Characters/Pairings: Merlin, Arthur, Greco-Roman Gods
Word Count: ~7400
Summary: Merlin can't save himself because Arthur is right there, so he has to put up with his king's attempts at a rescue. The result will surprise them both.
Notes: Written for the 2013 merlinreversebb. Based on this fantastic art by the_little_owl who is ten kinds of awesome for not only creating such an inspirational image but also giving feedback on the plot outline and drafts. Leave your appreciative comments for the artist here!
The Resilience of Dust
The dreams started a fortnight before Arthur's annual inspection of his lands. Day after day, Merlin woke to the whispering rush of wings fading in the light of morning. At first, he thought a hawk must have chosen his window as a perch, but Gaius had heard nothing, and there was no sign on the smooth stone of the castle. For several days, the only part of the dream he could recall was the beating of wings. But as the day of their departure grew near, he began to see a great eagle taking shape in his thoughts.
"Do you think it's a portent?" he asked Gaius at breakfast.
"It is possible. The eagle has in every age been a symbol of power and royalty, of sun and thunder. It often presages victory in battle." Gaius frowned into his meal, pushing the mash around his plate with a troubled air. Merlin paused his voracious chewing and raised an eyebrow at him.
"What is it?"
"I'm not certain." He paused, eyes downcast as though the secrets of augury could be read in potatoes and corn. "The bird wasn't...doing anything? Fighting with something? Or someone?
Merlin cast his mind back to the tattered remnants of the dream, but could remember nothing except that single image: a golden eagle shining in the sun as though shaped by its fire.
"I don't know," he admitted finally. "There must be more, but I can't quite catch it."
"Well. Perhaps it bodes well for your journey." Gaius took a healthy bite to indicate his lack of concern, but it was obviously forced. "The eagle is almost always a good omen."
"A good omen." Merlin snorted, resting his head dejectedly in one upturned palm. "That would be a first."
Gaius shrugged in helpless sympathy and Merlin sighed.
* * *
If he tilted his head into the wind at just the right angle, Arthur could pretend that it was just the two of them trotting across the western moor toward the sea. He and Merlin had pulled slightly ahead of their company, and only the low rumble of hoofbeats behind them disturbed the illusion. Not that Merlin seemed the least bit interested in relieving his king's boredom. He'd barely said a thousand words in the three days since they'd left Camelot, which was an absurdly low count for his loquacious tongue.
"Have you heard a word I've said, Merlin?"
"You haven't said anything for five leagues, sire," he replied absently, not even bothering to look at Arthur. He'd been chewing his lip anxiously all morning, and scanning the horizon like a desperate fugitive. Or maybe more like a rabbit being pursued by a hawk. Arthur allowed himself to be distracted for a few moments by various uncharitable comparisons before he tired of the game.
"Well, you're dull company, is why. What's gotten into you?" He kept his tone indolent, but an uneasy tremor had settled in his stomach. He could never seem to relax when Merlin was in one of his moods. He was at once the most unremarkable and the most surprising man that Arthur had ever known, but one thing that could be said for sure about him was that he had a nose for trouble.
Merlin made a face as though someone had plopped a shovelful of horse manure onto his dinner plate. Arthur was just about to scold him for being in an unaccountably foul mood when he realized that Merlin's disgust was directed behind them. He turned to see what his manservant was looking at with such loathing and several things happened at once.
Cries of alarm rose from the knights bringing up the rear of the double column stretching down the road. A huge winged shape plummeted from the sky with a shriek like a banshee. Arthur's mount, a staid palfrey but no warhorse, bucked in sudden terror. And Merlin said, to no one in particular, "You must be joking." By the time Arthur brought his horse's head up and smoothed out its alarmed gyrations, the largest raptor he had ever seen was absconding with his comically flailing servant, leaving behind a rather startled and riderless mare.
Arthur, as was his duty, quickly formed a plan of action which involved a panicked gallop after the swiftly retreating thief. He was vaguely aware of the sounds of shouting and mounted pursuit, but his eyes were glued on the distant shadow of wings against the blue sky. He knew he had to keep eyes on them if he was to have any chance of fighting back, and he could only hope that Merlin's skinny frame encumbered the creature enough for him to keep pace.
The palfrey's hide was slick with sweat by the time he finally lost sight of the eagle as it glided behind the hills to the north. Arthur pulled to a stop and peered at the modest peak the bird had ascended, fixing the location in his mind. He prayed it had come to rest there, and not simply flown on past the crags. If it had gone further north, there would be no tracking it.
Sparing a glance behind, he was surprised to find that he had outpaced his knights. An uneasy tension settled across his shoulders as he considered the possibility that magic had been employed in setting this creature against him, but he could think of no remedy for it. He certainly couldn't leave Merlin at the mercy of an oversized predator - or worse, a sorcerer.
Setting his mouth grimly, Arthur urged his mount up the first steep incline.
* * *
Once they reached a sufficiently lethal altitude, Merlin changed his mind about squirming from the eagle's grasp. He wrapped his hands around the creature's pebbly feet and held on, cursing vociferously. Gwaine, who was a student of the human condition, had greatly expanded his vocabulary, but Merlin still felt it necessary to make up half the words. The basest profanities collected from all corners of the five kingdoms were simply insufficient to contain his exasperation. He was angry at himself for misinterpreting the dream, angry at Arthur for being right there and making Merlin helpless to defend himself. Most of all, he was angry at the stupid eagle for being so large and inexplicable.
"It's no use complaining to me." The words were spoken in the old speech, and carried the weight of magic in them, the solidity of things as they are. "I only serve my lord, as you will."
"And who is that?" He spoke aloud, shouting into the whistling speed of the eagle's flight even as he barricaded his thoughts from the creature. Most likely there was little he could hide from the bloody bird, but reticence had become an old and rather useful habit. The old speech by its very nature was revelatory, unsuited for half-truths and omissions, and Merlin was determined not to take any chances with his secrets.
The eagle's next words carried amusement, awe, and loyalty. They defied direct translation, carrying more meaning than ordinary speech ever could. A powerful king took shape in Merlin's thoughts, a ruler of sky and storm, thunderous in his rage and riotous in his merriment. Centuries stretched behind him like discarded leaves, and magic suffused whatever he touched. He was called upon by supplicants of a thousand kingdoms, though none knew his true name.
Merlin's eyes popped wide, and he twisted his torso to study the tiny shape of Arthur's horse as he galloped after them. He considered what spells he might be able to use without arousing suspicions, but Arthur was too close - no matter what narrative Merlin spun, it would be obvious that he had escaped by magic.
A few minutes later, the point became moot as the eagle approached the northern hills, climbing until it reached a small circle of stones atop a lonely perch. Merlin felt the slight shiver of magic that cloaked the crest of the hill, and it reminded him of the still lake where he'd laid Freya to rest. It was an in between place, its roots stretching across worlds. The bird's huge wings battered the air as it picked up speed, flying directly at the rough, lichen-covered rocks. Merlin knew they would only come out the other side of the threshold, but he still instinctively flinched when it appeared that the eagle would plow headlong into the ground.
They left the world Merlin knew, and it was like plunging into a frozen sea. There was a disorienting shift in the position of the earth below them as the eagle emerged parallel to the ground, sweeping over a long stone path. But it was the magic that made Merlin arch his back in an excruciating mix of pleasure and pain. The air was thick with power. He could feel it like a weight against his skin. It hummed, low and steady and deep as the earth itself. Every breath tasted of lightning, and a cold pit of terror settled in Merlin's stomach as he realized how difficult it would be to use his magic here.
Enormous wings brought him to the end of the path, where a carved dais supported a gigantic throne. On either side of the path, the earth fell away to unimaginable depths, over which storm-rent clouds swirled and clashed. Merlin staggered to his knees as his captor deposited him before the dais and winged around to alight on the back of the throne. Merlin looked up at the bearded giant seated comfortably on the intricately carved stone. The man showed his teeth in a predatory smile, and the shattering crack of thunder shook Merlin's ribs in his chest.
"Emrys Ambrosius. The Lord of Thunder welcomes you to Olympus."
* * *
The path was not difficult to find, but it was too narrow for his horse, so Arthur removed his baggage and picketed the animal. There was no sign of the eagle in the clear sky, but the king was sure he'd seen the beast descend here. He wasted no time in trudging up the steep slope, checking his position as frequently as the many turnings of the trail allowed. The crest of the hill, when he reached it, was not quite what he'd expected.
A ring of standing stones circled the slope like a thin crown over a bald head. It was a lonely summit, made more forlorn by the moaning howl of the wind that raked over it relentlessly. Arthur cast about for some sign of the great bird that had carried off his manservant: a cave or outcropping that might serve as the beast's lair. But there was nothing there except stones no bird could have crafted, and he began to worry that the creature had flown beyond these hills, away to the north where Arthur could not follow. He had just turned his gaze to the horizon, scanning for the shape of wings, when a querulous voice interrupted his musings.
“Well, young lion, what is it to be? Are you crossing or no?”
Arthur's hand reflexively snapped to his sword when he took note of the old woman whose presence he had somehow missed. She was dressed in simple, clean clothes of a style utterly unfamiliar to him. Her speech was also somewhat strange, comprehensible but oddly accented. She sat on one of the huge limestone blocks as though she had every right to be there, but he was sure that spot had been empty when he first stepped off the trail.
“Crossing?” He tried to invest the question with kingly dignity and indignation, but it came out sounding lost and childish.
“You wish to ascend the mountain, do you not?”
Arthur stared at her a moment, then looked across the wind-bitten moor that stretched as far as the eye could see. There were mountains beyond these foothills, but they made a dim figure on the horizon, low and snow-capped. “I came here in search of my...friend.”
“Periphas crossed a candlemark ago. No doubt you wish to follow, and retrieve what was stolen from you.”
Arthur frowned. “I'm looking for an eagle, larger than any natural beast. Its wings stretched twenty hands, at least.”
“The crossing is difficult. Only those whose blood carries the blessing of the old gods may survive it.”
Arthur resisted an urge to draw on the old woman. It was not behavior befitting a knight to threaten one so weakened and addled by age. But she was speaking nonsense and he needed to find Merlin.
“Can you not speak plainly, woman?”
“Perhaps, were I woman.” She shot him a knowing smile and his hand tightened on his sword hilt. “But plain words are more dangerous than lies, ever-king. The truth is always an unwelcome thing, one who speaks it even more so.”
Arthur stared at her with narrowed eyes, considering his options. They were crushingly few in number. And he had an uncomfortable feeling that this crone was more than she seemed. “And what truths would you tell?”
She rose with a grunt, bones cracking as she shuffled to the side of the standing stones. The constant wind seemed not to touch her, and though her gait was stiff, her step was sure, as though she knew every stone and blade of grass with perfect intimacy. “Step through. Your blood will carry you across the chasm. You do not believe? Then look!”
The last word crashed through the air, thrumming against his rib cage and pounding the hilltop with the weight of its meaning. Between the stones, he could suddenly see another hill beneath an alien, storm-ravaged sky. His heart sank at this confirmation of sorcery. Alone in a realm of magic, Arthur knew he would stand little chance of success.
But it was Merlin.
He stepped up to the strange doorway, turning to look back at the old woman. “Who are you? How do I know you're telling the truth?”
“I am the Watcher of Ways and the Guardian of Crossings. If I wished to bar your passage, I would bar it. I do not lead mortals astray.”
“What did you mean about my blood?” His head on the block, Morgause's dark amusement, his mother's face...he willed the images away. They were lies. They had to be. Merlin had said...
The truth is always an unwelcome thing.
“Fare thee well, Sword of Albion.” The woman's last words to him were accompanied by a surprisingly vigorous shove through the stone pillars. Arthur felt an incredible heat and pressure, as though he were being buried and burned alive at the same time. For what seemed like an eternity, he was neither one place nor the other, he could not breathe, and all he could see was the terrible light of the barrier between worlds.
Then the sensations faded and he was on the other side, standing on that other mountaintop as lightning crashed far above his head. He looked back the way he had come, and saw the woman, her features now smooth and young. She was wreathed in light. She winked at him once before fading away with the magic that had suffused the threshold.
Arthur took a deep breath and began walking down the wide path ahead.
* * *
Nothing in that strange other world stayed put from one moment to the next. The landscape was as changeable as the storms. Arthur passed an empty throne and reached the end of the path, but when he turned around, the dais was gone, replaced by a narrower path that wound its way through the most extensive gardens he had ever seen.
He wasn't sure if he traveled for minutes or years, the sky and even the gardens changing whenever his eye left them. One minute the sun was peeking through the storm clouds and the next it was raining without getting anything wet. The paths of the gardens wound around themselves, the hedges and trees changing places or growing from seedlings to ancient oaks before his eyes.
Eventually he reached a series of stone steps leading up to an enormous palace. The air seemed heavier here, more present and steady. He had a feeling that this building did not disappear and reappear like so much else in this place. It was enduring and imposing, the seat of some terrible power which now had Merlin in its grip.
“This is the daftest thing I have ever done,” he whispered as he stood at the foot of the ascent. Everything felt strangely dream-like, as though simply being in this place changed the rules. Up could be down and left could be backwards; nothing made sense, and yet it was all perfectly normal. It should have been confusing, but underneath the utter strangeness of it all was a crystal familiarity. He waited a breath to fully appreciate how suicidally mad he was, and to fortify himself with a vision of Merlin mucking the stables out with a spoon. Then he sheathed his sword and climbed the steps.
The sight that greeted him at the summit was truly dazzling. Huge pillars, carved with intricate bas-reliefs, ringed a great hall. It was open to the shuddering sky, but the clash of the storms was muted and none of their violence reached the plateau. An enormous table dominated the wide space. It was carved into the shape of a great oak, or perhaps it was an oak, because living branches erupted here and there from the smooth face of it, wide leaves bobbing in the slight breeze.
There were twelve guests seated at the table, each one more extraordinary than the last. Some wore lavish garments of the type favored by the old Empire, others were in full battle regalia or huntsman's clothes. Some seemed to wear nothing at all except a sorcerous light that played across their preternatural skin. Arthur thought he could feel a dim murmuring, like something just beneath the skin of this world, as though they conversed without speaking. They paid him no attention, looking to each other with brief glances that seemed to last forever and no time at all. Their food and drink shone like sunlight, but he could not have described it.
Dominating the massive banquet was a bearded giant of a man. It was hard to judge his height sitting down, but he had arms like tree trunks and a booming voice that would have broken glass had there been any present. As Arthur stepped forward into the room, he felt as he had during his seventh winter, when he'd snuck into a council meeting and faced the grim gazes of the kingdom's nobles, his father's expression the most terrifying of all. The eagle was not hard to find, perched on the back of the bearded giant's gigantic chair. It pruned itself lazily in between catching the leftover morsels that its master tossed toward its waiting beak.
And to the imposing lord's left, Arthur finally saw the figure he'd been hoping to see: Merlin, looking furious but otherwise unharmed. He was dressed in a simple tunic and sandals, like a slave of the old empire, and appeared occupied in keeping the cup of the colossal figure at the head of the table filled to the brim. A few moments passed before Merlin noticed his king standing there beyond the gathered figures. Arthur crossed his arms and enjoyed the comical drop of Merlin's jaw. The golden liquid he'd been pouring into his captor's goblet splashed over the oaken table, causing the giant to slam one ham-sized fist onto the sodden surface.
As one, the assembled guests steadied their goblets and continued their strange not-conversations. The enormous leader rounded on Merlin, who made a rude gesture and just stood there, unflinching before the creature's obvious strength. Before the confrontation could come to a head, Arthur drew his sword, letting the ringing slide of steel announce his presence. The diners looked up only casually before turning back to their meal, but the thunderous lord at the head of the table snapped his imposing gaze on Arthur like an eagle closing in on a mouse. The great bird at his shoulder beat the air with its formidable wings and resettled itself on its perch.
It was the flash of the raptor's wings that finally swept the shadows from Arthur's memory. He recalled the agonizing days he'd spent caged in the library, listening to Geoffrey drone on about the contents of his dusty books. He'd been grateful at the time that his father only required him to study the famous battles and campaigns of the ancients, but Geoffrey was more scholar than general. His lectures always circled back to the great poets and philosophers. Arthur remembered the thunder-hurling god the ancients had worshiped as Zeus. When the giant spoke, there was no doubting his identity.
“Iana! Quis catulum in meam domum sinisti?”
The words boomed out over the great hall, and the sky above thundered and shook. Eyes glanced upward, unnaturally graceful hands reaching casually for goblets and plates, but there was no sense of spectacle. The only guest who seemed remotely interested in the proceedings was a beautiful matron wearing a crown of leaves and fruit that would have looked ridiculous on a normal woman but somehow seemed full of sun and promise when she turned fathomless diamond eyes on Arthur and his fragile courage. He skipped his gaze over hers and focused on the figure at the head of the table.
"I am Arthur Pendragon, king of Camelot. Your...pet made off with one of my subjects."
Merlin looked as though he wanted to die in his boots - er, sandals - right then and there. His face turned red with something that might have been shame or anger and he began making furious gestures at his king. Had Arthur understood the words he was mouthing, he would have told him to shut up. If Merlin could be inexplicably carried off by a giant bird, Arthur could bloody well march into Olympus like he owned the place.
The great bearded figure looked from Arthur to Merlin and back, amusement lighting his features. "This one? He was never yours, little king. He makes a fitting servant for a god, perhaps. But in pressing him to your service, you have leashed lightning."
Arthur couldn't help himself. He threw back his head and laughed. "You know nothing if you think Merlin is anyone's servant. He wouldn't lick a boot if you coated it in nectar."
The giant grinned and drained his gilded goblet. “Wouldn't he now?” He held the vessel out, keeping his gaze locked on Arthur. Merlin, his eyes smoldering, refilled it. “I am the Thunderer, the Raging Wind, Father of Men and Chief of the Gods. I am the Giver of Signs and the Deliverer of Mercy, the Punisher of Murderers, the Sword of Justice-”
“Bellower of Hot Air,” Merlin muttered mutinously.
White teeth flashed behind chestnut whiskers as the god rumbled his amusement. “Even his jests are better than yours, son of mine.”
The comment was directed toward a plain-looking (compared to the others, at least) fellow in dusty travel clothes. The curly-haired youth looked completely ordinary except for the handsbreath of empty space between him and the couch on which he lounged. He threw Zeus a withering look before attending his own goblet.
Arthur frowned. “Merlin is coming with me.”
Zeus didn't move, but the clouds swirled and clashed overhead and Merlin's jaw clenched suddenly as though an invisible hand had wrapped itself possessively around his throat. A slow pressure built in the air, the will of the god slamming up against reality and reshaping it. Arthur thought he should have been afraid, but somehow he could never calculate the odds where Merlin was concerned. Instead of yielding, he leapt onto the banquet table, boots slamming aside stray oak branches as he advanced with his blade bare.
Limbs of various sizes, shapes and colors deftly plucked trenchers and goblets from his path as he drew up to the head of the table, head high and shoulders set. The god looked ready to rise from his seat and strike out in rage at Arthur's impertinence, but a golden-haired creature to his left struck a single chord on the golden lyre resting lazily in his hands. Zeus froze, eyes still locked on Arthur, but the storm-laden air settled slightly.
“Merlin is mine to protect. You took him from my lands unjustly. Release him, and I will raise no weapon against you.”
It was an preposterous threat, but somehow, in the hazy light of this strange place, it seemed fitting. And if Arthur were to fall, he wanted to have his sword in his hand and a worthy enemy before him. As enemies went, the king of the old empire's gods was pretty damn formidable. Though there was a part of him that wanted to laugh at the absurdity of fighting something out of a minstrel's tale.
As if to underscore Arthur's thought, a few more notes rang out from the lyre, hanging bell-like in the sorcerous air. Arthur tried to remember those long-ago and gratefully forgotten lessons. He seemed to recall tales of a patron of music, but the significance of this intervention escaped him. The silent god didn't seem to be paying any attention to the drama unfolding on the banquet table. He stroked the strings of his instrument, a knowing half-smile playing about his perfect features.
Despite this seeming disinterest, Zeus frowned thunderously at the music and Merlin's eyes widened. The storm's rage subsided to a distant rumble, and the bearded king of the gods actually smirked. It occurred to Arthur to inform him that smirking was not an expression befitting one of his station, but unfortunately he felt that snippy remarks were not befitting his. So, he gripped his blade and waited while trying to ignore the panicked look his manservant was throwing his way.
"Very well. Prove your courage and your strength, semper rex, and I will release your dragon in servant's clothing."
Before Arthur could question the god's curious wording, lightning cracked the worked stone of the plateau, shimmering and burning until a dark hole opened up to rough-hewn steps. "What is this?"
"Descend, little king. Upon your return to the land of the living, you will receive your reward."
Arthur thought of myths spun before the rise of empires. The old heroes always came back from the dead, but he'd spent too many years on the battlefield to credit those tales. They were invented by bored soldiers around campfires, or poets with more leisure than sense. Nothing came back from the dead except by the foulest sorcery. Were those screams he could hear ringing endlessly in the dark? He shuddered at the memory of the dorocha and the hungry chill that devoured the living. What the god asked of him was clearly impossible.
He looked at Merlin, because how could he not? It was for his servant's sake he had come, magic and devils be damned. When he saw the terror in his friend's eyes, he made his decision. He knew it was utterly mad, but ever since crossing the strange threshold on the hill of standing stones, he'd felt a curious lightness, as though nothing could touch him. When Merlin spoke, the words just washed over Arthur's determination.
"Don't be stupid, Arthur. Just get out of here. I can take care of myself."
"Silence," Zeus intoned, his invisible grip tightening on Merlin's throat once more. "He has learned to use this," the god raised his arm to reveal Arthur's sword inexplicably gripped in one huge fist, "now he must use his wits."
Arthur glanced to his now empty hand, and could not escape a sense of powerlessness at how easily these creatures of magic toyed with them. It made a familiar anger curl around his bones. It was what he'd always hated about magic: the way it dominated the weak with an arbitrary, unearned power. Sorcerers were always reshaping the world to their whims without a thought for who might be harmed in the process. He glared at the smug bastard and strode purposefully toward the hole. Arthur had slain dragons and defeated immortal armies; rescuing Merlin was just one more impossible thing.
Before he reached the dark descent, Arthur found his path intercepted by the deathless matron. Looking into her eyes was like staring into the sun, so he averted his gaze, but his fists were clenched in mingled awe and frustration. He wanted to demand that she let him pass, but something stopped him. She was so...bright. Warm in a way that nothing in this place was. Her hair was the color of havest-heavy wheat, and she made no domineering demands of him. Her touch was gentle as she lifted his hand in her own. She pressed something into his grasp and made her request without speaking, yet somehow he understood.
My daughter stays overlong in the house of Aides. Remind her of her mother.
Arthur didn't respond, but the goddess didn't seem to require his acknowledgment. She drifted from his side like the first breath of spring touching the fields. He blinked and looked at the rose she'd pressed into his hand, its perfect petals furled protectively around its core. Then he stepped forward. For a moment, he thought he heard Merlin's voice, but it was drowned by the rush of wind and water and the ceaseless mourning of the lamenting dead.
* * *
Merlin tried not to panic when Arthur disappeared beneath the stones of the mountain. He could feel the hungry cold death that waited for his king, and he felt the familiar impotent fear that had gripped him when that ravenous nothing last swept the kingdom. The weight of Zeus's will was pressing down on him like a great weight. The air was soupy with it, and Merlin had not planned on meeting that strength head-on. He'd hoped to slip away when the god's attention was elsewhere, encouraged by the lack of concern the other Olympians seemed to have for enforcing his captivity.
But Arthur needed him.
Merlin gathered his power in a swift rush despite the firm grip of Zeus' own magic. He had not tried to touch that golden fire since crossing the threshold between worlds, and it took less than a heartbeat for him to realize why everything seemed so different here. Merlin had never called to powers greater than himself. He had always felt in tune with the pulse of earth beneath and the sky above, but he had never lifted his heart in supplication. Magic came from within and was not so much pulled forth as unchained. It had taken him months of conversations with Gaius before he realized that other sorcerers reached outside themselves for the power that they used, calling on the natural forces that some revered as gods in their own right. Merlin had always believed the old gods to be abstractions, human personalities bestowed by magic users trying to make sense of their own power.
In Olympus he felt for the first time a power like his own: connected to the earth but separate from it, directed with intelligence and purpose. There was nothing here that existed apart from the mind that conceived it. And yet it all spiraled back to the world he had left, dependent on that wide sky for the fathomless roots of its own existence. Merlin let his magic slam into place before him, turning Zeus' power aside until it flowed to either side like water around a stone. All of his strength went into the spell and the protection shuddered dangerously. He felt the god's rage ignite, but his vision was too filled with darkness for it to register. He sprinted across the plateau and dove down the chthonic steps after Arthur, leaving the swirling tempests of the mountain behind.
The distance he traveled was much greater than the steps it took him to cross it. He knew the cold of this place, the perfect despair of the hungry dead, and he knew his magic was useless against it. Death claimed all things, in the end. He fell for what seemed like a lifetime, and then the waters engulfed him, screaming and whispering and winding around all the secret places of his heart to bind them in fire and ice. He forgot why he'd come and where he was, or that anything existed except the endless silence of the burning river. He was nothing and no one. The darkness stretched eternally.
* * *
Turbulence. A pale hand stretching for his. It has not occurred to him to breathe, but suddenly his lungs are burning and he's gulping the icy waters before he can stop himself. He doesn't remember why he's fighting for air or why it seems so important to quench the fire in his chest. He only knows that there are persistent fingers digging into his arm and a golden light drawing him upwards. The light is his and he belongs to it, so he lets it lead him out of the dark forgetfulness.
He's on his knees, surrounded by ashes and dust, his torso heaving with great wracking coughs. He's Merlin, he remembers that now. This strange landscape of washed-out greys is the underworld. The light beside him is...
“Really, Merlin. You couldn't just stay put like a proper damsel?”
It's like opening his eyes for the first time as he remembers his king, and a numbing terror rattles his thoughts when he recognizes the emptiness that Arthur is now filling. Somehow, forgetting Arthur seems worse than forgetting his own name. He lets Arthur pull him to his feet and steady him. He's leaning heavily on him and doesn't care because he's so unutterably cold, his magic little more than a dim spark deep within his chest. The rest of him is thin and shadowy without it, the faint glow guttering in the face of the infinite darkness. Arthur is burning like a vengeful spirit, battle-hot and star-bright. There is a veil before his sight, the tattered lines of the riverbank wavering and fading like grains of sand in a strong wind. He closes his eyes and grips Arthur tight, borrowing that heat and life.
Uncomfortable shifting. "Where?"
He doesn't need to open his eyes. He can sense the endless circles of the place stretching away in every direction. There is no path to follow, no orientation that would mean anything. But the shuttered flame of his magic bends his mind somehow and he guides Arthur forward one stumbling step at a time.
He's not sure how long they stagger through the fathomless grey. Arthur speaks to him sometimes, but he rarely catches what he's saying. The screams of the dead echo in his ears and he trembles in the fierce grip that Arthur maintains on his arm. He decides their path, but he's not sure what he's asking Arthur to travel through. He begins to worry that his magic won't survive the journey, and he's baffled that Arthur seems unfazed by the burning, trackless nothing.
Eventually they reach...something. Not a destination exactly, but the ceaseless movement stops, and Merlin doesn't panic. He opens his eyes, looking to Arthur first and then slowly letting the rest of his surroundings in. His king is regarding him with concern, and he wants to say something comforting, but instead he casts his gaze around the umbral grasses framing a small stream that is as clear as that first river was dark. There's a girl - more than a girl - standing there, a shimmer of spring in eternal winter, bare feet like white stones in the ash.
Something passes from Arthur to her, and then she's leading them through the swirling spirits and back into the water. It's a frigid, burning river and Merlin thinks he's coming apart, his magic dissipating like so much smoke. But Arthur's grip is iron, and Merlin follows his king back to the land of the living.
* * *
Arthur emerged dripping and sputtering, Merlin like a drowned rat beside him. His fingers were digging into his servant's arm so fiercely that the muscles were cramping up, and he released them hastily. He tried to rise from his knees, certain that they were not out of danger yet, but the water felt like lead, sluicing from his body in lazy tendrils. His palms pressed into the wide flagstones as though they were growing roots and for several moments all he could do was stare at them while he heaved and shuddered.
They were back on the plateau, but the banquet table had receded, the divine retinue nowhere in sight. Black clouds surrounded the peak, exploding with great thunderous blasts that felt like cavalry charges. Zeus was a towering shadow before them, anger flashing like lightning in his eyes. Arthur had a heartbeat to consider the irony of being slain after traversing the underworld (if that was what it was) before all the fury of the ancient god was hurtling toward them and Arthur could do nothing except watch it come.
But the god's strike dissipated uselessly before it reached them. Arthur felt a heat at his side and turned to find Merlin rising beside him, water steaming to vapor on his skin. There was a golden light in his eyes that grew until it was almost painful to look at. The storm-filled skies shook with power, and Arthur wasn't sure whose magic was lighting those sorcerous flames. The king staggered to his feet, but his jaw dropped as he watched Merlin match the power of the chief of the old gods.
* * *
It was disturbingly simple, once he understood. He'd felt that taste of lightning pressing against his own power when he first arrived, and it had been so much greater than his own that he'd despaired of overcoming it. Now he realized that the will he felt shaping this place was no foreign magic but the humming power of his own world given concentrated life.
When Arthur had pulled him from the waters between worlds, he hadn't been able to help himself. The starving spark of his power had created an emptiness within him that Olympus rushed to fill. Instead of fighting it, he drank it in. The magic that had almost flattened him when he opposed it now came vigorously to his call.
There had been times when Merlin's own power had made him uneasy, but this was terrifying. He was used to drawing on his own strength; there was normally quite enough of it to accomplish his aims. The force that filled him now was the fire of the sun and the strength of the earth, an endless torrent that felt like it washed through him forever. It could not be controlled so much as directed, and he struggled to guide its path.
The rage of the thunder god turned to surprise and then fear as Merlin turned his own power against him. The sky was rent with light and wrath, the wind howling louder than the screams of the raging dead. Zeus staggered before the onslaught and finally fled his own realm, crying out in frustration as he retreated to the mortal world. Underneath the storm of magic, Merlin felt more than heard the notes of the golden lyre, winding through the air as though to mark events.
Apollo, Merlin thought. The giver of prophecy. He could almost make out words in the music, and it checked his single-minded pursuit of the Thunderer. It was then that the realization of what he'd done came crashing down. He whirled on Arthur, and his heart broke when his pale-faced king took a wary step back, eying Merlin as though he'd never seen him before. A fatalistic calm settled over his thoughts, and he wondered if the magic he'd drawn inside himself had driven away his sanity. Numbly, he reached for Arthur and began dividing the skin of the world until they could pass out of Olympus and back into the sunlight. He could do that, at least, before Arthur sent him from his side.
* * *
They arrived at the circle of stones to find a woman waiting for them. Arthur recognized the eyes and voice of the ancient self-professed gatekeeper he'd encountered before, and he thought he must be going mad because he didn't even blink at her inexplicable youth.
“You have crossed many boundaries this day, young lion. And now you approach a final turning. Which path will you choose, I wonder?”
Arthur frowned, still regaining his bearings. Had it only been a day? It had felt like years. Or had it felt like no time at all? Everything that had happened was clear in his memory, but it felt more like a vivid dream than reality. There was familiar solid ground beneath his feet, but even the sun-drenched moor seemed distant, as though he was just slightly out of step with the world around him. The remnant bite of winter was gone from the constant wind, and it seemed warmer than he remembered.
A faint exhalation drew his attention to Merlin and he started violently. His servant was sprawled on the ground, senseless but shivering. Arthur knelt immediately to cradle Merlin's head and cast about for a sheltered resting place.
“He is unharmed.” The woman – or sorceress, or whatever she was – spoke with serene conviction. “Your mother's gift protected him.”
Arthur's heart pounded as he snapped his head up to stare at her. He wanted to scream and run away and demand an explanation all at once. She continued as though reading his mind. “Demeter is Mother of All, child. Her blessing runs in your veins. He will sleep for a time, but he will recover.”
Before he could respond, she slipped away, winding apart in the wind like the ribbon dolls children make for summer festivals. Arthur blinked, trying to make sense of what he'd seen and heard. He failed utterly. Merlin gave another shivering gasp and Arthur shoved all the ominous implications away to be dealt with later.
The king of Camelot gathered his servant in his arms and deposited him gently in the lee of the central stone where the wind was less and the sun shone more directly. He removed most of his armor so that he could ball up one of his shirts for a pillow. His cloak he draped over Merlin like a blanket, and then he settled in to wait.
The sun was not far from setting when Merlin opened his eyes. Arthur let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding when he saw that they were blue, not gold. They cast around confusedly for a moment before lighting on Arthur, and then they filled with despair. Up to that moment, he had not thought about what he would do and now a choice yawned before him. He thought of secrets and betrayals and impossible odds. Fear and hurt twisted in his heart, but in the end they did not rule it.
“Merlin. The next time you're attacked by a great bloody eagle, have the sense to blast it from the sky instead of squirming like a rabbit in a snare. If I have to keep jumping into magical rivers to rescue you, my armor will rust away to nothing.”
He looked away as he said it, but he could feel the way Merlin's eyes filled. The horrible tension ebbed away, replaced with a fragile hope. Merlin's whispered response carried not a trace of irony.