Title: Children Die of the Imagination
Word Count: 3587
Warnings/Spoilers: Well, Uther's dead. Sorry about that. And let's say spoilers for the first season because I can't keep the episodes straight in my head.
Summary: An enchanted forest, a cursed sleeper, a young king, and a quest. AKA: An Arthur-seeks-Merlin fic.
Disclaimer: Not mine, not for profit.
A/N: The title's taken from A Humument; there are, in fact, no children dying in this fic. I should hope that's a relief. I think I've obsessed enough about this little fic; it's time to just let it go. Go, so that I may start working on putting Merlin in a dress! (Oh, that got your attention, now didn't it?) Unbeta'd, so any and all mistakes are my own, though last_radio did look this over and sooth some of my insecurities.
Wind tears down a path where the old cows once walked, lumbering, lumbering slow, and crows called out their displeasure from the trees, discordant and free, while bandits crouched among the brush, blades bare and waiting for the throats of unguarded travelers. Leaves rustle a dry noise, falling to crunch underfoot as Arthur leads his horse by the reins down a path where the old cows once walked and the crows called out and the bandits crouched, waiting, waiting, but no more. He hears only the dry rustle of leaves over the rattle of his armor and sees only the trees standing tall and proud like soldiers limned in green, diffuse light.
The wind shifts. The landscape rearranges.
Arthur leads his horse up a path, among the trees, towards the shifting heart of a forest while branches rattle a skeletal noise overhead. Humidity gathers sweat on the back of his neck, the crease of his elbows and knees, and the fish-belly sky threatens rain. His scabbard strikes a discordant noise against his armor - once, twice, again. He’d taken the sword from a Lady he’d heard calling to him in the night, over the distance, from the murky bottom of a lake, her dark hair soaked and tangled about her throat like water weeds and her hands bared into claws. She’d reminded him strikingly of Morgana - lost to the elements, to magic twisting in her head, her heart.
She’d told him before she left Camelot, before Uther died, before Arthur lost a father and gained a crown and a breaking kingdom, a kingdom warping at the core, twisting magic to fit, “Find Merlin.” She’d said, “Find Merlin. You need him.”
(The flames had licked up Merlin’s slender body, but he hadn’t burned. Arthur hadn’t seen: he’d been locked in the dungeons, shouting down the guards, his Father and all others standing between him and Merlin. He swore to protect Merlin. He swore.)
The rain begins to fall, muddying the path - Arthur’s feet slide slickly beneath him. He pulls his horse up short. As the rain falls, the forest comes to life around him: flowers bloom, riotous, among the trees, vines twist and climb, trees sag heavy with fruit, with apples, with pears, with fruits Arthur can neither recognize nor name, and birds flit from tree to tree, bright flashes of color, sudden and incomprehensible.
“Well,” Arthur says, “That’s new.”
He draws his sword.
(“I’m staying with you,” Merlin said, sitting on the foot of Arthur bed, the night bending around him like a cloak.
Of course, he couldn’t. Arthur had to earn that.)
A high, animal noise breaks over the trees, some mad, gibbering sound, and Arthur braces his feet against unsteady ground.
The wind shifts. The landscape rearranges.
A patchwork creature bursts out of the trees behind Arthur - a lion’s head, an eagle’s body, the tail of a snake - and lunges into flight. The long tail lashes at Arthur, knocking him to the ground. Excalibur skitters across the ground and comes to rest a body’s length away. Arthur rolls to follow as the creature rakes at him with talons and screeches terribly. A second roll brings him to his feet, brings Excalibur up to bare.
Lightning splits the sky, singing trees to smoking, curling fire from brushwood; Arthur smells ash wood, smells sweat, smells old, sour blood as the creature bears down upon him. He twists to the left, thrusts upward, and turns one raking talon aside. He pivots back, Excalibur following, and scores the underside of the beast, drawing fresh blood - it screams, battering at him with rain-laden wings. One fall-and-rise later and Arthur tears through one wing, crippling the beast, which staggers and lists heavily to one side. Another turn and thrust buries Excalibur to the hilt; the beast screeches once, final, twisting in upon itself, misshapen and shrinking, shrinking. A woman blossoms from the beasts’ remains.
“Arthur Pendragon,” she says, rising to her feet, all smooth curves and soft skin and pink, smiling mouth, and he recognizes her, the woman who left him to die in a cave - a woman who should be dead by all accounts, “What is it that you desire?”
Merlin, he thinks, doesn’t say, and she smiles.
“Very well,” she says and raises one hand, trailing light from her fingertips. He feels himself shrinking, smaller, smaller, twisting towards his core - before he can shout, his lips fuse together, suddenly hard, his joints pop and break and reform, his bones spread and multiple, his hands shrivel, the nails on his toes grow hard and long: he feels suddenly light, suddenly insubstantial, as if one upward lunge would see him in the air.
He spreads his wings and understands. Not Merlin, then, but a merlin. Her sense of humor is truly appalling. Arthur wants a do-over. He wants to rake his talons across her too-perfect face, but can’t yet coordinate this new body enough to do so. He dearly misses his arms and legs and, most keenly, his sword.
“Good luck,” she says, infuriatingly, before simply fading away, mist to the wind, quiet and gone.
(Merlin had waited until his bonds had burned away to walk from the fire, unscathed, small and frail-looking and cracking with incongruous energy, with power. Arthur had heard the village people’s shrieking from the dungeon. Why Merlin had put on such a display instead of simply slipping quietly away, like mist to the wind, Arthur doesn’t know. Perhaps Merlin simply can’t help but make a spectacle of himself. Perhaps he’d been teaching Uther a lesson - something about underestimating a foe. Perhaps Arthur is thinking too much like Arthur and too little like Merlin - he’d never quite got the hang of Merlin, loath though he was to admit it.)
Arthur and the nearby trees meet several times before he makes it into the air, ruffled and none too pleased with the situation. Below, the ground winks in and out between the treetops. Flight, Arthur finds, requires the whole body’s participation, starting with a upward lunge, the flexing of unfamiliar muscles, wings shifting the wind, head thrust forward and talons curled against his belly, ready to seize, to strike. Luckily, Arthur’s quite used to testing the limits of his own body, of practicing and practicing and practicing until a new movement, a new strike or feint or block, becomes his. Soon enough he is, if not comfortable or certain, at least not in danger of doing himself serious injury.
(“I’m staying with you,” Merlin said, sitting on the foot of Arthur bed, the night bending around him like a cloak.
“No,” Arthur said, “You’re really not.”
He wouldn’t be the reason Merlin died.)
Arthur dips down, wings flaring to catch the wind, to steady. He can see on and on and in minute detail: he can see the rough bark of the trees below, the scurrying of animals in the underbrush, lizards skittering and birds flitting, back and forth, the strange, meandering paths of insects, on the trees, in the air, the frantic flight of bees -catch and pin - the wiggling of caterpillars over decaying leaves, the slow trundle of beetles - all near to the point of being overwhelming.
The rain lets up. The forest withers. All goes quiet.
The trees thin and thin and, abruptly, end and Arthur finds himself gliding over a lake, riding warm thermals, watching fish leap from the water and fall again. Thunder rolls, ominous, overhead.
Where to start?
Arthur swoops low and glides over the surface of the water, rush and spray: he’s had enough experience with enchantment and lakes to be wary, but he doesn’t think Merlin would be hanging about at the bottom of a lake. Not willingly, at least. He doesn’t like to think about where Merlin might be, unwillingly.
He reaches the opposite shoreline and pulls up, hard, to skim over the treetops - he’s seen merlins at hunt, flying just above the ground, startling prey with speed - he’d certainly like to try, like to hunt in a body made entirely for killing, but he doesn’t trust himself not to run head-first into another tree; he could very well kill himself, and if he’s going to die, he’d much prefer to die in his own body and not in some pointlessly stupid way.
The wind shifts. The landscape rearranges.
Arthur’s no less disoriented from above.
Trust Merlin, he thinks, to get lost in an enchanted forest, blithely ignoring the fact that he had done the same. He doesn’t need rescuing, whereas Merlin - sorcerer or not - undoubtedly does.
Arthur doesn’t know where to search first.
(“You’ve got to listen from here,” Merlin said, slapping one hand over Arthur’s heart, frustration writ large on his face.)
Merlin must never know of this.
Arthur closes his eyes, hovering on a thermal, body tipping slightly side to side, and reaches down in side of himself - he feels ridiculous; Merlin really must never know of this - reaching and listening, listening. He opens his eyes, picks what feels - heaven help him - like the right direction, and flies. He consoles himself with the thought that he can’t get much more lost than he already is.
Of course, he could always turn into something else. A pig, perhaps. Or a fish. Or himself, in midair, which would certainly be no better. From what Arthur knows of magic, first-hand (“No, really,” Merlin said, “I’m sure it’ll work this time,” as if he hadn’t said that three times already, as if he weren’t clearly as incompetent a sorcerer as he was a manservant), the chances are better than fair of that happening.
Lightning splits the sky, suddenly: Arthur can feel the electric charge of the air, the building potential. He has time enough to think, I probably shouldn’t be in the air - not that he’s going to stop, mind you - before thunder tumbles rain to falling. Below, the forest blooms to waking, animals stir, and a tower tumbles upward from the ground, rising brick over mortar over brick, where no tower stood before. A lone figure stands guard, picked out easily in an open clearing, holding on to a horse’s bridle - his horse’s bridle - the same woman as before.
“Arthur Pendragon,” Nimueh says, as he swoops into the clearing, alighting on a branch, “You’ve come farther than I thought you would.”
Arthur will never admit to anyone that letting his heart lead actually worked. Nimueh smirks as if she already knows. The urge to rake his talons across her face returns. He thinks he might even have the coordination for it, this time. Keeping him in check is the memory of the last time he acted out in anger and killed a man and failed a test. He won’t do the same, again. He’s learned his lesson.
“Your dedication is admirable,” she says, and Arthur gets the impression she’s taunting him, though her words seem amiable on the surface - something to do with her lingering smirk, perhaps, “Changing you back, though,” she taps her chin, contemplatively, “that’s going to cost you something. Your pride, I think, for now, if you’re to awaken the boy.”
Arthur has enough time to think, awaken?, followed swiftly by what? before she raises one hand, again, trailing light from her fingertips, and Arthur lives the whole nauseating process in reverse. Back in his own body, Arthur tumbles from the tree branch. He’s quite certain she did that on purpose.
When he gets his feet back under himself, he’s surprised to find Excalibur at his side. He was sure she’d taken that, too.
“Merlin killed you,” he says because he’d been certain of that.
(“Arthur, she deserved it,” Merlin said, and Arthur hadn’t recognized him for a moment until his face had crumpled and he’d sucked in a shaky breath. Arthur panicked a little: it looked as if he were about to have an armful of crying manservant, and what would he do then?)
“He merely succeeded in destroying my body and tying my magic to his.” Nimueh says, sounding none too pleased with the arrangement. “You will find him inside,” she gestures with one hand toward the tower, “You must be swift. The tower will not wait. And Arthur,” she says, sounding severe, “do not fail in this. I’m no happier being the boys warden than he is to be kept.”
Before Arthur can ask her what she means - ask in that he’d order her to tell him, that is - or inform her that she’s in no position to order him, the king, about, she’s fading away again, slipping like mist to the wind.
“That,” Arthur says, “is very annoying.”
He ties his horse’s reins to a nearby tree and circles around the tower until he finds not a door, as he expected, but an archway stoppered by fire. Above the door is writ in an old, heavy script:
“I’ve done this before,” Arthur says. “Can’t you come up with something else?” (Arthur woke to a wind-swept strand of beach, his head propped up in Merlin’s lap - Merlin who really ought to be weeping and stroking his hair and all that nonsense seeing as Arthur just died a noble death.)
The script remains unaffected, as script does.
“Oh, very well,” Arthur says, and focuses entirely on Merlin as he steps up to the archway - he doesn’t like to think too closely on why this works, but it has before. He holds out one hand to the flames, feeling heat bleed through his gloves, then takes a breath and steps through.
(The flames had licked up Merlin’s slender body, but he hadn’t burned)
He walks through to the other side, unburned but no less baffled - an emotion he’s none too keen on - because instead of being inside a tower, as he rightly expected, he finds himself in the dank dark of a cave. He turns back to look out from whence he came, only to hear a tremendous noise and watch as rocks collapse the entrance behind him.
“Wonderful,” Arthur says, “This is just wonderful.”
The dark should be impenetrable, he realizes, but isn’t. The walls are lit with a soft, diffuse glow as if from within, winking oddly as he passes. He stops and bends at his waist to inspect the walls more closely and discovers why: the cave walls are not stone as he first imagined but are studded instead with gems, some little more than splinters, some as large as his fist, in a myriad of colors, red and green and blue. The colors pass over his skin as if he were walking past the stained glass of a cathedral window.
“Good lord,” Arthur says. There’s more wealth here than in all of Camelot. Perhaps even all of Albion. If he could distribute this among the people of his kingdom…
“Later,” Arthur promises himself, because now is not the time to contemplate such things, not before he’s found Merlin. He musn’t, he reminds himself - drawing his sword as he goes - trust anything that he sees. The forest has taught him as much. This place is a prison, before anything else, and a magical one, at that.
He walks through twisting corridors, down and down and down, ever down, picking right when he must choose a direction at all; he should be able to find his way back out that way, worst come to worst. With each step, his body feels heavier, his feet just that bit harder to pick up. Sweat prickles at his neck, the creases of his elbows and knees, makes his hand slippery on the hilt of his sword. The clatter of his armor echoes back through the corridors, discordant and disorienting.
Arthur, a voice echoes through the corridor, Arthur.
“Bloody what?” Arthur says, gritting his teeth and taking that next step.
Arthur, the voice multiplies, reverberates, Arthur, stop. Turn back.
The voice sounds so much like Merlin that Arthur nearly listens.
Trust nothing you see or hear, he reminds himself, and staggers forward a few more steps, feeling drunken, weighed down.
Arthur. The gems wink. Arthur. Color slides across his skin. Arthur.
Fear clenches in his gut and Arthur bends near double, held up only by Excalibur, point dug into the ground. He can feel a certain madness growing within him, an ache and a yawning hunger. He doesn’t understand - he’s not a cowardly man or a weak man or ill-trained - until he sees gems broken from the wall and scattered across the corridor and the blackened bones which lie beside them, the smell of burnt hair and flesh tickling at the back of his throat.
Human, he thinks, definitely human. And then, Magic.
He wipes his hair away from his face, where it’s damp and slick with sweat and says, to himself, or perhaps to whatever voice haunts the corridors, “I only want Merlin. And I’m not leaving without him.”
As if speaking the words lends him a certain power, Arthur feels the fear recede, the madness banked, his limbs lightened enough that he does not have to stagger, does not sway with the effort of standing upright.
The corridor grows wider and wider and opens finally on a cavern, the breadth and height of which Arthur cannot see. He presses onward, past stalagmites, winking with light, and a natural bridge of rock - which Arthur regards warily before passing over; he’s not so stupid as to forget - to the foot of an altar on which lies Merlin, eyes closed and hands limp and open at his sides.
Arthur has a heart-stopping moment of panic before he gets his glove off and his fingers on Merlin’s throat, over a strong and steady pulse.
“Of course,” Arthur says, “I’m doing all the hard work and you’re napping.”
He considers his options carefully before slapping Merlin across the face - not hard but it really should be enough to wake him. He doesn’t stir.
“Right,” Arthur says, “Enchanted sleep. Why not?”
Which is when he notices the inscription on the altar, underneath his hands, weakly illuminated by the cavern’s glow.
“Oh,” Arthur says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
The script doesn’t change. Merlin doesn’t stir.
Arthur wipes one hand across his face, groaning.
“Very well,” he says, looking down at Merlin - by comparison, this is far easier than what has already passed, though somehow no less daunting, “but we will never speak of this again.”
He braces his hands on either side of Merlin’s head and leans down. He pauses for a moment, feeling Merlin’s breath on his face - he’s not working himself up to it, he’s just… appreciating the moment.
“The things I do for you,” he says, voice softer than he’d like, before leaning down the rest of the way and kissing Merlin.
He doesn’t linger, though he’s badly tempted.
At first, he thinks it hasn’t worked - what’s he to do now, trapped in a cavern with an unconscious and extremely wayward manservant? For several minutes, he thinks it hasn’t work, but then Merlin begins to stir, slowly, in his sleep. Arthur can see his eyes moving behind his eyelids before he opens them. He looks up at Arthur, as if he’s not sure what he’s doing there, before his face clears and he smiles.
“Hello,” he says, brightly.
“I’ve been searching for days,” Arthur says, “in a God-forsaken enchanted forest, and all you’ve got to say is hello?”
“Hello, Arthur?” Merlin says, and, yes, Arthur’s going to have to beat him, perhaps under the guise of teaching him to defend himself, again, because, really? A cave in an enchanted forest, under some ridiculous curse? Only Merlin.
“Oh, yeah,” Merlin says, easily, “thanks for that,” as if he hasn’t a concern in the world, as if they aren’t aren’t trapped underground, in a cavern where haunting voices still whisper, with Nimueh lingering somewhere up above, not dead, but not quite living either. Then again, for Merlin, most of that probably isn’t an issue. He’s dealt with worse. And to be fair he doesn’t yet know about the collapsed entrance though, by her own words, he must know of Nimueh.
Merlin levers himself up on the altar, swinging his legs over the edge and hopping down onto the floor. He brushes his hands off - his hair’s sticking up wildly over his ridiculous ears, and Arthur has the sudden urge to run one of his hands through it, to flatten it down. Instead he places both hands on the hilt of his sword, propped up in front of him, and says, “If you’re quite done I’d like to get out of here, now.”
“Sure, right,” Merlin says, and makes a go-on sort of gesture. Arthur turns and walks several paces only to realize he doesn’t hear Merlin following him. He turns back to find that Merlin hasn’t moved at all.
“Merlin?” Arthur says.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, staring at the script on the altar and sounding strangely gleeful, “Did you kiss me?”