Rating: PG-13, Gen
Characters: Merlin, Arthur, Knights
Summary: There's a reason they say the Valley is cursed.
A/N: Written for the 2012 Merlin Horror Fest over on Livejournal. So, yeah, another scary one. I promise my next chapter fic won't be horror based. Chapters to be posted daily.
Birds didn't sing in the Valley of the Fallen Kings. The thought sounded like a nursery rhyme, the kind parents would make up to warn their children away from something vile, and it would've made a good one as far as Merlin was concerned. Of all the things to dislike about the Valley, from its reputation to the way the magic of it pressed on Merlin like a wet blanket on a cold day, were he to be asked to name the one thing he disliked most about the Valley, it would be the utter lack of birdsong.
Where the regular background chatter of the forest was absent, danger was. Everyone knew this, small children not yet five years old knew this. Merlin had known this at the even younger age of four, when his mother had pulled him frantically away from their yearly berry picking and back to the house. When he had asked her with childish petulance why they had to leave, she had simply stated, as though it explained everything, "The forest has gone quiet."
Which, of course, had meant next to nothing to his young mind far too focused on berry pie. Not until he heard the roar – so loud, so long, like nothing he had ever heard before turning his blood to ice and his body a juddering mess. No one had ever discovered where the roar had come from and what it had been, but Merlin had learned without his mother ever having to explain it that when the forest fell dead silent, you run or be dead yourself.
A silent forest was not a good thing, and the Valley was silent all the bloody time. How anyone could listen to that perfect silence and continue to scoff at the notion of the Valley being cursed boggled Merlin mercilessly. You'd have to be mad to think all this quiet normal. Not even the wind could quite bring itself to rattle the leaves and shake the branches, nature itself as still as if holding its breath, waiting for what it knew to be the inevitable. It was unnerving, foreboding, a constant finger of dread tracing down the spine. It was-
"Merlin, will you please inform King has-no-taste-in-anything-whatsoever what a joke minstrels are."
Merlin flinched from his thoughts and looked up to see Gwaine looking back, frowning and expectant.
"Wha..? Minstrels? What? What minstrels?"
"The one our dear queen wishes to hire for the banquet," Gwaine replied with a pointed scowl aimed Arthur's way. Arthur, positioned relatively next to Gwaine and a little ahead, did what he always did when Gwaine was being boisterously unhappy with him – ignore it.
"I'm not hiring jugglers," Arthur said dismissively. "Last time my father hired jugglers it... wasn't pleasant."
"They had him stand in the middle while they tossed rotten eggs around him," Merlin said with a touch of glee. He smiled. "It didn't end well."
"Merlin!" the king growled. He scowled Merlin's way and Merlin did what he always did when the king was being unhappy with him - also ignore it.
"But who was the one cleaning up the mess after?" Merlin went on. He hooked his thumb at himself. "Me. I spend all that time filling your bath and what do you do? You fall asleep then nearly punch me in the face when I tried to wake you. I'm with Arthur on the minstrels."
"So you're okay with a perfectly good meal going to waste for some flowery bits of poetry sung off-key," Gwaine tried.
Merlin barked a laugh. "A perfectly good meal I only get to eat if the maids don't toss the leftovers to the pigs! Gwaine, I'm sorry, but when it comes to banquets, don't go griping to the man who has only cold stew to look forward to."
Percival nudged Merlin good-naturedly in the arm with his elbow. "Don't worry, Merlin, I'll save you some."
Now it was Elyan who barked a laugh, which then prompted Percival to back his horse up and put him within reach for a good cuff to the head. Elyan ducked it easily.
"The king could always hire poets instead," Leon said with a rare smirk. Since serving under Arthur rather than his father, Leon had developed quite the sense of humor, and chuckled lightly when everyone chorused a very emphatic "No!"
A throaty rumble of thunder ended the matter without resolve. Everyone looked up at a sky gone suddenly dark. That was the other problem with the Valley – it was about as predictable as a sorcerer with a grudge. Arthur no sooner ordered them forward quickly to seek shelter when the winds gusted and the heavens parted, dumping what had to be an ocean of water onto their heads and drenching them to the bone within the span of two heartbeats.
The rain was like a silver wall making it next to impossible to see, their only guide the path directly in front of them, a path already buried beneath the growing water.
The Valley of the Kings had many paths, many trails, and after the incident that was Aggravaine's treachery, Merlin wanted to say, with conviction, that they had traveled every one. But that would be like ignoring the silence of the forest. The Valley of the Kings was a place of magic, and a place of magic had its own rules, rules to hide all its dirty little secrets.
Merlin knew something was off the moment he felt his weight shift ever-so-slightly to one side, a sensation that only happened when his horse was taking a sharp turn. Merlin knew this path, knew that there shouldn't have been any turns, not this early on and not so abruptly. But that they were on a new path wasn't confirmed until he heard the hollow clatter of horse hooves galloping over a wooden bridge where there were no bridges, and felt his weight gather at the back which only happened when going up hill, except there shouldn't be any hills. This wasn't right, but anything he had to say about it was swallowed by the thunder and rain.
Hooves splashed through mud and water, rain sluiced down Merlin's back and poured from his clothes. Drops of it stung his face like tiny nettles. The thunder ripped through the air like a dragon's roar vibrating him to the bone marrow. A sharp pain pushed through Merlin's chest as though he'd been punched by a gauntleted hand. It was cold and sharp, this pain, doubling him over with a muffled cry of alarm.
Then it stopped – the rain stopped, the thunder continued to growl and the pain, though tempered down to a dull ache, throbbed in his breastbone. There was a brief moment in which Merlin thought for sure they had stumbled through some magical portal. Where ever they were, it was dark, humid but dry, both musty and smelling heavy with dust, and everything echoed loudly like it would in a cave; except were they in a cave they would have had to wade through a stream, first, and he recalled only mud and a hill.
Then his eyes adjusted enough for him to make out, not a cave, but a chamber – a big, impossibly massive chamber a forest of pillars thicker than the thickest oak and so tall they seemed to be swallowed by the dark that was the ceiling. He could still hear the rain pounding the muddy earth. Turning, he saw the entrance to his "portal" - an ordinary door looking half-solid from the sheets of rain.
"What is this place?" Elyan's voice echoed, even hushed with awe and trepidation as it was. Merlin looked ahead through the pillars but the darkness beyond refused to give up its secrets.
"Maybe it's just me," said Gwaine, "but this looks a might different from the caves we normally take shelter in."
"That's because it isn't," said Arthur. He hopped from his horse, landing with a wet slop onto the dusty floor as he craned his neck to take the massive chamber in. "We must have taken a different path. But shelter is shelter so let's not question it." He stared out of the doorway wearing a grim expression. "Better than being out there."
Merlin, shivering in his drenched clothes, rubbed at his incessantly aching chest. It felt like he'd been struck, and he would have passed it off as some twig or pine cone thrown at him by the wind except he didn't recall feeling any actual, physical contact, only the pain. A quick check down his shirt revealed only pale skin where there should have been at least red. A discomfort that abrupt and sharp should have left some mark.
"Merlin," Arthur said shortly, snapping him back to the here and now. He looked up to see the others dismounted and either holding candles or fishing them from their packs. That they were required to carry at least one candle had become a sad testimony to how often they found themselves stuck in caves, or old castles, or strange chambers, and nothing to use as a torch within immediate reach.
There was a time, long ago, when Merlin had been of the opinion that if you had to get stuck in a place far from home that an old abandoned castle beat a cave any day. Castles had rooms to hide in, discarded weapons to use, old furniture to burn, not to mention plenty of back doors to choose from should you need to make a hasty exit. Then came the situation with the Lamia, and old abandoned castles had become like tombs in the making.
Merlin had lost count of all the miserable experiences he'd survived but of all of them – besides the incident with the questing beast and having had to poison Morgana to save the kingdom, the Lamia continued to haunt Merlin's nightmares even to this day. Strange magical beasts he could handle; his friends – noble knights sworn to protect – turning against him, threatening him, cornering him, looking at him with such... anger and intolerance...
Give him magical monsters any day over that. And give him caves over castles and chambers.
Percival stayed with the horses while the rest of them spread out through the chamber, hunting down any leaf pile or twig they could use to build a fire, even a small one. There were plenty of piles to choose from huddled up against the pillars, pushed there over the years by the wind, and Merlin's arms and chest were itching from all the twigs and leaves poking through his sopping clothes as he gathered what he could. The chamber also seemed to go on forever, the darkness eternally shrinking back from the weak candle glow yet never reaching an end. It was always there, always hovering, always waiting.
Merlin's heart thudded hard.
"Hey, come look at this!" came Gwaine's excited voice. Merlin breathed out in relief. An excited Gwaine sounding that chipper was not a Gwaine being mauled by whatever was hiding in the shadows. Merlin hurried forward, more tension unknotting itself from his chest when he spotted the distant yellow dots of the candles.
Then his foot collided with something hard and unyielding. He yelped, stumbling back while juggling his pile of debris and candle to see what was accosting him this time.
A pew. A simple, wooden, half-rotten pew warped and cracking with age. Merlin lifted his candle enough for its light to spill down on several more pews, two on each side. Merlin moved through them down the center aisle to join the lights gathered on the other side.
Gwaine had found the end of the chamber.
There were twenty pews in all, ten on one side, ten on the other, facing a long stone alter, its only adornment its tiered surface of three levels ending at the marble smooth top. But even unadorned it was lovely, the marble white and gray like storm clouds woven through a winter sky and glittering with bits of quartz. It was smooth, not a seam to be found except where the tiered top met the base and the base met the floor.
It was on the other side of the alter that the chamber finally ended. It was also the only source of any ornamentation, with two base relief carvings of either knights or kings, the distance between them about the length of the alter, like stone guards standing watch over the congregation as whoever stood at the alter preached, and woe be to any who didn't listen or else suffer the knights peeling away from the wall and cutting them down with their great stone swords.
Merlin smiled briefly at his own imagination, though it was a tremulous smile.
Gwaine, who had once confessed to not being burdened with an overactive imagination, chuckled heartily.
"A cathedral. A bloody cathedral. Well that explains our good fortune, I think."
"Depending on what was worshipped here," Leon said darkly. Leon just being Leon, Merlin wanted to say, except Arthur was looking just as unhappy. His focus was on the alter. He circled it, leaning in close to study it, and the more he saw the more he didn't like despite there being little to see.
"Come on," he said. "We can build a fire on the other side of the pews, keep it away from the door and the wind."
They piled their leaves and twigs well beyond the old pews. Merlin took mental note that no one (no one as in namely not-superstitious-at-all Arthur) had yet to suggest breaking the pews down for wood. Any other chamber or castle it wouldn't have warranted even a mention. This place, however...
There were some places in this world that, no matter how long it had been since anyone had stepped foot in them, demanded that you not alter them in anyway. Places, whether places of worship or not, that seemed to watch you, waiting for you to give it an excuse to strike you down at the smallest provocation. Places that to touch anything, change anything, would wake something long dormant and terrible.
This place was one of those places, Merlin didn't need his magic to tell him that. But what made it worse was that his magic was telling him something - something that wasn't good. Not only was there the ache in his chest, but the wet, cold feeling that had nothing to do with his soaked clothes pressing on him like a full-body weight, no longer like a blanket but like hands shoving and jostling his soul.
"Merlin!" Arthur barked.
Merlin jumped. "Sire!"
Arthur was standing across from him on the other side of the debris pile, arms folded and face a mask of flickering disapproval in the candlelight.
"Merlin," Arthur said in mock sweetness. "I know the dark is big and scary but it can't go away if you don't light a fire."
Merlin blinked. "Oh, right, sorry." He touched his candle to the pile. "Because apparently I'm the only one capable of lighting anything. Lords forbid anyone else should do it, oh, no. Might singe your precious fingers if you did."
Arthur rolled his eyes. Gwaine laughed and clapped Merlin on the back. The fire picked up momentum, pushing back some of the dark.
Once Leon had fetched Percival and the horses it was time to strip down, the most hated part of being caught out in the rain and stuck in a chamber/cave/whatever for Merlin. Saddles were removed, blankets stretched out on the dusty ground, pack-contents set out on the blankets, followed by outer layers of clothing – outer layers for the knights, who had been protected by their doublets and armor. Though Merlin should have at least been a little protected by his jacket, the rain had pounded through it, and that meant stripping down to his undershorts.
It would always be awkward – five burly men trained and conditioned to take down entire squadrons and one skinny little manservant more knobby bones than muscle, all huddled as close as possible to the fire. On the plus side, at least Arthur had long ago exhausted his supply of "skinny as a little girl" jokes and "your ribs are going to stab someone, Merlin" remarks.
"So why've we never come across this place before?" Gwaine (not one to be bothered by poky ribs and so sitting next to Merlin) asked. "We've taken so many paths through this valley I would have thought we've seen all it has to offer by now."
"I've heard it said you could send a thousand men to map the place and still not know all its secrets," said Elyan. "Father used to tell us all kinds of stories about the Valley, how it had once been neutral territory until some great rebellion."
"Betrayal," said Arthur, almost absently, it seemed, as though lost in thought and only partially listening to whatever was being said. He had been rolling a twig between his thumb and finger, and tossed it into the hungry flames. "It was a betrayal. Ages back a great alliance was formed between... I think it may have been five kingdoms, maybe more. It was in this valley that it was made, a promise sealed with the blood of the five kings that they would rule as one and rule fairly. Peace reigned in the land for several generations, only to be ended by treachery. The later kings declared war on each other. Blood was spilled in this land. It is said all five kings fell on this very valley and the curse was born."
"Valley of the Fallen Kings indeed," said Gwaine. "What was the treachery?"
Arthur shrugged. "The usual, I believe. Small grievances, lust for power, lust for land. Each king had what they believed to be a justifiable reason for breaking the truce." He took a deep breath and released it sharply. "In fact, this may very well not be a cathedral at all but a tomb. A tomb of a fallen king. The question is, which king?"
"Does it matter?" asked Percival.
"Some of the kings were said to be worse than others," Arthur replied.
Merlin narrowed his eyes. Being a bit of an expert at lies and withholding the details (which he wasn't remotely proud of except when Arthur accused him of being a terrible liar) he knew a blatant omission of facts when he heard one. Arthur also seemed uneasy. Arthur never seemed uneasy. He was either determined or trying so hard not to show he was uneasy that he came off as sarcastic and extra prattish, but never completely uneasy.
This tomb was making him nervous. But as much as Merlin wanted to ask him about it he knew it would only result in name calling and accusations of superstition. If Arthur was prattish when nervous he was twice as prattish when he was called out on it. Besides, Merlin had no doubts that Arthur was anxious to leave this place and have nothing more to do with it, because Merlin was sharing in that anxiety.