The Precious of Gaia
Part One: Sedimentary Stone
Disclaimer: I am, in fact, English.
'What happiness to reign a lonely king,
Vext- O ye stars that shudder over me,
O earth that soundest hollow under me,
Vext with waste dreams?'
-The Coming of Arthur, Tennyson.
A very weak bond is holding Camelot together: fear.
The enemy is great, ruthless, and well fortressed by magic. They stand at the foot of the Kingdom, easily bearing down on the grand city. Arthur knows they cannot fight forever.
Sooner or later, Camelot will crumble or Camelot will changed.
That is the way of things.
The throne room is dark and hollow when Arthur walks in. His bare feet don't make a sound on the panel floor, his night shirt is not enough to stop the chill that seems to stir the air with a thousand dreadful eyes.
But he only sees the pair in front of him- golden, frozen, boring down at him from the dais. He slowly makes his way. There is no one to watch or to judge. He is not a king without his subjects. He is not a noble to his friends.
Alabaster face, olivine hair, feldspar mouth held tight in a frown.
And those eyes that reflect the moonlight like bold fire.
A pale hand greets the space between them, waiting, patient, urgent. Arthur does not quite reach it, standing just beyond it, and watches Merlin's stony face.
The sound of Nothing is the most obtrusive din Arthur has ever heard. He yearns for the man in front of him to fill it with his typical nonsense words, but he will not. Arthur does.
"Everyone believes you are dead," he tells the statue.
Merlin cannot move when made of stone, but the faint light and witching eyes make it seem like he almost might. The hand is outstretched, as it has been for days, reaching for nothing in an empty hall that no one will fill, no one can bear for the sight of those horrible priceless eyes. The nobles had all wanted it removed, maybe to the vaults, maybe to the caves far beneath the castle, but Arthur had refused.
Arthur is the first of his people to venture back in the aftermath. The first person Merlin has seen (if he can see) in nearly a week.
"I've been thinking about what Gaius said. About your name and what it means. You see, Merlin," Arthur says suddenly, half turning away with the swipe of this next thought, "Emrys means immortal in the Druid tongue. And if it is your true name, and this is your true nature, then beneath this enchantment, I can almost believe that you're still..."
Alive; strangely, horridly alive in the moonlight of the witching hour without air or blood, eyes trained on nothing, yet now, maybe something. Maybe someone.
"If you can break free-" Arthur takes a step, forgetting himself, and swallows. He is so weary. He casts his eyes around to evade the golden eyes that swamp him with a weight not unlike responsibility. "If you can help us win this battle before all of Camelot is destroyed- Please, Merlin."
The statue stares out: forever reaching.
No magical miracle activates in the night. When Arthur is woken by Guinevere the next morning, her lovely face is already marked by ash and dirt.
"Morgana is coming," she says quietly, bringing him a new shirt. Or maybe it was the same shirt from yesterday. Arthur has stopped caring about how he looks.
"No surprise," he says in a low voice, and tugs his night shirt off. He catches Guinevere staring at him a moment before she turns her eyes away. With a calm sort of warmth in his stomach, he puts on his new shirt, saying, "You know, if we win this war, I'd like to marry you, Gwen."
"Would you, Sire?" she asks, in her playfully demure voice. A precious smile turns up her mouth.
"And if it seems we are losing," he adds, standing and catching her hands in his, planting a soft kiss on her lips, "I'd like to marry you anyway."
A traitorous thought whispers that he could still have that, if he were to surrender. He breaks away from Gwen with a smile and tries to bury it.
"How are you, Guinevere?"
She smiles, encouraging, "Fine. Gaius has put me to work in the clinic. I'm learning a lot."
"And you, Arthur?"
"I'm great," Arthur says, "Fantastic."
She looks at him.
He looks away, "I had a dream."
Arthur nods. Rubs under his hair at a phantom presence.
Gwen is all patience, watching him think with soft brown eyes, "Was it of Merlin?"
Arthur would like to say yes. To say no. In truth, he has no idea who that person is.
Arthur has to find another servant to help him with his armor, and he can think of no one better suited for the job than George, his ex-manservant. And George is the best sort of servant, for the perfect sort of King.
So, to Arthur, the straps are too tight, the armor too clean, the sword unusually polished, and he goes into the battle thinking that he's never felt so unprepared. The little differences throw off his aim- his sword goes around heads and beneath hearts, and he really doesn't even consider the fact that this is the way he used to fight. Before Merlin, before magic, before friendship undeserved and wholly cherished, this was Arthur. It feels tight and constricting- he no longer fits this way. It no longer serves him.
He can feel Morgana's eyes on him, and he snarls at the thought, another blow leaving one of her men to an agonizingly slow bleed. The battleground is red and brown and reeks of iron. Men cry, some still fight, but Arthur's knights are flagging, and they begin to drag him back as Camelot drums beat wildly in retreat.
This is the first week. This is its own era.
On the second week, Morgana sends fire- of a sort.
The magic rain burns away almost anything in its path. Gaius and Guinevere are running back and forth from the infirmary to tend to famers and beggars that had been exposed to the rains the most- their faces half melted off and the skin of their arms blistering angrily. Gaius points out the power of magic on the enemy's side. The sorcerers, witches, possibly even a necromancer or two. Arthur nods, staring at his people, wondering how he could have befriended a man with the same sort of power under his skin.
"Is there a way to stop it?" he asks of Gaius. He has to repeat it because the old man barely hears him when he speaks. He's taken to not hearing or seeing almost anyone since Merlin was killed.
"No," says Gaius at last. "Not anymore."
Arthur spends the next day outside with his knights, training hard. The rain has stopped at Morgana's mercy, which is a start, but Elyan cannot concentrate, and for no reason at all, Arthur finds himself suddenly struggling to keep his nerves together.
"Elyan!" he barks, twirling his sword behind his neck, "Again!"
So Elyan comes at him, but falters halfway through his attack, and Arthur beats him easily to the ground, feeling like he should have taken the moment to hit him a little harder.
"What is wrong with you all today?" he growls, rounding on his men, "This kind of attitude will get us nowhere against Morgana!"
Leon, eyes lowered, begins, "Sire, the men are tired from battle, I'm sure if we are given even a small time to rest-"
"Is that what you all want?" Arthur interrupts, "To rest?"
His men exchange glances.
"At least in shifts," Gwaine agrees.
"In shifts," Arthur says, "Elyan?" The knight nods and bows, retreating to the edge of the practice yard to sleep in the dirt. The rest train with Arthur in shifts until he collapses from exhaustion.
Arthur does not remember the entire dream when he wakes, but a nonsense word floats, rampant, through his head and brings him a sort of peace.
Arthur wakes to his name and Gwen's face leaning over his. He smiles.
"Good morning," he mumbles. "Is it time to get up?"
"By all means, Sire," comes the bemused voice of Gaius, and Arthur sits up very quickly, taking in bottles and books, not blankets and breakfast.
"What am I doing here?"
"Fainted, Sire. Overheating and some dehydration, no doubt."
Arthur looks quite alarmed, but Gwen settles at his side and runs her fingers across his forehead.
"We were all very worried. It's not like you to work yourself into the dust like this."
He thinks of working Elyan into the dust and feels a little sick. "My men..."
"-Are all very glad that you were all right, Arthur," Gaius insists. "Percival and Leon carried you in. I haven't heard Sir Leon raise his voice like that since he was a boy..." For a moment, the death of his ward seems to have faded from Gaius' mind, but then his dull eyes catch on the lonely door behind them, and his face closes. "You best drink some more water while we still have water worth drinking."
Gwen helps him lift the cup to his lips because his hands are stiff and tremble a little. The water is cool, tinny, and sparks 'Aithusa, aithusa, aithusa' through his head.
"What news of Morgana?"
"She's held off," Gwen assures him, taking back the cup once he was finished and pushing him down to rest, "No one knows why."
"She's up to something," Arthur says. "I know her."
Her full lips purse, "For Camelot's sake, I pray you're wrong."
For Camelot's sake, Arthur prays he was wrong, too.
For some reason, Arthur was under the impression that Gaius would fuss over him constantly, that he'd spend a few hours at a time with Gwen and talk. Maybe that the knights would drop in to see him.
In reality, Arthur is completely alone for several hours at a time. He isn't quite well enough to go back to training, but he feels too well to just sit or sleep for that time. His mind is too full of what Morgana is up to. Too full of what his people are doing without his leadership down in the war room or the lower towns.
And he's facing Merlin's old room the entire time.
The old, wobbly door is cracked a bit. Arthur can just imagine his servant running out, swinging the door behind him as he charged to the throne room to save Arthur's life. Again. How had Merlin even known to come? Was that a magic thing? A sense thing? A pure-luck-he-was-late thing?
The door hangs open just that little, irritating bit. He can see the room in his mind's eye. He can tell what would be where if he were to stand and open that door.
Just a little.
He tells himself to count to ten and wait for Gaius to come back from checking on civilians. For Gwen who is spending the day overseeing the knights training. The knights. Who are spending the day making their rote sword drills seem as appealing as possible for their female companion.
Arthur grits his teeth. Cranes his neck to look at the door-that-is-not-locked. He can't remember ever being so curious.
It's little surprise that he gives in, hobbling up from the bed on jelly legs and carefully laying one hand on the worn wood- Pushing-
It swings easily inwards.
The room is a mess. Blankets pile at the foot of the bed. Clothes litter the floor. A thick tome is open on the small table. The dusty window lights up dust motes that weave through the haunted air.
Arthur closes the door.
He knows that Gaius suspects, but neither say a word as they prepare for bed.
Arthur wonders if the old man would talk to him if Merlin had died for someone else.
Something wakes him in the night.
He sits up on the cot in Gaius' chambers and strains his ears for movement. There is none, but in his head he can hear whispers and eyes, and he throws off the blanket to pad out into the halls.
His feet carry him to the throne room.
No guards are posted there. He sets an ear against the wide door to listen. Faint movement comes from within. Hardly daring to hope, he cracks open the door, praying to see a statue crumble to life or the golden eyes to flash and wash away whatever evil magic locked Merlin up in the first place.
He sees long black hair and a ragged black train, and his heart freezes with shock as Morgana steps up to Merlin's statue, a soft hand stroking down the alabaster cheek.
"You can come in, Arthur."
She all but whispers it, like she's trying not to wake Merlin up. Like she could. Arthur takes a breath and steps forward, arms stiff and legs braced to run.
"What are you doing here?" His voice comes out hushed. Every breath feels like an intrusion. Neither of them should be in the throne room. They aren't wanted here.
"Why don't you call the guards?" Morgana retorts, as she turns to him, "And I thought Uther was terrible at security."
"Step away from Merlin," Arthur says. It seems like the most important thing she can do right now. "Don't bother him."
"I'm surprised at you. A lifetime learning the evils of magic-users, and you turn against your father's teachings so easily for one servant?"
Arthur says nothing, a nonsense word filling his head.
She sneers. "You're lucky I don't have the time for this-"
"What do you mean?"
"- Instead, I'm going to offer you some advice. For old time's sake, Arthur."
She steps down the dais towards him, eyes wide and entreating, far cooler than that igneous rage. It makes her look younger. He has to remember that he no longer considers her his older sister. "Give up, Arthur. For once in your life. It's over, but Camelot will be in good hands. You don't have to die. You can live here, under my law, and grow old with Gwen- think about it: Your people, still safe and free. Your wife and children. All of it without having to lift a finger or lay down your life. I can give that to you, Arthur."
"You don't really think I'm going to fall for that, do you?" asks Arthur. "Like you won't kill us all when you see fit!"
She withdraws with the speeds known to her kind. Her eyes are still soft and so sad. "Don't say I didn't offer. I'll give you until noon tomorrow to decide."
She vanishes. Arthur spins, trying to see where she went and failing.
"The answer is still NO!" he yells at the room. It echoes in a thousand ways. He runs before he can catch a glimpse of gold.
Morgana slaughters his men.
She enters the field alone, cries out that he has one chance to surrender. He holds firm, so sure, so terrified, and Morgana lifts her arms to the clear blue sky.
A crow's scream lashes through the air. Arthur yells, claps a hand over one ear, the other hand desperately gripping his sword. His knights are on their knees at the sound which echoes and grows into the sky until the blue of the air is bloody. His armor is reverberating against his heart. He can feel the sound reflecting off of his blade.
Morgana reaches, head back in the throes of her magic, and pulls black lightning like fiery arrows from the cloudless sky. They strike the first three rows of his men and stop. Morgana stops. She lowers her hands and levels her head, and Arthur can hear her voice echoing in a thousand ways throughout his head.
Surrender, Arthur, or I will kill everything and everyone. Give up while you can.
Did you think you could win, little one?
Surrender, unrightful King!
Die or leave. Keel or flee.
Baby Arthur needs his father?
Can't even kill one little witch?
Give it up, Arthur Pendragon, last in a long line of failure!
And only one other word can be heard through his agony.
And suddenly he hears nothing, sees nothing, is nothing.
He dreams that he is looking up at a dais, not unlike the one in Camelot. But this one is higher, lighter, and the windows blaze so that every object or person in the room is muted with white.
Ahead of him, at the top step, is a tall figure who is reaching out and down to him, offering a hand so that he can ascend to sit at the throne.
"Will you help me?" he asks the figure, feeling awed with the light in the room, and the grace of the steps, and the weight on his head that he cannot see.
"Arthur," says a warm, solid voice, "All you have to do is take my hand."
He meets a firm grip, hears a laugh, and wakes to his dark room, feeling eyes in the darkness that he cannot avoid.