The Honeymoon is over – Let the Questing begin! (Part 18.)
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.
In the council chamber at Camelot…
Gwen watched as the flames devoured the last of the names on the writhing scroll. Eight brave men who had done what they thought was best. Eight fearless knights, old perhaps, but nonetheless determined to stand up against Leofwine’s tyranny. For their king. For Camelot. Yet, knowing Arthur as well as she did, she feared he might not look kindly at their eagerness to hand over what the king regarded as his most precious treasure, the queen’s heart, his to keep for all eternity.
She held up her hands to the fire; no longer trembling now, she watched the hearth’s glow streaming through her outspread fingers, the light reflecting off the golden wedding ring on her finger, an illuminated brush painting a tiny circle on the queen’s breast. In the centre of the circle, a fine silvery thread had come loose from the embroidery on her blouse; the silky strand danced in the warm air that engulfed her by the hearth. Geoffrey’s dagger had cut the cross stitching and a minute spec of red had formed in the centre of the circle. Gwen’s eyes began to swim, when she imagined Arthur’s pain upon finding his queen dead and Camelot lost to tyranny once more.
Turning abruptly, she blinked the watery traitors away and eyed Hueil’s tired face keenly. “And Prince Urien knows this to be true? Arthur is really on his way with an army? But how…and whose army agreed to come to our aid?” Gwen raised an eyebrow, when concern spread across Hueil’s face. “Who told you this? Are they to be trusted?”
“My lady, the falcon arrived with just this brief message.” He sighed and scratched his stubbly chin. “Forgive my misgivings, my lady. If my lord Urien has joined forces with the King of Camelot and the army turns out to be Segovia’s own rear guard…you’ll understand, civil war in my country is not quite the home coming I was looking forward to.”
Gwen stared at Urien’s liege man. “Segovia’s rear guard?”
Before Hueil could answer, a direct hit on Camelot’s west wing reverberated through the massive walls. Tremors emanated from the very foundations and echoed upwards through the curtain walls and the citadel’s eight towers. Gwen closed her eyes in horror. The shockwave would have thrown the men on the battlements off their feet and the archers would have loosened their volley of arrows far too early to be of use against the enemy. Gwen opened her eyes and inhaled sharply, when the sounds from the battleground reached the castle’s inmates. The archers had truly missed their targets – Leofwine’s men were cheering and shouting their taunts louder than ever. A brightly lit torrent of arrows swished past the open council chamber window with a squeal. Gwen straightened, threw back her shoulders and walked stiffly over to the window, shutting it with a determined bang.
She turned and frowned at her unexpected visitor. “You were going to tell me about Segovia’s rear guard?”
A rather pale Hueil was still holding on to the table by his side. “Uh, sorry, I’m feeling a little faint.” Hueil pointed wearily to a chair. “May I sit?”
“Of course, I beg your pardon.” Gwen darted forward and filled a goblet with wine, as Hueil sank onto one of the carved council chamber chairs. He took the goblet from Gwen’s hand and drank deeply, but all the while his eyes scrutinised her. Gwen considered his position. He was clearly fiercely loyal to his prince but also reluctant to show disloyalty to his king. While that did him credit and showed him to be a man of integrity, it did nothing to enlighten her as to Arthur’s newly acquired army and current whereabouts. She smiled wanly. “Leofwine’s bombardment has gone on for so long, I have become accustomed to the ground shaking under our feet.”
“You’re very brave, my lady.”
Gwen shrugged her shoulders. “Not I! I keep pretending we’re out at sea.”
She sat down opposite Hueil and pushed a decanter with ruby wine and a platter with bread and ham across to him. “Here, you must be famished.”
“Thank you, my lady, I don’t mind if I do.” Gwen watched as Hueil tore a chunk out of the bread, his hands grimy and covered in fresh scars. Hueil’s blood spattered hand reached for the platter and a large slice of ham disappeared without trace within moments, followed by an enormous bite out of the bread.
Noting the puzzled look on her face, Hueil hurriedly swallowed his meal. “Prince Urien’s falcon has his favourites. Sadly, I’m not one of them.” A grin spread slowly across Hueil’s face, now that his cheeks were no longer bulging. “I hear fashionable ladies-in-waiting wear riding caps adorned with feathers this year. What say you, Your Majesty, would such a gift cheer your own heart?”
Gwen smiled. “Fashion has been known to aid peace occasionally.” She fingered the fine cross stitching on his dusty cloak. “Once Urien’s favourite messenger has lost the strength in his wings, I have no doubt the seamstress responsible for this garment will receive her just deserts.” Gwen raised an eyebrow confidentially.
Taking another deep draught from his goblet, Hueil considered Gwen for a moment; then he relented with a sigh. Leaning across the table he came closer, still preserving a polite distance between them not to offend Her Majesty’s dignity.
“Her name’s Mariette. She’s the niece of Princess Eleanor’s lady-in-waiting. I want to ask for her hand…but she’s still undecided. My loyalty to Prince Urien has been a bit of a stumbling block,” Hueil confessed with a sigh. “And she resents the time I spend in his aviary.”
Gwen eagerly pushed her emotional advantage. “It’s hard being so far from the one you love. I wished there was a way to end this idiotic siege, so we could all sleep easy in our beds again.” Realising what she’d said, she blushed very prettily. “Erm…I wasn’t implying you and Mariette –“
Hueil guffawed, waving his chunk of bread with the air of a man who discusses his love life with royal heads every day of the week. He leant a little closer across the table, a corner of his neckerchief dipping into his goblet. “Between us and these four walls…Mariette’s as pure as the driven snow…more’s the pity.”
“The gift of a pretty falcon feathered cap might lighten her mood and prompt her to bestow her favours more generously?” Gwen fished his neckerchief out of the goblet and wrung out one corner, dark red droplets spattering across the stretch of table between them.
“Ah, but my lord Urien loves that darn beast to distraction – “
“And he shall go on loving it, my friend! If I’m not mistaken, one of our huntsmen reported one of Camelot’s falcons expired a few days ago. I wonder if a tail feather or wing might not be procured? Call it a gesture of good faith, Master Hueil.” Gwen beamed, her brown eyes twinkling in the candle light. “I have good faith in the power of love and that people usually do what that’s right in the end, don’t you?”
Hueil sat up straight and blinked. “Of course!” He took another swig of wine and cleared his voice: “Your Majesty didn’t hear this from me…but Leofwine always leaves a quarter of his men behind until the siege is well under way. When the die is cast in his favour, Leofwine brings out his rear guard for the kill. He received word there are tunnels leading right into Camelot. He will count on the element of surprise.”
Her guise as temptress forgotten, Gwen’s small fist pounded the table with force. “Then he has miscounted his fortunes!” She jumped up and started pacing the chamber. “I will send a scouting party through the tunnels and if the rear guard is indeed headed that way, we shall know how to act…and if by fortuitous chance –“
“The rear guard turns out to have joined Arthur and his men,” Hueil continued her sentence, “your scouts can lead Camelot’s king and his men right into Leofwine’s vulnerable flank, where they’ll be able to cause painful mischief. Leofwine won’t know the men appearing on the hill behind Arthur are really Segovia’s own warriors…well, not until they are within a sword’s range and he’s staring up the nostrils of his own knights.”
“Exactly!” The queen paused in her perambulations around the council chamber table. Her eyes happened on Aurelius Smarticus’ book. Gwen tapped the book with her ring-finger and laughed out loud. “Aurelius Smarticus, you are rapidly becoming my favourite writer! I say, Hueil, you’ve given me an idea. Subterfuge and a trick of the eye…the old tunnels…I wonder…it might just work! Follow me!” Gwen turned on her heel and pushed through the halberds her guards had crossed to cover the council chamber doors. One of the startled guards accidentally hit the wall and the halberd’s blade screeched across the brick work, but nothing would deter Gwen from her task. She tore open the doors and hitched up her long skirts. Pausing only long enough for Hueil to grab his gauntlets and helmet, she pounded down the corridor.
Troubled, Hueil called after her. “My lady, where are going? You’re not thinking of entering the tunnels by yourself?”
Guinevere didn’t stop. She turned left into the next corridor and hurried down a stair case, taking two steps at a time. On the landing, she half turned and cried over her shoulder. “Come quickly, Hueil, we haven’t a moment to lose! Leofwine wants a dragon’s life…he shall have a dragon’s last breath and be welcome to it! I’ll promise him a last gasp he won’t forget in a hurry!”
Bewildered, Hueil followed the queen as instructed, wonder written all over his face. How anyone could run so fast in such dainty shoes? He made a mental note to find out Mariette’s running speed before they were betrothed. Who’d want a husband unable to keep up with his wife?
He chased after the queen, down the stairs and onto the next level, where Gwen hurtled through a long, covered walkway with handsome, carved columns on either side, before diving into a corridor that lead to the royal couple’s domestic quarters and guests’ chambers; issuing forth orders along the way to any servants they met on the way, Gwen sailed on without waiting for Hueil. The commotion of running feet brought Gwen’s maid out into the corridor. She was carrying a couple of woollen blankets, no doubt intended for Gaius’ use.
“Thank goodness, there you are, Emma! Blankets…good thinking, bring them, oh, and this can go, too!” Gwen tore down a moth-eaten wall hanging and thrust the embroidered adventures of Uther the Magnificent into Emma’s overloaded arms. “I’ve always hated the thing. Arthur’s cranky old nurse presented it on our wedding day.” Gwen pulled a face. “As if I needed a permanent reminder of Nurse Ida’s deeds! We know only too well, who spoiled Arthur during his most formative years.”
Emma giggled and followed her queen into the royal bed chamber. “None better than poor Merlin, my lady. T’ way his Majesty bellows for his bath in the mornin’…cook can hear him in t’ kitchens – ”
No longer listening, Gwen was busy assessing the contents of her husband’s wardrobe and flung out two soiled shirts and one rather worn-out hose. Emerging slightly red faced, she said: “Take these wretched things, so Merlin won’t have to mend them again and, Emma, fetch me any spare sheets, chairs, wicker baskets and straw-filled mattresses you can find. Tell the men to bring them to the entrance of the great cave below the dungeons. Hurry! I’ll see to Gaius, never fret.”
Leaving an utterly stunned Emma in her wake, Gwen rushed down the corridor and practically flew past the statue of the griffon that guarded the staircase to the throne room. Hueil had trouble keeping up with the queen. Gwen entered the vast chamber and made a quick survey of the inventory. She cornered one of the knights who had been guarding the throne.
“See to it that all unused benches, trestle tables and chairs are brought to the entrance of the cave that lies below Camelot. Get the huntsmen and their beaters down there, too. Tell them to bring their drums and whistles. Where’ll I find Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Edward de Mangetout?”
The knight directed her to a small look-out tower from where Edward and Geoffrey surveyed the fiery siege engulfing the citadel’s western tower and curtain walls. The noise of the attackers’ rocks hitting the castle walls and the citadel’s own catapults’ returning fire was enough to render the small party deaf. They retreated to the relative safety of the battlements surrounding one of the main towers in the east. Below them, within the walled fortifications that surrounded the inner village, fires had sprung up here and there.
The sound of collapsing roofs and falling masonry was not enough to drown the screams from those trapped inside their burning homes. Smoke filled the air; the stench of burning flesh rose up from the courtyard and the village. Men and beast tried to flee a fiery end but wherever they ran Leofwine’s warriors and death were waiting for them. Beyond the outer curtain walls the settlement was already lost. A line of fire marked the spot were once a fine row of merchant houses had graced the village. Gwen shuddered, but was determined not to lose her courage in the light of such wanton destruction.
“Geoffrey, will you sit with Gaius, Hueil and me for a moment to hold a council of war? Sir Edward, I need you to come, too.” The old librarian and Arthur’s advisor followed their queen and Hueil without a murmur of dissent, although the Segovia emblem on Hueil’s cloak clearly tested their resolve not to burden their queen with unnecessary questions.
They arrived outside Gaius’ chamber just as another missile struck the citadel. The impact shook the castle’s foundations so hard that Gwen and Geoffrey were forced to cling to the door frame or be thrown off their feet. The force of the strike flung Sir Edward and Hueil against the opposite wall, where wall hangings and decorative shields plummeted down adding to the general uproar and clamour; a large crack appeared in the plasterwork with an eerie screech that caused Geoffrey to nearly jump out of his skin. A rumble as loud as an angry dragon’s roar followed the direct hit. Hueil scrambled up, rubbing his shoulder and Sir Edward hoisted up his heavy belt and sword, his face ashen and his hair sticking up in dusty tufts.
He turned towards his queen. “My lady, whatever you have in mind…may I respectfully request we make this the shortest council meeting on record?”
Gwen nodded wordlessly and turned towards Gaius’ door. She willed herself not to think about the men outside. When the roar of the citadel’s crumbling walls ebbed away, the corridors were filled with the screams of falling men whose task it had been to fire arrows from the battlements but who were now tumbling into the flames below, where they were swallowed hole. The warriors’ death cries mingled with the boom of falling masonry and the hissing of pitch-filled pigs’ bladders originally destined for the enemy’s camp but now dropping into the courtyard below and engulfing the citadel’s own men in an inferno.
Gwen’s hands flew to her mouth and her eyes filled with tears; she stifled a cry and the urge to run away, leaning for the fraction of a moment against Geoffrey’s reassuring bulk. This brief contact with human warmth was enough to rekindle her courage. With a visible effort, she steadied her trembling hands and reached for the door knob. She opened the door but shut it instantly with a yelp. The sharp tongue of a flame had nipped her hand and was now snaking through the keyhole, mocking them.
“Gaius is in there! Please help him!” Gwen’s tear-stained, upturned face entreated the travel-worn warriors at her side. Hueil pushed her gently aside and Sir Edward cautiously opened the door afresh. A flash of heat and flames shot past them and hit the wall opposite, leaving a blackened circle where once Merlin’s favourite painting had graced the walls. Smoke billowed out of the room, followed by several small explosions. Hueil and Sir Edward shook hands briefly; then they darted through the open door into the blistering heat and smoke clouds that greeted them. Gwen’s strength gave way and she cried out after her friends.
Apart from the hissing fire raging inside Gaius’ chambers, the silence that greeted Gwen and Geoffrey out in the corridor was positively deafening.
“Sir Edward…Hueil…where are you?” Gwen ventured forward and peered into the billowing smoke, holding her arm across her nose. “Gaius…are you there?
An ear shattering explosion threw Gwen off her feet and sent Geoffrey’s rotund figure flying through the air.
/too be continued…