A fine tradition
Arthur had expected some whispering, but this was ridiculous. The chatter had started when he’d shuffled out of the Headmaster’s study, and it had followed him as he’d trailed after the Head Boy through the winding corridors of Badon College. After the eighteenth or so hissed exclamation of ‘look who it is’ he had started to consider how easy it would be to flee the building, jump back into the car he’d arrived in, and demand someone take him back to London as quickly as humanly possible. Unfortunately, there were several hundred boys, a handful of press photographers, and at least six bodyguards between him and freedom, so instead he sighed and tried to force his attention back to the tour he was being given.
Being first in line to the throne meant that Arthur had traipsed around more than his fair share of old buildings in the thirteen years he’d been alive as part of his ‘duties’. He was pretty good at pretending to be interested in ancient vases and paintings of landscapes, and luckily most of the time people were only interested in hearing what his father had to say about their precious collection of antiquities anyway. Sadly, in this case, his father wasn’t here, and Eliot Troyes, who was taking his role of Head Boy very seriously, seemed to want to know Arthur’s thoughts on everything. (The vast portrait of the founding fathers of the school? ‘Impressive’. The exquisite frescoes in the chapel? ‘Remarkable’.)
“It’s such a privilege to go to school here. Badon has such an interesting history, don’t you think, Sir?” Eliot asked earnestly, tilting his head in a bird-like manner.
Arthur valiantly suppressed a yawn. “Yeah, really interesting.” His bank of adjectives was almost exhausted at this stage and it was becoming more difficult to feign enjoyment when all he really wanted to do was lock himself in his new bedroom and pretend this whole boarding school nonsense didn’t exist.
Eliot looked pleased enough with his response though and carried on with a brief history of the school’s most important moments.
The many badges on Eliot’s blazer were glistening distractingly, and Arthur was certain they were regularly polished, particularly the gold shield-shaped pin proclaiming Head Boy in deep red lettering.
“It’s even more of a privilege, being that we’re so close to the university,” Eliot continued. “My whole family attended university in Cambridge. I’m hoping to be accepted too.”
“Well, good luck with that,” Arthur replied, not really knowing what else he could say.
Eliot beamed. “Oh, thank you. Six generations of the Troyes family have studied at Catterick College. It would be a great pleasure to be the seventh.”
Eliot’s further chatter about his future prospects couldn’t distract Arthur from the staring of those around him, and he shifted between smiling politely and keeping his gaze fixed straight ahead. He heaved a sigh of relief as Eliot blessedly announced he would take the prince to his boarding house to get settled in.
Eliot led the way towards the stone building that dominated this part of the school. He marched across the inner court, cutting through the collection of suited boys, parents, and luggage littering the grass. There was an archway in the middle of the building, that led out onto the bridge that connected the two sides of the school either side of the River Cam. Arthur had followed Eliot over the bridge earlier in the tour, but the Head Boy hadn’t remarked on the building at all. Arthur realised now that Eliot had been saving this for his grand finale.
“This is Caerleon House, Your Royal Highness. It is the pride of Chapel Court,” Eliot announced pompously as he stopped by a large, wooden door to the right of the archway and faced Arthur. “The House was rebuilt in Ancaster stone in the mid-nineteenth century after the original buildings were destroyed in a fire. Only the Caerleon archway here survived. Caerleon is the most sociable of all the Badon Houses. I’m sure you’ll be very happy here.”
Eliot gave a slightly reverent bob of his head as he waved towards the building behind him, and Arthur had to fight the urge to roll his eyes at the comment; after all, he was stuck here whether he was happy about it or not.
When it became clear that Arthur wasn’t about to offer up an insightful comment about Caerleon’s nineteenth-century architecture or otherwise Eliot turned and opened the door with a flourish, holding it wide so that Arthur could duck out of the early September sunshine and into the relative darkness of the entranceway.
Arthur pursed his lips. So this was it, the place he was confined to for the next five years. He wrinkled his nose at the slightly musty smell of the corridor as Eliot gestured for him to lead the way up the narrow staircase. Arthur liked to think he had reasonable expectations when it came to life, and he hadn’t expected his new school to match up to the grandeur of the palaces and stately homes he’d lived in or visited as he’d grown up. However, he would have thought that the institution responsible for educating the Kings of Britain, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth (in her many iterations) since the thirteenth century would be a little less shabby. Fine, he’d admit that the buildings were quite impressive looking from the outside, and Badon did occupy the same stretch of the Cam as some of the University’s most illustrious colleges, but Arthur was willing to bet that the staircase he was currently wending his way up hadn’t seen a paintbrush in years.
Eliot didn’t seem to have noticed Arthur’s distaste and was still speaking when the prince tuned back in just in time to hear him say “…so you’ll need to make sure you do that every time you leave college grounds.”
Arthur, without even a vague clue as to what the Head Boy was talking about, nodded in response. He hoped that Hector – his primary security agent, who was also traipsing up the stairs – had been listening and would fill him in on whatever details he’d missed. Hector had been guarding Arthur since he was four, and he hadn’t let him down once in all that time.
“First years have free time between four o’clock and half-past-five on Thursday afternoons,” Eliot stated as he gestured for Arthur to wait on the first floor landing. “That is the only time you’re permitted to leave Badon during the week, unless you have express permission from the Headmaster.” Eliot suddenly seemed to remember who he was talking to and his cheeks went as red as the blazer he was wearing. “Of course, Your Royal Highness, I mean, Sir, I’m sure there will be special dispensation in your case.”
Arthur nodded, waving away Eliot’s embarrassment. “We’re allowed to go into town on Saturday afternoons though, aren’t we?”
“That’s right, and in the summer we’re even allowed to take punts up the river to Grantchester village.”
Arthur wanted to hoot with joy at the prospect of a whole afternoon of freedom - well, as much freedom as one could have when being trailed by bodyguards – but as that was exactly the kind of behaviour he’d been warned didn’t befit the future King, Arthur had to arrange his features into an expression of solemn indifference. Up to this point he’d spent almost every Saturday attending events of one kind or another with his parents, and the thought of even just a few hours of choosing his own timetable almost made up for the fact that he’d be stuck in school for the rest of the week.
Eliot gave a short respectful nod in Arthur’s direction before scuttling past him and heading for a door at the end of the corridor. “This will be your room, Your Royal Highness. The other ten Caerleon first years will be moving in over the next hour, and the older boys arrive tomorrow evening. Your Housemaster, Mr Beaulake, will meet you all in the JCR - that’s the Junior Common Room - downstairs at five-thirty.”
Arthur, desperate to get a glimpse of his new room, shot a blinding smile at Eliot. “Thank you for your time, Eliot,” he bobbed his head, whipping the small brass key out of the Head Boy’s hand. “I’ll let the Headmaster know how helpful you’ve been. I’m sure you have lots of other important things to do though, and I think I can find my way from here.”
Eliot preened slightly under the praise and didn’t seem to take offence at Arthur’s rather blunt brush off. Arthur ignored the way Hector frowned at him – he’d been doing that a lot recently.
“Thanks again,” Arthur beamed before practically diving for the door, unlocking it and shouldering his way inside. He quickly pushed the door closed behind him and leant his forehead against it with a sigh of relief. He knew Hector would come barging through in a few seconds but Arthur just wanted to savour the brief moment of being free, and of being properly alone at last.
“That bad already?”
Arthur emitted a high-pitched squeak he’d never readily admit to as the voice came from behind him. He whirled around, immediately on the defensive, ready to call for Hector’s assistance with the threat if necessary.
‘The threat’ turned out to be a blond-haired boy in a suit who, although a little bit shorter, looked to be about the same age as Arthur. He was giving the new arrival a suspicious once over as if Arthur was the one who was out of place.
“Who are you?” Arthur asked, vaguely aware that he was brandishing a pen in the other boy’s direction. “What are you doing in my room?”
“Your room?” The suspected intruder raised an eyebrow before realisation seemed to dawn. “Oh, you’re Prince Arthur.”
Arthur wasn’t hugely impressed by the lack of reverence in the other boy’s tone. “Yes, I am. And I’ll ask you again, what are you doing in my room?”
The boy only grinned at him. “I’m Merlin Montgomery.” He held a hand out towards Arthur. “This is my room too. A stuffy bloke in a dinner jacket told me I wasn’t supposed to call you by your first name until you told me to, but to be honest I wasn’t really listening to what he said after that.”
Arthur shook the boy’s hand, less because he’d chosen to and more because years of ingrained propriety dictated that he must. “It’s Your Royal Highness, and then ‘Sir’.”
Merlin laughed. “You don’t really expect me to call you ‘Sir’ for the next five years, do you?”
Arthur’s brain finally caught up with the thread of conversation. “Wait, did you say this was your room too?”
“I did.” Merlin gave Arthur a look that suggested he thought the prince might be a bit odd.
“There must be some mistake,” Arthur replied looking around the room for the first time. Sure enough there were two single beds, a desk each side of the large window, two chests of drawers, two wardrobes and so on. Arthur was increasingly horrified by the fact that there seemed to be two of everything, including occupants of the room. “No, I was quite clearly told that this was my room.”
Merlin crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes, but it’s also my room. Didn’t anyone tell you that you’d be sharing with someone?”
Arthur shook his head in disbelief. He’d never had to share anything with anybody. That was just the way it was when you were the heir to the throne.
“Ah,” Merlin sat down on the edge of the bed he’d clearly claimed as his own. “I can see how this might be a bit awkward for you.”
“Awkward for me?” Arthur barked out a laugh. “No, I think it’s going to be far more awkward for you considering it looks like you’ve already unpacked your… stuff.” Arthur wrinkled his nose at the collection of textbooks, clothes, and odds and ends that seemed be in the process of exploding from two trunks on Merlin’s side of the room.
Merlin frowned and opened his mouth to say something just as Hector – perfect timing as always – strode into the room. Arthur grinned; surely the mess would be sorted out now. Merlin would leave and he could get onto reveling in the fact he had a room to himself far, far away from the palace.
“Ah, you must be Merlin.” Hector smiled charmingly and shook Merlin’s hand.
What? Arthur’s mouth dropped open in surprise. Hector knew? Hector knew and hadn’t told him?
Merlin switched straight from the irritated frown that had settled on his face at Arthur’s earlier words to a blinding grin for Hector. “Are you a bodyguard? Do you have a gun?”
Hector found this far more amusing than Arthur did if his guffaw of laughter was anything to go by.
“Hector,” Arthur frowned, “what’s going on?”
Hector shook his head. “What do you mean, Arthur?”
“Why does he,” he pointed to Merlin, fully aware that he was actually being quite rude now, “seem to think we’re supposed to be sharing this room? And why do you seem to know about it?”
Hector looked momentarily horrified before slipping back into his mask of friendly professionalism. “Didn’t you know about this Arthur? I assumed your parents had told you before we left this morning?”
Arthur gritted his teeth. “No,” he practically growled, “they seem to have forgotten to mention that detail. How quickly can another room be found for Merlin?”
Hector shook his head slowly. “Arthur, you’re already being afforded more privileges than most boys here, but there are certain conditions that even you have to meet. Your parents are keen for you to have as ‘normal’ an experience at school as possible, and you’ll have to share a room just like everybody else.”
Merlin coughed quietly. “I’ll just go and find my parents. I only popped up here to dump my stuff.” He shuffled towards the door and let himself out before anyone could prevent his escape.
Not that Arthur would have stopped him. “Really, Hector?”
Hector nodded gravely. “I’m sorry Arthur, I thought you knew. The school’s already had to reduce the number of first year students it admitted this year so that your security team could be housed in and around the college. It would be impossible to justify giving you your own room when Badon has already made such allowances.”
Arthur sighed and tried to remind himself that sulking wasn’t really appropriate. He’d faced enough of these situations in life to know that tantrums never really got him anywhere. “So there’s nothing I can do?”
“Not about this, my boy,” Hector slipped slightly into the familiarity he’d moved away from as Arthur had grown older. “But I’m sure Merlin will be a perfectly fine roommate. Just think, you might even become good friends.”
“I doubt that.” Arthur shrugged. He frowned almost immediately as his brain finally latched onto the niggling thought that had been trying to make itself known over the preceding few minutes. “Hang on, is this someone’s idea of a joke?”
“Is his name really Merlin?”
“Ah,” Hector grinned slightly. “Yes to both questions, probably.”
Arthur shook his head with a sigh far wearier than any thirteen-year-old had the right to produce as he sat down on the unclaimed bed. “If he turns me into a toad, you’re getting sacked.”
At least Mr Beaulake seemed like an alright kind of teacher. He wasn’t a million years old like the headmaster, probably somewhere closer in age to Hector, and he’d seemed really keen to get the boys of Caerleon House involved with as many of Badon’s school teams as possible. Arthur was particularly happy about that; he’d always been good at team sports, but as most of the time he hadn’t been available for his prep school’s matches his experience had been limited to games lessons. Most importantly though, as he went around the room to meet each boy’s family, Beaulake had made a point of introducing himself to Arthur before asking how he wanted to be addressed, rather than just assuming the prince wanted formal terms used at all times.
“Arthur’s fine,” he’d replied and Beaulake had smiled in agreement before moving on to introduce himself to Hector who was effectively standing in for Arthur’s parents. If Arthur’s calculations and the clock in the JCR were correct then the King and Queen were currently somewhere over the Atlantic.
Arthur felt a familiar stab of ‘something’ when he looked around to see the other first years surrounded by their parents. Some families were laughing together, whereas other parents were clinging protectively to their sons as if they weren’t quite ready to let them go just yet. He spotted Merlin, shirtsleeves rolled up in complete disregard of the uniform rules, awkwardly slouching between a smartly dressed man and a woman who seemed to be wearing every colour of the rainbow somewhere about her person.
Merlin noticed Arthur looking his way and gave him a small wave that managed to look a little apologetic, but he was almost immediately drawn back into a conversation when the multicoloured woman Arthur assumed was Merlin’s mother began to forcibly roll her son’s sleeves back down to his wrists.
A knock on the open door to the JCR drew everyone’s attention. A woman with long red hair stood in the doorway smiling warmly at the assembled crowd. One of her arms was clamped tightly around the shoulders of a teenage girl with equally fiery locks, and a small boy with a shock of dark hair was gripping the other fiercely.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Beaulake announced, striding towards the new arrivals with a grin, “allow me to introduce Mrs Beaulake, Housemistress of Caerleon, and Chemistry teacher here at Badon.”
“Hello.” Mrs Beaulake smiled widely at her new charges, before pushing the teenage girl forward slightly. “This is Elaine, and the young man hiding behind my legs is Thomas.”
Arthur was gratified to note that Elaine Beaulake looked even less impressed to be in the Caerleon JCR than he did. This thought was promptly followed by one of how sensible Thomas Beaulake was as the toddler scarpered from the room as if being chased by a pack of wolves, shrieking as he did.
Mrs Beaulake nudged her daughter and the teenager gave one last forced smile to the assembled families before trotting off after her brother.
“Sorry about that,” Mrs Beaulake rolled her eyes. “Tom’s just reached the shouting stage.”
A few mothers nodded sagely, shooting slightly pointed glances towards their teenage sons. Arthur snorted at the image, and was gratified to see Merlin’s mother eyeing her own son with a slight frown.
“Mr Beaulake, the children, and I live in the family quarters at the end of the corridor so there’s always someone here for you outside of school hours,” Mrs Beaulake explained. “Don’t worry, gentlemen, the walls of Caerleon are thick enough that you won’t hear Tom shouting at all hours.”
Relieved grunts filled the room and with a smile Mrs Beaulake joined her husband in order to continue the personal introductions. The rest of the JCR descended once more into general chatter, and a few boys drifted away from their parents to introduce themselves to neighbours, Merlin included.
Arthur, for once in his life, found himself completely at the edge of a social circle. Hector was chatting to the parents of a boy with a rather unfortunate mullet, and the only other person the prince ‘knew’ seemed to already be making friends with half the room.
“Arthur, isn’t it?”
The prince startled slightly at the soft voice and turned to see Mrs Beaulake holding out a glass of orange squash. He took the drink gratefully with a quiet, “Yes, Mrs Beaulake. Thank you.”
“We like to call each boy by their given name in the boarding house, or if we’re speaking to you as your housemaster and housemistress,” Mrs Beaulake continued with a smile. “During lessons teachers are more formal. Even us.”
“That’s what it’s like with Hector,” Arthur found himself saying. “Technically he’s supposed to call me ‘Sir’ but I’ve known him since I was four and it would have been weird not to keep calling me Arthur as I got older.”
“That makes sense,” Mrs Beaulake replied as she perched on the window seat and gestured for Arthur to join her. “Now, Arthur, I hear there was a little bit of confusion about your bedroom.”
Arthur felt his cheeks heat slightly. “Just a misunderstanding.”
“I’m sure you’ll enjoy sharing a room.” Mrs Beaulake nodded seriously. “It’s nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day.”
Arthur, lacking any better response, nodded his head. He still wasn’t quite sure about this ‘instant friend’ business, but best to let the adults think he was agreeing with them anyway.
“Your cousin’s boarding house is only the other side of the bridge,” Mrs Beaulake continued just as Arthur took a drink, “so I’m sure you can always pop over there if you want to see a friendly, familiar face.”
He tried so hard not to choke, but the surprise of hearing Hugo, Prince of York, described as ‘friendly’ was enough to have Arthur spraying orange squash from his nose in a way that his father would no doubt inform him was ‘completely unacceptable’.
Arthur grimaced as he wiped sugary trails of juice from his face. Mrs Beaulake was patting his back and asking if he was alright, and he knew without looking that the attention of the room was quite firmly on him. Thankfully, it seemed that Hector had established that the drink explosion was more likely down to Arthur’s ability to cause havoc rather than a stealthy assassination attempt. A swoop by his security team on his first day would have been the final straw for Arthur’s nerves.
“I’m fine, thank you, Mrs Beaulake,” Arthur coughed slightly as he spoke. “It just went down the wrong way.”
Mrs Beaulake didn’t quite look like she believed him, so he hurriedly excused himself under the pretext that he should probably go and get to know Merlin a little better.
The Housemistress nodded once before smiling kindly at him again. “Go and have fun, Arthur. Don’t forget to knock on our door if you ever need anything.”
Merlin was chatting to two boys when Arthur reached the other side of the JCR. His roommate glanced pointedly at the prince’s squash-stained shirt and rolled his eyes slightly.
“This is my roommate.” Merlin nodded his head in Arthur’s direction and the prince watched as the other two boys’ eyes widened in slight surprise. “I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to introduce him as. I think it might be Sir.”
Arthur ignored Merlin’s deliberate attempt to rile him and held his hand out to the taller of the other two boys. “Arthur Pendragon.” He hoped neither boy would make any connection between his and Merlin’s names; Arthur had a feeling that it was going to get old rather quickly.
“Albert Dorner,” the boy replied, shaking the prince’s hand firmly. “Most people call me Bertie though. I’m a second year, but my roommate moved schools at the end of last term, and because of the odd number of first years I’m sharing with Gareth here. Mr Beaulake asked me to arrive early so that I could get to know Gareth better, and so that the rest of you can ask any questions you have about life at Badon.”
The other boy – Gareth - didn’t look old enough to be anywhere near Badon. He grinned jauntily from under a mop of sandy-blond hair as he shook Arthur’s hand, which only served to make him look even younger. “Hello.” Then, as if he were able to read Arthur’s thoughts, he added, “I’m twelve, but I got bumped up a year in school. My Dad’s promised I’ll have a growth spurt soon though.”
Arthur thought it was probably best not to comment.
“Do you play rugby, Arthur?” Bertie asked. “Neither of these two are interested, but the Lower School selection rounds begin on Wednesday and I need to start signing people up.”
Arthur perked up properly for the first time since arriving in Cambridge.
“I’m the Lower Sports Captain for Caerleon House,” Bertie continued to explain. “Normally they give the job to a third year, but considering quite a few Badon teams are made up mostly of Caerleon second years Mr Beaulake nominated me for the post.”
“Do you have to join a team?” Gareth looked slightly panicked.
Bertie snorted at the flash of fear. “No. Don’t worry. Everyone has to choose at least one sports club to join for after school activities, but you don’t have to take it too seriously if you don’t want to.”
“But I’m terrible at everything!” Gareth practically wailed.
“I’m sure you’ll find something, Gareth,” Arthur encouraged. He didn’t entirely believe it himself, but part of his princely duties involved supporting others after all. “Where do I sign up for rugby then?”
Bertie held up his hand. “Here.” He fished a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Arthur. “The ones at the top of this list are teams holding selections this term, so have a look and see if there’s anything else you’d be interested in. The clubs at the bottom are the ones that don’t hold selections until after Christmas, but you’ll need to sign up now if you want to have a go.”
Arthur scanned the list quickly, immediately picking out four or five he’d seriously consider. Rugby was top of the list, and he’d always wanted to try out rowing.
“Clay pigeon shooting?” Merlin’s voice came from somewhere over Arthur’s shoulder. “Really?”
Bertie nodded again. “Some people take it quite seriously, Merlin.”
“Maybe you should try that one, Gareth,” Merlin grinned at the younger boy.
“You’re joking!” Gareth winced. “Me with a weapon of any kind? I’d probably take someone’s eye out. Actually, I’d probably take my own eye out.”
“Better stay away from fencing then,” Bertie laughed.
Arthur grimaced again. He was going to stay away from fencing too, no matter what his father said about the family’s fine tradition of producing Badon fencing champions. Fencing champions like Hugo. Arthur wasn’t going to let his awful cousin anywhere near him with a sword, blunt or otherwise.
“Rowing sounds good,” Arthur shrugged handing the list back to Bertie. “And maybe cricket after Christmas.”
“Pick two at most,” Bertie grinned, “otherwise you’ll have no time for a life.” He turned to Merlin again. “What about you, Merlin?”
Merlin wrinkled his nose. “I don’t actually like outside all that much.”
Bertie’s grin only widened. “Well there’re plenty of indoor sports. Swimming?”
Merlin’s face darkened. “Not a big fan of water either.”
“Badminton?” Bertie tried. “Squash?”
Merlin shook his head. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’d class lurking indoors as a sport?”
Arthur was alarmed to see that Bertie actually looked thoughtful for a moment.
“Well,” Bertie said eventually, “we did have an Extreme Hide and Seek club last year, but Mr Beaulake banned it after it all got a bit…” he trailed off, searching for the right word. “Extreme, I suppose.”
Arthur sighed as Merlin looked positively overjoyed. For just a minute there he’d thought that Badon College might be approaching something normal.
“Jim, Kofi, Alexei, Will.” Arthur stated each name as he pointed in turn at the boys on the next table in the Dining Hall the following morning. Then moving his attention to another table, he added, “Marc, Sib, Ruari, Charlie. Honestly, Merlin, it’s not that difficult. Were you actually listening last night when people spoke to you?”
“It’s not my fault I’m terrible with names,” Merlin replied before shovelling another great spoon of chocolate cereal into his mouth. “You should be honoured I can remember your name.”
Gareth snorted. Arthur raised an eyebrow at him and the younger boy very quickly went back to contemplating his toast.
“Just wait until everyone else arrives today,” Bertie said to Merlin. “Then you’ll have to remember their names, and the teachers’ names, and remember where you need to go for each lesson.”
Merlin looked disgruntled and pushed his bowl away from him. “Thanks, Bertie. That makes me feel much better.”
Bertie laughed loudly. “Relax. I’ll give you three a proper tour of the place in a minute. Our illustrious Head Boy and his army of prefects tend to focus on the boring stuff when they give their tours.”
“And you don’t?” Arthur grinned.
“Course not. I’ll give you a proper look at Badon. I might even tell you where the classrooms are. Funnily enough, our good old Head Boy, Troyes, doesn’t seem to think that sort of information is important.”
“I don’t suppose you know the best way of escaping from here entirely, do you?” Merlin grimaced. “I think I’ve had enough already.”
Bertie winked. “I know quite a lot of things, Merlin.”
Merlin looked slightly cheered for the first time that morning. “Good. If I can only get out of here twice a week for the next few years I think I might go stark raving mad.”
“Aren’t you that already?” Arthur quipped.
Merlin narrowed his eyes as everyone else laughed, but Arthur was fairly sure there was no malice behind it.
“Are you going to eat that toast, Gareth?’ Bertie asked a few minutes later. “Or just stare at it until it starts to mould?”
“Sorry,” Gareth crammed the crusts into his mouth, still looking terribly sleepy. “I’m not very good before eight in the morning.”
“Come on then,” Bertie stood up and grabbed his tray from the table. “You need to put your plates and things on the conveyor belt over there. Woe betide anyone who leaves a cup behind. You’ll have Agnes and her kitchen team after you, and trust me when I say you really don’t want that.”
“Agnes seemed really nice,” Gareth frowned as he followed Bertie’s lead, thinking back to the kindly woman who’d found some strawberry jam for him.
“She is,” Bertie replied. “And she’ll give you extra biscuits and cake if she likes you. But if you cross her you’ll know about it.”
Arthur and Merlin exchanged a slightly worried glance before they both very dutifully placed their trays on the conveyor as instructed; Arthur because he didn’t want to anger anyone, particularly not someone who seemed as friendly as Agnes, and Merlin because he was terrified at the prospect of being denied extra dessert.
“Right,” Bertie announced as the other three trailed after him into the bright Sunday morning. “So our side of the river – the better side, obviously – has Caerleon, Winchester House, the Chapel and De Grace, which is basically the humanities building. This side starts with Kings’ Court.” He waved around at the perfect square of green grass surrounded on all four sides by a higgledy-piggledy selection of buildings. “That’s the Dining Hall, obviously. The two red brick buildings are classrooms. The taller one, Maris, is the maths and science building; and the gym and infirmary are in there too. There’s a modern bit on the back that’s full of labs. The black and white Tudor buildings over there make up Kings’ House; Caerleon’s main rivals in everything from sport to music.” He stopped walking and grinned at Arthur. “They’ve even got their own royal too.”
Arthur grimaced. “Hugo.”
“Do you not get on with your cousin, Arthur?” Gareth asked, the picture of wide-eyed innocence. “I thought it’d be nice to have someone you knew living so close.”
“No,” Arthur shook his head. “We don’t really have much in common.”
Arthur and his cousin shared a surname, and that was really where the similarities ended. Where Arthur had the dark brown hair and eyes of his mother, Hugo, and his sister Charlotte for that matter, had inherited the hazel eyes and gently-waving blond hair of the Pendragon family. Both York siblings had also been graced with the striking, angular features of their French mother, as well as her short temper and haughtiness.
“I’ve come across him in some inter house fencing matches,” Bertie added. “He’s in the year above me though, so at least there’s been a limit to how many times he’s had the opportunity to thrash me.”
“Well Caerleon has Arthur, and his dad’s the King,” Merlin grinned. “Surely that trumps whatever Hugo is.”
“Prince of York,” Arthur wrinkled his nose.
“Exactly,” Merlin nudged his roommate with his elbow, “he only gets a city. You get a whole country.”
Arthur laughed at that, banishing the slight cloud that had descended over the group at the mention of Hugo. “Sticking up for me now, Merlin? You better be careful or people will start thinking we might actually get on.”
Bertie laughed again before pointing to the right-hand side of Kings’ House where the architecture was even older. “That’s the Headmaster’s Lodge in the corner, but I’m sure you remember that from your interviews.” At the other three boys’ dutiful nods he added, “I suggest you make that the only time you end up in there. Not least because it’s haunted.”
“What?” Gareth squeaked, staring at the somewhat ramshackle building in the corner.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “He’s winding you up, Gareth.”
“I’m not!” Bertie held up his hands in defence. “You know how the school started, don’t you?”
Arthur and Gareth nodded their ascent.
Merlin, however, shrugged. “Not really.”
“Didn’t read the prospectus then?’ Arthur asked.
“Course not,” Merlin replied with another shrug. “They let me in because I’m clever, not because I could recite the history of the place.”
“Annoyingly sure of yourself, aren’t you?” Arthur raised an eyebrow. Trust him to get stuck with probably the oddest roommate in the history of the school.
“Something like that,” Merlin replied. “It’s not my fault they decided I was brilliant and dragged me here with the promise of a free education.”
“You have a scholarship?” Gareth asked in slight surprise.
“Not just any scholarship,” Merlin adopted a ridiculously pompous tone. “The Headmaster’s Scholarship.” He rolled his eyes. “Basically, it means I’m just a lowly commoner who has to get decent marks for the next five years or I’m out on my ear. Nobody said I was going to get tested on ghost stories, but I’m sure a good haunting might liven this place up a bit. Go on then.” He gestured for Bertie to recite the tale.
“Well,” Bertie replied, lowering his voice to sound more dramatic, “the school was founded by Sir James Catterick, and Edward Alderley, Lord Badon, in the fifteenth century, just after they completed work on Catterick College at the University. Neither man was from Cambridge, so why they chose to settle here we can’t be sure. The story goes that Catterick and Alderley were part of some secret society, and were pretty high up in the ranks.”
“A secret society for what?” Gareth asked, eyes saucer-wide.
“Nobody really knows,” Bertie shrugged. “They were apparently the guardians of some precious object that had to be kept safe at all costs. And there are some who say that Catterick and Alderley were involved with alchemists and sorcerers.”
“Sorcerers?” Arthur snorted. “It sounded like quite a good story up until that part, Bertie.”
“What do you mean ‘involved with alchemists and sorcerers’? Merlin asked, sounding, to Arthur’s surprise, genuinely interested in what Bertie was saying.
“Oh,” Arthur rolled his eyes at his roommate, “don’t tell me you believe in magic, Merlin. I know you’re named after a wizard, but-”
“Sorcerer,” Merlin cut him off.
“Merlin in the stories wasn’t a wizard,” Merlin folded his arms. “He was a sorcerer.”
“Because there’s a difference?” Arthur shrugged.
“Of course there is,” Merlin replied, looking quite cross all of a sudden.
“Anyway,” Bertie said soundly, effectively cutting off any argument that might be about to erupt, “whatever Catterick and Alderley were up to they held meetings here, in the Headmaster’s Lodge, with their fellow members.”
“What for?” Gareth asked.
“Nobody really knows,” Bertie replied. “But for the past five hundred years there have been reports of figures in black robes outside the Lodge on very dark nights. It’s the second oldest building on the river, you know.”
Gareth looked horrified. “Who are the figures? Catterick and Alderley?”
“Nobody knows that either,” Bertie replied. “They always wear hoods so their faces have never been seen.”
A sudden gust drifted up the river bringing a chill to the air that was far too wintery for early September. Gareth shivered, and even Arthur was slightly unnerved.
“Okay, that was a bit spooky,” Gareth hissed, rubbing his arms at the sudden nip.
Bertie shook his head after a long moment. “Nah, that’s just England’s weather for you, isn’t it? It’ll probably start raining in a minute and then be really sunny for the rest of the day. Come on. I’ll show you how to get to the sports fields.” He began walking towards Kings’ House. “Oh, don’t walk on the grass. Teachers and prefects only, I’m afraid, so you’ll have to go around the edge at all times.”
“What if we’re really late for a lesson?” Gareth asked.
“Not even then. Troyes and his minions will be waiting for you to have a go.” Bertie quirked his lips slightly. “I think the best bit of advice I can give you is try not to be late for lessons.”
Gareth made a face that suggested that he might not be able to live up to these words of wisdom, but he remained silent as he followed the others through an archway to the left of Kings’ House.
“This is Catterick Court,” Bertie announced.
The back of Kings’ House, the Arts building, the admin building, and the smallest boarding house, Hainault, formed the sides of the Court. Bertie explained that Hainault boys were often the sons of professors at the University and so tended to escape the confines of the College more often than others as their parents were able to take them off premises at short notice.
“And finally, this is the Back Gate,” Bertie said as they reached an imposing stone archway that didn’t match the architectural style of either building it was attached to, and it looked almost ridiculous between the red brick grandeur of Arts and the wooden construction of Hainault. “It’s named that because it’s at the back of the college, obviously, and because it actually leads out onto the footpath along the bit of the river known as the Backs. It’s because the back of quite a few of the University colleges are along this stretch of the Cam; I don’t think they were too inventive when they came up with the name.”
Merlin reached forwards and slid a small wooden panel on the gate itself to the left, thus exposing a snapshot of the world beyond Badon’s walls. The main road was separated from the gate by a deep grass verge and in the distance it was just possible to see how the River Cam swept back round to the left once it had passed underneath the numerous University bridges that dominated the landscape.
“Freedom,” Merlin muttered as he closed the hatch with a resigned sigh.
Bertie looked at his watch. “We should really be heading back to our side,” he said as he gestured for the others to follow him again. “We’ve got to be at Chapel for nine-thirty and you need to be in full formal and gowns because it’s Sunday.”
Merlin groaned. “Those gowns are ridiculous.”
“You’ll be grateful of that gown when it gets to November,” Bertie replied as they crossed back through Kings’ Court. “The Chapel’s absolutely freezing at the best of times, but the winter is a special brand of torture.”
Merlin looked down at his jeans sadly. “I don’t see why we can’t just wear normal clothes under the gowns, it’s not like you’ll be able to see!”
“Tradition is very important here, Mr Montgomery.”
All four boys startled slightly at the new voice. They turned in comedic unison to see Mr Beaulake grinning behind them. His family was hovering behind, and Mrs Beaulake was obviously trying not to laugh at the boys’ startled expressions.
“Of course, sir,” Merlin replied contritely, and Arthur almost fell over in surprise such was the change from the other boy’s usually rebellious behaviour.
“We enter Chapel as a united house so be ready at nine twenty,” Beaulake explained. “I’m sure Bertie will make sure you’re all exactly where you need to be.”
“Sir.” Bertie nodded.
The Beaulakes walked on, and Thomas stared up at the four older boys in a combination of interest and suspicion. Elaine barely glanced at the first years, but she did grace Bertie with a small smile and a quick ‘hello.’ Bertie gave a small gesture that looked like a cross between an embarrassed wave and an involuntary twitch.
“Well, well.” Merlin rounded on Bertie the minute the Beaulakes crossed the bridge and disappeared through the archway into Chapel Court, heading back to their home in Caerleon. “It looks like Albert has a girlfriend.”
“Shut up, Merlin.” Bertie nudged the other boy, but his cheeks still reddened slightly. “Elaine’s just sort of my friend.”
“Of course,” Arthur chimed in, a slightly mocking tone to his voice. “I believe you.”
Gareth opened his mouth, presumably to add a quip of his own, but Bertie got there first.
“One more word and I’ll leave you to the mercy of Head Boy Troyes and his minions when we’re in Chapel,” Bertie replied, drawing himself up to his considerable height. “And here I was going to let you in on a little secret about how to extend your freedom. I guess I’m just going to have to hold onto that information for a little longer.”
“What?” Merlin cried indignantly. “No, Bertie, you have to tell us! I was joking. A joke, you know, ha-ha isn’t Merlin hilarious?”
Bertie only smirked before shaking his head sadly. “Sorry, Merlin. I just don’t have anything else to tell you right now.”
“Merlin!” Arthur punched his roommate’s arm with perhaps more force than was necessary. “Now look what you’ve done.”
“Me?” Merlin rubbed his arm. “And by the way, Arthur, ow. You were making fun of him too!”
Gareth piped up. “I didn’t say anything, Bertie. Will you tell me?”
Arthur and Merlin were momentarily united as they glared at Gareth in outrage.
Bertie just went back to smirking. “Sorry, Gareth, you’re guilty by association. Who knows? I might tell you all eventually. It depends if I’m ever feeling this generous again.”
Merlin grumbled something to himself that Arthur couldn’t quite catch but was sure from the tone that it was far from a friendly comment.
“Come on,” Bertie said cheerfully as he headed over the bridge to the city-side of the College. “It takes forever to dress for Chapel.”
After the initial disaster that was Merlin and Gareth’s inability to tie bowties without getting into a right mess, Chapel had gone quite smoothly. Arthur had noticed there was far less whispering and pointing from the first year boys in the other houses now that they’d had a day to get used to the idea that they were attending school with the heir to the throne.
Of course there was no way Arthur’s newfound sense of peace could last. The arrival of the remaining forty-six Caerleonites brought a second round of variations on ‘look, that’s the Crown Prince’, and he couldn’t even escape to his room as Mr and Mrs Beaulake had been quite firm about all first year boys remaining in the JCR so that the older students could meet them properly.
At least Bertie’s friends hadn’t been too bad about the whole royalty thing; Arthur was fairly certain that this was because Bertie had briefed them all in full before they’d trooped down the stairs to meet the three boys Bertie had taken under his wing. Although, one of them hadn’t been able to resist making a comment about the coincidence of Arthur being stuck in a room with a boy named Merlin.
“Like the King and the Wizard then,” a ridiculously tall boy with wild red hair had guffawed as he’d shaken hands with Arthur.
“Sorcerer,” Arthur found himself correcting unconsciously.
“What?” The boy had frowned in confusion.
“Ignore him, Arthur,” Bertie had grinned and thumped the redhead on the back good-naturedly. “If anyone shouldn’t be allowed to comment on other people’s names it’s him. He’s stuck as Kingsley Kendal Kennedy-Kendrick for life.”
Arthur had chuckled at that and Kingsley’s face had turned a deep shade of beetroot.
“We just call him Kay though,” Bertie added. “Seems a bit more reasonable, don’t you think?”
So it wasn’t until just before dinner that evening that Arthur’s mood was completely ruined.
He’d been dragged into a brief meeting with his security team so Merlin and Gareth had gone on ahead to the Dining Hall with some of the second years. Hector had wanted to be very clear about arrangements for Arthur attending evening sports practices as the Badon pitches were outside of school grounds. Arthur hadn’t really listened; it was always the same message anyway – ‘Arthur, you mustn’t go anywhere without ensuring the Protection Squad is aware of your activities’.
The Royal Protection Squad didn’t seem to be aware that Arthur wasn’t supposed to be late for dinner though, and by the time they’d let him go he only had a couple of minutes to spare.
He had just skidded off the bridge and onto the gravel of Kings’ Court when he had to stop short to avoid careering straight into two boys also making their way to dinner.
“Sorry,” Arthur raised his hands in apology before his brain caught up with his eyes and he registered a familiar face sneering at him.
Hugo shook his head slowly at his cousin, his lip curled in obvious distaste. “So, Daddy’s finally let you fly the nest, has he?”
The hulking boy next to Hugo sniggered and Arthur was immediately reminded that anyone who would choose to associate with Hugo was probably as much of a bad egg as the Prince of York himself.
“You better watch yourself, Pendragon.” Hugo’s dark eyes narrowed as Arthur fought to avoid taking a step backwards.
Arthur frowned. He’d never been able to pinpoint when exactly the hostility between the two of them had started. It seemed even from their earliest meetings Hugo had acted in the vilest way possible towards Arthur. Hugo’s elder sister, Princess Charlotte of York, wasn’t much better. Arthur had dreaded family gatherings of any kind as the adults had always suggested that the three youngest royals spend time together; all completely oblivious to the fact that the York siblings liked nothing better than upsetting their young cousin at every available opportunity. He suppressed a shudder at the memory of the cold, lonely hours he’d spent hiding from his cousins, constantly afraid that they would discover him.
On some level at least, his fear of Hugo stemmed from the fact that the York siblings had often told Arthur that he’d probably face the same fate as the King of legend; they did share a name and an ancestry after all. It didn’t matter that most of the legend was complete fiction and didn’t reflect the Pendragon family’s true history, but it had felt like enough of a possibility to terrify a small child. Arthur had spent hours of his childhood just waiting for a sword-wielding enemy to jump out from behind a door.
But Arthur wasn’t a small child anymore, and he wasn’t going to let Hugo intimidate him now that they were both at Badon. “It was an accident, Hugo. Can we just forget this stupid squabble? It’s childish.”
Hugo barked out a harsh laugh. “A squabble? You think this is a squabble?” He looked at his friend and grinned nastily. “You see, Laurie, Arthur here likes to think he knows everything.” His voice held no warmth when he addressed his cousin once more. “You don’t know anything, Arthur. You’re a stupid child. Nothing more.”
Arthur raised his chin and turned away without another word. Hugo’s taunt of ‘That’s right, run away as usual” followed him into the Dining Hall. He didn’t want to sit through dinner and make polite conversation; he wanted to retreat to his room and sulk for a while.
“There you are!” Merlin rolled his eyes when Arthur approached the empty seat next to his roommate at the long table. “We thought you were going to miss Grace. Bertie said if you arrive after the headmaster he usually-”
“I don’t care!” Arthur snapped. “Just shut up and leave me alone.” He was aware that he’d drawn significant attention from the boys around him and this only succeeded in darkening his mood further.
“Charming,” Merlin huffed. “What’s gotten in to you?”
Arthur felt the last fragment of his patience shatter. “What’s gotten in to me is that I’m sick of being surrounded by idiots. I don’t need friends here, and I’m certainly not going to be friends with the likes of a nosey, irritating scholarship boy like you.”
Arthur regretted the words even before they’d tumbled from his mouth, and his mother’s wisdom came back to him. ‘Remember, Arthur, until you speak, you are the master of the word, but as soon as you open your mouth the word becomes the master of you.’ He’d never really understood what she’d meant until the moment Merlin’s forehead knitted into a frown, the flicker of hurt unmistakable though it lasted no more than a split-second.
“Scholarship,” Merlin repeated coldly. “Yes, I can see how that would cause a problem for you.”
“Merlin-” Arthur tried to salvage the situation, but Merlin wouldn’t allow it.
“No, no,” Merlin waved his hands airily. “Save your breath. I understand completely, Sir.” With that he turned away from Arthur and immediately started up a horribly forced conversation with a stunned Gareth.
Arthur looked around to explain himself to anyone who would listen but Bertie, Kay and the other Caerleon boys sitting nearby were all refusing to meet Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur dropped his head to his chest in resignation just as the bell rang to signify the arrival of the Headmaster. Every boy in the hall fell silent as they rose to their feet to say Grace. As Arthur recited the words mechanically he marvelled at how wrong he’d been when he’d arrived.
He wasn’t looking forward to being on his own at all.
Arthur started awake. His heart was hammering almost painfully in his chest as he gulped in a huge mouthful of air. He rubbed a hand through his hair; pulling a face as he pushed back the damp strands that were plastered uncomfortably to his sweat-soaked forehead.
It must have been a nightmare, but he couldn’t remember anything of what he’d been dreaming about. He shivered slightly as his clammy skin began to cool, his heavy duvet thrown to the floor. He was fully aware of the room around him now, but there was a crawling sense of foreboding; an awareness of a darkness he couldn’t see that had settled at the base of his spine and was refusing to shift.
“Oh, stop being a baby,” he chastised himself in a whisper. He looked over to the other occupant of the room to find that Merlin was still snoring and completely oblivious to Arthur’s moment of panic. Not that Merlin would have been particularly sympathetic considering the way he’d stalked back to Caerleon after dinner without another word to Arthur. Merlin had already been huddled under his duvet with all the lights off when Arthur had finally made it back to their room.
Arthur sighed as he lay back down, pulling the duvet back up to his chin. Tomorrow was the first official day of Michaelmas Term and he needed to be as alert as possible if he was going to make it through the timetable Mr Beaulake had handed to him earlier.
Just as he’d closed his eyes and forced his breathing to slow down he heard a noise outside. He blinked, and for a moment he thought that he recognised the sound from his dream – it was probably what had woken him in the first place. He frowned as the noise came again; a deep, grating sound that reminded Arthur a little of nails scraping on a chalkboard.
Knowing that he’d never get to sleep if he didn’t satisfy the small niggle of curiosity he clambered out from underneath his covers quietly and padded to the large window. He moved the curtain slightly and peered out into the darkness. The clouds that had descended on Cambridge around lunchtime had lingered through the rest of the day and were now obscuring any light the moon might have otherwise cast on the grounds of Badon College, leaving Arthur unable to make out anything more specific than the looming silhouettes of the buildings on the other side of the river.
The sound came again, fainter than before, almost as though Arthur was hearing it through a badly tuned radio. His head involuntarily turned to the right as the sound of dogs barking rose up from somewhere beyond the college walls. That’s odd, he thought as he looked at the clock. Why would there be a pack of dogs out in Cambridge at half-past three in the morning?
The sound gradually faded away and Arthur shivered again. Bertie hadn’t been lying when he’d said they’d really feel the cold in Caerleon, and with a final glance into the darkness Arthur hurried back into his bed, wrapping the covers tightly around his body once more.
It still took a long time for sleep to catch up with him as he stared at the ceiling and tried to convince himself that he wasn’t dreading the next morning.
Copyright © Vesper Lyons