“A legend is sung of when England was young..."
“A legend is sung
Of when England was young
And knights were brave and bold
The good king had died
And no one could decide
Who was rightful heir
To the throne
It seemed that the land
Would be torn by a war
Or saved by a miracle
And that miracle appeared
In London town
The sword in the stone...”
The old legend of the sword in the stone was known throughout the land, but it was also forgotten. Many had tried to pull the great weapon from the stone, and all had failed. Thus, the legend had been forgotten and Britain had been without a king for almost twelve years. The lands were divided up and ruled by various barons and lords. The only places left unruled and therefore without any kinds of laws were the forests. That was probably just as well, because how much of what went on there sometimes could be classified as legal was anyone’s guess.
In this particular part of the forest, it was deep and dark and all kinds of dangers lurked; adders, wolves, collapsing parts of the land, ancient rabbit holes that had become hazardous over the years and even dark magic in some parts. But Belle wasn’t worried. If there was such a term as forestwise, as opposed to streetwise, then she was it. She had been living in the forest for most of her life, bar a few brief years she had lived in London with her parents until they had died, and then she had been taken in by her uncle, Merlin.
Now, however, at the age of seventeen, she was more than just his niece. Oh, not in that way! No, she was now in training to be a sorceress. Merlin was the world’s most powerful wizards. Albeit, he was a little bumbling, a little scatterbrained and a little forgetful, and one would even go as far as to say that he was definitely an eccentric man. There were times when he could also be grumpy and even snappish, but Belle was used to that. “It’s just his way,” she’d say. Aside from that, he was also kind and extremely funny and a very, very talented wizard. And he was wise; Belle always knew she could turn to him in times of trouble. Together, life in their little forest cottage was far from boring. Belle loved the way everything inside it could be alive with magic; it fascinated her and she constantly begged Merlin to let her learn the magical arts.
On her seventeenth birthday, thus, Merlin had declared that she could finally start training to be his apprentice and then one day, when he died, his successor in the magical arts. The first step, he taught her, was to not use magic for everything. “That’s how people get corrupted by it, Belle, my girl,” he told her. “Hence why I only use magic when it is absolutely necessary.”
That, Belle knew, was the reason why he did so many menial tasks by hand rather than use magic; such as carrying things or opening doors or even gathering water from the nearby well. This he was no doing, and he was in rather grumpy mood. Belle was reading one of his old books, that is, until a hawk swooping down to try and snatch a squirrel in its talons startled her and caused her to drop the book in the mud. With a resigned sigh, she plucked the thing up again and wiped it clean on her apron, listening to Merlin’s grumpy rants.
“A dark age, indeed!” he groused, pulling the chain that held the bucket up higher so that he might grab it. “Age of inconvenience! No plumbing, no electricity, no nothing!”
Belle had no idea what plumbing or electricity were, but she assumed they must be something to do with the future. Merlin had a knowledge of the hundreds and hundreds of years to come that she had no idea about. She smiled and was about to help him as he strained for the bucket when he slipped with a yelp of “Whoa-ah-ho!” he fell over the side of the well.
“Uncle Merlin!” Belle exclaimed in alarm.
Kicking his legs, he righted himself and spluttered as water from the bucket splashed all over him.
“Oh, hang it all!” he snapped. “Hang it all!”
Belle covered her mouth with her hand to stop a laugh from escaping. No, life with her Uncle Merlin was never boring. Merlin started to leave but the chain became wrapped around his foot. “Oh, now what, now what?” he exclaimed, seeing what had happened. “Here, leave off! Leave off!” He shook his foot free and then kicked the chain. “You... you fiendish chain, you! Everything complicated! One big medieval mess!”
He continued to grouse right up until they reached the cottage, whereupon he seemed to calm down and poured the water into the kettle over the fire. Belle grinned. “Are you sure it wouldn’t just be easier to use magic to get water, Uncle Merlin?”
He chuckled and patted her back, fondly. “Now what have I told you about magic, Belle?”
“Only use it when it’s absolutely necessary.”
“Correct. Now,” Merlin ran a hand through his hair and examined his pocket watch. “Let me see. He should be here in...I’d say half an hour.”
“Who?” said a pernickety voice as a small brown owl stuck his head out of his tiny owl house. “Who-oo? I’d like to know who.”
Belle smiled. Merlin’s pet owl, Archimedes or Archie as she often called him, could be just as grumpy and stubborn as his owner, but she had a fondness for him even so.
“I told you, Archimedes, I’m not sure,” said Merlin, rearranging the furniture. “All I know is that someone will be coming to tea; someone very important.”
“Oh,” twittered Archimedes, “pinfeathers!”
“What, Archie?” Belle grinned. “You don’t believe Uncle Merlin’s prediction?”
“Pinfeathers!” the owl insisted.
“Fate will direct him to me,” explained Merlin, “so that I may guide him to his rightful place in the world.”
“And you say he’ll arrive in half an hour?” Archimedes landed down on his table perch and folded his wings. “Well, we’ll just see!”
“And you will, Archimedes, you will,” Merlin insisted, lighting his pipe, thoughtfully. “He’ll be...a boy. A small boy, eleven, twelve years old.”
“Will you be training him to do magic, like you’re training me?” Belle asked.
“No, no, Belle, my girl, I will be teaching him the essential lessons of life; you know, using brains over brawn and all that logic.”
Belle nodded. He had taught her that as well when she was a child and she had never forgotten. “Knowledge and wisdom is the real power.”
Even as they were discussing the matter, the boy in question was already making his way into the forest in search of a stray arrow belonging to his foster brother Kay. The boy’s name was Arthur, but everyone called him Wart, probably due to his size. He was quite small and skinny with a mop of blonde hair, but he was tougher than he looked and unafraid, even in an unfamiliar part of the forest.
“There it is!” he crowed finally. “Oh, there it is!”
The arrow was lodged in a branch growing just above the cottage where Belle and Merlin sat with Archimedes. Arthur scaled the tree and reached for the arrow. Just a little further, he thought, a little bit more...
And then the branch he was holding onto snapped and with a cry of “Whoa-what? Whoa!” he crashed through the thatched roof of the cottage, landing right in the chair that Merlin had placed for him earlier.
Belle jumped to her feet in alarm as hay and dust began to settle around the room. Merlin coughed and then looked over at Arthur. “So! So you did drop in, after all?” He chuckled and checked his watch. “Oh. You are a bit late, you know.”
“Oh, I, I am?” Arthur stammered, and then became distracted by Merlin’s laboratory. That was something else, Belle was certain, that belonged to the future. She couldn’t quite get her head around all of Merlin’s gadgets and gizmos.
Merlin got up to pour the water from the kettle into the teapot. “My name is Merlin,” he announced.
“And I’m Belle,” Belle put in, with a friendly smile. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, my name’s Arthur,” said Arthur, “but everyone calls me Wart.”
“Oh,” said Merlin, with a frown.
“What a perfect stuffed owl,” said Arthur, giving Archimedes a prod in the stomach.
Archimedes spluttered and puffed up at once, with indignation. “Stuffed? I beg your pardon!”
“He’s alive! And he talks!”
“And certainly a great deal better than you do!” snapped Archimedes, taking flight.
“Oh, come on, Archie, don’t be like that,” said Belle as the owl flew into his house. “Sorry,” she said to Arthur, “He gets grumpy easily.”
“Grumpy? Huh!” was the reply from Archimedes.
Belle poured a cup of tea with extra sugar and carried it up to his little owl house. “Come on, Archie, have tea with us.”
“Yes, you must forgive our guest,” said Merlin. “He’s only a boy.”
“Boy? Boy?” Archimedes stuck his head out of the house. “I see no boy!”
And he stuck his claw through the hole, seized the teacup by the handle, pulled it into the house and slammed the door.
“Oh, I’m sorry if I-” began Arthur.
“That’s alright,” said Merlin, comfortingly. “Belle’s right. He’s much too sensitive.”
“Let’s have tea,” said Belle, quickly, before Archimedes could stick his head back out of the house and argue.
“How did you know that I-?” began Arthur.
“That you would be dropping in?” finished Merlin. “Well, I happen to be a wizard, a soothsayer, a philosopher! I have the ability to see into the future. Centuries into the future!” Arthur sat, holding his teacup, blinking at him. “I’ve even been there, lad, and I’ve seen all these things.” He gestures to a table full of small models and picked out the train. “This for example is a steam locomotive.”
He poured some tea into the train and it began to puff the steam and chug along until it hit Arthur’s teacup and the boy turned it around again. “That won’t be invented for hundreds of years,” explained Merlin.
“Oh, you mean you can see everything before it happens?” Arthur asked.
“Yes, everything!” Belle cleared her throat. “Er, well, no, not everything,” Merlin corrected himself. “I admit I didn’t know who to expect for tea, but as you can see, I figured the exact place!”
“Do you take sugar?” Belle asked Arthur as Merlin poured him some tea.
“Oh, yes, please,” he said, politely.
“Alright, sugar! Sugar!” Merlin commanded and the sugarbowl hopped forwards at once. “No, no, manners, guests first, you know that!” Merlin snapped at it.
The sugarbowl jumped and then went over to Arthur’s cup. “Say when,” Belle told him, “otherwise he’ll keep piling the sugar in.”
“When,” said Arthur after two spoonfuls. The sugarbowl pottered over to Belle to give her her usual three lumps.
“Have you had any schooling, Wart?” asked Merlin.
“Oh, yes, I’m training to be a squire. I’m learning the basics of combat and swordship and jousting and horsemanship.”
“No, no.” Merlin shook, not noticing the sugarbowl heaping his teacup full of sugar. “I mean Mathematics, Biology, Physics, History, Geography, Chemistry...”
“Uncle Merlin!” Belle cried, alerting him to what the sugarbowl was doing.
“When! When! Blast it all, when!” Merlin bellowed, and the sugarbowl ran to hide behind the teapot. “Impudent piece of crockery!” Merlin muttered, throwing the sugar over his shoulder and mopping up the spill with his beard.
Belle stifled a giggle. Arthur looked like he was beginning to wonder what kind of world he had stumbled, or rather, fallen into.
“A dark age, indeed!”
"You are a bit late, you know.”