The days had already begun to grow short, and there was a chill in the air. The last of the crops were in, and the grain had been well-dried for storage against the long winter ahead. Uther sent Arthur to the cold-store for a round yellow cheese and some fresh apples, while he cut the loaf and poured the ale.
When Arthur returned and set the cheese and apples on the table, he was pleased to see the oatcakes and honey that Uther saved for special occasions. The two men sat down to share this pleasant repast in celebration of a successful harvest. As usual, they spoke little while they ate. Finally, there was nothing left of the meal but half a flagon of ale and the crumbs on the table.
Uther took a long draught of the ale, put down his mug, and reached across the small table to clasp Arthur’s shoulder. “I am proud of you, son. You have done the lion’s share of the work this season.”
“Thank you, Father,” said Arthur quietly, though his heart soared at this praise from his usually taciturn parent. “I’m glad to ease your load.”
“It gives me great comfort, Arthur, to know that you will be ready when the time comes for you to take over for me.” Uther was solemn, but clearly pleased.
"Father! That will be long from now!”
“Time will tell, son. Time will tell.”
Arthur rose and began to clear the table. “Father, do you need my company? It’s Mabon...”
Uther sighed. “Go, go. You are your mother’s son. I can’t deny you that.”
Arthur put on his outer clothes and gathered what he needed for his Mabon offering. A jug of milk and another of cider, a slab of butter and a hunk of bread, the last honeyed oatcake, and two of the gingerbread biscuits that he had saved from his birthday gift for just this purpose. Gingerbread had been his mother’s favorite, and it was also his own. He loaded everything into a basket which he covered with the cloth his mother had always used for her tributes, and headed out to set everything up under the willow tree behind the house.
After Arthur set his offerings upon the embroidered cloth, he gave his thanks to the faerie folk for their blessings and assistance. He bade them be welcome and hoped that his gift would be satisfactory to them. He turned away to leave, but looking around the inner space created by the weeping willow, he was flooded with memories and emotions. He leaned back against tree and let himself remember.
The willow tree had always been a special place for Arthur. He had vague memories of watching his mother make her offerings here. But also, he had memories of taking shelter from the hot sun and playing games with her under this very tree. He remembered collecting the long, thin branches and making baskets with her. Ygraine’s baskets were lovely and strong, while his own were odd and misshapen; nevertheless, she had always praised his work and displayed it proudly. Arthur laughed with chagrin to remember his childish satisfaction with his own creations. He leaned his spine against the tree and slid down to the ground, closing his eyes to picture his beautiful mother more clearly. This was the place where he felt her love most strongly…as if the sap running through the willow vibrated with his mother’s love for him.
He must have fallen asleep, for sometime later, Arthur startled awake to a sound like a feral hog rooting in the earth. He moved carefully so as not to startle the wild thing that must have been attracted by his offering. He gasped at the sight that met his eyes. The bread and butter were gone, and the milk and cider jugs were empty, lying on their sides. The oatcakes and gingerbread were as yet untouched by the wild thing—an exquisitely beautiful young man who had obviously fallen asleep right in the middle of his feast. He was sprawled out on the cloth, snoring loudly enough to wake the dead.
Arthur couldn’t help it. He started laughing—whether at the sight of this gorgeous, glorious being snorting like a pig and sprawled out in the clumsiest way, or as a nervous reaction to actually waking up within a few feet of a man. A beautiful man, at least as tall as he himself, but dark-haired rather than fair, with glorious dark eyelashes that emphasized his sharp cheekbones. A man with wings? How could he have failed to notice? A fairy? A sprite?—he didn’t know.
Of course, the beautiful thing woke up. He stretched his arms and opened his eyes before noticing Arthur. Arthur began to blush as the creature stared and stared, never taking his eyes off of Arthur even as he rearranged himself so that he was sitting cross-legged on the cloth.
“Hello. I’m Arthur.” Arthur couldn’t help it—he was staring too.
“My name is Merlin,” the man said, looking Arthur up and down.
“I hope you liked my offering.”
“It’s lovely....You’re lovely,” said Merlin, leaning around to stare at Arthur from different angles.
“Thank you—um—so are you. I’ve never met anyone like you before. Are you a fairy?”
“Hmm, yes. I believe that is what we are called by your people,” said Merlin. He took a bite out of one of the oatcakes and sighed with pleasure.
“Hah, I’ve been called that too,” muttered Arthur under his breath.
“What?” Merlin looked confused. “You have no wings, no magic, I’m sure. Why would anyone call you a fairy?” Merlin finished the second oatcake. “These are delicious! What are they called?”
“Those are oatcakes with honey. And—um—they called me a fairy because—well, um, it’s something they sometimes call men who love other men,” said Arthur, mentally congratulating himself for leaving off mentioning that it was not a very nice thing to say.
“These oatcakes-with-honey are so good,” said Merlin. He ran his finger along the dish to swipe up the last of the honey, and then stuck his finger in his mouth to lick it off. “Mmmm, so good,” he groaned with a glint in his eye. “I’ve never seen these before,” he added, poking at the biscuits. “What are they?”
“That’s gingerbread. It’s my favorite. I saved some of my birthday biscuits for my offering.”
Merlin picked up one of Arthur’s prized gingerbread biscuits and took a big bite. He made a terrible face, sputtered, and then spewed gingerbread crumbs all over Arthur. “This is disgusting.” Pthpt, pthpt. He spit out more crumbs. He scowled at Arthur. “Why would you do this? Is this some kind of joke? I am surprised you would dare…”
“No! Oh no, never!” said Arthur. “Look! I love these. I told you. They are my favorites! These were special from my birthday. I saved them to offer the faerie folk.” He stuffed the biscuits into his mouth to show how much he loved them. His face was a rather comical blend of expressions. He was trying to show Merlin how much he loved the cookies, while also desperately afraid that the fairy would simply vanish if he were offended. He was surprised to realize how much he didn’t want Merlin to leave.
Merlin got a sly look in his eye. “Really? It wasn’t a trick?”
Merlin reached over and wiped the crumbs from Arthur’s lips with his thumb. “If you hadn’t just eaten those repulsive things, I think I might have kissed you.” He let his thumb linger there before pulling it away. Arthur longed to chase it, but didn’t. He felt completely forlorn.
“Oh, take heart. Bring me something nice tomorrow. I’ll be waiting for you. And don’t eat any of that gingerbread stuff, or I won’t come anywhere near those lips—no matter how gorgeous!” He smiled at Arthur and unfurled his wings slowly.
The wings were large, diaphanous, and utterly lovely. Arthur was totally mesmerized as Merlin stepped closer, wrapped him up firmly in their surprisingly strong and supple iridescence. He returned the embrace, as the Merlin nuzzled his neck, and nibbled on his ear. He was so lost in sensation that when Merlin moved away, Arthur didn’t even realize he had reached out to pull the fairy back in.
Merlin sidestepped lightly. “Uh-uh-uh,” he said, shaking his head. “Tomorrow?”
“Oh yes. Tomorrow!”
“No gingerbread, ok?”
“Absolutely no gingerbread!” Arthur agreed adamantly. Then, less confident, he asked, “And will there be...kisses?”
Merlin eyed him up and down once more. “Oh yes, at the very least there will be plenty of kissing.”
Merlin raised his hand, and a shower of tiny lights rained down upon Arthur, who looked up into the canopy of branches in wonder.
“Tomorrow, then!” he heard echo all around him. He looked back towards Merlin, but he was gone.
The words still resonated in Arthur’s bones as he turned to gather up the things to bring them back to the house. He placed the plate and the jugs into the basket and shook out Ygraine’s special cloth. Then he folded it carefully and held it to his chest. “Mum,” he whispered, “I think you would like him. I think he’s the one. I just know he is.”
As Arthur returned to the house he was grinning from ear to ear, already planning the next day’s treats.