Chapter 1: Brought Together by Sadness
The heat of the late summer afternoon penetrated the forest at the edge of the town. The ground was covered in twigs that made loud snapping noises when stepped on, and insects hurrying along to collect food to bring back to their communes. The sun’s constant stream of light was unbroken by clouds and it hit the leaves of trees to cast a hazy, viridescent glow on the two boys playing below. They were young, perhaps six years old, and were as outwardly different as it was possible to be. One was tall and already had a thick layer of muscles beneath his baby fat, gained after working on his family’s farm and tending to livestock. He had straw-colored hair that was becoming lighter with each passing day and a warm smile which he frequently flashed to his best friend. The other boy was small and thin, very thin; his clothes hung loose on his body. The fringe of his dark hair framed his deep blue eyes which appeared to have more years behind them than he could possibly possess. He hid a great secret.
A battle was raging between the two friends; Tag had always been competitive for the pair. Merlin was designated to be the seeker, and Will ran from him, bounding away quickly on his longer legs. “You’ll never catch me now!” Will hollered over his shoulder. Merlin was struggling to match his friend’s pace. He stopped running, and bent over, his hands resting on his knees as his chest heaved. He sucked in mouthfuls of air, precious air, and stared ahead at Will who was lingering by a small boulder, waiting for Merlin to regain his composure and restart the game.
Merlin had never been good at Tag, but as it was Will’s favorite game, he always agreed to play when Will asked. Merlin stood again and shook his head gently before taking a giant gulp of air. Will grinned widely, turned, and starting his sprinting again; Merlin followed. Merlin shouted at his retreating form, “Don’t be so sure, Will! I’m getting you for sure this time!”
As they ran through the forest Merlin appeared to be gaining on Will. Seeing this, his eyes widened and he pushed his little legs even harder, hoping, praying that he would beat Will for once. Merlin ran, hand outstretched, ready to slap his friend on the back and proclaim that he, Merlin of Ealdor was the Winner of Tag. As he neared Will, however, he realized that something was wrong. Will didn’t appear to be moving at all, but upon closer inspection, he was moving minimally, as if time had slowed down. Merlin got a bitter taste in his mouth and knew what he’d done, but he couldn’t slow down fast enough. He tagged Will, with a grimace on his face.
Immediately after Merlin had won, Will started moving at a normal speed once more. He skidded to a stop, and whirled around to face Merlin. His face had betrayal written across it, and Merlin stuttered, apologizing. “I-I didn’t mean it, Will. I’m sorry; you know I can’t control it sometimes. It just… it just happened.”
“Yeah, well things like this are always ‘just happening,’ aren’t they?” Will snarled.
“Will… It’s just a game,” Merlin said, brows coming together.
“Yeah, okay, Merlin. Was it just a game when you got angry and made it rain in my room?” Will asked, voice unusually high-pitched. Merlin sniggered slightly, but fought down his smile and attempted a look of apology. “It’s not funny; my bed was soaked for days. And you know how much I like Tag. Why’d you have to ruin it for me?”
Merlin struggled to find words. He didn’t mean to do it. He never did magic on purpose; it just burst out of him when he had strong emotions or when someone was in danger. In fact, Merlin actively tried to suppress his magic, fearing what it might do to him, or, worse, what others might do to him because of it.
Will snorted. “I’m going home.”
“Will, come on. I said I was sorry.”
Will didn’t give a reply. Instead he turned in the direction of Ealdor and started walking. Merlin walked after him, and grabbed his shoulder, trying to stop him and make him see Merlin’s point of view. “Will,” Merlin pleaded.
“No, Merlin,” he said, voice full of anger. And without turning to face his friend, Will set off running for home.
Merlin stood in the shadow of a large tree for a few minutes, just watching Will’s form get smaller and smaller as he got closer to Ealdor. Brushing away a tear from his eye, Merlin set off for home, alone.
Hunith wasn’t home. During the week when the household chores were completed, she would help those around Ealdor that needed it, like the widowed older women and the families with sick children. This left Merlin with nothing to do and no one to talk to about Will, so he sat in front of a window and stared into the distance. Toward Camelot.
Merlin had always liked imagining what it must be like to live in a city as large as Camelot. He would sit on a stool in front of this window for hours, until the moon shone overhead, surrounded by twinkling stars, and his mother would gently ask him to come to bed. Camelot was a source of entertainment for the other children as well. “Did you hear that in Camelot the king throws gold coins to the peasants?” or “When I’m older I’m moving to Camelot to marry a knight.” But none of them cared about Camelot as much as Merlin. Merlin found an escape in the place, thinking that maybe this wondrous place everyone raved about would welcome a boy like him, magic and all. The people there would accept him wholeheartedly and forgive his faults, something the people of Ealdor had never been capable of.
So this lonely summer day, Merlin found himself staring longingly toward Camelot yet again. He was imagining himself in the castle, servants bustling around him, hurrying to the kitchens, the stables. He was so engrossed in his fantasy that he almost didn’t hear the sniffling coming from behind him. Merlin’s eyes widened; someone was in his house. Slowly, he stepped off the stool. He bit his lip, closed his eyes, and turned around.
When he opened his eyes to face the intruder, Merlin didn’t recognize where he was. This was not his house; this was… no it couldn’t be. He was standing in a corridor, surrounded by stone walls and ceilings; crests and tapestries and paintings were affixed to the stones. He was in a castle.
He heard the sniffling again. Looking around, he caught sight of a boy just slightly older than him sitting on the floor. He was beneath a crest of red and gold depicting a dragon – the crest of Camelot! – with his knees drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped around them. His head was resting on his knees. Merlin hesitantly took a step forward and asked, in a voice barely above a whisper, “Why are you crying?”
The boy’s head snapped up immediately and Merlin gasped. He was the most beautiful person Merlin had ever seen. The boy had blond hair and skin that seemed to shine golden even in the dim light of the hallway. His blue eyes were red and puffy from his tears, but that didn’t take away from his appeal at all. He was a noble; his clothes were clean and tailored to fit him perfectly. He was even wearing jewelry!
“Who are you? How did you get here?” the crying boy asked Merlin, distrust coating his words.
“I’m, um…” Merlin paused. Certainly he couldn’t tell this boy that his name was Merlin and that he just appeared here. “I’m Myrddin. Myrddin Emrys. You can just call me Emrys.” Merlin wasn’t sure where the name had come from. He just felt it, inside of him, rising through his being like magic. It felt right.
“Well… Emrys. You shouldn’t be here. This part of the castle is off limits to all but selected servants and the king,” the boy informed with a haughty air.
Merlin scoffed; he didn’t like this boy. “Then why are you here? You’re not the king!”
The boy gave Merlin an incredulous look. “No, I’m his son. Arthur.” Arthur rose to his feet. “And I wasn’t crying.”
It was Merlin’s turn for a disbelieving eyebrow raise. “Yeah… What was it then? Something in your eye? Allergies?”
Arthur gaped. No one had ever spoken to him so insolently before. “I – You – You can’t speak to me in that way!”
“Really? I don’t even live here! I’m not one of your subjects; you can’t boss me around like you obviously do to everyone else,” Merlin said, his voice rising.
Arthur looked taken aback. “You don’t live here? Then what are you doing standing in my castle?”
“I don’t know, one minute I was in my house, the next I was looking at you.”
“You mean like magic?” Arthur seemed fearful.
“I suppose it could have been magic,” Merlin said, thoughtfully. “Yes. It probably was.”
“But it can’t have been! Magic’s not allowed in Camelot!”
Everything Merlin had ever hoped about Camelot came crashing down around him with these words. Magic wasn’t allowed in Camelot. The people would never welcome him here, just like they didn’t in Ealdor. He wasn’t wanted anywhere. All the years of daydreaming of Camelot, all the hopes he’d had of this place, crushed.
Merlin choked on the air as it entered his windpipe. He took in rapid little breaths, and his eyes prickled in that familiar way. He stared ahead of himself at Arthur, not blinking. Arthur said something, but Merlin’s ears weren’t working. He could feel his legs give out, but was unable to do anything to stop himself from crashing to the ground. His legs were positioned uncomfortably beneath his body, and his arms slowly moved until he was hugging himself. His face screwed up, and he cried.
Arthur stood, unsure of what to do. He looked at the boy who was so small for his age, curled up on the floor crying, as Arthur had been only minutes ago. He moved to sit next to Emrys, and though they had only just met, Arthur put his arms around the young boy. He comforted the boy, though no one had been there to comfort him; Arthur hated seeing people upset. “Shush, Emrys. It’s going to be okay. I’ve got you.” The same thing his nannies had said to him when he used to get sad.
They sat like that for a minute or so, before Merlin took in a deep, shuddering breath, and Arthur stopped hugging Merlin. Merlin looked at Arthur, his face wet with tears. “Thanks,” he said, embarrassed.
Arthur had forgotten Merlin’s earlier rudeness. “What is it? Why’d you start crying?”
Merlin hesitated for a second. If magic wasn’t allowed here, maybe he shouldn’t tell the Prince of Camelot that he had been born with it. “I’m just scared. I don’t know how I got here, and I’m not sure how I’m getting home,” Merlin lied quickly. Changing the subject: “And what about you? Why were you crying?”
“Er – Well, you see…” Arthur trailed off. Merlin cocked an eyebrow, as if to say, “I told you; now you have to tell me.”
Arthur exhaled sharply and pursed his lips. “Everyone just expects so much from me. I’m eight years old! I mean I like being the prince; it means that later on I’ll get to be king and help people. But, still, sometimes I just want to play. And I don’t have any friends, not really. The servants’ children aren’t allowed to play with me, and the nobles’ children are always so formal. And then when Morgana comes over… Well she’s such a pain. And a girl!” Arthur said the word as though it were the worst insult he could think of. He stopped his rant and looked quickly from Merlin to the floor, afraid that Merlin would think him weak or a fool.
Merlin didn’t think either of those things. A look came across his countenance that mirrored Arthur’s. “I know what you mean,” he said softly.
Arthur looked up, and he formed a pleading expression, which quickly turned into a grin. “Do you really?”
“Yeah. Most of the other kids in Ea—where I come from think I’m weird. I don’t have many friends. Well, I do have Will,” Merlin conceded. “But he’s being a right prat.”
Arthur chuckled softly. “Hey, what do you say we play a game?” He bit at his lower lip, unsure of himself. “I mean, if you don’t want to, that’s okay. I just figured since we’re both here…”
Merlin’s face split into a grin. “No, yeah, I’d love that,” he said quickly. As an afterthought, he added, “Just not Tag.”
Arthur pulled a face. “I hate Tag. How about you be a dragon, and I’ll be a knight? Then we’ll fight!”
Merlin cocked his head, thoughtfully. “Alright, sounds fun.”
The two set off down the corridor, roaring like Dragons and fighting with imaginary swords. Merlin was dubbed Dragoon the Great Dragon, and Arthur was called King Arthur the Courageous. When Dragoon knocked the sword from the knight’s hand with a flick of his tail, the battle devolved into a wrestling match. Arthur was the stronger of the two, but Merlin was supple and quick and managed to delay Arthur’s inevitable win for a few minutes.
It was when Arthur was standing in the center of the corridor, arms stretched to the ceiling in victory, screaming, “Yes! I won!” that a manservant walked in on the two. Merlin, who had been panting on the floor, but still smiling up at his new friend, went wide-eyed, and looked to Arthur, who was looking nervously at the man, mouth gaping.
“Arthur, what have you been doing? We’ve been looking for you everywhere! The king needs to see you right away!” the servant said.
“I was just playing with my friend, Emrys,” Arthur gestured to Merlin, who had gotten up off the floor. Merlin was looking from Arthur to the servant, but his gaze finally settled on Arthur. Merlin blinked, and when he opened his eyes, he didn’t give Arthur an apologetic look or hear the manservant say, “What friend? There’s no one here.” He was back home, looking out the window of his house toward Camelot.
Months later, in the winter, Hunith was running a fever, and Merlin had to tend to the daily household chores. He had visited Arthur two times since their first meeting, once to keep him company while Arthur studied battle strategy, and the other to wander around the lower town and evade his tutor. But today Merlin was sitting in front of the fire, trying to keep it alight, as his mother shivered under three threadbare blankets.
Hunith had recently drifted off to sleep, and Merlin was left alone to his thoughts, imagining what would happen if his mother succumbed to her illness. He had prayed to the gods that she survive, but the dozens of scenarios running through his mind weren’t giving him much hope. He had just closed his eyes to imagine himself at his mother’s funeral when he heard, “Emrys? Back so soon?”
Merlin’s eyes sprung open, and he saw Arthur reclined on his bed sipping mulled wine lazily. “Looks like I am,” he said with a smile.
“Emrys, are you shivering?” Arthur looked genuinely concerned.
Merlin raised his hands, and looking down at them, he noticed that yes, he was indeed shivering. “My house is quite cold right now. My mum’s sick, and I have to tend the fire.” He shifted his eyes from his hands to Arthur. “I’m not very good at it,” he mumbled sheepishly.
“Well don’t freeze to death over there. Come here,” Arthur said urgently. He got up off the bed and set the wine down on a table. Merlin walked over to the bed and stood there awkwardly as Arthur walked to a chest near the door. He pulled out a thick, fur blanket. Coming back to the bed, he said slowly, as if talking to a much younger child, “Emrys, sit on the bed.” He paused as Merlin looked at him. “Just—Take off your shoes first.”
Merlin fumbled with his footwear and uncertainly hopped onto the massive bed. He gave Arthur a nervous smile. Arthur rolled his eyes and unfolded the blanket, covering Merlin’s lower half with it, mumbling something that sounded suspiciously like, “Can’t even keep a fire going.”
Merlin scoffed, “I’d like to see you try, Prince Prat.”
Arthur ignored this, and handed Merlin his wine. “Drink this, you disrespectful codpiece,” he said with a cheeky grin. The goblet was still full, and the wine was pleasantly warm, Merlin noticed.
Arthur joined Merlin on the bed, sitting next to him. “So why can’t your father tend the fire while your mum’s sick?”
“He doesn’t live with us. I’ve never met him.” Merlin took a sip. “I don’t even know his name.” The sadness showed in Merlin’s every feature.
“Don’t worry about it. My mum died giving birth to me. At least you didn’t kill your dad,” Arthur looked ready to cry.
Merlin looked at Arthur, confused and slightly angry. “Don’t say that. Don’t you ever say that!” Arthur looked surprised; Merlin put down the wine. Merlin softened his voice. “I’m sure she would have loved you, Arthur. You’re a great person, and when you grow up, I’m sure you’ll be a great king.”
Arthur remained unconvinced. “How do you know that? We’ve only just met.”
Merlin shook his head, his lips upturned. “That’s exactly it; we’ve only just met. Yet here I am, sitting in your bed, covered in furs, drinking your wine. I’m a commoner, but you’re treating me like an equal, because I showed you friendship. You’re special, Arthur. You have a great life ahead of you, I – I just know it.”
Awestruck at both Merlin’s honesty and opinion, Arthur said, “Do you really think that, Emrys?”
“I absolutely do.” Merlin beamed, grabbing the goblet and energetically taking another sip. There was some part of him that, when he thought of Arthur, made his heart beat faster, but maybe that was just the wine.
Arthur seemed unsure of what to do; he felt that a lot around Merlin. “So you like the wine then?” He jumped off the bed, and didn’t give Merlin a chance to respond before saying, “Wait here, I’ll go get more. And some gingerbread, too!” He jogged out of the room, leaving Merlin sitting on the bed, staring at the door.
When Arthur came back, however, the goblet of wine was sitting on a table, drained; the fur blanket he had given Merlin was on the bed, crumpled in such a way that it looked as if Merlin had never gotten off the bed, but simply disappeared.
Time passed, and Merlin continued to visit Arthur at the palace in Camelot. In the spring of Arthur’s tenth year, Merlin appeared again. Arthur had spent the day sword training with Leon, a teenager who aspired to be a knight. It was late in the afternoon, and nobody was left on the training pitch except for Arthur. He was swinging his sword violently at the training dummy, a look of loathing spread across his young face.
Merlin, as usual, seemed to pop out of nowhere, yards to the left of the dummy. “Woah, Arthur! Calm down; you’re gonna hurt yourself,” Merlin laughed.
Arthur, though, didn’t find this funny. “Damn it, Emrys! Who are you? You keep showing up at random times in my life and I don’t know why!” He threw his sword on the floor, squeezed his eyes shut, and bit his lower lip. Shaking his head, he asked gently, “Why are you even here?”
Merlin struggled to find words. What had happened that made Arthur so angry and confused? “Arthur, I… What’s wrong?” He clenched his teeth together, fearful of the answer.
“I was training with Leon today, and I made the stupid mistake of mentioning you to him.”
Merlin’s heart sank. “And…?”
Arthur’s lips twitched. “And, Emrys, he asked me if I weren’t ‘a bit old for an imaginary friend.’ He said you weren’t real, but I know you are.” His lip trembled and his eyes begged Merlin as he asked, “Aren’t you?”
Merlin wanted to shout, “Of course I’m real you dunce, you, you clotpole! How could I not be real? How could you believe this Leon for a second?” But Merlin hesitated. He’d lasted this long without having to tell Arthur about his magic, and if he asserted that he was in fact real, then the issue would arise of just how Merlin kept coming to Camelot. Even though Merlin wasn’t sure how it was happening, he was certain that his magic had something to do with his continued journeys to the castle. Perhaps it was safer if he denied his being.
“Arthur,” Merlin said slowly. “Does it matter one way or the other? I may be real, I may not be. But we’re friends either way. I hope. Don’t worry about it right now; let’s go play.” Merlin looked into Arthur’s eyes, unflinching. “Please,” he silently willed at Arthur. “Please don’t press this anymore.”
Arthur still appeared to be conflicted, but he desperately wanted to believe his friend wasn’t made up. “Okay.” He nodded. “Okay, Emrys.”
Merlin exhaled audibly. “Why don’t we go exploring the forest?”
The two boys walked into the forest, not following the path, fearful of encountering bandits. Arthur kept his sword at his waist. It was not long before they came across an apple tree, laden with fruit. Arthur chuckled, and swung himself on a branch, picking two apples and tossing them to Merlin, who stood beneath him. “Catch, Emrys!” he cried happily, masking any doubts he had about Merlin’s existence with sheer joy.
Arthur sat, leaning against a tree, and Merlin sat cross-legged a few paces in front of him. They ate their apples in silence. Arthur finished first because he was famished after a long day of training; he threw his core into some nearby shrubs and got up to pluck another apple from the tree. “Do you want another one?” he asked his companion.
“No, I’m fine.” Merlin sat, nibbling at his apple, contemplating. He had long ago given up his delusions of Camelot and accepted that it was not a welcoming place for those with magic, but he wondered why it was this way. “Arthur,” he turned his upper body to look at his friend who was climbing back down the tree, apple clamped firmly between his teeth. “Why is magic banned in Camelot?”
Arthur pulled the fruit from his mouth, and chewed the bite he had taken. He swallowed and casually answered, “Because it’s evil.”
Merlin blanched. “Evil? But surely you don’t believe that.”
Arthur shot Merlin a confounded look. “Well, yes. Of course I do.”
“But – But why?”
“Well,” Arthur thought for a second. He explained, “That’s what I’ve been told for as long as I can remember. It’s common knowledge, Emrys. Don’t tell me you don’t think magic evil.”
“I don’t. I think magic can be used for good or evil depending on who wields it. Magic itself isn’t inherently bad; it’s probably closer to being indifferent. It’s too big an entity to care about silly human conceptions like good and bad.”
“Wow, never thought you to be the philosophical one,” Arthur joked. “But… Maybe you have a point. I’ve actually never thought about it before now.”
Merlin didn’t say anything else. He shot down any attempts Arthur made at conversation on the way back to the training field. His parting words were: “Think about what I said about magic, Arthur. Sorry I was such a bore today; I just had a lot on my mind. I’ll see you later.”
He disappeared in an instant.
Following the confusion on the practice field, Merlin began visiting Camelot less often, and when he did appear at the castle, there was an obvious tension between him and Arthur. There was an unspoken vow between them that neither was to mention the possibility of Merlin’s fictitious existence. The very possibility of it had shattered the trust the two of them had had, and Arthur refused to believe that Merlin wasn’t real, acting overly polite. They were now walking on thin ice; any quarrel between them had the potential to end the friendship.
It was a breezy autumn morning when Merlin appeared in Arthur’s chambers. The prince was standing at his open window, looking out into the courtyard. His shirt was off, and though he was only twelve years old, he had muscles building up and scars on his back, chest, and arms from mishaps during weapons training. There was a large bruise spreading across the skin over his left kidney, and Merlin could see a pattern of chainmail in some areas. Arthur wore no shoes or socks, his pale feet contrasting with the cold stone floor. A gentle wind drifted through the window, ruffling his hair, which glowed golden in the early sunlight. He took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, closing his eyes.
Unwilling to let go of the vision, Merlin stood next to Arthur’s breakfast, unaware of the smile on his lips that lit up his eyes and his soul. Arthur closed and latched the window suddenly, however, and Merlin tore his gaze from his prince – no the prince, not his prince. Arthur turned and took half a step before he noticed Merlin standing sheepishly in his chambers. “Hello, Merlin!” Arthur greeted overly cheerfully. It was a voice, an emotion, that was entirely not his own. He has to keep up with the charade. There’s no need to act rashly, no matter what decisions he’s made.
“Hi,” Merlin muttered, a soft pink flush coming to the tips of his ears. He looked Arthur in the eyes for a split second before looking down again, his ears reddening.
Arthur’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m just about to start in on breakfast. Have you eaten?”
Merlin opened his mouth, but closed it quickly. “No, no. I’m not very hungry.” Why was he acting like such an imbecile? And what was this feeling building up in his stomach?
“Fine, suit yourself. I’m starved.” Arthur pulled his chair out with a flourish, making quite a big deal to settle himself down before starting his meal. Merlin tentatively took the chair opposite Arthur and stared at him as he ate. As he observed, Merlin noted that Arthur was acting strangely today, stranger than usual. He was distant, but quick to cover it with a faked smile.
“So, Emrys,” Arthur started as he bit into an apple slice. “I’ve been thinking a lot about us lately.” Merlin looked puzzled; this was the start of a conversation that the girls and boys in Ealdor dreaded when started by their significant other. If Arthur noticed Merlin’s look, he ignored it and continued on. “I’ve been thinking about what Leon said. You first came into my life when I was very sad, and you succeeded in making me happy again. I looked forward to your visit whenever and wherever it came.” The speech sounded like Arthur had rehearsed it many times. “And I thank you for that, I do. But I’m the Prince of Camelot, and I’m twelve years old. I think I’m getting too old for imaginary friends.”
Merlin had been expecting and dreading this moment. His eyes were filling, and he blinked rapidly a few times. “Arthur,” he pleaded. “Don’t say this.” His nose was prickling, and he had to clench his lips together to stop them from quivering.
Arthur continued on nonchalantly, ignoring Merlin’s entreaty. “I would greatly appreciate it if you—”
“Stop it, Arthur. Just stop. Let me stay. You need me; I need you. I—I love you.” Merlin was crying in earnest now. His breathing increased; he was starting to hyperventilate. He rambled on.
Arthur talked over him calmly, but there was a crazed look of loss behind the façade. “This is a waste of time. I’m talking to a part of my imagination. Arthur, you do not need Emrys anymore. Make him go away.” When Merlin didn’t disappear, he cocked his head to the side. Determined, he tried again. “Arthur, send him away.” Still no result.
Merlin was sobbing now, but he was trying his best to stay silent. For Arthur’s sake. He tried to leave, but something was holding him in the Prince’s chambers. Arthur was confused, and kept muttering. He squeezed his eyes shut; he opened them. He stared at Merlin. He stared some more. Nothing.
Merlin wiped his eyes and nose on his shirt sleeve. Standing up, he strode over to Arthur’s side. Arthur looked bewildered. Merlin said, in a voice hoarse from crying, “I’m glad to have helped you, Arthur. Know that you have helped me.” Merlin leaned down and left a small kiss on his, yes his, prince’s forehead. Whatever was holding him before no longer was. He opened his eyes and was in Ealdor.
Merlin ran. He was smacked by renegade branches in the forest, but he didn’t stop. Blood dripped into his eyes. He kept running, though his shins burned and his lungs were begging him for air. He needed to escape. He ran past an apple tree and stopped. He swung around, and stared at it. When he thought of apples, he thought of Arthur; they were at fault for the falling out. They ate apples together they day Arthur first doubted Merlin, and they were what Arthur was eating the day the two last spoke. Apples were terrible, terrible things.
Merlin was shaking; his loss and anger took over his body. He let out a bestial roar at the tree, and sank into tears again. He was on the forest floor, sobbing and beating the ground with his fist. He screamed meaningless words and phrases. He threw rocks and twigs, anything within his reach; he threw his magic. The tree was breaking: branches fell, a shrieking bird flew away, the trunk split in two.
Merlin stopped at once. This was wrong. This was all wrong.
It had been good, hadn’t it, his friendship with Arthur? Yes, it had been, but there was still a gaping hole at the center of him. It was as if a part of him had been ripped out of his very soul with those words Arthur so carelessly threw around.
I think I’m getting too old for imaginary friends.
And it was back all at once. Merlin was beyond saving, and Arthur was denying himself the truth. Something was right when the two of them were together. Merlin sat on the forest, hunched over and clutching his knees for who knows how long until he ran out of tears. His eyes burned, and his nose was cold from the chilly air. He stood and trudged back home before Hunith started to worry.
As he lay down that night, he made a promise to himself. This mourning was beginning to become ridiculous. He could make new friends. He could dedicate himself to his chores and his magic. He could spend more time with Will. He could make his mother proud. He could forget Arthur.
Chapter 2: Torn Apart by Duty
Hunith, always a mother, had been asking Merlin questions for almost ten minutes. He yawned, his dark hair sticking up in the back, and nodded, eyes half closed. Yes, he’s packed his underwear; yes, he has enough food for the journey. No, mother, he doesn’t have to pee.
Hunith sighed, taking in the tired look on her son’s face, his pack secured to his back, and the rouge hairs sticking up in the back. “Merlin,” she chided, and licked the palm of her hand. “You’ve got a—Just let me—”
“Mum,” Merlin whinged. “You’ve got to stop doing that. I’m going to Camelot now; I have to learn to fix my own hair.” He gently swatted her helping hands down, and attempted to flatten the unruly strands.
Hunith watched her son fail, and said, “I know, dear, but sometimes you have to accept help from others and not try to fix your problems alone.” She fixed his hair and lovingly cupped his face in her hands. She pulled away. “It is going to be lonely around here without you.”
“Nah, you’ve got Will to track dirt in the house and eat all the food.” His voice softened as he said, “But I’ll miss you too, Mum.” As Merlin set out on his trek to Camelot and waved off Hunith who was yelling “I love you! Are you sure you brought your extra trousers?” after him, he thought of Camelot. From the idealistic perception he had had of it as a child to his disenchantment after going there. In his teens he begged his mother to teach him to read, and after becoming literate, researched Uther’s conquer of the land and his subsequent governing of it. He absorbed as much information as he could from traveling bards and merchants, and wrote it all down all on scraps of paper that he kept in a stack at his house. Now in his twenties, Merlin was moving there.
The tug he’d always felt toward the kingdom had intensified with each year; it was a desire that plagued him, never lessening. He’d have dreams of living in a house in the city that was overshadowed by the castle, entertaining his sons with flying toadstools. He daydreamed about a Camelot that might one day accept people like him as he gathered the meager yield of barley from the garden in Ealdor.
He’d always come back to the fact that he’d actually visited Camelot as a child—but, no, he didn’t think about that. It’d been over ten years; it was fruitless pining after him and grieving over what was so irrevocably gone. Merlin was on his way to Camelot, and no long-dead friendship was going to spoil that now.
To put it lightly, it hadn’t been the start Merlin had expected or wanted. He had walked into Camelot and watched a sorcerer executed; then the dead man’s mother swore vengeance on the king and magically disappeared. The next day, some prat had been torturing – well, at least greatly inconveniencing – a commoner, and Merlin, being the hero that he was, decided to intervene. And that prat, that royal wanking prat, had him thrown in jail. Thankfully, Gaius, the man Hunith had sent Merlin to live with, had gotten him out of prison and put in the stocks instead. But, being Merlin, he later managed to save the prat from an assassination attempt, and was made his manservant by the king.
Later that night, before the lower town had settled down, but after the castle had gone to sleep, Merlin walked, as if in a daze, through the emptying lower town. He was musing over the first few days in his new home, but mostly he was thinking about the prat he’d saved. He was Arthur. Arthur; just thinking the name gave Merlin a bilious taste in his mouth. He had successfully managed to suppress all the thoughts of that particular section of his childhood, but they now came rushing back.
And the arrogance that he’d had; Merlin remembered that unfortunate trait of Arthur’s, but since Merlin had left those many years ago, it had gotten exponentially worse. Arthur had actually seemed to enjoy harassing the boy today; Merlin had never known Arthur to be cruel. Merlin made a promise walking down the town’s main street that as long as they both were alive he would bring back the – perhaps innocence was the wrong word – compassion Arthur had possessed in his younger years.
Merlin navigated the street, wincing in horror as a drunk stumbled out of the pub and vomited at his feet. Carefully steering clear of the more vile sections of the road, he came to a stop at the mouth of an alleyway. It was an unkempt alcove with three walls, the two sides being comprised of the stone walls of stores. The back wall was part of the wood that made up a person’s house. The area smelled vile, a combination of vomit, piss, and… something Merlin didn’t want to think about. There were empty crates stacked against a side wall, and Merlin found one that wasn’t on the verge of collapse to sit on. He felt a wave of nostalgia wash over him, but ignored it. Since returning to Camelot, he got this often; everything reminded him of his childhood adventures with Arthur.
Merlin sat on the crate in a dark part of the alcove, watching a well-fed rat scamper into a sack that lay opposite him. He kept his mind blank. Merlin listened to the cacophony of voices coming from the nearby pub and the scraping sounds of a man stumbling home. One pair of footsteps, however, were quick and light; Merlin had to pay close attention to hear them. They were headed right for the place where Merlin sat.
Merlin stared nervously at the opening of the alcove, knowing that he couldn’t escape if he needed to, what with the owner of those footsteps as close as they were. The outline of a man, large and probably a good deal stronger than Merlin, came into view. He turned and walked right into the little space Merlin occupied, keeping his head turned toward the back wall. In the darkness, the man might not be able to see Merlin if he kept very still, so Merlin tried his best to keep his breathing as shallow as possible. As the man got closer, Merlin stole a glance at him.
He had a familiar head of golden hair; red, chapped lips; a wondrous jaw line that Merlin wanted to place kisses on; and an air of royalty so apparent, it was almost tangible. Unable to stop himself, Merlin groaned in annoyance. Arthur.
Arthur’s head snapped from the back wall to Merlin. “Oh!” There was something like glee on his face as he said, “Merlin, isn’t it? Shouldn’t you be off preparing for your first day as my manservant?”
“Perhaps," Merlin said, irritated. "But right now I’d rather sit in this alley and think.”
“Well you can think – if you really can do such a thing – with me here, can you not?”
“I’d much rather be alone, I think.”
Arthur chuckled. “Really, now Merlin, I’m a joy to be with.”
Merlin’s stomach turned over at Arthur’s tone. Again with the hubris that didn’t belong with that face. But this time, unlike before, Arthur wasn’t really being mean; he was pretending, going along with the reputation he’d earned. “Arthur, you put on a better show of arrogance when your mates are around. But anyway, shouldn’t you be off sleeping? It’s late, and now that the common folks’ duties are out of the way, they’re resting or spending time with their families. You’re intruding,” Merlin spat. He wasn’t sure why he was being so short with the prince. It might have to do with the drastic change in the prince’s behavior over the years, or maybe Merlin was just tired from the day’s events.
Arthur gaped at Merlin, but dropped his façade. No one had talked to him like that since he was a child. “I – I didn’t mean to intrude. It’s just… Well, to be honest you reminded me of something. Of someone.” He worked his jaw, reprimanding himself for the admission. His eyes flicked to the back wall. “I had a friend – actually he was an imaginary friend, but that’s not important – and one day we dressed up as commoners and went exploring and came here. We carved our initials into that wall,” he finished. Merlin suddenly remembered fondly that whenever Arthur was embarrassed, he would ramble like this and say things he normally kept quiet about.
Merlin watched as Arthur strode to the back wall and looked at the pair of initials Merlin had forgotten were there. They were quite a distance from Arthur’s current eye level, and he had to squat to observe them more closely. He scoffed at the “A.P.”; “Would you look at my penmanship?” But to Merlin’s great surprise, Arthur stroked the spine of the “E” in Merlin’s pseudonym, “M.E.”
Arthur sniffled, as the nights were getting chilly, and stood up again, facing the exit. The smile he forced on his face didn’t manage to mask the pain he felt. He said, “It’s a real pity that none of my ‘mates,’ as you called them, can match up to an imagined one I had as a child.”
Arthur woke the next morning, disgusted with himself. He hadn’t shown another person any weakness since he was twelve years old, and had dismissed Emrys. After that time, he realized that he’d made up Emrys as a way to express his emotions to someone when they were threatening to take over. But that had been childish, and he’d put an end to it. He refused to be that weak again. If Uther had taught Arthur anything, it was that kings cannot be weak.
He’d gone without breakfast because he wasn’t sure he could keep it down, and he made his way to Gaius’s quarters. He knocked and was let in by the physician. “Can you get Merlin? He needs to meet me on the training field in twenty minutes. Tell him to find some armor for himself.”
Gaius nodded. “Yes, and how has your injury from last week healed, sire?”
“It’s much better; it doesn’t even pain me anymore.” That was a lie. Arthur had been smacked by a training sword last week, and though the skin hadn’t been broken, it was still very painful. It still hurt him every time he moved his left arm, but he didn’t want to seem needy, so he went without treatment. He departed, and, as he walked through the door frame, he could hear Gaius rousing Merlin.
Merlin came stumbling onto the training field twenty minutes later; he looked ridiculous in armor. Arthur showed him some basic defensive moves, and quickly sent blow after blow at Merlin, who fumbled with the sword, but managed to stay on his feet. Arthur could see Merlin was struggling, and sent a particularly vicious attack his way, ending the skirmish. Merlin fell on his back. Mace training wasn’t any better, and Merlin was a horrid moving target for archery. Arthur sat down on the grass after hours of vigorous training, and Merlin collapsed by his side. Arthur had brought with him a few apples and wineskin of mead. He took an apple, and, taking pity on Merlin, he offered him the drink first. Merlin finished half of it before Arthur sarcastically asked, “Merlin, are you going to finish that?”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” Merlin handed the wineskin back.
Arthur sipped it thoughtfully. “Merlin,” he said. “Not including yesterday, have we met before?” His eyes squinted at the sun behind Merlin.
Arthur noticed how Merlin answered too quickly. “No. No. I’ve never met you before. Certainly not.”
Merlin was a loyal, if incompetent manservant. He didn’t know much about etiquette or proper sweeping techniques, as Gwen did, but he would risk his life for Arthur. Merlin would listen to Arthur complain, and he would offer advice, tentatively at first, but with increased frequency and boldness. Merlin would hover over Arthur as he worked to sneak glances at his papers, until after months of this, Arthur would slide the paper across the table to give Merlin a better look. Merlin tended the fire poorly, and, depending on the day, Arthur found this either hilarious or deeply upsetting. Sometimes, he would double over in laughter, watching Merlin curse the warms embers, but other times, as Merlin emerged from the fireplace covered in soot, Arthur would get a faraway look on his face and let Merlin go early. As time passed, the two grew close, but the word “friend” was never uttered by either of them. When Arthur went off to fight some new, often magical foe, Merlin would tag along. At first, Arthur didn’t notice how Merlin always seemed exhausted for days after the sorcerer or beast was defeated, but eventually he did. Arthur tried not to think about it, but he would give Merlin a small workload on these days.
When Merlin left for his home of Ealdor, after Hunith came to Camelot and begged Uther for protection from tax collectors, Arthur could think of nothing but Merlin’s safety. In the middle of the night, he packed and set off after his manservant. Arthur fought, not only for the good of Ealdor, but for Merlin. Merlin, the man whose quirks and humor he’d grown accustomed to. Merlin, whose background was a mystery, but whose face reminded Arthur of something.
And for that moment in the town when he’d seen Merlin create a whirlwind, he was furious and for some reason terrified, not of the magic, but of its consequences for Merlin. But Will had been the sorcerer, and Arthur was quick to agree, despite what he thought he’d seen. For the months following Will’s death, Arthur would sometimes walk in on Merlin crying as he cleaned Arthur’s armor or swept the floor. Arthur desperately wished to wrap his arm around Merlin and whisper, “Shush, Merlin. It’s going to be okay. I’ve got you.” But such behavior was unbefitting of a prince, so he refrained.
Arthur killed a unicorn; Merlin thought him a prat. But soon Arthur was in a desperate race to save his kingdom, Merlin by his side the entire time. Merlin was the only person he confided in because, for some reason, Merlin was safe. Arthur let Merlin see him at his weakest. And in the end Arthur was willing to die for Merlin. Sitting across from his manservant, with Anhora telling them that one was to die, Arthur immediately was going to allow Merlin to drink the poison. But he looked at Merlin; he looked him right in the eye. Arthur knew that killing Merlin would be the same – no, worse than – killing the unicorn. So Arthur drank the poison, which wasn’t really poison to begin with, and saved them all; Merlin was with him always.
Arthur really was poisoned very soon after the unicorn debacle. He was bitten by the Questing Beast and was sure to die, but he was miraculously saved, somehow.
After being healed, Arthur was in his room, enjoying a bunch of green grapes and a pitcher of wine. Merlin came to visit him, and they exchanged pleasantries, before Merlin said, “I need to talk to you.”
Arthur was anxious. Any conversation that followed those words was never good. He took a sip of wine and joked, “You still haven’t got it yet, have you? I decide when we need to talk.”
Merlin’s voice was ominous. “Not today.”
Arthur was very nervous now. What was wrong? Merlin never acted serious unless someone was about to be maimed or killed. “I sometimes wonder if you know who I am.” It was best to continue with the banter and not let Merlin know his true feelings and concerns. Not yet.
“Oh, I know who you are.”
“You’re a prat. And a royal one.” It mirrored their first meeting so perfectly. Was this supposed to be some sort of goodbye, like Merlin’s way of letting Arthur know that their relationship had come full-circle?
“Are you ever going to change, Merlin?” Arthur hoped he wouldn’t.
“No, you’d get bored.”
Arthur’s arm hurt where the beast had bitten him. He grabbed the upper arm, above the sling, and winced. The pain from his wound provided a nice distraction from Merlin. “Promise me this: If you get another servant, don’t get a boot-licker.”
Damn. Merlin was saying goodbye. “If this is you trying to leave your job…”
“No! I’m happy to be your servant. ‘Til the day I die.”
Arthur looked up at Merlin. Merlin’s blue eyes were familiar; they had always been familiar.“Sometimes I think I know you, Merlin.” Please don’t go. “Other times…” He shook his head.
“Oh, I know you. And you’re a great warrior. One day you’ll be a great king.”
Arthur barely knew what he was saying anymore. He wanted to jump out of his chair and grab Merlin, hug him until it hurt. Never let him go. “That’s very kind of you.”
The conversation ended soon after, leaving Arthur alone in his room, thinking of Merlin. Arthur was conflicted; he was losing his mind. The thoughts, the feeling he had; he didn’t know what they meant. But he wanted to act on them. He wanted to touch Merlin, to stroke his face in the early morning as the light filtered in through the curtains. He wanted to push his dark hair out of his eyes and kiss him on the forehead. He wanted to keep Merlin all to himself and protect him from the world.
Arthur cursed everything. He couldn’t feel this way about Merlin. He was not only a servant; he was a man. Taking a squire off to an empty room for a shag is one thing, but love, for that was indeed what Arthur was feeling, love was another thing entirely.
Arthur stayed in his chair, looking into the fire until he drifted off to sleep.
The next day, Merlin came into his chambers, weak and tired. Arthur was lenient; he told him to fetch breakfast. In Merlin’s absence, another servant came to tell Arthur that his father had dismissed from the day’s council duties and that he was to rest in his chambers for the day.
Merlin came back just as Arthur was sitting down on the edge of his bed. “Bring the food over here,” he instructed. Merlin came over, and held the tray out, offering Arthur a variety of meats and cheeses. Merlin appeared as though he might fall over at any minute. “Merlin, sit down; you look dreadful.”
Merlin opened and closed his mouth before passing the tray to Arthur and sitting down on the bed. Arthur looked down and noticed that their thighs were inches from touching. He coughed. “Have some food.”
They ate with little talk, and they didn’t look at each other at all until the meal was finished. Arthur handed Merlin the tray. “Put this on the table, would you?”
“Yeah.” Merlin’s voice was hoarse. Louder, he added, “Yeah, sure.” Merlin took the plate with one hand and stretched across the bed to shove the tray on the table. It took every ounce of restraint Arthur had not to stare at his bum as he did so.
Merlin straightened up and he and Arthur sat side by side, awkwardly. They looked at each other, and Merlin began, “So what do you want me to do today? Muck the –”
It was all too much for Arthur, who had been staring at Merlin’s lips. Without thinking, he leaned in and kissed them. He pulled back, and looked Merlin in those eyes that held so many secrets.
Merlin parted his lips and looked at Arthur. He saw that little boy again, the one who was so sympathetic and loving and curious. He remembered the confusion Arthur had had at the end of their friendship; he thought back on their parting. He felt again the frantic devotion and then the throbbing of heartbreak. He sighed softly; he’d waited for this moment for years. He kissed Arthur back.
They were a tangle of clothes and limbs, but their dirty romp was impeded by Arthur’s slinged arm. Merlin pushed a very naked Arthur onto his back on the bed and kissed him, rough. Merlin’s lips were tender, and the blood that pumped through him was boiling. Arthur was panting underneath him.
Merlin made his way down Arthur’s body, leaving sloppy kisses behind him. Merlin went down, down, and Arthur moaned and arched into Merlin’s touch. Merlin’s mouth was hot and lush and just wonderful, but both men were exhausted before they'd began, and they soon collapsed next to each other, spent.
When Arthur woke, Merlin was sitting on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands. Arthur was still quite drowsy, and slurred out, “Merlin, what’s wrong?”
Merlin stood up, and turned to face Arthur. His eyes were red from crying. Arthur sat in alarm. “What happened? Merlin?” Merlin’s eyes implored Arthur to understand. “I don’t want to lie to you anymore. I just can’t.”
Slowly, angrily, Arthur asked, “Lie to me about what?”
“I—Gods, I’ve practiced this in my head hundreds of times, yet I still can’t think of a good way to say it. Arthur, I’ve not always gone by the name Merlin.” Arthur looked taken aback. “For a few years I called myself Myrddin Emrys.”
Arthur took a deep, shuddering breath. He clamped his teeth together and tears sprang to his eyes. No, he wouldn’t cry, not with Merlin here. “That’s a lie. You can’t have been him. I made him up.”
“No, Arthur. He was me. And I think you’ve known it all along. You look at me as if you know me, but supposedly we’ve only known each other for about a year. That’s not true, though. I appeared in Camelot when you were eight and I was six. You were crying in a corridor. We’ve known each other for a long time.”
“Why are you doing this?” Arthur couldn’t stop the tears. Memories were coming back, and he didn’t like the onslaught of emotions. But what Merlin was saying was true. It was what Arthur had always known, but refused to acknowledge. This was the friend from his childhood that he’d sent away. He’d sent away the only friend he’d ever had. But sent him where? To Ealdor? And how did Merlin get to Camelot in the first place? “But. Merlin, but how? How did…”
“I knew you’d get there; you always were a smart one, Arthur Pendragon.” Merlin had been pacing, but came to a stop next to the bed where Arthur was sitting. He took his hands and held his stare. “Arthur, you have to know, I love you. I’ve always loved you. I never meant you any harm.”
“No, Merlin. Don’t do this.” Arthur knew what was coming before Merlin said it. Arthur always had been a smart one.
“Arthur. I have magic.”
In the months following, Arthur distanced himself from Merlin. They talked less, they shied away from any physical contact. Arthur was the shell of a man; Merlin was worse. Arthur still loved Merlin, he still longed for him, but the lies were too much. Nothing else could develop between them.
When Cedric arrived in Camelot, Arthur was quick to hire him; anything to spend less time with Merlin. Arthur was cruel to Merlin, and treated him awfully. But as it happened, Cedric became possessed by a sorcerer and was killed, leaving Arthur alone with Merlin again.
Arthur and Merlin slowly began to tolerate each other again, but they spent more time apart and grew closer to other people. Arthur and Gwen would sometimes steal away for walks together, where their main topic for conversation was Merlin. Arthur never stopped talking about him; he complained about Merlin’s domestic abilities, the way his ears stuck out, and the disrespect he had for authority. Gwen ignored this mostly, but sometimes butted in to stand up for her friend. Arthur eventually came to like Gwen; she was a lovely girl who put up with him.
After he bedded her for the first time and they spent more time together, Arthur did actually begin to love her. It was never anything like the burning passion he had for Merlin, but an easy, simple love that he appreciated. Gwen, he knew, loved Lancelot, but they both knew that with Lancelot banished from Camelot, nothing would come of it. And so it happened that Arthur and Gwen became lovers.
Merlin had less luck than Arthur. He rescued a beauty, Freya, from slave traders, and kept her safe. He protected her with everything he had, in any way he could, and in his misery after Arthur, he displaced his feelings for his master onto her. He promised her an escape from Camelot, and wishing the same for himself, decided to go with her. But Freya was cursed and died. Merlin was distraught. All the people he loved left him.
After everything that happened to him, Merlin made grave mistakes: poisoning Morgana and setting Kilgharrah free. And his mistakes had consequences.
By the time of the dragon’s attack on Camelot, Arthur and Merlin’s relationship had mended itself into something resembling friendship, and they set out on the road to find Balinor and save Camelot. Everything went wrong, leaving Merlin shattered. After the death of his father and Merlin’s confrontation of the dragon, Merlin went to Arthur’s chambers in the middle of the night. “Arthur,” Merlin whispered as he shook his shoulder. “Wake up.”
Arthur blinked his eyes a few times until they settled on Merlin. “Merlin, what are you doing here?”
“I couldn’t sleep, and I needed to talk to someone.”
Arthur noticed that Merlin was grief-stricken, and he woke up immediately. “What is it?”
“The other day. With Balinor.”
Arthur didn’t understand. “What about him?”
“It’s just… He was…” Merlin’s face was contorted and a tear ran down his cheek.
“I liked him too, Merlin, but I don’t understand.”
Merlin whispered, “He was my father.” Merlin broke down completely, sobbing.
Arthur wasn’t sure of the details, but those could be ascertained later. Arthur reached over from where he sat in his bed to Merlin who was standing awkwardly next to him, and he hugged him, pulling him into a sitting position on the bed. They sat there like that for half an hour, until Merlin finished crying.
When Merlin tried to stand up and leave, Arthur just hugged him tighter. Arthur scooted over to the other side of the bed, and pulled Merlin under the covers with him. They slept in the next morning.
With Morgana missing, King Uther was enraged and sent hoards of knights out every day; many of them never came home. Arthur was losing faith that he’d ever see Morgana again, and even though the two had fought constantly since they’d met, he did love and miss her. When Arthur was on a rescue mission, Merlin was always by his side. The two were finally at a point where they could be friends again, unreservedly, and when Arthur would cry in his tent at night, Merlin was there to hold him and rub circles into his back. Arthur noticed that Merlin seemed worried on every excursion, but assumed it was to do with finding Morgana, as he didn’t know about the hemlock.
Arthur and Merlin did not rekindle their romance during these times, and nights were spent separated in the tent, often accompanied by an uncomfortable silence. They would lie in the tent, never facing each other, never speaking once the candles were snuffed out. Arthur often dreamed of Merlin, of touching his soft skin, and Merlin did the same. Neither knew of the other’s fantasies.
When Morgana was found, dirty and stumbling through the forest, Arthur was relieved, but Merlin, Arthur noticed, was still nervous about something. For months after her return to Camelot, Arthur, Uther, and, truly, all of the court, were deluded by their relief, and were blind to Morgana’s wicked ways. Their blind faith in the king’s ward was eventually their undoing. When Merlin, Gaius, and eventually Gwen tried to stop her alone, they failed, because no one else was willing to take a look past Morgana’s smiling exterior. So when Morgana and Morgause took over Camelot, it was a shock for everyone. Merlin, as usual, saved the day and received no recognition for it.
After Morgana disappeared from Camelot clutching Morgause’s dead body, Uther was wrecked. He wouldn’t speak and meals had to be forced down his throat. It would be a matter of months before he died, the haunted look of regret still in his eyes. Arthur took over his father’s duties before his death, and ruled to the best of his abilities. If Arthur ever did anything, it was try.
Merlin, who Arthur kept as his manservant, found Arthur sitting at a window in his bedroom one afternoon. Arthur, having many new responsibilities, should have been off somewhere doing something important. Merlin asked, “Erm—Arthur, what are you doing in your chambers?”
“Waiting for you. I need to talk to you.”
Merlin was confused. “Okay. What about?”
Arthur had spent months thinking about his relationship with Merlin and if it would ever be what it was before he knew Merlin’s secrets. He hoped it would repair itself somehow, but then he fell in love with Gwen. With Gwen, things were uncomplicated. And true, he didn’t love Gwen in the same way that he loved Merlin, but Camelot needed a queen and an heir. But Arthur was willing to give Merlin another chance. “Merlin, do you love me?”
Merlin appeared taken aback. “Arthur?”
“Please, Merlin, just answer the question.”
“Well, you’re… You’re certainly special. And you’re—”
“You know what I mean, Merlin. Answer the damn question.” Arthur was hoping for Merlin to tell him that he didn’t love him; it would make everything so much easier.
“I… Arthur, you prat. I’ve loved you since we were children, and I saw you crying in that hallway. You have always been on my mind since I met you, even when you were being an arrogant clotpole. I have never felt the same kind of love for anyone that I feel for you. You make my soul brighten with joy; you make me feel warm all over, even during my darkest moments. You have been the best friend I’ve ever had and ever will have. When I touched you for the first time, my heart stopped and I forgot how to breathe. And when we kissed, it felt like a fire raged in me. I'm never as happy as I am when I'm around you. So, yes, you idiot, I love you,” Merlin confessed.
“Damn it, Merlin. You’re making this so hard for me.”
Merlin looked crushed for a moment, and said softly, “Usually that’s the part where you say you love me too.”
Arthur took a deep breath and ran a hand down his face. He laughed a sad, broken laugh. “Do you think I don’t love you? Of course I do, but my loving you isn’t what’s best for Camelot. I need an heir, and Camelot needs a queen. I know you have a penchant for wearing dresses, Merlin, but that’s not quite the same thing,” Arthur said, approaching hysterics.
Grasping, Merlin said, “Well, you’re unconventional. You challenge the status quo all the time. You broke the first code of Camelot to let Lancelot and Gwaine be knights. You can make me your… Well not your queen, but…” Merlin was crying now as he said, “Why is it that you can never do things that make you happy? Why does Camelot always have to come first? Why is your loving me so wrong?”
Arthur was crying as well, and wiped away tears.“It’s not that loving you is wrong, exactly; it’s just not proper. It’s frowned upon. You know how it is. And, I don’t want say it. Oh, gods, I don’t want to say it, but it’s always in the back of my thoughts. You’ve lied to me, Merlin. And not about something silly. You have magic. And… And you never told me. I’m just not sure I can trust you.”
Merlin faltered. “Arthur,” he said. “Arthur, I thought we were past this. I’m sorry I lied to you, but I was afraid. And I never hurt you; I’ve saved you. I’ve saved you so many times. I’ve always been there for you!”
“I know that Merlin, but you still lied to me. I can’t overlook that.” There was silence between the two men. Arthur spoke again. “Merlin can you prove to me that you would be better for Camelot than Gwen? Not better for me, because I already know you’re better for me than she is, but better for the good of Camelot.”
“I—” Merlin started, but he stopped to think about what Arthur was saying. “No. No, I wouldn’t be any better than Gwen. I couldn’t… I hate this, Arthur, and I don’t agree with you. But if this is what you want – no, if this is what you need to happen – then I’ll support you as I always have.”
Arthur was grateful. “I do need this. Thank you.”
“Sire,” Merlin said. The formality was like a stab in the chest to Arthur. “Can I be excused for the remainder of the day? I need to be alone, I think.”
“Yes. Of course. I think I need to be alone, too.”
Although it was only around midday, Arthur spent the rest of the day in bed, curled into a ball with his blankets over his head. He sobbed ruefully on and off, and thought back on the years he’d had with Merlin. They had been good years, and the years had been good to them. Before Arthur fell asleep from exhaustion, he thought of Merlin, in an apple orchard, surrounded by trees and their white and pink blossoms. It wasn’t a memory, but it made him smile.
The next day, Arthur asked Gwen to be his wife, and she happily accepted.
Chapter 3: There is No Destiny
The training field was adjacent to the castle and shared common ground with the weapons shed, which housed tourney swords, wooden shields, and other apparatus necessary for training. More often than not, when Arthur trained his men, they were so worn out from the exercise that no one had the strength to drag the training dummies back to the shed, so they stayed on the field like an army of sentinels watching out for Camelot.
And Camelot was in need of sentinels now more than ever, what with Morgana’s followers rising up more frequently than in past years. After his coronation Arthur had accumulated an army so large that his conquest of Albion was expected by nearly every smaller kingdom, and most of them realized the inevitable and bent the knee to the Kingdom of Pendragon. Naturally, there were those who refused to submit, and Arthur conquered them with sword and shield. Overall, the unification of Albion came much easier than Merlin had anticipated. But then there was Morgana. She had gathered a following – quite a strong following – of magic users who refused to recognize the legitimacy of Arthur’s rule based on his father’s sins and the deaths they had caused. They didn’t care that magic was now legal in Camelot, and that the king’s right hand man was a magician – Merlin. They, like Uther, were deluded by the pain they had suffered in the past.
But when Merlin sought time away from the bustle of the castle and the duties of a court magician, he went to the training field. When not being used for its intended purpose by aspirant knights, the field was a place of relaxation for Merlin, where he could practice magic for fun instead of war, have a solitary meal, or enjoy the view of Camelot from the castle’s higher altitude. On the day of Merlin’s forty-fifth birthday, twenty years after Arthur’s ascension to the throne, Merlin went to the practice field to get away for a while.
With a flick of the wrist, the training dummies went zooming into the shed, leaving nothing but a slightly trampled field in their wake. Merlin sat down cross-legged in the center, and looked out at the forest surrounding the castle. He thought back on the times he had went down there, searching for herbs for Gaius, the former court physician who had died seventeen years ago. He remembered running through woods just like the ones surrounding the castle with Arthur on a quest to kill some mighty rampaging beast. He remembered seeing Avalon, the Isle of the Apple and the home of the Sidhe, for the first time in a lake in a forest. He remembered another lake, where Freya will live for eternity, protecting all those that deserve it.
It was an easier time back when Arthur was the prince and not the king. Merlin had only worried about keeping the magic secret and Arthur safety. Now Merlin was forced to devise spells to kill, to quell the resistance of Morgana’s horde, when he had always, and continued to, value human life. He could feel each person as they died and slipped away into nothingness, as humans did. Merlin had long ago given up on a life after death; this was life, and it ended much too quickly for everyone.
Arthur as well had new responsibilities. He commanded a massive army and controlled a nation. He had to deal with pressing matters, such as rebellions, and less explosive, but still equally important things, like the problems of peasants. And on top of the duties of a king, Arthur had to have an heir. He was unlucky in this particular arena. For twenty years he and Gwen had tried and tried, but they conceived no children. Gwen had had three miscarriages early into their marriage, so perhaps after that heartbreak, they didn’t have the capability of withstanding a fourth tragedy. But more likely, Merlin thought that day, it was the heartbreak of having the ones they truly loved so close to them, but not being able to be with them, that stopped them both trying. Not to say that Arthur and Gwen didn’t love each other; destiny just decided that certain people needed to be together.
Merlin scoffed. Destiny was something he’d also stopped believing in. He and Arthur weren’t destined to be together; if they were, then he would be with Arthur, and Gwen could go off with Lance. No; more likely the dragon, locked up in its prison cell for so long, decided to play a game with Merlin’s head. And he’d succeeded.
Merlin wiped the tears from his cheeks – he hadn’t even realized he’d been crying. After a few minute the tears stopped, and he lay back onto the grass, staring at the sky. He saw shapes in the clouds; his druid friends would have told him that these were omens he should take seriously. But Merlin was content to watch as rabbits and wolves chased each other in the sky, and when they finally caught up with one another, combine to form a new shape, something like an upside down tree. It reminded him of Excalibur, when so many years ago he had forced it into that stone.
When he woke from the nap that he hadn’t planned on taking, it was to the sound of laughter. The volume lessened with each passing second, indicating that the source of it was moving farther away from the castle and to the forest. Merlin sat up, unconcerned at the new source of noise, but suddenly alert. Though he had never gained the full ability to see the future as Morgana had, Merlin was able to sense some the whims and changes of time. As he woke from sleep and heard the laughter, Merlin sensed two things, both of which frightened him to no end: betrayal and change.
At the feast that night, held in honor of Camelot’s famed magician, Merlin sat at Arthur’s right side, as he had for the past twenty years, but the seat on Arthur’s left was conspicuously empty. “As you can see,” Arthur had announced at the start of the celebration. “Queen Guinevere isn’t here tonight. She has become ill and cannot attend the feast, though she wishes you well, Merlin. I hope her absence will not distract from the festivities.”
And it didn’t. Arthur had gone all out in decoration and entertainment for his friend’s party. The main hall of the castle was embellished with elaborate candelabras and curtains of fine cloth, emblazoned with the golden lion of Camelot. Novice wizards and witches had been hired to control the flames and smoke of the fireplaces to become mystical shapes as the night went on. Others levitated food and objects around the room to help the servers distribute the meal, and others still told tales with the use of magic, bringing their stories to life before the eyes of the guests. Often, dancers and singers would accompany these magicians’ tales.
But Arthur, Merlin noticed, was not acting like his usual self during this feast. He only nibbled at his roast boar, and the baked spiced apples, among both of their favorite dishes, was untouched in front of the king. From his seat next to him, Merlin could see traces of pink in Arthur’s eyes, as though he had been crying earlier. “Arthur, is there something the matter?” Something he couldn’t say to the court, but trusted Merlin with?
In a hushed whisper, so that no one around them could hear over the noise, Arthur said, “Gwen isn’t sick. I haven’t seen her since yesterday. No message, nothing.”
“Well, that’s not so bad, Arthur, maybe she just went out for a ride. You do it all the time,” Merlin suggested hopefully, thought he had a sinking feeling in his gut.
“Perhaps, but have you noticed who else is missing?”
Merlin looked around the room, scrutinizing every table, trying to see if there were any absences. “Everyone seems to be accounted for…” He trailed off, and then looked at Arthur with disbelief written all over his face. “No. We’re jumping to conclusions.”
“I don’t think we are.”
The space between Sir Leon and Sir Kay, the usual seat for Lancelot, was empty.
In the weeks after Gwen and Lancelot’s abrupt departure, Arthur rarely left his chambers, so Merlin quickly became overwhelmed with both his and Arthur’s duties. From dawn to dusk, Merlin was working; it was ironic, he thought, that even now, as a respected magician in Camelot, Arthur bossed him around like he was just a manservant. But Merlin wasn’t upset with Arthur; he was worried and terrified that Arthur would do something rash.
But Arthur had learned his lessons back when he was prince, and after a month of mourning, he came back to work as king, more solemn than ever before, but just as competent. Merlin was so relieved that he began going to Arthur’s chambers in the evening to share some after dinner fruit and cheese with the king, something that Merlin hadn’t done since Arthur was married.
These meetings, officially called consultations between the king and the sorcerer, usually devolved into an hour of joking and storytelling. Arthur and Merlin’s relationship, which had been practically nonexistent since Merlin had revealed his magic, after the first – and only – time that the two had had sex, began to heal. In the twenty years since then, it had been easier for both men to not speak to the other, except when absolutely necessary. But with Gwen gone, and Arthur betrayed in such an intimate way, Merlin believed that if he had ever felt anything for Arthur, friendship or something more, that it was his duty to help his friend in these difficult times.
One night, Merlin came into Arthur’s chambers, a tray of sliced apples floating in midair behind him. He was holding an ancient scroll and a book to translate it. Arthur was seated in a chair by the fireplace, facing the shut windows, which barred the winter cold from entering. “I’ve brought food,” Merlin announced, as a table and another chair dragged themselves to where Arthur was sitting. The tray of food landed on the table, and Arthur grabbed a slice of fruit and bit into it.
That night, after a few minutes of inconsequential conversation, the two men lapsed into a bout of silence. Merlin began translating the scroll, an artifact created by a magical group of people from many years past; Arthur was going over the kingdom’s expenses and food supply. Merlin would sneak glances at the king from over his book and smile when Arthur stroked his beard in contemplation.
After translating the scroll, Merlin began deciphering exactly what was meant by the things written down. It referred to impossibilities, even while using magic, and was highly symbolic. The work was tedious, but eventually, Merlin was able to get the general idea of what it was saying. “No! Arthur, you’ve got to hear this,” he said, excitedly.
“What is it?”
“I still have a lot to translate, but this scroll, it’s basically a formula for immortality. There’s a ritual and a highly complicated spell you have to perform, and a specific place that the body has to be laid to rest, but it’s all here.” Merlin was speaking very quickly, and his eyes had gone wide.
“Well count me out,” Arthur said.
“What?” Merlin asked, incredulous. “You wouldn’t want to live forever? Arthur Pendragon, the Immortal King?” Somewhere deep in his mind, he heard an old voice say, “The Once and Future King,” but he ignored it.
“No. For one, I don’t want to be old and ugly for eternity—”
“Well that’s hardly a reason,” Merlin interrupted.
“And,” Arthur continued, ignoring Merlin. “After all of that time, I don’t think I’d want to continue living. There’s only so much one man can take. I can’t imagine lifetimes and lifetimes of hardship and pain; I can barely withstand one.”
“But imagine the things you could learn, and the things you could experience. You could really make a difference, with all that knowledge. You could help to end that hardship for others. The suffering would be worth it if you could make a difference like that.”
“Yes, but you’d watch all of the people you love die. Over and over again. And you can’t save everybody, Merlin,” Arthur said softly, a faraway look in his eyes.
“I know that, but—”
“Look, Merlin, all I’m saying is that if you do figure out how to make that spell work, don’t use it on me.”
The winter, thankfully, was a short one, but as soon as the snow melted at the start of spring, Morgana launched an attack on Camelot. It was a vicious attack on a small town, according to the tale of the messenger, a girl in young adulthood who had stolen a horse and fled. And Arthur, being so foolishly noble and heroically stupid, decided that he not only needed to dispatch a small army to save them, but lead it himself. So it was that Merlin began to prepare for the rescue of Camlann.
He had his Sidhe staff in his hand and spell books packed on his horse, which was no longer a small and cheap rouncey borrowed from the stables, but a destrier, prepared for war, tall and beautiful. Arthur rode beside him, on an equally tall war horse, bright as the stars against the night sky. Riding off to the small, unimportant town of Camlann, the knights, especially the newly knighted and inexperienced, joked about how they would have an easy win over the rebels, save the town, and savor the glory. Arthur was silent, but smiled occasionally. The taste of dread, bitter and nauseating, was in Merlin’s mouth the entire way there.
Camlann was on fire when they arrived. Smoke, black as charred bone, rose from the houses. Bodies were piled high in the river, bloated and naked. Children, bruised and crying, were tied to a massive wooden pole, erected amidst the carnage. And in the center of the village, on the platform in the square, Morgana danced with spirits. They surrounded her, glittering in the light of the fire, swirling faster and faster. She cried out in the language of magic, “Kill the mortals! Take the souls of the children! Feed them to the fire!” She was crazed, like Merlin had never seen her, possessed by one or more of the sprits she claimed to control.
Arthur sent out a group of knights to rescue the children, and they traipsed onward. When they breached the barrier of the town, however, they and their horses fell over and died. Arthur and Merlin could only watch in horror as one by one, the spirits flew through the bodies of the children, who gasped and sputtered and seized and then moved no more. Morgana collapsed, her chest heaving, and suddenly a man was stepping out of a burning house toward her, through the fire, as though he couldn’t be burned. He placed a hand on her forehead and then near her mouth to check her breathing, before letting out a call, which summoned the rest of the rebels.
He had long, wild hair, blacker than the smoke that surrounded him, and pale white skin. A tattoo was fading on his chest, so that from where Merlin was it looked like a smudge, but he knew it for what it was. Arthur sent forward another group of knights, these more wary, and with Morgana unconscious they passed easily into the town. The man with the mane of night looked first at Arthur and then at Merlin; his pale, manic blue eyes seemed to dance with glee. He smiled a cruel, wicked smile, and Merlin was in pain.
It was a pain so deep, he had never known its equal. It started in his mind and spread out and down to his fingertips and toes, stabbing at his organs as it went. He was aware that Arthur had cried out, and taken him from his horse, commanding a knight to watch over him as the rest of them went to the village, but he couldn’t comprehend what it all meant. The pain did not stop, even as Merlin passed out and flailed and sent his magic to combat it. It seemed to say, “Emrys. I did not forget. I did not forgive.”
He lived the lifetime of a dragon before it stopped, and he sat up gasping for air, for salvation, for Arthur. But there was silence, except for the clashing of swords and the grunts of fighting. He looked around, his vision getting clearer with every passing second. Only two people were left alive: Arthur and Mordred. The information hit Merlin hard; they were all dead. The knight entrusted with watching over Merlin was gone, probably slaughtered with rest of them. All were dead. Leon, Gwaine, Percival, Elyan. Dead.
And Merlin was running toward Arthur, running faster than he ever had, even when he was young and energetic. He tried to reach out with his magic, but whatever Mordred had done to him had left his magic bleeding and unusable. Merlin knew that it wouldn’t work until Mordred was dead, and maybe not even then. So he ran.
No one could have run faster, but Merlin wasn’t fast enough. He watched as Arthur drove his sword downwards into Mordred’s chest – directly into his heart. He was elated; Arthur had survived. But as Mordred drew his last breath, he slipped his own sword between Arthur’s ribs, and tugged it viciously outward, spraying blood and flesh. Merlin must have cried out, but everything after Arthur’s injury bled together into one moment of pain worse than that he had just experienced.
And Merlin was cradling Arthur in his lap, blood all over them both, but that didn’t matter now. He pressed his hands to the wound, crying, pleading Arthur to live, but a bubble of blood was forming at Arthur’s mouth, and he shook his head side to side, unable to speak. “Arthur, Arthur, I can fix this. I swear I can,” Merlin got out though his crying. Arthur shook his head again, a sad look in his eyes.
With the last bit of his strength, Arthur reached his hand up to wrap around the back of Merlin’s neck and pull him downward for a kiss. Merlin felt the blood on their lips and the tears in his eyes and the love between them that didn’t need words. Merlin pulled back, and as the life left Arthur, he said, “I know what you said, but I can’t live without you.”
Merlin closed Arthur’s eyes, leaving a blood streak on each as he did so, and stood up to survey the damage. Every single person was dead. No – all but one. Morgana, it seemed had survived the bloodshed. Merlin, in a rage over the death of the man he loved and the king he failed to save, pressed his boot onto Mordred’s fallen body and ripped Excalibur from his chest. A spray of blood stained the bottom of his robes. After years of carrying a staff and killing opponents from afar, with just a magic word, the sword was like sudden growth on his hand; it felt wrong. But he ignored the feeling, and walked to where Morgana laid on the ground.
Merlin stood above her powerless body, looking down at her. This was no longer the girl he once knew. The compassionate, caring woman of long ago was already dead, consumed by the spirits she tried to gain dominion over. But whatever was left of her was still a threat. Merlin sank the blade deep into her heart, stopping her life. Glittering, shimmering spirits flew out of her mouth, nose, and eyes and something inside of her screeched an unnatural wail before her body collapsed completely. She didn’t even bleed.
With the deed done, Merlin turned his back on her body and once again faced the man he devoted his life to protecting. Gathering a strength he didn’t know he possessed, he picked up Arthur’s limp body, blood still dripping from his wound, and carried him to his horse. Merlin laid Arthur down on the grass and picked up his staff, knocking it once on the ground. “DRAGON!” The command echoed throughout the countryside, attaching itself to the magic of the world and carrying itself away on the wind to where the dragon was. Kilgarrah felt the issue before he heard it, and made his way on rushed wings to Camlann.
“I couldn’t save him,” Merlin said, and around him, the grass and the wildflowers began to wilt and die. Clouds blossomed in the sky and covered the sun. Thunder crashed above them, but no lightning struck the earth and, no rain fell from the sky. Arthur’s blood dripped into the dirt.
“Young warlock, you must calm down.”
Merlin ignored him, the plants all around him had no life left, and the death was spreading further with every second. “There is nothing I must do except go to Avalon with Arthur.”
“Avalon? Why would y—”
He was interrupted by Merlin, who said, with an anger in a voice so incompatible with the love that the dragon had seen in his heart, “Do not make me command you.” Power surged from the warlock, and the dragon sensed a fire in his eyes, in his heart. Kilgarrah yielded; for once in his life, he was genuinely afraid of Merlin. He bent at the knees, and allowed Merlin to carry Arthur onto his back.
In the center of the dead grass, Kilgarrah saw, there was a large spot darker than the rest where Arthur’s blood had fed the soil. His essence was drawn to the spot, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off of it. The magic of the old religion, which could be found in everything to some extent, seemed to be pooling there. Once in the air, he looked back at it one last time, and he saw a tree there, which had suddenly sprung to life. On it were golden apples, the only sign of life amongst the blackness of death.
He flew them to Avalon without comment.
Merlin cradled Arthur to him as he stepped into the waters. He had once saved Arthur’s life here, and now he would do the same yet again, no matter the cost. He shoved his Sidhe staff into the soft mud of the lake bottom, and summoned the faeries. They seemed to know exactly why he was there, and, perhaps for the same reason the dragon was now afraid of Merlin, they let him enter their world without contest.
The realm of Avalon was a land of trees. The ground was springy underfoot, and the path through the world was covered by the overhang of trees that were larger than any in Albion. Small blue Sidhe flitted about, but none of them came within a few feet of Merlin.
Since his first footstep into Avalon, Merlin could feel his magic balling up inside of him, and, as a single entity, vibrating with anticipation. Somehow Merlin knew exactly where he needed to go, and he let his feet guide him, so that his mind could think about Arthur. Arthur was dead in his arms, the beautiful golden king that Merlin had loved, but turning colder as time passed and losing his glow.
Merlin arrived at the Lake of Avalon. In its center was a small manmade island, a stone square barely large enough for two men to lay down side by side on it. The water was too deep to wade through, Merlin instinctively knew, and he didn’t want Arthur getting wet. He wished there was a boat, and immediately there was a loud crack behind him, as one fashioned itself from a nearby tree.
On the island, Merlin lay Arthur down in the center of the stone, his head and feet at opposite corners of the square. He had memorized the design on the scroll that outlined the ritual, and began to draw it around Arthur’s body with blood from a cut he made on his forearm. When he was finished, he took the boat back to shore.
The wind seemed to stop as Merlin chanted in a foreign tongue. The ball of his magic, right in the center of his chest, throbbed to the rhythm of the words. Merlin’s energy was fading fast, and he could feel the magic leaving him and heading toward Arthur. This will kill me, he thought wildly. But he didn’t care; Arthur was worth it.
At the end of the spell, Merlin’s eyes flashed gold for the last time. A bright golden light burst, like molten magic, from Merlin and flew to Arthur, where it rained down on him. Merlin blinked for a split second, and Arthur was gone. Merlin didn’t even have time to cry out before he succumbed to the darkness.
When he woke, he was on the shore of the lake at the entrance to Avalon, and the dragon was looking down at him. “Emrys, what have you done?”
Life as a hermit suited Merlin. All of the people he cared about were dead or gone, and he no longer had the strength to much of anything. Thirty years had passed since Merlin had sacrificed his magic to try to save Arthur. Merlin was powerless, and Arthur was still dead. It had been for nothing.
Merlin spent his days scavenging for food and keeping out of trouble. He hadn’t seen a human in nearly three years; the last two he’d met were travelers who got lost in the woods and stumbled upon what had once been his father’s cave. Merlin fed them as best he could and gave them directions, but let them know that they were not welcome to stay for very long. Every so often, Kilgarrah would visit Merlin, though Merlin had lost his magic and could no longer understand what the dragon was saying. Kilgarrah would transfer some of his memories to Merlin during these meeting to inform the former magician what was going on in Albion.
Since Arthur had died with no heirs, the noble families of Camelot were fighting each other for the throne. Areas had already broken off from the whole, forming minor kingdoms; this was especially true of the northern lands. Most of the small folk were mourning Arthur, and his years of lenient taxation, and were floundering under the unstable rule of new kings. Because of Morgana’s deeds in the name of magic, magic users were being hunted and killed. The Druids had been massacred a few years back, and the dragon believed that no person would hold magic in a few hundred years. Merlin was thought to have killed Arthur himself by many people, so many magicians with black hair and pale skin were killed on sight.
It was silly, really, that they thought Merlin, now in his mid-seventies would still have the black hair of his youth. Merlin’s hair had turned white a long time ago, and liver spots dotted his hands. He left his beard untrimmed and it grew down, nearing his waist. He was arthritic and got pains in all of his joints when he walked, so he tried as much as he could to stay in his cave. The farthest from it that he ever went was to a clearing in the woods large enough to house Kilgarrah, and only at the end of winter, when the last dragon would visit him.
On the night of Imbolc, Merlin was sitting in the clearing, waiting for Kilgarrah; he had a blanket wrapped around him, but still shivered. The dragon landed, growling and snarling, a language lost to Merlin. Merlin liked to think that he was saying, “Hello, young warlock.”
Merlin looked up at the massive beast, and with no fear, said, “I am dying.”
A puff of smoke left the dragon’s nostrils, and he looked away from the old man. He’d already known that.
“I don’t think I’ll make it much longer. I’m not living to see the summer again, am I?” He paused, and the dragon shook his massive head. “As I expected.” They sat in silence for the night, Merlin on his back, looking at the stars, and Kilgarrah looking only at Merlin. Two old men, alone in the world.
When they parted that night, Merlin said goodbye. “Thank you for being my last friend on this earth.”
The dragon looked at him in a way that said, “You, too.”
Merlin died shortly after, on Beltane; Kilgarrah collected his body. Since Arthur’s death, the dragon had been thinking about what would happen to him when the last Dragonlord died. He could continue to live without Merlin, but the smallfolk were rising up against magic users and magical creatures. Surely they find a way to kill him, and if he were to die, it wouldn’t be like that.
Kilgarrah was old and had nothing left to live for. He took Merlin’s body to the Lake of Avalon. With a claw, he delicately drew the symbols around Merlin’s body, laid down on the stone island. He said the words knowing, unlike Merlin, that he would be giving up his magic. And by giving up his magic, he would be giving up his life. He watched as the glow of gold left him and rained down on Merlin, who disappeared. He felt his own body disintegrating; it was not painful, as he had thought it would be.
But he did not die. He became the magic of the earth, as all dragons do when they die. He finally understood its workings, when before he did not; he was it and it was him. He was welcomed back by his long-dead family, and he was happy for the first time in a long time. But mostly he was glad with his decision to give up his life and grant Merlin an immortal one.
He had told Merlin that Arthur would be the Once and Future King, knowing that it was true somehow, but not understanding what it meant. Now he knew. Arthur and Merlin, two immortal creatures, would come back to life again and again. They would unite the world, not only Albion, though it would take quite a while. In some of their lives they wouldn’t meet, maybe because one would be much older than the other or because they would be born on different sides of the world, but when they did meet, and destiny assured Kilgarrah that they would, they could change the world. And they would finally be happy and together.
Chapter 4: There is Only Love
Arthur rose that Saturday morning with a stiffness in his neck and his sheets wet with perspiration after another night of those dreams. For him, it was a day off work after a hard week, but the events of the day would prove to change his life and everything that would follow it. He shut off his alarm with a grunt before stretching and getting up to go about his daily routine.
He made his bed before anything, and then he undressed and placed his neatly folded pajamas under his pillow. Grabbing the pile of clothes he had left on his end table the night before, he went into the bathroom, which was a short walk down the hall from his bedroom. It was neat and clean, as was his whole flat – as was his life. He showered, quick and efficient, and then stood in front of his bathroom mirror, towel around his waist, to shave. Surrounding the sink was an array of personal hygiene products; if Arthur was anything it was well groomed. He slid a thumb over his smooth jaw and applied his aftershave, barely noticing the familiar minty smell. A dollop of product in his hair, clothes on his back, and Arthur was ready to go. On his refrigerator was a list of things he planned to accomplish over the weekend; at the top, written in his angular script, was “Buy Groceries.”
Arthur lived in a two bedroom flat in London with a view of the Thames. He had had a flatmate, George, but he had lost his job and moved up north after being offered a new one two months back. Since George left, Arthur had been searching for a new flatmate. He wasn’t really sure why, but no one seemed to want to live with him. The rent was an average price for the area, the flat came fully furnished, and it was clean – spotless, really, but still, no one. He couldn’t help thinking that maybe it was him; his friends back at uni had always said he came off as uptight. Whatever the reason, Arthur was alone, still looking for a flatmate.
On that dreary winter morning in London, Arthur was at his local grocer’s, picking up fruits and vegetables of all types and checking them for ripeness before transferring them to his trolley. The produce section of the store was adjacent to its bulletin board, a small square of cork that was littered with flyers and scraps of paper; Arthur had brought with him a flyer to advertise the flat. After getting a week’s worth of produce, he went over to the bulletin board to pin it up.
After collecting and paying for his groceries, he went about the rest of his errands. It was dull work that took up most of the day, but it needed to be done. Collapsing on his sofa later that evening, he picked up the book on international politics he was reading, fully intending to read it, but found himself drifting off.
But then his phone was ringing in his pocket, and he was answering it with a bleary, “Hello?”
“Hello? Is this Arthur Pendragon?” said a male voice with a slight Welsh accent.
Arthur straightened up, awake. “Yes; this is Arthur Pendragon.”
“Hello!” the man on the other line said, his voice perking up. “I saw your flyer for a flatshare, and I happen to be looking for a place to stay.”
“Oh, brilliant!” Arthur exclaimed, relieved at having found a possible flatmate. “Sure, well it’s a nice place, nothing spectacular, but for the price, I think it’s really a bargain.The views are actually quite good, and it’s a short walk to the closest Tube station.”
“It sounds great… So do you have time off, say tomorrow, so I can come over and look around? It’s just I work during the week, and I don’t have much time.”
“Yeah, sure, tomorrow’s fine. I work weekdays as well. How about at eleven?” Arthur said, sitting straight up on the couch and wearing a wide grin.
“Okay, see you in the morning.”
Arthur laughed, “Wait, wait! You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Right, sorry. Erm – well, the thing is… You’re going to laugh.”
Arthur was curious now. “What? It can’t be that bad. And if you move in, I’m going to have to find out what it is anyway.”
“You’re right. It’s just…” There was a pause. “Merlin. I’m Merlin.”
Sunday morning at ten-thirty Arthur was sitting at the kitchen table, bouncing a leg up and down and chewing on his thumbnail. He’d woken early to clean an already spotless house, and, after finishing long before eleven came about, spent the rest of the morning worrying.
Uptight, his friends had called him; difficult to get to know. It wasn’t that Arthur didn’t like people; Arthur believed in the goodness and value of humanity as a whole. It was just, individuals were… unpredictable. They were not easy to wrap one’s head around. He grew up an only child and spent most of his time alone, studying or going to the gym. He wanted to make a difference in the world, to help people. And to do that, he got into politics, studying international affairs at university and working as a policy advisor. It wasn’t his dream job, but it paid the bills and gave him experience in the political world. And now Arthur was sitting in his kitchen waiting for a bloke called Merlin – what kind of name was that? – to come over and view the flat, and he had no idea how to get him to like him.
On top of the anxiety of meeting a potential flatmate, Arthur had had the dreams again last night. He’d had the dreams for as long as he could remember. They had terrified him as a young child; many a night he would wake screaming and run into his parents’ bedroom to snuggle in next to his mother. They were never the same, though thematically he supposed they were. It was always him (though sometimes he didn’t look like he did now, but he knew it was him nonetheless) and he was in another time. Sometimes he was a nomad living in Africa killing a frightened animal with the rest of his band. Other times he was an early settler in the United States, of all places.
But usually he was a king, or a prince in his younger days, with golden hair just like he had now. He was courageous and intelligent and just, as rulers of today too often weren’t. He was speaking some long dead language that was unfamiliar to his modern ears, but that he could still understand. He was married, but childless, yet he wasn’t, because in a way his subjects were his children, looking to him for protection and guidance.
Always in these dreams there was a man with him, a man who had been with him all his life, since childhood. But his face was always blurred, no matter how hard Arthur focused on it. What scared him in last night’s dream was just how clear his face was. He could see the blue (sometimes golden) eyes, and the hair as dark as a raven, and the gangly body that was too thin for the clothes that covered it. And the ears, dear lord the ears. Sometimes the man had a beard, other times not, but either way he was recognizable in a way that Arthur had never dreamed possible. Even if he was blind, deaf, and dumb Arthur was sure he could recognize that man.
And the strangest bit was, the man was named Merlin.
A knock on his door pulled him from his reverie; Arthur stood and smoothed out the front of his shirt before walking to open it. Standing before him was – no, it couldn’t be. Both men gasped and leaned back. “Y-You,” Arthur said.
The man before him had a befuddled look on his face, which he reeled in and replaced with a forced calm. “Arthur, I presume?”
Arthur open and closed his mouth, still shocked, before answering, “Yes. And you must be Merlin?”
“Yeah,” the other man said sheepishly. “It’s a stupid name, I know.”
“No. It’s—It’s endearing. Here, come in.” Arthur stepped aside to let Merlin enter the living room. “I guess I should give you the tour first.” They walked around the flat, Arthur pointing out its benefits, but also mentioning the flaws (“The damned water takes forever to heat up, so when you go to shower you’ll spend most of the time shivering.”).
Sitting around afterwards, they had tea, and Arthur pulled some scones out from somewhere. “So what is it that you do?” Arthur asked Merlin, and sipped at his tea.
“Oh, well I’m a physician. I recently got back from Africa after two years there, and now I work in free clinic. So I need a cheap place to stay.”
Arthur was taken aback. The man in front of him, aloof and smiling, did not look like the kind of person who could make it through medical school. Looks can be deceiving. “Wow, that’s amazing, doing that.”
“It really was great to know you’re making a difference in someone’s life. That’s what I want to do: help people.”
“I do as well. I mean, I’m not a doctor, but I work in politics –I swear I’m not a wanker– and I’m really trying to make lives better, not only the UK, but around the world.” They smiled at each other, and both grabbed another scone, their hands bumping together.
Merlin moved in within the week.
Arthur and Merlin had been sharing the flat for two months; it felt like no time at all. They’d gotten used to the other’s quirks and their sometimes strange hours. Whoever got home first cooked dinner for the both of them, and they shared the cleaning. Neither man enjoyed watching television much, but Arthur did enjoy football, and would occasionally play in a pub league on Sundays. Merlin would always go and cheer him on. Their lives had a domestic feel to them, and Arthur thrived in the environment.
On a nondescript Tuesday morning, Merlin helped Arthur into his suit jacket and then did up his tie. That was the first time Arthur kissed Merlin.
After that, they began sharing the couch together, rather than sitting in separate armchairs. Merlin would rest his head in Arthur’s lap as Arthur read to him.
One night, Arthur had a particularly bad dream, where he was a teenager growing up in a kingdom, and he had just killed his first man. His hands were covered in blood, and woke up shaking all over. He crawled into Merlin’s bed, where he was comforted by the other man. They never slept apart again.
Merlin, Arthur found out later, also had strange dreams, like his own.
The first time they made love it was raining. It was a Sunday, and Arthur decided not to play football, because he couldn’t risk getting ill. Merlin had made soup, and after a cozy dinner and movie, they went to bed. Afterwards, they stayed huddled under the covers and fell asleep in each other’s arms. Both of them dreamed of destiny that night. Come morning, Arthur and Merlin reunited.
Arthur woke feeling as if he’d slept for over a thousand years, because in a way, he had. The last thing he remembered was seeing Merlin’s face, wrinkled, bearded, and crying before pulling him in for a kiss. Arthur had been in pain and his blood was gushing out of him fast, too fast. And Merlin had whispered, “I can’t live without you.”
On top of those memories was other sets. He remembered his past lives, all bleeding together, all without Merlin. And he remembered his most recent life, where for the first time since he’d become king, he’d found his lover. He looked next to him in the bed to find Merlin, young and unburdened. He took in a shaking breath, and touched his fingertips to his cheeks, finding them wet with tears. “Merlin, wake up!” he shouted, in a language long dead. The words were unfamiliar in this body’s mouth.
“Shut up, clotpole; I’m trying to sleep,” Merlin grumbled, also in the language they had spoken in Camelot. He rolled over, and pulled the blankets tighter around himself. Then he suddenly wrenched them from himself and sat upright in bed, looking at Arthur. “You—We—Oh, gods be good!” he exclaimed and pounced on Arthur, kissing his cheeks, his lips, every exposed bit of flesh he could find.
They stayed in bed all day, both calling in sick, overjoyed to finally be together again.
That night they sat down to dinner, leftover shepherd’s pie. Merlin dug in happily, but Arthur pushed it around with his fork. “I really want some wild boar. This modern food is rubbish.”
“Oh, shut up and eat it. We’re here, just be happy for that,” Merlin said through a mouthful of food.
Arthur gave a disgusted nod, and took a bite. “Still awful.”
Merlin ignored him, and got himself another beer.
After dinner, both men got into the tub to bathe. The water was dangerously close to the brim, and not much actual washing went on, but they reveled in the closeness. “You know,” Arthur said, whilst reading a book of Arthurian legends, held high above the water to prevent damage. “These people got more wrong than they did right. I would never have sentenced Gwen to burn at the stake. And Morgana and I did not have a son together.” He shuddered.
Merlin chuckled and pressed his lips to Arthur’s chest. “I wonder what happened to them,” he said quietly.
“You don’t know, then?”
“No. After you… After you died, I lost my magic and became a hermit. I lost the will to live. Morgana and the knights all died; I hope Gwen and Lance were happy together, though. Other than that, the kingdom fell into chaos, magic was being stamped out, and then I died. I guess Kilgarrah brought me to Albion like I did to you.” He paused, looking up at Arthur’s face. “I’m sorry about that, by the way. I know you didn’t want me to, and I shouldn’t have.”
“All is forgiven, Merlin.” He smiled, and then joked, “If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have lived through the Ottoman Empire.”
“Oh you think that’s good? I was a trader on the Silk Road.”
A year later when Merlin had talked Arthur into a civil partnership (“Why? It’s just a bloody piece of paper! You know I love you more than that!”) they were talking in the office. They always got strange looks from people, as when speaking to each other they spoke in fluent Old English. A celebrity gossip show was on the small television, muted in the corner of the room.
“You don’t think I’m related to the modern day royal family, do you?” asked Arthur, looking away from the TV.
“You could be, I guess. I’m not really sure,” Merlin answered dismissively.
Arthur scowled. “I hope not. I mean, when I was king, I actually did things. I rode into battle, and tried my hardest to make life easier for my subjects. Now these monarchs just sit around and look pretty for the cameras.”
“Arthur,” Merlin said. “You of all people know that the world changes. Sure, the monarchs today have no power, but there are those who can make a difference. You can change things by continuing in politics. And I don’t have magic anymore, but I can still help out. Magic isn’t useful in today’s societies, just like royalty isn’t.”
Arthur smiled over at Merlin. “You’re right, of course. What would I do without you?”
“Arthur Pendragon and Merlin Emrys?” a voice called. Arthur and Merlin got up from their seats to greet the woman.
The dragon, a consciousness in the air, omnipresent, saw everything. He was always a guiding force in the lives of Merlin and Arthur. He tried to steer them in the right direction, show them opportunities as they arose. Merlin could sense his presence, but still could not communicate with him. Whenever he noticed Kilgarrah lurking, he would inform Arthur, and they would hold hands and smile, reminiscing about the golden days of Camelot.
Every new life presented new challenges, and, separate or together, Arthur and Merlin would face them head on, steering the world in a better direction. They were a constant in the lives of humanity, two shining beacons of hope that would always be there, through the ages.