New chapter added, please scroll down!
Prologue and previous chapters can be found in the other topics
Faith, sir, you need not fear
Arthur was scratching like crazy, his contorted face mirroring the continuous pain he felt all over his torso and arms. Tears were in his eyes, his fingers and neck red with blood, and the itching and pain only got worse and worse.
“Merlin, what is that foul-smelling stuff?” Arthur exclaimed, his voice hoarse, as Merlin entered his chambers. “It smells like it came straight from the stables!”
“Just a little something to ease your suffering,” Merlin answered lightly. With great self-control he tried to keep his composure as he saw Arthur in this state. It was much worse than he imagined, so much worse.
“And you are going to smear that stuff all over me?”
“Just your neck first, see if it works.”
“If it works? IF it works? And how do you propose to get to the rest of my body,” said Arthur tensely as he started scratching furiously again.
“Well…,” Merlin said, hiding a smile, “Gaius thought we might use the bellows to…”
“WHAT,” Arthur shouted, “Bellows? Are you insane?”
“No, but with all that scratching you soon will be. Sire.”
Arthur heaved a deep sigh. Merlin was right of course, he would do anything to get rid of that terrible itching, the continuous and unbearable pain driving him mad.
“If you would just sit down Sire, I’ll apply some of this ointment to the welts on your neck,” Merlin said and gently pushed Arthur onto a chair. He looked at the welts, they were even bigger now and oozing with pus mixed with blood. Merlin didn’t want to think and imagine how the rest of Arthur’s body would look like. Gently he applied some of the ointment on a few welts and almost instantly Arthur’s eyes started to close. “What have you…” he managed to say before he fell soundly asleep.
“Right,” Merlin said, putting aside the ointment, “now let’s try and get that mail shirt off first.”
He closed his eyes, emptied his mind and concentrated. He felt the evil magic from the mail shirt entering his mind and he shuddered. It was cold, so very cold and filled with such deep hatred… From deep within he felt the ancient magic stirring and awakening, he felt spells forming, he felt the clash between his own magic and the evil magic; his mouth formed words and with a deep voice he spoke:
Byrne forgyrden breost
Fram heafod to fot
Ic þu abreotan
Wesan nu dead
His eyes turned golden, his outstretched hand tingled and he could almost see the magic flowing from his body to the mail shirt, he could almost see the magical battle raging within him and around him and Arthur. Then it was all over. Exhausted he stood there, breathing deeply. He saw how the mail shirt had lost its sparkle, it looked dull and dead now. Carefully he tried to lift one of the sleeves and he felt immense relief as it moved. The mail shirt was no longer fused to Arthur’s body.
“You, boy,” he said as he saw one of the kitchen boys walk in the corridor, “can you help me please? You’re Cerdic aren’t you?”
The boy nodded.
“Good, help me to get this mail shirt off. King Arthur has fainted from exhaustion and he needs some air.”
It was not long before Arthur was freed from that cursed mail shirt. Even if Cerdic saw the welts on Arthur’s body, he didn’t let know he had and Merlin at this point really didn’t care.
“Will you go to Gaius and tell him… Oh, you can’t speak, I forgot. Take this…,” and Merlin scribbled some words on a piece of parchment, asking for ointment without the sleeping potion, “take this to Gaius and please hurry.”
Cerdic nodded and started to run.
Carefully Merlin unbuckled Arthur’s gambeson and opened it, revealing a chest with more open wounds than Merlin was prepared to see. Blood flowed slowly from the numerous open welts, raw and ragged from scratching. He shut his eyes for a moment and gagged involuntarily.
Not long after Gaius entered the chamber, panting and breathing heavily from an unaccustomed run. Together they removed Arthur’s gambeson and gently they lowered him onto the floor. With great care Merlin started to wash Arthur’s upper body, staining the floor red.
“I need to find out what sort of poison it is on that mail shirt,” Gaius said, “I might find a cure.”
“No,” Merlin answered, “it was no ordinary poison, it was magic,” and he laid his hands on Arthur’s chest, closed his eyes and concentrated. Again he felt something deep within him, a magical power he had never felt before and he saw threads of magic searching for the evil magic killing Arthur. He started sweating and trembling, but he never wavered and kept going. Then, with an almost unearthly scream, he fell down. “I think I did it,” he whispered, “I think the evil in him is gone.”
Arthur still lay there, unmoving but breathing easier now and slowly the welts stopped bleeding.
“I think we’d better get him on his bed,” Gaius said.
Gaius spread the calming ointment on Arthur’s back and they laid him down on a thick and soft sheepskin.
“All that’s left now is wait until he wakes up,” Merlin said, “and I’d better clean all that blood from the floor. I can hear Arthur already…” and Merlin started giggling and, mimicking Arthur’s voice he said, ”Merlin, you useless toad, are you going to clean that or shall I just use your hair as a mop?” And both couldn’t stop laughing for a long time, the unbearable tension had finally broken.
And as the mail shirt lost its magic, Macha felt a jolt through her body and she knew something had gone wrong. She howled and howled and threw jug after jug against the wall.
A voice in her head spoke: “Mistress Macha, this is your loyal servant Cerdic speaking. I have just come back from King Arthur’s chambers and I have seen how Merlin took the mail shirt off of King Arthur. You told me it could not be done and you asked me to keep an eye on King Arthur and I had to fetch Gaius the Court Physician and through the keyhole in the door I could see how Merlin performed some ritual but then I had to run because Gaius came and I cannot be seen looking through the keyhole of King Arthur’s chambers and that is all I know for now.”
“Thank you Cerdic, you’ve been a great help and remember: when mistress Morgana is queen of Camelot, I will not forget what you have done for me, for us,” and with these words Macha closed her mind for Cerdic. “I hate you, I hate you, I HATE YOU,” she screamed and a bowl was thrown to pieces, joining the pile of broken crockery already on the floor. “You little piece of vermin, I will get my revenge, you hear, REVENGE!”
And deep inside Macha’s brain Morgana heard it all and laughed.
“Upon my honour, honourable sirs, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. It was not us that put poison on that mail shirt, pray believe us,” said Brunric the envoy in a pleading voice, leaning over to Gwaine to emphasize his words, opening his hands in a gesture which said: see, we conceal nothing from you. His companions Rocbert and Osric nodded in agreement as they looked at Gwaine, Leon and Mordred sitting opposite of them, looking stern and unbending.
Earlier that day they were taken from their chambers and escorted to a room high up in the towers of Camelot. Guards stood by the door, preventing anyone from entering or leaving.
“Did you ever leave the cart out of your sight?” Leon asked.
“Of course we had to sleep, honorable sir, but the cart was always behind locked doors at night and one of us always stood guard. There were precious gifts on that cart you know!”
“So you say…,” Gwaine said.
“There was one thing,” Rocbert said, “just before we reached Camelot, there was a sudden gust of wind. We didn’t think much of it, but is felt strange, a little disoriented even.”
“Morgana,” Mordred thought, “that sounds just like Morgana. So she is here after all. I wonder…,” but he kept silent for the moment, waiting, perhaps Brunric would tell them more.
“Until we know more, I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here. You will of course be treated according to your rank, but you can’t talk to anyone except us, nor leave this room.”
“We understand honorable sirs, but you must believe us. We would do nothing to jeopardize the excellent relations between King Ban and King Arthur, nothing!” Brunric said, raising his voice.
“I can feel nothing,” Mordred thought, “there is nothing in their minds that speaks of treason or killing Arthur. They are not involved,” and as the knights descended the narrow and winding staircase, Mordred voiced his opinion to Gwaine and Leon. “We’d better tell Arthur the moment he wakes up,” they said.
That night Merlin dragged a straw mattress and some blankets into Arthur’s chambers. He didn’t want to leave Arthur’s side, in case he should wake up. Merlin looked again at Arthur’s chest and to his relief he saw the welts slowly getting smaller, he saw the skin had started to heal itself. There was no more magic to be found. Leon had ordered the mail shirt to be put in the Vaults of Camelot where it could do no more harm. He blew out the candles and let himself fall on his mattress, but no matter how exhausted he was, he kept tossing and turning, and sleep would not come. Too many things were going through his head, and on the ceiling he saw red and bloody welts appearing and they were growing; pulsating and growing until the whole room seemed filled with them. Merlin felt a pressure on his chest, breathing became difficult and then he was wide awake, sweating and panting and unable to move. The room looked as it always did, and he heard Arthur breathing peacefully. For a moment he felt scared, afraid he might again have been subjected to a deep and fateful sleep he had experienced not so long ago. Slowly his heart started beating more slowly and his breathing became normal again. “Always the same,” a voice said. Merlin whipped his head around. Nothing. “Typical, suffering from sleeping sickness and still unable to fall asleep at night.” From the darkness a shape came into view, an old man with long, white hair and an even longer beard and leaning on a staff. “You really don’t get it do you,” the man said in a mocking voice, “everything is in there…” and he rapped Merlin on the head, ”and what do you do with it? Nothing!” He came closer and now Merlin saw: it was his alter ego, Emrys. “Just use that brain of yours for a change, stop trying to understand and start reading! Oh please, don’t look so incredibly stupid! The scroll I mean, the scroll. Just start reading it, that’s all and stop being all clever for trying to analyze it. Use your head and use your heart!” And Emrys’ knuckles hammered again on Merlin’s head and then he awoke, a scream on his lips. There was of course no-one in the room, and Arthur still slept peacefully. “Too many nightmares for one night,” Merlin thought, scratching his head and he felt a bump as if someone had knocked him repeatedly on the head.
“Merlin,” came a sleepy voice, “why on earth are lying on the floor like that.”
“Arthur!” he exclaimed and a huge grin appeared on his face, “you’re awake!”
“How can anyone sleep with all that racket you’re making.” With difficulty Arthur tried to sit up. “What happened,” he asked.
“Well, I guess Gaius’ ointment worked,” Merlin answered vaguely.
“Yes…,” said Arthur and looked at his body. “The itching is gone. Merlin, what did really happen?” and his steel-blue eyes bored into Merlin’s, demanding an answer.
“It was the mail shirt king Ban gave you, Sire,” Merlin said, “there was… something wrong with it.”
“Yes Merlin, that part I already know, but what exactly was wrong with it and why did I fall so suddenly asleep just a moment ago!”
“It was poison we think. Gaius is trying to find an answer and Leon and Gwaine and Mordred are questioning the envoy and his men.” Very carefully Merlin avoided mentioning sorcery at this point, first Arthur had to get his strength back, he thought.
“King Ban? Poison? Why? Why would king Ban do such a thing? I thought we were allies!” Arthur was getting more and more upset, the thought of a loyal ally like king Ban conspiring against him was almost too much to bear.
“There may be lots of explanations,” Merlin said, and was interrupted by a knock on the door. Mordred entered, followed by Gaius.
“Sire,” Mordred said, “We have every reason to believe that king Ban, nor his envoy, knew anything of this. We questioned the envoy Brunric and his men, and they spoke of a strange feeling they had, a few moments before reaching Camelot, an unseen presence, they said, like a gust of wind. Besides, Brunric touched the mail shirt, and Merlin here did too, and they are not suffering, so I think it’s safe to say there was no poison, but…,” Mordred hesitated.
“What are you suggesting?”
“Sire,” chimed in Gaius, “If I may have a word, I have indeed not been able to detect any poison, but I fear there is another cause. The mail shirt was enchanted.”
“What!” exclaimed Arthur, “Are you sure?”
“It had all the signs of powerful magic, Sire.”
“And I’ve been told,” Mordred added, “that a sudden gust of wind and disorientation are tell-tale signs of sorcery, Sire.”
Arthur looked at them for a while, anger crept into his eyes and finally he whispered: “Morgana.” Nobody said a word, nor looked directly at Arthur. Merlin’s eyes widened and he gulped as Mordred’s words, and Arthur’s reaction, hit home. Just before he fell into that deep sleep and was plagued by continuous nightmares about Arthur dying, he had felt a sudden gust of wind. Now he understood. Morgana. It could only have been her. He shuddered and tried to look as inconspicuous as possible. Morgana was still trying to usurp the throne of Camelot, and would stop at nothing!
“It must be her, I’m sure of it now,” Arthur continued, “it’s not the first time I’ve heard of her doing these things. Mordred, go to Sir Gaheris and let him assemble as many man as he can. She must be near Camelot. I don’t care how he does it, but tell him to find her, no matter what!” His jaw was clenched as he said this, mouth set in a thin, hard line; his eyes shone with a dangerous inner fire and his hand involuntarily touching the hilt of his sword.
“Please Sire, let me go too,” Mordred said.
“No,” Arthur answered,” I need you here.”
Mordred was visibly disappointed as he strode out of Arthur’s chambers in search of Sir Gaharis.
“Merlin,” he said, using his druid voice, “I truly want to do all I can to find her and stop her, so don’t start questioning my loyalties again.”
Merlin looked at him but said nothing, he still didn’t trust Mordred, he still didn’t know where his loyalties lie. Arthur shall die by a druid’s hand.
That day Merlin finally found some time to try and read the scroll again. “Just read it,” Emrys had said in his dream, “just read it.” Easier said than done, casting those spells to cure Arthur had cost him just about all the energy he had left, and he felt so sleepy all of a sudden again. “I must…,” he mumbled, “I must read that scroll now,” and he drank half a jug of Gaius’ bitter potion, desperately trying to stay awake. He looked at it, and seemingly out of nowhere a few more lines of text appeared:
An gebyrt of twegan dead
Infindan stan, rudu gelice blod
Hæle ofeslæp belute wiðinnan
“Riddles and more riddles,” Merlin said despairingly, “for once I would like a straightforward answer! Just for once!”
“Let me see,” Gaius said as he looked over Merlin’s shoulder.
“One born from twice dead…” Merlin said, and softly he repeated that confounded sentence. “One born from twice dead…” For a moment he sat there like a statue, then his head turned slowly to Gaius’ and at the same time both loudly exclaimed: “GALAHAD!”
“Of course, how could I have been so blind,” Gaius said, thumping his hand on the table.
“The answer was here all the time, why couldn’t I see it? It is so simple. Lancelot died twice, and Galahad is his son!”
“What does the rest of it say,” Gaius asked, getting a bit impatient.
“Let’s see, it goes something like this now: One born from twice dead, shall find a stone that is red like blood, which will cure the sleep hidden within.”
“So, all Galahad has to do is find a red stone… sounds easy…,” Gaius said, doubt creeping into his voice. “Is there any more on that scroll?”
“No, that’s all. No, wait, look, this is amazing! Look!” And both saw line after line appear on the parchment, all beautifully written in bold yet elegant letters, “There is something here that talks of a quest and don’t try to find it, it will find you, and here it says---”
“Merlin, line by line please, and from the beginning if you please!”
And so they read the whole epistle as it appeared on the parchment. They were to travel to a castle where a king was created (“I think it says something like that, Gaius,” Merlin said, “cyning macian.” “Doesn’t that mean magic?” Gaius answered, unthinkingly, for he was schooled in the ancient language and should know its meaning, but in the excitement he simply seemed to forget. “No,” Merlin said absent-mindedly, eyes glued to the parchment, “that’s drycræft.”), and many more tantalizing hints and obscure lines were written literally before their eyes.
“We must tell Arthur, he must let us go on that quest, find that stone and then I’ll come back all healed and ready to take up my duties again! Poor Arthur, George is driving him crazy, he’ll be glad to be rid of him, come…” and Merlin rushed to the door.
“Merlin!” came Gaius’ voice, “wait just a minute. Just how are you going to do this? You have hardly any stamina left, you fall asleep where you stand, and do you know where it is you’re going exactly?”
“Merlin, first we need to know where you have to go. Then we must convince Galahad to come, do you really think he’ll go just like that?”
“Raising objections again are we, Merlin?”
“Sire,” Gaius said, a little more dignified.
“I’ve got the answer, all you have to do---”
“All I have to do? Are you giving me orders again Merlin?”
“Somebody has to.”
“Merlin…,” Arthur said with a dangerously friendly voice.
“Perhaps it would be better if we started from the beginning, Sire,” Gaius quickly proposed.
“Good, finally someone who actually has a working brain. I’ll see you in half an hour in my chambers. First I have to talk to envoy Brunric.”
And so Arthur was told the whole story. He sat there, motionless, thinking.
“Galahad,” he disbelievingly said, “are you sure?”
“Yes, Sire,” Merlin said, “Absolutely sure.”
“Then there is only one option. We must find that stone so you can be cured. Having you around is slightly better than boring George, although he makes a killer breakfast, cleans my clothes and polishes my armour without me telling him to, he cleans my chambers and gently wakes me up in the morning.”
“And you’re hating every minute of it, I’m sure.”
“Don’t get smart with me Merlin. I’ve decided to take Galahad on a quest. He wants to be a knight of Camelot, so he’d better start earning that privilege. He might even become a likable person, what do you think?”
“Well, you turned out to be a nice person in the end, more or less…”
“Thank you Merlin…”
“But we still don’t know where to go first, Sire,” Gaius said, “The road may be long and full of dangers. Are you sure you want to come Sire, isn’t your place here in Camelot?”
“Gaius, sometimes I’m really fed up with this life, day after day I listen to endless complaints, and innumerable toadying envoys to see. This is my chance to go out and have some fun! So yes Gaius, I’m going. Gwen is perfectly capable to rule Camelot and she’ll have competent advisors. And I think I’ll take Gwaine, Leon and Percival also. And you Gaius, you must come too.”
“But I’m far too old to travel, my old bones will be nothing but a hindrance to you, Sire.” Fear crept in his voice and involuntarily he took a step back.
“Nonsense. Besides, I need someone to look after Merlin here. Don’t expect me to hold his hand every time he falls asleep.”
Gaius was getting really upset now. He, an old and worn out man, going on a quest? A dangerous quest even. He was afraid this might be his final journey, afraid he might not return to Camelot alive. He bowed and before he could give an answer, Arthur gave it for him: “Good, that’s settled then. We’ll leave the day after tomorrow.”
“We haven’t quite figured out where we must travel to, Sire, in order to find that stone,” Gaius said rather gloomy.
“I think I’ve figured that one out,” Arthur said softly, “it’s all there, on that scroll. First we must travel to Tintagel.”
That night Gwaine, Leon and Percival were filling their goblets with mead and their spirits rose higher and higher at the prospect of an adventure. They had laughed and laughed when Arthur told them it was to be Galahad’s quest, finding a cure for Merlin was entirely in his hands. “He can hardly hold a sword in his hands properly,” they said and laughed even more.
Gaius sat in his chambers, thinking all kinds of gloomy thoughts and the knot in his stomach grew tighter every second. The prospect of this quest was a daunting one indeed.
Galahad sat in his chambers, dumbfounded. King Arthur had chosen him to go on a quest to save the life of that useless serving boy of his. Arthur had told him of the prophesy; only he who was born from one who had died twice, could accomplice it. If the quest was successful, he was to be made a knight of Camelot, like his father before him. Already his heart filled with pride, not for the thought of saving Merlin, bur for becoming a knight of Camelot.
“I told you,” the Spirit said, head cocked slightly to one side, a smile on his lips, “that you would find that ancient magic deep within you.”
“Where am I?” Merlin whispered. The whole environment was hazy, like he was engulfed in thick clouds, everything looked white and he felt so terribly tired and sleepy.
“How does it feel now?” the Spirit asked, not bothering to answer Merlin’s question. “How does it feel to have all that magical power. Be proud, friend Emrys, be proud of your great achievement! You’ve managed to unlocked all that ancient magic deep within you and believe me, you are going to need it.”
“Please, what is this place,” pleaded Merlin, feeling dizzy and disoriented now.
“Ah, but of course, how rude of me, please forgive me. You’re in my world now, Emrys. Well, almost that is, you are in the equivalent of your courtyard. But do not worry, I will sent you back in due time. I just needed to know if you are strong enough for the greatest challenge you will soon have to face.” His whole demeanor was grave now, the red around his eyes in stark contrast with the whiteness of his skin, eyes that looked unblinkingly at Merlin.
“What are you talking about.”
“Through my art I foresee the danger that you, my friend, are in… All will be revealed to you when the time of revealing will make itself known. I wish I could say that I didn’t know, but then I would be lying, wouldn’t I. Great events are about to unfold, events that could mean the difference between life and death. But, my dear Emrys, you can hardly do anything sleeping standing up like this. Your sleeping spell must be counteracted first, but that task is out of your hands now. You have done your part, now it is Galahad’s turn. You must place your trust in him, however difficult that may be, for if he fails, Camelot is doomed and so are you. ” Merlin felt himself drawn further and further into those black and still unblinking eyes. “trust, Emrys, trust… Remember Morgana…” Fog patches now floated between Merlin and the Spirit and there stood Kilgharrah, looking at Merlin with black unblinking eyes: “Trust, young warlock, trust is a fine thing, but it can also be a dangerous thing, remember Morgana? I have warned you before about that witch and look at her now, she is doing everything she can to kill you and Arthur. And heed my words, young warlock, do not trust that druid boy either… And now you’re asked to trust that insufferable prat, do not trust…” and slowly Kilgharrah started to dissolve in the mist and there Balinor stood: “Trust in yourself, my son, trust in yourself…” and before Merlin could say anything, Balinor too was gone. Nothing but mist remained, mist like a cold and wet blanket. Merlin started walking, for in the distance he could see lights, very faint and blurry, but lights none the less, warm and welcoming lights. After walking what seemed like hours, he could discern a shape; a castle, a castle not unlike Camelot. He took one weary step after another, but the castle would not come nearer. Tears welled up in his eyes and exhausted he fell to the ground, unable to take another step. He saw faces hovering above him and around him, faces like wispy clouds, and they all looked like the Spirit, like Balinor, like Kilgharrah. He saw Arthur lying in a pool of blood and Mordred standing over him, laughing, his sword dripping with blood. He saw Morgana, sneering as she looked with contempt at Arthur, and then she took Arthur’s bloodied crown and put it on her own head. “Kill the witch… kill the witch…,” he heard in the distance, like a whisper on the wind, “kill the witch… kill the druid boy…” and he felt himself falling. Falling and falling into a deep chasm and his world turned black.
“Merlin…” whispered the voices in unison, “Merlin…, and Merlin opened his eyes, but he saw nothing but impenetrable darkness. He didn’t even know if he was sitting or standing of still falling. There was nothing. “Merlin…” Again the voices, urgent now, all those voices merging into one. It sounded familiar, that voice… “Merlin, wake up, Merlin…” Gaius! It was Gaius’ voice. “Merlin…” No, Percival’s voice. Or was it Gwen’s? Silence again. “Merlin!” Endlessly the voices vibrated, making his head throb. He tried to cover his ears, but the voices were still there, inside his head, screaming now. “Be quiet,” he tried to shout, but he didn’t know if he said it out loud or if it only sounded in his head. “Merlin!!!” and his eyes flew open and he saw the blurry face of Gaius hovering above him. More shapes, familiar shapes, appeared: Percival, Gwen. “You’re awake,” he heard and Gaius’ face slowly came into focus. He tried to speak, but no sound came. “Easy now,” he heard a disembodied voice say, far-away. “A bed, I’m lying in a bed,” he thought. “How about a bucket of nice, cold water to wake you up,” said another voice. “Yes please, I’d like some water,” he wanted to say, but again no sound escaped his lips. He opened his eyes again and there was a new face which looked like Arthur. “Arthur,” he croaked and he saw Arthur’s face break out in a smile, and the he saw Gaius and Percival and Gwen smile too. Gwen offered him a beaker and greedily he drank the cool water. Slowly the world came into focus. “What happened?” he managed to say and tried to sit up.
“You’ve been asleep for over three days, Merlin, we were worried sick you may not wake up this time. You simply crashed to the floor right after healing Arthur.”
Three days, he thought, three whole days. He heaved a deep sigh. Just as they were going on a quest to find the cure, the sleeping spell had tried to stop him and had almost succeeded too. His eyelids were so heavy, but he wanted desperately to stay awake. “Drink this,” Gaius said and Merlin grimaced as he tasted that bitter potion again. “I’ve put some other herbs in it as well, herbs to keep you awake.”
“I’m hungry,” Merlin said after a short while.
“Oh, and by the way,” Arthur said, “tomorrow we ride to Tintagel. You’d better be ready, Merlin.”
“Yeah, I’ll try and have a good night’s sleep then,” he retorted. He did not see the immense relief on Arthur’s face.
The cave was a mess, a wooden stool lay broken in one corner, the table was thrown to one side, its contents strewn all over the floor, broken pottery everywhere. In another corner lay Morgana, deathly pale and unmoving, the only sign of life an almost imperceptible rising and falling of her breast. Macha was furious, but destroying her cave did not help to make her feel better, far from it. “Thwarted again,” she hissed, and another jug fell victim to her excessive rage, “that insignificant little king is still alive and that fathead of a Merlin is still on his feet!” She kicked the upturned table and howled in pain as she felt her toes break from the impact. While inside Morgana’s head she had heard nothing but sarcastic laughter and that continuous whisper: “even you can’t kill them, you lousy excuse for a goddess”.
Safely in her cave, she had let her essence flow back into her own body, leaving Morgana nothing but an exhausted husk. After a while colour came back to Morgana’s cheeks and her eyelids fluttered. She opened her mouth to speak, but Macha thundered “Silence!” and once again Morgana’s tongue was fused to her palate, no sound escaped her snarling lips. Furious, she rose from her pallet and walked outside to get some fresh air. She had tried to run away a few times, but no matter how far she ran, no matter what direction she took, she always ended up near the cave. She truly was a captive here, captive in both body and soul. For now, her only hope of escape was that eventually Macha would let her go, set her free to rule Camelot; but she had read Macha’s mind, she knew Macha wanted to rule Camelot too, meaning she would stay trapped in her mind forever or she could simply kill her, using only her body and voice. Plan after cunning plan she made, waiting for an opportunity to strike and escape this horrible prison. From deep within the cave she heard laughter, a shrill and inhuman sound, utterly insane. Morgana covered her ears to try and block the piercing sound, but to no avail. “Come back you numbskull,” she heard in her head and her feet started walking towards the cave, whether she liked it or not. “It’s time to think big,” Macha said, a look of utter madness gleamed in her eyes. Her gnarled fingers took Morgana’s head in their grip and Morgana felt Macha being sucked into her mind once more. Macha’s now soulless body fell amidst the broken pottery and she left it lying there, like a forgotten and discarded rag-doll, as she left the cave and dissolved in the mist, only to reappear in the woods near Camelot.
There she sat down, unseen by any who would pass, for she had made herself look like a part of the tree-trunk, brown and gnarled, and she concentrated. It was not long before her thoughts reached out and touched the mind of king Maleagant of the Saxons in the south, and of king Peredur from the kingdom of Kent, and a few other kings too; and she planted in those minds a deep hatred for Arthur, and a longing for conquering Camelot, for such was the immense power of Macha. Exhausted she fell into a deep slumber, and did not see Arthur and his entourage leaving Camelot.
Preparations for the Quest for the Stone, as the knights now called it, were in full swing. Percival, Gwaine and Leon were polishing their armour, mending their mail shirts and sharpening their swords; and also making sure their tinder-boxes would not get wet, even in a downpour, and pouring beeswax into their leather water bottles, making a waterproof lining so they would not leak. They loaded their saddle-bags with everything they might need for such a long and dangerous journey.
For Gaius they had selected an easygoing horse with a nice, even gait; and Arthur gave him a saddle with a high backrest, so he might travel as comfortable as possible. For a whole day Gaius had been grouchy and fussing, running around and piling all kinds of things on the table: books of herb lore and magical creatures, potions for just about everything, herbs, plants and even more books. “Mustn’t forget this,” he mumbled, “definitely mustn’t forget that,” and a whole stack of implements joined the ever increasing heap. “Don’t just stand there, I could use some help here,” he said grumbling to Merlin and he had loaded his arms with numerous jars of potions.
“You can’t take all of that,” Merlin had said, “there aren’t that many horses to carry it all.”
“Then you must carry some of it too! And why aren’t you packing? It’s a long trip you know, a very long trip! Oh, I forgot! Blankets. We need blankets too, and cloaks and tunics…” and Gaius hurried to the wardrobe, leaving Merlin standing there, arms loaded with jars.
“What’s all this,” came Arthur’s voice, “Gaius, are you moving to another chamber?”
“Sire,” and Gaius made a slight and quick bow, “No Sire, it’s just a few things I might need for the journey.”
“A few? A FEW?”
“Yes Sire, I… I…”
“Gaius,” said Arthur, his voice gentle, and, sensing Gaius’ distress he laid a hand on the old man’s shoulder, “we really must travel light, taking all this with us will slow us down, and the slower we travel, the longer Merlin will be in peril, and…” Arthur did not finish his sentence and let the implications hovering in the air.
Gaius nodded, Arthur’s words had hit home. “I might just take these…,” and he took a bag of the dark brown beans to make the potion to keep Merlin awake, “and perhaps these…” His voice trailed away, not quite knowing what to do anymore.
Galahad, for these past few days, had been his usual charming self: bullying servants and squires, demanding a seat closest to Arthur’s in the Banqueting Hall (but not getting it) and generally acting as if he owned Camelot and everybody in it. He was shocked to find Merlin in such a deep coma and thought: “I hope he does get better, for if not, my whole quest is in jeopardy and I will not be made Knight of Camelot”. His armour was no longer as pristine as it was the day he came, it had received numerous dents and scratches from all the beatings the knights had given him, but he never wavered and had met each exercise with the same attitude: I am going to win for I am the best! The knights were fed up with his arrogance, making plans to put him in his place once and for all. “Be careful,” Arthur had said to them, “we need him to complete this quest first”, and so the knights waited.
And now Galahad was ready for his quest, his heavily dented armour polished to perfection, a task which had taken George hours to finish. “I am ready, my liege,” he proclaimed loudly, “ready to go on this most perilous quest and to find that stone.” At these words he kneeled in front of Arthur, as if expecting to be knighted there and then.
“Let’s not dally then,” Arthur said and he led his horse to the main gate. Gwaine, Percival, Leon, Mordred, Gaius and Merlin followed, and finally Galahad who had some trouble getting on his horse. The Quest for the Stone had finally begun.
They had been riding steadily for days now, and sleeping under the stars at night, but Arthur saw Gaius needed a rest; his face was ashen with fatigue and he sat slumped in the saddle, all but falling off, so they halted at an inn in a small village to get food and a good night’s sleep.
That evening, as they sat in the common room, laughing and filling their bellies with hot food and cold ale, they noticed the villagers kept staring at them with a mixture of concern and fear.
“Excuse me,” Arthur, in his commanding tone, said to one of them, “pray tell me why you keep looking at us like that. Although we are in arms, we mean you no harm.”
“Visitors we do not get too often around these here parts, especially such a great and wise man as yourself (and he nodded respectfully at Gaius) and we understand you need protection,” the man said gloomily, “but when visitors come, they leave through the woods and then they ne’er come back, and we understand you will be going there too.”
“And why is that, why don’t they come back?”
“Stay clear of yonder forest,” the man whispered as he leaned close to Arthur, “for there the green giant resides.”
“A green giant?” Arthur exclaimed loudly and Gwaine knocked over his mug of ale.
“Hush, ye fool, do not speak of him in such a loud voice lest he should hear you.” The man was visibly afraid now and he took a large swig of ale, to try and calm his nerves.
“Green giant?” Gwaine asked, and a slight tremble had crept into his voice.
“Aye, as tall as a tree and strong as twenty oxen he be, and a good sword-length taller than ye,” and the man pointed at Percival, “and it cuts through anythin’,” and his hand thumped on the table, upsetting the beakers of ale. Gwaine gave a stifled cry. “Do not go to yonder forest, fair sirs, do not go, for ‘tis aptly named the Forest of No Return and no mistake,” and he fell silent, refusing to say another word. A few of the locals looked at them with great pity in their eyes.
The knights looked uneasy at each other, all of them remembering that fateful night when a green-clad knight had come to Camelot, making a wager with Gwaine. They all saw him lift his head from his shoulders and heard his promise that Gwaine would see him again, and now Gwaine stood the very real chance of losing his head, for such was the wager they made. An uncomfortable silence descended upon their table. Not long afterwards they retired to their rooms, but sleep did not come easy.
The next morning their good spirits were back. They saddled their horses, bade the innkeeper good day and swiftly rode away, straight to the Forest of no Return.
“If we encounter that green giant, we’ll find a way to solve it,” Percival said jokingly, “two heads are better than one.”
“Yes,” chimed in Leon, “don’t lose your head over a little thing like this.”
Gwaine merely scowled.
“Did you have a good night’s sleep, Gaius?” Leon asked.
“Quite well, thank you,” he answered, “my old bones are grateful for a soft bed after those nights sleeping on the ground.”
“Well, you’re lucky to have a few sheep-skins to sleep on,” Leon said, smiling. Gaius smiled back. He was really grateful for those soft and warm sheep-skins. “Do you realize,” he said, “that Galahad has been wearing his heavy armour the whole time since we left Camelot and he is still sitting straight in the saddle? I think under all that arrogance lives a boy who is very insecure, but with a great will-power.”
“Yes,” Leon answered, “I agree, he does show character. But we have to get that arrogance out of him sooner or later.”
“By making him ride his horse backwards, like you did with Mordred?”
“No, we have much better ideas, and if he still doesn’t change, he won’t survive long as a Knight of Camelot. He’s not exactly making friends, you know. I’ve even seen George winch, and that’s saying a lot.”
“Forest of no Return,” Arthur proclaimed, as they had reached the edge of the forest in the early hours of the afternoon, “Nonsense, we have no wish to return, all we want is to go through.” Gwaine nodded and threw away his half-eaten apple. There was a small path, leading into what looked like a small and dark tunnel meandering between those huge and ancient trees. Arthur raised his hand. They all moved into the woods and instantly found themselves engulfed by giant trees, their gnarled branches all seeming to intertwine, the roots making the path a treacherous going. The foliage above them was one enormous green blanket, and the little sunlight that was able to penetrate the green canopy cast long shadows, turning the branches into giant black claws, silently beckoning… Everything was green now, a sickly emerald green. The horses were jittery and the knights tried to calm them, but they themselves were feeling edgy too and their horses felt that. Even Galahad was subdued. Leon started humming a cheerful tune, and soon the others joined in, but somehow it made them even more agitated so they kept silent again. There was not a puff of wind to be felt, no bird twittering, no insect buzzing, no leaf rustling, even their mail shirts hardly made that familiar rattling sound anymore. Behind them they saw the trees intertwining, making one solid, impenetrable wall.
“Do you feel it,” Mordred said, using his druid voice.
“Yes,” Merlin answered, “there is great magic here.”
“We must keep ourselves alert, we must not let Arthur come to harm, or any of the other knights.”
“I tried to perform some magic, it didn’t work.” Mordred sounded anxious, tense.
“Great…,” Merlin replied, “just what we need.” He lowered his head and for a fraction of a second his eyes turned golden. “Same here. I tried to make a branch fall, it didn’t. The magic here is enormous.” Deep inside him he felt his new-found magic stirring and boiling, trying to match this strange and powerful magic that seemed to be everywhere around them.
“We must continue now,” came Arthur’s strained voice, “I know we’re almost there, we’re bound to be.”
And suddenly they found themselves in a clearing, a large, spacious meadow. At the far end stood a castle, its turrets shrouded in a sickly green mist, its drawbridge down, the gates open. The horses bowed their heads, sniffed at the grass, but refused to eat it. Even now everything was green, even the open sky and although it was still daytime, they could not see the sun. They proceeded cautiously towards the castle, but there was man nor beast to be seen.
“My name is Arthur King of Camelot. We come in peace, we are travelling through this wood to the east.”
“We ask your permission to enter the courtyard, so we can rest our horses and enjoy the pleasure of your hospitality.”
“Only one way to find out if anyone’s there,” Gwaine said. Arthur nodded and slowly they rode to the gate. “Don’t draw your swords,” Arthur said, seeing Galahad with his blade in his hand and raising it above his head, “we don’t want to appear hostile.” Reluctantly Galahad sheathed his sword again, clearly he did not agree with Arthur’s decision.
“Right,” Gwaine mumbled, but made sure his sword would easily slide out of its scabbard. Percival and Leon did the same.
Arthur led his horse onto the drawbridge. The hooves made hollow and creepy sounds as the horses walked over it. Arthur looked up, but no heavy portcullis came crashing down, crushing both horse and rider.
“This place is bursting with magic,” Mordred said in his druid voice.
“Yes, I don’t like it,” answered Merlin.
“Hello!” yelled Arthur, “Anyone there?”
Still there was no sound to be heard, no movement to be seen. They all dismounted.
“Are you alright, Gaius,” Merlin asked as he helped the old physician from his horse.
“Every bone in my body aches,” he grumbled. “And did you notice,” he whispered, ”there is magic all around us.”
“Yes,” Merlin whispered back, “and I couldn’t use my magic in the woods, I don’t like it,” and he fell silent as Arthur came near, asking if Gaius was feeling well.
“Thank you Sire, yes, but I could do with a little rest.”
“Yes, of course, please rest while Merlin and I go to the great hall,” and he started to walk away. “Are you coming or not, Merlin, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Coming, Sire,” and they walked into the castle. Gwaine, Percival and Galahad went the other way, while Leon stayed with Gaius.
Merlin felt uneasy, he didn’t like it, not being able to use his magic. It has happened once before, some years ago, losing it: a creature had sucked all the magic out of him, leaving him totally defenseless. He needed to try again. Quickly he looked around, but Arthur was in the adjacent room, unable to see him. Very carefully he stretched his arm, spread his fingers and whispered a simple enchantment. Nothing happened, but before he could try anything else, he heard Arthur’s slightly mocking voice behind him: “I know you’re desperate to find a cure, Merlin, but do you really think you can do magic?”
Merlin’s heart skipped a few beats and quickly he turned around, stammering: “A-A-Arthur! You’re back. Me magic? No way! I was just… you know… looking…”
“Yes, Merlin. Looking at what exactly?”
“The wall. Lovely wall. No woodworm. Just think, me having magic… imagine, you are sitting there in Camelot, eating and feasting while I am working my fingers to the bone, and all I really have to do is click my fingers and mumble some spell, and your armour will clean itself, your laundry will wash itself... and I could just sit there, doing nothing.”
“So basically, exactly what you have been doing so well all those years, absolutely nothing.”
Merlin clicked his fingers and waved his arm around. “No, nothing’s happening. You’re still here.”
Arthur started laughing, squeezed Merlin’s shoulders, and said: “Dream on, Merlin,” and he thought: “poor Merlin, the strain is really getting to him now,” but, deep in the back of his mind it kept gnawing at him, it had all looked a bit too real. “There is something about you, Merlin…,” he thought.
“Ah, Sir Gwaine, how lovely to see you again. And Sir Leon, Sir Percival, welcome too. Magister Gaius. And I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of meeting, sir knight,” and he turned to Galahad, “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am known as Sir Vert of Sinople, at your service.” Without warning, the green knight suddenly stood before them, beaming.
“My name, sir Vert of Sinople, is Galahad son of Lancelot, soon to be Knight of Camelot,” and he made a stiff and formal bow.
“Splendid, splendid! Ah, and our most hospitable king Arthur and… I’m sorry, I don’t seem to recall your name, my dear serving boy.”
Merlin opened his mouth, but Arthur cut him short. “I thought you’d be taller, but you’re still the same height as I remember” he said, looking at Sir Vert, his hand hovering over the grip of his sword.
“Those simple villagers, they tend to exaggerate, don’t they. Sir Gwaine, I told you we would meet again someday, are you ready to uphold your part of the wager we made?”
Gwaine kept silent, his mouth was dry and his heart was beating in his throat. Then he straightened, hooked a lock of his hair behind his ear and unblinkingly looked Sir Vert in the eyes. “I made a wager, Sir Vert, and a commitment. As a gentleman and Knight of Camelot I am bound to honour and uphold that commitment. I am ready, Sir Vert, I place myself at your mercy.”
“Good, good. But is has been a long and tiring journey for all of you. Please go to the great hall. There you will find everything you need for tonight: food, drink and comfortable beds. And for your horses there is fresh straw and oats in abundance. Rest well, especially you, Sir Gwaine.” And with those words the green knight bowed, lifted with one hand his head from his shoulders and left. A loud clanging was heard as Galahad fainted and fell to the ground.
The next morning everybody gathered in the courtyard and there they saw to their horror a chopping block, with a huge and razor-sharp axe leaning against it. The tension was almost visible, no-one spoke, they just stood there with a heavy heart and looking grim, waiting for the inevitable.
“Are you ready, Sir Gwaine,” came the voice of Sir Vert, and he stepped into view. Gwaine nodded, closed his eyes for a moment and said in a steady voice: “I am ready, Sir Vert of Sinople, I am ready to honour our agreement.”
“Good. Now if you would be so kind and place your head on the block if you please.”
Slowly Gwaine walked to the block, kneeled and put his head on its cool, smooth surface. He heard Sir Vert take up the axe and his only thought was the hope for a quick and painless ending. He heard a stifled cry from Merlin as the axe was raised, he heard a sword being drawn and Arthur’s muffled “no”. He heard his heart beating and the blood in his veins throbbing. He heard the axe swishing down, he felt the cold steel touching his neck and he felt warm blood trickling down, his blood. Then it was over.
“You are indeed a man of honour, Sir Gwaine” Sir Vert said, “should you have faltered, or proved to be a coward, I would without hesitation have chopped your head off. And you too,” he continued as he turned around, “you too have proved to be honourable and wise, for if that sword of yours, young Galahad, had left its scabbard, you too would have been killed. Sir Gwaine had made a promise, a commitment, and you all felt honour bound to respect that commitment, even if it meant for Sir Gwaine to lose his life. For that I grant you your life, Sir Gwaine. I have been given satisfaction, blood has been drawn. Please continue your journey. You will find your saddle bags filled with provisions.”
Suddenly Merlin and Mordred looked at each other as they heard the voice of Sir Vert in their heads: “And as for you, young warlocks or druids or whatever it is you call yourselves, your magic will return as soon as you have left this forest.”
They all mounted their horses, bade farewell to Sir Vert and quickly left that eerie place; and for a long time no one spoke.
“Camelot should be rightfully mine,” said king Maleagant of the Saxons, “Arthur has no right to the throne.”
“When Uther was alive there never was a chance to take Camelot, which is, after all, rightfully ours,” said king Peredur of Kent.
And so the kings began to make preparations for war.
To be continued in a new post
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For the love of Camelot!