Chapter 16

The sky was a clear blue; so clear and bright that it hurt your eyes just looking at it. Puffs of white cloud drifted past the sun and Gloria couldn't believe that in some field, far away, near a river, people were most likely fighting and dying in droves. Gwaine had sat down with Arthur whilst Merlin had gone out to chop firewood and now Gloria stood in the open doorway as she listened to their low voices. They spoke of supplies and men and expected losses. Somewhere, underneath the same summer day sky, Leon commanded an army to fight for Camelot. But here, in the glade of her cottage, the birds were chirping and a gentle breeze ruffled the grass in front of her steps. The air was clean and beautiful.

"And Gaius?"

"Stayed behind to prepare for the wounded. Leon wanted him to come to the front, to set up triage, but Gaius is too old for the front-line."

She heard Arthur grunt as he shifted and the skin around his injuries must have pulled at the crusts or maybe he jarred his arm. She'd wrapped it in a sling this morning, to take the weight off his damaged shoulder, but he could have taken it off when she wasn't looking. It wouldn't surprise her.

"That's at least two days travel, with carts and wounded. Too many men could die or become infected in the meantime."

"Gaius is too old for quick evacuation if the front line can't hold. It's too dangerous. Camelot is the best place for him and there was no one else. Merlin was the only one who could find you, he had to come with us."

Arthur snorted. "Even then he's not much of a physician."

"Merlin does more than you give him credit for."

There was a second or three of stony silence. "So it would seem."

"Arthur-"

"What else do you know about the war?"

"Nothing. We haven't been in contact with anyone in Camelot or the battle front since we left to find you."

"Eight, no, nine days; anything could have happened. The army could have been defeated. Percival, Elyan and Leon could have died."

Gloria descended the stairs into the glade and rounded the banister to step into the garden. She needed to gather some herbs and flowers. She still wanted to fill at least one other saddle bag with potions that would help. If they couldn't take a physician with them, they could at least take Merlin and she could show him to use them. She gathered a few flowers and the sap from the cut stems stained her hands. She wiped them on her apron and clenched them loosely in her fist. From the back of the cottage, she could hear Merlin's chop-chop-chopping of wood.

She went back inside and ignored Gwaine and Arthur as they abruptly stopped talking. She put the flowers down on the workbench and cleared it off the remains of herbs and crystals. She tidied the remains of breakfast and magicked the plates clean. The flowers, she put on a cutting board and she used a knife to tease the seeds out of the crown. There was a cauldron already bubbling over the fire and all the doors and windows were open to let out the fumes.

It was almost like any other day; the bubbling of the cauldron and the sooth rhythm of potion-making. She couldn't hear the sound of Merlin's chopping anymore and Gwaine and Arthur were so quiet she could almost imagine herself alone, like any normal day. Now, her cottage was filled with strangers who didn't like her and didn't trust her and would burn the magic right out of her if they could. The anger didn't surprise her anymore but she put it aside for now.

She ground down the seeds of the flower and then carefully checked the recipe in the big tome. She wasn't used to making blood-replenishing potions. Mostly she dealt with natural sickness, a broken leg here and there, but hardly ever with injuries that wasted blood until the body could no longer sustain itself. Potions could be tricky and she ended up going back outside to consider how to best pull out the blue bell-shaped monkshood with the root fully intact. She carefully waded into the flowerbed and crouched down.

There were slow, careful footsteps on the stairs, like someone afraid to fall or stumble. She didn't look up and carefully curled her hand around the flower stem instead. She could hear it when his feet hit the grass and she could feel the heavy weight of his gaze on her. She was not going to look up.

"I want you to come with us."

She looked up; the flower forgotten.

"Us?"

"Merlin, Gwaine and myself."

Gloria straightened from her crouch. "Merlin's going back with you then?"

She could see him gritting his teeth. "Of course he is. Where else would he go?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. He must have come from somewhere, must have family willing to take him in. I wasn't sure he'd go to Camelot with you, after the magic?"

"Merlin will come back with me."

She rolled her eyes and looked back at the flower. "You expect him to just walk into Camelot so you can put him on the pyre? And you expect me to do the same?"

He shifted his weight and the sign of unease made her look up again, but his face was still and hard as stone. "No one will be put on the pyre, you have my word."

"And the word of a Pendragon means so much to me that I will risk my life over it."

She smiled and she could feel her lips curling back over her teeth, more like a snarl. Arthur took a deep breath and shook his head.

"I know that you don't trust me or my father,"

"You say that as if I don't have a reason," she interjected.

"And that to you, my words mean nothing." His face looked comfortable when it was annoyed, like he was used to it.

"Nothing, like dirt."

"But," he stressed and it seemed as if he thought his argument became more valid the louder he raised his voice. She wondered how many times he won an argument like that. "You have saved my life and I will not repay such kindness with betrayal. I promise you on my honour as a knight and a prince of Camelot, that I will safeguard your life should you choose to come with us."

He was like an earnest puppy, Gloria thought, too earnest and desperate to be a murdering bastard. But his father had been a handsome man in his youth, so they said.

"Why would you even want me in Camelot?"

He shifted his weight again and it dawned on her that he might be not be uneasy with her per say, but more uneasy with this decision to take her to Camelot.

"Do you even know what you're doing?" she asked him and his face crunched up like he was on the verge of shouting or huffing or doing something very un-princely-like.

"My people are dying!" His shout was not as un-princely-like as she would have thought. He glared at her for a full ten second and then took a deep breath, visibly settling himself. Gloria wondered if Merlin could hear them, from round the back of the house. Arthur looked out over the peaceful clearing and then looked down at his sling. With his other hand, he softly fingered the fabric.

"Gwaine told me I was dying. That the cut one of the mercenaries gave me had become infected even before they gave me to M-Morgana " – he pretended not to notice when he stumbled over the name – "and that what she did to me, with the whip, was bad enough on its own. He didn't think I'd live to see Camelot again."

"You wouldn't have, not without me or my magic," she said because she wanted him to remind him what exactly saved his life. To his credit, he didn't flinch. At all.

"You are an exceptional … physician."

"Do you take offense at the word 'healer'?"

He gritted his teeth and for the first time since the start of their conversation, she felt a little mean trying to provoke him. He was injured and if last night's shouting had been any indication, a whole lot of upset. He was injured and upset and a puppy. He was an injured and upset puppy. She maybe wanted to kick him in the ribs despite all of that.

"No, but I did take offense at you trying to kill my father and using one of my best knights to do it." His voice was harsh and scolding and she felt a bit like a naughty child. It made her angry.

"Well I took offense when your father had my father and my mother burned to death."

For a second she could see his heart pumping his clean blood steadily through his veins. She could see the delicate network of arteries spreading out thin and spider-like to other vital organs. It would be so easy to reach inside and leave something dirty behind. Infect his heart, spread it to the rest of his system and he'd be dead within hours.

The spell didn't work after all. It was such a shame. I really thought he was out of the woods, Merlin. I thought he'd be fine. I was wrong. These things happen.

When she blinked, the spidery veins were gone and she was looking into his eyes instead. He was recovering. He was going to be fine, completely fine. She breathed out and relaxed her hands when she noticed she'd curled them into fists. Wilful, her father used to call her, wilful with a big temper.

"My father did what he thought was best." But even when he said it, his face was still and smooth, like he was hiding something. "All I know is that you saved my life when other healers would have decided I was a lost cause."

"Camelot has a great physician, but he's too old for battle. I need someone to take care of the wounded at the front lives. I need someone to save the lives of my men, of Camelot's men. Merlin's training remains incomplete and right now, Camelot's position is…."

"Precarious," she offered, because she knew well enough that the vultures were already circling. She'd been one of them, after all.

He nodded. "Yes, precarious. I cannot afford to lose more lives. If Camelot's striking force was halved and other kingdoms banded together, all of this could be lost." And he motioned towards the clearing, to the villages and the fields beyond. She knew what war looked like; burned down crops and smoking hovels. Raped women lying like dead flies on the roadside and thin, abandoned children wandering the country side looking for scraps. The men would be dead already by then, killed first in the wave of conquest.

"If Camelot falls, my people will suffer. Already, wives have lost their husbands, mothers their sons, children their fathers."

She wanted to kill him for using that against her.

"I need someone, anyone. I need the most powerful healer of the land on my side."

"Even if I use magic?"

"Even then."

She looked away and wondered if Merlin was eavesdropping on them, or if Gwaine could hear them from inside. She looked back at him. "How desperate are you?"

"Desperate enough to grant you a full pardon for all of your crimes and guarantee a safe passage back home when all this is over."

"And Merlin?"

His face twisted into something ugly, like she'd touched a nerve. "What is Merlin to you?"

"I owe him a debt. Saving your life would have repaid it, if he hadn't been the one risking his life in the process."

"Merlin will come to no harm, not because you ask it of me but because he…." He stopped talking and Gloria decided she could be magnanimous, if she felt like it, so she let it go.

"What would a full pardon mean to me? I am safe here and I have powers beyond your ken. I don't need your guarantee of free passage. I don't need your pardon."

His eyes became flinty. "If you're willing to let people die just because there's nothing in it for you, then you're not half the healer you think you are."

There was nothing she could say to that.

"And going to Camelot will give you an opportunity you might not get otherwise, for all of your powers."

She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "What?"

"You can apologize to Leon."

He waited two heartbeats and then a slow, almost victorious smile came across his face, as if he could read the guilt in the lines of her body or the look on her face. As if he could see exactly what that name did to her in the middle of the night when there was no one in the cottage but herself. As if he could see how it made her curl into herself, trying to forget the feel of brown curls between her fingers and the dead light of her magic in his eyes.

"What? Nothing to say to that? You said, in your testimony to the court of Camelot that you regretted involving him. Isn't that true? Unfortunately he wasn't there to hear it."

She pushed past him a bit too roughly for his condition, but he didn't waver or stumble when their shoulders stumbled. She climbed the stairs. "What exactly do you think an apology will accomplish?"

"Maybe it will help him sleep better at night."

She stopped.

"Maybe he'll stop having nightmares about a witch possessing him."

She turned around. "He does not have nightmares."

"How would you know?"

She wanted to throw up her arms in frustration. "How has this become about Leon?"

"I don't know. If you're so powerful why are you so reluctant to come to Camelot? If you're a healer why are you so reluctant to heal my people? Because you know Leon will be there? Because you are afraid to face him?"

Like a dog with a bone, he was, a puppy so reluctant to relinquish a shirt to his master that he'd rather let the fabric rip to pieces.

The silence seemed to fill her lungs and she had to breathe past it for several seconds before she could speak. "I will travel with you and make sure that you are battle ready by the time we reach Camelot. I will go to the battlefield and do what I can for your wounded. I will apologize to Leon and offer him protection against magic like mine. I will return here afterwards and all my debts will be paid."

The slam of the door behind her was not nearly as satisfying as she had hoped it would be because only two seconds later she realized she'd have to go back out to gather the monkshood root.

"Not a word," she told Pendragon and to his credit he simply went back into the house.

The rest of the night was spent in tense silence. Gloria prepared as many potions as she could and copies out some recipes from the tome unto loose pieces of parchment. She forced Merlin to make dinner and made Gwaine help Arthur take a bath upstairs. It was high time the prince washed his hair and shaved. They ate the stew and Gwaine had to change the linen on Arthur's cot while Merlin did the dishes. Arthur sat, stony and silent, in an armchair near the window. In the morning, Gloria performed the ritual on Arthur's back to speed up the healing, like she'd done the night before and they all set off on horseback. They were forced to double up and Gloria didn't miss the look on Merlin's face when Arthur pulled her on his horse behind him.

In three days times, they would reach the battlements and towers of Camelot and they'd slip into the city as silent as shadows. They'd find the city in an uproar, with another batch of victims only newly arrived. They'd find men dying and women desperately wrapping them in bandages and feeding them potions. They'd find the lower town burning candles to pray for their families and Camelot and their crops. They'd find the city suffering of war.

The End

A/N: so, this is the end of The Magic Cottage. The next instalment Battle for Camelot, will take quite a while to be written I'm afraid. I haven't started anything on this yet and I doubt I'll be able to write anything before October because I'll be doing a lot of university stuff.