On the darkest, coldest night of that winter, the boy huddled with his mother for warmth, curled around the hollow ache of his stomach, and dreamt:
The night is gentle with autumn's faded warmth, and the apple orchard is fragrant and heavy with ripe apples, waiting for the harvest. Merlin doesn't stop to marvel at this vision, clambering with a boy's instinct into the nearest tree, and reaches out to touch the nearest fruit hanging by his head. It shines even in the dull moonlight, and feels warm to his frost-chapped fingers, firm and round, yet almost yielding to his touch with the promise of sweet juice. He tugs, and it falls free, into his covetous grasp.
It fills his hand easily, and the sweet smell that rises to his nose is as intoxicating as the unwatered beer Will's father let him taste that harvest celebration, before the raiders came and took it all away. He inhales deeply, mouth watering in anticipation. He wants to dream, and dream, stay here and never wake, but then he stops to think, and picks another, for his mother, and another, for Will.
While he juggles the apples uncertainly, wondering how to get down without dropping them (and not wondering how to get home, because such practical things never occur to dreamers), he comes to notice that he is not alone in the orchard. Under his tree, there is a golden-haired, apple-cheeked boy who shines in the moonlight like the apples in his arms, wrestling with a longsword nearly his own height, and he marvels at the sight.
The shining boy feels the weight of his regard, and frowns at Merlin, abandoning his fruitless struggle with his sword. "Stop, thief," he says, and Merlin nearly laughs at his serious face, because even though he may be younger than this strange young guard, Merlin knows it is only a dream, and what does it matter if he steals a few apples in a dream?
"These apples belong to the royal family. You may not have them." the shining boy demands, but the threat lacks an edge, quite literally, as he fumbles briefly with his sword again and gives up, shoving the uncooperative weapon behind him to glare pridefully at Merlin.
Since it is a dream, Merlin leaps down, and where his daytime limbs would have been gangling and clumsy, he lands as gracefully as a swallow lighting on a tree. "Truly?" he teases, showing off his spoils for the shining boy, because he can, when it is night and there is no one real from whom he needs to hide his magic. “And who’s going to stop me from taking them? You, your lordship?”
The shining boy, affronted, steps forward and manages to level his sword at Merlin, and proclaims himself prince, of course. Merlin is sure he could be a prince in his dream too, if he wanted, but he likes his magic better. So he bows, mockingly. "Sire, I had no idea."
The boy prince looks at Merlin, taking him in from his threadbare nightshirt to his bare feet, and perhaps realises how foolish he looks to posture so in a dream, because then he lowers his sword and says, “Go on, you can have them.”
As if the apples really were his to give. Merlin decides to take him at his word and bites into one, and as the sweet juice floods his mouth, he suddenly remembers how hungry he is. Then he sees the wistful, yearning look on the prince's face, as though he, too, were hungry, and hastily remembers his manners, shining a precious apple on his shirt and offering it to him.
“No, you take it with you… go on. You’ve got to leave before the guards catch you,” the prince says, sad and earnest, and he really must think he is a prince in this dream, Merlin realises, warmed by this imagined mercy and oddly taken with the serious, burdened look on his face, hugs him.
And the prince melts into his hug, as though he'd wanted that as much as Merlin wanted the apple, and asks, "can I keep you," and Merlin thinks of the apple he'd eaten without thinking, and suddenly the embrace is too warm, too heavy, too real.
An idea rises to his mind - a vaguely recalled cautionary tale his Mum had told him about the dangers of taking gifts of fruit from strangers? Merlin feels a pang of doubt, fear - do only seeds count? how many months of a year is a whole apple worth? but the prince is warm and kind, and leaning into him trustingly, as though it were Merlin who had given him an apple rather than the other way round, and since he asked permission, Merlin answers no, hoping it is enough, and pays him with a kiss to his cheek, good night, and...
woke, sticky and full, with two red apples tucked under his shirt inside the protective curve of his stomach. He lay there, mulling over something only half-remembered and already fading - a dream - golden hair and blue eyes shining in pale moonlight, apple trees, a promise, question, warning... An apple, in exchange for...?
But he had apples, that was certain and real, and he gave one to his mother and one to his friend Will, secretly, because the other villagers would wonder, if they saw, and make warding signs against evil, and his mother would fret and keep her head down, and keep him in the house. His mother took the apple and worried, as she did, without saying anything. Will grabbed and ate it without question, though he remembered to ask if Merlin wanted half after eating almost half of it. (Merlin said no.)
There were no more dreams, and no more apples (and in the soft, dream-filled moments between sleep and wakefulness, he thought wistfully that there would be no more golden princes who asked to keep him in exchange for his apples). Somehow, they made it through that winter, and the ones following, until one bright spring day, when his mother packed his bag and gave him a letter to take to Camelot, where he had never been.