kumquatix: Merlin smiling (merlin)
[personal profile] kumquatix
Title: The cushy duty
Author: Kumquatix
Fandom: Merlin
Pairing: Gen
Spoilers: None
Rating: PG
Word count: 2700
Summary: Merlin is looking forward to having most of the day off, and Gaius indulges him with a new and easy task.

"Why haven't you gone up to the castle yet, Merlin?" Gaius asked.

Merlin had been savouring another cup of tea after his morning porridge, taking it easy for once. But Gaius had that gleam in his eye which said that no one younger than him had better be caught sitting around idly.

"Arthur left on patrol before dawn, and I've already taken care of my chores for him," Merlin said. He had used magic, since there was no risk of Arthur walking in on him, and had been looking forward to having the rest of the day off.

"Excellent! The quarantine foreman has asked for a consultation. Go to the quarantine warehouse, the one half a mile in an easterly direction, you know it? Bring a tablet, you may need to take notes or make sketches. Then come back here and look up what you need to in the tomes, and report your findings to the foreman," Gaius directed, as he gestured in the direction of the warehouse and at the books on natural and supernatural lore. Then, while Merlin still sat there with a mouthful of tea, he pulled his clinking, bulging satchel over his shoulder and hurried out the door.

Merlin had only seen the quarantine warehouse from the highway, he'd never followed the track up to the building, because it was off limits. And because he didn't want to catch any diseases, if that was what they kept in there.

He drained his cup, grabbed a tablet and a stylus, and was on his way.

---

"Who are you? What business have you here?" the foreman bellowed when he saw Merlin in the grip of the guard at the gate.

"I am Merlin, the assistant of Gaius. I'm here for a consultation," Merlin gabbled out. The guard stopped digging his thumb into Merlin's shoulder joint, and Merlin slumped with relief. He discreetly tried to move his tingling, burning shoulder, and it still seemed to work fine.

Suddenly the fearsome foreman was all smiles. "Come in, come in," he said, and motioned Merlin to follow him.

Merlin walked in through the gate in the fence, and followed the stout man into the large stone and brick building itself. The interior was one big, high-ceilinged room, well lit by many iron barred windows. Not much was stored in here.

To the left of the entrance stood a strange tower, which the foreman headed straight for. It looked like a stack of shiny, colourful cylinders, taller than a man. It stood on a small platform of unfinished boards nailed together in a criss-cross pattern, and strangely, it was wrapped in a shiny, crinkly material as transparent as glass.

The foreman took his knife from its sheath and cut a small hole in the clear wrapping. Merlin could now see that there was a layer of thick, crude paper – maybe paper maché – between one layer of cylinders and another. The foreman carefully pulled two of the cylinders from the tower, and it did not topple, because the above layers were held in place both by the paper maché and the tight wrapping.

When Merlin held the cylinder the foreman gave him in his hand, he could see what it was: a metal ale bottle, like the ones they served in the ale houses around here.

"We received this delivery from Oakley with the Sour Well last Monday, and the inn keepers and ale houses have been clamouring for us to distribute it," the foreman said. "Which we of course can't do without having it vetted by an expert, such as yourself. Just because the bottles have contained the finest ale every month for the last 28 years is no guarantee that they aren't filled with a foul magic brew this time." He winked at Merlin.

Then he lifted a little tab on the top of the bottle, and a drinking hole appeared. Merlin did likewise, and drank from the bottle when he saw that the foreman did.

It was fine ale indeed! It was stronger than the every day ale Merlin drank with supper, and had a nice sweet, fruity flavour that complemented the underlying bitterness, and tiny bubbles that tickled his mouth. Merlin took his time drinking it slowly, seeing that the foreman was also enjoying his with a blissful smile and half-closed eyes.

"Why is the ale quarantined?" Merlin asked. It seemed to him that a brewer who had delivered to the city's alehouses for 28 years, and always the finest quality, should be trusted by now.

The foreman looked thrilled at getting an opportunity to lecture. "You've never heard of Oakley with the Sour Well?"

Merlin shook his head. What an unappetizing name for a brewery.

"Ah! Well, 28 years ago, Oakley had the use of a small piece of land, which was enough to feed his family, and the use of which was to be handed down to his eldest son, as it had been handed down to him. Of this he had the lord's promise." The foreman looked significantly at him.

Merlin nodded, to show that he was following. In Ealdor, the whole village had cultivated the fields together, but he had heard of this other way of doing things.

"Then one day, his well ran sour. Not gradually, but from one day to the other. The water was brown and muckish, and smelled strongly of vinegar and piss. This was clearly the work of some evil magic." The foreman nodded decisively to himself, and clenched his jaw angrily.

"This was before King Uther in his wisdom banned all magic, God bless him, and the poor peasant asked the local hedge witch for help. She came to his house, and she went into his yard where the well was, and she stuck willow branches into the ground in a circle about herself, like a fence. Then she sat down and took off her shoes, and dug her fingers and toes into the earth, and sang a mystical song. Oh, it was a terrifying wailing! Hardly what I would call a song at all."

Merlin put on a suitably impressed look, and the foreman's condemning scowl was cracked by a tiny satisfied smirk.

"And then she left her body! Oakley saw her sitting there, clear as I see you before me, but her chest did not move, and her eyes were pure white. And her body sat there for three hours without moving at all. The terrified man thought the witch had died, and he would have trouble on his hands.

But after three hours, she came back. She stood up, and put on her shoes, and kicked aside the willow branches. 'The dark ones had a spat,' she said, 'and your well was the victim. The responsible one has agreed to provide you with drinks, for as long as your family shall live here.' And then the first stack of ale arrived next to the well. And it has on every new moon since."

Merlin thanked the foreman for sharing his vast knowledge of local history, and the foreman was all broad smiles and hearty slaps on the back in return. He was surprised that the king allowed the distribution of drinks that had appeared by magic, but then again he supposed that Uther did not think the products of magic were magical or evil in themselves.

"There's only one more delivery you need to vet today, Merlin" the foreman said. "And this is a strange one indeed."

They continued through the mostly bare storage room, past various empty crates and racks, until they reached a knee-high fence surrounding five creatures huddled together in the centre of the little, indoor fold.

The creatures looked about three feet tall, and had shiny black fur on their backs and bright white fur on their fronts. They stood on their hind legs, and had flippers instead of front legs. Their necks were a bright yellow shading to orange, and one of them turned its head to look at them warily. Merlin saw that it had a beak, and he realized that what looked like fur must be dense, short feathers.

"We think it is a type of giant cormorant," the foreman said. "So we gave them some fish, and they ate them. They have refused grain and worms. If they are giants cormorants they're useless, but we can roast them, I suppose. They look fat enough."

They certainly did. They were so fat they were nearly barrel shaped.

"How did they get here?" Merlin asked.

"Yesterday morning, a freak whirlwind blew through a hen house in a village not far from here. Five hens were smashed and had their necks broken, all good egg layers. The crone in the house saw it happen, and she ran outside and gave the whirlwind a good tongue lashing, and these five things appeared among the chickens."

The foreman shrugged. "Dark creatures have no sense. You never know if they'll pay reparations or not, and when they do, as like as not it is something like birds that lay no eggs or vegetables that come from some foreign land and no Christian knows how to cook them. They should just stay out of Camelot, where they are not wanted, then we wouldn't have all this trouble."

He frowned thoughtfully at the huddled birds. "Though I do like potatoes."

The foreman left Merlin to it, with another hearty slap on the back, and Merlin dutifully drew a detailed picture of one of the birds, so he could look it up at home and determine if they were of any use to humans, or if they were dangerous magical creatures that needed to be put down.

They didn't look very dangerous as they stood there in a tight little group. They just looked frightened and uncomfortable. Merlin saw that a few herrings were lying untouched in a pile next to the water trough. Maybe the birds were sick?

Or maybe they were hot. They were as fat as a force-fed goose, and the foreman had said that sometimes magical beings brought things from foreign lands – these birds were probably from the far north, where it was very cold. Merlin must have been more tipsy than he thought, because he had lowered the temperature inside the pen to freezing before he even stopped to wonder if it was a good idea.

Luckily the foreman was outside. Merlin could hear him very faintly, chatting with the guard at the gate.

The brisk cold had an energizing effect on the birds. They straightened out – Merlin had not known they had been slouching – and suddenly looked much taller and not nearly as fat. The tallest one flapped its wings and put back its head and let out a long, hoarse cry. It did not have a beautiful voice. Then it started waddling around the enclosure with its wings sticking out from its body like a small child trying to keep his balance. Its legs were short and stumpy, and it rocked from side to side when it walked.

The other giant cormorants followed it in a line, and around they went, until they reached the fish; then they broke rank to fall ravenously on the food, fighting and bickering over it. They could easily balance a herring in their narrow beaks, and swallow it whole.

When the food was gone, they continued their exploration, carefully looking at the water trough, and the fence, and a wood chip on the floor, and Merlin's leg. They found Merlin's leg fascinating. Slowly, carefully he leaned forward and extended his hand. This they also looked at with great curiosity.

Merlin reached over the fence, and very gently stroked the closest bird's chest, which it followed interestedly, twisting its neck so that it could peer at his fingers all the way. It was extraordinarily soft, even softer and smoother than a duck. He stuck his finger into the bird's plumage, and it went as deep as his knuckle before he touched flesh. The bird didn't like it; it bit him quickly and fiercely on the hand, and set to straightening out its feathers with quick, irritated movements.

Merlin drew back, and sucked on his hand. The bird hadn't bit through the skin, but he had a red, painful mark. The bird standing next to the affronted and disarrayed one leaned over and started preening its friend, which quieted down and leaned back its head to give the other one better access. Merlin left them to it.

---

Back home he had lunch – cheese and bread and a boring, ordinary weak ale, and then he started poring over the books. He could not find anything that looked like the large, fat, yellow-necked birds in any of the catalogues of magical beasts, and they had not exhibited any unusual or unprovoked threatening behaviour, so after four hours of research and napping in the sun, Merlin decided to go tell the quarantine foreman his results.

"Ah, there you are!" the foreman said. "Just in time. You'll need to pronounce the vile creatures well and truly dead."

He signalled for Merlin to follow with a toss of his head, and lead the way around the back of the building to where the giant cormorants lay in a bloody pile next to some wood laid for a fire.

"I expect you came to tell us that the birds were unnatural," the foreman said. "But we already knew." He shook his head sadly. "It's a good thing the crone who received the birds had the foresight to send her son here with them, because God knows what sort of curse the evil whirlwind was trying to put on them.

After you left, I went on my rounds, and you'll never guess what the birds had done!"

Merlin shook his head mutely. The birds had been more lively and curious when he left, but he wouldn't have thought that they could do anything much but preen themselves and each other, and waddle around their enclosure.

"They had put a curse of frost on the place! The temperature of the warehouse seemed normal, but when I reached into the pen the air was as cold as ice, and the water in the trough had frozen. If we hadn't caught it in time, I dare say we would have had summer turn to winter before the corn was ripe on the stalks, and we would have suffered great hunger!" The foreman widened his eyes dramatically, and puffed out his chest.

"You did well to stop them," Merlin choked out. He bent over the birds on the pretext of examining the bodies for signs of life. The carcasses lay in a pile, and the five little heads were next to them. He burrowed his hand deeply into the feathers of the top one, and squeezed its flesh and shook it. It was really very soft.

"They're dead. The beheading worked," he said.

The foreman beamed. "I thought as much," he answered cheerfully. "Help me burn them?"

Together they piled the birds on the fire. The foreman was experienced at burning things, and he explained the positioning of the logs and kindling and air circulation to Merlin, who wasn't really listening and answered him in grunts of "Uh huh" whenever he paused.

The cormorants burned easily, with a stink of feathers and much popping of fat.

---

"Did you enjoy the ale?" Gaius asked.

"Yes," Merlin said.

"I thought you would. They get a new delivery every month a few days after the new moon," Gaius said. "Vetting the quarantined wares is one of my pleasanter duties, but it does take time. I thought we could share it from now on. You're getting very good at using the reference materials," he nodded at the books which Merlin had all tidied away in the correct order on the shelf.

Merlin looked down as he thanked Gaius. He supposed drinking the ale would be nice enough.
Site Meter

(no subject)

Date: 2010-03-23 05:26 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] meri
I really liked this. It's a good short story that fits in well with Merlin's character and his daily life in Camelot. Thanks for sharing.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-03-24 04:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zahrawithaz.livejournal.com
Oh, this is so sad! I love comorants.

I do like how character-centered your Merlin fics are (and I like that you choose to focus on Merlin in ways different from most other fic-writers out there).

(no subject)

Date: 2010-03-24 08:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zahrawithaz.livejournal.com
You know, I tried to be more specific about why I feel your fics are different, but (perhaps because I am sick and in bed) I couldn't quite articulate it.

And I like that the fic deals with oppression--one of the things I enjoy about the show is that the text is explicitly interested in questions of oppression (no matter how badly it does it)--and a lot of fic not just doesn't engage with it, but erases it--downplaying the class differences, for example. I like that you don't do this.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-03-26 01:59 am (UTC)
briar_pipe: Merlin's golden eye (Magic OT4)
From: [personal profile] briar_pipe
Halfway through this fic I had to stop to cheer that someone had finally explained the anachronisms! It's saucery! *g*

But oh, the penguins! *sobs* And oh Merlin, screwing up again. His life rather sucks sometimes.

I adore your writing style. It's light, matter-of-fact, easy to follow, and entertaining. I look forward to more of your stories. ^_^

(no subject)

Date: 2010-03-28 01:38 pm (UTC)
thismaz: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thismaz
Ah, so that's how all the anachronisms got to Camelot. That explains everything. Thank you.
*g* That was fun.

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