Summary: Winter is late this year. People dread the repeat of winter past, with nary a snowflake to grace the ground, with air abnormally warm.
A/N: Please forgive me, my lovely readers if you're waiting for updates D: I promise to be back on my writing spree in a blink of an eye just as I finish with jrock_bigbang
forkinkme_merlin prompt: Arthur/Merlin, based in some way on "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen. Would like it to be compliant with series canon but could be AU or a dream. Only definite stipulation that Merlin is in the Kay role and Arthur is the one that searches for him (though no gender-bending, please). It's about time Arthur rescued Merlin for once!
Winter is late this year.
People dread the repeat of the winter past, with nary a snowflake to grace the ground, with air abnormally warm. By spring the soil was dry and cracked, and only rains that came aplenty saved the harvest.
Mothers send pleading glances towards Camelot, taking white nightshirts and ribbons out of old chests, but none is brave enough to send their daughters to the forest to enchant the ancient rites.
But the winds only come from south-east, rich with the breath of summer long gone.
The forest slopes reluctantly into a ravine, filled to the brink with thick fog, cold and wet. Sunrays, sharp against the air, dissipate at the surface, breaking into a multitude of tiny, slowly glimmering rainbows.
Perhaps this ethereal beauty should be warning enough, but Merlin has always been a little dense when it came to ominous signs, easily dismissing anything short of fiery letter in the sky spelling “THIS IS A TRAP” in huge block print.
He pauses momentarily to marvel at the sight, breath catching in his throat. And then, when he does take a hesitant step down, foggy curls begin to wrap around his legs, tugging at him gently. This is magic, Merlin thinks absentmindedly, but it feels friendly and warm and he no longer hesitates, quickening his steps.
Arthur is going on patrol in two days and a deep restlessness has already settled in, prompting him to wander the halls of Camelot aimlessly. After he passes by Morgana’s chambers for the seventh time since dawn, she shouts at him to either enter or stop loitering by the doors.
He flees – purely in annoyance, not shame at having to resort to her company – to his own chambers. There are duties he should better attend to, but he knows himself, how he’d be unable to do anything properly until he’d have sated the bloodlust that’s been steering in his loins.
“And when have you been?” Arthur asks Merlin with a frown when the latter finally chooses to visit him.
“I’ve been collecting herbs on Gaius orders?” Merlin replies with his usual ineptitude, and Arthur feels both calmer and more annoyed, even more so when Merlin adds, “I think I warned you beforehand, didn’t I?”
“I do not bother littering my head with such useless knowledge,” Arthur snaps. “Now, see to polishing my sword and armour.”
He expects Merlin to make a retort and preliminarily allows his lips to curl a little, already feeling better than he had all day.
But nothing comes.
Arthur turns his eyes to Merlin and sees him frown, eyebrows drawn together and nose scrunched up.
“Yes, sire,” he replies uncertainly and leaves the room.
“Winter is coming,” Merlin breathes out contentedly.
Gaius raises his head from an ancient tome he’s been poring over and stares at Merlin. There has been no change in the weather save for the winds growing a tad harsher in the past two days, but maybe he is right.
“I dearly hope so, my boy,” Gaius signs and turns back to the book.
Merlin gives him a tiny little laugh in reply, and Gaius doesn’t see how his breath is white in the air.
Arthur comes back from patrol unscathed.
They gallop into the courtyard, horses almost slipping on the icy cobblestones and snow turns scarlet with sir Persival’s blood.
Arthur is too frantic barking out orders – fetch the physician, find Percy’s father – to notice how uncharacteristically indifferent Merlin is.
He stands still, catching fat snowflakes in his palm.
Arthur wakes up to a cold room. He finds himself huddled under the heavy blanket, face burrowed in the crook of his arm.
“Merlin,” he swears under his breath. Did he not order to bring enough wood to keep the fire roaring all night?
With a curse Arthur throws the blanket off and stands up, hissing when his bare feet touch the floor, cold seeping through the expensive Arabian rug.
By the fireplace he pauses, confused.
Ash logs are piled inside just as he had ordered, but each is covered with a thick layer of hoarfrost.
Merlin stands in the gallery leading to the king’s chambers.
He has no business here and is fairly certain that his passage has been granted solely on the account of him being the prince’s manservant.
The windows in the gallery are the most beautiful he has ever seen – made of polished coloured glass, red and blue and yellow, shining like gemstones in the early winter sun.
Merlin puts his face to the window and blows ever so lightly, his lips stretching in a beatific smile as the glass begins to freeze over, frosty curlicues running outward merrily.
“Sire, he is not well,” Gaius says, the corners of his lips turned downwards. “You should not see him, least you catch the disease.”
“And what disease is that exactly?” Arthur sneers. Ever since winter began to take hold, half the castle has been with sniffles and coughs, but for some reason the mere thought of Merlin sick sends him reeling.
“It is… a very infectious disease, indeed,” Gaius ventures. “I have not seen anything like that, exactly – poor boy is covered in boils (nasty things, these boils!), and then he runs a fever, and…”
And there is something inside Arthur that is just laughing at the explanation – a nasty laugh, nothing like his own – that prompts him to sidestep the old physician and throw the door to Merlin’s room open.
A wave of cold hits him as he steps on the threshold, brushing off Gaius’ warning “My Lord!” Merlin sits on the bed, pale as a marble Roman statue and just as foreign. He has no boils that Arthur can see, and doesn’t seem to be taken with fever.
“What is this?” Arthur asks, bewildered.
“I have no idea, sire,” Gaius replies resignedly.
Merlin sits in a pile of snow, scooping up handfuls of it and blowing into his palms, his breath mingling with the snowflakes and crystallising.
The snow dances around them.
“Father, no!” Arthur raises his voice indignantly. “Can’t you see he’s the victim here?”
Uther sneers at Merlin. He is held by two guards – guards that are freezing already, discreetly taking their hands off him to warm them up with their breath.
“And yet he’s a danger to the castle, evidently.”
“Do not argue with me! He is to be put away until Gaius works out how to make him normal again... And be grateful I’m not sending him to the block!”
Arthur stands in the empty hall, his fists balled up, and stares as the hoarfrost on the floor melts away.
The girl steps forward and Arthur is taken aback momentarily at the pride she hold herself with , her back straight and chin up, staring right into the king’s eyes, her own a pale blue customary to many young children.
“I have come, Uther Pendragon, to demand that you release my brother,” she speaks and her voice is bitingly cold, sending chill down Arthur’s spine.
Uther seems to be caught between amusement and alarm as he stares her down.
“I do not know who your brother is, little lady, but if he has been detained that is to persevere the safe being of this kingdom only,” he says, his voice seemingly light.
The girl laughs, taking a step towards the throne and shrugging off her body like old clothes. She stands before them, tall and pale, with icicles in her white hair and snow dressing her, and it’s all Arthur can do not to fall to his knees before her.
“You call him Merlin,” she says simply, but her words carry an order. “Release him immediately and bring him to me!”
Uther raises a shaking hand, and the guards scramble to their feet, pliant to his will.
“Bring the boy,” he says and Arthur snaps back to his senses.
“Father, you can’t! Was it not you, who opposed indignantly to any threat posed by sorcery? And you are ready to give up a man into a sorceress’ hands!”
“Fool!” the woman says with a hint of amusement in her icy voice. “I am no sorceress!”
Uther lowers his eyes and there is something that Arthur doesn’t understand – something that slips him, some important detail that his father knows for certain, and he feels like he’s on the verge of understanding... but then the guards drag Merlin into the hall. He is as Arthur has last seen him – raggedy clothes frozen through, leaving hoarfrost on the floor in his wake.
“Merlin,” he breathes out, exasperated and horrified and sad at once.
“Emrys,” the woman echoes him, in a voice full of longing, and Merlin seems to snap out of his cold slumber, breaking out of the guards’ hold and rushing to her with a child’s delight. “Emrys,” she repeats, clutching at him desperately.
“You did the right thing, Uther Pendragon,” the woman announces, turning to the throne. “I will call our accounts settled this time.”
The windows burst open with a rush of wind and snow and for a moment Arthur is blinded. When he opens his eyes, bleary with unwelcome tears, the woman and Merlin are gone.
“You cannot harm her, with neither sword nor sorcery,” Gaius shakes his head sadly. He looks tired, his face lined with worry and fear.
“Don’t you dare saying there’s nothing we can do!” Arthur shouts, but Gaius only shakes his head.
“But is there? Even if you somehow overcome her, it will only bring despair and suffering to the people of Camelot... of the whole of Britannia. Even your father knows it.”
“Who is she?” Arthur demands, barely restraining himself from banging his fist on the rickety table.
“Didn’t you realise?” Gaius rises his insufferable eyebrow and sighs. “The Winter Queen, Arthur.”
“The Winter Queen! I think I long since grew out of...” he trails off, thinking of the lateness of winter’s arrival, of the freezing cold of the woman’s presence... thinking of the unquenched hate in his father’s eyes as he stared at her in the throne hall, of the icicles in Merlin’s black hair, of the delight that settled over Camelot when it started snowing.
“I have to save Merlin,” he says.
The trees step aside from his path as Arthur rides into the forest. No map has ever been as easy to read as the one that seems to have been burned on his eyelids – a foreign presence that has been with him ever since he decided on saving Merlin.
He rides to a memorable oak – one side burnt by a lightning – and sends his horse back to Camelot. The path weaves between bare bushes, wide just enough to let him pass with no hindrance.
Arthur walks on determinedly, the beauty of the winter forest bypassing him completely, until he reaches a ravine. Fog rises from the ground, never quite spilling out into the forest; white curlicues bending and mending almost obscenely in the crisp winter air.
Arthur walks on.
As soon as he breaches the border, as his head submerges into the fog, the world changes.
Arthur feels like falling into one of those tales about elves’ hollow hills, and it makes his skin crawl – to a degree.
Before Arthur stretches a valley painted with white – shining, glimmering, cold. Frozen carcasses of dead trees jingle melancholy with icicles as he passes by.
He goes straight for the – for the castle, a massive pile of carved ice, translucent and not, stretching up to the grey sunless sky, beautifully frightening and frighteningly beautiful.
There are no guards by the open doors, and Arthur just goes in.
He enters another hall – a parody of the throne hall of Camelot, he thinks fleetingly, and stops in the doors, petrified.
Merlin lies limp on the throne, one leg thrown over an armrest, one arm dangling from the other, white fingers lightly clasping a scepter of ice – of course – and diamonds. His eyes are a startling blue - bluer than ever, and he stares into the distance, unseeing. And he is still the same Merlin Arthur remembers – his ridiculous ears are still there, too thin frame is not an inch fuller, bony wrists exposed in all their awkward glory. He is but a puzzle of mismatched visages and Arthur simply cannot put them together in one solid vision. His eyes shift from the snow crown on his head to the bluish tint over his cheekbones, to the magnificent outfit he wears – fit for a prince, indeed.
This is just so confusing, Arthur thinks with an internal wince. If only it had been easier – here is your evil witch, lad, have at her.
But no. It’s not easy. Not this time.
Although is it really ever?
He takes nary a step towards Merlin, when she – the Winter Queen, who else – cries out:
“Go no further!”
She stands still, same as Arthur remembers her, but now he feels only an echo of the same gripping fear. To him she looks like... a simple woman, no more.
“Release him,” Arthur demands.
“I will not,” she seethes. “I have let you come here, Arthur Pendragodm for forces beyond my control are at play. But i will not allow you to take him away He is mine!”
“At worst, he is of Camelot,” Arthur cuts her out. “Release him from your spell.”
“What is it to you?” she steps aside, walking slowly around him in a loose circle. “You are his master by human laws only.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
She purses her lips indignantly and wary, and on a whim, on a stroke of intuition or luck or whatever, Arthur lunges to the throne, past the sudden violent winds, and puts his warm hand over Merlin’s cold chest.
Merlin comes to life with a gasp as the last snowflake melts off him, dangling in a tiny drop on his eyelashes for a second before he blinks.
“Ar-arthur?” he rasps out, and Arthur has to grip his teeth against the odd lump rising in his throat.
“What have you done?” the Winter Queen cries, falling to her knees. She is so very powerless, and Arthur can hardly wrap his mind around Gaius warning “you cannot harm her”, around his father’s fear.
“I have done what I should have done,” he replies imperiously and tugs Merlin to his feet, drenching wet and naked with only Arthur’s red cape thrown over his shoulders for modesty.
She laughs at that and looks pointedly at Merlin, seeming to tell him something with only her eyes.
“She is right,” he breathes, “I cannot leave.”
“Wha-what?” Arthur splutters, turning around swiftly as Merlin’s hand slips out of his grip. The Winter Queen watches them with her abnormally blue eyes, silent.
“I should stay. You father has banned magic and now people are afraid to even call her with an ancient prayer – though it’s hardly magic...”
“And what does it have to do with you?” Arthur scowls.
“I... will stay here, anchoring her to this plane of existence, allowing her free passage.”
And Arthur just sighs exasperatedly, hooks his arm under Merlin’s knees and hoists him up from the throne, pissed off and deaf to Merlin's indignant demands to let him down.
By the doorways he turns back slightly, inclining his head.
“He’ll be back next winter,” he says.
Arthur walks through the forest with Merlin in his arms - a position worth of a queen, not an ungrateful manservant.
"...witnessing my daily heroism must take its toll on your mental capability, but you are no prince, Merlin, and no knight. You should quench your willingness to sacrifice yourself for the greater good and let the others - actually capable - do their job..."
Next winter Merlin doesn’t put a white dress on, doesn’t braid white ribbons in his hair.
Dressed in his usual ratty garb, he walks out to the woods, to the edge of the forest and calls out, slightly noticeable and apologetic.
The wind blows in his face, cold but gentle, and it feels like an embrace of a sister he's never had.