Chapter 2 – "Sorrow and Joy"
The memory of Roslyn's voice and her eyes and the way she'd touched him was more than enough to undo Merlin now as he stood in the sunlight streaming in through the window of his borrowed room in Camelot, with the breeze whispering around him and the distant sounds of life drifting up from the courtyard below. He gasped at the release, then blew out a long, slow breath. He hadn't realized there'd been that much tension in him, but it had been a while, since before he'd left Ealdor.
He looked down and noticed the washcloth served a dual purpose by not only providing that wonderfully slippery feel of gentle friction, but also catching the mess afterwards. He wondered what the real thing would feel like by comparison. There were certainly a lot more available women here than there had been in Ealdor. Maybe that was part of the reason his mother had sent him here. Well, not to do whatever he wanted with any willing woman, of course. She'd given him that talk some time ago, about how babies were made, and there was an unspoken warning about leaving a woman to raise a child alone.
But even beyond that, there was still the issue of his magic. There hadn't been any stars since Roslyn, but he didn't think it had anything to do with her specifically. He suspected someone else was needed to produce the result, sort of like it being nigh on impossible to tickle yourself. He was more than a little concerned that there'd be some kind of spontaneous outburst of magic the next time he found himself in a bothered situation with a woman. He should probably figure a way to practice restraining his magic, or he'd die a lonely, old man with unicorns trailing after him.
He tossed the soapy cloth on the floor and rinsed with the clean one, flinching a bit at the residual sensitivity. He didn't think he'd ever been that clean down there in his entire life. It felt a bit odd. Not a bad kind of odd, necessarily. He'd have to see if he felt the same way next time.
For some reason, deliberately planning to do this again made him vaguely uncomfortable. It had always been a spur-of-the-moment, opportunistic thing in Ealdor. Then again, there were quite a few more restrictions on his time now, certain places to be at very particular times. Being a peasant among peasants had actually had certain advantages, such as time measured in morning, afternoon, evening and night instead of being broken down into hours.
He sighed as he tossed both of the flannels into the washbasin and swished them around to rinse before wringing them out. Then he dried himself off with the larger cloth, rubbing vigorously to bring the circulation back into parts of his body where it had recently been diminished in favor of other areas.
All of that accomplished, he started to dress, but he'd only gotten his trousers on when he remembered he hadn't washed his hair. He opened the door of his room and went shirtless and barefoot to carry the washbasin full of dirty water down the stairs. There was a small grate covering a drain in the corner of the main room, put there, so Gaius had explained to him, because the activities in a physician's quarters often produced things that needed to be washed away. Somehow, Merlin didn't think this was what Gaius had in mind, but still, it was handy.
He used a bit of the water in the bucket by the drain to rinse out the basin, then looked around until he found a pitcher he could use to pour water over his head. He figured it might be simpler to do so directly over the drain, so he started to set the pitcher down in order to go back upstairs to fetch the soap and the remainder of his wash water, but then there was a soft knock at the door. He whirled around, clutching the pitcher to his chest, just as Guinevere opened the door.
"Gaius…" she said, but her voice trailed off and her cheeks started to color as she saw Merlin standing there. "Oh! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to interrupt."
"No, it's fine," he blurted out. "You weren't interrupting anything." He felt his own face warming as he thought that wouldn't have been true if she'd arrived a bit earlier. Then he realized it wasn't exactly a usual thing to find someone half-naked holding a pitcher in the middle of a room, so he added, "I mean, I was about to wash my hair, that's all." And confound it all if his voice didn't crack. He gave her a strained smile.
"I'll just … leave you to it then," she said with a vaguely confused look on her face, then she turned to go.
His shoulders slumped in relief, but then she turned back around. "Would you tell Gaius I stopped by? It's about Morgana's sleeping draught. I think she needs something stronger."
"Yes. Of course. Morgana's sleeping draught. Got it."
She smiled faintly and tilted her head, as if trying to puzzle something out, but she gave up the effort after only a moment, which was a very good thing because Merlin was starting to feel decidedly uncomfortable under her gaze. She nodded her head slightly and left without saying anything else.
He let out a huge sigh of relief once she was gone. He wondered if she was the one who'd left the soap. He seemed to recall her smelling of rosemary the handful of times he'd been close enough to her to tell. That might've just been from cooking, though. Nevertheless, he determined to go down to the market as soon as possible to get a different cake of soap. Otherwise, he might be tempted to think of Guinevere the next time he washed, and that would just be wrong in so many ways. He wouldn't be able to ever look at her again without blushing. He'd get something that was nothing like rosemary. Mint, maybe. Or pine.
He decided it might be better to wash his hair in his room after all, in order to avoid any more encounters with people wandering into Gaius's quarters, so he took both the pitcher and basin back upstairs and closed and latched the door again. He dunked the pitcher into the bucket of wash water, then leaned over the now empty basin so it would catch the water that ran down and off his head.
As he was lathering his hair, it occurred to him that he was going to positively reek of rosemary now and would probably have to endure endless teasing about it from Arthur. If that happened, though, he had the perfect way to discretely pay him back. He'd noticed a vial of rose oil amongst the bewildering array of items scattered about Gaius's vast main room. He could borrow it and slip a bit into Arthur's bath so he'd have to spend a day smelling excessively girly. Merlin couldn't help but smile at the imagined outcome – the knights making exaggerated sniffing noises around Arthur and very loudly whispering about rumors that the prince had slaughtered an entire rose garden.
Buoyed up by the possibility of giving Arthur a bit of comeuppance, Merlin rinsed his hair and briskly rubbed it mostly dry, then finished getting dressed. He still had a bit of time before he'd need to be back at Arthur's chambers, so he climbed up on the bench below the window to look out. He sighed and rested his arms on the sill, letting the breeze ruffle his hair and dry the last of the dampness. He doubted he'd ever get tired of this view, but he still missed his home, his mother, Will and their misadventures. His thoughts wandered again, back to what had happened the rest of that night in Atherton.
He and Roslyn lay there together in silence and watched the conjured swath of glittering, golden lights until every last one had winked out and they were left with only the considerably fainter and more mundane light of the candle.
"Thank you, Merlin," she murmured into his ear, then she drew her fingers lightly across his stomach as she pulled away. "Get under the covers and rest for a bit. Take as long as you like. I won't need the room again tonight."
Suddenly feeling extremely awkward with his utter lack of clothing while she was fully dressed, he sat up and tugged the coverlet over his lap. "You don't have to leave," he said as he watched her cross the room and retrieve her shawl.
"I never stay afterwards, Merlin," she replied, facing away from him as she wrapped the shawl firmly around her shoulders. "That might leave you wanting something I can't give."
Now he felt frustratingly naive and more than a bit of an idiot. This was essentially a business transaction, after all, not a tumble arising from mutual affection. "But I haven't paid you yet," he muttered. It was probably best to give her the money quickly and have this be over and done.
"I don't need money from you," she said gently, and now she did turn around. "You've given me magic tonight, and that's far more precious." There was an odd expression on her face. She was smiling, but there was a glimmer in her eyes that looked to be a hint of unshed tears.
"I could show you more, if you like," he said wistfully, then realized that statement could be interpreted in a way he didn't intend. He hastily added, "I mean, there are lots of others things I can do without ... encouragement." He knew even as he said it, though, that she would decline. He simply wanted a little while longer to savor the acceptance of someone who wasn't terrified of his magic or wanting to turn him over to bounty hunters or ready to kill him on the spot. Although he'd never actually had any of those things happen to him – apart from Roslyn, only his mother and Will knew his secret, and Will had been surprised and fascinated rather than alarmed when he'd found out – his mother had warned him repeatedly, and he'd heard stories from others ranging from unpleasant to nightmare-inducing. This was more of a dream, and it was fading fast.
"Magic's a dangerous thing to ask for," Roslyn said slowly, her smile shifting into a slight frown and the look in her eyes dimming into something very serious. "And even more perilous to give. Be careful, Merlin."
"I know. I always am," he replied dejectedly. It always came back to this. Be careful, keep it a secret, don't let anyone know. "Well, I try my best anyway," he added, one corner of his mouth quirking upwards. There was no sense wallowing in regret about things that couldn't be changed. "You caught me off my guard."
She laughed, the sound low and sweet, and a soft smile reappeared on her face. She turned to relight her lantern before facing him again. Her expression had shifted yet again, to something distant and thoughtful, and she was quiet for a moment before she said, "Maybe one day, you won't have to hide anymore. It's such a shame to keep beauty in the dark."
He didn't quite know what to say in response to that. It seemed too big a wish to ever be granted, a hope that he didn't dare cling to for fear he would spend his entire life waiting for something that never would be. He looked down at his hands and twisted his fingers together in his lap.
She trailed a hand over his shoulder, then left without another word. After he heard the door close, he looked up and stared at the flame of the single candle left behind. She'd taken the lantern, of course. She'd need it to light her way, wherever she was going now.
He felt lonely all of a sudden, and not just because there was no one else in the room with him. It was a sort of deep-down ache that had crept into him slowly throughout his childhood and was now such a part of him that he hardly noticed it except for times like this.
He pulled in a long, deep breath and let it out again, very slowly. He was utterly exhausted, in body and mind, so he got up and blew out the candle, then went back to the bed, laid down on his back and pulled the covers up. After a moment he shifted to his side and curled up a bit, then very deliberately pushed everything out of his mind so that sleep would claim him quickly. He'd feel better after a rest. He almost always did, as if breaking away from the waking allowed him to drift a bit and then reenter it from a different direction.
When he awoke, he could hear the din of music and voices from the tavern below, not abated at all from earlier, so he couldn't have been asleep for very long. He laid there for a moment, thinking back to Roslyn's words about beauty in the dark. There would always be those who would look for it, and see, and not be afraid. There was some comfort in that.
He got up and dressed slowly without lighting the candle, then went out and down the back stairs. He paused and took a deep breath of the fresh night air, a bit cooler now than when he'd gone upstairs with Roslyn. He probably should go and find Will and see what kind of trouble he was getting into now.
He reentered the tavern from the front door, the light and life and boisterous noise there shifting his mood back to a slightly more cheerful one. He could never stay sad or angry for long. His mother said it was one of his best qualities. Will didn't agree. He harbored things like resentment. Merlin always tried his best to break through his friend's dark stubbornness when it appeared, but it wasn't always easy.
His eyes scanned the room, quickly shifting past the musicians and the dancing to find Will sitting on a stool at the counter, laughing at something the man next to him was saying. Merlin gave a short huff of laughter and made his way over. Tonight was not a time for regrets. He had a friend who knew his secret and treated him like he was any other person. That meant a great deal to him, perhaps even more than being told his magic was precious.
Will didn't notice Merlin until he'd sat down beside him. "Merlin!" he said cheerfully and clapped him on the back. There were bright spots of color on his cheeks, and he had a huge grin on his face. Merlin wondered how much he'd had to drink. "Where have you been?"
He briefly considered keeping the entire experience to himself, maybe only saying that he'd been out to get some fresh air, but he'd probably been gone too long for Will to believe that. "Spending your money," he finally said, even though he hadn't actually done so. He wasn't about to let Will know he still had the coin in his pocket. Served him right for not telling what he was up to when they left Ealdor.
"Ahhh," Will drawled out, nodding his head knowingly. "I thought you looked a little bit sullied."
"It wasn't like that," he replied, somewhat defensively.
"Aww, don't look so offended, Merlin. Save the roses and twinkly fairy lights for someone you love."
"How did you...?" Merlin started to blurt out. His immediate thought was that Will had heard some story or other along the way and had kept it to himself, just so he could tease Merlin about it at some point. Will often picked up odd bits of information during his various wanderings, and from time to time, they had to do with magic. He broke off what he was saying, though, when Will raised his eyebrows, a surprised look on his face. Of course he hadn't known, couldn't possibly. He'd just been talking rubbish yet again.
"Fairy lights? Really?" Will said, his voice gone a bit higher than usual. His eyebrows were still up, and the corner of his mouth was twitching. That was not a good sign. It usually meant some brutal teasing was about to commence.
"Shut up, Will," he shot back, annoyed that Will had gotten the better of him without even having to try. Merlin had done all the work for him.
Will apparently decided to leave him be for the moment, maybe in honor of what he probably thought had happened between his friend and whatever woman he'd been with for the last little while. He laughed and thumped Merlin on the back again, then bought him another tankard of mead. They sat there companionably drinking for a moment before Will gave him a bit of a leering grin and asked, "So was it good?"
"Yes," he replied with a smirk, determined to get Will back at least a little for this whole escapade. "Both times."
"Both times?" Will blurted as he spit out the drink of mead he was about to swallow.
"That's what I said."
"Merlin, you scoundrel. I never would have guessed."
"Maybe there's a few things you don't know about me," he said and went back to his drink. He knew what Will was thinking had happened, and he wasn't about to disabuse him of the notion. It irked him sometimes that Will kept the details of his occasional private ventures to himself, especially when he already knew the one secret that Merlin had. It was a very big secret, though, so maybe Will felt he had to have a lot of little ones to make up for it.
Once they'd finished drinking, they went to a much quieter, reasonably respectable inn and slept the night through and well past dawn the next day. It was full dark when they got back to Ealdor, and Merlin had to light their way the last little bit with magic. His mother gave him an odd look when he came in the door but didn't ask any questions, and the next day, everything was back to usual.
He went back to Atherton by himself, though, after the harvest had been brought in. He wanted to see Roslyn again, although he wasn't quite sure what he wanted from her. He wasn't looking for a repeat of their previous encounter, and she'd made it clear she had no desire for any other kind of relationship. He simply felt as though there was something more that needed to be said. He had no idea what, but that didn't stop him from going.
He left when the dawn was barely lighting the sky since the days were shorter now, and he managed to arrive in Atherton just as the last of the twilight was fading. The tavern wasn't quite as noisy or crowded as it had been before. Probably fewer travelers with the winter coming on. He walked up to the counter and ordered a tankard of mead. When the barkeep delivered it, he handed over a coin and asked, "I don't suppose Roslyn's about tonight?"
"Roslyn?" The man paused for a moment with his forehead furrowing in thought. "No one here by that name. Least ways, not now. There was a Roslyn before harvest time. Dark, wavy hair and bright eyes. That Roslyn?"
"Yes. What happened to her?" he asked hesitantly. It hadn't occurred to him that she wouldn't be here at all, and he hoped nothing awful had happened to her.
"She left. Only stayed a couple of weeks. She was a flighty one for sure. Seen her type before. Blows in and out like the wind, never staying anywhere for long."
"Do you have any idea where she went?" He wasn't quite sure why he was asking. It shouldn't matter to him. He couldn't exactly go chasing after her, even if he wanted to. He had responsibilities at home.
"Don't reckon I recall which way the wind was blowing that day," he replied with a laugh. When Merlin didn't join in, though, the barkeep eyed him sharply and said, "You wouldn't happen to be Merlin, would you?"
For a panicked moment he wondered if she'd told anyone about his magic. Maybe the barkeep was hoping to earn some extra coin by turning a sorcerer over to a bounty hunter. Not that he was actually a sorcerer since he'd never learned any spells. His mother had told him that "warlock" was the proper term for what he was. That wouldn't matter to anyone wishing him harm, though. Magic was magic, and that was enough.
The barkeep apparently picked up on his sudden skittishness and didn't want it to become any worse – that would be disruptive to his business, after all – so he said in a kindly voice, "You look like you've seen a ghost, lad. Did she get you into some kind of trouble?"
"No! No. Nothing like that." He felt a bit ashamed for having doubted her, however briefly. "I just wanted to see her again."
"Well, she left you this." The barkeep rummaged about under the countertop and pulled out a small, folded piece of parchment. Merlin saw his name written on the outside and went to take it, but the barkeep held on to it for a moment as he said very sternly, "Just a word of advice to you. Whatever this here says, even if it tells you where she's gone, think long and hard before you go running after her. Women like that, they don't want to be saved."
Merlin didn't like being told what to do by a man who hardly knew him, but then he didn't know Roslyn much better. The barkeep was probably just trying to pass on his experience to someone who didn't have much of his own, at least not in matters like this. Merlin gave a jerky nod. The man relinquished the note and went back to his work.
He drank a bit of the mead before he left, partly because he'd paid for it and was thirsty, but also because he was apprehensive about what was in the note and wanted to delay for a bit before he read it. He had a feeling it was going to be something final. He waited until he'd gotten outside before he broke the wax seal and opened the message.
Life is full of struggle and sorrow and pain, but every now and then, a bit of joy shines through. Thank you for being one of those moments of joy.
Blessings and peace,
He slowly refolded the parchment and put it in his pocket. The moon was full that night, so he didn't bother to stay in town. He walked home in the silvery, shadowy woods with a strange feeling in his chest that he didn't quite understand.
Merlin sighed and pulled his thoughts back to the present. He really had to get going before Arthur started looking for him. He'd probably end up in the stocks again if that happened, and he'd really hate to have all the washing he'd just completed undone so soon. Then again, the bathing part hadn't been so bad. Not to be repeated with the rosemary soap, though, he reminded himself. He went down to the market the next day and found some soap that smell of both mint and pine. Brisk and refreshing and nothing like rosemary.
Sometime later, more than a year after he'd arrived in Camelot, there was a woman who told him of her home, a village by a lake, surrounded by pine trees and tall mountains. Freya. He imagined there was mint growing wild in the grass alongside the flowers in that place.
He wondered if part of the reason why he made the spur-of-the-moment decision to help her was because she reminded him of Roslyn. But whereas Roslyn was free, so very, very free, and he doubted she needed anyone to save her, if she wanted to be saved at all, Freya was chained and caged and did need someone to set her free. She tried to dissuade him from helping her after that, but he knew in his heart she desperately needed someone to cling to just as much as he needed to believe there might be hope for both of them to share a future unafraid of what they were.
She told him his magic was beautiful, too. He gave her the rose Will had teased him about, but he had to substitute candle flames for a shower of stars. He wanted there to be stars. Oh, how he wanted that, gold around them and sparkling silver in the sky, shining down on the lake and the mountains and the cool, green grass. But it wasn't meant to be.
After he'd laid her to rest and the pain had dulled enough that it no longer hurt to breathe, he realized he finally understood what that feeling was, the day he'd left Atherton with Roslyn's note in his pocket. It was heartache, a slight pain at that time, really, because he hadn't any idea what he'd wanted and so couldn't really mourn for its loss.
With Freya, though, he'd known exactly what he so fervently desired, had pictured it perfectly in his mind and seen it reflected back to him in her eyes. And the pain that came afterwards wasn't an ache, but his heart truly breaking. It hurt so horribly that he wasn't sure he'd ever be the same. Life went on, of course. He was back to cleaning the prince's boots the next day.
He got rid of the mint and pine soap because, really, it would be ridiculous to end up crying every time he bathed. He found some that didn't smell of anything in particular, just a generally soapy kind of scent. Standing in the marketplace stall, he had the absurd notion that his future with women was somehow marked out by what had come from this place. There was rosemary – something comfortable and kind, but not really what he wanted, not romantically at least. Then there was mint and pine – nothing but loss and pain. Or there would be the sorts of relationships that were nothing particularly special, there and then gone.
"Are you going to buy that or just stand there looking gloomy all day?" The voice of the merchant woman startled him. She was a gruff sort, middle-aged and graying.
"Um, yes," he replied. "To the buying part, that is. Not the standing around looking gloomy bit." He handed over the soap so she could wrap it, paid her, then took his package and left without another word exchanged.
As he walked back to Gaius's quarters, he tried to focus on the positive things in his life. The sun was shining, Arthur had been in a good mood that morning, and no attacks on Camelot were imminent or underway. Really, he couldn't complain too much about his situation. As he'd once told Arthur when they were lying on the floor in his childhood home in Ealdor, he'd grown up with very little, contentment measured in basic needs like a roof over his head and food on the table. He had those things here in Camelot as well, but now there was so much more.
He had a purpose, some days simply as a servant and other days as something vastly more complicated and oftentimes dangerous, but with results far more rewarding than clean boots and scrubbed floors. He had people who cared about him in their varying ways – Gwen with her cheer and motherly concern, Gaius with his wisdom and guidance in matters of magic and destiny, Arthur with his bizarre sort of antagonistic friendship. He even had the hope that one day he wouldn't have to hide in the dark any longer, that he would be able to use his magic freely and not be feared or hated for it.
Once he reached his room, he set his purchase down on his desk but decided to forgo the washing up for the time being. His work since midday yesterday hadn't been particularly strenuous, just the usual sort of fetching and carrying, polishing armor and sharpening swords. He'd gotten surprisingly good at that last one.
He hadn't even been sent to muck out the stables today. That was no longer one of his daily tasks, not since he'd pointed out to Arthur that there were stable boys whose job it was to do such things. Arthur still made him do it when he was annoyed, but he'd been reasonably cheerful for the past couple of days. It made Merlin feel vaguely uneasy, but he supposed he should enjoy the respite while it lasted.
Since he was already in a reflective frame of mind, he opened the chest at the foot of his bed and rummaged around in it a bit before he found a canvas sack in which he kept a few treasured possessions. There wasn't much in it because most of what he owned was practical and had a specific purpose. He had little time or money for trinkets, but he had collected a few things that meant something only to him. He sat cross-legged on his bed and dumped the contents of the sack out in front of him.
There were letters from his mother, every one she'd written to him since he'd left Ealdor. There was also a smooth, golden-brown stone that he'd found when he was a child and had taken home to her. She'd told him it was amber and that he should keep it for luck.
There was a piece of the tattered dress Freya had been wearing when he'd released her from the cage. He'd washed it in the pine and mint soap because it had been dirty and foul, and he didn't want to remember her like that, cursed and crouched in fear. He pressed his face into the rough fabric and inhaled deeply, thinking of a sparkling lake and snowy mountains and a bed of ferns. He allowed himself just a moment with those memories because there was still so much pain that came with them.
He set the fabric aside and picked up the gold coin Will had given him so long ago, in the tavern in Atherton. He'd kept it because it reminded him of Roslyn, who'd told him his magic was beautiful and precious, worth much more than gold, and because it had been a gift from Will, who had known his secret and kept it and had died still keeping him safe.
Then there was the message Roslyn had left for him when she'd departed Atherton, somehow knowing that he would come back looking for her. He hadn't read it again since then, but now he opened it and looked at it with more mature eyes, ones that had seen so much in the intervening years. He was a different person now, in so many ways, and he found a meaning in the words he hadn't realized was there before.
Life is full of struggle and sorrow and pain, but every now and then, a bit of joy shines through.
He didn't know what she'd suffered in her life or what future she'd gone to after he'd met her, but now he understood that what she'd written to him was true for everyone, to a greater or lesser degree. There would always be struggle and sorrow and pain. But there was joy as well, blessings great and small that came into every life, no matter how humble or burdened or filled with misfortune.
He slowly put his mementoes back into the sack, but he set Roslyn's note aside. After he'd returned his other keepsakes to the trunk, he carefully folded the piece of parchment and slipped it into his pocket. He wanted to keep it and the thoughts it inspired near to him so he would always remember to look for the joy in life, to relish those moments when they came and appreciate them for their simple beauty. Afterwards, he'd keep the memories close, put them away for solace, and look towards the next bit of brightness, no matter how far off in the distance it may seem. In that way, he knew he'd never be lost in the dark. There would always be a bit of joy shining through.