The King and Her Queen

Chapter 4:  The Aerie of Light


On her entry, she found Arturia reclining on her bed with her gown around her shoulders.

"Lady Rhynne?  Art thou well?  Thou seemst weary."  inquired Arturia.

Rin made no reply and just waved her hand in a dismissive manner as she walked slowly toward the bed.  Her body felt numb and exhausted.  She reached for the antiseptic ointment and began applying it gently on Arturia's scarred skin. 

"Whither goeth Merlyn?"  asked Arturia.

Rin did not answer right away and continued applying the ointment.  Then she stopped and answered hoarsely, "Left... on an errand...".  She went behind Arturia and applied the ointment on her back.

"I see...  something hath demanded her attention."  said Arturia in a disappointed voice.

Rin reached for the bandages and began to wind it around Arturia's torso.  After the bandaging was done, she stood up unsteadily and used the table for support.  Her feet dragged along the floor as she walked toward her pack.

"Lady Rhynne... thou seemst unwell.  Perhaps, thou should sit and rest?"

Rin ignored her and opened her pack to put her medical kit and leftover bandages in. 

Just then the door opened and Shiro staggered in while supporting an unconscious Merlyn.  "Rin, I found this old woman..."

"Merlyn!  What hath happened?"  exclaimed Arturia.

Rin quickly stood up and mumbled in Japanese, "We have to leave... Merlyn knows... we gotta go..."  With faltering steps, she trudged toward Shiro.

"You look pale, Rin!"  exclaimed Shiro in Japanese.  He put his hand on Rin's forehead.  "Looks like you over did it.  You better sit down and rest.  Your mana levels are in a flux."

"We can't..."  Rin grabbed Shiro's shoulder and shook it slightly.  "We have to leave..."

Shiro looked at Rin, and then Merlyn.  He sighed.  "Ok, I think I understand..."  He put his hand on Rin's shoulder by the crook of her neck. 

Rin began to smile in relief but her smile melted away when she felt Shiro press his fingers deeply into the side of her neck and next to her spine.  "You... jerk..." was all she could mutter as her body went numb and the room around her swam into darkness.

Shiro caught Rin's arm as she fell forward. 

"Goodman Syrowe... pray tell me what hath cometh to pass?  Thou spake in a tongue unknowst to me."  asked Arturia with a voice laced with agitation.

Shiro cleared his throat and tried his best to come up with a plausible answer.  "It seemst that Lady Rhynne hath not taken enough rest.  A few moments in bed will rouse her to wellness.  As for the old woman, I hath found her fainted in the hall."

Arturia considered his answer.  "I understand.  Mayhap, the spell Merlyn hath cast was tiring and didst sap her strength.  She forgeth her years sometimes."

Shiro laid Rin and Merlyn on the other bed.  "She cast a spell?"

"Yea.  She and Lady Rhynne hath mistook mine situation and cast spells against each other."

Shiro covered his face with his hand and groaned.  He paced up and down the length of the room.  Eventually, he stopped and concluded, "I'll let them rest for now.  And then, I'll wake them up and ask them to explain what happened."  Then he suddenly remembered that he should try to speak in Medieval English.  "In the meantime, if thou art hungry, I hath bought thee some breakfast."  Shiro lifted a covered basket on to the table.  When he uncovered it, the smell of fresh baked bread and bacon wafted into the air.

Arturia gazed appreciatively at the food.  "Thy plan hath mine approval.  And I shall accept thine offer." 

"I am pleased that thou art pleased."  Shiro helped Arturia prop herself up with some pillows.  As he laid some prepared some food for Arturia, he thought in the back of his mind, "And I'll get to the bottom of this mess..."

------------

Rin drowsily opened her eyes.  A pair of golden eyes stared blankly at her.  When her mind identified the owner of those pair of eyes, Rin let out a surprised yelp and pushed herself off the bed.  She stumbled onto the floor and attempted to raise her hands.  When she felt resistance, she looked down to find her hands encased in a spell restraining shell. 

"Shiro!"  Rin yelled angrily in Japanese.  "What the heck is this!?" 

Shiro stood by the bed where Merlyn was struggling to sit up.  Her hands were also encased in a similar shell.  He replied in Japanese, "Just a precaution.  Arturia said that you and Merlyn were having a spell battle inside this inn."  Shiro emphasized the word inn.  He wore a stern look on his face.

"It's not my fault!  She tossed me up a wall and then she... she..."  Rin's cheeks flushed at the memory of Merlyn groping Arturia.

"She what?"  asked Shiro with a cocked eyebrow. 

"Arggghhh!!!"  growled Rin in frustration.  "It doesn't matter!  Anyway, we have to leave.  Merlyn knows about us."  Rin jerked her head in Merlyn's direction.

Merlyn heard her name and took the opportunity to interrupt the private conversation.  She cleared her throat.  "Tch, ye can't talk about me without me understanding ye.  Tis unfair."

Shiro turned to Merlyn and replied in English.  "Lady Rhynne hath told me about how thou tossed her up yon wall."

"Aye.  Tis I who must apologize for that.  She seemst to be havin' her way with Arturia."

"I WAS NOT HAVING MINE WAY WITH HER!"  protested Rin loudly in English.

"Aye, aye... hold yer peace.  Tis I who mistook ye.  Again, please accept mine apologies."

Shiro stared at the fuming Rin.  He wondered what had happened when Merlyn came.   After assessing Rin's state, he decided to ask her later.  "Pray tell, Merlyn.  Why wert thou outside this room?"

Merlyn chuckled.  "I dinna know if Arturia was hurt, so I was inspecting her injuries.  Whilst I did that, yer lady attacked me with strong dark magic."

"I'm not his lady."  corrected Rin.

Shiro held a hand up in Rin's direction.  "Please, Rin."  Then he turned to Merlyn.  "Please continue, Lady Merlyn."

"Dinna call me 'lady', boy.  An' ye dinna have to speak high speech, if tis troublesome fer ye.  Anyway, as I was tellin' ye, yon lass cast strong magic, and mine barrier cannae hold against it.  I tried to send it somewhere else, but methinks I dinna step aside in time when mine barrier broke.  A wee bit of it affected me and I fainted after I spake to her."

Shiro's brows knitted with worry.  "It's worse than I imagined..."  thought Shiro.  Rin probably cast Gandr and he hoped that it was sent somewhere where there were no innocent bystanders.  "Where did ye send it?"  asked Shiro.

"I sent it to the battlefield o'er yonder hills."  Merlyn seemed to notice the worry on his face.  "Dinna worry about it.  Only the dead lie there and mayhap an occasional bandit.  Bandits art not welcome anywhere.  They prey on the weak and loot the dead."

Shiro sighed with relief.  "I understand.  Anyway, what did ye talk about?"

"She told me how ye found Arturia in yon battlefield outside this village.  An' I agree with her.  Ye must leave this place."

At this point, Rin's jaw dropped.  She expected Merlyn to oppose them.

Merlyn spoke to Arturia.  "Can ye ride?"

Arturia shook her head.  "Nay, I am unable to hold mine self up."

Rin stepped forward.  "I can not allow that.  She hath not healed enough."

Merlyn sighed and then spoke seriously.  "If ye say so.  Boy, can ye get a wagon fer us?  A covered one will do well."

Shiro reached into his pocket and counted their money.  "How much doth a wagon cost?"

"I dinna know."  Merlyn paused.  "I can give ye more coin if ye take these off."  She held up her encased hands.

"All right."  Shiro waved his hand and the shell enclosure dissolved.  The enclosure on Rin dissolved as well.

Merlyn watched the shell dissolve and stared at her hands for a second.  "Ye have an amazing spell, boy.  Ye must show it to me another time."  She held out a hand to Shiro.  "Give me yer pouch."  He handed the pouch to her.  She emptied it on the bed, put her hand over the coins and chanted, "Mutatio."  When she withdrew her hand, all the coins changed to gold pieces.  Merlyn scooped up the gold and put it back in the pouch.  "That should be enough.  Go quickly." 

Shiro accepted the pouch with a sense of admiration.  As he looked inside, he blurted out, "Ye turned them to gold!"

Merlyn shook her head.  "Nay, tis an illusion.  The illusion wilt last till sundown.  Transmutation magic needs a lot of mana, and I've cast too many strong spells today."  She smiled mischievously and pointed to the pouch.  "Ye better use them soon."

"Yea, I go at once."  Shiro walked out quickly. 

Merlyn spoke to Arturia and Rin.  "Both of ye need to ready yerselves too."  Then she laid down on the bed and closed her eyes.  "Wake me on the boy's return."

Rin stared incredulously at Merlyn.  Then she put rubbed the back of her head in irritation.  Even though Merlyn seemed to be cooperative, she was still worried about protecting their secret from Arturia.  After some thought, she decided to go along for now. 


--------------------


They left the village around noon.  Merlyn gave directions while Shiro drove the wagon. 

"Whither art we bound?"  asked Rin.

"A safer place than this."  replied Merlyn.  "Tis a bit far.  Twould be faster by horse."  She turned to Arturia who was lying in a makeshift cot.  "It seemst that ye require rest."  She waved her hand in a small arc to emphasize her suggestion.

Arturia yawned.  "Verily, it seemst that I require some."  She closed her eyes and began to sleep deeply within a few minutes.

Merlyn edged away from Arturia to sit near Rin and Shiro.  She raised her hand and drew a circle above them with her fingertip.  "Silentium."  chanted Merlyn.  "Firstly, I thank ye both fer saving Arturia.  Without ye, she woulda died.  Ye cast fine magic to heal her.  I'm impressed with yer work.  Secondly, I dinna know what to do with ye.  Ye art not supposed to be here.  But, ye art not scheming to steal the throne or enslaving innocents, so I will stay my hand.  Thirdly, I dinna know what ye plan to do will Arturia.  Tis a feat to travel this far.  So now ye've found her.  What do ye plan to do?"

The same question nagged at Rin once more.  She stared at the floor of the wagon and stayed silent as she searched for an answer.  Merlyn had assessed their situation with brutal clarity.  Why did they come all this way?  Rin admitted to herself that she wanted to see her again.  She remembered that feeling of nostalgia when she found Arturia's clothes in her closet.  It was then that she decided that she wanted to see her and to talk to her once more.  If she could have enough of that, then she could return to the future fulfilled.  It was a selfish simple wish on her part, and yet, she was not sure how to tell Merlyn her wish.  Then, she recalled Merlyn's accusing tone outside the room in the inn.  At that time, Merlyn could sense that she was not being truthful.  It that was the case, then it would be difficult to lie to her.  Rin drew a deep breath and answered with sincerity. 

"I wanted to see her again.  I planned to stay for as long as I could, and then go back to mine own time."

Merlyn studied her with an unreadable expression on her face.  Rin tried to hold her gaze with equal indifference, but ended up blushing with embarrassment.  She was thankful that Shiro could not see her since she sat behind him.

"What is Arturia to ye?"  she asked softly.

Rin was startled by the question and hesitated for a moment.  "A friend, of course."  she answered quickly to cover up her hesistation.

Merlyn arched her eyebrow slightly.  "Is that so...?"  She observed Rin for a few seconds and then called out to Shiro.  "What about ye, boy?  What do ye plan to do?"

Shiro glanced briefly at Merlyn.  "I wanted to see her too."

"An' what is Arturia to ye?"

Shiro blushed to his ears.  He was glad that he was not facing Merlyn.  "I... I like her.  I want to be with her again, even if it's just for a short time."

"Oh-hoh..."  said Merlyn with a hint of amusement.  She chuckled.  "I like ye, boy.  Ye art bold and true.  Now, I'm curious.  How did ye meet Arturia?"

"Umm... Tis a long tale..." 

"Tis a long journey we're taking.  Pace yerself as ye will.  I have time to listen."

Shiro swallowed and took a deep breath.  He started at the time when Lancer attacked him.  He ended with Arturia who he knew as Saber at that time, fighting off Lancer and Lancer's retreat.

Rin kept silent during this time and watched Merlyn's expressions while Shiro told his story.  Her reactions were varied but seemed most intense when Arturia was summoned and when Shiro described Lancer.

Merlyn crossed her arms.  "Hmm... why did she say that she wert yer servant?"

Rin cleared her throat.  "Allow me to answer thy question."  Rin explained the system of masters and servants and the battle for the Holy Grail.  After she finished her explanation, Merlyn's forehead furrowed and a frown etched itself along the wrinkles of her face. 

"Did Arturia say why she wanted the grail?"  asked Merlyn.

Rin bowed her head.  "Yea.  She saith she wanted to redo the selection of the king."

"What?!"  exclaimed Merlyn with surprise.  Her eyes grew wide and her mouth hung slightly open.

"Tis true."  said Shiro from his seat.  "She wanted to redo it so that she would not be chosen as king."

At these words, Merlyn's expression revealed her shock.  Her eyes wandered to rest on Arturia's sleeping form.  She stared at her for a while.  Then Merlyn's shoulders drooped and she leaned forward to take her face into her hands. 

Rin watched Merlyn silently.  Seeing Merlyn hunched over like that stirred her heart with pity.  A cool breeze blew into the wagon and Rin wrapped her arms around herself.  Rin looked out the back of the wagon and noted the coming of dusk. 

Finally, Merlyn lifted her head.  The waning light of sunset only served to deepen the shadows under her eyes and hair.  "Ye have given me much to consider."  She looked out of the wagon towards the setting sun.  "Tis getting dark.  We need to camp."  Merlyn made her way to sit next to Shiro.  She looked about and gave Shiro directions.  They drove the wagon into an offbeat path and into a small clearing.  The clearing appeared to have been used before since it had a burnt out campfire. 

Rin prepared dinner while Shiro prepared their sleeping bags and fed the horses.  Meanwhile, Arturia woke up.  Merlyn stayed in the wagon and asked Arturia about her memories.  Rin and Shiro eavesdropped to hear that although Arturia remembered Merlyn from her childhood, she could not remember anything about Merlyn after the age of twelve.  As for other memories, she could describe places that she visited or lived in when she was young and the presence of people who grew up with her.

They had a quiet dinner.  Merlyn appointed herself as Arturia's server and remained with Arturia in the wagon.  Rin and Shiro sat by the fire and ate their dinner in silence.  Neither dared to speak in Japanese for fear of Merlyn's curiosity.  After dinner, they prepared for sleep.  Shiro volunteered to keep watch and Rin agreed to watch after him.  The night passed uneventfully.

-------------------

The next day, they ate a quick breakfast, packed up and started again.  Rin took the opportunity to take a nap since she had kept watch last night.  She prepared her sleeping bag next to Arturia and crawled in.  Before she closed her eyes, she turned her head slightly and noticed that Arturia was looking at her.  She began to blush and rolled over on her side away from Arturia.  She shut her eyes, but for some reason, she could feel Arturia staring at her back. 

"Maybe ye should rest too, Arturia."  she heard Merlyn say. 

"Yea... tis still early and the wagon's sway doth entice slumber."  replied Arturia softly.

Sheets rustled behind her.  She waited and listened as the wagon creaked.  After a few minutes or so, she heard shuffling from behind her.  The shuffling stopped somewhere near the front of the wagon.  Then she heard Merlyn chant, "Silentium." 

The sound around Rin became muffled and dull.  At this point, Rin relaxed and let the swaying of the wagon lull her to sleep.

Meanwhile, Merlyn spoke to Shiro.  "Boy, tell me about the grail.  Describe it to me."

Shiro explained what the grail was and how the winner of the war could use it to grant their wish.  He told Merlyn about how his stepfather participated in the war and the conflagration that robbed him of his family and home.  He described his final battle with Kotomine and Arturia's destruction of the grail. 

Merlyn listened quietly and only interrupted when something was not clear.  After he finished his explanation.  Merlyn muttered, "Methinks, that yer grail is not the same as the one in Gwent."

Shiro glanced at Merlyn briefly.  "There's a grail in Gwent?"

"Aye.  Sir Galahad, Sir Percival and Sir Bors accompanied the archbishop of Arimathea who is the hereditary guardian of the Holy Grail.  The archbishop is currently staying in the monastery of Gwent."

"How far is Gwent from here?"

"Several days ride south of here."  Merlyn watched his reaction.  "Art ye disappointed?  Did ye want to see it?"

Shiro shifted in his seat.  It unnerved him that Merlyn was very astute.  "Yea.  Twould be well if I could see it."

"Be at ease.  The archbishop of Gwent is a holy man."

"I hope so."  said Shiro sardonically.  His mouth drew to a tight line as he was reminded of Kotomine.

Behind him, Merlyn sighed.  "I see... ye dinna like clergy.  Tis well with me.  Clergy and I ne'er see eye to eye.  Some monks think ill of magicians.  'Worshippers of the unholy one' is what they say.  I cannae blame them.  There art magicians who use their craft fer their selfishness.  The task of keepin' them in their place falls to magicians like us.  Do ye agree, boy?"

Shiro nodded.  "Yea.  To wield magic against the innocent is wrong.  I shall do what I can to stop such evil."

"Well said, boy!"  exclaimed Merlyn.  Shiro blushed in embarrassment at her praise.  "Now, tell me the rest of yer tale about the war."

Shiro continued his story after Lancer retreated and Rin appeared with Archer.  Merlyn listened patiently.  He talked until about mid-afternoon.  Rin woke up and Merlyn indicated that they should break for lunch.  Once again, Merlyn directed them to a campsite and they prepared a lunch of bread, soup, ham and fruit.  While Rin and Shiro busied themselves with lunch, Merlyn announced that she was going to change Arturia's bandages.  Rin gave her new bandages and the medicine kit.  She accepted them with a twinkle in her eye.

"Smile, lass.  Ye will have a turn at it soon."  Her face broke into a lopsided smile.

Rin glared at her with unbridled annoyance.  "If ye need anything else, please call."  Then she turned about and went over to stir the soup in the pot.  When the food was ready, Rin gave Merlyn and Arturia their share and ate with Shiro.  She whispered to him in Japanese.  "So... what did you two talk about?"

Shiro shrugged.  "She had more questions about the war.  So I told her more about it.  Oh yeah, she told me that a Holy Grail is at Gwent."

"Really?"  exclaimed Rin with surprise.  Then she lowered her voice.  "Is it related to the grail?"

"Not sure."  whispered Shiro.  "It's south of here."

"Hmm... I think we should check it out, if we get a chance to."

"I think so too.  But Merlyn thinks that it's not the same one."

"If it isn't, then we have nothing to worry about."

"And if it is?"

Rin sat still for a moment and assessed the possibilities.  If it was the same grail, then they would be forced to take action.  However, since they were in the past, they would have to risk interfering with the course of time.  "Shiro..."  said Rin quietly.  "do you know how to pray?"

Shiro looked at Rin quizzically.  "Only enough to wish for something on New Year's.  Why?"

"Well, we better pray that it's not the same one."  replied Rin.  She resumed eating her meal quietly.

Shiro sighed and did the same.  When they had finished, they packed up and resumed their journey.  After Arturia went to sleep, Merlyn began to interrogate Rin about the war.  When the topic of Ilyasviel came up, Rin and Merlyn exchanged theories about how one could fashion a human being around a magic circuit.  Shiro sighed with exasperation as Rin launched into a heated debate with Merlyn.  He was glad that the silentium spell masked their argument and would prevent Arturia from hearing their racket.

The rest of the journey settled into a regular pattern of talking about the war or magic and making camp.  On the afternoon of the sixth day, they came upon a green valley at the foot of a majestic mountain whose peaks were covered with snow and obscured with fog. 

"Behold."  said Merlyn with her eyes twinkling with pride.  "The valley of Eryri and the mountain Yr Wyddfa.  Our journey is almost done.  Our destination lies just beyond yon valley."  She sat next to Shiro and clapped him soundly on his back.  "Ye've done well, boy.  We've arrived sooner than I expected.  Let us go on.  Tis not far now."

Rin looked out of the wagon and gasped as she gazed upon the valley.  The valley reminded her of the same valley near the Academy.  Her eyes brimmed with tears at the memory.  "It's... beautiful..."  said Rin in a voice filled with awe.

"Yea.  Tis indeed."  remarked Arturia who sounded so close to Rin that she backed away with a start.  Somehow, Arturia had managed to crawl out of her cot and to sit beside her without her noticing.

"Thou... thou art better!"  said Rin excitedly as she crawled back to where she sat before. 

"Yea.  Mine thanks to all of thee." replied Arturia with a cheerful tone.  "Strength hath begun its return to mine limbs."

Meanwhile, Merlyn climbed back into the wagon.  She knelt by Arturia and examined her.  She sat back on her heels with a look of wonder on her face.  "Tis true... yer bones have set faster than any I've seen... tis amazing.  Tis almost as if..."  Instead of completing her sentence, Merlyn threw her arms around Arturia and hugged her.  "Thank the fates!"  She pulled back.  "Tonight, we shall hold a small feast and drink to yer health."

With their destination in sight and the great news of Arturia's progress, they made their way into the valley in high spirits.  Merlyn directed them to the nearest village.  There, they got some rooms at the inn and ordered a big meal in the pub downstairs. 

Merlyn raised her tankard of ale.  "Tis been a long journey fer all of ye.  But let us nae forget that every journey begins with one step.  Fer now, let us look back and remember how far ye've come.  Ye can take pride in that.  I give ye a toast!  To yer health and success!"

They clashed their tankards lightly, spilling some ale on the table.  Merlyn brought the tankard to her lips and emptied it with several mighty gulps.  "Ahhh... that hits the spot..."  she said merrily as she set the tankard down.

Arturia took several gulps but with much less bravado than Merlyn.  Rin scrutinized the inside of hers doubtfully before taking a sip.  Her face scrunched up and she put the tankard down with her right hand on top.

Shiro stared at the brownish liquid for a moment and then took a mouthful.  He made a wry face but swallowed the ale with a bit of effort. 

"Go on, boy.  A man will finish what he started."  chided Merlyn.

Shiro looked at Rin helplessly.  Rin simply shrugged her shoulders.  He stared at the tankard in his hand for a moment and then brought it to his lips.  His other hand grabbed the edge of the table as he downed the ale with several gulps.  Finally, he set the tankard down with an audible clank which proclaimed its emptiness.  He let go of the table and brought his hand to his mouth as if to keep himself from retching.

"Well done!  An' what about ye, lass?"

"Oh, very well..."  Rin took the tankard with both hands and drank its contents daintily.  She set the empty tankard down calmly. 

Merlyn cocked an eyebrow.  She leaned forward and grabbed Rin's tankard.  She verified that it was empty and glanced at Rin who sat with a small smile on her face.  Merlyn sniffed the inside of the tankard and did not detect the strong scent of ale.  She set it down with an air of disgust.  "Cheater.  But I'll let ye go fer now."

Their waitress came by with their meal and more ale.  Shiro groaned at the sight of another tankard before him.  They ate their meal with a relaxed conversation about the village and other parts of the valley.

After their meal, they retired to their rooms.  Merlyn declared that she would share Arturia's room, so Rin and Shiro shared the other.  After almost a week of camping, the straw beds of the inn were a welcome comfort.  They all slept well that night.

-------------------

On Merlyn's urging, they set out early next morning.  Rin put a cloak on since the air in the valley was chilly.  Arturia sat across from her with her blanket wrapped around her.  Merlyn sat next to Shiro and obviously looked comfortable in her layered brown robe.

Rin felt drowsy and yawned.  She recalled the warm softness of the bed and wished she could have slept a few more hours.  She drew her cloak around her and closed her eyes in an attempt to meditate.  Internally, she chanted the mantra in her mind and let herself drift with its rhythm.  Before she realized it, she had fallen asleep.

She woke with a start when she felt something heavy hit her side.  One of the small casks of water had fallen over and rolled to her side.  But what surprised her more was the unusual warmth she felt next to her.  It was then that she noticed the patterned blanket wrapped around her.  The sound of her heart was thumping in her ears as she slowly turned her head to see Arturia's smiling face.

Rin's cheeks flushed slightly at the closeness.  "Milady...  ye didn't have to..."  She leaned her body to move away, but Arturia's arm was around her and eased her back.

"Nay, thou seemeth to tip when we began our ascent.  Besides, thy hands succumbed to the chill of the mountain breeze."  As if to emphasize her point, she squeezed Rin's hand under the blanket.  "And, thou needst not address me as 'milady'.  We art bosom companions.  Twould gladden mine heart if thou wouldst address me by name."

"Th-- Then, please extend the same courtesy to me..."  Rin blurted out and blushed even more.  Ever since Merlyn arrived, she kept her distance from Arturia.  Being under the same blanket caused her to become even more conscious of Arturia's warm body next to hers.  Her fingers tingled as she clasped Arturia's left hand.  Arturia's arm was behind her while her right hand held her shoulder and steadied her when the wagon swayed over uneven ground.  Her intense green eyes were so close that Rin was caught in its gaze.

Arturia tilted her head to the right thoughtfully.  "Art thou well?  Thy skin seemst suffused with rosy hue."  She leaned forward and touched her cool cheek against Rin's.  "Hath thou contracted a fever?"

Rin's body went rigid and she found it hard to breathe.

"Tis the forehead, Arturia."  corrected Merlyn who was observing them with amusement from the front seat.

"Ah, is it so?"  Arturia slipped away slightly and rested her forehead on Rin's. 

She could not see anything else but Arturia's eyes.  She could not breathe anything else but Arturia's breath upon her lips.  She could not feel anything else but Arturia's cool forehead against her own.  The sensations flooded her brain all at once.  The world whirled around her and she fainted.

"Merlyn!"  cried Arturia as she held Rin against her.  "She's bleeding!"

Merlyn sighed and crawled to Arturia's side.  She ripped off a small piece of clean bandage and instructed Arturia.  "Tilt her head back and put this around her nostrils... that's good.  Keep it on till the bleeding stops."

"Is she sick?"  asked Arturia with a worried note in her voice.

Merlyn smiled mischievously.  "Aye... but tis a minor malady o' the heart.  Besides, as ye've discovered, the lass is a skilled physic.  She can cure it when need be.  Dinna worry about it.  An' remember to tilt back a bit."

"Really?"  remarked Arturia with a puzzled tone.  She tilted Rin's head back slightly.  "What an unusual malady.  Mayhap, I shall inquire about it later."

Merlyn stifled a chuckle while Shiro pondered over the weird conversation.  In the back of his mind, an idea began to form, but he dismissed it as improbable.

Meanwhile, Merlyn crawled back to sit next to Shiro.  With her directions, they navigated up the mountain pass without incident.  By late afternoon, they drove the wagon into a mine.  Merlyn lifted her staff and chanted, "Illumina".  The tip of her staff burst into a bright light which filled the damp dark cavern.

"Tis an old mine shaft used to mine copper."  explained Merlyn.  "Twas abandoned when the miners cannae find anymore copper." 

They proceeded until the wagon could not pass through the narrow passage.  Merlyn jumped off the wagon.  "From here, we go on foot.  Leave yon supplies.  We shall fetch them later.  Boy, can ye carry Arturia?"

Shiro grinned widely and nodded.  "Of course.  Leave it to me."

"Rhynne... Rhynne... we must disembark."  Arturia shook Rin slightly. 

Rin opened her eyes and lifted her head from Arturia's shoulder.  She looked about inside the dim wagon.  When she realized that she was next to Arturia, she slid away slightly.  "I... I beg thy pardon.  I didn't mean to fall asleep..."

"Worry not.  The wagon doth sway and tilt a bit.  Twas of little effort for me to provide thee some means of comfort.  Art thou well?  Merlyn saith that we must go on foot."

Rin extracted herself from the blanket and assumed a kneeling position with her arms outstretched.  "Of course!  As ye can see, sleep hath refreshed me."

"I am glad."  She took off the blankets and turned to Shiro.  "I beg thy pardon and hope that I will not burden thee too much."

"Not at all."  replied Shiro warmly.  He helped her to the edge of the wagon and let her settle into his arms.  Together, they followed Merlyn into a narrow passageway.

Rin hurriedly picked up Shiro's pack and her own.  Their equipment was inside and she wanted to ensure its security.  She then jumped off the wagon and caught up with them in the passageway. 

They walked through several labyrinthine tunnels.  As they walked along the passageway, Rin noticed an animal's skeleton in the dim light.  That unnerved her enough to ask, "Art there any wild animals here?"

Merlyn replied without a beat.  "Only an occasional mountain lion, or sometimes... a lost child who cannae find his way out."

Rin and Shiro followed Merlyn closely after that.

After about half an hour, Merlyn stopped at a rocky wall and began to poke her hand in several crags.  There was a rumbling and grating noise and the wall swung back like a door.  Except for Merlyn, the three of them stood there in amazement.  Merlyn strode in and beckoned them to follow.  They entered a large cavern and walked on a well-paved path.  After they had passed through the rock-hewn doorway, Merlyn selected a lever among a set of levers and pushed it down.  The door swung close with more grating noise.  Merlyn pushed down another lever and the series of ropes and chains at the end of the cavern began to move.  The ropes and chains extended so high up the cavern that they could not see where it ended.  All three of them watched curiously.  Finally, they could see the outline of a wooden platform.  When the platform finished its descent, they boarded it.  Merlyn reached over and pushed down one of a pair of levers to the right of the platform.  The platform began to ascend. 

At the top of the cavern, the platform entered a vertical shaft.  Shiro took the opportunity to ask about the platform.  Merlyn replied that the platform  was originally constructed as an escape route for a nearby fort.  However, the ruler at said fort was killed in battle and the construction of the shaft stopped.  She had discovered its location by accident and decided to modify it to suit her needs. 

Finally, the platform reached its destination.  The three of them were amazed to find themselves in large well-lit hall.  The walls of the hall seemed to be made of semi-transparent glass.  In some areas, the walls were transparent enough to see a view of the valley below.  It was then that they realized how far up the mountain they had come.

Merlyn stepped off the platform and bowed extravagantly in their direction.  "Welcome to mine home.  Welcome, to the Aerie of Light."



Chapter 5
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