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.
The object of this fun writing exercise is to try out multi-stranded stories and to use different points of view for my characters. My 2nd Willow the Vampire novel will be using these techniques, which makes this good writing practice for me.
The Honeymoon is over – Let the Questing begin! (Part 4)
Leading their tired horses through brambles and straggling ferns, they were always on the lookout for Urien’s men. The boy Eliffer was seemingly still asleep on the back of his rather magnificent Friesian and Arthur began to wonder, if the boy merely feigned his slumber in order to eavesdrop on their conversation. Surely, nobody could sleep through a journey in such difficult terrain, especially when slung across the back of a horse like a sack of grain?
Yawning, Arthur tramped through the forest, keeping one eye on his godmother while trying to keep alert for any attackers coming at him from the dense undergrowth of fledgling oak, pine and beech. His hand on Excalibur, he expected to be ambushed by the princeling and his men at any moment.
“Where will you go?” Arthur asked quietly, when they had reached the lake; he looked around, but there was no sign of Eleanor. “Camelot is no place for your kind.”
Dragonara’s face showed concern. “I have my own lands and castle waiting for me at Dunum,” she said absentmindedly. “Where’s that girl got to? Eleanor!” She called out into the night. The only response they received was the quacking of a duck clumsily landing on the lake. A careful search of the wider area surrounding the lake produced no Eleanor. Arthur prevented Dragonara from breaking cover and they crouched down by a clump of brambles and listened. Nothing! Not a sound!
“Eleanor, show yourself or I swear you’ll be assigned to Camelot kitchen duties for a month!” Dragonara hissed, risking a step towards the lake. “Youngsters! Why can’t they ever do as they’re told?”
Arthur couldn’t help it, a broad grin stole across his face; his godmother sounded just like Gaius, whenever he discovered Merlin was in the tavern instead of cleaning the court physician’s leech tank as promised. If anybody had planned to attack them, surely they would have done so by now. Arthur risked breaking cover; the moon glittering on the surface of the lake showed him they were utterly alone. Dragonara drew her sword and started to coombe the shrubs closer to the shore, while Arthur began examining the ground for clues.
“Look, over there!” Arthur hurried over to the edge of the water. He picked up a scarf. “It’s hers! The ground is trampled; I count at least ten knights and their mounts!”
“Could they be troll tracks?”
“No, their horses never came up to the lake’s shore. These boot prints are deep, but not nearly as deep as those armour-plated trolls would have left with their huge feet.”
“Damn you, Urien!” Dragonara punched the air with her fist. “If we try riding to Camelot now, our tired horses will probably collapse. If we wait until morning, Urien and his men will be back with their raiding party and we will be so outnumbered, there’s no hope of freeing the girl!”
“You think Urien snatched his sister? Why, what does he want with her?”
Ignoring his question, Dragonara paced back and forth, mumbling to herself, clearly trying to come up with a plan, while Arthur‘s unseeing eyes glanced at the trees, the stars in the sky and the moon lighting up the lake. It seemed days since he had last slept. He stirred, when a cold breeze caught his hair and thin shirt. He bent down and scooped up a handful of water from the lake, splashing his face and neck. The cold water revived him and Arthur began following the tracks the troll brigands had left in the soft woodland soil; the tracks were leading him away from the lake. They headed east and the riders had clearly carried a heavy load – Arthur’s men! Retracing his steps to the lake’s shore, Arthur picked up the trail Urien’s raiding party had left. He followed the tracks further into the forest and stopped abruptly. Strangely, the tracks headed west…towards the path he and his own men had taken that very morning…Urien’s trail led directly to Camelot!
With a sense of foreboding Arthur followed the imprints of the horses’ hooves until they began to mingle with the tracks he and his knights had left that same day. An idea formed in Arthur’s mind and he turned to find Dragonara gazing at him intently. He hadn’t heard her sneak up! Was this a trap? Arthur mulled over the idea. If Dragonara had wanted to lead him into an ambush, she’d had ample opportunity to take him prisoner with the help of Urien’s men earlier that night. Whatever that young blister was up to, Dragonara was clearly not in the prince’s confidence. Perhaps Urien and Leofwine had taken the girl hostage, in case Arthur rode to Leofwine’s court to challenge him. Arthur had been asking himself ever since they’d met the young prince, why exactly Dragonara had left her king. Was Eleanor a bargaining chip between two unrelenting monarchs and now he, Arthur was caught in the middle of two warring factions?
If his godmother really was who she claimed to be and her sorcery was not aiming to harm him, then where were his knights? Had the troll ambush been of Dragonara’s making? It might have been a test of his kingship and compassion for his men! The harsh words she had spoken earlier about the reign of Uther still echoed in Arthur’s mind. Yes, if she really had been his mother’s dearest friend and was indeed his godmother, testing his skills as a leader of men would make sense…but whatever the answer might be, one thing was certain, she was a sorceress and therefore not to be trusted!
What if the troll abduction of his men and the kidnapping of Eleanor served one and the same purpose: namely to keep the king of Camelot away from his realm, leaving the citadel unprotected? Arthur ran his fingers through his hair and groaned. So many questions! He had to get back to Guinevere; perhaps she’d know what to do!
“Have you picked up their trail?” Dragonara interrupted his thoughts, puzzled by the intense frown on Arthur’s face. Arthur didn’t reply at once, but chose his words carefully, weighing up in his mind, whether or not he should come clean about his true identity. A cloud drifted across the moon, but when it passed the light fell full on the lady’s face and with sudden relief Arthur recognised the look on her face for what it truly was. He’d seen that very expression on Gaius’ face many times, mostly when Merlin, as dear as a son to the old physician, had been in some kind of trouble. Arthur made up his mind.
“Let us free my men! Together we’ll be able to retrieve Eleanor safely,” Arthur said. “Urien’s horses are just as tired as ours; he must make camp somewhere, before returning to Leofwine. We’ll catch up with him, yet!”
At the words my men Dragonara’s eyebrows rose by an inch, but she merely nodded her approval. “Tell me how I can help.”
“If your magic tricks cannot transport us to the trolls’ lair, we’ll have to walk to save our horses’ energy.”
“My magical powers are restricted to children’s amusements, I’m afraid.” Ignoring the intense scrutiny with which Arthur studied her face Dragonara began to remove the saddle from her horse. She hoisted it over her shoulder and handed him the saddle bags from Hengist’s back also. “Here, we might as well lighten their load. Let Eliffer sleep for a while, his slight weight will not inconvenience a brute of Hengist’s size.”
Leading both Frisians with a steady hand, she followed Arthur into the forest. With his blonde head bowed low so he would not lose the tracks left by the trolls, he could have almost passed for Urien. Eliffer slept soundly across the saddle, perhaps dreaming he was still in the camp. Meanwhile, Arthur had given up hope of ever being allowed to close his eyes again. Trying to concentrate on the path ahead, he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and was able to follow the troll’s tracks with relative ease; the riders’ heavy load had left deep impressions in the forest soil.
Emboldened by their earlier exchange and as a means to keep awake, Arthur turned and said:” Tell me, how do you know Uther’s queen?”
“I knew her from a child, when I was living in these parts. She was like a little sister to me and I bitterly regret not having spoken out against her marriage. Uther was a most unsuitable match for such a gentle lady.”
Arthur tried to suppress the anger rising in him, but didn’t quite succeed. “I doubt the word of a sorceress would have had much influence at Uther’s court!”
“Merlin, there was a time when Uther was as keen as anybody to exploit sorcery for his own ends. It wasn’t Ygraine’s death that turned him against magic; it was his own guilty conscience.”
“That’s a lie, witch! My father had nothing to do with her death!”
Having finally betrayed his true identity, Arthur’s blazing eyes challenged her, his hand reaching for his sword. Ignoring his blustering and the revelation, Dragonara went blithely on. “How do you know? Is that what he told you, the noble king?”
“He didn’t have to! I’ve seen with my own eyes what harm sorcery can do. You may be my godmother and you may have deceived my mother, but you’re not fooling me. As far as Camelot is concerned, magic is still banned and as long as I’m king that will never change.”
“In other words, your godmother isn’t welcome at court. So much for your word! You’re truly your father’s son. Uther, the hypocrite and liar! Uther, the murderer of innocent men, women and children! You told Urien, the king of Camelot would protect us and see me and my children safely home. At the first opportunity you’re reneging on your promise.” Dragonara’s nostrils flared. “Why pretend you’re a servant? Are you ashamed of the name Pendragon? You certainly should be!”
Taken aback by this rebuke, Arthur’s hand stole away from the hilt of his sword. He dropped his chin and blinked. “Nobody in need of protection will be turned away from Camelot.”
“I’m glad to hear it!” Dragonara said with a much softer tone of voice. “There was a time when godmothers could rely on a welcome hug, a hearty meal and a place by the fire!” She opened her arms and tried to embrace him, but he was too quick for her. He slid past her as agile as an eel. Her arms dropped to her side and she sighed. She hung her head, her blonde mane covering her face, so he wouldn’t see her tears.
Arthur’s face had taken on a rather mulish expression. “Times change!”
“Precisely! Arthur my boy, one of these days you’ll have to accept not all sorcerers are out to get you. Some have nothing more sinister on their minds than conjuring up a pair of woolly socks.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “On their days off, when they’re not trying to kill me?”
“Try godmothers, who saved your naked royal behind from being served up as troll dinner!” Dragonara wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and whispered:”Nantosuelta!”
Startled, Arthur took a few paces back and raised his arms in defence. His godmother merely pointed to the ground, where a small brook had appeared. “Now we won’t lose the trail in the dark,” she said.
Arthur stared at his feet, where the brook wound its way through the trampled soil and followed the trolls’ tracks. He lowered his defences and looked at her. “Uuhm…what’s your stance on turning ungrateful godchildren into toads?”
“It’s not my humble magic you need to be wary of. It’s Leofwine’s!” She reached out to her godson and ruffled his hair, before Arthur had a chance to duck. While the horses took a few sips from the brook, Arthur’s mind raced. His regal dignity demanded an immediate retreat, but he endured her caress manfully, until her last remark began to sink in. He grabbed hold of her shoulders and pushed her gently, but firmly back.
“King Leofwine’s a sorcerer? This gets better and better! When exactly were you planning to tell me? Before or after Leofwine’s army of trolls had breached the walls of Camelot?”
“Don’t be so melodramatic! Leofwine’s heard how Cenred’s army failed against the citadel. He’s not going to attack just to capture me and my children. He’s far too cowardly for that.”
“Tell me, what did Leofwine do to drive you away? Conjure up too many socks? ” Arthur ventured, noting the pained expression on Dragonara’s face. “Bringing your daughter on this journey, I can understand, but why did you bother with the boy? He clearly went to the same servant school as Merlin did!” Arthur cast an accusing glance into Eliffer’s direction and was treated to a snort by the sleeping boy. “Wait a minute…what did you just…MY CHILDREN?” Arthur gasped. “Eliffer’s your son!”
“Quiet, he’ll hear you!” Dragonara hurried over to the brute Hengist, who was nibbling on a bushel of grass. She caressed Eliffer’s pale forehead. The boy mumbled something in his sleep, but didn’t awake. “He doesn’t know, I beg of you, he must never know.” Dragonara’s green eyes filled with tears again.
“It’s not brotherly love that’s prompted Urien to snatch the girl, is it?”
Dragonara shook her head and gripped the saddle across her shoulder so tightly Arthur could see her knuckles turn white. She took a deep breath. “I once loved Leofwine, but his jealousy and cruelty towards his subjects grew worse with every year that passed. The death of his first wife…rather unhinged his mind…I should never have married such a man…my passion sooner or later always gets the better of me! I grew lonely and fell in love with our court physician Nechtan, a wonderful man. For years we all lived far happier as three than we had been as two…until Urien took to spying on me. When Leofwine found out about Nechtan, he had him killed, but he did not dare an open quarrel – too many of his knights are loyal to me! Leofwine suspects Eliffer’s my son, but he doesn’t know for sure. The boy was born when the king was making war on his neighbours, far away from his own citadel.”
Having just accepted her as a potentially harmless sorceress, Arthur was now trying to digest the news of her adultery. “Your court physician? You’re a queen, for goodness sake! Couldn’t you at least have found a knight for your courtly romance –“
“What? Fall in love with a passing princeling or a king from a respectable neighbourhood? Honestly Arthur, you’re a fine one to talk! From what I hear, your bride isn’t exactly top drawer either!” Dragonara interrupted him angrily. “Tell me, should I present Guinevere with a new broom and bucket for her wedding gift or will your queen prefer a mop and duster?”
“You leave Guinevere out of this!” Arthur turned on his godmother, his cheeks red and his nostrils flaring like Hengist’s the brute. “What does Urien hope to achieve by abducting his half-sister? Force you to return to…what fate exactly?”
Dragonara looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Leofwine only wants me back for one reason…to punish me…he won’t kill me…that’s far too kind by his standards; no, by making me perform sorcery that he’s not capable of himself he hopes to torment me. Nechtan was from the neighbouring kingdom…the very realm Leofwine’s been at war with for years. In his jealousy and rage, he wants to avenge my betrayal on the entire kingdom of Bres.”
“Is Leofwine likely to turn up at Camelot demanding the return of his wife?”
Dragonara pointed towards the watery line at their feet. “Let’s not wait to find out. It’s about time we freed your men. The real Merlin is among them, I take it?”
Arthur nodded miserably. “When the trolls attacked, he pretended to be me.”
Dragonara followed the brook into the forest. Turning her head, she said over her shoulder: “He’s very brave…and loyal, that servant of yours.”
“And daft as a brush, most of the time!” Arthur said, but not unkindly. He tugged at Hengist’s mane and the huge horse reluctantly relinquished the succulent herbs it had been guzzling. Arthur followed his godmother’s magical guide just as reluctantly into the forest.
Just before dawn, Arthur, Dragonara and the sleeping Eliffer reached a wider path, a road in fact, lined by trees on either side. The tracks became faint now that the ground was harder. The brook began to form a puddle to the delight of the horses, which drank eagerly, before the puddle finally dispersed into the scorched earth. Journey’s end! They rested under a tree, each too tired to speak, while the horses began grazing again. His godmother reasoned with him to lie down and rest, while Dragonara kept watch. Reluctantly, he agreed and fell into an uneasy slumber. After what seemed mere moments of sleep to him, Arthur felt himself being raised to his feet and dusted down by gentle hands. He stretched and shook his head, trying to get the buzzing noise out of his mind. He put one foot in front of the other, too tired to make out exactly where his feet were leading him and followed his godmother and the horses with unseeing eyes. Eventually, they came upon the castle, the ruined towers rising up out of the early morning mist. There was no adequate tree cover, so they had no choice but to walk right up to the drawbridge and moat.
“I have the strangest feeling, I’ve been here before,” Dragonara rubbed her eyes and yawned. “Perhaps I’m dreaming. What now? We can’t just walk across the bridge!”
“Why don’t you magic us a boat?” Arthur snapped. His exhaustion and concern over his men were finally getting the better of him.
To his surprise Dragonara simply sat down and buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders began to heave and Arthur realised she was sobbing. Startled, he drew closer and was about to lay a hand on her shoulder, when Dragonara lifted her head. “Until today, I hadn’t used magic for nearly twenty years! A small trick to comfort or amuse a child, nothing more…but this place…I remember now…I’ve been here before. By what foul design were we brought here?”
Arthur’s eyes travelled from her tear-stained face to the moat and back again. If Dragonara’s cuckolded husband had not sent the trolls, then who had? The castle ahead showed no sign of life; no archers paraded on the galleries, no guards appeared at the gate. Arthur listened intently into the fading night and frowned. His teeth had started to chatter. Irritated by his own weakness, he began stamping his feet and hugging his waist with his arms. He missed his chainmail and armour, although they weren’t adequate protection against the chill of the early morning damp; he simply wished they’d be a little better equipped for their three-man siege. As if reading his thoughts, Dragonara got up, wiped her face with the back of her wrist and handed him her own chainmail and helmet.
“It probably won’t fit, but it’s all we’ve got,” she whispered, when Arthur looked at her incredulously.
“What about you? I can’t take this!”
Dragonara managed a weak smile and pressed the armour back into his arms. “Instead of all the woolly socks my godson would have had over the years! I’ll be fine.”
She was not to be dissuaded; he took the armour and tried to squeeze into her chainmail, cursing Merlin as he did so. Once inside the shirt, he could barely move. A red-faced Arthur gasped. “I won’t even make it as far as the gate in this.”
Dragonara snorted. “Try wearing my corset! Perhaps we’d better loose the chainmail. No point impressing the guards with an improved waistline anyway; I hear trolls like their playmates to be fat.”
Arthur gratefully dropped the armour to the ground and tried the helmet. “Amazing how a blacksmith can fit Camelot’s royal heads onto those tiny coins, isn’t it?” Dragonara said when Arthur repeatedly failed to accommodate his lantern chin under the visor. “You’ll have better vision without the visor down, you know.” The corners of Dragonara’s mouth were twitching dangerously, but she refrained from further comment and handed him her shield.
Arthur handed the shield wordlessly back and pointed at the sleeping boy. Dragonara nodded sadly and accepted the shield, before drawing her own sword.
“Wait, until I give the signal. Stay out of trouble. You may not be the godmother I would have wished for, but you’re all I’ve got.”
His godmother pulled a face. “Don’t fail me, Arthur Pendragon! I might be tempted to bury Camelot under a mountain of woolly socks!”
Arthur grinned and ran off to make a survey of the moat’s edge, hoping to find a boat moored among the reeds that would take them across to an open access point below the bridge, namely the point where many castles keep a chute for their refuse. Climbing through it would not be pleasant, but they were less likely to be detected that way.
The sky was gradually fading from indigo to purple, from purple to mauve. A first sliver of sun might appear at any moment. Birds came out of their nests and started their day’s work. A fox hurried past the exhausted would-be invaders and from somewhere within the castle a horse whinnied.
“That’s my horse! We’re at the right place!” Arthur said. He instantly regretted his cheerfulness, when the morning’s tranquillity was shattered by a terrifying scream.
“That’s Gawain!” Not waiting for a boat or raft to magically appear, Arthur rushed into the waves, ignoring Dragonara’s warning cry. In front of them, the portcullis slowly lifted and trolls started streaming out onto the bridge. The first archers appeared and aimed their arrows at the swimmer trying to cross the moat. Arthur dived briefly and when he resurfaced, his shirt was missing. A few arrows were aimed at the shirt, before dull troll minds realised the deception. Arthur gave his attackers a friendly wave with Dragonara’s helmet and swam half-way across the moat. Another volley of arrows forced him to stop. He clapped the helmet back on his head and took a deep breath, ready to dive once more, but up on the drawbridge the magical armour clubbed a fat troll on the head just when he was trying to aim a spear at his attacker on the bridge. The missile missed its intended target and landed with a loud clang on the swimmer’s helmet instead. Instantly, Arthur sank below the surface and disappeared from view.
Dragonara’s hands flew up to her mouth and she cried out.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the castle…
Marigold gave a twirl in her new dress. The polished silver platter didn’t lie. No doubt about it, her hair had regained its raven gloss and her skin was as rosy as it had once been. She ran an appreciative hand over her re-discovered curves. Everything was firm again and her waist was so tiny, the silver girdle her father had given when she was a girl fitted her once again. She applauded her mirror image delightedly and turned to her sister. “The Arthur boy didn’t lie. He’s of royal blood. The spell finally worked!”
Ethelgunda frowned at the liver spots re-emerging on her hands. “Marigold, I don’t think it did.” She held up a strand of Marigold’s hair against the candle’s flame. “Look, there’s silver mingling with the black.”
Marigold ended her dance abruptly and sank down onto a cushion-covered chest. “Please don’t say such things! We both saw…when she drank the brew, Yolanda returned to her former beauty. The young knight couldn’t keep his eyes off her.” Marigold said quietly.
“That’s not all he failed to keep to himself last night,” said Ethelgunda wryly, picking up a pair of socks from the floor. “He practically mauled us during the dance.”
Marigold giggled and rubbed her behind. “I know what you mean. Parts of me are black and blue.”
Ethelgunda frowned and held the offending garments at arm’s length. “Phew, what a stink! No wonder I passed out after the sixth round,” she hurled the socks into the miserable fire they had lit in the remnants of the hearth. Ethelgunda got up and pulled impatiently at a bell rope. Unding, her favourite troll, appeared presently. He surveyed the ruined hall with obvious distaste. “Tidy up this mess, will you. Bring me the prisoners. I must have a word with that young rat of a king.”
“Uum, the prisoners, yes. Not entirely sure, where…at this exact moment…I know, they’re somewhere in the castle,” Unding said. He risked a glance at Marigold, whose much reduced frame was currently draping itself over a scorched armchair by the fire.
Ethelgunda stared open-mouthed at her subordinate’s face. “What do you mean…they’re SOMEWHERE in the castle? Aren’t they in the dungeons, where they’re supposed to be?”
Unding shifted uncomfortably in his chainmail. “Fact is, they…uhm…not exactly scarpered…we just mislaid them…temporarily,” he added, when Ethelgunda’s eyebrows rose to a dangerous level. “My men are keeping an eye out. Mistress Yolanda’s got one of them up in the tower, no doubt she’s…erm…interrogating him as we speak.” Unding’s ears turned scarlet. “May I say how…erm…lovely you both look on this fine morning?”
Ethelgunda positioned herself directly in front of him and peered into his yellow eyes. “Unding, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’d just taken a liberty with my sister’s honour. I want those men found, do you hear? Especially that lying little brat who called himself a king! Bring them to me and tell my sister to control her thirst for…erm…knowledge! I want to see those knights crawling in here on all fours.”
Unding blinked. “Beggin’ your pardon, Mistress Ethelgunda, but your sister’s locked the door and won’t let anyone in. My men have tried.”
“Then break it down, Unding! Take a battering ram, if you have to! Do I have to think of everything?” Ethelgunda stamped her foot so hard on Unding’s toes, he cried out with pain and doubled up. She pushed him towards the open door and propelled him towards the stairs by clouting him his head. Marigold followed them out into the corridor and honoured him with a friendly wave, but did nothing to stop the maltreatment of their subordinate.
Trying to regain his composure, Unding straightened and mopped his sweaty brow. His foot hurt and he felt a little dizzy. He hobbled out to the guard room, where a contingent of his men sat idly playing cards. Barking out his orders, he clouted one of them on the head with his fist and punched another in the gut. He felt better after that…well, almost. The thought of breaking down Mistress Yolanda’s door perturbed him. It went against his sensibilities to intrude on a lady’s privacy.
He remembered her from the days, when she’d been a girl. She’d often come to the guard’s mess hall to play the lute for the men during long winter evenings. Her disposition had been as lively as her beauty and she had sometimes graced their numbers by singing a romantic tune or two. Unding sighed and scratched his scaly belly. It seemed a lifetime ago, perhaps it was. He watched the guards hurry out into the courtyard, where half of them took up position, while some of the others streamed up the stairs to the towers. Another group scoured the dark corridors for the prisoners. Unding held back his two favourite men.
“You two come with me. Let’s patrol the outer fortifications and the moat. We’d better check the refuse chute, too. Last time we had guests, one of them tried to make it out that way.”
Before Unding got a chance to leave for his appointed task, one of the lookouts came back running across the courtyard. The fat troll stopped breathlessly in front of Unding. “Intruders! Out by the moat! Two knights on horseback, perhaps three, hard to tell in this infernal twilight.”
“Two measly knights? For that you wake up the entire castle with your clamouring? Send out a few archers and deal with it. Do I have to think of everything?” Unding punched the man’s belly. “If you paid more attention to your guard duties and less to your grub, you’d make a half-way decent sentry!”
The troll winced and sucked in his bulge. Saluting his superior, he turned and panted back to the portcullis. Unding heard the man bark his orders and the guards began lifting the heavy portcullis to open the gate. The sound of heavy boots in the courtyard announced the arrival of the archers.
Appeased, Unding and his two companions searched the galleries that lined the defensive walls, in case anyone had tried to climb up with ropes or ladders, unlikely as it seemed. They passed a giant mangonel standing on an upper gallery; once used to catapult severed enemy heads into besieging armies gathered outside the castle walls, the mangonel was now sitting harmless and bloodless in the early dawn gathering cobwebs and dust. Unding patted the instrument fondly, while his men headed for the rubbish chute by the old kitchens. From the drawbridge shouting and cursing drifted up to his lofty perch, but Unding ignored it, preferring to linger in the first warm rays of the sun instead.
Unding recalled the days of his old master, the days when the castle had been in good repair and the mangonel in frequent use. He leaned his back against the catapult and chuckled. “It must be twenty years or more, since we last filled this thing with rocks and heaped a load of trouble on King Leofwine’s head!”
The sound had been miniscule but a troll’s hearing was superior to a human’s. Despite the clamour rising up from the moat, the gasp had clearly originated from very close by. Unding sniffed the cool morning air and a pleasurable thrill ran down his spine. His nostrils had detected the unmistakable aroma of the moat. This early in the day the stench never came up to the galleries, no matter how hot the day before had been. He listened closely. No mistake! The ground under the siege engine was wet. Water was dripping from somewhere on the catapult. This could only mean one thing…
He turned abruptly and pounced on the bedraggled figure cowering in the giant claw of the siege engine. Shaped like the open paw of a hellish beast, the instrument that normally held rocks now contained a half-naked man, drenched and covered in algae. Unding grabbed the man by the throat and lifted him out in one swift motion. The man was dressed in a hose that was far too short and instead of a belt he wore, what looked like a lady’s scarf tied around his waist. Unding laughed unpleasantly and squeezed a little harder. The blonde man’s eyes began to bulge, nearly popping out of his head. Unding shifted his position slightly, lowering the man as he did so and the man’s face levelled with the troll’s. Unding’s yellow eyes squinted at the intruder.
“Now who might you be, friend? I don’t recall putting you across my saddle last night.” The troll patted the colourful bow at the man’s waist. “And I’m sure I’d have remembered such a pretty one as you!”
“Likewise, friend!” The man reached over his shoulder and grabbed the hilt of the sword he’d secured to his back with the help of Eleanor’s scarf, treating Unding to a blow to the head. The troll let go off Arthur instantly and staggered back. Arthur helpfully held out one leg and Unding tripped, knocking himself out on the mangonel. Arthur rolled the troll’s unconscious body out of sight behind the siege engine and followed the machicolation towards the highest tower, from where the scream had originated earlier. Down below, on the other side of the moat, he spotted the two Frisians, but there was no sign of the lady or the boy. Hengist lifted his powerful black head and whinnied, stirring his huge body into a gallop that headed straight for the drawbridge at full speed. Arthur’s eyes followed the horse and to his amazement he saw a set of armour march out of the castle – minus the man inside – to fight a couple of trolls on the bridge. An unseen hand lifted a cudgel and hit one of the guards on the head. Dragonara was practicing magic right under Arthur’s nose! A few harmless magic tricks to comfort a child, she’d said! He was still trying to work out, how he’d come to be on the gallery. The last thing he remembered was being hit on the head by a heavy object, before sinking down into the moat. Dragonara was a liar, like all sorcerers!
Down below, he caught a glimpse of Percival emerging into the courtyard. To his astonishment, Arthur spotted Merlin repeatedly clubbing a troll over the head. His men were certainly alive and well! Breathing a sigh of relief, Arthur hurried along the machicolation and dived through an open door into a dark antechamber. He crossed into a larger room, dusty and neglected, ran down a set of stairs and followed the next gallery south, where he came to a dead end. The heavy door into the tower was locked and no amount of hammering with his fists was going to shift it. He looked up and down the tower, hoping to find an open window, but there seemed to be only arrow slits, far too small for a man to crawl through. Finally, at the very top, he noticed an opening. A faded banner dangled down from the window above and flapped in the wind. Cursing his luck, Arthur lowered himself over the balustrade of the gallery and grabbed hold of the banner. He tested it – the fabric was old and worn but seemed strong enough to hold his weight.
“For Camelot!” He sighed and had just started his slow ascent up the tower, when a head popped out of the window above and shouted something incomprehensible at him. Arthur shuddered. That was the most hideous face he’d ever seen! What kind of a ghoul was holding his friends prisoner?
Meanwhile, across the forest in another castle…
Gaius peered out of the council chamber window and shut it rapidly, before the glow of the fires and noise from the tents below could alarm the queen. “Isn’t it a godmother’s duty to bless her young charges, while sprinkling a little happiness? Frankly, I can’t see Arthur being over the moon to find an army on his doorstep, when he expected two decades worth of birthday presents to be dropped at his feet!”
“Neither can I! Let’s hope the men camping outside are well-wishers bringing frankincense and myrrh. If only we knew, where Arthur is! He must have met with his troublesome godmother and this is the result. Has there been no word?” Queen Guinevere picked up her sceptre and used it to scratch her ankle.
Gaius shook his head. “The scouts were unable to leave the citadel, but a few refugees from the outlying villages made it through. Their homes are burned, their crops destroyed. Nobody has seen Arthur or his men. What is Merlin playing at, not sending word! There must be at least 10,000 men stationed out there. What beats me is why they don’t attack. With our king and best knights gone, we’re sitting ducks.” The old physician opened his satchel and produced a phial containing a bright blue elixir. He held it up to the candlelight and the liquid began to sparkle. “Here, you’ll find that far more effective.”
“Thank you, this infernal sprain is driving me mad.” Guinevere sat with her leg propped up on a chair across from him. The table between them was strewn with leather-bound books and parchments. Sitting at the far end of the table, the king’s old librarian, Geoffrey of Monmouth, had rested his head on his arms and was snoring quietly. The two guards by the door were softly swaying back and forth, leaning half asleep on their lances.
Gwen’s right ankle was covered in swathes of bandages. “My first official engagement as queen and I trip over a bucket! It wouldn’t be so bad, if I could blame my new maid, but it was entirely my own fault.” Guinevere sighed and adjusted her foot on the embroidered cushion her maid had placed there. Gaius wholeheartedly approved of Arthur’s choice. The maid had been gentle but firm in her administrations following the incident with the bucket and broom. “I’m not even allowed to dust in Arthur’s chambers. Merlin has practically banned me from entering during the day,” Gwen complained.
“What did you expect? It’s tough being queen,” Gaius grinned from ear to ear.
Gwen stopped scratching her ankle and balanced the sceptre across her lap. “Not very regal, is it, competing with my maid for the honour of producing the shiniest floor, when I should be greeting visiting monarchs?”
Gaius smiled and crossed the room. “You’re still adjusting. A few hick-ups are to be expected.” He unwrapped her foot and dribbled a few drops of the bright blue liquid onto her ankle. “Here, that should stop the itching. It’s good news; it means the swelling’s going down.”
Gwen pulled a face and held her nose. “Is there any danger of you ever concocting a medicine that doesn’t stink to high heaven?”
“None whatsoever,” Gaius said. He rewound her bandages and wiped his hands. “Let me see that parchment again.” Gwen reached across the untidy table and handed him a scroll. He consulted it with a frown, drew up a chair next to Gwen’s and sat down so abruptly, the draft caused the sole candle on the table to gutter. Gwen buried her face in her hands.
“What are we going to do, Gaius?”
“I really have no idea, but unless we produce a dragon’s heart two nights from now, Leofwine’s army will lay waste to Camelot!”
“But there aren’t any dragons left in Camelot! Uther saw to it.”
“Which makes obtaining a dragon’s heart a trifle difficult, I can see that,” Gaius said. He raised an eyebrow, when he realised what his fingers had been playing with. Surely, it was just another book from the pile on the table…but why were his fingertips tingling with excitement? He turned the dusty, leather-bound tome around and read the title on the flysheet. “Dragons and their Ladies by Aurelius Smarticus the Younger,” the court physician read out loud. “Maybe the good Aurelius can tell us how dragons lose their hearts!”
“Be serious, Gaius! There’s no such thing as a female dragon. That man Aurelius is a fool. Dragons reproduce by magic, everybody knows that.”
Gaius weighed the book in his hands. “Hm, he’s not called Smarticus for nothing…and he’s devoted a staggering 500 handwritten pages to the subject.” Gaius started reading the first paragraph, but Gwen snatched the book away and shut it firmly.
“If you can drag yourself away from dragons’ romantic entanglements for a moment, perhaps you can tell me how we’re supposed to protect Camelot. Even if we were able and willing to comply with his request, there’s no guarantee Leofwine won’t attack just to prove a point.” Gwen picked up Smarticus’ tome and struck the table so forcefully the two guards raised their sleepy heads. “If Leofwine thinks I’m sending a hunting party of knights into Odin’s realm to search for dragons, he’s got another thing coming. I’d risk offending Odin by crossing his borders and we’d have war on two fronts!”
“Perhaps that’s what Leofwine’s after! He must know there aren’t any dragons left in Camelot. It’s a ruse to draw Odin into a war against Arthur.”
“Getting Odin to do Leofwine’s dirty work, you mean?” Gwen sighed. “I wished Merlin was here, he’s such a comfort in a crisis.”
Gaius patted her shoulder gently. “You miss Arthur, don’t you?”
“Why is he doing this, Gaius? We’ve been married for less than a month and he’s off on one of his infernal quests!” Gaius managed to stop her from hurling Aurelius’ book across the table. Absentmindedly, Gwen picked up her sceptre again.
The old physician shrugged his shoulders. “He’s Arthur; you can hardly expect him to remain in your bedchamber forever, no matter how much you want to protect him, Gwen!”
“He’s king, Gaius, and should be here to protect his people!”
“His people…or his queen? In the king’s absence it falls to you to save the citadel.”
Gwen gave him a long stare. “Is the servant girl up to the challenge – is that what you’re implying?”
“Arthur wouldn’t have chosen you for his queen, if he didn’t think you were destined to be one.”
A faint smile spread across the queen’s face. “Then I shall sweep away Leofwine’s army with my little broom and wash away the stain of my temporary cowardice, I trust.”
“Good girl!” Gaius leaned forward and kissed Gwen’s forehead. “Let’s give Leofwine some medicine he won’t forget in a hurry.”
“If only we knew what Leofwine wants with the dragon heart, perhaps we could find a substitute or dissuade him from this lunacy altogether.” Gwen gave her ankle another rigorous scratching, until Gaius detached the sceptre from her hands and put it out of her reach.
“We’re in for an interesting couple of days, that’s for sure,” Gaius nodded at the snoring head across the table. “I’m glad Geoffrey’s getting some sleep, I know I shan’t rest until Camelot’s safe again.”
“Neither shall I.” Gwen stood up and tested her right foot gingerly. It finally held her weight again. “Hand me the three books over there. You take the pile in front of you. There must be something in Geoffrey’s library that’ll tell us where to find a dragon’s heart!”
“It’s not the finding that worries me – it’s what happens next that’ll keep me awake.” Gaius said and began turning the pages of Dragons and their Ladies.
…/to be continued…