A/N: Big thanks to torakowalski for the beta (and the prodding about commas)
Summary: The first snows of winter have fallen and Arthur has Merlin to find and a test to pass out in the cold, or neither of them will make it back to Camelot.
The air was crisp, cold and clean in the forest and it was good to get out of the smoky, dark castle rooms for a hunt in the first snow of winter. The sunlight scattered through the tree branches and made the snow sparkle under Arthur's feet and he grinned at the sight, only half of his attention on looking for tracks and the rest busy enjoying the prickle of the cold on his cheeks and the warmth of exertion after too long trapped inside.
The sky was blue and clear overhead, the temperature just cold enough to be invigorating and the snow had made everything look fresh and new. It was a fine day for a hunt and a perfect day for a wander in the woods away from the noise of Camelot, no matter what Merlin had said about frostbite and freezing to death in the snow when Arthur had dragged him away from the fireside and outside earlier.
He'd complained all the way into the woods too, even after Arthur had passed him an old fur-lined coat that didn't fit Arthur anymore to wear, along with the matching hat and gloves. Arthur knew there was no way Merlin was actually cold in that lot because he remembered how warm they were, but that hadn't stopped Merlin muttering as they tramped along the path. Well, he had stopped long enough to mumble thanks for the clothes but when Arthur had waved it off he'd gone right back to complaining about tyrannical princes and predicting chilblains and all sorts of ailments for them both.
Since Merlin had been stamping along beside Arthur instead of digging his heels in like the stubborn ass he could be when pushed, Arthur had concluded that he was complaining for the sake of it and stopped listening in favour of appreciating the morning's freedom.
He'd told Merlin to shut up and stop scaring away the game when they'd reached the tree line and for once Merlin had done it, letting the snow-muffled silence wrap around them both as Arthur took the lead and pushed on into the forest.
Arthur was actually quite impressed at how long Merlin had managed to be quiet because he normally only lasted a few minutes, but a slight suspicion took hold as he thought that and, when Arthur whipped around, it was confirmed.
Merlin wasn't following him anymore.
And from the solitary tracks Arthur had left behind him, hadn't been following him for a few minutes. Arthur stuck his hands on his hips and glared at the mostly pristine snow. It would be just like the lazy sod to sneak off for a rest without letting on to Arthur, but didn't the idiot know he'd stay warmer if he kept moving?
Of course, knowing Merlin he'd got distracted by a, a twig or a pretty leaf or something and then realised he couldn't see Arthur anymore and got lost like a woolly-headed incompetent.
Arthur sighed in exasperation and retraced his steps. It shouldn't take him long to find Merlin and then he could get on with seeing if there was any game about.
He didn't see any sign of his useless servant for a few minutes but then Arthur rounded the trunk of a large tree and found Merlin stumbling towards him from completely the wrong direction, arms wrapped tightly around his chest.
"Where have you been?" Arthur demanded and Merlin stopped and looked confused.
"Honestly, Merlin, only you would manage to get lost this close to Camelot. What were you wandering off over there for? Was 'follow me' too complicated an order for you?"
Merlin glared at him and sniffed, rubbing his hands together as though they were chilled. "I was trying to make things easier for you. You're always complaining it's me scaring the game when you don't catch anything, and I figured you need all the help you can get."
"Like you ever try to make my life easier," Arthur said with a snort of disbelief, choosing to ignore the provocation of the last part of Merlin's words. "Half the time you seem to operate on the assumption that the definition of 'servant' is 'obstacle' –"
"Hey," Merlin said indignantly. "I do lots of stuff for you!"
"– and the other half that it means 'pain in my neck'."
"I'll give you a pain in your neck if you like," Merlin offered sweetly.
"I'd like to see you try," Arthur said scornfully. "Now come on, and this time if you could actually follow me that would go a long way to disproving your total incompetence."
"Fine, whatever," Merlin muttered and Arthur grabbed his arm and tugged him along firmly so that they were walking side-by-side this time and he could keep an eye on him. Merlin mumbled something else under his breath but he stumbled along beside Arthur in his usual clumsy fashion so Arthur let him go and started paying attention to their surroundings again.
He noticed after a couple of minutes that Merlin had tucked his hands back into his armpits as they walked but he assumed Merlin was still playing up the cold to be annoying. That was easily enough ignored, but the pointedly chattering teeth audible whenever they paused for Arthur to examine the snowy ground was taking it a little too far.
He didn't say anything though until Merlin stamped his feet the next time they paused, startling away the hare Arthur had just spotted before he could even raise his bow. "Would you stop that? And stop that fake teeth chattering too," Arthur snapped, spinning round to glare and expecting to find Merlin trying to restrain a grin or look innocent but Merlin was hunched in on himself and looking miserable.
"I c-can't," he stuttered and Arthur frowned.
"Come off it, Merlin. It is not that cold and you know it."
"B-but it is, I'm f-freezing," Merlin protested and Arthur could see him trembling as he stood there.
He really did look wretched and Arthur frowned again as he studied him. Merlin was wearing almost as good winter clothing as Arthur, he'd made sure of it, and Arthur was warm enough between that and the walking to be thinking about taking off his hat and scarf. How could Merlin be feeling the cold so much more than him? He wasn't that much skinnier than Arthur.
"Are you sick? Why didn't you say earlier?" Arthur said, feeling suddenly concerned for the fool and hiding it with irritation.
"N-no, I-I was fine," Merlin said, still shivering and Arthur grabbed his arm again and started hustling him back to Camelot.
"Well you clearly aren't fine now –"
"And w-whose fault is th-that, dragging me out h-here?" Merlin interrupted grumpily and Arthur smacked his head and then resumed tugging him along.
"– you're going straight to Gaius to get cured before you give it to me," he continued and, feeling under his hand that Merlin was still shivering, Arthur pulled off his scarf and wrapped it around Merlin's neck, making sure to cover up his mouth nice and tightly to forestall any retort.
Gaius didn't find any sign of fever and diagnosed Merlin as probably having a chill and needing warmth and rest to recover. Merlin gave Arthur a pointed look at that but Arthur ignored it and told him not to return to work until he was feeling better. He was not going to feel guilty about making Merlin go out, he hadn't known Merlin was coming down with something.
Given that Merlin had still been shaking after several minutes next to Gaius' fire, Arthur was slightly taken aback to find Merlin waiting for him with his chainmail when he went to get ready for the afternoon training session. If he was being a martyr just to get at Arthur, Arthur was going to smack him; he'd told Merlin to take time off.
"Why aren't you hiding under a pile of blankets?" Arthur said suspiciously and Merlin shrugged.
"I felt better," Merlin said but he was moving more slowly than usual when he went to pick up the chainmail shirt.
"Well you look worse," Arthur said, studying him, "all pasty and weird. Even more weird than normal, I mean."
"Thank you, sire," Merlin said sarcastically. "I can always rely on you to lift my spirits."
"No, really," Arthur persisted, because Merlin did look off, "did Gaius say you were recovered?"
"I feel fine," Merlin insisted and shook the mail impatiently.
Arthur looked at him doubtfully but he moved forward to put it on anyway. As soon as it touched him though, he flinched back with a yelp. "Ah!"
"What?" Merlin said, looking puzzled.
"Bloody hell, what did you do, bury it in a snowdrift?" Arthur snapped at him.
"What are you talking about?" Merlin said, still holding the shirt though he dropped his arms to let it sag down in front of him.
"I suppose you thought it was funny to freeze my mail because I made you get cold earlier, but it's not exactly a clever revenge because if it rusts, it's you who'll be cleaning it," Arthur growled at him and Merlin stared back at him with a mystified expression.
"I didn't freeze anything," he protested and Arthur scoffed. "Are you sick now?" Merlin asked.
"No, of course I'm not."
"If you have a fever it would make things feel colder than normal," Merlin said, frowning at Arthur.
"Yes, and that excuse might work if it was just a little bit cooler than usual, but it is sodding freezing so I know you did something," Arthur argued. It was maybe a bit clever and sneaky but Merlin should just admit it before Arthur really lost his temper.
"But I didn't! It doesn't even feel cold," Merlin argued, jiggling the chainmail, and Arthur was starting to think maybe he was sincere because he didn't have any of his usual expressions for teasing or getting back at Arthur. He stared at Merlin for a moment longer but Merlin just blinked at him. Maybe Arthur had been mistaken.
He reached out and grabbed hold of the shirt at the shoulder near where Merlin was holding onto it. It took a second to register what he was feeling and then Arthur snatched his hand back. His fingers where white and numb where they had touched the metal but even as Arthur stared at them the colour and feeling flowed back and he hissed in pain because it burned.
"Arthur, what…?" Merlin said, staring too in shock and Arthur just shook his head, cradling his throbbing hand. Merlin was still holding onto the chainmail, completely unaffected. "What happened?" he asked, dropping the mail and Arthur could swear he saw slivers of frost break off it as it hit the floor. "Are you burned?"
"A little, I think," Arthur said absently, still staring at his mail shirt and trying to put things together. So cold that it burned Arthur, but didn't hurt Merlin. Some spell that only affected Arthur, perhaps…
"You need water," Merlin said quickly and he darted over to the table and snatched up a jug left over from Arthur's lunch. He got two steps back towards Arthur and stopped dead, looking down into the jug.
"What?" Arthur said.
"The water is frozen," Merlin said in surprise and Arthur shook his head because he'd been drinking that not so long ago. Merlin had moved into the light from the windows getting the jug and now that Arthur could see him better he looked even worse. He was pale normally but he looked almost blue, with no colour in his face at all.
He stepped forward and raised his other hand to Merlin's face and they both flinched back as soon as Arthur touched his cheek.
"You're burning up!" Merlin said anxiously and Arthur shook his head.
"No, I'm not. Merlin, you're freezing, really actually freezing. You need to go back to Gaius."
"It's not me, it's you who needs to see him," Merlin protested.
"It is you, you've got whatever the opposite of a fever is," Arthur said waving his hand at Merlin and the jug and his chainmail, "and I don't think it is natural."
"That's ridiculous," Merlin said but he had lost the vehemence of before.
"I can see your breath," Arthur pointed out. "I can't see mine." Merlin immediately blew out several long breaths, his gaze flicking between below his own nose and Arthur's face and he looked disturbed.
Arthur picked up a cup that was still half-full of cider from the table, held it up for Merlin to see and then poured a little out onto his plate. He set the cup back on the table and looked at Merlin with a raised eyebrow and Merlin set down the jug and picked up the cup instead. He stared down for a second, flinched and put it back on the table and Arthur looked into it and saw the contents were half iced over.
"Oh," Merlin said, sounding dazed. "But I don't even feel cold now, not like before."
"It's obviously a spell," Arthur said. "Though why anyone would bother ensorcelling you is beyond me."
"No," Merlin agreed. "I mean yes, I mean…"
"Come on," Arthur said, squeezing his shoulder and shivering a little because it seemed like he could feel the chill through Merlin's sleeve. "Gaius. Now."
Gaius had looked grave when Arthur and Merlin had burst into his rooms and Arthur had explained what had happened, with Merlin apparently still too stunned to interrupt for once, and he had agreed immediately that magic must be involved. It wasn't like there was anything else around that could turn someone into a human icicle, though Gaius hadn't seemed to have any idea how it could have happened to Merlin.
Arthur had picked up some salve for his fingers and stuck around for a while as Gaius poked in books and muttered and Merlin huddled next to the fire looking worried, but then he had been unable to delay the training any longer and taken his leave. Perhaps it was just because he knew how cold Merlin was but it had seemed that the temperature went up a little as soon as he got out of Gaius' rooms and into the rest of the castle.
Arthur had meant to go back later and see if Gaius had found anything but he was delayed in council with his father after the evening meal and by the time he was released it was full night, thick frost blanketing the courtyard stones in the moonlight. There had been no lights visible from Gaius' chambers when Arthur checked so he had taken himself to bed instead.
When the morning came it was Arthur's own shivers that woke him. Despite the fire being built up and his bed piled high with furs and blankets there was an arctic chill in his room that left his breath a white cloud in front of him and the water vessels frozen. Arthur had to force himself out of the warmth left in his bed and into the cold air to get dressed in as many layers as he could find.
When he made it outside, the weak winter dawn was glinting off a courtyard covered in ice, and servants and guards were slipping and sliding over it to reach their duties, cursing and complaining of the cold. A piping hot breakfast cake from the kitchens, not to mention the few minutes by the huge ovens and fires as he ate it, helped to warm Arthur somewhat but the temperature had dropped so far over the last day and Arthur was well aware that not everyone in Camelot had the benefits of the castle's kitchens and fuel stores. His talk with his father the previous night had been mainly on food stocks and the outfitting of the border patrols for winter, but if this cold snap continued they were going to have to bring the townsfolk inside the castle soon to enable them to survive, and they would have to check on the outer villages as well. Arthur would put it to his father as soon as he had seen Merlin and Gaius.
Arthur thought he was imagining it until he reached Gaius' stairs but then he had to admit that the air was becoming more chilled the closer he got. There was frost all over the walls even though he was inside and it got thicker as he climbed. Arthur was shivering again as he stepped through the door and he promptly skidded on the icy flagstones and smacked into Gaius who was standing just inside.
"Careful, sire," Gaius gasped as they clutched each other until Arthur got his footing again.
"Sorry," Arthur muttered, feeling embarrassed at being so clumsy in front of someone. "Are you all right?"
"No, sire. I am very, very worried. And cold," Gaius said, pulling his robe more tightly around his body and frowning round at his workroom. There was frost covering every surface, the bottles of potions and strange substances that lined the walls looked as frozen as Arthur's water jug and there were icicles and a film of ice over the windows.
Arthur made his way carefully over to the steps up to Merlin's room, the frost deepening under his feet until it became a sheet of ice on the stairs and the walls by his door. "Merlin?" Arthur called but though the door was open there was no reply.
"He's gone," Gaius said tiredly from behind Arthur and Arthur spun around a little too fast and nearly slipped again.
"Gone? Gone where?"
"Away," Gaius said, chafing his hands together and Arthur frowned, crossed back over to him and started guiding him out of the rooms. It was too cold for them to stay here.
"What do you mean away?" Arthur asked as they went back down the stairs, Arthur watching closely to be ready to catch Gaius if he lost his footing.
"I was called away for a birth a few hours after you left us yesterday," Gaius began as they reached slightly warmer corridors. "It was clear already that Merlin was still getting colder, he had started leaving frost prints on things he touched, but I had to go. It was a late, difficult birth and I had to do what I could, I –" he stopped and swallowed.
"Of course you had to," Arthur agreed immediately seeing the guilty expression on Gaius' face.
"Merlin was to continue to research. We set the fire going as much as we could in his room as being easier to heat before I left. I returned a little before dawn and I couldn't get inside my rooms," Gaius went on more calmly. "Everything was covered in ice. I had to shout to rouse Merlin, he had fallen asleep and it had all frozen around him. By the time you arrived it was beginning to thaw," Gaius added and Arthur raised his eyebrows. He didn't like to imagine how cold it must have been before he had got there.
"Go on," Arthur prompted as he waved Gaius into his own rooms. Someone had obviously been in and relaid the fire because it was burning brightly and Arthur could finally no longer see his breath. Gaius shuddered in relief and went to stand in front of it, holding out his hands, and Arthur shrugged out of his outermost coats and paced behind him.
"When we realised the danger… if I had returned earlier, fallen asleep as well… " Gaius said and Arthur shook his head.
"You would have died in your sleep," he said quietly. And Merlin could never have borne being responsible for anyone's death like that.
"Yes. Merlin insisted on leaving, getting out of Camelot and as far away from anyone else as possible," Gaius said and his face was drawn with worry and fear. "He was going to head south in the hope that might help matters, though I doubt that will make any significant difference."
"You didn't try to stop him?" Arthur asked in surprise. Of course Merlin would go charging off into the snow without thinking things through or finding a better option, but Gaius usually had more sense.
"I couldn’t get near him," Gaius snapped, "the cold was too painful. And," he said bitterly, "he was right. This cold snap, the freezing around the castle, it isn't the weather doing this but Merlin. The cold was spreading around him and getting worse. Now that he has gone, the temperature should rise again."
"So that's the solution? Merlin keeps walking until he hits the sea, and then what, he freezes that? That isn't a strategy, that's just giving up!"
"It was not my solution, sire," Gaius said with a glare and Arthur subsided a little. "And I don't think he will make it far either, Merlin was already moving more slowly than usual. I believe he will eventually be unable to carry on."
"You mean he'll die," Arthur said flatly and he clenched his hand onto the top of a chair to stop himself yelling at Gaius to do something to stop it.
"I don't know," Gaius said, his shoulders sagging and Arthur felt ashamed as he saw his eyes were moist. "If this were a normal cold then he almost certainly would be dead already, but it is not normal. He may live but be unable to move, be unable to do anything other than… freeze."
"Like a living statue," Arthur murmured, not liking that image one bit. Merlin was never still. "Did you find anything before that could have caused this?"
Gaius looked into the flames in Arthur's fireplace before he answered. "I have never heard of or seen any sorcerer with the ability to create such an effect. It is no mere spell at work."
"Then what is it? And how do I stop it?" Arthur asked.
"I do not believe any human can. If I am right… then the most powerful sorcerer in the land would fail to fight this."
"Fight what?" Arthur said, getting a little impatient with the cryptic comments. "Stop being so mysterious and tell me what you think it is!"
Gaius tucked his hands into their opposite sleeves and turned around to face Arthur, lifting his head. "It is winter," he said quietly.
Arthur looked at him. If Gaius thought that made sense, he had definitely been up too long. "I know that it's winter. It’s been winter since autumn ended and it'll keep being winter until spring hits. What does that have to do with Merlin?"
"In the Old Religion, winter is not just a season but a being, said to be in the form of a woman. She carries the storms, the snow and the ice and lays them across the land. I believe it is Winter the goddess, not ordinary magic, who has set some of that power on Merlin. And if I am correct, then she is the only one who can possibly stop this."
"Oh," Arthur said, disconcerted. A goddess. That was new; he was a lot more used to monsters and sorcerers.
"And how that is to be accomplished…" Gaius said sombrely, "I have no idea, nor how or why this happened in the first place. The priestesses of the Old Religion have long been banished from the kingdom by your father, and the old ways are being forgotten. There are few left who would admit to any knowledge of such matters and those who would are unlikely to help us."
Arthur nodded soberly in acknowledgement of the point. This wasn't the first time he had been given cause to question his father's policy on all things magical. He had to admit that most of the sorcerers he had met had been dangerous and full of murderous intent (and a traitorous part of him could sometimes even understand why they would feel so) but that didn't mean that he couldn't appreciate how bloody useful it would be to have someone with that kind of power and knowledge on Camelot's side occasionally. Not that Arthur could ever see that happening, and they'd managed so far with just the courage and prowess of Arthur and his knights and Gaius' wits and would do so again, but sometimes Arthur wondered how many more lives could have been saved.
But Gaius was right and there was no-one available to guide them in helping Merlin this time. Arthur was going to have to find his own way to sort this mess out. "Did Merlin know this when he left?"
"No," Gaius said. "I only came to this conclusion afterwards. Sire, with your leave, I will see if I can find anything useful on this matter in the library," Gaius added after a moment. "Geoffrey has many ancient scrolls and it may be there exists something in them that can help Merlin."
"Yes, of course," Arthur agreed and Gaius bowed and then left with a determined expression though the line of his shoulders was despondent. Arthur could tell he didn't really believe he would find anything in Geoffrey's books.
Arthur sat down and watched the fire after Gaius had gone, leaning his chin on his hand. It really was typical of Merlin. The most mischief Arthur's other servants had ever managed on a hunt was to get bruised or fall in a puddle, but Merlin just had to go overboard and become possessed by a power of nature.
It must have been something that happened on the hunt because before then Merlin had been fine. It wasn't until they had come back that he had started seeming affected by something. No, that wasn't quite correct. Merlin had been fine up until he had wandered off on his own. That must have been it. The idiot must have done something or stumbled somewhere he shouldn’t have.
Arthur jumped up and started piling back on his coats, cloak, hat, scarf and gloves. It might not be much of a place to start but it was better than nothing and far better than sitting around aimlessly while Gaius read.
He buckled on his sword, though it was just for its reassuring weight since if Gaius was right it was unlikely to be useful. He would worry about the fact he had no idea what would be useful against whatever it was he found when he got there. Arthur had survived plenty of plans that began with far less.
It didn't take long for Arthur to find the point they had entered the woods yesterday and his woodcraft was more than good enough to follow their tracks under the trees. The skies had been too empty of clouds for any snow to fall when the temperature dropped so it was ridiculously easy to find where exactly Merlin had deviated from Arthur's path.
It was easy to follow his tracks too, but disconcerting. This close to Camelot, Arthur knew the forest as well as he knew his bedchamber and he knew that what he saw around him now was wrong. There should have been bare, leafless trees and undergrowth around him; instead there were increasingly dense thickets of holly trees and gorse bushes, twining all around each other in tangles, and there were more and more evergreens the farther he walked until they were the only kind of tree he could see.
Arthur wondered if this was what had drawn Merlin off or if Merlin had been daydreaming and hadn't noticed something was strange. It wasn't like Merlin ever seemed particularly aware of his surroundings but surely even he wasn't that unobservant.
Merlin's tracks got confused just in front of a large fir tree as though he had jumped about in the snow before heading off in a different direction that Arthur estimated would take him to where Arthur had come back for him. His eyes tracked the footprints off in the snow but for some reason Arthur hesitated to follow them. His instincts were something Arthur relied on to guide him in battle and right now they were telling him to carry on with Merlin's original route.
Arthur walked forward warily, pushing past the low branches of the fir tree and feeling the back of his neck and arms prickle with awareness as he entered a small glade, floundering a little as he suddenly met snowdrifts up to his knees. The snow was piled in gentle waves between the seven massive fir trees that bounded the glade. Frost glittered along their branches and delicate icicles hung down below them, seeming to thread and join between the trees in some places like weavings of glass. Arthur felt a cold chill shiver right down his spine as he looked and every instinct he had told him that though he could see no other presence, he was not in this place alone.
His hand fell naturally to his sword hilt but Arthur simply gripped it tightly while his skin crawled with the feeling of something cold, powerful and old waiting just outside his vision and he tried to find words for why he was here. He didn't have a lot of experience of talking with ancient powers but he hoped that he could not go wrong with formality. And he hoped very much that Gaius was correct in his conjecture.
"Lady, hear me please, I pray," Arthur started and had to stop and swallow as the presence at his back instantly turned to a listening one, even the quiet noises of the forest around them seeming to cease and wait for his next words. "I speak on behalf of another. He was outside this glade a day ago and now the air freezes around him and ice forms in his wake. If this was at your will, I ask that you please be merciful and release him from this fate."
The trees branches danced in an icy breeze and the reply seemed to come out of the wind in a low murmur as it whirled around Arthur's face, "The insult must be punished."
Arthur closed his eyes briefly. Of course there was an insult. He opened his eyes again, fixing them straight ahead, and made another attempt. "Merlin rarely thinks of consequences and so often speaks and acts without thought. But he means no ill and whatever offense he has caused you was unintentional. Allow me to beg your forgiveness in his place."
The wind lifted again, swirling the snow up from the ground and around the glade. "And what is Winter to you, supplicant?" the voice asked, louder this time and now coming from the dancing snow in front of Arthur.
Arthur licked his lips, wrong-footed by the question and scrambling to think of something. The snowflakes were flying faster, impatiently, and he cast his mind back to the previous day and how it had felt to walk the forest in the cold and snow. "Winter is… challenge. And renewal," he said and the snow seemed to be spinning into the middle of the glade until Arthur could almost see a form in the flakes.
"It stings us awake and stirs the blood. It covers over the old and shelters the life to be born come the spring. It changes the world into something pure and fresh," Arthur went on and there was a definitely a form now, coalescing before his eyes into a woman as tall as he was. She had white hair, pure white like the snow under their feet, but her skin was blue-black and caught the light with a gleam on her bare arms and face and her eyes were as dark as the night sky. The rest of her was wrapped in opaque white veils like winter mist and her hair streamed out down her shoulders and faded into the veils so it was impossible to see where one ended and the other began.
"And winter is beautiful," Arthur finished slightly breathlessly and shivered as her lips curved slightly in a smile.
"Fine words," she said, and Arthur shivered again as the chill breeze returned to brush his face. Her gaze was unnerving and she was studying Arthur closely. He felt the prickle of gooseflesh rise all over and bowed his head to her as much to escape her uncomfortable eyes as to be respectful.
"You care for this… Merlin," was the next thing she said and Arthur raised his head again to find she was still staring unblinkingly at his face.
Any other situation, any other person asking and Arthur would have denied it until he was blue in the face, protested that Merlin was only a servant and a useless one at that. That he was a useless servant far too often was true but if that were all he was, Arthur would not be standing there, and Merlin's skills as a servant had nothing to do with his reasons. So for once, Arthur answered honestly.
"Were I not the prince, he would be my best friend."
"And were you the prince?" she questioned.
"Then he is in most ways my only friend, and still my best. I have no-one closer," Arthur admitted, oddly grateful to be able to say it for once.
There was a pause while a flurry of snow spun contemplatively around her legs and then settled back to the ground. "I am not," she said slowly, "what most would call merciful," and Arthur stared in dismay, his mouth coming open to make some protest until she raised her hand to silence him. "But for your words and your heart I offer a trial. Pass, and you shall have the mercy you seek."
"What is the trial?" Arthur asked instantly, relieved that she hadn't simply dismissed him after all. Instead of answering she moved forward until they were toe to toe and Arthur could feel her chill envelope him and sting his cheeks. As he opened his mouth to speak again, she leaned in and kissed him and Arthur felt ice fill his throat and lungs, seep into his bones as his lips froze against hers. It lasted only an instant before she pulled away, letting blessed heat flood back through him and the only sensation left was a throbbing sting on Arthur's lips, not precisely comfortable but not painful either.
"Pass to your friend before sunset what I have given you, and I will lift my hand from him," she said. "Otherwise he will stay mine."
Arthur blinked and touched his tingling mouth. "Wait, the test is to kiss Merlin?" That was strange enough as tests went, but more embarrassing than arduous.
She smiled sharply and shook her head, starting to fade away as Arthur watched. "To do so you must reach him. That is the test."
A second later she was gone completely and there was nothing left but the snow and the ice on the trees. Arthur bowed in the direction she had vanished and swept a last look around the glade. "Thank you," he said and turned to make his way back through the trees.
"Good hunting, Arthur Pendragon," her voice said behind him, but when he turned to look the glade was gone. A thicket of holly trees filled the space instead and Arthur shook his head once uneasily and then struck out determinedly on his path.
He had Merlin to find, and a test to pass.
It didn't take Arthur long to circle around to the south side of Camelot but picking up Merlin's trail took longer. 'South' was not a precise direction and even knowing that Merlin would be trying to stay as far away as possible from people and their homes, there was a lot of ground to cover before Arthur hit any tracks. And even then there were a few false starts because, as cold as it was, Merlin and Arthur were not the only ones abroad that day from Camelot. It was more than an hour after leaving the glade before Arthur thought he was finally on the right track. Ten minutes more and he became convinced of it because he could feel it getting colder as he followed the broken path in the snow and Arthur pushed on as fast as he could, tucking his scarf up over his face and pulling his hat down as far as he could against the bitter chill.
The exercise of walking helped a little, but it got worse the further Arthur went. The cold inched in underneath his layers of clothing making him shiver and his teeth chatter and his feet were growing numb. His hands were better because Arthur had them tucked inside his cloak, but his fingers were stiff and hard to move when he tugged his scarf further up over his numb nose so that only his eyes were showing between that and his hat. There was still no sign of Merlin other than the tracks at his feet and Arthur set his teeth and trudged on into rough woodland.
If he had hoped for some element of shelter under the branches, Arthur would have been sorely disappointed but he had known it was only going to get harder and there was nothing to do but keep going to where it was coldest. His breath had frozen in his scarf over his mouth so that the thin layer of ice rubbed uncomfortably against his skin, every breath he took hurt his throat and chilled him deep inside and moisture from Arthur's eyes watering had formed ice on his eyelashes. He didn't think he had ever felt so cold in his life.
Five minutes later, Arthur finally saw what he was looking for: a figure ahead of him in the woods. It was indistinct still, but Arthur thought it was kneeling and it definitely wasn't moving.
Arthur wanted to hurry forward and end this, but with every step he took the temperature seemed to drop palpably and it was all he could do to force himself on past his exhaustion. Frost and ice were riming the trees to either side and once Arthur looked up and saw a red-breasted robin frozen motionless on its branch. The cold pierced through his clothes like needles of ice driving into his body and it hurt to keep going. He was hardly shivering anymore, which was a bad sign, and he ached all over from tensing up against the frost, his jaw clenched so hard that it sent stabs of pain into his head.
But he was close enough to see that it was Merlin ahead of him. Arthur couldn't stop now.
Crossing the last several yards to Merlin's still figure took as much willpower as anything Arthur had ever done. By then he was so frozen that he could barely shuffle his feet forward and he was hunched over in pain like an old man. Each breath burned his lungs with frigid air and he was so tired that he found it hard to think. Arthur wanted so badly to just lie down and rest, actually came close to doing it as his eyes slipped closed until he managed to remember that would mean his death. Even that thought seemed strangely distant and less important than the swimming sensation and how much his head hurt, but somewhere deep down Arthur still knew that getting to Merlin was more important than anything else and he forced his eyes open again and took the last step.
Merlin had apparently sunk to his knees when he could go no further, his hands resting in his lap and his eyes closed. There was a thin layer of frost covering his face and his clothes were coated in ice. Arthur could see ice starting to form on his own clothing too as he dropped ungracefully in front of Merlin, dragging his scarf down clumsily as he knelt. Merlin was so pale, all his colouring washed out so that it looked as though he had been carved from ice itself, the only colour in his face the dark spread of closed eyelashes.
Arthur stared in a daze for a moment as his numbness increased. There was something he had to do, something important but it was all so far away… Arthur blinked once watching Merlin's still, peaceful features and then he leaned slowly in and pressed their lips together, feeling the last little wisp of heat he hadn't even known he had left leech away as he did it.
It left clarity again in its wake and Arthur breathed out what he knew was probably his last breath against Merlin's unresponsive mouth. He'd failed somehow, lost them both, but just as he was about to pull back he saw the frost melting off Merlin's cheekbone and felt the tiniest twitch against his lips.
Arthur kissed Merlin again, and his lips felt less icy and colour was seeping back into the skin Arthur could see, and Arthur closed his eyes and kept kissing him in relief. He could feel the air grow warmer on his own face with every second that passed and then suddenly Merlin blew out a rush of hot breath against Arthur's face and jerked, and Arthur sank back onto his heels and watched, a grin tugging against his tiredness, as Merlin blinked his eyes open dazedly and looked around.
"Wh-" Merlin started, and he shivered convulsively, making slivers of ice fall all around him. Arthur brushed the frost off himself as well, feeling the hard, painful ball of ice that had seemed to fill his chest begin to thaw as the frost started to vanish from the trees around them.
"Ow," Merlin said next, stretching his arms out experimentally and Arthur had to agree. He ached all over and getting back to Camelot was going to be unpleasant. "Arthur, are you…" Merlin said but then he stopped and licked his lips, frowning. "Did you just kiss me?" he went on, his blue eyes wide in shock.
"What would I do that for, idiot?" Arthur snapped half-heartedly and avoided Merlin's surprised eyes by struggling to his feet. They were starting to hurt, along with his hands, as the temperature went back up to a natural winter's day and he really wasn't up for this conversation right now.
"No, but you did," Merlin argued like the stubborn ass he was, making it a little unsteadily to his feet too, "that was the first thing I could feel, the only thing I felt for ages and ages."
Arthur squinted at him and crossed his arms over his chest, wincing as his fingers throbbed painfully. "Your brain must have been frozen. It probably didn't take long, it's that small."
"It is not. And I know what I felt," Merlin insisted, shivering slightly and Arthur glared at him and handed over his cloak because of course Merlin had charged out without his winter coat earlier and now that it was thawing, Arthur didn't need so many layers anyway.
"I think you'd be better off forgetting the figments of your warped imagination and explaining just how you managed to mortally offend the goddess of winter, don't you?" he said pointedly and started the long walk back to Camelot.
"I what?" Merlin asked incredulously, falling into step beside Arthur. "I never –"
"Pissed off the power of the Old Religion that embodies the whole of winter? Yes, yes you did."
"Oh," Merlin said in a tone of realisation. "Oops."
"Yes, so what the hell did you do?" Arthur pressed. Not only did he really want to know, but this should keep Merlin nicely distracted from awkward issues.
"Um, I think," Merlin said, sounding embarrassed, "I think it was on that hunt. I was looking at this big patch of holly to try and remember to tell Gaius about it, and I'd taken off my scarf and this huge pile of snow fell off a tree right down my neck."
"So?" Arthur said, trying not to think about how tired and cold and aching he still felt.
"I, uh, might have gone on a five minute rant about everything I hated about winter," Merlin admitted sheepishly "I don't really remember everything I said but, um. It was mostly very rude." Arthur blinked and looked at him, remembering the odd bunch of footprints Merlin had left right outside that glade. "I mean, I didn't mean it!" Merlin said quickly, casting an anxious glance up at the sky and around the woods, "And I'm really very sorry!" he added in a shout and Arthur had to laugh because this really was something that could only ever have happened to Merlin.
"Oh shut up," Merlin grumbled. "And how come I'm not still frozen, anyway? Did Gaius find a way to fix me?"
"You aren't still frozen for the simple reason that I am very persuasive and charming, and I like winter," Arthur informed him smugly and Merlin looked at him sceptically.
"No really, what happened?"
"You see Merlin," Arthur said, clapping his shoulder and then wishing he hadn't as it jarred all his aches, "some of us know how to talk to women."
The walk back to Camelot was pleasanter than the trip out, but that wasn't saying much. Merlin had apparently warmed up as soon as Arthur had released him and while it was good that he wasn't hurt, Arthur couldn't help finding it a little unfair that he was the one still suffering. His hands and feet were in agony as they thawed out, everything else hurt as well and Merlin's distracting presence was probably the only thing that stopped Arthur from just collapsing in an exhausted heap.
By the time they reached the castle, Merlin was giving Arthur worried looks in between his usual insolent chatter and, since Arthur wasn't up to arguing back, the first thing Merlin did was haul Arthur off to see Gaius.
Gaius was almost too distracted by Merlin's safe return to pay attention to Arthur but he did confirm that Arthur didn't have frostbite and he just needed to warm up so Arthur left them to their reunion with only a mildly sarcastic comment and dragged himself to his own rooms. He was too tired to even react when Merlin caught up to him at his door with a bundle of firewood and followed him in.
The fire was still going in his room from earlier and when Arthur got near it he started to shake so badly that Merlin had to help him out of his clothes and into dry ones, frowning guiltily at Arthur the whole time. "I'm f-fine, s-stop fussing," Arthur snapped at him and pulled on another coat, glaring at Merlin but not willing to risk more stammering by speaking again.
"Yes, of course you are," Merlin scoffed as he dragged a blanket off Arthur's bed and started wrapping that around him as well. As a result of Merlin's efforts, Arthur ended up lying as close as he could get to the biggest fire his rooms had ever seen, with every fur and blanket from his bed piled under and over him.
And he still couldn't get warm.
Arthur had been cold for so long, ever since he'd left the castle, and then he'd got thoroughly chilled in that glade with the winter woman and been even colder after that. The cold seemed to have got inside his bones, his blood, so that he could barely even feel the heat of the fire and he couldn't stop shivering even after Merlin forced mulled wine down his throat.
"All right, that is it," Merlin finally said above him in an exasperated tone that didn't quite cover up the worry and when he kicked off his boots and started fighting his way under the many layers of Arthur's coverings, Arthur was too surprised and weary to even protest.
Somehow they wound up in a tangled nest with the fire at Arthur's back and Merlin plastered all down his front. Arthur briefly considered yelling about that but he was finally, finally starting to feel a little heat creeping stealthily inside so instead he closed his eyes and just drifted into a doze.
He noticed vaguely after a while that Merlin was stroking his hair and he sighed and shifted closer because it felt good and he was comfortable.
"You did kiss me, didn't you?" Merlin said very quietly and Arthur hummed agreement.
"Had to," he muttered sleepily.
"Once to set me free," Merlin agreed, letting his hand slip down around Arthur's jaw, "but I remember more than once," and Arthur woke up enough to remember that Merlin wasn't supposed to know that and he forced his eyes open and pulled back to see Merlin watching him with a funny little smile.
"I –" Arthur said, but Merlin cut him off with another kiss, and this time Arthur's lips weren't numb and he wasn't freezing to death and he could feel the slide of Merlin's lips against his, feel Merlin solid and alive against him. And it was all so good that Arthur closed his eyes and kissed back, licking his way into Merlin's hot mouth and hearing Merlin groan as Arthur wrapped his arms around him, gloriously warm at last.
A/N: The inspiration for this came partially from the Celtic goddess the Cailleach (veiled one or old woman in Gaelic) who personified winter, death and rebirth and reigned from Samhain to Imbolc, though I've only used a few aspects of the mythology.