Here we go, the beginning of a new story! If you recognise it, I began to upload it on a new FF profile before I was able to log back into this one, and I want to keep all my stories on the same account, so I'm reuploading. Sorry about that.
Please be aware that I've completely made up the mythology for banshees in this one. Please also note that this will be a fairly dark story, and I'll put warnings at the start of some chapters for possible triggers. Other than that, enjoy!
"So Merlin, what will you be cooking for us tonight?"
Merlin smiled at the enthusiasm in Gwaine's voice over a simple meal and replied "whatever you catch for me."
They were riding their horses along a narrow forest path, one week's ride away from Camelot. Having heard reports of banshees near the edge of the kingdom, Arthur had immediately readied himself, his five best knights and his manservant on a quest to go out and slay them. They were nearing the area of the sightings and expected to begin the search tomorrow.
Banshees were terrible things, dangerous and easily underestimated. According to Gaius, they could get into your mind and take the form of anyone you knew. Once they had targeted you, they would become someone you had lost and convince you to join them in death. This was how they gained power, by taking the souls of others. Apparently the more powerful the banshee, the stronger the victim they targeted.
Considering the one leading them was the regent of Camelot, Merlin was feeling pretty nervous about this quest.
"A truly competent servant would be able to catch the food himself, Merlin." Ah yes, speaking of his royal pratness…
"Really, Arthur? You want me running around with a bow and arrow?"
Even riding behind him, Merlin could sense the grimace on his friend's face. "No. No, you have a point there. I've seen you shoot. You couldn't hit me if I were twice as big."
"Keep eating the way you do and we'll find out," was the immediate retort. The knights were all snickering behind them, even Leon allowing an amused smile. Arthur didn't reply, but Merlin could practically hear the fuming.
The manservant whipped his head to the side, pulling the reins on his horse. Merlin squinted through the dense trees, searching for the source of what felt like a whisper in his ear. That voice… he knew that voice…
"Merlin, what are you doing? Other than holding everyone up!"
He looked back to the path where Arthur sat, looking annoyed, and realised all of the knights had been forced to stop behind him. "Oh. Uh… sorry. Thought I heard something." He urged his horse forward and quickly caught up to Arthur, who just rolled his eyes and looked forward again.
From just behind him, he heard Lancelot murmur "something we need to be worried about?"
Merlin shook his head slightly. He'd just been imagining things. That voice… it couldn't have been.
Elyan started up the conversation again but Merlin remained silent and in his own thoughts for the rest of the ride.
They finally reached a clearing in the forest just as the sun began to set, already dimmed by the thick canopy above them. As the knights tied their horses to trees around the clearing Merlin began his search for firewood and they all fell into the now familiar routine of setting up camp. The manservant slowly wondered away from the others, picking up any broken branches or twigs he found.
Merlin froze in the midst of reaching for a thick branch.
He quickly stood and looked around him. He definitely knew that voice. He would never mistake it for another. But it couldn't be possible…
"Planning on burning the whole forest?"
Merlin spun around only to come face to face with Gwaine, an amused look on his face. "What?"
He nodded to the wood Merlin was carrying. "I think you've got enough, mate."
The manservant looked down to see the pile he'd collected was almost overflowing in his arms. "Oh. I wasn't really paying attention."
"Clearly. The princess said he didn't want anyone going off alone." Gwaine stepped forward and swung his arm around Merlin's neck, leading the skinnier boy back to camp. "Can't be too careful with a banshee floating around, can we?"
"I'm pretty sure they don't float, Gwaine."
The knight shrugged. "Have you ever seen a banshee? No? Then how would you know, hmm?"
The royal party sat around a healthy fire, Merlin's rabbit stew settling in their stomachs. It was well and truly dark now and they sat around the flames as if drawn to the source of light. Merlin stared into the centre where the wood was black and glowing, deep in thought. He was half-sure he was going crazy. But surely the voice he heard was just caused by lack of sleep and too much travelling on horseback. He didn't sleep well on the hard ground, his bones constantly knocking against some rock or other, and horseback, while quicker than walking, was never going to feel completely natural to him. He was sore and tired and sick of travelling. He was simply… thinking too much. Just a trick of his imagination.
As hard as Merlin tried to convince himself, though, he wasn't sure he wanted to be right.
"…'lin?" Or are you completely incompetent?"
Merlin forced his eyes away from the fire and looked at Arthur, trying to focus. "Sorry, what?"
Arthur rolled his eyes and Percival attempted to hide a chuckle with a cough. "What is with you today?" the prince asked exasperatedly. "You haven't listened to a word I've said."
"I'm just waiting for something worth listening to, sire," Merlin replied easily. The grin fell on his face and Arthur huffed, but internally Merlin was still worlds away.
"We'll split up into two groups. Percival and Gwaine with me, Lancelot and Elyan with Leon." Arthur ordered. "Meet back here in three hours to report. Remember, if you encounter the banshee it may be disguised. Keep your wits sharp." There was a chorus of 'yes sire' and Arthur took a breath, readying himself for the inevitable argument. "Merlin, I want you to stay here. No sense getting in the way."
"I don't want to hear it Merlin, you're not trained for - sorry, what?" Arthur stared at his manservant, leaning against a tree by his horse, eyes on the ground in front of him. The younger man shrugged.
"Fine. I'll stay here."
Arthur continued to stare, aware his knights were doing the same. Merlin obeying a command without complaint was rare. Merlin agreeing to stay behind? It was unheard of. "You… you will?" He couldn't keep the skepticism out of his voice.
"Yes, fine, you're right, I'm not trained to face a bloody banshee," Merlin said. He sounded impatient. "I'll stay here, look after the horses or whatever."
"Well… good." Arthur replied lamely. His mind was still having trouble processing. Really, this only confirmed what he'd begun to suspect yesterday - something was quite wrong with his friend. Arthur repressed a sigh. He'd have to sort it out later, and finding out what was wrong with Merlin was like trying to pull a sword out of stone. Shaking his head, he gestured for Percival and Gwaine (who was looking at Merlin with a touch of concern) to follow him further into the trees.
"Maybe he's sick," Elyan suggested as he, Leon and Lancelot walked through the forest. They were all spread out, but still within seeing and speaking distance of each other. Just in case. Lancelot lagged behind slightly, reluctant. Clearly Merlin was up to something, and he was loathe to leave the younger man to do it alone. But he couldn't stay behind without raising all sorts of questions, and Merlin had shot him a look that screamed 'go away'. It didn't help his suspicions.
"Maybe," replied Leon. "I'm honestly not sure that would stop him though." If Lancelot wasn't too busy being worried he would find it funny how concerned it made everyone when Merlin actually followed an order. "Perhaps we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth," Leon continued. "He'd be easy pickings if we came across the banshee."
"Merlin is stronger than you give him credit for," Lancelot inserted. It wasn't the wisest thing to say but he hated how badly his friend was underestimated. If only they knew what the servant was capable of.
"I don't doubt the boy has spirit," Leon said, fondness in his voice. "But that will only get you so far against an enemy of magic, Lancelot."
The other knight quickly bit his lip before a laugh escaped him. Before he had to think of a reply, however, Elyan interrupted.
"Do you guys hear that?"
The other two knights immediately stopped and strained their ears. Lancelot could hear nothing over the leaves rustling in the breeze and a bird singing nearby. But Elyan drew his sword and advanced quickly, a frightened look on his face. Leon and Lancelot exchanged glances before pulling out their own swords and following him. Elyan was running as if the devil were after him, and the other two had to sprint to catch up. "Elyan!" Leon called, "slow down!"
Elyan came to an abrupt stop, but as his fellow knights reached him and stopped at his side, they realised it was not because Leon had ordered him to.
Standing there with sad eyes and his arms outstretched, was a tall, dark skinned man with a bald head. The man took a step towards them and said mournfully, "Elyan."
Elyan stared at the man, unmoving, and whispered in a wavering voice, "Father?"
Leon immediately stepped in front of Elyan with his sword held in front of him. "Your father is dead, Elyan." Lancelot, catching on, grabbed Elyan's arm and tried to pull him back but the man yelled and wrenched his arm away as if burned.
The banshee was here. And it had found its victim.
"Son," the banshee called out in the man's deep voice, "where were you?" He took another step forward and Leon raised his sword higher. "I was in trouble, I needed your help! Where were you?"
Elyan's breath hitched and he tried to move closer but Lancelot again pulled him back, this time not letting go when the knight struggled. He had to get him out of here. Now. "Father, I'm…"
"It's not him, Elyan!" Leon yelled, never taking his eyes off the imposter. "Think! It's in your head!"
"Why weren't you there? Why didn't you protect me? I wanted to be with my son!"
"Elyan, you have to listen to us," Lancelot murmured as Elyan continued to struggle, trying desperately to reach his 'father'. "Your father is gone. Your father would never blame you!"
"No, no that's him!" Elyan slammed himself back against Lancelot, causing his hand to slip, and hastily stepped forward, only for Leon to knock him back. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry father! Please, I wish I had been there! Please forgive me!"
"But you weren't there," the banshee moaned, ignoring the other two knights. He looked to Elyan with an imitation of hope. "However... you are now." Cursing, Lancelot quickly sidestepped behind a tree and quietly made his way around the creature. "Will you stay with me this time, son? Will you join me?"
Elyan stared, his hands shaking on his sword. Leon abandoned caution and turned to his friend, gripping him by the shoulders. "Listen to me, listen! You can't do this, Elyan, he wants you dead! Your father would never ask such a thing of you, and you know it! Think about it, just think Elyan!"
"Join me, Elyan!" the banshee yelled over Leon to be heard. "Stay with me this time, please! I need you! I - " Its voice tapered off and he looked down in shock to see a sword protruding from his chest. Lancelot stood behind him and pulled the sword back out, the banshee falling to its knees.
"NO!" Elyan fought against Leon's hold, trying to run to his father. His eyes widened as suddenly the creature's form began to shift and bend as if being seen through rippling water. Its flesh bulged and sank in places and finally its head shot up with an inhuman wail. Its body turned to char and exploded to pieces of ash, floating up with the wind and catching in Lancelot's eyes. An uneasy quiet fell over the forest and, very slowly, Leon let go of his friend. The bewitched knight slowly sank to the ground.
Lancelot joined them and crouched in front of Elyan, who's distant eyes gradually seemed to focus again. He stared at the spot where the banshee had been and for a moment Lancelot worried he was in shock. But then the man was letting out a shaky breath and hunching his shoulders, as if a sudden weight had been dropped back on top of him.
"I'm sorry, Elyan," Lancelot muttered.
Elyan shook his head and forced himself to his feet, Leon and Lancelot doing the same. "I… I don't know what came over me."
Leon rested a hand on his shoulder, his voice sorrowful as he spoke. "It was magic, my friend. We are powerless against its ways." Lancelot said nothing, only sheathed his sword. "We should head back to the campsite. We'll have some time to…" he glanced at Elyan as he sheathed his own sword, "rest. Before the others get back."
As expected, they were the first ones to return, and Elyan immediately went to sit down by the fire where a pot of something was bubbling away for lunch. He looked like he'd run ten miles. Probably felt it too.
Distracted, Lancelot look about, and suddenly felt a shiver of unease creep up his spine. "Where's Merlin?" he asked.
The warlock was nowhere to be seen.