S K Y W A R D
"I'll show you mine if you show me yours," Will had said, smiling in a way that only six year olds could, all teeth and mischief. On Will, it was more of a leer. Merlin, who was five, stared at his best (and only) friend for a moment before frowning warily.
"Are you sure?" He asked, because his mother was always very insistant on hiding them.
"Yeah. You first," said Will.
"Okay." Merlin had said. Then he had carefully taken off his new coat, pulled his shirt over his head and turned around. They were small and white, curving neatly into the dip of his back, downy feathers warm from being folded tight against his body. Merlin unfurled them tentatively from his shoulders. Will stared, goggle eyed.
That was the first time anyone, other than his mother, had seen his wings.
As it turned out, Will didn't have wings. Merlin had felt betrayed and hurt when his friend revealed his back – smooth and unmarred and normal. And Will had stared and stared and stared.
"You tricked me!" screamed Merlin, pushing the other boy away when he reached for the feathers.
"No I didn't!" protested Will, eyes still wide with wonder, "You were supposed to pull down your pants, not your shirt. Stupid! Tom told me it's a game you play and whoever wins gets to be king," he paused, then added as an afterthought, "I bet I would be king."
"No you wouldn't," snapped Merlin, blinking away angry tears.
"I would too. You could be my angel sidekick. Advisor, even," Will offered.
"M'not an angel," Merlin protested, looking slightly mollified all the same. "Mum says I can't let people know. Not supposed to... You won't tell, will you?"
"'Course I won't," said Will stoutly. Dust motes floated around their heads in the afternoon light filtering through the top of the barn. Their only other witness was the grey speckled cat who lived with Old Man Simmons across the paddock and was regarding Merlin's wings with large, yellow eyes.
A moment passed between them, heavy with secrets, curiosity and trust.
"Well," said Will. "Can I touch them then?"
Merlin spread his fledgling wings. And for the time being, everything was right again.
The first time it happened, Merlin thought nothing of it. Leia, a little girl who often followed Will around like an adoring puppy, had tripped over uneven stones which sent her sprawling. Will had laughed unkindly and Leia had burst into tears, threatening to tell her mother that Will and Merlin were being mean. Merlin elbowed Will in the ribs reprovingly and crouched down to help her up. Apart from skinned knees and cuts on her palm, she was fine, still sniffling and glaring over at Will who was afraid of girls who cried and stayed a safe distance away. Merlin ran a finger over one of the deeper cuts on her hand and said,
"Look, all better now. Don't cry, Leia."
When he looked back down again, the cut was gone. Will tugged on his arm, "Come on. Let's go already," and he allowed himself to be led away.
"You don't fancy her, do you?" asked Will sometime later, "Because she's a baby. And she cries."
"No," said Merlin, "I mean, no. I don't fancy her."
"Good," said Will. Merlin flexed his right hand tentatively, the cut on his palm stinging as he uncurled his fingers.
The second time it happened, Will found out about his second secret. It was winter, the air chilled even when the sun came out and Merlin and Will had decided to temporarily hide in the woods before they were roped into helping with the preparations for Yuletide. Well, like most things between the two of them, it was really Wills idea because he had set loose the butcher's chickens yesterday and didn't want to run the risk of seeing the man today.
Playing hide and seek in the snow was a difficult business, reflected Merlin, trying to run and wipe out his footprints behind him simultaneously. Plus, the snow was cold and wet and got into his boots which made his feet cold. His wings were hidden away under three woolen shirts and a new winter coat, which meant the usual lump was not visible at all. Merlin was trying to fit himself into a hollow of a tree when he saw the white lump in the snow at the roots.
Looking around and not seeing Will anywhere (he was doing the seeking, as usual, which wasn't fair but Will was nine and Merlin was eight so Will got the final say) he knelt down in the unspoilt snow and poked warily at the lump with his gloved fingers. It was a tiny rabbit.
Breath misting up before his face, Merlin gently cupped the animal in both palms and held it close to his chest, delighted when the animal didn't try to wriggle away. He stroked its furry head for a few moments, until he noticed the little stain of blood on the rabbit's white fur. Its leg was bent at a funny angle.
"Oh no," breathed Merlin, standing up carefully. He took off one of his gloves and held it between his teeth as he carefully stretched out the broken leg. "I'll help you," he said sympathetically, something warm curling in his chest, "It'll be better soon I promi-"
He heard, rather than felt the sickening crack of breaking bone as his left leg snapped at the knee. Then the pain forced a scream through his throat and he crumpled to the ground, his other leg unable to keep him upright as he sobbed and screamed and couldn't stop screaming because it hurt.
Distantly, he could hear a voice: "Merlin. Merlin! Where the- MERLIN." Then Will's face came into view, pale with fright, hands on Merlin's shoulders.
"What happened? Merlin? Your leg, how- stupid clumsy idiot-" he slung one of Merlin's shaking arms over his shoulder and tried to haul him upright. The movement jostled Merlin's broken leg and he gasped with the pain of it, tears streaking and blurring his vision.
"Rabbit…did I crush it?" asked Merlin, words slurring. "Where's the rabbit, Will?"
"What? What rabbit?"
"The rabbit. Did I…is it…?"
"It's just a sprained ankle, right? Don't be a baby. Merlin? Merlin! We're nearly- don't fall asleep, Merlin. Merlin!"
According to Will, who ranted and raved with enough rage to satisfy a hundred 10 year olds, insulting Merlin's ability to fall over flat ground and scare his friends to death, he had passed out before Hunith and half the villagers had come running, alarmed at the sound of Merlin's screams.
His leg took 3 weeks to heal.
Later, when his Mother had left the two of them to make them supper, Merlin finally told Will about the rabbit "that he had been rambling about before he fainted."
"I think I healed it," said Merlin quietly, staring at his hands, scared to meet Will's gaze. "It had a broken leg."
There was a long silence.
"You healed a rabbit. Why?"
Merlin looked up, incredulous. "It would have frozen to death, otherwise! Or been eaten by a fox."
"I would have eaten it," said Will doggedly.
Another pause. Merlin played with the edge of his blanket, and the fire crackled in the corner hearth.
"You don't think I'm a…freak then?" he asked, with faux nonchalance that he couldn't quite manage to pull off.
"You're a girl, Merlin."
Merlin didn't know how to fly.
His wings grew as he did, the soft white downy fluff replaced with stiff swan-like feathers that were tipped with gold in a certain light. The wings began to arch higher above his shoulders, sweeping lower across his hips so that it was almost impossible to hide under a shirt or jacket. His mother worried.
However, at fifteen, his wings seemed to have stopped growing (much to his secret disappointment). When folded, they were able to be tucked away. Outstretched, the wingspan was about the same as his arm-span and no matter how hard he flapped them, failed to lift Merlin off the ground. This disappointed him more than he liked to admit, after all, what was the use of them if he couldn't fly?
It was inevitable, really, that Hunith found out that Will had found out.
Summer brought pollen and flowers and tree heavy with leaves. Cats curled lazily in afternoon sunshine whilst Merlin and Will tried to find somewhere to cool off. In the end, they hid in one of the disused barns at the edge of the village: full of stray hay bales and dust and mice. Will took his shirt off with a sigh.
"It's too bloomin' hot around here."
Merlin rolled his eyes, his own shirt scratchy against his shoulders, damp with sweat. Will eyed him for a moment in sympathy.
"No one will come in here, you'll be fine."
Merlin bit his lip. A fly buzzed in the loft. Merlin took his shirt off.
It was a luxurious feeling, to stretch his wings out. Merlin thought it was because they were forced to be folded tight all day, only when he was sleeping and the door locked did Hunith let him stretch his wings. He relished it, the feeling of wind through his feathers, arching and folding his wings repeatedly to work out the aches that constantly itched at him. Plus, he hated it when his down feathers got damp with sweat, and the tail feathers were a bitch to clean. He flopped down on his stomach beside Will, stretching his wings out as far as they will go with a sigh of relief. Will tugged at one of the feathers. Merlin treated him to a glare.
"Have they gotten bigger?" asked Will.
"Nah," said Merlin, twisting around to peer over his shoulder. "I think they've stopped growing for good. Any bigger and I won't be able to hide them so easily."
"Maybe you're just destined for small things," smirked Will.
Merlin hit him upside the head.
"I can still turn you into a toad. Or, you know, a girl."
"All bark and no bite, Merlin," said Will smugly, and yelped when Merlin promptly pushed him off his hay bale.
And that was how Hunith found them, laughing and covered in dust, Merlin's wings spread full span as he lay on the ground, his smile slowly fading from his face.