Written for 'The Heart of Camelot' 2013 Halloween Challenge
Summary: It's Samhain night and the party from Camelot are sitting around a large camp-fire and telling each other scary stories. Odd things start to happen when Merlin takes his turn, and the line between fact and fiction soon becomes blurred.
The Power of Words
A warm, familiar feeling of contentment stole over Arthur as he sat around the camp-fire with his ten companions that night. This was where he truly belonged: Here, in the company of those he cared most about in the world. The heat from the flames, the comforting crackle of the logs and Percival's softly spoken words, all combined to make him feel a little drowsy, and it was a while before Arthur realised that his eyes were closed and the sounds around him were distant and muffled.
He started suddenly, pulling himself fully awake and glancing nervously around at the others, hoping no-one had noticed that he had almost fallen asleep.
"The young man moved forward cautiously, sword in hand. 'Who are you?' he asked nervously."
Percival was continuing with his story and had captured the attention of everyone around the fire, each person listening intently and devouring his every word.
"The lady turned slowly, her hood still covering her face. 'Won't you tell me your name?' the young man asked again. 'Won't you tell me why you are here?' As she turned to face him, he realised that something of her features should now be visible. The full moon was behind his back, throwing its light onto the woman's green cloak and yet, under her hood, he could see nothing but darkness."
Percival paused dramatically and Arthur grinned at the act, turning his head slightly to gauge his companions' reaction to the tale and not at all surprised to see everyone watching the big knight intently - the men's eyes just as wide as the ladies. Arthur's gaze naturally lingered to his immediate left and to the pair he cared about the most in this world - not that he would admit such a thing to Merlin, of course. His servant was sitting next to him, blue eyes wide and bright with his head slightly forwards, eager to catch every word. Guinevere was one place further along and now had her left hand held over her mouth, leaning slightly towards Merlin, as if seeking his comfort. Arthur briefly debated switching places with his friend so he could have the excuse of holding her closer if she became too scared, but Percival was now continuing and his attention was quickly pulled back to the story.
"The young man moved towards her, slowly and cautiously. 'Do not fear me, I will not hurt you,' he said and she nodded, apparently reassured. She moved her hands to lower her hood and revealed..." Percival paused, leaning forwards, and everyone around the camp-fire instinctively did the same. "Nothing!" Percival said in a louder voice. "There was no head under the hood, just a darkness blacker than any night."
Gwen gave a muffled yelp and grabbed at Merlin's arm which, in turn, caused him to jump and cry out too. Gwaine laughed and a few others attempted to muffle giggles at the pair's reaction.
Percival grinned broadly before continuing. "The young man turned to run, but the darkness expanded from the hood like black fog and quickly caught up with him, enveloping him in blanket of eternal night-time." The knight lowered his voice even further. "And so, from that evening on, there were always two cloaked figures to be seen walking out on the desolate moor."
The ending of the tale was greeted by a heavy silence, broken only by the pop of a burning log, which again caused quite a few of the listeners to visibly jump.
"A good tale," Leon said eventually, his voice a little less firm than usual. "Very well told." Arthur noticed that the knight's eyes were a little wild and smiled to himself, looking around at all of his companions in order to determine which ones were most effected by Percival's spooky tale.
"Indeed," said Gaius. "Although I'm not sure I should be listening to ghost stories at my time of life. Especially on Samhain night."
"Yes, who's clever idea was that, anyway?" Elyan asked with a laugh.
"Well, I would definitely say that was the scariest tale of the evening so far," Gwaine commented. "Although I'm not sure Arthur was impressed. Seeing he fell asleep halfway through."
"I did not!" he protested as Merlin turned his head to give him a quizzical look. "I definitely did not fall asleep," he repeated to his friend, with a glare that said that anyone who contradicted him did so at their peril.
"Oh, I'm quite sure our king was simply resting his eyes," Elyan continued with a smirk.
"Don't you start," Arthur complained.
"Of course he was," Gwaine replied, sarcastically.
"Well, I admit that my throat's a little dry after that," Percival said with a grin. "Top me up would you, Merlin?"
The tall young man jumped up quickly to oblige, also pouring wine into Leon's cup and getting one for himself whilst he was there. He turned around to return to his place next to Arthur but then paused, looking around slowly, a frown on his face as he surveyed the scene, his eyes darting back and forth.
"What is it?" Gwen asked nervously. "What's wrong?"
"I can feel a presence." Merlin's voice was quiet and deep and he licked his lips, nervously glancing this way and that.
"What sort of presence?" Arthur asked him, his hand automatically going to his sword hilt – expecting danger.
"Are you being serious, Merlin, or is this part of the storytelling?" Leon asked suspiciously, also looking around nervously. Arthur turned to note Gwaine grinning broadly and quickly relaxed.
"There's more than one, in fact," Merlin continued, his expression unreadable. "They're all around us. Watching – listening."
"Oh, go on, then," said Gwen with a sudden smile, "I suppose it is your turn to tell the next ghost story, after all."
For a moment Merlin didn't respond, still playing the part, as his eyes seemed to follow the path of beings that no-one else could see. Then he moved his gaze closer, around the camp-fire, checking he had everyone's attention before finally sitting down with a small, sad smile – taking a large sip of his drink.
"Everyone knows that there is power in words," he began. "And that power becomes far greater when you arrange those words into stories. There is – excuse my language—a type of magic about a well spun yarn." Merlin grinned at them all in turn, apparently enjoying his little joke. "The right words spoken in the right way can change things at any time of the year but, on an evening such as this, when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, even the most ordinary story can cause the most extraordinary things to happen." He paused before suddenly sitting upright and pointing at something behind Leon. "There! Look over there!"
"Where? What?" As one, all ten listeners turned to the darkness of the trees behind their camp.
"Can you not feel it? Can you not see it?"
Guinevere giggled. "Merlin!" she scolded gently.
"I do hope he knows what he's doing," Lancelot muttered quietly somewhere to Arthur's right.
"Those that have passed over have come to hear our tales, as have those who occupy the world in-between. Look, can you not see them?" Arthur blinked, trying to focus and shook his head, doubting what his eyes were seeing. He was now certain he could see small lights dancing amongst the branches, "Come forward," Merlin called out towards the trees. "Do not be afraid."
"Is that really...?" Percival turned around a bit more and blinked as, just like Arthur, he attempted to work if what he was really seeing was really there.
"You can see them, can't you?" Merlin asked them, his voice taking on a serious tone. "All those little lights? They are the fairy folk. Quite harmless, of course, but they are terribly curious beings."
"Merlin, I'm really not sure about…" Arthur said, nervously. The more his friend spoke, the clearer the lights seemed to become. The darkness of the trees made them even more obvious, bobbing up and down, moving slowly forwards – some starting to dart quickly here and there. He gripped his sword a little tighter.
"You're wondering if they're really there? If you can truly see them or if your mind is playing tricks?" Merlin continued. "And yet, why should we be surprised? Isn't that what we expected to see tonight? Do we not set out candles and food for those that have passed on – to help guide them on their way to the summer lands. Is this not the night to make peace with the spirits and those that inhabit the other world. Look!" Again Merlin pointed and again everyone jumped and turned to follow his indication, this time, to his left, behind Gaius.
"What?" Arthur and Percival asked together.
"He's very good, isn't he?" Elyan muttered somewhere to Arthur's right.
"Can you not see them? All those that passed beyond the veil many years past? Those we once knew in this world?"
Arthur stared at the space, blinking, trying to decide if the small, moving shadows were something more than the wind moving the branches. Another small scoff from his right made him suddenly check himself, realising they were all being played.
"Honestly, Merlin. As much as I admire your ability to tell a tall tale, I really don't think you should..."
"Ssh, I can hear them singing now," Merlin interrupted with a smile. "Who else can hear the music?"
"Ooh, I can," Gwen replied, "It's beautiful. I think … I think it's an old lullaby."
"It is," Mordred agreed. "My mother used to sing it to me when I was small."
Arthur turned to the young knight with a frown. "You've never spoken of her before now."
Mordred shrugged, I barely even remember her, but I do remember her singing that one to me."
"An ancient song indeed," Gaius agreed. "It is many years since I last heard it."
There was no doubt about it, Arthur could hear the music now, too. A slow, sad song with such beautiful harmonies that he felt a lump form in his throat. How could this really be happening?
"They have been guided this way by our fire and our words," Merlin continued quietly. "And their song is their payment to us because, when words are crafted into music, their power is increased yet further. True magic, don't you think?"
And then, to Arthur's amazement, Merlin took a deep breath and started to sing, joining in with the faint, mystical lullaby. His voice was not the most powerful the young king had ever heard, but it was still a pleasant surprise; secure and tuneful. Then Guinevere added her voice – creating the most amazing harmonies that soared over Merlin's notes and Arthur felt tears sting his eyes as he heard it. She always did have the most beautiful voice. For a moment there was nothing for him but those two, singing that perfect song as the fire lit up their faces and made them look as if they were from another world. For a moment he felt as if his heart would break.
They both look so beautiful, but so sad.
Morgana stood up with a deep sign and stretched, before walking slowly around the whole group - her gaze constantly returning to the singers – apparently as enraptured by their duet as everyone else was.
"You're sad too," Arthur said quietly as she walked past him again.
She gave him a long quizzical look before smiling slightly. "Is there anyone around this fire who is truly happy at the way things have turned out?"
"What do you mean?" For a moment Arthur panicked, suddenly forgetting why they were there. What they had done earlier that day? What were their plans for tomorrow? He hadn't drunk that much, had he?
Morgana sighed, her gaze now on Merlin, her expression unreadable. "A true and natural Bard, that one," she commented quietly, "But then, this always was his story, wasn't it? Despite what we all thought."
"Morgana?" Arthur was only now beginning to appreciate the strangeness here - over and above the eerie lights, moving shadows and haunting music.
"There are even more of them arriving now," Merlin said with a frown. "Their presence is so strong." He bit his lip. "Perhaps I overdid it."
"What do you mean?" Gwen asked.
"What have you done now, Merlin?" Gaius asked, his voice taking on a familiar, long suffering tone.
"It feels as if they're right here..."
Arthur sensed a movement behind him and turned to see Mordred walking away towards the trees. He was going to call out to the young knight but then Guinevere spoke and his attention was quickly diverted back.
"Merlin? What is it?" Gwen asked, putting a hand on her friend's shoulder.
The young man had turned his attention away from the woods and was now looking a little closer, his face even paler than before.
"Are you really serious about this, Merlin, or is it just part of your tale spinning?" Leon asked nervously.
He shook his head. "I've been serious the whole time. This is Samhain, after all."
A sudden fear gripped Arthur then. The feeling that he had missed something important and had put his friends at risk in the process. "Merlin? What is it? What's the matter?" he asked but the dark-haired man just shook his head, his eyes now tear -filled.
"Honestly, Arthur you always were so slow," Morgana complained in the same teasing tone she had used when they were children.
"Right, Morgana," Lancelot responded with a laugh, "And exactly how many years did it take you to figure out who Emrys was?"
"That was different," she replied haughtily.
Gwaine laughed loudly. "He's definitely got you there, 'my lady'."
"Emrys? I don't understand," Arthur said, desperately trying to find the memory.
"Merlin?" Gwen asked her hand still on the young man's arm. "What is it? Tell us what you can sense?"
"I said there was a presence, but there's not just one here tonight. I said there was power in words and it seems that was more true than I realised. It seems that many have crossed the veil tonight, just to listen to our stories. He smiled then, again looking around at all of them.
"W-what are you talking about?" Leon asked nervously.
"All the ones we've lost have returned tonight."
And Arthur realised it was true. Looking up he saw knights long dead moving closer to the roaring fire. Childhood friends he had lost, citizens he had been unable to save. Merlin's friend Will was standing over on one side - next to the Dragonlord - and everywhere he looked there were friends and enemies alike, all standing together with no sign of hatred or malice in their expressions, just watching and listening to the stories and songs. Mordred was now with a brown haired girl that Arthur thought he recognised, but whose name he couldn't quite remember. Morgana had moved over to join three shadowy presences a bit further along: Morgause with her blonde hair was obvious and Arthur thought that perhaps the other two were her parents, although he couldn't be certain.
Then he sensed a strong presence from behind him and turned around to see two ghostly forms standing to one side: A beautiful blonde lady with her husband's arm around her shoulder, both smiling affectionately at him.
"Mother? Father?" he choked out.
"Everyone is here," Merlin explained and Arthur wondered if all those around the camp-fire could see these spirits tonight. "But the strongest presences are the closest and it's only now that I've realised who it is I've been sensing all this time."
"You don't mean...?" Percival asked, wide-eyed.
"Yes," Merlin said with a sad smile. "Lancelot, Elyan and Gwaine are sitting over there." He pointed to the three knights and Arthur shook his head, confused at the very obvious comment.
"Took you long enough, mate," Gwaine said, folding his arms as he lounged back on his elbows, a big smile on his face. "I thought you were supposed to be some all-powerful sorcerer? Loosing your touch, already?"
"What? I don't understand." Why could he not remember anything?
"And… Arthur is..." Merlin's voice cracked as he glanced to the side, his eyes tear-filed. "... sitting right here next to me."
"Well, of course I am. Where else would I be?"
"Arthur's here?" Gwen asked, tears in her eyes and Merlin nodded at her, smiling slightly. "He really liked your singing."
"It's nearly dawn," Lancelot said sadly. "It's time for us to go."
"Go where?" Arthur asked.
"We cannot stay here," Elyan replied. "This world is no longer ours."
"Why do I not remember? Why does this all feel so real?"
Merlin turned, suddenly looking straight at Arthur for the first time that evening. "Because you are not quite of this world or of theirs," he explained. "Because, unlike the others here who have truly died, you are hovering between the two worlds, waiting for the time when you can return."
Merlin's words came as a shock to Arthur but yet, as soon as he thought about it, he knew that his friend spoke the truth. He remembered the sword, remembered everything.
"When?" he asked finally. "When can I come home?"
"I'm afraid even I don't know the answer to that," Merlin replied sadly. "But, I promise you that I shall be waiting for when you return. No matter how long it takes."