Word Count: ~12,000
Summary: Following the capture and almost-execution of a sorcerer, Arthur is cursed into a wolf and leaves Camelot knowing only the only thing that can help him lies in the heart of the Darkling wood.
Warnings: Mild violence/an animal (Arthur) is injured, but not badly.
Note: the language spoken here is Old Norse. I used a rough translator so apologies for any mistakes! Thank you again to lukita who has been a joy to work with. Check out her amazing art in the link above!
Stepping out onto the balcony was easy. Arthur had done it so many times before, knew the routine like the back of his hand. Just a step behind his father, he’d walk out onto the balcony overlooking the castle’s courtyard, take his place above his people and watch as another man was sentenced to execution. It was simple, easy even, and he wasn’t the one being led to his execution so it shouldn’t feel as if the world was pressing itself against his shoulders.
It did though. Arthur felt every one of his subject’s lives resting upon his head simply because of this man – no, this threat – and while he had to protect them, he could feel his obligation to this man too.
“By the power vested in me, I sentence you to execution for the crimes of sorcery!” His father’s hand pointed down at the man, finger steady in a way that Arthur knew his own wouldn’t be if he extended his hand.
He looked away from the pyre and down at his feet. It was un-princely, Arthur knew, but he’d seen enough weighted trials and executions to last a lifetime. This man didn’t deserve to be strung along like a mangy dog and yet here he was, quietly walking to his death, the very life sucked from him when his hope had vanished.
“No one is exempt from the law,” Uther said out of the corner of his mouth, sparing a quick glance for Arthur, as if he could sense his indecision. “Magic is a dangerous tool. It corrupts and destroys the innocent, slaughters our children in the dead of night. It takes away those we love…” for a moment, his father’s eyes seemed empty, but it was gone in a flash.
“We must stand strong against the evil that is magic.” Uther’s voice rose and the pyre was lit, fire taking instantly to the dry wood.
“No!” the prisoner called, a word that many before him had uttered. Yet, this time, the man’s voice was clear and Arthur looked down, frowning as he saw the calm stance of the man. The guards drew up warily, preparing for the worst.
Uther gripped the edge of the parapet, eyes wide as he shouted for them to silence the man. The guards moved and the world turned, a flash of light radiating from the man before he was gone, streaking away, back into the castle as turmoil erupted below in the square.
“After him!” his father shouted, red blotches appearing on his neck from his anger. “Do not rest until the threat is apprehended!”
Arthur set off at once, his cloak billowing behind him. For once he’d forgone the chain mail and was regretting it, though the heavy weight of his sword was a reassurance. He drew the blade as he moved into the castle, tracking an unearthly prey as if they were stalking rabbits in fields.
The knights fell easily under his command, fanning out across the castle. Servants and nobles alike fled to their rooms – some even escaping the castle altogether – in fear of the sorcerer that had broken free. It made Arthur’s job easier, not having to worry about his people and giving them more scope to search.
Why had the sorcerer entered the castle was the question plaguing Arthur’s mind. If he could free himself by changing shape, why not exit Camelot instead? Either he was confident that he would be able to free himself or there was a greater purpose, something the man had to do before he left.
Arthur’s stomach felt heavy at the thought, but he pushed on, turning away from the knights and heading deeper into the castle, sword poised and ready to strike.
As if the sorcerer wanted him to know where he was, a light poured from one of the corridors in an odd tendril, as if someone had dropped dye into water. It pooled towards Arthur, beckoning and he followed eagerly, wanting to put an end to this. The man might not have had a full reason to be executed before, but he had considerable power now and there was no way that Arthur could try to negotiate his freedom. It would be better for all if they got the ordeal over and done with rather than dragging it out.
The man was standing in the middle of the corridor and Arthur paused, watching as the light around him returned to its master, forming a circle at his feet. Words seemed to etch themselves onto the floor, spinning until they were complete and Arthur felt a sudden chill hit him. This was powerful magic indeed.
“Verða,” was the only word that the man spoke, but it sent the lit-up circle at his feet into a frenzy, the light pouring from the letters and symbols and lighting up the corridor once again.
“Stop!” Arthur ordered, reaching a hand out as he took a step forward, as if he could simply grab the man and drag him away from the magic. He couldn’t though and it began to form a spiral-shape, coming from the sorcerer’s chest and speeding towards Arthur, twisting and turning as if it was grabbing at air to pull it along.
It touched his sword first and Arthur the metal became unbearably hot, spreading to the hilt until Arthur had to drop it in fear of damaging his hand. The light didn’t stop though and Arthur had to close his eyelids against the intensity. He couldn’t move, could barely breath, and the only sound he could hear was the rush of blood in his ears, his heart pounding in his chest.
“There is much you need to learn, Arthur Pendragon,” a voice said and Arthur opened his eyes. All he could see was the light, though it didn’t burn anymore. The voice itself – genderless – seemed to be pouring from the light and he wondered what exactly the sorcerer had done to him.
“There is a curse upon you and Camelot,” the voice continued and the light began to dim, Arthur’s world shrinking. “Each night, you will turn into a beast, such is your price for disturbing my follower.”
Pain erupted over Arthur’s body, but his voice was too choked up to cry out. He did register the words though, in the back of his mind, as the light began to fade fully and he was back in the corridor once more. The light seemed to enter him fully and Arthur watched in shock as the man who had done this, shaking his head in further disbelief as he seemed to fade into the air, becoming nothing right before his eyes.
It was a trick or a dream. It couldn’t be real, Arthur knew. This was beyond anything he’d seen before and that was saying a lot as Uther’s son.
The pain returned again in another wave and Arthur doubled over, hands slapping against the cool floor. He felt warm, too warm, and tried to shout out as the light came back, enveloping him and doing something, twisting over his skin like thousands of tiny needles.
When it died down, Arthur was still on all fours, his cloak wrapped around him tightly – far too tightly. He was too hot and panting from exertion, but he could hear something coming. Without thinking twice, he moved forwards, running from the corridor and following the tiniest air current, moving down, down, down until he slipped into the dungeons.
He knew there was something important he was forgetting, something he should be doing, but Arthur ghosted through the prisons silently, still on all fours, but it felt natural now, as far away from crawling as he’d ever been on two feet.
There was a way out of the castle from here, Arthur could tell. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting the wind brush against his heated face, before slinking down some steps quickly and turning a corner, exiting onto a ledge. There was something here, his mind told him, but Arthur couldn’t see or hear anything and he made an uncertain noise in his throat.
Suddenly, the smell of coal and fire was overwhelming and Arthur felt his hackles rise, narrowing his eyes as he ducked down a little, preparing to face whatever was approaching. It landed with a thud in front of him, staring down with amused eyes and a smile.
“Even in that form I can tell you are the young prince,” the creature said and Arthur let out an odd noise in confusion, demanding the creature to tell him more. He couldn’t speak, but he hadn’t expected to after what he’d just been through.
“A curse has been laid upon you, Arthur Pendragon,” the creature – a dragon the little voice in the back of his head supplied – said. “But it can be broken, like all curses.”
Arthur took a step forward and he felt something brush against his legs. He looked back, expecting his cloak to have come free a little, but what he saw instead surprised him. It was a tail, white and bushy, a good tail really. Arthur lifted it, making sure it was his, before looking at the dragon again. He seemed to be looking expectantly, as if Arthur had a question, but why would he? It was only his tail, should he not have a tail?
“You were not born a wolf,” the dragon said carefully, as if he had read Arthur’s mind.
Of course Arthur knew he hadn’t been born a wolf. He was a prince and yet… yet he had a tail. Princes didn’t have tails. Wolves had tails yes, but he shouldn’t be a wolf.
In his bid to escape, Arthur had forgotten the light and the danger he’d been in, forgotten his sword even (though what use was a sword when he now had teeth and reputation to do that job on his own?). Instinct had taken over – wolf instinct – and he’d lost himself pursuing it.
“You have to help me,” he tried to say, but the words came out in a bark. He felt panic grip his body, tail stiffening and hackles rising as he bared his teeth. The dragon barely moved an inch, though what he had to fear from a mere wolf was yet to be discovered.
“There is only one who can save you,” the dragon said and Arthur looked up, forcing his body to relax. There was enough human in him to recognise help when it was before him – even if it was from the beast his father kept enslaved as an example.
His father. What on earth was he thinking right now? Did he think Arthur was dead? That the sorcerer had kidnapped him? Arthur shifted on his feet – no, paws, they were paws now – uneasily as he thought of the other possibility. What if his father didn’t care?
Now, Uther had never been an unkind father. Arthur knew he was lucky in most ways because he’d never wanted for anything (though arguably that was his right as a prince). But he hadn’t shown much love for his son, preferring to hand Arthur off to nursemaids and the knights rather than take him under his wing.
Would he care enough to wonder this time?
“You must leave Camelot,” the dragon continued, as if Arthur had simply nodded. “Head for the heart of the Darkling woods and there you will find your cure.”
The dragon moved off then, huge wings propelling a massive gust of wind in Arthur’s direction. The clank of a heavy chain was the only sound to be heard as Arthur shut his eyes, gravel and dirt flying into the air with the wind.
He was alone after that and the eerie silence unsettled Arthur. He could feel the wolf creeping back to the front of his mind and knew that it would strike to take over completely soon, to get him out of Camelot and to safety. It was basic survival instinct, just not under Arthur’s complete control and that thought scared him more that he would are to admit. His entire life had been about perfecting his control and now, well now, it was shattered into hundreds of small pieces.
Arthur jolted as he heard the steady sound of water, metres below. Water would lead him to an exit, he didn’t need the wolf to tell him that much, and he looked around for a way to get down to the river. It was true that he needed to escape and find the cure, after all, his father wouldn’t be able to understand him. Arthur couldn’t risk being killed in place of the sorcerer by accident and the only other alternative to escaping was to wait here and hope the curse would simply wear off.
A thin line of steps trailed away from the ledge Arthur was on and he wasted no time in moving forward. A part of him was thankful that the wolf instinct was still so strong as it coordinated his four legs automatically and saved him a lot of trouble as he negotiated down the thin stairway.
Arthur could feel the wolf pressing to the front of his mind, snapping its jaws to take control fully. It wasn’t a separate being, but a bubbling emotion that was a mix of adrenaline, panic and instinct, things Arthur would soon give over to once he was out of Camelot. He couldn’t hurt anyone and wolves weren’t known for being the kindest of animals. If he was provoked, Arthur knew he would easily attack, just as he had when he was a knight.
He passed the huge mound the dragon’s chain was attached to and spared it a single thought before he continued on, venturing deeper and deeper down, following the scent of wet stone and the sound of rushing water. Maybe when this was over he could return to thank the dragon. Without the creature, Arthur would have been hopelessly lost.
The air grew stuffy and the smell of damp invaded Arthur’s nostrils as he got closer to the water. It was a good sign though and he paused at the river’s edge, looking at it in triumph. Now all he had to do was follow it to the forest and he would be able to free himself from the curse – a task that was undoubtedly easier said than done.
The wolf whispered to him and he listened, letting instinct guide him. He tilted his muzzle west and his ears picked up the crash of bracken as a stag plundered through. His belly growled at the prospect of food and while he had no pack to hunt such a prey, his feet began to move, body loping across uneven ground. He’d found an exit and he was going to grasp this chance with everything he could. If a stag would drive the wolf on, then Arthur would fix on it and use it to get him out of here.
It was night when Arthur emerged from the network of caves leading from the dragon. It had been evening when they’d started the execution, but it was still a shock to see how much time had passed between being a human hunting the sorcerer and leaving Camelot as a wolf.
Being a wolf was easy, Arthur realised as he began to pick his way through the trees. He’d follow deer-paths and hunting trails until he could pick up better indications of where the Darkling woods were and then head for them. It meant that he would have to stay near Camelot for a little while longer – potentially dangerous if Uther had already mustered a force to look outside the town for the sorcerer – but it was the best way to get his bearings.
But yes, being a wolf was easy. Arthur didn’t feel regret as he left, though the more-human part of him whispered that he should. He didn’t feel sad or angered by what had happened; it just was. He was a wolf and, like any wolf, he would deal with what came before him and solve the curse.
As a human, Arthur remembered the woods at night to be quiet, silent even. As a wolf, however, that observation couldn’t be any less true. His ears twitched with every sound, from the mice rustling through long grasses to the owls landing on branches overhead. The wood was alive and it was only now that Arthur could hear it, could experience it.
The animals around seemed to stare at Arthur as he stalked through the wood. They could tell that he wasn’t interested in hunting them and so stayed put, watching him curiously instead. He was an oddity, something new and dangerous, but also something they couldn’t understand.
Arthur paid them little attention though. Aside from humans, he was the top predator here and he knew by instinct that humans wouldn’t be hunting here tonight. At least not for a wolf in any case.
Climbing a hill, Arthur was faced with a clearing and he walked into it, staring at the glorious castle that he just left. His eyesight was sharper, better, but it was still unmistakably his home and it left a pang of longing in his chest. He wouldn’t be able to return to Camelot unless this curse was lifted and the thought burst from his chest in a howl of melancholy and pain.
The howl carried on the wind, deep and striking, and Arthur felt kinship spike as other wolves join in the call. They wanted to know where he was, wanted to know if he was okay – and if he was danger – and how he’d lost his home. Arthur called out to them, thanking them and memorising their voices, letting them teach him the way to the Darkling wood.
With one last, longing look to Camelot, Arthur turned on his paws and sprinted off, guided by the howls of his brothers towards his cure.
The Darkling woods were famous in the kingdom for being the best hunting ground. They were also the most dangerous and it was only the best knights that accompanied the royal family upon their hunts, the ones who had the privilege to take what they caught from the hunt.
Arthur knew the moment he stepped into the shadow of the notorious wood. It wasn’t a visual change or smell, but an instinctive knowledge that there were more dangerous animals in his wake. That was true; the human mind he had knew that boars and the occasional bear would be found in the Darkling wood, not to mention the handful of magical creatures that seemed to sprout from the caves nearby.
What Arthur and his helping wolf-brothers hadn’t factored in, however, was the top predator would already be out hunting in the moonlight. He hadn’t smelt them, hadn’t seen them even, until a crossbolt thudded into a nearby tree.
Arthur didn’t even think, he just ran on, tongue lolling from his mouth as he picked up the pace. If they were on foot, he’d be able to outrun their crossbow range easily and, even if they had horses, he should be able to put a good amount of space between him and them before finding a place to hide.
Or at least, that had been the plan before a strangled howl sounded and Arthur paused, stumbling his footing as he realised they had brought the dogs. Dogs that would be able to easily sniff him out – dogs that would render his plans useless.
Without complete control, Arthur howled to the wind, asking for help. It was something he would never have done as a knight, but he was a wolf. Yes, he had teeth and power, but that was nothing compared to swords and crossbolts. Arthur had been on the other side of the situation, a ruthless tracker to kill an animal, and he knew how easily he could be taken down. He had to be careful, had to rely on his wolf instinct as that was the only thing that would be able to save him.
Arthur settled into a comfortable lope, ears flicking in all directions to try and gauge how far away the dogs were. He hadn’t heard any horses yet, but it wouldn’t be long before riders were out in the woods. Uther clearly believed his son to be in danger and as such would be doing everything he could.
A dog bayed in the distance and Arthur knew they’d picked up his scent. He continued on, muscles beginning to burn, not used to the wolf form or the amount of strain he was putting himself under. Yet it was either this or death and Arthur refused to die.
He was able to continue for a while, breath escaping his jaws as mist, but his pace was dropping and Arthur knew it wouldn’t be long before he had to stop. The hunting party behind him were closing in on his heels – not close enough to see him, but close enough that Arthur could smell the dogs on the wind.
A sudden rush of noise met Arthur’s ears and he stopped, head ducked low as the pack he’d called to surround him. The alpha was the first to approach Arthur, sniffing him as Arthur stood rigid, unsure what to do. He sensed that the alpha – a red-brown wolf with a ring of grey around his muzzle – understood he wasn’t fully wolf, accepting Arthur as he was and calling the pack. The look in his eyes made it clear that Arthur would need to repay the debt and he whined an agreement.
The pack was a solid eight strong. Three wolves headed back, rubbing against Arthur as they did so to pick up a little of his scent. It might be enough to throw some of the dogs off for now and the alpha ushered Arthur away, speeding through the wood until it was just the two of them, the others looping around to confuse the trail.
A howl sounded, far away, and the alpha turned to Arthur, slowing to a halt. Arthur understood the message – the wolves had successfully thrown the dogs off of the trail and Arthur was free to go now. He ducked his head, licking at the alpha’s muzzle to thank him, promising him he would repay the debt.
Arthur didn’t ask to join the pack or beg for their help. They had their own needs to look after and Arthur had his own goal to complete. He needed to do as the dragon said and find the heart of the forest. The Darkling forest was so huge that even though he’d been running for hours now, Arthur wasn’t sure if he was at the very heart.
He was sniffing the air, hoping it would somehow help him to decide how far he had to go, when Arthur heard the soft snort of a cavalry horse. It trod lightly, trained to do so, and he span around, growling at the threat.
The crossbow was already aimed, straight for his head, and Arthur barely had time to move when he heard the whir that accompanied the bolt’s release. He yelped as it embedded in his shoulder, looking behind at the lone rider who had managed to track him this far.
“You will die sorcerer!” the king said and Arthur could hardly recognise his father. Seeing the man seated upon the war horse now, all he could see was a king who had sentenced hundreds to death in cold blood. There was none of the Uther he knew in this king and the thought carried to Arthur’s feet, instinct forcing him to run as far away from this man as he could.
Though Uther was on a horse, he made no move to pursue, something Arthur was grateful for. No doubt he believed that the bolt would kill Arthur, which was more than likely. He could smell the tangy scent of blood and Arthur hoped that he had finally reached the heart of the forest.
When he could go no more – and it was a while before he was fully down, panting on the ground as his shoulder throbbed – Arthur lay on his side. He had no way of knowing if he’d reached his destiny yet and vowed that if he survived this he would visit the dragon and shout at it until he was satisfied.
Arthur gave a small huff that would have been pathetic laughter in a human before his eyes rolled back and he knew no more.
Everything was a haze, but Arthur could hear someone speaking, chanting. He wondered if this was the sorcerer who had cursed him, back to curse him some more. But no – that sorcerer had died… another one then?
He stirred, feeling too hot and too cold at the same time. The bed sheets tangled around him until a cool cloth was pressed to his head and a voice whispered for him to rest.
Arthur obliged without a fight.
Arthur woke with the sun in his eyes. He groaned as pain lanced across his shoulders and he remembered the mossy bank upon which he’d fallen asleep. Someone must have saved him, he thought, and opened his eyes, sitting up at the same time. The pain was still there, but it was dulled, more of an ache now.
He was in a small cottage and he smiled at the small, personal mementoes around. Bundles of herbs and strung up animals lines the walls and there was a work bench, set up similarly to Gaius’.
A pang of longing shot through Arthur’s belly as he thought of Gaius. It led to thoughts of Uther and he reached for his shoulder, wanting to feel the mark his father had inflicted underneath the bandages.
It wasn’t until Arthur felt the slight pucker mark of a scar (and that brought back memories of his fever-dreams, memories of spells and things Arthur should never think about) that he realised he was feeling skin under his hands, not fur. He looked down at his hands to prove that, yes, he was human again.
The door opened and Arthur turned to his saviour, smiling widely. He didn’t care that the person might think him a simpleton, the smile he wore was true and honest. He was human; his curse had been lifted.
It was a man, around Arthur’s age. He had a bundle of herbs in a large bag slung across his shoulder and was humming to himself, ignoring Arthur until he’d set the bag on the table and picked up a poultice.
“Oh,” was all he said, eyebrows shooting upwards in surprise. “You’re awake.”
Arthur, if possible, felt his smile widening and nodded his head.
“Thank you,” he blurted out, hands clenching around the sheets. “For saving me. And…” he took a deep breath, knowing that he needed this man to trust him. This had to be what the dragon was talking about and how could they trust each other if Arthur didn’t tell him he accepted the magic? “And for using magic.”
“You’re a knight of Camelot,” came the reply, the man’s voice low and dangerous. “I saved you because I believe that all life is equal, but I’d have no qualm defending myself if you try to take me to Camelot.”
Arthur wondered absently if he’d still been a wolf when the man had brought him here. If not, he could see this man walking without fear to a wolf’s side and bringing it home, so confident in his power. He was a rare breed, Arthur knew, and he could already sense the bravery this man possessed.
“My name is Arthur,” he said. “And yes, I am a knight of Camelot, but you saved my life. You have my gratitude and my services if you should need them.”
The man looked at him with narrowed eyes, setting the poultice down on the bed. He crossed his arms, raking his gaze over Arthur and making him feel like a small child.
“I believe it’s more of a case that you need more of my services. It was a Camelot bolt that I pulled out of your shoulder and there is a curse on you.” Arthur’s heart dropped at the words, moving to say something when the man continued. “And as far as I know, the only knight of Camelot with the name of Arthur is the prince.”
He was sharper than Arthur had given him credit for.
“Yes,” he replied simply. There was no need to deny it – Arthur was the prince after all. His disappearance would soon be known throughout the land and there was nothing that would stop this man from learning of it. He’d certainly be clever enough to pin two and two together, and it was much easier to simply be honest from the beginning.
“Then my name is Merlin.” The man smiled, demeanour shifting from cold and impersonal to friendly in less than a heartbeat. “And you have a curse placed upon you from the wolf-god’s servant.”
Arthur hid his shock well. How did the man know that?
“I only know it because you’ve turned into a wolf the past two nights.” Merlin sat down on the bed, shaking his head. “Scared the life out of me the first night, though luckily you remained asleep from fever. Don’t know what I would have done if you’d been awake in that form!”
There was humour in his tone, but Arthur knew enough to be able to pick out the seriousness. Merlin was scared of him yet hadn’t thrown him out. He’d still risked himself to take care of Arthur and Arthur couldn’t remember the last time anyone had taken such a large measure to do something like that.
“Did you know I was the prince?” he asked and Merlin shook his head. So he hadn’t even done it for recognition from the royal family of Camelot – though what recognition a sorcerer could hope from a man who persecuted him was beyond Arthur’s comprehension.
Kindly, Merlin asked to look at Arthur’s wound, undoing the bandages with care. Arthur felt his hands, cool and confident, as they applied the poultice – “To stave off any infection as I don’t like to rely solely on magic,” Merlin whispered – and reset the bandages.
“Thank you,” Arthur said quietly and Merlin smiled, moving away to the table on the other side of the room. He stoked the coals, threw more onto the fire he had going and placed a large pot over it.
“We’ll eat and then talk about what needs to be done. I’ve never worked with real curses before,” Merlin said as he moved across the room once more, this time to a wall lined with books. He took one, embellished with a faded gold ‘Curses’, and returned to the table, turning a chair so he could face Arthur.
“But you have knowledge on them?” Arthur asked, only just able to keep the distain from his voice. The dragon had told him he’d find help, not an idiot with powerful magic who wasn’t actually help at all.
“I’ve read books,” was all Merlin offered and Arthur sighed, swinging his legs out of bed. He was dressed in the same trousers he’d worn out to the execution and he was willing to bet his shirt was around somewhere too.
“Your shirt is being washed,” Merlin said, reading Arthur easily. “I washed it, took a bit longer to clean that your trousers.” Merlin grinned and Arthur rolled his eyes.
“I also washed your cloak,” said Merlin and he pointed to the stand next to the door, where a creased slash of red marred the wall. Arthur wondered why he hadn’t seen it before, but was grateful. He still had a part of Camelot with him even though he would be travelling far from home.
“Thank you,” he said for what felt like the thousandth time. Arthur wasn’t in the habit of thanking people again and again (something that simply came with being a prince), but he had more than one debt to repay Merlin. A simple thanks was a stone’s throw in length of what he had to repay.
They ate quietly, Arthur coming to join Merlin at the table. It was a simple stew but Arthur devoured it with haste, unsure of the last time he’d had proper food. It had been perhaps two days since he’d been shot with the bolt (and cursed, but Arthur didn’t want to think of that right now) and he wondered if magic had been sustaining him while he’d slept. He asked as much to Merlin, but Merlin laughed.
“Magic can’t do everything,” he said, filling Arthur’s bowl up for a third time. “In theory I could have sustained you on magic, but what would the point be? There would have to be a price for such an action and while most can be paid with energy itself – energy I happen to have vast amounts of – something like taking away your hunger would need to be balanced out with my own hunger.”
He shook his head, filling two cups with water. “It’s easier, not to mention better for you, if I just fed you broth.”
Arthur blinked. He’s heard that magic was supposed to be able to do everything, but here Merlin was, speaking of prices and effects.
“So magic couldn’t be used to feed thousands of people?” he asked, wondering what the point was if it couldn’t be used to help.
“It couldn’t stop their physical hunger,” Merlin replied, tapping his fingers on the wooden table, covering notches in the wood. “But it could be used to grow crops, help the soil become more fertile by taking the basic life from another area. That would fill their bellies, just not directly and the price would be paid by the land.”
Even so, Arthur wondered how difficult magic was when you had to constantly think about prices and balances.
“It’s not always like that,” Merlin said suddenly. “For most people, their magic isn’t strong enough that they need to worry about balance. If they attempt too large a spell, their entire energy is consumed, which I believe is what happened with your curse.”
“And how powerful are you?” slipped from Arthur’s mouth, but he didn’t regret the words. Though Merlin may not look it, he spoke of magic with the touch of someone who knew what they were doing and were confident at doing it; the way Arthur would speak about fighting.
“There is a name you no doubt will have heard, being Uther’s son,” Merlin said, clearing the plates and taking them to a bowl of water. He sat and scrubbed them while Arthur watched, thoughts whirling through his mind.
He was right – there was a name that he had heard. The name of Emrys, more of a title to the people of Camelot, that inspired fear in the very heart of the king. He was said to be the most powerful sorcerer the world had ever know (even more than Sigan, even more than Nimueh, even more than the sorcerers who shaped the world as they knew it today).
Though in his dreams (nightmares), Arthur had imagined Emrys a million times over, he thought now that it would be okay if Merlin really was the owner of that name. Merlin, despite everything Uther had tried to teach him, was good. He understood magic, stuck to the rules he’d set for himself, and Arthur could grow to respect that.
“The curse only turns you into a wolf?” Merlin asked suddenly, returning to the table with bright pink hands. He’d finished cleaning the plates, but his skin was raw and Arthur wanted to ask him why he didn’t just use magic, why he didn’t help himself, but it wasn’t his place. He was here for Merlin’s help and he’d intruded enough.
So Arthur explained what had happened, from the moment they’d found the strange man worshipping at one of the forbidden shrines to the moment he’d cursed Arthur into a white wolf. Merlin listened through all of it, occasionally nodding his head to encourage Arthur, but otherwise simply sitting there.
“It’s a powerful curse,” Merlin acknowledged when he was done. “So powerful that I won’t be able to break it myself.”
All hope drained out of Arthur and he sank lower onto the table. He was cursed to remain as a wolf for the rest of his life?
“The White Mountains were said to once belong to the wolf god. That’s how they got their name,” Merlin said excitedly, “from the huge, white wolf that protected the range.”
Though he’d never heard stories of old lore (Uther’s regime even stretched into the tales of the land), Arthur had gone searching himself, determined to fight magic with knowledge as well as power. He had recognised the forbidden shrine the man had been worshipping at, though he hadn’t known it was for a wolf god, just simply for an old god. To hear that a fundamental part of their world – the White Mountains – were named due to something Uther had tried to stomp out. It made Arthur feel as if he didn’t know much about anything at all.
“They’re a few days’ walk,” Merlin said, picking the conversation back up. “You can recover for the rest of today and tonight and then we can leave tomorrow.”
It sounded a perfect plan, save for one fact. Arthur would turn into a wolf, just like every other night since he’d been here. Only, this time, the fever was gone and he would be fully wolf.
“Merlin,” he began hesitantly, but Merlin shook his head.
“You’re not a true wolf,” Merlin said. “And I had nothing to fear from you when you were unconscious and had no real self control. You’re the best knight in the land to boot, I believe you can control yourself if it ever came to that.”
Arthur wanted very much to believe him, but he found it difficult. He could only remember being in pain and scared when he was a wolf and wondered how he would react to Merlin. He knew he shouldn’t be scared of Merlin, but would his instincts that Uther had projected onto him override his sense when he was a wolf? Arthur wanted to leave just so he’d never have to face that truth. What if his true self was just as tainted against magic as his father?
In truth, Arthur could see the good in magic. He’d snuck books away, determined to learn about all kinds of magic and how to stop it, but the tales he’d seen were wonderful, charming and as far away from Uther’s vision as could be.
“I should go,” Arthur said, standing. Merlin shot up quickly, pushing his chair back with force.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, picking the chair over from where it had tipped at the force. “But you can’t go alone. For one you have no idea how to get there, two you’re likely to still be hunted and three, who knows what you’ll find at the mountains?”
Merlin was probably right (what hope did Arthur have where magic was concerned?), but he couldn’t endanger him. This was Arthur’s burden and Merlin had already done too much.
“I have to-“
“Shut up,” Merlin said, eyes narrowed. Arthur could feel the magic crackling in the air, control lost with Merlin’s anger. “I have the chance to help you and I’m going to do it so shut up.”
In his eyes, Arthur could see how important this was for Merlin and he backed down, sitting and nodding his head. He understood why Merlin needed to do this now, could practically taste his desperation.
It wasn’t just for Arthur. No, that was the driving reason, but there was something else, something bigger. Merlin was an outcast yet was still Emrys. He was the one everyone had laid their futures on, the one who was said to unite the land and return magic. How could he do that when Camelot opposed him?
“I don’t think magic is all evil,” Arthur said, attempting to reach out to Merlin.
“But you don’t know it,” Merlin countered. “I have this chance to show you, to open your eyes better than any book could. I have this chance to begin saving my people and I have to do this.”
Merlin smiled. “And I don’t think you’d last a day out there without me.”
Arthur laughed, got up and strode around the table to clap Merlin on the shoulder. It shouldn’t be this easy to get on with a sorcerer, but Arthur almost wished Merlin could stay by his side for years to come. He was entertaining, that was for sure, and there was a certain peace about him, something that suggested he’d accepted himself wholly – a quality that was hard to find in men.
Above it all, Arthur could sense Merlin’s loyalty and he wanted to give him his own in return. They’d known each other for barely a day – not counting the time Arthur was unconscious – but Arthur felt as if they’d known each other for their entire lives. There was no spell that could do such a thing and it was a great credit to Merlin’s character.
So he smiled and turned to the shelves of books, trying not to think about the coming days and what would happen when the curse was lifted.