When Arthur was ten years old, Audrey, the cook, had run away with a spice merchant. Arthur only remembers this because the result was a week filled with food that burned his tongue followed by an absent cook. The steward had gone into a panic and in an attempt to save the serving staff from the high pitched squealing and huffing, Gaius provided a temporary solution in the form of his younger sister, Hunith. However, once the court had a taste of her famous sweet bread, Hunith became a permanent resident, and Camelot was saved from near destruction.
Arthur loved Hunith. Sometimes before banquets, Arthur would sneak into the kitchens for a light snack of anything coated in sugar. Arthur had never gotten away with it once. Hunith would catch him in mid grab with disapproving eyes, before a teasing smile grew on her face. She sent him off with a warm pastry, a light smack with her ladle, and a “now go run into trouble somewhere else.” If Arthur glanced back, he would always see her with a sad smile, hands on her hips, shaking her head.
Arthur hated Merlin. He was never where he was supposed be. The first time Arthur met him, Merlin had been determined to be as annoyingly terrible as possible. Arthur was just doing as his father had asked, entertaining William. Except William was boring and only ever talked about horses and his uncle who kept birds. So Arthur thought it would be a fine idea to do something not boring and had stopped a serving boy to assist. A few minutes later had found Arthur far from boredom as William roared with laughter at the serving boy’s failed attempts to rapidly cart the heavy target board across the courtyard. Arthur was so close to hitting the center when Merlin stuck his big stupid nose where it didn’t belong.
“Hey stop it.” Arthur was confronted with the skinniest boy he’d ever seen. His limbs seemed to be rapidly outgrowing his body and shaggy raven coloured hair fell haphazardly over the boys forehead.
“What?” Arthur said as if daring the boy to protest again.
To Arthur’s muddled surprise, the boy stuck out his chest like he was trying to look bigger then he was ,which seemed to have the near opposite effect, and stepped forward.
“You’ve had your fun, my friend,” Merlin said his words with a strange sense of confidence.
Arthur called all of the princely princeness he possibly could at the age of 10 and with his chin stuck in the air, declared, “I am not your friend, and I can do what I want.” In Arthur’s ten year old mind, this was a very princely display of power.
Merlin regarded him with a mocking yet not cruel smile, head tipped to the side, “Who are you the king?” the words soaked in the obnoxious sarcasm that only a nine year old’s unrestrained attempts at wit could really capture.
“No, I’m his son, Arthur.”
Arthur watched as Merlin’s eyes widened in shock and then fear until turning into annoyance. Merlin left with his arms crossed, looking straight ahead while toting the servant boy, whose name, Arthur later found out, was Morris.
When Arthur was eleven, he learned that his father may be the king, but the king was not his father. He sat on a the bench in Hunith’s small quarters, nibbling on the leftover ends of a fluffy bread loaf. Her comforting hand fell lightly on his back, and he didn’t understand. Bright eyes framed in dark strands peered through a cracked door.
“Hey want to see something?” A gangly 12 year old asked Arthur. Arthur continued to smack the straw filled dummy with his wooden sword. His father believed it was time Arthur received proper training, said he’d lead the knights some day.
“Can’t you see Im practicing?” Arthur hadn’t stopped practicing since he had began. He loved it like nothing else, but trying to explain this to Merlin just resulted in Merlin scrunching up his face in confused disgust and some comment about having no brains. There was only one problem that came with Arthur’s training.
“Morgana!” Arthur said with annoyance as he saw Morgana walking towards them, dragging a stick behind her. For the past two weeks, Morgana had been following Arthur around demanding he show her how to fight. She was destined to annoy him to death.
Glancing at Merlin as a diversion, he responded, “Fine. What is it?”
Merlin grinned at him with that giant stupidly bright smile and shouted, “Come on!” as he ran off towards the woods.
Merlin led him towards a small pond, and his near constant chatter had stopped. Arthur paused looking around. The pond was a greenish brown colour and rather stunk, the majority of the sun was blocked by the trees, only coming down in streaks and the tall grasses and flowers itched at his legs. Arthur didn’t get it. But he followed Merlin’s gaze upward. Sitting on a tree was a bundle of sticks and grass partially hiding two chirping balls of fluff. Merlin turned to him, smiling as a larger red and brown bird landed on the edge of the nest.
As they listened to the clear bell like chirping, Arthur promises that he tried real hard not to smile, but Merlin’s was contagious.
Arthur didn’t like days like this, but he understood their necessity. That’s what he told himself when Uther’s fingers dug into his shoulder, and his back stood ramrod straight. There was silence among the noise, allowing the man’s screams to cut clearly through the flames and crowds. But Arthur understood. He didn’t always.
Arthur was 12 when Uther though it was best he watch the executions, that he understand what the Pendragon’s duty to Camelot was. He stayed quiet through the banquet, the kind of quiet that convinces you that your voice won’t work if you ever try to speak again. Later that night when the castle had gone to sleep and only the embers were left burning in the square, Arthur asked Hunith, “Why the man had to die?”
She took his hands in hers, softened and worn by the constant kneading. Hunith hesitated before carefully whispering, “The gods gave us the freedom to choose, Arthur,” she sighed her words edged with a sadness, “but men are not gods, and we can not always know what is right.” Arthur never really knew what she meant, but he still felt a warmth in his stomach spread as she smiled down at him. Arthur couldn’t stop the feeling that this could easily break.
Merlin didn’t join the townspeople in the square to watch. Instead he would wait for Arthur in the alcove in the 4th tower underneath the stairs. Slits in the stones created patterns of sun falling on the ground. In the small space Arthur and Merlin liked to pretend it was just them and the nobles with their silly clothes and pinched expressions had disappeared. In here time was suspended as were the other rules of the world that seemed to keep people rooted in useless reality. It was here that Arthur first learned perception was a fickle thing.
Merlin’s face was red and he looked like he was about to be ill. Similar to the time Merlin had tried to ask Marybeth, who was two years his elder, if she was so inclined to see the traveling minstrel with him. As if he had been holding a breath, words tumbled out, racing to be the first.
And Arthur laughed. But there was no mirth in Merlin’s eyes because Arthur may not have understood the death of men at Uther’s hand, but Merlin, a year younger, did.
Merlin huffed, “I have magic, Arthur.” And the light seeping through the window floated up, dancing around until it folded itself into a crown on Arthur’s head. The sunlight warming his ears.
And Arthur laughed.
And Merlin grinned that silly lopsided grin of his.
Arthur was once given the troubling task of deciding between his red tunic and his blue tunic for his cousin’s birthday celebration. The six year old Arthur had refused to choose and arrived two hours late. Arthur felt a lot like that now. For the young women’s dark hair seemed too similar to Merlin’s. Her kindness a crime as she knelt before the king, explaining in a frightened voice how she had used the little magic taught to her from her mother before the purge to heal her dying son. But the pride of the man who stood in front of his father echoed Merlin’s, and as Arthur watched this man explain away the death of good honest men with a gleeful smile, Arthur hoped to be the one to light the flames. So Arthur was in a sense stuck. He wished that he did not, but he understood his father even as Morgana hissed out cutting words. Though the early morning would still find Arthur in a damp field, grinning as his sword was stopped by nothing but a flash of Merlin’s eyes.
They lay, sides pressed against each other, sticky from the hot evening air while their feet dangled in the cool water of a pound, the air heavy with the smell of dirt and the sweet accent of honeysuckle. There was something calm about the night. Merlin said it was magic. Arthur said it was the wine.
“It’s not what you think, you know.” Arthur scrunched up his face, turning only his head slightly to face Merlin.
“Magic,” Merlin said as if that should have been obvious.
“And what do I think , Merlin?” Arthur responded placing a mocking emphasis on the word think. Merlin grinned, but didn’t reply with his usual arsenal of teasing insults.
“It’s not some corrupting force, its not a separate entity, riding around and making people evil,” Merlin had the tendency to know what he was thinking, a talent no fifteen year old should possess.
“Obviously not, Merlin. I saw you try to save a dying butterfly yesterday. A butterfly, Merlin. Two hours wasted on a bug,” Arthur said, muttering that last part to himself.
Merlin huffed, “I know you don’t think I’m evil, but-,” he paused for a second, allowing a frog to let out a low croak. “Stop confusing magic with the sorcerer. You can’t feel it, but magic is everywhere. It just exists. It just is, Arthur.” The frog croaked again. “It’s like someone could decide to throw dirt at your face or they could grow a flower in the same dirt. Dirts everywhere, defining a person by the fact that they’re holding dirt would be stupid,”. Arthur waited for a second, comprehending how a wise idiot was not always a contradiction.
“That was the most ridiculous analogy i’ve ever heard.” And Arthur threw a handful of dirt directly at Merlin’s face. Merlin scrambled to his feet, retaliating in kind, and threw his head back in a laugh as a tree branch just happened to hit Arthur in the face.
Arthur returned to the castle covered in dirt, soaking wet, and smelling like a bog as consequence of being dragged into one after pushing Merlin in first. He glanced over at Merlin, who was grinning ear to ear. Arthur watched the smile comically slip from his face.
“Oh no, Arthur,” Merlin said, dropping his head into his hands.
“Merlin, I swear, You will be cleaning this all up. And when you’re done with that, you can clean the kitchens,” Hunith said in that no-nonsense voice of hers. Arthur stared back at the muddy mess they had tracked down the hallway. Arthur couldn’t help a laugh escape.
“Have fun,” He said slapping a hard hand onto Merlin’s shoulder, and turning to trek back to the west wing.
“Not so fast, Arthur Pendragon.” Hands were placed firmly on hips. “Your father may be the king, but I know you won’t mind helping Merlin out.” It wasn’t a suggestion.
At sixteen Arthur was expected to supplement the title that he held with actual responsibility. The regular patrols weren't really that bad. If he was lucky, they would run into smugglers or even better, bandits. The part that really killed him, though, were the council meetings. As his heir, Uther required that he attend the majority of council meetings as well as stay daily when court was held. Dusty old men sat in plush chairs and read off complaints from other crumbling lords. Stores needed counting, exports required regulating, land conflicts demanded solving, and Arthur needed a nap. When a storm had flood the marshes, preventing Lord Barrius’s grains from reaching Camelot, harming both Camelot’s supplies and Lord Barrius’s pocket, Lord Perezic refused to allow Lord Barrius’s goods to pass through the western ends of his land because of course not. But if Uther demanded that Perezic permit Barrius access, not only did Uther risk creating unrest among the Lords by showing favour, he could also cause tension with the distant ruler of Avaga, whose cousin was currently engaged to Perezic in an attempt to strengthen an alliance between Camelot and Avaga. However, the grains lost could cost camelot nearly two months of supplies, which would be dearly missed as the western lands of Camelot were currently facing a mild drought causing a depletion of resources. To top it off, Arthur had a strong feeling that Lord Aldous was planning on using his new position as the top supplier of grain to reduce his quota of men required for Camelot’s general militia, which Arthur knew the slimey bastard was already cutting. It made Arthur’s head hurt.
Arthur had been complaining about this very subject with artfully placed cursing and solely referring to Lord Perezic as something that would get him whipped if mentioned again, when Merlin had the brilliant idea to ask, “Why don’t you just build a bridge.”
Arthur lifted his head of the side of the bed from its previous upside down position to stare at Merlin who's back faced the lit fireplace. The light of the flames in contrast with dark seeping in from the window and the corners of the room deepened the shadows on his face, forcing the already boney features to sharpen. Merlin was still a child at fifteen years to Arthur’s sixteen, but the night muddled time into ambiguity.
“Merlin, I know with those big elephant ears of yours you must have heard at least some of what I just said.” Merlin only looked mildly offended. “We don’t have the money or resources to build a bridge across a bloody swamp. Besides some stupid lord will probably get offended he’s not daddy’s favorite,” Arthur said. He, along with his bed sheets, were slowly sinking towards the ground. The stone floor slowly neared his head. Arthur made no attempt to stop his descent.
“Yeah but Lord Osbourne does. He has an excess of cut stone, and I’m sure if you played it right you could get him to sell it cheaper than wood.” Arthur hit the ground with a thump. Rolling onto his stomach, he raised an eyebrow at Merlin. Arthur vaguely remembered Osbourne whose lands lay over the mountains complaining about the surplus, and rise of crime surrounding stone cutting villages, last year after rising tensions with Mercia started. Arthur just didn’t know how Merlin knew that.
“What?” Merlin looked a little dismayed. “Johny from the wait staff’s cousin recently bought a goat from a man whose brother was laid off from Lord Osbourne’s mines. Said he’d never heard of a man getting laid off from doing his job too well,” Merlin shrugged nonchalantly.
Arthur didn’t want to admit that it was a pretty fine idea.
“Okay sure, but we don’t have the men to spare in build a bridge,” Arthur stared down Merlin’s fire lit face as if it was somehow his fault.
“....Lord Osbourne’s men,” Merlin said as if his words found a solution before his brain did. Merlin’s muttering caused a thought to spark in Arthur’s mind, and he rapidly pushed himself up from his stomach to sit up.
Snapping, he said, “We can hire people laid off from rock mines for much cheaper, and …. Its fine if Lord Aldous wants to be a little piss baby, he can send his quota of men to build the bridge for 2 months instead of the two years of militia service.”
Merlin grinned up at him. “There you go, not so bad,” He mocked.
Uther was mildly impressed at Arthur’s initiative, though he didn’t show it, and implemented the suggested plan in private meetings with the aforementioned individual lords.
Arthur kneeled on the cold stone floor, the polished floors bruising his knees. His head bowed, golden hair falling over his face, he glanced up to see what almost passed as a smile decorating his father’s lips. The crowds were quiet, but a subtle murmur of excitement seemed to flit around the room. For Arthur was eighteen, and it was the year of his entry into knighthood. Uther’s blade lightly tapped each shoulder, its iron ghost remaining. Arthur felt his father’s pride.
“Will you serve and protect this land and its people? Will you serve with honour and with pride? Do you swear loyalty to the kingdom of Camelot and the laws that govern?”
A lump formed in Arthur’s throat. He was loyal to camelot. He would not betray it, but something itched underneath the heavy chain mail draped over his shoulders.
“May my shield be used to protect the weak and my sword to fight for those who can not.”
“Rise, Sir Arthur Pendragon, knight of Camelot.” Clapping erupted from the crowds filling the throne room. Arthur quickly scanned the room, landing on Merlin who had managed to sneak in along the back of the room. He caught his eyes, and Merlin grinned at him, unabashedly with pride.
Arthur was aware of his position as much as he and Merlin liked to pretend else wise, so he shook hands with nobles and kissed the hands of ladies. And at the end of night, he followed the group of rowdy knights out to the tavern in the upper town rather than racing Merlin to the dirty, cheap one in the lower town.
Hunith had packed only a small bag, but Arthur had made sure she had a sturdy horse for the journey. Her hair was all wrapped up in an intricate cloth and she looked older than she did when she first arrived, her eyes creased and her smile a little heavier. She sent that same steady smile in Arthur and Merlin’s direction before guiding her horse forward. Merlin was glancing down at his feet, his worn boots tapped together. Arthur knew Merlin would miss her, even if Merlin was 16 now and declared his independence with hubris strides. She wouldn’t be gone for long. Hunith said she had to visit some friends from Ealdor. Gaius had said she was looking for someone.
They never found out if she found who she was looking for or not.
It was the not knowing that killed Merlin. One month had passed and she had not returned. Merlin lived surrounded by unknowns, but this was one he could not bear.
The day the new cook arrived, Arthur skipped the meal at which he was expected. Arthur lugged Merlin all the way down to the lower town and perhaps a bit further. Shoved between two shops like someone had needed the space but was too lazy to build it, was the Hawfinch Tavern. No one knew how it got its name. One person claimed the owner was an advent bird spotter. Durwin was under the impression that there was only one type of bird, so that seemed unlikely. Another fellow, short and and a little gone, had once suggested that it was the name of Durwin’s long lost love. At that Ricker, a tall man with a short face, chuckled and declared it was a good thing she was long lost then.
On the outside the place smelled like piss. On the inside the place smelled like piss and bad whiskey. It was surrounded by two shops, one which sold flowers and another which sold something that Arthur didn’t even know. He asked Durwin once, but he just responded with, “Did your daddy teach you nothing?”
Arthur walked into the then unfamiliar place with the confidence of youth and animosity.
The room was overbearingly loud and remained so as the two figures, one sturdy and strong while the other tall and whittled, moved through the room. A sticky substance coated the stool Arthur sat on and Merlin scrunched up his nose, but the place had a heartbeat. A feaverish, off kilter one, but it had one. The counter rocked against Arthur’s hand as someone slammed down an elbow, and the floor vibrated his stool as a chair clattered to the ground.
“You boys look offley young,” the short man behind the counter said. He squinted his eyes over at Merlin, sparring a brief glance at Arthur. He poured a glass of some sickly smelling discoloured liquid, seeming more like the polish used in the armoury then anything remotely consumable. The man topped off Merlin’s glass a little higher and rested his right hand on the counter. Arthur tried not to stare at his mangled pointer finger and the middle one just a stub next to it.
“Real inconvenient, ay?” He said, lifting the middle stub. Arthur had the mind to act embarrassed to be caught before the man said, “ I lost it to a Griffin, nasty beaks on those things,”. Arthur thought he heard Merlin choke on the drink he had been downing rather quickly before then.
“A what?” Merlin asked.
The man grinned.
“Yeah, Did you screw a Vilia too, Durwin?” A mocking voice called out. The man who had spoken was dark with a stretched face.
Merlin let out a small chuckle, and Arthur whipped his head around in surprise. “I heard they don’t do it with gingers,” Merlin said, dead pan, before breaking out into a laugh. Arthur almost let out a breath of relief when the man, Durwin, joined in.
The rest of the night followed suit. Arthur was not aware Merlin could sing that well.