Merlin still studied under Salazar Slytherin in this world. It wasn’t quite as easy as a decision for the old master, but in the end, Merlin possessed the strongest and most developed magic anyone had ever encountered.
In fact, it was Lord Slytherin who had fought for the young boy to be accepted to the school, despite having so little actual education. Merlin could not speak, which was the only acceptable way for a deaf or HoH person to participate in society in those days. He could, however, mind-think extremely well, and was fluent in druidic sign language.
The main person who opposed bringing the ten-year-old boy to Hogwarts was Lord Gryffindor. He saw Merlin as a simpleton, and unteachable. He cautioned about the danger of teaching such great power to someone who might not understand when they were destroying things. He even got Lady Ravenclaw to side with him. In the end, though, Slytherin proved that the boy could, in fact, comprehend what was happening in the world.
Spoken spells were completely out for Merlin, so his education was fast-tracked to nonverbal spells. For a very long time, they did not give him a wand, since he needed to learn to properly separate his thoughts from intentionally casting spells. Children were actually very good at nonverbal magic, but typically they weren’t taught it for the fear of them accidentally casting in their sleep or in a fit of anger.
It took three years to catch Merlin up to a typical Hogwarts student in their first year. Of course, most of this time was spent developing sign language skills between the boy and his master (and inventing a great deal of signs), teaching Merlin to fully separate his inward and outward thoughts, and how to access his magic intentionally. These were the kinds of things that most Hogwarts students never mastered.
Merlin was also formally taught to read and write in English, French, and Latin. This was especially hard for the boy, because English was three quarters of a foreign language to him. Many attempts were made to teach the boy to speak, and they were never officially abandoned, but Lord Slytherin determined very early on that Merlin would never be able to cast magic aloud, and thus the old master did not care much for the time spent on those lessons. Merlin, who hated speaking lessons, didn’t ever complain about his teacher’s attitude.
It was not until his thirteenth birthday that the boy was given a wand to keep permanently and use without needing supervision. It was one of the best days of Merlin’s life. There was a particularly large feast for dinner that night, and while most students weren’t very close with the boy, he was congratulated profusely. The only sour spot was the look on Gryffindor’s face. Merlin pretended not to notice the man loudly (and thus clearly to his lip-reading skills) pronouncing that the world was no longer safe.
Merlin did have friends at Hogwarts. It took him a long time to become comfortable in a hearing world, especially after being raised by his mother, who couldn’t hear a tree falling in front of her, and was well practiced in sign language. But, with the help of his mind-thinking, and the development of his English skills, he started to make a few friends in the castle. Many students acted oddly around him, but others committed to learned sign language. Some even learned to mind-speak back to him. Those fair few became his first real friends in the world. Finally, there were people he could communicate with properly. (Slytherin was good at sign language, but it was not exactly the same as think-communicating.)
It was after his thirteenth birthday that the rest of the school seemed to realize just how powerful Merlin was.
Most students thought that he was Lord Slytherin’s charity case. Some thought he was the man’s bastard, or a disgraced son or nephew. Others whispered (pointlessly) that Merlin was dangerous, and that he was kept at Hogwarts so the masters could keep an eye on him and keep him from hurting anyone. These particular rumors were spread within Gryffindor tower in particular.
It was only the masters and the seasoned apprentices who assisted Slytherin in his teaching and research who knew the extend of Merlin’s power. They had seen the boy – only ten years old – transform an entire wardrobe into a friendly goat with feather-soft wool and a gentle bleat. And it was all done wordlessly and wandlessly, apparently on a whim. That had been Merlin’s first week in the castle. Over the years, they had seen many more feats of incredible magic, always so effortlessly. The boy seemed to live and breathe magic. It was understanding exactly what he was doing and how he was doing it that proved to be difficult for him.
But, with the graduation to a wand, and three solid years of theory and practice behind him, it became very clear that Merlin was no charity case. Initially, many people were surprised to find that Merlin was placed directly into third year classes, with students who were almost entirely older than him. But, after a few short lessons, he was clearly the best student in the class. He was levitating and banishing objects with great ease, and increasing control. His transfiguration, in particular, was very advanced. He even seemed bored with the concept of turning a mere bird into a cup and back again. Two months in, he seemed to have mastered the curriculum for the entire year.
“Stay in your classes,” Slytherin insisted, when Merlin asked (again) to move to more advanced material.
“It’s so boring! I want to learn new magic!” Merlin had replied, frustrated. “The older students get to learn at their own pace!”
“You are not supposed to be learned more magic,” Slytherin explained angrily. “You have your whole life to learn new magics. You are learning precision and control. You are supposed to be practicing channeling your magic completely through your wand.”
“Then put me in classes for it! Or teach me!”
“It cannot be taught. There aren’t any classes for it.”
Merlin sulked for that entire year. He didn’t like how people acted around him, now that they knew what kind of magic he could do. The rumors about being dangerous had gotten worse, too. He continued to exceed at every class, but still lacked the finesse that Slytherin seemed to be looking for. Well, almost every class. Merlin was still just about average at potion-making. And this, above all else, seemed to convince his master that he was not good enough to learn advanced magic.
In fact, Merlin wasn’t put into accelerated classes for another year after that. Aside from assisting in his master’s research, he was indistinguishable from a typical student, except that he was incredibly talented compared to his peers. It wasn’t until he started working with Lord Gryffindor that things started to make sense.
Do you prefer mind-speak? Gryffindor asked, somewhat gruffly.
I don’t need it, Merlin replied, wary of his Professor who was unafraid of telling him just how much he didn’t like him.
This work is delicate and precise. I need clear communication. Forego all formalities. Is mind-speak best for you?Gryffindor asked again, slightly irritated.
They worked together on the old stones of the castle, enchanting each one to protect the students within it. To make the very foundation of the building eternal and full of life. It was a long project, and Merlin spent many hours pouring magic into the north tower.
Ugh. I can tell you’ve been working on this section. Sloppily done. Gryffindor told him one day.
What? But the magic is perfect. The stone is bonded with the rest of the castle. Merlin replied, affronted at being told he was doing sloppy work. It was a new feeling for him, with regards to magic.
Gryffindor rolled his eyes. You fool. Magic is not just about the result. It is about the method. It is about efficiency. Look at my wall. He gestured to and older, completed part of the tower. Reach out an feel the magic there. What is it like?
Merlin did so. He was taken aback for a moment, because he almost couldn’t tell there was any magic in the old stones. They were completely benign, seemingly normal stones. And yet, they were also bonded to the magic of the castle. How did you do that?
I used a spell. An ancient enchantment. And I didn’t just throw magic around like it is mine to command. Now look at yours. I can feel your magic from here. It is erratic, almost with a life of its own. And it overflows into the world. Such a waste.
Merlin sat down at his wall. It was, indeed, overflown with magic. And when he felt for it, it was uneven. Even worse, it felt… tense. It felt purposeless. He thought of what might happen, if someone tried to capture that magic. It would leave the stone easily, if the right person tried to guide it. The overflow of power made it unstable, even dangerous.
Is all my work like that? He asked, worried.
Why don’t you find out?
Merlin was sent to Gaius out of desperation and fear. The desperation was on Merlin’s part. His mother was struggling, and in danger of losing the farm. He needed a job quickly, and it needed to be somewhere that was big enough for him to enjoy a degree of anonymity. The fear came from Lady Ravenclaw. She had been the least involved in Merlin’s education, and thus the most surprised when a sixteen-year-old boy perfectly demonstrated nonverbal transfiguration of a human eye (removing the cataract). Perhaps she had believed Merlin would lose most of his wandless magic with the introduction of a wand. But she did not like the idea of his power. And so, she was the one who orchestrated for the boy to be sent to Camelot, where he would be forced to live in secret and keep himself out of the more ostentatious and destructive types of magic.
The cover for Merlin’s apprenticeship was that he was learning to be a healer. It was not easy to convince people that a fatherless deaf boy was capable of treating injuries, but Merlin did not mind so much. After all, his mother had been a healer too. It was one of the few skills that was valuable enough that it didn’t matter who you were, if you mastered it. If people needed you badly enough.
The confrontation with Arthur went a bit differently this time around. Merlin had improved his speech quite a. bit through his years at Hogwarts, but he knew better than to give a group of bullies any reason to belittle him. So, he had simply stood in front of Arthur’s knife, silent and daring.
“Guards, have this boy arrested for antagonizing the crown prince.”
Later, Gaius went to see Arthur, after hearing about Merlin’s fate. “Sire, please, he is my apprentice. I am sure there is an explanation. He’s only just arrived in town.”
Arthur, who loved Gaius like a father, felt a brief stab of fear that he had been found out in his actions. Still, he was petulant enough to say, “The boy interrupted me and my knights in the middle of our practice, and stood in my way. Then he refused to speak a work or explain himself. What explanation is there for that?”
“The boy is deaf, my Lord. He cannot hear at all, and had never learned to speak. Perhaps he was confused.”
Arthur paused. His guilt grew. “Oh. I didn’t realize. He didn’t look deaf…”
Gaius frowned at Arthur. “What, might I ask, would a deaf person look like, my Lord?”
Arthur did not answer. He was too busy considering this inner bias. Instead, with all the formality of a prince, he said, “My apologies Gaius. The poor boy must have been very confused. I will have him released at once. See to it that he doesn’t get in any more trouble, though. It’s a dangerous place in Camelot for someone who can’t defend themselves. And keep him away from my knights!”
“Yes, sire. Thank you.”
The thing about this world is that Arthur doesn’t know how to feel about Merlin, who he knows was wrongly imprisoned. He has a bit more guilt, and a bit more hesitance. And so, when he spots Merlin walking through the lower town the next day, he doesn’t antagonize the boy. A part of him want to call out to him, but by the time he decides to do it, Merlin has walked too far, and it occurs to Arthur that it would be pointless anyway.
In this world, Merlin was still at the feast as a server (everyone used signals to summon the servers in all the noise anyway), and he still saved Arthur’s life. When he looked back on the events of that night, Merlin wasn’t sure exactly why he did it. He hadn’t had time to think about it, even when the world seemed to slow around him. But it was the same instinct that had made him stand in front of Arthur’s knife just the day before. Something in him hated violence, and he had always hated bullies.
Uther was just as ecstatic to congratulate Merlin, but the conversation went a bit differently.
“You shall have a reward! Whatever you like!” he announced to the room. Unfortunately, he was not actually facing Merlin when he did so, and thus made it very difficult for the boy to read anything from his lips.
“I don’t understand,” Merlin said, and the sound was strained. His words were stiff, as if the boy had cotton in his mouth, and it took both king and prince by surprise. Uther because he did not know what exactly was wrong, and Arthur because he did, but was unsure how to confront it.
“Please, sire, this is my ward, Merlin. The boy has no hearing,” came Gaius’s voice from the crowd, as the man made his way up to the high table.
“Is there nothing to be done for him? That would be a satisfactory reward for saving the life of my son, would it not?”
Merlin, who had caught on to the situation, mind-spoke to Gaius and said, “Ask him to save Mum’s farm.”
Gaius hesitated, then explained. “There is no cure, my lord. But Merlin is here with me to earn wages to support his mother. She owns a small stead in Ealdor, but it is being threatened, and she may need relief from bandits.”
Uther sighed. “Ealdor lies in Cenred’s Kingdom. To take knights there would be seen as an act of war. The same could be said for regular grain rations or money sent. Cenred would claim I am attempting to curry favor and stir up a rebellion. I can offer the boy better wages, though. Gaius, he shall work in the royal household. He shall be Prince Arthur’s manservant.”
“What?” Arthur demanded, deeply affronted.
“He can’t,” Gaius insisted desperately, picturing Merlin spending every day around a member of the royal family.
Merlin sent Gaius a furious look, then spared a brief sneer for Arthur. Then, he faced King Uther, who had killed his people and villainized his talents, and said with the calculating confidence of his master, “I can.”
“Then it is settled.”