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At first, it was only two of the forest folk. A weary young woman, a small child clinging to her skirts, had carried a large jug down to the stream to fill. She stopped short when she saw the young man lying partly in the water. She saw blood on his clothing and supposed he was dead. With a small scream, she dropped the jug and, scooping up the child, she ran back where she came from.
The next to come was the dwarf, Grettir, gatekeeper to the Perilous Lands. He knelt by the young man's side and held his hand flat a few inches above the amulet. He could feel magic fairly pulsing from the little bag.
"I can tell the future, child of Ygraine. The amulet that you wear summons powerful help." He stood up, turned and vanished into the forest.
A few moments later, other people emerged from the woods. They gathered around Arthur's body.
"He's breathing. He's not dead." They watched his chest rise and fall for a few moments. Someone knelt to check his wrist. "Aye, he lives."
An old woman broke through the throng of people. She stared at him, recognition in her eyes. "It's him. It's the prince. I've seen him at the castle."
A murmur went through the small crowd. "Arthur. It's Arthur. The king's son."
"Let him die," someone said. There was much arguing back and forth. "It'll be a judgment on the king. Let Uther suffer this time."
"The boy is the crown prince. He is not to be harmed. Who'll rule in his stead?"
"I knew his mother. Beautiful she was."
"What happened to her?" asked another.
"She died after the babe was born. A life for a life. The prince was born of magic." A gasp went 'round the crowd.
Suddenly at the back of the crowd, three men approached. They were dressed in long gray robes, hoods pulled up around their heads. The crowd parted respectfully for them. One of the men threw back his hood and knelt beside the prince. He touched Arthur's face gently, then he examined the wound in his side. He picked up each of Arthur's hands and turned them palm side up, seeing the bruises and the scratches. After a few moments he spoke.
The crowd murmured and grumbled, then dispersed, slowly at first, a few people looking back over their shoulders.
The first druid spoke to his two companions. "Help me pull him from the water. Gently!" he snapped as the prince was roughly pulled further onto the bank. "His life force hovers precariously between this world and the next." He placed his hand over the wound and murmured a healing spell in the old language.
The three men watched as the wound in his side slowly healed. Color returned to Arthur's cheeks and warmth to his skin. One of his hands moved across the ground, his fingers plucking at the grass. A moan broke from his lips.
One of the men, spying the amulet around Arthur's neck, inquired incredulously, "The son of Uther Pendragon wears magic around his neck?"
The first druid unfastened the cord and pulled the little bag from his neck. He opened it and shook out the crystals onto his palm.
"Emyrs." A small half-smile appeared on his face. He replaced the crystals and curled Arthur's fingers around the little bag.
The prince opened cerulean blue eyes and rolled onto his side with a groan. He pushed weakly up onto an elbow then sat up. Flowers fell from his chest, dropped there earlier by the children now hiding among the trees. He studied the three druids then inspected his side.
"You healed me? With magic?"
The men had retreated a few steps away and stood regarding him gravely. "You were dying."
"Thank you." Arthur could feel the power and strength surging through his limbs, returning to his body. He looked down at the little bag of crystals in his hand. "My friend gave me these," he said to no one in particular.
"A better friend than you know," replied the druid. "Stay here. People come for you."
The brigands' first hint of trouble was a faint drum of hoof beats. Moments later, the knights of Camelot burst into view, their horses plunging and rearing with nervous energy. Sir Leon pulled his horse up short. His eyes sought out Rufus.
"Who are you, and where is Prince Arthur?" Sir Leon got right to the point.
"How dare you question me in this manner," Rufus bluffed, with all the arrogance he could summon. "I am Prince Edmund of Devonshire and a honored guest of King Uther."
Sir Leon let that slide for the moment. His men were directing murderous looks at the four brigands, and Sir Leon knew at the slightest signal from him would fall on them with a vengeance.
"You left Camelot this morning with the prince. Where is he now?"
Rufus was desperately in need of another drink, but he recognized danger when he saw it. "We were set upon by bandits, and the prince and one of my men were separated from us in the confusion. We look for them now." His three companions nodded in mute agreement.
It wasn't a bad lie on the spur of the moment, Leon thought. "Wrong answer," he said. "Your other man lies dead behind us, and the real Prince Edmund is newly arrived at the castle."
Percival drew his sword, Sir Leon made no move to stop him, and the fight was on.
Arthur stood ankle-deep in grass and mingled wildflowers in a small clearing in the woods. Rays of sunlight fell upon him, turning his blonde hair golden and creating an otherworldly aura that shimmered in the air about him. The knights of Camelot pulled their horses up short upon sight of him. He looked like the fulfillment of some ancient prophecy. Several of the men had to stop themselves from sliding off their horses and falling to their knees. Any one of them would have died for him.
Plunging through the middle of the knights came Merlin with Gwaine and Lancelot on either flank.
"Arthur!" Merlin laughed in relief. He slid hastily from his saddle and ran to where the prince was standing. "You're injured." Merlin plucked at Arthur's shirt still covered with stains. Gwaine and Lance walked over to join him.
"No, I'm all right." One of Merlin's arms circled Arthur in half a hug. Arthur did not return the gesture but neither did he pull away. Gwaine and Lancelot both clapped his shoulders.
"Well-met, my friend," said Lance.
"This isn't your blood?" Merlin was persistent.
"No. Yes. We're not discussing this now." Arthur got a mulish expression on his face. The knights exchanged looks.
"I'm hungry," Arthur demanded. "No, I'm starved."
"Of course, Sire," Merlin replied, laughing as he walked back to his horse and pulled out bread and venison for the prince. Everything would be all right.
Arthur was alive.