Chapter One: Who's in Charge? The Raven, the River, or the Trouble the Lion Left Behind?
Disclaimer: I've done minimal research on the 9th century of England (it's an ongoing process), a bit of research on Merlin in J.K. Rowling's wonderful world, and almost no research on badgers, snakes, lions, and ravens. (I'm getting to that, I'm getting to that! Promise!) Any doubts about my ownership yet? Yeah, me too.
Beta'd by SouthwestExpat, with my gratitude!
Siblings: it's either "yo I'll help you hide the body" or "yours is the body I'll be hiding," there's no inbetween.
—The Internet, and it's quite correct. Especially since beneath it was a picture of Mycroft and Sherlock.
Merlin, Grand Warlock of England, High Wizard of Europe, and Prince of Enchanters, was not at home.
His four familiars were.
(He wasn't all those grand titles yet, mind you. This story happens in his fifties, before Arthur was a known thane,* and definitely before Merlin was secure enough in his fame he let himself be anything less than impressive. He did make himself four familiars, after all. One English-speaking familiar would have been a status symbol enough, but Merlin was Merlin. He decided to have four. And he might or might not have regretted it; you'll have to read this story and decide for yourself.)
As I was saying, Merlin's four familiars were safely at home in Merlin's grand, magical mansion, and to no one's surprise, they were arguing.
Rowkelanika,** called "Row" by her siblings (except when they called her "Rowena Ravenclaw" to annoy her), had begun the argument. Merlin had left her in charge, and she wasn't capable of letting her siblings forget it.
"It's because I'm the most responsible," Row cawed from the top of the bookshelf, her black neck-feathers ruffling and black eyes staring down the lion cub below.
"No, it's because you're the eldest," he whined, his fluffed tail tuft twitching and tickling the snake behind him, who sneezed impatiently. He hissing at the lion. Not that the lion took any notice. He was focused on his older sister. "You're not the most responsible. The last time Master went out, you were supposed to be watching his experiment to keep it from bubbling over, and you got so caught up in something stupid that you forgot! He said you almost caught the house on fire!"
Row did not appreciate Griff bringing up this memory. She thought about defending herself with perfect logic and flowing rhetoric while describing the importance of integrating small elves' magic into wizarding households, like a few of the Scottish Muggles had done***—it would save so much work and add a nearly impenetrable magical defense —but knew her audience was not intelligent enough to see the far-reaching implications. Except perhaps her third sibling, the snake Nagi. He showed sense at times.
Sense Griff the lion was entirely without. No, she would need another argument to beat him. Something to redirect the conversation towards Griff's faults. "Since the Master left me in charge, I am still the better choice. After all, leaving you in charge is a monumentally bad idea, as evidenced by-"
"A what idea?" Hufflette interrupted, looking up wide-eyed from where she was winding Merlin's silk threads around her paws to put them into proper wound-up balls for his experimental tapestries. He was trying to charm them into moving as if they were alive.
"A monumentally bad idea. It's a word that ties back to the Roman power when large and important events or people had a monument erected, such as-"
"But what's a monument?"
"It's a mound made of dirt, Huffle, be quiet," Griff cut in, tired of the interruptions (and of the idea that he might lose this argument), and glad to take it out on the youngest by mocking her gullibility.
"Oh," Hufflette said quietly, looking back at the silver threads wrapped around her black paws. She'd wanted to do them first because Master loved green and silver colors.**** Her siblings paid her no attention.
"Leaving Griff in charge would be a catastrophic idea, because the first thing he would do would be to go exploring, like he has before at unnamed times, and Master left specific instructions that we weren't to leave the house. And he knew I'd listen to them. So I'm in charge."
"Master's pet," Griff accused. Nagi the snake hissed again.
"We're not pets. We're familiars."
The lion spun around, yellow paws flexing on the dark floor. "Well, she acts like one! Everything the Master says, she's 'Yes, Master, no Master, I'll gladly tell everyone what to do for you, Master!" He growled, craning his head to look up the raven. "I might listen to him, but I'm not going to listen to you!" He stomped his way over to the wooden double doors and opened them with a word, slinking through without bothering to close them. Row sighed in a put-upon way, and commanded them to close. Merlin had spent a full day charming the doors and the items in cabinets and bookshelves to respond to verbal commands, so the familiars could live easily without human hands. Row wished Griff would grow up and use those words a bit more.
"Now that interruptions are over, I shall go over the rest of the rules," she announced grandly. "No going outside where Muggles can see us. No eating anything from the kitchen. No interfering with the charmed…" she trailed off as she realised Nagi had slithered under the door in search of his brother, and Huffle wasn't listening. "...the charmed watering buckets, which we shouldn't see because we're inside. No going in Master's experiment room. And no causing trouble," she finished forlornly. Being in charge wasn't much fun when no one listened to her. Or when everyone left.
Nagi was not interested in his overbearing sister's speech. Nor was he that interested in Griff's temper, but if he wanted to be Merlin's best familiar, that meant taking some care of the other three because Master cared for them. So Nagi slithered onto the rug in the long, wide hall set with chairs and tables on every side. He headed for the middle and the magically lengthened dragon-scale carpet Merlin kept for show. It was easier to move there than on the smooth stone floor (there were no dirt floors in Merlin's house). Griff wasn't in the hall, and Nagi doubted the lion would have gone into any of the other crowded-with-delicate-items areas of the house, in the mood his older brother was in. So outside it was.
This was going to go so well.
Never mind. Nagi was up to the challenge. Someday the Master would see it; someday the whole world would see it. Master might even leave Nagi in charge then.
Besides, Nagi was not one for giving up easily. He headed straight towards the towering doors. (Please bear in mind anything made for humans towers over a snake; the doors were actually about a centaur's height, which is tall but not towering). Nagi commanded them to open, slipping off the dragon-scale rug. He hissed again as he made his way across the smooth stones, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. This was so much work. If Griff wasn't family and if it wouldn't please Master…
But he was and it would. So the snake, twisting entirely sidewise to gain a few centimeters forward, finally made it to the open door and slithered through, his tongue flicking out in relief. He closed the doors and lifted the top third of himself off the ground, swaying slightly. The mansion behind him looked like a one-room thatched hut a thrall would sleep in. Merlin was vain but he wasn't stupid, and he'd made the mansion much bigger and wealthier on the inside than the outside. Nagi approved. Especially since it made going around the outside much easier when looking for one of his siblings.
Because of course Griff wasn't in sight. Nagi sighed and lowered himself. Master's approval was something worth working for. But it was still work, because the clearing around the disguised mansion extended many human paces in the back, large enough for all the plants Merlin required. He'd reached an agreement with the nearby centaurs. He cleared the land, both parties planted what they wished, Merlin watered it, and the centaurs tended it as it had need (which meant every day in spring). It was spring. There might be centaurs out back. That meant Griff was probably not there. The centaurs tended to talk down to him, just like a certain raven did, and Griff wouldn't take the chance of company like that. So, the forest around the hut. Not south—that way led to the Muggle village, and Griff still had the wince-worthy memory of Merlin's disapproval the one time those Muggles had seen him. Nagi smiled to himself. He had never been caught by the Muggles. Not that they'd notice a meter-long grass snake as quickly as a lion cub larger than a border collie, but Griff had been caught and Nagi hadn't. That had as much to do with skill as with size; of that Nagi was sure.
So not south. Not north, where the garden was. East or west?
Nagi wove through the grass, going west. The river was a short run away (for a lion), and Griff had found adventure there before. Adventure was what the lion was always looking for. It caused so many problems.
It also made the silly cub easy to look for.
But the snake stopped short at the sound of a low growl rumbling behind him. He turned, the top half of his blue-green body riding gently over the bottom half before hitting the grass again. The growl emanated from closer to the mansion. Nagi raised himself up again. There he was, absurd lion cub. Crouched like a predator at the edge of the gardens, even his tail still. He stood just under the path of the charmed buckets. Nagi undulated over, looking for what caught his brother's attention.
It was just the garden. The wet, muddy garden. Yuck. The buckets were currently floating in from the river and dumping their water into designated larger buckets riddled with strategically placed leaks. The larger buckets sprinkled water onto all the nearby plants in a gentle rain, a perfect watering system. Merlin had agreed to water the garden because it would rarely be any work for him.
Griff the lion stared at the nearest bucket with rapt eyes. It was on its way to the river, and floated closer, closer, just overhead. Griff sprung up and batted at it with one paw, landing on all fours a moment later. The bucket had dodged, then continued on its way and out of reach. It was carefully charmed to avoid the attention of Muggles and physical collision with other objects. Griff growled again, frustrated.
"What are you doing?" Nagi inquired, raising himself higher. This was new.
"Trying to see if I'm faster than Master's spell." Griff crouched again, eyes on the next bucket, this one coming back from the river. He waited a moment more, just one more, and leaped. The bucket dodged, but Griff caught the edge of it in one claw, causing it to dump a third of its water on the grass, snake, and lion. Nagi hissed.
"I'll have to sunbathe now, you stupid cub!"
"Not a cub, not in years anyway," Griff responded absently, He crouched again, eyes fixed. "I almost had it."
Nagi prudently backed himself half a meter away, but stayed to watch. This could be interesting. Better than being bored inside. "Why?"
"Why try to catch spelled buckets of garden water?"
"Because it would annoy Row." Griff leaped again, the growl rumbling out once more as he missed. "Then it just became fun. Because I can't do it yet, but I will. Beating challenges is always fun." Nagi rolled his little black eyes and turned away, only to pause as Griff called out, "Don't you want to try?"
"Try leaping at a bucket? Oh yes, that's a great activity for a grass snake, you utter moron." (It should perhaps be explained that Griff's trip to the village had only happened the week before, and that Merlin had curtailed all the siblings' outside activities as a result. None of the three were very happy with the lion.)
"I bet you can't do it, I bet you can't do it," Griff sing-songed, before breaking off to leap for another bucket. He caught this one with his shoulder, managing to turn the entire bucket upside down. It continued on its merry way, upside-down, as he landed with a pleased look on his face. "I bet I can do it better than any of you could."
"Row could fly down and land on one," Nagi snapped back, but he wasn't leaving, still eyeing the bucket. It did present a challenge.
"Her aside. I bet I can do this better than you."
"I can't jump. Of course you'll be better at catching a bucket than me." That didn't make Griff any better than him in general.
Well, maybe a little. That irked the snake. Still, Nagi raised himself even higher, watching the buckets with one considering eye.
"You'd find another way, if you really wanted to. Fraidy-snake, fraidy-snake."
"Yes, you are, you're afraid I'll do it better than you. Come on, Nagi. Don't you want to have a bit of fun?"
Nagi eyed the lion speculatively. He was smarter than the lion, he knew. If he put his mind to catching a bucket, he would. It would put Griff in a better mood, having a sibling play with him, which would make Master happy when he came back. And Nagi could win. Again.
How to win? He couldn't jump, but then again, he thought, head turning towards the forest, that wasn't the only way to catch a bucket. "The next bucket that comes by, the first one to catch hold of it wins," the snake agreed before dropping. If there weren't rules he wouldn't win. He raced to the nearest sapling, one the buckets passed under, and slithered up it.***** He chose the lowest, strongest branch above the buckets, draped himself over it, and waited. He had the advantage. Buckets coming from the river would pass him first.
Of course, if he missed, falling would hurt.
Eh, beating Griff was worth it. Always.
Here one came. It went by Griff first, though—an empty bucket. He'd forgotten that, curse it! But so much the better, because Griff just missed it, and Nagi wouldn't have to get wet. The bucket bobbed nearer. Griff watched, emitting tiny growls as he followed the wooden target along. But he wasn't trying for it again, because Griff was fair like that.
Fairness was such a disadvantage.
Closer, closer, almost below—and drop, tail first, head last. Nagi felt the air whooshing around his long body, then felt the pain bruise him in three sections of his body as they struck the wooden sides and bottom. One coil was falling over the bucket's edge, but he was in, and his head stayed raised and unbruised. He smiled complacently because oh, yes. He won.
"It doesn't count as catching the bucket if you're in it," the lion complained, and Nagi sighed.
"Fine," he bit out, gathering all his coils. He dropped his head over the side once the weight of him was balanced, and began to wind himself around and around the rough wood, looping inside his body once to keep himself from falling as the bucket bobbed on its merry way. "Satisfied?" he called proudly when he finished. Nagi began chuckling when he saw the lion currently dodging bushes and dropped tree limbs as he followed his serpentine brother. The winner had the better seat.
"You win, fine!" the lion called. "Let's go back and play again." Nagi turned his head to slither back through his rope-like loop, still chuckling. He wouldn't be playing again, because he wasn't at all fond of bruises, but he could now hold his victory over Griff's head. And Griff was in a better mood. Double win.
"Ow! Owowow!" Nagi paused, looking back. Griff sprawled on the ground, one paw caught in a thornbush. Nagi rolled his eyes. Merlin constantly reminded him lions were made for a very different terrain than forested England (Merlin had rescued the cub from a trio of wizards, and Master couldn't make the trip overseas to put him where he belonged), but the lion was always getting into trouble. Muggles catching sight of him, the big cat looking for high rocks to climb, getting scratches and cuts, the list went on and on. Now Nagi would have to go back and help him. He twisted himself around, heading for the knot, only to stiffen.
He heard moving water.
He was riding in an empty bucket.
He hissed, springing towards the knot. Through it, through it, come on! He wedged his head through, pulling the rest of his body behind him, through and through and through, he'd take a few bruises over getting dumped in a river. He could swim, all barred grass snakes could,****** but this river had a swift, strong current. He had no intention of testing his muscles against its strength.
He unwound the last circle from the bucket just as he felt it falling, right into the river. Spluttering at the cold, Nagi tried to wrap himself back around the bucket, to ride it back up, but all he felt was the cold, the rushing tumbling cold and pressure. The bucket was gone.
Fine, his strength against the water it was. He would win. He began rippling his body, pushing against the water. He pushed, pushed, and pushed, but his head didn't break into the air, nor his tail; where was up?
There, his tail! Breaking into the air; turn the other way! But before he could, something warm and hard closed around his tail, pulling the rest of him up as well. He lifted his body towards it, his head, his neck, the first third breaking into air, pulling up next to something itchy and gold. Griff's mane! Nagi wound himself around the lion's head, letting Griff spit his tail out and focus on swimming with three powerful paws; the one under Griff's left shoulder floated limp. But Griff was still getting them there. Nagi laid on the lion's head and breathed in the feeling of the sun, the absence of water, the air. Three things he loved very much at the moment.
Griff gained a length, then another, though they were much farther downstream than before. He reached the rocks, limping out of the water, and, once he was standing on the grass, he shook himself. Nagi went flying. For the second time that day the snake hit wood with bruising force, whimpering as he fell into the grass.
"Griff, you blithering idiot, I was on your head!"
"You got yourself dumped into the river and I rescued you! The least you could do is thank me!"
"Thanks for rescuing me from a wetting your challenge got me into? Oh, yes, thanks so much!"
"I didn't tell you to knot yourself to a barrel headed into the river! If anyone's the idiot, it's not me!"
Nagi stretched himself into a straight line, wincing. He didn't have a reply to that, not one he could think of and keep from hissing with pain in the same moment. Stupid lion. Row was right to lecture him.
Griff stalked over. "Are you all right?" he asked gruffly. Nagi glared at him. "Right, fine, we're both to blame. Pax?" Nagi shook his head, as much to stretch his neck as to say no. He hurt.
Griff sighed. "Right, up you go." He held out one paw, a discontent growl rolling out when Nagi still glared at him. "I promise not to shake you off this time. Promise. I doubt you're up to getting home. Up you get."
Griff could be as bossy as Row. But he was also right, and he'd feel enough guilt that he wouldn't hold this over Nagi's head. Nagi sighed and headed for the paw, only to pause. It had red specks on it, dots steadily growing as the lion held it out.
Stupid, stupid lion.
"You ripped yourself out the thornbush to come find me, didn't you. Idiot." Griff shrugged.
"You were going downstream too fast for me to wait." Nagi sighed, and nosed along the paw with his head. Griff didn't usually let a little pain bother him; if he hadn't been using the paw to swim, there were probably thorns in it. The tiny snake head ruffled the fur, checking each tangle and each blood spot, and using his small mouth to pull out three brown thorns. Griff sighed with relief after the third, a warm puff that made Nagi dance in the air. "Thanks," the lion said. Nagi's tiny head nodded. "Still don't want a ride?" the lion offered. The snake huffed but wound up the lion's leg and curled in his mane. Together the two of them set out for home.
"It was both our fault," Griff said when they were about halfway. Nagi said nothing. He really excelled at that. "It was," the lion insisted. Nagi still didn't reply. "And I'm sorry about my bit. Really. I just needed to blow off steam after Row kept bringing up...I just wanted to do something."
Nagi sighed. "If I agree we both played some part, however large or small, in this latest disaster, will you shut up and not tell anyone about it?" He'd realised several steps ago that he'd be dry by the time they reached home. Which meant their siblings—and Master!—wouldn't know about what had happened if Griff kept his mouth shut. Normally the lion was far too honorable to keep quiet, but if he thought he'd made a promise, or was doing it for someone else's benefit, he'd keep silent. No one would know. Griff could have gotten wet in the garden, to no one's surprise, and his paw would be pretty well healed, now that the thorns were gone.
"Sure," Griff said agreeably. He fell back into the silence Nagi was so comfortable in for another fifteen minutes, till they reached a very familiar break in the trees. "Home ahead."
Nagi raised himself up from the drying mane. "Something ahead sounds...like trouble," he murmured, and Griff stopped to listen as well, yellow ears pricking up.
They heard banging, like something hitting wood, and Nagi instinctively tightened the loops of his body in Griff's mane, knowing that-
Yes, there it was. Griff took off running towards the banging noise. Around the house, towards the garden, only skidding to a stop when he saw Row cawing from a tree as Huffle stood on her hind legs, trying in vain to bat an upside-down barrel right-side up again. Row noticed them at once.
"Thank the four founders you're here," she called, fluttering down to hop impatiently from one foot to another. "We've got a problem."
*I've found a few different words for the social classes from different resources, but I'm going with thralls, who were pretty much farming slaves; ceorls, who were free and could be soldiers or farmers or even sometimes landowners; and thanes, the nobles. The ninth century was Anglo-Saxon England, if it helps, and the first king to unite England came either at 899 AD or 927 AD, depending on the resource. I can't wait till the libraries open and I can go get a book on this. I'm pretty sure it's the 899 date.
**The legends of Brownies started in Rome, but migrated to Scotland, and they sound very much like house elves, down to the way they're often dressed.
***Pronounced Row-kel-ah-nee-kah, if you were wondering.
****According to what I've read, Merlin was a Slytherin.
*****Grass snakes can, by the way, slither up walls, trees, and stone hedges, and apparently often do this to reach rats in attics. I'm not sure I wanted to know that information.
******Grass snakes can also swim well, which makes sense, since their diet includes frogs, but seriously. I had planned to have Griff rescue a helpless snake, and suddenly I found out the snake wouldn't be helpless. Currents and maybe rapids it is, then.
A/N: I am, by the way, a Gryffindor. I love my house, but I will be the first to acknowledge each house has its faults. This story is not meant in any way to bash one house or another, nor are the animals meant to be perfect representations of each house. They're young, first of all, younger than first years (except for Row), and they're also meant to be individuals, not stereotypes. I'm also a flawed author! Each animal should get their chance to fail and to shine throughout the story, but if you think I'm treating any of them unfairly by the third or so chapter, don't hesitate to let me know!