"Happy Christmas, Uncle Merlin!"
Christmas morning dawned bright and early. The winter months spent in the guest tower would have been freezing if not for some of Merlin’s enchanted fire, which made the place feel almost like their cottage in the country. Nevertheless it wasn’t exactly the same and Belle found herself missing their old home terribly. Still, she did her best to be cheerful and woke up early on Christmas morning to gather her presents for Merlin, Archimedes and Arthur from the trunk under her bed where she had hidden them.
“Happy Christmas, Uncle Merlin!” she smiled, brightly when he was awake. “Happy Christmas, Archie!”
“Eh? Who? What, what?” asked Archimedes who was not yet fully awake.
Merlin chuckled. “Happy Christmas, Belle, my girl! Now, how about a spot of Christmas cocoa, hm?”
Belle had always loved Christmas. Sometimes the lake not far from their cottage froze over and that was where Merlin had taught her to skate. He had also taught her to ski and toboggan down the hill – which was much more fun after a snowstorm – and they had had snowball fights and built snowmen together. Nowadays, of course, she was too old for snowmen but she still like to go out and skate and have a snowball fight.
Now as she opened the shutters, Belle smiled down at the blanket of snow swept across the land, and wondered what Arthur, Ector and Kay would be having for Christmas breakfast.
Belle had made Uncle Merlin a scarf, like Arthur’s, only in blue, and she had managed to knit a teeny brown one for Archimedes. She received, in return, a book from Archimedes, though she suspected that her uncle had been the one to obtain it, and a brand new cloak, which was just as well, since her last one was wearing thin.
They had crumpets for Christmas breakfast. Merlin had let Arthur off lessons for today, due to it being Christmas, but Belle hoped they’d see him later in the day so she could give him his present. At lunchtime, Merlin conjured a great feast of roast turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, potatoes, vegetables, gravy, mince pies, shortbread cookies, Christmas pudding with custard and mulled wine. Archimedes pecked at a plate containing a tiny portion of everything. Then they went skating on the frozen moat until it started to get dark and went back inside for some more cocoa and some soup for supper.
Arthur came bursting through the door just as they were finishing, dressed in an enormous red tunic, clearly built for someone larger than him. “Merlin! Belle! Look! I’m a squire!”
Merlin immediately scowled, bitterly, in his direction. Belle, on the other hand, beamed at him. “So, Ector changed his mind?”
“Hobbs came down with illness, so he said I could take his place!” Arthur explained.
“Looks very nice, boy,” smiled Archimedes.
“Yes, indeed,” added Merlin, gruffly. “A fine monkey suit for polishing boots!”
“Uncle Merlin,” said Belle, surprised by his tone.
“It’s what all squires wear,” Arthur stammered.
“And I thought you were going to amount to something! I thought you had a few brains!” Crossly, Merlin kicked a pile of books stacked up by his chair and they all hit the ground with a rumble that shook the tower. “Great future!” Merlin growled, in deep sarcasm. “A stooge for that great lout Kay! Congratulations, boy!”
“Please, Uncle, let’s not...” began Belle.
“What do you want me to be?” cried Arthur, losing it now. “I’m nobody! You don’t know a thing about what’s happening today! I’m lucky to be Kay’s squire!”
“Oh!” exclaimed Merlin, a long drawn out sound of frustration. “Of all the-! Blow me to Bermuda!”
And then, in a blast of magic that rumbled through the whole castle, he became a rocket and shot off through the roof in a sprinkling of stars. Belle, Arthur and Archimedes ran to the window to watch him sailing off into the distance.
“Where did he go?” asked Arthur.
Belle sighed. “Bermuda, I guess.”
“It’s an island somewhere that hasn’t been discovered yet,” Archimedes put in.
“Will he ever come back?” asked Arthur.
“Who knows?” shrugged Archimedes. “Who knows anything?”
Belle pulled herself together. “He’s bound to come back. He has to finish teaching me magic.”
“But he seemed so angry,” Arthur pointed out.
Belle patted him. “He didn’t mean it. Trust me, I know him a lot better than you do.”
Arthur looked guilty. “I shouldn’t have been so rude...”
Belle put her arm around him. “You weren’t. He was just in one of his grumpy moods. Now come on, cheer up, it’s Christmas. And speaking of which, I’ve got something for you.”
She picked up the wrapped parcel from the table and held it out to him. Arthur looked surprised. “What is it?”
“Open it and see.”
Arthur unwrapped the scarf and smiled. “It’s great! Thank you, Belle!”
And then, to her surprise, he hugged her. Belle smiled and hugged him back. She’d given in to these maternal feeling she had regarding Arthur. He didn’t have much in the way of a family, and he was a sweet boy, innocent, but clever and certainly brave, and she didn’t like the idea of his foster family being mean to him. “You’re welcome,” she replied, giving him a little squeeze and then releasing him. “Now, come on, tell me about this trip to London.”
So, Arthur, now wearing the green scarf, told her and Archimedes all about the big tournament that Kay was going to be a part of, about the jousting and sword combat and archery tournaments. “If Kay wins the whole tournament, he’ll be crowned king,” he finished.
“Oh, dear,” sighed Archimedes. “What’ll that do for England?”
Arthur stayed sitting up beside Belle and Archimedes, talking, until well into the night. “I think it’s time you were in bed,” Belle told him, finally, seeing him yawning.
“But Merlin’s not back yet,” Arthur said, looking around the room as if expecting Merlin to suddenly appear.
“Well, he could be gone a while,” Belle said. “His moods just take him like that sometimes. Don’t worry; we’ll carry on your lessons.”
“I don’t know if you can,” Arthur said. “We’re leaving for London in the morning.”
“Then we’ll come with you,” Belle said. “Merlin would want that. And I’ll bring the books.”
So, the next morning, Belle packed up a few things and she and Archimedes met Ector, Kay, Pellinore (who had stayed the night before) and Arthur at the gate.
Ector scowled. “Where’s Marvin? Is he not coming down too?”
“Uncle Merlin,” Belle said, putting the emphasis on his real name, “is unexpectedly detained, so it’s just me and Archimedes. I hope that won’t be a problem.”
Not wishing to seem inhospitable in front of a friend, Ector muttered that it would be no trouble at all. Belle turned and smiled politely at Pellinore. “Hello. I’m Belle, Arthur’s tutor.”
Pellinore smiled back at her. “I am Sir Pellinore; I was once one of the old king Uther Pendragon’s knights, along with Ector here.”
“Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Sir Pellinore,” Belle replied, and then the group left for London, with Ector, Kay and Pellinore on horseback and Arthur and Belle riding in the cart with all the luggage, not that they minded, it gave them more opportunity to talk.
“Merlin isn’t back yet?” Arthur asked, timidly.
Belle smiled. “He will come back, Arthur, don’t worry. Now, I think you should try and get some sleep; it’s a long way up to London.”
Eventually, however, the party arrived in the great city and the five of them, along with Archimedes, checked into a little inn for the next few days. Then, that evening, Belle and Arthur sat up in Belle’s room for an evening lesson.
“Alright, Arthur,” Belle said, holding out a book to him. “I want you to try and read this passage here for me. Don’t worry, I’ll help you if you get stuck.”
Arthur did get stuck a few times, but his confidence grew as he went on and soon he made fewer mistakes and Belle found herself helping him very little. “See?” she smiled. “You can do it.”
Arthur looked up at her. “Thanks, Belle. I wish...I wish you were my sister.”
Belle smiled. “I wish it too. But I’ll settle for being your best friend. Now, come on, bed! Big day in the morning!”
"I thought you had a few brains!”
“He didn’t mean it."
"Don’t worry, I’ll help you if you get stuck.”