Title: The Lady of the Plague
Character/s: Merlin, Freya
Summary: In the midst of the death and despair of the Great Plague of Camelot, Merlin encounters Freya. The future suddenly looks brighter.
Warnings: Dark themes, given the plague setting. Angst.
Word Count: 800
Prompt: 366 Historical AU
Author's Notes: The setting is based on available information about the Great Plague of London in 1665. Unfortunately, my word count got away from me and far exceeded the limit. Therefore I'm just posting the first half, but I believe it makes for a coherent ficlet even so. This has not been betaed.
The Lady of the Plague
Merlin hurried down the narrow street, hunched against the heat and the stench. He was wrapped in a cloak despite the stifling weather, and his face was covered by a doctor's beaked hood, much like the face of a bird of prey.
The few people that he met scuttled away at his approach. Likely they considered him a harbinger of doom.
From the next street over he heard the rumbling of an over-loaded cart, and the repeated cry of 'Bring out your dead!'
Merlin was exhausted. His healing magic let him save only a few of the afflicted. Many more fell ill and died. Deciding who to treat and save caused him constant heartache. He could only do so much each day before his powers were depleted, and he had to be careful with his magic. Magic was prohibited at the best of times. If he was revealed to be a sorcerer now, he would surely be accused of having brought the great death upon Camelot, and he risked being torn to shreds by a desperate mob.
The plague had ravaged the city for months on end, and it struck indiscriminately. Every day, Merlin wished he could discover the cause of the pestilence, so that he might fight it with his magic. But the source of the scourge remained a mystery.
The sound of soft, broken sobbing reached him from a building as he passed it by. People were constantly weeping and wailing all over Camelot, but this distraught audible proof of hopelessness and despair nevertheless tugged at his heartstrings. He stopped, raising his hood for a better look.
There was a bright red cross on the dilapidated house's door, with the words 'The goddess have mercy upon us' scrawled upon it. This was a plague-house, a dwelling where people had died. Clearly someone living there had been boarded up inside in accordance with the strict quarantine rules.
In front of the door, one of the king's men stood guard, looking sweaty and sullen.
"Good soldier," Merlin said, moving closer. "How long has this house been boarded up? How many have died here?"
The guard recognized Merlin's attire. "It's been more than two weeks, doctor. All of them dead, except one woman."
"She has survived on her own all this time?" Merlin was astounded. Fear would keep people far away from plague-houses, and the remaining residents were not allowed outside. If the plague spared them, thirst and hunger would not.
The soldier shrugged. "Guess it won't be long now."
Merlin frequently saw such callous indifference to suffering. The fear of dying, the constant deaths and corpses piling up, had numbed people to others' misfortune.
He quickly made up his mind. "A good day to you, then, and may you remain hale and whole," he said, and turned away. Once he sensed the guard relaxing, paying the plague doctor no more mind, Merlin adroitly wove a glamour of invisibility around himself.
A simple spell unlocked the door. In no time, Merlin was inside the forbidden house.
A young woman sat slumped by the empty table, her posture radiating despair, and her pale face streaked with tears. She was little more skin and bones, dressed in a raggedy dress that had once been red.
She looked up at him and gasped, terror flitting across her features. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"Don't be alarmed," Merlin said soothingly. Looking into her liquid eyes, he felt his heart skip a beat. He sensed an immediate and strong connection that he couldn't explain. "I've come to help you."
She lowered her head, dejected. "No-one can help me. I'm doomed."
"Have you got the plague?"
She shook her head.
"How have you managed to stay alive? What do you eat and drink?"
Once more the woman shook her head, her loose dark curls sweeping her bare shoulders. She shivered.
"No-one can help me," she repeated. "I am cursed."
"No, you're not!" Merlin was more surprised at his own vehemence than at her harsh words. Many of his patients thought the plague was the gods' punishment for their past sins or misdeeds.
She drew a shaking breath, dashing a hand across her wet cheeks, smiling at him with trembling lips. "You're kind, doctor."
"Merlin. Please call me Merlin." He walked over and reached out to take her cold hands in his, his voice gentle. "Is this your family's home? The guard told me they died."
"No," she whispered, broken. "I'm not from here. These kind people took me in when I had nowhere to go, and I repaid them with death and destruction!"
"Hush, hush," Merlin said. "Don't blame yourself. Don't say such things."
She bent her head, and didn't respond.
"What is your name?" Merlin asked.
Merlin squeezed her fingers gently. "Freya, let's leave. I can get you out of here. We'll leave Camelot and go to the country, where there are fields and lakes and laughter. You need food and fresh air."
He was utterly amazed to hear his own words, but he meant them. He had fallen for her in the blink of an eye. And as uncertain as life was, with fate so fickle, why not? Living in the moment and grasping at every chance of happiness, that was the only way when each new hour could be your last.