On the eve of Camelot's feast of the winter solstice, snow lay thick and faintly luminous on the ground. Children from the lower town shrieked with glee as they built snowmen and snow forts, pelted each other with snowballs, and used old trays and wooden boxes as makeshift sleds on the slopes of the castle's hill. Shop owners in the market proudly displayed their offerings of spices, candied fruit, and dried currants, figs, and nuts. The smell of roasting meat mingled with the scent of mulled cider and ale, to the extent that even the castle folk sniffed appreciatively as they stepped into the courtyard for a breath of fresh air and a glimpse of the snow. Castle servants, among them Guinevere, the Lady Morgana's maid, mingled with the crowds of townspeople in the narrow streets as they haggled over prices with shopkeepers. Even old Gaius the court physician ambled down to the market with young Merlin, the crown prince's servant, in tow, in search of ingredients for the great Twelfth Cake that he produced every year to the delight of his friends.
Gaius was beloved in the town, and Merlin, although a relative newcomer to Camelot, was well-liked, so there were many salutations shouted above the heads of the crowd as they went by. Housewives whose children owed their good health to Gaius' ministrations emerged from their homes to press gifts of baked goods or jars of preserves upon him, sometimes pausing to ruffle the shining blue-black hair of his companion. When they returned to the castle–Merlin with his hair now standing straight up on his head in disheveled spikes like a hedgehog–they headed to Gaius' workroom to divest themselves of their parcels of fruit, nuts, powdered ginger, cloves, galingale, and cinnamon. Then Gaius took himself off to the castle cellars to find a cask of well-aged brandy, whilst Merlin, sleeves rolled to the elbows, settled at the long wooden table to begin the job of peeling, chopping, and sorting their many purchases.
* * * * * * * * * *
As was custom every year, a massive Yule log was pulled through the village and up the winding street to the castle courtyard by a pair of workhorses, and–as was also custom–children scrambled up onto the log and rode it nearly to the portcullis gate. With difficulty, the broad tree trunk was then hauled into the castle and set in place in the massive hearth of the main hall, where holly and ivy were already being hung in swags and bunches above its stone hood (carved with a dragon rampant), and on the walls and above the doorways.
Mistletoe was also being suspended from doorway lintels, and many a young man and maid sought any excuse to linger there. Gaius kissed Agnes the cook on the cheek as he passed through the doorway to the kitchen. Gwen kissed little Raoul, the youngest stableboy, as he walked through the main portal, staggering under the weight of the crown prince's saddle. Sir Edgar's hot-eyed wife kissed every man she could get her daintily manicured hands on. Geoffrey of Monmouth kissed Matilda, the housekeeper. Prince Arthur and the Lady Morgana stood on either side of the great hall's portal, glaring fiercely, each waiting for the other to take a different route. A group of young servant girls from the palace laundry lay in wait behind the arched doorway to the solar, from which they ambushed a protesting Merlin, peppering his cheeks with kisses and giggling like naughty schoolchildren.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dinner on the night of Midwinter Eve was hearty but otherwise modest, consisting of different kinds of bread and fish, the latter served grilled, roasted, boiled, and sauced or plain, with wine and ale, and a dessert, made from almond milk, that was so tasty that even Gaius, who had a sweet tooth, could not complain. However on the following night, at the feast of Midwinter's Day, the high table in the castle dining hall literally groaned beneath the weight of vast quantities of food. A gaily festooned boar's head was carried into the hall by festively-garbed servants and preceded by musicians. Other dishes, including swans (the Lady Morgana grimaced at the sight), capons, geese and ducks, as well as haunch of venison, were borne into the hall in similar fashion. All of this was washed down with a frightening amount of spiced wine, and the meal concluded with plum puddings, poached apples and pears, gingerbread confections, frumenty, and an enormous mincemeat pie, as singers accompanied by lutes and pipes drowned out the sounds of clattering spoons and surreptitious belches.
The crown prince refilled his plate several times and even the Lady Morgana, who often merely picked at her food, was seen to eat more than one helping of mincemeat pie. Guinevere stood behind her mistress, anticipating her needs, just as Merlin stood behind Prince Arthur's chair. Later, in the vast kitchen, the servants were allowed to eat their fill. Gwen and an assortment of man- and maidservants watched in astonishment as Merlin demolished plate after plate of food and delicacies.
"Where does he put it all?" Gwen whispered to her colleagues, eyeing the young man's thin frame and flat stomach with disbelief.
"It's like magic," one of the cooks muttered in awe as Merlin tucked into a heaping mound of plum pudding.
* * * * * * * * * *
Later, much later, in the crown prince's chamber, as the fire in the hearth died down to embers that crackled and popped, and light from a single candle danced on the ceiling, the prince and his servant exchanged gifts.
Not being accustomed to doing anything so mundane by himself, Arthur had spent a good half-hour struggling with the wrapping and tying up the ribbons and was somewhat proud of the result. He watched as Merlin carefully untied the lopsided bow, unfolded layers of parchment, and opened the box. The sudden intake of breath he heard was his reward.
Merlin cradled the signet ring in the palm of his hand, and then held it up between thumb and forefinger to catch the light. It was a heavy gold circlet set with a round blue stone engraved with the Pendragon crest, and the young man stared, mesmerized, as candlelight reflected in the depths of the jewel whose color matched his own widened eyes.
"Arthur!" he said, turning his face towards the prince.
"Um?" the prince murmured absently as he ran his fingers from Merlin's collar bone to his waist, feeling the ribs beneath the smooth, pale skin.
"It's so...it's very...it's too valuable for a servant, don't you think?" Merlin stammered, trying to find the right words. "Thank you, but should I actually keep this?"
"Stop talking rubbish, Merlin," the prince said patiently as Merlin replaced the ring in the box that was balanced on his stomach. "I want you to have it and that's all that matters."
"But I haven't given you anything half so valuable in return." Two pairs of blue eyes went to the hand-carved wooden figurine of a sleeping dragon, curled like a cat, that now stood, divested of its wrappings, on the bedside table.
"Don't be such an ass," said Arthur, turning onto his side and eyeing the carving with approval. "You have talents I knew nothing about, Merlin. How long did it take you to make this?"
"I don't know...three or four days, maybe. During my off hours."
"You didn't use, well, magic, did you?"
"Of course not," Merlin replied in a rather insulted tone. "As if I would. But it isn't enough...not compared to what you gave me."
"If you're really so concerned about it," Arthur sighed, raising his eyebrows, "You can give me something else. In fact, I'll just take it now, if you don't mind."
"But, erm, that'll be three times tonight...isn't that...are you sure you...aren't you tired?"
"It's nice to know that you have such faith in me," muttered Arthur sarcastically as he pulled Merlin closer.
Merlin pressed his face into the prince's neck. "I never said I didn't," he murmured against the warmth of Arthur's skin. "Just remember, this isn't a joust, there's no need to..."
"I'll be gentle," replied the crown prince gruffly, taking hold of Merlin with one hand and snuffing out the candle with the other.