Merlin joined the two Knights and soon they were tucking into some chicken that Merlin had “borrowed” from the Camelot kitchens. He noticed with amusement how both Knights attacked their food, in much the same way as they did life. He enjoyed it no less, but took time to enjoy the taste.
“We’ve made good time I think, despite the weather,” Galahad said, breaking the contented silence.
“Yes, I think we have. We were lucky the roads were not as water-logged as usual,” Lancelot agreed,
“The nearer we get to the White Mountains, the slower our progress will be,” Merlin mused,
“If you don’t mind, I was looking at the map last night. There is a way we can avoid the worst of the mountains,” Galahad said, his face reddening a bit as Merlin and Lancelot stared at him.
“Go on,” Merlin encouraged, hopeful that a tricky part of the journey could be avoided.
“I used to live in the vicinity of the mountains. There is a secret path you can take which misses out a lot of the range,” Galahad replied, getting the map out.
Merlin looked, as the young Knight pointed out a back pass which he hadn’t noticed up to then.
“Hang on, isn’t that the path to Reosa?” Lancelot asked,
“It is,” Galahad replied, “But I have used it many times when I was training to be a Knight,”
“But they say it’s haunted.” Lancelot said, looking from the map to Galahad.
“That is just an old wives tale, with respect,” Galahad laughed,
“Well, if it cuts some of the trickiness out of our journey, surely it’s worth the risk?” Merlin suggested. He didn’t fancy having to ride over the mountains noticing once more how the clouds were starting to gather.
“There is also plenty of cover for when we stop overnight,” Galahad said, “I’ve camped in the forest of Gethin many a time as a boy,”
“Surely it’s worth a try?” Merlin suggested. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
“If you two are up for it, I’m not going to be the weakling!” Lancelot smiled.
“That’s decided then,” Merlin grinned, “Good work, Galahad,”
“Thanks,” the young Knight stammered.
Lancelot and Merlin grinned at the boy’s self-conscious manner and with another look at a darkening sky, hastened their departure.
“I suggest we’re going to need cover pretty soon,” Lancelot grimaced, “Let’s get to this forest,”
“Agreed,” Merlin said, tossing his bag onto his horse.
Before long they were thundering down a long straight path, with overhanging trees on each side of them. Every now and then a bush would almost impede the riders and more than once, Merlin felt he was about to be end up on the ground. But each time his horse somehow managed to regain his balance. It was certainly a hairy ride with Merlin realising quickly, he had avoid one tricky ride for another one. He could see the mountains in their sight, through a slow moving mist. Merlin had already anticipated, that Lancelot’s description of haunted could yet become a reality for them. Suddenly a tension creeped into his manner, he began to notice more of what was around.
In situations like these his whole magical demeanour kicked in, making him aware of things long before anyone else was. He knew now he needed to be ready for anything. With the outskirts of the forest ahead they had slowed their pace. Merlin sensed an inner strangeness about the place and he already appreciated that Arthur’s sense of Galahad being brave, was a very accurate description. If the young Knight really had spent nights in this forest, he was braver than Merlin was.
“If you really camped out in this place Galahad, no wonder they call you the fearless one!” the older Knight remarked, as if reading Merlin’s mind.
Galahad laughed, “Maybe to an outsider it seems worse, but some of my happiest nights were spent here,”
As Merlin guided his horse through the forest, he had already spotted signs of the Old Religion alive and well. He had never spoken much to Galahad and wondered what his view on magic actually was. He still recognised that to some people magic was still a taboo subject. Merlin thought he’d never have a better chance to find out more about the young Knight.
“Some of the trees are really ancient ones,” Merlin remarked, noticing an oak tree with a face carved on it. The roots he reckoned went for miles underneath the forest floor.
“I would have thought you’d be at home here Merlin,” Galahad prompted, “It is quite well known for its connections to the Old Religion,”
“I think I can sense them even now,” Merlin admitted, beginning to relax a little bit more.
“On Samhain Eve, we children would always come here, looking for any sign of witches and sorcerers. The old people would talk about there being a mad man who lived in a hut, not far from here,” Galahad reminisced,
“Did you ever see him?” Merlin asked,
“We did, I think he was just an old Druid. I met him once, he didn’t strike me as anyone to fear,” Galahad replied,
Merlin smiled to himself, already feeling the young man would not be a problem and had already displayed a pretty open mind of the world. If only there were more people like him, Merlin realised his task would be that much easier.
By now shadows were starting to form, as the last remnants of daylight began disappearing. Merlin realised they would need to find somewhere to camp down for the night pretty soon.
“Any idea over where we can stop for the night Galahad?” he asked,
“If we carry on for another half an hour, there is a little alcove which is pretty sheltered from the elements. That would be our best bet,” the young man suggested.
“It sounds promising,” Lancelot said,
A wind had begun to blow around them, making Merlin shudder. All of a sudden he began to wish he’d taken his heavier jacket with him. But he had decided it was too bulky to take, but now realised it had been a mistake. The air around them was still cold with a wintery feel about it. The last heat of winter sun felt like an age away, as he the dark enclosed around them.
It had taken a little longer to reach their destination, but Merlin noticed the alcove described at once. He was suddenly grateful that Arthur had suggested taking Galahad with them the young man had already proved his worth.
“Let me start a fire,” Merlin said, as the others threw some wood down.
Within seconds the three of them were warming themselves by the fire and sharing out the last bits of bounty between them. They all ate slowly as if making the most of what remained.
“I will take the horses to the stream to get a drink. It’s not far I won’t be long,” Galahad said,
“Take care, we’re relying on you leading us out of here tomorrow,” Merlin reminded him.
Lancelot and Merlin watched him lead the horses away down a path. They continued to warm their hands on the fire.
“The young man has already proved his worth,” Merlin remarked,
“He’s very quiet that’s as much as I’ve heard him say since he’s been with us,” Lancelot laughed.
Merlin smiled, “It’s a good spot, considering how much we’re out in the open,”
“True, though I still think this place is full of ghouls!” his friend replied, looking around.
“Lancelot I never thought you’d admit to such fears!” Merlin laughed,
“Being brave is admitting your fears though Merlin,” Lancelot pointed out.
“You could be right there,” Merlin admitted, “I still don’t know if this is a good idea, but it’s one I had to try,”
“So, what are you hoping to achieve here?” Lancelot asked, throwing a blanket over Merlin’s legs.
“First off, to explore the idea of this senses magic I’ve read about,” Merlin began,
“What is senses magic?” Lancelot, “How is it different to what you have?”
“It is a type of magic that is connected to the local landscape. The Alter was where the Dragon lords of old would pass on their secrets. Which is why that type of magic is encased in that particular area,” Merlin explained,
“So you wouldn’t find this sort of magic near Camelot?” Lancelot asked,
“No, Camelot probably has its own type of magic that is bound into its area. But the more you look at this, the bigger it gets,” Merlin admitted,
“This old sorcerer,” Lancelot said,
“Yes Nameon. Do you really think you will get to meet him,” Lancelot asked,
“When Alice first told me about it, I was doubtful. But the more I’ve read since the more I’ve realised there is a lot I don’t know about. I never seriously thought the Fisher King was alive either, but he was. He had spoken about how our meeting was foretold,”
“It could be the same with Nameon maybe?” Lancelot mused,
“We will have to wait and see about that,” Merlin admitted, looking up and noticing Galahad bringing the horses back.
“The horses are all refreshed. Do you want me to do the first watch Lancelot?”
“If you want, kick me in a few hours and I’ll take over,” the older Knight replied,
“Here, put a blanket over you,” Merlin said, “The wind is getting colder,”
“Thanks,” Galahad put the blanket around his shoulders, then, walked off into the darkness.
By the time morning had arrived the world around them had transformed with the sunshine showing the landscape off to its best. The hills off in the distant seemed more pastel in colour, with every sight leaving Merlin more speechless. They had by now entered the back- path Galahad had informed them about. As they eased their horses up the hill, Merlin couldn’t resist the urge to catch a view every now and then. To their right the valley below was resplendent and with a stunning waterfall throwing its contents down the chalky cliffs. Every now and then a hawk would float on the breeze which made Merlin wish he had the time to sit and take it all in.
Time of course was of the essence and so they ploughed on, determined to make Prydwen by nightfall. As Merlin turned his head left, he caught sight of the ruin of Daobeth, not for the first he mused it must have been an impressive sight in its glory days. The size of it was massive, built at an angle. Merlin had seen similar ruins elsewhere, but not one which caught the imagination as this one did.
Further west in the distance he could sense the Isle of the Blessed. His mind briefly returned to the stunning battle he’d had there with Nimule, after he’d first arrived in Camelot. The memory of his almost losing first his mother and then Gaius, could still force him to catch his breath in the shock of it. That evening he had unleashed a power within himself that he didn’t know he had. It had been the beginning of his journey in understanding what lay beneath his skin, what prompted him to act and the wild emotions that it forced him to endure. Even now, with all the changes in his life he could still become transfixed in how little had actually changed inside himself. He was at heart the same person who had left Ealdor all those years ago, only the responsibilities had become more difficult and challenging. He had become so engrossed in his thinking, that had hadn’t realised Lancelot and Galahad had stopped their horses. Coming to his senses, he joined his two companions who were looking out over a new valley ahead of them.
“There we go in the distance behind those trees that is the road to Prydwen,” Galahad said, pointing ahead.
“We’ve made good progress,” Merlin smiled, relieved that at least they were nearing their destination.
“Let’s hope the weather continues to hold,” Lancelot cautioned, “That valley below will become very wet, if the rains return,”
“When do you suppose we will get there?” Merlin asked,
“In normal circumstances it would take at least a full day’s ride, but thanks to the path we’re on, hopefully by this evening,” Galahad estimated, urging his horse forward.
Merlin and Lancelot followed Galahad and soon they were making their way down the path. Merlin recognised bird song up ahead, but also, he had a magical sense too one which was not welcomed by him. He could see Lancelot had noticed.
“What is it Merlin?” Lancelot asked,
“I’m not sure yet, but I can feel a sense from somewhere. It could just be the fact that I’m entering a highly magical environment, but I’m a bit wary,” Merlin said, looking around.
“Isn’t that just a natural feeling for you in these circumstances?”
“Maybe,” Merlin muttered, “Either way, let’s stay alert just in case,”
They travelled in silence for a bit, all three taking the time to check the sky and ground for anything untoward. By now they were halfway down and Merlin could recognise a group of Poplar trees which heralded the road to Prydwen. At the moment they had the advantage of height to check for any danger, but once they got lower, Merlin knew they were more at the mercy of anything which may threaten them.
The lower they rode, the more apparent it became to Merlin that it was from now, that their journey could develop into something much riskier. He continued to check the sky, for some reason feeling that was more dangerous than the ground. By the time they had got to the bottom of the path, all three men were looking more perturbed.
“I suggest we go in single file, I’ll lead Galahad you stay at the back,” Lancelot suggested,
“Merlin, if you sense anything let us know straight away,” Lancelot urged, moving off.
“Don’t worry, I’ll warn you,” Merlin replied leaving a little distance between them.
The road they were travelling on was very open. Either side of it a line of trees guarded the distant hills. Merlin sensed immediately that his breath had changed, he couldn’t breathe as deeply as before. It was as if someone had restricted the air around them. It heightened his magical senses even more. He looked ahead at the same time that Galahad caught sight of the three figures in the sky.
“What are they?” the young Knight asked,
“Wyverns” Merlin replied, “They are guarding something,” He could see them circulating round and round. As he looked again, he noticed there was a cavern and it reminded him of something he’d read, before he left Camelot.
The Wyverns hadn’t yet noticed them, but Merlin knew it was only a matter of time before they did. Then he knew they would be under attack. He noticed a patch of woodland off to the right, he pointed over towards it.
“Why don’t we leave the horses in the wood and then we can walk on foot,” Merlin said, “There is something I would like to investigate.”
“We could do that, there is a path over there,” Lancelot suggested, “If we follow the stream,”
They turned their horses round and manoeuvred them onto a half-hidden path which was overgrown on each side. As they slowly encouraged their mounts along, the ivy became thicker and more challenging. In the end, they decided to climb off their horses and walk instead. As they pushed the undergrowth away, a clearer path emerged and eventually they came to a spot where they could catch their breath. Merlin beckoned them over and explained his idea.
“One of the books I read before I left spoke about a cliff side cavern. When I took another look at the Wyverns, I could see there was an opening behind them. It could be that is where the entrance is. To get to the alter we have to go through the cavern first, but I would like to confirm it first of all,”
“There is enough daylight to go and take a look. I wouldn’t recommend going in until tomorrow though,” Lancelot cautioned,
“Don’t worry, I’ve no intention of doing that today,” Merlin admitted,
“Do you need me?” Galahad asked, “While you are looking, I could go and catch some dinner we’re running low on supplies,”
“That’s fine Galahad,” Merlin said, “We won’t be long,”
Merlin and Lancelot walked down a short hill and were soon onto another path. The path was sandy and blew in their faces as they walked. Merlin used his hand to disperse the worst of it. They had been walking for about five minutes when they came to a fork in the path. Merlin by now was using his magical senses to trace where they needed to go. Lancelot followed behind, not even bothering to question Merlin which gave the warlock more confidence in continuing to use his abilities.
As they looked ahead, they could see the top of the cliff, suddenly the path went upwards and they struggled up it, their feet sinking into the sand. Merlin had to urge himself forwards and felt his friend pushing him along. When they got to the top they could clearly see where the Wyverns had been. But suddenly all was quiet, so they continued onwards. Presently they came to a couple of sharp looking bushes, which they brushed passed with relative ease. Looking upwards, for the first time they could make out the opening.
Merlin tried to visualise the sketch he’d seen in the magical book. It certainly looked big enough to be the place. They at least knew it would be worth further investigation the next day. But Merlin knew it would not be straight forward.
“Well?” Lancelot asked, “Is this the place you are looking for?”
“I think it’s the start of it at least,” Merlin nodded, “Let’s see what we find tomorrow,”
“I hope you are right this valley looks rather open and vague,” Lancelot grimaced,
“Yes,” Merlin agreed, “I hope Galahad has managed to find us something to eat, I’m famished,”
By the time they had arrived back a fire was blazing with a plump rabbit being cooked. The smell made Merlin’s stomach rumble with anticipation. After a brief conversation Merlin bedded down early knowing tomorrow would be a full day. But he hoped he would be nearer to finding a solution to Aithusa’s situation.
To be Continued.