Character/s: Arthur, Merlin.
Summary: As usual, saving Camelot comes with a price.
Warnings: This one kind of got away from me.
Word Count: 894
Prompt: #17 Tradition
Arthur couldn't help but smile, despite the circumstances. It was a small, secret thing, stolen while his manservant's gaze was shifted away. He was still standing after three days of Merlin's best pestering, and admitted to feeling a bit smug about it.
"All we have are stories. No sense getting scrambled over a minstrel's tale."
"Minstrels sing of dragons, sire. They're real enough."
"But they don't pull the sun across the sky or steal babes from their cots."
"No, they just tear cities into ruins. Definitely harmless, then." Merlin's tone was light, but Arthur didn't miss the way his gaze faded into the distance, remembering. Suddenly, this sport seemed a bit less...sporting.
"We'll be as cautious as haste allows - oh, we're here."
It was a bit anticlimactic. Arthur had been on his share of quests and he'd been expecting something a bit...more.
"Are you sure we're in the right place?" It wasn't really a question; they could both see the simple carving on the weather-beaten stone. Merlin simply enjoyed mocking Arthur's sense of direction.
"It bears the mark. This must be the door." He dismounted and knelt to examine the rock-strewn depression. The stones had been rounded by the wind, and the sparse soil was studded with tor-grass and clover.
"Looks more like a...hole."
Arthur began scratching at the moss obscuring the design. Behind him, Merlin slid to the ground and grabbed the horses' reins, no doubt readying another sarcastic remark. He'd been against this venture from the start, despite Gaius's insistence that the tomb held their only hope of combating the blight. Arthur had teased him relentlessly for his supposed cowardice, but there was no heat behind the words. It wasn't fear that weighted Merlin's steps; he had proven his courage more times than Arthur could count. The truth behind his reluctance would emerge eventually. In the meantime, Arthur had a kingdom to protect.
A close examination of the stone revealed nothing, and Arthur turned to see if Merlin had any brilliant ideas. But Merlin wasn't paying him any heed, his head cocked to the side as though listening to something. Before Arthur could question him, the darkness came, slipping between one breath and the next. It lasted forever and no time at all: an endless, moonless night carried on a whisper.
The rolling hills around them didn't disappear; they simply weren't. A dim stone cavern replaced the open sky and the wind died, shrouding them in a silence so deep it seemed to weight the stale air. When Arthur drew his sword, the sound of the steel sliding against the scabbard didn't generate a single echo.
"Merlin?" The muffled sound of his own voice sent a sharp shiver down his spine. He tried to eye his friend while keeping his blade between them and the dark. "Are you all right?"
Merlin groaned, hands to his head as though trying to block something out. "I told you...this was...a bad idea."
"Don't be such a girl. Look, here's the door. We'll be home by breakfast."
The darkness sprawled in every direction except one: forward. Two enormous doors of polished granite rose up before them, extending beyond the sight afforded by the sourceless light that illuminated the immediate area. Arthur swallowed his uneasiness and grabbed one of the gargantuan pulls, intending to test his strength against the weight of the door.
As soon as his skin touched the surface, it seemed as though the ceiling caved in. Massive stones dropped to either side, forcing Arthur back a few steps. He threw an arm up to shield his eyes, and when he dropped it, he saw that the stones were actually statues - or creatures? They were made of stone, but they moved with the fluidity of life, stretching bat-like wings to block the door.
"Without blood, you may not pass." The voice ground out in a rumble that rattled Arthur's ribcage. He stifled an urge to backpedal. The creatures resembled humans, but their muscled arms and legs ended in vicious claws, and their eyes glowed with the light of sorcery.
"What does that mean? Whose blood?" Merlin asked, stepping up beside his king. He was squinting, as though fighting a headache, but his voice was steady and his back straight.
"Lifeblood. This is the price that must be paid. Two will approach; one will enter."
Arthur looked at Merlin, and saw his own confusion and defiance mirrored. But before he could challenge the monstrous guardians, Merlin tilted his head speculatively and asked them their names.
"What?" Arthur hissed. "This isn't a country harvest dance! You can't reason with-"
"Anwur," the creature ground out. "My brother is called Orsi."
Arthur was pretty sure his mouth was open. He was also pretty sure he couldn't help it. Though there was little expression on the creatures' stone faces, the growling voice sounded almost as surprised as Arthur felt.
"I am...Merlin. This is Arthur Pendragon, king of Camelot."
The king in question eyed Merlin askance and made a note to ridicule him for apparently forgetting his own name. Nevertheless, he had to admit that this parley was going better than expected.
"The once and future king is known to us."
"He seeks to save his people. Why do you demand their blood?"
The answer, when it came, was surprising in its unabashed simplicity.
"It is tradition."