It turned out that Merlin had been correct about this cave looks occupied, I think we should camp somewhere else.
The shaggy grey wolf in the cave was bigger than any Arthur had ever seen. It growled at them, black lips curled back, long teeth gleaming. The hair along its back and shoulders stood on end, giving it a wild, menacing look.
“I told you so,” Merlin said, pressing up against Arthur’s hip as if using Arthur as a shield.
“It’s not really the time, Merlin.” Arthur gave him a light push. “Back up slowly. Don’t run.”
But Merlin didn’t move. He pressed closer like he needed to get a better view at the growling, angry wolf. “Oh…”
“What? Merlin, do as I say. Back away.”
The wolf tilted its head and gave a loud, long whine.
“We didn’t know,” Merlin said. “We’ll let you be. I swear.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She’s just protecting her cubs.”
“And I suppose she just told you that.”
Arthur spun around just enough to glare at Merlin. “Really? Dragons and wolves? What’s next, Merlin. Owls and squirrels? Trees?”
“Listen, I didn’t know I could talk to wolves! That one must be magical. She’s bigger than a normal wolf, right?” Merlin tugged at his arm. “Put down your sword and let’s go!”
“I’m not putting down my sword! Did you see its teeth?”
The wolf barked. They both jumped. The sound echoed like a lingering thunderclap. Arthur turned back to watch the wolf warily, although it didn’t seem angry anymore.
A long, eerie howl sounded behind them.
“Arthur. We need to leave. Right now.”
Something about Merlin’s tone made the hair on the back of Arthur’s neck prickle up. This wasn’t his usual nattering on about rumoured deadly forest spiders or poisonous dragonflies or bandit-ridden woods. He actually sounded scared.
“What is it?” he asked, lowering his sword to shuffle back toward the cave’s broad entrance.
“It’s her mate.”
“As in a bigger wolf?”
“I think so. I think we should get very far away.”
As soon as Arthur’s boots met the thick snow outside the cave’s entrance, he turned and pushed Merlin forward. “Hurry up.”
The deep, fresh snow made it impossible to run or even walk quickly. They trudged, taking great stork-like steps and leaving a thick, obvious trail. The howls came closer.
“Is that one talking to you as well? Any chance it’s taking its time? Maybe found something better to eat?”
Merlin gripped a tree for balance and hunched over to catch his breath. Arthur hoped he was also listening for whatever magical talking wolves sounded like.
“I don’t hear anything.” Merlin panted. “Other than all that howling.”
“Yes. I hear the howling, Merlin. Let’s go. We can’t stop.” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arm and started dragging him along the path where his feet had stamped down the snow. It made for a clumsier pace, but Merlin seemed more capable of keeping up.
What Arthur didn’t anticipate was an attack from behind.
When Merlin tackled him into the snow, Arthur thought what are you doing, idiot and oh, the wolf must have circled around behind us and oh God, Merlin, Merlin.
The wolf’s weight pinned them both down. Arthur struggled to try to turn over and face the sounds of snarling and snapping teeth and pained, panicked cries. Merlin scrabbled at his back, all sharp knees and grasping hands. He yelped and the weight lifted abruptly.
Arthur realized, in horror, that the wolf had lifted Merlin and tossed him away with a shake of its huge, bloody maw. He rolled and fumbled for his sword, fingers cold and numb and wet. The black wolf drew back, coiling to lunge for Arthur, and then it just stopped, ears pricking up.
“Be still, wolf!” Merlin shouted. He kneeled in the snow, hunched over but steady. His eyes glowed in that liquid-sunlight way that never ceased to make Arthur feel very, very small. “We mean you no harm. Return to your kin. We have no quarrel with you.”
The wolf growled and turned toward Merlin, but did not advance.
Arthur looked between them and saw the bright red blood in the snow. Merlin’s blood.
He lifted his sword and trained it on the wolf, intent on killing the beast.
“Arthur! Put it down.” Merlin shot him a glare before turning back to the wolf and lifting his hand. He went on speaking in a language Arthur could not understand, though it sounded warm and familiar. When Merlin finished speaking, the wolf gave one last sharp growl and sprung away.
Merlin’s shoulders sank as he released a thick, dazed breath. He dropped his hands to his lap and closed his eyes. “Did you see that? That one was huge,” he mumbled, pitching forward into the snow before Arthur could catch him.
They needed shelter.
The cave, of course, was out of the question. Arthur followed a ridge until he found a small overhang. The sun was going down, so he built a fire first. Merlin needed heat. But he also needed to stop bleeding. And he’d stopped shivering, and that was bad, and he seemed sleepy and wasn’t even hissing or moaning anymore, so a fire seemed very important. And Arthur needed light to take a closer look at the punctures and gashes that he didn’t really want to look at closely.
“I’m hurrying” Arthur said irritably, stacking dry wood and stones.
Merlin, limp on his side in the pine needles, watched him with a strange mix of pain and amusement. “I didn’t say anything.”
“All right.” Arthur backed away from the kindling. He gestured toward it, and Merlin responded without missing a beat, exhaling a quiet spell that set the wood flaming steadily.
Merlin closed his eyes and hummed out a relieved sound as the heat rose and spread.
“Stop that,” Arthur snapped, not-quite-slapping Merlin’s cold cheek. Merlin opened his eyes and glared at him.
“I need your back to the light. Just—hold still, I’ll move you.” Arthur couldn’t roll him over; Merlin’s back and hip and left arm were raw and bleeding. He manoeuvred Merlin slowly until his back faced the flames.
When he finished, Merlin’s eyes were closed again.
“Please don’t sleep,” Arthur said gently, brushing at his hair.
Merlin’s lips twitched with a faint grin and he spoke without opening his eyes. “You swaddle me up in your cloak and stick me by a fire and pet me and expect me to stay awake?”
Arthur sat and carefully pillowed Merlin’s head against his thigh. “It is a very warm cloak.” The heavy, dark red cloth almost masked the blood that steadily seeped through. “But I need you to stay awake.”
Merlin snorted. “I’m not dying, Arthur. I’m tired.”
Arthur’s stomach clenched.
A gentle snow began to fall, swirling flakes catching in Merlin’s hair. In the late afternoon light, Merlin’s spilled blood looked black.
Arthur shrugged off his cloak and wrapped Merlin tight and rocked him, lost in a spiral of panic until Merlin squirmed and huffed a breath against his throat and said, “Arthur. It hurts. I’m cold.”
“I’ll get you warm,” Arthur said, nodding.
Merlin cried out as Arthur staggered to stand. He stiffened briefly and then sagged, head lolling against Arthur.
Arthur carried him away from the bloodstained snow.
The fire died down just before dawn. Arthur held Merlin against his chest and watched the embers glow softly. The forest seemed hushed and peaceful, as if even the wind had held its breath. Moonlight made the snow gleam.
It was beautiful.
“Merlin, you should see this.” Arthur gave him a little shake. “It’s really pretty. You’d like it.”
Merlin liked things like untouched snow and icicles.
“Please. Wake up. The sun will be up soon. As soon as it’s safe, I’ll carry you home.” Arthur nosed at Merlin’s hair. “Listen, I’m sorry I went in the cave. All right? It was cold. You were cold. You’re always shivering. It’s irritating.”
Arthur didn’t understand how Merlin could meticulously pack for every hunting trip and quest yet somehow always manage to forget the heavy blue cloak that Gaius had given him the winter before.
“Why are you such an idiot anyway? Didn’t you hear that wolf coming up behind us? You’re supposed to hear those things. You were talking to the other wolf! Didn’t it warn you? Why weren’t you looking?”
Merlin didn’t respond.
Arthur’s anger dissipated, leaving him empty and cold. He kept his face close to Merlin’s to feel every uneven, faint puff of breath. He wanted to shake him harder until he opened his eyes and said something stupid.
Without the comforting scent of wood smoke in the still air, all Arthur could smell was blood.
“Merlin. I’m not angry.” Arthur lowered his voice to a whisper. “I don’t know what to do. You always know what to do. Please wake up. Tell me how to help you.”
A branch snapped, the sound booming through the silent forest. Arthur tensed and grabbed at Merlin more tightly as the big grey wolf stepped into the small clearing before them.
The wolf whined quietly and shook its coat, casting bits of snow and ice around in a glittering, silent rain.
“Don’t bother, I can’t understand you.” Arthur watched the wolf defiantly, not caring that his eyes were bright and hot. “He’s the one with magic.”
The wolf came closer, sniffing wetly. It seemed to catch the scent of blood and whined again.
“The black wolf bit him,” Arthur said accusingly. He wasn’t sure why he continued to talk to the wolf. But he was scared and the forest was so quiet and Merlin had stopped answering him hours ago. “We didn’t—I didn’t see it coming. It tore him up.” His voice stretched and went hoarse. “I can’t help him. He’s bleeding, it just keeps bleeding.”
The wolf stepped around the ashes of the fire and came close enough for its moist breath to stir Merlin’s hair.
Arthur choked and blinked, looking down at Merlin’s face and pale, still features. “I don’t think he’s going to wake up.”
It was absolutely ridiculous. He was crying and talking to a wolf. Merlin lived for things like this. He needed to see. He’d tease Arthur about it forever and ever.
The wolf nudged closer, and before Arthur could duck away, it licked his cheek.
“What—ugh!” Arthur tried to dry his cheek with his hand, but his fingers were too cold and clammy. “Bad… dog. Don’t do that.”
The wolf whined and licked him again.
“I said don’t! Stop that!” Arthur pushed at the wolf’s head the way he wrestled fondly with his hunting dogs. The grey fur felt soft and very warm.
Ignoring Arthur’s gestures, the wolf turned its attention to Merlin. It pushed its nose at Merlin’s shoulder and licked over the cloak and licked his cheek, leaving a big wet smear.
Arthur moved to push at the wolf again, but something about the gentle gesture seemed apologetic.
Merlin’s eyes fluttered open. He stared blankly for a beat before his eyes widened. “Wolf,” he breathed, tensing weakly. “Wolf. Wolf. Wolf.”
“Merlin! Shhh, don’t talk.” Arthur’s heart pounded. “I think it’s helping. Are you helping? Wolf! Tell him! Merlin, ask the wolf. Ask it to help you, ask if it’s helping. Don’t go back to sleep!”
Merlin craned just enough to frown at Arthur quizzically. His focus went far away. “She says you were crying. And… she can heal me. She needs to clean the bites.” He grimaced. “I hope she’s not lying.”
“Do wolves lie?”
“I have no idea.”
It turned out the wolf was telling the truth.
Arthur held Merlin in his lap and peeled away the bloody cloak and his tattered tunic, exposing Merlin’s punctured and torn skin to the cold night air. Merlin draped against him limply.
“I don’t like this.”
“It’s better than the alternative.”
Merlin shuddered as the wolf began to lick his wounds as if cleaning a newborn pup.
“Does it hurt?” Arthur asked, too fascinated to be horrified by what he was watching.
Merlin clutched Arthur and trembled. “The other one tried to eat me, Arthur. I’m not keen on wolves at the moment.”
“I think it’s working. Your grip is stronger.” Painful even, Arthur noted.
“I wonder if the wolf has a spare tunic lying around too.”
“And you seem a bit feistier.”
“Were you really—hey—that tickles!” Merlin craned his neck to watch the wolf lap at his ribs. He squirmed and hissed out a breath.
Apparently finished, the wolf sneezed once and sat back on its haunches in the snow, tail wagging.
Merlin curled closer to Arthur, seemingly more aware of the cold against his bare skin. Arthur saw that his flesh was now all but mended, pink and raw where it had been torn and bleeding.
“It really worked…”
“I’m freezing. And I smell like dog.”
As the wolf barked what seemed like a happy, bright sound, Arthur laughed and hugged Merlin until it hurt.