds…I suspect them," Gwen clarified. "And then there is the fact that Lady Humphries was away from the castle both this morning, and this afternoon, despite the fact that we warned the lords not to leave the castle for their own safety."
Arthur hummed, turning away from Gwen. When he didn't say anything for a long moment, Gwen stepped up next to him and undid the last buckle, releasing the armor from his chest.
"There's one more thing," she said, feeling very nervous as he pulled the armor off and put it to one side. "I asked Gwaine to retrace Lady Humphries' ride. I know you sent him to cover the northern regions, but I sent him east." She looked up at him, lifting her chin. "I know that I do not have that authority—they are your knights to command, not mine, but you weren't here and I felt the need to act quickly and…."
She trailed off when she saw his face harden.
"So, you told one of my knights to ignore my orders," he said.
She bit her lip. "Yes."
He said nothing for a moment, his brow furrowed deeply. She could almost see him fighting with everything he had ever been taught about how to run a kingdom, and what she knew was his trust in her. After a moment, he just shook his head.
"We will discuss this later," he said quietly. "We both need to prepare for dinner."
Gwen sighed, but nodded. "Of course," she said, backing up a step. "I will see you there."
"We will enter together," he corrected. "I will wait for you here, whenever you are ready."
She arched an eyebrow, about to say that he was more likely going to take more time than she was, but it died on her lips. Even if it was just a joke, she'd done enough to push the line for one day. With a nod, she turned away and left.
Merlin felt like he was on fire. He'd been prepared for the touch this time, for what it would feel like, and this time he'd put all his energy into expelling the cold magic of Camilla as soon as she touched him. For a time, he had no idea what was going on around him, focused only on maintaining the magical barrier under his skin, like a fire break. He didn't know if she knew what he was doing, or if she was even still there. He simply concentrated on not forgetting, not dying, and not losing his magic.
When his senses finally came back to him, they came back slowly.
Touch was first—he could feel his arms were still bound, the ropes still holding him in place. Apparently, even though they believed he'd "forget," they weren't going to let him go yet. She'd probably used the magic now in case he was found before their plan to rob Camelot was done.
The second sense that came back was smell—he could smell cooking. Someone was still with him, then. It made his mouth water slightly, which was heartening. The sickness from earlier wasn't present this time. He'd been a little concerned about getting his sense of taste back. In point of fact…he was starving.
Hearing returned as well, but other than the whispers of the shrine and the wind through the trees, he couldn't hear anyone talking. No one alive, anyway.
Which just left sight. Exhaling slowly, he partially opened his eyes, keeping his gaze down in case anyone was watching. Like someone drawing a veil away from his eyes, his vision started out dark and blurry, but soon resolved itself, and he could see his boots clearly in the darkening gloom. He was exactly where he'd been before, and he was alone. Well, almost alone. Blinking the last bit of fuzz from his eyesight, he cautiously lifted his gaze and saw that three thieves had been left behind. They were gathered around an empty cookfire about a dozen feet away, and were paying him no mind at all. Three horses also were quietly resting a bit beyond that, loosely tied to branches of tree. The cart, other horses, and the rest of the band were gone.
He hadn't forgotten anything, and Camilla hadn't known he'd resisted her power. He smirked. Take that, you cold bitch.
Straightening up slightly, he let his magic make quick work of the knots on the ropes. His arms protested violently when they were released, blood painfully rushing back into his fingers, tingling every nerve on the way. In fact, everything felt a little strange, as if every nerve ending in his body was freaking out. He almost groaned in pain, but managed to bite it back before his three watchers noticed.
Swallowing, he took a moment to study the campsite. He knew, based on the conversations around him all day (and from Lady Humphries), that the thieves had already raided the vaults twice this week. They had the equivalent of three caskets of gold hidden somewhere in the camp. He quickly considered whether he could locate that gold and steal it back for Arthur, but soon threw the idea out. He couldn't carry that much weight, and he didn't want to use magic in case he was found with them while running away. But he also couldn't just leave it behind. As soon as they knew he was gone, these three would leave with the gold, taking it someplace else for hiding.
Well, if he was going to find it, he needed a distraction.
He looked around again, and then smiled wickedly. He should probably feel a little bad about this but….
"Fléoge áfiehtest!" he whispered, feeling his magic explode out of him, as if excited to be used again. If it felt a little hotter under his skin than normal and made him feel a little giddy, well…all the better.
Instantly, the air started to buzz loudly, and, just like that, he saw the three men at the campfire look up. One of them swatted at the air. Then the other two started to do it as well. The largest of the three suddenly yelped, bouncing to his feet and slapping at his skin. Merlin just grinned, watching the other two jumped up as well, and then dance around in a circle, all shouting in pain. And, like that, they all three started running in a single direction – probably towards the nearest source of running water – a whole nest of wasps chasing them down.
Laughing, Merlin stood up as they disappeared into the trees, all screaming bloody murder.
His grin faded as he stumbled slightly when he tried to walk, his legs still not that solid yet from all the abuse his body had taken. Determined to shake the weakness off, he jogged towards the center of the camp, stopping near the camp fire and looking around. He still felt a bit light-headed as he turned in a circle, almost disconnected, like he hadn't slept for a long time but was still wide awake.
"Where, where, where…." He whispered, wiping sweat from his upper lip. One of the horses nickered, and he glanced that way, and grinned again. A few feet away from the closest horse was a set of small chests, the kind that could be lifted and hung over a saddle for a quick getaway.
With a flash of his eyes, the chests rose up in the air and into the branches of the tree above. He didn't hide them, per se, just put them up somewhere people wouldn't think to look. As the last one settled into place, he released them….and staggered.
For a brief moment, everything went a little sideways, like he'd had too much to drink. He pressed a hand to his head, feeling the heat there and realizing, for the first time, that something was wrong with him. He wasn't just hot, he really did feel like he was on fire, and each time he used his magic….
He blinked, took a breath, and turned to move, only to wobble again and nearly fall.
A voice shouted, "Hey! He's free!"
Really, really not good.
Merlin turned towards the voices, and three blurring figures were running towards him. Swallowing, he shoved, and an oven-hot wind blew back not just the three men, but startled the horses into running, and also took down some of the smaller trees. Tiny fires erupted from the few dry sticks on the ground.
Oh hell…that was way more power than he intended. And yet…and yet, the three thieves were already getting back to their feet.
Shuddering, trying to figure out how to cool down, he turned and started running in the direction he'd seen Eleanor leave earlier—hoping that was the way back home.
Malcon sidled up to the small doorway in the castle wall, his head down, and knocked.
Instantly, it opened and he pushed inside, Camilla on his heels.
Inside, he slipped down the narrow corridor and down the steps into the larger room below the wall. His men all awaited him there, tensions high in the room.
He looked over at Jason, and the young man nodded.
"We've scouted. Patron was right—there are many fewer guards inside than before. They're all focused outwards, not inwards."
Malcon sighed, and felt Camilla gently touch his hand.
"Epikaloúmai Styx," she whispered. Instantly, he felt the strength imbue his skin. It was born of hatred, he knew, but it created a level of invulnerability that had served them all well in the past. One by one, she touched the others, and they all straightened, the tension fading, replaced only by a dark confidence. They'd need it tonight. It was a lot of gold to move, and it was going to take time. They needed the calm her powers provided.
"Let's go," he ordered, nodding at Jason to lead the way.
Arthur gripped his hand around his goblet, wanting to throw it across the parlor. Around him, the lords chattered and laughed, and everyone seemed to be having a good time as they stood around, waiting to head into the great hall for the evening's feast. Everyone except for him. And Gwen. And the Humphries.
He glanced at his wife a few times, noting her downcast expression. Every so often, she'd turn to stare at Lady Humphries, but she'd look away whenever Eleanor would try to meet that gaze. Arthur frowned. Eleanor and Eric had both noticed, and it was creating a distinct feeling of discomfort.
He leaned closer to Gwen. "Whatever your suspicions," he whispered, "you must learn to hide them in public."
Gwen blushed furiously, and lifted her chin. Suddenly, she smiled brightly and, without another word to him, walked over to Lady Humphries and started to talk. In moments, the two were laughing. Arthur wondered if anyone else could sense how unbearably false Gwen's laugh was.
Lord Humphries, in turn, walked over to join him. He settled in at Arthur's side, his expression bleak.
"Any word?" he asked quietly. "About Merlin?"
Arthur frowned, giving him a sidelong glance. "No," he replied. "Not yet."
"Are you going to pay the ransom?"
Arthur's eyes pinched. After a long pause, he asked, "What would you do?"
"I'd pay it."
Arthur snorted. The suspicion in his own mind just got deeper.
"But," Lord Humphries said then, turning his eyes to the floor, "I am not the king. If I were the king…." He sighed. "I would not pay it. It will only lead to more attempts like it. If people learn you have a weakness, they will exploit it."
Arthur frowned slightly, to cover his surprise. He looked at Humphries' a little more appraisingly. "So you think I should just let them kill Merlin?"
"No," Eric replied, his own tone darkening. "You should do everything you can to find him. And whether you do or not…." He frowned. "You need to find the people who took him and destroy them." He looked up, his eyes finding his wife. "Whomever they may be."
"Even," Arthur said, his voice softening, "if it's one of us?"
Lord Humphries continued to stare at his wife. Finally, he gave a nod. "Yes."
Gwen chose that moment to laugh a little too tinnily, and Eleanor looked over at them both. For the first time, Arthur saw something other than beauty in the eyes of his friend's young wife.
"My lord," Humphries said then. "There's something I need to speak to—"
"Your majesty!" a guard bounded up, panting slightly. "Sir Leon has returned from the Ridge. You asked to be told as soon as he—"
"Thank you, Fenric," Arthur replied. He glanced at Humphries, who simply nodded and walked away. Arthur looked at the guard. "Take me to him."
Merlin fell against a tree, breathing hard, panting out great gasps of heated air. He'd tried to use magic to cool down, but it just seemed to make him hotter. As if his magic itself were making him sick. It felt like his blood was on fire.
The sound of men crashing through the woods turned Merlin's head to look over his shoulder, and his panic raised a notch when he realized just how close they were. One of the men slowed and pointed at him, shouting, "There!"
He launched himself off the tree and continued to run, praying he wouldn't trip as the world got darker and darker around him. The sun was almost down, casting everything in the monochromatic blue of twilight, and he'd barely be able to see his feet soon.
His legs were shaking with terror, his breathing sharp and painful, and he was so, so hot. He almost wondered if he was glowing.
Then, like an answer to a prayer, he saw that the trees thinned ahead, the world brighter beyond them. Please, please, please let that be a road! If he could get to a road, he could run much faster, no longer worried about tripping up every other step because he'd have more light.
Gleeful, he put on a burst of speed and skidded down a small, muddy incline, dried leaves and dead branches snapping under his feet. The trees grew farther and farther apart and, yes! A road! And not just any road—it was wide, it had to be one of the main roads leading to Camelot. Stumbling as he hit the gravel, he turned and stagger-ran a few steps.
Only to hear the thieves skidding down that same incline, barely ten feet behind him. Stumbling to a stop, he turned around to face them. He had to risk one more burst of magic, he had to push them back, get a head start….
Relief flooded through him, and he turned his head, grinning at the sight of a troop of at least twenty knights riding hard in his direction up the road, his friend in the lead.
"Gwaine!" he shouted, "I—"
Pain exploded in his chest, and the world shifted focus. With a choked gasp, he looked down, blinking in surprise at the arrow sticking out of his left shoulder. He looked over at the thieves, and saw one of them lowering a crossbow. The thief looked almost as surprised as he did, that he had hit his mark. Then they were shouting and running, and there were horses and yelling and red Camelot capes and someone holding him up and he was so tired and then…and then there was nothing.
Chapter 6: King of Pain
"Merlin!" Gwaine shouted, instantly recognizing the skinny figure that suddenly appeared on the road ahead, having burst out of the trees from off the small hillside. He laughed, kicking his horse faster, feeling the others with him do the same. Merlin was facing the way he had come, but upon hearing the shout, had turned his head to look at him, and grinned, that big, stupid, goofy grin his friend had, and Gwaine grinned back.
"Gwaine!" Merlin shouted, "I—"
And then Merlin staggered, shot in the shoulder by an arrow.
"NO!" Gwaine yelled, seeing the three men appear out of the trees onto the road, one of them lowering a crossbow. They seemed to see him and the others at nearly the same time, and immediately started running away up the road and back into the woods, scattering.
Merlin collapsed to his knees, his face bright with confusion, as if he couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. Gwaine skidded his horse to a halt a few feet away, and shouted at the other knights to keep chasing the three bandits. They did as they were told, splitting in three directions to chase down the trio.
"Merlin," Gwaine called, catching the young man as he slumped to the side. Merlin's eyes were already closing, his head falling forward, blood running down his chest from the wound. "Merlin! Don’t you dare!"
One of the other knights had also stopped, and was looking for orders. Gwaine frowned up at him.
"Help me get him on my horse. We have to get him back to Camelot now."
"As soon as your men are rested," Arthur told Leon, "I want you to head out after Gwaine."
Sir Leon nodded, bowing deeply and receding from the small anteroom. Arthur sighed, and turned around.
Gwen stood a few feet away, her eyes bright. Arthur smiled.
"You were right to send Gwaine to the east," he said. "And I am sorry for my earlier attitude. I will make sure the knights know that you have the same authority to command them as Leon does, when I am not here." He frowned slightly. "I was just…" Frustrated because I failed to find Merlin, failed to rescue him like I should have.
"I know," she said, her voice rich with understanding, and she smiled gratefully. "I know." Her smile fell then. "What about the Humphries?"
"Eric wanted to speak with me, to confess I assume. I'm going to give him that chance." He glanced over at the window, assessing the time. "They'll be ringing the bell for the feast soon." He sighed. "As soon as it's finished we'll both take him to one side."
Gwen nodded, her lips pressing together worriedly. "I…I do hope I'm wrong, Arthur," she said. "I know how much you care for Eric."
"On the contrary, I hope you're right about them," Arthur replied. "Because if you are, then we are that much closer to getting Merlin back."
Merlin drifted in and out, the pain dragging him back every time he tried to return to blessed unconsciousness. He knew he was on the back of a fast moving horse, an arm tight around his chest, something even tighter binding his left arm and shoulder.
He'd catch glimpses of nearly black trees, the pale road, and the occasional shadowed field. The horse's head moved up and down before him, clearly strained to its limits. Even in the moonlight, he could see the lathering sweat glistening off its mane and down its neck, could hear it breathing in great, labored huffs, could feel its muscles trembling with exertion. Whoever was forcing the horse to move at this breakneck pace was going to kill it if it didn't get a rest soon.
At one point, he saw the turrets of Camelot, shining brightly against the purpling sky, almost glowing. The massive, rising moon itself was close above the battlements, beautiful, stunning and white. Weirdly, it felt almost welcoming, as if it were extra bright, extra lovely, just for him, showing him the way home. He smiled at it. The moon smiled back, a woman's face. She looked a little like Camilla.
He shuddered and closed his eyes again.
"Get Gaius!" Gwaine shouted to the guards on the battlements, galloping through the lower town and through the castle gates, barely avoiding the people leaping out of his way. "Fetch Gaius now! And inform the king!"
He burst into the main courtyard, aiming for the far corner, the closest entrance to the physician's corridors. As he pulled his abused horse to a halt, its legs shaking, Gaius appeared in the doorway along with a handful of guards and servants.
Merlin was deadweight against him, having not spoken a word or, as far as Gwaine could tell, even opening his eyes. He took heart only in the fact that he could still feel his friend breathing, even as he felt blood dribbling over the hand he held Merlin with, from the wound they'd tried so hard to wrap.
"Take him," Gwaine said, almost reluctantly releasing his hold and letting Merlin slip off the horse and into the upraised hands of the guards. "Careful of his shoulder. And he's burning up. Like a bad fever." He looked at Gaius for the last. The court physician gave a sharp nod, all business, leading the way back into the castle, calling out orders to some of the servants to get things set up in his rooms.
Gwaine slipped of the horse and leaned against the animal, just breathing, the poor animal panting and shaking next to him. Leon suddenly appeared by his side, eyes wide and questioning. Gwaine shook his head.
"Found him, but…" He lowered his head, despair spreading through him. "I don't know…I don't know if I got him back here in time."
Leon's face closed down, hard and dark. "And the people who took him?"
"Still out there. I sent the rest of men after them, but I had to get Merlin back here."
Leon gave a nod. "Understood. To the east, was it?"
"Not far from the bridge over the river to Mercia."
"I'll send scouts to bring the rest of the knights home, so we can send them to help. These bandits will pay for this, Gwaine."
"I know," Gwaine said, feeling his own face harden into a mask as he considered what he was going to do to those men when he found them. "I know."
"We need to inform the king," Leon said then, holding out a hand in invitation. "Coming?"
The doors to the Great Hall burst open, instantly quieting everyone at the feast, and Arthur stood as a blood covered Gwaine strode inside, Leon on his heels. Around the king, the rest of the High Council also stood, and so did Gwen.
In a few steps, Gwaine was in front of him, bowing deeply, clearly exhausted. When he looked up, his expression was so uncharacteristically somber, Arthur felt his heart stop. He tried not to read too much in the blood staining the chainmail from shoulder to hip, none of which appeared to be Gwaine's.
"We have him," the knight said, without preamble. "But he's…he may not survive. He's with Gaius."
Next to him, Gwen gasped, and, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lord Humphries lean heavily against his table. Lady Eleanor had remained seated, expressionless, unblinking.
It took everything Arthur had not to run instantly from the room to see Merlin for himself. Instead, he blew out a slow breath and lifted his chin. "And the men who took him?"
"We're chasing them down as we speak."
Arthur nodded, gripping his hands into fists. "Thank you, Sir Gwaine. Sir Leon." He looked around the room at the expectant faces of the High Council. "And thank you, my lords, for your support in this matter."
"It is truly great news, your highness," Lord Perrin said. "I am, for one, glad that it is over." The other lords all nodded.
"But it is not over," Arthur said, dropping his voice and letting the anger show through. "Mark my words this night. When we bring these knaves back and learn who was behind this act, I will see them punished and executed for this crime against Camelot. Let it be a lesson to anyone who dares practice such villainy in our kingdom. We will not stand for this sort of behavior anywhere, or against anyone. These bandits made a massive error today. I will not allow it to be repeated."
As one, the men and women all bowed, and after reading every one of their faces for any sign of nervousness, Arthur gave them a single nod.
"Now, if you will excuse me," he said, "I will leave you for a time. Please…" He spread out a hand. "Continue with the feast. Queen Guinevere will see that this night is one of celebration." He saw Gwen open her mouth to protest, but Arthur pressed a hand to her arm to stop her. When the lords and ladies had sat down again, he bent down to put his lips to her ear.
"I need you to stay here and keep an eye on the people in this room," he whispered. "Particularly the Humphries. If either of them leaves, send word."
Gwen looked disappointed to not be going with him to see Merlin, but gave a nod. "Of course."
"I will ask Sir Leon to also put men at the doors."
She nodded again. When he turned to leave, she gripped his wrist, stopping him.
"Send…" She swallowed, and lowered her voice. "Please send George back to let me know how he is."
Arthur smiled, pressing his hand to hers on his wrist. "As soon as I can." He turned his gaze to Gwaine and Leon, who bowed and turned, Arthur close on their heels. He didn't need to look to know that George had followed as well.
Merlin howled as Gaius pressed down hard on the wound, trying to numb it and slow the bleeding before attempting to cut out the arrow. He knew the physician was trying to speak to him, to calm him down, to tell him what was happening, but Merlin couldn't get past the agony he was in, couldn’t stop trying to get away from it.
"Damn it, Merlin! I know it hurts, but you have to stop moving!"
He tried. He did. He wanted to, but his body was just reacting. Everything that touched him hurt, and he bucked, needing to get away from the cause. He tried to explain, but all that seemed to come out of his mouth was pleas.
"Gaius," he begged. "Help me. Please, please. Make it stop, please!"
"I'm trying, my boy. I'm trying."
"I can't…I can't…." Merlin screamed again, his voice getting increasingly hoarse. He felt like a child, unable to say what he needed. He just wanted it to stop.
The door slammed open, and the guards nearby sprang to their feet. Merlin didn't need to see who it was, as the guards instantly snapped to attention.
"Arthur," he whispered, ridiculously happy. He'd see him before he died. He'd so wanted that.
Above him, Gaius twisted to see over his shoulder. "Sire."
"How is he?" Arthur asked, coming into view, his face showing everything. Merlin wanted to smile, but then Gaius did something to his shoulder and he screamed again, blacking everything out. For a long moment, he couldn't see or hear or do anything except react, the pain in his shoulder like someone was ripping him open, digging out his bones while he was still alive.
When consciousness returned, he found himself being held down. Arthur was across his chest, pressing down to keep him still, while Gaius did something to his shoulder that Merlin couldn't see. He breathed heavily, aware of a strange numbness in his arm and chest. The mixture Gaius usually used to treat wounds had finally started to work, for which he was grateful. Looking at the table behind the physician, he could see the crossbow bolt resting on a blood-stained cloth. That was out then. That was good.
"…and keep him distracted, if you can," Gaius was saying. Merlin frowned, vaguely aware that they were talking about him. And not caring.
"Arthur?" he asked, trying to focus on his friend.
"Yeah," Arthur replied, smiling weakly, moving so that he was easier for Merlin to see. "I'm here. You're here. We got you back."
Merlin smiled. And then he remembered that he had something important to tell him. Something…this was all because of something….
"Do you know who took you?" Arthur asked.
And there it was, crashing back into his head like a wave. "Yes…yes!" He started to shake, needing to get this out quickly, trying to sit up but being too well held down. "They're here. They're in the vaults! You have to stop them. But you have to…you have to be careful. Don't let her touch you. You have to keep her from touching anyone. Don't let her touch anyone, especially not you. She—"
Gaius did something painful and he gasped, arching his back.
"Hold him down!"
Arthur pressed even harder, and Merlin also realized there were people holding his legs down as well. Was that Gwaine? He could just make out the curly head of Leon a few feet away as well, frowning deeply.
Slowly, the pain receded, and Merlin felt like he could breathe again. It was then he realized that Arthur had been calling his name.
"Merlin? Merlin, can you hear me?"
"Yeah. Not deaf."
"You wouldn't know it," he replied, obviously trying to go for a joke.
Merlin tried to smile, but even his face felt like it hurt. Arthur's own smile faded as he shifted a little closer.
"Merlin, who is in the vaults?" he asked.
"Vaults?" Merlin repeated, trying to remember. Didn't he already tell Arthur this? He never listens.
"Someone is in the vaults. Who is in the vaults?"
"Told you already. They are. The thieves. That's who took me. Thieves. I was…I was just a distraction. If you…you sent the knights to find me, no one would be here. Made you vulnerable." Merlin grimaced, realizing horribly that he was still being that distraction. He touched Arthur's arm. "You have to go. You have to stop them. But don't let her…Don't…." The world was growing increasingly dim, now. He was having trouble seeing.
Arthur's eyes were wide now. "Who is her,' Merlin? Is it Lady Eleanor?"
Merlin closed his eyes. "Yes. No….Meant Camilla. She's magic. Magical. Don't let her touch…."
"She's a sorceress?"
"No. Erebus," Merlin said, whispering now as the world started to swirl away from him. "Daughter of Erebus."
But he was too tired to answer anymore. He was too tired to do anything anymore.
Arthur dispatched Leon, Gwaine and all the guards in the room, with orders to gather all the returned knights and meet him in the courtyard in five minutes. He then looked back at Gaius, who was finishing wrapping bandages around Merlin's chest and shoulder with George's help; George was propping Merlin up while Gaius wound the fabric under his arm. The normally efficient servant looked pale—it was the only time Arthur had ever seen him appear so deeply disconcerted.
"Gaius?" Arthur asked. "How is he, really?"
"I'm not a hundred percent certain," the physician replied wearily. "I would have said that, now that we've removed the bolt, he had a fifty-fifty chance, barring infection. But…." He and George leaned Merlin back on the bed, and George pulled up the blanket. "But," Gaius continued, straightening and cracking his back as he did so, "I don't understand why he's so hot. It feels like a fever, a raging one, but I cannot determine its cause, and with the amount of blood he's lost, it's just peculiar. He should be cold, not warm." He frowned, settling down in a chair next to Merlin's bed and resting a hand on his forehead. "It's as if he's fighting an infection, but I don't know what the illness is."
"But if he's fighting it, that's good, right?"
"Not necessarily. He…it could do him more harm than good." Gaius gently pushed Merlin's hair off his forehead, his touch gentle, as if afraid of breaking him. "I just don't know right now."
Arthur gave a terse nod. "Do what you can." It was an unnecessary order, a bit like telling the sun to shine, but Gaius inclined his head all the same.
"Do you know," Arthur said then, "what he meant by a woman being a daughter of Erebus?"
"No," Gaius said, frowning deeply, looking up at Arthur. "It is not a place with which I am familiar. I will see what I can find in my books, but…I do not know it."
Arthur shook his head. "No, that's alright. Focus on making him well. We'll just have to do work with the warning Merlin gave us." He glanced at his friend, then to George now standing a couple of feet away, wringing his hands. "George. Return to the Queen and inform her of Merlin's condition. Also, tell her to stay in the Great Hall, where it's safe, and tell her to try to keep the rest of the High Council there as well."
George's eyebrows lifted. "You…you do not wish me to accompany you further?" he asked.
"No, not tonight. I will not need a servant where I am heading."
"But, I understood that you required Merlin to always attends you when—"
"Required? No. Trust me, I have never ordered that of Merlin," Arthur replied. "The idiot just follows me, despite the fact that I usually order him not to." He gave a rueful smile, shaking his head. "In fact, you, nor any other servant, should ever feel compelled to follow me or anyone else into battle. Understood?"
George grimaced, but nodded. "Yes, Sire."
Arthur inclined his head towards the man, then to Gaius. He couldn't help Merlin any more this night, but he could follow his friend's wishes. He took one last glance at Merlin, silently ordering him to not die, then turned around and left.
Gwen watched as Lady Eleanor whispered something to her husband and stood. Eric stood with her, but she shook her head at him and, with a smile to the people around her, clearly begged her leave. She then looked across the tables to where Gwen sat.
The frown Gwen gave her caused Eleanor's smile to waver slightly, but instead of approaching the queen to explain her departure and ask for leave (which Gwen would not have granted), the lady simply backed away from the table and headed for the side door. Sitting a few chairs down, The Lady Gwent watched her go, her frown even deeper than Gwen's—clearly, even with a queen as ill-appointed as Gwen, The Lady Gwent still recognized inappropriate behavior. She turned to look at her queen, her eyebrows raised.
Gwen stood up then, and then flinched as the entire group stood up with her, including The Lady Gwent.
Damn it. She would never get used to that.
"Please," she said, gesturing at them all. "Sit. Eat. I will return momentarily."
Slowly, carefully, the lords and ladies at the other tables sat down, and The Lady Gwent inclined her head. With that implicit approval, Gwen stepped away from her chair and headed over to the servants door that Eleanor had slipped through. Ducking through it and into the small hallway, she nearly ran into a breathless George coming from the opposite direction, blood streaking his face and clothes, and she gasped slightly. He looked as ruffled as she had ever seen him, though he stumbled back a few steps and tried to bow.
"My lady, I came to find you," he greeted, straightening and clearly struggling to get his breathing under control. "I bring news."
Gwen nodded. "Merlin? Is he…?"
"He is still alive. Gaius is doing everything he can for him, but…" George's pale face flushed, as if embarrassed. "But he is uncertain of what ails him besides the obvious, and does not think well of his chances."
Gwen blinked once, absorbing that. Every part of her was screaming to run to Gaius', to be at Merlin's side, to find a way to help…except she couldn't. She was Queen and had responsibilities. How did Arthur handle this so well? Oh no, Arthur! He had asked her to keep an eye on…oh hell. Where had Lady Eleanor gone?
George cleared his throat. "I am also to report on the King's actions to you."
She grimaced. "Tell me while walking, George," she answered, pushing past him and walking towards the guard at the end of the corridor, just before it forked. George made a funny noise, but ran to keep up with her.
"Apparently," George said, talking quickly, "there may be thieves in the vaults. King Arthur is gathering the knights and guards in order to head down there now."
Gwen came to an abrupt halt a few feet from the guard, her eyes widening. She looked at George.
"You're serious?" she hissed.
"Yes, my lady. The King wished for you to know. I think he also wanted you to, uh," he looked a bit sheepish, as he looked around, "I think he wanted you to stay in the Great Hall. He wants you to keep the rest of the High Council and the court in the Great Hall as well."
She arched an eyebrow, and then looked at the guard. "Which way did Lady Humphries go?"
The guard pointed down the right hand fork, and Gwen gave a nod. She walked quickly in that direction, pausing when she realized she wasn't alone. Looking over her shoulder, she saw both George and the guard on her heels.
"I need to protect you, my lady," the guard said, without being asked. George just smiled. Gwen grimaced, but gave a shrug and continued walking. When she hit the next fork a few yards down, she stopped, looking down both corridors. Both were empty.
"Damn," she whispered. She considering a moment, and then turned to the guard.
"Alright, I'm heading back. Inform the men that I want the Lady Eleanor found. Do not approach her, but I need to know where she is. Also, find the King and inform him that the Lady Eleanor has left the feast."
The guard nodded, bowed, and walked away at a brisk clip. Gwen looked down the empty corridors a moment longer, and then strode back to the Great Hall, George still on her heels. Back in the large room, she headed back to her seat and looked around.
She swore softly when she realized that Lord Eric Humphries had also disappeared.
Malcon looked up as Jason came sprinting into the vaults, nearly tripping over the guard Camilla had enchanted, the guard blinking muzzily at the young man.
"We're skunked, Boss!" Jason said, panting heavily. "They're gathering upstairs to come down here. They know!"
"Damn it," Malcon hissed, looking at his half dozen men standing in the vaults with him and Camilla. "Everyone, only what you can carry. We're ghosts. Out the door and scatter!"
Like a well oiled machine, his men snapped shut the large leather saddlebags they'd been filling with gold and slung them over their shoulders. One by one, Malcon watched them run from the room and head in the direction of where they'd left the cart and horses, down the back corridors, knowing that, as soon as they hit the outside, they'd split up in as many directions as they could. As soon as Camilla was out, he followed with his own bags, grabbing Jason by the arm as he did so and propelling the boy in front of him.
"How'd they know we were here?" he asked, shoving Jason forward because he wasn't moving fast enough.
"I don't know. All I do know is that they're coming down here, and it sounded like a large number of marching feet, far more than we can handle."
Malcon frowned, but didn't ask anything more until they were rounding the last set of corridors leading to the outside. He just had to hope that they hadn't blocked all the exits yet.
That hope faded as he heard the distinctive sound of clashing metal.
With a roar, he threw himself down the last hall and out into the open, where a handful of his men were holding off about twice that number of guards. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as others ran with the treasure in various directions. Dropping his own treasure, he immediately joined in the melee, feeling the strength of the power Camilla had given him in every muscle; the strength of Achilles, she'd told him once.
In seconds, they'd taken the guards down.
"Go, go, go," he called to the men still with him. "Different gates! Move it!"
Camilla stood up from picking up the dropped treasure, slinging it over her shoulders with her inhuman strength, and he grabbed her hand. The two of them were about to head in their own direction when he heard his name called.
Frowning, he pointed his sword in that direction, only to drop it when he recognized the Patron running down the cobbled street towards him from the castle. She hesitated at seeing the bodies around them, but then rushed the rest of the way.
"Patron," Malcon snapped, turning to leave, "we have to—"
"I know, I know," she said, her eyes wide and glassy with fear, jogging to keep up with them as they started to move again, striding rapidly down the walled alley. "But you have to help me. The servant, Merlin, they found him. He's here and…he told them about what you were doing."
Malcon nearly tripped over his own feet, and next to him, Camilla actually stopped and stared with shock at the Patron. Voices shouted nearby, and he swiftly pulled both women into a shadowed alcove between two parts of the castle wall.
Holding his breath, he watched as the guards and knights of Camelot swept down the street, at their head, the golden haired King. Arthur shouted orders upon seeing the guards on the ground, pointing his men in different directions.
"Man every gate, every door!" the King yelled, striding away from them, every inch the sovereign he was. "Check every person's bag, nobles and peasants alike! These thieves shall not escape! Everyone you don't recognize immediately is suspect!"
Malcon whispered a swear, hoping some of his men managed to slip out before the King's net was fully in place. Though, considering he could hear more yelling and sword fighting in the distance, he already knew they weren't that lucky. Damn it.
Only thing to do now was lay low, as best they could, which wouldn't be good if there was someone in the castle who could identify them. Lady Eleanor was panting softly, looking lost. He grabbed her arm and hauled her close, ignoring the squeak she emitted. He could smell the fear on her.
"Are you certain Merlin was the one who told them about us?"
She nodded. Malcon turned to Camilla.
"How is that possible?" he demanded. "I saw you ensorcell him."
She shook her head. "I don't know," she admitted. "He shouldn't have remembered any of it. He….No one has ever done that before. It shouldn’t have been possible."
"He knows us. Knows our faces." Malcon glared at Lady Eleanor. She visibly swallowed, and nodded again.
"And he knows about me," the Patron said. "You have to do something. He hasn't told them yet, as far as I know, hasn't told them about me or any of your names, but it's only a matter of time. You must kill him before he does."
"Why can't you kill him, Patron!" Camilla snapped, face darkening in the moonlight. "This was your idea in the first place!"
"I…I don't…." the Patron blinked, and shook her head. "I can't. Please! You have to do something or we are all destroyed. Arthur will hunt us all down like dogs for harming Merlin, and he has the whole High Council behind him. Nowhere in the kingdom will be safe. You should have seen the King's face—I've never seen it’s like."
Camilla grimaced. "I'll bet I have," she said miserably, looking at Malcon, "twenty years ago on his father's face." She shook her head. "If he's like Uther in this…."
"He is. He…he sounded just like him," Lady Eleanor whispered.
Camilla arched an eyebrow at Malcon. "You know that if the Patron won't kill the servant boy, then we will have to."
Malcon grimaced, but nodded. He looked at the Patron.
"Where is he?" he asked.
"With the court physician, where you found him before. They say he's badly hurt, may not survive the night."
Malcon frowned. "You'll need to take us there."
"Why? You found your way there before. I need to get away from here, to—"
"Because if we're caught, you can cover for us. It's in your best interest to hide us, Eleanor." He hadn't let her go, and she winced when he tightened his grip on her arm. "And I know you always do what's in your best interest."
She blinked. "You…you called me Eleanor. You always call me Patron. I am your Patron."
Malcon snarled. "I have to kill a man in cold blood for you, Eleanor, something I swore I would never do again. After tonight, the debt is paid. You are no longer Patron. You will be nothing but what you are—a sniveling, selfish little girl."
She frowned at that, her eyes wet with unshed tears, but she didn't disagree. Roughly, she pulled her arm free.
"Fine. Follow me," she said, her voice weak but steady. "And try to act like my servants."
Arthur stared at the half-dozen men now kneeling before him in the mud of the lower town, each with their heads bowed, their ill-gotten gains hung over the shoulders of the knights circling them. At least three others were being carried away by the guards, to be placed with the other dead.
"How many of you are there?" he demanded, walking up to the closest man, pressing his sword point into the man's chest. "How many?" he repeated, applying enough pressure than the man grunted.
But didn't reply.
Arthur swore, and dug a little deeper. "I said, how many?!"
The man just shook his head.
"Loyalty amongst thieves, I could perhaps understand," Arthur snarled. "But not amongst murdering kidnappers. Scum doesn't deserve such respect."
The man looked up then, his expression unhappy, almost as if he didn't disagree, but he still said nothing. Arthur shook his head in disgust. He slashed at the man's chest, earning a yell of pain, and then pressed the now bloody sword into the chest of the next man.
"How about you? Are you as tongue-less as your friend?"
The second man didn't even lift his head. Arthur growled. He had to fight the urge to just run these men through, but he knew he couldn't. They would be tried publicly first, so all of Camelot would know what they had done, before they were hanged for their crimes.
But that didn't mean he had to be nice to them in the meantime. He pulled the sword away.
"Take them to the dungeons. Get them to talk. I want to know who they're being so loyal to."
He took a step back as the knights and guards manhandled the men to their feet and hauled them away. Looking up towards the castle, he saw a guard running towards him from the direction of the main gates.
"Sire!" the guard called.
Arthur waited, crossing his arms. Next to him, he felt Leon tense, as if expecting bad news. It probably was.
"Sire," the guard repeated, stopping in front of him, swallowing down his panting. "The Queen sent me to tell you that Lady Humphries has left the Great Hall."
Arthur swore. He looked up at the brightly lit windows on that level, before looking again at the guard. "Have all the carriages locked down. No one is allowed to leave."
The guard nodded and immediately ran off in the direction of the stables.
"You think she'll run, Sire?" Leon asked.
"I don't know what she's capable of, Sir Leon," Arthur replied darkly, turning his attention to the night-shadowed town around him. They'd stopped the men they'd captured here in the lower town, trying to escape through the city gates, but how many more of those thieves were out there? How many more were hiding?
"Then, my lord," Leon said then, his worried voice breaking into Arthur's reverie, "do you think that she might consider revenge? If she has nothing left to lose? Merlin hasn't actually said how much she or her husband were involved, but—"
Arthur stared at Leon, horror filling his mind at the thought that Merlin might still be in danger. Without another word, he started sprinting back towards the castle.
Chapter 7: King of Fire
Merlin heard a knocking, and slowly blinked awake, wondering why it was so hot in his room. Frowning at the high-timbered ceiling, he slowly remembered that he wasn't in his room, he was lying on the pallet in the main chamber, and, when he tried to move, he also remembered with terrible, painful clarity that he'd been spit by a crossbow bolt.
And, since he still felt like a human torch, his magic must still be burning out of control inside him.
The knock that woke him came again. Someone at the door.
Groaning slightly, he turned his head to see Gaius opening it, but he couldn't see who was on the other side.
"Lord Humphries?" Gaius said. Ah. That's who it was.
"May I see him?" Lord Humphries asked.
Gaius hesitated, and turned to look at Merlin over his shoulder. Merlin opened his eyes more fully, to show he was a awake, and gave a nod. Gaius didn't look happy, but he backed up a step.
"You're lucky. He's just woken up." The physician moved to one side as Lord Humphries entered, the young lord ducking slightly under the low door. Eric's face paled upon seeing Merlin. "I'd appreciate it," Gaius continued, his voice steeling, "if you did not stay long, or excite him in any way."
"I won't," Eric promised, not taking his eyes off Merlin as he walked over to his side. Once he was by the bed, though, he seemed to hesitate. Uncertainty creased his face, and he made no move to actually sit down, or even speak, seeming unable to look at anything but the bandaged shoulder.
Merlin frowned slightly, uncomfortable under the gaze.
"What's wrong?" he asked, his voice a soft croak.
"What's wrong?" the lord repeated, eyes flicking up to Merlin's face, sounding almost confused by the question. He blinked, and a tear ran down his cheek. "Are you serious?" he asked softly.
Merlin's frown deepened, trying to recall what he'd told the others. Had he mentioned Lady Eleanor's part in this yet? Was Eric here…was Eric here to protect or, possibly, avenge her? He knew well how love could twist you inside.
He furrowed his brow, and gave Gaius a concerned look out of the corner of his eye. His mentor frowned, and surreptitiously moved to pick up a carving knife from the work table. Returning his gaze to Eric, Merlin saw that Lord Humphries had taken on the appearance of one frozen, paralyzed by whatever was going on inside his head. He made to sit up to talk to Eric better, only to wince at the extreme pain and fall back. Damn it, he was too sick to deal with this right now.
"Look, I…I'm sorry," he told the young lord. "I don't know what you want. But I…I know you weren't involved in what she did."
Lord Humphries' eyes widened almost comically, and he was suddenly on his knees, grabbing Merlin's good arm.
"Oh God! I knew it! I knew! I am so sorry." He pulled on the arm, practically begging. "I am so, so sorry. Please, forgive me!"
Merlin grimaced, trying to free his arm, the pain from the tugging making him dizzy. "What?"
"It was Eleanor. She did this. I knew…I didn't want to know, I tried to convince myself I was wrong, but I knew. She kept disappearing into the forests, to meet them. I knew what she was doing and I didn't stop it. And now….if you die…." Eric's head fell to the edge of the bed, burying his face. "I'm so, so sorry," he repeated, pleadingly. "You have to forgive me, friend Merlin. Please."
Merlin just stared. "You knew?" he asked hoarsely.
Eric's head remained down, his voice muffled by the thin mattress. "I didn't know she would go this far. I thought…I thought perhaps she was only seeing them to say goodbye, to break away from that life, her father's life." He sniffed, shaking his head. "I kept hoping I was wrong, that she really did love me and was happy, but it was all a lie. I didn't want it to be."
Merlin turned his head, seeking out Gaius. His mentor looked as shocked as he did, standing motionless a few feet away, the knife loose in his hand.
"I just…" Lord Humphries sighed heavily. "I can't believe that she would do this to you. She knows you're my friend. She knows that I would never….She did this to punish me as much as to hurt the King."
Merlin swallowed, turning his head again to look at Eric. "My lord," he whispered, "are you saying…are you saying you knew she'd rob Camelot's vaults?"
Eric lifted his head, shock clear in every feature. "She's doing what?"
He stood up so suddenly, it actually rocked the pallet, causing Merlin to wince as he drew his good arm across his burning chest. "Her thieves are trying to steal from Camelot?" Eric repeated, shaking a little.
Gaius stepped forward then. "You didn't know?"
"I guessed she was planning something, and then when you were kidnapped, I thought….I thought it was for the ransom. Working with her father's band of bandits, I thought….I never imagined…." Lord Humphries backed away, shaking his head. "Oh my God," he whispered, bracing his head in his hands. "I am such a fool."
Merlin shook his head. "No, you…You have nothing to be sorry for," he said, knowing too well what Eric was going through. "She…she fooled everyone."
Eric shook his head. "No. No, I did this. I let this happen." He looked towards the door. "I have to stop her."
"The King already is," Gaius said then, lowering his head. "I don't think there's much more you can do, my lord."
Humphries stared at Gaius, clearly torn. "But perhaps I can—"
"Can what, my love?" Eleanor's voice rang out. "Stop me? It's a little too late for that."
Eric's sword was out of its sheath so fast, it almost seemed to ring in Merlin's ears. Without hesitation, the young lord was immediately between them and the three people who had just entered the room, his sword raised against the threat. Eleanor, Malcon and Camilla were lined up, looking at the three of them with such confidence, Merlin wondered if he'd missed a step somewhere.
"Who are you?" Gaius demanded, raising his knife up as well. Malcon sneered at the two of them, drawing an already bloody sword from his sheath, and Camilla took a step forward, dropping the bags off her shoulder with a clink and drawing a short sword from her belt. A sword Merlin knew she didn't need.
"Gaius, Lord Humphries," he begged, "Get out of here. She's…she's not what she seems."
"I need him to forget, Camilla," Eleanor said, pointing at her husband. "And him as well." She gestured at Gaius. "As for him…" She smiled cruelly at Merlin. "Him, I want dead."
"You can't mean that," Eric said, his sword shaking slightly as he looked at his wife. "You can't."
"You know very little about me, husband," Eleanor said, her voice dripping venom. "You wanted the fairytale, the poor fair maiden who would be so grateful for being lifted from a mere peasant that she wouldn't care that her castle was falling down around her ears."
"Falling down?" Lord Humphries repeated incredulously, the sword steadying in his hand. "How dare you! Castle Humphries is—"
Eric's eyes narrowed, his chin lifting. "That castle," he snarled, "has withstood sieges, survived generations, held the borders of Camelot for its king for over a century. How dare you speak so of my home."
"The Pope lives in a castle lined with gold," Eleanor spat back. "The French king has jewels embedded in his throne. And you think I find gray stone and the occasional silver necklace sufficient?" She shook her head, and stepped back. "You are a fool, Eric. A poor, weak lordling whom I will make rich, whether you want it or not."
"I do not," Eric spat.
"Then I'll probably kill you soon, once you've given me an heir. But first…I really need you to forget."
"What the hell are you talking about! I won't forget any of this! What insanity—"
"Camilla's a sorceress," Merlin croaked, trying to prop himself up despite the dizziness and heat pouring off him. "She can do it. You can't let her touch you."
"Well then," Eric said, crouching down into the stance every soldier in Camelot knew like the back of their hand, "I'll see that she won't."
"Big words," Malcon said, striding forward, his own sword raised in threat. "Shall we see if the deeds match them?"
Eric attacked with a roar, and immediately, the two were slashing at each other, swords ringing and singing as they crashed into each other in the tiny space.
Gaius dodged out of the way, trying to protect Merlin, still holding the knife. Camilla backed up and started to make her way around the back of the room, to get around the two men fighting in the middle. Her eyes were locked on Merlin's most of the time, but she wasn't ignoring Gaius either.
"Merlin," Gaius whispered, holding the knife steady as she approached, "Can you…?"
"I don't know," Merlin replied. "There's…there's something wrong with me. She's like the Dorocha—I can't seem to touch her magic, and her magic has done something strange to mine."
"The Dorocha?" Gaius repeated, his voice surprised. "Are you certain?"
Merlin just nodded, trying to sit up more. Camilla came around the back of a table.
Eric suddenly yelled, shoving off Malcon and, grabbing a stool, threw it with all his might at Camilla. She ducked, laughed.
"You can't fight us both off, my lord!" she catcalled, as Malcon took another swing at Eric that would have cleaved him in two if he hadn't jumped to the side.
Gaius took that distraction to throw his knife at Camilla, but she saw it coming, batting it aside as if it were nothing more than a fly, the thin blade skittering across the floor into the corner. Suddenly she ran at Gaius, moving with a speed that was inhuman, shoving him against the wall next to Merlin's pallet, her hand on his throat.
"Epikaloúmai Lethe," she hissed. Gaius shuddered, his eyes rolling up in his head, and Camilla let him go.
"No!" Merlin shouted as Gaius collapsed to the floor.
"No!" Eric shouted at the same time, shoving off Malcon and racing towards Camilla. "I won't let you!"
Camilla rounded on him, all but leaping over Merlin's pallet, slashing aside Eric's sword with her own. Eric's eyes widened in shock as the momentum sent him sideways, clearly not expecting her to be that strong. He was then fighting for his life, as Malcon attacked from the back and Camilla from the front.
"Don't kill him!" Eleanor shouted from where she was cowering by the door, her eyes bright with excitement.
Merlin finally pushed the rest of the way up, getting his feet on the floor and, somehow, managed to stand. Staggering forward, he fell against a table and glanced at the wooden bucket sitting on top of the grain store. With a jerk of his head, it flew across the room and into the side of Camilla's head.
It also burst into flames, explosively, causing all three of them to fall backwards.
The explosive flames part hadn't been intended, but what the hey.
Eleanor shrieked, cowering down. Camilla staggered, flames running down her face and side, and Malcon yelled her name, reaching for her.
And Eric took the distraction to cut Malcon down from behind.
"NO!" Camilla shrieked, as Malcon gasped, dropped his sword and fell to his knees. "No!" she said, diving forward to catch him, the flames dousing as blackness came from nowhere to envelop her body. "My love, no, no, no!"
"Cam…" Malcon whispered, touching her face. "My…my…."
"Please," Camilla begged, lowering her head. "Please."
"I love you," he whispered, smiling softly, his eyes closing. She gasped and pulled him close just as Malcon's hand fell loosely to the floor.
Camilla shrieked, and Merlin fell backwards onto the pallet, his ears bursting from the pain of her voice.
When he looked up again, the world seemed to be moving in flashes and bursts. Through the haze, he saw Eric stand up shakily and level his sword at her neck, his mouth shaping the word, "yield!"
"No," Merlin tried to yell, to stop Eric, but he was too slow. Quicker than he could see, Camilla was up and grabbing Eric by the throat, lifting him off the ground. As clear as a bell, he heard her words as if she were speaking directly to Merlin.
Eric screamed, violently and horribly. Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw Eleanor try to run from the room, but Camilla stretched a hand at her and a black shadow took Eleanor down, dragging and rolling her over and over until she was at Camilla's feet. Camilla stepped on her, still holding Eric by his throat.
"Epikaloúmai Ker!" she spat at the girl.
Eleanor screamed and screamed and started to convulse, curling into a ball.
Dropping Eric, and shoving Eleanor away, Camilla rounded on Merlin.
"You!" she said, her entire face contorting with rage, her eyes nearly jet black as she glared at him. "You did this!"
Merlin swallowed, but his survival instincts kicked in and he got to his feet again. He glanced to the knife where it lay in the corner and raised a hand. Instantly, it was in his grip and he pointed it at Camilla.
With as much confidence he could muster, he spat, "Do your worst."
Camilla smirked, and stretched out her arms, blackness flowing out of her to shroud her like a veil. The entire room grew darker and darker, blocking out the fires, the candles, even the moon shining through the window. Soon, all he could see was the woman, now appearing twice his size, eyes black as pitch, hair flowing and melding into the blanket of black like a shroud.
"You really think you can fight a demi-god, little man?" she roared, staggering him back a step with the power of her voice. "Because that is what I am. My ancestors were the gods of death and despair, the scions of Erebos himself. What were yours?"
He lifted his chin, meeting her eyes.
"Dragons," he whispered, letting the fire inside him spill into the knife, the blade shining in the darkness like a beacon.
Camilla simply smirked.
"Pets," she sneered, and raised a hand towards him, the finger elongating and reaching for his face.
She gagged suddenly, her eyes widening like saucers. Slowly, she looked down, staring with utter confusion at the blade jutting out of her chest, the sword shining with such brilliance that it could only belong to one person.
It suddenly disappeared, drawn back with a sickly wet sound, and the darkness retreated as she staggered forwards towards him, returning to her real size with each step, almost falling to her knees in front of Merlin. Blood, black as night, spilled down her chest. Her eyes met Merlin's briefly, but then, horribly, she smiled, the whites disappearing completely from around her black irises. Straightening up, she turned bodily around, clearly no longer struggling to stay on her feet, to face her attacker.
Arthur stood with his sword in his hand, his armor practically gleaming as the entire room burst back into brilliant light, almost blinding Merlin with the suddenness of it. Black ichor dripped from the blade, like oil separating from water. The King didn't look at anyone but Camilla. He drew his sword close, positioning it to run her through again.
"You child," she hissed, pressing a hand to the gaping hole in her chest. "You think…you think this is enough? I am descended from gods, you pathetic man!"
And just as quickly as it had gone away, the blackness started to return, dimming everything as Camilla opened her arms, the wound on her torso knitting before their eyes. Arthur stood his ground, his eyes glancing at Merlin over her shoulder, a jerk of his head ordering Merlin to get to safety, or, at least, to get out of the way.
Merlin could only smile contrarily.
He wrapped both hands around his knife, unheeding of the pain in his shoulder, and, drawing strength from the blazing inferno raging under his skin, he shoved it as deep as he could into Camilla's back.
Fire erupted down and around the blade from somewhere deep inside of him, burning into her clothes and body, unbearably hot, but he held on, pouring the full power of his magic into the metal…into her. She screamed and, with a sudden jerk, pulled away, the blazing knife still stuck fast into her spine.
Feeling like a broken puppet, Merlin collapsed roughly to his knees and then to the floor, only just catching himself on the side of the pallet with his good arm.
Camilla was screaming, black mists swirling around her as she tried to get to the blade, turning around and around like a spinning top. Light from the knife crashed like waves against the darkness, until both started to fade, and Camilla really started to stagger and sway. The hole in her chest reopened, the black ichor turning the more traditional red as it soaked through her leather jerkin.
Arthur trailed her, his sword raised and ready, just waiting.
She stopped suddenly, near the small open window, the moonlight glinting off her black hair. She almost looked human at that moment, like a grieving woman, as tears started to run down her face, shimmering inside the still enshrouding blackness around her. She looked at Arthur only a foot away, then at Merlin, and then at Malcon, lying on the ground by the door.
"For you," she whispered, gazing at Malcon, "my love." She looked up, her skin shining with silver tears, and lifted her arms, a sudden pressure filling the room, pushing Arthur back a step and forcing Merlin to duck his head under the onslaught of her power. "Hermes," she called, "Epikaloúmai, parakaló̱, metaforá tous sti̱n asfáleia."
And like that, the fight seemed to go out of her, her raised arms falling by her sides, blackness receding to where it was merely like a cloak around her stocky frame. She glared at Arthur, and raised a hand towards him. "As for you, play king, I will destroy—"
So Arthur took her head off with a single powerful swing.
Wind exploded through the window, and the screams of the Dorocha echoed through the chamber for a split second. The blackness that had been swirling around Camilla suddenly contracted, taking her entire body, flying head and all, up in a literal puff of acrid smoke.
And then there was nothing but silence.
At that point, Merlin felt perfectly justified in slipping the rest of the way to the suddenly inviting floor and blacking out.
Chapter 8: King of Second Chances
Arthur just breathed, staring at the place where the sorceress had been, still not quite sure what had just happened.
When he and Leon had arrived, the room had been as dark and silent as a sealed cave; not even the bright light from the hallway seemed able to penetrate the unearthly darkness. Cautiously, he told Leon to stay and stepped inside, sword raised…only to nearly trip over three bodies near the entrance. A quick glance told him that none of their shapes matched Merlin's or Gaius', so he exhaled slowly and ventured deeper into the darkness, eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom. He soon realized that the darkness wasn't complete, and that it had a source—some kind of monster with its arms raised and its back to him, hissing in some language he couldn't understand. And beyond the monster, his features obscured as if Arthur were looking through a heavy, black veil, was Merlin. Brave, foolish Merlin, trying to stand up to the monster with nothing but a carving knife in his hand. She was reaching for him, and his friend was just standing there….
Arthur had moved on instinct—thrusting his sword through the monster's back before it could attack his friend. After that, everything was a bit of a blur. The room's lighting snapped back to normal, nearly blinding him, and the monster turned into a furious looking sorceress who treated being run through with a sword like being stuck by a pin. But once Merlin had stabbed his little knife in the sorceress's back, a knife Merlin had somehow lit on fire (or perhaps she did it herself), it tipped the scales, and her magic clearly failed her. And Arthur had been able to take her down…
He lowered the sword, noticing that it didn't even have a speck of blood on it—it was as perfect as when he'd first put it in his scabbard this evening. What the hell?
"Sire?" Leon called.
Arthur frowned, shaking his head. He didn't understand….
"Sire?" Leon called again, and Arthur turned to look at the knight, who was kneeling on the ground next to one of the bodies. Lady Humphries, Arthur realized horribly, a pool of blood growing steadily from around her small frame. On her other side, Lord Humphries whimpered and shook, like a man possessed. Leon looked extremely confused. "Sire," he asked, covering Eleanor's face with part of her cloak, "what the hell just happened?"
Arthur huffed a laugh, and looked around. He sought out Merlin, for him to explain, expecting to still see him standing where he'd last been, smiling that same, crooked smile he'd given him just before stuffing that knife in her back.
Panic exploded in his chest when he saw his friend sprawled out cold on the ground next to the bed. Skidding to his knees next to his friend, he gently lifted Merlin's head up and pressed a hand to the thin chest. Blood deeply stained the bandage around Merlin's shoulder, dripping down his thin arm garishly, and his face nearly blue it was so pale. "Don't," he whispered, the body feeling lifeless in his arms. "Come on, come on, you can't—"
As if in answer to a prayer, the chest measured a soft rise and fall, and Arthur felt faint with relief, bowing his head to Merlin's forehead, whispering a thanks to whomever may be listening. At the touch, he also noticed that Merlin wasn't hot anymore. It was as if…as if he were merely sleeping.
Gaius would know.
Gently laying his friend back down, he stood up, leaving Merlin be for the moment where he was.
"Gaius? Gaius! Where…?"
He trailed off as a soft grunt came from behind one of the upturned tables in the room. A hand slapped the edge of the wood, and Gaius creakily made his appearance, using the side of the table for leverage to get to his feet. Arthur gave him an exhausted grin.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
Gaius just blinked, wobbling slightly and pressing a hand to his head. "Sire? What are you…?" He stopped as he looked around the shambles of the room, his eyes widening. "What on earth happened here?"
Arthur's smile fell. "You don't know?"
"No," Gaius replied. "Last thing I remember was sitting next to Merlin, waiting for him to wake so I could give him some water." He noticed the empty pallet then. "Merlin! Where is he?"
"Here," Arthur said, kneeling down again next to his friend. "He's on the floor next to the pallet. I think he's just sleeping, but—"
Gaius, still clearly out of sorts, stumbled around the table and came quickly to their side. Sitting heavily on the pallet, he reached down and pressed a hand to Merlin's head, and then looked at his bandage. He frowned.
"You're right," he said. "That strange fever seems to have broken, at least for now." At Arthur's smile, Gaius quickly shook his head. "No, Sire, don't assume. Not yet. His wound and the blood he lost are still very dangerous. The fever could return far, far worse. All we can do is keep him comfortable, keep his wound clean, and hope that it doesn't worsen. We won't know for a few days whether he's truly out of the woods."
Arthur's smile faded, and he looked down at Merlin.
"What about these two?" Leon asked, from where he was still kneeling between the slumped forms of Lord and Lady Humphries.
Arthur glanced over, heartlessly wondering why he should care. It was fairly clear to him that both of them had been betrayed and then attacked by the sorceress they'd hired, probably out of revenge for the failed theft. He stayed next to Merlin as Gaius hobbled over, unconsciously holding his friend's wrist in his hand, to feel the soft pulse. When the physician reached Leon's side, Gaius used the knight's shoulder to crouch down. He checked on them both before shaking his head.
"I'm afraid that Lady Eleanor is dead. It looks like she was stabbed, except…well, it was a violent death. Terrible." He sighed. "Lord Humphries is still alive, barely, and he's clearly suffering from some sort of trauma. I'll know more when I can examine him more fully." He stood up again, but kept a hand on Leon's shoulder for support.
"What about the third man?" Arthur asked. Gaius gave him a funny look, and Leon swiveled around to where the third body was lying.
Had been lying.
"Where'd he go?" Leon asked, standing up so quickly he almost toppled Gaius. "He was right there!"
"Who was?" Gaius asked.
Arthur stood up as well, hearing at the same time as Leon, the sound of footsteps running down the hallway towards the room.
"I have a bad feeling," Leon said. Arthur couldn't disagree, and as Gwaine burst into the room, his eyes a little wild, Arthur had a feeling he already knew.
"They're gone," Gwaine said. "They're all gone, the thieves we caught. Out of the dungeons in a puff of black smoke. Even the bodies have vanished."
"Damn," Arthur muttered. "Damn, damn, damn."
Gwen had never had a problem speaking up, to make herself heard when it was important, but she also knew the value of being quiet. And for the last four days, everything she had done, she had done quietly.
She had stood quietly next to Arthur as he informed the High Council about preventing the thieves from stealing from the vault (“all but three caskets of gold was recovered”), of the suspected duplicity of the Humphries (“several caskets of Camelot gold were found hidden on the underside of the Humphries’ carriage”), and the capture but then subsequent vanishing of the thieves by sorcery (“disappearing inside a puff of black magic”). Yet another act confirming the evils of the practice of sorcery, he'd told them. “Indeed,” he’d finished, “it appears that both Lord and Lady Humphries were attacked by the very sorceress that they conspired with, resulting in the death of Lady Humphries and the ensorcellment of Lord Humphries, showing once again that you can never trust a practioner of magic, as my father wisely taught us.”
Gwen had flinched at the gasps that rang through the room regarding the Humphries, and wished she could have retreated as a servant would have as the yelling started. They weren’t concerned with the Humphries, though, just his lands and wealth. “Will the land be divided up?” “Who will get it, just his neighbors or can anyone put in a bid?” “Will it be divided evenly by size or by value?” “Did Humphries have any other relatives?” “Who will protect the border with Lot’s lands?” “Were his knights in on the conspiracy as well, or are they fair game?” “Who has control over the hunting grounds?” “Will you divide his gold up amongst the lords?”
All except for Lord Exestan, who had simply asked, “Where is the sorceress now?”
“Dead. I beheaded her myself.” Arthur’s answer to that question had quieted the room briefly, turning more than one face a whiter shade of pale. Then greed returned, and the demands about the property grew in number and pitch, leaving Gwen feeling more than a little sick as Arthur struggled to answer with the limited information he had. She had known then it would be a long few days—the High Council was going to be extended to deal with what had happened.
Later that night, she had lain alone quietly but sleeplessly in their bed for a few hours, having been gently ordered to “get some rest” while Arthur worked into the wee hours studying family tree information provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth: maps of lands, rosters of knights, servants and farmers, and information regarding the state of Humphries’ wealth. At one point, she had heard him leave their chambers—she had known where he was going, and had known that it was something he wanted to do alone. His bond with Merlin should have made her jealous, but it only made her heartsick for him, almost as much as she was for herself. And when she had woken in the morning, he was back at the desk, still going through the papers, the circles under his eyes so dark as to be nearly black.
But it wasn’t until George silently appeared, bringing their breakfast, that Arthur really had looked like he was about to break into a hundred pieces. She had held him for a while after that, neither of them saying anything. Merlin had gotten worse.
She had also stood quietly by his side when the High Council finally left two mornings later, Arthur promising to consider all the options between now and the next High Council meeting, but that, for now, Humphries’ lands, people and protection would fall under the King’s control until a better solution was found. They had left unhappy, but resigned.
But Arthur hadn’t been resigned to any of it, not yet, not really. Eric had been his friend. Merlin was his best friend. Beneath the exterior of calm and acceptance that he exuded as he bid the High Council farewell one by one, she could clearly see the anxious fury boiling inside. He had only gone to visit Merlin one more time after that first night, and, within an hour following that visit, she had been sent for to fetch him from the practice field after he had broken more than a few bones of the younger knights. She arrived to find Percival and Elyan both struggling and failing to hold him back. A touch from Gwen was the only thing that had calmed him, and the two had turned away and gone inside.
But tending to Arthur hadn’t been the only thing she had been doing. She had two loves to take care of, and, when she hadn’t been with Arthur, she had been sitting quietly with Merlin.
Which is where she was now.
As she had for many hours during the last four days, Gwen sat in Gaius' chambers, running a cold, wet cloth across Merlin's forehead, rinsing it the bowl next to his bed, and waiting for her friend to get better. She didn't talk to him, or to Gaius—she simply didn't know what to say. She just sat, trying not to give into the despair threatening to consume her.
The fever had started the night of the attack, creeping up slowly but surely, until it reached a level that had Gaius throwing books across the room in frustration. Considering Gwen had never seen Gaius that flustered, it was a little frightening. All she knew was that Merlin was in pain, shaking and hot, his skin dry as a bone except around the wound, which, despite the many cleanings Gaius had administered, didn't seem to be getting any better.
Gaius himself had finally succumbed to exhaustion, and was lying down on Merlin's bed up in his room, but Gwen didn't imagine he would be gone for long. In four days, she hadn't seen him sleep for longer than a couple of hours.
Messengers had been sent to Ealdor, to fetch Hunith. To tell her to come as quickly as she could. She likely would arrive tomorrow, which would probably be too late.
She sighed softly, placing the cold, wet compress on Merlin's face and forehead again, wishing there was something more she could do.
A few feet away, on another cot, Lord Humphries groaned slightly. Gwen didn't even turn around, knowing the guard watching Eric would alert her if there was any real change. Like Merlin, the lord hadn't woken since that night either, but there was no obvious sickness to explain the suffering he was clearly experiencing. Instead, he just tossed and turned, moaning and whimpering, while Gaius administered sedative after sedative, trying to soothe him.
It seemed there may be no cure for either of them.
She pulled the cloth away, and wiped at the tear running down her face. She hadn't started crying yet, not really, but it was growing increasingly difficult to hold them at bay. It was a good thing the guard was there—Gwen was resolved not to break down in front of him—but even that was becoming less of a deterrent as time went on.
A soft knock at the door caused Gwen to look up, and she smiled to see a young maid standing inside the threshold, her hands filled with cloths. It wasn't someone Gwen recognized, but then, she had to accept that she may not know all the servants anymore.
"My lady," the girl said, curtseying low. "I have brought fresh sheets."
Gwen smirked slightly at the low curtsey—none of the servants she knew ever went so low. Definitely a new girl.
"Thank you," she said, putting the compress down on the bowl and standing, holding her arms out. "Why don't you give them to me and—"
"Oh no, my lady," the girl said, blushing furiously. "I couldn't. If you'll let me, I'll change the sheets, perhaps with his help?" She looked at the guard, who sighed at being mentioned. He'd been playing cards on the table next to Lord Humphries' pallet.
Gwen considered whether she should succumb to her role and let them work around her. Then she shook her head.
"Nonsense," she said. "We'll all three do it together. Let's start with Merlin."
The maid curtsied again, and made her way over, the guard reluctantly shuffling over to join them.
"What's your name?" Gwen asked the maid, as the guard leaned over to lift Merlin off the bed. The girl smiled softly.
"Hemera, my lady. I'm new."
"I guessed that," Gwen replied, smiling in return. She took the cloths from Hemera's hands, and backed up as the maid expertly stripped the stained sheets from off the pallet. The guard shifted Merlin in his arms, looking like he wasn't even struggling with the weight—which showed just how much weight her friend had lost over the last few days. Already thin, Merlin really couldn’t afford to lose much more.
Gwen shifted the sheets in her arms, and suddenly frowned, looking down at them.
"Are these…are these silk?" she asked, looking at Hemera with curiosity.
The maid laughed, obviously pleased as she reached for the base sheet to put on the bed. Gwen handed her a corner, and the two of them shook it out.
"Not silk, no," the girl replied as they tucked the sheet over the pallet's straw mattress, "but I will tell my sisters that you said that."
"My sister, Clotho, is a weaver in our home town. She made these sheets, with the help of my other two sisters. They're quite renowned for their skill. She asked if I might bring some examples up here, for the steward to look at. He has ordered a few sets, but said I could use this set for Merlin and Lord Humphries."
Gwen smiled more brightly, pleased at the steward's usual thoughtfulness. "These are absolutely wonderful," she praised as they placed the top-sheet onto the pallet, tucked it in at the base, and then nodded to the guard to lay Merlin down.
"I will tell her so," Hemera promised as Merlin was settled in. She pulled the top sheet over him. "I hope they help to make Merlin and Lord Humphries more comfortable." As she spoke, she touched a finger to Merlin's cheek, and, curiously, Merlin's shaking seemed to lessen slightly.
"Looks like they already have," Gwen said, picking up the rest of the sheets and crossing to Lord Humphries' side. The guard sighed again heavily, but followed them and, with some reluctance, picked up the lord. This time, he struggled a little, grunting at the weight. Gwen gave him a sympathetic look as the maid quickly stripped the straw mattress.
"Have you been at the castle long?" Gwen asked the maid.
"Just a few days," Hemera replied. "I missed…everything that happened, by only a few hours." She frowned slightly as Gwen handed her a corner of the bottom sheet and they shook it out. "Was there…was there really a witch here?"
Gwen shook her head. "A dark one, yes. But the King dispatched her before she could do further damage." She finished tucking in the sheet on her side, and handed Hermera the top sheet. "Not that the damage she did do wasn't more than enough."
Hemera nodded. "Perhaps it will only be short lived," she said, looking out the window at the bright sunlit day. "The world does not like too much darkness. It also needs light. A balance in all things."
Gwen shrugged. "I hope you're right, Hemera." She stepped back and nodded to the guard, who put Lord Humphries back down on the bed. Like Merlin, the lord seemed calmer once placed on the fresh sheets. Hemera touched his arm lightly as she pulled the top sheet over him.
"That should do," she said, almost to herself. When she looked up at the Queen, she smiled brightly. "Thank you, your highness. Your help was most appreciated." She looked at the guard. "As was yours."
The guard shrugged, but Gwen saw the tiny smile on his face from being complimented by such a pretty girl.
"Of course. And I wish you luck here at Camelot," Gwen said. "I'm sure we'll be seeing you around."
The girl's smile deepened. "Every day," she promised. She curtsied again, and then backed up to the door. "If there is nothing else…?"
"Not at the moment," Gwen said.
"Thank you, my lady. It was lovely to finally meet you." She grinned then, and almost skipped out of the room. Gwen's eyebrows lifted slightly at the girl's good cheer, but found her own heart felt a little lighter than it had before.
"My lady," the guard said then, and Gwen turned around. She smiled suddenly at the sight of Lord Humphries' green eyes blinking muzzily up at her.
"Eric," she breathed, stepping forward, only to be stopped by the guard. Eric frowned slightly, looking between them. Then his eyes abruptly widened, and he tried to push himself up, only to immediately fall back.
"Merlin and Gaius?" he croaked, his voice rougher than sandpaper. "Are they all right? There was a sorceress—"
"Gaius is fine," Gwen soothed, silently ordering the guard to fetch the lord some water. "But Merlin is—"
"Really thirsty," Merlin whispered hoarsely from his own bed. "Is there any water?"
"Merlin!" Gwen called, grinning from ear to ear. Forgetting the lord, she was instantly by her friend's side, kneeling next to the cot and touching her hands to his sweating face. The fever had broken! Merlin squinted at her, but he gamely tried to match her smile with his own, despite badly chapped lips.
"Merlin," she repeated. "It's so good to see you!" She gripped his hand. "We've been so worried. You have no idea."
"I didn't know I'd gone anywhere," he croaked, still smiling. Then he frowned. "Did I?"
Gwen just bit her bottom lip, the word almost on the tip of her tongue, thinking how close they'd come to losing him forever. She rubbed her hand between hers and grinned again.
"But seriously," he whispered after a moment, "I know you're a mighty queen now, but I'd really love some water." He lifted his eyebrows in plea.
Gwen just laughed, and reached for the water next to the bed.
Arthur stood up as Lord Humphries entered the council room, the lord looking slightly less horrendous than he had done the day before. Upon reaching the dais, Humphries bowed before the king and then stood at rest, his hands behind his back, shoulders drooped and eyes on the ground. Slight tremors still wracked his frame, visible even from this distance. Horribly, it reminded Arthur of his father, after Morgana first tried to steal the throne.
"Merlin has corroborated everything that you described happened," Arthur told the young lord, trying to be gentle. "And I am sorry for all that's occurred, including not immediately trusting your fealty. Your lands and title are, of course, fully restored."
Lord Humphries grimaced slightly, but nodded. "Thank you, your majesty," he replied, his voice still rough from his illness. "That is very generous. I do not feel I deserve it, however. I should have suspected—"
"No," Arthur said, cutting him off. "I know a little about betrayal, as you know. This was her choice, not yours, and I believe her fate was purely of her own making."
Lord Humphries said nothing to that, just kept his head bowed.
"And I must thank you as well," Arthur continued. "If not for your intervention, it is likely that not only might both Merlin and Gaius have been killed, but many others as well. A sorceress and a notorious bandit will no longer be terrorizing the people of this kingdom. I only wish I had more I could give you, to alleviate the pain you must be feeling."
Lord Humphries closed his eyes. Slowly, he nodded. "Thank you, your majesty," he said again. "You are just and kind." He opened his eyes again, the shadows under them looking even deeper if possible.
Arthur frowned slightly.
Stepping down off the dais, he walked up to the young lord and rested a hand on his shoulder.
"I know," he said softly. "Believe me. The hurt and grief you feel right now, the way the betrayal stabs you like a knife, I know it well. But it will get better. There will be people who you can look to, friends and family who will always stand by you, and I want you to count on me as one of them." He gave Eric's shoulder a squeeze. "My word on that."
Eric sighed, and finally looked up, meeting his eyes, even if only for a moment. "Thank you, Sire," he said, actually sounding like he meant it this time. Arthur gave him a quick smile and dropped his hand.
"And I also know Merlin would say the same thing," he promised. "As well as my wife, and our court physician."
Eric actually gave a half smile at that. Then he shrugged. "Well, I sort of owed Merlin, didn't I?"
Arthur's brow furrowed slightly. "Owed him for what?"
Eric's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "You don't know? I would have thought he'd have told you, or my father might have."
Arthur shook his head. "No."
"He saved my life. A long time ago, now, when I was still just a kid."
It was Arthur's turn to lift his eyebrows. "He did?"
"I'm so surprised he never told you." Eric smiled as he spoke, "It happened when he was on his way here, to Camelot, for the first time, about, what, six, seven years ago? As you know, he had to travel through my father's…through our lands to get here from Ealdor. I was out hunting and got separated from my knights, but, being a cocky kid, I continued on my own, because I had seen a large boar I wanted to take home as a trophy. The nasty thing spooked my horse when I wasn't paying attention, and I was thrown. Broke my leg—"
"Wait, I remember this story…." Arthur said, tilting his head at the memory of hearing it from Eric's father at a court dinner one night. "You were about to get gored, when some peasant came out of nowhere, swinging a big stick like a sword and yelling nonsense, and attacked the boar."
"I still don't quite know how he got it to do so, but the boar panicked and took off. I don't remember a lot, because I had a bit of a knock to the head, but I recall him getting me on my horse and helping me get home."
Arthur's eyes were wide. "That was Merlin?" Actually, if he was being honest, it sounded a hell of a lot like him.
"For saving me, my father welcomed him to our table, offered him a position at the castle even, but Merlin turned it down, said he had promised his mother that he would go to Camelot, to work for his family." Eric shrugged. "Your court physician, Gaius."
"That's how you knew he was from Ealdor," Arthur said, realization coming to him with some shame. "And why you call him friend."
"He saved my life. Of course I consider him a friend. Though…" He bowed his head, the dark pallor returning to his face. "I know that I have abused that friendship, and it has cost him his position. When you mentioned he would no longer be serving you in the council, I knew it was my fault. I'm the one who has been boasting about having a way to get to you, through him. The other lords were only following my poor example, always looking for any vulnerability they can take advantage of." Crossing his arms tightly over his chest, Lord Humphries almost seemed to bow into himself. "I am truly sorry for the damage I have caused. I want to assure you, my lord, that it will not happen again. The shame I feel for that…for what Eleanor did…for everything…." He inhaled a shaky breath. "If I could only make up for that, I—"
"Stop." Arthur was frowning now. "You already have, Eric. There is nothing more to discuss."
Humphries gave a nod, but he still grimaced in clear pain.
"Eric," Arthur said, giving the name a slightly sharper edge to force the young lord to look up. When he did, Arthur gave him his sternest look. "Listen to me. If there is one thing I have learned from all this, it is that you can show strength not only in what you can destroy, but what you can protect. You fought unreservedly to protect Merlin and Gaius against terrible odds and nearly at the cost of your own life. It's that which shows me that you are the right man to rule your father's lands, and protect the border against King Lot. In fact…." He inclined his head. "Because of that, I've reversed my earlier decision and approved the additional military allotment that you requested, plus a little extra. I have no doubts any more of your fealty, or your courage, Lord Humphries. Everything that has happened, you have more than made up for it." He reached out and gripped the man's forearm tightly. "Thank you."
Humphries just stared at him for a moment, and then returned Arthur's grip on his forearm. "It was my honor, your majesty," he said, and he definitely meant it this time. Arthur found himself smiling.
"Are you hungry?" he asked, releasing Eric's arm. Eric let go as well. Arthur continued to smile. "Because I'm hungry, and since my temporary manservant is something of a miracle worker with food, I suggest we take advantage of it. What do you say?"
Eric's smile was slightly forced, but he nodded. "I'd like that, your majesty."
Arthur took it as a win. Now he just had one more bridge to mend.
Chapter 9: King of Hidden Depths (and Epilogue)
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Merlin sat very still in his own bed, trying not to jostle his arm too much, or think too much about everything that had happened. He and Gaius had come up with an explanation for the burning bucket he'd hit Camilla with, and the burning knife, explaining both away with some of the flammable oils and spirits Gaius had lying around on the work tables. Merlin had simply used what he had at hand, they'd told Arthur, to fight the monster. Both Arthur and Humphries had seemed to accept the story, which was a relief. Likely it was because there was far too many other things to worry about than how Merlin had managed to light Camilla on fire.
Not that he fully understood how he'd done that himself, but he wasn't about to question it.
Instead, he found himself turning over and over again in his mind what Lady Humphries had said in the forest. How he made Arthur vulnerable, and how that had almost resulted in Camelot's gold being stolen, and in Gaius, Lord Humphries and Arthur almost being killed. He'd been so arrogant to think it didn't matter what other people thought. Whether they were friends or not, Arthur was and always would be the king. And kings and servants could not be seen to be friends. Years ago, before Morgana became…Morgana, Arthur had warned him against showing affection for her, for fear of Uther's wrath. That he and Morgana couldn't even been seen to be friends, "much less anything else." And for the first time, Merlin truly understood why. Uther had been many, many things, but there was never any doubt that he had loved Arthur and Morgana deeply, and now viewed in that light….
"You're not reading?" Gaius asked, popping his head in the door, looking far too cheerful for Merlin's liking. He was holding a fairly heavy looking tome in his hand. "I thought you were going to help me figure out who Camilla was?"
Merlin frowned, blushing slightly as he looked at the stack of books next to his bed that Gaius had given him to look through. He'd cracked one, and then given up.
"What does it matter?" he asked, not really wanting an answer. "She's dead."
"We're not wholly certain of that," Gaius reminded him. "We have no body, or bodies for that matter. We have no idea where any of the thieves ended up."
Merlin shrugged, and instantly winced as pain radiated down his arm and into his chest. Gaius kindly said nothing about the stupid move, though he gave a sympathetic grimace.
"Anyway," the physician said, "it doesn't matter, because I think I found it."
Merlin's eyebrows lifted, interested despite himself. "Really?" He sat up a bit. "Where?"
"In one of the old Roman texts, in the back of the library. Did you know they had their own belief system of gods and goddesses, similar to that of the ancient Greeks?" He moved over to sit in the chair next to Merlin's bed, and opened the book for him. "When you were trying to repeat some of the words Camilla spoke, one of them sounded vaguely familiar to me. The word, or rather name, Hermes. " The illustration on the page Gaius showed him depicted a young man with wings on his heels and on his helmet, holding a staff that looked like intertwined snakes. Merlin frowned, recognizing the symbol – he'd seen it on a number of Gaius' books.
"What's that symbol?"
"The Caduceus. Today, we use it to as the symbol of medicine, but it originated with Hermes, who was the messenger of the Olympian gods."
"Hermes could also spirit people from place to place, including to the spirit world."
Merlin frowned, looking up from the picture. "The spirit world? As in—?"
"The other side of the veil, yes. Where the Dorocha came from."
Merlin gave an involuntary shudder at their name—he probably always would. Leaning forward a bit, he tried to recall exactly what Camilla had said when she used Hermes name. For all her other spells, she'd only needed a couple of words, but when she spoke of Hermes, it had been a full sentence. Almost like she was pleading for something.
"I think," Gaius said, "based on what you told me, she was begging Hermes to take the thieves away from here. And he did. Or something did."
Merlin huffed. "But…but Hermes isn't real. These are just myths."
Gaius grimaced. "Lamia was real, was she not?"
"Lamia was a monster in their mythology, Merlin. Their gods created her."
Merlin's brow furrowed, trying to understand that, swallowing hard. He flipped some more pages, seeing illustrations of other gods like Hermes, including some guy with a lightning bolt and a woman in a helmet with an owl on her shoulder. "You mean…you mean they…there are gods like these around? Actual gods?" All he could think was, how do you fight a god?
"I don't know. I don't like to think so. Otherwise, why would the empire have fallen? The Romans themselves had started to lose faith in this religion, I believe, by the time they breached our shores. We call it simply mythology now. Something for storybooks, not for belief. Still…." Gaius shook his head. "After what happened, I wonder how much of their mythology was born of the magic that was prevalent back then. We have no reason to believe that their magic wasn't strong enough to make people seem like gods, or to make monsters appear human, like Lamia. Camilla certainly was powerful."
"She called herself only a demi-god," Merlin remembered. "So I was right – she wasn't human."
"She may have been part-human. Demi-gods are pretty common in the stories in these books as well. Seems these gods got around a lot."
Merlin gave him a dry look, and flipped a few more pages. He stopped at the image on a young man wearing a lion-pelt, fighting something that looked like a large version of the Fomorrah. He frowned deeply, and flipped to another page, this one showing what looked like the griffin Lancelot had killed. His frown deepened.
"Do you think there are more out there like her?" Merlin asked, flipping to the next illustration.
Merlin let out a shaky breath. "Because I think she was more powerful than I was."
"We'll never know, I suppose. You did hold her magic at bay, remember. And…" He tilted his head, "You did fight her. And you did win."
"We all need help, Merlin. Even you. Weren't you just complaining a few days ago about Arthur thinking he could do everything on his own, and denying the value of your help and friendship? Well, you shouldn't deny his help and friendship either. We're all stronger together."
Merlin frowned again, not about to tell Gaius about what he'd been thinking when his mentor first came in. That some friendships made people weaker, not stronger. He flipped to another page, this one showing what looked like a castle set high on a mountain. He tapped the image.
"She said she was from Erebus. Is that in mentioned in this book?"
"Yes, and I think it explains a great deal about why you felt she had the same magic as the Dorocha." Gaius picked up the book and flipped to somewhere near the back. When he turned the book around, the illustration depicted a young man sleeping on a small island, while another sat by his side surveying the bleak landscape, looking almost protective. Two black rivers flowed around the island, and, in the background, gray shapes of mountains and citadels and lots of smoke.
"The isle of Erebus," Gaius said. "According to this book, it lies in the underworld. On one side of it is the river Styx, for the goddess of hate, and on the other, the river Lethe, for the goddess of forgetfulness. Those two figures are the gods Hypnos, god of sleep, and Thanatos, god of death. They're brothers. Erebos was their father, the primordial god of darkness."
Merlin just stared. Lethe. Hypnos. He'd heard her use both those names.
"So…that means…does that mean Camilla came from the spirit world?"
"Or she was someone whose magic originated from that side of the veil, like the Cailleach. It's why her magic made you feel so cold and so sick."
Merlin turned away, not wanting to look at the image anymore. Gaius, ever understanding, pulled the book onto his lap and closed it. The mentor smiled sadly.
"My problem," he said, "is that, even with this information, I don't know how we can use it." Gaius sighed slightly, patting the cover. "But perhaps, next time, we may be able to better understand what we're up against."
Merlin just shook his head. "Why is everything from the spirit world so evil?"
Gaius's eyebrows shot up. "It's not."
Merlin frowned. "But—"
"The spirit world has both beauty and despair, Merlin. Or have you forgotten who healed you after you were attacked by the Dorocha?" He looked down at the book in his lap. "You must remember that there is a balance to all things, Merlin. Erebos was the father of night, of darkness and of death, but he was also the father of day, of light and even love. You can't have one without the other. He was also the father of the three Fates, the three sisters who spin and weave our destinies."
"Of course," Merlin smiled wryly. "Destiny. How could you forget destiny."
Gaius quieted after that, and Merlin found himself fiddling with the corner of the blanket over his knees. His mind was tripping over the possibilities of yet another kind of magic he couldn't control. How was he ever going to—
A light knock at the door caused Merlin to look up, and Gaius as well. Gwen smiled brightly at them both.
"Hello," she said. "I'm sorry. I thought I might drop by, if Merlin were up to visitors. Am I interrupting?"
Gaius smiled, standing up with the book in his arms. "No, of course not," he said. "We're always glad to see you."
She smiled even more, and gave Merlin a nod. "You look much better than you did a couple of days ago."
Merlin smiled as wide as he could, happier now that she was here and he could stop talking about things he couldn't fix. "I'm feeling much better, thank you."
"Please sit, your majesty," Gaius said, moving away from the chair. "It's about time I went to check on Lord Humphries—he wants me to give him leave to head home."
"Thank you," Gwen said, sitting and taking Merlin's hand almost without thinking. But as Gaius turned to leave, she called his name.
"Wait. Gaius, I…I was wondering what happened to the sheets Hemera brought for Merlin and Lord Humphries. I noticed they were gone when I came by yesterday."
"Sheets?" Merlin asked. "I got new sheets?"
"Hemera?" Gaius asked instead, his brow furrowing. "You know of Hemera?"
Gwen blushed slightly. "I admit, I may not be amongst the servants as I used to be, but I should hope that you wouldn't think me so terrible as to not know the name of the one of the new maidservants." She smiled and looked at Merlin. "She brought you new sheets the day you awoke, that her sister made. I've been trying to locate her or them since."
"New sheets," Gaius repeated, and Merlin could hear the tension in his voice. "A new maidservant brought new sheets, named Hemera?"
Gwen frowned deeply. "Are you making fun of me? Yes, that's what I said."
"What was her sister's name?" Gaius asked, and Merlin could see the veins popping in his forehead. "Did she say?"
"Um…Began with a 'C' or a 'K' I believe?"
Gaius pulled the book closer. "Clotho?"
"That's it!" Gwen said, grinning. "Then you've met her? Hemera?" She looked towards the doorway. "It's funny, she said I'd likely see her every day, but I haven't seen her since. I rather wanted to see if I could get some of those sheets for my room."
Gaius just smiled tightly, and looked at Merlin. "Oh, she's around," he said, his voice squeaking slightly. "If you'll excuse me…." Turning, he walked out of the room, with Merlin's eyes on him the entire time. Merlin figured he'd find out later what that was all about, and, based on Gaius' reaction, it couldn't be good.
Gwen, though, simply frowned slightly at Gaius' retreat, shaking her head. "I don't understand him sometimes," she said. Turning her attention to Merlin, she smiled anew and squeezed his hand. "It really is good to see you well again, my friend. It's been far too quiet without you around."
Merlin blinked a few times, and tried a laugh. "George is rather spooky isn't he?"
"Spooky? He makes a prowling cat seem loud. I want to put a bell around his neck."
Merlin laughed, and Gwen tightened her grip on his hand. He squeezed back.
A few hours later, Arthur nodded at Gaius as he walked into the physician's chambers, and Gaius took the nod for what is was. A request to leave. Before he even reached the steps up to Merlin's room, Arthur heard the door to the main hall shutting softly behind him.
For a moment, he just stood there, reluctant to actually climb the steps. With some embarrassment, he realized how much he'd been putting this conversation off. He'd already come to confirm that Merlin was getting better and to further wish him well, which had gone as well as it could. There was an awkwardness, though, which he knew he couldn't blame Merlin for. If he hadn't banned Merlin from the council chambers, none of it would have happened. Merlin had a right to be mad. Except Merlin hadn't seemed angry—if anything, Merlin had seemed just as uncertain as he was. As if he too had to apologize for something, though for what, Arthur had no idea.
Either way, Arthur knew the time had come. Merlin would be well enough to return to work soon, and Arthur had to repair what he'd done, what he'd said to Merlin before…the day before Merlin had been kidnapped. That whole conversation. Running through it in his mind, he realized how foolish he had been to think the way he had. Well, he knew better now. And Merlin deserved his apology.
Even if he hated apologizing. His father had told him that he should never apologize—"royalty never apologizes, Arthur. Remember that." But then again, his father hadn't been right about everything. And, the way Arthur felt right now, he knew that the only way to make things right with Merlin was to admit he was wrong and say he was sorry.
Squaring his shoulders, he strode up the steps to the room and knocked on the door. Merlin was sitting on his bed, not reading the book on his lap, his gaze unfocused and staring vaguely towards the window. At Arthur's knock, he jumped a little, and clearly forced a smile, attempting to sit up straighter at the same time. It looked so pathetic, Arthur had to stop him with a wave.
"Don't be stupid. Sit back. I just…I wanted….I came to say hello. See how you were."
"Bored," Merlin admitted, smiling more brightly. "Any news?" he asked.
Arthur nodded. "We found the three caskets of gold you told us about, stashed up in that tree."
Merlin actually grinned. "It was still there?"
"Yeah, though, how they hell they got it up there, I have no idea. Even with a rope and tackle, the tree limbs were barely able to sustain the weight. But, we got them down again."
Merlin's smile tightened briefly, and Arthur could easily guess why. When Leon had been telling him about how difficult it was to get the gold down, the first thing he thought was that magic had been involved in getting it up there. Which meant that sorceress. Merlin had likely just made the same connection, remembering how that woman had almost killed him. Arthur sighed.
"Anyway," he said moving to stand over the chair next to the bed and gripping the back of it, "it means that nearly all the gold has been accounted for. A couple of pieces short, that's all. They may have escaped, but they didn't get anything that they came for."
Merlin's smile fell, and he gave a nod. "Good."
Arthur smiled lightly, and gripped the back of the chair a little more firmly.
Merlin watched him for a moment, and then looked down at the book on his lap.
"So…." Arthur began.
Merlin looked up again.
Arthur pursed his lips, finding his mind had gone blank. He was supposed to apologize, darn it. So, just get on with it, Arthur! But how to start? How does one usually start an apology?
"Arthur," Merlin said quietly. "I was…I wanted to say something."
Arthur waved a hand. He probably wanted to thank him again for saving his life. "No need," he said. "I would have done it for anyone."
Merlin's brow furrowed slightly. "No, I…what?"
"Saving your life. No need to thank me."
"Oh," Merlin said, nodding. "That."
Arthur frowned. "Oh, that?" he repeated incredulously. "I saved you from that sorceress, monster, whatever-she-was, and all I get is, 'oh, that?'"
"Oh, sorry, I meant to say—"
"She was going to kill you, Merlin."
"I know. And—"
"And if I hadn't come when I did, you'd be dead."
"Probably? Try definitely, Merlin. You were facing down a sorceress with a the equivalent of a butter knife! Is it really that hard to say thank you?"
"But you just said there was no need to—"
"I changed my mind."
Merlin started at him for a moment, and then sighed softly. He looked down at the book. "You're, right, I—"
"Wait, wait," Arthur pressed a hand to his head. "Stop." God damn it. He'd come here to apologize. Not for thanks. What was wrong with him? Why did he always find it so much easier to fight with Merlin than talk to him seriously? "Forget it. I…I don't want thanks. In fact, I should be thanking you. For warning us about her in the first place. And…and you also helped me kill her. I probably wouldn't have managed it without you. Thank you."
Merlin just blinked, brow furrowed in obvious confusion at the sudden about face. Arthur couldn't blame him. So much had happened in the last week that he wasn't sure what was going on in his own mind, much less have it make sense to others.
Shaking his head, Arthur moved around to the front of the chair and sat down heavily. Merlin eyed him curiously out of the corner of his eye. Finally, when Arthur found he still couldn't seem to get his mouth to work, Merlin sighed.
"Would you mind?" Merlin asked, his voice soft. "Gaius says I need to drink more water. Normally I'd call him to get it, but—"
"Of course not," Arthur said, already on his feet again, looking around the room. There, on the sideboard, a pitcher and a couple of cups. He quickly poured Merlin a cup and held it out.
Merlin lifted his good arm to take it, and the more it stretched, the harder it shook. Arthur felt even more like a heel. His friend had nearly died, was still weak, trying to heal, and the first thing he'd done was berate him? Moving closer to the bed, he handed the cup to Merlin so the other wouldn't have to reach so far, and frowned as Merlin drew it to his lips, took a small sip, and then put it down still almost full, resting it atop the book.
Arthur sat back down. Right. Do it now. Tell him you're sorry for being an ass, and ask his forgiveness. Just open your mouth, and say--
"I'm sorry, Arthur," Merlin said. Arthur blinked.
"I'm sorry. You were right. About everything. I've been trying…I wanted to say that I get it now. I really get it, and I'm so, so sorry. You don't need to worry about anyone thinking we're friends anymore, I'll--"
"Wait, wait, what? What are you talking about?"
Merlin frowned slightly at being interrupted.
"I'm talking about all of this," he said with more force, his voice shaking slightly. "About what almost happened, because of me."
"Because of you?"
"If we weren't friends, if I were just a servant…" Merlin turned his head away. "I'm sorry for it all."
Arthur just stared. Was he kidding?
"You're sorry for being my friend?"
"No, I…I'm sorry that, because we're friends, Camelot almost got robbed, you almost got killed, this whole thing—"
"I get it now, about how people can use me to get to you. You were right, Arthur." He sat up higher on the bed, gripping the cup tightly since his hands were shaking. "I am a liability."
"Now, hang on—"
"They used me to get to you, kidnapped me just to distract you, and it almost worked. You were right to say we can't be seen to be friends in public, and I was wrong."
Arthur shook his head. "No, you weren't."
"You weren't there, Arthur! Lady Humphries told me herself that, because they knew you'd come after me, it made Camelot vulnerable. I…I can't be responsible for that. You made the right decision pushing me to the background. And I plan to remain there, to be invisible like all the other servants, just as you want me to be."
"I think that someone else should attend you fully, for a time, until people forget about me. I would like to still be a servant in the castle, any position you think appropriate, but if you would like me to leave, I can. And I think that George would be a good replacement for—"
"Don't you even dare threaten me with George!"
"Someone else then," Merlin tried, the water in the cup started to slosh over the sides as his shaking increased. "But I can't be the reason you or this kingdom gets hurt. Or you. Or anyone else. I—"
He stopped talking when Arthur suddenly grabbed his hands, stilling them over the cup, stopping its sloshing.
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said softly. Gently, he pried Merlin's hands free of the cup and lifted it away. "And listen to me for once."
Merlin blinked, following the cup as if to avoid looking at Arthur, face burning and eyes wet.
"Not long after my father died," Arthur began, pouring some of the water out of the cup into the jug, and then handing the less full cup back to Merlin, "Gwen said something to me that, when I remember to do it…when I'm not afraid to do it…has served me far more good than ill. But when I don't do it, that's when I truly fail."
When Merlin frowned slightly, showing his uncertainty, Arthur smiled and explained.
"She told me to be true to my heart. That only then would I be the king I want to be."
"She told you to trust your heart," Merlin repeated softly.
"You've told me that a few times yourself, but, well, it sounded better from Gwen's lips."
Merlin gave a wry smile. "I imagine many things look better from Gwen's lips."
Arthur huffed a small laugh, and gestured to the cup. "Drink."
Merlin looked down at the cup, sighed, and then took a sip. It only shook a little this time. Arthur smiled again, and took the cup back.
"I am not a complete fool. I know that my heart is first and foremost what allowed me to be deceived. If I hadn't listened to my heart, I wouldn't have trusted Morgana. I wouldn't have trusted Agravaine. I brought the kingdom to the brink of ruin because I trusted the wrong people."
Merlin had no response to that, just nodded, his eyes dropping to his hands.
"But then my dearest friend," Arthur continued, his voice soft, "the one I should have been listening to all along, told me that, despite those mistakes, he still believed in me. He didn't try to change me, or convince me to do something I knew it my heart was wrong, like Agravaine did, he simply believed in me. And he showed me that my people believed in me as well, even though everything seemed lost. And the kingdom I thought was on the brink of ruin….was far stronger than I even knew.
"Trusting my heart brought me Guinevere. It also brought about peace with the kingdom of Caerleon for the first time in decades, something my father never managed. Most importantly, trusting my heart brought me the love of the knights and the people, something you showed me that day in the Forest of Essetir when I pulled Bruta's sword from the stone. On that day, because of you, I learned, more than anything, that the belief, the faith, my people have in me, and that I need to have in them, is where my true power lies. It's what helped me to defeat Morgana and Agravaine, because they will never be able to defeat that strength, no matter what they throw at us."
"But the lords—"
"The lords recognize that strength just as I do, the value of having the people's love, not just their respect and fear. I didn't know that clearly until they insisted on joining in the search for you. Each one of them stood in front of me and committed their men to my service, to find you." He smiled then, a tiny one accompanied by a shrug, looking at the cup in his hands. "Of course, that won't stop them from trying to ply me for favors, or seek ways to sway my decisions, but I do know for certain now that they believe in the kingdom I am building, and they want be a part of it. A kingdom built on the qualities of friendship and trust, not merely strength of arms."
Merlin smiled. "I'm glad." He looked down again. "But that doesn't wipe away the fact that someone else could use your friendship for me against you. You said I made you weaker, and after all this, I think—"
"Wow, you really are pushing the stupid cart today," Arthur snapped, his natural proclivity for exasperation shining through. "I am apologizing to you, you bird-brained clod-pole. I'm pouring my heart out here, telling you that I need your friendship, that it's made me a better king, that it's something I'm proud for people to know, and you're still trying to tell me I'm wrong?"
"Um…." Merlin tilted his head slightly, brow furrowing. "Wait….Better king, did you say?"
"I'm not dignifying that. You're an idiot. I'm taking it all back." But his lips were quirking into a smile.
Merlin looked up a second, as if replaying Arthur's words in his head, then he started to smile. "Wait, wait…what was that bit about, the friend you should have been listening to all along? Can you say that bit again?"
"Oh, shut up."
Merlin had started to smile, but at Arthur's last snap, he grinned.
Arthur, despite himself, found himself smiling in return, if a bit ruefully. He shrugged.
"So what do you say?" he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Willing to come back?"
For Merlin, the whole conversation had been something of a whirligig, difficult to follow, and all wibbly wobbly. Arthur had come in all bombastic, as he often did, demanding thanks, and then, suddenly, as he was wont to do, turning into the amazing man and friend Merlin had come to admire so much, and then, just as suddenly, everything was right between them again.
"So what do you say?" Arthur asked him. "Willing to come back?"
Merlin looked down at his hands, trying to wrap his brain around the question. He had no idea what to say. So he said the first other thing that came to his head.
"Does that mean you can promise me I won't get kidnapped again?"
Arthur actually laughed at that, shaking his head. "No," he said, chuckling. "But…" His smile fell, his eyes growing hard. "I can promise that I'll always come after you. And I will bring the full wrath of Camelot down on anyone who tries."
Merlin's smile faded somewhat under the weight of that promise. Not trusting his voice, he just nodded.
"Good," Arthur said, taking the nod for the agreement it was. "So you rest up." He stood. "A wound like that will likely keep you bedridden for a few more days, but I expect you back to light work within a week, helping me with my schedule and speeches, and back to full duties as soon as Gaius says you can. Is that acceptable?"
"Yes, everything," Arthur said, smirking slightly. "Ugly hats and all. Still willing?"
"I…uh…yeah," Merlin said, still feeling incredibly shaky, but happier than he had felt in a long, long time. "Yes."
"Good. I'll be by to visit on the morrow."
Merlin nodded again, and Arthur stood.
"Oh, and one more thing," he said, handing the cup back to Merlin, "I thought you might like to know that I have increased the military contingency for Lord Humphries' lands. I thought, in a few weeks, once you can ride a horse again, you and I could head out there to see how he's applying the funds."
Merlin grinned. "He's a good man, you know."
"I know." Arthur frowned. "Drink some more, and then I'll leave."
Almost reluctantly, Merlin finished the cup. Arthur took it from him and placed it to the side.
"You know," Merlin said, a little tentatively, "Gaius has a chess board. If you get some time this evening, if you're not too tired…."
Arthur smiled. "I'll see what I can do. Though, I warn you, you're likely to get thrashed."
Merlin chuckled. "Oh, I don't know. I've seen you play before. I'm pretty sure I can take you."
"Really? You do recall that I'm the king of an actual army, and have been training in military strategy since I was a child."
"Oh, I don't know. I may have some tricks up my sleeve that you haven't seen yet."
"You, Merlin?" Arthur laughed as he walked to the door."Please. I doubt you have any tricks that I haven't seen. You're as predictable as George is efficient." He shook his head. "But, who knows," he said, leaning against the doorframe and looking at Merlin one last time. "Maybe there are some hidden depths in there that I don't know about."
Merlin held his smile as Arthur gave a wave and bounced down the steps, leaving him alone. But as soon as he was alone, his smile fell, gloom pressing into his shoulders and causing him to slide back down onto the bed.
"Hidden depths," Merlin repeated sadly. "I'm the King of Hidden Depths, Arthur. I just wish I could tell you about them."
EPILOGUE: KINGS OF THE NEW WORLD…
Aaron sat on the beach, staring out at the sun rising over the ocean and once again wondered just exactly how he and the others had ended up here. Wherever "here" was. The very fact that the ocean was on the wrong side was extremely disconcerting.
It had been almost a week since they'd all been magicked out of Camelot and dumped here, on this long strip of white beach edged by more trees than Aaron had ever seen in his life. A lot of which he didn't recognize. Same with the fruits and berries – nothing was right. Even the birds were wrong, brightly colored and big, like something out of a fairy tale or hallucination.
Wherever here was, it wasn't home. It wasn't even close to home.
They'd done their best, the small band that had survived. There were only about eight of them, plus about six corpses (including Malcon's, which had torn them all up for a long while) and, after about a day of complete disorientation, they were forced to think about setting up some sort of shelter before the hot sun beating down did any more damage. They built rafts for the dead, and set them out onto the ocean to burn, then started building lean-to's and looked for food.
The small amount of exploring they had done had found no roads or ways, other than animal trails, and no other people. Someone thought they had seen what looked like a footprint in the sand, but it could just as easily have been some strange animal they hadn't met yet.
And after a week, it was beginning to look a lot like they were stranded somewhere very, very far away from any sort of civilization…or people. Which pretty much rotted, because Aaron did not like the people he'd been stranded with that much. Jason was a good sort, probably his only real friend, but everyone else? Not so much.
He supposed Camilla had done this, somehow. But why here? Why some deserted, hot beach in the middle of nowhere?
He looked up as Jason settled down on the beach next to him, the younger man giving him a quick grin.
"Saw some huge deer like creature today. Figure, it's got to be good eating. And, yesterday, Hal saw a big, shaggy cow covered in black hair and a massive, flat head." He opened his arms wide to demonstrate.
Aaron smiled lightly. "We should start trying to think of a way to preserve meat, in case there's a winter."
"You really think we're going to survive that long?" He said it so cheerfully, that Aaron almost thought he wasn't serious. Except he was. Jason was always serious—he just always managed to be serious with an extremely positive attitude.
"I don't know," Aaron said, shaking his head ruefully. "I really don't know how long we can survive here, but we need to try."
"I might have an idea how long," Jason said, still smiling happily. "I think our chances of survival are really pretty slim, though you never know. Stranger things have happened."
"Come now, they're better than slim. We've made it through hard winters before and—"
"Oh, I'm thinking we may have less time than that. Maybe even just minutes." Jason shrugged. "It sort of depends on you, though."
Aaron frowned, not understanding. "What? What are you talking about?"
"Let's just say, I might know something you don't. But you will know what I know if you turn around. Though, um…perhaps you should do so slowly." Jason grinned, and leaned forward on his knees, gazing at the sunrise. "No sudden moves. And try to look friendly, will you?"
Aaron stared at him for a moment, and then turned around very, very slowly.
The other six survivors were on their knees on the beach, facing him, hands on their heads. Surrounding them tightly was a semi-circle of bronzed skin men and women, all holding deadly arrows pointed at their backs. Feathers adorned their hairs, painted tattoos colored their faces, and they all wore neatly woven deer pelts. Not a single one smiled.
"I told them you were our leader," Jason whispered. "Do a good job, will you?"
Aaron just continued to stare.
"Do better than that," Jason said.
Aaron blinked. And smiled weakly.
"If we ever find Camilla in the underworld," he whispered tightly to Jason as he stood up to face these strange looking people, raising a hand in hello, "I'm going to kill her all over again."
Thank you all for reading! Hope you liked the story!
For those who are curious about what I did with Camilla, she was indeed a demi-god…of sorts. More like someone who is descended from a demi-god, and figured out how to tap into that power.
When I was playing with the idea of what Camilla could do, I had this image in my head of her invoking the powers of the spirit-gods of Erebus. So, each time she touches someone, she invokes the spirit's name whose power she wants to use. But, she can only ask for help from the family tree from which she is descended, and I sort of imagined her as being the great, great, great, etc., granddaughter of Styx, the goddess of hate (and also the keeper of the river in which Achilles was famously dipped), who, at least in some theogony, is the daughter ofErebos (primordial god of darkness) and Nyx (primordial goddess of night). She is thus related to Hypnos (or Somnus), god of sleep; Lethe, goddess of forgetfulness; Oizys, goddess of misery, woe and suffering (poor Eric—Camilla intended to condemn him to a nightmare-filled coma for the rest of his life); and Ker, spirit of violent death (Camilla really hated Eleanor; the Keres were particularly horrible creatures). Erebos and Nyx, though, were also the parents of Hemera, primordial goddess of the day (Yes, she was the maidservant), and the Fates, who were not about to let some half-human, black sheep of the family screw up destiny (Clotho, or Klotho, is the spinner, while the other sisters weave and cut—hence, the sheets). Put it this way, no one messes with destiny, not even the gods—I'm pretty sure Clotho was behind Hemera's appearance. Anyway, I obviously blended together a couple different versions of the mythology for this story, tapping into the Theoi Project, Wikipedia and Edith Hamilton, but, like all things Merlin, put my own spin on it.
As for Camilla's spell-casting, it's modern day Greek since I have no clue on where to find Ancient Greek on the net, much less translate it into something plausible. I attempted to use phonetic spelling—somewhat poorly, I imagine. In every case, she's simply stating "I invoke…" before the name of the god/spirit she's calling on. But Hermes is not a member of her family, he's a very distant relation, so when she calls on him, she's really asking a favor, invoking him and asking him to please (παρακαλώ or, phonetically, parakaló) transport the men to safety. She does that for Malcon, knowing he would have wanted his men to be safe.