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Insults in a Time of Magic

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Fanny is lost. Somewhere in the castle she took the wrong turn, and now she’s in a corridor she doesn’t recognise. It’s not unusual for her to get lost in the huge building, really (she does that quite a lot), but normally she finds her way back to familiar grounds within a half hour or so. This time she hasn’t. With a quick glance at her watch, she can see she’s completely missed Charms and will probably miss Transfiguration too if she can’t find her way back soon. Crap. Professor Ravensdale will give her detention – again. This is not good.

Sometimes she’s able to ask the paintings for help, but here all the paintings are of stunning landscapes or dark and daunting castles, or vases with beautiful flowers. But no people. There’s not a painted person in sight. There’s one that has a horse grazing a field, but when Fanny clears her throat to ask the horse the way back to the Great Hall, the sudden noise spooks it and it gallops into the next frame and out of sight.

Sighing, she starts walking down the corridor, thinking that maybe there’ll be a staircase there somewhere. Or a suit of armour. Sometimes you can ask them and they’ll show you. Well, ‘sometimes’ meaning ‘if you’re lucky’. It probably won’t happen today, since getting detention for the sixth time within the first month of the school year probably doesn’t count as lucky. How is Fanny going to explain this to Professor Wildren? Everyone says the Professor looks so nice, she can’t be that bad, but Fanny knows the truth. Looks can definitely be deceiving. Professor Wildren is small, plump and has rather big teeth which makes her look childish and kind. That was exactly what Fanny had believed too – at first. But when she accidentally turned her teacup into a power-crazy pixie that had stolen all the Professor’s quills before escaping in a cloud of green smoke (setting a couple of classmates’ robes on fire in the process), she had found out that Professor Wildren wasn’t a particularly soft-spoken person at all. She also doesn’t appreciate when students arrive late for her classes. Fanny is so screwed.

The carpet dampens the sounds of her footsteps and she snaps out of her reverie when she hears voices further down the corridor. Suddenly feeling a lot happier, she starts running towards the sound. Reaching the end of the hall, she stops and looks around. There’s not much here, just a couple of paintings – one of a fruit bowl (that looks pretty rank) and another of a room: a bedroom with a huge four-poster bed in it. There’s also a desk, a cupboard, a long table with accompanying chairs, and a window overlooking what appears to be a courtyard.

The painting is seemingly empty, but Fanny can still hear voices. They’re muffled right now, like they’re coming from behind a door, but the painting must be where the voices come from, right? To be sure, Fanny looks around, but the corridor is still empty and there’s no one in sight. Curious, she leans forward and tries to hear what’s being said.

Suddenly, a hidden door opens in the painting and two men fall out. One immediately draws his sword and the other lets a loud yelp escape his mouth as he stumbles backwards and trips over a large chest. Fanny takes a couple of steps back and thinks that she probably should run. Her mother’s words of how it’s rude to eavesdrop echoes in her head and she drops her eyes to the ground.

“I’m sorry,” she says quickly and starts walking away.

“It’s no trouble child,” the still-standing man says as he sheaths his sword. “We were simply surprised by your presence here. Hardly anyone visits us since they took that classroom out of use.”

He points to the door next to the painting. Fanny looks at him more closely. The man is blonde and muscular and well, he looks like a knight, really. He isn’t dressed in chainmail, but there’s something noble yet still friendly in his demeanor. Fanny can’t help but trust him.

Her curiosity wins out. “How come?”

“I’m not sure... Oi, you balance-impaired, long-limbed, useless excuse for a servant! Get up.”

“Hey!” a muffled voice retorts.

“Just get out from back there,” the knight says with a sigh to the other man, who is still struggling to disentangle himself from some sheets half strewn from the chest.

The other man, the one with the sheets, is dark-haired and is decidedly leaner than the knight, who now stands with his arms crossed and watches him with a discontented look on his face. The dark-haired man scowls and throws the last of the sheets back onto the floor.

He looks up at Fanny and shoots her a big grin. “Hello, nice to meet you,” he says before turning back to his master.

“Hi,” she answers slowly, feeling like there’s something going on here that she doesn’t quite understand.

The servant starts speaking again. “You know what? Fine. I’ll go get your stupid pear, even if I have to run down five flights of stairs to get it because your royal pratness only eats pears from the right painting even though we have perfectly fine ones right here!” He gestures to the painting next to theirs.

“You can’t speak to me like that! I’m your king and you shouldn’t disrespect me. I can have you thrown in the stocks!”

The dark-haired man snorts loudly and turns away to look out the window. The look the blonde gives the other man is one of fondness rather than anger, but it’s brief and Fanny thinks she might have misinterpreted it.

And we’ve got company! Look at this poor girl. She is probably insulted by your use of immature insults!” the king says, sounding pompous.

The other man looks back at Fanny for second before replying. “Well alright then, Sire. You address the poor child, I’m sure you’ll do a much better job. Just remember that I wasn’t really talking to her. And I should force you to go and get the pear for yourself, you... you... you clotpole!”

With that, he stalks out of the painting and disappears.

Fanny makes an apologetic gesture to the knight – the king. “I apologize... My Lord,” she stammers before going quiet again.

The king keeps looking at the spot where the servant had disappeared for a few seconds too long. Fanny wonders about it, but she isn’t foolish enough to ask. Kings are known for being easily offended, aren’t they? Best to try and keep on his good side. She kneels down on the carpet.

“Dear king,” she says, “I’m kind of lost and I -”

She’s interrupted when the king turns back to her. “No, no please,” he says, “don’t kneel. I’m not really king of much anymore. Just of this painting... and Merlin, I guess, in a way.”

This statement completely throws Fanny. “Merlin? That was Merlin? The Merlin?”

The king looks confused. “He’s Merlin, yes.”

“Merlin the Great?” Fanny asks. How about that? Losing her way and finding the greatest sorcerer of all time!

“Oh, I wouldn’t call him that. Not to his face anyway, he gets really big-headed about it. And he has the nerve to call me big-headed when I call him out on it.”

“But... does this mean... Are you King Arthur? Sire?” Fanny asks, already pretty sure of the answer, but she wants to be certain.

“Yes. Yes, I am.” The man puffs out his chest and looks proud that Fanny knows who he is. “And you, my young lady, who might you be?”

“Oh,” Fanny says, “I’m just Fanny. No noble family or anything. Just Fanny Price.”

“Lady Price!” King Arthur says enthusiastically. “Such a beautiful name!”

And then he bows. Fanny giggles at that. “Please, sire, call me Fanny.”

The king eyes her approvingly. “I will do as you command, my lady. But then you must call me Arthur.”

Fanny smiles and feels a lot better than she did before she found the painting with the odd pair. And about that... There’s something nagging on Fanny’s mind.

“Um, sire... Arthur,” she says, “I thought... Isn’t Merlin much older than you? The legends speak of a young boy and an old man. He was... is... was your advisor, wasn’t he?”

The king looks a bit troubled at that, but quickly regains his composure. “No, lady Fanny. Yes, I mean, yes, the legends speak of that, but the legends are false. We’re of similar age, but I’m a few years older.”

A sound reaches them from down the corridor. Fanny glances at Arthur, as he sits down in his chair by the large oak desk, quickly gathering some papers and a quill, obviously trying to look busy and important. Merlin’s voice grows louder.

“... pompous, supercilious, arrogant, lazy, obnoxious...” Merlin steps into the painting and ends the tirade with an angry “...dollophead!

He turns to Arthur and gives him the pear he’s holding. “Happy now?” he says in a tone that suggests that Arthur better not say ‘no’.

Arthur takes a minute to scribble something on a paper before briefly looking up.

“I’ve changed my mind. I’d rather have apples. There are tasty-looking ones in that painting of... oh, I can’t remember. But that sorcerer... what’s-his-name, the other sorcerer, you know, on the third floor? He knows. Ask him.”

“Are. You. Kidding. Me. There are twenty-four different portraits of famous sorcerers on the third floor, and twenty-four of those twenty-four are disturbingly boring! I’m not going to ask them for your stupid apples! I brought you your beloved pear. Now shut up and eat it. Sire.”

Merlin’s slightly breathless when he eventually quiets, and when Arthur starts answering Fanny feels like she’s not supposed to be there. It’s an oddly private conversation. Slowly, she backs away as the pair continues to bicker.

She has totally forgotten that she wanted to ask them how to get to Transfiguration, but as she accidentally trips and falls through a secret passageway, she comes out on the second floor and recognises the classroom door right in front of her. Well alright, she thinks as she rubs her bruised knee absently, so this place really is magical sometimes.

 

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“Did you know that Merlin the Great has a painting here, at school?” Fanny asks Melinda as they sit curled up in the soft chairs by the fire in their common room, trying to study.

The other girl has her head still in a book when she nods her answer. “Yeah. In the library. And of course there’s a portrait of Merlin at Hogwarts.” She looks up at Fanny. “You know, ‘greatest sorcerer of all time’ and all that?”

“I don’t mean the portrait! I don’t mean the old, beardy Merlin. There’s another painting where he and King Arthur are still young, and they’re in a room together, and they argue a lot.”

Melinda laughs. “Are you joking? Merlin and King Arthur weren’t even the same age!”

“Yes, they are! I’d show you, but I kind of can’t find my way back there. I tried earlier, but got lost on the fourth floor again.”

Fanny watches Melinda carefully, wants her friend to say something decisive, like she so often does, and take the lead to find the painting again.

“I want to find it again, but I need help,” she eventually says.

Melinda nods. “Yeah, I figured.” She scribbles a few notes onto her parchment before continuing. “We’ll probably have to ask someone.”

 

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It takes the girls two whole weeks to find Merlin and Arthur’s painting again. After asking their fellow classmates, the Head Boy and Girl, and their professors without getting much help, they resort to hunting down Nearly Headless Nick and asking him. He studies their eager faces for a full minute before giving them the location: the abandoned eastern corridor on the sixth floor. 

“The classroom at the end of the corridor was abandoned years ago because of the constant disturbance outside the room. Even the teachers couldn’t do anything about it,” Nick adds before floating through a nearby wall, leaving Fanny and Melinda to their adventure.

When the girls finally have a free period between classes, they run up the flights of stairs and half-run, half-tumble into the right hallway. They can’t hear a sound and when they reach the painting and see Arthur lying forward on his desk, his head resting on his folded arms in front of him. He breathes slowly and heavily and is, quite obviously, fast asleep. Fanny clears her throat noisily.

The king jumps and confusedly looks up before finding the source of the noise. With a huge smile, he exclaims, “Lady Fanny! Such a pleasure to see you returning. I hope I find you well?”

“You do, my lo- ... Arthur,” Fanny answers and curtseys. Melinda stares at her, but after a harsh glance she too politely curtseys.

“And you’ve brought a friend! Who might this lovely lady be?”

“Oh,” Fanny says. “This is my friend Melinda.”

Arthur is clearly laying the charm on thick as he bows elegantly. “Lady Melinda. It’s an absolute delight to make your acquaintance. I’m Arthur.”

Giggling, Melinda answers. “Thank you, Arthur,” she says, foregoing all titles with the boldness that is so telling of her personality. “According to Fanny, Merlin the Great dwells in this painting with you, but I can’t see him?” She cranes her neck to peek over Fanny’s shoulder, as if she expects to find the sorcerer hiding somewhere in the painting.

Arthur makes a vague hand gesture at that. “Oh, well, yes. I sent him to fetch me some sunflowers from a painting downstairs. The room needed something to liven it up a bit.”

Fanny thinks he looks slightly bashful, but the expression is soon hidden behind his regular air of pompousness as Merlin stumbles into the chamber via the side door. He’s holding a bunch of really squashed sunflowers.

“Here’s your pointless flowers, Arthur,” he says, and thrusts them into his king’s hands before noticing the two girls watching them. Fanny thinks she can hear Arthur mutter something about flowers never being pointless as Merlin greets them happily.

“Ah, you’re back!” he says and grins widely. “And you brought your friend! What can I do for you?”

The girls stay for the entire free period and Merlin teaches them a few magic tricks, all while Arthur makes an attempt to look busy – and not at all jealous – in the background. Sometimes he mutters something about Merlin being ‘maybe not completely useless after all, but there’s actually real work to be done, like polishing armour, and Merlin shouldn’t spend the entire day teaching innocent young girls about dangerous magic’. The sorcerer either ignores him or snidely points out that spells to summon tea or fight off a rampaging dragon hardly can count as dangerous.

“I’ll never be able to teach them anything useful if you keep interrupting, you toad-eyed... toad-eyed...” Merlin says as Arthur drops his entire armour onto his lap before stalking away again.

“Running out of insults, Merlin?” Arthur counters with a cold edge to his voice.

“... toe of a witch!” Merlin triumphantly finishes. “Hah!”

Melinda and Fanny share a look, and start to get up from where they’ve been sitting on the floor. The atmosphere between the king and his servant has gone from friendly teasing to tense, and Fanny feels like she and Melinda are intruding.

“We need to get to class,” Fanny says awkwardly.

Merlin looks disappointed. “Oh,” he says. “Okay. Well... come back sometime? I’d love to talk magic with you. That pear-head,” he tilts his head to indicate Arthur, “doesn’t know anything about it, and it’s fun to talk with someone else sometimes.”

“Alright,” Melinda says and smiles slightly. “Thanks for all your advice. We’ll be back sometime.”

They girls wave goodbye to both the sorcerer and the king, but Arthur is standing with his back to them, looking out through the window. He doesn’t wave back.

 

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“Why do you think they’re in the same painting? They bicker all the time,” Fanny asks as she and Melinda make their way to class.

“No idea,” Melinda shrugs. “It seems like they really hate each other, with all that name calling and whining.”

Fanny sighs and picks at a loose thread on her robes. “Yeah...”

 

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It’s by mistake that Fanny sees the king and the sorcerer the next time. Or ‘hears’ might be more accurate. She’s in the library when she hears the familiar voices. They’re not shouting at each other, like they usually are in their own painting. This is more like a loud whisper.

“We need to go, if we’re to make it before the stars come out,” Merlin says.

“Well we’re on our way, aren’t we?” Arthur quips, “I just don’t understand why I need to carry all this stuff. You’re the manservant, after all.”

“Yes, which means I carried around your stuff for years. This is only fair.”

Fanny looks out from behind a couple of bookshelves. Merlin and Arthur are making their way through the paintings on the back wall. One of the portraits – an old lady with big, bluish hair and a monocle – sniffs loudly when Merlin accidentally bumps into her chair, but doesn’t say anything. Clearly this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Curious, Fanny collects her books and follows the two men. She catches up outside the library and trails at a distance.

Not that it seems to matter. She probably could have walked right beside them, as the king and the sorcerer aren’t paying much attention to anything or anyone but the other.

Merlin! I’m not a pack mule! At least take this.”

“You whine like a mule, that’s for sure...”

Fanny can hear the king scoff as Merlin continues, “Oh, and there was that incident with the donkey ears...”

 

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They end up in the Astronomy Tower. Luckily there’s no class there right now, but that might be because the sun hasn’t quite set yet. Fanny hides behind a large pillar, and watches how Arthur and Merlin find their destination in the middle of a large painting of a field full of wildflowers. Arthur drops all the things he has been carrying and promptly sits down on the ground.

“This stargazing business is hard work,” he huffs.

“No, what are you doing? Lift your royal arse, I brought a blanket to sit on!”

Arthur doesn’t. Instead, he grabs Merlin’s shirt sleeve and drags him down into his lap. The sorcerer doesn’t protest, only shifts a bit to sit more comfortably, facing his king.

“This royal arse,” Arthur says quietly, “doesn’t need a blanket to sit on. To be quite honest, this royal arse doesn’t need anything besides your wizard arse.”

Merlin laughs. It’s a delighted, private laugh and Fanny feels immensely guilty for spying. “Only my arse?”

Arthur leans in and places his forehead against Merlin’s. “As fine as it is, maybe not only that,” he says, and places a light kiss on Merlin’s lips.

When they part, Merlin has a look of pure happiness on his face. Arthur looks down on their hands and entwined fingers.

“Maybe I need the whole of you,” he says before looking up and catching Merlin’s eye. “Maybe I love you.”

This time it’s Merlin who leans in and kisses Arthur. He wraps his arms around his king’s neck and pulls him in even closer. The moment is so intimate that Fanny looks away. She shouldn’t be here. Quietly, she pads away from the painting, and she’s halfway down the stairs when she hears Merlin’s response.

“That’s lucky, because possibly, maybe, I might love you, too. Infinite pratness and all.”



Graphic by the lovely Hanan

 

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