Sir Leon presented them with a rough map of Camelot and where the victims had been found as they were about to leave with Merlin and Gwaine.
“Huh, I hadn’t noticed the pattern,” Merlin remarked as they spread the draft on the table.
“The werewolf victims are all near the town center,” Dean waved at the parchment. “But the vamp kills are mostly on the outskirts – means we’re going to have to cover a lot of ground talking to people this afternoon.”
Interviewing the townsfolk of Camelot was a different experience than even in a small town back home. People lived squished against each other in ramshackle row houses, and they knew all the details of their neighbours’ lives. There was no TV, no commute to work, no large front lawns that separated windows from the street. Sam had to admit that without Merlin and Gwaine, he and Dean may have been viewed with suspicion and learned little. Merlin and Gwaine, however, seemed to be able to charm their way into any house and anyone’s good graces.
Merlin would explain in soft tones that the King was concerned about those in the lower town, and wanted very much to come himself to talk to the people, but his busy schedule would not allow it, so Merlin was there to check on things and report back. After that explanation, the four of them would be sitting down to their nine hundredth cup of water or weak wine and asking careful questions as the resident gushed about Arthur being such a kind and thoughtful king.
Sam had to wonder how much of what Merlin said was true. It was impossible to tell where the real Arthur ended and the myth of Arthur began. He was clearly beloved by his citizens, but Sam wondered if Arthur would really have preferred to come to the lower town himself. For one thing, there was the smell. Sam made a face every once in a while despite his best intentions. Dean caught Sam looking disgusted, but Dean just laughed and said something about authenticity. Sam would much prefer indoor plumbing and better hygiene standards to authenticity.
They ended up listening to a wealth of useless information over the course of the afternoon: the broom-maker had been drinking more, his daughter Helena had taken up with the wrong crowd, Thomas from the orchard fancied Clarissa who had just gotten a job in the castle. But, no, they hadn’t seen anyone out late at night who didn’t belong.
One thing Sam did notice was that if anyone thought their questions implied that they were looking for something magical, there was a terrified refusal to answer. Merlin was usually the one to swoop in and reassure the person that they were in no danger, from magic or from the knights. One thing was for certain, people were convinced that being associated with magic in any way was a death sentence.
Finally, though, they were able to find a few leads.
“Sounds like we should visit the baker’s daughter,” Dean announced, as they left the seamstress’ house. Apparently, Lillian, the baker’s daughter, had been attacked by a man three nights ago, but he had run off when she screamed and had drawn the attention of the night guards. “And I’m willing to bet that our vamp is stalking the tavern. We just have to figure out where his nest is.”
“But if the baker’s daughter was turned,” Sam replied. “It means we’ve now got at least two wolves on our hands, and possibly more, depending if she’s been biting too and not just killing. We gotta act soon, Dean. The death toll is only going to get worse.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Dean sighed. “Okay, so, unknown wolves are better to hunt at night. Vamps in the day. How about you and Merlin go talk to the baker’s daughter, find out where our wolf attacked her. Gwaine and I will head to the tavern ask around and see if anyone noticed anything.”
Sam watched as Gwaine and Merlin exchanged a look that ended with Merlin giving Gwaine a nod.
“We good?” Sam asked.
“Yes, let’s go,” Merlin said. “I have to be back at the castle soon.”
“People are really afraid of magic here,” Sam said as they walked.
“Keep your voice down,” Merlin replied.
“Sorry, it’s just... I mean, I get it, it can be pretty evil in the wrong hands, but even white mag-” Merlin shot Sam a hard look, “uh...I mean, even the good kind... it’s like they think they’ll be hung just for saying hello to someone who uses...it.”
“They would have been when Uther ruled,” Merlin sighed. “Anyone who housed or fed a known sorcerer was deemed complicit in their crimes.”
“But what if they didn’t have any crimes?” Sam asked. “What if they were just using it to...I don’t know... kill monsters... or heal bunnies...”
Merlin laughed, “Heal bunnies?”
“You know what I mean,” Sam said, embarrassed. “Look, I just... I mean, Dean and I, we kill witches all the time.” Sam winced as Merlin stopped walking completely, staring at Sam with wide eyes. Sam hastened to continue, “But we only kill witches who are killing people, and we use...” Sam lowered his voice, “...spells sometimes to find demons or kill things that can only be killed that way... I’m just saying that it’s not all bad. Isn’t there a distinction made?”
Merlin expression had turned sympathetic as Sam spoke.
“Arthur hasn’t seen a lot of the good kind,” Merlin said. “It was particularly bad when Uther ruled. There was a lot of anger for Uther’s crimes – for the purge, for all the death. The only magic Arthur saw was the kind that came to court to kill him or his father in revenge. It’s how I became his manservant, actually. I saved him from one such attack.”
“But weren’t they just proving his point then? If the only magic users Arthur saw were out to kill him, of course that would only reinforce the idea that all magic is evil,” Sam mused, “He can’t make a fair assessment if that’s the only side of it he’s seen.”
“Exactly,” Merlin replied, “As long as it magic is outlawed, Arthur will never see the good it can do because those who use magic for good are wise enough to keep themselves hidden.”
“And if he can never see the good, he’s not likely to make it legal. You’ve got yourself a real catch-22.”
“A what?” Merlin asked.
“Uh, what I mean is – you’ve got to tell Arthur-”
“No,” Merlin said. “I can’t protect him if he kills me.”
“But if he knew-”
“No,” Merlin interrupted again. “No, I have to be sure. There’s too much at stake and I just can’t... listen, it’s not just about my life. It’s about Albion and the world that Arthur is destined to create. It’s too great to gamble with, Sam.” Then Merlin stopped walking. “We’re here.”
Sam frowned at Merlin and then realized that they were standing in front of a house that smelled of fresh-baked bread.
She claimed a man came up behind her as she walked home from the well one night. She believed he must have been attempting to kiss the back of her neck, but had bitten her when she resisted and screamed. He’d run off as soon as the nearby guard arrived.
Sam asked to see the bite, which was still red around the edges, but surprisingly well healed. He asked her how she had been sleeping. She claimed that she had been sleeping just fine, even though her father had just told them otherwise.
“Your father claims he woke up to find you doing the washing at dawn,” Sam said, and he had to admit that Lillian did a good job of quelling the look of panic.
“I...I was up early and realized that I had stained my night dress. I wanted to wash it before the stain set,” Lillian said, looking at the wall.
“Stained with what?” Sam asked.
“That’s a woman’s business, Sir,” Lillian said, looking mortified. Sam glanced at Merlin to find him looking equally as mortified.
“Right, sorry,” Sam said. “Thanks for your help.”
It was one of the few times that Dean didn’t have to bribe a bartender in order to get information. Gwaine and the barkeep were on very good terms. In a matter of minutes, without even recognizing that he was being questioned, the man was telling Gwaine all about the newcomers that he had seen in his tavern in the last two weeks.
“Nigh on a fortnight ago,” the barkeep said, “this lass comes in all on her own. Bold as brass she was, and in fine clothes too. She had the men charmed in no time, buying her ale, and could she drink. She’d give you a challenge.”
“Now, I’m sorry I missed that,” Gwaine laughed along with the bartender. “Has she been back since?”
“Aye, came in the very next day with a young man on her arm. Shy lad – old Bran’s boy. Did you know Bran? Decent man, he was, rest his soul. Owned the land by the Darkling Wood,” the bartender explained. “Poor boy though, didn’t look like a tavern was where he wanted to be. Too noisy for him, I think. He flinched at every noise as though it were driving a spike into him. I figure he was only here because she wanted to come, and with a girl like that, it’s her way or no way. She’s come in since, now and again.”
“Alone?” Dean asked, and then to temper any suspicion, he smiled and said, “Or could the boy actually keep a girl like that?”
The barkeep shook his head. “Don’t think she’s the type of girl who wants to be kept, if you get my meaning.”
“I don’t think I do,” Dean said, confused.
The barkeep shifted uncomfortably and shared a look with Gwaine, who seemed to understand.
“She comes in alone, but never leaves alone?” Gwaine guessed. The barkeep nodded.
“Ah,” Dean said.
“And the boy never came in looking for her?” Gwaine asked.
The barkeep shook his head, “Probably back home, licking his wounds.”
Dean doubted it. She was playing the classic vamp con. She’d lure the inebriated men out of the bar to someplace secluded, and her newly turned mate would swoop in for an easy meal. Dean suspected that another look at Leon’s map would put the tavern smack in the vicinity of the vamp deaths.
Gwaine and the barkeep chatted a bit more, trading lewd jokes that had Dean laughing, before the barkeep had to go attend other costumers.
“While I’ve got you here, I thought we might have a little chat,” Gwaine said, turning to Dean and giving him a smile.
“About?” Dean asked, eyeing Gwaine – who had, Dean was sure, been leering at women all day, not men, but it wouldn’t be the first time...
“Merlin,” Gwaine answered, his smile dropping. “I may have sworn allegiance to Arthur and Camelot, but long before that, I swore allegiance to Merlin, whether or not he realizes it. Now, I know misunderstandings happen, but never doubt that I will run you through if you ever harm a hair on Merlin’s head.”
“Understood,” Dean nodded.
“It’s good...” Dean added, “Merlin’s lucky to have a friend like you.”
Gwaine shook his head, as though he wanted to argue, but instead he just took a drink of ale.
“No, it is,” Dean repeated. “I’m just wondering though...You say your allegiance is to Merlin, but you’ve officially sworn allegiance to Arthur. So, what happens if Arthur’s the one that hurts Merlin?”
Gwaine looked at Dean like he was crazy. “Arthur would never hurt Merlin,” he said. “I mean, yes, Arthur’s given him a cuff now and then, but that’s just...them.”
“But what if...” Dean persisted. “What if Arthur ordered Merlin to be executed, which one of your loyalties would you choose?”
Gwaine frowned. “He’d never...”
“Hypothetically – humour me.”
“I...” Gwaine stopped, and genuinely looked distressed at the prospect. “It would be Merlin,” he said, nearly in a whisper. “I don’t think I could live with myself otherwise.”
“Good,” Dean said. “Good answer.”
“I won’t ever have to choose,” Gwaine stated firmly.
“Let’s hope,” Dean nodded.
Gwaine frowned, “You make it sound like you know something that I don’t.”
Dean shook his head, “I barely know the King, and I only met Merlin this morning.”
“Then why ask these questions?” Gwaine asked with some anger.
“This afternoon I just got to thinking that Merlin might need someone to have his back. Call it a hunch.” Dean shrugged, and then drank the rest of his ale. “Now, I have no idea what time it is, but I’m starving – let’s say we head back and see what Sammy and Merlin have found.”
Gwaine nodded and threw back the rest of his own drink, slapping coins down on the bar. He looked at Dean expectedly – and Dean realized that he was expected to pay for his own ale...with money he did not have. Not only that, but their impending departure had caught the bartender’s attention, and he was walking over.
Dean gave the barkeep in his most charming smile. “Send the bill to the King,” he said firmly.
The barkeep raised an eyebrow, but nodded. “It’s your head.”
Gwaine laughed and slung an arm around Dean’s shoulders.
“I’m not quite sure what to make of you, my friend,” Gwaine announced, “but I do like your style.”
Once they had left the baker’s house, Sam sighed audibly. Merlin knew what he was thinking, and he knew Sam was right, but part of him still refused to accept it.
“Maybe it was just... you know...” Merlin said softly.
“No,” Sam said. “Girl gets bitten, wakes up two days later with blood all over her...it wasn’t her blood, and she knows it.”
“Is it always like this?” Merlin asked, leading them back through town toward the castle.
“Is what always like this?”
“Your lives,” Merlin said with a wave of his hands. “I mean, when I imagined it, the monsters and evil spirits were...”
“Not teenage girls who don’t even know they were a monster?” Sam asked.
“Exactly,” Merlin replied, and suddenly he couldn’t help but think of dark hair, candlelight, and smuggling food down to the forgotten storerooms in the castle.
“It’s not always like this,” Sam said. “But for the most part – yeah, it is. How about you? You honestly never come across something like this in all your adventures with Arthur?”
“There was a girl once,” Merlin said. “Like Lillian, only... only she knew. She was cursed. At night, she would turn into a bastet.”
“What’s that?” Sam asked.
“A big black panther with wings,” Merlin smiled. “She was beautiful even then. Only, she killed people. Arthur...we were going to run away together, live by a lake...”
“You and Arthur?”
“No,” Merlin huffed a laugh, “Me and Freya.”
“Oh,” Sam said. “And Arthur killed her?”
“Yes,” Merlin replied softly.
“There was a werewolf once,” Sam said. “Her name was Madison. I thought I had a way to cure her, and for a moment we even thought it had worked…but it hadn’t. There is no cure.”
“Did Dean kill her?” Merlin asked, wondering just how much he and Sam had in common.
“No, I did,” Sam replied. Merlin swallowed, trying to imagine taking Freya’s life himself – he couldn’t. But he couldn’t help but think of Morgana’s wide eyes as she realized that Merlin had poisoned her – that Merlin had betrayed her. Merlin shook the image out of his head. It had been the only way, he knew that.
“You can wait for Gwaine and Dean in the Knights’ Hall,” Merlin said, as they walked through the castle gate into the inner courtyard. “I have to attend Arthur. Can you find your way on your own?”
“I think so,” Sam said, and then he smiled, “Thanks for the help, Merlin.”
Merlin nodded, not used to being thanked, and definitely not used to being thanked by a warrior who was supposed to exist only in stories.