So this came to me in an English lesson while I was pressing my pen against my cheek and wondering what it would look like if Merlin had a scar there. Plotbunnies: they ambush you in the weirdest places.


Merlin kept his eyes fixed on the ground as he walked, treading as carefully as he could to avoid tripping up on any convenient branches, or rustling any of the fallen leaves that littered the ground. Why Arthur was even bothering to hunt in autumn, when crunchy orange-brown-red leaves were strewn over the forest floor like a thick rug, was beyond Merlin.

Actually, that wasn't quite true. Merlin could see why Arthur would want to hunt – the atmosphere in the castle had grown stuffy and Arthur was clearly bored there. He had told Merlin the day before that they were going on a hunting trip to get some fresh air into his lungs. Never mind Merlin's lungs – they could fill up with cold air and turn to ice for all Arthur cared, as long as someone carried the bags. Merlin was carefully not bitter about this in front of Arthur, or his two knights of choice – Leon and Meleagant. Despite actions and appearances, he did actually value his health and wellbeing.

Of course, keeping his eyes so firmly fixed downwards, he didn't notice that Arthur had stopped and bumped right into him with a surprised, "Oof."

Arthur glared at him over his shoulder as Merlin took a step back and shrugged obnoxiously, mouthing, "What?" After all, Arthur knew Merlin was clumsy and liable to ruin the hunt. Why he even bothered bringing him along was a mystery.

Another mystery Merlin knew the answer to – Arthur just needed a dogsbody to carry the gear.

Arthur gave Merlin a warning look before turning to face forward again. Merlin made a face at the back of his head, looking up when he heard someone stifle a chuckle and ducking his head again when he realised Leon had seen. He liked the blonde knight, actually – he was a lot like Arthur, and he didn't treat Merlin like a total clodpoll either, which was always nice.

Because he wasn't focusing on looking down any more, that was the time a particularly loud branch managed to sneak its way under Merlin's boot, and snap loudly when he stepped forward. He winced as Arthur turned to glare daggers at him and pulled an expression he hoped conveyed his 'well this is all your fault for bringing me so don't get mad at me for it' thoughts. Judging by Arthur's face, he had pulled it off quite well, but he managed not to smirk as Arthur tilted his head warningly and turned around to continue his stalking. The prince was so easy to bait when he was hunting.

They continued in this fashion for an hour or two before Arthur actually made the gesture Merlin knew by now meant he had sighted prey. At Arthur's pointed look, Merlin nodded and stepped aside to lean against a tree. He waited till Arthur had walked on a way ahead, Leon and Meleagant flanking him, before sinking down as quickly as he could into a sitting position, groaning silently as his back grumbled at him for spending so long standing up.

He waited in silence for long minutes, letting his mind drift pleasantly, before he heard the tell-tale sound of a whistle followed by two thuds, and an exclamation of success from Arthur. He sighed and struggled to his feet, just in time for Arthur, Leon and Meleagant to return, Arthur and Meleagant both holding rabbits by their hind feet. Merlin raised his eyebrows, waiting for Arthur to speak.

And sure enough, the prince opened his mouth, face flushed with cold and triumph, only to pause and frown, his eyes narrowing to suspicious slits. Merlin turned instinctively, worried at the sudden unexpected change in Arthur's behaviour, and then realising the reason for it as a branch cracked loudly in the thicket to their left.

They all turned to face it, and the knights got their swords out, dropping the rabbits to the ground. A hand grabbed Merlin's sleeve slowly and Merlin looked up in surprise as Arthur tugged him firmly backwards, putting his own body between Merlin and the thicket.

His overprotective actions proved necessary as a thickset man with a balding crown and a mane of tawny wire covering the back of his head and shoulders stepped out of the thicket, his own sword drawn. A rustle from the right prompted Arthur to step back, forcing Merlin to retreat as well as another stranger emerged from the trees, also brandishing a blackened sword. He had a long scar that ran diagonally across his face. More rustles and snapping of twigs, and two more men appeared behind the balding one. All four men were filthy and flinty-eyed, and clearly looking for a fight.

"Sire?" Sir Leon whispered under his breath.

"We can take them." Arthur hissed. "They only outnumber us by one."

It was at that moment that Meleagant's sword swung around to point at Arthur's throat instead of the balding man's.

"Meleagant?" Leon's eyes widened as the knight stepped around to Arthur's side, a small, hard smirk gracing his lips.

"Traitor." Arthur said through gritted teeth, and Meleagant bowed his head briefly, keeping his eyes on Arthur's sword.

"Indeed, my lord. And now it would seem that you are outnumbered five to two."

"Drop your weapons." The balding man ordered sharply in conclusion.

Arthur hesitated for a moment, his eyes attempting to burn furious holes in Meleagant's forehead, but when the sword against his throat pressed close, he stepped back and dropped his sword to the ground, holding his hands up in surrender and indicating to Leon to follow his lead.

The balding man nodded to one of his cohorts, who scurried forward and bent down to pick the swords up. Merlin saw what Arthur was about to do before he did it, and prepared to turn and fight the scarred bandit on his left. He kept his eyes on the prince as Arthur's muscles bunched and he lunged forward suddenly, knocking the man bending down heavily into Meleagant, sending them both crashing to the ground. His sword appeared in his hand as if by magic, and he and Leon charged forward at the leader and the bandit at his side – Merlin turned and barrelled into the scarred bandit as fast as he could, knocking them both to the forest floor.

He heard the clash of swords in front of him, but didn't dare look up. If he could get his hands on the sword, they might have a chance. The bandit was a larger man than he, however, and stronger. An elbow to his face, and Merlin cried out with pain but attacked furiously with his knees and fists, though his watering eyes obstructed his vision somewhat.

"Hold still, boy." A hard voice Merlin recognised as Meleagant's said, and Merlin froze as cold metal kissed his throat. "Surrender, or the boy dies." Meleagant said loudly, loud enough for Arthur and Leon to hear and turn slowly, their swords falling once more to the ground. They didn't move this time as one of the bandits retrieved them, clutching his bloody nose and swearing under his breath.

"Get off!" The scarred man under Merlin snarled, shoving him away. Meleagant caught him by the back of his jacket and yanked him upright, keeping the tip of his sword against his neck. Merlin caught Arthur's eyes and shook his head, eyes trying to convey his apologies and desire for Arthur and Leon to leave him and run. Clearly, he was really getting better at his meaningful expressions, because Arthur shook his head firmly and averted his eyes purposefully. Either that, or Arthur had suddenly gained telepathy.

"Tie them up." The bandit leader growled, and two of his subordinates pulled rope from their belts and forced Arthur's and Leon's hands behind their backs, tying them together tightly. The man Merlin had fallen on picked up the two rabbits and went to stand at the balding man's side, glaring at Merlin heavily.

"And him." He said in a low voice when one of his fellows finished tying Leon's wrists, looking at Merlin.

"Him?" The man repeated sceptically.

"Him." The scarred bandit said dangerously, and the other man ducked his head in compliance and hastened to obey.

That done, Arthur, Leon and Merlin were pulled up in a line, a bandit behind each of them to hold them still. The scarred bandit was keeping an iron grip on Arthur's upper arms, and Merlin guessed he was second in command. The balding man stepped forward and cleared his throat. "My lord." He bowed his head slightly to Arthur. "Sir Knight." To Leon. No sign that Merlin existed, and he rolled his eyes.

"Might I inquire as to the nature of your actions?" Arthur asked tightly, drawing himself up tall and managing to appear intimidating despite having both hands tied behind his back.

The bandit leader snorted. "Fancy talk will get you nowhere here, my lord. I don't give a rat's rear about the 'nature' of my actions – I'm just the hired help. To see the great mastermind, look to my left." He glanced at Meleagant, who nodded, unsmiling.

"Meleagant." Arthur said darkly. "Any chance you'll reveal the reason behind this betrayal?"

"Yours isn't the only kingdom in the land." Meleagant said shortly, his eyes shadowed. "I am merely an agent for my king."

"And which king would that be?" Arthur asked. "The treaty –"

"The treaty was not desired by all." Meleagant waved the prince's words aside. "War is a profitable business, my lord. Not everyone is content to sit back and let the riches waste in foreign kingdoms."

"Who?" Arthur demanded. "Who is your king? Who commands you?"

"I am bound by oath." Meleagant shook his head. "And these men know nothing, so don't even think about trying to bribe or threaten anything out of them." He turned to the bandit leader. "We should get moving. Night will fall soon."

"Aye." The balding man grunted. "Come on, boys." He turned and led them through the trees as the sky overhead grew darker, and the moon began to rise.


Arthur stared into the fire, feeling his gag grow damp in his mouth. His wrists were twisted uncomfortably behind his back, but he didn't move to try and ease the strain – the scarred bandit hadn't stopped glaring at his prisoners since they'd stopped to set up camp in a small hollow. The smell of the rabbits two of the bandits were roasting over the fire was mouth-watering, and Arthur couldn't stop his stomach rumbling. He hadn't eaten since breakfast.

By listening in, he knew now that the bandit leader was called Rydall, and the one who had first tried to pick up his and Leon's fallen swords was Yngis. Meleagant was muttering to Rydall now, but no matter how hard Arthur tried to quiet his breathing and the other sounds surrounding him, he couldn't hear anything that was being said. Just a low, continuous mumble.

Leon was propped against a tree on Arthur's left, and Merlin was against a tree to his right. Arthur wanted to turn his head to check on them, but didn't want to do so under the watchful eyes of the scarred bandit.

"Jim." Rydall grunted suddenly, and the scarred bandit turned his head. Arthur fought the urge to raise his eyebrows. Jim? He wouldn't have expected the man to have a name like that. Jim glared at Arthur as though he knew what the prince was thinking before getting to his feet and joining Rydall and Meleagant in their hushed discussion.

Taking the opportunity, Arthur glanced quickly to his right, catching Merlin's eyes instantly – his servant had turned to check him too. At Arthur's unspoken question, Merlin nodded, telling Arthur he was okay. He raised his eyebrows concernedly, asking Arthur the same thing, and Arthur jerked his head in the affirmative before turning around to check on Leon.

The tawny-haired man gave Arthur a reassuring look, followed by an expression of worry and a flick of his gaze to Meleagant, Rydall and Jim – he too wanted to know what they were talking about. Arthur shrugged helplessly, and they both turned to face forward again as Jim glanced over his shoulder. Arthur closed his eyes, contemplating their situation grimly.

As far as his father knew, they wouldn't return from their hunting trip for two more days, so they could expect no help until then. They were outnumbered almost two to one, and while Arthur was confident he and Leon could have taken on the four bandits, Meleagant was a fully fledged knight. He wasn't exceptionally gifted, but he was skilled with a blade, and he clearly had no qualms about betraying them.

Meleagant was one of the four sons of Lord Bagdemagus, an unsteady ally of Uther's. His lands bordered on Alined's kingdom to the north, and Arthur knew Uther did not entirely trust the man. And for good reason, it would seem. Arthur narrowed his eyes at Meleagant's back. If there was one thing he despised more than anything, more than humiliation or his father's disappointment, it was a traitor he had trusted.

Meleagant had only come to Camelot to be a knight as something of a peace offering from his father to Arthur's. Except it hadn't been a peace offering, Arthur thought angrily. Meleagant had been a spy all along. And now he was making his move. And Arthur was entirely at his mercy.

His thoughts fell silent and he stilled completely as Meleagant's voice rose slightly. "I'm telling you," he said angrily, "the prince will never yield. He's far too strong for that."

"What of the other knight then?" Rydall said gruffly, shooting a furtive glance at Leon, who narrowed his eyes defiantly.

"No." Meleagant turned back to Rydall and Jim, lowering his voice once more. But Arthur strained his ears to keep listening over the crackle of the fire. "He's far too loyal to break that easily." Meleagant said in a low voice. "He's one of Arthur's most trusted knights. Uther's too. No, I say you take the boy."

"He's just a servant." Jim said sceptically. "What could he know?"

"He's not just any servant." Meleagant looked briefly at Merlin, and Arthur felt rage coil in his belly. "He's Arthur's servant. He's privy to all sorts of private information not even the other lords know about." All three turned to stare at Merlin, and Arthur looked to see Merlin staring back at them with wide, yet defiant eyes.

The fool was going to get himself killed.


Merlin resisted the urge to struggle as Jim (and really – Jim?) yanked him upright and pulled the gag from his mouth, tugging it up over his head and throwing it to one side. He shoved Merlin roughly so he stumbled into Rydall's grip. The larger man held Merlin's back to his chest, one hand fisting in Merlin's hair and pulling his head to one side, the other coming up to reveal it held a knife, the tip of which he touched to Merlin's left cheek, just under his eye.

Merlin's heart began to beat faster, and he tried to keep his eyes on the blade of the knife.

"Keep still, boy," Rydall warned dangerously. "Or I might just slip." The pressure increased slightly, and every muscle in Merlin's body tensed, aching to run. "Now then." Rydall's hand tightened in Merlin's hair. "I'm sure you know how to avoid the palace guard. I'm sure you know all the secret passages to the king's chambers, hm? How about you tell me?"

Merlin shook his head as much as he could under the circumstances, but he knew Rydall had felt the movement. The bandit's eyes darkened, and the point of the knife pressed harder against Merlin's cheek. "You'll tell us something, boy, or I'll slice your face wide open."

Merlin drew in a shuddering breath through his nose, but frowned determinedly. "I'm not telling you anything."

"Oh really?" Rydall growled. "And why would that be?"

"I'm loyal to Arthur." Merlin said quietly, and pressed his lips tightly together.

Rydall scowled and the knife tip pressed harder. The pain bloomed instantly, and Merlin fought back a wince as warm blood made a trail down his cheek and neck. His eyes closed for a second, and then found Arthur's, trying to steady himself on the prince's strength.

"Ready to talk?" Rydall growled in Merlin's ear, and Merlin made a kind of negative, "Mmmphh!" sound while he shook his head again, keeping his eyes fixed on Arthur's. Rydall noticed, and scowled heavier. "Turn the prince and the knight around." He ordered, and Merlin struggled slightly as Arthur was dragged to his feet and turned to face the trunk of the tree he had been propped against.

"Now then." Rydall hissed, jerking Merlin's head roughly. "Where were we? Oh yes – you were about to tell me how to get past the guards in the palace."

"No." Merlin ground out.

"You'll tell me, boy, or else." Rydall threatened. "My knife can go deeper than you'd think."

Merlin's breath came in an uneven pant, but he didn't open his mouth. Rydall's eyes narrowed to slits, and Merlin swallowed fearfully as he saw the bandit's hand tighten on the knife hilt. "So be it."

Merlin didn't have time to gasp as the blade plunged into his cheek and sliced down. The pain exploded across his face, and he screamed, unable to stop himself. Rydall let him fall to the ground, and in the world beyond the throb and burn and dark wetness of blood, Merlin heard the sounds of a fight. He turned his head and saw that Arthur had snapped – somehow, even gagged and bound, he had knocked a bandit to the ground already.

A coherent thought made its way through the red haze – run. Merlin exploded upwards into Rydall's crotch, causing the bandit to bellow in agony and vanish from view. Merlin sensed someone coming for him, and he ducked away instinctively before running for the trees. He paused briefly, his breath coming in harsh pants and his hands clasping his face.

"RUN, MERLIN!" Arthur had managed to get his gag off, and Merlin swallowed his fear and turned to flee. "RUN!"

His cheek was on fire, and Merlin gasped in pain with each breath as he tore off his neck scarf to staunch the bleeding. Rydall had cut deep, almost to the bone, and his neck and collar were already slick and warm.

Sounds of pursuit followed him, and Merlin stopped himself running to throw his body under a tangle of bushes, praying the bandit following him would pass him by. He felt himself freeze up in fear as the bandit's legs appeared in his field of vision, taking slow steps, turning in small circles. Listening for him.

His heart was pounding against his lungs, and Merlin was sure the bandit would hear his heavy breathing any second. "Where are you?" He heard the man mutter. "Come on…come on, where are you?"

Merlin swallowed, and then jumped as a large spider ran across his hand. The movement rustled the leaves of the bush, and he drew in a breath of shock as the bandit dropped to his knees to stare him in the face. "Gotcha!" He snarled.

Merlin acted without thinking – stared the man in the eye and felt the word slip from his mouth, tarnishing his tongue and dirtying his lips like only a curse of magic could. "Ábradwian!" The power burned in his eyes, and Merlin watched as the man gasped, his face becoming blank as he fell backwards and the breath left his body in a death-rattle.

Merlin didn't move, just squeezed his eyes closed and then gritted his teeth when the movement made the cut in his cheek open wider. The searing pain was returning in full force now his burst of adrenaline was fading, and Merlin couldn't stop tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. Not even the fireball Nimueh had thrown at his chest had hurt this much.

He stayed like that for a long time before he judged it safe to pull himself out from under the bush. His scarf was stuck to his face with blood that was still oozing from the wound, and he couldn't move his facial muscles at all without the gash opening again.

The moon was high in the sky, and Merlin realised that he had no idea where he was, and no clue how to help Arthur. He could try and get back to Camelot, but the bandits would probably catch him, and he couldn't use magic in front of Arthur unless it really was life-or-death. And even then…if it wasn't Arthur's life at stake…

Merlin hated himself for the knowledge that if it came to a choice between saving Sir Leon and keeping his magic a secret from Arthur, he would let Leon die. It made him feel sick, disgusted that he would allow such a thing to happen to protect his own lie. What manner of creature was he?

He could find the bandit's hollow again, he was sure of it. He hadn't run far. But how would he free Arthur without magic?

He couldn't. Perhaps he could wait until they slept and untie Arthur's bonds in the night? But these bandits were organised – even with only four of them, Merlin was sure Meleagant would insist on a constant watch. He needed help. He needed something powerful.

A low growl behind him froze the blood in his veins. Something ancient and primal inside him screamed to run, but Merlin turned slowly to look.

An alpha wolf, huge and black with eyes that reflected the moonlight and shone like small lanterns stood opposite Merlin, his hackles raised and his milk-white teeth bared. He was partially crouched, ready to pounce, and even then he was larger than the tallest dog Merlin had ever seen, standing at equal height to the bottom of his rib cage. Five more wolves – the rest of his pack – stood behind him, their eyes also glowing in the darkness.

Merlin's breath misted in the air, and he fought the urge to whimper and flee. He knew that if he turned to run, the wolf would kill him. How many times had his mother warned him never to run from predators? His only chance was to scare the wolves away. But how was he meant to do that?

Magic? But something warned him from that path. Merlin shifted to face the animal properly, and the wolf's growl increased in volume, guttural and dangerous, warning Merlin off. Merlin sucked a deep breath into his lungs and met its eyes squarely.

And something strange happened.

The world chimed like a bell, and Merlin's vision narrowed to the wolf, the trees and sky and forest floor blurring and creating a narrow tunnel between them. Merlin felt his eyes burn, and his magic sing in his blood, and then he changed.

He saw at a different level – lower than his previous height – and in a different way. A new perspective, and a heightened perception of the darkness. His ears suddenly heard everything, and as he inhaled, his mind reeled with the information borne into his nostrils with the cold air. He could smell the other wolves – musky and rank and strong – and so much more. He could smell the scent of his own blood, the rotting leaves under his feet, the animals that surrounded them – a mouse burrowed under the roots of the bush, an owl sat in the tree above, death itself in the corpse of the dead bandit. An entire world of scent he had never dreamed existed opened up before him, and he inhaled again, and again, intoxicated.

A low, confused growl brought him out of his giddy stupor, and Merlin swung his head to look at the alpha wolf, still opposite him. His head was long and heavy now, a muzzle instead of a nose, a long snout full of sharp teeth that caged a long tongue. He opened his jaw and let it hang out, panting and tasting the night on its length. A wide wolf grin, and he shook his whole body, realising without fear that he was covered in fur, a thick pelt that kept him warm. His legs were coiled under him, and he bent them experimentally, almost yipping with excitement when he felt the strength there.

He could run for miles with legs like these. He could leap straight up in the air and land on his feet. He could feet the leaves, crunchy under the pads of his paws. He blinked and grinned his wide wolf grin at the alpha, feeling very pleased with himself. Even the gash on his cheek had faded to a low throb, though he could already feel the fur around it matting with blood.

The alpha wolf crouched slightly and growled again, trying to appear fierce, but letting his confusion show. What are you? He said without words, though Merlin read them in his scent, in the posture of his body and the tilt of his head and the angle of his ears. Enemy?

Friend. Merlin tried to express, grinning wide and capering slightly to one side. He crouched low and flattened his ears, sensing somehow what to do. I need your help. Please? He whined, and then felt his eyes flash gold.

The alpha bared his teeth and skittered backwards slightly. Power. Are you enemy? He pulled his lips back further.

Friend. Merlin insisted, tilting his head to the side entreatingly. Help me.

The female closest behind the alpha stepped forward, her hackles raised but her head cocked curiously. Friend?

Friend! Merlin danced on the spot, his eyes flashing gold again. Help?

The female touched her nose to the alpha's cheek. He swung his head abruptly, almost snapping at her, but she persisted, pushing up against him and licking at his fur. Help him.

Enemy! The alpha growled suspiciously at Merlin, who crouched low again, trying to appear less threatening.

Friend. The female made a small yip-whine in her throat and nuzzled at the alpha's shoulder.

Another of the wolves trotted forward, his ears up and his mouth closed. He eyed Merlin with interest, and then looked inquiringly at the alpha. Looks nice.

Merlin grinned wide and slid closer to the alpha. The larger wolf glared down at him but didn't make a move to attack or retreat.

Help? Merlin asked again, politely, and the alpha snorted, tossing his head and trotting around to Merlin's left. Merlin stood up again and followed him with his eyes only, keeping his tail at a neutral half-mast. The alpha sniffed at his fur and circled Merlin carefully while his pack watched, their tongues lolling out, waiting for his decision.

The alpha came back around to the front and considered for a moment, looking Merlin in the eyes. A subordinate would look away. Merlin did not, but he kept his tail respectfully lowered, not challenging the alpha's authority. The two actions did not mesh well in the eyes of a wolf, yet the alpha seemed to come to a conclusion swiftly enough. Yes.

The female grinned and bounced forward, the others following suit. Merlin found himself surrounded by hot fur and he squirmed happily as they rubbed against him, sniffing him curiously and absorbing his scent into theirs. A tongue rasped against his cut cheek, and he jerked his head away as the sting rose. A cold nose touched his in apology, and he licked it, accepting the unspoken words.

After a few minutes, the alpha huffed a half-bark deep in his chest, calling the pack to attention. He looked inquiringly at Merlin. Help?

Merlin whined as he remembered Arthur, bound and helpless. Bad humans! He flattened his ears and wriggled uncomfortably. Hurt me. Hurt my friend.

Another friend? One of the female subordinates lifted her tail. A snap from the alpha female sent her jumping back and grinning an apology.

Good human. Merlin felt the emotion radiate from his fur, a deep-seated warmth he felt whenever Arthur was around. Well, whenever Arthur was nice, anyway. The best. My alpha. He crouched a tentative fealty to the alpha wolf. Human alpha, he reminded them. No threat. Only a human. He looked hopefully at the alpha. Help?

Yes. The alpha swung his head to the sky and howled.

Merlin's eyes flashed gold at the sound. He'd heard wolves howl sometimes in Ealdor, but he'd never heard them the way a wolf did. The alpha female joined in, her voice higher and more plaintive than her mate's. The other four joined in more or less at the same time, and Merlin's ears stood up straight on his skull, absorbing their song.

The female the alpha had snapped at had a an excited howl. She stopped and started several times before letting rip with a long one, her eyes closed and her whole body arching up into it. The third female, who was the oldest there, had a sweeter voice, wiser and less excited. She had a bloodlust in her song that was stronger than the others.

The male who had first stepped forward to Merlin had a deeper voice than the others, strong and low. The second male, who was smaller than the others, joined in and their voices twisted together in a harmony of high and low.

There was power in their music, Merlin could feel it building up, right from the pads of his paws, tingling in his legs and on the edges of his fur. His tail quivered and something tightened in his chest as he flung his head back, unable to help himself, and added his own howl to the song.

It was magic of a kind he had never experienced. Something in him, his soul or his spirit, was woven into his howl, mixing and dancing with the others. He was getting to know them, somehow, being integrated into their pack, becoming at one with them. He'd never experienced anything like it.

His voice jarred in places – a result of his true loyalty to Arthur instead of the black-furred alpha male – but the other wolves didn't seem to mind. They seemed to understand that he was only there for a while, and while he was he was someone to be tolerated but not wholly accepted. If that was his eventual intention, he would have to devote himself entirely to the pack, and the alpha, and he couldn't do that.

They howled for a long time. Merlin wasn't sure how long. But he felt the time grow right after a while, and let his head drop, his eyes still glowing slightly gold. He felt bigger, stronger, more powerful. He felt the need to hunt charging him inside and out, and he stared at the alpha, feeling more on his level than before. This was his hunt. Arthur was his responsibility.

The alpha felt Merlin's gaze on him and called an end to the howling. The other wolves fell silent, and they all crowded around, each content and at peace, and also charged with the need to hunt. Their strength was his strength, and his strength was theirs. This was the power of the pack, Merlin understood.

Hunt. The alpha's eyes were bright and keen, and the oldest female snarled excitedly.


Hunt. Merlin agreed, and turned to sniff at the corpse of the bandit.

The other wolves joined in, and then fanned out to try and pick up the scent. The night was cold, and the bandit was long dead, but Merlin had been bleeding when he'd fled under the bush, and spots of it were still dotted on the ground. The smallest male found the trail first, and yipped to tell them before letting the alpha male and Merlin take the lead.

They followed the trail, and then found the bandit's hollow. It was easy enough – Merlin really hadn't run that far. He could smell the heat of the fire even though they were upwind, and he almost sneezed. He shook his head harshly from side to side and pawed at his nose to abate the itch, and snapped his teeth at the younger female for laughing at him. She put her tail between her legs and grinned apologetically, and he licked her nose.

The alpha huffed and Merlin looked at him, submitting to his superior experience. The alpha's ears pricked up, asserting his dominance in a small gesture, and began to lead the pack around so they would be downwind.

Merlin wrinkled his snout in distaste as the smells assaulted his sensitive nostrils – sweat and flame and clothes and fear and anger and roasting rabbit that had long been eaten. Hunger and fury and anxiety mixed with the stench of the humans themselves. Blood was a tang on the air, and Merlin sought out Arthur with his eyes, safe from detection in the darkness of the trees.


Merlin's hackles went up in a second as he realised that there was blood on Arthur's face – not much, but still Arthur's own blood. It was almost overwhelmed by the tinge of another's blood, and Merlin realised with a flash of anger that it was Leon's. The other man was unconscious, slumped against his tree, and there was blood trailing from his temple to his neck, and also from a shallow wound on his chest – both men's armour had been removed, and Merlin could smell the damaging bruises on their bodies.

He snarled silently, and his fury infected the rest of the pack. He wanted to kill the bandits and Meleagant. He wanted them dead, and he wanted them dead now. He wanted them to pay for what they had done.

The alpha came to stand at his side, and looked at Merlin. Bad men?

Ones not tied. Merlin told him angrily. Ones not bleeding. Bad men. Must die!

Yes. The alpha agreed grimly. We kill them. He grinned suddenly. Men are frightened. Easy prey. We scare them. He lifted his head to the moon and let out a blood-chilling howl.

Merlin snarled joyfully as the bandits woke up with shouts of fright, Meleagant leaping to his feet, sword in his hand. Their fear filled the air, and Merlin howled too, relishing in it. Let them fear him! They should die with fear in their hearts. The rest of the pack joined in, and Merlin swung his head down, snarling. He trotted forward to the edge of the hollow and stood there as the pack milled behind him. As Meleagant let out a battle cry filled with fright, they ran forward, pouring over the lip of the hollow and into the fray.

Merlin stood there, watching. He looked for Arthur and found the prince staring at him, his own fear weaker than the other humans. As their eyes met, Merlin's world blurred again, and he felt himself flicker in and out of human shape on top of the ridge, pulled by his tie to Arthur. It was strong, irresistibly so, but something kept tugging Merlin back to wolf shape.

There! The bloodlust was on the pack, and the alpha female was about to lunge for Arthur, despite him and Leon being marked out as not-prey.

Merlin leapt from the ridge as a wolf, his legs bending with the impact as he landed between Arthur and the female. He snarled at her, warning her off firmly. She snarled back angrily, but he stood his ground, hackles raised and teeth bared. His eyes burned gold, and she snapped her jaw at him but turned and jumped away.

Merlin turned slowly to look at Arthur. They stared into each other's eyes, but this time Merlin stayed lupine in appearance. He opened his mouth and panted, smiling at his prince proudly. My Arthur. My alpha. Mine.

Arthur's eyes changed, and his eyes dropped to stare at Merlin's bloody cheek. His mouth opened in something akin to realisation…then he yelled out warningly, and Merlin jumped aside as a sword fell where his head had been. He whirled around, snapping and snarling furiously as Meleagant raised his sword again.

"Demon!" He shouted, and though Merlin didn't entirely understand the word in his wolf form, he heard the fear and anger and madness behind it and reacted accordingly with a growl.

The other bandits were dead – he could smell their blood on the air – and the other wolves were crowding around. The oldest female had a deep cut on her muzzle, and the youngest male was limping, but none were dead.

Merlin snarled, partially at Meleagant, partially at the pack. My kill, he told them. Mine. He knew somehow that it was all Meleagant's fault, what had happened. And Meleagant had hurt Arthur. So the craven knight would pay the price for his treachery.

Said knight roared and swung his sword down. Merlin danced easily out of the way, but Meleagant's sword was a hair's breadth behind him. He dodged and ducked and weaved, his teeth snapping together with harsh clacks, frustrated snarls filling the blood-saturated air as he leapt this way and that, trying to get under Meleagant's guard but never quite managing to get close enough and avoid the man's blade at the same time.

The other wolves were there, but they offered no help. Merlin was not truly of their pack, and this was his battle to fight, not theirs. Merlin spun away from another swipe and snarled balefully at Meleagant. The movement had opened the gash on his cheek again, and it was bleeding freely. The combination of blood and pain and fury was driving him wild, over and beyond the edges of sanity and rational thinking.

Luckily for him, Arthur was there. Merlin unknowingly backed Meleagant closer to the prince, and Arthur waited for the perfect moment before he lunged forward and headbutted Meleagant in the small of the back. The knight grunted, and his sword almost slipped from his hand. In his moment of weakness, Merlin pounced.

He let the power coil in his back legs and lunged upwards and forwards. His front paws slammed into Meleagant's armour-protected chest and his weight bore them down. The sword flew from Meleagant's hand, and without a second thought, Merlin bent his head with a final snarl in the face of Meleagant's final scream, and tore his throat out.

There was silence after that, and Merlin stepped off the body of the disgraced knight, shaking his head. There was blood in his mouth, in his fur and on his teeth. He sneezed and swung his head to look at Arthur, who was staring at him with wide eyes. Merlin coughed and shook a paw delicately, dislodging a stick that had shifted on top of it. He turned to the alpha male and stepped forward to touch their noses together in thanks.

You are welcome. The alpha told Merlin regally, and turned to jump up the wall of the hollow, his pack close behind him. In a few seconds, they were gone. Merlin turned back to Arthur and yip-whined, scampering forwards and back uncertainly, unsure what to do. Arthur's scent told Merlin he was more astounded than afraid, so he came closer tentatively, sniffing at the golden hair to make sure he was alright. Satisfied, he bent his head to where Arthur's hands were tied behind his back and began to worry at the ropes with his teeth. In a few minutes, Arthur pulled his hands apart and turned on his knees to look Merlin in the eye.

Merlin simply stared back, feeling the magic as a distant thing as it turned his eyes gold for a moment. He swung his muzzle to point at Leon, reminding Arthur of his knight's unconscious presence, before turning tail and leaping up the bank and into the forest. He ran a short distance, then turned in several circles, leaping up high as he had wanted to when he first became a wolf. He grinned excitedly and yipped to himself before turning his head to the sky and howling.

The pack, by now a long way away, stopped in their movements to reply, howling back over the distance to say farewell properly. He was welcome to return, they conveyed. He was interesting and new, with a strange scent. He howled his goodbyes and then fell silent, letting out a sigh before concentrating hard. The world around him chimed loudly and he stumbled, falling forward as his weak human legs buckled under him.

"Ow." He mumbled, marvelling at the way his tongue moved in his mouth to create the sound. This kind of communication was impossible for wolves, though they had many other advantages – indeed, Merlin felt deaf and noseless as a human. "Arthur," he murmured next, blinking wearily and rolling over to pull himself to his feet. "Arthur…"

He moaned as his body protested, telling him of all its aches and pains, especially in his cheek. The pain there was blossoming, and Merlin tasted blood when he licked his lips. Meleagant's blood. He wrinkled his nose in distaste and spat onto the ground. "Ew." He spat twice more before wiping his mouth on his sleeve (and how had he managed to keep his clothes, anyway?) and turning back to where he thought the hollow was. "Arthur?" He shouted. "Arthur?"

An answering yell made him sigh with relief, and he started jogging in that direction. He had run further than he'd thought as a wolf, but he got back to the edge of the hollow quickly enough. Arthur had restarted the fire, and Merlin saw the glow through the trees, guiding him back.

"Arthur?" He stumbled to the edge of the hollow. "Sire?"

Arthur was standing next to the fire, and as Merlin appeared, his expression melted into one of relief. "Merlin!"

Merlin smiled tiredly and slipped down the bank. He was drained, and Arthur stepped forward to catch him as he tripped and nearly fell. "Idiot." He said gruffly, his hands tight around Merlin's upper arms. "Come on, sit down." He guided Merlin to the fire and made him sit opposite him.

"Are you alright?" Merlin asked.

"I'm fine." Arthur said shortly, frowning. "More to the point, how are you?" His eyes came to rest on the gash in Merlin's cheek, and he scowled. "That bastard. That's going to scar."

"I don't care." Merlin sighed.

"Does it hurt?"

"Yeah. Lots."

Arthur rolled his eyes and reached for one of the bandit's water skins and one of their own bags. He pulled out one of his spare shirts and began tearing it into strips. Merlin was too tired to protest, and simply closed his eyes. He didn't open them as Arthur touched a wet bundle of cloth to his bloody cheek and began to clean it.

"You don't seem surprised that the bandits are dead and I'm free." The prince muttered as he worked.

"I am surprised." Merlin mumbled. "I'll be more surprised when I'm not so tired, okay?"

Arthur snorted. After a long pause, he spoke again. "Wolves attacked them. But that's not the strange part, Merlin. Do you know what the strange part is?" He waited for Merlin to grunt before continuing. "The strange part is that they didn't attack me or Leon. Because one of the wolves stopped them. A grey and black wolf with golden eyes and a wound on his cheek. Don't you think that's strange?"

Merlin opened his eyes, Arthur's words finally seeping through. He wondered if he looked scared. He felt scared. "I'm sorry." He whispered without thinking.

"For what?" Arthur met his eyes squarely. "You weren't here. All I saw was a wolf. That was all. Nothing that incriminates…anyone." He held Merlin's gaze solidly, and Merlin let out a shuddering breath, closing his eyes. "Merlin?"

"Thank you." Merlin whispered. "Thank you, Arthur, thank you."

"For what?" Arthur repeated quietly. He gave Merlin's cheek one last wipe and sat back. "Done. Now…it's going to need stitches, Merlin." He paused uncertainly. "We have the equipment, but if you want to wait till we get back, when Gaius can –"

"I trust you." Merlin shook his head and quirked the corner of his lips on the side that wouldn't make his cheek start bleeding again.

Arthur smiled. "Okay. Hold still then, because this is going to hurt." He rummaged in the bag and pulled out a needle and thread. Merlin closed his eyes and hunched forward, wishing he could just go to sleep. A hand on his shoulder roused him slightly. "Hey, Merlin? Wake up."

Merlin blinked blearily. "'M awake."

Arthur smirked. "Sure you are." He frowned and shifted forward, cupping Merlin's face and turning it slightly to the side. "Okay, stay still and try not to move your face at all."

"Okay." Merlin whispered. The first stab of pain didn't hurt as much as he'd expected it to, but the feeling of the thread running through his skin did. He hissed through his teeth, and fought the urge to screw his eyes shut – the muscles in his face would bunch and ruin Arthur's efforts if he did.

"That's good." Arthur murmured, like Merlin was a skittish horse. "That's fine. You're doing great, Merlin. Not far to go."

"Liar." Merlin ground out. "You've only just started."

Arthur snorted and his hand unexpectedly found Merlin's, squeezing tight. "I know. Now hold still, and don't talk."

"Mm." Merlin sat as still as he could, squeezing Arthur's hand tighter with every stab of the needle and tug of the thread. The pain grew to be more intense than he'd expected, and his eyes blurred with tears.

"Just relax." Arthur kept talking in a low voice. "Over half way done now, Merlin. Just stay calm. It'll be done soon, and then you can sleep." And a while later – "Done."

"Ow." Merlin deadpanned, opening his eyes properly, and Arthur smiled.

"You alright?"

"Yeah." Merlin nodded. "Just tired."

"Sleep then." Arthur unfolded his legs and stretched them out in front of him. "I'll keep watch." As Merlin looked around for somewhere to lie down, Arthur rolled his eyes and tugged on his hand. "Come on, idiot."

Merlin closed his eyes, exhausted, and let Arthur pull him forward till his head was resting on the prince's thigh like a pillow. He was too tired to care, and simply drifted into a dreamless sleep.


Arthur stared down at Merlin's face, eyes closed and breathing even. He looked tired and pinched, the newly-stitched scar out of place. It was an ugly thing, and Arthur frowned at it, displeased. Merlin would have a scar there for the rest of his life, he could tell, curving across his cheek and showing the world what had happened. What the bandit had done, while Arthur was helpless to stop him.

Merlin. Arthur's frown faded but didn't disappear as he touched his free hand to the dark head of hair, a stark contrast to the pale skin. Black and silver like the fur of the wolf that had protected Arthur.

He was no fool. He knew the wolf had been Merlin somehow, no matter that it was impossible without enchantment or curse, magic of some kind. The eyes of the beast had been Merlin's own blue, till they burned bright gold, glowing in the face of his fear.

Arthur recalled what he had seen on the top of the bank – that wolf standing stationary as the rest of the pack leapt down into the hollow, flickering in and out of reality as a familiar figure flickered above it. A shadowy figure with glowing gold eyes and short ruffled hair and skinny build. Their eyes had locked, and in that moment, the wolf and Merlin had shown that they were one and the same.

"What else are you hiding from me?" Arthur whispered, his hand ghosting through Merlin's hair. No matter, he thought. He had the rest of his life to find out.

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