One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it -- it was the red cat's fault entirely. The white kitten, which had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering) couldn't possibly have had any hand in the mischief.
Arthur wasn't entirely certain where old Kilgharrah had even found the poor thing. He had simply appeared with it that morning, dragging it inside from the bitter cold and snow by its scruff. Now he was quite content to hold it down by its ear with one paw, and then with the other paw he rubbed his face all over. The white kitten, for its part, was lying quite still and trying to purr -- no doubt feeling that it was all meant for its good.
Arthur gave a great stretch and slumped in his armchair. He plucked up the ball of worsted that had wound the kitten up in a grand game of romps earlier. The white bundle had rolled the ball up and down until it had all come undone into knots and tangles, with the kitten running after its own tail in the middle. Perhaps that was why Kilgharrah was giving it such a thorough washing now. That rough tongue would certainly teach it a lesson.
But now the worsted was restored to its proper shape, and the cats were occupied with each other, and Arthur was utterly, entirely bored. The whole world seemed dull to him these days, as if it was a watercolor that had been left out in the rain. He yearned for something greater, something more than the life his father had laid out for him. It was true that Lord Ector worked hard to provide for his two sons, and that Arthur's older brother Kay was eagerly following in their father's footsteps. But there was no excitement in managing the family estate. There were no surprises, no great foes to be overcome.
There were two things that Arthur liked, and they were entirely opposite to each other in nature: a good scrap and a good book. His father had channeled the former into lessons in fencing and riding and other athletic pursuits, but Lord Ector had little love for fantasies of magic and knights, monsters and kings. Lord Ector had declared that as soon as this coming spring, Arthur might have to be sent down to South Africa to fight against the Boers -- for battle would make short work of any poetry that infested his soul.
And so Arthur was loathe to think of the spring -- and yet he was loathe to think of the winter, too. For this winter had simply gone on too long, and tucked away all the delights of the world under a deep white quilt. It was hardly a wonder that Kilgharrah had taken pity on the kitten, for if it had been left outside for another day it would surely have frozen as solidly as the Thames. Arthur sighed again and turned back to the chessboard and its neat figures. Every one of them had a place and a purpose suited to their nature. A rook did not feel the need to insinuate itself into a game of poker. But the white and red pieces were each whole families, just as the hearts and clubs of a set of playing cards. None of them were orphans, as Arthur was; they were not foundlings taken in like a lost kitten from the snow.
Arthur tossed the worsted ball onto the rug, and the kitten mewled and struggled out of Kilgharrah's grasp. It lunged after the ball, its sharp tail stiff with excitement, and immediately tangled itself up again. Arthur shook his head and laughed. "You are an utter disgrace," he told it, but the kitten only blinked its blue eyes and went back to its conquest of the terrible, beastly yarn.
"Here," Arthur said, turning to Kilgharrah, who was studiously cleaning his paw. "You take red, and I'll play white." He nudged the chessboard towards the cat, but Kilgharrah only washed his head instead of taking a proper interest in the game. Sometimes Kilgharrah would watch the chess board with intense interest, and seemed to understand -- even purring when Arthur declared checkmate against Kay! The queen might be the most powerful, and the king the most valuable, but Arthur's favorite piece was the knight, that bold defender that jumped over its enemies and snuck past enemy lines.
"Well, if you're going to be like that," Arthur said, and turned away. He began playing on his own, switching back and forth between white and red until he had checkmated himself. He lay his king down in victorious defeat and then reset the board. He stood and stretched, and looked around for something to do.
To his surprise, both cat and kitten had disappeared, and the tangled worsted lay abandoned on the rug. "Kilgharrah?" he called, as he searched the house, leaving the warmth of the study's fire behind. It seemed that the old cat had got some mischief into his head, dragging the kitten out to where it might catch a chill, when it was just recovered from its tenure in the snow. But all the doors were locked, and the windows closed, and there were no footprints in the snow outside. Their disappearance only spurred Arthur's curiosity, and at last he found himself up in the attic, peering among the boxes and dustcloths.
Arthur had never had much reason to be up in the attic, which was cold and dark and generally unappealing. All the more reason to find the kitten and bring it safely back to the warm study. A quiet mewl caught his ear, and he fumbled his way towards the back. He saw a flutter of movement, and pulled away a dustcloth to reveal a standing mirror -- and there, in the reflection, was the kitten. He turned, naturally assuming that it would be behind him, but it was gone -- yet when he looked back again, the kitten was still there. It mewled again, and Arthur stared in confusion. Was this some sort of illusion? He looked around the mirror, but the back was solid wood.
"How did you get in there?" he asked, and wondered if perhaps he was dreaming, and was in truth drowsing in the armchair in the study. But a pinch to his arm felt real enough. He reached out and touched the mirror, and a strange shiver went all through him. When it stopped, the kitten was gone! Alarmed, he turned around, and was relieved to see that the kitten was at last back where it belonged. He picked it up and gave it a bop on the nose for being so troublesome, then petted it to make up for the bop. There was no sign of Kilgharrah, but the old cat could take care of himself. Perhaps he had gone to rescue another orphan from the snow.
Yet as Arthur returned downstairs, he was startled by the bright daylight streaming in through the windows, which was particularly odd as it had been evening when he'd left the study. As his eyes adjusted, he discovered to his great astonishment that in the few minutes he had been upstairs, the cold winter night had transformed into a sunny summer day! Perhaps he was asleep after all, despite the pinch. He had certainly dreamed of skipping spring entirely.
Yet as he walked outside, he felt awake, perhaps more awake than he had even been. Nothing was washed-out or dull; instead every blade of grass, every fluffy cloud, every gently waving leaf was more vivid and alive than any he had ever seen. It was all too much to take in at once, and so he did not try, but merely walked along the twisting path and up the hill, all the while staring in wonder.
The white kitten mewled and wriggled in his arms, so Arthur let it perch on his shoulder as he walked. "We're going to have to give you a name," he told it. "How about Snowflake?" The kitten gave a scornful hiss and kneaded its sharp little claws through Arthur's shirt. "Ouch! All right, not Snowflake."
As they followed the path, Arthur became aware that someone -- many someones -- were whispering and giggling nearby. And yet he saw no one, only the twittering birds and the gentle wind. Bright flowers nodded their heads as he passed, and on a whim he reached down to pick one, thinking to put it in his buttonhole. But as he gripped the stem, the daisy shrieked, and Arthur fell back in alarm, nearly causing the kitten to topple from its perch.
"How rude!" sniffed a yellow tulip.
"Well, I never!" declared an orange tiger lily.
"You can talk!" exclaimed Arthur.
"Of course we can talk," said the lily. "When there's someone worth talking to."
Arthur was so astonished that he could not speak for a moment; it quite seemed to take his breath away. At last he asked, cautiously, "Can all flowers talk?"
"As well as you can," said the lily. "And a great deal louder."
"'It isn't manners for us to begin, you know," said a rose, "and I really was wondering when you'd speak! Said I to myself, 'His face has got some sense in it, though it's not a clever one!' Still, you're the right colour, and that goes a long way."
"I don't care about the colour," the lily remarked. "If only his petals curled up a little more, he'd be all right."
Being criticized for being insufficiently flower-like was too much for Arthur on top of everything else. "If you don't hold your tongues, I'll pick you!"
There was silence in a moment, and several of the pink daisies turned white.
The kitten was gripping into Arthur with its claws, quite agitated by all the hubbub, and so he took it down into its arms and petted it, soothing himself as much as the kitten. "Are there any more people in the garden besides me?"
"Oh yes," said the rose. "Sometimes there are flowers that walk past, all red and silver. It's really quite remarkable, how they can do that."
"You're always wondering," said the lily.
"Red and silver?"
"With the same awkward shape as you," added the rose.
"Where do I find them?"
"They're coming!" cried a larkspur. "I hear their footsteps, thump, thump, thump, along the gravel-walk!"
There was a commotion among the daisies, and Arthur turned around to see a line of men marching up the path behind him. It seemed wiser not to be seen by them, and so he ducked behind a nearby willow tree.
"Oh!" cried the rose, and then all the flowers closed up all their petals in alarm, pulling them together until they were almost back to bud.
Arthur peered through the willow-branches, wide-eyed, for here were the very knights from his books! Their mail and helmets were gleaming steel and they wore vivid red capes, and every man had a sword at his side. What was odd was that they were also carrying cans of red paint in one hand, and brushes in the other. For every length of the troop, they would stop, turn to the flowers that lined the path, and then proceed to paint them red!
As soon as they passed, Arthur exclaimed, "What nonsense!"
The flowers carefully unfurled themselves, shaking off the wet paint. Many of them were quite agitated. The knights had even painted the rose, which was already red to begin with. It seemed quite unfair to Arthur, to cover a lovely red rose with red paint.
"I'll go after them," Arthur said, stepping out from behind the willow. "I shall put a stop to this at once."
"You can't possibly do that," said the Rose, as it groomed flecks of paint from its calyx."I should advise you to walk the other way."
"If you fight, you'll only end up plucked yourself," warned the lily.
But Arthur was determined. Even if the flowers were quite annoying, they didn't deserve to be covered in paint. "I'm a person, not a flower," he told them. Not to mention the fact that he was easily able to defend himself. If he could get his hands on some armor and a sword, he would be a match for any of those knights. And as the knights did not speak to one another, and the helmets obscured their faces, perhaps he could be just that.
He put the kitten down the amongst the daisies and told it, sternly, "You stay here, and don't get into any more mischief. Is that understood?"
The kitten mewled, rolled over onto its back, and tried to catch its tail.
Arthur trailed after the knights, and it wasn't long before they stopped by a stream and dispersed to drink and to relieve themselves. Arthur spotted one his size going off on his own, and Arthur knocked him out and disrobed him. Once dressed in the stolen armor, Arthur blended in with the knights and joined them on their march. But he made sure to whisper apologies to the flowers when he had to paint them.
The parade of knights ran through the town and up into the castle courtyard, where human and non-human townspeople were gathered around a platform. High above, there were more knights on a balcony, and then a man came forth upon it. He must be a king, for he bore a golden crown upon his head; he was clothed in brown leather and the same red cloak as the knights. An old grey rabbit followed after him; he was tall as a man and dressed in robes and wearing spectacles. He carried a large dish of tarts upon it: they looked so good, that it made Arthur quite hungry to look at them.
Down below, a man was led up onto the platform in chains. He had smears of jam on his face and crumbs on his shirt. A man-sized racoon stood beside him, with an axe slung over its shoulder. It was an execution!
The grey rabbit stepped forward, cleared his throat, and announced: "His Imperial Highness, His Grace, His Excellency, His Royal Majesty, King Uther!"
The king stepped forth and declared, with a booming voice: "The King of Hearts, he made some tarts, all on a summer day. But Thomas Collins stole those tarts, and took them quite away! And by laws of Camelot, I, Uther Pendragon, have decreed that such practices are banned on penalty of death. I pride myself as a fair and just king, but for the crime of tart thievery, there is but one sentence I can pass. Off with his head!"
The raccoon executioner raised his axe, and down it went with a great, wet thump!
"How dreadfully savage!" muttered Arthur, quite dismayed. The poor man had only eaten a few tarts. He had probably not even been given a fair trial. Fair and just indeed! But what could one expect of a kingdom where knights spent their days painting flowers?
"Off with his head!" cried the King again. "Off with his head!"
"But sire," said the old grey rabbit, cautiously. "His head is already off."
"Oh," said the King. "So it is. Excellent!" He thrust out his hand, and a teacup was placed into it, and it was immediately filled with wine. He drank deeply.
The old grey rabbit consulted a scroll. "If it pleases your Majesty, there is still the matter of the Jabberwock--"
The King threw his teacup to the ground, where it smashed against the stone. "The Jabberwock! Where? Where?" He looked to and fro. "Off with its head! Off with its head at once!"
The rabbit gave a resigned sigh. "The Jabberwock hunt, sire."
"The hunt!" cried the King, and spread his arms in welcome to his subjects. "Today we shall commence a great purge! Today we shall end the tyranny of the tart-snatchers! For too long, proud Camelot has been without an heir. Whoever brings to me the head of the Jabberwocky shall be the next King of Camelot!"
Well, this was just the sort of adventure that Arthur had always longed for. With one fell swoop of his sword, he would destroy this dangerous Jabberwock and rescue the kingdom from its mad king. Dream or not, it was all very exciting.
As the crowd dispersed, one of the knights took off his helmet and stepped in front of the men; his red hair and beard gleamed like copper in the sun. "Those who do not wish to fight can do so without stain on their character. For those brave enough to volunteer should know, the chances of returning are slim, for the forest of the Jabberwock is full of many terrible beasts. Go kill the Jabberwock, but fear the jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Destroy the Jubjub bird, and spear the frumious Bandersnatch!"
Arthur stepped forward, as did perhaps a dozen others. They knelt and raised their swords in pledge, and Arthur copied them.
"Excellent!" declared the King, and had another cup of wine.
Birds flew overhead, scrawny parrots with high beaks and very disarrayed feathers. They came across another creature that looked even more like a badger, except it also looked like a lizard, and even more like a corkscrew.
"This is a very strange place," Arthur said."How will we know a Jubjub bird or a Bandersnatch or even a Jabberwock when we see them, when the forest is full of odd creatures?"
All the knights turned and looked at him, then at each other. They raised their visors, and Sir Leon said, "You're not George. Show yourself, knave!"
Arthur lifted his visor. "I am no knave!"
Sir Leon threatened him with his sword. "What have you done to Sir George? This is his armor."
"He let me borrow it," Arthur lied, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor. "He decided that the daisies were insufficiently red and needed more painting, and lent me his armor so that I might fight against the Jabberwock and save Camelot."
Sir Leon narrowed his eyes suspiciously, then suddenly relaxed. "That does sound like George. He's so dull he makes jokes about paint. I was rather surprised to see him volunteer."
"Then you'll let me fight?" Arthur asked.
"Camelot needs brave men," Sir Leon said. "You have come with us this far. With that, you have already proved your worth. As for the beasts, you will know the Jubjub bird by its cry and the Bandersnatch by its long neck. But none have met the Jabberwock and survived, so we must track it by its fewmets."
They lowered their visors and continued on, deeper into the forest. Eerie and menacing sounds echoed through the trees, and the knights started at every waving branch. The cry of the Jubjub bird was heard, but it flew too high for them to reach. One knight climbed a Tumtum tree to reach it, but met a foul end: the bird attacked with mighty claws and chomping beak, and the only part of the knight that returned to them was his head.
The surviving knights fled on, for it was the Jabberwock's head they needed, and they had no desire to lose their own. Arthur decided that it was not a dream that he was having, but a nightmare, and he would quite like to wake up now. He pinched himself again, very hard, but the ground and the forest remained quite solid. He was forced to consider that this might not even be a nightmare. In which case...
A terrible howl shook the trees, like sixty hounds barking and growling at once. What manner of beast could be capable of such thunder? And then he saw it, a black shape amongst the darkness: the huge bulk of the Jabberwock. It had eyes of flame, the head and neck of a cobra, the body of a leopard, and the haunches of a lion, and was easily as tall as seven men. One knight succumbed to his fear and ran, only to be grabbed by another creature with a long neck -- surely the Bandersnatch! -- and eaten whole. The rest held their ground, waiting for Leon's signal, and then attacked, lunging at the Jabberwock with swords raised.
Arthur slashed at the Jabberwock's leg with his sword, but despite the fierceness of his blow, the leg was unharmed -- the sword had glanced off it harmlessly! The other knights were in the same predicament, and soon the Jabberwock made short work of them, biting and slashing with its terrible claws. Arthur ran beneath the beast to stab its vulnerable stomach, but the beast was bothered by the tickle of his blade and reached up to scratch it, slicing through the armor and raking Arthur's back. Arthur screamed, and as his back throbbed in agony, he felt the rush of poison in his veins.
As he dragged himself away from the monster, he glanced back and saw that all his companions had fallen. His vision began to fade, and the last thought he had was for the poor kitten, and the dangerous world he had abandoned it to.
He was further surprised when he opened his eyes to find that he was not snug in his own bed, but lying on a cot in a tent in a forest! He sat up in alarm, only to wince in pain. He inspected himself and found that his knightly armor was gone, and he had been dressed in peasant clothes. Beneath his new shirt, his back was bandaged, and he felt the stiffness of healing skin.
Arthur contemplated if it was possible to wake up within a dream, and he supposed that it was. Yet after all that he had experienced in Camelot, he was forced to accept that this was not a dream at all. Though he had longed for such an adventure all his life, now he felt a great longing for home, for the mundanities of schooling and work. For a simple game of chess by the hearth on a cold winter's night. He felt that he had been tested in the forest and had failed.
Cautiously he peered out of the tent. Just as in the town and the castle, the people here were a mix of human and animal kind, though these were dressed in simple robes. While it was a fair guess to say that they were somehow responsible for his survival, the reality of this world made Arthur far more cautious than he had been. He waited until the coast was clear, and then crept over to the next tent. There he found Sir Leon, but he was in a poor state indeed, his bare chest bandaged and his skin pallid. Arthur tried to shake him awake, but he did not stir.
Arthur turned abruptly -- which quite dizzied him -- and found one of the robed men at the other end of the tent. He had dark skin and a bald head, and in contrast to almost everyone else Arthur had met so far, he had an air of calm about him.
"Yes," he said, glancing around for a weapon, in case he should need one. But the man kept his distance.
"I am Aglain," the man said. "And you are?"
"It is an honor to meet you, Arthur," Aglain said, with a nod. "Few have entered the Tulgey Forest and survived."
"I suspect I have you to thank for that," Arthur said, and looked to Sir Leon. "You saved us?"
"We saved those that we could," Aglain said, with a tinge of sadness. "Five men, including yourself. Your injuries were the lightest. We should leave the others to rest and heal."
It seemed that Arthur had finally stumbled onto the only sane people in the entire kingdom. He allowed himself to be escorted out, and was introduced to a large, anthropomorphic tortoise.
The tortoise's name was Iseldir; he was the leader of the group, and he hobbled very slowly. He had white hair and a pair of spectacles perched on his nose. The spectacles actually perched, as they had long, backwards-bending legs like a stork, with which they gripped the tortoise's earless head.
"Thank you for your help," Arthur said. "Do you, perhaps, know the way out?"
"Out?" asked Iseldir, with a slow blink.
"Out of Camelot," Arthur explained. "Only I'd quite like to go home. I came in accidentally, you see, though a mirror."
The tortoise gave him a long look, then blinked again. "Do not be afraid. We know your quest."
"But I don't have a quest," Arthur insisted. "I only want to go home."
"If a fish came to me, and told me he was going on a journey, I should say 'With what porpoise?'"
"Don't you mean "purpose"?' asked Arthur.
"I mean what I say," Iseldir replied, in an amused tone. "To find your home, you must seek the Mad Emrys."
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Arthur protested. He'd had his fill of mad people already.
"Oh, you can't help that," said Iseldir. "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" asked Arthur.
"You must be," said Iseldir, "or you wouldn't have come here."
"Very well," Arthur said, resigned. "Which way do I go?" He expected some arduous journey, if his books were any guide. A challenge to hone his noble soul, taking him over mountains and against fearsome adversaries. The idea would have been enticing only hours ago.
"He's over there," said Aglain, and he pointed to a clearing a little ways past the tents.
"One piece of advice," Iseldir said, calling after Arthur as he stomped away. "You must remember that it's no use going back to yesterday, because you were a different person then."
As the two saw him, they straightened from their easy poses.
"There's no room," said the boy, grumpily.
"No room?" said Arthur, looking at the mostly empty seats. He pulled one out and sat down. "There's plenty of room."
"Have some wine," said the bearded man, in an encouraging tone.
Arthur looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. "I don't see any wine."
"Must have drank it all," said the man.
"Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it," said Arthur, annoyed. It seemed that there were two mad people he had to deal with instead of one. He could only be grateful that the dormouse was asleep, for awake who knew what sort of trouble it might bring?
"It wasn't very civil of you to come without being invited," said the man.
"I was invited!" protested Arthur, stomping his foot. "That giant tortoise sent me here."
"Do I know you?" asked the boy. He had been looking at Arthur for some time with barely hidden curiosity.
"Er, I'm Arthur," Arthur said, and held out his hand.
"So I don't know you," said the boy.
"You're the Mad Emrys," Arthur guessed.
"Only my friends call me mad," said Emrys, severely.
"I'd never have a friend who could be such an ass!" said Arthur.
"Or I one who could be so stupid," replied Emrys. The agitation made his ears redden, and they were already unfortunate enough, with how they stuck out. The brim of his hat could not get past them.
"You should learn not to make personal remarks," Arthur said. "It's very rude." He couldn't see what help this Emrys could possibly be anyway. That would teach him to take advice from a giant tortoise.
Emrys opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, "When do a head and a tail make a whole?"
"Oh, it's riddles now?" Arthur said. "I believe I can guess that."
"Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?" said the bearded man.
"Exactly so," said Arthur. He had always been good with riddles.
"Then you should say what you mean."
Arthur wasn't going to be put up with being insulted by a man without any name, and with such ridiculously silky hair. "And you are?"
"Gwaine. And this snoring lump is Mordred. Say hello, Mordred." Gwaine filled a spoon from his teacup and poured the tea into the teapot.
The little dormouse shook himself, creaked open his eyes, and tiredly began to sing: "Vengeance, vengeance, little king, how I wonder when you'll swing. Far above your head will fly, like a tea-cup in the sky." He then immediately passed out again, and fell completely into the teapot.
"Let him sleep," said Emrys, and replaced the lid.
"What could a dormouse want revenge for?" marvelled Arthur.
"The Red King executed his parents," said Gwaine. "They made the mistake of nibbling on one of his precious tarts, and then..." He drew his finger across his throat.
"How savage!" And yet Arthur couldn't help but wonder why, if eating the King's tarts was so dangerous, everyone kept stealing them. "Why did they do it?"
Emrys gave him a scolding look. "That cruel King has outlawed tarts for everyone but himself. But one cannot have tea without tarts!"
Arthur looked at the heavily-laden table, and saw whole trays of the forbidden food. "But you have tarts. Plenty of them!"
"Clean cup!" cried Emrys, suddenly. "Clean cup, move down!"
"Clean cup, move down!" echoed Gwaine, and the two of them jumped from their chairs and moved to the other end of the table.
"Don't avoid the question," Arthur chided, and followed after them to a new seat of his own.
"I found more wine!" Gwaine said, holding up a bottle triumphantly. "Have some more," he offered, with a toss of his hair.
"I've had nothing yet," Arthur replied in an offended tone, "so I can't take more."
"You mean you can't take less," said Emrys. "It's very easy to take more than nothing."
"Nobody asked your opinion."
"Who's making personal remarks now?" Emrys asked triumphantly.
Arthur did not quite know what to say to this, so he helped himself to some tea and bread-and-butter. "Iseldir said you could help me get home."
"Perhaps after tea time is over."
"When is that?"
"It's always tea time," said Gwaine, after he yanked the cork out with his teeth. He spat it away and filled his cup. "Why do you think we have such a big table?"
"This way we don't have to wash anything," added Emrys.
"You just keep moving around? But what happens when you come to the beginning again?"
Emrys opened his mouth to answer, but Gwaine interrupted him. "Suppose we change the subject," he said, giving Emrys a warning glance. "Have you guessed the riddle yet?"
"No, I give up," Arthur replied. "What's the answer?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," said Gwaine, barely disguising his smirk.
Emrys sniggered from behind his teacup.
Arthur was growing quite tired of their nonsense. "I think you might do something better with the time," he said, standing up, "than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers. Can you help me or not?"
"I vote that you tell us a story," said Emrys. He smiled with his lips pressed together and fluttered his eyelashes.
"I'll take that as a no," Arthur replied, and turned on his heel and stomped away. Conversing with them was like talking in circles -- like their tea party, going around and around forever. Behind him, he heard Emrys and Gwaine talking to each other, but Arthur paid them no mind; nor did he return to the Druids. Instead he walked down to the nearby stream and sat down on the bank to think.
When he had stumbled into this strange land, he had thought it a chance to finally live the life he had dreamed of -- that of a brave and noble knight, saving a kingdom from dire peril. Yet he had failed to defeat the Jabberwock and failed to stop the mad king. He could find his way back to the flower garden and step back through the mirror and accept that his dream had only ever been that. He was only a visitor here; owed these mad people nothing.
The sensible thing, the logical thing, would be to go back home. Perhaps the madness of Camelot was infectious, for he did not feel much like being sensible or logical; yet he trembled at the thought of facing the terrible Jabberwock again.
"Gwaine said I ought to apologize."
Arthur turned to find that Emrys had followed after him, and that the boy did not look overly pleased at having done so. "Out of the two of you, it would be difficult to say who has the worse manners."
"Oh, Gwaine, definitely," Emrys said, and sat himself down uninvited. Away from the table, Arthur could see that Emrys was as tall as he, but not as robust. Emrys removed his absurd hat so that he could pick at the feathers, and with it removed -- and without his earlier scowl -- the boy was not unhandsome, with his dark hair and sharp cheekbones, and his pink, pursed lips -- but here Arthur turned away.
"I still want to hear your story," Emrys said, almost shyly. "You're not like the other knights."
"That's because I'm not a knight," Arthur admitted. "I wanted an adventure, so I pretended."
This had a transformative effect on Emrys. "You're not one of the king's men?" he asked, staring in surprise.
Arthur shook his head. "If you mean King Uther, definitely not. And I would not be a knight for any king so cruel. That is why I volunteered to slay the Jabberwock. Whoever returns with the Jabberwock's head inherits the throne."
Emrys broke out into a wide grin. "Why didn't you say so in the first place? Of course I'll help you with that. Few would be as glad as I to see the mad king lose his throne -- or his head!"
Arthur thought of Mordred the dormouse. "Did he have your parents executed as well?"
"Uther is why I am trapped here with the Druids. I must stay hidden until I am of age, for I am the Emrys."
"Emrys isn't your name?" Arthur asked, confused.
"My name is Merlin," Emrys -- Merlin explained. "I am the Lord Emrys, and like my mother, when I come of age I shall be the Lord of Tarts. She is the Lady of Tarts. The king has imprisoned her in his castle and forces her to make delicious tarts for him and him alone."
That explained how Merlin and Gwaine had tarts when the rest of the kingdom did not. He felt a pang of sympathy for the boy, for losing his mother. "How long has she been held?"
"All my life," Merlin said, sadly. "The king was not always mad -- or so they say, for his madness came into this world before me. I was born in the royal kitchens, and was a prisoner there with my mother, baking by her side until the day I was smuggled out. For years I have remained here with the Druids, waiting until I was old enough to go back and rescue her."
"Surely you are old enough now."
Merlin turned sour again. "Gwaine doesn't think so. He won't let me leave, not until my five thousandth, eight-hundreth and twenty-fifth unbirthday."
Arthur blinked at him. "Your what?"
"You don't know what an unbirthday is? How silly! It's very simple," Merlin explained. "Every year you have only one birthday, yes?"
"But there are three hundred and sixty-four unbirthdays to get presents on! That's much better than just one."
It was all so utterly ridiculous, and yet something in Arthur warmed to the idea -- or perhaps it was just because of how Merlin looked when he smiled. "Well then, today is my unbirthday, too!"
"What a small world," Merlin said, with a conspiratorial smile. "And how many unbirthdays have you had?"
Arthur calculated in his head. "Six thousand, three hundred and fifty-nine."
"Why, then you're old enough to fight," said Merlin, and there was a devious air about him. "What do you say to taking up your sword again?"
"I didn't do a very good job of it the first time," Arthur said. He had a suspicion about what Merlin was up to, and was torn between encouragement and discouragement. "It would be foolish to go up against the king alone."
"Not the king," said Merlin, with an impatient wiggle. "The Jabberwock!"
Arthur stared at him. "You truly are mad! That beast laid a dozen strong knights to waste!"
"That's because you went about it the wrong way." Merlin dropped his voice to a low whisper and leaned close. "They say that there is a creature that knows how the Jabberwock can be slain."
"If that is so, then why has the king not already captured him and found the answer for himself?" Arthur challenged.
"Because he lives in the Tulgey Forest," Merlin replied, undaunted. "The king has sent men in there before. It is only thanks to the Druids that any ever survive, for they know the ways of the woods. I have spent many years in their company, and I can lead us safely through."
Arthur couldn't quite believe that he was actually considering Merlin's absurd plan. Walking back into that terrifying forest, on a wild goose chase after a creature who might not even be there at all. It was almost certain death. But it was an adventure, and it was a chance to succeed where he had failed. Perhaps he could live his dream after all.
"Very well," Arthur said, grudgingly lest Merlin get overly excited. "When do we leave?"
"Tonight," Merlin said, an eager gleam in his eyes. "We'll sneak out tonight, once everyone is asleep. The Jabberwock's head will soon be ours!"