Arthur glanced to the clock, seeing the clock hand hadn’t moved since the last time he checked. Surely the clock must be broken. Time didn’t really move this slowly. There was absolutely nothing to do, so Arthur sat alone on the staircase, staring at the clock on the wall and praying the day would just end already. But of course, it was just barely past two in the afternoon. There were eight more hours to suffer through.
Arthur hated his life now. He used to live in a beautiful home in the middle Berlin. He used to be able to roam the city all day with his friends. Oh yeah, and he actually had friends. But then 1939 came around and the stupid war started. At first things weren’t so bad. Nothing much happened after Poland fell (well, nothing Arthur really cared about anyway). Life seemed to go back to normal, until his father, Uther Pendragon, who held some sort of important position in the Nazi party, as he always reminded everyone, had gotten a promotion. Sure, Arthur had been excited for his father, until he found out that the particular promotion required his entire family to leave Berlin. Now he lived in a stupid, prison-like house somewhere in Poland.
It was so lonely here. The house always felt so empty. It was just him, his father (who was always locked in his office doing god-knows-what), and his sister. Of course there were always the maids, and the occasional soldier passing through, but they never talked to him. Arthur’s sister, Morgana, was almost never around. Ever since the war started, Morgana had devoted herself to the Nazi party. She mostly just locked herself in her room, studying the ideology. Maybe she really believed in all of it, maybe she was trying to compensate. Theirs was the perfect Aryan family, except for Morgana with her deep brown, almost black hair. Father didn’t seem to mind, though. He was so proud of Morgana, but she was a woman and would never be able to follow in his footsteps and become an S.S. officer. Which is why his attention was often directed to Arthur. And Arthur hated it. It wasn’t that he wasn’t devoted to the party of anything. He’d grown up in it, it’s all he’s ever known. But all that reading, it just wasn’t Arthur’s thing. The list of Nazi works he’s studied started and ended with Mein Kampf, and it had taken Father months to get Arthur to read it. Arthur would much rather spend his time reading epic stories of ancient battles and wizards and princes and princesses. And dragons! Arthur loved dragons. By now, Father had mostly given up on Arthur, so he was free to wander around the lonely property while his sister was in her room and his father was in his office. The house and grounds were pretty big, but in the two months they’d lived there, Arthur had managed to explore every nook and cranny there was. He was forbidden to ever leave the grounds, and there was nothing left to do on the grounds, so Arthur sat alone on the staircase. He’s been doing that a lot lately.
Arthur often liked to imagine what existed beyond the house and the grounds. He knew there was something out there. He had seen it in the distance when they were moving in, and he used to be able to see something from his bedroom window. When he had mentioned this to his father, his bedroom window was boarded up and the backyard put strictly off limits. Arthur was dying to find out what was out there, but there was simply no way to slip away into the woods with so many soldiers everywhere, all reporting directly to his father. So Arthur sat and waited, hoping for his chance to do something.
* * * *
It was several nights later that the Pendragons finally all got together for a family dinner. In Berlin, this was a daily occurrence, but they hadn’t had dinner together once since moving to Poland. It wouldn’t seem like it would be difficult for three people to find time to have dinner together, especially considering that Arthur never had anything going on. But Father always was busy with work and Morgana claimed she had to study.
The dinner turned out to be extremely awkward and silent. Arthur guessed that’s what happens when a family hardly talks to each other in two months. Twenty minutes passed before anyone spoke a word. Finally, Morgana decided to break the silence.
“This dinner is nice.”
Father just nodded, not really paying attention.
“Yeah.” Arthur agreed. “I wish we could do this more often.”
Turning to his father, Arthur added, “I hate how much you have to work.”
Morgana seemed shocked Arthur would say something so brash, and looked as if she was going to kick him from under the table, but Father didn’t seem bothered.
“I know it can be hard, but I have a very important job.”
“It can’t be that important.” Arthur muttered bitterly.
“Our father is an S.S. officer.” Morgana said harshly.
“So?” Arthur asked.
“He protects us from the threat of Jews. You’ve no idea where we would be without the S.S.” Morgana explained, her voice starting to sound calmer but her eyes growing more murderous.
“I just don’t understand why the Jews are so dangerous that father has to work al…” Arthur started to say, but was cut off, not by Morgana but by his father.
“I know you’ve read Mein Kampf, Arthur. It explains everything. Really, you should know these things if you ever want to be a member of the S.S. You’re almost 18, son. Less than three years and you…”
“But what if I don’t want to be in the S.S.?”
Father froze, his face completely devoid of all emotion. Arthur knew now he really fucked up.
“I’m sorry.” Arthur said quickly. “I’m just sick of you having to work so much. Ever since mother died…” He trailed off, as if getting choked up. Father’s face softened. Bringing up his mother always helped get him out of tough situations with his father.
“It’s just until Germany’s won the war.” Father said.
“I know. But it’s already 1941. It’s been almost two years. How much longer?”
Father didn’t answer, instead deciding to change the subject.
“I’ve noticed you’ve been just sitting around lately.”
Arthur just shrugged.
“Why don’t you come up with a project you could work on.” Father suggested.
“I’m not writing a report, if that’s what you’re saying.” Arthur stated.
“No. I was thinking you could build something. Like a swing maybe.”
“Father, I’m 15.” Arthur exclaimed indignantly.
“Well then build something else. Just do something. I’m sure you can find some tools and materials in the shed out back.”
Arthur could see that his father wasn’t about to let this go, so he just nodded silently in agreement. Claiming he was tired, he excused himself from the table and went to his bedroom.
* * * *
Although he really didn’t want to, Arthur decided the next morning to build something. Maybe he wanted, deep down, to please his father. Maybe it was just sheer boredom. Either way, Arthur skipped breakfast that morning and went out to the shed to find the tools. He had never really built anything before, and actually had no experience with tools what-so-ever. He’d figure he’d mess around and hope that whatever he threw together looked something that could possibly resemble anything other than a mess of wood and nails. He doubted his father would really care what he did, just that he did something.
It was a bit chilly that morning, and it looked as if it was going to rain. At that point, though, Arthur was beyond caring. He happily skipped around to the back garden, which was really just a pathetic little patch of brown grass surrounded by a crumbling wall. In the corner stood (just barely) a small little wooden shed. It looked as if it once was painted red, but now the walls were just weathered wood with flakes of red paint scattered around.
Arthur walked up and pulled open the door (which was not an easy task considering how rusted the hinges were) and scanned over the shelves that lined the interior walls. Most of the shed was filled with the most useless odds and ends imaginable, save for the top shelf (because of course the useful things had to be the hardest to reach) which held a modest toolbox. Figuring that was probably a good place to start, Arthur pulled himself up onto the first shelf then started climbing. The shelves did not look like they would support him, but they surprisingly held up, and Arthur managed to reach the top shelf. He was about to grab the toolbox when he noticed the window. It hung above the highest shelf, cracked and too grimy to see through. It looked as if it hadn’t been opened in years, but was propped slightly open with an old rag. Arthur pushed the window up, seeing it opened into the woods beyond the garden wall. He glanced around, making sure the coast was clear, then he slipped through the window. He tumbled to the forest floor, finally feeling as if he was free for the first time in months. He picked himself up, then decided to take off running.
Arthur raced between the trees that towered above him, not caring at all where he ended up. The images of the forest flew by, and before he knew it, Arthur had run out of the forest and into a field filled with tall grass and yellow wild flowers. It stretched several meters ahead before meeting the base of a hill. The sun was low in the sky, night would be upon him soon. But Arthur decided he had to see what was beyond the hill. There was no telling when he’d have another chance to slip off the property unnoticed. He might as well make the most of the time he had.
He scrambled up the hill, finding himself in front of a massive barbed-wire fence. Arthur inched forward, gazing over the strange place in front of him. The ground beyond the fence was dead and cracking. The sky was blanketed in a dark haze that seemed to be coming from a chimney in the distance, pouring black smoke into the sky. The stench was awful, the whole place smelled of death. Then Arthur noticed the boy.
He was crouched behind a pile of earth on the other side of the fence, his skeleton-like arms hugging his thin frame. His head was shaved and he wore what looked like blue and white striped pajamas.
Arthur crept closer, but the boy didn’t seem to notice him.
The boy jumped, looking up at Arthur in a panic as he tried to back away.
“Don’t be scared!” Arthur said quickly. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The boy remained frozen in place, his piercing blue eyes fixed on Arthur.
“Do you speak German?” Arthur asked, remembering that he was not in fact in Germany anymore.
The boy nodded slightly, but didn’t say anything. He still didn’t move a centimeter.
“I’m Arthur.” Arthur said cheerfully. “What’s your name?”
The boy looked at him curiously, but remained silent.
“Are you alright?” Arthur asked.
“I have to go.” The boy announced, then ran from behind the pile and across the dead field beyond.
“Well alright then.” Arthur muttered to himself.
The last light of day was fading from the sky, so Arthur turned around and headed home, the image of the strange boy still in his mind.
* * * *
Sneaking into the woods through the window in the shed proved to be quite easy, to Arthur’s surprise. No one ever went into the back garden, nor did they care enough about him to notice his absence. Trips to the woods became a daily event for Arthur. He could spend hours just lying by the small creek, or climbing the trees, or just walking around. But no matter what he did, Arthur could never stop thinking about that strange place beyond the fence. He was so curious, had so many questions, but at the same time he was terrified of it.
It took Arthur a week to work up the courage to go back. It took some time finding it again, but he did eventually stumble back upon that hill. The smell when he reached the top was just as bad as he remembered it. What on earth was being burning? He strained his eyes, trying to see the smoke-stack through the fence. That was when he noticed the boy. It was the same boy from before, crouched in the same spot behind the pile.
Arthur walked up to the fence slowly, trying not to scare the boy like last time.
“Hello?” He whispered. The boy looked up, but didn’t jump like last time. He just looked confused.
Arthur continued. “Hi. I was here a few days ago. My name’s…”
“Arthur. I remembered.” The boy cut in. His accent was strange, but he didn’t seem to have much trouble speaking German. “My name’s Merlin.”
“Hello Merlin.” Arthur said, walking up to the fence so he could reach through it.
“No!” Merlin shouted before Arthur could touch anything. Merlin turned back to the pile, picked up a small piece of metal and threw it at the fence. It hit it and with the sound of a sharp pop, fell to the ground in a shower of sparks.
“It’s electric.” Merlin explained. “If you touch it, you die.”
Merlin smiled, then sat back down in front of the fence. Arthur decided to follow suit.
“So what are you doing here?” Arthur finally asked.
“What are you doing here?” Merlin countered.
“I was bored.” Arthur answered.
“Yeah. Me too.” Merlin said with a smile (an absolutely gorgeous smile). “I don’t fancy building much, so I’m hiding back here so I don’t have to.”
“Yeah. They have us building barracks. Over there.” Merlin explained, pointing across the field to several wooden structures. There were other boys in the same strange outfits as Merlin, but they were just standing in a line.
“Shit! Shift’s over.” Merlin exclaimed, jumping up and grabbing a hammer that had been discarded on the ground.
“Bye!” He called, then ran back across the field.
* * * *
Weeks flew by. Arthur returned to the fence whenever he could, and to his delight, Merlin was always waiting for him. The two would just sit and talk for hours on end. Arthur would tell of his life in Berlin, and Merlin would go on and on about his life before the war. He never talked about how he ended up in this strange place, and Arthur never asked. He figured it was probably a sensitive topic for Merlin. They told jokes, and laughed until they cried, and tried to play stupid games through the fence. Arthur would bring his favourite books and read aloud to Merlin, and Merlin would tell the legends his grandparents had told him when he was young. Arthur loved watching Merlin’s eyes light up as he told stories of magical stone warriors that would spring to life, or magical shape-shifting birds that lived off blood, or of times when giants roamed the Earth. For those fews hours each day, everything seemed almost perfect. Almost.
As the weeks passed, Arthur began to notice something changing in Merlin. Merlin never stopped telling his stories, or stopped laughing, but his face was becoming more gaunt, his eyes looking more sunken every time Arthur visited. He was growing weaker by the day. Arthur tried to bring it up a few times, but Merlin never seemed to want to talk about it. Arthur would drop it, figuring it was a tough subject for Merlin, but after a month he couldn’t keep the act up.
“Why are you so thin?” Arthur finally demanded one day.
Merlin looked taken aback. After a moment, he just shrugged. “Can you keep reading?”
Arthur closed the book he had been reading aloud, setting in in the grass beside him.
“Why are you so thin?” Arthur asked again.
Merlin didn’t answer.
“Honestly, you look awful.” Arthur continued. “You look like you’re starving.”
Merlin just stared at him, his eyes the only answer Arthur needed.
“Oh god! You really are starving.” Arthur exclaimed as the realisation hit him. “Why on earth wouldn’t you tell me!?”
“I didn’t want you to get mixed up in it all.” Merlin muttered.
“I have food! I have plenty of food. You should have told me. I’ll bring some tomorrow…”
“No.” Merlin cut in.
“What do you mean no? You look lik…”
“It’s too dangerous.” Merlin insisted.
Arthur stood up, grabbing the book on the ground. “You look as if you are about to drop dead.”
Merlin’s eyes filled with guilt, but he didn’t say anything.
“I’m bringing food. Tomorrow.” Arthur said, then turned to leave. Merlin tried to protest, but Arthur was already halfway down the hill.
* * * *
The next day it poured. Rain pelted the windows, it pooled in the yard turning the sad, pathetic, patch of dead grass into a sad, pathetic patch of mud. Arthur, his bag full of bread and cheese and scraps of meat he’d manage to steal from the pantry, wasn’t about to let this stop him from returning to the fence, but as he tried slipping into the back garden, someone stopped him.
“Hey. Where are you going?” Boomed a voice from behind. Arthur turned around to see a young soldier walking towards him. His blonde hair and blue eyes matched Arthur’s, and he only seemed to be a year or two older.
“I… uh… forgot something outside.” Arthur answered quickly.
“You’ll get soaked. Stay inside today.” The soldier commanded.
“You can get it when it stops raining.” The soldier said, his voice softening. “I’m Klaus, by the way. And I assume you are Arthur?”
“Yeah.” Arthur answered sullenly, turning away from the garden.
“Klaus!” Shouted a voice. A moment later Arthur’s father marched into the room.
“I see you met my son.” He said coldly. Klaus looked terrified, just like everyone else who had the misfortune to work for Father .
“Get back to work! There is a transfer coming in from another camp, the train arrives this afternoon. Make sure the crematorium is fully operational.”
Klaus nodded stiffly, then hurried from the room. Father turned to leave, but paused just before he reached the door.
“Oh, and Arthur, you will be starting school tomorrow.”
“What?!” Arthur nearly shouted. “Where? Will I be going into town?”
Father laughed, actually laughed at that. “No! Of course not. I will not have you associating with the like of Poles.” He spat, saying Poles as if the word itself was dirty. “I’ve hired a tutor. You and Morgana will share him. I trust he will give you a proper education that aligns with our beliefs.” And with that, he left.
* * * *
Arthur laid in the field next to the fence, staring up into the sky. Merlin sat on the other side of the fence, finishing up the last of the food Arthur had brought that day. Several days had passed since Arthur had started “school”, which was just some old guy shoving books on him and ranting about how wonderful Hitler is. Most days now, he didn’t have a chance to get away until five, and he always had to be back home before seven for dinner or the maids would get suspicious.
The lesson today had been particularly exhausting. Herr Schmidt, Arthur’s tutor, had him and Morgana read through a pamphlet about the dangers of Jews. He didn’t think there could be so many ways to say “Jews are greedy and will destroy everything that is right in the world”, but the authors of the pamphlet really outdid themselves. They managed to fill 80 pages with just different variations of that. Arthur was sure his eyes were going to fall out.
“I hate having to have school.” Arthur grumbled.
“I wish I could go to school.” Merlin muttered.
“You don’t go to school here?” Arthur asked.
“There is no school. I haven’t been to a real school in three years.”
Merlin shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal.
“I was kicked out of school as soon as the war started.”
“Why?” Arthur asked. Merlin stared at him for a moment, as if he was trying to decide if the question was real or not.
“Because I’m a Jew...” He said uncertainly.
Arthur immediately sat up. Surely Merlin was joking. But studying his face, he could see that he was being completely serious.
“What?! You’re a Jew?”
“That’s why I’m here.” Merlin said, motioning around him.
Arthur stood up, not taking his eyes off Merlin.
“Are you alright?” Merlin asked, the concern plastered across his face.Arthur started backing away, his heart racing. How could he be so stupid!? Every warning about Jews that he’s heard all his life suddenly raced through his mind. They were tricky. Cunning. Greedy. They only sought destruction. They’d want people like him dead. They had caused Germany to lose the Great War. On and on and on. Arthur stumbled back, not seeing clearly but knowing that he needed to get away, and quickly. He could hear Merlin asking where he was going as he started to run away. He crashed back into the forest, tearing his way back to the safety of his home.