Art link: HERE ARE 3 (THREE!!!) AWESOME PIECES by aqualillium who also made beautiful icons and banners featured here. Go! Feast your eyes! Dammit how did I get so lucky to have her illustrate this?? \o/
On the last day of his journey Merlin rose and packed his bedroll long before dawn, and ate his breakfast as he walked. He wanted to reach his destination early and see Camelot for the first time in bright daylight.
He'd heard stories and had pictured it many times: the city of white stone with its round towers and high walls, gates and bridges. But as he got to the top of the hill and saw Camelot with his own eyes, he knew no stories could do it justice.
It was huge, far bigger than he'd expected and much bigger than he could've imagined. The castle sat on the top of the hill, ornate and magnificent, like a crown on a king's brow. Dozens, hundreds of small houses were scattered over the slopes, clinging to the castle walls, to Camelot's strength and glory.
The white towers gleamed under the sun. Columns of steam rose above them to the clear sky, perfect against the bright blue. They looked like captured clouds, tethered to the castle by its many chimneys and made to serve its people. Somewhere behind the walls, deep within the castle, steam was raging against metal, making things move.
There was another puff of smoke slowly climbing up the hill toward the castle gates. Merlin could just about make out the dark shape of the great cart underneath it. He knew it carried firewood and coal to feed the great engines of Camelot. Each day the great cart made four trips from the foot of the hill to the engine room. There its cargo was unloaded and shovelled into the ever-hungry furnaces to boil more water, make more steam.
The cart, too, was drawn by steam, as it was too heavy for even a dozen horses to pull up the hill. It had a few passenger seats, and Merlin promised himself that one day he'd ride in it, even if it took him a year to save up for the fare.
The whole of the valley below was taken up by lush, well-tended fields. In one of them sat an abandoned plough, and Merlin smiled at it like at an old friend.
There was a plough just like that near Ealdor. There were ploughs just like that all around Albion, all now lying motionless in the fields, forgotten. Merlin used to visit that far field where the plough sat, sometimes with Will, sometimes alone. He'd climb the riveted sides of the plough, touch the still sharp blades on its paws, trace the runes carved into its metal skin, and think of the people who'd made it and of the magic that used to live inside it.
Merlin was too young to ever have seen a plough at work, but he knew about them. There was a time when these iron beasts crawled slowly over the fields of Avalon, easily doing the work of hundreds of men. With the claw-like blades on their paws they'd slice through heavy earth and turn it over, and move to the next field to furrow that one, too. Once they were done, they'd start their route over and harrow the dried soil: pound it gently with their claws, breaking up all the clumps. And just like that, with no back-breaking labour from men or horses, the fields would be ready to take seeds.
In autumn the ploughs would reap the grain. There had been perhaps a dozen of them across the whole country, so they couldn't do everything quickly enough before the grain would fall. People still had to reap by hand even then, with scythes and sickles. But afterwards the ploughs would come up to the villages, led by mechanics and magicians, and thresh the harvest with the pads of their paws till the grain was clean of chaff and ready to be milled.
There were abandoned fields all around Ealdor, all over the country, covered in tall grass and growing over with tree saplings. There weren't enough able hands to work them, not without the magical ploughs. The people of Ealdor managed to grow enough grain to get them through the winter, though some winters were leaner than the others. But the older folks still remembered the days of plenty. Back then they'd have spare grain to trade, to stock up on, and hunger was just a scary tale from the distant past, like smallpox.
There was a group of horsemen riding down the road from the castle, accompanying a loaded cart. They stopped, dismounted and headed through the field toward the plough, picking up things from the cart on their way. At first Merlin couldn't figure out what they were up to, but then he recognised some of the tools they were carrying – a crowbar, a hammer, a saw. He shouldered his pack and started running.
By the time he caught up to them they were already at it. They'd chiselled the rivets off the shoulder of the plough, cut through its thick metal skin and were peeling it off with pincers and pliers.
The plough was taller than any of them, even when it was squatting like this, sat back on its heavy paws. Each of its blades was long enough to cleanly slice through a man, though it could've never attacked a man, even when it could still move. Its shape had always reminded Merlin of a mole rat: great paws, strong back, small round head covered in runes. That made it even worse – it looked as if the men were tormenting a living creature, even though it was now nothing but a heap of metal parts.
"Stop," said Merlin, breathless from his run. "Don't."
The men gave him a disinterested look and went back to gouging the plough to pieces. There were eight of them, all armed with sharp heavy tools, but Merlin wasn't about to back down.
"Leave it alone," he said. "Have some respect. These things used to feed the whole of the Albion."
"And now it's useless scrap," muttered one of them. "If you don't want to end up like this, keep walking."
He hefted a pair of huge metal cutters and shoved them through the slash in the plough's skin, into the delicate maze of springs and gears.
Merlin grabbed his wrist and shoved him back before he could do any damage.
"Don't," he said again. "Look, I don't know if you're trashing it for fun or if you want to cut it up and sell iron to Camelot..."
The man stared down at Merlin's fingers gripping his arm. He had shiny hair the colour of ripe grain, a strong jawline, and an air of cocky arrogance that too often seemed to accompany such unnecessarily good looks.
"Do you realise what you just did?" he asked. "Do you know what I should do to you for this?"
"The old machines will work again," Merlin said, not in the mood for threats and posturing. "I'm not going to let you wreck this thing. Prince Arthur is going to make it work again."
The man's mouth curved in a slow, pleased smile. His teeth were a little crooked, and Merlin viciously focused all his attention on that flaw. He wasn't going to be charmed by a bully.
"You think so?" the man asked.
"He will," nodded Merlin vehemently. "I know he will. He and his engineers are the cleverest people in all Albion. They'll figure out how to make all the machines work on steam. It will be better than back in the time of the magicians."
It might have sounded naïve, but he wasn't going to explain to these vandals why he was so sure about Prince Arthur and his great destiny. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't really say "I know this because a giant creepy dragon told me so".
"See?" said the guy, gesturing broadly to the others. "The people believe in us. Even the last country bumpkin knows about the work we do and doesn't doubt us for a second. So we can't give up, ever."
He turned to Merlin and clapped him on the shoulder, pompously, as if he was doing him an enormous honour.
"You should be thrown in the dungeons for assaulting the crown prince," he said. "However, for your loyalty and good sense I'm going to pardon you. Now you have something to tell your grandchildren about."
"Wait," said Merlin, quite crushed by the dawning realisation. "Hang on. Are you saying you're Prince Arthur? That's just not possible. How could you be the cleverest man in the kingdom? You're an arrogant git, and you look completely daft!"
The men immediately ducked back toward the plough to cover their suppressed laughter and pretended to be consumed with work. Prince Arthur went pink to the roots of his shiny hair and pointedly removed his hand from Merlin's shoulder.
"Still," he said. "I'm sure a day in the stocks will do you a world of good. Leon, detain this imbecile. We'll take him to Camelot for punishment when we're done here."
A tall bearded man put down his tools. He smiled at Merlin apologetically, took him by the elbow and led him back to their cart.
"I don't even have enough rope to tie you up," Leon said. "I'll just sit here with you. Don't worry, by the time we're ready to go back His Highness would've gone off the idea – would've probably forgotten about you altogether."
"What are they doing?" asked Merlin, watching miserably as Arthur and the others stripped down the casing of the plough and started twisting and chopping its innards, where the clockwork was delicate as lace, and looked as if it would all unravel if one thread was snapped. "He's supposed to fix everything, not to break it even worse."
"We need to figure out how it worked. We'll dismantle and measure it all, and then we'll draw up the designs. Once we understand how magic was used to make it move, then eventually we'll know how to use steam instead. We'll fit it to an engine..."
He kept talking about pipes, levers, gears and other things to do with machinery and engineering. Merlin stopped following the conversation ten words in and just kept nodding. They settled in the shade of the cart by the roadside and watched Arthur's engineers work.
Now Merlin could see they weren't scavengers or vandals who destroyed things just for the dumb pleasure of breaking something beautiful. They were fast and efficient in their movements, careful not to cut further than was needed to expose a joint or reach a nut. Every piece of machinery was thoroughly measured with two sets of callipers; all the measurements were written down by one of the engineers, while the other was relentlessly sketching the way things fit together as they were taken apart.
Arthur directed them with clipped orders full of arcane words that Merlin didn't even know. His hands were black with rust and oil, his fair hair darkened with sweat. Locked in concentration, his face looked sharper, even more perfect.
"We should detach all of this and take it to the workshop without dismantling," he said, poking at something inside the plough. "If we cut through this support I should be able to get inside and see if we can lift it off the frame."
"Sire, perhaps, someone else..." started one of the engineers, and wilted under Arthur's glare.
"If any of my men can do this better than me, I'd like to know about it," Arthur said dangerously. As soon as the hole in the hull was wide enough, he ducked inside and squeezed between two iron beams to the core of the machine.
Merlin tried to imagine him wedged in there, suspended between rusted pipes and wheels like a fly on a metal web. But Arthur didn't sound uneasy. His voice resonated off the walls of the plough, higher pitched in excitement, as he reported his findings and ordered his men about.
Merlin let his magic quietly unfold and feel the dried-up paths inside the clockwork where the magic used to flow, giving life to the machine. After the magicians had left, all the magic ran out, and the machines stopped. By the time he was old enough to find and explore them, they were completely still and inert. Very rarely he'd found a small spark of magic, not enough for the machine to work as it was supposed to, but enough to singe him as he poked around, or...
He jumped up even before it happened. Leon tried to grab him, but Merlin dodged and ran for the plough. He was still some steps away when he felt that tiny dormant sliver of magic twitch to life inside the mutilated machine. He heard the groan and screech of the metal, and he saw the massive front leg of the plough bend at the joint, slowly, stiffly. He thrust all his magic against that movement, tore a spanner from the hands of one of the men and jammed it into the machinery, against the gear that was turning, glowing with the last of the power.
He pulled on the other end of the spanner with all his strength. The machine had been set into motion, and he was fighting the whole weight of it as it strained to take a step. He could see Arthur, ashen pale, trapped between the screeching wheels and the inside of the hull, his eyes wide and blank with shock. Arthur's hand had been caught under a lever that had snapped down as he was reaching past it, and now he couldn't move. If the plough's leg completed its movement, he would be crushed to pieces by moving beams.
A second later there were half a dozen strong arms helping Merlin pull the spanner down, and the rest of the men were frantically cutting and sawing through the metal to pull the prince free.
Once Arthur was out it only took him a few breaths to completely regain his composure. He brushed down his clothes and flexed his bruised wrist. The cut-up plough sank to the ground sideways, off-balance now.
"You saved my life," Arthur said. It sounded accusatory, as if the princely pride couldn't take the indignity of the situation.
"Don't mention it," Merlin shrugged. "Well, forget about the stocks and buy me a drink, and we're even."
"Oh no. I think you knew it was going to move. They very rarely move. And you knew exactly which gear to block to stop it. Even I couldn't have found it that fast. No, you're not getting away that easily."
The first machines had been built about three hundred years ago, around the time when Albion was just an isle full of warring kingdoms. Merlin has heard the old stories, and he knew that the Crown Prince had been named after a king of old, the one who'd first united the land. That's what the legends said:
There once lived a great and wise king called Arthur.
When Arthur first became king, his kingdom was small and full of strife. It had been forsaken by the magicians because of their quarrel with the late king, Arthur's father. So it had no magic, and without magic it struggled and couldn't flourish.
But the young king had a dear friend who was a powerful sorcerer. For years he honed his craft in secret, all so that one day he could pledge all his power, along with his life, to his liege. On the day he'd revealed himself to the king they'd made a promise to bring the magic back to the land.
And so they did, and in doing so they gained great power and earned their people's love. Camelot rose higher and higher, and soon all other kings swore their allegiance to Arthur. All kingdoms became one, and Albion was born – one isle, one country.
United in peace and harmony, protected from raids and invasions first by the sea, then by the magic, Albion prospered. The sorcerers turned their powers from the great battles and feats of might to tasks that were more mundane but still vital. They helped gather harvests, work raw wool into bolts of fabric, break stones, forge metals, cut wood. It was still hard work, even when done with magic, and it took great skill. And so, under the patronage of their queen Guinevere, the craftsmen of the land built machines that a magician could power with a single thought, and keep working them for days with simple spells.
It took decades, centuries, but the time came when mills and looms across the whole country were running on magic, heavy carts were drawn by magic up steep hills and across marches, and mighty iron ploughs were working the fields by themselves. King Arthur was long gone, and the name of his sorcerer friend had been lost to the ages. But for many generations Albion was free and at peace. It was the envy of all other kingdoms all across the world. Its people didn't know hunger, didn't fear disease. Metal and fire, human cunning and arcane magic laboured together relentlessly to create more riches, more wonders, more machines.
The legends also said that King Arthur hadn't left his country and his people forever. One day, when Albion would need him the most, he would return from his resting place in Avalon and rule once again, justly and wisely. At first it was believed that his body would be healed from the mortal wound, restored to health and strength of his youth. But as the more sceptical age dawned, a new interpretation of the legend took hold: that the great king's spirit would be reborn in a new body.
Some philosophers went even further, postulating that this fate wasn't King Arthur's alone. They believed that spirits of all humans were continuously reincarnated and given a chance to live their lives anew, to atone for past sins and complete unfinished work. But no memories of the past lives could be retained, so most people would be forever doomed to make the same mistakes over and over, lifetime after lifetime. That, they said, was exactly why history tended to repeat itself.
These were the legends, and they were written into chronicles and became official history. Neither Merlin or anyone else knew any different. Only one being that remembered King Arthur's reign was still alive, and he's not spoken to humans in a very long time. But in truth, the very first machines had been built earlier than the legends said - years before great King Arthur's coronation, and without him being involved at all. This is how it really happened all those centuries ago:
There once lived a serving girl called Gwen, and one day her mistress was kidnapped by an evil witch.
Without her lady to attend to Gwen was at loose ends, and didn't have enough work to keep her mind from worrying and running in circles. So she helped out where she could: in the kitchens, with the laundry, sewing, cleaning. Her friend Merlin told her that her Lady Morgana was safe and alive, he was sure of that. But Merlin himself was like a wraith these days, a pale, thin shadow, exhausted by too much work and too many worries. She sought him out, hoping they could support each other through these times, but he seemed to be avoiding her.
In the end she decided to corner him in Gaius's quarters. They could talk, at least; she could take some work off his hands. It would be good for them both.
Gaius was out, making his rounds. There were splashing noises coming from Merlin's room, which she took for the sounds of laundry and entered without knocking.
Merlin was asleep fully clothed in his bed in the awkward position of someone too tired to get comfortable. In the middle of the room, in the large laundry tub, the clothes were washing themselves.
She tiptoed closer, more excited than scared, and poked at the wet linens to see better. There was a small wooden water wheel fitted horizontally inside the tub. It kept turning steadily, driven by some force she couldn't account for. Its blades were swirling the sodden clothes round and round, working up lather from sudsy water.
Merlin stirred with a tired moan, rolled over and stared at her. She watched the sleepy grin fall from his face, the friendly expression giving way to fear and desperation. Without him having to say it, Gwen knew.
He wanted to explain. He began to swear to her that he'd never chosen to have magic, that it chose him. He told her that everything he did was for Arthur, always for Arthur and for all the people he loved. But she didn't need to hear any of it. She hugged and held him close, like she used to with her lady Morgana, and told him that he wasn't evil, he wasn't wrong. She promised she would always be there, and that Merlin would always have her. All the things she used to whisper into Morgana's silky hair when her fears and dreams would torture her. Merlin's hair was the same colour under her lips, his skin the same shade of pale, and he clung to her just like Morgana used to.
It was a long time before she finally remembered to ask him about the laundry device. The water wheel in the tub was still turning through everything that'd happened in the room.
"I made this a while ago," he explained. "Gwen, you have no idea what it's like having to do Arthur's laundry."
"I think I know what laundry is like, actually. I've been looking after Morgana's wardrobe since I was thirteen."
"But, no, Gwen, it's nothing like that. Morgana always smelled so nice! The worst you had to deal with was probably some dust on the hem of her skirt from riding."
She chose not to shatter his ridiculous illusions.
"Arthur sweats," he said with a shudder. "He really, really, sweats in that armour. He crawls through mud on his belly when he's hunting. And don't get me started on his socks. I can wash clothes with magic, yes, but I still have to look at them, pick them up one by one, rub them against the washboard. I could do that while I polish armour or scrub floors, but it's still tiring. So I came up with this. All I have to do is make the wheel spin. One spell and it'll keep going for hours. I don't even have to be here. And then a rinse and a wring, and everything is clean as new."
"It's a shame you can't make a big one that could wash the bed linens for the whole castle," she said wistfully, thinking of hours spent scrubbing and of the permanently red and rough hands of the laundry women. "Well. Maybe someday."
Later that year there was a war and new troubles and worries. The confusing, complicated thing between Gwen and Arthur turned out to be – to always have been - a confusing thing between her, Arthur and Merlin. And then, of course, there was Lancelot. There was so much to solve, so much to decide, so much to do.
That's why it took her and Merlin months to perfect a device that would polish Arthur's armour. But once they were done, the device could shine the whole set to absolute perfection in twenty minutes after being powered by one simple spell.
The magic broom was a lot easier, once Gwen had mounted it on wheels and modified the axles a little. After that, inventing became downright addictive.
Merlin knew that the magicians had left Albion when he was just a baby, and that they were no longer welcome here. Anyone with magic was now forced into exile to join the others of their kind. Merlin's mother didn't want that for him, so she taught him to keep his gift secret.
And he also knew what the dragon had told him.
He'd met the dragon a week ago. Merlin had been day-dreaming in his favourite spot on a gnarled tree branch when great wings eclipsed the sun and a dragon landed in the forest clearing, crushing raspberry bushes under its great belly.
It spoke urgently about fate, power, magic. Each of its yellow eyes was as big as Merlin's head. It said that they were at the crossroads, that everything was hanging in the balance, and that Merlin was the nexus.
"Woah," said Merlin in reply. "Dragon."
The dragon heaved a sigh and shook its head.
"You never change, young warlock," it said. "Still the same old Merlin."
"We've never met before," Merlin said cautiously. "I'd remember. Because you're a dragon."
The dragon waved him off with a huge clawed paw and continued his spiel.
"Prince Arthur of Camelot is getting very close to mastering the secrets of the old machines," it said. "I believe he can make all of them work again. You should be at his side from now on. You need to protect and guide him. He's important – perhaps more now than ever."
Any normal person would at that moment be asking "Why me?", assuming they'd moved past the talking to the dragon part, but Merlin had never been normal. He always knew there must have been a reason for his magic, and this, now, this was it. It was happening. His life was about to begin.
He had dozens of questions, but he asked the most important one first:
"What about my Mum?"
The dragon shook out his wings and stretched his tail. Merlin couldn't read its expression. The dragon's face was too odd and scaly for that.
"Don't worry," the dragon said. "I've spoken to her already."
And then it flew off.
When Merlin made it back home, his mother was calmly packing a travel bag.
"I know it's scary," she said before he could open his mouth. "I'll miss you terribly. But this isn't the life you're meant for. I want better for you. Uncle Gaius will look out for you, you'll be fine. You'll love Camelot."
She used to live there with her parents; that was where he was supposed to have been born. His grandfather used to dye wool for embroidery in all kinds of amazing colours. Grandma used to make embroideries when she was younger and later was a seamstress. There was so much cheap wool and linen spun and woven by the magical looms that everyone had a lot of clothes back then, ridiculous amounts like a different shirt for each day of the week.
When the machines had stopped, there had been no more wool. Nobody wanted new clothes, let alone colourful embroidered ones. Soon there wasn't enough food coming to the city. They moved to the country then, to live off the land where they could at least eat what they grew.
He sat on a creaky bench by their table and watched his mother’s callused hands work, wrapping and folding. She was packing him an awful lot of food for his three day journey. On a bad year they could make that much last them both for over a week. But this had been a good year, so she could afford this extravagance.
"What about you?" he asked. " Is this the life you're meant for? Is anyone meant for this?"
She smiled, tied the bedroll to the pack and tightened the straps.
"Well," she said, drawing him in for a hug. "Go and see if you can do something about that."
The plan was to move in with Uncle Gaius and apprentice in the alchemical laboratory. The apprenticeship, of course, was going to be just a cover for his true purpose in Camelot - protecting and guiding the crown prince. Arthur was going to change the world for the better and give the miracles of the machines back to the people. Merlin was going to watch him from the shadows, anticipating and intercepting all threats. The prince would feel the unseen benevolent presence at his side and would wonder who his guardian angel was. He'd never know it was the man he passed in the castle's corridors every day – he'd never even know Merlin's name. The thought was bitter-sweet, but it had to be that way.
Getting noticed by the crown prince wasn't part of the plan. Getting dragged by the crown prince through half of the castle, manhandled into the throne room and presented to the king like a hunting trophy – that certainly wasn't part of the plan.
"Sire," said Arthur and yanked at Merlin's shoulder, forcing him to bow. "I believe this man has a gift."
"What?" Merlin yelped, flailing in his grip ineffectually. Arthur's fingers felt like they were cast from iron. "I don't!"
"Shut up. Father, you should have seen how fast he found his way around a machine – it's like he had an affinity with it."
King Uther the Second dismissed some important-looking man he'd been talking to and turned to them. His sharp grey eyes fixed on Merlin's face; his gaze was heavy and somehow terrifying, even though his face was set and still, not showing any outward menace. The fingers of his gloved right hand drummed a fast, complicated rhythm on the armrest of his throne.
"It... was a coincidence?" offered Merlin with a meek smile.
"I'm an engineer. I don't believe in coincidences," said Arthur. "And really, stop talking. Father, he would be of great use to me. With your permission, I'd like to keep him."
"Hey! What am I, a puppy?"
"You are my subject," said the king. "And you will show proper respect."
He raised his hand, about to signal the guards. Arthur grabbed Merlin's shoulders and pushed him down till Merlin crashed to his knees, bumping his kneecaps painfully on the flagstones.
"He's sorry," said Arthur. "I'll work on his manners. Sire, please."
The king regarded them silently for a while. Only his hand was moving, tapping on the armrest faster and faster.
"Do you suggest we elevate this peasant to an Engineer?" he finally said. "You know very well that only the children of the noble families may be considered for that honour."
Arthur glanced down to meet Merlin's eyes. Merlin stared back at him and tried to project "My knees really hurt and your father is scaring the life out of me and it's all your fault" but whatever message Arthur had gotten instead seemed to please him.
"He'll be happy enough to assist me," he said. "No title is necessary, and I shall pay his keep from my household funds."
"That's not the issue," said the king. The tapping got louder, turning into a slurred drum roll. His fingers were moving so fast they were blurring in Merlin's eyes. Suddenly he stopped and gripped the armrest of his throne. His fingers flexed a few times, tightening the hold, as if the piece of wood was the neck of a peasant he'd love to wring. "The noble families are united in a sacred bond of trust. This boy is a nobody, and you know nothing of him. You can't allow him near your work. He could be a spy for the magicians."
"Father, please! Just look at him! He doesn't have the wits to be a spy – he's an idiot!"
"Yet you say he's gifted, a savant mechanic. Which is it?"
"Both," said Arthur confidently. "He's an idiot savant."
That made the king chuckle, and relax his fingers against the armrest. Then, to Merlin's quiet horror, the king started to scratch at the wood, making long gouges in his throne. Everyone was pretending not to notice, even as sawdust trickled on the floor.
"We can't trust him," said the king, stilling his fingers once again.
"He saved my life," said Arthur softly. The king's eyes darted to Arthur's hand. The whole back of it was now blue with bruising, a bloody imprint of the lever livid below his wrist.
"He's owed a reward befitting his rank. You may take him as your manservant," said the king. "He's your responsibility."
After the magicians had left and the machines stopped, the first year or two in Albion were like a slow and painful end of the world. Camelot, of course, had gained the most from the machines, so much so that it had seemed the city wouldn't survive without them.
The first, and the worst, loss for Camelot was the water. A well with a hand pump that once supplied the whole city had been dry for centuries, drained by the ever increasing population. The magicians had been drawing water from deep inside the earth ever since. Without magic the city had no inner water supply.
The king had arranged for water to be constantly brought up the castle hill on all available horses. The distribution had to be overseen by armed guards till the panic quieted down. And even before the order was fully restored, the city had been crawling with diseases. The waste of thousands of its denizens was starting to pile up on the streets, no longer magically collected and destroyed. There was no other way to efficiently dispose of the filth - none had been necessary since the city was one-tenth its current size. An epidemic killed many and drove more away to the cleaner countryside, where water was plentiful. The people abandoned their houses, their possessions, their whole livelihoods.
The destruction of the trades that used to thrive in Camelot was less terrifying than imminent death from thirst or plague, yet it was ruining people's lives just the same. It turned out that everyone depended on the machines for something – to process the raw materials, to make their wares or sell them. The prices for food were rising, and most craftsmen - Camelot's craftsmen, once famous across the known world for their skill - could no longer earn enough to feed their families.
The first harvest after the magical ploughs had stopped was a tenth of the previous one. If grain hadn't been stockpiled so generously in the previous years, or if the king hadn't rationed and supplied it across the kingdom, that would have been the last winter for most of Albion's people.
Slowly, slowly the ancient skills had been relearned. Former mechanics and blacksmiths now tilled earth. Painters, seamstresses and scribes cleaned up the filth, chopped wood and washed clothes. There were still people who had been taught by their grandparents how to spin yarn and weave fabrics using the simplest tools, and there were still recipes around for tanning leather by hand. Once Camelot wasn't facing immediate starvation, all of that was remembered. But the struggling, decimated nation that emerged from chaos and desperation was only a faint shadow of the Albion that had been.
In those years, an invasion would've barely been met with resistance. Perhaps an attack from across the sea hadn't been launched only because Albion didn't seem worth taking.
Two years later, when Arthur was six and Merlin was three, King Uther the Second had perfected the steam engine and created the order of elite mechanics: the Knights of the Engine, the Engineers. That was the day when the people of Albion regained hope.
"I thought the king had invented the engine," Merlin said, turning a page.
On the very first day of his service Arthur had assigned him an enormous pile of books to read. Now Merlin spent all his waking hours either catering to the prince's every whim or with his nose in a musty volume.
The books were precious, the greatest treasures of the crown and were worth many times their weight in gold. Only children of the noblemen were allowed full, unsupervised access to them. That, apparently, was the official reason why Merlin had to read them in Arthur's presence and not in the relative comfort of his own room. The real reason, of course, was that Arthur wanted him around at all times to gloat, mock, order him about and generally make his life a living hell.
The first and oldest book on the list, bound in cracked leather and written long before the time of the magicians, was supposed to be the foundation of modern engineering. It didn't even mention engines in any way Merlin could discern - whoever wrote that book seemed to be utterly obsessed with levers and just wouldn't shut up about them.
Now and then a boy of about ten, dressed in fine, clean clothes, would approach Merlin and politely ask if he was done with the book. At first Merlin thought the boys were squires of the aspiring engineers who needed the text to begin their studies. All too soon he'd learned that the boys themselves were the aspiring engineers, already well into their training. They'd began studying as they learned to read and would study all their lives. Only the very best of them would be honoured with a title and admitted into Camelot's innermost workshops.
"Still reading," answered Merlin testily. He honestly tried to follow what the book was saying, but it was like getting a five hundred page manual on how to breathe. Reading it only made the simplest things seem complicated and laboured. He already knew how magic worked; he knew what it needed to work. He didn't need it all explained in such confusing detail.
"Why didn't you read it when you were a boy?" had asked one of the tiny snot-nosed nobles. "Are you slow?"
"Yes," said Merlin. "Because when I was your age I got hit on the head with a very heavy book."
He lifted the volume, attempting to look menacing. The boy rolled his eyes and scampered off.
It wasn't entirely horrible. Merlin had his own room for the first time in his life: a servant's quarters with a locking door and even a window. In the morning he'd be woken up by the busy buzz outside, footsteps of many servants rushing to complete their morning tasks. He lingered in bed, blinking away sleep and relishing the sensations. It was a real bed, high and soft; the unfamiliar luxury of the mattress had been a revelation. He was used to waking up stiff and sore, getting up not because he was rested enough but because the ground under his blankets was too hard and too cold. Waking up in his new bed he felt light and strong, like he could bounce right off the mattress and fly around the room, run for miles and never get tired.
He stayed under the blankets till he heard the hiss of steam outside, signalling that the engines were starting up and the workshops being prepared. Then he threw on his clothes, splashed some water on his face and ran downstairs to the kitchen to fetch Arthur's breakfast.
Arthur wasn't a morning person. Merlin had been warned about that by the kitchen staff, and that was the first time he'd ever heard of morning people. It was a thoroughly city concept: In Ealdor you got up with the sun and went to bed when it got dark. Any sleep lost during the busy summer months would be more than made up for in the winter. When the snow fell over the villages, whole families often stayed in beds for days on end, trying to doze through the cold, the hunger and the cramped, soul-crushing boredom.
Arthur always insisted on staying up well past midnight, so in the morning he was a picture of misery, grunting and groaning like a wounded bear as he climbed out of bed. He eyed his breakfast groggily, with suspicion, taking slow bites. Merlin let him get on with it, picked up a book again and settled down at the end of the table to continue reading.
Arthur had told him to ask questions if there was something in the books he couldn't understand. Normally he'd answer readily, after a short diatribe about the stupidity and ignorance of certain unwashed peasants. Merlin didn't even take offence at that anymore. But in the mornings Arthur would only yawn and make unhappy sounds till Merlin repeated the question enough times to penetrate the sleepy fog in the princely head.
"I thought the king invented the steam engine," Merlin said again. "Here it says he'd perfected it."
"Of course he didn't invent it, you tit," said Arthur around the mouthful of ham. "They'd been around for ages. We have a steam-powered toy ship that belonged to my grandfather – it was a gift from the Eastern lands. What Father did was a lot better. He figured out how to make the engines powerful enough to run the old machines. Well, it was him and Sir Gorlois. The engine that drives the pump at the main well was the first one they'd built. It's fifteen years old now. It doesn't even have a separate condenser, but it's still going."
"That's amazing, really," Merlin said, remembering the king's still face and his eyes, cold and grey as metal. "That it was the king himself who built the engines and saved the city. Bit like a fairytale."
"He had to," said Arthur, wide awake now, wolfing down the rest of his breakfast. "That's what the king does. Before the time of the magicians people lived and died by the sword, so the king had to be the best warrior in the kingdom. Then, in the times of peace, he had to be the best diplomat and merchant to make sure the kingdom prospered. Now he has to be the best engineer. It's our duty."
He abruptly pushed the plate away, like he did every morning, with about the third of the meal still untouched.
"I'm done. You can finish this."
On their first day together Merlin had pointed out that he'd already been fed in the kitchens, but grouchy morning Arthur wouldn't be argued with.
"Eat," he'd said. "That's an order. You're too skinny. It reflects poorly on me if my manservant looks like that."
"Oh, yeah. It reflects great on Camelot that everyone at the court should be three times as fat as an average peasant," Merlin had said snidely, without thinking. The following silence was ominous; it was only then that he'd realised that saying something like that was probably treason or something.
"What did you say?" asked Arthur in dramatic, outraged half-whisper. "Did you just call me fat?"
"No," said Merlin quickly and stuffed his face with leftovers before he could blurt out something worse.
Arthur got up, stepped back from the table and casually shrugged off his nightclothes, letting them fall on the floor. He stood there, stark naked, and glared.
"You're not fat," said Merlin again, not sure where to point his eyes. Arthur wasn't fat. All that bulk was lean, hard muscle rippling over his arms and torso, and Merlin didn't quite dare to look lower. This was very odd; as vain as Arthur was, Merlin hadn't expected him to strip bare just to prove to him that he wasn't physically imperfect.
Arthur hadn't moved. He just stood there with his hands on his hips, clearly expecting something more. Perhaps, Merlin thought in a moment of befuddled near-panic, he waited for more compliments. He chewed the food nervously, feeling his face heat up the more he stared at Arthur's broad chest.
"You're supposed to get me dressed," said Arthur finally. Merlin breathed through his nose in relief, swallowed the last piece of bread and went to rummage through the prince's wardrobe.
He was still waiting for that part to become easy and familiar, but it never did. It was actually getting worse. The first time he had the distraction of too many unfamiliar garments, fiddly fastenings, and the worry of accidentally ripping a shirt that probably cost more than his mother's house. Nowadays his mind and eyes wandered too much. Arthur's bed hair was a luscious golden mess; Merlin tried not to think what it would be like to run his fingers through it, to bury his face in it and just breathe in his warm scent. He had to stand so close while he laced up Arthur's shirt and straightened his collars. He'd only have to rock forward on his toes. Morning sunlight glided over the fine grain of Arthur's skin and caught on his blond eyelashes in the cruellest way. Merlin tried to breathe steadily, but that only served to make him dizzy.
Arthur kept silent through the whole dressing ritual. He moved his arms to help Merlin thread them into the sleeves and lifted his feet when Merlin knelt down to pull on his boots, but otherwise kept staring fixedly at the far wall. At least he fastened his trousers himself. Merlin wasn't sure he'd keep the proper servant-like composure if he was tasked with that. After all, Arthur was just out of bed, and his cock was still half-filled, hanging heavily between his legs and swelling more with every brush of the cloth against it. Not that Merlin looked - it was just there. Arthur's boots were tough to get on; Merlin spent quite a bit of each morning on his knees, unhurriedly working stiff leather over Arthur's solid calves and sneaking short glances upwards.
After breakfast Arthur headed straight to the workshops and stayed there for most of the day. Merlin sat by Arthur's workbench and read, and watched him work.
The inner workshop of Camelot was a vast room with great glass windows. Huge smooth panes of clear glass must have been conjured by magic a long time ago; daylight streamed through them freely, allowing the engineers to perform the finest work. Whenever it was overcast, dozens of lamps were lit, and they would burn through the day. Merlin tried not to think how much it all cost or that the oil they wasted so carelessly was bought with tax money that villages like Ealdor struggled to scrape up every year. If they succeeded here, if they could make the machines work again, everything would change.
Every engineer had his own workbench, all of them lined up along two opposite walls. Some were fastidiously tidy, Arthur's included. Some were a cheerful mess of tools, parts, sheets of paper; their owners claimed that orderly workspace stifled their creativity.
In the middle of the room there was another workbench, big and round. The engineers gathered there to work on a project together. The device or the drawings would be placed in the centre so everyone could have easy access and a good view. They'd spend hours like that every day, talking and arguing, moving around the table. Sometimes, when the project was especially puzzling, they'd stand there silently for the longest time, lost in thought and staring intently at their work. Lately though Arthur would snap out of that reverie after a few minutes and call Merlin over.
"What do you think?" he'd say, gesturing at the thing on the table.
Merlin carefully folded the book and approached them. The circle of engineers would part for him; he kept expecting someone to take offence, to say that he didn't belong there with them.
"There's nothing making this bit go that way," he'd say, pointing.
They'd all bend closer to look and make the same "ahh" noise under their breaths.
"There are meant to be runes here," he explained, placing his palm where the runed parts of casing would be. Once he sensed how the magic was meant to flow through the machine, the details were easy to figure out. "They'd make the magic move this bar and push at that wheel here."
"We need to rig something - a plug tree," one of the engineers would say, and the room would explode in a din of voices, bouncing suggestions around.
Arthur let everyone have their say. The round workbench had been his idea, designed just for that: to make sure every voice was heard and every idea judged on its merit.
"I would've figured that out myself, eventually," he once whispered to Merlin while the men talked. "But it's not about me, it's about getting the job done. Good work, Merlin."
The praise was rare, but every time it filled him with silly, childish joy, and he couldn't stop grinning afterwards.
The innards of the plough they'd taken apart had been brought into the workshop and laid out on the floor in the middle. The engineers were slowly putting them back together again, fitting piece to piece as they puzzled out the function of each part. Merlin was tasked with restoring the bits that had been cut up when they'd pulled Arthur free. He aligned the metal shreds as well as he could and made some awkward, messy drawings of the joints as they were meant to be. Gawain was now busy plotting Merlin's vision in clean lines and to scale on his large easel.
"Sorry about the, uh. I'm not very good at this," Merlin told him.
"Don't talk rubbish, you're bloody brilliant," Gawain muttered, carefully tracing ink over his flawless charcoal sketch. "Only Morgause has that kind of feel for the old machines, but you're even better than her."
Morgause was the only woman among Arthur's engineers. There were no rules either way, but the noblemen were reluctant to send their daughters into training, preferring to advantageously marry them off as soon as possible. Morgause was an orphan, so she did as she pleased.
She wore the same clothes as everyone else - plain tight trousers, white shirt and heavy boots, and had her blond hair swept back in a high knot. She had her own go
ggles and a leather apron, like every engineer, but hardly ever put them on - she rarely worked with metal. She spent most of the day at her workbench, furiously writing something on long scrolls of paper. When Merlin peeked into one of them he saw only numbers with an odd scattering of letters he didn't recognise. She gave him a haughty, dark look, and he edged back to be at Arthur's side where he felt safer.
"What's she doing?" he asked Arthur.
"She's calculating if our devices are sound before we test them. Bit of a speciality of hers. She's got an amazing way with numbers."
"Isn't it simpler to just give it a go and see if things work?"
"Not always a good idea," said Arthur curtly. He had a small crescent-shaped burn mark on his cheek. When he pulled his goggles over his eyes, the leather rim fit perfectly against the inner edge of that scar. Merlin imagined what must have happened: a cylinder bursting at a seam, hot steam rushing out. If not for the goggles, Arthur could've been blinded.
"She's also working on a device of her own design," Arthur said and tossed another pair of goggles at Merlin. "Put these on and help me with the grinder. She's going to make some sort of mechanical abacus. She says it will change the world."
"Hell if I know. Ask her, if you like."
"No thanks. I'm even more scared of her than you are."
Merlin spun the handle of the metal grinder and watched as Arthur pressed pieces of metal to the wheel to work a tenth of an inch off the edge. He'd push his goggles up to examine the result, and that'd muss his hair all over again. It stood up in even greater disarray than in the morning, shining in the bright light of the workshop. He'd tighten his lips and frown a little, and then his eyes might light up if he was pleased with his work. Merlin tried not to stare, but just couldn't stop.
There was a small smithy inside the castle courtyard, run by a very sweet girl called Gwen and a few of her apprentices. They worked for the engineers, making nothing but tools and machine parts to their precise designs. Arthur went there often with drawings and samples. Merlin sat in the corner furthest from the furnace to keep the books safe from stray sparks and watched him and Gwen commune over their work. As they bent together over their latest project, discussing various types of steel and metalworking techniques, their faces would be very close, Arthur's golden hair almost brushing against her dark, wavy locks. Merlin thought they'd make a beautiful couple.
Back in Ealdor, Merlin always had been something of a matchmaker. Whenever he sensed a bit of a spark in the air, a tingle of a mutual attraction, he'd jump at the chance to help. He'd tease and needle the both parties, coaxing out confessions. He'd encourage shy lovers, set up chance meetings, or pass along messages. He loved the vicarious thrill of an unfolding romance, but the real joy was in seeing people glow with happiness when things worked out. It was a bit like magic, how two lives could intertwine, change so much and become so bright, so much more than one and one.
In this case, however, he didn't feel any inclination to meddle. Arthur was already very happily betrothed to his work and didn't seem interested in anything else. Besides, Merlin was pretty sure Gwen had something going on with one of her apprentices. The looks that man gave her could melt iron without the need for the furnace, and he was impossibly gorgeous, maybe even prettier than Arthur.
Arthur, however, was Arthur. Merlin wasn't even ashamed of his crush anymore. Everyone in Camelot was a little bit in love with their prince; it was easier to give in to that exasperated sort of admiration than to fight it. For all his annoying, rude stubbornness and his many other aggravating traits, Arthur just had a way of growing on you against your better judgement.
They all worked through the day and ate a simple lunch together at their round workbench. In the afternoon all of the engineers, rather reluctantly, went for a horse ride around the foot of the castle hill - for their health, as Arthur maintained. Merlin, too, got dragged along once. He'd never ridden before; a torturous hour of that healthful exercise nearly finished him off. He was excused till the bruises on his tenderest parts healed up, and he spent the free time napping in the empty workshop, visiting uncle Gaius in his laboratory, or chatting with Gwen and her men.
The engineers returned, flushed and windswept, and rushed to their workbenches with renewed vigour, like travellers rushing to embrace their families after months' absence. The next few hours would be spent in a state of a slight frenzy, everyone racing against time to finish whatever they'd been working on. When the tower bell rung, signalling one hour to dinner, they'd put down their tools and straighten up with slightly lost expressions, as if awoken from a dream.
They'd leave for their quarters, suddenly looking tired and subdued, shaking out their arms and rubbing at their shoulders. Back in Arthur's rooms Merlin filled his bath, immensely grateful for the water pipes that ran through the castle - he really didn't fancy dragging full buckets all the way up here from the well. Then, armed with a cloth and soap, he steeled himself for the hardest task of the day.
It was a lot worse than dressing Arthur. Thankfully, Merlin was only required to scrub his back and wash his hair. To distract himself from the picture wet, relaxed Arthur made as he reclined in that tub, Merlin catalogued scars on Arthur's skin, asking for stories about each of them.
Arthur's hands were a web-work of old cuts, and he couldn't even remember how he got most of those. The whole underside of his left arm was covered in white knots of a healed burn from the same accident that scarred his face. A long, jagged scar on his side was from when a heavy spring snapped free and nearly skewered him, but luckily only grazed his ribs. The one on his shoulder was still dark, not a year old yet. He got that when he fell from the arch-head of the newest, tallest engine in Camelot; he'd broken a bone then, badly, and still took medicine for that. There were several thin faded lines on his back that could be lash marks. Merlin didn't ask about those.
Arthur's hand was still mottled with yellow bruises. The court physician said that no bones had been fractured, but it still swelled up some after a long day of work. Arthur's fingers were yet to regain full strength and agility; it frustrated him to no end, and he grumbled at Merlin just to grumble at someone. Their half-hearted bickering helped Merlin get through the ordeal of getting Arthur dressed in soft, richly coloured clothes for the dinner with the king and his court.
Merlin had been deemed too clumsy to serve Arthur at the royal table, and he was endlessly happy about that. It wasn’t just because he could instead hang about in Arthur's chambers for an hour or so under the pretence of doing his chores. King Uther was damn terrifying, and besides, spending time with his father almost always seemed to put Arthur in a dark mood. When he'd return he'd angrily toss his finery on the floor and change into his night clothes, all by himself.
"I've turned up your bed, shined your boots, polished your goggles, cleaned your apron, washed your socks, oiled your tools, and I'm half way through the chapter on bent syphon," Merlin would say to cheer him up. Arthur loved ordering him about, but even more he liked hearing that his orders were carried out to the letter.
Arthur would pace the room for a few moments and then dismiss him as an afterthought.
"You may go," he'd say. "I shall turn in soon, I won't need you tonight."
Merlin expected that the crown prince of Camelot would unwind before bed with a drink of fine wine from southern kingdoms, maybe read a bawdy book or send for a bedmate. But it didn't at all come as a surprise when Arthur lit two oil lamps on his table and settled down to tinker with some fine, delicate clockwork.
"I might as well read while you're wasting oil," Merlin would say, and they'd stay like that, barely talking, with only the rustle of pages and soft clacks of metal filling the silence. He'd have banked the fire, but the room would be still warm; he watched over the top of his book as Arthur's face relaxed and lit up with the quiet excitement of making things tick just the way he wanted.
Merlin couldn't see the purpose of that device, no matter how long he contemplated it. It had never been touched by magic, and was never meant to be. To him it was just a mess of interlocking parts with nothing to bring them together and give the machine a living shape in his mind.
"What is this thing?" he asked one day.
"It's for my father," Arthur answered. "I'm improving on the one he has already."
"I wanted to ask," Merlin said, mimicking Uther's famous jerky finger-drumming. "What's with his right hand? With all respect to His Majesty and all, it's amazingly creepy. I wanted to ask in the kitchens, but I don't like to gossip."
"He doesn't have a right hand."
It took Merlin a moment to puzzle it out, and then he looked at the thing on the table and saw it, clear as if he'd designed it himself: metal tendons, springs and pistons, and five clumps of gears and bearings at the ends where the fingers would be.
"He lost it in an engine explosion, the same one that killed Gorlois. Not many even know about it. He keeps up appearances. The one he has now does random things sometimes. It's heavy and it always hurts him and it can't do much – this one is going to be great, though. He wants me to fix the ploughs first, so I just tinker with in my spare time. I'm only telling you this so you don't go around asking stupid questions. If you repeat to anyone anything I just said I'll use your skin to make new bellows for Gwen."
"Okay," Merlin shrugged indifferently as he did to every threat from Arthur. He never went through with it, starting from the first time he'd threatened Merlin with stocks. "So is his hand steam-powered?"
"Don't be daft, Merlin. How could it be? It's powered by springs. His manservant winds it up every morning."
Merlin would stop reading around midnight when he became too tired to take anything in, but he stayed in his chair till Arthur either went to bed or dozed off with his head on the table, still clutching at tweezers or a screwturner. Merlin would then get up and gently shake him half-awake, just enough so he would cooperate with being pulled up and walked over to bed. When Merlin tucked the blankets over him Arthur would wake up a bit more and look up at him oddly with unfocused dark eyes.
"Good night, sire," Merlin would say, just to break the quietness of the moment. He'd return to his cold room, navigate through the darkness by touch, slide under the blankets and grin to himself, for no reason he could explain, till he fell asleep.