Maria Thermann’s fan fiction “Merlin” (BBC series) sees the action set between seasons 4 and 5. This piece of fiction is written purely as a fun writing exercise and was not created with the intention of any commercial exploitation on my part. The copyright for all BBC Merlin series characters & storylines remains with the BBC and Shine Ltd, the producers of the show. The show stars Colin Morgin (Merlin), Bradley James (King Arthur), Angel Coulby (Guinevere), Richard Wilson (Gaius), Katie McGrath (Morgana), Rupert Young (Sir Leon), Eoin Macken (Gwaine), Tom Hopper (Sir Percival), Adetomiwa Edun (Sir Elyan), John Hurt as the voice of the Great Dragon Kilgharrah and Anthony Head as King Uther. Series 5 to be aired this autumn in the UK.
Part Two was created on 1st July 2012
Examining her reflection in her looking glass, Yolanda braided her silver hair into two fat pigtails and sighed. Long ago, when her hair had shone like spun gold, her blonde tresses had caught the attention of a proud and handsome young man, a king no less. He’d offered to make her his queen, if she granted him a favour, but she’d refused him and he’d wreaked terrible revenge on her and her sisters, who had laughed at his advances, when Yolanda had turned him down. Frowning at the grey wreckage that was her face, Yolanda hurriedly pinched her cheeks, hoping a little red might revive her complexion enough to please tonight’s guests.
The evening air was hot and oppressive. She wished her chambers were on the northern side of the castle keep, where her sisters slept. Their rooms were cool and pleasant in summer, but bitterly cold in winter. Ever since the rest of their small castle had fallen into disrepair, they’d camped out in the castle keep as their last refuge. Yolanda longed for the days when her father had given sumptuous feasts in the main banqueting hall and young knights had queued up for a dance with her and her sisters. Their father’s pride and the sisters’ own conceitedness had cost them dearly, but maybe tonight, the curse would finally be lifted?
Fool of a girl! Tonight would be no different to all those other nights, when the sisters had hoped and prayed for a saviour. Undoubtedly, they were doomed to spend their days alone in this crumbling castle for all eternity. Yolanda hastily wiped a tear away that had stolen into the corner of her eye, which Yolanda blamed on the candle on the mantelpiece, which started to gutter and smoke. Strange, there was clearly a draft coming from somewhere. Perhaps the wind was finally freshening, bringing cooler air with it at last?
She tied a ribbon round the end of each pigtail and looked around her untidy room. Several gowns lay strewn across the four-poster bed, shoes in various colours were scattered all over the floor. Yolanda was no longer familiar with the latest fashions and court etiquette, it had been too long since she and her sister had attended any feast following a royal invitation. She hoped she’d done her best and turned back for a final look into her mirror, where she surveyed the result of her daring wardrobe experiment with mild satisfaction. Yes, red was still very much her colour, even if the grey of her hair had replaced the blonde curls the proud king had so adored. She smiled; the embroidered belt around her ample waist looked actually very fetching. With a bit of luck the visiting knights wouldn’t notice her warts too much in the gloom of the hall! If only Ethelgunda and Marigold had remembered not to light any candles and had kept the fire burning low. Unlike her conceited sisters, Yolanda was fully aware, night was the sisters’ best friend, daylight their number one foe.
The distant clutter of hooves drew her over to the arrow slit that served as her window. She bent down and peered one-eyed through the narrow opening. It had to be the trolls returning from their mission, who else would visit their run-down abode at such an hour? She hurried out of her room to join her sisters in the hall.
Yolanda was in such a haste to skip down the stairs, she didn’t notice the wall-hanging opposite her door had grown feet. When Yolanda’s footsteps had died away, a hand covered in gold rings drew back the embroidered battle scene to reveal a secret doorway behind. A tall man stood in the shadows of this secret door, chuckling and mumbling to himself. In the stillness of the night he could hear the castle gate being opened somewhere below him and a group of riders entering the courtyard at speed. The man rummaged in a leather satchel hanging from his shoulder and produced a crystal, which he held up to the faint light coming through the open window. A beam of moonlight filtered through the crystal, which lit up instantly, a yellow glow illuminating the man’s face. The man’s mouth, ruby red and cruel against the blonde beard covering his chin and upper lip, mumbled incantations at the same time, but the man was forced to step swiftly through the trap door behind him, when he heard the trolls swarm into the castle keep, triumphantly cackling over their victory. The door closed tightly after the man, now resembling nothing but an innocent stone wall.
In the distance Merlin caught a glimpse of a faint light. The troll on the horse behind him grunted with satisfaction and…did Merlin detect a trace of glee? The lead troll’s grunt was answered with guttural approval from his fellow captors. Merlin wished he could turn his head around sufficiently to see how the other knights were doing, but shifting his weight was impossible, for the lead troll had pinned him down tightly into the saddle and, in any event, the bobbing up and down of the galloping horse had made Merlin feel rather sick. He didn’t trust himself to engage in any type of heroics. Arthur wouldn’t let his stomach dictate his fate, Merlin grumbled, knowing full well that for the moment he had no choice but to lie there motionless and wait.
The riders had left the dense forest and where now approaching a clearing, which led to a tree-lined road. Following this road for the length of forty heartbeats, the riders finally entered an overgrown, cobbled path; on either side someone had placed large white stones at regular intervals, clearly markers for horse and cart to stay on the path at night, for it was clearly the approach to some manor or sizeable dwelling. Peering into the darkness in front of him, Merlin finally saw the façade of a tower and walled fortifications rearing up. There were also what appeared to be ruins of flanking towers to the right and left of the castle keep.
A bridge spanning across a vast moat came into view. When they had reached the drawbridge, the lead troll stopped his horse and held up his mighty paw. The other riders behind him also stopped abruptly. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance, a call that was answered shortly by a second owl, then a third. The lead troll sniffed the air, temporarily letting go off Merlin’s back. With the great weight lifted, Merlin dared to take in a lung full of damp air. It revived him at first, but finally made him heave, when his nostrils sucked in the moat’s stench of rotting sheep and algae. Not one of Merlin’s favourite aromas at the best of times, but now even less welcome, when he felt so queasy after a long ride lying on his belly. On the saddle behind him, the lead troll growled in protest, when some of Merlin’s breakfast landed on the rider’s boot.
The castle keep lay silent and looked strangely unoccupied. There were no servants about; no dogs barked and no squires or guards came to open the gate. Instead, the lead troll let off a terrifying roar that sounded uncannily like Arthur discovering Merlin had spent the day in the tavern instead of preparing the king’s armour for the day’s joust.
The call was answered from somewhere beyond the keep’s massive walls and within moments the gigantic gate was opened. The riders and horses streamed into the courtyard, but there was no sign of guards or servants coming to greet them. Dismounting, the trolls each hoisted a prisoner on their shoulders and took their hostages into the castle keep’s silent interior.
Dangling off the lead troll’s shoulder and facing backwards, Merlin noticed the sorry state of the courtyard. It was covered in weeds and strewn with the wreckage of broken carts, rusty weapons and damaged shields as if a fierce battle had been fought, but was suddenly abandoned, when both defenders and foes, had mysteriously fled. Merlin spotted rows of silent crows sitting on the broad corbel running around the parapets and on the machicolation on the one defence tower that was still in reasonably good shape, he spotted several large bats hanging upside down, their wings stretched out and gently flapping in the evening breeze.
With a pang Merlin realised that no servants also meant no grooms to look after their horses’ welfare; the beasts were worn out from their long ride and the huge weight they’d had to carry. Looking back he saw Arthur’s horse, shivering and covered in sweat, lean against the castle keep’s well, clearly too exhausted to go any further. Would anyone tend to them that night or would they be left to fend for themselves? Merlin quietly summoned a trough of water and a sack full of oats without any of the trolls noticing the spell, just before the courtyard disappeared from Merlin’s view and the captors entered the castle keep with their knightly burden.
They crossed an inner guards’ chamber, went down a few steps, turned left, before finally entering the hall, where a fire, but no candles had been lit.
The trolls divested themselves of their burden and dropped the knights and Merlin quite unceremoniously to the ground. When the knights’ protest cries and clamour had died down, the lead troll coughed, clearly trying to catch somebody’s attention. Someone stirred in an armchair by the hearth. A woman got up and Merlin, who struggled to rise thanks to the unfamiliar weight of the chainmail he was wearing, thought two more women were cowering in the darkness at the far end of the hall, but he couldn’t be sure owing to the gloom and smoke that filled hall.
“Bring me the princeling!” The woman by the chair commanded, pointing a finger at Merlin. The lead troll did as he was bid and grabbed Merlin by the scruff of the neck, dragging the young sorcerer to his feet. Behind him, Merlin could hear the other knights gasp. Merlin squinted into the dark and caught his breath.
On a rug in front of the fire, just by the side of the chair, lay a gigantic dog with two heads. Its four eyes were glowing red and sharp fangs were glistening in each snout. The beast emitted a full throated growl from twin mouths, which appeared to Merlin and his knights like a macabre echo, a prelude to having their own throats ripped out, but the woman merely bent down and patted the dog’s head affectionately.
The troll holding Merlin firmly by the collar hurled him at the woman’s feet. Scrambling up as fast as the chainmail would allow him to get out of the dog’s reach, Merlin vowed silently never to mock Arthur again for whining about the state of his shoulders at the end of a joust, now Merlin knew how heavy the king’s armour actually was.
The woman came closer and positioned herself in front of Merlin, who recoiled a little when Ethelgunda’s warty face peered closely into his, so close that their noses met. Ethelgunda’s bad eyesight forced her to do a hands-on inspection of the young sorcerer’s face, her fingers travelling across his cheekbones, chin and forehead into his abundant dark hair.
“He doesn’t look like the one we expected to see tonight. Unding, are you sure you’ve got the right man?” Ethelgunda rounded on the lead troll. Before the troll called Unding could answer, Ethelgunda had turned back to Merlin, her hand pulling his head closer to his. She squinted into his face. “Who are you boy, answer truthfully and I may spare you’re life!”
“Can’t you tell from the chainmail and crest? Obviously, I’m the king,” Merlin muttered, hoping Ethelgunda’s breath wouldn’t travel up his fragile nostrils, while at the same time trying to wriggle out from under her questing hands.
Ethelgunda merely snorted and began her examination of his person all over again. Without letting go of Merlin’s hair with her left hand, she lifted his chainmail with her right and investigated the contents of his back trouser pockets, where she discovered a squashed, half eaten sausage, Gaius’ ointment for travel sores and a sewing kit.
Howling, she hurled all three items across the hall and stamped her foot. Merlin threw her a pitying glance. Whatever her plans had been, they had obviously gone wrong. Ethelgunda turned on him abruptly.
“For the last time, WHO ARE YOU?” She reached up and without warning gripped a strand of his hair and ripped it out. Merlin yelped with pain and was about to retaliate with a well-aimed kick in Ethelgunda’s direction, when a clout on the back from the troll’s paw instantly reminded Merlin painfully of his diplomatic duties as a king.
“I’m A.R.T.H.U.R., King of Camelot! How’de’do?” Merlin bowed slightly, hoping his careful pronunciation and winning smile would keep the woman and her two-headed pet in a good mood, whatever her plans for the king.
“A.R.T.H.U.R?” repeated Ethelgunda incredulously in exactly the same tone. ” Unding, you idiot, you brought me the wrong man!” Now it was Ethelgunda’s turn to clout someone. Unding received the blow like a man…or rather like a troll, who’s used to being under a woman’s thumb, judging by the blood that was dripping from the troll’s nose and the resigned expression on his face.
“Zey were bazing in ze lake, juz like you zaid. Zis one claimed he’z a king. Won’t he do? I know, he’z a little zcarwny for a knight –“ Unding managed to lisp. He’d bitten his tongue, when Ethelgunda’s dainty knuckles had made contact with his chin.
“Hell and damnation! What did I tell you, before you left? Go to Lake Merthur and bring me Prince Urien and his knights! In what way does this one,” Ethelgunda punched Merlin’s stomach hard, temporarily winding him, “ resemble a blonde, ruthless warrior with the reputation of being a ladies’ man? Are you colour blind? He’s got dark hair and his hands are as soft as a girl’s! He’s never done a day’s work in his life, let alone been in a woman’s bedchamber by the blush on his cheeks!”
“L-l-looks can be d-deceiving,” Merlin stuttered. “I’m much stronger than I look! I…erm…get up early every day and help the knights to get fit. As for the ladies,” Merlin’s voice faltered for a moment, but he was spurred on by a loud snort coming from the rear of the hall, where the knights were clearly recovering much faster than he’d thought. “Well, there was this one time with King Uther’s bride-to-be, but it all came to nothing, because she turned out to be a…erm…troll! Uh, n-no offence intended,” Merlin stuttered, suddenly feeling his cheeks burn, when he caught sight of Unding’s damaged face and the dried vomit on his captor’s boot.
“None taken,” said Unding generously. “Troll women can be rather challenging, even for the most experienced warrior,” he added sympathetically, still holding his bleeding nose between thumb and index finger.
Merlin hoped the knights hadn’t heard this last exchange. Fat chance! From somewhere behind him came a snigger. As if the mere reference to a woman’s bedchamber could possibly escape Gawain’s keen hearing! Merlin resigned himself to weeks of ribbing from Arthur’s knights and tried to concentrate on Ethelgunda’s warty chin instead.
“We’ll see soon enough, whether you really are of noble blood!” The woman cried, hurrying back to the hearth, where a large, black cauldron hung from a hook over a roaring fire. She threw the strand of hair into the cauldron and muttered an incantation. A sorceress! Merlin squared his shoulders in anticipation of whatever horrors her spell might unleash.
The liquid in the cauldron began to hiss and bubble. The woman threw another log on the fire and fanned the flames with her hands. Sparks flew up and one glowing ember landed on the two-headed dog, which let out a yelp of displeasure, rolled over and fled to the safety of the armchair to get away from the inferno. Smoke started to rise out of the cauldron and Ethelgunda began chanting her incantations again. With the troll’s attention otherwise engaged, Merlin risked a glance over this shoulder to see how the knights fared.
Only two of the trolls had remained in the hall to watch over them, apart from Unding, who remained at his mistress’ side. Sir Elyan’s hands and feet had been bound and he lay on the flagstones cursing, but otherwise fine. Sir Leon’s head was no longer bleeding but a long gash on his forehead showed he was far from fighting fit. Gawain seemed strangely silent until Merlin realised one of the trolls had stuffed a gag into the knight’s mouth. Despite their situation Merlin couldn’t help sympathizing with the troll who’d had a very long ride with a disgruntled, hungry Gawain. Sir Percival looked fine apart from being bound and shackled. Merlin sighed. Until they were alone and he’d find the right moment to free them, he was on his own. He’d have to deal with Ethelgunda’s magic, whatever it was, without any of his friends noticing.
At the rear of the hall, the other two women took courage and drew closer to the fire. Yolanda and Marigold joined their sister by the cauldron, each holding her breath at the spectacle unfolding in the pot. The brown liquid bubbled and squealed, hissed and spat until Ethelgunda seemed finally convinced the brew was ready. Ethelgunda handed a spoonful of the liquid to each sister. On the rug, the two-headed dog began to whimper so pitifully, Marigold picked up the ladle and filled a bowl to the brim with the liquid. The dog lapped it up immediately, but no change occurred.
“Funny, I could have sworn the stuff was ready,” Ethelgunda peered into the cauldron and gave it another stir.
“Perhaps it takes a while to work?” Yolanda said, casting a quizzical look into Merlin’s direction. “Unless he’s lying and there isn’t an ounce of nobility in the boy!”
“Nonsense, he’s the real deal! Oh, Ethelgunda! I feel all tingly and girlish! It’s working…you’ve done it…this time we’ll surely succeed!” Marigold clapped her hands delightedly. “I bags the one with the arms!” she cried and ran over to Sir Percival, who recoiled from her enthusiastic hug with as much gallantry as he could muster. “I must have him, Yolanda, he’s simply delicious!”
By way of a reply Yolanda held out her tankard and Ethelgunda grabbed a ladle so both sisters could drink their fill. Marigold skipped back to the hearth and snatched Yolanda’s full tankard out of her hand. Marigold drank deeply, the liquid running down her chin and throat, dribbling the brown liquid onto her velvet gown.
Yolanda licked her lips nervously. “Marigold, behave, there’s enough to go around for all of us. First we’ll drink, then the feasting shall begin! Ethelgunda, a refill, if you please. I must have more!”
“Don’t count your chickens, yet,” Merlin muttered and aimed a spell of his own into the direction of the hearth. “You might think twice about gobbling up my friends, when I’ve turned you into…-” Merlin didn’t get any further, for the cauldron exploded with a huge BANG. “Oops, that didn’t go exactly to plan!”
Smoke rose up from the hearth, where the cauldron and arm chair had been only moments before. Part of the ceiling came down with an ear shattering crash. The hall filled with dust and debris, a strange smell, like a mixture of horse manure and one of Gaius’ infamous gout remedies, began to emanate from the place where the cauldron had once hung over the fire. It was impossible to tell, where the three sisters were, there was so much smoke and dust, made worse by confusion among the trolls, running hither and tither, trying to find their mistresses in the ruins of the hall. Fires sprang up around the room and flames began to lick the ancient wall-hangings behind him by the entrance.
“Ah well, the place could do with a bit of redecorating,” Merlin sighed. He hurried back to his friends. “Quick, we must leave, before the trolls remember we’re here!”
Sir Elyan helped up Sir Leon and Percival was about to steer all of them into a dark hallway, when Merlin suddenly stopped. “Where’s Gawain?”
“I thought he was following you!” Sir Elyan said, peering back at the doorway they’d just escaped from. Merlin hurried back and stared into the hall.
Over the din of the fire and falling masonry, the yelling of the trolls and the terrifying howling of the dog, Merlin could hear the three sisters screeching. He saw one of them, he assumed it was the tall Ethelgunda, push a figure in front of her through the rubble. It was the bound and gagged Gawain!
“Merlin, we’ll have to rescue him later, now we must get out of here, while we still have a chance!” Percival grabbed Merlin by the arm and drew him down a dark corridor and up a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs they were stopped dead in their tracks by a horrifying scream from below.
“Those harpies are going to cook him, I know it!” Elyan shuddered. Merlin’s eyes were wide with fear.
Sir Leon managed a weak smile. “Don’t worry, Merlin. Gawain without a gag in his mouth is a lot less appetising.”
“Not sure who I feel more sorry for, Gawain or the witches,” Sir Percival grimaced. “Gawain’s socks could knock out a giant. Just think what his actual feet could do to a broth!”
Merlin sighed. “True, he’s a lot tougher than he looks. We’ll have to find a safe hiding place until the morning. Our horses are too exhausted, they cannot help us now. I guess Gawain will keep until we’re ready to leave, let’s go!”
Meanwhile…on the other side of the forest, towards Camelot…
“It’s…erm…a bit of a tight fit, but otherwise quite fetching,” Dragonara finally managed to say. Her two companions were still in fits of laughter. “My physician’s son Eliffer’s admittedly a slighter build than you, but at least you won’t catch cold tonight, will you, Merlin?”
Eliffer, a boy of about 15 or 16 years of age, chuckled and busied himself with the horses. Strangely, the other squire was still in full knight’s armour, wearing chainmail and helmet, making no attempt at removing the heavy burden. Dragonara had not introduced the other boy, making Arthur even more determined to get to know his travelling companions.
“And have I got you to thank for this…um…shirt?” Arthur addressed the mysterious squire, pointing to the rather flowery blouse the King of Camelot had been forced to accept if he wanted to cover his nakedness. The question merely served to ignite another bout of laughter until Dragonara handed him their only catch of the day. Arthur resigned himself to the unfamiliar task in hand. Cooking!
He squatted down on the floor in his far too short hose and attempted to skin a rabbit, albeit without much success, as the bloodied animal kept slipping from his grasp, landing with a loud bang in the pot every time he tried to pull the rabbit’s fur over its head.
“I’ll be dammed if I yield to a rabbit!” Arthur the servant growled and reclaimed the body to try again. This time he met with more success. The hide came off in more or less one piece and the bunny was ready for a pot roast. Having never actually prepared a meal before, Arthur scratched his head, wondering what the real Merlin would do. Eventually he decided a few onions and parsnips couldn’t hurt and threw the vegetables into the pot to keep the bunny company.
“Merlin, when you’ve quite finished playing with your rabbit, go and fetch some wild herbs from that little brook we saw yonder. I fancy salad with our stew tonight.” Dragonara yawned, stretching her arms and legs as gracefully as a cat, before sitting down on a blanket by the fire, a fire for which Arthur the servant had gathered firewood and had been rewarded for his efforts with nothing more than a painful splinter in his thumb and a burn on his wrist.
The thought of salad with his dinner served to darken Arthur’s mood only further and he staggered off into the night holding his torch as high as possible to avoid falling into the brook. He had no idea what eatable herbs looked like but remembered his court physician Gaius boring him rigid with frequent requests for more herbs to be stocked in the castle’s own infirmary. If a dollop-head like Merlin could tell herbs from weeds, how hard could it be?
Trotting through the dark forest, bending down in his creaking hose to pick what he hoped might turn out to be suitable herbs, Arthur reviewed his situation. On the plus side: he still had Excalibur, he was on his way to Camelot to fetch help and Dragonara was handy with a sword in the event of another troll attack.
On the down side: he had no idea, if she really was who she claimed to be and might be walking into a trap; they were still a long way off Camelot, which meant his knights and Merlin would be forced to spend the night in a dungeon or worse. Arthur snorted. Never mind their discomfort – what about his own? The hose was pinching his royal bottom something terrible and the prospect of salad with his rabbit stew was enough to make him retch. Herb salad indeed! Dragonara was a slave driver. He’d never treat his servants with such disdain!
Arthur viciously kicked a clump of dandelion and nettles, wondering what kind of salad they might make. Admittedly, Dragonara was a superb swordswoman, but how could anyone nibbling green leaves like a blasted rabbit possibly be a godmother of his? As if in response, the nettles rose and clouted him over the head. Arthur staggered back and drew Excalibur with haste. Rearing up in front of him, a tall blonde knight with piercing eyes and several men under his command, charged towards the king. Slashing and swishing his sword and torch back and forth, Arthur tried to get some distance between him and the advancing knights. Two of the attackers had disguised their helmets with twigs and fern, explaining why Arthur hadn’t spotted them any sooner. The knock on the head had temporarily rendered him disoriented. No matter how hard Arthur fought, the attackers kept coming and the blows got harder to block. Tired after his earlier battle with the trolls, Arthur soon found to his disgust he was surrounded.
“Do you yield? I have no quarrel with you, boy. Just tell us where to find the Lady Dragonara and I, Prince Urien, will allow you to go in peace!” The young knight sheathed his sword and took a step backwards to allow Arthur to do the same.
Rattled at being called a boy by this princeling, who looked a couple of years younger than Arthur himself, he was in no mood to be let go peacefully. “How very gracious of you!” Arthur dropped his torch on the ground, narrowly missing Urien’s foot. The princeling was forced to retreat another couple of steps with haste. “What do you want with the lady, squire Urien?”
Strangely, Arthur’s demeanour prompted Urien to be truthful. He cleared his throat decisively. “My father is King Leofwine and the lady is my step-mother, to be precise. She travels with her daughter Eleanor and a young boy, the son of our court physician,” Prince Urien said. “The King requires her to return to the realm of Dunadd urgently.”
“Why would a queen travel abroad, unprotected and accompanied by nothing more than a girl and boy?” Arthur challenged, lowering Excalibur reluctantly.
“What’s it to you why I seek my quarry? Still, as you seem to have appointed yourself her protector…the lady Dragonara is…erm…given to such ill-advised expeditions. For the lady’s and my sister’s safety, tell me what I need to know! Where are they?” Urien commanded, his hand surreptitiously travelling back to the hilt of his sword.
“When the Queen has done what she came to accomplish, she will no doubt be eager to return to Leofwine and her realm. Until then, she will be under the protection of Camelot.” Arthur glared at Urien, who seemed amused, rather than alarmed by the challenge.
“You carry a princely sword for a mere servant! Are you a favoured squire of some sort that you should speak with such authority on your overlord’s behalf, whose courtly fashion, if you don’t mind me saying so, leaves a lot to be desired?” Urien and his men laughed, noticing for the first time Arthur’s attire and leaf-mulched hair.
Temporarily confused by the question, Arthur hesitated. “I’m…Merlin, the king’s…most trusted advisor. An earlier troll attack while I was bathing left me bereft of…erm…my usual dress. My liege will be happy to receive Queen Dragonara and her charges at his court and when she’s ready to return, he’ll happily escort her back himself, on that you have my word.”
Into this temporary stalemate walked the lady herself, sword drawn, eyes blazing. There was no sign of her companions who, Arthur guessed, had been told to remain in hiding.
“You’ve heard the king’s servant! Now be off with you, boy! Don’t meddle in things that you do not understand.” Dragonara took up position next to Arthur, pointing her sword at her step-son and his men.
“My lady Dragonara!” Urien bowed deep, albeit with an air of mockery, Arthur thought. Urien straightened up and stared at the space behind his step-mother, as if he’d hoped to see somebody else appear. “Marauding trolls were spotted by one of my look-outs earlier, when my men and I cooled off by the lake. I was worried about your welfare, my lady; I’m gratified to see you didn’t come to any harm.”
“As you can see, I’m hale and still none the wiser of what you are doing here, Urien!”
“Providing you with safe passage home, on the orders of your loving king!”
“Then you’ve had a wasted journey! Turn back, for I shan’t set foot in your father’s court again!” Dragonara hissed, her hand raising her sword to level with Urien’s throat.
Urien in reply drew his sword once more, his men close at his heel. “Then stay away, you ungrateful wretch, but allow Princess Eleanor to return to her rightful place!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about! Isn’t Eleanor at home with your king?” Dragonara’s face registered nothing but surprise and Urien’s sword dropped a little. Arthur decided it was time to intervene.
“Look, I hate to intrude on anyone’s family feud, but there’s rabbit stew back in the camp spoiling over the fire. If it’s all the same to you, perhaps you could settle your differences over a meal?” Arthur held up his injured thumb to the torch light. “The matter of the lady’s travel arrangements can surely wait until the morning. I for one have had an awfully long day.”
Urien sheathed his sword. His men visibly relaxed. “Wise words indeed! Lead the way, boy, for my men and I haven’t had anything to eat since daybreak and I’d rather discuss the lady’s return to King Leofwine’s realm with a full belly than an empty one.”
By way of a reply Arthur yawned luxuriously and picked up his torch, pointing into the direction of Dragonara’s camp. He watched the lady’s face closely as he did so, but read nothing but surprise in her features. Arthur guessed correctly that, although blustering and arrogant, Urien represented no real threat to her. Arthur wondered why Urien had pointedly avoided addressing Dragonara as his queen; however, the lady herself made no reference to it and followed both men demurely, suddenly without any of her previous grandeur.
Temporarily disarmed by Arthur the servant’s whining voice, Urien and his men asked no further questions until they had reached the camp. Arthur noted with astonishment the mysterious squire had vanished, only the boy Eliffer had remained with the lady’s horses. Urien and his men looked hither and tither in the undergrowth surrounding the camp, but there was no sign of another person, even the third horse had gone without leaving any tracks. Arthur noted with satisfaction Urien was beside himself with suppressed rage, but masked it with polite disdain for the shabbiness of the camp.
Certain that whatever Urien’s hunting party was really after, he’d find out soon enough and would do so far better on a full stomach, Arthur fell upon the rabbit stew, before remembering his temporary role as a servant. Reluctantly, he dished out the stew, which to his astonishment had turned out far better than expected, apart from a slight furry aftertaste and toughness of the vegetables. Arthur wondered if Merlin usually peeled them before adding them to the pot, since his servant’s stews were always melt-in-the-mouth dishes. Resolving to ask Queen Guinevere discretely about the etiquette of stew making, Arthur was about to settle down for a well-earned rest, when Dragonara kicked him awake and told him to clean the dishes and get more firewood, which he did reluctantly at first, until he realised the lady’s firm hand on his shoulder was steering him into a particular direction of the forest.
Arthur hadn’t gone thirty feet into the darkness, when he heard a hoof scratch in the dirt. He extinguished his torch to avoid giving away his position and walked towards the noise. Under the low-hanging branches of a willow tree, Arthur spotted the shadow of the mysterious squire. The veil began to lift gradually, when Arthur approached the tree and saw the squire’s face by moonlight. The squire had transformed into a handsome maiden, not dissimilar to Dragonara’s own colouring. Eleanor had tied her long tresses with a scarf and wore a long woollen tunic with a shift underneath and a leather jerkin to keep out the cold. Upon seeing Arthur, the girl lifted her index finger to her lips and motioned him to be quiet. They were cowering under the tree, drawing deeper into the shadow of the branches, when the girl pointed to the right of Arthur.
One of Urien’s knights had followed him. Arthur caught his breath. The man was built like a bear, with impressive biceps and the neck of an ox. He drew closer but, just when Arthur thought the man had spotted them, he drew off into the opposite direction. The girl heaved a sigh of relief and leant against Arthur’s chest, prompting the king to briefly relapse into bachelorhood with a shiver of pleasure, when he felt the warm contours of her body through his thin shirt. It was definitely the nicest thing that had happened to him on that very long day!
Before he’d had a chance to get too comfortable, the girl had raised her head to his height and whispered into his ear: “Tell Mother, I’ll wait by the lake. Merlin, try not to spoil my best blouse and look after Eliffer for me!” Then she kissed his cheek and vanished into the night, without giving Arthur a chance to object to such a risky undertaking. It was too late to stop her. Even the girl’s horse seemed to have melted into the forest without a trace. Absentmindedly, he raised his hand to his cheek, where only moments ago the girl’s warm lips had been. He tried to remember the scent of her hair, but could not. Come to think of it, he couldn’t recall his wife’s scent either! It was high time to bring this quest to an end!
“Aren’t godmothers supposed to bring blessings, silver pennies and warm socks? This one’s giving me nothing but trouble and palpitations!” Gathering up as much firewood as he could, Arthur stumbled back to the camp and did a quick survey of those present around the fire: the hulk with the impressive arms had not returned, yet.
When everybody was settled again and the fire was burning brightly, the boy Eliffer begged Dragonara to tell them a tale. She smiled, brushed back her red-blonde hair and picked up a smouldering branch lying at the edge of the fire. Holding it up into the light, Dragonara blew gently on the flames and to Arthur’s amazement, a tiny horse and rider appeared from the flames. The delighted boy clapped his hands at the sight of the fire-knight who held up his lance proudly as he galloped through the air. Arthur stared from the lady to the spectacle and back again.
His godmother was a sorceress!
…to be continued…
(animation source: heathersanimations.com)