Merlin’s mother, for some reason unknown to Merlin, did not trust their neighbors. She insisted that Merlin pretend not to have magic, as though everyone in the village did not already know, had not already known since before she could talk. Merlin could understand her mother not wanting the information to get to King Cenred, magic may be accepted but a peasant with so much power could easily get accused of treason, but Ealdor was in Kearia’s territory. Technically it was part and parcel of Essetir, subject to King Cenred’s rule, but Kearia was the Lady of the area and she was a sorceress, most likely a witch, and far older than King Cenred and she ruled her land with little interference from the King. Merlin had always doubted that she would ever be in any real danger should her admittedly extensive abilities come to King Cenred’s attention. She was strong enough to get away and Kearia would probably offer her protection.
But, Merlin’s mother did not trust their neighbors. As though Ealdor was not named for the sacred spring not a full hour’s walk from the village. As though there were not Druids in the village for nearly every feast day and often through the winter. But it was not Merlin’s place to question her mother and she had always known that her mother would eventually send her away to try her luck in the anonymity of a city. Merlin and Will had decided that since Merlin was a pretty girl and would have to travel long roads on her own, that she would have to be able to pass for a boy. As with all things, the spells were the easiest part for Merlin. But Will and Merlin were already inseparable and him teaching her to talk and walk like a boy did not arouse her mother’s suspicions.
Then her mother told her that she would be going to Camelot, to the castle, the heart of the broken kingdom of Albion which had banned magic on pain of death, because her mother had a friend there. Merlin was more than a little concerned about the whole scheme, but it could not be so bad, could it? She had good control over her power, she was unlikely to give herself away, and only those who had magic themselves could sense it in others and they would not be handing her over to the King of Camelot, since they likely had more sense than her mother and would be far, far away from the crazy king who had banned magic. Of course, it was also highly improbable that she would ever exchange two words with the King or his son.
Obviously, Merlin had not been prepared for a prince who was a terrible prat and set up his target practice in the market square, looking like a merchant’s son with a head full of his own imagined importance. She spent the first night in Camelot in the dungeon, wondering how in the world she had gotten in so much trouble. Did her pretty face really get her out of so much trouble at home, or was it just that she had not recognized the prince and it was only a single incident and would not become a pattern? She was hoping for the latter. She was not horrifying in appearance as a lad by any means, but she was too tall and awkwardly shaped and her hair stuck out in all directions and her ears were thrice their normal size. Only her lovely eyes had not changed, still a deep, pretty blue. Will had assured her that they were exactly the same, at least. She was ignoring that he also thought her lips were the same and they did not feel the same. Regardless of the cause of her night in the dungeon cell, she had resolved not to interact with the prince any further unless she needed to bow or something. She was going to be Gaius’ assistant after all and surely they would not cross paths very often.
Merlin was not accustomed to being proved wrong so frequently. Of course, nearly the moment she was out of the stocks and cleaned up, she had been sent on another errand and ran into the stupid prince in the marketplace. Was he ever anywhere else? Merlin tried to pretend that she had not even seen him and keep walking, but clearly that was a tactic that only worked for women. The prat prince had baited and goaded her until she turned around and somehow ended up with a mace in her hands. She knew how to use a dagger, any knife really, and her fists, but a mace was not something she had any familiarity with. She used her magic to move everything around them, keeping her from getting her face bashed in, since she had dropped the mace almost immediately. Goddess mercy! And of course, there was Gaius, glaring at her like she had started this. She was an innocent victim here. When the guards grabbed her arms once she’d been knocked on her ass again, she thought she might conveniently forget that magic was banned and throw them into a wall. But then the prince intervened.
“No, let him go,” he said. Merlin missed the rest of his babbling, staring at him in shock. Where was the horrible cruel man who had attacked an unarmed peasant not moments before? “There’s just something about you, Merlin.” Merlin blinked. He had remembered her name? Of course, she was being dragged away by Gaius before she could think to reply and lectured and completely ignored when she insisted that his pratness had started the fight and she had not even had a weapon for most of it. Maybe she could just forge a letter of recommendation from Gaius and hit the road again. Clearly Camelot was not the place for her. King Alined had three Court Sorcerers and the rumors were that fully half his household servants had magic. At least there, she would have her magic and her pretty face to protect her.
The dragon chained below the keep who had apparently been the one to make her fear her own sanity by continuously calling her name did not seem to agree, spouting something that sounded like a prophecy she had heard before. But she could not call to mind exactly which one. All the Druids did not agree, after all, and each band preferred different prophecies and told even the ones they agreed on differently. It would make sense that the dragons would have their own version. That did not mean that the dragon had the right prince, or that she was the person he thought she would be. Prince Prat deserved to have someone take him down a peg or two, and she was only exaggerating a little when she spitefully told the dragon that anyone trying to assassinate the prince would have her full cooperation. She would most likely just ignore that she saw anything strange rather than try to get herself executed for treason.
The next day, Merlin met Gwen’s mistress, the Lady Morgana who was King Uther’s ward. Gaius sent her to deliver a sleeping draught to Morgana and Morgana mistook Merlin for Gwen returning from an errand when she first walked into the room.
“Ah, Gwen, there you are,” Morgana said, standing and walking towards a screen in the room.
“No, my lady,” Merlin answered. “I am Merlin, Gaius’ new assistant. He sent me with your sleeping draught?” Merlin offered the bottle.
“It is a good thing that you spoke up so quickly,” Morgana pretended to whisper. “I am going to have Gwen help me change gowns when she returns.”
“That could have been a very awkward situation for us both,” Merlin agreed. Morgana smiled at him as though pleased with the response.
“Are you Gwen’s new friend? The one who tried to fight Arthur in the marketplace?”
“Uh, yes, my lady,” Merlin admitted reluctantly, “I did not recognize him and thought his behavior needed reproach.” Morgana nodded, staring at her intently. Merlin merely stared back.
“You speak well for a peasant,” she murmured.
“My mother wished me to have some education. She sent me here in hopes Gaius would take me on as an apprentice.”
“I wish you luck in your endeavors,” Morgana replied with a sweet smile. She finally took the bottle of sleeping draught from Merlin.
“I will take my leave,” Merlin murmured. Morgana nodded and waved a hand in dismissal. Merlin turned and left, passing Gwen on the stairs.
“Hello, Merlin!” she greeted.
“Hello, Gwen,” Merlin echoed. “I was just giving Morgana her sleeping draught. Unfortunately Gaius wants me to come straight back and Morgana has need of you, so I cannot stay to chat.”
“Well, I am certain we will meet again soon enough,” Gwen replied. “The castle is not as large as it first seems, given that the inhabitants occupy only two wings and the others are largely unused.”
“Then hopefully I will learn my way around sooner rather than later.”
“Go down the stairs at the other end of the short hall here,” Gwen pointed towards the windows. “You’ll come out into the center courtyard at the bottom.”
“Thank you, Gwen,” Merlin beamed at her before hurrying off. Gaius did get all upset if she got turned around and took too long for the deliveries he sent her on.
After Gaius sent her to give some sort of throat thing to the noblewoman who was supposed to sing for the king that night, Merlin had a second idea for leaving Camelot. She knew why a woman without a child would have corn husk doll lying amongst her things. Lady Helen had magic. Merlin could leave with her retinue and surely Lady Helen would not mind a fellow witch asking for a reference. Of course, Merlin was too flustered to actually say anything to the woman when she suddenly walked back into her chambers, but there would be plenty of time. After all, Gaius had decided that Merlin could follow him to the feast and listen to the Lady Helen sing.
Merlin should have already resigned herself to being wrong. Lady Helen was not a sorceress. The lady who had protested her son’s execution only a few days prior was wearing her face and tried to kill everyone. Almost literally without a single thought, Merlin had registered the dagger, slowed time and dragged the prat prince out of the way.
The King stared at her in awe for a moment before speaking. “You saved my boy's life. A debt must be repaid.” Merlin mumbled something inane. So much for keeping her head down. “Don't be so modest. You shall be rewarded.”
Merlin felt panic well up, “No, honestly, you don't have to, Your Highness.”
“No, absolutely. This merits something quite special,” the king insisted. Merlin dithered some more, but even she knew that you did not argue with a king. “You shall be rewarded a position in the royal household. You shall be Prince Arthur's manservant.” The prince at least exclaimed in horror, no more pleased with the situation than Merlin was. What sort of reward was it to make someone a servant? She thought she had been conceding to some valuable trinket or gold or something, not a second set of responsibilities. What sort of dreadful place was this?