Elyan and Ferris made good time, but, when they got to the village, finding Sir Andras was easy, while finding Merlin was more difficult.
"He's been wandering out in every bit of woodland," Andras explained. "Says it's not worth the bother if he doesn't collect enough but can't take too many from one place or something." He shrugged, the finer points of herb gathering being beyond him.
"Alone?" Elyan demanded.
"He said I was distracting him," Andras said. "The woods here are quite safe."
Elyan turned to Ferris. "We split up. I'll go this way, you that. Andras, if Merlin comes back here you get him back to Camelot immediately. I'll explain later."
Ferris turned his horse around and went in the direction that Elyan had indicated. This whole thing was rather puzzling to him. What had happened to Gwaine was a tragedy, certainly, but quite what the servant boy had to do with anything he wasn't sure.
Ferris had fled Ireland after a misunderstanding with the law. He'd worked as a sword for hire for several years in Albion, until one day he'd been cheating at cards in a tavern. His duplicity was discovered, a brawl broke out, and Ferris and a man named Cole were the only ones left standing. Cole - Sir Cole said Camelot had suffered heavy losses recently and a trained fighter would be a welcome addition to their ranks.
The 'Sir' still sat uneasily on Ferris's shoulders, not least because of the half-truths, exaggerations and outright lies he'd told about his family overseas to secure his position. The aforementioned casualties had been heavy, however, and at the time no-one had seemed that concerned about his nobility or lack thereof.
As a relative newcomer, Ferris was in a good position to see the relationships between the knights. There was within the brotherhood what he thought of as the inner circle. King Arthur, his second in command, Sir Leon, the knights Sir Percival, Sir Elyan, Sir Gwaine, and, for some reason, Merlin. They'd been through a lot together, as told in the stories, and they were all incredibly close, according to the rumours.
Ferris ducked under a low hanging branch and urged his mount around a stand of trees. And there the boy was, muddied clothes and all, trying to trim part of some plant without scratching himself on its vicious thorns.
"Merlin," Ferris called. Startled, Merlin looked up and lost his grip on the plant. It flew back and smacked him across the cheek. Ferris winced in sympathy. Merlin, rubbing his face, glared at him.
"What do you want? Why are you here? Where's Andras?"
That, Ferris thought, was what put him on edge around the boy. Too many questions. And he watched people. Sometimes Ferris was sitting on the sidelines while the knights practised and observed Merlin, who was always watching everyone, particularly Arthur.
Ferris sighed. He hated being the bearer of ill tidings. In his past experience, it was a dangerous occupation. He dismounted, and wandered over to Merlin. He stroked his beard out of habit.
"Merlin, Arthur sent Elyan and myself out to find you. You have to get back to Camelot."
"Why? Did something happen? Arthur? Is Arthur all right?"
When Merlin stopped with the questions long enough for him to get a word in, Ferris said, "King Arthur is fine. It's Sir Gwaine."
Ferris braced himself for the inevitable barrage. Didn't Merlin realise he was wasting precious time with his queries?
"He's injured," Ferris said when Merlin had to pause for breath. "Badly. Dying, I think."
"You think?" Merlin snapped.
"It was an accident," Ferris began. Merlin's anger was frightening, infectious; Ferris could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and his heart begin to pound.
"I have to go to him," Merlin said. Which was exactly the plan if he'd been listening, Ferris thought.
What wasn't the plan was for the scrawny servant to push past him, unexpectedly shoving him hard enough that Ferris landed on the ground. Before he could recover his wits, Merlin had jumped onto Ferris's horse and was galloping away.
"Merlin," Ferris yelled as he struggled to get to his feet, hampered by the distinctive red cloak. Indignity and anger made him yell at the disappearing horse and rider, "You thief!"
Thief. Merlin heard the word, but felt only a momentary shiver of guilt. He had to get back to Camelot, so he needed a horse, and this had been the closest one. Besides he wasn't stealing it, really, just borrowing it. It wasn't even Ferris's horse; it belonged to King Arthur, as did almost all the horses in Camelot's stables, though a few knights had provided their own horses from their family's personal prestigious stock, or had purchased a fine mare or stallion specifically.
If Merlin was any judge, Ferris had stolen a horse or two in his time. He didn't talk much about his past, and he didn't always understand certain noble customs – which he claimed to be a result of his Irish upbringing, but Merlin could tell that it was a lie.
He'd never betray Ferris though, for he had proven loyal and a skilled fighter. A man's actions were more important than his birthright. Gwaine had always believed that, lived by that maxim.
Merlin blinked away hot tears, praying to the Old Gods that he'd make it back to Camelot in time to save Gwaine. What terrible accident had happened? Why had it happened now, when he was so far away and unable to help?
If he knew a spell that would transport him straight back to Camelot he would use it, no matter the cost or consequence, no matter that he'd be exposing his magic once and for all.
The sun was already setting and he knew he'd never make it back before nightfall. He'd have to stop once, maybe twice, and use magic to keep the horse healthy and at full strength if he was to ride the poor beast as hard as he needed to. The horse hadn't had chance to rest since the journey to him, and now he was forcing it to race straight back.
"I won't let you die," Merlin said, to the horse, and, in his mind, to Gwaine. He would not let this happen. He could not.
The moon rose, pale and waxing, and still Merlin rode. Just another few miles. Just another few minutes. He must make it back in time. He must.
Alone in her cottage, in a remote part of the woods, Morgana was sleeping. She was dreaming of Morgause, of revenge, of Uther and his lies, and Arthur's smirking face, and then, finally, she was standing on a hilltop and it was quiet and she was safe.
A voice disturbed the hush of that sacred place. It was like a breeze across a lake, and the ripples echoed across her mind. It was both from within the dream and from without.
Morgana stirred. In the twilight place between sleep and awareness, she drew her magic around her like a cloak, taking control of the dream-world.
"Who's there?" she called.
A woman stood in front of her, her face covered by a hood. "Morgana," she said. "I have a message for you."
Morgana held her head high, but she curled up the fingers of one hand until her nails began to dig into her palm. A little more pressure, a little more pain, and she could wake, if she needed to. "What is it?"
"You are a powerful sorceress," the woman said, her voice low but clear. "You have a great destiny ahead of you."
Morgana nodded but she said, "What about Emrys?"
"Do not concern yourself. Your battle with Emrys will change you, but you shall at last fulfil your calling."
"How do you know this?"
The woman lifted one hand from beneath her cloak. "I am from your future. I am from Avalon, where time does not pass in the way it does in this world. Trust me."
Morgana lifted one eyebrow. "That is your message? That I have a great destiny? And I must take your word for it?"
"I am not finished," the woman said. "One of Arthur's knights has fallen ill. He will die within hours."
"I care nothing for Arthur's errand boys," Morgana snapped. The wind whistled around her in response to her anger. The woman moved her hand in a gentle motion and the wind died down.
"Gwaine has a destiny," the woman said. "He must not die yet. I will give you the words to a healing spell that can bring him back from the very brink of death. You must save him."
Morgana glared at her. "Why must I?"
"Because I tell you to. This is part of my work now, and so part of yours. Someday you will be one of the Nine Sisters of Avalon, and this is your first step on the path to becoming more powerful than you have thus far imagined. You will go to Camelot and you will heal Gwaine."
Morgana's lip curled and she strode forward. "Who are you to tell me what to do? Show your face!"
Morgana threw back the woman's hood and came face to face with herself.
A little older, perhaps, but nonetheless, it was her face that stared back at her, her eyes unchanged by time and boring into her. Morgana shrank back, stumbled. She struggled to rouse herself from the nightmare this had become. The older Morgana stepped forwards –
- Morgana woke, panting, her skin soaked with sweat. The voice lingered, repeating three phrases over and over until even the words faded away.
Morgana dragged herself from her tangled sheets and over to her wash basin. She poured water from the earthen jug into the basin and quickly washed her face and hands. The cold water brought her fully awake and Morgana swallowed and forced herself to calm her breathing.
She stripped off her nightgown and took up a cloth. She busied herself washing the sweat from her body, feeling her heart still beating faster from the shock. What would Morgause say to this?
She would tell Morgana to trust her instincts. And her instincts said that it had not been a mere dream, but a vision.
And visions could not be disregarded without penalty.
Morgana gave a deep sigh of annoyance. She pulled on clean clothing and braided her hair, put on her boots and then her warmest cloak. A dagger in one boot and an amulet in her pocket and she was ready to go.
Gwaine had a destiny, did he? Yet it was her destiny to save him. That gave her the upper hand, and that thought at least gave her some comfort as she set out to help one of her hated half brother's precious knights.
Camelot was allegedly well guarded. Morgana knew from experience that there were plenty of ways to bypass the city's much vaunted security. It was an easy matter for her to gain entrance to Camelot and wander the dark streets, her hood pulled low over her face.
Accessing the knights' quarters might have proven a little more difficult, but Morgana was taking a gamble that a seriously ill or injured man would be with Gaius – and Gaius's cosy dwelling was meant to be more easily accessible to any who needed his services.
It was strange being back here. There were such terrible memories for her here, and fond memories turned bittersweet at best once she'd discovered the truth about Uther. She was glad he was dead. He'd have executed her in a heartbeat for her magical talents, gifts she had never asked for, never chosen.
If only Morgause had found her sooner, taught her control. So many prophetic nightmares, so much terror she'd lived through until Morgause had taken her under her wing. Tears prickled at Morgana's eyes and she blinked them away. Think about the vision instead, she told herself, and what it meant.
The Nine Sisters of Avalon. Morgause had mentioned Avalon once; the Otherworld, surrounded by a sea of glass, was named for the life-giving apple trees that grew in abundance there. It was a place beyond death, beyond time. Morgause hadn't mentioned the Sisters, and Morgana wondered how much of her vision had been truthful and what it portended.
One day she would be one of the Nine, her older self had said. Unless the Sister of Avalon had merely been using her form to scare her. No, why look older, then? It would have been more frightening to look at herself unchanged.
Morgana put aside her musings as she reached Gaius's door. Slowly, as quietly as possible, she opened it – it was unlocked, at least.
A fire was burning in the grate and the warmth hit her the moment she stepped inside. She closed the door behind her and pushed back her hood.
Gaius was at his workbench, slumped over and snoring softly, surrounded by bottles and vials, books and parchment. He'd been researching, Morgana thought, desperate to save Gwaine. Gaius was, for the most part, a good and kind man.
She'd cared for Gaius once, until she'd understood that he was drugging her not to save her from the nightmares but to prevent her from realising her full powers. Worse, it was well known that he'd once dabbled in sorcery, before swearing allegiance to Uther and informing on his own kind though he knew he sent them to their deaths. Traitor.
Gaius mumbled and blinked, lifting his head wearily. "Merlin?"
The words of a sleeping spell came from her lips without her conscious thought. Gaius's head dropped back to the table with a satisfying thump.
Morgana turned her head, seeking the reason for her nocturnal visit. Gwaine was sleeping fitfully on the sickbed that was so often needed in the physician's quarters. She stared at him a moment, wondered if the vision was true, and what would happen if she simply stood here and watched his life slip away.
There was a sound like rustling leaves and the flames in the fireplace flickered, but there was no wind. Morgana rolled her eyes at this obvious Otherwordly nudge. "Fine, all right, I'll heal him."
She crossed the room, shrugging her arms free of her cloak as she did so. She reached Gwaine's side and bent down over him. What had happened to him, she wondered idly, that he was beyond Gaius's reach?
She ran her fingertips across his cool, clammy skin, and touched her thumb to his bluish lips. His breathing was fast and shallow. Death was imminent, Morgana thought. He deserved it, for he followed Arthur just as the others did, all of them murdering witches and Druids and anyone else who had the misfortune to be born with magic or who had the temerity to study it. Why then should magic save him? It seemed unfair.
With a deep sigh, Morgana took Gwaine's right hand in her own right hand, and placed her left hand on his chest. She could feel his heart beating beneath her palm, fast and somewhat irregular.
She swallowed, lifted her eyes to the ceiling and began to speak aloud the words of the spell given to her at the close of the vision. She knew the moment the magic took hold; if she had been in front of a mirror she would have seen her pupils turn golden, as she'd seen it happen amongst others of her kind.
The energy flowed through her, and into Gwaine, and back again. The air around them grew warmer and full of static. The fire in the grate leapt higher, the flames licking around the edges of the chimney.
Faster and faster Morgana repeated the spell, over and over, feeling the magic fill every fibre of her being. She could hear her blood pounding in her ears, feel Gwaine's heart beating in unison with her own. If he died she'd die with him, she realised, and had to fight the spark of fear that this sent through her. She must not fail, she must not stop.
The magic peaked, and she sat at the tip of the cone of power. With one last utterance of the incantation she drew the power into her, releasing it as she spoke the last syllable.
The room was suddenly silent. The fire guttered and died down. She lost her balance, almost falling on top of Gwaine. She could feel that her cheeks were flushed and her skin tingled with the last vestiges of the magical energy.
At last Morgana blinked and gathered her wits, shaking her cloak around her. "Gwaine?"
He stirred. She pressed two fingers to his neck; his pulse was strong and steady. Colour had flooded back into his face and his skin was warm and dry to the touch. She smiled, pleased with the demonstration of her power, though she was ambivalent about the results. He would live, and he would continue to be her enemy so long as he was loyal to Arthur, and Arthur continued to despise her and her magical brethren. A pity; he was a rather fine specimen of a man. She tucked one strand of his long hair back behind his ear.
The door flew open, hitting the wall with a loud bang. "Gwaine," Merlin shrieked and then his eyes alighted on Morgana. "You." The single word was filled with venom.
With a word and a wave of her hand, Morgana sent the books from Gaius's table flying at Merlin's head. At least one of them caught him on his forehead and in the few seconds he was dazed, Morgana pushed past him and was gone, running through the streets with her cloak billowing out behind her.
Merlin flung the door open, lungs aching from his desperate dash home. "Gwaine," he called, terrified that it was too late, that Gwaine was already dead. Gaius was sleeping and Merlin barely had time to register that before he saw Gwaine – and Morgana.
How dare she come here? What had she done to Gwaine? She'd done this and she'd come to gloat! He'd stop her, he'd save Gwaine, and so what if he exposed his magic? Gwaine was more important than his secret!
These and other thoughts dashed through Merlin's head in the blink of an eye, but, even as he raised one hand to cast a spell, Morgana had struck first. A heavy leather-bound volume hit him in the head and Merlin was thrown off-balance, and when someone – Morgana, surely – pushed past him, he was flung against the wall.
Merlin shook his head to clear it, regretting the sudden movement immediately. He touched his fingers to the bump on his head, the skin already tender and beginning to swell.
Priorities, he told himself sharply. Gwaine.
"Merlin," Gaius said, awakened by the brief scuffle. "What happened here? Are you all right?"
"Morgana," Merlin said. "She was here."
He should go after her, he knew. He should summon the guards. Instead he ran over to Gwaine. "She was leaning over him. Gwaine?"
Gaius hurried over to join him. Gwaine's eyelids fluttered. Gaius clamped one hand down on Merlin's shoulder.
"He's waking," Gaius said incredulously.
Gwaine opened his eyes. "Merlin," he said. "You're back."
"I'm back," Merlin agreed thickly, throat constricted in emotion.
"How do you feel?" Gaius asked.
Gwaine considered it for a moment. "Fine. I feel fine."
Gaius stared at Merlin and waggled his eyebrows, one finger pointing to Gwaine. Merlin gave a small shake of his head; he couldn't take credit for Gwaine's recovery.
"Let me see," Gaius said, pulling back the blankets. He lifted Gwaine's shirt. Merlin peered over anxiously.
"The bruising is completely gone," Gaius said, stunned. "Even if the herbs were working, it would take days if not weeks for the marks to fade."
Gaius ran his fingers lightly over the exposed skin, and pressed softly into the lower flesh. Merlin watched Gwaine's face but saw no signs of discomfort.
"It's as if the wound was never there," Gaius said. "Impossible!"
"Are you sure you're okay, Gwaine?" Merlin found himself running his hands through his hair in a panic. "Morgana was here."
"Morgana?" Gwaine, despite Gaius's protestations, sat up. "Here?"
Merlin nodded. "She's gone now," he said in what he hoped was a reassuring tone.
Gwaine shook his head. "I think – I think she was trying to save me."
Merlin stared at him.
Gwaine sat at the table, drinking the last of the wine. Arthur had given it to him, he'd pointed out; it would be rude not to drink it. Gaius had explained the extent of Gwaine's injury to Merlin and now Merlin was staring at Gwaine, terrified that his friend was healed but under a spell and would turn evil, or that it was a trick, a temporary respite, and that Gwaine would suddenly drop dead.
Gaius had offered to go and tell any of the knights still awake the good news – Percival almost certainly wouldn't be sleeping -and so Gwaine and Merlin were alone.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here," Merlin said.
Gwaine shrugged. "Not your fault. None of this was anyone's fault."
Merlin nodded and Gwaine laughed. "Please, Merlin," Gwaine said. "You look like I died. Cheer up a little."
Merlin forced himself to grin and he leaned over to clasp Gwaine's shoulder. "I'm glad you're alive."
Gwaine lifted his tankard in a gesture of salute and took a long drink. They sat in companionable silence for a while.
"I was dreaming," Gwaine said suddenly, his face serious. "It was dark and then I was standing on a river bank. There were all these apple trees, and the sun was high in the sky but it wasn't sunny exactly…there was sort of glow. And then there was a woman, in a long green cloak. She threw back her hood, and it was Morgana."
Merlin listened intently. "Morgana?"
"But she looked different…I can't quite explain." Gwaine shrugged and pushed his hair back from his forehead. "But it was her. And she said – something about destiny."
Merlin waited, but Gwaine fell silent and finally sighed. "It was just a dream, I suppose. But when you said Morgana had been here…"
Merlin frowned. "It does seem as if Morgana healed you. But why, I don't know. She must have some purpose behind it."
Gwaine placed the empty mug on the table. "I suppose we'll find out soon enough."
Gwaine had refused to sleep. He'd spent all day nearly dying, he told Gaius, and what he wanted was a walk outside.
He stood atop the parapet, leaning on the rough stonework and staring out over the sleeping Camelot. The wind was cold but Gwaine was enjoying the feel of it on his face. It made him feel more alive.
The possibility of death was something he'd accepted long ago, but he'd always thought it would have been swift and sudden, like a missed parry on the battlefield leading to a sword in his heart. The prolonged agony and knowledge of his impending demise had been a far cry from the glorious death he'd imagined.
He'd slipped into a deep sleep, half-hoping he'd never awaken again to endure more pain, half-hoping he would survive long enough for Merlin to come back.
"Sir Gwaine, please do not be afraid."
Morgana. The witch! He had no sword to hand. Wait, she looked – older. Wiser. A sort of shimmering light around her. It suddenly struck him that she was incredibly beautiful. And, somehow, that he was safe here, and free from pain.
"What is this? Where am I?"
"This is Avalon."
Avalon? An old story from his nursemaid -
"Almost. I will save your life, for you have a destiny to fulfil."
"Destiny?" His disbelief did nothing to sway her conviction. He saw no doubt, no sneer upon her lips. She moved closer to him and despite himself he took a step away.
"Yes. All of us have a destiny. This is mine. Arthur has embarked upon his. And yours will come soon enough. I cannot be there to help you through the trials you will endure, Gwaine, but I have faith that you will succeed. I can, however offer a word of advice."
She was pressed up against him now, and he couldn't move backwards, for he was jammed against a tree trunk. The smell of apples was heavy in the air. She ran two fingers down his breastbone, sending a shiver of pleasure through his body. Softly, but clearly she said, "You must remember this, Gwaine. It is important."
"Yes, my Lady?" The title seemed necessary, appropriate.
Gwaine swallowed hard, digging his fingers into the stonework to ground himself lest he become lost in the memory of the intoxicating vision.
When he'd come to, he'd woken to Merlin's face, but the scent of apples had lingered. He'd pushed it aside as a dream but knowing that Morgana had been the one to save him made it impossible to deny that it had been no figment of his imagination but a vision.
"I will remember, my Lady," Gwaine muttered. He had no idea what she'd meant by the warning, but she'd been very insistent about it, that it was the reason he had been spared, this mysterious destiny. He would never forget it, of course. Though if only he understood it.
"One winter's day your recklessness will bring you to the brink once more," Gwaine said, repeating her words, and felt a small frisson of fear. "This only I can tell you.
"Beware the Green Knight."