What the bloody hell are you doing here? This is for tough readers, readers with cold stone hearts and hollow souls.
Fine. As you're already here I might as well get on with it. This is a dark story, mates. I'm warning you now, as I warned you before and will warn you again, that there is some serious character cruelty, aka 'whump,' in this tale. Do not read this if you're in a good mood—it'll ruin it...Hm, it may be best if you didn't read it in a bad mood either. Or a medium mood. In fact, it's just best if you didn't read it in any mood, unless you feel like scolding me for doing this to our favourite knights and warlock.
I honestly don't know where this story came from. I guess I found it the coldest recesses of my heart and threw it onto the keys. It's really nasty; don't take the warning lightly.
The characters will have to make choices in this tale, but here's the catch – so will you. You'll understand me soon enough.
Enjoy...Tolerate...Suffer through...? Erm, here's Of Slaves and Sorrow.
~1~ The Bearer of Grave News
He hasn't come back yet. Why hasn't he come back yet?
Arthur Pendragon paced his room, but not out of worry. In fact, he was very, very annoyed.
"'I'll be back within a fortnight,' he says," the king grumbled, cruelly mimicking Merlin's promise with a whiny tone. It had now been the sworn two weeks, or rather, three days longer than the sworn two weeks, and the servant had yet to return. "I'll show him a fortnight!"
Disregarding the fact that his last statement didn't make a whole lot of sense, Arthur strode to the window and glowered at the gate across the courtyard as though it were solely responsible for his servant's tardiness.
"Lazy, insolent, useless...buffoon!"
۞ Ӂ ۞
There was nothing left in his stomach to vomit as he ran himself past fatigue and into utter exhaustion. His legs couldn't stop, for they had been forced to full tilt for too long. His ragged lungs had quit begging for him to slow, and the stitches got bored with tearing his chest apart.
The road was no longer of importance. He shoved his way through bushes, splashed across streams, hurtled logs and boulders, disregarded the savage cuts and scrapes he received as punishment for evading his pursuers.
Still he regretted leaving his horse behind. The slavers had cornered him and the beast several miles back, and he had no choice but to leave her and climb the small cliff face they had been backed against. For a while, he thought he'd escaped, but it wasn't long before he heard the whistling for hounds and the cracks of whips all around him. Clearly, the slavers knew the land more than he, and if he didn't keep moving, that would mean the end of him.
So, Merlin ran.
۞ Ӂ ۞
"I bet he got himself lost," Arthur growled, clothing himself for the day. As the dressing screen didn't reply, he stepped out from behind it and went to the silver basin where he splashed water over his face. Shivering, he realized that he had waited too long and the fluid had chilled. "Got lost looking for those rare herbs for Gaius, then tripped on a root and knocked himself out on tree!" He dried his face with a towel. "Again!"
He threw the towel at a nearby chair, missed, and left it on the floor. After strapping his sword to his hip, he composed himself as best as his simmering impatience would allow and departed from the room.
"Good morning, Uncle," he said, nodding politely at Agravaine as the man fell in step with him.
"Indeed it is, sire," the other replied. "Matters aren't as pressing today; our agenda is a little bit more flexible. Perhaps we can go on that ride we've tried to arrange for the past week."
"That would be great." Arthur was only half-listening. Agravaine noticed.
"You are distracted?"
"Oh, no, it's nothing."
"...Your servant boy hasn't returned, then." There was a slight stretch on boy.
Arthur watched emptily through every window they strode past. "No, he hasn't."
A faint disapproving air radiated from the adviser, barely concealed. "We have many efficient servants in Camelot, my lord. You need only ask, and the best of them shall be—"
"No. Again, it's quite all right, Uncle. He's just a little...late, is all. Have Gwaine and Percival returned yet?"
۞ Ӂ ۞
As he hauled himself to his feet once more, he felt as though he would not be able to stand if he fell again. The ever treacherous foliage underfoot threatened his freedom, his very life. He couldn't fight it, only avoid it.
In his mind, he could recall that one slaver, the one with the nine-tailed whip and eye of dead white. There was a scar across the lifeless eye and a grin that put demons to shame. Severus was his name, Severus the Savage. He had stepped out of the trees before the warlock many miles ago, a look of greedy triumph on his grotesque face. It was a man that would haunt Merlin's dreams forever, he knew, even as he dodged into the forest to escape.
He heard the howls of jeering laughter all around now, the snarls and yips of hounds hot on his trail. His fear harried his willpower and drowned his hope. As though smelling his terror, the dogs yowled in excitement, and suddenly sounded much closer.
Then, a river. He could hear a river.
The undertone murmur of water through earth might as well have been a chorus of divine angels to Merlin. With a burst of adrenaline, he abruptly changed course and charged through a prickly bush.
A river. His salvation.
۞ Ӂ ۞
"These trips are very unusual to gift to a lowly servant, my lord," said Agravaine. They were quickly approaching the war room for the day's meeting, but Arthur wished they were already there as to not hear the patronizing tone of the adviser anymore.
"He's a loyal man, despite his...faults," the king insisted. "An annual trip to Ealdor to visit his mother is not unbecoming to allow."
"No, but he swore to be back within two weeks, yet he has failed to keep said promise."
"Perhaps he was delayed," Arthur reasoned. "Bad weather, fallen bridge, anything could have happened. Bandits, even..." There was a slight hesitation in the king's step at that thought. Agravaine failed to miss it.
"We can always send out search parties, sire," he said, but somewhat reluctantly.
"That may not be necessary. Gwaine and Percival are patrolling with troops. If anything, they should meet him on the road."
۞ Ӂ ۞
The water was icy cold as it swallowed him whole. It rushed over his head as he struggled to remain vertical, and he kicked his boots off to dump the dangerous, unnecessary weight. He tumbled once and hit his head, but fought wildly against the greedy current, and won his upright position valiantly.
He coughed up water as his face broke the surface, then choked as the river washed back over him. He banged his legs against debris yet ignored the pain and focused on keeping his head above the rushing water.
With the three consecutive seconds he was able to remain up at any time, he saw flashes of running figures through the trees. The raging river was loud enough to cover his gasping breaths, but he still feared being spotted, a black dot amid white and blue marbled water. He submerged himself and stopped fighting the current. Instead, he allied himself with it. Opening his eyes, he travelled as the river's companion, rising to breathe only when utterly spent of air.
It must have been several miles later when he finally hauled himself, sodden and trembling, from the river's grasp. The water had calmed itself enough to do so, and he lay hidden in the reeds, limbs too weary to move anymore. But he had to move.
"Have to go," he gasped, pushing himself to his knees. "Have to...have to tell Arthur."
He didn't recognize the immediate landscape, though he did know the distant mountains. He was not far from Camelot, if his memory served him faithfully, but the distance seemed so long with the grave and urgent news he bore.
Well, best start now, I figure, he thought, and once more started to run.
۞ Ӂ ۞
"More villages have been reported empty," said Sir Leon gravely, "with copious signs of struggle and resistance. This has occurred at least a dozen times now."
"How many are in the kingdom?" asked Arthur, frowning thoughtfully.
"And have these empty villages been searched thoroughly for any survivors?"
"Of course, my lord. They've all been checked multiple times, including those outside Camelot's borders, according to the surrounding kingdoms. They are as at a loss to the nature of these disappearances as we."
"They can't have all just packed up everything and left," said Sir Elyan.
"No," Leon replied, "because they didn't pack up anything. Valuables and food were gone, pillaged, but other than that..."
"Were there no tracks to indicate where they were taken?"
"Whoever took the people was very skilled in hiding all signs of travel," finished the knight grimly.
"Very skilled indeed," muttered the king, "to hide the tracks of an entire captured village. In fact, until now, I would have thought it impossible."
Perhaps it was Arthur's tone that pushed all those present to realize what a supernatural case this was.
"'Matters aren't as pressing today?'" the king muttered to Agravaine, as the council talked amongst themselves in puzzlement.
"You said this morning that matters aren't as pressing. They seem mighty pressing to me."
"Well, most of the villages are not even in Camelot, my lord. And those two that are are close to the border, and have little to do with us, besides giving taxes."
"They are still part of this kingdom, Uncle," Arthur said, fighting to keep his impatience at bay. "And even if they are on the border, or beyond it, they are still our responsibility. It may just be two today, but what will happen over the next month, next three months? We must go and investigate."
۞ Ӂ ۞
"If you had to pick between a Lamia and a Bastet, the Lamia constantly trying to suck the life from you and the Bastet always ready to tear you to shreds at night, which would you kiss?"
"Gwaine, not this game again."
"Oh, come now, be a sport! Which one?"
"I'd kill them both."
"Well, that's not a very polite thing to do to a lady. Not at all chivalrous."
"To hell with showing chivalry to monsters."
Gwaine chuckled, showing brilliant white teeth. Percival scowled, or at least tried to.
They slowed from a trot as they approached a bend in the road, and the horses gratefully obliged.
"Jack, you'd pick the Lamia, wouldn't you?" Gwaine asked, looking over his shoulder at a mounted soldier riding behind the two knights. The soldier, unsure of how to reply, smiled awkwardly and gave a tight nod. "There, see? Jack can make a decision, Percival. Now you—"
With a synchronized thud, the whole party came to a halt, and the only sounds were twittering birds and muttering horses.
"What the hell is that?" asked Gwaine, squinting at the heap of tanned material in the middle of the road, splotched with some red and black.
"Not what. Who." Percival indicated the troops to hold position and trotted his horse towards the motionless figure. Gwaine followed suit.
"It's a person?" Gwaine asked, still squinting.
"You need to get your eyes checked, boy."
"Oh, 'boy' yourself, you great lummox!"
At the voices, the shape on the road shifted and pushed itself to its hands and knees. Both knights recognized the figure at once, and flew from their saddles before rushing towards it.
"Saints alive!" Percival exclaimed, helping King Arthur's manservant rise. The youth collapsed, limbs trembling, in the knight's arms. "Merlin, what happened?" He saw the man's bare, and therefore bloodied, feet. "Were you robbed?"
"Must...Arthur...help...tell..." The servant was overwhelmed by weariness. His breath was ragged, tortured. "Ealdor...help..."
"We must get him to a physician," said Gwaine, all fatuity gone.
"I've got him." Percival picked the servant up as though he were not but a sack of down feathers.
"Shush, Merlin. You're safe now." The big knight looked to Gwaine. "Let's take him to Gaius."
۞ Ӂ ۞
"No, it's out of the question. The people have enough troubles paying the fees as they are! We are not at war, our coffers are not struggling – there is no necessity for raising the taxes."
"But our military isn't as strong as it has been in the past, as it was under your father."
If Agravaine had purposefully brought the late King Uther into the argument to ruffle Arthur's feathers, the current king was not going to let him succeed. "I know how my father ruled. I was here my whole life, during the prime of his," Arthur kept his blue gaze locked on the adviser's black one. "Most of the civilians were pushed to the brink of poverty with his laws, but then it was necessary, considering his war on sorcery."
"You are not continuing this war?"
All turned to look at the king and his uncle intently, wondering at the monarch's response. Arthur had to fight down memories, horrid, bizarre, and extraordinary memories – the blue orb light in the cave, the sand twister in the village of Ealdor, and many others – before forming an answer.
"No, or rather, not as hard and vigorous as King Uther. I swore that the druids would be honoured and respected, as they so deserve. You all know this."
"You gave that oath to a restless spirit, sire," interrupted Agravaine, and Arthur wondered if the only reason the man got out of bed was to pester his every word. "The ghost is at peace now, and I hardly think he would care if you continued your father's efforts. It was solely for the purpose of your peoples' protection, my lord. Surely, you—"
"Agravaine." It was enough to silence the man instantly. "I am a man of my word. Whether to flesh or spirit, I intend to keep it. If you have an issue—"
Bam! Bam! Bam!
"What the hell—?" Arthur straightened from leaning on his knuckles against the table top. "Enter."
The great double doors were pushed open, and Gwaine strode in, the usual playfulness gone from his features. "Arth—my king, I bring urgent news."
"What is it, Sir Gwaine?" Before any man of importance in the council, the knights and their king, though close friends, had to keep the mask of courtesy.
"It...well it..." The knight struggled to find the right thing to say.
"It's Merlin. We've found him."
As king, Arthur was expected to keep a calm composure, especially before his subjects. Yet it was nearly impossible for him to do so with Gwaine's news.
"Ah," he said, though he wanted to sigh in relief, laugh joyously, and go sock Merlin in the jaw all at the same time. "I hope he has an explanation for his lateness."
"Well, yes and no."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Gwaine shifted. "We found him on the road, about two miles away, but..." He cleared his throat impatiently. "He was past exhaustion, almost dead, and he was babbling nonsense. When we got here, he started fighting to come tell you something – something, apparently, vitally important."
"What does he want to tell me?" Arthur's tone was now very grave, and not forcefully for show.
"Something about Ealdor, and slavers," Gwaine explained. "But he's too weary to say a whole lot, much less move. Mostly, all we can make out is 'tell Arthur.'"
The king sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He hated this part about being a monarch. No one had ever told him if, in situations like this, one is supposed to kick up his heels and immediately find out this 'vitally important' information, or wait until the rest of the meeting had drawn to a close.
"What have we left to discuss here?" he asked Gerom, one of the head advisers.
"Well, if we have concluded with the tax policy, then the last urgent topic to discuss would be the manner in which you wish to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of your birth, your majesty. There is decoration, source of entertainment, the food to be..." The adviser trailed off at the king's frosty expression.
"I think that can wait, Gerom," said Arthur, coldly calm. The man nodded uneasily and slowly sat down. "All right, Sir Gwaine. Take me to him."
And so it begins...Well, eventually...Pretty soon...It will, don't worry.
I'm not sure when I'll be able to update, so just keep an eye and an ear out...at your own peril *lightning flashes ominously*
"The whole world is in chess. Any move can be the death of you. Do anything except remain where you started, and you can't be sure of your end." ~ King Baldwin IV (Kingdom of Heaven)