'She tried to kill me.'
Ros Myers failed to think of other words that would startle her as much. True, she had conceded that something was wrong with Jo, that something about this whole bloody rescue – if it even deserved the name – had been distinctly wrong. You didn't become a spy if your intuition was faulty and Ros's had almost never led her astray. Generally she liked being able to back her intuition up with facts, though, verifiable facts. Nothing about Arthur's funny feeling had been anywhere near fact and so she had kept it from Harry and Lucas. The latter had looked like he was fighting enough mental battles already and Ros was hardly a stranger to going out on a limb on her own. She didn't need his help and, she realised wryly, he had not seen fit to tell her his suspicions about Mordred either. No matter how much she told herself that she did not feel angry about that – a small voice in the back of her head was thinking more along the lines of hurt that he hadn't trusted her to believe him – she couldn't deny it altogether.
But here they were, with Merlin in a state of shock and Jo unconscious on the bed. In many ways it looked a lot like the scene she had seen only yesterday, except now everything was different. Jo had attacked Merlin and while that didn't stop him from hovering over her like the worried mother hen all over again, there was a tension in the air that had not been there only a day ago.
Gaius was once again examining her, but was becoming increasingly frustrated when he didn't seem to find anything. Especially the back of Jo's neck enjoyed his special attention and Merlin seemed to think something could be found there as well.
'There is nothing, Merlin,' Gaius said.
Merlin, uncharacteristically, disagreed. 'There has to be,' he insisted. 'It's not like Jo to try and attack us. And she wasn't confused about who I was either. She was talking with me like she does and then she was slashing the knife at me. She wouldn't do that if she was in possession of her own mind!'
Ros found that yes, Merlin did have a point there. It wasn't like Jo. She knew that her colleague had killed one of her Redbacks captors, so she had it in her to do something like that, but swinging a knife at Merlin was a far cry from that. She liked Merlin, even though Ros found it hard to see his merits. The way she saw it, legend had made more of him than he deserved.
'There is no Fomorroh,' Gaius said.
'What the hell is Fomorroh?' Ros asked impatiently. This whole magic babble made her feel as if she was at a disadvantage. She didn't need their commentary to know that whatever had been done to Jo was more than slipping her a few potions to confuse her. This had magic written all over it. She didn't even care what magic it was, the only thing she was interested in hearing was how to end it and would it bloody kill them if they answered her directly?
Merlin rattled off an explanation that could be summarised as snake inserted in someone's neck which made them obey the will of the snake's owner. Apparently Merlin had sampled its delights himself. Why are they always snakes? First Lucas, tortured by one – something he by the looks of him had just remembered – and now a snake that could control minds.
'Isn't that bloody brilliant?' she asked rhetorically. 'Are they going to invent one with legs next?'
'I think they call those lizards, Ros,' Lucas quipped. He forced a grin that he sent in her direction. 'Or dragons.'
And dragons were another thing she really did not want to think about now. Unless of course that talking lizard had the answers, in which case she only wondered why he wasn't here already. That was the thing about Merlin; he was determined to waste time on words instead of actions and by the time he got round to do anything about it, he was too late to prevent it from happening. And she did not have the patience for it.
'There is no Fomorroh,' Gaius said, sounding distinctly sorry about it. 'If it had been, I would have known what to do.' It went unspoken that what did plague Jo was something beyond his capacities as a physician, but it certainly did not go unheard.
'Then might you tell us what has happened for her or do you want us to die of old age first?' she snapped. Gaius probably meant well, but that was as much leeway as she was about to give him.
'I do not know for certain, my lady,' he said. 'But there is a ritual of the Old Religion I have heard of, called the Teine Diaga, the sacred fire.'
Nothing about this sounded even remotely sacred to Ros's ears, but then, Morgana'd had a twisted sense of logic as well. It might run in sorcerer's DNA for all she knew; it was not as if she'd ever had much dealings with their ilk before and she would have paid good money to keep it that way.
'And what did Mordred do with this sacred fire?' Harry was just as unhappy about this as she was; like as not he had heard the deeply miserable tone in Gaius's voice and, like her, had decided that it could not possibly mean well. 'Slowly roast her over it?'
Gaius remained utterly unflappable in the face of Harry's impending wrath. There weren't many who could do that. Even the Home Secretary and Richard Dolby started moving around uncomfortably when he took such a tone with them. 'No, my lord. It is a ritual that does involve actual fire as far as I am aware. To the best of my knowledge it required mandrake roots that made the victim suffer the worst of fears.' He swallowed. 'Once it was over, their own will had been completely erased. They were slaves of the high priestesses forever.'
What she heard made her blood run cold. Bloody magic, bloody Mordred. And while she was at it, she might as well curse her own inability to do something as well. Why couldn't Mordred have taken a leaf out of Morgana's book and have devoted himself to learn the many uses of bombs? Explosive material of that kind was something she could handle at least.
'High priestesses?' Merlin asked, puzzled.
Gaius nodded. 'In the days of the Old Religion these mysteries were only revealed to a handful of female initiates. As I was a boy, I was privy only to rumours, but of course there were always more than enough of those.'
Lucas had started frowning. 'Sounds like religious fanatics aren't just our headache in London then.'
Yes, she had noticed the same thing. 'I'd rather go for another round with Allah's holy warriors,' Ros muttered. At least they were in some ways predictable. They operated in a world that she knew and understood, fought with weapons she could fight. This was utterly alien and, although she would rather die a thousand deaths than admit to it, completely terrifying.
Merlin was still going on. 'But if only female initiates were told how to do it, then how does Mordred know? Last I checked, he was a man.'
'You've been checking that, haven't you?' Lucas quipped, but he couldn't even smile at his own joke and neither could any of the others in the room. This had progressed beyond jokes. This was one of her own team who had for all intents and purposes been killed, maybe not in body, but at least in mind. And the way Gaius made it sound, there was no coming back from this. Some track record you're creating, Myers. First Ben, now Jo. And Connie revealed herself to be a black-hearted traitor.
Gaius looked thoughtful. 'Morgana was one of the last who knew of these matters,' he said.
'And we already know he was thick as thieves with her,' Ros commented.
'Although not as thick as Agravaine, perhaps,' Lucas added. And he had cause to know, having spent time with Morgana and therefore claiming the benefits of knowing her as well as anyone could have known that witch. 'I don't think she even had another ally when we… met her. She was relying on Agravaine to get hold of the crown. If she was giving it all she had, wouldn't she have used all her allies at the best opportunity she was going to have? But she never mentioned him. I doubt she would have been teaching him magic that was known only to women.'
'She might have,' Gaius objected. 'There are not many left who know of the old ways.'
And Ros would be forever grateful for that. The sooner this madness became extinct, the better she would like it; less chance of having them show their faces in London and stir up trouble there.
'Or he would have found one of the few who also knew and asked them to do it for him,' Ros interjected. She was getting tired of this idle speculation. She needed something to go on. And while Mordred was as slippery as an eel, these others might not be. It was worth a shot anyway. 'There can't be that many of them, so we compile a list and seek them out.' It might be too much to ask of Gaius to give home addresses, but he seemed rather well informed. He was playing his cards close to his chest, though, too close for Ros's idea.
Gaius dismissed this idea. 'That would be extremely risky, my lady. The victim's will is only bound to those who performed the ritual. If Mordred wished to control her, he would have needed to do it himself.'
And one thing was for sure: Mordred would be in no hurry to tell them how to end whatever the hell it was that he had done to Jo. And it was not as if they had any clue where to start looking for him.
'Who else knows?' Harry demanded. He was thinking like her then, coming at the problem from the other side. Whoever else knew of this thrice-cursed ritual might also know how to end it and they may even be willing to part with that knowledge. And, if not, there were ways to make them, should it come to that.
It didn't mean she was about to forget about Mordred, but until they knew where he had gone and what he was planning next, there was not much to be done about him. And she would get to him. He'd made this personal. This was her team he was targeting and it was not as if she took well to being turned into a target herself.
'There is only one other I know of,' Gaius said. 'The Dochraid. She's an ancient creature of the earth, bound to the Old Religion and with magic at her disposal, powerful magic. She will know, but she is no friend of Camelot, I fear.'
'That doesn't matter.' Merlin was quick to jump at the opportunity. 'I can do it.'
It should not have surprised Ros that he would be the first to try and do something for Jo. And, him being a sorcerer himself, he might stand the best chance of getting some kind of information. Ros had little to no reservations about levelling a gun on those who'd cheerfully kill her or people she cared about, but they weren't a guarantee for success when pointed at one of those magical maniacs. And she only got that shot at Morgana because Merlin distracted her. They needed Merlin, much though she may hate it.
It was testimony to how much Harry wanted this to work that he did not protest this offer. 'Don't go alone.' Technically, Arthur was the one in command now that they were in Camelot, but the king himself wasn't raising any protest, which must mean that this plan had his blessing. If not, they would have heard it by now; Arthur never quite managed the art of disapproving in silence.
'I'll go, Harry.' It was Lucas who spoke. 'I'll take a gun and watch his back.' He conjured up that lopsided grin that usually opened doors. 'We all know they work wonders on sorcerers.'
Ros did not like this. Or, more particularly, she disliked that tendency of his to throw himself headfirst into danger whenever the opportunity arose. And it was more than just job-first-and-everything-else-be-damned with him. Ros knew what that looked like – it stared her in the face every time she took a look in a mirror – and this wasn't it. This was still that bloody proving that he could handle the most difficult tasks. As if any of them needed any convincing after Operation Camelot.
She understood, but there were limits. And Lucas didn't seem to have any when it came to this job. And that this operation had become personal for all of them didn't help matters along either. Bloody hell, Lucas.
At the same time not letting him go was not an option either. As it happened, she supported Harry's order of no one going out alone while Mordred was still somewhere, plotting murder and revenge. None of them should court danger right now. And when it came to accompanying Merlin, Lucas was as good a choice as any. Come to think of it, he was the better choice. Merlin would never let Arthur come after Gaius's information that the Dochraid – whatever the hell she was – was no friend of Camelot, Ros knew herself well enough to know she was likely to get into an argument with the warlock before more than ten minutes had passed and they needed Harry here. Of course there were the knights to be considered, but Arthur had just sent them out to look for more clues, so they were conveniently unavailable. And that left Lucas.
Truth be told, he would have been the best man for the job even when he wasn't the last resort. He could abide Merlin's annoying manners better than she could and he was good in the field. It was just that he tended to ignore his own limitations in order to accomplish his goals that had her worried. Worried, Myers? That's the start of the slippery slope right there.
It wouldn't be if this was just professional worry, but like she had thought already, this was no longer strictly professional. This was personal and she was uneasy on his behalf as a friend rather than a colleague.
But before she could voice any unprofessional objections, Harry had already given it his seal of approval with a curt nod. 'Make her cooperate,' he instructed.
'We will.' Lucas looked oddly determined, another thing she didn't like. He can't make things right for him if he solves what's wrong with Jo now. Life didn't work that way. If she was being entirely honest, though, she would have to admit that putting a bullet in Morgana had not just been doing a service to Camelot. It had been about revenge for what she had done to Lucas more than it had been about ridding the land of the constant thorn in its side. It had not solved Lucas's issues, but she had felt better. And if this was what made him feel better, then she would allow it, within reason of course.
Merlin transported them close to where the Dochraid lived, but far enough away that they didn't land on her doorstep. This also provided them with the opportunity to take a good long look at where they were going before they entered it.
As it was, the Dochraid lived in a draughty cave, the entrance of which was almost entirely concealed from sight by bushes and trees that looked like they had not been touched in decades. If anything, this Dochraid was not a very sociable creature. Lucas had not known what to expect, but when Gaius had mentioned that she was no friend of Camelot, he had known he should be on guard.
Still, he hadn't known what to expect of her dwelling, but now that he saw it, he told himself he should not have been surprised by the shabby state of it. Morgana had lived in a hovel that might as well have been a synonym for leakage and the ruins of the Isle of the Blessed had spoken of much better days in the past, of glory in days long since gone. Uther Pendragon had forced magic into hiding, he knew, and those using it were only seldom wealthy. It should not have come as much of a shock that the Dochraid's house – if a cave could be called a house – was not exactly a mansion with an estate attached.
'What are you waiting for?' he asked of Merlin when he hesitated.
'Well, she's not going to throw us a warm welcome,' Merlin pointed out, quite unnecessarily. Lucas had gathered already that they would not be welcome guests here. For all they knew this Dochraid was the one who had taught Mordred how to cast that spell that had enslaved Jo's mind. He for one still couldn't see Morgana have taught him. If Mordred had been so prominent in her life, then why had none of them heard of him before? It did not make sense.
'Yes?' he prompted.
'Well, it might be best if you stayed here?' he tried. 'I can defend myself with magic if she tries to do me a harm, and Harry will kill me if I let anything happen to you, so…'
'I am coming.' He was tired of being thought of as weak, as one who could hardly look after himself. He didn't think they always did it on purpose, but it happened all the same. And it had been worse since Jo had been taken, as if her abduction reminded everyone that he had been Morgana's prisoner not all that long ago. But he could handle the memories. Morgana was dead after all. And even though he hadn't told this to Ros, he was grateful for that.
Merlin knew better to protest. 'It's probably best if we didn't tell her who we are,' he said. 'Gaius said something like that.' And Gaius was someone who had a great deal of influence on Merlin. Lucas knew that much. He himself did not necessarily like him much, but he didn't know him very well either, so maybe he should reserve judgement. 'She is…'
'No friend of Camelot, I know,' Lucas finished. He could only hope the Dochraid had not been acquainted with Morgana. She would best stay very far away from all of this. 'Let's go.'
He let Merlin go first. If this Dochraid was unwilling to cooperate, Merlin's magic would be their first line of defence. This did however not mean he would enter here completely vulnerable. He had his gun and he was willing to use it should it come to that.
The cave itself was just as chilly and draughty as he had expected it to be and, at first sight, empty. There was little light to see by. Most of it was daylight that came in from the mouth of the cave, and they were effectively blocking most of it.
'Charming sort of place,' Lucas commented. It was better than admitting that the place was giving him the creeps for reasons unknown. There was something in the air that reminded him of Morgana's hovel and the Isle of the Blessed. Maybe it was magic, if that was a thing one could sense. Ros would probably laugh at him for being so jumpy about it. He suddenly found himself wishing she had come.
Merlin was clearly on the verge of some witty retort or other, but someone else spoke first. 'Who dares to enter the sacred cave?' The voice was old, Lucas observed, very old. But well, it was an ancient creature they were speaking to, so it was to be expected.
Now that he could determine where the sound came from, he could see a human-like being sitting a little distance away. She was the definition of old hag made flesh, he thought, except that there were some strange things about her that Lucas had not expected. It looked like a spider had weaved a web of flesh over her eyes, preventing her from seeing, and she had more wrinkles than any old lady he had ever encountered.
'We have come to petition the Dochraid,' Merlin said. His posture was rigid and he kept one hand in front of him to shield them from any possible attacks, but his voice was confident. And that was a novel thing. Merlin was often babbling and flustered in his dealings with Section D, when he wasn't trying to cover it all up with a huge smile and a lot of words. This confident sorcerer was not someone Lucas had seen before.
'Give me your hand.' It was an order, not a request.
Normally Merlin balked at those, but this time he complied without a single protest. Maybe it was some code or other that was used among those who wielded magic, to trust one another in a world where only few others could be relied on. It was much the same in the world he operated in.
Still, all this use of magic made him feel ill at ease. He had seen the good sides of it, but had more than ample experience with the bad side as well. Yet he was not as unnerved by it as Ros, who sometimes became downright intolerable when she had to work with magical threats. They set her on edge because she could not fight them like she fought the terrorists at home. Lucas shared some of her unease – and her loathing of medieval life – but he found it easier to think around the magic and come at the problem from a side that could work for them. And if they had a need of magic for themselves, Merlin was generally available to take care of that aspect.
The Dochraid grabbed Merlin's hand with a speed and accuracy that belied the blindness of her eyes. She sniffed it, causing Merlin to visibly be disgusted, but he did not pull away.
'Who is your companion?' she asked.
'A friend,' Merlin replied curtly. 'We mean you no harm, great Dochraid. We come here in search for answers to our questions only.' There was… respect in his voice, respect that was owed from one sorcerer to another, perhaps. Or maybe it was because the Dochraid was such an old and powerful creature.
She turned her head in Lucas's direction. 'Give me your hand.'
He was tempted to refuse, but Merlin gave him an encouraging nod and he trusted him to keep the danger away from him. He had done so in Moscow and again in London, when the FSB were chasing them, so it stood to reason that he could do that again. Slowly he was starting to develop a measure of trust in Merlin, trust that had not been there during Operation Camelot.
He did as was asked of him and extended his hand, still not sure how this would help the old woman in front of him establish whether or not he was a threat. And the urge to pull away only became stronger when she took his right hand in both of hers and started sniffing at it like a dog would at a bone. Her hands were frail, tough. The skin was cracked and papery and there was not much under it; Lucas could feel her bones.
'I smell magic on you,' she said. 'Powerful magic.'
'I have no magic of my own,' Lucas replied, not quite sure of how much he could say. How could one even smell magic? Ros and Harry would doubtlessly call it a lot of codswallop. 'But I have seen it.' It had him wondering why she commented on what she thought she smelled on him, which could only be traces of another's magic, and not on Merlin's abilities, that must be much more pronounced.
'You are no friend of Morgana Pendragon.' It sounded like an accusation.
'Morgana Pendragon died,' Merlin said. 'She has been dead for months.'
'I know, Emrys,' the Dochraid said and wasn't that disturbing? How does she know his name?
He wanted to pull his hand back, but thought better of it. The atmosphere had changed to hostile within the second, but if they played this right, they might still find the answers they needed. Lucas had been in tighter binds over the course of his career. He could play this game.
'How do you know who I am?' Merlin had not anticipated this turn of events any more than Lucas had, and seemed equally disturbed by it.
'I am the Dochraid,' she said. 'The earth speaks to me. You are not welcome here.'
'Why not?' Lucas felt compelled to ask.
'You are no friends of the Old Religion. You would see its return thwarted.' She lifted her face to look at him. Or at least she would have looked at him had she had the eyes to see him with. 'You have been touched by it. You carry it with you.'
All of a sudden it became much more understandable why Ros harboured such a strong dislike towards the whole magic thing. It was disturbing. His torment at Morgana's hands was months in the past – which did nothing to stop him from frequently waking up screaming from nightmares – and he did not think that magic could linger like that. But what did he know? He hardly knew anything about it.
'It doesn't matter,' he said. 'If you know who we are, you will know why we are here. Can you help us?'
It was a guess, but an educated guess. And as long as the Dochraid had the answers, there were ways to obtain the answer, even if he disapproved of most of the ways to find the answer. But Ros did not have the same reservations he had, and neither had Harry.
'Your friend will find no relief here.' The Dochraid positively cackled. 'Her spirit has been consumed by the Teine Diaga.'
Gaius had been right about that then. Not that this sounded reassuring. The old physician knew almost all the answers, so for him not to know the solution was… frightening. Yes, frightening was the word. And that was almost certainly the reason why Ros was so out of sorts as well. That and the knowledge that if there was no cure, they would have to accept that the real Jo was dead and gone. And if that was the truth, there was a stranger in there wearing her face. If there was nothing that could be done for her, then what were they to do with her? None of the available options sounded good because what if the real Jo was still in there somewhere? They would be punishing her for something she had no control over.
He felt a shiver go down his spine.
And of course Jo would hardly be the first officer to return brainwashed from their captor, but this was different. If officers were turned they always had a say in the matter. Eventually the decision was their own, no matter to how much pressure they had been subjected. Jo would not have stood a chance against the magic that stole her mind.
'You know the solution,' Merlin said. He had come to the same conclusion Lucas had.
'You taught Mordred how to do this to her,' Lucas realised. For all her chatter about the earth talking to her, she knew too much about this. And he was a spy; he had been trained in seeing past bluster. This was no more than words.
And because he was trained to interrogate terrorist suspects he could hardly fail to notice the flash of alarm that crossed the Dochraid's eyeless face.
'Her spirit is gone,' she repeated. 'Her body is no more than an empty vessel filled only by the will of another.'
Maybe it was because Lucas did not want to believe it that he mentally insisted that this could not be all there was to it. He was not as obsessed with keeping the team safe in the way that Ros was, but there were far too much similarities between what had happened to him with Morgana and what had happened to Jo with Mordred. If Morgana had made a different decision, it might have been him who had literally lost his mind. And if that happened, he would want his colleagues to move heaven and earth for him as well. Within reason of course, as long as it did not endanger an ongoing operation, but he'd want it all the same.
'Tell us how it can be reversed,' he snapped.
'You dare challenge me?' she hissed. 'You who come from a land where magic is all but extinct?'
So she knew about that as well? Morgana must have kept her in the loop about her activities then. It would seem that she'd had a lot more allies than he had thought.
And he didn't have the patience for it. So he levelled his gun on her head. 'Talk.'
She cackled again. 'I am the ancient Dochraid.' As you never grow tired of telling us. 'No mortal weapon can kill me.'
'That is the weapon that killed Morgana Pendragon,' Merlin spoke up. There was nothing boyish about him now, and he seemed to stand taller than he did whenever Arthur or Ros were near. Seeing him like this, Lucas found he had less trouble believing that he was the most powerful sorcerer to ever live. 'She was a high priestess of the Old Religion and could not be killed by a mortal weapon either. Yet it was done all the same.'
'Your choice,' Lucas said. 'You can take the risk if you wish and end up dead, or you can tell us how to free my colleague.'
It was true what Merlin had said about Morgana. A gun had killed her just as well as it killed terrorists. Somehow magic did not work well with the twenty-first century technology. True, Merlin had healed the wound caused by the bullet, but he could swear the spot was still tender. He hadn't mentioned it to not crush Merlin's happiness at having managed it, but it did serve as proof that some things clearly didn't mix well.
This threat seemed to have set the Dochraid straight. She let go of his hand – finally – and crouched back until her back was against the wall. 'Only the greatest of sorcerers can attempt to break a spell like that,' she said.
'Fortunately we have one available,' Lucas said. And Merlin was motivated as well. 'Go on.'
'You will not succeed,' the Dochraid said. 'The Druid's power is too strong.'
Oh, for heaven's sake. If Ros had been here, she would have done something rash already. As it was, Lucas's well of patience was rapidly running dry as well. He aimed the gun and shot a bullet that grazed the Dochraid's arm. It didn't do much damage, but enough to land the message that he could harm her and would if the situation asked for it again. Given the fact that she was bleeding – was her blood green or was that just a trick of the light? – he assumed the gun had served its purpose.
And that she did. Not that he could claim to understand much of what she said. But it involved taking Jo to the Cauldron of Arianrhod – because giving a pool a name that people could actually pronounce was too much to ask – and another ritual that needed to be performed by a powerful sorcerer. To complicate matters even further just shoving or dropping Jo into the water was out of the question, because she had to go of her own volition. To force her would mean that she would never be herself again.
And that was impossible. Jo would never enter of her own free will. She had been enchanted. No part of her would want to be rid of Mordred's influence now that that had become who she was entirely. There was nothing to suggest that she wanted to be saved. The only glimmer of hope was that there was a solution that he rather thought had been attempted before. Else how would the Dochraid know so precisely what needed doing?
Merlin nodded in respect. 'Thank you, great Dochraid.'
Giving something that had been given only with a gun against the temple was not something that warranted any thanks in Lucas's opinion, and so he only nodded and removed the gun. It would have to do.
In hindsight he should have known that the last part had gone too easily. They were almost near the exit when he was blasted off his feet. It was only because his reflexes were good that he could extend his hands to break his fall before he landed flat on his face.
Merlin was quicker. He had danced out of the reach of the blast and was still on his feet while Lucas had ended up on the ground.
And he was quick, nothing clumsy or hesitant about him now. He threw his hand forward and muttered some spell or other that had the Dochraid reduced to a moaning pile of ancient earth creature on the other side of the cave. Then he turned his back on her.
'Let's go,' he said, extending a hand.
Lucas took it. Remind me to never underestimate you ever again. It seemed there was more to Merlin than met the eye after all.