A/N: I'm so, so, so sorry for the enormous wait. I promise that the next one will be exponentially shorter. Thank you all for being so patient and so kind and for offering so much encouragement — all the reviews and favorites and follows. It truly does mean the world. You all are wonderful and I love you guys to bits, okay?
Arthur led them far enough away that the last outline of the stones was swallowed by the darkness, yet still its shadow loomed over their camp. His men were silent and hunched as they set up a perimeter, curling around their anxieties and closing off in a way that he had never seen before; yet they stayed close, as if straying out of arm's reach was enough to doom them to a terrible fate. It was a complex dance of personal space, of stepping on one another even while acting as if they were trying to avoid even looking at anything other than the ground.
And in the midst of it all was Merlin.
While the knights were hyper-aware of the others' proximities, Merlin drifted like a war refugee, hollow-eyed and haunted. He was everywhere — helping Leon set up, rolling out bedding, pitching tents — and yet he was nowhere, silent and unresponsive and absent in a way that made Arthur want to shake him back to his normal state of inane, comforting chatter. Yet all he did was watch, because something was wrong with Merlin and he didn't know what it was, didn't know how to bring him back, didn't know how to put words to the terror that was rooting itself deep in his bones ever since Merlin's display back in the circle.
But occasionally Merlin would blink and start and look around as though surfacing from a deep lake, panicked and lost and oddly forlorn, staring as if he had no idea where he was or how he'd gotten there. These moments of lucidity lasted mere seconds before he drifted back to blankness, still silent and empty as the plain on which they stood, and Arthur and the knights watched him out of the corners of their eyes and shivered with a dread that they did not understand.
Soon they all huddled around the fire that Merlin had lit with a curious hesitation, blocking it from the increasingly ferocious wind and absorbing every scrap of warmth while their dinner simmered and spit. "What's wrong with him?" Percival whispered when he moved away to care for the horses, giving Merlin's abandoned cook-pot a stir in his absence.
"Dunno," Gwaine said nervously, casting a glance over his shoulder at his friend. "I've never seen him like this before."
"It's just Merlin being Merlin," Arthur said bracingly, hoping that his men couldn't hear the lack of conviction in his voice. "You know how he gets — he jumped at every shadow when the Dorocha were around, and he panics at the slightest mention of the Valley of the Fallen Kings. He's convinced it's cursed, but there's never even been the slightest hint that—"
"He was right about that druid camp," Elyan interrupted quietly, eyes downcast. "And you have to admit that there was something... those rocks were strange, Arthur. I've never been so — so unsettled. He was right to make us leave."
Arthur hummed noncommittally as Merlin came staggering back into their circle, and everyone fell silent. Soon dinner was cooked and distributed, and though it was hot and filling, it brought little comfort to the group, and when the last bit of it had been eaten and the dishes stowed away, they drew lots for watches, eager to abandon this tension for the oblivion of unconsciousness.
"Get some sleep," Arthur advised his men as Gwaine cursed and searched his pack for the flask he'd stored to keep him company, because he knew that no matter how exhausted they were, their overwrought nerves would keep them awake for hours. "We ride hard tomorrow."
And before he crawled into his tent and forced himself to sleep with all the tricks he'd learned from years of campaigning, he saw Merlin staring blankly at the sky.
- -o- -
Arthur awoke to the rumble of thunder and a furious gust of wind that blew his tent down on top of him. Disoriented and flailing, he disentangled himself and stumbled out into the open air, where he shivered in the rain-heavy wind. The air seemed thick with a terrible energy, and Arthur shivered again as a deep, strange perturbation settled itself into the pit of his stomach.
"Gwaine," he croaked, trying to shove the feeling aside as he moved toward their dying fire. "Why'd you let the fire go out? Dammit, Gwaine, if you're drunk—"
But there was no answer, no figure huddled next to the embers, and Arthur's heart thudded. After today's experiences he misliked this silence, misliked anything out of the ordinary, because he was too on-edge to cope. "Gwaine!" he called, but his voice was swept away in the wind. He cast about in the darkness for any vague hint of where the man could've gone, blinking away the echo of flames that the fire had left behind his eyes, but he saw nothing but grass and tents and Merlin's bedroll, where there was a dark shape slumped next to the rumpled blankets—
When he reached him, he found that Gwaine was cold — of course he was cold, with no fire in this chill — and while there was no sign of any injury, Arthur couldn't hear his heartbeat through his mail or feel his breath on his hand through the wind. "Merlin," Arthur barked, slapping at his servant's bedroll. "Merlin, get up, something's wrong with Gwaine—"
But the bedroll was empty, and the wind made the blankets skitter and dance, but did not give any clue as to where Merlin had gone. "Merlin," Arthur said, louder this time, looking around the perimeter as if he'd find him patrolling in Gwaine's stead, trying to quell his growing panic. But even with all of his recent strangeness, Merlin still would have woken him if something was wrong, unless — unless —
He hit at the nearest tent until Percival came stumbling out, alert as he could be while blinking sleep from his eyes. "Arthur?" he asked, the confusion clear in his voice despite its low volume. "What's—?"
"Rouse the others," Arthur told him, even as Percival's eyes widened as he noticed Gwaine. "Something's wrong with him, and Merlin's missing. We're under attack."
But why? Arthur thought as Percival turned towards Leon's tent. Why attack the watchman and steal a servant, and leave the rest alive and asleep in their beds? It would be easy as breathing to slit their throats in their tents, and even if one of them had awoken in time to scream it would not have been heard over the skirling wind.
These were questions that could be asked later, once they had someone to answer them. For now he set them aside as best he could, alongside his disquiet, and focused on finding Gwaine's pulse. His fingers were cold and shaking and he had found the proper spot on the neck but all he could feel was his own pulse beating out a steady rhythm of nothing, nothing, nothing, but there wasn't a mark on Gwaine, so what had happened—?
Suddenly Gwaine gasped hugely and his eyes flew wide open, and somehow he caught Arthur's wrist in an iron grip even as he recoiled in shock. "Merlin," he said frantically, looking around, but then gave a wordless cry and groaned, "Oh gods, he's gone — he's gone — Merlin—" His eyes found Arthur again and he pulled him close in his panic, breathing erratically. "Something's wrong, he's gone—"
"We know, we know, we're going after him," Arthur said soothingly, adjusting his hands to comfort Gwaine as the rest of the knights gathered around them. "Did you see who attacked you? How many—"
"No one attacked me," Gwaine bit out.
His grip tightened. "You don't understand — something's wrong with Merlin—"
"We already knew that," Arthur joked weakly, but it fell flat as Gwaine continued.
"—he was having some sort of fit — shaking, and clawing at the ground, and making this horrible noise like he was dying, and when I got to him he was hysterical, completely incoherent, and then he had another fit but when he came out of it he told me that he had to go back—"
"Go back," Leon repeated, just as Elyan said, "Not to—"
But Arthur simply released his hold on Gwaine and stared down at him.
"I tried to stop him," Gwaine said desperately in answer to the look on Arthur's face. "I tried, but he — he must've knocked me out or something — he wasn't himself, Arthur, I've never seen him like that, not even earlier today, it was like something had a hold on him—"
"Magic," Percival said hoarsely. "He said those stones were full of magic, d'you think...?"
"I think so," Elyan answered. "Remember what I said earlier? Those stones are from the Valley of the Fallen Kings, I'm sure of it, and it's always been said that that place is cursed..."
But as their worry turned into a discussion of this theory their voices were drowned out by others, soft and ethereal and terrifying, and existing only in his head: Arthur... Arthur...
And again, just as he had the first time, Arthur wanted to flee from those voices, to run far to a place where they'd never reach him, where he was safe and numb to their power. For it was a power, of a sort; and as the first bolt of lightning flashed overhead, Arthur could feel it coiling round his heart and will, battering them to pieces, inviting him home, home, home...
Was this what Merlin had heard?
The thought punched through the voices and centered him once again; and then, as he'd been taught, he allowed himself to feel his terror, his concern, his anger, but then he built a wall around it, a wall that looked like the citadel he'd grown up in, and he locked those feelings in his heart. Camelot. Camelot is my home. "I'm going after him," Arthur said abruptly, standing and facing his men. For some reason he knew that they could not come. "Alone."
They resisted, they all did — Elyan, who was plainly stuck in the druid camp; Gwaine, who was clearly mortally afraid; Percival and Leon, who had no inkling of the true power of what lay ahead but had no desire for him to meet it unaccompanied — but Arthur cut off their protests. "This is how it must be. I will go alone, and I will bring Merlin back. You will pack up and meet me outside the stones. Outside the stones. Do not come in, or all will be lost." He didn't know where these words were coming from, but they rang with truth and he spoke them with all the authority he could muster, and their protests died in their throats.
Leon helped him saddle his horse without a word, but his eyes were full of fear. Arthur grasped his shoulder firmly but couldn't find the words to reassure him, so he merely shook him slightly and mounted up. "Arthur," Gwaine said plaintively, and struggled so much with his final protest that it choked him.
"Outside the stones," he repeated once more, then wheeled around and rode towards the circle, just as the heavens opened up and poured down the long-promised rain.
You want me to come, he told the voices, feeling half a fool. Alright then. I will come, and I will break you.