|The Rising Prologue: In the Halls of the Dead
Author: Guede Mazaka
After Badon Hill, Arthur had been quiet and docile and hollowed. He still acted the part of the leader well enough, but the fire behind the steel was wholly absent, and always his eyes looked inward to death. Guinevere did her best to involve him in matters of state and of living, and then in matters of comfort, but at the end of the third day beyond the battle, she confessed that she could do nothing against the way he welcomed the dark.
"He wants to follow his fallen," she murmured, fine dress rumpling as she slumped against the tree. Her hands twisted and clenched in her lap, an uncharacteristic display of insecurity for her, and the lines around her mouth belonged to a much more beaten woman. "Sometimes I don't think he even sees me. I'm merely another thing to be handled."
Merlin leaned on his staff, weighing the loss of Arthur against the fragmenting tribes of Britain. They had held together long enough under threat of a common enemy, but now that both Romans and Saxons were gone from the land, they were beginning to fray into petty squabbles. He would not see that unraveling in his lifetime, and not simply because the Saxons still a menace in the sea-mists. A old man looked out of Merlin's scarred skin and saw the deeds of his life with the unflinching gaze of experience that dismissed youth's shallow glories and acknowledged only a few precious accomplishments.
"He suffers like I've never seen anyone to." Guinevere pursed her lips and dug her nails into her palms as if she would find wisdom in such meaningless pain. "His body is healing-as well enough as he'll let it--but he doesn't respond to anything. Not really."
Britain-the whole Britain, stretching her veil over all her peoples instead of having her mantle shredded by factions-had to be preserved. Merlin had done it in the past, and he'd hoped that Guinevere would be able to slide smoothly into his place, but the unceasing ache that had settled into his bones told him that they wouldn't have enough time. She still had not gathered all the power she would need to support her intelligence and ability.
Arthur, however, did. Together they would do it, but in order for that to happen, Artorius first had to be preserved. And in order to preserve Arthur...
"His friend. Lancelot. He's had to have seen so many deaths of his knights already...but somehow, this one was different." To judge by the hard glitter in Guinevere's eyes, she had more than an inkling of what that difference was.
"Arthur cannot be allowed to fall away," Merlin finally said. He flexed his hands on his staff, feeling how much strength was left to him.
Guinevere's head shot up, her angry confusion suddenly, surprisingly transmuted to cold defiance. She'd grown much since Merlin had last seen her. Much and far. As he'd hoped for, though he'd also known that the eventual confrontation would be far more painful than any prediction he might make. "If you hurt him-" she began, hands straying to the dagger she thought he hadn't spotted.
That was a startling development. Merlin had assumed that any quarrel would simply be over influence, impersonal and political. "Hurting him would do nothing to further our cause."
"And as we've seen, there is more than one way to mortally injure him. I suggest you remember that. Merlin." No, no deference now in this proud queen who held herself straight as his stick and as unyielding as steel.
"You've started to care for him." Not an unusual outcome, but amusing to him nonetheless. Especially when he drew out the memory of the girl and set it next to the woman, who blushed but did not waver in her determination. "And I suggest that you remember who has seen more years and more brave warriors pass. Good day, Guinevere."
As Merlin walked away, he could feel the suppressed rage and fear vibrating off her, but he paid it no heed. She was grown now, and like himself, she needed no help to walk her path.
Arthur was still recovering from his wounds and should have rightly been in bed, regaining his strength. If he did feel the need to stay up, he should have spent it working to preserve what Badon Hill had defended. In the immediate chaos following two retreats-Roman and Saxon-many weeds were springing up in every corner. For the sake of preserving the lives of his knights, he needed to stabilize the land, and quickly while the triumph of Badon Hill still clung to him.
Preservation of life and triumphs. The notions made him laugh, and the laughing made him stagger with the pain it drew from inside of him. His vision swam for a moment, tired as he was with nights of no sleep and constant hurt, but he willed himself steady and continued on. Guinevere had managed to distract him long enough from this last duty he owed. The burning was set for tomorrow, and he only had this one night.
When he ducked into the room where they were storing Lancelot's body, he was startled to see someone leaning over the table. He'd thought that they had finished with..."Merlin!"
"Arthur." The man appeared deceptively calm, given that he had ripped off the linens the other knights had swaddled around Lancelot. It would've been Arthur's hands doing that task if Guinevere hadn't been so adept at distracting him. And that thought combined with the present strange meeting to gorge Arthur's throat with searing bile.
He grabbed Excalibur's hilt and pulled his sword free, all sore exhaustion completely gone now. With every step he took toward the impassive, motionless Merlin, Arthur's anger welled even higher. "Get away from him. And whatever you were doing-for the love of G-for the sake of your desired unity, can't you leave my knights alone? Haven't you done enough to them? Or are you so savage that you can't let even the dead rest?"
"I don't do this out of savagery." Merlin failed to show a flicker of reaction, even when Arthur swung the tip of Excalibur against his throat. The candles Merlin must have lit wavered shadows over his face, striping it in place of his customary paint. His hands held on a few bunches of various herbs and a flask, while beside Lancelot's head rested a small basin of water.
Arthur made the mistake of continuing his glance aside and instantly forgot about Merlin's presence in his astonishment: Lancelot was virtually untouched by any kind of decay. Not the slightest whiff of rot reached Arthur's nose, no putrid tones stained the blanched skin-in fact, the overall appearance was that of a man sleeping away a sickness. The implied hope in that thought almost dropped Arthur to his knees, and only the remembrance of Lancelot's biting comment on that kept him from doing it. He certainly owed the obeisance.
"You're not well."
A gliding at the edge of Arthur's sight snapped his attention back to Merlin, who was slowly reaching for Excalibur. Snarling, Arthur forced the sword back against the other man's neck. He had to hold it with both hands because it was growing so heavy, and even then the blade started to dip. Merlin's gaze went with it, betraying an unexpected glimmer of worry; it would've been more rational for the man to feel relief at the move of the threat away from him.
Fever had been creeping at the edges of Arthur ever since he had looked down on Lancelot's fallen body, nestled in the sweet green grass. In the immediate chaos after the battle, he'd not had the time to give in to it and so had kept pushing it back until he had thought it gone from him, with only dull chills in its place. Now, however, the heat prickled and consumed the soft weak flesh beneath his skin, devouring him from inside-out. A drop of sweat burned his eye, calling his attention to the faintness that was now spreading through him.
"You're not well," Merlin repeated.
Arthur smiled, and he didn't intend it to be a pleasant one. "No, I'm not. But your battle is won, and your queen is well on her way."
The walls were flashing from their previous faded brown to brilliant oranges and yellows and reds, exactly as how Arthur had always pictured Nebuchadnezzar's furnace that had fruitlessly tried to burn the three Hebrews. In his own case, he had a feeling that the fire was well on its way to ending his life.
"Put down your sword, Arthur. This is not a battlefield, and you needn't fight this." Merlin carefully raised his hands and took Excalibur on his palms, then easily tugged it free of Arthur's failing hold.
Weak as he was, Arthur wasn't about to let his mother's killer take his father's sword. He lunged for it and caught one edge, then reeled back to grab listlessly at the edge of the table with his unhurt hand. The other one flailed and touched nothing as Arthur's knees suddenly wrenched out from under himself. Desperate, he made one last snatch and felt his arm come down on something that was slightly yielding and warm. For one brief second, it held him from the floor, but things started sliding and Arthur couldn't stay up. He fell, and so did a gasping, writhing, moaning-
Huge eyes stared at him, while Arthur's cut hand froze on Lancelot's shoulder. He'd already smeared blood from the man's breastbone to the side of his throat, and a few stray drops had even landed on Lancelot's lips, which were absently licked away as Lancelot prepared to speak.
Except Arthur was too far into the spiral of flame to hear anything except the thudding of his heart as it beat its way up his body and into his skull. "Merlin-you won't live to see the-"
"No, I won't." And that sure, even voice and Lancelot's panicked face were the last things Arthur knew before he pitched forward into searing darkness.