Merlin sat on his narrow cot in the shabby room staring at the painting of his parents with tears in his eyes. That little drawing from their wedding was the only image he had left of them. It had been nearly eight years since his mum died when he was ten and Merlin still missed her every day. Hunith had been kind and warm and soft. She was the one person who had held Merlin when he was scared and cheered him up when he was upset. Now Merlin could barely remember the details of her, his mum's voice and smell and laugh.
A year after Hunith passed Balinor decided Merlin needed a motherly influence and married another woman. Her name was Nimueh and she had two daughters Merlin's age, Vivian and Sophia. Merlin was happy for a few years though he secretly thought his new stepsisters were vain and snobbish. Then when he was thirteen, Balinor was killed during a bandit raid on the way back to their little chateau.
Nimueh's demeanor entirely changed. She became cold and nasty once her husband was gone. Vivian and Sophia were treated like princesses while Merlin became the household servant. He worked all day cleaning and cooking before eating a few burnt scraps and sleeping in his little corner. Anyone in the village could have told you that Merlin used to be a vivacious, clever boy with a bounce in his step and a bright smile on his face. A few years later, the cheeky and cheerful boy was quiet and distant. His beautiful blue eyes had a dull sheen and dark rings underneath. Nobody had heard his lovely tinkling laugh in ages. The coltish charm and fiery spirit had been broken.
"Boy! Polish the banisters and dust the mantle and beat the rug and mop the floors." Nimueh's shrill voice called.
"Now boy!" Nimueh sounded closer, louder.
Merlin jumped up and tucked the painting safely under his threadbare mattress. He met his stepmother at the stair. She was brandishing her favorite cane.
"Boy what did I tell you? You are an incompetent, useless fool!" She smacked Merlin on the back of his knees. "Let's go you idiot!"
Merlin hastened down the stairs, escaping as quickly as possible. He tripped over a few steps to Nimueh's echoing laughter from above.
A few hours later, Merlin was addressed again. "Boy, we're going out."
"Why?" They were probably going to buy trinkets with his father's hard earned money.
Nimueh narrowed her eyes. "What was that?" she asked in her iciest tone.
"Well if you must know you simpleton. The girls and I are going to get dresses made for the upcoming Camelot ball." Sophia and Vivian swept out of the house haughtily after their mother, sniffing derisively when they passed Merlin.
Merlin had seen the invitation earlier. It had said, all residents, but it was too much for him to hope to be allowed to go. Maybe he'd bring it up when his stepmother was in a better mood.
Once he was sure Nimueh was gone, Merlin slipped out of the house to find his only friend, Will. The rest of his mates ignored him once he wasn't allowed out of the house to play anymore and all the other boys thought Merlin was strange. They mocked his ears and awkward, gangly limbs, and the way the dirty rags he wore hung off his thin frame. Only Will stuck with him, patiently listening to Merlin's problems and accepting his erratic schedule. Merlin told Will everything. About missing his parents and hating his awful new stepfamily. About how the village boys teased him and the girls only looked at him with disdain. Will even knew about Merlin's magic. Merlin could levitate objects and start fires but his favorite part of being a warlock was the animals. When he was about five years old, he realized no one else could understand what the old horse in the stable was feeling or what the frantic hens in the coop were chattering about. Merlin could talk to birds and squirrels and even the tomcat they kept for catching mice.
Once Merlin snuck out the back door a sparrow alighted on his shoulder.
"Hello Freya, how are you?"
Merlin! I haven't seen you in days!
"Nimueh hasn't let me out in days."
That witch! If you'd just let me defecate in her hair, just once!
"As much as I would enjoy that, you shouldn't. I'd probably end up cleaning it any ways."
Merlin! A pair of rabbits and a squirrel darted out from behind a house. By the time Merlin arrived at Will's house, he had an entourage of little forest animals.
Will was sitting on the back step holding two pastries his mum had made. He stood up and grinned when he saw his friend. "I saw the hag leave with the two harpies."
"Good thing too. I haven't been out in a week. I was about to forge a letter to get her out but Geoffrey of Monmouth did it for me."
Will snorted. "You got one of those invitations too?"
"Why, are you going?"
"Obviously not. Your father was an aristocrat at Camelot. My father was a soldier in Essetir. We don't get invited to rubbish like that."
Merlin frowned. "I wish I could go."
"I bet it's not all that. Royals are all pompous arses as far as I'm concerned."
"It's not that. I want to see where my father worked, you know? I'd feel closer to him if I went to Camelot. I want to see the places he's been and meet the people he knew and hear about the things he did."
Will gave him a sympathetic look. "Merls, you deserve so much more than this. Between me and your magic, we'll get you to that ball."
He brightened. "Really Will? You'd do that for me?"
"Of course. Just get some of your bird friends to give me a hand and we can figure something out-"
Before he could finish, Merlin smashed into him with a hug that knocked his breath out. "Thank you Will!"
"All right, get off, you're smothering me," Will mumbled gruffly.
Merlin beamed at him. Will sighed. He would do anything to see that expression on his friend's face more often. Merlin looked so weary and tired now and he was only sixteen.
"I've got to go back now Will but you don't know how much this means to me." He hugged Will again quickly and disappeared with his travelling animal sideshow.
Merlin beat his stepfamily home by only half an hour. They came trooping in with expensive dresses and jewels and new shoes.
"Boy. Take this upstairs." Vivian commanded. Merlin sneered at her but took the dresses all the same. Before he left, he stopped in front of his stepmother.
"Ma'am I have a question."
Nimueh turned to him slowly. "I'm listening."
"I noticed the invitation to the ball is addressed to all residents."
"Did you now, you nosing, sniveling-"
Nimueh put a hand up to stop her daughter. "Continue."
Merlin shifted his weight nervously. "I was wondering if I could be allowed to attend as well."
Everybody froze and stared at him. Merlin fidgeted and cursed himself. He should have just kept his head down and his mouth shut. How could he have been so stupid? He-
"You may go."
His head snapped up. "Ma'am?" he asked uncertainly. Merlin was certain he had heard that wrong.
"You may go as long as your chores are done and you have something suitable to wear."
"You can't really be-" Sophia protested.
"Thank you ma'am! Thank you!" Merlin clutched the dresses and raced upstairs.
"Boy, lace up my dress." Sophia ordered imperiously.
"Boy, tie my sash." Vivian demanded.
Merlin was kept busy for the entire day like this, running between the sisters while trying to get his tasks done. By the afternoon, Merlin had finished his chores and the girls were ready. He ran up the stairs to find an outfit laid out on his bed.
It was simple, brown trousers, a blue shirt and red neckerchief. Merlin pulled them on with excitement, marveling at the soft, clean feel of it. He hadn't had new clothes for years.
"Thank you Will," he whispered as he dashed out of his room.
Nimueh looked up as he joined them. She raised a brow at his attire but said nothing. Vivian and Sophia however snickered.
"You do know that it's a masquerade ball right?"
Merlin's face fell but he quickly covered it up. "Indubitably Miss."
"Come along, the horses are waiting." Nimueh led the way to the stables. Along the way Sophia stuck out her elaborate staff and tripped Merlin. He fell directly into a mud puddle, ruining his new clothes.
"Oh sorry, didn't mean to trip you." Sophia smirked at him.
"Look at the time, we must be going." Nimueh glanced at Merlin coldly. "I'm afraid we can't afford to wait around."
The sisters triumphantly boarded the coach and set off. Merlin was still sitting on ground shaking. He let out a frustrated cry and tore off to the gardens with sobs wracking his body. Stupid stupid Merlin. Did he really think he could go to the ball? Stupid clumsy useless Merlin with his stupid ears and stupid clothes. He would never get to see Camelot.
Ah young warlock.
Merlin ignored it. Was he crazy now too?
Young warlock dry your tears and get up.
Merlin, I am trying to help you go to your ball and meet destiny so if you would please look at me.
Merlin frowned and looked around. This hallucination was pushy.
Then he saw it. How in the world did he miss it before? That massive statue of a dragon that his father had placed in the garden was looking at him. The statue chuckled and tossed its head.
Well do you want to go to Camelot or not?
"Yes, yes of course! But how? It's too late."
The dragon laughed again. Come here young warlock.
Merlin obliged him. The dragon's eyes turned gold and he puffed out a strange pearly cloud over Merlin.
When he looked down he was wearing a midnight blue tunic with silver trim with black breeches. Merlin examined the elaborate mask that appeared in his hand. It was a silver, snarling head of a dragon.
"I don't think a dragon is an appropriate mask for me. I am nothing like you. You're powerful and majestic, I'm none of that."
The dragon studied Merlin intently. It is unquestionably appropriate. You are a dragonlord after all.
"A what? No, I think you got the wrong person."
There is no right or wrong there is just what is and isn't. And dragons are never wrong. You are a dragonlord as was your father and his father before him. I must obey you for we are kin.
Merlin's brow creased. "Why didn't my father tell me this?"
He was going to, trust me. But he didn't foresee dying before that time came. And as much as I would enjoy discussing this, you have a ball to attend. So get on my back.
"Get on your back? Are you out of your mind?"
I assure you it is quite safe young warlock.
"Fine but stop calling me that."
Merlin cautiously approached the dragon. He awkwardly clambered on using the help of marble spikes and scales. And suddenly they were moving. The marble wings flapped and strong legs pushed off from the ground. Merlin had no idea how such a heavy statue was staying aloft, much less moving at such a fast speed. In no time, Merlin could see the lit outline of Camelot. Up close the castle was gigantic and magnificent. Merlin took in the turrets and battlements, banners and lights. People and horses were crowding the main streets as visitors flooded in. The dragon, who Merlin learned was named Kilgharrah, dropped him off in a nearby field. He turned a random mouse into a mount wearing blue and silver livery to match Merlin.
The enchantment will wear off by midnight. Make sure you leave before then.
"Thank you Kilgharrah." Merlin called.
Destiny awaits. And he departed with that cryptic remark.
Merlin hopped onto the mouse-turned-horse and set off towards Camelot.
Arthur plastered a fake smile on his face as he prepared to meet the guests. Uther no doubt planned to parade every available maiden in the hope of finding the future queen. His father was obsessed with finding Arthur a bride so he could have an heir. So he had planned this ridiculous ball. Too bad everyone was wearing masks and Arthur couldn't see anybody's face. Arthur himself was wearing a red embroidered jacket with a golden mask. The mask was shaped like his family's emblem, a dragon.
Once he entered the ballroom, Arthur was assaulted by wave after wave of insipid, simpering girls who clung to him like leeches. What they didn't understand was that no amount of cleavage flashing or hair tossing would catch the prince's attention. This was because Arthur Pendragon unquestionably liked men.
There were many young men present but none felt right at all. Until a mysterious stranger slipped in at half past eight.
He was a slender young man with pale, radiant skin contrasting with his dark hair and attire. Something about him drew Arthur in. He felt the urge to meet him and talk to him and touch him-
Gods what was wrong with Arthur today? He was only there to fulfill his role as dutiful prince. He would entertain the noblewomen for a while and dance when need be then hopefully retire early.
However all of those plans slipped right out of his head when Arthur caught sight of the stranger again. He was trying to politely fend off a strawberry blonde who was trying to twine herself around him.
Arthur didn't know what made him do it. He strode up to the girl and tapped her on the shoulder.
"If you would excuse me, I need to speak with this young man here." she immediately recognized the prince and melted away pretty quickly.
"Thanks mate." Merlin smiled at his savior, a well-built blond man with broad shoulders and a chiseled jaw.
"I'm Merlin." He held out his hand.
Arthur shook it. "I'm Arthur." The man didn't react. Arthur sighed with relief; he must not be from around here. "Fancy a walk in the gardens? I think I've done enough dancing to last me for a while."
Merlin grinned again. "Why not."
Arthur glanced at him sidelong when they stepped outside. In the moonlight, Merlin looked ethereal. His mask covered the top of his face but Arthur could see striking cheekbones that glowed in the dim light and a set of full pink lips. Through the mask's serpentine eyes, a pair of luminous, startlingly azure eyes was visible.
Arthur found this mysterious man easy to talk to. He had an arresting smile and even more disarming laugh. Conversation flowed easily through the night.
Suddenly Arthur stopped. They had walked around the gardens hundreds of times by now. He turned to Merlin while they were behind a rose bush.
Arthur leaned closer to him. "I'm going to kiss you now Merlin."
Merlin bridged the gap between them and pressed his mouth to Arthur's. It was intoxicating. Arthur molded his lips to Merlin's, gently nipping and licking into his mouth. He slid the hand cupping Merlin's face up to the mask, wanting to see who he really was.
Suddenly the bell began to chime midnight. Merlin broke away with a gasp. "I'm sorry but I need to go. This was amazing. I'm really, really sorry Arthur." He pecked Arthur's lips one last time and fled from the gardens. Arthur stared after his retreating figure in shock and touched his tingling lips. Of all the people he had ever been with, nothing had ever felt so irresistible, so right, as being with Merlin. Arthur knew he had to see him again.
Merlin dashed out of the castle as the bells finished ringing. The horse returned to a mouse with a frightened squeak and his clothes returned to their mud stained state. He made his way to the field hoping Kilgharrah was there to take him home.
Arthur ran out after Merlin, but he was gone. On the ground however was his mask that he must have dropped in his haste. Arthur picked up the silver mask and tucked it into his pocket.
As Merlin replayed the evening over and over, the smile on his face spread wider and wider. Not even his stepfamily's caustic remarks and jibes could put a damper on his mood.
Sophia sighed dramatically. "The way Prince Arthur looked at me. I know we're in love."
"He only looked at you because you nearly drowned him when you spilt your wine on him."
Sophia flushed. "Well it's more than you can say."
"I would have caught his attention if it weren't for that good for nothing dragon boy who was with the prince all night."
"Ooh but he was quite the looker wasn't he?"
Merlin hastily left the room before his blush could give him away. If only they knew. So Arthur was a prince now. Merlin's stomach gave a little flutter. He had kissed he Crown Prince of Camelot!
Arthur was standing in the throne room the next morning listening to his parents describe their success last night.
"Arthur where were you all night? I saw you leave with that fetching young man and you never came back." Ygraine asked curiously.
"Ah yes mother, I wasn't feeling the best so I turned in after midnight."
"And did anybody catch your eye?"
"Yes there was someone."
"Do tell me. Who is she?"
Arthur swallowed uncomfortably. "It's a he."
Uther's eyebrows rose to dangerous heights. "The silver dragon from last night?"
"You do realize I need a heir-"
His wife cut him off. "Do you love him, Arthur?"
Uther spluttered. "You just met him last night. How can you love him?"
"Then don't deny me the chance to find out."
Uther sighed and gave in to his wife's pointed glares and Arthur's hopeful expression.
"Now Arthur dear, does your young man have a name?" Ygraine looked at him expectantly.
"Uther, didn't Balinor have a son named Merlin?"
The king made a noncommittal noise.
"Yes I do recall he did. That's a respectable family, shame we lost Bal so soon."
"Do you know where he lives, mother?"
"A few hours from here, just outside Ealdor. They live in this lovely manor in the forest."
Arthur turned to leave before remembering himself. "Am I dismissed?"
"Yes I suppose." Uther scowled.
Arthur just about ran from the room, calling Leon and a few of his knights to accompany him.
Merlin was scrubbing the floor then there was a knock on the door announcing the Prince of Camelot. He rose to get the door but Nimueh grabbed him by the collar and threw him into the pantry, then locking the door. Through the crack in the door he heard Arthur's voice asking for Merlin.
"I'm afraid we don't have a Merlin living here but I do have two beautiful daughters. Surely you remember my Sophia and Vivian from last night."
Merlin could hear them getting steered into the sitting room and being plied with tea and biscuits. He frowned; they probably shouldn't be eating those. Nimueh probably spiked them with sleeping potion or something worse.
"Oh hullo Matthew."
The little mouse crawled onto his leg. I can sneak out and try to get you the key.
"Thanks but she probably locked it with magic. I don't remember there being a lock on the pantry."
Then use your magic.
"Nimueh's too powerful, I'll never be able to break out."
Try Merlin, don't you want to see your prince?
Merlin shut his eyes and felt the power bubbling beneath his skin. He directed it at the lock, feeling the magic flare behind his eyes. The entire door blew off its hinges with a crash. Oops.
He leapt over the door and headed to the hall where the knights were preparing to leave.
"Merlin?" The prince took in the raggedy figure covered in dust.
Nimueh gave a shriek of outrage and sent a ball of fire at Merlin. It caught him just below the ribs and knocked him over. How it burned, the pain was excruciating.
"Merlin!" All the knights pulled their swords out.
Fury built in Merlin like a wave. The past five years of cruelty and frustration rose to his fingertips. The sky flashed and thundered. A bolt of lightning split the ceiling, incinerating Nimueh on the spot. Sophia and Vivian whimpered and clutched each other, while cowering in the corner. With a wave of his hand, Merlin fixed the ceiling and collapsed on the ground.
"Merlin. Merlin stay with me. Can you hear me Merlin?" His vision blurred but he could see Arthur kneeling at his side, cradling his head.
"Arthur." Merlin whispered, bringing a hand up to caress his face.
"I'm here Merlin."
"You aren't afraid of me?"
"No, of course not."
"You should be." Merlin said bitterly. "Just look at me. I'm a monster."
"You aren't. You're beautiful and powerful and I love how your eyes look when you do magic."
Merlin shuddered and clung to Arthur, tears streaking down his face. Arthur scooped him up, alarmed at how light and bony he was. Merlin had clearly been overworked and malnourished. When he finally fell asleep, Arthur gazed at his unguarded, youthful face. Merlin looked so drained, the harsh years had stolen the innocence away from him. Arthur felt an overwhelming desire to protect him from all harm, to make sure he was safe and happy. Those skinny shoulders had carried too heavy a burden for too long. Arthur couldn't imagine what it must have been like growing up an orphan with an abusive stepmother, a slave in his own house. He dropped a kiss on Merlin's forehead and tucked the boy close to his body.
"Take the two girls, we're going back to Camelot."
Merlin woke up in a cloud soft bed with red curtains. Arthur sat next to him, petting his hair tenderly.
"Good morning dearest."
Merlin snorted. "Good morning sweetheart."
Arthur pulled a face. "Never mind, no more pet names."
"So where am I?"
"In my bed."
"And how did I get here?"
"I brought you here."
"Huh. I never said good bye to Will or the dragon or the animals in the forest."
Arthur coughed. "I don't know about this Will or your dragon but the animals followed us here."
Merlin sat up. Sitting on every available surface were his forest friends. He laughed and sunk back into the pillows. "So what happens now?'
"I want you to meet my parents."
"You mean like the king and queen?"
"Yes, they would be my parents."
Merlin gulped. "Can I decline your offer?"
"Ugh. You prat."
"Hey, I haven't said anything mean," Arthur objected.
"Not yet. I can tell you're one of those arrogant bullies who think they own the place."
"Um Merlin, I do own the place. I'm kind of the prince."
"Exactly my point."
"You're an idiot." Arthur ruffled his hair.
Merlin froze. He could hear his stepmother's voice echoing in his head.
Arthur stopped and pulled Merlin into his arms. "I didn't mean it like that." He looked at Merlin with a worried expression.
"You're a dollophead."
"Yes, and a clotpole."
"You can't just go about making up words, you know."
"Sure I can."
Arthur shook his head. "You are ridiculous."
"But you love it."
He pulled Merlin closer. "I do," Arthur said in a soft voice.
"I love you Arthur."
Arthur knew it was absurd but after only twenty-four hours, he felt exactly the same. "I love you too Merlin." Then, "Hey Merlin. Will you marry me?"
Merlin turned in his arms and gaped at him.
The prince raised an eyebrow. "Should I get on one knee?"
"No, no. But are you sure? It's a bit early, yeah? And I'm just a pasty twig who has magic and well, you're the golden prince."
"Merlin. Stop that. You are perfect and you are the only one for me. It's like we're destined to be together."
Merlin chortled. "Destiny huh? I guess the dragon was right."
"I'm not even going to ask you about that. So what will it be? Are you trying to stand up the Prince of Camelot?"
"Yes, of course I will marry you!" Merlin dragged Arthur on top of him and kissed him breathless.
The prince is twitterpated with our Merlin! Freya giggled and promptly fell into the washbasin. The other birds on the windowsill sniggered.
Merlin disentangled himself from his fiancé and fished Freya from the basin. "Weren't you saying something about meeting your parents?"
"My betrothed cannot meet my father dressed like that."
Merlin bit his lip and concentrated. His rags were replaced with a similar outfit to what he was wearing the night before sans mask.
"Hm. Blue is nice but I'd like to see you in red."
"Fine princess." Merlin waved his hand again and he was wearing a deep red jacket over a black shirt.
"I resent that. But you look nice."
"Thank you Arthur, I'm sure I do."
Arthur elbowed him and proceeded to drag him to the throne room.
"I now pronounce you Merlin, Prince Consort of Camelot." Geoffrey of Monmouth set the gleaming gold coronet on Merlin's head to thunderous applause. Arthur gave him a fleeting kiss and turned to the crowd. Merlin could see Freya fluttering and chirping around the high ceiling. Ygraine sat on her throne bursting with pride. Next to her, Uther regarded his people regally, but he was happy in his own way too. Near the back of the room, Vivian and Sophia stood in the standard livery of Camelot servants looking green with envy. Merlin couldn't stop grinning. This was the beginning of destiny.
And they lived happily ever after. (Except for Nimueh, she's dead.) The End.