SAME DISCLAIMER AS CHAPTER 1
Hey there, I'm back.
I know, it's been way too long, really, and I apologize for such extremely long hiatus.
Many things happened: life, work (which always gets in the way of fun), etc., etc.
But I guess the real reason why I haven't posted the last chapter was because even though—as initially written—it closed the main story, it left out a couple of things I really wanted to tell, and loose ends I really needed to tie.
Because truth is, this story started inspired by the series, but after Season Two it spun off and never looked back.
And at some point I realized that I was actually writing an alternate story of the rise of Camelot; and that beyond the romance between Finnabair and Arthur, many other characters had something to say too. That's why it turned out so long.
And that's why the last chapter remained unpublished. Though it does not affect the main plot, there are still little things that I salt-peppered along this journey for a reason and remain untold:
How did Arthur learn about Merlin's magic? What's going to happen to Helene and Lescaut? What about Enyny and other integral parts of the prophecy?
I really wanted to know, and so I kept procrastinating. At last, I gave in to that 'itch' and started writing again.
Therefore, I'll upload these final tidbits through a couple of additional chapters.
Don't worry, they're only few more. And then yes, it will be done.
Besides, I'm quite sure that returning for a while to that pleasant routine of having to upload, will keep me focused and I'll finish it sooner.
For those of you who have taken the time to review my writing, and leave notes of encouragement, I cannot really express how much I appreciate the time you've dispensed me.
And if you're still out there reading my story, please drop a line so I know I'm still writing for you too J
So, without further ado, here we go…
Chapter 42: Five battles and counting…
It had been over three months since the great battle and an unusually ruthless winter was showing its teeth on the land. The dim light of yet another clouded sunset tinted everything grey in Leoness' royal chambers.
Inside, the roaring fire of the hearth was the only thing seemingly alive. Outside, the wet and cold landscape was deserted of any life form altogether.
Gwynn remained motionless near the window. The gloomy environment was absolutely depressing. But the worst was the silence of news. The unknowingness.
It was only during those precious moments of solitude that she could give free rein to her fears and despair. Fear of what might have happened already, or was happening at that precise moment somewhere in the northern planes, where Arthur and the troops were pursuing the dismantled yet still dangerous Saxons.
Despair because of her impotence, of her powerlessness. Of being keenly aware that there was nothing she could do, but wait.
During the day, her duties kept her occupied and focused. After all, the court was operating under the assumption that she would marry, and that the alliance with the new Camelot King would proceed as planned.
There were preparations to make; things to resolve. The entire rule of Ruther was being thoroughly examined. Edicts rewritten, judgments reviewed. New cabinets needed to be formed.
The virtual vacuum of power left by the former Steward had to be temporarily addressed. Though the Princess was not Queen yet, by virtue of the upcoming nuptials, she had been able to appoint Sir Alric as the provisional Steward.
With so many things to attend, Gwynn had been the epitome of efficiency so far. Her capacity of work seemed endless. There was not a single topic in which she was not involved. And when her closest friends began to voice concerns for her health, she simply dismissed their worries.
Truth was that she could only breathe while busy.
Being alone and quiet, like now, was asphyxiating.
A knock on the door startled her and made her gasp for air. It was an unexpected call at an unusual hour, and her heart sped up.
Lescaut appeared at the threshold before she could fully recover, but the Princess schooled her expression to remain serene. While doing so, she completely missed the barely noticeable though unmistakable trace of euphoria underneath her guard's usual austere demeanor.
"We have finally received a message through a pigeon, my lady." His voice sounded cautiously excited. "They had faced and defeated the Saxons four more times already. Everyone is well so far."
Finnabair smiled meekly in momentary bewilderment. It did not matter that she had been yearning for news; any news from the front… Suddenly, confronted by the light of hope her guard was bringing, her previous dim thoughts froze her brain and left her speechless.
Lescaut noticed her perplexity and elaborated. "They are following the river Dubglas, my lady." And because he was still unsure she had heard him the first time, he insisted. "Everyone is well, Princess."
Arthur is well.
That did it. The Princess grabbed hold of the table nearby to steady her suddenly weak knees, and a long, cleansing sigh of relief told the captain that she had finally processed the message.
After a moment, she spoke at last, her voice barely a whisper.
"Thank you, Lescaut."
Then, the euphoria came and Gwynn's heart began pounding so hard she was certain the Captain could hear it. For a second, she had to repress the urge to embrace her guard, and held fast onto her wits to reign over her exultant feelings.
"Do we know where they are?" Her voice still trembled with emotion, but other than that, she was the embodiment of composure.
"No, my lady. We figure the dispatch is at least two weeks old, as the last snowstorm might have interfered with the pigeon's path. It could have been sent from Linnuis, but at any rate, they will be long gone from there by now."
There was something slightly alien in the way Lescaut spoke; a strange warmth in lieu of his usually laconic manners. The dark eyes were filled with genuine empathy, and thus Gwynn knew that although her Royal Guard might not have been prone to outward demonstrations, at the moment it was her friend who was sharing her happiness and relief.
Her smile brightened even further and, noticing the bandages on his shoulder were gone, was about to ask when the door from her bedroom opened and Helene and Wledyr walked in to prepare her for the night.
"We have finally received word from the front!" Gwynn smiled radiantly and briefly related the message Lescaut had just given her.
The hopeful news and the excitement in the Princess' demeanor temporarily overrode any other potential topic of conversation in the royal quarters.
"That is marvelous indeed." Wledyr commented again, and it was then when the Princess realized that, after the initial moments of enthusiasm, Helene had gone completely mute. Momentarily dismissing the notion, she remembered Lescaut and her interrupted question; so, redirecting her attention once again to the captain, Finnabair asked at last.
"And how's your arm Lescaut? I see your bandages are gone."
For some reason, Lescaut also seemed to have become frozen. In shocking contrast with his previous softness, his deportment was once again taut, and his eyes were stubbornly trained dead ahead.
"Fully recovered, my lady." His voice also sounded raspier when he began to answer, and he had to clear his throat. "Erm... All my wounds have healed."
The last part of his answer was strangely stressed, and his tone was perhaps slightly caustic in Gwynn's opinion. But before she could say or add anything else, Helene too spoke out, pretty much bursting into a rapid cascade of words.
"My lady, I just remember I need to remind the kitchen staff about our trip to the House of Healings tomorrow. I shall tend to that right away." And without waiting for an answer, she curtsied quickly and scurried out of the room.
When the quarters felt silent again, the Princess knew that something was amiss. The very awkward disposition in both Helene and Lescaut was something she had never seen before.
Frowning, her gazed moved from Lescaut to Wledyr and back. "Is there something wrong?"
The question was directed to Lescaut and immediately brought him out of his stationary bearing with an uncharacteristically self-conscious reply.
"No, my lady."
Unconvinced, Gwynn looked at Wledyr with arched eyebrows. What was going on?
But the healer only shrugged her shoulders.
Lescaut decided the discomfiture had been enough. "I shall take my leave, my lady. Good night." And he left as hurriedly as Helene had.
After he was gone, however, Finnabair asked Wledyr once more. "What is going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"Lescaut and Helene acted very strangely just now. Didn't you notice?
Wledyr was moving about the room, busy. "Not more than usual," was her off-handed comment.
"Wledyr," Finnabair called to gain the Healer's full attention. "They did not even acknowledge each other! And Lescaut was relaxed and comfortable one moment, just to be uptight and awkward right after you two came into my quarters! Do you mean to tell me you did not notice that?" She stressed.
The Healer shook her head, and continued her tasks. "I do not know what is going on between them, but if you had been paying attention, you would have noticed they are avoiding each other like the plague."
That was a certainly unexpected update, and it became obvious to Gwynn that she was the clueless one. Admittedly, she had been very busy lately. Still…
"But I thought things were going well between them." She mused between surprised and worried. "What could have happened?"
Wledyr sighed, clearly uncomfortable with the topic. "That I do not know, and it is not my business to pry."
As tempted as Gwynn was to look for a more satisfactory explanation on the matter, the Healer had made perfectly clear her reluctance to speak of the issue, and if she knew Helene and Lescaut, asking them about it would be completely useless. Thus, she simply nodded and gave Wledyr her leave too.
Alone again, she mused for a moment on the matter, realizing how oblivious she had been of her surroundings in a stark contrast with yesteryears, when she did not have much to do but to meddle in her friends' businesses.
A ghost of a smile appeared in her beautiful face recalling her childish ploys to get them together. All seemed very alien and far away, even though it had not been so long ago. Moreover, she barely recognized herself as the same person.
It also dawned on her how much had passed in a fairly short period of time, and how much the intensity of it all had made her grow. Gone was the girl that amused herself intruding in other people's affairs. The destiny of her country now rested on her shoulders… There were far more pressing issues at hand.
Under the current circumstances, whatever it was that had driven a wedge between her two closest friends, it would have to be dealt with in its own time.
Sighing, the Princess bid a silent farewell to her youthful ruses with a brief and pragmatic goodbye. The future required a woman, not a girl, and she would rise to the occasion.
Decisively, she unfolded the note from Sir Aldric and moved to the charts placed on her corner desk. Reading attentively, she grabbed her feather and drew four small marks on specific locations, captioning them with sequential numbers in perfect penmanship.
The four new battles alongside the Dubglas aligned perfectly with the previous one at the mouth of the river Glein. The one battle still imprinted in her mind and nightmares; the one that almost had cost Arthur his life…
"So," She spoke out loud to exorcise the lingering dread, "the second, third, and fourth battles were all along this river." Pausing for a second to collect her thoughts, she ended with a smile. "You are chasing them out of Linnuis, Arthur. Good work, my lord."
"Stay still!" Merlin tried unsuccessfully to grab the King's attention and remove the arrow from his side.
"Cover those ranks!" Arthur yelled from the makeshift trench where Merlin had dragged him to tend to the wound. "Lancelot! Get your men to the other side!"
The warlock grunted in exasperation. The injury did not seem life threatening as the arrow had cleanly pierced the side of the torso, far from any vital organ as far as he could tell. Still, the royal was loosing blood and, if infected, the wound could turn fatal.
The battle was all but won, and still the King refused to let his servant tend to the injury. Merlin's frustration was mounting. Obviously persuasion was not going to work, so he tried a more expedite approach. His eyes shone gold and grabbing the arrow he pulled.
"Rhyddhau ykalinta telo"
The brutal burning of the pain rendered the King mute, and for a moment all Arthur could see was red; a fiery, burning red that blinded him. He tried to fight the fainting barely noticing his body had gone numb… The last thing he remembered, however, was Merlin's satisfied grin holding a bloodied arrow in his hand.
Wledyr words had been right on target and Lescaut and Helene had been indeed avoiding each, other despite the difficulty of the task, being that both were at the service of the Princess.
At the beginning it had been easier, since upon return from the battle, the young captain had been confined to bed for several weeks to finish mending his numerous injuries, and to regain the strength from his massive loss of blood. During that time, he had been replaced in his guard duties by another captain.
But every since about four weeks past, he had resumed his duties and the predictable awkwardness between lady-in-waiting and royal-guard became more and more dense, like a toxic cloud that threatened asphyxiating them both.
Finally, and only some several days prior, Lescaut had organized his ideas enough—or so he thought—and had confronted Helene in what could only be described as a quite massive disaster.
He had been waiting f outside her quarters before she retired, and had unintentionally startled her.
"Sorry for frightening you, my lady. I only need to speak with you."
The deep voice of Lescaut made the hair of her neck prickle and a sudden surge of heat ran through her body. Mentally cursing the knight, as well as her reckless heart, Helene willed her nerves to still and remained impassible.
"And calling on me at these unsightly hours was your best idea to establish a conversation I suppose." Her words and icy tone clearly indicated that any form of amnesty was off the table.
Lescaut sighed. That was not a promising beginning.
It was not that he had been expecting any mercy from her. He knew he would get none, nor he deserved any. Furthermore, he was positive he had managed to ruin any and all possibilities with Helene. But he had to apologize properly, first and foremost because it was the honorable things to do; and perhaps, just perhaps, so they could come to some amicable terms.
With that hope in mind, he squared his shoulders and tried. "Truth is, I have been meaning to have a word with you ever since I returned to service, but you have been masterfully avoiding me."
"I would think that should have been your hint, captain. We do not have anything to discuss."
Her tone left no doubts. She was not going to forgive him.
Should he really be surprised?
A quick recount of their past told him that absolution was certainly not deserved, considering his rather inconsistent behavior: after years of pretending not even noticing her, he had startled her with the avalanche of his unspoken love… Only to doubt her and accuse her a moment later.
'And wrongly', his guilty conscience added.
Even though her tone and the question indicated she was getting impatient, Lescaut remained silent.
Truth was, he was not longer sure of what to say anymore.
To make matters worse, it was strange seeing her like this. Helen had always been sympathetic and forbearing; above of all, sweet. This cold and uptight courtier in front of him was so unfamiliar he briefly wondered whether he was speaking with the right person.
He tried his overly rehearsed speech nonetheless.
"I just wanted to apologize for doubting you Helene. I had no right to do so. If my words or my actions the night before we left the castle had offended you, I beg your forgiveness."
"I… I also learned it was you who tended my wound after the battle. According to the physician, your prompt intervention and courage to do what was needed is the one single reason why I will be able to wield my sword again. Thus, I am also in your debt."
There, it was all out, and he waited for a reaction that did not come. She kept looking at him from a distance much larger than the few feet that separated their bodies.
At last she spoke.
"Your gratitude is acknowledged, my lord, although unwarranted. I did what it was necessary and what anyone would have done." He opened his mouth to counteract, but she was not done. "As far as your apology, it is also accepted."
Left without words, Lescaut stood there with the awful feeling that absolutely nothing had been accomplished. They were still far apart, and he was unable to think of what else to say or do to bridge the huge gap. Adding to his misfortune, Helene asked in the same detached fashion.
"Is there anything else, captain?"
Unable to stop his words, he answered between sad and affronted. "You might have accepted the apology, my lady, but I believe I am far from forgiven."
Her cheeks blushed and a strange satisfaction ran through the knight when, at last, she showed some reaction other than that enervating detachment.
A moment later, however, he regretted it.
"Once again you doubt my word, sir, and yet you have the nerve to ask for a clean slate between us." She sizzled between teeth. "It would seem then that your apology was not sincere after all."
He bit his tongue in fury. He had not intended his words that way, but he also reckoned he just had served her the excuse in a silver plate.
Anger quickly replaced his disappointment. He knew—or at least had convinced himself—that he had destroyed his opportunity with this lady. And since he had spent his past life hiding his feelings for her, he was ready to continue doing so in the future. However, he was not about to let her stomp on his heart more than necessary. And right now, she seemed ready to make him pay too large of a price.
He moved forward and stood closer. His eyes, usually impassible, were shinning with something dangerous.
"You know that is not the case, Helene." He seethed. "And I know you; I also know I've upset you. I just want for things to be civil between us. At least in public."
Oh, that hurt…
If he had only known how much it had hurt, he would have taken back those words. Helene's heart broke into a million tiny pieces, but her wounded pride gathered them and hid them away, so he would not see.
"Do not worry, my lord." She kept insisting in the formal treatment. "I am very capable of being civil around you. I am not a child."
"And how long do you think it would take for the Princess to suspect something?" He asked derisively. "It is quite unbecoming for her lady-in-waiting to scurry out of the room every time her guard is called in."
Another blush told him he had plucked a nerve there, but her voice remained even. "I was only trying to save us both the displeasure of this argument, sir. I would think by now that too should have been obvious to you."
"Then I was correct: you have not forgiven me." He savored his victory, and at the same time wondered about his sanity.
What kind of idiot would find pleasure in winning such small battle, when he was so obviously losing the war?
"I have. Even if you choose not to believe it!" She stressed. "But just as you doubted my word before, and then again a moment ago, I know you will keep doing that in the future!"
The mention of a future—however off-handedly—ignited a tiny flame of hope in Lescaut's heart. Perhaps not everything had been lost?
Suddenly, it became painfully clear to the Captain that for all his self-convincing and resignation, he had been hoping for a different outcome. He had been actually hoping for leniency; and perhaps, just perhaps, a new beginning…
His pulse quickened in anticipation, but unfortunately he did not formulate his next promise carefully enough.
"I will not, as long as you are honest with me."
Bad choice of words, evidently, and he saw his last hopes crashing on the floor at her feet.
"I was never dishonest with you!" She defended in anger. "I had given my word to the Princess and I could not go back on it!"
By then, his mounting frustration was working full throttle against him.
"Even if by your action you were preventing me for doing my job of protecting her?"
"I did what I was supposed to do. Gwynn is not only my mistress… She is my friend!"
That incensed him to no end. The juvenile jealousy he had felt growing up with these two "friends" came back to him like a tidal wave. He loved them both more than life itself. One as his royal charge and the sister he did not have; the other as the dream of love it would never be.
And yet, the two girls had always managed to drive him stark raving mad with fear. Fear of not being able to protect them, to keep them safe… Fear that their innocence and free spirit—which he simply called recklessness and stubbornness—could one day prove fatal.
There was only so much he could take...
"Of course she is!" He growled. "Two peas in a pod are you two! Equally foolish; equally irresponsible. Except the Princess is supposed to be your charge, not your friend! I thought that I could count on your good sense to help me protect her, but instead, you continuously went and enabled 'your friend' to every one of her whims!" he ended with spiting sarcasm.
"How dare you!"
But Lescaut was too far gone by then and continued his tirade. "I told you going to Eleara was not a good idea, but you both dragged me into that trip and Gwynn almost got kidnapped by ruffians! I told you both there that there was something amiss with 'Sir Merlin' but you indulged the Princess in her senseless charade of identities..."
Helene was taken aback by the downpour of reproaches, unable to understand why was he bringing up things from the past.
"But it worked!" She defended blandly; confused at the sudden spin the discussion had taken. "And Gwynn and Leoness are finally free of Ruther thanks to ALL that!"
From Lescaut's perspective, however, her reluctance to see the obvious was nothing short of maddening. If he could not make her see the errors of the past, then there was no hope for those mistakes not to be repeated in the future.
"What if it hadn't been that way, Helene? What if the story had turned out differently? I was right in every one of my suspicions! There WAS something amiss. There WERE unacceptable risks. And if Arthur would have been anyone else BUT Arthur, who knows what could have happened! Why can't you see that?"
"But it WAS Arthur, and everything DID go well! Why can't YOU see that?"
It became painfully obvious that they had reached an impasse. Both were looking at the same events from the antipodes and none was willing to yield an inch.
Inhaling deeply, Lescaut backed up and spoke in utter disappointment. "Because for me the risks you and the Princess took were simply unacceptable, and that rendered the potential outcome irrelevant."
Helene's eyes pooled with tears, but she quickly blinked to stop them from spilling. When all was said and done, that was his view of the world: through discipline, risk assessment, and self-sacrifice. Duty would always come first. Always had, always would.
"I see." She whispered, equally disheartened. "Instead, for me, the outcome was far more important than the risks involved in its pursuit."
Was there even a way to bridge such large chasm?
The Royal tent was silent while Merlin worked in cleaning the wound. A magic spell had momentarily stopped the blood, but he knew that the ordeal was far from over and he wished Wledyr were there.
The barren winter land was unable to provide the much needed medicinal herbs. With so many battles, the supply had been systematically depleted; reviewing the stock, the young wizard discovered with dismay that there was not much left.
There was still enough to treat the King, but he knew Arthur would never forgive him were he to spend all the reserves on him, leaving nothing for other eventual wounded soldier. And at the pace these battles were progressing, there was no a question of 'if' there would be another wounded, but rather, 'how many'.
Brow frowned, the warlock sighed, unconsciously shaking his head while trying to ponder the options.
"Don't look so gloomy, Merlin. I'm not dead."
Arthur's voice brought him out of his thoughts with a start, and he rushed to the cot when he noticed the King was trying to sit up.
"Stay still!" he ordered fairly forcefully. "You'll start bleeding again."
The King lifted an eyebrow at the unusually authoritative tone of his friend. "Do you dare commanding your King?"
Merlin made a face. He was worried and in no mood for bantering. "Well, if my King is so thick as to risk dying of plain stubbornness, I supposed I owe it to Camelot to try and … persuade him otherwise."
Arthur laid his head back again, biting back a chuckle as he painfully discovered that any movement of his diaphragm hurt like hell.
"I am fine. Do not worry. My only problem, as of now, is that I am in debt to you for that."
When Merlin did not reply the pun, Arthur finally realized that there was something amiss. He turned to the warlock, serious this time.
Merlin thought about lying for a moment. After all, that had always been his instinctive reaction: lie for a greater good: to protect Arthur, Camelot, Albion and his magic.
This time, however, he discarded the idea almost immediately. He knew now that Arthur had seen through his pretense throughout the years, and still remained a loyal friend. This King, honorable to a fault, deserved nothing less that the truth.
"We are running low in medicinal herbs and, with the snow, I cannot find them anywhere. There is enough to treat you now, but I'm afraid…"
As suspected, Arthur interrupted. "Does this mean there won't be any left for the men?"
Merlin only nodded and Arthur did not doubt for a second his answer.
"Forget it then. Use your magic with me."
Even though he had been expecting a response of that sort, nothing had prepared Merlin for the full answer he received. And even less for the nonchalant manner in which the order was given.
For all he knew, Arthur could still have reservations about magic. But apparently, the King he thought he knew so well, was a man much more complex that he had ever given him credit for. The realization humbled Merlin, and he felt ashamed of having even contemplated the idea of lying to Arthur a moment ago.
When he did not move, the King spoke again. "What now? Have you gone suddenly shy about your powers?"
Shaking his head, Merlin smiled and went back to work. "No, of course not. I'm just afraid that I might turn you into a frog… unintentionally, you know?"
There was a rapid change in the King's expression; the challenging grin quickly morphing into a suspicious—and even slightly worrisome—look.
"You wouldn't dare…" The tone was not as assertive as Arthur would have liked either.
Smirking, Merlin got to work with the bandages and some ointment. "No, of course not; but only because your bride would have my head. Now turn to your side so I can see the wound in the back."
As things were, the King did not have much choice but to sheepishly obey. Grunting some less-than-polite epithets about the wizard, Arthur did as he was told.
Cleaning up the nasty gash, Merlin remembered something. He probably would not get many opportunities like this one, so he decided to give in his curiosity.
"While you're sitting here, and being that now you ARE the King", he stressed, "why don't you tell me at last when was it that you first discovered my powers?"
The royal back stiffed for a moment and Merlin stopped his ministrations. A moment later however, it relaxed again and the warlock let out the breath he had apparently been holding.
But the answer was not exactly what he had been expecting.
"That is for me to know and for you to find out."
Merlin thought for a second and then understood. Arthur was baiting him.
Grinning, he continued applying the potion.
What do you think? Ready to read a bit more before the end?