It was only a two-and-a-half hour drive to Jacksonville, where this descendent of Percival's just happened to live. Matthew's doubtful look earned him an explanation from Arthur.
"Freya, the Lady of the Lake-no, I won't explain her, I can't-told us he lived somewhere in the southeast part of the States. Turns out that he moved here to Florida two years ago, just after you started college in Crystal River. Freya's guess was likely correct, that your magic drew him close by just as it is also drawing everything else."
"Which is why the most important part of our plan is to keep moving," Gwaine said with a grin, "and carry loads of weaponry." With the half-dried splash of wendigo blood across his chin and neck, he looked slightly crazed.
Matthew shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Was this really all because of him? The guilt was becoming overwhelming, even though it was over something he didn't understand, or completely believe in. Wouldn't he know it if he putting out some kind of magic GPS beacon?
Matthew's mother was relieved when Arthur called to let her know of their escape. In return, she had given them news of the battle with the wendigos. Final count: twenty-three people had been injured, four killed. Thirty wendigos had been taken out; none had escaped. She wanted to wire them money, but Arthur refused it. She took that, as she had everything else, so much easier than Matthew would have expected.
"Turn off here. I can't stand this stench any longer," Arthur snapped a few minutes later, indicating the blood and gore from the wendigos drying on his clothing.
Matthew was relieved to obey. The car was filling up with stink. As the men went to clean up in the restrooms, Matthew vacated the car and opened all the doors, hoping the fresh air would do some good. Wendigos smelled like ten skunks dipped in a vat of rancid fish entrails. He sincerely hoped they were all dead.
The gas station they had stopped at, a small one with a local sign, "Randy's", was set in front of a picturesque grove of orange trees. Matthew stretched to release the tension in his back and leaned back against the warm side of the car. He gazed at the beautiful green of the trees ahead, but his thoughts sank instantly. Four people had died during the wendigo attack. Had they had families? Kids? What if had been one of his nurses?What if he'd left behind a smell they could follow right to them? Then Tanya would be in the most danger.
Matthew banged a fist against the car and tried to keep breathing through the tightness in his chest. There was no reason for all of this! He hadn't asked anyone to help him, to save him. They should have just-
"You all right?" Gwaine asked as he approached. He had changed shirts and scrubbed away most of the blood and gore.
Matthew blinked a few times and tried to calm his breathing. He nodded and was glad, for the moment, that he couldn't babble all those things he'd just had running through his head. Gwaine and Arthur were helping him. They didn't need to hear him being sorry for himself and raging against...all of this.
"Let's go," Arthur said, taking shotgun again.
"Once a princess, always a princess," Gwaine sighed and got in the back seat.
Matthew raised an eyebrow at Arthur, but the man didn't explain. Princess? He was eventually going to get that story out of Gwaine.
Jacksonville was as overwhelming as Matthew expected it to be. With almost 900,000 residents spread out over the largest area of any U.S. city, once you were in, it seemed determined to keep you there. The city went on and on. Traffic moved fast and it was difficult to follow the directions of the GPS as lane after lane of traffic folded into and out of theirs.
Matthew, who'd grown up in a small town, felt bullied by all the cars on his bumper and cutting rudely in front of him.
"I should be driving," Gwaine kept saying.
Arthur watched the cars swerve and speed around them. "You could go faster, Matthew."
Matthew made a rude noise. Two more cars cut in front of them.
"I really should be driving."
But after several mis-exits and misdirections, they found themselves in the right suburb-a place called Arlington. The GPS led them along the east bank of the St. Johns River, a very picturesque drive lined with palm trees and mossy oaks.
"Nearly there, Matthew," Arthur said quietly, seeming to read Matthew's exhaustion without any trouble. Matthew nodded. His head was throbbing and his body ached in weird places.
"Just think, you could have been stretched out in the back seat this whole time while I drove circles around these miscreants," Gwaine put in. "So, looks like we take the next right. Well done. More aqua, pink and yellow houses ahead. Lovely. Now we just find the right numbers on the curb."
Matthew nodded and eased up in front of a long, winding driveway with the number 608 on tan brickwork beside an open gate.
"Drive up the lane and we'll knock at the door. They're expecting us." Arthur had been texting away during the drive; he must have been warning them ahead. Matthew wasn't sure how he felt about this, but he pulled up anyway.
The curve of the drive was lined with oaks and shrubbery that blocked the house from view until you could no longer see the road. Then a stately mansion appeared, a dark brick Tudor home with a steeply pitched gable roof, a rounded arch entranceway and an exterior stone chimney that split the front view neatly in half.
"Finally. Now there's a house I like," Arthur said as he got out of the car and smiled.
"You mean the flat roofs and pastel colors don't do it for you?" Gwaine asked. "This is definitely a nice place. Percy's folks did well for themselves."
Matthew pulled out his phone to answer the latest text from his mom, asking for the address of the house. He texted it to her, adding that they might be spending a few extra hours here, resting as Arthur had promised.
As he finished up, Arthur opened the driver's door and offered him a hand up. Matthew was surprised to find that he truly needed help to simply stand. Overwhelmed by the effect of all the excitement on his healing body, he hardly noticed as they were welcomed inside and set down with a dinner of ham and swiss sandwiches, chips and lemonade. As soon as he was done, he flopped his head down on his arms and fell fast asleep.
Arthur had mostly gotten used to sandwiches and soft drinks since his return, but could not abide the things Gwaine munched on continuously-potato chips. To keep him from downing his weight in the things, Arthur sent Gwaine to check out the house's defenses. If his hunch was correct, they would be more formidable than they appeared. That was good, on the off chance that there was another attack.
Arthur stretched and stood, walking over to the window, basking in the still quiet of the house around him. The view to the rear of the house was quite stunning. Artful landscaping divided the lawn below with neatly placed rows of large, flowering bushes and trees, sectioning off different areas for seating or cooking outdoors. One area held a brick contraption that looked to be a grill used for cooking meat. Clever design. Beyond the yard lay a fenced-in court of some kind, with a net and markings that surely meant it for sport of some kind.
Farther beyond that lay a wide swath of the very blue St. Johns River and a spectacular view of Jacksonville's downtown skyline. Buildings of that proportion still seemed a miracle to Arthur, and the enormous bridge that allowed cars to cross the river was even more stunning. How had mankind come so far in many ways and yet failed in so many others? When Arthur thought of the history Merlin had lived through-the wars, the plagues-it made him literally sick to his stomach. He'd finally asked Gwaine to tell him no more about it. If he heard any more stories, he wanted them to be from Merlin's own lips.
Arthur turned back and glanced at Matthew, still napping at the table, his skinny, ridiculous elbows poking out from under the mass of messy black almost-curls. Merlin had never worn his hair that long, but Arthur had grown used to it. In fact, he rather liked it, as it hid more of his ridiculous ears. Once Merlin was Merlin again, perhaps he might be persuaded to leave it.
Arthur snorted and crossed to the window set-in the back door of the kitchen. He could only imagine how amused Merlin would be at his thoughts. This view here was more narrow, just a pathway to the garage. Nothing dangerous there. He idly wondered where Gwaine was now. It had been very quiet without him.
As Arthur was turning back, he caught a flash in the window and jerked to a halt. There was nothing there, though he studied the view intently. No, nothing. Arthur moved away, feeling unsettled.
The figure he'd seen...it had looked like something, well, someone, from a dream he'd been having on and off almost every time he slept, which, admittedly, wasn't very much; sleep had deserted him lately. Arthur would go twenty-four or twenty-eight hours before tiring and then only sleep an hour or two before feeling recharged. It was handy for keeping watch, but it left his brain to percolate too long over things.
This was not the time nor place for topics of that sort. First he had to keep Merlin safe and then find a way to bring him back to himself. Hopefully, that would lead to Merlin finding his voice, even if it was only to scream at Arthur for staying away for so long. Then they would have that hug Merlin had always been nattering on about and then, plenty of time for discussions about silly things like hair and potato chips and what exactly to do with a eternal life once you've gotten it.
There was a shuffle of footsteps outside and then Gwaine was at the door, whistling his way inside. "House is as safe as castles once the doors are locked. Bars over the windows, Steel plate over the doors. Nothing can get in. It's almost like they knew what was coming."
Arthur nodded. "Well done."
"Cheers," Gwaine said as he grabbed another handful of chips, much to Arthur's disgust.
Just then, the housekeeper, Rosetta, entered and frowned at them. She was a sweet-natured Hispanic woman with large, brown eyes and graying brown hair who had done Arthur the huge favor of disliking Gwaine on sight. "Dr. Driscoll has just arrived and he'll be wanting to talk as soon as he walks through the door. Wake your young friend there and you can move into the study. No. No more chips for you! Rápido!"
Arthur reluctantly shook Merlin awake, and forced himself to accept his friend's silence and his new name once more. Not hearing Merlin speak was more grating than he could have predicted. He'd had no idea how much of their friendship had been based on the words they exchanged, the jibes, the insults, the low confessions of faith and belief.
Matthew stumbled blearily along to the restroom, excusing himself with a wave and a sheepish look that was so Merlin that Arthur found himself smiling. His friend was in there somewhere.
They heard a voice in the other room, brisk footsteps, and then a man was entering the study. Gwaine and Arthur stood to greet him and the man closed his cell phone with a snap.
"I'm Dr. Driscoll, Henry if you'd like, and you are welcome to my home." Arthur shook the man's hand firmly, his gaze taking in the man's conservative suit, neatly-combed hair, and enormous, drooping mustache. His brown eyes looked lively and receptive, the kind of man who might actually be ready for the story he was about to hear.
"Arthur. Arthur Pendragon," Arthur said with a nod and a smile, and the man's steady gaze faltered.
"That's...quite a coincidence," Dr. Driscoll said, tugging at his mustache. "And your friend is?"
"Gwaine," the knight said simply as he reached for the man's hand.
Dr. Driscoll shook his hand even more slowly, then paused. "Have a seat," he gestured to the couches and sat behind his desk. Leaning back, he studied them before speaking. "Are you aware that I am one of the foremost Arthurian scholars in the country?"
Arthur couldn't help but smile. "Yes, I was. As well as being an enthusiast of the study of magic in all forms, which is more to the point."
"Interesting. And you say that you are actually named Arthur Pendragon? Well. How did you come by that name? Did you have it changed? Read it in a book or three or four, perhaps?" The man's gaze bore into Arthur's own.
"It was given me by my parents."
"And they were?"
"Igraine de Bois and Uther Pendragon."
The scholar blinked several times, then stood. Then sat down again, all without saying a word. He seemed to be coming to some conclusion all on his own. "Are you saying, sir, what I think you're saying?"
Arthur stood. "I am claiming nothing. I am simply a man in need of assistance. Our families meant something to each other once, long ago, and I find myself nearly friendless in a strange land. Can I count on your support?"
Gwaine rolled his eyes at Arthur, but the scholar seemed touched. Again he was quiet and seemed to wrestle with things unseen. "Where did you just come from?"
Arthur narrowed his eyes. "Crystal River."
The scholar's eyes lit up. "Then the monsters, the wendigos..."
Gwaine was looking between the two of them, realizing there was a lot going unsaid here. "That's right. And you haven't even met Merlin yet."
"Merlin?" Dr. Driscoll's eyebrows raised up and his face looked ten years younger. "The Merlin? Is he here?"
Sheepish footsteps in the doorway let everyone know that Matthew hadn't been far away. He walked in with his shoulders bowed, his expression murderous. He made the, by now, familiar hand gestures that Gwaine was able to interpret. "He says no, he's not Merlin. His name is Matthew. It's a long story."
"Not exactly," Gwaine began, but the scholar interrupted him.
"Yes, well, if you'll excuse me, I must make a phone call. Please, stay put and my sister-in-law will come right over. I'll want someone to back me up."
"Back you up."
"Well, I wouldn't want to go around making claims without someone agreeing with me. If I may be excused, your majesty?" The twinkle in the man's eyes was half-manic, half-gleeful.
"Of course," Arthur granted with a slight incline of his head.
The man left muttering to himself.
Matthew huffed out a breath and gestured wildly to Arthur, which both of his friends interpreted correctly as What the hell?
"We'll need help to figure out how to proceed from here. I assure you, Matthew, that I am completely out of my depth in this situation. How can I keep you safe if I have no idea what is hunting you?" By this point, Matthew was typing on his phone wildly and Gwaine leaned over his shoulder to read it.
"He says, 'And this guy is an expert?'"
"As much of one as I'm expecting to find in this day and age."
"He's right, mate," Gwaine said, clapping a hand on Matthew's shoulder. "It looks like this guy believes us, which puts him head and shoulders above most of the country. He fed us and he's got enough room for us to pack it in for a night. Plus, he knows stuff. We can rest, eat and do research at the same time."
Matthew threw up his hands. It wasn't as though he had some vested interest in leaving. He sat back in the couch and sent a hand ghosting over his right hipbone where the creature's talons had done the most damage. The skin on the outside had healed well, but the inside was tender and aching. He tried to ignore Arthur and Gwaine as they discussed tactics, magic and what help they could expect from Dr. Driscoll. Right now, Matthew didn't care what help they got as long as it involved a bed and a shower at some point.
He was just starting to nod off again when there were noises at the back door. Arthur stood, hand at his sword. Then Gwaine walked in, casual as always. "He's back and he's got a lady with him."
Arthur nodded and relaxed his stance. His gaze strayed to Matthew, who had slunk far down in the couch and was comfortable that way. Arthur gestured, but Matthew stayed where he was. He did not approve of telling these people that he was the Merlin.
"Ah, gentleman, let me present my sister-in-law, Sister Tabitha."
The professor gestured to the woman beside him, a lady of unclear age who echoed the
scholar in stance and hair color, but had a mobile face with exaggerated features easily given to
emotion. She was dressed in the style of a gypsy, which was not surprising given her name.
"How nice...to...," she began, then stopped and gasped, and a shudder went through her entire body. Staring at Arthur, her eyes filled with tears. "Oh...your aura. It's...it's...so beautiful. I've never, never seen one like it. Are you...?"
"Then it is truly him," Dr. Driscoll said, in a choking voice. "The Once and Future King."
"Yes! I can see it! I can't...oh, your majesty," she half-sobbed, then fell to her knees, "you've returned!"
Arthur was shocked, but no less so when Dr. Driscoll did the same thing. "Your majesty," he said as he bowed his head. "I only waited to be sure. We will help you in any way we can."
Tabitha lifted her head and fixed shining eyes on Arthur. "Please. Can we help you, sire?
Emotion clouded Arthur's mind for a breath-stealing moment. "Thank you. Please. Rise. I am...moved that you recognize me. Here I am in a new time, a new place, and I have only one knight by my side-Sir Gwaine." Tabitha and Dr. Driscoll nodded to Gwaine.
"At your service," Gwaine said with a courtly bow and a roguish wink to Tabitha.
"I have returned to aid my servant, who mind has been lost due to the ravages of time. Returning him to his own mind and to his own place is of vital importance."
"Of course." Dr. Driscoll was almost vibrating with excitement. "And this servant would be Merlin, the one whose welfare calls his king back from the beyond?"
Gwaine raised his eyebrows, but Arthur managed to keep his expression serious. "Yes. His name is Merlin, though he goes by the name of Matthew in this time. Matthew?" All eyes went to the slouched form on the couch.
Matthew had been thrown by Tabitha's reaction to Arthur and by their sudden acceptance of Arthur's identity. He had sunk deeply into the brown leather couch and was glad to be overlooked until now. Reluctantly, he slid off the sofa and turned to face the two of them, bracing himself. But he was completely unprepared for what came next.
Tabitha's face contorted in horror and she covered her mouth with both hands. Matthew threw Arthur a questioning look, but he looked just as puzzled. Dr. Driscoll moved to her side.
She finally found her voice, tremulous though it was. "What have they done to you? Your aura..." She moved forward, one hand lifted as if to touch him and then froze, shaking her head from side to side. "They've twisted it. Bound it. How can you stand it?"
"It's okay," Dr. Driscoll soothed her.
"No, it's not," she said, pushing him away. "And there's something else." Her voice deepened as she stepped forward. "Someone has a connection to your aura." She lifted a hand to the air around Matthew. He tried to stand still. Arthur moved closer, only a step away now.
"What do you mean by connection," Arthur asked her quietly.
"Someone has been leeching power from him. Magic. It floats here along this path," she waved one hand through the air away from Matthew, "and goes somewhere, to someone."
Matthew watched Gwaine and Arthur exchange looks.
"To whom?" Arthur said more loudly.
Sister Tabitha frowned. "It's not easy to see. It's so far away. I'll try." She faced Matthew again and stepped closer, grimacing slightly. "I'm sorry. Your aura is beautiful, or it would be, if it weren't so...tortured." She looked up at him and focused on his temple. "It's there, the beginning of the connection. I can see it. It's old. It was made a long time ago."
"And you can see all of this?" Dr. Driscoll breathed out.
"Oh yes, it's...so sad," she whispered. "And then this...wait...this bit is leaking, going somewhere right now." Her hand floated along, following the path in the air. "It's being pulled by someone." Her eyes closed and she turned slightly away from Matthew.
Matthew closed his eyes, too, becoming aware of a sharp, small pain in his head, just where Tabitha had said. There was a pull, too, there...a dragging of some kind. He felt it now, and was aware that it had always been there, at least as long as he could remember. Wasn't it something of an anchor, tying him to the earth, or-
He flushed. Did everyone not have that feeling?
"At the other end...someone is there."
Matthew's eyes snapped open. Arthur's face grew pale as Tabitha continued, "...a woman? Yes, a...a gray woman. And she wants...oh, she is evil! And she wants...no. No!"
With a sudden cry, she shoved both hands forward and grasped at the air behind Matthew. He jerked once, twice and his knees folded. Arthur caught and steadied him before he could fall to the floor.
"I did it. I did it," Tabitha whispered before she, too, collapsed into her brother's arms.
"Tabitha?" Dr. Driscoll asked, concerned.
"I did it," she repeated, "I stopped her." Then she reached out to Matthew. "But it won't last long. She's coming for you. You must be ready." When she faded further, Dr. Driscoll carried her to the couch, calling for Rosetta.
"This has happened before," Dr. Driscoll said breathlessly to the others. "She's one of the few genuine psychics I know of, and she's tremendously sensitive to the planes of magic. You can take her words for the truth."
Matthew was only half-cognizant of those words, or of Gwaine coming closer to Arthur and the heated discussion that began only steps away. His awareness had shrunk to himself and all that he hadn't noticed before.
That place, where the "anchor" had been and where it had been ripped away...there was something there. How had he never noticed? Matthew gasped and fell to his knees. Touching it with his mind was like trying to probe a black hole-a sucking, screaming darkness that wanted to swallow him whole. A tremor went through his whole body.
Arthur knelt before him, saying something that Matthew couldn't hear. Matthew reached to him and Arthur's eyes widened.
"Merlin?" he gasped.
Then Gwaine was there, too, staring into his eyes, "Bloody hell. Is he doing magic?"
That feeling had come back, of ants crawling under his skin. The heat that had so often filled his chest was now seeping up into his eyes. They were warm and everything around him had a golden haze.
Arthur helped him to stand, all the while staring deeply into his eyes.
Matthew pushed him away, searching inside, feeling desperate. Did this mean he was everything they said? A legend? Magic? Then what was wrong with him? Why did he feel like he was drowning? Determined, he found that place again and pushed at it. A surge of pain shuddered through him, leaving him shaking. Was it magic? Then why did it hurt?
He shoved at it again in frustration and that energy returned to him in pure agony. It filled him up, left him gasping on the floor and waiting for the world to return in noise and color again.
Arthur and Gwaine were over him, concern on their faces, but he pushed them away again. What if it were all true? What if that power was his own, tied down and forced to keep quiet when all it wanted to do was...was...what? What could it do? Matthew looked up and found Arthur still watching him.
"Merlin?" he asked tentatively.
Matthew closed down and looked away, shaking his head. He wasn't Merlin. But if he could find the courage to try to face that darkness within himself, he just might find that he was. Matthew's face crumpled.
Gwaine put an arm around his shoulders. "This all right?"
Matthew swallowed hard and nodded, wiping at the tears as quickly as he could. He managed to nod when Gwaine whispered helpful things like, "We're right here with you, mate. Don't panic. You're not on your own, not by a long shot."
After all the excitement, Dr. Driscoll insisted that they stay the night, no matter the danger, honoring him with their presence. "Rosetta's already readied the guest rooms, so please, no arguments."
Gwaine took Merlin upstairs to help him get into bed, while Rosetta made Tabitha more comfortable in her favorite room-the sunroom, which featured a beautiful view of sunrise every morning.
Arthur found himself seated at the kitchen table with Dr. Driscoll, cozily sipping something amazing called hot chocolate.
"It's usually served in colder weather, but Tabitha says it's good for recharging psychic and emotional energy when it's been used up. She asked Rosetta to send several up to Matthew before he sleeps."
"Dr. Driscoll," Arthur began.
"Call me Henry, please," Dr. Driscoll interrupted.
"Thank you, Henry. Can you explain to me what an aura is?"
"Oh, forgive me. I should have realized. It is, perhaps, a modern concept. An aura is a visual perception of another's life force or personal energy. Most people cannot see them, but those who can say that they are unique to each person and broadcast one's inner character. Tabitha said that yours, Arthur, is a divine and burnished silver that proves your nobility and strength."
"What did she say about Matthew, about what she saw?" Arthur asked.
"That he has the most radiant aura, golden and pure and more magic than any she's ever had the pleasure to see. But that makes it all the more painful to see it damaged and restrained."
Arthur thought a moment, sensing that this wasn't something he would be able to truly understand. "But she was able to help him in some way?"
The professor leaned over the table, his eyes narrowing. "Are you certain you can trust Matthew?"
Arthur frowned. "Why do you ask?"
"He had a connection to this evil woman. That does not shake your faith in him?"
"No. He was completely unaware of it. And...the circumstances leading up to his presence in America here are difficult to explain. Suffice it to say that he is lost and a bit misinformed. But his heart is the same as it ever was, as I guess, his aura testifies." Arthur raised his eyebrows.
Dr. Driscoll nodded and leaned back. "Yes, true. Very true. Tabitha did say that she was able to sever the connection to that woman. It should do him some good, but you should be aware that the repercussions of that act could be...far-reaching."
"You mean she might become desperate and decide to send something even more harmful than the creatures she sent last time."
Dr. Driscoll's eyes lit up. "Yes. The wendigos. The impossible becoming possible. I said that very thing yesterday to my students, that if the impossible was becoming possible, then we should keep our eyes open to see what becomes possible next."
"Indeed. Where magic is concerned, it seems there is very little that is not possible."
"This woman," Dr. Driscoll asked, "do you know who she is? Have you met her?"
"No," although Arthur's mind went straight to the dream he'd had of a gray lady, "but it seems more and more likely that this woman is the reason I was brought back, to prevent her from taking Merlin's power and using it for her own ends." Arthur fiddled with his empty mug. "He is more powerful than you can comprehend, more dangerous than any force you can name. The only thing that protects this world from that power is the goodness of his heart. If someone evil were to take that power from him, then the world would be theirs."
Dr. Driscoll shook his head. "A horrible thought. You must do all you can to protect him until he regains his memories and discovers the way to free his aura. Please, let me hasten to add that you have only to ask and I will do whatever I can to help you. This may not be the time and place for kings and sorcerers, but evidently, it is the time and place for the impossible to become possible."
A small smile curved Arthur's lips. He had been brought back for this reason. And yet, it was a funny thought: that out of all the things he was to his people: leader, inspiration, guardian, father-figure, husband and sovereign, it was his role as friend and protector to Merlin that turned out to be the one that the universe thought the most important.