(Note: This is a stand-alone story and not a sequel to my first story "Odin's Revenge –The Abduction of Arthur")

Story Summary: Arthur is lured into a deadly trap by a high priestess of the Old Religion whose evil mistress, the Serpent Goddess, has chosen him to be ritually sacrificed during an event called Blood Moon to atone for Uther's sins. While Arthur's knights set out to rescue their young king, Merlin undertakes his own quest to save his friend. (Takes place in Series 4 prior to Arthur's wedding to Gwen.)

Story Themes/Genres: Dark Drama, Action/Adventure, Fantasy & Mysticism (and some Angst & Humor)

PLEASE NOTE WARNINGS! RATED T for Dark Themes, Violence, Arthur Whumping (not overly graphic), moderate Adult Content (inc. nudity), minor character deaths (Although the story is dark, there is also humor in it, and ultimately all ends well for our heroes)

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction based on some of the characters from the popular British TV series, Merlin. I do not claim any ownership or other rights to the characters of Merlin, Arthur, Uther, Morgana, Ygraine, Gaius, Guinevere, Arthur's main knights, Kilgharrah the Great Dragon, or any others mentioned herein who belong to the series and its creators in the context they use them. This story is a work of pure fiction and is intended for entertainment purposes only. It and the additional characters of Lia, Selestra, Baltrazaar, Phidora, Sylas, Lord Phineas, Nigel, Sir Edmond and others not part of the original Merlin TV series canon are purely those created from my imagination for the sake of this tale. In addition, the Racinia and Middlebrook mentioned herein are also made up and are not intended to represent or resemble actual places, if such exist. No profit has or is intended to be made from this work of fan fiction as it is.

Attribution for photo used of Chateau de Pierrefonds (setting of Arthur's castle in Merlin TV series) is courtesy of talented photographer Eric Pouhier at Wikipedia


BLOOD MOON RISING

PROLOGUE

The Serpent Goddess

A dark-skinned female figure with braided ebony tresses dismounted from her palfrey and walked purposely toward the hidden sacred grotto. Selestra, high priestess of the well Goddess Phidora, had taken this path many times before over her years of servitude.

In her left hand she carried a large leather pouch made of tanned human skin which contained the heart and entrails of a virginal female acolyte who had been slain that morning.

The sorceress-priestess walked up the narrow trail which led to a cavern hidden behind a thick curtain of vines. Parting them she stepped into a cool, dimly-lit interior, the only source of light coming from the sunlight filtering through cracks etched into the ceiling of the cave's naturally-formed antechamber.

She crossed this area and passed through an irregularly-shaped narrow opening which led into a smaller and much darker cavern. In here was the ancient wellspring in which her mistress dwelled in everlasting darkness.

Selestra moved quickly about the cave, lighting small braziers set into deep niches in the rough stone walls. The light they cast was diffused, not bright, which created an eerie shadowy effect; but that was the point.

Within moments the temperature in the cave began to drop dramatically until the priestess could see her own warm breath forming a foggy vapor on the air, and she knew that Phidora had become aware of her presence.

The high priestess moved toward the wellhead, which lay in the center of the cave, and knelt at its edge, setting the bag she'd been carrying down beside her. In the muted illumination cast by the braziers she could vaguely see her own reflection in the smooth surface of the inky black water.

Selestra placed both hands on the low rocky rim of the well and respectfully bowed her head. She waited patiently for several seconds, and then suddenly the water began to ripple softly. She sensed rather than saw the scaly figure of the Goddess who dwelled in the dark depths of the ancient well as She rose closer to the surface.

But Selestra knew from long experience that Phidora would not break the surface of the water but would remain hidden within its murkiness.

"You have come to ssseek My Bidding," a disembodied voice hissed in a sibilant whisper from within the wellspring.

Head still bowed, Selestra replied reverently, "Yes, Great Goddess. Blood Moon draws near."

In response, the well's water began to churn, and Selestra lifted her eyes, watching until it calmed once more and became smooth. But this time the water surface shone with a ghostly silver luminescence.

"Gaze upon the Offering of My Choosssing," the incorporeal voice said from within the well.

As Selestra leaned forward and stared at her own reflection in the mirrored pool it began to morph into another's countenance. Her own amber-eyed, tattooed face was replaced by the distinctive features of a strikingly handsome young man with pale blond hair and large blue eyes, and she smiled in recognition.

"I see and understand, my Mistress," the priestess nodded, and the pool water churned again, erasing the youth's image, and then returned to its original smooth and inky blackness. The priestess picked up the pouch she'd set down on the stone floor and emptied its gory contents into the still waters of the wellhead as an offering to the Dark Goddess. Then she rose, extinguished the braziers, and left.

Later that afternoon, in an ancient fortress carved out of a cliffside in the treacherous mountain range of Racinia which lay just outside of Camelot's southern borders, Selestra stood stroking the neck of her familiar, a giant gryphon. The creature's feathers were black and sleek, matching the color and texture of the woman's own heavy ebony tresses.

"Blood Moon rises soon, my pet. And Phidora has decreed a most special blood sacrifice for the Offering. So I have a mission for you, Baltrazaar. You are to bring me Arthur Pendragon of Camelot. To do this we must lure him out into the open and away from his citadel. And you shall serve as the bait to catch a king."


Part One

To Catch A King

Gaius was tending to Merlin when he heard Arthur's voice in the outer room calling for the young man. "Just lie here and rest. I'll see what he needs," the elderly healer told Merlin, patting him on the shoulder.

He went back out into the main chamber, saying, "Merlin isn't feeling well, Sire. Do you have urgent need of him?"

Arthur was standing just inside the doorway, but moved further into the cluttered room when he saw Gaius. "Merlin is ill?" he said, frowning. "He seemed fine this morning. Annoyingly cheerful, in fact." He put his hands on his hips, his expression somewhat skeptical. "Gaius, you aren't just telling me this because he's really down at the tavern again, are you?"

The elderly physician's eyes widened a little and he vehemently shook his gray head. "Not at all, Sire! Merlin truly is not feeling well. But I believe it to be nothing more than a touch of food poisoning. I've just given him something to help ease his stomach pains and have told him to stay in bed and rest."

Arthur pursed his lips as he considered this, looking a little crestfallen. "My apologies, Gaius, for doubting you. And I'm truly sorry to hear that he's unwell."

"Is something wrong, Sire?" Gaius prodded gently, sensing his obvious disappointment.

The young King's large and vivid blue eyes blinked at him. "Well, it's just that I'd planned on taking Merlin with us when the knights and I ride out this afternoon. I've just received reports of some gigantic winged creature terrorizing the countryside near here, and we are going to hunt it. It could be dangerous, and I, uh, thought that if we should have need, Merlin's basic knowledge of the healing arts might prove useful, that is all."

Hiding a smile, Gaius turned away from him to set down the medicine vial he'd been holding. Arthur's explanation was certainly valid, but he also knew that the King seldom went anywhere without Merlin, whether he was with his knights or if it was just the two of them. Gaius had long recognized that Arthur was far more dependent on Merlin than he'd ever care to admit.

He looked back at the young man. "If you wish, my lord, I could come along in Merlin's stead," he offered.

Arthur shook his blond head. "Thank you, Gaius, but we may have to give chase to this creature, assuming we can find it, and that might prove to be a bit rough on someone of your age. I'd much prefer that you stay here and look after Merlin as I hope to see him in my bedchamber by the time I return." He blinked rapidly, realizing how that might have sounded, and quickly added, "His chores are, um, quickly piling up."

With a neutral smile, Gaius replied, "I understand, Sire, and I am sure he will be ready to resume his duties on the morrow if not sooner."

Nodding, Arthur started to leave, when a familiar voice said weakly, "I think I'm better, Sire. I'll come with you."

Gaius and Arthur both turned to see Merlin standing in the doorway to his small room, clutching the doorframe for support. His face was colorless and he looked as if he were about to collapse.

Seeing this Arthur said with a mixture of amusement and exasperation, "Don't be absurd, Merlin. You look like you are about to empty your guts out and…"

He didn't finish the sentence because the other youth suddenly turned and reeled back into his chamber. Within moments Arthur and Gaius could hear sounds of violent retching.

"My point exactly," Arthur said, giving Gaius a wry look. "Well, you'd better go see to him."

"I did warn him to stay in bed," Gaius replied, then added anxiously as the young King turned to go: "Arthur, please be extra cautious. If this creature is of the Old Religion, it could prove very dangerous indeed."

Arthur opened the door and looked back at him. "I've hunted fearsome beasts before and killed them. And today I'll have some of my best knights with me, so please don't worry," he replied confidently, and then left the chamber.

But Merlin won't be there to protect you as well if something should go wrong, Gaius thought worriedly as he went to see how his patient was faring.

-i-

Baltrazaar soared high over the forests and meadowlands of Camelot, his sharp eagle-like eyes serving as portals for his mistress, Selestra. Normally the familiar's eyes were black, but they now glowed a golden amber—and so what the gryphon saw, the sorceress-priestess saw; and in the distance she could see an approaching contingent of six men wearing the vibrant scarlet and gold colors of Camelot.

She had no doubt Arthur Pendragon would be leading his knights with the intent of ridding his kingdom of this new menace which had suddenly appeared to threaten his lands and people. Selestra had heard of Arthur's reputation as a valiant and courageous warrior-king who did not ask of his knights and soldiers anything he would not willingly undertake himself.

As the horsemen drew closer, Selestra spotted the flaxen-haired young man riding in the forefront, and she knew her trap had worked to lure Arthur Pendragon straight into her clutches.

(They're entering the clearing. Pendragon is the fair-haired one leading the others. You know what to do), Selestra whispered in the gryphon's mind, and the winged creature let out a shrill cry of acknowledgement and flew toward the riders.

Hearing that hair-raising screech, Arthur and his men came to a halt and stared up at the gloomy, overcast sky, momentarily transfixed by the chilling sight of the black 9-foot-long winged creature soaring overhead. They immediately recognized the gryphon for what it was: a deadly creature of the Old Religion which was half eagle and half long-tailed beast. The eagle part was covered in feathers while its hind quarters and tail were covered in smooth fur. Even from that distance the men could see the gryphon's enormous curving talons and equally lethal hooked beak.

As it flew over their heads Baltrazaar screamed another challenge, terrifying the horses so that Arthur and the knights had to fight to keep them under control.

"Separate and try to form a circle! We'll have a better chance of trapping or wounding it!" Arthur shouted, pulling Excalibur.

As the six men began to spread out around the clearing, the giant gryphon wheeled and turned, then suddenly dove toward Gwaine like a living missile.

Its long curving talons raked the air where the knights had been seconds before, but Gwaine had thrown himself sideways from his saddle and gone tumbling to the hard ground. However, one of the gryphon's deadly foreclaws had still grazed him on the upper chest, and now blood was beginning to stain the area where his chainmail had been breached.

As Baltrazaar soared up and away, Arthur and Elyon raced back to Gwaine, using themselves and their horses as a protective barrier until he could regain his feet and remount.

"You're hurt!" Arthur exclaimed, seeing the blood on the knight's chest. "Elyon can ride back to the palace with you so Gaius can tend to that!"

Brushing strands of his long dark hair out of his eyes, Gwaine adamantly shook his head and climbed back up on his horse. "It's nothing, Sire…merely a flesh wound, and you need every man right now to deal with this thing," he said, staring up at the sky.

The gryphon was circling overhead, and as they all watched with trepidation it made a second dive, this time toward a knight named Edmund.

"Get out of its way!" Arthur cried, but the man bravely stood his ground, sword ready. He slashed at the monster and struck it, but his blade was unable to pierce its armor-like hide, and Baltrazaar's talons ripped through the knight's armour and chainmail as if it were parchment and tore open his chest and belly, killing him instantly.

Slinging its kill aside the gryphon then pounced on Edmund's terrified steed, knocking it down, and then began disemboweling and dismembering the hapless animal using those razor-sharp talons and beak.

It was a horrific and gory sight, and a man had just died in a brutal manner—but at least the monster was fully on the ground now, its attention momentarily diverted, and Arthur saw their chance: "Use the crossbows! Kill it before it can get away!" he shouted.

Leon, Elyon, Gwaine, and Percival managed to get off crossbow shots at the gryphon, but the arrow bolts also could not penetrate the animal's hide and simply slid or glanced off and fell uselessly to the ground.

Although unharmed, Baltrazaar paused from its ravaging to turn its beaked head angrily and shrilled a warning.

"Aim for its eyes!" Arthur yelled, and again his men used their crossbows—but the gryphon's eagle-like eye sockets were covered by a thin translucent membrane which acted as a shield to protect them, and so as before, the arrow bolts proved useless.

(The others aren't important and their weapons can't harm you. Stay as you are, Baltrazaar!) Selestra ordered her familiar. (Let the young Pendragon come to you.)

And, unfortunately, that is exactly what Arthur chose to do next.

Realizing that their swords and crossbows were useless against the monster, and determined that it would not be allowed to escape them, Arthur shouted at his men, "Hold as you are!" and then kicked his steed into a charge toward the gryphon, knowing now that only Excalibur could slay this magical creature of the Old Religion.

From her perspective through her familiar's eyes, Selestra watched with gleeful anticipation as Arthur valiantly raced toward the gryphon. (NOW, Baltrazaar!) she hissed. (Seize the boy, but beware his sword!)

The gryphon cawed its understanding as it turned fully to confront Arthur's onrush.

"Arthur! Don't! Fall back!" Gwaine cried with sudden premonition as he and the others watched in frozen apprehension as the gryphon reared up on its hind legs to its full formidable height, spreading its wings—and then everything happened too quickly and before anyone could act.

As Arthur reached the monster it suddenly lifted up off the ground just out of Excalibur's lethal reach as the young man swung the sword at it, attempting a killing strike which missed. Undaunted, he stood up in the stirrups and once again tried a slashing stroke, this time catching Baltrazaar off guard and grazing its sleek black underbelly with Excalibur's sharp tip, drawing blood.

Arthur was going for a killing thrust when the angered gryphon opened its salivating maw and screeched a feral cry of outrage, which panicked Arthur's horse and threw the valiant youth off balance as it desperately skittered sideways in an effort to get away from the slavering, screaming creature hovering threateningly overhead.

Seeing its advantage, the gryphon spun at an angle, and with a powerful whipping lash of its long snakelike tail struck Arthur along the left side of his head and upper body, violently sweeping him up and out of the saddle.

The brutal blow had instantly knocked him senseless and dislocated his shoulder, and Excalibur flew from Arthur's lax fingers as he tumbled bonelessly through the air. He landed hard, face down and motionless on the leaf-strewn ground, his left arm flung out at an unnatural angle.

"GET TO THE KING! PROTECT THE KING!" Leon roared frantically, but Baltrazaar swooped down over Arthur's still form—and before the knights could reach them, the gryphon used its front and back talons to secure the unconscious youth in its grip and plucked him up off the ground.

In shock and horror Leon, Percival, Gwaine and Elyon watched helplessly as the creature flapped its powerful wings and effortlessly rose up into the air with Arthur dangling limply within its clutching grasp.

Shrilling its triumph, Baltrazaar then turned and flew with lightening speed out of their sight.


Part Two

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Selestra and four robed and hooded male acolytes stared upward as they watched Beltrazaar's return. The giant gryphon had just lowered itself through a wide circular opening high overhead in the ceiling of a vaulted chamber in the sorceress-priestess's mountain temple fortress and was now descending slowly downward toward them, cognizant of the precious cargo it was bringing to its mistress.

"Place him…here," the priestess called out to her familiar, pointing toward a wide altar stone made of black onyx resting upon a rectangular white marble base. The altar was centered under the opening in the ceiling which Baltrazaar had come through.

The gryphon did as it was bid, slowly lowering itself with its powerful wings until it hovered just above the altar block, and then it opened its talons and deposited Arthur's crumpled form upon it.

"Turn him over," the priestess ordered, and her four attendants swiftly stepped forward and carefully lifted and turned Arthur onto his back, straightening and positioning his limbs before moving away again.

Seeing her captive up close and stretched out on the very ritual altar which would soon be used during the rites of Blood Moon, Selestra knew that the young Pendragon king would fittingly serve as the ultimate sacrifice of all to the Dark Goddess.

"Such a pretty prize you have brought me, my pet," the high priestess said, looking up at the gryphon. "You have done very well indeed. Phidora shall be most pleased with Her new bridegroom."

She stretched forth a hand, her amber eyes glowing, as she murmured a spell and healed the deep graze across the gryphon's ribs made by Excalibur. Finishing, she said, "Return to your lair now and rest."

Baltrazaar gave a quick caw and lifted himself higher and higher until he flew back through the ceiling opening again and disappeared. Once the creature had gone, the opening sealed itself shut.

Selestra gazed back down at Arthur with a pleased expression. Despite some ugly bruising and bloody scrapes on his face, the unconscious youth looked even younger and more attractive in person than he had appeared in the well reflection. Fair-haired and comely young males were always chosen to be sacrificed during the rites of Blood Moon in accordance with Phidora's wishes. But Selestra had understood when she saw Arthur Pendragon's image in the water that the Serpent Goddess had chosen him as her new Consort not only for his youth and physical attributes, but also as revenge for Uther Pendragon's merciless crusade against all practitioners of the Old Religion.

How fitting, Selestra gloated, that his cherished only son should be sacrificed in the ancient Old Religion ritual of Blood Moon to atone for Uther's transgressions against her own kind.

As if sensing her thoughts Arthur suddenly groaned and started to stir awake, and the priestess placed a thin beringed hand lightly on his forehead, her eyes glowing again as she murmured, "No, little king, you must not awaken just yet."

With something akin to a deep sigh he immediately quieted and went still again.

She turned to her attendants. "Take him to the chamber prepared for his arrival. I will send Sylas to see to him."

-i-

Wrapped in a wool blanket, Merlin sat hunched on a stool in Gaius's chambers, watching the elderly healer tend to Gwaine's upper chest wound and listening intently to their retelling of what had been said in the emergency Council meeting from which they'd just returned.

The handsome knight had come to Gaius's quarters seeking treatment after he and the other men who'd been with Arthur told the Council what had befallen the King.

Earlier a page had been sent requesting that Gaius attend the Council since they felt he might be able to help them determine why Arthur had been taken and by whom.

When Gaius arrived at the Council chamber Leon was telling the assembly that the creature that had taken Arthur was a giant gryphon, but this one was ebony black and larger than the one which had terrorized Camelot once before when Uther was king.

Leon then spoke of the events as they had occurred, including the violent death and bravery of Sir Edmund. Hearing this, the Council decreed, in keeping with new laws Arthur had enacted once he'd become the King, that the fallen knight's aging parents would receive survivors' benefits for the rest of their natural lives.

After Leon had finished, Gwaine spoke to the members. "I feel that the monster purposely chose Arthur to take. It killed Sir Edmund and his horse, tried to kill me…but it seemed to deliberately hold back from harming the King even though he had been the only one of us able to wound it."

"How do you mean that it seemed to purposely choose Arthur?" Gaius had then asked.

"The monster waited until the King was almost upon it, then rose up and used its tail to knock him unconscious and off of his horse. It could have easily killed him once he fell, but it didn't even try to savage him with those lethal talons or its beak. Instead it just picked him up and flew away."

"I'm not even sure that we could have prevented it from taking Arthur if we could have reached him in time," Leon noted. "Our swords and our crossbow bolts could not harm the creature at all, not even its eyes. Only Excalibur seemed to have any effect on it."

"And did any of you notice how its eyes glowed?" Elyon interjected, looking around at the other knights.

Gaius stared at him sharply. "Glow? How so?"

"They were a sort of golden or amber color," Elyon replied, and the others nodded in agreement.

"Gaius, do you have any idea why this monster has taken our young King?" Lord Phineas, head of the Council, asked.

The physician looked at him unhappily and nodded. "I fear, my lord, that from the descriptions the knights have given, I believe it to be a gryphon which serves a powerful practitioner of the Old Religion."

"Morgana?" Gwaine asked, and Gaius shook his head.

"No, someone far more powerful than even she. I have heard frightening stories of a sorceress-priestess who uses a black gryphon as her familiar."

"What do you mean by…frightening stories?" another Council member asked.

"The stuff of nightmares, my lord," the elderly physician admitted. "This priestess is named Selestra and she serves the Serpent Goddess Phidora, a deity of the Old Religion who dwells in a mystical mountain wellspring. I have heard that Selestra has a temple…a fortress really…in the mountains of Racinia."

"Racinia is in the direction that the gryphon flew when it left with the King!" Percival observed, speaking for the first time.

"Then if it is indeed Selestra who has taken Arthur, his life is in very grave danger," Gaius replied somberly. "I fear he may have been chosen to be sacrificed to Phidora, during the rising of what her followers call Blood Moon, which will occur in a few days time."

"Blood Moon?" Lord Phineas said. "I've never heard of it. What is that?"

"My lord, you and others here probably know it as Hunter's Moon, the first full moon after the autumnal equinox," Gaius replied. "To the cult of Phidora, however, it is a sacred time honoring their Goddess in which ritual sacrifices are performed."

"And you think that this Selestra plans to kill Arthur as part of some ancient ritual?" Leon asked anxiously.

Grim-faced, Gaius nodded. "I believe it is a strong likelihood this is why he was taken in the manner you have all described."

"But why choose the King of Camelot?" Lord Phineas frowned.

"I have heard that young men with fair hair are sacrificed to Phidora during the ritual of Blood Moon, and Arthur is of the right type and age. But in this case, I feel that he may have also been chosen as revenge against Uther for all those who perished during the Great Purge who were practitioners of the Old Ways." He paused, looking around at the assembly. "There is something else, my lords," he added somberly. "It is said that the youth chosen by Phidora is symbolically wedded to Her prior to his sacrifice, when at the full rising of Blood Moon, his living heart is removed and later fed to the Serpent Goddess to complete the joining."

His words caused considerable shock and alarm among the attendees.

"Are you saying that Arthur would still be alive and perhaps even aware when this atrocity is done?" Lord Phineas asked, looking ill.

Gaius nodded. "Indeed, I fear so, my lord. It is the most terrible of deaths."

"Then we must send word to Lady Guinevere at once!" Lord Phineas exclaimed, and the other Council members vehemently nodded or spoke their agreement. He had accorded Gwen the courtesy title which by rights would soon be hers once she and Arthur married in a few weeks and she became his queen. Guinevere was several days' ride away visiting a childhood friend who had recently birthed twin girls, one of which had been named for her.

"Begging your pardon, my lords, but from what Gaius just told us, there won't be time for that," Gwaine interjected. "Blood Moon is within days, as he said."

Gaius nodded adamantly. "He is correct. This is why there can be no delay in trying to rescue Arthur. We must act now. Under these circumstances there is no time to send word to our future queen and await her return before we do. Blood Moon will have risen and Arthur most assuredly will be dead by then."

-ii-

It had been decided that a contingent of knights and men-at-arms would leave for Racinia as soon as horses and supplies were readied.

Merlin had immediately stated he'd go with them as well, but Gaius had forestalled him with a meaningful look while saying for Gwaine's benefit before he had left, "No, Merlin. I'd prefer you stay here."

"I'm not afraid of the danger, Gaius!" the young man had protested. "Arthur's my friend as well as my king and…"

"I fear that you still aren't fully recovered and might slow them down, my boy. And time is of the utmost essence," Gaius insisted. "But why don't I go with you to pack fresh clothing for the knights to take to Arthur. He will be in need of them, I am sure, once he is rescued."

Merlin had reluctantly given in, refraining from arguing with him further. He understood now that Gaius must have another reason for keeping him from riding out with Gwaine and the other knights.

"Gaius's advice is sound, Merlin. You still look a bit peaked. Someone will come to fetch Arthur's things before we leave," Gwaine promised him.

Once the long-haired knight had gone, the physician locked the door to the chamber and tuned back to Merlin. "I fear that Arthur's life will depend on you. Arthur's men have a long and arduous journey ahead of them and they may not find Selestra's mountain fortress in time or even be able to breach it. If that is the case, Blood Moon will have risen and Arthur slain."

"Then I think I know a way to get to that fortress before the knights do and will try to rescue him myself!" Merlin vowed.

"You realize that he will likely now discover that you can wield magic," Gaius warned.

"So be it then, if it's the only way to save him," the young warlock replied.


Part Three

A Mysterious Imprisonment

Because of the pounding headache, Arthur awoke slowly, vaguely aware that he was lying on his back on an unfamiliar bed in strange surroundings. He had the sensation of a light breeze wafting over him, and from the corner of his eye he saw a young dark-skinned boy of about 10 with shaven head and wearing a black robe standing by the bedside, slowly sweeping what looked like a large feathered fan back and forth over him.

"Where…am…I?" he mumbled.

Once the boy realized that the blue-eyed, fair-haired stranger was awake and looking at him dazedly and had spoken, he dropped the fan and ran from the small room.

"Wa..wait…" Arthur called weakly, struggling to sit up. But sudden excruciating pain in his shoulder left him gasping with the effort, while at the same time he realized that he was somehow bound to the narrow bed upon which he lay. He looked down at himself and saw that his wrists and ankles were lashed with leather strips to the sides of the bed frame. And just as unsettling was the fact that he was totally nude except for a light woven blanket draped over his lower half.

He could see dark bruising and swelling along his left shoulder and collar bone, and groggily surmised he'd somehow been injured during the encounter with the gryphon. The last thing he remembered was being struck on that side of his body by the creature's long flailing tail.

He blearily scanned the unfamiliar room he was lying in. Why wasn't he back at his palace, with Gaius tending to him if he'd been injured? What was this place? And how had he gotten here?

The room—or was it a cell?—was bare of furnishings except for the cot upon which he lay and a small wicker stool set near the bed. There was a narrow slit of a window with thick bars located at the top of one smooth stone wall, but it was darkened, so he supposed it must be night time. Otherwise the only light source came from thick tallow candles set in niches in the walls. The room itself seemed to be about 9'x10', and its only door, which was not centered in that wall, was also made of thick metal bars. So he must be in some type of cell then, he realized, meant to keep him contained. But if that was the case, why was he also tied down?

With sudden trepidation Arthur understood he wasn't within his own kingdom. So whose prisoner was he then, and for what purpose?

His anxious thoughts escalated the throbbing headache he'd awoken with, muddling his thinking even further and distorting his vision again. He tried to remember the details of the attack by the gryphon to see if that encounter could provide him with clues as to his current situation—but the images kept slipping away, replaced by a heavy lethargy which overcame him…and he faded back into oblivion.

-i-

"You said he'd awoken," Arthur vaguely heard an elderly male voice say from somewhere nearby, and a youthful voice replied, "Aye, he did. Looked right at me and spoke, he did. I swear it!"

A dry warm hand settled briefly on Arthur's forehead, and then touched his right shoulder and gently shook him.

Reluctantly he opened his eyes, blinking up at an elderly face hovering over him. "Gaius?" he murmured.

"No, boy. My name is Sylas," the man replied.

Arthur fought to come more fully aware, and as his vision began to clear he stared with uncertainty up at the unfamiliar lined face with squinting hazel eyes watching him intently. The stranger was about Gaius's age, but thinner and bald, and he was dressed in a long-sleeved black robe with a gold-braided belt tied around his waist. Fastened to that was a large satchel or pouch, which hung at his hip.

"Where is this place? Why am I here…and bound like this?" Arthur asked thickly.

"I am forbidden to tell you these things," the old man replied neutrally, reaching down to feel the pulse point along Arthur's throat since his wrists were tied to the bed. "But you shall learn all of that soon enough."

Without being asked to, the young boy who had been fanning Arthur earlier slipped quietly out of the room.

"How long have I been here then?" Arthur persisted.

"I've been tending to you since yesterday," Sylas told him. "You've had a fever, but it seems to have broken now. Your left shoulder was dislocated, but I reset that while you were unconscious, although you are likely still experiencing some pain from it." He then examined a raw gash on Arthur's upper left temple. "Does your head still pain you on the inside," he asked.

"Yes," Arthur admitted.

"I will give you something to ease that," the healer replied. From the pouch he took out a small green flask and removed its stopper. Then bending over he slid a hand under Arthur's neck and lifted his head a little, tilting the contents of the flask into the youth's mouth. The potion was cool and a little minty, but with a slightly bitter understate.

Almost immediately Arthur began to feel a tingling sensation spreading throughout his body combined with a sudden feeling of euphoria…and he realized too late that he was being drugged with an opiate.

"No! What have you….given me?" he said fearfully, futilely pulling at his restraints as he tried to fight the effects of the drug.

"Nothing that will harm you," Sylas replied, laying Arthur's head back on the pillow. He knew that the medicine would help with the boy's headache and shoulder pain while at the same time keep him quiet and sedated.

Sylas watched him closely, seeing the irises in the cobalt blue eyes contract as the potion quickly took effect and his patient began to succumb to the effects of the powerful draught.

Within moments Arthur had fallen back into unconsciousness.

Satisfied that the young man would not awaken again until morning, the healer rose, re-corked the flask and put it back in the pouch. He then left the cell, nodding at the two acolytes stationed as guards outside in the corridor.

-ii-

The next time Arthur awoke he realized it must be daylight. The fat tallow candles set in their wall niches were not lit, yet the room seemed brighter. Looking up he saw a tantalizing hint of blue sky framed by the barred window high up in the wall of the small cell.

The biggest change, however, was that he was no longer strapped to the bed and could sit up and move his limbs freely—but he was still very much a confined captive. The leather wrist and ankle straps had now been replaced by a narrow leather collar secured around his neck. This in turn was attached to a long chain which disappeared into a small opening in the wall behind the bed.

Groggily Arthur sat up on the edge of the cot, waiting for the room to quit spinning. The opiate he'd been given had left a bitter taste in his mouth, and he desperately wanted a cool drink of water to help clear its residue from his mouth and his mind.

At least his headache was gone and his shoulder did not ache as much, but to his chagrin he was still completely naked with only the thin woven blanket to serve as any sort of modest covering.

He fingered the leather collar around his neck. It was padlocked securely, and he found out quickly that he had no hope of breaking the lock free. The collar was not tight enough to choke him or cause him any discomfort, but it wasn't loose enough, either, to slip up over his head, although he tried.

Once he'd regained his equilibrium, he tentatively got to his feet, wrapping the blanket around his waist. Near the bed was the garderobe, or privy, recessed in the wall. He made use of it, and then walked about the small room, exploring the cell in more detail as he tested how much movement the chain attached to the collar around his throat would allow him. Since he had estimated that the cell was approximately 9'x10', he adjudged the chain to be no more than 8.5' in length.

I'm like a bloody hound on a leash, he thought bitterly.

Ha got as close to the barred door as the chain would allow, and called out: "If someone's out there, I'd like some water!"

There was movement in the corridor and a dark robed man appeared, staring in at him impassively. Like Sylas, his head was shaven and he was light-skinned.

"Can you bring me some water?" Arthur repeated. "Perhaps a little food as well? I haven't eaten in days."

Without acknowledging Arthur's requests or changing his expression, the man left.

Having no idea if his request would be complied with, Arthur turned away resignedly and went back to sit on the edge of his bed. He found himself staring up at the narrow window, wondering if the view to the outside world would offer any clues as to where he was being held. Since the window wall was close to the bed, he gauged that the chain affixed to the neck collar would stretch far enough if he could just reach the window.

Glancing around the sparsely furnished cell he saw the wicker stool and got up and moved around the bed to pick it up. He then carried it over and set it down beneath the window wall.

Discarding the blanket wrapped around his lower half onto the floor since it would only hinder him, he carefully stepped up on the stool. It creaked in protest and he prayed that it would support his weight as he stood on his tiptoes and stretched upwards along the wall until his hands could grip the solid window bars.

Because Arthur was in such prime physical shape from years of weapons training and tournament jousting, he was able to pull himself up with little effort until he could peer out through the narrow opening.

But what he saw took away any hope he might have had about escaping or determining where he was.

Although his viewing range was restricted, he could tell this place he was being kept in was built into a mountainside, and that he seemed to be in a tower, not a dungeon, of a Keep or fortress. Perhaps a half mile away was a wide expanse of deep blue water, but beyond that he had no idea where he was or how far away Camelot might be.

Suddenly, far off in the distance, he saw a giant winged creature, and at first he thought it was the gryphon which had attacked Camelot. But as the monster turned at an angle in the sunlight, Arthur realized it wasn't black, but more a greenish brown; nor was it built quite like the gryphon. Rather, it more closely resembled a… dragon! And if that wasn't startling enough, there appeared to be a slim figure clinging to the creature's long neck, riding astride it as if it were no more than a giant flying horse.

And the brief glimpse Arthur had of the dark-haired rider before the creature flew out of his range of sight struck him as oddly familiar. Too familiar.

Merlin?

But he knew that wasn't possible, and he gave a disbelieving snort. "Either that opiate I was given must still be in my system, or I've truly lost my mind," he muttered darkly.

He was so intent on what he thought he'd just seen that he hadn't heard the cell door quietly slide open and someone enter the room until he heard a female voice gasp, "OH!"

Still gripping the bars, Arthur turned his head and looked down to see a young woman standing just inside the cell door, holding a tray of food and gaping up at him in wide-eyed astonishment.


Part Four

The Prisoner In The Tower

Seventeen-year-old Lia had been working in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, when one of the brethren appeared, saying that the prisoner in the tower had requested food and water.

"You take it, girl," the harried over-cook ordered her distractedly. "Just be sure it's only things that can be eaten with the fingers."

It was nearly time for the midday meal and the kitchen staff was rushing about in a frenzy to finish. All feared Selestra's scathing wrath if meals were not served on time.

Lia dutifully wiped off her hands and gathered a small loaf of oat bread, a thick wedge of goat cheese, and a handful of dried apples and set them on a tray along with a waterskin**. She knew that prisoners kept in the tower were never to be given eating utensils or mugs or goblets as they might use such things to try to escape or even harm themselves or their guards.

She'd never been to the tower before, and so she carried the tray with some apprehension up its long and winding stone stairs, wondering what the young man being kept there would be like. She knew little about him other than he had been chosen by the Goddess Phidora to be Her consort and to serve as the sacred sacrifice during the rites of Blood Moon.

When she reached the cell in which Arthur was being kept she presented the tray to the sentries in the corridor, allowing them to inspect the items she'd brought before being admitted into the cell.

One of the guards slid open the door for her, and as she entered she saw him…a flaxen haired, well-built young man hanging from the window bars high up on a wall—and he was completely naked.

(**Author's Note: A waterskin (and wineskin) was an ancient forerunner to the canteen or water bottle. A waterskin was usually made from a cow or sheep bladder since they could hold liquid without leaking. On average a waterskin could hold up to four cups of fluid.)

-i-

Merlin lithely dismounted from Kilgharrah's back and smoothed down his clothing and wind-blown dark hair, grinning broadly at the Great Dragon.

"That truly never grows old!" he exclaimed. "Thank you. I couldn't have gotten here on time without your help." The dragon had deposited him on a small plateau not far from Selestra's temple fortress minutes after Arthur had seen them.

"How will you explain to Arthur that you were able to arrive before his knights did, young warlock?" the creature asked.

Merlin's brow furrowed and he shrugged a little. "I don't know yet…but somehow I'll just have to, er, wing it, I guess," he quipped lamely.

The Great Dragon blinked at him as he registered the pun, a glint of amusement appearing in his large eyes, and then said, "I shall stay nearby in case you have need of me."

"If I can't get us out before the rising of Blood Moon, you will come then?" Merlin asked a little anxiously.

"Of course, never fear. But take great care, Merlin. Selestra is a very powerful sorceress and you may find that you are no match for her." And with that he spread his wings and flew off.

-ii-

Lia watched open-mouthed as the blond-haired young man lowered himself from the window onto the wicker stool, and then lightly jumped down from it, taking care to keep his body angled in such a way as to protect her from being further shocked by his nudity. He then deftly snatched up the blanket lying on the floor by the stool, wrapped it around himself, and only then turned to face her fully.

"As you see, I've nothing else to wear and thus apologize for my state of undress. I did not expect a visitor. But I am grateful you've brought me some nourishment which I'm in sore need of," he said matter-of-factly—and she nearly dropped the tray she was holding, awestruck anew by the beauty of his voice, face, and form.

Despite the restraining collar and chain that he was tethered to, and the fact he had no clothing, Lia saw that he tried to project some modicum of dignity as he sauntered casually over to the bed and sat down on it.

"As there's no table, and the stool is a little narrow, I suppose you'll have to place that here," he said, patting the mattress and nodding meaningfully at the tray in her hands.

That seemed to bring her out of her trance, and she moved to the bed and nervously set the tray down next to him, then stepped quickly back. "I…I'm to stay until you've eaten," she stammered nervously. "I have to take the tray with me when I leave."

"I understand," he replied, and picked up the waterskin first, taking a deep, satisfying swig of it. Then he began to eat the simple meal she'd brought as if it were a feast.

"You were very hungry," Lia said, trying to make conversation so she could hear his wonderful voice again.

The young man nodded. "Yes, starving. But this is very satisfying. Thank you."

They were both silent for a few moments, then he looked at her with his keen blue eyes and asked, "Is it possible you can tell me where I am and why I am here?"

Lia briefly shook her head and glanced away. "That is forbidden."

"So I've been told," he sighed, and bit into the goat cheese.

He'd taken only a few more bites, and then surprised her when he suddenly stopped eating and pushed the tray away.

"I'm done now," he muttered, a shadow crossing his fine features.

"Is something wrong? Does it not taste right?" she asked with concern, and he gave her a slight smile and shook his blond head.

"No. It's not that. It's just …mm, I've eaten too quickly, that is all. Not a wise thing to do on a stomach that has been empty for days. But I thank you for bringing this, just the same. You may take the tray now."

She moved forward again and picked it up, then turned and went to the cell door, calling for the guard to let her out. Without being able to stop herself she glanced back over her shoulder at the strikingly handsome young man sitting on the bed, now seemingly lost in his own thoughts.

-iii-

Arthur had noticed the serving girl's stunned reaction to him, not only when she'd first entered his cell, but when he'd gotten down and turned to face her. He imagined it wasn't often she'd seen a naked man before, and certainly not one hanging from a barred window. So he could easily understand why that might have taken her aback some; but he had also seen her awed reaction to him when he'd turned and spoken to her.

Despite his dire circumstances, he'd had to bite back a smile. He'd recognized the bedazzled expression on the girl's face as she stared at him. He'd encountered that type of reaction often enough from women (and even a few men) in the past. Merlin had teased him once that if they were living in a different place and culture, Arthur would easily have no problem filling a harem.

At the comment Arthur had just rolled his eyes and retorted, "It's difficult enough trying to figure out how to keep one woman happy, Merlin, or make sense of how they think at times, so I'd have no clue how to handle a hundredfold of them!" In truth, however, he was not a womanizer and, in fact, had a rather old-fashioned attitude about monogamy in regard to women in his life, which Merlin knew despite the teasing.

But if this serving girl brought him meals again he might be able to use her obvious reaction to him to find a means of getting out of here. He didn't like the idea of using her to his advantage, but right now she seemed his only hope.

As he ate the food she'd brought him he had studied her under his lowered lashes. He could tell she was young, only in her teens, and by her robe and the gold-braided belt he'd seen others in this place wearing, he knew she was a member of the same cult or religious order—whatever that was.

The girl was dark-skinned but still much lighter than the small boy who had been fanning him when he'd first awakened. She had thick curling black hair that went well past her shoulders, and she was short and petite in build. Her face was pretty and fine-boned, showcasing big expressive brown eyes—and that's when it struck him she reminded him of Gwen…and he'd suddenly lost his appetite.

The girl had seen this and had asked him worriedly if the food didn't suit him.

"It's not that," he'd answered. "It's just…" and here he caught himself, knowing he could not say: you remind me of someone I love deeply who has just come back into my life…and now I may never see her again. Instead he lied and told her he'd eaten too quickly on an empty stomach, and had asked her to remove the tray, which she did.

He'd become so lost in memories of Guinevere and their new-found happiness after such a rough period in their lives that he'd not even noticed when the serving girl left the cell.

-iv-

Merlin cautiously approached the fortress, choosing an outcropping of large boulders set high up on the mountainside which would give him an advantageous point from which to observe the comings and goings of the inhabitants within during the daylight hours.

Unlike Arthur's aesthetically-pleasing castle, Selestra's stronghold appeared to be part of the austere mountain behind it. The fortress was imposing and unwelcoming, its design minimalistic with only a tower at each front end to break its severe lines. It appeared to have one entrance, a guard gate, as far as Merlin could tell, but he guessed that there likely were secret escape passages hidden beneath the structure itself.

For hours he hunched there behind the boulders, waiting and watching, studying the bleak stone fortress and looking for alternate ways in. Few people came and went, and when they did, they left or entered by way of the guarded entrance gate. So he knew that would have to be his best option to implement a plan he and Gaius had come up with before Merlin had left Camelot.

The day dwindled on, eventually giving way to nightfall. Torches were soon lit upon the battlements of the fortress, but beyond that the structure seemed ominously dark. Merlin surmised that the few windows he had seen from his vantage point were probably shuttered for the night, which is why everything seemed so dark.

The young warlock opened his rucksack and pulled out a blanket. Rolling up in it, he curled on his side, trying to get as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, and settled down for the night. He dared not build a fire for fear it would be observed by the sentries, but fortunately it was a mild fall night and he could do without.

He cradled his head upon his arm, worrying about Arthur and how he was faring, and stared up at the panorama of stars overhead until sleep finally overcame him.

-v-

Merlin's worries for his friend were well-founded.

Apparently the food Lia had brought earlier was all Arthur would be allowed to have that day, as no one came with a tray for the evening meal. The only visitor he had was Sylas, who arrived in the afternoon to briefly examine the cut on Arthur's temple and ask him if the pain in his head and shoulder were better.

Having no desire to be given any more of the opiate again, Arthur assured him that he was no longer plagued with any pain, and the elderly healer left without further comment.

The rest of the day and evening Arthur sat on the bed with his back to the stone wall, watching the shadows in the cell deepen as the daylight showing through the narrow window above gradually faded.

No one even came to light the candles in the wall niches, leaving him thirsty, hungry, and alone in isolated darkness with only the occasional hungry rumble of his own stomach to keep him company. And thus sleep did not come easily.

-vi-

Lia lay awake through most of that long night as well in the small room she shared with four other virginal teenage acolytes in the women's wing. Although everyone else was now sleeping soundly, she could not stop thinking about the handsome young man being held prisoner in the tower, knowing that he was to die soon and in a most horrific manner.

Lia was not privy to all the darker facets of the rites Selestra performed to honor the Goddess of the wellspring, but she did know what occurred during the ceremony of Blood Moon and that the young man she'd met that day had been chosen to be the sacrificial Consort to Phidora.

Having spent her whole short life in the fortress, she'd never seen a naked man before, had never even been kissed, and she shivered as she remembered how the prisoner's toned and muscled body had been so compelling to gaze upon. He was well-formed of torso and limbs and moved with a controlled grace that had taken her breath away. She kept reliving how the muscles in his arms, shoulders, and back worked as he lowered himself from the window onto the wicker stool…and in her imaginings she marveled anew at the breadth of his shoulders and how his back tapered down to a narrow waist and hips, which in turn gave way to the sloping curve of his firm buttocks and hard-muscled thighs and legs.

Even now the memory of that moment when she'd first set eyes on him made her pulse race and her body tingle in a way that was foreign to her.

She had not been able to stop thinking about him all day: not just his astonishing body but his refined voice and incredible face with its full-lipped mouth and long-lashed, vivid blue eyes capped by lustrous pale gold hair. She had thought he looked like a young god himself and could see why he'd been chosen to be Phidora's Consort.

She guessed him to be in his 20s and therefore only a few years older than herself. Yet despite his youth he seemed to project an aura of authority and confidence that most young men his age would not possess. And his manner, like his speech, was refined, so she knew he was no rustic peasant or coarse soldier.

She also hadn't expected to feel compassion for him as well as attraction. She'd been raised to believe that human sacrifice was important to honor the Dark Goddess, and so Lia had never questioned that belief system until now.

She knew he was here against his will, but who was he? And where had he come from?

Before sleep finally overcame her shortly before dawn, Lia vowed she would discover the answer to those very questions, not realizing that in her brief encounter with Arthur Pendragon she had become hopelessly enamored with him—and that he would prove to be her doom.


Part Five

Merlin, Bold And Bald

Merlin's plan had been simple. The following morning he presented himself boldly to the sentries at the fortress gate and announced he'd come to join Selestra's cult.

To his surprise the guards opened the portcullis, and after searching him and his rucksack, told him to wait in the gatehouse until an escort came to take him to the reception area where the priestess herself conducted interviewed for new supplicants.

He did not have long to wait. A man in his late 30s with a shaven head appeared, dressed in a black robe adorned only with a gold-braided belt, and told Merlin he'd come to take him to where the interview with Selestra would happen.

"Follow behind me, and do not speak to others," the man said coldly.

Merlin nodded, and fell into step behind him.

As they progressed through the outer bailey Merlin heard a loud commotion coming from a large wooden structure they were passing. He could hear shrill screeching and men's voices raised, and glancing in as they passed the over-sized set of double doors which stood wide open, he caught a glimpse of a huge black feathered creature with hooked beak and large talons—and he immediately knew he was looking at the gryphon which had taken Arthur. He caught a glimpse of two older men he assumed were the creature's handlers attempting to calm it down.

"That's not your business, boy. Hurry along now," his escort said sharply to Merlin over his shoulder.

The warlock dutifully averted his gaze and quickened his step.

-i-

Lia had been forbidden to take the prisoner in the tower any food or water the evening before, but that morning she was told to put together a tray and take it to him. She quietly set about the task, hiding her excitement at the prospect of seeing the fair-haired stranger again, and she chose an assortment of foodstuffs she felt might help assuage the gnawing hunger she imagined he must be feeling by now.

As before when she reached the top of the tower, the guards inspected what she'd brought and then let her into Arthur's cell. He was sitting on the bed, his back to the wall, eyes closed, but he opened them and smiled when he saw who it was…and she felt her breath catch in her throat as she gazed upon him again.

"I was beginning to think they planned to starve me to death," he said, shifting his position so she had room to set the tray down on the narrow mattress.

"I...I brought some extra food this morning," she murmured, trying not to stare at him. He still was unclothed, with nothing more than the blanket to serve as draping, but she noticed that he must have been allowed to bathe as he had the pleasant odor of soap about him and his blond hair was still wet, damp tendrils of it clinging to his face and neck.

He looked at the tray's contents with interest. "Indeed, I can see you've taken care in the choosing. This all looks very good," he complimented her, again smiling as he picked up a roasted chicken leg.

As before she moved back away from the bed, and stood waiting patiently as he consumed the breakfast, noticing that this time he ate with much more gusto than he had the day before. She guessed that under normal circumstances he had a healthy appetite as befitting someone his age who obviously was also very physically active.

She found herself once again admiring everything about him…how he moved, looked, sounded…fascinated by the length and thickness of his lashes and the pale color of his hair which matched the light matting across his chest. Her gaze went to his mouth, wondering what it would feel like to be kissed by those full lips…and was startled out of her imaginings when he glanced up at her with those cobalt blue eyes and said casually, "My name is Arthur. What is yours?"

"Lia," she managed in a small voice, giddily thinking: so his name is Arthur! She liked the sound of that. It somehow fit him.

"That's quite pretty," he commented, tearing apart a small sweet roll and chewing on a piece. "And you work in the kitchens then" he noted, and she nodded, mesmerized by every word he spoke and even the way he chewed his food.

Subtly trying to draw her out more in order to create a bond of friendship between them, Arthur asked, "So what is it you do in the kitchens, Lia? Did you bake these delicious rolls?"

She flushed a little and nodded, clasping her hands together. "I did make those this morning…but I do whatever they need me to do," she replied.

"Well, they are the best I've ever eaten," he said. "You have a gift for baking."

She actually smiled at him for the first time, apparently pleased that he liked them so much.

"Where do you…come from?" she ventured shyly.

He looked down at his plate in order to shield the expression in his eyes from her. "Camelot."

She seemed to consider that, and then asked, "Did you come from…a noble house?"

Realizing that she knew absolutely nothing about him, Arthur continued to keep his gaze averted as he ate. Nodding slightly, he replied, "I'm a knight serving in a noble household, yes, but I don't remember how I came to be here…wherever that is."

"Racin…" the girl replied, then caught herself and put her hand to her mouth fearfully.

Now he looked at her intently. "Do not fear, Lia. No one shall know you told me."

"I would be severely punished if they found out," she said almost tearfully.

To distract her, he changed the subject. "Will this be all I am allowed to have today?" he asked, indicating the food tray.

She looked away and bit her lip. "I'm not sure. They would not let me bring you any supper last night."

"Well, then, I shall be smart enough to eat every bit of this in case I don't see you again later," he replied, adding, "which would make me sad…not seeing you again. It's very lonely being kept here like this in isolation and for reasons I don't understand." And he gave her a forlorn look when she glanced back at him.

She said nothing to that, and Arthur knew not to press the issue further about why he was being held and by whom; so in silence he finished the meal she'd brought him. But he could see that his plan to gain her trust was beginning to work. At least he had learned he was in Racinia, a territory bordering Camelot to the south and occupied by several warring clans who had no love for the Pendragons. Therefore, he was indeed in the hands of enemies—but exactly whose hands, and for what purpose, he still did not know.

-ii-

Merlin was led into the main Keep and after traversing a number of corridors, he and his guide came to a small anteroom outside of a reception chamber. "We must wait here until you are summoned," his escort said, motioning to a smooth wooden bench upon which they both sat.

Nearly a half hour passed before a door opened and a dark-skinned robed acolyte, this time a woman, appeared. "The Mistress will now speak to the supplicant," she intoned.

"Leave your rucksack. I shall wait here until you have finished," Merlin's companion told him as the young warlock stood and moved to join the woman at the door.

The chamber he entered was not very large, and appeared to be more of a records room or library as there were shelves and shelves filled with scrolls of varying lengths and widths.

Since there were no windows, and thus daylight could not penetrate this place, two tall iron candelabras were lit, and these stood on either side of a large oak table. And seated at this was one of the strangest-looking women Merlin had ever seen in his life.

Neither young nor old, her age was hard to determine. She was dark-skinned, and had a heedful of long shoulder-length ebony braids. Around her forehead was a narrow gold circlet forged into the shape of an elongated serpent-like creature with bare breasts. But its face, body and tail were all heavily scaled and its slanted eyes were represented by faceted blood red rubies. Merlin guessed this was a representation of Phidora, the Dark Goddess of the wellspring, and that he was in the presence of Selestra, Her high priestess.

Selestra's own face and neck were tattooed in white with what looked like faux scales. But it was her tilted almond-shaped eyes which drew his attention the most. They were an eerie luminous amber.

Without looking at him or acknowledging his presence the sorceress-priestess stood for a moment to replace the scroll which she'd been reading back onto its shelf behind her chair, and Merlin saw she was not only tall but very thin and narrow in build, making him think of a snake. Like everyone else he'd seen in this place, she was wearing the black robe cinched at the waist with the braided gold belt.

When she reseated herself she steepled her thin beringed fingers together and stared unblinkingly at him. "What is your name, boy?" she asked, her voice husky with an underlying sibilance to its tone as she studied the slim pleasant-looking, fresh-faced youth standing before her.

Merlin kept his gaze steady and his expression guileless as he replied respectfully, "Martin, my lady." He saw a glint of amusement appear for the briefest moment in those strange eyes of hers, and thinking she somehow knew he had lied about his name, he swallowed hard.

"If I accept you here, the correct way to address me is as *Mistress*," she replied.

He nodded with secret relief and waited for her next question.

"We revere the Great Serpent Goddess Phidora, who requires offerings and sacrifices of a certain…nature… to appease Her and perpetuate Her existence. Are you aware of this?"

"Aye, Mistress," he replied. "I have heard the rumors."

"And you are willing to accept our beliefs and ways here then?"

He nodded, doing his best to seem like a harmless simpleton.

She gave him a considering look. "I sense that you have some magic. So where do you come from, little Martin? And why have you come here?"

The young warlock was prepared for this, and again kept his gaze steady. "I come from a small town called Middlebrook in the southern part of Camelot, Mistress. I am, or was, a house servant to a cruel master who beat all of us regularly whether there was cause or not. I foolishly used my magic, which I'd always kept secret, to finish some chores I'd forgotten to do, fearing another flogging…but my master caught me and beat me severely until I fell unconscious. When I awoke I was bound and locked in the root cellar, and I overheard my master telling his wife he had sent for the King's guards." Here Merlin paused for effect. "Those of my kind are hunted and executed in Camelot," he said quietly. "That is why I have come to seek sanctuary here and be where others like me are accepted and protected."

Selestra considered all of this. "Yes, I know about the Pendragon Purge, of course. And so you managed to escape then," she observed.

Merlin nodded. "But barely in time, as King Arthur's vile men had just ridden into the village."

"You have no love for the young Pendragon King?" she asked, watching him with an inscrutable expression.

"No, Mistress! I fear and despite him and wish him dead! He is said to be much like his evil father, who murdered my parents during the Great Purge," he lied smoothly.

"You say that you were severely beaten recently. Show me," Selestra ordered.

Again, Merlin was prepared for this possibility, that he'd be asked to offer proof of his story. So he had Gaius flog him before setting out on this journey. It had deeply upset the kind-hearted physician, who had never whipped anyone in his life; but Merlin had insisted that it had to be done and there was no one else he could trust to do it. "I know you don't wish to hurt me, Gaius, but it is a necessary part of my false story if I am allowed into Selestra's fortress. You can give me something for the pain afterward," Merlin had assured him.

So without hesitation he slowly turned and pulled up his tunic, showing the high priestess the raw and vivid welts and ugly mottled bruising up and down his back and across his shoulders from the recent flogging.

Selestra was silent for a moment, and then told him to put his shirt down.

Doing so, Merlin turned to face her again.

"Many of my younger brethren have similar stories, little Martin, and are runaways from Camelot much like yourself. However, not all who reside here under my protection have a gift for magic, and to protect them so they can't be taken advantage of, those like yourself are not allowed to use it in this place. Only I have that right and I will know immediately if magic other than my own is used here." She sat back in her chair. "Failure to comply with that rule means you will be banished…or worse. Do you understand and agree to this?"

"Aye, Mistress," he replied reverently.

"Good. So I shall give you a chance to prove your worth to become part of this order." So saying, she waved a dismissive hand at the female acolyte who had been standing in attendance by the door during Merlin's interview with her mistress. "Tell Nigel to show the boy where he is to sleep and work. I suggest the kitchens to start as they are shorthanded there."

"Thank you, thank you, Mistress! I swear I shall serve you and the Dark Goddess faithfully!" Merlin avowed fervently, bowing a little, but Selestra had picked up another scroll on her desk and appeared not to have heard him or even notice when he left her presence.

-iii-

An hour later Merlin was somewhat abashedly rubbing the palm of his hand over the top of his bald head, tentatively feeling his freshly-shorn scalp.

This was one aspect of infiltrating Selestra's fortress that he had not considered in formulating his plan—that his hair would be shorn off.

He'd gone with the acolyte he now knew was called Nigel to another section of the Keep where the male members of the household slept, and he was shown a room which held a half dozen narrow beds.

"That one will be yours to use," Nigel had told him, pointing to the first cot on the right as they entered the chamber. Merlin immediately noticed the strong odor of unwashed bodies, and wondered if bathing on a regular basis was not part of life in this dismal place. The servants and inhabitants of the palace at Camelot all bathed regularly, some even daily when possible, such as Arthur. Even he and Gaius took baths at least thrice a week.

"Leave your rucksack here," Nigel told him. "When we return I will take it with me and store it for you, although you likely will no longer have need of your worldly things." He then took Merlin to a large storeroom, and there helped the youth pick out a robe, belt, and sandals that would fit his height and build. They then returned to the chamber Merlin would sleep in, and Nigel waited outside while his charge changed into the garments of an acolyte.

Merlin had been told to put the clothing he'd been wearing in his rucksack, and this he did, handing the bag to Nigel when he'd finished dressing.

"Are we going to the kitchens now?" Merlin asked.

"Not yet," the older man responded. "Come along." And then he led him down another series of corridors until they came to a closed door. On this Nigel rapped sharply and a large heavy-set man dressed in the familiar black robe answered. He took one look at Merlin, then nodded at Nigel and stepped back, opening the door wide.

Nigel and Merlin entered a small chamber containing few furnishings, and the big man motioned for the warlock to sit on a stool in the center of the room. Glancing around nervously, Merlin did as he was bid, wondering what was about to happen next.

He quickly understood why they were there when the big man, who at this point had not uttered a word, moved to stand behind him, grabbed a fistful of Merlin's brown locks and said in a grating voice that raised the hairs on the back of the youth's neck, "Hold still, boy. This won't take long." And with that he began to shear off Merlin's hair.

When he'd finished, the young man was totally bald, as in keeping with all the male inhabitants of Selestra's
stronghold.


Part Six

The Bloodletting

Merlin was next shown to the kitchens and left there by Nigel, who told him dismissively, "Someone will show you what needs to be done. I've got to return to my own duties."

It was nearing the noon hour and Merlin could tell the workers were hurrying to make everything ready on time. He'd seen similar harried activity in the kitchens at Camelot, and so he just tried to stay out of the way since little notice was paid to him.

He saw a pretty dark-haired, dark-skinned girl ask a tired-looking heavyset woman if she should take a tray to the prisoner in the tower, and she was told, "No, Mistress only wants him fed once a day."

As the girl turned away, Merlin caught the brief flash of disappointment on her face mingled with something else he couldn't define. But what she had said gave him reason to wonder if the prisoner she had mentioned could be Arthur.

"You, there! Don't just stand there gawking. Find a broom and start sweeping up this spilled flour!" the heavyset woman barked at Merlin, noticing him for the first time.

As he set about the chore he resolved to find a way to talk to the girl about who was being kept in one of the towers.

-i-

As the midday and evening mealtimes passed and Lia did not return, Arthur now understood that his captors only meant to feed him enough each day to keep him alive since in the past four days of his imprisonment, he'd only been fed twice. And the first two days of his captivity he'd been mostly unconscious. He was used to hearty fare, especially carbohydrates, fats and proteins, due to the rigorous weapons and other training he and his knights undertook daily, and so his body was beginning to feel weakened from the lack of adequate nourishment. But he suspected that was the intent because he'd be easier to control if he was not at his full strength.

But for what ultimate purpose? he worried. This imprisonment was bizarre to say the least and made no sense to him. Usually an enemy derives satisfaction gloating over those he has conquered. So why had his captor not appeared to do just that? And if someone wanted him dead, why not just kill him?

No, there had to be another reason he was being held like this. That he was kept unclothed, half starved, and chained like an animal might be intended as a form of punishment or humiliation in order to break his spirit. It was also possible his captor was waiting for a ransom or response from the Council? Did they even have any idea where he was being held and who had taken him? Had an attempt to rescue him by his knights even been launched?

He passed another sleepless, hungry night in dark isolation, wondering when he'd learn the answers to these disturbing questions.

-ii-

Arthur's men were indeed urgently on their way—but had encountered an unforeseen and potentially disastrous delay.

It was day five of Arthur's imprisonment and Leon, Percival, Gwaine, Elyon and three dozen other knights and men-at-arms sat on their mounts, staring with disheartened disbelief at the point a bridge should have traversed the wide gorge before them. But all that was now left of the bridge lay broken in tangled and scattered debris at the bottom of the deep ravine.

"Someone has deliberately destroyed it!" Leon declared angrily.

"Aye, likely to keep us from crossing," Percival noted. "See how the supports have been deliberately smashed and broken on both sides. It's no coincidence that this is the fastest route to where Selestra's fortress is said to be."

"Then she must know we are coming, or at least expected we'd try to rescue Arthur if we figured out who had taken him," Leon growled.

"What do we do now?" Elyon asked.

"Find another way around this bloody canyon," Leon replied tersely. "What else is there to do?"

-iii-

That same morning Lia was told by the cook that the prisoner in the tower would receive his only meal around noon. She knew that meant Arthur would not have eaten since the morning before, and it upset her to think of him going so long without food or water. But she had no choice but to comply with Selestra's orders.

Lia went to make bread, and did not realize she was pounding the dough savagely until a male voice asked quietly, "Is something wrong? Can I help?"

Startled out of her brooding thoughts, she glanced up to see a slim young man with kind blue eyes looking at her with concern. She recognized him as the new acolyte who had started working in the kitchens the day before, but until now neither of them had spoken to the other.

When she didn't say anything, the young man offered, "My name is Martin. You seemed upset after speaking to the cook. I must say she seems a bit formidable. Is there something I can help you with?" And he gave her a winsome smile.

Despite her worries for Arthur, Lia found herself warming to the sympathetic manner of the stranger.

She looked back down at the glob of bread dough she'd been pulverizing and shook her dark curly head. "No, there's nothing anyone can do," she murmured.

"Stop yer yapping and get back ta yer chores, you two!" the cook yelled at them, and sharing a rueful glance with Lia, Merlin moved away and resumed his sweeping.

-iv-

Having been awake most of the night before, Arthur had been deep asleep when Sylas and four guards entered his cell shortly after daybreak that morning.

"Bind him to the bed," the healer ordered, and before Arthur realized what was happening his arms and legs were seized and secured to the sides of the bed as they had been when he'd first awoken after his capture.

Since he was still wearing the neck collar attached to the chain, he didn't understand their actions. "Why are you tying me down again?" he demanded.

"I have to bleed you, boy," Sylas replied, "and to do that you must lie still."

It was then that Arthur saw the small stoneware jar he was holding. "Bleed me? Why? I'm not ill," he replied warily.

"For reasons I cannot tell you," the elderly man said indifferently. He then told the guards, "Wait outside. I'll call if I have need of you again." They nodded and stepped away from the bed and left the cell.

The healer opened his pouch and took out a set of odd-looking instruments, setting these on the bed beside Arthur. The youth stared at them with growing apprehension, recognizing them for what they were—tools used in the art of bloodletting, a dangerous archaic medical practice in which blood was drained from the body, usually in the mistaken belief that doing this would release life-threatening humors, or illnesses, from the patient. Unfortunately, bloodletting often put the person in greater danger than from any illness he or she might have. Too much bloodletting would leave the subject so weakened from blood loss that he or she could die. Arthur knew that Gaius disliked using the method, finding it too unreliable and dangerous.

"Since I'm not ill, have you come to kill me then by letting me bleed out?" Arthur asked, swallowing hard. He'd never really had a fear of death, but he always hoped that when his life ended it would be as a brave warrior should, not by a slow and ignoble death in this manner.

Sylas glanced at hm. "I've no intention of killing you, boy. But your blood is needed for another purpose."

"Which is?!" Arthur demanded, pulling at his restraints, but the old man did not answer as he picked up one of his instruments, preparing to cut the flesh on the back of Arthur's right hand. Sites most often used for this dangerous procedure were usually the back of the hand, the inner elbow or wrist, or the foot.

"No!" Arthur responded angrily, pulling even harder at the wrist bindings as Sylas began the procedure.

The healer gave him an annoyed look, set the instrument back down, and reached into the pouch on his belt. He withdrew a small blue flask and a wad of cloth, which he soaked with the pungent contents from the tiny bottle. Then he leaned over Arthur and firmly pressed the moist cloth over the young man's nose and mouth. "I can't have you fighting me, boy, so this will ensure that you keep still until I'm done," he muttered darkly.

Holding his breath, Arthur unsuccessfully tried to pull his face away. But Sylas used his free hand to grip a handful of the young man's pale hair to hold his head still as he pressed the saturated cloth more tightly against Arthur's face, knowing that he would soon have no choice but to breathe in the cloying vapors.

Within minutes Arthur's valiant struggles lessened, then abruptly ceased as the potent drug overcame him.

Satisfied that his patient would not cause him any further delay, Sylas set aside the cloth. Knowing that since the young man could now offer no resistance, the old man decided to cut into a vein in Arthur's wrist instead, and proceeded to do just that after untying the binding. Soon rich warm blood began to well from the deep puncture wound, dribbling steadily into the container Sylas held ready to catch the bright crimson fluid.

He bled Arthur until the small jar was filled, corked it, then set it aside and pressed a dry cloth to the area where he'd made the puncture wound until the bleeding had lessoned, and then he applied a salve.

Putting away his things he untied Arthur's other wrist and ankles, picked up the ceramic jar, and left the cell.

To the sentries waiting in the outer corridor he said, "I had to drug the boy. When he revives again in a few hours see that he receives water and is fed."

-v-

Selestra made her way to the grotto where Phidora's wellspring lay hidden in the cave. And as before after entering the sacred site, she lit the wall braziers and knelt by the well.

The air grew frigid, and within moments the waters began to churn as the Serpent Goddess rose closer to the surface.

"Greetings, my Mistress," Selestra intoned. "Blood Moon rises in four days and I have brought you the first Offering of Arthur Pendragon's life force." With that the high priestess opened the jar Sylas had given her that morning after leaving Arthur's cell, and she poured its contents into the well.

Again the water churned as Phidora accepted the offering, ingesting Arthur's blood.

"I am most pleasssed," the Dark Goddess whispered in that ghostly disembodied voice. "The young Pendragon'sss life force isss ssstrong and vital and ssshall enhance my powersss. Bring me a new Offering each day and the remainder when you bring me the boy'sss heart."

Bowing her head, Selestra responded reverently. "It shall be as you desire, Great Goddess,"


Part Seven

A Failed Escape

Lia was finally allowed to take Arthur his meal, and when she entered his cell she was dismayed to see how tired and withdrawn he seemed, and he did not smile at her when he saw she'd come. He looked hallow-eyed and he seemed almost lethargic in his movements as he sat up so she could place the tray on the bed.

But instead of moving away once she'd done that, she stood scrutinizing him anxiously as he listlessly began to eat what she'd brought hm.

As he reached out to pick up a piece of ham she saw the puncture wound and purple bruising on his wrist. "Have you harmed yourself in some way?" she asked.

Barely glancing at her he shook his head. "Sylas bled me considerably this morning after drugging me. So that and being kept half starved has left me much weakened…but I suppose that is the intent. If whoever is keeping me here wants me dead, they should just go ahead and kill me and be done with it."

She could hear the anger and bitterness in his voice. But she knew she did not dare tell him why Selestra was holding him a prisoner, and so she did not reply to his comments.

Arthur finished the meal without saying anything further, handed Lia the tray, and then lay back on the bed, slinging one arm over his closed eyes.

"I'm truly sorry Arthur," she whispered as she turned to go, but she was not sure if he heard her….or even cared.

-i-

Merlin was washing dishes when Lia returned to the kitchens, and he immediately sensed her inner turmoil.

"I can clean that now," he offered, indicating the tray in her hands, and she handed it to him and started to turn away when he asked, "Who is the prisoner in the tower I've heard people mention. Is it someone dangerous or evil?"

In response to his question he saw surprise and then fear flash in Lia's large dark eyes.

"It is dangerous to gossip about such things here," she told him curtly in a low tone, and walked away.

He washed the tray she'd given him, wondering about her reaction and response. People in this place seemed guarded as well as unfriendly and indifferent. Given the type of goddess they worshipped and their belief in human sacrifice, he decided that wasn't surprising. But Lia was different. He could tell that she felt things despite the fact she tried so hard to hide her emotions. And he sensed that she was deeply concerned for the person in the tower to whom she'd been taking meals.

Merlin knew that Blood Moon was just days away now and somehow he had to discover if Arthur was indeed the prisoner his instincts told him Lia was feeding.

-ii-

Lia spent another sleepless night and by the time morning came, she had resoled to help Arthur escape. It was now three days until the rising of Blood Moon, and she could not bear the idea of him dying in such a horrific fashion.

So when she was finally allowed to bring him his daily meal that evening she had included a waterskin and a wineskin, knowing the sentries on duty would not allow her to give Arthur anything but water. But she was counting on that fact as part of her plan to free him from the cell.

It was routine for one of the guards to check the waterskins each time she brought the prisoner his meals, and tonight was no exception. Since there were two skins on the tray, each sentry picked one up, opened it, and checked the contents.

As she knew would happen, the guard who had chosen the wineskin declared, "What is this, girl? The prisoner is not allowed wine!"

Lia gave him her best wide-eyed, frightened look. "Oh, I forgot! I meant no harm, truly. I can dispose of it. Please don't tell anyone!"

The guard gave her a stern look. "Very well, we shall keep silent. But…since you've already brought this, we'll keep it. No sense in letting such fine wine go to waste."

His companion nodded in agreement. Both men were bored with their duty of guarding the prisoner, and the wineskin would help them pass another long and uneventful night more pleasantly.

Looking grateful, Lia thanked them for not reporting her and went into Arthur's cell. He was sitting on the side of the bed, his head in his hands. But he looked up and gave her a wan smile when he saw her. He looked unusually pale and she could tell that his normally vivid blue eyes were more dulled and he seemed somewhat disoriented.

As he brushed strands of his golden hair out of his eyes she noted a new puncture wound and dark bruising on the wrist of that hand as well, and lowering her voice, she asked with alarm, "Has Sylas bled you again?"

He nodded tiredly. "It's become a daily ritual for some reason...drugging me and taking the blood. I just awoke a little while ago even though it is nearly evening."

Lia bit her lip, knowing that Arthur had no idea of how close to the truth he'd come to guessing why he was being held captive when he'd mentioned the word *ritual*.

As was her routine, she set the tray on the bed beside him, then glancing back over her shoulder at the cell door, put her finger to her lips to indicate he was not to say anything.

He shifted to face her fully and watched curiously as she pulled up the hem of her robe a little to reveal a bare leg. Under other circumstances he might have appreciated how shapely it was, but at that moment his attention was riveted on what was strapped to her shin.

Lia deftly untied the second wineskin she'd smuggled in for Arthur and handed it to him, making sure her body was blocking the guards' view through the cell door if they should happen to look in. "Drink it all," she whispered. "It's our best wine and will help you regain some strength."

Gratefully Arthur took it and quickly downed its contents, feeling the warmth from the heady drink spreading through his body. "Thank you," he murmured, handing the girl the empty wineskin, which she promptly refastened to her leg.

"Now you must eat what I've brought you. And later tonight I will return and free you," she whispered, glancing back toward the cell door again.

He gave her an incredulous look. "How can you possibly do that?"

She smiled reassuringly at him. "You'll see. Please just trust me and be patient until it's safe for me to return."

-iii-

It was nearly 2 a.m. when Lia stole back up the tower stairs. Outside of Arthur's cell the two guards were sprawled in their chairs, heavily sedated from the drugged wine they'd greedily downed earlier.

Lia removed the keys from one of them and unlocked and entered the darkened room. She quickly moved to light the candles in their niches as Arthur got to his feet, the blanket wrapped around his lower half.

"The guards are drugged," she told him in low tones. "I have the key to unlock that collar. Sit on the bed again so I can reach it," she told him.

He complied, and when he was free of the neck restraint, she opened a small bag she'd brought with her and pulled out a roll of dark fabric and some sandals.

"Here, put these on," she said, handing him the items. He took them, recognizing what they were, and she turned her back while he stood and discarded the blanket and slipped on the familiar black robe and shoes.

"You can look now," he said, fastening the gold braid belt around his waist.

"Sit on the bed again for a moment," she told him.

Although he gave her a questioning look, he did as she asked, and Lia moved to stand in front of him. From her bag she took out a waterskin.

"All the men here have shaven heads, and so I will wet your hair and smooth it back away from your face and forehead. Then you must put the robe's hood up. It is the best way I could think of to try and disguise your pale hair." So saying she poured some of the water onto his head and with her fingers combed his hair back as she'd described.

When she'd finished Arthur pulled the hood up to cover his head and then Lia had him stand once again so she could see the effect.

"If you keep your face averted I think no one shall realize you are not one of us," she said.

"Where are we going now?" he asked.

"To the tunnels beneath this castle. There are several secret passageways Mistress Selestra had built should the fortress ever be under siege."

"Who is Selestra?" Arthur frowned. "Lia, are you saying that a woman has been holding me captive here?"

"Yes! But there's no time to discuss all of that, Arthur. We must go now if we are to have any hope of escape."

-iv-

It was well into the night when Merlin quietly got up from his cot and stealthily left the room he shared with five other young acolyte men. He doubted that if anyone saw him leave they'd think much of it as they'd probably assume he was going to visit the privy, something he'd made a point of routinely doing late each night since he'd been here so no one would find his nocturnal wanderings unusual.

He cautiously made his way through the maze of corridors with the intention of trying to access the castle towers in the hope of determining if Arthur was the prisoner being held in one of them.

He began to hear sounds of running footsteps and voices shouting orders, and looking frantically around for a place to hide, ducked into a small curtained window alcove. Peering out, he could see a number of armed men hurrying in different directions, and at the farthest end of the corridor Merlin caught a brief glimpse of Selestra surrounded by several of her guards. "Find them NOW!" he heard her shout angrily as she moved out of his line of vision.

The priestess had used the word *them* meaning she and her guards were searching for more than one person, so they weren't looking for him, he breathed with relief. But something unusual was afoot, yet he dared not try and follow the high priestess because he'd have no reasonable explanation to account for his presence in this part of the Keep and at this late hour if he were seen or caught.

He sighed with heavy frustration. He had not expected a large part of the household to be up at this hour, and knew he'd have no chance now to explore the towers. So all he could do was wait where he was hidden until things calmed down and then return to his room before his prolonged absence was noted.

-v-

Once they'd reached ground level Lia had led Arthur through a hidden portal located behind an alabaster statue of the Serpent Goddess. This opened into one of the secret tunnels beneath the fortress. The girl had then lit a torch secured in a wall bracket and carried it, leading the way, while Arthur followed closely on her heels, the sword held ready in his hand which he'd taken off one of the drugged sentries outside of his cell.

They'd gone down a series of stone steps until they came into a wide tunnel. "We have a little ways to go yet," the girl had whispered breathlessly.

"Where does this come out?" Arthur asked, glancing around as he followed her. The passageway was damp and cold and Lia's sputtering torch cast spooky shadows along its roughened walls and ceiling.

"On the other side of the mountain, near the sea, where a boat is hidden," she replied.

They had traveled perhaps 20 minutes when suddenly there was rushing movement from the darkened tunnel behind them, and realizing that he and Lia had been found, Arthur whirled to face their adversaries. Torch-bearing armed acolyte guards led by a tall and thin dark-skinned woman with white tattooing covering her face and neck appeared. In the illumination cast by the torches Arthur could see the unnatural amber glow of her almond-shaped eyes.

Lia gave a small cry of fear when she saw them, and Arthur instinctively moved to stand in front of her, bringing his sword up to show the new arrivals that he was armed as he took a defensive stance.

Selestra signaled her men to a halt. "That puny weapon can't stand against me or my guards," she said, her eyes narrowing dangerously.

"No, but it can kill you or a few of them before you kill me," he retorted fearlessly.

She gave a brittle laugh, saying, "I've no intention of killing you just yet, little king," and with that she threw out a beringed hand.

Behind him Arthur heard Lia cry out, "Mother! Don't" seconds before a blinding lightning bolt of energy erupted from Selestra's fingertips, streaking across the open air toward Arthur. It enveloped and then hurtled him back against the tunnel wall, the sword flying from his grasp.

Stunned, Arthur slid down the rough stone surface and crumpled to the ground, unable to get up again or move any of his limbs, which felt strangely heavy and numb. Dazedly he stared up at Lia as the girl bent over him protectively, trying to shield him with her small body.

"Leave mesave yourself…run!" he whispered hoarsely, his glazing blue eyes locking with her terrified gaze.

"Seize my daughter!" Selestra ordered in a harsh voice before Lia could move, and two guards rushed forward to grab the girl and pull her roughly away from Arthur.

"Please. Don't…don't…hurt…her," he gasped, desperately trying to fight the paralysis overtaking him from the spell he realized the strange woman had used on him.

The priestess ignored him and said to her daughter, "You stupid girl! Do you not know who this is you tried to help escape?!"

Pulling against the guards restraining her, Lia cried, "Yes! He's a kind and noble knight, and he doesn't deserve to die at Blood Moon in the manner you plan for him, Mother! I'm begging you! Please spare him and let him go! I..I…love him! "

Selestra gave her a contemptuous look, hissing angrily: "My releasing him or your loving him are not options, you silly fool! He belongs to Phidora and She chose him as her Consort for a reason! That,..." and she pointed to Arthur, "is the only son of Uther Pendragon, the avowed enemy of the Old Religion. Our Goddess ordered the boy's captured so he might serve as a fitting sacrifice to atone for Uther Pendragon's great misdeeds against our kind. And Arthur Pendragon deserves to die. He is just like his father!"

Blanching, Lia looked beseechingly at Arthur. "Is that true?" she gasped.

Lying paralyzed on the dirty and dank tunnel floor and unable to fight the darkness closing in on his mind, Arthur could only manage weakly, "No…I'm…not…like..my…father..not…in…the…way…she means." Struggling to finish,he panted, "I'm…sorry…Lia...that…I…didn't…tell…you…who…I…." His voice trailed off, his eyes glazing over and then closing as he began to lose consciousness.

Selestra turned her attention back to her daughter, giving her a chilling look. "You've sealed your own fate with your betrayal of me and the Goddess, and I disown you! But first you shall witness the slaying of this boy you claim to love when Blood Moon rises, and then afterward you and what is left of him will be thrown into the oubliette*** and left there to rot until the flesh falls off your bones!" She turned to the guards. "Get this traitorous wretch out of my sight. Put her in shackles and lock her in the other tower!"

The last things Arthur heard before he blacked out were Lia's pleading screams for mercy to her mother as she was dragged away.

(***Author's Note: for those who don't know, a dungeon oubliette was usually a narrow, vertical shaft—much like an empty deep well but with a lid or trapdoor. The oubliette was used to dispose of prisoners or enemies (even family members), and was the cruelest of punishments. Enclosed in total darkness, victims put down an oubliette might not even be able to sit or lie down, depending on its width. Death came in a number of ways, such as from suffocation, injuries sustained from the fall if the victim wasn't just lowered down, starvation and dehydration, and/or by being impaled upon sharpened stakes placed at the bottom. Layers of human skeletal remains have been found at the bottom of some excavated ancient oubliettes.)

-vi-

Still hidden in the window alcove, Merlin heard more sounds of movement and voices, and peering out through a crack in the curtains he saw Selestra again, followed by her guards. But this time two of them were carrying the limp form of another robed figure, and as they passed beyond his limited range of vision he caught a glimpse of a pallid face framed by flaxen hair…and realized with shock and alarm that it was Arthur.


Part Eight

Blood Moon Rising

It was the day of Blood Moon, and Merlin was keenly aware that time was of the essence now if he were to save Arthur. He'd been unable to get close to the tower where he now knew his friend was being kept since his recapture.

Selestra had not only doubled the sentries guarding Arthur, but had cast blocking spells to keep anyone at bay who was not allowed into the tower. Merlin had tentatively tested the barrier but quickly found he could not breech it easily even with his own powers without raising an alarm or alerting the sorceress someone was using magic within her stronghold.

Adding to Merlin's dilemma was the fact that the girl, Lia, had not come to work in the kitchen for two days. When he asked the overcook if the girl was ill, the woman had rudely told him to mind his own business and get back to his chores.

Something else had changed. By now Merlin had figured out that it was Lia who had been taking meals to Arthur in the tower, but since her absence a guard had appeared to accept the tray the cook herself had prepared.

Strangely enough, however, the trays now only contained little more than a waterskin and a bowl of broth made from a meaty oxen bone. And Merlin knew from apprenticing with Gaius that such broth was used when a patient was extremely ill or suffering from an unusual amount of blood loss, and thus he wondered with heightened unease why Arthur was suddenly being given this type of broth and not solid food like before.

And Merlin was right to be so worried.

Since his recapture Arthur had once again been forcibly sedated so that Sylas could bloodlet him before Selestra made the journey to the hidden wellspring to provide Phidora with more offerings of the young man's rich life force.

And because Arthur was being kept drugged as well as growing weaker and weaker from so much excess blood loss, he had to be force-fed the oxen broth to help keep him alive until the final ritual of Blood Moon.

-i-

The evening before the event Nigel had come to tell Merlin that since he was new to the order, he and the other initiates and all other lower ranking acolytes were to stay in their rooms during the sacred ceremony.

Merlin hadn't considered that he'd not be allowed to witness the rites along with most of Selestra's followers, and so he'd lain awake until he'd come up with a plan to circumvent what Nigel had told him.

He also fervently hoped that Arthur's knights had finally arrived from Camelot and were in hiding somewhere nearby trying to devise a strategy on how to breach the castle in time to save Arthur should his own plan fail.

-ii-

The young warlock would indeed have been relieved to know Arthur's men were close at hand. After driving their horses and themselves beyond the point of exhaustion, they had finally reached Selestra's stronghold and were now taking some much needed ease as they regrouped and tried to decide on their next move.

Hidden at a safe distance behind trees, boulders or other outcroppings, Leon and his small army of men stared up at the formidable fortress a quarter mile away embedded into the mountainside.

"That won't be easy to take," Percival noted, stating the obvious.

Leon nodded. "There's only the main entrance as far as I can tell. I think we need to get a little closer and see if we can find other ways in without being spotted by their lookouts."

"If Arthur is in there, do you think we'll be able to get to him in time?" Elyon asked anxiously. "Once it's nightfall, Blood Moon will be on the rise."

At his words dozens of pairs of eyes fastened on the lowering sun in the sky.

"We have no choice. We must find a way to get into that fortress by then," Leon replied determinedly.

-iii-

Having no idea that his men were near at hand and that Merlin as well was within the fortress walls, Arthur faded in and out of awareness as both male and female attendants bathed and dressed him. Semiconscious from the drugs Sylas had been giving him since his recapture, Arthur had been dragged from his cell and taken to another chamber in the tower. There a steaming bath had been prepared for him and he'd been submerged in it and scrubbed from head to foot, then dried and dressed—although what he was wearing and what was being done to him he was mostly oblivious to as he floated in an opiate-induced haze that blurred dreams with reality. And thus he had no sense he was being prepared for the unknown purpose for which he'd been brought there or the prominent role he would be playing later that night in an ancient deadly ritual.

-iv-

The afternoon was dwindling into evening, and after doing more reconnaissance Leon and the others quickly discovered, just as Merlin had, that there appeared to be only the one way in and out of the castle, and that was through the main gate.

"Do you suppose there are secret tunnels hidden beneath that place?" Percival suggested. Like Merlin, they all knew that hidden passageways existed beneath the palace at Camelot.

Leon nodded, his eyes squinting thoughtfully as he scanned the fortress. "Likely so, but where they come out at is anyone's guess. I doubt if the entrances are all that easy to find, and because of the delay in getting here, we don't have time to ferret them out on that mountain. So we shall have to offer a frontal assault through that main gate. The question is, how and when."

"I have an idea," Gwaine offered. "I know we are taking a chance with Arthur's life if we fail… but if we wait until Blood Moon starts rising, isn't it likely that most of the inhabitants in that castle will be attending the ritual ceremony? So I'm thinking our chances of breaching the front gate are improved as there likely will be fewer sentries on duty there and up on the battlements. So it should be easier to pick them off and gain entrance without raising an alarm right away. It might be worth the gamble."

Leon clapped him on the shoulder. "My friend, there truly is a working brain beneath all that heavy hair!" he grinned.

-v-

Darkness was now descending over the land, and soon Blood Moon would be on the rise.

Once again Nigel reminded Merlin that he was to stay in his bedchamber for the remainder of the night, and the young warlock had merely nodded and replied that he welcomed the opportunity to catch up on some sleep. Merlin already knew that the others he shared the room with would be attending the ceremony, and so he'd be alone.

After Nigel and the other acolytes left, Merlin waited in case someone returned to check on him; and when he thought enough time had passed, he made up his cot to look as if someone were sleeping there, and then left his chamber.

Few people were about at this point, and those that were paid him little heed as they hurried along. He realized that a few of those he saw were wearing white robes with black belts, which was not the normal attire worn by members of Selestra's cult; and some instinct told him that these devotees were dressed in ceremonial robes for the night to come.

Realizing he needed to be dressed in similar garments to be able to access Selestra's ceremonial chamber, Merlin hid behind a large pillar and waited until a lone acolyte passed by. The man never knew what hit him as Merlin knocked him senseless with a heavy metal candlestick. The warlock then dragged him into an anteroom and in there switched clothes with the other, donning the white ceremonial garment, which was a little baggy and short for him. But it was all he had and he hoped no one would notice the ill fit.

He then stuffed the unconscious, unclothed man into a large chest and locked it.

Cautiously the youth ventured back into the main corridor and proceeded to follow other white robed figures to where the ceremonial chamber was located.

No one questioned his presence (or the fit of his robe) as he entered along with other fellow worshippers, and once inside he found himself in a huge room, its walls covered with fresco paintings depicting various stages of the Blood Moon ritual, some of them graphic.

Overhead soared a vaulted ceiling, and at its apex was a large hole open to the night sky, and he could see stars overhead. In the center of the room, and positioned under the opening above was a broad altar made of black onyx set atop a white marble base, and standing near it was a towering solid gold, ruby-eyed and bare breasted statue of Phidora, the Serpent Goddess.

Wall braziers and tall standing candelabras were everywhere, filling the room with the heady smell of incense as well as illuminating it. Dozens of white-robed acolytes were already gathered awaiting Selestra's arrival, and there was a low buzz of excitement throughout the chamber as everyone eagerly anticipated the events to come.

Merlin chose to stand behind a half dozen other worshippers, none of whom he recognized, who were gathered near a pillar to watch and wait.

Perhaps twenty more minutes passed, and then the doors were closed, and an expectant hush fell over the large gathering. Even the young warlock edged closer so he could have a better view of what was about to happen.

A horn sounded once, twice….and all heads turned to watch Selestra's regal entrance into the room. She was wearing the white robe and black belt like everyone else, and her heavy hair was unbraided and flowing about her narrow shoulders. In her hands she carried an ivory chest trimmed in rubies and gold.

Following the high priestess was Sylas, also robed in white. He carried a chest as well, but his was made of polished wood with images of Phidora etched into its gleaming surfaces.

Behind him came two guards escorting a young girl, and with a shock Merlin recognized Lia. She was also dressed in ceremonial robes, and she looked utterly terrified.

There was a brief lull as Selestra, Sylas, and Lia and her guards took up positions near the altar block. Another blast of the horn sounded, and male and female attendants moved quickly about the chamber with long candle snuffers, extinguishing many of the blazing candles so that the lighting in the room dimmed considerably, creating an atmospheric, surreal effect that made the onlookers hold their collective breaths in anticipation for what was to come next.

With the stage now set for her audience, Selestra called out dramatically, "Behold the Chosen Consort of the Serpent Goddess Phidora!"

From the opposite side of the chamber one of the frescoed wall panels slid soundlessly open, and then Arthur appeared. Like Lia he was flanked by two acolyte guards, but Merlin saw instantly that something was wrong with him. Even in the softened lighting he looked unnaturally pale, and there were hints of dark smudges beneath his eyes.

Merlin felt his unease mounting. His friend's expression was blank, the vivid blue eyes unblinking, staring straight ahead as if he were unaware of where he was and what was happening to him. He moved like a sleepwalker, offering no resistance, and Merlin realized that he must be either drugged or under an enchantment.

All around him the warlock heard murmurs of approval at Arthur's physical appearance. The color of his hair and eyes, combined with his unnatural paleness and the finely-chiseled features of his handsome face were somehow even more enhanced in the flickering light and shadow play in the room, making him look beautifully ethereal and otherworldly. Bare-chested and barefoot, the well-formed young man was dressed only in a pair of thin white pants. Where his fair skin was exposed, it glistened with the scented oils that had been rubbed into his flesh. Entwined around Arthur's upper arms were wide golden arm bands in the shape and image of Phidora, and a heavy chain necklace matching these hung around his neck to mid-chest level. The slanted ruby eyes in the serpent-shaped pendant depicting Phidora gleamed as if they were alive.

He was intended as both sacrifice and bridegroom for the Serpent Goddess, and he looked the part.

Arthur was led to stand before the imposing statue of his reptilian bride, and Selestra signaled an attendant, who stepped forward and handed the high priestess a gold circlet. This she placed upon Arthur's gleaming flaxen hair. The adornment was similar to the headpiece that Merlin had seen her wearing when he'd first met her except that this one was wider and more intricately wrought, and it encircled Arthur's head like a crown—a dark irony which did not escape Merlin.

Selestra walked around Arthur, looking him up and down appreciably, and then turned to the assembly. "This fair youth is not just Phidora's Chosen Consort. You see before you… Arthur Pendragon!… the King of Camelot and the only son of our mortal enemy, Uther Pendragon!"

Her words, as they were intended, created shock and disbelief among those gathered.

"Phidora has also chosen him to atone for the many crimes committed by his late father against practitioners of the Old Ways! But all shall be avenged tonight when, with the full rising of Blood Moon, I take the young Pendragon's living heart as the Ultimate Offering to the Dark Goddess!" Pausing for added drama, she looked up and cried, "Behold, even as I speak Blood Moon rises now!" And with that she swept her hand skyward.

From the assembly came a roar of approval and excitement as all eyes gazed upward.

Merlin also stared up at Blood Moon, which was just beginning to come into view of those watching below. He knew that within a matter of minutes the giant crimson orb would visually fill the opening overhead—and when it did, as the Serpent Goddess's Chosen bridegroom for this night, Arthur would be ritually slain to symbolically consummate their union.

Selestra knelt before the entranced youth and began to recite the ancient sacred words that would seal Arthur's bonding to her Goddess.

Where are you, Kilgharrah?! WE need you NOW! Merlin thought frantically, staring from the transfixed and motionless Arthur to the crimson moon steadily filling the open space overhead as it progressed toward its zenith in the night sky.

-vi-

Leon, Gwaine, Elyon, Percival and the other men had taken up their positions closer to the fortress, silently signaling one another when each was in place. Under cover of darkness they had stealthily approached the looming structure on foot, but now they could all see that Blood Moon was growing ever higher in the sky.

Leon gave the signal, and his men loaded their crossbows, unaware of the great flying creature soaring high above, bringing with it death and destruction.

-vii-

Selestra finished the bonding ceremony, and taking Arthur's hand, led him to the altar block. She murmured something to him, and he obediently lay down on the cold onyx surface.

Stepping back, the high priestess nodded slightly, and two female acolytes glided forward and removed the circlet, necklace, and arm bands Arthur was wearing, and these they placed in the ivory box Selestra held open and ready to receive them.

When that was done the priestess handed the chest to an assistant, and then the guards who had been Arthur's escort positioned him for the sacrifice ritual by spread-eagling his limbs and shackling his ankles and wrists with golden manacles to the altar table.

At this point Sylas moved forward, and opening the chest he was still holding, held it out to Selestra. She reached inside and picked up the long bone-handled ritual knife nestled in its velvet lining.

It gleamed in the softened lighting, its edge sharp and serrated. She held the lethal blade up high so all could see it, and in response there began a rhythmic chanting from the worshippers as their blood lust for Arthur's slaying began to rise.

His panic escalating, Merlin glanced toward the ceiling again. Blood Moon was almost filling the opening overhead now like a gigantic red eye staring malevolently downward to witness what was to come.

Where was Kilgharrah?! Had the Great Dragon deceived him, planning all along to let Arthur be slain because of all the years Uther had kept it chained and imprisoned?

The chanting voices around him rose higher, and his attention was drawn back to the deadly tableau at the altar.

Selestra now stood over Arthur, rapidly uttering words in a strange sing-song language as she held the gleaming knife above his heart, waiting for Blood Moon to reach its full zenith.

Moving out from behind the transfixed worshippers in front of him, Merlin raised his right hand with the intention of trying to stop the high priestess, knowing he was probably no match for her powers and that in the end both he and Arthur would perish.

But suddenly… the girl Lia screamed, "No, I won't let you kill him!" and broke away from her guards, rushing to the altar. She shoved her mother off balance and threw her small body over Arthur's in an attempt to shield him from the priestess.

Angrily Selestra gripped her arm and tried to pull her back, and the girl twisted to face her, grabbing her mother's hand which held the knife. The chanting voices of the assembly died away as the two women became locked in a deathly struggle for control of it—and before the guards could separate them, there came a shuddering explosion that rocked the entire room.


Part Nine

Battle Of The Beasts

Under cover of the night and the deep shadows cast by Blood Moon, Leon and his men let fly with their crossbows, efficiently picking off the few sentries atop the battlements one by one. As Gwaine had suggested, the fortress was not as heavily guarded on this of all nights.

However, getting through the gate was going to be another matter as the portcullis was down and what guards could be seen were heavily armed.

"Are there more sentries on duty at the gate than earlier in the day?" Percival whispered to Leon.

The sandy-haired knight nodded grimly. "So it would seem."

"Now what do we do?" Elyon asked. "We can't scale the walls with grappling hooks from this angle. They are too steep."

The others turned to Gwaine hoping he had an idea, but he shrugged a little and gave them an apologetic "Sorry, I've-got-nothing" look.

Leon gazed back at the gatehouse. "Well, we need to come up with a distraction…anything…fast that will get that gate open so we can rush them. We're running out of time."

"What we really could use is a bloody miracle just about now," Percival muttered.

He'd barely uttered those words when a fiery flash hurtled toward the gate from above, blasting at the portcullis, followed by a ferocious roar overhead and another spear of searing flame.

Arthur's men gaped in stunned disbelief as they watched a giant dragon swoop down in front of the fortress gate and vaporize it and the unfortunate sentries on duty with repetitive blast of its flaming breath before soaring upward again to disappear over the Keep, spewing flames as it flew.

-i-

Inside Selestra's ceremonial chamber panic and chaos broke out among the worshippers as the sound of one explosion after the other reverberated throughout the fortress. Then high above across the crimson face of Blood Moon, the dark silhouette of a gigantic winged beast appeared, roaring and spitting fire in all directions as it flew through the opening and above the altar.

"It's a dragon!" someone screamed.

Lia and her mother broke apart, staring upward with terror as Kilgharrah descended upon the assembly, spraying everything and everyone in its path with its incendiary breath.

As soon as Merlin saw Kilgharrah, he had taken shelter behind a pillar to protect himself from the dragon's relentless onslaught as people screamed and began fleeing in terror, trampling over each other.

"Baltrazaar! Come to me!" Selestra cried out to her familiar. In the area of the outer bailey where the gryphon's shelter stood, the creature head her in its mind and in a frenzy broke free of its tethers. It burst open the doors of the pen, launching itself skyward. Within moments it appeared in the opening overhead in the vaulted ceiling of the ceremonial chamber, screaming down a challenge to Kilgharrah when it saw the dragon.

Hearing Baltrazaar, Kilgharrah looked up, belched another round of flame, and then rose into the air to confront this unexpected and dangerous new adversary.

Acting as a decoy, Baltrazaar soared out of sight, with the Great Dragon giving chase.

-ii-

Blood Moon had now reached its zenith, and heedless of the death and destruction everywhere around her and determined to complete the ceremony now that the dragon was gone, Selestra turned back to Arthur…but Lia again moved to try and stop her.

But this time she lost the struggle between them.

Snarling with rage, her mother gained the upper hand and rammed the knife into the girl's abdomen and then shoved her away, then turned purposely back to the altar.

Racing toward them, Merlin threw out his hand, eyes glowing dangerously as he shouted out a spell and then hurled a violent blast of energy at the priestess as she started to plunge the now-bloody ritual knife into Arthur's exposed chest.

Taking her unaware, the warlock's magic struck the priestess full force, flinging her back and into the giant effigy of Phidora, stunning her. As she sprawled onto the marble floor at its base, Merlin cried out another incantation that brought the heavy statue toppling down upon Selestra, pinning her beneath its crushing weight and killing her instantly.

-iii-

Leon and his men rushed through the smoking, smoldering cavity which had been the opening to the gatehouse. They encountered little resistance within the citadel, and those who did try to stand against them or escape soon fell to their swords and crossbows.

Leon collared a fleeing acolyte dressed in white ceremonial robes, and poking his blood-stained blade into the terrified man's side, demanded, "Where is the ceremony for Blood Moon taking place?"

"In..inside…in the ceremonial chamber," he quavered.

"You are going to lead us there NOW!" Leon grated, shoving the man in front of him and calling to Percival, Gwaine and Elyon to follow with some men while the rest secured the fortress.

-iv-

Merlin reached the altar where Arthur still lay chained and motionless, eyes open and vacant. Using his magic, the young warlock quickly broke him free of the shackle and then leaned over the other youth anxiously.

"Arthur? Can you hear me? It's Merlin." There was no response, and Merlin placed his hands on his friend's chest, trying to sense what was wrong with him. From doing this he could now tell that Arthur was dangerously weakened from severe blood loss, and was under a deep trancing spell cast upon him by Selestra prior to the ceremony. The young king was so debilitated he likely would not have been able to walk earlier without the powerful spell controlling him.

Merlin closed his eyes to concentrate as he uttered first a healing incantation to quickly strengthen Arthur's blood again. Then he cast another spell to counter the enchantment Selestra had placed on the young man.

When he finished he waited anxiously, but there was still no real cognizance in those fixed blue eyes. "Arthur? It's Merlin. Please wake up!" When still no response came, not even a blink or a sound, he muttered, "I'm sorry, Sire…forgive me," and then he smacked Arthur hard across the face once…twice…and then a third, fourth, and fifth time.

To his vast relief the other youth flinched and then finally blinked, then blinked again and began to slowly stir. "That…really…hurt," he mumbled thickly, sounding annoyed, and grinning down at him Merlin replied, "I am so sorry, Arthur, but I had to…"

He heard shouts from outside in the corridor, and looking up saw Leon, Percival, Gwaine, and Elyon and several of Arthur's other knights and men burst through the doorway.

Happy to see them but knowing they couldn't 'find him there since he had no explanation of how he could possibly have arrived before they did, nor account for his altered appearance, Merlin whispered a spell to send more smoke and burning debris to temporarily block their path and obscure their view of the altar so he could escape.

He knew that Arthur would be in good hands now that his men were there to take him home, and he quickly moved away from the altar and left by way of a door he'd seen Sylas disappear through earlier when Kilgharrah had attacked.

He sealed the door behind him so he could not be followed, then made his way through a narrow passageway which he soon discovered came to a small chamber he'd never seen before. Peering out its door he realized he was in a part of the Keep which was unfamiliar to him. But no one seemed to be about now, and so he followed another corridor until he finally recognized where he was, and made his way to the storage room where he knew his rucksack had been placed. Finding it, he quickly changed back into his normal clothing and boots and then took another corridor he remembered would lead to the outside.

From high overhead he heard hair-raising sounds of screeching and roaring, and looking up saw Baltrazaar and Kilgharrah silhouetted against the waning backdrop of Blood Moon, engaged in an airborne battle to the death.

The ferocious conflict between the two beasts served as such a distraction that Merlin was able to avoid being spotted by Arthur's men as he kept to the deeper shadows and quickly made his way out of the fortress.

His intention was to head back to the plateau where Kilgharrah had first dropped him off, and hope that the dragon would survive the fight with Baltrazaar and come there to find him. The Great Dragon was his best hope of returning to Camelot well before Arthur and his men arrived home in a few days.

-v-

Back in the ceremonial chamber, Arthur was trying to sit up when Leon and the others were finally able to reach him.

The king stared at them with joyful disbelief. "Thank the stars you've come at last!" he exclaimed hoarsely, barely able to speak. He put his hand out and clasped Leon's shoulder, grinning at him.

"Are you harmed in any way, Sire?" the tall knight asked, looking him over anxiously for signs of any wounds.

"I…don't think so," Arthur replied, still feeling shaky and disoriented. He stared down at himself. "Why am I here and dressed like this?" He grimaced and raised his arm and sniffed at his oiled skin. "And why do I smell like…a girl?!" Then looking up and around at his surroundings, seeing death and destruction everywhere, he asked, "What is this place? Has there been a battle?"

Exchanging glances, Leon and Percival helped him off the altar block, supporting him when they saw he was unsteady on his feet.

"Sire, you are in the fortress of a sorceress called Selestra, who serves a goddess of the Old Religion," Leon explained. "It was her gryphon that attacked Camelot that day and it carried you off after you were knocked senseless. Apparently you were brought here to be offered as a sacrifice during the rising of what is called Blood Moon, which was tonight." He looked skyward and Arthur and the other men followed his gaze. Although the giant red orb was still partially in view, it had reached its zenith and was now on the wane.

Now knowing the purpose behind his imprisonment, and badly shaken by the idea that he had been intended as a human sacrifice in some bizarre ritual, Arthur told his men gratefully, "Then I can't thank you enough for risking your lives to rescue me in time. Although I've had no idea why I'd been brought here until now, I had every hope that you would somehow find me."

"We tried to get here as quickly as we could. But, Sire, in truth you owe your life not so much to us, but to the unexplained arrival of a…uh.. dragon."

"A dragon helped save me?" Arthur repeated, looking incredulous.

All the men nodded, and he saw that they were telling him the truth.

"It just suddenly appeared and blasted open the main gate, which allowed us to get inside. The devastation in here must also have been caused by the beast as well, as we did not do any of this," Leon told him. "But why the dragon came, we do not know, however, other than it was no friend to this evil place."

Experiencing a dizzying sense of déjà vu, Arthur put a hand to his head as he vaguely recalled he'd seen a dragon the day he'd looked out the window in his cell, but he had dismissed it as a hallucinated caused by the opiate Sylas had given him. Was his imagining that day and what Leon just said simply a coincidence? The answer to that would be something he would have to think more on later when his mind was clearer, and perhaps even discuss with Gaius.

"Sire, are you feeling faint or unwell?" Percival asked worriedly, seeing that he suddenly seemed strange.

Arthur shook his head. "I'm alright…just give me a moment." Once again realizing that he was wearing very little, he said, "I want to leave this accursed place as quickly as possible, but first I need to find some other clothing."

"My lord, Merlin packed a few fresh things for you before we left Camelot. They are in my saddle bags and I will fetch them now," Elyon told him, hurrying away.

"Where is Merlin?" Arthur asked, glancing around at the others. " I don't see him."

"Sire?" Leon replied, looking confused.

"He was here with me just minutes ago," Arthur said, still looking about for his manservant. "And why on earth was he bald?"

The knights stared at him, not sure how to respond to that.

"Arthur uh…Merlin did not come with us," Gwaine told him gently. "He was ill from food poisoning that day we went hunting the gryphon…remember? He had to stay behind when we set out to rescue you."

The young king frowned at him and retorted, "I'm telling you Merlin was here and spoke to me. In fact, I remember now that he struck me several times…why I don't know but it's something I certainly plan to take up with him!"

Thinking that Arthur's harrowing ordeal had given him delusions, the men exchanged worried glances—and then he startled them further by suddenly crying out, "NO!…OH NO!"

Pulling away from Leon and Percival Arthur stumbled toward a dark-haired girl lying on her back near the altar, the front of her white robe saturated with blood.

Slowly he fell to his knees beside her and then carefully gathered her up into his arms. Nearby lay the bloodied ceremonial knife Selestra had dropped.

"Lia?" Arthur whispered, his hand trembling as he touched her face.

At the sound of his voice and touch she slowly opened her eyes and looked up at him.

"I…tried…to..stop…her," she said faintly. "Are…you…unharmed?"

She was bleeding profusely, and having seen battlefield wounds before and recognizing those that were invariably fatal, Arthur knew she was dying…and that it was because of him.

Devastated by that knowledge, he choked, "Yes, she didn't harm me. I…I owe you my life…and so much more."

Weakly she smiled and raised one hand to lovingly caress his hair and face. "Arthur…would you please…kiss…me?" she asked, gazing at him intently.

His blue eyes brimming with tears, he nodded and bowed his head to press his lips to hers, kissing her deeply and tenderly, like a lover. In reaction to the long sensual kiss he felt her shiver…and then sigh out her last breath against his mouth as she died in his embrace.

He held the kiss a moment longer, then placed his cheek against hers, tearfully whispering, "I'm sorry, Lia...I'm so, so sorry…" over and over.

-vi-

In a darkened wellspring hidden within a cave the water churned violently, spilling out onto the stone floor, and from its depths came an echoing cry of rage as Phidora saw in her visions that Arthur Pendragon was still alive but that Selestra was dead and the cult destroyed—and thus no one would ever come again to this secret place to offer the Dark Goddess the human sacrifices She needed to eternaly sustain Her own evil existence.


Part Ten

Camelot Sweet Camelot

Merlin stood on the plateau, calling out the summoning words of the Dragon Lord which should have brought Kilgharrah to him. But there was no response, and he sat down on a boulder and put his head in his hands as he tried to decide what to do next.

It grieved him terribly to think that the Great Dragon had been badly wounded or, worse yet, had perished in the fight with Baltrazzar, but Kilgharrah was very old while the gryphon was relatively young and much faster by comparison.

If Arthur got back to Camelot before Merlin did, he could only hope that Gaius could come up with a feasible cover story to explain his absence that had nothing to do with taverns or herb gathering.

Suddenly bone weary, the young warlock opened his rucksack and pulled out the blanket still stored in there, and rolled up in it. He forced his brooding thoughts away knowing he needed to be well-rested before beginning the arduous trek on foot back to Camelot.

-i-

Arthur had insisted that Lia would be given a proper burial before he and his men began their own journey home.

On the mountainside he chose a place that offered a spectacular view of the ocean and wrapped Lia in his own scarlet and gold cloak, which Merlin had packed for him.

Giving him a private moment, his men moved away further down the mountain as Arthur knelt by the newly-dug grave, and with bowed head recited part of a beautiful poem his uncle had once told him had always been a favorite of Ygraine's.

When he finished, the grievingl youth offered a prayer for Lia's spirit and asked his mother to welcome and look after the girl for him in the Afterlife.

As if in response, over a dozen white butterflies of varying sizes suddenly appeared from nowhere to surround Arthur, brushing against his face and golden hair before settling upon Lia's grave to cover it like living blossoms….and he knew that the courageous and loving girl, who had never known affecting or kindness from her own mother, was now in his mother's loving safekeeping.

-ii-

Merlin gradually became aware of a swaying and rhythmic up and down motion, and groggily opened his eyes to discover that he was no longer lying on the cold hard ground of the plateau, but was looking down at the top of a dense forest which quickly became replaced by rolling meadowland.

And in the distance he could see the rising spires of Arthur's magnificent palace glinting in the sunlight.

Looking at himself, he realized he was in the secure grip of enormous talons and was still cocooned in his blanket, being carried swiftly over the landscape below.

"Kilgharrah!" he cried out, trying to crane his neck upward.

"Ah, you are finally awake, young warlock," the creature replied dryly. "You sleep like the dead, except they don't snore."

"You're alive!" Merlin exclaimed joyously, and the Great Dragon glanced back down at him again and said, "That surprises me as well."

Within minutes they had reached the clearing where Merlin often went when he needed to call for Kilgharrah, and once he was solidly on the ground again he scrambled out of the blanket and stood facing his friend, surveying the battle damage that the encounter with Baltrazaar had caused.

"You've been wounded! You look terrible!" Merlin frowned with dismay as he took in the dragon's many injuries.

"They will heal in time," Kilgharrah replied. The dragon lowered his large head to stare more closely at Merlin. "I also have seen you look better."

Merlin grinned and patted the top of his shaven head. "It'll grow back in time." Then he sobered. "So the gryphon is truly dead then?" he asked, and the Great Dragon smiled.

"Of course. Otherwise you'd still be walking home."

Feeling a sudden swell of gratitude and pride toward him, Merlin moved forward and impulsively hugged Kilgharrah tightly about the neck.

"I owe you so much. As does Arthur," the boy said, releasing him. "And I hope that someday he will know that and thank you himself for all you've done for him despite his father….although I wouldn't count on a hug."

-iv-

Seeing Merlin safely returned home, Gaius had embraced him warmly, and once assured that his young apprentice was unharmed and that Arthur had been rescued and would be returning to Camelot in a few days with his men, he had Merlin sit down and tell him everything that had transpired.

When he'd finished, Gaius asked him, "So do you think it likely Arthur will recall seeing you there…and like this?" And he motioned to Merlin's bald head.

Grinning ruefully, the youth replied, "I'm not sure. He did look at me and spoke a little, but he also was pretty much out of it. But he'll be home soon, and I need to do something about my lack of hair before he or anyone else sees me like this."

Nodding, Gaius said, "I may have a solution." He got up and went to retrieve a small black volume hidden in the false bottom of a trunk, and brought the book back to the table.

Peering at it curiously Merlin asked, "What's that? It looks quite old."

Without looking up Gaius replied, "It is, and a very rare edition, perhaps the last of its kind. This is a collection of minor charms, such as glamour spells for true love, or spells for those who wish to be thinner, plain woman desiring a more pleasing countenance, men wanting a larger…," here he caught himself and glanced up at his young companion. Clearing his throat he said, "Anyway, mostly they are vanity spells." Thumbing through the small volume he quickly found what he was searching for, and looked up at Merlin again, saying "Ah, yes, I thought I'd seen this one in here long ago. It's a spell to stimulate hair growth."

"So it will grow my hair back quickly," Merlin said.

"It should," Gaius nodded.

"But…you aren't sure? Gaius, have you ever used this spell on anyone before?" Merlin asked a little uneasily.

The healer looked surprised. "No, but I am sure there's nothing to worry about," he assured him. "All will be well, you'll see."

-v-

The spell did indeed work well. Too well.

The next morning when Merlin awoke his hair had grown back in its entirety—and well past his shoulders.

"Look at me!" he complained to Gaius when he came out of his bedroom.

Gazing at the chagrined youth's dark locks which now flowed about his shoulders and down his back, the elderly physician pursed his lips, trying not to laugh. "Well, it's rather becoming, actually, and at least we know it worked. And you've had hair that length when you've used the aging spell," he said, trying to put a positive spin on the situation.

"Yes, but I was gray-haired and bearded and people could still tell I was a man! I look like a bloody girl now!" Merlin complained.

Smiling benignly at him Gaius picked up a pair of shears. "It should eventually quit growing so quickly, Merlin. But in the meantime this will serve as a simple solution."


Epilogue

Dream A Little Dream Of Me

Arthur's safe return to Camelot was greeted by much celebration, including the ringing of the palace bells, free food and drink for the townsfolk, a variety of entertainments, and a magnificent banquet that lasted until the wee hours held to celebrate the King's return and to honor his valiant men.

But for Arthur, the greatest joy of being home again was having an equally radiantly-happy Guinevere by his side.

The following day Merlin let his charge sleep in late, and when Arthur finally roused and Merlin was helping him get dressed, the warlock turned to find the other youth staring at him with an odd expression on his face.

"Is something wrong, Sire?" Merlin asked. "Would you prefer a different tunic?"

"No, that one will do," Arthur replied, still looking a little hung-over. He slipped off his nightshirt and accepted the tunic from Merlin, putting it on. "I was just thinking that somehow you suddenly look…different… to me this morning. I think it's your hair."

Self-consciously Merlin briefly touched his head. Gaius had just cut his hair again earlier that morning, but he could tell by the length it was already a little longer, and he sighed inwardly. He picked up the discarded night shirt and walked over to the wardrobe. "I'm, uh, sorry, Sire. I hadn't realized it needs trimming again. I'll tend to that today."

Arthur bent to pull on his boots. "It's not that. What I meant was…I keep picturing you without any hair."

"Sire?" Merlin said, looking back at him a little startled. Was Arthur beginning to remember more details about his captivity and Merlin's presence in the ceremonial chamber?

As if reading his thoughts, Arthur chuckled and commented, "I know how strange that sounds, but while I was being held captive I was given some strong opiates which gave me rather peculiar dreams and hallucination, and you were in some of them."

Feeling a sense of relief by what he just said, Merlin grinned broadly at him and quipped teasingly, "So are you saying that you missed me so much…that you dreamed about me?"

Getting his meaning, the young king flushed a little and laughed again. "Certainly not in that way, you idiot! No, these were so strange that I even mentioned them to Gaius last night at the banquet, but he could offer no helpful interpretation and thought they had no deeper meaning. But they were quite odd."

"And in one of them you dreamed that I was bald?" Merlin chuckled, hanging the night shirt in the wardrobe. "Now you've got me curious. Tell me about them."

Arthur glanced over at him. "Very well… I know this will all sound ridiculous, Merlin, but, yes, I dreamed that you were bald and dressed like one of Selestra's followers. Definitely not your best look, I might add. And for some reason I also hallucinated that you slapped me several times. Why you did it, I can't recall, but It seemed so real to me it actually hurt!" he told him.

Having finished dressing, Arthur stood up and walked over to Merlin, chuckling again. "But the most absurd one was when I thought I saw you riding on the back of a flying dragon, of all things! As I said, all silly nonsense, really."

Grinning, the warlock closed the wardrobe and turned back to him, helping Arthur into a leather jerkin to go with his shirt. "Yes, Sire, most dreams usually are."

**Finis**

Hello! If you made it this far, I thank you sincerely for reading the story and hope you enjoyed it as much as I did writing it. *scarletpampernel*