Merlin did not think the Dochraid would follow them once they had left the cave, but thought it better not to linger all the same. She had demonstrated already that she meant them harm and Merlin was loath to let her have her way. Had Ros been here, the Dochraid would have been left dead instead of against the wall. But Merlin was no Ros Myers and he was unwilling to kill unless he had to. Weakness though that may be, it was hard to forget that there were less and less magic users left in the kingdom. And then there was the painful reminder of London where there was no magic left at all. That was what would happen, but he wouldn't do anything to hasten his own kind's extinction.
'What was that about?' Lucas demanded. He had adopted a very Ros-like facial mask of indifference, but Merlin suspected he was shaken. He had been the same after Moscow.
'I couldn't kill her,' he said, well aware of just how weak a defence that was. Because from a pure MI-5 kind of view he had just committed one of the worst faults he could. He had let an enemy live, one who was in contact with Mordred and who could now inform him that they were on to him.
And he found it hard to explain his reasoning to one such as Lucas, who may not be the school example of the Section D mind-set, but who was infected with it sufficiently. Reason dictated that he would have ensured that the Dochraid would be taken out of the game. She wouldn't necessarily need to be killed. In fact, he thought Harry would prefer imprisonment over death, since dead suspects could not tell them anything. But so many sorcerers and representatives of the Old Religion had been persecuted and executed during Uther's Great Purge that he couldn't find it in himself to harm one who wasn't an immediate danger to the operation. It was however up for debate if anyone would share these opinions. He rather doubted it.
'I know she will be telling Mordred what we're planning, but she is one of the last magical creatures left and…' He found that he was starting to ramble, like he would when he was passionate about something.
Fortunately Lucas butted in and saved him from his own incoherency. 'I meant about the magic she said she sensed.'
Ah. That. The truth was that Merlin didn't have a clue as to what was going on back there. He assumed that it were the remnants of Morgana's treatment that the Dochraid would have sensed, but he himself had never detected any sign of magic on Lucas after he was back on his feet. There must be some truth to her claims about being an old earth creature after all.
Briefly he had contemplated the possibility that Lucas himself had magic, but he had dismissed that option as soon as the thought entered his head. If that was the case, they would have found out long before now and besides, in theory any old fool could learn magic if only they worked at it long enough. Gaius was someone like that. He had no doubt that even Arthur and Ros could do it if they put their minds to it. That thought however was so completely ridiculous that he almost laughed.
His companion brought him back to the here and now. 'Is that possible?' Lucas questioned. 'That she somehow…?'
Merlin could not blame him for not finishing that sentence, because the thought of having been permanently affected by the magic of one who repeatedly tortured him within an inch of his life was not alluring in the slightest. And Lucas had been more harmed than some in that respect. If the world was anything near fair, it would leave him out of the line of fire for once, but Merlin had learned the lesson that the world was decidedly not fair a long time ago and he had learned it the hard way.
'I don't know,' he admitted. 'I will ask Gaius.' He conjured up something that might look like a reassuring smile when he added: 'But you haven't felt anything of that, have you? Maybe it is just something she reads, like you reading a file on an operation.'
But it was the great big maybe. Once again it became painfully obvious that there were things about magic that he didn't know. And most of those things could easily be blamed on not having enjoyed any magical education at all. Of course, Gaius had books aplenty and he had learned a good many things from those, but they were often snippets and loose spells. He had never grasped the greater context of magic and the Old Religion on account of having been banned on the pain of death. And when he was facing enemies who were well-versed in that, he often found himself at a distinct disadvantage. He may be the most powerful sorcerer to ever live, but he sometimes found that prophecy was playing a trick on him, because yes, in raw power he may be the most powerful sorcerer, but there were others who had more skill by far. Morgana had been such a person, and so was Mordred. But the worst part was that they were fully prepared to do whatever was necessary to achieve their goals, while Merlin often prided himself in having certain limits, in having principles that placed him above the people he fought. It was one of the reasons why he had such troubles working with Section D.
Lucas nodded, considering the information and then filing it away for future reference. Then his mind was firmly back on the matter for which they had come here in the first place. 'Jo,' he said, adopting a tone of voice that was more Harry Pearce than Lucas North. 'Can it be done?'
That was another question altogether and one that wasn't so easily answered. At first he had been relieved that there was a cure and while there was a cure, there was still hope. He might have changed his mind on the matter a little though when he heard the requirements that needed to be met in order for the ritual to be successful. He thought his own power was great enough that he might play his part – because who else was going to do it? – but it was the part that said Jo needed to enter the water of her own volition that was potentially problematic. No, not potentially. It was bound to be problematic. Her entire mind had been bound to Mordred's, so there was no chance that she would even want to be freed. And tricking Jo into the Cauldron would not work either, because that would have been his strategy of choice otherwise. He was good at tricking people into doing things. He had been managing Arthur for years and if that wasn't sufficient training, then he didn't know what was.
'Yes,' he said, because he wanted it to work. Heaven only knew how they were going to achieve it, but he wanted it to work so badly, so they would find a way. And goodness knew what the spies would do if they found out that there was nothing left of the old Jo, the real Jo? Would they discard her as they would an asset that had outlived its usefulness? Or would they treat her like they treated Connie and ship her off for interrogation, to get to Mordred, and who cared that she got hurt in the process? After all, she wasn't herself anymore. And he thought the spooks uncaring enough to pull it off.
Lucas only nodded. He was quick enough to question Merlin's judgement when it came to his area of expertise, but when it was about magic, he accepted that Merlin knew best. Very unlike Ros he was in that. She questioned everything and did whatever she could to make the point that she loathed magic and the people who practised it. And Harry was only a little better. Of all the team Jo and Malcolm – and Connie before, but she didn't count anymore – were truly accepting him. And with the former Mordred's puppet, the latter in London and Arthur not in a mood to talk, he felt rather lonely.
'We should go,' was the only response he got.
There was no arguing with that logic and so he took them back to Camelot to impart the good news on his allies, all the while wondering how far they would be willing to go for Jo. The way he saw it, it could go both ways. Ros had already proven there was precious little she would not do. Jo herself, back in the day when she was still master of her own mind, had confided that she had betrayed their country twice on behalf of people she cared about, once her father and the other time to get her revenge for the disappearance and death of a colleague. She had no limits when it came to her colleagues – and Mordred had better watch his back now that he had incurred the infamous Myers wrath – but there was no telling what she would do if she believed that Jo could not be brought back. Lucas he could rely on, on account of him having suffered captivity and torment himself, but it was not Lucas's opinion that counted. And neither did Ros's if push really came to shove. It was Harry who was in charge of his own team. It could be that Arthur disagreed with such a course of action, but Jo was not his officer.
But that was all idle speculation. He would have to wait until after he had told his news to see what the reaction would be. And that was one meeting he was not looking forward to.
As it was, Lucas took care of most of the talking part. At first Merlin was grateful that he took it upon himself to relay the bad news, but soon found that it was not all that selfless of him as he had thought. Lucas had ulterior motives for playing the messenger, something that became apparent when he carefully omitted any mention of the traces of magic the Dochraid had perceived on him. And if Harry heard that something like that had been said, chances were he would pull Lucas off the op for fear he had not recovered enough after all. And if Merlin understood Lucas at all, that was something he would try to prevent at any cost.
'Enough of the chitchat,' Harry snapped when Lucas came to the part where the Dochraid had detailed what needed to be done and failed to give a very accurate account of it. 'Can we do it?'
The question had been aimed at Merlin rather that at Lucas and so it was him who tried to formulate a reply. 'Yes?' Because of his own uncertainty it sounded far more like a question than the decided statement he had planned on making. If he let it show now that he doubted his own abilities, that would not get him very far and he wanted to at least be permitted to have a shot at this. If he failed then, he could say that he had at least tried.
'Are you telling me or asking me?' Harry's well of patience, as in so far present to begin with, was very nearly empty and he clearly had a zero tolerance policy where it came to people stalling.
'Telling you.' Hesitating was not that much of an option, so he had to man up and make it sound as though he knew what he was doing. That was not an easy task, but if he didn't want his friends to give up on Jo before they had even tried, well, that was not much of an option anyway. 'My powers are great enough.' It felt like he was boasting, something that felt utterly alien. He was more used to downplaying his own abilities. In all his time working for Arthur he had taken great care to ensure that Arthur would only laugh at the idea of him being a sorcerer. It was safer that way, and his strategy had worked admirably. It was just that now that he wanted them to believe that he was capable of performing that ritual that it was working against him.
'But?' Ros must have heard what he hadn't said. It was nothing short of a miracle that she hadn't offered any sort of doubt that he was indeed powerful enough. The world must have come to an untimely end then.
'She'll have to enter the water,' he explained, not sure if Lucas had been able to convey that point well enough. Judging by the confused looks around the table, that had not been the case. Now for the hardest part. 'And she'll have to enter of her own free will.'
He could see every single face around the table fall. They too must know that this would be very much impossible. And as far as he was aware there was not a single part of her that remained, not enough of her to drag her back from wherever it was that the real Jo had been banished to. And that was considering that there even was a real Jo to get back. Gaius had said something about her own will being completely erased. What if there was nothing left at all?
'We'll do it.'
Merlin needed a few seconds to process that it had been Ros Myers who had spoken those words rather than Arthur Pendragon. It was well-known that Ros would go far for her team – something about colleagues being okay – but for her to go far, she needed to believe that there was still something left to salvage. Because he had seen her turn on Connie faster than he could blink. But then, Connie had turned on her first and had killed one of the colleagues Ros had thought so okay.
'Rosalind,' Harry started to butt in.
'No.' In all the time Merlin had known her, the Section Chief had only interrupted her boss a couple of times. She did it seldom enough to invite general bewilderment among her colleagues when it did occur; usually they were thick as thieves. 'We don't give up on our own, Harry.'
Arthur nodded. 'If we can free her, she could tell us what Mordred is doing, where he is hiding, what he is planning.' He gave Harry a frank look. 'And we need that information.'
It was utterly unlike Arthur to be that sly. The spies must be rubbing off on him. This was not something he would have done a year ago. It didn't fit him. He was supposed to be a just king, one who could unite Albion and restore magic to the land – horrific prospect of twenty-first century London notwithstanding – but not one who plotted with spies.
Arthur meanwhile monopolised on the temporary silence caused by Harry's astonishment. 'I will send a few knights with Merlin once they return. If you can't spare the manpower to take her there, I will be more than happy to provide it.'
That was a bold move, and a manipulative one too. Of course it was nothing new that Arthur would risk his kingdom for the sake of one person – it was just the kind of person that he was – but that he went about it in such a way, that was a new development, and one Merlin was not sure he entirely approved of.
Harry, in addition to looking mildly impressed, also looked positively furious that Arthur was forcing his hand like that. But instead of turning on Arthur, which might have been unwise given where they were, he directed his attention at Ros. 'It is your project,' he told her.
Ros only smiled and so did Merlin. They had won a round. And if they could win one battle, it stood to reason that they might stand a chance at winning the war.
It was a feeling of dread that was settling in Ros's chest while Lucas narrated the events of what had happened in the cave of the Dochraid. She hadn't liked it very much either when Gaius had begun about the whole Teine Diaga nonsense, which turned out to be not very much nonsense at all. Instead it was a whole lot of bloody and incomprehensible truth. It made her antsy, ill at ease and, above all, made her experience a dire need to fasten her hands around Mordred's throat and squeeze. Goodness knew he deserved it, and more.
Harry didn't have the patience for Lucas's incomplete explanation and turned to Merlin with a demand to know if it could be done or if they were just wasting everyone's time. The last part of the sentence went unspoken, but Ros hadn't become Section Chief of the Counter-Terrorism unit for no reason. She knew how to read between the lines.
And she didn't like the consequences if Merlin's answer would turn out to be a no. Of course Jo was one of her team and she was prepared to go far for her, but what would she do if there was nothing left to save? She had gone after Zaf when there was nothing to go on, and it had led her to Yalta, betrayal, a near-death experience and a six months exile in Moscow. This time it was unlikely to come that far, because when it came to revenge on the sorry excuse for a knight who was to blame, she was fairly certain she would have to get in line behind Harry. Her boss was very near exploding; she knew him long enough to recognise the signs when she happened upon them.
But what would she do when Jo was beyond hope? Stop wallowing, Myers, that woman isn't Jo anymore. It's just a bloody stranger using her face.
And because Rosalind Myers had never been known to hold with sentimental nonsense, she knew she would do what needed doing. She forced herself to see her former colleague as a suspect but potential source of information. And at least one thing had not changed: Jo was still their best bet if it came to getting to Mordred. Not that she would take any pleasure in extracting the information from her.
Bloody hell, what a mess.
Merlin's hesitant 'yes?' did nothing to raise her hopes either.
Well, she supposed she should be glad that there was something of a chance, if apparently not a very big one.
Harry though was still far from pacified. 'Are you telling me or asking me?'
It should have been something of a relief that Merlin's reply was 'telling you' instead of 'asking you' although it was slightly disturbing to hear him claim that his powers were great enough. As far as she was aware Merlin's powers were not all that impressive and even if they were, he was usually too busy blundering about to make any use of them, which amounted to the same thing.
'But?' she prompted when the warlock feel silent with a look on his face that betrayed there was more to this and that it was bound to be unpleasant.
True to expectations the explanation that followed made most of her hope flow right down the drain. It was almost worse to have been given hope and then have it taken away from her. How the hell were they supposed to get Jo into that water of her own free will when she had no will of her own left? That was the great conundrum, she supposed, and she did not have the answer.
'We'll do it.'
The words were out in the open before she had taken the time to think them through. But that was just what they did, wasn't it? Section D looked after their own when they had the chance and getting Jo back was a possible way to get to Mordred, or that was what she told herself at least. If Jo had her mind back, she could tell them where the thrice-cursed Druid had taken himself off to and get him. It might tell them something about what he was planning or who was next in line on his hit list.
Harry clearly disagreed. 'Rosalind…'
It must have been a while since she last interrupted him in public, but she did it then. 'No,' she said decisively. 'We don't give up on our own, Harry.' That was not how she had meant to conclude that sentence. She had been meaning to point out what uses a Jo in her senses would be to this operation, especially if Mordred didn't know that she had been reverted back to her former self. She had planned to say something about the intelligence the real Jo could give them, but instead she had ended up reminding Harry that they never gave up on their own people. Of course that was true – Harry had moved heaven and earth to get Lucas back, twice, and he had taken her back even when she had betrayed him – but it was far too mushy for her. You must be going soft, Myers.
Arthur nodded eagerly. 'If we can free her, she could tell us what Mordred is doing, where he is hiding, what he is planning,' he said. The look he gave Harry would have been impertinent had he not been the king. 'And we need that information.'
Ros was torn between being mad at him or being mad at herself. It should have been her who should have said that. That was after all the professional thing to say and Ros Myers was nothing if not professional, unsociable and uncaring. This operation was doing strange things to her and apparently even stranger things to Arthur. When had he stolen her personality traits and had he given her a few of his own? More importantly, how had she missed it?
Harry was still far too mush stunned into silence by Arthur's uncharacteristic but very true reasoning to offer much in the way of objection. 'I will send a few knights with Merlin once they return,' Arthur said, knowing how to make use of the opportunity this provided him with, before dealing the final blow. 'If you can't spare the manpower to take her there, I will be more than happy to provide it.' If you aren't willing to help one of your own, I am more than willing to take care of one who is not one of my own people.
It was the person Arthur Pendragon was. He'd risk his neck for people he cared about and people who he in some mysterious way counted as his. But there was more to this. This was manipulative, a strategy Ros herself frequently employed when it suited her needs. But the legends had never made mention of a King Arthur who was cunning. Of course, neither had legend made any mention of the great Merlin being a clumsy manservant to aforementioned king.
Harry was absolutely furious, the kind of fury that sent his blood pressure to the danger zone and made him altogether unpleasant to be around. Of course Ros had more than enough experience with unpleasantness to be deterred by it, but it made dealing with him a trial.
'It's your project,' he told her sternly, as if it was a punishment rather than his seal of approval. They had a chance at the very least and Ros had never been one to go down without a fight.
'I'll provide you with an escort.' Arthur didn't miss a beat. It made Ros suspect that he had expected this outcome. 'I'll find some knights to accompany you.' He turned to Merlin. 'Didn't Gwaine know about your magic?'
There were many things she would be willing to tolerate for the mission's sake, but Gwaine was not one of them. The jovial knight had been getting on her nerves from the moment she had met him. To have him accompany them on an operation of such importance would be a burden the likes of which she had not seen in a long time. His only redeeming quality was that he was a strong fighter, maybe even better than Arthur. But then, he was not entirely worth the chatter she would have to put up with.
Still, she knew better than to object now that she basically had what she wanted. Gwaine would be a small price to pay. 'See to it that he keeps his tongue in his mouth,' she said, which was all the confirmation she was about to give him. She may have to put up with this – and this included vastly more than just the mission they would have to go on – but she certainly didn't have to like it.
'Certainly,' Arthur said. 'Merlin, you can transport there?'
He nodded. 'Well, not there exactly. It's a magical place, so to just appear there would be rude, but I can get us close. But Gwaine isn't here yet. Should I go and get him?'
'And have my men draw arms at you when they see you appearing out of thin air?' Arthur asked dismissively. 'Wait till tomorrow.'
Much as Ros disliked the notion, that was a sensible plan. It was not as if there were streetlamps at that place Merlin had mentioned – would it kill the people around here if they invented names that one could actually remember? – and they were losing the daylight. It was not as if they could go there and back with Merlin's magical whirlwinds and be back in time for supper. But even if that had been possible, she would have to admit that she didn't have a clue how to get through to Jo.
It was a question that kept bugging her long after the makeshift Grid had emptied and she was the last one there, with only coffee for company. Their rations of the much-needed beverage were rapidly running out, but she needed some of the comforts from home to get through. Gaius had given Jo something that would keep her asleep – and would prevent some more unfortunate assassination attempts.
What the bloody hell could Jo care about enough that it will snap her out of whatever the hell it is that Mordred has done to her? There weren't all that many people Jo cared about. It was one of the downsides of the job. Being completely honest with friends and family was almost never an option. That left colleagues. And although Jo was liked well enough – they for some reason found it hard to be angry with her at all – there was no one she was particularly close with. Well, except for Ben, but given that he had inconveniently been murdered by that treacherous cow Connie James that was no longer an option.
And the remaining options did not look very full of potential either. Ros was vaguely aware that Jo's mother knew that her daughter worked for MI-5, but they were not particularly close. It was something she would keep for a last resort, when all else had failed. Besides, she had no idea how to explain the portal and Camelot to her. Heaven knew Ros would not have believed it herself had she not been caught up in the thick of it.
Which left Arthur – who was dismissed without a second thought – Harry, Lucas and herself. Merlin would be too preoccupied casting that spell to also coax Jo into the water. Lucas hardly knew Jo. He had spent the better part of the last decade playing guest to the FSB and since his return he had been too focused on proving to Harry that he was still a capable field officer to socialise much. The remaining time was spent hanging around her desk. And Harry, although a good boss, was never good in that emotional closeness. The only exception to that was Ruth Evershed and Ros herself had ensured that she was spending her days in exile in only God knew where.
Not that she herself was a much better candidate for the job. Jo had hardly made a secret of her dislike, but it had been Ros who had been able to drag her out of that trauma that had hindered her since her abduction by the Redbacks. It was the shared experience of being women in this job – which was harder than it was for men, as she had brusquely reminded her colleague – that had enabled her to get through to her, but if that would be enough to do the trick this time, that remained to be seen.
It would be her best bet, though. And didn't that frustrate her.
'Is there coffee left?'
Ros was on the verge of informing Lucas that the coffee pot was right there and he had been given the use of two eyes to see it, only to realise that it wasn't Lucas who had asked the question. Instead it was Merlin who entered the Grid, bleary-eyed stumbling around, giving every impression of having literally rolled out of his bed five minutes ago.
'Suit yourself,' she replied curtly. She wasn't one for small talk even on her best days and her tolerance for Merlin never very great either. She needed him, but her job didn't require the idle chitchat the real Jo so often indulged in.
'We can do it,' he said, ignoring the plain hint that she didn't want his company. 'We will bring her back.'
It sounded more like wishful thinking to Ros than an actual surety and she told him so. 'Don't make promises you can't deliver on.'
If she was being really honest, it was not his ability that she doubted. After all, that was something he could learn, rehearse and perfect. She on the other hand would need to say the right thing at the right moment and there was a reason there was more than one rumour about her infamous lack of social skills. Give her an assignment undercover and she could do pretty much any type of character, but when it was real, social interaction made the very bottom of her list of talents. And she had never had that connection with Jo the way others had.
'It will work out,' Merlin repeated. His insistence on painting a rosy future was grating on Ros's last nerve. By now she knew him long enough to know that this was just something he did, but good grief, was it annoying. 'Prophetic gifts in addition to your magical gibberish?' she asked sarcastically.
The smile lessened in intensity, which was as close to victory as she was likely to get. 'No…'
She was quick enough to speak up before he could utter the but that followed up his no and was bound to end in an optimistic statement that Ros found she really did not have the patience for right now. 'Then stop talking,' she ordered. To signal that this conversation was at an end, she turned on her heels and left him to his coffee.
Not for the first time – and certainly not for the last – Ros Myers wished she was home.