A Challenging Quest
Chapter 1: Disappointment: The Vagaries of Destiny and Fate
(Mere months ago…)
Mordred remembered being three or four years old and falling asleep on his father's knee as the druid elders discussed magic and policy. He remembered the pleasant throb of heat and his father's shoulder as his pillow, his father's arm his blanket, and he remembered being moved to the cool dim of his family's tent. His mother whispered and hummed, hands soft and gentle to lay him to deeper sleep on his pallet.
Sometimes he thought he remembered older brothers or sisters, tall enough to seem adult to him. But maybe they were just friends or neighbors. Cerdan hadn't known for sure.
Cerdan was gone, too.
Mordred opened his eyes to the meagre flickers of the tiny fire he'd managed, between his feet and just below his hands, he huddled so close for warmth.
The forest was frozen around him, dark and silent, but it was the loneliness that would kill him. He could make the fire-spell work and there was always wood to burn. He was a druid and could find something to put in his belly, even in the dead of winter. Banishment from the clan was not a death sentence.
It was the loneliness that would kill him. That, and the utter lack of purpose. No family, no home – they'd repudiated him after the trial, and she hadn't said one word. Not to share the blame with him, not to apologize for fearing the banishment too much to confess and join him in it – for he still wouldn't deny her and watch her leave alone, as she had done to him. Not to thank him for bearing her guilt on his shoulders along with his cloak and pack.
No purpose, no home, no destination. He could try to find a clan more understanding, more forgiving. He could journey to the refuge of Helva and scratch out a new existence and identity, for himself. He could try to hide and deny his origins and blend into a town or village; he wasn't yet too old for an apprentice, and because he was small, he could claim he was younger than his fifteen years. He could try to seek answers for why his life seemed so cursed – there were places and persons of power who might give him that, he knew…
Mordred rubbed thin grimy hands together and stared blindly into the fitful tongues of flame that heated his hands and feet and legs but left his back chilled to uncontrollable shivers.
He was cursed. He didn't need the answers from the forbidden magic he planned to attempt with Kara to tell him that. Did it matter how or why? No one cared to help him; he had nothing of value to give to anyone with the ability to help him.
Death, and loss. And more loss, over and over. His first family, in a raid that left him a sole survivor, hidden and mute with terror still half-remembered in hazy dream-flashes. Then Cerdan, who'd found him and taken him as a ward, executed in Camelot not even three years ago. Handed from Iseldir's clan to another as though the execution was his fault, his rescue by the Pendragon prince and princess tainting him with confusion and debt. And now, to have Kara disappoint him so utterly, and lose yet another person he'd trusted, yet another family-clan.
Another piece of his heart.
The exile wasn't a death sentence, unless he simply quit caring for himself like everyone else always did. Between starving or freezing, he thought maybe freezing was the better choice. But he couldn't quite bring himself to douse the flames and allow the darkness to swallow him.
It served him right for trying to discover his destiny. That was forbidden magic but it required two – it wasn't a ritual one could perform on one's self – and he'd volunteered to go first. Kara's idea, Kara's obsession, Kara's discovery – but if it was going to be dangerous, he wouldn't let her do it alone, or go first.
Of course he wasn't going to tell the elders that when they interrupted the ritual, livid with offense. But it hurt that she didn't tell them that, either. She let him stand trial alone, let him walk from the camp alone…
Tears stung his eyes and he let them fall. His hands were too grubby to wipe them away anyway.
Maybe he'd discovered his destiny after all. To be perpetually rejected and alone. To be meaningless and abandoned, to die unnoticed.
Weariness overwhelmed misery and he slept, curled up and hunched over in the roots of an old tree.
Some inadequate time later he woke to daylight, and a man standing over him, gray-streaked brown hair pushed back from his face and curving long to cover his ears. The man grinned widely through a patchy beard.
"Well, what do we have here?"
Mordred's eyes dropped to the battle axe hanging from a loop in the man's belt, next to a dagger as long as his arm, and he panicked. Using magic to shove the stranger backward off his feet, Mordred scrambled up to run – too tired, too slow, too stiff and cold.
Pain slammed through the right side of his jaw and his vision blanked long enough for him to tumble down onto the frost-hardened ground.
"Don't hurt him!" he heard a man's voice shout. "I want him alive! Did you see that? He has magic! He could be a-"
Mordred had to escape. Every part of him condensed to a core of agony and he screamed, without making a sound.
But he'd misjudged his endurance. Movement was sluggish and uncoordinated, and then his body collapsed into darkness.
He woke a second time to a thudding headache, the ground icy-hard beneath his cheek and shoulder and hip, a shaft of sunlight piercing winter cloud-cover and skeletal branches overhead to blind him with momentary and reactive moisture. Twine rubbed his wrists numb and raw in front of him.
The long-haired, wide-mouthed man sat near him, tending a fire that crackled confidence and pride in size and strength. He had Mordred's bag open between his feet, and was riffling through his meagre belongings. He gave Mordred a sideways glance.
"You're a druid," he stated.
Shifting in discomfort, Mordred realized that he'd been searched while he'd been unconscious, his clothing disarranged. They'd have noticed the triskelion tattooed on his chest, then. He said nothing, only stared dully at the stranger.
"I'm called Ragnor," the man added. "Are you on your own, boy? Running from Uther, perhaps?"
Mordred didn't answer.
"We could use your magic," Ragnor told him. "You'd have a place with us. It would be safer for you than trying to survive alone." He gave Mordred a nasty, leering sort of grin, and snickers echoed from unseen positions – all around him, it seemed.
Bandits. Mercenaries. It didn't matter – at least it didn't sound like they were going to turn him over to the knights of Camelot.
"I bet you're hungry," Ragnor suggested invitingly, leaning forward to snag a small pot from its place nestled in the coals at the fire's base, with the prod-stick in his hand. "Come, boy, have something to eat and tell us your name. Promise to use your magic for us and not against us, and we'll leave free your hands. That sounds fair, dunnit? Here we go…"
…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..
Balinor ached all over. The memory of strenuous, unrelenting travel was blurry and miserable – running hard and fast and long, hiding to rest tense and jumpy, feeding his body minimal rations and scavenged mouthfuls to run again, in the downpouring rain. Plodding when he couldn't run. Shuffling would he couldn't plod any longer.
The village was a haven, a heaven; he knew he was beyond the border. The mud-daubed huts were indistinct in the sides of his vision, the peasant villagers nameless and unimportant, save for one, if he could only find her, if he could only reach her – meeting her for the first time but knowing he knew her and loved her…
The girl with kind eyes, who'd pulled the scarf from her hair to wipe fever-sweat from his face when he collapsed by the well. A stranger in a strange place, and no one else dared approach.
That smile. Those eyes. Unforgettable, and more dear to his soul – wounded by the betrayal that branded him traitor and betrayer – than water or gruel or medicine.
He knew he needed. And she listened willingly as he attempted to lance the poison from his spirit with words, desperate and pleading and slurred together and yet – he had not so far forgotten himself as to be careless – unspecific.
Hunith. Ah, Hunith. That smile, as sweet under his lips as to his eyes, lifting him up from the muck of the roads and the farms, accepting, forgiving. Those eyes, deep and sympathetic without harboring pity, that shyly revealed love – a priceless chance at redemption.
A chance he'd taken, there in the ruins of his life. A chance he'd ruined again, betrayed again, lost again.
Foolish, maybe, but he'd meant the vow he whispered, broken words from a forsworn man, a paltry return for what she'd given him, the night the pure and shameless dark gasped and throbbed around him, and many nights after. So much fuel for a fire that still glowed red-hot and painful, deep within him like coals in ash, eager to burn an unwary sifting.
Those eyes, smiling down on him, shining with steadfast love. That smile, a curving promise of another kiss – and another, and more, in the privacy of the home she'd opened to include him.
Balinor ached like he'd been fleeing for his life for days. Like he'd been sleeping on rocky ground and scraping for sustenance, muscles and nerves taut with the constant strain of wary fear-
Why? He was safe in Ealdor, wasn't he? Hunith hovered over him – eyes, and smile, her hair unbound and almost drifting over his skin. He lifted his chin, wanting and needing her touch – why did she hesitate and delay? – trying to lift arms too heavy and cold to reach her, to wrap her, arching his back from the bed in the hut-
The pallet in the cave-
If his lips could whisper, could form and force her name, she'd be real, she'd bend down to him and lie with him, warmth and comfort dearer than life itself, soothing his starved soul-
Balinor wrenched himself free of immobility, prying open closed eyes to sharp moonlight and deep shadow on rough natural stone walls. He was trembling; he swore breathlessly, repetitively. His words were echoed by a dripping at the far back of the cave where he dwelt, alone and yet not, anymore.
It was punishment. It was atonement. Who could say where one ended and the other began?
The oldest creature alive, maybe.
Balinor rolled off his pallet, finding his feet and leaving his cave.
The entrance was hidden from the path, a narrow treacherous track once used by the warily solitary creatures of the White Mountains, but he'd used it for nearly two years, as long as he and the other had resided there.
He turned his steps upward to the higher eyries. Even in the dark, his feet were sure on the path – sure, and weary, and slow. Maybe Kilgarrah was better than no company, but companionship doubled complication.
The air was luminous pre-dawn gray by the time he reached his destination, but the eyes of the great dragon gleamed open. Kilgarrah shifted and the darkness of his bulk against the rest of the mountain resolved into a supine dragon shape. Balinor seated himself upon a nearby rock with a sigh, making no effort to keep his back straight or his shoulders up.
"I wish to speak of Ealdor," he told his hands.
The great dragon huffed. "You are as repetitive as a child."
What a surprise. Since he'd been barely more than a boy when Uther betrayed him into becoming a betrayer twice over – first Kilgarrah, then Hunith – and he'd been alone ever since.
"Ealdor is gone," he said aloud.
They'd both seen it; the border village had been Balinor's first destination after he and Kilgarrah had sprung from the dragon's deep prison to the fresh night air, nearly two years ago. They'd struggled over that – Kilgarrah had been heavily inclined to punish Uther and Camelot, and Balinor had feared that skills unused for seventeen years, and minimally practiced before that, would not hold.
"Ealdor is gone," Kilgarrah agreed, as bored now as he had seemed, to touch down upon fallow cropland and watch Balinor dig and sift through the old ash and ruins of forty or more village houses.
"You are the last and I am the last," Balinor said, looking at his ancient kin from under his brows and tangled hair. A line of pink-yellow had appeared on the eastern horizon, between two of the neighboring mountain peaks. "Which of us do you think will outlast the other?"
It was a new argument – or a new angle to an old one – and if Kilgarrah noticed, he didn't show it. Or maybe he simply didn't care.
"I don't have to think," he informed Balinor in his raspy cadence, by now all too familiar. "You will die before I do, but not by many years. Less than a decade. But it is not certain that we two are the last of our kind."
Balinor absorbed the information without feeling much. There were always rumors, of course – dragon eggs stolen or rescued, recently or in centuries past, and of course left dormant without a 'lord to hatch them. He wouldn't be at all surprised that Kilgarrah was aware of any, particularly.
"Then why haven't you been keen on helping me search for my wife?" he demanded. "Are there other survivors of the lines of men, also? Or because your time without me will be short anyway, you don't care about preserving our heritage after we are gone?" He didn't quite dare ask if Kilgarrah somehow thought that he'd tainted his own line beyond reclaim; that he didn't deserve a son – a grandson – to be dragonlord after him. They two would die, and never would know or care if the legacy was revived elsewhere.
"Your wife can no longer bear you sons, anyway," Kilgarrah stated unemotionally.
"Because she is past childbearing age, wherever she is, or because she is dead?" Balinor flung at him the question he was convinced the dragon knew the answer to, but which he would never say clearly.
He'd sought the two villages nearest Ealdor, but no one could say for sure whether Hunith had been killed in the bandit raid years ago or not; no one remembered her name or her. If anyone had survived, they had not relocated to either town. And Balinor was too aware of the delicate political balance between Uther and Cenred to linger overlong. Distracted in his own search for a missing Lady, did not mean oblivious to an escaped dragon – and Cenred would surely seek the advantage against his enemy that Kilgarrah and Balinor represented. And Balinor was not at all sure that Kilgarrah would not ally readily against Uther, leaving him on his own to escape a greedy king's machinations. Again.
So they'd retreated here to the mountains together.
"Perhaps I should venture down from our mountain and out into the world, then," Balinor challenged the beast. "Find a young lady willing enough, and bear a son to be your lord after me."
Kilgarrah lifted his head, ostensibly staring toward the sunrise, but then chest and shoulders followed as he towered above Balinor, maybe not as indifferent as he pretended. But it wasn't, no never you are unworthy.
"I have told you before. And evidently I will be forced to keep repeating myself as long as you insist upon behaving like a child. There is no need for you to seek out your destiny. It will come to you."
Balinor was still frustrated and dissatisfied and impatient. When he'd ventured forth from his cave in Merendra, he'd thought – well, he'd determined to free Kilgarrah and right his wrongs of the past, or die trying. But evidently the great dragon was more content than he, to trade one solitary cave for another. As long as it was not beneath Uther's citadel, and there were no chains restricting flight – but they were so far from anyone with any kind of ability to affect any kind of change…
"And Hunith?" he couldn't help insisting.
"She is not important to your destiny any longer." Kilgarrah gave a shudder that unfurled his wings, and launched himself off the side of the mountain as the first light of the sun shot over the horizon.
Balinor slumped back, knowing the dragon would circle and soar and dive and climb and glide for hours, never really going anywhere, but beyond Balinor's reach unless he commanded.
"Damn scaly… beast," he muttered.
…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..
Gwaine didn't know quite what to say, standing at the mouth of the cave, hands on his hips, listening to the trickle of the stream and watching Merlin poke through the meagre belongings scattered through the interior. He breathed; it was marginally cooler here surrounded by rock and earth than under the thick green canopy of the forest while summer expired reluctantly toward autumn.
"For what it's worth," he offered. "I'm sorry."
Merlin grunted, abandoning a small table fashioned of lashed branches to inspect a natural shelf angling across one wall.
"I didn't really expect him to be here," the prince of Caerleon said absently, his thoughts otherwise occupied. "There's no space for a dragon anywhere near – it's thick forests and villages. Not that a great dragon needs a minder, exactly, I just thought… they might stick together, after escaping Camelot."
Gwaine grunted. No lie, he'd been anticipating meeting the man also. Curious if Balinor remembered him, as a very small child. Curious to talk to someone who'd known his father as a friend.
"But you're still disappointed," he commented.
"It was logical to start here," Merlin told him, moving away toward a darker corner and a bedframe. "I'd say no one's been here for a couple of years – maybe since he left to go to Camelot to free the dragon. But it wasn't – entirely – a waste of time."
"How do you mean?" Gwaine asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
Merlin turned and passed him, head down so he could watch his footing on the rocks and over the stream, picking his way back to their horses – evidently finished in the cave, and taking nothing with him. "Well… there was a line for laundry. Candle stubs on the shelves. Space for more than one set of dishes, and all those little pots with herbs growing in."
"Yeah?" Gwaine could infer from those details as well as the next man, but he left it to the son of the cave's inhabitant.
"Means he kept the place light and clean," Merlin said. "He was alone, but it was a home. Furniture and cooking, candle-making, medicine maybe. I bet if we took some time to scout the area, we'd find traps and nets and maybe even some evidence of cultivation."
"And the man at the tavern knew him," Gwaine added.
Dirty little place, isolated and suspicious of outsiders, but they'd easily taken Gwaine and Merlin for men like them – peasants and ruffians. And Gwaine had been impressed with the prince all over again, able to make himself comfortable and companionable with men like that – Caerleon warriors without the warrior part, Gwaine supposed.
"My mother will be disappointed, though," Merlin told Gwaine over his shoulder, retrieving his reins and swinging up to his saddle.
"Can't really blame her," Gwaine agreed, mounting and directing his horse to follow Merlin's gelding.
He agreed with Merlin's assessment of the area around the cave as well, deserted and unoccupied for quite some time. By unspoken consent, they were going to spend as little time as possible in this corner of what was still considered Cenred's kingdom, through lack of claim by anyone else. Though no one really worried about discovery or Merlin's safety; traveling swift and undistinguished was night and day difference to being captured identified by the Pendragon prince and the knights of Camelot, and he'd come through that victorious. But he also understood Merlin's need to push on to the next step of his quest.
"It's north to the mountains, then?" he added.
"Not immediately." Merlin leaned to avoid a low-hanging branch in their path – and a moment later, Gwaine copied the movement. "I told you Alator wrote me back that dragonkind traditionally enjoyed the height and solitude of mountainous regions – but I was looking at the map again and I think I'll start at the western end of the range. Rather than heading straight north and striking the White Mountains somewhere in the middle, and having to decide which way to go – east or west. Ealdor's not far from there, either, if he thought to go there…"
He glanced back to see that Gwaine was following his logic. Gwaine nodded, hiding his cringe for the thought of the hermit-dragonlord finding the wreckage of the village where he'd left a young wife alone; of course Merlin would have thought of that also. He was too far and Merlin's glance too quick for him to truly gauge the prince's mood, with both of them a-horseback. Not perfectly cheerful, though of course he wouldn't be, under the circumstances. Disappointed, as Gwaine guessed, but concealing just how much. At least not troubled over implications of the empty cave; still optimistic over the outcome of his quest.
"That way," Merlin continued, urging his mount from a walk into a jog. "We swing back around, close enough to stop by Beckon Cove for a night. And my mother worries a little less."
Gwaine grunted in agreement. He could not imagine the anxiety of his own mother, learning that his father was alive in hiding, somewhere. But his mother, what he remembered of her, had not been very much like Hunith at all. She'd been quiet – not the serene sort of quiet that Merlin's mother had, nor the shy quiet of the new princess of Caerleon. A tense, resentful silence – which made more sense to him, now, knowing that they'd come from Camelot. The rough, dirty, drafty hall of his childhood was nothing like the white stone of Camelot's citadel, nor the people similar, at all.
It suddenly occurred to him that his mother hadn't had any friends, in Caerleon. Maybe that was why she'd kept his sister constantly at her side, training and correcting, and he knew Siura resented him for his comparative freedom and ability to befriend everyone from warrior to landholder to servant.
It was natural, since he was back in Caerleon on an almost-regular basis, that his thoughts would run sometimes to Orkan-broch and family. Now managed, he knew from a stray but rather pointed comment from Queen Annis, by his sister's husband.
As he'd expected. There had been talk of marriage contracts when he'd taken his father's sword to Beckon Cove the first time. That venture prompted in part by the thought of freeing Siura from an obligation to provide for them through such an alliance – personally pleasing or decidedly not – by doing so himself. In spite of the fact that his mother had scorned the idea and forbidden the attempt – and she'd been right, after all, about the outcome.
To distract himself from those unsettling thoughts, Gwaine directed another comment toward the back of his prince, riding ahead of him.
"You've another reason for veering back toward Beckon Cove, though, yeah?"
Merlin threw a genuine grin over his shoulder, the first of its kind since they'd entered Cenred's territory and neared the cave their goal. He said, mock-ignorant, "Whatever do you mean?"
"Your ally," Gwaine tossed back teasingly. "Arthur Pendragon of Camelot. He's supposed to be traveling through Caerleon one of these days, isn't he? Heading north as well?"
"That's what he said," Merlin answered.
Gwaine was satisfied that he'd managed to lighten his prince's spirits. "What luck."
"It's not luck," Merlin quipped sarcastically. "It's destiny."
Maybe it was destiny. But Gwaine decided, it was also irony.
The scouts on the wall had seen them approaching, so it was no surprise when Queen Annis – along with Hunith and Freya – met them in the bailey as they dismounted.
"Well?" Her Majesty demanded.
Hunith was silent, squeezing her hands together; obviously Balinor wasn't with them, but of course she'd hope to not hear bad news, either.
"We found the cave," Merlin answered, turning the reins over his gelding's forelock so he could trail the lead and meet them. Gwaine squinted for a stable-boy, doing the same. "It looked like no one had been there for a couple of years, at least." He reached around his mother in a reassuring hug, and Freya leaned against his side, twining an arm about his waist. Gwaine liked her a lot; she was just right for Merlin.
"Nothing else to report?" the queen demanded, crossing her arms.
Merlin gave her a grin, eyebrows lifted – no sign of the disappointment Gwaine suspected. "I'm heading out again in the morning?"
"North to the White Mountains," Gwaine added, nodding to confirm his intention of accompaniment.
"As to that," Annis said. "There's been a message for you."
Gwaine met her eyes a moment, expecting her to shift her gaze to Merlin – message for you – but she didn't. Speaking to him.
"From Arthur?" he assumed.
"No." The queen's thin lips quirked in something like sympathetic amusement. "From Orkan-broch."
Gwaine stared blankly, unsure how he was supposed to react, ignoring the tug of the stable-boy taking the reins of his mount from his hand. He hadn't even know that his family was aware of his conditional return to Caerleon. Merlin relinquished his gelding's lead, moving a step closer in concerned interest.
"What-" Gwaine said. "What's-"
"Lady Doreynda has sent for you," the queen said. "A summons to attend upon her in Orkan-broch with all haste. And our prince is requested to use his influence to see that you obey."
Gwaine snorted, and Merlin failed to cover a smirk of his own.
"Evidently," Annis added, "rumor has traveled about your connection. And they remember you well."
"They want me to order him to visit his family? Or to bring him myself?" Merlin asked – lightly, but Gwaine felt he was being sensitive to the unusual situation.
Curious as well – that seemed to be one of the prince's defining traits – but he knew that Gwaine avoided answering those sorts of questions about his past. Merlin's family was different, situation and personalities, and though he might understand, he couldn't fully appreciate. Gwaine avoided the awkwardness of necessary explanation and ignored evaluation.
"The letter was addressed to me," Annis informed them. "There was a post-script I am not sure you were meant to be told, Gwaine – perhaps only an explanation for me, or for Merlin, to convince us of the nature of the urgency."
"Something happened," Gwaine's mouth said, shock falling over him like a wet sheet. It wasn't simply, bidding him present himself for long overdue reprimand.
"Your mother's health is failing," Annis said, as gently as she ever spoke. Hunith inhaled, eyes wide, and Freya made a noise of concern.
Gwaine's mouth said another word that he probably ought not have said in company with ladies – and these three, particularly. But he was turning before he could care, letting out a shrill whistle to signal the stable-boy to bring his horse back.
"You're leaving now?" Freya asked, surprised.
"You've been traveling hard these past few days anyway," Hunith added, frowning also. "Don't you think – dinner and a night's sleep in a bed-"
"There's at least three more hours of daylight," Gwaine said, mentally listing the supplies still in his saddlebags – sufficient, if he spent coin for a meal somewhere, and nobody minded travel-stained clothes on him when he arrived. "And reach Orkan-broch tomorrow."
"Do you want me to come?"
Merlin's question, clear and low and sincere, cut through rising dread and steadied and comforted him. This was what it meant to have friends.
"No," he said, and put his hand on his prince's shoulder. "No. I know you would, and never have a second thought over the time so spent, and I love you for that, my lord, but no. You have your own family to visit."
Merlin's smile tilted wryly. "That is so. If you're sure?"
"I am." Gwaine reached for the reins of his mount, back from the boy. "You enjoy your dinner, and your bed-"
Freya, slightly behind her young husband, glanced up at him and blushed, though the two older women ignored the implications of Gwaine's subtle teasing.
"And I will meet you back here someday soon, I hope."
"Stay, if they need you to," Merlin told him, reaching. "I shall suffer the loneliness and boredom of my quest by myself."
Gwaine gripped his wrist gladly and maybe a bit desperately, before turning to creak his bones and muscles back into place on the contoured leather. Though Merlin was home now, even temporarily, it seemed Gwaine was not; he still had miles to go before he found a place to lay his head for the night.
At long last, he was going home.
A/N: So I've started the sequel. I'm going to be adding some pov's, but I'll start each section with the name of the character to minimize confusion, and right now I'm not planning on any flashbacks…
Hope you enjoy! I can't promise an updating schedule, only that I won't ever abandon a fic except in cases of death or dismemberment. Which I probably mean more seriously than it sounds…
Also, this chapter is probably a bit short for what they're going to turn out to be – but next chapter, Merlin&Arthur!