TITLE: THE WATER WITCH AND THE BLACK DOGS
DISCLAIMER: Own nothing but my own words.
GENRE: Gen A/A H/C
SPOILERS: Somewhere between Seasons 4 and 5, so everything up until now is fair game.
STATUS: Complete in 13 Chapters, plus a short prologue and epilogue. I'm still revising, but I wanted to get this up before the new season started in England, because it is so going to get Jossed.
CHARACTERS: Gwaine and Merlin are on their own for most of this, so…they're the main characters.
A/N: The underpinning of this story came from a book my brother got me for Christmas called "Abbey Lubbers, Banshees and Boggarts, a Who's Who of Fairies." So many ancient legends, so little time! I picked two ancient British legends, one famous and one a little less so (see title), and then co-opted them for my own evil ends. I also stole some things from an old French legend as well.
Warning: There is violence in this fic.
DESCRIPTION: A little tale of evil hags, black dogs, missing princes and estranged siblings, not necessarily in that order. When Gwaine accompanies Arthur, Merlin and the knights on a diplomatic mission to Mercia, he becomes an unwitting participant in a power struggle for Bayard's throne.
PROLOGUE: THE BLACK RIVER
"Be brave, little one," the prince told him, kneeling down on the stones so they were eye to eye. "You can be brave for me, can't you?"
He nodded, not blinking. "Yes, my lord."
"And I won't let anything happen to you, you know that, right?"
He nodded again, and wiped a hand across his running nose. The cold night air nipped at his nearly bare arms, and he started to shake. "I'm cold."
The prince smiled, and beckoned to one of his servants. The man pulled off his brown jacket and handed it over. The prince took it between two fingers, flashing a quick look of disgust before hiding it behind the smile. Shaking it out, he draped the jacked over the boy's shoulders.
"Better?" he asked, and the boy nodded, tugging the jacket around him for warmth.
"Yes, my lord."
"Good." The smile faded. "But now I need you to be brave and do what I asked. You remember what your mother said."
The boy sniffed. Momma. He wanted to go home, to go back to his momma. But he couldn't. The prince had said something to her, and his momma had made him promise to do whatever the prince asked. Even though he didn't want to. He was sure it was important, but he really didn't want to. It was scary.
"She made me promise to do what you say, my lord."
"That's right," the prince said, still smiling, his eyes bright in the moonlight, like stars. "And I need you to go down and fetch me some water from the river." He looked pointedly at the cup in the boy's hand, which he was gripping so tightly it hurt his fingers.
Reluctantly, the boy turned and looked down the steep bank, the grass shimmering like silver in the moonlight. Rushes swayed and bowed in the cool wind, leaving only a small, grass and rock filled path directly to the water, while the river itself moved not at all, as still as the bathwater in his baby sister's tub. A lilypad floated on the surface, nearly white against the blackness around it.
He flinched when something jumped into the water.
"Just a frog," the prince promised. "You like frogs, don't you?"
He didn't answer, just continued to stare at the water and tried to ignore the tears running down his face.
"You need to go now, Galeshin," the prince said. "I need my water."
The boy swallowed, and nodded. Shaking more now, despite the heavy coat on his shoulders, he carefully started to make his way down the bank. The grass was slippery, like ice, and the black rocks between were slick with algae. A couple of times, he fell to his knees, and the second time he almost lost the cup. Scrambling for it, he suddenly found himself at the very edge of the earthen bank, his worn, patched boots struggling to find purchase on the wet earth.
He turned and looked up the hill, and saw the prince smiling down at him, nodding encouragement.
"Almost there," the prince said. "Do as you mother said. Fetch me the water and then you can go home."
Galeshin worried his bottom lip, and though he couldn't stop crying, he nodded again. He would do as his momma said.
Carefully, he got down on his knees in the mud and, cup in hand, reached a shaking hand out towards the stagnant black water. The jacket slipped off his shoulders as he stretched his arm further, fingers started to lose their grip on the metal cup. Terrified beyond thought, he touched the edge of the metal rim to the surface and started to fill the cup.
"Peg!" the prince shouted and Galeshin almost dropped the cup. "Take your sacrifice!"
A green, slime covered hand shot out of the water and snatched his wrist, and Galeshin screamed and screamed and screamed until he couldn't scream anymore.
CHAPTER ONE: THE ROAD TO MERCIA
Gwaine kicked his horse forward, away from Percival and Elyan, both of whom were getting that glassy-eyed look his friends always seemed to get after talking to him for too long, and up to where Merlin was riding just behind Arthur. His friend had been fairly quiet this ride, quieter than normal, and it was beginning to worry Gwaine a bit.
Merlin smiled lightly at seeing Gwaine, but the smile faded as he turned his head away, returning his gaze to the grain fields around them.
"Something the matter?" Gwaine asked, nudging his horse close enough to Merlin's that the two beasts knocked hindquarters. Merlin frowned slightly, pulling his horse's head a bit to the right before Gwaine's younger horse could nip at the servant's older mare.
"Don't do that," Merlin admonished. "I just got her calmed down."
"Calmed down?" Gwaine repeated. "Was she anxious?"
"Arthur's horse kicked at her."
Gwaine wasn't surprised. Arthur's horse was always the most high-strung of all the mounts.
"I never know who is more of an ass, Arthur or his horse," he whispered to Merlin, smirking a bit. His friend smirked back, but, as with his first smile, it faded quickly. Merlin not having an ever-present smile was definitely worrying. Gwaine tilted his head.
"Come on. You're bothered by something. What is it?"
"Nothing," Gwaine repeated. "Merlin, we have at least two more full days in the saddle before we reach Bayard's castle in Mercia. The men are going to be grumpy and saddle sore, and if you're not around to help me keep them cheered up, we're going to be the most ill-mannered knightly contingent ever to grace Mercia's halls. You need to tell me what's wrong so I can fix it, so we can go back to keeping the rest of these men in good spirits."
Merlin gave him a wry look. "Are you saying that we are the company's jesters?"
"Of course we are! Didn't you know? Although, it may be more that I'm the jester and you're the good luck charm, but, yes. In a sense."
Merlin's eyebrows raised. "And now I'm a rabbit's foot? Thank you. My mother will be so proud."
Gwaine's eyes narrowed, his smile crooked. "You're changing the subject."
"I am." Merlin smiled again, and turned his head away.
Gwaine studied him a moment, pursing his lips in thought. If he couldn't get Merlin to talk to him by simply asking, then he'd have to try something else. And, since words were overrated…. Smiling brightly, he reached out and smacked Merlin's arm hard. Merlin yelped, and gave him a hurt look, rubbing at his arm.
"What was that for?" he griped.
In front of them, Arthur had glanced over his shoulder at them at the yelp, and Gwaine flashed him a grin to let him know he needn't worry. Arthur grimaced, but returned his attention to the road.
Gwaine looked at Merlin, who was still rubbing his arm, and answered, "I wanted to get your attention."
"You didn't have to hit me," Merlin muttered.
"You were ignoring me. It seemed the best way to make you stop."
"I wasn't ignoring you."
Gwaine arched an eyebrow.
"Alright, fine," Merlin snapped. "I was. Well, more like ignoring your question; ignoring you is an impossibility."
"So, answer the question."
"I don't want to talk about what is bothering me. Can't you just leave it at that?"
Gwaine shook his head. "No. You've been as moody as an old woman since Arthur informed the court we were travelling to Mercia to renew Uther's treaty with King Bayard. I thought you liked seeing new places."
Merlin twisted his lips slightly, and shook his head. "I do. Just—"
"He doesn't want to go to Mercia," supplied a new voice directly to his left, causing Gwaine to jump slightly. He hadn't noticed Arthur drop back.
"Sire," he said, sitting up a little straighter in the saddle. Arthur didn't notice, looking over the head of Gwaine's mount to Merlin.
"You really need to stop sulking like a girl," he said.
Merlin lifted his chin. "You said, because we were taking twenty knights and two lords, that you'd bring extra servants."
"Besides me, there are only three others from Camelot, and one of them is a cook!"
"This is about work?" Gwaine said, trying to understand. Merlin wasn't usually one to complain about that. Perhaps Merlin was unhappy having to serve so many knights? But he hadn't seen Merlin doing any more than he normally did. The knights were fairly self-sufficient, and the two noblemen riding with them had brought their own manservants.
"No, it's not the work. He wanted more servants along so he could hide behind them," Arthur said, shaking his head at Merlin.
"With good reason!" Merlin said. "I only agreed to come because you promised me—"
"You mean you had a choice about coming?" Arthur interrupted. He looked at Gwaine, and touched a hand to his chest. "Funny thing that. I always thought it was the king who made the decisions about who attended him. And, oh yes, I'm the king."
Gwaine opened his mouth to reply, but Merlin was faster.
"You are such a stubborn—" He stopped, looking almost like he was biting his tongue, and shook his head. "This was a bad idea, Arthur."
"For god's sakes, stop whining. It'll be fine!" Arthur shook his head. "Trust me, he's not even going to remember you. My father barely knew who you were for most of that first year you were with me."
"I didn't accuse your father of trying to poison you and nearly started a war!"
Gwaine's eyebrow shot straight up at that. "You did what?"
"True," Arthur replied, shrugging. "But even after you drank that poison for me, nearly dying in the process and saving my life for the second time in so many months, my father still didn't quite know who you were. He kept calling you, that 'annoying black haired boy.'"
"You drank poison for Arthur?" Gwaine said, frowning slightly at how incredibly unsurprising that was.
Merlin ignored him. "Yes, but—"
"Besides," continued Arthur, "you know that Bayard's been to visit several times since then, and he has never brought it up. And he's certainly never said anything about you in particular. I doubt he knows you're even alive."
"That's because I hide behind others when he's there! And there're pillars and curtains and doorways to sneak into!"
"Why am I not surprised that you spend most of your time hiding from people who scare you?" Arthur asked cheekily, earning a grin from Gwaine.
"Oh, come on!" Merlin said, pouting slightly. "All I'm asking is, where am I going to hide when you present us all to the court?"
"Well," Arthur frowned, "I won't exactly be presenting you, Merlin. I wasn't really planning on presenting anyone except Lords Exestan and Corin as they are, as you know, nobility. Of course, if you'd like me to, I can completely ignore hundreds of years of court etiquette to make my servant the most prominent member of my entire company. Tell me, how would you like that to go? 'Your majesty, before I introduce anyone else, including myself, may I introduce Merlin, my manservant? Look, you can see he's special.'"
Merlin snarled. "You won't be laughing when he sees me and accuses you of bringing a miscreant and blackguard into his house."
Arthur snorted. "Never going to happen. He's not even going to remember your face. You're probably just a servant shaped blur in his memory."
"How can you be so certain? You keep saying that, but—"
"Because I know what I'm talking about! I have known him my entire life. You've seen him, what, three times? Give me the courtesy of knowing my enemies a little better than you!"
Merlin just shook his head, and Gwaine wondered if now would be a good time to slow his horse and slide out from between them. Instead, almost deliberately, Arthur pushed his horse closer, neatly penning Gwaine between him and Merlin, giving him nowhere to go.
"I'm going to say this just once more time because I am tired of having this argument with you," Arthur said, staring hard at Merlin. "You need to trust me. Right now. Tell me you trust me or you are out of my service."
Merlin sighed heavily, looking up at the sky for a moment before returning a hard gaze to Arthur. "Of course I trust you."
"Then stop worrying and do so."
Merlin's jaw set and he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he pasted a fake smile on his face. "Fine."
Arthur studied him a moment longer, huffed in annoyance, and kicked his horse so that it leapt forward, distancing him from Gwaine and Merlin.
Gwaine actually managed to stay silent for a whole ten seconds before asking Merlin, "You're still worrying aren't you?"
Gwaine smiled slightly. "Anything I can do?"
Gwaine sighed and studied Arthur's straight back now ten yards ahead of them, at the head of the line, the gold circlet on his head shining in the sunlight.
"He might actually know what he's talking about, you know."
Merlin frowned, eyes clearly finding Arthur's back. "Maybe."
"And…" Gwaine added, "I know you, friend. You were going to come anyway, even if he didn't bring any other servants. Because you always do."
"That's besides the point."
Gwaine snorted a laugh. "True."
After a few more beats of silence, Gwaine was going to say something else when Merlin sighed heavily.
"You know, Gwaine," he said. "I envy you."
"Oh? Is it the hair? Or just the body?"
"Ha ha," Merlin said, smiling slightly. "No, I mean…because you never seem to have any worries. Maybe because you moved around so much, you never stayed anywhere long enough for real worries to stick to you."
Gwaine frowned slightly, wondering if Merlin realized that he'd just insulted him. Merlin, though, was focused on Arthur as always, so Gwaine brushed the hurt aside, and smiled brightly.
"Perhaps so," he said, nudging his friend in the arm. "Or maybe I'm just a hell of a lot better at hiding them than you are."
Merlin actually blinked at that, and he looked at Gwaine, his eyes a little more open. Damn, Gwaine had forgotten just how quick Merlin's mind was.
"Gwaine, I didn't mean—"
"And," Gwaine said, grinning even more, his cheeks straining with the expression as he cut the apology off, "you really need to learn how to hide your worry better as well. Or Arthur might follow through on his threat. A smile and helping me keep the others happy might help." Gwaine's eyebrows lifted. "What do you say? Jesters in arms?"
Merlin closed his mouth, pressing his lips together as he regarded Gwaine for a moment. Finally, the gears apparently locked into place, because he gave a nod. And smiled.
"Jesters in arms," he promised, and finally smiled the genuine smile Gwaine had been looking for.
Merlin walked up to Arthur, who was standing at the edge of the cliff they'd chosen to camp on for the night. The king was looking down at the shadowed valley, the trees and meadows below already taking on the dark blue quality of encroaching darkness. The sun had set beyond the horizon, but up here, twilight was still bright enough to see the rolling, purpling hills of Mercia stretching before them.
"It's a pretty country," Merlin noted.
Arthur looked up from the valley and towards the distant hills. "It is," he agreed. He tilted his head. "It's the heart of Albion, you know. The center of the whole isle."
Merlin shrugged. "Just means that, if they want good fish, they have to come begging."
Arthur huffed a laugh at that, and nodded. "True." He looked down again. "There's a river down there. It's a branch off that big one we crossed earlier today."
"The one that almost drowned Gwaine, near Lord Corin's Castle?" Merlin smiled. "He really needs to learn better balance when dancing on a ferry."
Arthur chuckled, and looked up. "That big river will be the border someday. Camelot and Mercia fight about where the line should be, build up earthenworks and negotiate for the loyalties of the landed peers, but my father once told me that he thought the river would eventually decide it. Can't deny something as unequivocal or as powerful as a river."
Merlin tilted his head. "Unless…the lands unite. Then the river will just be a river."
Arthur smiled lightly, and looked away. Merlin studied him for a long moment, before clearing his throat. He'd really come with a purpose, to make up for their argument in front of Gwaine, and now was as good a time as any.
"I, um…" Merlin rubbed at his neck. "I wanted to say I was sorry about earlier. I know you aren't trying to be an ass about this whole not bringing enough servants thing."
Arthur smirked slightly, and glanced at him briefly before looking away. "I know."
"And I do trust you."
"I know that too."
Merlin nodded, and looked down at his boots. He kicked at the loose gravel on the rocky cliff they'd picked for their camp. It would not be comfortable to sleep on.
"You know why I need you with me, don't you?" Arthur asked the question so softly, Merlin almost missed it. He shrugged.
"Because you'd be lost without me."
Arthur snorted a laugh, but, slowly, he gave a nod. "Not sure when that happened, but…yes." He looked north, to the battlements of a yellow-stoned castle in the distance. The blue crest of Mercia flew above the towers. His smile faded. "I think I might be."
Merlin's eyes widened slightly, amazed at the admission. And then he couldn't hide a brilliant smile. Arthur groaned and pressed a hand to his head.
"Do not," the king begged, "let that go to your head."
"Too late," Merlin said, grinning even wider.
Arthur smiled again, then hit him in the arm. After a moment, though, the smiled faded again, his attention drifting from the castle in the distance to the hills of Mercia again.
"Thing is," he said, his voice soft again, "I trust your judgment, almost more than my own these days, so when you doubt me…." He frowned slightly. "…It makes me doubt myself. And now I wonder…" He looked at Merlin out of the corner of his eye. "Was this a good idea?"
Merlin knew exactly what he was talking about, and he dropped all pretense of foolishness.
"Yes. It was. It is. Bayard is smart," he said solemnly. "He won't believe the rumors. And you coming here will quash them before they can get worse."
Arthur frowned slightly. "We'll see." The frown deepened. "I'm not sure it's even important whether he believes them or not. The question is, will he act on them?"
Merlin frowned. "You really think…?"
"He's not just intelligent. He's cunning. Ruthless. If he sees an advantage over me, he'll take it." Arthur looked at Merlin again. "My father would."
Merlin's frown deepened. "Which is why your father and Bayard remained stuck in their ways, leaving us at loggerheads with Mercia. Change is coming, Arthur. And it will not be born of deceit."
Arthur grimaced. "I wish I had your optimism."
"You do," Merlin said. "Or you wouldn't be standing here."
Arthur's brow furrowed, and then he smiled. He looked at Merlin again, still smiling. "Right." But it wasn't confidently delivered. And, frankly, Merlin wasn't any more confident in their success. This was a gamble. A big, somewhat terrifying gamble. And usually, ideas this risky were Merlin's—but it had been Arthur's. And Merlin had been undercutting him more than supporting him, out of fear. Well, that changed now. Arthur wanted his optimism? He'd give it.
"You know," he said, placing his hands behind his back. "It's pretty country, but…" He looked at Arthur. "It's not a pretty as Camelot."
Arthur gave a nod. "Not disagreeing with that."
"I mean, we have forests. With trees. They have…" He frowned. "Less trees."
Arthur clearly couldn't resist smiling at that. "Fewer."
"Fewer trees." Merlin frowned. "Are you sure about that? Less versus fewer?"
"Oh. I was just testing you, you know."
"And besides more trees, we have an ocean on one side of us, and a really, really long beach at the estuary of an awesome river. They have, what…a few lakes? And small lakes at that."
Arthur hummed an agreement.
"And we have some seriously tall mountains. With snow on them. Their mountains are just stubby hills compared to our mountains. Our mountains are really mountain-y."
Arthur actually grinned at that. "You done?"
"I'm just saying…"
"We're sort of bad ass. Who needs optimism when you're that bad ass?"
That earned a bright laugh, and Arthur wrapped an arm around his shoulders, giving him a quick sideways hug before letting go.
"What I'm here for."
"MERLIN!" Gwaine's shouted echoed across the camp. "Get back here! You need to tell Elyan I'm not making up the story about the three wenches at that tavern in Kennery!"
"You're being hailed," Arthur noted.
Merlin sighed, looking up at the darkening sky, the stars already growing thick in number. "The three wenches of Kennery…." He shook his head. "I hate that story."
"I know," Arthur said, grinning. He pushed Merlin away, towards Gwaine's campfire. "But he loves to tell it."
"Can't you make up some excuse to keep me here? Polish your armor? Fetch more wood?"
"And deny you the spotlight, especially the ending where you end up lying in a wagon full of manure?" Arthur grinned. "Not on your life. I'll polish my own armor."
"You're rotten." He tilted his head towards the group. "At least join us."
"I will," Arthur said. "In a minute."
"Merlin!" Gwaine shouted. "Hurry it up, man!"
Merlin narrowed his gaze at Arthur. "You brood for longer than one minute, I'm sending Gwaine to drag you to the fire."
Arthur smirked, and glanced at the campfire. Finally, he gave a nod.
"You win," he said, and his eyes turned wicked. "But only if I get to tell the ending of the three wenches of Kennery story."
Merlin shuddered with that horrible thought, but…for the sake of his king's sanity…he acquiesced with a very reluctant nod. Arthur chuckled, slapped him on the back, and the two of them walked back to the fires, Merlin regretting the decision the whole way.
Elyan shook him awake with a quiet word, and Gwaine sighed. Sitting up, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and grumbled inwardly at how much he hated being on watch. Twenty knights, yet Arthur had designated him, Elyan and Percival to cover most of the night. Sometimes it sucked being part of the inner circle. He knew the other knights were jealous, as did Arthur, hence these somewhat punishing details to make up for it. Gwaine was also always tempted to remind the others that, being Arthur's friend also meant you were at the front of the line at his side when it was time to fight.
But, yeah…who was he kidding? They had reason to be jealous. He loved it. Being one of the men always at Arthur's side was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him.
As he got to his feet, he glanced at Merlin, sleeping a few feet away from Arthur. One day, he'd figure out how to pay his friend back for making him part of this life.
Stretching his arms out over his head, Gwaine walked the perimeter of the camp, eyes unconsciously looking up at the bright, nearly full moon. It looked close to setting, swelling in size as it dipped towards the horizon. Only a couple more hours until dawn, then.
Reaching the edge of the white, limestone bluff on which they'd camped, he looked down the cliff to the shadowed, tree-lined valley below, and to the hills beyond. Over the next rise, he knew, the trees gave way to tilled fields and villages—the heart of Mercia. To the north, he could see the fat, round turrets of a yellow-stoned castle, the size of which easily challenge the might of many of the grey stone behemoths lining Camelot's borders. Arthur could have begged leave to stay there for the night, but there was a sense of urgency and anxiety to this journey that had them staying on the outskirts of this particular Mercian lord's lands.
Gwaine wasn't entirely sure what it was that had Arthur so worried. Mercia was, like Camelot, massive and strong, one of the original five kingdoms. Others built castles and proclaimed themselves kings, but the five kingdoms were the true powers of Albion. And, for now, the five kingdoms were at peace. Uther's greatest gift to his son—peace amongst the five kingdoms for the first time since Gwaine could remember. Sure, the treaty Uther had forged was sometimes strained but Gwaine had heard no rumors of Bayard wanting to threaten the peace. This trip to see the King of Mercia to renew the treaty should thus be one of confidence, not concern.
Of course, Gwaine never truly understood the politics that Arthur waded through now that he was king. Perhaps it was still the feeling that he had to live up to this legacy his father had given him, or perhaps it was something else. All Gwaine knew was that Arthur was grim, and Merlin was edgy—this afternoon's conversation clearly a symptom of that. It had to be more than just something that had happened many years before, when Mercia and Camelot were still at odds.
Grimacing slightly, Gwaine scuffed the loose rock at the top of the cliff and rolled his arms inside the chainmail.
Fact was, Gwaine didn't like edgy. Edgy meant trouble. Arthur wasn't talking, and, of course, Merlin never would.
Unless Gwaine could find a way to get Merlin drunk.
Smirking, he kicked a fat rock off the top of the cliff and followed it as it hit the leaves of a tree about twenty yards down. Not bad. He lined up another rock, settled back…and kicked it as hard as he could.
Ha! At least fifty yards this time! He'd have to see if Percival could do better when he came to relieve him. For the sake of further analysis, he kicked another one…it landed shorter than the second one. Hmm. Probably didn't go as far because it was heavier. He'd have to find just the right rock.
Studying the innocent looking landscape a moment more, he turned, ready to cross to another vantage point, when he caught motion out of the corner of his eye. Frowning slightly, he looked back, just in time to see the trees shiver and shake in the valley below. The heavy oak leaves, silvery by the light of the moon, shimmered like diamonds, and Gwaine instantly tensed.
There was no wind to cause such an occurrence.
Still…perhaps it was just some animal. Some really big animal. One that can knock into oak trees and make them shake. Yeah. Not so likely.
He jumped slightly as a growl echoed in the darkness, and more trees shook, this time at the base of the shallow bluff on which the camp was sitting.
Whatever it was, it was heading in their direction. The growl came again, louder…angrier, and he heard rocks skittering and a tree trunk crack. Oak didn't just crack. Gwaine ripped his sword from his sheath.
Hell n' all.
"To arms!" he shouted, turning and running back to camp. "Everyone awake! We are under attack!"
I know the scene breaks are odd, but I don't trust this site as far as I can throw it. I sometimes cringe when I check on an older fic, to find all the scene breaks missing and everything blurring together. I love this site, but, man, it's annoying. So, now I sort of do the overkill thing with breaks and ellipses.