A/N: Well, for better or worse, I'm back :) My condition is relatively unchanged, but I'm persistent, and I got tired of not accomplishing anything. Plus, I've had the first two chapters of this written for half a year now, and I figured that since the plot for this fic wouldn't leave me alone, I should probably write it.
Oh, and the title will make more sense later, promise. I just like playing with words :)

Title: Beyond the Vale
Author: BeyondTheStorm
Rating: T for violence and some bloodshed and maybe some language. Better safe than sorry, ne?
Characters/pairings: Only friendship here, although I am sticking to cannon relationships, so there is just the tiniest little smidge of Arwen, but have no fear slash fans, for there is lots of Merlin and Arthur bromance, and it may be interpreted however you want. Gwaine, Lancelot, and Elyan will also be very present characters.
Spoilers: Season 3, including the finale. This is a post S3 fic.
Warnings: Nothing, as far as I know.

I plan to update this weekly. The keyword is plan. I'm only halfway through chapter 4 at the moment, and given the unpredictable health of my right arm, I make no guarantees. I do find that having a schedule of sorts keeps me on task though, so updates should come regularly if all goes well.

This is both the prologue and chapter one, simply because I dislike posting them separately (messes up the numbering). Also, the tone for this fic will be more along the style I used in Healing Spells, subtle humor, POVs and all :)

There is another A/N at the end, cause I have a few more things to say, but I don't want this area to be too long, so without further adeau, onwards!


Prologue

It was raining.

Honestly, there were probably about a hundred more important things to take note of and at least a hundred more to be worrying about, but for some reason that was the only thought that seemed to register. The sky above him was a mix of gray and blue, and the rain that was falling seemed almost bittersweet, a gift and a curse all at once. He wasn't sure why he thought that—even knew on some level that it was—only that he did. Given more time, he's sure he could figure it out.

Unfortunately, time probably wasn't something he had a lot of. That's the only other thing that seemed to really be registering even though he knew there were other things he should be thinking about, but it's not his fault that his head is a bit cloudy. There are a lot of things he can blame it on, but it's definitely not his fault.

After all, he hadn't wanted to come here in the first place.

He was pretty sure that trying to move would be pointless. He was cold and mostly numb and had been ever since he'd fallen, but that didn't keep him from trying anyway. It was no surprise whatsoever that he couldn't and that the only thing moving did was cause pain to shoot through his side, spreading through his whole body (which was only marginally better than being numb, because it was probably better to feel pain than to feel nothing at all). With it came a shock of awareness, and he was able to feel the cold stones under him, broken and weathered with grass growing through the cracks. He could feel the rain falling and the chill in the air, heavy with both the fading mist and undeniable magic.

He really wished his body would cooperate so that he could at least heave a well-deserved and put-upon sigh, because really…this wasn't even his fault, and yet he'd managed to end up in a situation like this anyway.

He had known from the beginning that coming here was a bad idea. Turns out "bad" had really been a horribly vast understatement. The past few days had proven that rather soundly. Why was it that no one ever listened to him? Actually, it was mostly just Arthur that never listened to him, but seeing as how the prince also tended to make most of the decisions amongst the lot of them, it would really be nice if the prat would take his opinions into consideration every once in a while instead of marching blindly onwards towards certain doom time and time again.

Really, why couldn't they have just stayed in Camelot where it was safe? This hadn't even been their problem to fix in the first place. It's not that he regretted the good that had come from their actions, but why did Arthur always have to get involved in things like this, and why did he always have to bear the consequences of his master's reckless actions?

It wasn't fair, but then again, he had long ago accepted the fact that his life just wasn't fair and most likely never would be. It probably still wouldn't be fair even when Arthur became king and his secrets were no longer secret. Ten, twenty years down the road, he still didn't think his life would really be all that different.

That is…assuming that the crimson seeping into the cobles wasn't enough to rob him of it first.


CHAPTER 1

"…I still don't think this is a good idea."

That, sadly, was an understatement. He thought this was a terrible idea.

In fact, this was quite possibly the worst idea Arthur had ever had, and that was saying something. It was just a pity that the prince didn't seem to share his point of view.

"So you keep saying," sighed Arthur as the two of them strode down the stairs and into the courtyard where five horses were being saddled (and the fact that Arthur hadn't ordered Merlin to do it was something he would usually be grateful for if not for the fact that he wished they weren't being saddled at all). The exasperated tone to the prince's words made it sound as if Merlin wouldn't stop expressing his opinion about how against this particular excursion he was. He was certain he had only said it a handful of times, maybe ten—twenty at the most—but that was only because Arthur kept ignoring his protests, and therefore he felt the need to keep repeating them.

And really, why was it that they always ended up in situations like this?

"Arthur, this is a really bad idea." There probably weren't enough words in any language to describe just how horrible of an idea this was.

"I heard you the first time."

He seriously doubted that.

"Arthur…"

"Honestly, Merlin!"

The prince stopped and turned to face him, looking rather irritated, causing Merlin to stop as well. The warlock hoped that this would be his chance to talk his friend out of this ridiculous idea, because that's exactly what it was. It was also reckless, pointless, suicidal, not to mention dangerous…

"Why are you so against this? And don't tell me 'because it's dangerous.' We both know we've been in far worse situations."

"But it is dangerous."

"Merlin…"

It was obvious that Arthur's patience was running thin (not that he'd had much to begin with), but Merlin wasn't even sure where to begin. He had a whole list of complaints and reasons about why they shouldn't go, so many that it was impossible to even pick one. Besides, most of them Arthur had already heard from one person or another, and the prince had simply chosen to ignore them or found ways of undermining them with reasons as to why he should go. If Arthur had refused the advice of his advisors and his knights, then what hope did Merlin have of convincing him to stay in Camelot?

Sometimes he wanted to curse the fact that Arthur was too bloody noble for his own good. If only the prince hadn't sent a patrol into Cenred's kingdom, none of this would be happening, because then they wouldn't have gone missing, leaving only one very terrified messenger (the man who had been guiding them, one of the locals from a village they had stayed in) to explain what had happened.

He could actually trace the events even further back than that, but to do so would be pointless and he would likely end up having to place a great deal of the blame on himself. However, the immediate events that had brought about their current situation had started two months ago.

It had been exactly two months since they had reclaimed Camelot from Morgause and Morgana, two months filled with repairs to both the kingdom and the people. Arthur had been busy during that time with council meetings, training, going through reports, and the overall rebuilding of the city as well as the outlying villages. He had been fulfilling his duty as regent while his father recovered, because the people of Camelot needed someone to look to now more than ever.

Uther was still the king and still ultimately in charge of the kingdom, but his grief ran deep and his anguish was almost palpable at times. Morgana's betrayal had cut deeply into the king's mind. He spent most of his time in his chambers, battling the demons—both new and old—in his head and in his heart. Gaius and Arthur both believed that he would recover, and he was indeed getting better, but he still had a long way to go before he'd be able to rule without the constant help of the council, the knights, Gaius, and Arthur.

Merlin wanted to be angry with Uther, wanted to hate him for everything he had done over the years, to blame him for what happened with Morgana, but he couldn't. There was no anger, no hatred, just sorrow and sympathy as well as a sense of understanding. The betrayal had hurt them all, at different times and in different ways, and Merlin was just as guilty for what had happened as Uther was, perhaps even more so. The past couldn't be changed though. All they could do was pick up the pieces and do their best to move forward.

Two weeks after they had reclaimed Camelot, they learned that King Cenred had fallen and that his advisors had taken it upon themselves to appoint a regent until something more permanent could be decided (this information was being closely guarded—most of the people within Cenred's kingdom didn't even know the truth, didn't know that their king was dead). A convoy had been sent to Camelot, showing they meant no harm and desired peace between the two kingdoms, promising that the people of Camelot could cross the border if they so desired without fear of being attacked. It was obvious that they were desperate, and it was understandable seeing as how they no longer had a king or an army. Conquering their kingdom would be easy, and if they had approached Uther with their request, he likely would have denied them and set out to claim their land for himself.

Arthur, however, had agreed with their wishes and promised the same for their people, a decision that had shocked many but not those who truly knew the prince. Both sides had suffered after being manipulated by the two sorceresses, and Camelot was just as vulnerable. He had told them that the people shouldn't have to suffer because of the mistakes of their king. There had been enough needless bloodshed.

(And it was during moments like those that Merlin knew without a doubt that everything Kilgarrah had said about Arthur's destiny was true. One day he truly would be the greatest king that Camelot had ever known).

The convoy, needless to say, had been grateful, and in another moment of generosity, Arthur had offered to send a small patrol with them just to help maintain order near the border and to settle the people. It was obvious that part of his reason was simply to guarantee that the neighboring kingdom truly meant no harm, but most of it had to do with his genuine care for the people, even those not his own. That's simply the kind of person the prince was.

They had received word a few times about how the patrol was doing, showing they had no reason to doubt the words spoken by the convoy. All had been going well until two days ago when a messenger arrived in Camelot. The man had been acting as a guide for the patrol since he knew the land well, leading them to each village and acting as a mediator. After all that had occurred between the two kingdoms, it was no surprise that trust wasn't forthcoming and that the people were afraid. Part of the patrol's purpose had been to remedy that.

The guide had begged an audience with Arthur, looking nothing short of frantic, and so the prince had set everything up immediately, wanting to know what had happened to his men. That was where everything got rather complicated.

The man, Danigan, had explained how they had been staying in a village near the far border when the villagers began talking about a young man that had gone missing. The patrol had taken an interest in the story and chose to investigate despite the warnings against doing so. They had promised to return in three days, and after a week there had still been no sign of them.

Unfortunately, that happened to be a common occurrence in that part of the kingdom.

"Everyone knows to stay away from the western border, sire. It is a story we all grew up with, passed on for generations. The land there is covered in a thick mist that never fades. It is said that beyond the mist lies a castle of some kind. A few have seen it from a distance as nothing more than a shadow, but they say it is most certainly a castle. Many foolish people have tried to reach it over the years only to become lost within the mist. I tried to warn your men, sire, but they would not listen. The castle is not meant to be found. Of all those who have tried…no one has ever returned, sire."

Merlin really, really hated stories like those, one of the reasons being that they always managed to spark interest in people like Arthur. The arrogant prat had taken it as a challenge instead of the warning that it should have been.

Needless to say everything had simply gone downhill from there, and really, what part of "no one has ever returned" translated into "well, Merlin, we have an old, mysterious, and clearly magical castle to find, so why are you just standing there when clearly you should be packing?" Consequently that also translated into "something terrible is going to happen just like it always does because no one can ever bother to listen to common sense," which would eventually become "whose bloody idea was this anyway," and oh, let's not forget "this is all your fault, Merlin!"

Brilliant.

He could just see how this would all play out, which was why the two of them were standing in the courtyard where the horses were being saddled while Merlin tried for what felt like the hundredth time to convince Arthur that this was a horrible idea.

"You heard what that man said," began the warlock, trying to get the prince to see reason. "No one has ever returned."

"That's only superstitious nonsense, nothing more than a story."

"We don't know anything about the area or what could possibly be out there."

"Which is all the more reason to go and find out."

Merlin really wanted to point out the fact that this wasn't actually Camelot's problem seeing as how the obviously cursed area lay in Cenred's kingdom (technically it wasn't his kingdom anymore, but that certainly didn't change the fact that it wasn't theirs), but bringing that up before hadn't helped any and probably wouldn't help now either. In fact it had only made Arthur angry and even more determined.

"Then why not send another patrol? You don't have to be the one to go. You're needed here, Arthur."

Sadly, he already knew that argument wouldn't work either, but it was worth a try.

"My father no longer needs to be looked after constantly. He's getting better every day, and so I see no reason why the council and Gaius can't take care of Camelot while we're away. Leon and Percival will also be here to organize the patrols and oversee the kingdom's safety. I'm certain Camelot won't fall in the time that we're gone, so will you stop worrying and just finish the preparations already? We need to leave by midday, if not sooner."

"But…"

"That's an order, Merlin."

The warlock gave one last reproachful glare before turning around and heading towards Gaius' chambers, because clearly they were going regardless of how terrible of an idea this was. Honestly, he shouldn't have even bothered trying to convince Arthur to stay in Camelot. The prince hadn't left the city in two months and was anxious to go out and do something, even if that something clearly spelt certain doom for the lot of them. After all, even Gwen hadn't been able to talk Arthur out of this. What hope did the rest of them have?

Of course it didn't help any that there were others who were all for this idea. As much as Merlin loved having his friends around, they really weren't helping him any, least of all Gwaine. This sort of adventure where the odds were entirely against them was right up his alley. Just like Arthur, Gwaine loved a good challenge, and so when the prince had said he'd take three men with him, the new knight had immediately volunteered to go along. He wasn't the only one though. Lancelot had also asked to go with, as had Elyan (and that had surprised him, but the former blacksmith liked traveling and apparently wanted to see more of Cenred's kingdom, plus he claimed that this simply felt right for some reason).

Merlin couldn't help but feel sorry for Gwen. She was going to be a nervous wreck while they were gone.

The warlock heaved a sigh as he pushed the door open and walked into Gaius' chambers where his guardian was sitting at the table pouring over yet another book. Ever since their departure had been announced, Gaius had been digging through every tome he could find that dealt with stories similar to the one they had been told (Merlin had spent every spare moment he could get trying to help the physician, including two nearly sleepless nights). So far he hadn't found anything other than what little information Danigan had already given them. It was understandable, really. After all, no one had ever returned. It was rather difficult to get information when no one ever came back to report it.

"Have you found anything?" he asked, peering over the physician's shoulder.

"I'm afraid not," Gaius said with a sigh, closing the book with a resounding thud. "I've checked everything I could think of, and I've no idea where else to look. I've only been able to find references similar to what we already know, but there's nothing about the castle and nothing that explains why the mist is even there."

And that more than anything else was why he was so apprehensive about going. Every time he and Arthur rode out somewhere to fight some magical beast, search for someone or something, or investigate a rumor, Gaius was always able to shed light on the situation. He always rode out with some semblance of knowledge about what they'd be facing, but this time that wasn't the case. Whereas Arthur always acted with less than adequate information (or false information), Merlin always had a good grasp on what was actually going on. To not have that kind of advantage was unsettling, and he couldn't help but wonder if this would be what finally did them all in. Their luck was bound to run out eventually, and he feared that that time was quickly approaching.

"So there's nothing at all?" he asked, trying not to sound too anxious despite the fact that he was inwardly panicking.

"No. I'm sorry, Merlin."

He was sorry too, sorry that this whole thing was even happening. He suddenly wished that things were back to the way they used to be, because even though Uther and his war against magic made Merlin's life difficult and somewhat terrifying at times, at least the king would have been able to stop Arthur. Despite sending his son on dangerous missions, Uther had enough sense not to get involved in something like this. Arthur apparently didn't, and even though Merlin wanted the prince to be different from his father, there were exceptions.

As he continued to mentally complain about the situation, not to mention curse Arthur for his stubbornness, the door to Gaius' chambers opened and Gwen walked in. She looked worried, which was entirely understandable, but also rather determined as she walked up to them, and Merlin had a feeling he knew what she was about to say. With a growing sense of apprehension, he begged whoever was listening that just this once, he could be wrong.

"Merlin, please," she began, close to begging, "you need to talk to Arthur."

And there it went—his last shred of hope for getting out of this whole ridiculous situation. Amazing how just a single sentence can completely shatter one's dreams. He had been hoping that given one more chance, Gwen would finally be able to talk Arthur out of this crazy idea of his, because if there was anyone who stood a chance at talking Arthur out of (or into) something, it was Gwen, but alas…no matter how hard they tried to wear him down, the prince just wouldn't break.

"I already have," he said with a sigh, one that he knew sounded defeated. The warlock took a seat at the table, his whole body slumping onto the chair as he finally resigned himself to his fate. If Gwen was asking him to talk to Arthur, then she had clearly given it her all, had made one last attempt to convince him to stay only for the prince to insist that this was necessary and that he was going no matter what. "He just won't listen."

"There must be something we can do. I know he wants to get out of the city for a while and that he's worried about the patrol, but there's too much at risk. Camelot can not afford to lose him."

Despite the desperation and the hopelessness that seemed to surround their latest problem, Merlin couldn't help but smile. Just as he knew that Arthur would be a great king, he was certain that Gwen would be a wonderful queen. She cared about the people, about Camelot, and she knew what was best for them, what they needed. She genuinely cared about everyone and always seemed to think with both her head and her heart, a feat that very few had mastered. She would keep Arthur balanced, keep him grounded, and would always remind him about what was important.

Someday Camelot would know true peace, of that he was certain…or at least he would have liked to be certain, but given the nature of their latest mission, he wasn't entirely sure any of them would live that long.

"I've tried, Gwen," he said. "We all have, but nothing works. He won't listen to reason. We'll just have to hope that the stories aren't as bad as they seem and that the patrol simply got lost…or something."

He could tell that his attempt at easing her worries was failing miserably (he couldn't even ease his own worries), but she offered him a smile nonetheless.

"I suppose there's no point in fretting about it," she said even though they both knew she still would. "No matter what he goes up against, Arthur always comes back. I'll simply have to believe that this time won't be any different."

Oh, if only it were that simple. That would certainly make his life a whole lot easier.

"Don't worry," he said with a grin, trying to lighten the mood a bit. "I promise I'll bring him back in one piece. That reminds me…I need to finish packing. Arthur said we need to leave by midday."

The warlock got to his feet, and as he turned towards his room, he missed the smile—small though it was—slip right off Gwen's face, a somewhat confused frown taking its place.

"You're going as well?" she asked, stopping the warlock in his tracks. The concern was once again back in her voice, and when he turned around, he found that it was also written clearly on her face.

Apparently she had been under the impression that he wasn't going with this time. It was probably because he seemed so against the whole thing—he had certainly been very obvious about it the last two days. It's not like he really wanted to go or anything, but for him it was never a matter of wanting. He needed to, simple as that. If Arthur was going to ride off into danger, then he would follow him, because that's just how his destiny worked.

Plus, it's not like he had been given a choice in the matter anyway.

"Of course I'm going. I'm Arthur's servant. Someone has to be there to take care of him, because believe me, he's rubbish at taking care of himself. Besides, I wasn't really given a choice whether I wanted to go or not. He just told me we were going and that I should start packing."

"But…Arthur said he would only take three people with him. Since Gwaine, Lancelot, and Elyan volunteered, I thought…"

Yes, that's what Merlin had thought too, and he had been both equally terrified and relieved at the prospect of not having to go. In the end he hadn't needed to make up his mind about it, because Arthur had told him to start making preparations and to be sure that he was ready to leave in two days.

For the most part no one had really been surprised that Arthur had asked for five horses to be prepared instead of just four, and apparently the palace kitchens had already been preparing enough rations for all of them without even needing to be told. That was simply the way things were. Wherever Arthur went, Merlin went with him. When Arthur said he would take three men, what he really meant was three men and Merlin. When Arthur was supposed to be riding out "alone," the alone actually meant "with Merlin." It was just automatically assumed that he would be going with, and he had yet to decide whether or not he should feel insulted by that. He had no idea if the reason why Arthur chose to publicly exclude him was because the prince had grown accustomed to having Merlin around and could no longer consider going off somewhere without him or if it was because Merlin simply wasn't important enough to be acknowledged.

He was rather hoping for the former but probably wouldn't be all that surprised if it turned out to be the latter. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised.

"Yes, well, apparently I don't count," he said, making sure that his words came out as nonchalant as possible, because he wasn't really bitter about it and the last thing he wanted was to cause Gwen any more trouble. "I mean, it's not like he ordered me to come with or anything, and I'd probably just follow him even if he told me not to, but it was more or less implied that I'd be going since Arthur always drags me along."

The frown on her face became more set and perhaps just a tiny bit angry and disappointed. He needed to say something fast, because the last thing he wanted was to get into an argument with her or for her to get into an argument with Arthur (because that wouldn't turn out well for anyone, certainly not for him).

"I'm sorry I didn't mention it earlier," he told her. "I thought you already knew, and I swear, Gwen, it's fine. I would have gone anyway."

"He should have at least asked. You deserve to have a choice."

"Gwen, really, it's alright. I don't mind."

"Well, I do. We're more than just servants, Merlin. You know that, and so does Arthur."

The warlock wasn't sure what to say. He was pretty sure that anything he said wouldn't be accepted. Gwen wasn't the type of person to hold back when she knew she was right, nor was she afraid to speak her mind, at least not anymore. He had a feeling that she'd be speaking to Arthur about all this before they left, and as much as he wished she wouldn't, he knew it was inevitable. There was no way she would let something like this go. He could see a rather serious scolding in the prince's near future.

He just hoped that Arthur wouldn't blame him for it.


A/N: Well, there you have it. Please tell me what you think. This chapter as well as the next are mostly for setting the stage, and although things might move a little bit slow at first, I plan to have a lot of fun with this.

Now, there are just a few things I wanted to say:

First, a quick thank you to all of you who read and reviewed Healing Spells. Thank you! You've no idea how happy you guys have made me. I have never gotten so many reviews for a final chapter of anything before, and everyone was so nice and supportive. Honestly, thank you, and to those who are waiting on the sidestory prequel thing, I'm sorry it's taking me so long. I still haven't entirely figured out how I want to go about doing it, as I don't want it to be too long, but at the same time I don't want to leave anything out. I will get it done eventually though. I haven't forgotten.

Second, to everyone who read Cast Me Gently into Morning...wow. I've nothing more to really say. I never expected the response I got, and I'm extremely grateful. That piece was the single most difficult thing I have ever written, for multiple reasons, and I think it's become one of the things I'm most proud of. I always go into everything I write terrified that I will fail spectacularly, but for the first time, you all really made me feel like this isn't just something I do. For once, I felt like I had really accomplished something great, so thank you for that :) Honestly, there aren't words for how thankful and completely blown away I still am.

Well, that's it for now. Less talking from me next time, I promise :) As always, please review if you feel so inclined, just no flames please. See you next week!