Part III: Albion Games
Chapter 7: The Fisher King
It took the three of them several more hours the next morning to reach the end of the blasted forest of bare bleached trunks, avoiding the sinkholes hidden by patches of dark earth. Arthur's chainmail felt stiff, donning it after his submersion in the pit, but at the edge of the seared country, where the rocky cliffs rose to the heights upon which the tower had been built, there was a small stagnant pool with stunted brown reeds standing along its verge.
Merlin dipped one finger in the water, tasted it, then spat. "It's no good to drink," he told them. "But it should be fine for washing."
Arthur was tempted to immerse himself once again, to get the dried crust of filth from clothing, skin, and hair, but they had no time for that, and he couldn't afford the distraction and discomfort of moving or fighting soaking-wet. He contented himself with rinsing hands and head, as the other two did, then they continued on.
It wasn't a sheer climb. None of them were ever in any danger of falling, though Merlin once reached for a ledge that turned out to be loose, and had to freeze the chunk of stone midair before it crashed down on Gwaine's head. And when they reached the top of the steep bluff, they faced ground that was dusty and stony, but not as treacherous as the rest of the land had been.
"There it is," Gwaine said needlessly.
The tower was close, and Arthur began to realize its size. It could take them a week to search, if they dared split up, and if the trident wasn't hidden. Beyond the tower a silver expanse crawled and glittered under the late morning sun.
The sea, Arthur realized, as Gwaine added, "Well, he is called the Fisher King for a reason."
And above the tower – "What's that in the sky?" Arthur asked ominously. It looked rather like a flock of rooks circling one of the towers of Camelot. Except that the Fisher King's citadel was basically one enormous tower, so these winged creatures, whatever they were, must have been the size of a horse, at least. "They're not birds." There were more than three. Lots more. And that was just the ones that were on the wing.
"I've never seen creatures like that," Gwaine said.
"I have," Merlin said. His voice sounded hollow, and Arthur glanced quickly over to see his sorcerer pale.
"You – ah!" Gwaine said. "I had heard… I should have known…"
"What are they?" Arthur demanded.
"Those must be wyverns," Gwaine said. "Distant cousins of the dragons."
Arthur watched the pattern of the flock – the clan Merlin had said, had he guessed? – it looked very like – "Looks like they're hunting something," he said, pointing. There was a tiny figure, far below, close to the outer wall of the tower complex. Something flashed just above the figure.
"What was that?" Gwaine said.
"A sword," Arthur answered, and headed down the slope, down the sunken ruin of what had once been a wide thorough-fare.
"Well, we know at least one of our competitors arrived before us," Gwaine remarked, catching up to him. Merlin loped alongside, his long strides keeping up easily with the warriors. His silence bothered Arthur, though.
"Lord Merlin," Arthur said, stressing the title lightly. "Any advice?" The tiny figure had disappeared into the shadow of the barbican; it was only a matter of time before the three of them became the center of attention for the wyverns.
"I don't know if they'll listen to me," Merlin said grimly. "But I'll try."
Gwaine drew his sword, and after a moment, Arthur did as well. Again came the steel-on-slate screeching they'd heard the night before in the dark, and it set Arthur's teeth on edge, this close. He lowered his center of gravity and increased his pace. He wished he had a shield, now.
One swooped low, and he slung a blow at it, then twisted to aim at a second, shrieking from the side. To his left, Gwaine set his feet and readied his sword.
"Don't stop!" Arthur hollered. Outnumbered as they were, the wyverns could take their time attacking, one after the next, til the three humans were exhausted with holding them off. Gwaine glanced at him and nodded, a grimace of determination on his face as he swung twice and missed.
To his right, Merlin suddenly bellowed one long command, or a string of short ones, Arthur couldn't tell, but the flying creatures hovered instead of diving down.
"Go!" Arthur commanded, waving Gwaine ahead. "Go!" Gwaine made a dash for the barbican passage and Merlin twisted to shout at one wyvern who dove for the knight behind their backs.
Arthur slashed again at one who attacked from the left, stepping backward toward the wall. Merlin retreated also, more slowly, only stopping his furious flow of commands in the dragon language to gasp for breath, holding out both hands in warning.
The wyverns twisted and swirled in the air, shrieking in agitation. They displayed not the compliance of a pack of dogs to the kennelmaster's voice, but rather the instinctive wariness of wolves surrounding a lone man with a torch. The wyverns stayed just far enough away from the young dragonlord to pose no serious threat, but it was obvious that their obedience was grudging, and if he faltered –
Arthur reached out and yanked Merlin back into the barbican passage, both of them running to the portcullis that Gwaine was trying to lift by sheer strength and willpower.
"I'm sorry, they're resisting me," Merlin gasped, stumbling into Arthur, who righted him and bent to the task of helping Gwaine lift the heavy portcullis. "They're stupid creatures, they don't understand the words, they don't respond –"
"It's all right, Merlin, we made it this far," Arthur said shortly, as the iron gate rose a foot off the ground. Gwaine huffed and modified his hold, and it lifted another half a foot. "Down you go, and under," Arthur commanded and Merlin obeyed, dropping to his belly to wiggle under, then jumping up to help hold the gate in place.
"Sire," Gwaine grunted. Arthur flattened himself and rolled under the rusty iron teeth that studded the bottom of the gate, then bent next to Merlin to hold it up for Gwaine.
"Come on come on come on," Merlin groaned, and then let the portcullis fall with a clang as Gwaine scrambled clear.
Two of the beasts crouched at the end of the passage, watching them go, hissing. And judging by the flitting shadows in the courtyard, more were waiting for them to emerge. Arthur wondered briefly where the other champion had gone. They eased cautiously up to the mouth of the barbican, and he glanced around. No one in sight, no clear indication of which way was best to go.
"You want to split up?" Gwaine asked. "If Morgana didn't cross the gorge, there's only two warriors –"
"And a sorceress," Merlin reminded them. His chest was heaving, as though he had just run the entire length of the land.
"The trident is most likely to be in the tower itself," Arthur said. "Which should be safe from these vermin." One wyvern swooped low enough to brush the opening with the tip of a wing, shrieking fit to scrape their eardrums. "Head for the tower," Arthur added, adjusting his grip on his swordhilt and preparing to propel himself to the middle of the courtyard to draw the most attention so the other two could make it to safety.
But Merlin's hand shoved his shoulder back against the crumbling stone as the sorcerer leaped out into the open, himself. His voice, to Arthur, sounded deeper and stronger than all the wyverns' screaming protests combined. Even knowing that his sorcerer's slender frame was capable of more enduring strength, sustaining greater power than he himself was probably aware of, Arthur also recognized that Merlin was only human.
"Go!" he commanded Gwaine again. It was too late for any other strategy.
Arthur raced behind Gwaine as he headed for a doorway guarded by a sagging door. The knight burst through the half-rotted wood, but Arthur, a few lengths behind, ducked as a shadow loomed and an outstretched wing clouted him. His feet lost the broken pavement scant seconds before his shoulder found it, and he tumbled several times before he was able to regain his feet.
Merlin was still shouting somewhere behind him, though the dragonlord's voice sounded more like ragged pleading sobs than stentorian commands. Gwaine had disappeared somewhere to his left. Arthur darted through an archway, slid to a half-heartbeat pause at another exposed yard, changed direction and pelted down a walkway covered above, yet open on the sides, ending in a low-ceilinged space, its vast distances obscured in gloom, broken by short squat columns that three men with their arms outstretched could not encompass.
Wings thumped and claws scratched and disappointed keening followed him as he trotted further into the chamber, heading toward the main tower. Whatever passageway Gwaine found must surely lead into this area. Arthur did not hear Merlin any longer, yet trusted that his friend was in no danger.
He heard a sibilant whisper, like scales on dusty stone, and slowed his steps. There were probably snakes in this place. He needed his knight and he needed his sorcerer, and a stair leading upward. No trident visible here. No enemies, either, though he wouldn't risk raising his voice to call for his friends.
He crept silently through the chamber, alert, searching, making sure nothing escaped his notice. The detritus of centuries had accumulated at the base of the walls, the columns. If he looked more closely, he thought he would probably see bones.
A shadow moved in the dusky dimness, and he rounded a column with stealth. He heard voices, but not words, and it seemed to him that one of the voices was feminine. Girlish, disarming. Sorceress, he thought, even as his body reacted in relaxation. His heart rate and breathing slowed, his hand lowered his sword, even though he willed his feet to keep moving.
There, down an avenue between the columns. A slip of a girl in a tattered purple dress, thin-faced and empty-handed spoke to a warrior, a knight with shoulder-length dark hair. The knight seemed relaxed as well, his sword still sheathed and his hands hanging limply at his side as the girl sidled closer, at once innocent and seductive.
He stopped walking and just watched. There was no need for more, the girl's voice was so soothing, a susurration smooth as silk. She reached for the knight's cheek.
Another voice spoke, stern and commanding. A shadow as slight as the girl but taller by a head vaulted over a low wall into the open corridor-space. Like the girl, the newcomer was empty-handed, but in contrast to the feminine voice which lulled him into stillness, body and mind, the new voice woke a golden awareness deep inside him, and he stepped forward. The lanky frame was familiar, the shaggy black hair, and if he were asked the boy's name, he would say –
At the girl's side, the knight reached out and shoved the boy so violently in the chest that he fell sprawling backward. The look on his face, in that instant – the look on Merlin's face – was not anger or hurt or betrayal or fear or even shock… but resignation. And that was worse than anything else.
As he increased his pace and opened his mouth to shout – something, he didn't even know what words to use – Merlin's eyes gleamed gold, and the knight was knocked backward out of the avenue. The skinny girl hissed at merlin with her whole body, and as he raised his hand, she spun – and the girl was gone.
In her place was a monstrous black shadow with enormous snakelike appendages and a bulbous head the size of Arthur's whole body.
It began retreating toward him, supporting itself on several writhing tentacles, while more caressed the pillars to the sides, and still more had snagged Merlin's ankles to drag him bodily along the stone floor.
Arthur didn't slow. He bent to catch up a longer weapon from the floor – a spear a javelin a damn splintered pole for all he knew – and rammed it through the center of the gelid mass in front of him with all his strength.
The thing screeched in pain and despair, whipped around on him with glowing green eyes the size of his palms. Merlin spoke, this time in the Old Language, and the monster rolled sideways into the stone wall, curling up on itself like a spider at a puff of air. It spasmed twice, then all its boneless limbs collapsed.
…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..
Gwaine woke as he hit the floor. Disoriented, he lay still and didn't immediately try to move. Despite the unearthly screeching of the – wyverns? but it was dark he was inside the tower – he heard Merlin's voice and recognized the cadence of a spell. That was all right, then. He was safe, Merlin would make sure of that.
He blinked and flinched as a monstrous shape rolled past him, and he felt the tremors in the stone as it hit the wall and then stilled.
He sat up, turning to get his knees under him, then his feet. "What happened?" he said into the silence. His sword was still in its sheath, the last thing he remembered was running down a hallway with Arthur behind and Merlin –
Gwaine turned. Merlin lay sprawled on the filthy stone of the floor, propped on his elbows. He had seen this, in a dream, through a haze of green – he put out his hand to help his friend up, and froze.
His hand. Against Merlin's chest…shoving him down. He felt an echo of contempt and hatred, someone had told him – he shuddered, it was so wrong. Merlin's expression, as he looked up at Gwaine, was not angry or wary or hurt but calm. Accepting, as though he waited to see what Gwaine would do, not preparing for defense. At the edge of his vision to his left, Arthur jammed his sword back into his sheath and approached them.
"I did that, didn't I?" Gwaine said to Merlin, in horrified disbelief. He squatted down by Merlin's feet, his hand still held before him as if he couldn't reconcile its actions with his intent. "Merlin, I'm sorry, I'm so, so –"
"Gwaine," Merlin said, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper. "I know. It's fine." Arthur passed his own water-skin down to the young sorcerer, who took two slow swallows.
I'm sorry, Gwaine said again in his own mind. I swear, I will never let anything happen to you again, if I can prevent it.
Then Merlin grinned at Gwaine, and nothing had changed between them. "We have got to find you someone to fall in love with," Merlin quipped. "So you can stop listening to these sorceresses."
Gwaine shook his head, and Merlin reached to grasp his hand. Gwaine stood, pulling his friend up with him. "I'll have you know, I have been in love several times," he argued, returning Merlin's smile.
"Several times a week," Arthur observed wryly. "And that's not love. Come on. Let's not stay here any longer than necessary." As the king started down the row of columns, Gwaine and Merlin following, the king threw a glance over his shoulder. "So that was Lamia? And now she's dead?"
"She was a lamia," Merlin corrected softly. "A creature of magic. In their wars with the ancient kings, the high priestesses of the old religion took the blood from a girl and mingled it with that of a serpent. The creatures they created had ferocious powers. They could control the mind of a man, suck the life from him with a single embrace."
Gwaine opened his mouth to make a joke about some barmaids doing the same thing, but found his mouth and throat too dry, his equilibrium still too unbalanced. It had almost happened to him.
"But the lamia proved more deadly than their makers had ever imagined," Merlin continued. Gwaine swore he would never again make fun of the young sorcerer using what he'd previously termed the boy's Gaius voice. "They could transform at will and become hideous monsters."
"Hideous is right," Arthur said without turning. He sounded grim, and Gwaine didn't blame him a bit. "You said they. Are there more such creatures?"
"No," Merlin said. "She said she was the last."
Gwaine, for one, would sleep easier, knowing that.
They came to an arched doorway and a stair that led upward, curving as it followed the shape of the tower. There was more light the further up they went, coming through the crumbling arrow-slits on their right. Gwaine paused at one and searched the sky, but it was free of wyverns. For the moment. He wondered briefly where they had gone.
Behind him, Merlin said, as if deliberately lightening the tone of the quest, "Arthur, do you know where the trident is?"
"If I did," Arthur said, a little breathlessly after the climb, "there wouldn't be a problem, would there?"
"Any clues you can give us?" Merlin asked, and Gwaine could hear the irreverent grin in the sorcerer's voice.
"This is a quest, Merlin, not a treasure hunt," Arthur said.
"Why can't it be both?" Merlin said.
The stairs ended in a long open gallery, and at the end of that were three directions to choose from – another open hallway to the left, a small storeroom in the center, and a half-stair leading to a larger, darker room on the right.
"Shall we split up now?" Gwaine suggested, and as he said now, twin screeches of fury sounded just behind them as the glaring red eyes and slavering jaws and rough leathery wings of more wyverns burst into the open gallery.
Arthur lifted both arms to shove Gwaine and Merlin to the sides as he fell through the doorway into the storeroom and kicked the door shut. Gwaine heard Merlin's boots on the stairs, and regained his balance to sprint down the open hallway, looking for a way to circle back to his friends. More of the dragonish creatures beat their wings along the passage, trying to find purchase with scrabbling claws to enter the hall or to snatch him out.
Sword in hand, he caught the end of the corridor's wall, slinging himself around the corner to hurry carefully, cautiously, but swiftly, back toward that central storeroom, aware that there might be two enemy warriors prowling these otherwise deserted halls.
He stopped at the entrance to a larger room with a sunken floor, listened, then turned to follow the wall to the right, through another doorway – and stopped, seeing the ugly knobby claws, the gray-green skin and the folded leathery wings of two wyverns creeping forward.
Gwaine wrapped his fingers around his hilt and moved forward noiselessly, crouching til he was almost crawling. He could take them from behind, but if they heard him before he could strike –
Through the doorway was the storeroom, he saw Arthur on his back, half-lying atop a mound of sacking, the fallen door rocking over one of the king's legs as the nearest wyvern stepped onto the rotten planking. He saw no blood, but the king blinked dizzily as though he'd been injured, and he seemed to be making no great effort to ready a defense. Gwaine steeled himself as the wyverns crept closer to Arthur.
Then Merlin spoke, "Nun de ge dei –" and the young sorcerer strode down into the storeroom to stand over the king's body, weaponless, and spit the rough-sounding words at the creatures, "s'eikein kai emois –" looking from one to the other – "epe'essin hepesthai!" harshly berating them. The ugly gargoyle faces dropped lower, and both slunk back from the storeroom.
Merlin knelt beside Arthur, and Gwaine saw the nearest wyvern turn back, a murderous gleam in the red eye. He leaped out to ram his sword into the creature's side, just behind the foreleg. The dying shriek shredded the air in the tiny storeroom, but only for a moment before the wyvern wallowed dying in its blood, then lay still.
Merlin gave Gwaine a brilliant intimate smile, before turning to help Arthur sit. "Are you all right?" he said.
"I think so," Arthur said. "The door didn't hold them – knocked me flying. I must've hit my head." Merlin's fingers combed gently through Arthur's blonde hair. The king hissed, but Merlin released his hold with a smile of encouragement – it couldn't have been that bad. "What did you say to them, Merlin?"
Merlin sat back on his heels. "I told them they must obey me and go out from here."
"It sounds so much fiercer when you say it the other way," Arthur commented.
Gwaine chuckled. "I'd tuck tail and run if Merlin ever scolded me like that." He reached forward to help the sorcerer pull their king to his feet.
"Hm," Arthur grunted. "I must remember that the next time you're late for training because of a hangover."
"Oh, no," Gwaine groaned, imagining the young dragonlord roaring those phrases at him, his head pounding and his stomach churning already.
"Anyone see the trident?" Arthur said, blinking at the floor as he regained his sense of balance.
"There's another stair over here," Merlin suggested, and fell in behind Gwaine as they started upward once again.
This time, instead of circling widely with the curve of the tower, the stair spiraled tightly in an ascending column, each step a triangular block of stone. Even setting his feet at the widest part next to the wall, part of Gwaine's heel hung over the edge. They passed several rooms as they climbed, but a quick glance was sufficient to show no trident, and no other doorways leading elsewhere.
Behind him, Merlin said in an odd voice, "Wait, look at this. Looks like a throne room."
Gwaine paused and turned, hands braced to keep his feet from sliding off the narrow step. Merlin left the rising spiral of the stair to cross a brief antechamber and peer through the doorway. Gwaine jumped down to the antechamber. Merlin's curiosity was good enough reason for him to give the room a second glance, and Arthur descended without protest as well.
Then Merlin stepped into the doorway, and his boot seemed to sink into the stone – or the stone into the floor – a grinding noise sounded, and Gwaine reached to shove Merlin again, forward and out of the way, as a stone slab slammed down, cutting off the doorway.
…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..
Merlin stumbled into the room but turned as the slab thundered into the floor, slapping ineffectually at the barrier. "Arthur!" he shouted. "Gwaine!" He listened, but there was no reply. No sound.
He cursed, almost sobbing. Wasn't it bad enough that the vision from the crystals had come true with Gwaine pushing him down? Himself, following Arthur up the winding steps of a narrow tower, pausing at an unremarkable doorway. What else would come true? Visions, riddles… how the hell was he supposed to use any of it for the good? He slapped the stone slab again.
There was a sudden throb through the gold of his connection with his king, who remained alive and well, though worried and determined, within a few feet of the door. It calmed him. Well, great. How long would it be til they could find the workings to raise the slab? He turned to survey the room. At least he could do something useful like search, while he was imprisoned.
It was the first room with any furniture. A throne-like chair, intricately carved and inlaid with gold and dust, the gray of old stone or old wood, was placed with its high back to Merlin and the door, facing a window.
He stepped forward, leaving bootprints in the dust covering what must have been a beautifully paneled floor. He was homesick suddenly for the warm oaken gleam of Camelot's council chamber and the great round table Arthur had recently installed. Great curtains of cobwebbing hung everywhere – the outlines of ceiling, walls, throne alike were smudged by the clinging webs.
"So, Emrys," a dry voice whispered. He froze for an instant, but it was not the voice of either Helios or Julius. And it had come from the throne. "You are here at last."
Merlin gave the throne a wide berth as he circled to face it, and its occupant. The man seated there might have been a partially-mummified corpse, covered with wrinkles and cobwebs, his skin the gray of the dust and the stone, the gleam of his crown and his rings obscured by centuries of tarnish. But his eyes were alive, and he turned them from the window to Merlin.
He felt no fear. Only awe and a sort of quiet exultation. "So you are alive," he said softly. There was no reason to speak louder, in the silence of the room, and he felt as if a shout might cause the king to crumble.
"For now," the Fisher King said. His eyes traveled slowly over Merlin, head to toe and back up again. "You are very young," he observed. "And yet there is the sorrow of years in your face." The eyes sharpened. "You have discerned a crystal, have you not?"
Merlin felt somewhat awkward standing while the other was seated, and tired as well, so he sank to his knees in front of the ancient king. "I have discerned a caveful of crystals," he said, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice.
"Ah!" the king said, a dusty groan of a word. "You have spoken to Taliesin, then, unless I'm much mistaken."
"You knew him?" Merlin said.
"He was a traveling bard." The Fisher King's eyes moved slowly back to the window. "He was ever a welcome guest in my land. But those were better times."
"What happened?" Merlin said, then added, "Your Majesty. If you don't mind my asking?"
The old king's head swung ponderously. "Emrys. How can I mind any question you choose to ask?" He looked at Merlin from under dusty brows. "I had a friend, once. A brother. My sorcerer."
"Ashkenar?" Merlin guessed, and the Fisher King nodded.
"I lost him, too early," the king reminisced softly. "He was an amazing sorcerer, so talented. So secretive. His tomb contained – such treasures. There was one that I – coveted." This time Merlin bit his tongue on his guess, but the king nodded as if he had said it aloud. "The dragon's egg. Yes, I entered the tomb of my friend to gain that prize for myself. I should have known that my friend would protect that egg with the strongest of enchantments. A curse I brought back to my land, and myself." He gestured toward the window. "I have lived now, so long, without my friend…"
"A curse?" Merlin ventured. Was it a curse that he could lift? "The legend goes, you were wounded…"
"The curse drew the wyverns," the Fisher King sighed. "I was wounded, in trying to drive them off, but that is not what caused the devastation of the land. You have journeyed here – you have seen the result of generations of that pestilential twist of dragonkind. It is ironic – I have needed and waited for one man, while my land became a place that would strive to keep this man from coming to me."
"Emrys?" Merlin guessed, a heaviness on his heart.
The old king cocked his head and his lips quirked minutely. "A dragonlord. Only such a man can take this egg and call the hatchling forth. Only then will I and my land be released from the curse – I will no longer be required to guard the egg with everlasting life, and the wyvern clans will be dispersed, back to the mountain fastnesses. And now, my time can finally come to an end."
"My lord," Merlin began reluctantly. "I have not come here to claim that egg."
"You would deny your birthright?" the old king asked. "You would deny the truth of the riddles told you by my gatekeeper?"
Riddles. "They weren't all meant for me?" he said, aghast.
"Your magic is a sword in your hand," the Fisher king told him. "To be used for honor, or dishonor. Judgment is in your power to give, peace is within your grasp to achieve. The sacrifice is your decision to make, your oath the vow to be kept."
"I don't understand," Merlin whispered.
The king's expression remained unperturbed. "In time, it will become clear to you. I have been waiting all these years for the arrival of a new time," he said. "You have brought him, Emrys. The once and future king."
It was one thing to ask Kilgarrah to use his birth name, repeatedly, in exasperation, it was one thing to cut off Freya and others who brought up the matter. It was one thing to groan to whatever echo of personality Taliesin had been, not you too. But this man, this king of old, Merlin knew deserved his utmost respect and attention. He could not resist the Fisher King calling him by a name out of prophecy.
"I have heard these words before," Merlin admitted.
"And you will hear them again," the king told Merlin. "That time is dawning."
The time of Albion is upon us, and you face what may be your greatest challenge yet, young warlock. Perhaps there is a reason you were brought here at this moment in time…Emrys is a man destined for greatness, who will one day unite the powers of the old world and the new and bring the time that the poets speak of…
"That is why you were brought here." The Fisher King noticed Merlin's quick scrub of his eyes with the cuff of his sleeve, and smiled gently. "This is not only Arthur's quest… it is yours, also. Your quest and his are twined so tightly that they are one. Arthur thinks the prize is the trident… he is not entirely wrong, but the real prize is something far greater. I've kept it safe these years waiting for the right person to claim it."
Muffled thuds sounded from the door, the noise of stone rubbing on stone. "That'll be –" Merlin said.
"Your friends," the Fisher King breathed, "Courage and Strength, I know."
The stone slab lifted a few feet off the floor.
A/N: Dialogue from ep.3.8 "The Eye of the Phoenix", and 3.8 "Lamia."