Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin.

A/N: Hee hee... I enjoyed this chapter too much... :) As for the full chapter title. I just don't know, but it seemed to work. :) Enjoy and please review! XD

This Cold Land

Chapter Eleven: Everything Is Not What It Seems (Except When It Is and You're Just Being Paranoid)

Arthur woke up with an unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach, which only increased as he opened his eyes and saw the unfamiliar ceiling above his head. Instead of the solid stone ceiling of his bedroom in Camelot, he was blearily blinking up at a sturdy but rather homely looking thatch and dirt ceiling. And what was beneath his back most certainly wasn't his plush mattress covered by his soft, downy bedclothes. It almost felt like he was lying on a sack of straw.

He grunted, trying to recall why he was so uncomfortable and why he wasn't in Camelot with an annoying servant hovering over him, saying utterly ridiculous things like "up and at'em" or "let's have you lazy daisy" (What the hell did that even mean, anyway? Arthur found himself mentally digressing). He was yanked violently out of his sleepy stupor when a bear suddenly roared right next to him.

Arthur jumped, turned, and saw that the snarling sound hadn't in fact come from a bear, but from a scruffy, long haired man sleeping on a cot a few feet away from Arthur. Gwaine snorted loudly again, then shifted in his sleep, his breathing evening out slightly, loud snores still renting the early morning silence.

Still muddled from sleep, Arthur wondered what on earth had happened to lead to his sharing a dingy inn room with Gwaine... and Lancelot? As Arthur sat up, he saw that sure enough, the dark-haired aspiring knight was on another painfully uncomfortable looking cot on the other side of Gwaine. And then, at the very end of the room, was another bed, this one holding Sir Leon. What the...?

And then his exhaustion fled as he remembered everything.

He, Gwaine, Lancelot and Leon had arrived in the small harbor town of Caryth in the Gedref region late the night before, and it had been too late for them to even think about acquiring supplies or rations for the voyage, let alone figure out how to hire and ship and crew, so they had found the least disgusting pub and inn that they could (though it still smelled strongly of fish and pickled eggs), had a couple of drinks in a dark corner of the pub, and had then rented a small, cramped room in the inn.

Arthur yawned, then grabbed the pathetic excuse for a pillow his head had just been resting on, and threw it at the still slumbering Gwaine, who was sounding remarkably like a mother bear trying to protect her cub. Gwaine shot up, hair somehow managing to look like he'd just combed it even though he'd been tossing and turning in his sleep. Arthur didn't waste any more time dwelling on Gwaine's unnaturally neat hair, and instead grunted tiredly, "Morning."

Gwaine made a face, glanced at the small, too-high window that allowed a bright, albeit dusty, sunbeam to permeate the musty room. "Yes, I can see that it's morning," he deadpanned. He then took the pillow that Arthur had just thrown at him, swung it around to whack Lancelot in the face with it, and then tossed it to the other end of the room to try to wake Leon. His aim was off, however, and the pillow smacked the wall nearly three feet to the left of Leon's head, making a muffled fwump and then dropping soundlessly to the floor next to the knight's bed.

Leon, however, was not a knight of Camelot for nothing, and along with his great battle skills, bravery, and fortitude, he was also an incredibly light sleeper. He darted awake, instantly grabbing for his sword, which was propped up on the wall right next to his bed.

"Generally, when people have pillow fights, they fight with pillows, Leo," Gwaine kidded, grinning at the defensive knight. "Swords make things a bit more serious and a helluva lot more dangerous."

Lancelot slowly sat up, rubbing at his eyes with the heels of this hands. "I think we're a bit too old to have pillow fights, Gwaine."

"Speak for yourself, Prance-a-lot. Leo, you can put the sword down now. The big, bad pillow is dead."

"Shut up," Leon groused irritably, and Gwaine raised his eyebrows. Arthur smirked. Gwaine was going to learn very soon that even though Leon was a relatively even-tempered knight, fair and kind, he was quite grumpy in the mornings, and remained so until he had had his breakfast. "And my name is Leon. Sir Leon."

"Yeah, and his name is Lancelot," Gwaine said sarcastically, jabbing his thumb in Lancelot's direction.

Lancelot glowered. "My name is Lancelot."

"Sure, sure."

"Can we not do this right now?" Arthur snapped a bit waspishly. Although the constant back and forth had been amusing when they first started traveling together, it was quickly beginning to grind on his nerves. And Gwaine and Lancelot's constant bickering was starting to remind him somewhat of his and Merlin's 'arguments', which quickly brought his mind back to more serious subjects, and the whole reason he was putting up with the insufferable man-child and would-be knight in the first place. "We've finally made it to the harbor. We're another step closer, and as annoying as this is right now, I have a feeling that it's going to be even worse when we're all trapped on a boat together in the middle of the sea." A stab of nausea stabbed at Arthur's gut at the reminder that dry land was going to soon be a distant memory. He was so not happy about this. When he got Merlin back, the idiot was going to be cleaning every bit of armor in the armory, twice, for getting himself kidnapped and making Arthur go on this ridiculous quest.

A little voice in his head reminded him, You don't have to do anything, Arthur. It would be so easy to just walk away. The boy's fate is regrettable, but—

Arthur immediately banished the voice that sounded too much like his father's. Arthur had never been one to take the easy way out anyway, and anyway, Merlin was his responsibility, and he couldn't help but feel like it was at least partially his fault that Merlin was in captivity, since the he'd been taken because they'd thought that he was Arthur.

And Arthur wasn't going to let them get away with taking away Merlin.

With this resolute thought, Arthur was spurred into action, getting to his feet and ordering tersely, "Get ready. We eat, and then we figure out how a man gets aboard a ship around here. Merlin's counting on us."

That sobered everyone, even the childishly sulking Gwaine, and they got dressed and had gathered everything together without another word.

Gwaine sat at the table in the front corner of the pub, nursing his cup of ale ("No, Prance-a-lot, it's never to early for a drink!"), glancing once again at the shadowy-looking figure that was sitting near the back of the room. He couldn't see the man's face from beneath that gray cowl and the shadows it cast, but Gwaine didn't have to be able to see his eyes to know that the person was watching them. And it was giving him the shivers.

"What's your problem, Gwaine?" Arthur asked, looking as if he'd really rather not know. "It's not nice to stare at people."

Gwaine rolled his eyes. "Tell that to Sir Creepy over there," he said. "That guy's been staring at us since we sat down this morning."

"How can you know for sure?" Leon asked. Gwaine had noticed that the man had become much less touchy since he'd eaten his greasy breakfast.

"I just can. I've got that feeling, like someone's watching me, a chill down my back... like a bunch of little mice are running up and down my spine."

Arthur blinked. "And you know this because you've had a bunch of little mice running up and down your spine before?"

Gwaine considered lying, and saying that yes he had, thank you very much, but he was just too weirded out to worry about it right now, so he simply shot back, "No, but I'd imagine it's quite similar to how it would feel."

"I don't like it either," Lancelot put in softly, his eyes flickering subtly to the cloaked figure at the table, who was still just sitting there, unmoving. Gwaine almost choked on his drink. Lancelot didn't agree with Gwaine. It was one of those little facts of life, like there was no time too early or too late to have ale, or that the most delicious apple was always, without fail, at the very unreachable tip-top of the tree, and no amount of throwing other, less appealing fruits at it would dislodge it from its perch because the universe was unforgiving on matters like these.

"I think you're just being paranoid," Arthur said, but when he noticed that the figure was now getting up and heading in their direction he cursed. "See what you did, Gwaine? You made him mad by staring at him; now he's going to try to start a bar fight that we don't have time to participate in – and don't say that there's always time for a bar fight," he quickly added as Gwaine opened his mouth to respond.

Sulking, as that was exactly what he was about to say, Gwaine clamped his mouth shut and joined the others in warily watching the lone, cloaked figure stride to their table.

"I've been watching you," the man said in a deep, slightly accented voice.

Arthur and Leon exchanged weary glances as Gwaine crowed, "Told you so!"

Even from a few feet away, Gwaine couldn't make out any details of the man's face, and he could only see a tiny glint from the man's eyes from within the shadows of his hood. "It's not nice to stare at people," Gwaine told the man seriously, echoing Arthur's words from earlier and causing the prince to send him a death glare.

The man didn't respond to the jab, only moved a bit closer to the table, his voice lowering. "I heard you talking when you came into the pub last night. You are planning to hire a crew to sail you to the Frozen Lands."

Gwaine glanced at Arthur, whose face remained immobile. Leon was the one to ask, "And if we are, what is it to you?"

"You'll never find men crazy enough to accept your offer, no matter how much gold you wave under their noses," the man said. "No one except the Vikings themselves dares to venture into the harsh, freezing waters of Helheim's Pass and to the lands of the bloodthirsty raiders. It's far too dangerous, too easy to get lost, and on the off chance that you actually make it to shore, you won't last an hour against the Vikings in their own homeland. You're almost certain to fail in whatever daft scheme you're planning."

Everyone at the table was now glaring at the stranger. "Thank you for your advice," Arthur said stonily, blue eyes hard. He'd lowered the hood he'd been wearing when they had sat down to eat, but Gwaine was beginning to wonder if that was such a good idea. This mysterious man was paying their small band far too much attention, and on the off chance that Arthur was recognized by someone who knew that he was not supposed to be here... Gwaine didn't dwell on the prospect. "But our 'scheme' is really none of your business, and it is a quest where failure is simply not an option."

"In that case," the man said, either too stupid to recognize the none-too-subtle dismissal or simply much too stubborn, "I think you're going to want to be a little nicer to me, Prince Arthur" (a small intake of breath from all four men at the table), "because I can promise you that I am the only one here mad enough to agree to aid your quest to the Frozen Lands."

Arthur scoffed, not addressing the fact that this strange person knew who he was. "You just said that there was no man crazy enough to aid me on my venture."

"Aye, that I did," said the man, and suddenly his voice, which had been deep and gruff, began to get higher, although the same lilting accent stayed in place. "But I'm no man."

The not-man then pushed the hood away, causing all four men to stare in shock at the young woman standing before them, her jet-black hair falling in wild curls around her shoulders, piercing dark blue eyes dancing mischievously, lily-white skin contrasting with the startling blackness of her silky mane. Plump red lips curved into a smile and delicate black eyebrows raised in amusement as the men in front of her tried to process this sudden change of events.

Gwaine, not surprisingly, was the first to find his voice. "I don't know who you are or how you came to find us," he said, in awe of the fiery beauty standing like a mesmerizing specter before him, "but may I just say... Hello. My name is Sir Gwaine" (Arthur kicked his shin under the table for the bold-faced lie which really wasn't all that much of a lie, after all.) " and you are most certainly the loveliest sight these eyes have seen in a long time."

The woman smirked. "Sir Gwaine, huh? Sir Gwaine of where, exactly?"

"Wherever you want me to be," Gwaine said, flipping his hair in that way he knew women found irresistible.

Or, most women, as it seemed.

The woman simply gave rolled her guarded sapphire eyes and pulled the hood back over her head, the long, flowing cloak making it impossible to tell once again that she was not a creepy man but a beautiful woman with a taste for adventure other than her voice, which she hadn't deepened after revealing her true identity. "So, what do you say?" she asked Arthur. "My name is Astrid, helms-woman of the Kala Elding, and I am the only person who will be able to get you safely to where you want to go. Can the great prince humble himself to sail under a woman?"

The look on Arthur's face almost made Gwaine burst out into laughter, and it only made him even more enamored with the bold and beautiful Astrid.

"No offense, but I think we will see our other options for ourselves first," Arthur said dryly.

Astrid didn't seem too put off by this admission. "Okay," she said simply. "But our crew is setting sail for the Frozen Lands at first dawn tomorrow. When you change your mind, you can find our ship on the harbor. I'll see you then."

She walked out of the pub.

"She seemed awfully sure of herself," said Lancelot, distrust filling his eyes.

Arthur growled, "How did she know who I was?"

"You're not wearing your hood, Princess," Gwaine reminded him. "I'm not surprised someone recognized you."

"I don't trust her," Leon mused.

"Neither do I," Arthur concurred. He looked troubled. "But if what she said is true, and no one else will agree to sail to the Raiders' homeland, then we may have no choice to take her up on her offer if we're going to help Merlin."

"I have absolutely no qualms with that," Gwaine said truthfully.

"Of course you wouldn't," Lancelot responded. "But try to remember that we're here to rescue Merlin, not to go on romantic exploits."

Gwaine felt anger rise up in him, as it always did when anyone dared to question his devotion and loyalty to his closest friend. "Hey," he said cooly, "I'm not going to let anything get in my way of helping Merlin. I'd die to get him out of the hands of those brutes. I'm just saying that as long as we're going to be trapped on a floating wooden tub for several months, we might as well enjoy it as well as we can. After all, sitting there worrying about Merlin isn't going to change his predicament. And I'd much rather be stuck out on the ocean with a feisty goddess like that instead of a bunch of hairy, fat men that smell like rat droppings. Enjoy the view, take advantage of a situation we can't really do anything about."

"Oh gods, please stop talking," Arthur said hastily. "Let's go to the harbor, talk to other sailors. I don't like that she approached us, and knew who I was. Surely there's someone else who will agree to the trip."

When Merlin woke up the next morning, he felt slightly better than he had the night before, but he was still sick, stuffy, sore and stiff. He did, however, manage to sit up without too much trouble, though a wave of dizziness and vertigo suddenly had his head spinning precariously. To his delight, though, he was actually hungry and he didn't feel as nauseated as he had the night before. Whatever Onäm's mother had been doing to treat him was obviously working, and a lot more quickly than Merlin would have expected.

There was a bowl of what looked like lumpy porridge on the table that he had noticed last night, but Onäm's mother was nowhere to be found. Assuming she had left it for him, and actually pretty confident that he would be able to keep down his food this morning, Merlin painfully, achingly dragged himself out of the surprisingly comfortable cot. He was on his way to the table when he spotted the shaving tools and a basin of fresh water that had been set out on another table near the back of the room. Unable to do anything about the long hair at the moment, Merlin was still monumentally grateful for the chance to get rid of the ugly, itchy beard. With shaking hands, he was rather pleased with himself when he only cut himself a handful of times.

He looked at his reflection in the stilling water in the basin, and even though he was glad to be rid of the small woodland creature that had decided to take residence upon his face, the lack of beard threw into sharp relief how emaciated he'd become since his capture. He could now clearly see the sunken in hollows around his eyes and his cheeks, his cheekbones, normally prominent, jutted out so much that he almost looked like a skeleton. He could now better see the dark circles around his eyes and the stark-white color of his skin, with only a tiny blush of pale color on his cheeks, probably from fever.

He turned away slowly, not wanting to examine his pitiful appearance anymore. He briefly considered attempting to use magic to get his hair its normal length, but he didn't want to raise suspicion about how he cut his hair without hair-cutting tools, and also, he didn't actually know any grooming spells, and he would not be pleased if something went wrong and he ended up bald instead.

A part of him was nagging to try to escape and use magic while no one was here. But the same reservations that had caused him to hold back last night kept him from doing anything dangerously impulsive, and he angled for the porridge on the table instead, stomach growling impatiently.

He was able to take just one bite of the surprisingly sweet and tasty porridge before the door to the physician's chambers burst open, causing the warlock to jump in surprise. His eyes snapped up to meet the intruders, and his gut twisted uneasily. Before him were Onäm, his right-hand-man, Alrick, and another Viking that Merlin recognized but couldn't name.

"Ah, look," Alrick simpered darkly. His bare chest was still wrapped from when Merlin had broken some ribs near the beginning of the voyage, but that didn't stop him from looking any less intimidating as he leered at the weakened "prince." "Our prince is up and about, and sweet Hrefna forgot to tell us about it. Good idea to come check on him ourselves, Onäm."

Merlin stood, bracing his arms on the table, and glared at the newcomers.

"And he's being brave!" the unnamed mass of muscles crooned from Onäm's other side. "Innit precious?"

"My mother may have gall far beyond her station, but she cannot push me around," Onäm chuckled. "I take what I want when I want it."

Merlin wisely bit back a comment about how the Viking had chosen a moment when his mother (Hrefna, it seemed her name was) had not been in her chambers, presumably on her rounds.

"Let's go, Prince," the giant man continued, grinning a rotten, stinking grin. "The Jarl is very excited to meet you."

Merlin did not like the sound of that.

A/N: Thank you SO much to everyone who reviewed chapter 10: greenwings33, staymagical, RocknRollagirl, shell22, Peaceful Dragon Rose, TN Sarah, LaRieNGuBleR, LadyEowyn18, WhatIsThisNormalYouSpeakOf, Ash9, Katerina Riley, willawow, sarajm, Luthy, Book girl fan, Eggwonna and chele the original, and also to everyone who read, favorited, and followed!

As for the names... Hrefna, I found it on a website about Vikings, where it listed tons of Viking names. I thought Hrefna was just a cool name when I found it, so that's where it came from. Astrid I stole from How to Train Your Dragon. Also, I used Helheim from the same movie... The name of Astrid's ship, Kala Elding, is Norse, roughly meaning "Cold Dawn." Found it on an Old Norse dictionary site. And the thing that Gwaine said upon meeting Astrid, totally a homag to Flynn Rider's greeting to Rapunzel when they first meet. Couldn't resist. XD And I just made the town name Caryth up off the top of my head... So yeah... :)

Hope you enjoyed this chapter, and things are really starting to get rolling now! Thanks for reading, and please, please let me know what you think!

Love you guys!

~Emachinescat ^..^