The amulet is a circle made of solid silver. Its edges are decorated with small, tear-shaped jewels changing shades of blue as it catches the light. In the middle a symbol is drawn in black ink, fading and jagged through age and use, but looking closely Merlin can still discern the image of a large animal, with locks of hair around its head, crushing a bird between its paws and biting down on the bird's head. He hasn't seen anything like it before. Gaius, however, frowns thoughtfully.
He peers closer through his magnifying glass. "A lion bearing down on a hawk." He reaches out to touch the jewels. "It's a crest, Sir Leon. You found this while searching the room?"
Leon crowds closer and so do Gwen, Gwaine, Elyan, Percival and Lancelot. They're all gathered around the table, trying to get a closer look at the amulet. "Yes. The inn keeper said that the people we were looking for were staying with him. We searched the room and found this underneath one of the beds."
"And you suspect that these men took Arthur?"
The knights all share a look and Leon looks at Merlin, who nods. Leon answers, "Yes."
"Then I'm afraid Arthur is in grave danger. This crest belongs to a fraternity of mercenaries. They do not carry names. They are only known by the crest. Members are identified through this amulet."
"Mercenaries?" Leon asks.
"Yes, I'm afraid so. They can be hired at a very steep price for all manner of crimes. Kidnapping a prince would not daunt them."
"So we're looking for a group of men with no names." Gwaine says, stepping away from the table.
"I'm afraid so, if this is your only lead." Gaius says, but his eyes drift to Merlin and he raises his eyebrow meaningfully.
Leon bows his head. "Merlin, did you find anything in Arthur's chambers?" Merlin shakes his head and Leon sighs. "If they are mercenaries, they might ask for a ransom."
"If the person who hired them doesn't want Arthur dead," Gwaine points out. Leon turns and subtly inclines his head in Gwen's direction. Gwaine flushes and ducks his head. "Sorry."
"We should organize a wide search party through the woods, try to find tracks," Lancelot says.
Leon nods. "I'll send out new men and send a messenger to the ones out already. We'll try to keep it quiet for now though, we don't want to cause panic."
"What if the people ask after him?" Percival presses.
"Gwen," Leon says softly, "I'd like to say that Arthur is spending the day with you in the Lower Town. You'll have to stay in the citadel, in case anyone sees you by yourself. But a story like that would be hard to verify. The Lower Town is large; it's easy to get lost in. Would you mind?"
She shook her head. "Of course not."
"Good, for now, that's what we're saying. Tomorrow, Arthur will be out hunting. After that, we'll cross that bridge when we get there. At the moment we have to concentrate on the search. It's imperative that we find Arthur as soon as possible. Percival, you and Elyan will take a search party west, Lancelot and Gwaine will go east. Merlin and I will take a party and search the Valley of the Fallen Kings. It's the most defendable post close to Camelot. They might be bunking down there for the night."
There was a knock on the door and Neville, Leon's squire, poked his head in the room. "Sir, a messenger from the village of Ampthill. He says he has urgent news for the king."
Leon made a face that could be roughly translated into for the love of the gods, what now? but he stood straighter and nodded. "I'll talk to him first, see if his message really pertains to the king." He turned to the others. "Get ready, we leave in an hour."
The knights left, but Merlin stayed behind. "That's all you know, about the amulet?"
Gaius checks whether the door is closed. "I didn't want to say this in front of the others. These mercenaries are known for catching their victims off guard, doing their deeds unseen in the shadows. Some people accuse them of using magic. I don't know the particulars of their business, of course, but I do know that they use the amulets to keep in touch with each other. Combining the amulet and an incantation will let you track them wherever they go."
Merlin looks at the innocent-looking amulet. "An incantation?"
Gaius nods. "Yes, the amulets are all connected to each other. A simple location spell cast on one of them will lead you to where the others are."
Merlin smiles. "That's great! I'll be able to find Arthur in no time."
"Merlin, you must be very careful. Casting the spell might warn the mercenaries that they're being tracked."
"Maybe, but magic is forbidden in Camelot. They'd never think that it was someone coming after Arthur."
"That may be so, but I suspect that these mercenaries have a few enemies more than Camelot and her knights. Even so, how do you propose to use the incantation in full view of the knights?"
Merlin shrugs. He picks up the amulet from the table and feels the cool weight of it in his hand. "I'll have to get lost, or strike out on my own, or just perform the spell while out collecting firewood when we make camp."
Gaius sighs. "Whatever you do, Merlin, you must be careful. These mercenaries will be absolutely ruthless."
"Gaius, you know that I can-"
There was another knock on the door and Neville poked his head in again. "Sorry to interrupt, but Sir Leon wants to see Merlin in the great hall's antechamber right away. He says it's urgent."
"Right," Merlin says and he pockets the amulet.
The chamber is under guard and he reaches it at the same time as Lancelot and Percival do. Gwaine is already inside and Elyan arrives not long after. Leon looks harried and it makes that danger! danger! feeling in his stomach clench again.
"I just had word. Mercia is gathering an army at the border. They've crossed the river and they've burned several villages, one of which was Ampthill. They haven't moved further inland yet, but they will. It's only a matter of time. We have to raise Camelot's army and meet them before they can sack any more villages."
"But Arthur's missing. Can we even go to war without Arthur? Is there anyone in control off the army?" Gwaine asks.
"If we go to war first then we'll lose Arthur's trail forever," Lancelot says.
"I know, but if we go after Arthur first, he might not have a kingdom to come back to." Leon looks pained while he says it. "We must send out a response to Mercia as soon as possible. With Arthur gone, king Uther is the only one with the power to raise Camelot's army."
"And he's stuck inside his own head." Gwaine says.
Percival hides his snort of laughter in a cough when Lancelot elbows him in the side. Elyan has his arms crossed in front of his chest. Leon looks at each of them, and leans forward, conspiratorially. "In the absence of both the king and the prince, the decision will fall to the council. I've already had them assemble in the great hall. I intend to have messengers sent to the other lords in Camelot for them to contribute the men they promised the king."
"What about Arthur?" Lancelot urges.
"We can't leave Arthur to his fate. If they won't demand a ransom, he might be moved out of our reach forever. And there is always the possibility that the mercenaries were hired by Mercia, so he would be absent at a battle. But we don't even know where he is and we don't have the time to send out a large search party. We'll need all our strength to defeat Mercia and a small force might not be able to either find the mercenaries or defeat them even if they are found."
Merlin steps forward. "I will go." He's surprisingly relieved that none of them laugh. "I will go. I will find Arthur."
Leon frowns. "I can't send you out there all by yourself, Merlin."
"He won't be by himself," Gwaine says. "I will go with him." Merlin wants to say no, but Gwaine grins and laughs. "You don't really think I'd let you go out there by yourself, do you? It'll be just like old times."
Merlin wants to refuse but convincing Leon to let him strike out on his own will be hard enough. The older man looks hesitant and Merlin makes sure to look him straight in the eye. "I will find Arthur, Leon. I swear I will."
Leon has known Merlin for nearly five years now. He has seen a tall, skinny man-boy picking up a sword in the defense of a kingdom; has seen him charge ahead when the odds seemed hopeless. Now, he sees the weight of that blue-eyed gaze and all he can do is nod, because if anyone will find Arthur, it will be Merlin.
"Very well, you and Gwaine leave after dusk. Don't let anyone see you and don't let anyone know what you're doing and where you're going. Take two of my horses, I'll make sure they'll be ready for you."
Merlin smiles, broad and a bit like a fool. "Thank you, Leon."
"Just bring him back to us, Merlin. I have a council meeting to get to." He raises his voice. "Neville!" The boy opens the door. "I need you to draft letters to the lords of Camelot, tell them they need to start gathering their men and be ready to set out at a moment's notice. We can send them off right after the council meeting. Lancelot, Percival, Elyan, with me. We'll talk to the council together."
Lancelot, Percival, Elyan and Leon leave the antechamber through the door to the great hall for the council meeting. Gwaine and Merlin leave for the corridor. "We'll have two hours before it's fully dark. I'll gather some herbs with Gaius, in case Arthur's injured." He also has to practice his spell and figure out what way they're going before they set out.
Gwaine nods. "Alright, I have a few things to pack. Some people to see. I'll see you at the stables in two hours." He claps Merlin on the back and takes a left.
Merlin frowns. "That's not the way to the knight's quarters!"
Gwaine turns, keeps walking backwards. There's a grin on his face. "I know."
Merlin is curious, but he doesn't have time to figure out Gwaine and his lady friend. He rushes through packing some food and a few spare clothes. He studies the amulet and the spell in his book.
"You know, Merlin, you might not be able to hide your gift from Gwaine if your search for Arthur takes longer than expected."
"I know." Merlin mumbles the words of the spell under his breath, but the amulet doesn't move.
Gaius touches his shoulder; just rests his hand there. "Be careful, my boy."
"I will be, Gaius."
It takes Merlin nearly an hour to figure out that he needs to hold the amulet over a map and say the incantation. The jewels glow a bright blue and a bright blue X marks the map near the edges of the White Mountains. He rolls up the map and leaves his little room and gathers his bags. He has ten minutes until he has to meet Gwaine at the stables. Gaius is packing some jars and bandages in an empty bag. "You should take these with you. We have no idea what kind of injuries Arthur might have."
Merlin takes the bag. "Thank you, Gaius. I'll be back before you know it."
Gaius smiles, but it looks old and tired, worn-out. Merlin's never seen Gaius look this old before. "I know, Merlin. I have every faith in you."
Merlin leaves. The door closes behind him and the flickering lights of the candles and the fire vanishes in a corridor of shadows. For a while he's glad that he's used to sneaking out of Camelot because it's easy to avoid the guards and stick to the shadows; easy to find his way in the dark. The stables are a bit more crowded and young men wearing the livery of Camelot are preparing horses and filling up saddlebags. In the middle of the quiet hustle, there is Leon, holding the reigns to two ready horses. Gwaine is tying his own bags to the saddle and Merlin quickly steps forward to do the same.
"A few messengers will be leaving through the Southern Gate, you can slip out along with them and no one will question you. I've put a lock down on the city, no one in, no one out, unless they have the necessary papers."
The Southern Gate is closest to the White Mountains. Merlin considers it a good sign and accepts the papers Leon gives him with a smile. Quickly, and with no words, both Gwaine and Merlin mount their horses and leave with the stables with a few other messengers. Fifteen minutes later, they pass through the Southern Gate and the messengers all go different ways. Merlin motions for Gwaine to follow him and sets out to the White Mountains. They ride silently, all through the night and Merlin is thankful that he slept so late this morning because otherwise he would be falling asleep in the saddle. They reach the foot of the mountains by the time the sun is climbing over the horizon and a new day is beginning.
"We should stop here and rest," Gwaine says. Merlin hesitates and Gwaine shoots him a look. "If we're well rested, we'll make better time than if we push on now. And when we do find Arthur, we need to be in good shape to fight whoever took him."
Merlin knows Gwaine is right and he remembers having a similar conversation with Arthur when Gwen had been kidnapped. So he follows Gwaine up the slopes of the mountain until they come to a ditch. "I used to camp here every time I came close to Camelot. The ridge here prevents patrols from seeing you, but the path leading up into the mountains is only a few paces that way," he points. "If you need a quick getaway."
They make a small fire and set up camp after managing to compromise on two hours rest. Merlin sinks away into a small doze and Gwaine does the same. When two hours have passed Merlin gets to his feet and rouses Gwaine.
"It's time to go."
Gwaine nods and stands. He stretches and the bones of his back make a few ominous cracks. "I was wondering, Merlin," he says while packing up his things. "How do you know where we're going?"
There's something in Gwaine's voice when he asks, like he knows and Merlin doesn't hesitate, despite the pounding of his heart. He lays out the map and holds the amulet over it. The spell comes easily now and the blue light makes a mark at the edge of the Valley of the Fallen Kings. It looks like the mercenaries are trying to go around instead of through it. Merlin looks up from the map.
Gwaine crouches down and studies the map. "We should follow the river here, in the dip between the mountains. If we can go through the mountains and then through the Valley, instead of around, we might be able to cut them off, get ahead of them." He slaps Merlin on the back. "Better get a move on, hey?"
He grins and Merlin, helplessly, grins back.
A/N: and this concludes The Bustling City. I will start posting the third Arc: The Magic Cottage on 14/4/2012