Huddling deeper into his raincoat that was slowly getting soaked, he walked down the darkened street, wet sneakers squishing and squawking with each step. It had been raining on and off all day, the sky filled with gray clouds letting no light in. Few were out at this time of day, only the most desperate or those few with little to lose for braving the rain drenched world.
As of this morning, Merlin had numbered among the latter. The little change in his pocket was all he had left to his name. What had been there before had been spent on a useless bus ride to the welfare building in hopes that something could be sent his way.
He’d left after the first ‘no’, years of abuse from his foster mother drilling into him to accept the first no and move on, to not expect second chances. His stomached rumbled as he remembered the can of beans that had been his breakfast this morning. There was nothing left in his larder except cobwebs and roaches. He hadn’t had anything of any substance for at least a week and nothing since this morning and he was feeling light headed.
He had four days left on his apartment before he was kicked out and nowhere to go. The shelters around here were overly full, the resources given to this part of the city stretched thin. He doubted he’d find much by way of that option, which meant he would either live or die on the streets.
After his parents had died in that car crash when he was ten, he had lived off the system. After he had turned eighteen and had stopped being a source of income, his foster mother had politely kicked him out, only giving him his clothes and the few things needed to survive. He’d been lucky that any money his parents had left him was kept in a separate account he couldn’t touch or that would have been drained.
He glanced down at the ring on his finger. Heavy silver shaped like a crouching cat, it had small blue sapphires for eyes that seemed to glow in the night. The only thing he had left of his mother. Sadly, he would have sold it in a heartbeat to get by, but he couldn’t pull it off where it nestled at the base of his index finger.
Kicking up small ripples as he walked through growing puddles, he walked on. With hair black as a raven’s wing, pale skin that rarely tanned, and dark blue eyes, he guessed he was attractive, but his foster mother had always said he was too skinny. Who would want someone with so many angles and such gangly limbs?
Stopping for a light to change, Merlin froze, breath sticking in his throat as he listened to the world around him. There, behind him, the sound of a shoe in the puddle he had just walked through— multiple shoes from the sound of it.
He didn’t need to look to know he was being followed. Pulling up the mental map of this area he had made on his explorations, he searched for bolt-holes and escape routes. Only one was nearby and even he balked at going near that place.
Yet it was either the “witch’s house” or whatever those following him planned. And he knew what they planned. Only the idiots and those with nothing to lose came out when they knew that the hunters were on the prowl. Making up his mind, he kept walking, speeding up just enough to make it seem like he had a destination in mind, but was in no hurry to get there. If he ran now, they would be on him before he could make it there.
Crossing the street at the last second, just as the headlights of a lorry was coming left a blaring horn and curses as those following got cut off from their prey. Using their distractions against them, he took off, turning a corner here, a corner there, rushing down a side alley. At the small intersection he came on, he slowed, needing to take his time to locate the back fence of the “witch’s backyard.”
Hands on the wall, he ran his fingertips across brink until he felt wood and stopped. Listening, he couldn’t hear anyone, but that didn’t mean much. Taking a calming breath, he started to count. About half way across, he found the board he was looking for. Listening for anyone coming he held his breath. No sound, so he shoved it aside, ignoring splinters and getting his thin body through.
Just in time as his pursuers came barreling down the alley. He held his breath, heart pounding in his chest and ears as he waited for them to notice his hiding place. But they didn’t and soon had left. Not knowing if they had left anyone to see if he came out, he was forced to remain in the yard.
He’d seen it once in the light of day. Nothing but sand covered the hard packed dirt underneath it, only a small little pond off to the side breaking the sand like an oasis. Four large stones clustered in near each other. One was on its side, like a bench, the others were taller and looked like an arch, and all looked like they belonged in Stone Henge, not here.
Making his way for the “bench”, he sat down heavily. The rain was coming down harder and he shivered, pulling his long limbs close to his body, trying to keep somewhat warm. Now that he had stopped running, he noticed that he was completely soaked, having run through the rain and many deep puddles.
Glancing around, he couldn’t make much out in the dark. “Well, you’ve certainly gotten yourself in a tight spot, haven’t you?” he muttered to himself. He huddled there, on top of the bench, waiting for the dawn he knew was bound to come. He could make his escape then, when there was more traffic out. He could escape then, back to his apartment…that he would soon be kicked out of again. He wouldn’t have a safe haven from the predators then.
“So why not escape completely?” a voice whispered from behind him. Merlin’s heart nearly stopped in fright, but then they laughed, a soft, kind laugh, what he had often dreamed his grandmother’s laugh would sound like, and he seemed to calm, his fright fading altogether.
“Who—,” he started.
“I am the guardian of this place, chosen by my predecessor and will be surpassed by my successor. You have nothing left to hold you to this world anymore?” they asked.
“How do you know that?” Merlin asked, trying to see more of the dim, shadowy shape that stood behind him. His sight distorted, hunger, exhaustion, and adrenalin working together to make him lightheaded.
“Those who come to me here have no place left to keep them here, but have yet to give up on life. If you were able to go to another world, not knowing what might be in it, would you go?”
“I doubt it could be any worse than here,” Merlin answered truthfully. “Sure, why not.”
“Then look behind you and choose.”
Merlin turned on his bench, noting the approaching dawn that lightened the gray clouds some. He blinked and stared under the arch. Instead of being darkness, he could see another place, dawn breaking over rippling grass. The scent of a fresh breeze and not the smog of this city, reached him and he could have wept at the smell, the way the wind seemed to caress his cheek softly.
Something seemed to be drawing him towards that place, a yearning so strong that it made his heart swell with longing for some unknown reason. “Chose now, here or there?” Merlin reached forward, hand reaching as he took a step and another— and found himself bathed in sunlight amid waist high grass.
Merlin growled in frustration, and his stomach in hunger. After what must be hours of walking in wet clothing and shoes – he’d lost his coat somewhere – he was growing more tired by the minute. He was beginning to think maybe he’d made a mistake coming here. A city-boy was breed to get food from the grocery store or restaurants, not from the land.
And there was food all around him. Birds and small furry things, plants he assumed could be edible, hell maybe even some of the insects. He’d heard that insects tasted good cooked and smothered in chocolate. His stomach growled again at the thought of food and he steered his mind away from the topic.
Sighing, he crested another hill and blinked as he looked into a weathered face of a man standing in the middle of a dirt-like road that wound its way through the hills to…somewhere.
Merlin stared; this man could easily have fallen straight out of those Arthurian legends his mother used to tell him as a child. Sturdy with sun-bleached hair, he wore a grayish tunic sort of shirt, patched and thread bare breeches were tucked haphazardly into what appeared to be leather boots…with the fur of the animal still on them. A strung bow and nocked arrow rested in the man’s hands and pointed down for the moment.
The man tried to say something, but it only sounded like gibberish to Merlin. He shook his head slightly, confused and showing it. He knew English of course, some Spanish, and was passible in Gallic, his foster mother had made him learn her tongue. This was like nothing he’d ever heard.
He repeated himself, voice becoming impatient and he jerked his bow back the way Merlin had come. Message clear about what he wanted Merlin to do.
“I can’t, please—,” Merlin held out a hand trying to look as unthreatening as possible, which he figured he already did. The man just took a step back and raised his bow…and pointed it directly at Merlin’s chest.
“Please, I’m lost, hungry, no food,” he tired rubbing his stomach for extra measure.
He drew his arrow back even further than it had been.
Something seemed to snap inside him. He’d spent his entire life running, hiding, cowering in the corner from the hunters, the predators—he was not going to run this time.
“Damn you!” He was shaking he was so angry. “I need your help you stupid idiot!” His ears were ringing, his hands curling into involuntary claws. “Curse you and every stupid idiot just like you!”
The man stepped back, fear flashing in his eyes.
Rage was boiling through him, setting his blood on fire, burst of red and gold flashing through his eyes. Merlin staggered as a shooting pain went through him to settle in the back of his head. He let out a gasp and fell forward onto his hands and knees.
His vision blacked out, his body shaking with painful spasms. His head felt like someone had split it open, his arms and legs like liquid lead were being poured into them so that it pooled in his throbbing hands and feet. His ring seemed to burn with white hot agony on his finger, drowning out everything else. He shook his head, trying to clear it and the world swam alarmingly.
There was the sound of clothe tearing and the alarming sound of bone popping and snapping and then it stopped. His vision cleared, though distorted. He looked up at the man and saw him backing away, his bow left on the ground where he had dropped it. His face was white with terror. Merlin tried to ask him what was wrong, but all that came out was a snarl. The man screeched and fled away from Merlin.
Merlin looked down at his hand and stared. It wasn’t a hand anymore, but a paw, a black leopard’s paw, with a bit of his shredded shirt wedged under it. All of his clothing was a shredded mess around him.
Merlin licked at his paw lazily, removing the last bit of blood between his toes. He drowsed under the sun, full and content. He hadn’t gone after the man, too shocked by his own transformation to get up let alone chase him.
He hadn’t had time to panic over the fact that he had somehow changed shape for a moment after, one of the many furry creatures – it looked kind of like a rabbit but bigger – jumped out right in front of his nose. Before he could do anything, leopard instinct took over and he’d pounced on the creature before he realized what he’d done and was already eating it.
For a second, revulsion had gnawed at him, but he was so hungry and he figured if it tasted fine to his leopard self, then he shouldn’t worry. He’d finished it there and now he lay in the grass on top of a hill, staring out across the landscape. The earthy, clean scent of the air sent a thrill through him. He could come to like this place and maybe becoming a leopard wasn’t so bad. He was finally something to be scared of.
His ears pricked forward, hearing the sound of dogs in the distance. Maybe the man he’d frightened earlier had run back for help. Rolling to his feet gracefully, he padded a step forward. They might be hunting him. It was time to go before he was forced into a corner again.
Remembering the stream he’d scented earlier, he headed off in that direction. He’d read somewhere that if you wanted to break your trail, running water was the best way. Enjoying the smooth glide of muscle under his fur, he ran up another hill, towards the stream and the forest that butted up to it in places.
Sooner than it would have taken to reach in human form, he was staring out across the stream. It was wide, nearly twenty feet, but not deep like some of the rivers he’d seen. At most seven or eight feet, but he still needed to find a place to ford that wasn’t too deep.
Pacing along it, he found what he was looking for. It narrowed slightly here, and though it was still deep, it wasn’t impassable. Swimming wasn’t fun, and he hissed at the cold temperature and the way the water matted his fur. Leopards, like most cats didn’t like water.
Soon, he was across and dripping water everywhere. The trees were thin on this side, the very outer most edge of the forest. He followed the stream, pacing himself as the sound of dogs drew ever closer. Finally, the hills opened up into a sort of valley, the trees thickening into a proper woodland.
Some of the trees hung over the stream and he found one with a wide and thick branch. Feeling the muscles bunch under his fur, he sprang for the branch, clutching at the branch with his claws until he could get purchase with his back legs and pull and push himself up. He lay across it, flanks heaving from the run and climb.
The dogs were closer now. Pushing himself up, he judged the distance to the next branch higher up and sprang, this time landing with a little more grace. Slowly, he worked his way up into the upper portion of the tree. Just as he settled in, the dogs and more humans came streaming up under his tree, a second group on the other side, they must have noticed his trail breaking ploy.
They were all similar in build and dress, carrying knives and bows, a few even had long sticks. They seemed confused about where he was, but none seemed to realize to look up. They wouldn’t have seen much, just another shadow amongst the shadows in the tree limbs.
Eventually, they gave up, glancing around as if the trees might be hiding something other than him. Soon they were out of sight and Merlin was left amongst the shadowed limbs, purring in satisfaction.
Weeks passed and Merlin found himself a place to hole up, filled with leaves and moss for a soft bed, it was a cave carved into a hill, boulders positioned in the front to the entrance to hide it. He explored the forest as whim came to him and soon discovered why the hunters had been so wary to enter. There was…something in the forest. Invisible, but lurking like a dark cloud in a ring of stones and lines of strips of waving clothe.
He’d found it by accident, chasing his prey through the clearing it was in. The animal had run right through the stones and seemed to run into something. It screamed and Merlin barely stopped himself before he crossed the stone line. He backed away slowly and ran back to his cave. He hadn’t left for the rest of the day, too scared to move.
Besides that thing lurking in the depths of the forest, it was safe amongst the trees. Eventually, he found the village that the man had come from, following the stream to the road and the road onward. If he wasn’t hunting, he spent time lurking under brush and in shadows close enough to the village to see and hear them. Somehow, he was starting to pick up what they were saying and could understand and guess what they were saying.
These people really did seem to be out of Arthurian legend, or at least some medieval time period. A few generations before, they had been overrun by invaders and only recently had they been helped out from under their rule. The invaders had been run out or killed and a group of nobles had taken control of the land, proclaiming one of their own king. The people were still recovering from the war, but with their new king’s aid, they were getting on.
The man who had tried to stop him had been on guard-duty and had been wary of his appearance out of what they called the “Perilous Lands,” and his strange clothing. When he’d transformed into a leopard, the man had thought he was some sort of sorcerer and had fled.
As time went on, he became better at hunting, but soon, he hunted all the easier game of the forest. He turned his eyes to the livestock of the villagers, easily taking the domesticated creatures. He could have gone after the larger game in the forest, but he wasn’t good enough by himself and he felt like every time he surrendered to his leopard-instinct, he lost a little more of himself to the creature.
Deciding that maybe it was time to change back to his human self, he thought back through his knowledge, trying to figure out how. All he knew were the stories he’d read or his mother had read to him and late night horror flicks. He remembered that the full moon often had something to do with change. Maybe that was the way to go.
Waiting until full dark, he set off for a small clearing he had found in his explorations. It was a round clearing, a small pond in it center that seemed to always be as still as glass, no matter how strong the breezes blew. It had a stone similar to the ones in the witch’s backyard, though slightly bluish.
He could feel something here. Not like the ring of stone where the evilness lurked. No it was more like a warm welcome. This place was peaceful and nothing bad could enter.
The moon was nearly at its zenith the time he reached the clearing. Small flowers bloomed under the moonlight and give off a subtle fragrance that made him think of curling up in a warm bed with a good book. Shaking himself, he walked to the pond’s edge, the water as smooth as a mirror. His leopard image stared back at him, golden eyes only a ring as his pupils expanded to see in the dark. The full moon reflected back at him, shining brightly white in the dark of the sky.
When nothing happened, he thought back to that day he had changed. Anger had been the driving emotion in him when he’d changed. Maybe that was what he needed to change back. He closed his eyes and pulled to the forefront all the emotions he had been bottling all his life. He willed himself to change, to be in his proper shape and no powers would keep him from changing.
As nothing happened, his anger and frustration grew larger, his blood seeming to boil in his veins, his mind seething; he would not be played with anymore. He was done being the weak one, done cowering…
The same fury from before burst forth and then the same agonizing pain followed and he fell to his belly, writhing, vision going dark again as fire roared through him, his paw burning agony. He could only lie beside the water, twitching in helpless pain as he shifted back.
It ended just as suddenly as it started, leaving him gasping and sweating. He was lying beside the pond, shivering in the cool night air and completely naked of everything except his ring, its sapphire eyes seeming to glow with an inner fire before it faded.
Merlin jolted awake, mouth bone dry and heart ready to pound its way out of his chest. The dream had been so real, real enough that he expected to see a bolt protruding from his side and he gave another shiver of fright as he remembered.
He remembered a man. He hadn’t looked like the villagers. His hair shone like golden thread in the sun, the red of his cloak as bright as spilled blood. His eye had been blue, as blue as his own, and he’d seen awareness in them, but as he had turned, the light shifted and they seemed to flash gold momentarily, like cat’s eye did when the light reflecting off of them. They had looked straight at him and he’d known he was the prey to this man.
It started with him just reaching the forest. Nothing he did could throw him off of his trail. Merlin could still feel the panic that still bubbled up in his mind and throat. No matter how many false trails he’d lain, nothing worked. He’d even laid a false trail into the ring of stones, but the man avoided it easily.
He had no dogs, no one else but him and his senses to guide him and they guided him unerringly in Merlin’s direction. By the time dawn was starting to approach, he’d found himself cornered, the man sighting down his crossbow at him. He’d awoken just then.
By the time dawn had truly broken over real life and not the dream, he was pacing beside the pond, the need to go to the village and the need to know if what he had seen was about to happen. Finally, his need won out and he made his way to the village, slipping past the guards easily and into the village.
The market was bigger today, comprised of strangers than the usual people. It must be some sort of fair. With so many people, he was able to slip in unnoticed, moving from shadow to shadow until his dream became a shadow of itself, his relief at not seeing the man nearly palpable.
He found a good perch, with a good view, but one that kept him hidden should anyone look in his direction and the eaves kept his scent away from the livestock. He was staring to calm down from his dream, thinking he had overreacted and calling himself an idiot for thinking such a thing could happen when he noticed a stranger coming out of an inn, speaking with what he had figured was the village headman.
His heart seemed to skip a beat in his chest. It was the same man from his dream, tanned, blonde hair and shining blue eyes. He even wore the blood red cloak from his dream. His back was to Merlin and he was too far away to see his face, but he felt that this was the man from his dream.
The headman left, looking pleased with him and the blonde stood there, looking around him. Merlin lay there frozen, never once taking his eyes off the man. Then he turned and his eyes seemed to zero in on Merlin’s hiding spot, as if he knew exactly where Merlin was. His eyes seemed to flash gold momentarily and then Merlin broke every rule he’d ever created for himself.
He broke cover, in broad daylight in front of all the villagers. The villagers panicked and he could hear the man curse. Merlin used this to his advantage, racing from the village, weaving through the people, for the safety of his forest.
His sides were heaving by the time he reached the stream and he stopped panting, to drink briefly from the running water. Breathing heavily, he looked up and choked on the water. The hunter was right there across the stream, watching him. Panic flared inside him and he fled blindly.
Using everything he could ever think of, he laid false trails, back tracked over them. He forded the stream at least three times. He changed into his human self and climbed the tree to keep from leaving claw marks and then changed to his leopard self to bound through the tree tops to come down somewhere else.
Each time he looked up, the hunter was close by, always on his trail. If he could have, he would have screamed in fright, but all that came out was a yowl. Taking off, he fled further into the forest. Sitting crouched in a tree, he breathed heavily, and listening with everything he had for the sound of the hunter’s approach.
He nearly jumped as the hunter appeared. His tread was so soft, even his keen ears hadn’t picked it up. The man stopped at the base of the tree, seeming confused for the moment and Merlin thought he had finally fooled him. His crossbow was carved and highly polished, made of a dark wood. He wore a sword on his belt, unlike the peasants that Merlin had seen.
As his panic subsided somewhat, he was able to look over his face. He was younger than Merlin had first thought, maybe only a year or two older than his own age. His face looked like something a sculptor would die for with his strong cheek bones, noble nose and straight jaw line; Merlin could see that he was attractive.
As if his thought had been spoken, the hunter looked up, through the branches, to look him straight in the eye. Merlin whimpered in blind panic and took off, his paws carrying him in any direction away from the hunter.
The sun was setting and the sky was bright crimson, the crimson of blood. Cringing, Merlin continued to run, his sides heaving. Suddenly his mind brought an image to the forefront of his mind. The ring of stones wasn’t a place he wanted to go, but if he laid a trail by it and waited for him to come by, he could rush him, maybe enough to startle him into the ring. Once the thing had him, Merlin doubted the hunter would ever get free.
His plan in mind, he set off for the stone circle, leaving a clear trial behind him for the hunter to follow. The sun had sunk by the time he reached the circle. The wind had picked up a little and the lines of clothe waved in the wind.
The stones pulsed a sickly brownish color and for a moment, he could see it, the hunter’s steps falling into the circle. The thing inside would grab him and his death would not be pretty. He’d seen what had happened to the animal that had gotten captured. The leopard inside him growled, it wanted the hunter dead so that it couldn’t hunt him anymore, but his human side bulked. No one should have to die that way.
Both sides struggled for dominance and he sweated with terror as the hunter drew nearer. Finally, the human won and he took off in a different direction, leading deeper into the forest, deeper than he’d ever gone. Behind him, the presence of the hunter kept coming, spurring him to run faster, farther.
Merlin breathed heavily. A leopard was not meant for such long runs and he had been running nonstop since midmorning. He was stumbling now as he ran;his lungs on fire as he tried to draw in enough air to breathe, to keep going.
He had plenty of motivation. Every time he stopped to catch his breath, he could hear the hunter long before he saw him. Panic would choke him and he would be off without even having caught his breath back. He was in new territory, and yet it seemed his hunter knew these woods better than he did. He couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that he was being herded to a specific location.
His feeling was confirmed when he barreled through some trees and skidded to a stop in a blind gully. The sides were made of sheer white stone that looked to be lime. He couldn’t climb it as a leopard, but maybe as a human. He started to shift when the sound of a twig snapping behind him made him turn, half way through changing.
The hunter stood behind him; face set and crossbow raised at Merlin. His eyes flashed and Merlin knew he could see just as easily as Merlin could. Sides heaving, Merlin stared at the hunter, knowing there was no way out, his only escape blocked by the man before him.
Leopard instinct urged him forward. It would be so easy to doge his bolt. He wouldn’t have enough time to reload before Merlin was on him. It would be so easy to kill the human. His claws extended, muscles bunching to pounce.
His human side balked. No, he had never killed anyone before, not even that stupid man who wouldn’t help him. He couldn’t take this man’s life. Leopard instincts pressed him— kill! He fought against the leopard inside. Deep down, he knew that if it won, he could never be Merlin again. Merlin would be as good as dead if that happened.
As Merlin fought with himself, the hunter stood in the shadows, still as stone, waiting, watching, terrifying and menacing, but if he had moved, the leopard would have won, spurred on by fear. That he didn’t move allowed Merlin to win and he stood there waiting, watching his hunter and death.
“Do not fear me.”
Merlin blinked; sure he had just heard a voice in his head. Was he hallucinating now, driven mad by fear?
“I will not harm you.”
The voice again, he stared at the hunter, realization slowly dawning on him as he stared in wide eyed amazement. He could only crouch there in bewilderment as the hunter put his crossbow down, slowly taking the bolt off of the crossbow and then held his hands up, palm out, showing he was unarmed. He smiled gently at Merlin, his face bathed in moonlight and he stood.
And the air around him seemed to shimmer, like a mirage, his edged blurring and melting and Merlin watched in astonishment as he changed before his eye and as the hunter fell forward, where the hunter had stood, a golden leopard stood, shining golden eyes watching him.
Merlin sat beside the campfire, eyes half-lidded in drowsiness. A goblet of wine rested warmly in his hands, a fur cloak wrapped around his bare form. Everything was Arthur’s, the hunter. He had gently coaxed Merlin from the gully and had lead leopard Merlin through the forest to where his camp had been made. With gentle pushing, he had gotten Merlin into human form and before he could become embarrassed from his nudity, had wrapped him into the fur cloak and had sat him beside the fire with the warmed wine and some food.
Arthur’s movements were slow and measured, as if he knew that one wrong move could startle Merlin into fleeing back into the forest. Finished with whatever he had been doing, Arthur came back to the fire and sat down nearby, but not so close as to make Merlin uncomfortable. He waited patiently for Merlin to speak.
“Who are you…I mean, what you are…we are?” Merlin said the last word with a little uncertainty.
Arthur listened patiently to his halting words, head cocked as if to catch all of his words. “You speak as one who has only just learned the language. Yet you do not have an accent that I am familiar with. If I tell you who and what I am, will you do likewise?” Arthur asked him.
“My name is Merlin and…I wasn’t like, I mean I couldn’t do this at home, where I came from. Wherever that might be, I’m not sure where I am.”
“So you have come from a different land?” Arthur asked.
“Something like that. I lived in this city, but not well. I was about to lose everything but the clothes on my back. I was being chased by some people and I hid. There was…this woman there. She asked me if I would like to go someplace else, start over. When I saw this place, I just had to come.”
“A doorway between lands and worlds, and a guardian, no doubt. They only show themselves to people who need them, whose destiny is beyond just their world. That explains more than it doesn’t. So you found yourself here?”
“In the Perilous Lands and I walked and walked. I met that man and he wouldn’t help and I couldn’t understand him. I just got so mad and then all of a sudden, I changed…” Arthur held up a hand and he stopped.
“The rest I know. Will himself told me how you changed before his eyes. You must have been quite frightened and with no one to explain. What happened then?” Haltingly, Merlin told him the rest, of how he lived off the land and learned the language. Finally he came to the point where Arthur had appeared and his version of the hunt.
“So man won over the beast. It is good that you did, for had you killed me, you may not have ever been able to become human again.” His face was grim in the fire light.
“What am I?” Merlin asked, worry bubbling in his gut. “Where am I, why has this happened?”
“The last I can’t say, for no one truly know why fate does these things. As to what and where you are…you are in the land of Albion, Camelot to more specific, near the border of the Perilous Lands, though not so perilous now that the Fisher King has been lain to rest and the land flourishes now. You are like me, and the few others of like. A changer, shape shifter. Only those the Old Religion deems noble of heart and soul are born with this gift and it is passed down the line through father and son. My father is one such and I am as well, though only half-blood. My father is Uther Pendragon, king of Camelot. He was the one to drive the invaders from this land. My mother is Ygraine Pendragon of Tinatgel, queen. And I am Arthur Pendragon, prince of Camelot and of nowhere in particular.” He smiled ruefully at his last sentence.
“Why were you hunting me? Why did they want to hunt me?”
“They did not know you were a shape shifter and they asked me for help because of my reputation as a hunter. They knew not what form I hunted in.” He grinned at this and Merlin smiled back. “Shall I start from the beginning?” Merlin nodded.
“Some generations ago, invaders from the north, the Pict as they’re called, overran this land. The old king could not fight them off and he and his army fell to the barbarians. They cared not for rule, only getting what they wanted. Chaos broke out, with bandits and thieves and other such roaming the land, no one was safe. For a while, dark sorcerers roamed without fear, letting loose such things that most feared to go out during day, let alone night.
My father, then still young with my mother, gathered together friends and allies, all changers like us. Slowly, they built up an army and drove the Picts back to the north, back to their mountains. With the Picts gone, the land was better, but chaos still ruled. It took years, but my father was able to bring order back. He killed or drove off the dark sorcerers – that is what Will thought you were, one of those sorcerers of old – and created patrols around the kingdom to stop the banditry.
Eventually, they all took husbands or brides. My mother bore me and though they both loved me, it seemed I was never to be liked minded with my father. I felt like…”
“A misfit, rebel?” Merlin said.
“If you mean I seem to always be a disappointment to him, then yes. My mother always tried to tell me I wasn’t but I can see it in his face. Then one day, he got fed up with me arguing with him and said I was just like Balinor. Now I had never heard of this Balinor, so I plagued him to tell me who Balinor was. Eventually, they told me the story of Balinor of Ealdor, a half-blood like me, with his wife Hunith, a witch in her own right. After that, I couldn’t sit still until I had found someone who could be like me, so after telling my parents my plan, I set out.”
“Did you ever find them?” Merlin asked.
“Not yet. My mother asked me to speak with her kin in this area, to tell them she was happy in Camelot. My father loves and dotes on her, and grants her every whim before she could even ask. I have always wished to find something of like, well that is one of the reasons I came looking for Balinor.”
Arthur was staring so long into the fire that Merlin finally spoke up, “Then you came here?”
“Oh, yes, I came here. Of course I earned a reputation amongst my relatives of my hunting prowess. When rumor of a shape shifter reached me, of one that was thoughtlessly preying on the livestock of the villagers and the forest creatures that they survived on,” Merlin ducked his head in shame at his words, “I first thought of Balinor and thought maybe it was him or a son. Little did I think to find someone from another world?! The headman begged me to stop the shifter and the rest you know.”
“What are you going to do with me?”
“Do with you? Nothing you do not wish to do. I am not like my father to force people to his will. I intend to continue my search for Balinor and you, now that you know what you are and what you shouldn’t do can stay here if you wish. I will tell the headman that you are dead and none should bother you. But remember that the leopard should never win, or you will be lost…although someone should teach and guide you…” Arthur mussed.
“I realize that now,” Merlin said softly, fidgeting with the hem of the cloak. Arthur was handsome, more so now that he could see him up close. He’d known for a while that he was attracted more to the male side of the species – and was Arthur a specimen! – but no one had ever shown any inclination that they wanted his company or anything more. The wine must be messing with him if he thought Arthur might be hinting at that.
He glanced up from his hands and saw Arthur watching him, eyes intense and full of such loneliness and maybe a little hopefulness? “I would be happy to teach you,” Arthur said. “Forgive me if I am too forward, but I think we would be good companions and…” here Arthur flushed a little, “I think you to bebeautiful.”
Merlin could feel heat coming up on his own cheeks. “Me?”
“I would not lie to you,” Arthur told him. “Would you like to come with me?” he asked, holding out a hand to Merlin.
Merlin stared at his hand for a second, looked into Arthur’s eyes and reached out, tentatively taking his hand. “You really think I’m…beautiful?” No one had called him anything like that before. Itwas nice.
“Since I felt your mind, I knew it. We are of like mind,” Arthur assured him, smiling as he held Merlin’s hand.
Something came to him, and Merlin snorted. Arthur looked confused. “Arthur, where do your clothes go when you shift?” Arthur blinked for a moment and then he flushed again. “I mean, when I first changed, I left bits everywhere.”
“What happens to your ring?” Arthur asked, stroking a finger over his hand and touching the ring briefly.
“I’m not sure. It’s gone when I change and it’s back when I’m human.” He glanced down at it and felt like it was smiling smugly at him.
“Shifting magic. Something we should use for you.” He let go of Merlin’s hand and went to rummage amongst his packs until he pulled out some clothes. He handed them over and Merlin changed under the fur cloak. They were too big for him, but a belt helped keep them on.
Standing, he glanced down at them. “You’re sure they’ll change with me?” he asked skeptically. He looked up and realized Arthur was standing closer than before, close enough to touch.
He smiled softly at Merlin and bent down, pressing dry lips to his briefly before pulling back. “Why not try them out?” he asked, stepping back. The air shimmered and blurred and before Merlin knew it, Arthur the leopard stood before him, golden eyes shining in the dim light.“There is still time, will you run with me Merlin?”
Merlin stared down at the ring on his finger and then threw his head back and laughed, feeling the sheer joy and acceptance coming from that one sentence. Feeling the air heat around him, he let the energy flow through him and there was no pain as he shifted, lithe form crouched amongst the folds of the fur cloak.
“I will run with you, Arthur Pendragon of Camelot, until the dawn breaks on a new day.” They slipped through the shadows and disappeared into the forest.