It was sunny. It was that which caught Lucas quite off guard. When he had first come to the Isle of the Blessed, the sun had been hidden by clouds and there was mist swirling around all over the place. In fact, it had been the stereotype of a place where bad things happened, like copied right out of a movie. Strange, he'd thought back then, but the longer he'd been here, the more he came to realise that actually it fit the island. It was the kind of place that wouldn't feel right if the sun was shining on it.
Of course Ros was the only one not bothered. 'Makes a change from last time,' she remarked when they had landed. 'Right, Merlin, you go left. Lucas and I go right.'
And Lucas didn't like the sound of that. It was the porcelain doll treatment all over again. Merlin was to go off on his own, but he clearly needed twenty-four hour supervision, because he had Ros tailing after him. Before this all went down, it had seemed that everything was fine, back to normal. He had been given assignments, he had been allowed to take the risks they all did, and then Jo was kidnapped by Morgana's old friend and they were checking out her old hide-outs, and suddenly it was as if no time at all had passed between Operation Camelot and now.
And honestly, this was not even the place that set his teeth on edge. The Isle of the Blessed held no traumatic memories for him. Yes, here was where he had confronted Morgana, but that was all there was to it. He had confronted her, and Ros had shot her. If anything, this was a place where they had triumphed. And yes, he had ordered Ros to shoot him as well as the witch, but that was one of the risks of the job.
If anything, it was Morgana's hovel that had very nearly freaked him out. It had been exactly as he remembered it: dark, chilly and cramped. And it had been exactly as he had last seen it, apart from the fact that the little house clearly showed signs of a fight he did not remember. But his memory of his own rescue was blurry at best, and neither Merlin nor Ros had commented on it. It must have happened then. And even though Morgana wasn't there, and he knew she was long since dead and burned, he somehow kept expecting her to jump out of the shadows to finish him off, like she could not have done when he was her prisoner. He had however refrained from mentioning this to Ros.
Speaking of which. 'How well do you know this place?' Ros asked briskly as they set off.
'I walked here just the one time,' he reminded her.
'Yes, but you've got photographic memory,' she countered. 'You're my tour guide.'
Tour guide? Was that what it was now? 'What about Merlin?'
'He's been here before.' Ros sounded wholly unconcerned. 'And he's got his magic. He could cast a get-me-unlost-when-I-get-lost spell or whatever the hell it is he does when his eyes do that gold thing.'
Lucas heard the underlying message that Merlin had his magic to defend himself, they did not. Maybe this wasn't exactly the porcelain doll treatment after all. Maybe this was just thinking strategically. Merlin had his magic to defend himself, but they only had the guns. If they were to be successful in shooting Mordred, if he was even here to begin with, then they would need someone to distract him while the other one shot. That was how they had done Morgana, and it had worked.
He must have waited too long before he replied, because he suddenly found himself on the receiving end of an inquisitive stare. 'Are you okay?'
He was, as a matter of fact, or he would be if he wasn't so worried for Jo's sake. The Isle of the Blessed didn't frighten him. 'I'm your colleague; I should bloody well hope so.'
Still, he couldn't keep that annoyed tone out of his voice. It was just that she had felt it necessary to ask that was grating on his every last nerve. This whole thing was bad enough when Harry did it, but if Ros was starting, then that was bad. She normally would have nothing to do with any kind of that sentimental nonsense unless there was a real need. And he'd rather not she directed her worry about Jo at his person.
Fortunately she seemed to get the message. 'Good. I'll just be annoying you then, shall I? I've heard that's what friends do.'
'You heard that too, then?' he quipped, before adding: 'You distract, I shoot this time?' Best get the topic back to something professional rather than personal.
'Questioning my skills?' Ros arched an eyebrow at him.
'Nah, just thought that Mordred would be more attracted to you than he would be to me,' he returned, flashing a wicked grin in her direction.
'I'm just to flash my cleavage at him and hope that is going to stop him from noticing you about to shoot his brains out?' she asked sceptically.
'Ideally, yes.' This was their banter and he loved it. He had missed it over the last couple of days, but then, neither of them had really been good company for a while. With so much going down, it was hardly a surprise. And this was hardly the right time and place to engage in a battle of wits, but it was what Lucas felt he needed.
There was no real reason why he should suddenly be treated any different, but that was what Ros had been doing. Maybe she wasn't doing so now, but she had done at Morgana's hovel, carefully keeping him away from the things that might upset him, letting Merlin and her deal with the most important work. And if she thought he had missed out on that, she was not as clever as he had always believed her to be. Hopefully normal behaviour from his side might do the trick of making her understand that this was just another normal operation to him, apart from the fact that Jo was still missing, and that was making him all kinds of uncomfortable.
Ros merely snorted. She had her gun in hand and didn't seem to be willing to let go of it anytime soon. Lucas himself was starting to feel a little jumpy. If Mordred was going for theatrical, then this would be the right place to make an appearance. But the longer they were searching, the more he was starting to feel as if they had underestimated him. Mordred wasn't out to bait them with Jo. If that was the case, then why hadn't they already found her? What if Mordred was playing a different game altogether? It was setting his teeth on edge.
'We won't find him here.'
The words were out of his mouth before he could have thought them through, but they felt true. The place had an abandoned feel about it, something he couldn't quite explain rationally, and something which Ros therefore would dismiss as poppycock until they had searched the entire Isle and concluded for themselves that there was no one.
True to expectations, she reacted in her own snarky way. 'You've been hanging around Merlin too much. Have you absorbed some of his magic by association that you're so sure about that?'
'Not that I know of,' he admitted. 'Would be nice, though.'
'If only,' Ros muttered. She still didn't like magic, was highly uncomfortable around it, and after all that they had seen, could he actually blame her for it? He didn't even know if he himself fully approved of it. But it was handy to have on side now that their opponent had it. It balanced the odds a bit.
He was right, though, the Isle of the Blessed was abandoned. They searched high and low, but there was just nobody, and Ros's amount of patience was rapidly decreasing. It didn't make her pleasant company to be around. Lucas knew it was a mixture of nerves and worry, but he sure as hell didn't have to like the way she behaved, snapping at him to check out this or that place, rather than ask. The teasing had been abandoned altogether. And it was really getting on his nerves.
It was after the umpteenth time Ros had snapped at him, after a room she could have sworn was noise coming from turned out to be unsurprisingly empty. It had been the wind that caused the sound.
'Are you telling me what to do?' The tone indicated that her temper had reached critical levels.
'Yes, in fact, I am.' Lucas wasn't sure where all that nerve had come from, but Ros wasn't in the mood to appreciate it. 'No one is here, Ros.' He carefully omitted the we're wasting time that he was sure she would hear in spite of his efforts.
But it was the truth. Jo wasn't here, and neither was Mordred. Whatever game he was playing, they had made the wrong guess. This clearly was nowhere near what they had expected. They had been out all day and if the Druid had planned to attack them, then surely he would have done it by now. It had to be something else, something they hadn't yet guessed.
Or maybe there was no plan. Maybe this was just blind rage. Mordred could have taken Jo merely to kill her, and then have the rest of them running around like headless chickens. In the meantime he could strike whenever one of them was alone. Jo hadn't even made it for five minutes after Merlin had left her.
But then, if he wanted to kill only, then why had he physically taken Jo? Why hadn't he murdered her on the driveway and left her body for either the police or Section D to find? Harsh though it sounded, if that had been the case, they would have had some answers by now. The uncertainty was torment. He wondered if Mordred knew that and had acted as he did purely for that reason. He seemed sadistic enough to think of it, that was for certain.
'I can see that for myself, thank you.' Well, at least she was no longer trying to deny it, which was a start. Or rather, it would be a start if she wasn't so obviously on the warpath, very intent on creating carnage, and he was the nearest thing available. 'If you're quite done stating the bloody obvious, let's get off this island now.'
She had turned on her heels and left Lucas to follow by himself. It was more like running to keep up with her, though. And he understood, he honestly did. He was worried about Jo too. If anyone had a realistic idea of what might have been done to her, it would be him, and he had a feeling Ros knew it, knew it and didn't want to know. If she wanted that, she'd have asked him for some kind of analysis or explanation by now. The fact that she hadn't spoke volumes.
Part of him really felt like getting into an argument. The special treatment and then Ros's mood, now and yesterday, it was really getting on his nerves, but this was not the time. As much as he wanted to be just as unreasonable as his Section Chief, it would be wiser to be the mature one this time. So he just followed quietly and left Ros seething on her own and under her breath.
What the hell is Mordred's game? That was the main question, and also the one they failed to get an answer to. If they only knew that, their mission would be a lot easier. They might at least know where to start looking, or what to do.
How was this even his life? Normally he ran after the terrorists, which was something he knew how to do. But now Section D was targeted personally. By a magical deranged lunatic hell-bent on revenge. The former wasn't all that new. The latter was.
Merlin was already back in the central square when they returned, clearly just as much on edge as Ros and having encountered exactly no one on his search. Lucas knew that in advance, but it was still frustrating. They had wasted hours on this island and there was no result. Of course there was always the slightest chance that Arthur had found something, but he hadn't pinned much hope on it. Arthur was not target number one and Jo would not be anywhere near Camelot. Mordred knew there were patrols. He'd be stupid if he would let them come anywhere near his hostage. The only chance they had of finding Jo was if it was her dead body. Now that was not really an encouraging thought at all.
'Nothing?' he asked, saving Merlin the need of saying it himself.
'Nothing,' the warlock confirmed. 'Back to Camelot?'
That seemed to be the only reasonable thing to be done. The sun was already setting. And since Merlin clearly did not possess the magic to stop the sun from going down as long as Jo wasn't found, they were running out of time, at least for today. They might as well go back to Camelot and work out what to do next.
Ros was remarkably silent during the whole exchange. She didn't protest the course of action, not even to point out that she was the most senior in command and they had therefore no right to call the shots. After her outburst of just now, it seemed as though most of the fight had gone right out of her, and Lucas didn't like that. If even Ros Myers was giving up hope, where on earth would the rest of them find the strength to fight?
The most tell-tale sign was that she had put away the gun. She really didn't believe there was anyone here, not any more. It was strangely disheartening.
Camelot itself was empty. Merlin had transported them straight back to the Grid. As far as Lucas was aware, Merlin's magic was still a secret from most except a select few, although how it could remain a secret now that Gwaine was in on it was anyone's guess really. Gwaine was one of those men who couldn't seem to stop talking, especially not once he'd consumed a bit of ale.
'I'm going to brief Harry,' Ros announced. Whatever it was that had gone through her head was clearly either gone or extremely well-hidden. She was gone before either Merlin or Lucas could comment, and Lucas wasn't even sure that he wanted to. No matter how little he wanted to admit it, they were running out of ideas.
Merlin had walked over to the window, as much in the mood for talking as Lucas was.
'What if she is dead already?' he heard him muttering.
Lucas didn't think he had been meant to overhear that.
Arthur Pendragon, king of Camelot, would never admit to being bored in the presence of his knights. He was even less likely to say that he was mainly bored because his servant was off searching elsewhere, and was therefore unable to take Arthur's mind off the more serious matters with his constant chattering. Gwaine was doing an attempt at filling in for him, but he was a rather poor substitute and Arthur realised he had zoned out rather quickly.
He knew his men didn't understand. Goodness knew they had understood precious little of what had happened during Operation Camelot. The dragon, Morgana, most of it went right over their heads, and Arthur hadn't known where to even begin explaining. How did you explain something like that?
But what he missed most – and he'd rather die than let this fact ever go public – was the feeling of being protected, the feeling of someone watching his back. With something of a shock he realised that he had grown rather used to Merlin being there, looking after him, even though it had only been a short while ago since he had learned of his servant's talent for magic. Mordred was still out there somewhere, and he wasn't the type to stick to swords for an attack. And if there was a magical attack coming, then there was nothing they could do to stop it.
He was distracted when Leon came riding next to him. 'Sire, if I could have a word?'
Arthur nodded. Distraction was a welcome thing by now. 'Of course.'
He had a fairly good idea of what he wanted to talk about, though, and that was a less welcome prospect. Section D had hardly explained what had happened. Most of his knights didn't even believe that they came from another realm – Arthur had taken care to avoid all mention of the words distant future in order to prevent his people from believing him stark raving mad – except for Gwaine, who had been nothing short of nagging Merlin to take him for a visit ever since.
Fortunately Leon's line of enquiry ran along different lines. At least for now. 'Is it true that Mordred has turned against us?' It was telling that he wanted Arthur to give the confirmation, suggesting he didn't believe the spooks on their word.
Arthur nodded. 'It's true. I was there when he turned on us and injured the Lady Ros.' He almost chuckled at the wholly inappropriate title, because Ros was about the furthest thing from a lady anyone could be. 'There is no doubt.'
And I don't want to talk about it. It was hard enough to be confronted – again – with his own failure to correctly assess people's characters and motives, but this was Mordred, someone who had saved his life only to endanger it later. No, and it was not even his life on the line now, was it? He had merely been used. Mordred had worked his way into Camelot only to get close to the people on his hit list, and Arthur had been most obliging by letting him tag along to London. He couldn't have messed this up more if he tried.
And the thus far fruitless search was doing nothing in making him view this day and his own part in it a bit more positively. If anything, the sense of failure only increased. Truth be told, Merlin, Ros and Lucas stood a much better chance of finding Mordred. But then, they were the intended targets. Mordred would be a fool to sit back and do nothing while they were out there without any back-up. He might as well have stayed at home.
Except that he knew that he couldn't. Arthur detested sitting back and letting someone else do the job for him. That was not what he did. And someone had to make sure Jo wasn't here, just to have everything covered. He might as well be the one to do that. It gave him a bit of occupation at the very least.
'I am sorry to hear that, Arthur.' Leon smiled at him. There was still a lot of confusion written all over his face, but he didn't ask any more questions. That was Leon all over: following orders regardless of what he himself thought. Fiercely loyal, completely reliable. Arthur was very grateful to have him, even if he wasn't the kind of person to express that gratitude.
He just nodded in response.
The sun was already well on its way to the west, and they still hadn't found something. By now Gwaine's constant chattering had fortunately been cut short by Elyan, who'd whacked him over the head, threatening gagging and more violence should he speak one more word. Citing that it wasn't talking however, Gwaine had opted on whistling. He usually wouldn't do that on a day like this when stealth was required, so Arthur assumed it spoke volumes about his faith in their mission.
Really, this reminded him too much of the search for Morgana when she had gone missing. And it had been a year before they found her then, in woods far from home, mists swirling among the trees and a couple of bandits to top it off. He supposed he should be grateful for the lack of outlaws, especially since Merlin was not around to make them trip over their own feet or to drop branches on their heads or whatever ridiculous thing he could come up with.
Maybe it was because he was thinking about the possibilities of bandits that he was so alert when he heard a branch snap somewhere in the forest. Speak of the devil and he shall appear, Lucas had once remarked cheerfully when they had been talking – not gossiping, that was something only women did – about Harry and as if he had heard, the head of Section D had promptly walked in.
'Quiet!' he commanded.
Even Gwaine didn't feel the need to protest the order or try to finish whatever tavern tune he had been whistling. Good to know that his commands were sometimes heeded. It certainly made for a nice change with how things were with MI-5.
For a moment after everyone had stopped the horses and ceased talking, there was nothing. Arthur was in fact wondering whether or not he had just imagined the sound. He'd been thinking about bandits, and maybe that was why he'd thought he'd heard something suspicious. King or not, Gwaine would ridicule him for being such a frightened girl to jump at shadows. And it could only have been a bird or a wild animal. These woods were crawling with game, which was why he liked to go hunting so often.
But he had not imagined the sound. The snapping of another branch, closer this time, was both reassuring and frightening. Bandits usually took better care than this; most of their advantage was in surprise, so they learned to move quietly. But of course there was the occasional bunch of overconfident idiots who thought stealth was unneeded. They were easily stopped in general, but people could get hurt all the same, and he'd rather avoid that if only he could.
He'd trained his men well. At least they didn't require instructions when they too heard what he heard. The only thing left to do for Arthur was to direct them to the spots where he wanted them. Spreading out, having all angles covered, try to surround the attacker if there was the slightest possibility. It was all familiar. They'd done it a hundred times before.
The sense of foreboding increased in tenfold. This was like the day they had found Morgana, in so many ways. And it was scary. That he would never admit to anyone, but it was. And he hated the waiting. Arthur was the kind of man who jumped into action without as much as a second thought, but the wait was torment.
And then it ended. Just not in the way he expected.
There weren't any bandits, like there had been on the day they'd found Morgana and took her back to Camelot, overjoyed that she was alive and even seemingly unharmed. There was just one person, stumbling through the woods as if she had trouble even remaining upright. Walking was something that almost seemed beyond her.
'Jo.' The name came out in an incredulous whisper.
It was her, no doubt about it. Arthur had seen her often enough to recognise her if he came across her. Besides, no one else would be wearing jeans in this day and age. And no woman from around here would wear her hair that short. No, this was Jo, and she looked like she had been through hell.
Then instinct kicked in. He was a knight and he was not going to let some poor woman – especially since she was not some woman, she was Jo – stumble through the forest, pointing a sword at her as if she was a bandit, when she was clearly not. He put away the sword, and ran towards her.
Of course she heard the footsteps. 'Arthur?' She sounded as if she could barely believe it. 'Is that you?'
He nodded. 'You're safe, Jo. We've got you.' He extended a hand for her to take, to help her stand.
To his surprise she staggered back. 'I don't believe you. You're not real. You never are. None of you are. Get away from me!' By the end she was shouting.
You're not real. You never are. There was something altogether alarming about those words. What on earth had Mordred done to her that she was now afraid of her own friends? Not that Arthur thought they were actually friends, but they were on the same side. Temporary colleagues was the description Ros used, and he liked that. And Section D looked after their own.
What has he done to her?
'Jo, we're real. I promise.' It was unfortunately the best he could come up with. He'd never been like Merlin or Gwen. They always could think of something to say that reassured people. Arthur was nothing like that. He was good with a sword and he liked to think that he was likeable at the very least, but reassuring frightened people, no, that had never been his strength. 'Come on, we've got to get you to Gaius.' You look horrible.
He just managed to keep that to himself. Had he said it to Merlin, his servant would have laughed at it, maybe even made some sarcastic retort, but this was Jo Portman, and she was unlikely to appreciate his lack of tact.
It didn't mean his assessment of Jo's physical condition wasn't spot on. She looked like a ghost, and that was still an understatement. She was pale, with dark rings under her eyes. Her hair was a mess, her clothes crumpled and dirty. But it were her eyes that were truly alarming. Haunted. It was the only word that sprang to mind. And it had only been just under two days since she had been taken.
What has he done to her? Arthur had a lingering feeling that he may not want to know all that much.
She only stepped back further. 'You always say that.' It was an accusation. 'You always say that and then you vanish into thin air the moment I start to believe it might be true for once.' She shook her head. 'You're not fooling me.'
It was completely out of character for her to behave like that. Jo could be a bit of a dreamer, but she was also realistic and decisive, at least that was what he could tell from what he had seen of her. She wasn't this irrational. It only begged the question what had been done to her to make her into this.
'Take my hand,' he urged. 'I'm flesh and blood. Just give it a try.' He tried to adopt Merlin's best bedside manner, but had a feeling it didn't get any further than trying. He had never ever been any good at things like that, so why did he even hope today would be different?
Maybe he should count it progress that she didn't try to run when he made another step in her direction. On the other hand he should not be approaching her as if she was a frightened animal that could bolt at any time. He hated this, and for the first time since Mordred had pulled the trigger to shoot Ros, he felt the anger. He'd felt it before, but it was weak and feeble in comparison with the burning rage he experienced right then.
Who even did this to another human being who'd never even wronged them? Jo had never even been that much involved in Morgana's eventual downfall. She had never even set foot on the Isle of the Blessed, yet she was the first one to be truly affected. Ros would heal, and then there might be a small scar to remind her of what had happened, but that would be it. She'd go on with her life as if nothing had happened. It was blaringly obvious that whatever had been done to Jo, the effects would haunt her for much longer.
And that was what made it so much easier to let go of the ties he still had to Mordred. This made it clear that no matter the young Druid boy he'd been when Arthur first met him, that child was long gone, leaving a bitter and vengeful man in his place, a sorcerer and an enemy. And he had to be stopped, right after he had taken Jo back to Camelot.
'I'm real,' he insisted, coming another step closer, inwardly cheering at his victory when she still didn't run, even though she looked like she desperately wanted to. 'We've found you.'
Heaven knew how she had even ended up here. There was no sign of Mordred, and for now that was enough. Arthur Pendragon did not think of himself as a vengeful man, but he craved justice for this. That was something else entirely. So, when Jo was back to safety, he would make it a priority to find Mordred and have him answer for what he had done. As it should be.
'Jo, you're safe. I promise.' The words must sound empty to her. Whatever it was that Mordred had done, it involved hallucinations of them saying the exact same thing. And then they vanished without a trace. That was what she had said, wasn't it?
Another step closer, and another, and another until he finally stood in front of her. So far he didn't think she had even noticed any of his men, most of which were still not wholly convinced that this was not some kind of trap. Truth was, Arthur was not even sure of that himself.
'Jo?' Please don't let her run now.
Any of his temporary colleagues could have done this better than he could. And that included Ros. But none of them were here and so the task fell to him. Well, Gwaine probably wouldn't mind taking care of this, but Arthur was quite sure that Gwaine defaulted to flirting every time he laid eyes on a pretty woman, and that would not do today.
Hesitantly he held out his hand and took Jo's. 'We've got you,' he promised. 'You're safe now. I swear.'
Jo didn't protest any more as he took hold of her and as gently as he could led her back to the horses and his men. She was hurt and exhausted, which was why he felt all the more guilty about having this nagging feeling that this was a big trap.