Merlin Fan Fiction: Let the Questing begin (Part 5)


English: Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath's lect...

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 Morgan (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.

English: Head Shot of Tom Hopper

I don’t normally write fan fiction but I confess I’m really having a lot of fun with this. Since the second instalment of my Willow the Vampire series will be featuring an epic battle, I think my Merlin fan fiction will be good practice ground for this. Let the melee begin, hehe.

According to some texts on medieval warfare I read this week, tournaments and melees often ended in serious injuries and sometimes death, so being a knight was not always such fun. Hope those of you who like reading fan fiction will enjoy this latest instalment of Merlin and his merry friends.

English: Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath's lect...

Created on 26th july 2012.

The Honeymoon is over – Let the Questing begin (Part 5)

“Let me go, you hog-faced, wart-infested, pimple-nosed –“Eleanor’s terms of endearment were cut short, when her brother clamped his hand over her mouth and dragged her into the hollow of a willow’s trunk. She tried to wriggle out of Urien’s grasp but he was too strong and trying to bite him prompted her brother merely to tighten his grip and draw her closer into the hollow.

“Quiet or they’ll hear us!” Urien’s lips were so close to her ear, his warm breath sent an involuntary shiver down her spine. She relaxed into his arms and his hand slid from her mouth. Without letting go off her or loosening his hold, he leaned forward and parted the hanging willow branches to reveal the view over the expanse of water and its shores. He pointed wordlessly towards the far end of Lake Merthur, where a group of riders had just arrived. They dismounted, lit a few torches and began searching the ground, gradually coming closer to Urien and Eleanor’s hiding place. Eleanor turned her head and stared at her half-brother. She had recognised one of the men, the one with the bulky arms. These were Urien’s own men!

“I’ll explain later. Follow me!” His voice was barely audible, but the intensity of Urien’s gaze silenced her and she gave into her fate without further struggle. He took her by the hand and steered her away from the lake. They could hear muffled shouting drifting across the water, where the soldiers combed the bushes and undergrowth for traces of Eleanor. Urien raised a finger to his lips, cautioning her to keep her silence. He led her into an area of woodland that lay east of the road to Camelot. Here the terrain was strewn with upturned trees, fallen branches, rocks and boulders, making it difficult to walk in the dark. Eleanor fell several times, but Urien wouldn’t allow his sister to dress her grazed knees or catch her breath. Finally, they came to an overgrown hill that looked very much like an ancient tomb.

Urien darted forward, parted a hawthorn growing at the foot of the hill and revealed the entrance to a cave. He ushered Eleanor into the ancient crypt, ensuring the hawthorn’s branches covered the entrance once more. She shivered, for it was damp and cold in the vault. Urien pulled a handful of kindling from his pocket and struck a couple of flint stones. Before long a spark appeared and he quickly lit a torch. Inside, the mount was far larger than Eleanor had expected and the man-made cave extended probably a league into the ground. The ground was littered with small animal bones and pebbles, which Eleanor identified without difficulty as a sorcerer’s tools. Her eyes got used to the dark and she began to look around less cautiously, but recoiled, when she saw the niches ancient craftsmen had carved into the sides of the cave. Most niches contained complete skeletons, but some were crammed full of skulls. Their hollow eyes stared accusingly back at Eleanor, who sympathised. Their spirits were forced to hunt for their missing bodies, when they’d been promised during their lifetime this crypt was going to be their final resting place. A sound coming from the back of the cave made her jump.

“There’s somebody in here! You’ve betrayed me after all, you rogue!” Eleanor gasped and turned to flee. Urien burst out laughing, grabbed her wrist and pulled her close. He held up his torch to light up the rear part of the crypt. A horse waited patiently by an open sack of oats!

Bede! You found him! Bad boy, running off like that.” Eleanor freed her wrist and darted forward to greet her childhood friend. She rubbed the horse’s muzzle and rested her tired head gratefully against the piebald’s neck. “A snake frightened him and he threw me off.”

Urien smiled. “I found him wandering on the road to Camelot. My men wanted to ride ahead, but I ordered them to the lake and told them to search for you, while I secured this little hidey-hole for your friend.”

Eleanor’s eyes widened. “You’re not taking me back to Leofwine?”

Urien dropped his head and snorted. “Not if I can help it! Listen, give me your scarf. A false trail should buy us some time. Wait until dawn, before you leave for Hild’s Rest, an inn at the Merthur to Arwen road, a couple of hours’ ride from here. Head east and then west again. Wait for me there. Do you have money?”

Eleanor felt for her purse but it was gone. “Bother, I left it in my saddle bag with Mother!”

Urien reached under his cloak and drew out a small leather pouch. “Here, take this. Tell Eanflæd, she’s the proprietor, to show you to a private room, where you can rest. When I’ve made arrangements, I’ll come for you.”

“But why? I thought you’d be keen to take me back. Aren’t you –“

“My father’s errant boy? Hardly! I’m my own man, Eleanor, and right now I see no purpose served in returning you to a realm, where Leofwine’s king.”

“Oh…I see…so that’s how the wind blows? You just pretended to hunt for us to save face with your father’s men. And how do I fit into this great scheme of yours, Urien?”

He smiled and stuck his torch between two protruding rocks. Urien’s pale face seemed to float above hers, when he detached the silk scarf from her moist neck and pressed his lips to her mouth, kissing her fleetingly, before rushing out of the cave and leaving her in the dark to ponder the future.

In an encampment outside Camelot…

Leofwine paced up and down in his tent, ignoring his servant’s plea to rest. The king’s congealed supper stood on a side table, his wine remained untouched, his shaving water was getting cold. The king’s crown lay disregarded on the pillows of his unmade bed. They had driven their horses relentlessly to reach the citadel and now the encampment was built and the demand had been sent up to the castle, Leofwine was more restless than ever. His favourite officer stood close to a small brazier and warmed his hands by the dying fire. Outside, the first soldiers were waking up; the cook was starting to prepare their morning gruel; two sleepy grooms were tending to several exhausted horses. Dawn had arrived and with it some unwelcome news.

“Lost! How could you let this happen? I charged you with her capture, Oswiu. Find her, find Eleanor and bring her to me!”

“Yes, my liege. Beggin’ your pardon, I believe the lady Eleanor had some help.” Oswiu crossed his impressive arms and frowned. “I found tracks of her horse…leadin’ away from the lake, but your son insisted it was a false trail and would lead to nothin’. We were ordered to ride on towards Camelot.”

“Urien?” Leofwine pondered the implications. He cast a surreptitious glance at Oswiu’s face; apart from the dust of the road and the exertion of the hunt, it showed nothing but the man’s customary loyalty. Leofwine licked his dry lips and said quietly: “My heart tells me, Urien would never defy his father’s will…but your face and my own counsel tell me otherwise. Well…well…the whelp thinks he can outwit his king.”

Leofwine selected a crystal from a row of rocks littering a small bed-side table and turned his back to Oswiu. The king turned the crystal thoughtfully in his hands, muttering to himself. The rock lit up in colours of yellow, green and blue and he raised the crystal to his eyes, peering inside. A broad smile stole across his face, his thin lips baring his teeth. He caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the highly polished breastplate of his armour hanging from the central beam supporting the roof. His features startled him as if he had come across an intruder in his tent. His hair had lost in black sheen, what the circles under his eyes had gained in darkness; his chin and cheeks were covered in grey bristles, his lips were pale and no longer full of life…but his heart and loins were still full of longing. He clenched his fist around the crystal and turned his back on the mirror image. Dragonara, you shall pay for this betrayal!

Leofwine raised the crystal to his mouth and planted a kiss on the cold stone. The light in the crystal died; he returned the stone to the table and addressed his officer. “Oswiu, before you leave to retrieve my step-daughter, tell Urien his presence is required instantly.”

Moments later Urien opened the flap to his father’s tent and stepped inside looking just as tired, dishevelled and unkempt as Oswiu did. Leofwine took in the dusty hose, the sweat stains under the arms and the streak of dirt across his son’s brow and grimaced. “Look what the cat’s dragged in!”

The prince helped himself to a cold chicken leg from his father’s supper plate and flopped onto the king’s bed, tossing the ruler’s crown to the floor in the process. “Good to see you, too, Father. How’ve you been?”

Ignoring his son’s pleasantries, Leofwine picked up a richly decorated dagger and began to clean his fingernails one by one. “There’s an errant I need you to run. Take a few men and ride out east towards Lake Merthur, from there take the route towards Osthryth’s Fort. On the way you’ll come across a ruined castle, where a band of brigands is hiding out. They’ve got something of mine…a trifle…a cask of wine…a rare vintage…nothing of great value, I grant you, but I want it back nonetheless.”

Urien bit into the drumstick and chewed thoughtfully. “A cask of wine you say? Hardly worth chasing after! My men and I are tired; we haven’t rested for two full days and nights. It’s market day on Wednesday; can’t I buy you a barrel of Burgundy instead?”

“No you can’t! Don’t argue with me, boy!”

“No need to shout! How did the brigands come into possession of something that belongs to my king?” Urien tossed the bare chicken bone carelessly over his shoulder. It landed on his father’s crown with a gentle POP. “Father, you arrived here accompanied by an army! You couldn’t possibly have been robbed on the way.”

“It was stolen quite some time ago…from my quarters when I was a guest at Castle Deira.” Leofwine turned slowly to face his son. “Thieves hide in the most unlikely places…and appear in the most innocent of guises. You’d be wise to remember that.”

Urien shrugged his shoulders and got up. “I’m pretty done in and so are my men. Can’t this wait? You’ve dragged us all the way out here to Camelot…for what? So you can huff and puff at Arthur’s doorstep and I can show my mettle by dealing with a bunch of thieving vagabonds? Honestly Father, let Dragonara go, she’s not worth it. Go home! If you want, we’ll make halt at Bernicia and ask King Edwin for one of his delectable daughters. I hear Sexburh’s a feisty filly. Edwin might even throw in a cart load of wine, if you’ll take her off his hands. Marry her and leave Camelot be!”

Leofwine sat down heavily on his make-shift throne. He ran his fingers through his grizzled hair and stared with undisguised displeasure at his son. “In the increasingly unlikely event that you should ever become king, you’d do well to remember your people will only respect a monarch who’s capable and willing to defend his honour, no matter what the cost.”

“In other words, this crown doesn’t sit well on the head of a cuckolded husband!” Urien picked up the golden crown and replaced it on the pillows of his father’s bed. “If only I’d kept my mouth shut…it never dawned on me what you might do! If you hadn’t killed Nechtan and threatened the queen, nobody would have been any the wiser. She could have been exiled to her own lands…now you’ve left the kingdom unprotected against its enemies and the throne in peril. How’s besieging Arthur’s citadel defending your honour, Father? What’s Camelot’s king got to do with your failed marriage? Arthur last met the lady, when he was a baby, for goodness sake!”

“Anyone giving that adulteress sanctuary is making a mockery of marriage and kingship, can’t you see that? He’s still young, he doesn’t know any better, but one day Arthur will thank me for teaching him how to deal with such a woman.”

“He’s not going to thank you for laying waste to his realm! You’ve plundered his villages, burned his crops; his people will starve, Father, and you’re raving about his future gratitude?”

Leofwine laughed without displaying even a hint of mirth. “I’m saving him from a worse fate, trust me, Urien. Dragonara’s a sorceress and Arthur is his father’s son. He’ll not harbour her for long, when he hears how she bewitched my court physician to father her bastard son. She’ll bring as much shame on his court as she’s brought to mine.”

“Arthur’s court physician is ancient and in all honesty, I can’t see Dragonara falling for a man who by all accounts never sets foot in a tavern and keeps leeches as pets. She loves a dance and a drink. I’d say Arthur’s pretty safe on the royal scandal front.”

Leofwine sprang up and hurled his dagger at Urien, who ducked just in time. “Fool! Arthur keeps a round table with lots of comely knights! She’ll make him the laughing stock of all the known kingdoms, make no mistake.”

“When do you want me to leave?” Urien said resignedly.

Leofwine chuckled, this time showing genuine mirth. “Without delay, my dear son! When you get to Castle Deira, be sure to try the wine; you’ll agree, it’s worth a king’s ransom, its taste will come as a revelation.”

“I’ve been having quite a few of those lately,” Urien muttered and picked up the dagger. His father hurriedly took a step back, but Urien merely stuck the dagger forcefully into the roast chicken on his father’s plate. Lifting the chicken and dropping it into his satchel on his way out of the tent, he cast a final glance at his father, before calling his men back to work.

On the other side of the walled fortifications…in Camelot…

“As the most powerful of all the magical creatures, the Queen of the Dragons commands over all the other dragons, even the Great Dragon himself. Such is her cunning and sorcery she can turn herself into anything she pleases. None have seen a dragon queen in living memory, but ancient texts tell of golden scales and a crest like silver running all the way down her spine. The ancients describe her transformation into a most beautiful maiden and warn how the dragon queen will seduce pious monks and modest scholars alike,” Gaius snorted. “A little wishful thinking by our friend Smarticus, I’d wager.”

The old physician got up and stretched his tired limbs. He opened the small window in his chambers, allowing the fresh air and sunlight to stream in. It was nearly midday and his stomach was beginning to rumble. He’d missed his supper the evening before and this morning he’d forgotten to take his breakfast. Opening a door to a pine cupboard, he rummaged through his meagre supplies and produced a stale hunk of bread and a piece of dried up cheese. He sighed. It was market day…or rather it would have been, had Leofwine’s army not arrived to cut off all supplies. A squeak reached Gaius’ dull senses and he turned around to find the door had been opened; in the doorframe stood the queen.

Gwen smiled broadly, holding out a large platter with food and a jug of ale. “I thought you might be taking a break from Smarticus and his dragons by now.”

“Gwen, you must be a mind reader! You want to watch yourself, my dear girl, or people will accuse you of sorcery!” He ushered her into the room and drew up a chair. Gwen placed the platter and jug on the overcrowded table and Gaius busied himself with finding plates, knives and tankards.

Gwen yawned and pushed a pile of books to the far end of the table. “Any luck? You look as tired as I feel. If I’m forced to read one more book on dragons, I swear to you, I’ll borrow Arthur’s armour and ride out to slay one myself.”

The old man shook his head. “Geoffrey said very much the same, although I doubt we’ll find a piece of chainmail that’ll hold his gut!”  Gaius surveyed the queen’s offerings. “It’s a veritable feast! Ham and cheese, roast fowl and pork, oh…radishes, how kind, you remembered how much I love them,” Gaius popped a juicy radish into his mouth and was instantly gripped by guilt. “Forgive me, where are my manners.” He handed her a plate and knife.

“No need to stand on ceremony on my account,” Gwen laughed. “All this servant girl’s had since yesterday is a belly full of books!” She heaped thick slices of ham and cheese onto her plate and poured ale into their tankards. “Cheers!”

Gaius stuck his nose into a loaf of bread and inhaled deeply. “Hmmmm…this bread is freshly baked! Where have all these treasures come from? Has Leofwine lifted the siege?”

Gwen’s cheeks were bulging with ham and she hurriedly took a sip from her tankard. “That’s the strangest thing. He hasn’t! This morning my maid came to me with the news that several crates with food had been delivered to the castle gates. The hounds didn’t bark and the guards swear they saw none last night; my maid says she walked past the castle gates just before day break, but there’d been nothing there.”

Gaius snatched the plate away from her. “Don’t eat any more! It might be poisoned.”

“Relax; we’ve tested everything on those useless guards and hounds. Everyone’s fine.” Gwen retrieved her plate and continued helping herself to ham and bread. “Perhaps Leofwine’s regretting his rash decision.”

“A gesture of goodwill from Leofwine? Most unlikely! The man’s clearly unhinged and quite an accomplished sorcerer, if my conclusions are right. Gwen, are you sure the guards haven’t been turned into hogs?”

“I’m quite sure, although frankly, they behaved like swine falling asleep, when they should have been protecting the citadel.”

“The hounds haven’t sprouted wings?”

“Did any fly by your window and bark? I ordered them not to. Bad doggies. Honestly Gaius, have some roast fowl and eat. What makes you think, Leofwine’s a sorcerer?”

“Most of Aurelius Smarticus’ outpourings have to be taken with a pinch of salt – that man’s far too romantic for his own good – but I’ve cross-referenced some of his assertions with the Brittonic Almanac and the diaries of Mathilda of Mercia. Smarticus was right. A dragon’s heart, especially a dragon queen’s, is immensely powerful; whoever owns such a heart can have everything they desire! In the wrong hands a dragon’s heart can lay waste to whole kingdoms in just a blink of an eye. A sorcerer would know how to make that happen.”

“Putting the five kingdom’s at Leofwine’s mercy! Wait a moment…did you say…dragon queens, Gaius?” Gwen wrinkled her nose with the effort of recall. “Just before he dozed off again Geoffrey said something about dragon queens…how did it go…oh yes…once upon a time dragons and mankind lived peacefully side by side, but when men discovered dragons had magic they strove to make use of them for their own ends. When dragons refused, men made war on the beasts to drive them out forever. Let me think…what was it again the dragon queen did to save her fellow dragons?” Gwen took another sip of ale, smacked her lips, but drew a blank. “No, sorry, it’s gone, I can’t remember.”

Gaius looked at her strangely. “I’ll ask Geoffrey when he wakes up. Meanwhile, let’s talk about this food. Where did it come from? This ham you’ve been wolfing down for example. I’d know that anywhere. It’s from Oswin’s Smokeries in Arwen. The town was ransacked two days ago by Leofwine’s army, which means we –“

“Have an ally in Leofwine’s encampment!” Gwen interrupted her friend. “But who?

Gaius pondered the question, while nibbling a slice of cheese. “What about his son Urien? He can’t be pleased with his father’s over-reaction. One day Urien’s going to be king and will inherit whatever’s left of Leofwine’s realm. From what I hear, the king has a rare talent for making enemies. Leofwine’s engaged in various squabbles with his neighbours. Rumour has it he was forced to hire mercenaries; his own men have started to desert him. Urien will be keen to retain some ties with someone as powerful as Arthur.”

“Could the lady Dragonara be our benefactor? If she’s really Arthur’s godmother, she’d want to help him, wouldn’t she?”

“I doubt she’s in the camp or anywhere near Camelot. If she were, her lord and master wouldn’t besiege us at this very moment. Perhaps Leofwine thinks we’re keeping the queen and her daughter hostage? No, I’ll eat my pestle and mortar if the lady isn’t with Arthur, he’s keeping her safe.”

“You’re right, of course. I had to give Leofwine my word we’re not holding her at Camelot, but he didn’t believe me. Whatever prompted Dragonara to leave her lord and master to seek Arthur’s help, it hasn’t disturbed Leofwine’s devotion; he’s clearly keen as mustard to have her back.” Gwen heaped said mustard on her knife and impaled another chunk of ham. She stopped in mid-bite and the ham remained hanging off the tip of her knife without being molested. Gwen dropped her knife with an exclamation. “Gaius, I’ve just remembered. Lord and master, of course!”

The old physician picked the knife off the floor, wiped the mustard off the table and returned the chunk of ham to Gwen’s plate. He cleaned the queen’s knife with a corner of his tunic. “Um…perhaps you could enlighten me…preferably without any more food wastage?”

“The dragon queen! She created dragon lords to tame the beasts rather than slay them. She hoped men and dragons would live in harmony once more. Have you ever heard of such a thing as a dragon lord being created, Gaius? I heard Uther had them all killed because they were born like that.”

“Never, it’s news to me,” Gaius said and popped another radish into his mouth, this time with genuine guilt.

“What if Leofwine knows how to use the heart to his advantage? If it’s true, Leofwine could be far more powerful than we think. As dragon lord he might command a whole army of dragons.”

Gaius shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “All of Camelot’s dragons are dead and as far as I know, there aren’t any left in the five kingdoms either.”

“Damn you Gaius, I was beginning to enjoy my lunch. You’ve just reminded me, we’re still no further finding a dragon heart than we were when all this reading frenzy started.” Gwen picked up her knife and stabbed an innocent radish so forcefully, it shot off the platter and hit Gaius’ nose.

“I see you’re growing into your role as queen quite nicely!”

“Sorry, Gaius. Here, let me wipe –“

“Your Majesty, there’s a rider at the castle’s eastern gate bringing news of King Arthur!” A guard had appeared at the chamber’s door, without either Gaius or the queen noticing.

Gwen dropped her knife for the second time and hurried out of the chamber. The guard respectfully stepped aside as the queen’s rich velvet robes swished past him. Gwen hoisted up her skirts and ran the length of the corridor to reach the main staircase and the eastern gate. Gaius ignored the mustard and ham on his floor and followed his queen as fast as his old legs would carry him to the other side of the citadel, his nose still smarting from the flying radish.

In an inn at the Merthur to Arwen road…

Eleanor let her legs dangle off the bed and assessed her situation. On the plus side, she had enough money to keep her in this comfortable room for at least a month. The food was plain but tasty and the landlady Eanflæd was friendly. On the downside, she counted the proximity of her current abode to Leofwine’s hunting party and encampment as well as her step-brother’s unpredictability. Who’d have thought Urien would ever go against his father’s wishes!

She pummelled a cushion into the required position and rested her head for a while. Closing her eyelids, the image of Leofwine’s castle began to rise up in her mind’s eye. Perched high upon a formidable crag, Castle Segovia was defended by lines of castellated walls that ran down the escarpment only to meet with two more lines of walled fortifications. The fortifications had no fewer than twelve gates in all directions. The gates were protected with squat, square towers from which archers were aiming at potential intruders and friendly visitors alike. For a long time now her father had neither invited nor welcomed his neighbours. Growing up at isolated Castle Segovia had not been easy and she had become accustomed to making her own entertainment and she was forced to admit it, entertainment had largely been provided by her step-brother Urien.

She’d been too young when she and her mother had first arrived at Leofwine’s fortified manor. Urien, a few years her senior, had taken the arrival of a new mother rather amiss, but had never taken his disregard for Dragonara out on his small sister. He’d taught her how to ride a horse, taught her how to hold a sword, instructed her how to aim with a bow and arrow and how to hunt for stag. She in turn had tutored him in the art of showing outward loyalty and maintaining an inward rebellion. Now Urien had finally cast off his puppy coat and was apparently wholeheartedly embracing his new-found freedom. But could she trust him? Had he not been the one who had betrayed her mother’s confidence?

It was Urien who had followed her around no matter where she went in the castle, Urien who’d spied on her mother, Urien who’d promised to keep the secret of Eliffer’s birth. Now Nechtan was dead and Eliffer lost heaven knows where. Eleanor had no worries on behalf of her mother; Dragonara always took care of herself.

Sweet Eliffer…she’d carried him in her arms when she was just a little girl herself and had played with him under Segovia’s ancient bailey, where her mother liked to sit and watch Nechtan pick sloes and elderberries for his tinctures. Nechtan the gentle giant…his strong arms would pick up both children simultaneously and he’d throw them up into the cold autumn air, catching them again, when they came tumbling down, laughing, spluttering, clamouring for more. He would kiss their cheeks and reach into the pockets of his tunic to produce honey-flavoured sweets. Kind, sweet Nechtan…

Eleanor awoke with a start. She peered outside her small window. The sun was reaching its zenith. In the room below voices were calling for Eanflæd. It was midday and the inn was beginning to fill with hungry merchants and travellers. Leofwine’s army might be stationed outside Camelot, but here at the inn life was strangely unaffected, as if Hild’s Rest was a sanctuary from man’s folly. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Eleanor stole to her chamber door and opened it a chink. That voice…where had she heard it before? Listening intently, Eleanor’s eyes wandered around the room, taking in her few belongings. She could be packed and ready to leave within moments. A creak from the broken step on the staircase alerted her. Somebody was coming to the upper floor!

Eleanor dived under the bed, the only hiding place in her chamber. She pulled the sheets and blankets down after her and hoped the intruder would not bother to seek below the bed. The door opened with a squeak. Eleanor held her breath. Someone stepped into the room.

“My lady? It’s me.”

Eleanor breathed a sigh of relief and scrambled out from under the bed. “Eanflæd! You scared the life out of me. What is it?”

“Beggin’ your pardon, but you did say, if anyone came callin’ for you…there’s a man down there askin’ funny questions.” Eleanor’s landlady tidied up her blonde braids with two red, work-worn hands. “Didn’t like the look of him, my lady. Not that he’s ugly; no, far from it, he’s actually quite comely, if you like that sort of thin’. I mean, size is not everythin’ and not every woman likes a huge –“

Eleanor rolled her eyes. “What did he want, Eanflæd?”

“Muscled arm squeezin’ her waist until she’s blue in the face,” Eanflæd carried on unperturbed and straightened her apron. “That one thinks he’s god’s gift to women. I for one prefer a fellow who’s sensitive and carin’. The sort who helps with the milkin’ in the mornin’ and puts the little ones to bed at night.”

“Eanflæd, will you please come to the point?”

“There’s no need to hiss like that, my lady. I told him you’d left for Arwen. Did I do right?”

Eleanor threw her arms around her landlady’s neck and kissed both her rosy cheeks. “Thank you, I shan’t forget this!”

Minutes later, after the good lady had elicited a promise of return from her peculiar houseguest, Eleanor was saddling Bede. Although her horse hadn’t had as much rest as she’d hoped for, he had been fed and watered, cleaned and brushed by Eanflæd’s attentive groom. Bede was a contented horse and would carry his mistress to wherever she desired. But where should she go? Camelot was out of the question, it was the talk of the inn what Leofwine’s army had done to Arthur’s realm. Arwen was the closest town, but it had been ransacked and now Oswiu, her step-father’s favourite officer was hunting her. She’d not dared leaving a message for Urien. His loyalty was still in question. That left only her landlady’s choice! Eanflæd had told her of a castle inhabited by some eccentric but harmless noblewomen. That’s where she would go and throw herself on the mercy of those women. Having made up her mind, Eleanor led her piebald out into the sunshine and crossed the inn’s back yard. Girl and horse passed through the back gate and crossed the brook running behind the inn without incident. Eleanor breathed in deeply. From here it was only a couple of hour’s ride back to Lake Merthur. She smiled ruefully. After all the trouble she’d taken in leaving the lake unnoticed!

She led her horse along the towpath and mounted. From Lake Merthur it was another couple of hours’ ride to Osthryth’s Fort and from there just a short gallop to Castle Deira. She’d reach the castle by early evening. Eleanor looked anxiously around, but at this time of day the brook was deserted and everyone was at the inn for their midday meal. She set off, disregarded by the merchants, labourers and grooms…but not entirely unnoticed, as she’d hoped.

Oswiu stepped out from the shade of a willow tree’s branches and led his horse slowly along the towpath. His orders were to bring the lady back to his king…but the order had not specified when he should hand her over and in what condition. Oswiu stroked his horse’s mane thoughtfully. “Let’s see where the lady’s headed. If we can bag a traitor at the same time, the reward will be even sweeter.”

How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival wer...

How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival were Fed with the Sanc Grael; But Sir Percival’s Sister Died by the Way, a watercolour by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

/to be continued…

(source of animation: heathersanimations.com; pictures of  the actors Katie, Angel and Tom are sourced from Wikipedia)

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