Dearest darling Dear Charlotte
That morning, Merlin was cleaning out Arthur’s chambers, thinking of the exceptionally busy day he had ahead. Clean these untidy chambers, wash Arthur’s rank-smelling socks, assist Gaius’ potion-making, deliver the remedies, help Gwen with…
His reverie was interrupted by a sharp shout from Arthur. “Merlin, are you even listening? I said – bring me more parchment!”
So Merlin scampered hastily to retrieve some parchment from the palace stocks, along with a new quill and some more ink for good measure. Breathlessly delivering these to Arthur, who was sitting head-bent-over-desk, he asked warily: “Can I go now?” He was already late for helping Gaius and…
“No,” said Arthur, finally looking up, fingers ink-stained from his efforts. “No, Merlin, you may not go. In fact, you can help me with this. My father has asked me,” he pronounced ‘father’ like a drawn-out sigh, “to send a missive to Lady Charlotte, inviting her to the court.”
He steepled his fingers. Merlin knew that meant – ‘don’t stop me, I’m thinking.’
“Lady Charlotte is known throughout all our lands as a most beauteous maiden,” continued Arthur, a far-away look on his face. “But…” and here he looked directly at Merlin again, suddenly back in the room, “I’d much rather go hunting with Sir Leon and my retinue. So, Mer-lin. I’d like you to write the letter, and bring it to me upon my return.”
Merlin struggled to breathe. The only way he’d get all his chores done today, including this fresh hell, would be to grow two extra bodies, lie to Gaius and Gwen, or quite possibly use his magic for something inconsequential. “Sire, I don’t know the first thing about writing to ladies! I can’t…”
Arthur, who had risen from his desk and was already half-way across the room, turned back and said: “It’s not difficult. Some sugared phrases, some well-chosen words. Don’t keep it too short; but don’t make it too long. Don’t overly flatter her, but pay attention that she is called ‘beauteous’. Is that clear?” His question was evidently rhetorical, for he made to go on his way once more.
“If it’s that easy, why don’t you do it yourself?” muttered Merlin under his breath.
“What was that, Merlin?” Arthur questioned him as he reached the door.
“Nothing, sire. Noth-ing.”
Once Arthur had gone, Merlin rolled his eyes and made a messy pile of the parchment, upon which he perilously perched the quill and ink. His room. He’d have space to think, and write, in his room. Running through the castle corridors, the ink almost slipping from his cargo, he entered Gaius’ quarters.
“Ah, Merlin!” His mentor greeted him from the potions bench with a welcome smile. “I was beginning to think you’d abandoned me. Now, I’m just starting to mix up today’s batch. We need valerian for Lady Morgana, red clover and pine bark for King Uther…”
“Sorry Gaius, I can’t help you. Arthur’s asked me to write a very important letter,” groaned Merlin, running into his room and tipping his armful of writing materials onto the bed. He turned back and gazed round the door at Gaius, whose eyeglasses had almost toppled off the end of his nose.
“What kind of letter?” enquired Gaius, with evident curiosity.
“Oh, you know, just… a matter of court,” smiled Merlin breezily, hoping he wouldn’t have to reveal the truth.
“Hmmm. ‘A matter’ – of what exactly…?” pursued Gaius, not willing to let it drop.
“A matter of… some importance… concerning a lay-dee.” Merlin allowed that last word to trip musically off his tongue, to make it sound as if he was well-versed in this mysterious subject.
“Oh! I see! Well, if it’s a lady you’re trying to impress, go and see Geoffrey in the library,” advised Gaius.
“Geoffrey?” echoed Merlin, trying and failing to keep the disbelief out of his voice.
“Oh, yes,” replied Gaius knowingly. “He’s got a whole shelf of books dedicated to the art. ‘Arthur’ can write a stack of parchments to his presumed lady, and no-one will know that he isn’t a poet of some repute.”
“Ohhh. No. It’s not for me!” protested Merlin, understanding Gaius’ import. “It really is for Arthur.”
“Of course it is,” smiled Gaius indulgently. Merlin could swear that he gave a slight wink. “Well, if you want to write your – I mean, Arthur’s – letter, you’d better run along to the library. These things don’t write themselves.”
“Thank you, Gaius!” said Merlin over his shoulder as he left the room, glad to be free from potion-making duties, and wondering if this courtly letter-writing was going to be easier than he’d first thought.
“And if anyone should ask for you, I’ll tell them you’re…?” asked Gaius.
“… at the tavern. Just this once,” Merlin grinned lopsidedly. “And definitely not writing love letters.”
Skittering along the dusky corridors lit by burning brands, Merlin finally entered the cavernous castle library. Its shelves were as dusty and neglected as the librarian himself. Geoffrey of Monmouth was dozing in his large oak chair, hands resting on his portly belly, his robes smelling of whatever he’d had for dinner the night before. Hardly a picture of a learned scholar, yet that was what he claimed to be.
Merlin had to wake him up, to the librarian’s evident disgruntlement, and tell him of his mission.
“I see,” smiled Geoffrey. “I do indeed have a shelf-full of texts dedicated to the amorous arts. They are well-hidden, and not easy to access…”
“Well, you see, I need them. Right now.” explained Merlin. He probably had about three or four hours left until Arthur returned from the hunt, in which he’d need to read the texts, digest their contents, draft the letter and copy it out as a final version.
Getting to his feet laboriously, Geoffrey walked slooowwly down the library aisles, pontificating as he went. They finally reached the furthest, dustiest part of the library, a place where Merlin had never been before. “They’re up there,” said Geoffrey, indicating a high shelf decorated with cobwebs. “I’ll need to go and fetch my ladders.” And he walked off just as slooowwly.
Merlin, thinking this would take perhaps another half hour, decided to use his magic instead, dislodging the books so they thundered down around him in a shower of leather casing and mildewed pages and dust and cobwebs. Picking up three random tomes that had managed not to hit his head, Merlin tucked them under his arm and walked speedily back in the direction of his room, meeting Geoffrey on his way out. “I climbed up – and they – fell off,” he shrugged, as a shaky explanation.
“I hope ‘your friend’ impresses his lady!” called Geoffrey after him. These young men, and their first shy attempts at love. It was something that made his heart sing. Merlin was about to try and explain that all his efforts were for Arthur, but decided that explanation would take too long, and rushed off instead.
Two hours later, and Merlin had read a LOT of bad poetry, a LOT of epistles from gentlemen to their lovers, and a LOT about courtly love. Not much of it had made sense, and it was beginning to turn his insides into a queasy stew of half-baked phrases and sickly-sweet adoring prose.
The actual parchment had this written on it:
Merlin heard a voice call out his name from the outer chamber, and went to look who it was, glad of the interruption. It was Gwen. Oh no. He’d completely forgotten, he was meant to help Gwen too…
“I was waiting for you in the woods! We were supposed to pick flowers for Lady Morgana, don’t you remember?” Gwen cocked her head on one side, taking in Merlin’s dizzied look, mussed-up hair and general air of bewilderment. “Merlin, are you alright?”
She came towards him, abandoning the bunch of wildflowers on a table, a look of genuine concern on her face.
“I have to write a letter to a lady,” gulped Merlin, leaning against the doorway of his bedroom, exhausted. “I never thought it would be so difficult.”
“Oh, Merlin. Why didn’t you tell me? What’s her name?” said Gwen, making an expression that only she knew how to make – slight disappointment that she hadn’t been told the secret, mixed with genuine interest.
“Charlotte,” answered Merlin dejectedly, then realised yet again: “Oh, wait, it’s not for me, it’s for Arthur!”
“Whatever you say Merlin. I’m your friend. You can tell me anything,” urged Gwen, taking his hand lightly. Merlin sighed. If everyone wanted to believe he was in love with Lady Charlotte, then so be it. Just as long as the letter got written.
“Would you like some help?” Gwen offered.
“Yes, please,” replied Merlin in all earnestness. He was overfilled with poetic prose and courtly rhetoric, and he didn’t know where to begin.
Another hour passed, and under Gwen’s kind tutelage, they had written a letter to Charlotte that Merlin thought would definitely please Arthur. Gwen had rejected all the books, all the texts, and suggested they start from scratch: writing down ungarnished, undiluted feelings. It came naturally to her. If only she’d been born in an age where women could become scholars…
“Thank you, Gwen. Thank you!” shouted Merlin, flapping the parchment wildly so the ink would dry. He ran through the castle to find Arthur in his chambers once more, having just returned from the hunt. The prince perused the parchment for some moments, standing stock-still, while Merlin waited with short, shallow breaths.
“You’ve done a good job, Merlin,” Arthur praised him mildly, once he’d finished scanning the letter. “You should write more of this courtly love nonsense, you have quite the tongue for it. It’s a shame, as we have received word that Lady Charlotte will no longer be crossing our borders – they have taken another route to the south. So this, I’m afraid…” and Arthur let the letter flutter from his hand into the open hearth, where the heat immediately charred the contents.
Merlin’s countenance dropped. His heart felt sunken and solid. His head ached beyond measure.
“Now, Merlin, can you help me get dressed for tonight’s feast?” asked Arthur, disappearing behind a screen. “Merlin? Mer-lin!”
“Yes, my lord,” said Merlin dutifully, masking a sigh. Another day’s work. At least he’d learned how to address a lady, he considered, as he saw the flames flare up and swallow the last of the laboured-over parchment.