Word count: ~3,100
Warnings/Spoilers: None that I'm aware of
Author's Notes: For thisissirius, because she wrote me a snippet for Christmas and I didn't get her a birthday present.
Summary: It was a dark and wintry night… A young peasant has to deal with a black knight, a wounded boy, a gift he mustn't use, and someone who might well be the Crown Prince of Camelot. Oh, and his goats keep running off.
In a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy.
Snow had been falling the whole day, and the wind had been picking up steadily. It was near nightfall, and Ulfyn's father had told him out to get the goats into the shed lest they get lost and freeze to death in the dark. Ulfyn blew into his hands to warm his aching fingers, then he reached for the rope of hemp tied around Neera's neck. She was barely a year old, the very first goat he could call his own, and she bleated at him as he dragged her to safety.
"Come on," he said, and pulled harder. His father would have his hide if anything wasn't in perfect order when he came back.
Darkness was falling quickly now, and he was just about to drop the hatch in front of the shed door when a noise made him turn around. For a moment, he saw nothing, then the shape of a tall, dark horse appeared out of the violently swirling snow. The noise had been its hoof beats.
Ulfyn dared hardly breathe when the horse came to a halt in front of him, a white gust of warm air hitting his face as it snorted. He stood, his back pressed against the door, the fingers of his right hand still tightened around the hatch.
"Is your father home, boy?"
Ulfyn's gaze jerked up to the horse's rider, a tall man in black armour who had wrapped a heavy scarf around his face and neck, a hood covering his hair. Only his eyes were visible, dark and glinting and without humour.
He didn't need to see the sword at the man's side to know trouble when it spoke to him.
"No, Sir Knight," he said, quickly ducking his head and trying to force his stubborn body into a bow. For a moment, he imagined his poor mother, and what she might say when she came home to find him slain in the snow. Strangely enough, the fear made him brave enough to rasp out his next words. "My parents both went into town. They won't be back before tomorrow. Please, Sir, if you seek shelter for the night you have it." But please don't kill me, he didn't dare add.
"I shall take you at your word, boy," the knight said, and swung himself off his horse. "Here, open your barn. I want to get my horse out of this cold."
Nodding, Ulfyn fumbled the door open again, and the knight led his horse inside. His gaze swept over the four goats, the wilted hay, the few tools that had remained unbroken this year. Ulfyn imagined he could feel the knight's contempt.
"It will do," the man said finally, dropping the horse's reins into Ulfyn's hands. The he took what Ulfyn had thought was a bedroll thrown across the saddle, and threw it none-too-gently into the hay.
It wasn't a bedroll at all. It was a boy, no more than five or six years older than Ulfyn himself. He was unconscious.
"See to it he doesn't die," the knight ordered, striding toward the door. "I will make myself at home."
The door slammed shut, and a moment later, the hatch dropped into place. Ulfyn was alone with the horse, and the goats, and the boy.
The horse was taken care of easily enough and the goats required little attention as well, so Ulfyn lit the lamp by the door with fingers that were still red and stiff from the cold, and turned toward the boy.
He was tall, with dark hair and a pale face, and his clothes were wet from the snow. His eyes were closed, and his shirt was dark with more than water where it covered his right side. Ulfyn lifted it, and gasped. A nasty wound ran from the boy's side over most of his belly, seeping blood and pus. Its edges were nearly black, red streaks running out from it like vines searching for a place to take root. The skin was hot when Ulfyn touched it. The boy let out a slight moan, but he didn't move.
"'See to it he doesn't die,'" Ulfyn repeated with a shake of his head. In the dim light of the lamp, the boy's cheeks looked hollow. "Like I can perform miracles?"
He fingers twitched with the urge to touch again, so he let the shirt drop back into place and stood. There ought to be… ah, yes. There.
The barrel was opened easily enough, the sweet-tangy scent of apples prickling in Ulfyn's nose. He picked one from the top, checked for mould and couldn't find any, and bit into the fruit. The goats pressed in against him and even the horse perked up, clearly after a treat themselves. Ulfyn shooed them away. The apple tasted a little too sweet and not quite as juicy as he'd have wished it to be, but he was hungry and likely to spend the whole night there in the shed, so he didn't much care.
He chanced another look at the boy, taking another bite and chewing it thoroughly. The boy was twitching in his sleep, brows knitted together in an expression of pain, or maybe worry. His breath was shallow. He had to be near death, for certain.
"Arthur," he said suddenly, his voice so clear that Ulfyn dropped his apple from the shock. Neera immediately seized it and began to crunch on it contentedly. "Arthur," again, this time a fading whisper as whatever strength the boy had mustered seeped out of him.
Was Arthur the knight? Ulfyn didn't think it was. Surely the boy would have sounded scared then, but he hadn't. Instead, he'd sounded almost… lost.
Ulfyn pressed his lips together. You must not, his mother had told him, and his father had given weight to her order with some well-placed blows. Ulfyn hadn't dared disobey. Perhaps he couldn't even do it anymore.
He knelt down next to the boy, raising the shirt with shaking fingers. The wound looked every bit as bad as before, sending out heat and an unpleasant smell that reminded him of the dead animals he sometimes found in the woods. His fingers trailed the edge of the wound and the boy gasped again, but this time, Ulfyn paid him no heed.
"Ic beodan," he whispered, the words coming unbidden, "haelan hine." A faint glow seemed to light the skin beneath his hand, and he whispered the words again, and again, over and over until they were but a litany, circling in the air between him and the boy, carrying forbidden power. He couldn't have said how he knew those words, just that they'd always been there to do his bidding.
Then the words wouldn't come anymore, and Ulfyn opened eyes he didn't remember closing, and looked down.
The wound in the boy's side was but a scar, red and puckered, but with the skin around it whole and pale. He sighed with both tiredness and relief, and sank back on his haunches to look at the boy's face.
Blue eyes were looking back at him.
"What did you do?" the boy breathed, but before Ulfyn could even begin to try and stammer out an answer, the boy's eyes had drifted shut again.
Ulfyn dropped the shirt and hastened to get away from the boy, his heart pounding in his throat. He settled against the far wall, where he could watch his charge yet stay well out of reach. Neera lay down next to him, and he gladly shared her warmth.
This promised to be a long night.
He woke to the uncomfortable feeling of Lenn poking him between the ribs. He shoved her away and turned to bury his nose in Neera's coarse fur, but she bleated softly and poked him again. Ulfyn huffed out an irritated breath, yawned, and stretched his arms and legs. Then he got up and threw each of the goats an apple before choosing two for the horse and himself.
The boy was watching him. Ulfyn froze, staring straight into the boy's fever-glazed eyes.
"I…" He swallowed. "Do you want an apple?"
It was quite possibly the stupidest thing he'd ever said, but the boy just gave him a brief smile and shook his head.
"No," he rasped, "I'm not hungry, thank you." There were bright spots of red high on his ashen cheeks.
"I don't have any water," Ulfyn said helplessly.
"That's alright." The boy closed his eyes. The lamp had gone out some time during the night. In the dim early morning light of the shed, he looked already dead. "It wouldn't have done me much good, anyway."
Outside, heavy footsteps crunched on the snow.
"Keep your eyes closed, and don't move," Ulfyn whispered hurriedly, and then he scrambled away from the door as the hatch was lifted and the door kicked open. The black knight appeared in the doorway like a malicious apparition from one of Aunt Gertha's faerie tales, already shrouded in his hood and scarf. Ulfyn's heart was racing as if he'd just run to the village and back.
The knight strode through the shed with barely a look for him, stopping only when he'd reached the boy. He nudged his leg with his boot, but the boy didn't move.
"He… he's dead, Sir Knight," Ulfyn stuttered, feeling the colour drain from his cheeks when the knight turned to look at him. The knight's eyes were so cold they almost seemed empty, except for the anger simmering deep down.
"I told you to take care of him."
Ulfyn swallowed. His mouth had never been so dry. "I tried. I… I really did, but his wound was too grave and, and he died. I'm," he took a quick breath, "I'm sorry."
The knight looked down at the boy again. He nudged him with his boot, then suddenly kicked him in the side, hard, right where the wound had been. Ulfyn gasped, staring wide-eyed, but the boy still didn't move.
Maybe he really was dead.
The knight made a small noise of disgust. He walked past Ulfyn with a few long strides and reached for his horse's reins, pulling it outside without another word. Moments later, Ulfyn heard him galloping away, the hoof beats muted by the snow.
"That hurt," the boy croaked, his eyes still closed, and Ulfyn nearly fainted from relief.
"Saints," he breathed. "How are you- No, wait, don't talk. Let me fetch you some water."
He hurried out of the shed and toward the house, uncaring that behind him the goats merrily trotted out into the snow. The air was clear but cold, and already his nose was starting to run. He'd catch the blasted beasts again later, right now he had more important things to-
The sound of hooves on snow made him flinch. He took a few steps back toward the shed, intent on warning the boy that the black knight had returned, but then he realised that the noise was coming from the wrong direction.
A brown horse came galloping down the barely visible road, from the same direction the black knight had appeared the night before. Its rider was bent low over its neck, urging it to pay no heed to the snow shifting beneath its hooves, kicking it to go faster, faster. The horse approached, so swift it seemed to fly along the road, kicking up snow and dirt as it thundered past the stunned Ulfyn.
Later, he would wonder what had possessed him.
"Arthur!" he yelled, already running after the horse before he'd made the decision to do so, "Arthur!"
For a moment, it seemed like the rider hadn't heard him. But then Ulfyn saw him straighten and yank on the reins. The horse reared up, but the rider sat sure and calm in the saddle, patting the beast's neck as he pushed it into a trot back to where Ulfyn stood on the road, frozen.
"What do you want?" the rider asked harshly. Sweaty strands of dark blond hair hung into his pale face, and he brushed them away. "Speak up, I don't have much time."
"I… that is… in the shed," Ulfyn stuttered, "there's a boy in the shed. He was calling for you. I mean… that's… if you're Arthur?" he added, belatedly realising that while the rider had stopped, he hadn't really introduced himself.
"A boy in the shed?" the rider – Arthur? – asked with obvious exasperation. Ulfyn's heart beat faster. A sword was hanging at the rider's side, and the sheath looked fine enough for the blade to be well-kept. "What do I have to do with a -"
He broke off and his eyes widened. "Take me to him!" he ordered, already jumping off the horse, and when Ulfyn stared at him, he waved impatiently. "Come on, boy, show me."
"I… yes. Sir." Ulfyn hurried back to the shed, Arthur's quick footsteps crunching on the snow close behind him. Ulfyn opened the door, creating a square of light around the boy on the ground… and then he stumbled as Arthur pushed past him.
"Merlin!" He cursed and dropped to his knees next to the boy. "You…" He let out a breath as the boy's eyes fluttered open, schooling his features from concern into something more approaching disdain. "You are a useless idiot."
The boy – Merlin – smiled. "And yet you came for me," he said hoarsely, his voice weak but satisfied.
Arthur snorted. "Of course I did. I'd be hard pressed to find another servant as entertaining as you. I never know what you'll do next."
"Let myself be pampered by… Gaius and sleep for a fortnight… I hope," Merlin managed, and let his eyes slip shut again.
A strange expression flickered across Arthur's face; a mixture of fear, exasperation and affection. His gloved hand reached for Merlin's bare one, and their fingers entwined as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Ulfyn looked away, so he couldn't say if they kissed. From the sounds, he was fairly sure they did. He glanced at the floor and kicked at a few stray stalks of hay, his cheeks burning with embarrassment for their sake.
"Come on then," he heard Arthur say after a moment, "let's get you back to Camelot."
Camelot. Ulfyn's heart picked up its pace. Everyone knew about Camelot. They said it was a beautiful place, peaceful and clean and its people never suffering from hunger. He would much like to see it, some day. And now these two said they lived there. How lucky they must be. And how brave of Arthur, to venture from the safety of its walls in search of his servant. Although what a knight would snatch another knight's servant for, Ulfyn couldn't imagine. Camelot had to be an odd place, then. Or perhaps Merlin was more than just a servant, and Arthur was speaking in jest.
"That would be nice." Merlin's voice dropped to a hiss on the last word as Arthur pulled him to his feet. He glowered. "Though perhaps in one piece, not two."
"Now, don't be a baby, Merlin," Arthur said cheerfully, but Ulfyn noticed that his grip had gentled. "Hey, boy. Fetch me my horse, will you?"
Ulfyn nodded, and ran to get the horse. It was standing by the main house, where it had started to gnaw on a corner of the low thatch roof. Ulfyn grabbed the reins, careful not to get any dirt on the fine red leather, and trotted back to the shed.
"-can't just go riding about like this," Merlin was saying as he and Arthur stepped through the door and into the snow. His voice sounded stronger already. Arthur must have given him something to drink from the waterskin at his side "If something happened to you, your father would wage war on these people."
"I knew the risk, Merlin," Arthur replied, nodding at Ulfyn to hold the reins while he helped Merlin into the saddle. "Would you prefer to spend the rest of your life in some Mercian dungeon? Your very short life, I might add."
"I would, if it meant keeping you safe," Merlin said hotly, his eyes bright with more than fever. "I don't know why you have to be such an-"
"Merlin," Arthur interrupted him, "I knew the risk." He stressed each word, giving it a second meaning Ulfyn couldn't quite grasp. But Merlin seemed to understand just fine.
"And you took it anyway," he said quietly.
"I took it anyway." Arthur grinned up at him, a strangely soft expression, and Merlin smiled back. Then Arthur swung himself on the horse and took the reins from Ulfyn's hand.
"I owe you thanks, boy," he said, the horse prancing impatiently beneath him. "You've done me a great service."
"I… it was nothing," Ulfyn stuttered. "Honestly, I haven't done anything. Sire," he added, because suddenly, it would seem that Camelot and war-waging fathers added up to the Crown Prince. Even Ulfyn had heard of Arthur, Prince of Camelot, Leader of the Knights.
Saints. And he'd used magic on his servant.
He dropped to his knees.
"Don't be silly," the Prince said. Moments later, something landed in front of Ulfyn with a heavy 'clink'. It was a small pouch, half-disappearing in the snow. "Here, take this as a token of my gratitude. Buy yourself…" he faltered, then picked up again as if there had been no pause at all, "a new goat or… something."
"Yes, Sire." Ulfyn nodded, and picked up the pouch. It felt heavy with coins. "Thank you, Sire."
"Thank you, Ulfyn," Merlin said softly, and then the Prince turned his horse around and they trotted off, leaving deep hoof-prints in the fresh snow.
Ulfyn stared after them until they were out of sight. He weighed the pouch in his hands, and looked up at the cloudless sky. A small falcon circled overhead.
He had no idea how idea how to explain all this to his parents, but… maybe from now on, he would train himself in more than just the art of farming. Maybe, just maybe…
He was meant for something greater.