cyus: (Merlin)
[personal profile] cyus
Title: Threadbare
Characters: Merlin, Arthur
Rating: R
Length: 3100
Warning: Character Death
Summary: Magic had always been the one thing left to fight and defeat, the one thing Arthur had always feared the most would defeat him when swords and strength got him no further. Magic had always been the unknown, always, and then it wasn't.
Notes: Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] paragraphs and [livejournal.com profile] eurydice72 for beta.


The wind picked up again and dragged fog and drizzle over the shattered lands, carrying cries and the sounds of swords from the distance until they seemed to explode right over Arthur's head into the clang-clang of war and fight and goddamn victory.

"Hold the line!" someone bellowed clear across the field.

Arthur rolled to his side, couldn't remember falling, and got up on one knee, the tip of his sword a hand's width in the muddy ground as he pushed himself up. His shoulder and left side ached, a dull throbbing that slanted into sharp pain when he took a deep breath. The field before him burned with fires and screams, smaller scuffles at every corner but the shapes blurred before his eyes and made it near impossible to distinguish the red capes and silver mail of his own men from the black of those of the others.

He stood heaving, struggled for fresh breath amidst the stink and the fog. His knees shook until he forced his heels into the squelchy ground and pulled his sword from it, forced it to shoulder height.

"Sire!" Leon stood by his shoulder a moment later, out of breath, hair matted dark to his head, crusted with blood and mud but a hard, half-manic grin on his face. They all lived for war. "We're sure to be winning, sire! We're pushing them back from all sides."

"Good," Arthur brought out, with his tongue too thick and his lips thirsty for a bit of water.

Leon gave a sharp nod and threw himself at the enemy again. He shouted a battle cry before his sword clanged against his opponent's. Their shapes disappeared in the thick, soupy fog.

Arthur shook his head, trying to clear it from the haze and ventured forward, sword held at the ready. Only a few steps in and someone charged at him, axe held over his head. Arthur parried the first blow, badly, felt the sharp blade scrape across his chainmail as he twisted out of the way.

The soldier's eyes were opened wide, icy blue and blind, as he swung his axe at Arthur's again. His face was motionless, no twitch, no breath that puffed into cold air past his lips. Arthur ducked and turned in a circle again, aiming his sword at the soldier's side, but the man didn't even parry, only advanced with jerking limbs.

"What are you?" Arthur hissed. His side screamed in red hot pain as he twisted around it, brought his sword down on the soldier's shoulder but he merely managed to glance off his armour.

The man didn't seem to hear him, nor see him, nor did he seem to be alive at all. His skin was ashen, his movements puppet-like. Arthur stumbled back, then forward again, unable to tear his attention from the man's face as he tried to make sense of his waxen skin and those eyes that looked right through him.

Arthur charged and plunged his sword into the man's neck when he stood unprotected, pale skin uncovered by any mail. Blood spurted from the wound when Arthur pulled his sword back and the man collapsed, knees giving way, but his eyes -- even as he looked up at Arthur from the ground, surely dead -- they never changed from the glaring blue. Arthur crouched next to the body, looking for an explanation for this strange event other than the one nagging at the back of his mind: the way the valley had seemed too quiet and the victory too sure, the way the village had been abandoned even before their arrival, and the icy blue eyes of every single soldier he'd slain.

Before he could grasp the thought, another man charged at him, sword drawn, and Arthur fell back as he brought his own sword up, his arm jarred hard when the man's full weight came down of it. His assailant overbalanced and toppled on top of Arthur. Arthur's sword got lost in the melee while his attacker's sword rose above his head. Arthur tried to roll to the side to avoid the blow, brought up his hands uselessly, one of his gloves slipping off his wrist, and closed his eyes to the roar of the blood in his ears.

Teeth gritted, he waited for the sword to slice through his arms but then: nothing, then: the heavy weight of his attacker as he landed on Arthur, blood spraying from the wound in his chest. At his feet Percival stood with his sword still out to defend, the rest of his knights in a half circle around them.

"Can't leave you alone for two ticks," Gwaine said, flicking his hair back, clumpy as it was with the grime of war.

"I don't see you out slaying anyone," Arthur replied as he grasped Percival's hand to let himself be hauled up again.

Gwaine grinned back at him. The rest of them looked on, all of them at various states of fatigue and injury, nicks and cuts to their face and neck, beaten brows and heavy breathing. Elyan curled his arm around his middle and Gwaine favoured his left leg but they stood tall even if their smiles stretched tight and their eyes worried.

"They've changed, Sire," Elyan said eventually, breaking the moment of calm. Immediately the fog pulled in tighter around them, cutting them off from the rest of the battlefield.

"Their eyes... I noticed." Arthur picked his sword off the ground, then used it to turn over one of the bodies. The dead eyes stared up at the sky.

"They're..." Leon started.

"Magic." Arthur straightened up, looked at his men one by one, trying to ignore the cold sweat underneath his chainmail, the frosty shiver in the air.

"I'm sure they were human at first," Percival said.

Arthur nodded. "They may well have been." He peered out into the fog, tried to tell where they stood in the relation to the others and the main of the battle, but the sounds ricocheted off the walls of fog, the sun too low to penetrate past the dull grey.

He forced himself not to look down again, for fear that if he did, maybe he'd find the man getting up and walking again, led by strange magic.

A cry pierced the air, then another, and they all drew their swords as one and turned outwards and listened into the dense white of the world around them.

"Keep sight of each other," Arthur hissed as another cry followed, cutting to the bone.

They moved as a tight circle, swords pointed outwards. The wet ground made their footing uneasy, the sounds and lack of sight made them all swivel and jump at nothing, a bird or a faraway shout.

"Engage!" Leon suddenly shouted and he pulled his sword up but was forced backward before the rest of them had even turned their heads. A moment later, Percival parried a blow on the other side of their small defense. The faces of the attackers looked back at them ashen and waxy, the eyes wide open and too blue to be natural, glowing like eternal ice.

Magic, swam through Arthur's mind. The idea blocked out all rational thought, any thought at all, until he had to bring up his sword to defend himself. He caught a blow to his shoulder, another to his side when he didn't duck away fast enough. A cry sounded from the left of him and from the corner of his eyes, he saw Percival crumble, land face-down in the mud and not get up again. Every twist of his body, Arthur prayed he'd see Percival kneeling, even moving, then the icy glare of the soldier cut across and he brought his sword down and drove it through Percival's body. Percival jerked once more, then fell still.

The roar of blood and rage took over Arthur's body, made him forget the wounds and the wounded as he went to attack. The farther they progressed, the higher the number of puppet soldiers climbed inside the fog, fearless and lacking all life, their steps mechanical, their swords brutal as they cut and slashed at them. They pressed in tighter and higher, relentless in their attack.

Arthur stepped over Percival's body, fighting down bile, and forced himself to look ahead, even when the cry of pain and gurgling sounded from his right. He didn't dare look when the sound of their swords dimmed to only three, then two. Around them, past their own pocket in the fog, the sounds slipped away, fewer knocks of swords on armour and swords on swords, fewer shouts, until they died entirely, save for two. Arthur had to step backwards, retreat as he fought off two of the puppets at the same time, until his shoulders knocked into another's.

"Who?" Arthur asked, breath catching.

"Sire," Leon grunted, then his head knocked against Arthur's, and Arthur felt the movement of air on his skin where the sword cut through the fog, the clang of swords meeting lonely in the cold white. "This isn't the work of men, Sire."

Arthur laughed, desperate now with the thrum of nothing here sitting quite right, their sure victory from the first descent of the mountain turned into his men dead at his feet.

"An honour, Sire, it'll have been an honour to-" Leon said, then sacked to the ground behind Arthur, sword clattering to the ground. Blood gurgled from his throat and open mouth, eyes wild and searching for Arthur's, scared, and Arthur would have given everything to kneel down, but the puppet he'd engaged pushed him back farther, harder, and he parried the blows but couldn't mount an attack himself.

The sound of his sword was the only sound on the field at all. And then, the puppets dropped, and the world went quiet.

Arthur stood, sword at shoulder height and fighting for breath, fighting for life, as he waited for the fatal blow from one of the army of once-men around him, turning this way and then that, but they'd all dropped to their knees, heads lolling, some of them on the ground, while he stood amidst the corpses of his men, the mud doused in red of blood and capes.

"Show yourself!" Arthur shouted, voice cracking on the words. "Show yourself or I'll declare you a coward!"

The laughter, sullen and sulky, cut through the fog and it parted, revealing shapes of figures, then colours, then faces. Morgana stood next to the druid boy cum man. Arthur gripped the hilt of his sword tighter, fought instinct that made him want to charge at them when the air changed around him, crackling with power for lack of a better word.

The boy smiled, glee as he took in the destruction at Arthur's feet.

"You've had peace," Arthur shouted, addressing his cold eyes. "You've had peace for years. I've made sure of it, I've..." he gestured at the bodies of the men he'd loved. "You've had everything, why this, why..." His voice gave out at the sight of their dead, open eyes, the blood, their lives he'd sworn to protect always gone.

"Arthur."

Arthur twisted around. "Merlin! Go! Run. For god's sake, run, Merlin!"

Merlin stood at Percival's feet, eyes tracking across the fallen on the battlefield, swords sticking out of chest and rivers of blood between them. And then he stepped forward, feet finding ground to step on between arms and torsos, hands and heads, until he stood in front of Arthur.

"For god's sake, run," Arthur repeated, pushing at Merlin's shoulder, calculating the chances they'd let his fool servant leave and spare his life. "He means nothing," Arthur said as he turned to the two of them, their quiet power making him feel the squashed insect uselessly flying at the glass window, sword blood-stained at his side and utterly useless. "He's just-"

"-Emrys," the boy said, the words penetrating through the air with his lips barely moving.

"They- I-" Merlin's hand squeezed his shoulder, lines around his eyes and lips tight, age dragging the skin bristle over his cheekbones. "They want me, Arthur. You've..." His eyes dulled. "I'm so sorry."

Merlin stepped around Arthur and stood in front of him, neckerchief fluttering in the breeze, sleeves too long as they hung around his palms.

"Spare him," Merlin said. "It's me you want."

The words echoed in Arthur's head, like he could make sense of them if he just tried hard enough. Instead he clenched his fingers around his sword and looked on, the roar in his skull deafening, the rush of blood and the onslaught of shifting pieces of knowledge as they fit themselves to one whole.

"I should spare him like he spared me?" Morgana asked, mocking. "As if he didn't try to hunt me down like game." She stepped forward but Merlin shifted in front of Arthur like the fool stood any chance in protecting Arthur from the witch's magic.

"Merlin," Arthur said, grasping his shoulder to pull him backwards, sword ready, when Morgana was whispering something because as long as one of his men stood tall he had to stand taller to protect them with his life. Morgana's eyes glowed, the sword in Arthur's arm shook. He gritted his teeth, readied himself for the impact, but Merlin shook him off and pushed him away, and the moment Arthur felt the air vibrate with power, racing towards them, Merlin threw up his hand, shouting, and the power dissipated with a crack that dragged utmost quiet after it.

Arthur stumbled back. Merlin looked over his shoulder, eyes wide and sad and so fucking knowing as all the pieces slotted into place, but when he opened his mouth, Morgana was whispering another spell, and Merlin did something to repel that and the next and the next. Arthur heard the words between the roar of the power between them, the strange language and the way it transformed Merlin into someone Arthur had never seen before. Arms outstretched, fingers curled to claws, he looked like someone else entirely, all familiarity stolen in an instant.

"You never knew," the boy said. Even though he stood halfway across the field, behind Morgana even, Arthur could hear him clearly. "He's been in Camelot throughout your reign, magic in your kingdom when you rode out to slay it in every last village and town, proclaimed it the height of evil and the persecution of all who practiced or harboured a practitioner of the old ways."

"It's evil," Arthur whispered. The ache in his side roared up again, and he couldn't look at Merlin like this, not when every moment, every motion, every twitch of Merlin's body thrust another occurrence into Arthur's gut that he'd ignored and locked away, another time, another strangeness, another secret he'd let Merlin have because Merlin without secrets was like any other servant who'd never learned to keep his gob shut.

"You made him this way," the boy said. "Look at him, that anger and that rage, look how he glows with it. You turned him into this, under your guidance, and tutelage, you turned him against his own people. We are his own people."

Arthur's brain froze on the thought and the image of another night that Merlin bid him goodbye after another silence and another victory over another corner of pure evil in the kingdom. Then, before he knew what he was doing, he had his sword at the ready and charged at the boy. Anything now, to make him shut his mouth.

"You've made him your pet," Mordred said, dodging Arthur's charge with ease. "You've made him a traitor to his own kind."

Arthur twisted this way and that, but the boy escaped every thrust, every turn until his hands, stronger than they should be, his body faster than it should be, until he- until magic grasped Arthur and turned him around, forced him to his knees. The boy pressed to his back, his arm around Arthur's neck, pressing his chin up to make him watch Merlin.

Merlin's eyes were golden, glowing unnatural as his lips moved and crackled power into the air. Everything Arthur feared, everything Arthur had believed for decades, burned with every whisper of every spell as it flew into the air between them.

"You may have turned him a traitor to his own kind," the boy whispered, his lips on Arthur's ear, holding him, choking him until Arthur was gasping for breath. "But you never changed him, Arthur Pendragon. You could eradicate magic from your whole kingdom, but you could never drain it from right under your eyes." The boy tightened his hold, tighter and harder and Arthur struggled, saw Merlin, distracted, watching then the unnatural rage that made his features so unlike any human's. "He was always ours, and he was never yours," the boy said and twisted Arthur's neck to make him look up until the bones creaked and hurt.

Arthur, fingers clenched on the hilt of his sword, used the last burning strength to bring the sword up and into the boy's body behind him. He felt it go through skin and muscles and insides like butter, cutting right through until it pierced the boy's heart. The boy's hold didn't loosen though, grew tighter if anything, cold and icy blue like his eyes, making him just another puppet, but his mouth was shut, the gurgle of blood even in Arthur's head, as the arm pressed in on his throat, tighter, cracking, stealing his air as things inside Arthur just gave way and broke.

A blast sent them both backwards, and Merlin knelt over him a moment later. Arthur couldn't see Morgana, could only see Merlin's face, his fool servant's face, right above his own.

"I can save you. I can save you, Arthur," Merlin said, babbling, as Arthur fought to draw in breath, his throat rattling. "A few spells. I'm good at these spells, Arthur, I'm good at a lot of things. I never- I could never- but I can do it now. It will just take a few spells and-"

Arthur caught Merlin's wrist as his fingers skirted along Arthur's throat, tingling already. He squeezed as hard as he could, trying to get Merlin to look at him, look him in his eyes, just so he could find something familiar in that face. Merlin's eyes were glowing golden, the lines in his face stark, his hands frantic as he was whispering about spells and magic.

Merlin was crying above him, sobbing, and Arthur's heart ached for the years he'd seen someone else in this face before this moment had stolen it away.

"No magic," Arthur tried to whisper, moving his lips, thinking it with his thoughts just in case Merlin's unnatural instincts could pick words out of his mind. "No magic." He drew one breath, another but the air didn't seem to flow down his throat anymore. He tightened his fingers on Merlin's wrist, trying to see him one last time like he'd seen him for years, but his eyes remained golden, so very golden, until it all went dark.
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cyus

November 2012

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