It’s the dust that’s the worst. It gets everywhere, every crevice, every pore. Merlin thinks he’s starting to sweat dirt and bleed grime. Not that he’s doing much sweating, dehydrated as he is most days. The little bit of water he manages to scrounge up whenever he passes a settlement is just about enough to keep him alive. He hasn’t washed in… years, probably. His hair’s a thick black mat, his beard’s just as bad.
He’s watching the sun go down over the hill that used to be a forest. It’s long since dried up, burned down, crumbled to ash. Nothing survives in this land anymore. Albion’s cursed, and no one will admit it but they all know who’s killed the world.
Merlin almost spits into the sand, then thinks better of it and swallows the little bit of saliva that pooled in his mouth. Don’t waste any fluids. Don’t want to have to drink his own urine again, after all. Not as long as he can still find settlements that have a water source, thin as it usually is. If the taste won’t do him in, then kidney failure will.
He shakes his head, attempting to dislodge the memory of his mother’s cries. They always follow him, no matter where he goes. In a way, it’s almost as if she were still alive. As if she were here with him.
If only she didn’t sound so agonised every time she calls out to him.
Merlin tries to remember what her voice sounded like when she laughed, called his name affectionately. Sometimes, when he’s lucky enough to dream nicely, he sees her smiling face, hears her chiding him for some kind of prank he played on the other children in the village.
He always wakes up from these dreams sobbing drily. His body doesn’t have enough water left to grant him tears, and in a way, Merlin’s glad for that small mercy.
He sighs, and looks back out over the hill. That’s when he hears the noises of engines. They sound much too close, and Merlin curses himself for getting lost in his mind to the point where he stopped paying attention to his surroundings.
He grabs his bag and slings it over his shoulder. In seconds he’s got his goggles on and starting his bike. It’s noisy, but it’s the only way of escape he has. In this wasteland, there’s nowhere he can hide.
The bike starts, thank fuck, and he’s off, leaving deep scores in the dirt and a cloud of dust as he speeds away through the valley. If he’s lucky he’ll outrun them. If not… well.
Merlin’s practised at navigating hard, dry ground. It’d be more difficult if it were sandy or even slick. The downside is that his pursuers have just as easy a time following him. The ground’s perfect for vehicles and Merlin’s bike isn’t the fastest even if he could run it on something better than human waste fumes or scrounged up, impure gasoline.
He’s checking the cracked mirror to see how close the cars have come when it happens. With his eyes off of the path for just a second, the front wheel hits a large rock and sends Merlin flying. He distantly hears the bike roaring and then crashing to the ground, and then there’s nothing for a second while his vision blacks out upon impact with the ground.
It’s a small mercy that he didn’t break his neck. When his pursuers catch up to him a moment later, though, Merlin almost wishes he had. His head’s swimming and he feels woozy as they haul him up and drag him into the boot of their car. The space reeks of piss and vomit and the coppery scent of dried blood. Merlin’s almost glad he loses consciousness the moment the hood slams down and darkness engulfs him – both physically and mentally.
He doesn’t know how much time has passed but he’s woken by a sharp pain on his chest. It only takes him a few seconds to realise that struggling isn’t doing much because his hands and feet are bound tightly, spreading him across a hard surface. There’s something vile stuffed into his mouth, something that tastes of sweat, blood and dirt. Bile rises in Merlin’s throat and it takes all of his self-control not to throw up into his mouth and suffocate himself.
Merlin’s breathing frantically through his nose, eyes darting everywhere. He sees a bunch of faces, none of them familiar.
They wouldn’t be, he thinks. He doesn’t have any real enemies, only people he’s met on the road, whom he’s helped. He remembers their faces, those of the ones he couldn’t save. Anyone Merlin’s ever hated or fought against is either dead or much, much further away from here.
These people are strangers and he has no idea why they’ve caught him.
Except. He does.
He knows the stories about the Devils of Camelot. Men who’ll steal healthy girls and boys, women and men and drag them back to their citadel. The boys are forged into soldiers, the men taken for their blood to make the sick, inbred population better.
And the girls…
Merlin screams into the gag, forcing his mind away from what he knows happens to girls and women in this place. What would have happened to his mother if she hadn’t—
It’s a fate worse than the one that awaits anyone with even the faintest traces of magic. At least those poor people will die a more or less swift death on the pyre. They only have to suffer until the smoke suffocates them.
At the moment Merlin isn’t sure whether he’s glad that his magic has gone dormant or not. If they knew what he is – was – is, they’d never let him live.
The pain on his chest stops and someone’s wiping a rough cloth over the sore skin. He can’t raise his head very high but now that the panic is slowly subsiding he can tell that someone’s wiping blood off of him, while holding a tattooing machine in their other hand.
His head’s yanked back and then someone puts shears to his hair. Within moments Merlin can feel cool air on his scalp but the feeling only lasts a second before sticky hands grab his skull and hold him fast while someone takes scissors to his beard, cutting it down far enough so that they can take a razor to the rest.
As much as Merlin’s longed for a shave and a haircut, he’d much rather have his thick mat of hair back if only it meant that he was still free.
It’s pathetic how little he can do. He was able to levitate objects around the room before he could walk, and now he’s weak and helpless, trapped in the middle of a group of men who leer at him. Merlin supposes he ought to be grateful that all he can see in their eyes is bloodlust and greed that has nothing to do with sexual desires. It makes him shiver all the same.
Two big guys release the binds on Merlin’s left arm and leg, and roughly turn him onto his front. His chest flares with pain when it scrapes against the raw skin of the fresh tattoo.
It’s nothing against what comes next. Merlin smells the hot iron as his head is forced down. There’s heat on the back of his neck for a moment, and then Merlin screams into the gag until he passes out from the stink of burnt flesh, and the pain.
Uther’s always been a fair ruler. Ruthless and strict, yes, but fair.
The old government, the one in power over two decades ago, was weak. They let the sorcerers run free, let them wreak havoc. They should’ve thanked Uther for purging the land.
Not that they stayed alive long enough to do it.
George settles the breastplate over Uther’s chest and fastens it tightly. The armour of heavy, polished steel that gleams in the sunshine has sat in Uther’s ancestral home for centuries. He’s kept it clean and functional until the day he could put it on, step outside, and slay those who’ve soiled the land with all their esoteric waste, their magical remedies and fairy dust.
They tried to stop him, of course, but by the time any of them noticed what he was doing, Uther was already Prime Minister, the King a useless puppet on a string for him. It was so easy to get the government to do what he wanted. He only had to influence enough of the population and just like that, all the elected representatives caved and did what Uther proposed because they were a democracy and that’s what the people of Albion wanted.
Uther smiles as George helps him into the vambraces. The people are all sheep. They need a strong ruler like Uther. Someone to give them structure and discipline. Someone to get rid of the plague that are sorcerers.
Twenty years later and Uther still has most of the country well in hand. People flock to Camelot’s citadel, an abandoned castle south-west of their old capital London. Uther bought it long before the purge, rebuilt it before resources became sparse, and now, while most of the country’s dry, this place is brimming with life. He’s spent a lot of money and resources on digging deep wells and set up an intricate canal system to grow all that they could possibly need to survive. The population came to him, to his Camelot, because they knew they’d get water and food here. As more and more of the world outside of Camelot died, Uther watched as his empire slowly grew.
And he’s not done yet. Albion’s under his control, and it won’t take long until he can take his army and march across the dried up canal to the mainland and take all of them. He knows the continent’s dying as much as Albion is. Uther will be their saviour, the one to deliver them from famine.
His empire will be boundless, and one day – one day – he’ll have a son to inherit it all. A son who’ll know how to be strong, and to do what’s necessary — unlike the one Uther tries never to think of. A weakling like that, who wouldn’t do as he was told, could never be Uther’s son.
George fastens Uther’s sword to his belt and steps away. Clad in armour, sword at his side and long red cloak flowing behind him, Uther steps out onto the balcony of his castle to greet the crowd of people who’ve come to see their King, their Emperor – their Saviour.
The cab of the truck is familiar like his own bed – well, cot. Arthur knows every nook and cranny of it, knows how all of the scratch marks got there, remembers when the tears in the seat cushions happened, mended them as best he could.
It might be dirty with dust and machine oil, but neither can be avoided in this world they live in, are dying in.
He pulls the door open and swings himself into the driver’s seat. The wheel’s engraved with a running horse, mane and tail flowing in the wind. Arthur’s seen horses when he was small, and he’s seen parts of cars with the same plaque. He knows the wheel came from a car brand called Mustang. It makes him smile to think of his truck as a big war horse taking him places he could never go on his own two legs.
Arthur runs the fingers of his left hand over the horse, then touches them to his grease-blackened forehead as if in prayer. To an outsider it’ll look like he’s showing devotion to Uther who’s droning on about honour and privilege. In truth, Arthur’s asking for help to make it through the day alive.
‘Believe in Emrys,’ Gaius had said. ‘Find him, and you will find the future of this world.’
Well, Arthur was certainly going to try.
There were days, years ago, when he would’ve done the opposite. Days when he still called Uther “father”, and when he thought he could do what Uther wanted without complaint.
It all shattered around him when he was pushed into a room, at its centre a large bed that looked cleaner and more comfortable than anything Arthur had seen in years. And on the bed a girl, probably even younger than Arthur was at the time. He’d just turned fifteen, his father had been in power for almost ten years, and Albion had been truly and entirely dead for six.
The girl burst into tears the moment she saw him and Arthur quickly rushed over to see if she was hurt. She flinched away from him, and the clanking sound of chains caught Arthur’s attention. She was chained to the bed at her left ankle.
Arthur swallowed thickly. He’d had some inkling about what he was in for when Uther had beamed at him and promised a present that would make a man out of him. Arthur’d heard people talk about sex, and he’d heard the screams of Uther’s wives.
Another sob, another whimper from the girl on the bed. She had long, dark hair falling in soft waves around her face. Her skin was pale and perfect. Arthur had never seen anyone or anything as pretty as her.
Later he learned that her name was Mithian, she was fourteen, and the daughter of a politician who’d opposed Uther before he gained complete power.
Even to this day Arthur can’t forgive himself for not making sure she’d be safe. All he’d thought back then was that he didn’t want to do that to her. He didn’t want to do to her what Uther did to all the healthy women and girls that were brought to Camelot.
But because Arthur wouldn’t even pretend to use her, Uther finally took matters into his own hand. Arthur was forced to watch and he never took his eyes off Mithian whose face, after screaming for Uther to stop, for Arthur to help, had finally become blank as if she wasn’t even there anymore.
She’d stopped eating after that, and died not too long after. It was Arthur who found her, and when he challenged Uther, questioned him in front of others, it was also Arthur who was whipped until his back was nothing more than a bloody pulp.
Arthur knew that through all of this, his suffering was nothing compared to that of Mithian or any other woman brought to Camelot.
The only reason Arthur wasn’t killed ten years ago was so Uther could make an example of him. He was stripped of all the privileges being Uther’s son brought with it, and instead put to work. He became a driver and while he made plans, looked for escape routes and strategies, he slowly, carefully rose through the ranks far enough to become head of transport and trade. He’s sure that, at this point, not even Uther himself remembers that Arthur used to call him father – and Arthur wanted it that way. It made what he was doing today much easier if Uther forgot about him.
He swallows, shaking himself out of the memory. It’s almost time to leave for the Petrol Master’s farm, and it’s only a moment later when the horn blows to signal that the convoy’s dismissed. Arthur starts the engine of the truck, taking comfort and strength from the deep rumbling and vibrations.
As he steers the truck out of the courtyard and onto the road, Arthur smiles grimly to himself. Today, he goes free.