Chapter 1 The Conspiracy

"C'mon Merlin," pleaded Gwen. Her dimples flashed as she lightly touched her friends arm. "Elyan is coming with me, and maybe Gawaine and Percival." Merlin looked over at his mentor, but Gaius ignored their conversation and busied himself with his flasks of mysterious and malodorous potions.

"It's ever so long since we danced at Yule!"

"I know, Gwen! It's just..."

"Yes, yes, yes," chimed Gwen. "You've got a lot of chores and we both have to serve at the feast tonight, and then there's Arthur. And Gaius need herbs for the morning! Really, Merlin! Everyone needs a break once in a while!"

Gaius opened his mouth as if to speak, then pressed his lips together tightly. The movement was not lost on Merlin whose eyes began to twinkle.

Gwen was referring to the feast being prepared for the royal court, and to the dance and bonfire planned for the lower town in Camelot. It was the feast of Imbolg, the coming of Spring. The village girls had decorated the town square with the earliest of spring flowers and special loaves of bread were baked especially for the feast. The rivers and creeks ran frothy with breaking ice. Soon the spring lambs would be born and there was plenty of work ahead. But the winter was over, or almost over, and it was time to celebrate. The wood for the bonfire was already laid out in the square. Musicians from from outlying villages had come in to play for the festival, and out in the market, one could hear bursts of music and laughter.

The preparations for the dance and bonfire brought bittersweet memories for Merlin. The customs in Ealdor were virtually identical in Camelot. Although he had never fit in well in his village home, he could never forget the fun he and Will had at the seasonal festivals. Breaking free from the routine physical labor of country life, to dance and flirt and laugh, was a deeply anticipated event.

"He needs to come with us, doesn't he, Gaius, " Gwen added.

The old man looked askance, lifting one skeptical brow as he gazed down at Gwen's earnest girlish face. "As if Merlin needs more nonsense to distract him!"

"C'mon Gaius!" She grabbed the physician's free hand and tugged gently. "Don't be grumpy. You know Arthur can't go and I don't want to dance with only Elyan all night. Gawaine doesn't really dance you know."

"And Leon dances like an old stick, " laughed Merlin. Gwen whirled back to look at Merlin, her face alight with anticipation.

"So you'll come with us?"

"Of course, Gwen," smiled Merlin as he gave her a quick hug. Gaius frowned and looked down at his alembic. He tapped the glass worriedly, the murky contents swirling into a transparent and lurid orange liquid.

"Merlin, this isn't a good idea. There's something telling me you shouldn't go. I'm sorry, my boy, but I don't think..."

"No worries Gaius," interrupted Merlin with a shake of his head. "The royal prat will survive if I have a few hours of fun. It's not my fault I like to dance!"

Merlin's grin melted Gaius' heart as intended, but he kept his stern expression. "Don't come to me for help when Arthur is screaming your name at dawn! Go! Go," he said wih a dismissive wave of his hands. "Go!"

"Meet me by the kitchen door once you're finished at the feast. " called Merlin as he ran out the door.

"Thank you," mouthed Gwen as she smiled up at Gaius as she turned to leave.

The court physician smirked to himself as he lifted a spoiled poultice from a watery container. He threw the stinking mess into the fire and immediately regretted it. The stench was overwhelming. Insisting that Merlin avoid the dance had it's desired effect. Merlin might have made excuses to stay home if he had encouraged him to go the village gathering. A little reverse thinking had done the trick. Gaius smiled. The boy needed a few hours of mindless fun, he thought to himself. It would do him good.