A/N: Hello everyone! The moment you've all been waiting for is here: the third and final installment of the ASG/OSG series! If you don't know what I'm talking about, this fic is the sequel of two other stories: Arthur's Silent Guardian and On Shaky Ground. If you haven't read those yet, I strongly suggest reading those first. They will make this story make much more sense. :)
For those of you who have read the other two, please enjoy! We open approximately two weeks after the close of OSG.
Of Walls and Scars
Arthur quickly and quietly placed one foot in front of the other, careful not to let the snow crunch under his feet any more loudly than necessary. It was difficult to be stealthy while migrating a path through snow, especially on a slope, but it was not impossible. The group of knights he had brought with him carefully followed his lead.
His eyes scanned the snow-covered boulders. An icy wind swirled ceaselessly around them, making visibility difficult and his metal armor achingly cold, despite his massive layers underneath it to keep him warm. The creature was somewhere around here. It had to be.
Arthur glanced at Merlin. The servant was trailing closely behind him, as usual, and for the moment, Arthur was having trouble deciding if he was reassured or horrified at that fact. In the week that had passed since Merlin's return to work, Arthur was not convinced that he had returned to full strength. He appeared to be doing well enough now, but Arthur had become all-too aware of how good Merlin was at hiding his pain.
But Gaius insisted this creature was magical, meaning that to defeat it, they would need more than swords. Merlin was their best hope. So for now, despite Arthur's worry, he had to be content just silently keeping an eye on him.
He was not content.
They reached the plateau not long later, quite surprised that they had yet to be attacked. But this bode better for the knights. It was easier to fight on flat ground. Cautiously, Arthur peered around.
The plateau was large, and the creature could be hiding behind any of the number of rock formations that stood before them, shadowy silhouettes standing firm against the flurry of snow. Carefully, they stepped forward, unsheathing swords as they walked headfirst into the gale. A discreet glance at Merlin told Arthur that he was fairing well enough, though he was obviously fatigued. But that wasn't necessarily odd. They had just climbed a particularly steep slope.
"Where are you?" Arthur whispered to the air, eyes searching for what he knew should be here.
A loud roar interrupted his thoughts, giving him just enough time to shove Merlin out of the way, simultaneously pushing off him to leap in the other direction. His other knights did the same behind them.
Immediately Arthur turned to face the creature now occupying the space where they had just been standing.
"Formation!" he called to his knights. His voice was nearly lost by the wind, but the knights understood what to do anyway. Immediately, they circled the beast, much as they had the dragon all those months ago, though this time on foot.
The white creature blended in perfectly with the snow and ice around it, and it positively radiated cold. Arthur could feel the little heat in his body sucked away, making him shiver more intensely. The creature had a hideous, reptilian face with vicious looking horns sticking up form the back of its head.
You would think, Arthur thought bemusedly, that something without legs wouldn't be able to move so cursed fast!
From their formation, the ice wyrm, near blind according to Gaius, grew confused from the various heat sources surrounding it. It let out a harsh shriek, drawing its head in upon itself, like some sort of massive snake ready to strike the man it faced.
That man was Leon.
No one had time to do anything before the creature unleashed its assault. Arthur hardly dared blink for horror as he saw the wyrm, as though in slow motion, strike forward with vicious fangs exposed. But before the strike connected, with no apparent reason why, Leon and Merlin were sprawled on the ground and the creature withdrew upon itself again, having missed its target.
Arthur leapt forward, thrusting his sword at the creature's body. His sword slid off as if he had struck ice-covered stone, the unexpected result leaving him off-balanced and exposed.
"Sire!" Burik shouted. The creature turned its massive head and struck forward towards its vulnerable attacker. Arthur didn't have time to dodge to the side. It was too fast!
The beasts' attack stopped short as if he had hit some sort of invisible wall. Arthur caught the barest glimpse of a shiver of gold amidst the flurry of snow and wind. If he hadn't known better, he'd have sworn he'd imagined it. Instead, he sparred the barest glance at Merlin.
Merlin, who was still on the ground where he'd landed before, now lay gasping for air. Arthur barely had time to register this before he was forced to dodge another blow—this time with slightly more warning. He attempted to strike again, with the same result as before. Burik leapt forward, but his strikes proved equally useless.
A moment later the beast shrieked in agony and hot steam arose, forcing Arthur, Burik, and the various other knights who had moved forward back instantly for danger of being burned. One of the knights was knocked aside by the creature's thrashings and landed slumped against a boulder.
Steam continued to pour out, obscuring all hope of vision.
Arthur pitched his voice to be heard over the storm, "Regroup!"
The knights flocked around him in block formation, shields raised in defense. Slowly, the thrashings and screeches of the beast subsided and the steam gradually dissipated.
Along with the steam, the wind gradually died as well, so the snow and ice settled back into place. The wyrm lay before them, a sword sticking out of the base of its neck where a slight steam still rose from the wound. Cautiously, the knights held their stance, holding their breath. At long last, the beast's twitching ceased and all was still, save for a slight breeze that passed across the plateau.
Carefully, Arthur crept forward, keeping his sword in place, but the wyrm did not so much as stir. The rest of the knights held their breath, until Arthur announced aloud that the creature wad dead.
Cheers went up at their success. Two of the knights rushed forward to aid Sir Onan, who was conscious, but sat rather dazed at the base of the boulder where he'd been thrown. Arthur looked around for the one person he knew must be responsible, fearful of what he would find after the last thing he'd seen. At last, his eyes landed on Merlin, lying on his side in the snow, knees drawn up to his chest.
Arthur suddenly found it hard to breathe. He took one hesitant step forward, then broke into a run.
Merlin's eyes were squeezed shut as if in pain, his breathing was harsh and ragged, but he was breathing. Arthur quickly checked Merlin's pulse and found it strong, but very fast.
"Merlin," he said firmly, shaking his shoulder. "Merlin you idiot can you hear me?" Merlin gave no response.
Then Sir Leon was at his side.
"What happened?" Arthur demanded before the knight could say a word.
Leon looked over his shoulder. Most of the knights' attention was on Sir Onan. The few that had noticed Merlin's condition watched on with concern, but were well outside hearing distance.
"He cast some sort of spell, then just…" his voice trailed off.
Arthur glanced back at the knights. "You get to tell me everything when we get back," he informed him, knowing this conversation was too risky to have here.
Merlin let out a low groan. After a moment, his eyes fluttered open.
"What…what happened?" he asked hoarsely.
Arthur suddenly realized he didn't have an answer he could give, not without Merlin realizing how much he knew. Arthur hesitated, and after a bare second Merlin's eyes widened, most likely remembering exactly what had happened.
"The wyrm knocked you out," Leon said. "After you saved me."
"Are you ok to stand?" Arthur asked.
Merlin hoisted himself up on one arm, but his arm shook and couldn't support his weight for long. "I…I don't think so," he said at last.
"Where are you hurt?"
Merlin hesitated. "My chest," he said at last. Arthur had a feeling that was not the full truth. "It hit me in the chest, knocked the air from me."
Arhtur knew that was a lie. But he really had no reason to doubt the tale, none that he could actually tell him. Once again Arthur was faced with the thought that life would be so much easier if Merlin actually knew that Arthur knew.
"Your body's probably in shock," he said instead, playing along.
"I'll help him, Sire," Leon said. "You should go check on Sir Onan."
Arthur opened his mouth to protest, but shut it when he realized Leon was right. It was only proper that he check on the knight, especially now that Merlin was awake. He finally nodded.
With Leon's help, Merlin regained his feet, still breathing rather hard and leaning for support against the knight, and Arthur turned to rejoin the others.
"Who killed the creature?" Sir Burik asked as Arthur approached, loudly enough that the others could hear as well. Arthur had a fairly good idea, but remained silent, looking at each of the knights in turn, waiting for the inevitable.
Sure enough, "I did, Sire," Leon said, glancing to his sword, still embedded in the wyrm's corpse. Another knight stepped forward to retrieve it, as Leon was occupied supporting Merlin. Leon gratefully reclaimed it from him.
Arthur nodded, pointedly not looking at Merlin again. "Well done, Sir Leon." He looked at the group again. "Let's get off this cursed pile of ice," he said at last.
It took them considerably less time to pick their way down the slope, especially without the infernal wind and snow blaring in their faces, than it had going up.
Arthur kept a subtle eye on Merlin as they descended. He half expected Merlin to be nervously watching him as well, but the effort of not passing out again seemed to be taking the majority of his attention. Leon continued to support him, and when they neared the bottom, he at last gave up and simply picked Merlin up—who for once didn't even protest. Arthur was left frowning in poorly concealed worry.
The farther away from the wyrm's nest they got, the snow gradually thinned, from over a foot deep into mere slush that barely crunched under their boots. The small patches of snow that remained in the trees constantly dripped as they melted. Eventually, Merlin had Leon set him down and managed to walk on his own feet, still supported by the knight, though.
Half an hour's walk later they came to where they had left the horses and their gear. They had camped the night before, wanting to face the creature with plenty of daylight before them. By now, it would be dark by the time they reached Camelot again, but they would make it.
"Rest up," Arthur told his knights. "We will leave in a quarter hour for home." He then went to Sir Onon as the knights scattered. Some went through the trees to the stream to get water; others pulled out blankets from their saddlebags and bundled in them, dignity forgotten. They only had a short time to rest and they intended to warm their frozen limbs as much as possible before they headed out.
"Are you all right?" he asked the knight.
Onon forced a smile as he took a water skin passed to him. "Just a nasty knot on my head. I've definitely survived worse."
"Will you be able to make it back all right? Or do you need assistance?"
"I'll be fine, Sire, but thank you. To be honest, I think Merlin took a worse hit than I did." Arthur's jaw set in a rigid line, and he nodded mutely.
He didn't respond, but glanced nervously at the secret warlock, definitely more afraid for Merlin's health than for Onon's at the moment.
The boy was sitting on a log, doing his best to look completely fine. Arthur could tell something wasn't right with him, though. Hee knew that the creature hadn't hit him, at least not physically. His weakness was something to do with magic. Whether it was something Merlin had done that had weakened him, or it had been some sort of effect of the magical creature, Arthur didn't know. But in any case, Arthur knew he needed rest.
Leon remained close to Merlin throughout the duration of their rest, and throughout the return trip home, which at least gave Arthur a small degree of comfort. At least Merlin was able to ride his horse without too much issue, even if Arthur did set a significantly slower pace than they could have pushed the horses.
As predicted, it was dark a solid hour before they reached Camelot's gate, but they pressed on through the dark. Despite the hour, the air was quite warm, for as soon as they had passed out of the wyrm's radius of influence, the cold had given way to the natural heat of high summer. When they at last dismounted in the main square, the group was exhausted.
"Good work, everyone," Arthur told them. "I thank you for your willingness to serve. Now go home and get some sleep, you've earned it." Obediently, the knights handed off the reins of their horses to the stable hands that were ready and waiting. Normally, Arthur would have handed off the reins of his own horse to his personal servant, but he had no intention of making Merlin stay on his feet any longer than he had to. So when Merlin reached for the reins, Arthur ignored him, took Merlin's reins instead, and handed them both off to a stable hand.
"Go home Merlin. Let Gaius take a look at you, and then get some sleep. Take tomorrow off, too."
Merlin stared for a moment. "Arthur, did you get hit in the head?" he asked at last.
The prince rolled his eyes. "Honestly, you think you'd be a bit more appreciative of a night off. Look, I'm tired, I'm sore, I am going straight up to my chambers and climbing into bed. I certainly don't need to listen to your incessant chatter as I do. So I suggest you do likewise." Thankfully, the boy didn't argue.
With another shrug, and a small smile, Merlin dragged himself up the courtyard steps and into the castle.
As the knights slowly dispersed to do the same, Arthur caught Leon's arm and held him back. "Make sure Merlin makes it home without collapsing, then see me in my chambers," he said simply. Leon nodded grimly. He'd known this was coming.
A/N: There you have it! I hope it was worth the wait. Reviews, as always, are welcome and loved. Thanks for reading!
Lots of love,