[personal profile] new_kate
Title: Men for All Seasons
Fandom: Merlin BBC
Summary: Reincarnation story set in 1940. In Albion's hour of need Arthur is brought back from his rest in Avalon. He learns that the world is at war, and that the enemies have dark magic at their disposal. With the help of the mysterious Vril society the invaders are about to gain air superiority and become unstoppable. Only Merlin could fight the new magical threat, but Merlin has been missing for a long time...
Written for [livejournal.com profile] paperlegends Merlin Big Bang 2011.
Pairings: A/M, implied past A/Gwen.
Word count: 56K
Rating: R
Warnings: Violence, war, torture, disturbing historical references, implied character deaths in the past, mental disorder. Also flying saucers.

(I feel like I should explain about the flying saucers so here's a link though it will probably only increase the level of WTF: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_flying_saucers )

Notes: many, many thanks to my heroic beta [livejournal.com profile] ghost_guessed, who wouldn't give up on me despite my constant flailing and was a delight to work with, as always. Also to [livejournal.com profile] lolafeist, [livejournal.com profile] ella_bane, [livejournal.com profile] scribblemoose and [livejournal.com profile] gilli_ann for their support and invaluable advice and for holding my hand through all of this, and to [livejournal.com profile] louiselux, [livejournal.com profile] puddingcat, [livejournal.com profile] daegaer and [livejournal.com profile] toscas_kiss who read this in Tallin hotel room in between sharing beer, game and adventures with me.

Huge thanks to [livejournal.com profile] the_muppet, for being a wonderfully supportive mod and for hooking me up with the inimitable [livejournal.com profile] amphigoury.

[livejournal.com profile] amphigoury agreed to pinch-hit the art at the last minute, read 50K of terrifyingly rough draft in one go and magically conjured three magnificent pieces and also the gifs embedded throughout the story. I don't know how, okay. It's a miracle. Thank you! It's been such a privilege to work with you and to get to know you.

Art masterpost: http://amphigoury.livejournal.com/16103.html

AOO link: http://archiveofourown.org/works/246860
All parts are tagged


Click for full version of the cover






Arthur felt solid ground beneath his back and opened his eyes.

The sky never changed. Everything else did - the people, the buildings, the fields and the forests; even the mountains seemed to grow or shrink as the centuries rolled by. But Albion's sky was always the same, overcast and low, readying for rain or recovering from one, stormy blue and as familiar as the eyes of an old beloved friend.

"Hello again," he said, trying out his voice, and pressed his palms to the cold earth.

He always woke up here, at the place where he'd fallen. The first time had been a struggle, a moment of sick confusion. He couldn't understand what was happening and couldn't properly fall back into his own body, too used to the weightless dreamstate of Avalon. He didn't remember his first death, only the rending pain of the wound and the sight of his blood pumping through the mail, drifting in and out of consciousness for hours, being soothed by Morgana's hands, their boat gliding into the mist. But the first awakening was still fresh in his mind - the harshness of air, the awful tenderness of his skin, the feeling of being lost, cast out, wronged somehow.

He knew the drill now. He sat up and stretched, enjoying the youthful strength of his back and the lightness of his body, everything he'd taken for granted when he'd been twenty five for the first time. 

He wore his old hunting clothes, as usual - good, warm and sturdy, plain and non-descript. There was some gold in the pockets of his long coat, and if the past was any indication, these few ancient coins could make him a rich man. 

He often wondered how it all worked. He thought that the coins he brought with him every time stayed here, and every time he returned a new handful of coins came with him. If he kept bringing more, some day they would no longer be a rarity, and he wouldn't be able to sell them so advantageously.

But perhaps it was the same handful of coins every time, and once he was gone they too melted into thin air or turned to dust in someone's coffers. Perhaps the same happened to his body each time it fell down behind him. 

Merlin would know. Merlin knew about these things. But wherever Merlin was now, it wasn't here. And that was for the best, Arthur truly believed that. Merlin had tired of wars centuries ago, and he'd earned some peace. 

Arthur got up and walked down the slope of the hill, taking in the new sights. Last time there had been a dirt track at the foot of the hill, and that was where he'd seen an automobile for the first time. It had been a terrifying miracle of a sight, even after he had seen trains and steam boats, and he couldn't vouch that he had handled it with sufficient dignity. But now he felt prepared for anything, and he was anxious to see this bright new future. 

The road was now wide and paved in tarmac, and Arthur kicked at the solid, smooth surface with a satisfied grin. The country had prospered in his absence. Last time he'd been here roads like this were still a novelty and a luxury. Now it seemed they stretched even to the quiet countryside. 

The last war, the worst of all of them, had threatened to drown half the world in blood and poison, and had seemed like it would never end. But here was proof that the war had been over for a long time and his country had grown richer and stronger in the years of peace. Every storm passes, however bad. This one would pass, too.

He walked by the roadside, heading east, till he heard the rumbling of an engine. The pitch was different from what he remembered, the sound quieter; the auto-mobile was different too, sleek and fantastically shaped, wrapping around its passenger in a safe cocoon of steel. It was quick and it handled the corners deftly, whispering over the road on soft tyres. Arthur longed to drive one.

Arthur waved to the motorist and waited for the vehicle to roll to a complete stop before approaching, remembering his motor safety training. The driver fiddled with something on the inside of the door, and the glass window smoothly slid down in its frame. 

The driver was a woman, and she was wearing an army uniform. A soldier, then. Perfect. The uniform was different from the last time, but not drastically so: still fitted and utilitarian, in muted earthy tones. 

"Hello," Arthur said pleasantly. He remembered the trendy slang from the last time, but he'd learned that trends changed fast and it was always best to stick to the simplest language. "I wish to join the war effort. Can you take me to a place where I might start?"

She stared at him, wary and serious, narrowing her eyes.

"If that's a come-on, you'll be sorry," she said.

"We're at war, aren't we?" he asked, brushing off everything baffling with an ease born of lengthy practice. "I want to fight for my country."

"I'm going to London," she said.

"Sounds good," he nodded. London must still be the capital; it always pleased him when things endured. 

"Everyone with sense is running to the countryside," she said. "Do you really want to go to London?"

"Wherever the fight is," he shrugged.

She pushed the door open and beckoned him inside. He settled on the soft seat, choking a little on the stink of oil and petrol.

"Let's go then, hero," she said, and the world lurched backwards around them. 

**

This whole thing was, as were most of the joys and frustrations in Arthur's life, probably Merlin's fault.

Arthur wasn't sure when it had started; he hadn't paid much attention. The first time Arthur had really listened was on the eve of a battle, the last one in his first campaign as a king. 

"Tomorrow Albion will be born," Merlin said, as they lay together in Arthur's tent.

"If we win," Arthur said. His fingers were on Merlin's arm, touching gingerly. He thought of the power swirling and humming under that pale skin, and stroked lightly, imagining magic as colours and currents and golden light.

"We'll win," said Merlin. "We'll unite the land, and it will prosper under your rule. And there will be peace. And Albion will love you."

"People will appreciate a just rule," Arthur agreed. "This kingdom was all but run into the ground. Life will be better here for the common folk."

"It's not even that. It's your destiny to unite the land. Albion wants to be born. The two of you are tied together."

Merlin rolled up on his elbow. His eyes were huge and serious, startling dark blue. 

"It's like the land has a soul," he said. "I feel it, my magic feels it. And I can feel it loves you. It's right here."

He pressed a hand to his own naked chest, and Arthur pushed it down and laid a ring of furious love bites there, over Merlin's stupid heart, feeling invincible and happy. 

The next day, as the sun was setting over the ravaged battlefield, he stood at the top of the hill, sword steaming in his hand, drunk on victory, and felt the same rush of bliss and belonging. Albion was his now, to nurture and lead to glory, and at that moment he was in love with every inch of his kingdom, from sea to sea, every town, tree and rock, and felt possessively protective of every one of his subjects. And he felt loved; only right then, looking into Merlin's shining eyes, he didn't think that had anything to do with magic or the soul of the land.

The peace didn't come easily; it had to be born in blood. They kept at it for years, and it felt like they were bringing up a difficult child together. Sometimes Arthur despaired, and Merlin put his foot down and talked sense into him. Sometimes Merlin got lost in his own elaborate plans or worked himself into a frenzy over a difficult choice, and it was Arthur's turn to be the wise one.

There had been wars; in one battle Arthur was unseated from his horse and slashed across the middle. When he came to - under tall trees, away from the fight - his blood was everywhere, staining Merlin's arms to the elbows as he cut Arthur's shirt off.

"How bad is it?" Arthur asked with numb lips. Merlin's face was ghostly white, his eyes dark.

"It's fine," Merlin said. He scooped up a handful of dirt from the forest floor and pressed it into the wound.

"Are you - completely - out of your -" Arthur stuttered, but the pain was gone. Merlin's hand was steady and warm on him, glowing with power.

"Albion needs you alive," Merlin said calmly. "The earth will lend you its strength. Try to get some sleep, Lancelot has the battle well in hand."

Arthur was back in his armour in two days. The wound faded in a week, and hadn't even scarred.

They'd put an end to the last of the internal struggles, and fought off an invasion from across the sea. And then, just when it should have been a time to enjoy the peace and let the war-weary kingdom rest and recover, there was famine.

It was his fault, just as it had been his fault that time he'd shot the unicorn. He'd reached too far and dragged his kingdom through too many battles, and all the grain stores were depleted, the treasury drained. They needed this harvest desperately, but the weather had turned against them, as if to punish his pride and ambition.

They tried to devise plans, calling on their friends overseas for help, but whatever they were able to do, it wouldn't save everyone. People were going to starve and die, and the death toll was going to be worse than all the lives lost in the wars he'd waged put together.

He spent a day at the edge of a field, idly stroking dying shoots of grain and watching Merlin try every spell he knew. 

"I could force a few fields to yield a harvest, I think," said Merlin tiredly, stumbling over the rows to crouch at his side. "I'll have to keep at it every day, if the weather doesn't change. But that's..."

That wouldn't be enough. Not even for Camelot, let alone the whole kingdom.

"There must be something we can do," said Arthur. "Something - if I could pass a test again, or..."

"There is something," Merlin nodded. "I don't know if it'll work. But let's try it."

They rode off the same day, for the lands that used to be Cenred's many years ago.

"I don't really understand this kind of magic," Merlin said. "Nobody does, I think. There was a sorceress who was centuries old, and she had no idea how to control this life and death stuff. And I'm only..."

He trailed off, counting in his head.

"Thirty eight," Arthur said.

"Wow. That means you're forty."

"Yes."

"You look the same," Merlin said. "Strange."

He didn't. He looked his age, he knew it. His face had hardened, and the lines around his eyes were deep. His hair was greying, though it was too fair for the silver strands to stand out. He still felt strong, but there were soft places on his body now, skin sagging a little here and there, no matter how hard he trained. They were all older. Gwaine's hair had started thinning and he'd cut it short; Leon had gone bald, and Gwen's dresses were looser, skimming her rounded curves. Only Merlin still looked the same, every bit a gawky fresh-faced boy barely in his twenties, as if he'd been too busy with the matters of state and had forgotten to age. 

But Arthur knew what Merlin meant. Whenever he thought of his friends he pictured them young, the way they all used to be. Under Gwen's regal demeanour he still saw that sweet girl he'd kissed for the first time in her tiny house in the Lower Town. Every time he looked at Gwaine he remembered that rakish drunk in a loosely laced shirt, and Lancelot's face was still painfully earnest and full of hope, the way he'd been when he'd first petitioned to become a knight. 

Perhaps Arthur only saw the marks age had left on the others because he felt them on himself. Merlin, cheerfully untouched by passage of time, had no reason to notice any changes.

They stopped at a grove, and Merlin went to talk to his contacts. Arthur waited, chewing on a mouldy piece of bread, and tried not to get his hopes up. 

Merlin had returned with a few druids in tow, and they spent the rest of the day whispering among each other and arranging twigs and bird feathers in arcane patterns on the forest floor. 

"Shouldn't you get on with it?" Arthur asked. 

"It's a night kind of magic," said Merlin. 

When the moon rose another druid arrived, leading a starved-looking cow. The beast's eyes were murky; its bones were sharp under its pelt, as if they were about to split it open from the inside. 

"Is that really necessary?" Merlin asked the others.

"The spell is very old," said one of the men. "It's possible that some parts of it are only superstition, and could be skipped. But do you want to risk failure just because you're squeamish?"

Merlin sighed and shook his head. The druids slaughtered the cow with one swift knife stroke, and began skinning it. 

"All right, let's begin," said Merlin. "You should get undressed."

"Me?" Arthur asked. "I thought..."

He thought Merlin had brought him here for company, because he was too much of a girl to try a difficult spell by himself. He hadn't expected to be able to help in any meaningful way.

"I told you before," Merlin said. "You're tied to this land, it loves you. We're going to try to heal it with your lifeforce."

"Will I die?" he asked. It wouldn't be too high a price to pay for saving thousands of lives; he'd been prepared to do that back when he'd still been a prince, when it was only Camelot at stake. But the kingdom still had no heir. He had to get his affairs in order before doing this. 

"Of course not, don't be an idiot, I'd never let that happen," Merlin said, almost angry. "Just strip."

Arthur undressed and knelt naked at the spot they showed him. The druids whispered some spells over a clean knife and made a small nick on his arm, below his elbow. They made him stay there and bleed into the ground till he was dizzy.

"Enough," Merlin kept saying, staring at the blood as it dripped off Arthur's fingers. "That has to be enough, stop it."

"Let's do this right," Arthur said, slurring words like a drunk. "They clearly know what they're doing better than you do."

His arm was cold and numb when they finally put some moss on the cut and bandaged it. The cow pelt was spread on the ground now, skin down, the other side hastily scrubbed but still wet and caked with blood and gore.

"You have to get into this," Merlin said apologetically. "And then I'll do the last part."

Arthur walked the few wobbly steps and lay on the slick surface. The stink was overwhelming; he tried to hold his breath, but then they folded the rest of the pelt over him, wrapping him in it head to toe, and he had no choice but to breathe it in. 

He dimly heard Merlin's voice chanting strange words near him. Then he passed out from the stench and blood loss.

He woke up sitting in a cold stream. A young, very naked druid girl was scrubbing him clean with a handful of dry grass.

"It's done," she said. "It went better than we expected. Emrys's gift is elemental; it's not suited to this kind of magic. But he's the only one with enough power. He'll need to rest now. You have to let him."

He nodded and tried not to look at her small pert breasts as she efficiently washed him all over. She pulled him out of the brook and led him back to the rest of the druids, huddled around the fire. Merlin was curled up near them, wrapped in Arthur's cloak, asleep. Arthur was helped back into his clothes and handed a cup of some bitter, hot brew. 

"We've put some herbs in your bags," said one of the druids. "They'll help you recover. Your physician should know what to do with them. The land has accepted your gift. It recognises you as the true king."

"That's good," he mumbled.

"You're mortal," said another druid. "The land will suffer when you're gone. Emrys has made some hasty decisions. He's still a child."

"He's thirty eight," Arthur said, looking at Merlin's face, innocent and soft in his sleep, so young.

"He thinks he can keep you alive forever," a druid said. "He refuses to accept the order of things. But that's the nature of his gift."

By the time he'd made himself swallow the rest of his drink they were all gone, faded into the darkness. He managed to haul Merlin up onto his horse and mount himself, and he rode back to Camelot in a slow step, dozing off every few minutes. 

Arthur was bed-ridden for a week after that, feverish and too ill to move much. He still made himself walk in small circles around his room, leaning on Gwen's shoulder or supported by Lancelot's arms, trying to keep his body limber; then slept off the cost of his grand efforts, sweating into his sheets. The spell had sapped all his strength, but he was on the mend, and so was Albion. The sun shone every day, and generous warm showers poured onto the starved land, and the crops were taking. They'd have a harvest.

Merlin slept without stirring, curled tightly at the edge of Arthur's bed. Gwaine spent hours by the bedside, stroking his hair, peering into his face.

"We need to wake him up," he kept saying worriedly. "We need to try to feed him, at least, pour some water in his mouth. He must be thirsty."

"They told me to let him rest," Arthur said, drinking his herb brew cupful after cupful. "We should let him."

Merlin woke up on the fifth day and crawled across the bed, yawning, pawing at Arthur to check his pulse.

"We're never doing that again," he said.

"We'll never have to," Arthur agreed. "We're making arrangements already. We'll stockpile food and make trade agreements; we'll never have a lean year again. And, you know what? You could have warned me. Cow hide, really?"

"I thought it would be less gross if it was sudden. You know, you're kind of married to Albion now."

"I'm married to Gwen," Arthur said, combing sweaty strands of hair off Merlin's face. "I was thinking. If there's a magic like that, maybe there's a spell that could..."

"No."

"Morgause said - that vision she conjured, it said I was conceived by magic."

"It was a lie. I told you that."

"I know, but maybe... Merlin, I'm forty. Gwen is forty four. We need an heir, we're running out of time."

"No."

He'd never relented, but they all kept hoping for a child for another decade, till time ran out. And when it did, Gwen told him she was leaving.

"But I love you," Arthur stuttered out, uselessly. She smiled and laid a soft hand on his cheek.

"I know you do," she said. "You always loved me the best you could. And I love you too. And Lancelot does, you know that. We're not doing this to hurt you."

"But I thought we were happy," he said. They were, they were all friends, everything between them had been settled and agreed years ago. They still spent three nights every month making love in his bed, on the dates Gwen and Merlin would carefully glean from moon phases, they kept trying, and it had been good. Sometimes Arthur would ask Lancelot to join them, and it was good too, even better. Arthur had been hoping - if the child was born with dark eyes and hair, everyone would just think he took after his mother. Sometimes Merlin was there too, weaving small, cautious fertility spells that didn't seem to do anything, and they'd make him stop and pull him into bed with them. It had been so good.

"You don't need me any more," she said. "I did all I could. We won the fealty of your people, and your reign is secure. You should take a young bride. Maybe the fault was with me, maybe you can still have an heir."

"I don't want you to leave. Why can't you stay? You and Lancelot don't have to hide, if that bothers you. You know I only asked you to keep up appearances so the legitimacy of our child wouldn't be doubted. It doesn't matter now. The people love you, they'll accept it."

"Arthur, I was never meant for this," she said. "I'm not suited for this life. I did my best, but now that we know I'll never bear you a child, I just want to live what time I have left the way I want to. I want to be with the man who can give me everything he is, and I want to give him everything. Not just stolen glances and secret meetings in the night, and a corner in your bed."

"But why - is this about Merlin? I thought you'd..."

"It's not about Merlin," she sighed. "Merlin would rip his heart out with his bare hands if he thought it would make us happy. It's about you. You could never love me the way Lancelot does, and it's not your fault. You belong to your kingdom, and everything else comes second. I've always felt like a mistress, intruding on your true love."

"No, Gwen. That's just - listen, it's probably because Merlin messed up some spells. He'll undo it."

She laughed.

"It's always been like this," she said. "I've always known it. We all have. We helped you carry your burden; we just want to rest now."

"I'd have given it all up for you," he said, remembering that first flush of romance, when everything seemed so grand and urgent. 

"I'm glad you didn't," she said. "You've become a great king, and you've changed this land for the better. You've changed people's lives for the better. I'm proud to have had a part in it. If you'd chosen me, all we'd have now would be a poorly run farm and an unhappy marriage. You have your kingdom, and it has you, and none of us would have it any other way."

It hurt for a long time, but they had a kingdom to run, and the pain faded, swept away by daily toil.

"We need to choose a successor," Arthur told Merlin one morning. They'd been lazing in bed together; Merlin was still sleepy, nuzzling at him with soft warm lips.

"Why," Merlin drawled and kissed a wet line through white hairs on Arthur's chest. "It's not like you're old."

Arthur looked at his own hand, wrinkled and marked with age spots, resting on impossibly smooth, glowing skin of Merlin's back, and didn't argue.

"For me it's between you and Gwaine right now," he said.

"Well, I'm not doing it," Merlin huffed. "And Gwaine is older than you, by six months."

"We'll need a younger man, yes. But without the queen - we need a successor in place now, in case something happens."

"I won't let anything happen to you. Besides, I don't think Albion would let you go."

In the end, Merlin wasn't there to save him, and he was defeated, and he died. But Albion hadn't let him go. Over and over, whenever the kingdom was in trouble, whenever there was a war and a threat of invasion, Arthur found himself on the field of his last battle, in the same place he'd fallen and the same age he'd been when he'd first claimed this land for himself.

He didn't know why it happened. It could be destiny. It could be something he'd willed on himself somehow, because he loved his kingdom the way he couldn't love his wife, the way only Merlin really understood. It could be the will of the land, crying for him like a child stirred by a nightmare.

Or it could all be Merlin's fault. He might have messed up some spells, or even done this on purpose, when he'd fused Arthur's blood with Albion's soil, when he'd wrapped him in that damned cow skin and used his lifeforce to save the harvest, or any other time he wove his magic without even telling Arthur what it did.

Arthur liked to blame it all on Merlin. It gave him an excuse to grumble at Merlin, and that was always satisfying, even if the conversation only happened in his head.

"You did this to me, I just know it," he told Merlin over and over, century after century. "I'm stuck here because of you. I hope you're happy."

Merlin in his head laughed, crinkling his eyes, and showed no remorse whatsoever, as if he knew Arthur was only putting on a show. Of course he'd know. He'd understand why Arthur liked coming back and seeing his kingdom prosper, and even why it felt good to fight again. Arthur probably hadn't been a good husband, and he hadn't been as good a king as he'd wanted to be. But he was a born warrior. This was something he could do well.

"I hope you're happy, Merlin," Arthur mumbled to himself sometimes, resting between battles. "Wherever you are, I'm sure you're happy."

*



 
The sky was on fire.

Arthur had been directed to a shelter, but he couldn't leave the street. It was awful to watch, and yet he couldn't look away.

Thick columns of smoke rose up from the burning buildings, and up in the sky there was more, trails of it left by the planes ripping through the sky, clouds from the ones that'd been hit. White lines of fire streamed from the planes, and more shot up to the planes from the ground defences. Search lights crossed and turned, caught on the clouds of smoke; at first it seemed like utter chaos, but Arthur could already see formations, discern the patterns of the attacks.

The sound was terrible, worse than the sight, so it was better to look, and to try learning what the changes in the deafening roar of the battle meant. The chilling low wail was the sound of a bomb coming down, and it would be followed by the blast, sometimes shaking the ground so much Arthur would lose his footing and stumble to the nearest wall, half-deaf. For a moment after that everything seemed quieter, as if the worst had happened and there was going to be respite now, a lull. But the battle went on, for hours and hours, all through the night.

Arthur remembered the time when Camelot had been attacked by the dragon, remembered the fire pouring from the sky and the beating of enormous wings. They'd been so scared then; they'd thought it was the worst kind of calamity, they'd thought they were doomed. And it had only been one dragon.

This was incomparable, unthinkable, so bad his mind kept shrinking away from facing the full horror of it. But this time Arthur didn't have to stand there, helpless, waiting for a wave of fire to come down on him and his people. He could fight back.

He just needed to learn to fly.

**

Forging an identity in the chaotic times of war was never difficult. Most of the time Arthur simply stuck with his own name. He hadn't expected any complications and was taken aback when an old man in the recruitment office jumped up and stared at him as if he'd seen a ghost.

"Arthur Pendragon," he muttered. "Same face. Spitting image."

"Pardon?" Arthur said, but he already understood his mistake. It had only been twenty-two years since he'd fought his last war. Usually many decades would pass outside Avalon between his campaigns; after they'd defeated Buonaparte he'd not been called for nearly a century. The Crimea, India, Afganistan, China, Africa and the Americas – all that had happened without him. Albion was happy to expand and stretch out, and only required his presence when the trouble was close to home and invasion was a possibility.

But it seemed that history was speeding up, and some of those who fought at his side in the last great war were still alive and could remember him.

"You're Captain Pendragon's lad, aren't you?" the man said. "Arthur Pendragon was your father, wasn't he?"

"Yes," said Arthur and blushed. After all this time he still hadn't got the hang of lying convincingly.

"Same face!" the man said again. "I thought my old Captain had risen from the grave! I served under your old man on the Hindenburg line, lad, and let me tell you, there was none braver. He looked after us, and he fought like a lion, and the way he died – he saved a lot of people that day."

Arthur listened and nodded, stiff and a little nauseated. He didn't recognise this man. There were a lot of them in his last command, and they'd all looked the same: frightened boys, worn ragged by months in the trenches. It was strange that one of them would remember him twenty two years later.

"I want to join the Royal Air Force," he said as soon as the man stopped extolling the virtues of his dead self to draw a breath. "I've heard more pilots are needed."

He already knew that the RAF accepted everyone willing and able. But the old man swiftly pulled some strings and arranged for a trip to an active air field, to see the Spitfires up close and to talk to the pilots, to ask them for advice and guidance.

"You go and make you father proud, lad," he told Arthur. "Arthur Pendragon is a hell of a name to live up to."

Arthur nodded, swallowing an uncomfortable lump in his throat, and went to meet his future brothers in arms.

The pilots on stand-by were waiting to see if there was going to be a raid: if there was they'd get scrambled and sent off to drive back the bombers. They seemed to welcome the distraction of talking to an eager recruit, and he tried to learn as much as he could. He had a lot to catch up on. He stared into the dark eyes of the pilot who talked to him, and thought to himself that seeing the familiar faces was by far the worst part of the whole thing.

It kept happening, and he tried to get used to it. He knew that his memory could be playing tricks on him, and he was seeing an exact resemblance where there was perhaps little. It was worse when they had the same names, which, by some terrible joke of fate, they often did.

This pilot's name was Javier. He was Spanish, a Republican soldier, exiled from his country by Franco and his nationalists. He had come to England from a refugee camp in France, and joined the RAF to continue fighting.

His call sign was Lancelot, and that's what everyone called him.

His wingman was a tall, quiet man called Percy, and their mechanic was a girl, dark-skinned and beautiful, even with her hair swept under her cap and her face streaked with grease.

"I'm Guinevere," she said. "My mother was Welsh, I know nobody can pronounce it, just call me Gwen."

He nodded, unable to look her in the face, staring down at the dirty, calloused hands of the woman who'd never been his wife. Every glance Lancelot gave her was painfully familiar, the same heat and longing Arthur had seen him struggle with for many years.

She told him about the Spitfires, what they could do, what to watch out for. He barely listened till one word shook him out of his reverie.

"Merlin?" he asked.

She smiled and led him to a plane that'd been opened up for repairs, and showed him the engine, nestled among the metal entrails of the machine.

"The Merlin engine," she said. "The heart of your aircraft. This is a masterpiece, the best of British, that's what gives us that bit of edge over the Messers. My father works for Rolls-Royce, he makes them. That's what keeps your Spitfire in the sky."

"It's... named after a bird, right?"

"All Rolls-Royce engines are. But this one is a bit magical, so we like to think it's named after a wizard. You know, there used to be this great sorcerer, he served King Arthur -"

"Yes, I know," Arthur said. "I know about him."

"We just need to keep your Merlin happy and healthy, and he'll see you home safe," she said, and went on with the mechanic talk.

Arthur had to excuse himself and step outside for a bit of air. His hands shook, and he didn't want anyone to see that and think he'd be unsuited to be a pilot.

"Merlin," he said, smiling. Tears sprang from his eyes, falling easily like tears of joy, and he let himself cry for a while, wiping his face with a sleeve whenever anyone passed too close. "Merlin, oh, you'd get such a kick out of this."

When he came back Lancelot let him into the cockpit, which was a lot more pleasant than the innards of a tank, and explained all the controls. Then he quizzed Arthur on them, pleased to find him a quick student.

"It will be a few months before they'll let you at a Spitfire," he said. "They'll have you fly a Tiger Moth first, study the theory – but you'll qualify in no time. I hope you'll get posted here. We need men like you."

"You should marry her," Arthur said, and smiled when Lancelot's eyes darted across the field to find Gwen.

"She deserves so much better," Lancelot said with a little sad grin. "All I have now is a bunk in the barracks. And I never know if I'm going to land when I take off. I can't ask her to do that."

"You're a fool," Arthur told him. "Her heart is full of love, she can't live on duty and fighting like you or me. If you refuse to be with her, sooner or later she'll give up on you and settle for someone else. And they won't be happy, and you won't. You'll just make three people miserable. Marry her."

Arthur had no right to talk to an officer like this; he was barely a recruit. But maybe, in some unexplicable way, some part of Lancelot remembered him, too, as his former king, because he only nodded shortly as if acknowledging an order.

There was still a matter of some medical tests, but Arthur wasn't worried about those. He was fighting fit. He expected to be commissioned tomorrow, to get his uniform and be stationed somewhere for training. He'd been told that he wouldn't get leave for the first few weeks, so he went for a long walk to enjoy freedom and idleness while he could. He circled the streets of an unfamiliar suburb, trying not to look at the rubble and the paper strips on the windows. There could be another air raid later that night, but for now, if he ignored certain details, everything looked almost peaceful.

But he didn't feel at peace, and it was more than the usual war time worries. He felt anxious, hunted. He was being watched.

Once he realised that, he changed the pattern of his walk. He walked slower, stopped and turned back, trying to gauge his surroundings from reflections in the shop windows that weren't broken or plastered over with severe white-on-red posters. He spotted his pursuer quickly enough. The man's hat was pulled low, and the collar of his trenchcoat was turned up, but Arthur was pretty sure he'd never seen him before, not in this life or any other. He have tried to shake him off, but instead he kept his pace leisurely and headed to the warehouses by the railway.

Arthur slipped into a sheltered nook between buildings and waited till his pursuer barrelled past him and wheeled on the spot. Then he bounded round the corner and pinned the man to the wall with a forearm to his throat.

The man was weedy and didn't seem to have any hand-to-hand combat expertise. Arthur lightly punched him in the gut to wind him, then held him down till the man stopped struggling and clawing at Arthur's arm and just hung there, drawing too-shallow, laboured breaths.

"I'm going to let you breathe," Arthur said. "And you're going to tell me why you're following me. Deal?"

The man nodded, wheezing, and Arthur pulled back a little.

"Talk," he ordered.

The man licked his lips, still gathering his breath. His eyes were shifty, as if he was struggling not to focus on something behind Arthur's back.

Arthur turned to look, and a wet and foul-smelling cloth was pressed to his face. There were suddenly men around him, four or five, too close – he hadn't noticed them at all. He'd been childishly excited by this chase, and had paid no attention to anything else.

The man who’d clumsily tailed him had only been the bait. The others were a different sort altogether. They'd approached soundlessly, and now they were wrestling Arthur to the ground, skillfully, making sure not to injure him.

He couldn't twist away from the wet cloth they kept shoving at his face, and he tried not to inhale through it, but he could only hold his breath for so long. They twisted his arm sharply and he gulped in some air, stunned by the pain, and it was over.

**

He woke up to a faceful of cold water, and jerked backwards, forcing his eyes open.

He was tied to a dinner chair. His ankles were strapped to the chair legs, and his elbows and wrists were tied to the armrests. The ropes were tight, and went around the backs of his palms so he couldn't even form fists with his hands.

There were three men standing in front of him, and there were more behind him, where he couldn't see. He saw their shadows on the dusty floor, and heard them breathing behind his back. Two more, five in all. Their clothes were dark and non-descript, and he didn't recognise their faces.

They were in an abandoned house lit by a few kerosene lamps on the floor. The windows were smashed, and the furniture was broken and scattered. Apart from the chair he was on, there was a small intact table standing nearby, covered with cloth. One of the men folded the cloth back and let Arthur see an array of surgical instruments, neatly lined up.

"Arthur Pendragon," said another man. "New recruit with the RAF. Last address in a bombed area, no living family."

Arthur carefully tested the ropes. They held fast, but the chair was old and creaked slightly. Not that breaking free would do him any good against five men who were probably armed.

He had no idea why had they grabbed him. He hadn't even started training, he barely knew anything yet. They had taken a lot more trouble than he was worth.

"You're going to tell us your secret," the man said. "What's so special about you, Arthur Pendragon?"

Arthur set his jaw and tried to think why his secret would be of any worth to the enemy. He wasn't a king anymore; he wasn't even remotely related to the current royal family; he was a nobody now, even if his real indentity was known. He had no control over the power, or curse, which kept returning him to the land of the living; he didn't even know how it worked. He couldn't teach anyone else how to do it. Mostly he kept his secrets because he didn't want people to think he was insane. If he told his captors the truth, they'd gain nothing from it.

Then again, if they were wasting time on him they probably had a reason. Most likely someone had figured out he was the same Arthur Pendragon who'd fought them in the last war and they were hoping to find the secret of immortality. It could be that rumours of the Cup of Life had surfaced, and they'd managed to link them to him.

He didn't have much experience of being interrogated by someone who knew what they were doing. But he'd had some cursory training and he'd heard the stories. The only way was to keep your mouth shut or, if you couldn't, to repeat your name and rank over and over again. It wasn't possible to outsmart people who were torturing you, or to glean any information from them without revealing your own secrets. It just wasn't possible to think that clearly through the pain, not for long.

One of the men stepped up to him and slapped him across the face with his leather gloves, and then again and again, harder and harder. When Arthur tried to tuck his face away from the blows, the one who stood behind fisted a hand in his hair and held him still under the stinging slaps.

It hurt a lot, but the humiliation was worse, and being slapped like this made him feel more helpless than the ropes had. That, Arthur supposed, was the point. Intimidate a man, strip him of his dignity, and his fighting spirit will be broken.

They stopped and let him catch his breath.

"What is your link to the Golden Dawn?" one of them asked.

He tried to keep his face impassive, but his confusion must have shown.

"I don't think he knows," said one of the men in German. Arthur had learned the language in the last war, just like he'd learned Spanish and French in the wars before that.

"He knows something," answered another and he punched Arthur in the mouth, too lightly to daze him or to shatter his teeth, just hard enough to make him taste his own blood. While he was trying to swallow it and keep quiet through the pain he was hit in the stomach, and he coughed, spluttering blood over his chin.

"Arthur," said one of the torturers softly, fingering the tools on the table. Arthur tried not to look at them, or guess at their function. "Understand, if you keep silent for hours or even days, you will inconvenience us very little. You're only making this harder for yourself."

He pinned Arthur's hand to the armrest of the chair and thrust a needle under his fingernail. The pain was unexpectedly sharp, and Arhtur couldn't bite down a scream. He strained against the ropes, riding it out, and they hit him in the face again, with their fists now, but still not hard enough to concuss him.

One of the men grasped his chin, digging his fingers into bruised skin, and wrenched his head up.

"Why is the sorcerer looking for you?" he asked.

"What?" Arthur muttered through his swollen lips, certain he'd misheard. He wasn't going to talk; his intention was not to say a word, but the question caught him off-guard.

"The sorcerer," the man repeated, carefully ennuncuiating the foreign words. "The boy with the golden eyes. Why is he looking for you?"

Arthur barely felt the next few blows, or the pain from another needle. He stopped listening to their questions, deafened by the pounding of his heart. Everything faded, was swept away by this new knowledge. The sorcerer was looking for him. Merlin was alive.

He'd always believed that, somewhere deep in his heart. Merlin hadn't aged in all the decades Arthur had known him, so it stood to reason he wouldn't have aged in fourteen centuries. Arthur liked to think that Merlin was alive and well, living a good, simple life somewere on a farm by a lake. Arthur had never looked for him, because of his fear he might find a gravestone. Or, worse, he might find Merlin who'd never got better, who had been tortured for centuries by the same malady that took him away from Arthur's side. Merlin's mind might've been destroyed by pain while his ageless body lingered without any hope of respite, and Arthur wouldn't be able to help him. It was better not to search for him; instead he would hope, and defend their country from all foes so Merlin would never have to face another war and could live in peace.

And he'd been right. Merlin was alive, and presumably sane and healthy if he was looking for Arthur. But it also meant Merlin could be about to walk into a trap.

The men noticed that he was drifting off and splashed more water in his face. His chest was soaked; he was cold. The pain started to wear him down, and he shivered against the ropes, finally feeling truly scared. Merlin had been waiting for him for over a millenium. It couldn't end like this.

"Oh, he won't find you," one of the men told him. "Don't expect to be rescued. Our friends have already taken care of him. He's probably – how do you say it? - spilling the beans right now. It doesn't matter if you talk, because he will. Their methods are subtler than ours."

They hit him again; he twitched weakly, telling himself they were lying to him and trying to rob him of hope. Mind games were a part of any interrogation.

"Our methods are crude," said one of the torturers and picked up an instrument from the table. "But they are effective. Why is the sorcerer looking for you?"

"Because he missed me," said Arthur grimly, and braced himself for more.

He’d just felt the touch of the cold metal when all the lamps went out at once and the room was plunged into perfect darkness before exploding into a flash of blue light.

"Kill him!" shouted someone in German. There were gun shots, white traces of bullets piercing the black laced with blue; a gun muzzle briefly grazed Arthur's head and disappeared. Arthur rocked forward, yanking the chair after himself till he could put his weight on his feet, and then threw himself backwards as hard as he could. The chair joints cracked, as he'd hoped, and he frantically squirmed against the loosened ropes. By the time he'd twisted free, swinging a chair leg and looking for a target, the shots and the screams had stopped and the blue light died down, leaving him in the dark again.

There was a sillouette in the doorway, barely discernable in the weak starlight. All Arthur could see was the golden glow of the man's eyes and big ears sticking out of his messy hair. The man stood very still, with a hand out-thrust, last sparks of the deadly spell crackling between his fingers, but there was something in his posture, some coltish, youthful awkwardness, that robbed it of all menace.

"Merlin," said Arthur, and even as he'd heard himself voice the name, he knew he was wrong.

The lamps lit again, all at once, sparked by magic. The man walked into the room, stepping over the bloodied corpses of the spies.

"I'm not Merlin," he said.

"I know," Arthur said. The sorcerer looked nothing like Merlin. There was no resemblance at all.

"Merlin has been gone from this world for many centuries," said the sorcerer.

"I know," said Arthur. The needles were still lodged in his fingers; he grasped the metal with his teeth and pulled them out, carelessly, using the pain to distract himself from the gnawing ache in his chest.

"I think it's time for him to return," said the sorcerer. "Wouldn't you agree, Your Highness?"






Next
From:
Anonymous( )Anonymous This account has disabled anonymous posting.
OpenID( )OpenID You can comment on this post while signed in with an account from many other sites, once you have confirmed your email address. Sign in using OpenID.
User
Account name:
Password:
If you don't have an account you can create one now.
Subject:
HTML doesn't work in the subject.

Message:

 
Notice: This account is set to log the IP addresses of everyone who comments.
Links will be displayed as unclickable URLs to help prevent spam.

Profile

new_kate

April 2012

S M T W T F S
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425 262728
2930     

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Jul. 21st, 2017 12:45 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios