It was once told among his people that when Carmarthen fell, a greater evil would descend upon all of Albion. His people, the Carmarthians, would suffer through dark times once their kingdom fell, but it would be nothing compared to what humanity would suffer after the Evil plunges Albion into chaos.
It was also told that a man would rise to save Albion, to save humanity. This man, the Once and Future King as some called him, would defeat the Evil and unite all of Albion as one, despite having no power but that of his sword and his words. Because at the King’s side would be a great warlock, one of their own, and it is only with the King and Warlock united, that Albion will find salvation and peace.
For years as he grew up, his people looked to him as the Warlock. Because as young as he was, he was gradually becoming the most powerful of them all. Because magic flowed through him the way blood did. Because his name was Emrys, the name all seers connected with that of the Warlock.
But Carmarthen fell as prophesized, crushed quickly under the combined forces of the kingdoms of Camelot and Mercia. And Emrys fell too. With his loss was the loss of hope of his people. Dark times were ahead, and without the Warlock to aid the yet undiscovered King, Albion was doomed.
Merlin was barely awake when he was dragged up from the dirt floor and hauled out of the slave pen. The slave merchant, whom he hadn’t bothered to learn the name of, gave him a cursory glance—to no doubt check for any defects to his merchandise—before clamping manacles to Merlin’s wrists. He was then herded out of the slave house, tripping over his shackles, and into the rain. And as he stood on the small, crudely constructed wooden dais meant for putting slaves on display, stark naked and shivering, he had a feeling that the day would rank as one of the worst since his capture twelve years ago.
He did not have to wait long before the slave merchant returned though, leading two men behind him. The taller of the two wore a blue cloak closed tight around his body, his head protected from the rain by the cloak’s hood. The shorter man wore a knight’s armor and remained two steps behind the other, indicating the hooded man’s superior rank.
“The Carmarthian slave, as you requested, your highness,” the slave merchant said with a subservient bow when they reached Merlin.
The hooded man was less than a foot away from him, and Merlin found himself under the scrutiny of Prince Arthur Pendragon of Camelot, son of King Uther Pendragon and heir apparent to the very kingdom responsible for Carmarthen’s fall. During the first few years of his captivity, if he had found himself before the prince, Merlin would have attacked him right then and there. He knew better than that now; he had no chance and no will to do so, not if he wanted to at least stay alive and as pain-free as possible.
Under the hood, Merlin caught hints of blue eyes, bright even in the rain, blond hair, and smooth, golden-tinted skin. If the glimpses of the man’s face were any indication, then the prince was as handsome as the stories said he was.
“He looks too pale to be Carmarthian,” the prince remarked. “And you're sure he can read and write? He looks a bit like an idiot.”
The prince's companion snickered. Merlin felt his temper spark, but he let the insult slide, as he had learned to do with all the insults he'd had directed towards him through twelve years of slavery. “Idiot” was probably the mildest he'd ever gotten.
“Yes, your highness. Lord Gaufrid, his previous master, informed me specifically that this one could read and write. It seems he knows several of the Old Languages as well--better for his kind to do magic and whatnot,” the slave merchant replied.
The prince's shoulders shifted, straightening his back undoubtedly at the mention of magic. Magic was not a rare thing in Albion, but it was the very reason Carmarthen had been invaded. Carmarthen had had the highest concentration of sorcerers, its own royal family having consisted of skilled sorcerers. Only a handful of the magicians in Camelot and Mercia had any true power, and it was through jealousy that the magicians betrayed their kind and turned Camelot, Mercia, and who knew which other kingdoms, against the Carmarthians.
“So he's a sorcerer then,” said the prince. The disdain in his voice was hard not to miss. The prince had been only a child when Carmarthen fell, but it was no secret the disdain the royal family held for magic, even though magic was not banned outright. It didn’t have to be, not when most of the Carmarthian sorcerers were killed or enslaved. “He's been put through the Rites, of course?”
Merlin stiffened when the prince reached into his cloak and extracted a knife from his belt. But the prince did not uncover the blade, instead using its sheathed point to poke and prod Merlin all over--including between his legs. Never since the first few years of his captivity had he felt the urge to bristle and hiss at the invasive treatment. He bit the inside of his cheek and willed himself still in both body and expression. The prince stepped a bit closer, circling him with increased scrutiny.
“Yes, sire, most certainly. I believe he's been in service since the very day we took Carmarthen. There shouldn't be a trace of magic left in him.”
None that Merlin could actually use anyway. No one, not even his own people, fully understood that he essentially was magic. Magic was in his bloodstream, in every fiber of his being. The Rites had left him with the bare minimum--just enough for his heart to pump and lungs to move, just enough for his wounds to heal and his mind to function, and no more.
“And these stripes? I wasn't informed that he was damaged.” Merlin kept himself from shivering when the sheathed knife lightly traced one of the whipping scars on his back. “Seems like he's been a handful.”
“He was one of the fighters taken during the conquest; no doubt he must have been put under strict discipline at first. But Lord Gaufrid has assured me that he is now well-behaved, albeit rather clumsy.”
“And what reason did Lord Gaufrid give for...relinquishing the slave?” The offending knife finally withdrew, returned to its original place on the prince's belt.
“He didn't say, but assured me it was no fault of the slave.”
“Hmm, odd.” The prince finally stepped away from Merlin, raising his head as if to get another look at him. Merlin’s breath caught in his throat when, by accident, his eyes met those of the prince’s. He immediately looked away, bowing his head to stare fixedly at the soggy grass before the prince’s feet.
“I-if the slave does not please you, there are others…” the merchant trailed off, and Merlin glanced up to see the prince shake his head.
“I’ll give you sixty for him. Get him ready and delivered to the castle.”
“But your highness, the slave is worth at least a hundred if not more!”
“You forget who you’re speaking to, Merchant,” the prince snapped. He glared down at the man with arrogance and expectation, a look most certainly garnered over years of always getting what he wanted when he wanted it. “I’m being generous. Those stripes are unsightly, and you’ve already said the slave was clumsy. I have little tolerance for bumbling idiots, but I have need of a scribe. You should be glad I’m paying you so much.”
“Yes, yes, of course, sire!” the merchant agreed, complete with frantic, low bows.
“Good,” the prince said with a nod before turning around to his companion. “Sir Caradoc!” The prince put a hand on the knight’s shoulder. “The slave handler still has business to take care of. Why don’t you pay for the slave and take him back?” The knight’s face morphed into a perfect look of shock and dismay. As if not noticing the look at all, the prince merely patted the knight’s shoulder before sauntering off towards the stable.
With a look of contempt and anger, the knight tossed several gold pieces at the merchant’s feet. His anger was understandable, and even the merchant looked vaguely sympathetic. Without any hesitation or guilt, the prince had essentially demoted Sir Caradoc from knight to slave handler, a position on level with, if not lower, than that of a simple commoner.
Of course, it was difficult for Merlin to feel a shred of sympathy for the man when he ended up with his wrists bound and tethered to Caradoc’s horse, chilled to the bone and still stark naked. Merlin stumbled along behind the knight and horse, too focused on not tripping and consequently being dragged through the city to feel any embarrassment and shame at the display he was making.
But Merlin failed to realize the extent of affront the knight felt at the prince’s slight until he was being dragged by the chains of his manacles into the castle and across its courtyard. It was with creeping apprehension that he spotted their destination—not the slave house, but the smithy.
“Sir Caradoc, what can I do for you?” A blacksmith stepped forward. He eyed Merlin with masked curiosity but waited for Caradoc to answer.
“You are to brand the slave’s face with the royal seal.”
Merlin choked back his cry of horror. The blacksmith looked from the knight to Merlin with a furrowed brow.
“Is he a runaway? He seems new. And Prince Arthur dislikes branding slaves. Are you sure, sir?”
“Look at those stripes. The slave deserves it, and the prince requested that it be done,” Caradoc said.
Merlin had to say something, to stop this or he’d be the one to pay for this senseless act of revenge.
“No! The prince— I’m not—”
“Quiet, slave!” Caradoc cut him off with a backhand to his cheek. “Brand his face, smith.”
“But are you sure?” the blacksmith asked again.
“Are you questioning my word, Blacksmith?” Caradoc snapped.
The blacksmith quickly denied the accusation, scurrying away and then back again, an iron glowing red hot at its end in his hands. The blacksmith murmured to Merlin that he’d chosen the smallest of the branding irons bearing the Pendragon royal crest and handed him a rag to clench between his teeth.
He had, mercifully, been half-conscious and delirious when he had received the brand on his thigh marking him as a slave. But today, he was wide awake as the blacksmith pressed the iron into his skin, right over his left cheekbone. His vision briefly turned white as pain flooded him, and he was biting down on the rag so hard he was afraid his jaw would break. His eyes watered, his left cheek feeling as if it was on fire. The smell of burnt flesh—his flesh—made his stomach turn. He dry heaved, nothing but bile rising into his mouth since he couldn’t remember when his last meal had been. He spat the rag from his mouth as dizziness swept through him.
A servant boy led him out of the smithy and across the courtyard to the slave house. The floor lurched under his feet, and his head felt hot and muddled. The boy pointed to the very-inviting-looking straw pallet on the floor, and without a second thought, Merlin collapsed onto the straw, hoping that when he woke up, the swelling and throbbing under his eye would have dulled.
It seemed as if he’d just closed his eyes when he was being shaken awake.
“Carmarthian, wake up. The prince wants you to serve him at—” The voice faltered to a halt when Merlin clambered to his feet.
The pain had dulled as he’d hoped and his head wasn’t spinning, but based on the look on the face of the man standing before him, he probably wasn’t a pretty sight. The man was dark-skinned, with surprisingly gentle eyes and laugh lines on his face. He looked almost amiable, which was a strange quality to see in a slave master—at least, Merlin assumed he was the slave master—but his broad shoulders and muscled build, much like a blacksmith’s, probably made him look intimidating if he chose to. The man rested his large hands on Merlin’s shoulders.
“Why has your face been branded? You can’t be a runaway. You’re the new slave.” When Merlin refrained from answering, the man squeezed his shoulders and looked him dead in the eye. “Don’t be afraid to say who it is. Answer me.”
“Sir Caradoc. He told the blacksmith that—” Merlin screwed his eyes shut, pushing away the memory of white hot pain. “—that the prince wanted me branded.”
The man cursed under his breath. “That fool. He knows no one but the prince himself can order a branding!” He let go of Merlin’s shoulders, instead taking him by the elbow. “Come. We need to get you cleaned. The prince wants you to serve him lunch.”
Merlin was soon walking down one of the castle’s many servants’ corridors, balancing a tray loaded with goblets and a jug of wine and repeating in his head the directions he’d been given to the small dining hall Prince Arthur took informal meals in when entertaining guests. Tom, the slave master, had cleaned up the mess that was his left cheek with the sure hands of someone who knew how to deal with brands—which, as one charged with overseeing slaves, of course he did. Tom had also put salve on the brand, and Merlin’s face felt pleasantly cool and numbed. He was clean after a quick dip and rubdown in cold, soapy water and was wearing actual clothes for the first time in the fortnight since leaving Lord Gaufrid’s service. Although the pair of braies he’d been given were too short for his long legs, going down only to mid-thigh, they were serviceable and his tunic was long enough so only a inch of the braies were seen—a far improvement to no clothes at all. The heavy shackles around his wrists and ankles, and the thick collar around his neck had been replaced with lighter, thinner arm braces and a rough leather and metal collar, all of which engraved with the Pendragon crest and demarcating Merlin as a slave owned by the prince. His hair, having grown irritatingly long during Lord Gaufrid’s service, had been left alone. Although Merlin would have liked to have had it shorn, Tom had insisted on having it tied off in a loose ponytail, hoping that it’d hide as much of the brand as possible—there was little chance of it not being noticed, but a chance nonetheless. The important question was who the prince would take out his wrath on—Merlin, Tom or Caradoc, or all three.
With that in mind, Merlin kept his shoulders slouched and his head bowed, just barely looking up to see where he was going when he reached the servants’ entrance to the dining hall. His entrance, however, did not go unnoticed. Arthur sat at the head of the dining table, facing the main double doors, but his head was turned to speak to the lady on his right. Thus, he was looking straight at the servants’ entrance when Merlin slipped in. Merlin took in the room and its occupants in one sweeping glance through his lashes. While several guards were stationed around the room against the walls, only five other men and women shared the table with the prince, decked out in fine clothing and jewelry despite this being an informal meal. The prince, as would be expected, stood out like the sun. As stories had told and Merlin had suspected, the prince was gorgeous, with fair skin, hair like spun gold and eyes like sapphire. As the First Knight of Camelot, the prince of course had a muscled physique and broad shoulders. Despite his youth, he already sat with the bearing of a king, although that was probably due to a fair amount of arrogance. He probably made many a woman swoon before him. Curiously, while the tunic and pants he wore were of no doubt superb quality, they were much simpler than one would expect of a prince, practical even. It seemed Prince Arthur preferred a knight’s simple standard of dress.
Merlin carefully balanced his tray before bowing deeply to the prince. After straightening, he kept his head bowed, eyes trained on the ground before him but alert to his surroundings. It was the perfect, servile pose, avoiding eye contact with everyone while moving around without bumping into things or other people. It had been a trial for Merlin to learn it, as evidenced by the lashes on his back. Not only was he somewhat clumsy by nature, he had never taken well to authority, especially when it was undeserved. At seventeen, he’d been so cocksure, so confident, backed by the assurance his magic gave him. He had been the prophesized Emrys, after all. But then he’d lost his magic, and twelve, almost thirteen, years were a long time; he’d long since learned how to act a perfect slave.
“Took you long enough. Get over here,” the prince beckoned him before turning back to his companions. “He’s my newest slave. I was told he’s a Carmarthian sorcerer.” Merlin didn’t miss the slight sneer in the prince’s voice at the word, but the other lords and ladies were looking at him with fascination.
“My, I’ve never seen a Carmarthian sorcerer before,” one of the women said.
“Mm, he looks quite pleasing,” another remarked. “Are you willing to lend him out?”
“Him?” the prince said incredulously. “He’s scrawny. And his ears.”
Merlin mentally bristled. His ears weren’t that bad. They’d been ridiculous on him as a child and adolescent, but he’d most certainly grown into them now that he was an adult.
“Well, he’s more of the wiry build, isn’t he? And pale too. Almost exotic,” continued the woman. “What color are his eyes? If they are blue, they must be gorgeous with his dark hair.”
“As a matter of fact, they are blue, if I recall correctly,” the prince replied. “Come on, slave, lift your head. Lady Elwynn wants to see your gorgeous eyes.” The lords at the table chuckled at the prince’s mocking tone. Merlin set the tray on the table by the prince’s right hand, but kept his head down. “Are you deaf? I said lift your head.” A sword-calloused hand grabbed his chin and pulled his head up. Merlin found himself meeting the eyes of the prince for the second time that day. Arthur’s face was shuttered, a royal mask to hide emotion, but Merlin stood practically toe-to-toe with the prince, and his eyes showed what the rest of his face hid—shock shifting into suspicion and then angry. “Get Tom at once,” Arthur ordered the guards, but he did not look away from Merlin and his marred left cheekbone. Merlin was trapped in the prince’s stormy gaze, staring back with wide eyes. Arthur looked like an enraged god, ready to smite all those in his path, and in the face of such fury, Merlin was left breathless, fearful for his life. He now understood how it was said that the prince could make grown men cower before him without even lifting a sword. Merlin winced as the prince’s grip on his chin tightened. “Who did this?” the prince demanded. “And I want the truth.”
A slave’s word meant nothing compared to that of a knight’s—to anyone’s really, for that matter. If the prince chose to ask for Caradoc’s side of the story and the knight lied, then Merlin’s life could be forfeit, having slandered the knight. But after a moment’s hesitation, during which Arthur glared at him, Merlin pushed aside all reserve and answered, “Sir Caradoc…” He then tacked on, “…my lord.” He stifled a cringe, hoping the prince would be too angry to notice the way he’d said the title. It had come out too casual, too familiar, sounding almost mocking of the prince’s rank. Gods, he hadn’t slipped up in nearly ten years for sure. What was this prince doing to him?
A frown pulled on the prince’s lips before he released Merlin with a little shove. Merlin stumbled back before lowering his head, assuming once again the servile position.
It was a tense few minutes before the slave master entered the dining hall, during which the lords and ladies, knowing that they were now superfluous, murmured their farewells to the prince and left the hall. The prince paced back and forth, anger rolling off him in waves, but he stopped the moment Tom arrived.
“My new slave claims Sir Caradoc is responsible for this…insubordination. Have you confirmed this?”
“I asked the blacksmith, and he said it was indeed Sir Caradoc, sire. He was told by Sir Caradoc that you had ordered it,” the slave master said.
“No one but myself or the King in person can order a branding,” the prince growled. “Make sure Mellan knows this, or the next time, there will be consequences.”
“Yes, your highness. I will tell him so.”
“Where is Sir Caradoc?” The prince turned away from Tom, instead looking back at Merlin.
“In his chambers, sire,” one of the guards answered him.
“Bring Caradoc to the courtyard. The other slaves and servants can show you the way, but you’re to bring him to the courtyard, where I’ll be waiting,” the prince said.
For a few moments, Merlin didn’t realize that the prince was addressing him. But the instant he did, he straightened immediately and bowing to the prince, who was looking at him with a different frown than from before. Recalling the prince’s earlier remark at the slave block, Merlin suspected the prince probably did think he was an idiot from the way Merlin had been acting thus far. With a hurried “Yes, sire,” he was out the door.
Sir Caradoc, to say the least, was not happy to see Merlin at his door. Truthfully, Merlin wanted to either punch the man or avoid him like the plague, but he schooled his face to blankness, looking the knight in the eye for a second before stating, “The prince requests your presence. I’m to take you to him, if you may.” Caradoc looked decidedly ill and didn’t even notice that Merlin had refrained from bowing. The knight nodded his answer and followed Merlin down the castle corridors, growing paler and paler by the moment. Merlin wondered how extreme of a punishment the prince could possibly give to a nobleman, but then pushed the thoughts aside. One branded face was enough violence in a day for him, even if it would be the one responsible for his branding to suffer this time.
Just like Prince Arthur had said, he stood waiting for them in the courtyard, paying no heed to the curious stares of the servants and guards. When Merlin and Caradoc entered the courtyard, the prince spotted them immediately.
“Ah, Sir Caradoc!’ The prince stepped forward and clapped the knight on the back. The gesture was almost friendly, if not for the smile that didn’t reach the prince’s stone cold eyes. “I would have gotten you myself, but I had business to take care of,” the prince said with a quirk of his lips. “Come.”
He turned on his heels and began striding across the courtyard. Merlin remained where he stood, unsure whether he should be following as well. The prince glanced over his shoulder to check for Caradoc behind him before beckoning for Merlin to follow. Merlin inclined his head in a standard form of acknowledgment before trailing after them.
“I should thank you,” Arthur was saying to Caradoc. “I will never have to worry about losing my slave.” If Merlin hadn’t seen the prince’s fury earlier, he would have almost been fooled by the cheer in his voice.
“N-no, Sire,” Caradoc replied in barely a whisper. He glanced around, as if searching for a way out of whatever was coming.
The prince took them back into a different section of the castle. Caradoc stumbled a step, and Merlin suspected by his wide eyes and creased brow that the knight knew where they were headed. And when they descended a curving flight of stairs, Merlin did too—the dungeons.
The guards in the torch-lit hallway straightened to attention at the prince’s arrival.
“Everything has been prepared, sire,” one of them said, stepping forward. At the wave of Arthur’s hand, the guard who’d spoken led the way to a cell.
“Sire…?” Caradoc breathed out, the fear almost tangible in his voice.
At the prince’s nod, two of the guards seized Caradoc by the arms and pulled him into the cell. The manacles hanging from the ceiling were clapped around his wrists.
“Sir Caradoc Cardon, for your impertinence and for damaging my property, you are to be flogged. Ten lashes.”
“Sire!” Caradoc choked out. He twisted around in his chains, looking over his shoulder at the prince. The lighting in the cell was dim, but it was impossible not to see the shock, mortification and fear shaking his body and rattling the chains.
Flogging was a punishment meant only for the most serious crimes in Camelot—mass murder, treachery and kin-slaying, when such acts did not result in execution, that is. The exception was slaves, of course. Slaves were whipped all the time, because they were not people, after all, not anymore. But noblemen, noblemen were never flogged—at least, not that Merlin was aware of—and knights certainly not, not when all of Camelot relied on them. That Arthur would mete out such a severe punishment on his own knight…Merlin told himself never to displease the prince to such an extent, because as a slave, he’d surely be killed instead.
The prince ignored Caradoc, instead gesturing again to the guards. The guards cut away Caradoc's tunic, exposing his back for the whip.
Merlin had seen another person flogged only one time before. Thirty lashes. The slave had died of infection two days later. He really did not want to watch another flogging after that, and during Lord Gaufrid’s service, which lasted him a good four years, he never witnessed or received one.
He was completely unprepared when a coiled leather whip was shoved in his face.
“Sire?” he questioned, looking up to the scowling face of the prince, who was holding the whip out to him.
“You will give him the lashes.”
“S-sire!” Merlin blanched. As much as he didn't want to watch another flogging, he also really didn't want to be the one holding the whip. And slaves were never to attack a nobleman, or anyone for that matter.
“Come on, don't deny it. I'm sure you slaves would love a chance to get back at us.”
“What? No! I would never!” Merlin cried before remembering himself. Sure, he would love to knock all the slave owners down a notch, but to whip another human being? It would make him just like them.
“Do it,” the prince insisted, but Merlin shook his head.
Arthur pressed the whip handle into Merlin's hand, but when Merlin did nothing but stand stupidly with it, he growled and latched onto Merlin’s hand with his own. The prince's grip was painfully tight, and Merlin winced at the grips of the whip handle digging into his palm. He was startled by the warm solid pressure of the prince against his back but hardly had the time to react before the prince swung his arm, and thus Merlin's as well. Caradoc stifled a cry as the whip cut open his back. Recoil from the whip shot up Merlin's arm, and his stomach lurched. But then the prince was swinging again, and this time Caradoc did actually scream. The prince swung again, and Merlin's world soon narrowed to the crushing grip around his hand, the swing of the whip and Caradoc's weakening screams. For the second time today, bile rose in his throat.
Ten nauseating lashes later, the prince let go of Merlin's hand, and Merlin immediately let the whip drop to the ground. The prince jerked him around by the shoulder, and he found himself the recipient of the prince's angry glare.
“You will not disobey me again, or you will be punished as well. Is that clear?”
“Yes sire.” Merlin lowered his eyes to his feet, afraid to look at the prince and afraid to look at Caradoc’s back.
The prince released him and said, “Tell Tom to put you in the room.”
Other than the times Tom had let him up to check on the brand on his face and put some salve on the healing flesh, it was in this cell that Merlin spent the next three days. At least, he believed it was three. Food and water were lowered to the cell’s floor in a basket attached to a long length of string. The basket had been lowered nine times, one for each of the three meals of the day. Besides eating, Merlin did little else but sleep. As one without a destiny, without a life anymore, he had learned over the years how to sleep whenever, wherever, and through whatever he might have been feeling. It made the passage of time easier, and he did not have to think of what he had lost and what that had cost.
When Merlin climbed up out of the room after three days, Tom informed him that the prince needed him for his scribe duties. The slave master had him cut his hair with the shaving knife, and Merlin took a moment to marvel at the lightness he felt now that his long locks had been cut to just an inch or so.
After cleaning up and getting dressed, Merlin was sent on his way with vague directions to the prince’s chambers. He discovered that they were not that difficult to find, and after his knock was answered, Merlin pushed open the door and stepped inside. At a quick glance, he found that he was in an antechamber, to his right an unlit fireplace and to his left a table where the prince and another man sat. The prince looked unchanged—still gorgeous, still simply dressed, still arrogant. The man sitting across from Arthur was significantly older, perhaps in his late forties, with graying hair and sharp blue eyes that bore some resemblance to Arthur’s if not for the weight of age in and around them. Merlin wondered briefly if they were related before schooling his thoughts to blankness. He bowed deeply to the prince and his guest, murmuring a “Your highness” and “Sir.”
“Ah,” the prince commented upon sight of him. Merlin was somehow able to read it as, I remember how you defied me, but I won’t make you pay for it—yet. “You. As my personal scribe, you should know that anything I have you read or write is to be kept secret, or I’ll have your head.”
“Of course, sire,” Merlin responded with a dipping of his head.
“Here. Read this.” The prince handed him a roll of parchment, sealed with blue wax. Merlin stepped forward and took the letter, gingerly breaking the seal.
In Camelot, Mercia and many kingdoms other than Carmarthen, nobles—that is, those not relegated to a life of scholarship anyways—were not expected to read or write beyond a rudimentary level. Their education was more focused on etiquette and fighting, whatever knowledge they needed gathered through firsthand experiences, observations or lectures. As royalty, the prince was probably more literate than most nobles, what with the security having to know if what was being read or written was truly as stated, but Merlin figured the effort of using the skill was not worth it unless absolutely necessary.
He unfurled the letter and began reading:
I regret to inform you that I will not be able to attend your coming of age. It has taken much more time than expected to oversee things here in Stafford and get the Northumbrian delegates settled. It is as if they wish to build a palace. Their list of demands and requirements try my patience, and you know what a feat that is.
While I am honored that the king has entrusted me with such an important task, I’m not a man of politics. I am beginning to feel the itching in my feet to travel again, but I am bound here by duty to my king and kingdom, answering to the whims of the Northumbrians.
Once again, I express how sorry I am to miss the ceremony. I had been sorely hoping to witness your crowning, but unfortunately, it is not to pass. I look forward to the next time I see you. I will make it up to you for my absence. It has been a long time since I have had a proper fight. No one comes even near your level of swordsmanship here.
Prince Arthur swore under his breath before exclaiming, “Gwaine is off playing royal envoy in Cendred’s kingdom for the next year, and now Lancelot can’t even leave Stafford for the prince’s coming of age!” The prince scowled at the letter still in Merlin’s hands. “How could you let this happen, Uncle? Why didn’t you stop Father from sending Lancelot to that godforsaken village?”
Uncle. As in Prince Arthur’s only living uncle, brother to the Queen, Sir Tristan Du Bois. That explained the resemblance.
“Of course I tried to stop Uther,” Tristan promptly replied. “But you know how Uther is. And now with the Northumbrians allied with us, they’ve been making more and more demands and he rarely denies them. We must be wary. The next thing we know, they’ll be asking for the throne.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Uncle. My father isn’t that stupid. Besides, the Northumbrians are hardly a threat. They surrendered without even a proper battle. Even the Carmarthians fought better.”
Merlin kept his head down, hiding the anger and indignation he couldn’t help but feel. His people’s livelihoods had been at stake. Of course they’d fought the best they could. But they had been no match against the sheer number of knights and soldiers from three or four kingdoms, even with magic on their side. There were costs to using large amounts of magic. Merlin might have had the power to raze a battlefield, but he would have been out of commission for over a day afterwards, something his people had not been able to afford. But in the end, after little under a week, their efforts had been for naught, and Carmarthen had fallen, just as prophesized.
“King Lot has sorcerers among his delegates. We have no idea what their agenda is, working for Lot, of all people,” Tristan said with a shake of his head.
“What I don’t understand is why Father would place such faith in a king who associates himself with magic. Father hates sorcery.”
Merlin searched his memory, trying to recall if he’d ever heard of any sorcerers working for the Northumbrian king, but came up with no answer. When had that happened? Sorcerers outside of Carmarthen used to never associate themselves with kings, lest they were coerced or threatened into using their power. It seemed that had changed in the years since he’d last heard any political news.
“It is like I said: the Northumbrians cannot be trusted,” Tristan insisted.
“There’s no need to worry, Uncle. I really doubt Father would be so careless as to get enchanted by sorcerers. Besides, we’ve already gotten rid of all the powerful ones. Lot’s sorcerers are probably just simple magicians, full of cheap tricks and fancy baubles.” The sneer in Arthur’s voice and on his face was hard not to miss.
“If it had been up to me, they and the Northumbrians would have been sent back to Northumbria by now, baubles and all,” said Tristan.
Merlin smothered his disapproval at that statement. Magic was never to be underestimated; even a person with the smallest amount could cause irrevocable damage. But Sir Tristan, probably as a skill honed through years as a knight and hunter, sensed Merlin’s unease and pinned him to the spot with a look that could have frozen water if the old knight had had magic. This, in turn, directed Arthur’s attention to him as well.
“I assume you know enough to never speak of your master’s private conversations. To anyone. You should be familiar with the penalties for even thinking wrongly about them,” Tristan addressed him icily.
“Yes, sire,” Merlin answered, bowing his obeisance immediately. He had seen the penalty once, when one particular slave master had simply disliked the look of a slave while he spoke; no one had ever seen that slave’s face again.
Arthur was scowling at him when he looked back up.
“Get out. Have Tom put you back in the room,” he snapped.
“Yes, your highness.” Merlin bowed once again, keeping his eyes lowered this time.
Before he could turn to leave though, the prince added, “You’re to report back here the same time tomorrow.”
Merlin bowed yet again, before leaving the prince’s chambers.
The thumping of the trapdoor being opened woke Merlin the next morning. After wolfing down his food and dressing, he was on his way to Arthur’s rooms again.
Sir Tristan wasn’t with the prince this time. Arthur had been sitting, but stood from his chair—the large, throne-like one with a white lambskin draped over its back—when Merlin entered the chamber with a knock.
“Sire,” he greeted the prince with a low bow.
“Sit down there and get ready to write,” the prince instructed, waving a hand at the other, smaller chair across the table from him.
There was parchment, quill and ink set on the table. Beside them were a box of coloured waxes, flints and a candle. Upon sitting, Merlin checked to see that the quill was sharpened. Someone had gotten everything prepared for him—probably a servant since slaves were generally not trusted with knifes. Arthur circled the table to stand behind Merlin, looking over his shoulder at the parchment laid out.
“Show me your handwriting.”
“What am I to write, sire?” Merlin asked, glancing over his shoulder at the prince. He ducked his head when the prince glared at him, mouth set in a line of frustration.
“Does it matter? Just write something,” Arthur growled.
After a moment’s thought, “Long live Prince Arthur Pendragon, First Knight and Crown Prince of Camelot” was what Merlin settled with. It never failed to pander to those who held power over his life or death.
The prince looked at the parchment with narrowed eyes. Then he surprised Merlin by slowly, haltingly reading what was written, and reading it once more, smoothly this time. Afterwards, the prince rolled his eyes.
“Really now, could you have possibly been more unoriginal?” Arthur remarked in that quickly becoming familiar condescending drawl of his.
“But it wouldn’t get me killed, yeah?” Merlin replied with a quirk of his lips, catching the prince’s eye.
A fraction of a second later, he realized what he had said and stiffened, breaking eye contact. The prince looked down at him with a vaguely startled expression. Then, Arthur let out a bark of laughter and clapped Merlin on the back. Merlin just barely avoided knocking the ink pot over. The prince appeared to be in the habit of surprising Merlin today.
“Yes, I supposed not. Although your tongue might,” Arthur said.
Merlin hunched his shoulders, unable to think of a response even if he was allowed to respond to that. It wasn’t as if he purposefully spoke out of turn. For whatever reason, the self-censorship he had learned over twelve years was being inadvertently tossed aside around Arthur. Merlin just hoped it didn’t lead to his death.
“Shockingly, your handwriting might be better than my last scribe’s,” the prince said, as if he hadn’t just laughed and threatened Merlin in one breath. “Get ready to write.” He stepped away from Merlin, opting to walk over to the fireplace and lean back against the mantle.
Merlin pulled a clean sheet of parchment from the pile and dipped the quill tip in ink. At Merlin’s nod, Arthur began to dictate his letter:
Damn you and your sense of duty. If it were I, I would come anyways. We’ve been looking forward to this since we were children, and now you say you can’t come for the sake of the Northumbrians?
A curse on the Northumbrians.
Tristan keeps warning me of secret plots to overthrow the kingdom. I swear, he is becoming more paranoid with age. But he does have a point. Surely you have noticed it as well, haven’t you? Father is being uncharacteristically friendly with Lot. You know as well as I do how he detests sorcery and those associated with it. And yet I hear he is being quite friendly to those sorcerers sent as delegates. If I ever find out that this sudden change in opinion was brought on by sorcery, there will be a war the Northumbrians will not have the option of avoiding.
You better return to Astolat soon. I will definitely take you up on that duel. Leon and I are growing bored of fighting each other every bloody practice. The knights and I will be glad when you are back to liven things up around here.
Having finished, Merlin read the letter out loud, the prince looking over his shoulder as if to follow along. Afterwards, the prince nodded his satisfaction.
“Would you like to sign it, sire?” Merlin asked.
With a thunderous look, Arthur raised a hand as if to smack him, and Merlin, flinching, cursed his foolishness. Just because Arthur, who had demonstrated that he could more or less read, could probably write as well, it didn’t mean he wanted to. Why else had he bought Merlin anyways?
But then, the prince dropped his hand, and his glower was replaced by incredulous amusement.
“You really are an idiot, aren’t you?”
“I—no—I mean, yes, yes, sire,” Merlin corrected himself. Never contradict one’s master. Although, Merlin was certainly acting like an idiot around Arthur.
The prince definitely snorted at his floundering. Merlin hurriedly added Arthur’s name to the end of the letter.
“Roll it up and seal it,” the prince directed.
“Which color wax would you prefer, sire?” Merlin asked, cautiously this time. It was a legitimate question, he was sure. There were at least four different colors of waxes in the box.
“Blue. Always use blue wax for Lancelot. Remember that.”
“Yes, sire.” Merlin bowed his head before pulling the stick of blue wax from the box.
When the letter was sealed, the prince passed the letter off to one of the guards in the hallway. He then turned his gaze back on Merlin, who willed himself not to fidget under the prince’s measuring gaze. He had no idea what to expect from Arthur. Amusement or anger seemed equally likely.
“You are dismissed. You’re an idiot who talks when you shouldn’t. Tell Tom you’re to go back in the room,” Arthur finally said, and Merlin bowed before making a quick retreat from the room.
The prince asked for him again a week later. But as he headed for the prince’s chambers, the shattering of ceramic and clanging of metal could be heard from down the hall. Tristan’s voice drifted through the wood of the closed doors, answered by growls of anger.
He raised a hand to the door, but for a moment, Merlin hesitated, not wanting to interrupt whatever tantrum Arthur was throwing. An upset and violent master was not one to be around. But Merlin then figured he would rather not risk becoming the new inciter of the prince’s anger by failing to answer his summons on time. This decided, he knocked on the door, waited a few seconds and then slipped into the prince’s antechamber.
The prince, as the racket heard from outside had suggested, was throwing things. Shards of pottery littered the floor, along with throw pillows and goblets and even the pewter water jug. Merlin tried not to think about the knife he noticed imbedded in the door he’d just closed. The prince looked as if he probably would have thrown a chair if Sir Tristan had not been seated at the table.
“Throwing things will not change anything, Arthur,” Sir Tristan was saying. “You were foolish, first of all in going so far as flogging Sir Caradoc over a slave.”
“He damaged my property in a deliberate act of insubordination!” Arthur retorted, clenching his fists at his side.
“Nevertheless, the Cardons has been serving the Pendragons for years. Now, you may have thrown their loyalty away over a slave and a thoughtless act,” Tristan chastised.
“It was not a thoughtless act!” Arthur retorted. “Caradoc had it a long time coming.”
“Be as it may, you can hardly be surprised that the one who intercepted Lancelot’s letter, Caradoc’s brother, would go running to Uther.”
“And for that, he has proven himself to be a traitor,” Arthur hissed.
“You were stupid to put your thoughts on the Northumbrians down on paper. You are fortunate Uther did not consider them treasonous.”
“Those were my private opinions, meant only for Lancelot. Rylan had no right to read my letters.”
“And what do you plan to do to him? Flog him as well?” Tristan snapped.
“What I do is of no concern to you, Uncle. I’m the prince of Camelot, and I will do what I see fit for Camelot.”
Tristan’s glower said he wanted to argue further, but the dismissal in Arthur’s voice was clear.
“Very well,” the old knight said icily, getting to his feet and heading for the door. For a moment, his gaze fell on Merlin, and he sneered before saying, “Your slave is here. Do watch what you say this time. I hope he was worth all this.” Without a backwards glance, Tristan left the prince’s chambers.
A pillow flew by Merlin’s head, crashing into the door Tristan closed behind him.
It was a tense minute or so, with Merlin staring resolutely at his feet and trying not to fidget or think the worst of what was to happen to him, before Arthur stopped glaring into the fireplace with balled fists and turned to look at Merlin.
“Come, you are to write another letter for me,” the prince said, nodding to the table. It was then that Merlin realized that the writing set he had used last was laid out on the table, untouched by Arthur’s throwing fit.
Not wishing to try Arthur’s patience, he sat down in the smaller chair and readied the quill and parchment for use.
However, he had to wait several minutes before Arthur finally began dictating his letter.
I sincerely apologize for my thoughtlessness in response to Sir Caradoc’s actions. I am aware that I have endangered loyalties to Camelot and have brought you disappointment and the Pendragon name dishonour. I must assure you that those were never my intentions. My loyalties are to you and Camelot. Such a lapse in judgment will not happen again.
However, I will not say that Sir Caradoc’s punishment was unwarranted. He attempted to destroy my property as an insult towards me. As a knight of Camelot, Caradoc has sworn loyalty to me, our family and Camelot, and for what he had done, I was within my rights to see him punished. That he would act against me makes me question his true loyalty.
This brings me to the incident with Lord Rylan. There is no denying that by intercepting and reading my personal letter, Rylan has committed espionage. Regardless of my actions against Caradoc, there is no excuse for this blatant act of treason. And while I now question the true extent of the Cardons’ loyalty to us, I am aware Rylan must be dealt with more forethought. I assure you that it will be with more caution than my judgment on Caradoc.
As for my letter to Lancelot, my private words are my own, and since they were never meant to be public, I will not take them back. Despite my misgivings, I have graciously received and openly welcomed the Northumbrian delegate you have sent to Astolat with your reprimands. As prince of Camelot and your son, I will support your decisions. However, I must express my hesitation about aligning ourselves with Northumbria. I understand the advantages such an alliance with Northumbria will bring the kingdom, but I can never truly trust a man who gains the crown only a few days after the beginning of war with us and who immediately surrenders. Such a man can only be considered a coward and highly dubious. Surely you have not overlooked the fact that without the sorcerers amongst the Northumbrian council, Lot would not be ruler today.
As always, my loyalties are to you and Camelot,
Merlin’s opinion of Arthur was changing. The prince really was more than just a hot-tempered knight. Despite his earlier tantrum, with this letter, Arthur proved himself to be intelligent and capable in handling politics, turning the king’s attention away from his actions and towards the questionable intentions of Sir Caradoc and Rylan, as well as towards those of King Lot and Northumbria.
Merlin remembered hearing the news of Lot’s ascension to Northumbria’s throne; he also remembered Lord Gaufrid voicing his strong disapproval of the event. Two years into Merlin’s service under Lord Gaufrid, Northumbria and Camelot had gone to war. But only a few days after the start, the king of Northumbria was killed in battle and left no heir. A nobleman on his council and army, a man by the name of Lot, ascended to the throne and swiftly surrendered to Camelot. And yet, amidst negotiation, Northumbria remained under Lot’s control, becoming a tributary to Camelot instead of a part of the conquering kingdom. Merlin hadn’t known about the sorcerer delegates, but this new information shed some light as to why Northumbria may have remained a separate kingdom. He wondered what kind of roles the sorcerers played in Northumbria before pushing the dangerous thoughts away.
A slave was not to think. It was dangerous to think, especially for a slave known to have once been a sorcerer. But Merlin had always had trouble with not thinking. There really wasn’t much left for him to do other than think when he wasn’t working, and Lord Gaufrid had even encouraged thinking, wishing for a person to carry discussions with. He reminded himself, however, that he was no longer with Lord Gaufrid, but the crown prince of Camelot.
Mentally shaking himself, Merlin read aloud what he’d written. After Arthur pressed his signet ring into the wax sealing the letter, the prince did not take the letter from him as Merlin had expected, but instead stuck his head out of the door briefly, conversing with one of the guards outside. When Arthur still made no move to take up the letter, Merlin set it back down on the table. After a wary glance at Arthur, Merlin slowly left his seat and began cleaning up the mess the prince had made. He placed the throw pillows in a heap by the inner door leading to Arthur’s bedchamber and put the goblets and pitcher on the table. During all this, the prince remained silent, standing with arms crossed and feet planted shoulders-width apart, staring at the unlit fireplace with a furrowed brow. Merlin was looking for a broom to start sweeping up the shards of pottery when there was a knock on the door, and at Arthur’s command, a near giant of a man, a knight, stepped inside. He is young, though older than the prince, with tousled brown hair and a short beard.
“Sire, what do you ask of me?” the knight questioned with a salute.
“Sir Leon, I have a task for you,” the prince said. “You have shown your loyalty to me many times over the years, so I know I can trust you with this task.”
“Of course, sire. My loyalty is yours and always will be.”
Arthur acknowledged the oath with a nod before saying, “I want you to personally escort Lord Rylan Cardon to the feast tonight. He is to sit at the high table.”
“…you do not wish to arrest him, sire?” the knight asked.
“No, I have other plans. Make sure he does not leave the city. He is to attend the feast.”
“Very well, sire. Is there anything else?”
“No,” Arthur said with a wave of dismissal, and Sir Leon left the room with a bow.
There wasn’t a broom in the antechamber, Merlin found. The door leading into Arthur’s bedchamber was open. He hesitantly stepped towards it, but the prince paid no attention to him, and he walked inside. Looking over the large four poster bed, desk and wardrobe, he quickly spotted what he was looking for. There was a small antechamber connected to the prince’s bedchamber, a room set aside for a manservant. It was there that Merlin found a broom, tucked unobtrusively behind a small wardrobe. He hurried back into the main antechamber, not wanting any reason for Arthur to be angry at him. But the prince didn’t even look at him when he re-entered the room, and he began sweeping up the ceramic shards.
Moments later, there was another knock on the door and a man came in, dressed in clothes finer than that of a servant but not as fine as a noble’s. He carried himself with rather pompous self-importance. Merlin supposed he was the chamberlain—they always acted the same way.
“Your highness, preparations for the feast are underway. Are there any changes you wish for me to make?” the man asked, confirming Merlin’s suspicions on his station.
“Farran,” the prince said in greeting. “Yes, I do. Have all the Cardons currently residing in Astolat seated at the high table. If there isn’t room, make room,” Arthur ordered.
“A-all of them, sire?”
“Yes. There are only six of them. It shouldn’t be too much trouble. Tell them that I have no hard feelings in light of the recent events and I wish for them to be present for my formal welcome of the Northumbrian delegate to Astolat. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sire.” The chamberlain tried but failed to hide the tightness in his jaw, belying his confidence in getting the task done successfully.
“Good. Get on with it then.”
“Sire,” the chamberlain answered a final time before departing. The chamberlain’s departure was quickly followed by the arrival of Sir Tristan, who looked slightly perplexed as to why he was being re-summoned after Arthur’s earlier dismissal.
“Uncle, I need you to deliver my letter to my father,” Arthur said without preamble, snatching up the sealed letter from the table.
Immediately, Sir Tristan’s confusion turned into anger.
“I am not to be treated like your messenger boy, Arthur,” Tristan hissed. “I am your blood relative, and a knight to Camelot.”
“Yes, I know. That is why it must be you. You’re the only one I trust here to deliver this letter to Father.”
“Don’t think that flattery will allow me to take this insult, Arthur.”
“It’s not flattery, but the truth. I trust you, Uncle, and I need you to give this to Father without an interloper in the way.” Arthur offered the letter to Tristan. “Besides, I know we’ve been trying each other’s patience, so perhaps some distance between us will do us good.” The look on Tristan’s face softened a bit as he took the letter from the prince.
“I will set out right away then. I will see you next at your coming of age.” Tristan gave Arthur a nod before heading for the door.
“Safe travels, Uncle.”
“Take care, Arthur. Watch yourself,” Sir Tristan said in response before leaving the chambers once again.
The prince let out a soft exhale that Merlin couldn’t quite interpret as exhaustion or exasperation or anger. He returned to his sweeping as Arthur sat down in his lambskin-draped chair. The prince made no move to stop him, did not tell him to stop, so Merlin kept at it, making sure all the pieces had been gathering into a corner for another servant to throw away. It was then that he realized that Arthur had been watching him for some time. He stiffened, turning to face Arthur properly even if the prince’s measuring gaze made him want to squirm in a way he hadn’t felt since his first years of slavery.
After a minute or two of the prince staring at him and of Merlin shooting him furtive glances through his lashes, the prince finally spoke.
“What’s your name, slave?”
That was definitely not what he had expected the prince to say. Then again, Merlin had wondered when the prince would get around to asking his name.
“Merlin, sire,” he answered with a dip of his head.
“Well, Merlin, you’re quite lucky,” the prince said. Merlin really wanted to disagree with that, considering all that had happened to him so far. “When I first learned that my father had heard the contents of my letter, I was very eager in planning your execution.” Merlin blanched at the thought. “However, Tom assured me that you’ve been securely locked up for the past week. Quite fortunate, isn’t it?”
“Y-yes, sire.” He felt that the little waver in his voice as he spoke was perfectly justified.
The prince stared at him again, and Merlin did not dare move.
“You were a Carmarthian sorcerer,” Arthur said, a subtle question for confirmation within his statement. Merlin hid the grimace that rose. His past was definitely not something he wished to discuss with the prince, though discussions weren’t exactly what happened when a slave was being addressed. Regardless, he nodded his affirmation. “Then tell me, Merlin, I’ve heard that some sorcerers can see the future. Could you?”
“There were several among my people who could see the future, sire, but I was not one of them,” Merlin answered, keeping his head down and eyes on the floor. He felt for the slaves who would have to remove the scuffs and scratches on the floor left from the prince’s tantrum. Fixing stone took finger-aching ages.
“Then did these…seers see what would become of Carmarthen?” It was not difficult to infer his second question: if you had known, why couldn’t you have avoided it? That question had plagued Merlin even before the Fall happened, when he was a boy just learning of the practice of scrying and of his destiny.
“Yes, sire, they did, but some des—some futures,” he corrected himself, “cannot be changed.” Once he had believed that some futures may change, but destinies would remain constant and true. No longer did he believe that, not when he himself had lost his destiny.
“How…reassuring,” the prince remarked. Whether it was said in irony, Merlin could not tell. The prince started for the doorway to his bedchamber. “My other slaves can attend to me now. Get cleaned up and go to the kitchens. You are to serve me and the other nobles at the high table tonight.” After a short pause, the prince added, “You were a house slave before, weren’t you?”
“Yes, sire. I’ll be going then?” Merlin said, bowing his head. Arthur dismissed him with a wave.
On to Part Two | Masterpost