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Mutual Understandings

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[One Day After the End of "Trial"]

Optimism warmed Nemeth’s capital on that partially overcast morning. A slight breeze puffed over the rooftops and ruffled the citizens’ hair. The town and surrounding manors buzzed with activity. People regarded each other with a pleasant air. The knights trained in the palace’s courtyard. Governance went on as usual within the citadel itself.

And in the gardens, some understandings took root as well…..

 

****

 

As was her habit to do between council meetings, Mithian retreated to the palace gardens on that morning. Anxiety unsteadied her gait along the familiar cobble-lined paths over the latest border reports with Cawdor and the Southrons. Disgust grated on her sensibilities concerning the advisors’ views on peasant affairs in the countryside. Impatience weighed down on her like a lead weight.

Her heart kept tugging her back to the east…back in the direction of Camelot….

…back toward Merlin….

We had our visits! We saved him! We still have business back here! her brain implored.

So? We still do our business! We needed to be at the council meeting. We were there. Lords Aethelwald and Edwin were intolerable! her heart snapped back. A bit of numb warmth caressed it suddenly. Too bad Merlin wasn’t exiled.

What? You’re mad! You really think Father would have just let him come here? You are so *transparent*. We have duty! So does Merlin! Patience. We need balance, her brain pointed out. It can happen, all right? We just need to be able to handle all things.

Her heart pouted akin to a child wanting his or her favorite treat right then and there.

I have to at least keep up the act. She sniffed deeply of the lilacs and lavender near the garden’s center. The scents relaxed her mind. They eased her mood. It’s not like Britomart and Father don’t know. We just have to wait for the right time. Meantime I can serve my people whether here or in Camelot. Merlin is safe and well thanks to our intervention. Still I wonder what the bloody fuss was about? Arthur needs to be more mindful it would seem! As if Merlin was really a traitor? A rude snort escaped her lips at that thought.

“Something amuses you, my Daughter?”

She stiffened. Instinct pulled her into a rapid turn and curtsey before her King. “Forgive me, Father. I was deep in thought.”

“Yes I imagine you were.” Rodor smiled. “You seemed inspired in our meeting this morning. I liked the suggestion for the tavern in Gedref. Your concern for our subjects has been missed the last few days. It is quite refreshing.”

“Thank you. That’s kind of you to say,” she accepted graciously. “I just seek to make you proud of me.”

“I’m always proud of you, Mithian. Never doubt that. I wondered if you’d be distracted by your other situation. I am glad you have been able to conduct yourself as we had discussed before your last visit to Camelot,” he assured her. “Still….” He coughed into his hand.

“Still what, Sire?” Her heart froze for a beat’s span in her chest.

“We should tread carefully especially when trying to soothe feelings and establish diplomatic connections. Storming the gate of Camelot under most circumstances is not advisable. Sirs Ywain and Galahad reported that you tried civility first and that Restraint ruled your thinking. Thankfully no one was injured or worse. Under the circumstances, it was understandable. Your actions prevented a grave miscarriage of justice.” He smiled at her.

She nodded. “At least we were able to deal with the magical forgery. Arthur still didn’t understand how Agravaine used magic right under his nose. Certainly he should be more mindful of matters around his court.” Then again Merlin might be doing the same. Be careful what you wish for, Mithian!

“Indeed. And to think I almost insisted that you leave the necklace here this time,” he admitted. “I’m glad I didn’t.”

She bit her lip. For a breath or two, she could almost imagine Merlin swinging at the end of a noose. Pain’s burning dagger stabbed through her heart. Her face turned white. “I’m glad too. Without that, we would have had no proof with which to convince Arthur of Merlin’s innocence.” She trembled. “Pardon me. I…”

“Your reaction is understandable given your feelings for him. Sir Galahad spoke at length with me about your sentiments in front of the court. You maintained your dignity. I am especially proud of your attitude toward Arthur Pendragon. You are growing as a Princess, diplomat and a woman.” His eyes sparkled at her. “It seems Merlin has quite the effect on you.”

“He does. My mind, as always, is on Nemeth’s needs and our subjects. Still Merlin inspires, Father.” In spite of herself, she allowed a heartfelt sigh more befitting a love struck girl than a Princess. “It doesn’t matter how much they put him through. He just does his duty. He’s always there when needed. He’s so humble about it too. I told him that he should have more faith in himself. He didn’t even know he’s worthy of being raised up.”

“Mithian, remember. He still needs one more deed for us to consider him,” he reminded her.

“For us, Father. I spent time with Sir Geoffrey of Monmouth as you recommended. Merlin received his position by saving Arthur’s life years ago. Then there was the return of Mother’s necklace, saving me and preserving the peace. Sir Gawain reported how Merlin fought along with Arthur and the knights to turn back Morgana’s undead army last year.” She shook her head. “I suspect there are more deeds than that. And of course, Merlin will never take credit for them.”

Rodor scratched his chin. He knew well of Mithian’s almost obsessive focus when she’d made up her mind on something. “And you haven’t said anything to Arthur yet?”

“I want more proof before I take the matter to him. I want an ironclad case.” She sniffed. “He should allow me the same grace that we have given him. We only follow his precedent.” She decided not to say anything about Arthur’s promise to help in bringing things to a positive outcome. Father would be more indignant over that.

“I am glad you remain levelheaded in this matter. You are our ambassador. As such, the matters of both kingdoms are your primary focus. It sounds like Merlin has already done enough to merit the status within Camelot. I hope he shall have the opportunity soon to help us once more. Then I can extend him the offer and welcome. Then we can go to Arthur,” he declared.

“As always, I remember my priorities, Father. Thank you for your support once again.” She grinned and embraced him. “I love you.”

“And I you always,” he concurred returning the gesture. “Now shall we eat something before we hear the cases?”

She nodded. “I’d like that. Thank you.”

“Then come. Michael has prepared our meal. It waits in the main hall,” he bade.

Perhaps she was walking with him. Still her heart soared above the clouds. It darted and wove up high on clouds of Faerie dust.

Hope, it seemed, prepared a banquet of its own for her and Her Warlock. Now if only he’d partake of it….

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 [Southron/Camelot Border]

Almost in contrast to Mithian’s time in her paradise, Helios stormed about on the promontory’s edge. After months of preparation, making detailed notes and drilling his followers, he stood ready for his army’s march. Belying the peaceful sylvan environs surrounding them, he and his army clamored through the widest open meadow toward the Wearmouth Pass and the road to Camelot beyond.

Ah yes, his army….

His dark eyes gazed down in consideration of his followers. Thousands strong, their numbers covered the expanse beneath himself. Lined up in rows hundreds long and perhaps fifty deep, the men there stood perfectly still awaiting his next command. He smiled wickedly knowing how they’d follow his every command to the letter. Battering rams and other war machines loomed behind the soldiers. He understood the need for speed and maneuvers. Perhaps Morgana would’ve preferred to wait two days.

After that emerald clad rider had ridden back toward the north, there was little choice…..

I won’t have one little snitch ruining our preparations. We will be within Camelot’s boundaries soon. Two more days, we will lay siege to that rock pile. I pray Morgana remembers her promises. He frowned.

“Ever the impatient one aren’t you?” Morgana supposed. Her eyes sparked at him. The breeze billowed her hooded cloak.

“We had a complication, Milady.” He turned to consider her. “I trust you received my message?”

“I did indeed.” Her eyes narrowed. “Complication? Helios, I won’t lose the throne again because of complications! We prepared! Speak candidly then! What complication?”

“An emerald rider spied our preparations and rode to the northwest. I fear Camelot’s allies will soon know our measure before we spring our trap,” he reported. “I wish to be encamped before Camelot’s walls ere any can interfere.”

She nodded. “He rides for Nemeth.” A smirk and a sarcastic cough escaped her lips. “He would’ve been better suited to tell Arthur directly. Not that it will matter in the end. Rodor has little he can offer in support to Camelot. As for my dear brother, his nobles and knights do not trust him as they might. After all if he can turn on his loyal lapdog, he could do it to any of them. Now could he not?” She shrugged. “It will be of little consequence.”

“I will share your confidence when we choke off the Pendragon supply lines,” he told her.

“Patience, Helios. It will happen.” She nodded almost serenely. Even after the crises of the past, Arthur had left the southern passage almost completely unguarded. With a few choice spells, she’d wrapped the few sentries’ eyes in Illusion’s and Deceit’s respective cloaks. She’d insured they’d not interfere. She’d opened the way.

Now it was for them to march through it.

He considered how peaceful she seemed. He knew better though. Much like a vengeful snake, she lay in the grass and weeds sizing up her opponent. She allowed Arthur to relax and lower his guard. When she would be ready, she’d strike and not a minute sooner. “Is there something I don’t know?”

She shrugged. “Perhaps.” She wasn’t about to tell him that she’d been in contact with Cawdor to the north. “In the meantime, we have an offensive here, do we not?”

“Indeed. Remember, Lady, our agreement. You would tell me if there was something else to our plan?” he queried pointedly.

“Why, Helios! Such little faith!” she protested almost melodramatically. She shook her head at him. “The sooner we’re there, the sooner we achieve our ends.” She stalked back toward her waiting horse.

That woman will be the death of us all yet. Despite her assurances, he knew something else was going on. Still he was too far into the campaign to stop now. He stared down at the assembled mass below. He put a wooden horn to his lips and blew three strong notes.

On cue, the lines of men stirred. They marched in formation up the way toward Camelot.

And so it begins! Helios mused before heading for his own horse.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3
[Clearing—Fifteen Leagues from Whitgate]

Gwen leaned up against a rather sizable oak tree. She tried to ease Tension’s load across her shoulders. Her eyes pondered the clouds overhead. On the one hand, she enjoyed the serene blue buoying up the puffs of white. She noted Sol seeming almost to tease her with a game of hide and seek amidst the forming overcast. On the other hand, however, she dreaded the approaching dark clouds in the distance. She felt the slight chill worming its way through the warmth in that place.

Clearly it was all a sign.

Everything could be so peaceful. And yet there’s always a crisis threatening things for us. Why can’t it be? She sulked. She could see herself being out in the woods permanently. As long as she had enough berries, a suitable shelter and maybe a stream to fish from, she could make it. She might be able to deal with it….

…except that Arthur wasn’t there to share it with her….

Responsibility, Duty and Amor sang to her in an undeniable chorus beckoning her toward the future.

Despite the barriers between them, she knew she’d never be content in that place. Exile weighed on her. Jealousy gnawed at her. Lament saddened her. Can’t Arthur see what’s going on? He trusts Agravaine? And what about that wench? He’d marry to play the game! This almost seems like a game Morgana might play. Her eyes narrowed feeling so sick and tired of the political games. She wanted to barge through the red tape. She just wanted to open her eyes and be next to her Prince again. She’d deal with his snoring. She’d put up with George’s ranting about silver. She’d look forward to Merlin’s work ethic and good natured attitude.

Merlin….

She sighed. At least Merlin stands with Arthur. He’ll keep him on the right road if anyone can. Her thoughts alighted on the loyal servant. He’ll protect Arthur no matter what. You know that! Even if I have neglected him as a friend! She frowned thinking how close they’d been when he first arrived in Camelot. She recalled how they’d all been such close friends….

…that is until the world separated them forcing them into roles against each other…

I’ve neglected him. I focused so much on Arthur and the court. Like everyone else, I took Merlin for granted. I’ve been treating him like a piece of furniture. I know he doesn’t mean it but how can Arthur call him an idiot like that? Yes he is clumsy sometimes. Merlin can make mistakes. Doesn’t everyone? He deserves better. Gwen nodded grimly. Yes he does.

The dirt path winding through the grass and disappearing amidst the distant trees offered her still more insight. Anticipation and Wonder had already taken her down that way repeatedly over the ride from Blancheflor’s village. I wonder what we’ll find in Whitgate? I hope King Rodor’s as good as his reputation.

“Are you still melancholy?” Blancheflor asked. Concern narrowed her eyes and prompted a frown from her.

“I’m sorry, Blancheflor. I should be in better spirits for your benefit if nothing else,” Gwen apologized. She rubbed the back of her neck. She stood gradually allowing her knees and back to ease into the position. “We’re finding allies for Camelot. I know that’s all we can do. Still….” She trembled. “I worry.”

“I know.” Blancheflor rubbed the other woman’s arm. “I may seem calm and collected. Still I fear for Percival. He is as strong as an ox and a fine warrior. I trust his instincts. Still he is but a man. He can be wounded. He could die in battle. He would die to protect Arthur.”

Gwen smiled. “Sir Percival is loyal and strong indeed! Even if I haven’t known him that long, I do see that.”

Pride warmed Blancheflor’s heart. She allowed a heartfelt sigh to escape her lips. “He is that. Since he stumbled out of the woods into our village, he has been nothing but.”

Gwen glanced at her companion. Her eyebrow quirked. A question formed behind it. She could sense the other woman hinting at her knight’s background. She’d wondered why Percival had never spoken of his past. She’d asked of course but received only the curtest and briefest of answers from him. “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to him?”

Blancheflor stuck a few more sticks on the fire. Her mind weighed what and how much to tell her companion. She knew Percival would rather keep the past in the past. Aren’t secrets the reason we’re all here in the first place? She coughed. “He came to us as a boy. Apparently his mother died rather suddenly in that hovel where they’d lived deep in the woods. He survived almost a year on his own by his wits alone. Still it took its toll. By the time he stumbled into our village, he was more animal than boy. He was so traumatized. He barely spoke or responded to anyone. He was so suspicious of everyone.” She sighed feeling her beloved’s pain once more. “I just offered him a friendship. It made the difference, I guess. We spent time in Father’s grain room just reading or walking in the meadow west of the village. Slowly he learned to deal with things. By Harvest, he worked in the fields with the workers. Granted he didn’t talk much to the others. He wanted to contribute. He wanted to help.” She smiled. Tears brimmed in her eyes. “All he asked for was to have lunch with me every day.”

“And you did?” Gwen supposed. Hope warmed her heart upon hearing the other’s account.

“Despite Father’s arguments, I went to the fields every day without fail. Percival’s eyes would brighten. We’d just talk and eat together. He’d never try anything else or do anything to shame me. We’d just smell a flower or admire the grass billowing in the breeze. He loves simple things. Eventually Father invited him to dinner. He took Percival as his ward and trained him as a knight. Still Percival insisted on helping in the fields and in battle. Percival heeds Duty’s call head on. He paid attention to me as well. That is until the day Sir Lancelot rode into our village seeking aid for Camelot much as we are now.” Blancheflor sighed heavily.

Lancelot. Why does he haunt us? He was a good man. He doesn’t deserve to be the harbinger of doom. Gwen bowed her head. “And that’s when Percival rode off with him?”

“Aye. He promised to come right back. I told Percival to attend to business. When he returned, I wanted to be with him. I wanted our life together.” Blancheflor shook his head. “Camelot demands much of its knights as you know. A campaign turned into a brotherhood…a battle into the ongoing war for Albion and against that witch, Morgana. Percival has written to me whenever a rider offered to take a message. I pray every night for his safety and welfare, Gwen. This war could destroy us all. Arthur won’t offer a leave to him.”

Gwen stiffened. “All Percival has to do is ask. Blancheflor, your village is but a long day’s ride from Camelot! Arthur would gladly grant him that. If you want to visit, all you have to do is send word. Arthur would welcome you with honors.”

Blancheflor shrugged. Disbelief dampened Gwen’s glad message in her ears. “I miss him. He misses me. Still I don’t wish to intrude.”

“What? Most certainly not!” Gwen argued. “As Percival’s companion, you’d be accorded a place at Arthur’s high table! Arthur doesn’t care who someone is, their status or where they’re from. He judges them on their merit. You are a valued friend and would be treated accordingly. Please!”

Blancheflor coughed. “Even after he exiled you, you still defend him. He doubted you despite the witch’s scheme. He moved on. And still…still…you think that way?” She frowned knowing that she wasn’t going to get anywhere with Gwen in that light. “Pardon me. I am most grateful for how he treats Percival. Still I would have words with him for how he treats you, Gwen.”

“I wasn’t faithful,” Gwen reminded her pointedly. She stiffened once more. Her resolve rose like a giant tidal wave preparing to defend her King no matter what.

“You were lured into that! Surely Arthur can see that?” Blancheflor insisted. Then she relented, “Maybe he will see one day. Perhaps you might ask King Rodor and Princess Mithian for their counsel? They are fair in their outlook if not a bit unconventional at times. She is also a friend of mine.”

Gwen admittedly perked up at those last words. She wanted to shift the conversation away from Arthur. She knew about Nemeth in bits and pieces. She’d heard a little bit about Rodor but hadn’t heard hardly anything about his daughter. “And this Princess? What is she like?”

“Princess Mithian isn’t conventional if that’s what you mean. Much as you describe Arthur, she believes in the equality of all people. She isn’t stuck on social class or gender roles. She definitely isn’t one to sit in the background, weave tapestries or embroider! I believe that’s why she’s still unmarried. No nobleman wants the “Prince in Petticoats” as one such prat branded her. She rolled her eyes. “She actually sits at her father’s council table. He looks to her for advice even in granting justice. Since her mother’s death, the Princess is more the Queen than anything else. She might offer you some perspective.”

Gwen nodded. She glanced toward the sky to see Sol just short of his zenith overhead. “Perhaps we should ride on then?”

“We’d make Whitgate in a few hours. Perhaps we might find suitable lodgings afterwards?” Seeing Gwen’s reluctance to put her out further in her eyes, Blancheflor insisted, “You are my guest. We shall do what we can for Camelot. Now we have a bit of road ahead?”

“We do indeed,” Gwen conceded. She got back on her horse and followed the other down the road.

 

****

 

[Two Hours Later—Whitgate]

Anticipation lent to the companions’ pace. Their horses’ hooves seemed to barely stir the dirt underfoot. The trees around them blurred by. The distance seemed to melt away. In what seemed like a breath’s time but was in reality much longer of course, they clomped over Whitgate’s drawbridge. They wound their way through the lower town and up the cobbles toward the upper town. They didn’t stop or look around until they’d reached the citadel.

Blancheflor pulled up on the reins. “Whoa!” She put her hand up to signal that intent to Gwen. “And here we are! This is King Rodor’s citadel.”

Gwen slowed and then stopped her horse. She dismounted allowing her eyes to canvass and survey their surroundings. She could see the more ornate stone, granite and cobbled surfaces around them. She noted the inner wall dividing that part of the city from the mostly wooden and daub structures below. Another partition. Is it really any different or are they the same as everyone else?

A muscular knight approached them. His piercing olive eyes looked the two women over in front of himself. After a heartbeat, he remembered, “Lady Blancheflor? It has been too long.”

“It has, Sir Rodrigo.” Blancheflor nodded to him kindly. “I have urgent business with King Rodor and Princess Mithian. I did not have time to send word. A crisis brews to our east.”

“Another? Princess Mithian is but newly returned from Camelot. It seems she spends more time on the road than here. I wonder what that King knows what goes on in his own court?” Rodrigo shook his head. “And who is your companion?”

Gwen stifled her desired retort to the guard’s query. “I am Guinevere, a refugee of sorts. I accompany the Lady Blancheflor.” Her mind spun trying to digest Rodrigo’s observation. Is this Princess connected to Camelot somehow? Why would she be in Camelot and not her father? Arthur never mentioned her.

Blancheflor likewise cut off her own opinion knowing that Gwen had her fill of that on the road. “Guinevere and I desire a place to rest and perhaps a recommendation for a good meal? As you said, it’s been too long since we’ve been here, Sir Rodrigo.”

“What? Princess Mithian would not hear of you or your friend staying anywhere but here, Good Lady!” Rodrigo insisted. “Sir Barnabas, please watch the door. I need to show the ladies in.” He turned to Blancheflor once again. “Follow me to the stables. Then I’ll lead you to the throne room.”

“Thank you, Sir Rodrigo,” Blancheflor accepted with a curtsey and another smile.

Gwen looked about again. For some reason, Trepidation and Anxiety suddenly bit at her heart. What are they going to be like? Will they accept me? She bit her lip and followed the others toward the stables.

All she could do was hope for the best…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 [Throne Room—Twenty Minutes Later]

Rodor leaned back on his throne. His eyes had peered deeply into his subjects’ eyes ferreting out the motives behind their words. He’d looked to his councilors and then to Mithian to get their observations. Then he’d render justice in each case attempting to meet all needs fairly and equitably.

“I wish they’d learn to mend their own fences,” Mithian sighed after the gallery had departed. She rubbed her forehead.

“They seek to curry favor for their agendas, Mithian. It will always be that way,” he observed. “Guiding those agendas is an essential part of royal governance. Much as I’m sure you’ve seen in Camelot?”

She nodded. Even if Arthur takes everyone at face value? Somehow she maintained a poker face. “Agendas can have their hidden nooks and crannies, Sire.”

“Indeed they can.” He looked at her. “We all have such things to consider. You do as well.”

She squirmed knowing he was referring to her feelings for Merlin. “I try to maintain balance between our duty to Nemeth and the Greater Good and my desires too. I would not start another Trojan War for Merlin’s sake. I understand the conditions. I try to meet them.”

“And you are doing superbly, my Daughter,” he praised. Just then a knocking came from the door. “What could it be? ENTER!”

Sir Rodrigo slipped into the chamber. He bowed to them. “Sire, Princess, there are riders from Riversmore! Lady Blancheflor and a companion seek an audience.”

She looked to him. “Sire, it must be important for her to ride here unannounced. Surely we can hear her?”

“Of course,” he assured her. “Sir Rodrigo, show them in at once.”

“As you wish, my King.” Rodrigo bowed again before departing.

“I wonder what would be troubling Blancheflor to ride here now?” Mithian questioned aloud. “It has been two years since her last visit.”

“I gather we shall find out,” Rodor noted as they awaited the guests’ entrance.

Rodrigo opened the door again. He allowed Blancheflor and Gwen into the hall. “As you have commanded, my liege and lady.” He bowed again before closing the door and insuring their privacy once again.

“Lady Blancheflor! Welcome once again to our court!” Rodor greeted. “How are matters in the north?”

Blancheflor curtseyed before the King and Princess. “Your greetings are much appreciated. Truly it has been too long since I’ve been here. Forgive my long absence.” She cleared her throat and glanced at Gwen before starting her report. “Sire, Riversmore prospers. My reeve oversees our harvest. In addition there’s no activity from Cawdor. Still there are reports about activity from the south. I fear the Southrons are on the move. Helios has amassed an army and marches north.”

“Helios?” Mithian queried. She glanced at her father. “Have you heard of him?”

“No. More notably, the Southrons seem more of a group of rabble rather than having any organization. For this Helios to have organized them as such, he must be a considerable leader indeed. Is there any news of their intentions, Lady Blancheflor?” Rodor supposed.

“According to my companion, they march on Camelot.” Blancheflor motioned toward Gwen. “King Rodor and Princess Mithian, may I present Guinevere of Camelot.”

“Thank you for seeing us, King Rodor and Princess Mithian.” Gwen bowed to them. For some reason, Mithian seemed familiar to her. Still she couldn’t place the Princess at that point. “Forgive our intrusion. It is most distressing news.”

“Indeed it is. And how did you come upon it, Guinevere? Forgive my asking such a pointed question but….” Rodor concurred.

Gwen nodded. “It is a good question.” She thought for a heartbeat on her response before continuing. “I was working in a village in Southron lands. The Southrons sacked it. They took the men and boys for their army. Most of the women escaped into the woods. Helios himself spared my life. He tried to take me for himself. I managed to slip away. Still I was pursued by his ally.” She frowned. “Morgana.”

“Morgana? Morgana Pendragon? The witch?” Rodor asked.

“Aye, King Rodor. I tried to be careful. I overheard their plans and slipped away. I evaded their soldiers. I hid in the river. I slipped through the woods. I traveled almost constantly,” Gwen reported. She bit her lip. “Still Morgana must’ve seen the smoke from my fire. I stopped to rest…just for a little while. I fell asleep. She found me.” She trembled. “She chased me through the woods and then caught me. She enchanted me but I didn’t know that.”

“Enchanted you?” Mithian inquired.

“Yes. She changed my appearance. I didn’t know that I looked like a deer. I just knew I had to get to Camelot. I had to warn King Arthur…had to tell him….” Gwen shuddered. She bowed her head. A stray tear creased her cheek.

“But you didn’t….?” Rodor wondered.

Gwen shook her head. “No, King Rodor. I tried to get through the woods. I hoped to get into the city without anyone seeing me. Within a league of the city, I ran into a hunting party. I saw King Arthur in the midst of it riding alongside someone. I tried to get away. The arrows flew around me. Somehow his arrow missed. Still another arrow didn’t. I didn’t see who shot it. I just know it hit me.” She pulled up her coarse cloth shirt just enough to reveal the scar on her side.

Blancheflor gasped in spite of herself.

Rodor turned to his daughter. “Hunting party? Would you have known about this?”

Mithian squirmed. Memoria replayed her own proud assessment at that point; Pride ringing in her ears. “I wager a gold crown that she’s hit!” “Guinevere, when was this?”

“About a fortnight ago. I don’t understand though,” Gwen wondered. She studied Mithian’s face. She discerned Conscience’s burden in the other woman’s eyes for some reason.

“Were you in that party?” Rodor asked.

Mithian nodded. “Aye.” Lament slammed into her. “I shot that arrow. I didn’t see you, Guinevere. I only saw the doe in front of us.” Pain pushed a sharp breath from her lungs. “As if that day didn’t hold enough sorrow for me as it is?”

Gwen stiffened. Anger flared inside of her like a volcano wanting to erupt. Jealousy burned in her craw. Guest or not at someone else’s court, she wanted to lash out. Suddenly she wanted to turn the tables. She wanted answers from Mithian.

She wanted them…now.

Rodor noted all of these facets in them both. Questions popped into his mind about Gwen’s story. He knew Mithian was too responsible of a hunter not to randomly shoot at someone. Still why Gwen? What did Morgana have against her? “I am sorry for that. I know Princess Mithian would never shoot someone intentionally. If she said she saw a deer then I believe that’s what she saw. Still your story raises further questions. But I want to let you finish. How did you survive? Such a wound should have killed you.”

“I know.” Somehow Gwen kept her eyes riveted on him. She forced Emotion off of her face. “And yet I survived. I crawled away into the forest. Finally I collapsed onto the ground. I thought I would die. Then a friend came and healed me. We talked for a while. Then he returned to Camelot.” She turned to Blancheflor. “That’s when I started north. Two days later, I stumbled into Riversmore.”

Mithian rubbed her hands. Consternation pursed her lips like a prune. She closed her eyes and muttered a thank you to the triple goddess. “This friend…I presume it was Master Gaius?”

Gwen glanced at Mithian. She could see the mixed emotions in the other’s eyes. Wonder and Quandary promoted issues in her mind as well. Of all of the questions, why does she care about *that*? Her eyes narrowed. “No, Princess. It was his apprentice.”

“Merlin.” Realization put a smile onto Mithian’s face. Pride warmed her heart at yet another of the Warlock’s achievements. “He would do that.”

“Yes well…the young man has done you both good turns,” Rodor agreed. He cleared his throat.

Still Gwen continued to study Mithian. Why did she ask that? What’s going on between Merlin and her? What did he do? “He is a loyal friend.”

“So you two know each other? Were you at the court?” Mithian put forth.

Gwen fought back Irritation’s burning at her. “I was a maid in the royal household. He and I served together. We became good friends. If Merlin helps someone, it is because it is in his nature to do so. He lives to serve and help people. He is kind and gentle. He is fiercely loyal to King Arthur and Camelot.”

Mithian exhaled. “And that would explain how Morgana recognized you?”

Gwen elaborated, “I was her maid while she was there. Yes.” Still she didn’t seem overly inclined to share any more information with this particular woman. Instinct didn’t want to reveal any more to Mithian than was absolutely necessary.

Rodor shifted the conversation not wanting to digress into Merlin overly much. “So you were Morgana’s maid. Still that doesn’t explain why she’d target you, Guinevere.”

Now Discomfort stabbed at Gwen. Suspicion picked at her mind about Mithian’s need to know about Merlin. She filed the observation away for the moment. “She knows I love Camelot and would do anything for it.”

“And yet you felt the need to sneak in?” Mithian leaned back in her throne. As he’d given her the opening, Comfort enabled her to stick in a question about Gwen’s motivations. “King Arthur, while he does have issues with loyalty, would hear this account. He knows of Morgana’s threat despite being brother and sister. Does he have issue with you?”

“My Liege and lady, perhaps we might…?” Blancheflor interjected. Anxiety flared in her heart. She didn’t want Gwen to be imprisoned or worse.

“Lady Blancheflor, it is a worthy question,” he disagreed. “Guinevere?”

Gwen frowned. Dismay and Shame streaked her face with crimson overtones. “She knows…I love him.” Tears brimmed in her eyes. “Arthur and I were to have been married. Morgana schemed and raised a past love from the dead. I strayed. Arthur found out. He exiled me….” She bowed her head again. “He’d have me killed if I returned there. That’s why you were there, Princess. Arthur was trying to…move on.”

Mithian stewed. Realization dawned across her senses much as Dawn burns away the darkness. She tapped her fingers on her throne’s armrest. “I assure you, he has not.” She exhaled another pained breath. She sobbed. Her hand instinctively covered her face.

“My Daughter, are you all right?” he prompted. Once again, his eyes surveyed the women.

“Sire….” Mithian sucked in several scorching breaths. She forced her hand down slowly and with great effort. Rejection seared at her heart once again. “Guinevere…” She inhaled another efforted breath. “She is the blacksmith’s daughter.”

Gwen stared at her. “What? What does my father have to do with this?” She turned to Blancheflor. Indignation burned in her eyes.

Blancheflor averted her eyes finding herself caught between her friend and rulers. Embarrassment numbed her. Disbelief stunned her brain. She never would have expected Mithian of all people to say such a thing.

“Those were King Arthur’s words not mine, Guinevere.” Mithian coughed. She desperately clawed to retain her grip on Sanity’s base. “I asked him why he rejected me. He realized that he…he was in love with you. I asked him who you were. He identified you that way. He said that you had risen from nothing. That a blacksmith’s daughter could trump a Princess.” She shook her head. “I just wish he’d been honest! We negotiated! I went there! I was willing to give up everything for him and Camelot!” She put her hands up cutting off Gwen’s potential response. “I told him that I’d give up my title and kingdom to be loved that way…the way he loves you.”

“Mithian! You didn’t!” Rodor protested. Shock and Horror dropped his jaw.

“Father, forgive me.” Mithian bowed her head. “I understand Duty’s role in our lives. I know our marriages need to benefit Nemeth. But aren’t we people too? Mother and you had both types of marriage in one. Is it wrong for me to want to balance Duty with Love?” She shrugged. “Did King Arthur have to embarrass me to realize where his heart is?”

He scratched his chin. “This isn’t the place I’d hoped to have this discussion, my Daughter.” He shook his head. “You may feel that way but to say that publicly? We do have to maintain ourselves out there!”

“What else can I say, Sire? He pushes me aside. And yet despite his stance on equality of all, I still may have to fight him for my love?” Mithian countered.

Gwen blinked. “Your love?” Surprise stifled her forming response. Her mind struggled to comprehend Mithian’s words. “But you’re in love with Arthur! You were with him that day.”

“No.” Mithian sighed heavily. “No. I’m not. I did like him. I didn’t expect to care about him. Still King Arthur does have his charm. I don’t have to tell you that though.”

Gwen relaxed. A smile broke through Seriousness’ overcast. “No, Princess. I understand your point completely. I fell for him against every rule and every law known. Uther tried to send me away. He threatened to have me killed. Still Arthur never relented. He wouldn’t back down to anyone. We kept our feelings private. Some found out.” She coughed and rolled her eyes.

“Merlin, I suppose?” Mithian felt her mood lighten as his name passed over her lips. The sharp pain stabbing at her heart numbed slightly. She chuckled warmly. “Merlin.” She nodded. “You have no idea how loyal he is to King Arthur and you, Guinevere.”

“Oh I know.” Gwen nodded. She observed Mithian’s lightening mood. Once again she discerned the differences in tone and attitude. She grasped that they were no longer rivals for Arthur.

In fact they were now in very similar struggles…..

“May I ask you a personal question, Princess? I promise to keep the answer between us,” Gwen requested. While Instinct and Observation theorized about the hostess’ feelings, she needed Affirmation’s certainty to know for sure.

“Ask but do so with care, Guinevere. Remember you are here as our guest,” he allowed guardedly. He turned to Mithian. “Remember you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

“I know.” Mithian ground her teeth. Anxiety shot up and down her spine.

“What are you thinking?” her brain insisted. “You can’t tell her!”

“She could help us! She could talk sense into Arthur!” her heart fired back.

What do I do? What can I do? Can I trust her? Mithian bit her lip. She tapped her fingers on the armrest again. “Blancheflor, can I trust you to keep whatever is said in here a secret?”

“Aye, my lady. I so swear!” Blancheflor readily vowed. “Respectfully I would tell you to be yourself. Be brave and forthright. Don’t fear the truth. Even if some of us serve far apart, we can love.”

“Love?” He glanced at his daughter.

“She means Sir Percival, King Arthur’s loyal knight,” Mithian clarified. “I finally met him. He is a worthy choice for you, Blancheflor. He thinks of you as well.”

Blancheflor smiled. Much as thinking of Merlin did for her Princess, she relaxed upon hearing Percival’s name. “I thank you for that news, Princess.” She curtseyed respectfully.

Mithian nodded. “Thank you, Blancheflor.” Then she swallowed hard and composed herself. She marshaled up every bit of Courage’s strength. “Guinevere, what would you ask of me?”

“Do you love Merlin?” Gwen inquired. Although she already knew the answer, she wanted to hear the other woman’s response.

Mithian nodded with effort. “Yes, Guinevere. Yes I do. We’ve saved each other’s lives. He…he…just treats me with respect. He treats me like a human being while respecting my rank. I mean I know he’s a servant but….”

“But what, Princess?” Gwen queried. “I’m just a servant. Arthur wants to be with me. With respect to you both, if that’s what both Merlin and you want, why would I want to stand in your way? If I were Queen, I’d help you. I’ll admit that it’s been a long time since Merlin’s been with anyone. There was someone a long time ago. Tragically she died. He’s been so closed up ever since.” Lament dampened her mood. “Still Arthur will not even let me into Camelot much less take me back.”

“I disagree. Frankly after the way our courtship went, most kingdoms would avoid such negotiations with Camelot. I don’t think King Arthur himself would want to risk another war. He surrendered the Gedref region to us in effect for you. I have forgiven him, Guinevere. I’ve also vowed to help find and bring you back safely to Camelot.” Mithian rubbed her forehead allowing Tension’s beating to tone down a bit.

Gwen’s heart skipped a beat. Hope warmed her chest. “And? What did he say?”

“He thanked me. There was no protest or mention of your banishment. He wants you back as far as I can tell. In my role as Nemeth’s ambassador, I can do what I can for you. Keep in mind though, I have to place Nemeth’s needs first before anything else,” Mithian continued.

“Of course.” Gwen somehow kept her composure. Relief undermined Animosity’s blinders over her outlook. Granted she determined to watch Mithian until they knew each other better. I’ll have to determine how Merlin feels about her. If he does, Arthur won’t like it. He’ll do everything to destroy their feelings just to keep Merlin around. While she didn’t want to lose Merlin as a potential servant as well as an everyday friend, she knew she had to what was best for all concerned. “And again, with respect, you understand that I will do what I can for Merlin and you—again—if that’s what you both want?”

Mithian’s eyes brightened. She understood that she wasn’t about to get a better offer from anyone than that one. “That is all I’d expect. As Merlin would probably say, Duty first. I know love has to be unconditional. I don’t want to force him to care. I respect him. He respects me. As King Rodor would remind me, Merlin needs one more task on our behalf to prove himself according to our Capability Laws. He already has the three required deeds for Camelot.”

Gwen bit her lip. If Arthur would *ever* acknowledge that? Hell might freeze over first. “He has helped Camelot so many times and asked for nothing in return except to serve Arthur. We should all endeavor to be of such good hearts to our respective realms.”

“Indeed we should,” Rodor concurred. Patience had restrained him from interrupting the unfolding dialogue and impromptu negotiations between his daughter and this visitor. From what he’d gathered from Mithian and the knights, the way to a Camelot-Nemeth alliance would lie between them. “Friends should seek to facilitate each other’s happiness if it is in the best interest of all. They should also be aware of dangers to each other. We can discuss these other matters more at another point. Guinevere, I think we all understand each other. I can see you care for Arthur Pendragon and Camelot. Princess Mithian cares for Merlin. Lady Blancheflor, I would support a marriage between Sir Percival and you. This Southron threat merits our intervention. Would you be willing to speak before the court tomorrow? The council needs to hear this information. Then we can do what we must. Lady Blancheflor, I expect you there as well.”

“I will be there, Sire,” Blancheflor concurred.

“Thank you, King Rodor,” Gwen expressed.

Mithian’s heart chilled slightly. She imagined Morgana’s army crashing through the now-weakened defenses. Dread dampened her outlook. “Yes, Sire. We should all preserve peace and friendship for all.” While she kept a smile on her face, Worry ate at her inwardly.

“Now shall we eat?” Rodor supposed. “Please accompany us, both of you.” He led the women through the doors and into the passage beyond.

Such is the way Understanding and Cooperation was established…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 [Later that Night]
[Mithian’s Chamber]

Mithian leaned back against her chair and stared at the ceiling. Surprise warmed her mind. Shame burned at her heart. Guilt bugged Conscience. She closed her head and ground her teeth. After weeks of complaining and spitting on Gwen in absentia, she’d found Expectation and Prejudice had misled her egregiously indeed….

…Gwen, it seemed, was a truly nice person….

Mithian discovered that she and her guest actually had a great deal in common. They talked about horseback riding, hunting, a woman’s role in governance and reading. She’d actually laughed at a joke Gwen made.

Gwen, for her part, had reciprocated in kind. Without giving away state secrets, she filled in certain gaps for Mithian on Camelot. She’d offered some insights on Uther’s influence. She also marveled over how Coincidence seemed a great companion on Arthur’s quests in drawing magical foes and then in defeating them. She talked about Sirs Lancelot, Percival, Gawain and the other knights’ exploits. She talked about how Camelot’s subjects related to the middling officials and then with Arthur’s court as well. Her words shone with Humility’s soft glow. She removed the last vestiges of Animosity’s grasp on the hosts’ perceptions.

And could she go on about Merlin. For a quarter turn of the hourglass, she expounded on her friend’s virtues. She spoke of his roots in Ealdor. She talked of his cheerfulness and can-do attitude even in the face of Arthur’s most demanding requests. She marveled at his diverse talents as a healer, scholar and cook. She went on about his loyalty to all above himself. And at Rodor’s request, she reported on Merlin’s deeds on behalf of Arthur and Camelot such as lifting the unicorn’s curse, helping to rescue Morgana from the druids, rescuing Elyan from Cenred’s grasp and of course playing a key role in stopping Morgause’s undead army.

With each account, Mithian saw her father act increasingly impressed. She noted his nodding. At the last story, his eyes went wide. Then they narrowed before Understanding assured him that Gwen indeed had told them the truth. Occasionally his eyes would meet hers. She saw Acceptance’s warmth glowing there. Relief burned away Dread’s stranglehold on that front at least.

Rodor had seen and tacitly recognized Merlin’s value. Despite the latter still being one deed short of the mark, he’d reaffirmed his earlier decision in actions if not in words so much.

I know Father would preach patience. After what Guinevere said, I have enough to go to Arthur now. Still is it the right way to pursue it? I know what I want but is that enough? She peered deeply into the looking glass. I know Merlin cares for me too. Still how do I get him to believe that he is worthy of me? How do I get him to understand that he can help Arthur in other roles other than as a servant? Arthur’s such a prat toward him. Why can’t he admit to Merlin’s quality? He can’t see what a TREASURE he has! ARGH! Even if he is a servant, Merlin deserves better. Why can’t he be prouder of his achievements? She sighed to herself.

A knock came from the door.

Her eyebrow arched. “Now who could it be at this hour?” She crossed the floor and leaned toward the door. “Aye?”

“Milady, it’s Britomart. Lady Blancheflor and I wished to come in,” Britomart called back.

Even if she’d wanted to ponder and possibly rethink her views of Gwen, Mithian did want the company. She walked over to the door and opened it. “This is a surprise. I thought you’d both be getting rest before the council meeting in the morning.”

“I wished to check on you. Lady Blancheflor had similar concerns for your wellbeing, Princess.” Britomart raised a steaming cup of mulled cider.

Mithian smirked. Somehow she fought off the urge to roll her eyes. “You always know my mind ere I do.” She took a mouthful of the tangy and sweet drink allowing it to coat her mouth and slide down her throat. She felt herself relaxing. She pushed her chamber door open. “Please enter. I’ve been considering what we spoke on in the King’s Hall and at dinner. Perhaps though, Britomart, you might fetch Lady Blancheflor a cup?”

“She has already done so, Princess,” Blancheflor assured the hostess. She toasted the maid with a steaming cup of her own. “Thank you.”

“I’m just glad I remembered how you like it.” Britomart blushed rosy red. Embarrassment and Humility colored her tone. Despite the talk at the table earlier, she wished that she could just say ‘you’re welcome’ without the titles and be done with it. She’d listened to the others ask questions of each other and hint at their feelings. While the others danced around Empathy’s torch, she’d stood off to the side. Her ears swept up any mention concerning Gawain.

Blancheflor wasn’t fooled by the fire hair’s silence. Without a word, she closed the chamber door. She hesitated allowing her own feelings to coalesce. Insight whispered about Britomart’s feelings. “Your feelings and concerns are just as valid as ours, Britomart. Please relax. You care. That’s all right. Love knows no class restriction much as Guinevere and our Princess.”

Britomart coughed. She quickly pulled on Denial’s mask to conceal her feelings. “Milady, this is rubbish!”

Mithian arched an eyebrow. “Is it?” She sipped on her cider before setting the cup down. “It’s all right, Britomart. Sir Gawain is an honorable man. He fights bravely.”

Blancheflor nodded. “Percival writes of his exploits. He more than proves his worth on the battlefield. He needs balance. You can bring it to him.”

“Bring it to him?” Britomart scoffed trying to hide her own insecurity. “I can barely stand being around that oaf! He’s so brash and vain! He womanizes! Surely, Lady Blancheflor, Sir Percival has told you that?”

“Aye he has.” Blancheflor exhaled sharply. “Sir Gawain is human. Percival only says that he is complex. He needs something to ground himself. He has lost much to the world. Anger spurs him on. Oftentimes only a couple of cooler heads assure him.” She glanced toward Mithian. “Our points of light, Princess.”

Mithian sighed at the reference to her Warlock. Her eyes sparkled. A dreamy smile spread across her face. Pride shaded her cheeks in pink and rosy tones. Giddiness sent its butterflies flying wildly inside of her. “Love plays her own game with us, Britomart. For years, the King negotiated attempted marriage after attempted marriage for me. When I went to Camelot, I thought that was behind me. I forced myself to accept that I would be King Arthur’s Queen and hoped to just carve out some respect. I never thought I’d find love in Camelot. Surprisingly I did. King Arthur cared more than I might have expected. And then…then…well…Merlin just…emerged.” She shrugged. Incredulity crossed her face and induced a shrug from her shoulders. “He’s just him. Even when he’s in the worst position, he still outshines everyone.” She snorted. “Even when he was on trial for his life, he didn’t budge. He stood for what was right and honest. He was willing to do what he had to for me. For me. If King Arthur is willing to do that for Guinevere and Merlin is willing to do that for me, then why not the two of you? You’ve already done that for each other as I recall.”

“Milady, please. I could never see myself burdened with….” Britomart protested in vain. “I have my duty to you! I….”

“Not from you too!” Mithian ground her teeth. Frustration slapped its burning sting across her sensibilities. “Britomart, I’m not King Arthur. I would never come between you and your happiness because of my own needs. You may be my maid. Still you are a woman with so many skills and hopes. None of us here are orthodox in our views or methods. Neither is Guinevere it seems in hers. You have Sir Gawain’s attention. Believe in that. Don’t let Pride get in your way.”

“Being away from love is the worst feeling. I want to be with Percival every day. I understand why I can’t be. Still I want to be. I don’t want that loneliness for you too, Britomart,” Blancheflor emphasized.

Britomart quivered. Fear and Trepidation shook her sensibilities. “I want it to be so. I truly do. I just don’t want to be his prize or trophy.”

Mithian snorted. “From what he did on the wall, I don’t think he looks at you like that. Let it develop and see where things go. All right? Don’t push too much.” She rubbed her maid’s shoulders. “Promise me that you will try.”

“I will. Thank you, Milady,” Britomart relented as pleasantly as she could manage.

“There now! We have our good will and solidarity before tomorrow’s meeting with my father’s council.” Mithian stifled a yawn. “It seems that it’s later than we thought.”

Noting that the candle had burned down to half of its previous size, Blancheflor concurred, “Aye. Thank you, Princess, for speaking with us. Have a good evening.”

“Blancheflor, you don’t have to go off ceremony with me at least not in private. You know that,” Mithian admonished.

“I know. Still I stay in practice.” Blancheflor curtseyed. “Until tomorrow then. Britomart, we should leave her to her own devices.”

“It will be all right, Britomart. I’ll be fine,” Mithian assured her close friend and servant. She finished the cider cup and handed it to the latter. “Go on and I’ll see you in the morning. Pleasant dreams of your knight.”

“Pleasant dreams of your servant, Milady,” Britomart replied not giving an inch in the process. Once again, she curtseyed and accompanied the other woman from the chamber closing the door behind them.

Mithian rubbed her head. Drowsiness battered her mind. Sleep called to her. “It’s been a long day. Best to be ready then for the morning.” She doused the candles around the chamber and climbed into bed. Her eyes quickly closed. Her mind drifted off into Slumber’s embrace.

Still before Dawn’s light would shine into the chamber, Night would present challenges of her own…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 [Camelot]
[A/N: Originally I planned to make this entire story about Mithian and Nemeth. Morgana, however, just couldn’t wait to harass Arthur and Merlin. sigh…..]

Clouds billowed in off of the coast. They obscured Luna and the surrounding stars under their wispy cloak. Rain with occasional bouts of sleet fell upon the walled city. Torches and watch fires smoldered in their braziers. Most of the citizenry slept soundly save for a few stragglers who stumbled home from their respective taverns of choice.

On the wall, Phelps and the knights peered into the gloom and mist. Their eyes and ears remained peeled for any sign of trouble.

Pity it would come to them soon enough…..

 

****

 

[Physicians’ Chamber]

Merlin labored toward the end of a busy day. He’d attended Agravaine’s funeral services that morning with the rest of the court. Then he washed and scrubbed the former High Chancellor’s chambers from ceiling to floor. He’d endured Arthur’s griping about the chicken soup being lukewarm at dinner. Gaius had left herbs to be chopped and remedies to be made. An epidemic raged throughout the castle demanding both the Court Physician and Warlock’s vigilance. He still needed to polish the knights’ armor and oversee their workouts.

He bit into a piece of crusty wheat bread. The grain’s texture and flavor offered a unique twist to his taste buds that white bread did not. He chased it with some rewarmed chicken soup. His spoon dove into the golden bay in that bowl bobbing underneath the archipelago of chicken, carrots, potatoes and onion. Despite Audrey’s caustic manner, he savored the spices and the blend of flavors in that bowl. He turned back to the medical text on the chipped wooden table beside him. Knowing Gaius’ wrath if he spilled any of his supper on the aged parchment pages, he carefully kept the soup away from the work at hand.

Despite his efforts to read the medical text in front of himself, the day’s activity caught up to him. A massive yawn escaped his lips. Exhaustion blurred his vision. Stiffness tightened his neck. Melancholy hung over his psyche much like the humidity on a midsummer’s day. Still he wondered why Agravaine had conspired against Arthur, his own nephew, as he had.

Agravaine….

He sighed. Frustration goaded his teeth into a savage bite from his bread. He wondered how many legislative activities Arthur would have to undo at that point. He knew his King still dealt with Lament’s burden. He understood the long road ahead of them all. Maybe Arthur can bring Gwen back now. Driving her away was a mistake. Maybe he can take a page from Princess Mithian and start fresh with her?

Princess Mithian….

His mind brightened at her name. Amor sang its pleasant lullaby to his heart. Ease calmed him soothing Tension’s hold over his limbs. A warm smile dawned across his face. Giddiness buffeted his stomach. He slowly stood. Almost as if in a dream, his feet seemed to glide across the stones underfoot. His eyes sought out the chamber’s western window. His heart soared on the cutting chill outside.

In that event, the other concerns lay forgotten. Arthur’s chores would wait. The herbs sat forlorn on the work table. Gaius’ notes from the aforementioned medical text didn’t matter.

Frankly he didn’t care…..

Morgana might have sat at the gates with an army.

He wouldn’t have acknowledged her at that moment….

His heart pierced Storm’s veil. Passion guided his heart. Almost like a feather, he imagined himself drifting and bobbing on the wind. The tree tops’ leaves brushed the soles of his feet. Then as the mists parted and the rain ceased, he gazed upon Whitgate’s high tower. Then he spied the object of his search. He could see Mithian speaking with three other women but couldn’t make out their faces. He saw her let them out of the chamber and close herself in. Judging from the expression on her face, something weighed on her.

Panic stabbed at him. Did I do that? I….

Then at that moment, a bright light flashed in his eyes and swept him away.

 

****

 

[Five Minutes Earlier]

Gaius shuffled slowly up the granite stairs. His hand sought support from the wall sliding along its smooth surface. Humidity and Chill burned at his knees and elbows. Exhaustion weighed on his mind and soul. Arthur’s mourning distracted the court. The latest sickness weakened the townspeople and kingdom on the whole. Merlin’s divided attention offered less than optimum assistance.

Merlin….

Life heaped a great deal more on the younger man’s shoulders than it might have. Of course he didn’t say anything. He attempted to keep a cheery attitude and press on. He still straightened Arthur’s rooms and performed his duties for the knights well. He assisted in the chamber. He should have been making notes off of that old medical text. Perhaps he would be mashing herbs for a paste or tincture. Maybe he’d be straightening things out there. Or maybe he might be catching up on some much needed sleep.

All might seem in order….all might be…except….

…except Merlin seemed out of it….

The elderly physician observed his ward closely during the previous three days. Except for Enthusiasm’s brief burst after being freed and in cleaning Mithian’s chambers, Merlin had struggled under Distraction’s burden. Several times he’d needed to remind Merlin of the waiting notes and medicines. Two other times, he spied Merlin gazing out the window and studying the clouds instead. He’d seen the younger man’s eyes glazed over as if in a trance.

Most curious! Is it another sorcerer? Could someone had ensnared Merlin in a diabolical spell? Gaius narrowed his eyes. He remembered Merlin reporting on Kilgarrah’s news concerning Balinor’s ally. Could that one have taken control of Merlin somehow? Who is he? What would he want? He turned anxiously and looked off to the left toward the royal apartments. How can I get Arthur involved knowing that it would mean death for that sorcerer and perhaps Merlin? He exhaled deeply. We cannot risk it. Yet who else can help Merlin if not Arthur or the knights? He frowned and headed for the chamber. “Merlin, I’m coming in!” he called before slowly opening the door. He stared in shock at the sight in front of himself.

Chaos had strewn possessions about the area. The table lay on its side. Herbs lay smoldering across the floor. Wooden bowls still rolled about on the floor. Merlin lay stunned in a blackened ashen ring. Ozone and something akin to burning charcoal stank in the air.

“MERLIN?” Gaius exclaimed. He rushed into the chamber and slammed the door behind himself. Everything else left his mind at that moment. He kneeled at Merlin’s side. “What happened?” Panic and Fear threatened to stop his heart until he heard Merlin coughing. “Merlin?”

“G….Gaius?” Merlin muttered weakly. He slowly opened his eyes. Pain seared into his temples. He strained to raise his arms. He ground his teeth. “What…happened?”

“That’s my question for you.” Gaius helped him up into a sitting position. “Who did this?”

“I’m…not sure.” Merlin took in the devastation. Awe and Horror widened his eyes. “I didn’t see anyone. I was working on the notes and the medicines. I was looking around. Then I…just blanked out. The next thing I knew, you were there.” He sucked in several steadying breaths. “It felt so warm and comforting. I also felt like I was floating. Then I saw a bright light.”

“Merlin, I doubt it was anything good that struck at you.” Gaius poured some water into a wooden cup. “Drink this. We need to figure out who did this. Perhaps Kilgarrah might know?”

Merlin sipped from the cup. His mind struggled to put Memoria’s broken shards together. Amor’s warm breaths steadied him in that moment. His eyes glinted yellow. A faint crimson aura surrounded him.

Gaius took a step back. For the first time, he considered that it might be something other than an attack. His breath caught in his throat. “Merlin, did you use your magic?”

“Gaius, I….I don’t know.” Merlin shuddered. A great chill shot down his spine. “What are we going to do?”

“We’ll figure it out,” Gaius assured him. He set the table back up right. “Sit down. At least there wasn’t anyone to hear what happened.” He helped Merlin to his feet and over to a bench. He frowned.

Dread filled Merlin’s mind. He looked about the area again wondering what had come over him exactly.

Seems some mysteries were just unfolding along with his feelings…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 [Round Table Room]

Two floors and across the castle, Arthur considered his options for the next week. He didn’t have any embassies or royal diplomats visiting the court. He hadn’t agreed to host a tournament. Until he appointed a new High Chancellor, his judicial duties remained in limbo. Frankly Melancholy weighed on him. He needed to cover more ground. He stretched a parchment map of the realm across the table. His index finger slid over its smooth surface. His eye mentally checking off the places he and the knights had already searched.

“Sire, with due respect, you banished her. I doubt she’d be in Camelot now,” Leon deduced. “Perhaps we might reach out to the other kingdoms?”

“Perhaps she might have been seen passing through one of the border villages?” Elyan suggested. “We could check those places.” Frankly he wanted to jump onto a horse and search for his sister despite his duty to Arthur and the elements outside.

“Aye. We could do that.” Arthur examined the map again. “Princess Mithian would have told King Rodor. That covers Nemeth. I’d rather not alert Lot or Meleagant to Gwen’s possible presence in their kingdoms.”

“Maybe Percy and me can ride north to Riversmore? The folks there might’ve seen something,” Gawain suggested.

Arthur nodded. He’d meant to offer Percival a leave to go up there in any event. The situation however had not allowed him to do so. He definitely saw purpose in that venture. “Yes well, you both can go in that direction. Perhaps you might find something out?”

“Count on it, Arthur,” Percival affirmed. He knew Blancheflor would be forthcoming on anything and anyone in that territory. “We’ll leave at first light.”

“Hold on. There is the wall. It still needs further work and buttressing,” Leon reminded them all. He glanced at Gawain.

“Hey! Blame Phelps! I opened the door for Mith and the others. Not my fault her blood lion had to smash it in after Phelps slammed it in their faces,” Gawain rebutted. “Merlin’s alive and free right now because of that! That’s gotta count for something!”

“Yes. It does,” Arthur agreed. He’d given Phelps a stern lecture and a warning on that very morning. He glanced outside. “The mortar on that section of wall will need another day to completely set. By noon tomorrow, it will be so.”

“If we can get Gawain through the night that is,” Elyan jabbed eliciting a round of laughs from around the chamber.

“I’ve got things completely under control, Elyan. Don’t you be worrying about me.” Gawain nodded to Percival. Britomart had spoken to him about the latter’s bond with Blancheflor. “Percy and me…we’ll just gallop north for a couple of days is all. Now if you all can keep the Princess here out of trouble, that’ll take some doin’. Eh?”

Leon stiffened. Granted he’d accustomed himself to Gawain’s role as Irreverence’s servant in that time. Still, as First Knight, he wasn’t about to let anyone speak as much to his liege especially in the latter’s chambers.

Arthur shrugged. He shook his head at Leon almost imperceptibly. “Yes. Perhaps our friends to the north might know something. Still take care. The people of Rivermore are not the most welcoming at times to outsiders.”

Percival sucked in a pained breath. He realized that Arthur spoke only for their own safety. Still Indignity chafed at him. “With due respect, Arthur, they can be kind enough when need be.” Crimson streaked his face. Restraint held back Honor’s due retort. “If we are done, I’ll make preparations?”

Arthur arched an eyebrow. Wonder and Confusion jabbed at his brain. He noted Percival’s uncharacteristic reaction. “It is a long ride. You should make sure your gear and provisions are in order. Thank you, Percival.”

Percival offered a slight bow and then left. His footfalls echoed on the stone slightly more so than normal. He lumbered toward his chambers. Anger steamed forth from his ears.

“What was that about?” Arthur considered the door. He looked strangely at the other knights.

Gawain sniffed. “You born aristocrats never get it.” He shook his head. “Percy’s from Riversmore. They apparently took him in. You know, Arthur, he’s wanted to go back there. But you know Percy. He’s loyal. He won’t say much about that stuff.”

“And you know how?” Leon demanded.

“Heard about it from Mith and Brit.” Gawain narrowed his eyes. “There’s a lot about Percy that he won’t talk about. And don’t ask me. Just know he’s giving up a lot for us. You can go and hunt for Gwen. That’s all bloody well and good! Just remember the rest of us serve you. Still we have lives.”

Arthur nodded. “If this is about Princess Mithian’s maid, I’m sure she’d be open to working something out so you can see her, Gawain.”

Gawain coughed. Amor jabbed at his heart. Still the man child inside of him fought that down. He definitely wasn’t ready for the fire haired maiden’s nagging and cajoling (even if it was because she did care). “Yeah well she’s a friend. Okay? The rest of us have hearts too.”

Arthur set his jaw. He glanced down at the parchment map once again. He scratched his head knowing that his father would have had Gawain thrown in the dungeon or worse for speaking out as such. Still Gawain did have a point. He heard Mithian’s words echoing through the irreverent knight’s tone and speech. “Yes well. We should all seek to balance duty with our hearts. You might take your time coming back if you get my meaning?”

Gawain smirked. “Absolutely.” He bowed almost saucily to the King. “I’ll get ready. I’m not about to keep you waitin’ for Gwen.” He turned and almost strutted out the door. His mind focused on helping Percival to find Blancheflor (and get some more dirt on his hulking friend in the process).

Pity Chaos chose that moment to assert itself…..

Everything came undone in that moment. An explosion echoed through the misty conditions to their ears. The warning bells sounded from the towers.

“Now what?” Arthur stalked toward the window. He glanced out into the night but saw nothing through the misty din. Despite that, Instinct told him to prepare and be ready. Love would have to wait at least for an evening.

“It sounded like that section of wall,” Elyan presumed.

“Yeah well seems the jig’s up! Eh?” Gawain picked his pace up. Urgency pushed Irreverence aside. Purpose set his course for battle now.

Arthur grabbed his chain mail. “Where’s Merlin when I need him?” he growled. He pulled the ringed metal shirt over his head and onto himself. Then he tightened his belt and grasped his sword. “Leon, head for the wall. Whatever that was, it means trouble.”

Leon nodded and motioned for the others to follow him. He knew well that the bells already summoned the bulk of their brothers-in-arms toward their common service. “Aye. Follow me!” He led the others out of the chamber.

Arthur rolled up the map again. Frustration burned at him. Yet again, something tried to keep us apart, Gwen. I’m not giving up. I won’t! He unsheathed his sword. “One more night and that bloody wall would’ve been set!” With that, he rushed from the room and pulled the door shut behind himself. Then he ran in pursuit of his brother knights and the affair to come…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 [Forest’s Edge—Twenty Minutes Earlier]

The thick cloying mist allowed the advancing Southron army to slip through the forest undetected. Thanks in large part to Morgana’s sleeping spell, the few sentries lay dozing at their posts leagues behind it. Their torches smoldered and smoked. A few of the men stifled coughs with their hands lest they reveal their positions to those on the wall nearby. Their feet ached from the long march. Their clothes stuck damp against their skin. Mud weighed down on their boots. They carefully insured that their weapons didn’t clank overly much.

Just yards shy of the walls, Helios raised his hand. He understood the conditions’ gift to him in terms of tactical advantage. He squinted at the walls in a vain attempt to make out the watchmen’s positions. He only could make out the torches seeming to dance like fireflies in the air. This fog is like the Devil itself to march through. Still if we can’t see them, they can’t see us. He turned to Morgana who rode up beside him. “It is as you said, Milady.”

She surveyed the shrouded landscape. “My dear brother allows his heart to befuddle his good sense, Helios. No matter. Soon his oversight will cost him his life and avail us our due rewards.” She grinned at him. Anticipation sparkled in her eyes. “The culvert is twenty yards to the right. With some stealth, you might send your men up there.”

Helios motioned to the man closest to his right. “Geoffrey, are you ready?”

Geoffrey, a tall broad shouldered brute bowed to his master. His bald head glistened in the damp torchlight and the mist. “We will get that grate open, Helios.”

“See that you do without alerting the fools on the wall,” Helios growled. His eyes flared into those of his subordinates. He motioned sharply toward the grate in question. “You all! With him!”

Geoffrey skulked off into the fog determined to prove his worthiness.

Behind him, a hundred cloaked and hood warriors dogged his path eager to cross steel with Camelot’s defenders therein.

“He’ll take too long.” Morgana’s eyes glowed. She pointed toward the grate. Her eyes glowed yellow. “Geata fosgailte!”

Through the mist, a bright spark fizzled followed by a clanking sound.

“There. Now it’s open, Helios. Much more efficient,” she supposed. Suddenly she twitched. “Strange.”

Helios tensed. “What is, Morgana? Are we discovered?” His hand rested on his sword’s hilt.

She looked about this way and that. Despite not seeing anything, she definitely felt something off in the air around themselves. She closed her eyes and focused. She would not focus simply on the apparent. Rather, as Morgause had shown her during her training as a Priestess, she concentrated on the energies and vibrations from the air and earth. In her mind’s eye, she picked through the different auras and activity. She sifted through the very essences about them….

…until she felt the residual magic from the city’s wall itself….

“Well now,” she realized. Surprise stiffened her. “It seems we are not the first ones to assault Camelot in this fortnight.”

Helios blinked at that assessment. “The city stands. The Pendragon banner flies over its ramparts, Morgana. It cannot have fallen.”

She frowned. “And yet I feel the residue of a magical attack against the ramparts, Helios.” She guided her horse forward. Slowly she rode within a couple of feet from the walls. She gestured. Her eyes glowed again. “Abair briseadh draoidheachd! Fosgail e a-rithist!”

For several long heartbeats, nothing happened. Tempus seemed as lost in the mist as the army did. Then her spell touched the repaired masonry along the wall. In the very place where Malodius had broken through, the energy coalesced into a revealing square of sorts.

As some might say a millennium or so later, x marked the spot or so it seemed…..

After isolating that area, Malice’s eldritch energies went to work. It burned into the still-forming mortar holding the fresh stones together. With each passing heartbeat, it absorbed and boosted its own efforts through the destructive process. In seemingly no time at all, the mortar disintegrated. The wall shook. That section came crashing down for the second time in a week.

“As I said.” She smirked triumphantly. “We have our access.”

Helios grinned. Fear and Admiration juxtaposed each other within him toward her. He shook his head knowing that she could indeed turn on him if she so desired. Still he also knew that their agendas still coincided where the city and the throne were concerned. She’d blown an entrance through the most supposedly impregnable fortification. He raised his sword allowing it to glint in the torches’ flame. “FORWARD!” With that he rode into the city and further spoils.

Behind him, the determined Southrons rushed ahead. Enthusiasm drowned out Exhaustion. Glory overwhelmed Restraint. They flowed like an angry storm against a breached coastal wall. Within two heartbeats further, they hustled through the city’s passages. Fire arrows flew from their bows setting thatch and wood ablaze. Their swords cut down both passersby and a few knights alike.

From the outer passage, Geoffrey and the hundred men spilled forth onto the cobbles. They surged through the open way reinforcing the other invaders’ presence within the ramparts.

“Get to the tower! We cannot let them ring the warning bells!” she commanded. “Onto the citadel!” She galloped toward the castle.

Helios frowned. She will get us all killed.

Sure enough, the bells’ peals echoed through the din alerting all to the threat now within the walls.

“YOU HEARD HER! ONTO THE CITADEL! WE WILL TAKE THE BOY KING!” Helios bellowed. He spurred his horse onward at a swift gallop through the lower town and up toward the market square. He determined to offer the defenders no chance to resist them. In short order, he’d crossed through the still open gates into the upper town. From the precious plans of the fortifications, he knew exactly where the knights would emerge to oppose them. He dismounted. “Now we’ll make sure it stays open!”

Around them, Mayhem’s symphony continued to play out. Plumes of smoke rose into the fog. Screams from the wounded and dying echoed to their ears. A few sounds of breaking glass and splintering wood could be heard.

Morgana rode into view from the alley to their left. She motioned toward the gate keepers’ barracks to their left. “I dealt with them, Helios. They won’t wake again soon.” Despite not being able to see the army’s handiwork, her nose and ears well discerned their handiwork. “Pray they do not destroy too much of the city. I do wish some spoils from these curs!” She sniffed. In her eyes, this destruction served as payback for those poor souls who’d suffered during the Great Purge and after. Even after I’ve killed you, Uther, I’ll wipe away your legacy. That starts with your bastard son! She frowned. Hatred blazed in her eyes.

Resistance finally presented itself at that point. Leon and Elyan stood at the head of a crimson cloaked defensive effort. A hundred strong, the chain mail wearing men raised their swords in preparation. Their boots stood firmly on the stones underneath their soles. Their brows knitted in determination. In most cases, Confidence would prove their ally. Morale would be surging. They were the best knights in the Five Kingdoms after all….

…that would be if they weren’t outnumbered at least fifteen to one….

Leon frowned. He spat at the ground in disgust. “How in blazes did they get in here?”

“You want to ask them?” Elyan retorted sharply. “Maybe if we survive this?” He slid his sword slowly from its scabbard. “Where’s Arthur?”

Leon glanced back toward the castle. Just behind them, he saw Arthur emerge through the oaken doors. “ALLOW THE KING TO PASS!” Still he saw no sign of either Gawain or Percival. “I believe that is the answer to your query, Elyan?”

“Yeah remind me that Gawain owes us a round for not being up front,” Elyan rebutted. Respect coaxed a nod of his head toward Arthur.

Arthur frowned at the massed Southron force entrenched between them and the lower city. His trained eye could see that the invaders had somehow breached the defenses and advanced through Camelot’s lower town. Furthermore he could tell the invaders badly outnumbered them.

“Arthur of Camelot, perhaps you might consider surrender?” Helios proposed from the head of his own soldiers. “Even now my men sack your town, destroy buildings and supplies and harm your subjects. Your time has come.”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “And who might you be?”

“I am Helios of the Southrons. I have united my people against Camelot and your tyranny. Yield now and I will spare your knights,” Helios put forth. His eyes met several of the followers’ faces around himself holding them in check. “And we do have the proper claim.”

“Proper claim? You are invaders!” Leon yelled at them. “Arthur is our King!”

“Such sentiments, Sir Leon! You should know better by now!” Morgana insisted. She rode her horse into the open. She waved her hand and allowed her eyes to glow once more.

In response, the spell flung Arthur backward smashing him into the citadel’s granite wall. His head and neck jerked awkwardly to somehow miss breaking against the unforgiving surface. Still his side burned from the impact. He felt his knee throb as he staggered to his feet.

“Sire! Get back!” Leon pleaded.

Arthur braced himself against the door. He slowly shook his head. “Still…still you do this, Morgana? Why can’t we live in peace?”

“Why can’t you live in peace with my kind, Dear Brother?” she hissed. “I do hope you try to fight. I want you out of my misery already!”

“I…I won’t give you the satisfaction.” Arthur started to draw Excalibur from its scabbard. “FOR THE LOVE OF CAMELOT!!!” Every breath he drew seared his lungs. His legs sagged like rubber but he would not surrender to pain or anything else without a fight. “FORWARD!!”

At that moment, Percival opened the door. Disgust ground in his stomach over the situation. Anger over not facing the invaders head on marred his mood. “Leon, hold them! I’ve got Arthur!”

“Percival, we have our duty! S…Stop! Our people….” Arthur protested weakly. He wavered on his feet.

“You won’t help them if you’re dead, Arthur. Come on!” Percival pointed out. He pulled the King inside of the citadel.

“We’ll give you as long as we can!!” Leon affirmed. He rushed forward leading a glinting charge of defenders toward the Southron flank.

“They’ve chosen their lot! TAKE THEM!” Helios bellowed. He charged his horse toward the approaching defenders.

The rouge colored defenders’ steel met the defenders’ blades.

The Battle for Camelot was on again, it seemed…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 [Physicians’ Chamber]

Merlin slowly eased himself to his feet. His legs still wobbled slightly. Spats of numbness still stuck at his arms and back. The room still shifted ever so slightly. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again to make things seem normal again. Still he had to wonder about what had just happened to him. He knew it wasn’t an attack. Rather it was like he’d reached out and received an answer of sorts. Warmth and Support had made him feel lighter than air. He reached up slowly and rubbed his forehead.

“Easy, Merlin. I still wish you’d lie down,” Gaius insisted. The Eyebrow arched significantly. Relief eased Anxiety’s grip over his senses at the returning color in the younger man’s cheeks. Still Doubt filled his mind. He wondered about what had happened. Despite Merlin’s insistence that he didn’t use magic, the evidence about the chamber seemed to say otherwise. Did he try something to make a cure or perhaps find help? He glanced out the window.

Despite the murky fog outside, the approaching torches floated through it clearly enough. The clashing of swords echoed to his ears.

“Arthur needs me. I can’t,” Merlin insisted. With effort, he staggered across the granite floor. He grimaced at the strewn herbs. “Tremendous! Can’t anything go right?”

“So it was something you did?” Gaius asked. Although he realized that the present moment wasn’t the best time to be asking such things.

Merlin shook his head. “I didn’t do anything, Gaius.” He grabbed for a broom. Slowly he swept up the mess with halting and small motions into a pile. “It’s like magic reached out to me.”

“Reached out to you? Whatever do you mean?” Gaius stared at him. Incredulity numbed his mind for a heartbeat as he struggled to understand.

Merlin shrugged. “I don’t know. I was mixing a tincture for you. Then I felt this rush and warmth. It felt like I was floating. Then I saw this white light. Next thing I know you’re standing over me.” He slowly ambled over to the waste basket with the refuse and dumped it therein.

“It could be an attack or someone trying to contact you,” Gaius theorized. “Are you certain Kilgarrah did not tell you anything else?”

“About what?” Merlin leaned against the wall. He sucked in a few more breaths to compose himself anew. “He didn’t tell me anything other than someone owed my father a life debt. I do know who it is though.”

“What?” Gaius stared at him. “You know the person?”

“He isn’t a person…not exactly. You saw him too. It’s Malodius the Lion. He knew my father or so he told me,” Merlin revealed.

“He told you?” Gaius arched The Eyebrow again. “Merlin, he’s a lion. He didn’t speak.”

“He uses telepathy much as Kilgarrah does.” Merlin rubbed his temples again feeling the pounding there again. “Maybe we can talk about this later?” He looked about the chamber. “Maybe there are some cures we can pack up?”

Gaius clearly heard the increasing frequency of metal striking metal downstairs. His eyes beheld the swarm of seeming fireflies infesting the town and surrounding them. “Not with what we’ll need to carry. We can’t desert the King. Besides where would we go?”

“Haven’t thought that far ahead yet frankly.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Right now, we need to get to Arthur.” He pushed off of the granite wall and labored to the door. He opened the heavy oaken barrier with effort. Then the sight he beheld made his eyes go wide. “ARTHUR? Percival, what happened?”

Percival frowned. “Somehow Morgana led an army through our defenses! Arthur’s wounded. We’re surrounded. Can you do something?”

Gaius rushed to the King’s side. “I can’t tell until we get him to lie down.”

“Gaius, no time,” Arthur insisted; his tone almost sounding half asleep or drunk. “Get me…patched up. Need to get back to the battle.”

“You’re in no shape to fight, Sire.” Gaius countered. “I need to examine you. I….”

At that moment, Gawain ran up the stairs. “Bloody mess this is!” He huffed. “They just broke in!”

“Blast! Morgana will know we’re here.” Percival turned to the two physicians. “We have only a few minutes.”

“Have to fight…have….” Arthur insisted. His hand reached for his sword again.

Merlin set his jaw. He knew Arthur would never go along with a retreat at this point. He understood that dragging his friend and master would take too long and attract too much attention. He leaned close to the King and whispered, “Cadal.” His eyes glinted briefly.

Arthur slumped and fell asleep on cue.

“Arthur! ARTHUR!” Merlin exclaimed for effect. He caught the sleeping Arthur under the arms. With great effort, he managed to keep the King from hitting the floor.

Gawain braced the door with a few chairs. “That won’t keep ‘em out for long. You two go! Get him out of here!” He motioned. “Use the back passage!”

“We’ll hold them,” Percival declared. He nodded to his fellow Knight of the Round Table.

“That’s suicide and you know it. We can use your swords,” Merlin insisted. He stumbled as quickly as he could across the chamber. “Help me with this wardrobe.”

“What the bloody Devil?” Percival ran over to the servant’s side. He shoved the wooden furniture piece away to the left to find a door hidden behind it. “That was there?”

“So it seems,” Gawain assessed. “We can debate the merits later. Right now there’s a party goin’ I want no part of.”

“That’s a change for you,” Percival jabbed. He took Arthur’s arms. “Get his feet.”

“Sure, Percy, let me get the royal stink factories. How big of you.” Gawain rolled his eyes. He grabbed the King’s feet and helped carry Arthur into the now open passage. “Gaius, comin’?”

“I’ll slow you down!” Gaius disagreed. “Go.” He looked to Merlin. “I can deal with whatever they do to me. Go with Arthur and protect him. Make sure he’s safe.”

“You’re coming too, Gaius. We’ll argue later. Sorry.” Merlin’s eyes glinted again. He motioned with his head toward the passage.

Gaius staggered. As if pushed by some invisible force, he almost flew across the room and into the passage after the two knights.

Merlin frowned almost as if he’d eaten an extremely sour apple. His ears now heard the Southrons’ boots coming up the stairs. He knew they only had a brief time before the invaders reached the chamber door. He staggered toward the chamber door. Once inside the hidden passage, his eyes glowed once more. He moved his hand and closed the door behind himself.

Within seconds, the wardrobe had slid back into place obscuring the escape route in question. The dust disturbed by the movement settled back into its old position….

…and just in time it seemed….

 

****

 

Five heartbeats later, the Southrons reached the chamber door. They pounded on it in vain. They yelled and cajoled the men they still believed to be in there to no avail.

Morgana rolled her eyes. “The door’s stout oak. Get away from there.” She narrowed her eyes. She wasn’t about to be cheated of her prize. She would capture Arthur and make him suffer. She’d take the crown and torture him for a while. She’d kill him slowly and by degree much as she had Uther in recompense for their actions to her and hers. She pointed at the door. “Fosgailte!”

The lock rattled. The door’s inner bolt undid itself allowing the oak barrier to swing open.

Satisfaction plastered a grin across her face. Purpose pushed her into Gaius’ chamber. She would not allow the two knights or the lapdog servant anytime to scheme or come up with a way to save Arthur from his deserved fate. She surveyed the room and ground her teeth. “They’re not here? They have to be!” She rushed about the area. She stuck her head in the back bedroom. “This is where they’d come!”

“Perhaps. On the other hand, they’d have moved on. They wouldn’t be here if they’d know this would be the first place we’d look,” Helios disagreed. He wanted to move on in their search. Still he wasn’t ready to cross the priestess (at least not at the moment). Still he decided to indulge her. He motioned to his followers to search the area. He himself looked about the chamber but found nothing.

The followers returned a few minutes later empty handed.

“There now! It seems that they left before we got here.” Helios motioned to the strewn herbs. He batted the stagnant odor away from his face.

She frowned. Now that Anger had sharpened her senses anew, she knew Brimstone’s stench well. “This is sorcery.” She slapped the worktable. “EMRYS! It had to be him!”

“Milady, he isn’t here.” Helios forced himself to remain composed. While he wanted to keep her on point, he wasn’t in the mood for one of her rants against the imagined legend. He only knew that Emrys as a myth…a druidic hope. He didn’t think an old man (if he did truly exist) could’ve bothered with a fallen King and his ingrate followers. “The doors are secured. We hold the palace. There’s nowhere for Arthur to go. He’s here. We’ll find him. It’s a matter of time.”

“You don’t know that!” she insisted. She shuddered. “I can make sure.”

“Save your spells, Morgana,” Helios disagreed. “I’ll double the guard and make sure that no one gets in or out.”

She bit her lip. Frustration burned within her heart. “All right.” She looked back down the passage. “I’ll find out from the others. Come.” She wheeled around and stalked out of the chamber.

Helios shook his head. He followed her deciding to watch her carefully.

Even among the closest of allies, disagreements did arise it seemed…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 [Nemeth]

Despite the dark’s apparent peace, Insecurity unsettled the landscape there as well. Animals scurried from place to place seeking a secure hiding place. Birds sent Panic’s missives to one another. Stiff winds burned Spring’s emerald leaves streaking the trees with crimsons, yellows and oranges reserved for Autumn’s time later in the year. Even the stars seemed to twinkle out of rhythm.

Even Luna herself donned a blood cloak for the occasion lamenting Tragedy’s turn in the east. Her pale light washed the entire landscape in a dire backdrop as well.

Some stirred from sleep. Others never got to that point. And another rode frantically toward the citadel.

 

****

 

[Dirt Road—Ten Leagues from Whitgate]

A white steed rushed up the path. His hooves flashed in the rouge light barely touching the ground enough underneath to stir the dirt. His breaths heaved ragged from his chest. Still Duty and Obligation pushed him further for the knight on his back and the kingdom they both served.

The emerald clad rider glanced back over his shoulder. He shivered but not from the chill. His long russet mane stuck to his neck but not from weather. Fear cut through his heart. Alarm pushed him to urge his mount on. Loyalty told him to notify his rulers with due haste. With only a few brief breaks to rest, eat a bite or allow his companion a drink from a stream crossing their way, the knight rushed from Southron territory. He couldn’t believe Helios hadn’t pursued him knowing the news he bore. He didn’t want to believe the size of that army marching toward Camelot….

…an army that could very well turn its sights on Nemeth next….

He struggled to imagine how the Southrons had organized in this fashion. Yes they knew well how to fight. They had excellent skills and trade knowledge. Still their clannishness and internal divisions had split them for generations. They’d fought against each other rather than unify. No leader could unify them…at least not until now.

Who’s this Helios? What kind of charisma does he have? His mind spun anew. He tried to piece together the disjointed puzzle in front of himself. Still given Distraction’s hold over his thinking, he had little success in that regard. I’ll be in Nemeth by sunrise. The King and Council will hear of this then,

He spurred his horse onward once again toward the citadel ahead.

 

****

 

[Mithian’s Chamber]
[A/N: Don’t look now but it seems Mithian’s bond with Merlin runs deeper than even she guessed!]

Mithian tossed and turned in a fitful sleep. Despite the supportive visit from Blancheflor and Britomart, a relaxed slumber eluded her. Tension stiffened her neck and back. Sweat dampened her brow despite the air’s relative chill. Her mind spun on its axis faster and faster much like a demented top. Her hands clenched the sheets.

Then her mood eased. Euphoria offered momentary bliss. She relaxed for a few moments feeling as if she were floating above the bed. Her heart beat to Amor’s tune. A wanting sigh escaped her lips. Contentment coaxed a smile from her formerly terse mouth. Her hands relinquished their stranglehold on the sheets. She turned onto her back. Even asleep, Instinct urged her to reach forth into the darkness and toward the eastern chamber window…..

….toward the east….toward Camelot and a certain Warlock….

For some reason, she felt his presence close by. Much like after he’d returned the necklace to her, she could almost feel him. Still, after being so tense, she wasn’t about to question the feeling. On the contrary, she readily surrendered to Giddiness’ charge to her heart. She giggled in her sleep not caring if this was simply a dream or something else. Frankly she didn’t care at that point.

Her heart beat in tune with Merlin’s. Somehow she knew that.

His heart beat in tune with hers. Somehow she knew that too.

“Merlin? Are you there?” she called out. Her hands reached out in that direction.

Unfortunately Emotion flipped on its side. Whereas Warmth and Amor had lifted her heart to unknown heights, now Pain seared into her brain. A white light startled her. Her eyes snapped open. She sat up in bed. “MERLIN!!” Her breaths cascaded from her lips in ragged bursts. Her eyes flitted about the room. Her mind struggled to cope with the unfamiliar emotions besieging it….

…emotions coming from Camelot….

Fear, Alarm and Urgency struck at her from behind the haze. Somehow Merlin, as he always did, was shaking off whatever had attacked him. Loyalty surged through him. Focus directed him. Then an icy burning shot through her jarring her again. One word seemed to echo in his thoughts.

Morgana….

Mithian rubbed her forehead. She tried to assuage the buzzing in her temples. She blinked in a vain effort to reset her sensibilities. What happened? She eased her way out of bed. She almost tip toed across the granite floor as if it were egg shells. She pulled her robe on knowing that its velvet embrace often did comfort her. Alas even that refuge eluded her.

Then the icy burning stabbed through her again. Her limbs contorted. She ground her teeth lest she’d scream and awaken the whole court in the process. What’s going on? What’s that witch doing to him? I…. She collapsed into her chair and gazed forlornly into the looking glass. What’s happening in Camelot? Bloody Hell! Why aren’t we closer? Why can’t I help? She studied her troubled reflection. If you’re lost, Merlin, you can come here! We’ll protect you!

Then the glass’ image blurred. Its haze formed into a scene…a scene from a familiar chamber to the east….

“Arthur! ARTHUR!” Merlin exclaimed. He caught the sleeping Arthur under the arms. With great effort, he managed to keep the King from hitting the floor.

Gawain braced the door with a few chairs. “That won’t keep ‘em out for long. You two go! Get him out of here!” He motioned. “Use the back passage!”

“We’ll hold them,” Percival declared. He nodded to his fellow Knight of the Round Table.

“That’s suicide and you know it. We can use your swords,” Merlin insisted. He stumbled as quickly as he could across the chamber. “Help me with this wardrobe.”

“What the bloody Devil?” Percival ran over to the servant’s side. He shoved the wooden furniture piece away to the left to find a door hidden behind it. “That was there?”

“So it seems,” Gawain assessed. “We can debate the merits later. Right now there’s a party goin’ I want no part of.”

“That’s a change for you,” Percival jabbed. He took Arthur’s arms. “Get his feet.”

“Sure, Percy, let me get the royal stink factories. How big of you.” Gawain rolled his eyes. He grabbed the King’s feet and helped carry Arthur into the now open passage. “Gaius, comin’?”

“I’ll slow you down!” Gaius disagreed. “Go.” He looked to Merlin. “I can deal with whatever they do to me. Go with Arthur and protect him. Make sure he’s safe.”

“You’re coming too, Gaius. We’ll argue later. Sorry.” Merlin’s eyes glinted again. He motioned with his head toward the passage.

Gaius staggered. As if pushed by some invisible force, he almost flew across the room and into the passage after the two knights.

Merlin frowned almost as if he’d eaten an extremely sour apple. His ears now heard the Southrons’ boots coming up the stairs. He knew they only had a brief time before the invaders reached the chamber door. He staggered toward the chamber door. Once inside the hidden passage, his eyes glowed once more. He moved his hand and closed the door behind himself.

Within seconds, the wardrobe had slid back into place obscuring the escape route in question. The dust disturbed by the movement settled back into its old position….

With that, her view into the chamber faded. The haze blurred things once again. When her eyes cleared, she saw her reflection again. “What? How did I…?” Her heart pounded like a jackhammer. Still she had her answers.

Camelot was under attack from Morgana among others. Arthur was badly hurt. Merlin, despite his own weakness, guided Percival, Gawain and Gaius into a hidden passage to spirit the King away from Danger’s fire.

But Confirmation stuck in her mind. Reality had cast aside Merlin’s mask.

He used magic. He was a sorcerer….

A bloody sorcerer…..

He has magic. She nodded as Understanding eased her mood. And as always, he’s using it for Arthur. Once more, as at the royal court during Merlin’s trial, she rolled her eyes. How can he be doing this? How can he use his magic for someone who’d kill him for it? She rolled her eyes at that thought. Because he’s Merlin that’s why! Quit being such a prat, Mithian! We have to help them. She forced herself from her chair and stumbled across the chamber. She gazed out the window toward the woods. She sighed. You aren’t alone, Merlin. We know. We….

She felt Confusion not as strongly as the previous emotions. Still it was there. She could almost feel Merlin looking around….

….looking for her….

He heard me? I…. Mithian blinked incredulously not understanding how that could be.

We all did, Milady, a strange voice declared. It seems your hidden talent finally emerges.

Her eyes darted about. As she’d felt from Merlin, her mind filled with Wonder’s numbness. “Where are you? I don’t see anyone but I can hear you.”

Of course you can. You and I both speak and experience things like this, the curious male voice assured her. If you wish further answers, Princess, please come to the top of the Keep. I keep watch here as always.

Keep watch? How do I know you aren’t trying to trap me? You could be Morgana Pendragon’s lackey, she doubted.

True. But if you don’t, you won’t know what you need to about Merlin. Now will you? Now come before I have to alert the court. News approaches, my Lady. I only seek as always to do my duty to King Rodor and you. The way is clear there, the Voice continued.

All right, she relented. Doubt filled her mind. Still Purpose set her steps. She opened the door and stole out into the dimly lit passage. Is there a sorcerer right under our noses? After all this time, he chooses to come out. Why now though? She eased her door shut. Then she pressed on toward the staircase, the aforementioned perch and the rendezvous beyond…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 [Top of the Tower—Twenty Minutes Earlier]

The blood moon washed the landscape in her crimson hue. Not a cloud obscured her or the surrounding stars from their view of that area at least. Still Horror’s vibrations spilled into the Gedref and then there in turn.

And one pair of eyes picked up on it as always…..

 

****

 

Malodius surveyed Whitgate from high above the landscape. His keen eyes swept over the fortified town beneath him. He looked toward the clearing and the woods beyond. The chill breeze ruffled his mane. His tail twitched this way and that. Ever reverent, he kept his eyes peeled.

Instinct told him something was off…..

He glanced toward the forest. No. Not the forest….beyond it….

…toward the east…toward Camelot….

He set his jaw. Can’t they stay out of trouble? The Boy King creates more issues for himself! He scoffed recalling the aborted trial and Agravaine’s machinations from the previous fortnight. He’d sensed Gwen’s connection at the dinner that evening. His ears picked up very clearly on how Arthur’s former fiancée spoke of Camelot and Merlin.

Merlin….Balinor’s Son….

It seems you have made yet another friend. Now who would seek to strike out at you? He focused on the vibrations emanating from Camelot. Like a salmon heading upstream to spawn, Obligation goaded him over the currents, against the rapids and the harsh resistance. Emotion’s maelstroms buffeted the lion’s sensibilities. Pain and Fear reeked in his nostrils like a noxious cloud. Satisfaction and Vengeance lingered just under that almost like a rancid parfait of sorts.

Whatever was going on, Merlin was in the midst of it. He was fearful and….

…now he was close by as well?

Malodius narrowed his eyes. He shook his head forcing a reboot of sorts. Then he focused anew. Once more he felt the bilocating auras both afar and nearby. He glanced down toward the courtyard below. There he saw Merlin’s washed out image watching Mithian’s window in turn for a few heartbeats. Then he saw it fade from view like a will-o-the-wisp. Now the boy can do astral projection? Truly? Merlin does have powerful magic indeed! He growled. Love is the magic.

Then a matching surge emanated from underneath his paws. A lonely heart spurred on by Amor’s bliss and Friendship’s obligation reached back toward the Warlock. An inner will and strength refused to be denied in it….

Princess Mithian? His gaze locked on the stones under paw…or rather toward the chamber three floors underneath. Memoria reminded him of the many examples of her insight. He recalled her kindness toward animals and those people supposedly underneath her privilege. He saw once more how she almost seemed to know how Response’s play would unfold before it actually did….

…almost like a psychic’s gift….

And now Balinor’s Son awakens it in her. He recalled his own words to Merlin before returning there. Truly his individual worth outweighs his social station. Once more the surge between the Princess and Warlock hummed to life. He felt Mithian’s tapping into it. Still out of respect for her privacy, he didn’t seek to discern the meat of her insight. Then he heard her again.

He heard me? I…. Mithian wondered.

Instinct would’ve offered a knowledgeable reply. Astuteness however stifled it in its tracks. He knew better than to potentially insult her. Even if she’d understand, he could feel Desperation’s burden upon her heart and mind. Instead he butted in, We all did, Milady. It seems your hidden talent finally emerges.

Where are you? I don’t see anyone but I can hear you, she called out both vocally and telepathically.

Of course you can. You and I both speak and experience things like this, he assured her. If you wish further answers, Princess, please come to the top of the Keep. I keep watch here as always.

Keep watch? How do I know you aren’t trying to trap me? You could be Morgana Pendragon’s lackey, she doubted.

True. But if you don’t, you won’t know what you need to about Merlin. Now will you? Now come before I have to alert the court. News approaches, my Lady. I only seek as always to do my duty to King Rodor and you. The way is clear there, he continued.

All right, she relented.

His brow furrowed under his mane. He’d guarded his telepathic abilities closely. Rather than advertise them openly, he’d acted reverently yet muted much like any animal might. Only when Necessity demanded otherwise did he lift Deception’s cloak and reveal his true visage….

…much as he’d done at Camelot’s court when he disrupted Morgana’s spell….

…now as he was doing with Mithian….

Curse the Witch! He growled deeply to himself. From the east, he perceived the building crescendo from Camelot. He knew Morgana’s malice would know no bounds there. Dragon! Dragon, I know you can hear me!

Now you contact me? Will wonders never cease! Kilgarrah jabbed. I am busy.

If it concerns Balinor’s Son, it concerns me, Dragon. That is why I call. It seems he has a great deal more than either he or you would admit. My mistress awakens as well, Malodius retorted sharply.

A girl stirs and this concerns me? Kilgarrah inquired.

Have a care! I speak of Princess Mithian. It seems the bond betwixt her and Merlin has solidified itself. Have you felt his psychic signature? The boy’s magic evolves. The Princess’ sensitivity increases. They are strengthening each other, Malodius clarified. He heard the door open to his perch. His eyes spied Mithian emerging from the stairs. He bowed to her. Princess.

Malodius? Truly?” She stared at him. Disbelief shook her. For years, she’d never more than a growl from his lips. She had never questioned his intelligence or loyalty. Purpose, she knew, had motivated him. “You can speak?”

I can speak to you telepathically, Milady. Forgive me for not doing so sooner. I only sensed your ability to do so tonight, Malodius noted.

She bit her lip. “Then you did something to me?”

I did nothing. I only sensed you reaching out to Merlin. I felt him reaching back. It seems you affected each other, Malodius explained further.

Much as you both have done to each other, Kilgarrah added.

She glanced around. Alarm stiffened her. “Now who? Who are you speaking with?”

Much as I look after you and serve you, it seems Merlin has his protector as well. You hear him speaking to us now, Malodius noted. Perhaps you might show yourself, Kilgarrah, instead of playing these games?

Games? I am not the one who pretends to be a mute, Great One. Still perhaps it is time we met. Look for me shortly, Kilgarrah advised.

Look for you? Are you in the castle? Do I know you? she asked.

I am not one of your subjects. As for who and what I am, you will see in a moment’s time. Look to the east, Kilgarrah told her.

She peered at Malodius. Curiosity and Mistrust created further questions in her mind. Look to the east? What is this?

Kilgarrah toys with you, my Lady. Forgive me. I only seek to introduce you to another in Merlin’s circle, Malodius apologized.

“Merlin’s circle? I know he has magic but….?” Her eyes went wide. “So I didn’t imagine seeing him? He actually heard me?”

He did, Princess, Kilgarrrah chimed in. Look now to the tree line. I am almost there.

Enough games, Kilgarrah! Show yourself! Malodius insisted.

As you wish. Kilgarrah swooped over the trees’ canopies. He descended toward the keep and landed with nary a tremor. His feet eased onto the stones. Greetings, Mithian of Nemeth. At last we meet. He added a nod toward her.

Surprise slackened her jaw. Shock rendered her mute stifling any response she might’ve had. “You…you’re a dragon!”

Why yes. I have been such since the day I was born, Kilgarrah replied almost mischievously. And you it seems have stirred much in my brother.

“Brother? I know no other dragons. Are there any others?” she questioned.

Kilgarrah snorted. There is one other but she is not the one of whom I speak. I am referring to Merlin of course. I do not need to speak to his current situation. Rather he, the Boy King, Gaius and two knights are refugees in the forest as we speak. Camelot has fallen to the Witch, I fear. Merlin will need aid in this matter, Lady.

She furrowed her brow not understanding how such a fantastic creature could exist much less be talking to her. Furthermore a potential tie between it and Merlin sent her mind into a further tailspin. Morgana has Camelot?

She has usurped the throne. Many of Arthur Pendragon’s knights have fallen or are being led to the dungeons as we speak, Kilgarrah reported. Her perfidy knows no bounds, I fear. He gnashed his fangs. I told Merlin to kill her when he had the chance.

She snorted. “And of course he wouldn’t. I don’t doubt Merlin’s kind heart. You can’t ask him to kill.” She looked at the Great Dragon again. “I didn’t say anything about Lady Morgana. Still I thought about her….”

Malodius and I can both hear your thoughts if we so wish, Princess, much as you hear me talking to you, Kilgarrah continued.

Still we have discretion. I respect your privacy at least, my Lady, Malodius assured her.

As if I have time to listen in on every mortal thought? Not likely! Summon your father and the court. Before you can recover Camelot, you will need to support Merlin. Kilgarrah looked back toward the forest. Well now! It seems we have confirmation!

“Confirmation?” She followed his glance to the woods. There she saw the emerald clad knight emerge from the trees. His steed rode hard down the hill and toward the drawbridge. “Now who?”

It is Sir Nicholas, Malodius clarified. He has word of the events. He raised his head to the sky and roared loudly alerting the city and court of the approaching rider.

Now who acts like the prat, Great One? Kilgarrah supposed sarcastically.

I watch as always, Dragon. My King needs to know no matter the hour. King Rodor knows I would not awaken him over trivial matters, Malodius rebutted.

“We shall see to Sir Nicholas presently. Perhaps we can speak further then?” she supposed. “I did not get your name.”

It is Kilgarrah, Princess. Kilgarrah bowed to her. Then he flapped his wings and ascended into the starry skies overhead. He banked east and flew from sight back toward Merlin’s position.

She sucked in a breath. She still struggled to believe what was happening around herself. Merlin not only has magic but a connection to such a magnificent creature? What is he doing serving Arthur? It is unbelievable!

My Lady, we have our duty. Questions, while important, can wait until the current crisis…with your indulgence, Malodius reminded her.

“Of course. Thank you, Malodius.” She marveled at how she could understand him. “Father will want to know of such things. Come.”

I live to serve, Princess. Malodius followed her toward the door and passage there.

Questions and further observations awaited. First though, a crisis needed resolution.

And Duty would brook no delay……

Chapter Text

Chapter 12
[Whitgate’s Physician’s Chamber—A Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Mithian sipped absently on a steaming cup of tea. Her mind struggled to doggie paddle with Chaos’ maelstrom frothing and rushing around herself. Disbelief numbed her sensibilities. Her mind picked up on the different emotions in the chamber. She could feel Merlin’s desperation. She’d discovered that Malodius could speak albeit telepathically. More over she’d met a real dragon. A real dragon!

Merlin….

She frowned. She struggled to contain her feelings. Instinct screamed at her. She wanted to just jump on a horse and ride off in search of the Warlock. She had questions about so many things. She wanted to know more about his magic. She needed to understand their shared mental-empathic link. Her mind bubbled with questions about Kilgarrah. Most importantly though, he was wandering in the woods. She felt the chill bite through his clothes and redden his skin. She felt Purpose guiding his care of Arthur.

Arthur….

She shook her head. Rejection had long lost its sting in that way. Acceptance had acted as a balm to that wound. She could clearly see how much Arthur and Gwen wanted each other. She’d vowed to do everything to make sure that union would come to pass. She desired Peace’s dominion across the Five Realms. Even if Morgana didn’t….

Morgana….

She shuddered. What is with that woman? What is her problem? She pondered what precious little she knew about the old religion and its priestesses. Those siding with Uther Pendragon and Camelot told of wicked demons who sowed Misery and Discord’s rancid crop across the countryside. Still there were a few who recalled the priestesses’ kindness. They tended the sick. They fed and clothed the hungry. Even during the Purge, they risked punishment, exile and execution to follow Duty’s call. And yet Morgana hates so much. Can’t she see that isn’t the Way! Both as a priestess and a royal, she has to serve not crave power! She took a deep breath. Maybe that’s why Merlin was chosen for his role. A fleeting smile spread across her face. Her heart skipped a beat. Pride lifted her spirits. You are worthy, Merlin, for so many reasons!

“Milady?” Britomart tapped her on the shoulder.

“Hmm?” Mithian stirred from her reverie. “Britomart, I’m sorry. My mind wanders. How is Sir Nicholas?”

“He rests now. Master Wyngate gave him a tincture.” Britomart looked toward the sleeping visitor. “He seemed frightened. I can’t imagine an army that size!” She shuddered. Despite not admitting to it aloud, the thought of Gawain facing that horde sent chills up and down her spine.

“We must have faith,” Mithian insisted. She steeled herself. “Our good will and fortune will carry us through this crisis.”

“I can hope,” Britomart presumed. “With your leave, I shall go and help prepare the chamber for the council meeting.”

“Granted with my thanks,” Mithian noted. “We shall speak again soon.” After Britomart curtseyed and departed, she walked over to the elderly physician’s side. “Thank you for tending to him, Master Wyngate.”

“You’re quite welcome, my Lady. It is but my duty to do so.” He turned toward the sleeping knight. “Sir Nicholas endured quite the ride to deliver his news. I do wish he’d sleep for a while longer. The King will need to hear his news.”

She mused on that for a moment. “We can cross that bridge when we get to it. Meantime Father would not want him to further sicken himself on our account. We have the details to take to the Council. I’d rather Sir Nicholas rests. I’m sure the King would agree.”

“Indeed he would,” he concurred. He straightened his robes. “Speaking of King Rodor, I believe he awaits us.”

He awaits us? What about Merlin? Is he all right out there? She bit her lip while following the physician from the chamber.

 

****

 

[Gwen’s Chamber]

Gwen stirred from uneasy sleep. Turmoil shook her up. Loneliness burned her heart. She rolled over onto her back. Her eyes bore up into the ceiling overhead. Ill at Ease unsettled her. Somehow she knew….

Arthur was in danger….

Morgana. Gwen rubbed her forehead. Despite her former mistress and prospective sister-in-law’s venom and malice, she remembered the kind young woman of days long gone. Memoria reminded her of how Morgana had stood with her friends. She also recalled Morgana’s standing up to Uther on principle. Then she sucked in a deep composing breath allowing the moment to fade. She set her jaw. You know she’s too far gone. Morgause and Uther turned her. There’s no hope.

No that woman was gone. The willful harpy at Camelot’s gate had subsumed her.

What’s happening? Is Arthur hurt? Morgana, what have you done this time? She ground her teeth and rose from the bed. Her eyes scanned the dark chamber. Despite being alone, she could feel something else. Panic struck at her. She glanced toward the door. I should let Rodor and Mithian know. Still if I awoke them over nothing, I’d be the bigger fool. She sighed. Mithian barely trusts me as it is. She glanced back at the rumpled bed. I’ll never sleep now anyhow. She grabbed her clothes and stepped behind the screen. No. She would know. She’ll understand. She pulled on her boots. Here goes. She has to understand. She unlatched the door and stepped out into the hall. She almost jumped in surprise upon seeing Mithian and Master Wyngate approaching her.

“Guinevere, are you all right?” Mithian asked with concern.

“I couldn’t sleep. I just have a bad feeling that something’s gone wrong in Camelot,” Gwen lamented. “I wish I could shake this sense of dread.” She folded her arms across her chest.

“We are just on our way to discuss that matter with the King and Council.” Mithian considered Gwen for a heartbeat. Then she turned to the physician. “I understand that our meetings are closed for the most part. Perhaps though she might come with us on this occasion? She might have information about Morgana Pendragon and her motivations.”

“It would be up to King Rodor.” He looked the guest over. “As far as the information you’d have, I have no objection to you being with us. You’d add insight and experience to our discussion. Again though it’s up to the King.”

Mithian nodded. “I couldn’t have said it better myself. Follow us, Guinevere. I would like to hear what you’d say.” She smiled allowing Encouragement to grant Trust a bit bigger foothold in their relations. She led them down the hall and toward the stairs beyond.

Gwen stifled Anxiety’s butterflies. I hope they’ll trust me. Camelot can’t fall to Morgana. It can’t! She willed herself after the hosts pulling her tired feet over each crevice and stone.

This wasn’t going to be easy…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 [Royal Council Chamber—A Half Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Mithian gazed out the window into the deep nightscape. Despite Urgency’s brewing need behind her, her eyes remained riveted to the mist laden forest beyond Whitgate’s walls. Her mind pushed through the murk. Worry spurred her heartbeat. She bit her lip. Where is he? Is he all right?

Around her, the others’ emotions spiked. Optimism clashed with Doubt. Drowsiness numbed the minds therein. Annoyance flared over the early call from beds and comforts galore. With each new courtier, knight or guest entering the area, the intensity grew.

She rubbed her forehead. She didn’t understand how her newfound sensitivity functioned. She struggled to cope with the clashing emotional forces in that chamber. The empathic static throbbed in her temples. It seemed all she could do just to maintain the Mask of State. She glanced over at Malodius who sat in the corner with Ywain and Galahad. How does he deal with this? I can’t believe he can actually speak with thoughts. And that there’s a dragon that knows Merlin too? Really?

To say that Incredulity was rocking her world at that moment would’ve been a grotesque understatement indeed…..

I shouldn’t be so selfish! Blancheflor worries about Sir Percival. Britomart frets over Sir Gawain even if she won’t admit it. Guinevere wants to be with Arthur. Father concerns himself over Morgana’s threat as well he should do. They’ll understand my concern over Merlin. She noted two other men in brown robes speaking with Master Wyngate. She saw Blancheflor reassuring Gwen at the council table. As always, Britomart maintained a polished façade while setting the table for the coming meeting. They wait for me to act as a Princess not as a lovesick girl. I must be strong.

Aye, Milady. Be strong but remember you are human. You are allowed to love.

She forced herself to remain in place. She restrained herself from turning toward Malodius. I wish I could. I wish you could speak aloud. I guess we both need to maintain appearances. She sighed.

Malodius barely beat an eyelash. He kept his eyes riveted across the chamber to maintain their secret. We must obscure the truth for a time, Princess. We serve the Greater Good in all things. Do not ignore Love’s call. Fate will move us all in whatever direction she deems fit. That will happen whether it is convenient to our respective agendas or not.

She placed her hand on the glass. How she wished she had magic. She’d transform herself into a bird or another dragon. Then she could fly in pursuit of Camelot’s refugees. She set her jaw. Even if I could, I do not have that luxury. She turned back toward the others. She walked a few steps toward the table. Her mind continued to struggle with the balance in all things.

Rodor met her at that point. He’d watched her struggle from across the room. In much the same way, he struggled between his roles with King and Father. On the one hand, he wanted to caution and comfort her on her heart’s motivations. He’d tried to be both mother and father to Mithian especially after his beloved Taene’s death a decade earlier. Perhaps too much, he’d included his precocious daughter in every aspect of his life. He’d brought her into a man’s world. Maybe that’s why many men had shied away from the marriage compact. However, as King, he needed Mithian to be at his side. He didn’t need another diplomatic incident such as what had happened during Merlin’s trial. He understood though that she was the ambassador. He cleared his throat allowing the mask to fall back over his face. “Are you all right, Mithian?”

“Aye, Sire.” She exhaled Uncertainty’s butterflies. “We have a threat to deal with. If Morgana has taken Camelot, she could turn on us next. We should be prepared.” Despite her attempt to maintain appearances, she wrung her hands in front of herself.

“Indeed we should.” He squeezed her left hand gently. “We must have faith and trust in our allies. Arthur of Camelot has survived other battles and ordeals. He can get through this one as well. We will offer whatever help we can. Now however it is time to gather information and make such plans.”

“It is. Thank you, Sire.” She nodded to him. Respect’s glimmer sparkled in her eyes for him. Then she headed toward her seat just to the right of his at the council table.

Seeing the two resident royals moving toward their positions, Silence stunted the conversations. Purpose turned the participants’ attention toward the affair at hand. Their minds snapped to attention. Concern shifted from individual needs to that of the Greater Good. They bowed to their hosts.

Rodor motioned with open hands. “Thank you. Please take your seats. We have an urgent matter before us. Britomart, please serve the others.”

“Aye, Milord.” Britomart buried her issues in Service’s cause. She quietly circulated among the guests filling each of their goblets from her wine pitcher. With measured strength, she steadied her hands to best pour the liquid into its waiting vessels. She regulated her breaths to check Emotion’s fire within herself.

As the latter served her, Mithian smiled at her friend. She nodded ever so briefly. Reassurance and Support glowed toward Britomart. “Thank you.”

“As always, I live to serve, my Lady,” Britomart replied without missing a beat. “You and our Liege both.” She filled Rodor’s goblet to the level she knew he’d like. “Is that satisfactory, Milord?”

“It is as always. Thank you,” Rodor expressed. While not as close as his daughter to the maid, he didn’t question her loyalty toward his court or its members. He knew better than to question that. Rather he offered a simple nod.

Gwen accepted a half goblet full. She looked around the table. She anticipated that the knights and counselors would not take her seriously. She knew that Arthur’s devotion to Equality’s cause held little weight in that place as in most others. She took a burgundy draught allowing the taste to coat her mouth. She leaned back in her chair. Will they understand the threat to their safety? What will they do? Will they abandon Camelot to its fate?

Rodor tapped his forefinger on the polished wood. His eyes met Mithian’s and then the others. “Camelot is under attack. Information reached us last night of a large army marching toward it. Morgana Pendragon, the Witch and claimant to its throne, and a man named Helios lead the Southrons toward that point. I have called you all together to discuss what we should do.”

A slender man with rouge and white peppered hair and a wicked looking scar running down the left side of his face frowned. “Begging your Majesty’s pardon, but what is the source? We should have heard something.”

“Three sources have come to us, Lord Aethelwald,” Rodor indicated. He furrowed his brow and curled his lip ever so slightly. “Master Wyngate, what has Sir Nicholas told you?”

The physician cleared his throat. “Sir Nicholas rests in my chambers, Good Lords. He is exhausted after riding hard to reach us with the account. He rambled a bit. Perhaps though you might ask Lady Blancheflor and Guinevere of Camelot for further detail?” He motioned toward the two visitors sitting across the table from himself.

I wish I could come forward with the news of Camelot’s fall, Mithian lamented. She wanted to push the information out into the open. She knew it would light a fire to prompt Urgency’s cause. Still she knew her father and the others would question said-account’s veracity and demand to know her source. She couldn’t expose Malodius or Kilgarrah…

…she wouldn’t expose either knowing said-exposure would pull her beloved Warlock into the open as well…..

“Yes,” Rodor agreed. “Perhaps our recently arrived guests can share their report with you all as well?”

Blancheflor cleared her throat. “I have not seen the army for myself, King Rodor. I do trust Guinevere with this information. She says she has seen the threat for herself. I have known her to be honest and true with her views. I also know her loyalty to Camelot’s court and to King Arthur. As if anyone needs further mention of the Lady Morgana’s hate toward Camelot, I have heard plenty from Sir Percival of her schemes against them. But as for Guinevere, I believe her to the point that I left my reeve in charge of harvest to accompany her here.”

The courtiers averted their eyes. A few coughed into their clenched fists in disdain. Bad enough to be pulled from their beds’ rest and the pleasures therein but to have to take the word of a peasant? They appreciated Master Wyngate’s assessment. Perhaps Blancheflor would have presented the information in her own right. Maybe the knights would suggest a strategy to either relieve the city or reinforce Arthur’s current position.

But Guinevere? Really?

Gwen hesitated for a few heartbeats. For a single heartbeat, she gauged those around her. She sipped on her goblet. Then she coughed.

“Yes well. Perhaps the Maid might know something? What can she tell us? “ Aethelwald sneered. He stared at Gwen. “This one was unfaithful to Arthur of Camelot. He exiled her. Why should we believe her? Why should we take the word of a lowly whore?”

Mithian’s eyes narrowed. Anger and Indignation boiled and frothed in her heart. Her lip curled. She slapped the table. “ENOUGH! Guinevere has ridden far to bring us this news! King Rodor and I have heard her account. She has convinced us of its merit. Do you think we’d bring this to you for nothing, Lord Aethelwald? If anyone would have reason to dismiss or disdain her, it would be me! I believe her. Arthur was wrong to dismiss her as he did! In spite of everything, I believe in her. King Rodor believes in her. Think what you will. You will listen to what she says. You will give her account its due consideration.” She sucked in a deep breath to compose herself.

“Well spoke, Daughter.” Rodor turned to Gwen. “We will speak on this later, Aethelwald. Meantime, Guinevere, please present your case. We are listening.”

Mithian glanced toward Gwen. Affirmation smoothed the way for her former rival to speak. She offered the briefest of nods to blow away Resistance’s last impediments.

Gwen cleared her throat. She stood and bowed to their hosts. “I appreciate your hospitality, King Rodor and Princess Mithian. I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure how’d you receive me. Given that I bear news of the threat to Camelot, I would hope that the court would hear my plea for intervention.” She took in another breath. “During my exile, the village in which I’d taken refuge was overrun by a hostile force. Their leader, a man named Helios, saved me from being killed like many of the other villagers. While in his company, I overheard him talking to Morgana about their potential invasion of Camelot. I immediately fled to relay the news to King Arthur. Even if delivering it would mean my execution, I couldn’t allow those I care for to be threatened by Morgana’s malice. Helios and his Southron army will not stop until they’ve killed everything in sight and put the countryside to the torch. If Camelot falls, how much longer can anyone hold out? She will not stop until she dominates the Five Kingdoms.” She bowed her head. “I would not trouble you with this if it were not serious.”

“We know that, Guinevere. Thank you,” Rodor assured her. He considered the councilors’ expressions. “What of your minds on this?”

“A russet haired man next to Aethelwald chimed in, “Sire, I have heard much of the witch Morgana. I would be inclined to take Guinevere’s word in that regard at least. It is not the first time she would lead a massive force against her brother’s kingdom.”

“She and her sister, Morgause, led an army against us a year ago. She held Uther a prisoner and usurped the throne. King Arthur and his knights finally retook the city with great effort and sacrifice. Now, before we can properly recover, she pushes her bile and spite upon us again,” Gwen concurred grimly.

“Aye. She would not stop with Camelot. Knowing our alliance, she’d strike at us next,” Rodor anticipated. “Sir Galahad, how long would it take for you to prepare an expeditionary force?”

Galahad glanced at Ywain who nodded back at him. Then he turned back to his liege. “The knights could leave before the sun is far above the horizon. After the bells have tolled, we’d meet within two turns of the hourglass, my Lord and Princess.”

Rodor rubbed his chin. “Are there any objections?”

The council maintained its silence. They understood the need for intervention in the matter at hand.

Relief washed across Mithian’s heart and mind. She exchanged hopeful glances with Blancheflor and Gwen knowing that a relief force would soon be underway to assist their beloveds. “Perhaps we might bolster the reserves, Sire?”

Rodor glanced at her. “Aye we could. Still Camelot has sufficient resources to match any threat. We all have our concerns. I do not deny that. Still we should meet any threat prudently. We will send our best knights to investigate. I would maintain some of our forces here as well.” He cleared his throat. “As our ambassador, it would be for you to lead such a force. I trust you will do so with a balanced frame of mind?”

Mithian’s cheeks flushed ever so slightly. She restrained herself from retorting as Aethelwald had earlier. “I am mindful of our loyal knights, Sire, and their welfare. As always, our duty is to them before ourselves.”

Rodor replied, “We should all keep that in mind.” He turned to Galahad. “Summon the knights. You are to leave as soon as possible for Camelot. Princess Mithian will lead you. I’m sure she will know something of where King Arthur might go if Camelot falls. Again we will investigate. I do not wish a battle if one can be avoided. Am I clear?”

“Perfectly, Sire,” Mithian replied.

Rodor glanced at Mithian. Despite her attempt to maintain an agreeable outlook, he knew how Passion could often rule her responses. He anticipated that she wouldn’t stop until she was sure that Merlin was safe. Still she’d earned the privilege of leading the expedition. “Very well. Go forth and make sure all is well. Look to peace and diplomacy first. I await word of your success upon your return.”

“We shall indeed, Sire,” Mithian agreed. She stood and nodded to her father. “With your leave, we shall prepare.”

“It is given. We shall speak again before your departure,” Rodor agreed. “This meeting is adjourned. You all have much to do.” With that, he stood and left the chamber.

Mithian exhaled. She glanced toward Gwen and Blancheflor for a heartbeat’s passage. “Sir Galahad, ring the bells if you would? I would leave presently.”

“As you wish, my Lady,” Galahad concurred. He led Ywain from the area.

As the King bade, Princess, restraint is in order, Malodius advised her. Then he followed the two knights from the chamber.

Restraint? Will I be able to have that if Morgana unleashes her forces against us? Mithian bit her lip. She sucked in a breath. “Britomart, collect our things. Then meet me in the armory if you would?”

“At once, Milady.” Britomart hustled from the chamber. Her mind locked upon retrieving her sword and chain mail. Just keep yourself safe, Gawain. Don’t be an idiot even if you can’t help being anything else!

It seemed the mood was set…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 14
[Armory—One Hourglass Turn Later]

Three floors below the royal chamber, craftsmen and blacksmiths toiled over their forges. Sparks flew. Other instruments pushed coals and wood in their burning areas. Flames sprang toward their task. Hammers rang against hot metal. Water hissed as said blades dove into it. Pincers straightened links in chain mail.

Such were the sounds of a people preparing for battle….

 

****

 

Britomart inspected her gear. Her eye ran up and down her chain mail’s links. She checked the sleeves and the torso. Then she slipped it on over her plain serving dress. She cinched a leather belt around her waist. The sword and sheath’s weight reassured her. She drew her sword and swung it about. She feinted with it briefly. She admired how balanced it seemed. She noted the glint from its edge.

Battle called to her. It whispered of Glory and Achievement’s riches. It promised Freedom and Amor’s embrace. Temptation rode its intoxicating aroma.

She breathed a composing breath. She willed her heart to slow its frantic pace. No she wasn’t just some dream-befuddled girl. She’d sparred with a few of the knights over the years. She’d accompanied her mistress on several hunts. On those occasions, she’d skewered her share of boar and stag with her well- worn spear. Even if her male counterparts in Rodor’s service would never admit it, she had proven herself their equal.

Men! They think they’re the only warriors? The Princess can hit anything from fifty yards with her crossbow. I’ve held my own. She frowned. Don’t worry about them. Focus on the problem. We must help Camelot. She bit her lip. She felt her heart skip a beat. You have more to worry about than just that oaf! Think of the others who suffer from that witch! She considered her sword again. Despite the promise given to the King, she knew Mithian would not hesitate. “I will do what I must.”

“And I’d expect nothing less from you.”

Britomart froze. Embarrassment sapped her. She slowly turned to find Mithian watching her. “Milady, I wanted to be prepared.”

Mithian chuckled. “As if I’d expect any less? Britomart, it is quite all right.” She patted the crossbow resting against the wall. “To go off unprepared especially against the likes of Lady Morgana is a fool’s errand.”

“Even prepared, it might be.” Britomart sheathed her sword. “I respect our knights, Princess. I know of our skill. Still we’re fighting magic and a massive army!”

“Says the one who charged the wall before?” Mithian arched her eyebrow.

Britomart rolled her eyes. “I’ll give you that one, Milady. Still we should take care. King Rodor made a good point in there. I’m not the only one who rushes in where Love insists we tread.”

Mithian’s lip curled in defeat. “Well we do have our duty. Don’t we?”

“We don’t want to be hostages in that witch’s game. Do we?” Britomart reminded her mistress. Then she bowed her head. “My apologies.”

“I’ve come to count on your blunt assessments, Britomart. You assess people well. You see things from a different frame of mind than my father or me,” Mithian assured her. “We should all be cautious. I do not intend to charge into Camelot this time.” She rubbed her chin. “We’ll skirt the city. I am not about to recklessly barge into a trap.”

Britomart cleared her throat. “No that would not be advisable, Princess.” She considered her mistress. Instinct told her that the latter knew something more. She saw Mithian’s eyes narrowing and skittering in any direction save hers. She noted the Princess’ renewed consideration of her weapon and quiver. Now what? “No. Interrupting a siege is not a diplomatic solution. Is it?”

Mithian ground her teeth. “No. It isn’t.” If there was a siege to interrupt. She turned lest the maid saw Worry turn her face white. She felt Merlin’s anxiety as he and the others made their way away from Camelot. What’s going on? Is he all right? “We should take care in our preparations as you pointed out before.” She cleared her throat. “Is there anything else you’d require from Gylswyth? Has Master Wyngate given you what we need for the journey?”

Britomart recognized the change in subject. Rather than probe with further questions, she relented and went along with it. “I have our supplies ready. They’re in my chamber. I have packed for the journey as well.”

Mithian smiled. “Thank you. Perhaps you might finish up here soon? We shall be leaving shortly.” With that she picked up her gear and walked briskly toward the door.

Britomart shook her head. What now? She shook her head. Then she followed her mistress’ footsteps toward the door and the campaign beyond.

 

****

 

[Rodor’s Private Chamber]

Rodor surveyed the views from his eastern window. His eyes imbibed deeply from the rich rouges, golds and oranges streaking the early morning sky. Despite the enclosed glass, he shivered in spite of himself. He would’ve preferred to lead this expedition and have Mithian serve as his regent.

Age and Health however insured that wouldn’t be the case…..

Sharp pains seared through his back muscles. They stabbed at the arthritic bones therein. They insured he’d never be able to ride more than a few leagues much less the entire distance. That and lying on the ground rendered the point beyond moot.

I have to trust her. He scratched his chin. In most political matters, he knew she’d handle herself with aplomb. He’d watched her negotiate treaties and make agreements. He’d heard most recently about her diplomatic masterwork with Arthur to save face and cement matters between Camelot and Nemeth. He knew she’d bring Gwen back there insuring further stores of good will beyond that. Still he worried about her rashness. He wondered if she could show patience and prudence. He’d heard her talk about balancing Love and Duty’s respective weights.

Now if she could actually do it. That would be the question….

She almost started a war to save that servant. Merlin has done us great turns. He is worthy even if Arthur Pendragon refuses to see that. Still Mithian cannot simply charge into every matter as she did before. I want to have faith but she needs to prove herself in that regard. He shook his head.

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. “Aye?”

“Father? Might we talk before departing?” Mithian asked from the doorway. Anxiety flared in her stomach over that conversation. Hesitation rooted her feet in place.

“Of course. Please come in and close the door,” he invited. He sucked in a composing breath allowing both the paternal and royal countenances to show on his face. He took in her plate metal hauberk over the chain mail showing over her arms and down to her knees. He watched her set down her crossbow and quiver of bolts on the floor. “I see you have what you need?”

“Aye, Sire. Thank you for the gear, military support and advisors. They will serve us well in the coming expedition,” she expressed.

His ears perked at the word expedition. Granted he’d expected to hear campaign. Still he felt better that he hadn’t. “Remember to temper Instinct and Emotion with Logic, Mithian. The others have experience that can benefit you.”

“Sirs Galahad and Ywain have already shared some insights on our last trip to Camelot, my Lord. Even if he cannot speak, Malodius can point to things he hasn’t seen. He is loyal in ways that might not seem apparent,” she concurred.

He quirked an eyebrow at mention of the lion. While he didn’t doubt Malodius’ loyalty or abilities on a battlefield, he didn’t exactly understand how their magical ally would be able to counsel her without the ability to speak. Still he liked that she acknowledged the others’ experience. “Their perspective offers things which you or I cannot readily see, my Daughter. Do not hesitate to ask them for insight. Make your decision. Still consider their views.” He picked up a goblet and sipped from it.

She nodded. Already she’d planned to organize a council of sorts at the first rest stop. “It would be foolish of me if I did not, Sire. Thank you for the reminder.”

“You are quite welcome. Remember we must consider the needs of our followers. The heart can pull us astray. Yes we should heed it. Still we cannot rush blindly into battle over it. You do remember the account concerning the Trojan War?”

She rolled her eyes not really caring for the history lesson. “I do, Father. I would not sink our kingdom for love.”

He smiled. “Please remind the Lady Blancheflor and Guinevere of that notion as well, Mithian. I am well aware of your feelings…all of your feelings. While we serve our friends and subjects, our primary responsibility remains with Nemeth on the whole. Our interests must remain with the good of the kingdom first.”

“Of course. As you bade me, I will seek to remain an ambassador for peace. That is my role,” she assured him. Admittedly she said what he wanted to hear. Still she needed to convince herself of that rationale. She fought to restrain her own youthful exuberance. She kept her drive to ride off after Merlin in check….

…All for the Greater Good….All as Merlin would’ve had her do it…..

Now if she’d just could stay on that course……

He embraced her. “That is my greatest hope, Mithian. I do not want you to be alone forever. I just want you to balance Duty with Temperance and Love in all things. One day, I will meet this Merlin and see how he measures up. From what I’ve heard from you and the others, he has a great deal of potential. For now, be strong and hold firm. Remember your course and that you are a Princess of Nemeth first. Go forth and do us proud.”

“Aye, Father,” she concurred.

He kissed her brow. “It is time then. I should see you and your expedition off. Follow me.” He led her from the chamber and down the grand stairs. From there they walked out of the citadel and into the square.

A sizable contingent awaited them. Two dozen armed knights sat on horseback. Their armor and weapons glinted in Sol’s rising light. Gwen and Blancheflor waited as well. Silence maintained a hold on Impatience’s spurs to action. Beside Mithian’s chocolate colored horse, Britomart held the reins and watched out for her mistress.

“It is time then,” Mithian declared. She surveyed the scene. Appreciation and Gratitude blossomed in her heart. Purpose steeled her mind. Caution provided perspective. “My friends, thank you for being here on such short notice! Today we ride to the aid of our friends! While we hope that the threat would crash against Camelot’s walls and scatter, we would make sure of that fact. For now, we ride. We would stand strong with our allies. We would stand for a strong Five Kingdoms. I’ve heard King Arthur speak of a strong Albion and Britannia. That would benefit Nemeth as well as Camelot! We ride for Duty as well as Love and Destiny today. May we do so with Prudence in strong context as well.” She turned to Rodor. “Wish us well, Sire.”

“In all things, my Daughter. Be well and mindful,” Rodor bade. Once more he embraced her.

She nodded. Her eyes sparkled catching and reflecting the early morn’s light. She bowed to her father once more. Then she walked toward her waiting horse. A smile broke through Seriousness’ mask for her loyal servant and friend holding the reins. “Always there and waiting, aren’t you?”

“As always, Milady,” Britomart affirmed. She steadied the horse. “We await your lead.”

Mithian mounted her horse. She inhaled a deep breath. She knew of her servant’s inner conflict. She understood the other accompanying ladies’ issues. She could very well do so for they mirrored her own. Still, as she promised to Rodor, she would hold the line at least outwardly. She watched her maid climb onto her own steed. Then she turned back to her King. “Be well, Sire.”

“And you and the rest of you,” Rodor replied evenly. He struggled to maintain the Mask of State even as his heart ached with Worry and Fear.

For a brief heartbeat, Mithian exchanged glances with Malodius. Her mind flittered for a brief minute reaching out toward the east. Then she collected herself. She rebalanced her sensibilities anew. For Duty’s sake, I will keep myself composed.

For Duty’s sake, Princess, Malodius confirmed. We ride for everything shortly.

For everything. The Princess signaled to the group to depart. She spurred her own horse and started the deliberate pace toward the lower town below.

For their part, none of the company looked left or right. Their eyes remained locked on their leader. Their purpose set in stone.

After the last rider had disappeared through the upper gate, Rodor sighed. Destiny and Fate, it seemed, rode down hard on them all despite wishes to the contrary. Now all seemed contingent on the next spin of Fortuna’s whimsical wheel.

All seemed to be in Chance’s hand at that point…..

Chapter Text

Conclusion [Mid-Day]
[Woods—Fifteen Leagues Away From Camelot]

An unseasonable chill cut through the sylvan backdrop. Leaves shivered amidst their rustles. The animals scurried for cover normally reserved for colder times. Clouds built in the northwest and blot out the clear blue backdrop. Grass swayed and bent before the stiff breeze.

Southron soldiers scrutinized the area. They held the cloth wraps closely about their lower faces. Their eyes examined every leaf, blade of grass and tree trunk for a sign of the fugitives. They dared not rush their search and miss something. They also did not want to tarry overly much either. Fear drove them onward.

Much as with the area behind them, they found no trace of a boot print, horse’s hoof or any passage.

The group’s leader motioned his contingent onward. They would search a bit more before lighting the torches.

 

****

 

Not twenty yards away, Merlin watched the soldiers hustle toward the west. He exhaled a heavy breath. So far the concealment spells had kept their pursuers off of the scent. He stooped behind the shrubbery. He twitched his fingers and muttered, “Gluasad!”

To the far extreme of the Southrons’ position, noises echoed to their ears. A few branches swayed and broke. Leaves rustled with additional vigor.

“THAT WAY!” the leader ordered. He took the bait. With a swipe of his hand, he beckoned the others into the brush behind himself.

Thankfully that still works. Merlin made sure that the last soldier had disappeared from view. Then he stood and headed in the other direction. He knew the search party would not be fooled for long. Worry occupied him. He knew that his group made too slow progress away from Camelot. Still he couldn’t rush Arthur or Gaius. Still he wouldn’t leave them behind either.

Where to go though…that was the question…..

Before he could any further, Euphoria swept across his senses. His thoughts muddled. He blinked. He rubbed his forehead. Now what? Why is this happening?

Merlin has to be all right. He has to be…. Mithian’s voice seemed to chime through his mind.

“Princess? Princess Mithian?” Somehow he remembered to keep his voice down. He looked around his vicinity but spied no trace of her. It’s just like last night. I heard her in my mind. How? He scratched his head while hustling into the obscuring fauna. About ten steps later, he stepped into his friends’ company.

Gawain sheathed his sword. Mischief glinted in his eye. “So did you find the bloody buggers?”

“Oh yeah. I led them on quite the chase. They’re following their own tails in the other direction,” Merlin reported. His eye drifted toward Arthur. “Any change?”

“I can hear you, Merlin. It’s not like I’m dead! Quit worrying about me like some girl already,” Arthur groused. He sat against a tree. By his hand, Excalibur awaited its next battle. Impatience curled his lip as he endured Gaius wrapping his torso with a new bandage. “I can push on just fine. Thank you very much!”

“Sire, I beg to differ. Your ribs are bruised if not broken! I am trying to keep the inflammation under control. At some point, you will need to rest. We need to find a safe haven for you to do so,” Gaius countered.

“I can rest, Gaius, when Morgana’s beaten!” Arthur complained. “Bad enough we have to run away! I won’t hold us up.” He forced himself to stand. “Are you sure that they’re going the other way, Merlin?”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah. They’re leagues away from here by now.” He wasn’t about to mention his own issues to the group. “Made sure of that.”

Arthur smirked. “Nice to see you’re using your head for once.”

Percival emerged from the brush. “No Southrons in the area.” He nodded to Merlin. “Whatever you did, it worked.”

Merlin shrugged. “Told you, Sire.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. Pain shot through his middle as he tried to walk. Still he wasn’t about to admit that in front of the others. “We need a place. Gaius has a point. We can’t run forever.”

“I’d suggest Riversmore but that’s in the other direction. Besides it’s through the most guarded territory,” Percival broached. He frowned not wanting to bring danger to Blancheflor’s doorstep or his adopted village for that matter.

“I don’t have any ideas. I’m with you all,” Gawain declined. “We can hide in a village. Still even if our new friends haven’t been to those places yet, they’ll get there. We can’t trust the people not to give us up.”

“My people are loyal, Gawain.” Arthur set his jaw. “They would….” A grimace shut his words off. He put his hand up to keep Gaius at bay. “No. I can’t put them in that position.”

“We can’t just stay in the forest though. Eventually they will find us,” Gaius worried.

Merlin sighed. Even if Percival didn’t want to bring trouble to his village, the Warlock knew he might just have to bring it to his own. “There’s Ealdor. It’s a couple of more days. Still it’s not in Morgana’s domains. She wouldn’t risk a war with Lot to come after us.”

“And I’d…do that…just by being there,” Arthur pointed out. He glanced back toward Camelot. Once again, his mind rested with his captured knights and conquered subjects. “Merlin, you’re an idiot. Still that’s why Morgana would never expect that.” He walked a couple of steps. “Let’s go.”

“Let’s go? Sire!” Gaius protested.

“The sooner we leave, the sooner we’re there. Once we rest and collect ourselves, we can think of ways to take back what’s ours,” Arthur insisted. He narrowed his eyes. “Come on.” He trudged down the path.

“He’s in one of those moods. Forget stopping his stubborn….” Gawain started to complain.

“NOW!” Arthur’s voice insisted.

“Now, Merlin, don’t get his royal knickers in a twist. We’d deal with the cloud all the way down the path,” Gawain jabbed.

Merlin looked skyward. He shook his head. Then he pressed on without offering a further response.

The group followed their liege’s command. They established a faster pace through the brush and toward the northeast.

Who’s the bigger idiot? Me for hearing voices and insisting on some sense? Or Arthur for hurting himself further and not stopping? I have to wonder…. Merlin shook his head as he took the rear of the party’s position.

Questions abounded…..

 

****

 

[Sunset—Near Gedref’s Eastern Border]

Gwen bit into a piece of bread. She scanned the darkening sky overhead. Then she gazed at the others. She noted the knights talking with each other around the fire. Blancheflor sat against a tree; Distraction glazed across her eyes. They seem to fit in together. I wish I did. She sighed. She felt like the outsider there.

Then again, they were all there to suit Convenience’s overlying agenda. Right?

She gulped from her water skin. With a handkerchief, she dried her mouth. We have to have deeper bonds. Right? She frowned. We can’t be together just to suit ourselves! She sulked.

A hand touched her shoulder making her jump.

Gwen turned quickly to find Britomart standing at her side. “Britomart, I’m sorry. Can I help you?” She put her hand to her chest. She breathed deeply.

Britomart blushed. Embarrassment turned her cheeks deep scarlet. “It is I who startled you, Guinevere. I was wondering if you needed some more water or another piece of bread perhaps?”

Gwen smiled. “I am fine. Thank you. You can do one thing for me though.”

“Oh? And that is?” Britomart wondered.

“Please call me, Gwen. I’d appreciate that.” Gwen put her hand on the other’s arm. “Also I’m not your superior. You don’t have to serve me.”

“I…appreciate that. Thank you, Gwen.” Reassurance lightened Britomart’s mind and heart. “Princess Mithian wants you to feel welcome. You are not an outsider.”

“I am not of Nemeth. I feel I am bothering you all,” Gwen countered.

“Lady Blancheflor certainly doesn’t feel that way. Princess Mithian and King Rodor wouldn’t agree. In fact, Princess Mithian promised to see you back to Camelot safely,” Britomart argued. “I gladly call you a friend.”

“Really?” Gwen curled her lip. Doubt glowed in her eye.

“Most certainly. As my Lady bade me, I would tell you to have faith. King Arthur will hold fast if necessary against whatever threat looms ahead. If needed, his brave knights will stand the line beside him.” Britomart fought to keep a straight face as she said those words. The thought of Morgana threatening Gawain and the others froze her heart for a beat. Stop! Hear your own words! Don’t wish for trouble where there’s none! “If you have need, just ask.”

“I will. Thank you, Britomart. I appreciate it,” Gwen expressed.

“My pleasure.” Britomart bowed to Gwen. Then she turned and headed back toward the main group. I pray that Arthur Pendragon knows how fortunate he is. I can’t believe she looks at me as an equal. She composed herself and went back to her duties.

Gwen’s mood eased. She leaned back against the tree. Granted Anxiety still flared within her chest. Prayer’s mantra played incessantly through her mind imploring for Arthur’s safety. Perhaps we might actually all fit together. Arthur would want that. She admired Britomart’s sense of purpose. She is no mere maid. She deserves better. She shook her head. Just like Merlin and me. Maybe she will find that person.

She allowed her mind to wander. Certainly there was much to consider……

 

****

 

[River Side—A Half Mile Away]

Mithian walked along the river’s edge. She stooped by its edge being careful not to wet the edge of her chain mail. She dipped her hand into the running foaming water allowing its coolness to ease her mind and spirit…or at least attempt to do as much.

In truth, Worry swamped her mind. It threatened to drive her insane. It tore at her heart.

Merlin will be all right. He has to be. She looked across the water toward Camelot. Can we safely cross? Who will be in charge there? Arthur or Morgana? She sighed. As much as she wanted to charge ahead and damn the consequences, Responsibility stayed her hand. She couldn’t just consider herself. She had her subjects to consider. Gwen’s safety and her vow to Arthur remained paramount. Besides that Gwen was Merlin’s friend.

Merlin….

He understands duty if nobody else does. Mithian frowned. Where is he? Is he all right? She bit her lip. She could almost feel him looking over his shoulder. She perceived Paranoia and Desperation’s respective vibes in him. I wish I understood these things.

What is there to understand, Young Princess? You are only beginning to understand this gift. In time you will come to understand it.

Her ear perked. She looked around but only saw Malodius lapping up water at the river’s edge. Still she’d come to recognize his voice. Great Dragon, is that you?

Such respect is welcoming, Mithian of Nemeth. I thank you, Kilgarrah expressed.

She doesn’t know you yet, Malodius interjected. Sarcasm and Suspicion dripped from his tone. He stopped drinking and looked up at her. Be careful, my Lady.

Malodius, he cares for Merlin as you or I do, she corrected.

Indeed I do, Lady. Still Malodius seeks to protect you. For *that*, I can overlook his attitude, Kilgarrah clarified.

Malodius growled. I protect my Princess from threats as per my service and oath, Kilgarrah. Remember that as well. How fare the boy and the others?

Merlin has sent the Witch’s minions in circles chasing their tails between their legs. Arthur Pendragon is much more badly hurt than he lets on. They head toward the northeast, Kilgarrah reported.

Northeast? Mercia? What could they want there? she wondered.

Merlin presses on for the most secure place he knows. Ealdor. He can conceal Arthur there for a time. It is out of the way and close to the border. Morgana would not risk war with Lot. I believe that if they can get there, it would be the best move in a host of bad possibilities, Kilgarrah presumed.

So you think. I would not trust Lot either, Malodius groused.

Merlin would not bring war to your land. One does not prove himself to a prospective family by bringing trouble to it. Does he? Consider that, Kilgarrah retorted.

She ground her teeth. We would stand with him though. ARGH! Father would understand.

Your father needs to consider the people as well, Princess Mithian, Malodius reminded her.

She sulked. We also need our neighbors as well. As Arthur himself would say, without friends, who would we be? Look at our party. We are all tied to Camelot in one form or another. Even you both have ties through Merlin.

As do you, Kilgarrah retorted.

Even if I can’t speak it aloud, I do care, Great Dragon. I look for pretext to skirt Camelot’s city and turn our attention toward Ealdor. I do not wish Morgana to know we are here. She sighed; her mind still spinning over how to deal with Morgana.

She will feel you, Mithian of Nemeth. Do not be mistaken. Your link with Merlin is akin to a torch on the darkest night. Trust that she will feel you. Pray she does not find you or the others yet, Kilgarrah told her.

Pray for their sake that they don’t. They’ll feel my claws and teeth, Malodius growled.

Do not wish for trouble, Malodius. I’d just as soon find them alive and unharmed. From there, we can see the next move. Great Dragon, please watch over them. She frowned. Her heart sank.

I always watch. Such is my duty as it is his. Is it not, Great One? Kilgarrah agreed. Sarcasm’s barb struck out from his last words.

As it has been, Malodius agreed. He marched over to her side. He rubbed his mane against her side.

She patted his back. “Thank you. Now we rest. At first light tomorrow, we ride.” She placed her water skin in the river. She allowed the rushing waters to fill it. Then she yanked it out and pulled the string closed.

Malodius eyed their surroundings. Ill at Ease ate at his gut. Aye. We should be together. He gazed across the river but saw nothing. He followed his mistress into the trees and toward camp.

 

****

 

Just out of sight, a black raven spied on them. On the surface, it seemed harmless. It would occasionally caw out a call to the air. Its eyes scanned its surroundings much like any other bird. Still this wasn’t as innocent as it seemed. After the duo left, it flapped its wings. It took off toward the east….

…toward Camelot and its mistress….

Paranoia it seemed was about to be served or so it seemed…..

 

THE END (for now)