Merlin was up before first light, preparing for the journey that lay ahead. He could picture the route in his mind - the broad, smooth road out of Camelot that they would soon branch off , following narrower and rougher paths twisting through forests and across streams until they came to the steep track that would lead them across the Majestic Mountains. That was where Merlin's experience ended. He had only ever seen the mountains in the distance a few years back, having been dared by a boyhood friend to cross the bleak mountain pass. He had got further than anyone else had, but at the sight of the black imposing crags wreathed in mist his courage had failed him and he had turned back. This time he could not fail. A lady's life depended on it.
He looked out of the window as the first fingers of sunrise found their way through the ramshackle back streets of Camelot and saw a hooded figure approaching. Even though the shrouded face was hidden, he knew by the graceful walk and confident bearing it was the Lady Gemma, whose mother's life depended on him. She looked up as she neared the door of his home, caught his eye and smiled. Merlin's heart leapt and he found himself grinning from ear to ear. Hopefully, he thought to himself, not too stupidly!
"My lady". He bowed low as he opened the door to her, secretly smug as he had managed to accomplish that feat - this time - without banging his head or falling at her feet. Though falling at her feet and declaring his undying love for her had been the thought that had kept him awake most of the night.
She stepped into the room and waited patiently whilst Merlin and Gaius bustled around, doing the final bits of packing for their journey.
"Water, bread, apples, rope, kettle, pans ......." Gaius was ticking items off his list as the giant back pack was stuffed to bursting point. Merlin looked rather dismayed at the size of the pack. It was nearly as big as he was and he didn't fancy carrying it all the way across the mountains - and with any luck - back again.
"Don't look like that Merlin" said Gaius in his sarcastic tone "It doesn't suit you. You didn't think I would ask the Lady Gemma to walk all the way do you? Fine for you of course but I have hired the blacksmiths donkey to carry Gemma and it can cope with most of the luggage too. You can carry the food" he continued, producing a much smaller bag "I dont think even you will lose that. "
Merlin looked a bit sheepish. He hadn't wanted to appear a wimp in front of Gemma.
He and Gaius hefted the big pack between them through the door and round to the side of the house where the donkey was waiting patiently, slowly chewing on the oats in his nosebag. They secured the pack and led him back to the front of the house where Gemma was waiting.
She looked at Felix (that was the donkeys name) with some sympathy.
"Poor thing" she murmured, stroking the bristly mane "He does look loaded down". She bent down and whispered in his ear " I'll walk as far as I can on my own. The exercise will do me good".
As if he had understood, the donkey turned his head and gently nuzzled her shoulder.
"Merlin, I cannot stress to you how important speed is here" was Gaius final words to them as they set off. "Remember, use any means to accomplish your goal. Any!"
They went along at a steady pace passed the Palace, the soldiers on guard sneaking more than a passing glance at Gemma. Merlin's chest puffed up with pride as he also noticed the jealous glances cast in his direction.
"Well, well, well" said a cocksure and familiar voice coming from behind them. "And where might my servant be going this early in the morning. What about my breakfast? And what about my boots you were to have cleaned? Yesterday."
Merlin groaned. Arthur. He had been hoping they wouldn't run into each other this morning. He turned and faced the tall, broad chested, blonde prince.
"Your Highness" he said, managing a slight bow, begrudgingly and with gritted teeth. "Gaius has spoken to Uther and explained why I must be absent from your service for a few days."
"No-one told me" Arthur responded with a hmmphh, now a out of sorts with the thought he might have to clean those very muddy boots himself. If he'd known it wasn't going to be Merlin's hands that would have to get dirty cleaning them, he would have been more careful. "Anyway, aren't you going to introduce me?" he said, curiosity in his voice, looking at the hooded figure siitting on the donkey.
Arthur walked round to the front of the donkey, looked up at the figure and gave an involuntary start. What was Merlin doing with this lovely lady? A Lady she obviously was, not just female. Her elegance and poise made him certain of that.
"Lady Gemma Wolferstan, may I present Prince Arthur" Merlin made the introduction, his heart sinking. What chance did he have now? Arthur never tripped over his own feet.
"M'lady Gemma" Arthur said in a suave and assured tone, his eyebrows jumping suggestively (creep, thought Merlin) "At your service". He bowed low with a flourish of his hand, then stood up straight, chin in the air waiting for her admiration to fall on him.
"Prince Arthur" she said coolly "A pleasure to meet you" her tone betraying that it was anything but.
Arthur's chin dropped several degrees. He was used to young ladies (and their pushy mothers) fawning all over him in an attempt to win his hand. This girl was different. She was not impressed by him at all. That thought unsettled him as well as making him more determined to succeed.
"I take my leave of you Madam" he replied awkwardly "Important business of the realm detains me here or I would offer myself as your companion on your journey. Wherever that may be to". He shot an angry look at Merlin, bowed again and took his leave. Merlin groaned. He would suffer for this when he got back. Dirty boots would be the least of it. It would probably be the stocks again. But, he cheered himself up with this thought, he had Gemma all to himself, no Athur to come between them.
It was late in the evening, they had been travelling all day at quite a pace, and Gemma had at last had to resort to riding on Felix for the last few miles. They had resolved to travel the 30 miles to the foot of the mountains by nightfall and were both exhausted. Even the sturdy Felix had started to stumble over the now all too frequent pot holes and boulders strewn across their path.
Merlin looked up as they came to the edge of the dense pine forest they had been travelling through for the last hour in failing light. There looming in the distance ahead were the mountains. Majestic certainly described them well. Gloomy, forbidding, scary were other words that came into Athur's mind.
"Not exactly welcoming are they" Gemma said suddenly, startling Merlin out of his daydream. She dismounted and stretched herself - her legs had failed her after 25 miles but she wasn't sure that the saddle was much of an alternative. That saddle was not at all soft!
"Matches" groaned Merlin. "Gaius packs rope and all sorts of other useless stuff, but he forgets matches! I need a hot meal!"
"Merlin, aren't you forgetting something" reminded Gemma. "A certain talent that you possess.....?".
Doh! Of course. His magic. He had got so used to suppressing his skills he had quite forgotten.
"Right" he grinned back at her "Stand back".
He focussed his gaze on the pile of logs and sticks they had collected from the wood and concentrated hard. His eyes gleamed with orange fire and poof, the wood burst into flames.
"Bravo Merlin, bravo". Gemma clapped her hands in delight, grabbed Merlin by the arms and danced him around the fire, laughing.
"Now" she said, letting him go, "Let me show you what I can do".
With that she rummaged through the food bag, pulled out some parcels and within a few minutes there was a delicious smell bubbling up from the pot over the fire.
Some time later, Merlin laid down his spoon and patted his very full stomach contentedly.
"That was so good". Gemma blushed with pleasure that he had appreciated her efforts. "When Gaius puts together chicken and vegetables it tastes like feet. That was something even Delia would be proud of"
"Why thank you kind Sir" Gemma responded with a mock curtsey. "You can do the washing up. And no cheating!".
Merlin cheerfully did as he was told and quickly washed up in the stream cutting across their path.
As he walked back to their clearing the last rays of the dying sun threw beams of light over the top of the mountains. Gemma looked at the steep path disappearing into the distant rocks and caught her breath.
"Merlin, can we really do this" she asked, her voice choked with tears. "Can we get back in time to save my mother?". With that she turned to him and buried her face in his shoulder and gave way to noisy tears. He didn't know what to do. He wasn't an expert in comforting pretty girls in distress. So he just put his arms around her and stroked her hair until the tears had subsided.
"Of course we can do it" he tried to sound more confident than he felt. "We've got magic on our side, remember? Now, you must get some rest. It will be another long day tomorrow. These woods aren' t the safest of places. I will keep watch for a few hours, then wake you up so you can have a turn".
Merlin watched as Gemma rolled herself in her blanket and soon fell asleep. He had no intention of waking her up. Just as well he had brought along some of his own 'wide awake' potion had had invented last year. Something he now couldn't do without given the amount of work that Arthur gave him to do! Flavouring them with strawberry had been another good idea. Although he had to be careful, he had made them so tasty he had eaten the first batch he had made all in one go and hadn't been able to sleep for a week!
It was now quite dark and Merlin was left alone with his thoughts. He was thinking of his own mother and was trying to imagine how he would feel if it was her at deaths door. He could only begin to feel how Gemma was feeling. He looked across to where she was sleeping and felt a surge of sympathy for her. Or was it something else? Was he feeling love for the first time in his life? Would she return it if it was? Wouldn't her father, the Lord Keith of Wetherdene, have lined up a far better prospect for her. Like Arthur perhaps? Whilst all this was spinning round in his mind he was suddenly brought back to reality by a sharp crack, not far away in the undergrowth.
His heart thumping, Merlin listened hard for a few minutes then relaxed as the only sound that came back at him was silence. Probably just a fox he thought and smiled to himself over his sudden fright. Just was he leaned back on the tree he had been relaxing against, there was another sharp crack, this time much nearer.
Merlin could hardly breathe. There was someone out there, watching them. They were not alone.