Ordǣl 1/2

Sep. 30th, 2011 10:31 pm
flypaw: (merlin)
[personal profile] flypaw
Summary: There was a story that Arthur Pendragon carried with him until the day he died. It was the story of a boy who chose to use his own magic against himself than let Uther’s men slaughter him where he stood. Now, years later, Arthur comes face-to-face with that very same boy, now a man, who is Arthur’s guide to finding the remaining three treasures of Britain and uniting the land of Albion from the deadly war she has sunk into.

Word Count: ~13,500

Pairing: Arthur/Merlin

Rating: NC-17

Warnings: mention of sort-of-suicide, violence, war-scenario and mentioned torture, main character temporary death (think end of Pan’s Labyrinth, but happy A/M ending for them).

Film Prompt: Pan’s Labyrinth

Written for 2011 [livejournal.com profile] reel_merlin


Ordǣl
Part One
.



There was a story Arthur Pendragon carried with him until the day he died.

It started with Morgana; still too young to have discovered dresses and told she needed to follow propriety; before she was bartered off in marriage and sent to wither under the hand of a stern Lord; with her hands covered in dirt and a smear of mud on her cheek. Her hair, Arthur recalled if he pushed hard enough, had been a mess of knots and wildflowers, a garland someone had made for the fair lady, crowning her queen of the fairies.

(Except it couldn’t have been fairies, Arthur realised later, because fairies were magic and magic was banned in Camelot. In fact, the flowers were probably something added by Arthur’s mind instead, fabricated to paint a nicer, better picture of the fierce woman Morgana had become.)

Regardless of flowers, Morgana was the one who had snuck up to Arthur’s side, grin dimpling her cheeks.

“You know what they’re saying?” she’d whispered, as if she knew the biggest secret in the world. That was impossible, Arthur had thought, for he knew what the biggest secret was: magic never used to be banned.

“No,” Arthur had said, returning to the book he’d been studying. It was boring, a history of Camelot, but it was better than Morgana’s gossip. She knew the best places in the castle to hide for information and she used her skill viciously, cornering maids with illicit lovers to do her bidding and kitchen boys with too-loose tongues to sneak her extra food. She was resourceful, which in hindsight had been her downfall.

“They caught a warlock,” she announced proudly, puffing out her chest like a bird proving its worth. “Cenred’s land, just beyond the Ridge.”

Morgana’s eyes narrowed as Arthur’s hands became clammy around his book. A warlock was the greatest enemy anyone could face and to kill one placed your name up with those who slew a dragon by themselves.

“Who did it?” Arthur demanded, letting the book fall into the dusty grass at his feet, brows furrowing into a scowl. He wasn’t old enough to be knighted yet, but he’d been a squire for almost two years now. He had to be going out soon, and when he did, he’d tackle a warlock or a dragon on his own, bring glory back for Camelot and hear his people cheer for him.

“That’s the thing,” Morgana said, smirking. “He done himself in, didn’t he?” She shrugged, giving a small snort of laughter.

Shaking his head, Arthur asked, “what do you mean done himself in? You don’t make sense.”

“Says he burnt down the whole village instead. Killed himself and everyone in it, one moment the village is there all perfect like and the next… bang.” Morgana’s court-bred accent had slipped, revealing exactly how much time she spent with scullery maids and butcher’s boys. “Whole village is in flames, everyone dead. The knights are lucky they got on their horses first sign of trouble, see. They watched the whole thing.”

She was still smiling, a chilling thing that twisted her entire face. Arthur would remember that smile when he was older, the one time he saw Morgana after her wedding. She had her husband trapped around her, ensnared into thinking he was the one in control when really Morgana was the one in charge.

(The news of Lord Urien’s poisoning was tragic to Court, just before they marched, but all Arthur could think about was the wicked, red lips and white teeth caught up in that everlasting-smirk, and knew that Morgana would be playing the grieving widow for all she could.)

“It’s a ghost village now,” she had proclaimed gleefully, waving her arms about. “You go near it and the warlock will get you, possess you and trap you. He’ll cling until there’s nothing left but fodder for the rats!” She laughed at that, crinkling her nose.

“There’s no such thing,” Arthur had shouted back, snatching his history book up from the ground in a temper and marching back to the castle.

That night, his dreams were haunted by a boy, not much younger than himself, trapped amongst a burning village and paralysed with fear. Arthur felt the pain and the sorrow, and remembered a small village just beyond the Ridge that had burnt down because of a child’s pain of being hunted.

.


The taste of sweat and blood mingled in Arthur's mouth as he threw his sword down on the ground, ignoring the bark of reprimand his father gave at the action. Around him, enemies and comrades alike lay slain, blood oozing into the ground as the carrion crows swooped down, taking their pick. In the past they would have been shooed from the corpses, the dead on their side collected and buried, but this war had changed everything.

The war had started a year after the news of Lord Urien’s death swept the land. Condolences to his widow – Morgana, Arthur’s sister despite the loss of contact over the years – had been made and Uther had prepared a retinue, fronted by Arthur himself, to travel to Urien’s castle.

At the last minute, due to winter sickness, Arthur had had to pull out, but instead of rearranging the scheduled trip, Uther had told the knights to go on. A week passed before a sole knight returned, or rather what was left of him. His head had been in an ornate box, his body lying somewhere – a ditch for all Camelot knew – and it had sparked this bloody war.

Information eventually reached their ears that Morgana had joined forces with Morgause and Cenred, sticklers for magic and determined to free the land from Uther’s tyranny. Naturally, the king refused to bow to Morgana’s whim and had declared war, a war greater than that on magic alone, and the entire kingdoms of Albion were split, death crowding the land.

“Arthur,” a voice snapped; Uther striding from the safety of his tent’s shadow. “With me,” he barked, heading for the war tent, the only part of the war Uther saw aside from the carnage afterwards. Arthur swallowed until the bitter taste in his mouth died down and followed his father.

The tent, when they pushed the flap back, was in uproar again, as it was every time a battle was over (not won, not lost, just over). Lords and noblemen of all kinds were arguing, scraps of paper strewn across the planning table. Arthur shot a glance to his father, noticing the flush of anger creeping up his neck and onto his cheeks.

“That is enough!” he barked sharply and the tent quietened, men settling down like children under their mother. “I want injury reports and the number of dead.” There was a pause. “Now!”

Someone scarpered from the tent with a mumble of ‘Yes sire’, and Uther breathed in deeply, closing his eyes for a moment as he regained control.

“Let us all pray that our losses are minimal and the other side’s are in excess.” He swallowed thickly before moving to take his set at the head of the war table, Arthur sitting on his right side of the table.

“Reports say that Morgana was sighted during the battle.” The words had an immediate effect on Uther. Arthur tightened his hands into fists as his father slammed his hand down on the table, jolting the map and papers further down.

“Why is her head not here on this table?” he asked coldly, harbouring no love left for the woman he’d sold off to Urien. “Isn’t that our objective? If we see one of the targets, we go for them. And if you go for them, I expect their heads to be cooling on this table when the battle is done!”

He was shouting again by now, composure lost now that the war had been drawing into its third month. They’d all changed since the beginning, hardening at the betrayal of someone who had been their own, but Uther had been the one to change the most.

Arthur, of course, knew the reason why. He’d overheard Uther’s confidence in Gaius; of the king telling his physician that he had no choice but to marry his own daughter to ease the threat Urien posed. Urien had been known to dabble in other courts – Bayard of Mercia in particular – and Uther hadn’t been at a position to fight both Cenred and Bayard at the same time. He’d made peace with Urien through Morgana, and Urien had in turn used his influence to allow Uther to sign a contract of peace with Bayard.

When Arthur, still young and only just filling the boots of his knighthood, had learnt of it, he’d marched straight to Morgana, the secret juicy and ripe on his lips. Instead of shock or horror, Morgana had told him that she knew, the secret withering and fading and Arthur wanting to know why she’d never told him before.

A few weeks later, Morgana had been cast aside to Urien and she’d left with a cold glint in her eyes, sharing a warm parting with Arthur and the coldest with Uther.

When the war had started, Arthur had been shocked at the strong will Uther had to see Morgana’s head laid separate from her body; but then again, he knew the views Uther held on magic. Instead of waning in his older age, those views had strengthened, turning to madness in his mind. The king wanted nothing more than the blood of his enemies, and Arthur’s mouth grew into a grim line, knowing what he was going to say next.

“Who scouted her?” Uther’s nostrils flared as he looked around the tent. No one dared move. “Then who was sent after her?”

No one looked at Uther, staring around the tent in faked interest. They all knew what was coming, but they didn’t have to be happy about it. If they could delay it a little more, there was always the hope they’d be interrupted by a more pressing urge and the king’s wishes would be forgotten.

“Well?” Uther demanded, focusing on one of the younger noblemen. He was still green and had been chosen because he would break easily.

“Lamorak,” he offered weakly, wincing as he pronounced the name. “Sir Lamorak announced her and set off after her.”

Uther nodded, pleased, even as the rest of the tent shifted uncomfortably.

“If Lamorak didn’t perish on the field, have him sent to the outlying tent. I’ll deal with him myself.” Uther’s words were cold, too familiar and said too many times; and the camp knew the fate that awaited Lamorak. For failing to deliver Morgana’s head, he’d pay with his own.

Just then, a scout entered the tent, hands shaking slightly as he clutched a piece of parchment. The lords gathered looked up, sighing as they realised that the dead were about to be announced.

“Camelot lost twenty; Mercia a further thirty three knights. Eight squires were lost as well as six servicemen. Two banner men were killed and our standard was found gutted like a pig on the outskirts.” The scout shifted uncomfortably. That was around seventy men lost in this skirmish alone. They’d already contracted men in from all over Camelot and Mercia, if this continued, there would be no men left to die.

“And the other losses?” Arthur said tiredly, not sharing Uther’s sentiment that the enemy should have more deaths than they did. They were still people, magic or not, and Arthur wanted no more people to die.

“Minimal,” the scout replied, turning to Arthur in relief. Arthur was the one people tended to prefer talking to for the fact that he was less likely to demand blood for punishment.

“Meaning they won,” Uther said bitterly, and the scout made his retreat while his limbs were still attached to his body. “This isn’t good enough!”

Uther launched his body out of his chair, pacing like a caged, mad dog at the head of the table. He turned, thumped a fist on the table and turned his head to Arthur.

“This has to end,” he said, and nodded his head firmly. “Arthur, you will take a small unit of knights to the boarder of Cenred’s land. See what you can find and kill any wearing the red oak banner.”

There was no way Arthur could contradict such an order. Besides, leaving the oppressive war camp would be a welcome change to staying, especially if Lamorak was to receive punishment. Even if Arthur had to kill whoever he found, at least he got to leave.

The scent of blood cloaked Arthur and he was sick of the weary faced men and having to deliver morale-boosting speeches. He wanted this was over, wanted his people to rest safe, but that couldn’t happen yet. Arthur didn’t know how to stop Uther short of trying to ally with Morgana, Morgause and Cenred – yet that would make him a betrayer. He couldn’t betray his father, no matter the differences in their views.

He moved out at once, leaving the lords to their cushy chairs, plotting the fighting even though they’d likely never see the battlefield in action. It was Arthur’s men who died for this course, men he’d trained from whelps to soldiers. He was the one fighting with them, sending them all to their deaths, and for what?

Arthur sighed, rolling his shoulders. He made a brief trip to his tent before calling his squire to attend his horse. He’d select his men then ride out, allow them to ride out the stress before they all set up camp for the night.

The men he chose were lower-tiered knights, ones that wouldn’t be missed. They could do with a morale boost such as being chosen for a private mission and it wouldn’t hinder processes back at camp. They followed Arthur with grim faces, brightening as they neared Cenred’s land, glad to get away from the destruction that marred their home. They set up camp under the shadow of the Ridge, a mysterious forest on the back of the Ascetir downs, and his men set to work tending to fires and cooking food they’d brought along.

It wasn’t long before Arthur announced that it was time to sleep, and they hunkered down grateful of the silence of their surroundings. Arthur drifted off to sleep with ease, comfortable that they were safe and needing the rest right down to his bones.

He woke in the night, a rustling sparking every instinct he’d been trained to feel. Instantly, Arthur was awake and on his feet, sword in hand and eyes darting for any sign of disturbance. They had camped just inside of the forest in a small copse. It meant that they were protected from sight, but not from anyone who could tramp through.

Arthur couldn’t see anything out of place, however, and made to lower his sword when a blue glint caught his eye. It was a tiny thing, a fairy he would have said if such things existed, and Arthur started towards it, frowning.

The creature, a shimmering silver and blue, flitted off before he could catch a proper glimpse. It looked like a huge dragonfly, from the distance Arthur was at, at least, and it continued to flit about the woods, leading Arthur further and further in. Everything was screaming at him that this was a trap, but there was something about the little creature that Arthur needed to know more about.

They reached a thick part of the wood and the creature stopped. Arthur smiled slightly, moving to reach and touch the shimmering body, when another light flared up between the trees, this time blue and gold mixing together.

Arthur continued staring as the light grew stronger, illuminating a grove of twisted trees. They were gnarled and contorted together, what seemed like hundreds of trees curled over one another to form an odd fortress shape. There was an archway that formed a door and gaps in the trees where the light pooled out from, and Arthur’s breath caught in his throat. It was ugly and beautiful at the same time and he couldn’t take his eyes from it.

“I have been expecting you,” a voice called suddenly. Arthur started, tightening his grip once more on his sword and raising it, slipping into a fighting stance.

“Who’s there?” he called, peering through the offered light and looking for the owner of the voice. “Show yourself!” he demanded, drawing a chuckle from whoever it was.

“I am no one but your humble servant,” the voice chided. A shadow lurched in front of the archway. It seemed to twist and shape itself through the golden light before settling in the form of a tall man.

“Who are you?” Arthur asked, though there was a deep set of familiarity in his chest, as if he should know who this man was.

The man chuckled before reaching his hand out, gesturing to Arthur.

“Come inside,” he called out, and Arthur stepped forward. The light warmed him, soothed away the pains from the battle earlier, and Arthur knew that no matter who this man was, he was right and true. He had to see his face, had to know who he was and why he’d called Arthur there.

Inside of the twisted tree fortress reminded Arthur of a comfy home, a villager’s pride and joy perhaps. They were in a long, wooden-floored room, walls made of stone and a window on the right hand side. It was a completely different world to the one he’d stepped from, and Arthur looked at the man warily. The golden light had died down now and Arthur could see the man in full, ordinary light.

His mind instantly drew back to the dreams he’d entertained as a young child, of a warlock that had burnt himself and his village rather than be taken by Uther’s men. He remembered the dark hair and bright blue eyes he’d envisioned for his friend, of his skinnier build, but also his compassion and kindness. He’d dreamt about that boy too, seen how he fought to hold onto his magic, of how it overpowered him, but Arthur had always thought it was just that – a dream.

But here the boy was, all grown up, just as Arthur himself was. It was hard to imagine that he – if he really was the boy who had burnt his village – was real. Arthur could very well be dreaming, but he didn’t want this to be a dream. He wanted it to be real, because if he was, the man was on his side. More importantly, a magic user was on his side. With a magic user, Arthur might be able to strike a deal with Morgana, to save his people and end the pointless fighting.

“Who are you?” Arthur asked again, refusing to sit down on one of the benches the room offered.
The man smiled, taking a seat and looking up at Arthur.

“I’m Merlin,” he said, the name washing over Arthur like cool water. It was a relief to finally know, to finally have the name of his friend.

“Arthur,” Arthur replied, unsure whether he should hold his hand out. What was the correct propriety when learning of one’s friends’ real name? Merlin had been there ever since Morgana had told him the tale, yet learning his name meant so much.

“I know who you are,” Merlin said with a slight quirk of the lips. “You are the Once and Future King, prophesised to unite the land of Albion under you!” There was glory and love in Merlin’s words, and Arthur shook his head.

“There has to be a mistake,” he began, but Merlin stood, taking his hands in his own.

“The Great Dragon himself told me,” Merlin said. “Back when I was a child. The story of the King who would rise above all others, transcend mortality and unite his people.”

Merlin’s smile was warm and a hand traced Arthur’s face, plotting his features and committing them to memory.

“Is that why you chose your own death?” Arthur challenged, not bothering to ask if the boy in the story was Merlin. He knew it was; it had to be.

Merlin offered a secretive smile, not answering the question and instead moving to a table, pouring a glass of water for them both.

“Someone needed to guide you,” Merlin said. “I did what I had to do and now I’m here by your side. I carry no fear.”

There was a lull in the conversation and Arthur took the moment to study Merlin. He was everything he’d imagined, every inch the boy he’d grown up with in his head. Arthur had never told anyone about Merlin before, never dared let himself dream of the him in another’s company, but here was his hope, his guide and someone he could look to in this bitter, endless war.

“I…” Arthur began, unsure how to explain himself. It was almost a weakness, to admit this, but he felt safe with Merlin, like he could tell him anything – if he didn’t know it already that was. “I used to dream of you,” he continued eventually, and Merlin shot him a look.

“Who’s to say they were dreams?” Merlin smiled softly. “I’ve always been with you.”

Smiling ever so slightly, Arthur nodded, feeling the sentiment in his chest. Even though Merlin had destroyed himself and his village, he was still there for Arthur, always had been. It was their destiny for Merlin to stay by his side, and Arthur would do everything he could to fulfil it.

“Where are we?” Arthur asked, knowing that they couldn’t be in the forest. Or at least, not his forest. Merlin was magical which probably meant that this place was too, but instead of frightening Arthur it soothed him.

It was Merlin’s magic, magic he’d secretly coveted all his life. When Uther had been executing sorcerers left, right and centre, Merlin’s hand had been clasped in his own, invisible to all, but no less there. Arthur had imagined up the tricks Merlin would show him when they were older, for Merlin had always told him that he couldn’t do magic in Camelot, not even in the cover of darkness and tucked under bed sheets.

“This is my home,” Merlin replied, throwing his arms out and turning around. “A safe house while I waited for you.”

Arthur was about to ask what he meant when Merlin turned and moved to the back of the room. He moved around for a short while, collecting objects and laying them out on the table. When he was done, he gestured for Arthur to join him.

“I’ve been looking after these,” he began, moving a hand to point to nine objects placed down on the table. “They’re the treasures that secure your passage to king. Go on, you can look closer.” Merlin’s voice was soft and gentle, and Arthur stepped forward, looking at the objects.

The objects were all familiar to Arthur and he looked at Merlin in amazement, running a hand over the deep brown of the first object.

“This is my first hunting cloak,” he said, looking at the ermine trim with fondness and then back at Merlin. “I lost it years ago, it was my favourite.”

“It’s one of the treasures,” Merlin said. “It allows me to become invisible, such is the magic working through it. It’s been an asset and will be an even greater one in the future.”

Arthur’s eyes left the plush cloak, draped across the wood of the table, a dim, brown stain against the wood, to the other objects. Merlin began naming them and their significance, though they were all things Arthur had seen before and lost over the years.

“A drinking horn that will fill with whatever liquid you desire, “ Merlin began, hands smoothing over the large horn Arthur had received for his tenth birthday. “A whetstone to sharpen a brave man’s sword and blunt that of a coward. A platter for any food you shall desire,” Arthur recognised the Pendragon kitchens insignia and the soft molten bronze of the plate. It had been one of several commissioned for a young Arthur when he was known for taking picnics to the wood. These plates were cheap and didn’t break easily, but looked as fine as any at the high table.

“A red robe,” Merlin said with a smile, tapping the robe Arthur had stolen as a child from his father, to dress in and rule over his bedroom. “That will hide whoever wears it. A cauldron that cooks only the food of a brave man,” and Arthur recognised the pot that he and Morgana used to secret into the woods, muttering nonsense and testing out ‘spells’, before magic became dangerous in their heads – before it stopped being fun to do something forbidden.

“A knife to make sacrifices and a chessboard which plays itself,” Merlin continued, nodding to the jewel-encrusted, hand-sized knife and the sliver-and-gold chessboard. Both had been gifts for Arthur’s coming-of-age, ridiculously ornate, as gifts for royalty were supposed to be at lavish ceremonies.

“A hamper,” was next, and Arthur smiled as he ran a hand over the picnic hamper he’d favoured as a child. “That will multiply by one hundred a portion of meat laid in it.” Merlin opened the lid and closed it again before taking Arthur’s hand and leading him to a corner of the room. A small chariot, the one Arthur had hitched up to the tiny ponies he’d first learnt to ride on, sat there.

“It needs no horse and will take you wherever you wish for it to.” Merlin turned back to Arthur.

“They’re not complete,” he said, voice full of regret and Arthur wanted nothing more than to shake that regret. “There’s still three objects missing, and without them, you cannot become king.”

Arthur looked at the table at the assembled objects, wondering what else he’d need. While these things were useful – the robe in particular could be a valuable asset to secure a safe ending for Camelot even if they had to surrender to magic – they wouldn’t be able to change anything.

“These three objects will make you invincible. They will make you the Once and Future King of Albion, the one man who can unite the land.” Merlin smiled. “I’m here to help you get them.”

Merlin led the way back to one of the benches and they sat down, Merlin gripping his hands. Arthur looked down, studying their fingers.

“What do you mean?” he asked after a while.

“You have to complete three tasks to gain your throne,” Merlin explained. “There are three more treasures you need to recover before the very earth itself will tremble at your command. You need the sword White-Hilt, the mantle Gwenn and the ring of Eluned.”

Arthur couldn’t recall what the three objects were and if they’d once belonged to him. Merlin seemed to understand for he spoke up once more.

“These are three objects that you must take. They are yours to claim, but they were stolen years ago by a demon. It’s hidden them in secret places, ones we can find and steal the objects back from.” Merlin’s tone was serious and it sent shivers down the back of Arthur’s spine.

“Will they help me win the war?” Arthur asked, silence filling the space around them.

“They’ll make you king,” was what Merlin offered instead, and Arthur knew that he wasn’t going to get any other answer. He swallowed thickly and nodded, understanding that recovering the artifacts would be as close to treason as Arthur would ever step.

But he trusted Merlin. He’d grown up with the shadow of a boy in his mind ever since the day Morgana had told him that a sorcerer had chosen to torch himself rather than face punishment at Camelot’s hand. Merlin had done that for Arthur, for a destiny he could choose to finally embark upon.

Uther was getting old now and the war was straining. Camelot itself was almost out of food rations and the harvests were barely enough to feed the people, let alone an army in full battle. They’d been at this war too long and Arthur needed to do what was best. If Merlin could provide him with a way to do that, then he’d grasp with both hands tightly. He wouldn’t seek to overthrow Uther or conspire against him, but this was couldn’t continue.

And if magic had to return for peace, then Arthur would allow it. He’d seen the good magic could do – men and women crossing the battlefield and healing both sides, doing what they could for everyone. Men who should have died were saved and would return to their families.

Before the war, Arthur would never have given Camelot up. Even now he’d fight with everything he had to keep his birth right (on the few occasions Morgana or Morgause had been on the field long enough to talk they’d stated they cared little for land or titles, just returning magic and balance, yet Cenred was another matter), but if he had to surrender something for the sake of his people, Arthur would without question.

“What do I have to do?” Arthur asked and Merlin smiled, nodding eagerly.

“There is a task for each of the objects. The first task is to retrieve the ring of Eluned, a ring that lets you see without being seen.” Arthur thought of what he could do with a ring of such power. He could walk over to Morgana and Morgause and ruin them if need be.

“Where do I go?” Arthur asked, breathless. He wanted to start now, but Merlin’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.

“I’ll find you tomorrow. Dawn will be breaking soon and you need to go back.” Merlin moved across the room, grabbing a scrap of blue fabric from somewhere and pressing it to Arthur’s hand.

“So you know it’s not a dream,” he said, tugging Arthur up from the bench and leading him out of the room. Arthur was alone as he exited the twisting trees, and he looked back over his shoulder, the cloth warm in his hands.

Now he had the power to stop this war, he’d do everything he could. This was what his life had been building towards, what Merlin had sacrificed everything for, and he wasn’t about to let it slip away.

He’d never been bested by a challenge yet and Arthur didn’t intend to start now.

.


Despite the blue fabric Merlin had given him, it was hard for Arthur not to think of their meeting as a dream. He kept the cloth on him at all times, wound tight and tied around his wrist, but it still didn’t seem real. It was two days since Arthur had seen Merlin and, each night, he dismissed his squire early and lay in wait for Merlin, except he never came.

There had been no more skirmishes or fighting since the last big battle, something for which everyone was grateful. Uther had sent a good number of men off locally to help with whatever they could in the villages, be it planting or harvesting. These men would be recalled if there were any signs of a fight brewing, but Uther had finally taken Arthur’s advice and sent them. At least no one there would starve just yet.

It wasn’t often that Arthur became morose, but as he lay in his tent for the third night in a row, waiting, his thoughts drifted to Camelot. He thought of the castle, white stone and gleaming halls, and of the familiar faces he’d left behind. He thought of his horses and hunting dogs, of the possessions that he may never see again. War was unpredictable, and if your time was up, it was up.

“There’s a clear path to the forest,” a voice cut through Arthur’s thoughts and he jerked up, reaching for his sword instinctively.

“Yes, yes bring that along.” Merlin’s smile was visible even in the dim of the tent. “We haven’t much time to waste. He doesn’t come out very often and I thought we’d have to wait longer.”

“I’m sorry?” Arthur asked. “What are you talking about?”

His previous anger with Merlin was gone, the thrill of him being here overloading the annoyance it had taken him this long.

“We need to go to the moribund tree. Underneath its roots there is a creature, the Beast Glatisant, and in its stomach is the ring of Eluned.” Merlin held out a jacket for Arthur and wrapped a cloak – the brown hunting cloak of Arthur’s - around his own shoulders. “Come, we don’t have time to lose.”

They moved out of Arthur’s tent, passing between rows of smaller tents until they reached the side. At one point they came across a group of knights, a little rowdy from contraband ale, but they took little notice of Arthur and none of Merlin. The cloak had magic now, Arthur knew, and wondered if it kept Merlin hidden from all sight but his own.

They ventured into the forest in silence. Words weren’t needed when you’d been with someone for a large part of your life and Arthur was happy to relax in the silence. He could feel Merlin beside him and that was all he needed.

At what seemed like the centre of the forest lay a wilted tree. If not for the smaller spring branches, Arthur would have assumed it was a dead tree. Buds were blossoming across the surface of the branches and while the leaves came out wilted, the fruit was bright and red.

“The moribund tree, a tree that appears half-dead yet contains the secret of life and death itself, or so they say.” Merlin cocked an eyebrow before moving forwards slowly, reaching to touch the rough trunk.

“They?” Arthur questioned lightly, stepping over large roots until he was by Merlin’s side.

Merlin made a non-committal sound. “The demons and sorcerers who dabble in the darker arts,” he explained with a frown, just before he clapped his hands together and looked down at the ground.

“You need to go under the roots. There should be an arching root somewhere and you can pull it up until it forms a doorway.” Merlin began looking around, locating a thick root and heaving it upwards, no doubt with the aide of magic.

Instead of space forming between the root and the ground, an odd tunnel emerged leading down into the earth. Lights flickered along the tunnel walls, moving as if they were fairies, and Arthur shot Merlin a look.

“I can’t come with you,” Merlin said, looking regretful and reading Arthur’s thoughts perfectly. “These tasks have to be done by you and to collect the ring, you need to enter the tunnel alone.”

Merlin leant forward until he was close to Arthur, so close that their skin brushed as Merlin whispered in Arthur’s ear.

“I believe in you,” he said, and Arthur swallowed thickly, gripping the hilt of his sword and pulling it out.

“All you need to do is find Beast Glatisant and remove the ring from its stomach.” Merlin stepped back, hands still on the archway tunnel entrance. “Good luck.”

Arthur stepped into the cold, damp air of the tunnel, sucking in a deep breath. This was nothing compared to the war or the tournaments he’d fought in (it was a common beast as his opponent for heaven’s sake), but he’d never had to travel under the earth with only magic and Merlin’s words to guide him.

Still, he needed the ring and he needed this beast. Arthur walked on down the tunnel, avoiding roots and the thinner parts of the tunnel, glad for once that he hadn’t put his armour on. While the entrance to the tunnel had been cold, it was growing hotter and hotter as he continued onwards.

Suddenly, there was an odd sound, like a squeaky door being pushed open, and Arthur raised his sword into a fighting position. Merlin hadn’t mentioned whether there were other creatures down here and Arthur wasn’t about to risk it.

He walked on and the tunnel opened into a round circle, a network of roots in the centre stretching from the ceiling to floor. It had to be the heart of the tree and if there was any place that the beast was likely to be, it had to be here.

“Right,” Arthur muttered, looking around. He’d perhaps expected a dank cave or something, a small space where it would be easy to spot the creature, but that didn’t seem to be the case here.

“What’s this?” a voice called. It sounded ancient and hoarse, deep with something that wasn’t quite human.

Arthur turned to the centre of the room slowly, watching as a huge beast– a mix of serpent and leopard, with pale haunches and feet of a hart – emerged from the network of roots. It gave a low hiss, the sound of a door opening, and took another step towards Arthur.

“I’ve been sent to collect something,” said Arthur, inspecting the beast. Would it just hand the ring over? Or would he have to kill the creature.

“Oh?” Glatisant said, snaking its neck out and flicking its tongue before Arthur. It sat down on its haunches, eyes raking over Arthur’s body. “Something?” it sounded dubious and let out a shuddering noise. “You mean you want my ring?”

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Can I have it?”

Beast Glatisant laughed, the barking sounds of hundreds of hell-hounds rising from its throat and pouring from between its teeth. “The ring is mine. I do not give up my treasures so lightly. Besides, why would someone like you need the ring?”

“Merlin told me I needed the ring,” Arthur said and was about to continue when Beast Glatisant let loose another bubbling laugh.

“Merlin? That old fool? And you believed him?” The beast laughed yet again, the sound grating on Arthur’s nerves. “What makes you think you can trust him? Plays with your head, he does.”

Glatisant looked at Arthur with a sly glint in its eye. “It was Merlin who gave me the ring to keep after all. He told me not to give it up, not for anyone, so how can you trust a word he says?”

Arthur tilted his chin, grip tightening on his sword. He didn’t have time for this beast’s tricks anymore, especially when it spoke to him in such a way. It was an arrogant beast and he wanted nothing more than to slit its belly and pull out the ring that was rightfully his.

“Merlin has been by my side for years while I’ve known you for a handful of minutes. Why should I trust you?” Beast Glatisant looked slightly surprised to find his question turned on him and it drew his neck in, frowning in slight anger and letting out a sharp collection of barks.

“Speak carefully, boy,” it warned, eyes narrowing. “You’re on my ground now.”

The Questing Beast took another step closer, disdain clear in its eyes. There was no way it would give up the ring and Arthur grit his teeth. He struck like a snake, clean and quick, and the beast roared, stomach gutted as Arthur’s sword slid neatly through. Blue fire tinged the edge of the blade and Arthur thanked Merlin for his foresight.

Blood - the thick, black, tar-like blood of a monster - spewed from the beast’s belly. Nothing could be seen in the mess and Arthur knew he’d have to dig through the contents of Glatisant’s corpse to find his prize.

Knowing that he had little time left before he would be missed at the camp, Arthur sheathed his sword and rolled up his sleeves. He was forearm-deep in rank intestines not long after, grimacing at the cold liquid around his hands. This was further proof the beast wasn’t a normal one – besides the fact that it looked unlike any other and had the power of human speech – as it should have been warm and instead was cold.

At the top of the stomach, now high in the beast’s chest, was a warm spot. Arthur felt hope spike in his own chest and after a few slippery moments, he pulled a circular object out, wiping it clean on his jacket. It revealed itself as a stone ring, roughly shaped but easy to slip on. It fit his thumb perfectly and Arthur heaved a sigh of relief, uncaring that he was covered in black goo. He’d found the ring of Eluned and that was all that mattered.

Returning to the surface was easy, especially knowing that Merlin would be waiting for him. Arthur stumbled out of the fairy-lit tunnel with a smile on his face, holding his hand out for Merlin. When Merlin saw the ring, he moved to catch Arthur’s hand, brushing some more of the black liquid from the stone.

“You really did it,” he muttered, almost to himself. Merlin then looked back up at Arthur, eyes wide and smile huge. “You really did it!” he repeated, gripping Arthur’s hand in enthusiasm.

“I had to kill it,” Arthur said, just in case Merlin hadn’t realised that with the amount of magic-toad-gore covering him. “The beast... I had to kill it.”

Merlin only smiled. “For now. It was well overdue. It wouldn’t still be here if not for me, but there was another use for it.” Merlin broke off, stroking Arthur’s hand absently as he looked at the ring in amazement.

“Come,” he said a moment later. “You must get back and I need to prepare for the second task.”

Merlin’s hand stayed warm against Arthur’s as they walked back, with Merlin occasionally looking to Arthur and smiling proudly. It was more than his father, more than anyone, had ever shown him and Arthur couldn’t help the self-satisfaction he felt.

Getting back to Arthur’s tent was easy; between Merlin’s cloak and Arthur’s ring, the people they did see couldn’t see them. Arthur was thankful for he didn’t want to share Merlin with anyone and he certainly didn’t want to be stopped. The only person he could share this victory with was Merlin and he planned to do so in the privacy of his tent.

“Thank you,” Arthur said as soon as they were in the tent. Merlin smiled in return.

“I didn’t do anything,” he said. “Well, besides open the tunnel for you and tell you that you needed to get to the Beast…” he broke off with a cheeky grin. “Still, you did the hard part. You really are the Once and Future King.”

Merlin brushed close again, pressing the smallest kiss to Arthur’s lips. “To congratulate you,” Merlin whispered as he pulled back, running his hand across Arthur’s cheek and wiping away the black smudge of remaining Beast-blood there.

“I’ll see you in a few days,” Merlin said and left the tent in a single swoop, though he didn’t quite manage to pull it off as fluidly as he’d hoped.

Arthur cleaned up as best he could, wiping his face and arms down with a cloth and shucking the soiled clothes off his body. It was almost certain that he’d have to destroy the clothes, but that was something he’d have to do alone. There was nothing close to what looked like the Beast gore and he couldn’t explain it was magic for fear of his father taking his head. ‘Rules were rules’ was something that Arthur had always been told, and Uther had made it quite clear that no son of his was exempt from this rule.

It all made sense when he’d realised that Morgana had betrayed Uther and he simply wanted to control Arthur. Except Arthur wasn’t there to be controlled anymore. He had Merlin now, and with Merlin came two more artefacts that would secure his rise to save his people.

Arthur fell asleep with the ring on his finger, dreams thankfully absent of Questing Beasts, but full of Merlin and the small kiss he’d imparted.

.


Part Two

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December 2011

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