Chilly Confrontations by Emachinescat
A Merlin Fan-Fiction
SUMMARY: Sequel to Frozen Revelations. After a near-death experience in a frozen river, Merlin's secret, unbeknownst to him, is revealed to the king, queen, and a small band of knights. Arthur finds himself facing off against himself and one of his own knights as he struggles to come to terms with Merlin's magic - and accidentally makes things much worse for the warlock in the process.
A/N: Hello! I know I said that it would be within the month that I put this sequel up, but I have been sick for nearly two months now with severe stomach pain, and despite having gone to my doctor, a specialist, and even the ER, no one can seem to figure out what's going on. I am still not well, and still don't know what this illness is, but I'm determined to work past it and start writing again. It may be slow going, but I'll get there.
So this is a sequel to my story called "Frozen Revelations." You should really read that one before you read this one, because this takes place directly after the events in that story. There will be one more story after this to conclude this story arc. Thank you to everyone who read, reviewed, liked, and favorited "Frozen Revelations." Without further ado, I present the second part in this trilogy – enjoy, and please review!
Arthur couldn't sleep.
He could hear the soft sighs of restless slumber from his wife beside him, and he absentmindedly played with one of her disheveled curls as she shuffled around uncomfortably on the hard stone floor. From the other side of the cavern, he heard the familiar, almost comforting, cacophony of knights snoring loudly. The tinny, nasally snorts were Elyan's; it must have been hereditary, because Guinevere often made similar noises when she was sleeping soundly, unlike now. The giant, bearlike bellows did not, surprisingly, come from Percival, who was, to put it plainly, a bear of a man. No, those deafening snores came from the substantially smaller and less intimidating Sir Leon. Percival himself was generally a rather quiet sleeper, as Arthur had found on many patrols, and merely let out an occasional, deep-throated snort that punctuated the comically harmonious snoring of his fellows.
Normally on patrols, when Arthur was on watch, another hearty, heavy rumbling accompanied the other knights', creating a steady vibrato behind the unlikely chorus. But Sir Gwaine, it seemed, was not able to sleep, either, and so instead sat across from Arthur, on the far side of the cave, his head propped against the damp stone. He was still, but he wasn't sleeping. Arthur could feel the knight's eyes on him even now, and didn't miss, even in the flickering firelight that barely extended its crackling fingers to penetrate the shadows that lurked around the cave walls, that Gwaine's hand was resting on his sword hilt.
No, if he were honest with himself, Arthur knew full well that it wasn't that Gwaine couldn't sleep – gods knew that the man could sleep through anything, earthquakes and hailstorms and apocalypses included. Gwaine instead refused to sleep, and had spent the last two hours shifting his hawk-like gaze from Arthur to the reason they were all camped out in this bloody cave in the first place.
Merlin lay, bundled in layers of cloaks, as close as possible to the blazing fire.
Merlin, Arthur's manservant, Arthur's friend, who had, just hours prior, sent out a burst of pure, unadulterated magical power from the depths of his being after a harrowing near-drowning in an ice-sheathed river.
Merlin, who had been fully immersed, trapped under the ice, for nearly five full minutes before Arthur had been able to pull him out.
Merlin, who hadn't been shivering, hadn't been breathing, after he was extricated from the icy maw.
Merlin, whom Arthur should have left to the elements when the magic surged with that first precious gasp for air after Arthur revived him – whom Arthur had instead bundled up and carried like a newborn babe to the nearest cave, who had been much too cold and much too still, and whom Arthur and the knights had stripped of his stiff, iced-over clothing and dried off with their cloaks and had wrapped up and warmed with their own body heat until the shivers started again and he'd fallen into a restless but more natural slumber.
Merlin, on whose frozen body Arthur had seen, standing in stark contrast to his translucent skin, a magnitude of scars – a bubbled burn, a shiny red puncture wound, pale impressions of chains that seemed to have been seared into his skin, nicks and bruises and cuts of all varieties.
Merlin, whom Arthur realized he had never really known, who had magic and had lied for years, but whose pain and evidence of past abuse still summoned a fierce, protective, righteous anger from somewhere deep within the king – Arthur should have been wanting to kill Merlin for his crimes and treachery, but instead, he wanted to kill whoever had hurt his servant like this.
He wasn't the only one. Upon seeing Merlin's bared torso, Gwaine had growled like an animal and let out a string of curses that Arthur would have never thought to put together.
Guinevere, who had had her back to her husband and knights who were undressing the frozen servant, the sorcerer, in an attempt to keep at least some of her best friend's dignity intact, had nearly spun around, panic in her voice as she demanded, "What is it, Arthur?"
"It's nothing," Arthur had soothed, unable to take his eyes off of the angry, charred skin in the center of Merlin's chest.
He'd felt Gwaine's glare burning into the top of his head as he crouched over Merlin, but the knight had said nothing as together, the four men finished undressing and wrapping the servant and then huddled around him, warming him with their own bodies next to the chattering fire until the deadly stillness gave way to wracking shakes and then sleep.
Only after Merlin was out of immediate danger did Arthur order, "Get some rest. I'll take first watch."
It had taken much longer than it usually did in these situations, but eventually all but Arthur and Gwaine were asleep.
"Gwaine," Arthur had said tiredly, scrubbing a hand over his weary face and trying very hard not to look at Merlin, lying so pale and sickly next to him, "Go to sleep."
"Not tired," Gwaine had said shortly, and he had been sitting there, watching Arthur in oppressive silence ever since.
Arthur had let it drop, but he knew the reason why Gwaine wouldn't sleep, and it burned him that the knight didn't think he could trust Arthur with Merlin anymore. Because Arthur was king of Camelot, and Camelot executed sorcerers, and Merlin was a sorcerer, so it only stood to reason that it was only a matter of time before Arthur took matters into his own hands and killed Merlin.
And as indignant as Arthur felt at the obvious mistrust, he was almost relieved that Gwaine was there, watching over them both – Arthur in suspicion, Merlin in great concern. Because Arthur, however justified his anger and betrayal might be, didn't want anything to do anything he might later regret, and despite the revulsion that crept up his throat in the form of bile at the thought of doing anything to harm his manservant, even now, wasn't sure he could trust himself anymore.
Merlin sure as hell hadn't trusted him.
And that, Arthur realized, as he steadfastly ignored both Merlin and Gwaine, was what cut him deeper than the magic and made the betrayal all too potent.
Merlin couldn't wake up.
He was stuck in a limbo of nightmares, a purgatory between life and death, wakefulness and dreaming. It was a place where the cold was so cold it burned and the burning was like fiery tendrils of ice cutting through his skin and infecting his veins with its curdling sting.
Strange scenes and feelings flitted through his feverish mind. He saw a castle, a town, a forest: They were achingly familiar settings, but everything was bathed in white. It was like a fairy story, only fairies weren't actually all that the stories made them out to be; they were quite selfish and manipulative and blue… Blue like the sky that contrasted so brightly against the bleached landscape that inhabited his dreams. Merlin remembered the first time he'd met fairies – they'd tried to drown Arthur in a lake in some terrible sacrificial ceremony, and Merlin had saved him. Merlin had plunged right down into the cold lake water and had dragged the waterlogged prince to the surface. He remembered shivering uncontrollably, so cold, as he and an unconscious Arthur lay on the shore.
Merlin felt like that now, only it was much, much worse than he remembered. He was so cold that he couldn't move, couldn't think, couldn't wake. He was drowning like Arthur had been, but in waters so much colder and so much darker, and no one was diving in to save him from the darkness. He thought with a detached kind of bitterness that destiny was a fickle thing. It always had a solution for Arthur's pain, Arthur's danger, and that solution was Merlin. But Merlin himself had suffered so much in silence, had hurt so deeply without anyone to rescue him from the darkness… Gaius had tried, but what Merlin needed was what destiny required him to give and give, but never sent back his way.
Merlin was always saving Arthur, but who was going to save Merlin?
"Gwaine," Arthur said, as calmly as he could manage. "I know what you're thinking."
The right corner of the knight's mouth lifted in a humorless smirk. "Oh, really, princess? This should be good."
"And you're wrong," Arthur pressed on, ignoring the disbelieving scoff from across the cave and the doubt in his own heart. "Would I have bundled Merlin up, carried him all the way here, made sure he stayed warm, if I was going to kill him?"
"I don't know, Arthur, would you? Do you even know yourself?"
Arthur drew himself up where he sat in indignation, or perhaps indignant denial. "Do I even – Gwaine, for the gods' sake; I know my own damn mind!" he hissed. "I am in complete control of my emotions, and I know what I am doing!"
"Oh, yeah, really in control of your emotions there, princess," Gwaine drawled as Arthur fumed, probably letting off enough steam in his anger to defrost Merlin completely.
"You are deliberately provoking me," Arthur realized as Gwaine lazily leaned his head against the cave wall, eyes still trained on his king and hand still clutching his sword. "You're trying to make me doubt myself."
"Honestly, Arthur," Gwaine huffed, sitting forward so abruptly that he accidentally dislodged Elyan, who had flopped over, drooling onto Gwaine's shoulder. There was a tense silence as king and knight waited for the bleary, snuffling Elyan to settle down back into the cadence of sleep, his snores gradually rejoining the chorus. Neither man knew quite why they waited to continue their hushed, heated conversation, but something about this situation was very obviously between Gwaine and Arthur. "I'm not trying to make you doubt yourself, I'm trying to make you tell the bloody truth!"
"The truth?" Arthur growled. "What truth? What, do you want me to say that I think Merlin's a traitor? That now I know that he has … magic, I want nothing more than to see him dead? That I'm keeping him alive just so I can roast him on the pyre? That I want to see him burn?"
Gwaine had gotten to his feet by this point and was striding across the cave, his dark eyes glittering coldly in the firelight. "Get away from him, Arthur."
"Gwaine – what the hell!" Arthur snapped, slapping the man's hand away from where he reached for Merlin. "You know I didn't mean that!"
"Maybe not," Gwaine whispered back, squatting to where he was eye-level with the sovereign. "The point is, you don't know. I'm trying to get you to see that you aren't thinking straight, Arthur. And if you'll just think back on what you just said, mean it or not, I think you'll hand Merlin over to me until you've had time to think about how you're going to react when Merlin finally wakes up … Because I assure you, if I have any reason to think you'll even consider harming him, Merlin and I will not be returning to Camelot with you."
"For the love of – Gwaine, he's sick; he needs to get to Gaius, he doesn't need to be traipsing about the countryside in the cold!"
"Maybe you should have thought of that before you dragged him out into the cold in the first place!" Gwaine shouted, all pretenses of calm gone. Around them, like groundhogs popping up from their holes, the others' heads jerked up at the commotion.
"Gwaine!" scolded Gwen in a harsh whisper. "Please, get control of yourself."
"I didn't drag him!" Arthur screeched in return. "You know as well as I do that Merlin follows me every-bloody-where I go, and I recall you being just as pushy to get out of the castle as I!"
"Arthur!" Gwen tried again, grabbing her husband's arm with two hands. "Calm down! Merlin doesn't need this!"
The other knights had surrounded Arthur and Gwaine, silent but ready to pull the two men apart if need be – and they probably would have had to if an impossibly cold and strong wind hadn't somehow made it all the way into the cave, sputtering around the fire and extinguishing it all but for a few weakly reaching embers.
The sudden cold and darkness tore Gwaine and Arthur violently out of their disagreement. It was with one person on their minds that they both dove for the flames, coaxing them to come out of hiding.
"Arthur," said Gwen, a note of panic in her voice from where she still sat on the floor.
"Not now, Guinevere," Arthur grunted as he jostled the kindling desperately, hoping something would ignite.
"No, really, Arthur," came Elyan's voice from somewhere near his sister's.
"In a minute!"
"I know, Guinevere, he needs warmth."
"No, Arthur, he's—"
With a satisfying crack, a spark awoke and the fire sprang back to light, teasing its long fingers across the walls of the cave. Arthur turned around to face his wife, only to have his heart jump into his throat. Gwen and Elyan were kneeling over Merlin's bedside, hands feeling the pile of cloaks and blankets in which the servant was supposed to be cocooned. But he wasn't.
"What the—" Percival began, trailing off as he looked at the empty bedroll.
"I don't understand," breathed Leon.
"Gone," Gwaine and Arthur whispered in unintentional unison. "Oh, gods," Arthur groaned. "Merlin's gone."
The frostbitten landscape was thawing slightly, and the overwhelming cold Merlin was drowning in became just the slightest bit less cold. Even as his body was slowly, painfully wrested from the claws of death, the warlock found that he had no control over said body, nor, it would seem, his mind; he couldn't tell dream from reality in this state. Everything was so confused – memory and dream ran together like two branches of the same river (and for some reason, the thought of a river made animalistic fear lance down Merlin's spine), and reality, or some facsimile thereof, was so intertwined with what had or might have or probably hadn't been that he found himself drifting languidly within his own mind.
He heard voices, low, murmuring, but he didn't try to understand what they were saying. The calm, comforting tones were enough for him; these were the voices of people he trusted. He could rest.
He swirled a bit in blackness after that; his mind dipping down into the inky depths of total unconsciousness, then resurfacing in the halls of Camelot… halls that were barren, dark, cold – frozen. Clear, thick ice covered the stone floors evenly, and frost crept up the walls and settled on the window panes. Jagged, deadly icicles jutted from the high ceiling, and Merlin got the terrible impression that he was in the mouth of some hungry beast. "Arthur?" Merlin called. No one answered for the longest time. But then – "Merlin!" Arthur's voice was distant, echoing against the frostbitten walls, but Merlin could hear the desperation in his tone. Arthur was in trouble. He needed Merlin.
Merlin took off down the hallway at a run, slipping and sliding on the ice but somehow, miraculously, not falling. "Arthur!" he yelled, his words bouncing off the walls as if he were in a cavern. "Merlin!" came the muffled voice again, this time from somewhere below Merlin. Arthur was downstairs, but Merlin didn't have time to find stairs! Arthur needed him, now!
At that desperate thought, a horrifying creeeak split the frosty silence in the corridor, and Merlin only had a second to register that the ice was breaking before CRACK! Black shots of lightening sparked out across the ice from beneath his feet, widening and wobbling until Merlin, flailing, splashed into the icy froth below. Too cold to swim, Merlin sank like a stone, and just when he was sure he was going to die, he broke free of the water and fell down, down, down into the room below, hitting the floor with a spectacular crashing sound.
Merlin got to his feet, skidding precariously on the ice that was even thicker down here; there was so much ice beneath his feet that he had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on icicles. Merlin paused – he recognized this room. It was Gaius' chambers! The old physician was nowhere to be seen, but Merlin recognized the voice all too well that came from the small door at the back of the chambers. "Merlin!" Arthur's voice was desperate, panicked. He needed Merlin now.
Wondering vaguely why Arthur was in his room, Merlin plowed through the door to see the back of the king as he slumped, kneeling on the frozen floor. "Arthur?" Merlin asked, tentatively reaching out a hand toward the king's shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Arthur ignored him, so focused he was on something in front of him on the floor. Torn between terror and curiosity, Merlin inched closer, peeking his head over Arthur's shoulder, and then stumbling back, a raw scream bursting from his throat.
There, on the ground before Arthur, lay Merlin, blue eyes wide and glassy, a thin sheen of ice covering his entire body, stiff, frozen… utterly, utterly dead.
Merlin felt the floor crack beneath him again, felt the cold water swallow him up, away from the nightmare, and this time, he fell into blissful nothingness…
When he came back to himself sometime later, Merlin was feeling much warmer. He could hear the pleasant crackling of a fire nearby, and he was nestled tightly in something soft and cozy. Occasionally he could hear the drone of hushed voices, but he didn't pay any attention to them. He was just glad to be warm, and safe, and alive, and away from that frozen wasteland that looked so much like his home.
Just as Merlin was settling into the familiar, comforting darkness again, the voices grew more agitated, angry. And he heard Arthur's voice hiss, "Merlin's a traitor. He has magic, and I want nothing more than to see him dead. I'm keeping him alive just so I can roast him on the pyre… I want him to BURN."
Terror like none he had ever known swooped down on Merlin then, digging in its gouging talons and carrying him off to the hellish places of his nightmares.
Suddenly, Merlin knew why he was warmer. He understood the cheerily masquerading flame for what it really was, and he felt the soft things swaddling him harden and tighten, could feel the hardness of the pyre under his back. The pyre he was tied to…
Arthur was burning him.
All rational thought fled in that, the single most horrifying moment in Merlin's life. He had to escape, had to get away. Put out the fire.
As soon as the thought crossed his feverish mind, he felt a cold wind blow in from somewhere, snuffing out the choking heat. Just that small bit of instinctual magic was almost enough to send him spiraling into unawareness again, but he couldn't afford that… so without even so much as opening his eyes – for he honestly didn't think he could – Merlin allowed his magic to fill him, to take control, to guide him…
It carried his feet, step by step, as far as it possibly could, but his grip on it was fading… He could only hope that it had gotten him to safety before he was dragged down into a cold, lonely darkness.
"See what you did, Arthur?" Gwaine yelled, all pretenses of control gone. "You've good as killed him – you've killed him!"
"I didn't know he could hear me," Arthur protested weakly. "And you," he growled, anger slowly replacing the numb vacancy in his soul, "goaded me into it!"
"I didn't make you say anything, Arthur – that was all you! Way to go! Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to find my friend, and take him as far away from you as possible."
Gwaine stalked out of the cave, leaving a stunned Arthur behind.
"Gods, Gwen," Arthur breathed into the oppressive silence. He could feel the knights' eyes drilling into his back, but he ignored them as he tried to make sense of what had just happened. "Gwaine's right. I've killed him. He won't survive another bout of this weather, not after what he's been through…"
Gwen gave him one of her looks, the one where he felt like a naughty child getting scolded by his nursemaid, but still managed to feel terribly loved. "Arthur, you didn't kill anyone. I won't pretend that you didn't say some rather damaging things, but this can still be fixed. We saw today, Merlin's a lot stronger than we give him credit for."
Arthur's eyes stung as Gwen folded him into a tender embrace, relishing the feel of her small, soft body in his arms. "Go after him, Arthur. Bring them back." Her whisper tickled his ear, and he fought a hysterical urge to laugh.
"Both of them?" Arthur asked, and no, that wasn't the edge of a whine in his voice. He was a king, and kings most decidedly did not whine.
"Yes," Gwen said, pulling away to look at him with her solemn, beautiful eyes.
"Yes, Gwaine too."
"Can't I just grab Merlin and be done with it?"
"As tempting as that is," Gwen half-giggled, before remembering that she was being stern right now, "I think you would rather end up regretting it if you left Gwaine to die."
"Would I really?" Arthur dead-panned. He kissed her on the lips, lingering one second longer than was probably respectable in front of the knights. "Leon, Percival, you're with me. Elyan, stay here with Guinevere."
"Arthur, I want to join you," Gwen protested.
"Guinevere," Arthur said seriously, gazing into her pleading eyes. "Because of my foolishness, I may have lost two of my closest friends. I will not lose you, too."
"Come back to me, Arthur," Gwen whispered, reluctantly stepping back to stand by her brother as the Arthur, Leon, and Percival crunched out into the driving snow.
Gwaine was steadfastly ignoring the little voice that sounded too much like Merlin in the back of his head. This little voice had been nagging him ever since he waded out into the blizzard and left the cave behind him. This is really stupid, Gwaine, the voice said. You should have waited for Arthur. You're going to get yourself killed, going out into this storm alone in the middle of the night.
"I'm not letting that… that…"
Cabbage head? suggested the little voice eagerly. Dollop head?
"Too nice," grumbled Gwaine. Over the sound of the howling gale, he couldn't actually hear his own voice, but he felt the vibration in his throat and imagined that he sounded very sarcastic.
The voice had been blessedly silent for a couple of minutes. Then – You were too hard on Arthur.
Gwaine shoved down an uncomfortable, aching feeling in his gut that he thought might have been guilt. Of course, he couldn't be sure, because he was sure he'd stomped out the remainder of his conscience long ago. However, it seemed to be returning, and it couldn't be a coincidence that it sounded like Merlin.
"You're a bad influence on me, Merlin," Gwaine joked, a lump forming in his throat. He was terrified. Not for himself, though his own situation was fairly grim. Sure, he had no idea where he was anymore, and he couldn't see anything more than two inches away from his face, and it was cold, and he couldn't feel his feet… but he also hadn't had a tumble in a frozen river earlier that day. No, Merlin was the one in trouble.
He trudged on, his boots and trousers up to his knees soaked through, stabbing pricks of cold slowly giving way to numbness. His fingers felt swollen and tight in his gloves, and he could barely put one foot in front of the other. His hand could not grasp his sword anymore; he'd dropped it ages ago, had thought that maybe leaving it to rust in the snow wasn't such a good idea, but… he was so cold. And he was looking for something… something important. His sword? No, he'd left that behind.
No, he was looking for someone. But who? Not Arthur, because Arthur was where he always was, with his head up his own –
A dragon? Maybe he was looking for a dragon, he thought blearily. But why would he be looking for a dragon?
Maybe a dragon was looking for him.
That makes sense, he thought numbly as he watched the enormous, winged silhouette framed against the flying sheet of snow descend upon him.
If so, he decided, it's the dragon's lucky day. With that giddy thought on his mind, Gwaine keeled forward. He didn't feel the dragon's talons close around his arms and carry him high, high, far away from the troublesome world below.
If he had, he might have noticed another figure – limp, skinny, bedraggled, a rather unhealthy shade of blue – dangling from the beast's forepaws. But as it was, he had no idea that he'd actually found, of a sort, who he was looking for.
Gwaine slept on.
When he awoke, it was to hard ground beneath him, warm, almost stuffy air around him, and to a pair of big blue eyes staring back at him.
"Argh!" Gwaine let out a rather un-manly yell and scrambled backwards against the rough wall of the cave he was in. It took his mind a moment to adjust itself to what he was seeing, and then a grin split his face and he bellowed, "Merlin! Bloody hell, I didn't actually think I'd ever see you alive again!"
Merlin was so still for a moment Gwaine was afraid he was talking to a corpse. But then slowly, languidly, those big blue eyes blinked at him, and Gwaine threw off his own weakness and fuzziness and moved the short distance between them. They were in a small, closed off cave of some sort, he realized, and was only slightly alarmed when he could find no exit. There was a little fire burning in the middle of the cave but it wasn't giving off any smoke. It took Gwaine a few seconds to comprehend what he was seeing, but then he remembered:
"Merlin, you have magic," he whispered.
At this, Merlin visibly flinched. When he spoke, his mouth barely moved, and he was so weak that Gwaine could hardly hear him. "Pl's dnnnt h't me."
"Eh, Merlin?" Gwaine asked, leaning closer. Merlin's words were slurred. "What's that?"
"Don't… hate… me…" Merlin gasped out, over enunciating every syllable as he strained to make himself heard.
"Oh, Merlin, you don't know me at all, do you, old friend?" Gwaine grinned, but he knew that his eyes were sad. "This is the greatest thing that's ever happened to me!"
It may have been his imagination, but Gwaine thought he saw the corners of Merlin's mouth twitch. "To you?" Merlin whispered.
"I've never had a friend with magic before!" Gwaine beamed. "'Course, living in Camelot makes it difficult, but… Merlin?"
At the mention of Camelot, Merlin's already pale face went stark white. His shallow breathing became quick and labored, and a look of pure panic came to his eyes. "Oh, gods, Gwaine. Arthur knows."
Gwaine could have kicked himself, and thought about denying it, but he couldn't. Not now. "Yes," he said carefully. "It would seem he does."
"He tried to kill me," Merlin panted. "He tried to burn me – Gwaine, he–" And to Gwaine's surmounting horror, Merlin started to tremble.
"Merlin," Gwaine said slowly, starting to put the pieces together as he remembered the argument he and Arthur had had, and the timing of Merlin's grand escape, "Whatever you think happened isn't real. Arthur didn't try to kill you. He—" Gwaine fought with his pride and his protectiveness before sighing, "he saved you. From drowning, and from freezing."
"But he knows…" Merlin said, and Gwaine could tell he wanted desperately to believe what Gwaine had said. "And I heard him, he said…"
Pride be damned, Gwaine thought. Thinking back, Arthur hadn't done anything to indicate that he'd hurt Merlin. Gwaine had just been scared, unwilling to take the chance. But the fear in Arthur's eyes when he saw the place where Merlin was supposed to be but wasn't told Gwaine all he needed to know. Arthur might not know it himself yet, but he wasn't going to hurt Merlin. "He said what I goaded him into saying," Gwaine muttered. "I didn't trust him. I said some things, made him angry… But you misunderstood." Gwaine huffed, scrubbing a red, raw hand over his face. "It's a mess."
Tears were running freely down Merlin's face. Gwaine didn't ask, because he'd already caused Merlin enough pain. And these, he thought, might just have been tears of relief. Or, at the very least, hope.
"What is this place?" Gwaine asked when Merlin had regained some control. He ran his hands over the rough, warm walls. "Is it some kind of a magic fort? A giant scaly bubble?"
"I see your friend has awoken, Merlin."
Gwaine gasped. "A giant bubble that talks?"
"Gwaine," Merlin said, propping himself on wobbly elbows, "Kilgharrah is not a giant scaly bubble. He's an old, dear friend, and he saved our lives last night."
"You know I would never let harm come to you if I could help it, young warlock," came the voice again, and this time Gwaine noted just how old and wise and slightly curmudgeonly it sounded. "And I did not think you would like your friend to die; I found him shortly after I responded to your call."
"Thank you," Merlin said weakly.
"Okay, I have questions," Gwaine cut in. "What is a Kilgharrah? How did you call him? And what about Arthur?"
"I am not a Kilgharrah," the voice responded derisively.
"Oh, so he's the Kilgharrah, then," Gwaine grinned. "That clears things up. Bit up himself, isn't he?"
"Kilgharrah is a dragon," Merlin responded, and by the twinkle in his eyes, he fully enjoyed watching Gwaine's jaw flop open, "so I would advise you to be careful what you say about him."
"A dragon?" Gwaine squeaked.
"Yes. I can call him because… well, you might as well know, since you know about the magic… I'm a Dragonlord."
To his credit, Gwaine didn't gawp any further. Instead, he threw his head back and laughed, a full, throaty, hearty laugh. "Of course you are. I should've known."
Now that Gwaine realized he was enfolded in a dragon – a dragon that was curled up around them like a giant cat – he wondered how he'd ever not known. The dragon's body hummed with power and warmth.
Merlin's tremulous voice broke the contented silence. "Gwaine? Why did you ask about Arthur?"
"I wondered what Killg… Kill… uh, your dragon friend did with him."
The dragon did not sound impress with the botched pronunciation of his name. "I did nothing with the Once and Future King. I did not see him when I rescued you."
Merlin struggled to a sitting position, looking much too sickly for Gwaine's liking. "Was Arthur with you?"
"No, but he would've been right after me. I was mad, y'see, and I stormed out, but I know he was right behind me. He wasn't going to leave you out here, mate – oy, what are you doing?"
It was quite obvious that Merlin was trying – and failing – to get his feet under him. "We've got to find him! He could be in danger!"
"You're not going anywhere, Merlin," Gwaine said. "As much as I hate to admit it, Arthur's a grown man. He can take care of himself."
"No, he can't!" Merlin protested wildly, gesturing to himself. "That's what I'm for!"
"Merlin, you've got to stay put!" Gwaine grunted as he tried to wrestle a squirming Merlin back to the ground.
"Peace, young warlock," came the dragon's amused voice. "Arthur lives, but I would not want to be on the receiving end of his ire. Luckily, it seems, you aren't."
"How can you know that? Oh, gods, he hates me, I know it."
"You are not in danger of his wrath today, Merlin."
"I rather believe I am."
Gwaine suddenly realized he could hear yelling outside of their warm, dragony cocoon. "Is that? I think it is! It's Leon!"
"The knights are here?"
"Hold on, let me listen." Gwaine pressed an ear to the dragon's hide, as if it would allow him to hear the commotion better. He was met with silence. "Yep," Gwaine said proudly, "that's definitely Percival's silence. I'd know it anywhere."
And then came the voice that Gwaine thought terrified and relieved Merlin at the same time. A very prattish voice, but also brave and commanding, and yelling, "For Camelot!"
Oh, dear, Gwaine thought. That was Arthur's attack chant. Arthur was attacking the dragon, and the dragon was essentially sitting on them. The rational part of his brain that said that the dragon had gone this far to save them and wouldn't squash them now fled in wake of the irrational panic. "STOOOOP!" the long-haired knight yelled at the top of his lungs.
Silence. Incredulously, "Gwaine?"
"Merlin's here, too!" Gwaine supplied cheerily, winking at a wide-eyed, frankly terrible-looking Merlin.
"Is it Arthur?" Merlin asked, crawling to Gwaine's side, straining to hear.
"Oh, gods. The beast has swallowed Merlin and Gwaine alive!"
Merlin and Gwaine exchanged exasperated looks. Oh, yes, this was Arthur. No doubt about that.
And then there was no time left to think about it, because the walls were moving, the dragon was lifting up, flying away…
The snow had stopped, and the sun was shining. And there stood Arthur, Percival, and Leon, all dangerously pale, wet, and shivering. They all wore the same astonished expression on their faces, but Arthur's quickly melted into one of relief.
"Thank the gods!" he called out hoarsely. "Was that…?"
"Yes, it was a dragon, and no, you can't kill him, and there are decidedly more important things to worry about right now anyway," Gwaine said, pointedly looking at a limp, white, scared Merlin. "He needs Gaius."
Percival quirked a smile. In a rare breach of silence, he said, "I think we all need Gaius."
Arthur looked torn between pressing for more information and running to Merlin's side, but he did neither, just stood there awkwardly and stared.
"Arthur," Merlin began, when the quiet became to stifling, "I—"
Arthur held up a hand. "I don't want to hear it, Merlin."
"But Arthur, you need—"
"What I need is to get you back to Camelot, you idiot. You're not well. The rest… well, we'll sort that out when you're not half dead, yeah?" Merlin's eyes were still far too wide, and there was far too much fear in them. "Merlin, I'm not going to kill you. We… we have a lot to talk about, but… but I'm not going to lose you again, so you'd better let us get you home before you freeze again." He raised an eyebrow at Gwaine. "Any objections?"
Gwaine grinned wryly. "Arthur, we might just make a good man out of you yet."
A/N: So Kilgharrah wasn't originally going to be a part of this story, but he just kind of invited himself. And I was like, "Hey, this is a private party, and you're not invited!" And Kilgharrah said, "I'm a frickin' dragon. I'm always invited." And I said, "Fair 'nuff. Red or white wine?" :D
I'm really happy with this, but obviously the storyline's not over yet. The final story in the trilogy will follow Arthur and the knights as they search, Arthur's reaction to the dragon, the trip back to Camelot, a ton of Merlin/Arthur bromance and h/c, and a much-needed talk between our favorite king and warlock. And the knights and Gwen will be in the story too. I'm not going to give an exact time frame for when the next story will be out, because we all know what happens every time I try to do that, but I will try to have out the next installment as soon as I possibly can.
Please let me know what you thought in a review! Thank you all so much, and I really hope it was worth the wait!