They transported to the village, appearing between a bunch of trees just outside that would obscure them from the view of the villagers and at the same time gave them the chance to study the area without being seen. The rainclouds were still very present and Merlin had the annoying feeling that they would be rained on very soon, if they hadn't sunken into the mud first. It was the worst possible day for such an expedition, but at least this might mean they could find some footprints before the new rain washed them all away. If they were very lucky.
As it was, the field where the barn had stood was completely abandoned. There was nothing there or rather, there was nothing that shouldn't be there, which wasn't quite the same.
In truth, he didn't know what he had been hoping for, except that he had been praying not to find Jo's corpse. Death was so final after all. Even he could not possibly bring her back if Mordred had decided to dispose of her, which he probably wouldn't do if there was any truth to the theory that he was using her to bait Section D. Merlin would hate to think it, but it rather seemed as though Mordred knew exactly what he was doing.
'There's no one,' he observed, rather unnecessarily, since Ros could see that for herself. He just needed to say something, needed to break the uncomfortable silence around them. He had the distinct feeling Ros was blaming him for Jo's abduction, and he couldn't find it in himself to condemn her for that. He had been foolish to leave her. Merlin was no stranger to guilt – in fact, he might even go as far as to call it a very frequent companion of his – but that didn't mean it was ever any less painful. Quite the contrary, it grew stronger every time he unknowingly and unwillingly put someone's life in danger. 'And they're not hiding by magic. I would have sensed it.'
Ros nodded, accepting it for a fact. At least where magic was concerned, he still counted as the unquestioned authority. 'They rebuilt the barn over there.' She pointed in its general direction. 'Anyone there?' Curt, and to the point. To a casual onlooker it might almost look as if she didn't care. It was just because Merlin knew her longer – and then he wasn't even sure that knowing Ros was the correct description for their acquaintance at all – that he suspected that it was just a way she used to mask her feelings.
He responded in kind. 'I can't tell. Not from here. I'll need to look inside.'
Ros snorted. 'Magic doesn't go through walls?' she asked sceptically.
Merlin in turn treated her to the dazzling smile that was his mask of choice. 'It tends to blast them out, though,' he retorted. Now he was sure he had spent too much time around the spooks and their sarcasm. He had a sense of humour of his own, but it wasn't usually so bitter.
'I've seen that,' Ros returned. 'We'll take a look at the old site first, then move on to the barn.' It wasn't a suggestion as much as an order.
Well, it wasn't as if he had ever been in the business of listening to those anyway. 'If Mordred's there, he'll have plenty of time to get away,' he pointed out.
'He'll have that anyway,' Ros reminded him, giving a pointed look to the meadows stretching out in front of them. Nowhere to hide behind. If Mordred was paying attention, which would be very highly likely, then he could see them coming a mile off. Almost literally.
'Fine,' he conceded. 'Let's go.' Arthur hated it when he did that, acting like he was in charge when the king was the one with the right to decide when and where they went. Ros Myers wasn't any different, but she didn't waste time telling him to shut up, instead walking out into the meadows with long strides before Merlin had even finished talking, leaving him to run after her like a dog after its master. As games of one-upmanship went, she definitely had the edge on him.
But today was not really the time for games. Somehow this had escalated in a Morgana-like crisis and Merlin found himself in a constant state of anxiousness. True, it was his duty to protect Arthur first and foremost, but it wasn't him in the first line of fire. As it was, Mordred would probably save him for last out of some twisted feeling of affection. Right now, Jo was the one they needed to worry about.
'There's nothing here,' he concluded when they reached the site where the barn had stood. Not that there was any trace left of the building at all; it had been completely demolished. It was just part of a meadow now.
'There's something here, all right,' Ros muttered. She bended over and picked something up that was lying at her feet, holding it out to Merlin for inspection. Jo's mobile phone, still switched on.
'That's hers,' Merlin confirmed. He had seen her use it to send a text to her mother during breakfast, after which she had taken a little video of Merlin as he magically cleaned up the dishes. They'd laughed over that, joked over what would happen if that video was ever posted on the internet, and how people would probably never even consider that it really was more than a cheap trick. After all, no one believed in magic anymore these days. Well, no one except the members of Section D. Oh yes, he knew this device, and he had to swallow before and look away so that Ros couldn't see the emotion written all over his face. Ros wouldn't think any better of him if he did.
'Mordred knows what he's doing,' Ros growled. 'He left it switched on so that we would find it, long after he's gone. This is a wild goose chase.' She directed an angry look at her current companion. 'What the hell were you thinking, bringing him to the Grid?'
About how much I didn't want to lose what little faith Arthur still had in me. 'I wasn't sure!' he protested instead. 'All I had was that prophecy and some suspicions. I could not be certain, and Arthur wouldn't listen!' The frustration boiled over to such an extent that he had blurted out the last part of that sentence before he could stop himself. It wasn't something he had meant to say. It didn't mean that it wasn't true.
'Let's check the barn.' Ros didn't even respond to what he was saying, but if that was because she disapproved of his actions or just because she was anxious herself, Merlin couldn't tell. It was difficult to get the measure of Ros Myers on a normal day, but on days like these, she was what Gaius had once accused Merlin of being: a riddle wrapped up in a mystery. He wondered if Harry and Lucas had taken courses on how to handle her.
But if she was blaming him, she had every right to, he supposed. He had messed up, spectacularly, and if not for him and his decision to give Jo some time on her own, they would not be in this situation at all. He was all too keenly aware of that.
It wasn't a big surprise that the barn was devoid of any life signs, well, human life signs. A couple of cows were lazily sweeping their tails, staring at the duo when they entered before directing their attention back to their food. Of course Mordred could have magically transformed himself and his captive to blend in with the inhabitants of this place, but a quick spell revealed that the cows really were just ordinary cows. Even though he hadn't pinned any real hopes on that option, he still felt disappointed.
And so did Harry when they transported back to Thames House and imparted the news on him, even though the head of Section D was decidedly more vocal about his disappointment. The cups on the table in the meeting room rattled and a desk officer who had just come in to ask something changed his mind and quickly dashed back to the Grid. That might be a very wise decision; Harry clearly wasn't in the mood for anything that didn't involve this case. His behaviour reminded Merlin strangely of that one time that Lucas had been taken, something for which Merlin himself could also be held more or less responsible. He pushed that inconvenient thought away right away.
The next minute it became clear why Harry's mood had already reached notoriously new lows before Ros and Merlin had come back; they weren't the first to come back to base. Arthur and Lucas had beaten them there, with more bad news. Jo had apparently been taken outside, minutes, maybe even seconds after Merlin had left, which meant that Mordred had been keeping them under surveillance, just waiting for the most opportune moment to strike. Merlin had as good as handed Jo over on the silver platter by leaving.
It seemed that he wasn't the only one well aware of that, since he got to endure the brunt of Harry's temper. Merlin didn't even try to stop him; it would be useless.
In the end it was Ros who stepped in, much to his surprise. 'Harry, this won't help!' she said forcefully. The warlock had a lingering suspicion that she was one of the few people who could call the boss out on his behaviour and actually get away with it.
And she did get away with it. Harry favoured her with a stern glance, but otherwise let the matter pass. 'What do we know?' he asked briskly.
To his surprise it was Arthur who spoke. 'He'll have returned to Camelot,' he said. 'He's been living as a Druid for a very long time…'
'Because he is a Druid,' Merlin pointed out. Not that Mordred was typically behaving like one, but that was beside the point.
Arthur ignored him. 'He's travelled. A lot. He knows a lot of places, hiding places. He could be anywhere. And we won't be able to do much from here. My knights know every inch of the kingdom.'
'What makes you think he isn't hiding in London?' Lucas asked.
'He's trying to bait us, isn't he?' Arthur didn't even really sound like himself anymore. He was starting to sound like a spook. Well, it was not something Merlin could really criticise. He himself was guilty of working like they would. 'He'll go somewhere where he will have the advantage. He's been here, so he has seen how very easy it would be for us to track him here and attack him with good chances of success.'
'I'd hate to say, but he is right,' Ros said. 'If I was Mordred, I wouldn't want to risk that my opponent could come in all guns blazing. In Camelot he'll have the upper hand.' And they wouldn't have any surveillance equipment, or back-up. Well, they'd have the knights, but Merlin had seen one too many sorcerer who could finish a dozen knights in the blink of an eye.
It all made sense. That was the problem. It all made far too much sense. Mordred wouldn't linger here. If he had been planning on taking his revenge here, he would have done it at the barn, because that was a significant place. But even that had been a stretch. Merlin did no longer doubt that Mordred had known Morgana and was seeking revenge for her death. They didn't know what exactly he had known. The barn incident had been a defeat for Morgana, but who was to say that they had met after the Tube bombing? Who was to say that he had known about the barn?
But there was something he did know. He must know about the showdown on the Isle of the Blessed. The evidence was not exactly conclusive, but it pointed in that direction. Merlin, Ros and Lucas had been the chosen targets. Those three were also the ones to cause Morgana's death. The man who had distracted her, the woman who had shot her and the man who had betrayed her. Arthur had been there, but he had been the one to hold her as the last breath left her body, one last act of kindness performed to a woman who had rejected it.
'Isle of the Blessed.' The words left his mouth without his permission. The Isle of the Blessed or any other place in Camelot. Who knew how many hideouts Mordred really had. And who's to say they're all within Camelot's boundaries? But they had to start somewhere, and the Isle was a place of significance, a place where something important had taken place. And if Arthur was right and Mordred was trying to get them where he wanted them, then there was no place better suited to his needs than that. If he wanted to make this big and dramatic, what better venue could he choose?
There was a short moment of silence during which everyone processed what he'd said. Lucas had paled a little, something Merlin didn't think had anything to do with his injuries, but more with the memories that name made resurface. Ros's lips had tightened to the point where they became just one small line. Harry's face was a study in unhappiness. Arthur only nodded, once, just an acceptance of the truth.
'We'll go back to Camelot,' Arthur announced. It was telling that no one even protested to him for all intents and purposes calling the shots; Merlin would have expected Harry and Ros to throw a fit. Normally they would have. But this was not normally, and now Jo's life was on the line. 'I'll arrange a search party. Merlin, you'll go to the Isle of the Blessed, check it over, find out if Mordred is there and then report back. If he's on an island filled with magic, we need to know what exactly we're up against.'
Merlin would almost smile at the far too familiar scene of Arthur declaring himself in charge and dealing out orders like he was born to do. It was reassuring, something that was still as it had always been in this otherwise so very messed up world.
And there was not a word of protest from the spooks. Harry went as far as a stern glare, before he cut Arthur off, though. Well, two men who both believed themselves to be the leader of the operation in one room, that was bound to cause some kind of friction. 'We'll move to Camelot for the time being.' In fact, Arthur had more or less made that decision for him, but it was probably best to let Harry have the idea that he had a say in the matter as well. In fact, he did have a say in the matter. 'And if Mordred is targeting Section D operatives, we could all be compromised.'
He exchanged a look with Ros, who nodded. Merlin didn't know what that meant, but he'd bet it wasn't good.
'We'll have to tell the Home Secretary,' the Section Chief agreed.
If this were any other day and the circumstances would have been different, then Ros Myers might have thoroughly enjoyed the look of absolute horror that appeared on Nicholas Blake's face when Harry informed him that there was in fact such a thing like a magical portal to another age and no, he wasn't telling him where this portal was to be found, pre-empting the protest that the Home Secretary currently didn't seem capable of making. He was at the moment demonstrating his best fish on dry land imitation, trying and failing to wrap his head around the information Harry had just provided him with.
When at first the Home Secretary and Richard Dolby had been briefed on the existence of Merlin and Arthur, the two men had reacted almost in the exact same fashion, until in the end the former had asked if there was some truth in the belief in reincarnation after all. Deciding that this was the best they were going to get, Harry had been quick to assure them this was the case. After all, reincarnation was something quite a lot of ordinary, officially qualified sane people believed in. It was far-fetched – not to mention completely ridiculous, in Ros's humble opinion – but in the absence of any other reasonable explanation that was the story they had sold to the few people who needed to know about it. In fact, the list wasn't longer than just the aforementioned two gentlemen, and there were more people who knew the actual truth rather than the story, but that was beside the point. And as far as Ros was concerned, Dollophead Dolby never even needed to know the truth. As it was, she wasn't sure his tiny brain could handle it. It already seemed to have melted from realising Connie had been a mole for the FSB.
Not that Nicholas Blake seemed to be dealing with the news any better. And yes, she would have laughed at his face – well, probably she would have smirked at it more like – if she had been here for any other reason than the reason she was here today. As it was, her shoulder was sore as hell, her well of patience was rapidly running dry and she was out of her mind with worry over Jo. Of course, because she was Ros Myers she would never ever admit to any of those three things out loud, although if the Home Secretary insisted on playing at being a goldfish in a suit for much longer, he might very easily find himself on the receiving end of her lack of patience.
It was as if Harry read her mind. 'Home Secretary, I know that this is a lot to take in…' he began pleasantly.
Understatement of the century, Ros thought, recalling with perfect clarity her own reaction when Lucas had first coined the idea that Merlin's claims to being a sorcerer were not as untruthful as she had thought them to be.
Apparently the trick to snap the politician out of his state of confusion – not something the public would ever get to see, she'd wager – was to talk to him, because that gave him something to rail against. 'Harry, you can't possibly mean that?' Not all that back to normal then, if he phrased this as a question rather than to dismiss it as complete and utter nonsense. 'There is no such thing as magic. It just doesn't exist.'
And what a nasty surprise it had been to find out that it did just that. She plastered her sweetest smile on her face, the one she saved for politicians that were in dire need of being pacified. 'I'm afraid it's true, Home Secretary. If you want, we can call Merlin here for a demonstration. It won't be any trouble.'
It would be, though. They only had one advantage in this whole conflict, and that was Merlin's magic. At least for now it seemed like he was magically more powerful than that traitorous Druid, and something told Ros they would need that before this operation was over and done with. The last thing they wanted was to get him away from really important work to show Blake that they weren't lying.
But then, she more or less counted on him not wanting to see the confirmation for their claims in the flesh. The look of pure and unadulterated terror that flashed across his face before he schooled it back into one of indignant dismissal escaped neither Harry nor Ros's notion. 'Even if this is true,' he said. 'And I cannot say that I am ready to believe in something so ludicrous, Harry, then why have you come here to tell me about it? Why now?' The expression he put on display now told Ros that he strongly suspected to be showered in more bad news.
And Harry didn't disappoint. Ros let him take care of this part. Her boss had years and years of experience in dealing with the species known as politicians, and knew exactly what to say in order for them not to explode or suffer a heart attack, although in this case it was a very close case, on both fronts. Harry himself remained perfectly calm and business-like as he detailed Arthur and Merlin's latest visit, the presence of Mordred and his betrayal and assassination attempts during the Sugarhorse crisis.
At this point the Home Secretary narrowed his eyes. 'As unfortunate as this is, what has it got to do with your section? You do realise that you are tasked with the national security of Britain, not with protecting the life of the king of a bygone age?'
'Yes, Home Secretary, we know that,' Ros interjected, face hopefully an unreadable mask. Dear heavens, did she hate to be here. But Harry had been right about the need to go and offer at least some kind of explanation, because it wasn't as if they had carte blanche to do whatever they deemed necessary for the national security without consulting with the powers that be. A necessary evil, Harry called it. 'But Mordred's vendetta is not directed at King Arthur only.' It felt a bit strange to use Arthur's title when she had never bothered with it before, but then, no one in this day and age had ever acknowledged him as king over anything, so where was the need? 'We believe him to be an associate of Morgana's, and we have solid evidence to support that.' They hadn't, but it was a necessary lie. Besides, it wasn't anything she hadn't done before. 'At the moment he is on a mission to take his revenge for the death of his late friend.'
She gave the Home secretary a few seconds to connect the dots for himself. It would be so much easier if she didn't have to spell it all out for him. Today of all days she simply did not have the patience for it. All she wanted was to get going as soon as she could, injured shoulder be damned. She had lost one member of her team already by not being careful enough – or rather, not being wary enough – and she was loath to lose another in the same week. In the privacy of her own mind she kept up a constant stream of curses directed at the person of the warlock stupid enough to against all orders leave her on her own. True, she herself had never believed Jo to be much of a target, but she still blamed Merlin for not being more alert. Even if he had so much trouble actually obeying orders – as she knew he had – he should have been more alert. He knew who they were dealing with, had suspected a long time ago that Mordred was not all that he pretended to be, so why in heaven's name had he not been more on his guard, as he ought to have been?
And she was right to heap the blame on his doorstep. Ros knew that. But she wasn't right to burden him with all of it, because she herself had underestimated what Mordred was capable of. And it was her bloody job to second-guess terrorists and take steps to prevent them causing mayhem before it happened. Even with all those years of experience under her belt, she had still failed to anticipate what had happened. It was just that blaming someone else for everything that went wrong was easier.
'What are you telling me, Miss Myers?' When the Home Secretary found his tongue again, it was only to question her sharply with it. There was every chance that he knew in which direction this conversation was headed, and he didn't like it at all.
'We believe Mordred to be picking off the persons he holds responsible for Morgana's life, and now it seems as though he's holding the whole of Section D responsible, and punishable, for that,' she replied, wondering how to break the news of Jo's abduction – to Camelot no less – without having a good cause for phoning an ambulance within the next minute.
Harry however had no such considerations. His patience, like hers, was wearing notoriously thin, if that look was any indication at all, and quite likely he was done with beating around the bloody bush. Well, it wasn't as if their story was going to sound any more plausible anyway. As it was, it was only going to sound even less plausible than it already was. Good grief, if she hadn't been living the whole sodding thing for the past few days, she would have directed the narrator to the nearest mental asylum herself.
'This morning one of my officers was taken from her house,' he reported. 'My team have a good few leads we can follow up considering her whereabouts, and I am asking you for permission to do so.' Well, judging by his tone of voice he was more demanding than asking, and this visit was only a courtesy. Ros knew her boss; even if he was told no, he would do what he thought needed to be done regardless. She was the same.
Of course she had been told countless times that Section D didn't do rescue missions for its own personnel, not when there were more important things to be done, like dealing with the very pissed off FSB and the Russian government, which for all she knew was equally pissed off. But Harry wouldn't have decided to go in all guns blazing on this if he had not been absolutely certain that the Russians would not bother them. He may care about his team, and go to hell and back for each and every one of them if the need arose, but he was also a spook, and he would put the job before his team if he had to. Ros knew the feeling; as protective as she was of all of them – even if she'd rather die than admit to that – it was in the nature of this line of work that Queen and Country came first. She didn't know what exactly Harry had threatened the Russians with, though, but it would have been good. Not that she was about to ask him about it. He hadn't felt up to sharing, and she had better things to concern herself with at the moment.
Like a Home Secretary who was looking like he had trouble keeping up with it all. It was an improvement that he didn't act like the fish flung out of its pond anymore, but that didn't mean he had quite completed the process of wrapping his head around recent developments. It could mean that he was going to be very difficult about this or it could mean that he was going to be so confused that he gave in quickly. Ros wouldn't bet any money on that last option though.
And she was right. The next questions he fired at Harry – not her, he always seemed somewhat nervous when dealing with her, although Ros rather liked to think she had seen something that looked like admiration for her in his dealings with her – were either demands for some more explanation or barely concealed pleas for this to be the biggest joke ever played on him. Well, in that case Ros had bad news for him.
Harry was sparse with the facts, detailing as little as he could, rather sticking to the general line than explaining everything. He mentioned the need to relocate to Camelot to search – at which point the Home Secretary seemed to be choking on his own tongue – but otherwise remained as vague as he could get away with.
Even though, Ros started to wish he'd hurry up a bit. From where she was seated she could see the clock on the wall, ticking the minutes away. They'd been here for nearly an hour already, and they were wasting time. Mordred would probably keep Jo alive to lure them to a place of his choosing, but that was only true if they had correctly guessed his motives. For all they knew he could be a psychopath who killed his victims and was done with it. She might be already be dead. It didn't make Ros sit any more comfortable.
She diverted her attention back to the conversation, guiltily realising that her thoughts had strayed quite a bit, when the Home Secretary pointedly reminded Harry that they didn't do full-scale rescue missions for MI-5 personnel.
'With all due respect, Home Secretary,' Ros cut in, feeling anything but respect for this man who was being so deliberately obstructive. Truth be told, Nicholas Blake wasn't a bad sort usually, but these last few days were making her rethink her initial assessment. After all, he had been okay with Harry being locked up as an FSB mole. That didn't convince her of his intelligence. 'Mordred has declared a personal vendetta against all of Section D.' It wasn't as if Harry had not told him already, but apparently the message hadn't landed before, thus implying the need to repeat it. 'Which means that he'll compromise the entire counter-terrorism unit, leaving Britain vulnerable for attacks.' Really, a toddler could have pieced it together. It wasn't that hard to get, was it?
Oh, well done, Myers, she thought as he directed his gaze at her. She didn't think he was even anywhere near buying her story. Well, he didn't need to buy it – for all she cared he could continue on existing as if this was all a load of nonsense – as long as he wouldn't obstruct them any longer.
'Tell me, Miss Myers, even if this is all true,' I don't believe a single word of this, Ros translated, 'only yesterday we were in the middle of a crisis involving the Russians.'
'We were,' Ros said. She had a very good idea of where this was going.
'Is that situation under control?'
Ros Myers had not been in the Service for so many years without a very good reason. Even though she had no idea whether or not she was actually telling the truth or not, she plastered her sweetest and most convincing smile on her face as she replied: 'Completely, Home Secretary.'
It had taken them an hour, but at least it seemed like they had won around. One down, God knows how many still to go.