Sometimes Merlin wishes he could hate Arthur. Especially in moments like these, when he actually threatens Merlin to make him stay behind and guard the ship. But the enemy is right there, and though it’s technically possible for someone to slip through to the ship, everyone knows that Merlin is only left behind because of who he is. Arthur hasn’t let him enter an actual battle since the first time. And back then it wasn’t for Arthur to decide.
Now it is, so Merlin watches from the sea, helpless and angry, while Arthur charges into battle like Thor himself: golden, strong and impossibly beautiful. His men are with him every step of the way, and against such a force their enemy stands no chance. Merlin could help, even from here, and yet he knows it would not be appreciated. If all else was lost he would anyway, but he doesn’t want to wound the spirit of these proud men. The thought makes him scowl briefly.
They are victorious, of course, Arthur would say, and the men scavenge the bodies with obvious glee. There are captives as well, young men Arthur took earlier that these warriors were probably trying to free. Merlin makes sure to give Arthur his best glare when he returns to the ship. Though Arthur doesn’t take women or children and treats the men fairly well – the men claim it’s because Arthur doesn’t want to damage the goods, but Merlin likes to think that deep down Arthur is a good man – it doesn’t mean that Merlin likes this. These are their mothers’ people and the men they’ve captured could be their cousins or uncles.
Two of the captives look so young that Merlin has half a heart to try and convince Arthur to let them go. But it’s a conversation they’ve had before. Arthur can’t refuse to take them completely; the men would object. And as Arthur is so fond of reminding him, it’s not all bad. After all their mother has all she could wish for. He could ask Arthur for the reason why he doesn’t take female thralls if their fate is indeed so wonderful. He could ask how highly Arthur values the fate of Merlin’s real mother, who died giving birth to the child of a raider who couldn’t keep it in his pants. He doesn’t, though, for he has no desire to back Arthur into a corner.
“Merlin!” Arthur barks at him when everyone has boarded. “Go and take a look at Egill, some boy managed to scratch him with a knife!”
The men guffaw loudly at that and someone shouts something about how “Egill should stick to easier prey”. Arthur’s jaw locks in anger but he stays quiet and points Merlin to where Egill is sitting, scowling but pale under his dark beard.
The wound is not deep, though Egill winces as Merlin’s hand ghosts over it. He has some salt solution left but he doesn’t want to waste it on this. Instead he digs out some ribleaf paste and spreads it on the wound while singing the rune of healing quietly under his breath without even drawing it on the skin. Egill’s scowl is even deeper when Merlin leaves him.
Later, when he lies awake despite the fact that it’s his turn to sleep, he hears Egill whispering to Arthur.
“It’s unlucky to have him on the ship,” he says, gesturing towards Merlin who does his best to look like he is sleeping and not listening in. “Magic was Freya’s gift to women. For a man to wield it – it's against the laws of nature and will anger the gods.”
Merlin curls more tightly into himself, both annoyed and hurt, but he cannot shield himself from the world. Of course he knows most of the men, especially Egill, think this way. Knows that most people do and that even the völva, who recognised his gifts and taught him, is sometimes wary of his power. He knows it’s partially his own fault for cutting himself out after everything, but he couldn’t have handled their sneers without having his defences up already. At least Ygraine doesn’t care, and Arthur – well, Arthur is complicated.
“It’s none of your concern,” Arthur says firmly.
“But –” Egill starts, but Arthur cuts him off with an ice-cold edge to his voice.
“This is my ship and my rules. If you don’t like it you’ll swim.”
Merlin allows himself to indulge in the warmth that spreads over him at the thought of Arthur defending him. If Egill gives an answer Merlin doesn’t hear it.
The next day, when the ship sails easily in the tailwind, Merlin can feel two sets of eyes on him. There is open hostility in Egill’s gaze, like he has decided that Merlin has brought the wrath of the gods upon him by his powers. Merlin knows the second set of eyes belongs to Arthur, but he can never catch him looking.
The hall of King Hallgrímr can be seen from the entrance of the fjord. It stands on a hill overlooking the village, the shield above the entrance reflecting the light of the sun and glimmering like a star. It’s different from the majestic, cold and grey stone castles of the southerners, but Merlin has found he prefers this. The carved wood speaks of warmth, joy and most of all home. It’s probably the same for all of them, he thinks, as he speeds up his rowing to match that of the raiders, who just a moment ago were completely exhausted by the long journey. The four thralls that survived the voyage do not seem to share their enthusiasm, and gather close to each other like lost sheep.
The people receive them with joy; they get rough pats on their shoulders, children tug at their trousers in hope of a story and the unmarried women smile shyly as their mothers shove them forward. Old Agnarr tries to launch into a story about his own days of raiding, but his wife shoves him back into the crowd and exchanges a couple of words with a smiling Arthur.
Nobody touches Merlin. They aren’t hostile, a few even offer him a smile, but when a child of maybe three summers tries to approach him he is quickly snatched back by an older boy Merlin doesn’t recognise. He refuses to let it sting. He has a gift, which makes him different, but these people still mostly accept him. It might have been different if he hadn’t been raised under Hallgrímr’s protection, but there is no reason to dwell on it.
He startles when someone touches his arm. It’s the völva, smiling a toothless smile at him from underneath her furry hood. She seems to be laughing at his reaction and Merlin gives her a rueful grin. She’s standing apart from the other villagers as well. They respect her, even like her in a non-personal sort of way, but she frightens them. She is always silent, except when she is spellsinging, and even the elders don’t remember a different völva. Though they do say she was terrifyingly beautiful in her days of youth.
She does a small gesture with his hands, which Merlin knows means that she will be up waiting for him when the celebrations are over. He nods at her, and she smiles again and makes a shooing motion with her hands. When Merlin looks ahead he sees the raiders are already approaching the steps of the great hall. Just then Arthur turns around and scans the crowd until he finds Merlin. He doesn’t acknowledge him in any way other than meeting his eyes, but Merlin understands the message, hastening after them.
Ygraine breaks into a smile when she spots him and Arthur. Arthur goes forth first, reporting their success to his father, and accepting his praise with barely concealed joy. In that way Arthur is still like a little boy, always aiming to please his father and seek his approval. Merlin stands at the back when Hallgrímr congratulates all of them. He never acknowledges Merlin specifically, and Merlin suspects his existence is something the king would rather forget.
His favour comes from Ygraine, who descends upon him and Arthur when the formalities end. She kisses their cheeks like she has forgotten they are grown men, and the raiders snigger behind them, albeit without malice. There is a faint blush on Arthur’s cheeks, but Merlin can tell he is pleased.
“My beautiful sons,” Ygraine says in her lilting Latin. She prefers it to Norse, which she still finds crude. “I’m glad you’ve returned safely.”
“Not just safe,” Arthur answers with a heavy accent. “I brought you gifts.”
He fishes a beautiful necklace from his pockets. Arthur hadn’t shown it to him beforehand, but for once it shows good taste. It’s made of silver, with a bright blue stone inserted into the pale framework. It will look stunning on Ygraine, with her almost painfully white skin, pale hair and blue eyes.
Ygraine smiles brilliantly at Arthur, and carefully takes the necklace from his extended hand.
“Thank you. It’s perfect,” she breathes and engulfs Arthur into a firm hug. First Arthur closes his eyes, and Merlin smiles slightly at them, but then Arthur smirks at him over Ygraine’s shoulder. Merlin sighs. He wants no part in this competition Arthur has declared for Ygraine’s affections, though he can’t deny that he feels slightly satisfied when Ygraine whirls towards him and engages him in a rapid conversation about their journey and her days while they were away. Merlin answers equally fast with his almost perfect Latin, and he can tell from the frown on Arthur’s face that he has long since lost the thread of the conversation.
Later, when everyone is far too distracted by drink and songs, Merlin sneaks out. He’s had his fair share of drink himself so he might have sent Arthur a coy smile on his way out. Maybe.
In any case Arthur follows him. Not straight away, but it doesn’t take him long to appear. He doesn’t speak, just looks at Merlin, eyes dark, and snatches his wrist to drag him away. Merlin goes willingly – as always.
Arthur pushes him down onto the ground, against the shrubs and twigs, but Merlin doesn’t care. He can feel the ripe blueberries staining his clothes and skin.
There is nothing romantic about this, never is. Not after the first time at least. Their kisses burn and Arthur holds him down with brute force. They don’t even bother getting rid of their clothes. It feels good, and he smiles up at Arthur with all his teeth; Arthur growls. It maddens him to know that even now, while Merlin is writhing under him (like a woman, Arthur would say if they actually talked about this), he’s not the only one in control. He hates that Merlin isn’t afraid of him and acts almost like an equal – and he loves it as he bites Merlin’s shoulder knowing that he won’t break. Merlin would laugh if he wasn’t overcome with pleasure.
Afterwards they lie together, sticky. There is blueberry smeared on Arthur’s shoulder so Merlin licks it. He can taste Arthur’s sweat underneath the sweet flavour. Arthur snorts and rolls onto his back.
He can hear them approaching. Or maybe they were there all along, kept at bay only by their frantic movements. The high sound is nerve-wracking, and yet it’s even worse when it comes in close, almost to his ear, and suddenly stops.
Merlin can’t help himself but jerks up and shakes himself. When he looks down Arthur’s laughing at him, but Merlin grins in return. A mosquito is sitting on Arthur’s cheek.
“There’s a mosquito on your face,” he says, and watches with satisfaction as Arthur swats himself wildly.
“Sir,” says a small voice from somewhere behind Merlin.
It’s a thrall girl, Morgana, now gazing at the völva’s hut with unmasked interest. For a moment she seems to have forgotten Merlin, so absorbed she is in her surroundings, so Merlin clears his throat. She startles, but smiles at him sweetly.
“The king has requested that you join him and his family for dinner.”
Merlin sighs and hastily puts the herbs and salves he was handling away. He loves their smell, and feels a small childish tug of delight at the thought that he doesn’t have the time to wash the smell away before the meal.
He doesn’t miss the hunger in Morgana’s eyes as he locks the chest, and he wonders.
Merlin never wishes he was somewhere else more than when he is faced with King Hallgrímr. He is a large man, so tall that he usually looks right over Merlin. But now he’s watching him.
“Tell me, boy,” he starts, making Merlin bristle at the omission of his name. “How did you fare in battle this time?”
Merlin knows the question is not malevolent. Maybe it’s even Hallgrímr’s clumsy attempt to try and find common ground for Ygraine’s sake, but if it is it falls miserably short as always.
“I guarded the ship so I took no part in the battle,” he says and prays to the gods, without any real hope, that the conversation will be dropped. It’s Arthur who decides to ruin it.
“Merlin’s skills are much more useful in the reserves than on the battlefield.” He hasn’t been in a battle since their first raid; Arthur hasn’t allowed it. But he isn’t incorrect in saying that Merlin’s skills are in better use elsewhere.
“Ah,” is all Hallgrímr says and awkward silence settles over the table. He is a warrior king, and though he reveres the gods, their ways are foreign to him. Merlin’s gift is something beyond his world of axes, blood and treasure, and he doesn’t – and doesn’t wish to – understand it.
Ygraine plays with her braid, slowly but surely pulling her carefully arranged hair into disarray, but she does spare Merlin a sympathetic smile and a hint of an eyeroll. If they were sitting closer to each other she would surely lean in and whisper ‘men’ into his ear in a voice full of exasperation.
“Girl!” Hallgrímr bellows painfully loudly in the quiet, and points at Morgana. “Morgan, get us some more ale!”
“It’s Morgana,” she says in a soft voice, but they all freeze in their tracks. Hallgrímr, already half turned away, slowly turns back to her. A woman, who Merlin remembers is Morgana’s mother but whose name has slipped his mind, runs to her side and pushes her head down. It’s too late though, as Merlin can’t imagine there’s any way even a blind man would have missed the fire in her eyes.
“What did you say?” Hallgrímr’s sounds almost puzzled, like he can’t even imagine a reason for a thrall to speak to him.
“I said my name is Morgana,” she repeats, letting the words drop from her red lips heavy and loud, like an accusation. Merlin can’t find it in himself to be completely surprised, but it doesn’t change the fact that she must be mad. There’s no scenario in Merlin’s head where this could end well.
“Vivienne,” Hallgrímr says slowly, for that is indeed the name of Morgana’s mother, his forehead pinched into a frown. “I don’t know what you’ve taught your daughter, but we have no need for insolent thralls here.”
“Yes, my lord.” Her face is the same colour as the ashes in the fireplace, framed by her black hair. “I’ll make sure she understands.” She drags the now silent Morgana away, but everyone can read the defiance in her posture as clear as day.
For the rest of the meal Ygraine seems intent on butchering the food on her plate and both Hallgrímr and Arthur give her positively alarmed looks.
Merlin has never needed herbs or potions to talk to the dead. They haunt his dreams, often silent and in the background, sometimes offering him advice regardless of whether he is seeking it or not. It’s not always the same ones, but the dark-haired woman is always there. In moments of weakness Merlin thinks she must be his mother, though the dead do not remember.
Be that as it may, she has a gentle smile and she’s the one that speaks to him most often, and needing something to call her he has settled for Hunith. She’s also the one approaching him now. She doesn’t speak, but takes him by the hand, her touch light as air, and leads him into a new dream.
He knows where they are immediately. They’re standing near the docks and in front of them the last rays of sunlight are creeping over the mountains to the mouth of the fjord. There are two people standing on the docks, whispering quietly but furiously at each other. It takes a while before he can recognise them, but when he does a cold feeling of foreboding sails through him. Vivienne and Morgana.
He starts to walk closer, after all this is a dream, but Hunith quickly stops him with a shake of her head. He frowns, confused, but obeys and focuses all his senses on making out the exchange.
“Merlin was the son of a thrall,” is the first thing that catches his attention. “But he’s under the king’s protection.”
“The lady demanded it,” Vivienne answers. “And Merlin is special.”
Morgana hisses in obvious frustration, and takes a step back.
“So am I. And most of all I am his daughter.” The first thought in Merlin’s head is whether Hallgrímr even knows. The second is Ygraine’s frozen face after Morgana’s outburst. She must have guessed something. Vivienne’s reaction is one of surprised anger.
“Who told you?” she demands, crowding into Morgana’s personal space.
“The dead tell me things and I can see the signs of the gods, mother. Did you really think I would never find out?” She stares defiantly up at her mother, and Merlin can’t help but notice that she doesn’t answer the question.
Then, suddenly, Morgana tenses and looks away, right at Merlin and Hunith. Surprised, Merlin lets go of the dream, but even as the vision is fading to mist Morgana’s green eyes continue to gleam in the dark like will-o’-the-wisps.
He doesn’t usually push himself completely awake after a vision, but this time he jerks back so powerfully that he stumbles straight into consciousness. It’s slightly disorientating, like for a moment the intensity of the living world is too much. The furs tickle his skin, the air is too warm and too dry so he leaves his bed and walks to the window. The cool night air soothes him, and in the distance, on the path from the docks, he can see two female figures.
He speaks to the völva as the sun rises and they sit down to eat breakfast. It’s just some dry bread with some berries, but washing it down with fresh spring water is in Merlin’s opinion one of the best things in the world. Yet, the night is haunting him. While the existence of a bastard daughter is of no consequence, Morgana’s wyrd speaks ominous words to him. One thing bothers him above the others and not least because he can’t determine the answer himself.
“Does Morgana have the gift?”
The völva gestures him to specify, making Merlin hope he is wrong. Surely she would know whom he means if she’d noticed her before.
But he elaborates anyway. “A thrall girl. A little younger than me, black hair. She’s the daughter of another thrall, Vivienne.”
The völva nods once. Not to show that she understood, but as a confirmation. The air cools against his skin, and something dark dances just outside his vision. The dead know something about her as well.
The völva isn’t finished though. She waves her hand to say “and no”, driving a sigh out of Merlin.
“What do you mean?” he asks. There are small particles floating through the air, where the sunlight is streaming in, and they part as the völva walks through them. Merlin never receives an answer to his question, but he thinks he can read the answer from the völva’s face anyway. She doesn’t know.
Everyone can probably tell something is bothering Arthur from the way he charges at his warriors again and again without a shield, holding his axe with both hands and forcing them to give way to him. His brow is glimmering with sweat and his muscles are quivering, and yet he never falters, never touches the dirt, making him annoyingly clean in the midst of the men he has forced to the ground. But the true extent of Arthur’s agitation only dawns on Merlin when Arthur turns to him.
“Merlin, show these men how they should fight against me!” Arthur’s tone is mocking and the men grumble. It’s an unfair challenge and everyone knows it. Merlin can’t fight with the great axes and swords. The gods know he tried, to please the king, to make him notice and accept him. But it was never meant to be for the gods have given him other talents. Though there’s one weapon he can handle better than anyone, one unsuited to Arthur’s large raiders, but perfect in Merlin’s agile grip. He draws the long hunting knife from his belt with a feral grin at Arthur. Fine, he thinks, he will show them.
If they were truly trying to kill each other the winner would probably come down to luck. As it is neither can quite gain the upper hand; when Arthur forces Merlin back using his superior strength and reach he eventually twirls out of the way, using Arthur’s momentum against him and diving into a fast counter-attack which Arthur blocks in turn. And so it goes on, their war honed to perfection, their bodies so very alive and their breathing perfectly in synch. Arthur’s eyes are dark when they finally step away from each other and Merlin knows his eyes mirror it. It’s like his skin is on fire with an unscratchable itch and he shoves his knife with a little bit more force than necessary. Arthur, to his annoyance, seems to think he still needs to address his men instead of just marching away to fuck Merlin.
“You can’t fight like Merlin does,” Arthur says, stating the obvious. “But you should be able to keep up with me, so bloody hell start practising.”
The men grumble, some shifting uneasily, but others, to Merlin’s surprise, just look amused. Rauth, a man with wild red hair, actually gives Merlin a wry and almost impressed smile. Elena and Eir, sisters and the only women among Arthur’s men, eye Merlin’s knife with keen interest. Merlin has to admit that they might’ve been hasty in their judgement that his fighting style couldn’t directly benefit anyone, but they seldom take part in the raids, often preferring to stay home and help Mengloth, their widowed mother.
Though both Elena and Eir are tall, strong and fair, true shieldmaidens of the North, their strength lies mostly in their skill and speed. Merlin decides to have a word with Arthur about two graceful swords. But first he wants him. Wants Arthur to bloody shut up and walk away so Merlin can follow and align their heartbeats back together.
Of course Merlin’s used to sometimes having to choke his desires; after all there is no privacy on a ship. This time though the itch refuses to be ignored and Merlin’s world zeroes in on Arthur, who is speaking to Egill, his lips moving and throat working in a delicious manner. He catches a couple of insignificant words about the practise schedule and ignores them, walking up to Arthur. When Egill stops in mid-sentence as Merlin brushes past him, Merlin isn’t above smirking a little. Arthur frowns at him questioningly, but Merlin knows he knows.
“The völva wanted to talk to you,” he lies easily. “Could you come with me now; I’m sure she’s tired of waiting.” He flashes his teeth and drops his voice so that it doesn’t carry away from Arthur and Egill. “And it’s never a good idea to disrespect someone with a gift.“
Morgana. A worried voice supplies in his head, but he pushes it away.
“You’re right, for once,” Arthur answers, probably aiming for nonchalant playfulness, but Merlin can taste the almost unnoticeable strain of impatience underneath.
The völva is away, so he doesn’t hold back after he has kicked the door to his room closed. He pushes Arthur against the nearest wall, which is very near as the room is scarcely larger than a fishing boat, and lets his tongue travel along Arthur’s frantically beating pulse. Arthur gives a breathy chuckle and yanks Merlin into a kiss while trying to reverse their positions but Merlin just pushes back.
“You made me wait on purpose,” he breathes into Arthur’s ear.
“And?” Arthur says flippantly, but Merlin sucks his arrogance out of him very fast, though he might lose his own cheek along the way as well.
Morgana sneaks back into Merlin’s mind while he’s watching Arthur clean himself from his washbasin.
“I had a vision,” he states simply because trying to explain the subtleties would likely be useless. “I have a very bad feeling about Morgana.”
Arthur scrubs the water away from his face with a cloth before looking up, clearly puzzled. “The thrall girl?”
When Merlin doesn’t elaborate Arthur lifts an eyebrow and crosses his arms. Merlin sighs quietly; there’s no easy way to say the words. It’s not that he found the idea of Hallgrímr having a bastard unbelievable before, but somehow he didn’t expect to find one so close. Or one who is only a year or two younger than Arthur.
It’s no use to trying to sugar-coat the truth. He’s not even really sure if Arthur is going to care so he simply blurts it out.
“She is your sister.”
Arthur’s frame stiffens considerably and his eyes gleam stormily. So much for the wish that Arthur wouldn’t be affronted, though it is a rather logical reaction to the slight to his mother’s honour, if not to the fact that he suddenly has a sister he’s never known about. Merlin doesn’t think it really counts for him – while Arthur is almost like a foster brother, Ygraine alone has acted as a parental figure to him. And he generally dislikes thinking about them as brothers anyway – especially when he can still feel Arthur on his skin.
“Are you certain?” Arthur asks finally, clipped.
“She certainly believes so herself. And Arthur –” He pauses for good measure, trying to make Arthur see, to understand. “I know she is dangerous.” Somehow, when he tries to say that Morgana has the gift the words get struck in his throat. She hasn’t been trained so it’s not like she can actually do anything, and, well, he doesn’t want Arthur suddenly becoming wary of magic without reason.
It seems like his some of his anxiety has gotten through to Arthur, for while he still looks angry, or maybe disappointed, the storm in his eyes has mostly given way to thoughtfulness.
He straightens his clothes and glances out of the window. Merlin follows his eyes up the hill and to the hall.
“I don’t –” he starts, but Arthur speaks right over him.
“I’m going to talk to my father,” he declares and strides out without a backwards glance.
“– think that’s a good idea,” Merlin finishes with a groan as the door swings shut. He could probably go, build a hut in the forest and live as a hermit. It sounds rather lovely, just him and nature and no obnoxious prats prancing around without a care for the world. He would miss the sex though, and he is rather curious, so he half-heartedly attempts to make himself presentable and sneaks after Arthur.
He doesn’t dare to actually enter the hall from the main – and unfortunately only – door since he has no desire to get involved in a potential conflict. But Merlin is nothing if not resourceful. He knows a set of runes that allows its caster to listen through walls and great distances so he creeps to one that is shadowed by trees and is connected to the private part of the hall. He has a small satchel of earth red he always keeps with him so he uses it to carefully draw the runes on the wall near the ground so that when he wipes the paint away later the smudge won’t be really noticeable.
He sings the runes quietly, and watches with a small smile as they glow golden for a moment before fading back to the original brownish red. He loves doing rune magic and spellsinging, loves the little tingle of power that runs through his body when he brings the magic alive.
“I need to speak to him,” Arthur says, sounding like he’s standing right next to Merlin. It is a little disconcerting, but Merlin simply closes out his other senses and focuses on the sounds. The flooring creaks under someone’s feet and to his surprise it’s Ygraine who answers.
“This is none of your business, Arthur,” she says firmly in Norse.
“He slighted you by going behind your back! He should have at least told you.” Merlin’s heart goes out to Arthur. A little. He loves his mother so much and just wants to do right by her but can’t. Merlin feels some of the anger Arthur must be feeling himself, but he also knows Ygraine can stand up for herself. And in no circumstances would anyone welcome his intrusion.
“How do you know he didn’t?” Ygraine asks sharply, and Merlin imagines he can hear Arthur inhaling sharply in surprise. “But it’s between me and your father.”
Merlin is straining to hear some sort of clue about Arthur’s reaction and wishes silently he’d tried scrying instead. It might not be his strongest suit, but this would have been an easy target, close with familiar people and a place.
“What are you doing?” The voice comes from behind him and Merlin jumps up so fast he manages to scrape himself on a nearby branch.
He curses only to find Eir standing in front of him with a highly bemused expression on her face. She’s wearing long leather gloves that go over her elbows to protect her from the bundle of nettles in her hands, but Merlin doesn’t miss the twitch of her hand towards the knife on her belt. He supposes he must have looked quite suspicious, crouching in the shadows. He tries desperately to look for some plausible, non-malicious explanation, but draws a complete blank. He could always claim he was looking for some sort of plant, but she might be familiar with it and catch him on his lie. And he isn’t quite sure whether she has seen the runes or not. Somehow he doubts that lying would go down well.
“I was listening in on Arthur?” he offers with a sheepish and hopefully harmless looking smile. He has to force his face into the expression, usually preferring to scowl when questioned; he can normally count on his unapproachable exterior to keep any kind of unwanted conversations well and truly away.
Eir frowns at the nettles in her hands. “You do know I have to tell him about this. I know you’re loyal to him, but…” she says, trailing off. Merlin sighs inwardly. Arthur is going to be so bloody pleased. There’s the sound of a branch snapping, and both of them turn to scan the forest behind them, Merlin grateful for the distraction.
“Eir!” Elena’s voice carries out of the woods just before she herself appears in Merlin’s line of vision, hopping over the stones and branches on the way and narrowly avoiding tripping on every single one of them. She seems to notice Merlin only as she slides to a halt in front of them, her eyes narrowing at Merlin.
“Merlin!” she gasps out between pants. “Why are you here? No, wait – sorry – Eir!”
Eir shakes her head slowly, looking like she is barely restraining herself from rolling her eyes. “Yes?”
“I found a fox cub, but it’s hurt. We should take it home to patch up. Please?” she widens her blue eyes pleadingly, making her look much younger and more innocent than Merlin knows she is. He has seen her gut grown men without a second thought, and cut the throats of diseased captives and toss them to the sea. This Elena seems like a child in comparison.
Eir appears to be about to refuse but instead gives Merlin a thoughtful look. He tries to keep his face carefully blank, hoping that she’ll leave and forget all about this while Merlin slinks away. She smirks knowingly at him, and Merlin has the sudden feeling that he has completely run out of luck. Elena keeps turning her head from Eir to Merlin and back, like trying to piece a puzzle together. Merlin tries to deter her with a quick glare, but she doesn’t seem fazed in the slightest.
“We’ll come,” Eir says and Merlin almost starts celebrating in his head before the “we” part registers.
“What?” he chokes out.
“There’s something we need to discuss with Arthur afterwards,” she says to Elena, completely ignoring Merlin, who is quietly trying to evaluate whether he should try that memory wiping spell he learned a while ago. It could work, he muses, but he recoils at the thought of using his gift against his people. His powers are a plaything and to treat them as such would disrespect the gods. Which generally isn’t terribly clever. And he rather likes both Eir and Elena, in a distant sort of way.
So he just sighs. “I can probably help as well.” Elena smiles brilliantly and hurries off, beckoning them to follow.
Elena ends up carrying the fox to their farm. “We can train it for hunting and tracking,” she announces brightly and that’s that.
Saying that Arthur isn’t pleased when Eir marches up to him in the hall with Merlin and Elena, who somehow managed to tag along, and announces that she caught Merlin creeping outside the hall is an understatement.
He wasn’t looking terribly happy even before Eir opened her mouth so Merlin only hopes that Arthur isn’t going to channel all his frustration into him.
“Merlin has my trust,” he drawls poisonously, his displeasure definitely directed at Merlin. “But thank you for bringing this to my attention. We shall discuss it privately.”
Elena seems to have finally figured out the situation between him and her sister, but now she is eyeing Merlin and Arthur with such a mischievous expression that Merlin seriously contemplates just distracting her with a spell. Despite the fact that everyone would obviously notice it unless he used it on all of them. Arthur would kill him.
So there’s nothing he can do when Elena opens her mouth and says, “Come on Eir, I think we should leave them to their own devices,” with such a suggestive tone that even Merlin, to his horror, feels his cheeks heating up.
“Elena!” Eir snaps with a pained expression and gives Arthur a small nod before snatching Elena’s wrist and stalking away.
Chagrined Merlin looks at Arthur, but he refuses to make his tone apologetic.
“You couldn’t really expect me to just wait,” he says and crosses his arms defensively in front of himself. “She’s my mother as well.”
He knows it’s the wrong thing to say the moment the words leave his mouth. Arthur makes a jerky sort of movement towards him and curls his hand around Merlin’s neck.
“No, she is not. Or – “ he presses against Merlin, crowding him against the table. “Is this about our brotherly relationship?” He spits the word in Merlin’s face with vehemence, making Merlin’s skin tingle all over, with Arthur and the feeling of magic. He wants to kiss him quiet, force the words back, but the table is digging into his hip painfully and he is so mad at Arthur for turning this on them.
“This and that are not related, and you know that you fucking prat!” he hisses out and tries to jerk away from Arthur’s grasp, but his hold on Merlin’s hair stops him.
“Let me go,” he says dangerously. “I am not your whore, your thrall nor your brother. You better fucking let me go.”
Arthur’s eyes are dark, his pupils blown wide, and for a moment Merlin seriously considers what he is going to do if Arthur doesn’t let him go. But Arthur does, because, well, he is Arthur and for a moment Merlin almost feels bad for doubting him.
Then Arthur has to go and open his stupid big mouth. “No, you just lay with me like a girl, while moaning like a whore.”
It stings far more than it should. Merlin knows their thing isn’t about feelings; they’re not lovers, but he has always thought of them as friends, even if somewhat dysfunctional ones. The rage and hurt climb up his throat where they tangle into a lump that makes it almost impossible to speak, but he refuses to let Arthur have the last word.
“And you love it. Who was it that came to me that first time? Who was it that kept coming back despite the fact that you’d ruined everything?“
He forces out a single basic rune of distraction, just enough for Arthur to miss his escape to the doors. He doesn’t bother closing them gently.
He knows it’s unfair to blame Arthur alone. It was Vil’s death that had brought his gifts to the surface and led Merlin into closing himself into a place where only Arthur can truly reach him.
Merlin isn’t quite sure how he ends up walking in circles in the forest, but he is relatively positive that anything is better than staying in the village. He doesn’t want to risk running into Arthur, not when even the thought of him makes Merlin want to choke him to death. Staying inside isn’t much better for the völva keeps giving him looks. Looks which he completely fails to interpret.
It’s a beautiful day, a little windy but sunny and the birds are dashing around chirping cheerfully. He starts making his way gradually upwards, sometimes stopping or walking vertically for a while, but no longer wandering aimlessly. A cliff stands out from the slope, offering a breath-taking view of the fjord below. The distance makes even the hall look small and insignificant, and the sun glimmers on the waves so brightly it’s almost painful, but Merlin looks anyway. He tries to lose himself into the hypnotic movement of the waves and for a moment he is successful, but then the sound of footsteps breaks him out of his trance.
He’s both surprised and afraid to see Morgana standing in the path, but he mercilessly squashes the latter for he has no reason to fear for Arthur. Apparently neither one of them wants that.
“Did you follow me?” he asks pensively because this is his place and she sure as Hel has no right to follow him around especially when she probably should be working.
“I needed to talk to you,” she says with an apologetic smile and lowered eyes, but Merlin is starting to suspect it’s all for show.
She gives a weak laugh, and rolls a wisp of her messy, dark hair around her finger. “I shouldn’t be a thrall. I – the king is my father.” She breaks off, obviously waiting for some kind of reaction, but he just stares, letting his eyes bore into her as deeply as he can. She frowns. “You knew.” He still refuses to answer. “I just want to take my place beside my brother and father. I want to prove myself to them. I just want to be myself.”
Her eyes are glistening and Merlin doesn’t have the heart to doubt that she’s speaking at least the partial truth. However, there are also things she’s not voicing out loud; he has seen the darkness behind her green eyes.
“And? How is any of this my concern?” he asks, but now his tone is almost kind.
She smiles at him then, a full smile, and he thinks that if he was inclined that way there’s very little he could deny this young woman. “You could teach me the sword, and to use my power – I mean I’m sure you already know I have the gift as well?” Merlin nods. “We are the same you and I. Part of the family yet outside. We could help each other.”
She walks closer, her hips swaying, but stops when Merlin gives her an alarmed look. He is rather sure that everyone is aware he has – had – some sort of relationship with Arthur and that he is the woman, as they would call it, in their arrangement. Ignorant fools the lot of them, but the information should have been enough to keep Morgana away.
“Morgana,” he says gently for despite everything he does pity this girl. “There is nothing you can offer me. You’re a thrall and for me to teach you would be a treason. You could try talking to the king. Maybe he didn’t know about you.” He knows it’s a lie, and the anger inside him is whispering about the perfect revenge on Arthur, tempting him to damn the consequences and help her. Yet he isn’t stupid enough to listen.
Her face hardens, eyes narrowing to slits as she lifts her head and looks him squarely in the eye. The demure girl washes away like a thin layer of paint. “I should have known you wouldn’t stand up for what’s right, backboneless ergi,” she spits out.
He laughs then, a bitter laugh that refuses to stop even when he wants it to. He practices the magic of women, and he will never lay with a woman nor have a family, so an ergi he is. But he knows that right now he is doing the right thing, not betraying his loyalties and vows. The ring around his wrist is cool and heavy. When he finally gets his breathing under control Morgana is gone.
The farm of Mengloth, Elena and Eir is small but lovely. There are some goats and chickens wandering about, and a small patch of golden grain swaying in the wind. Merlin’s not quite sure what he is looking for here, but Elena’s smile when she spots him is both welcoming and a little frightening in its sincerity. He finds himself missing the days when he still had friends, and now with Arthur unreachable the yearning is sharper than ever before. Not that he doesn’t believe they can’t eventually just ignore it and go back to the way things were, but gods he just wishes Arthur would take the time to think.
They exchange greetings, and though Merlin feels Elena’s curiosity she doesn’t ask anything for which he is eternally grateful.
“Do you want to see her?”
He tilts his head to the side in confusion. “Eir?”
“Leika!” she exclaims with a laugh. Now he must look truly puzzled as he tries to figure out who she means, but there’s no one he can think of. “The fox,” she adds with a unimpressed look.
“Why not.” He might have a small soft spot for little animals.
He gets to see Eir anyway, since she is in the shed, sitting on top of a hay bale and watching the sleeping cub with a dreamy expression. She startles when she sees him, and he thinks he can see some guilt in the way her eyes dart away a little too fast. Apparently the news of the rift between him and Arthur has already sneaked its way out of the village. He supposes it would be nice to blame her for sticking her nose into Merlin’s business, but this lies on Arthur and not her, so he smiles. He has been doing that quite a lot lately though there hasn’t been a great deal to smile about. He guesses it comes with the whole interacting with other people thing.
“So Leika, eh?” he asks, and Eir nods.
“She’s doing well.” Just as she says it the cub lifts it head to look at them and then stretches like a cat. Merlin’s insides feel warm and he wonders if distancing himself was really worth it. But he remembers the look of distrust on Eir’s face when she caught him; there is no same absolute trust for him, an abomination, that there is for everyone else in the crew.
The cub sits down and slowly tilts its head to the side, regarding them curiously with its dark eyes. He wonders if it’s too young to fear them and concludes that that’s probably the case. The fox seems to have completed its evaluation, and, as if to confirm Merlin’s conclusion, it pads straight up to him and curls down against his leg. He stares at it helplessly, both weirdly flattered and panicking at how to react. When he tries to neutralise his features they refuse to obey and so he has no other option than to shrug helplessly at Elena who is pouting at him.
“Of course she would like you better,” she says with a put-upon sigh.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he says hesitantly. “Cubs like warmth.”
To his surprise it’s Eir who answers. “Oh shut up, Merlin,” she says quietly and with obvious humour, but her pale eyes are regarding him from beneath her eyelashes very calculatingly. He very pointedly doesn’t even think about how much the words sound like they belong to Arthur.
Somehow he gets invited to dinner by both Elena and Eir, but it’s clear that his presence makes Mengloth uneasy. She avoids mentioning anything even distantly related to his gift or position, though she is still perfectly courteous, enquiring about Ygraine and the raids. She also reveals something Merlin has completely managed to avoid.
The king has called a gathering for the next day to discuss the last raids before the autumn. All freemen under Hallgrímr are welcome to attend, but for Merlin not to go would be seen as a slight. Of course he is aware that he cannot ignore Arthur’s existence forever, but tomorrow feels too soon. Definitely too soon.
Ygraine is sitting in the völva’s hut when Merlin sneaks in that night. The völva gives him a disapproving look, one he well deserves for not giving her and his studies any time. He signs her a quick apology and turns to face the real danger. Ygraine is not in her official dress, and is instead wearing a simple blue one and a dark hooded cloak. He suspects she thinks of it as a some sort of disguise, but the truth is that the hood just begs for a closer look which would surely reveal her to the people that know her.
“You have not joined us for meals since the first night,” she says idly, playing with her hair.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been busy.”
“I am sure.” She sighs, put upon. “I need you to talk to your brother. The king is planning an alliance, but I much rather he married someone he cares for so he needs to act fast.”
He doesn’t understand what she is trying to say. There is nobody who Arthur has feelings for, and Merlin has always been his only liaison, one carefully hidden from Ygraine.
She startles a little at the question and frowns at him, puzzled, like she is trying to re-evaluate the situation.
“Elena, of course,” she says. “They go hunting and riding together oftentimes. Though Eir sometimes goes with them.”
“Merlin,” she interrupts reproachfully.
“Mother.” He lets himself be corrected here, with just the völva as witness, but he suspects she knows that both in public and in his thoughts she is always Ygraine.
“I don’t want him to be forced to marry some foreign princess. I have no desire to see one here. Talk to him.” She rises abruptly, making the chair protest against the floorboards. “And there will be no excuses for not coming to the feast tomorrow.”
He spends the next day assisting the völva. He gathers some herbs from the small garden and refills their stores and ponders over some spell-stones. There are two ways to awaken a spell. One is by singing runes, which use the magic of Midgard. The other is the actual spellsinging, reaching to the otherworld with prayers and chants. While the runes themselves hold some power and can sometimes be used even by people without a real gift but knowledge of rune lore, the success of spellsinging depends on the power of the caster to break the veil.
The rune sequences in these stones are rather weak and old, minor charms of good luck, good harvest and the like. One of them is even a small curse, one that would have maybe caused the room it was left in to become riddled with draft and mould, but it has been broken by a crack in one of the runes.
Merlin is rather good with basic runes, but he has never quite reached the understanding required to build complicated sequences from scratch. He always misses some nuance in the combination and the result ends up being more or less off. He is much better at breaking the veil – too good, the völva says, and directs him back to the runes. He can create spells in the heat of the moment, and make them draw so much power he shakes the Earth. He had, once, when he had first discovered his powers. It hadn’t been a real spell, rather an uncontrolled wail to the heavens, which had drawn through power he hadn’t known how to use. The gods must have been on his side for the power spread widely towards the earth instead of striking in one place. He could have burned them all to a crisp.
The feast is plentiful with game and fish, crowned with the berries of late summer. Somehow he ends up sitting between Elena and Eir who ambush him the moment he steps inside the doors. They’re wearing matching dresses of dark blue, but their fair hair, braided up, makes sure nobody will mistake them for helpless maidens. It also makes his inability to get rid of them a little more bearable. Truth is he is mostly grateful, though, for they provide a very effective barrier against Arthur whose eyes keep shifting towards him in a fashion that suggests he wants something. With Elena and Eir there he keeps away, chatting with people, laughing with them and giving them rough pats on the back. Merlin has never quite understood why men feel the need to punch each other on a regular basis. He even remarks on it after a flask or two of ale.
Elena laughs and pats him on the back, though fortunately in a rather gentler manner. “Oh Merlin, no wonder you never fit in.”
He shifts away from the touch, disgruntled, but doesn’t miss the exasperated glare Eir send her sister. He can’t figure them out. Why come to him now, after all these years? He remembers them trying to get through to him for a while after Vil’s death, but they had eventually taken the hint. He can’t think of anything he could give them, no way for them to benefit from him. The only possibility he can think of is that Eir feels guilty about Arthur and he has no desire for their pity. And yet somewhere deep inside he has almost enjoyed their company.
“Excuse me,” he says and rises, but Elena’s hand sneaks up yanks him back down.
“You’re not going anywhere,” she says. “You were once my closest friend, and I’m not letting you to slip away again.” Her eyes are sharp as ice and yet their clear sincerity seems to set something alight in Merlin, spreading warmth over his body. Merlin lowers his head, unable to keep looking.
Eir nods in affirmation. “I made a mistake when I told Arthur about what I saw, but you’ve changed. Not as much as I thought, I see that now, but while I didn’t doubt your loyalty to Arthur I wasn’t sure if it extended to the king. I’m sorry, but please don’t push us away.”
Merlin nods quietly and Elena pats his back again with a sly grin at his sister. “Fantastic! Now you can stop your moping around and liven up our evening. And aren’t you going to ask about Leika?
Merlin actually did wonder how the fox was doing so he asks, and Elena, delighted, begins her tale.
“You know, Ygraine told me to tell Arthur to hurry up and marry you,” he says later, when they are waiting for the king to open the ðing.
Elena makes a face. “That ship sailed long ago.”
“I guess it did,” he answers and for the first time in forever allows himself the hope that what he has with Arthur could be more than it is.
“It wasn’t the only one,” Eir says, her smile bittersweet.
When Hallgrímr takes his seat at the end of the hall the music fades away and even the men quiet down.
“I propose we will send three ships to raid the Baltic shores. Does anyone oppose this?”
That the hall remains quiet for the announcement is scarcely unexpected. Leaving for longer raids at this late summer would be foolishness.
“I have also decided to lead one of the ships myself.” This sends a wave of murmurs through the hall. The king hasn’t taken part in a raid for years, and everybody speculates about the reason. Many whispers are about Valhalla and that also seems to be what’s on Arthur’s mind for he has paled considerably even under the warm light of the fires.
“But who will lead here in your absence?” shouts one of the older men, Ulf, from near the door and Hallgrímr holds his hand up to silence the crowd.
“My wife will act as the head in my place, but the council will act as normal if need be.”
Nobody seems to have any objections to this, for after all Ygraine is well liked and the council more than capable. Ygraine herself is sitting on her seat next to her husband, with an indulgent smile on her face. She doesn’t often look out of place anymore, but right now she seems every inch the distant foreign queen in the middle of squabbling children.
Arthur is to have his ship, Hallgrímr one and Ulf one, and one by one they call volunteers, Arthur last.
“Are you sailing out?” he asks Elena and Eir while Ulf is speaking.
“Of course,” Elena says cheerfully. “Most of the work at the farm is done and mother is charming her new paramour so she wants us gone. And we definitely want to be gone!”
Merlin is shocked into momentary silence by Elena’s bluntness while Eir buries her face in her hands.
“Somebody save me,” she mutters and Elena sticks her tongue out. He surprises even himself when an uncontrollable laugh bubbles out of his mouth, but Elena and Eir smirk at each other in triumph, making Merlin laugh even harder. It’s fantastic and for a moment he flies with the high, but when he comes down he catches Arthur scrutinising them with a frown. In a fit of childishness, swept away by the moment, he frowns back in a mock-exaggerated fashion. Arthur scowls and Merlin turns back to his friends.
Finally it’s Arthur’s turn to choose, so most of the remaining men, including Merlin, Elena and Eir, march forward. There are more men than Arthur can take. Even his usual men can’t always all come, because there is only space for thirty men on the ship and the remaining are needed to guard their home.
Nobody is more surprised than Merlin when the first name Arthur calls forward is his. Everybody knows Arthur always takes him, but he always leaves it to the last wave of his hand as “Merlin, obviously”.
He chooses Elena and Eir, some men Merlin likes more and some less, but one name that is not called is Egill’s, who is turning redder and more outraged by second. When Arthur calls out the last name, Gísli, belonging to a boy who hasn’t even yet bloodied his hands, Egill slinks out of the hall with hands balled into fists. Arthur’s eyes follow him to the door.
There is more celebration, more ale, more songs and more dancing, but Arthur simply nods at his crew, gives Merlin a small tug and retreats out of the great hall to his private rooms. Someone, almost certainly carrying the name of Elena, pushes him rather violently to follow and he does, would have anyway. He feels like this evening alone has done a lot to heal years’ worth of wounds.
Arthur walks to his own chambers and drops the latch down when Merlin is inside. There’s not much here, really only Arthur’s bed, covered in furs that he undoubtedly discards when he actually goes to sleep. Carefully, keeping an eye on Arthur while trying to figure out his thoughts, he sits on the bed. The furs are soft under his fingers.
“You seemed to be enjoying yourself,” Arthur says, head turned away.
“I haven’t seen you like that since Vil.”
“Since I learned about my gifts,” he corrects and pushes himself completely onto the bed, drawing his knees up to his chest.
Arthur shrugs, throwing himself down at Merlin’s side. There’s almost a certain boyishness to him when he props himself up on his elbows and peers at Merlin. He won’t apologise, and Merlin has no illusions about anything else, but he does rest his head against Merlin’s leg for a second before biting it. Merlin yelps sharply and pushes Arthur’s head away.
“You’re a prat.”
“You have avoided me for two days.” It’s an accusation, made like Arthur has no idea why he might not have wanted to see him, so Merlin gives him his best glare. Arthur grins annoyingly and crawls into the space between Merlin thighs. He curses his body for welcoming him so willingly, but even this is making him so hot that he can’t help drawing Arthur closer.
“I hate you sometimes,” he says, almost able to imagine a fleeting moment of hurt in Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur kisses him then, his teeth leaving marks first on Merlin’s lips and then on his neck as he pushes Merlin down.
“But you’re mine anyway,” he whispers and aims for Merlin’s lips. Merlin turns his head away then, the familiar ball of anger sparking inside him despite the fact his hips never stop seeking better leverage.
“I belong to nobody.”
If Arthur never once relinquishes his control of Merlin that night Merlin doesn’t wonder why, nor does he say a word about Elena even when the morning draws clear and he sneaks out of the hall.
They sail out two days later, each ship taking a different destination. There is no need to focus all their strength on a single town when one crew can easily overcome their feeble defences.
The sun is burning, reflecting from the water and turning it into a sea of sparkling diamonds. Merlin’s pale skin has never been a friend of the harsh light and he’s forced to hide away under his hooded cloak. It’s made of almost impossibly thin grey wool, but he still occasionally contemplates sacrificing his skin to properly feel the cool hands of the sea breeze. He knows it would eventually be even more uncomfortable, but right now, the sun at its highest, he’s just too damn hot, all damp and sweaty. Though he has never felt less like a fearsome witch the crew seems to take his glowering from under the hood as a terrifying thing indeed, staying well out of his way.
Excepting Elena, Eir and Arthur, of course. Elena chats happily away with him, Eir occasionally joining in, even when all the answers he can dig up from his melting head are grunts, and Arthur just smirks, completely infuriating as usual. The only amusement he can muster is at Gísli, who treats him in a painfully polite manner, always making way with a small bow, which frankly shouldn’t even be possible on the ship. On top of that, Arthur doesn’t seem to be quite sure if he should be insulted for not getting the same treatment.
They don’t approach the small bay they have decided to hide the ship in before the sun is starting to set. Summer nights are precariously short so they need to make use of every second of darkness to reach the village before the dawn. Or everyone else does. He stays and guards the ship when the crew marches away, Arthur in the front. The others become formless shadows, blending together as the trees swallow them, and then Merlin sings.
It’s a short sequence of runes, one he has learned by heart, speaking of distraction and binding it to the ship, and making it stay intact until Merlin – or someone else – undoes it. He smiles when the power gathers and sweeps him in, whispering into his ear and caressing his skin before settling down around him.
He spends the night staring at the water, the shore and the sky. It’s the night when Máni hides the moon behind the horizon to confuse the wolf Háti chasing it. He dislikes the empty sky, for it makes him feel like all the gods have turned away from Midgard with Máni and even when he turns his head away he can feel its absence. And something else. Someone is watching him, making the hairs on his neck stand up. He turns slowly to scan the shore, looking for the source of the feeling. There are very few things that can see through his spell: animals, magical beings and those with the gift.
The shore is dark and silent one moment and then in the next a sea of torches flares to life, the spell breaking without any warning. It stuns Merlin momentarily, thrusting all the air out of his lungs, and leaving him gasping like a fish. Such a thing should be impossible, all the more for the fact that they have never encountered significant magic in these lands.
He goes through every rune sequence he knows but even as he does he is aware it’s useless. He could escape himself, but there is no point, nor honour in running. Yet it’s probably more madness than honour that makes Merlin to turn to the sky and sing, let out words that reach Hel itself.
The veil is cold and blindingly white, so blinding that soon the white turns black and reveals the magic behind, stronger than anything here. Merlin calls to it, makes it arise as a fog from the water and fall as smoke from the sky, tells it to speak of fear and the dead, of the eternal frost coating the ground and of the fate that awaits those who cannot reach Valhalla.
There are screams, somewhere far away, but the frost takes over his skin, muscles and bones so he just curls down into himself to find some warmth. Yet as he tries to hide himself a hand, colder than the bite of metal on a clear winter day, touches his cheek and he looks up to see a completely white figure standing in front of him. Or maybe she is floating, in a moment where time has slowed to almost nothingness. Her skin is white, as is her long dress, hair and even eyelashes. The only hint of colour is the pale blue in her eyes, staring into his unblinkingly. Her white lips move, forming the same shapes again and again, but Merlin can’t hear the words over the wailing in his ears. When he doesn’t do anything, or maybe because he does, for his body doesn’t feel quite his own anymore, she narrows her eyes and flicks her finger at his forehead. With a wave of white he falls, his body suddenly there and so heavy and echoing words booming in his head: “Stop.”
Sól is kneeling over him, the sun shining from her eyes. Her touch is burning and Merlin whimpers at the contact, trying to move away but paralysed where he is, helpless when other burning hands reach for him. He screams, and his eyes open to the sky where the sun is flaring and he wrenches his head away, just to see Arthur staring at him like he’s seen a ghost. His eyes are wide, desperate, and cheeks pale, and without a thought Merlin reaches for him, pushing an errant strand of hair away from his brow. A choked giggle makes him to drop his hand and look around. The whole crew is standing there, regarding him with varying levels of uneasiness and amusement, and Eir is kneeling down at his side, something green in her hands.
“Chew,” she says and practically shoves them into his mouth. Stunned, he does. Pine needles, he thinks in wonder. Evergreens are the warders of spirits and anchors to this world. Dimly he remembers torches dancing in the night and all-consuming blindness, but everything else is a blur.
“What –” he chokes out once he has forced the needles down. Eir hands him a cup of water, but Arthur’s cheeks are reddening.
“That’s what we wanted to know,” he points out sharply. “The town was completely empty when we reached it so we took what we could and hastened back, only to encounter a group of men outside the woods, wandering about aimlessly, some weeping and some raving about Hel on earth. And then you were here, lying down, unmoving and cold as ice –“ His voice wavers and he breaks off, but it doesn’t stop him from giving Merlin a vicious glare.
“I don’t know what you did,” Eir says, face solemn, and puts her hand to Merlin’s brow. “But your soul was still connected to the other side when we arrived. But you’re warming up now so I figure you’ll be alright.” True to that her hand is no longer fire on his skin, but just a pleasant warm contact.
“I –“ he says and stops, shrugging helplessly, because he has no idea how to continue. “Someone broke my spell and I had to draw through the veil. And then there was coldness and a woman in white.”
“A woman in white?” Arthur asks incredulously and turns to Eir in disbelief. “Are you sure he is quite alright?”
“It was Hel.” He doesn’t know how he knows that. It’s just suddenly there, the absolute conviction that he had been in the presence of a goddess, and there is only one goddess in the realm he had drawn from. She had been Hel, daughter of Loki and ruler of Niflheim.
A tense silence falls over the ship at his words. People shift awkwardly and exchange looks with each other but nobody seems to want to say anything.
Merlin almost jumps when Arthur kneels down to his level and looks straight into his eyes. “Don’t be an idiot, Merlin,” he says without breaking his gaze. ”A goddess wouldn’t show herself to the likes of us.”
The crew chuckles at Arthur’s words and turn away to their own stories. Arthur pats Merlin on the shoulder before rising and Merlin takes the small touch for the comfort and apology it’s meant to be. It doesn’t stop him from wishing he could have more, that he could curl against Arthur and rest his head on his shoulder. He wants to stop being strong for a moment and just let someone else hold him while he finds himself. But they can’t have that, not now, not ever, so he forces his muscles to obey and slowly stands up. To his surprise Elena throws an arm around his shoulder, into something closely resembling a hug and he can’t quite find it in himself to begrudge the touch.
There is no crowd to welcome them home this time, the people probably already in the midst of celebration for the king’s ship is waiting in the docks to greet them. Yet there is something that keeps bothering Merlin. It’s not the fires lit in the memory of the slain, and it is not the silence in the docks. His eyes scan the village, the king’s ship and the hall, absorbing and analysing every detail. Nothing is wrong, and he has almost given up and is starting to chastise himself for being paranoid when it strikes him. It’s not that something has exactly changed. It’s that something is missing.
The shield of Hallgrímr has been taken down from above the entrance of the hall.
Quietly he slides up to Arthur’s side as the men dock the ship. His face is grim as well like he has sensed something, but Merlin doesn’t expect the answer he gets to his whispered “Arthur”.
“I know,” he says and there is such pain in those words that Merlin just stands there, next to him and almost touching, hoping that maybe his presence can offer Arthur some small consolation. For if the shield is down there are only two possibilities. Either the hall has been taken over and the conqueror has replaced it with his own shield or the king is dead.
The hall is full of lit candles and quiet men. They avert their gazes when Arthur walks in full of quiet fury and Merlin trails after him like a shadow and searches every man for some sign of treachery. But all he sees is sorrow.
“It is good that you have returned, my sons,” Ygraine says hollowly from her seat across the hall. “Tomorrow we’ll send your father to Valhalla.” Arthur’s father, corrects Merlin’s mind, probably accompanied by many others, but nobody says anything.
They sit down and drink to the memory of their great king, and his warriors tell tales from his youth. One of them deems it his duty to tell Arthur in lamenting tones how his father fell bravely in battle, struck down by a lucky arrow. Arthur’s entire body seems to be made of stone, so unmoving is his posture next to Merlin. When the völva starts singing about Valhalla Merlin has had enough. He stands up, hoping that Arthur will get the hint but he remains there, as unmoving as ever. Merlin sighs, and turns away as nonchalantly as he can while digging his nails into the nape of Arthur’s neck.
As expected Arthur startles, though to his credit he doesn’t make any noise, and gives Merlin a deathly glare. On any other day Merlin would smirk at him, but today he just leaves, walks outside to stare to the clear night sky while wondering about the future.
Arthur doesn’t follow him straight away, nor does he actually walk out of the hall like a normal person. Instead he climbs out from one of the windows at the back and sneaks up on Merlin. Or at least he attempts to for in the empty night his presence is stronger than ever, shining like a beacon, and Merlin has known where he is from the moment his legs touched the ground outside the hall.
“I need to be alone,” Arthur says, though it’s him who has come to stand at Merlin’s side and he doesn’t even pretend to protest when Merlin tells him to follow.
He takes Arthur to his cliff up in the forest in silence. There is nothing to say, not yet, and Merlin knows Arthur would meet all consoling words with disdain. Idly he thinks he should probably feel more sadness himself, but the only things he can find are uncertainty and emptiness.
They sit down on a rock near the edge, next to each other and finally touching. Arthur doesn’t seek the contact himself, probably incapable of showing such weakness, so Merlin simply leans against him, muttering about cold. It’s a complete lie, of course, but it seems to do the trick.
“Tell me a story about the heroes of Valhalla,” Arthur whispers, voice choked, and Merlin does, even if it’s just to mask Arthur’s sniffles. He tells the tale of King Völsung’s son, Sigmund, about the sword he is gifted by Odin and how in the end it’s Odin who shatters that sword in battle, leaving Sigmund to his death.
As he speaks he hopes Arthur can remember the glory of falling in battle and leaving behind a son. He hopes that Arthur can see himself as his father’s legacy, just as Sigmund saw Sigurd as his, and can find some solace in that.
When he finishes the sun is climbing up in the early morning sky, and the wind is slowly rising from the sea, playing with the waves and dancing in the treetops. He thinks he sees a little fox leaping through the woods below him and smiles at it, thinking about little Leika with Elena and Eir. The he looks at Arthur, whose eyes are dry at last though pain still resides in them, and his heart swells in his chest and he vows that no matter what he will stand by this man who never pushed him away because of his gift.
“Arthur,” he says, and Arthur turns to look at him. “Your father will feast in Valhalla with heroes, and when Sigmund and Sigurd boast with their legacy so will your father boast with his and his beautiful, brilliant son. There will never be another like you.” He drops to the ground on his knees and watches the astonishment blooming on Arthur’s face. “My loyalty has always been and will always be yours.”
For a moment they stare at each other in stillness and then Arthur smiles at him, showing his slightly crooked teeth.
“Thank you, Merlin,” he says and pulls him up against himself and kisses him so gently and slowly, cradling his face in his hands, that Merlin fears his heart will burst under the onslaught of emotion. If his eyes were a bit wet when they pull apart he just buries himself in Arthur’s neck so nobody is any wiser. Oh how he hates himself for falling in love with this prat.
There are preparations to be made. Seamstresses tailor the king’s funeral clothes with fervour, and the men, Merlin and Arthur among them, push the ship out of the fjord and to the funeral grounds. It looks lonely there, standing among the barrows of the dead instead of dashing among the waves. Burning such a beautiful ship is almost a shame.
When they come back to the village, exhausted and dirty, the angel of death has arrived. She lives alone, along the fjord, and if there is someone people are more wary of than Merlin it’s her. She is respected, yes, but so cold and distant, connected with death in a completely different way from anyone else that even Merlin himself finds her a bit disconcerting.
He narrows his eyes when he sees the woman she’s standing with. It’s Vivienne, not clothed in her normal attire, but in a long red ceremonial dress of sacrifice. He can tell she is drugged already, her eyes staring emptily at the sky with a smile on her lips. He doesn’t like this. If Morgana has a reason to hate them now how much will that boil over when her mother burns with her father’s corpse? He thinks he should probably talk to Elena and Eir and ask them to keep their eyes open.
Eventually the angel leads Vivienne to a tent with some other thralls and Merlin goes to clean up. He doesn’t want to see the men piling into the tent after the women, doesn’t want to hear the grunts. Thankfully the women stay quiet, so deep in their waking dreams that they don’t care about anything, including being used and killed. Merlin takes no part in that by his own will, and neither does Arthur since the family shows their love for the dead differently. Luckily, for the thought of Arthur sleeping with the thralls, with anyone else, and more so forcing himself upon them is revolting and turns the blood in his veins into ice, colder than the water he is splashing on his face.
He changes his clothes and with some reluctance pulls on a shirt with fur collar. The animal fur is a mark of royalty but also of a connection with the otherworld, and he doesn’t exactly begrudge that mark. It’s more about the fact that he is going to roast to death, for the day seems warm and the pyre is going to radiate heat with the power of Hallgrímr’s soul.
The king has been lifted onto the ship on the finest silks. His axe and shield rest on his breast and his body is surrounded by other weapons and riches, everything Hallgrímr acquired from his last raid. One by one his warriors and the villagers leave even more gifts on the ship. Those who are in possession of gold and jewels leave them, and those who aren’t toss the king flowers, ale, fruits and bread. The carpenter brings in a beautiful flute. The final offering is horse meat, from two strong stallions butchered earlier during the day, after they had been driven to exhaustion by miles of canter. Every free man and woman wearing a ring, including Merlin, lifts some of the raw meat and puts it into the boat, making their hands slippery with blood.
Ygraine goes last, the hem of her dress dark red with the drops that have coloured the ground. Her face is grim, but when she looks at her dead king there are hints of both grief and love in her expression. Before Merlin had never quite managed to figure out whether she loved him or not. His love for her was legendary for he had granted her every wish, even Merlin, but sometimes he had wondered if there wasn’t a spark of loathing there amongst her fondness for him. Now he thinks maybe she couldn’t help loving Hallgrímr, just as Merlin can’t bring himself to stop loving Arthur.
As Ygraine steps away the angel of death ushers Vivienne and the other thralls up a ladder and onto the ship. The first girl is very young, maybe fifteen summers, with a white flower in her hair. She doesn’t make a sound when the angel buries her knife in her chest. Nobody breathes, enamoured by the blood on the blade, by the sickening slurp it makes when it’s pulled out of the girl’s chest. She falls down next to her king with a small thud. His mouth tastes like ashes, and when the next girl giggles drunkenly he can’t bear to make himself look.
It’s worse, only hearing every single movement. When Vivienne’s turn comes Merlin makes sure he is watching. He watches as the ship is torched, watches as the fire flares up, consuming everything. He watches until there is nothing to see.
“The allðing will gather in eight days to decide the succession,” Arthur says to the blackened remains of the ship, puts his arm around Ygraine’s shoulder and leads her away.
On the seventh night after the king’s death they hold the sjaund. They drink the sweet ale of remembrance in a final offering, the last sign of mourning. Tomorrow the ðing will gather and confirm Arthur’s inheritance and life will go on like nothing has ever happened. Yet things are rarely so simple, and when he falls into his bed completely exhausted, the dead are waiting behind his eyelids.
There is no sun above him, just dark branches one after another, eventually becoming obscured by blue haze and turning into endless layers of nothingness. It makes his eyes prickle so he looks back down, to the black, grey and blue of the forest. In the middle of the trees sits a fox. The dead seem to have cast their spell of blue on it as well, only a hint of red detectable in its fur. It doesn’t mind, obviously, but curiously observes the shadows of the dead flickering around it.
Cautiously he walks forward, no sound emerging from his steps, but the fox spots him all the same and leaps to its feet. It runs to him, like a puppy excited to see its master, and with a jolt Merlin recognises her as Leika. She jumps against his leg and stares at him with her dark eyes, and Merlin, a little perplexed, crouches down to pet her. She leans against his touch for a second, before bouncing off again to have a look at a ghost that has materialised close to them. It’s Hunith, in the same old dress as always and same distracted look on her face. If Merlin is not completely wrong though it looks like her eyes sharpen at Leika for a moment, and the fox sits down at her feet, looking up to her, head tilted to the side.
Merlin hums in amusement, but it dies as soon as Hunith lifts her hand and he sees what she is trying to show him. It’s a large rock, somewhat out of place in the endless forest, but that’s not what makes him stop; it’s the sword that has been sunk into the stone. It’s so black that it seems to radiate darkness, and even the twilight around it seems to be constantly moving in a desperate bid to escape.
Merlin can feel the invisible runes on and around it, heavy with the commands of death, fear and destruction. He can’t imagine who would have – or could have – cast such a spell, a curse this powerful and malicious, and just with runes. Unless they used both runes and spellsinging. He takes a step back, to get away, and the vision twists and breaks, turns into a dream and lays forgotten until he opens his eyes to the new morning.
“Do you know anything about such a weapon?” he asks the völva after he has explained his vision.
She looks troubled, her small wrinkled face pinched tightly and fingers moving in quick jerky movements along the table top.
Yet what she signs is no. It’s such an absurd lie in its obviousness that for a moment he is speechless. He is positive she could have deceived him if she would have wanted, but this – this was her weighing the options and just deciding not to tell him, just like she had never mentioned Morgana. He hates that she gets to do that, just sitting there in her serene silence, watching them and not caring. He had believed she did, but he had been wrong before.
“Don’t lie to me,” he says, voice knife-sharp.
She sighs, and reaches for his hand over the table, but Merlin yanks it away. He has no intentions of being soothed by false touches. Another exasperated sigh and then stories, forgetting and finally: good. He stares at her hands in confusion; stories that have been forgotten? Does that mean she knows they exist but doesn’t actually know them, or that they are generally forgotten?
“Why is that good?”
Hidden, her fingers answer. It makes sense, of course, or rather would if not for his vision. He had felt the danger around it, tangible, real and so close, not only in the space of the dream but also in time.
“It’s going to be found,” he says with conviction heavy as stone.
Her hands still on the table and she stares at them for a moment before looking straight into his eyes, reading him like he was just a sequence of runes instead of a living being.
It takes him a moment to extract himself from her hold and read what she is signing: fate and ordained.
Outside, the sky cracks open, emptying all the water it has been gathering for weeks with one violent swoosh.
There are some villages close by that swore allegiance to Hallgrímr and now their leaders gather at the ðing. Some of them Merlin saw at the funeral, some in polite silence of distant loss and some in genuine grief, but there are also those he can’t place at all. The jarls, yes, but their retainers, most trusted blood brothers and sisters, leaders of their ships, have hardly left a mark on his memory. A few of them are so young that they have probably only replaced the ones that have fallen this summer anyway.
It’s all going relatively smoothly, though the hall is packed: everyone is offered food and drink, and more importantly, not a soul refuses, drinking and eating with obvious gladness. There is one shadow moving around in the hall that doesn’t leave him alone though, a slender woman with dark hair, possessing a catlike grace despite her clothes marking her as a thrall.
He can’t see her face, doesn’t really need to for he would recognise Morgana anywhere. It doesn’t help his anxiety that he once spots her bending down to whisper something to a man sitting down. Merlin can’t see who it is from his place at the royal table – a decision he greatly begrudges Ygraine – and he can’t imagine who it could be. He can imagine her conspiring against them, against him, but the truth of her station makes it certainly impossible for her to find an ally, especially against a warrior as respected as Arthur. Yet he worries, unable to do anything about it, bound as he is to his seat by invisible shackles of propriety and custom.
Arthur rises to his feet and the hall quiets instantly, like it’s struck down by his presence and kingly appearance. It’s a great show of extravagance, gold and jewels, even one bright sapphire dangling from his left ear, but it does the trick; Arthur looks no more like a warrior prince. He is here to become the king and that is what he appears as now, young, beautiful and strong, but also wise and steadfast. When he lifts his goblet his movements are slow, measured, and at least to Merlin almost theatrical.
“My lords,” he says. “Let us drink to the gods so that they may give us wisdom in this gathering.” And they drink.
Arthur spends a blink gathering himself, looking down at his goblet, and takes a deep breath before meeting every pair of eyes in the hall head on. “My father’s time has passed and now I ask you if there is any amongst you that don’t support my claim?”
A silence, accompanied by approving nods and smiles, and Merlin finally manages to release the breath that seemed to be permanently stuck somewhere in his throat – and sucks it right back in, almost choking on it when Morgana steps out from behind the tables.
“I challenge it.”
Arthur glances at him, questioningly, but Merlin has nothing to offer him – he wishes he would understand what she is after.
“Only free men are allowed a voice,” Arthur says. Everybody has turned to stare at Morgana, some with pity or amusement, others with rage and confusion. Quiet murmurs start out, speculation about punishments and about lessons needing to be taught, and yet Merlin’s lungs are still drowned in dread. The dead are close, reaching for his hair and clothes and tugging them in warning, but there is nothing Merlin can do apart from waiting. He doesn’t have to wait long as Morgana’s smile just widens.
“Someone has promised to speak for me.”
In his mind Merlin curses himself, curses Arthur, and most of all curses Egill who has stood up, and vows that there is no escape from this kind of betrayal. Despite their differences Egill is one of Arthur’s warriors, and in addition to being an insult it also looks very, very bad.
Egill the Unloyal. Egill the Traitor. Merlin stands up, and Ygraine rises with him, but he realises it’s a mistake as soon as Egill turns to stare at him, his thin lips turning into an ugly smirk full of white – or less white – teeth framed by his beard. He fears this is about him, about Egill’s fear, distrust and alienation towards him. Egill the Coward.
“Arthur is not fit to lead men,” Egill declares in a booming voice, standing tall and righteous. “Why, you ask – he is weak! He will not marry nor produce sons. He lies with his unnatural, god-cursed foster brother like a woman, and is swayed by his demonic whispers! An ergi.” The last word is spit out.
“And do you have any proof?” asks Jarl Styrlakr dubiously, but the seed of doubt has already been sown, has been from the moment when one of Arthur’s own turned against him. Arthur’s cheeks are red with anger, his fingers digging into his palms, but what really makes Merlin waver is the look on Ygraine’s face. She is looking at them, her precious sons, pale as moonlight and eyes wide. How must she despise him in the face of the truth – how must she hope she had never picked him up and brought him into her house, or maybe, possibly even worse, the paleness is anger on their behalf, thinking these accusations to be ugly lies.
“I have seen them, Arthur crying like a whore under this fiend,” he says. A lie, of course, because it’s always him under Arthur who is unable to let go of his warrior pride.
“That’s no proof!” declares Elena hotly. “This is just your scheme to make yourself king.”
Most of Arthur’s own warriors echo her words vehemently, and three of them, Alfvin, Ívar and Trjónn, look ready to leap on Egill and throttle him themselves.
“No,” says Morgana, effectively silencing everyone. “This is because my brother is unfit. This is because in the name of our land and people and our shared royal blood I challenge his claim.”
“You are a thrall,” Arthur answers harshly and it should be enough by all the laws of gods and men, but somehow it isn’t. And everybody in the hall knows it.
“Let us duel before the gods, and they shall grant their favour to the rightful heir. Unless –“ She grins wickedly. “– you are scared.”
That brings out a surprised burst of laughter. It would warm Merlin’s mind just a little to see that these men find the idea of Arthur being scared this ridiculous if not for the fact that behind Morgana wavers a shadow, Hunith holding a black blade in her hands. Merlin opens his mouth to tell Arthur to ignore her, but when he looks at his arrogant, outraged profile he knows he can’t. Arthur couldn’t listen to him publicly anyway, not after those accusations, and he would never back down, not from any challenge, battle or danger.
“You are brave, that I’ll admit. Or mad. I have heard gods treat madmen mercifully,” Arthur says with an amused drawl. “I guess you’ll find out when I send you to meet them.”
“You shouldn’t fight.”
He’s not really surprised when Arthur meets that statement with a laugh, but it stings nevertheless. For a moment Arthur keeps laughing, but it dies when he takes in the grim look on Merlin’s face.
“Wait – you’re being serious?” he asks incredulously.
They are in Merlin’s small bedroom in the völva’s hut – and not because Merlin is avoiding Ygraine – Arthur sitting on his bed while Merlin stares out of the window. It makes things easier to have some kind of excuse to look somewhere other than at Arthur, but for some reason he still manages to catch his every expression. The one he is showing Merlin now is a mixture of confusion, amusement and insulted – Merlin is not quite sure how he manages them all at the same time.
He sighs, and looks outside. The small, blue wolfberries stare back at him; he should really go and pick them before they rot.
“I could poison her for you,” he says mildly.
Arthur actually makes a choking sound at that. “What – Merlin –“ Then, finally, Arthur catches the thread. “This is about your visions, isn’t it?”
He nods, and counts the berries to see if he could a kill a person with them. Turns out he could, though wolfberries aren’t really the best poison around, the flavour being too strong and unpleasant, but it’s not like he doesn’t have other options.
“You know there is nothing that you can say to make me withdraw, don’t you?” Arthur continues after a moment of silence, too impatient to see if Merlin will actually volunteer anything. And as he has said they both know it won’t make much difference.
“I know,” he says, and not without bitterness. “You and your stupid warrior pride. Just – can you restrict the weapons? Use axes and shields, not swords.”
Arthur regards him thoughtfully for a while, leaning his chin on his hands, elbows resting on his thighs. “I can’t,” he says and straightens. “It would look like I’m trying to set the rules to my advantage.”
“For gods’ sake,” Merlin growls out, frustrated, and strides away from the window and throws himself down on the bed. “I don’t care what you do and how but just don’t let her bring her own sword!”
Because Arthur is about as thick as Yggdrasil he completely ignores the point of his outburst and only lifts one of his frustratingly perfect eyebrows. “Why?”
Merlin is not often tempted to resort to physical violence, but right now he wants to punch Arthur in the face. He wants to cause enough damage so that Arthur could remember that he is not actually immortal, that even somebody physically weaker can get a blow in.
“Because if she brings the cursed blade I have seen in my visions you’re going to die.” He doesn’t want to go there, think about that, because Arthur has always been the centre of his life and he doesn’t know what he would have left without him. “And damn you if you do, because hear me when I say that I would find a way to bring you back, just so that I could kill you all over again with my own bare hands.”
Arthur lets out a surprised bark of laughter and throws his arm around Merlin’s shoulders. He glares, because this is not funny except in a very hysterical kind of way, and if he lets himself go there he is not going to come back sane.
“She’s a girl of sixteen summers,” Arthur gasps out still laughing.
“That –“ doesn’t mean anything, he tries to say but Arthur interrupts him.
“And the völva always checks the weapons and participants for enchantments.” For a moment Merlin stares at him blankly, and Arthur continues laughing. Of course he knew that, somewhere, but – what he had seen…
“I – I must have read the vision wrong,” he says, not much comforted by the idea, but Arthur smirks at him victoriously. At least he has stopped laughing.
“No, really?” he drawls out, annoying bastard. He tightens his arm to draw Merlin closer, but stops just inches away from his lips, looking so unbearably smug that Merlin decides the only acceptable course of action is to kick him. So he does.
On the night before the duel Merlin sleeps uneasily, dreaming about the dead hovering in the background, never approaching as Merlin roams a grey waste, searching for something lost. He wakes up to a headache and nausea, and slowly crawls to make himself some willow bark tea. As he goes over the shelves, his eyes rest on the poisons for a moment and he wishes he would have just gotten rid of Morgana, honour and Arthur’s opinions be damned.
He is sipping the tea when the völva walks in, already dressed in her ceremonial clothes complete with a bear skin. She gives him a sympathetic smile and walks to his side, putting her hand on his shoulder. It’s nicely reassuring, and Merlin lets himself relax for the moment. He appreciates her warm strength and smiles up at her over his shoulder as both a thank you and an apology. He probably hasn’t been the easiest person to live with lately. She seems to understand his meaning for she shakes her head a little and moves the hand to his hair, ruffling it into perfect chaos before disappearing out of the door.
By the time he has managed to make himself presentable his headache is gone, and even the anxiety has given in a little. Arthur has survived countless battles, and there is no reason for him to fall now, from the blow of an untrained girl. He determinedly ignores the thought that she must have learned at least the basics from Egill – and anyone can get lucky.
Sól is running behind the clouds as they assemble on the training grounds. Everybody has left their chores to see this, the fight that decides their future leader, and the parents are lifting their children up so that even they are not deprived of involvement.
Morgana’s hair is braided up in the traditional manner of shieldmaidens, and her body is protected by fine leather armour that she could never have afforded by herself, making her look like she had been born to this instead of servitude. She smiles, proud yet welcoming, and for a moment Merlin can see Arthur in her, in the air she emits, and he has to close his eyes against the image.
He doesn’t look back at Morgana when he opens them, but instead takes in Egill standing behind her, fidgeting with a weird smile on his face like he can’t quite decide whether to be anxious or pleased. His wife, Hilda, and infant daughter are nowhere to be seen. Merlin wonders if Egill is hoping to throw them aside to marry Morgana – or keep Hilda and make Morgana his main wife – or just stand in the shadow and whisper in Morgana’s ear. Somehow he doubts the last one; Egill has always come across as a man with very little subtlety or patience.
Arthur is the last to arrive accompanied by Ygraine on his arm, and the crowd parts for them, greeting Ygraine with respectful nods and Arthur with companionable punches and loud comments about “sharing the thrall-whore afterwards”. It makes Merlin cringe, but Arthur’s face is a mask of good-humoured determination. He ends up being so absorbed in reading Arthur that he doesn’t realise Ygraine is at his side before she addresses him.
“Lady Ygraine,” he answers, studying the hem of her dress rather than meeting her gaze. The green cloth has been decorated with a golden embroidery of the World Serpent curled around the hem as it is around the world, biting its own tail.
“You haven’t done anything wrong,” she says quietly, and his head snaps up completely against his will. The shadows that have lived in her eyes since Hallgrímr’s death stare back at him.
“I –“, he starts, but Ygraine cuts him off gently.
“Not now, child. Watch.”
Indeed, when he turns to look Gísli is walking towards the völva, standing in between Arthur and Morgana, with Arthur’s axe and shield. He hands them to her one by one, watching carefully as she inspects them before motioning him to take them to Arthur. The crowd roars in approval, and Arthur lifts his axe to the sky with their voices, grinning widely – though not as widely as Gísli who looks like his face is going to split in half and almost manages to trip over his own feet as he walks back into the crowd.
Merlin recognises the blade the moment he catches a glimpse of the dark metal in the hands of the boy that has stepped forward to bring the weapon to Morgana. Its presence is not as suffocating as in the dream, but the feeling of death clings to the air around it like a particularly persistent stench. He smirks, for though Morgana or someone else must have tried to mask the magic, there is no way the völva will miss this. She is going to lose the fight before it has even begun, for using enchantments is the ultimate act of cowardice. He comes very close to pitying her, still smiling and trusting in her false victory, since in a couple of steps the boy has yet to take her foolish rebellion will be over and she will burn, sink and be forgotten. The boy hands the sword to the völva.
She stares at it for a moment, unblinking, and glances at Merlin. And then she very carefully gives it back to the boy, who dutifully, impossibly, brings it to Morgana. No. He shakes his head to clear it and forces the weakness in his knees away. It shouldn’t be possible and yet the sword is there, in Morgana’s hands, cruel as winter’s bite, ready to strike.
And Merlin has no doubt the völva knew just what kind of weapon she handed Morgana. His rage boils red, but even as he takes a step forwards he knows this betrayal needs to wait. So he stops, looks at Arthur, and steps back, past the first row of people, not caring about Ygraine’s puzzled frown, and when, as the fight begins, the people shout Arthur’s name he drowns in one note, a small rune of protection that he can hardly feel himself, but if nothing else he hopes it will be enough to save Arthur’s life.
Not that Arthur exactly appears to need saving. Though Morgana is surprisingly good, considering, she’s only barely holding her own, droplets of sweat already forming on her forehead while Arthur appears almost bored. He is only poking her, seeing what she has got, but Merlin can tell that though she can’t exactly afford to hold back she is being cautious. She doesn’t overextend, barely attacks at all and when she does it’s almost as if she is afraid of putting her whole body into the swing. If she has a chance to push away she does and puts as much distance between them as possible. Though she is panting heavily there is a certain lightness in her step and eyes that speak of enjoyment, but Arthur is clearly getting impatient. It could cost him, but Merlin prays to all the gods that it doesn’t.
It does. He lifts his shield to block a hit from Morgana while trying to get a blow in with his axe, and then there is a thunderous crack as the wood of the shield shatters and the sword flies straight through to Arthur’s side. Arthur lets out a grunt and looks down to the blade sticking out of him, mouth open and eyes wide with surprise. When Morgana wrenches the sword out, Arthur falls and Merlin runs.
There are hands that try to stop him from reaching Arthur, lying so still, too still, almost like a corpse – no, never, never a corpse, never dead – but he doesn’t care. He refuses to lose anyone else, and this time he knows he has the power to help. He can’t stop until he is at Arthur’s side.
He falls to his knees, and with trembling hands searches for signs of breathing and a pulse, almost bursting into tears when he finds them. He reaches for the little purse on his belt, always there, has to always be there, while ripping Arthur’s armour away with other hand. There should be more blood, his mind informs him as he stares into the gash. He pours all the salt solution he has into it, all the while signing every rune sequence he can think of under his breath. Someone touches his shoulder and offers him a clean cloth and without a word he coats it with the herbs he has and presses it onto the wound. With the paste he has left he draws the runes of healing onto the skin around it, voice becoming more choked with each sung note. When he is finished he becomes aware of someone calling for him.
“Merlin.” It’s Ygraine. “Merlin?” He nods to show he has heard her. “Let the völva see him. She can help.”
The sound that comes out of his mouth is not humane. It’s somewhere between a snarl and a growl and when he whirls around on the ground to face Ygraine and the völva he knows he is baring his teeth.
“Stay away,” he hisses. “I’ll kill you for this.”
He doesn’t see their expressions; all he cares about is that they are stepping away and that he can curl his other hand, the one not holding the wound, into Arthur’s golden hair.
“Wake up,” he whispers and really Arthur should be awake because the wound isn’t really that bad. Though the blade was cursed and Merlin has no idea what to do about that and really Arthur should just wake up.
“Merlin?” asks a tentative voice, but he ignores it until he sees a figure crouching down at Arthur’s other side.
“Don’t touch him!”
The hand that reached for Arthur draws back, and Merlin gives the owner a wary glance. Eir, and Elena as well.
“Merlin, we need to move him inside,” Eir says soothingly, like he is about to bolt – and if it weren't for Arthur he probably would – and he nods numbly. She is right. It’s dirty here. Dirty and cold, and that’s no good.
They are at Mengloth’s farm, where Morgana has ‘graciously’ allowed them to stay until they can leave or decide to swear her allegiance. Arthur is not getting better. Not really worse either, but he doesn’t stay conscious for more than a moment or two at a time and the wound is not healing because the curse’s shadow clings to it. It would be easier if it were the curse itself; then Merlin could use raw power to break it, but this is something else entirely. He doesn’t dare, or want, to ask the völva for help because he has no idea about her intentions. He hopes he is wrong and she didn’t feel the curse, but the certainty of that moment refuses to leave him and he is left with no idea about what to do.
Arthur’s hand is cold in his but the steady thrumming of his pulse is reassuring, so Merlin refuses to let go.
“Gods, Arthur why were you so arrogant?” he whispers. “Why didn’t you finish her off straight away? You should have, you stupid prick.” He cradles Arthur’s arm against his chest and sniffs. Huh. Even his cheeks feel wet.
There is a quiet knock on the door, and he hastily drops Arthur’s hand and wipes his eyes but he knows he hasn’t fooled Elena who steps in.
She takes one look at his face. “I’m so bad at this comforting thing,” she says, shaking her head, and walks over to him, engulfing him in a tight hug that buries his face against her stomach.
He tries to fight the burning feeling of helplessness, but the tears come anyway, breaking out from under his tightly closed eyelids, so he buries his sobs into Elena’s tunic, clinging to her with all his desperation. Her hand soothes his hair, and she murmurs quiet things about how they will figure this out. When she points out that Arthur is too stubborn to die he lets out a choked laugh, interrupted by a hiccup. Snot runs down to his mouth, salty and disgusting.
She pats his head one more time before pulling away and handing him a cloth which he accepts gratefully, wiping his face to some kind of approximation of cleanliness.
“There you go,” she says with false brightness. “You men, I swear. Avoiding a good cry until you break.”
When she looks at Arthur the cheer dies on her face.
“Wake up, you dollophead.” The bed dips under her weight.
Elena’s finger pokes Arthur’s cheek absently as she looks up at the dark logs of the roof. “You don’t remember, then. We were rather small, and you and Arthur were fighting over something, so you marched to me and Eir, declaring that Arthur was a dollophead. We thought it was hilarious.”
He shakes his head. The story rings no bells, not really, but it makes him to feel a little warmer.
“Dollophead,” he whispers. It rather suits Arthur.
Elena pokes Arthur one last time and turns her attention wholly on him. “So what are we going to do?”
The determination is obvious in her voice despite her messy hair and dark eyes and Merlin truly appreciates it, but the truth is there is nothing she can do. There might be far too little he can do as well, though he doesn’t dwell there for fear that if he looks too deeply into his despair he will never look out again.
“I’m going to Freya’s spring.”
“Well, that’s gonna be a nice climb with Arthur,” she says, obviously bemused. “But the pony can handle it as long as either me or Eir support him.”
“You’re not coming.” He really doesn’t mean to talk in single sentences but volunteering information seems exhausting.
Elena jumps to her feet and stares at him like he has gone mad. Maybe he has, though this specific part of his plan is hardly madness. “But you can’t do it on your own,” she says.
“I’m not taking Arthur either. She’s a goddess; she hardly needs him to actually be there.” He only needs a spell, or something magical anyway, to break the curse, and who better than the goddess of magic.
“That –“ She sits back down. ”– makes sense.”
“Of course it does,” Eir says from the door. Elena must have left it open when she came in. “But are you sure you want to go alone?”
“I need to.” He’s not even quite sure why. Eir looks like she might be seeing more than he is comfortable with so he hastily adds, “I need you to look after him. I don’t trust Morgana.”
Neither woman seems happy to hear her name, mouths pressing tightly together and the coldness of death on their brow. Morgana has made formidable enemies indeed, and Merlin is glad he is on the same side as them. And somewhere under the numb grief that allows him to function lives a burning anger which he knows he will eventually turn on Morgana. But not yet.
“Where is Lady Ygraine?” he asks as he packs some essential supplies, preparing to leave. He is in the kitchen, which is a small, wooden room with two entrances and one window, assisted by lady Mengloth, for whom Merlin is endlessly grateful, though she has not given up her stoic attitude around him.
“She has gone to meet Morgana,” she says. Surprised, Merlin whirls around to face her. She is frowning disapprovingly and Merlin knows that for once it’s not directed at him.
“What?” he asks dumbly.
Mengloth looks at him pointedly, her sharp face and narrowed eyes giving her an almost intimidating look, and sighs with annoyance. “She has gone to meet Morgana,” she repeats.
“But why? And why didn’t she talk to me first?”
“How would I know?” she answers, but the frown is back on her brow.
A pang of new worry settles in his stomach, but there is nothing he can do about it right now. Arthur is his first priority, now and always, so he has to trust that Ygraine knows what she’s doing.
He rides out on a lovely little mare whose name he tries not to learn but does anyway. It’s Trú. She is a gray dun, beautiful and enthusiastic, her gait light and ears always pointed forwards. She pushes her head down in his lap when he goes to sleep for the night and he strokes her ears and hopes that Freya will answer his call without a sacrifice.
He wakes up to raindrops falling down in his face and groans. He tries to bury himself deeper under the oilskin but the faint light in the horizon makes him abort the motion and crawl up to a sitting position. For a blissful second he just looks at the silver shine between the trees, the rain gentle and warm, and he finds it beautiful; but as sleep leaves him, he remembers Arthur, shield shattering, and falling, falling down and lying on the ground, face pale, and suddenly he is cold.
He forces himself to eat a little, though he hardly pays the taste any mind. Trú has been eating grass for the whole night but still eyes the food hungrily. Its disappointed expression when Merlin tucks everything away brings a pale ghost of a smile to his face, but he buries it immediately with guilt. As long as Arthur is dying – or dead, a treacherous voice whispers – he can have no reason to smile.
The summer rains are fickle things and so is this one, the sky clearing fast as lightning, revealing the sun. Its intense glare feels too harsh to his eyes and he wishes the clouds would come back, but the sky remains blue.
He reaches the high, pale stone markers surrounding the spring around midday. The tallest ones are above his head even when he is on Trú’s back, and they are full of runes and carved figures, speaking of spells of protection but also of heroes, deeds and places long lost. Somewhere there are also curses, curses to those who disrespect this place, curses for those who seek to harm others here and all sorts of other small things that Merlin pays little heed to.
He hesitates on whether to take Trú past the stones or not, but in the end decides against it, and leaves her to munch on some bushes. He could get offended at how little she seems to care that he is leaving her behind but that would be a waste of time.
As he steps inside the stone ring a wave of magic crashes over him, causing him to bend over, eyes tightly shut under the overwhelming sensory assault. The dead dance before his eyes, his ears are filled with strange songs and his smell and taste feel like one under the countless and countless different flavours of the air. Then the sensations pass, leaving him feeling grey and empty. To be fair the scenery before him mostly consists of white rock.
He climbs over some rocks, barely aborting the curse that threatens to leave his lips when a loose stone makes him stumble. This is a place that deserves respect.
He sees the figure before he notices the spring. They’re kneeling at the edge of it, head shadowed by their hood, seeming to gaze into the clear water. He approaches hesitantly, some instinct cautioning him, and takes in the details. The cloak is exquisite, some foreign material that shines in the sun, and the pattern… Merlin stops in midstep. The cloak is made of feathers. Falcon feathers. Like the one Freya wears in all the tales, the one made with magic that gives her the ability to change shape.
She lifts her head, the hood falling away, revealing dark, bright eyes and a bashful smile, all framed by her dark hair. She stands, and on her breast gleams the fire stone, Brísingamen. Merlin bows so deeply he’s afraid he is going to fall over.
“Hello, Merlin,” she says, and Merlin has to suppress the thought that her voice sounds rather ordinary. Lovely, but ordinary.
He stands up, unsure, avoiding looking straight at her face. “My lady.”
“Oh, don’t do that,” she says with a laugh that doesn’t sound ordinary at all, but rather like the water bubbling out of a spring. “Come and sit with me so we can talk.”
He doesn’t really notice how small she is until he trails after her and realises he can easily look over her head. Yet despite her petite frame her step has the strength of a hunter.
They sit down on the ground next to the spring and Merlin tries to avoid staring by determinedly directing his gaze at the water. He can still see her reflection though, as distorted as it is by the movement of the water, but he doesn’t think it counts.
“I wish we were meeting in happier times, but I know your business is urgent,” she says, but her tone is far from urgent.
Silence falls as he waits for her to continue, but when she doesn’t he risks a glance at her. She is looking at him with a thoughtful expression and smiles a little when their eyes catch each others.
“Will you help me then, please?” he asks, his heart lodged in his throat.
“As much as I can.”
“What do you mean?” He thinks it comes out a little too sharply but though she lifts her eyebrow – surprised or reproachful, Merlin can’t tell – she doesn’t seem offended.
“He is already halfway down to Hel’s realm, and no other god apart from the Lady Death herself holds power there.”
Her words fall on him like heavy boulders in the mountains, crushing everything in their path, but Merlin tries to dodge them with his last hope.
“But you said you will help as much as you can, so you can do something, right?” He hates the waver in his voice and the sympathy she wears on her face. “You gave me these gifts and what are they good for if I can’t even protect the ones I love? There has to be something I can do. Please.” His palms are hurting from the way his nails squeeze into his skin, breaking it and probably drawing blood, but his knuckles are white, the same greyish white as the stones around them.
“I can and will help you, don’t worry. But –“ She frowns at him. “– I am not the one who you should thank for your powers. Odin is.”
He inhales sharply, uncurls his fingers painfully, and exhales.
“The Allfather,” he whispers in wonder, now openly staring at Freya with eyes probably the size of the moon. “He could help couldn’t he?”
Freya leans back with an alarmed expression. “No!” she snaps vehemently and then clasps her mouth shut, apparently surprised by her own outburst. Merlin certainly is. She shakes her head sheepishly. “Well. Maybe he could. Maybe he even would. But Merlin, you can’t put your trust in him. He is unpredictable. Cruel.” Her lips twitch. “Hel may be cold, but she is fair, and if you strike a bargain with her she will keep it. Odin might not. Would you risk that? ”
Merlin suspects there is a lot he doesn’t understand going on here, personal feelings, past stories he doesn’t know, but none of it really matters as long as he knows one thing.
“But how do I know you’re not on Morgana’s side? Her gift is yours, isn’t it?”
Freya stands up. “Many wouldn’t be stupid enough to question a goddess.” Merlin starts mentally going through the thousand and one ways to appease an angry god. “But I like you, and both you and Arthur are important. I am offering you my sincere help; whether you take it is your decision, but you don’t have much choice if you want to save your other half.” She offers him her hand, and after a moment of hesitation he takes it. She smiles. “I want to help you.”
“I’ll gladly accept your help, my lady” he answers, humbled, and smiles in return.
“Freya,” she corrects and pulls him up. “Travelling between the realms is not a small feat, and though I can help you I can only take you so far. All the waters of the universe are connected, and so is this spring connected to that of Mímir’s. If there is a place that can help you to find a way then it is the one where Mímir, the wise one, once dwelled.”
Very little of what Freya is saying is making sense, but it’s not a chance he is willing to turn down. “What do I need to do?”
Turns out he doesn’t need to do much. However, the little he needs to do doesn’t sound exactly comforting.
“You need to drown your spirit in the spring,” Freya explains, like it’s an everyday thing to do.
He looks at her doubtfully. “Lovely.”
“Oh, it’s alright. It’s not like you actually drown,” she says, waving her hand in a dismissive manner that is anything but reassuring. “You can hardly travel between the worlds in your body, which will be perfectly safe here, and your spirit can’t exactly die over little things like drowning.”
“That sounds like I can still die.”
“Of course. But don’t worry about that.”
He most definitely does worry about it. “Fine,” is all he says but his clipped tone gives his thoughts away to Freya anyway.
She sighs and smiles gently at him. “You need to trust me on this. Just step into your trance.”
Merlin has never needed the help of herbs or anything else to walk with the dead and now he thanks Odin silently for that ability. Gathering everything most gifted needed would have taken far too many precious hours.
He just wraps himself in a blanket in a well-protected nook and closes his eyes. He draws his consciousness away from his skin and the sensations of the outside world, closes out its sounds and smells until there is only the silent blackness of his mind. Then he pushes.
The reason he prefers walking in his dreams is that he absolutely loathes looking at his body from the outside. It makes the hair at the back of his neck stand up, his mind stuttering. So he tries not to look, instead looking at Freya, who is regarding him – not the body on the ground, but him – thoughtfully.
“Excellent,” she says. Then she nods to the side. “Did you know you have a friend?”
A little fox – Leika, Merlin realises – is peering at them from behind the rocks.
“Is she a ghost?” he asks with a pang, but Freya chuckles. “Of course not. The dead cannot enter here.”
“Of course not,” he echoes dryly. It explains the absence of Hunith and the other dead.
Freya kneels, and makes an inviting motion and Leika bounces up to her with obvious enthusiasm. She pets her head, humming thoughtfully. “I think she wants to come with you,” she says to Merlin.
He stares at her blankly for a moment. “Of course,” he says because Freya stares back, head tilted to the side, seeming to expect him to voice some kind of opinion on the matter.
She laughs. “You’re an adorable thing. Arthur is lucky to have you.” At first he thinks she means Leika and then the latter sentence registers, making him blush hotly to the tips of his ears. At least that’s what it feels like since he isn’t quite sure if he can actually blush in his spirit form.
“I – umm – yes?” he answers, eloquent as ever, wondering if he should protest that it’s not like that. One thing he is rather certain about is that Freya is having far too much fun on his expense.
“Indeed,” she says, smiling at once with both infuriating amusement and strange serenity, and rises to her feet, her cloak rustling. “Come here.”
He walks to her side, wondering but quiet because in the end she is a goddess, and looks down at the spring. Now, suddenly, it appears to be bottomless, an endless pit that makes his head spin. He tries to take a step back, but Freya’s hand sneaks up his arm, keeping him in place.
“Farewell, Merlin,” she says, the light of Brísingamen in her eyes, and tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. His mouth falls open in shock, whether in protest or just in silent astonishment, he isn’t sure, but then Freya let’s go of his arm and pushes him. He stumbles forwards, steps over the edge into nothingness and falls, squeezing his eyes shut with an embarrassing yelp that gets drowned by the water.
One moment he is falling, slowly going down, and the next the world turns and he is going up, except the up is in the same direction that down was and everything spins with the currents around him. He opens his eyes to the blue that surrounds him, expecting to see darkness, but instead finding light above him. With a decisive kick he starts swimming towards it.
The air is cold on his face, and he breathes it in deeply despite not, strangely, being out of breath. It even tastes frozen, yet lively, like berries surprised by frost. That’s what it looks like around him as well. Like a sudden winter has arrived in the middle of the summer, freezing everything but not bringing any snow. Gingerly he rises out of the water, expecting his clothes to freeze to his skin and trying to figure out a spell to keep himself warm, but no such a thing happens. His clothes are dry.
He looks around, marvelling, and takes a step forward, though forward where he isn’t sure. The frozen grass crunches under his boots. There are flowers as well, alien to him in their bright colours muted by the frost, and when he lets his gaze wander it sweeps over the grassland, upwards, to snow topped mountains encircling the valley and above everything is a sky so blue that it hurts in contrast to the faded colours of the ground.
A sharp yap startles him into whirling around. On the other side of the spring there is a large rock, filled with runes, and on top of it sits a crow staring at him. Standing on the ground, staring at the crow, is Leika.
Merlin is almost surprised by how much he is not surprised. The fox has been turning up everywhere he has gone, including his dreams, so what is a trip through the worlds in addition to that, especially when Freya had already hinted at something like this. He smiles ruefully and sends her a silent thank you for all her help.
The runes speak about Mímir and his wisdom, about Odin and his sacrifice to the spring, about the end of the war of the gods, the Æsir-Vanir war, and the beheading of Mímir by the spring. Yet the last line is the only one that bears true significance to Merlin.
“In riches resides envy, in strength fear, but in knowledge lives the knife of power. For a price the knife is here for those that it desire, yet to wield it may also wisdom require.”
The warning chills him to his bones, but he has come too far to turn back now, no matter what.
“So whatcha wanna know?” the crow croaks, startling Merlin and sending him scrambling backwards. He might yelp just a little and Leika growls, ears pressed against her neck.
The crow looks down at her, spreading its wings threateningly.
“Shut it, lil’ foxie,” it says with an enviable arrogance, and for an inexplicable reason Leika quiets.
He could swear the crow rolls it eyes, and he hesitates over his words, trying to make sense of the crow and failing miserably.
“So, yer problem?” the crow prompts him.
“I want to know how to save Arthur.”
“Duh, ye knows that already.”
That is true he supposes, but nobody can blame him for hoping the spring could grant him the actual knowledge for the saving part. The crow grooms itself, radiating boredom.
“Well, yes,” he says, exasperated. “But I want to know how to get there?”
“Ye gonna need to specify that there,” the crow says slowly like Merlin is being particularly dense.
“To Niflheim. To Hel.”
“And hooray, it knows what it wants, ha.” It takes wing, crosses the spring, and settles on Merlin’s shoulder while he stands rooted, completely rigid. Very slowly he turns his head to stare at the bird, its eye staring right back unblinkingly. “Ye needs to find the gates, and for that ye needs to see. Me thinks you gonna pay the price the lord paid.” It cackles.
The words hardly need explaining and Merlin squeezes his eyes tightly shut to escape the image and the ghost of sensations following it. His eye. He shudders, repulsed.
He has to ask though, to make sure. “My eye?” The question tastes like bile.
“Yeh, yer eye,” it confirms gleefully. Rationally Merlin knows that a bird can’t smirk, but he could swear that is exactly what the crow is doing anyway. He scowls darkly at it, which is remarkably difficult seeing that it’s still sitting on his shoulder.
“Yer eye,” it repeats, just as gleefully, and flies down to the ground. Leika eyes it suspiciously, ears still put back.
“How –” he starts and stops because he doesn’t actually have any idea what to say.
Fortunately, or possibly unfortunately, the crow seems to understand him anyway.
“Might wanna lie down.” It makes a quick movement towards Leika, who leaps back in surprise, and looks very satisfied with itself. “I’m gonna take care of the rest,” it adds to Merlin, who isn’t reassured in the slightest.
The grass is cold and hard under his back. He expects it to melt under him, but instead he just feels increasingly numb, like the frost is slowly spreading over him as well. He opens his eyes, though he isn’t quite sure when he closed them, and stares up at the clear blue. He tries to blink against it and fails, his eyes stubbornly remaining open. He thinks he should probably panic now, but his mind feels too sluggish to engage in such a whirlwind. Instead he just stares up.
A shadow moves at the edge of his vision, growing slowly, until he stares at the eyes of the crow, the menacing looking beak hovering far too close, out of focus. Suddenly terrified he tries to yank away, shield his eyes, swat the crow away, anything, but he remains rooted in place like a mouse in the paws of a cat, though inwardly he screams. The beak moves further away – and strikes down.
Black and grey and red spikes strike into his skull, ripping his head apart, ripping him apart into countless little pieces, and it hurts, hurts, hurts more than anything ever could or should. He screams his lungs out, though he isn’t sure if he is actually making any sound, and if he had the mind for it he would wish for death.
For a split second he sees all the paths of fate, sees Morgana as she was and will be, sees what the völva had seen and how she had acted to save them all, and he sees the final price he is going to pay. He weeps into the currents of the world, and he forgets.
Something warm is nudging him and tapping his chest rather forcefully. He feels feverish, a numb pain knocking on his forehead, and his thoughts move like they have been coated in tar. He sits up, looks around, and has to fight back the wave of nausea that rises in his throat. The world around him looks completely distorted; it’s the same, and yet not, with colours and shapes that were not before; the sky has turned violet and the mountains are no longer mountains, but huge roots, though the mountains still hover behind them, distorted and transparent like a reflection on water.
He can’t bear to look at it for long, averting his eyes to Leika who is pressed tightly to his side, warm and soothingly real under his fingers that have somehow ended up tangled in her fur.
“Ye done with the ground hugging?” the crow’s scratching voice says from somewhere. Merlin turns towards it and sees it has settled back on the rock.
He nods dumbly, not trusting his voice to carry quite yet.
“Feck off then. Find the path, use yer new sight.” It stares at him in annoyance and croaks – and turns into stone.
In his distorted world only the spring, the rock with runes and the crow made of stone look normal. A high-pitched, more than a little hysterical laugh escapes from his lips when he looks into the spring and his reflection shows only a pitch back hole where his right eye used to be. It takes him a long time to stop.
No tale places Mímir’s spring more specifically than that it is somewhere near Jötunheim, but Niflheim, the realm of Hel, the resting place of those that die of old age or sickness, lies beneath the roots of Yggdrasil. Merlin sees the roots now – thanks to his sacrifice, he thinks bitterly – and yet he has no idea what to do. The spring was supposed to grant him knowledge, not this.
“What am I supposed to do now?” he asks out loud from the spring, desperation colouring his voice, but he knows it’s in vain. He jumps when a voice answers.
>> We’ll go in the direction that smells like death and earth, obviously, << says the voice, young and feminine.
Merlin peers around warily, trying to find anything that could possibly have some sort of consciousness, but all he can see is frosted grass and Leika, who is staring at him expectantly.
Leika huffs. >> I just told you how we can find the way. << She sits down at Merlin’s feet with an annoyed swish of her tail.
“Leika?” he asks cautiously, somewhat fearful for his remaining sanity.
>> Yes? <<
“Odin’s eye!” he curses and regrets it immediately because it reminds him of his own eye, bringing him sensations of a ghostly ache that makes him want to rub the eye that isn’t there.
>> I don’t see how Odin’s eye is relevant to this? << Leika asks.
“It’s not,” Merlin answers, gaping because he is having a conversation with a fox – his sanity has to be long gone by now – but then again he was just talking to a crow that turned into stone so maybe this is just his life. It does occur to him though that this might have something to do with the spring.
>> I see, << Leika says in a tone that suggests that she most certainly doesn’t and continues, >> So are we going? <<
She gets up and walks around Merlin once, looking at him expectantly. He really can’t wrap his head around the fact the female voice belongs to her – especially since she doesn’t actually seem to be speaking like the crow was.
“Yes,” he answers. “Were you telling me you can smell the way?”
>> That’s what I said. << It sounds like Leika is not so much doubting his sanity but his intelligence.
Leika trots forward at a steady pace, and Merlin keeps up with her easily, amazed at how light moving feels in his spirit form. Arthur would love this, he thinks as he bounces upwards just for the hell of it, and his heart clenches in his chest like it’s been squeezed by a jötunn’s fist. No, he tells himself when his step falters. He can’t think, can’t remember, because otherwise he won’t be able to do this. He starts reciting poisons in his head, one for every step he takes.
He can feel the world thinning around him long before they reach the road – or whatever it is, the path, gate, something – but it still proves to be difficult to find, mainly because it both is and isn’t there.
The mountains have waned into hills, and the root plunges into the earth, disappearing. There, under a curve, the root seems to be a wall of rock, and his first glance doesn’t reveal anything extraordinary about it. But Merlin takes a second look and the rock flickers like a flame before his eyes – or an eye, though which one he isn’t sure. He has found it, he thinks with a smile and stops. Leika stops as well and sniffs the air in confusion.
>> Did you find something? << she asks, and Merlin gestures wordlessly to the glimmering wall.
Leika looks at the wall, then back at him and then she trots there, nose trailing the ground. She pokes around carefully, and when she touches the wall she draws back unhappily.
>> There is something there alright, << she says, and Merlin can almost hear the frown in her voice.
He walks to her side, and crouches to scratch her behind her ear. She leans into the touch and he permits himself a small, fond smile before locking his eyes onto their problem – except it’s not really a problem because somehow he knows a spell, knows a string of foreign words in a lilting melody though he has never learned them, and he knows what they will do. Suddenly he feels much better about his sacrifice.
“I can open it,” he tells Leika.
>> Excellent, << she answers, and as he has nothing to say to that he sings.
Merlin doesn’t know the words, but he feels them all the same. They are words about the cold hard ground, about endless paths that you could either walk forever in emptiness or that could take you anywhere, about sleep and rest, and walking awake, undisturbed and undisturbing, and then there is the disillusionment itself, hard and scathing.
A cave with walls of black stone opens before them and they carefully step in. Leika’s paws make a little echoing thump with every step but Merlin’s feet are as silent as a ghost’s.
The light from outside doesn’t reach far, and dies at the first turn. Yet as Merlin prepares for a small spell he realises he can still see. Not details, but shapes, the walls and the floor, and it’s not like there is much else to see. Actually, the way is rather wide and the floor flat; it reminds Merlin of the roads of the southerners, made for their precious cities, massed with people. This road hasn’t seen such crowds, not for an eternity at least, for the air is dead and heavy around them and small tendrils of mist lurk near it.
It’s a monotonous journey, and his step has lost some of its lightness so he tries to chat with Leika to keep his mind from wandering in certain directions as much as anything else.
“So the spring gave me the power to understand your speech?” he asks, just to say something.
>> I’m not exactly speaking, but yes that would seem logical, << she answers, padding forwards happily, seemingly without realising that her answer isn’t exactly enlightening.
“What are you doing then, exactly?”
>> Communicating. <<
Merlin groans inwardly.
Carvings and paintings appear on the walls as they go on and the air freshens. They seem to tell stories, some of which he recognises, like how Thor and Loki tricked the jötunn Þrymr to get back the hammer Mjöllnir, but some are strange with huge monsters with long curved teeth that tiny humans are attacking with spears. There is also writing, but in letters Merlin has never seen, in bright colours and strange shapes.
“I’m afraid your usefulness has ended,” a male voice says from behind Merlin, and he would jump but for the blade he can feel on his throat. “It was very kind of you to lead me here, for passing my daughter’s spells is such a pain.”
“What?” he chokes out. Who, how?
“Even Freya didn’t notice anything,” the voice sniggers. “The fox served me well.”
Merlin’s heart fills with dread, and a creeping realisation. My daughter, he had said, the father of Hel. Loki. And Leika, little, sweet Leika…
“She is alright, you know. Lovely little thing.” The blade digs in deeper. “You, however, are a problem. I can’t very well let you run free and ruin my plans, so I’m afraid I need to bind your spirit.”
Panic crawls through him, but he forces it under control. He can’t give up, for Arthur and for himself. He screams a spell of three simple runes, and the power, closer than ever in this world comes like a waterfall, blasting the god away. The blade bites into his throat as it flies away as well, leaving him cold.
Loki looks amused when he picks himself up from the floor, his long dark hair covered in dirt.
“Nice trick,” he says, and the knife flies back into his outstretched hand. “But I’m afraid they aren’t much compared to mine.” The knife transforms into a spear and he smirks victoriously, and Merlin, desperate, prepares to throw his most powerful curses.
A cold wind sweeps over him, accompanied by a familiar feeling of dread. Cautiously he lets his eyes flicker away from Loki.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?” says the icy voice of Hel.
“Umm,” Merlin says.
But she adds, “Father,” with a poisonous drawl.
To Merlin’s dismay Loki hardly seems discouraged by the turn of events. Actually, he looks rather delighted.
“Of course not!” he exclaims. “I just wanted to surprise my favourite daughter.”
“I’m your only daughter,” Hel points out dryly, though the ethereal wind around her dies a little.
“Don’t. Why are you here?” She casts an annoyed glance at Merlin. “With him.”
He looks at her with exaggerated hurt and Merlin is struck by absurdity of the situation: for all appearances it’s like Loki is getting scolded by his mother or older sister and not his daughter.
“The æsir are angry with me,” he admits, though Merlin is hardly convinced it’s the whole truth, and Hel rolls her eyes. She appears far more human here than in Midgard.
“By all the worlds, you’re ridiculous! Come with me for now, then. But if either of you tries something I’m throwing you out faster than you can say my name. That goes for that fox as well.” And to Merlin’s relief Leika is there, peeking at them from behind the curve the path makes.
Hel shows no desire for transporting them magically, instead ordering them sharply to get moving. They obey, though Loki mutters something mutinous and Merlin tries desperately to decide whether he should try to explain himself now or later. Unfortunately, Merlin is walking first making any conversation with Hel, walking last to keep an eye on them, rather difficult anyway. He tries not to fidget too much but he can’t really help stealing some glances back occasionally. Loki is smiling slightly, and Hel looks like she wants to make both of them permanent residents of her realm.
They emerge onto a narrow ledge in the mountainside, covered by the finest layer of snow. Below them the land is similarly covered, with some black, leafless trees pushing out from it here and there. The dark waters of the rivers seem to be running free, not a hint of ice visible at this height. It’s resolute – and beautiful in its uncanniness.
Hel whistles, and slowly two black shapes materialise before them. They are horses, their form skeletal and supported only by three legs making them both an eerie and mournful sight.
“Helhestr,” he whispers in awe, making Loki snort.
“Don’t tell me we’re using those?” Which is actually a rather reasonable question, since their spine is almost sticking out of their flesh in a fashion that does not look terribly comfortable. And Merlin can’t imagine them being too fast either.
Hel ignores him, and slowly a sleigh appears behind the helhestr.
Leika curls up in Merlin’s lap on the sleigh, and he pets her absentmindedly. She has been silent since Loki left her body and he strongly suspects that he was never actually talking to her in the first place. Her closeness is comforting all the same.
Turns out that despite their three legs the helhestr can virtually fly over the snowy ground.
It’s snowing, little tiny flakes thrown by the wind that bite into his skin. Merlin feels the cold, but at the same time he is not really cold himself. It’s strange, but in his summer clothes he is definitely glad.
Enormous stone gates loom before them, and though all the details are obscured by the snow the size alone is impressive enough. A pair of jötunns could probably stroll through, side by side, without crouching.
The helshestr gallop into the courtyard and slide to a perfect halt that makes Merlin almost lose his seat. Leika glares at him and jumps down to the ground and Hel follows her, apparently no longer concerned about turning her back on Loki – or him.
Merlin hops to the ground as well, and flails when his boots slip on the ice. Hel laughs, and Merlin turn to look at her when he manages to steady his feet; the snow is whirling around her like it’s welcoming her back home, and her white form is almost obscured by it. He still knows when her eyes meet his.
“Welcome to my home, Éljúðnir,” she says, and he thinks there is genuine delight in her voice.
“It’s beautiful,” he says, the compliment easy and true on his lips.
“Truly,” echoes Loki, whirling to look around. Merlin follows his movements and marvels at the artfully carved animal statues of black wood, and a beautiful, somehow unfrozen, fountain. “You have done well for yourself, daughter.”
Merlin expects a dry comeback, but instead Hel just smiles wistfully and says: “Shall we move inside, then, for our conversation?”
Merlin nods in what is hopefully a respectful fashion, while Loki claps his hands together in delight. He’s not quite sure if a mortal can be annoyed with a god, but he feels like he is really, really getting rather annoyed with Loki right now.
There are fires blazing in the large hearths of the hall, yet they seem to yield no warmth, the air shimmering with small, almost invisible snowflakes. There is a lot of space among the stone pillars, but the hall is empty but for the throne that sits at the end, majestic in its loneliness. Hel sits in it and smiles at them when they remain standing on the floor.
“Really?” Loki grumbles, and for once Merlin is inclined to agree with him.
“The question is whether you really thought that unleashing Mannlæ on the mortal world was a good idea! I’m no more pleased with you than the æsir.”
“Mannlæ?” Merlin blurts out, the name resonating within him.
“The sword that is killing your king,” Hel answers absently, continuing to glare at Loki, but the annoyance on her face has nothing on the anger that rises within Merlin.
Arthur and Morgana. All because of this man. Suddenly Merlin couldn’t care less if Loki is a god. Spells, powerful and painful ones, form in his head as he seethes at Loki. He lets out the first syllable, but cold fingers dig painfully into his arm, making him gasp and interrupting the spell before it even begins.
“Don’t,” Hel hisses, “The last time was bad enough!”
Merlin narrows his eyes dangerously. “Do you think I care? Do you think I would care even if I were to destroy the world? He is the reason Arthur is dying, and for what?” He turns to Loki. “For what?”
Loki shrugs. “Curiosity. And to be fair he would likely be dead or dying anyway.”
His utter disinterest is like a slap to Merlin’s face.
“You bastard,” he whispers. “He is a living being, brilliant and loved – and maybe a dollophead, but that’s just how he is – and you don’t even care!” His voice gets gradually louder until it cracks and he has to bite back the angry tears that threaten to spill from his eyes.
“Yes,” agrees Hel. “Which brings us back to the questions: What were you thinking and what do you want?”
“I just helped her out a little,” Loki says, his indifference finally giving way to defensiveness. Merlin smirks at him and receives a satisfying scowl for his efforts. “She had already figured out the general location, she could have found it anyway. I like her; she is very spirited for a human.”
“You slept with her, didn’t you?”
Merlin’s smirk dies as his mouth drops open. Morgana had been seduced by a god – no, that wasn’t right – had Morgana actually seduced a god?
“What if I did? You’re sleeping with Freya, aren’t you? One of your precious æsir, like Odin whom you love so dearly as well – it’s a wonder you haven’t seduced him yet, but he might be a little more picky. Freya sleeps with anyone after all –”
“Quiet!” Hel’s voice booms through the hall, echoing back from the high walls. “Don’t you dare talk to me about her, you don’t have the right! One of my brothers is a bloody eight-legged horse. As for Odin – he cast me away, left me to rot here as an honour.” Her laugh is laced with irony and bitterness.
“And you think your precious Freya is any better? She’s just using you for entertainment, daughter.”
Pale flames burn in Hel’s eyes and a snow drift rises in the air of the hall. “I said QUIET!”
In horror and fascination Merlin watches as the floor opens beneath Loki, swallowing him, and his befuddled expression. Merlin peers down after him, but sees only endless darkness. Leika stays well away from it.
“What?” Hel snaps. “Do you want to follow?”
Merlin shakes his head vehemently and bows for a good measure. “I think you know why I’m here, my lady.”
“You want me to let go of your king. Tell me, why should I?”
She sounds annoyed, but the wind and snow settle a little which Merlin takes as a good sign.
“I’ll do anything,” he says. “And Freya would want you to help.”
She rises from her throne swiftly and walks up to Merlin. She looks down at him, eyes narrowed.
“Contrary to popular belief I don’t actually follow her every wish. And you, you’re Odin’s pet, just as your king is Thor’s darling. Wouldn’t it be just perfect to deny them both at once, eh?”
“Please,” Merlin says, looking up into her eyes with his soul laid bare in his one remaining eye, and maybe even in the emptiness of the other one. “Anything.” He will threaten her if he has to. He hopes he doesn’t need to.
Hel is the first to look away. “There are rules. A life for life.”
“I’ll give you mine,” he offers without hesitation and only after the words are uttered does he feel the fear. But he doesn’t take them back, never would.
“How sweet of you,” she says, but not without surprise. “But it doesn’t work like that. You would need to do the ritual on Midgard and I would also require a favour in return.”
“I’ll do anything, but please let it be me! I can’t promise anyone else’s life away,” he thinks about Ygraine who would give her life away for her son in a heartbeat, thinks about her warm smile and how much Arthur would hate him for it. Some of the loyal warriors maybe, Elena, Eir – no. A thought occurs to him, maybe –
“It is how it is. And the life has to be willingly given,” she says like she’s read Merlin’s mind.
“Say,” she continues, studying the floor, now covered in a fine layer of snow, thoughtfully, “you can’t stay now that Morgana rules. I have this gate to Midgard and it’s disturbing the land around it. I need it stabilised so the gate doesn’t become destroyed and you should have enough power to do so. If you were to do that, and settle that land, guard the gate and take care of it, then maybe I would help you.”
Merlin feels like he is hardly catching every nuance in her speech, but he nods anyway. “Then, the life?” he asks hopefully.
“Rules are still rules.”
He wants to rage and scream at her, but all he feels is tiredness and feeble hope. “Alright,” he says.
She smiles. “Then we have a deal.” She lifts her hand to his brow and he flinches. “I’ll just give you the ritual,” she says, and in the next moment Merlin knows what he must do. “And here is the map to your location. But do not open it until you are on a ship, leaving.” She hands him the map that seems to have appeared from thin air – and probably did.
“Thank you,” he says, though he doesn’t feel very thankful.
“Go home, little bird,” she says and lifts her hands. A wall of snow rises and swallows him.
His back is hurting. As are his neck and arms and legs and, yes, basically everything. Slowly he opens his eyes to the sky above him, clear and blue. Gingerly he sits up, trying in vain to appease his complaining muscles, and to make matters worse the sun is already making his brow sweat.
The white stone around him reflects the sunlight painfully and next to him the spring bubbles merrily. He is back. Back to Midgard and back to Freya’s spring.
When he looks into the spring both of his eyes stare back. But the right one has a golden hue about it, and when he covers his left eye all he sees is magic, ley lines in the ground and sparkling runes in the stones he knows are surrounding him, but are now just obscure shadows.
He rides back as hard as he dares on the steep slopes. He doesn’t think much time has passed, but he still doesn’t have a moment to lose, not if he wants to figure something out and save Arthur, and that is exactly what he has to do. It would be so easy to give up, curl up crying and let fate run its course. In every shadow seems to stand a ghost, staring at him accusingly, like he has personally affronted them by trying to save Arthur – and then there are the little things, marks left by the elven folk and the dwarves, marks that he has never been able to see before.
Arthur doesn’t deserve to die he tells himself as he pushes on. Arthur is important, amazing, and Merlin can save him so he bloody hell will. A familiar red shape flashes between the trees, and he decides to take that as a good sign.
He barges right in without knocking, coming face to face with a startled Elena.
“Merlin!” she exclaims. “How did – what happened – is he gonna be okay?”
Merlin takes a deep breath to steady his rapid breathing, which is apparently enough time for Mengloth and Eir to appear as well, eyes wide and sparkling with anticipation and hope that slowly drains away from their faces when they take a look at him. A small bit of his heart blackens at their expressions.
“Can I see him first?” he asks and then remembers something else as well. “How long was I gone?”
“Don’t be stupid, of course you can, but what – ?” Elena answers, looking at him worriedly and reaching for his shoulder.
“You left this morning,” Eir fills in, and Merlin nods at her gratefully. “What happened?”
“I, well, it’s complicated, I don’t quite – .”
“Merlin,” interrupts Mengloth firmly, maybe even a little unkindly, but right now Merlin is grateful for the push.
“I have a way – or might have one, but I need everybody who is still loyal to Arthur here. Gather them, please, and let me see him.” He doesn’t wait for permission this time, brushing past their curious and worried expressions, and walking straight into the room where Arthur is being kept.
He sees the curse this time. It’s a dark shape rooted from the earth to Arthur’s chest and to the wound, the black tendrils slowly moving like the tentacles of kraken trying to get a hold of its prey.
He takes a step back, closes his eyes and exhales shakily, bringing his hand to cover the eye and opening the other one.
Now all he sees is Arthur lying on the bed, ghostly and sick, and Merlin goes to his side, takes his hand in his and tries to will the escaping life back into Arthur in vain.
Who, he asks himself, and wishes it could be him. He could sleep for eternity without any woes, save Arthur without having to face him afterwards.
Twenty men have gathered in the yard of the farm. It’s about the amount Merlin expected, with Arthur’s future so precariously on a knife’s edge. Some – spineless cowards – have chosen to bet on the less risky competitor without much thought for loyalty, but they are few. Arthur’s men love him, though whether they love him enough is a different matter – to give their life in a battle, yes, but to give up their place in Valhalla? There has to be at least one, and that’s all he needs.
He sees Gísli, Ívar, Ulf, Alfvin, Trjónn, familiar faces one after another, all good, true and brave people who would be missed. And yet.
Ygraine is there as well, standing side by side with Mengloth, apart from the warriors. In a passing glance Merlin notes how tired she looks, but doesn’t dare to scrutinise too closely. He still doesn’t know where they stand – and he can’t let her be the one to volunteer.
Elena elbows him slightly, urging him to speak. But how can he say that he needs one person to die for Arthur by his hand, he doesn’t know. He opens his mouth once, closes it, licks his lips, and looks up. His right eye is covered with a cloth, making the world look normal. There are some clouds rising on the horizon.
They’re not going to believe you, a voice whispers, and he squeezes his eyes shut for a heartbeat – and then he speaks.
“I made a deal with Hel,” he says and watches the faces in front of him turn to disbelief and wariness. “A life for life.”
“Whose life? Yours?” Ívar asks, and there is an accusing light in his eyes. Others whisper.
“She refused to take mine,” he says hollowly, for he thinks she could have done it there and then if she had truly wanted to. “So to save Arthur someone needs to be sacrificed to Hel.”
“How do we know you’re telling the truth? This could be some dark ritual of yours,” says a voice at the back, but when Merlin tries to locate the speaker no eyes meet his.
“You don’t,” he says coldly. “But every one of you should know I would do anything to save him. I bloody love him, and I’m not going to let him die!”
That leaves them quiet. He very pointedly doesn’t look at Ygraine.
“I’ll do it,” says Gísli, and Merlin’s heart breaks just a little for the boy that admires Arthur above all else.
“Let me do it,” says a soft voice, immediately accompanied by two sharp refusals from Elena and Mengloth. Eir smiles at him and then at Gísli.
Elena looks thunderous and walks up to her side. “You,” she says, addressing Merlin, “are not going to pick her over me.”
Then at the same time Ulf and Ygraine step forwards. “Only warriors,” he blurts out in desperation. “A warrior soul! Hel needs a warrior soul in exchange.”
“No wonder she didn’t accept you,” someone mutters, but Merlin’s gaze is glued to Ygraine’s who is staring at him with an unreadable expression.
“He is my son,” she whispers, like she’s afraid her voice would break if she were to speak louder, but after an agonising moment she lowers her eyes and backs away, her fair hair falling down to cover her face.
“We will,” he takes a deep breath, “We will choose by drawing lots and let the gods decide.”
Murmurs. He looks up to the sky and pleads with the gods to pick Ulf.
There are four wooden pearls of different colours in the sack. Merlin is blindfolded and Mengloth is holding the sack in front of him. He doesn’t even know which colour belongs to whom.
He puts his hand in. He touches one, tries to feel something and fails. He picks up the next one and lifts it out, opening his fingers and revealing it to the world.
Who, who, who, who, who –
“Eir!” Elena cries out like someone has wrenched her heart out of her chest. No, he pleads, and yanks the blindfold away.
Eir is frowning, puzzled, like she isn’t quite sure how she should react, but her eyes burn with determination when she looks at him over the shoulder of Elena who clings to her sister like she is trying to physically restrain her from leaving – ever.
He doesn’t know how long Arthur has, so in private he tells Eir they should conduct the ceremony on the same evening. He can’t quite force himself to meet her eyes.
“How’s Elena?” he asks. What are we going to do with Elena is what he means.
“I’ll talk to her,” she answers his unspoken question, but he doubts whether any sort of talking will stop Elena from knifing him the moment he approaches Eir with a blade. He can’t say he would blame her.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” he says and wishes he hadn’t, both afraid and hopeful that she will take the offered chance of escape.
He startles when she takes his hand in hers. “I want to. I gave my loyalty to Arthur a long time ago, and this is my final test.” Her hand shakes slightly, but her smile is almost wry. “I’m not going to say I’m not afraid, because I am. But I want to be brave anyway.”
She hugs him then, so gentle and cautious that the tears that have been hiding behind Merlin’s eyelids fall and all he can do is to nod against her shoulder.
Elena is not there when Eir walks up to him, all washed and cleaned in a dress of blood red. Ygraine is absent as well, but most of the men who gathered earlier have arrived, as has Mengloth, face ashen.
Eir stops at his side in front of the stone table, atop which lays the basin for her blood. It’s ugly really, far too ugly for its purpose. But the knife is beautiful, grey metal and white bone in a blue leather scabbard.
His eyes sting though they are dry when he brings the knife to her throat. She stands with her back against his chest, the contact making the slight tremors of her body painfully obvious to him.
The moon is almost full. Her blood is hot on his hands.
He draws the runes on Arthur’s brow with Eir’s blood while singing quietly, voice wavering.
He holds his breath, his nails digging deeper and deeper to his palms, until he can’t stay still anymore. Dropping down to the floor he removes the cloth from his eye and looks.
The shadowy tendrils are curling away from Arthur, slowly, sometimes trying to reach back, but failing. And Arthur – Arthur is glowing golden, the runes burning brightly on his skin, fighting against the curse, persistent and magnificent.
There and then, when the curse finally draws away, Merlin cries. Tears of frustration, exhaustion, hope and loathing. He brings his hands up to wipe his eyes, but stops dead, his hands hovering uselessly in the air, red with her blood, forever staining his hand, sticking under his nails like a reminder – or a mark of his guilt He lets his hands drop into his lap. What have I done? he asks himself again and again, rocking back and forth on the floor, remembering a smiling, brave Eir, a person, a friend, whom he had killed. There could have been another way, he didn’t even try, how could he, how could he have done that, why, why, why, why did they let him do this, why did he do it, why –
He freezes and slowly, almost afraid, looks up at the bed. Up to Arthur, who is still glowing faintly but is very much awake, propped up on his elbows and looking down at him in confusion. They stare at each other for a moment, Merlin drinking in every little sign of life, until it’s not enough anymore and he surges up onto the bed, straddling Arthur. He lets his hands travel up Arthur’s neck to his pulse point, feeling his steady heartbeat, and then to his slightly reddened cheeks, warm but not feverish, and finally cradling his face with his both hands, he kisses him.
Arthur makes a questioning sound against his lips, but kisses him back anyway, slow and deep. Arthur’s mouth tastes mildly disgusting and Merlin is pretty sure his isn’t much better but it’s perfect anyway and when they pull apart he rests his forehead against Arthur’s and smiles.
“You thought I was going to die, didn’t you?” Arthur says, and something inside Merlin clenches, making him pull away. “Don’t be such a girl, Merlin. I’m not that easily killed, she just got lucky –“
He slaps Arthur. Hard. The sound fills the room and falls away, leaving them staring at each other in silence. Merlin is not quite sure which of them is more surprised.
“You were practically dead,” he says, his own voice sounding alien to him in its emptiness.
Arthur shakes his head in annoyance, and there might even be a little anger in his movements when he pushes himself into a better position.
“Obviously not, you –“
But Merlin interrupts him again. “No. You were dying, and you don’t know a thing about what I had to – what happened, and none of it would have happened if you had for once in your life just believed me!” He practically screams the last words into Arthur’s bewildered face, still covered in the no longer glowing runes written in blood, and suddenly he can’t bear to look at him. He stands up from the bed, turning his back to Arthur.
Just this once he needed Arthur to be considerate, quiet and understanding, and he knows Arthur is not really any of those things, he knows it’s wrong to turn his guilt against Arthur, but he is broken and tired and so horribly guilty that he can’t even function anymore.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur says, and that’s when Elena runs through the door.
Her hair is even more dishevelled than usual, her clothes rumpled, and her pupils are blown so wide that a horrible suspicion sneaks into Merlin’s mind as he takes a cautious step back. She doesn’t seem to even notice Arthur.
“Where is she?” she asks, low and dangerous. She stalks forward, unsheathing a knife from her belt. “If you touched a hair on her head –“
“Elena,” he pleads, but there is a small part of him that says it’s alright because he deserves it, and yet his bargain with Hel isn’t over, she could take Arthur back and that is not acceptable, not an option, ever. He squares his shoulders and prepares to fight her off.
“What in the name of Odin is going on?” Arthur snaps, and they both turn to look at how he stands up from the bed.
“Arthur?” Elena whispers. She has to see the runes, has to see the basin that’s still on the floor, and for a moment Merlin is sure she is going to jump on him. Instead it looks like her legs give out under her and she falls to the floor. “You killed her.”
It’s a statement but Merlin answers anyway, though it takes all his strength to push that one tiny word out from between his dry lips. “Yes.”
“Did you know she drugged me?”
“I – no,” he says, heart black. He could have guessed but in his desperate guilt he had wanted to believe in some sort of understanding from Elena. Determinedly he bites back his own tears when hers escape, knowing he has no right to them here with Elena.
Arthur shots him a puzzled glance and walks to her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Get off,” she says, broken. “Glad you’re alive. But.” A gulp, a sniff. “Get. Off.”
They go and Merlin closes the door carefully behind them. He beckons Arthur to follow and walks out of the house into the night.
“Explain,” Arthur says. And Merlin looks at him, lost, and his damned eye is still uncovered and Arthur glowing.
“Your eye,” Arthur says then, scrutinising him. “I thought I imagined it but it looks almost golden. What the hell is going on?”
“Morgana’s sword. It was cursed, and you were almost gone and I couldn’t help and the völva knew, and I went to Freya and traded my eye for knowledge on how to reach Hel and Loki helped her and I made a deal. A life for life and her gate, we need to leave there because it was part of it and she can’t take you back. So we have to go.” The words rush out like an unstoppable stream, but he can’t say her name or what he did, not without bursting into tears, again.
Arthur’s hand sneaks out and curls around his wrist painfully tightly, lifting his blood stained hand up to the space between them.
“Whose life?” He looks stricken at his own words, at their implications. “Merlin, whose – blood – is – this?”
Merlin closes his eyes tightly so he doesn’t have to see the disgust and hate on Arthur’s face and forces his lips to move. “Eir’s.”
Arthur’s grip turns even more painful, and then he lets go, not even wanting to touch Merlin now that he knows.
“You had no right,” he says and Merlin feels like he is shattering into the night wind.
A touch brings him back, a rough hand grabbing his hair and another circling his waist, yanking him into a warm chest so tightly he can barely breathe.
Eventually, when they sit by the water naked after washing in the fjord and the sun is already climbing in the sky, Merlin explains everything properly and Arthur listens.
“She wouldn’t take my life,” he says again, for the millionth time. “And you’re too important. I had a way and I – I took it.”
He needs Arthur to say it’s fine, though it isn’t, hopes he says it was the only choice, though it wasn’t, but most of all he craves forgiveness for what is unforgivable.
Arthur doesn’t absolve him. “You told me before this that if I died you would drag me back and kill me again, and trust me, if you had gone and traded your life for mine I would have done the same. But the blame for Eir is not yours alone; none of this would have happened if I had listened to you.”
Merlin stares at him, incredulous, and Arthur kisses him, slow and soft, and pulls Merlin down to the ground with him. Their touches are careful, nearly hesitant, running over every inch of skin like they’re trying to find assurance that they’re still the same, that they aren’t somehow irreversibly changed. It’s a lie, and they burn in it until it becomes too much and Merlin rides Arthur hard, so hard that for a moment he forgets.
Arthur paces around the barn where they are hiding away from Elena’s eyes and Merlin watches him with exasperated exhaustion. He is not quite sure when he last slept properly, but Arthur seems more energetic than ever. “I understand we need to complete your deal with Hel, but surely we don’t need to stay there for eternity? I can’t just let Morgana be!”
“You lost, Arthur. That’s how most of them see it. Trust me, I would like nothing better than to bury my knife in her back, but we need to go to this land – and we could start anew there. We could even wage a war on her from there, anything, but it can’t be just a visit, not for me at least.”
Arthur stops on his tracks and turns to look at him. “What do you mean, not for you?”
“I told you,” Merlin sighs, trying unsuccessfully to avoid Arthur’s eyes. “I’ll guard it. It means I’ll stay.”
“Can’t you just –“ He makes a complicated gesture with his hands. “– magic?”
“I don’t know,” he answers honestly, but somehow he thinks Hel would have had that part covered up.
Arthur makes a frustrated noise, throwing his hands up in the air in a ridiculously melodramatic gesture. Merlin scoffs and Arthur glares. “Fine. We go with those that want to go, get my mother and the others safe. But this isn’t over.”
“It never is,” Merlin mutters, rubbing his hands self-consciously. He could swear he saw a blood stain on his palm, though rationally he knows he has washed it all away. Physically anyway.
Apparently Arthur admitting that he should have listened to Merlin doesn’t mean he is going to do so now and Merlin finds himself trailing after Arthur to look for Ygraine.
“Arthur, she probably hates me! Or is in denial which would be even worse. Nobody in this house wants to see me,” Merlin whispers furiously, only to be completely ignored by Arthur who peers into the room that Ygraine has been staying in and grins widely.
“Arthur!” she exclaims, breathless and smiling. A comb clatters out of her hand as she strides to Arthur, engulfing him in a tight hug. She buries her face in his neck, whispering about her beautiful son and suddenly Merlin feels like he is intruding. He takes a step back, but the traitorous wooden floor groans under his steps, startling Ygraine’s head up and her eyes lock onto his.
He feels like a naughty child, caught doing something bad, or maybe prey that has come face to face with a hunter, and since it’s impossible for him to run he straightens and smiles awkwardly.
“Ygraine,” he greets her.
“You did it,” she says without letting go of Arthur. “Thank you.”
Her gratitude is like a slap to his face, and he looks away at the wall, boring his gaze into the spirals of the wood.
“We need to get you safe,” Arthur interferes gently, not bothering with Latin, and from the corner of his eye Merlin watches him take a step back though he leaves his hand on Ygraine’s shoulder. “We’re leaving for a new land where we can gather our strength.”
“We could go to Britain,” she says, eyes lighting up, and Merlin grimaces inwardly.
Arthur shakes his head. “We would hardly be received with warmth. No, we’re sailing to a completely new land.”
“But we have family there! My brother must be a lord now, he would surely take us in,” she argues, and he exchanges a surprised glance with Arthur. She has never mentioned any family.
“It’s too risky.”
“It was part of the deal to save Arthur,” Merlin interrupts. “I have to go to this new land.”
Ygraine frowns in disappointment and turns away to walk to the small window of the room and look outside, the curve of her back as tense and unbending as rock. “I see.”
“Good,” Arthur answers. “Gathering everything will take some time, but I hope we can set sail in a week.”
Arthur goes out, talks to people, sends out riders and arranges things, but Merlin withdraws to Eir’s old room, curling up on her bed and burying his face in her pillow. It’s rough and lumpy and smells old, but it’s a small mark that Eir has left and Merlin muffles his apologies into it for the longest time before falling asleep without meaning to from sheer exhaustion.
He doesn’t dream, thank gods, but the face he sees when he wakes up is one that makes him jump up faster than he imagined possible. He does hit his head on the wall in the process, though, so it’s hardly graceful.
Elena stares at him unblinkingly with bloodshot eyes. “You’re awake,” she observes dully. “Good. Now get out before I slit your throat like you did hers.”
He wants to apologise and explain, say he wasn’t in his right mind and while it’s true he reads the accusation in her eyes, in her lips pressed tightly together. You would do it again, she would say, and he is afraid that he wouldn’t be able to deny it.
Yet, just as he is running through the door he does say one thing. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, not sure if she hears him, and flees.
They find a surprisingly large amount of freefolk willing to follow Arthur. Morgana is powerless to stop them though she certainly tries, scoffing at them as traitors and predicting that the gods will rain their wrath on them. However, what she can do is deny them ships. The council rules that she can’t take Arthur’s personal ship, but it’s hardly enough, they’ll need at least two more to fit everyone in with the rations and animals.
And they also validate Arthur’s exile, giving him five days to depart and never return on the pain of death. Arthur paces, yells at Merlin before apologising with kisses, and holds him together when he can’t do it himself. He tries to do the same for Arthur when they curl up in bed together, but he feels like Arthur is trying to bear everything on his own shoulders.
“Mengloth refuses to leave,” Arthur says tiredly. “She has promised us almost all of her harvest and the hens, but she bloody well intends to stay here. I don’t know how Elena will bear this.”
“Will she come?”
“She will,” Arthur confirms, and it’s all they say on the subject. Instead Arthur fishes something out of his pocket. It’s made of fine leather and for a moment Merlin stares at it uncomprehending before understanding what it is. An eyepatch. He takes it, the leather smooth under his hands, and lifts an eyebrow at Arthur. He doesn’t exactly hand unexpected gifs out every day – or every year.
Arthur actually blushes, the colour staining his cheeks fascinatingly, and warmth washes over Merlin at the sight of it.
“Well, you keep it covered all the time and that piece of cloth hardly looks practical or respectable. And since you’re basically my second in command I need you to look respectable.”
Merlin is having hard time concealing his amusement, but at the same time he is just genuinely pleased by Arthur’s gesture.
“You actually aren’t always completely terrible, you know,” he remarks and removes the cloth. In the corner of the room stands Hunith with a small boy, so vivid in detail that the first time Merlin saw him he had almost asked him what he was doing in the house. Quickly he pulls the eyepatch on. It’s smooth and comfortable against his skin.
“I’m lovely,” Arthur says, his eyes assessing Merlin’s face with a fond smile, before adopting a more serious expression. “Or maybe I’m not. We need to steal two ships from Morgana. Load mine tonight as full as possible, sail out of sight and come back, steal the ships, take the men and divide the cargo from mine. I don’t like it, but it’s our only chance to survive.”
Merlin knows how much such a decision against his principles must pain Arthur, but just as he said it’s their only chance so he nods. “I know. What do you need me to do?”
Arthur sighs heavily, guiding his hand to rest on the nape of Merlin’s neck. “A distraction. I’ll take as few men as possible, with some arriving only then and not even boarding the first ship. We don’t want bloodshed and your spells are the only thing that can give us that.”
“Alright.” He can do that. It might take some work to keep his magic undetected by Morgana and the völva, but he can do it. “You trust me to do it so I’ll do it.”
“Well, trust is a quite strong word –” Arthur says pretending to be thoughtful, and Merlin rolls his eyes.
Arthur looks at him like he has grown a second head. “A what?”
“Dollophead,” he repeats and watches Arthur’s bemusement with a smirk.
They board Arthur’s ship with far too many men and provisions and sail out in the evening without much ceremony. Morgana stands on the hill, hair dancing in the wind with her regal dress and Merlin even fancies he can see the satisfied curl of her lips. He knows it’s there anyway.
It’s not hard to fake defeat when Elena bids a tearful goodbye to her mother, glares at Merlin every time he strays too close, and acknowledges Arthur so stiffly that Merlin actually winces. Everyone here is on board because of their love and devotion to Arthur and though he doesn’t doubt Elena’s loyalty he has to wonder if she blames Arthur as well – or if it’s simply too hard to look at him and know.
Nobody seems to be glad Merlin is on board apart from Arthur who is very bad at showing it, and maybe possibly Ygraine, and he sends a wistful thought to Leika, missing her uncomplicated companionship. But he hasn’t seen her since he rode back.
Arthur sneaks up on him from his blind right side and speaks straight into his ear.
He snaps around with a startled yelp and glares at Arthur who smiles at him innocently, hand extended and Merlin glares at it as well for good measure before bending over to retrieve their only guide. Which obviously only the two of them know about; the men might have managed to convince themselves that Arthur had made the journey before and Merlin has absolutely nothing to do with this since he had only truthfully stated that Arthur would lead them to this new land. If they had drawn their own conclusions it was their problem, not his.
He digs through the stuff in his rucksack before his fingers finally find the map roll and he draws it out triumphantly. “Here it is,” he says, and hands it to Arthur’s extended hand with an exaggerated gesture.
“I would certainly hope so,” Arthur says, rolling his eyes, but opens the map deftly, impatient to see the content. Merlin leans in closer and exhales in surprise. The map is empty.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, voice dangerously low, any amusement fleeing his face “Would you like to come up with some explanation?”
Merlin closes his eyes, returning his mind to the conversation with Hel, trying to catch every word, emphasis and gesture. There is nothing there. He opens his eyes and reaches for the map, tracing the completely smooth surface with his fingers. Unsure, he tries a simple spell of disillusionment, but there isn’t even an answering echo to greet him.
“I’ll figure it out,” he says, snatching the map away from Arthur.
“I would bloody well hope so!” Arthur whispers furiously before whisking away to row.
Merlin sits down at the bow, giving a warning eye to the clouds in the sky for rain would surely be the last straw and tries to concentrate.
One by one he relaxes his muscles and focuses on the lull of water escaping the oars, trying to catch some detail he might have missed from his emptied mind. He doesn’t realise he has slipped into a trance before he opens his eyes and finds himself standing on the hill with Morgana. She wraps her fur-lined cloak tightly around herself though the weather is warm, and then she is gone and he is on the ship and on his lap is a map where the ink glows in silver. Triumphantly he draws himself into the reality and removes his eyepatch, and surely, with his right eye he is able to see it, their route across the sea drawn on the most detailed map he has ever seen. It’s not a short journey.
With a sigh he takes out some of his precious vellum and starts to copy the route out. There is no way Arthur will let him navigate alone.
The terrain is difficult near the mouth of the fjord, one of the reasons they’re so well protected. However, there are sentries and it falls on Merlin to deal with them, meaning that he gets to drag himself through the vegetation while making racket like a moose and hoping that by some miracle he gets close enough to do something before he is spotted. Fortunately he doesn’t have to get very close; a simple sleeping spell takes care of the first one.
The second one is a little trickier. To no one’s surprise he hears Merlin’s approach, but instead of waiting, hiding or raising alarm he goes to investigate, which ends with him almost walking into Merlin.
They stare at each other wildly for a blink before the guard goes for his horn and axe, and Merlin gets to try his memory wiping spell. Not that it’s really necessary but Merlin doesn’t want him running off to raise alarm the moment he wakes from the sleeping spell he cast right after. Better if he spends a moment confused.
The man falls like a rock and Merlin winces in sympathy when his face hits a brush of nettles. Merlin hopes his enormous beard offers him some protection.
With a final glance he starts his painful way back to Arthur, and covered in bruises and cuts informs him that getting rid of the sentries was ridiculously easy and that it’s a miracle it hasn’t been done before by an enemy. Arthur tells him he looks like he is going to pass out and commands the men forward.
While getting rid of the single guards was easy, distracting the whole village is not. He spares a moment to hope that all the people that are supposed to join Arthur have stayed away like instructed before starting his song. This time it’s well thought through, and he revels at the controlled flow of power through him, bringing in the nearby clouds and drawing their water down to the village with strong suggestions of distraction and sleep. He adds some extra lines just for Morgana and the völva.
Stopping the song is like stopping sex when it’s just getting good, but he does it. And it does give him another type of pleasure to look at the very local rain, then walk up to Arthur and warn the men that if they leave the docks and get hit by the rain they will not be retrieved. They look suitably terrified, excluding Arthur who, even better, looks impressed, making Merlin’s smile so wide it hurts.
They move in slowly, taking the two ships agreed on earlier and preparing to move out the moment the rest arrive. Forever they stay crouching in the ships, waiting in growing anxiety when suddenly Arthur kicks him.
“Don’t fidget,” he whispers. “They’ll be here soon.”
Old Agnarr turns up not more than a moment later, leading the group to the ships and Arthur jumps down to greet him. They have a quick, hushed conversation with serious expressions, but no matter how Merlin strains his ears he can’t hear what they are saying. It reminds him of another time, so long time ago, when he had listened in on Arthur with his magic and been found out by Eir –
Arthur waves him over. He takes in a shaky breath and goes, jumping out of the ship with a small thud that is hidden by the nearby sound of rain. He smiles, weakly maybe, but smiles nevertheless.
Arthur is looking at him expectantly. “Would you happen to know anything about a fox?” he asks mildly.
“A fox?” Merlin repeats dumbly, craning his neck to look around hopefully.
Agnarr combs his fingers through his beard thoughtfully. “Yes, see the strangest thing happened on the way –“
Merlin doesn’t hear anything else because that’s when he spots Leika, flying away from the group like a little flame and heading straight towards him. He kneels on the slightly wet planks, soaking his trousers, and Leika jumps towards his face, licking it in excitement. Merlin giggles at the touch of her tickling fur and buries his hands in it, happy.
“Absolutely not,” says Arthur when he looks up, and his smile dies and is replaced by a pout.
“Absolutely yes,” he counters.
“It’s going to eat the chickens.”
Leika definitely looks offended at the accusation, and Merlin agrees with her. “Just enough to stay alive,” he tells Arthur and for the final word simply declares, “She’s coming.”
Arthur relents when the ships are boarded and Merlin simply lifts Leika aboard as well.
They sail into the night, the village still covered in rain. Many look back wistfully, but Arthur is in the bow looking stoically forwards and Merlin joins him, leaning subtly against his arm.
“We made it,” he whispers.
“Not quite,” Arthur says, but Merlin can hear the hope in his voice.
They divide the supplies as evenly as possible between the ships and Merlin also makes one copy of the map for each ship in case one of them is lost or gets separated. It’s not something anyone wants to say out loud, but it’s acknowledged in silence when Merlin performs a small ritual to Njörðr, the god of sea, for a safe journey. He cuts his own hand, unable to lift the knife on even a chicken, and lets his blood fall on the carved bronze pendant. He throws it to the waves with a little more force than necessary, his prayer flying with it.
They leave the land of their ancestors in a heavy silence. Arthur’s ship is in the lead, followed by Ulf and Elena; Merlin is painfully relieved to be away from Elena’s accusing presence, though the guilt is still there, attacking him the moment he lets his guard down.
Out in the sea the wind attacks the sails with terrifying ferocity, wrenching the ships in the waves. Autumn is almost upon them, making the sea wild and unpredictable, but for nearly a week they sail easily enough though the sea is strong. And then a storm rises against them.
When the first wall of storm slams on them Merlin is already singing out his runes and spells to turn the worst away, and though what hits them may not be the worst, it is definitely bad. They cover the ships as the waves keep growing and occasionally crashing over them. The wood wails and groans in the pressure and Merlin presses tightly down, holding a trembling Leika who almost slips off of his lap as the ship trashes from side to side.
The ship holds, somehow, and eventually the rain and the wind start to ease up.
“I just remembered why I hate sailing,” Ygraine announces, releasing a ripple of relieved laughter through the ship. He laughs with them and he thinks he can see her flash a quick smile at him in the darkness. He resolves to talk things through with her when they get everything sorted and he ignores the small, annoying voice that points out that that could be a quite long time away.
The sea seems to be fond of extremes that day. As the storm gives it doesn’t simply revert to normal, but instead the waves get smaller and smaller until all that remains is an almost unnoticeable ripple on the water’s surface. By some miracle the ships haven’t separated too far from each other and in the clearing weather they manage to locate each other and row the ships back together – for the wind has gone unnaturally quiet and their sails droop lifelessly against the masts.
The ships stand together, unmoving on the still sea surface and the men wait apprehensively for some instruction from Arthur. But Arthur is staring down at the depths over the edge and Merlin knows he feels what he is feeling as well; the prickling in the air that is making his hair stand up on end on the back of his neck, the eerie heaviness that has smothered them under its veil.
The water ripples. Rings of waves that are hardly enough to move the ships, caused not by wind but something under –
“To arms!” Arthur shouts, his voice carrying over the water like a judgement. Like a swarm of tiny insects the men move as one to their shields and weapons, surrounding the few ones with no battle training that only clutch their tiny knives on their belts. Merlin knows their feet make sound on wood, sees their mouths move in hushed whispers and shouts but to him the world had lost all sound after Arthur’s call. He feels it, a huge shadow just under the surface, sometimes touching it and sending out a ripple, a useless warning to its prey.
“Arthur,” he says weakly, his voice barely carrying out of his mouth. He doesn’t know what he is planning to say – a goodbye, warning, some declaration? – but he doesn’t get a chance to say anything because the shadow flies up from the sea.
It rises in a blinding sparkle, the few rays of sun glittering on its scales and the splattering water. Its long, snake-like body bends in the air, casting a shadow on Elena’s ship, and raining water down on them. Someone screams. For a moment it looks like it will crush them, bring them down to the sea with its weight, but with a graceful movement it simply flies over the ship, the last splash of its tail leaving the ship balancing precariously on the waves.
Nobody dares to move, speak or even to breathe, hoping without any hope that the monster has has simply gone away, shown itself to them in its terrifying majesty only to disappear. Again it rises, breaking the mirror of water in obvious glee but this time it is not to perform acrobatics, and though its strength still holds onto its strange grace there is intent there, a killer instinct aimed at them.
The tail forges the first blow, hitting to Ulf’s ship, breaking the mast so that it flies at Elena’s ship, making it groan from the power of the hit. It’s Ulf’s ship though that’s in trouble, for the impact has also taken off a piece of the hull, making the ship tilt slowly to the other side. “A man overboard!” someone shouts, but nobody makes a move to look for the man that dived into the sea and stayed under.
Everybody is frozen in terror; even the warriors on Ulf’s ship are just turning around uselessly, trying to locate the monster. Arthur is the one that breaks through it.
“To Ulf!” he shouts. “Ready the bows! Form a spear wall!”
Elena’s men scramble to their few bows and the rest ready their spears and axes. On Ulf’s ship they huddle to the broken mast, spears sticking out from between their shields making them resemble a hedgehog and on Arthur’s ship the men run for the oars. Too slow, Merlin thinks, and sings for the wind. He can hardly lift a constant blow, at least not without making it into a storm, but a small gust, enough to move the ship to closer to Ulf’s is no problem for there is less than eighty yards between them.
The sails take wind, but they’re still too far away to help when ever so slowly the head of the monster emerges, slithers over the bow of the ship, curling around it and hissing at the warriors that look like a nest of chicks in front of a viper. It strikes, biting through the spears and shields like nothing, lifting three men to its jaws and biting down with a sickening crunch accompanied by horrified screams. And one scream of rage.
Elena’s ship is almost touching Ulf’s now, and Elena stands on the bow, a shield on her arm and a long spear pointed forwards. She is leaning on the edge, seeking the perfect timing, and with admiration and horror Merlin watches as she leaps, throwing herself at the monster. She struggles to get a hold, her spear glancing of the scales and her feet slipping but she managed to get one leg to the hull and snatch a hold of a fin with one hand. She balances there as the monster turns to her, the movement also pulling her to a more secure position and when the lidless eyes look upon her she faces them steady and triumphant.
“Can’t you do anything?” Arthur hisses at him, and he shakes his head helplessly. Anything he could do he would bring on all of them, possibly only on them for he has heard of monsters like this, almost completely resistant to every kind of magic.
Arthur lets out a hiss of frustration and yells to his men, “Archers take aim, but be careful or I’ll have your hide!” Unsure and frightened only few even lift their bows. Elena barely rolls away when the bloody jaws snap down and when its head rises back up the men that dare, shoot. Most of the arrows glance off harmlessly, but a lucky one finds a target. It disappears straight into the round eye, the only trace left behind being the spreading blood that stains the yellow as the monster hisses and throws itself off the ship and to the waves. It doesn’t relinquish its hold of the ship, bringing it crashing down, almost drawing it completely under before letting go, leaving it to the surface broken and upside down. Merlin scans the water but there is no sign of Elena.
That’s when Merlin feels it, something else moving in the air, a touch from the other realms. A shadow that moves past him, cold yet strangely warm and familiar. He snatches his eyepatch off and drags in a sharp breath.
On the air between the ships stand a horse and its rider, a figure clad in a faint blueish shine. Her armour is a light leather dress, her shield painted wood and in her hand is a sword, beautiful and deadly. Back turned to Merlin she is looking down at the wrecked ship, looking for the souls of the slain.
She urges her dark horse to move down but before it reaches the ship it’s forced to jump to the side when the monster flies back above the surface. And there is Elena, looking half dead, hanging onto her spear that she has somehow managed to strike through the gills of the thing. She has abandoned her shield and with her other hand is weakly fiddling for her knife. Her hand has almost clasped the hilt when the monster shakes itself violently, flinging her around with a strength that forces her to clutch onto the spear with both hands. But she stays on and the monster stops in annoyance.
Merlin lets out a relieved sigh; there was no way Elena could have held on much longer. The monster is hardly giving up though, and tries a different tactic. Slowly it cranes its neck around, its bloodied tongue slithering out, trying to reach Elena. All it manages to do is to graze her boots and she kicks it for its trouble in a show of defiance, if nothing else, for the movement hardly contains any real strength.
A flash at the edge of his vision makes him look to his left. The Valkyrie has jumped off her horse and flies through the air towards Elena and before he can quite think about it he has opened his mouth.
“She’s still alive!” he shouts, a plea for the Valkyrie not to take her, not her as well, and the Valkyrie turns to him in mid movement without stopping, her fair hair flying in her face, obscuring her features for a moment before an air current blows them away. Merlin stops. He stops breathing, thinking, feeling. A whimper of disbelief escapes his lips, and Eir – the Valkyrie is Eir – salutes him with her sword, before turning back to Elena and the monster.
It can obviously see her, or at least senses her on some other level, for as Eir approaches it suddenly loses interest in Elena, straightening itself and focusing on Eir’s movements. For Elena its sudden stillness is a chance, and without wasting a moment she uses the spear to haul herself upwards and reaches for the fin at the side of its head. She keeps her other hand on the spear, twisting it to a different angle, making the monster hiss and toss its head to get rid of the annoying pest, but she is ready for it.
The first toss is in the wrong direction and her grip almost slips on the fin, staying there only by the support of Eir who has grabbed her to ease the impact. Eyes wide Merlin wonders if Elena can feel her. Then she manages to get her momentum back towards the monster, the spear pointing straight towards its brain, and using the monster’s own strength against it Elena and Eir, both holding the spear, ram it straight into the monster’s head with a crack.
It makes a choked sound, wobbles in the air for a moment and then falls, heavy like a tree. Elena lets go. She wavers in the air for a blink, held by a desperate Eir, but just as their worlds are not quite touching so aren’t their hands and slowly Eir’s hold gives, their hands slipping through each other’s, and Elena falls.
>> Help her! << Eir’s voice commands in his head, like there was even another option, and he dives into the waves caused by the monsters fall without second thought. He thinks he hears Arthur’s voice calling after him, but the cold shock of the water is on him, silencing the world.
It’s dark, too dark for a moment with the salt stinging his eyes, before he spots the falling shadow and a flash of long golden hair. With something to focus on it’s much easier to make himself swim deeper into the twilight, and he reaches her easily on her slow descent. Getting a hold of her is anything but easy, and eventually he just settle for grabbing her wrist and pulling. His muscles strain against her weight, and his lungs start to scream for air and even his clothes are fighting against him, and yet he won’t give up, forcing himself towards the light and the surface.
He burns for air, dark clouds entering the edges of his vision, so he closes his eyes and kicks, kicks and kicks before his fingers meet air instead of water. He gets himself through the surface, to the lovely air that clears his eyes and reawakens his lungs. He spots Arthur’s golden glow first, then the small boat, and Arthur’s warm hands reach out, helping him up while someone else peels his fingers off of Elena’s wrist and lifts her from the water.
Eir stands next to Merlin as he holds a coughing Elena up and rubs her back. The worst is already over, which Merlin suspects is at least partially thanks to Eir who had drawn some runes onto Elena’s brow as soon as she had been out of the water.
“Eir,” Elena whispers in between her coughs. “I felt her.” Merlin glances at Eir whose lips have turned into a wistful smile. She crouches over and presses a small kiss to Elena’s head and touches Merlin’s hair gently.
>> I was brave but selfish on that night and so were you. And it’s alright. This is my goodbye, forgiveness and the last touch of comfort I can give Elena. << She looks at her, smiles a small smile full of love and sadness. >> I will forget you all, Hel says, so I doubt I’ll see you again. Farewell, Merlin. << He wants to speak, but his throat has filled with sand and Elena and Arthur and the others are right there, no doubt already wondering why is he is staring at an empty patch of air. Eir walks to the side of the boat and his hand twitches to stop her, but he holds it back and she lifts her foot to the edge and glances back. >> Be happy, << she says and jumps into the air, and, lifting herself up onto her horse that has cantered down to them from the sky, riding down to the still sinking ship to do her deed, to gather the dead.
He brings his hand up to obscure his face, and mouths, “You too,” into the air, and for the shortest moment he believes he sees her look back at them.
Elena’s coughs start easing and determinedly she frees herself from Merlin’s hold, supporting herself with one hand while pushing Merlin away with the other.
“I felt her,” she repeats. “But you’re not forgiven.”
He nods and lowers his eyes. Selfish, she had said, but he fails to see how her sacrifice had been anything but selfless. Brave, she had said, but he had been anything but brave, clutching onto the first straw of hope like a drowning man and pulling her down under with him.
Shaking his head against these thoughts, he rises and comes face to face with Arthur, who is smiling at him full of false sweetness.
“Merlin,” he says, voice coated with honey. Merlin winces. “Do you possibly have a death wish?”
“No,” he answers but somehow it ends up sounding like a question.
Arthur looks like he is planning to fulfil any possible death wishes himself. “Don’t you dare do anything like that again,” he snaps – and wraps a blanket around him. He’s cold, he realises, even as he frowns at Arthur.
“You don’t get to order –“
“Not a word,” Arthur warns him. Rough, his thumb trails over his cheekbones and down to his neck, before giving his shoulder a firm squeeze. “Get changed, you’re freezing.” He lifts his hand with an awkward smile. Merlin shivers involuntarily at the loss of his touch.
With some resentment he watches how the stiffness bleeds out of Arthur’s frame as soon as he turns to Elena.
“That was very impressive,” he says and offers Elena a hand to stand up. She takes it. “Bravely fought.”
Bravely – or maybe with a death wish? Merlin wraps the blanket more tightly around himself.
“Umm, yes. Thank you,” Elena says and draws away from Arthur. He wonders if she will ever be able to look them in the eye without any pain, and if their eyes would reflect it nevertheless.
In the sky on her horse is Eir, leading the recently departed souls to other realms. When they fade from sight Merlin goes to find his eyepatch.
They had managed to fish six other people out of the sea alive, Ulf not among them, but Merlin fears that at least one of them will not pull through. A child, a boy of maybe ten summers, has swallowed a lot of water and won’t stop shivering no matter what they do, though he knows that sometimes stillness is even more dangerous.
He desperately, foolishly wishes they could build a fire as the mother rocks the boy against herself helplessly, both wrapped in blankets. What good is his gift now, he thinks bitterly, when all his spells are exhausted, disappearing into the air as meaningless sounds.
“May the gods be merciful,” he whispers. The mother doesn’t seem to hear, her world centred on her child, but a hand settles on his shoulder in comfort.
“Get some rest, dear,” Ygraine tells him. “I’ll watch over them.”
Exhaustion is starting to take its toll because there is a small lump in his throat when he answers.
“Get me if anything changes,” he says. Stops. “Thank you.”
Ygraine smiles, more widely than he has seen in ages. “Of course.”
He staggers off to his supplies, near the place where Arthur is sitting and brooding. Without a word he curls down by Arthur’s side, against his calf, and after a while a furry body settles against his back. He smiles, and when he is already halfway in his dreams he can imagine that there is a hand combing through his hair.
“Thank you for saving her,” Arthur says as Merlin stretches his aching muscles.
He yawns, and looks away. “I didn’t exactly do it for you.”
“Still. I need her. She will make a good queen –“
“What?!” It comes out as a high-pitched squawk. He shakes his head to clear it, because surely Arthur wouldn’t – except suddenly his chest is cold with dread because Arthur really would.
Arthur looks at him oddly. “Well, obviously she needs some time to get over Eir, but since I would hardly consent on marrying someone I don’t know, she is really the only choice.”
The cold spreads, climbs up his throat, trying to stop him from speaking, but slowly with it emerges something else as well; a numb, freezing anger.
“Obviously,” he echoes. “And have you considered that maybe she doesn’t want to marry you?”
Arthur frowns at him. “Why wouldn’t she?” he asks, genuinely puzzled, and that’s just too much.
“I don’t know,” Merlin drawls in a venomous hiss. “Maybe she has her eyes set on someone else? She knows about us; perhaps she’s repulsed? Or perhaps she just doesn’t want to marry you – or perhaps she has noticed that what we have is not just fucking without feelings!” He practically shouts the last words, refusing to blush from anything but anger, even as practically every person on the ship turns to stare.
Arthur lifts his hands up in a gesture that is probably meant to placating but in reality only riles Merlin up further. He glares at him darkly.
“Merlin,” he almost whispers, no doubt wanting to keep the conversation away from prying ears. “Nothing between us would need to change. I would just have a family. You are stupid but not so stupid you would have thought that it wasn’t going to happen; you know their accusations about me were false. I am not an ergi.”
The corner of his mouth twitches, trying to find some sort of suitable expression between laughing and crying. “Of course not,” he says in a normal volume because he can and it makes Arthur glance around nervously. “You’re just a massive arse. I don’t even think I remember why I went through all that to save you but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t worth it.” He is a liar; though he wishes he wasn’t even when the hurt flashes in Arthur’s eyes before burying its head behind his barriers.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have bothered,” Arthur says with a toothy smile and Merlin walks away, to Elena, as unfair as that is.
She sighs in an exaggerated fashion when he reaches her side.
“I thought our mutual pact of avoidance was working out pretty well,” she says.
Merlin just shakes his head. “Would you mind relocating to your ship and setting sail? We need to talk. Without King Dollophead.”
She stares at him, her eyebrows climbing up in a decidedly unimpressed manner. “Idiots. You are both idiots. But fine.”
They leave for the other ship without wasting time and Leika comes with them – because Merlin sure as hell isn’t leaving her with Arthur – and Merlin can feel Arthur’s gaze boring holes into his back the whole time. He determinedly doesn’t spare him a glance, as difficult as it is, partially because he is not quite sure what he would do. He is almost positive he wouldn’t do anything stupid like push him overboard, really.
With Elena reverting back to ignoring him as much as possible it’s all somewhere on the fine line between amusing and sad. Even Leika fails to provide him company for as soon as they are on the boat she snuggles happily against Elena’s legs, begging for the attention that she happily provides. Merlin’s scowl has nothing to do with that. Nor with Arthur. He is not really even scowling; it’s just what his thoughtful face looks like.
People on the ship are glad to have Elena back on board, and Merlin could swear that the ship itself sounds more content than it did a moment ago from the boat. The younger men swarm to her, praising her with shining eyes, and though she laughs Merlin can see the blush on her cheeks.
He smiles at those who look at him, and is a little startled to notice that most smile back, welcoming, warm smiles. The faces that bear them are only vaguely familiar, artisans and farmers from the outskirts, not important enough for him to have taken note. It is always disconcerting to realise that there are people who know and even like him, and he doesn’t even know their names. There is a little twist of guilt in his stomach but he smiles anyway when an old woman asks him if he has anything that could help her horrendous joint ache. He takes out a little bottle of salve from his belt, strengthens it with a healing rune and hands it to her with instructions – and she positively beams at him.
When he turns away Elena is standing right behind him, startling him. She smiles past him, presumably at the old woman.
“Well?” she asks him and draws them away from the main group of people.
Merlin scowls in the direction of Arthur’s ship. “Turns out Ygraine isn’t the only one with marriage plans. Arthur was most pleased that I had saved his future queen.”
For a moment she just looks bemused but then understanding dawns on face, her jaw opening in disbelief. “I – what? Are you serious – no, scratch that – are you sure? Really? Arthur? Arthur thinks that me and him?” She stops to draw in some air and swipes a stray strand of hair away from her face with obvious frustration. Merlin sympathises. “Idiots,” she adds, and Merlin resents the fact that it definitely sounds like he has once again been included.
“I wasn’t exactly pleased myself,” he mutters and shifts on his feet. “But I did figure that you might want to know – and that we probably should have some sort of plan to get him to see some sense. At least about you.” He is not bitter.
“Oh, Merlin,” she says, startlingly soft. “He does love you, you know, even if he’s not brave enough to face it.”
He is not so sure about that – he thinks love might be a bit of a strong word for what he gets from Arthur – but he doesn’t voice his doubts and instead stares at her and wishes for it to be true as improbable as it is. “He’d resent that. Being called a coward.”
“That’s not what I said,” Elena points out cheerfully. “But really, we just need to make it clear that I’m not marrying him and that you two belong together.”
Merlin stares at her in exasperation, because he is rather certain it’s not quite that simple, but once again her face is turned away. Also Elena is making it sound like they are soulmates or some such, when the truth is that they feel more like an unrequited love story. “Good luck with getting the first part through to him, I tried already,” he says slowly.
“Well, it’s not like you had any authority to say no for me,” she comments with enough steel to make him wince. “And I’ll just make sure he gets it, even if I have to duel him to get it through.”
“No!” he growls, for before his eyes flashes a memory of a shattering shield and Arthur falling like the dead.
Elena turns to him, surprised. “Calm down. I wouldn’t hurt him, I’m not her.”
Merlin knows that. He knows he can’t keep Arthur away from battles and sparring and yet the knowledge doesn’t make him feel any better. He nods reluctantly, frowns.
“I’m sure we can avoid that. But if he still plans to marry someone else, I’m leaving. He needs to choose.”
“Nice. I’m sure he’ll see sense, though it’s not like you would actually leave –“ She stops when she sees his expression. “But there isn’t anywhere to go!” she bursts out. “You can’t survive on your own!”
Merlin gives her a wry half smile. “Magic, remember?” he says and wriggles his fingers.
Elena punches him.
“That felt good,” Elena says wistfully as she watches Merlin sullenly nurse the impressive bruise on his cheek. “I think I needed that.”
She smiles at him and he would smile back if changing his expression didn’t feel like someone pushing a bunch of sewing needles into his face.
“Land!” The shout echoes around, full of hope and joy and even Merlin feels a tingle of excitement run through him. Finally.
It takes him a while to spot the shadow on the horizon. Mountains, he thinks as he takes in the fickle shape of it, trying to find some memory of home here. He wonders if there are fjords, carved into the stone of the earth itself to offer protection, or if they’ll need to venture inland to find protection. If nothing else, the air tastes the same, carrying the familiar crisp and cold breath of autumn, which is hardly comforting reminder of the approaching winter on a land without houses or crops, relying on what they brought with them and wild birds, animals and fish.
Yet he smiles into the wind. If nothing else he will be grateful to be off the ship after almost a fortnight.
There is grass, already striped with yellow, and here and there lay huge boulders, no doubt thrown down by jötunns in ages past. Beyond the hills rise the mountains with their white tops, hard and forbidding. No forests are in sight, no wood for ships and houses, but Merlin is sure they will find some.
A small group leaves to scout the land, heading for a nearby hill. Somehow the group ends up containing him, Arthur and Elena, followed by Leika who seems ecstatic to be back on land, dashing around madly, sometimes diving into a roll on the ground before leaping up again. There is no hint of that joy between the three of them. Arthur hasn’t acknowledged him in any way since he announced that Merlin would be joining him, and with Elena Arthur is just being generally awkward.
Eventually though Arthur does open his mouth to actually say something other than mindless chatter about the weather and addresses Elena. His face is solemn, almost nervous and Merlin would be sorry for him if he didn’t deserve every bit that was coming his way.
“I’m sure Merlin has already mentioned the matter of our future and I would like to stress that I have no wish to impose upon you so soon –“
“Never,” Elena says mildly.
“What?” Arthur stops walking and shoots Merlin a bewildered glance. Merlin smirks back.
“You shouldn’t bother imposing me with your marriage plans ever,” Elena clarifies, stopping as well and turning towards Arthur. “Seeing as I’m never ever going to marry you. For several reasons. I mean I like you – but I don’t love you and more to the point you and Merlin love each other –“
“Elena!” Merlin squawks and Arthur makes a very interesting sound that distantly reminds him of a dying duck.
Elena carries on like she had never been interrupted, “It would just be awkward for all of us, and heartbreaking for Merlin – not that he doesn’t deserve it – so the point is that no, it’s not happening.”
Merlin is sure that his face is beet red and Arthur is spluttering in indignation.
“This has nothing to with Merlin!” he snaps and receives two glares for his trouble. “It’s not like I can just not marry; if it’s not you then it’ll be someone else. There are many beautiful, suitable girls with us if you’re truly refusing the honour.”
“I’m very much refusing the honour, sorry. Come on, Merlin. I think we should go ahead and let him cool down a little,” Elena says, turning away from a fuming Arthur with a smile, and continuing her climb. Dumbfounded, Merlin follows.
They find a valley with a lake and small patch of stunted trees and settle there. They work fast, using the rocks and the woods and by the time the frost starts creeping in they have enough shelter – barely – in the form of a hall and two cottages. Merlin does his best with his gift, writing spells of warmth and strength onto the walls, and when his gift is of no use he helps with manual labour with everyone else. And slowly the people warm up to him, ask him for help and gradually even dare to laugh at him when he trips over his own feet while singing a spell. Luckily that has only happened once.
What worries him the most is the lack of animals. They have made do with fish and birds, but the only animal on land he has spotted was a snow-white fox in the distance, and he is not sure it wasn’t a fragment of his imagination or some phantom of the past.
When the first snow flutters down from the sky Merlin seeks Arthur out. They have barely spoken in the frantic rhythm of the days passed, but now, with the ground frozen, building is practically impossible and Merlin knows the time for him to fill his bargain has come.
“I’m leaving,” he says, petting Leika who has pressed against his legs.
Arthur makes a noncommittal sound. “I was wondering about when you would take care of the rest of your –“ He pauses, reluctant to call it what it is: a bargain, a deal for his life. “Thing,” he finishes.
“Yeah,” Merlin says, because the next words are getting struck in his throat, harder to say than he ever anticipated. “I’m not coming back.”
Arthur tenses like a bow. “What,” he says flatly. It doesn’t sound like a question.
“Well, I will visit,” he amends, proud his voice doesn’t waver. He thinks he might even manage a disinterested tone. “But I can’t stay and watch you find a wife. It’s not something you can ask of me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Arthur growls, red spots rising on his cheeks. It’s rather satisfying to see that at least he is causing some kind of reaction. “You can’t just leave, you’ll die on your own! And you’re the only one who knows healing, who will take care of the sick? Will you just sulk in some cave while these people die?”
There is a cruel bite to his words, but Merlin pushes his anger down, locks it away and smiles coldly. “Many of the older folk know healing, one is even familiar with some runes. And if you truly need me I’ll make sure you can find me.” He takes a deep breath, distances himself from the sounds coming from his mouth because he will not cry. Arthur doesn’t deserve his tears, not in this. “What I was ready to do for you wasn’t healthy. My love for you is like an all-consuming fire, and in the face of it I would do anything. And I did. I killed Eir to save your life. Doesn’t that tell you anything?” He wants Arthur to understand why he is doing this just as much as he hopes that Arthur will stop him, promise to make it work somehow. Arthur doesn’t seem inclined to give him either. “If you were to try, then maybe we could work now because you’re not the only person I have. I have Elena, Ygraine, Gísli, other people who care and understand. But I know you won’t give me anything back, so it’s better for me to let go completely, to forget your god cursed beautiful face, and then maybe someday I can return for good, look upon you and not love you.”
He lifts his eyes from the ground and looks at Arthur, his stricken face, and blinks back the tears that have somehow managed to sneak into his eyes despite his struggles to contain them.
“That’s stupid, Merlin. Don’t –” Arthur says, voice cracking. Merlin shakes his head, and Arthur looks both furious and devastated. “I’ll make it a bloody order if I have to, but you are coming back!”
“You can order all you want,” he says. “I won’t come.”
He doesn’t see Arthur’s reaction because he turns around to walk away. A hand sneaks after him, wraps around his wrist like a shackle. And that’s all Arthur is to him right now. He wrenches himself free and leaves Arthur behind.
Ygraine looks at him silently for a long time when Merlin tells her what he’s going to do.
“I understand,” she says finally. “Arthur is a fool, but he’ll see sense with time.”
He looks up at her in surprise and she smiles at him. “It might have taken me a while to catch on, but after all this I must have been blind not to notice what you two are to each other. I may love you both as my own sons, yet you are not brothers, and to me your love is twice blessed. He will see it as well, even if I have to beat it into his thick skull with a hammer.”
Merlin chuckles at the idea and hugs her tightly. “Thank you, mother,” he says, and for once his tongue doesn’t trip over the word.
“Promise me you will visit, though. We need to know you are well.”
“Of course,” he says and reluctantly lets her go.
She smiles at him warmly and he returns the smile, pretending not to notice the wet gleam in her eyes.
“Merlin!” Elena’s voice comes from behind the door, just before she barges in.
“Good, I was afraid I would have to kill you for leaving without saying goodbye,” she says brightly when she spots him, and then takes a second look at them. “Sorry, I hope I didn’t interrupt,” she adds sheepishly.
“It’s quite alright, Elena,” Ygraine says. “We just finished saying our goodbyes.”
“Then you don’t mind if I steal him away?”
Ygraine makes a go ahead gesture, but not before pressing a kiss to Merlin’s cheek.
Elena grins at Ygraine, wraps her hand around his and yanks him unceremoniously towards the door.
“Remember your promise and take care,” she shouts after him when Elena drags him out.
The air is cold and more snow has settled on the ground, hiding the green grass completely under its white blanket.
“I made you something,” Elena says, and leads him to the shed they are using as a storehouse for the food supplies and tools.
Sacks of grain, dried meat, and a dozen chickens behind a net greet him when he enters after her, but something new does catch his attention. It’s a small sled, perfect for a human to drag, and inside it a pair of snowshoes.
He turns to Elena who is grinning at him. He’s sure his mouth is hanging open in a very unattractive fashion but all he can do is make a questioning gesture at the items.
“There was some leftover wood and well, we, that is me and Gísli, thought that you could maybe use a bit help and, yeah, so we made these.”
“I –“ He honestly has no idea how to express his gratefulness. “Gísli?”
“Gísli!” Elena bellows unexpectedly, making him jump, and like magic the boy appears, grinning from ear to ear like a maniac.
“You like it?” he asks eagerly, and Merlin nods dumbly.
“Thank you,” he says. “I never expected anything like this. It’s – it’s fantastic, I’m more grateful than you can even imagine.”
To his amusement Gísli actually blushes, and Elena wraps an arm around his shoulders with a chuckle.
“So. Now you have absolutely no excuse for dying on us in the wilderness,” she announces.
“Well,” Merlin says smirking at her. “I can think of a couple of things that a sled can’t save me from –“
Elena shoves him, although very gently in light of their recent history.
“No excuses,” she says, face stern. “We will take it as a personal affront against our gift if you do. Right?”
Gísli nods furiously in agreement.
He follows Hel’s map deeper into this new land, but here, out in the silence, he realises that he could probably manage even without it. There’s a certain thrumming energy in the ground that he can feel when he really stops to listen, leading him to somewhere in the wilderness in front of him. Yet it takes him two days to actually see anything for the horizon is obscured by the low-hanging clouds that occasionally turn the air into a shower of snow.
He is looking at the map without his eyepatch while gnawing on a bird he managed to catch as he happens to glance at the sky, clear for the first time in days. A black swirl has taken over the blue before him, rising from, or perhaps falling into, a mountain looming in the distance.
Its peak is not sharp, nor terribly menacing, though for some reason there is very little snow on its dark slopes, coloured by red and black miasma. It’s such a sharp contrast to the icy landscape of Niflheim that for a moment Merlin wonders if the mountain can truly be his destination. But the power it radiates is undeniable, and unless he has completely lost his way it’s also where the map is leading him.
“That certainly looks comforting,” he remarks to Leika, who tilts her head at him questioningly, eyeing the meat in Merlin’s hand with a hopeful expression. He shakes his head fondly and hands her a piece which she devours greedily.
“You are not sympathising with me in the slightest, are you?” he asks ruefully but this time Leika ignores him completely in favour of licking her lips and paws.
Though the mountain might not have looked like the residence of winter from afar, the lower slopes are home to snow and small glaciers, treacherous with their rifts and underground caverns. It is slow going at best and often Merlin has to rely on his fickle scrying abilities to probe the way ahead, but despite a couple of close calls they make it safely to the higher ground.
Stepping on the exposed rock is like an electric shock through him. The mountain seems angry, ready to lash out at the slightest affront, and without a thought he drops to his knees and bows in respect to whatever spirits the mountain holds in hopes of appeasing them. A second pulse runs through him and this time it feels like mocking laughter.
Gritting his teeth together he rises, squares his shoulders and looks up, and somehow it feels like the mountain under him settles a little. Surprise can’t quite overshadow his triumphant smile and he continues his journey with a new confidence, Leika following, if a bit warily.
The mountain rumbles, and from somewhere above him a cloud of steam shoots into the sky. Merlin has never seen anything like it, but suddenly he remembers stories about southern mountains that breathed fire like dragons, drowning entire cities in fiery rock when they exploded. Stabilise. That’s what Hel had said. So it doesn’t get destroyed.
With a horrible suspicion he gauges the immense powers running under him, and gasps when they surge against his probing. He feels like a small rock in the middle of a landslide. Hel had sent him to chain this endless strength, surely beyond the power of any human, and now he has come and he can’t imagine there is anything he can do.
Maybe this is his punishment for playing with death, dying here while trying in vain to stop nature from running its course. He wonders if the people will survive – if Arthur will survive – when the mountain lashes out. It would be too cruel an end for their story, to have settled here only to be wiped away.
The mountain shakes, sending him stumbling forwards. He manages not to fall over, but he bites his lip, the taste of iron filling his mouth. At the other end of the summit a red glow colours the rock.
He has no other choice but to try.
Leika presses against his leg and stares at him calmly with her dark eyes. Merlin manages to force out a small smile.
He takes off his eyepatch and looks at the dark currents swirling above him. They look almost like a flock of black birds, flying in a red wind.
He takes a solid stance and fills his lungs with the bitter tasting air, and closing his eyes he lunges into the depths of his connection with the veil. He feels it at the back of his mind, but his mouth is empty of the sound of words that could start the most powerful spell sang in the history.
He falters, unsure, and again the echo of the mountain’s cruel laughter runs through him latching onto him like an animal smelling fear. No, he thinks. This is not his limit.
The words that fall from his lips are a command for respect. The mountain withdraws with a rumble, but he holds steady against its protests and slowly more words start to fall from his lips, easy as breathing.
He isn’t quite sure about the exact words he sings, distracted by the grey fog of the veil ripping apart, washing him in power. More and more the cold land feeds him, gives him power that swarms through him and out to the rock under him, directed only by the song of slumber he is feeding it. The mountain fights against every ounce he pours in, the rift in the veil widening behind him to respond to his demand.
The freezing cold of midwinter meets the fires of torment around him, clashing and intertwining into suffocating embraces, and after a while he can no longer feel his body and instead becomes part of the cold current fighting against the burning air, forcing it to still and give, turning the little bits of water hiding in the air to ice and snow.
With a terrifying wrath the mountain strikes back, destroying his beautiful crystals and turning them back into steam, but every time he draws more power with him and every time the mountain gains back less than it took.
He is the cruel wind of winter, the unforgiving bite of frost and the treacherous comfort of snow, and suddenly he knows he could freeze the mountain until the Ragnarök, could travel over the seas and bring winter to the whole world, making it his shining, pure castle of snow.
He shakes himself away from that dangerously beautiful but cruel view, and sends his winds deeper, deeper and deeper into the mountain, whispering about sweet dreams under the snow.
And now the mountain wails against him, helpless, and in triumph he laughs. The mountain surges in rage. It blasts against him with an all-consuming wall of fire that throws him back, back, to his body and the air. His throat burns, voiceless, as he falls down the slope, his body hitting the rocks, once and twice before he falls still. Above him a shower of fire rises into the sky.
His body refuses to move, numb with the cold, though slowly being burned to a crisp by the rippling air, which carries the bitter smell of death with it, dazzling the remains of his mind into a swirl of colour.
He wonders if there will ever be songs sung about him, a foolish boy who died playing a hero.
He is cold. There might be snowflakes frozen to his eyelashes, though he isn’t quite sure since all he sees when he forces his eyes open is white. He tries to open his lips to speak, but only a small croak comes out.
He wonders whether Hel will come and welcome him to her realm.
His fingers move when he flexes them experimentally inside his mittens, each movement radiating sharp pain through his whole arm.
He stills, closes his eyes, and cries in exhaustion and pain. His tears are hot and leave smarting trails on his cheeks. Frostbites. Or scalds. Possibly both.
A wet nose touches his cheek, making him flinch in pain, but he opens his eyes again and this time spies a trace of red in the middle of whiteness.
Again he tries to move his lips and this time they obey, if only a little. He chokes out two runes for warmth and the sensations crawl back with the warmth, followed by a horrible agony throughout every inch of his skin. He takes in huge gulps of air, trying to drown the pain and failing miserably, but eventually he stops feeling like he is dying and realises just how very much he is still alive.
He is alive and under him the mountain has fallen asleep.
Merlin stumbles down the side of the mountain with the power of the euphoria that one gets after a near death experience, but he knows this false strength won’t take him far. He doesn’t think he can survive long on his own, barely capable of walking, so his only chance of survival is making it back to the others. Even his spells have all but deserted him for the hot air had burned his throat, turning his voice into a throaty rasp that can barely form the most basic runes.
Leika seems to sense his state and sticks even closer to him than normal, keeping a keen eye on his faltering movements and yapping sharply when his steps stray too close to the edge. And then, when he has made it down, she suddenly shoots forwards, disappearing behind a snow covered mound. The dark has already settled so he stops, the ache in his bones too much for another step anyway. He hopes she will return in the night, curl into the furs with him to keep them both warm.
As it is he falls onto the furs on the sled and crawls under them. Though their touch is soft it stings against his battered skin, but no amount of suffering is enough to keep him from his sleep.
The sun turns the snow into a sea of diamonds, and somewhere under his haze he knows he should cover his eyes.
The landscape has lost its shape to the whiteness. No matter where he looks all he sees is white and yet he keeps walking, step by step, though he is not quite sure where he is going or why.
He’s sweating though he is so cold his whole body is shaking. His foggy mind muddles around and offers him a word. Fever. It tastes like death.
Shadows on the snow, walking towards him. Someone, or maybe several someones, maybe with food and drink. Merlin had food and drink but he isn’t quite sure where they went.
“Merlin!” a voice calls. It sounds like Arthur, Merlin’s traitorous, hopeful mind supplies, but it cannot be Arthur because Merlin has left him behind.
“Merlin? Can you hear us?”
He nods and his heavy head lolls on his shoulders.
“Snow blind and probably fevered,” another familiar voice comments from somewhere close.
Hands find his face and he flinches instinctively. “He has blisters,” the voice that sounds like Arthur says, bewildered. “Merlin, what in the name of the gods?”
“Fire-mountain,” he mumbles.
A strong hand sneaks around his waist and Merlin leans gratefully against the warm support. He is not sure he even has legs anymore.
They sit down and he gets wrapped even closer to the solid warm person holding him, both of them under the same blankets, most of their clothing removed. He thinks there has to be a fire somewhere near as well, giving off lovely heat which makes him shiver all the harder.
He presses the less painful side of his face against the man’s shoulder. He smells like Arthur as well. Has to be Arthur.
“Arthur?” he rasps out and the hands around him tighten.
“Yeah?” Arthur whispers and Merlin hums contently. “Elena and Ásleif are here as well.”
Merlin’s sluggish mind can’t quite determine who Ásleif is but he nods against Arthur’s shoulder anyway.
“Don’t you dare die,” Arthur says in his ear and Merlin produces some kind of sound of agreement. His throat hurts.
Arthur continues talking to him, though some of it might be part of his fever dreams, because Arthur tells him that he refuses to lose Merlin, that Merlin is not leaving, now or ever. And in quiet whispers that are nothing more than a puff of air Merlin thinks he can hear the words ‘I love you’ followed by a fond ‘idiot’ which is much more likely not part of his imagination.
He dozes off to restless dreams where bright sounds dance around him, but when he tries to chase them they disappear into the darkness that has overtaken the white plain, leaving him to suffocate in the silence before re-emerging to the same dance. Yet every time he surfaces Arthur is there, holding him, offering him warm broth and he feels safe.
A bed. Stonewalls. Hunith standing at the end of the bed, looking down on him. He thought she had been left behind by the sea. He sits up, fast, and groans in pain.
A hand presses against his back to steady him.
“Thank goodness you’re awake!” Ygraine exclaims rather too loudly given her proximity to his ear and he closes his eyes against the wave of pain in his head.
“What –?” he starts to ask but thinks better of it. “How long?” he asks instead.
“Five days since the fox returned and almost four since Arthur found you.”
He opens his eyes again, looks at Ygraine, taking in the shadows under her eyes with guilt before spotting Leika sleeping in the corner. She looks tired as well.
He wants to go and hug her to his chest but as he moves the prickling in his neck stops him. Slowly he turns his head towards the corner behind him, spotting the faint golden glow even before he actually sees Arthur. He really needs to get his eyepatch back.
Arthur looks even worse than Ygraine, Merlin realises with a shock. There’s an untidy stubble on his gaunt looking cheeks and though sharp as ever his eyes also carry the burden of exhaustion.
Distantly Merlin notices Ygraine walking out and saying something about leaving them to talk in peace.
“Arthur –“ he starts just as Arthur says “Merlin –“ and they fall into an awkward silence.
Merlin breaks it when the silence gets too heavy. “I’m still leaving,” he says because suddenly it seems like the easiest set of words.
Arthur walks up to the bed and kneels next to it, twining his fingers through Merlin’s and then stares at their entwined hands like they are some sort of miracle.
“You don’t have to,” Arthur says, seemingly directing the words to their hands.
Merlin’s heart clenches. “I do. Unless something has changed.” In the heartbeat that passes he tells himself not to hope. And then Arthur looks at him with earnest, hopeful, pained eyes.
“Everything has changed,” he says. “Gods, Merlin. You almost died!”
“Oh,” he says dumbly.
“I couldn’t bear losing you. Everything be damned, I’ll do anything to make you want to stay.”
He clenches Arthur’s hand tightly. “Even give up your precious family?” He doesn’t bother masking the sharpness in his voice.
Arthur has the grace to look ashamed. “Elena and our mother might have pointed out rather forcefully that I can actually have a family with you.”
Unexpected. It’s the only word Merlin can think of. Apart from, “Really?” which is what comes out of his mouth.
“Really, idiot,” Arthur chuckles though it sounds somewhat nervous and Merlin rolls his eyes at him, though he suspects that the effect is somewhat ruined by the ridiculous grin that threatens to split his face in two.
“So? Will you stay?”
Merlin knows it won’t be easy, but at the same time there is only one answer he can give.
“Yeah. But just so you know I’m not the girl in this relationship.” Arthur opens his mouth, probably to protest but Merlin continues before he can say anything. “There is no girl in this relationship.”
Morgana looks down at the body of Egill at her feet. She had known he was a snake but she had never actually thought he would outright betray her. Not after two years of more or less loyal service.
It is actually rather insulting that he thought he could just stick a knife in her back in the middle of a council meeting. She scans the rest of the council members sitting in shocked silence with a carefully calculated look of boredom on her face.
The truth is that she’s worried. There is no doubt in her mind about on whose orders Egill was working. For if one was not on their side, then they were on the other side. The Christian side. The winning side.
“Do we have any more Christian sympathisers that would like to announce their new loyalties?” she asks, studying her bloody nails with false interest.
Silence meets her words and she smiles.
“Now, as agreed we are joining Skjálf’s forces in a fortnight. But we need help.”
“There is no more help,” Jarl Styrlakr points out dryly.
Uttering the next words take every ounce of Morgana’s pride. She has considered this carefully, has listened the stories about a land without slavery yet rich beyond imagination, a land that ships sailed to and stayed. A land that was led by her half-brother who hated her, and rightfully so.
She takes a deep breath.
“There is Arthur.”