skywindsong: (always)
[personal profile] skywindsong
Title: The Price of Passage
Pairing: Arthur/Merlin
Rating: PG
Word count: ~9000
Warnings/Spoilers: Grimms fairytales-style gore, vague spoilers for series 2
Summary: Prequel to
Reclamation; The woman's smile widens. "If you wish to return to your kingdom, you must complete the rite for passage." While Merlin seeks the water from the Cup of Life, Arthur is on a quest of his own.


The Price of Passage


Arthur wakes slowly to the tickle of grass against his cheek. At first, he thinks he is out hunting, about to enjoy another day of leisurely sport and teasing Merlin, a veritable sport in itself. He groans and pushes himself off the ground, surprised not to feel his bedroll under him. Instead, his hand contacts firmly with the bare spring ground and his eyes fly open as a barrage of images attacks his memory.


Camelot, under attack. Consulting Gaius. Gathering knights.  The Questing Beast. Merlin shouting. Being knocked down. Darkness.


Arthur takes assessment quickly. He is standing in what appears to be a small clearing with a turgid, bloated river to his left and more forest to his right. There is no sign of the Questing Beast. The knights who came with him are also nowhere to be seen, and he can find no trail that might indicate their whereabouts. A quick exam of his person reveals no critical injuries, but a persistent ache in his limbs means he’ll need to seek out Gaius later for some liniment. With considerable distress, he realizes he has been divested of his weapons and armor, and they, like the Questing Beast, are nowhere to be found.


His frown deepens as he surveys the forest. The terrain in front of him is utterly foreign, unthinkable for one who has spent his childhood exploring the woods of Camelot, learning their every glen. The skies above are likewise grey and overcast where that morning they had been cloudless, the sun glinting off the knights’ polished armor as they rode forth to seek the creature.


A sudden chill seizes Arthur’s spine as he recalls with stark acuity the piercing sting of the Questing Beast’s strike, the strange way the world had seemed to fade around him. The blow had felt like magic, like being hit by the gust of a great wind. Arthur swallows as the abrupt suspicion swells in his throat that wherever this place is, it is quite far from Camelot.


He considers the blow. Perhaps, unknown, the creature’s strike had been a sort of defensive maneuver, some manner of magical shield? One that protected the beast by sending a skilled opponent faraway? Arthur regards the terrain, the impossibly unfamiliar terrain and the knowledge sinks in his breast.


This place is not Camelot. He might be anywhere – in Cendrid's kingdom or Bayard's or somewhere yet further. Almost any place would do for disposing of a man without weapons, allies, or armor.


Arthur spares a moment for the thought of impressing upon Uther – very firmly – upon his return the value of strategy and of not dismissing available literature on a creature solely because said literature happened to include claims of probable magic. Being knocked unconscious lacked a certain air of valor to be sure (and left the door open for wandering peasant knights  to win kingly pardons), but being transported out of one’s kingdom left it entirely vulnerable, a state which Arthur thinks he’ll agree is quite intolerable.


Shelving the argument for further consideration at a later time, Arthur scans the skies again in hope of discovering a clue to his whereabouts. Unfortunately, where it was once overcast, the sky now appears all but opaque. Even the shape of the sun proves a struggle to discern. With no other landmarks available, Arthur considers the neighboring line of trees for a starting point. He has just chosen a pair of particularly gnarly elms when a voice breaks gently into the clearing.


"Greetings, fair prince."


Arthur whirls and reaches for his missing sword. The voice belongs to a tall, pale woman standing peaceably on the bank of the river. Her long, fine robes swirl delicately in the air and a small wooden boat drifts gently behind her in the current.


She is unafraid as he approaches, watching him with solemn eyes that remind him forcibly of Anhora. He is careful not to tread on anything that looks potentially sacred just in case, though she like himself appears unarmed.


She greets him again when he halts a few paces away. "Hail, Arthur Pendragon."


Something niggles in the back of Arthur's mind at the use of his full name. "How do you know my name?"


"All whom the Questing Beast visits are known to me."


The knowledge slides easily into a revelation. "You're a sorceress." Of course. All his troubles seem to include magic lately. "Did you conjure it?"


The pale woman seems amused and shakes her head. "I am no priestess. I have no power to summon the creature."


A small reassurance, if likely false. Arthur considers his chances of overpowering her (unknown) and settles for the moment on stalling for time. "Why have you brought me here?"


"It was not I who brought you here," the woman answers placidly. "But I am the one who can guide you back."


Arthur latches onto the latter half of that statement. "You can lead me back?"


The woman nods.


"Then I order you to return me to my knights."


The pale woman smiles, as if his command were nothing less than what she expected. "From where I come, all are equal, prince called Pendragon. You have no power to order me here.”


The turgid river gurgles in the sudden silence between them, and a creeping sense of foreboding rises in Arthur as he realizes for the first time he cannot see the opposite bank. The gentle lapping of the current on the shore is overlaid with the pungent smell of sea salt in his mind, and for a moment he tastes a bitter liquid on his tongue. He swallows convulsively. "What must I do to have you guide me?"


The woman's smile widens. "If you wish to return to your kingdom, you must complete the rite for passage."


Arthur understands all at once.


"What does this rite require?" he asks, thinking Test. Another test.


She gestures delicately toward the forest. "There is a sickness in this kingdom; its people are suffering. Seek them out, learn their troubles, and offer them what help you can. When you can do no more, ask of them a token. When you have a shirt woven for you alone, shoes to replace the ones you've worn, and the means by which to quench your thirst; return to me. I will lead you from this place."


Arthur tries to sound incredulous, but it comes off rather halfhearted. "What sort of trickery is this?"


"All three tokens must be brought or passage cannot be made," the woman replies, her grey eyes unfathomable. Arthur thinks again of Anhora, of his infuriatingly implacable nature, and the understanding strikes him that acquiring these tokens will be no straightforward or easy task. Unfortunately, Arthur does not see another way to ensure the woman’s honest guidance.


The pale woman takes advantage of his distracted state by clasping his shoulders and placing a kiss on his forehead.


"While you bear my mark, all will know you,” she whispers in his ear. “Go now, and beg them welcome you into their homes. If you can find nowhere else to welcome you, then you must come home with me."


Arthur's eyes fly open from where they'd been lulled to half-mast. “Wait – what do you mean, 'come home with me'?" he demands.


His question echoes in the empty clearing. Much like Anhora, the woman and her boat have vanished without any sign to prove they were ever there. Arthur scowls and resists the urge to kick a rock into the river petulantly.


*


At least the pale woman had been clear in her task. Arthur picks a route past the elm trees he’d been eyeing earlier and sets off to search the forest for denizens of the aforementioned kingdom. The forest air is oppressively damp, and Arthur’s thin tunic soon plasters itself sickly to his back. Despite the lack of sun, he feels feverish rather than chilled and he finds himself pausing now and again to wipe the sweat from his brow. It is during just such a pause that a faint rustling noise first catches his ear.


Arthur drops into a crouch automatically. The noise is too deliberate to be an animal, its origin not far distant. As he strains his ears toward the sound, the cadence changes to include the swish of fabric and a series of muted grunts. Arthur creeps carefully toward the murmur, dampening his footsteps and concealing himself in the thicket.


The origin of the sound proves to be a hunched old man carrying a basket. His brown robes have seen better days and appear to have been worn for some time. He is bent half over, rummaging on the ground as if to retrieve something that has fallen. Long, knobby fingers card carefully through the blades of coarse grass as eyes are narrowed in concentration track the movement. 


It does not appear to be an easy task for the old man. His silver hair quivers and his limbs shake with the effort of keeping his balance. Arthur does not entirely trust appearances after the incident with the sorceress outside the Caves of Balor, but even from his hiding place Arthur can hear the creak of the old man’s joints.


Arthur stands and immediately attracts the old man's attention when he inadvertently snaps a twig under his boot.


Arthur raises his hands quickly. "It's alright. I mean you no harm."


The old man watches him warily and Arthur keeps his hands in the air as he bends down to retrieve the fallen object.


It is a scrap of red cloth with a button sewn in the center. Both the fabric and the button are of good quality, much higher than the man’s heavily worn and mud-stained robes. Arthur wonders if they are a memory from better times. He offers the button to the old man, who takes the trinket wordlessly and stows it in his basket. His eyes when they meet Arthur’s are no less suspicious, but he at least seems reassured that Arthur does not intend to rob him.


Arthur straightens and takes a few steps backward, lowering his hands. He opens his mouth to address the man and then pauses as he tries to think of an appropriate title.


"Old man," he says finally.


The old man raises an eyebrow in a manner that reminds him uncannily of Gaius. "Young prince," he returns dryly.


"Yes," says Arthur, abruptly wrong-footed. He breathes deeply, thinks of the pale woman’s admonition, and tries again. "I have been travelling and require lodgings. What can I do to ensure welcome in your home?"


The old man casts him a curious glance. "I have no home,” he says mildly. He does not appear to be particularly put out about the fact.  “Many have lost their place in this kingdom, reason most of all."


Right. The woman had mentioned a sickness in the kingdom. Some form of plague? Arthur crosses his arms. "What do you mean?" he asks.


"The king left behind all who reminded him of his former court," the old man replies. "Now he sees no one but his knights. It is said he has built his new halls on a mountain of glass whose height no man can scale."


Arthur frowns. That doesn’t quite fit in with an outbreak of plague. "Why would your king do such a thing?"


The old man shrugs. "It is said he was haunted by old ghosts. I am afraid it matters little for the gathering of roots and herbs." He pats his basket fondly.


Arthur observes the gesture, marks it as one of a man who has come to rely on a single possession for his livelihood. He falters. The information about the king aside, the old man cannot help with the pale woman's task if he has no home. Bidding him farewell and seeking out other subjects of the crown seems like the most prudent choice. It is certainly the choice Uther would make.


Yet the resignation he catches in the old man’s countenance compels Arthur to offer him something. "In my kingdom," he states at last, "there will be a place for you."


The old man eyes him shrewdly. "If that is true," he says slowly, "then I can aid you on your quest. Here." He rummages in his basket and pulls out the button once again. "Give this to a girl wearing a red hooded cloak and offer to carry her firewood. Whatever happens, do not force her to speak until you reach the threshold of her home and shut the door. She can help you."


Arthur takes the proffered object carefully. "Thank you, old man."


The old man merely raises his eyebrows. "Do not forget your promise, Arthur Pendragon. I must have a place in your kingdom." He shuffles off with his basket, stooping to pick a flower along the way.


His soothing, measured tones echo oddly after him. Get some rest, sire. The people need their king. I will stay and do what I can.


Arthur’s brow furrows as he tries to reconcile the old man’s parting words with his disappearance. He turns it over in his head a few times, but no revelations are forthcoming. Perhaps the old man was simply a bit barmy.


Arthur returns to the task at hand. A red-hooded girl gathering firewood. He sets off for what looks like the thickest part of the forest and hopes for the best.


*


Fortune seems to be with him, because it is not long before Arthur hears the rhythmic crack of dry wood being snapped. Dispensing with stealth, he hurries directly toward the promising sound and is rewarded with the sight of a red-hooded figure scavenging the forest floor. The girl wears dark pants made of coarse fabric, and her focus is such that she does not seem to hear Arthur’s approach. She is already carrying a sizable bundle of sticks, but seems to trying to fit one more into her stack.


Arthur takes a few paces and clears his throat courteously."Hello."


 The girl freezes, her hand still outstretched toward what was likely a promising piece of kindling.


Arthur tries to make his voice nonthreatening. "I am Arthur. I bring you a gift from a friend."


She looks curious, but not frightened as she nods once. Arthur takes it as permission to come closer. He holds out the scrap of cloth before him as he walks deliberately toward her, careful to make no sudden movements and smiling reassuringly. When he is close enough that she can spy the trinket in his hand, the girl's eyes light up all at once.  She drops her stack of brushwood to snatch the trinket from his grasp and gazes at the button with unguarded fondness. Pressing it to her heart, she returns his smile with one of her own, wide and open though it shows no teeth.


The smile is disconcertingly familiar to Arthur. For a moment, the girl’s face is overlaid in his mind with that of another, warm and intimate, and a vague flowery scent tickles the depths of his memory.


The moment passes as quickly as it came, and Arthur dismisses it in favor of picking up the silent girl’s scattered effects.


"I can carry these for you to your home,” he offers, looking up to where she stands with the button still clutched to her chest. “In return, I ask you grant me a place to stay."


The girl examines him carefully. Whatever she finds seems to please her, because her eyes crinkle up at the edges and she nods, tilting her head deeper into the forest. 


Arthur breathes an internal sigh of relief at having acquired permission so easily. Feeling unexpectedly gallant, he adds, "If you need, you are free to gather more."


His words spur the girl into motion. In a flash, several thick logs are stacked in his outstretched arms, considerable heft more suitable for heating a castle than a peasant’s kitchen. Arthur grapples to grip them more securely as she beckons him forth into the woods.


The path the girl picks is dark and tortuous, all the more so as he can only catch the tip of her hood over the load in his arms. She continues to gather wood as they go, balancing new lengths on top of the logs from before. Eventually, she stops giving wood to Arthur and carries additional bundles of fuel herself.  Arthur would like to protest he could carry more, but a sharp pain is flaring between his shoulders and his arms are beginning to shake. He is considering asking how much further this home of hers is when the seasoned scent of wood smoke finally catches his nose.


In a clearing directly ahead lies a small hovel with an aspect of recent disrepair. The window is blackened, the roof in need of thatching, but the walls appear sturdy and the door swings easily to admit them under the girl’s touch. She carries her wood in with her rather than deposit it outside and Arthur follows blindly after her. When he unloads his arms inside, Arthur is surprised to discover the hovel is not a home at all, but a smithery. Wood is stacked inside in every possible nook and cranny, save for a tiny space in front of the forge for a blacksmith to perform his craft. The girl hangs her red cloak on a hook outside and carefully shuts the door before turning to him.


"Hail, Arthur, one called Pendragon," she rasps, her voice hoarse with disuse. Bright, fiery sparks dance in the darkness between them and with a sense of horror Arthur realizes they are coming from her mouth.


"What are you?" he asks, instantly wary.


She grins, provoking another round of sparks. "I am one who dared to plead for mercy.” Her eyes flash and her voice grows stronger as she speaks. “My father made a foolish oath, and despite my words it cost him his life. I told them to take mine as well, because never again would I speak of the king without disdain.”


Her lip curls scornfully. “I would gladly have died that day. But my father was dead, and without him they had no one to armor the king's armies. The king was not willing to sacrifice his crusade. They assigned me to my forge and took my teeth in hopes of stealing my voice. They did not realize fires of dissent burn brightest when they are forced into the dark."


Her teeth gleam in the faint light of the embers from the forge and at once Arthur comprehends that they are false. Forged from iron and steel, their clacking is what prompts the sparks that fly between them. Arthur cannot imagine the skill that must have been required to craft them, cannot imagine the pain they must still cause.


"A foolish king," he observes, "to make so formidable an enemy."


The girl smiles no longer. "Foolish, perhaps, but still capable of causing great suffering amongst his people. In this kingdom, those without title are without power."


She lifts two stout logs from the nearest stack easily and adds them to the fire. She stokes it and continues, "My father swore that I could armor the king’s army in a single night in a moment of pride. None took his words to heart save the king, who took them for a challenge. Now my sentence is each day to forge new mail for the king's knights. They must all be prepared by dawn or I will be taken away to be burned."


"They can hardly expect one blacksmith to armor an entire army in one night," Arthur objects.


"That is what my father promised the king I could do," she replies, "and so I must until I am proven a liar and carried away."


Arthur looks at her askance. He is utterly unable to comprehend blithe acceptance of near imminent execution. "What can I do to help you?" he asks finally.


Her eyes in return are both gentle and fierce. "Man my bellows, keep the flame constant all night long, and before dawn I will weave for you a token."


Arthur doesn't hesitate before he jerks his chin in assent. A sideways smile splits the girl's face and she turns to her wall to don an apron. A pair of tongs is produced from the garment’s pocket and she begins pulling iron from the forge.


The smithery is soon swelteringly hot. Arthur’s shirt is plastered to his back as he works the bellows, keeping the flames hot to soften the iron. The girl, on the other hand, appears entirely unaffected by the heat pulsating from the forge. Her focus is devoted entirely to her work as she weaves the iron into mail like others might weave wool into cloth. Arthur is not certain, but he thinks at some point he sees her cut the mail like thread with her teeth.


The night is long and filled with terror of the approaching dawn. Yet by the time the first cracks of light appear under the door, the room that was once full of wood is barren save for the forge and the commissioned armor lies gleaming outside.


The girl finally puts down her hammer and wipes her brow with her bare arm. "This last one is yours," she says, handing the mail shirt to Arthur.


At first the haubergeon does not appear any different to Arthur's eyes than the many lined carefully in front of the hovel to await the king's men. Then he holds the mail up to the light, and he realizes with a start that the Pendragon crest shines in sparks upon its breast.


He turns to the girl, who has already donned her red-hooded cloak once more. "Thank you for your token," he manages through his amazement, pulling the mail over his head.


The girl smiles once, quickly. "I hope it aids you on your quest." Her face sobers. "Take heed, fair prince. Even those with titles here may suffer terribly. My fine lady whom once I served defied the king to defend me, and now wanders the plains alone and friendless. I would go to meet her, but I am bound to my forge."


"I will find her for you and do for her what I can," Arthur swears immediately.


“Wear this so that she may know you come from me.” The girl plucks a flower from her hair and places it near his collar. The strange scent suffuses his senses and Arthur feels the prickle of some memory tugging at his thoughts. He has seen someone wear a flower like this before.


The girl does not notice his abstraction and straightens the mail on his shoulders before stepping back to inspect her handiwork.  "Your heart is strong, Arthur,” she tells him firmly. “I hope it is enough to heal this kingdom. I wish you luck."


She turns and is rapidly swallowed by the forest, but Arthur continues to hear her voice echoing clear as bell.


You're not going to die, Arthur. One day you will be king, a greater king than your father could ever be. Live to be the man I've seen inside you.


Arthur shakes his head to dislodge the sound which, strangely, seems to resonate inside his own mind. He lets out a breath. The sooner he can leave this odd place, the better.


*


The sky is unchanged from yesterday, yet grey and overcast. As Arthur trudges through the forest, he wonders whether this is considered natural for the season or if this too is something he’s meant to fix.  He sincerely hopes not. Cloud cover aside, he estimates it to be sometime around high noon when he suddenly runs out of forest. "Runs out" is less of an exaggeration and more a statement of fact as the forest ends so abruptly that Arthur actually takes one or two steps before he realizes the terrain has in fact changed at all. When he turns around, he sees that the sides of the trees facing the plain are uniformly charred and crumbling, as if a great flame had swept down to scorch them and then disappeared in the next second.


Wishing not for the first time he had a sword, Arthur keeps the edge of the forest in his periphery as he trails through the approaching grass with increased alertness. He falls into a crouch when the soft sound of broken weeping unexpectedly pricks his ears.


He tracks the sound to a lady in violet resting abjectly on a rock at the edge of the woods. She appears to be quite alone, her fine dress a warm, deep color inlaid with gold that he absently thinks Morgana would quite like. Her face is turned away from him, hidden by her hands, and she appears utterly oblivious to his advance.


Arthur rises from his crouched battle stance and stretches a hand toward her shoulder. "Milady--"


The word has barely left his lips when all at once the lady leaps up with a snarl. The full force of her momentum hits him in the chest and he lands heavily on the grass in his chainmail. His head collides sharply with the ground, and the pain disorients him long enough for the lady to flatten a dagger against his throat.


"You can't capture me," she growls, her voice low and menacing. Arthur struggles to throw her off, but somehow the way she has distributed her weight has him pinned. As she presses the dagger more deeply against his throat, a flash of light reveals her features to him and he gasps.


The lady's face is covered in scratches and scars, fresh and ugly-looking. They extend from her temple to her brow and cross her eyes again down to her cheek like the edges of a bloody mask. Her eyes themselves are milky-white and it is quite obvious she is blind. What may have been once beautiful lips are twisted in a dark scowl against him, the long line of her neck taut with unspoken fury.


Arthur’s mind races to envision what misfortune could have marred the lady so completely and he finds himself unprepared to seize the advantage when her features freeze suddenly. The pressure at his throat slackens the tiniest fraction as the lady leans forward and ever-so-delicately sniffs around his neck.


A scent? The flower! She smelled the flower the blacksmith had placed by his throat.


Arthur takes the opportunity and tries again, mindful of her grip on the dagger. "My lady?"


Her voice is hesitant, unsure. "My silver trinket?"


"No," he replies and the pressure that had slackened returns. "But a friend," he adds hastily.


The pressure at his throat subsides and Arthur pushes the lady off without resistance. He groans as he sits up. His back aches where he landed in his chainmail and he gives himself a few moments to take stock of his injuries, recover (his pride), and reassure himself that there are indeed no holes inflicted in his neck by a mad lady with a dagger who can't even see. Having verified all these things to his satisfaction (he was caught by surprise, that's all), he returns his attention to the lady in question.


She watches him pensively from where she stands, already on her feet. He is not sure by what trick she manages it, but the lady in violet meets his eyes directly. "She would not have sent you if she did not trust you," she says at last. "My silver trinket is a fine judge of hearts."


Arthur is not sure how to respond to a compliment from a lady who moments ago was determined to kill you. He settles for a less-than-hearty, "Thank you."


The lady merely smiles and arranges the lines of her dress as she returns to her previous perch on the outlying rock. "What aid do you seek, young knight? Knowledge? A trusty hand with the knife?" she teases.


"I ask that you allow me to spend the night in your home," Arthur submits hurriedly, before he has the chance to give into his urge to start a duel of verbal wit.


The lady laughs. "You may spend one night in my home if," she says and her sightless eyes dance, "you can take me there with you."


"Where is your home?" he asks.


"You will find the tower on the edge where the plains meets the forest. The task should not be difficult."


Arthur doesn't quite trust that statement after all that’s happened in this kingdom, but holds out his hand anyway. "Then I will lead you there, my lady."


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February 2011

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