The atmosphere during the rest of the journey could be described in one word: tense. There was the anticipation of the eventual showdown that would occur when they finally caught Morgana and that was putting everyone on edge. It was not very surprising really. It was something big they were about to do. No, it was something big that Lucas was going to do, because he would be the only one to step foot on the Isle of the Blessed. Morgana would run if she saw there was anyone with him. This was something he had to do on his own, without help.
And it frightened him, because when it really came down to it, he did not know how he would approach the witch, what he would say, if she would even give him the chance to say anything at all before she blew him into hundreds of little pieces.
Come to think of it, he did not even know for certain that she would be there. All they had was Morgana's words to Agravaine that she would retreat to that place, but there was no telling if she had truly gone there. Magical spying on the Isle was impossible because of ancient spells or something like that. Merlin had provided some explanation, but he was about magic as Malcolm was about technology: elaborate, using a lot of long and difficult words, making everyone wonder what on earth it was he had just been saying. It could have been anything.
But whether Morgana was there or not, they had to take the risk that she was. They'd have a wasted journey if she was not there, but otherwise they would be closer to her than they had been since the barn debacle. And that was worth this journey on horseback, even if he was quite convinced every muscle in his body was aching by now. Give him a decent car any day. By the look of things this opinion was shared by all of his colleagues.
But the impending operation was not the only reason things were uneasy. Sometime during the last few days Arthur and Merlin had fallen out again. Lucas had no idea what had happened this time, but all of a sudden Arthur spent a lot of his time with his knights, Ros, Lucas, even Jo, who he had never particularly liked – probably because she was closer with Merlin – in short, everyone except Merlin.
And Merlin hated it by the looks of things, but he wasn't trying to get back in Arthur's good books the way he had been doing before. It was almost like he was giving the king the time to dig through whatever had been happening this time. Lucas shook his head. Sometimes those two really behaved like a bickering married couple. But normally they were good friends, he had heard, so things would probably work themselves out eventually.
Lucas could not particularly care for their troubles, not when he had so many of his own to concern himself with. Arthur had become a friend, but if he wanted Lucas to know about what was going on, it would be safe to say that he would tell him. Arthur was like Ros in that regard; he did not like to share his problems with anyone else. It reminded Lucas of himself as well.
But now was hardly the time to think about things like that. It had taken them a little more than three days and now they were as close as they could be to the Isle without crossing the water. It was just after midday, but it seemed later. The clouds were hanging low and although it wasn't raining, it looked like it could start to do so any second. The Isle itself, that they could see from a distance, looked dreary and forbidding. The buildings that had stood on it once upon a time had crumbled into ruins, making it impossible for any onlooker to determine what they had been when they had been. The place breathed emptiness.
'That's it,' Arthur said.
'Charming.' Lucas didn't even need to turn to know who had made that sarcastic comment. It had Ros written all over it. And that summed this Isle up to perfection.
It made Lucas remember why he was even offering to go there of his own volition. This was Morgana's place. He could feel it in his bones. She sought out places like this one, the abandoned ones, the dark ones. And this Isle was magical. He would only have his wits and his gun to keep him safe. But this was not the time to back out. He had come too far for that now.
'Where is that boat?' he asked of Merlin. He may not like the servant much, but he would be a fool not to make use of the knowledge he possessed.
'A little more to the right,' Merlin replied.
'Then let's go.' Tarrying would not do him any favours. Besides, now they still had a few hours of daylight left and hopefully that would be sufficient to conclude this operation for once and for all. Besides, he did not like the prospect of having to meet Morgana in the dark. If he did this, he would do it in the broad light of day, even if daylight was not as bright here as he would have liked. He wondered if the sun ever shone on this place. It was difficult to imagine.
'Will you take some help with you?' Gwaine asked as they made their way to the ferry. The knight seemed ill at ease here, even remotely worried. Lucas remembered Arthur saying that he and some of his men had been here before. Gwaine might have been a part of that group. And he did not seem like the type to be easily bothered by anything, but now he was. Lucas did not believe this to be a good sign, but he forced his unease to the back of his mind.
'I will go alone,' he announced, surprised that Gwaine had not realised this yet. Maybe he had not been listening the first time, which would not surprise him in the slightest. 'Morgana will run otherwise.'
Gwaine looked at him as if he had lost his mind. 'Mate, you can't be serious.'
Lucas meant to tell him that he was, but Arthur beat him to it. 'That's enough, Gwaine,' he said sternly. The tone of voice implied that he was not in the mood to discuss his orders and Gwaine clearly knew that.
Lucas was surprised at the king, though. He had not made it a secret that he disagreed with their chosen course of action, but he defended it whenever it was attacked, even if only with words. Arthur usually was straightforward and easy to read, but lately the king had been having taciturn moods and he was not nearly as talkative – or as prone to shout – as he had been only a week ago. The recent events must have changed the legendary king, but they had made him more like the king of legend than he had been before. He snorted. Arthur's visit to London might yet prove to shape him into the king that was so commonly known in the world he had visited. It was a strange notion indeed.
The boat turned out to be manned by an elderly man with a hood drawn over his face, making it difficult to really see him, assess him. He sat very still, didn't even seem to take notice of them, even though he wasn't sleeping. Would he just sit here all day to wait for passengers that must hardly ever come this way? Lucas wondered about it, but only briefly. He had other and better things to concern himself with.
'Wait here until I come back,' he told Arthur. 'Stay out of sight. If Morgana sees you, she'll disappear again.'
The king nodded, reluctantly. 'Are you sure you can bring her back?'
No. 'Yes,' he said with more certainty than he felt. 'She won't be able to refuse, Arthur. She needs the help too much.' If he kept telling himself that, he might will it to be true.
Arthur nodded. 'You'll need to take a weapon,' he observed.
Lucas was about to point out that he had a gun, when he realised Arthur was offering him his own sword. It was a gesture of kindness, of friendship, but there was concern in there as well and Lucas knew how to recognise it. If Arthur had not worried, he would not have offered him the sword. Normally he hated the worry. He had the porcelain doll treatment from Harry more than enough, but now that stupid sentimental part of him was touched. Arthur truly did care.
And so he took the offered sword. 'Thank you.' He meant it, not for the use the weapon would be – he had never fought with an actual sword – but because of the intention with which it had been given.
'There might still be wyverns on the island,' Arthur told him. 'Your gun won't be much use against them.' Now he made the offer practical, and therefore acceptable, as well. The king had spent too much time hanging around Ros lately. He was copying her ways.
'I'll be fine,' he said. The tone was meant to convince both him and his colleagues. 'Do I need to pay that ferryman?' The answer to that would probably be yes. He thought Merlin had said something along those lines, but he wasn't sure anymore.
Arthur handed him a coin. 'This should do it.'
Lucas nodded. 'Thanks. Remember, stay out of sight as best as you can.' It wouldn't do to get sentimental now. Ros would scold him mercilessly for it and besides, that would make it look too much like a farewell, and this was not like that. He would come back in a few hours. That was what he had to believe if he was going to pull this off. He could not allow anyone, especially not himself, to undermine his confidence.
He was already on his way to the boat when Ros called after him. 'Lucas!'
He turned around. 'Yes?'
'No heroics, do you hear?' The tone was stern, but the concern was obvious to anyone with a brain. 'If things seem to go badly, pull out.'
Lucas favoured her with a lopsided grin as he gave her as taste of her own medicine. 'Yeah.'
The dismissive snort told him everything he needed to know about what she thought about this answer, but she could hardly fault him for it, since it was what she tended to do as well. And she knew it. So she sent a wry smile at him and then allowed him to go.
The ferryman only looked up when he was less than a meter away from him. 'Where to?' he asked.
If he wanted to back out, this was the last chance he was ever going to get, but he would not, not now he had come so far already. 'The Isle of the Blessed,' he replied, giving the man the coin, all the while wondering if that was not the man's only destination. There did not seem to be any other places the boat could take someone to from this place.
Lucas soon wondered why there was even a ferryman in the boat. As soon as he had taken his place in it, it started moving of its own volition. The ferryman just sat there and did nothing. He did not even steer the boat. It was almost as if he was some piece of décor. In a way it was rather unnerving.
His heart was beating too fast now that the confrontation with Morgana was drawing nearer. He knew how he would approach her, what angle he would use to get her to come with him, but it was not going to be easy and there were very many things that could go wrong. He would need to rely on his own acting skills and his ability to improvise. Lucas knew he could do that. He had needed to do so in Russia in order to stay alive. But this was not Russia and at least those FSB thugs had been more or less predictable. Morgana, he had come to learn, was anything but.
He forced it to the back of his mind. He could do this. He had done it before and it had worked out then. When he had gone in the first time, when she was still working with Bob Hogan, he had not had a real plan either, just a goal. This was no different.
By the time the ferryman had manoeuvred the boat – or the boat had manoeuvred itself – to dock next to a small gate that led onto the Isle itself he had his breathing and heart rate under control again. His gun was tucked away in the waistband of his trousers and as long as his coat was hanging over it, no one would see it. He kept the sword in hand. If Arthur was right and there were wyverns on this island, then it would be more use than his gun.
'Can you wait here?' he asked the ferryman before he left the boat. 'I may need to go back within the hour.' It would not take longer, he knew. In an hour he had either succeeded or he would be dead.
He got a curt nod of the head in response.
'Thank you.' Lucas left him then, not sure if anything else should be said. If he was quite honest, the man's silence was unnerving, made him wonder if he was even entirely human, or entirely alive. That was a strange thought, and one he did not have the time for now. His focus ought to be on Morgana, on persuading her to come with him, to leave the Isle of the Blessed.
But it would soon turn out that things were not as easy as that. He chose a route that he believed would lead him to the centre of the Isle. So far it had been silent. The only sound he heard came from the wind and even that only served to emphasise the lack of other noises.
That changed the moment he set foot in a large stone courtyard. Lucas only glimpsed the ruined buildings that surrounded it and something that looked like an altar in the middle of it, before his attention was called by loud shrieks. He turned around and looked up, only to see two creatures with wings diving down, obviously with every intent to finish him off and have him for supper.
Any other might have frozen, but Lucas had been in tighter spots in his life. He had almost forgotten that he even held Arthur's sword, but his sense of self-preservation had not. His arm shot up almost of its own volition, grazing the creature's chest. The angry cries changed to ones of pain and it flew away, even if its companion did not. The spook had to duck to evade that one.
Wyverns, Arthur had called them. Lucas had not known exactly what they were, but that they were dangerous and oddly determined to rip out his throat, that was simply a fact. And he did not think they would give up so soon. Well, at least this would do the trick of alerting Morgana that she had a visitor.
There was a small niche nearby and he did not think those monsters could squeeze themselves in there, but he could. It meant that he had a wall to protect his back and a roof overhead and he could poke Arthur's sword at the wyverns before they got a chance to get to him. The solution was not ideal, but it worked. The only downside was that he could not leave this niche, but that was a matter he could think about later. For now he was at least alive and that was worth a great deal.
In hindsight Lucas would never be able to say how long he had been there. It could be minutes, but it felt like hours. The wyverns had positioned themselves in front of his exit, eyeing him as if he indeed was their next meal. Lucas in turn stabbed at them whenever they came too close. It was an impasse.
It was ended by a woman's voice, Morgana's voice. She shouted something in that magical language of hers and the wyverns disappeared. Had Lucas blinked, he might have missed out on their departure. As it was, he saw them jump up and fly away.
He took a deep breath and left the niche. Delaying would not do him any good. He might as well get it over with. The trick was not to think about it.
And so he stepped out of the shadows. Morgana was standing next to the altar, looking exactly as she had the last time he had seen her. And she had not been expecting him, that he could tell. Her eyes widened at the sight at him. 'Lucas…' For just this once she was not as composed as she usually was.
Lucas could not fight back the smirk. 'Hello, Morgana.'
Arthur was unsure if he should do let Merlin do this. He was unsure about a lot of things lately, he supposed. Merlin's newly revealed powers were just too much to deal with. The magic had been enough of a shock already, but then his servant had also cheerfully informed him that he was also a Dragonlord and had a dragon that was more or less his to command.
Arthur had walked away then. It was too much. And the fact that Merlin was a Dragonlord as well as an extremely powerful warlock, that opened up a few possibilities the king of Camelot in all honesty did not want to consider. Because the mystery of why the dragon that had been held captive in the caves under Camelot had escaped in the first place had never been cleared up. Arthur was certain that he may be closer to finding the answer than he had ever been. He was equally certain that he did not truly want to know what had happened.
His friendship with Merlin was already on very shaky grounds and another revelation might just destroy it for good. And he had come to the conclusion that was not what he wanted. He did not want to lose Merlin's friendship, because it meant too much to him. And Merlin had been there for him, looking out for him ever since they had met. That was what he suspected at the very least.
And so he had reacted to the matter in true Arthurian fashion: he had ignored it, pretended it did not exist. A childish reaction it might be, but it was the only one that enabled Arthur to keep his head. Fighting would do them no good, now least of all. It would only help Morgana and Arthur had strong objections to that. And so he had stayed away from Merlin in order to ignore the matter at hand.
There was no ignoring it now, not now they needed to call aforementioned dragon to help them. Arthur was sceptical about the plan, and so was Ros, but there was one thing they agreed on: the three of them needed to be on that Isle and the boat was unavailable. They needed to find a way onto the island themselves and they needed a way to get there fast, before Morgana got the chance to kill Lucas, as she doubtlessly wanted. This did not mean that Arthur did not have faith in Lucas. It meant that he did not believe Morgana would stop and listen to him before she sent a lethal spell his way. She was one of the most impulsive people Arthur had ever met.
And unfortunately there was only one way he could think of that would get them where they needed to be fast enough and that was Merlin's pet dragon. And so he gave a curt nod when Merlin looked at him hesitantly, as if asking for permission. In a strange way it gave Arthur hope for the two of them. Merlin, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still cared about Arthur's opinion on certain matters. Not all was lost yet. But they needed to talk once all this was over. There had been far too many lies clouding their friendship and they needed to be removed, sooner rather than later.
Merlin gave him a tentative smile in reply before he faced the skies and took a deep breath. What happened then was unexpected: Merlin roared. Arthur was not even sure what he had been expecting, but it was not this. He had been aware that a simple 'Come here, dragon' was probably not going to do the trick, but he had not known what would be required if it wasn't that. This, this was a roar as if of a wild animal. It was wild and dangerous and yet there were words to be heard. It wasn't any language Arthur could understand, but it was a language all the same.
He had known his servant was a dangerous man when he wanted to be, even when he looked about as threatening as a new-born baby. This only confirmed that. The roar made Arthur's skin crawl and, very unlike him, gave him the urge to run away as fast as his legs could carry him.
Leon had more or less the same reaction. He was looking around him as if searching for an escape route, ill at ease here. Jo was just a little less so. Arthur strongly suspected she stayed here because her faith in Merlin was almost absolute. Those two had become good friends over the past two weeks.
Ros however was sceptical. Her arms were folded over her chest, there was a frown on her forehead and a stern look in her eyes that Arthur knew never boded well for the person on the receiving end of it. The Section Chief was not enthusiastic about the idea of magic in general, would rather avoid it if given the choice. Arthur could understand that entirely. He too would rather never have bothered himself with it, but it would seem that he had no choice in the matter. That choice had been made for him when Merlin had first revealed his magic in such a spectacular way. There was no way he could ignore it now.
The roaring ended as suddenly as it had begun and then Merlin walked back to the small group that was waiting at the edge of the clearing. If this dragon really was coming, he would have to land on the small strip of land between the woods and the lake. There would not be a lot of room to manoeuvre. That was a good thing, Arthur supposed, just in case things didn't go as well as Merlin was apparently convinced they were meant to go. His hand rested loosely on the hilt of his sword. Merlin had said that one command from his lips could prevent the dragon from attacking, but Arthur was rather safe than sorry. It was rather difficult to forget his last encounter with the monster after all.
They did not need to wait for long. Only a few minutes had passed when the sound of a strong wind reached their ears. And shortly after they started hearing it, the trees started moving with it. Arthur's grip on his sword became stronger. It was almost impossible to fight off the memories of the last time he had heard a dragon approach. It was extremely hard for him to believe that the same dragon who had killed so many of his people was in truth a very benevolent creature who would like nothing better than to help Arthur.
The dragon came into sight and it was every bit as huge and threatening as Arthur remembered it. His grip on the sword tightened again. It was too late to call it off now, but Arthur passionately wished there still was. Surely Merlin could have thought about something else to get them to the Isle of the Blessed, something that did not involve travel by dragon?
Leon had his sword actually drawn, eyeing the monster with barely concealed distrust. The dragon met the gaze with what appeared to be amusement. Taken into account how much good their weapons had done last time, Arthur thought he could understand that look. It did not mean he had to like it.
'Young warlock,' the dragon acknowledged with a nod of the large head in Merlin's direction. He merely ignored the rest of the company, did not seem to think that they were important at all. And to him, maybe they weren't. Merlin was the only one with magic strong enough to command a full-grown dragon. 'Why have you called me here?'
'I have to get across the lake and I haven't got a boat,' Merlin said bluntly. 'You can carry three, can you not?'
It seemed a bit of a stupid question to Arthur. The beast was enormous. He would not have a lot of trouble carrying three people. The real question was if he would be willing to do so and if the intended passengers were willing to risk it. The first question was not of much importance, Arthur supposed. Merlin could just ask nicely or command the dragon to do his bidding. The fact that he had summoned him here proved that to the king. What he was not sure about was if he was willing to climb on the dragon's back and let him fly him to his destination.
The next second he gave himself a good mental scolding. Lucas's life was at stake. He could not afford to sit back and think of another way. He may not like this, but this was as of now the only thing he could do. And Arthur Pendragon was many things, but he was not a coward. He would not abandon a friend in need, not when that friend had put his life on the line to save Arthur's. He owed it to Lucas to overcome his aversion to magic and get on that dragon.
Arthur stepped forward, as did Ros, to make it clear that they were the ones who would be making that trip, however unwelcome. Ros's hand was close to her gun, even if her face betrayed nothing at all. She was in full ice queen mode, but extremely alert at the same time. The dragon didn't need to do much wrong for her to take that gun and pull the trigger. And she would do it without batting an eyelash.
The dragon did not even look at her. Instead its gaze settled on Arthur. 'Ah, the young Pendragon. The age of Albion is truly dawning.'
Merlin looked uncomfortable for some reason, something that made Arthur a little suspicious. There was apparently a lot more that Merlin had failed to make mention of. Why was he not even surprised anymore? It was becoming a habit, it would seem. And therefore Arthur did not have the slightest inkling what this monster was talking about.
And it was a strange notion in and out of itself that such a beast could talk. When Arthur had last seen it, it had mainly roared, when it was not spewing fire, that was. To now hear it talk as if it was an intelligent creature, that somehow made it all the worse. It meant that this dragon had consciously decided to wreak such havoc on his kingdom and his people. He could only hope and pray that Merlin could keep this beast under control.
'You.' With one word he managed to convey perfectly what he thought about this beast. His hand was starting to ache because he was holding his sword so tight.
Something told him he should just kill this dragon and be done with it, but he had a feeling that would not solve anything. Killing this beast would rob them of a way to get to the Isle of the Blessed in time.
And if there was one thing he had learned from his new friends, then it was that the operation always had to come first, before any personal concerns. It was a concept Arthur was already familiar with because as a king he had to put the kingdom's concerns before his own, but the spooks had made it clearer to him. And if he was honest, he could just not let Lucas die just so that he could have his revenge on the dragon that had caused so much harm. Priorities, he supposed. But it did take effort to keep his sword sheathed, and quite a lot of it at that.
'I do apologise for the harm I have caused.' The dragon inclined its head in Arthur's direction. 'It was not you my wrath was directed against.'
Isn't that just bloody brilliant? His mental voice seemed to have taken on Ros's tone of voice and her words as well. 'It were my people who suffered because of your wrath,' Arthur snapped. These words didn't make it right what had happened then. People had died. The dragon may blame Arthur's father for its captivity, but Uther Pendragon had not been injured or killed in the attacks. He had been forced to watch his kingdom burn, but other people, innocent people, had perished. 'I won't accept your apology. The people you killed had nothing to do with your captivity. That was my father's making and his alone.' A few weeks ago it would have felt like blasphemy to say such a thing, but he was coming to see more and more that his father had not been a saint, not a hero. He had made mistakes, like every other human being had ever done. And he had made enemies because of those, powerful enemies at times. And quite a few of them held Arthur responsible for Uther's mistakes. Agravaine had been a prime example of that.
'Therefore I do apologise, young Pendragon.' The dragon sounded sincere, probably was, but Arthur had a hard time accepting anything that came out of that big mouth, since he could clearly remember it spewing death and destruction on his people. But Lucas was still in danger and he could not even afford the luxury of calling this beast to the carpet for all the havoc he had wreaked on Camelot. Allies they might have to be, but they would be very unwilling allies and only because there was more at stake here than just Arthur's feud with it.
'I won't accept your apology,' he repeated. 'But we need your aid.' Admitting that felt like a defeat to him and it did not do his already frayed nerves and bad mood any good. Had someone told him a week ago he would ask for help from a dragon, he would have declared them mad. But desperate times asked for desperate measures, it would seem.
'So I realised,' the dragon spoke. Its head turned towards Ros, who was watching the scene with a wary, but impatient look on her face. One hand was still very close to her gun. She did not trust the dragon any more than Arthur did and for some reason this made the king feel a little better. He was not overreacting.
'Who is this?' the dragon asked of Merlin after he had favoured Ros with a scrutinising glance, which the Section Chief endured without twitching a muscle. The ice queen was in full flow.
'A friend,' Merlin said dismissively. 'Lady Rosalind of Britain.'
This time a muscle did twitch. In any other circumstance Arthur would have thought it amusing that Ros was more annoyed by the mention of her full name than she was by the presence of a full-grown dragon, but not today. Today it just felt like wasting time.
The dragon seemed confused. 'She is not of this land,' he said eventually. Arthur thought he detected a hint of disapproval.
Merlin did too. 'That is of no importance.' This time it was the servant that spoke in a dismissive tone of voice. 'A friend of ours is in danger. We need to get to the Isle as quickly as possible. Can you take us?'
It was a strange experience to see a dragon look indignant, but Arthur saw it that day. 'We've been over this before, Merlin,' he said reproachfully. 'I am not a horse.'
And no one in his senses would ever mistake you for one. Arthur had seldom seen a creature so unlike a horse as this one. And honestly, he wasn't exactly doing a happy dance around this clearing either. But sometimes needs must and they were wasting time here. Lucas would have arrived by now, he might have met Morgana already. It made him more than a little nervous.
Merlin looked equally reproachful as he returned the dragon's stare. He was a lot more confident than Arthur had ever seen him and something about that was rather unnerving. 'Do you want Morgana to win then?' he inquired. 'Because if that's what you want you can just be off and wait for her to deal the final blow.'
That had been the right – or the wrong, depending on your perspective – thing to say. The dragon all but bristled with rage. 'My allegiance has never been with the witch,' he informed the warlock. He spoke the last word as if it was some kind of contagious disease.
'I know,' Merlin said calmly. 'But is it with me?'
And to Arthur's astonishment the dragon nodded. 'Yes, young warlock, it is with you.'
Arthur had to blink a few times and pinch himself to ascertain that he was indeed awake. It seemed surreal in some way that a dangerous creature such as a dragon would give his allegiance willingly to one such as Merlin. Yes, he was a Dragonlord, but Arthur was no fool. These words had not been commanded from it, these were willingly given. Merlin was a mystery, he had to conclude.
And right now that mystery's face split into a wide smile. 'Then you will take us?'
And again the dragon nodded.