P I A N O
"Silence affects everyone in the end."
- Ada McGrath.
Freya died a week before the Cantabile was meant to set sail.
Merlin said nothing.
Father was distraught because Freya wasn't mean to die barely sixteen and unmarried. She was meant to go aboard the Cantabile and travel to New Zealand. She was meant to meet her husband, to guarantee the family a fortune in land and exports. She was meant to leave Merlin behind, in a house in the middle of London, crowded with grey clouds and rain. Sweet, kind Freya with her dark curls and lovely smile, who wrote riddles and drew pictures in Merlin's notebook for him to find. Freya, who was gone in a night of fever.
"They say it's lovely," said his mother, eyes shining with tears, "Paradise, you know."
Merlin said nothing.
"I hear that there's land for miles around, fields of flowers and grass and woodland. And it'll all be yours! Just think, wouldn't that be lovely, sweetheart? They say the sky is always blue, and you can see all the way to the sea, on a fine day. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
Merlin nodded, if only to please her, playing idly with the keys of the piano in the sitting room. He pushed one ivory key downwards, slowly, so that it only made a soft thud and no note. There was a picture of his sister on the top of the piano, sepia stained and smiling wide. Merlin paused. Then reached forward to turn the picture towards the wall.
"And I'm sure the good sir Stewart would be a good companion to you," continued his mother.
At this, Merlin shot her a dry look, finger still caressing the smooth polished keys of the piano, and he didn't even bother to sign. Morgana, small and tucked into his side, spoke up for him.
"But Papa is a man."
His mother cast a worried glance towards the closed door of the study, where Merlin knew his father was currently residing. The tick of the clock filled the tense silence.
"I can't dissuade him," said his mother finally, almost pleading. "But it's necessary. And since your sister- since she- you do understand, don't you, sweetheart?" she reached as if to embrace him, but then drew back at the last minute, thinking better of it. Merlin didn't look at her, running a finger over the chromatics; black white black white black white white-
Morgana shifted around on the seat, fidgeting. She stared at Merlin's mother intently for a moment, pale little hands folded in her lap.
"Is Mister Stewart Valiant a gentleman?" she asked, tilting her head to one side.
Valiant. Merlin had almost forgotten. Only four days ago, he had been tugging Freya out of the living room as she raged and cried, his Father furious and shouting. She didn't want to marry a man she didn't know or love, she didn't want to leave home. Merlin had tried to play her the piano to cheer her up, but Freya had screamed at him, tearing the ribbons out of her hair, and stormed away.
Later, she'd apologized, and they'd spent a lazy afternoon in the garden, Merlin pushing her on the rope braid swing. They had stayed out there on the grassy lawns, even as the sky darkened and it began to rain, water droplets heavy and warm on skin. Merlin only led Freya back inside when he saw Morgana, framed in the doorway, a deep frown marring her pretty young face.
"He certainly is," said his mother, "He owns all the timber forests along the east coast!"
"Really?" asked Morgana.
Without a word, Merlin pushed away from the piano, silently making his way around the chairs by the window and out of the room. Once the door had closed behind him, he let himself sag against the wall paper, the texture of it familiar and embossed under the pads of his fingertips. This had been his Father's house, before he had remarried. It was his father's house after he had died, and it was meant to be Merlin's now – a home to be in with his piano and his son. But then his stepmother had remarried again, and now the house was almost unrecognizable. Merlin had no family left apart from Morgana.
Even so, it was still the only place Merlin had ever known.
He waited until he heard the door opening and closing, sounds that told him his mother had left the living room. Merlin slowly went back inside, picking his way through the furniture, and settled back down before his piano. It shivered beneath his fingers, as if it knew what he was thinking; that it didn't want to leave either. Merlin didn't want to go- it was folly- but it seemed that he had no choice. Stewart Valiant would be expecting a wife of some sort. And his father was expecting the money.
The 'D' rang out clear and stark when Merlin hit the key. It cried out all the anguish and loneliness in Merlin's heart, and in a single note, left Merlin as silent as he ever was.
Life aboard the Cantabile was terrifying and lonely. The days were long, the nights were longer, the ship rocking in the waves. Merlin's mother had scrambled together enough money to pay for one of the small, cramped, but private first class cabins, which Merlin shared with his daughter. From what Merlin had seen in his quick tour of the ship, the other passengers slept in bunks all piled together under deck, with barely room enough to walk.
Merlin worried about his piano.
During the day, Merlin supposed it wasn't too bad. He had never been at sea before, and the wide, wide expanse of endless blue was breath taking. For the first few days, he got up at first light to stand at the railings of the ship, watching the sun rise over the horizon. And he would stand there, hands clutching tight at the salt-crushed metal rails, whilst the boat rocked and lurched with the wind.
The atmosphere on the ship for the first week was subdued. Merlin caught many wandering about the decks, trying to catch a last sight of the shores of Belfast before home disappeared for good. Some were hollow about the eyes, listless and short tempered, and there had already been a near-brawl over sleeping quarters and the ration of ale.
At night, the sounds of babies crying kept Merlin awake. His mind echoed with them, unable to create the music that usually flowed like a constant lullaby, a safe cocoon that kept him separate from the outside world.
The sea gales grew cold as the afternoons wore on. And it was on one such afternoon that Merlin encountered the trouble that he had been trying to avoid.
Merlin turned. He reached for Morgana, and she came up to the railings beside him, propping her chin on her hands with a little pout. Carefully, Merlin rested a hand on her shoulder, reassured by the warm rise and fall of breaths.
"It's nearly night time," said Morgana.
Merlin smiled, and his hands flitted.
"What are you still doing out here? It's freezing."
Stars. Waiting for the stars.
Morgana looked up at the rapidly blackening sky, squinting, her dark locks of hair sweeping over her shoulders. Then she glanced back at Merlin.
"How long until we get there?" she asked. Morgana didn't seem to care for the sea as much as Merlin did, staying in their cabin for most of the day with a piece of paper and pen. She wrinkled her nose a little at the salt spray and Merlin smoothed back her hair fondly. Morgana batted him away, staring up expectantly.
Merlin sighed and twisted his hands in a series of gestures, palms held up.
I'm not sure. A few more weeks?
"I want to go home," said Morgana, sullenly, staring out over the water.
But then she brightened and said, "I'll see Father soon!"
Giving Merlin a quick smile, she turned and ran back across the deck, disappearing down the stairs and out of sight. There was a tight feeling in Merlin's chest that had nothing to do with the sickening rock of the ship or the salt in the air. He tore his eyes away from the stairwell and tracked the trailing foam behind the ship's engines, watching white disappear into blue.
It was almost dark now. Behind him, he could see the dim yellow glow of oil lamps in the windows. Beyond yawned the blackness of the ocean, the blue drowned in ink, and the sound of the waves slapping against the side of the ship.
The wind whipped his hair into his eyes, and Merlin brushed them back, right hand tapping absently on the rough surface of the railing. Slowly, he began, fingers finding the familiar places like a memory. D. Tap. F sharp. B. A. And Merlin thought he could hear the music now, notes falling over the deck as he played, like a bottle dropped into the sea.
Merlin tilted his head back to the sky, letting the salt and music fill him to the brim and he smiled despite himself. There were freckles in the sky that could have been stars, scattered haphazardly like notes across a page. They were lost in the sound of the sea.
Merlin was so intent on listening that he failed to notice the approaching footsteps before it was too late.
"Hey, sweetheart," came a voice, and then there was the heat of a body pressed along the length of his back, pushing Merlin up against the railings so that the breath rushed out of him in a gasp. "Y'alright then? What's a lovely lad like you doing al-"
Instinctively, Merlin kicked backwards, trying to dislodge the man's hand gripping his waist. But the deck slipped from under the soles of his shoes and he only managed to stumble, hand grappling for the railing to stop himself from falling completely. He couldn't see the man's face, but could smell the alcohol and foul breath as he chuckled, the unshaven scratch of stubble close to his ear. Merlin shivered.
"It's cold out," said the man, laughing. "How about you come with me, and we'll…warm you up?" The hand crept lower and lower, and Merlin tried to jerk away. Taking a deep breath, he clenched one fist and swung his elbow back, aiming for his assailant's throat.
The man jumped backwards to avoid the blow, and Merlin took the chance to scramble away. He thanked god that Morgana was safe in their cabin and not out here. The man cursed loudly.
He made a grab for Merlin again, catching his shoulder and spinning him around, and in the dark, something crashed into the side of the deck when Merlin kicked, sounding like tin and metal. The man was not deterred, and Merlin snarled and swung another punch. He caught Merlin's fist in his own and pulled him up close, heedless of Merlin's attempts to stamp on his toes. Up close, he was a burly man, tall and rough around the edges, and Merlin's heart beat fast within his ribcage, out of time and without rhythm. There was a buzzing in his head and he only caught the last of the man's words-
"-Cocksucker lips," he panted, meaty hands gripping Merlin's upper arm, "Why don't we put those to good use?"
Before Merlin could respond, there were the sound of footsteps, and something flared, yellow and warm, blinding him. Instinctively, he screwed his eyes shut against the light.
"Oi. What's going on here?"
Abruptly, the man let go, and Merlin almost fell backwards managing to catch himself just in time. He rubbed his arms, feeling bruises forming where fingers had dug into flesh, and opened his eyes. His savior was one of the ship's crew, and he held a large oil lamp in one hand and a stick in the other. He was shorter than Merlin, with sandy hair and black smudges all over his face. He looked between the two of them, eyes narrowed.
"Is there a problem?"
Merlin glanced at the man, who glowered in return. Merlin looked back at the sailor, who was still glaring.
"Nah," said the man, with a shrug of huge shoulders.
"Then I guess you'd better be on your way."
There was a moment where Merlin thought the man would object, but then he turned away, shooting Merlin one last, malicious look before disappearing across the deck of the ship.
Merlin nodded, biting down on his lower lip.
"I'm Will," said the sailor, proffering a hand. And after a moment's hesitation, Merlin shook it. He gestured with fingers and palms.
The man – Will- looked surprised, eyebrows climbing up into his hair. Merlin felt something squeeze around his chest; he knew that look.
"Ah. You're mute," said Will bluntly, gesturing with a finger across his throat.
Merlin nodded, suppressing a shiver in the cold night air. The wooden deck creaked beneath his feet.
"Should be more careful. The men are gonna get handsey after a month at sea. Worse in a coupla' weeks. Just wait," he snorted, setting down the heavy lamp with a dull clunk and reaching into the jacket of his uniform. Merlin shuddered inwardly; remembering the unwanted heat of hands on his waist.
Merlin eyed Will suspiciously. Cigarettes were not cheap; and they were hard to come by on a sea voyage. And Merlin had barely met the man. He took the offered cigarette between his fingers and watched as Will lit it with the end of his own. It sparked, red and gold in the darkness so that Merlin could only see the curve of mouth, the reflection in eyes.
He took a tentative drag of his own cigarette and choked, coughing as in inhaled the smoke. Will chuckled softly and thumped him on the back so hard; Merlin almost hit his head on the railings.
"Don't smoke?" he asked, knowingly. Merlin shook his head. He took another drag from the cigarette though, not wanting to waste it or throw it away, but he ended up coughing again, eyes watering slightly. Will confiscated his cigarette after that, holding it between his teeth.
"You're useless," he said, not unkindly. The glowing red of the cigarette bobbed up and down as he talked. "But you don't seem too bad." He cast Merlin a lingering look sideways, shrewd. Merlin pretended he didn't notice, letting his hands dangle over the cold metal of the railings. D. D. A. C. They listened to the beat of the sea for a long, long while; the steady rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall.
And Merlin thought Will must not be too bad either, if he could hear the music of the water every day and not grow deaf to it. Most people did. They grew deaf to love and deaf to life, and soon, they stopped talking too.
2 months later.
They landed on the shores of New Zealand in an isolated cove.
It was just the two of them, Merlin and Morgana; the rest of the passengers had already disembarked fifty miles north, near the city. As the crew helped them impatiently into the row boat that would take them to shore, Merlin tucked the letter back into his jacket pocket and held Morgana's hand tightly with the other hand. For once, she did not protest.
"There y'are," said Will, sticking his oar into the sand to anchor the boat in the shallow water. Beside them, another longboat drew up to the bank, and two burly deckhands were unloading the trunks and luggage onto the beach with little care. Next went the piano, which was rolled into the beach beside a case full of books. Merlin turned to Will briefly, and the man smiled back, giving him the thumbs up. Merlin helped Morgana out of the boat, holding her to his chest so she wouldn't get wet.
Sea water soaked into his shoes.
"You look after your Papa," called Will as he prepared to row back to the ship. Morgana gave him a little wave over Merlin's shoulder.
Once they were safely on the beach, Merlin sat Morgana down on one of the wooden trunks and went to retrieve some of the luggage that had been scattered haphazardly across the sand. He worried about the tide for a moment; the piano was too heavy for him to move by himself, but the letter said that Stewart would be meeting them upon their arrival. Merlin hoped he would appear soon, not because he wanted to meet the man, but because it was decidedly cold, the clouds a grey foreboding presence in the sky. And there would be no shelter for them on the beach, should it start to rain.
There was a distant shout and a splash – Merlin turned to see the little boat and, presumably, Will being pulled up onto deck. The ship's horn sounded as it began its journey back out of the cove.
"When are we going to meet Father?" piped up Morgana from her perch on the trunk, and Merlin made his way back to her.
He should be here soon.
"Good," said Morgana, smoothing down the wrinkles in her sun yellow dress. The ribbon in her hair fluttered in the wind, and the cove was silent except for the cry of the gulls and the steady heartbeat of the sea. By now, their ship was a tiny dot in the distance. Taking the cover off the piano seat, Merlin sat down next to her, facing the ocean, and waited.
Noon came and went.
It was now late afternoon and there was still no sign of Stewart.
Merlin carefully wrapped away the uneaten portion of his lunch – half a sandwich, small apples and ship biscuits- and tucked it away safely in a case. Morgana had abandoned her trunk and now sat in his lap, head tucked under his chin while she napped, exhausted. Merlin shifted her slightly, careful not to jostle, and pulled back the corner of the piano. He lifted the wooden lid, and ran a finger along one beautiful key.
He pressed down, and the hammer hit string, a note: A. It was swallowed quickly by the cove, the sound barely there in the silence. F.
Merlin buried his face in Morgana's thick hair and inhaled, trying to keep the tears at bay. She smelt of soap and oranges and home and everything precious. He had to take care of her.
Merlin felt it the moment Morgana blinked awake, yawning against his shirt.
"Is Father here yet?" she asked, and Merlin shook his head, taking a deep breath to compose himself.
Morgana slipped off his lap and went to sit on the trunk instead, reaching up to retie her hair ribbon. Merlin sighed and turned back to the piano.
"I'm hungry," said Morgana after a while, sounding a little sulky.
Do you want sandwiches? Asked Merlin, gesturing. He glanced up at the sky worriedly when a rumble sounded, deep and dark. The wind seemed to be picking up as well.
Morgana swung her legs, kicking her heels back against the wall of the trunk. Merlin could see the unhappy set of her jaw and eyebrows.
"I'm sick of sandwiches, Papa."
Merlin unwrapped the lunch he had saved earlier, taking out the apple.
"And apples," she added, eyeing the biscuit. Merlin gave it to her with a small smile, and she took it with slightly dirty fingers.
Are you cold?
Morgana shook her head, crumbs falling onto her dress. A seagull landed on one of the suitcases and Merlin tried shoo it away with little success. The once cleanly pressed lines of his trousers were now rumpled from the weeks at sea, and his jacket smelt of salt and damp. He probably looked a mess too, even though he took care to shave that morning and there was no stubble on his chin. His hair felt too long, tickling the nape of his neck, and his skin probably had a layer of grime.
He wondered what Valiant would be like.
As night began to fall, it began to rain.
The first drops hit his skin, cold and wet. Morgana squealed in protest and jumped off the trunk.
"No! I'll get wet!"
Merlin looked desperately about the cove. There was still no sign of Stewart or anyone. He thought briefly of venturing into the bushes that lined the landscape a little way away, where the sand ended. But he didn't know what the local forests were like; it might be even more dangerous than rain. Merlin took off his jacket and wrapped it around Morgana's shoulders, before ushering her beneath the piano.
He took care to close the lid over the keys and pull the covers securely over the instrument before crouching down and crawling under the piano, where Morgana had already spread his jacket over the sand and sat on it.
Wear it, Morgana, said Merlin, but Morgana scowled.
"My dress will get wet. Why isn't Father here to meet us?"
Merlin sat down on the sand, folding his legs so they stayed within the dry patch. Rapidly, the rain soaked the sand into a dark, dark black. He managed to pull Morgana into his lap. He shook his jacket free of sand and wrapped it around her, the sleeves so long they reached her knees.
Morgana shrugged, her curls bouncing on her shoulders as she stared past him at the rain that was falling in earnest now, pouring from the heavens and pounding the top of the piano. If Merlin closed his eyes, the rain sounded like applause.
Eventually, Morgana's tense little body relaxed and she nodded off, once again cradled against Merlin's shoulder. The night wind howled around the cove, and Merlin could just make out the dark shapes of their trunks and suitcases clustered in the rain. Before long, he was shivering in his shirt. He debated, briefly, making a dash for one of the cases and taking out the woollen sweaters that were in there. But even if he ran, the rain would still soak him through to the skin, and that would be worse.
Pulling the jacket a little more securely around Morgana, Merlin shifted so that his back was against one of the legs of the piano, blocking out what wind he could. He forced himself to stay awake, the cold helping him to remain alert, even as his fingers and toes grew numb. Morgana was a warm bundle in his arms.
The rain raged on.
And Merlin stayed like that, under the piano, until the first rays of morning.
Merlin almost startled, hands jerking away from the piano to look where Morgana was pointing. She was sitting on top of the piano, hair blowing in the morning breeze and waving excitedly at the figures in the distance. Merlin, who had been playing a wistful tune in order to make the cove a little happier (the whole place was so very, very lonely) but now that he had been interrupted, the music was disappearing into the ether, tune broken.
He closed the lid over the keys, hands trembling a little. He was nervous – he had been apprehensive about meeting Stewart Valiant, not only because he knew nothing of the man, but also because Merlin doubted he would react well to the arrival of a mute man in place of a beautiful bride-to-be.
He tried to make out the individual figures coming towards them, but they were still too far away for him to see properly. Morgana jumped off the lid of the piano and onto the sand, straightening her dress. She ran around the piano towards Merlin, face lit up with excitement. All initial resentment of the marriage seemed to have disappeared, and all she wanted to was to see the man who would soon become her other parent.
Merlin tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ears and stood up also. The people were closer now, and Merlin could make out a few of them in jackets and grey, whilst the others wore loose, casual clothing. He touched the smooth surface of the piano for comfort. Morgana laced her fingers through his, and the both of them watched as the entourage approached.
There were two men at the front of the group, tall, one with dark, cropped hair and the other golden. The dark haired man stopped before he reached them, the expression on his face twisted with confusion. As the others caught up with him, he made his way over to the piano. Merlin had to fight the urge to step back.
"Have you seen the lady Emrys, by chance?" he asked, eyes raking over the scattered luggage over the beach. And suddenly Merlin realised that this was Valiant and he had no idea that his bride-to-be was in fact, a man.
Merlin swallowed, and reached into his jacket for the letter he had prepared, but Morgana beat him to it.
"This is my Papa," she said, jutting out her chin, "Who are you?"
The man made a little mock bow to her, amusement clear on his face.
"I'm Sir Stewart Valiant," he said, "And I am in wont of my wife."
"Well I'm Morgana," said Morgana regally, "you'll be my Father, soon."
Merlin's breath stopped in his throat as Valiant frowned, eyes darting from Morgana to Merlin's pale face, then to the empty cove around them. Merlin watched as something like understanding and then fury cloud over the man's face, making it hard and ugly.
He took a step towards Merlin.
"What is the meaning of this?"
Trying to mask the shaking in his hand, Merlin passed Valiant the folded letter, which he took with a suspicious glare and shook open. Behind him, the other man, blond with a thin bladed nose and sky blue eyes, sat down with a sigh on one of the trunks, propping his feet on another. Prat, thought Merlin, before a shout of anger brought him sharply back to them man standing before him.
Valiant threw the letter to the ground.
"She's dead?" he said, incredulous. Merlin flinched. "And you thought you'd take her place, did you? What do you take me for, a fool?"
Merlin shook his head quickly, gesturing with his hands, but before Morgana could interpret for him, Valiant was shouting again-
"You truly cannot speak?"
"Papa can't talk," said Morgana, and she looked scared now, eyes wide and hand clutching at the sleeve of Merlin' jacket, "You have to listen!"
"I don't know what your father was thinking, boy," said Valiant, taking another step closer, and this time Merlin did take a step back, heart hammering in his chest. He had no idea how to get out of this mess – there was no way to return home, he didn't have enough money, and the dowry that was to be Freya's was Valiant's now. He tugged Morgana behind him as best he could, trying to hide her from Valiant's rage.
"But you better go fucking-"
"Valiant. Come on, that's enough."
Valiant whipped around, and Merlin saw that the other man had risen to his feet now, a frown also on his face.
"I am not marrying this ugly creature!" protested Valiant, and the words hurt; Merlin felt his face burn hot with embarrassment. He was suddenly very aware of his dirty jacket, still-wet shoes, unwashed hair and too large ears. He wanted to sink into the ocean and disappear.
"There is no need to be so unpleasant," said the man. "It's just a misunderstanding, I'm sure. Let me see the letter."
Snarling, Valiant picked the letter off the sand and thrust it at his companion, who took it with a raised eyebrow. They watched as his eyes moved from left to right, left to right, scanning the words. Something flitted across his features, too fast for Merlin categorise, but then it smoothed over and he looked up at Merlin. Their gazes locked, and Merlin felt the music tremble beneath his skin.
"I'm very sorry for your loss," said the man. "I'm Arthur. Arthur Pendragon."
Merlin nodded and gestured, fingers and hands twisting.
"Merlin Emrys," said Morgana.
"And clearly not my bride!" cut in Valiant.
"It says here that you were informed of the tragedy, and, ah, the replacement?" asked Arthur, letter still in hand.
Valiant's face turned a strange colour of puce. He spluttered,
"Yes- No- I was tricked! I did not know that Lady Emrys' sibling would be- this!" He pointed at Merlin angrily.
Arthur looked far too relaxed and amused for the situation.
"You told me just the other day you didn't care what your wife was like," he said, one eyebrow disappearing into his hairline. "Why should it matter that she is a man?"
"I refuse," said Valiant harshly, eyes burning. The men around them shifted, but all were silent.
"He is your responsibility," said Arthur, all traces of humour gone, "Where is your honour? You cannot just leave him here when this is clearly his parent's scheme, not his!"
"Why should I care?" spat Valiant, casting Merlin another disgusted look.
Morgana's hand tightened on his, and Merlin wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
Arthur jerked his head in the opposite direction, and Valiant reluctantly followed him. They stood a little way away on the beach, their backs turned on Merlin and the other men. Merlin could see Valiant gesturing angrily with his arms and Arthur making a jabbing motion with his own hand, their voices muffled by the sand and wind. Valiant glanced over his shoulder at them every few minutes, the flicker in his eyes indescribable. Arthur's gaze was fixed firmly on Valiant's face, stern. Merlin looked away from them both, out across the sea.
The horizon was a faint, white line tracing the sky.
Merlin tapped his fingers against his thigh nervously, A, E, A, E, G, and the sound dropped like pebbles into the water.
He jumped when Valiant spoke.
"Let's get moving then," he barked at the men, and they moved as one, picking up the heavy trunks and leather suitcases, balancing wooden crates of books on top of boxes. Merlin turned, unsure of what was happening as the men began to carry their belongings down the narrow curving beach and onto a trail path that led into the thick forest. Someone cursed in an unfamiliar language as the trunk he was holding slipped, and he dropped it on the ground with a thump before picking it up again.
Merlin twisted his hands in the hair, nodding at Morgana, and she said,
"You're coming with me," said Valiant, gruffly, eyes sliding past Merlin and onto Morgana. Merlin tensed as the man hunkered down in front of her, but he only said, in a tone completely unrecognizable as coming from the angry man that had been shouting half an hour ago,
"Little Lady Morgana."
Morgana's eyes were wide, but she giggled, nervously.
"You have a lovely dress on," said Valiant.
Morgana swished her skirts.
"It's new," she said. And it was; Merlin had bought it for her especially.
"It's a long walk to the house. It might get dirty in the woods," said Valiant, pointing up at the forest with its dark, muddy trail. Morgana's eyes grew even wider with worry.
"Do you want me to carry you?"
Morgana's eyes narrowed.
"I can walk," she said, haughty once more; but Merlin caught her glancing at him, then back at Valiant, wary.
Valiant gazed at her for a moment, and Merlin wanted to snatch Morgana up, disliking the way that the man seemed so interested in his daughter. Perhaps he wanted a child of his own? Merlin held out a hand towards Morgana and she came over, sliding her hand through his. Valiant straightened up then, face a mask of indifference.
Without another word, he turned and walked off in the direction that the men had gone, jerking one hand in a gesture that clearly said: follow.
"I'll come with you," said Arthur, who had been standing to the side. Merlin looked desperately from him to the piano and then to Valiant's retreating back. He gestured, quickly.
"But the piano!" said Morgana, translating, "What about the piano?"
"I don't think it's possible to carry it up to the house," said Arthur, laying a hand on the instrument and Merlin wanted to slap it away; it felt like an intrusion. He gestured again, movements aborted and the first traces of panic curling cold in his stomach.
"But we can't leave the piano!" protested Morgana, not even having to look at Merlin's prompts anymore. Valiant must have heard her shrill voice because he called back;
"There is no room for it in my house. Now come or you can stay out here!"
Merlin pulled his hand from Morgana's and ran towards Valiant. When he caught up with the man, he was a little out of breath, but he managed to turn him around with a pull to his broad shoulders. He signed; trying to make himself as clear as possible, pointing back across the beach at the piano. It was silhouetted against the sea; a defined shape amidst vast wilderness.
Please. Please, the piano.
Merlin gasped when Valiant's hand wrapped themselves around his arm, pulling him closer. Fingers dug into flesh; hard and unforgiving.
"Now you listen here," said Valiant, voice low as thunder, and Merlin struggled, trying to pull away. The hand tightened. "I'm taking you in because Pendragon says so, and if I don't, he'll kick up unnecessary fuss. I could just as easily toss you out without a penny to your name; so you will stop whining on about the fucking piano and come with me."
With this, he pushed Merlin away violently, making him stagger backwards.
The waves beat a steady rhythm against the shore, like a metronome, an unforgiving as a heartbeat.
Merlin strode back to Arthur, who was leading a reluctant Morgana away from the piano and towards where the forest path wound away up into the hills.
"…but Papa needs it," she was saying, one hand in Arthur's, swinging it as she talked, "He can't talk without the piano."
Arthur glanced at Merlin.
"I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head, "There wasn't enough men to carry it back to the house – and even if there were, I'm afraid I can't force Valiant to take it. You'll have to do without."
"For heaven's sake, he's taking you! He's going to marry you – you should be grateful to have a roof over your head," said Arthur, patience evidently running out. He made an exasperated gesture with his arms, simultaneously tugging Morgana onto the path and leading the way into the forest. Merlin had no choice but to follow, looking over his shoulder every few steps until the trees blocked the piano from view.
They reached the Stewart Valiant's house before night fell, for which Merlin was grateful. He was tired, exhausted to the bone from staying awake all night; even Morgana, who had trudged up the muddy hill with a determined look on her face, was drooping a little where she stood. Arthur looked barely out of breath.
The house wasn't a grand affair, certainly not as grand as the houses in London. But it was large enough, with whitewashed wood and a neat row of windows that looked out into the forest; wild flowers growing along the edges of the clearing.
One of the men from the beach came out of the house, wiping his hands on his rough shirt. When he spotted Merlin, he stopped, looking curious, before turning the corner of the house and disappearing out of sight. Merlin presumed that all their luggage had been transferred into the house already, as it was nowhere to be seen. The wooden deck surrounding the house was deserted.
Merlin stopped at the door and, despite himself, looked towards Arthur for some form of reassurance. The man nodded at the house.
"I shall see you soon," he said, before bowing to Morgana and dropping a kiss on her hand. Then he strode off into the forest without a backwards glance.
Merlin stared at the door for a few more moments, trying to gather up his courage, but before his hand even touched the polished brass handle, the door was opened by a woman.
"Oh!" she said, looking surprised. Her gaze was appraising as she looked him over. "You must be Master Emrys." She paused with a doubtful air. Finally, she said, "Come in then, they've brought all your things already."
Merlin inclined his head awkwardly to her, before stepping into the dimness of the house, Morgana following in behind him. When the door shut behind them, Merlin tensed.
"This way," said the woman, leading them through a narrow hallway and into a spacious living room which joined the dining room and a kitchen. But the housekeeper turned another corner, and Merlin found himself in a smaller room that smelt of disuse and scented candles. Their trunks and boxes were piled in a corner of the room, opposite of which was a heavy wooden writing desk. Beside that was a bed, the coverlet pale cream, the pillows covered in embroidery. The chairs were also delicate looking, curved polished wood set by the bay window. The curtains matched the coverlet on the bed, and there was a vase of flowers on the table.
It was obvious that the room had been prepared for Freya, and not him.
"This will be your room. It was a guest room, but there has never been cause to use it often in the past."
Merlin looked around the room; realizing that this was his home now. And when he looked out the window, it would be to the endless stretch of murky green, instead of the smoke and rooftops of London. When he walked out of the room, it would be to a stranger's house, instead of his piano. He could barely breathe.
"The master will be back soon; he was sorting out the …complications, he said," continued the woman, whose name Merlin realised he did not know, "I trust everything is to your satisfaction?"
It was not so much a question as a challenge, and Merlin nodded quickly, trying to smile.
"I like it," said Morgana, toeing off her muddy shoes and sitting down on the bed.
Dinner was a silent affair.
The lamb tasted like dust on Merlin's tongue, and he couldn't help being on edge.
"Of course, your sister and I were to share a room," said Valiant, voice barely civil. His jaw was tense in a line of suppressed anger. "However, with you, this will not be the case."
Merlin gave no response, trying to still his hands, which were clutching his knife and fork with white knuckles.
"You will stay in the guest bedroom with your daughter until further arrangements can be made."
Merlin nodded once, not looking up.
It wasn't until Morgana was tugging at his sleeve that Merlin realised that Valiant was no longer sitting across from him, and that he had barely touched his food at all.
"So, child, why doesn't your father talk?"
Merlin paused, hands stilling above the pages of his book.
The housekeeper's voice filtered through the door, left ajar down the hallway. Faintly, Merlin could hear the murmur of other voices, indistinct. They were in the little morning room, he guessed; he had seen the maids in there two days ago, yards of white lace and cream cloth around them.
Then Morgana spoke.
"It was a tragic story."
Merlin snorted, leaning back against the bay window. It was night, and all he could see was his own reflection staring back at him, gaunt and unflattering. Morgana's voice floated in and out of focus, like a silhouette through the rain.
"…my mother was an opera singer, you know. So was my father, and one day when they were singing together in the forest, a great storm blew up out of nowhere."
"But so passionate was their singing that they did not notice," continued Morgana in a low voice, as if imparting a secret, "nor did they stop, as the rain began to fall, and when their voices rose for the final bars of the duet, a great bolt of lightning came out of the sky and struck my mother dead! She lit up like a torch!"
There were gasps of horror, someone saying "Really, now!"
"…and from that moment onwards, he never spoke another word."
Merlin closed his book, setting it down beside him. He pressed his forehead against the cool glass of the window, as the voices blurred into one another like the days and nights.
Outside, it began to rain.
I have told you the story of your mother many, many times.
"Oh, tell me again! Was she beautiful?"
Yes. You look like her.
"How did you speak to her?"
I didn't need to speak. I could lay thoughts out in her mind like they were a sheet.
"Why didn't you get married?"
She became frightened and stopped listening.
Merlin dreamt that his piano drowned in the sea, washed away by the rain that pounded the roof above his head.
He woke with a gasp, sitting up in the darkness of the room. Morgana was curled away from him, hair fanning out on the pillow.
Moonlight spilled in a narrow stream from the gap between the curtains, over the floor and the duvet. Merlin stared at it for a few long minutes, listening to the water battling against the windowpane. He watched Morgana breathe, her side rising up, down, up, down, and he leant forwards and tugged the cover over her shoulders.
Merlin slipped out from under the duvet, wincing as his feet made contact with the cold floorboards. He padded over silently to the window, pulling up a chair and settling down, drawing aside the curtains so he could just see the grass beyond, black and indistinct. He settled into the chair, drawing his knees to his chest and resting his cheek against the window.
His breath fogged up the glass as he breathed.
Merlin watched the rain fall and cried for his piano.
Arthur came on the tenth day.
Ten days since Merlin had seen his piano.
"How's my lady?" he asked, amused expression on his proud, handsome face. He stepped into the threshold despite the housekeeper's dark look. Her disapproving glare followed them all the way into the living room, but Merlin barely noticed because Arthur was giving him a dazzling smile. Merlin's stomach was full of butterflies, which he ignored. Morgana gave Arthur a measured stare.
"It's boring. Rather."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Arthur, smirking at Merlin, who didn't smile back. "Perhaps we could take you to the city."
"How are you?" asked Arthur to Merlin, a little awkwardly. Merlin shrugged.
"Papa misses his piano," explained Morgana, and Arthur frowned.
Merlin made a few hesitant gestures.
"Could you take us down to see it?" asked Morgana, translating, and then she frowned too.
"But I want to go to the city today!"
"Perhaps we could go another day," said Arthur, eyes still locked with Merlin's, "We should take your Father to see his piano today."
Morgana huffed. "Mister Valiant is my Father," she said, pointedly, and Merlin felt as if she was cutting his heart out with a knife, "Papa is just papa."
Merlin gestured, pleading, aware that Arthur was staring at him. It was almost the curiosity that he usually felt back in London, the wariness that people had for those a little too different from themselves, a little too silent. Yet Arthur did not look away, as if embarrassed; he examined. Merlin felt self conscious but stared definitely back.
"If you'd like, I can take you down to the cove," he said.
Arthur came on the tenth day; and on the tenth day, everything changed.
The piano was still there.
The cover had saved it from most of the rain, but the weather had not been kind. Days out in the salt drenched air and the harsh midday sun had rusted the brass wheels at the foot of the piano, the pedals scratched with sand. The wooden legs of the piano had also begun to wear, much to Merlin's distress.
He flung back the damp covers and lifted the lid of the piano, running a loving hand over its wooden side like a lover.
"Has it survived the rain?" asked Arthur, coming over. Morgana sat herself down on the piano stool, swinging her legs as Merlin opened the cover of the keys, brushing away sand that had be trapped beneath the covers and in the cracks.
"It won't for much longer," said Morgana, "It's too near the sea."
It will drown.
"The sea smother it," translated Morgana. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," she added. Arthur was peering inside the lid of the grand piano, and he reached out with one hand. Before Merlin could stop him, Arthur ran his nails over the strings; making them twang discordantly, plucking them with his fingers.
Merlin slapped him across the face.
"Christ!" exclaimed Arthur in shock, hand snatching his hand back and bringing up to his cheek.
Merlin glared at him, hands clenched.
"Did you just hit me?"
Merlin gestured at the open lid of the piano, miming it slamming down. He made a cutting motion across his knuckles, then pointed at himself, then jabbed Arthur in the chest
Do that. And your fingers. Go chop.
Arthur was still staring at Merlin, eyes wide. They were bluer than the sea.
"You can't- you just- do you know who I am?"
Merlin rolled his eyes and went to sit at the piano. Morgana scooted over towards the left, looking over Merlin's shoulder at a stunned Arthur with a smug expression on her little face.
Merlin placed his hands carefully on the white keys; they were familiar and smooth beneath his fingers, and calmed him almost immediately.
"Are you even listening to me?" asked Arthur, sounding a little annoyed. His shadow fell across the keyboard as he leant on the curved edge of the piano, blocking the sunlight so that it formed a halo behind his head. Merlin was momentarily distracted, hands poised. Then he blinked and looked back down at his hands.
"Papa's going to play the piano," said Morgana, giving Arthur one of her more intimidating looks.
"And?" said Arthur.
"So you have to go away now."
Arthur raised an eyebrow, and Merlin could feel his gaze like a physical touch. He stared resolutely at his fingers instead.
"Now that's rather rude," said Arthur.
Merlin's fingers twitched, and he gestured, a flick of the hand. Morgana shifted beside him, restless.
"Papa says the piano won't play while you're here. So push off, please."
Arthur continued to stare. And when another moment passed without him moving, Morgana sighed dramatically and slipped off the piano stool, coming round the seat. Arthur raised both palms as she approached.
"Look- fine. You'll just have to find your own way back." He sounded bewildered, as people often did around Merlin. But Merlin didn't feel as if he could play to a person he did not know, a stranger- even if Arthur had been kind and taken him down to the cove.
He didn't turn around; listening as the man turned and walked back across the beach, footsteps growing fainter and fainter until all Merlin could hear was the silence and the sea. Morgana returned to his side, smoothing the folds of her dress, rolling a length of ribbon between her fingers.
"He's gone now," she said, looking up at Merlin, who smiled back, briefly.
He placed his hands, carefully back onto the piano.
"Something happy, Papa," said Morgana.
Merlin began to play.
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It was a strange thing, playing to the sea.
It played back.
And as Merlin breathed, it kept him in time, each beat returning like ripples as the notes fell from the piano and onto the sand, spinning and sinking into the white foam. There was nothing on the horizon, no gulls in the sky, only an empty stretch of cove and the silence of Morgana at his side.
She began humming along, a little out of tune, a melody that did not quite fit with the left hand. It was terribly lonely, hollow, the cheerful tinkle like laughter before tears, absorbed by the forest and the little crabs in the sandy beach.
Merlin close his eyes and let his voice out through his fingers; silent for so long it was like taking a breath, full of salt air and strangeness. He changed the music, half way through, because the piano was still nervous, being out in the open. It did not want to dance, and it did not want to sing. Though truth be told, the piano rarely sang; it whispered and hummed like a child too shy to speak out loud. The piano had never seen the sky before; only a little blue square through the curtains of the window.
Too much sky was like too much freedom.
It made Merlin shiver a little through his jacket.
Morgana watched his hands, the left hand like the song of a rocking horse, backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards and Merlin played octaves because he knew his daughter liked the sound of them; two notes the same yet different. The high notes were light enough to become airborne, drifting in the ocean breeze, out of sight.
Merlin glanced upwards, squinting against the glare of the sun.
He blinked the sand from his eyes, right hand running the length of the treble keys like Freya used to do in the gardens; autumn leaves whirling about her feet. They had seen the boats set sail of course, from the port; Merlin's father had had a ship.
It all seemed like a lifetime ago.
The waves crashed, barely ten steps away.
Ten thousand miles from home, Merlin played on.