Author Note: Ok, so some of you may have noticed that recently, I've not exactly been known to finish the stories I start, but with this one, I promise it will be different. I've already got several chapters written, plenty of inspiration AND an actual desire to see this one through for a change, woop woop! So here we go, my first Merlin fic. And as always, reviews are much appreciated :)
Disclaimer: I own nothing except the character Dante, so hands off...you can't have her. She's mine! lol. Also I apologise if some of these characters appear 'out of character', but I have tried to keep them as true to their on screen portrayals as possible, whilst also exploring different angles to each character that we have not seen before. So that's my excuse :P
General Summary: Basically this story's set a year after the end of Series 4. Tristan was knighted because of his help in winning back Camelot from Morgana (and also because Arthur still feels guilty over Isolde's death), Gwen is a much loved and very popular Queen, though she's still getting used to it and often forgets that she is now above everyone else, rather than equal to or below them. Morgana has not been seen since Arthur's attack on the Citadel, and many believe she is now dead, especially after Gwen confirmed that she was badly wounded the last time she was seen, and Camelot is, for the moment, enjoying an extended period of peace and prosperity. But, as we all know, this cannot last, so, as the Great Dragon Kilgharra often says...In a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young man. His name... Merlin.
"What's the point of being out here if there's nothing to hunt?" Gwaine complained as he and his fellow Camelot Knights trudged on foot through the forest, each carrying crossbows and swords casually over their shoulders.
"Because it's Arthur's birthday tomorrow," Elyan explained for the hundredth time with a deep sigh. "And Gwen wants us to catch something for the feast."
"Easier said than done when there's nothing out here to be caught," Gwaine continued to grumble. He'd been in high spirits that morning when the hunting party had set out. But now, as the sun began to set on the horizon, the novelty had well and truly worn off - as had his good mood.
Elyan rolled his eyes and glanced at his fellow knights. Percival, Leon and Tristan gave him knowing smirks, but chose to remain silent. When Gwaine was in one of these moods, it was better to just keep quiet and let him sulk until he snapped out of it.
For a while the five knights continued on in silence, venturing further and further into the woods and away from the familiar beaten track, Elyan and Tristan holding a quiet bet about how much longer Gwaine would last before he snapped completely.
Half an hour later, Gwaine finally decided that enough was enough, and was intending to turn back and return to his waiting horse (earning Elyan four gold coins from Tristan in the process) when a nearby branch snapped, as loud as a whip being cracked. This was quickly followed by the sounds of uneven movements through the thick undergrowth.
The five knights immediately bent low, vanishing into the bushes as their eyes lit up with excitement. Finally, their patience had paid off!
However, it didn't take Tristan long to realise that perhaps their silent celebrations were possibly premature. He'd lived in the woods as a smuggler long enough to learn the sounds of the different woodland creatures, and whilst he was no expert, of course, he could tell that there were only two feet, not four. This, added to the sounds of branches being pushed aside indicated that this was no animal heading towards them, but rather a person.
And this only raised the question, what would anyone else be doing out here, so far from the path? He glanced at the others and saw the same confusion mirrored on their faces.
Leon, who was at the head of the group and was also the most senior and experienced of the knights, signalled for everyone to spread out into the trees. Wordlessly they all fanned out, still crouching low and searching with their eyes and ears for the source of the sound.
Tristan pulled the crossbow from his shoulder as he moved, and slid a bolt into place, just in case this person - whoever they were - may not be friendly. After all, Morgana was still on the prowl. Granted, she had not been seen for several months, but Arthur had warned them all never to underestimate his half-sister again. They'd made that mistake too many times already.
Plus, there were the usual bandits, smugglers, slavers and any number of other unsavoury groups who were certainly no friends of Camelot - not that he'd consider smugglers unsavoury, but Uther had outlawed them long before his death, and Arthur, as the new King apparently had no plans for lifting his father's laws now, not even for one former smuggler such as Tristan.
Tristan had been granted clemency and knighted for his heroic deeds in helping Arthur reclaim Camelot from Morgana's clutches for a second time, but Arthur was adamant that this would be a one off occurrence, as Tristan had earned himself a reprieve. The same could not be said for all smugglers in general.
Glancing to his right now, Tristan saw that Gwaine had also loaded a bolt into his own crossbow, the two knights apparently thinking alike. As the noises grew closer, Tristan watched as his friend breathed deeply, settling his nerves. His finger tensed on the trigger and then he stood, finally making his presence known. The Knights in their scarlet capes would have been spotted sooner or later, after all, so even though Gwaine's act to reveal himself to the stranger was perhaps foolish, considering they could be dangerous, it was also a smart move of him to use his element of surprise whilst he still had the advantage.
There was a short gasp of surprise and then silence, but no sounds of a violent death or attack of any kind towards the knight. Gwaine simply remained rooted to the spot, crossbow half way to his shoulder, mid aim.
His curiosity getting the better of him, Tristan rose at the same time as the other knights, far off to his left. All of them blinked in surprise as Gwaine finally moved again, lowering his crossbow.
Because standing in front of them all was a young woman, pale and slender, wearing a brown tunic and trousers, masses of thick mahogany hair plastered against her sweaty pale skin. Yet surprisingly it didn't mar her striking appearance in the slightest.
She was probably only in her twenties, but her refined and aristocratic features - even under all the mud and forest grime - made her look older. Despite her appearance (the phrase 'being dragged through a hedge backwards' coming to mind), the knights could not deny that she was still breathtakingly beautiful. And yet, as she stood in the middle of the forest, breathing heavily (sounding for all the world as if she'd been running for her life) and surrounded by the Knights of Camelot, she did not appear afraid. In fact the woman paid absolutely no attention to anyone except Gwaine now, as they all moved in closer.
She tilted her beautiful head in Gwaine's direction, forcing the Knight to surreptitiously stand a little taller, as if he was under inspection.
"Gwaine?" she spoke eventually, her voice a mixture of both confusion and disbelief as she frowned, in apparent recognition of the knight standing before her.
Gwaine gasped in astonishment as it finally dawned on him why the woman looked so familiar and the other Knights looked at each other in confusion.
"Dante?" he spoke at last, his own voice matching hers in both confusion and disbelief, as she stepped forward, moving to stand before him. There she stood for several long seconds, saying nothing - choosing simply to stare at him with dark eyes now, as if she expected him to respond somehow.
"You two know each other?" Percival asked at last as Gwaine fidgeted uneasily under her intense gaze. Finally he decided, not exactly sure what he was supposed to be saying, that he would give her one of his heart breaking smiles that usually no-one could resist - particularly the ladies of Camelot.
"Hello, Milady," he spoke in his smooth velvet voice, bowing his head to her and turning his charm up full force. "It is good to see you again."
Any other woman would have melted at his feet, right about then. But not Dante. She remained silent, her mouth thinning into an angry frown.
"Aren't...aren't you happy to see me?" he began to flounder, realising that his charms were having no effect. Though, now that he thought about it, his charms never actually had worked on Dante - ever. Not even when -
A fist slamming into his jaw broke off all train of thought as he found himself sprawled on his back in a pile of dead leaves.
The other knights exchanged equally surprised looks as Gwaine groaned, clutching his face. He couldn't fail to notice, however, that none of them were exactly leaping to his defence. They simply turned in unison to regard the woman with amused looks.
She was furious now, her look daring them all to go ahead and defend their felled comrade. Percival couldn't help it then, and let out a short, amused laugh.
"Yes. You DEFINITELY know Gwaine."
She raised an eyebrow, but chose not to comment as Gwaine slowly picked himself back up off the floor, still holding his cheek, though his roguish grin had returned, never-the-less. "Still as charming as ever, I see."
"You're a fine one to talk," she glared, and his grin only increased as he looked upon her.
There was no denying that with her large brown eyes and soft features, Dante had always been able to quite literally outshine anyone about her, and it seemed that even now, ten years later, nothing had changed. He might even go so far as to say she could outshine the stars themselves, now, with her mixture of intelligence and beauty, of innocence and allure, of courage and integrity and yet with a good measure of a child's mischievousness. She floored Gwaine (literally in this particular instance) every time he looked upon her.
But then, as so often happens in real life, where things are harsh and unfair, this wondrous moment of studying such an image of perfection came to an abrupt end for Gwaine when Dante suddenly staggered and fell to her knees, clutching her stomach in agony. Gwaine was by her side in an instant, his crossbow lying forgotten in the undergrowth.
As the other knights rushed forwards to lend aid where it was needed, Gwaine saw for the first time, the increasing patch of dark crimson seeping slowly through her tunic, and as he gently pulled up the bottom of the tunic to reveal her (very toned and sculpted) stomach, she yelped and tried to pull away. Gwaine was horrified to see, even before he'd revealed the wound itself, that his hand was already coated in thick sticky blood.
"We need to get her to Gaius." There was no hiding the urgency in his voice, and for once, none of the others argued with him.
"Let me," Percival said, reaching forwards and scooping her gently into his strong arms as if she weighed nothing. Gwaine tore off his cloak and draped it over her as Percival adjusted her ever so slightly in his arms, and then the pair of them set off, crashing back through the undergrowth towards where they had left their horses tethered several hours earlier.
Tristan grabbed the discarded weapons and followed suit with Leon and Elyan - each of them looking suitably concerned.
Merlin hated special occasions in Camelot - particularly birthdays, special guest arrivals, weddings, feasts, banquets...in fact pretty much any cause for celebration was frowned upon by the young warlock. Not because he was a spoilsport - far from it in fact! Merlin loved a good celebration as much as the next person, and any excuse to relax for a while and have a bit of fun with his friends was always a bonus. And if he was being honest, it wasn't actually the celebration itself that he always hated. It was more the week or so leading up to the event that he hated.
Because Arthur usually piled so many jobs on his manservant's shoulders that Merlin would often have to work late into the night and rise early again each morning, just to ensure that they were all completed to Arthur's standards in time.
Tomorrow had been no exception to this rule, and crossing the courtyard late on the eve before the King's birthday, Merlin was almost fearful of breathing a sigh of relief in case Arthur found him even more jobs to occupy his time, well into the early hours of the morning. Still, for now at least, all his chores were done, and if he kept a low profile and stayed out of Arthur's way, perhaps he might just get away with having one early evening, after all.
Sadly, however, this was not meant to be, because as he turned to acknowledge the return of the hunting party - heralded by several clattering hooves on cobbles - Merlin knew immediately that something was wrong.
Percival, astride his huge bay horse, was cradling something - or rather someone- in front of him in the saddle as he led the charge of the Knights, Gwaine's fiery black horse close on his heels.
"Merlin!" Gwaine called out as he saw the young warlock, and Merlin let out a quiet sigh. So much for his early evening.
As he ran over, along with several of the stable boys, he saw Percival slide carefully from the saddle, still cradling someone in his huge arms - someone wrapped in Gwaine's cloak from the looks of things.
Someone with a fan of mahogany hair.
"Who's she?" he asked as the stable boys took the horses from their respective knights and Merlin caught of a glimpse of the young woman for the first time.
"She's an old friend, Merlin," Gwaine told him as Percival started off for Gaius' tower as Gwaine took Merlin's arm, practically dragging him after them. "And she's hurt."
"What happened?" Merlin asked, surprised. "I thought you were out hunting for Arthur's birthday?"
"We were. She was wandering the woods, clearly lost and delirious when we came across her."
"I'll run and fetch Arthur," Leon called to them as they vanished into the tower where Gaius and Merlin resided. Merlin didn't have time to see what Elyan and Tristan were doing, but right at that moment, if he was being honest, he had more pressing issues to deal with. Such as this mystery friend of Gwaine's who was currently unconscious in Percival's arms.