I've actually written quite a few Merlin fics, but they all turned out to be massive piles of steaming horse crap, very forced and awkward and better suited for the trash bin. This is the first one I've done that I've actually been pleased with :) Probably because Gawain's in it. I do dearly love Gawain. (Such luscious locks! Good lord.)
Anyway-I hope you enjoy it!
"You ready?" Gawain asked.
Arthur was sitting with his back to a tree, staring out into the night. They were making their way towards the castle with no name, the castle of black rock that rose like a scar into the night sky. A week ago Arthur would have said no such castle existed. And yet here they were, a day's ride from Camelot, looking at a castle which had no business being there at all.
"Arthur," Gawain said, making a brief movement, as if he were going to reach out and grab Arthur's shoulder. He stopped himself at the last moment, and Arthur was glad. Gawain was here only because he could not be persuaded otherwise; Merlin was his friend too.
Merlin was in there. In the black castle. There were things creeping in the dark, guarding it, and in its throne room sat Morgause. It was she, Arthur was beginning to understand, who had orchestrated a great deal of this. The pain, the suffering—it was her fault. And now she had taken his servant. She clearly had no idea what Arthur was like when he was well and truly pissed off.
"I'm ready," said Arthur, and led the way down the hill. It was a craggy, rough hill, full of rocks and crab-like bushes with no leaves, and offered very little shelter from watching eyes. He tripped once, but Gawain tripped twice.
Their aim was the south side of the castle, which Gaius said contained an entrance that had previously only been accessible from underwater—at least according to legend. I am sure it will be unguarded, sire, said Gaius, standing over a towering pile of books that smelled like old damp things. When the castle was in its prime, this entrance was underwater.
There were several things about this that made Arthur uneasy. One: Gaius was implying that Morgause had known the castle then, and this abominable ruin hadn't been seen in over a thousand years. Two: Gaius had found, somehow, a history of magic, when Arthur knew his father had burned all such books. An immortal Morgause and a magically-inclined Gaius gave him the shakes.
Through a lot of clever hopping, running, and dunking, Arthur and Gawain managed to make their way to the south wall without meeting any of Morgause's creatures. They never really saw any of them, except at a distance; it was hard to tell, but they looked like humps of darkness with eyes.
As Arthur and Gawain paused against the wall, panting, Gawain murmured, "One thing I don't understand. Why Merlin?"
Arthur had been wondering the same thing. "To piss me off, I expect," was his answer, and they plunged into the doorway. It was not so much a doorway as it was a crack in the wall, big enough to admit a man, if he was not too tall or too fat. It dipped low, and grew colder, until Arthur's hands shook no matter what he did with them, and behind him Gawain muttered irritably, cursing whenever a chill breeze swept past. It had been brisk to begin with, but down here, in the bowels of the ghost castle, it was frigid.
They walked for a very long time. The rough-hewn corridor went lower, waggled from side to side, and sometimes rose a bit, only to drop farther yet. Occasionally the ceiling would come too low and one of them would hit their head, or both. Arthur was beginning to wonder if they were simply going to walk on forever, until they reach the underworld, when abruptly the path began to climb, first as a slope, and then as something resembling stairs. When the cold finally dropped away the stones formed themselves into neat, orderly blocks, and Arthur and Gawain no longer had to worry about where they put their feet.
"Finally," said Gawain, rubbing the circulation back into his hands. Arthur agreed, but didn't say so out loud.
The stairs curled up to a plank of wood, which ostensibly hid the secret passage from casual wanderers, but Arthur had no real way of knowing whether or not this was true. For all he knew he could be walking straight into Morgause's throne room, rather than her dungeons. With a swift look at Gawain, to tell him to keep his mouth shut, Arthur put his hands against the wood and heaved.
There was a terrible screeching sound, but when Arthur poked his head up, all he saw was darkness. They were in some sort of abandoned room, chill and dank and full of cobwebs; there was an impressive one spanning the door that told him no one had come in here for a very, very long time. He climbed up into the room, looked around once, and then bent to help Gawain up.
"Cozy," said Gawain. Arthur glared at him, but all Gawain did was roll his eyes. Arthur could see why he and Merlin were friends.
Slowly, carefully, Arthur prized open the door. It whined a little, but not so bad as the wood hiding the passageway. They were in the dungeons. This was very good. The dungeons were also empty, which would have made him happy, except that he had anticipated that Merlin would be down here. He'd envisioned springing his manservant from his prison under Morgause's very nose, but this was not, apparently, how it was going to go.
Gawain was peering intently into one of the prison cells, the one closest to the doorway that led out of the dungeons. The hay had been stirred recently, and to one side lay Merlin's neckerchief. Gingerly Gawain picked it up, showing it to Arthur. There was blood on it. Not much, not enough to suggest that Merlin was missing because he was dead, but more than enough to imply great amounts of pain.
Arthur felt his eye twitch.
Gawain tucked the neckerchief into his pocket and looked briefly at the door. Arthur nodded his assent, and they moved forward. They had both hoped for an easy rescue, but rather known, deep down, that fate was never so good to them.
The black castle was slightly warmer, once they were out of the dungeons, but swarming with immortal soldiers. Without any foreknowledge of the castle's layout, hiding from them was nearly impossible, and it was only by virtue of several large and crumbling statues that they managed it at all. There was a tense moment when Arthur accidentally knocked off a gargoyle's head, but when a guard came to investigate, he didn't find anything amiss. Morgause did not keep her castle neat.
"Excellent job, mate," said Gawain.
"Shut up," said Arthur.
They followed the heat and the better-lighted hallways to a wide, expansive room at the center, mostly crumbling but still very impressive. The chair in the center, the only remnants of what had surely been a throne, told it to be the throne room. There were two guards at either end, but this was clearly only for show; Merlin was on his knees, and Morgause was pacing around him, unafraid.
"I cannot understand you," Morgause was saying, in a low, evil purr. "You, of all people—"
"I serve Prince Arthur," Merlin said stubbornly, and Arthur felt a surge of pride for him. It was no small thing, standing up to a sorceress who could summon an entire castle.
"Yes, yes," said Morgause, waving her hand dismissively. "Great Arthur, Arthur the brave, Arthur, Arthur, Arthur. I heard you. That doesn't change anything, Merlin. It doesn't change the fact that you belong here. My sister may be—confused—where you are concerned, but I am not. You should be standing at my side. You should be rejoicing."
"What is there to rejoice about?" Merlin demanded, eyes flashing. He did not sound afraid. "Innocent people are dying and it is your fault, Morgause!"
She rolled her eyes. "Collateral damage. It's no more than they deserved for suffering Uther the Fool to reign as long as he did."
A look of intense hatred crossed Merlin's face. Arthur did not blame him. He was feeling something similar somewhere in the vicinity of his stomach. He wanted, more than anything, to run howling at Morgause with his sword raised, but experience had taught him that a flick of her wrist would more than best him. No, his best bet was to wait until she dismissed Merlin back to his cell—that is, if she didn't intend to kill him right then and there.
Morgause paced a little more, her eyes on Merlin. After a moment's silence, she said, "Is that what it is, Merlin? Do you love the humans? Do you cherish their evil ways?"
"There is nothing evil about the people of Camelot," said Merlin.
"No, nothing," repeated Morgause scathingly. "Only the worst tyrant the world has ever seen! How can you defend him? What has he ever done for you, Merlin?" She dropped suddenly to look him in the eyes, the expression on her face eager. "Imagine what we could do together, Merlin! Who could stop us? We would be untouchable!"
"I serve Prince Arthur," spat Merlin, "forever."
Morgause drew back sharply, displeased. Arthur could see that she was beginning to believe Merlin, and that was bad; if she no longer considered him useful, she would kill him. But what he was really wondering, watching this, was why on earth Morgause thought Merlin useful in the first place. Perhaps there was a mistake somewhere. Perhaps she had been misinformed as to Merlin's influence.
"Guards," said Morgause, idly. She made a sharp motion that translated, roughly, to "kill," for a moment later the immortals drew their swords, and advanced upon Merlin. What Arthur saw next sent his stomach plummeting straight to his feet.
The guards stepped close—they raised their swords—and Merlin's eyes glowed a bright gold. The air seemed to go hot, and the two guards went flying backwards into the walls. They did not stay down long, but it was more than enough time for Merlin to struggle to his feet—Arthur could see, from the way he moved, that he was sorely injured round the middle—raise up his hands, and shout something which Arthur could not understand. A shower of rubble collapsed down onto the immortals, burying them, and shrinking the throne room by half.
"Oh, really now," said Morgause, irritably, as if Merlin had done nothing more than slap them gently across the cheek. "Is it really going to come to this? I have had many more centuries than you, Merlin. It will not be an even battle."
"Since when have you cared about fairness?" countered Merlin. He seemed to be sagging where he stood, and Arthur began to wonder if he had been kneeling simply because he couldn't stand.
Morgause's eyes swept over Merlin's face. "You know I won't kill you, Merlin. Not yet. Eventually you will see things my way, and when you have, I will be waiting. Go back to your silly human prince and protect him if you wish. But I will be waiting, Merlin."
"You will be waiting a very long time," said Merlin, his eyes brightening as they did when he was truly insulted.
"Yes," said Morgause. "Of that I am sure."
And she vanished.
Arthur felt a bit foolish. From the look on his face, so did Gawain. Merlin, apparently, was more than capable of escaping Morgause on his own. But then Merlin crumpled, dropped straight to the ground, and lay there with his eyes shut. It seemed that last show of power had completely sapped his strength. Arthur hurried forward, dropping to his knees beside Merlin, and gently turned his friend over.
Blood was soaked into his shirt, although it had been hard to see from a distance, Merlin's shirt being red. When Gawain lifted Merlin's shirt, they saw a criss-cross of slash marks, even and deliberate—torture. They both jumped when Merlin said sarcastically, "Admiring the pattern?"
"Merlin," said Arthur, relieved. "I thought you had fainted."
"I did," Merlin replied. His eyes opened, but they did not focus on Arthur. They looked straight ahead as if they were blind. "What are you doing here?"
"Rescuing you, of course," said Gawain, in his most gallant voice, and Merlin looked at him. Arthur felt a surge of jealousy. Rescuing Merlin had been his idea. "A good job we're doing, too. I think you might be dying."
"Small favors," murmured Merlin, his eyes drifting shut. "I'd be dead soon anyhow."
"Why's that?" asked Arthur.
Merlin turned his head, finally, and looked at him. There was a guarded look in his eyes that Arthur had seen before, but never really understood. Before Merlin could speak, he said, "I didn't see anything. I must have blinked. The stupid cow dumped the ceiling on her own men, or something." And then he smiled broadly, to show Merlin that everything was all right.
Merlin grinned. "And she wonders why I bother."
Why indeed. Merlin, Arthur saw, had no reason to be serving him at all. Someone with his power could easily secure for himself a plot of land somewhere—a house, a village, a country, whatever suited his fancy. And yet, for some reason that Arthur found unfathomable, Merlin was in Camelot. He was enduring Arthur's taunts, doing Arthur's chores, doing whatever it was Arthur's whim that he do, and he was doing it for nothing.
"We have to get him out of here," said Gawain, softly. Arthur nodded, and together they hefted Merlin between them.
The hallways, as they left, were curiously empty. It seemed Morgause had taken her minions with her, leaving the way clear for them. After a few cautionary looks around, they dashed out the front, and didn't stop running until they reached the horses. Merlin flinched the first few steps, and then, after a particularly nasty jolt, gave a terrible gasp and passed out. It was better that way. Arthur and Gawain worried less about how much they were hurting him.
Merlin awoke feeling very comfortable. He seemed to be surrounded by deep, silky warmth, which was soon discovered to bed sheets, the likes of which he had never slept upon in his life. There were massive pillows beneath his head and when he turned his head just ever so slightly, he saw that he was in one of the guest rooms. There was a fire crackling in the grate and beside the bed was a vase of flowers, the sort that Gwen gave him, when the season was right.
Hmm, he thought.
He moved as if to sit up, only for a searing pain to erupt across his chest and belly, and he remembered. His gasp of pain drew the attention of Arthur, who had been standing at the far window, looking out at the courtyard. He walked back to Merlin's bed and took the chair he had been sitting in since their return to Camelot. His hair was disheveled and there was still dirt on his face, although it seemed he had done his best to wash up, probably for Gwen's benefit.
Merlin didn't say anything. He felt a chipper "good morning!" in the wings somewhere, but he couldn't make his mouth move. His eyes were locked on Arthur's face, waiting.
"Why are you here?" Arthur asked at last, and Merlin flinched visibly. "No," said Arthur, hastily, raising a hand as if to stop Merlin from flinching. "I didn't mean it like that. I mean—you could be doing anything."
Merlin caught on. "Cavorting about the countryside with Morgause, you mean?"
"Well—not Morgause—but yes," Arthur finished lamely. "You could go anywhere, do anything. Find a place where you could do—you know. But instead you're a servant? Why?"
Merlin smiled, slowly, and felt his eyebrows creep upward a hair. "Because someday you will be a great king."
Arthur stared at him like he was trying to decide if Merlin was joking or not.
"Someone's got to keep your sorry hide out of trouble," Merlin added. "There are plenty out there who'd like to see your head on a platter."
"So you're protecting me, then?" demanded Arthur, half-indignantly.
"You wouldn't believe the number of times I've saved your life," said Merlin smugly.
Arthur considered this while staring at Gwen's flowers. He fiddled absently with the edge of his shirt, which was filthy, and smelled vaguely of horse. "We shouldn't speak of this," he said at last. "From now on, everything is as it was."
"Right," said Merlin.
"Except now I'll know what you're being secretive about."
"And Gaius does magic too."
"Ri—" Merlin stopped abruptly. "Uh. No."
Arthur's eyebrows rose.
"I mean—not anymore." It sounded even worse. "Look," said Merlin, exasperated. "He doesn't do magic, not really, it's only been every now and then, when it was really necessary."
"But he does know about magic."
Merlin nodded reluctantly.
"I'm not going to have him hanged, Merlin. I was just asking." And to show Merlin that nothing really had changed, Arthur reached out and cuffed him on the head. Granted he did it very lightly, and gave Merlin plenty of time to dunk, which he didn't. But that was just because Merlin was, you know, wounded.
"Gawain's very worried about you," Arthur added. "He's being a right girl, you know."
"I'll find him in the pub when I can walk again," Merlin replied, smiling, and Arthur laughed. He had been worried that when Merlin awoke, he would be afraid of him, but he wasn't, not even a little bit. Merlin was Merlin. And somehow, it felt as if he'd always known.
And magic or no magic, Merlin was still an idiot.