"I don't know who it was that broke the strap on that saddle, but whoever it was, I could just about kiss him."
"That's not exactly saying much. You'd kiss anyone for a carrot."
"You're one to talk about promiscuous affections. Don't think I didn't notice you trying to nibble on Prince Arthur's hair the other day."
Merlin paused in his routine tidying away of some tack in the stables. He'd been listening almost unthinkingly to the conversation in the next stall, assuming it was a couple of the grooms talking over the outcome of the recent mle, before the words themselves caught his attention.
"Lousy great oaf," the first voice was grumbling. "I don't know what they're feeding the knights these days, but I swear that one must have weighed twice what he looked like."
"They're all muscle, these rough-and-tumble types. You knew that when we signed up for the job, it's no use complaining now."
"You can say that, but don't tell me you never think about that old stable at the inn sometimes. Nothing but occasional travel, and good local fodder."
There was an odd wuffling noise, and then, "Too many drunks, trying to find the outhouse and fetching up in the watering trough instead. Get more peace here, if you ask me. And the food's better."
"Maybe, but when they do trot you out it's to let everyone and their uncle flail around near your vital organs with swords they can't even hold onto. It's not what I call an ideal promotion of personal safety. I think this whole 'upward mobility' deal was a crock."
"Well, you wanted adventure—"
"Oi. What are you looking at?"
Merlin had crept up to the dividing wall between himself and the conversants, and had just climbed up on a box to peek over into the next stall, when the speakers confronted him.
"Don't you have anything better to do than pry into conversations that don't concern you?" one querulous voice exclaimed.
"Nosy parker," the other agreed.
The stall was empty except for a quite ordinary looking pair of bays.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt," Merlin said, feeling foolish, "but was that you, er, talking?"
"You see anyone else in here?" one of them asked.
"Right. Only you're, uh, horses," Merlin pointed out.
"Oh god, this one's a blooming genius," the other said.
"One of these court intellectuals they warned us about, I shouldn't wonder. Don't worry, son, it's just a couple of talking horses, nothing for you to trouble your prescriptivist little world view."
At that point, Merlin fell off the box. The horses carried on the topic of court etiquette and eavesdropping servants with some relish and numerous epithets as Merlin came around into their stall, rubbing his bruised rump tenderly.
"So, how is it you can talk, then?"
One of the horses fixed him with a flat and disapproving stare.
"I don't see how that's any of your business."
"Typical human. Suppose you think we stop existing when you're not around to sit on us and tell us what to do? Did it ever occur to you that we might have private lives of our own—"
"—capacity for independent thought..."
"Right. Sorry. Only, if you don't mind me saying so," Merlin said, "you're not quite the sort of thing — er, people — horses — that I usually —"
The horse he was addressing suddenly made a very traditionally horsey whinnying sound and Merlin glanced over his shoulder to find the squire of one of the visiting knights watching him oddly from the entrance to the stable.
"Oh! Hello there!" Merlin waved awkwardly to the squire. "I was just—" he sketched out a noncommital gesture "—having a little chat. You know. Who's a good horsie?" he cooed to the nearest one.
The squire gave Merlin and the horses a wide berth as he retrieved saddle and girth from another stall, then edged out of the stables, looking at Merlin askance the whole time.
"Er. Sorry, what was I saying?" he asked the horses.
"I believe you were about to make an opprobrious remark about our origins."
"I just meant, I haven't met any talking animals before." Somehow, it had seemed like giant talking dragons shouldn't count.
One of the horses snorted in a perfect imitation of derisive laughter.
"Just because you've met someone, and they didn't feel like striking up a conversation, doesn't mean they're incapable of speech. Some of us just have better things to do with our time."
"Well, I think it's a silly prejudice, anyway," said the other horse. "What it is that makes some animals so convinced of their own superiority that they won't even attempt to communicate with those outside their own kind I will never understand. Take old Rowan there, who you were tending to just a minute ago. She's chatty enough if you can get her on her own away from the stable boys. But stoop to talking to a human? Don't make me laugh."
"That's the trouble with these high-bred, noble steeds. Too wrapped up in their own sense of superiority to cross superficial social boundaries."
"Not that we were suffering much from being deprived of your conversational skills, but there's no point being rude, even if you did butt in where you weren't wanted."
"Right, well, thanks for being so... welcoming. It was nice to meet you, uh, horses," Merlin said, backing away slowly.
"We do have names, you know. I'm Fred, for St. Winifred, and this is Ignatius."
"For my sins. You can call me Iggy, if you like," Ignatius offered graciously.
There was a long, expectant pause.
"Oh! I'm Merlin," Merlin said at last.
"I can see we're going to have to work on your manners," said Fred.
"Oh well, everyone has to start somewhere," said Ignatius. "If you'd like us to give you a few pointers, we could steer you in the right direction."
"We accept tokens of appreciation for our generous instruction in the form of carrots—"
"—or sweetmeats, if you can find anything with honey lying about in the castle kitchens," Ignatius added.
"I'll see what I can do about that," Merlin promised, and made good his retreat.
He returned to Rowan's stall and finished the rest of his work in a daze. Before he left, he bent forward to whisper in Rowan's ear, feeling somewhat foolish as he did so, "You'd tell me if you could talk, wouldn't you?"
Rowan regarded him balefully, sniffed, and turned back to her fodder without a word.