As evening drew closer, Arthur grew more on edge. He paced the small cottage, couldn’t focus and was short when Merlin tried to talk to him. Merlin seemed to understand him though and set to work on dinner (again it was stew).
They ate in tense silence. Merlin opened his mouth every now and again to try and talk, but shut it a moment after, convincing himself not to. Arthur was thankful for that, not sure he’d be able to take a conversation right now. His stomach was in knots and he felt sick, only eating because he knew that he had to.
Arthur could feel the night when it came. It wrapped around him like a cloak and he let out a shout, trying to warn Merlin before he shifted. It was painful, not as painful as the first time though – would he be cursed so long that he grew used to it? – and he picked himself up off of the floor easily, turning to face Merlin with the sharp sight of a wolf.
“Arthur,” Merlin began carefully, his voice awed. He reached out a hand and Arthur felt his skin crawl, wolf instinct remembering the humans chasing him and the pain that had caused.
Arthur knew he had two options. He could either attack Merlin or run. Wolf instinct noted that he was in an enclosed space, but Arthur still retained enough humanity to understand how to unlatch a door and so he ran, butting the lock with his muzzle to push it up. He couldn’t kill Merlin, not at any cost.
He ran into the night, ignoring the calls behind him. Merlin might be able to track and find him, but if Arthur put enough distance between them, then he’d have enough time until morning.
Now that he knew their ultimate direction was the White Mountains, Arthur could tell which way he needed to go. A crisp, watery scent drifted to him as well as the far-off sound of wolves, no doubt a relic of the god that had lived there. It was the direction he had to go and Arthur set off at pace, ignoring the ache that began to show in his shoulder.
It was a while before he took a break. Arthur drank deeply from a running stream and looked through the dark of the forest. He could hear something and he ducked his head down, lifting his tail as he bared his teeth.
A rush of air accompanied the arrival of a white creature. For a moment, Arthur thought it was the wolf god Merlin had told him about, but the neck was too long and the body too different.
It was a dragon. Not the same as the dragon that Arthur had met at Camelot (much smaller for one thing), but a dragon nonetheless.
“I didn’t think you’d ever stop!” came a familiar voice and Arthur lowered his tail and stopped growling as Merlin jumped down from the dragon’s back.
“Thank you Aithusa,” he said kindly to the dragon and the creature bobbed its head, launching into the skies.
“He’s a tenacious dragon at best, but he’s calmed down a lot. Tends to be in the wrong place at the wrong time far too often, but he has good intentions.” Arthur didn’t quite know what to do at that so decided to sit, resting his aching shoulder as he did so.
“You shouldn’t have run,” Merlin said, stepping closer to Arthur, until he was sitting next to him. This time, Arthur felt no urge to run or hide, perhaps because he was tired, though he thought it more likely because Merlin had ridden a difficult dragon just to find him. The wolf was satisfied with that amount of dedication and Arthur eased himself to the ground, head only just pressed against the side of Merlin’s leg.
“I’m going to put my hand on you,” Merlin warned, just before his fingers threaded through Arthur’s fur.
It felt… nice. As if someone was massaging Arthur’s head, only on his shoulder. Merlin massaged the muscle and Arthur felt himself relaxing, dropping the guard he’d developed as a wolf and falling into a heavy sleep.
When he woke, Merlin was smiling and he was human once again. A bright red cloth covered Arthur and he took the cloak in his hand, fingers running delicately over the embroidered dragon.
Without a word, Arthur draped the cloak over Merlin’s shoulders, tying the clasp himself and walking on. It was all the protection Arthur could offer him. He had no sword, no armour and he was aware that he was slowly wading out of his depth. Still, the cloak meant a lot to a knight and it was unheard of for others to wear it.
He hoped Merlin understood and, by the hand tracing its own way across the dragon, Arthur thought that he did.
The foot of the White Mountains were rocky, Arthur noted with distaste. He jumped onto a large rock and looked back for Merlin, who was doing his best to keep climbing in the dark.
“No where up there to camp?” he called out and Arthur grunted in response, peering through the dark. There was a cave a little up ahead, but he could smell danger in there; a hibernating bear perhaps.
He continued to climb and ignored the muttering behind him. It seemed that four legs were far superior to two when negotiating steep, rocky mountains, but Arthur didn’t leave Merlin too far behind. If they passed through this range and got to the top of this hill, Arthur knew there would be a small patch of greenery and a lake, enough for them both to sleep on.
Getting to the mountain had been the easy bit. Arthur bit back a bark of laughter as he heard Merlin swear, skidding down the hill. It was this – beginning to climb the White Mountains – that was the hardest bit, but it was unavoidable. Merlin had said that the wolf god had lived at the very top of the highest peak, though it sounded a little fairytale to Arthur.
Arthur reached the small patch of grass long before Merlin and he set about clearing some space. He pushed away broken branches and uncomfortable stones and surveyed his work, looking down proudly as Merlin dragged himself up from the climb.
“You’re not very helpful,” Merlin muttered, coming to stand by Arthur’s side. He looked down at the ground and patted Arthur’s head, scruffing up the fur between his ears, something Arthur would never admit to actually liking so he batted Merlin away with a paw, lying down and waiting for Merlin to get their food out.
Arthur was the one who did the hunting, but in a wolf form he was useless in preparing it. They had found out early on that despite being a wolf, Arthur still preferred his meat cooked, even to the point of completely refusing raw meat. Merlin would prepare it using magic to help the fire and speed everything up a little and soon the mouth watering scent of stew was drifting through the air.
“I should really learn to cook something other than stew,” Merlin said to himself, dividing the rations between them. “But it’s easy and warming.”
Arthur couldn’t disagree, licking his way around the bowl and sitting down on his haunches.
It was so easy to forget that he was a prince in this form. Being a wolf was easy now and Arthur almost wished he could remain this way forever.
“While you were hunting, Aithusa came to me,” Merlin said quietly, drawing Arthur’s attention away from his thoughts. He cocked his head, waiting for Merlin to continue.
“King Uther has increased his witch hunts. Already seven have died and there are countless more being put through their paces to see how quickly they will admit and end their suffering.” Merlin curled up slightly, pulling Arthur’s cloak around him, as if shielding himself from the cruelness of Uther.
That was the reason they had to end this curse as soon as they could. Arthur’s disappearance had affected so many people, and not in a good way. Uther had to be spitting rage that his son hadn’t been returned when he’d killed the sorcerer and was taking it out on his own people.
Arthur used to think his father was such a good king, but he wasn’t sure anymore. What kind of human – let alone a king – would do the terrible things Uther did to his own people?
“It’s not your fault,” Merlin said firmly, setting his bowl aside and coming to sit against Arthur. This was part of the routine they had fallen into, to fall asleep curled together for warmth. “What happened to you is not your fault.”
Oh but it was. He had watched the sorcerer be taken away for simply praying and done nothing to stop his execution. He deserved this, Arthur thought, but a hand to the top of his muzzle caught him by surprise and put a quick end to the thoughts.
“I’m serious Arthur,” Merlin said. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Arthur gave a stunted whine, setting his head on the floor and turning slightly away from Merlin. Merlin wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand. There was too much that Arthur had never done and someone as good as Merlin would never get this.
It was Arthur’s burden and there was nothing he could do to change that.
Still, as the stars overhead began to fade, Arthur’s dreams shifted into a time of peace. A crown on his head and Merlin casting spells at his side; that would be their kingdom.
Sadly, such dreams were treason and as Arthur brushed sleep from his human eyes, he rolled his recovering shoulder and did not dare dwell on them.
Arthur looked at Merlin, turning his head slowly as he leant against the wall of the cave. It was two days since they’d begun their journey on the mountain and Arthur felt they would have better luck looking for a needle in a haystack.
“It’s a full moon tonight,” he said and Arthur looked at the sky, noticing the bright, full moon. He nodded, not paying much attention, but Merlin’s hands stiffened against his fur.
“Legends speak of a creature that changes with the full moon,” he whispered, not looking at Arthur. “A were-wolf, a shape shifter if you like.”
Arthur snorted. He shifted each and every night, surely Merlin didn’t believe he would suddenly change into something else?
“I don’t think you’re going to return to a human in the day,” Merlin said sadly and Arthur looked at him sharply. How could he know that? That wasn’t something he could predict, unless it was a magical feeling?
Arthur tried to speak, tried to call out Merlin’s name, but he couldn’t. Merlin buried his head against Arthur’s shoulder, cheek rising with each breath Arthur took.
“It’s not too much of a problem,” he said quietly, a little while later. “Just I’ve been alone for a long time. I managed to forget how nice it is to have company and… well to go back to that quiet? I don’t think I can do it.”
Arthur turned until he could see Merlin, letting him rest on his belly instead. He pushed Merlin’s shoulder with a paw, trying to cheer him up, but it looked as though it had the opposite effect.
“I could have stayed at home, in a village with my mother. She’s probably worried to death about me though if I go back I’ll be beaten to an inch of my life.” Merlin laughed, stroking the fur next to his cheek absently. “But people kept trying to find me and I didn’t want her hurt. She wouldn’t understand that of course, but it was my burden.”
Merlin frowned. “Took off just like my father, thinking we could both save her from harm when really we probably caused more.”
Arthur didn’t know what it was like to have a mother, but he touched his toes to Merlin’s arm lightly, asking to one day meet the woman who had raised Merlin to be as kind as he was.
“I’ll take you to meet her one day,” Merlin said. “When you’re human. Maybe she’d be a little more lenient with a royal around.” He smiled half-heartedly, pushing himself off of Arthur and stretching.
“It’s tough work, being alone. But maybe I’m underestimating you,” Merlin conceded, looking over to Arthur. “After all, being a prince is hard too. Looking after your people and trying to meet everyone’s needs… must be lonely.”
He didn’t want to hear about himself. Arthur didn’t want to be reminded of the fact his closest friends were more comrades than actual friends. Yes they would follow him into battle and gladly die for him, but was it truly for Arthur the man instead of Arthur the prince?
“Though we could just be putting a too little faith in people,” Merlin said with a smile. “I’m going to sleep.”
The ability Merlin had to catch Arthur’s thoughts was astounding. He seemed to know what Arthur was thinking when Arthur barely recognised the thoughts. He was amazing, they were amazing, and Arthur stayed up by the light emitting from the coals to watch Merlin sleep, closing his eyes only when he was sure he was sleeping soundly and peacefully.
Whatever intuition that was guiding Merlin was annoyingly right. From the time he had tried to warn Arthur off of a particular plant that had hidden barbs to the most recent – Merlin being right was annoying.
And Arthur was still a wolf.
“Come on, it’s not that bad!” Merlin said, packing up their equipment into the large back. Arthur wasn’t there to carry the pack today and Merlin whispered something, condensing the bag until it was small enough to fit on his hip.
“What?” he asked innocently, ignoring Arthur’s warning growl. Having Merlin carry everything in such a way would have been useful to know days ago, not just now, when they were nearing the very top of the mountain.
“I think we should get to the top tonight,” Merlin said. “Though whether it is the supposed sacred ground of the wolf god, I don’t know.” He worried his lip between his teeth before shaking his head.
“If that happens, I suppose we just keep going really.” Arthur turned to leave, not bothering to grace Merlin with any sign of an answer. It was a stupid statement and Merlin’s stupid statements were to be ignored in hope of training him a little better.
They left their makeshift home (a welcoming cave) to face the bare mountains. A cold wind was coming at them heavily and Merlin looked to Arthur, as if he wanted to steal his fur.
The wind felt nice on Arthur’s fur and he wondered if this was where he was supposed to live, had he been a true wolf. He could smell snow in their direct path and his legs trembled with excitement, though he had never come to love snow too much as a human. It was too cold, too cumbersome to walk through and cut off most training activities. To have to defend land in snow was one of the knights’ worst nightmares and luckily Arthur had only experienced such a feat a handful of times.
They walked in silence, Merlin occasionally resting his hand atop Arthur’s shoulders, stroking the fur lightly in reassurance Arthur was still with him. And, in return, Arthur would nudge Merlin’s hands with his cold nose and rub his cheek against Merlin’s leg, more of a cat than a wolf. It was his own way to tell Merlin that he was okay, compromising for lack of human speech.
When they arrived at the glacier top, the snow suddenly came upon them thick and fast. In an hour, the world had gone from bare to trudging through knee-high snow, and that was the shallowest patches.
Arthur knew that if they kept on this path a little longer, they would reach slightly higher, compacted ground and the walking would be easier. He whined back at Merlin, trying to encourage him to keep walking in the churned up path he had cut and Merlin nodded, hurrying with Arthur’s cloak catching on the wind, unfurling behind him like the sail of a boat.
“I think I know where to go from here,” Merlin muttered and Arthur shook his fur out, yawning loudly in agreement.
The path ahead, now that they had broken through the thick snow around them, was lined with trees. Whether by chance or purpose, there was no other way to logically go and Merlin set off, cloak curling around him as he turned to smile at Arthur.
“If we can’t get you back to being fully human, maybe they’ll let you at least get the power of speech in your wolf form,” he said cheekily, stumbling into a run when Arthur launched forwards, playfully but with a deep growl.
They tumbled over together, Merlin laughing and Arthur unable to control the wagging of his tail. When Merlin righted himself, he jumped up again, paws resting on Merlin’s shoulders to look him in the eye, to try and tell him thank you when words could not.
Without Merlin, Arthur would never have made it out of the forest alive after all.
“Come on,” Merlin said softly, lowering Arthur carefully to the ground. “Still got a bit of land to cover before we can completely relax.”
As they walked, Arthur began to plan all the things he’d do when he had full human form once again. He’d take Merlin for a night walk (around Camelot if he could), he’d eat as a human in the night, talk in the night, look up and appreciate the moon and he’d never hunt a wolf. He couldn’t stop himself hunting fully, but he would appreciate the hunt more, enjoy it as much as he should rather than using it simply for sport.
“Wow,” Merlin said as they paused, looking around them. Somehow they had climbed up higher than Arthur had been aware of and had full view over the land.
In the distance, looking more like a child’s toy, stood Camelot and Arthur couldn’t hold back the howl in his chest that bubbled up with his excitement. There was his home, his Camelot, and he needed to rejoice in the fact.
The wind whipped up around them, howling as if it was a wolf itself. Merlin stiffened suddenly and a great rush of wind hurled towards them, blinding them as it whipped up snow.
“Arthur,” a voice called and Arthur tore his eyes away from Camelot, starting as he saw a colossal wolf in front of them. It was easily the size of a working horse, if not twice that, and almost invisible in the snow, being as pure white as Arthur himself was. “So you have come.”
Arthur opened his mouth, closing his jaws with a snap when he remembered he couldn’t speak. Merlin looked at him from the corner of his eye, fallen to his knees with an arm shielding his eyes from the brunt of the wind.
“Arthur, no,” he said, using the same uncanny ability to read Arthur’s actions. “We’ll go together, that was what we decided. My magic can pay the price if it comes to it, you don’t have to do anything.”
But Arthur had to do something. It was clear there was no place for Merlin on these mountains. He could understand the intentions of the wolf god, to dissuade Merlin and allow Arthur (a wolf suited to these conditions) to pass alone.
“Come,” the wolf god said and Arthur cast one, baleful look to Merlin, drinking in his bright eyes and pale skin, all wrapped up in Arthur’s cloak. If he didn’t come back, would Merlin keep his cloak?
“Now,” the wolf god demanded and Arthur sprinted forwards, following him without regret. Merlin was strong, Merlin could take care of himself, no matter what happened to Arthur. It was Arthur’s turn to show how strong he could be to those he had wronged, to prove he wasn’t just Uther’s son.
“You can speak with me,” the wolf god said, letting Arthur walk beside him. Though Arthur was dwarfed by his bulk, the god carried his head low, close enough for Arthur’s words to be heard.
“Your follower was loyal to you,” Arthur said, speaking in a language he knew only existed to the gods. “I am sorry that he died for my weakness.”
The wolf god laughed, a great sound that boomed from his muzzle.
“You think that the gods seek divine punishment? What happened to you was a misfortune, true, but destiny diverted itself long, long ago.” The wolf shook his head. “The man was no more a servant of me than you are, though he believed himself to be true to the White Mountains. A false image is easily created.”
Arthur stopped, looking at the wolf god in surprise.
“A human has never laid eyes on me,” he said, eyes burning bright yellow as he regarded Arthur. “Aside from Emrys, though strictly he is a creature of magic, much like myself, you will be the first.”
Without warning, a burning pain hit Arthur’s entire body and he shouted out, voice raw as the magic overtook him. It was more intense than when he’d changed from human to wolf the first time and he felt tears spring to the corners of his eyes, threatening to spill as his senses were overloaded.
“You are strong though,” the wolf god said as Arthur rolled over in the snow, gasping for air on all fours – hands and knees. He was human again, dressed in the winter clothes Merlin had provided for him.
“Kilgharrah will be pleased to know that destiny righted itself,” the god said, amusement dripping from his words. “Though he will speak of it more in riddles.”
“And you haven’t?” Arthur questioned between breaths, looking up at the wolf with a wry grin.
“You were always destined to meet Emrys, though times shifted out of normalcy. It is a great relief to see them back on their true course.” The wolf looked to the skies and the winds finally calmed. He looked over Arthur’s shoulder, eyes crinkling as his lips turned into an odd smile.
“I expected no less,” he commented, turning on his tail and walking away from Arthur. “I will continue to watch over the White Mountains. When you become king, come visit me and we will see about the protection I can offer Albion.”
He seemed to fade before Arthur’s eyes, vanishing into the wind as if he was never there. He didn’t have much time to dwell on it though for something crashed into him from behind, arms wrapped tightly around his chest.
“You’re an idiot!” Merlin shouted, crushing Arthur against cold snow. “A complete prat! An entitled dick who thinks he can just go and leave people?”
Arthur managed to turn, rolling Merlin to lie beside him.
“You left me behind when I thought you were going to die,” Merlin whispered. “You had a look in your eyes, like you deserved what was coming to you.”
Arthur sighed, reaching for Merlin’s hand and threading his fingers through.
“He spoke of destiny righting itself and that the sorcerer who cursed me was more of a misguided soul than a true worshiper.” Arthur looked sideways, memorising the curve of Merlin’s features. “He spoke of Albion, and you,” he added quietly, closing his eyes as a light wind picked up.
“We’re on top of the world,” Merlin said quietly, voice low. “And I never believed in Albion until now.”
“What happened to change your mind?” Arthur asked, unable to contain his smile when Merlin didn’t reply.
He knew, Arthur thought. He knew better than anyone.
“What will happen now?” he couldn’t help but ask, and Merlin turned to him, lying on his side and smiling.
“I believe it’s time I paid a visit to my mother,” he said and Arthur’s heart sank. “But after that,” Merlin added quickly, poking Arthur between the brows where a frown line had developed, “I think I could look for work in Camelot.”
“Even though magic is banned?” Arthur asked, though he could tell already that Merlin would follow him to the world’s end.
“Someone has to make sure you don’t get cursed again,” Merlin muttered, sitting up and looking out over the world. “It would be inconvenient for everyone if you got turned into a fly.”
“Yeah,” Arthur muttered, barely holding back his laughter. “A fly god would be a little harder to find.”
Merlin shook his head, waiting for Arthur to sit up beside him before he bumped shoulders, resting his head against Arthur’s and sighing.
“My mother will love you,” he said quietly, playing with Arthur’s fingers. “Just as much as I do.”
In years to come, Arthur would never forget the night he spent by Merlin’s side, watching the stars above and the world below, covered in a cloak of Camelot and a multitude of small warming spells.
“Thank you Merlin,” he said quietly, the world finally fitting into its proper place as Merlin leant forward, kissing him.
“You don’t need to thank me,” Merlin said, pulling back and letting his fingers smooth through Arthur’s hair, just as they’d done when he was a wolf. Arthur brushed their noses together and thought of the day they’d return to the White Mountains, king and sorcerer, united by their bonds and their land.