Category: Gen (canon)
Characters/Pairings: Arthur, Merlin, knights
Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin.
Notes: 'Sinstán (Old English) - immortal/eternal stone.' I've never been to Stonehenge — or England, actually. All descriptions of the countryside and the henge come from pictures and research, and haven't been looked over by anyone who knows firsthand. Special thanks to Realta and Heather on The Heart of Camelot for giving me ideas and pushing me to finish. You're awesome, guys.
The structure was only barely visible as a black speck on the cold, grey horizon, but it was a welcome break in the monotony all the same. "We make camp there tonight," he announced, and he could see the relief in everyone's faces. After leaving the forests of Camelot behind to face an endless sea of green grass and rolling hills, his men were windswept and miserable and exposed; the sky was overcast and held a promise of rain, and any sort of shelter from it would be a comfort.
They broke camp and rode southwest, towards Cornwall and a treaty with King Mark. Arthur looked round at everyone and once again noticed the discomfort in the air. The knights hid it well, but they were all out of their element here on this vast grassy plain, where they could go days without seeing signs of life. He could read it in them because he felt it himself — a nervous tension that manifested in a definite shortness in temper, a slight edge to their laughter; and had he noticed more than one of them glancing around anxiously before checking themselves and returning to the rather forced conversation. During the day, they could see everything for miles around — but it was the nights that worried them, because at night they could be ambushed by anyone who was intelligent enough to extinguish their torch before approaching.
Merlin seemed particularly lost, and did not do nearly as good a job at hiding it. Arthur hadn't seen him ride so poorly since he first came to Camelot, and he looked drawn and far paler than usual. Arthur tried to provoke him, both as a distraction and as a source of amusement, but he rarely took the bait; even if he did his replies were half-hearted at best, and he usually lapsed into silence after a few minutes. And even now, when they were riding with a definite goal in mind rather than towards a vague patch of grass that was identical to their previous camp except further south, he had an uncomfortable, puzzled expression on his face that did not bode well for responsiveness.
Alright then — if Merlin was going to be moody and disagreeable, then so be it. Arthur turned to Gwaine instead, and asked him, in a falsely cheerful tone, to tell a story about one of his misadventures with his sister, leaving Merlin to stew in his own thoughts, whatever they may be.
- -o- -
The rain held off, though the clouds and the wind grew heavy with it and he was sure it would start soon. It was near sunset when they finally reached the structure, which was not a building, as Arthur had predicted; instead it was a configuration of enormous weatherbeaten rocks, huge slabs of stone that were arranged into a circle, some thrusting up into the air, with others balanced on top of them to form gateways. Some had fallen to the ground, laying cracked and broken and forlorn in the grass, and there was an ethereal quality about it that Arthur couldn't quite pinpoint.
He dismounted several feet outside the ring, and the others followed suit; leaving the horses, they leapt across the ditch and ventured through the arch directly in front of them, where they encountered another ring of short stones. "Steady there, Merlin," he heard Elyan whisper behind him, his voice carrying unnaturally in the still air; and it was then that Arthur realized that the wind hardly penetrated the circle. "Come on," he said quietly, and beckoned them all into the clearing.
They crept forward slowly, warily; no one had drawn any weapons, but Arthur's fingers were twitching toward Excalibur's hilt, and he was sure that he wasn't the only one. Percival shifted uncomfortably next to him, his chain mail clinking; every sound seemed magnified, and Arthur was sure that he could hear everyone's breath as they drew closer to the massive stone centerpiece. The knights spread out to look around, glancing around at the looming arches around them; and if they didn't stray as far from one another as normal, there was no one around to comment. "What is this?" Gwaine whispered, and Arthur could see the crinkle of fear around his eyes; but then his hand moved to the pommel of his blade and some of the tension left his shoulders.
Nobody answered him — nobody could.
"I wonder — we've been riding for days," Elyan murmured. "And we've hardly seen a rock, let alone stones of this size. But it's odd... they look—" He cut himself off, staring fearfully at the nearest stone, and Arthur itched with the discomfort of not knowing. "They look like the stones from the Valley of the Fallen Kings," he finally finished, his voice heavy with trepidation, and Arthur's heart pounded because it was true.
"But we're leagues away," said Percival a moment later, when the echo of Elyan's speculation became too much to bear. "How did it get out here? And — these stones are ancient," he added, peering closely at the lichen-covered arch next to him; he reached a hand out but didn't touch it, and the action was so noticeable in its absence that Arthur began to realize that they were all avoiding contact, even him, and felt foolish.
"Don't touch it," Arthur heard a voice whisper, sounding so far away that Arthur was sure he'd imagined it; and he was so discomfited by this place, by the strange air and the feeling of displacement, that he rebelliously ignored the voice, imaginary or not, and pressed his palm flat against a pillar. Nothing happened; and Arthur huffed out a nervous laugh with the breath he hadn't known he was holding. Of course nothing happened — what had he been expecting? It was just a stone, rough and warm to the touch, oddly so on a day with no sunlight, and Arthur thought he could feel it humming faintly beneath his fingertips; but he dismissed that as imagination as well. It's nothing but stone, he told himself. And there is nothing to fear from that.
The sun was rapidly disappearing beneath the horizon, and a rumble from the sky forced Arthur to push his feelings of unease away and think rationally. "We need to set up camp," Arthur said finally, dropping his hand back to his side, and the knights glanced at one another and said nothing. "Look, I don't like it any more than you do, but we need to camp somewhere, and this place seems to offer some protection from the wind," Arthur said impatiently as none of them moved. "It's better than sleeping out in the open again, especially with this storm—"
Arthur looked round to find Merlin, forgotten until now, standing in front of the stone in the center with his back to them, his body so rigid that Arthur was vaguely surprised that his spine didn't snap. He didn't turn round, didn't acknowledge that everyone was now staring at him, and didn't seem to sense Arthur's fury. "Excuse me?" Arthur said dangerously.
"Please, Arthur," Merlin said, panicked and far too loud; but for some reason speaking seemed to be an enormous effort for him, so he didn't seem to notice how his voice blared in the silence. "Please, we can't stay here. Gaius told me about places like these. It's called — it's called a — a henge, and it's magic. Full of magic. Please, Arthur, we need to go. I can't — we can't be here."
Arthur had never heard of that word in his life and almost accused Merlin of making it up; but then again he'd never heard the words afanc or bastet or griffin, either, and Gaius had always been right about those. He looked to the knights to see what they made of Merlin's outburst; Percival was regarding the stones with renewed discomfort, and Gwaine was staring at his friend as if he'd never seen him before.
"Maybe we shouldn't stay here," Elyan said with a wary glance at Merlin, and Arthur knew he was thinking about the cursed druid shrine. He wanted to reassure him that it would be fine, that there wouldn't be a repeat of that incident, but then a hand clamped onto his arm, and Arthur jumped six inches and cursed.
Merlin's grip was vice-like, and he was looking round at the stones in terror, still taut as a bowstring. "Arthur," he said urgently, though much quieter, and Arthur could feel him trembling. "Arthur, if you have ever trusted me in the past — you need to trust me now. We can't stay here. We can make camp out by the horses, but please, not here."
Arthur had never seen Merlin so terrified, not even during the Dorocha attack, and for some reason that unnerved him more than the bizarre lack of wind and the otherworldly feeling embedded in the stone. "Alright," he said at last, letting go of his anger, setting aside his growing helplessness, and trusting in Merlin because he'd never let him down; then he felt a strange rush of relief, which lent strength to his voice. "Alright, we won't — we'll camp out there. Back to the horses," he said, raising his voice, but the knights were already moving; Merlin walked like every step was a struggle, his face turned to the ground, and Arthur followed him out with growing concern.
But at the edge of the circle, for reasons he couldn't explain even to himself, Arthur turned back for one last look. Arthur, the stones whispered to him, sounding ancient and familiar. Arthur.
And for the first time in his life, Arthur fled.