He wasn't nervous. He didn't do nervous. He never got nervous. Arthur Pendragon forced himself to remember this.
Unfortunately it did absolutely nothing to keep those treacherous nerves at bay as he stood at the entrance of the pathway that led down into the valley. Lucas's screams had ceased for a while, but they had begun anew just as the king of Camelot and his men had taken their places.
It means he is still alive, Arthur reminded himself. It was a relief in a way. The screams meant that Lucas was still capable of making noise. The silence from just now had been equal parts relief and worry. Relief because that meant that whatever was going on in there had been stopped for a while, but worry because this could also very well mean that Lucas was gone. And that was a scenario Arthur did not want to face. Lucas had rescued him from Morgana's clutches, risking his own life. It would be a horror if the spook died himself as a result of those actions.
His father had once told him that as a future king, this was something he had to get used to. But that was not the kind of king Arthur wanted to be. He would be the kind of king that risked everything for the sake of one of his men. It would not always be the wisest thing to do, but it would be the right thing to do and that had to be worth something.
Malcolm had equipped them with some high tech devices that did work where they were now. When Ros and Lucas had moved across the portal before, their comms had stopped working, so now he had to come up with something new to stay in contact. The technician's explanation had consisted of many long words and Arthur had been glad to find that he was not the only one who had lost track of things after the first sentence. What mattered to him was that this worked. They would be able to communicate with the surveillance van Harry had insisted they drive into the forest as far as they could. It had been a bumpy ride, because Morgana's residence was quite a few miles away from the portal. Arthur even believed they were closer to Camelot now than they were to Britain.
'We're in place, Control,' Arthur reported to the small device that was hidden underneath his cloak. It was rather remarkable how soon he had copied the spooks' way of communication. If he wasn't careful he would soon start to apply them to the patrols with the knights. Now that would make some of them look at him as if he had lost his mind. Small consolation that some of the nobles in the council already thought that, so he wouldn't damage his reputation too much.
'Copy that, Alfa One,' Connie's brisk voice replied.
'Do we have permission to go?' Arthur asked. Asking someone's permission to do anything was not like him and he had trouble getting the words out of his mouth in the first place, but he was not here as the king of Camelot. He was here as an officer of Section D and as such he would have to do as he was told, like it or not. And he wanted this operation to be successful, which was the only reason why he put up with that. Once Lucas was out things would hopefully get back to normal.
'Permission granted,' Connie told him. That must mean that Merlin and Ros were in place too. From where Arthur was standing he could not see them, but he knew they had to be at the other end of the valley, waiting for Morgana to be distracted so that they could slip in and get Lucas out.
'Arthur?' Harry's voice spoke up.
'No heroics, do you hear?' The head of Section D sounded stern, as if he was reprimanding a disobedient child. 'Pull out if it gets too dangerous.'
Arthur's forehead wrinkled in disgust. 'Then we waste every chance we have,' he felt obliged to point out. And that would leave Lucas at Morgana's mercy again. And that was something he would not stand for. They were here to rescue him and Arthur didn't plan on leaving without the spook. They were here now and they would make this work. Lucas relied on them to get him out and Arthur would not let him down. His friend had seen enough of prisons in his life.
'It's an order,' Harry said in his most commanding voice. 'And it is non-negotiable. No heroics, Arthur.'
Telling Harry that he could stick that order where the sun didn't shine would not be the wisest course of action, the king observed. But there were more ways to skin a cat and Ros had the perfect way of dealing with this sort of thing and there was no reason why he could not copy that. 'Yeah,' he replied, meaning quite the opposite. Harry knew this, no doubt. He must have heard his Section Chief do it time and again, but he did not comment on it, possibly because he knew it would be no good anyway.
Arthur gave a curt nod at the men he had with him. They had all signed the Official Secrets Act, preventing them from telling what they had seen and would see to the people back in Britain. Most of these men had been on the operation to take Morgana down in the barn as well. They knew who and what they were dealing with. They knew it was dangerous, but almost none of them was visibly nervous. That was either very courageous or very stupid in Arthur's opinion. Last time these men had encountered Morgana almost all of them had been knocked unconscious within ten seconds and they had no hope that they would fare any better this time. But Arthur allowed himself to believe that these men were very brave, because the other option was no good whatsoever for his already frayed nerves.
'Spread out!' he yelled on top of his lungs. 'Surround it!' These were of course fake commands, but they would hopefully get Morgana's attention.
Lucas was still screaming and the rest of the forest was still as silent as it had been before Arthur had shouting his commands, but he felt more than he knew that he had been heard. Merlin had been right about one thing: Morgana had grown rather paranoid over the last few years and she would not want to take any chances. If Merlin was right about her thinking that Emrys haunted her every step as well, then she should be suspecting the worst by now. The manservant had informed them that Morgana was quite convinced that Emrys was the one who thwarted each and every plan she came up with. And since she also believed him to be somehow in league with Camelot, it would make sense for her to suspect that Emrys had been the one to reveal the location Morgana's secret hideout to Arthur. She would already be wary, aware of the possibility of being found out. Yet she had nowhere else to go now, so she had to come back to this place despite the risks.
But five minutes passed and nothing happened. Morgana did not show herself and Arthur started to doubt that she had even heard him in the first place. Lucas's cries must be much louder in that hovel of hers than they were up here. Maybe it was impossible for her to hear him. Maybe he should wait till the screaming stopped before he tried again, but that notion was rather disgusting to him. It meant that for now at least he accepted that his friend was in pain. He could not do that.
'Move out!' he shouted, meaning it this time. That was not in the script and he could already hear Harry's incoherent protests sputtering in his right ear, but he ignored the spy. Maybe what Morgana needed was to see him. Well, if that was the case, if that was what it took to draw her out, then that was what he would do. Morgana had to get out of that hovel of hers, and how this was achieved was not of too much concern. It was the result that counted. He would probably even walk on his hands if that was what needed, after which he would swear everyone who saw that show to secrecy. He had some dignity left.
The dressed-up officers exchanged some worried glances, but in the end they followed, even though they kept their hands under their cloaks and on their guns so that they could act at a moment's notice, preferably before Morgana had the chance to blow them all to bits.
But there was no sign of Camelot's personal nemesis yet and Lucas's screaming indicated that she was still busy tormenting the Senior Case Officer. She still must not have heard them. Well, Arthur was prepared to come banging at the door in order for her to notice them.
But it didn't come that far. As it was Arthur and his "knights" had only done a few steps down the path when a familiar voice greeted them. 'Brother, what a pleasant surprise.'
Morgana's voice stopped him almost dead in his tracks. His head swivelled to his left, just in time to see the witch come casually strolling out of the woods, as if this was just a chance meeting between old acquaintances. And for a moment her presence took him by surprise. Lucas was still screaming and begging for mercy down there, but yet here Morgana was. How was that even possible? Had she brought in someone to do the dirty work for her and was that person still in there?
'What have you done to him?' His voice was cold, all affection he had once felt for her well and truly gone now. A woman who had no problems whatsoever with torturing other people was not a woman Arthur Pendragon wanted to be friends with and the very thought that they were even related made him want to throw up in disgust.
Morgana's face twisted in the smirk Arthur hated so much. When she looked like that there was just nothing to suggest that she had ever been someone else than this scheming witch she was now. Where have we gone wrong? What on earth made her like this?
'He gets what he deserves,' the witch replied with nonchalance, the kind that made Arthur want to hit her to get it into her head that this was not normal, that this was unacceptable.
'Lucas deserves a lot,' Arthur replied. It was a real effort to stay calm, but the thought that every second he kept her talking was an extra second Merlin and Ros could use to rescue the Senior Case Officer helped him in not losing his temper. 'He deserves praise and recognition, not torture.'
This had her laughing. 'You know so very little, Arthur Pendragon! Did you honestly believe that Lucas worked for you? Did you really think that he cared for you and your sorry kingdom? He only helped himself. He only turned back to your side when he thought that would help him.' The smirk widened. 'You cannot understand men like Lucas North, dear brother. He does not have a cause to fight for, he does not have any loyalty.'
A small part of him might fear that her words were true. He had felt these doubts when he had been lying in the boot of that car, drugged and tied up. He had wondered why Lucas would do that to him. The thought that his new friend was not such a friend at all had been tugging at his mind, demanding of the king that he believe it. And the position he had been in then had not made it any easier for him to shake that unwelcome thought.
But then Lucas had declared his loyalties in that barn and most of his doubts had disappeared right away. It still left the possibility of Lucas only switching sides because that would help his own chances of survival, but even those had vanished when Ros had explained to him how they had been able to find them. Colleagues are okay, Lucas had written. It wasn't much to go on, but for those who knew how to read between the lines it was a declaration of loyalty that could not be called into question.
And at the same time it was a challenge for them, a challenge to come to the rescue. He had kept up his end of the bargain and that note was his way of demanding that they keep up theirs. And that was what they were here to do. They would get him out.
'This is you you're describing, Morgana,' he forced out from between clenched teeth. 'Not Lucas. You have no idea what he is really like. He played you all this time. And he played you because that's his job.'
Because that was how it was and in a way it made the king of Camelot admire the spook even more. Because this kind of work demanded a price of the people that did it. Jo had been abducted because of the work she did, Lucas had spent eight years in prison and it was obvious to anyone with a brain that Ros had a past of her own, even when she wasn't prone to share her stories. And all the spooks he had met so far had lost people because of the job they did. The previous Section Chief, Adam Carter, had been blown to bits with a bomb, Arthur knew, and there were others whose names he did not know. It was a demanding job they had, but it was also necessary. And it was hardly surprising that they were so protective of their own. Others would not do it for them, that much had become clear by the unfeeling words of the Home Secretary.
Morgana's eyes had darkened, making Arthur want to run, if he was really honest with himself. But Lucas's life still depended on this and so he held his ground. 'You do not know the first thing about me,' the witch snarled.
And Arthur was glad of that. He did not want to understand her, not anymore, not after what she had done. 'I can see what has become of you, Morgana.' And Lucas's continued screaming was testimony of that. 'What happened to the girl I grew up with?' The question was no longer laced with regret now, it was just something he just wanted to know to help him understand, to grasp this reality that he now had to deal with. It was the eternal why question that he found himself asking.
'She grew up,' Morgana replied, sounding almost sad.
Arthur shook his head. Because growing up had nothing to do with this, of that he was sure. 'This is not growing up,' he told her. 'I don't even recognise you anymore.' And that was the truth. He had known a woman who was kind and who would always stand up for what was right. This woman standing in front of him was a stranger.
And maybe that was what helped him in keeping his distance from her, to see her as a dangerous sorceress rather than the friend he had known all those years ago. And this had carried on long enough now. In the time he had been talking to Morgana the fake knights had surrounded Morgana and their guns were no longer hidden under the cloaks. All they were waiting for was Arthur's command.
The king of Camelot took a few steps back and gave a curt nod, directed at his men. 'Shoot her.' He could not have done this two days ago, but then he had still felt some lingering brotherly affection for her. Back then he had also still respected the fact that she was a woman, who deserved to be treated with more kindness than men. But he had seen sense since then and Lucas's continued cries of agony made up his mind for him. This witch had to be stopped. As much as Arthur Pendragon hated ordering people's executions, his people had to be protected and executing Morgana would guarantee their safety.
The witch had not been paying attention to the "knights" at all. But now she glanced around her, shock on her face as she realised that she was outnumbered and she was on the wrong end of at least a dozen guns.
In hindsight Arthur would never be able to recall in what order the next events took place. Several shots rang out, Morgana's eyes flashed gold and a whirlwind started around the witch's form. The bullets went into that storm and some of them came out of it again, embedding themselves in either the ground or a nearby tree. Because Morgana was no longer there. The whirlwind had taken her away and there was no telling if she had been hit at all.
Arthur found himself staring at the spot where she had been standing, wondering what had happened just now. It was only then that he realised that it was too silent. Lucas had stopped screaming.
Merlin ached. He ached all over. It was one of the downsides of being an old man and one of the reasons why Merlin hoped that old age would take its time in gracing him with its presence. He ached in places he had not even known existed before now and kneeling in a cramped position behind a bush had not done him any good. To top it off nicely he had also tripped over the long hem of his robes two times already. He must have done something wrong with the spell this time, because this hem was quite a bit longer than usual. But he would not be seen picking it up as if he was a girl. He would never hear the end of it and he had had more than enough of the girl jokes with Arthur already. He could do without the spooks doing it as well. And Ros did seem like the type to never ever let him live it down.
And the Section Chief was acting like someone had put a hedgehog in her clothes. Ros Myers wasn't often shocked, or anything but her usual charming self who was impossible to shock, but right now she was uneasy. Merlin would not call it jumpy – because there obviously was a limit to how out of sorts Ros could be – but there was no trace of the usual decisive and calm woman either.
They had gotten the green light to go in approximately two minutes ago and now they were making their way down the path at a pace that was definitely too slow for Ros. She was at least two metres ahead of the warlock, giving the very accurate impression of wanting to run down, only stopped from doing so by her companion.
That was another downside of being old, Merlin pondered. He was completely unable to walk any faster than a slug and even that was not without difficulty. Morgana would not recognise him like this, but that was about the only positive thing that could be said about this arrangement.
And Ros seemed to share that particular sentiment. 'Hurry bloody up, will you?' she snapped at the warlock in disguise. 'At this rate we won't get down to that hovel before Christmas!'
But Merlin was already edgy and the Section Chief's remark triggered a reaction from him. 'You wait till you're this age and we'll see how fast you walk!' he snapped at her. Snapping at Ros Myers was in generally a thing best avoided, because the woman's temper was usually short and one would not want to find himself on the receiving end of it, but Merlin had always been a little less careful with his words whenever he was in this disguise. It went with the persona of Dragoon the Great, he supposed. It was part of him. Ros should be proud of him, staying in character so much.
'Well, I'm not,' the Section Chief pointed out. 'And I'm not going to carry you down either.'
'Then you'll have to have a little patience and wait for me to catch up!' Merlin retorted.
That however had been the wrong thing to say. Ros's face darkened and just as Merlin wondered why she reacted that much to one simple and not very offensive remark, he heard Lucas scream again. The sound broke the silence of the forest, piercing not only Merlin's ears, but also his heart, stoking up the flame of guilt that had taken up residence in his chest ever since the spook had been taken.
Because that was the real reason why he was doing this really: guilt. Lucas had been kind to him, had even been the first one to believe that Merlin was telling the truth about where they came from, and Merlin had repaid that kindness by being so hostile and suspicious towards him that it even surprised himself. He had shut the man out, had been telling him that he would stop him.
Lucas, or so Ros said, had been trying to prove himself to the team, especially Harry, which was why he had taken such enormous risks, why he had infiltrated Morgana's little group so deeply. All he had been trying to do was to show everyone that he still had what it took to do this job, even after eight years in prison.
And Merlin had to admit that Lucas had proven his worth. He had given them a huge opportunity in the barn and it had not been Lucas that wasted it. That was Merlin's fault and none other's. And he was all too painfully aware of that.
'I can always drag you down by the collar,' Ros informed him, giving every impression of wanting to do that anyway, whether he hurried up or not. Because if Merlin blamed himself, Ros blamed Merlin even more. And she was definitely not ready to forgive him anytime soon.
'I'm going as fast as I can,' Merlin told her, nevertheless trying to speed things up a little. It wasn't much faster and he was sure that Ros was less than pleased with the way things were going – no doubt already regretting ever agreeing to going out in the field with him – she at least didn't say anything on the subject anymore. Merlin considered it progress.
The door that led into Morgana's hovel was opened, slightly ajar, letting out the sounds of Lucas's agony. Morgana was no longer inside, according to Connie, who kept them updated about what happened on Arthur's end of the action, but it would seem that this did not mean that the torture was at an end. Someone must still be in there.
Ros's hand crept towards her gun and she gave Merlin a pointed look. 'Whoever is in there, get him out of my way.' By whatever means possible. Those words were not spoken, but the message was clear. Merlin was one hundred percent convinced that he had just received a kill order and while this made him feel altogether uneasy, this was clearly not the time to seek refuge on the moral high ground. Someone in there was torturing Lucas badly to make him cry like this. Lucas had risked everything and he was only in this position because Merlin had been incapable of doing what he was supposed to be doing – as Arthur had told him time and again – and now Merlin owed the man.
He favoured Ros with a curt nod.
The Section Chief wasted no time in counting down before she kicked the door open, storming in, gun in hand, fully prepared to take out everyone who just so happened to have the guts to stand between her and her colleague. That woman's loyalty to her team was remarkable. It strongly reminded Merlin of Arthur's attitude and it gave him a newfound respect for her.
He followed closely behind, hands in front of him to blast anyone away before they had the chance to do any more damage than what they had already done.
But there was no one. It was slightly darker in the hovel than it was outside and it took Merlin's eyes, that fortunately had not aged along with the rest of his body, some seconds to get used to it. But then he saw Lucas, chained to the ceiling in a fashion not unlike Merlin had been only a few weeks ago. He was twisting in pain, but there was no one who seemed to be causing him the pain that he was so obviously experiencing.
Ros's jaw had dropped and for a moment she too was grounded in place. But it didn't take long and then she rounded on Merlin. 'What kind of bloody magic is this?' she demanded.
But Merlin drew a total blank. He had never learned spells that would allow the caster to make his victim feel such pain. He had never wanted to learn them and therefore he had not sought them out, even if he had been aware of the possibility to torture people with the use of magic. 'I don't know,' he whispered, horrified.
Ros wasn't even listening. She was already marching across the room as fast as she could without breaking into a run. 'Lucas,' she said in a gentle voice, the one you would use when talking to a sick child. It was very unlike her and Merlin was sure that he would only hear it just this once. 'Lucas, look at me!'
The spook's eyes were half-closed and unfocused. He did not even seem to be aware of their presence, staring right through them. If he had heard Ros at all, he did not show it.
'Can't you do something?' Ros snapped at Merlin. 'Don't just bloody stand there!'
But there was nothing Merlin could reasonably do, not because he didn't want to, but because he didn't know how to. It made him feel powerless, seeing Lucas writhe and scream in agony, being unable to ease his pains, because he could not for the life of him tell what it caused it in the first place.
But there was one thing he could do, no matter how little use it seemed at the time. 'Tospringe,' he whispered and the chains around Lucas's wrists broke in half, causing the Senior Case Officer to crash to the ground. It was only Ros's timely interference that prevented him from falling to the floor. She gently laid him down and even managed to find the time to nod at Merlin in what appeared to be gratitude. Ros Myers, grateful? Whatever next?
Lucas had gone silent now, seeming only barely conscious. His eyes were a little more focused. 'Ros?' Merlin cringed inside when he heard how hoarse the man sounded. But at least the worst seemed to have passed now and the warlock was grateful for small mercies.
Ros cracked half a smile in what was quite possibly meant as a reassuring gesture, but it did not reach her eyes. 'Colleagues are okay, remember?'
It was some sort of code these two used, Merlin observed. Lucas had written these three words on the note that had led Ros to believe that Lucas had never betrayed them at all and now these words seemed to relax Lucas somewhat. Some of the tension that was etched onto his face vanished and he conjured up something that would in other situations be called a smile, but was now more of a grimace because of the pain he was still obviously suffering. 'Colleagues are okay,' he agreed, before his eyes fell shut.
Ros shook him gently, but got no reaction out of him and Merlin already felt a cold shiver go down his spine. Could it be that they were too late in spite of all their efforts? 'Is he…?' he asked hesitantly, not really wanting to know the answer to this question just in case it was not the one he wanted to hear.
'He's breathing,' Ros replied curtly. 'Harry, I need some medical help in here, right bloody now!'
Harry muttered something about people being on their way, but Merlin was distracted. Shots rang out in the forest, followed immediately by people shouting.
Ros's head had already swivelled in the direction from where the noise had come, apparently on full alert right away. 'What the bloody hell was that all about?' she demanded. Merlin presumed that it was Harry she was addressing, since Merlin had no clue as to what was happening out there. At the very least it would mean that Arthur was still alive, since there was no way Morgana could have obtained a gun. She had not had one on her in the barn and she must have fled right here when she escaped, so that left her with no time to go and purchase one, even if she somehow had learned how and where to do that, which Merlin doubted. No, the shots must have been fired by Arthur's bodyguards.
But there was not much time to wonder about these things. Harry had not even had the time to formulate a reply when the storm began. It was a whirlwind somewhere on the other end of the hovel, near the door. And there was absolutely nothing natural about it. This was a wind of the magical kind and it managed to put Merlin on alert as well.
He turned around, making sure that he was between his colleagues and whoever it was that was entering in such a fashion. They were unlikely to mean well to them. And he was proven right when Morgana emerged from the small hurricane, clutching her right side with both hands.
She had not seen them. Her eyes were on a wound she was desperately trying to stop from bleeding. That meant that at least one of the shots he had heard being fired had hit her. Merlin was unsure whether to feel regret or satisfaction. But then he glanced at Lucas's unconscious form and he settled on the latter. This woman had tortured his colleague worse than Merlin ever wanted to know. To him this meant that she had lost all right to his compassion. The old Morgana was dead. He would do well to remember that, because if he lost sight of that again, all three of them were likely to pay for that mistake.
Morgana walked over to some cupboard, looking up to find something in it, but she stopped dead in her tracks when she realised that she was not alone. Her eyes met Merlin's. There was panic in them, and a trace of fear as well. That was the exact same look she had given him several weeks ago as well, when she had caught him stealing the Fomorroh from her hovel. 'No!' she said, more out of shock than actual denial. 'It cannot be you again.'
Merlin did his best to try and copy Lucas's most creepy smile. Judging by the look of terror on his enemy's face he succeeded. 'Whatever you say!' He put in the standard old man cackle for good measure.
One hand, red from the blood that was still seeping out of the wound, left her side. She held it in Merlin's direction, but did not yet release a spell. 'You're just my imagination.' The witch was trembling, but the blood loss could have something to do with that.
Behind him he could hear Ros pull out her gun, probably with every intention to shoot this woman and shoot her better than her colleagues outside had done. When the Section Chief would fire a shot, she would do so with the intention to kill.
'If that is what you want to believe.' Merlin smirked again. 'And I'll just take them and go.' He may have been declaring Morgana his enemy, but killing her in cold blood was something else entirely, not something he believed himself capable of. He would not go back on his word to protect Lucas and Ros at any cost, but he would not kill unless he could help it. No doubt Ros would scold him for this later. That was, if she did not shoot Morgana herself.
And there was every possibility of that. Because Morgana had just made the unforgivable mistake of taking and torturing one of Ros's colleagues within an inch of his life. And Ros Myers was nothing if not protective of her team, even if that was a quality one would not look for in this snappy woman.
'Hands where I can see them,' she barked at the witch. She had gotten to her feet, pointing the gun in Morgana's direction. 'And not directed at us,' she added.
The Section Chief was either very brave or very foolish. Merlin remembered all too well what had happened last time Ros had sent a bullet in Morgana's direction and it had not been Ros coming out victorious. And Morgana realised that as well. The trademark smirk was not there now, but there was determination. The fear was still present as well, but it was that particular combination that made Merlin shiver in anticipation.
Morgana's eyes flashed gold, but Merlin was quicker this time. 'Astrice!' he shouted, all but throwing his hand forward, knocking the witch off her feet, sending her flying across the room before she got the chance to do any more damage than she had already done. And he would prove to Ros that he really could do whatever it took to fight Morgana.
There was a lot of noise when Morgana collided with some cupboard and she cried out in pain. She held on to the wall in order not to fall, the look in her eyes now full of hatred as well as fear and pain. 'I will never forgive you for this, Emrys,' she hissed.
But Merlin found that he could not care less about what Morgana thought. Apparently neither could Ros. 'Very impressive,' she commented. The tone was both mocking and angry.
Merlin knew what would happen before she even pulled the trigger. He wanted to shout a warning, but it was already too late. Ros had fired and Morgana's eyes flashed brilliant gold once again.
But Morgana did not even try to deflect the bullet this time. Nor did she try to knock out the Section Chief. The warlock only realised that she made a magical escape once again when the whirlwind had already taken her away from the hovel and they were alone once more. And just like before in the barn, despite the fact that they were victorious, Merlin still felt as if they had failed all over again.