In the mornings, they ring the bells, once, twice, to signal the beginning of the day.
Arthur likes to get up before they sound, climbing up the Eastern Tower to see the sun rise over the hills. This area of Camelot has been built tight and narrow, catwalks of rusting pipes, and rickety metal. They'll have to rebuild this area when they get a chance, maybe recreate the wall out of stone, like in the older castles Arthur's seen in worn-out picture books. For the most part, only the guards make their way up the difficult ladders to their watchtower, but Arthur loves the quiet of it, where he doesn't feel like he's being squeezed in. They get new people all the time, traveling in from the countryside, and there's been quite a few births these past few years, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Arthur's father says that after the plague, no one was sure whether or not the human population would ever recover. He always smiles -- a thin, sad smile -- when he hears of a new baby, a new birthday, and he'll always remind Arthur that each life is not something to take lightly, that Arthur's own mother had been lost to childbirth. After her death, Arthur's father had turned his full attention towards running their tiny outpost, throwing everything he had into it, including Arthur himself.
"One day, you will be the one responsible for these people," his father likes to say. "I would not trust anyone less."
For now, Arthur helps lead the guards. He's younger than most of them, but he's known them all since he was little, and he's been training hard since he first learned how to pick up a gun. He went on his first foraging mission at the age of twelve, walking the the wide, empty streets, the old pavement overgrown with weeds, with two guards at his back. It had been the first time he'd been in a city before, outside of the protected walls of Camelot, and it had been beautiful and sobering all at once. The buildings were so tall, so imposing, and also so very dead.
Arthur had never realized how alive Camelot was, with its busy narrow streets, its crowded homes, its ever-increasing food issues. In the city, there was nothing, just the crunch of pavement underneath their feet, the rattle of wind against a boarded up window.
Most of their foraging was for scrap metal, engine parts, oil and equipment if they were lucky to overturn an old shed or garage that hadn't been picked over before. Most times, they manage come back with a few things, though the passing years have made for slim pickings. Almost anything worth taking has been stripped away or rusted over or long since spoiled.
Gaius has tales of the days before the plague. He'll sit the younger children down after dinner when everyone is sleepy and spin them tales of wars and political intrigue and some people called 'celebrities' that Arthur doesn't quite understand. Arthur likes the stories about television the best, just the thought of it, moving pictures on a screen, and the stories of a man with an ever-changing face and a blue box.
His father doesn't approve in the least. "I wish he wouldn't fill your head with that nonsense," his father would say. "That world is dead. This is the one we must live in."
There's a new group of people who have come to Camelot today from Ealdor. Travel between the various outposts has increased now that the plague has passed, and the guards had to be rigorous about whether or not anyone walking through their gates carried the disease. They usually get about ten new visitors per week. Traders, willing to risk their lives and their wares, carrying old jewelry, childrens' toys, travellers, trying to find a permanent home, farmers who have decided to take to the fields by themselves again, bringing in carts full of vegetables and fruits and meat.
Arthur watches them arrive from the catwalks that surround the outer wall. He's on guard duty that day, and he keeps a firm grip on his assault rifle as they pass through the outer checkpoints, watching them for any sign of deceit or malice. They're normal, for the most part. Arthur spots a few familiar faces, a few new ones, but no one who looks suspicious.
"Any good gossip?" Gwen asks after his shift is over. They like to meet near the edge of the kitchens, where they can smell the bread baking for the day and listen to the rattle of old pots and pans. "I heard that there's another boy our age." She grins, quick and sharp.
"Yes, there is. I saw him when they were coming in." Arthur has a vague impression of black hair, a boy skinny, skinnier than most, a sweet goofy smile, carrying a pack on his back as his gaze wandered over the towers, the gate, the guards.
Gwen rolls her eyes, the way she has since they were both ten years old. She, Arthur, and Morgana are the only children in Camelot that were born in their year, during the tail end of the plague, and they've been thrown together ever since they were little. They've put bugs in each other's hair, and they've refused to share their toys, and they protected each other that one time they slipped past the outer walls and almost got eaten by a fox before the guards found them huddled together in a clearing. "His name is Merlin, I hear," Gwen says. She whispers it, like a secret. "Gaius was mumbling about it earlier."
"How does Gaius know that?" Arthur asks. He's the best doctor they've got, but he's getting old and a little forgetful. ("The curse of time, young Pendragon," Gaius liked to say, even though Arthur's last name isn't Pendragon. "A young man like yourself wouldn't understand.") Arthur didn't think he paid any attention to the goings on outside of their outpost.
"Dunno," Gwen says. "He got a letter last month." She twists a finger around a curl of her hair.
"And you didn't think to tell me?" Arthur asks.
Gwen shrugs. "I don't tell you everything. And besides, you were too busy training people with the new weapons last week."
"One of them bloody near sliced his foot off with that sword, you better believe I'm putting more time into training." Arthur says, and his tone might be the slightest bit defensive.
Gwen doesn't answer that. She refuses to do so when she thinks he's being a prat. "I wonder what his story is."
Everyone has a story around Camelot, or at least a story of their parents or their grand parents. Where they were when the plague hit or who they were before then. Arthur's father had been a soldier, his mother a teacher. Gwen's father was a mechanic (still is, really), and her mother used to work as an analyst in an investment bank (a concept that Gaius had tried to explain to Arthur many times, but still didn't quite make sense).
"Well," Arthur says. "I guess we're going to find out."
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