The first chapter of a four-parter, set a few weeks after 4.02. The look of guilt and devastation on poor Merlin's face burnt itself into the back of my mind, and the plot bunnies went haywire. After months of writer's block and TOO MUCH WORK *grumblegrumble*, the bunnies were eager for a little exercise. I let them run rampant. This is the result.
Standard Disclaimer: Nope, don't own any of it. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Diddley-squat.
The lone figure trailed slowly along the border of the training fields, a single moving shadow amid a moonlit sea. Night had fallen fast, chilling the late summer air with a bitter breeze that tugged at the man's tunic and stiffened his gate. He walked with a hunched frame, arms curled about his waist in a futile attempt to stave off the cold. His tread was slow and weighted, almost melancholy, as though he carried some unseen burden upon his shoulders. A strong gust of wind made him stumble, teasing his neckerchief so that it flapped about his face, and he yanked it back down again with a sort of grim determination before wrapping his arms more firmly about his chest and marching resolutely onwards.
From a chamber window high above, a pair of watchful eyes tracked his progress.
"He's at it again."
"It's getting late." Percival's brow creased, though he did not divert his attention from the blade of his sword as he ran the whetstone along its edge. "He should be in bed."
"As should we all," Gwaine grumbled from his splayed position on the hearth rug. "And yet here we are."
Sir Leon rolled his eyes, setting a sheet of parchment aside and reaching for another. "You could at least pretend to be working."
"Elyan isn't doing anything."
The knight at the window waved a dismissive hand, tucking one leg up against his chest and stretching out the other across the padded window-seat. "I'm keeping watch."
"You can leave if you want to, Gwaine." Leon nudged Percival and gestured towards a scroll on the far side of the table, nodding his thanks as it was passed to him. "You aren't honour-bound to sit here all night and watch me work."
"No, m'fine here." Gwaine rolled onto his stomach, pillowing his head in his arms as he closed his eyes. "Thanks anyway."
"Leon," Elyan said softly, his tone grave, turning his back on the window so that he could face the senior knight, "we can't let him carry on like this. It isn't right."
The room stilled. It was a sentiment they all shared, and one that by some unspoken agreement they had tried to overlook these past few weeks. With the city – nay, the whole kingdom – in turmoil after being brought to its knees by so shattering a blow, they had been too occupied to dwell on Lancelot's demise; too bound to their duty to grieve for the loss of a fallen brother. For three days they had ridden out beyond the lower towns to retrieve the bodies of the dead who lay scattered across the surrounding farmland. Hundreds lay slain, whole villages wiped out in a single night, friends and kinsmen alike. Cart after cart had passed through the gates, groaning under the weight of countless corpses.
With the veil resealed, the unnatural frost that had once preserved the bodies had thawed in the late summer sun. With scores of rotting corpses lining the streets and the threat of disease imminent, they had been forced to act with haste. There had been no time for formal burial. None to honour the dead as they deserved, none to weep for the children murdered silently in their beds.
The great pyres had burned long into the night, fierce flames that would weave and twist in a hellish dance that stung the wearied, weakened eyes of those who watched. Even when the kindle had become nought but glowing embers and charred ashes, the smell had still lingered. That acrid, choking stench of burning flesh. It had thickened the air for days, seeping through wood and stone, clinging to cloth and tapestry until everything stank of death.
Between attending to Arthur and assisting Gaius in caring for the injured and bereaved townsfolk, Merlin had been in state of constant motion. The knights had seen little of him since their return from the Isle of the Blessed. However, on the evening of the sixth day when they had assembled, as often they did, in Sir Leon's chambers to grieve for their own loss in the only way they knew – sharing tales of their past adventures and draining a few too many wineskins – Elyan had spied their youngest companion from his usual perch on the window seat. They had thought nothing of it at first, acknowledging Merlin's kinship with their fallen comrade and understanding his desire to be alone. But almost a fortnight had passed since then and their young friend had yet to speak to any of them, save for a handful of courteous words exchanged in passing. And he was pale – far too pale. It highlighted the dark half-circles beneath his eyes and the angular cheekbones that stood out far too prominently. He looked positively ill.
The noblemen sighed as he set down his quill, leaning back in his chair. His fingers absently traced the crest on his signet ring. "How many nights?"
Elyan shifted so that he could again glance out of the window. "Tonight makes twelve. Although who knows how long he'd been doing it before we noticed?"
The older man nodded slowly, eyes distant. "Every night since...?"
There was a moment of respectful silence, tinged with pain and grief from a wound that was still too raw. Gwaine pushed himself up onto his elbows and reached for his drink. Turning his gaze to the empty stool in the corner, he tipped the goblet towards it in a silent toast and drained the lukewarm liquid in a single gulp.
"Maybe I should talk to him," Leon said at last, his tone heavy with fatigue. "Let him know he's not alone in his grief."
Elyan shook his head, turning again to face the older knight. "It's not his grief that's troubling me, it's his method of dealing with it. This has to stop, for his own sake."
"He's not like the rest of us, Elyan," Percival reasoned, re-sheathing his sword with practised ease. "He isn't accustomed to death as we are. He's just a lad."
Leon shook his head. "Merlin's no stranger to death. And in these past few years, he's lost more than most. I've seen him grieve before. And this," he sighed again, running a finger along the feather of his quill, "this is more than grief. This is..."
"Guilt." Three heads turned towards the hearthrug, where Gwaine now sat with his back pressed against the mantel and his legs pulled up to his chest. "Merlin was going to sacrifice himself to save Arthur, you know." The others looked at him with various degrees of surprise. He gave a one-shouldered shrug, smiling grimly. "It wasn't hard to guess. The look on his face when we reached the Isle of the Blessed said everything. He had every intention to step through that veil in Arthur's place."
"But Lancelot beat him to it," Leon finished softly, rubbing at his chin as he sighed. "No wonder the poor lad blames himself."
"You should talk to him," Elyan urged, leaning forward and letting his hands drop between his knees. "He listens to you. And we can hardly send Gwaine."
The affronted knight shot him a wounded look. "Why not?"
"Because you're drunk," Percival mumbled.
"I am not."
Elyan pointed at the empty wine goblet that lay on its side at the man's hip. "You've downed half a dozen of those since we arrived. I'd be hopeless after three."
Gwaine snorted. "Girl."
"Enough." Leon raised a hand, shooting Elyan a look that made him freeze mid-throw, the empty goblet poised above his head. The younger man sighed exaggeratedly, but obediently tossed the makeshift projectile onto the cushion beside him. Leon nodded and stood to his feet. "So it's decided, then. I'll go and talk to him."
Leaving the chainmail on its stand, he threw his cloak about his shoulders and fastened the clasp deftly with one hand, reaching for his sword with the other. Percival cleared his throat pointedly, and Leon glanced up to see him shaking his head, gesturing at the weapon with his eyes. The older knight sighed and took up his dagger instead, threading the scabbard tie through his belt at his hip so that the weapon was easily concealed within the folds of his cloak. The blade was too light, and Leon found himself feeling strangely naked without the familiar weight of his sword and chainmail. He tugged at the tunic to straighten out the creases, turning to face the other occupants of the room.
"I take it you're all staying?"
"Where else would we go?" Elyan grinned at him from the window-seat. "You have the best view in the castle."
Leon frowned. "You're all going to sit up here and laugh at me, aren't you?"
The younger man's grin widened. "Naturally."
"We know firsthand that strong winds and those cloaks don't get along," Gwaine supplied helpfully. "And your hair goes all," he held both hands several inches above his head, eyes glinting as he smiled. "Come, brother, you can't deny us the chance to see some quality entertainment."
The bearded man's frown deepened into a scowl. "I hate you all." He spun towards the door, cloak already billowing out behind him dramatically. He paused at the threshold to level them all with a look, before sweeping from the room with a parting;
"And try not to burn the place down while I'm gone."
The first chapter was indeed quite short, but it seemed to end well there. In chapter 2 we'll see a little bit more of poor guilt-ridden Merlin and a few royal horses with...interesting personalities. And Sir Leon. Lots and lots of Leon. ;D
Feel free to leave a review! Or PM me if you prefer. I'd love to know your thoughts. :)
See you in a week or so!