A/N: So, hello everyone. I know it has been far, far too long since this story got an update, and for that I apologize. I never intended for that to happen. But here is a new chapter now, and it's an important one. Because you will now finally get a little bit of a clue as to what is going on in this story. Enjoy!
Merlin was clutching the wood of his horse's stall door with a white-knuckle grip. He took a deep breath, and then another, but still did not turn around.
"Where is she?" he finally managed to ask, his worry for Red far outweighing any concerns he may have felt at being discovered by one of the knights.
"I sent her away with one of the younger knights," Gwaine answered, his eyes boring into the back of the young man standing before him. "She's safe."
Merlin let out a huge sigh of relief at those words before finally turning around to face the knight. "Thank you," he said quietly, not quite able to meet Gwaine's eyes.
"Well, I wasn't going to let anything happen to her," the knight answered. "I know how much she means to you."
Merlin just nodded and fixed his gaze on the floor.
"Why are you not in Ealdor?" Gwaine asked eventually, when it was clear that Merlin was not going to say anything without being prompted. "Have you been in Camelot this whole time?"
Merlin's head jerked up at those words, and his eyes met Gwaine's for the briefest of moments before they returned to the floor. "No," he said quickly. "I just-"
"You know, Arthur's right about you," the knight interrupted. "You're a terrible liar."
Merlin sighed again and shook his head. "Please don't tell him. He'll just get upset if he knows I didn't really go to Ealdor after he practically banished me there."
Gwaine raised his eyebrows at that statement.
"Temporarily, of course," Merlin amended, casting another glance towards Red's empty stall, still feeling slightly uncomfortable under Gwaine's scrutinizing gaze.
Gwaine frowned, crossing his arms. "You still haven't answered the question, Merlin. What are you doing here?"
At this point, Merlin knew that it probably wouldn't do him any good to try to lie, for the knight would surely see right through it. So he finally forced himself to look straight at Gwaine before replying, "I had a funny feeling."
Gwaine's expression was completely unreadable, much to the warlock's frustration. The knight seemed to be considering Merlin carefully before finally giving an answer.
"Yes, Arthur informed me of everything that, uh...happened."
"You think I'm crazy, too," Merlin accused, noting the hesitancy in the other man's voice. Now what was he supposed to do? If Gwaine didn't even believe him, then it seemed unlikely that anybody would.
"No. I just think that you might be a little-"
"Paranoid?" Merlin finished bitterly.
Gwaine remained silent.
Merlin huffed in annoyance. "Why is it so hard to believe that I could be right?" he demanded. "Is it just because of what happened all those months ago? Or maybe it's because I'm nothing more than a servant, and so what I say doesn't matter-"
"You know that's not it," Gwaine interrupted.
"Well, what then?" Merlin said, not quite able to keep the anger out of his voice. "Ever since the incident with Prince James, none of you have treated me the same."
Gwaine winced at the mention of James, as memories of what the man had done to his friend suddenly assaulted his mind. "He hurt you, Merlin," he finally said quietly. "And even though you like to pretend that everything's fine and that you've fully recovered, I know you haven't. We all know."
The anger boiled up within Merlin as he glared at the knight for several long seconds before finally deciding to push past the man and move towards the exit.
"Where are you going?" Gwaine asked, just as Merlin reached the door.
Merlin looked back at him. "Are you going to tell Arthur that I'm here?"
"Shouldn't I? I don't like the idea of you lurking around the castle in secret. You'll get yourself into trouble."
"I will not!" Merlin protested. "And I am not a child, Gwaine. I can take care of myself."
Gwaine gave him a doubtful look. "Why don't you want Arthur to know that you're here?"
"Because he obviously doesn't want me here."
"And you stayed because you had a funny feeling about the Lord and Lady of Berradon," Gwaine stated. "So what I would really like to know now, Merlin, is what exactly do you plan to do about this funny feeling of yours?"
"Who says I'm going to do anything about it?"
"You stayed in Camelot, didn't you? That would suggest that you were planning something."
Gwaine raised his eyebrows.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "I was just going to keep an eye on the prat, alright? Make sure he doesn't get himself killed. I am not looking for trouble. And Gaius knows about this, too."
"Gaius?" Gwaine asked, surprised.
Merlin nodded. "He agrees that it would probably do me more harm than good to go off to Ealdor when I'm feeling like this. You can ask him if you like."
Gwaine nodded, still frowning. "I think I will," he walked over to where Merlin was standing. "Let's go."
"What?" Merlin asked nervously.
"We are going to go talk to Gaius about this now."
Merlin couldn't believe it. He didn't have time for this. He needed to get back to his investigation. Because he was now surer than ever that something was deeply wrong.
And that was because of his horse. Because of Red's attack on one of those Berradon men. Because Red never, ever attacked anyone unless they posed a threat to Merlin, or to anyone that he cared about. She was a gift from the druids, after all. And she was fiercely loyal. And smart. She just seemed to know things that others didn't. And she must have sensed that something was not right about the Berradon man that had gotten too close.
But he knew there would be no way of getting out of this now. And so he let out a quick sigh of defeat as he followed Gwaine out of the stables and towards the physician's chambers.
Merlin could not remember the last time he had felt so annoyed. He was currently sitting at the table in the physician's chambers, grinding some herbs into a powder for Gaius.
Gwaine had only just left.
In the end, the knight had finally agreed not to say anything to Arthur about Merlin's presence in Camelot. But he had still managed to make things more difficult for Merlin by saying that he would be keeping a closer eye on the king for the duration of the visiting nobles' stay.
Gaius had been only too pleased to hear those words.
"You see, Merlin?" the physician had said as soon as Gwaine was gone. "You have nothing to worry about. The knights will protect Arthur."
"They can't protect him like I can, Gaius. You know that."
But Gaius had just shaken his head and put Merlin to work with the herbs. And Merlin decided that he was far too tired to argue with the old man further. He would simply use the time that he spent helping Gaius to think about what his next move should be.
His thoughts almost immediately wandered to Anna. He hadn't seen her since he had finished patching her up earlier that day. And he couldn't help the stab of worry that shot through him when he realized that he had no idea where the young girl was, or if she was even safe. What if something terrible happened to her while she was with the Lord and Lady? What if she ended up like Ella?
Merlin shook his head at the thought and gripped the pestle he was holding a little tighter in his hand. He needed to focus. As soon as he was finished with these herbs, he would make his excuses to Gaius and then go find her. He could go to the kitchens again. Nicholas might know where she is.
"When you're finished with that, Merlin, the leech tank is absolutely filthy-" Gaius said suddenly.
"But Gaius-" Merlin began. Unfortunately, he then made the mistake of actually looking at his mentor, and the sight of Gaius' stern expression and raised eyebrow was enough to make Merlin immediately clamp his mouth shut and turn back to his work, sighing in defeat.
It was going to be a while before he was able to make his way down to the kitchens.
A shadow moved swiftly through the trees, making no sound as the light began to fade from the sky. There wasn't much further to go now. The clearing was right up ahead. And voices could be heard coming from the location. Loud, boisterous voices filled with cheerfulness and laughter.
The shadow took the last few steps towards the small clearing, and didn't even hesitate to stride into the little space with confidence, causing the entire world to go completely silent.
The men stared at the cloaked figure that had emerged from the trees with wide eyes. Not a sound could be heard except for the crackling of the flames of the small fire in the middle of the camp.
"Well?" the leader of the men finally drawled out from where he sat on a log on the far side of the clearing, away from the others. "Have you succeeded?"
The figure moved further into the clearing, only lowering the hood of their cloak once standing directly in front of the man who had spoken.
"No. Not yet. There have been some...complications."
The man scoffed. "Complications, huh? Like what?"
"Like one of our men getting kicked in the face by a horse."
"You mean one of my men. And why should that affect your plans?" the man asked, irritated.
"You really are a fool. I may not have needed him to get the job done, but there were knights and guards everywhere after it happened. Everyone's normal routine was disrupted."
"I would think that would be the perfect opportunity to put your plan into action."
"It would have been. Had I not needed to get into the kitchens to retrieve the supplies. The place was crawling with servants."
"You hid the supplies in the kitchens? Why?"
"Because they blend in quite well, of course. And if anyone were to suspect that all was not well, they would never think to search there."
"You say that as though someone already has begun to suspect."
The figure scoffed. "You were right about him. He is nothing but trouble."
"Oh, so you've met Merlin?" the man's lips twisted into a sinister smile.
"Yes. And he is every bit as meddlesome as you said he would be. If this continues, I may be forced to-"
"Merlin is mine," the man interrupted. "I agreed to help you on the condition that I would be the one who gets to strangle the life out of that worthless excuse of a servant."
"Yes, yes. That, and the chance to raid Camelot's vaults. I remember. But I'm telling you, now, Prince James of Varelia, that if he interferes with my plans to see Camelot's king fall, I will not hesitate to take necessary action."
"Well, then I suggest that you get moving," James replied in a snarl. "Before he becomes too much of a liability. Because if I find out that you-"
"Please. What could you possibly do to me?"
James was now seething.
"Don't worry," the figure said, after a pause. "I can handle him. I believe he is the only one who currently suspects anything. He shouldn't be too difficult to manage."
"Arthur does not appear to be uneasy?"
"The king doesn't have a clue," the figure said, smiling.
"And the serving girl?"
The figure laughed at that. "She is unlikely to pose any problems."
"So what have you come here for?" James asked eventually.
"I wanted to ensure that you would be ready. Once the plan is put into effect, you must be prepared to enter the castle."
"We have been ready," James scoffed. "We have only been waiting on you."
"Really? I could hear the lot of you carrying on from a mile away. I'm surprised the Camelot patrol hasn't already found and arrested you."
"I will never be put into a cell in the Camelot dungeons again," the man vowed, spitting on the ground as he spoke. "I would rather die."
The figure sneered. "Then I suggest you keep order around here, and prepare your men. It won't be long now."
"Good," James said in answer, as he watched the figure turn and walk away. It was only then that he noticed that all of his men had been staring at him throughout the entire conversation.
"What are you looking at?" he barked at them, once the cloaked figure had once again disappeared into the trees, undoubtedly to head back to the castle.
Immediately, all of the gazes in the clearing shifted elsewhere, and James himself began clenching and unclenching his hand into a fist.
His mind wandered to Merlin. The servant boy who had ultimately made a fool out of him the last time he had been in Camelot. Oh, how he couldn't wait to see the light leave those bright blue eyes.
His eyes. "Maybe this time, I'll gouge them out," he thought with a sadistic grin. "Yes. I think I will."
"And then...and only then...I will kill him."
A/N: So...He's baaack! And ready to cause more trouble. What did you guys think? And who do you think the cloaked figure was? Any feedback is appreciated. Until next time! :)