Merlin cheated at cards.
It may not seem like a lot to you. You’ve no doubt grown up on the legend of “Mr. Perfect.” Most people have been indoctrinated with it. But it’s important to me—because it pinpoints in a single instance what I had to put up with my whole life.
I doubt you’ve heard of me. My name is Ambrosius. I can hear you now—but wasn’t Merlin’s second name Ambrosius? No. No, it wasn’t.
My name was Ambrosius, but somewhere between the date of my half-brother’s birth and yours, that upstart charlatan stole my identity. Like he stole everything else.
I don’t mean to sound bitter, but look at it from my perspective. I was the elder by almost a decade. By the time my mother got herself inconvenienced by her otherworldly paramour, I was already beginning to show quite an aptitude for the magical arts. I was apprenticed to Magus Cantacerous himself.
“Ol’ Cantankerous” everyone called him…good times…
He was the greatest mind of his generation, magically-speaking. Of course, no one remembers his name at all since the mighty Merlin came along.
It was obvious from the day he was born that Merlin was different. For one thing, when he cried, every woman within the sound of his not-inconsiderable wails would drop whatever they were doing to cluster around his cradle and bill and coo.
It was disgusting.
I think it had something to do with the incubus blood, though Mother always swore that claim was a lie… All I know is that the brat had the temper of a demon alright. One minute he would be all smiles and giggles. Then someone would say something he didn’t like—and the whole household would hold its breath and hope he didn’t set something on fire.
Merlin was a magical savant. He didn’t even need any training—though Mother spared no expense to see he got it. I struggled for three months to master the spell to light a candle with no firetwist or tinder. I was so proud of myself when I did.
I ran to tell Mother…only to find baby Merlin sitting on her lap juggling colored balls of flame and laughing. He was six months old.
It went on like that for the next two decades. I would work my fingers to the bone, and my mind to a puddle to master a spell. Only to have Merlin learn it better in an hour. While taking a nap.
And then came the message…the message that I had been hoping for all my life. A summons from King Uther Pendragon looking for a mage to join his court…and aid him in a most delicate matter.
It was just a cattle call, really. There would be several other candidates competing, but it was a real chance for fame and glory.
I was nearly thirty, and had yet to find a patron. A mage without a king or lord to work for was little better than a hedge witch. All the major magicks required specialized equipment and components that were beyond the means of a simple household such as ours. Though it never seemed to inconvenience Merlin any. Mother always managed to find the money to support his whims.
Merlin was barely twenty. Yes, I know the stories tell of a stooped, gray-bearded ancient, but I was there, and they weren’t. He had been the pampered plaything of the entire village his whole life.
I don’t know how he came to hear of the message. In any case, before I had even fully assimilated its meaning, he was begging Mother to let him go to the challenge too.
My heart sank immediately. If it came down to it, I knew that the household could only afford to send one. Going by past experience, I was pretty sure I knew which one of us would go.
So it was a real surprise when Mother agreed to send one candidate—and to let us decide which of the two could go. And even more of a surprise when Merlin agreed to be bound by the outcome of a contest I chose. I had expected to be left at home while Merlin went on to fame and glory without even a chance to protest. In fact, I had been so sure of that outcome that I was momentarily at a loss as to what method of choice to suggest.
I blurted out the first thing I could think of…”High card draw.”
You have to understand; playing cards had but recently made their way down the Silk Road to the civilized lands. There were only a handful of the decks in the whole of the country. I always believed that Mother might have gotten hers directly from her demonic paramour.
You wouldn’t recognize the cards were you to see them. They had more in common with the Tarot deck than your modern fifty-two card standards. But the important features were still the same—a number of pips per card which could be used for our purpose.
So, we gathered in the solarium, the entire household gathering to watch the outcome. Merlin was even so generous as to offer me the first cut. “After all,” he said, in that rich baritone that charmed the birds from the trees, “it was your idea.”
There was something suspicious about the offer… “After you,” I insisted, with a nod that was the closest I was willing to give to a bow.
Merlin shrugged, and cut the cards, holding his choice close to his vest. “We’ll reveal them together,” he said with a smile.
I was still not sure about this whole affair, but I couldn’t figure out how he could rig it. I drew my card—it was a nine of coins! As numbers went, that was a pretty good one.
I held out my card triumphantly. Only a handful of cards could beat it, and I was mentally beginning to organize what belongings to pack…
Until Merlin sighed, shook his head, and held out his ten of strings.
The rest—as they say—is history. Merlin went on to fame and fortune as the greatest mage the world has ever known. His exploits were written and sung about all over the world. He spawned moving pictures and theatrical productions. Mention his name, and—nine times out of ten—your listener will know the name if not all the details.
And no one even remembers I existed…
It wasn’t until long after Merlin had ridden off to find this fame with Uther, and Arthur to follow, that I chanced upon that vest discarded in the bottom of his clothes chest. With a crumpled two of coins in the inside pocket. No wonder it was impossible to win at solitaire with that deck.
I told you Merlin cheated at cards.
But I got even when I sent him Nimue.