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[personal profile] definewisdom
Title: The Valley of the Angels
Fandom: Merlin
Rating: PG-13
Pairing(s): Gwaine/Leon friendship and pre-slash hints. Hints of one-sided Agravaine/Morgana
Warnings: Sort of horror. Agravaine is creepy, Evil!Morgana
Word Count: ~23k
Disclaimer: I own nothing, apart from
Author's Note: Written for [livejournal.com profile] merlinreversebb. Many thanks go to my beta and to the artist whose work inspired this [livejournal.com profile] calamity_kitten, to whom I can only apologise for not managing to get any actual Leon/Gwaine in. I tried, I really did, but they rebelled. To see the work that inspired this please go and take a look at This art post and leave a comment!

Summary: Set between series 3 and 4. Leon is having trouble adjusting to Gwaine's rather loud presence in Camelot, and all of Camelot is having trouble adjusting to the aftermath of Morgana's betrayal. Arthur, uncertain of himself in his new role, sends Leon and Gwaine to ask his uncle Agravaine for aid. Along the way they find a rather strange adventure.

-



You could hear them from miles away, their mournful voices singing wordlessly to the skies. The angels, as the inhabitants of the nearby villages called them, singing, always singing.

They weren’t really angels, of course, everyone knew that. They were just peculiarly shaped rocks that lined the edges of the cliffs that bounded the valley. They had strange holes in them and, when the wind rushed past, as it always did, channelled down the valley, it blew across them and gave them voice.

But, although it was clear enough where the sound came from, and clear to anyone with eyes that the rocks were just that, the villagers still made the sign against evil when the high winds carried the sounds out of the valley to their houses. And no amount of knowledge would stop the legends.

It was said that you could ask the angels a question. If you dared to go into the valley and kneel by stream. You could ask them one question in your lifetime and they would answer.

No one ever admitted to having gone into the valley, apart from old John, who had used to be a cooper, and now spent more of his day emptying barrels than making them. He would sit in the tavern and tell anyone who cared to listen that he had gone in there one day, many years ago, and asked the angels what he should do with his life.

“And they told you to become a drunken old sot, was that it?” someone would inevitably ask.

“They told me not to join the king’s army, and it was well that they did,” Old John would say, nodding to himself, “Because none of them as did ever came back again. I got myself a craft and met my Nancy and we were happy. They did right by me, the angels. I won’t hear a word said against them.”

Some people would shift uncomfortably after he had finished his story, when other, less superstitious men would say that the angels were nothing more than nonsense and children’s stories. Some people looked into their mugs and avoided looking at anyone else. But that was the only sign anyone ever gave of having been into the valley.

On the far side of the village, far away from the light and laughter of the tavern, in the strange blue-grey light of twilight, when it was easier to believe in angels and in magic, a young girl walked away from the cluster of houses, towards the woods.

She had not perfected the art of walking unnoticed. She looked around her too much and walked in bursts and starts. It would have been obvious to anyone who saw her that she was doing something she wasn’t meant to be. Luckily for her though, no one saw her, all her friends and neighbours were wrapped up indoors, away from the bitter winds that always came at this time of year.

The winds picked up and she could hear the angels singing to her, just to her, calling out to her to come and ask her question.

Without looking back again, she forged on into the forest. As she walked, her pace sped up and up, as though she was being chased, though there was nothing behind her.

The girl’s name was Rhiannon, and she would not have taken kindly to being called a girl. She was a woman in her own mind and she had a question to ask the angels, a question that was important – to her at least – and it had been pressing on her mind for the better part of a week, though she had only just summoned the courage to talk to the angels about it. They were a last recourse.

In the grand scheme of things, her question was not one that, under ordinary circumstances would have had any great impact on any world but that immediately surrounding her.

A young man from the village had asked her to marry him, and she wanted to know what she should answer. Important to her, perhaps, but insignificant if it had not been for one thing that she did not know.

She had already asked her question, or her mother had on her behalf, when she was only a baby, not old enough to walk, her mother had carried her into the valley and asked a question. She had never spoken of it to her daughter and the incident had faded from everything but her mother’s memory. And the memory of the angels.

Rhiannon had no idea that her question had already been asked, even if she had known about her mother, she would have assumed that it would have counted as her mother’s question, not hers, but she didn’t understand the strange ways in which magic worked and, as she lived within the borders of Camelot, where Magic was prohibited on pain of long and torturous death, she had no way of knowing.

So she had no idea when she followed the stream to the valley that she was about to do something that was forbidden and would affect more than just her.

The voices of the angels picked up in volume and pitch, becoming less like a song, and more like screams of anger and agony.

The wind buffeted her face and tried to push her out of the valley, but she wasn’t someone who was easily deterred. She had made up her mind to ask her question and ask it she would.

There was a spot in the stream where it widened to a pool for a short time, with a miniature waterfall on each side and this was where you asked your questions. She did not know how she knew that, no one had told her, but she knew in the same way that she knew everything else that was common knowledge. She knew because she knew. It was as simple and as complicated as that.

Rhiannon knelt down by the pool, ignoring the howling that surrounded her, and not seeing the shadows of the angel stones elongating and leaning in towards her as she did so.

She plunged her hands into the water and gasped at how cold it was, so cold it cut into her like knives. Even the gurgling of the stream and the splash and crash of the water tumbling in and out of the pool sounded harsher. But Rhiannon was determined not to be scared. She would not be afraid. She would ask her question.

She shouted it over the wind and the water.

And then, in the blink of an eye, the wind dropped to total stillness and everything was coated in silence and shadow.

Rhiannon started, trying to pull her hands out of the water, but they would not come.

She looked up at the sky and finally saw the angel stones above her, but not spaced out as they should have been. They clustered around her, huge silhouettes jutting into the sky.

She opened her mouth to say something, but before she could, she felt cold running up her arms.

Looking down, Rhiannon saw the water trickling upwards, rivulets making their way up her arms, slowly crisscrossing and spreading until there were no gaps, and still continuing up her arms. And to her shoulders.

It reached her throat and she screamed.

*

The sun rose high over Camelot, as it had always done, and as it probably always would and, as he usually was, Sir Leon was wide awake, watching it.

Knights’ drills started early, but he was up earlier. There were guards to check on, reports to hear, rumours and gossip to unofficially listen to. There were even, he had found, a few moments of peace and quiet.

Or there had been before Morgana had made her move and the coup had turned the whole of Camelot into nothing more than a prison.

Since then, nothing had been the same. It was as though even the sound of his footsteps was different, though these were the same corridors that he had walked down since he had come to Camelot all those years ago, greener than a fir tree, to try and follow in his father’s footsteps.

Everything was quieter, more subdued. Everything was more still, like it was holding its breath or hibernating.

In his rooms, Uther was not the same. Leon was not the sort of person to talk ill of the king, but of all the things that had changed, the king was the most easily noticed. He was not there anymore, a shell of a man. Leon had heard people say that it was rage and revenge that had driven him ever since his wife’s death, and that all had kept him alive was the fact that he had a mission.

Now it seemed, he had nothing. Even Arthur could barely raise a twitch and every failed attempt at getting his father to acknowledge him was grinding Arthur down further, driving him to keep to his own rooms, his temper getting shorter and his manner getting darker and darker.

Leon turned a corner and almost walked straight into Merlin, who was juggling fifteen different pieces of Arthur’s armour, that Leon knew for a fact had only been cleaned and polished the day before, because he had walked in on Merlin doing it.

“Sorry!” Merlin said, but he was gone before Leon could say anything in return, swallowed up by the castle.

Yes, nothing was the same. The stillness of the morning, for example, was being broken by some drunken sot singing a ditty about a filthy shepherdess. If Uther had been…

Well, they wouldn’t have dared before Morgana. That was all.

He sped up, lengthening his stride so that he would catch the culprit before they made it out of the courtyard.

Leon turned into the courtyard to see a sight that he supposed he should have been expecting.

“Gwaine!” he shouted. Years as a knight had given him the sort of bellow that could be heard over a battle in full tilt. It was a useful skill. Especially now, as it seemed that only full volume would have got through Gwaine’s sodden skull.

“Leon!” Gwaine greeted him with a smile. “Still awake?”

“Awake again,” Leon corrected. “It’s morning.” The ‘you idiot’ was highly implied, but he did not say it. He had nothing against Gwaine exactly, but of all the new knights that Arthur had made that day Gwaine was the one who had both fit in the best and fit in the worst.

He fit in best with the people. There wasn’t a servant or noble in the entire city, it seemed, that hadn’t fallen to his charisma – apart from the head cook, who wielded a spoon with all the power, aptitude and dignity with which Arthur handled a sword. And even he, Leon thought, smiled a little indulgently when Gwaine wasn’t looking, or trying to steal his best venison haunch.

It was the rules, laws and courtly manners that Gwaine had difficulty with. In an assembly he stuck out like a sore thumb. It was like he was trying to be different. He wore his uniform with a casual attitude, like it was something he was trying for a lark. And Leon couldn’t get past that.

The worst thing was, he actually liked the bastard.

Gwaine ran up the steps with far more dexterity than any drunk should have and wrapped an arm around Leon’s shoulders. His breath stank of beer.

“You should have come to the tavern, you know,” he said. “It was quite a night.”

“It always is, when you’re involved,” Leon said. “Are you planning on coming to training today?”

“What? Is Arthur putting us through the gauntlet again?” Gwaine asked. “Doesn’t he get bored with it?”

“It’s training,” Leon said. Trying to ignore the way that Gwaine was swaying, bumping into him. “We do it every day. It’s part of being a knight.”

“You know, being a knight sounds so much more interesting in the ballads than it is in real life.”

“It can’t all be coups and reclaiming the city from the invincible armies of the undead,” Leon said with a sigh.

“Nor would we want it to be,” Gwaine said. “And I will admit that ladies do flock to the red cloak. But where are the epic quests and the fearsome monsters?”

“We’re recovering,” Leon pointed out. “At least allow us time to breathe before you wish more disasters on us.”

“Right,” Gwaine said with a nod. “If you insist, then I shall have to wait. Even fearsome monsters and hideous witches will wait if you ask them to, I’m sure.”

Leon was on the edge of losing his grip on his temper when he was saved, from an unexpected quarter.

“Gwaine,” Percival’s voice called out. “Did you sleep at the tavern?”

Gwaine’s arm released Leon’s shoulders and he lurched down the stairs, so unsteadily that Leon was afraid he might fall and break his neck.

“No sleep, my friend,” Gwaine declared. “Just lots of drinking.”

“You’ll catch it if Arthur finds out you’re drunk. He told you the day before yesterday,” Percival pointed out.

One thing that kept Leon sane was that he was not the only one who had noticed Gwaine’s certain disciplinary problems. Arthur too was having his issues, if the groan he made whenever Gwaine opened his mouth was anything to go by.

He made use of Gwaine’s sudden interest in Percival to make his way towards the training ground, trusting that Percival would get Gwaine there in fit state to be chewed apart by Arthur again.

As he was disappearing he only heard a snatch of their conversation.

“-trying to convince Leon over here that he should… where did he go?”

*
Training was a disaster.

The old knights had put up with so many new arrivals as affably as they could. Leon had helped, vouching for each one of them. But only Lancelot, whom they remembered well from his brief period as one of them before, was met with any sort of enthusiasm. Elyan wasn’t unknown to them, as Tom’s son and Gwen’s brother, but Gwaine was still the man who had badmouthed the king and snuck into the melee, though they did grudgingly grant that he had held his own in that arena. Percival had more than proved himself in the first quarter of an hour by beating Kay and Dagonet into the ground without seeming concerned.

But they were still interlopers and untried. They had saved the city, that was true, but no one knew how. There was a big question mark hanging over the whole affair. They had made their attack and then the city had been saved, but even they couldn’t give a satisfactory account of what it was they had done, and Leon hadn’t been able to help with that one either. There wasn’t anything to say that he hadn’t already said. They had been fighting a losing battle one minute, and then they had been fighting air. Lancelot only said that they had had to knock the cup over, he hadn’t said anything about how he had managed to do it, or why he and Merlin had gone to do that rather than taking out the warning bell as they had been supposed to.

Heroes were good publicity, and people didn’t want to ask questions, but they were still there, in the air, and no one ever provided answers.

Gwaine’s attitude hadn’t helped on the training ground either. He turned up drunk sometimes, late at others, and goaded the others into attacking him with teasing and commentary.

He was in good form today, drunk though he was. Leon had even raised a smile at some of his comments about Kay’s lousy backswing… though the rather smug comment about his mother had been too far, even for Gwaine. But he was definitely himself.

Until Arthur noticed, as he had always been going to. Nothing escaped Arthur’s eyesight.

Gwaine had managed to goad Kay into running at him messily, and was darting round him like he was dancing rather than fighting. Every time he dodged, Kay got angrier and angrier until he lost all sense of strategy and just started hacking at him.

Leon saw the exact moment that Arthur noticed what was happening, and he saw his face harden.

Had it been anyone else, he would have stepped in to try and defuse some of the prince’s anger, but it wasn’t anyone else; it was Gwaine and it was nothing more or less than he deserved.

“Gwaine!” Arthur’s voice rang out, making Leon’s own bellow seem hardly more than a whisper. The training ground parted, leaving him a clear avenue towards the combatants.

“Arthur!” Gwaine greeted cheerily. “Going to compliment me on my unbeatable skill.”

“Stand down, Kay,” Arthur said, the volume of his voice dropping down to almost a whisper. He looked like he was about to flay Gwaine alive. Kay, despite his anger, stepped aside, breathing heavily and Arthur lifted his own sword.

The fight was over in only a few minutes, though Gwaine put up a stronger fight than Leon could have expected.

“Worked out some of your anger, sire?” Gwaine asked, picking himself up of the ground. His smile wasn’t even completely gone, though Arthur had just made him look like nothing more than a rag doll with a stick.

“The next time you turn up to training drunk,” Arthur said, his voice so low that only those right next to them could hear him. “I will kill you myself. Sort yourself out and stop being such an idiot. This isn’t a game. It’s your life now.”

“Trust me, I know.” Gwaine’s smile dropped for a millisecond, and he looked deadly serious, but the moment passed and he smiled again, pounding Arthur’s shoulder. “Good fight. Thought I’d let you win for once.”

Arthur didn’t even grace that with a response, just stalked off the training ground, leaving Leon to put an end to the training session.

He made Gwaine do most of the putting away, noticing the way he winced at the loud noises of the metal clanging together. Apparently the hangover was starting to kick in.

“So, is this your way of getting me alone to have your wicked way with me?” Gwaine asked, sidling up. “Or did you have something you wanted to discuss.”

“Arthur’s right,” Leon said, taking a deep breath. “You need to start taking this more seriously.”

“Serious?” Gwaine asked. “Like everyone else around here, barely raising a smile for a week.”

“You’re not here to have fun.”

“Let me tell you a little secret,” Gwaine said, leaning in close. “It’s something that I learnt a long time ago.” Leon looked at him, trying to work out whether the man was pulling his leg again, but he seemed to be in earnest.

“What?” he asked, sighing a little.

“Right when things are the most serious,” he said, “right when the world’s all dark and there aren’t any clouds with silver linings in sight, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel and you’re about to die.” He paused, frowning. “Right then, when you’re looking up a sword at the man who’s going to kill you and he’s looking right back at you. That’s when you really need to find something to laugh about. Anyone can laugh in the sunshine. But you need the laughter more when it’s raining.”

“So that’s you’re philosophy on life, is it?” Leon asked. “You don’t think that maybe some things are just too serious for laughter.”

“If you can laugh at death, you can laugh at anything,” Gwaine said. “And I’ve laughed at him a few times, I can tell you.”

It was as though his serious mood had melted away, replaced by another stupid grin. “Now that I’ve imparted my wisdom, I’ll be away. I hear the kitchen’s just got some beef in. I think I’ll see what I can scavenge.”

Leon let him go and started to tie up the bags.

He was all for seeing the funny side of things, but some things you did not do.

*

“I’m sending for my uncle,” Arthur said, almost as soon as Leon entered through the door of his chambers. Merlin dropped Arthur’s socks as he turned to stare.

“You’ve got an uncle?” he asked. “A living uncle?” Leon bit his lip to keep from smirking at the surprise on Merlin’s face.

Arthur looked at him like he was weighing up the pros and cons of using his manservant as kindling.

“Yes, Merlin. I have an uncle. Does this come as some great surprise to you?”

“Well… you’ve never mentioned him before,” Merlin said. “It just seems strange that he’d come up now.”

“Well, he has,” Arthur said. “Unless you’re going to accuse me further of inventing relatives for my own amusement, perhaps you’d take those clothes to the laundry room… like I asked you to do three hours ago?”

“Right,” Merlin said, dropping half the pile as he bent down to pick up the socks.

Now this, Leon could understand laughing at. Watching Merlin was sometimes like watching a farce being enacted in front of you, with an actor who somehow managed to keep a completely straight face.

Something that Leon was failing at rather miserably.

Merlin attempted to pick up a shirt with his toes and Leon had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. Arthur didn’t even bother to try.

“Take your time,” he said. “You’ve got all day.”

“I do?” Merlin asked.

“Yes, as long as you’ve already cleaned my boots, reordered my cupboard, changed the sheets on my bed, beaten the carpets and… scrubbed the floors.”

“Scrubbed the floors?”

“Yes, Merlin. Scrubbed the floors. What? You haven’t already done that? Then I suppose you’d better get a move on then, hadn’t you?”

Merlin somehow managed to keep all the clothes balanced for long enough to get to the door.

“Oh, Merlin!” Arthur called after him. Merlin had barely turned back when a dirty shirt of Arthur’s hit him in the face, sending him scuttling backwards, out of the door, which swung shut behind him.

Leon and Arthur watched the door for a few long moments. Behind it they could hear strange shuffling banging sounds and swear words as Merlin struggled with his load.

Leon dragged his attention back to Arthur and found the prince looking at him, his mouth open and his brow creased. Merlin’s performance had put his line of thought completely out of his mind, it seemed.

“Your uncle?” Leon prompted. Arthur’s brain clicked back into gear and he nodded.

“My uncle – Agravaine – yes.”

Leon remembered Agravaine. He had visited Camelot twice since Leon had become a knight. He was an intelligent man, though a little more inclined to lurk in the shadows than most. Leon had never had any direct dealings with him, and so couldn’t say anything definite about his personality, but he had seemed capable.

“With my father indisposed,” Arthur said. Leon carefully ignored the slight hitch in Arthur’s voice and Arthur ignored it too. “People are unlikely to trust me in his place unless I have someone with authority at my back.”

“The people will stand with you, sire,” Leon said. “They believe in you.” Arthur avoided his gaze. Instead, he looked down at a parchment in front of him, full of his own handwriting. The problem, Leon knew, wasn’t that the people didn’t believe in Arthur, it was that Arthur couldn’t quite find the strength to believe in himself.

“I don’t want to leave anything to hope,” Arthur said. “I have been deceived, Leon. I never saw treachery under my nose. I trusted her.” He cut his speech off and they had another moment of mutual ignoring before he continued. It was very important, when dealing with Arthur, to know when to pretend he hadn’t said anything. “I need someone from outside the city. Someone who hasn’t been touched by this most recent incident. Agravaine was my mother’s brother. I trust him completely. He is the best choice for this position.”

“You want me to fetch him, sire?” Leon asked.

“Yes, you know him and you know the area,” Arthur said, nodding more to himself. “You also know enough of recent events to convey the urgency of this to him. Though I trust that you will be… politic in what you choose to reveal in public.”

“Of course, sire,” Leon said, inclining his head. “Who will be going with me?” he asked. Arthur sighed and frowned before putting on his most engaging smile.

It was the smile that Leon knew Arthur put on when he was about to ask the impossible, or something that he knew you wouldn’t like and he really didn’t care.

“Take Gwaine,” he said.

“Gwaine?” Leon’s eyebrows shot up. “Surely Percival or Lancelot would be…”

“Gwaine,” Arthur repeated. “He needs some time away from the taverns to dry out, and heaven knows that I could do with some time away from his incessant talking.”

“Sire,” Leon said, thinking that he too could do with some time away from Gwaine’s voice. “Are you sure that Gwaine is a wise choice for… this?”

“Gwaine is…” Arthur paused and looked towards the door. “He’s a good man, though I doubt I’d ever say it to his face, and trustworthy. He can be charming when he puts his mind to it, and my uncle has always appreciated charming,” he smiled in amusement.

“But he can be a little… tactless,” Leon suggested.

“I don’t want to put my uncle off coming here before he even sets off,” Arthur agreed, “which is one of the reasons I’m sending you with him. You’re one of my longest serving knights, you know court politics and protocol better than any of the newer knights. Besides, I’ve noticed that the two of you seem to… rub each other up the wrong way.”

“All the more reason not to-”

“I need all my knights to work together seamlessly. You know that,” Arthur said. He pushed the parchment on his desk around a bit in an official, efficient sort of manner. “Sort it out. This is the perfect opportunity for you two to learn to work together.”

“And if it doesn’t work?”

“If he irritates you enough, I’m sure you’ll hide the body well enough that no one will find it,” Arthur said.

“Yes sire.”

Leon bowed and left the room. It looked like he was going to have to learn to work with Gwaine, because he didn’t think Arthur would appreciate it if he did find that Leon had cracked and killed the man.

*

“So Arthur wants us to go and fetch his uncle?” Gwaine asked.

“Yes,” Leon answered, leading out his own horse as Gwaine fiddled with saddle straps and reins. “We are to take news of recent events to Lord Agravaine and request his presence at court.”

“Why?” Gwaine asked, twisting around.

“Because Arthur asked us to.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Gwaine said. “Why does he need to come to court? I mean, it seems to be functioning well enough without his presence.”

“He’s an experienced member of the royal family who has previously served on the council. He’s a respected member of the nobility and he’s ruled his own lands well for several years.”

“Good for him… how does that help us?”

Leon sighed. He didn’t see the full point himself, but there was no point in arguing with Arthur when he was set on an idea.

“Given the King is currently… indisposed,” Leon began, choosing his words as carefully as he could. There was no good way to describe Uther’s condition – the way he looked through you as though you weren’t there. “Arthur feels that the nobility and the citizens would feel more comfortable if a member of court with greater experience aiding him as he helps the king.” Gwaine laughed under his breath, and Leon shot him an uncertain look.

“Arthur’s done well enough so far.”

Leon didn’t say anything – there wasn’t any way to answer that without implying that Arthur was in some way wrong.

He didn’t remember much about Agravaine, he had left the court before Leon had even joined the knights, and his more recent visits had only ever been short and they had been before Leon had gained any importance in court. He had been a minor knight – not the sort of person the king’s brother-in-law spoke to. But Agravaine had always seemed a little too impressed with his own importance. But he had only seen him from a distance, so he couldn’t possibly comment.

“Well, I suppose this is what knighting is all about,” Gwaine said, swinging up into his saddle. “Doing pointless things that waste your time just because the prince orders it.”

“Gwaine!” Leon said, turning round to make sure that none of the stable hands was listening.

“I know, I know. I can’t talk like that anymore. I’ve joined the dark side.”

“We prefer to think of ourselves as the good side.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

*

“So,” Merlin said, rearranging Arthur’s pillows, in an attempt to put off the inevitable floor scrubbing. Arthur grunted, not even looking up from his paperwork. “Agravaine?”

Lord Agravaine to you Merlin.”

“Sorry sire,” Merlin said, punching a pillow with a little too much aggression. “Lord Agravaine. You’ve never mentioned him before.”

“Haven’t I?” Arthur asked. “I’m sure I have. It’s hardly my fault that you don’t listen.”

“I listen,” Merlin protested.

“Of course you do.”

“What’s he like?” Merlin asked.

“What’s who like?” Arthur asked, still not looking up.

Lord Agravaine.”

“Oh, my uncle. He’s a good man. Intelligent, a good advisor. He gave my father a lot of good advice in the years after my mother’s… Well, he has a good head for strategy, and the sort of mind that isn’t easily fooled. He wouldn’t have been taken in by Morgana.”

Arthur signed his name with a bit too much vigour and Merlin winced as he heard the sound of tearing parchment followed by Arthur swearing under his breath.

“Is that why you’re sending for him?” Merlin asked. “Because you didn’t know about her.”

“Shouldn’t you be doing things elsewhere, Merlin?” Arthur finally looked up and their eyes locked. “The floors still need scrubbing.”

“Yes sire.” Merlin said, settling the pillow he was holding back down and heading for the door. “It wasn’t your fault, you know,” he said, pausing in the doorway, daring Arthur’s disapproval.

“What was that?” Arthur asked, looking up. His eyes said that he knew exactly what Merlin had said, but that his manservant should know better than to repeat it.

“I said it wasn’t your fault,” Merlin replied. Unlike Leon, he had not bothered to learn when best not to say anything. It had always seemed to him better to say something that needed saying than to wait until later and regret it. “You trusted her. You can’t blame yourself.”

“It appears that my judgment is not clear enough,” Arthur said, sounding a little hollow. “My lack of judgement cost Camelot greatly and it caused my father to…” He drew in a deep breath. “The floors won’t scrub themselves, Merlin.”

“No sire,” Merlin agreed, leaving properly.

*

Lord Agravaine, as a close relative of the royal family, lived in style. He would never say that his own fortification was anything like as grand as Camelot (though he had tried to make it grander, but every effort only served to reinforce the feeling that there was something lacking). He had many servants, as all noblemen did, but none of them ever had quite the same level of deference as the servants in Camelot gave to their masters.

Which was only right of course, Uther was the king, Arthur the prince, it was only right that they be treated with as much respect as was physically possible.

But, sometimes Agravaine felt that his own stewards and chambermaids were… laughing at him. He could see it in their faces as they turned away from him, or as they looked down when they bowed or curtsied. They did not respect him, not really.

He also had woods, for hunting, not that the game was as good as Camelot’s, of course.

But he did enjoy a good hunt, and it was while he was on one of these hunts that he saw her again.

At first, Agravaine thought the movement between the trees was a deer, but there it was too narrow and there was something that made him pause, his finger on the trigger of his crossbow.

It was a woman, wandering alone in the forest. She was looking at him, looking at him where he stood with his finger on the trigger and she just kept walking onwards.

“Who goes there?” he called, not lowering his crossbow. He knew that, as a member of the King’s family, he was an easy target for anyone wishing to make a point.

“My lord, I must beg your indulgence,” the lady replied and Agravaine’s eyes widened in disbelief. He knew that voice, and now he looked more carefully, he knew the bearing of the woman walking towards him. “You were always kind to me.”

“Lady Morgana,” he said, letting out the name as a drawn out breath on the air. She inclined her head.

“I have been turned out of Camelot,” Morgana said, walking forward. She looked as beautiful as she had always done, the image of her mother, whom every man had fallen a little bit in love with – even Uther as Agravaine recalled. But there was something fragile there, her eyes were ringed in dark circles, her skin was pale.

He jumped down from his horse and walked towards her.

“My lady,” he said, going towards her. “You are unwell? Why would Uther turn you out of Camelot?”

“Because I learnt the truth, and that made me a threat,” Morgana said, accepting his arm as he offered it to her.

“What truth?” Agravaine asked, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Morgana stumbled and he had to hold her up to keep her from collapsing. “I am sorry. I should not question you while you are in this state. You may have my hospitality. You are always welcome at my house, Morgana, you know that.”

“You were always kind to me,” Morgana repeats. She sounds hollow and one hand goes up to stroke down his face. He shudders at the touch. She is so very beautiful, even pale as she is. “But if Uther finds out you are helping me, he will be angry. He is not a reasonable man.”

“Then you shall stay in secret,” Agravaine declares. He knows Uther too well to doubt her words, but he will not turn Morgana out without any help. She needs to recover.

“No,” Morgana says. “I have need of a small house to live in. I am not alone.”

“Then I shall see that you get one.”

“Thank you,” Morgana says, before fainting clean away, leaving Agravaine holding her in the middle of the forest.

There is a small empty house nearby. It had used to belong to a woodcutter before he had been accused of magic and executed as necessary. It is far too rustic for a lady of Morgana’s breeding, that is true, but it is the best he can manage for now.

*

“When’s the next village?” Gwaine asks, looking around them in distaste. Leon sighs.

“What next village?” Leon asks.

“The next village where we can stop for some ale. My throat is parched.”

“There isn’t one for another day and a half’s travel,” Leon tells him. He reminds himself that is not particularly chivalrous to take pleasure in the look of horrified dismay that graces Gwaine’s face then, but there is something to be said for the moment. It has a peculiar enjoyment about it.

“A day and a half?” Gwaine shudders.

“You still have water, right?” Leon asks, not looking round, though he knows that Gwaine will be staring at him.

“It’s not quite the same.”

“You’ll just have to make do.”

Gwaine sighs, put upon and bored. Leon doesn’t actually blame him much for the boredom. The scenery has been the same for the past few hours. So much so that even the hills in the distance don’t seem to be moving.

It is another five minutes before Gwaine starts talking again. Five minutes of blissful silence.

“Do you know there’s a legend about that hill?” he says. Leon hums an uninterested answer. Gwaine’s pointing to a hill in the far distance with two summits. “They say years ago, back before the Romans and all their roads, there was an old druid woman whose lover left her, and she decided to follow her.”

“Her?” Leon asked.

“Yes,” Gwaine said. “Her. Definitely a her. The legend’s very precise about that. Anyway, this druid woman cast a spell to lead her to where her lover had gone, and it worked, but it formed a line straight to where her lover was, and the druidess followed it all day and all night…”

Gwaine’s voice droned on, recounting the adventures the druid woman had had on her quest, the people she had met, the places she had seen. In spite of himself, Leon found himself listening.

“Years and years past, and she still followed the trail of magic and every time she stopped somewhere, someone would ask her to stay just one more day, or to help them with something, and every time she would say ‘no, I must follow the trail’.”

Gwaine paused and looked out at the hills and Leon waited for the next words. They didn’t come.

“Did she never find her lover?” he asked after the silence had stretched out.

“I knew you were listening!” Gwaine cried with triumph and Leon couldn’t help but curse himself for reacting. Gwaine was never going to let this go.

“Just tell me whether she ever caught up with her lover.”

“Yes,” Gwaine said, the amusement falling out of his tone. “She did, eventually. After decades had passed she found her lover. She knew that she had found her because the glow of the magic grew brighter and brighter and didn’t go on any further. It was like a star, right in front of her face.

“But when she looked around there was no one there. She looked everywhere, and called out her lover’s name. ‘I am here,’ she called out. ‘I have found you, after all these years I have found you. Please, please show yourself.’”

“And?”

“And then she realised that the star was waiting over a huge cairn of stones and the reason she could not see her lover was because she was buried under those stones. So she lay down and she used her magic to cover herself with stones as well and she died of a broken heart. And over the years the earth covered the cairns and they became that hill.”

“They died?” Leon asked.

“Yes,” Gwaine said.

“After all that, the ending is just that they died?”

“Yes,” Gwaine said. “It always is, isn’t it?”

“If they both died, then what was the point of any of it?”

“I don’t know,” Gwaine said, shrugging. “It’s a good story though…” Then he broke the moment by starting to sing a rather rude song about a laundry maid and her garters.

“Gwaine?”

“Don’t you like this one?”

*

They reached the village one and a half days later, as Leon had said, and Gwaine had still not exhausted his collection of bawdy songs or tales. After the story of the searching druidess, there had been seven others, all of which had involved very grateful damsels in distress, and all of which had followed the same, predictable plot.

Leon was eternally grateful when the village with its small inn came into sight, because Gwaine broke off mid-flow and uttered a prayer of thanks to whatever deity he cared to believe in and sped off towards it.

By the time Leon made his way into the tavern, Gwaine was already fully embroiled in a game of dice with several patrons and, from the looks of it, losing miserably, even as he flirted atrociously.

“Ale for my friend!” he declared as soon as he saw Leon. “Leon, you will never believe how good the ale is in this place. Delightful. Truly delightful. Almost as delightful as the lady serving it.”

“Don’t lose all your money,” Leon told him, looking at the men surrounding him. “I’m not bailing you out if you get into debt.” He leant down then, until his voice was right next to Gwaine’s ear. “You’re wearing the Camelot crest. Your actions are taken as representative of the crown. In Camelot people at least know you and know to take no notice of you, here you might be the first knight they’ve ever seen. You need to show some restraint.” Gwaine ignored him.

“Lose?” Gwaine asked, laughing. “I’m on a streak, Leon. I can’t lose.”

“Of course you can’t.”

*

Gwaine wasn’t quite as good at dice as he seemed to think, losing as much as he won, but he seemed to be coming up about even, which was all Leon could really ask for.

Leon, on the other hand, was just enjoying the solitude when a young man came up to him. He was nervous, shifting on his feet, and his eyes seemed glued to the Pendragon crest on Leon’s shoulder.

“Can I help you?” Leon asked, looking around. No one in the place seemed to be looking at the boy. In fact, they all seemed to be avoiding looking at him, like they couldn’t quite bring themselves to do so.

“Uh… Are you really a knight?” the boy asked.

“Yes.”

“Then can you…” The boy’s mouth twisted and he hesitated. “Can you help me find her?”

“Find who?” Leon asked.

“Rhiannon… She… she lives here and no one’s seen her in days.”

“She’s your sister?” Leon asked. The boy flushed a brilliant shade of red.

“No,” he said, eyes flicking over to a small table in the corner where three older men were sitting. “I… I asked her to marry me. But she disappeared a week later.”

Leon leant back in his seat, frowning.

“Was there any evidence that she didn’t just leave on her own?” The boy stared at him for a long moment, his eyes wide. Leon could sense his desperation, but he could also sense that, despite the fact no one in the place was looking at the pair of them, that did not necessarily mean that they weren’t paying attention. Even Gwaine, half-drunk as he was, seemed to have noticed something, and had started shooting glances over towards them, looking more serious than Leon had ever seen him.

“Not really,” the boy admitted. “I mean, it looked like she left on her own. But I think she was going to say yes. She just wanted to be sure.”

“Maybe she’s just gone off to think about things for a few days,” Leon suggested. “She’ll probably come back in a little while.”

“That was a week ago, Sir,” the boy said. “Please. I know it’s not much and you’ve probably got more important things to be doing, but, please. I… I love her, y’know. And she wouldn’t just run off without telling anyone.” Leon nodded.

“I don’t see what we can do, but we’ll keep our eyes open for her… Rhiannon, was it?”

“Yes sir,” The boy beamed, as though Leon had already produced the girl in question and his heart sank. It was no use telling the young man that there was next to no chance of finding her. She was long gone by now. But it did sound suspicious.

“Spreading more of your lies?” Someone said from behind him and Leon watched the colour drain from the boy’s face. He turned. A red-faced man had stood up from the dicing table and was glaring at the boy. “What are you saying Taran?”

“Nothing,” Taran said shrugging, eyes dropping to the floor.

“Nothing, huh?” the man said. “That’s a knight you’re spilling your poison to. You’d best not be believing anything the boy said, Sir knight. He’s a liar through and through. Poisons the ground he walks on.”

“I’ll take your advice into consideration,” Leon said as calmly as he could muster. Somehow he had walked into an argument. “But the boy has said nothing for you to worry about. He’s just worried about a friend of his.”

“Rhiannon,” another drunk said. “Worried is he?” Leon groaned inwardly and tried to smile. He really did not feel up to a bar brawl today. “Worried we’ll find where he put the body, more like.”

“I didn’t kill her!” Taran said, snapping, his eyes going to the new accuser.

“I’m sure no one thinks that you did,” Leon said.

“Then you’d be wrong, sir knight,” the first drunk said. “We know he did. He’s no good, just like his father. Never good enough to speak to us, after he came here, was he. Kept himself to himself and stayed shut up in that house. Hiding from something, he was. And now our Rhiannon goes missing after he’s been paying court to her.”

“This doesn’t seem like the time or the place for this discussion.”

“He bewitched her, he did. Shut up behind those walls all his life with that father of his. Learning magic I bet.”

“Sir, those are not allegations to be made lightly,” Leon stood up, reaching for his sword where it lay on the bar top. “Please sit down.”

“Oh, telling me what to do?” the man said, advancing towards the bar.

“No, I’m merely making a suggestion,” Leon tried again to defuse the situation. It didn’t work.

“Yeah well, I don’t care if you are a knight. We don’t see your lot around here very often, do we? Never come round when we need help, only ever here when you need to help yourselves. And now you’re siding with a sorcerer over honest law-abiding folk.”

“I’m not taking any sides,” Leon said.

“Well, let’s see if you can take this.”

The man pulled back his fist, but before he could land a blow there was the sound of shattering pottery and his eyes rolled up into his head. There was a moment of complete silence while he wobbled a little on his feet, then the man collapsed to the floor, crumpling. Behind him stood Gwaine, looking with confused irritation at the handle of his ale cup – which no longer had a cup attached to it.

“I guess he just couldn’t take his ale,” Gwaine said with a shrug. Leon looked at him and he looked back, the rest of the tavern looked at them.

Two other men from the dice table grabbed Gwaine’s arms from behind him and he managed, through some feat of athleticism, to bang their heads together.

One of the other patrons made for Leon with a bellow, head bent down, and Leon sighed as he resigned himself to fighting. He side-stepped the man’s run easily and rapped him neatly on the back of the head with the flat of his sword. As the man was stumbling, Leon turned to Taran.

“You should get out of here,” he said, taking in the boy’s stubborn expression and the rather angry looks of the men around them. “Go! It’s easy to hide a murder in a brawl. Go home and lock your doors. We’ll come around tomorrow morning and talk to you more about Rhiannon.”

“Do you believe me?” Taran asked, his stubbornness fading a little.

“More than I believe him,” Leon said, nodding towards the man on the floor. The man who had run at him was dusting himself off for another try and Leon shoved Taran towards the door. “Go, now… and remember – lock the doors. Ale makes people do things they’d never dare to do under ordinary circumstances.”

Taran ran, dancing between brawlers, and Leon turned back to the man charging at him again.

*

“We’re knights of Camelot,” Leon said, helping Gwaine up the stairs, one of his arms looped over Leon’s shoulders. “We’re not supposed to get into brawls.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have started one,” Gwaine said, touching a huge bloody lip and wincing with satisfaction at the pain.

“Me?” Leon asked in disbelief. “I didn’t start this. You’re the one who knocked that man out.”

“I had to,” Gwaine said. “Solidarity and brotherhood and all that. Your fight, my fight.”

“If you hadn’t hit him.”

“Then he would have hit you and it would all have ended the same way. If you really didn’t want a fight, you should have just bought him a drink when he first started talking. No man beats up someone who gets him drinks.”

“That’s the Gwaine method of not getting beaten up then, is it? Buy more alcohol.”

“It works… better than your method of escalating the situation.”

“You are too drunk to be able to use the word ‘escalating’.”

“I’m not that drunk,” Gwaine protested.

“Yes, you are.”

“Maybe a little.”

“Maybe a lot,” Leon corrected, heaving Gwaine through the door to his room. “You need to sleep it off. I told Taran that we’d go to see him first thing in the morning and I don’t want to have to deal with you hung-over as well as whatever mess this is we’ve found.”

“I thought we were on a mission,” Gwaine said. “Take the message to the Lord Aggravating or whatnot. Bring him back with us. No detours, no side trips, no stopping to look at the scenery. Utmost importance and all that.”

“He says that a girl’s gone missing from the village,” Leon said. “I didn’t think much of it, but the fight in the bar makes me think…”

“Makes you think that there’s something more going on here…” Gwaine agreed. “I see. But what would our Lord and master think?”

“Arthur would do the same thing,” Leon said. “He would never leave things here as they are. Sometimes things take precedence. He knows that.” Leon looked at him. “Why are you even arguing? I thought you’d be happy about the break in the monotony.”

“I am, believe me. I just wanted to know what made you change your mind.”

“I’m not actually as stuffy as you seem to think I am.”

“You mean you don’t dream of the code of chivalry?” Gwaine asked. “My illusions are shattered. I shall cry myself to sleep.”

“If you must, please do it silently. I’ve had to put up with your snoring all week.”

“’don’t snore.” Gwaine muttered. Leon pushed him forwards so that he fell in a slump on the bed.

“Yes, you do.”

As if to prove Leon’s point, Gwaine let out a huge, snuffling snore and Leon shook his head, going out to his own room.

*




Link to part 2

Link to part 3

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