A/N: This short story takes place directly after the events described in Chapter 2 of "Lord and Lady Beckett: A History." I can't post this in with that story as this one is multi-chaptered. Sorry for complexity! This won't be a long story - 6 chapters tops - but it'll be a fun one. Hope you like!
"As the years went by, Arthur grew mellow and warm as old wine. His store of wisdom grew and he no longer turned to Merlin for advice. The ancient wizard's pride was badly hurt by this change. He grew jealous to see how Arthur now only confided in Guinevere. "What!" he thought. "Here am I, nearly seven centuries old, and I have never yet tasted the fruits of love!"
He began to search through all the shadowy places of the kingdom… for a woman who might suit his own exceptional tastes; and wherever he looked, his thoughts came back to Nymue, the Lady of the Lake. He hurried into the forest, and called her from the shimmering waters. "Nymue," he whispered, "I love you."
At first, the beautiful Nymue only laughed and teased him. But Merlin made a spell to bind her to his side with invisible bonds. Then she grew frightened. She knew that his powers of wizardry embraced darkness as well as light, and that his will was as strong as mountains. So she pretended that, in time, she might learn to return his love. Meanwhile, she begged him to teach her the secrets of his magic. The besotted Merlin agreed.
He led the Lady through the countryside to Cornwall, and then to a secluded cave, sheltered by scented ferns. Deep inside, the rocks were lit by threads of silver, and cushioned with moss.
Here Nymue saw her chance.
She persuaded him to take her inside. Then she began to sing a song of enchantment that he himself had taught her, until she had lulled him into a deep, unnatural sleep. Creeping out, she worked other charms, until she had closed the cave mouth to a narrow, impenetrable crack.
In this way, the Lady of the Lake escaped Merlin's twisted love, and the wizard was condemned to sleep in troubled darkness forever."
From the Eyewitness Classics King Arthur
Mercer had never believed in myths. He had grown up a highly practical, cynical sort of person, relying entirely on his senses to help him survive. There had been no magic in his life, no perfect spell to save his family from destitution, no enchantment that could have saved his sister from her damnable fate. If there had been any sort of magic in Mercer's life at all, it had come in the form of a curse upon his family and all those he had ever loved.
Certainly it was no spell that had brought him his hard-earned success. The only reason that he had managed to achieve a post working under the highly efficient and highly ruthless Mr. Cutler Beckett was because he was smart, deadly, and quick on his feet – skills he had cultivated in order to survive in London's dark underbelly. Thus Beckett had discovered him, and raised him into power and security beyond Mercer's imagination. He had had to make sacrifices, of course – his sister being the most notable – but for the life he now possessed, the certainty of his station and the likelihood of reaching even greater heights of power, those sacrifices had been worthwhile.
But in order to obtain that power which hung so tantalizingly close to his master, Mercer had had to alter some his staunchest beliefs – mainly his beliefs about the occult and the realm of magic. He had not thought such things could ever exist, but Beckett had proven him wrong in one simple stroke.
And now Mercer was on the maddest, most ridiculous mission he could fathom – a quest to find the staff of Merlin and return with it to Beckett.
When Beckett had given him the assignment, Mercer had immediately gone to do his research, as he would have on any other mission. The research this time was of a completely different kind; instead of looking at public records and talking to various contacts, Mercer had had to read every single literary source referring to King Arthur that he could get his hands on. Beckett had informed him that the Arthurian legends were to play an enormous role in his future plans, and as such it was best that Mercer familiarize himself with the tales. So Mercer had read everything from Le Morte d'Arthur to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, despising every minute of it – he hated literature, and he particular hated being forced to read it. Still, he had to admit all the information the tales had given him had been useful.
According to legend, Merlin had not really needed a staff to perform his magic, but he carried it with him sometimes to help with the spells. It was gifted with some of his powers, and wherever it was that Merlin laid now, the staff was sure to be with him.
Of course, nobody knew exactly to where Merlin had disappeared. In many stories Merlin simply went away, leaving Arthur and his knights to fend for themselves; but in many more there was the tale of the beautiful maiden Nymue, sometimes simply a woman with a penchant for magic and sometimes the Lady of the Lake, with whom Merlin fell desperately in love. That story in particular, Mercer believed, was the key to finding the staff. For, it was said, Nymue, whether a maiden or faerie queen, did not return Merlin's affection, but pretended to in order to learn his secrets. Then, when he brought her to a secluded place – most often a cave, but occasionally a tower – she created a spell that locked him away from the world forever, sealing his and Arthur's doom.
So, conceivably, wherever Nymue had locked away the old wizard, the staff would be as well. All Mercer had to do was find said cave, tower, or pit, get past the impenetrable spell, and steal the wizard's staff without incurring the wrath of the wizard or Nymue.
In other words, he was a dead man.
Mercer had accepted this fact a long time ago, when he first began to read the Arthurian legends. He was a simple man whose only defenses involved knives, guns, and any other typical weapon he could get his hands on. He could not contend with mystical beings from the ancient legends of the past; he had no powers that would stand against their might.
Still, he had been ordered to go on this journey, and go he would. He had promised Beckett that he would do anything he was ordered, and he intended to keep that promise. Beckett deserved that, at least – even if Mercer returned to him as a corpse.
As was natural and necessary for him, Mercer had a plan. Originally he had thought to find the cave where Merlin was hidden immediately, but it had occurred to him that the one who would best be able to find it would of course be the one who had locked Merlin away – Nymue, the Lady of the Lake. Mercer had long ago decided that there was no possible way she could have been a human; in order to trap the wizard, and to snare his heart, she must have been something quite extraordinary, a woman the likes of which had never been born to humankind.
His current goal, then, was to track down the lake in which the Lady resided. It seemed a daunting and nearly impossible task, but Mercer had a few leads. One in particular intrigued him: a shimmering lake that was sometimes there and sometimes not, sheltered by ancient trees that were centuries old and guarded otherwise by a strange veil of fear that struck any mortal and sent him fleeing in the opposite direction. It seemed, at least, a good place to start.
It was here that Mercer was headed that dark, clouded night. He rode on horseback, a lone traveler armed to the teeth with weapons. Of particular note was a peculiarly bejeweled, empty scabbard that was almost too beautiful to look at. It glinted at his side despite the darkness of the sky, a bright splash of color winking into the night.
Mercer had been riding a long time. He had left London in the dark of very early morning and had been riding ever since. He was aching and weary and starving, and he knew if he continued on into the night he would surely collapse from exhaustion. It was with relief, then, that he spotted the glowing lantern lights of a town ahead of him. Urgently he spurred his horse to go faster, eager for a hot meal and a bed. With a snort the horse obeyed, charging towards the town and the welcoming lights ahead.
The town was a small one, but it had an inn ready for tired travelers – a smaller place of goodly renown called the Blossom. It was run by a tidy little man named Porter Seabrooke, who was well loved amongst the community and who occasionally sent reports to Mercer about countryside goings-on.
Mercer was relieved to find that the Blossom was not particularly busy that night; he had no desire to be questioned by curious guests about his journey and he didn't particularly want to be observed, either. He had handed off his horse to a bored-looking stable boy before coming in to the relatively empty common room. He was met promptly by Mr. Seabrooke, who had just returned from serving another guest his supper. "What may I do for you, sir?" he inquired politely.
"Are you Mr. Seabrooke?" Mercer questioned, pulling the cloak he wore carefully around him to hide the unusual scabbard at his side.
"Who asks for him?" Seabrooke replied, arching a brow.
Mercer was in no mood for games. "Mr. Mercer," he said shortly. "I've just come from London."
"Oh, pardon me!" Seabrooke said quickly, setting down the tray in his hand on the nearby counter. "I didn't realize. We've not met before, of course. What brings you out to my humble inn?"
"Company business," Mercer said airily. "I'll be moving on in the morning, but I needed a place to stay for the night."
"Of course, of course," Seabrooke nodded. "Always happy to help the Company. You'll be wanting supper, of course?"
"Yes, definitely," Mercer said with relief; he was famished. "I'll take it in my room, if you don't mind."
"Not at all," Seabrooke said, motioning for Mercer to follow him upstairs. "You've had a long ride. You must have left quite early."
"It wasn't light yet," Mercer confirmed.
"Must be some very urgent Company business for you to have ridden so hard."
"Quite." The terse answer clearly disappointed Seabrooke, but it was all the man would get from Mercer, and he knew it.
"I trust all is going well with the Company these days?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Very well," Mercer confirmed. "They've been expanding quite a bit recently. The money's pouring in."
"That is happy news, indeed," Seabrooke said, pausing before a plain wooden door on the second floor. "The Company's been a blessing to the country, and no mistake." He opened the door and motioned Mercer inside. "And this will be your room for the night," he said as Mercer stepped inside. "I'll have Beatrix bring you your supper in a few moments."
"Thank you," Mercer said absently, glancing about the room. It was small and simple, but it had all the necessities – a bed, a chair, and small table with a pitcher and basin atop it for washing. It would certainly do – better than sleeping on the ground and going hungry, Mercer thought wryly.
When Seabrooke had gone, Mercer removed his cloak and undid the heavy scabbard, laying it gently in the folds of the cloak and wrapping it up quickly. Then, with the utmost caution, he hid it beneath the straw mattress of the bed. It was a highly valuable artifact, and to lose it certainly meant death for Mercer. He then set about carefully undoing and hiding his other armaments – some pistols, a flintlock, a few daggers here and there. He kept one short-barreled pistol in an inner pocket and a dagger in his boot… just in case.
When he had been fully settled for a while, there came a knock on the door. When he slid it open, a pretty young woman entered, a freckly brunette with bright blue eyes and a downcast stare. She carried a tray of the most delectable-smelling food, which she set at once on the table. "I hope this will be suitable for you, sir," she said, nervously bobbing a curtsy to him.
"It looks delicious," he assured her. "Thank you very much."
She looked up at him with wide eyes, studying him as her hands nervously twisted her skirt. "You work for the Company?" she asked curiously.
Mercer inclined his head slightly, still holding the door open for her as an indication that she could leave. She didn't take the hint. "You work for Mr. Beckett, don't you?" she questioned, a little more excitedly.
Mercer quirked a brow at her. "You've heard of him?" he said in surprise.
"Me sister lives in London with our aunt," she said breathlessly. "She works as a lady-in-waiting of sorts for our cousin, so sometimes she's allowed to go to the balls. She talks about Mr. Beckett in her letters and when she comes home to visit."
"Really?" That was intriguing news. Beckett had reached a level of wealth that made him acceptable to aristocratic society several long years go, but he still wasn't invited to attend all that many social occasions. Still, if he was making a name for himself amongst the women, that proved he was currently far more successful than he had believed. "What does she say about him?"
"Oh, she adores him," the girl called Beatrix gushed. "He's never spoken to her personally, of course, but he has spoken with our cousin, who also loves him."
"And who, if I may inquire, is your cousin?"
"Georgiana Rawlings," Beatrix supplied. "She'd marry Beckett if she could." She clapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh, but don't tell him so," she begged.
Mercer made no assurances of that. "Why is she so fond of him?" he asked inquisitively.
Beatrix cast him an odd look. "Well, he's good-looking, for one," she listed, "And he's becoming more and more powerful in the Company, and he's only likely to get wealthier and more powerful from there, and he's clever and charming and -!" She frowned slightly. "Why do you ask?" she demanded suspiciously.
Mercer wore his most innocent expression – which was not particularly innocent. "Just wondering, miss," he said with a slight shrug. "But I'm sure I'm keeping you from your other duties."
Beatrix opened her mouth to tell him that she had no other duties for the night, but Mercer, leaning casually against the door, crossed his legs in such a way as to make the dagger sticking out of his boot quite noticeable. She closed her mouth and swallowed heavily, murmuring some hurried pleasantries as she fled out the door with her cheeks burning. Mercer stared after her for a few moments, then snorted in disgust and closed the door.
"That was quite a display of ferocity to show a young girl."
Mercer whirled about, pistol in hand at once. Standing folded calmly in the corner was a tall, fair-colored man dressed entirely in shadowy black robes. His golden blonde hair was longer than Mercer's, tumbling easily to mid-back and elaborately braided in several places to keep it from his face. It was certainly a very feminine style, but there was no mistaking the highly masculine, broad shoulders and chest for a woman's. "Who the hell are you, and how did you get in here?" Mercer demanded, cocking the pistol and glaring at the intruder.
The being smiled in ethereal amusement. "You might as well put the weapon away," he suggested. "It will not protect you should I attempt to harm you."
Mercer eyed the man distrustfully, but he was fairly certain the intruder wasn't lying. He looked too much like a creature of Faerie to possibly be human. Mercer slid the pistol into his pocket, still standing defensively as he looked at the creature. "What do you want?" he demanded.
The being nodded towards the bed. "My Lady is curious," he said in a slow, rich voice that sounded as ancient as the earth itself. "Why is it that you carry the scabbard of Excalibur? How did it come to be in your hands, when Morgan le Fay threw it away so many centuries ago? And why do you bring it with you on this journey?"
Mercer was now thoroughly certain that the being before him was a Fae. "Tell me who your lady is, and maybe I will have an answer for you," he said.
The being smiled, displaying bright white teeth. "You are quite a fearful one," he noted. "But then, I suppose you have reason to be. I can see your life has not been easy. You have been trained to mistrust everyone by those around you. It is sad that creatures like humans – and like my kind – can inflict such suffering on others of their own make."
"You have not answered my question," Mercer said, a little unnerved by such a clear analysis of his person.
The Fae laughed softly. "My Lady," he said, "Is Vivian, the Lady of the Lake. In ancient days they called her Nymue. She has seen you in visions, but she is not certain why. She felt your presence even from this distance – and she recognizes the feel of Excalibur's magic. You carry great power with you, mortal."
"I am aware of it," Mercer said fervently, and he was. When he had first been shown the scabbard, Beckett had ordered him to cut open his palm. Once it had been done, he had laid his hand upon the scabbard – and when he had turned it over, the wound was healed. "I am seeking your Lady Nymue… Vivian," he informed the Fae, quickly correcting himself with the more modern name. "I have many things that I must ask her."
The being looked surprised. "Bold," he murmured. "Very bold. But how did you intend to find her, human? You cannot know where she lies."
"I don't," Mercer admitted, "But I've done my research. I know there is a lake about two weeks' ride from here that has been known to appear and disappear. It seemed a likely place to start. Tell me I'm wrong."
The Fae laughed, loudly this time. "No, you are not," he said with a smile. "But you are foolish. There are many safeguards laid around that lake. You will never get past them."
Mercer shrugged. "It's a risk I'm willing to take," he said simply.
The being studied him, clearly perplexed. "You are an odd human," he mused. "I do not understand you, I fear – but you are intriguing. My Lady agrees. She would like to speak with you."
"Well, good," Mercer said shortly. "Because I would like to speak to her."
The being shook his head almost imperceptibly. "Bold," he murmured again. "You are hungry and weary, so eat and rest well tonight. Tomorrow I will meet you at the grove of trees just outside this village. Then I will take you to my Lady."
Without another word, the being disappeared, leaving Mercer alone in the room.