Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 34

Chapter 34

It was a mixed feeling, watching Merlin, Gwaine and Ros ride out of the gate, with Jo's limp body slung over Gwaine's saddle like a piece of luggage, Arthur reflected. Something about staying behind went against everything he had ever learned, but it was the sensible thing to do. Merlin, the sentimental idiot, had left the Dochraid alive, which meant that there was every chance that Mordred knew he should anticipate that they would make an attempt to cleanse Jo and undo all his work. Arthur had meant to include himself in the little group going to the Cauldron of Arianhrod, but Merlin had correctly argued the point that Mordred might attack Arthur and Harry had backed that up. And so here he was, looking out of the window feeling completely and utterly useless. Knowing that they might be back before supper – because Merlin and his magical jumping from one place to another in no time at all was pretty useful – did not even help much. Mordred could do the same whirlwind kind of things and there was no guarantee that Jo would even get her own mind back.

Guinevere, bless her, had tried to tell him that she had faith in Merlin, and she didn't even know what his servant was capable of. There certainly were days when he wondered whether he was the only one in the world constantly underestimating him.

It were the old habits, he concluded. As long as he had known Merlin, he had been nothing but his smiling, clumsy self and no hint of magic whatsoever. Just huge amounts of good luck that he never questioned and why would he? No sorcerer ever meant well for Camelot, so the very thought that one was protecting him was nothing short of absurd. It was a sick kind of joke and why would any sorcerer in the possession of his wits ever do such a thing? It made no sense. It was far more realistic to believe that all his good fortune was just that.

And Merlin was hardly the kind to flaunt his powers in front of Arthur, even now. He might have himself be to blame for that. He had spoken harsh words during Operation Camelot, when Merlin's distrust of Lucas was at its peak, and although Arthur had been right to have faith in his newfound friend, his words to Merlin might, on reflection, have been too hard. And since he was no more in the habit of apologising than Ros Myers was, he had never expressed his regrets for his own conduct. He had assumed that Merlin would know, as he seemed to know everything else. Somewhere they had lost that easy friendship and it was hard to recover it.

There was a speech that wanted writing and there was training that needed doing. These past few days had been spent entirely too much running around London and sitting on the back of a horse to look for Jo, and it had left him no time to train. And in his current mood he found he needed to use some of that energy to beat the stuffing out of a practise figure or, better still, one of his knights.

The speech turned out to be something of a disaster. It was one of the best kept secrets in the castle that it was Merlin who had a way with words. Arthur was more a man of action and although he could learn the right words to say, it was usually Merlin – mixed with some of Guinevere's wisdom – who did the real job of writing speeches. Two hours and several pieces of parchment later he decided that it would have to do and that Merlin could give it a polish along with his armour when he came back.

It was a trial putting on his own armour – it was made to put on with someone's assistance – but he would rather suffer through the effort alone rather than call George. No doubt that the servant could fix it in half the time Merlin needed for it, but Arthur could not put up with his hopeless attempts at conversation for that long. But the delay and the process of trial and failure was stretching his already frayed nerves to the breaking point. He needed to feel a sword in his hand and the exhilaration of a fight. It had always been a tried and tested way of dealing with the many concerns weighing on his mind. To fight, he knew he was alive and capable of doing something. With all these shady games going on around him, he felt he needed a forceful reminder of that.

Of course it didn't all turn out the way he had in mind. He was almost out when he bumped into Lucas, who was taking great strides getting as much distance between himself and what Arthur guessed to be the Grid.

'Where are you off to, then?' he asked, taking in Arthur's attire. 'Off to the training ground?' he added, taking a correct guess as to his destination.

'Training with the knights,' he confirmed. 'You?'

'Oh, you know, talking to Mordred's former friends.' The tone was nonchalant, but it was obvious that Lucas didn't relish the prospect. The friends he mentioned were the knights who had still trouble wrapping their heads around Mordred's betrayal. 'Harry's orders.'

'They are on the training ground,' Arthur replied. 'I don't think you will learn much from them.'

But they needed to start somewhere and every snippet of information would be welcome now. There was nothing to go on, nothing to check out. Mordred could have vanished into thin air and he would have left more traces than he did now. At least disturbances in the air were something his London allies could measure with equipment far beyond Arthur's comprehension.

Predictably, there was nothing of value any of the knights could contribute. It turned out that Mordred was fond of chatter, but it was chatter about sweet nothings that came out of his mouth. He never allowed a conversation to come close to personal matters. The only thing they learned was that his parents were both dead, a piece of information he had let slip once he had been getting slightly drunk in the tavern one night. Apparently he had been shocked at his own words and had refused to speak another word all evening long.

The clue about his parents was the best thing they had heard all day, but useless in and out of itself. Mordred was a Druid and, assuming that the same was true for his mother and father, it was not impossible that they had been killed in one of Arthur's father's raids on Druid camps. All it did was give him another motivation for killing Arthur. As if things were not yet hopeless enough.

'Useless,' he judged once he had sent his men off to train by themselves for a while before he joined them.

'Send some men around the Druid camps,' Lucas counselled. 'Find people who knew his parents. Find out where he comes from, if there is any family left, where they might be, where they lived if they're dead. Mordred's living in the past; he might have decided to take a look around.'

There were days when Arthur marvelled at the spies' ability to glean leads from such little pieces of information. It was why he needed them, he knew that, but there were moments too when he found their lack of morals when it came to certain aspects disturbing. The way Lucas talked indicated that he had no doubt that the Druids would talk to them. If not, there were ways to make them. It was something that wasn't said, but he knew that was what was meant anyway. Everyone talks in the end, Ros had told him once. He'd forgotten when, but the point stood. It was their way.

He nodded. 'I will send them as soon as they can depart.' Which would be the next day. Provisions would need to be packed, because the nearest camp was more than a day's ride away. Life was slower here in Camelot than it was in London. It progressed at a better pace, he found. At least here he had te occasional time to stop and think before life's maelstrom sucked him in again.

'Harry will be relieved to hear it,' Lucas grinned. Some of the tension left his face, although there was still something haunted in his eyes. It had been there ever since Moscow and it could be seen in the set of his jaws and his shoulders as well. He looked as tight as a bowstring, in short, as tense as Arthur felt.

'Do you know how to handle a sword?' The question had left his mouth before he could stop to think about it. It was not to say that he would find training as relieving as Arthur found it, but it might help some.

Lucas seemed surprised. 'We have guns in London.'

Arthur took that as a no. 'You're in Camelot,' he said, getting slightly enthusiastic about his own idea. 'You should know how to defend yourself against knights.'

The other man arched an eyebrow. 'Just in case I will ever turn on you?' Like Jo did. It didn't need to be said and Arthur cursed his own stupidity. Lucas was sensitive to such things, but there was fear in his voice as well. Because if Mordred did to him what he had done to Jo, then Lucas would have no control over it as well. Everything that made him to what he was would simply be gone, the very essence of his being stolen by a force more evil than Arthur could comprehend.

'Mordred is a knight,' he replied curtly. There was truth in that as well.

He had no further objections from Lucas after that. If anything, once he was reassured – not that he made any verbal confirmation of that – he seemed to find it all strangely amusing. The amusement lasted no longer than a minute or five, when Arthur's commander self took over. It was almost instinct to fall back into the familiar patterns of drilling the knights. And there was no question that he was the better swordsman, but Lucas was not a bad fighter all things considered. He was more used to employing his fists in a fight when a gun was not readily available and he carried that experience into his sword fighting. It made him for a slightly unpredictable sparring partner, but he held his sword inexpertly and his blows missed certainty.

There was something satisfactory about being able to teach something to Lucas instead of the other way round. They did not like operating in his world, but they could hold their own admirably, giving every impression of not needing the same kind of help he had needed when he had first come to London, the kind of explanation necessary to function there. But there were some areas where he still knew more than they did. Call it salvaging his ego, but he needed that. It felt better to interact with Section D on something approaching an equal footing.

Lucas was a quick study and he had the benefit of keeping his body in good shape. Running all across London to prevent terrorist outrages would do that to a body. He was quick, alert and had a memory that many would commit a murder for. When they started out, Arthur thought that he would relish the pleasure of teaching something new to a friend but would forego the physical exercise he had come here for in the first place. But he was sweating by the time he called an end to it. Lucas looked dead on his feet. There would not have been much rest for him last night, he reckoned, with things being the way they were. He had seen Lucas in the throes of a nightmare himself and all this would have roused memories that would best stay asleep indefinitely. Yet another thing he could blame Mordred for.

Not, mind, that he found it any easier to blame Mordred now than he had found it to blame Morgana. He would protect his kingdom at all costs and yes, he was angry, but there was still some affection lingering, wondering why he had been betrayed again. Hurt spoke louder than fury, at least in the privacy of his own heart. If he ever came face to face with Mordred again, he would ask him why. He needed an answer. Section D could guess his motivations and be right about it, but he needed to hear it from Mordred's mouth, needed to hear him explain what he had done that could possibly justify vengeance on this scale. He had been changing things for sorcerers, had he not? He was righting his father's wrongs. And he never had a choice where Morgana was concerned. She was a danger to his people. Would Mordred have had him stand idly by while she wreaked havoc on the land?

But all that idle speculation was just that. In the end, he just didn't know and he didn't have the luxury of lingering on the subject. All he could do was fight against those who meant harm to his kingdom.

'Not bad,' he commented to Lucas when they put their swords away. Those who knew him would know that this was very near the highest praise he ever gave on the training fields. In his experience it pushed his men to try harder when he implied that they were not yet good enough until he had knights he could be proud of. And Lucas had done tolerably. Not very well, but not as bad as Arthur had expected him to be. If it ever came to a fight with their bare hands, he might even find himself on the losing side.

Lucas nodded.

Arthur meant to invite him to the tavern for a drink – he did go there every now and then, just not as much as Merlin seemed to do – but was stopped from asking that by the sight of a messenger who came running his way, all out of breath. 'My lord!'

Messengers who brought messages that were delivered in haste never brought good news. It was a law of life itself, Arthur thought. If there would ever come a day when such a message brought news that wouldn't plunge his land into another crisis, he would throw a celebration to mark the occasion.

'Yes?' It was one of the squires he had sent out with the last patrol. Arthur recalled that he was a promising fighter, a bit hot-headed, but in general Gerold was a good sort. He had a quick temper, but didn't scare easily, which was why the look in his eyes was so alarming. 'Has the patrol returned?' They were scheduled to return in three days. This was too quick.

'No, my lord,' the lad said. 'That it, they're on their way, but I was sent ahead because I am the fastest rider. To deliver a message, my lord.'

He had figured out as much by himself. Gerold was rambling and that was a Merlin-like quality that did not suit him at all. It must have been bad if it had him reduced to this. 'Yes?' he asked again.

'There's an army at our borders, my lord.' Gerold finally seemed to have found the courage to impart the bad news on his king. 'Saxons, my lord.'

He wondered if the air had suddenly chilled so much or if that was just his imagination.

The ride was a silent one. Gwaine had been trying to keep up the talking for a bit, but when neither Merlin nor Ros answered and the latter had sent him a freezing glare to shut him up, he had mercifully fallen quiet. Normally Merlin appreciated Gwaine's tendency to talk and talk about nothing at all; it eased the tension and could coax him into smiling most days. Just not today.

Today he resembled Arthur in a bad mood, he supposed. Of course, bad moods with Arthur were usually to cover up hurt or nerves. Or both. And Merlin was experiencing both well enough to last him for a lifetime. He had been studying the spell he was going to cast in an old book of Gaius's – one day he would ask how he had come by so many books on magic – until his eyes burned and the letters swam before his eyes. He knew he could do it, but rationally knowing things and really doing it, well, those were two different things entirely and the sooner they arrived and he could do what he was meant to, the better he would like it.

'Why are we even riding when you can that impressive whirlwind thing to get us there?' Gwaine asked. His silence predictably had only been temporary. He just didn't do quiet. It didn't suit him. And when he was silent he always gave the impression of sitting on hot coals until he could set his tongue to working again. Gwaine was made to see the better sides of life. Merlin thought it nothing short of a blessing to have such a friend. Ros on the other hand did not think Gwaine's happiness to be his redeeming quality, but rather the one that condemned him.

'Because the rest of Camelot doesn't know,' he replied. If Arthur was serious about repealing the ban on magic, they would find out eventually. Merlin both dreaded and looked forward to that day. He wasn't anticipating with glee how angry and betrayed some would feel that he had been practising magic under their noses and he had never either been caught or seen fit to confide in them. But it would be wonderful to not have to hide anymore. Truth be told, he didn't even know what that would be like.

'And because Mordred may have spies of his own in Camelot,' Ros added. She gave the impression of not wanting to take part in this conversation at all, so she did it with the utmost reluctance. How Lucas even got her to smiling was the greatest unsolved mystery in all the world, in Merlin's opinion. If the corners of her mouth ever moved in his presence, they moved downwards, never upwards. 'Let him think we're going to ride all the way.'

The plan was to just ride a short distance, until they were out of sight of Camelot, leave the horses and then transport to somewhere near the Cauldron of Arianhrod. Gwaine had not been told that for the obvious reasons: he was not one for keeping secrets he didn't see the point of in keeping. He had not told a soul about Merlin's magic, but their route was something he wouldn't mind telling an obliging ear over a tankard of ale.

'My lady, you are as clever as you are beautiful,' Gwaine grinned flirtatiously in Ros's direction. Merlin deemed it a waste of effort; Ros was immune for anything that even smelled like charm. Gwaine had it in spades, but it had yet to make any sort of impression on the Section Chief.

'Stop talking and watch where you're going,' Ros told him.

They did just that. It was only an hour of riding, but it felt like much longer. Merlin felt like sitting on a hedgehog rather than in a saddle. It had been a mistake letting the Dochraid live. He had known that when he had turned his back on her as she lay moaning on the ground, but he knew it even better now. With her being the one who taught her foul magic to Mordred, it would be safe to say she would have told him what they were planning. At the very least Mordred's ploy to plant Jo back with them and have her kill them off in his stead had failed, but to Merlin that did not matter much as long as Jo's will was still bound to Mordred's. It wasn't a real victory until that had been accomplished.

Right now Jo was hanging over Gwaine's saddle, out cold. They were under orders to have her remain asleep until they were at the Cauldron. It would be easier that way. It was only when they had arrived at their destination that they would need to start worrying about what was to be done there.

Of course they had to get there first. And that being his main priority, he guided them to a relatively secluded place in the woods. Of course there was always a chance that they were followed, but it was a risk they needed to take. The worst that could happen was that they would find their horses gone upon their return, but there were worse fates that could befall them. If truth be told, if stolen mounts was the worst that would happen to them today, he would count himself lucky.

Ros had gone entirely quiet, her face schooled in an expression of utmost disdain. Given how she had reacted when he had transported her to Camelot he could not fault her for not looking forward to this trip either, but it was the quickest way and if their little ruse worked, Mordred might think he had a few days before they would get to the Cauldron.

It was a mite bit tricky to take three people with him, despite the fact that one of their number was sleeping. He had taken two with him at most and that had taken a lot of concentration already. But well, he was supposed to be the most powerful warlock; it was time he started acting like it. Gaius said he should have more faith in himself and maybe he was right. He would never pull it off if he believed he didn't have it in him.

So naturally it went off without a hitch. Well, almost.

'Merlin, mate, where has my cloak gone?' Gwaine was looking around him in bewilderment. And it was true; his cloak had disappeared. In all likeliness he had left the thing behind because it had been out of reach somehow. But it was a blunder, one that could have been a whole lot worse if it had been a limb or, worse, a head. It was a forceful reminder that magic had its limits and that just because he was the most powerful warlock, this did not mean that he would not have to bow to certain rules.

He ventured a guess. 'Still with the horses?' To soften the blow he threw in an apologetic smile. It was only a cloak after all, so Gwaine could get a little cold at worst.

'It's cold up here.' It was as though the merriest knight of Camelot had read his thoughts.

And so it was. The Cauldron of Arianhrod was high up in the mountains and there wasn't much by way of shelter. It was just bare rock and those few plucks of grass that had braved the harsh and icy wind. Not that they were strictly speaking at the Cauldron yet. They would have a little way to go yet.

'Sorry,' he said, before taking charge, a novelty in itself. 'That way.'

Ros's eyes narrowed in suspicion. 'How can you be so sure?' she demanded. 'Have you been here before?'

That wasn't the case and he told her so. But quite apart from it being logical that their path led further up – according to Gaius the Cauldron was at one of the highest points in the mountain range – he could feel it. It was not something defined. It was just a little tug at the edge of his mind, alerting him to a source of magic nearby. He just knew. But knowing Ros and her thorough dislike of making decisions based on feelings instead of facts, he only said: 'Well, it's high up. It's not going to be down there now, is it?' If something of his impatience and frustration seeped into his voice, that was entirely accidental. And it was not as if Ros was a paragon of manners even on her best days, so she was not in a position to lecture him about his.

Ros only nodded. If there was going to be a verbal reply, she reserved it for another moment. It were the nerves, he thought. She had laid claim to the "honour" of coaxing Jo into the water on account of Merlin being too busy performing the spell. While she made a good point, there were not many people who would be less suited to that job than Ros Ice-cube Myers. Jo had never made a secret of her dislike of the Section Chief either, so how Ros was planning on getting through to her, that was something of a mystery. They were nothing at all alike.

Gwaine took it upon himself to carry Jo. He might joke about everything and everyone, but he was devoted to his job to when push really came to shove. And he treated Jo with the greatest respect. And it made sure that Ros and Merlin had their hands free to defend themselves in case Mordred crossed their path. Gwaine may be the best fighter with a sword, but Mordred didn't need swords. So he would be better fought with magic and possibly bullets.

'Stop there, Merlin.'

It was as if thinking about him had summoned him. One moment the road had been clear, the next he was there, blocking it.

'Mordred,' he acknowledged.

He could not have been further removed from the harmless little Druid boy he had once been. He had ditched his Camelot armour, showing his true colours. Not that his armour betrayed any particular allegiance at the moment; all of it seemed to have been cobbled together from various sources and none of it looked new.

'I can't let you do this,' he said.

Ros muttered something that sounded like 'Yes, you can, unless you want a bullet in your skull' but Merlin was quite convinced it would not be that easy. Mordred had magic after all and if he knew how his former ally had died, he would take great care not to take his eyes off that gun. If he was really clever, he would take Ros out first, because there was no chance that she would lay down her weapon as long as Mordred hovered nearby.

'It doesn't have to be this way,' he heard himself say. How had this ever gone wrong so much? 'Arthur took you in, trusted you!' And that trust had run deep; nothing what he had said had even gotten through to him, because Arthur reckoned that distrusting people without solid proof to the contrary was one of the greatest crimes in the world. He ignored the small voice in the back of his head saying that Arthur had done exactly that with Jo, though. He squashed the other voice that said that he had been right in suspecting something was amiss too.

'But you never did, did you, Emrys?' Mordred was equal parts sadness and resentment. 'We sorcerers should stick together, but you, you allied yourself to the son of the man who murdered our people like pigs for slaughter! How could you?'

'This isn't just for Morgana, is it?' Ros asked sarcastically. 'Mummy and daddy died under Uther, did they?'

She had been quick, Merlin had to admit, but since the observation had been made in true Myers style, it was bound to enrage Mordred. 'You know nothing about it!'

Merlin wouldn't be too sure about that, though. There was a lot he didn't know about Ros Myers, but he had heard her say something about families messing with your head and that rather sounded like it came from her own experience. Not that he was privy to the specifics, but still.

'Save the melodramatics,' she snapped, as if he was a disobedient officer she had every right to take to task. 'Move out of the bloody way.' When Ros got angry, her language became a lot saltier too. In that thing, she resembled her boss quite a lot.

Mordred only reacted by thrusting his hand forward and blowing Ros off her feet before she had a chance to pull the trigger. The gun itself landed a couple of yards away from her. And it was hardly a great mystery who Mordred would target next. Gwaine was after all not in a position to do much defending on his own, what with him being the one to hold Jo.

And he could not allow that. He may have failed in the tunnels of London because Mordred had been too quick in getting away, and he had promised himself it would not come to that again, so this time he would act instead of standing by, hesitating until it was too late. He had done that one time too many. And no matter how hard he tried, he found it hard to forget Lucas's warning. Then accept the fact that someday somewhere someone will kill your king. And that was a risk he was not prepared to take. He would take a gamble if he needed to – his alliance with Section D had been such a gamble – but he would not take it with Arthur's life on the line or the lives of any of his friends. Ros was not exactly a friend of his, but she was a good intelligence officer and she might prove needed. Besides, Arthur seemed to like her. If he needed any proof that Arthur's mind worked in mysterious ways, that was doubtlessly it.

Mordred was still facing Gwaine with the obvious intent to take him out of the game as well, but that was not going to happen as long as he had a say in the matter. Time almost seemed to slow down in his mind, granting him just enough time to throw his own hand forward and blow Mordred off his feet. There was only a small measure of satisfaction in doing so. Somewhere in the back of his mind he still had that image of a young and frightened little boy that needed to be saved, but that was years ago and that little boy was long gone. It was about time he accepted that.

'Come on, Ros, we can't spend all day lazing about,' he said in a brilliant imitation of Arthur's most commanding self. He had been able to accomplish something where she had failed. That had to be a novelty.

'What do we do with him?' Gwaine asked. All joviality seemed to have abandoned him for a moment. Mordred had been a fellow knight for a time, so it was only natural he didn't champ at the bit to do him a harm. And it went against the grain to kill an unconscious man.

'Arthur wants to talk to him,' he said. Well, he would, Merlin supposed. He had that need to understand why people acted as they did. He had gone down to the dungeons to talk to Agravaine too before he had him executed. 'We can leave him here until we are done at the Cauldron. He won't wake up for a while.' Not after hitting his head that hard, he wagered.

Ros still insisted, after she had been helped to her feet by a chivalrous Gwaine, to tie him up, just in case. It was something he ought to have thought of himself, but he only nodded and let Ros first tie his hands behind his back and then tie him to an obliging rock. He was tied up so tight, he would not get out of this easily. Well, unless he used magic, something he didn't remind Ros of for the obvious reason; he liked his head attached to the rest of his body.

'Let's go, shall we?' he suggested.

It was a sign of just how nervous Ros was that she didn't slap him down for that comment. Truth be told, the trickiest part had yet to come.

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