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"Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair!" Arthur yelled, wincing at how loud he sounded in the dark. He shifted from foot to foot, impatient, and squinted up at the tower window. The moon was too waned to see by, but somewhere above him a shutter slammed open.
"Erm...?" came a not-particularly-feminine voice. "Uh, hello?"
"Bloody hell," Arthur muttered. He pulled the crumpled map out of his shirtfront and turned it around and around in his hands, but all he could make out was the giant black blob that represented the forest. He'd better not be at the wrong tower, or, god forbid, have taken the wrong bloody map entirely.
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel? Let down your hair?" he tried again.
There was a long pause from above, then a throat cleared and the voice said, "You're a bit late for Rapunzel, my friend. She's long gone."
"Oh," Arthur replied. "She's been rescued, then?"
Another long pause. "...sort of? She didn't really, um, get rescued, as such, but she's -- well, she's not here anymore. Basically."
"Basically?" Arthur said, with as much sarcasm as he could infuse into one word.
"Yes," the voice replied, a little testily. "Basically."
"I see," Arthur said, even though he didn't. "Well. Sorry to have disturbed you. I'll be on my way, then."
"Oh, you're going already?" the voice asked, sounding a bit forlorn. "You don't want to stay for dinner? Rest a bit, maybe? I could put on some tea, and I think I still have some rolls here, they're probably a bit stale though..."
The voice became quieter as the speaker moved away from the window. Truth be told, Arthur would love to sit by a fire and eat a warm meal. Two weeks in the saddle, with only lumpy meal and half-molded cheese left in his bag, and he longs for the comforts of home, no matter how small.
A ruckus of banging floated down from the window, like cupboards being hastily opened and shut. The voice was still talking, but Arthur couldn't make out the words until it came back to the window. "...not much, but edible!" the voice said, loud again. "And I have three potatoes!"
Something fell from above and landed in the bushes near Arthur's feet.
"Two potatoes," the voice corrected, and laughed awkwardly.
Okay, so a fulfilling meal was not likely to happen, but surely it would be warmer inside than back at camp with an ungrated fire and a roof of only branches and stars? At the very least he could spend a meal in better company than his horse.
"Very well, then," Arthur said, "I would be honoured to share a meal with you. Now, if you would be so kind as to throw down a rope, or some other such climbing instrument, so that I may join you?"
"What?" the voice asked, then said, "Oh, right, right. Um..." And here the voice muttered something under its breath that Arthur couldn't make out, but which raised the hairs on his arm and sent a shiver through his body.
It sounded like magic, and Arthur unconsciously palmed the grip of his sword.
"There!" the voice said. "I mean, there should be a door...there? Somewhere?"
And suddenly there was a door, set into the wall right beside him.
"Of course," Arthur said, "I see it now," and he drew his sword before cautiously advancing up the stairs.
It was dark in the staircase -- apparently magical sconces would have required a little more forethought than this sorcerer could muster -- but Arthur's steps were steady and sure. He climbed to the top as silently as he could, sword tip taking the curve at an advance, and on the last few steps firelight made shadows on the wall.
The top step opened directly into a room, and in the centre of it stood the sorcerer, who gave an aborted wave and said, "Erm, hello! --"
Arthur, well-trained knight that he was, had a list of attack sequences merrily dancing through his head at all times. He could use 'Don't move or I'll run you through!' followed by a menacing waggle of his sword, or maybe 'What have you done with the Lady Rapunzel, sorcerer!' and a throwing knife to the wizard's leg, or even simply lopping off the villain's head and being done with it.
Instead, he found himself interrupting the sorcerer with, "What is that awful thing around your neck?"
The sorcerer gasped in shock and clutched at the abominable cloth, wrinkling it even more hideously where his long, elegant fingers gained purchase in it. "My mother gave me this neckerchief!" the sorcerer declared, like it was any sort of excuse at all.
"That's no excuse!" Arthur declared because, really, look at it. "And besides that horrible atrocity of fashion, what evil has become of the Lady Rapunzel! What have you done with her, you filthy sorcerer!"
"I am not filthy!" the filthy sorcerer yelled. He crossed his arms and pouted. "And I haven't done anything to the witch! It's her who did this to me!"
Arthur narrowed his eyes. "I thought you said your mother gave you that neckerchief!"
"Not the bloody neckerchief, the tower!"
Arthur glared around at the single room with it's pathetic straw pallet, tiny table and crooked, lonely chair, and the one window that had a spectacular view of a few treetops and not much else for it was not high enough to even clear the roof of the forest.
"So she's taken your furniture, then, has she?"
"What?" The sorceror looked perplexed. "No!"
"...She afflicted you with a horrible taste in decor?"
"Are you an imbecile?" the sorceror asked desparingly. He made a flapping gesture with both arms, as if to indicate the room but somehow managing to also encompass the forest, the river past the forest, and Arthur's own self in the awkward waggle. "She's locked me up in this bloody tower!"
Arthur snorted. "Don't be an idiot."
Befuddled and angry, Arthur put his hands on his hips, only then realizing that he'd sheathed his sword at some point without even noticing. A part of him seemed to trust the sorceror, apparently, even if he didn't make any sense and had horrible taste in clothing. And was an overly-grand gesticulator, to boot.
"You know as well as I do that you aren't exactly trapped up here if you can create a staircase to the outside out of thin air."
"Oh, that." The sorcerer dismissed the argument with a shrug. "Well, I didn't say I was literally trapped in here, did I?"
Arthur frowned. "What's the alternative? How can you be figuratively trapped?"
And so the sorceror told Arthur the story of Rapunzel.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful young witch named Rapunzel. She lived in a cottage on the outskirts of a town called Ealdor, which lay in the kingdom of Escetia near the border of Camelot. She lived there alone, growing herbs and creating tinctures for the townsfolk who would often come to her requesting magical cures for their physical and personal ailments.
Rapunzel enjoyed her quiet country life. She loved visiting with the townsfolk, who told her all about their successes and failures, their wants and desires. She loved tending her garden which blossomed under her gentle care and bloomed under her smile. And she loved taking walks through the woods, singing to herself as she sought out the plants and mushrooms she couldn't grow at home, because by the end of her journey she would have a trail of rabbits and foxes and unicorns following her voice.
But one day, an old witch came through the town peddling her potions and crystals. The townsfolk listened to her tell of her wares, but no one would purchase from her, explaining that they could get anything they needed from the kind witch in the forest.
The Old Witch was angry. She'd been travelling through Camelot for months and everyone was too afraid of King Uther to purchase any of her magical items --
"He's not that scary," Arthur protested. "His eyebrows just do that sometimes, he can't help it!"
The sorceror goggled at him dubiously. "You mean like the druids and the dragons can't help being born of magic?"
"Oh. Yes, of course. That's...fair." He coughed awkwardly. "Go on?"
After glaring at Arthur for a bit, finally the sorceror nodded and continued.
The Old Witch had thought that reaching Escetia would turn her luck, but instead there was already a witch here, someone younger and no doubt prettier than the old witch had ever been, and she became enraged with jealousy.
The Old Witch found Rapunzel's quiet cottage in the woods and used her magic to capture her. Rapunzel, a healing witch, had never thought to use her magic for evil, and similarly had never thought to learn to protect against such machinations, and was easily caught. She soon found herself locked up in a stories-high tower with only a window as her means of escape.
She knew she could use her magic to grow a vine up the side of the tower that would be wide and leafy enough that she could climb down it. She was already preparing herself for the flight from Ealdor that she would need to make if she were to find help and sanctuary; but the witch threatened that if Rapunzel ever tried to leave the tower, the witch would not only destroy the village proper, but she would also make sure to kill all the villagers who lived there.
Rapunzel was helpless; she could see no way to rescue herself without putting the villagers in danger, and were she to escape and try to defeat the old witch before the village could be destroyed, she doubted that she could possibly win when she had no knowledge of violent magic. Surely she would lose, and the villagers would die as well.
So she began to form a different sort of plan. 'What if,' she thought, 'I could befriend the witch? Surely she is just lonely, and doesn't remember how to make friends.'
Every week when the Old Witch would come to Rapunzel's tower with her weekly rations Rapunzel would try to befriend her. She asked about the Old Witch's life, talked about her love of roses and her cherished tomato plants, but nothing moved the Old Witch to speak.
'Okay,' thought Rapunzel, 'that didn't work.'
Next she tried to argue with the witch, explaining that they could live in peace, so there was no need for Rapunzel to be locked away in the tower. But the Old Witch ignored her. Then Rapunzel tried to bargain with her, offering to teach the Old Witch everything she knew about growing magic and healing spells, about unicorns and dragonets and the other magical creatures Rapunzel had met, about anything that the Old Witch wanted to know or have, if only it would buy Rapunzel's and the villagers' freedom.
But the Old Witch would not speak to her. Months went by, and eventually, Rapunzel stopped trying. Instead she began to form a different kind of plan.
The sorcerer got up and retrieved the kettle from the fire.
"Forget the tea," Arthur whined, "and tell me what bloody happens next!"
Ignoring him, the sorcerer poured two cups and set the kettle in the center of the table. "The potatoes will be done soon, I think."
Arthur clenched his jaw, unhealthily grinding his teeth. "Well then why don't you try to finish the story before then?"
"Fair enough," the sorcerer said, and leaned back in his chair. "All right, so, after years and years of only the Old Witch as company..."
...Rapunzel began to forget her compassion. And after years and years away from her garden, she began to forget all the good magic she knew. The only things growing in her heart were rage and loneliness, and her magic began turning dark and malevolent.
Her escape plan was dark and malevolent as well. She didn't know any dark magic, but she could still make some things grow -- not as fast as she once could, and certainly nothing that Mother Nature watched over, but some things still bent to her will.
The Old Witch didn't trust her with something as simple as a pair of scissors, so Rapunzel grew her hair long and thick. Once it was long enough to reach the ground outside the tower Rapunzel tied a few thick braids into it and waited for the Old Witch to return with her weekly rations.
Rapunzel had been trapped in the tower for so long that the Old Witch was now frail and weak; it was simple enough for Rapunzel to overcome her and wrap her braids tight around the Old Witch's throat to prevent her from casting any of her evil spells.
"Don't look so surprised," Rapunzel sneered at the Old Witch as she choked the life out of her. "Isn't this what you always wanted us to be? Enemies?"
"Wait, wait," Arthur interrupted, sounding doubtful. "She...strangled the Old Witch with her hair?"
The sorceror shoveled a piece of biscuit into his mouth. "Mmf, yeah, she was not best pleased."
"But -- strangled. With her hair?"
Raising his eyebrows the sorceror asked, "Are you going to let me finish this story or not?"
With a huff Arthur gestured for the sorceror to continue.
After strangling the Old Witch with her hair, Rapunzel tied her braids to a sconce and rappelled down the side of the tower. She used a sharp rock to saw through her hair and finally, after so many long, lonely years, freed herself from the tower.
She made her way into the forest, searching for the safe familiarity of her cottage, but found only ash; it had burned to the ground some years before. Full of grief and loneliness Rapunzel went to the village, hoping she could find refuge there until she could decide what to do. But when she got there she found...
"...well, me. She caught me behind the house using magic to do my chores, and she was very upset. She said it was only fair that if she had to spend twenty years in the tower, that I should too."
"So she captured you and put you up here?"
"Not...exactly." The sorceror shrugged uncomfortably. "She's not any good at that kind of magic. But she threatened to harm the village -- she threatened my mother -- so I went willingly. I don't think she really wants to hurt anyone! I think...I think she's confused and scared and she just needs friends, people who will care for her until she's right again."
"You're kinder than I would be," Arthur confessed. "How can you bear to look at her every week when she brings your rations?"
"Ah, well my mother does that. She leaves a basket of food at the edge of the forest and I," the sorceror wiggled his fingers, "magic it up here."
They sat in silence for several minutes, watching the fire crackle in the hearth. "It's not so bad, really. There aren't nearly as many chores up here as in the village." The sorceror blinked quickly a few times and wiped the corner of his eye. "I do miss my mum, though."
Arthur shifted awkwardly and cleared his throat. "It's a bit smoky in here, why don't I open the shutters a bit more?"
Wiping at the other eye, the sorceror nodded frantically. "Yes, the smoke is bothering me, thank you."
"Of course," Arthur replied, and stayed at the open window, giving the sorceror a few moments to compose himself.
"You're, uh, you're welcome to stay the night," the sorceror told him. "I know this place is small but I can make the pallet bigger. If you don't want to stay with me, though, I'll understand, I know what Camelot thinks of sorcerors --"
Arthur spun around. "How did you know I'm from Camelot?" he demanded. The sorceror looked at him as if Arthur had grown another head. Arthur really, really hoped he hadn't.
"You're...wearing a lot of red?"
"Ah." Arthur adjusted his Camelot-red coat. "Well."
"Should I fix the bed, then?"
"Yes, I suppose that would be fine. And in the morning I'll take you to Ealdor and we can confront Rapunzel."
"You -- really?" The sorceror's smile was so wide that Arthur couldn't help but notice the size of his ridiculous ears. He tried very, very hard not to find them endearing.
"I did come all the way here to rescue a lady. I suppose I can settle for you."
Arthur squinted against the sun as he adjusted his horse's saddle. "So, sorceror --"
"Your name is Merlin? That's hideous!"
Merlin looked affronted. "My mother gave me that name!"
Arthur narrowed his eyes at Merlin's blasted neckerchief. "I'm beginning to see a trend."
Rolling his eyes Merlin hefted his pack. "What is it that you were going to ask?"
"Front or back."
"Of the saddle?"
Merlin looked from Arthur to the horse, then back to Arthur again. "Er. Back?"
Arthur struggled not to make an exasperated face. He swung himself up into the saddle, then offered his hand down to Merlin. Merlin grasped it and struggled to pull himself up, his legs flailing everywhere, before Arthur reminded him about his magic.
"Oh. Yeah, that might work," Merlin said, and suddenly he was seated behind Arthur, grinning and laughing. "I'm on a horse!" he cried. Arthur noticed his stupid ears again and turned forward.
"Right then," Arthur said in his best commanding voice. "To Ealdor!"
"That voice makes you sound like a prat."
"I will shove you off of this horse, Merlin, don't think I won't."
They rode warily into Ealdor not long after the sun had passed its zenith. A few villagers came out of their homes to watch their progress, and it wasn't long until --
"Mother!" Merlin cried, and flopped off the back of the horse. A woman with a kerchief round her head rushed up to Merlin and swept him up in a hug.
"What are you doing here, Merlin! Rapunzel will be back any moment --"
"It's alright, Mum, I've brought a soldier. Or a knight or something? Actually I don't know what he is," Merlin said, and looked up at Arthur. "Er."
Arthur stepped down from his horse and offered his hand to Merlin's mother. "Arthur Pendragon."
The eyebrows of every villager within earshot raised in disbelief. Merlin's mother, surprised, asked, "As in Crown Prince of Camelot, Arthur Pendragon?"
"What?" Merlin squawked. "Camelot? Crown Prince?"
"Is there an echo?" Arthur snarked.
"Wait, wait, let me get this straight -- you crossed the border from Camelot, risking all out war with Escetia, just to rescue me?"
"No!" Arthur yelled, and the villagers leaned away from him warily. He rubbed the back of his neck and blew out an exasperated breath. "No. I was just tired of Cenred ignoring all of his border towns," he explained, "and I was tired of telling my father that someone had to protect the abandoned villagers and rescue the captured ladies, and I traveled all the way here to rescue Rapunzel, whom I thought was a lady, but instead I found you."
"That's so romantic," a bloke in the back sighed, and the villagers all nodded dreamily.
"Oh for the love of --" Arthur drew his sword used its tip to point down the village lane. "Is she that way? Please someone point me towards something I can stab."
Merlin gasped in shock. "No stabbing! Have you not heard a word I've said? We're going to reason with her like civilized people!"
"Well when that terrible plan inevitably backfires," Arthur smirked, hitching a thumb over his shoulder, "I'll be over here ready to run her through."
"Run who through?" asked a pretty blonde woman, approaching them on the path.
The villagers gasped as one, parting to either side of the road. Merlin stepped clumsily backwards, right onto Arthur's foot, and definitely deserved the shove to the back that Arthur gave him, the oaf.
Merlin tripped to a stop in front of the witch. "Oh!" he said, twisting a hand nervously in his neckerchief. "Hi, Rapunzel! We didn't, uh, see you there!"
"Hey," Rapunzel frowned. She set her basket of flowers on the ground at their feet and menacingly rolled up her sleeves. "Didn't I lock you in the tower?"
"That's actually what I came here to talk to you about," Merlin said, taking frantic steps back as Rapunzel advanced on him. "You know a lot about plants and medicine, and I know a lot about how to get out of doing manual labour, and I thought maybe we could trade our knowledge over tea?" He grinned at her in a shocking display of teeth that Arthur hoped was meant to look persuasive.
"And why would we do that?" Rapunzel asked drily, the ends of her hair crackling with magic where they swept the ground. Merlin raised his hands in placation, and Arthur held his sword at the ready.
"I know your life has been terrible," Merlin said, "and I know you're hurt! But just because the Old Witch locked you up in the tower doesn't mean you have to do the same to me!"
"Doesn't it?" she snapped. "We can't both be free! There can only be one of us!"
"That's not true!" he argued, sounding sad and confused. "I know we can be friends, we just need to --"
"Friends? Friends?!" She stepped forward, revealing a trail of wildflowers growing where her hair had been. They unfurled slowly, revealing heads of yellow, orange and violet, stalks of the richest green, and they were the most beautiful flowers Arthur had ever seen. "We can never be friends! We can only be enemies!"
Merlin stared down at the flowers too, and shook his head. "No." He looked up at Rapunzel and shook his head with more conviction. "No, I don't believe that. We have nothing to fear from each other!"
Dust and leaves began to swirl around their feet, rising and falling with every pant of Rapunzel's breath. Arthur gripped Merlin's elbow and pulled him back, holding him behind the safety of Arthur's sword.
"We have everything to fear!" Rapunzel shrieked. The wind picking up around them howled, whipping branches and rocks in arcs around their heads, the witch at the epicenter. "Everything!"
"The only thing we have to fear," Merlin yelled, voice nearly drowned out by the magical storm, "is forgetting who we are!"
Rapunzel's rage flickered on her face. "What do you mean?"
Arthur chanced a glance at Merlin. The other boy's face was calm as he held out his hand and whispered words that Arthur didn't understand but that curled around his spine nonetheless, drawing it up. Light shimmered in Merlin's palm, swelling and rounding into an orb that rose from him, up through the witch's storm, lighting them all from above like their own personal sun.
"I know who I am," Merlin said. "Do you know who you are?"
The witch storm faltered, dropping the forest detritus to the ground, and Rapunzel clutched at her head. "I know who I am!" she screamed. "Of course I do! I'm -- I --"
"Look behind you," Merlin gently urged. Rapunzel turned her head and gasped, marveling at the flowers twining themselves up the tangles of her hair.
"Is that me?" she asked, voice small. "Am I doing that?"
"Yes," Merlin reassured her. "You haven't forgotten who you are, after all."
While Arthur helped the villagers clean up from the storm, Merlin and his mother, Hunith, spoke in low tones with Rapunzel over a bit of tea and biscuits. Arthur had been glad to hand the whole magic situation over to them as soon as Rapunzel's first tears had fallen.
"I don't do crying," Arthur had told them.
Merlin had smiled at him bemusedly. "Seriously? You'll fight dragons and ogres, but a little bit of crying is too much for you?"
"Just take her blubbering and her wet face away from me before it catches!"
"My knight in shining armour," Merlin had smirked, and Arthur felt justified in the sneer he had given Merlin in return.
Now that the village was clean -- well, as clean as it probably ever got -- Arthur set off to ready his horse for the long travel back. Merlin excused himself from the women and trotted up to him.
"Are you leaving?" he asked. Arthur pretended not to notice how his giant sad eyes made his ears look forlorn. "We haven't even had dinner yet!"
"It's a long trip back to Camelot," Arthur said. "I'd best start as soon as possible."
"Oh." Merlin slumped his shoulders, then suddenly perked up. "But! You can't leave quite yet, my mother wants to give you rations for your trip --"
"There's no need, I assure you."
Merlin frowned. "She'll be upset if you leave without them."
"Truly, I'm in want of nothing," Arthur assured him. "Though I think your mother will not be too cross with me if I take my leave without taking your harvest."
"Yes, she does seem to have taken a shining to you," Merlin mused. "But you did say she has bad taste."
Arthur walloped Merlin in the arm, and they both laughed. They stood in companionable silence for a few more moments. "So," said Merlin, awkwardly shifting away, "I guess this is goodbye?"
"Yes," Arthur agreed, and jangled the buckles on his saddle to cover Merlin's dejected sniff. "It's for the best."
Merlin's mouth twitched and turned down. "It is?"
"My father won't be King forever," Arthur promised. "One day magic will be safe in Camelot, and I'll need an advisor. Someone brave and talented to fight by my side and help me protect all the people who need it."
Turning his effervescent grin on Arthur, Merlin asked, "Brave?"
Arthur couldn't be held responsible for the way his answering smile made Merlin laugh. "Very brave." He clapped Merlin on the shoulder and pulled himself onto his horse.
"I'll be there," Merlin called after him as he set off down the road.
"I'll be waiting," Arthur called back, and turned onto the path for home.