10/3/2013 ~ Okay, you shouldn't be here. This story is forty chapters and a hundred thousand words of pure FAIL. Not good. You should just move your cursor up to that little blue arrow at the top left corner of your screen and flee with all haste. I don't like this story and wish that I had planned better before throwing it down here. I'm not deleting it simply because of what it has accomplished, with the reviews and whatnot.
However, I may be rewriting the whole thing, from characters and plot line to the central conflict. Not sure what the title will be, if it will take Silverheart or something else. In any case, if you're interested (I have loads of better ideas) check back here regularly, or on my profile, for updates on the rewritten and much improved version.
Giving this a shot, eh? *Shrug* Your funeral. ;)
Let's see...there's character whump, some violence and mild language...Meh, not much else.
Update: to those who may be re-reading this (if so, I'm flattered :} ) know that I have changed the cult name Wolverines to Blackhands ~ not Black Hands like the assassin group involved with WWI. In addition, there have been some exceptional changes to said group and to a few characters. I felt the need for improvement, and did what I could.
~1~ A Fateful Beginning
The earth was rich and damp, perfect for the ferns and other flora that sprouted around him and embraced him with their shadows. It smelled so full of life, it was refreshing – until he remembered where he was.
Slowly inching forward another few feet, Merlin was able to get a better look at his king, Arthur Pendragon. He avidly watched Arthur's hands, as did the three knights flanking him, waiting for the signal to be given. Swallowing the creeping trepidation that always gnawed at his heart in missions such as this, Merlin tensed as he saw the king's gloved hand twitch, then forced himself to relax as another minute passed and there was no further movement.
Suddenly, Arthur turned his head to look down at his servant and his knights. Making a cutting motion with his hand, he then pointed at his eyes and indicated to the top of the hill Merlin and the others were lying against. With the grace and silence of a mountain cat, the king moved to the peak, not even disturbing the ferns enough to make them hiss in protest. It was uncanny, the skill Arthur had. Merlin couldn't help but admire the prat – he was the perfect hunter.
After a few moments, the warlock realized that he had been holding his breath, and that he had trapped his crossbow between his arm and his chest while lying on his front. His palm and fingers had fallen asleep and there was a growing ache on his ribs. Sucking in air through his nose, he slowly eased the crossbow from beneath himself, careful not to dislodge the bolt he had nestled in the cradle. He smirked inwardly; had he drawn the crossbow, he could have shot himself by lying on top of it. That would have to be one of the most undignified ways to die.
For another minute, while Arthur watched the road Merlin knew was on the other side of the hill, the warlock listened to a thrush warbling somewhere high above, unknowing of the carnage that was about to take place below its leafy haven. The bird's song was gradually joined by a symphony of creaking leathers and clicking buckles and squeaky waggon wheels, quiet at first, but growing as the procession of cultists marched down the road, unwittingly towards the ambush.
Arthur signalled the approach. Merlin and the three knights crawled on forearms and feet up to the brow of the hill. The warlock concentrated on his every move, determined to not make any sounds and risk exposure.
The cultists rounded a bend, about fifty paces down the road. Merlin's hands tightened around his crossbow. Adrenaline seeped into his veins. Magic roiled in his chest, unfurling powerful wings like an aroused dragon. He was never one for killing, and he knew that even though he'd had to do it time and time again, he would never get used to it, never get used to extinguishing the life of another before they extinguished his – or Arthur's. And this particular caravan of dark worshippers would not hesitate to extinguish the lives of all they came across. This had been proven by the many villages they had waltzed their way through during their trek across Camelot and the rest of Albion, and now that they were but a day's ride from the city, the king knew there was little choice in his actions to halt this miniature but devastating plague.
There was no doubt that this was the one and only infamous Blackhand Cult, already renowned for its brutal treatment of all unfortunates they came across, and for a dangerous creature they had under their control. What creature it could be was unknown; all that was clear was that it could tear the head off an ox like a farmer would a chicken, and that it was unlike anything Camelot had ever seen before. By the way it was described to the knights by the villagers, it wasn't a normal animal either. It was definitely one of magic, and the malevolent cultists seemed to be controlling it completely.
Shifting slowly as to not disturb the ferns, Merlin manoeuvred himself to get a better view of the caravan. It was relatively small, surprisingly, consisting of about twenty men and women. Each had a horse, though not all rode, and everyone was armed to the teeth, including the females. Their clothes were sharp, considering the life they led, and many of them wore velvety mantles with their cult's insignia – a black, splayed hand on a white patch. Their cloaks, boots and gloves were dark, giving them the impression of a mourning procession.
The Blackhands were quiet, as though afraid to damage the deepening silence of the Darkling Woods. In the middle of the group was a large, black-painted, boxed waggon, with bars on the small dark windows and drawn by four heavy draft horses.
Merlin blinked. Draft horses? Any up to no good wouldn't use the slower beasts lest they be overtaken by those on swifter steeds. Whatever was inside the carriage must be very, very heavy...or the cultists weren't afraid of being caught up.
Something shiny in a small alcove just behind the carriage driver's head stole the warlock's eye. Squinting, he managed to make out some sort of silver figurine, like a miniature statue. It was difficult to tell, but it almost looked like a dog or a wolf, but it could also be a horse or some other four legged animal. He ignored it and returned his focus to Arthur.
The king was signalling to the group of the mirroring hill on the opposite side of the road. Merlin was just able to make out Sir Leon replying with hand motions of his own. Then stillness fell, and the thirty soldiers and knights of Camelot waited while the Blackhands came abreast to the ambush lying in wait around them.
As the first man stepped into Merlin's line of fire, his palms twitched and he very nearly pulled the trigger of his crossbow. As though sensing the close call, Arthur's stormy-blue gaze fell on his servant and stayed there, not chidingly, not arrogantly, not even warningly. Merlin squirmed in discomfort, despite the lack of emotion coming from the king, until an unexpected sound emerged from the Blackhand procession.
It was a feral, savage snarl, and it continued for a few more moments from inside the carriage before the driver reached behind his head and patted the silver figurine in the alcove. Silence fell, and uneasy horses stopped muttering while the cultists themselves dropped their hands from the pommels of their weapons.
What the hell was that? Merlin thought, frowning. The beast?
He was starting to sweat in the light leathers given to him for armour. Come on, Arthur. What are we waiting for? He hated battle, but as this was inevitable, he just wanted to get it over with.
Now the middle of the caravan passed below, between the twin hills. As it did so, a man astride a magnificent chestnut horse fell in step with the waggon driver and exchanged a few low-toned words. By his garb and superior weapons, he was the cult master, Argus Vane. That was who Arthur wanted to take alive.
Suddenly, the king signalled, Be ready. Merlin chose a target: a thickset brute of a man, with a heavy hammer strapped to his back and black warpaint, in the shape of a hand, covering his face. He looked to be a murderous thug, which was why Merlin chose him. If he wasn't taken down immediately, then he would cause devastating harm later in the attack, especially if something goes stale for the men of Camelot.
It was time. Arthur raised his hand—
The call came from behind the king's company, at the bottom of the hill. Arthur whirled around, more in surprise than as a swift reaction to silence the scouting Blackhand, but before he could shoot his crossbow, the bandit drew the string of his longbow and fired a deadly shaft towards him.
Fortunately, the shot had been panicked and over-thought—the arrow buried itself into the hill just inches from Merlin's side.
The warlock's eyes widened as he stared at the swan feather fletching, realizing that, had it pierced him, it would have pinned him to the hill like an insect.
Arthur seemed to be thinking the same thing. With a snarl of anger, he aimed and pulled the trigger of his crossbow. The bolt sliced the air and passed clear through the cultist's neck in a spray of blood, thudding into the tree behind him. Arthur turned before the dead man even hit the ground and drew his sword, Excalibur. With a second savage cry, he crested the hill and thundered down the other side. Swallowing the apprehension that filled his throat and stomach like hot air, Merlin leaped to his feet and aimed his own crossbow at his chosen target, the brutish giant of a man with the war hammer.
His orders had been clear – fire the crossbow, then protect Arthur's flanks on the charge. As the king was already charging, Merlin only had a short time to fire the bow, and an even shorter time to aim. Luckily for the servant, the brute had stopped and braced his feet while reaching over to grab his hammer from his back, giving Merlin the moment to aim properly. He pulled the trigger and watched with grim satisfaction as the bolt zipped through the air and pierced through the mail on the cultist's chest. With a howl of fury, the man fell to his knees, then died as a second bolt, from the other hill, hit him in the temple.
The remaining swarm of waspish bolts hit their targets, most of them being riders and those considered the biggest threat. The carriage driver fell with two quarrels in his throat, but the cult master was untouched, as was specified.
Merlin drew his sword and bounded down the hill after his king, covering his flank. The other three knights followed suit, screaming battle cries and waving weapons overhead. Horses squealed in fear as the Blackhands gaped in astonishment, and then there were shrieks of pain as blood spilled and metal clashed, creating a hellish din that could only be imagined by those who have ever heard it.
The men of Camelot no longer had the element of surprise, thanks to the Blackhand scout, and so the charge had been less devastating than what was desired. Three soldiers were shot down before they reached the base of the hill, and another was gravely wounded by a thrown spear. Merlin briefly saw Sir Gwaine pull that spear free of the soldier and hurtle it back at its owner, who screamed as it pierced his chest. The warlock focused on protecting Arthur, and ducked beneath a man's sickle before thrusting his blade into his stomach. The Blackhand fell and Merlin had to dodge sideways as a second outcast, a woman, sprinted towards him, swinging a wood axe. He stuck out a foot to trip her, but she feinted to the side before grabbing him by his sword wrist, lifting her axe high for a killing swing.
Excalibur flashed through the air in a gush of blood, and the woman shrieked as her weapon arm fell limp to the ground. With a second slash, her head rolled from her shoulders. Merlin batted it away from himself in disgust before it hit him, and as the lifeless body slumped to the road, Arthur came into view. He nodded once at his servant and turned around before Merlin could thank him.
An arrow zipped past the warlock's ear and he flinched, and it could only be because of Fortune smiling upon him that he flinched in a direction that let him see the cultist slinking up from behind. Merlin ducked beneath the slashing dirk and pivoted, making a neat slash across the man's belly. He had no mail hauberk to protect him, and so more gore spattered the road, adding to the already sleek and slippery dirt.
The Blackhand blinked in surprise at the servant's surprising agility and speed, almost as surprised as Merlin was himself. He supposed all those long hours of gruelling sword practices with Arthur were actually paying off—
Before he died, the cultist lunged at the warlock and stabbed at his throat. Merlin threw his upper body backwards in an effort to avoid the angry dirk, and only succeeded in part. White hot pain split his right cheek and he instinctively kicked, knocking the weakened Blackhand over to die.
Briefly wiping the blood from his face with the back of his hand, Merlin came about and watched Arthur's back, parrying a thrust here, a stab there. There seemed to be more of the black and white cloaks of the Blackhands than the red and gold mantles of the men of Camelot, but the tide was gradually changing. Merlin fought by Sir Elyan's side, and together they eliminated a small knot of cultists. A knight and two soldiers fell to enemy arrows, but Sir Percival bound up the hill the archers had taken refuge on and dispatched the lot of them by himself. Sir Gwaine pushed Leon to get him out of the line of a hurtled spear, and then engaged himself with a dual-weapon wielding cultist, a fierce glint in his eye.
"Arthur!" Merlin roared, pointing behind the king. Arthur whirled around just in time to parry the Blackhand leader's blade as the man charged through the melee on his majestic chestnut. Argus Vane reined in his mount, and it pivoted neatly on its rear hooves to face the king of Camelot once more. Before he could spur it into a gallop again, Arthur closed the distance between them and slashed with his sword to incapacitate him, only to be blocked by the cult master's wooden buckler.
Merlin could only watch in awe as, in the chaos, Vane's horse squealed in terror and reared when a Camelot soldier unwittingly jabbed it with a spear. The cult master leaned forward and grasped frantically at the pommel, and Arthur wasted no time in grasping onto him and hauling him from the saddle, pinning him against the ground. The king bellowed into the fray, rallying his men, but it was as though he had thrown a leaf to stop the fighting; no one heard him.
The warlock knew that if they managed to capture the leader, the cultists would swiftly surrender, and so end the bloodshed. He dodged around a knot of fighting men, aiming to help Arthur fully subdue Argus Vane Blackhand. But before he could, another man, this one on a massive black stallion, knocked several unfortunates to the ground as he charged towards Arthur's unsuspecting back.
This time, the warning cry came out as a dry cough, and Merlin was helpless as the interferer bowled the king over with his horse. Arthur was sent sprawling, and Vane scrambled to his feet as the man on the black stallion reared his horse.
"Fly, brother!" he roared, and Vane fled.
Merlin pushed aside a wounded Blackhand, trying to get to his friend and master. Warily, he watched the dark rider looking about in equal confusion, clearly trying to locate Arthur and so cover Vane's escape.
Suddenly, the warlock saw him, staggering up and letting his men help to keep him standing. He almost darted forwards to help him, but then the king pointed to something in the melee.
"Merlin! Stop him!"
Whirling around, the servant saw a well-garbed cultist shove the dead driver of the beast-burdened carriage from his seat and take up the reins.
The mission was to stop the murderous cultist group known as the Blackhands, but it could not be done properly if their secret weapon escaped. Arthur was now surrounded by his protective men. He would be safe.
Merlin bowled through two enemies and hurtled himself at the large waggon just as the new driver snapped the whip. The four panicked draft horses bounded forward, smashing aside all those in their path. Merlin managed to latch himself to the wooden dashboard of the waggon just as the beasts were taking off. He kicked hard from the ground and fought for purchase, well aware that if he fell, he would be run over the thick wheels that were rapidly gaining speed. In his frantic grasping, he dropped his sword into the cockpit, where the driver's feet resided. The Blackhand kicked the sword away before stomping at Merlin's hands and arms, trying to dislodge him.
The melee was swiftly left behind as the warlock ignored the pain in his arms and felt for a foothold in the waggon's underbelly. His boot caught on something thin and metal, but before he could hoist himself up, the driver kicked him in the head, dazing him. A devastating jolt rocked the carriage, and his foothold was lost. His shoulders screamed at him as he held desperately onto the dashboard with only his hands, the rest of him hanging down the front of and beneath the carriage.
What the hell am I doing? he demanded of himself. This was stupid!
Dirt kicked up from the horses peppered his body like hail, and his feet scrapped against the road before bouncing up again as he fought to regain a strong hold. Briefly, Merlin speculated on how he wouldn't have been able to withstand such brutal treatment even a year ago. Again, Arthur's persistent training was keeping him alive.
I'll bet he's just waiting for the moment to say, 'I told you so,' Merlin grumbled inwardly.
"Let go, you numpty!" the driver snarled, going to kick again.
Pain exploded across his knuckles just as the warlock got his foot on the splinter bar stay beneath the front of the waggon. That hand released the dashboard as he howled in pain, but he managed to retain his grip with the aid of the bar stay. The driver growled in frustration.
"Why won't you give up?"
Merlin's eyes widened as he saw the dagger emerge from the Blackhand's waistband, glinting savagely in the sunlight. With his terror came his magic, and the cultist's own eyes became platters as Merlin's irises flashed like twin coins.
The shafts holding the horses to the waggon shattered as though made of ice. Freed, the beasts bolted forward, now unburdened by the heavy, wheeled structure. The driver frantically tried to grasp the reins back up as they slid from the dashboard, but was too slow.
Merlin bit his tongue as his chin bashed against the board. The waggon was slowing to a pace that wasn't fast enough to pass evenly over bumps in the road, and the structure was swiftly reeling out of control.
"You blasted fool! Look at what you've done!"
The warlock could not turn around to see what the driver was screaming about, as he was struggling to remain where he was, but by the look on his face and the way that he braced himself against the seat, things were going to spiral into an even worse situation than it already was.
His gaze met the driver's for a moment. "Cheerio," he said, and let go.
By the grace of some superior being, he was not killed when hit the road or decapitated as he rolled down the length of the carriage. It hurt, much like tumbling down the ragged cliffs of the Ridged Mountains, but darkness became light as he emerged behind the waggon with breath still in his lungs, and he was grateful for it. He knew that weeks of pain now lay before him, but the knowledge of the completion of his mission kept him...somewhat optimistic. At least Arthur would have no excuse to belittle him for anything in this battle.
Merlin lay gasping in the middle of the dirt road, waiting for the agony to subside, and then heard the driver scream. A second later, there was an echoing explosion of shattering wood as the carriage collided with some obstruction, and the Blackhand was silenced. Merlin thought that he'd been killed, but when he looked up, he saw the man get to his feet several metres away from the crash site where he'd jumped. Limping, but alive. He climbed the ruined waggon, the front of which was completely smashed against a rock bluff at the turn of the road. He rooted around for a few moments before emerging with the cynical silver figurine of the animal cradled in his arms. With a final glance at Merlin, he grinned wolfishly and dashed away into the trees, swiftly vanishing from sight and sound.
Merlin's head pounded, but he forced himself to stand, though he swayed like a sapling in a stiff breeze. He strained his ears, but he could not hear the skirmish his companions were warring in. He did hear, however, the low scratching sounds, like nails on wood floor, coming from the crashed waggon.
Instinct told him to stay away. Instinct told him to wait for Arthur and the others to come. He ignored instinct.
As he cautiously closed half the distance between himself and the waggon, a rear wheel of which was suspended and still turning slowly, the scratching was accompanied by a low purr of growls, rhythmic, like slow panting. The whole rear of the carriage was a pair of doors, which had buckled slightly in the crash. Merlin stepped up to the doors, his nostrils bombarded by a thick, musky scent of wild animal fur. His heart throbbed until his chest hurt, yet he proceeded still.
The rumbling thunder of approaching horses stayed his reaching hand for a moment, but then Merlin grasped the handle of a door and pulled it open a slit.
Arthur's bellow split the air.
With a barbaric roar to put a bear to shame, the doors burst open as though a dragon had kicked them, throwing Merlin back several paces. Not a heartbeat later, a huge, hairy, snarling beast collided with him and knocked him over, pinning him against the earth. It crushed his chest beneath its colossal weight, and its fanged maw opened to blast his face with moist breath, rancid, like rotten meat. Hot, sticky saliva spattered all over him, and then the grey-haired monster was gone before Merlin could get a proper look.
Winded and left staring at the sky, Merlin curled into a ball on his side as he struggled to breathe, vaguely hearing the horrified screams of horses and men and the roars of the fiendish beast. Metal clashed, blood spilled, pain raked the air...and then it was over.
Words of alarm and panic drifted towards the fallen warlock, just within range.
"Sire? Sire, are you all right?"
"Are you hurt, my lord?"
"Saints alive! Arthur!"
"I'm all right, I'm all right! Stop mollycoddling me!"
Merlin's throat had closed at the worried voices of the men, but then a smile split his face when he heard the king speak. It did not reassure him, however, when he said that he was fine, because fine could be anything from a splinter in the thumb to an arrow in the knee, or worse.
Limbs shaking, the servant rolled upright onto his hands and knees. Then, sure that he wasn't going to fall over from a sudden bout of dizziness, he straightened, grunting as he felt the fresh road rashes and bruises rip at his body. There was something warm and sticky all over his face, and he reached up to wipe it away. When he glanced at his hand, he saw the monster's saliva mixed with the blood from the cut on his cheek. A long string of spit trailed from his face to his palm, and he grimaced before cleaning what he could off his hand with his pants.
When he looked up, Arthur was striding towards him, pain barely suppressed under his mask of solemnity. In his hand was Excalibur, bloodied and coated in fine grey hairs.
"Are you hurt?"
"I was dragged by a carriage and attacked by a giant furry beast but otherwise I'm fine."
Arthur suddenly noticed the smashed waggon – really noticed it – and a look of incredulity grew on his features. "What did you do? I said stop the waggon, not smash it to bits!"
Merlin frowned. "There's just no pleasing you sometimes." He ignored the twinge of familiarity caused by the exchange, then his eyes widened as he saw the blood dripping off Arthur's hand, which was covering a wound on his side. "What's that?"
"Nothing. A scratch."
"A scratch, my foot. Let me see."
Irritation creasing his brow, the king reluctantly allowed Merlin to investigate the wound. He grimaced as the servant pulled away, slightly pale.
"The beast did this."
"Aye. I know."
"Is it a bite?"
"You can't tell?"
Merlin shook his head. "It's so...messy, I can't really tell until it's been cleaned up. We need Gaius to look at it." At least the king's chain mail protected him from the worst of it.
The warlock backed a step and took stock of the rest of the party. Two soldiers and Sirs Leon and Percival were present, all breathing heavily from the latest excursions, and a few of them more than a bit shaky. They had all taken horses, but two of the unfortunate creatures had been slaughtered by the undetermined beast, and their ruby blood soaked into the rocky earth from their slashed throats. One of the soldiers had claw marks on his leg, while Percival had a gash on his forehead, but otherwise, they were fine.
"Did you see what it was?"
Arthur was tearing off a strip from his shirt. He started to bind a cut on his arm, with increasing difficulty, before speaking. "I think it was a bear."
"A bear? No way." Merlin snatched the strip away and bound the wound for him. The king said nothing, but was clearly appreciative. "Bears don't move that fast, or have long arms, or—"
"Then a chimpanzee with sharp teeth and claws from hell!" Arthur pulled roughly away before Merlin could check his other injuries.
The servant rolled his eyes. "And I've never heard a bear, or chimpanzee, sound like that. In fact, I've never heard any animal sound like that. Not even a dog." His expression became thoughtful. "...What does that leave?"
In the distance, a wolf howled.
Hm, I wonder what it is? *shifty look*
This chapter was pretty long, but the rest will be shorter, for the most part. Yeah.
"I don't go looking for trouble. Trouble usually finds me." ~ Harry Potter (The Prisoner of Azkaban)