Part I: A Game for an Heir

Chapter 1: A Champion From Ealdor

Merlin was in the fields when the messenger arrived. All of Ealdor was in the fields, except for the oldest of the old watching the youngest babies and toddlers. They watched the messenger, too, waiting impatiently until the workday was over and the people returned to the torch-lit center of the village. Not even a king's messenger could disrupt a day's work, here. Merlin stood near the back, next to Hunith.

"In the continued absence of an heir apparent, King Uther Pendragon, childless and unwed, declares a trial by combat, open to all comers, sorcerer and warrior alike, the winner to be declared heir to the kingdom of Camelot."

"The winner," scoffed a neighbor who stood near Merlin, a man named Matthew. "That'll be a fight to the death, will it not? Your winner is the last man left alive? No, thanks." There was a grumble of agreement through the crowd, and several turned away.

If any of the inhabitants of Ealdor held such aspirations, it would be news to Merlin.

"There are incentives," the messenger continued, stiff with offended dignity. "The king intends to demonstrate his gratitude to the family and town of each combatant who enters the arena, a bag of grain to equal half the combatant's weight."

The crowd fell silent. Merlin's heart dropped. That was an incentive Ealdor would pay attention to – they couldn't afford not to.

"Why've you come here?" It was Matthew's question. "We're a border town. Contested territory. What does Cenred say about Uther's trial by combat for an heir?"

It was a valid question. Cenred cared nothing for Ealdor, ignoring its cares and concerns. A solid inclusion in the kingdom of Camelot would mean a reliable king to be called on in time of trouble. And in that case, however remote the possibility, the heir would be an Ealdor native.

"Cenred cares not. In the case of a winner from a border town, Uther promises full rights of citizenship for every inhabitant. And Uther expects to shower favor on the hometown of his heir – substantial and lifelong favor."

Several people actually licked their lips. Glances began to nervously dart around.

"Someone should go," someone said.

"Shall we vote?" Matthew proposed.

Hunith snatched belatedly at Merlin's sleeve as he pushed gently to the front. "I will go," he said clearly. In the silence, Hunith's piteous moans were painfully audible.

No one said anything. Torchlight flickered. Through a break between raggedly-clad bodies, Merlin could see Will glaring at him in frustration. But he offered no protest. He knew there was not much point.

Merlin knew in a dispassionate way that he was the obvious choice. If he had not volunteered, he surely would have been voted. Someone should go would inevitably lead to Merlin should go. Ealdor held no warriors. And in a kingdom where magic was viewed with distrust, and the open public practice of it rare, Merlin was the oddity in Ealdor. If he volunteered, there would be no resentment, no hard feelings between the village and his parents.

His parents. He could not think of his mother. She would understand, that he did it for her, for them all, for half his weight in grain for the village. One day, she would understand. One day, she might be proud of him. Balinor, if he'd been there, might try to volunteer also. But Balinor, though he had magic also, had not matched Merlin's strength and ability since Merlin's twelfth year. And there was also his father's crippling limp to consider. No, it was a good thing that his father would be away from Ealdor on his hunting trip at least three more days.

By then, Merlin would be in Camelot. By then, Uther might very well have an heir to proclaim.

"Well, son, you're not much to look at," the messenger said, a little taken aback.

"I enter the trial by combat as a sorcerer," Merlin said, not loudly, but his voice still carried to the edge of the crowd in the silence.

The messenger took a step back, as though he expected Merlin to prove his claim in some ostentatious or dangerous way. "Very well," he said at last.

…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …*…..

Merlin arrived in Camelot on foot, thumbs hooked in the straps of the pack over his shoulders, mouth hanging open in amazement. He'd never seen so many people, so many houses and shops – and there was the castle. He was pretty sure he could stand and stare at it all day if he was given the chance – but he needed to make himself known to the seneschal, Sir Leon, in preparation for the combatants' feast tonight.

He stopped next to a pair of guards with ceremonial spears and long noseguards on their conical helmets. "Where can I find Sir Leon?" he asked.

"Through the gate, into the side courtyard," he was told.

Following those directions, he came upon a scene of controlled chaos. Red-caped guards, clusters of well-dressed people, groups of poorer-looking folk. It was impossible to guess who might be entering the trial, and who might be taking the opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one, or to gape mawkishly at a dozen people destined to die horribly the next day.

Merlin made his way to the only man seated in the courtyard, a red-caped knight who looked as though he possessed a reliable steadiness as well as several years' experience, with wavy red-blonde hair and beard. Merlin stopped before the plank table laid with several sheets of parchment, inkwell and choice of quills, waiting til the knight looked up.

"Sir Leon?" he said.

"Name," Sir Leon requested, pleasantly enough for someone who was in charge of such a spectacle.

"Merlin of Ealdor."

Sir Leon gave him a quick but critical once-over. "Sorcerer?" he said, commenting obliquely on Merlin's lack of armor or discernible weaponry.

Merlin grinned. "How did you guess?" The knight raised his eyebrows in surprise, and Merlin added hastily, "Sir Knight." He'd have to remember his city manners. He wasn't in Ealdor any more.

"There's a stack of armor and weapons you can use," Sir Leon said, gesturing to the side. Merlin began to turn. "Merlin of Ealdor," Sir Leon said. "I recommend you choose something in the hardened leather line, rather than chainmail. It is lightweight and the color may help you to blend in with your background."

Merlin looked at Leon more closely, saw that the knight had surprised even himself. Why had Sir Leon spoken to help him? Was it because he so clearly had little chance of survival? He pitied Merlin, maybe. "Thank you," Merlin said sincerely.

"You'll be in guest chamber number three," Sir Leon instructed him, once more detached. "The guard at that gateway –" he pointed with the sharp end of the quill, "can point you to your room, as well as to the banquet hall, where you will present yourself at six-bells to be introduced to the court."

"Yes, Sir Knight." Merlin nodded to show he'd understood, and as he turned to start his journey across the courtyard to the stack of armor and weaponry, his shoulder caught the more muscular shoulder of a blonde boy, a few years older and maybe an inch or so shorter, dressed in simple but well-made clothes, without patch or tear or fray, a large pack clearly containing armor over his other shoulder, the hilt of a sword jutting past his hip.

The blonde boy jerked his head in an impatient but wordless command for Merlin to get out of his way.

"Excuse me," Merlin said politely, and the boy was surprised enough to meet Merlin's eyes, his own a deep-sea blue-green. Then Merlin maneuvered out of the boy's way and began to make his way through the press.

"Arthur of Camelot," he heard the blonde boy tell Sir Leon.

A/N: Okay, those of you who are thinking Hunger Games! – yes, you're right. That's the direction my plot bunny came hopping from, I admit it. Hope you all enjoy where it goes from here… ;)

And yes, just today I told someone I only work on one story at a time, but I promise not to neglect "Emrys Strain". Kingdom Games will just have to suffer through updates fewer and further between until Emrys Strain is done…