Notes: Written because I was melting over the adorableness of Arthur and Merlin as adults and thought they had to be equally cute when they were young.
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, no profit is being made from this.
Arthur knew he would get into awful trouble if his father found out about this, but how could he be a knight without a proper sword? The wooden practice blades that he usually had to use wouldn't be any good in a real fight. And when he had seen his father's sword standing there, the sunlight glinting off the pommel, the blade honed to a razor sharp edge, he hadn't been able to resist. It was almost as tall as he was, and heavy, but he had managed to lift it. He'd tried a few practice swings, but currently it dragged behind him in the dirt as he pushed deeper into the forest.
"We aren't supposed to go in here," Morgana said.
Arthur glared back at her. "We can't have a proper adventure inside the castle. There're no monsters!"
"Monsters?" Morgana repeated, sounding a little frightened as she peered into the dark green shadows that surrounded them.
"Of course—dragons, griffons—they're all over the forest. But don't worry, I'll protect you."
Morgana scowled, stopping to untangle her skirt from a bramble. "I don't see why I can't have the sword."
"Because you're a girl," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "I'm supposed to rescue you."
"You can't even lift the sword," Morgana pointed out.
"I can too—I'm just resting my arms."
They proceeded through the forest, clambering over roots and wriggling past the choked underbrush. Even though only a few sunbeams managed to break through the thick tree cover, it was still quite warm. At last Arthur stopped in a small clearing, panting and sweaty. He looked back the way they had come but could no longer see the walls of the castle.
Morgana sat down on a mossy rock. "I don't want to go any further," she announced. "This is boring."
Arthur kicked a clump of bushes, but no dragons came out, not even a small one. "You're just scared," he said.
"Am not," Morgana retorted.
Arthur ignored her and lifted the sword. If a griffon came swooping out of the trees, he'd chop its head off—like that. Then he'd bring it back to the castle and it would be mounted on the wall in the Great Hall. His father would tell all the nobles who came to visit that Arthur had killed it.
"Are there really dragons in here?" Morgana asked.
"I said there were, didn't I?"
"Yes, but I asked the King about them, and he said there aren't any dragons in Camelot anymore."
"Why do you have to be so difficult about everything?" Arthur huffed, avoiding the question. He couldn't call his father a liar. "Come on—let's go a little farther."
Morgana complained that her feet were hurting but trailed after him.
They went on but didn't find anything except more trees and a few deer tracks. Arthur tried to convince Morgana they were from a cockatrice, but she refused to believe him. "I'm tired," she said instead. "Let's go back."
"Just like a girl—you're no fun," Arthur complained, although actually he was glad to have an excuse to turn around. He was hot and thirsty and his arms were sore from carrying the sword.
They started walking back the way they had come—at least, Arthur thought it was the way. After awhile, it all began looking very similar—had they turned left at that tall rock or right?
"Are we almost there?" Morgana asked.
"Just a bit farther," Arthur said and strode forward determinedly—he wouldn't admit to Morgana that he'd gotten them lost. He hadn't, anyway—they'd see the castle anytime now.
But they didn't. "We're lost, aren't we?" Morgana said in a small voice, as they came to a halt in yet another clearing, which looked exactly like the last three they had been in.
"No," Arthur replied. "We're not lost. But—well—I'm just taking us back a different way."
Morgana sniffed, a few tears trickling down her face. She wiped them away quickly. "It's getting dark—maybe we'll be able to see the lights in the towers soon."
"Well, obviously. What did you think I was waiting for?" Arthur said, trying to sound as though he'd thought of it long ago. He took Morgana's hand and led her over to an old log. "Let's sit down for a minute."
They huddled against the log—as the sun went down, the warmth of the day faded swiftly. Arthur put his arm around Morgana, and she rested her head on his shoulder. He kept the other on the sword, which felt reassuringly solid.
The King's hunters found them there, perhaps an hour later. The hunters and about half the servants, many of the knights—it seemed like the entire castle and most of the town had been sent out to search for them. Arthur was quite relieved to see the torches approaching and to have a warm cloak settled about his shoulders. Everyone was exclaiming and fussing over him and Morgana. But when they finally reached the castle, his relief gave way to dread. He knew his father must be furious about this.
They didn't even give him a chance to eat something—even though he was starving—just hustled him into the throne room. His father was sitting there, holding his sword that Arthur had taken. One of the knights must have hurried ahead to tell Uther that they'd been found.
Arthur swallowed hard and stared at the floor.
"You know you're forbidden to go into the forest," Uther said after a few terrible seconds of silence.
"You are the prince, Arthur. Do you give no thought to your responsibility to Camelot? What if something had happened to you? You could have been kidnapped—killed!"
Arthur kept his gaze on the floor, feeling wretched.
"And not only that, but you drag Morgana with you! I swore that I would keep her safe, and my own son puts her in danger."
" 'm sorry," Arthur mumbled.
Uther stood up and came over to Arthur. He held the sword in front of him, sharp point resting a few inches from Arthur's feet. "Why did you take this?"
"I—I wanted a real sword," Arthur blurted out. He risked a glance up at his father. Uther's face was grim, and he looked back down hastily.
"A sword should only be placed in the hands of those with the courage and wisdom to use it justly," Uther said. "An honorable knight, who knows his duty to his kingdom and his King. Based on your behavior today, Arthur, you possess none of those attributes. Now go to your room."
"Yes, father," Arthur muttered. He dragged himself up the stairs to his chambers. One of the servants had left a tray of food on the table, but Arthur no longer felt hungry. Instead he curled up on the bed, pulling the blankets over his head. He imagined that he was in a jousting tournament, a lance balanced in his hand. He flew down the course and knocked his opponent to the ground. He pulled off his helmet, holding it victoriously over his head while the crowd cheered.
Merlin huddled into a corner of the barn and tried not to cry. It wasn't fair. What good was having magic if he couldn't do anything with it? Rebelliously, he made a pitchfork and several buckets hover in the air, even though his mother had made him promise not to do magic in the village. No one could see. And the magic twisted wildly inside him, wanting to burst forth.
The tools clattered to the ground.
"Merlin?" his mother repeated, coming in the door.
Reluctantly, Merlin stood up, brushing straw off his clothes. "I'm here," he muttered.
"I saw you come back." His mother paused, taking in his disheveled appearance. "What's wrong, Merlin? What happened?"
"We were playing a game—" he began, but the words stuck in his throat. He'd been playing a game with the other boys in the village, and he'd been horrible at it, as usual. Clumsy, tripping over things. And they'd laughed at him—even Will, who usually stuck up for Merlin.
"I just—I'm good at magic. It's the one thing I can do!" He scrubbed a furious hand over his eyes—he would not cry.
"Oh, Merlin." His mother knelt, gathering him into her arms. "You're good at many things."
"Like what?" Merlin asked bitterly.
"Oh, like making me feel better when I'm sad—with a hug or bringing me flowers. Your father always used to do that, too, you know."
"Yes." Merlin could feel her smile. "You're always the first to find strawberries in the summer. And look how good you are with animals—the dogs follow you about and even that cross old cow of John's lets you pet her nose."
"But I want to do magic."
"I know." His mother sighed. "But people are afraid of what they don't understand. I just don't want you to get hurt." She smoothed Merlin's hair back and kissed him on the forehead. "Please be careful."
Slowly, Merlin nodded. He pushed the magic back down, forced it to stay still.
"Now, I'm sure you're feeling hungry," his mother went on, voice cheerful. "You go fetch some water from the well, and I'll get the fire started."
Merlin managed a smile.
His mother went into the house, and Merlin trudged down to the well, buckets heavy in his hands. The well stood near the middle of the village and on the way he passed the road that stretched out into the distance—through the forest, past the mountains, off to strange places. Merlin paused, staring down it. One day, he would follow it. He'd find a place where he could use his magic without being afraid—where he could become a great sorcerer.
Arthur sighed heavily and sneaked a glance at his tutor. Simeon appeared not to have heard him—he continued to scratch away with his quill. Arthur kicked the table leg—loudly. No response. Scowling, Arthur returned his attention to the book he was supposed to be reading. He shouldn't have to study today—it was his birthday! But apparently nobody cared.
The minutes dragged by. Arthur flipped a few pages ahead to make it look as though he was actually doing his work. Then a knock came at the door, and a servant stuck his head in. "The King requests your presence in his chambers, your Highness."
Arthur leaped up and rushed from the room, pretending not to hear Simeon's admonishment not to run about like a madman but to comport himself in a dignified manner. He skidded to a halt in front of his father's rooms and knocked on the door.
His father opened it, but he didn't smile. Arthur's hopes, which had risen, sank back down. Perhaps his father hadn't remembered Arthur's birthday, either. Perhaps he only wanted to chastise Arthur about some infraction—Arthur always seemed to be doing something wrong.
But then his father opened the door wide, and Arthur noticed something lying on the table, covered in a red velvet cloth.
"Come in," Uther said.
Arthur entered and stood in front of his father, fidgeting and trying not to keep glancing at the mysterious object.
"You're a year older today, Arthur," Uther went on, "and although you are often willful and disobedient, I am pleased with the progress you have made towards becoming a prince that Camelot can be proud of."
"Thank you, father." Warmth spread through Arthur at his father's words of praise, heard all too rarely.
"That does not mean, however, that you do not have a long way to go," Uther added sternly. "I expect you to devote yourself completely to your training and your studies."
Uther's lips twitched into a smile. "Well, go ahead, then—see what's on the table."
Arthur darted forward. He gripped the soft velvet for a moment and then drew it away. His breath caught. A sword lay there—a real sword, with a sharp blade and leather bound hilt. It had been scaled down slightly, so that Arthur could pick it up and hold it easily.
"Do you like it?" Uther asked.
"It's perfect," Arthur whispered.
"I'm sure you will learn to wield it skillfully. Perhaps you'd best go and ask the sergeant to put you through a few steps."
Arthur didn't hesitate to do as his father suggested. He felt quite proud as he walked through the corridors, the sword at his side. Now he could slay monsters and defeat black knights and protect his kingdom, like a true prince.
Merlin yawned, burrowing deeper under the blankets. He watched his mother in the firelight, bent over her sewing, the needle flickering. She started humming a soft song.
Sleep stole over Merlin, and he found himself in a vivid dream. He was standing on a high wall—the wall of a castle, he realized, although he had never seen one, only heard them described. A boy his own age stood next to him, leaning against the stones. He wore a sword at his side and a red jacket, made of some rich, warm cloth.
He turned suddenly and looked at Merlin. Their eyes met, and Merlin felt his magic kindle, hotter and hotter. He was burning up; he was—
With a jerk, he woke up. His mother had gone to bed and only the embers of the fire gave off any light. A deep silence lay over the room—over their village. A silence that pulled him back down into dark forgetfulness.
Arthur sat bolt upright in bed, breathing heavily. Moonlight streamed through the window. He'd had a dream, he told himself—just a dream. He'd been standing on the battlements, looking down at the bustle on the streets below, as he often did. Suddenly he'd felt eyes on him, and turning, he'd found a boy next to him. A skinny peasant boy with dark hair. Arthur had started to demand what the boy was doing there, who he was, but his gaze had been drawn to the boy's face, and the words had died unspoken. Arthur shivered as he remembered, for the boy's eyes had turned golden, shining with a strange, unworldly light.
Even as he remembered, though, sleep rolled over him once more. His head fell back onto the pillows, and the image of the boy with the golden eyes fled into the dark corners of his mind.