It was Sir Edwin who gave him the idea. Percival had been at Court for four months and had just received yet another letter from his father. It was this that had taken him to the top of the North tower on a windy evening a few days earlier to stand and look out across the city to the surrounding hills, shrouded in a rainy mist. He had discovered the old staircase to the North tower in his first week in Camelot when he was still attempting to learn the labyrinth of corridors, stairs and halls. It was the one place in the castle where he could be sure of being undisturbed, or so he had thought. Lost in his rather gloomy thoughts he had completely failed to notice Sir Edwin until the older man had cleared his throat pointedly. Percy thought he might actually have levitated for a few seconds, so great was his shock at finding someone else there. He tried to turn his rather unmanly squeak into a cough but judging by Sir Edwin's rather amused smile he thought he probably hadn't been very convincing.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. You looked far away for a moment there." The older man's eyes flickered to the letter in Percy's hand. "Not bad news, I hope?"
Percy shook his head. "No, or at least not really. It's from my father." Sir Edwin nodded as if understanding a great deal from this short explanation.
"Is he still coming to Camelot for the winter tournament?"
Percy stared at him stupidly for a moment, "Er... yes. How did you..?"
Sir Edwin raised an eyebrow. "I have been known to listen when people talk to me." He turned to stare across the darkening landscape. "Do I assume his visiting is a problem for you?" He turned back to smile at Percy's look of surprise. "I know something of lords and their only sons." He grimaced ruefully. "I had the fortune of visiting one of your castles on the summer progress. I thought your father was going to demand my Seal of Nobility before he let me into the entrance hall."
At this Percy finally laughed because, really, it was all too easy to imagine his father examining the credentials of the King himself before he so much as bowed. Although only a minor lord in terms of wealth and land, his father could — as he was so fond of reminding everyone — trace his noble ancestry back for eight generations.
His tension finally dissipating, Percy had found himself handing over his father's latest missive and talking, properly talking, for what felt like the first time in weeks. It seemed Sir Edwin was not at all surprised to hear of his father's somewhat lofty expectations for his only son. Percy's duties had been impressed upon him from the earliest age; to rule his lands well, to marry into money, to prove himself a worthy soldier and to further his family's interests at court (and he suspected his father would not put them in that order). So he had been sent to Court to join the most elite fighting force in the Kingdom, the Knights of Camelot, led by the famous Prince Arthur himself. Only five months ago he would have said this was his greatest challenge; in reality it had proved to be the least of his difficulties. Percy might have been a disappointment to his father in many ways, but never at fighting. He sometimes thought he was happiest when he had a sword or a bow in his hand, when no one expected him to talk politics or pass out judgements or (worst of all) dance. It was just him and the scent of wood or steel, the ring of metal or the heavy snap of the bowstring. Unfortunately the ability to fight did not make you unique among the Prince's knights and Percy had soon found that although he had been training and fighting with the Knights of Camelot for four months, he might be here another four years before the Prince remembered his name. And now it was only three weeks until his father came for the winter tournament, the tournament for which Prince Arthur handpicked the competitors, and Percy had as much chance of being chosen as... well... as his father had of ever forgetting his second cousin (on his mother's side) had been sister-in-law to an Archbishop.
He let out a heavy sigh as he came to the end of his explanation.
Sir Edwin refolded the letter and passed it back to him, smiling sympathetically. "So, as I see it the problem is this. Your father sent you to Camelot to prove yourself a worthy Knight, make an illustrious name for yourself and further your family's interests with the King. Well you've managed the first part, you're training to join the Knights of Camelot, that's no mean feat. As for the rest..." he paused, evidently trying to think of the best way to phrase it.
Percy took pity on him. "As for the rest... Prince Arthur still thinks my name is Perrin."
"Er, yes. There is that."
"So really, unless I manage to slay some mythical beast in the next three weeks, I'm doomed."
When he put it like that it did sound rather ridiculous. Sir Edwin laughed as he turned back towards the staircase door; it was dark now and the wind around the tower was biting. Percy followed him. Even if he hadn't come up with a life-saving plan he felt rather better for having finally voiced his fears aloud. He started to say as much but Sir Edwin spoke first.
"In the absence of mythical beasts I might have another idea." He pulled open the door and they began the climb downwards, one hand on the wall to feel their way. "You need Prince Arthur to notice you, correct?"
Percy nodded before realising that Edwin couldn't see him. "Yes."
"Then I suggest you think about this logically. You've tried the usual ways. You've proven yourself a good soldier and that doesn't seem to be working. But there's one route you haven't tried." Percy frowned, trying to guess what Edwin was getting at. They had come to the lower levels of the staircase now, where torches hung intermittently in alcoves along the wall. Sir Edwin twisted round to look at Percy as he walked. "Think boy, you want to get close to the Prince, well who is the Prince closest to?" Percy thought for a moment, on the verge of giving the acceptable answer of 'the King', 'the Lady Morgana', or even a few of the more senior Knights who doubled as the Prince's favoured drinking companions. But before he could voice the thought aloud he found himself at the bottom of the staircase, Sir Edwin turning to give him an encouraging smile and clap him on his shoulder.
"Take my advice, Percy. Talk to Merlin." And with that he was gone, striding down the corridor and out of sight, his red cloak billowing behind him, leaving Percy alone and somewhat confused by the open tower door.
And that was how he found himself here, at one of the long wooden tables that lined the great hall, sitting down opposite Prince Arthur's infamous manservant. Merlin gave him a friendly smile as he slid onto the bench. It was late, the banquet to welcome Lord Ellis to court having gone on for so long that Percy had begun to wonder if they might just keep eating straight through to breakfast. Now the King had retired, most of the food had been cleared away and the remaining guests (for the most part the younger, more daring set) were grouped around the room, chatting in a desultory fashion, enjoying the ale and wine supplied by the ever present serving maids. In the gallery the minstrels were playing softly and Percy could make out Prince Arthur near the fireplace, holding forth to an admiring group of Knights and courtiers.
Just another banquet in Camelot. But this time at least Percy had a plan. Well, half a plan. Well he had been told to 'talk to Merlin' which, if not a plan, was at least something he could do that did not involve him hovering around the edges of various groups feeling awkward. He smiled back at the younger man, reaching over to help himself to the jug of ale which had been left on the table, and trying not to look like he was studying Merlin too obviously. In all his months at Camelot he had never really talked to Merlin. Percy's father, unsurprisingly, took a rather dim view of nobility 'fraternising' with the servants and whatever Percy might have felt about this — and he definitely did not agree with his father — he had assumed he was in the minority. So when he had come to Camelot he had thought things would be no different and indeed, for the most part, they weren't. But it had not taken Percy long to understand that not all servants were the same. The Lady Morgana's handmaiden, Guinevere, seemed to enjoy a privileged place with her mistress and was openly treated with trust and affection. Percy wondered briefly what his father would make of that. And then there was Merlin. He appraised the other boy briefly as he sipped his ale. Merlin was leaning forward over the table, his chin propped on one hand whilst the other held on firmly to a tankard of ale. He seemed to be watching the minstrels, humming to himself. He had been talking to Guinevere earlier but the Lady Morgana had retired not long after the King, leaving Merlin alone. Percy eyed the half full tankard wondering how much Merlin had drunk, his intolerance for alcohol was legendary, even among the Knights. When he glanced up again he found that Merlin had, disconcertingly, shifted his attention from the minstrels to Percy.
"It's, er... good ale." Percy winced inwardly at his rather inane comment, but Merlin didn't seem to notice.
"It's not as good as they make at home. In Ealdor John Tanner brews ale that would make most of you Knights pass out cold. William Shepherd drank nearly half a barrel once, then he passed out on the way home and his pipe nearly set the barn on fire." Percy blinked, not quite sure how to respond to this sudden flood of information, but Merlin just grinned at him and took another swig from his tankard, and a muffled, "What about you?" could be heard echoing from inside.
"Well only once, and that was my sister's fault for bringing the candle into the hayloft" Merlin snorted into his tankard, his eyes dancing at Percy over the rim. It was a rather human reaction, not at all courtier-like, and Percy found himself relaxing and grinning back as he realised his mistake.
"Sorry. I'm guessing you were referring to the ale, rather than my youthful indiscretions." He gestured to the jug. "I'm not sure I can beat your Ealdor brew, but we have Honeymead, which was potent enough to cause my father to regale the household with fifteen verses of 'If I were a Mayden' this Christmas past." Merlin dropped his ale back to the table before he choked on it. "It's not something he speaks of."
Maybe it was the ale, or maybe it was the rather harrowing memory of his father singing, but Percy started to laugh and then found he couldn't stop and Merlin was joining in and really, Percy thought, he ought to thank Sir Edwin for the advice because this was definitely more fun than anything else he'd done since coming to court.
An hour later and Percy was somehow telling Merlin the whole sorry tale of his Illustrious Career as the Invisible Knight of Camelot over copious gulps of ale. Somehow they had finished the first jug and were on to their second. Merlin was nodding sympathetically. At some point he'd got ale on the table and then he'd managed to get it on his hands and sleeves and it must have seemed like a good idea to scratch his head — except now his hair was stuck up all over the place. Percy supposed briefly that he must look just as bad, he vaguely remembered waving his arm around to make a point and forgetting he was holding his tankard (his tunic still felt rather damp).
"...And now my father is coming to the tournament and I'll be lucky if the Prince can remember my name, let alone the fact I'm in Camelot at all. So much for 'Furthering the Interests of the Family'." He attempted to mimic his father's pompous tones but it came out a bit slurred and much less impressive.
Merlin nodded some more and took another gulp of ale before frowning slightly. "What do you mean, he can't remember your name?"
Percy sighed, propping his chin on his hand (and getting his elbow wet in the process). "He calls me Perrin."
Merlin sniggered and immediately tried to cover his mouth with his sleeve but Percy couldn't really blame him. It was one thing to get your name wrong but Perrin?! Why not just dub him Sir Tarquin and have done with it. Merlin dropped his hand and patted Percy consolingly on the arm (actually he missed, but Percy appreciated the thought).
"Well, he calls me idiot." Merlin paused in thought; it seemed to take a while. "But then I call him Prat, so I'm not sure it counts."
Percy supposed he should feel more scandalised at this rather blatant show of disrespect for the Prince, but four months of being referred to as 'Perrin' had caused him to think up a few choice names of his own for Prince Arthur, although unlike Merlin he would not have dreamed of speaking them aloud. Instead he waved a hand vaguely in Merlin's direction.
"But it's not as if you say that to him is it?"
"That's what I mean. You can't just talk to royalty, they're not like normal people, and I don't have all these... these..." he struggled for a second, then settled on, "courtly skills." He slumped a little on the bench. "I just want him to give me a chance to prove myself." He paused, considering. "And for him not to call me Perrin anymore."
"Arthur's not that bad." At Percy's disbelieving look Merlin shook his head, "Really he isn't, you just need to talk to him like a normal person, don't worry about all this royalty nonsense."
It was an impressively long and coherent sentence but Percy still had trouble imagining himself ever just 'talking' to Prince Arthur — who was, after all, the future King — like he would to, well, to Merlin for example. He stared morosely into the bottom of his tankard.
Merlin sighed rather dramatically. "Look this is silly, just talk to him!" He straightened up, staring blearily around the dimly lit hall. "Look, there he is. Why don't you talk to him now?" And then, right before Percy's horrified gaze, Merlin lurched to his feet and actually waved energetically across the hall shouting "Arthur!" as he did so. Percy thought this might actually be the most awful thing that had ever happened to him, even worse than setting fire to the haybarn and quite possibly worse than his father's singing.
"Merlin!" He tried to grab his arm and pull him back down but Merlin ignored him. Percy would have quite liked to hide under the table but as a Knight of Camelot he felt he ought to show more grit. He turned reluctantly and nearly fell off the bench when he saw Prince Arthur had left the group by the fire and was in fact walking towards them — although, really, he might have been coming over to murder his incorrigible manservant. Percy couldn't be sure.
Prince Arthur came to a stop beside their table. His eyes took in Percy, the half empty jug of ale, the rather wet table and his dishevelled manservant who had now slumped back down onto the bench and was smiling angelically at a Prince whose eyebrows looked in danger of disappearing into his hair. "Did you just summon me?"
If anything Merlin looked even more angelic. "Might've."
"You do realise, Merlin, that servants do not summon their masters? I seem to remember us having a similar conversation after you shouted to me from the third floor window on market day."
"You forgot your gloves."
"I doubt the whole of Camelot needed to be apprised of that fact, and certainly not by you shouting like a fishwife from the West Tower."
Merlin actually rolled his eyes at this point, Percy wondered if he was about to be thrown into the stocks. "Just sit down will you, I want to talk to you." Merlin waved vaguely at the table and Arthur, to Percy's astonishment, sighed in a long suffering kind of way and slid onto the bench beside Merlin, grimacing at the now sodden surface.
"What?" He sounded irritable and Percy couldn't really blame him, but Merlin seemed supremely unconcerned.
"I wanted you to meet someone." He nodded at Percy, who tried to stand and bow but found that his legs were somewhat wobbly.
Arthur frowned as if trying to place him. "Er... Perrin isn't it?"
Before Percy could even attempt a reply Merlin spoke. "No, it's Percy."
"P-E-R-C-Y." Merlin pronounced it slowly and clearly (or as clearly as he was able) as if talking to someone half-witted.
Arthur glared at him. "It might have escaped your notice, Merlin, but there are a lot of Knights in Camelot, I can't be expected to get them all right."
Merlin glared back undaunted. "It might have escaped your notice, Arthur, that I have a lot of duties as your over-worked manservant. Luckily for you however I took the trouble to learn them, saving you a great deal of distress and making you feel valued as a member of the..." he paused, frowning. Percy couldn't help but think the analogy had got away from him somewhat. "Er... what was I saying?"
"I'm not sure. But I think I became a team somewhere in the middle." If Percy didn't know better he would almost think the Prince looked amused. Merlin nodded as if the Prince had made his point exactly and reached for his tankard, taking a noisy gulp. Prince Arthur eyed him with a slight frown.
"How much have you had?"
Merlin placed the tankard down on the table with an undignified thump. "It's not that strong. Percy was telling me about Honeymead — weren't you? His sister set fire to a barn." The Prince looked rather taken aback at this unexpected revelation.
When Merlin failed to elaborate he turned to Percy, who felt compelled to wade in before his sister was forever labelled a drunken pyromaniac. "The two things aren't related, Sire, I assure you. That is, we do make Honeymead on our lands, and my sister did accidentally set fire to a barn but not... er... not because she was drunk." He could probably have phrased that better, but he was just grateful he hadn't slurred too noticeably.
The Prince raised an eyebrow. "Your sister sounds rather unusual." Percy grinned, forgetting for a moment who he was talking to.
"She is! I don't think she's forgiven me yet for becoming a Knight, it's what she wants more than anything I think. Even now I've never seen an archer to equal her, nor a horsewoman. She would have a great deal in common with the Lady Morgana I believe... er... Sire." he remembered belatedly whom he was addressing but the Prince only smiled a little ruefully,
"You must invite her to visit Court. If she is as skilled as you say, it would do Morgana good to meet her. Maybe she'll stop asking to train with my Knights if she has someone worthy to compete with. Perhaps she could even bring some of this famous mead with her." Percy smiled back, relaxing a little now his dismissal from Court no longer seemed imminent.
"She would like that very much, Sire."
"Percy likes hunting," Merlin suddenly announced. Arthur let out an exasperated sigh and tried to reach for Merlin's tankard but Merlin pulled it quickly out of reach, managing another mouthful of ale as he did so.
"Really, Merlin, Percy is a Knight. Of course he likes hunting. Not everyone is as entirely incompetent as you when it comes to the great outdoors."
"But he's really good at it. Tell him about the basilisk, Percy." Merlin was gesturing rather freely with his tankard, Prince Arthur was now eyeing it purposefully, as if waiting for his chance, but he couldn't hide his interest at Merlin's words.
"A basilisk? Within our borders?"
"Yes sire," and Percy launched into the story he had earlier told Merlin, describing how he had first heard of the beast from terrified hill dwellers, how he had ridden out with his father's men and tracked the creature for days before the final, desperate, fight. As he spoke he stared determinedly forward, pretending to ignore the tug of war that was now taking place between the Prince and his manservant as Prince Arthur tried to tug the tankard from Merlin's hand and Merlin held on tightly. Percy had just got to the part where he and his men lured the basilisk into an open clearing when the Prince finally prised his manservant's fingers from the tankard, yanking it away and placing it on the table in front of him. As Percy came to the end of his tale the Prince questioned him closely; it seemed no-one had seen a basilisk within the Kingdom's borders for decades.
"Your lands sound like prime hunting country," the Prince said when Percy had exhausted his knowledge of the creatures. "Perhaps when he are on progress next summer we might ride out to your father's castle and try our luck?"
Percy smiled with pleasure. "Of course Sire, you would be most welcome. In fact my father's latest letter makes mention of bears in the mountains in our western territory." Percy noticed Merlin's hand was now creeping across the tabletop towards his tankard, the Prince moved it further down the table without even looking, ignoring Merlin's impressive glare as he did so.
"Bears? Then we shall certainly go, it might do some of these Knights good — hunting rabbits and deer is hardly a challenge anymore. Were you at the hunt yesterday?"
"No Sire." Percy didn't add that he hadn't been asked to go. Training was for everyone, of course, but the Prince picked his own companions when he hunted in the forests around Camelot.
"Shame, you missed a good run. No matter, we are riding out again the day after tomorrow, to the west. You should come. And stop making that ridiculous noise, Merlin" — Merlin had let out an impressive groan at the mention of hunting — "It's an honour to accompany the Knights of Camelot at the hunt — isn't that right Percy?" And Percy found himself nodding and smiling across the table at the Prince and thinking that maybe Merlin had a point, he wasn't that difficult to talk to after all, not if you were talking about normal, interesting things like hunting.
It was at this promising juncture that Merlin slumped sideways, right onto the shoulder of Prince Arthur, who attempted to shrug him off and only succeeded in nearly depositing him onto the floor. The Prince yanked him back upright so that Merlin was propped, rather precariously, against him, and exchanged a resigned look with Percy before regarding his flushed and untidy manservant.
"I think, Merlin, that it's time you retired for the evening, don't you?"
Merlin blinked up at the Prince, leaning against his shoulder and smiling sleepily. "Not really."
"Hmmm. Well I'm afraid your judgement might be somewhat impaired at the moment."
"I can't go before you do, you need me to do... do..." he waved his hand a little erratically, nearly hitting the Prince in the face as he struggled for the right words "...manservanty things," he brought out at last.
"Well, that would be a first."
"Hey!" Completely ignoring Merlin's wounded expression, the Prince shoved the bench back and stood, dragging Merlin up with him.
"Come on. The sooner you sleep this off, the sooner I can start reminding you of this evening for the rest of your life."
Percy had thought he was immune to any further shock but apparently he wasn't — he only hoped he wasn't gaping too obviously when Prince Arthur overlooked the immediate arrest of his unruly manservant for a light cuff around the head and an affectionate (and really there was no other word for it) mutter of 'idiot.'
"Percy, in the absence of any competent servants would you mind opening the door?" Realising the Prince was now addressing him whilst he was slumped across the table and probably gaping at him like an idiot, Percy lurched a little unsteadily to his feet and managed a (quite creditable) bow.
"Of course, Sire." Hurrying over to the heavy door and dragging it open, he watched Merlin walk into the doorframe twice before the Prince, with a rueful glance at Percy (who he now seemed to view as a fellow sufferer, which seemed a bit hard on Merlin, but was still infinitely preferable to 'Perrin'), managed to guide him through. But not before Merlin, in an extremely bad stage whisper, assured him that he would 'speak to Arthur about the tournament' before winking clumsily (it looked more like a spasm) and grinning.
As Percy watched them disappear down the dimly lit corridor, Merlin with a wave and the Prince with a more dignified nod and reminder about the forthcoming hunt, he reflected that his father had been right about something after all. Not that Percy had ever expected such a thing to happen, and not that he would ever dream of telling his father that it had, but, as tonight had proved, sometimes it really was about knowing the right people.