Merlin did not understand why Arthur was taking him on this fool’s errand Uther had devised, but he wasn’t going to complain either. Arthur had been distant lately and Merlin hoped the time away from Camelot would close that gap. He missed the banter and ease they’d used to share.
Arthur’s voice snapped, echoing in his chambers, bringing Merlin to attention. “Merlin! Wake up. This foray is very important and we have to leave quickly. There isn’t time for you to snooze over the bags.”
Merlin yawned and leaned away from the wall he’d been propping himself against. Arthur had woken him from a sound sleep and told him not to light any candles. He was still a little dazed, in fact. He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs.
“Yes, sire. I’m almost done. Just have to collect provisions from the kitchen and we’ll be ready.”
“No, no one can know we are going. I’ll find some game on the way.”
“Arthur, we are not going on foot. Surely the whole castle will know by morning that we’ve left. What harm will taking some food do?” Merlin held back from rubbing his stomach despite the echo of an ache at the thought of an empty rucksack.
Arthur just looked at him. Merlin silently acquiesced. He knew Arthur would say there just wasn’t time to collect any food.
Away from the castle, cold air nipping at his cheeks, Merlin said softly, “Where are we going again?”
Silence from Arthur. Merlin was tired of the distance between them that seemed to have grown since Merlin had made Arthur look a fool in front of Uther over that fake knight who had been using sorcery. Merlin made an attempt to ignore that history and plunged ahead.
“Oh, is this one of these, ‘If I told you that, I’d have to kill you’” kind of forays?”
Arthur glared at him, his gaze piercing through the inky darkness of the dense forest. Merlin could sense the weight of this mission on Arthur’s shoulders and refrained from another attempt at conversation. He did not understand what was on his prince’s mind.
The dark pushed on Merlin for hours, tamping his spirits down. Cold, dejected, and exhausted, he released his hold on consciousness. Merlin could sleep on horseback, but realized his failure when a frost-coated bush poked his arms, bringing him back to consciousness.
“Oh for heaven’s sake! What is the matter with you?” Arthur said, as he pulled Merlin upright.
Merlin, still cobwebby, just looked at Arthur, too dazed from the fall and the warmth of his hand through his sleeve, to reply.
“Well, come on. We’re not there yet.” Arthur sighed and Merlin felt, for the first time in days, that things might be repaired between them.
Merlin could not say how long they’d been riding before the pink hues of dawn filtered through the trees or how much longer it was after that when they finally passed through the edge of the forest to look out over a valley.
“Merlin, build a fire. I will be back shortly.”
Arthur did not even look at Merlin for acknowledgement, just rode off along the edge of the forest.
Merlin gathered sticks and tried not to gather wool while he did it. At least he’d be warm again, once he got the fire going. Uncertain of how much game Arthur would bag, Merlin dug a fire pit and collected some stones manually. Although Arthur knew he had magic, it was still safer to conserve energy, especially away from the castle in uncertain environs.
Arthur returned with a brace of rabbits dangling from his hand. “Merlin, you are useless. Why have you only just got the fire started now? I’ve been gone ages. Plenty of time for you to have a good flame going by now.”
Unable to come up with an explanation that didn’t sound like weak ale, Merlin kept his mouth shut.
“Well, you may as well be useful while we wait for the fire. Here, dress these rabbits.”
Merlin took the rabbits, trying to care if Arthur stayed, but unsurprised when he walked away. The distance between them would take some time to repair. In the end, they both sat by the fire, the temperature being too cold not to. Merlin worked the hide away from the flesh while Arthur stroked his sword with a stone, honing the already sharp edge even finer.
Merlin coughed. “Um, Arthur, what are we doing that you need your sword to be even sharper.”
“Merlin …” Arthur’s voice trailed off.
“Yeah, yeah, if you told me, you’d have to kill me. Never mind.”
Merlin looked around for an appropriate stick and attached the rabbits. Not wishing to make an actual spit, he said, “Here, you hold one end, I’ll hold the other.”
Merlin expected Arthur to tell him he was the one who was was supposed to give the orders, but Arthur complied. Hope blossomed in Merlin’s heart. Maybe their friendship could be revived. Maybe after this expedition, whatever had been troubling Arthur would be resolved.
After eating, they pressed on. They approached a castle in disrepair. Merlin noticed large chunks of stone on the ground by the castle wall. He looked up to discover gaping holes in the battlements. Merlin felt as though they’d passed through a veil of dark evil. His bones ached with the chill of it. He clenched his jaw, trying to keep his teeth from chattering despite the sun high in the sky. It was then he noticed the corbies, big black fearsome birds who portended death, sitting on the ramparts. Dozens of them.
“Aa-rrr-thur,” Merlin chittered, “What are we doing here?”
“Aw, are you scared, Merlin?” Arthur said scornfully, but the tight grip on Merlin’s shoulder conveyed Arthur’s fear at the sight in front of them.
“So, do you think now might be a good time to tell me what we are doing here?”
“My father has sent us here to collect a ring that belonged to my mother. He said it was necessary to reseal the treaty.”
Lack of sleep had loosened Merlin’s tongue and he hissed, “And why couldn’t you tell me that sooner?”
Arthur just waved his hand. Merlin could see he was trying to come up with a justification and failing. Arthur’s shoulders drooped.
Arthur started in a low tone, “Uther told me I could not tell anyone,” and then looked at Merlin and said more firmly, “even you, Merlin.”
“Ok, well, now that’s out of the way, let’s get on with it. Good job you’ve got me with you, isn’t it?” said Merlin.
Arthur gave him that look — the one that said he was trying to glare, but was actually grateful to have Merlin along.
Dismounting, they approached the corbies cautiously. When they didn’t seem inclined to attack, Although some of Merlin’s worry dissipated, he was so stiff from the cold, he couldn’t physically relax.
Arthur said, “This place is colder than a witch’s tit. Your fire building skills are no match for this place. Let’s get in there and get out.” He lead the way through the gates.
Inside the empty castle, the dark pressed on them. One of the birds had followed them into the castle, but kept its distance, blending into the threadbare tapestries hanging on the walls. Arthur seemed oblivious to the dark, and the bird, except that it impeded his ability to read a map he’d produced from his coat.
“Merlin? A light, if you would?”
Merlin was shaking too much to do it without magic. He’d have to expend some energy to produce light, but it was an easy spell, not terribly demanding.
“Leocht,” he whispered.
“Come closer, I still can’t read the map.”
Merlin edged up right next to Arthur, shoulder to shoulder. Arthur’s shivering resonated with his own. Merlin had a momentary fear they would shiver themselves to tiny bits, but then Arthur was on the move.
“Okay, we have to go up the stairs here, down a corridor, up some more stairs there, and then the room is off a corridor on that level. We can do this.”
Walking briskly did little to warm them up and the puny light Merlin had created was not at all warm. Merlin figured he’d have enough time to warm them up once they got out of the castle.
The bird followed them, silent for the clicking of it’s talons on the floor. Arthur swore he felt colder than he had before they had entered the castle. How was that possible? Well, there was only one thing for it — grab the ring and get the hell out. It was supposed to be in this room, but where?
“Merlin, you check the drawers. I’ll check the moldings. Shouldn’t take long.”
Merlin muttered something that sounded like “Well, I’m not just going to stand here looking pretty,” but Arthur was too distracted to pay much attention.
The room held one piece of furniture which looked to have a hundred drawers. While Merlin worked each drawer methodically out and in, Arthur traced the molding with a bare hand.
Arthur hoped the ring would turn up soon because his fingers had gone numb. He might have even gotten a splinter.
“Ah ha!” Merlin cried. He held up a small ring that glinted in the light.
“Great! Give it here. I’ll put it in my pouch and we can get out of here.”
Frigid air swirled around the room as Merlin put the ring in Arthur’s hand. Merlin flinched and then wrapped his hands around Arthurs’.
“Arthur, your hand is cold as stone. We need to get you warmed up.”
Arthur looked up at the concern in Merlin’s voice. The last vestiges of resentment he’d been holding towards Merlin melted away.
“Merlin, I think it will be fine if we wait,” he started to say just as the door to the room slammed shut.
“You were saying, sire?” Merlin asked sceptically.
Arthur clenched his teeth. He was so damned cold, he couldn’t think any more. Damn it, he was a tactician. He should be able to think his way out of this trap. He shivered more violently. Merlin wrapped his arms around him as though he had any warmth to spare.
The corbie lurched forward to pluck at Arthur’s coat and Merlin’s light faded away.
Fearful of the sudden dark, the cold, and large bird, Arthur spat out “Merlin, can’t you do something useful?” Immediately he regretted it. Merlin was useful. He’d provided the light, after all, and had even found the ring.
“Drakonis intende,” Merlin roared and Arthur was suddenly swirling, starting with his stomach. The room was spinning, or he was spinning, he wasn’t sure and suddenly the room seemed tiny. He opened his mouth to ask, “what are you doing” but all that came out was “ROOOOAAAARRRR”.
Astonished, Arthur took stock of the situation. He looked down at scaly feet tipped with dangerous claws. Realization settled on him — he was a dragon! He blinked, as if it would change what he saw. He looked up and saw another dragon. Reflexively, he jerked back before remembering he was a dragon and that must be Merlin. This was going to take some getting used to.
He noticed an immediate benefit, however, which was that he was no longer cold, for the first time since they’d left Camelot. His belly was warm, as if he’d eaten a full bowl of stew.
But how could he communicate with Merlin when all that came out of his mouth was a roar? Something tickled at the back of his mind, and now that he was warm, he relaxed, closing his eyes, trying to focus on it. Was that a voice? Merlin’s voice? He was tired of second guessing everything and just listened.
“Arthur, I’ve turned us into dragons,” Merlin was saying. “It was the first thing I thought of.”
Arthur had to admit there were certain benefits to this form, but now he was unsure of the whereabouts of the ring and how the hell they were going to get out of this room and the castle. At that moment, Merlin shot a large gout of flame at the door.
“Arthur, do not worry. The ring is safe. The treaty will be renewed and war will not come to Camelot this time. Come, we must leave.”
Arthur realized he trusted Merlin with his life and followed Merlin without question. In this moment, he wasn’t sure why he’d valued his father’s opinion over Merlin’s so highly. He would return to Camelot a changed man, in more than one way.
Merlin lead them to a terrace, looked Arthur in the eye, and leapt into the air. Arthur watched him fly, a huge dark shape against the bright sky. Admiration grew in his heart as he watched Merlin soar and turn. He yearned to follow. His haunches contracted instinctually and he leapt into the air, a few wingspans behind. The corbies screamed at their escape, but made no move to follow.
Arthur marveled at the ease of flight, at the view, at the rush of air over and under his tender wings and scaled body. He drank it all in greedily for a moment before he surged ahead of Merlin.
For a short while, Merlin let him have the lead before retaking it to fly straight, with purpose, not looking back. Restored trust tied him to Merlin and he followed. Merlin had clearly done this before.
No longer worried for their safety or the outcome of the mission, Arthur was finally able to relax. He watched Merlin navigate the air, marveling at his sleek form, the way his wings furled, and his grace in the air.
Arthur realized that they were nowhere near Camelot. They circled down and Arthur realized that there were warm currents of air that were helping him, as if he were on a circular staircase. Merlin was heading straight towards an open volcano. If he’d been human, Arthur’s mouth would have dried with the fear. As it was, he burped something slightly sulfuric.
They settled on the edge of the caldera. Hot lava flowed out, lapping at their talons. Arthur relaxed into it, as if he were at the edge of a hot spring. He was definitely appreciating the dragon form now. Relaxed and warm, finally, he sank down onto the ridge, letting the lava touch his belly and feet. A sound that might have been described as a purr came out of him, so content was he at that moment — safe, away from the worries of Camelot, and all doubts about Merlin banished.
Merlin edged over to him, nestling his leaner form against Arthur. The sun had traveled its course and fell beneath the horizon. Exhaustion overtook Arthur. His head dropped onto his front legs and he fell asleep, Merlin wrapped around him.
Merlin stretched an arm and realized it didn’t feel right. Had he hurt it somehow? His mind was still fuzzy with sleep. He tried to lick his lips, and that was all wrong too. His mouth was dry and tasted like a fireplace. That was when he remembered he was in dragon form and Arthur was too. And they were far, far, far away from Camelot. Oh, Merlin was going to be in so much trouble.
But then Arthur snaked his head around, twining his neck around Merlin’s. Merlin relaxed. If Arthur was content to stay here, in dragon form, so was Merlin. They could sort out the details later. In the meantime, they were here together, and oh so blissfully warm.