Thoughts on Druids in Urban Environments
“Purple lichens grow on the bare, blasted rocks of frozen tundras. Fish swim in lightless depths that have never seen the sun. Life grows, and should be encouraged to grow, everywhere. This manufactured landscape is no different.”
“Do you think we have no place here? We are the rats in your walls and the starlings in your eaves and the rain in your gutters. Did you think you could just build a wall and keep nature itself out?”
“Beavers build dams, dragons build lairs, and mortals build cities. It is the way of things. To every creature their dwelling. But all dwellings are fragile, all dwell at the mercy of the forces that surround them. The cities, no less than any other habitat, require guidance and sheltering. And, occasionally, clearing.”
So I’ve been noodling around these sorts of thoughts previously with my homebrew urban druid subclass and thoughts on a green dragon trying to greenify a city. I just really enjoy urban fantasy, in the literal sense of fantasy in urban environments, as well as the noir-influenced genre sense. You can see this in stories like Cityside Fairytale, the idea of nature spirits interacting with the city. I grew up in a river town, you don’t get to avoid nature just because you live in an urban environment.
So. I like the idea of D&D druids being integrated even in the more urban areas of their worlds. Not even as specialist urban druids, but just in general. Quite a few of a baseline druid’s abilities and spells fit very well into a city environment, and some of them have very interesting worldbuilding implications if you tease them out the right way. Heh.
I’m going to be talking about this mostly from a worldbuilding, DM, NPC sort of direction, but there’s maybe inspiration here for player characters as well. Just. Some thoughts, character concepts, worldbuilding ideas:
Well. Spymasters, spies, city watch, urban infiltrators. Because three things. Wildshape. Speak with Animals. Pass Without Trace. This is a city. Every rat, sparrow, rook and crow are now your eyes and ears. Or you. You can go almost anywhere. You can see almost anything. Magics like nondetection that protect against divination don’t do shit against the 2 million beady eyes watching people come and go. A druid spymaster in a city milieu would nearly be terrifying. Small wildlife is everywhere. And, yes, a druid can only take one shape at a time, and only talk to so many creatures. But the paranoia fuel is exceptional, just from the idea. A druid that’s strategic about it, that has creatures they regularly talk to watching particular hotspots, could cover a lot of a city. A network of druids, a whole spy network, could cover … a lot.
Just. Picture a city, in your world, where the rats are always watching. Sorry. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is one of my favourite fairytales. The rats and the city, and the magic figure at the heart of it. A druid spymaster, a small, grubby figure behind the throne, their eyes and ears spread chittering out across the city. In the gutters, in the streets. Behind the skirting boards. Under your bed. In your eaves, eavesdropping. There are ten rats for every person in the city, and they can talk to all of them. The bats, the starlings, the sparrows too.
And on a smaller scale, this does work for things like investigators, spies, criminal gangs. You’re a city watchman and almost none of your informants are humanoid. You’re a thief who can climb up any drainpipe, hide behind the skirting boards, pull a cloak of shadows around yourself and blend into the brickwork. Why a druid? Because the rats taught you. The shadows hide you. You’re one with the world around you, this habitat build by animals who think they’re smarter than maybe they really are. Dirt, nature, gets everywhere. You thought it was a good lesson to learn.
Beggar Lord/Street Gang/Urchin Leader
Again, inspired mostly by a single spell. Goodberry. Imagine Goodberry in an urban slum. Imagine the implications of being able to feed someone for a day on one berry.
Imagine trading favours on it.
Swing it for good or ill. Feeding the hungry, or extorting them. But a druid has a lot to offer in densely packed, poverty stricken areas. Food and water from the area. Purifying water. Healing. Granted, a cleric has a lot of the same merits. But Goodberry. Goodberry in particular. As I mentioned with Ylin Dos, my villainous druid, it’s such a fascinating spell for implications. You can give a street kid a berry that’ll feed them for a day. What do you charge them for it? (Might link back up to spymaster, above, there).
It can be villainous, extortion. But there’s also room for camaraderie. Support. Beggar networks. If they want to starve us out, we’ll bloom to spite them. If they want to deny us everything, we’ll just make it. Druids have such a theme of growth and survival, and that’s interesting in a city. Weeds growing where they’re not wanted, not supposed to be, and thriving despite anyone’s best efforts. There’s a sort of a theme of urban anarchy and urban support there. You can’t keep nature out. You can’t decide what you want to grow where. Weeds get in. Weeds are supposed to get in. The only thing ‘weed’ means is a plant where you don’t want it to be, but you’re not the only one who gets to decide that. Put some urban druids down at the bottom of urban society, in the cracks in the pavement. People are starving, but nature provides. Even when it isn’t wanted to.
(Seriously, on a worldbuilding level, druids have so many spells that are interesting in urban environments. Purify food and drink. Create or destroy water. Protection from Poison. Lesser Restoration. Detect poison and disease. Think about things like cholera epidemics. Sewage. River water. If you’re in a highly urbanised fantasy world, an extremely developed magical society, city health inspectors. Your entire health department could be druids. Huge chunks of your civic planning departments. Magical CDC. There’s so many options …)
Harbour Master/Dock Master/River Master
This does go back to Carla James in Cityside Fairytale for me, but the epitome of a high-ranking civic position for a druid in a city is Harbour Master, River Master, something similar. Because cities run on rivers, harbours, water, trade. Access to water is a primary consideration for a city, and usually one of the defining factors that determine where they locate and grow. How many of our worlds cities are defined by their relationship to their waterways? And the river giveth, but the river also taketh away. It gives trade, water, access, control, and it costs lives, damage, a steady force eating at the base of everything you build. Water moves, water flows, water floods, water erodes. Cities sink slowly into their lagoons, silt clogs the harbours, waves flood the levees and drown districts whole. Whoever controls the water, in some very real ways, controls the city.
And what class, in D&D, controls the water more?
If you want to give a druid an office in a city. If you want them to be a fundamental, powerful city figure, an overt power in their own right. Harbour Master. River Master. A high ranking, powerful magic user. And, underneath them, whole departments, organisations. (Circles). They protect the city from floods, from waves, from erosion. They direct the currents that guide trade. They defend the harbour from foreign ships. Your ship tries to sneak in or out? Control Water is bringing it right back. They patrol the harbour, the docks. Your water police, your city watch, your river patrol. Some of them can walk on water. Some of them can pretend to be seagulls. Some of them can pick your whole damn smuggler ship up and sit it on the dock next to the Harbour Master’s office.
And, to go back up to the previous point, do consider sewage. Sewers. Cholera epidemics. Flood defenses. Sea defenses. Buried rivers. Storm drains. Consider harbour dredging. Large scale water purification (perhaps even water purification festivals). Cisterns and water storage. Aqueducts, aquifers. Enough drinking water to support the population of a city, where is it brought from, how is it brought, how is stored, how is it accessed? Cities are built around water. As well as, often, in defiance of it. Which can create a certain tension.
Consider the relationship between the river, the city, and the sea. And, thus, between the druids and the government. Cities are fragile, especially when set against raw elemental might. How much power does this River Master hold, and how happy are people about it? How happy are they about it? How they view the city, how does the city view them?
Honestly, you see all these fantasy cities with powerful wizards, because intellect and magic and construction, but you could do so much with a city druid. A city official, in their brown-and-silver robes, their gull-shaped badge of office fixed to their shoulder. Several of them, even. The Harbour Master, the River Master, the Sewer Master. The River Patrol, the City Health Department. And, yes, the Spymaster. Druids are considered the antithesis of the city, the forces of the wilderness in stark contrast to the artifice and civilisation of the city, but honestly druids could run a city. They could keep it alive, keep it afloat. A habitat as delicate as any other, a challenge as harsh as any other.
Nature doesn’t stop at the wall, no matter how much we like to pretend. Maybe druids shouldn’t either. I don’t know, I just really like the idea of urban druids. I like the worldbuilding potential of so many of a druid’s abilities and spells. I like how they meld and contrast with an urban environment. In some ways, a city only gives a druid advantages. Narrow streets and alleyways, for a class that excel at area of effect. A fragile, artificial environment, in the hands of a class that wields raw elemental wrath. A city full of eyes and ears, packed solid with bodies, for a class that can change shape, and that deals with poison and healing in equal measure.
And there’s thematic push and pull too. Weeds in the cracks. Power and protection. Stealth and solidarity. How much is the habitat worth protecting at the cost of everything around it? Did you think you could keep us out? The river giveth and the river taketh away.
I like it. I like the ideas of it. If you have nature magic in a world, it will exist everywhere, not just the most obviously thematically appropriate places. If people exist who can speak to animals, who can control water, who can cast Spike Growth in the middle of urban warfare and decimate an enemy gang unfortunately crammed into the same alley … Well. Then chances are someone will think to do just those things. Some druid somewhere will walk into a city, to see what it’s like if nothing else. Some urchin somewhere will make a connection to the rats, or the water under the stone, or the scrubby weeds that stubbornly push through the cracks and refuse to die, just like them. So. Why shouldn’t a city have as many druids as anywhere else?
The weeds get everywhere. And the water wears away the stone.
Turns out Merlin is more than Bilingual??
A continuation of Merlin Is Bilingual, in which The Gang find out, bit by bit, that Merlin actually speaks a whole bunch of languages. They think this is the coolest shit ever.
Warning: I am using google translate for all of this. If you confidently speak any of the languages used here and I’ve made a mistake in word order or whatever, then let me know and I can edit :D
The Gang are already confounded enough by Merlin’s previous rant in Rural Essetirian. But when Merlin explains to Arthur, and Lancelot and Gaius explain to the others—that Common was Merlin’s second language, not first—they become less speechless and more... well, more than curious, but not quite demanding.
Gwaine wants to know as many swear words as he can possibly memorise, though stops pulling them out during his friendly bickers with Merlin because it’s an automatic loss in whatever they’re arguing about. His pronunciation is terrible, and Merlin always laughs at him. Leon will occasionally wave something, most frequently some kind of weapon, in the air and point to it with an excited and questioning grin; Merlin will raise an eyebrow before chuckling and telling him what it is in Rural Essetirian. I feel like Percival is the only one to request actual lessons in the language and Merlin is like... ecstatic, because the only place he gets to speak it properly anymore is Ealdor, which he doesn’t visit as often as he’d like. Plus it’s considered slightly rude to speak a different language among others who can’t understand it; the knights’ new habit of joining Merlin on his trips home means he doesn’t even get to speak it much then either.
It’s a few months later as Arthur is holding audiences with the Kingdom’s citizens that a family walks in, and the previous reveal is... expanded on. They look scared, confused, like they had no real idea what was going; their faces are dirty and tired looking, as if they hadn’t slept in an actual bed in weeks. The mother, in her early thirties, carries a young girl in her arms, barely a toddler, and a slightly older child clutches her hand, cowering behind her torn skirts.
Arthur sends them a comforting smile, leaning forward in his throne slightly to wave at the child before focusing his eyes back on the woman:
“There’s no need to be afraid. What’s your name, how can we help?”
His words only seem to upset her more and she shakes her head, eyes darting around the room as her shaky voice echoes out:
“Je... je ne sais pas. Pas d'anglais. Je ne connais pas l'anglais... No... no English.”
Arthur’s face falls as he realises the issue, eyes roaming over the room as he commandingly asks:
“Does anyone recognise the language? Or know anyone that might? Speak up, we can’t help them if we can’t communicate with them. Any-”
Merlin steps forward from his place behind the throne, but doesn’t look at The King as he walks off the dais, waving like Arthur had at the hidden child and then smiling at the woman:
“Français? Êtes vous Français?“
The woman’s face lights up and she lets out a huge sigh of relief as she smiles. The members of the wider council look a little confused, but otherwise they appear simply relieved that someone is able to help. Arthur however, and the Round Table knights that are present (only Leon and Gwaine today, unfortunately) struggle to keep their shocked mouths closed as Merlin smiles and nods before turning back to the King:
“French, give me a moment, Sire.”
Arthur just furrows his brow in confusion as he waves for Merlin to continue, shooting a confused expression at Leon stood at his other side before looking back down to his manservant, effortlessly speaking with the woman in French, apparently:
“Avez-vous traversé l'océan juste pour arriver ici?“
The woman shakes her head, but doesn’t panic again, continuing to relax as she focuses her attention on Merlin; instead of Arthur:
“Non. Notre maison est près de la frontière côtière. Notre récolte a échoué, nous mourons de faim, personne là-bas ne parle anglais.-“
She glances at The King worriedly before looking back to Merlin again:
“-Nous sommes désespérés. Les voyageurs disent que Le Roi est gentil.“
Merlin’s gentle smile grows as he nods, glancing back to Arthur himself and relaying the message:
“They’re from an all French village near one of the coastal borders. The crop failed, the people are starving, desperate. They heard of the kindness of The King from travellers, and came to request aid.”
Arthur nods in thanks, and still a little confusion, before looking to Leon:
“Do we have any knights that speak French? I can’t afford to send Merlin that far away just as a translator, and it would be unwise to send them back with food and no guard.”
He’s vaguely aware of Merlin quietly translating to the woman, but the servant turns around to answer the question before Leon even has time to shake his head no:
“Sir Lancelot is of French decent, he speaks the language. He could go, with a few others as protection? If you think that’s acceptable of course, My Lord.”
To the court it looks as though the servant is simply being respectful (even though making his own suggestions is still bordering treason) but Arthur recognises the slight sarcasm in his tone when he says The King’s title, settling a short, withering glare on him before clearing his face and nodding in agreement, only slightly taken aback by Lancelot apparently also knowing French:
“That sounds appropriate. Inform our guests that we will send out a small group with grain supplies to support them for a few months whilst they replant at the beginning of next week. We can put them up in the servant’s quarters until then if they can stay out of the way. Or help, for pay.”
Merlin smiles slightly, proudly, before nodding and turning back to the woman as Arthur murmurs for Gwaine to go fetch Lancelot:
“Nous pouvons aider-”
The conversation that follows that Audience Day is abrupt, and loud (though not in anger, just in shock), once everyone bar The King, Leon, Gwaine, and Merlin have exited the room:
“When in hell did Sir Lancelot have time to teach you French?!”
Merlin looks surprised at the question, even a little confused, before he nods his head in realisation and answers The King:
“He didn’t, I already knew it fairly well when I came to Camelot. Will’s dad was French, taught us when we were young. I was a bit rusty, especially by the time Lance came back to Camelot, but it only took me a couple weeks to pick it up fluently. I’m surprised you haven’t heard us chatting away to each other.”
Arthur just looks at him incredulously as Gwaine laughs, clapping the servant on the back:
“You never cease to amaze, mate.”
With that, the knight wanders from the room, happy with the explanation and not requiring anything else as he laughs down the corridor. Arthur just shakes his head as Leon slowly asks:
“So... you don’t only speak two languages?”
Merlin purses his lips and shakes his head with a raised eyebrow:
“Uh... no, definitely not. It’s a skill I suppose, I’ve always been good at picking up other tongues.”
Arthur just rubs his eyes tiredly as Leon nods, impressed, glancing to his King for his next cue:
“Right, well... well done, I suppose, and... thank you for your help today. You’re dismissed, go finish whatever it was you were doing this morning, and do try to bring my dinner on time today, Merlin.”
The servant just smirks, previous conversation forgotten as he sarcastically bows, giving Leon a friendly smile and wave before he leaves the room. Leon raises an uncharacteristic eyebrow at The King, in this moment, his friend:
“Who knew, hey? Merlin is quite the extraordinary person, wouldn’t you say, Sire?”
Arthur waves a hand at him, blushing slightly when he notices the raised eyebrow and leading question:
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Do me a favour and check on the squires, they always slack off on Audience Day because they know neither of us are there to yell at them.”
Leon smirks as he bows, not saying another word as he exits the room.
The others very quickly hear about this. Gwen and Gaius aren’t surprised: Lance has been teaching Guinevere French for months, and Gaius not only lives with Merlin and already knew, he likely wouldn’t have been fazed even if he hadn’t known; Merlin’s antics never really catch him off guard anymore.
They quickly demand demonstrations of the pair’s apparent prowess, at which point Merlin and Lancelot spend the rest of the evening talking shite about everyone in front of them, much to Gwen’s amusement.
The next time something wacky happens, all of them are out on a quest in another Kingdom (with permission of course, but without help), looking for some lost, Camelot relic believed to be somewhere nearby.
It’s not urgently needed nor does it pose a threat, but frankly—not that he’d admit this—Arthur was just bored, and needed something to do that would take him away from the city for a couple of weeks. Everyone has grown used to Merlin and Lancelot (and sometimes Gwen) switching between English and French, sometimes within the same conversation, sometimes within the same sentence, even. They’ve even grown used to Merlin and Percival’s quiet, daily lessons by the fire in the evening. The knight is picking it up rather quickly, and can hold a few basic conversations; soon enough, everyone is listening in on their little sessions. No one else is any good at it, but something warm flickers in Merlin’s chest when he notices his friends paying attention.
It’s when they reach the village closest to the cave that the maps were leading them to that it happens. The sign outside what the group assumes is an Inn is not only not written in English, it seems to have an entirely different alphabet. They all stand below it with furrowed brows, and it’s Elyan that pipes up first:
“That doesn’t bode well. I don’t even know if that’s a word or just... pictures.”
Percival holds out a hand, trying to stay optimistic with a cheeky grin sent to The King:
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. We’re in Nemeth, everyone speaks English here, someone will be able to help.”
Arthur sighs and raises an eyebrow at the knight’s words:
“When have we ever been that lucky?”
Percival’s smile doesn’t falter, but Gwaine snorts and nods in agreement at his words. They all stand and... strategically bicker over whether they should bother trying to get rooms or should just suck it up and camp in the woods, when Merlin comes out from the building, waving behind him with a grin, and yelling a friendly:
“Spasibo! Ya prinesu ikh vsekh seychas.-”
He turns to the dumbfounded group, who hadn’t even realised he’d left, and quickly launches into a fast-paced explanation, seemingly without noticing their confusion:
“Could only get us two rooms, it’s all they had left. I’ve paid half now, they said if we take care of the lone Wyvern that’s causing trouble a mile or so North then we don’t have to pay to second half. I managed to haggle us a free meal tonight as well, but if we want anything for the morning we’ll have to pay. I reckon the caves are only a couple of miles away, so I booked us two nights, I figured as long as nothing goes horribly wrong, that should do us fine. Anything else?”
Arthur sags, feeling just a touch humiliated as he responds:
“So there’s someone in there who speaks English after all...”
Merlin frowns slightly and shakes his head, raising an eyebrow before he slowly speaks:
“No... Arthur, did you not here me? Do you not see the sign?-”
He gestures up to the same sign they were all arguing over a few moments ago:
“-It’s a Migrant Village. Only about fifteen people actually live here permanently, everyone else are travellers going too and from the East of the Mainland. Pretty much everyone speaks Russian, or a localised version of it at least. The only English speaker is some old man on the other side of the village apparently, but I figured why bother going to fetch him if I could just do it. There was a little bit of a barrier, because I learnt so long ago and haven’t spoken it in years, but we got there in the end.”
Everyone just stares at him with wide eyes, until he frowns again and steps back defensively, crossing his arms:
Arthur clears his throat and nods slowly to himself before responding, his voice measure and monotone:
“Merlin. Are you telling me you know... Russian?”
Merlin smiles and nods once, proud of himself:
“Yep! There was this one merchant that passed through our village on his journey between Camelot and the Essetirian capital, about twice a month. My mum always put him up on the floor in the kitchen for a night or two, and in return he gave us a few bits and pieces that he hadn’t sold, books and things mostly. He spoke Russian and very little English, so we taught each other. I was already fluent in Rural Essetirian, English, and almost French when I first met him, so it wasn’t too difficult to pick up a fourth language. Like a said before, I’ve got a talent for tongues I guess.-”
He turns away with nothing but a shrug, either not noticing or ignoring everyone’s dumbfounded stares as he wanders back over to the door, speaking to them over his shoulder:
“-Come on! They said they’ll start taking orders for food in an hour or so and I imagine you lot want to squabble over who’s sleeping with who.”
The next time it happens, it's only the next day, and Arthur sort of sees it coming. They've slayed the Wyvern—Arthur figured it would be easier to do on the way there than on the way back—and are wandering around a religious looking cave, trying to figure out where they should be looking.
In the centre of the cavern there’s a table covered in candles and mirrors and scraps of cloth, and the gang are reminded of some sort of shrine, to who though, or what, they've no clue. Not yet.
Merlin had been feeling odd since they got within a mile of their destination, though obviously hadn't said anything, just shot an uneasy look Lancelot's way and muttered a quiet "Quelque chose semble bizarre. Soyez prêt.". His warily curious gaze is focused on a locked door at the back of the room when Arthur’s voice rings out:
When he turns around, The King has his eyes focused downwards towards some sort of placard set in the stone:
“-I suppose that it’s fair to assume you know more than four languages?”
A few of the knights crowd around Arthur to see what he’s staring at and nod in understanding; Merlin slowly wanders over, a confused frown on his face:
“Oh yeah, way more... Why?”
Arthur finally looks up, gesturing impatiently for the servant to hurry up:
“I recognise this language, but I can’t place it. I figure knowing our luck it’ll be the one tongue in all the Kingdoms that you somehow don’t know, but it’s worth asking,-”
He steps to the side as Merlin finally reaches the group, allowing the other man to stand in place and stare down at the foreign writing:
“-do you know it?”
Merlin tenses in place as his eyes find the words etched into the stone. He gulps and looks up at Arthur with a wary frown. The King takes notice of his sudden change in disposition, furrowing his brows in worry; he’s about to say something, to ask what’s wrong, when Merlin clears his throat and looks back down, forcing himself to relax:
“Yeah, I recognise the language, but I don’t speak it. Sorry.”
He tries to walk away, but Arthur puts a hand on his shoulder, holding him in place with both his grip and his annoyed stare:
“Well what is it? We can always take note of it, get someone to translate, and come back.”
Merlin just shakes his head:
“No one will translate that, not for you, Arthur. It’s...-”
He gulps and looks away again, before sighing and looking back:
“-It’s the Old Language.”
A few of the knights raise eyebrows but Leon nods in understanding, quietly answering Arthur’s unasked, confused question:
“Uther outlawed it, claimed it was the source of magic.”
Arthur nods and takes in a breath, understanding all of a sudden as he looks back down at the placard, still not letting go of Merlin’s tense shoulder:
“Ah, of course, the language of the Old Religion, Sorcery.”
Merlin huffs slightly and shakes his head, staring like Arthur at the words with a frustrated frown:
“Just the Old Language. It was the time’s version of Common. I mean... magical spells and enchantments take... inspiration from the Old Language, but you can’t just say a few words and expect magic to happen, it takes intent and power. Uther outlawed a whole language, had thousands upon thousands of books and people burnt, because he was ignorant. You can’t just...-”
He looks up at Arthur with an even deeper frown:
“-you can’t expect anyone to translate this for you. Because according to your father, and now you, that’s admitting to be an evil-doer who deserves the pyre.”
Arthur meets his gaze with wide surprised eyes, but quickly looks away. The awkward silence is thick, and though the knights desperately feel the need to walk away, they know that any movement they make would bring unwanted attention upon themselves. Arthur wipes a hand down his suddenly tired face and looks back to Merlin with a slightly melancholy expression:
“Yes, well, we all know my father was wrong about a great many things, magic being one of them. I hadn’t actually planned on telling any of you this until I was much further into it, but if mentioning that I’m privately drafting up a ban repeal is what it takes to get Merlin to admit he so obviously knows the Language of... sorry, the Old Language, then that is what I shall do,-”
He frowns slightly:
“-Or what I've just done, I suppose.”
Gwaine mutters a quiet “wasn’t expecting that” under his breath, Elyan and Percival let out soft gasps, Lancelot stares with wide eyes and does everything in his power to stop himself from looking at Merlin, Leon nods and smiles to himself proudly, and Merlin... well. Merlin stares with an open mouth for a worrying amount of time, until Arthur clears his throat, nods to the placard, and awkwardly says:
The servant’s mouth slams shut and he vaguely register the ache in his teeth as he glances back down at the words before looking back to Arthur, once again with a wary frown:
“You’re... legalising magic?-”
Arthur huffs and looks away as he nods, gesturing weakly to the placard again:
“-And you’re not just saying that... to get me to hypothetically admit to something that you’re going to be angry about later?”
The King’s eyes turn just a little bit sad as he looks at Merlin and shakes his head softly. The knights look on in suspense as the King fills the silence with gentle words:
“I wouldn’t do that, Merlin. If you really don’t know how to read it, then fine. The tapestry isn’t that important anyway, we can always come back sometime next year—when things have settled down after the repeal—with a guide who can translate.”
Merlin keeps his analytical gaze on The King for a few more moments before letting out a breath and relaxing his shoulders:
“No, I... no, it’s fine. I can... I can translate it.”
Arthur smiles softly and steps out of the way again, finally letting go of Merlin’s shoulder so he can move back in front of the placard. He stares down at it with a scholarly squint, muttering under his breath as everyone waits with bated breath. He gets to a word near the end, it’s capitalised and underlined in faded gold paint, and his eyes go briefly wide as he glances up at the shrine. It’s Percival, with a soft hand on his shoulder and a quiet mutter in Rural Essetirian that breaks him from his stupor:
“Merlin, is something wrong?”
He whips his head around to look at the knight with a slight gasp before he relaxes again:
“Oh, nothing. Uh... nothing.-”
He turns back to drag his gaze across the rest of the knights before focusing on Arthur:
“-Uh, the Old Language is... different. There’s a lot of divergence in current culture and the culture back then and the language reflects that; it’s a lot more... faith oriented, and intense. There are some words and phrases and sentiments that just don’t translate directly into Common, but I’ll try to get the meaning across as best I can.-”
Arthur just nods silently and waits for Merlin to continue. The servant puts a finger to the start of the writing, and drags it across under the words as he slowly speaks:
“-Here stands... our? Like a collective, but not just for... people, for Gods and spirits as well, our meaning... a lot of beings, really. Next is a phrase for shrine or alter, but a lot... it’s a lot more than that. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s more important that a modern day Church, the language sort of implies that it’s almost a living entity in itself. Anyway, here stands our shrine, where we... gift? It’s a word meaning a lot of things, in this context it’s like a mix between gift and pray, though I suppose it’s the same thing. When you pray here you are gifting your faith, your belief, your power, to whatever, or whoever, it is you’re praying to. We gift our faith and trust in the Godling who will bring-”
Gwaine cuts him off with a wave of his hand and furrowed brows:
“Wait wait, what’s a Godling?”
Merlin frowns and purses his lips as he fiddles with his hands, trying to think of a suitable explanation as he looks up to the curious knights:
“It’s like... a baby God? I guess? A Godling is a human who has the potential to become a fully fledged God, but they haven’t gained the power or knowledge or experience or blessing necessary to actually make it there yet. A Godling is the beginnings of a God, before they’ve faced all the trials that prove they’re worthy, I suppose.-”
The others still look a little confused, but only because the concept itself is odd to them, not because they don’t understand what he’s saying. Arthur nods at Merlin to continue:
“-The Godling who will bring about peace and... balance? Balance in Common typically means between two things, this is more, this is balance on several levels in several dimensions; it’s total cosmic equilibrium. Bring balance into this world, the previous, and the next. We store our gifts here, so that he will... he will know he is trusted, and loved. By so many, and so much. He is the bringer of light, the restrainer of violence, the vibrancy in a meadow, the laughter on the wind. He is the darkness between stars, the... letter of blood, the wilt in winter, the screams through the fog. He is our Godling of Magic, and this be a place he can call home.”
Merlin’s voice gets quieter and quieter as he speaks, though no one has any trouble hearing him in the echoing cavern. His finger once again traces the golden-lined word, and Arthur is the one to quietly ask:
“That word, what is it?”
Merlin takes a few moments to respond, but clears his throat, not managing to stop himself from glancing to Lancelot before settling his gaze on The King:
“Oh, nothing important, just the name of the Godling this place is dedicated to.”
Arthur raises an eyebrow, but before he can say anything, Gwaine lets out a loud huff and stomps away from the placard, Elyan and Percival’s amused gazes on him:
“I don’t see how any of that helps us find this damned tapestry. Why did we want it back so bad anyway? Why did whoever steal it leave it here?”
Lancelot snorts and Leon rolls his eyes, but Merlin is the one to answer, grateful for the distraction (he’s grateful for that a lot nowadays, when it comes to Gwaine, and he forces himself to stop wondering whether or not the other man knows more than he lets on) :
“It’s old, probably had a little magic woven into it. And it wouldn’t have been stolen, it was probably a gift, back from before the Pendragons when Camelot was peacefully ruled by magic. Whoever brought it here intended it as a gift to the Godling. It’ll be in a storage room somewhere in the back, I’d imagine.”
Gwaine turns around with a raised eyebrow:
“You mean to tell me that this wonderfully gorgeous and kind of spooky shrine, carved directly into a mountain, dedicated to an awfully powerful sounding, potentially human-looking, could-be-among-us, almost-God... has a storage room?”
Merlin just smiles and shrugs:
“Well... yeah? This place used to be heavily used. Small things like rocks and jewels and scraps of fabric can just be left in here, but bigger things can’t just be left to clog up the place. Their presence in the building is more important than being displayed all prettily.”
Gwaine shrugs in reluctant agreement, but when Merlin goes to wander off, back towards the back door, Arthur once again grabs his shoulder and pulls him around, pointing to the untranslated name with his spare hand, his eyebrow raised:
“The name actually... reads as it is in the Old Language. And it’s more of a title than an actual name anyway.”
Arthur frowns slightly and squints down at the word, trying to decipher the faded etching:
He says it as if it’s a question, the frown still present on his face. Merlin just nods as half the knights, bar Lancelot, who is evidently trying to hide his horrified surprise, are completely clueless, whilst the others look as though they might almost recognise it:
When he says it again, he whispers it slowly, as if he’s rolling the syllables around in his mouth, trying to figure out how it’s supposed to sit on his tongue. He looks around the group, his lips parted for a moment before he speaks:
“-I know that name. I’m certain I’ve heard it before.”
Leon gasps and nods:
“Emrys! Iseldir, the Druid that healed me with the Cup of Life, mentioned that name. I was with them for a short while after I initially woke up, and he said... he said something about having Emrys on our side, that we could not fail, would not, with Emrys protecting us, fighting for us. He and his group must have faith in this... Godling, to be so sure that he was watching over us.”
Elyan shakes his head as Merlin sweats slightly, avoiding Lancelot’s gaze in particular:
“I thought Merlin said that Godlings are people, human people, before they... grow up, or whatever.”
Arthur nods his head and lets out a short laugh, though the others get the distinct impression that he wasn’t actually listening to their conversation:
“He’s a figure in prophecy, I think. Yeah, I knew I recognised the name, Emrys and some King or other, they’re important in Druidic myths, legend, fairytales. Something about peace and unification. And magic. I’ve seen similar things to this-”
He taps the placard absent-mindedly:
“-in Common, and various other languages that have been translated to me, whenever my father sent me on those stupid raids.-”
He frowns again, confused:
“-I was always under the impression that he was a slightly stronger than average sorcerer, nothing... God-like.”
Merlin speaks before he can help himself, and if Lancelot weren’t so anxious, he’d roll his eyes in exasperation:
Everyone looks to him in confusion, and his cheeks colour themselves pink as he frowns defensively:
“-Emrys is said to be a Warlock, not a sorcerer.”
Arthur just raises his eyebrow again:
“And the difference is?”
Merlin bites his lip and gulps and Arthur just rolls his eyes:
“Merlin. For the sake of the Gods. I am legalising Magic. Believe me, if you have any sort of weird, niche knowledge on it inside that thick skull of yours, I’ll be grateful, stop looking like you expect me to chop your head of at a moment’s notice.”
Merlin only just manages to stop himself from furiously muttering about the last ten years’ worth of expectations being difficult to overcome in a few short minutes, but he keeps it to himself, instead huffing and responding hotly:
“Sorcerers learn their craft, like you learnt how to fight with a sword, or how to read and write, anyone can do it, given they have the right resources. Warlocks are born with an innate ability to do magic, it’s a part of them, as necessary to living as breathing is. That’s not to say Warlocks are more powerful, some are born with so little natural magic they still need to learn spells and enchantments to be able to actually channel it properly, but some are born quite incredibly... powerful. Spills out of them uncontrollably if they don’t get to grips with it, kind of powerful. That’s rare though. Emrys is meant to be... one of the rare ones.”
Arthur nods along, and Merlin has to stop himself from being too visibly surprised at how well The King seems to be taking this. It’s Percival though, who injects with a quiet, but genuinely intrigued:
“How do you know all of this? All your other languages I get, but how did you learn the Old Language, and all this stuff about magic?”
Merlin bites the inside of his cheek, trying to come up with a lie that sounded convincing enough:
“I grew up in a rural village outside of Camelot. Lots of travellers, including the odd Druid, came through and... well, I liked to chat. I just never thought it... appropriate to bring up my knowledge before.”
Leon nods and mutters a quiet “fair enough” and though Arthur looks at him oddly, almost sadly, he doesn’t say anything more on the matter, simply nods in agreement and sighs before changing the topic back to the original matter:
“Anyhow, none of that helps us find out where this damned tapestry is.”
Merlin rolls his eyes and finally, finally, walks away from the placard, relaxing slightly as he gestures back to the door he was stood at earlier:
“This is the only passage that leads further into the mountain. There'll likely be a few overnight rooms, but the rest will probably be storage. I haven’t found a key so just... Percival can ram it or something.”
Lancelot and Merlin’s rushed, hushed French on the way back to the migrant village is what finally pushes Arthur over the edge from mildly frustrated (read: jealous) to actually annoyed. He huffs loudly and turns around, interrupting Lancelot’s whispered “Je ne peux pas croire que tu ne m'as pas dit!” :
“Oh for pities sake! How many languages do you know? So far we have Essetirian, Common, French, Russian of all things, and the Old Language??”
Merlin just looks up, eyes wide and frozen like a deer caught at the point of a crossbow bolt:
“Uh... We’re just speaking French... you’ve definitely heard us speak it be-”
Arthur rolls his eyes and turns to face the path again, huffing and ignoring his embarrassed flush as he interrupts once more:
“Answer the question Merlin.”
He’s vaguely aware of a few of the knights’ quiet laughter but he pays it no mind as Merlin whispers to himself:
And then loudly answers:
“-I don’t know. A few? I just... picked them up really quickly, grabbed as many books as I could and... figured them out. I didn’t have much else to do, and when I came to Camelot I was surrounded by even more people to learn from.”
It’s Gwaine that enquires this time:
“Wait, what languages have you learnt whilst living in Camelot?? I’ve only ever spoken to Common-born people.”
Merlin just smiles and shakes his head:
“Yeah, that’s because you’re not paying attention. A pretty big chunk of people speak Welsh, though it took me ages to pick that up. It’s... kind of complicated, and nothing like any of the others I already knew. Uhh... there’s a fairly small Gaeilge community tucked away in the Eastern corner of the lower town, same with Gàidhlig a few streets over.-”
At Elyan’s confused staring, Merlin quickly tags on:
“-Irish and Scottish. They’re... similar enough to learn, but don’t ever say they’re the same language, they’ll start chopping off ears and cutting out tongues. They’re friendly but also... competitive.-”
He frowns as he thinks for a moment, silently counting off on his fingers:
“-I... uh, I think those are the only ones I learnt in Camelot. Like I said, I knew all the others before I arrived, or at least mostly knew them and solidified my knowledge in passing, in my spare time. Like with my French and meeting Lance.”
The others nod on in bewildered understanding, but it’s Leon, ever the sensible one, who firmly replies:
“Right. I think it’s time you gave us an actual list of every language you know.”
Percival snorts in amusement and quietly agrees whilst everyone else nods along. Merlin just rolls his eyes, but complies when Arthur looks over his shoulder with an expectant raised eyebrow:
“Ok, so... uh. Common, obviously, Rural Essetirian, the Old Language, French, Russian, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, out-of-a-book Spanish and Italian. Um... I guess I could get by in German? Maps and signs and simple conversation, but probably nothing too complex. Same with Mandarin,-”
Gwaine interrupts with a loud:
“Right, I know I’m probably the most well travelled of all of us, but where the hell is Mandarin from? And out-of-a-book Spanish?”
Merlin chuckles and dutifully answers:
“Mandarin is from Cathay, far East on the mainland. And out-of-a-book meaning I don’t really know slang or local dialects because I learnt solely out of a book, I’ve only actually spoken it aloud to like... maybe three natives max.-”
They all sort of nod again, though half of them look like the answer Cathay hadn’t really helped; they don’t question it:
“-I can get by speaking Mandarin, but I’ve no clue how to read or write it, they don’t just have a different alphabet, they have a whole different structure of written text, and I never got my head around it. Access to books that weren’t just the English phonetics of the words was basically impossible in a place like Ealdor. Anyway. My mum taught me the old dialect that use to be around in Nemeth, and also Latin, but I guess a lot of people know that nowadays.”
Leon snorts and nods:
“It’s the only other language I know,-”
Arthur visibly nods along in agreement, and when Merlin sneaks a peek at Gwaine, the secretly Noble knight also gives him a small, hidden nod:
“-But it’s impressive that you know it without being a Noble. I mean... all of that is impressive. Any more?”
Merlin laughs and shakes his head:
“Nah, though I’m always interested in learning more. I think I’d like to learn to read and write Mandarin and get fluent in German before I start a new one.”
They’re just passing through the clearing with the dead Wyvern in it—they weren’t sure whether they were expected to... deal with the corpse, or even how to, so they just settled with leaving it there for the locals to deal with—so they know they aren’t far away from the village as The First Knight is once again the first to respond, his words slow and careful:
“... Fair enough, Merlin. That’s quite the talent you have.”
The servant beams back at him, a sparkle in his eyes and a blush on his cheeks that only deepens when Arthur turns with a small, adoring smile on his face, to mutter:
“Hmm. You’re quite the extraordinary person, aren’t you, Merlin?”
I hope y’all liked it!! Let me know!! I love reading all your comments and messages and anons and tags!! They make my day :D