They called it "Nimueh's Curse", though she was only one of a dozen who cast the curse that ruined Camelot and took the rest of the world with it. It left a visible mark on the world, and ruined Merlin's life in the process. All he'd been carefully building up – his life in Camelot, Arthur's trust and the burgeoning... something between them – had been shattered by her treachery.
Merlin carefully picked his way through the rubble that remained of the castle, moving as slowly and quietly as he possibly cold. The sun was still up, likely would be for a few more hours though it was hard to get an accurate sense of the time of day in the ever-present gloom. A red haze of clouds covered the sky, casting the land all around Merlin in a pink hue. So far, he had yet to encounter any of the usual creatures but he had his shields up just in case.
The shields had become a way of life for Merlin. They were a subconscious part of him, as automatic as breathing. He could and had maintained them in his sleep, a feat which had saved his life on more than one occasion. Without the shields, he would have died months ago. They kept him hidden from all senses, invisible and yet free to roam around. They let him walk amidst the multitude of monsters that now roamed the land unheeded.
Merlin pushed aside the boards blocking the partially collapsed hallway in front of him. If he remembered his geography correctly, this path would lead towards where the kitchens used to be. Hopefully, there would be something salvageable. He'd already picked through the parts of the city that hadn't been completely overrun with monsters. Only the castle remained. He'd saved it for last partly because it was the worst of the wreckage and thus the hardest to pick through, but also because he was reluctant to face the memories it held.
The boards fell to the ground with a bang.
A noise nearby made Merlin freeze. Rocks clattered and a pointed nose appeared over a pile of rubble beside the castle wall. It sniffed audibly once, twice, and then the head appeared. A long pink tongue flicked out to taste the air. Merlin shifted as far as he could back against the wall. The serpent that slithered towards him looked much like a standard gecko but was twice the size of a full-grown bear and three times as long. It passed barely a hand's-breadth away from him, sniffing avidly at the fallen boards and peering down the hallway for several long minutes.
Merlin kept still, barely breathing until the creature finally turned away, ambling back over the ridge without a backwards glance. As soon as it was gone, he let out the breath he was holding. He glanced around, making sure there were no other creatures around before starting down the hallway. A globe of light flickered into life in front of him, illuminating all the way to the end of the hall.
The one and only benefit of the cataclysm was Merlin's magic. It seemed like he was full of it now, so much that if he went long without using it, it felt like it would burst out of him on its own. His eyes never stopped glowing now. That's how he'd been caught. He couldn't hide the fact that he was a wizard anymore, not when it was evident to all who cared to look. Even now, he still remembered how Arthur had looked – so shocked, so disappointed. He'd betrayed Arthur, a crime for which he doubted the other man would ever forgive him.
The hallway ended in a T. One branch was blocked with rubble, the other ended in a cliff bordering on a large, dark maw. His memory failed him on which was the proper way. Merlin pressed his hands against the wall before him and whispered his intent, the strange language of magic rolling easily off his tongue. It seemed the only time he spoke these days were for magic. No need, really, when there was no one to talk to.
Images appeared in his mind. Sound and scent came with it as he pulled out memories from the stone. He saw servants smiling as they walked down still-intact corridors, oblivious of the future that awaited him. The smell of roast duck and savory herbs wafted towards him from the right. He knew his path.
Merlin stepped off the cliff without hesitation. The air held him, as firm as stone as he crossed the chasm to the thankfully whole hallway on the other side. Two short turns down dusty hallways brought him to the kitchen. The hearth wall had collapsed, but the door to the cellar stores remained. Merlin pressed his ear to the wood, listening carefully before opening it. Rot and mold assailed his senses and Merlin gagged. He pressed his sleeve over his nose and mouth as he pushed forward.
Magic opened crate after crate for him, bags and barrels, casks and jugs. The good was sorted from the bad, the former pile dishearteningly small. Hours passed as he sorted through all the food the castle had once held. Once it was all done, he shut the cellar door, blocking out at least part of the stench. Another muttered spell gave him the time – it was past sunset. He could press on, start his journey back to the mountains, but he didn't fancy trying to pick his way through the castle rubble at night. There were more monsters out then, more to pay attention to and it had been a long day.
He didn't dare light a fire, just in case there were other tunnels that lead down. He could stretch his shields to cover a campfire but they'd do little to hide the smoke that would rise up, a sure sign of life in the deserted hallways, and he didn't fancy having to wait out another monster. Instead, he found a relatively clean corner of the room, one that afforded him a good view of both entrances to the kitchen and sat back against the wall.
It was a long time before he fell asleep, the tug of old memories stirring in his mind.
Animated chatter from the tunnels towards the surface brought Arthur awake. Bedeviere and Gawain were already rolling out of their pallets as Arthur sat up. One of the tunnel night guard, Jezebel, was speaking to the sentry, Damien, enthusiasm raising the volume of her voice. Arthur stood quickly. Happiness like that could only mean one thing. A motion of his had had the rest of Arthur's knights rising, and they in turn woke the rest of the hall. Men and women followed him up the tunnels while Jezebel danced on ahead.
He understood her enthusiasm as soon as they reached the cave mouth. One side of the tunnel was already filling with goods. There were more boxes and barrels and sacks of food than they'd ever seen, enough to keep them going on their own for months – assuming the provisions were kept from spoiling. He knew they wouldn't. Something Merlin did to their supplies kept them from going bad, even weeks after they rightly should.
People – his people – swarmed the goods, exclaiming in joy at every new thing they found. Merlin had done well by them. There was plenty of grain and meat. He'd even managed to find fresh fruits and vegetables, a near miracle ever since Nimueh's Curse had wrecked the land.
Arthur kept apart from the masses swarming over the goods, watching as they carried the food back down the tunnel, much like a line of ants would carry scraps away from the kitchen. His feet carried him to the edge of the tunnel and he stopped just at the border. It shimmered with a strange blue light every time another crate floated through. He was tempted to bring his hand up and touch it, to run his fingers over the magic that kept them hidden, kept them alive. He didn't. There were too many eyes watching.
The outside world was dark, but he heard things moving about. Merlin was out there somewhere, hidden by the same magical shields that protected the entrance to the tunnels that had been Arthur's home since the destruction of Camelot, and he wasn't alone. There was a part of Arthur that wanted to grab his sword and charge out there to fight the monsters that surrounded him. It wasn't right that Merlin was out there alone. It wasn't right that he stayed here, safe, while Merlin faced those creatures day after day.
The larger, more sensible part of himself knew it would be suicide to leave the mountainside. He'd fought monsters before, but not like this. Bravery was all well and good when they came at him one at a time, but there were swarms of monsters out there, thousands of them, and his sword would be of little use to him against them. He was better served inside. He had people to watch over now, and though he wasn't a king, he served them like one.
If he was going to die, he'd do so defending his people, not chasing after fool wizards.
Still, that didn't stop that small part of him from reminding him how much he missed Merlin, even if he was a wizard.
The south lands were as desolate as the region beyond Camelot had been. Farms lay abandoned and in waste, but he managed to pick up a few things here and there to take back to the mountains. He'd found several stores of seed, and while they weren't edible, there was a possibility he could set up a place for the plants to grow, maybe in one of the lower caves or in a shielded section along the slope. He felt slightly bad about raiding strangers' homes, but he knew that no one would be back to claim the lost belongings.
He traveled south for nearly two weeks, working his way through over a dozen farmsteads and into the neighboring kingdom. For the most part, his journey was a quiet one. Dragon-like birds flew overhead, searching for prey. Twice he'd had to stop and backtrack to work his way around the obvious signs of a monster's den. On the twelfth day, he spotted a keep off in the distance and altered his route to take him to it. That'd be the last stop, he decided, before he turned back and delivered his current haul of goods.
A twig snapped in the distance and he paused, bringing the sacks floating in a line behind him close around him. He waited, senses alert, to catch sight of whatever creature passed by. As good as his shields were, they did little to stop monsters from trying to trample over him and even the dumbest of creatures could figure out when they had a human between their toes.
Leaves parted with a faint rustle to his right. Slowly, figures emerged from the trees, growing sharper as they approached. It took Merlin's brain several minutes to process what he was seeing, and even then he rubbed at his eyes to make sure he wasn't delusional. There were humans. Humans in the woods. Living, breathing, still-alive humans.
Merlin took a step towards them, then froze again as a loud roar cut across the still forest. Birds scattered and he watched as the humans shared a quick glance before bolting towards the keep. They weren't fast enough. A huge creature jumped out of the woods to land just a short distance behind the last in line, its mouth opening larger than the full height of a human as it roared. Two rows of wickedly pointed teeth were revealed before it snapped its mouth shut with a loud clap. The thing looked like two bears stacked on top of each other and melted together. Four legs propelled it forward, another four set halfway up its mottled furry skin to reach towards the human before it. It had a single bear's head at the front of it, though its head was stretched abnormally large and squat.
The first of the men turned, lifting their spears as they moved and throwing. Two went wide, one glanced off, another struck the creature in the arm and stuck there. The creature howled in pain and swatted angrily at the closest of the men, sending him flying in a spray of blood. The other men turned and started to circle the creature. Those who had already cast their spears drew swords. One stopped to check on the felled man, moving on as soon as it was evident he was dead.
There were seven of them now versus the bear creature. They were unmatched and in short time, the creature would slaughter them.
Merlin dropped his shield, letting the goods drop into a loose pile not far from him. He chanted as the second volley of spears were launched. Their tips glowed blue and they fell true, burying deep in the creature's skin. Blue fire erupted around each shaft, growing until it consumed the creature. It reared back on its hind legs and howled for several long minutes before falling over, dead.
He turned sharply as one of the men separated from his fellows to approach Merlin at a run, arms open wide in greeting. Shock kept Merlin in place as recognition hit him.
Lancelot's arms came around him and held Merlin tight for several long minutes. Lancelot was speaking, saying something in greeting but the words fell on deaf ears. After a while, Lancelot pulled away to hold Merlin at arms length, obviously studying the changes in Merlin's features. He seemed just as shocked as Merlin was to run into someone familiar.
"Merlin, your arrival is a blessing!" Merlin was pulled into another impromptu hug before he had a chance to order his thoughts enough to reply.
"Hi," he said slowly. His voice sounded strange to his ears, slightly gravelly with disuse.
"I can't believe you're still alive. And... Arthur?"
Merlin glanced at the men who'd been travelling with Lancelot. They had noticed the golden glow in Merlin's eyes by now, and their expressions ranged from curiosity to distrust.
"He's alive." He held up a finger to forestall further questions while he concentrated. He formed the shields in a wide dome around them. They appeared with an audible pop, a blue shimmer delimitating their exact end. "That will keep us hidden from anything else that's lurking."
Lancelot clapped him heartily on the shoulder. "Amazing. I can't believe our fortune in finding you."
"Indeed. It's good to see you again, old friend."
"Come." Lancelot gestured towards the keep. "Meet the others and tell us what you've seen."
The men watched curiously as Merlin walked over to the creature's carcass. The spears pulled themselves free, broken shafts straightening, and then flew back to land at their owner's feet. A section of skin peeled back, revealing the meat beneath. He concentrated and a small chunk of meat floated up to his hand. Closing his eyes, he tested it. The meat was dropped with a curse seconds later.
"Poisoned," he explained to the men watching him.
With a wave of his hand the supplies he'd already foraged lifted themselves and waited at the ready.
"Marvelous," Lancelot beamed at him. He clapped Merlin once more on the shoulder as they fell in line and started towards the keep.
Every so often one of the men would glance back at the floating sacks behind them, the few remaining expressions of distrust slowly shifting to wonder as Lancelot reminisced aloud of their days in Camelot.
Excited whispers spread through the hall as Lancelot led Merlin into the keep dungeons. The prison cells stood open, turned into makeshift sleeping quarters for a huddled mass of survivors. They took in his eyes with startled gasps that turned into hushed conversations and wary stares. He had a feeling that Lancelot's arm around his shoulders was the only thing that kept some of them from bolting like startled rabbits.
"Everyone," Lancelot addressed the motley group with a wide grin on his face, "this is Merlin. He's from Camelot. Prince Arthur's friend, and mine as well. He saved our lives today, has saved mine a few times before, and, best of all, he's brought us food!"
At the mention of food, they surged forward. Lancelot's men parceled out bits from three of the sacks, handing over apples and carrots and dried jerky like it was Holy Communion. These people were starved. Merlin had to wonder what kind of scraps they'd been living off of so far. What little of the keep's stores that had survived the cataclysm must be long depleted by now, or close to it. Merlin counted a good twenty mouths to feed, plus Lancelot's men.
They settled into a rough circle with people lining the edges of the cells while Merlin and Lancelot took seats on the stairs. There were two guards down here, one on each end of the hall at the iron doors, and another seven scattered strategically through the upper halls of the keep as sentries. Lancelot was obviously the commander of this group. It was fitting. He had the air of command about him. Had he been allowed a place in the knights, he likely would have been Arthur's equal.
"Tell us," Lancelot asked once all were settled and food was dispersed, "what news do you have of Camelot? How many are left there?"
Merlin glanced down at the apple in his hands, the only food he'd accepted out of the stores. He wasn't sure whether what he could tell them would be considered good news or bad. Still, all that was left was the truth. Lies would keep no one alive.
"In Camelot, none. The castle was the center of Nimueh's attack. It's destroyed and overrun."
So they hadn't heard. "A sorceress. One with a grudge against King Uther since the day of Arthur's birth, who vowed to destroy Camelot and all that Uther loved."
Lancelot frowned. "Given Uther's position on sorcery, that doesn't really narrow it down."
Merlin should have smiled at it, but he didn't have humor enough left in him to honor the joke. "I know. She wasn't alone. There were more with her when she stormed the castle. They killed half the guard on their way in, more as they tried to break their circle. They took over the throne room and started chanting."
The memory of that day flooded back to him and Merlin nearly choked once more with the fumes their magic let out. He coughed once to clear his throat. Someone passed him a waterskin and he drank sparingly. He only needed a little. Best to save the rest for others. There were others who needed it more.
"They used old magic. Dark magic, the likes of which I'd never seen. The Old Ways, the true magic, this," he gestured to his glowing eyes, "that comes from the earth. It's part of nature. What they used was deeper than that. It came from the stars, from the darkness between them. They brought it to the earth and opened... opened a rift to someplace unseen, a dark and evil place, and they called forth monsters from it. But that wasn't all. The magic they used, the magic they brought through the rift changed them, changed everything. It clouded the sky red, it polluted the land until naught can grow. In their thirst for vengeance against King Uther, they not only destroyed Camelot, but the rest of the world with it."
Silence met his words. He watched them process it, waited for comprehension to dawn on their faces, followed swiftly by horror.
One woman spoke what they were all thinking, her voice trembling. "The rest..."
Merlin said nothing. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
Lancelot looked like he'd been punched in the gut. He turned to Merlin. "You mean there's nothing? Nothing out there? No hope? But... but you said Arthur was still alive."
Merlin nodded. "He is. About three dozen managed to make it out of the castle. They were attacked... Eighteen remain. They made it to the mountains. I... with my shields, I can hide things, people. You can't see or smell or hear anything under them, so the monsters couldn't find them. There are tunnels in the mountains. Deep tunnels that don't connect except by one entrance. They're hiding there." He gestured at the sacks of food. "That's what this is for. For them. The entrance has a permanent set of shields on it. It'll stay up even if..." I die. "Even if something happens to me."
He could see more questions burning in Lancelot's mind but he kept them to himself.
"Could you take us there?"
All eyes in the hall turned to the little girl who spoke. She seemed to be all of twelve at best, with long curly hair that was matted with mud. Her dress was ragged and she had a stuffed rabbit hugged to her chest.
"Can we go there? To where it's safe?"
Merlin blinked. He counted through their number once more. The shields should be able to stretch wide enough.
The reaction was instantaneous. Merlin started as the hall broke into loud, boisterous cheers. Quickly, he stretched his shields to circle the dungeon, cutting off the sound from any outside listeners. He vehemently hoped there wasn't anything lurking in earshot but their celebration dragged on without any interruption from the sentries.
"You don't seem so happy about that," Lancelot said in a whisper low enough that only he could hear.
He answered in kind. "I'm a bit unused to anyone being happy about travelling out there, especially with a wizard."
Lancelot gave him a once-over. "Is that why Arthur's not with you?"
Merlin flushed at the censure in Lancelot's voice and hastily jumped to defend Arthur. "He has his people to watch over. He's needed where he is."
"But not you?" Lancelot pressed. "I imagine they'd do quite well with a wizard at their side."
He couldn't look at Lancelot. The would-be-knight knew him too well. It felt like all of Merlin's emotions were plain across his face, as bare as the stone walls surrounding them.
"I... I'm best served out here. I can walk unheeded, gather supplies. I'm keeping them alive with what I scavenge."
"Arthur's turned out just like his dad, hasn't he? He carries the same prejudices as his father."
"No!" People were starting to notice their argument. He dropped his voice back down to a whisper. "No, it's not like that. Sorcerers destroyed his home. They destroyed everything. I can't blame him, or anyone, from hating what I am."
Lancelot gripped him tightly by the arm and turned Merlin to face him. "And what are you, Merlin? I'll tell you. You're their bloody savior."
He pulled free of Lancelot's grasp and stood, backing up the stone steps.
"Not everyone sees it the way you do, Lancelot."
Before Lancelot could say anything, he turned and ran up the stairs, vanishing under a second set of shields as soon as he was out of sight.
The view from the top of the keep would have been impressive in pre-cataclysm days. There was still a beauty to it, but it was marred by the red sky and the withered, dying land below. In the distance an animal screeched. He couldn't tell if it was hunting or dying. It didn't matter.
He was, perhaps, being a bit unfair to Lancelot. No doubt, he'd be looking for Merlin. That thought alone was enough to make Merlin feel guilty under normal circumstances. Now, it was just plain dangerous. He didn't trust this broken keep. Who knew what slept in the abandoned halls, or what had crawled in while they'd been celebrating.
Footsteps pounding up the stairwell signaled that he had little to worry about, at least for Lancelot's sake. He stretched his shields to cover the top of the tower and waited until Lancelot reached the doorway before speaking. Magic had made his senses sharper. He didn't need to turn to tell where Lancelot was. He kept his back to the man, unsure whether he was ready to face whatever emotion had brought Lancelot chasing after him.
"You should be more careful. If you make too much noise, you'll attract the monsters' attention."
"Sorry." Lancelot didn't sound it, not in the least bit. "I had other things on my mind."
Merlin bit back the lecture that sprung to his lips. Telling Lancelot to be cautious was about as useful as telling the rain to stop falling. His brow furrowed as a strange thought crossed his mind. How long had it been since he'd last seen the rain? How long since there'd been any weather really, anything besides the still air and thick red cloud cover?
Lancelot's footsteps thudded loudly towards him and all he could think about was how much noise he was making that would attract the monsters, had Merlin not been here to shield him.
"You don't have to come with me, you know," Merlin said as Lancelot reached the halfway point across the tower roof. "I can make the keep safe for you and your group. I can protect you like I protect the mountains."
"You can't," Lancelot said, and Merlin knew it to be the truth. "The monsters know we're here. More and more appear in the forests every day. They're hunting us, following our trail back here, and it's not long until we'll be overrun. I would have led everyone out of here by now, but it would have been suicide. We need your help Merlin, and don't pretend for a minute that you're the kind of man who'd walk away from that."
"I'm not," he agreed.
Lancelot stopped less than a foot behind him. He could feel the other man's warmth against his back like a palatable force. As much as he tried to deny it, he'd missed this, this closeness. It'd been months since he'd been this close to another human being. But, as comforting as Lancelot's presence was, Merlin couldn't help but wish it was another standing behind him. If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend. He didn't. He'd given up on delusions of salvation long ago.
"What's wrong with you, Merlin?"
He turned then to stare at Lancelot curiously. "What do you mean? I'm fine."
Lancelot frowned at him, his eyes dark and concerned. "You're not fine, Merlin. Have you looked at yourself recently?"
"I'm afraid mirrors are a bit hard to come by these days."
The joke did nothing to alleviate the tension between them.
Lancelot shifted closer and pressed Merlin's robe to his sides, his hands resting just above Merlin's hips. The robe went in a lot more than it used to. All his clothes seemed larger these days.
"You're skin and bones, Merlin. Pale, too. All this time taking care of the people that threw you out, did you even bother to try and take care of yourself too?"
He pushed Lancelot's hands away and kept his eyes averted. It wasn't that bad. Maybe he forgot a meal or two, but that just meant the survivors from Camelot had a little more food for themselves, a little more to keep them going until Merlin found something better for them. He felt fine. He wasn't tired, magic saw to that. It filled his energy where his body failed, shoring up his reserves for when he really needed them. He'd lost weight, sure, but he was constantly walking. Obviously it was just a side effect of it. He'd gained muscle too, though that did little to fill him out.
"I'm fine," he protested. "Really. I'm not sick, and I'm not neglecting myself." Hesitantly, he looked up at Lancelot. He was getting tired. It must be night now, though there was no discernable difference in the sky to mark the transition. "Would it make you feel better if we went back inside and I proved it? I'll eat another apple and we'll both get some sleep."
Lancelot didn't seem fully convinced, but he nodded anyways. "Come morning, we'll set out for the mountains."
It was strange travelling with someone, let alone several someones. At least they didn't seem too disconcerted by the sacks of food that floated after them, and they all had the sense enough to understand not to cross the shimmery blue line that marked the edge of the shield. It was slower going that Merlin was used to. No one complained. They barely made a sound, as if they didn't trust the shields to protect them. Half the time, Merlin didn't either. They were constantly on guard, waiting for something to leap out of the brush after them. A few times they saw creatures in the distance, but nothing came close enough to bother them.
They made it almost all the way to the mountains without incident, just three days shy and close to a quarter of the provisions gone. Amelia, the small little girl with the bunny toy, dropped her toy and didn't notice until the group had moved a short ways past it. Merlin was in front, leading the way, so he didn't see the girl running backwards. He felt it though, when she passed through the rear shields. Panic filled him, but he told himself it wasn't that bad. That thought lasted barely a minute until a creature roared nearby.
He ran backwards, Lancelot just a pace behind him and already drawing his sword. Amelia picked up her bunny and screamed as a large lizard jumped out of the brush to land between her and the group. It reached for her. Merlin was faster. He passed through the rear shields, not wasting the time to cover himself before he sent a bolt of pure blue fire straight at the creature. It roared in pain and turned, sweeping out with claws and tail. The tail missed him, the claws didn't.
Merlin caught a brief glimpse of Lancelot and his men attacking the creature before he smacked hard into the trunk of a tree. His head hit the wood and he fell. He felt his shields slipping and strengthened them. He heard Lancelot fighting and enchanted their weapons. Bits of sound and smells and sight drifted in through the black haze that surrounded him, coming in disjointed bursts. People were yelling, he was being lifted, set vertical. He was moving to the sounds of fierce whispers. Every time the shields started to shift, he pushed more energy at them, tied them to him until it didn't matter if he was awake or sleeping, they'd still hold.
Vaguely, he was aware of pain and blood and a bone-deep tiredness that pushed him down into the darkness. Sometimes he thought it was the same darkness the creatures came from, could feel the things left behind reach for him with their talons and tentacles, and he screamed, struggling to claw his way up and out of it until he woke to the feeling to cloth beneath his cheek and strong arms around him. Sometimes he dreamed of the way things were before, when Arthur had shared smiles at him and they'd teased one another. There'd been a secret game between them, one neither of them ever spoke of, but was understood in the brush of fingers as Merlin handed Arthur his goblet, in the way Arthur's eyes would follow him as he left the room, or the way they were always, always there to save the other.
The dreams went on and on, and a part of him knew they weren't right or natural. He needed to wake up. A part of his body understood that and as he felt his shields merge with permanent ones, he let them slip away and turned his magic to unraveling the strange poison that filled his veins.
"Get out of the way."
Arthur froze at the familiar voice echoing down the tunnels towards them. The pounding of feet sounded from above, growing closer and closer, and before Arthur had time to cross the large cavern towards them, Lancelot appeared, him and another man carrying a liter between them. On that liter was a man so pale and drawn that it took Arthur a moment to recognize him as Merlin.
"I need a bed," Lancelot shouted.
People scurried to comply but Arthur answered first. "Over here."
He directed them to Arthur's own bed, helped as they shifted Merlin from the liter to the small straw pallet on the floor. Merlin felt too light.
"We were attacked," Lancelot supplied. He was pulling at Merlin's shirt, unwinding the bloodied fabric beneath them. His gaze turned up to Arthur. "I need fresh bandages. Clean water and herbs if you have them. We didn't."
People were bringing them forward almost before Lancelot had even asked. Others shifted closer to help where they could, holding Merlin up while Lancelot and Arthur peeled away the bloodstained shirt and bandages he wore, taking away the water when it turned red with the blood they'd washed away and bringing more along with clean cloth. Maria was their best medic, and she coated the four long gashes on Merlin's chest with a pungent green salve that smelled strong enough to make both him and Lancelot gag.
When they settled Merlin back against the thin sheet, he seemed to be resting at least a little bit easier. They both stood quietly. A hush had fallen over the cave, a respectful silence for the ill wizard that slept amongst them.
The punch came with no warning. Arthur bit back a curse and grabbed Lancelot by the front of his shirt, dragging him to the lower tunnels before he dared say anything.
"What the hell's your problem?"
"You shouldn't have left him out there alone."
Arthur's anger died, snuffed like a candle's flame in a gale. His gaze fell to the floor and stayed fixed there.
"You owe him your lives! You'd be dead, we'd all be dead if it wasn't for him."
"I know." Guilt pooled in Arthur's stomach. It wasn't the first time it'd done so.
"He nearly died, protecting us. He would die, if it meant we'd all be saved. All that magic, all that travelling, looking for food," Lancelot spit the word out like it was a curse, "it's killing him. He's exhausting himself, all for you."
Lancelot shoved Arthur in the shoulder, obviously looking for a fight. Arthur offered no resistance. He deserved it, after what he'd done to Merlin. If he lost Merlin....
"How can you still hate him after all that he's done for you?"
Arthur looked up then, meeting Lancelot's gaze with a look that drove the other man back a step. "I don't. I never hated him. Ever."
Something inside Lancelot softened. "Then why send him out there alone?"
"I don't know," Arthur answered honestly. "I was mad at first. Nim-Nimueh had destroyed my home, our home. We were all injured, all grieving for the dead. My father... Morgana... Gwen... Gaius... I was mad at Merlin because he never trusted me enough to tell me what he was. I thought we were... friends." He'd hoped they were more than that.
"Why didn't you let him back in?"
Arthur looked Lancelot straight in the eye. "He never gave me the chance."
Merlin dreamed of people, so many people, all around him, full of life. He dreamed of water, of rivers cut through rock and pools, an underground lake. He dreamed of earth and stone and trees, of sunlight and fresh air. In his dreams there was a song. It was an old song. He didn't know the words but they were familiar, as was the tune. He started humming it, and felt the earth shift closer to match his dream. Skin knit, drawing together until he was whole again.
It was quiet in the cave when he woke. Night time. They were asleep. He could feel them, like dim stars all around him. Stretching his awareness, he felt more. Two guards at the entrance, more at the branches that went deeper into the mountain.
He moved slowly at first, fingers reaching up to touch the bandages on his chest. They were fresh, clean. He smelled salve and healing herbs. Carefully, Merlin sat up. His chest felt strangely fine. His shirt had been set aside. As he unwound the bandages, he was only mildly surprised to find his chest unblemished, as if he'd never been hurt.
"Well, that's useful," Merlin remarked softly.
As he set the wad of bandages aside, he finally noticed who was sleeping beside him. Arthur looked peaceful in his sleep. He had aged visibly since the cataclysm, they all had, but it didn't look bad on him. If anything it made him look more regal, more like the king he would have been had his country remained whole. Soft snoring on his other side alerted him to Lancelot's presence. About a half dozen of Arthur's knights formed a loose circle around them, intermixed with some of Lancelot's own men. They were keeping guard, though Merlin wasn't quite sure whether it was to protect him or keep him from leaving.
He made no sound as he stood. Pulling his shirt on, he left it hang open, exposing the front of his bare chest. Merlin stared down at himself and tried to pinch the skin of his stomach. There was no fat left to get a hold of, whereas months ago he'd been larger, not quite pudgy but at least filled out a bit more than he was now. Maybe Lancelot was right, he had lost weight.
Picking his way around the sleeping bodies, Merlin made his way towards the lower tunnels. He'd explored the layout of the caves before Arthur and the survivors from Camelot had moved in, but he'd never physically been down here. He'd been so concerned with making sure there was no way monsters could get in that he'd missed a rather obvious connection. The tunnel from the sleeping area curved down at a distinct slope, curving out and around and back in on itself, much like a spiral staircase though a rather broad one. At the bottom, he came to a wall. There was a crack in the wall and through it Merlin could smell fresh air.
Laying his hands flat on the wall, Merlin closed his eyes and pushed with his magic. The crack widened, splitting the wall as the rock peeled away into the tunnel walls. Cool air ghosted over Merlin and brought with it the smell of water. It was dark, so Merlin called forth a ball of light, raising it high overhead and brightening it until it lit the whole cavern.
A wide expanse of rocky beach sloped down into an underground lake. The chamber was at least five stories high, possibly larger. Stone jutted down from the top of the cavern wall high overhead, with one massive stone tooth right in the center. Merlin attached his light to that stone and concentrated for a moment to keep it there permanently. He let his hand trail along the cave wall as he circled the room, feeling for any more cracks like the one that had led him here or open tunnels. There were two along the far wall, one under the surface of the lake where the water ran away to hidden rivers underground and another on the surface, tall enough for a man to pass through. The latter he sealed off with a word, blocking it until he had time to explore. The former he barred with gates of thick stone, leaving space enough for water to get out but ensuring that nothing else could, and making sure that nothing could get in.
He circled back around to the entrance of the cavern and approached the pool. Shifting to his knees, he touched the water. It was pure, clean. Cupping his hands together he brought the water to his mouth and drank heavily. The water tasted perfect. There was a small stream that ran through one of the upper caves, enough to get drinking water, but this was so much better. They could bathe down here, do laundry, swim.
"There you are."
Water splashed back into the pool as Merlin turned in surprise. He'd been too lost in the magic, in examining what he'd found to sense or hear Arthur's approach. The former prince stood in the entranceway, bent double as he caught his breath.
"Arthur." He slowly stood. Merlin wasn't entirely sure why he was here, but he had a strong feeling Lancelot had something to do with it. He could easily picture Lancelot bullying Arthur or anyone that got in his way into letting the refugees bring Merlin in with them. Arthur wouldn't have refused them asylum. That didn't tell him whether Arthur considered his presence a good thing or merely a necessary evil until he'd healed enough to go back out.
Arthur approached. He looked like he'd been running, though Merlin couldn't guess why. "I thought you'd left again."
Merlin's jaw dropped open. There'd been a pleading quality to Arthur's voice, making it almost humble and nothing like the imperious prince he used to know. He shut his mouth with a snap. "No, I haven't. I... I can, though... if you need."
"I don't need. Stay." Arthur closed the distance between them in four quick strides. For a second, he thought Arthur was going to hit him and braced himself for the impact, but then strong arms enveloped him, holding him tight. It took Merlin's brain a few seconds to catch up with what was happening. Arthur... Arthur was hugging him and not just a quick friendly hug. Arthur was holding him, like you would an old friend or lover, and kept holding him, not letting go even as seconds shifted into minutes. It felt nice, to be held like this. Strange, but nice. Comforting.
He let his head fall to Arthur's shoulder. Often, he'd dreamed of doing something like this again, of being this close to Arthur once more. This was not the first time Arthur had held him, but it was the first since the cataclysm. He felt he should be saying something but the words escaped him. Tentatively, he raised his arms to clutch at Arthur's sides, as much to deepen the closeness between them as to convince himself that Arthur really was here with him.
"I'm sorry," Arthur whispered into his hair. Hands shifted against his back, stroking lightly. "I'm so very sorry. I shouldn't have left you out there. I shouldn't have let you go."
Merlin tensed. Was Arthur apologizing? Arthur never apologized, not like this. He tried to pull back but Arthur stopped him. "What? Arthur, let me..." He cut himself off as Arthur's arms tightened around him, not hard enough to hurt but enough to keep him from moving. "Arthur, it wasn't your fault. It was as much my choice as anything."
Lips pressed against Merlin's neck, warm and wet just above the spot where his shoulder and neck joined. His mind was still reeling with Arthur's words, but his body was obviously far ahead of him. He relaxed into Arthur's hold, limbs melting back into a loose and comfortable embrace.
"Don't leave again," Arthur murmured against his skin, punctuation his words with more soft kisses up and down the expanse of Merlin's exposed neck. "Please. You've done enough. Stay here. I'm sorry. Stay."
His mind felt sluggish, disbelieving. This couldn't be happening because it wasn't the way things were between them. There'd been hints, before. Brief touches and quick embraces, fingers brushing when he handed Arthur his goblet, lingering hands when he helped Arthur dress or Arthur steadied him after one of the many times he tripped over his own two feet. But through all that there'd been nothing like this, nothing this deep, this real. It was too much and not enough at the same time. All this time, all these long month, he'd dreamed of this, dreamed of Arthur. Even before, he'd thought about what it would be like if either of them actually got up enough courage to say something, to make things firm and real between them. That was before the cataclysm, before Arthur had learned of his lies, before he'd been outcaste.
To have it all forgiven, just like that... It was a miracle too happy to be true. Yet here he was. He couldn't deny the reality of it, couldn't deny the obvious proof of Arthur's feelings. If ever Christmas came again, this was it, right here in Arthur's arms.
By the gods, he'd missed Arthur.
"Why?" His throat felt choked but he got the word out.
Gentle hands lifted his face up until he and Arthur were eye-to-eye. "Because all this time I've loved you, you fool. You could have come back any time, any time at all and we would have welcomed you. We were waiting for you, you daft, bloody idiot. How in the world do you think I could ever hate you?"
The kiss took away any response he could even try to make. Words weren't necessary when they had tongues and hands to speak for them. Their lips met and it was like something ignited. Suddenly he needed Arthur, needed him so desperately it hurt. This was all those sleepless nights in the wilderness, all the fear and the longing, all the heart-break and regretful sighs, all taking their vengeance at once.
His arms went around Arthur's shoulders, hands clutching tight to the fabric of his shirt. Arthur's hands were on his hips, tight, possessive against his bare skin. They moved backwards as their mouths clashed and he was sure that it was only because of Arthur's careful hold that he didn't stumble and fall. Soft gasps and wet moans snuck out each time they broke away for air, before their lips came together again hungrily, as if they were each trying to devour the other through passion alone. Merlin's back hit the cave wall and the stones flattened behind him to form a smooth surface. He lifted his legs, circling them around Arthur's waist and Arthur helped him, his hands slipping low to hoist Merlin off his feet.
Firm evidence of Arthur's desire pressed against him and Merlin moaned into the kiss. Gods, he wanted a bed and he wanted it now. Anything horizontal would do, though he'd prefer something softer than stone. Privacy would be nice but he had a feeling he was going to have to give up on that. Hard to find a place to be alone together in a cave system with a hundred odd people. Maybe he could adapt his shields to something more solid.
Stone shift against his back once more, moving like a living thing, though this time it went deeper than just the surface stones. Arthur's hips were moving against his in a delicious rhythm, which made it hard to concentrate on anything other than the man pressed against him. The pressure between his hips only reminded him how much more he wanted. Arthur's lips moved down Merlin's neck and over his shoulder as Arthur pushed Merlin's shirt off to hang around his elbows, leaving Merlin's mouth free to make the most lurid and obscene noises. Someone was going to hear them. There was no way Merlin could keep quiet through all of this.
There was something different with the cave wall. One hand disengaged from around Arthur's neck to feel at the stone behind him, but it wasn't stone at all, not anymore. His fingers found wood, smooth planks of some type of thick wood, and a metal knob. He turned the knob and the door swung open. Suddenly there was nothing supporting Merlin besides Arthur's hands. They fell backwards.
Merlin landed on the mattress, gasping as Arthur fell on top of him. Instantly he was aware of space, a large open space around them. The room seemed to be getting bigger around them with each passing second, the door moving further away. Bedposts appeared, and a bed frame, wooden. There was a small table next to the bed with a simple looking jar on top of it. A canopy appeared overhead and suddenly it all made sense. This wasn't just any room, it was Arthur's. All around them, Arthur's room was appearing, minus a few details but the basics were all there. In the distance, he thought he heard the lock in the door clicking home.
"Bloody hell." Arthur, it seemed, had finally noticed what was going on. He pulled away, though not far and gazed around in mute wonderment before staring down at Merlin. "You did this?"
He couldn't help feeling a bit embarrassed. "Not on purpose..." As if making out with Arthur wasn't good enough, his mind had helpfully taken the fantasy further and made one of his favorite dreams real – making out in Arthur's bed.
As if Merlin hadn't had enough heart-attacks that day, Arthur actually meant it. He was smiling. Merlin had used magic - big, blatant magic - right in front of him, and he was smiling.
"Do you have any other tricks up your sleeves?" Arthur leered down at him.
Merlin smacked him with a handy pillow. As if he weren't mortified enough, the curtains drew back on their own, revealing the pot of salve on the table next to them.
"I didn't do that," he protested, feeling his face flame up.
"Of course not," Arthur agreed, though the grin on his face suggested otherwise.
Arthur captured his lips before Merlin could attempt further protestations of his innocence. Merlin whole-heartedly approved. Hands slipped beneath clothing, exploring lightly at first and then more daring as Arthur lifted Merlin enough to finish getting his shirt off. Merlin returned the favor, shivering with excitement as he felt skin beneath his hands, wide, muscled expanses of skin. He'd seen Arthur bare-chested before, but this was an entirely new experience. Now he was free to touch and taste. He let his hands and lips wander as he slid down Arthur's chest, laving kisses against the exposed skin.
"Pants, off," Arthur ordered, sounding more like his old self. Merlin was all too happy to comply.
Arthur teased him as he slipped Merlin's pants off. His fingers slid under the fabric to grab at his ass and lifting. They then moved down and in to brush teasingly against his entrance, pressing against it just once before moving back up to slowly slide the fabric down his legs. He took no such delicacy disrobing Arthur, instead shoving the fabric down as far as his hands would go and then using his feet to get it and his own pants completely off.
"Impatient?" Arthur teased him.
"You have no idea." Burying one hand in Arthur's hair, he pulled until Arthur's mouth was level with his once more and expressed his urgency with a wet and lurid kiss.
When Arthur settled once more between his legs, he felt like he was going to explode. Their erections met, brushing tantalizingly against each other. Merlin arched against the mattress, his chest pressing against Arthur's own as he vocalized his approval in a panting series of moans. Then, a slick finger pressed against his entrance and he was nearly undone.
"Oh, gods, please," he begged, shifting his hips wider to give Arthur more room.
"Anything you say."
The finger pressed in, burning a delicious trail up the base of Merlin's spine as Arthur buried his finger all the way to the knuckle. He needed more. "Please, Arthur, don't be gentle. I need you."
This was not Merlin's first time with a man, but it was his first time in a long while. Still, he knew ways to force his body to relax into the pain and force it away. The first two fingers burned, the next not so much, and he was ready when Arthur finally pushed his way inside. It felt like he'd been waiting centuries for this. His shout of pleasure seemed to rock the very foundation of the mountain.
"Yes. Please, Arthur. Give me more. Please. Gods, please."
Arthur kissed his way along Merlin's collarbone with a low groan. "Keep talking like that, Merlin." He bit down on Merlin's shoulder, not hard enough to break skin but enough that Merlin would have a bruise there – thankfully low enough to be hidden by clothing – a mark, of what they'd done. Merlin shouted and twisted one hand in Arthur's hair to hold him there for a brief moment longer. "I love the way you sound."
"Please," he begged, over and over again because that's all he had thought left to say. Just please and Arthur's name and a litany of nonsensical babble that consisted mostly of the words 'more', and 'yes', and 'harder'.
Arthur gave him what he wanted. Merlin's hips lifted off the bed as Arthur thrust into him, gentle at first and them more forceful as Merlin encouraged him into it. His lips seemed to be everywhere, first fucking Merlin's mouth with his tongue and then travelling down his chest in wet, open-mouthed kisses, then moving on to mark Merlin on the neck and arms and shoulders. It was everything he'd ever wanted. Arthur was moving inside of him, their bodies slipping against each other with glorious friction and it was all Merlin could do to hold on and enjoy the ride.
Fireworks were going off in Merlin's head and he knew that somewhere his magic was doing something it shouldn't. If he concentrated, which was nigh impossible to do in the current situation, he might have been able to figure out what exactly was going on, but all of his concentration was focused on Arthur. He clutched at Arthur's back and cried out as climax overtook him. Merlin was quite certain the earth moved with him as he trembled beneath Arthur. For a brief moment, his vision went white and the world faded. Then the moment was gone and he snapped back to his body in time for Arthur to come inside of him, seed spilled over the course of several sharp jerks that made Merlin gasp as they played against over-sensitized nerves.
He fell asleep to soft covers, a plush mattress, and Arthur's arms tight around him.
Arthur's voice woke him partially from his slumber. He groaned and pulled the covers over his head, burying his face in the soft down pillow.
"Merlin, you have to come see this."
That insistent voice was joined by insistent hands that pulled the covers away and shook him away. He swatted at them. He'd been so comfortable. It'd been ages since he'd slept that well.
Blearily, he rolled over and opened an eye. "What is it, Arthur?"
Arthur just beamed at him. His eyes trailed lower down Merlin's body with obvious interest, causing Merlin to flush and sit up. Arthur was already fully dressed, though not in the same clothes he'd been wearing yesterday. No telling how long he'd been away, or even how late Merlin had slept.
"Come outside and see."
A shirt and breeches landed in Merlin's lap. They looked new, and much like what he'd used to wear in Camelot. "Where did..."
Arthur pointed to a wardrobe off to the side of the room. Its doors stood open, revealing a mixture of clothing in both his and Arthur's customary styles. Now that he was more awake he finally got a good look around the room. It really was just like Arthur's though there were no windows, and the door was in the wrong place. But, there was a fireplace with a fire in it, heating the room to a pleasant temperature. Somehow the smoke was escaping, something he'd have to investigate further. There was a big wooden table at the side of the room with two benches, and soft-looking rugs covering the floor.
"Did I do all this?" He marveled. He couldn't remember doing this, purposely. His mind must have filled in a few bits while they'd been... while he and Arthur... He blushed just thinking about it.
Arthur was still watching him with that appreciative, somewhat smug look on his face, which only made Merlin blush more. He wasn't used to being leered at, or for giving anyone much cause to leer at him. Quickly he pulled on his clothing, reveling slightly in the soreness in his lower back, proof of what they'd done.
Arthur led him out of the room by his hand and Merlin gasped. Sunlight hit him, radiating from that large pillar in the center of the room like it was a real sun. The barren slope had turned to earth. There was grass beneath his bare feet. Grass and trees and flowers. The entire wall around Arthur's room – their room – was covered in flowering vines. The lake had been sectioned off at the far end, split into several pools. A line of hedges screened three – for privacy, perhaps as bathing pools – while steam wafted from one larger one.
"I did this?"
It seemed unreal. He hadn't realized his magic could do something on this scale, let alone without him even knowing he was doing it.
"We can plant food down here," Arthur said, his voice flushed with hope. "We can survive without ever needing to go to the surface again."
His words had the ring of truth to them. They could expand from here. With his magic, he could hollow out more rooms. It seemed simple to him now that he'd already done it once. They could make a whole city for themselves here, underground.
A thought niggled at him. He tugged on Arthur's arm, bringing his jubilation to a momentary halt. "But what if there's more survivors out there? Like Lancelot's group." He'd have to go back out there. He'd have to leave all this, leave Arthur behind. It was gorgeous, glorious. It was all he'd ever wanted, but he couldn't sit here, in happiness, when there was the possibility that somewhere out there, there might be others still alive and in danger.
Arthur watched him silently for a long moment before he seemed to come to a decision. "With your magic, could you look for them from here? Is there a way to search for them with magic? Scrying? Then, once you knew where they were, we could go directly to them, make things faster since we'd know exactly where to look?"
He wasn't quite sure he was hearing right. "W-we?"
"Of course." Arthur took both of Merlin's hands in his own and pulled him closer, dropping a chaste kiss on Merlin's brow. "I'm not letting you go out there alone again. All this time, I should have been protecting you, but instead I stayed here, safe, while you wasted away."
He flushed and stammered. "I-I'm not..."
Arthur's hands went to Merlin's waist and slipped underneath the loose ends of Merlin's shirt. His fingers shifted along the bare skin of Merlin's hips, trailing over meager flesh and bone. "I'm not complaining, but you seem to have gotten even bonier since we last parted, a feat which I would once have thought nigh impossible."
"What is with you people," Merlin grumbled, though he didn't pull away. His skin felt warmer where Arthur touched. "I'm not exactly starving myself or pining away. Lancelot said the same thing, you know."
"Well, we'll just have to plump you up. Put a bit more meat on your bones and all that... Or just my meat in your bones."
The way Arthur sized him up after that made Merlin nearly fall over laughing. He collapsed against Arthur's chest, gasping for breath. "I can't believe you said that."
Lips pressed against the top of his head. "It was quite hard." Arthur's chest vibrated beneath Merlin's cheek, rumbling with his words. "I could hardly keep a straight face."
His hand shifted lower down Merlin's back to gently press against his ass.
"Say you'll stay."
Really, there was only one answer he could give. "I will."
"And can you do it? Use magic to search for any other survivors."
He'd created trees and flowers and a bed out of rock. He'd think of something. "I can. Maybe there's a faster way to bring them here."
Not for the first time, he wished he still had his old book of spells, but that had been trapped with Gaius in the ruins of Camelot.
"We'll figure something out," he promised.
"Good." Arthur kissed him and Merlin had a sense that things really would work out. "Now, let's go show the others."
A wide grin stretched across Merlin's face. Together, they'd be alright.