Author Note: And for those of you who are wondering who Iseldir is, he is the druid chieftan that Arthur hands Mordred over to when he helps to free him. He is also the druid that Arthur confronts when taking the Cup of Life. I'm sure he's been in other episodes as well, but those are his two most prominent roles.
Merlin waited until the cover of nightfall before he finally found a chance to sneak from the citadel. Hurrying to the familiar clearing where he always met with Kilgharra these days, he was surprised to find Aithusa had joined the great dragon.
Aithusa was still just a youngster, not even half the size of his much older, wiser counterpart. His scales gleamed pearly white under the moonlight and his eyes held a mischievous glint to them.
"Good evening, Young Warlock," Kilgharra greeted with a nod of his head. "You summoned us?"
"Erm, yeah," Merlin nodded, unable to take his eyes off Aithusa, who'd been nothing but a tiny hatchling the last time he'd seen him.
"Good evening, Emrys," Aithusa greeted politely with a bow of his own head - his voice more childlike and not so deep and resounding as Kilgharra's.
"Good evening Aithusa. It's good to see you again," Merlin grinned, overcoming his shock. "You've grown!"
Aithusa fanned out his wings and puffed out his chest proudly, causing Kilgharra to chuckle. Then he fixed Merlin with a keen stare. "What was it that you summoned us for, Merlin?"
"Dante's gone to find the druids," Merlin replied, sitting down in the grass as Aithusa and Kilgharra also settled themselves down.
"And there is a problem with that?" Aithusa asked. Both Merlin and Kilgharra turned to him, before Merlin replied with a shrug.
"I just didn't think many people knew about them. That's all. Let alone where to find them."
"Most people do not know where to find them," Kilgharra agreed with a patient nod. "But as you already know, Merlin...Dante is no ordinary person."
"What do you mean?" Merlin asked, frowning.
"Have you never heard the tale of Lord Ector and his wife?" Aithusa piped up. "Even I know that!"
"You're a dragon...you know everything," Merlin retorted, though not unkindly, and the great dragon laughed again, highly amused.
"Never the less young warlock, I am surprised that you do not know. The Lady Dante's mother was a druid. She lived with the small group in Essetir until Lord Ector found her one day trespassing on his lands. Instead of punishing her, or turning her over to Cenred, he spared her. The story goes that sometime later, she gave up her life as a druid, married Ector and promised never to use her magic again."
"So...so wait a minute," Merlin jumped back to his feet and started pacing as he tried to process the information. "You're telling me that Dante's mother was a druid?"
"And...that Dante has...magic?"
"Possibly. Though it is doubtful that she knows this."
"Then that would explain her reaction, this morning," Merlin mused thoughtfully. "Once she got over the shock of knowing I had magic, she seemed to just sort of...accept it. It wasn't such a big deal to her, as it has been to some."
"Never-the-less, revealing your powers to her was not wise, Merlin. I warned you she was in league with Morgana . Now you have now seen with your own eyes, and still you chose to reveal your gifts."
"I had no choice!" Merlin argued. "Besides, Morgana's been kidnapped by the Saxons, so Dante can't tell her yet - and she's the only one I'm worried about right now."
"What about Arthur?" Aithusa asked.
Merlin thought again as he carried on pacing. "Well, if Dante rallies the druids...and convinces Arthur to allow magic back into the kingdom..." he grinned then, as the thought struck him. "Then I guess I'll have nothing to worry about."
"And if she fails?"
"Well she can't reveal my secret without me revealing hers," he grinned triumphantly. "So you could say we've come to a mutually beneficial agreement."
There was silence for a moment then as they all processed what had been spoken between them. And then Aithusa sat up a little taller.
"You do know she's related to Morgana?"
"What?!" Merlin stopped sharply, and even Kilgharra looked surprised by that.
"Explain," the great dragon growled. Aithusa was not phased, however. If anything, he looked incredibly pleased that he knew something the others didn't.
"Dante's mother is Lady Evelyn. Lady Evelyn is the sister of Lady Vivienne, who happens to be the mother of Morgana and Morgause."
"How do you come by this information?" Kilgharra demanded, rising to his feet furiously.
"I've seen inside the witch's mind," Aithusa replied, nonchalant. "When I saved her last year."
"When you WHAT?!"
Merlin stumbled back as the great dragon reared onto his hind legs, beating his wings furiously. Aithusa was not even half his size or stature, but he was ten times as bold, rearing up onto his own hind legs and beating his own wings, issuing a roaring challenge.
Merlin could only watch as, enraged, the two dragons began to fight, razor sharp teeth tearing at one another, vicious claws raking and scratching as they both took off, soaring into the air, issuing even more growls, roars and screams as they fought. He tried to call after them to stop - tried to use his voice as a Dragon Lord, but this time, the pair simply refused to listen.
All Merlin could do was clamp his hands over his ears, deafened by the noise. When he looked up to the night skies once more, the two dragons were nothing but dots against the brightness of the moon. Realising that the fight would undoubtedly have woken the entire castle, Merlin hurried back before anyone could notice that he was missing.
And as he ran, he wondered what the hell he was going to do now.
Riding into the small clearing outside the cave, Dante reined Vixen to a halt and slid carefully from the saddle. Taking both short swords from their respective places on either side of the saddle, she slid them into her belt - one on either side of her waist - then stood for a moment, admiring the cave.
It was a long shot, of course, but right now, it was the only chance she had. Stepping between the canopy of ivy that covered the entrance, she again paused for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the light - or rather, the lack of it. There were no sounds from within the cave, and she wondered (and not for the first time, either) if the place was deserted.
She hadn't been here for at least twenty two years, after all. It was more than likely that the druids had indeed moved camp at some point. But then she sniffed, involuntarily, and was greeted with a smell of smoke and burning wood.
Even if the druids were no longer here, they had been recently. And that was a start. It meant she was on the right track.
A slight smile pulled at the corners of her lips as she started forwards cautiously into the darkness, one hand held out in front of her as she felt for any sudden turns or obstacles that may lurk in the darkness.
And then she heard sounds from up ahead - voices and busy movements. This cave wasn't as deserted as it first appeared, then. Which was a good sign.
"Lady Dante," a calm, clear voice rang out in the darkness ahead of her, and Dante literally jumped back at least a foot, reaching for her weapons.
"Do not be alarmed," the voice spoke again. A sudden flare of light burst forth from the darkness and she threw one arm up to cover her eyes briefly, until she'd had time to recover from the shock. Then she dared to finally look again, only to see a familiar figure now standing before her, brandishing one hand - a flame dancing brightly in his palm and lighting up the surrounding area.
"Iseldir," she sighed in relief. "You scared me!"
"Then I must apologise, young one. It was not my intention."
"Just...give me a moment to restart my heart," she grumbled, leaning against the cave wall and taking several deep breaths to calm herself.
"Take your time," he nodded, his eyes glowing golden briefly as the flame rose from his palm to float - seemingly of its own accord, above their heads.
"How did you know it was me?" She asked at last, when she'd recovered from the shock.
"I will never forget the daughter of Evelyn," he said calmly.
"But I was just a child when you last saw me."
"You look more like your mother than you probably realise," he replied, extending an arm to her. She took it and allowed him to steer her in the direction of the druid camp further into the caves - the enchanted flame bobbing along just ahead of them to light their way. "It is impossible not to see the resemblance. Now come, child. Tell me what brings you this way?"
"Oh come on, you already know," she grinned, walking calmly by his side, arm in arm with the druid chieftain, as the cave disappeared round them to be replaced by woodland and a small forest clearing.
The hidden glade was completely cut off from the outside world - a perfect hideaway for the peaceful druid people, where they could not be pestered or hunted by those who would persecute them. For a moment, Iseldir paused in the entrance to allow her to survey the small community. It had been so long since she had last been here - yet nothing had changed. Even when the druids had moved on to pastures new, then returned again many years later, the camp had not changed one bit. And this brought a smile to her face, as she looked around.
The camp was more like a village, tidy and well ordered. There were several campfires dotted about along with a fair few shelters, and at least a hundred or so people wandering to and fro along the leaf littered paths that served as streets.
Dante couldn't help but notice when they glanced in her direction. Many stared, but whenever she attempted to meet their gazes, they would look away. Some huddled inside their tents and watched through the gaps in the cloth as she and Iseldir walked past. Iseldir could not help but notice her slight frown regarding all the furtive attention.
"They are surprised to see you here," he explained. "If not a little afraid. Your king would have us killed."
"They have nothing to fear from me," Dante pointed out. She was a little offended that the locals would look on her as some sort of threat. She had done nothing to them, and didn't intend to. She had come to these people for help.
"I do not share Arthur's hatred of magic."
Iseldir guided her carefully down a sharp dip in the path. "No, I imagine you wouldn't," he said, and his tone struck Dante as rather mysterious. But before she could enquire what he meant, he went on. "These forests are dangerous, and I find myself asking you again, what brings you so far from Camelot, Milady?"
"You know of the war that has broken out?" She asked after a moment, wondering where to begin.
"I do," Iseldir nodded. "Arthur Pendragon seeks to drive these invaders from his lands and unite the whole of Albion whilst doing so."
"Then you know why I am here."
"You wish us to help Arthur in his cause, despite his hatred of magic."
"I know it's a lot to ask," she sighed. "But...he is not going to win this war on his own. And whether he will admit it or not, he needs help."
"Of course he does," Iseldir agreed readily. "And he shall have it."
It took a few moments for his words to register. "Pardon?" She asked, not entirely sure she'd heard correctly. Could it really be that simple?
"Arthur has often shown our people great kindness, whether he intended to, or not," Iseldir explained. "He does not hate magic as much as he claims, and we find ourselves in his debt. He went to great lengths to return a valued member of this camp, several years past. And we druids do not forget our debts. If it is help for Arthur you seek, then help you shall have. But know this, we are not warriors. We are not soldiers. We are healers. Our skills will be useless on the battlefield."
"Oh don't worry," Dante assured him, relief surging through her at his words. "Your skills in healing will be most valuable. Thank you, Iseldir. Thank you for agreeing to this. I cannot tell you how grateful I am."
They stopped at the foot of the path. It was a chance for Dante to catch her breath, only now aware of how exhausted she was. A long night without sleep, followed by an ambush, and another day and half a night's long ride just to find the druids was finally taking its toll on her. Iseldir must have seen this, for he smiled apologetically.
"Come, rest a while, my girl. You are exhausted. You have been through much."
"Thank you," she smiled gratefully as he steered her towards a tent fashioned from rough scarlet material, suspended between two trees. Inside were cushions and sheets made of the same rough material, but after hour upon hour of sitting upon a hard leather saddle, they felt like heaven to slump down upon.
"Here," Iseldir said, holding out a bundle of crimson cloth. "It's not much, but at least it's more comfy than that armour."
Dante inspected the bundle to recognize that it was a hooded robe similar to Iseldir's own. She smiled gratefully and accepted the robe. It was plain and nothing at all like the elegant gowns that she'd been used to in Camelot - and yet she found that she didn't actually mind. Her mother had once been a druid...had once lived amongst these people, as one of them, before she'd met and married Lord Ector and bore him three children. Now it was Dante's chance to do the same - to walk in her mother's footsteps. She had no magic, of course - but it seemed that Iseldir was prepared to welcome her as one of his people, none-the-less.
"Thank you," she said again, although she wished she could say more. Those two little words didn't really seem to cut it, as far as her gratitude went.
"Rest now," Iseldir smiled. "We will talk again when you are ready." Then he backed out of the tent, giving her some privacy.
Dante very carefully stripped off the armour, finally beginning to feel the various cuts, scrapes and bruises from her recent fighting as they decided to make themselves known. Then, bundling the armour into a corner, she slipped into the hooded robe, already feeling that a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders - or perhaps it was merely the weight of her armour?
Hearing a snort and a whinny from outside, she peered through the tent flap to see Vixen being led out of the cave and into the camp. The mare seemed a little daunted at first, but when Dante whistled in the way that Gwaine had showed her, Vixen's ears perked up, she looked in Dante's direction, then tugging the reins from the druid by her head, she trotted carefully through the camp, stopping and tossing her head a few times before the tent, before sticking her head inside the flap.
Dante laughed and pushed her back out again.
"Out, you daft thing," she scolded, though she was laughing all the same. "This tent's not big enough for the two of us."
Seeing her interacting with the horse in such a jovial manner, some of the other druids began to relax a little. They were very much at one with nature, themselves, and admired anyone else who showed even the remotest bit of interest towards the animal world.
Dante, however, was oblivious to this as she gave the reins to a young man with dark hair and a keen gaze.
"What's her name?" he asked, stroking the mare's neck gently.
"Vixen," Dante replied.
"A beautiful name, for a beautiful creature," he agreed, petting her fondly. "I'm Mordred, by the way."
"Dante," she replied. And then she paused, studying him for a moment. "How old are you? If you don't mind me asking?"
The teen call Mordred shrugged. "I'm fifteen, Milady."
"And are you THE Mordred?"
"I'm sure there are more who share my name, " he replied, amused by her odd line of questioning. She shook her head and decided to rephrase.
"No, what I meant was...are you the druid boy who befriended Morgana?"
"You know Morgana?" Mordred suddenly asked, eyes sparking eagerly. "What news do you have of her? Is she well? I felt her distress earlier this morning. Has something happened?"
And Dante knew then, as she looked at the very handsome young druid standing before her, that even if the other druids refused to help (despite Iseldir's promise) then she would at least have an ally in him.
"Mordred," she said at length. "I need your help."
To Be Continued...
Coming soon: Part 2 - Hearts of Courage